Tag Archives: Jonathan Chait

Why is this not a scandal?

Politico reports that the Hillary Clinton campaign has a plan to capture the Democratic Party nomination for president by March 1, 2016.

Eleven states will vote on March 1, including delegate-heavy Texas, Virginia and Colorado. And while her aides say that Clinton can and will compete vigorously in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, her fate will depend on dispatching challengers in March — something she critically failed to do last time around.
If it works, the former secretary of state will have wrapped up the party’s nomination before spring ends — with only 32 states and two territories having voted — thereby avoiding the kind of protracted battle that consumed much of 2008.


This means pretty evidently that, if she had her way, Hillary Clinton would claim  her party’s nomination — a major step in the nation’s electoral process  — without allowing citizens in any of the following states to participate in the decision:

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Washington, DC, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

A politician openly plans to exclude a large part of the national electorate from a major decision. why is this not a scandal?

The point here is not to take a dig at Clinton. The point is to emphasize that America is not governed democratically. Here’s a second bit of evidence supporting the argument. This one comes from Jonathan Chait’s recent column:

[Interviewer John] Harwood: Ronald Reagan . . . had in 1980 an electorate that was 88 percent white, and so did you in Wisconsin. The national electorate is not 88 percent white. If you took Reagan’s percentages with today’s makeup of the electorate, he would lose. Why is Reagan a good model in terms of the winning part?
[Wisconsin Governor Scott ]Walker: The demographics you mentioned, I mean it’s an interesting question. The nation as a whole is not going to elect the next president. Twelve states are. Wisconsin’s one of them. I’m sitting in another one right now, New Hampshire. There’s going to be Colorado, where I was born, Iowa, where I lived, Ohio, Florida, a handful of other states. In total, it’s about 11 or 12 states that are going elect the next president.


So on both sides of the political aisle, there are explicit strategies to win the presidency by openly and explicitly ignoring large parts of the electorate.

Some will say that the later-voting states will still be allowed to votes even though Clinton will have obtained the majority of delegate votes before hand. Some will say that that is just how it works. Some will say that the states are free to set their election dates, and it is not Clinton’s fault that some states vote late. Some will say we should look to the other party to offset Clinton.

I think that so much of the American population is already excluded from effective participation in the electoral process, by gerrymandering, by voting machine manipulations, by selective enforcement of voter ID requirements, and by other means, that the one person-one vote ideal is no longer taken seriously. Over at The Constitution Project, there is a rhapsodic paean to the one-person, one vote principle and a narrative of how America’s great leaders worked until voting rights were guaranteed for all! But it just isn’t true.

Do you think that your vote counts as much as that of any other American? Do you think voting is an effective way of steering local, state or national affairs in the direction you want them to go?  Would you say that in recent years you’ve cast your votes with a great degree of confidence, and that your expectations have been fulfilled by the performance of the person elected?

Does anyone think those things?


A Lesson About Fruits & Words

When my wife and I were Peace Corps volunteers in West Africa there was a tree growing near our house that produced a fruit with thin skin, a sweet, pulpy orange flesh and a large seed in the center. The Liberian people called it “plum.” Their indigenous languages don’t adjoin two consonants, and they would often say “prem” instead of “plum” because P-R elides easier than P-L. And because they don’t like consonants at the ends of words, they would say “preh” instead of “prem” instead of “plum.”

You may recognize the fruit in the picture as a mango.

My experience was different. I had never seen the tropical fruit before going to West Africa. But I had seen plums and I knew that plums are purple and shiny on the outside and firm and juicy and sweet on the inside. So I learned that the Liberians mis-named the fruit. It wasn’t the only thing they gave peculiar names to. They also called papaya “paw-paw”, limes “lemong” and aluminum corrugated roofing panels “zinc,” which they pronounced “zee’.”

But I had more to learn than the Liberians’ idiosyncrasies.  I thought I knew about mangoes from growing up in Indiana. The mangoes we grow in our gardens are hard and green outside, hollow inside with many small seeds. Imagine my surprise when my wife explained that the green fruit is a “bell pepper” rather than a mango. It turns out that Hoosiers and other mid-westerners are just as wrong as the Liberians.


Lesson: People are apt to call things by different words. And when they do, other people won’t know what they are talking about.

The word “marriage” has been used of late by various people to mean various things. But what? Marriage is a civil contract between people.  Civil contracts are flexible and negotiable, and they draw their legitimacy from the government.

