Sorting out meta-narratives around the Kavanaugh question

Kavanaugh has been cleared from the committee to the Senate floor. Sen. Jeff Flake, a crucial swing vote, has said he will vote for Kavanaugh on the floor if and only if an FBI investigation of no more than one week is completed into the claims. Trump has authorized such an investigation, saying that it must be no more than one week and may only look into currently pending credible allegations.

In the coming week, our national discourse will center around the issue of whether or not Kavanaugh should be confirmed.

And in all of the talking, we will make points either for or against Kavanaugh’s nomination, some points good and some points bad. These points will form part of a narrative, making up a way to look at the issue. And as we argue, more and more of the narrative will get beaten down to just the central nuggets of it, which I’m going to call a meta-narrative. While the narrative is formed from the arguments we make and the stories we tell about the situation, the meta-narrative is what motivates our formation of those narratives. And so in the interest of pushing us along further, I think I’d like to strip us down to just the meta-narratives in this discussion.

Hopefully, knowing what the meta-narratives are can help us discuss this in a way that isn’t emotionally traumatic to too many people, and get closer to the truth of what we want as a nation.

I’d like to say that there are two, but I think there are four. Two of them I consider beneath consideration. Those two are as follows, with the names I will give them for this post:

  • Liberalizing: Kavanaugh can’t be confirmed because he will be Trump’s second SCOTUS nominee and the 5th conservative on the Court, after which, for a long while, we can expect the Court to rule in favor of conservatives in any major political issue.
  • Conservatizing: Kavanaugh must be confirmed because he will be Trump’s second SCOTUS nominee and the 5th conservative on the Court, after which, for a long while, we can expect the Court to rule in favor of conservatives in any major political issue.

No one would ever say that this is their position; but people do in fact hold these meta-narratives, and they bubble forth in the sorts of arguments that they will end up making either for or against. I think these are beneath consideration because they are sub-rational and purely tribal. Notice that neither of these meta-narratives really cares about whether Kavanaugh is guilty, whether Dr. Ford is telling the truth, whether or not Kavanaugh has been unfairly smeared by the press for the auxiliary other charges, or anything. It only cares about who has the Court. And honestly, it’s a sad disgrace to our nation that we’d go to this level.

In the Liberalizing meta-narrative, any charge, at all, is worth disqualifying him over, no matter how ridiculous. Kavanaugh fighting on a boat in Rhode Island? Sure, why not. Kavanaugh participating in organized gang rape rings as a teenage boy of 15? Sure, why not. Throw whole fistfuls of spaghetti against the wall, see what sticks.

In the Conservatizing meta-narrative, no charge, at all, is worth disqualifying him over, no matter how credible or serious. Ford is probably lying; but if she isn’t, then she’s probably misremembering; but if she isn’t, then it doesn’t matter because it was a long time ago; and it wasn’t even that bad anyway, she should get over it.

So let’s just table these two indefinitely. Real people are driven by these meta-narratives, but they are really only strawmen positions. Let’s look to rational people, who want to examine the issue fairly, if not dispassionately. These meta-narratives, to me, are the ones worth discussing.

  • Victim-Affirming: The confirmation on Kavanaugh is a referendum on how we as a nation respond to survivors of sexual assault and rape. If we deny him the Court, we are sending the message to millions of women (or men) that when you come forward we will hear you and we will take action, even at the highest levels of power. And if we vote to confirm him, we are sending the message to those same millions that we won’t take you seriously and your voice is powerless.
  • Decency-Affirming: The confirmation on Kavanaugh is a referendum on how we as a nation respond to the ritual defamation tactics exhibited by Democrats, the press, and others driven by the Liberalizing meta-narrative. If we confirm him to the Court, we will deny this sort of tribalistic tactic and prevent it from being reinforced and send the message that this will not work. If we deny him the Court, we are sending the message to Democrats (and then to Republicans, and then to the nation more broadly) that when we do not like your opinions on politics, we have carte blanche to descend to the level of the Salem witch hunts in attacking every aspect of you we can find.

Now, if you’re politically liberal, then I know that you’re probably wondering why you should care about the Decency-Affirming meta-narrative. I know that you don’t like Kavanaugh, and you probably think he is actually guilty, and if he is actually guilty then why do we care about his reputation? I’ll get back to that.

The Victim-Affirming and Decency-Affirming meta-narratives provide an outlet that is actually concerned with the factual guilt or innocence of Kavanaugh under the claims.  Even if you think Victim-Affirmation is essential, you might not think it’s that essential when the person is innocent; and even if you think Decency-Affirmation is essential, you might not care all that much if the charges are actually true.  Both meta-narratives are serving ends beyond tribal politics, and ends that I’m going to say are both good.

Here are a few things we can draw from recognizing that both of these meta-narratives exist:

Firstly, if you are a victim of sexual assault, or a strong ally for victims of sexual assault, then please understand that anyone you know who is wavering towards Kavanaugh or firmly pro-Kavanaugh is probably not arguing within the same meta-narrative as you. Which is to say, you are interpreting a support of Kavanaugh within your meta-narrative, where supporting him means telling other survivors not to bother coming forward. Whereas the support may in fact be coming from the Decency-Affirming meta-narrative. No one is intending to send you this message, even though that is unfortunately the message being sent.

Secondly, if you are strongly concerned about the smearing of Kavanaugh in the press, then please understand that anyone you know who is leaning to Dr. Ford’s side or firmly and strongly on her side is also probably not arguing within the same meta-narrative as you. They are not necessarily intending to support the behavior of the Democrats or the press, even though that is also unfortunately the message being sent.

Seeing how both Victim- and Decency-Affirming meta-narratives send a bad message without intending to, I really hope will help both sides understand how this message can be sent, regardless of intention.

Thirdly, as mentioned but really worth reinforcing, the messages get sent regardless of intention. If you only want to send the message that we will believe and take seriously witnesses, then you also send the message that we can perform this same circus again in the future and it will work.  Maybe we’ll do it when it’s your guy up to the bench; or even when you yourself are u to the bench.  And if you only want to send the message that this circus is intolerable, indecent, and a threat to our democracy that we won’t stand for… then you also send the message that we’re not going to listen to future survivors of sexual assault. There’s no way to send both desired messages. There’s no way to send either desired message without sending an undesired message. That’s where we are.

And so I think this suggests a synthesis meta-narrative that will better serve us in this discussion.

  • Synthesis Meta-Narrative: We want to affirm the survivors of sexual assault, but we also want to strongly condemn the tactics of ritualistic defamation and press libel campaigns and set high standards. We can’t do both, and we need to decide which message is more important to send.

Now we are somewhere, at least, because I think reasonable people driven by this meta-narrative can see good and bad on both sides. We can construct points and arguments around this, and not have to assume someone else is holding a strawman position such as “witch hunts are cool” or “I like rapists.”

But hold on, you say. You’re a reasonable person, and you really don’t get the problem in the Decency-Affirming meta-narrative.

I can  understand it.  I am not a Republican, but I do lean conservative. I was very disappointed by Kavanaugh’s nomination. In his past, he has been instrumental in the Patriot Act and ruling on cases that greatly expand the power of the government to invade our privacy and kill us.  Like many on the left, I too immediately thought he looked like a frat-boy douchebag and spoke like he was about to go to a kegger with the broskis (and like many on the left I that means I immediately didn’t like him).  When the allegations came out, I was already indifferent on him, and was ready to put him away and move on to the next judge (hopefully Amy Coney Barrett), without even really caring if the charges were absolutely positively true.

