Crazy Pills

News Analysis and Truth in Media by A Milder Despot
June 11, 2010, 3:31 pm
Filed under: A Milder Despot

The media business is undergoing a massive recalculation. So-called “gold standard” newspapers and magazines are closing as the internet completely removes any value they have on immediacy. As this happens, some cheer, some boo, some shrug.

Think Progress’ Matt Yglesias sees an opportunity for old-school news outlets to evolve and provide something that readers may want: analysis and fact-checking in ‘straight news’ stories in addition to reportage.

This is fine and good, and he holds up Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo as an example that the MSM could learn from. Beutler covers news from an explicitly progressive perspective, injecting his own analysis into something as mundane as a John Boehner presser.

The fight over the stimulus, he said, “was all about more government spending, not more about allowing American families and small businesses to keep more of what they earn, because when it’s all said and done they’re the ones who are gonna have to get the economy going again,” Boehner said, ignoring that about one-third of the stimulus bill’s cost came from tax cuts.

Watch as I re-write that last sentence with my own “news analysis.”

“…to get the economy going again,” Boehner said, without mentioning the obvious fact that there was no “fight” over the broad legislative consensus over the need for tax cuts.

Or, later in the piece, this:

[Boehner] “And if you look at the revenue growth over those 30 years, you’ve got a prime example of what we’ve been talking about.”

This is practically the reverse of the truth. In the years after the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, economic growth and employment were significantly lower than they were after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increases. According to Michael Ettlinger and John Irons of the Center for American Progress, “Over the seven-year periods after each legislative action, average annual growth was 3.9 percent following [Clinton’s 1993 tax increase], 3.5 percent following [Reagan’s 1981 tax cut], and 2.5 percent following [Bush’s 2001 tax cut].”

Not added in the piece, another hypothetical reporter’s “news analysis”,

Of course, this is a silly comparison due to the massive discrepancy in magnitude of tax cuts, types of tax cuts, wisdom of certain provisions, while not actually accounting for economic activities that have a relationship to tax cuts.

It’s nice to see some on the Left rejecting old-media standards and accepting the place of journalism that does not pretend to be gold standard while injecting news analysis. However, I suspect that this is confined, on the part of Yglesias and Beutler, strictly to those outlets that inject analysis from a progressive point of view.

Because as I’ve just shown, analysis can take many forms. Yglesias would no doubt say that my injection of my opinion into Beutler’s piece above is misleading, untruthful and disingenuous. So in the end, they are still searching for a new kind of “gold standard” journalism in which there is an objective truth to every news story. And in this new standard, that objective truth will always conform to a liberal narrative. Places like Fox, Breitbart and (dare I say!) Townhall have no place in this imagined new world.

Crossposted at


Peter King: Scholar, Legislator, True American Hero by S. Goodspeed
May 14, 2010, 9:14 am
Filed under: S. Goodspeed

I’m glad we have such wise lawmakers to cut through the noise and connect complex issues in such simple, clear, and concrete terms.

Rep Peter King (R-NY), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, educated the public (well at least the public that watches Fox News) on Attorney General Eric Holder’s true reasoning behind his support of trying terror suspects in criminal courts. King:

House Homeland Security Committee ranking Republican Pete King (N.Y.) said that Holder’s refusal to say that radical Islam motivated the alleged attacker, Faisal Shahzad, makes him an incapable attorney general.

“An attorney general who eight and a half years after Sept. 11 does not realize our enemy is radical Islam is either so politically correct or so out of touch that he doesn’t deserve to be attorney general,” King said on Fox News. “I mean, this is why he wants to have the terror trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Lower Manhattan — he just doesn’t get it.”

Nevermind the highly disputable legal and policy questions undergirding the debate on capturing, detaining, and trying terror suspects going on in legal circles and in the think tank world. Indeed, simplistic partisan attacks are more fun than reviewing questions on evidence, fact, nuanced bipartisan debate, academic studies, and general rational, reasoned debate.

