Quick hits (part I)

1) Freddie de Boer on expertise:

I think I’ve been consistent – vastly more consistent on my basic political and policy beliefs since I started writing in 2008 than American liberalism has been. For example, there was no anti-free speech element among liberals in 2008, not at scale, and there certainly is now. There are many people in the left-of-center who will now exclusively put “free speech” in scare quotes, love big tech companies for censoring, and insist that speech should routinely be suppressed to ensure their definition of “safety.” I, in contrast, was a civil libertarian before and I am still a civil libertarian now, following in the tradition of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Noam Chomsky, and others. I could write a whole pro-free-speech-from-the-left thing. But I shouldn’t have to! I shouldn’t have to because civil liberties have been an indispensable part of much left-wing philosophy for hundreds of years. The fact that the internet has the attention span of a child and the memory of a goldfish does not obligate me to drop my core political commitments when told.

It’s perfectly fair to want to change the values of a movement you belong to. But what has happened in 21st century left spaces is that massive changes come barreling down the pike, emerging from the Brown faculty lounge and elite media Twitter, and everybody is expected to jump onboard without debate or discussion. And then they call me a contrarian for sticking with my lifelong values! If you claim to be a liberal or leftist and you’re against free speech, you are the contrarian. If you claim to be a liberal or leftist and you insist that language and feelings are more important than material conditions, you are the hot take artist. If you claim to be a liberal or a leftist and you think the FBI was an important check on far-right extremism in the Trump years, rather than still seeing it as the agency that tried to get Martin Luther King to kill himself, you’re the one that’s dealing in revisionism. You don’t get to take absolutely core beliefs, change them because you were told to on the Teen Vogue Slack, and then say anyone who doesn’t join you is a grifter. Sorry….

OK this is definitely about Nate Silver. But I do have to defend the concept of “crash courses.” Democracy requires generalism, as it insists that ordinary people become minimally conversant on many topics of controversy. Media as well; journalists often specialize, but even so they retain a lot of generalist tendencies. (There are science journalists, but there are no science scientists.) As always, your behavior towards this stuff matters most. You can “do a little research” by reading the first paragraph of a Wikipedia article or by reading many books and articles. I don’t consider myself an “expert” on the Nation of Islam, but to write about them and Farrakhan I’ve read four books and parts of eleven others, dozens of articles and chapters from academic sources, dozens of articles in the popular press (including going way back in the archives to contemporary pieces), and listened to about 80 hours of Farrakhan speeches that I found on YouTube, scraped from the internet, or accessed via a friendly professor. Is that enough? Do I have a right to write about the NOI, then? Your answer to that question should stem from your perception of the pieces I wrote, how convincingly supported and argued you find them, not from where I write or what letters come after my name. But for many, an independent publication like this one will always be suspect. The standards of who gets to write about what, who has expertise enough, floats around in the media conversation constantly. As liberalism has merged with authority to a greater and greater degree, its gatekeepers become more and more insistent that only people employed as professors in a given field can comment. This seems to betray a failure to understand just how many professors are absolute fucking idiots. Trust me, I’ve spent almost my entire life on college campuses.

Plus experts get things wrong all the time, including on the most important questions, and also liberals ignore expert opinion whenever they want to. (For example, on the predictive validity of educational testing or the health consequences of obesity.) Also this whole fucking political project was supposed to be antiestablishment and anti-authority, or something. I vaguely remember that.

2) Chait on silly charges of political hypocrisy:

Monday night, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez appeared at the Met Gala wearing a dress emblazoned with the slogan “Tax the Rich,” her critics exploded in indignation. The complaint (mostly, but not exclusively, from the right) assailed AOC’s “fraud,” “hypocrisy,” and peddling “empty political slogans.”

But what exactly is the problem here? Should a politician who favors higher taxes on the rich avoid social engagements with them?

But of course AOC is not, and does not claim to be, an “actual revolutionary.” She is an advocate of dramatically more egalitarian economic policy, but not an advocate of executing the rich. Her agenda is not based on a moral critique of the rich, but a rather banal observation that rich people can stand to have less money in order to finance social needs for those in greater need.

