Tag Archives: insanity

The Crowding-Out Effect

Tomorrow is the most important Election Day in my lifetime. Among other things, the results will tell me whether my longtime faith in the common sense and goodwill of my fellow Americans has been justified or misplaced.

Hopefully, after tomorrow, this blog can return to discussions of rational, albeit debatable, policy proposals, commentary on interesting research results, and occasional forays into legal disputes and political philosophy. Hopefully too, we will have occasion to use a phrase introduced by Gerald Ford: “our long national nightmare is over.”

One aspect of that “long national nightmare,” of course, is the incredible amount of destruction it will leave in its wake–regulations that must be reinstated, laws that must once again be enforced, corrupt people who must be held accountable, and a return to public health directed by medical scientists rather than politicians, among many other things.

The opposite of “nightmare” is a good night’s sleep, and if all goes well, we can once again look forward to days when we haven’t had to think about the President of the United States, followed by nights when we can once again sleep soundly because–whether we agree with administration policies or not– a sane and honorable person is in charge.

If there is one word I have heard over and over during this political season, it is “exhaustion.” Trump’s desperate need for constant attention, his bizarre tweet-storms, insults and various insanities have sucked the oxygen out of our public life. He has been in our faces, on our television screens, Facebook feeds and comedy routines. As several columnists have recently noted, he has crowded out so many activities that we would otherwise enjoy–books of fiction, works of art and music, conversations with friends that didn’t give rise to disappointment when we discovered their willingness to look the other way so long as their 401K stayed healthy…

Last Thursday, at the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote about all the things we’ve lost.

After listing the “big” things–the lives lost to COVID, the children whose parents can’t be located, the people whose livelihoods have disappeared, and after acknowledging the greater significance of those losses, she speaks for so many of us:

When I think back, from my obviously privileged position, on the texture of daily life during the past four years, all the attention sucked up by this black hole of a president has been its own sort of loss. Every moment spent thinking about Trump is a moment that could have been spent contemplating, creating or appreciating something else. Trump is a narcissistic philistine, and he bent American culture toward him.

I’ve no doubt that great work was created over the past four years, but I missed much of it, because I was too busy staring in incredulous horror at my phone….

Conservatives love to jeer Democrats for being obsessed with Trump, for letting him live, as many put it, rent-free in our heads. It’s a cruel accusation, like setting someone’s house on fire and then laughing at them for staring at the flames. The outrage Trump sparks leaves less room for many other things — joy, creativity, reflection — but every bit of it is warranted. The problem is the president, not how his victims respond to him.

If the polls are right, if Biden wins convincingly, Americans will nevertheless be on pins and needles until January 20th. We won’t be out of the woods until this blot on our nation and our history is gone–and even then, we will be left with the alt-right haters and know-nothings who have spent the campaign brandishing guns, refusing to wear masks and cheering ugly pronouncements at Trump rallies– voters motivated by fear and grievance who want only to “own the libs.”

Buckle up. We’re about to see how this horror show ends.

 

Joe Biden Is Coming For Your Windows

If it wasn’t so serious–and terrifying–it would be funny. 

Anyone who watched Trump’s Rose Garden “press conference” and still thinks that the guardian of the nuclear codes is sane, is equally demented. 

Dana Milbank shared his bemusement in the Wednesday Washington Post.

President Trump’s window is closing.

All signs suggest it’s closing on his presidency because of his world-class incompetence with the coronavirus pandemic, the protracted economic collapse that resulted, and the increasingly overt racism Trump has embraced.
 
But it also appears the window is closing on his connection to reality, if it hasn’t already.

Milbank described Trump’s use of the ostensible press conference to launch a bizarre and lengthy attack on Joe Biden– “attributing a platform to his Democratic opponent that bore hardly any resemblance to anything occurring in the real world.”
 
Trump informed the assembled White House reporters that Biden would “incentivize illegal alien child smuggling,”  “abolish immigration enforcement,” “abolish police departments” and “abolish our prisons.” According to Trump, Democrats are “calling for defunding of our military” and “wouldn’t mind” if terrorists blew up America’s cities.

