Chris Christie and the Case Against Term Limits

Social science has proven that Congress is even less popular than Nickelback, so it’s easy to see why term limits for senators and representatives consistently poll well among Americans of all backgrounds and ideological persuasions. Would-be reformers of various stripes have touted term limits as an important good government initiative, and even many who have not championed the cause of formally enshrining them in law have offered up pledges to voluntarily leave office themselves after a fixed number of years.

Notwithstanding the legal setbacks that have been dealt past attempts to enact term limits at the federal level, the idea has always struck me as an overrated and potentially counterproductive “solution” to the problems it purports to solve, like legislative gridlock, political careerism, or corruption. To see why, one need look no further than RM’s very own Garden State, whose chief executive looks to me like a poster boy for the case against term limits.

In 2010, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unilaterally canceled a joint federal-state public works project known as “Access to the Region’s Core” (ARC) that would have involved construction of the first new rail tunnel under the Hudson River in over 100 years, citing the possibility of unforeseen cost overruns. As Rachel M. Cohen explains in an essay for the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect,

Many had expected New Jersey to raise its gas tax to meet its obligations for the ARC tunnel and other transportation investments. But Christie was emphatically opposed… [K]illing the ARC project had an additional advantage besides avoiding a gas tax increase. It also enabled him to redirect more than $3 billion that had already been put aside for the tunnel.

Christie’s Democratic predecessor, Jon Corzine, had set off a political firestorm in 2008 when he tried to pass a plan that would have used dramatic increases in highway tolls over a 12-year period to cut the state’s $32 billion debt in half and pay for transportation improvements. Although the plan was defeated, Corzine did succeed in doubling tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike. While the revenue wasn’t enough to resolve the state’s long-term fiscal problems, it included $1.25 billion earmarked for the future ARC tunnel… Christie took that money as well as $1.8 billion from the Port Authority’s ARC capital fund and used the more than $3 billion in total to pay for road and bridge projects in the state.

The existing Hudson rail tunnels suffered significant damage during Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. According to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, each tunnel will need to be closed for repairs for at least a year sometime within the next two decades. He has stressed that twenty years is an upper bound on the tunnels’ remaining life, and that they might need to be shuttered in as little as seven.

The closure of even one of the tunnels would be devastating, with New Jersey Transit estimating that the number of commuter trains able to traverse the Hudson every hour would be cut by up to 75%. The result would be utter chaos. Now-unthinkable measures like banning automobiles from using the Lincoln Tunnel would have to be implemented to deal with the loss of capacity. Put simply, the probability that New York and New Jersey could suffer Transitpocalypse within the next ten years is meaningfully greater than zero.

Chris Christie is constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms as governor and will leave office in January 2018. But if he were able to run for and win a third term, he could conceivably serve until 2022. Boardman’s statement was issued last year. Assuming, arguendo, that his most pessimistic prediction were to be the correct one, then the tunnels could be wheeled into surgery as early as 2021 – during the second half of a hypothetical third Christie term.

Of course, Hurricane Sandy had not yet taken place when Christie pulled the plug on ARC, and an accurate assessment of how much damage it had inflicted was not available until some time afterward. But a third-term-eligible Christie might have been galvanized by Boardman’s prognosis to prioritize the development of a funding mechanism for an alternative project like Amtrak’s Gateway proposal that would increase trans-Hudson capacity, knowing that the worst could very well happen on his watch. As it is, Christie was probably correct to gamble that the tunnels will manage to avoid flatlining for the remainder of his time in office.

This is one reason why I see him as an ideal poster boy for the case against term limits: Christie’s decision to raid the funds that had been appropriated for ARC in order to forestall a gas tax increase and have the state still be able to pay for an urgently-needed renovation of the Pulaski Skyway bridge between Newark and Jersey City is emblematic of an important way in which term limits affect political incentives. By guaranteeing that a politician who inaugurates an ultra-long-term public works project will no longer be in office when his constituents begin to reap its benefits, these limits nudge elected officials in the direction of advancing initiatives with more immediate payoffs or those whose costs can be postponed indefinitely.

As Benjamin Kabak of the transit blog Second Avenue Sagas put it in a post on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a new subway line down Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, “[o]ne of the reasons why politicians are so hesitant to embrace these ambitious plans concerns timing. If it’s going to take a decade or more from start to finish, those who appear at the ribbon cutting won’t be those who did the heavy lifting and secured the dollars.”

And if you know that you won’t be around for the ribbon cutting, it might start to seem like a better use of your time to focus on something else – like how to position yourself for your next job. Even politicians find unemployment stressful, so it’s only rational than term-limited officials would take steps to plan for the future when they know they’ll be sent home after four or eight years.

Which brings us to the second way in which Christie illustrates the unintended consequences of term limits: knowing that he will not have to face the voters again in his own state, he has devoted more and more energy to burnishing his national image in advance of a run for the White House. In his role as chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association for 2014, Christie frequently traveled out-of-state – and sometimes out-of-country – to campaign for GOP candidates and to promote key planks in the party’s platform. According to NJ.com, the peripatetic governor spent all or part of 137 days last year outside of the state.

The voting public seems to be growing irritated with these absences: a Monmouth University poll released in February found that about two-thirds of voters in the Garden State believed that a trip Christie took to the United Kingdom that was advertised as a “trade mission” was “mainly designed to boost his presidential prospects” (17 percent believed that the primary intent was in fact to strengthen economic ties). Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that someone who believes Christie’s globetrotting is designed to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign is unhappy about that fact, but the same poll also found that a nearly identical percentage of voters “say he is more concerned about his own political future than he is about the state,” which suggests that his motives are viewed with a certain amount of cynicism.

In their 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein express skepticism about the transformative potential of term limits for precisely this reason. They cite other scholars who argue that, in the twenty-one states that instituted term limits for state representatives between 1990 and 2000,

[i]f anything, the limits amplified the corrosive effects of ambition on the legislators, who focused from day one on how best to use their limited time as a springboard to their next post. That produced incentives to go for a big, short-term splash and leave the long-term mess to the next wave of their successors.

One possible counterargument could be that term limits might not actually “bind.” That is to say, ambitious politicians like Christie who believe they can be elected to higher office in the middle of their second term might still believe they could be elected to higher office at the same point in their service even if they were offered the possibility of a third or a fourth term. Perhaps they might feel they had already accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, or at the very least that whatever accomplishments they had already racked up would make their resumé sufficiently attractive to the voters that they would be better off quitting while ahead (or quitting before their lackeys went rogue and closed down a bridge out of puerile spite, the time for which has, alas, already passed for Christie).

That’s certainly possible, but running for reelection as an incumbent is almost always easier than putting together a winning campaign for a completely new position. I would be surprised if term limits didn’t incentivize at least some politicians to take a leap they otherwise would not have or that they otherwise might have postponed, and in fact there is some research, in addition to the work referenced by Mann and Ornstein, suggesting this could be the case.

If the polling is to be trusted, a large chunk of the New Jersey electorate finds Chris Christie’s pre-campaign antics distasteful, and many of his detractors take pleasure in the fact that he’s guaranteed to leave office less than three years from today. But what those detractors may be neglecting is the possibility that his antics are in part the result of that very guarantee, and that, paradoxically, allowing him to hang around New Jersey a while longer would make him more dedicated to the people of the state and more attentive to their needs.

Pope Francis’ Cardinal Objective

Round Two

When Pope Francis announced his first slate of appointments to the College of Cardinals early last year, much of the commentary in both the Catholic press and mainstream media focused on his apparent intent to “de-Italianize” or “de-Europeanize” the upper echelons of the Church’s hierarchy. Bishops from prestigious Italian dioceses and traditional “cardinal sees” were passed over in favor of prelates from countries like Haiti that had never before had a cardinal of their own.

The recipients of Francis’ second round of red hats, which were officially handed out last Saturday in a ceremony at the Vatican known as a consistory, seem to offer further confirmation of the pope’s desire to boost the number of cardinals hailing from “the peripheries,” places like Africa, Asia, and South America where Catholicism is growing but which are still dramatically underrepresented in the highest ranks of Church government. Archbishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the first cardinal to hail from the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga, claimed in an interview that his only previous conversation with the pope consisted of him explaining where Tonga is located.

It is undeniable that the College of Cardinals is becoming more geographically diverse. But is it necessarily the case that the so-called peripheries are becoming less underrepresented? After the consistory last February, I raised the possibility that the Catholic population of the “global South” was growing more quickly than the number of cardinals from these regions, meaning that the disproportionate influence of European prelates within the Vatican bureaucracy – and over the process of electing the next pope – was in fact growing stronger.

Around the time of the 2013 conclave, the Pew Research Center produced a helpful graphic that showed the share of cardinal electors coming from each continent, as well as each continent’s share of the worldwide Catholic population. Though Europe accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics in 2013, over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave that elected Francis were European; only 17% of the electors came from Latin America, which is home to nearly 40% of Catholics.

The Church is not a democracy, so saying that certain areas are “underrepresented” should not be interpreted in a narrow political sense or taken to mean that the current arrangement is necessarily unjust. But there are nevertheless good reasons why a geographic imbalance in the College of Cardinals ought to be corrected. The Church is a global institution whose leadership should not allow itself to become consumed with provincial concerns. To his credit, Pope Francis seems well aware of the need to steer clear of such pitfalls, and his pronouncements on issues like climate change reflect a global perspective that stands in clear contrast to that of his many Western critics.

Anyway, I was interested to see whether this latest move will have an appreciable impact on the representativeness of the cardinalate, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 (alas, I can’t afford Stata 13) and got to work.

Data and Methodology 

For those of you who weren’t yet loyal RM readers a year ago, here’s a quick recap of the approach I laid out last February (much of this description is lifted verbatim from that earlier post).

For data on the nationalities of cardinals and the dates of their births, deaths, and appointments, I turned to “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,” a wonderfully comprehensive website curated by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda. Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I decided it would be sufficient to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled information from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to announce them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I figured it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular continent can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. For example, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura Dominique Mamberti (the “Chief Justice” of the Vatican’s Supreme Court) is counted as an Italian/European because he works in the Roman Curia, despite his having been born in Morocco. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.*

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if population data were available at time and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, only cardinals under the age of 80 are permitted to cast votes for pope. Since their right to vote is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.

Results

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2015

College_Size

Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave). In fact, the rate of growth of the number of cardinals seems to have accelerated since the early 2000’s, perhaps reflecting increased life expectancies.

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2015

Cardinal_Shares

Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so (though it appears to be ticking downward once again).

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2015

Population_Shares

Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it abundantly clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not tracked their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020

Gini_Coefficients

Finally, Fig. 4 presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that shares of cardinals from each continent will remain at their current levels going forward.

The pattern remains quite similar to what I found last February, and runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.278 on Feb. 22nd, 2014 to 0.262 today, and the coefficient for all electors decreased from 0.216 to 0.157).

But the projections for 2020 should give pause to anyone claiming that European overrepresentation is coming to an end. If each continent’s current share of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient will actually rise modestly over the next few years – to 0.281 for all cardinals and 0.174 for the electors. Yet this is an improvement from last year’s projections for 2020, when I forecast that the Gini coefficient would rise to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors. Looked at another way, the predicted 2020 Gini for the electors is 25% lower than it was a year ago. Good work, Francis!

Some reports have claimed that Francis is considering lifting the cap on the number of eligible electors from 120 to 140, presumably out of a recognition that meaningful improvements in the geographic representativeness of the College will not be brought about through attrition alone. In fact, there are already more than 120 cardinals who would be eligible to vote for pope were a conclave to be held today, so perhaps Francis can just continue to flout the official rule without explicitly changing it (he is the pope after all!). The above analysis suggests that such aggressive measures will likely be needed if the College is to become more representative in the face of continued growth in the Catholic population of the global South.

____________________________________________________

*Especially geeky readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

A Reply to Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez

Reasonably Moderate is notoriously poor at responding quickly to feedback from readers (and its two halves are even poorer at responding to each other), so I was both surprised and a little bit awed when Opus Publicum’s Gabriel Sanchez published a reply to my recent Ethika Politika article only about twelve hours after it first appeared. I very much appreciate his taking the time to read through it and offer his thoughts on my contention that a “Catholic Party” would be bad for the Church, but I’m afraid that he has misinterpreted several key pieces of my argument.

Sanchez levels two main criticisms at the piece. The first is that my concerns about “the politicization of religion” are at best vague and at worst grounded in a vision of the relationship between (the Catholic) Church and State that is out of sync with Catholic teaching:

Does Mazewski deny that the Church’s hierarchy has the right – indeed the duty – to direct the faithful in socio-political affairs?… If there is anything which is today ‘bad for the Church’ with respect to political and social movements it is its unwillingness to clearly define which matters lay Catholics can support and those they cannot. Today, neither of America’s two major political parties represent the full balance of Catholic principles; both, lamentably, stand in direct opposition to many of them.

In fact, I do not at all deny that the Church has such a right/duty. When I refer to the “politicization of religion,” I don’t mean “the involvement of religious people or institutions in the political process,” or even “political argument that draws on religious values or employs religious rhetoric.” In my original piece, in the paragraph following the one from which Sanchez quotes, I explain what I do mean:

[T]he silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

I welcome the fact that members of the hierarchy offer commentary on political questions, but I find it troubling when they do so in a way that implies institutional support for a particular party or its candidates (and not just because they could be imperiling the Church’s tax-exempt status). Catholicism should not be apolitical, but it is and ought to remain nonpartisan.

That’s why I’m disturbed whenever someone like Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin brandishes a letter in public confirming that he’s a registered Republican, as Tobin did during a speech to a group of young Republicans in 2013, even if he also insists that his partisan affiliation “doesn’t mean a whole lot”: not because a bishop is talking about politics, but because these kind of actions seem to insinuate that the Catholic Church finds fault with the Democratic Party’s platform but considers the Republican platform to be perfectly kosher (er, so to speak).

Sanchez writes that “the vision [Mazewski] operates with is a liberal one.” One could interpret this statement in a variety of ways, but if he means to say that I believe in cordoning off religion from the public square or in attempting to enforce a “neutral” secular political discourse that itself relies on certain contestable assumptions, then the characterization is inapt. (If he means to say that I believe in the value of pluralistic democracy, well, then guilty as charged.)

His second criticism is that the hypothetical political realignment that I describe in my piece, through which the parties of Left and Right come to be replaced by parties of “Subsidiarity” and “Solidarity,” would not really represent a meaningful development at all from the perspective of Catholic social thought:

According to Mazewski’s other main thesis, namely that we are witnessing ideological realignment within the Democratic and Republican parties, it is not clear what, if anything, this could mean for American Catholics. Any party which, inter alia, supports so-called abortion rights, the redefinition of marriage, and legal protection for immoral, incendiary, and blasphemous forms of speech is beyond the pale. Similarly, any [party] which upholds the tenets of economic liberalism… places itself out of the reach of Catholic support. Even if Democrats and Republicans begin to embrace full-throated solidarity and subsidiarity, that hardly means either will abandon their dubious policy positions. Error can always be repackaged.

I don’t believe that we’re on the threshold of an era when all politicians will “abandon their dubious policy positions,” but as I argue in the original piece,

[a] party that brought together liberals like [Zephyr] Teachout and conservatives like [Rand] Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

My thesis is that the issues that would divide a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party would necessarily be different from those that divide conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats today (“liberal” in the colloquial sense, not in the sense in which Sanchez uses the term here). Certain viewpoints that are now sidelined within one party or the other could come to be tolerated or even embraced in a way that they currently are not. Under the existing two-party system, for example, opinions on the legal status of abortion tend to correlate almost perfectly with party affiliation, whereas thoughts on whether the government should break up large financial institutions do not.

