Saturday, March 31, 2012

Liberal Guilt, Conservative Hope

“It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves.”
--Attributed to Gale Hawthorne, character in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games

John Tamny, writing about “Hunger Games” in Forbes, said the story’s lessons included:
Free societies, personally and economically, don’t rely on government. Instead, a natural harmony eventuates as self-interested individuals create what they’re best at so that they can trade their production for that of others. The problem for political types under such a scenario is that people realize . . . they don’t need government.

[A]ssuming a better world where special interest groups didn’t regularly descend on Washington seeking that which natural market forces won’t provide them with, . . . politicians would invent them. Divided societies give politicians [the power to allocate] resources to the politically connected [and to] weaken a society, thus boosting their status as our allegedly benevolent Nanny.
Our previous post looked at likely liberal guilt that stems from elite support of a meritocracy that, in Brave New World fashion, condemns the “intellectually challenged” to lower class status.

There are different ways for our meritocracy to move past this guilt. One is to hold that in a land of equal opportunity, any person has an equal chance to rise to the top. But our brainiacs just know, they know, that brainpower makes a big difference. Here’s elitist Jacob Weisberg of “Slate” speaking the painful liberal truth about an elite based on academics—it brings “an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can't blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system.” Brains determine outcome, SAT tests are for real.

A far more comfortable way, therefore, for liberals to move past guilt about meritocracy is to focus instead on money. The figurative descendants of the American hierarchy that gave birth to the post-Civil War GOP, the robber barons of the Guilded Age, are still present within our upper class, and liberals are committed to taxing plutocrats heavily on behalf of the victimized masses. Echoing the cry of the French revolution, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” (Liberty, equality, equality, brotherhood), liberals want to move in the direction of equality (though deliberately), redistributing some money to those unlikely to rise in a meritocracy.

Playing Robin Hood provides the justification liberals need to hold overwhelming wealth and power in government hands. This is much to the distress of conservatives:

o George Will, Washington Post
the federal spider has woven a web of dependencies[, t]he political purpose [of which is] to produce growing constituencies of voters disposed to vote Democratic. This . . . entitlement mentality is triggered by making the constituencies constantly apprehensive about the security of their status as wards of government. . . self-indulgent liberal majorities in Congress [have created] a stimulus that confirmed conservatism’s portrayal of liberalism as an undisciplined agglomeration of parochial appetites.
o Walter Russell Mead, American Interest
The impartial administrative state (staffed by trained experts, powerful enough to rein in the base instincts of politicians, honest and public-spirited enough to counterbalance the power of the rich, educated and enlightened enough to guide and uplift the ignorant public) is the Great Engineer who brings progress to a dark polity. For upper middle class progressive ideologues, this kind of state is the summum bonum, the highest possible form of social organization. This kind of state will not and should not disappear overnight, but increasingly it needs to be transformed — and the blue social imagination can only conceive of this change as decline and fall.
o Robert Samuelson, Washington Post
What . . . government does is so vast that it suffocates informed debate and political control. The built-in bias for the status quo reflects the reality that the various parts of government are understood, defended and changed mainly by those who benefit from their existence. However strong the case for revision, it is tempered by political inertia. What's sacrificed is the broader public good. The quagmire is of our own making.
o Janet Daley, The Telegraph (U.K.)
The [1989] failure of communism should have been. . . a turning point in . . . modern thinking about the state and its relationship to the economy, about collectivism vs individualism, and about public vs private power. [Yet] we still seem to be unable to make up our minds about the moral superiority of the free market. We are still ambivalent about the value of competition, which remains a dirty word when applied, for example, to health care. We continue to long for some utopian formula that will rule out the possibility of inequalities of wealth, or even of social advantages such as intelligence and personal confidence.

