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Notable readings of the day 10/14/2012

October 14, 2012
    • The preoccupation with influencing voters’ habits stems from the fact that many close elections were ultimately decided by people who almost did not vote.
    • In particular, according to campaign officials from both parties, two tactics will be employed this year for the first time in a widespread manner.
    • The first builds upon research into the power of social habits
    • The Obama and Romney campaigns, as well as affiliated groups, have asked their supporters to provide access to their profiles on Facebook and other social networks to chart connections to low-propensity voters in battleground states like Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio.

       When one union volunteer in Ohio recently visited the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s election Web site, for instance, she was asked to log on with her Facebook profile. Computers quickly crawled through her list of friends, compared it to voter data files and suggested a work colleague to contact in Columbus. She had never spoken to the suggested person about politics, and he told her that he did not usually vote because he did not see the point.

       “We talked about how if you don’t vote, you’re letting other people make choices for you,” said the union volunteer, Nicole Rigano, a grocery store employee. “He said he had never thought about it like that, and he’s going to vote this year.

    • Another tactic that will be used this year, political operatives say, is asking voters whether they plan to walk or drive to the polls, what time of day they will vote and what they plan to do afterward.

       The answers themselves are unimportant. Rather, simply forcing voters to think through the logistics of voting has been shown, in multiple experiments, to increase the odds that someone will actually cast a ballot.

    • as the race enters its final month, campaign officials increasingly sound like executives from retailers like Target and credit card companies like Capital One, both of which extensively use data to model customers’ habits.

       “Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart,” said Rich Beeson, Mr. Romney’s political director. “We’re doing the same thing with how people vote.”

  • tags: personal information campaign political data

    • Strategists affiliated with the Obama and Romney campaigns say they have access to information about the personal lives of voters at a scale never before imagined. And they are using that data to try to influence voting habits — in effect, to train voters to go to the polls through subtle cues, rewards and threats in a manner akin to the marketing efforts of credit card companies and big-box retailers.
    • In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers — friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues — will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.

       The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.

    • “You don’t want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out,” said a Romney campaign official who was not authorized to speak to a reporter. “A lot of what we’re doing is behind the scenes.”
    • however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems. The campaigns themselves, according to campaign employees, have examined voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. They have also authorized tests to see if, say, a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend would be more likely to prompt the urge to cast a ballot.
    • The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters’ computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic Web sites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious Web sites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to or The campaigns’ consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.
    • “I’ve had half-a-dozen conversations with third parties who are wondering if this is the year to start shaming,” said one consultant who works closely with Democratic organizations. “Obama can’t do it. But the ‘super PACs’ are anonymous. They don’t have to put anything on the flier to let the voter know who to blame.”
      • Officials at both campaigns say the most insightful data remains the basics: a voter’s party affiliation, voting history, basic information like age and race, and preferences gleaned from one-on-one conversations with volunteers. But more subtle data mining has helped the Obama campaign learn that their supporters often eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory and listen to smooth jazz. Romney backers are more likely to drink Samuel Adams beer, eat at Olive Garden and watch college football.

  • tags: journalism objectivity bias US impartiality

    • In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.
    • Who gets credit for the phrase, “view from nowhere?”


      A. The philosopher Thomas Nagel, who wrote a very important book with that title.

    • Q. What does it say?


      A. It says that human beings are, in fact, capable of stepping back from their position to gain an enlarged understanding, which includes the more limited view they had before the step back. Think of the cinema: when the camera pulls back to reveal where a character had been standing and shows us a fuller tableau. To Nagel, objectivity is that kind of motion. We try to “transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.”

    • But there are limits to this motion. We can’t transcend all our starting points. No matter how far it pulls back the camera is still occupying a position. We can’t actually take the “view from nowhere,” but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it– both are real. And realism demands that we acknowledge both.
    • Q. So is objectivity a myth… or not?