Yet if being pro- or anti-breaking-up-large-financial-institutions were to become the key determinant of which party you ought to belong to, then the association between the abortion question and partisan identity would be greatly weakened. The issue itself would not necessarily lose its valence, just as the cause of breaking up the banks is very much alive despite lacking the institutional backing of one party or the other. But the chances of being marginalized within either party because of one’s beliefs on the matter would be dramatically reduced. (Of course, this would in many ways be a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a novel development.)

I don’t agree with Sanchez when he says that a party’s support for positions at odds with those of the Magisterium necessarily “places itself out of the reach of Catholic support” – a topic for another post perhaps! – but I do think it’s accurate to say, as Michael Sean Winters puts it, that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” My point is not that political ideas the Church disagrees with would disappear from the scene following the hypothetical realignment I outline, but rather that the resulting political environment would be one in which the “consistent Catholics” of the world would be less likely to be looked at askance by both parties.

Would a “Catholic Party” Be Bad for the Church?

This article first appeared at Ethika Politika.

Last September, Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout dealt Gov. Andrew Cuomo a major embarrassment in New York state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary when she finished with just over a third of the vote and carried 30 of the state’s 62 counties. That may not seem like much of a victory, but few believed that a race between an incumbent governor and someone who had never sought elected office would be at all competitive. The conventional wisdom in the run-up to Primary Day held that Teachout, who ran no TV ads and spent only about $300,000 on her campaign to Cuomo’s $20 million, would be lucky to crack 15 or 20 percent of the vote.

Teachout’s candidacy was portrayed by the media as a challenge to Cuomo “from the left,” but her views are not so easily shoehorned into the usual political categories. In fact, her appeal may be a sign that those categories are breaking down and that a realignment of the coalitions of American politics is in the offing. Such a shift is not likely to produce a party with a platform that lines up perfectly with the social doctrine of the Church, but it could potentially bring about a political milieu in which Catholics who are committed to seeing that social doctrine put into practice as consistently as possible find it more straightforward to reconcile their religious commitments with their partisan loyalties. And as an added bonus, it could even make it easier for the institutional Church to avoid unseemly political entanglements.

Central to Teachout’s message was her claim that concentrated power, whether economic or political, is antithetical to a democratic society. Styling herself an “old-fashioned trustbuster,” she and running mate Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia who coined the term “net neutrality,” called for blocking a controversial cable merger between Time Warner and Comcast and even joined with conservatives like Republican gubernatorial nominee Rob Astorino in opposing “Common Core” educational standards and in pressing Albany to devolve more power to local governments.

Teachout frequently invoked Thomas Jefferson while on the stump. At a campaign stop in Oneonta, she described how he had wanted an explicit anti-monopoly clause to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Yet Jefferson, who believed that the powers of the federal government should be sharply limited and that the American economy should be powered by a strong agricultural sector, clung to a vision of society that would seem to be at odds with that of many contemporary progressives.

Indeed, Jefferson’s vision is at odds with that of many progressives, which is precisely why the Teachout phenomenon may portend a struggle on the Left akin to that between the Tea Party and “establishment” Republicans on the Right. In a recent essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, New York University’s Christian Parenti argues that the thinking of Jefferson’s foe Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, provides the better template for contemporary liberals. Parenti writes that “Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites,” whereas “[Hamilton’s] mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change.” If progressives like Parenti have any say, Teachout-style insurgents will not be able to take over the Democratic Party without a fight.

The Left generally worries about concentrated economic power but is less concerned about concentrated political power; the opposite is true of the Right. But what if this pattern is changing? We seem to be witnessing the recapitulation of a debate from the earliest days of the Republic: Jeffersonian advocates of the diffusion of power versus Hamiltonian enthusiasts of centralized power put to work for the public good.

It is not inconceivable that the combatants in these intra-party struggles could decide that it is easier to win elections by forming wholly new coalitions than by engaging in an endless war of attrition against their own co-partisans. One reason to think such a development likely can be seen in the early reactions to the possibility of a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush matchup in the 2016 presidential election. Both Republicans like the New York Times’ Ross Douthat and Democrats like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have bemoaned the idea of a race between two candidates who both have close ties to the existing power structures in Washington and on Wall Street.

On the other hand, there are some who are eagerly looking forward to just such a contest. Politico reporters Ben White and Maggie Haberman last year quoted an unnamed lawyer from the financial services industry as saying that

If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine … we could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.

Given the almost insurmountable obstacles to building a successful third party, anti-establishmentarians like Douthat and Schweitzer will only be able to challenge the status quo in a fundamental way to the extent that they can transform one of the two major parties into an effective vehicle for their ideas. And should such a transformation be successful, there would be strong incentives for those on both the Right and Left who oppose Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren-style populism to join forces in the other party.

To borrow from the vocabulary of Catholic social thought, voters could one day find themselves choosing not between a party of the Left and a party of the Right, but between a party of solidarity and a party of subsidiarity.  The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church defines subsidiarity as the principle that “all societies of a superior order [e.g. national governments] must adopt attitudes of help … with respect to lower-order societies [e.g. local governments, families, etc.]” (186), and solidarity (quoting Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis) as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good” (193). In other words, we are obliged to work toward eliminating social ills even if they do not affect us directly, but our solutions to those ills ought not to be imposed from on high and should be formulated and implemented by the lowest-level governmental or civic institutions possible.

This would not be quite the realignment for which some Catholics have been hoping. In the wake of Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he laments the fact that “a person who is 100 percent consistent with the Church’s teachings is likely to find himself politically homeless.” He concludes with a cautious prediction about the future of the two-party system:

The estuary where religion and politics intersect is constantly changing. It may be that in a generation, the two parties will sort out their ideologies, with one party standing for libertarian impulses across the board and the other adopting a more communitarian approach. If that happens, the communitarian party might be the Democrats or it might be the Republicans, but either way, it would be a decidedly Catholic Party.

Winters’s forecast may turn out to be correct, but the Church should prefer the realignment that I’ve outlined to the one for which he yearns. From the standpoint of the American hierarchy, the existence of a “Catholic Party” would be bad news for the same reason it would be good news: The bishops would be free to support a single party and its candidates without reservation. For anyone concerned about the politicization of religion, this would be a worrisome state of affairs.

Catholics like Winters may complain about never being able to vote for a politician who has not taken morally objectionable stances on at least some issues, but the silver lining of the status quo is that it allows the Church to more easily keep its distance from partisan politics. It would become much more difficult for it to do so were there to be a viable Catholic Party. Worse, the temptation for the Church to overlook corruption and abuse within such a party would be strong, and its public image could be tarnished if it were to be seen as turning a blind eye to wrongdoing by its favored politicians.

In a world inhabited by a Solidarity Party and a Subsidiarity Party, though, the hierarchy could still maintain this distance by emphasizing not only the ways in which Catholic social thought is compatible with each party’s outlook, but also how its principles can be served by healthy competition between the two. The Church has already made clear that solidarity and subsidiarity are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It even holds that pursuing one at the expense of the other can lead to social dysfunction:

The action of the State and of other public authorities must be consistent with the principle of subsidiarity and create situations favorable to the free exercise of economic activity. It must also be inspired by the principle of solidarity and establish limits for the autonomy of the parties in order to defend those who are weaker. Solidarity without subsidiarity, in fact, can easily degenerate into a “Welfare State,” while subsidiarity without solidarity runs the risk of encouraging forms of self-centered localism. In order to respect both of these fundamental principles, the State’s intervention in the economic environment must be neither invasive nor absent, but commensurate with society’s real needs (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 351).

Another upside for communitarians like Winters is that the alliances that would hold these two parties together would militate against their taking uncompromising stances on hot-button culture war issues in their official platforms. A party that brought together liberals like Teachout and conservatives like Paul under the banner of subsidiarity would have to tolerate a range of views on the most divisive questions. Winters might still have a hard time pulling the lever for particular candidates, but he might also find it easier to make a home for himself in one of the parties without worrying about failing a litmus test.

A “Catholic Party” may seem like an appealing idea to Catholics frustrated by some of the more difficult trade-offs associated with electoral politics, but the cure could easily be worse than the disease. Better, it seems, to hope for a political culture in which both parties eagerly welcome the contributions of those working to advance a Catholic vision of the common good.

Abolish the Senate, but Amend the Amendment Process First

“Abolish the Senate,” declares author Daniel Lazare in the title of his latest essay for the socialist magazine Jacobin, in which he lays out a case for why the upper chamber of the U.S. Congress “needs to go.” Lazare vividly illustrates the ways in which the Senate is “by now the most unrepresentative major legislature in the ‘democratic world’” and draws attention to the fact that the same trends exacerbating that unrepresentativeness are simultaneously pushing reform farther out of reach. Yet his apparent belief that the Senate is the main obstacle to a new era of progressive dominance in Washington is misguided, since the features of the modern-day political scene that he lays at its feet would almost certainly persist in a post-Senate world.

Most of us are aware that the income distribution in the United States skews heavily toward the wealthy, and yet surveys have shown that we tend to grossly underestimate the extent of that skew. Likewise, it’s intuitively clear that sparsely populated states benefit from the fact that every state is constitutionally guaranteed the same number of U.S. senators, but it can be hard to appreciate just how much they benefit without taking a good look at the numbers. Lazare’s piece opens with a list of arresting statistics that make plain the magnitude of the disparity:

  • Although California has the same number of votes as Wyoming, its population, currently at 38.3 million, is now some 65 times larger. One Californian thus has 1.5 percent of the voting clout in Senate elections as someone living just a few hundred miles to the east.
  • Since a majority of Americans now live in just nine states, they wind up with just eighteen votes while the minority holds eighty-two, a ratio of better than four to one.
  • Thanks to the Senate’s bizarre filibuster rules, forty-one senators representing less than 11 percent of the population can prevent any bill from even coming to a vote.
  • Thanks to the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be approved by at least two-thirds of each house, thirty-four senators from states representing just 5 percent of the population can veto any constitutional change, no matter how minor.
  • The same goes for treaties, which also require two-thirds approval.
  • The Senate “hold” system is even more unjust since it allows a single senator representing as little as one citizen in a thousand to stall a bill or executive appointment almost indefinitely.

At the time the Constitution was ratified, the imbalance was much less stark: Lazare himself notes that the largest state in 1790 (Virginia) had “only” twelve times the population of the smallest (Delaware).

Constitutional safeguards of minority rights are important, but representatives of five percent of the population ought not to be able to block a constitutional amendment. There is a broad consensus on this point, as there should be. Even Antonin Scalia, who I assume agrees with Daniel Lazare about approximately nothing else, is on the record as saying that the Constitution is too hard to change.

Lazare’s framing focuses on the advantages afforded to certain geographic groups by the structure of the Senate, but geography ultimately concerns him only insofar as it is a proxy for political beliefs:

Not unexpectedly, equal state representation also turns out to be racially unrepresentative. While Hispanics and racial minorities make up 44 percent of the population in the ten largest states, all of which are heavily urbanized, they account for just 18 percent of the ten smallest states (in which individual voting power happens to be some eighteen times greater)…

Other groups are also penalized…. [T]he LGBT community, whose most vocal activist base is typically in urban areas, does suffer from the Senate’s reign… The same goes for socialists, labor unions, health-care activists, conservationists, and others. All suffer under an exclusionary system that deprives progressive city dwellers of their rightful representation. Yet all are strangely acquiescent.

It is only because geography and political ideology are today so strongly correlated that Lazare is exasperated by this arrangement; he would presumably be perfectly content to live under a system in which socialists had 65 times the voting clout of everyone else! But if the tight link between geography and ideology is what makes the Senate such a problematic institution, then it is also the reason why excising it from the constitutional order will not be enough to bring about the progressive dominance Lazare seeks. Absent any other changes, abolition of the Senate will leave the Congress consisting solely of the House of Representatives, which at the moment is not exactly a bastion of leftism.

In the 2012 elections, Democratic House candidates won a combined 59,214,910 votes, or 48.4% of the total cast. Republican House candidates won 57,622,827 votes, or 47.1%, yet ended up with a 234-201 majority. The conventional wisdom holds that this GOP edge is primarily the result of partisan gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 census. According to this line of argument, by packing Democratic voters into as few districts as possible and allowing them to win congressional races there by huge margins, GOP-dominated legislatures had essentially caused their opponents to “waste” votes that could have made contests elsewhere more competitive.

But Democratic voters, who Lazare correctly identifies as more likely to be “city dwellers,” also pack themselves into districts in a way that would tend to diminish their influence no matter how the boundaries were drawn. Washington University postdoc Nicholas Goedert wrote in a post at The Monkey Cage after the 2012 elections that “the Democrats’ loss in the House was caused largely not by gerrymandering, but [by] districting itself [emphasis added],” and that

there appears to be evidence at a state-by-state level that the disparity between the popular vote in the House and the distribution of seats is not just due to Republican gerrymanders, but due to a skewed geographic distribution of population putting the Democrats at an inherent disadvantage…

Other research points to the same conclusion: while partisan redistricting has certainly helped Republicans to cement an advantage in the House, the aggregation of Democratic-leaning voters in densely populated urban areas has simultaneously resulted in a kind of natural gerrymander.

It sounds like what Lazare would really prefer is a system of proportional representation, where seats are handed out to each party in direct proportion to their share of the popular vote. I wrote last year after the statewide elections in New Jersey that the Republicans were justified in their grousing about not having taken over either chamber of the legislature despite having garnered more votes, so I’m sympathetic to electoral reforms along these lines. (Proportional representation has some problems of its own, but there are alternative setups like the mixed-member system that can work to mitigate these.)

As I mentioned at the outset, one of the most insightful pieces of Lazare’s analysis is his observation that the ever more pronounced concentration of the population in large metropolitan areas will tend to make the Senate more unequal even as it makes it harder to reform, because of the requirement that two-thirds of the Senate itself approve any prospective constitutional change (unless a constitutional convention is called by two-thirds of the states, something that has never been pulled off in U.S. history). Amending the Constitution requires a degree of consensus and political will that is almost impossible to imagine us achieving in this day and age. Why pour such unbelievable amounts of energy into a campaign to enact a change that will not even solve the problem it was formulated to address?

In my opinion, the only constitutional amendment worth pursuing at this point is one that makes it easier to amend the Constitution. Altering the structure of our government, even in apparently minor ways, is not something to be taken lightly and should be very difficult. But it should not be impossible. Many states make use of amendment mechanisms that are demanding without being unusable. Common features of these mechanisms include requirements that the legislature sign off on an amendment multiple times in different sessions or that it be approved in a popular referendum, sometimes even by a supermajority of voters.

Once we’ve amended the amendment process and adopted a more streamlined procedure, we can then debate further changes with a reasonable amount of confidence that those debates will have some chance of producing actual results. This approach could even improve the odds of making Lazare’s vision of a Senate-free world a reality. Reformers are much more likely to win an argument about whether to make it easier to tweak the Constitution, something from which any constituency could conceivably benefit somewhere down the road, than they are to prevail when explicitly demanding that small states voluntarily relinquish their perks under the current arrangement.

I share Daniel Lazare’s aim of making the American political system more responsive to the needs and preferences of the voters, though I happen to see that objective as an end in itself and not just as a strategically useful tactic for facilitating a socialist victory at the polls. But even granting that this is a worthwhile goal, his plan for achieving it is inadequate to the task.

