Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: Does the “paranoid political style” dominate U.S. politics now?

American politics seems to be gravely afflicted these days with an old virus: The paranoid political style. The term “paranoid style” was coined in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter, first in a speech and then in an essay in Harper’s Magazine that later became a book. I wanted us to explore the extent to which that style now dominates our American politics, why it has returned with such a vengeance, and whether it will persist. I think it’ here to stay.

Hofstadter wrote that:

“American politics…has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

“…[To] the modern right-wing wing…America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.”

Sounds familiar? Hofstadter’s explanation has been used for years to explain right-wing (but NOT all conservative) politics. Lots of commenters are using it today to try to make sense of Trumpism and its capture of the Republican Party.

The theory of the paranoid political style has its critics. In the 1960s it was pointed out that it fails to take conservative philosophy and ideas seriously and comes close to defining conservatism as a mental aberration. (Hofstadter said he was not using the term paranoid clinically.) Also, Hofstadter suggested that the paranoid style is only a feature of right-wing politics American politics. Subsequent events in the late 1960s showed that the American left-wing can appeal to rage, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, too.

Fast forward 50+ years to first the Tea Party and now Donald Trump, and I think we have to ask hard questions. Is this a triumph of the paranoid style we’re seeing, or something else? If so, who or what is to blame and will it outlast Trump’s presidency?

As you know, I have my chief culprits. Fox News and right-wing talk radio have exploited fear and resentment and pushed conspiracy theories for 20 years straight. If you have avoided paying attention to what gets repeated every day in these forums, you really should take a look. Just skim some of the daily output of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Seann Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Coulter, Malkin, D’Souza, and Alex Jones. If they are not pushing the paranoid style, then the term has no meaning.

Or is that too easy? Surely we cannot just blame right-wing media for creating all of this fear and anxiety out of thin air. In the last 15 years the USA has experienced the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and a continuous, seemingly permanent state of war against shadowy and frightening new enemies that target U.S. civilians. The worst recession in 80 years trashed the economy and the folks that cause it got off with barely a slap on the wrist. Our government is paralyzed and helpless – or just bought off by special interests. Social media amplify and spread every fear and crazy rumor and allow the angriest among us to organize more easily. Maybe some of people’s fears are grounded in reality.

What do you think?

Here are some of the questions I hope we can wrestle with on Monday, plus some background readings. Hofstadter’s original essay is long and a bit dated, but I’ve included it. I will explain a little bit more about the paranoid political style to open our meeting.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is the “paranoid style” in American politics? Is it a theory of politics, sociology, or psychology?
  2. Critiques of it, then and now?
  3. Is the paranoid style in vogue now? Who uses it? Who is it used on and why are they vulnerable?
  4. Causes: Why is this happening? Traumatic events? Economic stress? Changes in news media or political institutions? Growing fear of national decline? Racism/xenophobia?
  5. Fixes: What would calm public anxiety? Fixing our big social problems? Reducing immigration? Tax cuts?
  6. Future: Is any resurgence in paranoid style politics just temporary? Will it survive Trump’s presidency?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The “paranoid style” and its critics –

 

Return of the Paranoid Style –

Future of the Paranoid Style –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism?

Monday’s Mtg: Is it hard to be a man these days?

This will be a fun one. Gale’s topic relates to both the political and the personal. The political, obviously includes that to man people Donald Trump personifies the most toxic form of masculinity. His Alpha male bravado and obsessive need to dominate everyone and everything. His personal history with the trophy wives and the boasting of sexual conquests (and assaults). The way Trump belittles the manhood of anybody that challenges him, unless they are women, in which case the insults are highly sexualized.

Of course, we can’t know precisely how much Trump’s macho act helped him win the presidency. He got 42% 46% of the female vote and there were other large forces at work. Still, I think it is really important to try to understand the role that politicized male grievance played in getting us to where we are now and how powerful a force it might remain going forward. Partisan news and social media make it easier than ever to organize the rage-filled, as the rise of the “men’s rights movement” described in the links below demonstrates.

Luckily – and to Gale’s relief I’m sure – this topic is much broader than politics and our Dear Leader. Maybe it really is hard to be a man these days. Consider:

  • The personal financial status of non-college educated men have all but collapsed in recent decades;
  • Family structures have evolved to be more egalitarian and less centered on men and their needs;
  • Men’s cultural status arguably has eroded, as popular media celebrates female empowerment and expects men to conform to a new and more egalitarian standard of manhood;
  • Many non-White men bear the additional burden of fearing encounters with law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Lots to chew on. On Monday I will briefly introduce our topic and then give Gale an opportunity to do the same.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Reality / Changes –

Standards –

Politics –

NEXT WEEK: North Korea – Now what?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Social Security Need to be Reformed?

