Archive for February, 2013

Fatherless

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

There is a fierce political messaging war going on right now because of the looming sequester cuts.  It ultimately raises the question of how the President should behave when faced with a partner who refuses to compromise.

Let’s work through the various positions of each of the players.

The sequester was put in place by both parties to force a compromise.

The Democrats, contrary to Republican messaging, HAVE put forward several alternatives.  They all involve some degree of tax increase in addition to spending cuts.  Republicans have said that they will not accept any proposals which include tax increases.  The Republican did pass an alternative spending proposal in the House last year that shifted the spending burden from defense to domestic discretionary spending.  Neither the Senate nor the House has passed any bills in the new Congress to provide alternatives to sequestration.

The summary is that Republicans have said that they are unwilling to discuss any of the Democratic proposals.  The only available “compromise” appears to be one where Democrats make 100% of the concessions.

How is this being portrayed in the press and across the pundit spectrum?

  1. Some pretend that Democrats haven’t proposed any alternatives.  That’s clearly not true.
  2. Some now admit that Democrats have proposed alternatives, but claim that those alternatives haven’t gone far enough toward some middle ground.  As a result both sides are to blame for the impasse.   The problem with this claim is that there is NO MIDDLE GROUND.  Republicans have said that the only solutions they are willing to accept are some form of their own proposals.
  3. A few now admit that Republicans are unwilling to compromise, but assert that it is the President’s responsibility to either force them to change their position or “lead” them to some other magic place where a deal came be made.

An example of this third philosophy is the most recent column from David Brooks.  This column was a “make good” for a previous column where he blamed everyone for the problem.  In this new column he admits that Republicans are unwilling to compromise and then lays out his wishful strategy for President Obama.

My dream Obama wouldn’t be just one gladiator in the zero-sum budget wars. He’d transform the sequester fight by changing the categories that undergird it. He’d possess the primary ingredient of political greatness: imagination. The great presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, see situations differently. They ask different questions. History pivots around their terms.

I share David Brooks desire to see a resolution, but ultimately this, like many wishes, is fantasy.

The only leverage that the President has in this situation is public opinion and he has been widely criticized by Republicans for his “campaigning” on this topic.

The Brooks’ position really begs the fundamental question because it assumes that there is some magic phrase or spell that will cause Republicans to look at this problem from a different perspective.  Greg Sargent of the Wash Post summarized it best.

What if there is nothing whatsoever that can be done by the president or anyone else to break the GOP out of its no-compromising stance?  This isn’t an unreasonable reading of the situation; it’s what Republicans themselves have confirmed, publicly and on the record — they will not concede a penny in new revenues, no matter what. And if this is the case — if the fundamental problem is that Republicans really do prefer the sequester to any compromise — isn’t it incumbent on commentators to explain this clearly and forthrightly to their readers?

The characterization of the President is that he is supposed to become the adult in this situation.  He is somehow supposed to discipline his problem children and make them behave.  As all parents know, however, sometimes the only way to teach responsibility is to make sure those who act badly are held fully accountable for the repercussions of their actions.  Their crashed car does not get fixed.  They are not able to re-join the team until their grades improve.  They have to repay the damage they have done out of their own pocket and will spend all their free time volunteering at the soup kitchen until the bill is repaid.

Those in the press who continue to cling to the presumption of balance in their attempts to represent both sides are to some degree CONTRIBUTING to the problem.  They have become accustomed to rational responsible Democrats jumping in at the last minute to resolve the latest crisis created by Republicans.  When they don’t see that opportunity developing in this crisis, they criticize the President for his failure to “exercise leadership” and in effect pay the “ransom”.

The Press had no problem labeling the recent Alabama survivalist kidnapper as crazy.  Why are they reluctant to use the same label for Republicans who are demanding the sequester take effect?

The sequester cuts are real.  People are going to lose their jobs.  Businesses, communities, and our economy will suffer NEEDLESSLY.  Anyone who helps deflect blame from Republicans — in the full knowledge that they are the primary obstacle to the compromise we need to prevent serious damage from being done to the country — is unwittingly helping to enable their intransigence.

We Don’t Negotiate With Zombies

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

We’ve spent some time examining the underlying historical and psychological reasons for Zombie Politics.

An additional bit of data came out today suggesting that liberal and conservative differences can be predicted by how our brains respond to risk. Fundamental physiological differences could determine political preferences. That further re-enforces wisdom of our founding fathers in setting up a government which requires compromise in order to function.

That still leaves the open question of what to do about the current problem where some conservative Republicans are so invested in their particular political views that they appear unable to compromise.

