Are We Reaching A Turning Point In The Politics Of Outrage?

According to Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer is “No.” But it appears that there a growing number of pundits who agree with me about the negative utility of political outrage.

Earlier this month Slate published a beautiful recap of 2014 as “The Year of Outrage.” (hat/tip @NickSacco55) A giant grid depicts their dutiful tracking of what they considered the most outrage-inducing story of every single day of the year, It’s stunning to look back at all the outrages I forgot about or never knew about in the first place. It’s interesting to ponder how many of the ephemeral outrages I avoided with my blogging hiatus.

It’s illuminating to see the stupid outrages side-by-side with the serious ones.

Throughout the piece(s), there’s a mournful tone about how the silly outrages distracted from the genuinely important issues (which naturally are the ones featuring the greatest crimes against Slate’s writer’s progressive political positions). Their conclusion is relevant for pundits of all stripes:

it’s fascinating to look at how our collective responses skipped from the serious to the picayune without much modulation in pitch.

When everything is outrageous, nothing is.

But it’s not just liberals who are questioning the long-term value of our obsession with outrage. Mollie Hemingway took on those trying to tie the NYPD police murders to Democratic politicians, reminding us of a similar Palin-blame game and asking if we can all “try to see the best in each other’s arguments.” An Atlantic feature on Erick Erickson noted that the Red State hero has been questioning the anger that made him famous:

In August, he wrote, “I increasingly find conflict between my faith and some conservative discourse.” He cited the right-wing furor over undocumented minors, Ebola, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri…

He told me about a man who had come up to him to rant about immigrants ruining schools and neighborhoods. “I’m like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ ” He thinks conservatives suffer from a persecution complex…

Most of our modern political groups do. I’m encouraged to see more pundits recognizing the problems of outrage. Perhaps the movement will continue to grow, though I suspect the demand remains too strong for such things. Nash equilibria do not tolerate vacuums. Even if Red State manages to fend off the temptations to keep peddling its own outrage, will that just send more readers to the Matt Walshes of the world? Or can leaders like Erickson help bring down the demand curve while shutting off the supply?

The Government’s Role In Urban Cycles of Poverty

I recently read an incredible book by David Kennedy called Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and The End of Violence In Inner-City America. It is full of amazing insights into the perspectives of law enforcement and urban neighborhood communities, and how their misunderstandings of each other lead to actions that perpetuate those misunderstandings.

Kennedy outlined a paradigm that he claims is “common currency” in many poor, black neighborhoods. In this paradigm, he says, America is engaged in a conspiracy to subdue blacks. After the civil rights era, the CIA invented crack. The government keeps trucking it into the ghettos to draw young blacks into the trade so officers can keep arresting them.

When Kennedy first ran into this paradigm, he laughed it off as craziness. But he came to see reasons that made it an attractive theory to people with their experiences and knowledge: America really did overtly subject blacks by law until fairly recently; the crack epidemic devastated the ghetto; the community sees white folks drive in to buy drugs but only sees black kids getting arrested for it; they see a powerful American government with global military and surveillance capabilities, concluding that they must not be stopping the drug trade because they don’t want to stop it.

Once Kennedy understood the logic within this paradigm, he saw how law enforcement actions perpetuate it, and how it affects the community’s coldness toward police and the police’s coldness toward the community. By taking the paradigm seriously, he came up with ideas to address its fatal flaws, such as having law enforcement build up cases against dealer kids and tell them they could arrest them but they wouldn’t if they quit, which proved to the community the police wasn’t out to get them, which motivated them to help keep new dealers off the streets, which proved to the police the community really didn’t want the drugs either, which all in all literally turned dangerous neighborhoods into safe neighborhoods within weeks (!!!).

There’s a lot more fantastic insight and brilliant details about all of this in the book (seriously, read it), but I want to focus on this urban paradigm that America, particularly its government, is still systematically engaged in a racist agenda to subject the black man. I’ve stumbled onto parts of this idea before, but it’s still largely unfamiliar to me, Kennedy’s depiction is the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen. As an outsider, I can’t say if he’s being fair to the paradigm, and what sorts of variations exist and the various reasons people believe in various parts of it. But it seems safe to say that the paradigm exists, and is held by a non-negligible percentage of the American population.

