The Perils of Pure Democaracy

June 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post on the Brexit vote, I wondered aloud about the wisdom of using a referendum to decide on specific policies. A commenter characterized my views as “the quintessential liberal view – elitist, snobbish, dismissive of democracy.”

I had thought that my reservations about direct democracy were more on the conservative side, something along the lines of Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), much beloved among American conservatives. (“In the twentieth century, he became widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.” Wikipedia) Burke was elitist and snobbish, and he favored decisions by elected representatives, not the masses, even when a representative’s decision contradicted the views of those who elected him. As Burke says to a hypothetical constituent of such a representative,  “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

As for “elitist, snobbish, dismissive of democracy,” the phrase also describes another icon of American conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Hamilton and Madison also favored a republic, with laws made by representatives, rather than what Madison calls “pure democracy.” Federalist #10 emphasizes this idea, though more to thwart the tyranny of the majority than to provide a buffer against bad judgment. Madison has a point. Suppose that a majority of the members of a community, a university for example, want to prevent conservatives from giving talks on campus.

Pure democracy would give us stronger gun control (including an outright ban on assault weapons), much more government spending on infrastructure, higher taxes on the wealthy (especially on capital gains), Senate hearings and a vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

But would we really want public opinion to determine these matters? Would we want a referendum on whether we return to the gold standard? Nearly all economists say it’s a bad idea. But it sounds good. After all the gold standard is, well, the gold standard of economic policies. And if something is the gold standard, that means it’s the best in its category. It’s easy to imagine a majority of the people being convinced of its virtues.

Maybe the 2008 bank bailout is a better analogy to Brexit. The bailout was a controversial matter. Simply put, the government would be giving a ton of money to the people who tanked the economy. Still, most economists as well as the Wall Street elites, thought it was necessary. The quintessentially democratic, non-elitist way to decide the matter would have been a referendum.

In March of that year, a poll showed that 60% of Americans opposed a bailout.

Maybe a referendum wouldn’t have been such a great idea even though it may have seemed like on at the time.

A Good Idea at the Time

June 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The pound was down 10% making anything imported to the UK more expensive. Global markets tumbled, including those in the UK. Some Leave supporters were ecstatic.

But some seemed to be having buyer’s remorse. Google searches for “What happens if we leave the EU?” and “What is the EU?” tripled. (WaPo) They seemed to be waking up the morning after wondering just what it was they had done the night before.

All I could think of was Steve McQueen’s famous line in “The Magnificent Seven.”  McQueen plays Vin, one of the seven gunslingers who come to the aid of Mexican peasants who are being constantly raided by a group of bandits led by Calvera. At one point, Calvera captures the seven. He cannot understand why they would sign on to help a bunch of Mexican peasants.

CALVERA: The thing I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place. . .  Tell me why.

VIN: Fella I once knew in El Paso, one day he took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him the same question, why? He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time.*

The vote to leave appears to be one of those impulsive decisions, the ones that seem like a good idea at the time. Many Leave voters – at least the ones who got a few seconds of airtime on American radio – were thinking in terms of personal complaints, not national policy. They reminded me of the woman I rented a flat from in London a decade ago. “There’s no Brits in London any more,” she said. and she was not happy about it.  

Voting often has a strong emotional component. The advantage of representative democracy over direct democracy is that we give the job of turning sentiments into actual policy to our representatives. Presumably, they have to think through more of the implications.**

I suppose what a democracy needs is a mechanism that allows people to express their political emotions and have it appear that those emotions have become policy while at the same time leaving real policy to those who will craft it more slowly and soberly.

The Leave vote does not automatically change the UK’s position. As a Financial Times post explains, the vote is technically a non-binding advisory. It’s possible that parliament will decide to act against the advisory. In any case, the process of leaving will take two years, and perhaps during that period, UK voters may rethink the Brexit,*** even it seemed like a good idea at the time.

As Calvera says to Vin in that same scene, “Only a crazy man makes the same mistake twice.”


* The video clip is here . I didn’t embed it because the way McQueen delivers the line doesn’t capture the feeling I think is appropriate. He’s serious, almost somber. I would prefer him laugh it off and say in effect, “Yeah, I guess it was stupid, but what can you do?” I also think that “seemed like a good idea” sounds better than “seemed to be a good idea.”

