Further Meditations on the Objective Meaning of Green Twitter Avatars

Some people were really ticked off by my Twitter avatar post, and I can see why. I guess it’s bad enough to accuse people of empty moral posturing. It’s another thing to accuse people of empty moral posturing that helps the people who worked like crazy to start an unjustified war in Iraq. So let me say that I completely understand the impulse to express solidarity with Iranians who seek freedom. I feel it very strongly myself, but I also don’t trust it. Why not?

Because I realize that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t understand Iranian politics very deeply. I will now proceed to make some mistakes that prove this. For example, I did not know until this episode that Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran for many years under Khomeni, which pretty much guarantees he’s no angel. I did not understand anything about the internal divisions within the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts. Indeed, I still don’t completely grasp how these various bodies are related to each other. What I gather is that that Khameni and Ahmadinejad are aligned against former Prime Minister Mousavi and former President Rafsanjani (who is now the head of the Assemby of Experts, the body that chooses the Supreme Leader. Thank you Wikipedia). I don’t really grasp whether Mousavi and Rafsanjani are in it together, or are in a “the enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine” sort of thing, or what. As far as I can tell, the ruling axis got worried A’jad might lose the election, botched the vote-rigging, but validated the result anyway. I don’t know who would have won had the vote been counted (I think this remains quite unclear), but in any case, it seems clear enough that Ahmadinejad is staying in power despite a pretty transparent flouting of the rules of an already deeply anti-democratic constitution. This provided a great opportunity for the anti-Khameni/Ahmadinejad faction to encourage a popular uprising, which I am sure is fueled by real discontent with the current regime. And much of this discontent I am sure is surely rooted in an authentic desire for a more liberal and democratic Iran.

Is that what we get if the Mousavi-Rafsanjani axis comes to power? A more liberal and democratic Iran? I honestly don’t know, and I don’t think many people do. I do know that these guys are deeply embedded in the larger status quo power structure, have had power before, and their records don’t look so good. They may well represent improvement, but I don’t honestly know that. As far as I know, the outpouring of desire for change that we see so clearly on YouTube is being exploited by one faction of the Iranian ruling class to depose another. I’d like to see the whole theocratic structure of Iran fall. I’d like to see the whole country radically liberalize, but I think that’s unlikely, largely because I doubt very much that that’s what most Iranians want. I want Iran to be free, and I want Iranians to want to be free. And I’m quite willing to cheer for freedom. Go freedom! But given my ignorance of exactly what and who I’d really be cheering on should I alter my Twitter avatar to reflect the campaign color of the former PM of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think the intellectually and morally responsible course of action is to watch with colorless hope.

I am, however, quite confident that the powerful faction within American politics that argued for and got a war in Iraq has been arguing for a much harder line against Iran in order to set up a familiar dynamic of sanctions, UN Security Council demands, and so on. Just read the Weekly Standard blog.  Dick Cheney’s authorized biographer Stephen Hayes is certainly not trying to avoid a future conflict when he writes:

The reason to talk about consequences [i.e., what the U.S. will do if this or that happens in Iran] is, at least in part, because it offers an opportunity to influence how this is going to play out. It may be the case that there are few potential consequences from the international community that could affect regime behavior. But if that’s the case — and given the regime’s support for terror, its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, its theft of the election, and its violent suppression of the protests — doesn’t that make it more urgent for the international community to at least try to affect behavior and at least raise the possibility that there will come a time when the world refuses to recognize the current regime?

People are accusing other people of naïveté all over the place, so I’ll try not to. But let me say I think it is rather unwise to underestimate the strategic savvy of the opinonmakers at the Weekly Standard and Fox News. It is not “paranoid” to think they are in fact talented at shaping American popular opinion and then bringing it to bear to achieve their political aims. The correct description of the events in Iran continues to elude me. Perhaps I have been ideologically blinded to the obvious. All I can say is that given what little I know, it is not obvious. But it is quite clear to me that the story of a people yearning for freedom and rising up to demand their rights as citizens who are then crushed by an evil authoritarian regime that will do anything to achieve its evil ends… it’s clear to me that this story is useful to a certain faction in the ongoing debates about U.S. policy toward Iran. It may be that this story is the true story. But I don’t honestly know that it is, so I think it is prudent not to assume it is–especially given the fact that this narrative does play into the hands of the most dangerous people in American public life.

