False equivalence is not centrism

False equivalence is not centrism

Feb 4 JDN 2458154

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

~ W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Centrism is not very popular these days, but I believe this is because neither its alleged adherents nor its alleged opponents actually have a clear understanding of what centrism is supposed to be. Most of what is called “centrism” in this polarized era (the US is now more politically polarized than it has been in decades) is actually false equivalence.

Most people who express pride in their “centrism” adopt a heuristic which basically amounts to taking the two positions that are most loudly proclaimed in public and averaging them. One side says “Kill all puppies”, the other side says “Don’t kill puppies”, and they proudly and self-righteously declare that the only sensible policy is to kill precisely 50% of the puppies. Anyone who says “the two parties are the same” or “liberals deny science too” is guilty of this false equivalence—and it’s all too common.

But this is not what centrism is supposed to be. A good centrist isn’t someone who looks at their existing Overton Window and chooses the mean value. A good centrist is someone who understands and appreciates Horseshoe Theory. Horseshoe Theory says that the political spectrum is not actually a straight line from left to right; it’s more of a horseshoe shape, where the far-left and the far-right curl down and toward one another. A good centrist is someone who values the top of the horseshoe, more strongly than they value whatever particular policies might move you toward the left or the right edge.

What does the top of the horseshoe represent? Democracy.

A good centrist is someone who really, truly believes in defending democracy.

What the far-left and the far-right have in common is authoritarianism:

For those on either edge of the horseshoe, people who disagree with (the collectivization of all wealth/the superiority of my master race) aren’t simply wrong, they are evil. Persuading them to vote my way is a waste of time. Freedom of speech is dangerous, because it allows them to spread their evil ideas. It would be better to suppress freedom of speech, so that only people who know the truth (read: agree with me) are allowed to speak.

Along similar lines, Slate Star Codex recently published an excellent blog post on how people seem to separate into two very broad political worldviews: There are Mistake Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to honest ignorance and error; and there are Conflict Theorists, who think that most of the world’s problems are due to the malign influence of evil enemy factions. The far-left and the far-right are overwhelmingly composed of Conflict Theorists. A good centrist is a Mistake Theorist through and through.

Being a good centrist means fighting to defend the institutions that make freedom possible. Here is a whole list of policies that neither the far-left nor the far-right particularly values that we as centrists must:

  1. Voting rights: We must fight against voter suppression and disenfranchisement wherever it occurs. We must stand up to defend the principle “one person, one vote” wherever necessary.
  2. Equality under the law: We must protect the rights of everyone to have equal representation and equal standing as citizens—including, but by no means limited to, women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.

  3. Election reform: We must find ways to undermine gerrymandering, the Electoral College, and the campaign finance system that allows corporations and wealthy individuals to exert disproportionate influence.

  4. Freedom of speech: We must protect the right of everyone to speak, including those whose views we find abhorrent. Our efforts should be focused most on those who have the least representation in our discourse.

  5. Individual privacy: We must fight against the creeping rise of the surveillance state and the use of extra-legal means of intelligence gathering, particularly in domestic spying. We should be outraged that the House of Representatives voted to extend the NSA’s warrantless wiretap authority after what Edward Snowden revealed about the NSA.

  6. Demilitarization and deincarceration: We must fight to contain or reverse the expansion of military and penal force that has given the United States not only a military larger than the next ten countries combined, but also the world’s highest rate of incarceration.

On some of these issues we might find agreement with the left or (less likely) the right—but even when we don’t, we must press forward. In particular, the goal of equality under the law often aligns with the goal of left-wing social justice—but there are cases where it doesn’t, cases where hatred of White straight men or a craving for vengeance against past injustice drives the left to demand things that would violate this principle. And the atavistic joy of punching Nazis in the face must never overwhelm our sacred commitment to the principles of free speech.

This doesn’t mean we can’t also adopt detailed policy views that align with the left or the right (or both). I for one support single-payer healthcare (left), progressive taxation (left), renewable energy (left), open borders (left), zoning reform (right), reductions in corporate taxes (right), free trade (right, or so I thought?), and a basic income (both—yet strangely we can’t seem to make it happen).