Indeed, the whole idea that the Democratic Party’s rationale for more progressive taxation is based on personal moral condemnation of the rich is almost entirely a canard invented by the right. First conservatives accuse liberals of hating and wishing to punish the rich, and then turn around and accuse them of hypocrisy for violating the belief they never actually held.

The strangest aspect of this little setpiece in political outrage theater is that AOC’s stance on taxing the rich is not an answer we need to divine by projecting fantasies onto her appearance. She is an elected official with written, measurable policy proposals, and a key player in a live ongoing debate over what is intended to be the most significant tax increase on the rich in decades.

AOC’s glamorous evening hobnobbing with the rich is orders of magnitude less consequential than her intention to tax their fortunes. What’s truly shallow is the fixation with symbolism and cultural association rather than the concrete fiscal transfer taking shape right now. It is bizarre to watch AOC be accused of being a fake class warrior in the midst of a live class war in Washington with trillions of dollars at stake…

But the changes in the composition of the two parties’ voting bases have not altered the long-standing class orientation of their policy agendas. Democrats still vote to redistribute income downward, while Republicans vote to redistribute it upwards. The political media’s fixation with the marginal change in the composition of the two parties’ bases has made it lose touch with the actual purpose to which they use their power.

The class orientation of their programs — the important things they actually do with power — has not changed. Democrats are pushing through a bill whose intent and effect would be to bring about a historically large downward transfer of resources. The upper-middle-class voters the party has been attracting in greater numbers would face combined tax rates at or around 60 percent, in the highest tax states. The spending these taxes would finance would go to people of modest means.

It surely isn’t Met Gala attendees who will make use of expanded Medicaid in red states or free community college. The people dismissing programs like that as undesirable or unaffordable are the conservatives who posture as tribunes of the working people.

Indeed, the two parties are more polarized over redistribution than any other single dynamic. Republicans will routinely abandon their posture against spending, deficits, centralized government control, but they will never waver from their opposition to taxing the rich…

The Republican Party has spurred a lot of talk about populism, but nothing resembling a serious challenge to its fanatical opposition to redistribution. If J.D. Vance is elected to the Senate, he will vote for the next big capital gains or estate tax cut Republicans put in front of him.

Even a casual familiarity with the contours of the ongoing policy fight would dispel the vulgar Marxist assumption that the Democratic Party’s growing support among affluent voters would signify a rightward change in its economic program. It’s downright strange to be living through a polarized fight over whether hundreds of billions of dollars will remain in the hands of the wealthy, or instead be used to finance benefits for the downtrodden without the broader debate taking any real note of it.

You would think the class contours of the debate in Joe Biden’s Washington would be obvious enough that people clinging to their image of fancy Democrats and downscale Republicans couldn’t ignore it anymore. But the human ability to ignore the obvious is strong enough that many of us can’t see who wants to tax the rich even when it’s staring right at us in blazing red letters.

3) Research like this frustrates me.  Alas, there’s no America where you can expect Republican to receive honest and accurate information about how taxing the rich actually works.  The world just doesn’t work that way.

Learning the facts changed Republicans’ attitudes about taxing the rich

We found three key things. First, learning what a high proportion of rich Americans inherited their wealth boosted support for raising the top federal income tax rate by six percentage points, compared with those in the control group, who read about rivers. Individuals in this group were also less likely than people in the control group to believe that rich people deserve a lower tax rate or that they worked harder than other Americans. In other words, this information increased support for higher taxes on the rich by fundamentally changing people’s beliefs about whether doing so was fair.

Second, individuals in the group informed that past cuts in the top federal income tax rate did not result in higher economic growth were the most likely to support higher taxes on the rich; this information increased support by more than eight percentage points, compared with the control group. However, when looking at core beliefs, we can see that this cannot be explained by changing beliefs about the economic effects of lower taxes. Instead, the finding is entirely driven by the information that the top federal income tax rate has been cut almost in half since 1979. In other words, once individuals learned how much higher rates had been in the past, they were more willing to raise taxes on the rich today.