Things really are lining up rather nicely for the neocons, and I don’t think it’s crazy to be wary of helping them, especially when doing nothing but explaining why you’re doing nothing really can’t hurt. If Mousavi turns out to be the Iranian Gorbechev, I’ll be delighted. But then we’ll hear how the reverse domino theory has been vindicated, how George W. Bush is a world-historical champion of freedom, and how we should not in the future be so hesitant to knock down dominoes. If the protests are crushed, it proves how rotten and dangerous the regime is, making it all the more urgent that the “international community” intervene to make sure the evil mullahs don’t nuke Israel. If it turns out the new boss is same as the old boss, we’ll hear a lot about Iran’s instability, and the danger of nukes in that kind a tinderbox. Etc. So, yes. I am on my guard.

Anyway, I really did disparage people’s motives in my first post, and I don’t really think all Livestrong bracelets, pink ribbons, yellow ribbons, purple ribbons, blue ribbons, and green Twitter avatars are cheap, empty signaling. If you’re really sincerely just excited to do some small thing to stand with people risking life and limb for their freedom, I apologize. But I do ask you to reflect on what you do and don’t really know, and to consider what narrative benefits whom.

Meanwhile, IOZ interviews The Revolution.

Signaling and Solidarity

So folks on Twitter have been turning their avatars (little profile photos) green to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran. There are websites to help you do this. But why do this? How does it help? I want the Iranian people to live in freedom, just as I want all people to live in freedom. But the point of the gesture eludes me, unless the point of the gesture is to be seen making the gesture by others who will credit you for it. Like so many political gestures, it is vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness. It doesn’t help. Is it harmless? Unlike the stupidly grandstanding House resolution, the ruling regime probably won’t be pointing to verdant Twitter avatars as evidence that the uprising is an American plot. So I wouldn’t worry about that. Here’s what I do worry about. When people feel pressure to signal, and it’s free, they’ll signal. But sending the signal creates a small emotional investment in the overt message of the signal — solidarity with opponents of the ruling Iranian regime. As every salesman knows, getting someone to make a big, costly commitment is best achieved by getting them to first make a tiny, costless commitment. The tiny, costless commitment of turning Twitter avatars green is thin edge of the persuasive edge for the neocons who would like to sell the public a war in Iran. Since I would rather not be Bill Kristol’s useful idiot, I will conspicuously leave my avatar as is, and continue hoping for the best.

The Bailouts are Like Paying Off Molested Children

Since I found it all interesting, I thought I’d just reproduce all of Will Ambrosini’s post about my last post here:

I’m actually with Will Wilkinson when he talks up “liberaltarianism” and I support a reasonable social safety net. I’m one of those people that thinks rising GDP indicates increasing interdependence, that that is a good thing and that self-sufficiency is the road to poverty. Today Wilkinson suggests a reason why liberaltarianism might be a non-starter:

[I]t’s easiest to get people to face up to tax increases if they don’t have the sense that they’re paying more just so the special interests of the winning coalition can get more.

Isn’t the conditional phrase an empirical fact about governments?

This reminds me of my dad and the Church. Even after all us kids grew up and he stopped going to church, he gave money to them every week. The Church does a lot of good things for people — disaster relief, poor assistance, etc — but a couple years ago my dad stopped giving. His primary reason: he thought his money was primary going to paying off molested children; it wasn’t going to help poor people. He didn’t want to subsidize corruption.

I don’t want to subsidize corruption either.

I think Will is just agreeing with me. I take it that the empirical fact about governments is this: when taxes go up, transfers to the special interests of the winning coalition go up. I think that’s probably a decent empirical generalization. But I don’t think most voters do. Now, if the increase in transfers is generally equal to the increase in revenues, then budgets balance only when revenues are underestimated. I’m not so sure that‘s true. And pretty sure most voters assume it isn’t.

What I was trying to say is precisely what Will is getting at: that willingness to contribute reflects a sense that the contribution is going to something worthwhile. Tax increases coupled with large spending cuts creates the sense that there is a good faith effort to balance the budget, which the tax increase is one part of.

As a matter of fact, I think the various bailouts have created a large problem for Democrats in generating public support for tax increases. Ideologues on the left enjoyed depicting the various Tea Parties as a ridiculous efflorescence of dimwitted rightwing ideology, and it was partly that. But it was also partly a real reaction to transparent distributive injustice. You can say that some of the bailouts were necessary to keep the whole system going. That may be true, but that doesn’t make it fair. (Maybe it was the best thing for the church to pay off molested children, but that doesn’t mean Will’s dad wants to pay for it.) That sense of unfairness, which is by no means limited to Limbaugh-loving Tea Partiers, together with the sting of the recession (even after it’s over), together with the typical American aversion to taxes increases that Obama has constantly catered to, is going to make tax increases on the middle class an incredibly hard sell even if there are also large cuts in spending, which there won’t be.

