The Politiconomist

Where Politics and Economics Hang Out

The Source of the Religious Right’s Power

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Frank Bruni has a piece in the New York Times detailing the outsized power wielded by the religious right. And this is not the prediction of standard models of Marginal Voter Theory (MVT), the idea that the vote a candidate is least likely to lose is the one that candidates move to.

Simple models of MVT liken political candidates to shop owners trying to decide where on a street to set up. It stands to reason that they’ll sit near each other and in the middle. This is a reasonably a reasonably good model of elections. They tend towards moderate candidates who largely agree. But the remaining disagreements—and anomalies like the outsized power of the religious right—don’t quite track.

The reason is relatively straightforward. Millennials are not an unusually influential political group. We’re large, but we’re fairly reliable voters, and we reliably vote for Democrats. Strategists largely take us as a granted. Republicans need to find an opposing coalition; Democrats need to make sure that they don’t stray too far from what we’re coming out to vote for.

Contrast this with the religious right. They can and have chosen to not show up for elections. Coded into the beliefs of this bloc is the belief that a worldly Republican is just as sinful and wicked as, say, that Muslim already in office. And a dip in White Evangelical Protestants can send a GOP candidate home. The marginal voter for a Republican candidate becomes that bloc.

This quirk of the US electorate pulls the center farther right than a simple accounting would indicate. The Christian Right’s willingness to hand the White House to a Democrat is near unique among large voting blocs. There simply isn’t a group on the left that uncomprimising, and it’s unlikely one will emerge.

Written by R. A. Stark

February 26, 2015 at 8:59 AM

More Than a Condemnation: The UNC Shootings are an Atheist Problem

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Last week a man with a long history of angry, anti-theist rhetoric broke into the home of three young Muslims and shot them in the head. While the murders of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha may not make legal muster for a hate crime, it’s hard to imagine that their murderer’s virulent anti-theism didn’t play into his decision to take their lives. He evidently did not view Muslims as people.

The parade of milquetoast condemnations from secular groups comes as little consolation. A significant and diffuse number of atheists have long taken the position that religious groups need to all be on hand to condemn violence from their own. Many of the groups in question have deep ties to prominent atheists who advance this. Given Dawkins’ prominence in the movement, this is unsurprising. After years of harboring voices that suggest that theists are a violent monolith, I can scarcely contain my rage.

Now you condemn this? Where were you two weeks ago when these three young people were alive? Where were you when we were sounding the alarm that there was something violent and xenophobic that needed nipped in the bud?

But of course, #NotAllAtheists. #NotAllAtheists believe that Islam is a religion fundamentally of violence. #NotAllAtheists condone what happened—atheism is a philosophy of peace! #NotAllAtheists devote an unhealthy amount of energy to badly thought out, ahistorical, prejudiced rants online.

Just enough that the warnings have been sounding for years.

We ignore this at not our own peril, but at the peril of our theist neighbors and especially Muslims. If our protestations that we can be good to our neighbors without God are sincere, then we have a clear moral obligation to insist we dismantle the structures of prejudice that encouraged this murder. This means that the it is unethical for us to give the New Atheists another platform. This means that we must call out our fellow atheists whenever they are hasty about what theism is. This means that we must re-purpose our time and energy away from conversions and towards charity and protecting those vulnerable in our community. It will mean forging alliances with those theists we should have much in common with.

There is no future for anti-theism in any sort of moral atheism.

The friends and families of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha are dealing with the most human of experiences. They are grieving at the doors of death accepting that their loved ones have gone through. While the murder that brought them there is not, this grief is universal to human experience. And people of all faiths and those without can come together and agree that murder is wrong.

And so then we too can stand with that common humanity and condemn the festering dehumanization that has taken root in atheism. We as atheists can be good without God, but not so long as we give aid and comfort to those who are bad without Him. We have a moral duty to do more than condemn the murders of Barakat and the Abu-Salha sisters. We must make the ideologies that backed their murderer up untenable.

Written by R. A. Stark

February 17, 2015 at 12:37 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Depression, Binge Watching, and Reversible Sweater Arguments

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If the headlines on my Facebook feed are any indication, binge watching TV makes you depressed!