There is no way of avoiding the need for individual responsibility, which lies with citizens, not governments.
But we also see conservatives expressing hope that liberals are nearing the end of their rope. From George Will:
America now is divided between those who find this social churning unnerving and those who find it exhilarating. What Virginia Postrel postulated in 1998 in The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress — the best book for rescuing the country from a ruinous itch for tidiness — is even more true now. Today’s primary political and cultural conflict is, Postrel says, between people, mislabeled “progressives,” who crave social stasis, and those, paradoxically called conservatives, who welcome the perpetual churning of society by dynamism.
And from Walter Russell Mead:
Those who still have something close to lifetime employment – tenured professors and teachers, civil servants and other government employees, postal service workers – feel the unwelcome winds of change.
“The arc of democracy is long, but it bends toward the masses.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Liberals, Meritocracy, and Hierarchy

“Journalistic convention requires that when there are two identifiable sides to a story, each side gets its say, in neutral fashion, without the writer's thumb on the scale. This rule presents a challenge when one side of a controversy obviously lacks merit. But mainstream journalism has learned to navigate those challenges, choosing evolution over ‘intelligent design,’ for example, and treating climate change naysayers as cranks.”

-- Linda Greenhouse, New York Times

This blog is persuaded, partly by biology and social science experiments, that Americans (people) value consistency, strongly favor those in their tribe, see bias in their opponents, and believe their own judgments to be fact-based. Linda Greenhouse has had 34 years with the New York Times, America’s citadel of liberalism, our country’s strongest liberal voice. No surprise she writes (above) with—to me—transparent bias.

Here’s how conservative Roger Kimball, at the “PJ Media” website, describes the other side:
Liberalism. . . regards its political opinions . . . as reflections of the state of nature: what any right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) person believes. But your opinions, my conservative friend, are regarded not so much as opinions as some form of heresy. Here in a nutshell you have the motor behind political correctness and the staggeringly illiberal attitudes espoused by the elite liberal establishment.
Nicholas Kristof is, like Greenhouse, a New York Times columnist. Refreshingly unlike Greenhouse, however, he openly identifies himself as a liberal. And refreshingly, he recently took a stab at respectfully separating liberal and conservative thought. Kristof’s starting point is The Righteous Mind, a book by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor. Kristof says Haidt’s book “illuminates the kind of messaging that might connect with voters of all stripes.”

Haidt, according to Kristof, believes that
for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity[--]values [that] bind groups together with a shared respect for symbols and institutions such as the flag or the military. Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three. And some [Kristof includes himself] mostly use just one, care for victims.
Do you think that having a broad spectrum of values, as conservatives do, is a good thing? Maybe not. Note that Kristof reduces his morality to a single virtue: “care for victims.” Kristof then goes on to say that research shows liberal adults
were said decades earlier by their nursery-school teachers to be curious, verbal novelty seekers but not very neat or obedient[, whereas] conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex when they hear loud noises. . . liberals prefer dogs . . . not subservient, while conservatives seek dogs who are loyal and obedient.
Don’t you see it? Liberals: bright, restless, non-conforming, lovers of frisky dogs, and, best of all, caring. (Recall Rush Limbaugh’s saying "the left doesn't want to be judged on the results of anything they do. They only want to be judged on their good intentions.") Doesn’t Kristof show us the liberal generation that came out of the 1960s civil rights and anti-war struggle to run the nation from their New York-Washington axis? They overcame conservatives inhibited by loud noises, frightened into obedience to the flag, the military, and presumably organized religion, and who prefer loyal and obedient dogs. It’s all so subtle, Kristof’s quiet dig at conservatives within his genuine effort to understand them. He can’t help himself.

Last year, Reagan-Bush 41 speechwriter Peggy Noonan unearthed a profound truth about the young anti-establishment liberals who have become our rulers as adults, when she wrote of supreme court justice Elena Kagan:
Ms. Kagan and her counterparts all started out 30 years ago trying to undo the establishment, and now they are the establishment. If you need any proof of this it is that in their essays and monographs they no longer mention “the establishment.” Ms. Kagan’s nomination has also highlighted America’s . . . meritocracy. Work hard, be smart, rise. The result is an aristocracy of wired brainiacs, of highly focused, well-credentialed careerists.
Liberals are irreverent about authority and about established institutions. They speak out against wealth, Wall Street, those who don’t pay their “fair share,” the top 1%. Yet liberals have become “the establishment,” the aristocracy. They are “America’s meritocracy,” and as we have said, live alongside elite conservatives in America’s “gated country”.