Finally, the effects were strongest for Republicans. When Republicans learned that 122 American billionaires who inherited their wealth are wealthier than the bottom 50 percent of the population, their support for raising the top federal income tax rate increased by 13 percentage points. Learning how that the top income tax rate had been cut in half raised support even more dramatically, by about 17 percentage points.

In other words, Republicans’ opposition to tax hikes became much weaker when they learned facts that challenged their beliefs.

4) Margaret Sullivan on good stuff from the journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer:

There’s a simple but powerful idea behind the Philadelphia Inquirer’s recent decision not to use the word “audit” when referring to an effort by the state GOP to investigate the 2020 election:

Words matter.

The words that a news organization chooses to tell a story make a difference. If a journalist calls something a “lie,” that’s a deliberate choice. So is “racially tinged.” Or “pro-life.” Or “torture.”

Such decisions carry weight. They have power.

Acknowledging this power and being transparent about those choices is exactly what the Inquirer did the other day when it embedded within a news story a bit of explanatory text, under the headline: “Why We’re Not Calling It an Audit.”

In clear language, the paper explained that it’s because “there’s no indication” that this effort, which follows months of demands from Donald Trump alleging baselessly that the election was rigged, “would follow the best practices or the common understanding of an audit among nonpartisan experts.”

How so? The Inquirer noted that when it asked how the review would work, how ballots and election equipment would be secured, who would be involved, and so on, the leaders of this effort did not explain.

The Inquirer stated some reporting-based facts linked to the paper’s previous stories about them: That Joe Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes, that state and county audits affirmed that outcome, and that there is no evidence of any significant fraud.

“We think it is critical to speak plain truths about efforts to make it harder to vote and about efforts to sow doubts about the electoral process,” Dan Hirschhorn, senior politics editor at the Inquirer, told me. “These are not ‘he said/she said’ stories — there is clear, objective truth here.”

More plain truths from the Inquirer: In the story carrying this explainer box, the paper uses the term “forensic investigation” — which is what the GOP wants to call it — in quotation marks. A sub-headline makes it clear that this effort is “modeled off the months-long partisan review in Arizona,” widely regarded as irrevocably flawed and unnecessary to begin with, initiated by Republican lawmakers carrying water for Trump and placed in the hands of dubious private firms. (“Fraudit” may be a more accurate term.)

More of this, please!  And less false balance at any costs (yes, I’m looking at you Politico, Axios, and similar).

5) OMG the Democratic “centrists” are the worst.  They are not moderate, they’re just stupid!  Brian Beutler lets loose:

Just this week, a tiny group of centrists with ties to the pharmaceutical industry forced the party to remove provisions that would allow the government to directly negotiate prescription prices for Medicare beneficiaries from the Build Back Better Act. These provisions are extremely popular and generate huge cost savings. It’s the most destructive and selfish single thing any of the centrists in Congress have done, and they’ve justified it with disingenuous pablum about bipartisanship.

If there’s good news here it’s that Schrader et al had to stand and be counted; the leadership didn’t quietly do their bidding, they had to join a bunch of Republicans in voting to strip the pricing provision from the bill text in committee, exposing themselves to serious political recriminations. But the question for leadership now is whether to let that be the end of the story. If they don’t try to revive the provision at all it could very well kill the bill; if they revive it in a substantially weakened form, it might also kill the bill, but it’ll definitely weaken its tangible benefits for real people, and thus the party’s ability to say: We lowered your drug prices, send us back to Washington.

The alternative is to jam them; to say their six month reign of destruction is over; to revive a robust drug-pricing provision and dare them to tank the whole bill, to sink the party, draw primary challenges, lose committee assignments—whatever.