NPR has a really good write-up about the specific study and why it might not be the most amazing piece of science ever. To be fair to the authors of the study, they didn’t design it to be and—near as I can tell—aren’t responsible for the sensationalism around it. It’s a preliminary study that will justify more careful science. And more careful science will almost certainly find a more nuanced relationship.

I’m here to tell you why I’m unsurprised to find out that headlines are wrong and, more substantively, tell you why I guessed that. One of my tests for scientific claims I call the Reversible Sweater. Basically, in a causation claim, can I imagine that the causation flows the other way? Does it feel more explanatory the other way?

Claim: Binge watching makes you depressed.

Reversed Sweater: If you’re depressed, you’re more likely to binge-watch.

To me, it makes more sense that depressed people do more binge watching. It fits! If you’re depressed, you’re much more likely to do low energy, modestly rewarding things than high energy, greatly rewarding things. (You don’t usually have enough spoons, if you’re familiar with the spoons model of long-term illness.) And, they are the kind of things that don’t It doesn’t fly in the face of all common sense, however, to suggest that this correlation could run either way. More careful science is needed, which is what this preliminary study was designed to tell us.

If you see a causative claim, reverse it. Most depression claims reverse: Weight loss helps treat depression; or people without the energy to, you know, do things like laundry aren’t working out. Economic studies are riddled with these chicken-and-egg problems: High unemployment caused lower demand; models suggest that investment demand falling triggers the spiral of falling demand and employment. Drug treatment works; people who do drug treatment are the kind of people who work to quit drugs—treatment effect. This is “correlation doesn’t prove causation” on steroids. It actually suggests why you should be wary of causation claims.

This provides a good test for science journalism as well. If the journalist provides an explanation of which way to wear the sweater, as it were, then it’s probably a good write-up. If they didn’t, they probably didn’t take the time to make sense of the findings and experiment. And if they didn’t read the study, what the hell are they reporting?

So, while I’ll be unsurprised to learn there’s a noticeable effect where depressed people do more binge-watching, I bet things are a lot more complicated than your Facebook feed.

Written by R. A. Stark

February 5, 2015 at 11:13 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Line by Line: Bruce Jenner is “Transitioning into a Woman”

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I’ll be upfront: Going after is an example of the kind of thing I do when I’m having a busy week. But don’t confuse low-hanging fruit for an unimportant point. This article is rank transphobic bullshit, and the reader shouldn’t strive to do better because they should have set the bar so far above this that not doing these things are reflexes.

Bruce Jenner Is ‘Transitioning into a Woman,’ Source Confirms to PEOPLE

Well, nothing egregious yet. Transitioning to live as a woman is probably better, but on the flip side, headlines are hard. As long as this isn’t, like, a high point we’ll be fine.

BY AILI NAHAS 01/30/2015 AT 07:55 PM EST

Couldn’t fuck that up…

His changing look has been a much-buzzed-about topic for months, and now PEOPLE has confirmed that Bruce Jenner has been quietly making a very personal change.

Wow, this basically says, “Since we’ve been covering this anyway, it’s okay to tell you this very personal fact. Oh, and it’s personal.” I don’t expect anything more from People, but I’m somehow surprised too.

A note on pronouns. I’ll be avoiding them, but it’s not clear that “he” is misgendering. (Equally, “she” may not be Jenner’s preferred pronoun.) Jenner’s friend uses “he”, which could be because Jenner still is, could be because the editors at People are dicks, or it could be because the source is a terrible friend.

The former Olympian will soon be living life as female.

First, a grammatical point. Female should take the indefinite article here—a female. But female, article or no, is biological and dehumanizing. A woman recognizes Jenner’s experience as a person.

Your dog is female, your mother (provided she’s not transitioned!) is a woman.

“Bruce is transitioning to a woman,” says a source close to the family. “He is finally happy and his family is accepting of what he’s doing. He’s in such a great space. That’s why it’s the perfect time to do something like this.”

The outing aside, this isn’t too bad.

And according to a different Jenner insider, the 65-year-old reality star is filming his momentous journey, to be shared with viewers on a docu-series this year.

