Category Archives: Random Blogging

How The Big Lie Works

Most of us have heard the famous quote by Hitler henchman Joseph Goebbles, who said  “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

The importance of repetition to this formula has been confirmed by a recent study  conducted by three scholars at Yale–a psychologist, an economist and a professor of management. They were researching the so-called “fake news” phenomenon in the wake of the 2016 election, and a key conclusion was that repeated exposure to inaccurate or false information makes its acceptance far more likely.

Subjects rate familiar fake news (posts they have seen even only one time before) as more accurate than unfamiliar real news headlines. The perceived accuracy of a headline increases linearly as the number of times a participant is exposed to that headline grows, suggesting “a compounding effect of familiarity across time.”

The research findings suggest that “politicians who continuously repeat false statements will be successful, at least to some extent, in convincing people those statements are in fact true,” and that the echo chambers so many voters inhabit create “incubation chambers for blatantly false (but highly salient and politicized) fake news stories.”

The salience of repeated disinformation makes it incredibly difficult for experts and real journalists to debunk widely accepted beliefs, especially beliefs about the success or failure of complex public policies. I’ve previously cited papers written by Peter the Citizen, the nom-de-plume of a former staff member in the Reagan White House, whose area of expertise is welfare policy. Unlike current Republican lawmakers, Peter is interested in making welfare policies actually work for people in need, and for the past several years he has tried to “speak truth to power”–to call out his fellow conservatives when they engage in self-serving “big lies.”

For example, in response to a publicized interview titled “Maine Shows How To Make Welfare Work,” in which Jared Meyer, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, interviewed Mary Mayhew, former Commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, Peter meticulously countered what he labeled “conservative talking points and misleading data analyses.”

Another paper, “The Failure of Conservative Welfare Reform is what ‘Traps the Poor in Payouts’: A Response to Adam Brandon,”  responds to–and rebuts– one of the often-repeated assertions that reforms instituted by then-Wisconsin-governor Tommy Thompson improved the lives and incomes of poor people in that state.

As Peter’s research has convincingly demonstrated, when sound methodologies and scholarly rigor are applied, the pat defenses of welfare reform, TANF, and various other punitive state policies prove hollow. They have not incentivized work (after all, the majority of welfare recipients are children, the elderly and the disabled) and they’ve done little or nothing to actually help poor people. Worse, the block grant structure turns funding streams purportedly intended to ameliorate poverty into massive “slush funds” for Governors.

But the “big lie” apparently works as well with policy wonks as with the general public. Repeat sunny but discredited analyses often enough, and they become conventional wisdom. Repeat ridiculous conspiracy theories often enough, and they become memes.

Mitch McConnell and the Administration continue to insist that their “healthcare” bill is better than Obamacare. Rightwing media has repeatedly reported Kellyanne Conway’s denial that Medicaid is being cut.

I have proof that Donald Trump is really an alien. (That explains his inability to spell or use the English language properly.) He was sent from Alpha Centuri to test America’s ability to deal with a destabilizing madman…Post it to Facebook and tell all your friends.

Buy This Book!

I think I may be in love with Al Franken. In fact, I think he’d be a great President! (Of course, next to the one we have, my cat would be a great President–and I don’t have a cat. Still…)

I just finished reading Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. I recommend it highly–and not only for its humor. (But the humor is great.)

The book tells the story of Franken’s improbable voyage from Saturday Night Live (and other venues for less than decorous humor) to the U.S. Senate, and it is more informative than most textbooks if you want to learn about the political process, the operation of the United States Senate, the day to day job description of a Senator, and the pros and cons of a variety of thorny political issues.

As the flyleaf says, “it’s a book about what happens when the nation’s foremost progressive satirist gets a chance to serve in the United States Senate and, defying the expectations of the pundit class, actually turns out to be good at it.” It’s also “a book about our deeply polarized, frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring political culture, written from inside the belly of the beast.”

The book is a testament to democratic decision-making and public service, written by a mensch. (Google it.) Franken’s self-deprecating storytelling, his willingness to credit his staff and his family and even his constituents for his accomplishments, is particularly refreshing at a time when America’s Commander-in-Chief insists on taking personal credit for any event that is even remotely positive, whether he had anything to do with it or not. (Any day now, I fully expect him to take credit for the sun rising in the morning.)

If the real Al Franken is the same person who comes across in this book, he’s a great guy–down to earth, level-headed, self-aware–with a great sense of humor. (Genuine humor, when you think about it, requires a sense of proportion and an appreciation of reality.) Evidently, you can speak truth to power without being an asshole; you can be a committed progressive and still get along with equally committed conservatives; and you can take seriously your obligation to represent the people who live in your state without being a sanctimonious prig.