      A. One of the many interesting things Nagel says in that book is that “objectivity is both underrated and overrated, sometimes by the same persons.” It’s underrated by those who scoff at it as a myth. It is overrated by people who think it can replace the view from somewhere or transcend the human subject. It can’t.

    • it has unearned authority in the American press. If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.
    • When MSNBC suspends Keith Olbermann for donating without company permission to candidates he supports– that’s dumb. When NPR forbids its “news analysts” from expressing a view on matters they are empowered to analyze– that’s dumb. When reporters have to “launder” their views by putting them in the mouths of think tank experts: dumb. When editors at the Washington Post decline even to investigate whether the size of rallies on the Mall can be reliably estimated because they want to avoid charges of “leaning one way or the other,” as one of them recently put it, that is dumb. When CNN thinks that, because it’s not MSNBC and it’s not Fox, it’s the only the “real news network” on cable, CNN is being dumb about itself.
    • if objectivity means trying to ground truth claims in verifiable facts, I am definitely for that. If it means there’s a “hard” reality out there that exists beyond any of our descriptions of it, sign me up. If objectivity is the requirement to acknowledge what is, regardless of whether we want it to be that way, then I want journalists who can be objective in that sense.
    • If it means trying to see things in that fuller perspective Thomas Nagel talked about–pulling the camera back, revealing our previous position as only one of many–I second the motion. If it means the struggle to get beyond the limited perspective that our experience and upbringing afford us… yeah, we need more of that, not less. I think there is value in acts of description that do not attempt to say whether the thing described is good or bad
    • I think we are in the midst of shift in the system by which trust is sustained in professional journalism. David Weinberger tried to capture it with his phrase: transparency is the new objectivity. My version of that: it’s easier to trust in “here’s where I’m coming from” than the View from Nowhere. These are two different ways of bidding for the confidence of the users.
    • In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”
    • Let some in the press continue on with the mask of impartiality, which has advantages for cultivating sources and soothing advertisers. Let others experiment with transparency as the basis for trust. When you click on their by-line it takes you to a disclosure page where there is a bio, a kind of mission statement, and a creative attempt to say: here’s where I’m coming from (one example) along with campaign contributions, any affiliations or memberships, and–I’m just speculating now–a list of heroes and villains, or major influences, along with an archive of the work, plus anything else that might assist the user in placing this person on the user’s mattering map.
  • tags: bias objectivity journalism US

    • virtually no journalists are driven by this type of objectivity. They are, instead, awash in countless highly ideological assumptions that are anything but objective.
    • this renders their worldview every bit as subjective and ideological as the opinionists and partisans they scorn.
    • At best, “objectivity” in this world of journalists usually means nothing more than: the absence of obvious and intended favoritism toward either of the two major political parties. As long as a journalist treats Democrats and Republicans more or less equally, they will be hailed – and will hail themselves – as “objective journalists”.
    • that is a conception of objectivity so shallow as to be virtually meaningless, in large part because the two parties so often share highly questionable assumptions and orthodoxies on the most critical issues.
    • The highly questionable assumptions tacitly embedded in the questions Raddatz asked illustrate how this works, as does the questions she pointedly and predictably did not ask.
    • the very idea that Iran poses some kind of major “national security” crisis for the US – let alone that there is “really no bigger national security” issue “this country is facing” – is absurd. At the very least, it’s highly debatable.

      The US has Iran virtually encircled militarily. Even with the highly implausible fear-mongering claims earlier this year about Tehran’s planned increases in military spending, that nation’s total military expenditures is a tiny fraction of what the US spends. Iran has demonstrated no propensity to launch attacks on US soil, has no meaningful capability to do so, and would be instantly damaged, if not (as Hillary Clinton once put it) “totally obliterated” if they tried. Even the Israelis are clear that Iran has not even committed itself to building a nuclear weapon.