But as the week progressed and more and more people driven either by the Liberalizing or Conservatizing meta-narratives made their arguments, things ramped up more and more. The Conservatizers’ denial that any of it mattered no doubt spurred the Liberalizers to think of even more things to bring out hoping just the sheer volume of charges would make it impossible to look away from them. I actually thought the Republicans on the committee (not the Republicans on random facebook comments; but the ones on the committee) were very accommodating to the charges, while the Democrats were clearly using the charges to their own political ends.

The insanity that gripped our media institutions closely resembles ritualistic defamation, afore alluded to.  This is a process identified by Laird Wilcox back int the 90’s, which describes the mentality of the Salem witch hunts, the McCarthy hearings, the anti-Jewish pogroms of Europe, and the violence of the Inquisition.  You can walk through those points and see how all of them are applicable here.  Some key points of this are: that the defamation is ultimately indifferent to the actual charges presented, and only begins because a social taboo is violated; the subject of the defamation becomes the representation of the worst form of the accusation (such as a leader of organized rape gangs); and any form of defense is irrelevant and interpreted only as further evidence of guilt.

All this withstanding, I decided firmly that I was not going to let the behavior of the Democrats and their press influence my opinion on the truthfulness of Dr. Ford.  I would listen to her present her testimony, and on the basis of the hearings come to my own conclusion on what to think about this all.

And she totally sold me. I can’t not believe that she’s telling the truth. And if I believe she’s telling the truth, the logical conclusion is that Kavanaugh did try to assault her and is thereby disqualified (both for the assault itself and for lying about it under oath).

All of this to say, I understand why you wouldn’t care about Kavanaugh: you think he’s a douchey frat boy who tried to rape a girl.

So then, don’t be worried about Kavanaugh, specifically.  Be worried about yourself, your friends, your family, your future sons or grandsons, or other men close to you. Just like you aren’t worried about Dr. Ford specifically, but worried about all the women in your life who might have been abused in the past or future by someone like Kavanaugh.

Setting aside Dr. Ford and her allegations (as I think they are vastly different), from the time she came forward with her story the press has been breathlessly repeating everything they can get anyone to say. They have canvassed basically the entire population of 1980’s Maryland hoping to find anyone else who is willing to say anything else about Kavanaugh. And the things they came up with were absurd on their face. The charges became so ridiculous newspapers have had to print retractions or clarifications or started refusing to print them in the first place. The Democrats have repeated these and encouraged this behavior. There could have been a way to settle this issue discretely, without a media circus, by means of a confidential Senate investigation. The Senate has those means. The witnesses could have been interviewed in person under threat of perjury, the evidence could have been examined, and a conclusion reached long ago, without having to bring either Dr. Ford or Kavanaugh out into the public for it. The Democrats purposefully did not do that, because they needed the last-minute feeding frenzy to delay the vote. The Democrats’ goal is really simple. They don’t care about Ford, they don’t care about her feelings, they don’t care about whether she was assaulted, they only care about the letter after Kavanaugh’s name (R) and keeping one more of those letters off the court.

Is this an acceptable way for a democracy to work? Is this even a functional way for a democracy to work?

I don’t think it can be. I don’t think we will be able to live together as a society if we can’t agree that this is not an acceptable process.

An acceptable process, as I alluded to, would have respected the confidentiality of Dr. Ford and not brought her name into the press, while at the same time investigated the serious and credible claims to see what other corroborating evidence could be found.

Today it’s Kavanaugh, and yeah, Trump appointed him and Trump’s bad. But in ten years Trump will be gone, and this new norm will remain. In ten years it will be you. And whether you’ve ever sexually assaulted anyone or not, we will know all it will take is the accusation that you did, and suddenly your entire life and career will be over, with global newspapers reporting you guilty of the very worst crimes a private individual is capable of. The standard is not being set at the level of “guilty”; it is going to be permanently set at the level of “accused.”  And while it’s not all that hard to avoid sexually assaulting anyone in your life, it’s a lot harder to be able to prove that you’ve never sexually assaulted anyone in your life.  This will not stay with Kavanaugh. This will become the new norm in all society as we quickly approach an abyss that I’m increasingly worried bottoms out in another civil war.

I realize now that I’m not giving any voice to explaining the Victim-Affirming side. That’s mostly because I consider it self-evident that telling survivors of sexual assault to stay silent is bad, whether we say it unintentionally or not. It’s also because I think I’m largely aiming this at reasonable liberals, who I assume are already there. But just for the sake completeness, rape or sexual assault is a terrible and evil thing, and when a woman (or a man) has suffered it, it is very difficult to come forward. It makes you feel weak and vulnerable, and also ashamed of yourself. The experience is traumatic, and most who suffer it want to just forget it and not give it any more space in their heads. Coming forward is extremely difficult for the survivors, but it is also extremely important that they do come forward. We need a world without rape or sexual assault. And we can move to that world only if the survivors of abuse feel confident in coming forward that they will be accepted and heard. And that respect for victims is also essential to the fabric of our society.  So it is important that we believe Dr. Ford, especially after her very vulnerable sworn testimony.

So what do we do?

I don’t know, really.

We can look at the evidence. If Kavanaugh is guilty, then he’s disqualified. On multiple levels.  No need to worry over negative messages.

But there isn’t a lot of evidence to help us decide this, and the evidence that exists is exculpatory. He kept a detailed calendar-diary of the summer in question that he clearly marked with his ongoings and whereabouts. The only entry that has been found that might the incident Dr. Ford described the entry for Timmy’s house, and it seems that Timmy’s house is actually 10 miles away from the Chevy Chase country club (according to information in the linked thread on democraticunderground), essentially ruling that option out. There were witnesses who Dr. Ford said were there, but they have said they either do not remember it or that it did not happen. We have Dr. Ford’s credible allegation, and Kavanaugh’s credible denial, the denial of witnesses, and a piece of exculpatory evidence.

A further piece of evidence may come in the form of what “boof” means. Many point to this as a possible lie. Kavanaugh said this was a fart joke, but according to many that is definitely not what it means. Since that isn’t what it means, that means Kavanaugh is guilty of perjury, and perjury disqualifies you from being on the Supreme Court. Whether you did rape a girl or not. If Kavanaugh lied during these questions, then we can dismiss him. However, I’m not sure how you can ever prove someone is lying about what he meant when he used a slang word 30 years ago.

Looking at the evidence that exists, it seems that Kavanaugh is probably innocent.

But then how do we make sense of Dr. Ford’s testimony? How can we possibly fit that into a picture of Kavanaugh’s innocence?

I again don’t know. 

Now, I’d like to reiterate. If the Liberalizing narrative hadn’t been spun about Kavanaugh raping puppies in New Mexico while free-basing the ashes of Hitler or whatever else it is, then I would think that Dr. Ford’s testimony, all by itself, would be enough to disqualify Kavanaugh, without new information. I think it wouldn’t matter because there would be no negative message to send by simply voting no on his nomination.

But that narrative was spun, and now there is a negative message to send.  And so I think we need a good reason before sending either.

I think that in the week ahead, we will get to this Synthesis meta-narrative, and start arguing about which message we really need to send. And I think most people are going to side with the Victim-Affirming side. And so I think Kavanaugh will ultimately not be confirmed.

In the meantime, I suppose the FBI investigation is the closest to a kind of compromise we can come to in the meta-narrative. It sends the message that we’re taking the claims seriously, or at least seriously enough to postpone a vote and investigate them. If the investigation finds nothing new (and I doubt it will), then Kavanaugh can be confirmed without necessarily sending the message that the allegation wasn’t taken seriously (obviously some people will still see it that way, but it is not as direct). If the investigation does find something new and finds Kavanaugh is guilty, he can be denied without sending the message that the ritualistic defamation that followed Dr. Ford’s allegation is also good.

