Posts Tagged 'New York Times'

Say what, Tom Friedman?

I don’t know why Tom Friedman is still a prominent public ‘intellectual’. The man has a really tough time coming up with an argument that doesn’t assume, as the old yarn goes, that the plural of story is data – as anyone who struggled through The World Is Flat will tell you. If, like me, you had to put his book down after the third OMG! anecdote involving a random CEO, a first class airline lounge, and a developing country, and you’ve been living in fear for years that everyone else on the planet thinks the book is actually good and only you hated it, then you’ll really, really appreciate these three brilliant Friedman reviews by Matt Taibbi.

With that as background, let’s look at Mr. Friedman’s recent opinion column in which he pretends like he knows something about political science. The core of his argument:

I want a Tea Party of the radical center. Say what? I write often about innovation in energy and education. But I’ve come to realize that none of these innovations will emerge at scale until we get the most important innovation of all — political innovation that will empower independents and centrists, which describes a lot of the country.

He goes on to advocate non-partisan redistricting committees as well as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Bam, you’ve just been Friedmaned. But whereas a highly-paid, jet-setting columnist gets to disregard actual human knowledge in favor of pulling things out of his ass, we in the small-time blogging world of Joint Stock Company like to keep things a little classier. So here’s an evidence-based look at Friedman’s four key assumptions that make his argument work (or not):

  1. Independents and centrists make up “a lot of the country”
  2. Gerrymandering promotes partisanship
  3. STV reform would empower the center of the political spectrum and reduce partisanship.
  4. Moderates actually care about good governance, balanced budgets, debt reduction, and innovation.

Let’s go point by point.

First up, ‘Independents’. This one’s the easiest, since political scientists have been debunking the Myth of the Independent for over 20 years now. You can read up on some of the details on these posts from a great professional poly sci blog. The take-home lesson is that political independents aren’t actually very independent. Most are just partisans who prefer to call themselves ‘independent’ because it sounds a whole lot better. Who would you believe, the party hack, or the independent-minded bloke? Case closed. The fact is there are very few true Independents in our country. Most people are strong to mild Democrats or Republicans.

Next up, the much-maligned gerrymandering of districts. There’s actually been some academic research into the effects of gerrymandering on partisanship recently (pdf), and the researcher could not find a significant effect. This squares with arguments from policy wonk bloggers, who don’t think that gerrymandering is the source of partisanship in America.

On to voting reform. I’m actually a big fan of the Single Transferable Vote, but I don’t think it would do what Friedman seems to think it would do.  As Yglesias noted on his own Friedman response: ” The dynamics of a political system that features a President, along with a congress, creates incentives for politicians to try to fit themselves into one of the two major parties. That’s at least part of the reason why the Blue Dog group in the House has preferred to organize itself as a party faction rather than a free-floating centrist party. Moving to an STV system might push more moderate legislators in the direction of trying to run as third parties, or it might expose those legislators to third-party challenges from the left.” Or perhaps what STV would actually do would be to empower the extreme right and left (as happens often in multi-party parliaments in other countries, as DiA notes). In other words, if you’re looking for a slam-dunk path to reducing partisanship, STV ain’t it. [Though STV is great for many, many other reasons].

Finally, the actual politics of the center. Friedman wants the center to be the sober, responsible political group that will cut spending, raise taxes, and invest in education, energy, and business innovation. I sympathize, because I, too, yearn for many of Friedman’s goals. But I don’t see much reason to believe that the center of the political spectrum is where I’m likely to find like-minded individuals. Why? This one’s harder to argue on evidence than the previous 3 points (because there’s just not much data on it), but my strong hunch is that people in general love government spending when they and people like them are net recipients, and tend to dislike it when they aren’t. That’s how you get welfare state farmers complaining about spending health care reform, and Medicare recipients bashing food stamps. It’s the simple ethnocentric formula we’ve always had as a species: in-group = good, out-group = bad. For an interesting read on ethnocentrism and support for various types of government spending, see this interesting book and blog post. Are we to expect that somehow the people in the center are magically exempt from what look like general trends for the rest of the population?

