25 October 2013

The Irrationality Caucus


Erick Erickson of Redstate.com is extremely influential, operating as the guiding hand and ideological head of one of the most prominent grassroots conservative websites in the country. He is also a reliable bellwether for what we might call the irrationality caucus among the Republicans: the group of radical conservatives who prefer doctrine to facts.

Before we look at the latest evidence of Erickson's irrationality, let's look at some background on the irrational caucus.

The irrational caucus is the group that gave us Dean Chambers, creator of Unskewed Polls.  In the months leading up to the 2012 election, Chambers spent his time "unskewing" major political polls by - well, by just adding on points.  Romney would win, Chambers assured us.  After all, he reasoned, how could anyone fail to see how evil Obama had been?  America had to agree with him, and so all the polls had to be wrong.  Pollsters were in the bag for a corrupt President, he claimed, and none of them had fallen to the temptation presented by an opportunity to beat their competitors by being the only one to correctly show a Romney victory.

This is not just wrong, it's irrational.  Dean Chambers found his beliefs and reality in conflict, and he was trying to insist that reality give way.

However, I have sometimes heard this being described as "stupid."  It's not.  That's an easy answer, but it takes a great deal of mental gymnastics and rhetorical tricks to try to do backflips around blatant facts.  Another example: when Senator Ted "Shutdown" Cruz insists that President Obama deserves the blame for shutting down the government because of his refusal to defund the Affordable Care Act ("You made me shoot the hostage!"), it's a very clever sort of sophistry that can honestly believe that.

Whether or not you perform these feats unconsciously, like Chambers, or consciously, like Senator Cruz, it requires a level of mental dexterity and philosophical legerdemain that's quite a different thing from stupidity.  They know the facts, and they understand the facts.  It's not a failure of intelligence or information: it's a failure of rationality.

Thus we get Erickson's column for today: "Follow the Law."  It purports to rebut the claim that Republicans are happy to hurt the country in order to help themselves, by refusing to enact minor changes to Obamacare that might improve its roll-out (which has been, by any measure, pretty lousy).

Not fair, insists Erickson.
Vladimir Lenin is said to have observed, “the worse, the better,” meaning the worse things got for Russians the better it was for the communists.

Lately, the left has taken to calling conservatives “Leninists” for our refusal to fix Obamacare.

The implicit acknowledgement here is that Obamacare is going to make things worse, despite their claims to the contrary.

No conservative wants things to get worse. We just know things will get worse. Obamacare will be deeply destructive. People are already seeing it. The only way Obamacare would ever work is if people behaved irrationally. It is a system that requires the young to go out and by their own insurance, but allows them to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are well into their twenties. The law operates only if people do not behave like people.
In his view, conservatives are just being fair and describing the harm they see.  They don't like it and don't want it to happen, but Obamacare is a bad law that will destroy America.  Conservatives knew this.  Conservatives are smarter and more virtuous than liberals, who dared to pass healthcare reform over the course of a year with only a large majority of both houses of Congress and the Presidency.  And conservatives can see lots of changes to make to Obamacare that would improve it, even if it isn't repealed.

Naturally, you would assume that this means that conservatives would work to fix the law's errors - after all, no giant new program is ever perfect - even if they can't repeal it.

Now watch the magic in the very next paragraph.
Republicans should be opposed to any and all fixes of Obamacare. The GOP should not lift even half a finger to accommodate Democrat demands for changes. The Democrats planned and implemented Obamacare without a single Republican vote. They made clear they did not need the votes. They used a budgetary procedure in the Senate to get around a filibuster after the people of Massachusetts sent a Republican in Ted Kennedy’s steed to try to stop it.

So the Democrats can own it. They can own every deleted application, every delayed entry into the website, every denial of insurance, every decline in full time work, and every denial of care that comes from this horrible law.

The Democrats can own it all.

Republicans who have said forever that the law will crumble on its own (looking at you, Paul Ryan), need to step back and let it collapse. I hope the lawsuit seeking an end to subsidies in states without state run exchanges is a smashing success.
And there's that magnificent flip.  Erickson sees no conflict between the idea that conservatives are unwilling to see harm befall America and his own willingness to let harm befall America.  As long as Democrats "own" the damage, it's just fine with him.  It hurts Democrats, so it's okay if the country suffers - the ends justify the means.

Thankfully, the irrationality caucus present just as much danger to themselves as they do to America.  They pushed the GOP to plunge headlong into a government shutdown, without any real plan, because their beliefs trumped polling and reason.  And in the aftermath, the polling of those elements most associated with this irrationality - individuals like Senator Cruz and movements like the Tea Party - plunged.  This was absolutely predictable to the reality-based community, just like Romney's loss was only a surprise to people like Dean Chambers.

That's the fatal flaw of the irrationality caucus, and the reason why our real fear shouldn't be their goals, but their tantrums: when you go up against reality, reality always wins.

16 October 2013

Accordion: Shutdown and the Debt Ceiling

This post is an accordion: just click a link to go to an expanded discussion of that topic.