Part of the problem, of course, will be when people driven by the Conservatizing or Liberalizing meta-narratives learn this, and begin using these talking points to their own strictly tribal ends. They are served by the fact that we have to send one of these messages, so even if a compromise is pointed out, it is in their interest to convince us that the compromise is not a compromise. They will be very loud about this.

In closing, I hope people of good faith on both sides of this divide can better understand why other people of good faith might be on the other side. I hope you can understand how to better have this conversation, to hopefully move us closer to the truth of the matter and to a best course of action. Disagreement with you doesn’t make someone evil or irratonal. There are irrational people in this discussion, and they exist on both sides. If we can agree on nothing else, let’s at least agree to politely ask the irrational people on our own side to shut up, so the adults can talk about this very serious problem facing our nation.

Lie To Me…Cause I Probably Can’t Tell

Image result for lying gif

Over at FiveThirtyEight, there is a nice rundown of the research on detecting liars. “[R]esearch suggests,” it reads,

our interpretations of testimony like Kavanaugh’s, or Christine Blasey Ford’s earlier on Thursday, will be shaped by what we already believe. The Kavanaugh confirmation fight and Ford’s allegation that he sexually assaulted her are taking place in a political context, tapping into partisan identities. But even without those particular biases, humans just aren’t very good at reading people. And that’s why testimony is “no substitute for a good, solid, thorough investigation and finding of the facts,” said Brian Fitch, a psychologist and retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant.

In other words, we were never going to get a better idea of whether Kavanaugh was telling the truth by watching him speak. (He’s denied all the allegations against him.) That’s just not how the human brain works, said Judee Burgoon, director of human communication research at the University of Arizona. That’s because our ability to identify a lie is poor — no betterthan chance, in fact. “The best estimate, and that’s from a lot of studies all accumulated, is that we’re about 54 percent accurate,” she told me. “That’s about equivalent to flipping a coin.”

Both she and Fitch said that there’s no twitchy tell, no revealing behavior, that is indicative of lying or truth-telling. Partly, Fitch said, that’s because behavior is culturally mediated. When we all live in the same culture, people who want to lie know what behaviors might make them look more or less credible, as much as the people who are watching for those behaviors.

How about people who are supposed to detect lies, like judges, police officers, or custom agents? “Studies show they believe themselves to be betterthan chance at spotting liars. But the same studies show they aren’t, Alcock said. And that makes sense, he told me, because the feedback they get misleads them. Customs agents, for instance, correctly pull aside smugglers for searches just often enough to reinforce their sense of their own accuracy. But “they have no idea about the ones they didn’t search who got away,” Alcock said.” It also turns out that “it’s possible to interview someone in a way that creates inconsistencies and credibility issues that weren’t there originally. Because of this potential, there have been efforts to change the way law enforcement officers conduct interviews, particularly of people from vulnerable groups, including victims of traumatic violence.” What’s more, political “bias probably plays a big role in situations where we’re testing the trustworthiness of people under politically charged circumstances, and some studies have shown that it can have as strong an impact as the biases we carry related to race.” 

The article concludes,

Given what we know about how humans interpret the behavior of other humans — and how bad we are at doing that accurately — it should be no surprise that there appears to be a strong partisan split in how both politicians and regular people viewed Kavanaugh’s testimony. In fact, Burgoon said, this is why you generally want more layers of information in an investigation. You’re not going to learn the “truth” based on somebody’s body language. “I think that’s part of the desire for an FBI investigation, because the FBI would produce a more impartial rendering,” she said. Indeed, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a crucial swing vote, asked on Friday for the full Senate vote on Kavanaugh to be delayed a week so that the FBI could produce just such a rendering. Of course, as Burgoon added, not everyone is going to believe the FBI’s findings either.

If you generally identify on the political left and found Ford’s testimony “credible” or if you generally identify on the political right and found Kavanaugh’s testimony “compelling”, then there was likely nothing credible, compelling, or rational about how you came to that conclusion. [ref]This doesn’t mean you’re wrong. You may very well be right about Ford/Kavanaugh. It just means you’re irrationally biased.[/ref] It was more likely political hooliganism in action.

Does More Education Mean Less Religion?

It depends. In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Philip Schwadel finds that the effects of education depend on religious context during adolescence:

Results show that higher education is particularly likely to lead to religious decline for mainline Protestants and those with religiously active parents, and to increases in religiosity for the religiously unaffiliated and those with parents who infrequently attend religious services. Unaffiliated emerging adults and those from homes with parents who rarely attend religious services are, on average, less religious than other emerging adults, but, unlike most other emerging adults, they are likely to increase in their religiosity if they go to college. These findings demonstrate how the religious context in adolescence conditions the influence of education, both positive and negative influences (pg. 870).

In short, “the widespread view that education “erodes” religion (Johnson 1997) does not apply equally to all emerging adults, and the religious context in adolescence is one dimension along which it varies” (pg. 882).

This expounds on Schwadel’s previous work. For example, his 2016 article in The Sociological Quarterly found that “graduating from college is associated with declines in prayer, religious certainty, and especially religious belief during emerging adulthood” (pg. 778). However, he also found that “the highly educated are relatively likely to attend religious services. These results suggest that church pews are now disproportionately filled with college-educated young adults, many of who question key religious beliefs. This comports with a long tradition of sociological research (e.g., Fukuyama 1961; Roof 1976) that emphasizes that college students, and the college-educated more generally, often compartmentalize religion to weekend services and holidays (for more recent examples, see Campbell 2005; Clydesdale 2007)” (pg. 779).

When he did a 2015 cross-national analysis, Schwadel found that while those with university degrees had lower levels of religiosity overall, “sex, marital status, and age have considerably larger effects on religiosity than does higher education” (pg. 414).[ref]In a 2018 study, Schwadel writes, “On average, men are more likely than women, non-married are more likely than married, and young adults are more likely than the elderly to have no religious affiliation, but the extent and even existence of these differences varies from nation to nation. This comports with Hayes (2000) analysis of variation in the factors predicting non-affiliation across 10 Western, Christian nations. Going beyond Hayes’ analysis, the results here suggest that demographic differences in the likelihood of non-affiliation are most pronounced in nations with low levels of religious regulation… [H]igh levels of religious regulation are associated with lower levels of non-affiliation, and fewer differences by age, gender, and marital status as the potential consequences of non-affiliation are more severe in many of those nations” (pg. 267).[/ref] Furthermore, “the average level of higher education in each nation is not associated with individual religiosity” (pg. 414). In fact, GDP per capita has a much stronger, negative effect on religiosity than average levels of higher education. Most telling, however,  is the fact that “the effect of university degree ranges from robustly negative to positive. The largest negative effects of university degree are in Israel (b = −.427) and Italy (b = −.409). University degree has a relatively strong, positive effect (b > .16) in Sweden, New Zealand, and South Korea. Overall, the effect of university degree is positive and significant (p < .05) in 9 nations, negative and significant in 18 nations, and has no significant effect in 12 nations” (pg. 411). 

What’s more,

the negative effect of higher education on religiosity is more robust in relatively religious nations. This is evident both from the negative correlation between the random slope for university degree and the adjusted mean of religiosity (i.e., intercept), and from the positive interaction between university degree and the mean with no religion in each nation. These findings appear to support the diffusion argument that the highly educated are innovators and early adopters (Rogers 2003) of new ways of being religious (or irreligious) but that secularity then diffuses to the less-educated segments of the population. As Elias (2000) suggests in regards to attributes associated with the upper classes (e.g., manners), secularity may be a form of status differentiation for the highly educated in relatively religious nations, but it cannot serve that function in relatively irreligious nations (pg. 415).