I’m Gonna Let You Finish But… by A Milder Despot
September 22, 2009, 3:03 pm
Filed under: A Milder Despot | Tags:

…Beyonce’s overall thesis was the best thesis of all time.

First, a backgrounder. Let’s remember my post on “reform” vs. “restoration” conservatives.

It’s telling that not a few leading reformers are ex-Bush Administration officials. Bush took huge chances in a lot of ways to distance himself from the old coalitions and ended up villified for the majority of them. It is pretty definitive that Bush was more reform than restoration.

I’m not here to defend the people who are currently termed, correctly or not, as “leaders” of conservatism or the GOP. Michael Steele is silly. Glenn Beck is a shock jock. Ann Coulter is ridiculous. Rush Limbaugh’s in it for the money. John Boehner’s in it to keep the party line, whatever that may be nowadays.

What I am curious about is what S. Goodspeed’s idea of the “public intellectual” is. Was the GOP and conservatism that much better off five years ago when Irving Kristol, Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman were all still alive? These intellectual giants were feeble old men at the time with little value to add. Yet George W. Bush had just been swept into office for a second time and there was much hand-wringing in the media about the prospects of a “permanent GOP majority.”

Before I continue, let me say that this is decisively a problem of spotlight, not ideas. There is no paucity of smart conservatism. There is, however, an unfortunate lack of attention given to those that ARE the serious intellectual pundits.

I can’t now name a “public intellectual leader” of the Republican party off the top of my head right now. But I couldn’t then, either. Sure, we had the three aforementioned old men, but I’d consider them elder statesmen, not prominent driving forces of debate.

Furthermore, I can’t, off the top of my head, name who the “public intellectual leaders” of the Democratic party are. Saying that Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck et. al represent whatever one considers to be the “public leadership” of the conservative movement is no better than saying that Maureen Dowd, Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher constitute some kind of leading lights of the Left. Going on pure popularity/viewership/readership this is most assuredly true. But I wouldn’t be so foolish as to claim these people should be rebutted or taken seriously by smart people such as us. These talking heads on both the left and the right hold sway, power, and influence but should not be taken seriously.

I do agree that there isn’t enough of a public intellectual core of the conservative movement and that far more press is given to, as you call them, rabble-rousers. Much as I hate it, the primary representatives of conservatism are exactly who you pointed out in the mainstream media: neocons and ‘reformers.’

I hate neocons. I do, however, recognize that they are (mostly) serious about intellectualism. When I think “big time serious pundit” I think first and foremost George Will, who is the last great defender of traditional three-legged-stool conservatism (kinda… he’s more a two-leg guy, which is another point FOR him). Then Charles Krauthammer. Then all the ex-Bush administration guys (Brooks, Frum, Gerson). I also agree, mostly, on your “established/traditional” pundit list.

The “partisan conservative punditry” is where I think the future of a public intellectual base for the GOP lies (though would exclude Barone. Great electioneer, lousy pundit). Goldberg, as I’ve made known, I think is very smart, has a young voice, and is sufficiently able to articulate a vision of mainstream conservatism without descending into anti-intellectualism.

Your “up and coming” conservatives is wrong… at least with who you think represents this. Douthat is young but I would describe him as “the smartest Mike Huckabee Republican.” He is about the social issues.

If I had to choose the “up and coming” conservatives who I feel should be given more press and voice, I’d say Megan McArdle, Jonathan Adler, Veronique de Rugy, Will Wilkinson… people of this stripe represent the “intellectual pundit” part of the conservative movement. They’re all libertarian(ish) but, of course, that’s what I feel is the bread-and-butter of conservatism.

Much Ado About Nothing? by A Milder Despot
July 30, 2009, 4:19 pm
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A great deal of social science is devoted to measuring inequality and its discontents. Much of this is dishonestly distilled into platitudes about “the rich getting richer” and the way in which inequality inherently speaks to a societal injustice. These by-products of legitimate social science need to stop if we’re to have a serious discussion about inequality.

