Author: Jim Pavlik

Hashtag slatepitch: In the Star Wars Universe Good is Good and Evil is Bad

Another confused political reading of the Star Wars universe, this time trying to prove that the Star Wars universe is a “neoconservative” one. The author has three main points of comparison:

  1. A believe in stark contrasts between Good and Evil
  2. Only force can be used to defeat Evil (compromise is disaster)
  3. Mixed feelings about democracy

The author is an expert on neoconservatism, so I tread here cautiously. The question I would have is, provided these are three characteristics of neoconservatism, are they the three most critical? That is, are there *other* -isms to which any or all of these three apply?

Take # 1 and #2 for example.Naive binary thinking (is an essential starting point of all analytical thinking–only after recognizing there are at least two groups can we begin to think there might be more than two. Only in recognizing there are two groups can we begin both contrast –and comparison.) The idea of Ego vs Alter is a flawed but standard way of discussing hypothetical first civilizations). So the idea that there is a stark contrast between good and evil predates neoconservatism. The idea that only force can defeat Evil (and that force is the only true source of morality at all) goes back at least as far as Plato (an certainly predates him). The “neo-” part of neoconservative is anachronistic at best. Philosophies or ideologies that share these characteristics are not all neoconservatism. In fact, philosophies/ideologies that do not share some form of this view are the minority.

On #3 in all cases where total war is present, democracy can be said to be treated ambivalently. This is true even during such times when the democraticness of warring states is unquestioned. Militaries are not democratic. The process of war is not democratic. When countries are fighting wars they are, by definition, not practicing democracy. They have, by definition, set democracy aside for the moment –in their dealings with the enemy. However, it sounds like the Republic (previously the Rebellion and prior to the that The Republic) made it a priority to re-establish democracy in all reclaimed territory after the fall of the Empire. It also seems that the decision to continue to support the Resistance is being made democratically in the newly re-established Republican Senate. It may be true that in the Star Wars universe compromise has been disastrous but that also was true in the real world. The famous example of course is the famous appeasement of Hitler in the run-up to WWII–which happened well before “neoconservatism” was a thing. Point being, the war here is just further evidence that democracies do not fight each other. Had the First Order been a democratic state, it’s possible that the idea of diplomacy would have been appealing to them. They were not and it was not. War was inevitable.

To say that “The Star Wars universe is a neoconservative one” is to claim that the laws that govern (political) action and reaction are the laws that are derived from a neoconservative interpretation of history. The point in restating that is this: “neoconservatism” isn’t derived from nothing. The appeasement of Hitler really did happen. World War II really did happen. So it is possible to derive neoconservative principles from the events in Star Wars–because it isn’t what happens, but how one interprets what happens.

Let me see if I can say it a different way. Neocons would have predicted that the First Order would back out of the compromise and use the Republic’s compassion against it. And then that’s what happened! Neoconservatism!

There are already plenty of real world examples where compromise did not lead to the rise of a Hitler like creature. And yet, neoconservatism came into existence and persists. That’s because neoconservatism espouses general laws, not absolute ones.

It is also true that if Star Wars were built on neoconservative principles, the Republic would never have offered a compromise–much as real neocons are always warning policymakers of the dangers of appeasement.

Bah!

It’s gotten so bad, that the superficial reading of Star Wars is the contrarian view. For the love of the Force, people, stop trying to reread a fairy tale. It’s Good vs Evil; and, the Good is Good and the Evil is Evil. That’s how it works and that’s why it works.

 

GlitterBeard Me!

glitter-beards_1As you may have heard, I’m actively fundraising to find a cure for blood cancers and you can help out. And here’s my first fundraising “event.” Glitterbeard Me.

The goal is raise TWO-HUNDRED AMERICAN DOLLARS between now and December 31. If I do, I will make a mess of my beard and likely mine or someone else’s house by traipsing around on New Years Day with a Glitter Beard.

I can hear you asking, “How can I make a shiny mess of some random Denver bar/One of Jim’s Friend’s Houses?” And the answer is “It’s EASY!!!”

  1. Go to THIS LINK and hit the Donate Now button on the right.
  2. Pick an amount.
  3. In the Comments section, please reference “glitter” or “glitterbeard” in some way. I plan on having several fundraising things happening at once and to make sure your funds go to the appropriate thing, I’ll need *some* way of knowing where you want your funds to go.
  4. Funds raised between today (11-23) and December 30th and labeled with any reference to glitter, will be applied to the $200 goal.

First to donate $50 or more gets to pick the color. (After that, larger donations can outbid for color. For example, first $50 bidder calls “gold,” a later bidder at $51 can choose “red” instead and, if not outbid, red it stays.) Put the color in the comments as well.

To get a taste of what this entail, check out the video below.

I’m a Bad Swimmer

michaelphelps2
This expressionist painting of M. Phelps makes him look like he swims about as well as I do.

