Tag Archives: Ezra Klein

Technology-R-Us?

Among the recurring elements of what my sons call “family photos”  are the iPhone pictures snapped at family get-togethers in which we’re all looking at our iPhones. My youngest son (who is one of the worst offenders) usually labels those pictures “warm family moments” or something equally sarcastic.

I don’t think my family is unique. Enter an elevator or restaurant, or just walk down a city street, and most people you encounter are staring at the small screens. That reality–and it certainly seems to be a universal reality–raises the question: what is this seductive technology doing to our brains?

Ezra Klein recently addressed that question in an essay for the New York Times.

I am of the generation old enough to remember a time before cyberspace but young enough to have grown up a digital native. And I adored my new land. The endless expanses of information, the people you met as avatars but cared for as humans, the sense that the mind’s reach could be limitless. My life, my career and my identity were digital constructs as much as they were physical ones. I pitied those who came before me, fettered by a physical world I was among the first to escape.

A decade passed, and my certitude faded. Online life got faster, quicker, harsher, louder. “A little bit of everything all of the time,” as the comedian Bo Burnham put it. Smartphones brought the internet everywhere, colonizing moments I never imagined I’d fill. Many times I’ve walked into a public bathroom and everyone is simultaneously using a urinal and staring at a screen.

Klein referenced several of the 20th-century media theorists, including Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong and Neil Postman, who “tried to warn us.” And he quoted Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it — and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.

Sound familiar? It sure does to me. And it resonated with Klein, who was particularly struck by the word “hungry.”

That was the word that hooked me. That’s how my brain felt to me, too. Hungry. Needy. Itchy. Once it wanted information. But then it was distraction. And then, with social media, validation. A drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.”

How important is the choice of the platform–the medium–through which we receive messages? Like Klein, I’d always supposed that content is more important than the medium through which we access that content, but the theorists he cites beg to differ.

McLuhan’s famous insistence that “the medium is the message” reflected his view that mediums matter a lot–in fact, that they matter more than the content of the messages being conveyed. Different mediums create and communicate content differently, and those differences change people (and ultimately, society). As Klein concedes, “oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.”

Like several commenters on this blog, Klein has been influenced by Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”

McLuhan says: Don’t just look at what’s being expressed; look at the ways it’s being expressed. And then Postman says: Don’t just look at the way things are being expressed; look at how the way things are expressed determines what’s actually expressible.” In other words, the medium blocks certain messages.

Postman was planting a flag here: The border between entertainment and everything else was blurring, and entertainers would be the only ones able to fulfill our expectations for politicians. He spends considerable time thinking, for instance, about the people who were viable politicians in a textual era and who would be locked out of politics because they couldn’t command the screen.

Later, in this very long essay (which is well worth your time to read in its entirety,) Klein makes an important point:

There is no stable, unchanging self. People are capable of cruelty and altruism, farsightedness and myopia. We are who we are, in this moment, in this context, mediated in these ways. It is an abdication of responsibility for technologists to pretend that the technologies they make have no say in who we become.

I wonder: what have we become?

 

Rich And Poor

Arguments about poverty–suspicions about deservingness and general disdain for poor people–are nothing new. In the 15th Century, English Poor Laws forbid those who might be so inclined from “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.” Those attitudes came with the colonists to the New World, augmented by the Calvinist belief that accumulation of wealth signaled a “predestined” moral merit.

George W. Bush–the self-described “Compassionate Conservative”–pushed his “faith-based initiative” with language that equated poverty with an absence of “middle-class values,” implying that what poor people needed wasn’t better pay or more money, but more faith and better values.

America’s version of capitalism hasn’t helped. As Ezra Klein wrote last June in the New York Times, 

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Klein was commenting on a proposal for a guaranteed income–not a Universal Basic Income, about which I’ve previously written, but an annual income that would phase out as recipients entered the middle class. Whatever the merits of either of those proposals, it behooves policy folks who care more about governing in the public interest than about keeping transgender kids out of the “wrong” bathroom to revisit some of the more destructive and erroneous beliefs about poor people.

