Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Elizabeth Warren: 1% Native American, 100% foolish

Elizabeth Warren made headlines yesterday by releasing a DNA report showing she is somewhere between 1/1024th and 1/64th Native American – and then calling on Trump to follow through on his 2017 promise to pay $1 million to a charity of her choosing if she took a DNA test “and it shows you’re an Indian.”

…That was an astoundingly stupid thing for her to do.  In fact, it’s a perfect example of how foolishly progressives and the media play into Trump's hands.  

Here's a recap for those not tracking the context behind this.  Elizabeth Warren is a left-wing Senator from Massachusetts who grew up in Oklahoma, one of the states most heavily populated by Native Americans. Like many white Americans (myself included), her family taught her a legend of Native American ancestry on her mother's side, without really specifying how much or how far back.  Like many white Americans, she accepted this as true without caring to verify it.

Warren went on to launch a brilliant law career that included professorships at both UPenn and Harvard during the 80's, 90’s and 2000's. During this time, elite universities were particularly eager to promote diversity among their students and faculty, in order to combat the impression that they were a pay-to-play club of white Good-Ol’-Boys. And during this time, for reasons known only to her, Warren used her family lore of Native American ancestry to identify herself as a racial minority on multiple occasions.

In 1984, she submitted five recipes to a Native American cookbook titled Pow Wow Chow, identifying herself as Cherokee.  From 1986-1995, she listed herself as a “minority” in the Association of American Law Schools Directory of Faculty.  In 1996, a Harvard Spokesman identified her as Native American professor, as did a Crimson editorial three years later.  And in both 1994 and 2005, the University of Pennsylvania listed her as a “minority” professor in its Minority Equity Report.  None of this would have been possible had Warren not spoken up to promote her Native American ancestry to on multiple occasions, to professional peers and superiors who would have been much more eager to gobble up that claim than to verify it.

In 2012, Warren ran for Senator of Massachusetts, and the story finally caught up with her.  She was challenged to verify her ancestry by her Republican opponent, and was unable to, admitting honestly that she believed it solely because it had been passed down through family lore. A team of New England genealogists wasn’t able to conclusively trace any ancestry either, which made for a media embarrassment.  And although she won that race anyway, the issue resurfaced in 2017 when Trump brought it back up, calling her “Pocahontas” and making his $1 million pledge. His exact words were these:

“I will give you a million dollars, paid for by Trump, to your favorite charity if you take the test and it shows you’re an Indian.”

That’s it.  That’s the context.  That was the end of the story, until yesterday.

Yesterday, Warren released this video, three weeks before the crucial primary elections, “proving” that she had a Native American ancestor 6 to 10 generations ago.  With a smile!  Not with an apology…not with a “this is a distraction from the issues that matter” change-of-subject…but with an “I told you so” smirk as if she’d been vindicated – proven right! – after all this time.

The left-wing media played right along.  CNN broke the news with the headline “Elizabeth Warren releases DNA test with 'strong evidence' of Native American ancestry.”  Six generations would be 1/64th native, or 1.5%.  10 generations would be 1/1024th native, or 0.09%.  This is “strong evidence”?

The Washington Post article was titled, “Trump promised $1 million to charity if Warren proved her Native American DNA. Now he’s waffling.”  The Young Turks did the same, of course.  They really tried, for a whole day, to make this into a story that made Trump look bad.  Their political instincts are so off – their finger so hopelessly far removed from the pulse of the American electorate – that they still think reeaaaaaaaaching to show Trump plausibly reneging on another promise would make this into a story that hurt him.

Holy SHIT these people are thick!!!

Elizabeth Warren had an out here, people.  She could have just apologized, and it would have been totally forgivable.  We all tend to trust our family elders when they tell us things we’d already like to believe about ourselves, and romanticizing our Native American roots is part of white America’s founding mythology.  It’s sort of fun and mysterious to imagine we have some biological connection to the country’s original inhabitants (rather than just to the people who slaughtered them).  It might have even felt vindicating for a woman who fancied herself so progressive.  So she rolled with it, and subsumed it into her identity until the scrutiny of political prominence dug deeper than her pride had been inclined to dig.  Perhaps some UPenn administrator had sent out an email asking if anyone had Native Ancestry so they could play it up for their Minority Report, and she’d replied in the affirmative out of sincere misconception as to how it would be portrayed.  In comparison to all of Trump’s scandals, she could totally shake that off.

