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Peak Collins

[ 18 ] March 8, 2012 |

Shorter Verbatim Gail Collins: “I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but Mitt Romney once drove to Canada with the family Irish setter on the roof of the car.”

And, yes, this is intended to be some nice self-lacerating wit, except that this precedes an entire column trying and inevitably failing to justify her consuming interest in this bit of trivia.


Tonight at the Non-Sequitur Theater: Mr. David Brooks!

[ 19 ] February 7, 2012 |

Shorter Bobo: I find the “technocrats” in the Obama administration demoralizing because they don’t understand the core of any successful anti-poverty formula: unplanned pregnancies, and plenty of ’em. And don’t kid yourself, there’s no way we can address poverty if Roman Catholic institutions employing civilians to perform secular work can’t engage in empty moralizing about contraception that hasn’t persuaded anybody since the Eisenhower administration. The causal logic may not seem obvious, but that’s because you’re some technocrat who doesn’t spend enough time at the Applebee’s salad bar.

Douthat and Public Opinion on Abortion

[ 33 ] February 7, 2012 |

As you might expect, Ross Douthat is unhappy about the backlash against the Komen Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Much of his argument consists of assertions of media bias that are difficult to respond to, since he cites no examples (let alone systematic evidence.) As Sarah Kilff notes, there’s no reason to believe it was true in this specific case. And while it’s plausible to assume that the typical journalist is more socially liberal (as well as more economically conservative) than meidan public opinion in general, I would argue that this is actually less true with respect to abortion than with other kinds of social issues. Punditry dismissing the importance of Roe v. Wade and reproductive rights, in particular, is so common as to be banal.

In addition to this argument about media bias, Douthat also cites public opinion data sowing about abortion, focusing in particular on “as many Americans described themselves as pro-life as called themselves pro-choice” and that a “combined 58 percent of Americans stated that abortion should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” John Sides objects to Douthat’s cherry-picking:

As I’ve argued before, one cannot divide the public into “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps based on the kinds of survey questions he cites. These questions fail to capture the true complexity and the ambivalence in most Americans’ attitudes toward abortion. Most Americans approve of abortion in certain cases and oppose it in others. Juxtapose, for example, abortion in the case of rape with abortion for the purpose of sex selection. At best, a small minority—perhaps 20% but likely smaller—would approve of or oppose abortion in every case.

While I agree that Douthat’s use of public opinion is tendentious, I think the problems are different and worse than the ones that John cites. The most obvious problem, if you click through to the poll Douthat is discussing, Douthat first combines two categories to create what looks like an anti-choice majority, adding the 20% who want abortion banned to the larger number who believe that abortion should only be legal under “a few circumstances.” Since these “circumstances” aren’t specified and presumably mean many different things to different people, to combine the two numbers is fundamentally misleading.

This brings us to a larger problem with this kind of conflation, which advances the interests of the minority who want abortion to be criminalized. I agree with John that many people have an intuitive sense that abortion should be legal for the “right reasons” but not for the “wrong reasons,” which is reflected in the public opinion data that shows a great deal of support for abortion only being legal in certain unspecified circumstances. The problem is that these distinctions are completely irrelevant to public policy. There’s no way of crafting abortion laws that only makes abortions women obtain for certain reasons illegal. “Centrist” abortion regulations such as waiting periods or requiring the approval of panels of doctors don’t ensure that women will get abortion for the “right reasons”; they just produce contexts in which affluent women can obtain abortions for any reason and poor women — especially those outside major urban centers — find it difficult or impossible to obtain abortions for any reason.

I don’t think “women should only be able to obtain abortions if Ross Douthat approves of their reasons for doing so” is a normatively attractive basis for abortion policy either, but whatever one thinks of the argument it’s irrelevant to making abortion policy. The public may strongly oppose abortion for sex selection, but since there’s no way of specifically targeting such abortions with an enforceable law it’s neither here not there. Getting these kinds of selective moral judgments mixed up with abortion policy confuses matters in ways that work to the benefit supporters of abortion criminalization. A fair fight between the actual policy alternatives would strongly favor pro-choicers, as the public’s overwhelming support for Roe v. Wade reflects.