That sound you heard in the background was Nahas’s editor licking his chops in anticipation of months of this kind of piece. Months!

“It will air when he is ready to be open about his transition,” the source tells PEOPLE. “But he’s acting more and more confident and seems very happy.”

Implying that he’s not yet and that the source is being super shitty and outing him.

Jenner’s much-documented physical appearance (he’s been photographed with longer hair, manicured nails and wearing makeup) has led to much speculation, but according to the insider, Jenner’s decision to transition slowly was made in part so that his family would have time to adapt to the change.

Men with long hair, nice nails, and makeup! That’s so weird! Thank goodness Jenner turns out to be trans or this mystery would never be solved!

Jenner is going slowly to take into account his family, which is a totally understandable thing, even if it sucks for Jenner. If you, dear reader, have a friend or family member who wants to transition, examine what you’re doing wrong that might make them hold back. Stop doing it. Encourage others to do the same. Don’t be this guy:

“He’s being very smart about and also respectful about his transition,” the insider says. “Instead of completely shocking everyone, his changes have been subtle, and his family has had the chance to slowly get used to his new looks and life.”

Okay, if coming out slowly is important to someone, they absolutely have the right to do it. But it’s not “respectful” to wait for your prejudiced friends and family to get with the program—it’s fucking above and beyond the call of duty. Jenner has every right to say, “Look, I’m a woman now. If you’re not down for that, I don’t have the energy to try and keep you in my life. Goodbye.”

There isn’t a right way to come out, and tip-toeing around your transphobic relatives wouldn’t be it if you made me pick one.

And his family, including children Cassandra, 34, Burt, 36 (with ex wife Chrystie Crownover ) and sons Brandon, 33 and Brody, 31 (with ex wife Linda Thompson), as well as daughters Kendall, 19 and Kylie, 17 (with Kris Jenner) are adjusting to the new Bruce.”The [kids’] concern seems to be Bruce’s happiness, and he acts very pleased with his new life,” says the insider.

Score one for the Millenials; being significantly less dickish to LGBT people since ~1980.

Admits the family source: “It is an intense thing. Of course not everyone is 100 percent on board. Different people have different reactions. But everybody loves him.”

Oh well, as long as they love Jenner while invalidating Jenner’s choices, that’s totally cool. (Not.)

I get the impulse here, I really do. Having someone’s interests at heart while harming their interests does count for something. But it’s not a good excuse. You’re much better off just saying that they’re doing harm with the best intentions in their heart. It doesn’t excuse the harm, but it brings the shades of humanity to everyone.

When asked about Jenner on ET, his stepdaughter Kim Kardashian simply said, “I think everyone goes through things in life, and I think that story and what Bruce is going through, I think he’ll share whenever the time is right.”

This is actually a moderately cool thing for Kardashian to have said*. This understatedly frames coming out as normal without trivializing it. It punts the question back to Jenner, and it respects Jenner’s privacy. So, uh, good job Kim!

And when reached by PEOPLE, son Burt would only say his father is “doing awesome.”

Read: Fuck off, you’re not helping.

“The family is really giving this space and time to Bruce. This is his story and they want him to tell the world the way he wants,” the source close to the family says. “They really want to empower him to tell his story so that hopefully he can help other people too. That’s the goal.”

I hope that’s true and that Jenner’s going slow out of trying to avoid shitty publications dragging Jenner’s life through the mud. But just above we heard that maybe that’s not his biggest problem…

Now it appears that Jenner, finally happy in his own skin, will soon be ready to live life out in the open. “He has come out to those closest to him,” says the family source. “He’s so happy and excited. He gets to lay down a huge bag of bricks. He’s been through a dark period and is coming out on the other side.”

The nice thing about line-by-lining this now, even over just 4 years ago when I started this blog, is that this piece includes passages like this. Journalism about trans folks remains terrible, but there’s a real effort to include humanizing statements. Jenner’s not some man who is maybe a woman but not really—look at the hair and makeup, wonder what’s up with the genitals! Jenner now gets to be a man who is transitioning to be a woman—look at the hair and makeup.

No doubt we can still do better, though.

Numerous requests for comment from Jenner and his representatives were met with no reply.