New member Penny suggested this topic. It’s a good one. We have discussed retirement issues and entitlement reform before. But, except for this meeting on Social Security’s disability insurance program we have not focused on Social Security recently.

Too bad. Social Security may be the single most successful U.S. government program of the 20th century. This wage insurance program lifts about 22 million retired, disabled, widowed, and other Americans out of poverty. Sixty million Americans – one in five! – receive SS benefits and 120+ million pay into it. It is wildly popular with the public and the bedrock of the 20th century social welfare state. Progressives are even beginning to congeal around proposals to expand Social Security benefits to help offset the huge growth in financial insecurity that so many Americans face these days.

But, not so fast. Contrary to myth, Social Security is on a sound financial footing. But, it does face a funding shortfall starting in 2034 (latest projection). If no changes are made to close the gap before then, SS will only be able to pay about 75% of promised benefits. The need for reform is real. The links below explain some of the options for shoring up Social Security and the different impacts they would have if implemented. The choices are pretty straightforward.

What is harder is to counter the many alarming myths swirling around this issue. . For example, Social Security is not going “bankrupt” and its trust fund (pool of money from which benefit are paid) is not fake or nonexistent. Nor does Social Security, per se, increase the budget deficit. Myths like these are so widespread that two-thirds of Americans believe Social Security faces a major crisis and more than one-half believe they personally will never see a dime in benefits!

So, maybe I will start our meeting with a quick rundown of how SS works (inc. its trust fund), who it benefits and who pays, and why it may face a funding shortfall. Some of you know all about this, so I will be brief so we have time to focus on solutions and broader issues. One broader issue might be the general merits of social insurance, since progressives want to expand multiple forms of social insurance and conservatives seem (to me) to have turned against the very concept. So, it might be useful to discuss the pros and cons of various types of national, mandatory social insurance.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. ABCs: How does Social Security operate, who pays and who benefits, etc.? How important is Social Security to Americans’ financial security?
  2. Global comparison: How generous is SS compared to public pension systems in other wealthy countries? Is SS different in other ways?
  3. Solvency: How sound are SS’s finances? How big is the projected shortfall and how certain are experts that it will occur at all?
  4. Fixes: Pros/cons of various ideas for closing the financing gap.
  5. Public confidence: Why do so many Americans treasure Social Security but doubt it will be there for them? How can their confidence be restored?
  6. Social Insurance: What are the pros and cons – inc. long term affordability – of mandatory universal social insurance, like SS and others?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are we near the end of paper currency?

Monday’s Mtg: What do today’s movies and TV shows say about us and our future?

Ali’s topic idea is interesting I think, for several reasons. Obviously, a society’s fiction reflects its zeitgeist. Popular culture like TV and movies can mirror back our moral values, our gender and racial expectations, our political beliefs, and so forth. TV/movies can influence culture and public opinion. A few months ago we talked about science fiction in this context. I thought I found some cool background readings for that meeting, like this one and this one. In 2014 we did comedy’s affect ton U.S. politics, in which we focused on the Stewart/Colbert effect. Extending our sci-fi conversation to TV/movies in general sounds like fun.

There are way too many angles to the topic for us to discuss them all (much less for me to find readings on). So, depending on what you all want to do, we might want to focus on some aspects TV/movies’ influence to the exclusion of others; e.g., politics, religiosity, gender roles, racial attitudes, or effects on children. We could focus on specific genres, like reality TV or war movies; or on specific influential shows. After I do the reading I’m sure that I, like you, will think of other ways we could slice the salami.

One other thing I want us to get into.  The entertainment industry is on the leading edge of the digital technology revolution that will sooner or later transform every other industry and corner of our economy. New technology affects how media is enjoyed/consumed (on mobile devices, on demand whatever/whenever we want), and manufactured (on a global scale for a global audience). The industry is decentralizing and centralizing simultaneously as power shifts from producers to consumers, but also to a tiny handful of distributors. Can we see the future of our entire economy in what’s happening to Hollywood?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are corporate monopolies hurting America?

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

Monday’s Mtg: Is technology ruining our attention spans?

I know, I know. You thought ruining attention spans was my job. Information technology’s effect on human attention spans is just one of those how-info-tech-is-changing-the-world topics we dip into occasionally.  We’ve done porn’s effect on sexuality, cyber security, and Facebook’s influence on friendship.  I remember linking to at least one article for some meeting that said the internet is changing the hardwiring of our brains.