What is the Worst Thing Published in a Major National Newspaper Today?

[ 52 ] January 29, 2012 |

Fred Hiatt brings us a strong opening bid:

It also could have been possible that Witt wanted to preempt the inevitable investigation and humiliation. Whether the charge of “sexual assault,” whatever that is, was ever true is irrelevant to the immediate and substantively unfounded assault on Witt’s character.


Who knows what “assault” even means as used in this case? The definition of assault can range from “unwanted sexual advance” to rape as most understand it. As long as we’re making inferences based on anonymous allegations, an inquisition by any other name, we might just as readily conclude that this was no rape. The accuser first reported whatever happened to the university’s Politburo-sounding “Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center,” then later filed an informal complaint with the “University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.” Why not just call it “The Torquemada Institute”?

A strong entry! Not easy for the Times to compete with! But not impossible — you can always get Caitlin Flanagan on the horn:

Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away. Both history and myth are filled with stories of girls exhibiting bizarre symptoms around the time of puberty — from Cassandra and her raving, to the girls of the Salem witch trials, to the girls whose households were believed to be the site of poltergeist hauntings, to cheerleaders in New York and North Carolina. Pubescent girls, it seems, are manifestly more likely to exhibit extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms than are teenage boys.

Yes, this article was written in 2012 and is complaining about apocryphal uses of the word “womyn” (although, alas, no apocryphal tales of bra-burning.) And, yes, it may be even worse than this might suggest.

Are We Still Calling This Con “Sam’s Club Conservatism?”

[ 29 ] January 4, 2012 |

David Brooks has an argument that the co-winner of yesterday’s caucuses is a different type of conservatism. Unlike that upper-class swell Mitt Romney, you see, Santorum offers a frothy agenda directed towards the white working class. He cares about poverty, really! This may seem like an odd argument to make about a candidate who compares Medicaid and food stamps to fascism, and indeed it is. I would refute it, only that Brooks conveniently refutes it himself:

He is not a representative of the corporate or financial wing of the party. Santorum certainly wants to reduce government spending (faster even than Representative Paul Ryan). He certainly wants tax reform. But he goes out of his way in his speeches to pick fights with the “supply-siders.” He scorns the Wall Street bailouts. His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities.

So Santorum is even more reactionary on economic issues than Paul ‘throw grandma from the train” Ryan, wanting to do even more to shred America’s already threadbare safety net. When you hear a Republican use the “tax reform” euphemism you know they’re talking about massive upper-class tax cuts (very partially) funded by spending cuts piled on the working class, and this is indeed exactly what Santorum supports. So how on earth can Brooks argue that Santorum is the representative of the working class? Well, while your ordinary Chamber of Commerce type might be inclined to leave the sex lives of his impoverished and servile workers alone, Santorum wants the government less involved in the social welfare business but much more involved in the imposing reactionary cultural values business.    Oh.

As Ed Kilgore says, the idea that Santorum is too much of a bleeding heart might be the excuse that GOP elites use as they act to suppress his candidacy, but substantively it’s a massive fraud. It’s the old Michael Gerson routine — dressing up bog-standard supply-side Republican economics with alleged concern about the poor. Alas, empty rhetoric won’t put food on anyone’s table or pay their medical bills.

Someone Got Bad Lettuce at the Applebee’s Salad Bar

[ 27 ] December 29, 2011 |

Shorter Bobo: “There are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. Also, too much premarital sex. I am not a crackpot.”

The Third Force!

[ 30 ] November 22, 2011 |

It’s an appropriately dopey punchline to a Bobo column that actually argues that the Republican and “Democrat”* parties are equally monolithic. The guy makes a healthy salary to discuss politics and he’s apparently never heard of Ben Nelson…

*Yup, Bobo is now reduced to using the Bad Grammar of Ressentiment as dictated by the Fox News style guide. Sad.

You Know You’re Near the Top of the List, Right?

[ 37 ] November 2, 2011 |

Tom Friedman has a column about the folly of open-ended military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At least its bottom line, it must be noted, is correct.   Omitted: and recognition of the columnist’s inability to grasp these facts when it actually mattered.