As Klein quite accurately notes, opposition to proposals that would attack poverty by giving poor people money isn’t based on costs, but on benefits.

A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery. “It is a fact that when we pay workers less and don’t have social insurance programs that, say, cover Uber and Lyft drivers, we are able to consume goods and services at lower prices,” Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, where she also co-directs the Opportunity Lab, told me.

This is the conversation about poverty that we don’t like to have: We discuss the poor as a pity or a blight, but we rarely admit that America’s high rate of poverty is a policy choice, and there are reasons we choose it over and over again. We typically frame those reasons as questions of fairness (“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s laziness?”) or tough-minded paternalism (“Work is good for people, and if they can live on the dole, they would”).

These objections echo the English Poor Laws. Disdainful, financially-comfortable people ignore what we all know–that this country is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages, bad luck, and policy choices that favor the disdainful.

 We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Most Americans don’t think of themselves as benefiting from the poverty of others–but of course, as Klein points out, we do. So we object to proposals to ameliorate poverty with lectures about

how the government is subsidizing indolence, paeans to the character-building qualities of low-wage labor, worries that the economy will be strangled by taxes or deficits, anger that Uber and Lyft rides have gotten more expensive, and sympathy for the struggling employers who can’t fill open roles rather than for the workers who had good reason not to take those jobs.

We haven’t come very far from the 15th Ceentury.

 

The Return of Anita Bryant

Most readers of this blog are old enough to remember Anita Bryant, and her campaign to “Save Our Children” from those wicked gay people.  Over the years, she’s become something of a punch line, at least in the gay community. To appropriate a line from the movie Jaws, however, “she’s back!” Not in the flesh, of course, but in the antics of state-level GOP political figures like Ron DeSantis.

The return of Republican focus on–and antipathy to–equal rights for LGBTQ+ Americans was highlighted in a recent roundtable discussion among New York Times  opinion writers.

That discussion included a number of penetrating observations, and I will be posting about a couple of them in future posts. But today, I want to share what I believe are well-founded concerns about what appears to be a foundational issue for Republican culture warriors.

One of the participants in the Roundtable, Jane Coaston, addressed that issue–return of  the GOP’s assault on LGBTQ rights.

 I went back to some old Times pieces talking about the Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of Disney, because Disney started offering same-sex health care benefits in 1995. I think that for anyone who is L.G.B.T. and over the age of 30, this all seems very repetitive.

Ezra Klein, another Roundtable participant, identified a “challenge” to the strategists of the G.O.P.– he pointed out that the party has “this wave of people” who have begun screaming, “OK, groomer,” at literally any L.G.B.T. person on the internet. Despite the fact that traditional conservative outlets like National Review are warning politicians not to say things like that, “no one’s listening.”

He’s right. Bloomberg reports that Republican legislators have proposed at least 325 anti-gay bills this year, with about 130 targeting transgender rights. Twenty-seven became law in 2021;  so far this year, seven have passed.

As Coaston noted,

 These issues have to do, one, with a conceit of what L.G.B.T. people are and how L.G.B.T. people become L.G.B.T. I think we’ve seen over the last couple of days, some social conservatives who essentially argue that bills like in Florida, which keep being posited as being about sex ed — they aren’t about sex ed. There’s no mention of sex education or sexual activity in that bill. It mentions sexual orientation and gender identity. But the idea is that if you simply do not ever let people know that there is such thing as gay or trans people, then people will not be gay or trans.

Rod Dreher, the conservative writer said that, oh, no, no, when we’re talking about grooming, we’re not talking about pedophiles — which is ridiculous. But he essentially said that, oh, it means that an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity to inspire confusion in them, which just reminds me of Anita Bryant in 1978, essentially arguing that homosexuals must recruit, and that all children are cisgender and heterosexual until something happens.

Coaston made another important point about this particular part of the GOP’s culture war: the attacks on trans children aren’t separate and distinct from attitudes about gay rights generally. These “warriors” are still mad about Bostock. They’re still mad about Obergefell. 