Read: Jenner did not want this story to break now, but People outed him like dicks anyway.

*Words that I would never have envisioned on this blog, but here we are.

Written by R. A. Stark

February 3, 2015 at 12:20 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

We Don’t Have a Liberal Society to Destroy

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It’s easy to laugh at Johnathan Chait’s piece Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say. (Breaking: White guy wants everyone to chill out.) At the end he suggests that the liberal project—Western history since the Enlightenment—has a glorious record with black folks. This kind of claim should be responded to with shrieking laughter, and believe you me I did!

But what Chait gets wrong is worth talking about. It’s the fundamental lie undergirding liberal political thought. It goes deeper than the issue of his clear discomfort when people say things he disagrees with—though I’ll go through that first. It’s that we’ve never had the Liberal society he refers to, and the philosophers he alludes to never told us how to get there.

Chait’s Many Examples of Free Speech

I can’t believe we still have to remind people of this, but demanding that people not be given a platform that they can say something on is an extension of ones own use of freedom of speech. And, it is the freedom of private organizers to decide which party they side with in giving a platform. Under classical liberalism, in fact, it would be an undue infringement of their liberty to unbridle speech like that.

It is telling that none of Chait’s examples rely on a clear** state actor. They are mostly private groups retaliating against speech that they do not like. In no case is the state censoring speech and every case it is private groups who are somehow violating speech—and often, a further analysis indicates that they’re not. The cases are worth considering because they show the poverty of Chait’s practical complaints.

  • Omar Mahmood: People of unknown affiliation harassed him. A violation of non-speech rights occurred. At no point was he barred from sharing his views by the state. Commentators exercised their free speech to suggest that his original column overstepped communal decency.
  • Carol Jacobsen: A campus group stole a video from Jacobson. Theft of personal property occurred. At no point was her autonomy curtailed by the state. Commentators used their free speech to describer he work as putting forward a dangerous view about sex work.
  • Charlie Hebdo: Extremists murdered satirists and police. This is a clear violation of the right to life. At no point was their speech curtailed by the state. Commentators (including this one) used their free speech to suggest that Charlie Hebdo’s speech was vile; other publications used their right to free speech to decline to publish their work after the incident.
  • University Speakers: The student body got a petition to block Maher, Rice, and others from speaking. No violation of rights is claimed by the piece, including by the state**. Petitions and protests are rights closely linked to speech.
  • Trigger Warnings: Some actors (including this one) use their right to speech to implement TW/CW systems. At no point did the state** forbid speech. I’m genuinely confused about this point. (This is regardless of his dubious interpretation of what “controlled exposure” means. But it’s worth mentioning that it is not generally considered to be encountering it with no warning in a classroom, but rather in a therapy or therapy-backed setting.)
  • The Vagina Monologues: A campus group chose to use their free speech to say that they would no longer be staging a play they found objectionable. At no point were any individuals harmed.
  • Hanna Rosin: As told, she receives criticism from people speaking freely about her publicly available work. She chooses not to tweet as often as she would if more people agreed with her. No rights are violated. I would be remiss not to say that if she receives threats—which she likely does—then her right to security is being violated. But I’d be remiss not to further point out that free speech often takes precedence over personal security concerns in the current framework, especially for women. I don’t understand why Chait wants to go down this road!
  • Binders Full of Women Righters: People said things on social media. At no point were rights violated.
  • Short Sisters: A professor attacked them for their anti-abortion protest. Their right to property and bodily autonomy was violated. At no point did the state curtail their right to speak. Other people used their right to free speech to agree with the professor’s defense of her actions.
  • Fear of Online Feminists: The sensibilities of some online feminists are being bruised by other online feminists who use their free speech to say harsh things. No ones rights are being violated

Free speech is not the issue in a single one of these cases except maybe the speakers and trigger warnings at public universities—and that’s not a knock-out case. The instances of other rights being violated are troubling from a liberal standpoint, but we’re offered no follow-up on how those played out. Were those crimes prosecuted to the full extent of the law? Did the state buy into the arguments freely made in private forums?

