In 2006 Matthew Yglesias posted “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” at the now-defunct site TPM Café. He wrote how he enjoyed reading Green Lantern comic books and briefly explained how the power rings from the series worked, then added:
But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.His frame of reference at the time was the neoconservatives’ push to start bombing Iran. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already going poorly, it would seem the case for yet another war was not compelling. But Yglesias pointed out that the neoconservatives’ rationale literally could not be refuted: “Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will.”
This was (and is) an appealing way to look at the mindset of the more bellicose foreign policy thinkers. Military power is treated in practice as omnipotent. There is nothing it can’t accomplish, as long as you apply enough of it for a long enough time and, to coin a phrase, stay the course.
Apparently that was too delightful a metaphor to leave to just one use, because it began to get adapted to new situations by liberal bloggers. Last week Richard Mayhew used it in the context of health care reform:
Again, in an ideal world, a Medicare buy-in at 55 or even better, full Medicare expansion to 55 would be a significant improvement over putting the 55 to 64.999 age cohort on exchanges. But just believing that there is an easy way to get there is Green Lanternism or belief in the power of the Bully Pulpit ™.The new context, then, is that advocating for a better system amounts to insisting on an ideal world - and to also believing there is an easy way to get there. Invoking new Green Lanternism is especially popular among progressive defenders of the president. Criticizing Barack Obama from the left is unsavvy; lobbying for better policy is the height of impractical, self-defeating naïveté.
The other place I encountered this attitude recently was on the right. Earlier this summer I visited my state representative and voiced my concerns over this incident in Ohio. Within the first ten minutes he’d said words to this effect three times: The oil and gas industry is very influential, so nothing is going to get done.
Attitudes like this have nothing to do with having a level headed, non-magic powers based outlook. They have instead to do with inculcating a sense of fatalism and resignation among activists. It can’t be done, is the message, not because it’s impossible but because it’s hard. It’s something like a politics of Newtonian physics. Look at this big thing, it will be difficult to move, it’s too heavy, don’t bother, and especially don’t ask me to help. It’s a waste of time. It can’t be done.
That’s a very convenient way for leaders to let themselves off the hook for doing nothing, but really it’s a coward’s excuse. No one is asking you to do everything, and no one expects that a single application of sweet reason will entirely reform an entrenched system. The process of change - the point of engaging others unsympathetic to a position - is persuasion, which works on a smaller scale. Maybe even the political equivalent of a subatomic level.
I told my representative: I don’t expect you to turn Columbus on its head over this incident, just use it as an opportunity to discuss it with your colleagues. It’s a good example of why reform is needed. The spill was small not because there because was technology in place to limit it, or because there was effective remediation in place once it happened. It was small because there wasn’t that much to spill. We got lucky, in other words. Bring that up to other representatives.
Persuasion almost never happens like a thunderbolt. It happens with accumulated moments over time that lead to a tipping point. It’s not an event but a process. A refusal to persuade on an issue is a sign of indifference or hostility to that cause - not a reflection of sober judgment.
Political reality is not a fixed and unchanging quantity. Inertia is overcome when the mass of support for an issue slowly gets chipped away. That big heavy thing might not move today, but if nobody bothers then it never will. And you know what? Sometimes there is sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Sometimes the thing will move when the impact of a tiny action gets unexpectedly amplified. Either way, there is no reason for those who genuinely support an issue to sit on their hands - or discourage others from acting.
There is new interest in a 2007 study by Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser. “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” was published in Harvard’s Journal of Public Law and Policy and has been cited recently on a number of political blogs, message boards, even on a popular right-leaning economics site. I encountered it at Writer Beat, one of the sites where I cross post. Announcing the publication by “Harvard, Obama’s Alma Mater” (apparently for the benefit of those who didn’t already know the place was a suspicious liberal bastion), the author summarizes its finding as “it’s not guns that kill people,” a commonly repeated phrase elsewhere.
Since I’m a good, open minded lefty, I decided to dig in to the paper and see if it challenged any of my beliefs. Before getting into the content I checked out a couple things, though. First, “Harvard study” conjures up images of nerdy, bespectacled professors with lab coats and slide rules indifferently inquiring as to the nature of the universe.1 In this case, however, the authors’ backgrounds are decidedly partisan. Kates has written many books and articles in favor of gun proliferation, and Mauser is a lobbyist and enthusiast (via) on the issue. This doesn’t mean their opinions are invalid. Subject matter experts develop opinions, and as long as those opinions are at least arguably defensible there’s no problem. It’s good, though, for people to know up front what authors’ dispositions are. In this case it’s reasonable to expect a ringing endorsement of liberalized gun laws.