** My knowledge of political thought is slender. But surely one or more of The Federalist Papers must have considered this problem – how to keep the passions of the majority from inflaming the process of running a government.

*** On Planet Money,” the American hosts asked British economist Tim Harford, Any chance for a do-over? Two out of three?” Said Harford, I think it’s unlikely.”

Blame Canada Culture

June 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Culture as a concept has always fascinated me –all those different groups with their different ways of thinking and reacting. But I’ve also grown skeptical of culture as an explanation for things we don’t like – especially when the explanation invokes the general culture for a problem that is more specific.

Here, for example, is Ramesh Ponnuru writing earlier this month at Bloomberg

Trump’s success in the presidential race so far reflects a cultural rot: It would once have been impossible for someone like him to win the nomination. But it also deepens that rot. If we elevate a man we know to be cruel, impulsive, insecure, vain and dishonest to the most powerful position in our country, that choice helps to define our own character and shape our expectations for one another. It also means that our political debate will be dumber, nastier and more content-free.

Is our culture in fact rotten? Ponnuru offers no evidence that it’s any more rotten than it was in the past. Instead, he offers this circular logic.
  • Why is Trump winning in the primaries? Because of cultural rot.
  • How do you know there’s cultural rot? Because Trump is winning. 
The other problem is that Ponnuru is blaming the entire culture for the actions of the Trump voters and supporters. At least I think he is. In much of the article he talks about “conservatives” who support Trump. But when he says “if we elevate . ..” and “our own character,” he seems to be casting a wider net. By “we” Ponnuru might mean conservatives or Republicans, but he never mentions  “conservative culture” or “Republican culture,” so I get the sense he means American culture.

But cultures don’t vote; people do. So political scientists rarely talk about cultural rot. Instead, they ask who are these people who support Trump — what age, gender, race, region, economic position, policy views, etc. But if, like Ponnuru, you are a conservative* and a Republican, you probably don’t want to say that a lot of the people who have been voting for your side all these years are morally rotten. And you don’t want to blame your party for those voters’ rotten choices. Instead, you’re like the parent whose kid is arrested and who says, “He’s a good kid, he just got swept up by the wrong crowd.” So you take a “Blame Canada” strategy and say that all these Trump voters got swept up by the cultural rot that is at large in the US.


* Ponnuru focuses on another factor dear to conservatives – character. He cites JFK, Gingrich, and Bill Clinton for their infidelities. But supporting Trump is worse, he says, because “the public had no way of knowing about most of their vices before voting for them. (Nixon’s swearing on the Watergate tapes, while not the focus of public concern, was scandalous.)” Yes, that’s right. The worst character flaw Ponnuru can find in Nixon is his swearing.

Imagine There’s a $5 Discount. It’s Easy If You Try. . . .

June 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Reading Robert H. Frank’s new book Luck and Success, I came across this allusion to the famous Kahneman and Tversky finding about “framing.”

It is common . . . for someone to be willing to drive across town to save $10 on a $20 clock radio, but unwilling to do so to save $10 on a $1,000 television set.

Is it common? Do we really have data on crosstown driving to save $10? The research that I assume Frank is alluding to is a 1981 study by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. (pdf here ) Here are the two scenarios that Kahneman and Tversky presented to their subjects.

A.  Imagine that you are about to purchase a jacket for $125 and a calculator for $15. The calculator salesman informs you that the calculator you wish to buy is on sale for $10 at the other branch of the store, located 20 minutes drive away. Would you make the trip to the other store?

B. Imagine that you are about to purchase a calculator for $125 and a jacket for $15. The calculator salesman informs you that the calculator you wish to buy is on sale for $120 at the other branch of the store, located 20 minutes drive away. Would you make the trip to the other store?

The two are really the same: would you drive 20 minutes to save $5? But when the discount was on a $15 calculator, 68% of the subject said they would make the 20 minute trip. When the $5 savings applied to the $125 item, only 29% said they’d make the trip.

