Posts Tagged ‘liberals’

Hyperbrief summary: Conservatives are disingenuous about their views on government intervention and liberals fall for it.

Recommended?: Yep, especially as it’s available free.

Dean Baker is an impressively credentialled American economist. He’s written a bunch of books, many of which are downloadable for free from his website. The subtitle of this one represents what seems a common theme in his work: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Its basic idea is something that’s been seeming increasingly obvious to me for a while now, as I grow incrementally less dumb and ignorant about politics and economics.

According to the popular narrative, left-wing liberals believe that there are things we can’t get done as a society without relying on government to do them for us, whereas right-wing conservatives support independence, personal autonomy, and minimising government interference in lives of citizens. The public debate is commonly framed in these terms, and both sides tend to argue as if from this premise.

In fact, this is an entirely inaccurate basis for discussion, and liberals regularly leave themselves at a massive disadvantage by capitulating to this idea, allowing conservatives to claim a monopoly on fundamental American concepts like freedom and independence. Conservatives want and demand state intervention in the “free market” as much as anyone, generally to further entrench and concentrate the money and power of the rich and powerful.

One of the book’s main strengths is the consistent recognition that the way things are right now is not the only way they could possibly be. In numerous areas of life, there are clearly major drawbacks to our current way of doing things, and it’s our responsibility to be open to the possibility of substantial change. (I mean, he could do with turning that healthy revolutionary attitude up a notch on subjects like taxes, but in general it’s pretty good, and a lot better than most mainstream conversation.) The intended purpose and substantial downsides to our current systems are examined rigorously, and it’s sensibly analytical about the positives and pitfalls of alternative approaches.

It’s efficient in its writing, more than being particularly charming or witty, or otherwise infused with the author’s personality. Which isn’t really meant as a criticism, just something I noticed in comparison with most other books I’ve encountered that attempt to do a similar job. If you aren’t expecting too much of a casual chat, but want to see someone making their point articulately and concisely, it’s a good read.

One drawback for me was the way the word “state” is almost never used throughout the book without the word “nanny” preceding it. I get that this phrase is what summarises the thesis behind each individual argument, and he’s essentially right about all of it, but referring quite so often to “nanny state conservatives” as the people supporting the policies he argues against starts to feel like unnecessary name-calling – especially when “nanny state” becomes an inappropriate metaphor for what he’s describing.

I’ve never liked it that much anyway, as a term for an over-meddling government. Nannies are people we hire to come into our homes and provide a vital service looking after our children. They might have a stereotypical image as overbearing and overprotective, but that’s not inherent to the job, and they only exist because the tiny humans they’re looking after would be in serious danger of harm or death if a nanny wasn’t around to keep them safe. I guess the idea is that children are genuinely helpless, and need someone to take basically full responsibility for their lives, which is what some people act as if they want the government to do for all of us, but it still feels a bit weak as an epithet, especially when so overused.

Most of the time it’s not so bad, because the over-bearing intervention of the state is the correctly identified problem. But there are times when it talks about the wrong sort of intervention, or even when the government refuses to meddle in ways the book thinks it should – to let rich people get away with things in ways the less privileged wouldn’t be allowed to, say – at which point the overbearing nanny allegory entirely fails.

It’s not like his criticisms of government policy are suddenly any less valid or acutely observed at these points, but the patriarchal actions of a “nanny state” aren’t a good descriptor for the problem.

I was especially interested in the section on Social Security in the US, and how it compares to other systems. According to the figures cited, the administration costs of running Social Security are around 0.5% of the tax revenue that pays for it, compared to a figure of 15-20% of revenue going toward admin costs in privatised social security systems, such as in the UK.

Embarrassingly, given that I’ve worked in the field for several years, I had to google the name of the paper in the citation to figure out that the UK’s “privatised social security system” refers to pensions, in particular the system by which insurance companies sell annuities. (My mind only went to the socialised free-at-point-of-use NHS, which was more of a given when this book was published in 2006.)

But he’s obviously right that all the costs associated with being an annuity provider, such as executive pay and advertising and whatnot, are hugely inefficient. It’d never occurred to me to make the direct comparison to the US’s government system of Social Security; I’m going to need to read up on this in order to better understand the distinctions.

