Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who Decides What America's Common Core Values Are?

At this writing I have yet to locate the full text of Glenn Beck's speech about restoring America's traditional values, the one with a special guest appearance from co-conservative darling Sara Palin. So for now, I'll work with summary coverage of it. I don't think it'll harm my point. Be sure to read it all for the whole story>Here are excerpts indicating the apparent gist of the Beck-Palin message, which is what I want to focus on:

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and tea party champion Sarah Palin appealed Saturday to a vast, predominantly white crowd on the National Mall to help restore traditional American values ...Beck billed his event as nonpolitical.... conservative activists said their show of strength was a clear sign that they can swing elections because much of the country is angry...

Palin told the tens of thousands ...that calls to transform the country weren't enough. "We must restore America and restore her honor," ...Palin and Beck repeatedly cited King and made references to the Founding Fathers. Beck put a heavy religious cast on nearly all his remarks, sounding at times like an evangelical preacher....: "America today begins to turn back to God."..." "For too long, this country has wandered in darkness. ... Today we are going to concentrate on the good things in America, the things that we have accomplished — and the things that we can do tomorrow." 

Clarence B. Jones, who served as King's personal attorney and his speechwriter, said he believes King would not be offended by Beck's rally but "pleased and honored" that a diverse group of people would come together, almost five decades later, to discuss the future of America. Jones said the Beck rally seemed to be tasteful and did not appear to distort King's message, which included a recommitment to religious values.

So. Who decides what America's common core values are? It's really not that hard for open-minded folks to acknowledge that big chunks of this message include ideas with real merit. A large part of Glenn Beck's success is due to his constant recitations of simple ideas that no one really disagrees. That's the truthiness, right?

But is it really the case that we need a "restoration," that most Americans have departed from a common sense path, and that conservatives are the only remaining protectors of American virtue?

Or is it the case that:

  •  Americans in the middle share a whole bunch of common values
  • these common values are often obscured by how partisans spin them
  • we think the areas of disagreement are bigger than they are because political opportunists relentless highlight them

I mean, who is anti-hard-work? Who thinks that children are not the future? Who doesn't believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated? Who is against life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Who hates the idea of guaranteeing some sort of equality of opportunity? Who really thinks we should turn away from God once it's understood that God can be conceived as no more than the personification of the idea of good?

Even though I think Glenn Beck is a schticky, phony opportunist,  I am fine with Glenn  Beck exhorting Americans as he has done, insofar as it helps us all focus on our better nature. What I am not fine with is Glenn Beck appointing himself as the arbiter of America's core cultural values. Because at the same time as he wraps himself in God and the flag, he sells anger and divisiveness.  He profits from a narrow antagonistic spin on values that extols conservatism as the source of  good, and liberalism as the source of bad. We ALL get to say something about what these values are, and Glenn Beck doesn't get to play leader or moderator. His act is such that his credibility outside one subset of Americans is nil. Nil. How could such a person be a leader for us?

Consider that he encourages people not to even consider the concept of social justice. What, Americans can't have a discussion and decide for each of ourselves what that might or might not mean? Justice is a long-term core American value. We're all of us stuck re-determining every day how to balance liberty with equality, whether we like it or not. If Beck doesn't get that, he needs to get off the stage. Period.

Consider how the messages at this rally include a desire to "bring God back into the public square." What is that supposed to mean? How come this idea so often leads to a quick leap to things like bringing prayer back into schools and government meetings, and so on. 
Sure, we can argue about what precisely was original meant by the antiestablishment clause of the constitution. But it's safe to presume that the founders sensed the wisdom of reluctance when it came to mixing government and religion. And it's hard to miss how well-served American has been by sticking with this reluctance, especially when we compare American political life to the political life in places where they like to mix the politics, government, and religion into a toxic brew.

Know any religious conservatives who also love liberty? If you seek out such folks, it's not hard to find ones who are extremely supportive of of the antiestablishment deal: the religions stay out of the government's business, and the government stays out of thew religion's business. God gets his, and Caesar gets his.

I'm a firm believer that there's a really solid way forward for values in our country if we search for common ground among the values of our many different faiths, and extol them in an inclusive way. And that's where I think this message of Beck (and to some extent Palin) fails.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Zombies and Partisans

From Daniel Drezner in a book review

All intellectual movements start with trenchant ways of understanding the world. As these ideas gain currency, they are used to explain more and more disparate phenomena, until the explanation starts to lose its predictive power. As time passes, the original ideas become obscured by ideology, caricature and ad hoc efforts to explain away emerging anomalies. Finally, enough contradictions build up to crash the paradigm, although current adherents often continue to advance the ideas in zombielike form.

Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Sane Accounting of Facts Surrounding the Ground Zero Mosque

One of my very favorite writers and critical thinkers, Cathy Young, has composed a very sane and thoughtful accounting of the facts surrounding the proposed construction of the "ground zero mosque." Thanks, Cathy.

No excerpts. Do yourself a favor. Click through and read the whole thing.

Cathy has a long time affiliation with Reason magazine. She used to be a columnist at the Boston Globe but was downsized out a few years back. Probably not inflammatory enough. She writes for RealClearPolitics these days too.

The Metacognition Deficit

David Brooks nicely expresses the nature of a core cultural issue that's troubled me for some time:
...we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. ... We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group....the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse. 
...There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized. There’s a rigidity to political debate. Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity.
...To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate.... Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.

Amen, my brother. You're preaching to the choir here. 
Of Course, it should be no time at all before someone responds that Brooks is a patronizing egghead of the "political class." And encourages us all to ignore him, and embrace the wisdom of crowds.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Have Regular Folks Re-Discovered The First Rule of Holes?

This query from over at Marginal Revolution got me wondering:

If Tyler Cowen and others are right that this slump is the end of family-deficit spending, it is quite conceivable that the Fed will fail to deliver that which it promises to deliver. At that point, the institutional players in the Fed will have lost credibility. 

Not all that interested in the Fed, beyond thinking that they've painted themselves into a corner with an empty toolbox. 

I'm just wondering what folks think of the idea that the era after the 2007 economic collapse will be characterized by a renewed commitment by folks to spend within their means. Financially speaking, do regular folks have a reborn appreciation of the first rule of holes:

First Rule of Holes
If you find yourself in a hole, first quit digging.

I got no argument with the idea. Folks are spending less. And I think they'll continue to be more careful for some time. And that means any recovery will continue to be slow and resistant to the encouragement of cheap money, in other words low interest rates on loans.

It's going to take a few years for folks to get a handle on what things are really worth in the post-2007 EC era. Now, will it last? Are we seeing a sea change? Do most folks now truly understand that paying on a credit is a way to pay more for something? Meh. Folks didn't suddenly get wise. They got scared. IMO, the slowness of the "recovery" is about fear and uncertainty.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Examining the "Ground Zero Mosque" By Way of Analogy

Suppose Peter was raised Catholic, and was abused repeatedly by a priest. As a result, he no longer practices this religion. He tries to avoid Catholic imagery, which brings back traumatic memories. Can't do it everywhere of course, but his neighborhood and home is safe. His two abutting neighbors are hateful folks who both harbor venously anti-catholic feelings.

Suppose the property across the street from Peter is sold, and a Catholic moves in, and places a statue of Mary in the front yard. Peter sees it every day. He has more nightmares and flashbacks of his abuse as a result. So he goes across the street and talks to his neighbor. He reluctantly recounts his personal history and lingering mental issues with Catholicism. And he asks his neighbor to consider moving the Mary to his back yard or somewhere out of sight from his own property.

If you were his neighbor, what would you do? Would you:

• dismiss your neighbor's concerns out of hand because you have the right to display the Mary as you see fit?

• Agree to seriously consider your neighbor's request, out of respect for his feelings, while making it clear that you would make no promises, and that you expected him to respect your decision either way?

Suppose you decided to move the Mary simply for the sake of good relations, as a show of good faith. Then, before you moved it, one of your anti-catholic neighbors came over and ranted hateful anti-catholic spews at you and demanded that you get rid of the Mary. Would this change you mind?  If so, why?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Having The Right Versus Being Right

Sometimes, serendipity provides the perfect juxtaposition to clarify the mind. Consider the following two stories from today:

Missouri's tight restrictions on protests and picketing outside military funerals were tossed out by a federal judge Monday, over free speech concerns.

A small Kansas church had brought suit over its claimed right to loudly march outside the burials and memorial services of those killed in overseas conflicts. The state legislature had passed a law to keep members of the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church from demonstrating within 300 feet of such private services.
The laws, said the Kansas City-based judge, "could have the effect of criminalizing speech the mourners want to hear, including speech from counter-protesters to plaintiffs' [the Westboro Church's] message. As the law burdens substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government's interest, [the law] violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment."

Republicans tried mightily Sunday to make a political flash point out of President Barack Obama's defense of plans to build an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York. 

On talk shows spanning the network and cable spectrum, GOP politicians and pundits insisted that Obama was insensitive to those who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks when he entered the debate on the issue with a White House speech marking the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month.

Some predicted political repercussions for Democrats in November's congressional election, even though they agreed with Obama that freedom of religion is a vital part of American democracy.

Aw-haw-hall....RiGHTY then! Maybe you find yourself on different sides on each of these stories. Maybe you are pro-free speech and pro-expression of religion freedom. Or maybe not.