Were the effort to bulldoze the Senate somehow to succeed, the subsequent realization that the problems highlighted by the abolitionists still remained would only engender even more cynicism about the ability of any popular movement to ever deliver meaningful constitutional reform. And if Lazare is puzzled by how “strangely acquiescent” people are to the status quo now, then I can only imagine how bewildered he would be then.

Predicting 2014’s “Fauxbel” Laureate(s)

The announcement of the 2014 Nobel laureates in economics – or rather, “Fauxbel” laureates, given that the economics prize is technically not a “Nobel Prize” – is due tomorrow morning. I offered some predictions last year as to who would win, and I actually got one! (Got one correct, that is; I myself was not among those honored with an early morning call from Swedish-accented strangers.)

Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen predicts that the Nobel committee will select William J. Baumol, perhaps in conjunction with William G. Bowen, for his work on the cost disease. The Guardian floats Baumol as well, along with a host of others. So does Thomson Reuters, which also places its bets on Philippe Aghion, Peter Howitt, Israel Kirzner, and Mark Granovetter (a sociologist). Econ Job Market Rumors, one of the internet’s great econ-themed cesspools, has a thread on Nobel predictions where one poster wonders whether, instead of giving a prize this year, the committee shouldn’t opt for taking some back.

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics lists a number of contenders, including my own official guess: Harvard University’s Robert Barro. As noted by RTE, Barro currently ranks as the #2 most-cited economist on IDEAS, a database of research papers in economics maintained by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and he is mentioned almost every year as a leading contender for the highest honor in the discipline.

An additional reason why I’m wagering that it’ll be Barro is because of the rough alternation of the prize between recognition of empirical and theoretical work. Last year’s award highlighted empirical research in asset pricing, 2012’s honored two theorists, and 2011’s celebrated the development of econometric techniques used to untangle cause and effect in macroeconomics. Barro is best known for his contributions to growth theory, so his selection would certainly fit with this pattern. It’s also been over 25 years since a Nobel was explicitly awarded for work in this area, so the field is arguably due. Plus, a Barro win would undoubtedly mean some entertaining tweets from his son, a factor the committee presumably weighs heavily.

Here’s hoping my one-year streak remains unbroken!

Kesler and Mac Donald on Natural Law and Moral Progress

The latest installment of the Claremont Review of Books’ interview series “The American Mind” features a wide-ranging conversation between Review editor Charles Kesler and Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald that covers everything from literary deconstructionism to Rudy Giuliani. The interview is posted as six segments of about fifteen minutes each, so there’s quite a lot to digest. (The kitschy opening sequence, a montage of America’s founding documents and a bust of Thomas Jefferson set to classical music, may be better left undigested.)

The part that most interested me was an exchange between Kesler and Mac Donald about the concept of “natural law,” and the relationship between religion and conservative moral precepts. Mac Donald, co-founder of the blog Secular Right, is an unusual political creature. Known for her ardent support of New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy and her restrictionist stance on immigration, she is also an avowed atheist whose writing has appeared at RichardDawkins.net and who has sparred with Ross Douthat about the problem of evil.

In the penultimate segment of the Claremont interview, Kesler observes that Mac Donald, who is often sharply critical of American academia, rarely launches any William Buckley-esque attacks on the secularism of the ivory tower. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange that follows (starting at around 3:46 in the video below):

Kesler: I wonder whether you don’t agree that there is a kind of rational morality that is not strictly dependent on God, which is, I think, the position of natural law thinkers of many schools.

Mac Donald: Yes, absolutely. Parents understand this instinctively, that you inculcate in your child a sense of “you don’t beat up your little sister,” a) because it is going to lead to household chaos and there’s an innate need for order, but b) because your little sister has feelings like you do, and you want to have reciprocal moral behavior. And what moral education is about is widening that sphere of understanding and empathy to greater and greater distance in human interaction…

K: Right. No, well I bring up the question the way that I do because it’s you who say [quoting from an essay by Mac Donald]: “Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order… valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or natural law.” End quote.

But I mean, mystical precepts and natural law are two very different things, as you say just a few sentences later: “They do not need – skeptical conservatives do not need – God or the Christian Bible to discover the Golden Rule and see themselves in others.” I think that’s absolutely true, but I think many religious conservatives would concede that, that the natural law or rational morality is a source of the Golden Rule…

M: I just, I’m not persuaded that very different tribal cultures that have not achieved our civilizational advance… they may differ on things in significant ways.

K: They do, and I’m not sure that admission has anything to do with the notion of natural law as a rational morality, though. I mean, just because tribes don’t understand the Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t mean that it’s not true, right? I guess all I’m saying, gently, is that you may be committing natural law without realizing it, insofar as you do think that the Golden Rule, for example, is something true or something that appeals to – seeing ourselves in others is not a merely cultural thing.

M: Yeah, I just see… slavery was justified by the Christian Bible and by natural law, it’s just a fact. There were also people who argued against slavery based on Christianity and natural law.

K: It was justified on secular grounds and rational grounds too, of course.

M: Completely. Absolutely. But I’ve yet to see universal agreement on what natural law is. If I could see that, then I would know that it is truly something innate to all human beings. And what I see is, rather, evolution…

I am not offended that the Founders did not think of having females vote. It doesn’t bother me, I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Nevertheless, that is a pretty radical difference. Nobody today, if they were to create the American Constitution from scratch, would think of limiting suffrage to males. That would be assumed as almost a part of natural law, that males and females should be voting. So I see something that we like to invoke – transcendent universal ideals – but I [also] see culture evolving.

[End of clip]

On the one hand, Mac Donald agrees with Kesler that there is a “rational morality,” and that “moral education” is something possible and worthwhile. Yet she also speaks of cultural evolution and uses the example of the framers of the Constitution limiting suffrage to males to show how ethical judgments can change over time, and how we shouldn’t fault our forebears for having held what we might now consider to be grossly unenlightened views.

But Mac Donald is confusing ethical judgments with ethical realities. Kesler’s reference to the Pythagorean Theorem is apt: to say that moral truths can be arrived at by rational inquiry is not necessarily to say that our current understanding of morality is adequate or complete, just as to say that science deals in objective facts about the universe is not necessarily to say that we have reached the pinnacle of scientific knowledge. Ignorance of the Pythagorean Theorem does not render the Pythagorean Theorem untrue, and ignorance of the moral obligation of a democracy to extend the franchise to both men and women does not nullify that obligation.

Mac Donald is worried that holding to the existence of an objective morality would lead us to have to dismiss the Founding Fathers as bigots, when really the cultural patrimony available to them at the time was not such that they could have understood sexism as we do today. This is not so. After all, believing in the validity of mathematical reasoning need not lead us to condemn as stupid “tribal cultures” that have not yet groped their way to certain insights about triangles. People can engage in behavior that we later recognize to be wrong without necessarily having been guilty of deliberate wrongdoing at that particular moment in history.

Mac Donald seems not to have fully considered the fact that a theory of moral evolution or moral progress is not the same thing as the idea that morality can change. One can believe that morality is in fact not a reality independent of human beings’ preferences, and that all of our talk about right and wrong is culturally contingent, etc. But one can also believe that morality is an independent reality, and that we discover moral truths over time by thinking hard about how to properly “widen our sphere of understanding and empathy.”

Kesler is quite right to draw a distinction between “natural law” and “mystical precepts,” which Mac Donald appears to treat as one and the same. Her misunderstanding, it seems to me, stems from the fact that “natural law” is a term inextricably bound up with religious philosophy, and in particular with Catholicism and certain branches of Protestant Christianity. It is not so much the method offered by natural law that she rejects, but specific conclusions that have historically been associated with it (e.g. support of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, etc.).

Incidentally, self-identified proponents of natural law thinking sometimes fall into a similar trap. In preparation for this fall’s Synod on the Family in Rome – about which Chris and I hope to have more to say relatively soon – the Vatican released an instrumentum laboris or working paper synthesizing the results of a worldwide process of consultation with bishops, priests, and laity about challenges to families in the modern world. One section deals with the question of how contemporary Catholics understand (or don’t understand) the concept of a natural law:

In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all…

The responses and observations also show that the adjective ‘natural’ often is understood by people as meaning ‘spontaneous’ or ‘what comes naturally’… The underlying anthropological concepts, on the one hand, look to an autonomy in human freedom which is not necessarily tied to an objective order in the nature of things [emphasis added], and, on the other hand, every human being’s aspiration to happiness, which is simply understood as the realization of personal desires. Consequently, the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. (21-22)

The document goes on to lament evidence of widespread nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on a host of controversial questions, mostly related to marriage and bioethics. But nonacceptance of Catholic teaching on particular issues does not imply nonacceptance of the idea that there is “an objective [moral] order in the nature of things.” Clearly, denial of such an objective order is a sufficient condition for rejecting many of the Church’s positions, but it is not a necessary one. You can believe in right and wrong and yet still maintain that the hierarchy is mistaken about what is right and wrong in certain situations. The authors of the instrumentum laboris, like Mac Donald, are mixing up method and results.

To their credit, they do concede later on that “[t]he language traditionally used in explaining the term ‘natural law’ should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner.” The term “natural law” obviously has the potential to frustrate rather than facilitate conversations about ethics, and to cause confusion about what exactly is being talked about. Its enthusiasts should consider finding different ways of expressing their view that morality, like science, is something that can be discussed objectively. The folks at RichardDawkins.net might not be pleased, but Heather Mac Donald and the pope may be able to agree on something yet.

Nate vs. Leo (and Another Nate): On FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot

Statistics guru Nate Silver has long been considered a master political prognosticator, and for some time he held a virtual monopoly over what has since come to be known as “data journalism.” But around the time that Silver ended his four-year tenure at the New York Times to build an expanded version of his popular FiveThirtyEight blog under the patronage of ESPN, several other players moved into the market: Ezra Klein, formerly of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, hired “literally everybody” to help him launch Vox.com, and the Times’ David Leonhardt, creator of the now-defunct Economix blog, succeeded Silver as the paper’s nerd-in-chief with the debut of The Upshot in March 2014.

Much has been written about the strengths and weaknesses of each of the sites, including by our own Chris Fegan a few months back. But there’s one story about the data journalism food fight that has largely slipped under the radar: when it came time to start making forecasts for this fall’s elections for the U.S. Senate, The Upshot and its main politics writer, former New Republic contributor Nate Cohn, somehow managed to completely steal Nate Silver’s thunder.

Part of Silver’s unique appeal during the past few campaign seasons stemmed from the fact that he used statistical models to make quantitative forecasts of the outcomes of presidential and senatorial contests, as opposed to simply offering up the sort of qualitative assessments that are a dime a dozen elsewhere in the world of punditry. For all their weaknesses, these models had some important advantages: they allowed for new data to be quickly incorporated into FiveThirtyEight’s view of a race, and they made it possible to systematically attend to a wider range of variables than a mere human could on his own.

When The Upshot debuted “Leo,” its own model for forecasting the results of the 2014 Senate elections, I initially assumed that it would be a cheap knockoff of Silver’s more refined approach, and that I should really just wait for the new incarnation of the FiveThirtyEight model if I wanted to hear from professionals about what we ought to expect come November.

Leo’s methodology page features a Vox-style Q&A that walks readers through the mechanics of the model. Here’s the response to the first question, which asks about how Leo interprets polls:

We focus on the margin between two major candidates, taking steps to make different polls directly comparable. We tweak polls that count registered voters instead of likely ones. We make further adjustments depending on who conducted the poll.

“Well yes,” I thought, when I read that for the first time, “but they probably don’t make as many adjustments as Nate Silver would, like weighting polls based on their sample size or how recent they are.” Then I scrolled down to the next paragraph:

After adjusting the polls, we take a weighted average for each race, giving more weight to polls with a larger sample size and more recent polls (with a poll’s date being especially important the closer we get to Election Day). We also give more weight to a poll when we are more certain about its pollster’s house effect.

“That’s nice,” I chuckled condescendingly as I kept scrolling, “but I bet Leo doesn’t include any of the other sort of data that Nate Silver would, like candidates’ approval ratings or fundraising totals!” False:

For incumbents running for re-election, we consider their approval ratings. We also consider each candidate’s political experience; money raised; the state’s most recent presidential result; national polls on the public’s mood; and whether the election happens in a midterm or presidential year.

“Alright, this is a little better than I expected,” I said to myself, beginning to furrow my brow, “but Leo probably doesn’t account for the fact that the outcomes of races in different states tend to be correlated, which was something Nate Silver always thought was very important to model.” Also false:

We don’t think the races are independent. If the economy starts booming, it will probably help Democrats everywhere. If President Obama bungles an international crisis, Republicans everywhere could benefit. Even on Election Day, our model assumes the races will be correlated to some extent: The pollsters will tend to miss consistently in one direction or the other across the different races.

I finally realized that Leo was not only quite sophisticated, but that it was virtually identical to the old FiveThirtyEight model. In fact, the methodology page basically admits as much:

Leo owes an intellectual debt to earlier models, including those created by political scientists and especially the FiveThirtyEight model, which popularized ideas about adjusting polls, combining polls with other information and national swings.

FiveThirtyEight has been releasing informal reads on the most competitive Senate races at regular intervals for the past several months. Silver has noted that it is the site’s “tradition” to begin transitioning to algorithmic predictions sometime during the summer. This is indeed what FiveThirtyEight did in 2010, when it began publishing results from its model at the end of August. Yet does one data point make a “tradition”? In 2012, Silver’s model was launched at the beginning of June – right around the same time of year that he made this comment.

One obvious response to those (like myself) who would criticize Silver and his team for letting The Upshot beat them to the punch is that unveiling a quantitative model too early might give a false impression about the precision with which the results of an election can be forecasted many months out. Silver may have been worried that readers would fail to realize just how much uncertainty is associated with early predictions, and would put too much stock in seemingly precise numbers that aren’t really all that informative.

But this is always a danger, and Silver dealt with it in 2012 by posting confidence intervals alongside his forecasts of the popular and electoral votes. Moreover, FiveThirtyEight has argued on multiple occasions that early Senate polls have plenty to tell us about November. Here’s Harry Enten, in a piece from April entitled “Early Senate Polls Have Plenty to Tell Us About November”:

More than six months from the midterm elections, current polling and past precedent are competing for our trust. I analyzed which measure is more indicative come November, and it turns out that polls are a more robust metric even though their numbers are still sparse and there’s still so much time remaining before the election.

It’s not clear what Silver can do at this point to reassert his dominance. Maybe he’ll just try to rely on FiveThirtyEight’s superior name recognition. The site has about three times as many Twitter followers as The Upshot, so it’s possible that the efforts of Leo and Nate Cohn will simply be forgotten in the buzz surrounding the eventual rollout of FiveThirtyEight’s own model. But among hardcore political junkies, I can only assume that Silver’s brand has lost some of its luster. Barring a new model that features some truly innovative bells and whistles, it looks like he allowed himself to be totally outflanked by another guy named Nate.

In Silver’s first post at the new FiveThirtyEight, he explained that “we’ve elected to sacrifice something else as opposed to accuracy or accessibility. The sacrifice is speed – we’re rarely going to be the first organization to break news or to comment on a story.” Fair enough! RM prizes depth over quick turnaround too. (This may or may not be an attempt to offer a noble-sounding excuse for our frequent dry spells.) But it’s not clear that FiveThirtyEight is gaining much of anything by taking its time in rolling out its Senate model. Silver and his colleagues have certainly sacrificed speed, but the upshot is that they seem likely to get nothing in return.