But she didn’t take the out.  Instead, she doubled down.  She took Trump’s bait, and made a professionally produced video arguing that a maximum of 1.5% Native ancestry was enough to justify identifying oneself as a “racial minority.”  She went full Rachael Dolezal three weeks before the primaries, on the apparent belief that reigniting this story would help her make political inroads in 2020 by enabling jokes bout Donald Trump’s “memory problems.”

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that Senator Warren’s DNA test literally proves Donald Trump right: she has barely any Native Ancestry, and was disingenuous to pretend otherwise for job security and social kudos.  Let’s pretend you’re partisan enough to think Warren really is vindicated and Trump really does owe her $1 million. 

What I wanna focus on is this: Elizabeth Warren wants to unseat Donald Trump as president in 2020.  How on God’s green Earth does she think this move will help her do that?

Donald Trump won the 2016 election because he won a series of crucial Rust Belt swing-states full of mostly white, blue-collar people.  White, blue-collar people who live in Rust Belt swing-states feel ignored, alienated, scorned and looked-down-upon by each of the following types of people:

1.     Liberal people
2.     Wealthy people
3.     Famous people
4.     People who live in cities
5.     People who live on the coast
6.     People with a college education

What they hate MOST of all are people who are all of these things at once, and then tell them that THEY – the relatively poor, uneducated, simple country flyover-folk farmers and truck drivers in the Midwest – are privileged because they are white.  This is why they hate Colin Kaepernick.  This is why they hated Barack Obama.  They hate anyone – from Hollywood actors to pretentious policy “wonks” at Vox.com – who uses their distant, detached, lofty positions of relative social power to lecture them about how racist and ignorant they are, and how really THEY (the powerful coastal celebrities) are the victims on account of their race.

You don’t have to agree with these white people on racial issues (and I certainly don’t) to realize that nothing rouses their political ire more than a story about a rich, educated, powerful white Senator from a coastal Yankee state pretending to belong to an oppressed minority!

How long will it take for the left to figure this out?   How many think pieces have been written since 2016 about this exact phenomenon?  How many autopsies of Clinton’s failed campaign against the least popular man in modern political history have to be conducted before the Washington Post stops fanning the flames of that resentment?

If you think this DNA test makes Warren look good, you are out of your fucking mind.  If you think it catches Trump “waffling” and makes him look bad, you are completely out of touch with reality. If you’re so wrapped up in the literal veracity of the unscripted sentences that Trump says that you ignore the broader themes he’s messaging on, and the latent sentiments they resonate with, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

The longer the story of white-as-paper Elizabeth Warren claiming to be a racial minority at all remains in the press, the more the right wing is going to gobble it up, and the more popular Donald Trump is going to become in the states that matter in 2020.  If I were Donald Trump’s strategist, I would very publicly write her a check for $976.56 – exactly 1/1024th of a million dollars – just to keep it in the news.  Most of the country would rightfully laugh their asses off and he would emerge as the clear winner of the exchange.

I didn’t think Elizabeth Warren had a great chance to be President in 2020 anyway.  But if Democrats know what’s best for them (and they don’t), they won’t touch her with a ten foot poll now that she's revealed such awful political instincts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Constitutional conservatives should hope Brett Kavanaugh is not confirmed

I don’t know if Brett Kavanaugh once tried to rape somebody.  Only a few people can know, and unfortunately, I can’t trust any of them blindly.  We can support and defend women who come forward about rape allegations in a general sense without being na├»ve as to the highly unique political circumstances of this allegation in particular.  Enough is at stake that everyone involved has plausible motive to lie or exaggerate.  What’s more, 37 years is enough time that any of those people might sincerely misremember the faces or names or details of what took place.  Kavanaugh is not entitled to a presumption of innocence; likewise, his accuser is not entitled to a presumption of his guilt.  I don’t believe either of them, as I have no reliable information to substantiate either’s testimony. Neither do you.

All I know is that the allegation that Brett Kavanaugh once tried to rape somebody is enough, in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans, to delegitimize his rulings on polarizing legal issues the Supreme Court has to address.  And that’s all I need to know to see that Congress ought not confirm him to that Court.

Constitutional Law is one of the few sets of issues on which I retain conservative sympathies.  I interned for The Federalist Society in college, and the Volokh Conspiracy is on my favorites bar.  I think Citizens United was rightly decided.  I find originalism compelling.  I detest Donald Trump, but I love Neil Gorsuch – that Trump gets to nominate multiple Supreme Court Justices strikes me as the silver lining of his otherwise despicable presidency.  Ideologically, I would probably agree with most of Brett Kavanaugh’s legal rulings.

