Quick hits (part I)

1) We very much take it for granted, but we have gotten so much better at weather prediction (case in point, polar vortex) in recent years.

2) The science of why this weeks frigid temperatures are caused by global warming and we’re likely to have more such events in the future.

The exact details of how this works are complex, but the explanation is simple: warmer land temperatures, particularly in northern North America and northern Eurasia, allow more heat to be transported into the Arctic stratosphere. A warmer Earth makes sudden stratospheric warming events more likely and more frequent. And those events destabilize the polar vortex, bring cold air down into the mid-latitudes, and cause the extreme weather we’re experiencing right now.

3) Obviously, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam was wrong to dress in blackface in 1984, but short of murdering, raping, etc.,  someone in 1984, I think it is absurd to call on a person to resign in 2019 when we have a whole career of public service in between by which to judge them.  Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve heard nothing calling into question Northam as a racist.  It would be one thing if he had some ambiguous/questionable history, and you could say, “see!” but there’s no history of racism, thus this is something really, really stupid and offensive for which he should rightfully apologize.  But to call for his resignation based on something 35 years ago when you’ve got the intervening 35 years to judge his character strikes me as dramatic overkill.  I got in an argument with my wife about this this morning, and honestly, the very fact that it ended up in his medical school yearbook and nobody thought to stop it tells you that it was, very unfortunately, not too far from the cultural mainstream in 1984 white Virginia.

4) I could do a whole quick hits just on Howard Schultz.  The great thing about his candidacy is that it has brought about so much smart commentary on the stupidity of reflexive “both sides!” centrism and the current state of the party system.  Great piece from Eric Levitz, “Howard Schultz Wants a President Who Will Tell Billionaires Their Favorite Lies”

As many have already noted, a “realist” who believes that a third-party candidate can win the 2020 election is a contradiction in terms. Schultz is about as fluent in the realities of modern American politics as Donald Trump is with those of modern American grocery shopping. Meanwhile, Schultz’s ostensible belief that the U.S. government is analogous to an upscale coffee chain — and thus, that Uncle Sam has no more business running up a $21.5 trillion debt than Starbucks does — is no less a declaration of economic illiteracy than Trump’s insistence that trade deficits are tantamount to theft.

But what makes Schultz’s pretensions to realism truly hallucinatory is this: Even if one stipulates that he is right about the appeal of centrism, and the evil of deficits, his own promises about fiscal policy would still be muchmore extravagantly “unrealistic” than the median democratic socialist’s.

In recent days, Schultz has promised to reduce economic inequality, end extreme poverty, cut the deficit, combat structural racism, and ensure that every American has access to quality health care — while keeping taxes on the rich near historic lows.

5) Krugman on “fanatical centrists”

Finally, the hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s left and right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.

Thus, throughout the Obama years, centrists called for political leaders who would address their debt concerns with an approach that combined spending cuts with revenue increases, offer a market-based health care plan and invest in infrastructure, somehow never managing to acknowledge that there was one major figure proposing exactly that — President Barack Obama.

And now, with Democrats taking a turn that is more progressive but hardly radical, centrist rhetoric has become downright hysterical. Medicare and Medicaid already cover more than a third of U.S. residents and pay more bills than private insurance.

But Medicare for all, says Schultz, is “not American.” Elizabeth Warren has proposed taxes on the wealthy that are squarely in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt; Bloomberg says that they would turn us into Venezuela.

Where does the fanaticism of the centrists come from? Much of the explanation, I think, is sheer vanity.

Both pundits and plutocrats like to imagine themselves as superior beings, standing above the political fray. They want to think of themselves as standing tall against extremism right and left. Yet the reality of American politics is asymmetric polarization: extremism on the right is a powerful political force, while extremism on the left isn’t. What’s a would-be courageous centrist to do?

The answer, all too often, is to retreat into a fantasy world, almost as hermetic as the right-wing, Fox News bubble. In this fantasy world, social democrats like Harris or Warren are portrayed as the second coming of Hugo Chávez, so that taking what is actually a conservative position can be represented as a brave defense of moderation.