And Don’t Kid Yourself, Financial Stability Has Nothing to Do With Health or Marital Stability

[ 11 ] November 1, 2011 |

Shorter Bobo: “‘Stagnant social mobility’ and the concentration of wealth within a self-perpetuating plutocracy are completely separate problems.  And people without college degrees would magically become more prosperous if they had sex in ways I considered appropriate.”

…poor Bobo has his argument assessed by people who know what they’re talking about.

Leave Robert Bork Alllooooooonnnnnne!

[ 93 ] October 22, 2011 |

You know how Tom Freidman or Matt Miller submits the same column about how we need a “radical centrist” pain caucus third party daddy to save us about twice a month?   Not to be outdone, Joe Nocera is approximately the eight millionth pundit to write the same lazy column about how accurately describing Robert Bork’s views is the most uncivil thing in politics that there absolutely ever was.  That he did it on the same week that Bork reminded us for the umpteenth time that he is not, in fact, the reasonable moderate conservative of Nocera’s fantasies makes it extra special.

I’ll have a longer piece about the “Borking” nonsense later this week, but a couple side points.   First, this bit was particularly infuriating: “Whatever you think of these views, they cannot be fairly characterized as extreme; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, among many others, has questioned the rationale offered by the court to justify Roe v. Wade.”    Yes, Ginsburg thought that Roe should have rested on gender equality rather than due process grounds; Bork thought that Roe (and indeed the entire concept of an implied right to privacy) was as bad or worse than Dred Scott.   So, basically, they agreed!

As for the idea that Bork’s principled belief in “judicial restraint” and “originalism” would have “made him a restraining force,” well, if you haven’t spotted the sucker in the first half hour you are the sucker.  But it does remind me that Bruce Ackerman’s classic critique of The Tempting of America is now online.   The whole thing is must-reading if you’re interested in the Bork myth. But a couple relevant excerpts:

For starters, this book fails to cite, much less discuss, the contribution of any seminal twentieth-century interpretation of the Founding or Reconstruction. Bork’s ignorance of the secondary literature is ecumenical-he fails to cite historians who might support him just as he fails to confront those who make his confident judgments seem problematic. Perhaps this ignorance might be forgiven the heroic autodidact, who immerses himself in the original sources without distorting his vision by consulting conventional
authorities. But Robert Bork is no Hugo Black, communing with the Founders during long nights at the Library of Congress. His rare references to the original sources are restricted to old chestnuts served up by the academic theorists he condemns for their ahistorical methods. He gives no indication, for example, that he has pondered the differences between James Madison’s performance at the Virginia Ratifying Convention and James Wilson’s at Pennsylvania’s; or that he has thoughtfully considered the relationship of Charles Sumner’s Senate speeches to Northern opinion during the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Indeed, he manages to write a 400-page book in praise of the Framers without ever finding it necessary to cite the standard edition of Madison’s Convention Notes or a single page from the Congressional Globe containing the debates of the Reconstruction Congresses.


The puzzle here is why Bork should find the text [of the Ninth Amendment] “enigmatic.” It seems, almost preternaturally, to be written with him in mind. What Bork is up to is precisely to use “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights” to “disparage” the idea that there are other constitutional rights of fundamental importance. I especially admire the Framers’ choice of the word “disparage.” I can think of no better word to describe Bork’s general tone.

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Bobo Wants Protestors Who Are Half Joe Camel and a Third Fonzarelli

[ 64 ] October 12, 2011 |

Jamelle has dealt with Bobo’s hilarious attempt to get in on Friedman’s radical centrist racket, but there’s a bit I can’t help but quote.     As Jamelle says, Brooks is contemptuous about the Occupy Wall Street supporters because they’re not radical — why, they don’t even seem to embrace Brezhnevomics.   They abjure new paradigms, have thrown boldness under the bus, and they’re certainly not thinking outside of my box.   We need a game-changer.  On steroids!   So who is the great sage Bobo would have us turn our lonely eyes towards?

Look, for example, at a piece Matt Miller wrote for The Washington Post called “The Third Party Stump Speech We Need.” Miller is a former McKinsey consultant and Clinton staffer. But his ideas are much bigger than anything you hear from the protesters: slash corporate taxes and raise energy taxes, aggressively use market forces and public provisions to bring down health care costs; raise capital requirements for banks; require national service; balance the budget by 2018.