The liberal elite occupy an “inner world” similar to the old U.S.S.R.’s nomenklatura, its “inner party.” The New York Times is its Pravda, cueing liberals on what to say, what to do, how to live. Inside the “inner world,” one can frankly discuss one’s own power and wealth, and reassure each other the meritocracy works, the cream most properly rises to the top. Inside, one can be honest about how an elite minority in a democracy dominated by less fortunate voters holds onto power by practicing Kristof’s “care for victims.” Brains at the top. Government the means. A national majority of dependents the target.

Is there guilt about standing for the oppressed, but living as an elite atop an anti-democratic (it’s based on merit) pyramid? I suspect a great deal, and see it displayed in outbursts like that of Greenhouse against conservative inferiors, efforts to reassure each other that the right people are running the show. I see it in deceptive efforts to keep victims tied to the liberal elite—branding the “tea party” racist, going after governors trying to enforce Federal law requiring deportation of lawbreakers, uniting women against the Catholic church and Catholic Rick Santorum, demanding higher taxes of the rich when such taxes cannot close the deficit, claiming efforts to save Medicare are attempts to destroy it instead.

The liberal focus has to stay on the conservative enemy. Otherwise, the meritocracy may be forced to address the disturbing question of how can a democracy where the people rule also be a hierarchy that permanently consigns a majority to society’s lower rungs, based upon inherited intelligence? “Care for victims” may not be enough. It may not work.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Culture and Conservatives

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Here is America’s “core culture,” as defined in 1993 by Samuel P. Huntington, who was born the same year as Moynihan (1927), and was a political science colleague of Moynihan’s at Harvard:
the Christian religion, Protestant values and moralism, a work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music; the American Creed with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property.
One can certainly say that Huntington’s “core culture” definition is dated by current standards, but is one with which conservatives could readily identify. It also seems likely liberals would happily use politics to, in Moynihan’s words, “save” parts of Huntington’s culture “from itself.”

Now here’s a more 21st Century definition of American culture from physicist Mark Mills and engineer Julio Ottino. They describe our culture as “high inertia,” distinguished by “open-mindedness, risk-taking, hard work, playfulness, and, critical for nascent new ideas, a healthy dose of anti-establishment thinking.” Mills and Ottino have fixed on what works in the U.S. economy.

And what about American mass culture, a force that often seems distant from “hard work” and “nascent new ideas,” but indeed shows elements of “risk-taking,” “playfulness,” and “a healthy dose of anti-establishment thinking”? Peggy Noonan was thinking about culture high and low when she wrote that American culture:
is governed and run by the entertainment industry. And the entertainment industry is, and has been since the New Deal, firmly rooted in the Democratic Party. It was invented by the ethnics of the East. . . who joined the Democratic Party as soon as they got here. And they let everyone in America know, and they do it to this day, that the Democratic Party is the cool party, and the Republican Party is the one [not cool], the one that seems like a character flaw to belong to. . . Democrats were, through most of the 20th century, better at propaganda. [emphasis added]
Earlier this year, we relayed Charles Murray’s concern about many left out of the American success story: working-age lower class whites with no education beyond high school—30% of the white population aged 20 to 49. They would seem especially susceptible to the influence of American mass culture.

Murray is disturbed that 52% of the lower class population he studied are unmarried, 44% are single parents, 32% of the males are unemployed or in part-time work, 59% of the men and women are non-religious, and they collectively live in communities with a crime rate nearly five times above that in 1960. Murray calls the lower class problems cultural. He blames them on 1960s-era liberals who made it economically more feasible for women to have a child without a husband, for men to get along without a job, and safer for people to commit crimes without suffering.

Murray’s remedy would be to reverse the 1960s-onward cultural deterioration by restoring the religious values and morality, the emphasis on hard work, that supported marriage, two-parent families, and men who provide for their families and stay away from crime. Murray strongly rejects the “nonjudgmentalism” of our current upper class toward lower class (mis)behavior. In short, Murray seems to advocate a lower class return to Huntington’s “core culture” values (he believes the upper class is already there).

Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post, took direct exception to Murray’s pessimistic view of where American culture currently stands with our masses. To Samuelson
There is such a thing as the American character and. . . it is durable. In 2011, only 36% of Americans believed that "success in life is determined by outside forces" [Pew Global Attitudes survey]. In France and Germany, the responses were 57% and 72%, respectively. America is different, even exceptional.
While Samuelson rejects Murray’s pessimism, his “American character”--taking responsibility for one's own actions--is in line with both Huntington’s “core culture” and the values Murray supports.