 

Did Teilhard de Chardin Ever Ask the Beasts?

A couple of months ago, Chris and I went to hear Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Teilhard Association, an organization dedicated to promoting the work of the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (we sometimes have unusual ideas about what makes for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon). Johnson’s argument, a variation on the thesis of her latest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, was that Teilhard, despite having worked out an impressive synthesis of Catholic doctrine with an evolutionary understanding of the origins of life on Earth, was held back by an anthropocentric mindset that kept him from fully appreciating the inherent dignity of nonhuman life and the irreducible value of the natural world. Although Johnson conceded that his thought can be “grown forward” in ways that transcend this limited perspective, she nevertheless maintained that Teilhard, like most Christian thinkers throughout history, espoused a worldview in which creation is ultimately subordinate to humankind.

Elizabeth_Johnson_ATA_Cropped

Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ at American Teilhard Association Annual Meeting; May 3rd, 2014

Teilhard’s oeuvre is formidable, both in terms of the quantity of his output and the density of his prose, so the fact that I’ve read a few of his books by no means makes me an expert on his views. Yet even though Johnson went out of her way to praise what she saw as Teilhard’s strengths, I had a sense that her characterization of him as someone who failed to recognize the intrinsic worth of the other residents of our planet – animal, vegetable, and mineral – was somewhat unfair.

In the weeks after the talk, I worked my way through Teilhard’s Future of Man, a collection of essays that develop his ideas about how homo sapiens, far from representing the terminus of evolution, is actually still in the process of growing and developing, no longer by way of “natural selection” but now through its own conscious action upon itself. As I read the book, I came across a number of passages that further convinced me that while Teilhard’s attention was mostly trained on humanity, his perspective was in fact broader than Johnson implied.

Unfortunately, no transcript or video of Johnson’s remarks at the ATA meeting is available. Since I want to be careful not to mischaracterize her views, I’ll focus instead on two quotations of hers from sources that are available: one from Ask the Beasts and another from a talk on the book given at Boston College last July.

Here’s Johnson, during the Q&A following her lecture at BC (at around 80:45 in the video):

There’s a great movement in theology today – I speak the name of Tom Berry and Brian Swimme calling on Teilhard and so on, in taking the cosmos and the power of the cosmos and getting that into our spirituality, making us understand that. And what I am trying to do is to say – my criticism of Teilhard and of Tom Berry is that they are still focused on the human person, and the plants and animals are left out in many ways. Not deliberately! It’s the era that people live in. And that – what I was trying to do very explicitly is to say, those insights are wonderful, and we need to apply them to the rest of life on our planet. In other words, cosmos is one thing, and it’s beautiful and it’s mystical – it lifts you up! – but I want to say, get down and dirty with biology.

And here she is on pg. 11 of Ask the Beasts:

Teilhard de Chardin[‘s]… scientific and religious passions fuse in ‘a mystic’s vision of holy matter,’ a sense that God is working in the evolutionary world which is pressing forward toward final convergence in the Omega Point, which he identifies with Christ. In view of the ultimate purpose of the evolutionary trajectory that has produced human life, his interpretive model sanctifies human endeavor that builds the earth toward that final destiny. Teilhard’s orientation of evolution to its eschatological future remains valuable, though criticism perdures that it credits the natural process with a too clear, almost linear sense of direction, and subsumes the natural world into human destiny. For all the nuance now needed, his work, poetic and pervaded with deep spirituality, has made a lasting contribution not least by integrating science with faith at a time when the two existed in watertight compartments.

Criticism about Teilhard’s alleged belief that evolution proceeds linearly may indeed perdure, but as far as I can tell it does so without justification. For one thing, Teilhard did not think evolution was like one of those drawings where the monkey gradually stands up straighter and straighter and becomes less and less hairy until it finally turns into a human. He subscribed to the scientific consensus that evolution is a divergent process whereby simpler life forms give rise to a wide variety of more complex life forms (and that “similarity to humans” is not the only criterion by which we can call one creature more “complex” than another):

Formerly ‘instinct’ could be treated as a sort of homogeneous quantity varying (something like temperature) on a scale running from zero to the point of Reflection representing human thought. Now we have to accustom ourselves to seeing things differently. It is not along a single line that Consciousness has emerged and is increasing on earth, but along an immense fan of nervures, each nervure representing a particular kind of sensory perception and knowledge. There are as many wave-lengths of consciousness as there are living forms. (Future of Man, pg. 227)

This is followed by an intriguing footnote:

i.e., in seeking to grasp the interior world and associative faculties of an animal it is not enough to try to diminish or decenter our own picture of the world: we have to modify our angle of vision and our way of seeing. Failing this we fall into the anthropomorphic illusions which cause us to be amazed at the phenomena of mimetism, or by mechanism arrangements which we ourselves could only carry out with the full aid of science, whereas the insect or the bat seems to have acquired the skill directly. (227)

Examples of seemingly preternatural talents in the animal kingdom abound. Dolphins can use echolocation to perceive the size and shape of objects that are concealed from their sight, and can communicate this information to human trainers. When I learned about this ability, I was amazed; how can dolphins pull this off when humans would require advanced technology to accomplish the same thing? What would it be like to have this kind of sixth sense?

Teilhard would say that we shouldn’t imagine it to be like wearing a pair of goggles hooked up to a sonar device. Animal consciousness is not just human consciousness with certain abilities subtracted and others added on. The subjective experiences of other creatures may very well be entirely orthogonal to our own. When Teilhard criticizes “amazement” in this footnote, he is not saying we shouldn’t be awed by the wonders of nature. In a sense, he is criticizing those of us who are not awed enough by nature, and who assume that the human mind is the best reference point for understanding animal minds. Some anthropocentrism!

To be sure, Teilhard did think that humans were objectively the most advanced organisms in the known universe because of their capacity for reflective thought. Yet he did not think that natural selection was destined to produce homo sapiens per se, although he did believe it would tend over time to produce conscious, self-aware creatures of some sort:

It is perfectly possible that in the general spectrum of Life the line ending in Man was originally no more than one psychic radiation among countless others. But it happened, for some reason of hazard, position or structure, that this sole ray… among the millions contrived to pass the critical barrier separating the Unreflective from the Reflective…

Because it did so (and although in a sense, I must repeat, this ray was only one attempt among many) the whole essential stream of terrestrial biological evolution is now flowing through the breach which has been made… [T]here has occurred, at a first ending of time, the breaking of the dykes, followed by what is now in progress, the flooding of Thought over the entire surface of the biosphere. (pp. 227-229)

In a later essay in Future of Man, Teilhard once again writes about this metaphysical fungibility of humans and other hypothetical rational creatures in a passage about the “Noosphere,” his term for the network of cognitive interactions among human beings, which he believed was growing into a kind of “super-organism” with the advent of modern communications technologies (some read Teilhard as having successfully predicted the invention of the Internet with his talk of the Noosphere):

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to regard all the biological stems composing the Biosphere as proceeding equally, each according to its own orientation, in the universal direction of considered thought. But what is even more certain… is that if a given Phylum X, shall we say, preceding the anthropoids, had succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness, Man would never have come into existence: instead of him, Phylum X would have woven and constituted the Noosphere. (pp. 283-284)

Although Teilhard is in principle open to the idea that some animals are subjects of mental experiences, he is also convinced (perhaps wrongly) that, as an empirical matter, no other creatures have in fact “succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness.”

Ask the Beasts charges Teilhard with “subsuming the natural world into human destiny,” and it is true that most of Teilhard’s work is concerned with situating humankind in an evolutionary universe. But as Johnson admits, this is largely a function of the era in which he lived. His Jesuit superiors forbade him from publishing many of his writings during his lifetime, a period when the theory of evolution was still viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the institutional Church. Teilhard’s project was to illustrate how an evolutionary worldview is compatible with Catholic doctrine on subjects like free will and sin, and so his emphasis on humanity should not be read as an attempt to justify the reckless domination of nature.

There are many who do try to justify such domination though, and Johnson is performing a great service by identifying the philosophical and theological errors involved in these arguments. When I asked her after the ATA keynote about what she thinks Pope Francis should say in the encyclical on the environment he’s said to be drafting, she replied that he ought to insist that nature is good and beautiful apart from its practical uses, and avoid even caveated claims that “it’s all here for us.”

There is certainly a sense in which the Church’s and Teilhard’s ideas about “the beasts” are anthropocentric, but it seems to me that a distinction needs to be drawn between a benign or even salutary sort of anthropocentrism that sees human beings as the stewards of creation and a more pernicious sort of anthropocentrism that would license humans to do with creation as they wish. Johnson, in advocating for a strict anti-anthropocentrism that rejects any “focus on the human person” as inappropriately narrow, blurs the distinction between the two and makes it appear as if Teilhard and/or the Church share in or are even partly responsible for the mindset that is leading us toward ecological ruin.

According to the description of Ask the Beasts on the publisher’s website, Johnson wants theologians “to look out of the window, so to speak, as well as in the mirror.” It would be wonderful if Francis were to use his first solo encyclical as an opportunity to underscore the urgency of the threats posed to the global ecosystem by global warming, deforestation, and the like, and to articulate clearly that plants and animals have more than just utilitarian value. And – who knows? – he might even consider the work of his fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin as he brainstorms what he wants to say. If he looks closely enough, I think he’ll find Teilhard to be a more helpful resource than he might seem at first glance.

The Mississippi Senate Primary and Why We Need Instant Runoffs

Until this past Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi, the pundit class had spent much of this election season pushing the dubious (and possibly incoherent) narrative that the Republican “establishment” has finally tamed the insurgent “Tea Party” and set the GOP up for success in its bid to retake control of the Senate this November. From Sen. Mitch McConnell’s victory over Matt Bevin in Kentucky, to Thom Tillis’ trouncing of Greg Brannon in North Carolina, to the failure of Rep. Paul Broun to advance to a runoff in Georgia, evidence that Republican voters were finally getting tired of rolling the dice on unelectable political novices was said to be everywhere.

But even if there were not already serious reasons to doubt this theory, let alone reasons to question whether the “establishment vs. Tea Party” framing actually makes any sense, there certainly are now. The almost-victory of former talk-radio host Chris McDaniel over six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi is a glaring counterexample to the conventional wisdom.

Or maybe not. We’ll have to wait two more weeks to know for sure, since McDaniel’s 49.5% vote share fell just short of the 50-percent-plus-one needed for him to prevail outright and avert a June 24th runoff. The sprint to the finish line will be an expensive affair: Republican donors and PAC’s are estimated to have spent around $13.4 million on the race thus far, and while some prominent outside groups have announced that they plan on sitting out the final phase of the campaign, Politico has reported that “millions of dollars more” will likely be spent between now and the 24th.

McDaniel and Cochran finished within 1,400 votes of one another, and the former would almost certainly have triumphed were it not for the little-known Thomas Carey, who earned fewer than 5,000 votes out of over 300,000 cast, or about 1.5% of the total (holding the number of votes constant, Cochran would have had to win roughly two-thirds of the ballots that went to Carey in order to prevail). A National Journal profile of Carey, a former realtor who now works in prison ministry and who raised no money and ran no ads, referred to him as “the man who just cost Republican donors millions.”

In light of the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel would have won a two-man race against Cochran, and the fact that we can reasonably assume McDaniel will win a two-man race against Cochran, it’s frustrating to contemplate the amount of money that will be spent on this contest in the days ahead. To be sure, runoffs serve an important purpose; guaranteeing that a winning candidate has the support of a majority of voters is important, and one need only look as far as the governor’s office in Maine to see how first-past-the-post systems can allow candidates whose views are clearly at odds with those of the majority to slip into office.

But they’re also incredibly wasteful, especially when you consider the fact that we can accomplish everything runoffs are designed to accomplish in a single election by making use of instant runoff voting (IRV). Under IRV, voters are asked to rank some or all of the available candidates in order of their preference. If no candidate is able to command an outright majority when all of the first-choice votes are tallied up, the ballots going to the candidate who comes in last are reassigned to the second choices of those voters. Depending on the number of candidates and how evenly they split the vote, this process can be iterated as many times as necessary until someone emerges with a majority.

There are some potential pitfalls associated with IRV. IRV is often said to foster greater political competition, because it assures voters that they will not be “throwing away their vote” if they back a third party candidate; whether it actually does so is unclear. Critics also allege that IRV is confusing for voters, and that the rate of mismarked ballots tends to increase under such a system. But research suggests that such worries are misplaced, and the fact that IRV is used both internationally and in a few cities here at home should put to rest fears that it’s not ready for primetime.

Although there are good reasons to abandon runoffs entirely and fundamentally rethink the way that we elect politicians in the U.S., that probably won’t happen anytime soon. In the meanwhile, why not conduct runoffs as cheaply and efficiently as possible? And as for the charge that IRV is confusing, it seems to me that it’s actually less confusing and less of a hassle for voters than a traditional runoff. Not only does everyone only have to turn out on a single day to cast their ballots, but IRV allows runoffs to be conducted without voters having to understand all of the mechanics. Which of the following sounds like a more complicated message to communicate to the public?

  1. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. If nobody gets a majority, show up again a few Tuesdays from now and cast a vote for one of the top two finishers, which may or may not mean voting for the same person a second time.”
  2. “Show up next Tuesday and vote for your favorite candidate. Can you also tell us if you have a second choice? And maybe a third? Thanks.”

Educating voters about IRV would not be any more difficult – and might even be easier – than educating them about traditional runoffs. Political junkies have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which most Americans pay attention to politics and elections, but when it comes to IRV the pendulum swings in the other direction and voters are presumed to be too thick to learn a new way of doing things.

The amount of money that will be spent on the Mississippi Senate runoff is miniscule compared to what will be spent on some of the higher-profile races of 2014, but we should not pass up opportunities to reduce waste where we can. Instant runoffs would simplify the electoral process, and would help make sure that unknown real estate agents can’t drag out an expensive campaign for three extra weeks.

Weigel, Will.i.am, and What’s Wrong with the Sunday Shows

A few days ago, Chris retweeted an article by Slate’s Dave Weigel entitled “Will.i.am Is Not What’s Wrong With Meet the Press,” in which Weigel recounts a jarring experience he had last Sunday:

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself among the not-insignificant number of Americans confused to see [The Black Eyed Peas’] Will.i.am on Meet the Press. Armed with an iPhone 4, I took this photo of the proceedings.

[Photo of Will.i.am with a serious expression]

Within a few hours, hundreds of people had shared that twitpic, usually with an aside about how much it revealed about Meet the Press’s well-reported troubles. Only a week had passed since Paul Farhi profiled the show and host David Gregory, which ironically shifted the narrative from ‘why is MTP so lame now?’ to ‘whoa, NBC hired a “psychological consultant” to find out how to maximize Gregory’s reach?’

I too was among the “not-insignificant number of Americans” taken aback by this state of affairs. I usually watch ABC’s This Week on Sunday mornings and hadn’t tuned in to Meet the Press in quite some time, so seeing Will.i.am’s mug immediately upon switching to NBC was perplexing indeed.