Marriage is also a holy sacrament. As such, it is specifically and only what God Almighty declares it to be.

These are two very different ideas, yet the public debate went on for years without clarification. There is no way people with these different ideas about the words could ever understand each other. And they never did. But I don’t think the debate was split two ways. I think it was split four ways, with the following types involved:

  1. Reasonable, secular people who support same-sex marriage as a matter of equal rights, just as they support fair housing and non-discriminatory hiring policies.
  2. Reasonable, religious people who defend traditional marriage as a holy sacrament. Their own personal feeling about gays and relationships doesn’t enter into the discussion, but only the clear and unaltered Will of God. (This is the group I personally fit into.)
  3. Hateful iconoclasts who support same-sex marriage as a way of undermining American culture and tradition.
  4. Hateful bigots who defend traditional marriage as a way of denying civil rights to people who offend their personal prejudices.

I would not venture to guess how many of each there are. But I’m certain that all four groups exist. Numbers don’t really matter in America anymore, because our government responds to vocal and proximate minorities rather than to the majority.

As an example of #1, I offer Jonathan Chait. He recently made a post on New York Magazine under the heading, Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument. Chait’s column is based on his critique of political or social arguments made by proponents of tradition:

If you scan across the range of anti-same-sex-marriage arguments more typically on offer, the quality of thought drops off precipitously. In Time, Rand Paul writes another of his trademark college-libertarian-style op-eds that manages to avoid taking any formal stance on banning same-sex marriage while insisting that Big Government is really to blame for the existence of a debate that places him in an uncomfortable position. The Federalist’s Stella Morabito lists 15 reasons why same-sex marriage will lead to horrible consequences, most of which consist of right-wing fever dreams.


Chait is a liberal social writer and is concerned with equal justice under law. He’s heterosexual and married to a woman he admires greatly. As far as he is concerned, if the law affords a privilege to some, it ought to afford that same privilege to others.  I don’t think he’s very thorough in his critique. The mentioned 15 reasons given by Morabito substantive and imminent concerns as well as right-wing fever dreams. But I recognize the validity of his position as a political commentator in a secular society. Chait never mentions the holy sacrament because that’s not his purview.

Examples of the second group are surprisingly hard to come by, which explains why they lost the argument. But I’ll offer this excerpt from the Catholic Catechism is an example of the thinking of the defense of traditional marriage as a holy sacrament.

Holy Scripture affirms that man and woman were created for one another: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” The woman, “flesh of his flesh,” his equal, his nearest in all things, is given to him by God as a “helpmate”; she thus represents God from whom comes our help. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The Lord himself shows that this signifies an unbreakable union of their two lives by recalling what the plan of the Creator had been “in the beginning”: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”


There is nothing there about civil law. The argument rests on unchanged scripture and God’s unchanged Will. It is easy to understand why this would fail to persuade Chait while being absolutely compelling to believers. God either doesn’t exist at all and is therefore unimportant, or He does exist and is the most important thing there is.

Now, one of the arguments against traditional marriage is that it is sexist and oppressive to woman. The passage I quote above, on the other hand, says explicitly that woman is man’s equal and that she represents the position of God in the partnership. Marriage is needed because of man’s loneliness, not woman’s weakness. Clearly the holy sacrament is not what opponents are opposed to.

In using the word holy sacrament, I make a distinction between Christian denominations. Because the meaning of marriage varies a lot from one church to the next. According to the Wikipedia page on Christian marriage, “Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith, while Catholics and Orthodox Christians consider it a Sacrament. “

Note that almost anything can be sacred if it is offered up to a holy purpose. An ugly church building can be just as sacred as a beautiful one. Plenty of oldsters would say the American flag is sacred. What makes a thing sacred is that it has been offered up. A sacrament, on the other hand, is inflexible. And only a couple of Christian denominations say marriage is a sacrament. For the rest, as you’ll see if you read the link above, the church has become just an extension of the state in awarding a state license. I remember my cousin’s ceremony, which took place inside a church but was the farthest thing from a holy sacrament. It amounted to little more than:

  • Preacher (to groom): You wanna hit that?
  • Groom: I do!
  • Preacher (to bride):  Do you plan to get some, too?
  • Bride: I do!
  • Preacher: Sssssshhwwiinnggggg!