It is well-established that there has been a widening gap in income inequality over the past few decades. But Will Wilkinson makes a new intriguing case that this is overly pessimistic and represents an outdated and oversimplified way of thinking about inequality.

His recent Cato Policy Paper makes the case that if we want to seriously redress inequality in society we have to think of it in its actual terms. A compelling case is made that income inequality is severely lacking in presenting a picture of inequality in society at large. Consumption needs to be given more weight. This may present a clearer and more optimistic picture of inequality in society.

Though I’m not sure that Wilkinson is able to fully refute the popularized theory that real inequality is widening, he helps illuminate some of the rethinking that is occurring in inequality studies.

The definition of inequality must first be clearly defined Starting from the assumption that the rich are getting richer in real terms, we have to think in terms of, relatively, what is happening to the greater populace of “the poor.”

How are the poor doing in terms of overall material well-being (welfare)? Are the same elements of our political economy that cause widening disparities in or welfare the same elements that more rapidly help the poor improve their welfare?

If the poor, in absolute terms of welfare, are gaining at an unprecedented rate, do we think that there must be something inherently unjust about the system if the rich are gaining even faster? This raises further questions about inequality. In a discussion where the majority of debate is focused on the disparity between the rich and poor, the rate of welfare increase that the poorest segments of society are experiencing is too often neglected.

This makes us think about the laboratory of the mind. The rate at which the poor are improving their welfare must be considered along with the disparity between the poorest and richest, the rate of improvement of the richest, and the improvement of the vast middle ground. A society can be imagined in which the poorest improve at an astonishing rate, with rapidly dropping rates of how we traditionally measure poverty (starvation, nutrition, disease rates, and others), yet the richest are gaining faster. This may not necessarily be unjust. And it may be preferable to a society in which the welfare gap is narrowing but the rate at which society both rich and poor is advancing is stunted. It may not be possible for all these theoretical societies to exist but one must take into account what is possible, what is preferable, and what society should work toward.

As Wilkinson notes, financial and technological innovation are making so-called “luxury items” a thing of the past. While certain goods will always have a luxury component to them (owning a yacht), “luxury goods” are now considered certain kinds of widely-available goods. Wilkinson argues that the functional difference between someone owning, say, a Jaguar XJ8 and a Hyundai Elantra is not as great as the difference between owning an Elantra and not owning a car at all. “Luxury goods” have become less functional additions to someone’s life as an unnecessary piece of style over substance.

This is not to pretend to be an apology for the wealthy or a cold unsympathetic analysis of what it means to be poor in America. Inequality exists to the point of being a problem. It’s simply more difficult to think about than the common “income inequality” indicator.

Additionally, thinking about inequality in more sophisticated ways will hopefully dissuade harmful policy. It’s a false choice that we can only “remedy” inequality by simply taking away the income of the wealthy or that we can’t remedy it at all. But the most commonly-bought policies amount to little more than this.

To think about inequality in this way is to think about how welfare is distributed throughout society. There may not be something inherently unjust about a system in which the median welfare is low compared with the average welfare, implying a class of super-rich skewing overall average indicators upward while allowing the majority to be bunched together in an underclass. It may not be preferable to have welfare distribution exist as an extreme bell curve wherein every member of society is very equal in welfare (think low Gini coefficients). What matters is where, on an absolute level, the median welfare line is.

Inequality is a problem in the United States not because there is a great disparity of incomes (or due to most of the pop culture theories about inequality). Wilkinson makes a convincing case that inequality in the United States is a far different problem than has been conceptualized. The easy criticism to make is that Wilkinson doesn’t offer constructive solutions.