Well, the government shutdown (1) is over, and the debt ceiling (2) will not be breached. Outside of an actual election, you almost never see such a decisive victory in politics. The Republicans not only failed to defund Obamacare (3), delay it wholesale, delay the individual mandate (4), or delay the medical devices tax (5), but they did enormous damage to their image (6). The final result: a clean CR (7) that ends on the Democrats' preferred date, a clean debt limit that lifts the debt ceiling as much as Democrats' wanted, the Republicans will finally have to agree to the budget conference that Democrats have been demanding (8), and a pair of semantic tweaks to Obamacare that Democrats would have willingly passed anyway (9).

It's interesting to reflect that while everyone involved was responding to perfectly sensible incentives (10), the epistemic closure (11) of extremist Republicans prevented them from actually understanding the situation or understanding the consequences of their actions. When you willfully ignore reality, it's not surprising when you fail to succeed. The winners of the conflict are clear: Democrats, Senator Cruz (12), Senator Reid (13), and Speaker Boehner (14).

It's hard to celebrate a victory that never should have been necessary, especially when it came at the cost of billions of wasted dollars and quite a bit of our international prestige.

NOTES

1. Congress has to allocate money to each government services every so often - so much to defense, so much to food stamps, etc. When they fail to do so and the money runs out, then the government has to stop spending money. Many essential services remain (air traffic controllers, some soldiers, etc.) but an enormous amount of important government activities have to stop - a government shutdown. This lasts until Congress passes another bill and authorizes more funding. (back to top)

2. Essentially an artifact of history, the debt ceiling is the total amount of money the government is authorized to borrow to pay its bills. It has a scary name, so people think that a vote for the debt ceiling is a vote to spend more money, but that's really not the case - it's a vote to pay the money that was already spent. The usual metaphor is a restaurant: Congress already ordered and ate the food, and they don't get to negotiate whether or not they want to pay after they've finished their meal.

If Congress didn't raise the debt limit, then the government couldn't pay some of its creditors, since we spend more money than we take in. That would have much the same effect on our national credit rating as it would have on your own: defaulting on our debts would be catastrophic to the world economy. (back to top)

3. Despite the 2012 loss, an electoral defeat that was heavily predicated on the survival of Obamacare (McCain mentioned it in every speech, as he reminded us on Face the Nation, and voters picked Obama), the House GOP tried to tie the funding of the government to the killing of Obamacare. They repeatedly passed bills that funded everything in the government but Obamacare, in order to end it. (back to top)

4. The individual mandate is the portion of the bill that requires everyone to buy health insurance. No one likes this, of course, but it's in Obamacare for a reason: it's the only way the plan works. In order to get all that good stuff everyone likes (no discrimination against pre-existing conditions, people can stay on their parents' plans until 26) you have to have some things people dislike. Delaying the individual mandate is essentially killing Obamacare in a different way, but it sounds more appealing to voters. I guess it would also be appealing to say "Everyone should get candy and no one should have to pay." (back to top)

5. Even many Democrats don't like the new tax on medical devices that's part of Obamacare. It's another way the bill pays for itself, but it's also deeply unpopular and not central to the law. If the GOP had demanded in the beginning a repeal of the medical device tax in exchange for a budget to fund the government, they would have gotten it. Instead, they lost even what they could get. (back to top)

6. Going into the fight, Republicans saw polls that said that their tactics were deeply unpopular. But after two weeks of a shutdown, and approaching the insanity of a debt ceiling default, the GOP's polling fell off a cliff. Three-fourths of all Americans condemned the party, and their numbers hit new lows. (back to top)

7. When Congress doesn't pass a real budget, they often take the shortcut of passing a "continuing resolution" - a bill that essentially just keeps everything the same. Rather than evaluating the spending levels for each department and coming to a decision, they delay the decision. It's been years since Congress has actually passed a budget, so continuing resolutions are becoming the norm rather than the exception. (back to top)

8. In the normal budget process, the House passes a budget bill and the Senate passes a budget bill and then a delegation from each house hashes out a final version in a budget conference. For three years, the Democrats in the Senate delayed passing a budget bill, and were hammered for it. But when they finally passed the bill and wanted to go to conference, as the GOP had been demanding for years, the Republicans changed their mind: if they went to conference, after all, they might have to compromise. (back to top)

9. In the deal, there will be slightly stricter scrutiny of the income level of people who receive subsidies. This already exists in Obamacare, and not even the most vigorous of Republican partisans can really call it a victory. No Democrat had any objections. (back to top)

10. The extremist Republican congresspeople who helped push their leader in this direction are in no danger of losing to a Democrat, by and large: their only threat is from a primary challenge by someone who is more conservative. So they have every reason to be as extreme as possible. (back to top)

11. Epistemic closure is when a community only speaks within itself, agreeing constantly and never learning any new information. The Republicans have become increasingly epistemically closed, which leads their representatives to a view of the world that is entirely detached from reality and much further away from mainstream views. (back to top)