That’s something that we keep needing to relearn: that there is no part of the L.G.B.T. community that’s OK for some social conservatives. It’s not as if like, “Trans rights went too far, but we’re totally fine with gay couples. We’re totally fine with everything like that.” That might have been how it was parlayed, but that was never true.

In this blog, I frequently note the ways in which today’s GOP is dramatically different–and far, far more radical–than the party most of us once knew. An exchange between Coaston and Klein highlighted that difference…and was chilling. Coaston characterized today’s GOP as a “secular fundamentalist religion– “QAnon, but an areligious QAnon.”

Klein responded:

Well, it’s both, right? Because on the one hand, you have a Rod Dreher version of it, which is very, very Christian, “We’re trying to protect traditional gender roles.” It’s why he’s out there tweeting that Viktor Orban in Hungary is now the leader of the entire West. And on the other side you have this groomer thing, which is an attempt to take QAnon’s view — which is one reason it’s resonating on the far right — that all of politics is an effort by Democrats to protect pedophiles and then find some way to sort of wink, wink that you’re on board with that view of politics while saying it’s actually a little bit about something else…

As Klein also observed, countries live or fall on how well they police the fringes–the crazies– in their political parties.

Republicans not only haven’t done that policing, they’ve become their fringe. And LGBTQ people aren’t the only ones they endanger.

 

Ezra Klein Is Right

Ezra Klein is becoming one of my favorite pundits, thanks to columns in the New York Times like this one from late April, in which (in an aside) he pointed out that America “does have a multiparty political system, it’s just tucked inside the Senate Democratic caucus.”

The column–written before reports of the hardening of Senator Manchin’s stubborn refusal to consider any measure, no matter how good for the country, unless it is sufficiently “bipartisan”–considered the prospects of such bipartisanship in today’s degraded political environment.

As he notes,

The yearning for bipartisanship shapes the Senate in profound ways. For instance, it helps the filibuster survive. The filibuster is believed — wrongly, in my view — to promote bipartisanship, and so it maintains a symbolic appeal for those who wish for a more bipartisan Senate. “There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster,” Senator Joe Manchin wrote in The Washington Post. “The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship.”

In the absence of the filibuster, the Senate might pass more legislation, but it would do so in a more partisan way, and some, like Manchin, would see that as a failure no matter the content of the bills. “We’d all prefer bipartisanship, but for some of my colleagues, it’s a very high value,” Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, told me.

Klein offers a contrary view: he argues that bipartisan governance isn’t innately better than partisan governance. In fact, he asserts, it’s often worse.

Although it is true that neither party has all the answers, bipartisan support does not usually generate legislation that features–or even includes– the best ideas of Republicans and the best ideas of Democrats.  Klein points out the obvious barriers to such a happy result.

A bipartisan bill is simply a bill that members of both parties support. That means they can support it ideologically and they can support it politically. It’s that latter condition that’s toughest to fulfill: The minority party doesn’t want to give the majority big, bipartisan accomplishments, because the minority party wants the majority to lose the next election….

The set of ideas that both parties can agree on is far smaller and blander than the range of ideas that one party or the other likes. To insist on bipartisanship as a condition of passage is to believe that it’s better for Amercan politics to choose its solutions from the kids’ menu.

Klein reminds readers that virtually all Republican elected officials have signed a pledge to oppose any and all tax increases. A bipartisan approach would thus take taxes off the table.  But even when tax policies aren’t under consideration, bills with bipartisan support are generally bills that have seen their “edges” sanded off.

Compromise bills can be wise legislation, but they often result in policy too modest and mushy to solve problems. We would never want industries to release only products that all the major competitors can agree on…

Klein concedes that things haven’t always been this polarized, and bipartisanship hasn’t always produced toothless legislation. But the current search for bipartisanship–at least, as conceived by Manchin and Sinema–is really summarized by a couple of memes circulating on Facebook. One has Lincoln saying he’d like to emancipate the slaves, but only after getting buy-in from the slaveholders; the other shows an 18th-Century man considering American independence, but only if the English agree.