You can also learn how to be an effective “insider” without getting co-opted by “the system.”

The best thing about this book? It restored my faith in the possibilities of democracy. (Note the word “possibilities.”) Given Franken’s candid reporting on the current state of our nation, democracy is far from being realized, but it does remain a (tantalizing) possibility.

Buy the damn book.

It’s All About Turnout

Many Americans are convinced that gerrymandering–while admittedly a bipartisan offense–  has operated since 2011 to given Republicans power vastly disproportionate to their vote margins. (If you don’t believe that, read Ratf***ked).

I for one am thrilled that the Supreme Court will take up the issue during its coming term, and I’m cautiously optimistic that the new statistical and analytical tools that can distinguish between purposeful game-playing and “luck of the draw” redistricting will persuade the court to abandon its prior reluctance to weigh in–a reluctance based largely upon the absence of such tools.

That said–and fingers crossed–David Leonhardt made a critically-important point in a recent New York Times column.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Hillary Clinton would be president. Even with Donald Trump’s working-class appeal, Clinton could have swept Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, Democrats would control the Senate. Clinton or Barack Obama could then have filled the recent Supreme Court vacancy, and that justice would hold the tiebreaking vote on campaign finance, labor unions and other issues.

If liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives, the country would be doing more to address the two defining issues of our time — climate change and stagnant middle-class living standards.

Leonhardt’s point is important, and too often overlooked.

Even the most sophisticated gerrymandering is based upon prior voter turnout in the areas involved. If polling and survey research are correct, a majority of Americans hold progressive policy preferences–but large numbers of them don’t express those preferences at the polls. They don’t vote. To repeat the obvious, gerrymandering is based upon prior voting patterns.

I vividly remember conversations with John Sweezy, then the Marion County Republican Party Chair, back when I was a Republican. At the time (late 1970’s) Indianapolis/Marion County was safely Republican; it remained that way for thirty-two years. Even then, however, with the GOP in firm control of every local office, Democrats in the county outnumbered Republicans by a margin of 3-2.  Had the same percentage of registered Democrats voted as Republicans, they’d have won those offices. As John said more than once, “Thank God, Democrats don’t vote.”

It’s all about turnout. Even supposedly “safe” legislative districts can be won by the “loser” party if that party can generate a sufficient increase in turnout.

There are all kinds of theories about why Democratic turnout lags that of the Republicans, and several of those theories have explanatory power. Right now, the more important question is: how do we motivate these voters? How do we convince them that their votes really can make a difference, that the game hasn’t been so rigged by gerrymandering and crazy Voter ID requirements and inconvenient polling places and the like that it just isn’t worth the effort?

As Leonhardt says,

What can be done? First, don’t make the mistake of blaming everything on nefarious Republicans. Yes, Republicans have gerrymandered districts and shamefully suppressed votes (and Democrats should keep pushing for laws that make voting easier). But the turnout gap is bigger than any Republican scheme.

Second, keep in mind that turnout is a human-behavior problem. It involves persuading people to change long-established habits. And there is a powerful force uprooting all kinds of habits today: digital technology.

More specifically, smartphones are changing how people interact with information. I’d encourage progressives in Silicon Valley to think of voting as a giant realm ripe for disruption. Academic research by Alan Gerber, Donald Green and others has shown that peer pressure can lift turnout. Smartphones are the most efficient peer-pressure device ever invented, but no one has figured out how social media or texting can get a lot more people to the polls — yet.

Even a really good gerrymandering decision from the Supreme Court will be followed by years of state-level game-playing and obstruction–in both red and blue states. But we can work on turnout right now.

Democrats don’t have to “peel off” Republican voters, a tactic that failed to deliver Tuesday in Georgia. We just have to get the people who already agree with us to the polls.

Truth Or Power

One of the very few (inadvertently) positive outcomes of Trump’s election has been an eruption of public soul-searching by thoughtful Republicans. Pundits like David Brooks, Jennifer Rubin, David Frum and Michael Gerson have cut through the dissembling and hypocrisy of Congressional Republicans, and haven’t hesitated to point out the consequences of electing a spectacularly naked “emperor.”

A recent column by Gerson contained a scathing and utterly accurate summary of the man demanding (and receiving) Republican loyalty.

President Trump is remarkably unpopular, particularly with the young (among whom his approval is underwater by a remarkable 48 percentage points in one poll). And the reasons have little to do with elitism or media bias.

