Monday, February 28, 2011

Obama Refuses to Defend DOMA; Limbaugh Refuses to Acknowledge Reality

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the President's decision to stop defending the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Believe it or not, Rush Limbaugh was upset about this. And when he couldn't think of a proper justification for being upset, he decided to make shit up:
It's a law duly passed by the representatives of the people. It has not been challenged at the US Supreme Court. He does not have the authority to declare it unconstitutional. He does not have that power. He does not have the power to say, "I'm not gonna defend it anymore."
Actually, Limbaugh's half-right. He's right that Obama doesn't have the authority to declare DOMA unconstitutional, which might be why Obama didn't try to do that. What he did was declare that he believes DOMA to be unconstitutional—a conclusion that's legally binding on exactly no one.

But Limbaugh also says—and repeats several dozen times—that Obama doesn't have the power to stop defending the law, and I have no idea why he thinks that's the case. As explained in the press release itself, and in more detail here, it was established a long time ago that a President can refuse to defend a statute if he believes no reasonable argument can be made for its constitutionality.[1]
Essentially Barack Obama has said, "You know what? I'm the Supreme Court! We don't need one anymore. I don't like the Defense of Marriage Act. Neither does my attorney general. Neither do my gay supporters and contributors. So, you know what? We're not gonna defend it anymore. I don't care what the Supreme Court thinks. It doesn't matter. I have decided.
Limbaugh never quite echoes the misconception I've heard from so many others—that on top of refusing to defend DOMA, Obama is also refusing to enforce it—but he's implying it as hard as he can. Back in reality, however, DOMA remains in force, and Obama remains constitutionally bound to enforce it. Only two branches of the government can change that, and neither of them are his.
Barack Obama, ladies and gentlemen, took an oath—not that that means anything—but he took an oath to faithfully execute his duties. And what he's doing in this Defense of Marriage Act is abandoning the defense of the law which means there's no one left to defend it.
Making sure things sound as dire as possible, Limbaugh tells his listeners Obama has essentially destroyed any chance of DOMA being defended in court. Except, wait a minute, who says the Executive Branch has sole authority to defend federal statutes? Sure, traditionally it's been their responsibility, but that's not mandated by the Constitution or anything. And if the President won't defend DOMA, how about, say, the people who drafted, introduced, and voted for it in the first place? Why can't Congress step in?

Oh, it turns out they can. And probably will:
The House leadership likely will introduce a resolution early next week to intervene in the four lawsuits pending against the Defense of Marriage Act, better known as DOMA, the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman, conservative leaders say.
So, Rush is upset about pretty much nothing.[2] But at least you can't accuse him of not having any solutions of his own:
People's reaction is the lawlessness. The conservative reaction is, "This is brazenly lawless. Who cares what he has determined he's not gonna defend. It's lawless." There are any number of ways Obama could have done this. He could have, for example, assigned the most inept lawyers in the Justice Department to do these cases when they come up and lose every one of them. He could have done this in a way that nobody would have ever known it. He could have just made sure that this act never amounted to anything by making sure he always lost. In other words, throw the game when they go to court with this case in question.
This is where I start to wonder if I'm being duped. Is he serious with this? Rush adamantly characterizes Obama's actions as "lawlessness," and then endorses an alternative that, in terms of the myriad ethics rules governing lawyers, sounds a lot like actual lawlessness.

Anyway, Limbaugh's normally pretty good at shaping reality to fit his narrative without resorting to blatant falsities (how's that for a backhanded compliment!), but this time he couldn't quite pull it off. The result is a series of unsupportable assertions that still kind of sound true, as long as you avoid hearing any extrinsic details. At worst, it's the tactic of a person who doesn't respect his audience enough to expect to be called out for intellectual dishonesty. At best, it's the tactic of a person who just doesn't care.

1. That's the real question—can a reasonable argument be made that Section 3 of DOMA is constitutional? I'm inclined to say no, for two reasons. First, post-DOMA developments like Lawrence v. Texas have made its constitutionality even more suspect than it already was in 1996. And second, I made up my mind on gay marriage a long time ago and thus can't be trusted to answer the question objectively.
    Regardless, Limbaugh, like most conservative commentators, doesn't even try. I'm sure some are just ignorant of the established standard, but, in Limbaugh's case, I'd guess it's because he (a) can't think of a reasonable argument, and/or (b) doesn't want to bring it up, lest he undermine his premise that Obama is flagrantly overstepping presidential authority.
2. More from the Washington Times article:
At the same time, the administration may have done opponents of same-sex marriage a favor by allowing the House to substitute lawyers who have no conflict about defending the law. Conservatives have complained about the Justice Department's less-than-zealous legal defense.
In other words, it's probably more likely that DOMA will be upheld now that the Obama administration has bowed out. But that doesn't lessen the righteousness of conservatives' indignation, because they care more about the underlying principle of the thing (that is, Obama's perceived abuse of presidential authority) than one issue in particular, right?