Regulating Pundits

Joshua Green writes:

[P]undits are a plague on us all. It is time we acted.

The crowning indignity, of course, is that they’re usually wrong. Not just off-by-a-few-degrees wrong, but invading-Iraq-is-a-good-idea wrong. “Dow 36,000” wrong. And what are the consequences? There are none at all! You can blow the biggest questions of the day, time after time, and still claim to be a discerning seer.

Well, there ought to be consequences. It’s not as if blogs and propaganda outlets don’t keep trackof this stuff. In Washington, regulation is back in fashion. If we can regulate tricky things like credit-default swaps, surely we can regulate pundits.

That pesky First Amendment prevents us from silencing them outright. But couldn’t the more reputable media outlets reach a gentleman’s agreement to stop inviting commentary from the very worst offenders, at least for a respectable interlude? Pundits should have to explain their bad calls (and grovel?) as a condition of return.

It’s always amazed me that entire foundations seem to exist solely for the purpose of dispatching hordes of green-eyeshaded technicians to pore over transcripts and news clippings in a civic-minded effort to detect “bias” in media coverage. Who cares? Why not measure quality—or the lack thereof—instead? That would be useful information.

Regulating pundits needn’t be the province of dull nonprofits and media scolds. It could be fun! What would be more satisfying than a Daily Show segment that routinely held the worst offenders up for public ridicule? Let’s keep a list of them online—a surefire traffic-generator if ever there was one. Some reputable publication with a track record more often right than wrong could serve as sponsor and steward.

Hmm. Green seems to recognize that we do this already but allows the reason it doesn’t work as he would like to slip under his nose.

There is a huge amount of energy devoted to tearing down the credibility of pundits of all stripes. There is Sourcewatch. There is Discover the Network. One of the main activities of pundits is attempting to shame and marginalize opposing pundits. And it’s not as if the editors and producers of “more reputable media outlets” (which one’s are those!?) don’t apply a discerning filter. The problem is that the motivation to “regulate” stray pundits is primarily ideological. And ideology is precisely why there is so little agreement about whether a particular pundit is right or wrong, whether a media outlet is reputable or disreputable.

The Dow 36,000 example is easy, since it’s so easy to determine with certainty that it did not come to pass. But almost nothing is like this. So, to take Green’s other example, I have always thought it was wrong to invade Iraq, but I don’t feel like I know yet whether it was a “good idea” in a more compehensive historical sense. Maybe we’re seeing the domino theory in action right now in Iran. Or not. The thing is nobody really knows. I don’t feel like I know that America’s entry into World War II was a good idea. For all I know, Germany would have otherwise walloped the Soviets and the rest of the century might have turned out better than it did. But if you say that you don’t know for sure that America’s entry into World War II was not a good idea, people will start to regulate you right away. (Ask Jim Cramer’s regulator, Jon Stewart, who was sternly regulated for suggesting, quite reasonably, that Truman was a war criminal.) Indeed, Green’s choice of “invading-Iraq-was-a-good-idea wrong” is a not-so-sly attempt to marginalize those who disagree.

So who does the financial markets collapse discredit? Free market ideologues? The Federal Reserve? People who trust regulation to work? Those who supported policies to increase homeownership among the poor? Who gets a black mark? Who gets a gold star? Should we dogpile Joshua Green for this ill-conceived piece of meta-punditry?

I think what Green wants is an ideas future market. So far, this idea has been regulated into ineffectuality, literally.

Secularizing America

The U.S. is surely and steadily becoming a less religious place. USA Today has a groovy interactive graph illustrating the following:

The 2008 results [of the American Religious Identification Survey], to be released today, are based on 54,000 interviews with a margin of error of plus or minus 0.5%. It finds that, despite population growth and immigration adding nearly 50 million more adults, almost all denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS data was released in 1990.

Here’s the picture of state-by-state growth in the number of people identifying as atheists, agnostics, or without a religion:

But go to the real graph for the groovy interactivity.

Secularization is part of a long trend toward moral liberalization. That the Iowa Supreme Court would unanimously rule prohibition of gay marriage illegal when a decade ago this would have seemed impossible is just one example of this very welcome trend.