    • That Iran is some major national security issue for the US is a concoction of the bipartisan DC class that always needs a scary foreign enemy. The claim is frequently debunked in multiple venues. But because both political parties embrace this highly ideological claim, Raddatz does, too.
    • one of the most strictly enforced taboos in establishment journalism is the prohibition on aggressively challenging those views that are shared by the two parties. Doing that makes one fringe, unserious and radical: the opposite of solemn objectivity.
    • To the extent that she questioned the possibility of attacking Iran, it was purely on the grounds of whether an attack would be tactically effective,
    • there were no questions about whether the US would have the legal or moral right to launch an aggressive attack on Iran. That the US has the right to attack any country it wants is one of those unexamined assumptions in Washington discourse, probably the supreme orthodoxy of the nation’s “foreign policy community”.
    • there was no discussion about the severe suffering imposed on Iranian civilians by the US, whether the US wants to repeat the mass death and starvation it brought to millions of Iraqis for a full decade, or what the consequences of doing that will be.
    • all of Raddatz’s questions were squarely within the extremely narrow – and highly ideological – DC consensus about US foreign policy generally and Iran specifically: namely, Iran is a national security threat to the US; it is trying to obtain nuclear weapons; the US must stop them; the US has the unchallenged right to suffocate Iranian civilians and attack militarily
    • the same is true of Raddatz’s statements and questions about America’s entitlement programs.
    • That social security is “going broke” – a core premise of her question – is, to put it as generously as possible, a claim that is dubious in the extreme. “Factually false” is more apt. This claim lies at the heart of the right-wing and neo-liberal quest to slash entitlement benefits for ordinary Americans – Ryan predictably responded by saying: “Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts.” – but the claim is baseless.
    • this is the primary demonstrable myth being used by the DC class – which largely does not need entitlements – to deceive ordinary Americans into believing that they must “sacrifice” the pittances on which they are now living:

      “Which federal program took in more than it spent last year, added $95 billion to its surplus and lifted 20 million Americans of all ages out of poverty?

      “Why, social security, of course, which ended 2011 with a $2.7 trillion surplus.

      “That surplus is almost twice the $1.4 trillion collected in personal and corporate income taxes last year. And it is projected to go on growing until 2021, the year the youngest Baby Boomers turn 67 and qualify for full old-age benefits.

      “So why all the talk about social security ‘going broke?’ … The reason is that the people who want to kill social security have for years worked hard to persuade the young that the social security taxes they pay to support today’s gray hairs will do nothing for them when their own hair turns gray.

      “That narrative has become the conventional wisdom because it is easily reduced to a headline or sound bite. The facts, which require more nuance and detail, show that, with a few fixes, Social Security can be safe for as long as we want.”

    • Nonetheless, Raddatz announced this assertion as fact. That’s because she’s long embedded in the DC culture that equates its own ideological desires with neutral facts. As a result, the entire discussion on entitlement programs proceeded within this narrow, highly ideological, dubious framework
    • That is what this faux journalistic neutrality, whether by design or otherwise, always achieves. It glorifies highly ideological claims that benefit a narrow elite class (the one that happens to own the largest media outlets which employ these journalists) by allowing that ideology to masquerade as journalistic fact
    • is often noted that the Catholic Church stridently opposes reproductive rights. But it is almost never noted that the Church just as stridently opposes US militarism and its economic policies that continuously promote corporate cronyism over the poor. Too much emphasis on that latter fact might imperil the bipartisan commitment to those policies, and so discussion of religious belief is typically confined to the safer arena of social issues. That the Church has for decades denounced the US government’s military aggression and its subservience to the wealthiest is almost always excluded from establishment journalistic circles, even as its steadfast opposition to abortion and gay rights is endlessly touted.
  • tags: historiography us south