I find it extremely interesting to compare this paradigm to one with which I am more familiar. Many conservatives also like to blame the government for perpetuating cycles of urban poverty, but for opposite reasons. The government is giving away too many handouts! Food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, “Obama phones”… the list goes on and on. The “takers” keep taking from the government so they can lay around with their TVs and video game consoles while demanding even more goodies paid for by hard-working taxpayers who are not nearly as lazy as the folks suffering from the disincentives of ugly marginal tax rates.

Before anybody jumps in with some Doubtlessly Qualified Opinions on the relative truth values of these paradigms, I just want to marvel at the tension.

In one corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to hurt them. In the other corner, we have a bunch of Americans who are convinced that poor people are poor because the government is doing so much to help them!

Isn’t that kind of… beautiful, in a strangely partisan political way? Isn’t that such a great example of how people with different experiences can come to such different conclusions about the same issue?

Please don’t mistake me for implying some sort of parity between the paradigms. I strongly believe the urban conspiracy paradigm is fundamentally flawed. But the opposing paradigm does not even allow for that paradigm to exist, right? (Well, at least without assuming the complete irrationality of the participants. But I have long believed it too simple to write off people on “other sides” as evil/stupid; most people operate with biases but act rationally based on those biases, and Kennedy’s book confirms the rationality of the participants enough for me.) If the government really is helping poor people so much, how could the paradigm that the government is hurting them even get off the ground? What does the mere continuing existence of that paradigm say about the weaknesses of the other?

I have some preliminary ideas, slowly coagulating in bits and pieces – a comment about a Charles Murray book here, a reference to 90’s welfare reform there. I suspect the “ample social safety net” does not actually catch the “poor” nearly as efficiently as some conservatives (perhaps surprisingly) seem to imagine that it does. Maybe some services require addresses; many people who live in poverty are transient, moving between houses and apartments or nothing at all with different family members and friends as living situations change. Maybe some services require going to city buildings; many poor have limited transportation options. Maybe some services require waiting in long lines, verifying income status, social security cards, whatever; many working poor do not have a lot of spare time, maybe they do not know where their social security card is. Now soak all that in the general inefficiency and ineptitude of the incentives we call “government,” mix in some mistakes and lost paperwork and more long lines to fix them… hmm, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising if a lot of poor people don’t exactly see the government as a Clear and Shining Beacon of Everlasting Free Goodies (That Could Lift Them Out Of Poverty If Only They Weren’t So Lazy).

Of course, since I’ve never been poor, and I’ve picked up most of my conservative ideas of how the government helps the poor from conservative people who have never been poor, I don’t even know how to know how close I am to the right track of what government-poverty relations have ever looked like, much less how they look in 2014. I mean, I know there’s like forty million people on food stamps. That’s got to count for something, right? But there are huge gaps in understanding. I’m having my eyes opened to previously incomprehensible paradigms that are helping me fill them.

I Was Wrong About Obamacare

In the late 2000’s, I was very wrong about hyperinflation. I had unfounded confidence in a flawed view of the world which made me fall for simple projections peddled by confident people. In fact, I was very wrong about the Federal Reserve in general; I believed their responses to the crisis would quickly backfire with unintended consequences in a vicious feedback loop that certainly did not allow for a 2014 with record stocks, low unemployment, and no inflation – regardless of what may yet occur. Fortunately my risk aversion kept me from ever spending more than a few hundred dollars on silver.

In the early 2010’s, I was less confident about many things. But this blog has dutifully preserved a major mistake I must now confess: I was very wrong about Obamacare.