Fortunately, we live in a democracy where the majority of voters rejected the most recent Republican campaign based primarily on Zombie positions. Since politicians, just like the rest of us, share survival as a primary motivation; conservative politicians have already taken notice.

We’ve already seen John Boehner disciplining the worst Tea Party offenders in the House in an effort to regain control of that group.

Karl Rove has blamed the Zombie Politics of the Tea Party for the November Republican loss. He has pledged to run more moderate Republicans against Tea Party incumbents and protect moderate Republicans against primary attacks from the radical right.

The most recent example is Florida Governor Rick Scott reversing himself on the federally subsidized expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.

Scott built his political career on opposing Obamacare. His base of support has been the Tea Party.

He is clearly not the ideologue he has appeared to be. He made the calculation that he will gain more support from changing his position than he will lose. Florida Hospitals in particular were very concerned about how their costs would rise if Florida declined to participate in this expansion of Medicaid. So at the end of the day, Scott demonstrated that he wasn’t crazy after all. He was simply a politician taking advantage of whatever opportunities he could to stay in office. His erstwhile Tea Party backers are furious, but he has decided, just like Karl Rove, that it is time for him to move on.

Over the next several weeks we are going to see another sorting out of those who really are Zombies versus those who have simply been dressing up that way in order to avoid being eaten.

That’s because the Republicans are again poised to lose the battle over the sequester cuts. The Wash Post explains why very simply and it is reflected in this graph.

2013-02-19-Obama-and-Congress-approval

  1. Regular people have no idea what the sequester is right now and, even once it kicks in, aren’t likely to pay all that close of attention to it unless they are directly affected by it.
  2. Obama is popular with the American public
  3. Congress is not.

In fact, even cockroaches are more popular with the American public than Congress.

Pew Research confirms that almost half of the voters blame Republicans in Congress for the problem.

Given all of these facts, and the realities that even conservative politicians know all too well, why are Republicans still committed to what appears to be a suicide mission?

Zombie Politics

Republicans are still invested in the smaller government, low tax, cut spending philosophy that the American people rejected. They feel that they lost credibility in the tax hike compromise that was part of the fiscal cliff deal. If they cave now on sequester cuts, they fear that they will have lost whatever support they have left with their base. They are terrified of what Obama will do next if he wins this battle too. They also believe that they will be able to blame Obama for whatever economic damage the sequester cuts cause and perhaps ride that to a Senate majority in 2014.

The problem is that if they go through with their plan, it will not only backfire on them for the reasons listed above. It will re-enforce the majority view that conservative Republicans DO NOT have the best interests of the country at heart. It will further erode the whole conservative philosophy that government is bloated and wasteful. Instead, virtually every American will experience what life is like without the government services that we depend on and the underlying economic support that government spending provides. The most direct effect will be that unemployment jumps (it already has) as the economy continues to contract (it started in December). The stock market will tank. Air travel will slow. Major defense contracting states (mostly republican) will bear the brunt of the job losses. Meat and poultry prices will rise because of inspection shortages which will affect supply. Head Start classes would close. SBA loans would stop. Federal Research grants would stop. Grants supporting Mental Health treatment would stop. Courts will slow because of lack of investigators and attorneys. More first responders will lose their jobs. Tax return processing and refunds would slow.

Every American will discover that federal state and local governments do a lot of good things. They will discover that government is NOT bloated, inefficient, and wasteful. Government is not a collection of faceless uncaring bureaucrats. The government is us. It is our relatives, friends, and neighbors. They will discover that government is a vital part of everyday life and that the Republican vision of dramatically reducing the size of government is really a nightmare. And they will AGAIN punish Republicans in 2014 as they did in 2012 for intentionally damaging the economy for political purposes.

Crazy Train’s Texas Stop

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

We’ve gone through the challenges of Zombie Politics, those basic conservative Republican political positions that resist change regardless of fact.

We’ve also gone through some research that provides a foundation for why conservatives appear more at risk than liberals for twisting facts to support their political positions.

Finally, we’ve learned a little about this historical background that explains how the country became divided up into red and blue states.  It’s a difference that is as old as the bible between farmers and herders.

Texas though has always been its own unique kind of crazy.

At the heart of a recent dust storm is CSCOPE.  This is an electronic curriculum management system that offers Web-based lesson plans and exams designed to help teachers adhere to state education requirements. It is used in 875 school districts — more than 70 percent of districts statewide — and is supposed to be flexible enough for teachers to alter content to meet their individual needs.  It is created by teachers for teachers and currently stores 1600 lesson plans

Boston Tea Party Terrorists

One of the charges was that one lesson characterized the original members of the Boston Tea Party as terrorists.  What the lesson actually says is that the British would have seen the Tea Party as terrorism, while the colonists would have seen it as civil disobedience. But facts aren’t often part of these sorts of discussions.