One other note: This does not appear to be a peer reviewed study. I didn’t see any indication of it, anyway. Again that doesn’t make it invalid, but it does mean the paper hasn’t been properly interrogated and should be considered less rigorous as a result.
That out of the way, I started reading - and couldn’t get past the first paragraph without having to stop for a reality check:
There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.The “other modern developed nations” are not specified, so I went with a list of those generally considered to be part of the West and that had a good amount of data available. That left a list of 20 nations. Kates and Mauser reference the Small Arms Survey; fortunately this Guardian article has the data linked in a spreadsheet. I’ve put a trimmed version of it in comma separated value (CSV) file on my site, so please feel free to look at the numbers yourself. Note any inaccuracies and I’ll correct them.
So is it, as the authors say, substantially false that guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations? Here are the numbers (average firearms per 100 people) in descending order:
|UK (England and Wales)||6|
The US has nearly twice the gun ownership of the next closest country. It’s number one by a huge margin, no contest. The only substantially false thing is the very first factual assertion the authors make in their paper.
Next the authors claim as 100% false the notion that the US “has by far the highest murder rate.” They also spend a good deal of time on Soviet/Russian murder rates, as though that is one of the industrialized nations we should be comparing ourselves to and not, say, the UK. There’s also this bizarre statement that seems to have wandered in from a Red Scare pamphlet:
Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates.Right, so anyway on to homicide rates. Finding data for all the countries in question over a period of years was difficult (which may not be an accident), and I was not able to find complete data sets anywhere. The closest I found was the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has spreadsheets for both overall homicide statistics and homicides by firearms. Combining those two with a great deal of tedious copying and pasting produced this (CSV) from which I created these graphs (click to enlarge):
(Mentally bookmark that big spike in 2008 for Liechtenstein.)
America’s overall homicide rate is first by a substantial margin, its firearm homicide rate even more so. Once again it isn’t even close - yet the authors claim it is a false statement.
So the paper begins with a pratfall. The problem is that establishing just how silly it is required a lot of work. I burned much more of my holiday weekend than I would have liked tracking down sources, assembling it into a usable format and looking at the results. Bad research takes time to correct, and examples like this show just how much play unreviewed results can get. (And it isn’t the first time even this year that a well publicized but unreviewed Harvard paper didn’t stand up to scrutiny.)
One more example of bad research. On the third page the authors produce a table with European gun ownership and murder rates. Since the US leads off the paper and plays such a central part in the debate it seems a bit curious to exclude it (by restricting the table to European rates). The inclusion of Russia is similarly weird if we are looking at a Western perspective on gun laws and murder rates. But the really unusual item in the table is Luxembourg. Look at that huge murder rate - with no guns to speak of! The authors make sure the reader’s attention is drawn to it as well: “For example, Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany in 2002.”
The numbers come from Statistics Canada, so I went there to gather some more data. I not only grabbed the 2002 data, but the data for two years on either side of it (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004) to see if Luxembourg really had the kind of murder rate the authors would have us believe. Also note that UNODC has Luxembourg’s murder rate for 2002 as 1.4, and its numbers for 1995-2011 all gather around that number. I’m not sure where the anomalous Statistics Canada number comes from; Luxembourg only shows up once in the Statistics Canada surveys I looked at:
|England and Wales||1.37||1.66||2.01||1.93||1.62|
The one time it shows up is with a really out of whack number, unrepresentative of its history or its neighbors’ history, and in a way that happens to serve the authors’ purposes beautifully.
Here’s where to recall the 2008 firearm homicide rate for Liechtenstein. Most years the country has zero homicides, and in the years they have homicides it usually is not a firearm homicide. But one year - 2008 - there was a single homicide by firearm. That was enough to make the homicide by firearm rate 100% - and to cause a huge spike in the corresponding graph. The lesson: in smaller countries, single events can have a disproportionate effect on rates. Yet the authors did not let their readers in on that phenomenon, and in fact did just the opposite - they trumpeted the result.
