Archive

  • When Death Comes to the Festival

    AP Images/Austin American-Statesman/Jay Janner

    On Monday, 26 year-old Sandy Le died in the hospital, the third fatality of last week's crash at the SXSW music festival. Another person, 18 year-old DeAndre Tatum, is in critical condition, and seven others remain in the hospital. The incident occurred shortly before 1 a.m. on March 13, when a drunk driver, chased by police, sped into a crowd outside Austin’s Mohawk Bar, on a closed-off section of road, injuring a total of 23 people, and leaving two dead at the scene.

  • The Missing White Poor

    A famous white poor person. (photo by Dorothea Lange)

    You may have heard about how last week, Paul Ryan made some unfortunate remarks about poverty, blaming it at least partly on, well, lazy black people: "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said, "of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with." The reason many people got angry about this is that when we talk about poor white people, nobody suggests that it's a product of a pathology that lies within those particular people. Republicans may think persistent poverty in rural areas is a regrettable thing, but they aren't delivering lectures to those people about their "culture." It's kind of a generalized version of the fundamental attribution error—people like me are poor because of conditions outside themselves, while people unlike me are poor because of their inherent nature.

    Ryan's words set off a predictable round of "Is Paul Ryan racist?" contemplation (see here, for example), and in response to that we have to remind ourselves that that is always the wrong question. It's impossible to know with certainty whether anyone is racist, because that requires looking into their heart. But much more importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is what people say and do, not what lurks within their souls. You can say to Paul Ryan, "Here's what's wrong with what you said" without shouting "You're racist!" which not only doesn't convince anyone of anything, it only leads everyone who doesn't already agree with you to shut down and refuse to listen to anything else you have to say. Before we get to today's chart about race and poverty (oh yes, I do have a chart), you should play this classic from Jay Smooth every time you're tempted to call a politician a racist:

  • The Imagined Reagan Will Live Forever

    In 2012, the most popular baby names, according to the Social Security Agency, were Jacob for boys (18,899 little Jacobs) and Sophia for girls (22,158 wee Sophias). But holding on strong in the girl category, still cracking the top 100 at #97, was Reagan. No fewer than 3,072 proud, freedom-loving Americans named their girls after our 40th president that year, nearly a quarter-century after he left office.

    Liberals, it need hardly be said, don't go in for that sort of thing. Would you consider naming your kid after a Democratic president? Probably not. I have a friend who named his son Truman, but let's just say that in school when the teacher calls his name, nobody has to ask which of the class' many Trumans she means. I'm sure there are some parents who have named their boys Barack, but even in 2009, at the height of President Obama's popularity, the name Barack didn't crack the top 1,000.

    What's interesting about this isn't just the contrast between liberals and conservatives but the fact that even among conservatives, there's no one who even comes close to the kind of quasi-religious worship Reagan gets. It's partly because, depending on your definition of success, he was the most successful Republican president in the lifetime of most living Republicans. But even for people who remember his presidency, the actual details of that presidency have become completely irrelevant. Ronald Reagan now exists as purely as a symbol, an embodiment of every virtue one might admire, whether Reagan himself actually embodied those virtues or not.

  • Tolerance For the Non-Religious, Here and Around the World

    Our chart of the day comes from the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes project, which asked people in 40 different countries whether it is necessary to believe in god in order to be a moral person. There's a lot going on within that yes-or-no question, and one could see how it could carry different connotations in different cultures. The results aren't just a measure of people's own religious beliefs, but also of the character of the place they're in and the exposure they have to people who aren't like them. If you've always been taught that the nature of right and wrong and the enforcement of those rules comes from the church, and virtually everyone you've ever known believes in god, those who don't would seem like something of an alien species. So for instance, in Ghana, where 96 percent of people in another poll described themselves as religious, it isn't surprising that 99 percent in this poll—or basically everyone in both cases —says you have to believe in god to be moral.

    At the other end, if you live in a place where most people don't believe in god, even if you do, you probably know many perfectly nice people who don't, so it would be harder to sustain the belief that they're all inherently amoral psychopaths. For example, in France, where about a third of people describe themselves as religious, only 15 percent say you need to believe in god to be moral. Unlike in Ghana where there are virtually no religious people willing to grant the morality of those who aren't religious, in France over half of religious people are willing to be so generous.

    What about the U.S., you ask? Show us the chart already! Here it is:

  • Tesla, Car Dealers, and Anti-Competitive State Laws

    Shoppers at a Tesla showroom in Amsterdam, where such things are legal. (Flickr/harry_nl)

    You may not realize it, but car dealers wield an unusual amount of political power in this country. That's partly because they're located in or near pretty much every community everywhere, and also because they're highly organized and clever about using their influence. One of the ways they've done so is get laws passed in state after state making sure that the model under which they operate—one in which independent dealers sell cars, but car companies themselves don't—is the only thing allowed by law. In fact, laws making it difficult or downright illegal for car companies to sell their products directly to customers are on the books in 48 states. This absurd state of affairs hasn't gotten much attention until recently, when Tesla decided it wanted to open its own dealerships to sell people cars.