But that’s not what is really happening, and the rest of us have no obligation to indulge centrist delusions.

6) And Michael Tomasky,” Howard Schultz Is Wrong About ‘Both Sides.’ It’s Republicans Who Ruined the Country.”

Both parties are not to blame for the current dysfunction. All right, the Democratic Party is not blameless. But political polarization has been driven almost wholly by the Republican Party.

I could write a book about this (wait, I have!), but here in a column, let me just give a couple of examples.

The first is Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge. You probably know of it; he has this pledge that he makes Republican members of the House and Senate sign agreeing that they’ll never raise a tax. He dreamed it up in the 1980s, and it really took off after George H.W. Bush broke his “no new taxes” pledge in 1990. They’ve almost all signed it, and with very minor exceptions, no Republican in Congress has voted for a tax increase since 1990.

This has caused untold dysfunction. How? It’s a government’s job to assess the needs of the body politic and address new needs as they arise through some combination of spending cuts, borrowing, and tax increases. The government wanted to create Social Security; it imposed a tax. It wanted to build interstate highways; it borrowed and imposed a tax. It wanted to bail out the Social Security Trust Fund; it did so through a negotiated combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

Well, if taxation is taken off the table, the government can’t do its job. And that is what Norquist and the Republicans have done.

Imagine if the Democrats had done the opposite. If some Grover Norquist of the left had imposed a no-spending-cuts pledge. They would be branded as complete obstructionists, and reasonably so. But they have not. They accept spending cuts. Maybe grudgingly, but they accept them. They agreed to the 2011 sequestration deal that included big domestic cuts.

So in other words, one party, the Republican Party, has said, for 30 years now, that one of the two major tools any legislature has as its disposal to address society’s problems is unusable, untouchable. That is divisive. That has caused dysfunction. And it’s all on the Republicans. [emphasis mine]

7) Dahlia Lithwick on the awfulness that is Stephen Miller.

8) This is crazy and fascinating– big gender gap of student evaluations of teaching on a 1-10 scale that pretty much disappears on a 1-6 scale (for the record, NCSU uses 1-5).

9) Eric Levitz gets another for his great take on Democrats’ irrational support of the filibuster (something I’ve been complaining about for about as long as I’ve been teaching):

The wealthy speculators and slave owners who founded our republic had little faith in popular democracy. The specter of a tyrannical majority using its power over the state to infringe on individual liberty (i.e. their property rights) haunted their collective imagination. To keep that hypothetical thieving mob at bay, they designed a system of government chock-full of veto points — which is to say, opportunities for powerful minorities to kill popular reforms.

To become a law, bills would need to make it through the committee systems of not one but two legislatures, past an independently elected president, and then (after Marbury v. Madison) survive the withering scrutiny of judicial review (and in many cases, the modifications of state-level officeholders). By modern standards, this system was exceptionally small-c conservative. Virtually no contemporary democracy makes it anywhere near as difficult for elected majorities to govern as the early American republic did.

And yet, even the men who designed this system could not condone the modern Senate filibuster. The framers explicitly debated whether legislation should be subjected to any kind of supermajority requirement in the Senate — and they affirmatively decided against it.

And then, the upper chamber accidently created a loophole that allowed any individual senator to prolong debate indefinitely. Eventually, a supermajority threshold was established for closing that loophole, and, as American politics polarized, exceeding that threshold became a requirement for passing any major law. Now, America’s legislative system isn’t just unwieldy and conservative by 21st-century international standards, but also, by 18th-century American ones…

Arguments for preserving the filibuster come in two flavors: misguided and bad.

10) Drum asks, “How Did Lefties Take Over the Democratic Party So Quickly?” and answers that the ideological divisions were never so big to begin with.

It starts with the observation that there are two fundamentally different kinds of left-wing “centrists.” The first genuinely has pretty moderate views. The second actually has fairly lefty views but doesn’t think there’s any chance of getting them enacted. So they propose moderate programs not because it’s all they want, but because it’s all they think they can get. These folks are best thought of as tactical centrists.