But here's the thing. Having a right to do something and being right to do it are just not the same thing. Muslims do enjoy the right to place a mosque and worship in it without being hassled. But are they right to insist on exercising that right in an insensitive way that feels very "in your face" to lots of non-muslims? I suggest they aren't, and that they are engendering bad will by doing so.

Do funerals represent a case for suspending the constitutional right to protest? Nope, they sure don't. But are protesters right to get all up in the faces of people who just want to see a lost loved one off, and find solace among common friends and loved ones. Nope. They sure aren't. And again, what they achieve is bad will for their cause.

Sometimes, insisting on exercising your right means that more than anything else, you're being an insensitive @-hole. Nothing righteous about that.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Cartoon on the Spoon

I don't pay attention to the opinions of folks like Sara Palin or Glenn Beck at all. Nor, say, Michael Moore. Such folks have already demonstrated to me that they have no useful new insights that can move America forward. They shop what I believe are no better than attractively simple half-truths. Inevitably, these half-truths suggest that there is an easy way forward for all loyal members of the choir. An easy way forward which always holds the choir virtuous and blames someone else who is not in the choir.

The vast majority of the time that I am exposed to such folks is when an opponent features an especially juicy bit of their kookery. And offerings like that are the stock in trade of folks who perpetuate simplistic partisan politics. Liberals love to feature conservatives at their kookiest. Conservatives love to feature liberals at their kookiest. That's the game.

Perhaps what's most troublesome is how eagerly earnest Americans of all stripes are sucked up into this game. They love to play. It's called comparative political demonology.

The other side is way worse because [insert exhibit A].

The vast majority of political web sites are aptly called echo chambers. Like-minded folks eagerly swap reinforcing tales that include genuine bits of truth. Such practices adversely affect an individual's capacity for critical thinking. How? In the same why that inbreeding diminishes genetic diversity and and adversely effects health. Congenital defects are passed on.

And a big favorite for preserving these defects is the regular featuring of the other side's kooks. These are spoon fed to regulars as part of their regular diet. The cartoon on the spoon. Eat up. and you'll grow to be a big strong partisan who is sure the other side doesn't care about you, maybe even hates you, has no insight to offer, can't be trusted, only cares about power, and will sacrifice your needs for theirs every time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Is Your Opinion on Tax Policy Informed?

At least since the advent of Reaganomics, the question of optimizing tax rates has been hotly argued between denizens of the right and the left. Right now, conservatives argue that lower taxes are just the ticket for encouraging economic growth. And liberals are sure we can raise taxes to mitigate the deficit and finance new programs, without substantial harm. We can FULLY expect this argument to play out in public from this day forward until the 2012 elections.

It's unsurprising but still peculiar that both wings are prone to featuring the most simplified of arguments about taxes, which fail to incorporate the notion of optimizing tax rates. Or at least trying to do so.

I don't want to focus on the merits of either side's simplified arguments, Instead I'd like to try to give folks a place to start, a reference point from which they can evaluate the insight and good faith of other folks arguments, Expect many of the arguments you see to be uninformed at best, and biased at worst.

Fortunately, Ezra Klein can helps us out by askingWhere Does the Laffer Curve Bend?:

With the Bush tax cuts due to expire soon and debates about raising top rates further to cut the budget deficit soon to follow, the Laffer curve is bound to come up again. The idea, popularized by economist Arthur Laffer and writer Jude Wanninski in the 1970s and '80s, is simple. Tax rates of zero percent produce no revenue, for obvious reasons. Rates of 100 percent should produce no revenue either, as no one would bother making the money that falls into that bracket knowing it would all be taken away. Thus, presumably, there is some rate in between the two that maximizes revenue. Go above it and revenue would fall because people would avoid taxes or stop working; go below it and revenue would fall because less money would be taxed.

This is the place to start, with an understanding that raising or lowering taxes could potentially increase or decrease government revenue.

From there, it's also worth noticing that increasing or decreasing government revenue is far from the only important matter when it comes to tax policy. If you click through to Ezra's article in the link above, you'll find many thoughtful and useful and brief! summary thoughts that are worth considering when you think about taxes, what is fair, and what is necessary for our nation. So check them all out.

In closing, I'd like to call attention to one notion that I think is especially important to consider alongside government revenue. Fortunately, one of Ezra's quotees has done some of the work for me:

My guess is that that the short-run answer and the long-run answer are quite different. For example, if you raised the top rate from 35 to, say, 60 percent, you might raise revenue in the short run. Over time, however, you would get lower economic growth, so the additional revenues would fall off and eventually decline below what they would have been at the lower rate.... I will pass on offering a specific number, as it would require more time and thought than I can offer just now, but I will opine that I think the long-run answer is actually more important for policy purposes than the short-run answer.