The Conservative Nanny State is a free e-book available on the author’s website. If you have any kind of political investment or personal leanings as regards liberalism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any of the ways humanity attempts to get its shit together, you’ve got no excuse not to read this and learn some more about how the system you think you understand actually works.

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Maybe, if I keep blogging about politics, I’ll eventually learn something about politics.

I don’t think Obama’s a bad person, whatever that even means. I don’t doubt that he wants to do good and believes that he can.

But in a way, that’s even more distressing. The current system imposing itself on America is such that someone with sincere intentions can end up with the kind of track record he has.

I supported Obama’s Presidential campaign, breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he won, and continue to find Republicans utterly repugnant by default. But I’m finding it harder to identify as being part of the Democrats’ “team”, even though they’re ostensibly on the side of reason and good these days.

Sometimes, I look at a funny and well-delivered speech given by the President, and wonder if we wouldn’t all have found such light-hearted self-deprecation to be frustratingly lackadaisical if it had come from Bush.

And sometimes, the standard liberal position needs a reality check.

[O]ne can still be a “liberal or a progressive with a broad sense of the common good” if you support a guy who blows up little children with cluster bombs, as Barack Obama has in Yemen. You can still be a liberal or progressive in good standing if you support a man who has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians with flying death robots. And you can still be a liberal if you back a guy who has shown not the slighest inclination to reform, much less do away with, a war on drugs that has led to 2.3 million Americans being placed in cages, the vast majority minorities.

That the president has doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan, ordered more drone strikes in Pakistan than his predecessor did in eight years, and launched another war in Libya without so much as getting a rubber stamp from Congress is of no concern to the good party-line liberal. The president, after all, is a Democrat.

And if you think someone like Ron Paul is just an extreme nutcase outsider, consider it in context.

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Heroic supremo of satire Jon Stewart is holding a “Rally To Restore Sanity” in Washington, D.C. at the end of the month.

The intent is to provide a counterpoint to the frenetic, zealous, ideological, deranged tone that seems to have taken hold of Stateside politics in recent months. “Take it down a notch for America,” is the cry going out to everyone who wants the best for their country but can’t seem to stop screaming incoherently about it.

Predictably, there have been some objections to this idea, mostly from the right-wing, anti-sanity lobby. But there are some more reasonable-sounding people taking issue with the rally.

Mark Engler has some interesting points, but in the end I’m not sure he’s being entirely fair.

The idea of “both sides equally going overboard” in current US politics might be something of a straw man, but it’s not one I’ve ever seen Jon Stewart attempting to erect. The impression I’ve tended to gather from his show is that the right wing are the ones most disconnected from reality by far, and that while the left are certainly capable of the same kind of delusional retreat into their own parallel world, it doesn’t seem to happen to them on the same scale. Most of the ridicule they’ve received has been centred on their dismal failure to take advantage of the right’s dissolving grip on its logical faculties, or to take charge and push forward with any sort of coherent plan.

So I don’t see his point as being that anyone who’s not politically central needs to rein it in, whatever their views, for exactly the same reasons as everyone else on either side. That really would be crazy. The skeptical movement knows full well the ridiculousness of always insisting on a middle road between any extreme views (cf. “Teach the controversy” in science classrooms, and also this from SMBC Theater). And it’s not like The Daily Show’s never taken a strong stance and made it very clear that one side is simply correct on some matter.

(It’s implied in a quote from another article that right-wingers who claim Obama is a Kenyan socialist and lefties who want George W Bush tried as a war criminal are equivalently nutty ends of the spectrum, according to Jon Stewart’s apparent political perception. If this is a fair representation, then I’m not entirely with Jon on this, and I can see how this seems as if he’s over-keen to be taking the politically safe middle road.)

Jon’s point doesn’t seem to me to be that all political views should be centrist – moderated from any politically right or left opinion so as to be always inoffensively middle-of-the-road. He seems to be focusing more on the tone of the debate. One of the example placards he held up when announcing the rally read something like: “I disagree with what you say, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler”. Which is the sort of thing it would be nice to hear sometimes, as a counterpoint to… well, you can find some recent examples of Godwin’s Law in action yourself.