All of this complicates the narrative of “more education = less religion.” Even Pew’s research from last year–which is often thrown out as evidence of the religiosity-killing nature of education–doesn’t vindicate the common narrative. While college-educated Americans are more likely to, say, identify as “atheist/agnostic”, their religious affiliation and church attendance is about the same as those who never finished/attended college.

College graduates, non-grads report attending religious services at similar rates

For Christians with college degrees, their religious commitment is basically the same as Christians without them. In fact, the college-educated Christian is more likely to attend weekly religious services than their less-educated fellow devotees. 

College-educated Christians about as observant as Christians with less education

A 2007 study actually found that “it is the respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity. Those with the highest level of education – the respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree – are the least likely to curtail.their church attendance. They are followed by those with an associate’s degree, then by four-year college students, and then two-year college students. The most educated are also the least likely to report a decrease in religion’s importance, although those who attended college but did not finish also report low levels of decline in religious salience” (pg. 1677).[ref]The three dimensions of religiosity included (1) decline in religious service attendance, (2) decline in importance of religion, and (3) disaffiliated from religion.[/ref] The researchers also found that “cohabitors are the most likely individuals to report each type of religious decline,” while married persons “are the least likely to report each type of decline” (pg. 1677). Premarital sex and marijuana use was also associated with declines in religiosity. Schwadel’s 2011 study also found that education “has a positive effect on religious participation, emphasizing the importance of religion, and supporting the rights of religious authorities to influence people’s votes. Increases in education do not diminish devotional activities or belief in the afterlife, though highly educated Americans disproportionately lean towards belief in a higher power rather than definite belief in God” (pg. 178).

But does education at least lead to more liberal religious beliefs? A 2011 study found[ref]The measures of religious liberalization include (1) more unorthodox, (2) more naturalistic, (3) more uncertain, (4) more reserved when it comes to converting others, (5) more inclusive of other religious claims, (6) more individualistic, and (7) more independent of institutions.[/ref]

contrary to longstanding scholarly wisdom, attending college appears to have no liberalizing effect on most dimensions of religious belief. In fact, on some measures, college students appear to liberalize less than those who never attended college. College students are less likely to stop believing in a personal god and less likely to stop believing in the propriety of conversion attempts. On the other hand, they are more likely to develop doubts about their religious beliefs. In the main, however, the effect of college on students’ religious beliefs appears to be extremely weak. Although significant  minorities of emerging adults become more liberal in their religious beliefs, college itself does not appear to be the culprit. College students do not liberalize any more than those who do not go to college.

In fact, the case for the null (and perhaps protective) effects of college on traditional religious belief is even stronger than it appears from these results. In supplementary analyses (not shown), college attendance also failed to predict differences on six other variables measuring religious beliefs. College students are also no more likely than non-students to stop believing in a judgment day, stop believing in an afterlife, stop believing in angels, stop believing in demons (except in the final two models, where social networks appear to suppress a positive effect of college attendance), become more uncertain about the existence of God, or abandon the belief that active congregational participation is a necessary aspect of being religious. Thus, on 10 out of 13 possible beliefs, attending college shows no net liberalizing effect before accounting for social networks; on two others, college appears to support traditional beliefs; on only one outcome – increased religious doubt – does college appear to undermine traditional religious belief. In the debate over how college influences religious beliefs, this study overwhelmingly supports those who claim that its influence is largely negligible, and perhaps even somewhat protective of traditional religious belief (pg. 199-200).

Basically, when it comes to education and religion, it’s complicated. 

Ford & Kavanaugh: I’m not on a side, I’m just tired.

Random thoughts:

It is not at all strange to me that Ford would not go public with these accusations before now. Most women who have experienced sexual assault don’t tell anyone even privately about it, much less go public, much less go public in such a politically polarized context. If I were her I would want to avoid it all too, and I’d also feel conflicted if the person who assaulted me was about to be handed such incredible power. The fact that Ford didn’t speak up before now in no way invalidates her claims, to my mind.

I also think it’s significant that there’s evidence she was talking about this experience at least as far back as 2012, because that fact undermines the idea that this is all some ad hoc plot to stop Kavanaugh. I don’t think it’s weird that she didn’t use his specific name at the time. I could hardly stand to say the name of the dude from my past and he was in no way powerful or famous.

I also don’t think it’s strange that she’s hazy on a lot of details. I’ve seen so many posts—including a lot of posts from sexual assault victims—claiming a victim basically never forgets and if she were telling the truth she’d remember everything. That is just not accurate. Human memory is notoriously imprecise and fallible. We know from the work of the Innocence Project that many people have been imprisoned based largely on eyewitness testimony that was incorrect, and that’s not to say eyewitnesses were lying per se. In many cases they were probably entirely sincere, but there are many psychological biases that can make our memories false. Add to that decades since the event. It’s not weird that she doesn’t remember how she got there or left, in my opinion. I am much younger than she and I am very fuzzy on many high school memories and I was sober the entire time too.

That said, human memory is notoriously imprecise and fallible, so it’s a problem that there appears to be no corroborating evidence of Ford’s account. I think it’s pretty significant that none of the people she said were present have corroborated her. I doubt Ford is lying. I don’t think she’s acting out of partisan politics. But I am not as certain that she’s right.

And then there’s Kavanaugh. His opening statement was more passionate than I expected. He behaved the way a man falsely accused might be expected to behave. Then again I have known men who seemed quite likable, who you’d never believe would do something like that, and they totally have. Or, as a somewhat tangential example, it reminds me of Rod Dreher’s article about how his family very painfully left the Catholic church after discovering that a priest they specifically liked had a history of sexual assault allegations, and Dreher and his wife realized they couldn’t rely on their instincts: they would have had no idea and their parish warned no one. Predators can be very convincing. You can’t tell just based on apparent righteous indignation. I think both an innocent man and a guilty one would behave that way. I’ll admit there were moments when I felt a bit sorry for Kavanaugh but then I kept coming back to the fact that his emotional displays, in my opinion, don’t really tell us anything.

That’s not even getting into the fact that he may 100% believe he’d done nothing even when he had. It was decades ago, and, once again, human memory is very fallible, even more so if it’s true he was drinking a lot. In my personal experience and being familiar with the personal experiences of others, certain types of men can unequivocally cross a line and truly not view it that way at the time or remember it that way later. I have seen this. So just as Ford could be 100% sincere and also wrong, so could Kavanaugh.

That’s the really irritating thing about the hearing yesterday (9/26). At no point did I believe, for the politicians there, that this was about truth-finding. And it was quite clear listening to them go on. So much grandstanding, using their question time to make long-winded political statements, asking questions people have asked many times over, etc. It mostly seemed like attempts to paint Kavanaugh as either innocent or guilty (depending on who was talking) or an attempt to, through talking to Kavanaugh, paint the other side of the aisle as terrible. Very little of it seemed like a genuine attempt to dig into anything.

I will say I thought Lindsey Graham’s enraged outburst seemed sincere and that resonated with me. I also appreciated Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons. They asked a lot of the same types of things their fellow Democrats asked, but they seemed like they actually wanted to know and weren’t just making power plays. I thought they handled themselves really well.

Other than those three, I could hardly stand listening to anyone, particularly Whitehouse and Harris, ugh. That’s all I have to say about that.

Also Kavanaugh was way too evasive. There were so many instances when he was so transparently not answering the question and it just seemed foolish to me because it didn’t even matter. Like when Whitehouse pressed Kavanaugh on some entry in his yearbook about ralphing. Just say yes! You drank in high school and at least once you puked from it. Too many beers. You already admitted repeatedly to drinking and sometimes to having too much. Stop dragging this out.