In summary, Friedman is right in that he political process is hyperpartisan, but that’s because we as a people are hyperpartisan (contra Friedman). Creating a non-partisan redistricting process may be a good thing to do, but there’s no reason to think it will change the partisan nature of our politics. STV is great on its own merits, but there’s no reason to think it would increase or decrease partisanship either way. The smart way to handle modern partisanship is to realize that it’s here to stay. The idealized bipartisanship of the past was a result of political parties that were riven by race, and only after decades of ideological re-sorting following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act did we finally arrive at a modern, ideological party system in the 1990s. Putting Friedman’s ignorance of the evidence to one side for the moment, the bigger problem with his column is his quixotic quest to 1) pretend that magical people in ‘the center’ are not partisan, and 2) empower them. Why not take people as they are, and change our naive institutions so that they can function in our brave, new, partisan world? Ending the filibuster, anonymous holds, and unanimous consent in the Senate would be a good start, and eminently more practical than waiting for the Godot of a reasonable, policy-oriented, Independent movement.

Aliens: outsourced

I don’t have to write my semiweekly David Brooks post today, because these two did such a good job of it already. Just so you know, David Brooks remains an alien.

Someone is right on the internet

Sometimes I worry that I post only when I disagree with someone, like this classic XKCD comic. So to make up for that, I thought that Roger Cohen’s column a couple days ago was interesting. Here’s the crux of Cohen’s argument:

I’d say China earns more respect from Obama for its clear if confrontational sense of strategic direction than Europe does for deference in the service of disarray.

Europe needs to get over America to discover itself. That discovery might provide a basis for strong ties going forward. To use Baloo’s memorable image in “The Jungle Book,” the old trans-Atlantic world is “gone, man, solid gone.”

My other periodic worry about my blogging is that I spend lots of time linking to content from the New York Times.  But the way I figure it, if the NYT wasn’t such a damn good paper, I’d stop linking to them quite so often. But they are, so I do.

David Brooks is an alien

I usually don’t spend too much time trying to figure David Brooks out. My quick and dirty read on Brooks is that he’s reflexively and unthinkingly moderate, or rather just to the right of center. Like social studies teachers of yore, Brooks thinks there’s something particularly magical about compromise, incrementalism, tradition, bipartisanship, and the happy medium. Don’t get me wrong, those things are all great in their own way, but some things just don’t lend themselves to such an analysis. Yet Brooks insists on jamming every little policy or political issue he comes across into that one analytical mold, like a three-year-old doing a jigsaw puzzle. I personally prefer a little more flexibility in my analytical toolbox.

That said, I’m not completely anti-Brooks. The man has written some nice columns, and it’s good to have a voice of reason talking to right-of-center folks. But today’s column really makes me wonder if Brooks isn’t actually human, but an alien trying to understand our political system and failing miserably.

Here’s Brooks’ opening sentences:

Going in, I was as cynical as everybody else about the Blair House health care forum. I was planning to watch for a half-hour and then write about something else.

But the event was more meaningful than that. Most of the credit goes to President Obama. The man really knows how to lead a discussion. He stuck to specifics and tried to rein in people who were flying off into generalities. He picked out the core point in any comment. He tried to keep things going in a coherent direction.

Moreover, he seemed to be trying to get a result.

The result, he goes on to argue, is a possible compromise between Democratic and Republican health care policies.