At this point I hadn’t even gotten through three pages of the widely heralded paper and found a number of serious problems. And again, tracking each of them down was time consuming. Going through the whole thing would literally take me months if not years. After all, I can’t spend all day doing this. (Though once some of that sweet, sweet Soros cash starts gushing in I will!) But encountering the issues I did early on makes me skeptical of the rest. It’s already sufficiently debunked to my satisfaction. Unfortunately that’s not true at the other end of the spectrum. Conservatives’ willingness to immediately credit something like this instead of digging in to it - not to mention their ability to create whole alternate universes - makes it hard to know how engage them on a factual level.
Ever since Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first story on NSA surveillance back in June there have been various attempts to discredit him. Most has been garden variety stuff, the kind of thing it’s usually better to ignore lest it get more oxygen. A post by BooMan earlier this week jumped out at me though, one point in particular.
In response to criticism from Charles Pierce, he writes “Glenn Greenwald can be filled with shit as far as [Pierce] is concerned so long as it keeps pumping out revelations from the Snowden files.” Now, being full of shit can mean being pompous, self-righteous, egotistical, or otherwise having too much self-regard. I could see that as a fair criticism of Greenwald, though I don’t agree with it.
But being full of shit can also mean being wrong, and that is what BooMan appears to mean as he makes an eye-popping comparison:
When I hear people argue that talking about Greenwald is a distraction from the real scandal, I feel like asking if talking about Judith Miller was a distraction from the real scandal. Shitty reporting is shitty reporting, and if you are going to tolerate it when it suits your purpose then you lose the right to complain about it when it doesn’t suit your purpose.Since we may be on the verge of another war it could be helpful to look at just what made Miller’s prewar reporting so terrible. First of all, journalists are generally expected to be adversarial. If they don’t show a certain amount of skepticism - if they believe exactly what they are told - then papers might as well just republish press releases. Second, journalists should have an almost antagonistic stance towards those calling the shots. Yet Miller let Dick Cheney whisper in her ear, printed what he said unchallenged, and he promptly went on the Sunday shows citing the new York Times in support of his case for war.
Those two characteristics are important not because they conform to some ideal of crusading, muckraking journalism but because they help reporters keep from getting things wrong. And Miller was a shitty reporter because she got lots of really important things wrong. For instance, she reported on “a secret Iraqi camp where Islamic terrorists were trained and biological weapons produced. These accounts have never been independently verified.” See the link for more details of journalistic malfeasance, and see a follow up article (which notes of the first: “Five of the six articles called into question were written or co-written by Ms. Miller”) the next year for even more.
Catering to the powerful is a leading indicator of bad journalism. This is not to say reporters should reflexively assume high ranking officials are lying or never have a sympathetic tone towards them, but it does mean journalists should be vigilant about the possibility of being misled when dealing with them. Miller was not.
She was the primary source for (fictional) reporting on the provocations of a nation we were about to launch a war of aggression against, and she did so in a way that burnished the credibility of the very officials who were acting in such bad faith. That’s some really shitty reporting!
How does Greenwald stack up? On the “getting things wrong” front, BooMan links to one piece that claims Greenwald exaggerated. “Nothing to see here” is a rhetorical device, though, not proof of inaccuracy. He also links to a post that points out Greenwald initially claimed his partner was not able to consult a lawyer for his entire nine hours of detention, when it actually was eight. I don’t think that rises to the level of erroneously reporting on renovations to secret Iraqi nuclear weapons facilities.
BooMan also links to some previous non-NSA related blogfights that will continue for as long as there is an Internet. Nothing else on the surveillance programs though. On the “getting things wrong” scale Greenwald is a pygmy compared to Miller.
Moreover, if Greenwald was a Miller-scale shitty reporter, his reporting would not be getting corroborated. Yet other outlets are chiming in left and right with new details. There are additional reports by McClatchy (which mark those who believe it’s a “matter of policy that warrants are required” for spying as having truly special levels of credulity), AP, Spiegel, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times (now with less Miller!), the Washington Post, Reuters…the list goes on. Everyone is getting in on the act.
If it was just Greenwald out there, well, maybe some skepticism is in order. He could still be right then - journalists have often stood alone in the face of huge pushback and been vindicated - but at the moment every outlet with a Washington bureau is publishing new revelations. Even if we stipulate Greenwald is a shitty reporter, doesn’t the cascade of details elsewhere count for anything? Focusing on him suggests a greater interest in personality-driven soap operas than a candid examination of policy.