And the FBI investigation! Wow, was I tired of hearing about that. I really don’t understand why Kavanaugh couldn’t just say “An FBI investigation will repeat what we are already doing here, thus dragging out this hell for my family and me and providing no new or useful information. So no, if we can skip the FBI investigation, let’s do that.” The end. That would have been far less damning then so obviously refusing to answer the question.

I do think it’s ridiculous that people think Kavanaugh’s displays of emotion disqualify him from consideration for SCOTUS. I doubt there is a SCOTUS justice now or ever before that could remain dispassionate much less impartial under such terrible accusations and such a circus of a process. They’re judges, not robots. They are human. They don’t usually decide on cases that impact them immediately and directly so it seems unlikely the circumstances that pushed Kavanaugh to get upset would recur as a SCOTUS justice.

In the end I feel sorry for Ford, frustrated with Kavanaugh, but more than anything disgusted with politicians and this whole farce of a process. To my mind it is transparently political, and also unlikely to actually change any minds. Whatever happens I’ll be glad when the vote is over, but also whatever happens at least one side of the country is going to be absolutely livid, and I feel like this entire situation has made us even more partisan and angry at one another. I am exhausted even thinking about it.

The Potential Costs of Climate Change

I’ve written about the economic cost of climate change before. Economist Tyler Cowen recently made a similar observation:

I am struck by the costs of climate change suggested in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, hardly a source of denialism. Its cost estimate — “1 to 5% of GDP for 4°C of warming” — is relatively reassuring. After all, global GDP is right now growing at more than 4 percent a year. If climate change cost “only” 4 percent of GDP on a one-time basis, then the world economy could make up those costs with less than a year’s worth of economic growth. In essence, the world economy would arrive at a given level of wealth about a year later than otherwise would have been the case. That sounds expensive but not tragic.

And yet, Cowen recognizes that this may “not [be] the right way to conceptualize the problem.” Having opened his piece with recent examples of irrational responses to legitimate, if relatively minor, problems–Brexit in response to EU bureaucracy, Trump’s election in response to immigration and trade issues–Cowen explains, 

Think of the 4 percent hit to GDP, if indeed that is the right number, as a highly unevenly distributed opening shot. That’s round one, and from that point on we are going to react with our human foibles and emotions, and with our highly imperfect and sometimes corrupt political institutions. (Libertarians, who are typically most skeptical of political solutions, should be the most worried.)

Considering how the Syrian crisis has fragmented the EU as well as internal German politics, is it so crazy to think that climate change might erode international cooperation all the more? The true potential costs of climate change are just beginning to come into view.

I’d say that we just need to educate people more, but given (1) the amount of political ignorance despite rising levels of education and (2) the general ineffectiveness of our education systems in this regard, I don’t think that will help much. 

Image result for well that's depressing gif

The Post-Meritocracy Comes to Linux

This is a developing and highly-controversial story, so I’ve got to give y’all a warning that this quick post is based on provisional research. There’s probably a lot more to the story than I know, and I’m going to try and follow it and update folks. But it definitely seems important enough to warrant this early note.

About a week ago I noticed a kind of weird story about Linus Torvalds (creator and leader of the Linux kernel project)[ref]An operating system kernel is “the core of a computer’s operating system, with complete control over everything in the system.” Wikipedia[/ref] apologizing for his infamously abrasive personality and promising to get better. What I didn’t notice at the time was that, simultaneous with his temporary departure, he also implemented a “Code of Conduct” for the Linux kernel project.[ref]You can see the community’s reaction on the GitHub repo.[/ref] Then, people’s heads started exploding. Why? Because many people believe that the Code of Conduct is basically a SJW[ref]Social Justice Warrior[/ref] take-over of Linux.

The best article I’ve found so far to explain that rationale is this one, which points out that the Code of Conduct was written by  Coraline Ada Ehmke, an LGBT activist who has a history of using her Contributor Covenant to go after people she thinks are bigots.

For example, she tried to have a core contributor to the Opal project expelled because–in an unrelated Tweet–he stated that “(trans people) not accepting reality is the problem here.” Although Ehmke wasn’t involved in the project or the conversation, she campaigned to have Elia removed. She failed in that regard, but got Opal to adopt her Contributor Covenant, and she then tried to modify Opal’s version of the Covenant in a way that would give her new ammunition to take on Elia.

The obvious threat is that activists like Ehmke will use the Linux kernel Code of Conduct to go after Linux developers the same way Ehmke went after Elia, and there are early signs that that is exactly what will happen. A “diversity and inclusion consultant” named Sage Sharp called out Linux developer Ted Tso in a Tweet:

Sharp subsequently backed off and claimed that “I don’t want Ted Tso reviewing Code of Conduct cases involving sexual assault or sexism” and that they “did not make a statement asking for him to be removed from the board.” Yeah, sure. Because it’s totally believable that Sharp is content with having a rape apologist on the board. They kicked Brandon Eich out of his own company for much less than this, and the only reason they’re not doing a full-court press on Tso (yet) is that the Linux community is both hostile and well-armed, up to and including a potential nuclear response. 

The nuclear deterrent was described in this (slightly sensational) article. Basically, some anonymous person posted to the Linux Kernel Mailing List with a suggestion that anybody kicked off the project for Code of Conduct violations could revoke permission to use their contributions to the Linux kernel. The legal case here is complex and hypothetical, but folks like Eric S. Raymond believe the threat has enough legitimacy to be taken seriously. If they can really revoke permission to use their code, then it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux, and if it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux then the Internet pretty much dies, because a vast swathe of the servers that power the Internet run the Linux operating system, to say nothing of all the Android phones and various embedded systems out there. 

I don’t think this is very likely for two reasons. First, the social justice activists don’t want to overplay their hand, and you can see that in how Sharp walked back their original claim. Second, the legality of withdrawing code from the Linux kernel is complicated and untried; it’s never been tested in court and nobody knows for sure what would happen.[ref]It’s worth pointing out that legal uncertainty is a pretty significant threat in and of itself, however.[/ref] 

The nuclear deterrent may be grabbing all the headlines, but it’s not my long-run concern. I’m more worried about a subtler problem, the infiltration of post-meritocratic thinking into software that runs so much of the hardware that we all depend on. Linux is critical to our infrastructure. It’s not just powering the Internet. Linux is also the basis of Android, for example, so it’s the foundation for a big chunk of our smartphone ecosystem. It’s also in a lot of embedded hardware from cash registers to medical devices. Even if we avoid the nuclear option, you have to ask yourself: do you want potentially life-saving hardware to be developed and maintained by a community that has rejected merit as their guiding criteria?

It’s not an exaggeration or a conspiracy theory to assert either (a) that up until now Linux and the open source community had embraced merit as their ultimate guiding principle or that (b) the Code of Conduct is the spearhead of a philosophy that emphatically and explicitly rejects that position. In the past, I would have had to cite a definition of critical race theory from the UCLA School of Public Affairs and then link critical race theory to wider social justice theory, and basically you’d have had to trust me. But Ehmke has made my job much, much easier in this regard. Not only did she write the Code of Conduct, but she also wrote the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto. The manifesto begins:

Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued.

But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology…

It is time that we as an industry abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.

The manifesto goes on to embrace ominous values such as the belief that “working in our field is a privilege, not a right,” a clear statement of intent to “no platform” all those who fail to affirm the dogma of the social justice activists. It’s just that in this case we’re not only preventing the undesirables from spreading their opinions, but also from contributing code to open-source projects.[ref]Worth mentioning: this is also a threat to their livelihoods, in many cases. Which is certainly a feature and not a bug as far as social justice activists are concerned.[/ref]

Obviously there are political dimensions here. Ehmke has stated that the Contributor Covenent–the basis for the Code of Conduct–is a political document.

