The Right Side of History

Sometimes I wonder how I would have responded to significant intellectual and social developments if I were alive when they were occurring. Would I have opposed the Catholic Church when it tried Galileo for heresy for believing our solar system revolved around the sun? Would I have embraced the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science? Would I have opposed slavery? Would I have rejected the United States’ isolationism of the 1930’s and seen the necessity of taking a stand against fascism? Would I have considered the Red Scare to be mass hysteria? Would I have supported the Civil Rights Movement?

I like to think my answer to all these questions would be yes, and not just because of self-flattery–although self-flattery is a significant factor. I tend to be skeptical, to distrust ideas based on faith, to disbelieve True Believers. Twenty years ago a former boss gave me The Emperor’s New Clothes as a holiday present–an apt gift, as I spent considerable time and effort poking holes in her pronouncements. It’s a good thing to recognize the inexorable social and intellectual forces. If the choice is between desperately hanging on to a disappearing past and understanding and dealing with society’s evolution, I want to come to terms with the future.

We (finally) saw Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, which focuses on Congressional enactment of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery. Viewed through a modern lens we see the anti-Amendment arguments for what they were–unadulterated racism, with a frosting of state rights rhetoric that serves mostly to mask that slavery was our Civil War’s bedrock issue. Few Americans today would make the anti-Amendment arguments in the film’s naked terms. (Although many continue to embrace the state rights perspective–see, e.g. the Texas monument to the Confederacy at the State House in Austin:

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Romney’s abject toadying during the primaries to the Tea Party Taliban, Tax-Pledge Terrorists, and anti-progress ayatollahs, and various jaw-dropping far-right pronouncements throughout recent months, underscored that the Republican Party is controlled by those denying the future and holding on to the past like grim death. In her column titled A Lost Civilization Maureen Dowd echoed this theme when she referred to the Republican Party as “the first civilization in modern history to spiral the way of the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans.

The Mayans were right, as it turns out, when they predicted the world would end in 2012. It was just a select world: the G.O.P. universe of arrogant, uptight, entitled, bossy, retrogressive white guys. Just another vanishing tribe that fought the cultural and demographic tides of history.

Denying the existence of global warming, and the role of human agency in global warming, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence1 . . .  asserting that creationism (by whatever name) is not faith-based religious doctrine but a valid scientific theory that should be taught in public schools alongside evolution . . . arguing that gun violence is caused by a variety of factors which do not include lack of regulation of firearms . . . urging the primacy of explicit religious belief as a criterion for public office . . . these beliefs are on the wrong side of history. How can one take the Republican  party seriously when it is in thrall to those who advocate such beliefs?

1. See, e.g. http://www.wunderground.com/resources/climate/928.asp

. . . Then You’re Part of the Problem

More Maureen Dowd:

More women voted than men. Five women were newly elected to the Senate, and the number of women in the House will increase by at least three. New Hampshire will be the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress. Live Pink or Dye.

Meanwhile, as Bill Maher said, “all the Republican men who talked about lady parts during the campaign, they all lost.”

If You’re Not Part of the Solution . . .

Great line from today’s Maureen Dowd:

Team Romney has every reason to be shellshocked. Its candidate, after all, resoundingly won the election of the country he was wooing.

Mitt Romney is the president of white male America.

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Until now, Republicans and Fox News have excelled at conjuring alternate realities. But this time, they made the mistake of believing their fake world actually existed. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly said to Karl Rove on election night, when he argued against calling Ohio for Obama: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

Silver Called It

Karl Rove’s inability to acknowledge the facts on the ground in Ohio may be belief perseverance–“maintaining your original opinions in the face of overwhelming data that contradicts your beliefs.” (All of us–not just conservative Republicans–engage in it.) Yesterday he predicted Romney would win with 285 electoral votes to Obama’s 253.  In contrast the NY Times’ Nate Silver, who conducts state-by-state statistical analysis of all the major polls, predicted Obama would win with 314 electoral votes. (With Florida’s 29 electoral votes up in the air as of this writing Obama leads the electoral college 303 to 206.) Last Friday Silver reported that Obama’s chances of winning were better than 4 in 5 (83.7%, actually):

[The polls] represent powerful evidence against the idea that the race is a “tossup.” A tossup race isn’t likely to produce 19 leads for one candidate and one for the other — any more than a fair coin is likely to come up heads 19 times and tails just once in 20 tosses. (The probability of a fair coin doing so is about 1 chance in 50,000.)