Can I share something with you? I am bad swimmer. I mean really bad. Full disclosure: for someone who works out as much as I do, rides my bike and hikes as much as I do, and runs as much as I do, I am a miserable athlete altogether. But I am the most miserable of all the miserable swimmers out there.

Let me prove it to you.

Some of you have heard this story, but it’s a good one and everyone likes a story that makes a pompous, intellectual dilettante like myself look foolish. So heal yourself with laughter at my expense.

My very first triathlon—in fact my very first “competitive” event of any sort was in 2010. I had just recently started dating the wonderful human who is now my wife. She is an anxious sort who likes running for its therapeutic effects (sort of, I’ll leave her to define her relationship with running). I don’t remember what possessed her to do a triathlon, but I do know that I like to think of myself as the kind of person that runs triathlons. I was 35 years old.

Thirty-five, for those of you who are math deficient, is one year younger than 36…which is the beginning of the second age bracket in the Mighty Mississinewa Sprint Triathlon. So when I showed up on race day I was pleased to find out I would be a member of the first wave:  18-35 year olds and those competing at the “elite” level.

Oh. I should mention that I worked out extremely hard so they I would not qualify for “Clydesdale” status. What is a “Clydesdale?” you ask. That’s the name for somebody who is racing at over 200 pounds. You can put “Clydesdale” on your race status so that those who see your abysmal ranking will know to convert their snorts of derision into sympathetic sighs. I weighed 198 on race day.

The way the waves work is that one cadre of, in my case, extremely fit young men and seasoned racers (and me) enter the Mississinewa Reservoir at the sound of a starting pistol. Every few minutes, the starting pistol cracks again and a new wave of progressively less competitive swimmers enters the reservoir. A sprint triathlon is not very long. The swim is 500 yards (for MMS), or .4k if you’re metric. Point Four K. The average swimmer should be able to complete POINT EIGHT K in less than 14 minutes. So that means, worse case scenario, I should have heard my own wave’s pistol, the pistol for the wave behind, and the wave behind them just as I was about to exit the lake. Which makes that silver capped matron who swam over my sinking body an 20 minutes later…disconcerting.

I don’t know how many waves there were. But I know there were at least 2 waves of men behind me and at least 3 waves of women. I know that the last wave of women were women over 50, denoted by (and I am not making this up) silver swim caps.

That’s right, readers. The average swimmer…not the elite crowd with which my nearly horse-sized body entered the lake …should swim that length in, at most, 14 minutes. But I was nearly drowned by the forceful strokes of a woman who entered the lake no less than 10 minutes later and who caught up with me, presumably no earlier than 9 minutes after that. Indeed, later records show that I finished the race in a staggering 21:54. Which is a score so miserable that I came in last, not only in my own group of the elite and young, but also in the group of all males 30-44. In fact, dear readers, in a field of 197 racers, men and women of all ages, I was 192nd. The only people too come in behind me were a 43 year old, a 49 year old, two 53 year olds, and a 55 year old. The guy (or gal) in 191st place was 60.

I also want to take a moment to reiterate. Some woman in a silver cap swam over my body. I had gone into a backstroke because, basically, after 21 minutes in the pool at 490 yards (give or take) my body just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to rest and another human being swam over me like I was …jeez…I don’t really know…you don’t really swim on top of anything the way she swam on top of me.

I went under. I literally thought that this was how I was going to die: 10 yards from shore, in a reservoir in northern Indiana, during a race I clearly had no business in.

I’m not sure if I fully appreciate the distance between “humbling” and “humiliating,” but I got closer to understanding that day.

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear readers, I need what Team-in-Training is offering. No joke. And Team-in-Training needs your support. How about following this here hyperlink and helping me raise money to end blood cancers (and also not ruin an otherwise beautiful bay with my drowned body in April).

What’s with the Countdown Timer?

 

I will be asking for your help.

Left-Wing Media Bias?

I have been following the science of determining (or disproving) the “left wing bias” of the media for a long time. I have seen lots and lots articles on the subject with many many charts and graphs in them. And they all basically look like the one here [PDF]. I’m linking to this one because it’s new and…if you’re following this whole “Lying Liar Political Scientist Published an Article with Lies” story, it has the benefit of being relevant to that discussion as well.

If you are following the whole LaCour fiaso read the whole thing. Basically, LaCour probably faked data on a 2nd article as well (and this essay is written by the guy that LaCour jocked the data from). If you’re only interested in the “media’s left wing bias” angle, then direct your gaze to page 5. What that chart is telling you is that, while there does seem to be an apparent “leftish slant” this is far from certain and could actually be flat wrong.

  1. Most of the studied channels appear to be inbetween the moderate left hump and non-partisan 0.
  2. There are two channels to the left of moderate left and no channels to the right of moderate right.

However, and this is critical, with the exception of Lou Dobbs’s show, all the confidence intervals (Bayesian credible intervals) overlap 0…which means they aren’t statistically different from “centrist”…and some of them could be “conservative.” Those CIs are huuuuuugggeeee. They basically run the entire gamut of the base dataset. I’ll also mention that most of the CIs (all but three) run most of their difference to the right. I think that’s difficult to interpret, but the consistency of this right skew across channels implies meaningfulness.