But more than constitutional conservatism, I care about constitutionalism generally.  The constitution is the only structural restraint on government power.  That makes it pretty dear to my heart, considering I want government to have as little power as possible!  And the Supreme Court is easily the largest of these restraints, with the clearest track record of striking down oppressive laws instead of adding more.  An independent judiciary plays a crucial role in constraining the vices of democracy; in checking the abuses of ambitious leaders; in preventing mob rule; in protecting individuals from the whims of their neighbors; in articulating and enforcing rights.  To me, the constitution is the proudest and most defining feature of American government, and the Supreme Court is the only body capable of keeping it alive.

This urgently important job can only be done under certain conditions.  The Supreme Court has no Army; it relies on the good-faith compliance of the executive branch, in the spirit of respect for longstanding constitutional norms.  Over the course of our nation’s history, the President’s boldness in pushing the limits of Supreme Court rulings has waxed and waned according to circumstance - but ultimately, no President has openly defied a Supreme Court ruling.  For at least the past 80 years or so, the executive has deferred to the Supreme Court’s ultimate authority on legal questions – making it perhaps the only remaining area in which Presidential power is effectively constrained.

But if a President chose to ignore the Supreme Court one day, or Congress or a state government threw down the gauntlet of defiance, nobody quite knows what would happen.  At the very least, it would spark a showdown that disrupts this tepid status quo of executive obedience, and imperiled the legitimacy of the Supreme Court as a constraining body.  Which side prevailed would likely rely in part on the public’s opinion of the institutions competing: elected officials would only back down if the confrontation was making them look bad.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying "like it or not, appearances matter."  The Supreme Court’s ability to effectively constrain the other branches of government depends in part on its reputation as an independent, impartial, above-the-fray panel of experts, who command respect as men and women of intellect and character.

Unfortunately for Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him would significantly tarnish that reputation – and therefore degrade the Court’s ability to do its job effectively – whether they’re true or not.

If you doubt me, consider the following hypothetical.  Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 85 years old.  It’s entirely possible she dies before 2020.  It’s also entirely possible Trump wins again in 2020.  If either occurs, conservatives will probably secure a 6-3 edge on the Supreme Court.  That court would not include Merrick Garland – but it would include three justices nominated by a president who lost the popular vote, and (if Kavanaugh were confirmed) two justices accused of sexual impropriety against women (remember the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill allegations).  And at some point in the next few decades, that court may be asked to relitigate Roe v. Wade – or, short of that, the constitutionality of funding for Planned Parenthood, or on whether the ACA covers birth control, etc.

I don’t use the term “constitutional crisis” lightly, because it’s sensationalist and our country has weathered a lot.  But I don’t think conservatives quite appreciate how scathing the Democrat pushback will be, or how disruptive it will be to the constitutional norms on which the SCOTUS relies, if a court of old conservative dudes accused of rape who the left thinks got there via Republican gamesmanship sides “against women” along party lines on those issues.  The left would literally revolt.  They would not shake hands and say “good game” and just wait 20 years until the Court goes left again; they will launch an attack on the legitimacy of the court that stretches the seams of our constitutional system much further than I’m confident they can hold.  I don’t think the Court will ever overturn Roe – but if they did, a President Kamala Harris might just ignore those rulings and dare the court to do something about it.  Alternatively, she might just pack the Court with 15 justices like Roosevelt tried before. And when that happens, the SCOTUS is officially dead, and so is the constitution I cherish.

The bottom line is that if Republicans care about using the Supreme Court to restrict government power moving forward, they need to tread lightly around the growing hostility my generation seems to have for it.  That Kavanaugh appears, to many, to have a history of violence or disrespect towards women impacts his ability to announce and author court rulings that will be taken seriously by the people of our country. If he is innocent, and this entirely falsified accusation denies him the pinnacle of his professional achievement, that wouldn’t be fair; I’d feel bad for him.  But ultimately, I care much more about the long-term legitimacy of the court that I do about which highly qualified person gets the privilege of serving on it.  There are better, no-less-conservative options that would be healthier for our Republic, and Republicans should pick one of them instead.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Read my writing at Realist Review!

The pace of my blog entries has slowed in recent months, for two main reasons.  The first is that I have big plans for a newer and better blog at a different domain name, which I plan to unveil in about a year.  Building it will take a lot of time and effort (all expended after my 9-5 day job), and while I plan to continue writing throughout this time, I'll probably save a few of these posts for release in conjunction with that more exciting project.  I've had a lot of fun writing here for the past eight years, but I have bigger things in mind; the days of The Thought That Counts are numbered.