12. Senator Cruz is now the frontrunner among potential GOP 2016 candidates, and he raised an enormous amount of money. He still does not seem to have realized that he has helped the Democrats and hurt his cause more than anyone else. The roll-out of Obamacare has been disastrous in almost every way, and it seems like hundreds of millions have been spent on a nightmare of a website. Were it not for the shutdown and debt ceiling, that would be all over the headlines. (back to top)

13. Reid, Senate Democratic Majority Leader, has long had a reputation as a political mastermind. He's known as someone who will quietly and efficiently knife his enemies, without any grandstanding. Obama let him take control of this whole process, and it was on Reid's insistence that the Democrats held firm and refused to yield an inch. (back to top)

14. It was hard to see how the feckless Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was going to keep his job. After all, if he passed any reasonable bill, he was going to lose the support of the forty to fifty extremist Republicans. But if he didn't pass something, he'd crash the economy and lose his job anyway. Now, with the deals all falling into place, we see that Boehner's strategy of non-leadership has let him stay in place yet again. No one in his caucus is thinking about deposing him. It was costly for the country, of course... but what does he care? (back to top)

08 October 2013

Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike

A movie like Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike: Colons Colons Colons raises some important questions in the viewer:

  • Is our society really composed of a heroic handful of geniuses, surrounded by the mooching unwashed masses?
  • As time moves on from a work of fiction, at what point does a film adaptation have to bite the bullet and start making big changes?

And lastly:

  • Why would anyone inflict this movie on the world?

I don't have any answers.  All I have is hatred.

At the end of the last movie, railroad executive Dagny Taggart and steel producer Hank Rearden struggled to keep their businesses going in the face of a crushing recession caused by mooching government officials, while also worrying about a mysterious figure who is visiting other major industrialists and forcing them to vanish off the face of the planet.  They also start having an affair, and plus there's some other stuff that's surprisingly irrelevant to the plot (also: it's boring).

In this movie (SPOILERS) nothing happens (WAIT WAS THAT A SPOILER?  I DON'T KNOW).  Dagny and Hank keep on sleeping together, the government keeps on being gradually more evil, and more geniuses vanish from their jobs.  The only actual events of any importance are a big train crash (caused by the government and general incompetence) and a big plane crash (caused by the dedicated work of many Chinese digital artists).

Such a minimal amount of plot is kind of amazing in a two-hour movie, but it's just reflective of the source material, Ayn Rand's dystopian novel.  This middle part of the novel is filled with gradual decline, long speeches, and tedious aptronyms (Wesley Mouch is the government moocher!).

The filmmakers might be able to plea their source when it comes to those limitations - what, were they going to leave out Francisco D'Anconia's sneering speeches? - but there are so very many other things that can only be their fault.

  • Thanks to absurdly poor lighting and cinematography, the movie has the atmosphere of  SyFy Original Movie Squidshark Tornado.  It actually looks like they used fluorescent overhead office lights from the 1970s.
  • The acting is a cruel joke, and may actually be subtle ironic mockery of the very idea of acting.  Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe met in quiet conference somewhere and said, "Okay, you hang your breasts out there real good, and I'll talk in this gravelly voice, and then we'll just see if they buy it."
  • The soundtrack seems to be one single little beeping song, played slightly faster during travel scenes ("deedle dee dum dum dum we are on a train") and slightly slower during dramatic scenes ("deedle   dee     dum     dum    dum     we     are    still    on     a     train   for    some    reason").

There were also a lot of specific issues:

  • Even though the world was supposed to be in a catastrophic recession and there's supposed to be an atmosphere of oppressive, impending, universal failure, literally every scene in the movie takes place in a setting of staggering opulence: high tech-offices, private trains, private jets, grand ballrooms, corporate offices.  It's impossible to believe what we're told about this world, even if Dagny does see some homeless people from the window of her limo (totally real, I did not make that up).
  • The phrasing of the original book has been haphazardly updated, so that we're given a blend of fifties-era allusions (now impenetrable) and crass modern digs.  For example, President Thompson appoints a "recovery czar" to seize control of the economy, while protesters with an unusual concern for significant digits wave signs reading, "We are the 99.08%".  The movie was released a month before the 2012 general election - the clumsy attempts at being topical are just sad now.
  • One of the more unpleasant aspects of Ayn Rand's Objectivism is that the vast majority of people are unworthy leeches, getting in the way of the titanic heroes.  But that's only appealing when vague, when readers/teenagers can convince themselves that they're one of the exceptional elite.  When you make a movie, you have to actually show large crowds of grasping moochers - something that doesn't go down well with audiences ("Almost everyone in this country sucks!  Where are you going?  Hey, get back here and worship me!").  So this movie gives us a schizophrenic combination of zombie-leech crowds and grassroots people's-protest crowds, simultaneously demanding more and less government control.
I could go on, perhaps indefinitely - this thing is so terrible that it has opened up exciting new fields of study in terribleness.

Everything about Atlas Shrugged: Part Two: The Strike was a failure, and it was hilariously painful to watch.  It made $3 million on a a $10 million budget (financed by debt!), and that fate is entirely deserved.

I eagerly await Part Three, now that the Kickstarter begging has gotten underway.