But being a good centrist means that these detailed policy prescriptions are always less important to you than the core principles of democracy itself. When they find out that the rest of the country is against them on something, a leftist or a rightist starts looking for ways to undermine the public will and get the policy they want. A centrist accepts that they have been outvoted and starts looking for ways to persuade the majority that they are mistaken.

Centrism is about defending the guardrails of democracy. False equivalence is not centrism; it is an obstacle to centrism. It prevents us from seeing when one side has clearly damaged those guardrails much more than the other. So let me come out and say it: At this historical juncture, in the United States, the right wing is a far greater threat to the core principles of democracy than the left. This is not to say that the left is inherently incapable of threatening democracy, or never will do so in the future; but it is to say that right here, right now, it’s the right wing we should be worried about. Punching Nazis will never be as threatening to the core of freedom as warrantless wiretaps or the discrediting of the mainstream press.

Why is redistribution of wealth so difficult to achieve in the US?

Jan 28 JDN 2458147

Income and wealth in equality is much higher in the US than in other First World countries. Within the OECD, only Mexico, Turkey, and Chile have higher income inequality than we do. Over 60% of Americans agree that the distribution of wealth in the US is unfair. Furthermore, the majority of Americans support the use of taxes and transfers to directly redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

Why, then, is it so hard to actually get any meaningful wealth redistribution in the United States?

Part of it is surely partisan differences: While about 70% of Democrats favor redistributive taxes, about 70% of Republicans oppose them. So one would not expect a move toward redistribution when Republicans control all three branches of government, and indeed we have seen quite the opposite. (Then again, one would also not expect a government shutdown under one-party rule, and yet that is what we have.)

But even most Republicans say they would like to see a much more equal distribution of wealth than the one we actually have. In fact, when I as an inequality economist look at the distribution of wealth people say they want, it looks a little too equal! Even Denmark and Sweden aren’t that egalitarian! I know more or less how to get from here to Denmark; but from here to “Equalden” looks like an awful long way. So if this is really the distribution of wealth people want, we need to be doing a huge amount of wealth redistribution—but we’re hardly doing any at all.

Indeed, we didn’t actually see all that much redistribution of wealth when Democrats more or less controlled all three branches in the period from 2008-2010. We may have seen a little bit shortly thereafter, and tax policy typically does come with a delay of a year or two. But as you can see in this graph, the Great Recession did more to reduce the top 1% income share than any tax policy changes:


The biggest changes made to our tax code under Obama were actually the handling of capital gains; the increase of the top rate on capital gains from 15% to 20%, plus the 3.8% capital surtax from the Affordable Care Act raised the tax bill for the top 0.1% by tens of billions of dollars. Surprisingly, Trump’s tax cuts don’t actually remove these provisions, though they did dramatically cut the corporate tax rate, which will probably have a similar effect on the income distribution.

To be honest, I’m not as disappointed with Trump’s tax cuts as I thought I would be. Some genuinely good ideas (like the reduction of the mortgage interest deduction, tighter restrictions on carried interest, and increase of the personal standard deduction) and some reasonable but debatable ideas (like cuts to the corporate tax rate, switching to a territorial corporate tax system, limits to deductions on corporate debt payments, removal of the deduction of state taxes, and extensions of 529 savings plans to private primary and secondary schools) were mixed in with the absolutely ludicrous and terrible ideas (like eliminating the Obamacare mandate, doubling the estate tax threshold, cutting the alcohol tax, and allowing offshore drilling in Alaska [One of these things is not like the other ones….]). Some of the terrible ideas, like ending the deduction of student loan interest and tuition waivers, were actually removed in the final version of the bill. Of course, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the overall US tax system became a lot less progressive as a result of this bill. And even if cutting the corporate tax while raising the capital gains tax is probably a good idea (as I and many economists believe), cutting the corporate tax without raising the capital gains tax probably isn’t.