The study is famous even outside behavioral economics, and rightly so. It points up one of the many ways that we are not perfectly rational when we think about money. But whenever I read about this result, I wonder: how many of those people actually did drive to the other store? The answer of course is none. There was no actual store, no $120 calculator, no $15 jacket. The subjects were asked to “imagine.” They were thinking about an abstract calculator and an abstract 20-minute drive, not real ones.*

But if they really did want a jacket and a calculator, would 60 of the 90 people really have driven the 20 minutes to save $5 on a $15 calculator? One of the things we have long known in social research is that what people say they would do is not always what they actually do. And even if these subjects were accurate about what they would do, their thinking might be including real-world factors beyond just the two in the Kahneman-Tversky abstract scenario (20 minutes, $5). Maybe they were thinking that they might be over by that other mall later in the week, or that if they didn’t buy the $15 calculator right now, they could always come back to this same store and get it.

It’s surprising that social scientists who cite this study take the “would do” response at face value, surprising because another well-known topic in behavioral economics is the discrepancy between what people say they will do and what they actually do. People say that they will start exercising regularly, or save more of their income, or start that diet on Monday. Then Monday comes, and everyone else at the table is having dessert, and well, you know how it is.

In the absence of data on behavior, I prefer to think that these results tell us not so much what people will do. They tell us what people think a rational person in that situation would do. What’s interesting then is that their ideas about abstract economic rationality are themselves not so rational.

* I had the same reaction to another Kahneman study, the one involving “Linda,” an imaginary bank teller. (My post about that one, nearly four years ago, is here ). What I said of the Linda problem might also apply to the jacket-and-calculator problem: “It’s like some clever riddle or a joke – something with little relevance outside its own small universe. You’re never going to be having a real drink in a real bar and see, walking in through the door an Irishman, a rabbi, and a panda.”

The Full Ferguson

June 17, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

FBI director, James Comey, didn’t call it “the Ferguson effect.” Instead, the recent rise in homicide rates was a “viral video effect” – a more accurately descriptive term for the same idea: that murder rates increased because the police were withdrawing from proactive policing.

The full sequence goes something like this:  Police kill unarmed Black person. Video goes viral. Groups like Black Lives Matter organize protests. Politicians fail to defend the police. Police decrease their presence in high-crime areas. More people in those areas commit murder.

Baltimore is a good example, as Peter Moskos has strongly argued on his blog Cop in the Hood. But many cities, even some with all the Ferguson elements, have not seen large increases in homicide.* Other factors – gang conflict, drugs, and the availability of guns – make a big difference, and these vary among cities. Chicago is not New York. Las Vegas is not Houston. All homicide is local.

There’s something else about the viral-video theory. It assumes that the crime is a game of cops and robbers (or cops and murderers), where the only important players are the bad guys and the cops. If the cops ease up, the bad guys start pulling the trigger more often. Or as Director Comey put it,

“There’s a perception that police are less likely to do the marginal additional policing that suppresses crime — the getting out of your car at 2 in the morning and saying to a group of guys, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’”

This model of crime leaves out the other people in those high-crime neighborhoods. It sees them as spectators or bystanders or occasionally victims. But those people, the ones who are neither cops nor shooters, can play a crucial role in crime control. In some places, it is the residents of the neighborhood who can get the troublesome kids to move off the corner. But even when residents cannot exert any direct force on the bad guys, they can provide information or in other ways help the police. Or not.

This suggests a different kind of Ferguson effect. In the standard version, the community vents its anger at the cops, the cops then withdraw, and crime goes up. But the arrows of cause and effect can point in both directions.  Those viral videos of police killing unarmed Black people reduce the general level of trust. More important, those killings are often the unusually lethal tip of an iceberg of daily unpleasant interactions between police and civilians. That was certainly the case with the Ferguson police department with its massive use of traffic citations and other fines as a major source of revenue. Little wonder that a possibly justifiable shooting by a cop elicited a huge protest.

It’s not clear exactly how the Full Ferguson works. Criminologist Rich Rosenfeld (U of Missouri, St. Louis) speculates that where people don’t trust the police, they are more likely to settle scores themselves. (An NPR story featuring Rosenfeld’s ideas is here.) That may be true, but I wonder if it accounts for increases in killings between gang members or drug dealers. They weren’t going to call the cops anyway. Nor were people who have been drinking and get into an argument, and someone has a gun.