Barack Obama was a genuine centrist in some areas (fiscal policy, for example), but a tactical centrist in others. I don’t have any doubt, for example, that he’s supported true national health care pretty much forever. He just didn’t admit it because he didn’t want to come off as too radical. And once elected, he let Congress take the lead and create the Affordable Care Act because he was keenly aware that it was the most he could get from the Democratic Party at that time.

But what happens to tactical centrists when, suddenly, national health care becomes a mainstream idea again?¹ Well, they were always for it privately, so they’re perfectly happy when it becomes OK to say so publicly.

I think what Drum is missing is not just the shift in the Overton window, but, more importantly, how Obama’s presidency (and I do love the guy) pretty much showed the failure of the tactical centrism approach for Democrats.  Why moderate your ideal points for compromise with somebody who is never going to actually compromise with you?

11) I love this, “Want to Stop Fake News? Pay for the Real Thing.”  Yes.  And you should start with a subscription to the Times or the Post if you don’t have one.  For the record, I could pay less than I do with an Educator rate, but I don’t because I believe in paying for what these news organizations provide.  And, especially pay for local news because we don’t have government accountability without it.

12) Seen a lot of good tweets on the matter and this Vox piece summarizes the key arguments, “The remarkably selective outrage on the right about Roger Stone’s arrest: ‘You shouldn’t only start caring about these things when some rich, white, powerful elite is subjected to its abuses.'”

13) Almost forgot Jamelle Bouie’s historical take on Schultz:

Is there any chance a third-party candidate could contest the presidency and win?

The short answer is no. As long as the United States has an Electoral College and winner-take-all process for presidential elections, third-party and independent candidates will have a hard time finding any traction.

There have been times in American history, though, when third-party candidates have upended the political landscape, winning entire regions of the country, although never the presidency. But unlike Schultz, those candidates weren’t self-proclaimed “independents”railing against “divisiveness” from the center; they were polarizers who built support by cultivating personal followings and sharpening ideological, cultural and geographic divides…

All of these examples share key elements. The most successful third-party candidacies relied on a pre-existing mass constituency, whether a movement or a charismatic following or a distinct minority with shared political and cultural interests. To mobilize those constituencies, candidates threw themselves into polarizing the electorate from novel positions — not the center — sharpening differences and working to reorganize the electoral playing field around their concerns. And they played on divisions in the major parties themselves, capitalizing on shifting attitudes within each coalition. The Populists exploited agrarian discontent within the Democratic Party; the Dixiecrats did the same for white Southern opposition to racial liberalism.

To believe, as Howard Schultz does, that “a formidable third choice for president also has a chance to succeed for the first time since George Washington,” one also has to believe that the structure of American politics has suddenly changed, with a large and distinct constituency of voters just waiting to be tapped by an enterprising candidate. Neither is true.

14) How the bad guys are getting past two-factor authentication.  Sneaky!

15) Trump tweeted out support for Bible literacy classes.  But teaching the bible in an honest and academic way might not be so good for Christians.

16) Love this, “Mom Mortifies Son With Amazing Jumbotron Performance.’

17) Drum, “Only 27% of Americans Think American Health Care Is Above Average.”  You know I’m not suprised.  One argument I pretty much never get from my students any more is, “but American health care is the best in the world!”

18) Interesting from NYT, “A Tiny Screw Shows Why iPhones Won’t Be ‘Assembled in U.S.A.’”

19) Really great NYT feature on American figure skater Gracie Gold and her struggles with mental illness.  I don’t care how talented, I honestly cannot imagine putting my child and whole family what it takes to go through to be an elite individual athlete.

20) Surely not everybody’s cup of tea, but damn did I love the outrageous and surreal satire in “Sorry to bother you.”

21) Enjoyed Benjamin Wallace-Wells on Kamala Harris.

22) And more good Schultz readings to cap things off.  Paul Waldman, “What Howard Schultz’s ludicrous candidacy tells us about the American electorate”

23) And Greg Sargent, “Howard Schultz is anything but a realist.”

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