Some of this is a limitation to the types of methodologies available to this kind of research. But some of this is likely due to the fact that…well….most channels aren’t interested in 100% alienating 50% of their potential audience and thus…at the very least…attempt to appear neutral if not being, in fact, neutral. In the words of the author:

In the replication, only one show, Lou Dobbs Tonight, has a credible interval that does not overlap zero. Applying LaCour’s criterion, Lou Dobbs Tonight would be classified as “conservative news,” while all the remaining shows would be classified as “centrist news.

CBD Maybe not a Miracle Cure for Childhood Seizure Disorders

One of the stories that got a lot of media time during the fight to make recreational marijuana a legal reality was the one of Haleigh–a young girl who, prior to adopting a CBD regimen to treat her seizures, was having 200 episodes a day and now is closer to 10. That is a huge success. We read a lot out here about all the families that are moving to Colorado to obtain marijuana for their children’s seizure treatment. I would say that, aside from treating chronic pain…especially chronic pain in association with chemotherapy…marijuana’s miraculous power in treating seizures in children is the driving narrative of why marijuana should be reschedule, why every state without a medical marijuana law should get one, and why recreational marijuana should be far more widespread.

I have no doubts that Haleigh’s story is a true. In fact, a recent study (abstract here) found that 33% parents of children taking CBD reported their  children’s seizures drop by half. That’s huge.

However, that same study found that 44% of children taking CBD were suffering negative health outcomes from the treatment including (and this is important) increased seizures.

In a more objective measure of seizure-related brain health, only 3 of the children in the study showed any actual improvement (which indicates that some portion of those 33% of children who saw their seizure decrease by half, may have have been over-reporting the benefit, or may be operating under some placebo effect).

In any case, those last two points are crucial and they will no doubt be completely, and tragically, overlooked.

Medicine is weird; it works for whom it works. The way we determine if a medicine works is to get two groups. Individuals are randomly selected into one of the two groups. One group receives the treatment, the other receives a placebo. If possible, even the administrators don’t know which individuals are receiving which medication and which the placebo. Then we look for improvements in both groups. For various reasons, some people in both groups will get worse and some people will get better and some people may see no change in their condition at all. Ideally we will see more people get better in the medication group and less people getting worse. In either case, the differences observed within each group will be compared to the differences observed in the other group to determine if those change are “statistically significant.” That’s a real rough description of the “double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled, trial.”  Basically if the improvements in the medication group are better than the natural improvements seen in the control group, researchers conclude that the medicine “worked.”

But something peculiar happened up there. Something that researchers know about but doesn’t always get translated out. The medicine didn’t seem to have any effect at all on some people. And worse, some got worse.

Some of those differences might be chalked up to an inability to precisely measure changes in the condition. We tend to think of illness as a thing you either have or you don’t, rather than thinking of it in terms of how much of it you have. So it might be that very minor improvements in condition were beneath a threshold where those improvements were observed and reported to researchers. It’s also possible that declining condition in the medicine group would have been more pronounced had the medicine not been present.

But it’s also entirely possible that the medicine helped some people in the medicine group and harmed other people in the medicine group. Humans are all different. Diseases manifest differently in different people, medicines react differently to different people. So when we claim that a medicine “worked” it’s not always entirely clear what is meant. So the medicine works for whom it works and not on anyone else. Ideally, we would give medicine that works only to people that it works on…and maybe even prescribe medicine that “doesn’t work” to the people it works on as well even if it doesn’t “work” any better than chance at the group level.

I’m not saying that the story linked here proves that marijuana is a crappy medicine for children with seizures. It’s entirely possible that marijuana is very good for some children, and maybe not quite as good and possibly harmful for others. The problem is that the rhetoric of these “miraculous” cures is problematic. Parents desperate to find any cure for their children may overlook problems with marijuana in their child, they may see signs of improvements that don’t exist. And worse, they may forego other, effective, treatments while hoping that the marijuana miracle works out.

I think this is an area where we definitely need more research. And marijuana is cheap and, compared to many traditional treatments, safe. So I’m glad that it’s available for parents to try. But I also wish that the conversation we were having didn’t involve the word “miracle” quite so often. And that the potential for no- or bad outcomes was more appreciated.

Where’s the Rest of The Rest of the Story?

Generally I am a fan of Dr. Siegel, but I do not always agree with him. Here is one example. I am not a fan of the kind of analysis offered in yesterday’s post.

Siegel has picked an enemy…The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and he grabs a hold of a recent press release of theirs where they are encouraging states to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. The central component of his rant is that the Campaign supports this law even though it was the Campaign itself that helped prevent the FDA from gaining that power. He calls them disingenuous. That’s it. A charge of hypocrisy and nothing more substantive.