Two years ago, I fully expected that by now the law’s utter failure would be readily apparent. All the law’s interventions would be backfiring on a huge scale. The cost of plans would be increasing enormously. Insurers would be backing out. There would be undeniable negative effects on employment and the general economy. Every exception, delay, tweak, and twist of the Rune Goldberg machine would reverberate through the rest of the parts, unraveling in a vicious feedback loop of increasing interventions and unintended consequences.

But as I joined the rousing cries of the anti-government crusade, I started to look around, noticing that the looming Obamacare apocalypse didn’t seem to be getting any closer on the horizon. I started noticing that everybody was just appealing to the future. So I shut up and waited. And the future still isn’t here.

Sure, there are little stories all over the place of discontent. I certainly wouldn’t say the law’s been a roaring success. But a hundred million people didn’t lose their plans. Everybody didn’t see their premiums double. The people didn’t rise up and take to the streets in outrage. For the most part the healthcare industry and all the people in it seem to be plodding along pretty much about the same as before.

The Speak-O

Now this doesn’t mean conservatives weren’t right about the law’s problems. Jon Gruber’s YouTube highlight reel has been confirming things Republicans have been asserting for years: the cost analysis was gamed, the details were deliberately, opaquely rushed, etc, etc. And Gruber’s attempt to pass off his clear defense of the clear subsidy language as a “speak-o” is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty.

Seriously, guys. A speak-o, if it’s like a typo, would be when you say a word and the context of the speech makes it clear you mean the opposite. Example: “I think Rand Paul could go all the way in 2016 for the Republicans and take votes from Democrats. I think Hillary will fade for the Democrats and Paul’s coalition will expand the Republican base. I’m a pundit so I know things. And that’s why I think a Democrat will win the White House.”

It’s clear from context that the intended word in the last sentence is “Republican,” and the speaker just mixed it up. But if somebody had actually said “Republican” there, and after a Democrat victory tried to convince people that in the speech he was clearly predicting a Democrat win while making a “speak-o” he would be laughably dismissed. If a “speak-o” means you can simply claim what you really said is the opposite of what you really said when it’s politically convenient to do so, then I’ve got a new campaign strategy for Todd Akin.

The most charitable explanation I can think of is that the subsidy language really was a mistake made by non-Gruber-people, but then Gruber assumed it was real and invented motives for it as he carefully and logically explained the reasoning behind it. But that’s not what Gruber said happened, either.

So if you’re still with me, it looks like Republicans were right about all the problems behind the law; they’ve just been wrong about how terrible the consequences of those problems would be.

The Rule of Law vs. The Rule of Man

If the Supreme Court accepts the previous version of Gruber’s argument about the subsidies, it would be an interesting consequence on the law itself. After a few years of incessant “rule of man” interventions to keep the thing moving, the “rule of law” would finally stick a fork in a law that was initially passed with “rule of man” corruption. Or maybe it wouldn’t. What do I know?

Bastiat On Race

Over the last couple years, I’ve learned to take a page from Bastiat, if you’ll forgive the probably oversimplified and inappropriate association, and think about the unseen on matters of race. The unseen is important in many things, but perhaps it is especially important with race due to the large assumptions we make about the unseen of other races based on the seen of our own race.

For example, like many conservatives I used to ask why blacks were so outraged about killings by police officers and not outraged by the much more prevalent killings of blacks by blacks. Nevermind all the reasons, both subjective and objective, one might respond differently to the same actions committed by different people held to different standards. I literally had the audacity to assume that the outrage that I personally observed in the arena of public discourse was equivalent to the outrage that actually took place! Now I have had my eyes opened to some of the outrage that was previously unseen to me.

I have been thinking about this principle again. I am fascinated by the the conservative response to the non-indictment of the officer who choked Eric Garner. The pundits are all quick to point out how very different this case is from the Michael Brown case they just spent four months justifying, although some of them are bending over backwards to express their concern in the most guarded way possible, saying they don’t know enough about it to absolutely sure something is wrong. (Yet they somehow know enough to be sure it’s definitely not about the things their political opponents think it’s about. But, hey, partisans gotta partisan.)