But maybe where that trust is absent, people don’t do what most of us would do when there’s trouble we cannot handle ourselves  –  dial 911. As in Director Comey’s version, the police are less a presence in those neighborhoods but not because they are afraid of being prosecuted for being too aggressive and not because they are being petulant about what some politician said, but because people there are not calling the cops.


* New York, the city where I live, had all of the Ferguson-effect elements. The police killed an unarmed man. The crime they were arresting him for was selling “loosies” – individual cigarettes, fifty cents each. One of the cops put him in a choke hold. A video went viral Even knee-jerk police supporters found it hard to justify.  When the prosecutor could not get a grand jury to indict the copy, there were protests. The mayor did not voice support for the cops. The cops in turn do not want to do anything to support the mayor. In addition, the courts had recently put limits on aggressive policing tactics like stop-and-frisk. The number of such stops fell dramatically. Yet the number of murders in New York did not rise, nor did rates of other crimes.

When Guns Do What Guns Are Designed to Do

June 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

An assault rifle is designed to kill – to kill a lot of people, and quickly. That’s why it was created. That’s its primary function. For soldiers in combat, it’s a very good thing to have. If it could not kill lots of people, nobody would want it.

Manufacturing assault rifles in pink and posting pictures of young girls holding them doesn’t alter that basic purpose. Neither does the statistic that nearly all civilians who own them use them for fun. What that statistic means is that we as a nation have decided through our legislators that the fun of those gun owners is more important than the lives of 50 people in Orlando or 20 schoolchildren in Sandy Hook.

Here’s an analogy. Suppose that the military developed small bomb, something like a hand grenade but much more powerful. It easily blows up a building and kills anything within a 50-yard radius. Soldiers find them to be very effective in combat.

The companies that manufacture these bombs also sell them to the public. Lots of people buy these bombs. Bomb stores spring up next to gun stores. They have names like Bombs Away or It’s Da Bomb – all in good fun. And in fact, nearly all of the buyers use them for fun – tossing them into empty fields. People go to bombing ranges that have small buildings put up so that patrons can blow them sky high. Of course, there are accidents. Bomb owners sometimes blow up themselves. Or their own houses with their children inside. 

But occasionally, once a year or so, someone tosses a bomb into a crowd of people or into a real building. Many people are killed. Predictably, liberals say that maybe we ought not allow these bombs to be freely sold. Maybe we ought not let them be sold at all. But the bomb lobby claims that bombs are armaments and therefore are protected by the Constitution from being restricted in any way, and besides, people need the bombs for their own protection. Our legislators, a majority of them, agree. The occasional slaughter is no reason to prevent everyone from getting a bomb.

The bomb lobby and the media will invariably refer to each slaughter as a “tragedy” –  unfortunate but unavoidable. After all, the bomber got his bombs legally. And if he did get them illegally, it just shows that bomb laws don’t work.

Punishment Isn’t About Crime

June 10, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Robin Hanson has a list of statements (here) that summarize his contrarian view. These include, among many others

Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning

The furor over the sentence given to the Stanford swimmer-rapist Brock Turner shows that we should add one more to the list.

Punishment isn’t about crime.

Criminologists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the effect of punishment on crime. Does the death penalty reduce murder rates, and if so by how much? Or more generally, do harsher punishments reduce the crimes they apply to? Does rehabilitation work – or more specifically, which kinds of programs work best? Does taking criminals off the streets reduce overall amounts of crime?

These functions of punishment go under the names of general deterrence, specific deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. They raise researchable cause-effect questions.
Not so what is probably the most important function of punishment – justice. In crim textbooks (including mine) it goes under the heading of “retribution” or “just deserts.” But basically it’s vengeance. And unlike the other rationales, it is concerned with punishment’s effects not on the behavior criminals but on the feelings of good and righteous citizens. The idea of retribution is that we want punishment for bad guys because it makes us feel better to see them suffer. If the bad person does not suffer enough, the good people feel dissatisfied, even angry, and they call for harsher punishment.