John Podhoretz, writing in Commentary following the death of James Q. Wilson (the criminologist who developed the famous “broken window” theory), chose to highlight Wilson’s following endorsement of morality:
I wish to argue for an older view of human nature, one that assumes that people are naturally endowed with certain moral sentiments. We have a peculiar, fragile, but persistent disposition to make moral judgments, and we generally regard people who lack this disposition to be less than human. Despite our wars, crimes, envies, snobberies, fanaticisms, and persecutions, there is to be found a desire not only for praise but for praiseworthiness, for fair dealings as well as for good deals, for honor as well as for advantage.
Wilson held values that, again, are close to those of Huntington’s “core culture.”

And the same can be said for Victor Davis Hanson, the Stanford Hoover Institution conservative who, in reaction the “politics of blame” in Obama’s state of the union speech, emphasized virtue over tribal loyalty when he wrote:
The content of our character alone matters; those who are not so confident in their own, usually demand that their tribal affiliations be essential and not incidental to their personas. Most accept that culture, not race matters, but it matters still more not to say that.
Except that culture does matter, and it does matter that we speak of it. Culture can lay the foundation for productive work, for economic progress. Or it can undermine both.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Resurrect the Xth Amendment. Seriously!

"are the two political parties so heavily controlled by interest groups and voting blocs demanding total fealty to their issues that there is little room for candidates who espouse a middle ground, or even an inclusive approach to governance?"

--Carl M. Cannon, “RealClearPolitics”

Pollster Scott Rasmussen warns us of
the real entitlement mentality that threatens to bankrupt the nation: a political class that feels entitled to rule over the rest of us. [This mentality affects] leaders of both parties. . . It’s not just our habits of dependency that need to be broken. The habits of control and penchant for feeding dependency on the part of our political leaders also need to be curbed. . .

While most voters view excessive government spending as the problem, those who feel entitled to rule over the rest of us see the voters as the problem. And that’s the real entitlement crisis facing the nation today. The political class wants to govern like it’s 1775, a time when kings were kings and consent of the governed didn’t matter.
Jonah Goldberg shares Rassmussen’s hostility toward the “leaders of both parties,” and pointedly disagrees with Cannon’s plea for “a middle ground.” The National Review columnist writes:
We’re constantly told that the way to fix the country is to dethrone the Left and the Right and empower the middle. . .But what if the real compromise isn’t in forcing the Left and the Right to heel? What if instead the solution is to disempower the national elites who think they’ve got the answers to everything?
Goldberg’s answer is to endorse federalism, sending power down to the states and the people, as we are supposed to do under the Constitution’s Xth Amendment. Says Goldberg:
Federalism is simply the best political system ever conceived of for maximizing human happiness. A one-size-fits-all policy imposed at the national level has the potential to make very large numbers of citizens unhappy, even if it was arrived at democratically. . . Pushing government decisions down to the lowest democratic level possible — while protecting basic civil rights — guarantees that more people will have a say in how they live their lives. Not only does that mean more people will be happy, but the moral legitimacy of political decisions will be greater.
Such talk is old hat for conservatives. But here’s Goldberg’s new twist. He realizes that whenever conservative and libertarians preach federalism, the other side hears “states’ rights”. So he has simply jumped all over a new essay in the spring issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas by Yale law professor Heather K. Gerken (see picture), entitled “A New Progressive Federalism.” Goldberg:
Gerken’s chief concern is how to empower “minorities and dissenters”[, defined] in almost purely left-wing terms of race and sexual orientation. Still, she makes the very compelling point that the current understanding of diversity — having minority members as tokens of inclusion — pretty much guarantees that racial minorities will always be political minorities as well.
Quoting Gerken directly:
While the diversity paradigm guarantees racial minorities a vote or voice on every decision-making body, it also ensures that they will be the political losers on any issue on which people divide along racial lines. Racial minorities are thus destined to be the junior partner or dissenting gadfly in the democratic process. Allowing local majorities to have their way turns the tables. It allows the usual winners to lose and the usual losers to win. It gives racial minorities the chance to shed the role of influencer or gadfly and stand in the shoes of the majority.
Can both sides come together not on a national “middle ground,” but rather on devolving power to the states and people? Goldberg concludes, “A Left-Right federalist compromise would make America a happier, freer, more prosperous and interesting country[, while dethroning] those in both parties who think they know what’s best.” [emphasis added.]