The ceremony lasted about nine minutes, and was followed in short order by infidelity, acrimony and divorce. Shame on my cousin, same on the preacher who conducted the farce, and shame on the denomination that allowed such an abuse of a thing it claims to hold sacred.

My third set of actors are those I’ve described as motivated by the desire to undermine or destroy tradition. I give you Sara Burrows, writing in The Federalist, and her recent column arguing why monogamy should be “next”:

Brad and I are not legally married, nor do we ever plan to be, but there aren’t a lot of practical differences between us and a married couple. We’ve owned a home together, have a child together, and have every intention—although no promises—of staying together ‘til death do us part. We are hoping polyamory can help make that happen.

Note that she sees “not a lot of practical differences” between her and a married couple. To make the comparison easier, she lists her accomplishments: own a home, have a child, stay together. She argues that society needs to embrace “polyamory” because she thinks sleeping around would make it easier for her to stay with Brad.

Burrows’ argument for polyamory is either sensibly pragmatic or a heinous blasphemy, depending on whether one applies her argument to a civil contract or to holy matrimony. If the former, then there’s little grounds for objection on moral grounds. Civil contracts can say anything the signers agree to. But if one thinks of the sacrament of holy marriage, Burrows is appalling. She is either very ignorant or very wicked.

I am not going to make the effort to search for links, but there is no doubt in my mind that, competing with Burrows’ case for polyamory as the “next” thing, there are others making the case for bestiality, for pederasty, and for who knows what else.

Finally, there is group #4, who is exemplified by the hardware store operator-slash-Baptist preacher who put is a “No Gays” sign on his store front in Tennessee

Jeff Amyx, who owns Amyx Hardware & Roofing Supplies in Grainger County, Tennessee, about an hour outside of Knoxville, added the “No Gays Allowed” sign on Monday, because gay and lesbian couples are against his religion. Amyx, who is also a baptist minister, said he realized Monday morning that LGBT people are not afraid to stand for what they believe in. He said it showed him that Christian people should be brave enough to stand for what they believe in.


Notice here that the basis of Amyx’s stance is “what he believes in.” People believe all sorts of things, and those who are wrong can be just as fervent in their belief as those who are right. Amyx believes in “his religion,” which is nominally Baptist but more explicitly “his.” I have no idea what Amyx’s religion says. I do know the Bible. It says marriage is between a man and a woman; it says nothing about selling a hammer to a lesbian.

Want another example just for fun? Here’s a man in Arkansas who write to his local NBA television station to complain that they’d adopted a logo with gay colors. The station replied that the peacock has been NBC’s logo since 1956.



To conclude, the issue has resolved in confusion because the word “marry” means different things to different people and too little effort was made to to achieve a common understanding. The discourse was won by the first group I described, though they’ll have to deal soon with their allies in group #3. The issue was lost by group #2 because they let people from #4 do most of the talking.




The big round room with the crooked floor

In my job I wrestle constantly to make data sing to people. I am good at managing large volumes of data and analyzing the data with statistics. But that alone accomplishes little. More than once, I’ve found myself  living out the scene from the first X-Men movie, where Dr. Xavier escorts Logan/Wolverine into his magnificent, domed, high-tech, mutant-monitoring station.

“Welcome to Cerebro!,” cries Dr. Xavier.

To which Logan, who has no idea what he’s looking at, replies, “It certainly is a big, round room.”

[Source: www.gamesradar.com]

And so it is thrilling to see a really clear graphic depiction of data: a chart that, as I said, sings the message. Below is a chart from Jonathan Chait’s latest NYMag column. He’s writing about the social inequity and the limitation of the “Work Hard and Make Something of Yourself!” argument. Chait refers back to a 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trust called Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations.  It is very good, and well worth looking at even three years after its release.

Let me talk you through it. What the chart describes is the extent to which personal effort to improve oneself (measured by college graduation), leads to success.

The five pairs of vertical bars represents the income of the families that the people grew up in. Going from left to right corresponds to poorer and richer people. The left-most pair of red-and-blue bars is the bottom 20% of American households. Most of these people grew up in poverty. The next pair represents people in the second quintile (21st to 40th percent) of households. And so on, up to the furthest-right pair representing the top 20 percent (richest) of all households.


[Source: Jonathan Chait / NYMag / Pew Charitable Trust]

The next thing to understand is that red means people who did not graduate from college and blue means people who did graduate from college. College graduation is not a perfect measure of “effort to improve oneself.” There are other ways to succeed. But it is a pretty basic path, and few would argue that college graduation is meaningless.