Monday, February 21, 2011

On Biased Research and Enlightenment

Last spring, researchers published the results of a study in which 5,000 Americans were asked to choose one of five responses—strongly agree, somewhat agree, strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, or not sure—to the following statements:
  1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
  2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
  3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
  4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
  5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
  6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
  7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
  8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
Every "correct" answer was taken as a sign of "economic enlightenment," which, I'm sorry, is a ludicrous term, and I'm going to insist on using scare quotes. Even if we go along with the premise that each of these statements is either undeniably true or undeniably false, there's nothing especially enlightened about acing a multiple-choice quiz where three of the five possibilities—including, in all cases, "not sure"—are considered correct.[1]

The researchers were caught entirely by surprise, I'm sure, to find that respondents who claimed to be conservative or libertarian were more "enlightened" than those who claimed to be liberal or progressive, with moderates, as is their wont, landing somewhere in between. They also found no correlation between attending college and being "enlightened," for which four possible explanations are suggested:
  1. The liberal-dominated academic environment makes students "not only unreceptive to economic enlightenment, but actually unfriendly to it."
  2. The college experience generally shelters students from economic realities.
  3. The college admissions process, with its emphasis on abominable Marxist concepts like community service, is inherently biased in favor of liberals.
  4. The "enlightened" are less likely to go to college in the first place, possibly due to concerns about the factors above.
I have no major complaints with the theories (which isn't to say I agree or disagree, just that they do seem logically connected to the data). In fact, for a study clearly designed to reach a pre-determined, ideologically-driven outcome, the authors do a pretty good job of acknowledging the flaws. Among other caveats, right at the top they concede the "asymmetry in sometimes challenging leftist mentalities without ever specifically challenging conservative and libertarian mentalities."

Still, I'd like to posit a hypothesis of my own: People are disinclined to acknowledge the negative aspects of views they support, or the positive aspects of views they oppose.

I say this, in part, because if I had taken the quiz myself I would've gotten seven of eight "correct,"[2] making me more economically "enlightened" than even the average conservative or libertarian, and more than twice as "enlightened" as the average liberal or progressive. So, great for me, except that I don't know anything about economics. On the comprehensive list of my areas of expertise, economics ranks somewhere above particle physics and below Australian rules football, which I believe is played on a field shaped like an oval.

On the "rent control leads to housing shortages" question, for example, my thought process went something like this: "Rent control restricts natural market forces; natural market forces are generally good—therefore, rent control is bad. Housing shortages are also bad. Is the latter causally related to the former? I don't know, probably." And with that, I patiently await my letter from the Nobel Committee.


Everything above this line was written several months ago. The plan was to illustrate my point by creating a similar quiz where the "correct" answers favored liberal views, but I never got around to it. I should've known if I waited long enough someone would do it for me. Specifically, I'm thinking of that study I ranted about back in January—the one that found Fox News viewers to be "misinformed" by asking questions like this:
  • Is it your impression that economists believe the economic stimulus (a) caused job losses, (b) saved or created a few jobs, or (c) saved or created several million jobs?
  • Is it your impression that among economists who have estimated the effect of the health reform law on the federal budget deficit over the next ten years, (a) more think it will increase the deficit, (b) more think it will not increase the deficit, or (c) views are evenly divided?
  • Do you think that most scientists believe that (a) climate change is occurring, (b) climate change is not occurring, or (c) views are evenly divided?
Asking for the opinions of experts, rather than the respondents themselves, allowed the researchers to plausibly (but not indisputably) say that the questions have objective answers, but this study has exactly the same problem as the other one, with the ideologies reversed.

For both questionnaires, there are two groups of people likely to give the "correct" answers—those who actually know the answers, and those whose thought processes haven't evolved past "MY SIDE RIGHT, OTHER SIDE WRONG." When no attempt is made to distinguish one group from the other, the data probably won't tell us anything we don't already know, and it certainly won't support a conclusion that conservatives are in some way superior to liberals, or vice versa.

Being enlightened, or well-informed, or whatever you want to call it, and being a close-minded ideologue aren't the same thing—in fact, they're diametrically opposed. It really seems like that should go without saying, but apparently it doesn't.

