Monday, February 16, 2009

Nate Silver Vs. David Sirota

It's not a fight that I really wanted to see. I see how it happens, though -- these two are not the kinds of creatures who get along in the wild.

It would've been better for Nate to pick on somebody his own shape. If he had taken on a more thoughtful academic sort who shares many of Sirota's views, like former English grad student Chris Bowers, well, that'd be an exchange we could learn a lot from. But people who have blogs will rant about whatever makes them angry, and I guess Nate eventually got fed up with Sirota and couldn't take it anymore. For my part, I don't read Sirota all the time, because I tend to learn a lot less from reading him than I do from, say, Matt or Ezra. And he's often way too quick to demonize opponents without understanding what they're saying.

This time, however, Sirota's response was more thoughtful than I expected. (He was quite nice to Nate too. Maybe because Nate called him 'dangerous' and Sirota seems to sort of like that.) Anyway, I feel that we're looking at an unusually bad Nate post here.

Why a bad Nate post? For one thing, the big "Rational Progressives" vs. "Radical Progressives" chart falls well short of typical Silverian insight -- it's largely an encapsulation of familiar stereotypes, without getting at what holds those stereotypes together in the cases where they're true. (Plus, labeling yourself 'rational' in contrast to your opponents is a dick move. I suspect that the unifying principle behind the chart is really 'Names I Want To Call David Sirota'.) Ordinary moderate vs. radical ideological cleavages, applicable to any situation with people closer to the status quo and people farther from it, suffice to explain a lot here.

Why are the 'rationals' optimistic while the 'radicals' are pessimistic, for example? It's not just a matter of personal temperament. One reason is because the moderates have policy preferences closer to the status quo, and they see that they're likely to get what they want. If your preferences are far from the status quo, a lot of stuff has to happen for you to get what you want, and it's reasonable to be pessimistic about all that happening.

There's also the 'empirical' vs. 'normative' thing. Nate should also learn that there are lots of normative claims embedded in his view. He doesn't write about them a lot, I suppose because his normative views are relatively mainstream (progressive taxation is fair, violent revolution is extremely undesirable) and his specialty is elsewhere, anyway. There are also lots of empirical claims in Sirota's view (corporations have enormous influence in our political culture). Everybody's got both, so don't tell me that "empirical vs. normative" is a dividing line here. And let's remember that radicals were right on a number of very important empirical issues during the earlier parts of the Iraq War debate that the mainstream political culture and the 'rational progressives' plugged into it were wrong on.

Probably the thing I found most worthy of lengthy response was this:
I'm suspicious of people who line up on the same side of the ideological divide on every single issue. The world is more complicated than that, especially when one strives to see the world through a scientific, empirical lens.
I sort of feel this way too, and a lot of smart people I know do. But let me say a word in defense of the people who line up on the left side of the divide everywhere.

From a philosophical point of view, the normative views embedded in mainstream Republican opinion are just really weird. From the weird complexity of right-wing sexual morality, to the corporatist views about economic fairness disguised as some kind of oddly selective libertarianism, to the xenophobia, you've got a huge mess of junk that nobody would arrive at if they weren't indoctrinated into a culture where these values reigned. (And where corporations had lots of money with which to pay for Overton Window remodeling.)

This doesn't even mention the false empirical claims that are erected as a rationalization of the normative views -- tax cuts for the rich are economic magic! global warming is fake! evolution is a lie! gays threaten straight marriage!

The extent of normative disagreement between John Rawls, Karl Marx, your average mainstream Democrat, and a hedonic utilitarian like myself is quite large. (I want to put everybody in the bliss machine, for example. Nobody else wants that.) But put us in a country where 40% of the people are Republicans, and you'll see us lining up on the same side very often. That's because a lot of the distinctive normative views of the GOP are ridiculous, and that'll warp the ways that the battle lines are drawn. No wonder we'll all end up on the same side so much of the time.

As a matter of fact, when you're in a country that's pretty well divided between Republicans and reasonable people, knee-jerk opposition to the politically controversial demands of major GOP interest groups ends up being a pretty reliable way of orienting yourself. Sure, it relies on your fellow non-Republicans being smart and making controversy in the right places. But in a modern world like this you're always going to be relying on other people for stuff.
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