What fascinates me, though, is their implicit confidence that they are responding to an objective illustration of these issues. They are patting themselves on the back for responding consistently to the facts that have entered the arena of public discourse without seeming to notice the array of influences over what facts enter the arena of public discourse to begin with. They are all commenting about how much more justified New York City’s anger was than Ferguson’s without seeming to notice that it is probably only because of Ferguson that they are paying attention to New York City at all. They want to treat these as isolated cases that are not representative of systemic issues without recognizing that a long unseen history of systemic issues could be the only reason these cases bubbled up into their field of vision in the first place.

YouTube clips of Garner’s choking were available weeks before Michael Brown was even killed, but his death remained largely unseen outside the arena of civil rights activists until Ferguson (which itself was largely unseen until the burned QuikTrip gave everyone something to denounce). That anger in Ferguson may have been partially kindled by a history of abusive local practices which have now gotten so much attention in the state that Republican lawmakers are writing up reforms.

In this narrative, unseen but justified anger over systemic issues provoked seen but unjustified anger over a single event, which gave partisans enough to argue about that it held our attention long enough to actually see the justified anger over another similar event. Isolated, unrelated incidents? Please.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying things. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence these publicized decisions came down so near to each other. It’s not like the grand jury process is new. It’s not like police officers killing unarmed men is new, either. What is new is that the decisions about them are being publicized. They have (at least until the next exaggerated health scare) burst from the unseen arena to the seen.

I am fascinated by how consistently the pundits are referencing the video as clearly showing the details behind Garner’s death without seeming to be aware of the influence the video had on the fact that they “saw” this death at all. The video is the reason that Eric Garner is the second “seen” grand jury decision that everyone is comparing to the first “seen” decision about Michael Brown.

Contrary to conservative beliefs about liberal media, the media does not relentlessly spotlight every white officer’s killing of a black man while ignoring the killing of whites. There are far too many “unseen” deaths (of all races) for even the media to pay attention to them all. Many are doubtlessly justified. But no one seems to have a good idea of how many aren’t, and how many of those unjustified deaths receive justice through the justice system. There seem to be a couple of issues that raise doubts that this happens with satisfactory regularity.

One issue is that when there is no video of the incident, the authorities have an enormous amount of control over the information that enters the arena of public discourse. After the release of Brown’s surveillance footage (which was not footage of the officer’s shooting), conservatives criticized liberals for caring more about the footage being leaked than the “facts” of the footage itself, while missing the whole point that the curious way these facts were released raised doubts about what other facts might remain unseen.

Another issue is the inherent conflict of interest in a prosecutor bringing charges against the officers he needs to help him bring charges against non-officers. This leads to unusual grand jury procedures, if the cases even make it to a grand jury at all. Conservatives have shown remarkable interest in dissecting the consistency of the evidence to Darren Wilson’s account without showing nearly as much interest in the unusual way the account was handled by the system. Sympathetic prosecutors may not have led the rigorous cross-examination of a regular trial, which may have left relevant facts unseen, or left questionable “facts” unchallenged.

The system of policing the policemen may have had these issues for a long time, but these issues have remained largely unseen. Until now.

Ferguson brought these issues to the attention of some of us in the St. Louis area, but the apparent absence of clear evidence contradicting the officer’s narrative allowed most to ignore their relevance; maybe the outcome would or should have been the same even without those potential slants. The video of Eric Garner – now that it has entered the arena of public discourse – is bringing those issues to the attention of all.

(Incidentally, this is why I don’t share the despair of those now saying “so much for body cameras”. This footage may not have changed the outcome of this grand jury decision, but it has done more to open people’s eyes to problems with the grand jury process – and thus the potential for change – than anything I’ve ever, uh, seen.)

Which circles us back to the issue of race. The debate about whether or not any given event is “about” race is somewhat distracting, I think. What seems clear to me is that there are a lot of unseen experiences, often grouped along racial lines, which influence not only our perceptions of those events, but whether we perceive them at all.