The attention span angle is a new one for us but it is a topic of both general and academic interest.  I don’t know about you, but everybody I know complains the internet has ruined their ability to focus for any length of time on just one thing.  They’ve all but stopped reading books, can’t finish articles they start reading on-line, stop watching videos on-line after 34 minutes, etc.  Academic work on the issue got a short burst of media attention (is there any other kind of media attention?) a few years ago after a major study claimed technology has reduced average human attention span to a mere eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish. I don’t know if the study was any good or how it defined “attention span,” but I’ve linked to an article about it, below.

So, on Monday we can discuss the readings and anything else people have read or seen on our allegedly disappearing ability to pay attention. Also, this would be an especially good meeting, I think, to share some personal experiences. Most CivCon regulars grew up before the internet existed at all, and the full-on social media age is new to everybody, everywhere. What has happened to your attention span and those of people you know?  How do you fight it?

We also could get into related issues. For example, how has the information technology revolution affected our memories, how and how much we learn, the capacity for empathy, and openness to opposing points of view?  What about our intimate relationships and social lives?

I’ll see you Monday at 7pm.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is rural versus urban America’s worst political divide?

Monday’s Mtg: How far should the government go to encourage healthy lifestyles?

The more I think about this one the more complicated it gets. OTOH, a lot of what the government does to prevent and treat what are called non-communicable diseases (like cancer, diabetes, anorexia, Alzheimer’s, and hypertension) is widely supported by most Americans. The public loves govt funding basic research on chronic diseases, Medicare and Obamacare subsidies, and govt-enforced safe food and water.

But, when Americans perceive that other people’s illnesses are due to poor lifestyle choices things get controversial. How far should, for example, regulation and taxpayer-supported health insurance go in protecting people from their own bad choices?

It’s not just a moral judgment, either. As the first article below points out, it is hard to attribute many chronic conditions to specific behaviors. This is true even for health problems they’ve been studying for decades like cancer and diabetes and (it seems to me) is probably even more true for behaviors that public policy is newly targeting, like obesity. How can we know what interventions are cost-effective if we don’t know how a lot of the science works?

Oh, and what constitutes a bad lifestyle “choice” exactly? Not all decisions about what to eat and where to work and live are equally voluntary, especially for children but also in a sense for people too poor to afford healthy choices.

Along with these issues, here are some other basic questions we might consider on Monday. I will be back from my vacation, BTW.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Rationale: Why should the govt try to prevent/minimize bad lifestyle choices?
    — Why: General public interest? Externalities (effects on other people)? To help the economy? To prevent needless suffering? To fulfill international obligations?
    —  When: Scientific uncertainty.
    — Who: Federal govt v. state/local concern?
  2. Targets: Which behaviors?
    — Smoking/drinking, other drug use and vices.
    — Diet: Obesity/sugar, child nutrition/school lunches, “food deserts” in poor areas.
    — Violence and accidents: Guns, hazards. At work/home.
    — Health care: Insurance, Obamacare carrot and sticks.
  3. Tools: It’s not just regulation.
    — Taxation/subsidies.
    — Information and advocacy.
    — Market regs: Restrictions on buying/selling, food service, product safety regs, etc.
    — Health care.
    — People under govt control: School kids, prisoners, soldiers…
  4. Limits:  How much govt action is too much?
    — Who should decide?
    — Where has govt gone too far or should do more?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Does foreign aid work?

Monday’s Mtg: Why is American culture so violent?

The United States is one of the most violent countries in the developed world. For example, here is how we compare with other OECD countries in deaths rates from assaults.

assault-deaths-oecd-ts-all-new-20131

[Source: OECD See here for identities of the other countries.]

Wow.  And it it’s not just homicide and it’s not just crime. Just thinking out loud I suppose we could identify four kinds of societal violence:

  1. Domestic violence (home/family);
  2. Public violence (crime, racial/sectarian/communal strife);
  3. State violence (repression, war/pseudo-war, criminal justice system); and
  4. Recreational violence, both simulated (TV/movies/gaming) and real (violent sports, hunting, gun hobbyists).

I haven’t looked up whether we lead in all four of these. But, we certainly do on #2, and maybe on #3 and #4. Of course, many poor/non-democratic nations have much higher levels of violence us, and much of our war fighting is as head of the Western alliance system. Still, the American people and its institutions are really, really violence-prone.