The Necessity of Being Anal by A Milder Despot
May 30, 2009, 4:14 pm
Filed under: A Milder Despot | Tags:

Before I launch into this, I’d like to emphasize (if I don’t do it enough below): we don’t know enough about Sotomayor to make a firm yes/no judgment yet. But considering the incredible importance and weight when deciding on one of those people gets to be a part of the club of nine unelected justices who meet in secret, serve for their entire lives, and have the power to overrule the duly elected representatives of a nation of over three hundred million people, nitpicking is necessary.

In a perfect world, I would side with Will Wilkinson on saying that I would prefer libertarian judicial activism. (Well actually not, in a 100% perfect world that incorporated technology that doesn’t exist yet I would have computers programmed with the perfect judicial philosophy decide 95% of cases, and when they exploded [this happens often] on the 5% of “hard cases” it could go to a human-based Supreme Court. But I digress).

But we don’t live in a perfect world, robots or not. So a more realistic judicial philosophy obviously has to take into account all these things like empathy and personal experience and all that jazz. However, the judicial philosophy has to take these things into account, not be defined by them. From Obama’s statements and choices on what to emphasize in Sotomayor, I’m unconvinced either way that she’s a great or terrible choice. We need to know more about her actual judicial philosophy. The only thing that I’m worried about so far is the ridiculous amount of emphasis on “empathy,” rather than articulating the needed emphasis on her track record.

So we need a basis of what “qualified” means in order to take an initial judgment of Sotomayor. She’s “qualified” by her long history of serving on the district and appellate courts. I’m not convinced by the Right’s attacks on her intelligence, but I’d prefer her to have more of a record of accomplishment and distinction than simply “time served.”

Yes, we all know the Ricci case was terrible (and likely more embarrassing once the S.C. reverses it). What is puzzling and troubling was the appellate panel not issuing a full opinion on something that obviously needs a lot of explanation. They issued a per curiam one-paragraph opinion that obviously was unable to delve into the incredibly complex legal reasoning one needs in this lightning-rod of a case.

There is the less-publicized, but just as troubling, Maloney v. Cuomo case involving the Second Amendment. Again, Sotomayor’s appellate court issued a per curiam opinion that ignored the rich legal history of 14th amendment incorporation into the states and, with this, basically ignored that the Second Amendment exists.

Now I’m no fan of Due Process incorporation and never have been, but even I recognize precedent. Do justices now get to pick and choose which parts of the Bill of Rights gets to apply to the states and which don’t?

And this leads me to my biggest concern about Sotomayor: that she might not have a consistent judicial philosophy. In a TNR piece advocating for her, a law professor says “President Obama repeatedly has said that he wants a justice who will show empathy. This means a justice who will look at law as it affects people’s lives and not just as an abstract set of rules. Sotomayor is likely to be this justice.”

This, to me, is not a good thing and is exactly what angry conservatives talk about when justices “make law” (perhaps Sotomayor would prefer “make policy”?). someone who selectively adopts or rejects laws based on “how it affects someone’s life” has close to zero deference to legislature. When a law is imperfect and has loopholes, it should be the legislature’s job to fix it, not an unelected Court’s.

I know I shouldn’t be hoping for a textualist like Scalia in an Obama SC pick, and I even know that hey, Obama won and he gets to pick and choose. But what’s most important to me, Right or Left, is picking a justice with a consistent and understandable judicial philosophy. Yes, no one can have an all-encompassing judicial philosophy and there will always be a subjectivity. But the mark of a good justice is trying to define down that subjectivity to the smallest possible margin, not completely throwing up their hands in abandon at the hopelessness of crafting a completely perfect philosophy and decide that, hey, everything can be subjective.

Half-assed Empire by S. Goodspeed
May 22, 2009, 10:13 am
Filed under: S. Goodspeed

Good stuff from –Stephen Walt questions  America’s position as ‘world leader’ when its people and elected officials react so incredulously at actively supporting (or, heaven forbid, sacrifice for) the country’s expansive foreign affairs commitments. This harkens back to the oft-stated observation that America truly is a schizophrenic, self-conscious empire with a populace often fearful of and skeptical of taking on major worldwide commitments. Goes back to the fundamental American foreign policy question: How does our colonial-rejectionist foundation coupled with our local, small government roots reconcile with our 200 year imperial history (even if it can be argued America is a different, more benevolent empire)?