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Our economic future: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good. The Dow rose for the seventh session Thursday. closing at 13,253. and the S&P climbed above 1,400 (to 1,403) for the first time since June 2008. Thursday was the first time in history that together the Dow has been above 13,000, S&P above 1,400, and Nasdaq above 3,000 (it closed at 3,056). Our FOX Index, which watches such movements (it marks the distance above or below a “healthy market” of 12,000 Dow, 1,300 S&P 500, and a NASDAQ of 2,500) was at its all-time high Thursday of +1,912 (see chart; the Index dropped 20 points Friday).

Jobless claims fell by 14,000 Thursday, providing further evidence that the US economy is on the rebound.

The Bad. Amity Shlaes, writing at Bloomberg, believes the next economic “black swan” (she doesn’t use the term) we face is inflation. She mounts a century-long case to show inflation comes suddenly, repeatedly, and with devastating force. Yes, but such a “black swan” event cannot be predicted; inflation may remain contained.

David Rosenberg, in the Financial Times (U.K.), provides a less dramatic picture of trouble ahead. He first notes signs that stocks could continue to rise:

• corporate earnings have more than doubled off the 2009 depressed lows. This is truly an incredible run-up over such a short time frame.

• the compression in corporate bond spreads has help expand the price/earnings multiple and keep the fair-value line trending up.

But Rosenberg thinks the broader market is now close to its ceiling. He wants us to know the world has not suddenly been “fixed;” that our almost-uninterrupted equity market rally lacks conviction:

• The rally’s volume has been weak with institutional players absent from the market, and with very little participation from retail investors. US equity-based mutual funds have recorded 10 months of net outflows, with another $5.4bn in 2012. In fact, there have been no net inflows since 2005 as clients use interim rallies to sell.

• Corporate insiders have been huge sellers of their own stock, exceeding $6bn last month (with the ratio of selling to buying hitting the astronomical 13-to-1 mark).

• The initial public offering market was in a slump during the October-February rally, with merger and acquisition activity sinking to 2008 levels.

• Recent market gains seem linked to the more than €1tn injected into the European financial system.

• Other recent positive economic numbers reflect the warmest North American winter in 50 years, artificially boosting home sales, retail sales, manufacturing, transportation and consumer confidence.

The Ugly. There is mounting evidence that China, the world’s current economic engine, is in trouble.

The Chinese power struggle is now very much in the open. Jamil Anderlini, also writing in the Financial Times, called Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai’s Thursday sacking “the most significant end to a political career in China for more than two decades.” Bo, as Anderlini wrote, is “China’s most charismatic and polarizing Communist official.” Bo’s purge proves there is division at the top.

Established leaders saw Bo as a real threat to their power. Anderlini reports that Xi Jinping, scheduled to be China’s next leader, wrote a strongly worded editorial in the party magazine Seeking Truth that anticipated Bo’s departure. Xi said the party must:
firmly oppose all actions that harm and split the party . . . firmly excise decayed and corrupted people who deviate from the party constitution, who jeopardize the undertaking of the party and who have lost the credentials to be a party member
And the day before Bo’s fall, Premier Wen Jiabao gave a rare, nearly three-hour press conference to conclude this year’s National People’s Congress. In the course of answering press questions, Wen warned:
Reforms have reached a critical stage. Without the success of political reforms, economic reforms cannot be carried out. The results of what we have achieved may be lost. A historical tragedy like the Cultural Revolution may occur again. Each party member and cadre should feel a sense of urgency.
Openly commenting on Wang Lijun, Bo’s top cop until Bo fired him who then fled to Bo’s enemies in Beijing and help trigger Bo’s fall, Wen added China has “taken detours” and has “learned hard lessons.”

China’s leaders prefer to fight behind closed doors, to present China and the world a unified front. Xi, Wen and the other party leaders know their power rests on successful, sustained economic development. Signs of opposition from Bo Xilai and other proto Maoists most likely reflect rising worry at the top that China’s economy is headed downward.

That’s certainly the view of Gwynne Dyer, writing in the Japan Times. Dyer tells us:

• more than half of the 124 skyscrapers currently under construction in the world are being built in China. . . a frenzy of skyscraper-building is also the most reliable historical indicator of an impending financial crash.