On Monday lambert posted a call for a re-formulated 12-word platform; Tuesday I responded with what I tentatively called the Bumper Sticker Platform (BSP). These may be two slightly different things though. My goal is to create a campaign slogan - something that easily fits on a sign or bumper sticker, describing policies voters would immediately see the value of. That means a narrower scope, and in this case a focus on pocketbook issues since those are the ones of most immediate concern to the largest number.
Lambert, by contrast (correct me if I’m wrong!) wants something like that as a hook, but more items behind it as well: a few extra planks that outline a rough governing philosophy. Additional planks would work as a hedge against the bumper sticker parts being hijacked by opportunists.
While I understand his approach, I still think the BSP is the way to go. It’s not the hill I’m prepared to die on though. If in the end the consensus is for a 20 word platform or something like it, fine. Finalize it and preach it to the heavens. My BSP posts will still be there if anyone wants to refer back to them.
Should lambert’s approach prevail, here are some additional planks I’d like to offer, along with some explanations and references back to lambert’s post.
- End corporate personhood
- A job guarantee
- National voter registration
- Boring federal banking
- Energy freedom
- Live off the land
End corporate personhood
A Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
The federal job guarantee would function as a classic automatic stabilizer. Its provision of employment would expand on the downswing and contract on the upswing of the business cycle.
Elsewhere he (along with Darrick Hamilton) explains how it harmonizes with contemporary racial discourse:
Despite these glaring and persistent racial disparities, the growing “post racial” rhetoric has led to a political environment that makes it increasingly difficult to use race-specific polices to address these inequities. The post-racial rhetoric is a narrative that our society has transcended the racial divide and that the remaining racial disparities are due primarily to self-sabotaging attitudes and behaviors on the part of blacks themselves. In sum, the post-racial ideology represents a shift from a public acknowledgement of a social responsibility for the condition of black America to a position where individual blacks need to “get over it” and “take personal responsibility” — and discrimination and other social barriers are deemed largely things of the past.
In such an environment, a jobs guarantee is one of several possible “race-neutral programs that could go a long way towards eliminating racial inequality while at the same time providing economic security, mobility and sustainability for all Americans.”
National voter registration
The dynamic he describes - holistic remedies that would also treat racial disparities where they exist - would apply to national voter registration. The voting restrictions being put into place in Republican-controlled states may not have a racial intent, yet in practice it disproportionately affects minorities.
Universal registration could be keyed to Social Security numbers, and ID could be mailed out to everyone based on that. Every citizen gets signed up with no hoops to jump through. Which is actually how government ought to treat a right, no? The state should bend over backwards to make sure rights are extended and protected. It’s very different from how Republicans treat voting, which is as a privilege. A debate on national voter registration would clarify the difference as Kay so nicely summarized it:
This is what happens when one hires people who don’t believe that voting is a right to run elections….When conservatives argue that voting is JUST LIKE cashing a check or any other commercial transaction, they believe it.
It would also give the federal government the chance to set election standards for national elections, which would short circuit state attempts to restrict voting. Over time it would also create pressure for states to adopt the federal standards for all elections in order to save money and avoid confusion. This ought to be a debate for fans of democracy to welcome.
Both the job guarantee and universal registration are in the “equal privilege in public space” territory lambert writes about, though neither specifically addresses race. I don’t think either casts as wide a net as he seems to be trying for, but taken together it ain’t peanuts either (said the white man).
Boring federal banking
Comes both from the Post Office bank idea and Elizabeth Warren’s “banks should be boring” line. Given how ferociously (and successfully) big banks have been at resisting all attempts to make them boring, I don’t know how much effort that is worth. On the other hand, a state bank that offered basic checking accounts, savings accounts, and 15/30 year fixed rate mortgages could be set up without requiring Big Finance to lift a finger. And it would give citizens a sanctuary from the systemic risk posed by too big to fail institutions.
Prioritizing local generating capacity from wind and solar; less reliance on the grid, and a move away from resource extraction as our primary means of power generation. In a sense this is the polar opposite of the chimerical “energy independence” that really means protecting oil and gas industry profits. I wrote about it in January, so see there for more. Interestingly, this is not necessarily a right vs. left issue. The Green Tea coalition (Tea Party And Sierra Club) in Georgia shows how disparate interests can align on this issue.