Usually, they cloak this impulse under the more rational principles like deterrence, but let’s be real. Do any of the people insisting that Brock Turner be given a longer sentence think that if he is released after only a few months he will commit more rapes? Or that the short sentence will encourage other fratboys to commit rape, as though horny, drunken 20-year old will pause to think, “Hey, it’ll only be 6 months in the slammer. Now if it were a few years . . . .” ? 

Often, this deterrence idea marches under the banner of “sending a message.” A harsh sentece “sends the message” that this behavior will not be tolerated. The cliche slap-on-the-wrist sentence sends the opposite message. But if the intended targets of these messages are potential criminals, the messages are rarely received, especially for crimes that are unplanned and opportunistic. Instead, the people who respond to the message are the same people who wanted it sent. And they respond according to whether the message satisfies their desire for justice (or vengeance).

Some social scientists argue that this desire is part of human nature and that evolution has embedded it in our genes. Even babies, some experiments show, get upset when evildoing (usually by puppets) goes unpunished. But even if the desire is universal, the punishments that arise from it vary widely. In some countries, the six-month sentence would be within the normal range. That is, it would satisfy the desire for justice. In other places, anything less than death would be too lenient.

When vengeance as the basis for policy outweighs the more rational factors like deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, you get juggernauts like the war on drugs, which was mostly vengeance under a veneer of deterrence. In the initial response to the perceived drug problem, politicians enacted harsher sentences to  send a message to drug users and dealers. When these new laws failed to bring the promised reduction in crime, lawmakers might have paused to rethink their assumptions. Instead, they fell all over themselves proposing even harsher sentences, locking up more people for longer periods of time.

Doing more of the same thing and expecting a different result might be a definition of insanity. But in the war on drugs, it functioned like an addiction – addiction to punishment. When a mild amount didn’t have the desired effect, lawmakers (with public approval) raised the dose. We then became habituated to that new level, we thought that only an even higher dose would bring relief. We were punishment junkies, spending more and more of our money on something that brought little relief, all the while raising our level of tolerance. We wound up with “normal” sentences that people in many other Western countries considered medieval.

In the swimmer-rapist case, the people outraged by the six-month sentence are not campaigning for generally harsher sentences for rape. They are, however, demanding the equivalent of a policy change – replacing the judge. But the motive is the same – justice (or vengeance). If we can’t punish the rapist, then let’s try to punish the judge and replace him with someone who gives out sentences that make us feel better. Of course, only the self-delusional will think that punishing the rapist or the judge will have any effect on fratboy date-rape.

One final note: I am not saying that those who want a longer sentence for Turner are wrong. I’m not saying they’re right. What I am saying is that whoever enters that argument on either side should be clear as to the bases of their position. They should also recognize that the issue is one of morals or values, so unlike questions of deterrence, it cannot be resolved with facts.

Ceci n’est pas the Active Voice

June 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

My brother volunteers as a reader of audiobooks. His latest assignment was a methods text –  Research Methods in Social Relations, 8th edition (Geoffrey Maruyama and Carey S. Ryan, Wiley, 2014).  In the last chapter, on p. 511, he read this:

The use of the first person and the active voice is now preferred over the third person and the passive voice. The past tense is used when reporting the past research of others and in describing your own procedures. The present tense is used to discuss results currently in front of the reader ...

Political Ideas, Political Tactics

June 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on the previous post claimed that political correctness is “bullying people.” The comment ignored most of the content of the post, which was about the tactic of using the term political correctness as a strategy used by bullies divert attention away from their bullying. The comment also confuses two dimensions – ideas and tactics. It’s a common enough mistake. Even the Wikipedia entry doesn’t keep ideas distinct from tactics.

Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC, is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.

The first sentence refers to ideas, as did my previous post (“comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”). The second sentence describes a rhetorical strategy: when you want to vilify something (in this case political correctness) go to extremes. Find examples of the most extreme version of the ideas and the most extreme tactics of its supporters. Once the phrase has become a pejorative, anything that can be labeled as politically correct must automatically be wrong.