The politics are problematic, in my view, to say the least. But while the politics can be complicated and ambiguous, the practical considerations seem a lot less murky. Let me ask you this: how comfortable would you be if your airline pilot or cardiac surgeon was trained by a post-meritocratic institution?

Don’t get me wrong: obviously software developers don’t have an immediate, life-or-death impact the way airline pilots or surgeons do. But that just means the degradation in quality from rejecting merit as the ultimate guiding principle will be more subtle and diffuse, but also have a correspondingly broader impact. Instead of diluting merit in the evaluation of pilots and surgeons, we’re going to dilute merit from the evaluation of software developers who write the code for air traffic control and teleoperated surgical robots. That still seems like cause for concern.

I always sort of resent having to add this caveat, because I think it should be obvious, but I emphatically support the purported goal of equality and fairness. What I don’t support is the willingness to sacrifice merit to get there, much less the assumption implied by the belief that we need to do so. I don’t think we need to reject meritocratic ideals to accept women, gays, blacks, or any other minority as coders for the simple reason that I think women, gays, blacks and all other minorities are just as capable–given equal opportunity–of contributing equally meritorious code. If they cannot due to unequal opportunity,[ref]For example, it’s hard to be a great coder if you don’t have access to computers and the Internet.[/ref] then it seems more like a betrayal than a helping hand to jettison merit as a benchmark instead of undertaking the much harder work of rectifying unequal opportunity to ensure that everyone has the same chance to develop their skills and talents. Equality and merit are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is only in the context of a meritocracy that we can ultimately have equality. Not only should we be unwilling to accept anything less than a meritocracy for vitally important infrastructure, but also for a just society.

Economic Freedom of the World Report: 2018

The Fraser Institute just published its Economic Freedom of the World 2018 Annual Report, which looks at data from 2016. The degree of economic freedom is measured using 5 broad areas:

  1. size of government (expenditures, taxes, enterprises)
  2. legal structure and property rights (which now includes the Gender Disparity Index)
  3. access to sound money
  4. freedom to trade internationally
  5. regulation of credit, business, and labor

The ten most economically free countries are:

And what are the benefits of economic freedom? 

But I’m sure we’ll continue to hear about how we need to roll back our economic freedom because reasons. 

Does Economics Explain the Rise of the Swedish Radical Right?

As of late, I’ve been writing about populism and its causes. Economic reasons have been largely dismissed in various mainstream outlets and they have plenty of studies supporting the claim. However, it is very difficult to separate economic change from cultural change. What’s more, economic shifts provide the overall context for other anxieties to emerge. Too often, ignorance about the effects of these shifts drive the public to populism.

Recent evidence from the rise of the Sweden Democrats–a radical-right party–appears to support this view. The authors of a new working paper write,

We start from the timing of the Sweden-Democrat rise: growing to enter parliament between 2006 and 2010, and continuing to become Sweden’s third largest party in 2014 (with a 12.9 percent vote share). This period pre-dated the 2015 refugee crisis, but coincided with two events that worsened the relative economic lot for large segments of the population. In 2006, a Center-Right coalition of parties took power and implemented a dramatic reform agenda of tax cuts and social-insurance austerity with the purpose to “make work pay.” Over a mere six years, these reforms triggered a dramatic increase in income inequality. With earned income tax credits, incomes continued to grow among “insiders” with stable employment, while spending cuts implied a stagnation of disposable incomes for “outsiders” with unstable or no jobs. The second key event is the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis increased the job insecurity for “vulnerable insiders”, segments of the population with stable employment, but with jobs at higher risk of replacement by automation and other forms of rationalization than “secure insiders”.

To analyze the consequences of these events, we classify the population into economic winners or losers, starting out from comprehensive register data that provides a panel of yearly observations for the full adult population in 1979-2012. With this data, we can characterize the economic and social circumstances for individual politicians and for residents of each precinct or municipality…We find that the groups which faced a relative-income decline and higher job insecurity are over-represented among the politicians and voters of the radical right. Politicians from the Sweden Democrats include more outsiders and vulnerable insiders, compared to both the population and, very starkly, other political parties. Over-representation also grows across sub-groups of labor-market outsiders the more they lost (relative to insiders) from the make-work-pay reforms. For voters, we find a strong positive correlation between the Sweden Democrats’ electoral success and the impact of the economic reforms and the financial crisis (i) across municipalities and (ii) across voting districts within municipalities. Putting this correlation into a formal regression model, we can add a myriad of control variables from register data and other data sources. The strong correlation with negative economic shocks is not affected by the stocks and flows of immigrants from different regions, or by immigrants having jobs or being welfare recipients in a geographic area. They are also robust to controls for crime rates, media reporting on immigration, and local political contextual variables (pg. 1-2).

The authors suggest that “the political left offers a slate of politicians skewed away from labor-market outsiders and vulnerable insiders towards secure insiders. Adding to this evidence, we find that wherever groups of economic losers (or the losses they incur) are particularly large, the Sweden Democrats offer them more over-representation relative to other parties. Another side of our explanation is that economic shocks triggers diminished trust in government, of which the established left parties form part (following e.g., Algan et al. 2017). We find some support for this in survey data. The rise in electoral support for the Sweden Democrats temporally coincides with a clear divergence in trust in government institutions, including political parties, between labor-market outsiders and insiders. It is intuitive that candidates who themselves share the economic traits of disgruntled voters may stand a better chance to credibly bridge this trust gap” (pg. 2).

While the Swedish experience may not be the same as the American one, I think the two resemble each other far more than they differ. For example, when Gallup polled Trump supporters in early 2016, they found that Trump’s

unconventional résumé and style have helped attract their support for his candidacy, more so than his positions on issues or specific policies. In fact, other than his signature issue of immigration, mentioned by 8% of his supporters, no other issue is named by more than half that many — with between 2% and 4% mentioning his ability to deal with terrorists, his financial planning and budget expertise, and his handling of the economy and employment…[I]t is his nonpolitician background that comes to mind first, not his positions on issues, when supporters are asked to explain why they want him as their party’s nominee…Republicans who support Trump’s candidacy like him for being an anti-politician, and Trump’s willingness to say things that flout conventional norms governing political speech may only strengthen his authenticity as an outsider.

Most Important Reasons for Supporting Donald Trump for Republican Nomination, February 2016

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the desire for a (perceived) anti-establishment, anti-elite outsider followed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Is a Pro-Capitalist Mentality on the Decline?

Looks that away according to a Spring 2018 article in The Independent Review. Economist Carlos Newland constructs a Free-Market Mentality Index (FMMI) in an attempt to quantify the change in attitudes. He writes,

What is the basis on which institutional frameworks favorable to abundance or growth are built? For Michael Porter (2000), that basis is the economic culture or mentality of the population. Porter argues that to achieve sustainable growth a society must have an archetype of productivity, including a comprehension of the factors that influence the efficiency of the economy. These factors include an appreciation of competition, openness to globalization and international trade, an understanding that free markets benefit a majority of the society, and an awareness of the pernicious effects of government favoritism. Porter argues that without this paradigm it is probable that an alternate view may take root in a society, one that is more favorable to the existence of noncompetitive rents, such as those granted by protectionist economic policies. The optimal paradigm, Porter points out, should not be confined to the upper echelons of a society but instead should permeate its entirety, including the working class. If this diffusion is absent, reforms favorable to higher productivity will probably face political opposition (pg. 571).