Because of an odd confluence of events (overabundance of leisure, and a rural residence with little to do beyond trudging in the woods and going for a run – which I had already done that day), I ended up watching 5 of the 7 hours of the health care summit yesterday. Now, I’m no expert on American government or political science, and neither is Brooks. But what I saw at the health care summit was a President putting on a show for a very small number of Democratic legislators, primarily in the House, in order to give them cover and convince them to pass the Senate bill and then patch it via reconciliation in the Senate. That fact that Brooks thinks the summit was actually aimed at forging a bipartisan compromise shows his complete lack of understanding of the American political system. Just look at the five key structural incentives at work in the current health care process:

  • Actual negotiations on something this important and contentious, touching core constituencies in each party, cannot be conducted in public. As Matt Yglesias astutely pointed out a couple weeks ago, imagine if you were to negotiate with your significant other about whose parents house to go to for the holidays this year. Maybe you could reach an accommodation by seriously discussing your real preferences and likes and dislikes on the subject — if you could talk in private. But what if the negotiations were televised on CSPAN and piped right into your in-laws’ homes? Privacy is an essential component when negotiating about a compromise that would inevitably throw a major constituency of each party under the bus.
  • Democrats have little incentive to further compromise the Senate bill (as amended by the President’s proposals for a reconciliation patch). First, it’s already a large, substantive compromise to conservative ideas. Of course, Democrats have won zero Republican support despite these very painful compromises from the liberal ideal. They’re getting tired of unilaterally compromising. Second, and most important, all the political incentives for the party as a whole point towards passing the bill as is, and leadership is working overtime to make sure the individual members understand that.
  • Republicans have zero incentive to compromise. As many observers like Ezra Klein have argued, in the US system of government and particularly in the Senate, “the minority has both the incentive and the power to make the majority fail” and “the minority has learned that they profit in the next election when the majority is judged a failure.” That pretty much sums up the incentives facing any minority party in the modern political climate, and last time I checked, Republicans were in the minority.
  • Health policy works best when comprehensive, and could be disastrous if done piecemeal. For more on this, do some reading on the ‘insurance death spiral’. Cost control, mandates, exchanges, subsidies, insurance reforms … these things all go together as essential pieces. Remove on, and it doesn’t work.

An educated, dispassionate observer of American politics should look at the summit and see it in light of these structural incentives. And we all know that Brooks is smart and dispassionate. But he watched the summit and saw a grand, substantive effort at bipartisan compromise. That makes Brooks either a wild-eyed, hopelessly-naive optimist, or an alien. I’m voting for the latter.

Snark me up, Mr. Scott


In a world where bad snark is so common and good snark is so rare, I hope that, as traditional news papers go under, the market will find some way to save film critics like the NYT’s A. O. Scott. Scott’s review of Martin Scorsese’s new movie, Shutter Island, opens with this tremendous first graf:

“Shutter Island” takes place off the coast of Massachusetts in 1954. I’m sorry, that should be OFF THE COAST OF MASSACHUSETTS! IN 1954! since every detail and incident in the movie, however minor, is subjected to frantic, almost demented (and not always unenjoyable) amplification. The wail of strangled cellos accompanies shots of the titular island, a sinister, rain-lashed outcropping that is home to a mental hospital for the CRIMINALLY INSANE! The color scheme is lurid, and the camera movements telegraph anxiety. Nothing is as it seems. Something TERRIBLE is afoot.

Sadly, that something turns out to be the movie itself.

This is Gail Collins-level snark. And the most important thing about snark is that it’s performance art, not rhetoric. ‘Snark’ — the combined form of “snide” and “remark”, with connotations of  sarcasm, biting wit, snorting, and fantasy imaginary animals — is what the people want. Now, I haven’t see Shutter Island yet, so I can’t comment on whether or not Scott’s review is accurate, but as a performance piece, it is pitch perfect. As a movie slob, I enjoy just about everything from Water World on up, so I’ll probably enjoy Shutter Island and end up disagreeing with the actual content of  Scott’s review. But that won’t stop me from emailing the review to my friends and blogging about it here.

And that’s what’s so powerful about snark as a genre. It’s catchy, like the plague, and makes for perfect link bait. That’s a big difference from straight-up news, which is never the kind of thing I read and say to myself, Coup in Niger! Man, I gotta send this one out to the guys. As the newspaper business continues to shake up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more organization around cultural and political criticism of the snarky variety as a money-generating activity or a traffic-driver, while leaving the straight news to some sort of civic-minded, non-profit, or loss-tolerant group.

Long live the snarkfest.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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