Evidently MTP has been experimenting with “adding on layers” and attempting to make the program more “interesting” by hosting “big conversations about religion, foreign events and societal trends,” as Gregory put it in an interview with Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Weigel is skeptical that this is really what the Sunday shows need:

Look, I’m a shmuck with a podcast and Gregory is a well-traveled reporter who’s interviewed basically everyone, but I feel this gets at exactly the wrong definition of ‘interesting.’ More interviews, more voices, does not automatically lead to more ‘interesting’ content. It leads to more content in less time—and less exploration of each subject covered. It robs the Sunday shows of their old advantage, their ability to lock subjects in a well-lit room for most of an hour and boil away their talking points.

As the ‘pack a show with segments!’ standard has spread, marquee guests have gotten used to quick sprint interviews that they can ace with some pablum. The main reason that Chris Christie’s post-election Sunday show interviews in 2013 were so lame and unrevealing was that Christie asked for, and received, only seven minutes on each show. But it didn’t jar, because each show was able to toss the segment into their current formats, in which tedious panel discussions fill out the hours like corn meal fills out a brick of scrapple. How did this happen? Who, in the history of ever, has wanted to hear less from the people who run the country and more from Harold Ford?

All I’m saying is: Lay off Will.i.am. He’s not the problem here. What you want is longer and more probing interviews with more seemingly boring people.

I completely agree with the first part of this diagnosis, since I’ve often complained about This Week’s own trend toward offering up “more content in less time.” The show used to consist of a roughly half-hour interview followed by a half-hour roundtable discussion, but is now typically made up of an interview (or two), a roundtable (or two), a “Sunday Spotlight” human interest story, and even a game of historical trivia with the roundtable participants (in an homage to Mother’s Day, today’s asked for the identity of the first woman to give birth in the White House).

“Boiling away the talking points” is a worthwhile objective, and I sympathize with Weigel’s frustration at Sunday show hosts who are too willing to let their guests get away with dodging questions. But Weigel elides his criticism of the “’pack the show with segments’ standard” with shots at “tedious panel discussions,” even though these are really two distinct problems. As he sees it, the issue is not that the proliferation of segments leads to less time spent on any given subject, but rather that it specifically leaves less time for in-depth interviews with politicians. This is the sense in which “the problem is not Will.i.am”; Meet the Press has, according to Weigel, already veered from its traditional mission.

I’m not so sure this is right. If anything, the total amount of time allocated to roundtable discussion on This Week actually appears to have decreased as the number of segments has multiplied. Weigel seems to forget that even in the good old days when Tim Russert hosted MTP, half of the show still (or already) was comprised of roundtable discussion – and even sometimes featured Harold Ford, Jr. Some of the most venerable political talk shows are, and have been for years, nothing but roundtable discussion. A few, like Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS, are marked by civility and generally productive conversation. Others, like CBS’ McLaughlin Group, frequently degenerate into shouting and feature Pat Buchanan saying things. It’s a mixed bag, but the format itself is nothing new.

“Tedious panel discussions” do have a role to play in the world of public affairs programming. Sure, it takes hard work to find worthwhile commentators who will offer a wide range of perspectives while engaging one another in a constructive way, but roundtables are not inherently a waste of time. Weigel thinks that any time spent talking about politicians is necessarily time not spent talking to politicians, but having journalists or other experts who can synthesize information and interpret the goings-on in Washington is a key part of keeping viewers informed. It should not be reflexively denigrated.

My own preference would be to see the Sunday shows return to the two-segment model, but also to see them limit the conversation within each segment to just one or two topics. Weigel mentions an episode of MTP where Gregory spent a brief few minutes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry hopping from issue to issue without ever getting a substantive response about any of them. Each segment of one of these shows has, in microcosm, fallen victim to the same ailment that afflicts the shows as a whole. Producers may feel as if they need to acknowledge every single political development of the preceding week, even if only by having each guest or discussant offer a thirty-second comment, but it would be a welcome development if they transformed their programs into something more along the lines of PBS’ Charlie Rose, where an entire hour is spent exploring a single topic in as much depth as possible.

Unfortunately, this might result in fewer employment opportunities for the psychological consultants and the Will.i.am’s of the world, but I’m sure they’ll manage. Maybe they can follow in Weigel’s footsteps and become shmucks with podcasts, too.

 

Dave Camp Makes the Case for Taxing Red Meat

On February 26th, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a proposal for a major overhaul of the individual tax code that he claimed would significantly reduce the amount of effort that individuals would have to expend on preparing their returns. I read a bit about Camp’s ideas when they first came out, and had planned on offering some thoughts here at RM. Unfortunately, his observation that the process of filing tax returns can be quite burdensome turned out to be an astute one: I spent the following seven weeks (right up until midnight yesterday!) working hard on my taxes, and had not a moment to spare to write about the Camp Plan until now.

Okay, not really; I actually just forgot. (I also started and finished my taxes this past Sunday, thank you very much.) But I was reminded of the issue as I filled out my forms and searched under the couch cushions for my W-2’s over the weekend, and now that everything is in the mail I thought I’d take a minute to discuss some of my reactions to Camp’s bold proposal.

And boy, is it bold. The sheer political implausibility of some elements of the plan led many commentators to declare it dead on arrival, with a few even going so far as to claim that its release was only ever intended as a bit of showmanship. Despite the early buzz, the proposal seems to have faded from the headlines; the conventional wisdom is that nothing even remotely that ambitious could pass Congress in an election year.

But that fact alone is no reason to ignore Camp’s work. The Republican Party has seen a relative flowering of policy entrepreneurship in recent months, even if some of the more wonkish conservative thinkers and pundits are misguided about how broad-based the renaissance really is. And even if none of Camp’s agenda has any chance whatsoever of becoming a reality anytime soon, parts of it could very well make their way into the platforms of future Republican candidates for higher office who are eager to present voters with fresh ideas.

On the whole, I think that Rep. Camp’s proposal is a serious one. It contains a number of good ideas that ought (in a less polarized political environment) to enjoy broad appeal among members of both parties. But it is not without its weaknesses, and it certainly isn’t above gimmicky red-meat-throwing. In fact, those two tend to coincide, with the most questionable parts of the plan also those that were most clearly included to score political points and poke political enemies.

First, a few of the commendable bits. Camp advocates scaling back the mortgage interest deduction, which is one of the most expensive tax subsidies in the individual code. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that it reduced federal revenues by about $70 billion in 2012 alone. Since it is a deduction (which reduces taxable income) and not a credit (which reduces the dollar amount of taxes owed, and which in some cases may increase the size of a refund even if nothing is owed), its benefits tend to flow to those in higher tax brackets. In fact, the CBPP figures that in recent years more than three-quarters of the benefits associated with the mortgage interest deduction went to individuals with incomes above $100,000.

Although many budget experts have recommended converting the deduction to a credit, Camp at least takes a step in the right direction by lowering the cap on the amount of mortgage interest that is eligible for the deduction. Rather than allowing filers to deduct the interest paid on the first $1,000,000 of a mortgage, Cap would limit them to writing off only that pertaining to the first $500,000. He projects that this wouls only affect “less than 5 percent of the most expensive homes on the market today.” Given that the intent of this policy is presumably to facilitate homebuying for those who might otherwise be shut out of the housing market, and not to allow those who can already easily afford a home to afford a larger one, this tweak is certainly a sensible one.

Camp also demonstrates some courage by embracing ideas previously endorsed by President Obama and other Democrats, including “eliminating special depreciation benefits related to corporate jets” and treating “carried interest” as regular income rather than as capital gains for the purposes of taxation. He also takes steps toward shedding the GOP’s image as the party of plutocrats by proposing a quarterly 0.035% tax on any assets held by financial firms in excess of $500 billion. He defends this policy on the grounds that corporations designated as “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” or “SIFI’s” by the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 are believed to enjoy lower borrowing costs on account of the fact that other market participants think they will be the recipients of public assistance (read, bailouts) in the event of another financial meltdown. Camp argues that taxpayers ought to be compensated for what is in effect an implicit subsidy.

Although – or perhaps because – only a handful of the very largest banks would be affected by this tax, it has provoked a great deal of backlash from lobbyists representing Wall Street banks. Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum has wondered whether Camp might have intended to provoke this backlash in order to guarantee that a SIFI tax would not be included in Republican reform plans in the future, but it’s unclear whether his motives were really that cynical. The GOP certainly has an image problem when it comes to its ties to the financial industry (although the Democrats are not immune to this problem either), and Camp seems to be at least trying to do something about it. Moreover, the notion of a financial transaction tax is one that has been endorsed on the merits by economists and pundits from across the political spectrum.

Now for the questionable parts. Camp asserts that waste and fraud in the tax system is an overwhelmingly serious problem:

Not only is the way Washington takes your money unfair, it wastes the money it takes from you… This is particularly true of existing refundable tax credit programs, where the IRS is unwilling or unable to stop the waste, fraud and abuse. For example, over the last 10 years, the IRS erroneously sent out an estimated $132 billion of your tax dollars to false claimants. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest refundable tax credit, consistently ranks among the worst government programs in terms of waste, fraud and abuse [emphasis added] – even though it is one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans. Last year, 21 to 25 percent of all EITC payments were incorrect, costing American taxpayers as much as $13.6 billion.

Leaving aside the question of whether fraud is really a problem that the IRS has not been effectively tackling, singling out the EITC for special criticism seems strange. The Republican Party’s standard response to calls from Democrats for an increase in the federal minimum wage has been to argue that expanding the EITC would be a much more effective and less costly strategy for boosting the wages of poor and low-skilled workers. Granted, Camp acknowledges that it is “one of the most important tools to help low-income, working Americans,” but this is clearly a footnote to the main argument being made here.

Deficit hawks have plenty of examples of silly or frivolous federal spending from which to choose, and are generally untroubled by creating the impression that spending of that sort represents a much, much larger share of federal outlays than it actually does. So why go after the EITC? Considering that he has three or four more examples of allegedly wasteful programs in the next several paragraphs, why not just omit it?

We should give credit to Mr. Camp for being less demagogic than many of his colleagues and for illustrating his point with more serious examples than “beaver management.” We should also acknowledge that he never actually calls for abolishing or even meaningfully scaling back the EITC. But in his zeal to attack a perennial conservative punching bag, he ends up undermining the plausibility of his own party’s alternative to a hugely popular minimum wage increase. Especially if other Republicans run with this meme in the future, the self-inflicted wound could split open even wider. (For the record, I support an expansion of the EITC in conjunction with a minimum wage hike, and I think Camp’s criticisms are more clumsy than damning.)

Another element of the plan that attracted a great deal of attention in the press when it first came out was Camp’s proposal to repeal the deduction for state and local taxes, including income, property, and sales taxes. His contention is that “[t]his deduction redistribute[s] wealth to big-government, high-tax states from small-government, low-tax states.” Commentators rightly read this as a jab at blue-state governors and legislatures, and Camp correctly notes that this benefit is most valuable to those who live in states with high taxes, which by-and-large are those that lean Democratic.

That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at this deduction is as a benefit that redistributes wealth toward states that are self-reliant and away from those that depend most heavily on the federal government. The states with the largest total burden of state and local taxes also tend to be those that receive the smallest amount of federal spending for every dollar they send to Washington. According to the center-right Tax Foundation,

[t]hanks to a steeply progressive federal income tax, states with higher incomes [i.e. blue states, on average –MM] pay vastly higher federal taxes, payments that are unlikely ever to be matched by federal spending directed to those states.

The Tax Foundation regularly produces a ranking of states based on their average tax burden, excluding federal taxes. In 2011, four of the ten states identified as bearing the heaviest burdens – California, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York – were also among the ten states with the largest net revenue contributions to the federal government, based on tax data from the IRS and spending data from Transparency.gov. Four of the ten states identified as having the lightest burdens – Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas – were among the ten states with the largest net inflow of spending from the federal government (calculations available upon request).

This is just a quick, unscientific exercise, and we can quibble about the best way to measure which states are most “self-reliant.” But they are incredibly suggestive, and provide some support for the intuition that the states that levy the highest taxes on their citizens are also those that are Washington’s largest revenue-raisers. If there’s any redistribution going on here, it’s toward low-tax states. In the absence of the state and local income tax deduction, that redistribution would be even more stark.

Why does this matter? Conservatives are typically champions of devolving as many functions of government as possible to the states, and states that do more for their residents will tend to require more revenue. Yet encouraging states to reduce taxation may incentivize them to shift more of the work of providing public services to the feds. One can understand on a political level why Camp would want to axe this particular piece of the tax code, but he ought to have thought more deeply about the potential policy consequences of doing so.

Rep. Camp has offered a credible template for revamping the tax code. Although his core assumption that complexity is its main defect has come in for some criticism – The New Republic ran a piece for Tax Day presenting survey evidence that most Americans don’t consider it that difficult to do their taxes, and that the ubiquity of tax preparation software could even allow us to implement a system with infinitely many tax brackets without much pushback – it seems like a good idea to regularly reevaluate whether the code makes sense and to pare back some of its kludgy accretions.

Camp is surprisingly honest about the tradeoffs required by any such root-and-branch reform, and is willing to write concrete proposals that take on some of his party’s sacred cows. This is not the plan that I would have come up with, but in a less acrimonious political universe it would offer a reasonable starting point for bipartisan negotiations (I stand by my claim that “reformocons” would have a better chance of getting a hearing in the Democratic Party, but that’s an argument for another day).

Yet whenever Camp indulges in political gimmickry, his plan is consistently the worse for it. Maybe the next congressman to release a brief on tax reform can propose a tax on red meat.

“Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk”

Last Monday after work I made what I was surprised to learn is a very long trek from lower Manhattan to Fordham University in the Bronx to attend a talk by Daniel K. Finn, an economic ethicist at the University of Saint John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. The lecture, sponsored by Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, was entitled “Building Better Economies: Why Popes and Economists Need to Talk,” and marked the kickoff of a planned two-year series of events to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s economic encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The main objectives of Finn’s talk were a) to encourage economists and theologians/ethicists, particularly within the Catholic academy, to engage in more interdisciplinary discussion, and b) to critique the tendency within academia for different subject areas to self-segregate into inward-looking cliques (he accompanied his introduction of this idea with a nice illustration of silos). As promised by his title, Finn made a compelling case for why popes and economists need to talk, but I had been hoping that he would deal more extensively with what practical steps might be taken to further promote and even institutionalize this kind of dialogue.

In the first half of the lecture, Finn summarized studies from a subfield known as behavioral economics that have sought to illuminate the psychological impacts of poverty. He focused in particular on an observation from the literature that the stress associated with a chronic lack of basic necessities leads to “reduced mental bandwidth,” and to shortsighted decision-making, poor impulse control, and weaker problem-solving abilities. This in turn can generate self-defeating patterns of behavior that can keep someone from rising out of poverty.

Such an empirical finding can have clear implications for public policy. Finn argued, for example, that accepting this understanding of why poverty persists would militate against imposing a fixed lifetime limit on the amount of welfare benefits that can be collected by a given individual, since this sort of restriction misunderstands the nature of “poverty-induced tunneling.” In other words, the intended incentive effects of such a limit will tend to be attenuated by the fact that the poor are focused not on making plans for far in the future, but on short-term subsistence. A better alternative might be to institute a cap on what can be collected during a given spell of poverty or unemployment (e.g. to allow a maximum of X dollars to be collected every Y months).

Although he didn’t deal explicitly with how “popes” might assimilate the fruits of such research into Church teaching, Finn did mention that Pope John Paul II is known to have consulted with economists when writing Centesimus Annus, his landmark social encyclical. At a more practical level, a better understanding of how to break cycles of poverty can assist Church-affiliated organizations like Catholic Relief Services in designing more effective strategies for promoting growth and development.