In order to take a mental temperature so speak, Newland uses

items included in the World Values Survey (WVS), an ongoing international poll conducted from 1981 to 2014 (when the most recent survey was published; a current one is not yet available). The WVS is a global collaborative effort aimed at learning the opinions of inhabitants of many nations of the world about a large set of topics. Via the construction of a comparative index, I used three items included in the WVS to study the presence and degree of a free-market or capitalist ideology (henceforth used as synonyms) in these nations over the course of the past two decades. I defined this mentality as one favorable to competition, to the action of private enterprise, and to the view that economic interaction generates wealth. Although the basic WVS questionnaire includes many other assertions that reflect a capitalist mindset, the fact that the answers are available for only some countries reduces the set that can be employed. Only four of the six WVS editions published up to 2014 include all three of the questions that I used to compose the FMMI: 1990, 1996, 2006, and 2012. There are twenty-seven countries in the 1990 sample, a figure that grows to fifty-eight for 2012. The indicator is fragile and based on a very limited set of variables, but I believe it reflects, perhaps roughly, the relative attitudes in different countries toward free markets and their evolution over time (pg. 572).

The results? The table below

clearly shows that a strong downward tendency in the support of capitalism occurred in the world between 1990 and 2012, with the global FMMI falling by 24 percent. This fall has been gradual and continuous and therefore cannot be attributed to the occurrence of the Great Recession of 2007–9. When data are separated by groups of nations, the negative trend is very clear in the case of formerly Communist countries, Latin America, and Africa. The result for the Sinosphere is more ambiguous and diverse: the score for Japan has grown over time, China shows some stability, and the values for South Korea have fallen. Marks for Europe have generally decayed, and the same has happened for the United States (pg. 575).

What makes this disturbing is the FMMI’s “weak, but positive correlation” with the Economic Freedom of the World Index. The comparison between the two indexes “shows that in general countries with a high pro-capitalist ideology also have freer and more competitive economies: Taiwan, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Sweden, and Japan” (pg. 577). 

While the FMMI “is undoubtedly a rather crude measure,” it nonetheless “shows that an important global ideological shift has occurred since the late 1990s. From an initial situation of appreciation of the virtues of capitalism and competitive forces in the 1990s, much of the world has shifted to a greater faith in government intervention and regulation.” This is problematic, since the data also show that “a strong capitalist mentality coexists with (and probably generates) a favorable institutional framework, exemplified by many of the wealthiest countries in the world, such as the United States, Germany, and Japan” (pg. 579-580). Since institutions matter, this is a bit concerning. 

Woodward’s “Fear” Made Me Fear Trump Less

This post is adapted from my original Goodreads review.

Fear Book CoverWhen the first sensational excerpts of Bob Woodward’s Trump book came out, I knew that I had to read it as quickly as I could. But I also wanted to have some perspective, given how controversial Trump is, and so first I read All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars to calibrate my response. So, in the past few days, I’ve gone through all of these books, and here are my thoughts.

First–strictly speaking about the book as a book and ignoring the politics for a second–Fear is much better All the President’s Men or Obama’s Wars, both of which were basically nothing-burgers. In contrast, Fear was much more interesting and I felt like I really had learned a lot at the end of it.

OK, so now let’s switch to the politics. What did Fear teach me about Trump? In a nutshell, it taught me that the anti-Trump case is pretty weak, he’s probably not going to be impeached, and there isn’t anything worthy of impeaching him for. I’m not happy with any of those conclusions. I consider Trump unqualified by moral character to be President, and on the few issues where he has a genuine conviction I disagree vehemently with those positions. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that Woodward himself uses to close the book[ref]Although it’s told from the perspective of Trump lawyer John Dowd, it’s clear that Woodward basically agrees [/ref]:

Dowd remained convinced that Mueller never had a Russian case or an obstruction case. He was looking for the perjury trap. And in a brutally honest self-evaluation, he believed that Mueller had played him and the President for suckers in order to get their cooperation on witnesses and documents. Dowd was disappointed in Mueller pulling such a sleight of hand… Dowd believed that the President had not colluded with Russia or obstructed justice. But, in the man in the and his Presidency, Dowd had seen the tragic flaw. In the political back and forth, the evasions, the denials, the Tweeting, the obscuring, crying “fake news”, the indignation Trump had one overriding problem that Dowd knew but could not bring himself to say to the President: “You’re a f—ing liar.”[ref]Vulgar language is not redacted in the original; I did that for this blog post.[/ref]

Fear by Bob Woodward

Although it’s hardly flattering, calling a politician a liar is not even newsworthy and if that’s the worst accusation you can throw at Trump, then we might as well settle in for his second term. That’s not to say that Trump’s dishonesty isn’t on a new level compared to other politicians, but Americans are too jaded from past accommodations with immoral behavior for an accusation of dishonesty to have any real traction, no matter how pathological. If you’re hoping for a smoking gun or something that will bring down the Trump presidency, this book not only isn’t it; it throws water on the whole prospect.

In fact, my overall impression of the book–especially in contrast to the early excerpts everyone talked about before the book was released–is that it humanizes and explains Trump. It doesn’t make me like him any more, but I do feel like I understand him more and that understanding isn’t always bad. For example:

Afterward, when Trump had phone calls with others from the military who had been killed, the White House staff noticed how hard and tough it seemed for him. “He’s not that guy,” Bannon said. “He’s never really been around the military. He’s never been around military family. Never been around death.” The deaths of parents of small kids struck him particularly hard. “That had a big impact on him, and it’s seen throughout everything.”

A staffer who sat in on several calls made to gold star families was struck by how much time and emotional energy devoted to them. He had a copy of material from the deceased service member’s personnel file. “I’m looking at his picture. Such a beautiful boy,” said in one call to family members. “Where did he grow up? Where did he grow to school? Why did he join the service?” 

“I’ve got the record here. There are reports here that say how much he was loved. He was a great leader.”

Some in the Oval Office had copies of the service records. None of what Trump cited was there. He was just making it up. He knew what the families wanted to hear.

Fear by Bob Woodward

That’s definitely not a description of a great president, but it’s not really a description of a monster, either. Woodward also finds some reason for the chaos in his administration:

Trump heard about the conflicts [among his staff]. He liked aggressive disagreements. They smoked out a wide variety of opinions. Harmony could lead to groupthink. He embraced the chaos and churn beneath him.

Fear by Bob Woodward

He also recounts Trump graciously thanking attorney John Dowd after Dowd had given Trump some really harsh criticism and advice Trump didn’t want to hear, recounting that “in a lifetime of law, Dowd maybe had only five clients who had so graciously expressed their thanks.”

Finally, Woodward revealed that Trump reads newspapers “more thoroughly than the public generally [knows],” which you have to contrast with allegations that Trump is only semi-literate. Sample[ref]From a WaPo opinion piece.[/ref]:

This is what happens when you are functionally illiterate: Trump can read in theory but chooses not to, and therefore he is incapable of sustained learning.

“What on earth is Trump saying?” by Max Boot

This kind of reckless exaggeration from the press explains, to a great extent, why Trump seems invincible. As White House Communications Director Hope Hicks put it, “the media had ‘Oppositional Defiance Syndrome’,”:

Oppositional Defiance Syndrome is characterized by excessive anger against authority, vindictiveness, and temper-tantrums. As far as she was concerned, that described the press.

Fear by Bob Woodward

She’s not wrong, and Woodward deserves credit for avoiding that pitfall. I wish more journalists did, because if they hadn’t been so hysterical maybe they could have stopped him. The saddest part of the whole book for me was the revelation that–at the height of the Access Hollywood scandal–the plan was to have Trump step down and Pence run instead with Condoleeza Rice as VP. I don’t love Pence, necessarily, but I <3 Condi Rice.