And I’m still on board with this sense of “moderation”. I’ve met people who I disagreed with strongly but who I could have a pleasant chat about it with; I’ve met people I’ve shared almost every important opinion with but who somehow manage to seem like dicks. And as much as I’m hesitant to encourage people who disagree with me in their ongoing wrongness, I think the former kind of relationship deserves to be nurtured more than the latter.

The article cites Bill Kristol, who’s been on The Daily Show a few times, and confirms my half-remembered assessment of him: charming, polite, reasonable in tone, and dangerously wrong about how the country should be run on almost every level.

Obviously this isn’t ideal, but I don’t agree that the tone is irrelevant to the quality of the discussion, when considered against the effect of the ideas being expressed.

Actually, that’s not quite right. What I think this article misses is that the tone, volume, and demeanour themselves express ideas, which can be conducive to dialogue or dangerously oppressive.

When Bill Kristol politely and composedly says what he thinks, it might promote some pretty dreadful ideas. But it doesn’t tacitly promote the idea that anyone who disagrees with him must be some kind of communist nazi antipatriot.

The Tea Party’s tone, however, seems to carry exactly that sort of implication for anyone who dares to question whatever future proclamations issue from this self-selected band of “Real Americans”. And that is a dangerous idea.

It makes it difficult, once people have been drawn into the movement by the pervasive sense of tribalism, for them to hear any criticism, consider their own position rationally, or escape from the manic path on which they find themselves, regardless of where it ends up taking them. That’s something I feel I can support taking a moderate stand against.

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This is my 500th post on this blog.

It shouldn’t have taken more than 900 days to get this far, ideally, but we’re here now, and I think I’ve been getting the hang of it lately.

So, to celebrate, let’s have some comedy.

If you’re not familiar with Conservapedia, it is fucking hilarious. But today’s specific entertainment is the page on counterexamples to relativity. (Thanks to Brian Cox for bringing this to the attention of Twitter recently.)

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world. Here is a list of 30 counterexamples: any one of them shows that the theory is incorrect.

Yep, it turns out you don’t have to have a scientific background or spend years studying physics to be able to disprove Einstein. You just have to be sufficiently right-wing. That’s all it takes to be a genius!

Look, scientists don’t claim that relativity is perfect and complete and explains everything in the Universe flawlessly. Reconciling general relativity with quantum theory is one of the big unsettled problems of physics today. But in the arena to which they apply, the general and special theories of relativity are the best we’ve got. When there are discrepancies between nature and relativity, they tend to be smaller than the discrepancies between nature and any other theory. That’s why we bother with them at all.

It’s unclear what the Conservatards think would act as a superior alternative to relativity. Neither classical mechanics nor quantum mechanics is violently decried as an elitist liberal conspiracy, so clearly they’re not disapproved of very strongly. (Though, if you’ve passed high school physics, their thoughts on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle should give you a giggle.)

Some of my favourite bits:

– #5 is a question. It’s not even making a statement. Is it meant to be rhetorical?

– #7 seems to assume the Big Bang model of the universe, which is very much not Conservapedia’s usual style.

– #9 is a Bible quote. To disprove relativity. Which has literally nothing to do with anything.

– #11 completely ignores the theory’s consistency with any evidence, and just says that it’s wrong because it hasn’t led to any further “insights”. This is like insisting that, if you beat your friend in a game of basketball, you must be taller than him, and ignoring whatever happens when someone gets out a tape measure.

– #18 is even funnier: relativity led to the atomic bomb, which is bad because it kills people, therefore the theory is false. Seriously. Icing sugar has carbs and will make you fat; therefore the cake is a lie.

– #28 brings up the first chapter of Genesis, which is more like it (though destroys the usefulness of #7 as a counterexample). It also randomly decides that the firmament described in the Bible “likely refers to the creation of the luminiferous aether”. What the fuck an outdated theory essentially disproven by the end of the 19th century has to do with anything, or how it disproves relativity, I have no idea.

– Whoever compiled this list basically has no idea what any physics means. Even I can explain why #16, #20, #25, #27, #29, and #30 are just factually incorrect. And the Twin Paradox one wasn’t hard to look up. That stuff’s been experimentally verified too, for what it’s worth.

Oh dear, I was supposed to just present this without comment for your amusement, but I seem to have ended up rather rambling on. Terribly sorry.

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