We don’t know because Chait isn’t interested in that question. He’s interested in making sure people use their freedom in the right way. Are they saying the right things in response to illiberal events? Implicitly, do they believe the right things? Those who do not, are dangerous (Marxist!) radicals who threaten liberalism.

They are, to turn a phrase, thought criminals.

An Old Kind of Political Correctness

Let’s take another look at the Christine Lagarde example he brought up because it is delightfully uncomplicated. There was, as mentioned above, a petition to prevent her from giving the commencement speech at Smith.

Smith has no liberal guarantee of a platform. She is free to do and say what she likes. And as the head of the IMF, she was subject to scrutiny. If free speech is her getting present at Smith’s commencement, the Politiconomist submits that he should be allowed to give commencement this spring. My rights are being violated until they do!

But, no, the details Chait gives are these:

Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.”

No, he doesn’t make this about speech. It’s about the group’s politics. Chait is implicitly defending the “right” of the IMF’s head to shill at a major university by focusing on the group’s reason for asserting their will. What a delightful turn of events! He has made the issue that Lagarde’s detractors didn’t hold the same view as Lagarde and Smith College! Those silly Marxists, not using their freedoms correctly!

The Old Political Correctness is the argument that people with power deserve to use it. We should dismiss arguments against the IMF head because she has a right to that platform. It is the same political correctness that kept women out of office (men have power and deserve to use it), African Americans out of paying jobs (whites have economic power and deserve to have those jobs), and people like me from getting married (straight people have power and should be allowed to commit to their partners). Those who ally against power will be sanctioned too.

This is only fair if the way people came into power is fair—if that power deserves to be protected. The New Political Correctness is to pay deference to that history and those unfairnesses encoded into our system.

Classical Liberal Theory Two Paragraphs

Chait is arguing at a reasonably abstract level and that’s worth meeting on its own terms. He’s putting forward a classical vision of liberalism—that is, the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The classical liberals put forward a thought experiment, called the State of Nature, where they asked what would human organization look like without a state. They assumed that people want things and will pursue them if they want them enough.

They argued that family would be the only political structure that would arise naturally—natural here being without human engineering. Depending on how pessimistic the philosopher in question was, they predicted either some violence or oodles of violence. You would agree to a proportionally powerful state to restrain your neighbors, which only works if you agree to said proportionally powerful state restraining you. You would want to keep as much of that autonomy that lets you pursue your wants as you could. And, critically to Chait’s position, that includes free speech.

Historical Baggage

This thought experiment’s biggest strength and biggest weakness are actually the same thing: It clears the historical baggage of society. It’s a worthwhile question to ask what would happen if we could build a society from scratch. We can get a sense of the stripped down essence of how we’d want society to function. But it’s completely disingenuous to suggest, for example, that the United States was this kind of liberal experiment.

Scratch that, it’s fucking genocidal. Our methods of state building in the United States were brutal. We relocated and exterminated the Native population. We enslaved Africans and brought them here to form a sub-human labor class and build our infrastructure—that they had no access to. You cannot reasonably expect even a few generations of work to dismantle all that, and you certainly can’t just wave your hand and suggest it never happened and society should reflect that.

This turns Chait’s thesis on its head. It’s not political correctness (whatever that means) which is threatening liberalism because liberalism has never had a chance to take root as envisioned. We have to take the long way around because we can’t start from the State of Nature*. Which leads to a very interesting question: Can illiberal policies move us towards the liberal state? The answer depends critically on how those policies move us. Pity he has no interest in asking that or answering it.

From the State of Injustice

The State of Nature doesn’t ask us to reconcile with 500 years of human trafficking, slavery, poverty, murder, and theft. How do we deal with these realities? How do we deal with the fact that from cradle onward, black men and women have to deal with the institutional deck being stacked against them? Other injustices? When there is more than thing operating at once? This State of Injustice creates nuanced, difficult problems that classical liberalism is designed to avoid.

Indeed, fully describing the specific problems is a monumental task in and of itself. Historical context, system evolution, and the subjective nature of these analyses make this all rather difficult. But I think should be able to agree that correcting these imbalances is not the same problem as avoiding them by making society out of idyllic family farms.