For this meeting I thought we could tackle the very unnerving idea that the main cause is cultural. Is there something, er, exceptional in American culture that makes us this way? The 300 million guns? The high poverty rates? Racism and segregation? Mass incarceration? Hyper-individualism?  A Wild West mentality or Southern culture (the South is by far our most violent region)?  Do conservative explanations hold any water, like declining religiosity/respect for moral authority or self-destructive “culture of poverty” values?  Violent entertainment?   Drugs?  You get the complexity idea.

Also, has a high tolerance for violence always been a part of our society, or has something changed recently? One of the links below is about the growing paranoia of U.S. gun culture.  Also, we just elected a president at the very least despite of – or more likely IMO – because of the way he reveled in violent rhetoric and promises to inflict actual violence. His message of an “American carnage” terrorized by violent crime and foreign exploitation and his unveiled threats of vengeance against foreign and domestic enemies deeply resonated with tens of millions of Americans. What does that alone say about our culture’s normalization of violence, or, perhaps more benignly, about voters’ beliefs that the violence is out of control?

Here are some different points of view on whether and why American culture is distinctively and excessively violent.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Who runs San Diego – and for whose benefit?

Monday’s Mtg: Which beliefs have you changed since you were young and why?

Gale came up with this idea. I like it partly because it lets us get off the hamster wheel of reading and intellectualizing over politics, philosophy, history, and the like. But, I also like the topic because it basically asks each of us how much of what we have experienced and learned has really mattered – enough to make us change our opinions.

What people learn from experience is heavily influenced by what they want to believe a priori, of course. Still, as this week’s handful of background readings discuss, our beliefs do evolve throughout our lives as we gain experience and perspective. About what have you changed your opinion? God/religion, politics, personal ethics, marriage and children? What did it for you? Marriage and kids, church, school, career choices?  How hard was it to evolve?

After my 45 minute opening lecture (Note: KIDDING), I am really interested in hearing what you all, with all of your decades and decades and decades (sorry) of wisdom have to say. Have a nice weekend and I’ll see you on Monday evening.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK: What is a “fair” burden of taxation?

Monday’s Mtg: The Uses and Abuses of “Pop Economics.”

Rich suggested this topic. I wish I had, because I think it is one of our most important topics in years. The way basic, introductory-level economics has been abused to make bad national policy has been a pet peeve of mine for many years.

Sure, all rhetoric in politics is kept sound bite and bumper sticker-friendly. (Not to a fourth grade level like Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps, but still.) And, everybody does it. “Our borders are unguarded/open.” Liberals aren’t patriotic. Neoconservatives love war.

But, when it comes to rhetoric –and policy, too – concerning economics, something much, much more pernicious goes on. It has been called the problem of “Econ 101ism” or “Economism.” Economism, to quote the coiner of the term, is “the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case.” For years I’ve seen way too many politicians (and their pundit and journalist enablers) use over-simplified – and thus often inaccurate – Econ 101ism as a kind of Gospel that fully explains how the world really works. They use its “lessons” to show what correct government policy has to be and anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand economics.

Everybody does Economism sometimes. Liberals sometimes indulge in it when thinking and talking about international trade and, less often IMO, about macroeconomics (govt spending levels). But, as the articles below explain better than I will on Monday, there is something about Econ 101’s easy, breezy, oversimplified analysis of how markets work that easily seduces conservatives.  All those pretty supply and demand curves leading to ideal equilibriums without ever a need for government interference.

Again, I don’t mean this topic to be about economic polices and rhetoric that I think are wrong.  I mean it to be about those that are wrong for one particular reason: They are based on a belief that the highly simplified textbook explanations of how markets work should tell us all we need to know about what policies should be.  Econ 101ism, to me, is too often a shield for preferences that based on other things, like ideology and moral beliefs. .

I’ve tried to keep the linked readings fairly easy and, well, breezy. They oversimplify, too, but get the idea across.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What does Econ 101 teach about how markets and govt interference in markets work? What important things does it gloss over?
  2. In what big ways can well-meaning political advocates misinterpret the lessons of Econ 101?
  3. How do the lessons of Econ 101 get misused by politicians; i.e., what is Economism?
  4. What are some good examples of Economism in action on the Right and Left?
    –> In tax policy? Financial regulation? Trade? Wages and labor markets? Health care? Education?
  5. How can seductive rhetoric based on Economism be effectively countered?
  6. What’s the “other side” POV here? Is Econ 11ism not a big thing?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Conservative use of Econ 101ism

Liberals use of Econ 101ism –

Special Topics in Econ 101ism –

NEXT WEEK: What beliefs have you changed since you were young?