  1. There are two things to point out here:
    Either raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products is a good policy or a bad one. There are good arguments on both sides, but Siegel presents none of them. He seems to support it, so he should ally himself with organizations that also support it, regardless of how they felt about it last week, last year, or ten or twenty years ago. When organizations or individuals come around to your way of thinking, that should be applauded, not used as another opportunity to vilify them. This raises the specter of ulterior motives on Siegel’s part, which makes his stance appear to be the disingenuous one. I’m not making any accusations here. I wouldn’t know what accusations to make. I normally consider Siegel an authentic and committed voice in tobacco control. This doesn’t feel like what’s happening here.
  2. If it is a good policy, that does not imply that it is equally good if implemented by either the states or the federal government. In a federalized system like the US has, one could easily advocate for all 50 states adopting a policy but combat the federal government adopting that same policy or overseeing its administration. There’s no hypocrisy there. I don’t know if the Campaign’s stance was that this would be better as a state decision or not–it doesn’t really make any sense in this particular instance to support state-level decision making over federal action–but it’s possible and without exploring that possibility, Siegel performs a disservice.

Siegel always calls the second half of his posts “The Rest of the Story,” but I think this is an instance where The Rest of the Story needs its own The Rest of the Story.

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Is Red Wine the Miracle Fat-Burning Miracle Cure You’ve Been Waiting For?

r0eThere is a debate among scientists, researchers, and journalists that goes something like this:

  • Scientific community: We need better science reporters.
  • Science journalists: Don’t blame us, science is pretty freaking tough and we rely on good press release writers to give us the skinny.

I think there’s some truth to both of these statements, but they are almost certainly incomplete. A recent flurry of new stories on the benefits of wine drinking is a good example of where it falls short.

In a recent press release from Oregon State University they claim: “The findings suggest that consuming dark-colored grapes, whether eating them or drinking juice or wine, might help people better manage obesity and related metabolic disorders such as fatty liver.” Which, of course, earned OSU and the scientists in question many accolades and clogged up my Twitter and Facebook feeds for days with people claiming they can finally start skipping the gym.

But is that what they said? While the headline writers seemed to concentrate on the “fat burning” sentence above, the reporters were pretty keen on adding this line from later in the press release. “‘These plant chemicals are not a weight-loss miracle,’ cautions [study team member Neil] Shay. ‘We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,’” he said.”

I have a tendency myself to take science reporters to task, but here’s a good example of science reporters more or less getting it right. Of course, if the story was truly understood from the get-go, it’s hard to see it getting much coverage. So it’s clear that something went wrong, but what? And what has been people’s takeaway? Most of my friends took to Facebook and Twitter in jest, but it was a jest that relied on a misunderstanding of the truth of that first sentence. Can we say that the reporter’s were “at fault” for this misunderstanding?

A part of me says, sure. If a failure to communicate is large and consistent, then it must be the communicator’s fault to some degree. On the other hand, the reporting seems accurate enough that the misreading seems willful, and no reporter should be held accountable for willful misreading.  And in this case, even the press release was not explicitly overblown. The bolded sentence above, the cautionary corrective to the italicized sentence above that, was drawn directly from the press release.

In this case, there was potentially an effort on the part of the press release writer to deliberately persuade reporters to lead with the “fat burning” bit–and to use that in the headlines as well. And this is what seems to have occurred, deliberate or not. (It was deliberate.) In this case then, maybe there’s some room for criticizing the reporters for falling prey to their incentive to make a splash with the headline–an incentive played to by the press release author.

To say “we need better science journalists” in an instance like this, is to say, “we need people who work for newspapers to not care about the incentives of the newspaper business.” It’s true, but it’s also extremely infantile a wish. Most of science isn’t truly headline worthy, in the sense that newspapers look for headlines. To cover science at all we must expect errors like this. It’s up to non-reporters to carry the weight of explaining what is going on and spread the word. Speaking of which…

Thomas Lumley’s post on Stats Chat can help shed some light on what was actually found in this study.

How Many is That? Pot Smokers in Colorado

These two sentences appear back to back in a WaPo article on a report on marijuana usage in Colorado. Both are inaccurate out of context.

Adult residents either smoke pot (relatively) few times a month or nearly every day—there are few in the middle.

More than half of all adult resident users consume the drug in some form fewer than six times a month.

The author, Niraj Chokshi, knows, but does not say in these sentences, that only 9% of Coloradans had used marijuana, in any form, 12 times in the last year. He cites this statistic in the paragraph just above the first sentence. But as sentences are supposed to capture a complete idea, leaving out the statistic that places the idea in context is almost certain to confuse some folks.

I don’t think Chokshi means to do this. But taken out of context these sentences imply:

  1. All adult residents consume the drug a little everyday at least.
  2. More than half of all adult residents consume marijuana fewer than 1-6 times a month, the rest use more often.