1. That's not to disparage those who answered "not sure." In fact, I'd argue "not sure" is the only truly enlightened answer. In the translated words of Socrates:
And how is not this the most reprehensible ignorance, to think that one knows what one does not know?
2. The exception? Number six: "Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited." defines "exploit" as (1) to utilize, esp. for profit; (2) to use selfishly for one's own ends. How it can be said that overseas workers are not utilized as part of a larger scheme to generate profit, or that the managers of such a scheme are not motivated at least in part by their own selfish interests (providing for their family, buying a nicer car, funding an army to overthrow the local dictator, etc.), is beyond me. But I guess that's why I'm unenlightened.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Anatomy of an Overreaction

I started this blog, in part, because I have an almost superhuman tolerance for the wild ravings of those farthest-removed from reality, and it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the world if I kept that talent to myself. What I've noticed, though, is that the journey from reality to raving madperson [1] is rarely a simple jump from Point A to Point B. It's usually more complex—like a game of "telephone" that always escalates toward the same infuriating conclusion.

Allow me to break it down:

Phase 1: A thing happens.
(I'm tempted to leave it at that, but alright—I'll talk about an actual thing that actually happened.)

Let's say, in a country not unlike America, there's a powerless government agency charged with "improving young lives" and other vague feel-goodery. The agency, in an attempt to get some positive publicity and/or do some good for the world, gives a private group £35,000 (approximately 156,000 newtons) in exchange for a few ideas about how teachers can incorporate gay stuff into their lesson plans during LGBT History Month.[2]

Phase 2: A legitimate news organization picks up the story.
The report isn't wrong, per se, but it doesn't really promote an accurate understanding of the situation either. Sure, the key mitigating details are there:
The lesson plans, spread across the curriculum, will be offered to all schools, which can choose whether or not to make use of them.
But first you have to get past the exciting, misleading details (including, in this case, the headline):
'Gay lessons' in maths, geography and science
Children are to be taught about homosexuality in maths, geography and science lessons as part of a Government-backed drive to "celebrate the gay community".
Note the use of phrases like "Children are to be taught" and "Government-backed drive." And note the quotation marks around "Gay lessons" and "celebrate the gay community," neither of which are actual quotes from the article. Clearly the idea is to maximize the story's potential scariness (or, conversely, it's awesomeness, but I'm pretty sure The Telegraph is going for scariness). The truth—that schools aren't being forced to do anything they don't want to do, and that nobody's trying to replace basic math instruction with how-to-be-gay tutorials—is in there somewhere, but it's secondary to the sensationalism.

Phase 3: The story reaches the Internet, talk radio, or some other outlet for hyper-partisan commentary.
Imagine you write for a popular politically-oriented blog. You're working on a post about something you read about in, say, a 28-paragraph newspaper article, and, out of respect for the Fair Use doctrine, you want to keep the copying-and-pasting to a minimum. Do you go with (a) the set of excerpts that best conveys what actually happened, or (b) the set of excerpts most likely to reinforce your readers' pre-existing beliefs? And when you add your own commentary, do you (a) acknowledge any aspects of the story that don't support your point, or (b) give an indifferent shrug and press on with your one-sided narrative?

If you're a reasonable human being, you probably answered (a) to at least one of those questions—preferably both. If you answered (b) to both questions, you could probably work for Right Wing News:
The totalitarian moonbattery that holds sway in British public schools has taken the final plunge into absurdity with a curriculum that features gay math, geography, and science. No matter what the subject, kids will be taught to revere the depraved and disease-spreading homosexual lifestyle.
We've lost all references to the fact that the lesson plans are voluntary, and we've gained an apparently-so-obvious-it-goes-without-saying presumption that the consequences will be horrifying. It's a combination designed to inspire exactly one type of reaction:

Phase 4: Outrage![3]
Well they won't be able to read, write or perform basic mathematics, but at least they'll look Fabulous while they're slaving away for their new Chinese overlords.
It never ceases to amaze me how such a tiny and insignificant portion of the population can have such a huge influence.
No suprises here. The looney left has always want to set the feet of the young on the wrong path as early as possible. That is why they are trying to impose nonsense on those yet too young to understand.
These are people who, when I started this project, I probably would've written off as close-minded lunatics.[4] Now…I still write them off as close-minded lunatics, but at least I have a better sense of how their worldview came to be so warped in the first place.