Instead, Mr. Romney will have to hope that the coin isn’t fair, and instead has been weighted to Mr. Obama’s advantage. In other words, he’ll have to hope that the polls have been biased in Mr. Obama’s favor.

Silver explains that polls might provide an inaccurate election forecast due to statistical sampling error, voters changing their mind after the “snapshot in time” the poll represents, and statistical bias (“the polls are not taking an accurate sample of the voter population”). He states

The FiveThirtyEight forecast accounts for this possibility. Its estimates of the uncertainty in the race are based on how accurate the polls have been under real-world conditions since 1968, and not the idealized assumption that random sampling error alone accounts for entire reason for doubt.

In other words, either the polls on the Friday before the election show Obama is the odds-on favorite or they contain statistical bias outside the range Silver accounts for in his models.

Reality 1, Rove 0

Karl Rove spit the bit when Fox News called the election for Obama last night. Fox’s number-crunchers read the Ohio returns the same way as their counterparts at ABC, NBC, CNN, & CBS. With about 75% of the vote reported there were not enough possible Romney votes, and too many expected Obama votes from heavily Democratic districts, for Romney to overcome Obama’s lead. Rove wouldn’t accept the handwriting on the wall. He disagreed with the data geeks, which caused Fox’s Megyn Kelly to walk down the hall with a cameraman to interview them. They explained their analysis, confirming what the data told them–Romney could not take Ohio and Obama had the necessary 270 electoral votes.

The 47%-ers

In a video taken a few months ago at a private fundraiser Mitt Romney stated that “[t]here are 47 percent [of the American people] who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” This 47% number has been circulating since the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center “estimated last year that 46.4 percent of American households would pay no federal income taxes in 2011.”

Is Romney’s premise correct, that these non-income-tax-paying Americans are government-dependent leeches with no affinity for Republican candidates? The Boston Globe reports that the study

did not support Romney’s suggestion that almost half the country is made up of people who do not take responsibility for their own lives and instead rely on government handouts.

Half of the households that pay no federal income taxes earn so little—typically less than $30,000—that standard deductions and personal and dependent exemptions shrink their taxable income to zero.

On a 2012 IRS filing, for instance, a family of four with a household income of $27,100 would have reported no taxable income because of an $11,900 standard deduction for married couples and personal and dependent tax exemptions of $3,800 each.

Among the other half of those whose income is not taxed by the federal government, 44 percent are exempt primarily because they receive tax deductions for the elderly or Social Security benefits that are not taxable because of low incomes, or both. Another 30.4 percent are working households that earn so little that benefits such as the child tax credit and earned income tax credit reduce their tax liabilities to zero.

Other people who could not be called irresponsible—including members of the military deployed in combat zones—do not pay federal income taxes. About 6 percent of nonpaying households are exempt mainly because of education credits, and 1.3 percent pay nothing because of low rates on capital gains and dividends, which, combined with tax credits, erase their federal income tax obligations.

Many in the latter group are wealthy people who derive much of their incomes from investments. The Tax Policy Center estimated that 4,000 households that earned more than $1 million last year paid no federal income taxes.

If you believe that the liberal Boston Globe has cherry-picked the Tax Policy Center report to make Romney look bad, consider the blog post from conservative William Kristol of The Weekly  Standard. Titled “A Note on Romney’s Arrogant and Stupid Remarks” Kristol’s post first criticizes Obama for remarks he made in 2008 about people “in small towns in Pennsylvania” and throughout the Midwest: “[I]t’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

After repeating Romney’s fundraiser remarks Kristol says:

It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters—especially of course seniors (who might well “believe they are entitled to heath care,” a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they’re not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.

Kristol still urges his readers to vote for Romney (although he’d prefer a “Ryan and Rubio ticket”), but he notes “that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Romney’s comments, like those of Obama four years ago, are stupid and arrogant.”