Now that’s bold, new thinking — a bunch of reheated center-right mush featured seven days a week on Fred Hiatt’s crayon scribble page, married to third party dreaming that betrays a remarkable ignorance about how American political institutions function. Now that’s big!

Bobo’s Reactionary Mind

[ 116 ] September 28, 2011 |

Yesterday LGM’s palatial capital region offices received their copy of Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.   If I understand correctly, one of the book’s main arguments is that attempts to distinguish between a good, reasonable Burkean conservatism and a nasty Randite/Calhounite/Reaganite variety don’t really fly.

I thought of this when I read this emission from moderate, reasonable, thinking man’s conservative David Brooks, which I think might actually be worse than his m,r, t-m c colleague’s embarrassing death penalty argument.   First of all, it gives me the chance to give another plug to Taylor Branch’s must-read article about the NCAA cartel, about which I’ll have more.    Brooks doesn’t dispute any of Branch’s claims, and doesn’t make anything that could properly be called an argument, but does engage in some feeble handwaving in favor of the transparently indefensible status quo:

The other is moral and cultural. A competitive society requires a set of social institutions that restrain naked self-interest and shortsighted greed. The amateur ideal, though faded and worn, still imposes some restraints. It forces athletes, seduced by Michael Jordan fantasies, to at least think of themselves partially as students. It forces coaches, an obsessively competitive group, to pay homage to academic pursuits. College basketball is more thrilling than pro basketball because the game is still animated by amateur passions, not coldly calculating professional interests.

The commercial spirit is strong these days. But people seem to do best when they have to wrestle between commercial interests and value systems that counteract them. The lingering vestiges of the amateur ideal are worth preserving.

What disappears entirely here is that Brooks is defending a system of rank exploitation and illegitimate privilege. Leaving aside the fact that Brook’s judgements about the superiority of college sports as spectator sports are highly contestable, the idea that athletes largely from poor backgrounds shouldn’t be compensated to enhance a very wealthy white guy’s trivial aesthetic pleasures is appalling. And let’s leave aside the question of salaries and the potential practical problems. What we should focus on initially is that college athletes are subject to uniquely harsh and restrictive burdens that prevents them from sharing in the great wealth they create. I have yet to hear a remotely decent defense for the proposition that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to profit from, say, apparel companies that sell jerseys with their numbers. We don’t stop music students from taking paid gigs or journalism students from selling articles. At any rate, big time college sports are already saturated by “self-interest and shortsighted greed”; the only question is who benefits. There’s just no rational defense for a system in which coaches of no particular distinction are grossly overpaid in an uncompetitive market, while players are denied even ancillary benefits from the money they generate.

And what’s particularly striking about this argument is that while reactionaries typically defend illegitimate privilege by invoking “virtue” or  something else that sounds kind of worth preserving, it’s not even clear what inherent value “amateurism” is supposed to have. God knows Brooks doesn’t write or speak for free, so I have no idea what it means to associate amateurism with “morality.”  “Amateurism” is virtually nothing but a flimsy cover for hypocrisy and corruption. When I think amateurism, I don’t of anything noble. I think of, say, “amateur” Olympic hockey tournaments featuring players from the Soviet bloc who were paid full-time to play hockey.  And to the extent that there are things of actual value at stake here, “amateurism” is beside the point. Nobody’s saying that you can’t require NCAA players to meet admissions standards or maintain academic standing; preventing them from hiring agents or getting properly paid for goods sold with their images has nothing to do with this whatsoever. (If the idea is that if players get any kind of compensation the rules will be unenforceable, as Branch’s article makes clear that ship sailed a long time ago.) Invoking “amateurism” is just avoiding an argument, defending a system of rank systematic exploitation that has no rational defense. And, most importantly, invoking this non-principle has no chance of harming the interests of David Brooks, just people of far less wealth and privilege.  What’s not to like?   That’s the reactionary mind in a nutshell: moral restraints are for other people, and they’ll take the naked self-interest and shortsighted greed, thank you very much.

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