Senate leaders will face similar conundrums in the days ahead when Republicans filibuster democracy-protection legislation, and, soon thereafter, a debt-limit increase. Under the old paradigm, that’d be the end of the line for voting rights, and the beginning of a new, destructive phase of bipartisan negotiations over budget austerity between centrists and giddy Republican saboteurs. Under a better one, the centrists will have to decide whether they’d truly prefer to wreck the party and the country rather than abolish the filibuster and pass the bills the country needs.

If common sense prevails, it’ll serve the public interest, but it’ll also improve the party’s political outlook. In the centrists’ telling, their political fortunes are so fragile that they can be upended by the wrong protest-movement slogan, but so impervious that they can withstand gerrymandering, broken health-care promises, a divided party, and any number of other problems of their own creation. And because the prevailing trope is that they must be possessed of some deep political wisdom to have won their seats in the first place, a whole political industry will echo whatever random, self-serving things they say as the holy writ of pragmatism.

But for all the grousing they do about taking tough votes and The Squad and the mystical politics of their states and districts, their political fates will rise and fall with Biden’s, and his standing has as much to do with what’s in (say) the Build Back Better agenda as in the sense that he’s actively, nimbly, quickly fixing things—prescription drug prices, yes, but also corruption and abortion rights in Texas and the ongoing insurrection—and unafraid to side with his supporters on the big moral issues of the day. It would be better for the country for Build Back Better to be filled with popular provisions that improve people’s lives, but the damage Schrader et al are doing isn’t just making the bill worse; it’s making Biden and the Democrats seem in over their heads. Republicans took on a lot of water trying to repeal Obamacare, but there’s a reason they weren’t grateful to John McCain for killing their efforts. The story here is similar, except the agenda in peril today is very popular.

It may be the case that Biden et al actually are in over their heads; that holding together such narrow majorities for such far-reaching legislation is just beyond their capabilities because it’s really, really hard. If so, then Build Back Better was doomed from the start. But if not, the best thing they could do to overcome these obstacles is remind the centrists—quickly—that their fortunes rise and fall together, so they must toe the party line. If that doesn’t work, the next-best thing would be to lose their patience.  

 

 

6) David Brooks with a piece that dovetails quite nicely with what I wrote about opinion polling earlier this week: “Is Self-Awareness a Mirage?”

One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do. You can ask somebody: Why’d you choose that house? Or why’d you marry that person? Or why’d you go to graduate school? People will concoct some plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.

We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there.

But we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation. As Will Storr writes in his excellent book “The Science of Storytelling”: “We don’t know why we do what we do, or feel what we feel. We confabulate when theorizing as to why we’re depressed, we confabulate when justifying our moral convictions and we confabulate when explaining why a piece of music moves us.”

Or as Nicholas Epley puts it in his equally excellent “Mindwise,” “No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behavior anymore unless they’re interested in understanding storytelling.”

7) Just do disturbing to see all the Republicans defending January 6 and re-writing history.  From Leonhardt:

Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina cast those arrested after the riot as “political prisoners” and suggested he wanted to “try and bust them out.”

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin described the attackers as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement.”

Senate Republicans blocked Congress from creating an independent commission to investigate the attack. Senator Mitch McConnell called it a partisan effort “to debate things that occurred in the past.”

 

J.D. Vance, a best-selling author and Republican Senate candidate in Ohio, said that there were “some bad apples” but that “most of the people there were actually super peaceful.”

Julie Kelly of the journal American Greatness suggested Michael Fanone — a Washington police officer who suffered a heart attack and a brain injury during the attack — was lying about it, and called him a “crisis actor.”

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said on the House floor, “The people who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 are being abused.”

Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona accused law enforcement of “harassing peaceful patriots” and “law-abiding U.S. citizens.”

Representative Jody Hice of Georgia said, “It was Trump supporters who lost their lives that day, not Trump supporters who were taking the lives of others.”

Four Republican House members staged actions at the Justice Department and a D.C. jail demanding information about the treatment of Jan. 6 defendants. One of them, Gosar, said the defendants were being “persecuted.”

 

CarlsonGreene and Candace Owens, a conservative commentator, have all suggested that the F.B.I. or Justice Department was behind the riot.