The latter half of the talk dealt with the contributions that popes and other churchmen, theologians, and ethicists can make to the dialogue with economists. In addition to simply reminding economists that their research ought always to be conducted with an eye toward fostering the common good, the exhortations of Church leaders can contribute to a deeper, more fundamental rethinking of what is possible in the realm of political economy. Finn quoted liberally from Benedict XVI’s 2009 treatise on the global economic order, Caritas in Veritate, to show what form this kind of rethinking might take. We can see hints of the Benedictine (and Franciscan!) vision of “commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends” in organizations like credit unions or grocery co-ops or health insurance co-ops, but these types of arrangements remain exceptions to the basic order of capitalism.

As Finn concluded his remarks, I was left wondering about what might actually be done to further the sort of dialogue he believes is necessary. Sure, popes have consulted with economists when they want to write about economics; have economists consulted with popes when they want to write about ethics? Do economists ever want to write about ethics? I approached Finn after the talk and asked him what he made of this asymmetry and how he thought it should be addressed. He acknowledged that this was a problem, and offered a few examples of forums and conferences that have modeled the kind of interaction wants to see become more widespread. Yet his examples were events that were sponsored by the Church! My point still stood.

The 2010 documentary Inside Job, in which Matt Damon explains the financial crisis, features a discussion about the uncomfortably close ties between the financial industry and business school/econ department faculty, and the ways in which these ties can distort and bias economic research. I personally am fortunate enough to work with morally upstanding economists on a daily basis, but the near-universal lack of ethical training as a component of degree programs in business and economics is something that worries me.

As insistent as recent popes have been that their social teaching is generally applicable to the whole of humanity, and rises above the level of ecclesiastical law binding only on Catholics, the Church will nevertheless have to build coalitions with those outside of Catholicism if it hopes to overcome the perception that its forays into discussions about political and economic concerns are driven by narrow sectarian interests.

I think that Finn and others like him have started in a logical place by zeroing in on Catholic universities, though. Kenneth Garcia, in a book called Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University, argues that Catholic colleges ought to focus more on recruiting intellectuals who are well-trained in both their own particular subject area and the broader philosophical and ethical tradition of the Church. This is a tall order, and at least one reviewer expressed skepticism that there are very many of these strange beasts out there to be recruited (not to mention that previous attempts to accomplish something similar, even at Garcia’s own university, have not necessarily ended well). But if Finn’s exercise in silo-breaking is to succeed, it would seem that these are the places where it will have to get off the ground first.

A day or two after Dan Finn’s talk, I read a review by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Reporter of a forthcoming book by Andrew Abela and Joseph Capizzi entitled A Catechism for Business, which attempts to offer practical advice for Catholics seeking to integrate their moral principles with their professional work. Although Winters is critical of the free-market sympathies of its authors, one a moral theologian at Catholic University of America and the other the dean of CUA’s business school, he nevertheless believes that the book makes a unique contribution:

A Catechism for Business consists of quotes drawn from the Church’s teaching on issues of business and economics and one can only hope that many Catholic businesspeople will better acquaint themselves with that teaching via this medium. They certainly would be inclined to change some of their business practices and, what is more important, the whole way business is conceived in our hyper-commercial U.S. culture…

This Catechism is a worthwhile project and I hope it will be widely distributed and read. And, I believe the conversation between traditional advocates of Catholic social teaching and economists like Abela should continue, if only to convert him from his evident devotion to the fuzzy free-market thinking we associate with the Austrians not the Apostles. But, Abela is sincere, not sinister and his collaboration with Capizzi in producing this Catechism has yielded a fine compendium of Church teachings which, if taken seriously by the business community, could result in a far more humane economy than the one those businessmen have erected on their own.

Winters seems to equivocate about precisely how broad an audience the book might be able to attract, writing first that he hopes it will be read by “many Catholic businesspeople,” but then later that it would be wonderful to see it “taken seriously by the business community [in general].”

My own sense is that a book by two academics at CUA replete with quotations from papal documents will struggle to get a hearing outside of the Church. But in the age of Francis, who knows? People like Finn, Abela, and Capizzi are doing important work, but they should be cognizant of the fact that they may need to use different language when talking to different audiences. A multiplicity of approaches will be required if we really want to “build better economies.”

Will the Geographic Profile of the College of Cardinals Really Change Under Francis?

The Pope’s Promotions

Earlier today, Pope Francis formally elevated 19 Catholic prelates to the rank of cardinal in a ceremony known as a “consistory,” marking the first time that he has made such promotions since his election last March. As with all of Pope Francis’ “firsts,” the announcement of his first picks for the cardinalate had generated a significant amount of buzz in light of his evident intention to dramatically shift the geographic distribution of the red hats.

Since their main responsibility is to elect the next pope, there is naturally a great deal of interest in the cardinals – where they come from, who they are, and what issues they care about. In the run-up to the conclave that elected Francis last March, the Pew Research Center produced a graphic showing how the percentage of cardinals from each region of the world compared to the percentage of the world’s Catholics living in those regions. The visual was stark: while Europe only accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s Catholics as of 2013, it was home to over half of the cardinals eligible to vote in the conclave. Latin America, with nearly 40% of the global Catholic population, could claim only 17% of the cardinal electors as its own.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Francis is accelerating a trend toward the “de-Italianization” or “de-Europeanization” of the College of Cardinals that has been at work for some time. National Catholic Register‘s Edward Pentin observed in January that “[f]ewer cardinals [from] the Roman Curia [the Vatican bureaucracy] will allow the Pope to choose more widely from the Church’s resident archbishops, thereby giving a more equitable distribution of cardinals from around the world.” In keeping with his emphasis on caring for the poor, Francis’ choices included clerics from developing countries like Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Nicaragua. Bishop Chibly Langlois was selected as the first cardinal from Haiti, one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

But looking at how the nationalities of the cardinals have evolved over time only tells half the story. As the Pew graphic emphasized, one also needs to take into account the ratio of cardinals to Catholics in a given region to get a sense of whether that part of the world is represented as fairly as another.

Of course, when I talk about “representation,” I don’t mean to imply that the cardinals represent the laity in the same way that congressmen represent their constituents in the U.S. House of Representatives. While the College is a quasi-democratic institution with a protocol for electing the pope that resembles the protocol used by the Electoral College to elect the President of the United States, the cardinals do not literally poll the faithful on who they want to be pontiff. Moreover, the College’s role in the actual governance of the Church is generally very limited, despite the fact that it is sometimes referred to as the “papal senate” (though the amount of input that its members have varies from papacy to papacy, and may well be reaching a high-water mark under Francis).

That said, there are clear reasons to prefer a distribution of cardinals roughly commensurate with the global distribution of the Catholic population. One is that the issues that appear most pressing to the Church in Rome may not seem all that important or urgent to the Church in the Third World, and vice versa. For example, the European and North American bishops and cardinals are more likely to worry about secularism, church-state conflicts, the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, and bioethical controversies than their counterparts elsewhere. In Africa, the most pressing concerns are hunger, genocide, and Islamic extremism. In South America, starvation and poverty again top the list, along with environmental degradation and governmental corruption. A Church that becomes too myopically Eurocentric will be unable to react appropriately to problems in other parts of the world.

I was curious to see whether the geographic distribution of the cardinalate has in fact become significantly more or less equitable over time, so I fired up my copy of Stata 12 and starting crunching the numbers.

 

Data and Methodology

The first step was to find some data. Fortunately, virtually all of the hard work of compiling information on the College of Cardinals had already been done by Florida International University’s Salvador Miranda, who curates a wonderfully comprehensive website on “The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church.” Since the majority of Catholics lived in Europe for most of the Church’s history, and since the cardinals were almost all of Italian descent until relatively recently, I figured it would be enough to begin my analysis around 1900 (this was also the earliest date for which I could find estimates of the global Catholic population, as I explain below). I pulled data from Miranda’s website going far enough back in time to be sure that I had included all men who were cardinals at the start of the twentieth century.

Counting cardinals at any given point in time is in fact a bit trickier than it might seem. Cardinals can exit the College either by dying, by being elected pope, or (in a couple rare instances) by resigning their position. The pope can also create “secret cardinals” or cardinals in pectore, whose names are kept “in his breast” until such time as he decides to publish them. Although the date of promotion of such cardinals is technically the date the pope promoted other cardinals he chose at the same time, I thought it would make more sense to count only cardinals whose names were known publicly on the date in question.

Moreover, assigning cardinals to a particular region of the world can also get complicated. Many have held positions in the Vatican at the time of their elevation despite having been born and raised elsewhere. I decided to assign cardinals to regions based on where they worked when they were promoted, not on their nationality at birth. Since I argued at the outset that we should care about the geographic distribution of the red hats because it can affect the Church’s global perspective, I figured it was logical to count men working in the Holy See as Italians/Europeans. (That said, I also redid my analysis with nationality at birth, and the results are very similar. These, along with all of my computations, are available on request.)

For population data, I turned to the World Christian Database (WCD), sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. From the website of the WCD I was able to obtain estimates of the global Catholic population by continent in 1900, 1950, 1970, 2000, and 2010, as well as projections for 2020.

Following some work in the political science literature, I decided to employ the Gini coefficient – most commonly used in economics as a measure of income or wealth disparities – to get a sense of inequality in the geographic distribution of cardinals. I don’t want to bore non-econ geeks with a mathematical discussion of the Gini coefficient*, so I’ll stick to essentials: Gini readings close to zero represent more equal distributions (e.g. every region of the world having a number of cardinals proportional to its share of the global Catholic population) and readings close to one represent unequal distributions (e.g. one region having all the cardinals while the others have none). In other words, the lower the Gini coefficient, the better.

Although the Gini coefficient is constantly in flux as older cardinals pass away and/or as the world population of Catholics changes, I obviously had to limit myself to calculating it at a finite number of points in time. I chose to do so at the times of the consistories when new cardinals are inducted, and at the times of the conclaves when new popes are elected. Because I only have population data at select dates, I used simple linear interpolations to estimate population at the times of the consistories and conclaves (i.e. if I had population data at time t and time t+1, I assumed that population growth between t and t+1 could be modeled with a straight line).

Following the promulgation of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo in 1975, not all cardinals are permitted to cast votes for pope during conclaves; that privilege is reserved to those under 80 years of age. Since their right to vote for pope is the primary (but by no means only) reason we are interested in their nationalities, I do my analysis in the post-1975 period on both the entire set of cardinals and on a restricted sample of the sub-octogenarians.

 

Results

The following figures provide the key takeaways of my investigation.

Fig. 1: Size of the College of Cardinals, 1900 – 2014

Graph_College_of_Cardinals_Size

Fig. 1 illustrates how the size of the College has increased dramatically since 1900, even as the number of eligible electors has remained relatively constant in recent years (owing to a decree of Pope John Paul II that no more than 120 cardinals may cast ballots in conclave).

Fig. 2: Percentage Share of Cardinals by Continent, 1900 – 2014

Graph_Cardinals_Region_Shares_2

Fig. 2 shows how the percentage of cardinals hailing from each continent has evolved over time. While Europeans have lost a lot of ground compared to the early twentieth century, the absolute share of European cardinals has remained roughly constant for the last thirty years or so.

Fig. 3: Estimated Percentage of Global Catholic Population by Continent, 1900 – 2014

Graph_Population_Shares

Fig. 3 plots the population series I constructed from the WCD data, and gives a rough idea of how the Catholic populations of different parts of the world have changed in the last hundred-odd years. A comparison of Figs. 2 and 3 makes it clear that representation of the non-European continents in the College has not grown in proportion to the growth in their shares of the worldwide population of Catholics.

Fig. 4: Estimated Gini Coefficients for all Cardinals and Cardinal Electors, 1900 – 2020

Gini_Graph_All

This final graph presents the estimated Gini coefficients for the College of Cardinals from 1900 to the present. The solid lines denote computations using historical data, while the dashed lines indicate projections for 2020 based on the estimated future Catholic populations of each continent in the WCD data and the assumption that regional representation in the College will remain at current levels going forward.

The pattern seen in this graph runs somewhat counter to the conventional wisdom. The lines drop off sharply at the very end of the series, indicating that Francis’ recent set of picks is indeed moving the College toward geographic equity (the coefficient for all cardinals decreased from 0.359 on March. 13th, 2013 to 0.278 today, and the coefficient for the electors from 0.329 to 0.216). Yet it is also clear that the long-run trend over the past several decades has been toward greater inequity, reversing an earlier trend that stalled out around the time of Paul VI’s reforms. Even though Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made an effort to extend red hats to bishops from beyond the European continent, this analysis suggests that Catholic population growth outside of Europe has proceeded even faster than the “de-Europeanization” of the College.

On top of that, the projections for 2020 offer some cause for concern. Even if the present diversity of the College is maintained, the Gini coefficient is expected to actually rise modestly over the next few years (to 0.300 for all cardinals and 0.237 for the electors). This would imply that Francis and future popes might have to be even more aggressive about looking to the ends of the Earth for new “Princes of the Church” if they are serious about making the Catholic hierarchy more geographically inclusive.

____________________________________________________

*Readers interested in the technical details of how the Gini coefficient is computed can check out page 9 of a working paper entitled “How Has the Literature on Gini’s Index Evolved in the Past 80 Years?” by Kuan Xu of the Dalhousie University Department of Economics in Nova Scotia for a lucid, step-by-step derivation.

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and The Ethics of Debate

I finally got around to listening to a recording of the evolution-creation debate in which onetime Dancing with the Stars contestant (oh, and Science Guy) Bill Nye faced off against Answers in Genesis founder Ken Ham. The event was held at Ham’s Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky on February 4th, and was essentially what I and everyone else expected it would be. Ham gave an impressive-sounding yet fact-free performance, and Nye made an earnest – if less silver-tongued – effort to explain how we can be quite sure that the Earth is not 6,000 years old.

Nye’s decision to participate in such an exchange attracted a great deal of criticism before it even took place. University of Chicago professor and New Republic contributor Jerry Coyne argued, along with many others, that having a well-known scientist appear at an event like this would only perpetuate the false impression that the controversy over creation and evolution is actually a live one among mainstream scientists, and that there are good arguments on both sides.

The notion that some ideas are sufficiently preposterous that one shouldn’t even engage their proponents in public is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, belief in a “young” Earth is in fact ludicrous, and giving people the sense that such a belief constitutes a serious scientific hypothesis is intellectual malpractice. According to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject, nearly half of Americans believe that the world and human beings were created in their present form within the last ten millennia; the last thing we need to be doing is signaling that science is on the fence about the truth of such a claim.

On the other hand, that nearly half of Americans believe such a thing is an indication that there really is a live controversy here – not among scientists, but certainly in the broader culture. And if mainstream scientists want more people to accept that evolution by natural selection is the most compelling account of the origin of mankind and of all present life on Earth, then they’re going to have to think of new and creative ways to explain the evidence and convince them to change their minds (and to reassure them that modern science does not conflict with most of the world’s major religious traditions). Importantly, they’re going to have to do a better job of talking about evolution in forums where those most skeptical of the theory are most likely to hear them. Refusing to engage creationists at all will only further convince them that they are victims of a hostile secular culture intent on suppressing their freedom to express themselves.

But when it comes to debating fringe ideas, there’s a line to be drawn somewhere, right? Would it be acceptable to debate a neo-Nazi? A racial segregationist? These are difficult questions, but it seems to me that a good rule of thumb ought to be whether the position in question is reasonably widespread among the general population. If it is, then those who are sincerely convinced of its wrongness have a duty to do what they can to combat it, and if that involves walking into the belly of the beast, so be it. In such a situation, the benefit of broadcasting one’s message more widely most likely outweighs the potential cost of lending credibility to the other side.