• the West wants to believe that China's economy will go on growing fast . . . Twenty years of 10%-plus annual growth have made China the engine of the world economy. . . But the engine is fuelled by cheap credit, and most of that cheap money, as usual, has gone into real estate.

• [Wuhan,] in addition to a skyscraper half again as high as the Empire State Building, is currently building a subway system that will cost $45 billion, two new airports, a whole new financial district, and hundreds of thousands of new housing units. . . Last year Wuhan municipality spent $22 billion on infrastructure and housing projects although its tax revenues were only one-fifth of that amount. . .

• Land in Wuhan has tripled in price during the property boom, and could quickly fall . . . if confidence in the city's future were to falter. [Yet] Wuhan's housing stock is already so overbuilt that it would take eight years to clear even the existing overhang of unsold apartments . . . never mind all the new stuff. Multiply the Wuhan example by hundreds . . .

• Beijing knows that the property bubble is dangerous and is trying to switch spending to consumption. . . there just isn't enough time. . . China is heading for a classic "hard landing", and when it comes, it will slow the whole global economy to stall speed.

• the Communist regime is clearly frightened.

We should be frightened as well. Our economy needs China's to be strong. The ugly.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Will Santorum + Gingrich block Romney?

"there’s a big difference between [Romney] thinking that this election is fundamentally about reversing a few years of sluggish economic growth, and [Santorum/Gingrich] thinking that it’s fundamentally about reaffirming (or rejecting) the commitment to limited government and liberty that has defined America across two glorious centuries."

--Jeffrey Anderson, Weekly Standard

RealClearPolitics correspondent Scott Conroy has discussed in greater detail my point yesterday that only Romney is gripped with the charge to secure the 1,144 delegates needed to win the Republican presidential nomination. Conroy states that if Mitt fails to nail down a delegate majority, “all bets may be off.” Conroy adds it seems to be Romney, not Santorum, who has “the most to gain” from any Gingrich exit from the field.

Gingrich originally pitched this argument in his Tuesday “concession” (he didn’t really concede anything) speech after losing in Alabama and Mississippi. Now analysts are climbing on board, including Conroy’s RealClearPolitics colleague Sean Trende, who said:
People are assuming if Newt gets out, it helps Santorum because it sets up a one-on-one contest against Romney. But by Newt staying in, he’s actually gobbling up some of Romney’s delegates. And that’s the name of the game at this point: keeping Romney below 1,144. So I think Newt staying in actually helps Santorum.
In the end, it’s not going to be the math. It’s going to come down to Santorum’s ability or inability to excite the conservative Republican masses, now that he has real visibility and several wins under his belt. But Gingrich could maybe help a little.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Big news: Santorum wins Alabama and Mississippi.

"Romney . . . has won the two, two important things: people who think the economy is the most important thing, and that want to beat Obama. And so I think that voters across the country, whether they buy, whether they’re watching the day to day big picture, they think that . . . and I think that’s why he’s competitive in the South when a lot of people thought that he wouldn’t even be able to show up there, people if you ask those two questions tend to think that Romney would be the best nominee."

--Dana Perino, “Fox News Sunday” 3.11.12
(direct from recording; transcript not available)

Well, after placing third in both Mississippi and Alabama, maybe Romney’s not so “competitive in the South” after all. The East Coast-based GOP establishment is desperate to close out the Republican nomination, as the above remarks last Sunday by Bush 43’s press secretary suggest. But what does “competitive” mean anyway when in advance of the two Southern contests, two-thirds of the votes are already expected to go against your yankee?

Establishment Washington D.C. detested loser Goldwater in 1964, regretted the damage Reagan did to President Ford in 1976 (who lost), and resented Pat Buchanan’s divisive primary battle against President George H.W. Bush in 1992, including Buchanan’s “culture war” convention speech (Bush then lost). They forget Reagan won twice in spite of them, and that establishment favorites Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) turned out to be dogs.