Live off the land
One last plank, this one from a campaign perspective. A candidate who embraces a strong, definite, effective, popular and easily understood platform can expect a lot of enthusiastic support. Money is influential but not determinative in politics. Those who support this platform need to reach out to candidates (or potential ones) and let them know there are plenty of people willing to pound the pavement, staff the phone banks and otherwise volunteer. Candidates don’t need to think they’ll spend all their time dialing for dollars from fat cats. Run a campaign that resonates with people and the campaign will get what it needs from those it inspires. Do the right thing and you’ll be able to live off the land.
On a Saturday morning a few years ago I dashed off a quick caffeine-fueled post that tried to formulate a simple but substantive platform for the left. It was partially a reaction to the prior couple years of conservative rhetoric. During the 2008 campaign the right insisted Barack Obama was a socialist; once elected his signature initiative - the Affordable Care Act - was also called socialist, which must have been news to the for-profit private insurance industry.
So someone repeatedly called a socialist was elected, and a relatively modest change to an existing system was called socialism yet still passed into law. There seemed two lessons from that. The first was that America must be comfortable with socialism, because otherwise Obama wouldn’t have won. The second was that since liberal policies - even incremental ones - were going to be called socialist by conservatives, why not just go for the best policy? Why worry about trying for some lesser thing in a fruitless attempt to court the unalterably proposed?
My short, punchy version of going for the gusto was this: Medicare for all, end the wars, soak the rich. It wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive platform but an attempt to advocate for a small number of consequential policies; something with popular appeal that would fit on a sign or bumper sticker. I wanted to keep it short because liberals are prone to getting too wonky for their own good. Laundry lists full of prescriptions for all society’s ills, each spelled out in excruciating bullet point detail, turn off all but the true believers.
I think it’s better to have a few items and say: these are the things I will fight for. Other issues will come up, but here are the things I will make noise about and I will agitate about over and over. If they are not implemented, then at an absolute minimum I will force those who don’t want them to be public in their opposition. I will hammer away at them, run on them, make campaign issues of them, and so on.
The original post bubbled away at Corrente and a few other places for a while. I posted an updated list a few months later which included a job guarantee. That may sound too ambitious, but according to Duke professor William Darity it only requires a president with the will to create it:
Persistent high unemployment has produced a crisis for virtually all Americans. But we can resolve the crisis by adopting a federal job guarantee for all citizens. A system of job assurance, rather than unemployment insurance, could have been implemented at any point by presidential directive under the mandate of the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 (popularly known as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act).
Of course, that’s not the same as a critical mass of support. For as much as I like the idea, I haven’t seen any signs of it catching on with either activists or officials. In light of lambert’s Monday post asking for a re-think of the platform, the jobs guarantee may need to be dropped (for now).
The same goes for End the Wars. The Iraq war actually has ended since the original post, and Afghanistan seems to be proceeding at an acceptably low level of carnage. Drone strikes and other dirty wars are largely off the public’s radar as well. Metaphorical wars at home (the war on drugs, draconian sentencing, the militarization of police, the creation of a domestic army, etc) also seem to not have captured the public’s imagination. While I think ending the literal and metaphorical wars is one of the most urgent moral issues of our time, I don’t see it being a tent pole issue in a campaign.
On the other hand, the fight for a living wage has become a huge issue in the last year or so. It’s definitely an issue with a constituency. With those changes in mind, here is my 2013 proposal for the Bumper Sticker Platform:
- Medicare for all
- Tax the rich
- A living wage
One more political note: each of these policies is fiscally responsible. Medicare for all would save $600 billion in private insurance charges. Take out the $350 billion that extending coverage would cost, and that still leaves a savings of $250 billion per year. While those who hate all government spending on principle would surely object, I think most citizens would be more practical: If the result is savings, that’s all that matters.
Taxing the rich is obviously a fiscal plus. And a living wage would force deadbeat companies to stop paying so little that their employees end up on Medicaid or other government programs. (Not to mention that paying a living wage is also the decent thing to do.)
So there’s the first stab at the latest Bumper Sticker Platform. I think it’s got a lot to recommend it. Now we just need some candidates to run on it.
I exchanged a few emails with lambert while working all this out. He thinks Bumper Sticker Platform will be disparaged as BS Platform, and prefers the (#) Word Platform as something that helps manage the development as others contribute. I think BSP is good because it can get updated every few years with the same title, as opposed to having a 9 word platform one time out and a 12 word platform the next time. So even the branding is up for debate! Feel free to chime in.