He also said “Biden and Obama stopped their testing– they just stopped it.” (Presumably, they are also culpable for failing to prevent 9/11.)

The weirdest accusation was that Biden’s energy plan would require eliminating windows. According to Trump’s unhinged diatribe, Biden’s energy plan “basically means no windows” in homes or offices by 2030.

Uh-huh.

Lest you think Milbank was exaggerating for comic effect, his description of the “press conference” (note quotation marks) was echoed by a number of other observers. Cody Fenwick attributed the performance to Trump’s longing for the rallies he has been unable to hold.

There was no consistent thread or argument to his ramblings, aside from his own supposed greatness. It was pure stream of consciousness, supplemented by factoids apparently printed on notes on his lectern. He claimed to be the defender of African Americans at one moment because he favors school choice, but then slipped into attacking low-income housing and saying he’d preserve the suburbs — an unsubtle code for protecting white neighborhoods.

He lied so constantly that CNN’s Daniel Dale, one of the president’s most assiduous fact-checkers, noted that he couldn’t cover the speech in real-time on Twitter because there were just so many falsehoods.

The Lincoln Project tweeted out: “We’re watching the self-destruction of the president in real time.”

And back at the Washington Post, in a column that was far from amusing or bemused, Paul Waldman argued that people who aren’t furious with Trump and the GOP just aren’t paying attention.

Let me take you for a moment to a fantasy land. In this place, the coronavirus pandemic was bad for a couple of months but now it is largely under control. If you lived there you’d still be a little uncertain about going to a concert or a movie, but your life would have largely returned to normal.
 
You wouldn’t have lost your job; the government would have had a comprehensive support program that kept unemployment low. You’d be able to see your family and friends without fear. Your children would be returning to school in September. There would be some precautions to take for a while longer, but there would be no doubt that the pandemic was on its way to being defeated.

As Waldman says, this isn’t a fairy-tale; it’s life in numerous other countries around the world. (I know it’s true of the Netherlands, because I have a son who lives in Amsterdam, and that’s been his experience.)

Waldman provides data that should enrage us: new case totals from Monday. France: 580; UK: 564; Spain: 546; Germany: 365; Canada: 299; Japan: 259;  Italy: 200; Australia: 158; South Korea: 52.

The United States? 55,300.

There are many reasons we have experienced this catastrophe (and it quickly became two catastrophes, an economic crisis added to the public health crisis), but one stands above all others: President Trump.

Is there a single aspect of his response to this pandemic that has not been a miserable failure? For weeks he ignored warnings and denied that the pandemic would be a problem. He didn’t prepare the equipment and systems we’d need to respond.

Waldman lists the failures, then focuses on the President’s disconnect from reality.

And he demanded that everyone around him echo his insane claims that everything is under control and the pandemic is being vanquished. It was a month ago that Vice President Pence pathetically proclaimed that “we are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” and the administration’s great success was “cause for celebration.”

And now (since nothing bad can ever be Trump’s fault) the White House is trying to discredit Dr. Fauci.

As Waldman points out, we should all be furious–because we’ve been robbed:

Even if you’re lucky enough not to have gotten sick or lost a loved one, you’re the victim of a robbery. Trump stole so much from all of us — our time with friends and family, our mental health, even our faith that our country could meet a challenge.

I can just hear the Trumpers’ response: but think how angry we’ll be when Joe Biden steals our windows…

 

 

 

 

Wow

The title of a recent article by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine was eye-catching: “I”ve seen the future of a Republican Party that is not insane.”

Chait’s essay focused on a relatively unknown think tank: the Niskanen Center. The Center was named for a now-deceased economist who served in the Reagan Administration and then worked for the libertarian Cato Institute. Toward the end of his life, he began to question libertarianism’s rigid ideological lens. He developed– and expressed– doubts about supply-side economics, based upon–gasp!–evidence that those theories hadn’t worked.