But most people use the term to refer not to tactics but to ideas or values (e.g., “New York values”). To say that replacing Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 is politically correct, or supporting gay marriage, or hoping that the Washington Redskins pick a different name, or thinking that women, Blacks, and LGBT people ought not be excluded from syllabuses or TV shows and that Donald Trump shouldn’t call women bimbos – these and a host of other issues, all of them labeled as politically correct, have nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with ideas and principles.

Bullying is a tactic, not an idea, and it is used by supporters of all sorts of political ideas. Anti-abortion activists scream into the faces women going to abortion clinics. Some even firebomb the clinics and make death threats against practitioners. In fact nowadays, thanks to the Internet, people from all over the political spectrum make death threats and use other vile tactics that all fall under the category of bullying.

The “political correctness = bullying” conflation illustrates another aspect of muddied thinking – “motivated cognition”: our feelings about the ideas affect our perception of the tactics. It’s like the football fan’s perception of pass interference or holding or some other infraction – whether we see a player’s tactic as legal or illegal depends on whiche side we’re rooting for. The classic 1954 study “They Saw a Game” documents this kind of motivated cognition among students following a controversial Dartmouth-Princeton football game.

More recently, in 2012 Dan Kahan and his colleagues did a similar study – “They Saw a Protest” (pdf here). All subjects were shown the the same video of protesters and police. Some were told that the protest took place outside an abortion clinic and that the protesters were anti-abortion. Others subjects were told that the scene was a military recruiting center and that the demonstrators were protesting the Army’s anti-gay “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy (still in effect in when the study was done).

Subjects were told to imagine that they were on a jury and that the video was key evidence in a case where the protesters were suing the police. One of the basic questions was whether the police had violated the free-speech rights of the protesters. On the whole, there was little difference between those who were told that the protest was at an abortion clinic (49% said yes, the police had violated the protesters’ rights) and those who were told it was at a recruiting office (45%). That’s on the whole. Separating the subjects according to political views revealed sharp differences in perceptions.

The measure of the subjects’ political orientation was not the usual liberal-conservative dimension but instead a space marked off by two axes: One axis is the Hierarchical-Egalitarian. Egalitarians think we should strive for greater equality in society; Hierarchicals are OK with current inequalities of race, class, and gender. The other axis is Individual-Communitarian – basically about the role of government. Is it interfering too much in our lives (Individual), or is it not doing enough to improve things (Communitarian)? Translated into more conventional political categories, the Hierarchical and Individual would be conservative, the Egalitarian and Communitarian would be liberal.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Hierarchicals (solid lines in each graph) were much more likely to say the police were at fault when the protest was against an abortion clinic than against a recruitment center.  As they saw it, the protest at the military recruitment center – that was dangerous so the police had to move in. But when the protesters were anti-abortion, how dare the police bust up a legitimate protest. For the Egalitarians (dash lines), those positions were reversed. Basically, if we agree with the protesters, we perceive the police as violating their rights. If we disagree with the protesters, the police are just lawfully doing their job.

Politics shaped perception on an even more factual question: had the protesters blocked people from entering the building? Again, when the protest was at the recruitment center, Egalitarians saw the  protesters as relatively benign, Hierarchicals saw them as a threat to pedestrians and others. When the protest was at the abortion clinic, those perceptions flipped.

But wait, there’s more, and it gets worse. Not only does our ideology influence what we see, but we fail to recognize that connection, assuming instead that we are merely calling them not just as we see them but as they objectively are. At the same time, says Kahan, we are quick to spot the motivated perception of people we disagree with. The result is that we think those we disagree with are not just wrong but that they are acting in bad faith, deliberately misperceiving a peaceful protest as a violent mob or vice-versa.

For Political Correctness

June 4, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Political correctness.  Donald Trump scoffs at the idea, but he loves the phrase.  It’s what he uses to avoid questions and dismiss his critics. This strategy is what Sykes and Matza, in their now-classic 1957 article on “techniques of neutralization,” called “Condemning the Condemners” Sykes and Matza were describing the thinking that juvenile delinquents use to justify their lawbreaking. Condemning the condemners neutralizes the rules against crimes, for after all, if the authorities are imperfect – corrupt, venal, unfair, etc. – then the laws they are enforcing can be ignored.