In any case, the Nye/Ham debate is worth watching even if, like me, you’re already convinced that creationism is based on a category mistake. Nye strikes a wonderful balance between being forceful and polite, assertively pressing the case for evolution while maintaining a corny sense of humor throughout. His tone is one of mild-mannered incredulity rather than raw condescension; he refers to Ken Ham’s arguments about Noah’s Ark as “really extraordinary claims,” for instance, sounding all the while as if he were genuinely a bit surprised to hear what Ham believes about the Great Flood. Feel free to skip the first twelve minutes or so of the YouTube version though, which feature a clock counting down to the start of the event (this video appears to have been less than intelligently designed).

I would have liked to see the two men delve more deeply into the relationship of science and theism/agnosticism/atheism beyond merely reciting their talking points, which for Ham consisted of repeatedly mentioning that the inventor of the MRI is a young earth creationist, and for Nye that billions of religious people accept the theory of evolution, as if a headcount alone could definitively settle the question of whether and how reason and faith are compatible.

But really, the debate just made me nostalgic for the good ol’ days of messing with creationists on Conservapedia. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of having your account blocked for “liberal bias” (e.g. observing that there is no evidence humans coexisted with dinosaurs), then you’ve been missing out.

What Michael Brendan Dougherty Gets Wrong About Our “Vaguely Commie” Pope

Michael Brendan Dougherty, formerly of The American Conservative, took an extended leave of absence from blogging about politics and religion early last year to start the baseball newsletter The Slurve, but he’s finally returned from his hiatus to throw #slatepitches for The Week. On the first anniversary of the announcement of Benedict XVI’s resignation, he makes the case that Pope Francis has indeed changed the tone of the Catholic Church’s engagement with the world – for the worse:

If the church’s tone under Pope Francis has changed at all, it has actually become harder, more lashing, and even snarky.

The story of the last two papacies to which most of the media is slavishly dedicated goes like this: Pope Benedict was a meanie who, in the memorable phrasing of Rolling Stone, “looked like he should be wearing a striped shirt with knife-fingered gloves and menacing teenagers in their nightmares.” By contrast, Pope Francis is your super-chill, vaguely commie friend, who plays with animals and responds to sin with a cool shrug.

The truth is somewhat different. Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar. His views of economics may be even further to the left than his successor’s. His encyclicals and his books are gentle and reflective. His letter to the atheist author Piergiorgio Odifreddi typifies the tone. Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

He has condemned “airport bishops.” Christians who complain too much, he called “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner.” Can we even imagine how much crap Pope Benedict would have taken from the media if he told nuns not to become “old maids?” Francis said just that, though.

Sometimes it is not exactly clear whom the pope intends to lampoon. The pope has dumped rhetorical acid on “Christians of words,” who “are rigid! This type think that being Christian means being in perpetual mourning”… Catholics of a more traditional bent really cause Francis to bring out the stick. He has called them “triumphalists” and “restorationists.” He dubs those that send him notes enumerating the number of rosaries they have prayed for him “Pelagians,” after the heretic who denied the necessity of divine grace for salvation…

I agree with Dougherty that, at least in some respects, the differences between Benedict and Francis have been dramatically exaggerated in the popular press. Many an internet quiz has attempted to lure readers into misattributing quotations from Benedict to his successor (or to misattributing quotations from his successor to New York City’s “Marxist mayor” Bill de Blasio).

But I think he engages in a similarly unwarranted form of exaggeration when he lauds the pope emeritus for “condemning errors in the abstract” while criticizing the current pontiff for “making it personal.” Are Francis’ attacks really that personal? It isn’t as if he’s called out particular individuals for their transgressions by name, and he must not be that specific if even Dougherty admits that he sometimes can’t figure out “whom the pope intends to lampoon.” Indeed, the fact that Francis has refrained from publicly taking aim at even some of the most flagrantly egregious offenders and limited himself to bemoaning sourpusses and neo-Pelagians could perhaps be interpreted as a mark of admirable restraint.

On top of that, there is really no substantive difference between criticizing “people” who hold ideologies to which the Church is opposed and criticizing the ideologies themselves. Would Dougherty object to Francis reframing Benedict’s famous denunciation of “the dictatorship of relativism” as a denunciation of the actual “relativists” themselves? Arguing that there is any real difference here is an exercise in hair-splitting.

Francis’ “highly stylized papal idioms” and pithy formulations are almost certainly one of the main reasons why he has endeared himself to so many. Far more people will remember a sermon that takes comical shots at “Mr. and Mrs. Whiner” or “sourpusses” than one that drily reminds listeners to maintain a positive outlook on life. Yes, there are ways in which Benedict was unfairly maligned – the Rolling Stone quote about the knife-fingered gloves comes to mind – but his introverted and “wonky” personality did in fact make it hard for him to connect with the average Catholic, in the same way that many conservatives accuse Barack Obama of being hard to relate to because of his “cerebral” and “aloof” demeanor (perhaps Dougherty would agree?). Francis’ use of humor doesn’t detract from his preaching, it enhances it.

Dougherty would likely point out that I’ve failed to show that Francis has “softened” the Church’s tone, only that his putative snarkiness is not as bad as it seems. But the real aim of his argument is to show that Francis’ rhetorical style is counterproductive, and I think it’s abundantly clear from the many and varied manifestations of the “Francis effect” that exactly the opposite is true.

In any case, Francis has already offered us, toward the end of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a preemptive apology for any infelicitous expressions he might use over the course of his papacy:

If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond that I speak them with affection and with the best of intentions, quite apart from any personal interest or political ideology. My words are not those of a foe or an opponent. I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centred mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains and to attain a way of living and thinking which is more humane, noble and fruitful, and which will bring dignity to their presence on this earth. (Evangelii Gaudium, 208)

Maybe Dougherty should stop being a whiny sourpuss. I feel bad for putting it so bluntly, but… the pope said it first!

Libresco on “Having Better Fights”

Rarely, if ever, does Patheos, a wide-ranging site dedicated to “hosting the conversation on faith,” have to help one of its writers relocate from the atheism section to the Catholicism one. Yet that’s precisely what it had to do in the case of Jewish-secularist-turned-Catholic Leah Libresco, who writes the Patheos blog “Unequally Yoked: A Geeky Convert Picks Fights in Good Faith.” Libresco’s announcement of her conversion in June of 2012 took many of her readers by surprise and brought her a great deal of media attention, including an appearance on CNN.

I only learned of Libresco a few weeks ago, and as I was reading through some posts by and about her I came across a video of a talk she gave last March at Chicago Ideas Week entitled “Having Better Fights About Religion.” I immediately felt some kinship when she mentioned her background as a debater and her tendency to be “a little too pugilistic for her own good.” Chris and I have been friends since serving together on our high school’s debate team, and I can certainly sympathize with the fact that there sometimes seems to be a tension between having fun arguing with people and wanting to build bridges and bring everybody together. I have a strong, reflexive impulse to play Devil’s Advocate whenever anyone makes a confident assertion about anything, but I also want people to think I’m a nice person! What to do?

I like to think that the tension is really an illusion, and that my love of argument serves my love of getting people to agree with each other by helping to illuminate areas of common ground and to get to the bottom of what a given disagreement is fundamentally about. It was great to hear Libresco articulate this and to describe “all debate as being about building a more accurate model of reality.” She critiques the mindset that sees argument as a sport, and explores various ways in which we can have “better arguments” that are structured so as to make sure people “lose the ones they ought to lose” (she describes her conversion to Catholicism as the best time she’s ever had losing an argument).

The video offers a number of highly practical tips for engaging in more productive disagreement, something we at RM are always on the lookout for. Chief among them is the concept of an “ideological Turing test”, which Libresco borrowed from George Mason economist Bryan Caplan for an experiment on her blog. The idea is to have people answer a series of questions as if they subscribed to some belief system to which they really don’t, and to see if others can identify whether or not they’re who they say they are. Libresco’s example involved theists and atheists trying to impersonate one another, but the same setup can be used with people who belong to different political parties, etc. Her observations about what makes for a good Turing test are worth listening to in full.

Her talk is also really funny, and belies the stereotypical image of bridge-building and consensus-finding as dry, humorless tasks that are far more boring than the fun times being had by the partisans (just think of the contrast between Paul Krugman’s centrist punching-bags, the “Very Serious People,” and his own colorfully provocative brand of liberalism). I hope to write more in the future about why the “unfunny moderates/hilarious everybody else” dichotomy is a false one, but suffice it to say that Libresco is living, breathing, joke-cracking proof that wit and openmindedness can – or perhaps must! – coexist.

Now go watch the video.

Are Republican Reformers Trying to Reform the Right Party?

The recent effort by a handful of Republican politicians to put forward plans to alleviate poverty and boost stagnant incomes, undoubtedly brought on by a Democratic messaging strategy increasingly centered on the subject of income inequality, has been enthusiastically welcomed by the so-called “reform conservatives” or “reformocons.” The reformocons are a diverse and diffuse group of conservative pundits and writers who not only argue that the GOP needs to replace (or at least supplement) its reflexive denunciations of the Obama Administration with a positive economic agenda aimed at providing greater economic security for the poor and middle class, but who have sketched out ambitious ideas of their own for how to accomplish those goals.

Chief among the would-be reformers are the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who celebrated the movement’s small successes at gaining traction in his latest Sunday column; National Review’s Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru; National Affairs editor Yuval Levin; center-right healthcare wonk James Capretta; and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Strain. In 2008, Douthat and Salam coauthored a manifesto for “Sam’s Club Republicanism” called Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, the main thesis of which was that the Republican Party would need to craft a domestic policy agenda more attuned to working class anxieties about job loss and declining wages if it wanted to remain competitive in future national elections. In their view, the GOP’s Bush-era economic platform remained stuck in the 1980’s, with lowering marginal tax rates for high-earners, reducing the regulatory burden on business, and balancing the federal budget (primarily if not solely through spending cuts) seen as timeless solutions just as well-suited to the problems of the mid-2000’s as to those of twenty or thirty years earlier.

Of all the specific issues discussed in Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam’s top priority is shoring up the two-parent family, which they consider vital to not only guaranteeing that children are raised in stable homes, but to lessening the extent to which the social safety net is called upon to care for the next generation. To that end, they advocate for an expansion of the child tax credit and a recognition of the fact that raising children is essentially an investment in society’s future that society should strive to encourage and support in whatever ways it can.

The pair also express qualified admiration for the Roosevelt-era New Deal, which they believe was successful in laying the groundwork for the greatest period of shared prosperity in American history, in part because of the New Dealers’ efforts to consciously design programs like Social Security in a way that incentivized marriage and parenthood. And while they agree that contemporary mores forbid us from revisiting some of the New Deal’s more explicitly sexist elements, they are nevertheless critical of modern liberalism for being “allergic to moralism in public policy,” and maintain that it is wholly legitimate for the government to design social programs in a way that privileges certain family structures over others.

The (relative) flowering of Republican policy entrepreneurship in recent weeks, from Marco Rubio’s speech on poverty to the publication of an essay by Michael Strain in National Affairs on why the Right ought to be taking far more seriously the problem of mass long-term unemployment – a piece hailed by David Frum as the “Ninety-Five Theses” of the nascent reform movement – has seemingly made reformocons like Douthat hopeful that their moment has arrived at last. Yet their ebullience has been met with skepticism in certain quarters. In response to a Times column by David Brooks about how “[t]he emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum,” Richard Yeselson penned a strident piece for The New Republic which proclaimed that the GOP base has little appetite for the kind of reforms being pushed by the Grand New Partiers:

The Tea Party (which Brooks never mentions, but which is clearly on his mind) is not some aberrant or exogenous issue for the GOP. It is, in fact, the base of the party, perhaps totaling more than 50 percent of its support… Republicans are, at best, ambivalent about social insurance and transfer payments. They oppose universal health insurance, food stamps, and unemployment benefits…

This is today’s ideologically and ethnically homogenous Republican Party, an institution that must care enough about Yuval Levin’s grand plans to actually convert them into law and policy. There is no evidence that state or national Republican politicians will do so… There are no major policy arguments with the GOP, only tactical disagreements like whether or not to leverage the renewal of the debt ceiling. This is pretty much the agenda supported from everybody from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner to first-term legislators in Texas, North Dakota, and Mississippi…

Are [the GOP’s donors] any more likely than an Evangelical in the Deep South or a Tea Party libertarian in Arizona to support Michael R. Strain’s job proposal—which, among other things, includes worksharing, infrastructure investment and providing subsidies for workers who move where jobs are more plentiful—rather than their usual demands of low taxes and minimal regulation? Are the Koch brothers reading the National Interest and thinking they need to invest $100 million in passing the Strain plan? The Chamber of Commerce may be looking for smoother, less obviously extreme candidates next time around—but that is a cosmetic, not ideological, difference.

Regardless of how accurate Yeselson’s portrait might be, the reformers do indeed have their work cut out for them. Or do they? If their goal is to transform the Republican Party into a suitable political vehicle for the sort of ideas discussed at length in Grand New Party – tax reform targeted at working families rather than high-earners, near-universal catastrophic health coverage – then the task is certainly daunting. On a range of issues, they are faced with the challenge of not only persuading Republican office-holders or candidates to adopt their particular solutions to problems like widespread unemployment or rising healthcare costs, but to consider those problems urgent priorities in the first place. Douthat has insisted that the innovative conservatism championed by individuals like Utah Sen. Mike Lee is the most intellectually fertile of all the various strains of Republicanism circulating today, and that its future is bright. But that kind of conservatism also has serious liabilities that may limit its ability to turn “Sam’s Club Republicanism” into a reality.

On the other hand, if the goal of the reformocons is merely to see their ideas accepted and implemented regardless of who does the implementing, then their job is potentially much easier. In a recent issue of Commonweal, J. Peter Nixon argued that the “conservative alternatives to Obamacare” advocated by Douthat, Salam, Capretta, and others are not so much alternatives to Obamacare as they are slight modifications to its basic structure. Amending the Affordable Care Act’s minimum benefit requirements to allow insurers to sell plans that would cost consumers less upfront but offer less comprehensive benefits wouldn’t actually be such a terribly radical move. As Nixon sees it, it might be easier for those truly concerned about fixing the law’s structural defects to work on convincing the Democrats to do the fixing:

The irony is that for all these differences, Obamacare and the conservative reform plans have a lot in common. Both subsidize the purchase of private insurance as a means of expanding coverage, both seek to increase competition among health plans as a way of driving down costs, both want to prevent insurers from discriminating against the sick, and both try to make this economically viable by bringing more healthy people into the insurance pool.

One could certainly imagine changes to Obamacare that would address many of the concerns raised by Ponnuru, Douthat, et. al. The benefits package could be made less generous and more catastrophic options could be allowed. States could be given more flexibility in running their exchanges or managing Medicaid. The excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health plans could be raised, making plans less generous and consumers more cost-sensitive.

But that is hardly “repeal and replace.” Rather than being a radically different “conservative alternative” to Obamacare, what the reform conservatives are proposing is just a few steps to the right along the same continuum. While one can hardly expect the left to endorse it, the real problem for reform conservatives may be their friends on the right. For the GOP base, the struggle against Obamacare has become an apocalyptic battle between Freedom and Tyranny, not an opportunity for the kind of policy give-and-take the reform conservatives are offering.