In other words, it is at best risky to focus only on maximizing government revenue. Over time, higher tax rates may adversely effect economic activity to the point where we are worse off down the road for having optimized revenue a few years earlier.

If you want a reasonable baseline for evaluating the merits of tax policy arguments from politicians and talking heads and random blowhards, I think this makes a good start.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Wanted: a A New Word

As someone who has imagined himself a centrist while still being troubled by the term, I'm looking for a new word to describe the folks I hope will comprise my audience.

I'm not so much concerned that all my visitors sit in the middle politically. But I am concerned that they be willing to look beyond the dogma of both wings. I'm concerned that they hold views conditionally, subject to further evidence. I'm concerned that within the last few years they've occasionally altered their views on an issue of personal importance in response to additional data.

It's derisive, but I've always liked the vibe that comes with "non-idiotarian" when I've run across it. And I like "in god we trust, all others must bring data." I'd love it if folks would join in and brainstorm about this idea and things they've heard people say about ti that they've liked. I just asked myself if there was a word for folks who are committed to being open-minded and adjusting their hypotheses in response to new feedback. I realized that the word is scientist.

So, for the time being, my winner is scientific methodist. I still want that brainstorm, though. If I have some, you know, traffic someday.

Reforming Higher Ed

For some time now, I've been entertaining the idea that our current approach to higher education is, well, an outdated luxury.

Currently, one working hypothesis for helping to fix the American economy is to devote more resources to helping kids go to and graduate from college. The simple premise is that, all other things being equal. going to college helps you get ahead. The next generation of American workers needs to be even better educated. We need smart folks for 21st century jobs, in other words.

Fine, but I find myself questioning the wisdom of throwing more resources at supporting college education, for a host of reasons. One, increasing subsidies will probably increase costs. Two, a large part of getting ahead via a degree relates to credentialism and gate-keeping, not skill. Three, I question how well the set "skills acquired in college" matches the set "useful 21st century skills.

I could go on, but George Leef seems to be asking some good questions in his 2-part series questioning a recently released paper called Help Wanted, which supports more Higher Ed.

Here's a taste from part 2:

Imagine a student who recently graduated from high school with a good GPA, successfully completed a number of AP courses, and has SAT or ACT scores above the 75th percentile—a bright young person. Are there entry-level jobs he or she simply cannot dowithout first taking a lot of college courses?
Yes, a few. Here, for example, is a job posting where the college degree requirement pertains to essential knowledge. I suppose there might be a tiny number of high school grads who could capably do biomedical engineering research, but it makes sense for the employer to confine the search to college graduates with the proper coursework. Let’s agree that this job really requires advanced study.
But how many jobs demand such academic preparation that our bright high school graduate would flounder helplessly if given the work? Not many.  Far more often, the college “requirement” has nothing to do with knowledge you can only get through college study.

Here's the thing, for me. I think we're heading into a future where we are forced to face the bounds on our resources. And as we seek to produce more and consume less, we'll be well served by devoting our precious resources carefully, with forethought. Before we devote more resources towards the simple and broad goal of "getting more kids through college so that they can succeed," let's think on it a bit.

Why not identify and then target the particular skills we expect to be in demand? Instead of leaving untouched and unquestioned the traditional liberal arts education, why not investigate training in things like office productivity. If an employer has a choice between someone with well-rounded liberal arts skills and someone who can kick ass with databases, spreadsheets, word processing, networking, and so on, which will they choose?

If we devote more resources to higher ed, I want the result to be a larger source of workers will skills that are in demand and useful across a range of 21st century work situations. Why not target that, instead of just increasing college loan subsidies or whatever?

Comparative Political Demonology

Comparative Political Demonology? What's that? Well, Comparative Political 
Demonology relates to blogs, blog comments, dialogue, and the tendency
to get diverted away from new insight and into well formed ruts of political 

I'll take a stab at a working definition, subject to change. 

Comparative Political Demonology is a dialogue pattern in which 
participants, usually political partisans, turn the subject of conversation 
towards the question of which side is worse. Attribution, to the best of my 
knowledge, goes to my old blog buddy Tully, who on occasion blogs at 
Flyover Notes

Tully has given me reason to believe he is, as they sometimes say, 
a real smart fella. I'm happy to praise his name for the simple fact 
that on many occasions he has gifted me with new and useful insight. 
Further, I have reason to believe that he's every bit as cranky as I am. 
Which is also praise.

Staring At the Beginning

The best typo ever, because when you think too much about a first post, you're indeed staring at the beginning. You're not starting anything. So my default approach will be to scratch what itches and see what emerges. Gotta start somewhere, and it's better than staring. I'll think I'll divide my time between chautauqua posts (long-standing itches) and current cranks (what's got my attention at the time).