Joe Kent — a Washington State Republican running with Trump’s endorsement against one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over Jan. 6 — plans to attend tomorrow’s rally, The Times reports.

8) From Wired, “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years: Social scientists are researching what humans can do to improve their quality of life. Their findings echo what religious practices perfected centuries ago.”

Science and religion have often been at odds. But if we remove the theology—views about the nature of God, the creation of the universe, and the like—from the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates. What we’re left with is a series of rituals, customs, and sentiments that are themselves the results of experiments of sorts. Over thousands of years, these experiments, carried out in the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to sooth, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind. And studying these technologies has revealed that certain parts of religious practices, even when removed from a spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek.

My lab has found, for example, that having people practice Buddhist meditation for a short time makes them kinder. After only eight weeks of study with a Buddhist lama, 50 percent of those who we randomly assigned to meditate daily spontaneously helped a stranger in pain. Only 16 percent of those who didn’t meditate did the same. (In reality, the stranger was an actor we hired to use crutches and wear a removable foot cast while trying to find a seat in a crowded room.) Compassion wasn’t limited to strangers, though; it also applied to enemies. Another study showed that after three weeks of meditation, most people refrained from seeking revenge on someone who insulted them, unlike most of those who did not meditate. Once my team observed these profound impacts, we began looking for other linkages between our previous research and existing religious rituals.

Gratitude, for instance, is something we had studied closely, and a key element of many religious practices. Christians often say grace before a meal; Jews give thanks to God with the Modeh Ani prayer every day upon awakening. When we studied the act of giving thanks, even in a secular context, we found it made people more virtuous. In a study where people could get more money by lying about the results of a coin flip, the majority (53 percent) cheated. But that figure dropped dramatically for people who we first asked to count their blessings. Of these, only 27 percent chose to lie. We’ve also found that when feeling gratitude to a person, to fate, or to God, people become more helpfulmore generous, and even more patient.

The combined effects of simple elements like these—ones that change how we feel, what we believe, and who we can depend on—accumulate over time. And when they’re embedded in religious practices, research has shown they can have protective properties of sorts. Regularly taking part in religious practices lessens anxiety and depression, increases physical health, and even reduces the risk of early death. These benefits don’t come simply from general social contact. There’s something specific to spiritual practices themselves.

9) This seems simple enough.  Professor tweets pretty abhorrent stuff about 9/11; University defends free speech of professor.  But they damn sure need to defend all sorts of abhorrent speech.  Also, this bit, ““We have to be more honest about what 9/11 was and what it wasn’t. It was an attack on the heteropatriarchal capitalistic systems that America relies upon to wrangle other countries into passivity” is just so embarrassingly over-the-top it might as well be from the Onion.

10) The Atlantic had a great feature four years ago on why it might actually make sense to bring back the Wooly Mammoth.  And, now, just maybe, it may happen.

A team of scientists and entrepreneurs announced on Monday that they have started a new company to genetically resurrect the woolly mammoth.

The company, named Colossal, aims to place thousands of these magnificent beasts back on the Siberian tundra, thousands of years after they went extinct.

“This is a major milestone for us,” said George Church, a biologist at Harvard Medical School, who for eight years has been leading a small team of moonlighting researchers developing the tools for reviving mammoths. “It’s going to make all the difference in the world.”

The company, which has received $15 million in initial funding, will support research in Dr. Church’s lab and carry out experiments in labs of their own in Boston and Dallas.

11) Great, disturbing feature on Tucker Carlson in TNR, “How Tucker Carlson Lost It: He once craved responsibility and tried to give a right-wing audience real news. They didn’t want it. And he adjusted with a vengeance.”

12) Greg Sargent, “The right-wing media is helping Trump destroy democracy. A new poll shows how.”

When future historians seek to explain the United States’ perilous slide toward authoritarianism in the 21st century, they will grapple with the role played in all these events by Fox News and the right-wing media. Simply put, those actors are helping Donald Trump and his movement threaten democracy, in a way that will likely continue getting worse.