Is there anything more absurd than the U.S. Congress’s decision to deny funds to close Guantanamo, on the grounds that this might result in detainees being held on American soil? Excuse me, but isn’t this taking the “not-in-my-backyard” principle to absurd lengths? We’re not talking about letting a suspected terrorist walk around free in your hometown while he awaits trial; we talking about putting them in jail while they are tried (and by a military tribunal). If convicted, they’d end up in prison (along with over 200,000 other federal prisoners already incarcerated and the more than 3,000 convicted murderers now on death row). If acquitted, they could still be deported.

This episode betrays a certain schizophrenia about America’s role as a world power. On the one hand, the foreign policy elite continually tells Americans that the United States is the “leader of the free world,” and that they have a long list of global responsibilities. As a result, the United States spends a lot of money on its national security apparatus, tells lots of countries how to run their own affairs, maintain an extensive array of military bases, and send its armed forces into harm’s way in various faraway lands. Indeed, William Pfaff is not far off in saying that the United States has become “addicted to war.”

But on the other hand, U.S politicians somehow believe that all this overseas activity shouldn’t have any impact here at home, apart from making us stand in long security lines at the airport. So President Bush didn’t raise taxes to pay for the war on terror or the war in Iraq, and now Congress doesn’t think the American people would tolerate having a couple of hundred suspected terrorists in prison somewhere in the United States.

Frankly, if Americans are that skittish and self-absorbed, the country has no business exercising any sort of “global leadership” and the various Congresspersons who voted to deny the funds should immediately demand the abrogation of all existing alliances, the termination of all military activities overseas, and a return to a strict policy of isolationism. I don’t think that’s a good idea, by the way, but at least our Congressional representatives would be being consistent.

I’ll take the high road by fluffly
April 29, 2009, 11:28 am
Filed under: fluffly | Tags:

I don’t know how I feel about Richard Cohen’s piece on torture yesterday.  He comes out and condemns it as abhorrent and I particularly like his part at the end that “before you can torture anyone, you must first torture the law”, but he says that the moral high ground argument isn’t a good one for rejecting torture.  He says that our being a morally superior country wouldn’t make us safer, but I disagree.

The image of America as a beacon or a city on the hill or whatever has, in my opinion, been incredibly important to our national psyche and globally.  Its part of the reason we get so many great immigrants looking for a better life, and its why other countries are happy turning to us as a friend and for support.  Sure, we’re an economic powerhouse and the largest military, but I like to think that our friendships globally depend on more than that.  If it were just the first two, we’d be a bully, garnering allies and security through sheer force or necessity.  But that’s not how I read it.

In Cohen’s words,

…it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called “our moral compass.”

For many, I’m sure thats true.  For those willing to kill themselves or murder civilians, their minds are clearly made up.  But is that our only rubric for safety?  There are many other factors in assessing our security.  For instance, taking the moral high ground is not all we need to do to stop recruitment into terrorist camps, but it is certainly a contributor.

Our safety also depends on the cooperation of myriad, often unlikely, allies.  This is an instance where not just our military or economy can suffice in gaining support.  If working with America is perceived to be the immoral route, or no more moral than not cooperating, then we will see stiff resistance from the populations of countries like Turkey or Pakistan who are so vital to our efforts and security.

Cohen goes on to say that “nothing Obama did this month about torture made America safer.”  But safety is not just in preventing terrorists.  Safety is limiting our potential enemies and growing in potential friends.  I’m going to take a page from Pierre Atlas and end with a quote from the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision on banning torture:

This is the destiny of democracy, as not all means are acceptable to it, and not all practices employed by its enemies are open before it. Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the Rule of Law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and allow it to overcome its difficulties.