Niskanen’s observation that tax rates needed to reflect actual rather than desired spending levels is banal to right-of-center economists in almost any country. But it was (and is) absolute heresy on the Republican right, which has elevated anti-tax absolutism into a theological principle.

The Center has developed a research agenda that is detached from what Chait calls the “theological certainties” of the current GOP.  Its scholars begin with the audacious assumption–scorned by fringe political activists on the left and pretty much all of the right– that policy should be based upon empirical evidence rather than ideology-cum-theology.

Center scholars have argued against “small-government monomania” and in favor of a social safety net to “increase the public’s tolerance for the dislocations of a dynamic free-market economy.” They have accused libertarianism of hostility to democracy and attributed persistent Republican efforts “to find ways to keep Democrats from voting” to that hostility.

Center scholars have compared libertarian political theories to empirical data, and concluded that the data rebuts “the notion that downward redistribution picks the pockets of makers and doles it out to layabout takers.” They have acknowledged that countries with more generous social safety nets have more robust market economies and more individual freedom.

The Center recently issued a paper conceding that an oversimplified small-government vision fails to come to terms with important facts about political and economic life, including the persistence of structural racism. The libertarian belief that capitalism’s rewards are based almost exclusively on merit and hard work ignores the massive inequality that was originally produced by brute force.

Although the paper argues convincingly that market forces do a better job than central planners, it also notes that most of the regulations movement conservatives target are those that advance legitimate social objectives — protecting health, safety and the environment — and impose costs on existing firms. The regulations they believe do need to be scaled back are rules imposed by state and local governments to protect owners of businesses and land.

That is, they recognize that regulations can be either good or bad–and they argue that Republicans are attacking the wrong ones. To oppose regulation per se is to ignore the realities of 21st Century economies.

Chait’s reference to ideology as “theology” illuminates the central problem of our times: “true believers” of all sorts who elevate fact-free belief over evidence, who reject the complexities of the real world in favor of a simple one defined by  bright lines and moral absolutes, and who are profoundly uncomfortable with ambiguity.

It’s a short step from “true believer” to cult member–and today’s GOP looks more and more like a cult. If insanity is the rejection of evidence-based decision-making, Chait’s title makes perfect sense.

The Inmates and the Asylum

Remember the old line about the inmates running the asylum? We’re so there.

Catherine Rampell’s recent column in the Washington Post spelled it out:

Time to trade in those red #MAGA caps, Trumpkins. If you want your headgear to fit in with the latest White House fashions, invest in some tinfoil.

From top to bottom, this administration has been infested with conspiracy theorists. Most appear to be true believers. Take Stephen K. Bannon and his anxieties about the “deep state,” or the recently ousted Michael Flynn and his propagation of suggestions that Hillary Clinton was tied to a child sex ring run out of a D.C. pizza parlor.

Others, such as Kellyanne Conway, appear to just be paranoiacs for pay.

Conway, as you’ll recall, says our microwaves are spying on us…. Then there’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney , who shared his suspicions of his predecessor’s job reports:

We’ve thought for a long time, I did, that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the workforce to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was,” Mulvaney told CNN’s Jake Tapper. Mulvaney declined to say exactly how the numbers were being manipulated, saying the explanation might “bore people.”

In case you were concerned about this numerical manipulation, you will be pleased to know that when the numbers made Trump look good (or so he believed–he actually hadn’t been in office long enough to have an effect on employment one way or the other), they suddenly/magically became credible.

Rampell points to others in the administration who hold–how to put this?–unconventional ideas. There’s Scott Pruitt, of course, who dismisses settled science on climate change. There’s  Curtis Ellis, an appointee in the Labor Department who has argued that Democrats engage in “ethnic cleansing” of working-class whites. There’s Sid Bowdidge, a massage therapist with no discernible relevant credentials, appointed to the Energy Department, Rampell tells us, “despite tweeting that Muslims ought to be exterminated and Obama was related to radical Islamist terrorists”.