(An aside: For how much they claim to be “tough on crime”, it’s always kind of baffling to see how often Republicans like to cut alcohol taxes and pollution regulations, which are pretty much the only things that have ever been empirically shown to actually reduce crime. There is some evidence that maybe more policing also helps, but if so, it does so in a far less cost-effective way—indeed, the direct cost of alcohol taxes and pollution taxes is negative. Even if they didn’t work at all, they’d still be worth it just because they raise revenue. I begin to suspect that Republicans don’t actually want to reduce crime, because they know they can use the fear of crime to win votes; they simply want to appear tough on crime, and so they press as hard as they can for more policing and incarceration in the country that already has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This may be a more general phenomenon: While Democrats want to actually solve problems, Republicans want to appear to solve problems while actually exacerbating them, thus insuring their own job security. Compare how Bush kept talking about Osama bin laden while invading Iraq, and Obama actually killed Osama bin Laden. Is this too cynical? Can anything be too cynical in the era of Trump? There were 50,000 Russian bots on Twitter trying to tilt our election! Mueller’s FBI investigation is already implicating several of Trump’s top officials! Everything that seemed like paranoia or cynicism just a few years ago is turning out to be entirely true.)

This is what seems to happen: Year after year, we raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. Then when raise some taxes, then we cut some taxes. The tax system gets a little more progressive for a few years and inequality begins to fall, and then those changes are removed and inequality begins to rise again. Back and forth and round and round we go.

Is there some way to lock in these tax changes for a longer period of time? The only way I can see would be a change in voter behavior: Keep voting in Democrats to all branches of government consistently for 20 years, and then maybe we would see a serious reduction in income and wealth inequality. Or at least stop voting in Republicans; aside from the Democrats, there are some third parties that would also support redistribution, like the Green Party. And yes, it really is about voting behavior: As prevalent as gerrymandering has become, as terrible as the Electoral College is, as widespread as voter suppression has gotten, Trump only won because 63 million Americans voted for him. Even after everything he’s done, Trumps’ approval rating is still about 39%. As long as there are enough people in this country whose partisan loyalty so strongly outweighs any rational assessment of policy, we are going to continue to see such travesties continue.

It would certainly help if our voting system were fairer, so that third parties had a better chance at taking seats. But it’s also difficult to see how that could happen any time soon. For now, the best I can come up with is trying to show people two things:

First, most Americans favor redistribution of wealth. You’re not alone in wanting that. It’s not some fringe opinion.

Second, there is a real difference between Democrats and Republicans on this issue. The canard “The two parties are the same” is the most untrue it has been in at least twenty years.

I would even understand if there are other issues you consider more important than wealth redistribution. Ecological sustainability is the most defensible—you can’t eat GNP—though that would push you even harder toward the left. Among things that might push you right, I can understand being concerned about higher taxes hurting economic growth, and while I think the view that abortion is murder is ludicrous, given that as your belief I can understand why you would want to prioritize fighting abortion. (If I thought we were murdering millions of babies every year, I’d be pretty mad too! Of course, you should be glad, then, that the US abortion rate has been falling. Right? You know about that, right?)

What I don’t get, however, is people who thought that voting for Donald Trump would help working people. I don’t understand how you can see someone who epitomizes everything that is wrong with the billionaire rentier class and think, “Yeah, he seems like he’s definitely a populist. That guy who was born insanely rich and made even more mind-boggling amounts of money by lying and screwing people over is definitely going to look out for folks like me.”

If I understood that, maybe I would know where to go from here. But people’s political beliefs can be astonishingly intransigent to evidence. Politics is the mind-killer.

“Polarization” is not symmetric

I titled the previous post using the word “polarization”, because that’s the simplest word we have for this phenomenon; but its connotations really aren’t right. “Polarization” suggests that both sides have gotten more extreme, and as a result they are now more fiercely in conflict. In fact what has happened is that Democrats have more or less stayed where they were, while Republicans have veered off into insane far-right crypto-fascist crazyland.

If you don’t believe my graph from ThinkProgress, take it from The Washington Post.

Even when pollsters try to spin it so that maybe the Democrats have also polarized, the dimensions upon which Democrats have gotten “more extreme” are not being bigoted toward women, racial minorities, immigrants, and gay people. So while the Republicans have in fact gotten more extreme, Democrats have simply gotten less bigoted.

