Monday, November 1, 2010

Both Sides Do It

I know someone we'll call Ick. He's a pretty horrible human being. We got into an argument about politics on Facebook, on the status update of a mutual friend. He said that that conservatives take responsibilities for their actions while liberals don't. The core of his argument was the claim that Mark Sanford stepped down from his position as a gesture of sincere regret. I asked him that if Sanford had stepped down, who was running South Carolina?

Sanford was forced out of his chairman in Republican Governors Association, but that was a ceremonial position with little authority. But Ick held tight. Of course that was what he meant!  Because forced out of a sinecure and voluntarily resigning the governorship are pretty much the same thing, and either is a sincere expressions of penance.

We went back and forth for a while. I brought up specific examples of right wing malfeasance, and Ick said that this was "just spouting the party line" and couldn't deign to answer these questions. The most he would concede was that "Both sides do it," which is also, a lie.

That's my big complaint about Jon Stewert's rally at the mall. He concluded it by saying that both sides go too far, and that we should all just calm down.

I disagree. Thomas Paine said: "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice." I think Dan Savage's Fuck Your Feelings piece was right on.

Because both sides don't do it.

Democrats do not hold down a young woman and curb stomp her for carrying a sign they find offensive.

Democrats don't have a private security force of active duty military personnel to arrest reporters who ask questions they don't like.

Democrats don't physically attack people for carrying signs for their opponent.

After the argument with Ick, I was talking to the friend on whose Facebook page this argument had occurred, and he said that he doesn't really follow politics and that we both seemed right. And that's the problem.

Both sides don't do, but people like Ick like to perpetuate that myth. Perhaps Ick could find examples of the isolated liberal acting like the people in the above links. But the people who did those things were not random individuals. Tim Profitt was the county coordinator for Rand Paul, Joe Miller is probably going to be Alaska's next senator and Bruce O'Donoghue is actually a former congressman.

So, no, both sides don't do it. I think the Democrats at the National Level have been ineffectual and hideously cowardly, but they're not actually actively malevolent.

Nor are both sides corrupt, and that's what drives me nuts about organizations like VOID.  VOID stands for Vote Out Incumbents Democracy. Change, by itself, is neither good nor bad. If you think your elected representative isn't serving your interests, then yes, vote him or her out. But don't do it just for the sake of doing it. It’s a secret ballot, and not really the appropriate place for performance art.

It makes me think of a phenomenon called regression towards the mean. Athletes talk about the Sports Illustrated curse, where they believe it's bad luck to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But how do you get there? By doing something truly exceptional. Odds are, your next performances are going to be closer to the average, and when compared against the previous epic performance, they will seem to be much less impressive.

Regression to the mean explains why people believe that punishment is more effective than rewards in influencing behavior. A psychologist performed an experiment where a a computer would randomly make a student on time or late for school. Participants could chose to reward or punish the fictional child, not knowing their actions had no effect on the outcome. But odds are, if the child were late one day, he would not be late the next, and the punishment would seem to have worked. And vise versa, if a child were late after being rewarded for being on time, the rewards would seem to have been ineffective.

Wikipedia has a similar tale:

The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel prize in economics, pointed out that regression to the mean might explain why rebukes can seem to improve performance, while praise seems to backfire.
I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career while attempting to teach flight instructors that praise is more effective than punishment for promoting skill-learning. When I had finished my enthusiastic speech, one of the most seasoned instructors in the audience raised his hand and made his own short speech, which began by conceding that positive reinforcement might be good for the birds, but went on to deny that it was optimal for flight cadets. He said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” This was a joyous moment, in which I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them. I immediately arranged a demonstration in which each participant tossed two coins at a target behind his back, without any feedback. We measured the distances from the target and could see that those who had done best the first time had mostly deteriorated on their second try, and vice versa. But I knew that this demonstration would not undo the effects of lifelong exposure to a perverse contingency.

And it seems like the whole rationale for VOID is predicated on this fallacy. It's even worse. They're buying into the punishment/reward paradigm of my first example, but they're doing so knowing it's false. They want an endless series of churn for our elected officials, based on arbitrary capricious criteria.

I leave you with these four questions.

Four questions for Republicans...and four answers for undecided voters

  1. What was the average monthly private sector job growth in 2008, the final year of the Bush presidency, and what has it been so far in 2010?
  1. What was the Federal deficit for the last fiscal year of the Bush presidency, and what was it for the first full fiscal year of the Obama presidency?
  1. What was the stock market at on the last day of the Bush presidency? What is it at today?
  1. Which party's candidate for speaker will campaign this weekend with a Nazi reenactor who dressed up in a SS uniform?
  1. In 2008, we lost an average of 317,250 private sector jobs per month. In 2010, we have gained an average of 95,888 private sector jobs per month. (Source) That's a difference of nearly five million jobs between Bush's last year in office and President Obama's second year.
  1. In FY2009, which began on September 1, 2008 and represents the Bush Administration's final budget, the budget deficit was $1.416 trillion. In FY2010, the first budget of the Obama Administration, the budget deficit was $1.291 trillion, a decline of $125 billion. (Source) Yes, that means President Obama has cut the deficit -- there's a long way to go, but we're in better shape now than we were under Bush and the GOP.
  1. On Bush's final day in office, the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 closed at 7,949, 1,440, and 805, respectively. Today, as of 10:15AM Pacific, they are at 11,108, 2,512, and 1,183. That means since President Obama took office, the Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 have increased 40%, 74%, and 47%, respectively.
  1. The Republican Party, whose candidate for speaker, John Boehner, will campaign with Nazi re-enactor Rich Iott this weekend. If you need an explanation why this is offensive, you are a lost cause.
Remember, get out there and vote.

No comments:

Post a Comment