The delinquent, in effect, has changed the subject of the conversation in the dialogue between his own deviant impulses and the reactions of others; and by attacking others, the wrongfulness of his own behavior is more easily repressed or lost to view.
Similarly, Trump. Are his ideas and policies racist or sexist; are they intolerant on religion? Ignore that question, because the real problem is the idea behind the question itself:

MEGYN KELLY:  You once told a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.. . . How will you answer the charge . . . that you are part of the war on women?

TRUMP: I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness.
The strategy plays well among Trump’s supporters. When Trump said that the problem was political correctness, they interrupted with cheers and applause.

But there’s something to be said for political correctness. Part of that creed might be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole, don’t be a bully.” It’s the same impulse towards decency as the dictum that the role of the press should be to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If you’re doing it the other way round – comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted – you’re probably being an asshole and a bully.

Political correctness sides with those who are most easily victimized and stigmatized, especially when the basis of that stigma is something that the afflicted have little power to change – race, gender, sexuality, disability, age, physical appearance (height, weight, beauty).

A Washington Post story (here) about a case of bullying highlights these aspects of political correctness. It was on the “Post Most” list that week – the most popular stories – probably for the same reason that the NRA loves stories about people using guns to defend themselves against bad guys. In this case, political correctness could have saved a life.

Emilie Olsen was adopted from China at nine months. She grew up in southwest Ohio. In fifth grade she became the object of jeering for her clothes (“Chinese people don’t wear camo”). In sixth grade this expanded to include accusations about her sexuality (a fake Instagram account “Emilie Olsen is Gay”). In seventh grade she was showing signs that the harassment was having its intended effects – her grades dropped, she became depressed, she cut herself. In addition to the online bullying, her tormentors posted graffiti in school bathroom stalls:  “Go kill yourself Emilie.”

She had some friends and supporters. Their demand to the bullies to “stop messing” with Emilie turned into a brief fight. Her psychological condition grew worse, and less than two months later, she got her father’s gun and killed herself.*

Her parents have sued the school, which of course denies that bullying, if there even was bullying, had anything to do with her death. The parents may not be able to prove their case legally. Still, if the school had enforced some of those principles the Trump-minded** dismiss as political correctness, Emilie Olsen would probably still be alive.

*The case illustrates another tenet of liberal thought – that guns are dangerous. A gun in the house is much more likely to be involved in an accident, a domestic fight, or a suicide than in defense against outside predators.

** Butler County is heavily Republican.  In the Republican primary in March, Kasich won the county. But Trump did much better there, losing by only 2 percentage points, than he did in the state as a whole, where he lost by 11 percentage points.

Breaking the Rules of Writing

June 1, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ah, litotes: “a figure of speech which employs an understatement by using double negatives.”

 I recently came across this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith.*

Wealth is not without its advantages and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive.

Orwell, in his famous essay on politics and language, decries the “not un-“ construction because it tries to make the banal sound profound. But it also sacrifices clarity. Saying what something is rather than what it is not makes it specific. Also, we grasp a positive more quickly than two negatives. (See here, here, here, or here.)

Galbraith uses “not without” because he wants to understate. Saying that yes wealth does have some advantages makes those who would deny that idea seem even more ridiculous. 

The negative construction in the punch line –  “has never proved widely persuasive” – uses the same strategy of understatement. He could have said, “but nobody really believes it,” but Galbraith’s phrasing – the “widely” is crucial to the wit of the line –  implies that there are actually some people foolish enough to believe the myth.** 

Who are these people? Identifying them is not important, which is why the passive voice (“the case. . .has often been made”) here works perfectly well.

In a sentence of 23 words, Galbraith uses two constructions that I usually try to avoid – the passive voice and the double negative – but here they work wonderfully. Apparently, the rules don’t apply when you are using irony, especially when you are using it to undermine the essential folly of “the conventional wisdom” (a term coined by Galbraith, by the way). In this case, that conventional wisdom is the idea that money can’t buy what’s important in life – happiness, for example, or elections.


* Howard Wainer uses a slightly different version in his recent book Truth and Truthiness.

** A famous Sophie Tucker quote expresses the same idea; “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” As with the Galbraith quote, its wit depends on some people having tried to make the case to the contrary.