The second reason is that I've written a few articles for a publication called Realist Review instead, which you can access at the below hyperlinks.  Realist Review is a publication founded by one of my Hopkins buddies, and an offshoot of the John Quincy Adams Society, which advocates "realism and restraint" in US Foreign Policy.  My articles are each 4-5 pages long and more polished than some of the casual writing I do on here, so it's best to dive in with a coffee when you have 5-10 minutes to spare.  Enjoy!

1. Progress, or Premonition?  Trump's Cabinet Shakeup Raises the Stakes of North Korean Negotiations (published 31 March, 2018)

2. The President's attack on Syria was Plainly Unconstitutional.  Here's Why that Matters. (published 21 April, 2018)

3. Too Much Bang for our Buck:  How Excessive Defense Spending Hurts American Interests (published 04 August 2018)

4. The Bombing Windows Fallacy:  How Excessive Defense Spending Hurts the American Economy (published 18 August 2018)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Am I a libertarian - or a neoliberal?

I agree with almost everything that Will Wilkinson and Cathy Reisenwitz believe - except the matter of what we should call ourselves.

Wilkinson thinks we're liberals; I explained why I disagree with him here. But that explanation is embarrassingly long, so I'll try for a shorter one here.  Reisenwitz prefers the term "neoliberal," which she recently defined / defended with these      three      hyperlinks.  She writes:

"I adopted the label in part to own the libs (half-joking) but mostly because I feel the libertarian brand is too closely tied up with conservatism, misogyny, racism, nationalism, and other gross ideologies. I also am strongly in favor of a more effective social safety net rather than someone who supports immediate devastating cuts to it. I'd rather see corporate welfare slashed and a UBI than food stamps cut but the farm bill continue to subsidize crop insurance for farmers making $700,000/year."

To me, the label preference debate seems to rely less on differences in our actual beliefs than it does on which crowd of people we're most worried will misjudge us, by association with which group of unsavory bedfellows.

I agree with everything 
Cathy said about the safety net, corporate welfare, and the grossness of the many conservatives hijacking the libertarian label...but I'm still so attached to the root-word of "liberty" in my self-affiliation, because I know that's the value I most prize relative to other political thinkers.

The philosophy of people who most value traditionally-understood individual liberty has very-logically been called "libert-arianism" for several decades now.  That hard-T has served an important function, in distinguishing it from people with a very different set of values and priorities.  People with my set of values have forged a rich intellectual and academic tradition, as well as a political party with a proud history as the first to endorse gay marriage and drug legalization.  Today, this party is the third-largest in the nation, and arguably the one with the best chance to disrupt America's tragic duopoly on policy offerings.  It has many problems - but they pale in comparison to the problems of the two it's challenging.

On many occasions, I have used this blog to try and "steward the discourse" - not just to promote my ideas, but to promote the norms of discussion that make for a healthy and productive exchange of ideas.  One of the norms I've promoted has been the idea that words ought to have some fixed meaning.  It's hard to debate socialism when the term describes Obama and Bernie and Sweden and Venezuela and Cuba all at the same time. Definitions can be broad, and they will always morph slightly over time, but that takes generations; in the short-term, people who call a square a circle are simply wrong.

As such, conservatives, misogynists, racists and nationalists who favor bigger government restrictions on individual liberty are not libertarians just because they say so. They are posers trying to be edgy.  To allow the posers to keep the label they hijacked - to inherit the legacy of the rich philosophical tradition it once signified - without one helluva fight feels like surrender.  And why surrender? Because we're nervous our left-wing friends (or academic peers) will think lesser of us, from their own ignorance of how broad the libertarian tent can be?

Maybe by the time I'm Will and Cathy's age I'll be such a jaded strategist that I'll call myself a communist, if that's what makes centrists most willing to listen.  But until then, the conservatives posers will have to pry "libertarian" from my cold dead hands.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Thoughts on Social Security

A friend recently asked for my thoughts on this video from The Atlantic, which all but declares Social Security "the Greatest Government Policy of All Time."  The video cites statistic indicating Social Security has successfully reduced poverty, and then asks: "why do some people hate Social Security?"; it essentially settles on "because those people are dumb," and then closes with the following quote: "Is it socialism?  Maybe.  But it's socialism that saves us from our human nature."

This closing line shows EXACTLY the attitude that makes people hate Social Security.  

The driving philosophy of the program (from here on described as idea X) is that government knows how to manage a portion of our money for us better than we do ourselves. We can debate whether X is true, but it’s mighty condescending in any case. People take pride in being self-sufficient, rational adults capable of running their own lives and making good decisions, so it’s aggravating when some wonky dweeb in a purple tie chortles that they’re too irresponsible for that, to justify the state taking their hard-earned money away from them.