It’s hardly just coincidence that the Trump executive branch is rife with beliefs that are wholly disconnected from reality. Such beliefs were a foundation of his campaign. Of course this would be the talent he attracts. Not scientists, experts or others who believe in weighing evidence, but people who heard Trump’s many malicious lies and reckless insinuations — that vaccines cause autism, that Ted Cruz’s dad was connected to the JFK assassination, that Mexicans are flooding over the border to rape and kill, that Antonin Scalia and Vince Foster may have been murdered, that 3 million people voted illegally, that our first black president was born in Kenya — and said: “Sign me up!”

Not long after reading Rampell’s funny-but-sad-and-scary enumeration of the Trump Administration’s nutballs and conspiracy-theorists, I came across a report confirming her assertion that many Trump voters shared and applauded these sentiments. And worse.

Maricopa County burnished its reputation as the Trumpiest in America last weekend as hundreds of locals, including heavily armed militamen, white nationalists and even a few elected officials, gathered to support the 45th president. The ensuing “March for Trump” was as horrifying as it sounds.

Aside from the predictable misogyny, the continued calls to “lock her (Hillary Clinton) up,” and angry rejection of the notion that America has any obligation to take in refugees, there was lots of that “old time religion” aka unrepentant bigotry.

Some even dared to tell Dan Cohen of the Real News Network how they’d make America great again now that Trump is in office. And Muslims weren’t the only religious minority unwelcomed.

“If she’s Jewish, she should go back to her country,” a 13-year-old Trump supporter said of a protester.

“This is America, we don’t want Sharia law,” one attendee explained. “Christian country,” he added.

One man insisted that Senator John McCain was a “secret communist.”

Beam me up, Scotty!

Today’s deepest political schisms aren’t partisan, and they aren’t political in the traditional sense of that word. Americans aren’t arguing about policies, about different prescriptions for solving problems, or conflicting interpretations of constitutional restraints.

The reason we are having so much difficulty communicating is because today’s divisions are increasingly between people who live in the real world, and people who have long since lost touch with it.

And guess who’s running the show?

When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

Political Animal recently reported on negative reactions from rightwing bloggers to a statement made by President Obama.

Now, granted, reporting the fact that rightwing activists would criticize this President falls under the “sun rose yesterday” category of news, but this reaction was unusually revealing, given the point the President was making: that evidence should trump theory.

Here’s Obama’s entire paragraph, so that the context is clear:

I guess to make a broader point, so often in the past there’s been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that’s been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you’re some crazy communist that’s going to take away everybody’s property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory — you should just decide what works.

The point being made in the rest of the article is the fairly obvious one (obvious, at least, to folks who follow politics in the real world)–the reactionaries who currently control the GOP are obsessed with ideology to such an extent that when reality doesn’t confirm their beliefs, they opt to retain the beliefs rather than acknowledge the reality. Thus

A simple statement from the President that economies should simply pick solutions that work, somehow becomes a fundamental betrayal.

We see this reaction everywhere. The article refers to Kansas and Louisiana, both of which are in a world of hurt after several years of GOP orthodoxy, and the very different experience of blue states like California. I’ve previously compared Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where Koch brothers ideology reins, to Mark Dayton’s Minnesota, where the economy is booming despite the imposition of new and higher tax rates and increased public investment in education.

In a functional political ecosystem that would be a cause for reckoning and introspection, but no acknowledgement of failure has been forthcoming from the GOP. Instead its candidates are doubling down on more of the same. For them, conservative orthodoxy cannot fail; it can only be failed.

In the alternate reality built by committed ideologues, changing one’s position because the evidence has demonstrated that the position is in error makes one a “flip flopper.” In the real world, amassing evidence of what works and what doesn’t is called “research,” and successful humans do it in order to bring our beliefs into conformity with facts that can be empirically demonstrated. (In the academy, we call that process “learning.”)

A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. By that definition, the GOP has gone insane.