Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Snark, Schadenfreude And Set Theory

Ah, it has been a good day to surf the intertubes. Not just from the perspective of a despicably smug lefty, either. No, today has also offered up delightfully rich pickings for those of us who get our jollies torturing incoherent arguments to death. Such a life we lead, my friends! Off we go, creeping silently through the Forests of Logic, ears cocked for the rustling of the skittish False Dichotomy, or the nervous whinnying of the Excluded Middle. Once in a great while we might even come across the mighty If-By-Whiskey drinking from a babbling stream.

Then we beat the shit out of it. It is how we roll.

Right now you can stick a pin in the map of American Right Wing Blogohedria (to the extent such a map would exist, beyond a plain piece of paper with the words KEEP THE FUCK OUT printed upon it in scarlet script) and pretty much guarantee the associated page will be filled with signs of dire portent. The end of the Republic, the sinking ship that is Western civilisation, cats and dogs living together, and the drumbeat of the apocalypse (only one of those I haven't seen today, and I swear to God: it's the one about domestic mammals); it's all just one huge stinking Louisiana bayou of red-faced temper-tantrum spittle-drenched invective. And I know from red-faced temper-tantrum spittle-drenched invective. I encountered one gentleman today convinced that HCR was the first step towards socialism, itself the first step towards totalitarianism, and what Congress should actually have done was to introduce medicine directly into the water supply to treat people that way. Forcing people to buy insurance = the machinations of the Stasi (seriously, he said that, except for "machinations", which is a long word that I lent to him because I am nice), but forcing people to drink a bizarre cocktail of medications designed to combat all known diseases = a literal universal panacea.

The downside to this target-rich environment, of course, is that it doesn't really provide much in the way of sport. To continue and revise the metaphor, it's like going hunting for bear only to discover every grizzly within a twelve-mile radius has been attacked by puckish fairies, who have not only caused them to lapse into enchanted slumber, but have also placed giant flashing arrows atop each dozing ursine, pointing to the heart and accompanied with the words "SHOOT HERE". Sure, you can still murder the bear, but where is the challenge? What in God's name is the point in massacring an innocent animal if it can't defend itself? Or, more precisely, if the primitive, irrelevant synapses it stores within its puny bear mind can't quake in fear at its impending destruction at the hands of a superior predator?

It's important to choose your shot, is what I'm saying. In fact, I hadn't really planned on saying anything at all, everything was so easy. "In Rebuttal of Stasi McCalpoltaps" doesn't really make for engaging reading, I would guess.

Hooray for The Atlantic's Megan McArdle, then. Not only do people read her because she's a Serious Journalist, but her article posted just after HCR passed is so laughably, hideously, blood-boilingly horrible that I was simply unable to walk by. It's that perfect mix of total abdication of critical thought and the desperate desire to appear coherent, like a jelly that paints itself grey and tries to pass itself of as a steel helmet. In future years, when we're living in huts built from the shells of the i-Pods that stopped working just after the Finland-Chinese alliance nuked the entirety of Western Europe, I hope I have a copy of this article to hand so that I can teach our surviving, horribly mutated children exactly what a failure to apply fairness, logic or common sense looks like. Let's see what she has to say, hmm?
Parties have passed legislation before that wasn't broadly publicly supported. But the only substantial instances I can think of in America are budget bills and TARP--bills that the congressmen were basically forced to by emergencies in the markets.
Ah, the old "I can't recall" dodge, also known as the "If I don't bother researching my points I won't have to worry about being proved wrong" pirouette (I think in some regions they also call it the "Bill Kristol lunge of desperation"). Others have already pointed out a fairly obvious example: the Surge. That initiative, all of three years old, had a 60% disapproval rating, but Congress let it go through. They did vote in a non-binding resolution to "object", but they didn't vote to stop it, and they sure as Hell could have. Unless McArdle is arguing that the will of the people can be ignored as long as it's done in a bipartisan fashion, of course. Even by the standards of the "Bipartisanship is more important than progress, electoral promises/mandates and the law, so long as it's Democrats doing the compromising" brigade, though, "bipartisanship > democracy" would be a fairly major ramp up of this particular fetishism.

(Also, to retrieve my well-worn drum for one last solo: note how market failure is an emergency, and hundreds of thousands of needless deaths are something to be worried about some other time if we can be bothered maybe).
Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn't want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all.
There are three problems with this most gobsmackingly vacuous of statements, which I shall tackle in the strict order in which they can be applied to smash this foolishness into its constituent moron-molecules (a strange compound assembled from atoms of crapium, nonsensegen and weapons-grade bullshitanium).