Socialist Flags

Another is a lesson designed to encourage critical thinking around the subject of propaganda.  The lesson’s text says,

Notice socialist/communist nations use symbolism on their flags representing various aspects of their economic system. Imagine a new socialist nation is creating a flag and you have been put in charge of creating a flag. Use symbolism to represent aspects of socialism/communism on your flag. What kind of symbolism/colors would you use?

This requires some familiarity with socialist/communist philosophy and how symbols could be used to promote that philosophy.

Instead, State Senator Larry Taylor expressed concern that this particular lesson was PROMOTING socialism itself rather than just teaching about it.

Muslim Indoctrination

Of course you have to figure that paranoia in Texas would eventually lead the Tea Party to get involved.  They, of course, linked it all to plot to fill our children with Muslim propaganda by sneaking messages into the text books and lesson plans.

They were able to convince the state to launch a thorough investigation of the curriculum.  The investigation discovered that there was a bias in the teaching and study material.  Just didn’t happen to be toward Islam.  It was biased toward Christianity.

Uncritical Thinking

This should not come as any surprise in a state where the GOP platform in 2012 officially bans critical thinking as a tool to undermine parental authority.

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Summary

Since we are in desperate need of some facts at this point to ground this discussion in some form of reality, let’s see how Texas ranks on a national scale with regard to both education spending and outcomes.  Texas has one of the largest public school systems in the country and yet ranked 41st in spending per student.  Texas got a C+ in quality rating from Education Weekly’s Quality Counts report.  Maryland with a B+ was the highest ranked state.  The Annie E. Casey foundation ranks Texas 31st with Massachusetts as the state with the best primary and secondary educational system.  Texas ranks 43rd in high school graduation rates.  It ranks 35th in elementary school standardized testing.  On SAT scores it ranked 45th in part due to low scores in Critical Reading and Writing.

As always, there are consequences to choices and the most vulnerable usually bear the brunt of those consequences.

 

Gridlock

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

Recap

Conservatives and Liberals look at the world differently.  Because of the conservative need for alignment between their beliefs and the world around them (cognitive closure), they are much more likely to hold beliefs that are out of sync with the facts.  That is at first a counter intuitive claim.  But the reality is that when conservatives encounter facts that call their beliefs into question, they will deny or warp the facts rather than re-examine the beliefs.   That’s called Moral Intuitionism.

The result in the current political scene is a series of political positions that have no basis in fact, but continue to drive the conservative movement.

We’ve looked at a few.

The claim, starting with Ronald Reagan, that the government is the problem.  That caused conservative Republicans, among other things, to oppose Hurricane Sandy relief.  It also was behind the debt ceiling debate and the claim that government doesn’t create jobs.

Government is not the problem, because in a democracy we the voters choose the government, and surveys have shown that voters generally like the government services that they receive.  What conservatives are really saying when they say government is the problem is that liberal government policies are the problem – and that is certainly something the liberals are going to dispute.

The claim, starting again with Ronald Reagan, that lower tax rates will increase tax revenues.  That was refined some under GWB, that lower tax rates on the rich will stimulate the economy.  We’ve already seen that this is not an effective standalone economic strategy.

Some others that are well known include opposition to climate change, insistence that creationism is a science, and opposition to abortion, immigration, and gay rights.

Roots of Gridlock

Another aspect of how this behavior influences politics that we haven’t looked at is regional distribution of liberals and conservatives.  Where did that come from?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that at least one historian, David Hackett Fisher, traces it back to colonial times.

The north was settled mainly by English farmers, the south by Scots-Irish herders.  They each brought their centuries of mutual distrust with them.  Herders have an honor culture which is important to being able to be a successful nomad.  Their wealth can literally walk away, so they have to respond quickly and forcefully to any real or perceived threat.  When those threats have been identified, they depend on eye-for-eye retaliation to protect themselves.  Farmers, on the other hand, are more secure because it is much more difficult to steal land.  They develop a culture of interdependence, government, and the rule of law.

The farmers in the northeast had come from a Europe where monarchs imposed civilization on their subjects.  The subjects eventually overthrew the monarchs and demanded self-determination, but retained the concept that a strong democratically elected central government was the best way to prevent the country from falling back into anarchy.