    • Within five days of each other, the English speaking world’s two greatest historians to have emerged from the Marxist tradition have died: Eugene Genovese, on September 26, and Eric Hobsbawm
    • I esteemed their formality of manners and dress, and their contempt for what is in fact an apolitical lifestyle progressivism. This form of progressivism, as they keenly understood, amounts to an embrace of the unlimited autonomy of individual desire, and as such is a product of — and serves the interest of — an unrestrained and socially corrosive capitalism.
    • Genovese has doggedly pursued the truth for as long as necessary and regardless of its ramifications. His ultimate ambition has been to write the definitive study of southern slaveholders
    • Roll, Jordan, Roll, the most insightful book ever written about American slaves and the most lasting work of American historical scholarship since the Second World War.
    • the authors illuminate in their characteristically energetic prose the myriad ways in which the master-slave relationship “permeated the lives and thought” not merely of elite slaveholders but of their whole society. In doing so they elucidate the master class’s deeply learned relationship to Christianity and to history (especially classical culture), which in turn highlights th
    • it provides significant and powerful support to the now academically unfashionable argument that the antebellum North and South were separate cultures with divergent political, economic, moral, and religious values; a work of searching historical anthropology, it reveals a profoundly alien society and culture.
    • to indict the authors for what is now called insensitivity (and they will be so indicted) is to ignore the psychological acuity and tragic sensibility that they bring to their subject. In defining the slaveholders’ peculiar characteristics and world view, the Genoveses dissect the graciousness and generosity, the noblesse oblige and courage, the frankness and sense of ease, that were entirely common. Nevertheless, they are at pains to show that slaveholding wasn’t a flaw in an otherwise admirable makeup but was intrinsic to that makeup–that is, they make plain that the admirable grew out of the loathsome
    • they open their book with Santayana’s remark “The necessity of rejecting and destroying some things that are beautiful is the deepest curse of existence.” True, they convincingly argue that a paternalist ethos often mitigated slavery; they reveal that the master class internalized Christian and chivalric values, which, they chillingly write, made its members “less dangerous human beings”; they demonstrate that in defending the peculiar institution southern theologians consistently bested their northern opponents in biblical exegeses (the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jesus didn’t condemn slavery, and Paul and other New Testament writers sanctioned it); they show that slaveholders subscribed to “a code that made the ultimate test of a gentleman the humane treatment of his slaves”
    • They repeatedly dismiss as “psychologically naïve” the notion that slaveholders (able, though not licensed, to give free rein to their tempers and impulses) would invariably treat their slaves well because it was in their pecuniary interest to do so.
    • as Christians the slaveholders acknowledged that men are weak and sinful creatures who if given absolute power will abuse it. Because slavery perforce granted masters such power, the Bible, although it didn’t condemn slavery, did condemn the sins that grew inevitably from it
  • tags: inequality politics venice US

    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive.
    • Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.

    • public policy has exacerbated rather than mitigated these trends
    • Even as the winner-take-all economy has enriched those at the very top, their tax burden has lightened. Tolerance for high executive compensation has increased, even as the legal powers of unions have been weakened and an intellectual case against them has been relentlessly advanced by plutocrat-financed think tanks. In the 1950s, the marginal income tax rate for those at the top of the distribution soared above 90 percent, a figure that today makes even Democrats flinch. Meanwhile, of the 400 richest taxpayers in 2009, 6 paid no federal income tax at all, and 27 paid 10 percent or less. None paid more than 35 percent.
    • Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. This is the new Serrata. An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top.
    • America’s Serrata also takes a more explicit form: the tilting of the economic rules in favor of those at the top.
    • The first is to channel the state’s scarce resources in their own direction
    • Exhibit A is the bipartisan, $700 billion rescue of Wall Street in 2008. Exhibit B is the crony recovery. The economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty found that 93 percent of the income gains from the 2009-10 recovery went to the top 1 percent of taxpayers. The top 0.01 percent captured 37 percent of these additional earnings, gaining an average of $4.2 million per household.
    • The second manifestation of crony capitalism is more direct: the tax perks, trade protections and government subsidies that companies and sectors secure for themselves.
    • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, in their book “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty,” as an illustration of their thesis that what separates successful states from failed ones is whether their governing institutions are inclusive or extractive.
    • Extractive states are controlled by ruling elites whose objective is to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society. Inclusive states give everyone access to economic opportunity; often, greater inclusiveness creates more prosperity, which creates an incentive for ever greater inclusiveness.
    • Culture may also play a role. In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail).

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