Firstly, anyone who has spent even the briefest amount of time watching this debate unfold (and you had plenty of time to do it) will already be aware that McArdle is arguing that it doesn't matter how a party persuades the public to take it's side, just so long as it does so. The list of lies, half-truths and underhanded tactics employed by the GOP since this whole fracas started could fill a phonebook, but McArdle discards all of that because it suits her purpose to argue that somehow the loudest voices must triumph independently of what is being screamed (and make no mistake, once you remove the need to actually say stuff that's, y'know, true, the loudest voice will win ninety-nine times out of a hundred). This leads us into reason two: the true, mind-numbing idiocy in the viewpoint she claims to profess. It's not that she claims unpopular legislation must be stopped regardless of merit, it's that popular legislation must be employed regardless of its self-evident craziness or how the American public were duped into believing it was a good idea. In other words, this woman who claims to be deeply concerned about the political future of America can't even wrap her brain around the fact that America is a Republic. Perhaps she thinks the only reason it isn't a pure democracy is the lack of cash that one would need to allow every decision to be sent to public referendum "USA: As Democratic As We're Prepared To Pay For". Doesn't really set the pulse racing, does it?

The third problem is just as fundamental: it is not the case that the public was against healthcare reform. They were, and are, overwhelmingly in favour of it. It's just that a desire for reform is not the same thing as desire for this specific bill. McArdle is arguing that if the public wants healthcare, but disagrees on how to do it, the democratic reaction is to do nothing at all. To ignore the will of the people, in other words. McArdle can only argue passing the bill is bypassing the people's desire by carefully slicing up the set of those citizens who want reform in just such a way as to prove her point. Sure, more people disliked this bill than liked it. Not by much, of course, and more people who were informed about the contents of the bill liked it than didn't, but let's grant McArdle her starting point. What's critical though is the reasons why people disliked the bill. These were many and varied - many in the GOP ranks complained it was too long, and I think we can all agree that the biggest risk in creating a stable platform for far-reaching improvements to the way life-threatening illnesses are treated is that the accompanying text won't easily fit in your new slim-line briefcase - but in general they can be divided into those who felt it went too far, and those that didn't think it went far enough. The bill was a compromise. That's what politicians do. Well, what they're supposed to do, when they're not bellowing into every available live mic that the proposed legislation will murder your grandmother - murder your fucking grandmother, Megan, that's how the Republicans "did their job" - and that the guy who came up with the reform process he essentially stole from their own party circa 1993 is Chairman Hitler Von Stalin-Pot of the planet Islamofaggot IV.

You may as well say that if 50% of the population wanted the money spent on healthcare per year to be $1.2 billion a year at least, and 50% wanted it to be $1 billion a year at most, it is ignoring the people's will to set it at $1.1 billion. The most agreeable - or least disagreeable - compromise does not have to include the intersection of all opinion at all. Put another way, if come next Presidential campaign season no Republican candidate receives more than 50% of the primary vote, a rigorous application of McArdle's position would require her to argue that the GOP would be honour bound to field no candidate in opposition to Obama.

It's quite possible, indeed it's very likely, that there is no health care bill conceivable by man or God that could satisfy more than 50% of the population, but that does not mean doing nothing is the preferred choice. This is basic set theory; you need to make sure you choose a sensible group of mutually exclusive and exhaustive subsets and interpret them in the right way. Frankly, it's also basic logic. And I mean basic. McArdle's position, to the extent to which we can believe it's genuine, is unbelievably childish in it's over-simplicity. And I don't even mean childish in the sense of it being deeply worrying to think that money was paid in exchange for her article, I mean childish in the sense of needing to ask an adult's permission before she can be allowed access to the safety scissors and PVA.
If you don't find that terrifying, let me suggest that you are a Democrat who has not yet contemplated what Republicans might do under similar circumstances. Farewell, Social Security! Au revoir, Medicare! The reason entitlements are hard to repeal is that the Republicans care about getting re-elected.
If McArdle's last paragraphs were Level 1 of Super Mario in Incoherence Land, then this is, ooh, Level 17 at least. The one you can't get to until you've collected forty gold stars (which McArdle shouldn't be allowed to handle, for fear of pricking her fingers on the sharp bits) and beaten up Bowser a couple of times with a fire-flower in one hand and a copy of the Socratic Method in the other. The reason entitlements are hard to repeal is that they are staggeringly popular. Not popular as in "any specific alternative taken in isolation gets less support", popular as in "Take it away and we will break you". McArdle is taking a situation in which no specific course of action had a plurality of votes and comparing it to situations in which the people of America would tear apart Capitol Hill with their teeth (real or otherwise) were anyone to try and knock them on the head. This is to say nothing of the ludicrousness inherent in arguing that the best way to demonstrate you care about re-election is to abandon a central campaign promise in the wake of unprecedented obstruction from the very party to which those same elections dealt a humiliating defeat. "We promise to do the things you want unless the guys you don't want running the show anymore decide you can't have them."