There already appears to be latent bipartisan support for scrapping some of Obamacare’s most controversial elements, like the medical device tax or the employer mandate, so it’s not as if selling Democrats on the political upside of making some “conservative” changes to Obamacare would be an especially Herculean task. It seems as if at least some of the Democratic reluctance to relitigate aspects of the ACA has been motivated more by the political need to defend its legitimacy and general conceptual outline against sustained Republican attacks than by any particular affinity for every last detail of the law.

Healthcare is just one issue, but the same logic applies to others as well. The 2009 stimulus, signed into law barely a month after Barack Obama first took office, could no doubt have been designed and implemented in a more targeted way, and few deny that infrastructure projects can be a breeding ground for cronyism and rent-seeking. But if you are interested in using government power, be it in a restrained or more muscular fashion, to address the lingering unemployment crisis, would it be better to pitch your ideas to the party that considers that problem one of its top priorities, or the one that has moved on to other concerns?

The reformocons are justifiably interested in returning us to a time when real, meaty, center-right alternatives were offered up in response to liberal legislative proposals. The problem is that, as Paul Krugman has opined from the left, the key to restoring a healthy dialectical relationship between the two major parties may not be to focus on changing the tone of the conversation and on refining the intellectual quality of the debate in a hope that substantive policies will follow automatically from the fact that everyone is talking about serious ideas and being nicer to one another.

Rather, it may be to see to it that policies that will reinvigorate the economic fortunes of the middle class are put into place, even if one party has to do so by itself, and then watch as a new bipartisan consensus forms around those policies as it did in the years and decades following the New Deal (in many respects, this was the theory to which the Obama Administration seemed to subscribe early in the president’s first term). The view of someone like Krugman about what policies those should be obviously differs from the view of someone like Douthat or Salam, but the principle remains the same. Get your agenda enacted, get the great mass of the American people behind you, and then see if the other party is willing to engage you in a more productive way.

The counterintuitive bottom line here is that the reformers might have more luck building their Grand New Party within the Democratic Party. Of course, a natural rejoinder will be that the Democrats would be just as opposed to embracing the sociocultural priorities of conservatives as the Republicans would be to embracing the economic priorities of liberals – perhaps more so. I’m not sure this is true. Just as much of the opposition on the left to any tinkering with Obamacare is driven by fears that that tinkering will lead to wholesale sabotage, so too does it appear that liberal apprehension about “family friendly” policies is driven at least in part by a fear that they are simply disguises for anti-gay animus and the like. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, whose “New Conversation on Marriage” project I wrote about a while back, believes that liberals might be more willing to embrace a “pro-marriage” agenda in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and revanchist attempts to roll it back have largely faded away.

And indeed, there is clear evidence that this could be the case. Public Discourse featured an essay last week that discussed Barack Obama’s support for initiatives to combat fatherlessness, albeit as part of a case that such support is logically inconsistent with his endorsement of same-sex marriage. The most philosophically rigorous social conservatives will no doubt find Obama’s gay rights advocacy to be an insurmountable obstacle to taking seriously his apparent concern about the problem of fatherlessness, but what this anecdote actually reveals is that prominent Democrats, up to and including the most prominent Democrat of all, recognize that family breakdown is a real problem requiring real solutions. Since public opinion is clearly headed in the direction of greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, the day when Democrats are willing to embrace a Blankenhornian or even a Douthatian vision of how the levers of public policy can be used to promote marriage may be nearer than its conservative critics believe.

Douthat’s Sunday column explains how, after years of struggle, reform conservatism is finally ascendant in the Republican Party, but it never defends the tacit assumption that the Republican Party is where it should be struggling to ascend in the first place. Near the end of the piece, Douthat strikes a cautionary note:

The more likely solution for the G.O.P. has always required a two-step process: rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect. Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.

As I see it, Douthat underestimates precisely how formidable an obstacle that first threat – the “rejectionism” of the GOP base – really is.

The cover of Grand New Party features an endorsement from David Brooks declaring that the book offers a roadmap for “where the GOP should and is likely to head.” The second half of that statement seems like wishful thinking. If Hillary Clinton “may actually be unstoppable no matter what,” then maybe it’s time for the reformocons to broaden their search for a patron.

Is Smarm in the Eye of the Beholder?

Chris’ critique of Tom Scocca’s Gawker longread “On Smarm” rightly highlights how Scocca fails to offer us a credible strategy for combating smarm (“expressing a morally high-minded position yet intentionally acting hypocritically against said position,” as Chris puts it) beyond simply retaliating with snark (“the realization of cynicism… for a contrarian purpose”). Although Scocca makes a token admission that “[s]ome snark is harmful and rotten and stupid” and that “snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes,” the piece generally exalts snark as a praiseworthy and unfairly maligned response to smarm’s unctuous self-righteousness.

Chris worries that widespread acceptance of Scocca’s dichotomous framing will only serve to further cheapen discourse on the Internet and in the broader culture:

According to Scocca’s relatively broad definition of smarm, snark is now justified as a means to pick apart pretty much anything and accuse it of performative contradictions. This gives snark license to weave its way in to other forums for debate, where the premises might not be intentionally misleading, just mistaken, poorly expressed, or authentically shifted from earlier contradictory statements…

Replying to smarm with snark fails to tease out the legitimate issue (or contradiction) contained within smarm’s glaze; in no way does snark provide a damning rejection of smarm’s premises. It just coats the whole mess with another layer of caustic irony.

I’m inclined to agree with this analysis, though I think that Chris focuses too little on the fact that Scocca’s definition of smarm is not just “relatively broad,” it’s virtually nonexistent. Here’s the closest we come to hearing what exactly Scocca thinks smarm is:

Smarm is a kind of performance – an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and tone. Smarm disapproves.

When Chris says that Scocca is giving snark license to attack arguments that merely look disingenuous even if they aren’t truly disingenuous, he elides the fact that Scocca seems to believe that such arguments don’t just look like smarm, they are in fact smarm! He says that “smarm is concerned with appropriateness and tone.” Does this mean that all concerns about appropriateness and tone are smarm? Is all disapproval smarm? Presumably not, but Scocca never makes himself clear on either point. We are left with the impression that smarm is whatever Scocca believes smarm is.

Consider his thoughts on NSA leaker Edward Snowden:

Talk about something else, smarm says. Talk about anything else. This young man is in possession of secret official computer files that document the routine lawlessness and boundless intrusiveness of the American surveillance state. An unaccountable power is monitoring the entire global flow of information – which amounts, in contemporary practice, to monitoring thought itself. Illegally.

Smarm says:

– Edward Snowden broke the law.

– Edward Snowden is a naïf, who has already foolishly betrayed his nation’s most vital secrets.

– Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist.

– Edward Snowden isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know.

– Edward Snowden is a traitor.

So what if Snowden’s telling the truth? Just look at the way he’s telling it.

One wonders what exactly Scocca would consider a legitimate, non-smarmy critique of his position on the spying controversy. Perhaps he would admit that his confident assertion of the illegality of the NSA surveillance programs is debatable, since one federal judge has upheld their constitutionality even as another has issued a ruling that would limit their scope. Or would he consider this essentially reducible to the (factual) claim that Snowden broke the law? Since we have no objective standard for discerning what is smarm and what is not, Scocca is able to discredit arguments he disagrees with by labeling them as smarm even if they are sincerely made.

Scocca is not incorrect when he identifies manufactured outrage and insincere indignation as barriers to productive public conversation. Emotional appeal is no substitute for substance. Edward Snowden may very well be sensation-seeking or a traitor, but those are disputed claims that need to be backed up with reasons and evidence. If someone wades into a debate about the constitutionality or effectiveness or political prudence of the NSA’s clandestine activities by tossing around provocative slogans, then they need to be prepared to defend them. I agree with Scocca that the items in his bulleted list are smarmy if they are fired off in place of serious argument, but he is wrong if he thinks that they are intrinsically smarmy regardless of the context in which they are offered.

I found myself nodding along with several passages of “On Smarm,” especially the section where Scocca exposes Ari Fleischer’s cynical attempt to discredit as “trutherism” claims that the Bush Administration might have acted negligently in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. As Scocca points out, there is indeed a vast gulf between the New York Times op-ed in question and the conspiratorial fantasies of “Loose Change.”

I also enjoyed Scocca’s criticism of “centrists” who package their political priorities as “apolitical, a reasonable consensus about necessity,” and who tar “[t]hose who oppose [their] agenda [as] ‘interest groups,’ whose selfish greed makes them unable to see reason…” I’ve written previously about why moderation and centrism are distinct concepts, and I completely agree with Scocca that a political position is not necessarily illegitimate because it falls outside of some putative “consensus.” Moreover, his warnings against fetishizing “tone” at the expense of an honest exchange of ideas are on point; we at RM are certainly concerned about incivility and want to do what little we can to change the culture in that regard, but we try not to be obsessive or pharisaical about it. The essay is a helpful reminder to stay focused on the big picture.

Ultimately, Scocca’s argument is little more than the sum of its disparate parts. He recites a compelling litany of his grievances against modernity, yet he declines to offer a rigorous definition of smarm, let alone a systematic way to separate smarm from authenticity, let alone a constructive roadmap for building a smarm-free culture in either cyberspace or real life. The piece is well worth reading, but I hope that Scocca will revisit this subject in the future and flesh out his vision in greater detail.

Christie’s Missing Coattails

Given New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s status as an early favorite for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, it remains a mystery why the Democrats failed to challenge him more aggressively in this year’s gubernatorial contest. Even if he remained unbeatable, there were strong political incentives for them to have at least tried to deny him the blue-state landslide that will no doubt become his number one calling card should he make a run for the White House. But there’s another ostensibly puzzling fact about the outcome of the Garden State’s latest election: why couldn’t the Republicans pick up a single seat in the state legislature even in the midst of a Christie wave?

Actually, this fact isn’t all that puzzling. The current legislative district boundaries were drawn in 2011 by an eleven-member redistricting commission, and were widely seen at the time as a pro-Democrat gerrymander. In fact, the commission’s lone nonpartisan member, the late Rutgers professor Alan Rosenthal, claimed that he voted for the final plan because it would help to maintain “continuity of representation,” although he also stated that “[i]t is a map, I believe, that gives the minority party a chance at winning control of the Legislature.” In other words, a Republican legislative coup was bound to be an uphill battle, even against the backdrop of a Christie landslide.

Yet some commentators seem genuinely surprised by the fact that Christie’s 60-40 margin of victory over State Sen. Barbara Buono came at the same time the Democrats retained their 24-16 majority in the Senate and 48-32 margin in the Assembly. The Star-Ledger recently featured a piece entitled “Legislative map not to blame for lack of GOP progress, experts and Democrats say.” So what was to blame? Well, based on the evidence presented in the article, it sounds like it was… the legislative map:

This year, Republican Senate candidates overall got almost 65,000 more votes than their Democratic counterparts, but Democrats did not lose a single seat… Democrats won just 48 percent of the vote while taking 60 percent of the seats… On the surface, those are startling numbers, and Christie has not been the only Republican to mention it. But political experts and Democrats say they’re using a misleading method to explain the election results, one that implies Republicans should get more seats just because their voters are more likely to turn out to the polls.

“It would be like determining the winner of a baseball game based on stadium attendance,” said Bill Castner, a Democratic attorney who was a key architect of the Democrats’ legislative district map. “This is not Parliament. This is not Europe. We don’t allocate seats based on who shows up” [emphasis added].

Heavily Republican districts had higher turnout than heavily Democratic districts, even though all districts are roughly equal in population, according to the Census. The 24 districts where Democrats won had an average turnout of 41,000, and the winners had an average margin of 10,000. The 16 districts where Republicans won had an average turnout of 55,000, and the winners there won by about 19,000 votes. That is how Republican candidates got more votes overall. “That’s why the whole thing is false about the statewide vote,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “It’s a false comparison to what voters actually want…”

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris), who headed the Republicans’ redistricting effort, said it’s just common sense that the party that gets the most voters should get the most seats. I don’t think there’s any question that on Election Day this year, New Jerseyans went to the polls and voted more for Republican legislators than Democratic legislators,” [emphasis added] Webber said. “To me that means they should get a Republican-controlled Legislature. It’s a very simple concept.”

Republicans aren’t alone in using the vote total argument. In 2012, to Democrats’ chagrin, their House candidates across the nation got more votes than Republicans. Yet Republicans held on to a majority…

[Assemblyman John] Wisniewski said the governor’s claim fails to take into account the fact that he won 75 percent of the state’s legislative districts yet failed to bring the down-ballot candidates with him… “Christie’s saying, ‘Don’t blame me for the lack of coattails.’ But the only person to blame for the lack of coattails is the guy wearing the coat.”

That New Jersey and the United States do not have parliamentary systems in which seats are allocated on the basis of the aggregate votes received by each party is obvious. Those who are frustrated by the Republicans’ failure to recapture the majority in either house of the legislature understand this better than anyone, which is precisely why they are complaining about how the district boundaries are drawn. Reminding everyone that “this is not Europe” or that turnout was lower in the districts that lean Democratic does not prove that “the map is not to blame” for the Republicans winning a majority of the statewide vote but only a minority of the seats. All this amounts to is a claim that the map is to blame, but that this is a perfectly legitimate outcome given our system of single-member districts. The “experts and Democrats” cited in the Ledger piece are making normative claims, not descriptive ones.

Consider the reaction of many Democrats (and others) to the result of the 2000 presidential election, in which Al Gore won a majority of the popular vote but failed to win the presidency. Nobody argued that the Electoral College was “not to blame” for this counterintuitive result. Rather, everyone acknowledged that the Electoral College was entirely to blame for this counterintuitive result. What was debated was whether the College is on balance a worthwhile institution because it rewards the building of broad national coalitions over parochial appeals to the denizens of major population centers, or whether it is an outmoded, elitist, antidemocratic relic that ought to have been dispensed with many quadrennia ago.

Likewise, the real debate in NJ – and nationwide, given the fact that John Boehner is still Speaker of the House despite his party’s congressional candidates having earned fewer votes overall in 2012 – is whether a system that can produce such seemingly illogical results really has enough of other redeeming qualities to make it worth preserving. In light of the way in which divided government in an era of sharply polarized parties has been a recipe for gridlock (if at the national level to a greater extent than in New Jersey), reforming our political institutions to make them more responsive and more resilient ought to be a top priority.

I have to side with Christie and Webber on this one. A majority of the voters who turned out cast their ballots for Christie, and a majority cast their votes for Republican legislators. That should be reflected in the partisan makeup of the government that will convene in January. Assemblyman Wisniewski’s observation that Christie ran ahead of most Republican legislative candidates is a non sequitur. The GOP is not claiming that it should take 60% of the seats because Christie won 60% of the gubernatorial vote; it is claiming that it should take 52% of the seats because it won 52% of the legislative vote.

Christie has also claimed that at least some of the Democrats won their down-ballot races by emphasizing their bipartisan credentials. The same Ledger article quotes him as saying that “[t]hey ran on ‘We work with the governor.’ Okay, well time to work with the governor… Their mandate, to the extent they have one, is to work with me.”

I do hope that the Democrats can (continue to) look past Christie’s bluster and maintain a productive working relationship with him, rather than succumb to the temptation to gum up the works out of spite. (This is a two-way street of course, and Christie will also have to avoid some of the pettiness in which he indulged in his first term.) That said, the Democrats can cheer up! As Chris pointed out to me in a recent conversation, they may only have to deal with him for three more years!