Trump has been ruled by compulsions, obsessions and vindictiveness, expressed nearly daily on Twitter. He has demonstrated an egotism that borders on solipsism. His political skills as president have been close to nonexistent. His White House is divided, incompetent and chaotic, and key administration jobs remain unfilled. His legislative agenda has gone nowhere. He has told constant, childish, refuted, uncorrected lies, and demanded and habituated deception among his underlings. He has humiliated and undercut his staff while requiring and rewarding flattery. He has promoted self-serving conspiracy theories. He has displayed pathetic, even frightening, ignorance on policy matters foreign and domestic. He has inflicted his ethically challenged associates on the nation. He is dead to the poetry of language and to the nobility of the political enterprise, viewing politics as conquest rather than as service.

Trump has made consistent appeals to prejudice based on religion and ethnicity, and associated the Republican Party with bias. He has stoked tribal hostilities. He has carelessly fractured our national unity. He has attempted to undermine respect for any institution that opposes or limits him — be it the responsible press, the courts or the intelligence community. He has invited criminal investigation through his secrecy and carelessness. He has publicly attempted to intimidate law enforcement. He has systematically alarmed our allies and given comfort to authoritarians. He promised to emancipate the world from American moral leadership — and has kept that pledge.

The Republican lawmakers who continue to support, excuse and enable this deeply disturbed man demonstrate where their values truly lie, and what their priorities truly are. For Ryan, McConnell and their obedient GOP minions in the House and Senate, clinging to power is far more important than serving the nation. Most of them know how dangerous Trump is, and how much harm he is doing, but they won’t desert his sinking ship until it costs them at the ballot box.

The irony is, the GOP is reaping what it very deliberately sowed.

From Nixon’s “Southern strategy” on, the Grand Old Party has been encouraging racial and religious resentments, rewarding “base” voters (in both senses of that word) with red meat rhetoric and divisive policies. It has colluded with rightwing media, supplying “talking points” to the talk radio ranters and Fox News, and defending racist and misogynist messaging.

As the party has become ever more cult-like, it has lost the so-called “country club” Republicans and the fiscally conservative, socially-liberal voters who used to make up a considerable portion of its membership. (When we see reports that majorities of Republicans still support Trump, we need to recognize that the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans is far smaller than it used to be. Those supporters are the majority of a shrinking minority.) More recently, the party has lost the conservative pundits who genuinely care about policies and principles.

The question now is: how long will it be until the inevitable backlash–and how much harm to America will have been done in the meantime?

Which America Do You Live In?

My father was called up for service in World War II when I was a toddler, and when the war ended, I was still far too young to comprehend what “war” really meant. But one of the most vivid memories I have of those days was coming across my mother reading something called “The Black Book,” and crying.

The book was a compendium of Nazi atrocities. My mother said I was too young to hear about such things (as I recall, I was about five) but that I should always remember how lucky I was to live in the United States.

Years later, I read multiple historical and sociological analyses in an effort to understand how the Nazis came to power, how otherwise good people could participate in–or turn a blind eye to–what was happening. The lesson I took away began with an economic reality: when people are experiencing economic insecurity and privation–especially if they see that others are flourishing– resentments suppressed in better times surface, and the very human need to find someone or some group to blame for loss of status and/or security becomes incredibly easy for demagogues to manipulate.

There’s a reason that loss of the American middle class is so dangerous.

A recent book by an MIT economist paints a very troubling picture: America is now two countries, and one of those countries looks a lot like the third world.

 Peter Temin, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, believes the ongoing death of “middle America” has sparked the emergence of two countries within one, the hallmark of developing nations. In his new book, The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, Temin paints a bleak picture where one country has a bounty of resources and power, and the other toils day after day with minimal access to the long-coveted American dream.

In his view, the United States is shifting toward an economic and political makeup more similar to developing nations than the wealthy, economically stable nation it has long been. Temin applied W. Arthur Lewis’s economic model – designed to understand the workings of developing countries – to the United States in an effort to document how inequality has grown in America.

Temin describes multiple contributing factors in the nation’s arrival at this place, from exchanging the War on Poverty for the War on Drugs to money in politics and systemic racism. He outlines the ways in which racial prejudice continues to lurk below the surface, allowing politicians to appeal to the age old “desire to preserve the inferior status of blacks”, encouraging white low-wage workers to accept their lesser place in society.

Temin lists policies that could begin to ameliorate the economic divide: Expanding education, updating infrastructure, forgiving mortgage and student loan debt, and programs to encourage social mobility for all Americans.

Right now, of course, the clear priority of Congress–let alone the current, deranged occupant of the Oval Office–is tax reduction for the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

What’s that famous Santayana quote? Those who who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.