The whole Access Hollywood thing is also a tragically ironic example of Trump’s resilience and the media’s complicity–intentionally or not–with that resilience. Here’s what happened:

By fall, the intelligence reports showed that Moscow, like almost every one else, believed that Clinton was likely to win. Russian President Vladmir Putin’s influence campaign shifted strategy to focus on undermining her coming presidency. Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson were the most anxious to alert the public to the Russian interference. At 3pm, on Friday October 7th, the released a joint statement officially accusing Russia of trying to interfere in the US election, although they didn’t name Putin in the public release. 

“The US intelligence community is confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of emails from US persons and institutions. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Russia’s senior most officials are the only ones who could have authorized the activities.”

Clapper, Johnson and the Clinton campaign expected this to be the big news of the weekend, as did the reporters who began working on the story. But one hour later, at 4:05pm, David Farenthold at the Washington Post released a story headlined, “Trump recorded having extremely lewd conversation about women in 2005.”

Fear by Bob Woodward

So, instead of a major headline about Russian meddling before the election we got the Access Hollywood story. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been a story, but I do think it’s less important than the Russian story for the simple reason that nothing in the Access Hollywood story was actually news. We all knew Trump was a pretty awful misogynist. Just one more example of that didn’t actually change anything, but it sure distracted people from the Russia story, which actually would have been news to the American public at that time. The press went with the sensational over the important, and here we are.[ref]Not saying that would have changed things, just that it’s indicative of how salacious scandal isn’t as effective as anti-Trump forces would like it to be, and may actually cover deeper and more relevant concerns.[/ref]

Oh, and one more thing: in addition to the dim view of Mueller, Woodward recounted a pretty devious play by the FBI that explains a lot Trump’s animosity. After an NYT article about Trump aids having contact with Russian intelligence officials, Andrew McCabe came to Reince Priebus to tell him the story was wrong. He even promised that the FBI would publicly reveal the info, a huge win for the White House. But then… he didn’t. Preibus called and tried to get McCabe to reveal the info he had and that he’d said they would reveal, but he refused. And then CNN reported an exclusive story with the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia story.”

So not only did the FBI not come through like they said they would, but they setup the Trump administration to make it look like they were trying to pressure the FBI dishonestly, when all they were doing was asking the FBI to reveal facts the FBI had first come to the Trump administration with. Only months later did the truth come out–far after everyone quit paying attention–when Comey public testified under oath that the original NYT story was “in the main… not true.” I’m not sure exactly what happened there–and Woodward doesn’t explain it either–but if the FBI did that to me, I’d be furious and suspicious, too.

What I’m saying is that, at the end of the day, this book made me–a committed #NeverTrumper–dislike Trump less than before I read it. This is mostly just a question of expectations. My opinion of Trump was so low that even a really damning, negative book is actually not as bad as my worst suspicions. Yeah, there’s a lot of pretty negative quotes from Trump officials, like Mattis saying Trump had the intellectual capacity of “a 5th or 6th grader” or Bannon saying adult logic didn’t work on Trump, and you had to use teenage logic instead, but (1) that’s not news and (2) these are insults hurled immediately after angry confrontations.

Understanding someone doesn’t necessarily mean liking them. I still think President Trump has no business being President, and I’m disappointed that so many Americans voted for him (especially primary voters!). But understanding does make it harder to casually hate a person. 

There’s still a lot left to understand, of course. The book isn’t a comprehensive biography of Trump, and so there’s still a lot left that I don’t get. Mostly: W=why did he run in the first place? Was it just outright egoism? Just an opportunistic grab for the biggest spotlight he could find? That’s my best theory, but it’s outside the scope of this book and so I don’t know.

I will say that the most interesting person in the book is Steve Bannon. He understands Trumpism better than Trump ever did, and I’m surprised he got the boot. Then again, that might be the problem. Trump seems to be a basically empty vessel that happens to be anti-trade, anti-immigration, and isolationist without any discernible foundation of principle that would explain these views. Steve Bannon has the same views, but he also has a brain and conviction. It’s like Trump is a cardboard cutout and Bannon is the 3d version. From that perspective, it makes sense that Trump wouldn’t want him around forever.

Here’s how Bannon outlined Trumpism before coming on board to lead the campaign to victory:

The elites in the country are comfortable with managing the decline, right?… And the working people in the country are not. They do want to make America great again. We’re going to simplify this campaign. She is the tribune of a corrupt and incompetent status quo of elites who are comfortable managing the decline. You are the tribune of the forgotten man who wants to make America great again, and we’re just going to do it in a couple of themes. Number one… we’re going to stop mass illegal immigration and start to limit legal immigration to get our sovereignty back. Number two, we are going to bring manufacturing jobs back to the country, and number three, we’re going to get out of these pointless foreign wars.

Fear by Bob Woodward

I disagree with all of that, but at least it’s comprehensible. And for the first time, the expression “make America great again” made sense to me. It’s not about restoring America’s place in the world or in the eyes of others, it’s a reaction to decades of America’s elites–with liberal academics as the point of this particular spear–deliberately attacking the myth of America and leaving nothing in its place. And yeah, America as a virtuous country is a myth, but it’s an important myth and (I would argue) one that is worth keeping in a conditional and aspirational sense. And maybe that’s what liberal academics intended, but that message got lost in translation and all everyday Americans heard was a constant, sneering repudiation of everything they loved. They’ve had enough. And now the pendulum is swinging too far the other direction.

My last thoughts are about the folks in the Trump administration who are actively working to thwart Trump’s plans, like the infamous anonymous staffer who wrote that NYT op-ed piece: I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.

I think they thought that America would be grateful for all they do, but the response has been pretty negative, with many accusing the resistance within the Trump administration of basically committing a soft-coup. It’s a tough decision. What do you do, allow Trump to do absolutely asinine and genuinely dangerous things like try to kill NATO or unilaterally end a trade deal with South Korea that is vital to our national security? Or actively undermine the democratic process by preventing the President from doing the very things that he campaigned and was elected to do, like pull out of free-trade deals? I don’t think there’s an easy answer. Some of what Trump wants to do is flat-out illegal. The Administration has a right and a responsibility to thwart that. But, on top of the coup-argument, I also feel like a lot of ignorant people in America voted for a President who shared their ignorance, and to the extent that we prevent Trump from getting us into ruinous trade wars we’re effectively enabling the people who voted for him to maintain their sense of grievance without paying the very real and very high cost for the idiotic policies they love so dearly. 

I’m conflicted, because I’m angry enough that it’s hard to separate arguments about democratic accountability from a desire to have people reap what they sow. Free trade deals like NAFTA and mutual defense pacts like NATO are a bedrock part of American and even global prosperity. I’d dearly, dearly like to see them preserved and–when it comes to the free-trade deals–expanded. We depend on immigrants to bring in fresh ideas and fresh patriotism and contribute to ensuring America stays true to its legacy as a country defined by ideas and principles and not by ethnicities or tribes. Being white should never be relevant to being an American. Supporting ideals like freedom should always be relevant. But if we’re going to have a large section of the American public repudiate things like free-trade and immigration and pluralism, then a part of me wants to see them get exactly what they’re asking for rather than be protected from the consequences of their actions. The electorate may have behaved like children, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated like children. That paternalism is probably counter-productive in the long-run, not to mention corrosive to the very idea of democracy. On the other hand, nuclear war…

At the end of the day, I don’t really see any good options and I don’t really see any good guys. Thwarting Trump is vital to national security, but also further strains the very legitimacy of our system of government. Trump and his most fervent supporters are a dysfunctional, amoral disaster and his harshest critics aren’t opposing him, they’re codependent with him. Welcome to America in the 21st century.

Hey, at least we had a good run.