In reality the relevant universe here are the set of individuals who are

  1. adult
  2. residents of Colorado
  3. and who use marijuana at least 12 times per year

So not “more than half” of our more than 5 million residents, but “more than half” of 9% of that number. Using just Choksi’s out of context sentences you might think there are millions of pot smokers in Colorado. There are, in fact, (according to the cited report’s very good methodology, btw) just under 500,000 smokers. So, the “more than half” here is talking about a couple hundred thousand smokers. That’s not nothing, but it ain’t millions either.

It’s an unforced error and it makes this issue harder to understand given the limited amount of cognitive power people can be expected to expend on any one article.

The important part of this report, btw, is that few who use smoke everyday or most days (which includes nearly all of the *medical marijuana* folks) account for nearly 70% of all the pot consumed in Colorado. Choksi doesn’t miss this point, but he does bury it a little.

America’s Democracy: A Rant in Favor That this is a Thing (still)

Perhaps you’ve heard. America, it has been proven, is “no longer a democracy.” Or perhaps you heard that “it’s an oligarchy.”

No one agrees on what a democracy is, but Princeton has determined that America is definitely not that...at least according to the news reports. America has been demonstrably less of a democracy than it is today and yet, somehow, we are “no longer” one as “proven” by science. This is of course all poppycock. And if you let me explain, I will. First, go familiarize yourself with the news stories linked above…or better, go read the actual paper [PDF]. Then, let’s start with my libertarian friend.

I have a friend, let’s call him “Brian.” He’s more-or-less a libertarian and as such often find himself in agreement with the policy pronouncements of groups like the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is financed and operated primarily by the now infamously rich Koch brothers—millionaires with a lot of political power. Now, I’m not saying that everything that is in the Koch brothers’ interests is also in the best interest of my friend Brian, but when they are, they are. And when they are not, they sometimes are. Let me explain.

Brian is a single voter in a country of millions of voters. He is also a busy person with a job and family. He isn’t interested in running for office and he does not have the time to campaign constantly for those things that are in his best interest. Nor does have the skills, necessarily, to lobby distant and hard-to-reach representatives in his state capitol or in DC. Moreover, he lacks access to those people. Sure, we could say that Brian’s lack of access is related to his limited wealth. But it’s just as accurate to say that Brian’s lack of access is related to his inability to try to gain access on a full-time basis. It is also related to the fact that Brian would only be speaking for himself (and perhaps accidentally for a few unknown others with whom Brian shares an ideology and perhaps a financial and geographic salience). So Brian relies on a groups like Cato to speak for him. So Brian needs groups like Cato to be around. And groups like Cato stay around when they are successful at what they do. So even when Cato is not representing Brian, Brian benefits from their victories, because those victories ensure that Cato remains profitable and relevant in a very competitive industry and they will be there to speak for him tomorrow. Provided that Cato is victorious more often in ways that benefit Brian than in neutral or disadvantageous ways, then Brian gains from having his views represented by this strategically-minded, successful organization run by two economically elite brothers.

My views are often fought for and represented by the Brookings Institution. More locally I find myself in agreement with the Colorado Trust and the Colorado Health Institute. Sometimes very wealthy professors at Harvard who happen to run organizations that I am a member of express my views. Sometimes my views are expressed by the millionaire functionaries at the top of certain for-profit engines, like Google. They do not do this for me or because of me. Many times they do this through their support of a political party that I ally myself with in the same manner that Brian allies himself with Cato. I am frequently at odds with both the policies and politics of my chosen political party. But overall they represent my views more often than the alternatives. It behooves me to vote for members of that party even when I know that individual has different values than I do, because on net, the party more often than not passes laws that I am more or less in agreement with. The party and our polity’s structure constrain the actions of individuals so much that one rarely votes for an individual. An individual in Washington has nearly as little say over what goes on as an individual outside it. [PDF]

My freedom to have my own views is unconstrained in this environment. My freedom to ally with this or the other side of any policy fight is unconstrained by law and, for the most part, by society (except in certain marginalized areas). My freedom to give my own money directly to politicians that support my views is virtually unconstrained. My ability to support millionaires by purchasing products their companies manufacture is limited only by my income and my willingness to do so. I am fully capable of extending my politics into my capitalist activities by boycotting stores I know support politicians I don’t, and I can even publicly rally my friends to do so as well without fear of imprisonment. My power to do this has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half. Through Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Amazon I am more capable than ever of communicating my ideas of how the world should run and advocate for the success of agents, both public and private, that agree with me. Pro-equal rights groups just caused the CEO of a major tech firm to willingly step down from his top post.