The establishment want Romney, and they want him now. Here’s the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, writing in a column titled “Math matters: Romney widening his lead”:
By winning 9 delegates in American Samoa and 45% of the vote in Hawaii, Romney wiped out Rick Santorum’s narrow wins in the Deep South . . . Santorum’s task to get to 1,114 [sic] delegates is that much harder. . . The nominating process is about the delegates. Math, like gravity, can’t be ignored.
Romney did sweep through Hawaii and Samoa yesterday. Overall, he bested Santorum 43 to 36 delegates, even after Santorum’s headline, surprising wins in the “heart of Dixie.” But contrary to what Romney shill Jennifer Rubin asserts, the math isn’t widening Mitt’s lead. Romney’s goal is get to 1,144 delegates, ½ + 1. That means he must win 50% of the available delegates. Yesterday, he won 43% of the available (and thus far assigned) delegates, and “ABM” (anybody but Mitt) won 57%.

Before yesterday, Romney had 55% of the total delegates. Now—Rubin take note—his percentage is down to 53%. Where will that percentage be March 25, after the Missouri, Puerto Rico, Illinois, and Louisiana contests; after almost half the delegates are assigned? Still dropping toward 50%? Is Romney winning or losing to “ABM”?

Meanwhile, Santorum is picking up support within the Republican establishment. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger recently said,
Rick Santorum should stay in the race, repeating from now till summer the perverse link between the ObamaCare mandate and the American idea of freedom. It looks like the best argument the GOP nominee will have for a win in November.
And Jonah Goldberg, in the Los Angeles Times, pivoted off Santorum when he wrote:
Because many liberals believe there's no valid limiting principle on government's ability to do "good," they assume that conservatives believe there's no valid limiting principle [on government's ability] to do "bad." Rick Santorum . . . explained the flaw in this thinking: "Here's the difference between me and the left, and they don't get this: Just because I'm talking about it doesn't mean I want a government program to fix it. That's what they do. That's not what we do."
To sum up, we now have a two-person race between Romney and Santorum. But the current dynamics are Romney v. “ABM.” Romney must win half the delegates. Santorum only needs to deny Romney that goal, a lesser challenge.

Establishment pundits often refer to how McCain had his nomination wrapped up after February's "Super Tuesday" in 2008, when Romney graciously pulled out. Why can't conservatives offer Romney the courtesy in 2012 that Romney offered four years ago?

The difference is that Romney's weakness worked for a pullout then, and now works against leaving the field to Romney today. In 2008, weak challenger Romney had no real prospect of stopping McCain. Now in 2012, Romney is the weak front runner, and conservatives, after Santorum wins in Alabama and Mississippi yesterday and Kansas last Saturday, are increasingly hopeful Romney will be stopped. ABM.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Foxes, not Hedgehogs

We are learning from NPR’s recent examination of how tribal loyalty and love of consistency interfere with an unbiased pursuit of truth.

Philip Tetlock, at Pennsylvania's Wharton School, is a psychologist who's studied what voters can expect when they get consistent leaders. He uses the Greek analogy of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The hedgehog has one goal: don't get eaten. Foxes, on the other hand, have lots of strategies to catch a hedgehog.

Tetlock thinks consistent leaders simplify a complex world into a few big ideas. They're hedgehogs. Leaders who are foxes don't have a single agenda. They have lots of contradictory goals. They compromise. Foxes are less likely to be on the extreme left or the extreme right.

Since consistent hedgehogs and inconsistent foxes both claim great results, Tetlock tested them. He asked a large number of hedgehogs and foxes to make specific predictions about events. Over 20 years, he's collected more than 28,000 predictions about issues in 60 countries. The results are in: foxes make the right calls more often than hedgehogs. If you want to know where the economy is headed, ask a fox.

But hedgehogs have an upside: when they're right, they're spectacularly right. Think of Winston Churchill, who saw before everyone else the threat Hitler posed. But hedgehogs are also more likely to be spectacularly wrong. After all, Churchill also fervently believed in the British Empire--in keeping India British--and very incorrectly compared Gandhi to Hitler.

Tetlock's work shows inconsistent leaders—foxes—do better in office. But because voters so value consistency, hedgehogs do better in election campaigns.

Tetlock’s proofs came well after the great political philosopher Isaiah Berlin published his work The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Berlin is a hero of this blog for his insight into the difference between “positive” and “negative liberty;” between government helping others to succeed and government modestly honoring the individual freedom to fail. Berlin believed a hedgehog is an author who has a unified vision which he follows in his writing, while a fox has no central vision nor organizing principle; his writings are varied, even contradictory.