Journalistic Capture

Glenn Greenwald makes the main point I wanted to make about the last episode of Stewart v. Cramer. There is nothing special about Cramer and there is nothing special about CNBC. The point Greenwald doesn’t make, but which I will, is that Cramer, like thousands of others, gives investment advice, and like thousands of others failed to call the collapse and therefore gave a ton of terrible advice. Greenwald’s point is that CNBC, like basically every other news outlet, has been captured to some extent or other by the high-placed sources that it has so fastidiously cultivated. Greenwald rightly points out that this is exactly how the New York Times and other elite media outlets talked the country into the war in Iraq.

The point that can’t be emphasized enough is that this isn’t a matter of past history.   Unlike Cramer — who at least admitted fault last night and said he was “chastized” — most establishment journalists won’t acknowledge that there was anything wrong with the behavior of the press corps during the Bush years.  The most they’ll acknowledge is that it was confined to a couple of bad apples — The Judy Miller Defense.  But the Cramer-like journalistic behavior during that period that was so widespread and did so much damage is behavior that our press corps, to this day, believes is proper and justified.

And here’s something I’d like Jon Stewart to grasp. In some important sense, Timothy Geithner faces the same assymetrical information quandry Cramer did. The government is so incredibly dependent on Wall Street for much of the information it needs that it is almost inconceivable that the government (and thus the taxpayer) is not being gamed. Somehow I’d never thought much before about the similarity between regulatory capture and a journalist’s becoming a tool of her sources, but it’s a pretty striking similarity.

Check Out the Graphs on Andrew Gelman

Or, I should say, the graphs on “Income, Religion, and Voting” Andrew Gelman posted on 538.com. I like this one:


No matter how churchy, really poor people strongly favor Democrats. No matter how rich, people who don’t go to church VERY strongly favor Democrats. Generally, the higher the income, the more church attendance matters to votes, which as Andrew points out suggests that people care more about “social issues” the richer they get. But the relevant “social issues” is very different for religious and non-religious people.  But what’s going on toward the top of the income scale? At all levels of church attendance, having more money increases the chances of a Republican vote until you hit a relatively high level of income — looks like something near the border of the upper-middle and lower-upper class — at which point additional income starts to make a Republican vote a bit less likely. This is true even for very frequent chruch attenders. Superrich very-frequent churchgoers are evidently pretty damn Republican, but less so than almost-rich very-frequent churchgoers, and that’s interesting. 

What do you suppose explains that?

Kill the Mortgage Deduction

I agree with Ezra Klein in agreeing with Ed Glaeser. Here’s something, like trashing ag subsidies, you can get a lot of libertarians and liberals to agree on. It can be a bit disheartening to see just how little this kind of agreement amounts to when compared to the incentives of the politicans. (Iowa’s extremely powerful Senators will die in the last ditch for our subsidies.) But I think this kind of wonk consensus building really matters over the medium-term. Democracy is not a mechanical cui bono machine and elite opinion can, when not coopted by the incentives of the parties, work as a countervailing force.

Magic Buttons: The Breakdown

Here’s the Magic Button results by ideological self-identification. If you picked “other,” you’re lumped in with a bunch of people you probably hate. Cat-owners, Hansonians, Fascists, Extropians, Liberaltarians, Socialtarians, Conservative-libertarians, Anarchists, Classical Liberals etc. are all in this trashbin of nonconformism. Some of these labels got several write-ins, but I didn’t think any had enough to make it worthwhile to display the results separately. Sorry Cato-owner! A number of topics of discussion suggest themselves, but y’all can work it out. All the caveats from the prior post about the non-scientific nature of this apply.

Thanks again to Fiery Scribe, whose more detailed charts I simplified. If something is now screwed up, it’s certainly my fault.

Magic Buttons: Summary Findings

Here’s what I can give you so far. I’ll give you the breakdowns of answers by ideological identification in the next post. Let me emphatically state that the presence of pie charts in no way suggests the presence of science. The poll sample is representative of nothing other than the set of people who either read this blog and are willing to take unscientific polls or who follow me, or certain other people who follow me, on Twitter and like to take unscientific polls. That said, I think the result are suggestive, and fun to talk about. I’m personally most interested in the ideological breakdown of poll participants, which gives me a rough sense of my readership. I will show you later what “Other” included, since it’s sort of funny. 


Huge props go to The Fiery Scribe for volunteering his or her mad spreadsheet skilz.