This relationship, the one I describe above, between different sects of voters and different sets of economic elites is not a new thing. It is the very thing—the thing at the heart of American democracy. I don’t want to get all wonky, but to paraphrase Louis CK, America has only been a democracy since the 1920s when women got the right to vote. Actually, I’ll expand that to the 1960s when certain laws, primarily but not exclusively in the American South, de facto prevented African-Americans from voting. Even today our franchise is arbitrarily limited—by law. Felons cannot vote and in many states ex-felons cannot vote. This is a tragedy, and it is deeply undemocratic. You can only vote once you’re 18 with no rhyme or reason. Most of the +18-year-olds I know (and practically all of the freshly 18-year-olds) lack the intelligence, the education, and the wisdom to vote with anything but their emotions. I also know (or knew) a not insignificant quantity of more than capable 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds who would have made fantastic additions to our dwindling pool of participating voters. Some reasonable people advocate opening the franchise to any child with the interest in voting and the ability to push the buttons on their own. And why shouldn’t they? But that’s beside the point a little. My point is that, free, frequent, and fair elections open to the people (the “demos,” in Greek) is a fundamental attribute to “democracy.” At various stages our so-called “democracy” has fallen dramatically short of this of this very simple measure for most of its existence. Is “democracy” relative to a point in time? It might be. If there were a polity out there right now that denied women—half the population—the right to vote, it would scarcely be called “a democracy” by most today.

Certainly elections are not the beginning and end of what constitutes a democracy, but what other factors are important? A president is not required. Most of the world’s democracies lack this position and instead embed their executive functions inside the legislative branch—a far more “democratic” structure by any measure. But separate branches and a checking and balancing of powers seems to be important. But in what way is it important? Is it fundamentally necessary or is it contingent? There doesn’t seem to be anything inside the definition of “democracy” that requires competing branches of power. Rather, it’s something inside human nature, or something inherent in the nature of power itself that requires institutional constraints to prevent power from accumulating totally in one agency—or worse—one person. Our democracy, and I do qualify “democracy” with “our” because our type—however we decide to define it, is not the only type. That is, even without a specific definition we can see that any two places that most people would consider a democracy have differences between them. And we can say that some of these differences make those democracies more or less democratic to those other democratic nations to which we decide to compare them. But this is just to emphasize what we already knew—that “democracy” is not only dynamically altering its nature in one nation over time, but differs statically from one nation to the next.

“Democracy” is not like “this apple;” it cannot be held up to the light, or sliced and placed under a microscope. It’s existence and nature cannot be objectively verified by independent coders with 100% accuracy. This is true, of course, even of the classes of supposedly simple things, “apples,” for example. Some are green, some are yellow, some are red. Some have mushy meat, other crisp. Some are sweet, others tart, some sour. If apples can be this complex, would it even be possible for “democracy” to be less so, subject as it is to the competing demands of millions—billions—of people to shape its structures and edges on the one hand and to attempt to define it on the other? Of course not. What we do know is that there was never a doubt in the minds of the world’s elite observers that America in 1887 was a democracy, also in 1913 and in 1958—and this despite failing to have an open franchise—an absolutely crucial feature of a democracy.

And it is no less a democracy today.

It is certainly far from a perfect democracy—whatever that is, however we decide to define it. Democracies are not discovered, they are invented. We should have discussed that earlier. They are art, they are not the unalterable, provable law of the universe. They are subject to the fall and folly of human beings. We can’t even draw a perfect circle and I’m supposed to be shocked that two political scientists at elite universities have decided that the United States fails some basic test of their definition of “democracy” even as they admit that theirs is only one of several such definitions and is by no means agreed upon.

And I haven’t even started talking about their methodology.

And please bear in mind, I think this study is a good one. It seems to me the authors themselves showed all the requisite lack of certainty around their choice and definition of terms and showed appropriate doubt as to the reliability of their proxy measures. It is not them or their work that I find concerning here. It is the coverage their article is getting—and from where. It is primarily liberals, anti-capitalists, and conspiracy theorists that have glommed on to this study as final truth supporting their long-held belief that we are a capitalist oligarchy, that our system is entirely corrupted by cash and the wishes of the top 1%.

These beliefs, however, are deeply problematic to start with because they assume two untrue things—demonstrably untrue. They assume 0% social mobility. Social mobility in the US is small—and certainly smaller than the myth of the American Dream says, but it is not zero. And it assumes 100% homogeneity in the ideologies of the 1%. This is not true either. They fight each other over ideologies, over access to markets, over politics, and over personal matters. This is not how true, that is to say “ideal,” oligarchies are run. The constraints on power, the separation of power into distinct branches and into federalized levels, discourages the formation of elite cartels.

Again, it is not perfect.  Our laws are neither perfect nor perfectly enforced. Government transparency is certainly not 100% transparent. Our government spies on us and uses the language of jurisprudence to validate the inhumane slaughter of untried “terrorists” residing in other countries. This is undemocratic by any measure. Our laws do not substantively recreate the natural rights on which most of them are based, which allows our legal system to unfairly imprison free men and let guilty men walk. I would never want to be in a position to say that “America, in its current condition, is the best democracy the world has known and the best that it can know.” That is clearly wrong. It is just as wrong as saying it is not a democracy at all.