Beyond this initial agitation, I have three arguments against Social Security:

1. For many people, X is false, which means Social Security robs them / makes them poorer.

Social security basically takes 1/8 of your income and puts it into low yield U.S. Treasury bonds. That’s better than not investing at all…but still a really dumb investment strategy for most people. Your actual rate of return from SS depends on how long you live, but studies show “over 99 percent of the U.S. population would have earned a greater return by investing in the S&P 500…relative to the current Social Security system” as of 2004, and that SS’s rate of return is “vastly inferior to what they could expect from placing their payroll taxes in even the most conservative private investments.”  So anybody with enough brain to save for retirement at all gets a bad deal from Social Security.

2. There are better and fairer ways to help those for whom X is true, without hurting everyone else.

People who don’t save money for retirement can be broken into three categories:

1. The ignorant, who don’t know HOW to start investing and/or WHY it’s so important.

2. The poor, who are living paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford to save.

3. The spendthrifts, who are too impulsive to delay gratification (despite having both the knowledge and the disposable income to do so).

I think the first group is by far the biggest, and that Social Security is a horribly inefficient way to help the people in it. The best way is literally just to educate them! I gave my Soldiers a 20 minute class on compounding interest the day the TSP lady came to brief them, and it blew their fucking minds; probly did more good for them than every piece of cellular biology they ever snoozed through in high school. Make it a part of our Senior-year curriculum, explain the importance of starting early, and set people up with an easy-to-use online account, so they can realize the 7% annual rate of return from a basic Index fund instead of just crossing their fingers they live long enough to break even from SS.

The poor, meanwhile, are the ones who can least afford the reduction in their short-term income, and also those who can most elevate their standard of living by choosing stocks over bonds with whatever is left-over. So as welfare programs go, a UBI makes more sense to me (and private cash transfer charities do an even better job).

That leaves the spendthrifts. I’ll be honest: they’re the group I have the least sympathy for. But even for them, privatizing it would be better. If we kept the mandatory contributions part, but gave people more control over how to invest it, you would check people’s profligate tendencies and save them from future poverty without suppressing and collectivizing everyone’s earnings in the process.

3. Whether or not X is true for most people, government has no legal or moral right to seize our income for the purposes of reducing poverty.

I’ll spare you the history lecture on why I think Social Security is unconstitutional, but ethically speaking
, I think it runs contrary to some defining American values like individual liberty, personal responsibility, and private property ownership/right to keep what you earn.

I’m all about helping people who are poor due to circumstances beyond their control. I give a substantial amount to charity every year, and do my homework to find out which charities stretch my dollar furthest to do the most benefit for the most people. I passionately believe that the charities I’ve settled on do more good with my money than the government does with my tax dollars.

At the same time, I don’t buy the idea that not saving money for retirement counts as something “beyond people’s control” in most cases. When I was 18, I used my life savings to that point + the gift money from my graduation party to set up a Roth IRA. I’ve contributed to it religiously every year since. That’s involved sacrifice. That’s required discipline. That’s again required me to “do my homework” to make a wise investment. And, once again, I’m extremely confident that the particular allocation I’ve chosen will absolutely dwarf the return I’ll ever receive from what’s left of Social Security by the time I retire.

So the way I look at it, if I didn’t have to pay Social Security taxes, I could do both things better. I wouldn’t merely get a better return on my personal investments; I’d get a better “return” (as measured by “amount of good done for others”) on my charitable contributions as well, in part by giving that money to those I consider actual victims of injustice or circumstance. It isn’t bad luck or “human nature” to not save money when you make enough to do so – it’s just indiscipline. We all make our choices and should live with the outcomes. I guess I’ll pay for shortsighted people’s food and ER visits to ensure they don’t literally die…but beyond that, I think it’s fairer for the impatient spenders to be relatively poorer when they’re old than it is to coerce everyone else in society to enrich them. I’d rather send that money to buy a thousand $2 mosquito nets in Sub-Saharan Africa, to save the kids who really never had a chance.

Maybe you disagree and that’s fine – but disagree with your own money, okay? The point isn’t “spendthrifts deserve to be poor!”; it’s that on BOTH the question of “how to best save for my own retirement?” AND the question of “how to best allocate my income to help those deserving help?” I am perfectly well-qualified to make my own decisions with my own money, IAW my own values and reasoning. Who the hell is FDR or Derek from the Atlantic to overrule me?