Freedom and power are inextricably linked. Those with nominal “freedom” cannot use it if they have no power; those with power can leverage it. In this way, liberal conceptions of rights become a way to enforce the status quo. Again, when this comes out of the State of Nature and through equal agreement, that is powerful. It means that the status quo is just and maintained. But the rush to protect the (nebulous) free speech of powerful people serves only power. To render this good, power must be presently just; cue more shrieking laughter.

For Free Speech (and basically all rights) this means that we have decide how to take the long way around. We must necessarily limit power—and thereby freedom—of someone who has it unjustly. When someone rich, white, and male like Bill Maher uses those unjust privileges to push an agenda that further takes power from a religious minority, when the consequence of wielding ones freedoms is unjust, using our own power to strike back and limit them is quite likely the liberal course. To do anything else is to preserve that person’s “right” to do damage.

We do not live in a just world; we should not expect the protections that are predicated on the assumption that we do.

The question, equally complicated, is how any such prima facia illiberal policy moves us towards or away from Liberal justice. Banning Charlie Hebdo from mocking Islam in a country that just a generation ago occupied a Muslim territory with brutal colonial policies is only clearly unjust if you ignore the consequences of such deeply entrenched racism. Truly liberal justice cannot flourish so long as racism permeates a society. The contours of such a ban are going to be difficult to hash out and may ultimately be discarded as the wrong way to go, but The State of Nature offers no guidance at any rate.


Of course, Chait should be worried that the Liberal program might ask questions about the real world. Chait is a white author who is clearly uncomfortable with people analyzing power disparities. If we admit that the thought experiment put forward by the classical liberals has no answers to the thornier question of how to build a liberal society from the status quo, then we must ask if Chait has been a beneficiary of that system. And of course he has!

It is therefore much easier to fret that those using their free speech to raise uncomfortable ideas are destroying a society we’ve never had. More’s the pity; liberals like Chait should should be helping us figure out how to build that.

*State funded universities are tricky because they are pseudo-private. I’m not resolving that problem today, but suffice it to say that the contractual nature of association with universities combined with their lack of public legislative power makes them, at least, poor examples of state power. Moreover, Chait doesn’t seem interested in the distinction.

**I’m being charitable and assuming that human nature isn’t such that we organize into tribal cliques and create this historical baggage coming out of the State of Nature. This is a non-trivial assumption and warrants its own examination elsewhere.

Written by R. A. Stark

January 29, 2015 at 9:25 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Austerity: Still Good for Greece and bad for the US

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The Greek anti-austerity party won the Greek elections. And I’m seeing some early reactions from Americans that are not entirely warranted.

I get it. The United States would have benefitted from more stimulus in the wake of the crash. Policy choices made 7 years ago almost certainly extended the recession and recovery. And, to a lesser degree, I even get why conservatives would want to draw the analogy.

But you must recognize that the United States is not Greece.

The first major difference is to realize how much Greek citizens are paying to keep past borrowing afloat. In the United States, about 6 cents in every dollar paid in taxes* goes to paying interest owed. This is, as these things go, consequential but hardly economy defining. By contrast, Greece is paying around 10%—which is down from 14% at the crisis’ peak. Put in plain English, the Greeks have to enact tax changes or program cuts twice as big to have the same effect on debt servicing. Think about how hard that is for us. Now, think about twice as hard.

Anther major difference is the rates of interest on public debt. The United States is currently issuing long term bonds at around 2 and quarter percent. The greeks are paying just about twice that right now and were paying over 10 times that at the height of the crisis. If they want to finance new spending, they have to pay out the nose!

The trouble is that the interest rates in Greece now are part of a political deal; they don’t reflect market valuation. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that so long as the debt conditions put restraints on Greek borrowing, but it means that the high price of debt service is a better comparison to the US’s. Private investors believe the United States is much more likely to pay debts than Greece. (And so international governments stepped in.) If you want to finance government spending in the United States, it’s cheap and likely to stay that way; not so in Greece.

And that’s where the trouble is. Shaking off austerity will send Greece back to pre-deal levels of debt servicing and interest rates.

Bitter as it is, Greece isn’t the United States.

Written by R. A. Stark

January 27, 2015 at 12:00 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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