Berlin concentrated his analysis on Leo Tolstoy, whom Berlin argued was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. Tolstoy longed for a central idea to organize around, but so distrusted human ability to find such an idea that he ended up knocking down what he saw as faulty. In War and Peace, Tolstoy used chaos, in Berlin’s words, to dispel a "great illusion" that “individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events." Tolstoy perceived a "central tragedy" of human life to be man’s failure to
learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world
Consistency, then, equates with outlandish arrogance. We should be modest, foxes not hedgehogs, especially in our desires to control others (“negative" over "positive liberty”). We may want the dopamine surge that comes from the correct prediction. It’s human biology at work. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb taught us in the Black Swan, we cannot foresee the monumental events (“black swans”) that shape history, so we are better off with foxes “with an open mind” than with hedgehogs “so blinded by one single outcome [they] cannot imagine others.”

Monday, March 12, 2012

Science Finds Humans Resist New Patterns, Outsiders

Science provides evidence that humans are biased against those 1) who are inconsistent and 2) who operate outside our tribe. NPR’s “Morning Edition” recently reported on both findings.

Scientists say we want consistency. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins, says our brains don't like inconsistency. The brain has lots of circuits making predictions about all kinds of things, every second of every day. And Linden says the brain pays special attention to other people, watching out for the veracity, predictability, group spirit and motivations of those around us.

After thousands of years living in groups trying to stay alive, we need to know if the person who helped yesterday might hurt tomorrow. Prediction is so important our brains give us pleasure-inducing dopamine when we guess well. Get it wrong and dopamine drops. So imagine what happens when someone we trust becomes inconsistent. We feel deeply betrayed, and experience hurt similar to physical pain.

That means we want consistent politicians, not those forcing us into painful re-evaluations. And especially not those from the “other side.”

Jamie Barden at Howard University developed a way to test how people make judgments about inconsistent political behavior. He gathered a group of students—both Democrats and Republicans—and told them that their job was to evaluate the behavior of a hypothetical “Mike.”

Students learned that during a political fundraiser Mike had organized, he'd drank too much, drove home, and crashed his fender into a telephone pole. In short, Mike drove drunk. The students then learned that a month later, Mike on the radio delivered a screed about the dangers of drunk driving, saying, “I'm not going to drive drunk and no one else should either.”

The two possible interpretations for Mike's behavior are that a) Mike is a hypocrite or b) Mike has sincerely changed. Barden's study found the preferred interpretation is based on tribe rather than on the facts. Half the time Mike was described to the students as a Republican and half the time he was described as a Democrat. When participants judged a Mike from their party, only 16% called him a hypocrite. Whereas when Mike was from an opposing party, 40% judged him a hypocrite.

Thus tribe clouds our judgments about what is and is not true. And other research shows that though we see bias in our opponents, we believe our judgments to be fact-based. No wonder it’s so hard to bring the two parties together. We are biologically primed to ignore opposing viewpoints and to hold fast to our tribe.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Job Growth Best Since 2006

The U.S. created 227,000 jobs in February, exceeding the pre-report consensus estimate of 213,000. The jobs increase, reported yesterday, topped 200,000 for the third straight month. The past three months of full-time job growth—the fastest since the end of the 2007-2009 recession—marks the best jobs growth since early 2006.

Job gains for January were revised up to 284,000 from 243,000, making January the best month of job growth in six years. Net hiring in December was also revised up, from 203,000 to 223,000. These upward revisions suggest momentum; the economy’s growth is likely to continue.

The unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.3%, but the rate’s failure to fall is a good sign. 476,000 people re-entered the labor force looking for work, meaning they now believe jobs are available.

Obama has an excellent shot at having the total number of jobs on election day exceed the total when he was inaugurated in January 2009. The U.S. economy only needs to generate 123,400 jobs a month—just half the current rate—to reach that target (see chart below).

On the conservative FOX News show “Journal Editorial Report,” the Wall Street Journal's Kim Strassel warned Republicans to stay away from a simple 2012 “referendum on numbers.” She said they should instead argue GOP growth policies will outperform the president’s. Strassel’s comments indirectly confirm how much the basic job numbers are moving Obama’s way.