Mitch McConnell has made it abundantly clear that the only “bipartisanship” Republicans will recognize is surrender by the Democrats to their demands.

Manchin and his ilk misunderstand a basic premise of American politics. As Klein explains,

This is what Manchin gets wrong: A world of partisan governance is a world in which Republicans and Democrats both get to pass their best ideas into law, and the public judges them on the results. That is far better than what we have now, where neither party can routinely pass its best ideas into law, and the public is left frustrated that so much political tumult changes so little.

It will surprise no one to hear that I think Democrats should get rid of the filibuster. But it’s not because I believe Democrats necessarily have the right answers for what ails America. It’s because I believe the right answers are likelier to be found if one party, and then the other, can try its hand at solving America’s problems. Partisan governance gives both parties true input over how America is governed; they just have to win elections. Bipartisan governance, at least with parties this polarized, does the opposite: It deprives both sides of the ability to govern and elections of their consequences.

Exactly.

 

The Founders And The Filibuster

Among the many forgotten lessons of America’s past is the abysmal failure of the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Thanks to the widespread absence of effective civics instruction, much of the public is unaware of the very existence of America’s first effort at nation-building, let alone the reasons that initial effort failed.

The Articles had numerous flaws–mostly attributable to the reluctance of the colonies to cede authority to a central government. Probably the best-known weakness of that first effort was the inability of the new central government to levy taxes. The central government could ask for revenues–for example, monies to retire debt amassed during the Revolutionary War–but if a state didn’t want to pay, it didn’t pay, and the federal government could do nothing about it.

The lack of a dependable revenue stream wasn’t even the worst of it. Under the Articles, any changes to the structure or operations of government needed a unanimous vote of the 13 colonies–and most other policies required the concurrence of a super-majority. Those provisions made governing impossible. When the Founders met in Philadelphia to replace the fatally-weak Articles with the Constitution, changing that unworkable super-majority requirement was  high on their “to do” list.

What we know of that history and the Founders’ antagonism to government by super-majority should inform our approach to the current iteration of the Senate filibuster.

Ezra Klein recently hosted Adam Jettleson, a longtime Senate staffer, on his podcast, and reported their conversation in a column for the New York Times. Jettleson pointed out that one of the biggest misconceptions about the filibuster is the idea that it promotes bipartisanship.

In fact, it does the opposite because it gives the party that’s out of power the means, motive and opportunity to block the party that’s in power from getting anything done. And when the party that’s in power doesn’t get anything done — when voters see nothing but gridlock from Washington — they turn to the party that’s out of power and try to put them back in office.

Republicans are well poised to take back majorities in both the House and Senate — all they need is a handful of seats to do so. So they have every rational, political incentive to block Biden from achieving any victories. A program that would cut child poverty massively would be a huge victory for Biden. And the ability for Biden to pass it on a bipartisan basis would be a huge victory for his campaign promise to restore bipartisanship and unity.

Jettleson reminded listeners that the Framers had anticipated this very situation. They identified this huge drawback with supermajority thresholds in 1789, when they had direct firsthand experience with the Articles of Confederation.

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton addresses this misperception head-on. He says, “What at first sight might seem a remedy,” referring to a supermajority threshold, “is in reality a poison.” You might think it would cause compromise, but really what it does is it provides an irresistible temptation for the party that’s out of power to make the party in power look bad.

As Klein observed, bipartisanship is something the majority wants, but the minority has no incentive to give–something  Mitch McConnell certainly understands. During the first years of the Obama administration, McConnell knew he could win the majority back by sabotaging its ability to govern–that the majority party will inevitably get the blame for gridlock, no matter how unfair that may be.

The mischief being done by the current iteration of the filibuster has become obvious. It continues to prevent the Senate from functioning properly–for that matter,  as Jettleson documents in his recent book, “Kill Switch,” it pretty much keeps the Senate from functioning at all.

A mountain of evidence suggests that it is long past time to get rid of the filibuster.

The question, then, is why Democratic senators like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema continue to defend it.