Also, whilst we're on the subject, McArdle manages to hobble her entire argument here and is too busy screaming bloody murder to notice. What just passed is a goddamn entitlement. A lot of people, CBO scoring notwithstanding, are convinced that it's too expensive an entitlement, and hence one that the US can't afford, but it's an entitlement nonetheless. More to the point, it's the entitlement to not die in agony from conditions we have the ability to cure. That sounds pretty damn good to me. I'm certainly glad I have that right, croissant munching Euro-pansy that I am. I can believe that in a few years people decide the bill is too expensive (again, CBO scoring aside), but I cannot possibly imagine it will retain only lukewarm support.

Since McArdle doesn't bother to mention this glaringly obvious point I can only assume she is working on the principle either that entitlements never get any more popular than the day they are created, or that irrespective of their contemporary popularity was a mistake to put together those entitlements in the first place if public opinion was against them at the time. The former position, of course, is fairly comprehensively disproved when one considers Civil Rights legislation - which like healthcare reform were strongly popular as a nebulous ideal but cost the Democrats dearly because of the specific legislation enacted - and one assumes that the latter is destroyed by reference to those same laws. Unless Megan wants to tell us that the US should have waited until Civil Rights laws - not the concept in general, but each specific bill - were supported by more than 50% of the entire population before social progress was attempted. I'm sure we could have made Martin Luther King Jr understand. "We live in an Athenian Democracy, Reverend, even if we can't stump up the cash to do it right. Now get to the back of the bus, would you?".
...I guarantee you that there are a lot of GOP members out there tonight who think that they should get at least one free "Screw You" vote to balance out what the Democrats just did.
See above RE: having no interest whatsoever of the differences in what is being voted on, how accurately it's been described to the public, or the precise level of support according to polling data, as though this bill could be sensibly compared with a fortune cookie slip stating "Kill Each Family's Firstborn" introduced by Senator Satan (R-NJ). Given her preceeding paragraphs I can't claim to be surprised that McArdle has come out in favour of applying playground rules to the settling of political grievances over profound questions of entitlements and civic rights, but it's still impressive to see someone so determined to divest themselves of the burden of nuance that they're willing to scream "THEY DID IT FIRST!!!!1!!1!One" over a process that the Republicans have essentially already used.

None of this is to suggest I would seriously argue public opinion is irrelevant when it comes to deciding on how to vote on a given piece of legislation. What I profoundly object to is the suggestion that it is the only consideration to be made. The world, people, opinions, governments and politics are all deeply, frustratingly and above all beautifully complicated - well, maybe not for those last two so much with the beauty - and pretending not to see that for the purposes of pretending an undesirable outcome can be upgraded to an illegitimate one is a particularly disagreeable strain of intellectual dishonesty.

But let us not end it there! I am a fair man, after all, ever willing to find common ground with my opponents. With that in mind, then, I would like to end this post on a positive note of mutual agreement.
If the GOP takes the legislative innovations of the Democrats and decides to use them, please don't complain that it's not fair. Someone could get seriously hurt, laughing that hard.
See? In this, at least, McArdle is entirely correct. I am, indeed, laughing exceptionally hard.


Garathon said...

I was wondering why our office internet content filters blocked today's post.

Perhaps it was "Chairman Hitler Von Stalin-Pot of the planet Islamofaggot IV" that pushed it over the edge...

SpaceSquid said...

Yeah, The Man tends to have problems with those posts in which I'm spittin' the most truth.

Now that I think about it, it should probably be "Chairman Hitler von Stalin-Pot of the planet Islamofaggot IV". Oh well...