Yes, I suppose you can technically say that this means we’ve gotten “more extremely liberal on social issues”; but we live in a world in which “liberal on social issues” means “you don’t hate and oppress people based on who they are”. Democrats did not take on some crazy far-left social view like, I don’t know, legalizing marriage between humans and dogs. They just stopped being quite so racist, sexist, and homophobic.

It’s on issues where there is no obvious moral imperative that it makes sense to talk about whether someone has become more extreme to the left or the right.

Many economic issues are of this character; one could certainly go too far left economically if one were to talk about nationalizing the auto industry (because it worked so well in East Germany!) or repossessing and redistributing all farmland (what could possibly go wrong?). But Bernie Sanders’ “radical socialism” sounds a lot like FDR’s New Deal—which worked quite well, and is largely responsible for the rise of the American middle class.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s economic policy proposals (if you can even call them that) are so radical and so ad hoc that they would turn back the clock on decades of economic development and international trade. He wants to wage a trade war with China that would throw the US into recession and send millions of people in China back into poverty. And that’s not even including the human rights violations required to implement the 11 million deportations of immigrants that Trump has been clamoring for since day one.

Or how about national defense? There is room for reasonable disagreement here, and there definitely is a vein of naive leftist pacifism that tells us to simply stay out of it when other countries are invaded by terrorists or commit genocide.

FDR’s view on national defense can be found in his “Day of Infamy” speech after Pearl Harbor

The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.

Yesterday the Japanese Government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island.

Japan has therefore undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.

As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense, that always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.

When Hillary Clinton lived through a similar event—9/11—this was her response:

We will also stand united behind our President as he and his advisors plan the necessary actions to demonstrate America’s resolve and commitment. Not only to seek out an exact punishment on the perpetrators, but to make very clear that not only those who harbor terrorists, but those who in any way aid or comfort them whatsoever will now face the wrath of our country. And I hope that that message has gotten through to everywhere it needs to be heard. You are either with America in our time of need or you are not.

We also stand united behind our resolve — as this resolution so clearly states — to recover and rebuild in the aftermath of these tragic acts. You know, New York was not an accidental choice for these madmen, these terrorists, and these instruments of evil. They deliberately chose to strike at a city, which is a global city — it is the city of the Twenty First century, it epitomizes who we are as Americans. And so this in a very real sense was an attack on America, on our values, on our power, and on who we are as a people. And I know — because I know America — that America will stand behind New York. That America will offer whatever resources, aid, comfort, support that New Yorkers and New York require. Because the greatest rebuke we can offer to those who attack our way of life is to demonstrate clearly that we are not cowed in any way whatsoever.

Sounds pretty similar to me.

Now, compare Eisenhower’s statements on the military to Ted Cruz’s.

First Eisenhower, his famous “Cross of Iron” speech

The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

That is the most brilliant exposition of the opportunity cost of military spending I’ve ever heard. Let me remind you that Eisenhower was a Republican and a five-star general (we don’t even have those anymore; we stop at four stars except in major wars). He was not a naive pacifist, but a soldier who understood the real cost of war.

Now, Ted Cruz, in his political campaign videos:

Instead we will have a President who will make clear we will utterly destroy ISIS.We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re gonna find out. And we’re gonna make abundantly clear to any militant on the face of the planet, that if you go and join ISIS, if you wage jihad and declare war on America, you are signing your death warrant.


Under President Obama and Secretary Clinton the world is more dangerous, and America is less safe. If I’m elected to serve as commander-in-chief, we won’t cower in the face of evil. America will lead. We will rebuild our military, we will kill the terrorists, and every Islamic militant will know, if you wage jihad against us, you’re signing your death warrant.
And under no circumstances will I ever apologize for America.

In later debates Cruz tried to soften this a bit, but it ended up making him sound like he doesn’t understand what words mean. He tried to redefine “carpet bombing” to mean “precision missile strikes” (but of course, precision missile strikes are what we’re already doing). He tried to walk back the “sand can glow in the dark” line, but it’s pretty clear that the only way that line makes sense is if you intend to deploy nuclear weapons. (I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean bioluminescent phytoplankton.) He gave a speech declaring his desire to commit mass murder, and is now trying to Humpty Dumpty his way out of the outrage it provoked.

This is how far the Republican Party has fallen.