But let’s look at the study, briefly. The authors do not provide a review of the democracy literature. To do so at this point is difficult. They acknowledge that this literature is “rich and variegated” and then claim it can be “loosely be divided into four categories of theories” (3) This may or may not be true. It is a claim and not one that is particularly testable–and if nothing else, the authors do not provide us that ability, nor do they appeal to other scholars who have defended this four-class typology of theories (which are not, descriptions of democracies themselves). I’m not critiquing this move, mind you, but merely pointing out where in the world of theory we are. The authors have proposed a theoretical way of classifying theories of polities–not a way of classifying democracies. These classes of theories include: “majoritarian electoral democracy, economic elite domination and two types of interest group pluralism.”

What may not be immediately clear is if this typology is supposed to be exhaustive. Where are the totalitarian regimes: (monarchies, sultanships, dictatorships etc), where, other than in “economic elite domination” are the other types of group leadership (tribunals, councils, etc)? What seems to be happening here is a typology of Who can Influence Democratic Regimes. So this study cannot prove that the US is not a democracy, because it relies on an assumption that it is one. That is not to say that it attempts to and then fails. That is to say it is logically impossible for it to do so. In the authors own words:

Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or industries.

The authors set up a situation where the only thing they can test is who influences US policy. There is an assumption here, based on a simplified version of the median voter theory, that the US policy should reflect the wishes of “the average voter.” So their test is this: look at what “the average voter” wishes would happen on a certain policy question and then look at what “economic elites” wanted to happen on the same question. When those two parties differed, who “won”? This test does present a certain kind of problem though: time. What if, as with S-CHIP, Bill Clinton (a Democrat) wants something passed and all the Republicans think it’s a horrible idea, BUT THEN George Bush gets in the White House and he wants it passed and then all the Republicans think it’s a grand idea but the Democrats (suddenly) think it stinks? (This all happened with NAFTA, but in reverse.) Well, the authors propose a window: What did “the People” think of the policy in Year 0? And what laws were passed within four years of the poll being conducted? Obviously the examples above would confound this particular test, but in most cases the test probably works to determine whether the voting preferences of the mythical “median voter” were thwarted or not.

It’s a pretty simple test really, but it is fraught with problems in addition to the one mentioned above. Not “problems” because the researchers are stupid, ignorant, or biased, but problems because social science is hard and studies like this, warts and all, are the best we can do (a lot of the time). In the authors’ own words, same page “Our measures are far from perfect.” So what are these imperfections?

Think about a policy…like Obamacare. Who “won” that fight? Obviously, if you read the newspapers it was the “liberals” or the “Democrats.” “Conservatives” and/or “Republicans” lost. But is that what really happened? Almost everyone understood that healthcare finance reform needed to happen. It’s been on every presidential agenda since Truman. Many of the reforms in Obamacare look similar to reforms initially submitted to the public from the extremely right-wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation. I’m not saying, as some have, that “Obamacare was a product of the Heritage Foundation.” I know better than that. But it is worth considering that this law was not a purely Democratic creation. The notion behind Obamacare was non-partisan. And the ultimate bill that passed was a watered down version of the bill that was proposed. It was a compromise between the two parties (even if the Republicans disowned it come time to vote). Most people did not like the bill by the time it came to vote. Many insurance companies aligned against it, but the AMA and some important insurance companies backed it. 

The authors describe their methodology beginning on page 10. The policies in question are 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where a national poll was administered asking respondents a Yes/No choice on specific federal policy decisions and also provided some economic information about the respondents. Policy preferences were measured at the 50th income percentile (the median income response) and at the 90th percentile (representing the affluent response). The authors claim that the 50th percentile income response is identical or nearly so with the median voter preference. The authors also claim, but do not argue or prove, that the 90th percentile vote can be used as “proxies for the opinions of wealthy or very-high-income Americans” even though “people at the 90th income percentile are neither very rich nor very elite“! [Words theirs, emphasis mine.] I’m not sure how it is that non-rich, non-elite voters can be used to proxy the voting preference of rich, elite voters. The authors unfortunately leave that explanation up to my very limited imagination. They do show a correlation between the the top 2% and the top 10% income earners in a study of 13 policy preferences. It’s strong, but leaves me wondering why they didn’t just measure the top 2% of earners (the “truly wealthy”) instead of relying on a proxy of a proxy. To be sure, the top 10% of earners’ preferences are correlated with the top 2% r=.91, but they are also correlated with the 50th percentile r=.69. The difference is significant, but not absolute.

The authors argue that their use of a proxy will produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites but I think they are dead wrong. If both the 50th and 90th percentiles agree on an issue, (and they do about 35% of the time, statistically speaking) that isn’t diluting the differences, it’s masking them. We don’t know what’s under the mask. It could be the case that the 98th percentile are more often in agreement with the 50th than they are with the 90th. This is unlikely, but it is possible. We see exactly this sort of intra-strata economic competition at lower financial levels all the time (e.g., poor whites often vote with elite whites on issues related to race). With this particular test, the voting preferences of the truly elite is hidden. It may be diluted, it may not be. We simply don’t know.