So we would expect to see more college graduates earning higher incomes as adults. And that is what the chart shows. Look at the red and blue vertical bars in the middle pair. These are all people who grew up in middle quintile families. The US median income was between $30- and $50-thousand a year during the relevant years.

The chart shows that 31% of the people in this group who went to college made it into the top income-earners bracket, while only 12% of the non-college graduates did. At the bottom, only 7% of middle-quintile college graduates dropped down into the lowest bracket, while 17% of the non-graduates fell to there. That seems like proof that efforts to better oneself pays off. And comparing each pair of red and blue bars confirms the message. In each pair, the blue bar (graduates) has more high earners and fewer low earners than the red bar (non-graduates).

But the chart has more to tell. Look first at the two bits that are highlighted in yellow. They contrast college graduates from poor families to non-graduates from affluent families. And the chart shows that starting out rich provides a greater boost than going to college does. The piece of the chart highlighted in red indicates 25% of people from wealthy families remain in the top income category even despite not finishing college. (Think Paris Hilton.) The blue highlighted bit shows that of the poorest who finished college, only 10% rose to the top. Ben Carson was one of them. But there aren’t many.

People who start out rich are two-and-a-half times more likely to stay rich than even the brightest who started without advantage. And that is before race is taken into account. The Pew report linked above shows that the odds are stacked even steeper against a black man. Only 15% of college educated black men from middle-income families make it to the top, compared to 31% of all Americans. They made the same effort. Less than half of them got the same payoff.

Effort is essential, of course. Almost everyone agrees that it should. I certainly do. But anyone who suggests that hard work is all anyone needs to succeed, or that in America anyone can succeed if they work hard enough ought to have a rat stuffed down their shirt.


Recently there has been a series of very good, thought-provoking articles on the subject of America’s collapse. Not the collapse of the whole country, but of the system of government in Washington. The participants in the conversation aren’t predicting violence or economic collapse: not Road Warrior or Book of Eli. They are saying the way government works is not going to continue.

The articles are by smart young writers and they are all worth reading, but I’ll summarize them and then add my two cents.

(Source: Columbia Pictures)


Matthew Yglesias of Vox started the discussion on March 2nd with an article titled, American democracy is doomed. He starts with the conundrum that almost nobody seriously predicts collapse, but almost everybody is discontent with the way the country is headed. Yglesias focuses on two trends. First, Congress seems less and less capable of fulfilling its responsibilities. It fills its time with meaningless showcase votes, and punctuates its do-nothing calendar with occasional end-of-fiscal-year crises. Second, year by year presidents of both parties take on more power and authority than their predecessors had.

The breakdown of American constitutional democracy is a contrarian view. But it’s nothing more than the view that rather than everyone being wrong about the state of American politics, maybe everyone is right. Maybe Bush and Obama are dangerously exceeding norms of executive authority. Maybe legislative compromise really has broken down in an alarming way. And maybe the reason these complaints persist across different administrations and congresses led by members of different parties is that American politics is breaking down.


Yglesias provides strong evidence that the governmental balance of power is shifting. But his argument that America is doomed relies on academic writings and examples from Latin America. One might argue that those examples aren’t relevant to America. So Vox writer Dylan Matthews takes up the tale in, This is how the American system of government will die. He builds on Yglesias’ point about congressional dysfunction:

 The risk is that congressional gridlock — which will only worsen as parties polarize on ideological lines — will make major revisions to statutes and changes in the fiscal status quo next to impossible. Any president worth his salt is going to want to make major revisions to statutes and to alter the fiscal status quo. . . . So they’re going to gradually start using executive powers to adjust policy in those domains. President Obama has been very open about this.


And this trend, carried out over time, will lead to a much stronger  (and eventually unconstitutional) presidency. Matthews says that by 2050, the Congress will just be a rubber stamp to ratify what powerful presidents decide.