The herder culture followed settlers west.  Initially it was a male dominated anarchy with few laws and many honor killings.  As women moved west to help their husbands work the farms and ranches that they had created; churches, laws, and government followed.  But the west didn’t go through the monarch phase where a strong central government essentially disarmed the populace and imposed the rule of law by force.  Instead women imposed the rule of law by compromise and allowed men to continue support the honor culture.

The political distributions we see today are a direct result of these two cultures mixing.  That mix now, however, goes all the way down to neighborhood.  Conservatives prefer to live in neighborhoods and towns with conservatives.  Liberals prefer to live in neighborhoods and towns with liberals.  Toss in a dose of gerrymandering and you have congressional districts where extremism is rewarded and compromise punished.

In North Carolina, congressional districts are either so red or blue that they trend well above the national average in that regard, said David Wasserman, House of Representatives editor at the Cook Political Report.

There are “diametrically opposed viewpoints just across the highway median from each other,” Wasserman said. As a result, in votes like the fiscal cliff showdown, members of Congress “are simply responding to what their districts want.”

“The dirty little secret is that redistricting only explains part of polarization,” Wasserman said. “Congressional districts are polarized partly because Americans have polarized with their feet. It makes it easier for partisan line drawers to draw those lines.”

The result is what we see playing out in Congress today.

Gridlock.

The 112th House was roughly 50% more polarized in terms of makeup than that of the 102nd, which convened from 1991 to 1993.

The 112th’s Senate was more polarized than the 46th Senate, which was in office from 1879-1881, just after the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War.

Summary

Liberals and Conservatives do not effectively communicate with each other.  That’s because these are emotional discussions about beliefs for Conservatives rather than discussions about fact which is the liberal preference.

The country reflects these differences geographically because of our history.

The current government reflects this differences because of how our representative government is structured.

So is this the doom of democracy or is there a way forward from gridlock to a functioning government?

We’ll take that up in another post.

Moral Intuitionism

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This is a psychology theory that has been promoted by John Haidt from the University of Virginia.  What it says is that, at least for some of us, our opinions are more heavily influenced by our emotions than our reason.  What it means is that when confronted by facts that may call one of our core beliefs into question, our immediate reaction is to question the fact rather than question the belief.

A new study by some UC Irvine psychologists measured how this particular behavior manifested itself across the political spectrum.

They did this by selecting four politically divisive issues.  The first two, the death penalty and waterboarding, are generally regarded by liberals as morally unacceptable regardless of the potential benefit to society.  The other two, sex education (specifically how to use condoms) and embryonic stem cell research elicit the same response from conservatives.

1500 randomly selected subjects were asked first about their moral beliefs regarding these issues.  For example, is the death penalty morally wrong even if it can be proved that it reduces crime? Or, is stem cell research morally wrong even if it can cure diseases like Parkinson’s?  Then they were asked factual questions like does capital punish reduce crime, or do condoms prevent pregnancy and the spread of disease.

What the researchers found is that everyone tended to discount the social benefits of the practices they found morally objectionable.   Some, however, were much more susceptible to this behavior than others.  There were three risk factors which determined the DEGREE to which individuals were willing to contort the facts to fit their beliefs.

The first risk factor is the strength of your sense of morality about the subject.  The second is how much you know about the subject.  In this case the MORE you know, the more you are likely to distort the facts.  The third is how politically conservative you are.

Yup, that’s right.

Conservatives tilted their views of the facts to favor their moral convictions more than liberals did on every single issue.   Even those issues that were hot buttons for LIBERALS were still shaded more strongly by conservatives than liberals.

Why?

For that answer and we get another phrase – cognitive closure.  That is the need for certainty in your life and the degree to which uncertainty causes discomfort.  The UC Irvine researchers discovered the conservatives scored much higher in the scale for the need for cognitive closure than liberals.  Rather than accept that the world is often ambiguous, conservatives are most comfortable with the concept that their moral systems and the facts about the world are in perfect alignment.  Liberals, on the other hand are much more willing to accept ambiguity both in their beliefs and the data.  They may, for example, still hold tight to the belief that stem cell research is morally acceptable, but are also willing to admit that facts don’t yet confirm that stem cell treatment consistently delivers improved clinical outcomes.

The net result is something called ideological asymmetry.  This is the idea that one side of the political spectrum, more than the other, shows a form of biased or motivated assessment of facts.  There is a lot of debate about this, but the results of this most recent study suggest strongly that ideological asymmetry DOES exist.

This whole area of study raises an interesting question.

If it’s true, those conservatives reading this article are likely to discount it because it challenges their core beliefs.  Liberals on the other hand are going to just nod their head and agree that this explains a lot of their personal interactions with conservatives.

In the next post, let’s examine how that affects some of the issues we are currently debating.