To test the power of business/economic elites the authors rely of Forbes Power 25. This in turn is a proxy for a large dataset of business groups previously compiled by another researcher, which in turn is a proxy for “the opinions of the average rich person.”  By now I shouldn’t have to point out the problem here. Introducing a proxy measure produces a lot of uncertainty, introducing a proxy of a proxy introduces another layer of uncertainty. Uncertainty isn’t additive, it’s multiplicative. And now we’re using a proxy of a proxy to measure voter preference and we’re using a proxy of a proxy to measure business elite preference. And of course we’re also using polls (and self-reported income) to measure “voter preference.” Polls use a sample to predict the parameters of the population. In other words…a proxy there too…and one that relies on self-reports and all the problems that introduces.That is not to say that such proxies are not useful or accurate. It is to say that the amount of uncertainty in this study are substantial. To repeat the authors’ own caveat “Our measures are far from perfect.” The only thing that is certain in this study is “Bill X did or did not become a law within four years of conducting a poll asking people their preference for or against passage.” But, as I tried to make clear in my examples above, it is often unclear if voters really know their policy preferences. If they vote YES for a bill introduced by George Bush and NO for the same bill introduced by Bill Clinton how do we know what they want policy wise?

Similarly related to the above and points mentioned earlier, the authors offer this disclaimer:

Before we proceed further, it is important to note that even if one of our predictor variables is found (when controlling for the others) to have no independent impact on policy at all, it does not follow that the actors whose preferences are reflected by that variable – average citizens, economic elites, or organized interest groups of one sort or another – always “lose” in policy decisions. Policy making is not necessarily a zero-sum game among these actors. When one set of actors wins, others may win as well, if their preferences are positively correlated with each other.

Well then! With the full acknowledgment from the authors that a situation like Brian’s described at the beginning of this rant probably happens all the time, let’s proceed to our analysis! So what do the authors find?

It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites (see Table 2.) Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government.

Um. So when economic elites win, the average citizen wins. There you have it folks. Your proof that our democracy is an entirely corrupt oligarchy dominated by the policy preferences of the average citizen..er….the 1%, or both, or something. Maybe. But certainly business-related interest groups take similar policy stances as the 1%…the 1% are all up in our business, LITERALLY!!!

Nor do we find an association between the preferences of economic elites and the alignments of either mass-based or business oriented groups. The latter finding, which surprised us, may reflect profit-making motives among businesses as contrasted with broader ideological views among elite individuals. For example, economic elites tend to prefer lower levels of government spending on practically everything, while business groups and specific industries frequently lobby for spending in areas from which they stand to gain.

Well, … shit.

Honestly, the authors are able to find a significant correlation for elite interests against so long as those interests are shared with business interests but not with the average citizen. In other words, when two of three measured groups align against the average Joe, Average Joe loses out. This is not nothing. Basically, they find that independent of their alignment with economic or business elites, the “average citizen” has no political power. But that’s nothing new. Madison wrote about this. The role of the citizen is to create just such groups and organize them to fight. The single citizen is powerless. That’s what we want. We want the individual to be representative of a class. We don’t pass laws that support ONE PERSON. That would be weird. Here are some more caveats from the authors about their findings:

This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups.

and

Again, the predictions of pure theories of interest group pluralism are not wholly upheld, since organized interest groups must share influence with economically elite individuals.

and

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.

Well, you know, except that part where the average citizen is mostly in support with elite opinions. But whatevs.

And

The rather low explanatory power of all three independent variables taken together (with an R-squared of just .074 in Model 4) may partly result from the limitations of our proxy measures, particularly with respect to economic elites (since our “affluent” proxy is admittedly imperfect) and perhaps with respect to interest groups (since only a small fraction of politically active groups are included in our measure).

and

Policies with strong support (as defined above) among both groups are only adopted about 56 percent of the time. (17)

That last point is worth noting. They note a “a strong status quo bias.” Indeed, this is a feature, not a bug, of our specific form of…wait for it…democracy!!!! Don’t believe me? Here’s the authors, emphasis added.

Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system – federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism – together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias.(18)

From this statement alone you can still argue that our original “political system” was not democratic, but you certainly cannot claim “it is no longer” a democracy. Whatever it was, it still is. The little guy is protected from 44% of business and elite interests that run contrary to his own because of institutional constraints that make it hard for those groups to get their way all the time. And how often does the “average citizen” get what he wants? When he has an 80% majority preference, he gets his way about 43% of the time. About half. I’m not blind to the difference of 56% (plus a margin of error) and 43% plus a margin of error. Neither should you or anybody else be blind to their amazing proximity.

James Madison, tiny genius that he was, just clogged our legislative process full of veto points. It’s just full of them. That makes it very hard to get bills passed in our system. Seriously. Even though when business policy preferences combines with the power of America’s incredibly wealthy upper-upper crust, they get their bills passed just over half the time. Not much better than flipping a coin. What kind of “oligarchy” is that?

No kind. That’s what.