Oliver P. Morton in US Capital Statuary Hall

America has already seen an example, at the state level, of a complete executive takeover. Oliver P. Morton was Indiana’s governor during the Civil War. He was a fervent Union man. But after the election of 1862, he faced a state legislature that resisted much of his effort. So Morton locked out the legislature and ran the state and the war effort unilaterally (and illegally). Hoosiers re-elected the dictator to a new term in 1864. Today, Morton’s statue stands in Statuary Hall in the US Capital Building. H ewas effective and worked for good. But the way he did it certainly fits in Matthews’ idea of excessive executive power.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine online also responds to Yglesias. Chait agrees the imbalances and intractability are serious problems. But even so, There is a chance American democracy is not doomed. The problem as he sees it is ideological extremism that will go away on its own:

[T]he conservative movement’s control over the Republican Party is probably not sustainable. American conservatism’s power is deeply rooted to white American racial identity. That identity formed a plausible national majority for much of America’s history, but its time is rapidly slipping into the past. The steady growth of racial minorities is projected to continue for decades. Eventually Republicans will adjust to the new demography, which means they will have to abandon conservatism as we know it, which has only appealed to white voters in the context of racial polarization.


The next contribution to the conversation is from Ezra Klein, Vox’s founder. He argues, America’s political system isn’t going to collapse, It’s going to muddle through. Note, first of all, that “muddling through” is a technical term with a long and noble tradition going back to a 1959 essay by Charles E. Lindblom. I read it in graduate school, and Klein probably did, too. Klein argues, per Lindblom, that America has a genius for coping with lowered expectations.

 This isn’t a critique of the political system our Founders envisioned. It’s an admission that we are not in the political system our Founders envisioned. The Constitution was designed for a political system without organized parties, where senators were elected by state legislatures and where no one had ever heard of a filibuster. The system we have today is not the system the Founders believed they were building.


As to what “muddling through” means:

Much that needs to get done simply won’t get done. What does get done won’t be done well. Over time, the public will grow angry with this situation, but they won’t know exactly who to be angry at, nor how to fix it. It is hard to apportion blame for economic growth that should have happened but didn’t; for a tax code that should have been simplified but wasn’t; for successful companies that could have been started here but weren’t; for government services that should be better but aren’t. America will muddle through — the cost of our political system’s problems won’t be a spectacular collapse so much as they will be the slow divergence between what our living standards could be and what they are.


By this point, Klein’s “not gonna happen” starts to sound pretty awful — almost as bad as (in fact almost exactly the same as) Yglesias’ collapse.


The last word comes from Carl Eric Scott at the conservative National Review.: Democracy’s Doom and the Unserious Constitutionalism of Vox.  Scott finds a great deal not to like in what the others (all liberals) have written. They say expanding presidential initiatives have occurred under both Democrats and Republicans, Scott disagrees, finding niggling distinctions that imply that Obama is worse. Scott mentions the Constitution in almost every paragraph, so he wins.

Now for my thoughts. I think all five writers are focused too narrowly on just the top level of government. That is an occupational hazard of living in Washington, of course. The national government is, indeed, the tail that wags the American dog. But when a dog dies, the tail stops wagging, too. So the moral, social and economic problems of the whole country cannot be dismissed even by someone who is chiefly concerned with what happens on Capital Hill.


Anyway, I think I want to take Klein’s argument in a different direction. What if, perhaps, the collapse has already happened?  What if the “muddle” Klein speaks of has already become the normal state of affairs?

While thinking about this post, I asked my family what images come to their minds when they think of economic or governmental or social collapse. I expected to hear, Planet of the Apes or Jericho or Book of Eli. But my wife instead mentioned the pictures of decayed and collapsing buildings in Detroit. Not fiction, but reality. Not an impending (but still avoidable) future, but today’s reality.


Vacant backlot in Detroit (Source: globalmews.ca)


There are plenty of people who interpret Detroit’s decline as a particular case of failure due not to a general collapse but to the flaws of Democrat Party policies or to the inability of black people to govern. (Excuse me for not providing links to the sources of these arguments.) But to those who would say Detroit is a special case, I’d ask their explanation for the widespread decline of rural America. I think the following picture is made more poignant by the fact that it is offered for sale by “Fine Art America.”


Ruined farmstead in Utah (Source: FineArtAmerica)


Note I’m not simply saying that one abandoned city block and one abandoned farm prove anything. I’m assuming that readers know that every city has vacant and abandoned buildings that have been replaced by cheaper apartments and tract houses. Replacing old things with something better is great, but abandoning what is good and replacing it with nothing is, to me, evidence of decay. I’m assuming readers know that America’s agriculture system is in crisis, too.

So, maybe Ezra Klein is right that American will muddle through, avoiding turmoil by accepting lower and lower standards and more frequent outrages.

Is that what we want?