A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute demonstrates in a fresh way just how responsible those bad-faith media actors are for what we’re seeing right now. And this raises anew the question of how much damage they will do over the long haul.

The poll’s big finding is that people who rely heavily on Fox News and other right-wing media are overwhelmingly more likely to believe the election was stolen from Trump — and are overwhelmingly less likely to blame Trump for the insurrection — than those who do not.

In one sense, that’s a no-brainer. But taken together, those views add up to something truly toxic: The “belief” that the election was stolen, and the simultaneous refusal to assign accountability for an effort to violently overthrow our constitutional order, suggest right-wing propaganda may be softening the ground for a more concerted abandonment of democracy going forward.

The PRRI poll finds that 69 percent of Americans do not believe the election was stolen, while only 29 percent do believe this. That latter number largely reflects Republicans, among whom 71 percent believe it. Only very small minorities of independents and Democrats do.

The poll also finds that 56 percent of Americans say Trump does bear much of the blame for the Jan. 6 violence, that 59 percent say this about white supremacist groups, and that 41 percent say this about GOP leaders.

If anything, those numbers are too low. Trump did incite the violence, far-right groups did organize the “Stop the Steal” rally around lurid lies about the stolen election destroying American freedom, and GOP elites did extensively humor or even validate those lies.

Regardless, the poll also broke down these numbers through the prism of which media sources people trust, including Fox News and far-right sources such as One America News and conventional broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS and NBC.

At my request, PRRI cut the data and provided me with these findings:

  • Among Americans who most trust Fox News or those far-right news sources, a stunning 76 percent believe the election was stolen. By contrast, of those who most trust those other sources, only 21 percent believe this.
  • Among Americans who most trust Fox News or those far-right news sources, only 12 percent say Trump gets a lot of blame for the Jan. 6 riot. And 64 percent blame liberal or left-wing activists, such as antifa.

13) NYT on air quality:

Is bad indoor air dulling your brain?

How healthy is the air in your workplace?

It’s a question many of us are now asking to protect ourselves from Covid-19. But indoor air quality is also something we should be talking about long after the pandemic ends. Because not only can the quality of your workplace air influence the number of sick days you take each year, but it may even affect how well your brain works in the office.

A new study shows that poor indoor air quality is associated with subtle impairments in a number of cognitive functions, including our ability to concentrate and process information. The study tracked 302 office workers in commercial buildings in six countries — the United States, Britain, China, India, Mexico and Thailand — for 12 months.

The scientists used monitors to measure ventilation and indoor air quality in the buildings, including levels of fine particulate matter, which includes dust and minuscule particles from smoking, cleaning products and outdoor air pollution that seeps into the building. The workers were asked to use an app to take regular cognitive tests during the workday. The tests included simple math problems, as well as a tricky color and word brain teaser called the Stroop test, in which a word like “blue” or “purple” is printed in green or red ink. (The test asks you to name the color of the ink, but our brains want to read the word instead. You can try the Stroop test yourself here.)

The study found that the office workers in buildings with the poorest indoor air quality tended to perform worse on the brain teasers. While the effect wasn’t dramatic, the findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the air we breathe affects brain health.

“This study looked at how several factors in the indoor environment have an immediate impact on our cognitive function and performance,” said Joseph G. Allen, the director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings program and the study’s senior author. “This study shows that the air you’re breathing at your desk at that moment has an impact on how well you think.”

In the past, air quality control in buildings has been mostly focused on energy efficiency and comfort, with little consideration given to infection control or overall worker health. But the pandemic has prompted many workplaces to take a closer look at indoor air quality. The good news is that many of the changes being made to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are the same improvements that need to be made to improve the overall air quality linked with cognitive function and worker productivity.

“There is a newfound appreciation for how much the indoor environment influences our health,” said Dr. Allen. “Healthy buildings,” he said, should not just be thought of as “something we do during Covid or a crisis. It has to be the new normal, not the exception, going forward.”

14) 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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