Monday, July 24, 2017

The second ICBW podcast is now available for your  We discuss the latest Washington follies, and wonk out on medical care and "AI risk".  Part one can be found here, and part two here.  As always, readers are welcome to add to the discussion via comments on this post.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

David Brooks' latest column on class in America is typical of his keen social insight, but perhaps most interesting for what it tactfully omits, rather than what it actually says.  Most of the attention has focused on his discussion of the cultural signals that upper-middle-class Americans use to identify themselves--and thus, implicitly, to exclude everyone else--in both social and workplace contexts.  But the column actually begins with a look at how hard America's elite class works to pass its status on to its children, particularly by pouring enormous resources into education.

And that's where the tactful elision comes in.  Historically, aristocracies have always constructed elaborate systems of social signals to distinguish themselves from commoners, for a simple reason:  such signals are far easier to pass on to descendants reliably than the kinds of traits--intelligence, talent, discipline, diligence--that would allow those children to attain elite status based on merit alone.  Consider accent, for instance--long at the core of the British class system's social sorting process.  The most worthless wastrel can be taught a posh accent simply by being raised among others speaking in it, while only a few talented mimics are capable of overcoming a childhood steeped in lower-class argot.  Americans, as it happens, aren't nearly as attuned as the British to the subtleties of speech--most Americans can't pinpoint a countryman's place of birth more precisely than, say, "South" or "not South", let alone his social status, by listening to his accent.  So members of the American elite instead instill class markers in their children based on domains they're more deeply immersed in:  pop culture and politics.

Of course, America's upper-middle class thinks of itself as meritocratic--college-educated, industrious, talented and ambitious.  And that was largely true of the high achievers of the postwar and baby-boom generations, most of whom climbed the ladder of success on their own merits.  But much of today's upper-middle class is third- or fourth-generation, and regression to the mean is an awfully hard trend to combat, even with the best schools and neighborhoods.  And that's why this aristocracy, like the ones before it, is--as Brooks deftly observes--forced to fall back on cultural signals, rather than truly admirable traits, as its class markers.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

What nobody seems to have noticed about this past Friday night's bombshell about a Republican "opposition researcher" trying to obtain the contents of Hillary Clinton's private email server from Russian hackers, while claiming high-level connections in the Trump campaign, is its striking similarity to another recent story about the 2016 election:  that of the so-called "Steele memo".  Consider:
  • Both stories center on a middleman figure of questionable ethics who is nominally independent of a presidential campaign, but in practice clearly associated with it.
  • In both cases, that middleman, seeking to obtain damaging information about the opposing candidate, is happy to reach out to highly dubious sources--even at the cost of being manipulated by Russian intelligence agencies.  (This aspect of the Steele memo is rarely noted, presumably because it is widely assumed that the Russian government was entirely on Trump's side, and therefore uninterested in planting damaging information about him with Westerners.  Even if the first part of that assumption is true--and it's actually a matter of hot debate within the US intelligence community--the value to the Russians of demonstrating an ability to create and control a flow of damaging information about Trump in the event of a Trump victory should be completely obvious.)
  • In both cases, the effort foundered for lack of confirmable information, and yet took on a life of its own later on, with large segments of the press acting exactly as if the operation had in fact been a complete success, and a great deal of verifiable, damaging information obtained.
At this point, there's really no need to belabor the obvious point that the mainstream press has yet again demonstrated itself to be hopelessly partisan, adopting diametrically opposite interpretations of parallel fact patterns in a way that consistently favors the Democrats and harms Republicans.  A more interesting lesson, I think, is the extent to which partisans of both parties treat the rules around "opposition research" as a kind of kabuki theater, in which nominally independent surrogates for the parties handle the unsavory business of digging up dirt on opponents--sometimes by extremely disreputable means--while maintaining only just enough distance to satisfy legal and political obligations. 

In this sense, opposition research is similar to gerrymandering, large-donor fundraising, manipulation of ease or difficulty of voting, and many other seamy aspects of US politics:  partisanship in the US is so strong, and respect for democratic principles so weak, that "fair play" rules--such as the ones that impose limits and transparency on campaign expenditures--are uniformly treated as mere formalities to be circumvented by one's own side, and perhaps occasionally used as legal weapons with which to harass the other side.  Until those attitudes change--an unlikely prospect, given how deep-seated they are in the American body politic--American democracy will no doubt continue to be plagued with its current rampant levels of corruption and dysfunction.