1. A family member recently said he likes to use male-specific terms in gender-neutral contexts because it irritates people who consider it "un-PC," and I realized I do the same thing, but in reverse—I like to go out of my way to use gender-neutral terms because it irritates people who consider it "too PC." I don't know where I'm going with that, but it seems like there's a lesson in there somewhere.
2. Fun fact(s): In the United States, February is Black History Month and October is LGBT History Month, while in the United Kingdom, February is LGBT History Month and October is Black History Month. Haha! What else is backwards over there? Do they drive on driveways and park on parkways?
    Anyway, whether I think the government-funded lesson plans are a good idea is irrelevant, but, for the record, it's a wash. As a libertarian, I can't really get behind public spending that's so clearly non-essential. At the same time, when a government has dozens of agencies that exist for the sole purpose of doing stuff, getting upset every time one of them does stuff is a pretty surefire way to drive yourself crazy. Also, I like the cause.
3. To be fair, some of the comments are a lot better:
Indeed, a month-long and entirely voluntary list of suggestions of curriculum revisions proposed by a group who was hired to develop the month-long and entirely voluntary list of curriculum revisions is a sign of a totalitarian faggot state or whatever it is you're afraid of. I mean, did you even read the article.
Van Helsing strikes me…as a deeply paranoid nut who deliberately seeks out information that he can insert into his frankly terrifying image of the world as it stands. Kind of like that guy who always has new evidence the president is an alien lizard.
Don't know who the moonbat is here, but [Right Wing News] should really consider pulling this diary off the site. It's intellectually embarrassing.
4. Why isn't Van Helsing, the writer of the article (and the lunatic responsible for Moonbattery), lumped in with the Phase 4 lunatics? Because he's a professional lunatic, which makes him a lot less crazy than the lunatics who do it for free.

Friday, February 4, 2011

An Elaborate Ruse

When is a call for civility not really a call for civility? When it's actually an elaborate ruse intended to manipulate millions of decent, hard-working Americans. This is according to someone (or something) known as The Right Scoop, who, in a recent article for Hot Air, filled in the details:
The civility narrative that grew legs after the shooting in Arizona is really just a ruse to keep Republicans from calling Democrats what America knows they are – Socialists.

What is really at work here is the Left trying to control the speech of a small group of impressionable people – Republicans.[1] They could care less about how civil the nation is but if they can keep the Republicans from name calling, they end up looking better than they would if Republicans constantly reminded America of their socialist agenda.
Ok, first of all, the call for civility is not a ruse—nor is it a scam, a ploy, or any variety of shuck-and-jive. If there's anything unsavory going on, it's that the call for civility is somewhat undermined by the unfounded belief among those making the call that they don't need to listen, because they're civil enough already. That's about as bad as it gets.

But I'm more interested in the "Democrats don't want us to know they're socialists" stuff, because I've been hearing a lot of that lately. I won't waste time on the question of how, exactly, Obama and the rest of the Democrats are socialists. That's easy—they support things like federal spending to build up the infrastructure, mandatory health insurance, and a progressive tax rate. Clearly, they've taken a few pages from notorious socialists Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush.

Oh, right, those three aren't notorious socialists—they're notorious Republicans.[2]

In other words, it doesn't quite compute. If the essence of socialism is that the government has the power to interfere with commerce and tell people what to do, then of course the Democrats are socialists, and so are the Republicans, just to a lesser degree (in theory, if not in practice).

There's nothing earth-shattering about that observation. I'm not the first to make it, and I doubt anyone this side of Sean Hannity would be obstinate enough to disagree. But somehow we've reached the point where, to conservatives, socialist is synonymous with "Democrat," and to liberals, socialist is synomymous with "there go the conservatives again, calling the Democrats a bunch of socialists." How did that happen? Why does the S-word make us think of Democrats, but not Republicans?[3]

As usual, I don't have the answer, but I re-read the article quoted above and noticed something interesting. If the idea of an elaborate ruse intended to distract from the truth seems absurd, it's probably because the theoretical ruse in question requires Democrats to be (a) willing to shamelessly and intentionally exploit a tragedy for political gain, and (b) organized. I won't speculate on which of those is less likely, but I wouldn't bet heavily on either.

But look at what happens when I go through the same excerpts, and, without altering the original structure, change a few key phrases:
The Democrats-are-socialists narrative that grew legs after the election of Obama is really just a ruse to keep people from calling Republicans what America knows they are – also socialists.

What is really at work here is the Right trying to dictate the public's perception of a small group of impressionable people – Democrats. They could care less about how big the government is but if they can keep the "socialist" label squarely on the Democrats, they end up looking better than they would if Americans were constantly reminded of their own socialist agenda too.
It's still the kind of wild conspiracy theory I prefer to avoid, but doesn't my version seem a lot more plausible?

1. Because if there's one thing we know about Republicans, it's that they have weak convictions. I guess that's why they just go along with whatever the Democrats say, without even bothering to put up a fight.
2. That's notorious in the neutral sense (i.e. widely known), not in the negative sense (i.e. widely despised). Except for Nixon.
3. Well, when I put it like that, it probably just makes us think of Sean Connery.