    Among the places it has done this is New Jersey, where the company had opened two stores. But earlier this week, the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission passed a rule requiring that all auto sales be done through franchises, making Tesla's stores illegal. Their option now is to either test the rule in court, or convert the stores to "showrooms," where you can look at a car but not actually buy one.

    You'd think that if conservatives really believed all their rhetoric about the value of unfettered free markets, they would be all over this issue, advocating for Tesla's side of the controversy and campaigning to break up the anti-free-enterprise car dealer oligopolies. But of course, we're talking about Tesla, and liberals like electric cars, and therefore conservatives feel obligated to hate electric cars, so that probably won't happen.

  • Thinking Small

    Flickr/Kevin Gebhardt

    There's a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper's, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I'll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn't like about Reed's piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn't say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

  • Meaningless Special Elections and the Press's Consequential Imperative

    Failed congressional candidate Alex Sink, putting on her victory face. (Flickr/Village Square)

    If it were up to me, I would eliminate special elections for the House of Representatives entirely. They make sense when it comes to the Senate, where every state has only two senators and terms run six years, meaning a vacancy can leave a state without significant representation for an extended period of time. But when a congressman dies or retires and there's another election to fill that critical 1/435th portion of the lower house's lawmakers in a few months, do we really need to mobilize the state's electoral resources, spend millions of dollars, and get a bunch of retirees to haul themselves down to the polls, only to do it all again before you know it? Hardly.

    The other objectionable thing about special elections is that because they're almost always the only election happening at that moment, they not only get an inordinate amount of attention, the results also get absurdly over-interpreted. This is a symptom of what we might call the Consequential Imperative among the press (note: if you have a better moniker for this that could propel me to the front rank of contemporary neologism-coiners, hit me up on Twitter). The Consequential Imperative is the impulse, the desire, the need to assert that whatever a journalist happens to be reporting on is very, very important. So for instance, if your editor sent you down to Florida to do a week's worth of stories on the special election that just concluded there, you are extremely unlikely to write that this election was a contest between a couple of bozos, and means next to nothing for national politics (unless you're Dave Weigel, who for some reason seems to be almost the only reporter capable of saying such a thing). It's the same impulse that causes every gaffe, polling blip, and faux-controversy of every campaign to be presented as though it could dramatically alter the outcome of the election, despite all the experience telling us it won't.

  • Barack Obama Considers Punching Zach Galifianakis In the Face

    Yes, this actually happened.

    When people think back on the attempts of presidents and presidential candidates to engage directly with pop culture, they usually date the modern era to Bill Clinton donning shades and playing sax on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992. There were a few awkward attempts prior to that, like Richard Nixon participating in the "sock it to me" gag on Laugh-In in 1968. But Barack Obama has probably done more of these appearances than anybody else, not just going on shows like The Tonight Show and The View to be interviewed, but actually becoming part of the entertainment.

    He slow jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, but in that case he was essentially the straight man, which is the safe place for a president to be. After all, he needs to be in on the fun, but not sacrifice his dignity. Nixon may have said "Sock it to me," but his advisers were smart enough not to let him get hit in the head with a giant club. This morning, however, we get a look at what may be a new high in presidential pop culture performance. Believe it or not, Barack Obama sat down with Zach Galifianakis for an episode of "Between Two Ferns."

  • This Is Your Camry On Drugs

    The change in the social perception of drunk driving is one of the great public health success stories of the last half-century. It went from being perceived as an amusing bit of recklessness to something truly despicable, and today drunk driving deaths are half of what they were a few decades ago. And now that recreational marijuana is legal in Washington and Colorado, almost surely to be followed by other states, there's a renewed need to discourage driving while high.

    The key to the success of the drunk driving campaign was creating a new social norm, one in which people would discourage each other from driving drunk. It also gave people a means to avoid it, by popularizing the idea of the designated driver. Washington state is starting a campaign to discourage driving while high with three PSAs soon to be airing in the state. No frying eggs here:

  • Can the Koch Brothers Be a Political Asset for Democrats?

    Flickr/Donkey Hotey

    For while there, conservatives saw the hand of George Soros behind every conspiracy. It was always a little strange, not because there wasn't a certain truth underneath it—Soros has, in fact, given lots of money to liberal political causes (and he is an actual international Jewish financier, which certainly set a certain type of mind buzzing)—but because the idea of a billionaire using his money to shape America's politics isn't something conservatives object to. Quite the contrary; they think there ought to be a lot more of it.

    Democrats, on the other hand, are not so friendly to the idea, which is why it's understandable that Charles and David Koch have taken on a larger role in the liberal imagination than Soros had in the conservative one (they've also spent a lot more money on politics than Soros ever did). But can Democrats convince voters who are not already liberals to be mad at the Kochs? That's how they're responding to the brothers' involvement in multiple Senate races this year, fighting back against the Koch's ads with with a public campaign against them.

    While I don't think it's impossible that this could work, I'm skeptical. Greg Sargent explains the thinking:

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