I wrote this back when I worked at NCSE, and it still brings me joy. If you don’t recall the events of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, there are great resources at TalkOrigins and perhaps the definitive contemporaneous account in The New Yorker (as well as the books referenced in the poem below).
’Twas the night before Kitzmas and all through the land,
No creationist was stirring, not even Ken Ham;
The briefs had been drafted and filed with great care,
In hopes that Judge Jones’s decision’d be fair;
The plaintiffs were nestled all snug in their beds,
While Bill of Rights visions ran round in their heads;
And Nick blogged for PT, and Vic played The Boss,
And fretted and fussed o’er the chance of a loss,
When over the wires there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to NetNewsWire I flew like a flash,
I started my browser and cleared out the cache.
The ruling I found at the federal court
Was a verdict I knew I would love to report.
For what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a hundred-plus pages, all written so clear,
With lawyerly flourish like ten score trombones,
I knew in a moment it must be Judge Jones.
More sharper than razors the experts they came,
Whom he cited, and marshaled, and quoted by name:
“Now, Miller! now, Alters! now, Padian—why not—
On, Robert T. Pennock! on, Forrest and Haught!
The Establishment Clause says that Pandas must go,
ID isn’t science; heck, Fuller says so!”
The case had been brought in a federal court
When the Dover school board thought it wise to consort
With Disco. ’tute shysters who sold them a line:
“Don’t call it creation, but ID should be fine.”
As rats that behind the Pied Piper did flow,
The school board had taken the DI’s say-so;
The teachers they ordered to point to ID,
“Evolution’s a theory, with gaps, don’t you see!”
A book had been bought to be put on their shelves;
Who purchased the book? No one knew, maybe elves.
More likely, a church group had ponied the dough,
But when pressed on the point Buckingham had said “no.”
His lies how they winkled! His obstruction so crude!
In the face of such efforts, eleven folks sued.
Tammy and friends brought the ACLU,
Steve Harvey and Rothschild joined pro bono too,
The quartet was finished by Richard B. Katskee,
With sciencey backing from Nicholas Matzke.
(The opposite side was in sad disarray:
For Dembski and Meyer had scuttled away,
While Minnich and Fuller and Michael J. Behe
Gave tragicomedic performances, e.g.
Comparing ID to a view like astrology—
I think that Jeane Dixon is owed an apology.
The More Center’s Thompson was no Machiavelli;
His case was as firm as a bowl full of jelly.)
To the court came reporters, in need of news hooks,
And Lauri and Gordy and Edward wrote books.
And Matthew wrote also, of Darwin’s own breed,
Each one of their books is a cracking good read.
Jones heard the case fairly, not tipping his hand,
Though the case it moved slowly, and forty days spanned.
His ruling was thorough, at times it waxed furious,
That board members lied he considered perjurious.
By then an election had sorted their hash,
Still Jones fined the board around two million cash.
In reading the ruling I filled up with glee,
The flaws of ID for the whole world to see!
In schools ’cross the nation I knew folks would say—
“Happy Kitzmas to all, and to all a good day!”
Of late, I’ve been trying to understand the spike in enthusiasm for the so-called “lab leak” claim about the origin of SARS-CoV‑2, the virus that causes COVID-19. To me, and as far as I can tell, to the majority of people with the expertise and training to judge these things, a lab escape is far less plausible than a zoonotic spillover from some wild bat population, or some intermediate species which picked up the virus from bats and then spread it to humans.
Zoonotic spillover is how SARS and MERS became epidemics, and so its pretty reasonable to expect the same thing happened with COVID-19. It’s also how we get Ebola, Lyme disease, rabies, West Nile, zika, and a bunch of other diseases that remain relevant to modern life. We can’t always trace the exact site or wild population where that spillover happened. So it’s possible we might never find the source of SARS-CoV‑2, or that it might take a long time.
One of the things that seems to plague these discussions is that non-scientists’ expectations about how science works are often not how science actually works. So people looking for signs of something nefarious at the Wuhan Institute for Virology will latch onto some nubbin, from which they spin up a grand theory of how a lab escape could’ve happened. But it turns out to be built on sand, because of things most people don’t know and usually have no reason at all to know.
For instance, today I got into an interesting discussion with the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki. We were discussing a passage from Lindsay Beyerstein’s excellent New Republic piece. She points out that most people envisioning a “lab leak” picture researchers holding giant tubes full of virus, any one of which might slip and unleash the Apocalypse. Beyerstein writes:
the popular version of the lab leak theory that posits that Covid was taken from nature and escaped in its wild form. The problem with that scenario, [Dr. Angela Rasmussen] told me, is that a swab from a bat contains very little infectious virus. Each bat weighs less than half an ounce, and each sample is basically a Q‑tip swiped briefly over a bat’s mouth or anus. These samples are stored in vials in the freezer; they’re not likely to spill or leak, the way disaster movies have primed us to suppose.
Surowiecki replied asking about claims that WIV may have kept wild bats on site, which might have more readily spread viruses than an errant cotton swab. It’s a claim that’s circulated in the more conspiratorial parts of the lab leak discourse, but is hindered by the fact that there’s no evidence beyond a video of unclear provenance and some ambiguous quotes in popular press accounts to suggest that there ever were bats held at the facility.
Now, I’ve never done research in China, nor have I tried to keep bats in a lab, but I have been involved in academic animal research, catching mice in the field and releasing them after brief measurements. I know that the jump from that sort of research to caring for captive animals is an absolutely enormous leap from a practical standpoint and in terms of administrative burden. Is it impossible that WIV did that? No, not impossible. But it would be a heavy lift, and should leave some pretty clear trails to follow, none of which exist.
Other than a few seconds of footage of a bat (from the wrong family) being handled in a lab somewhere (not necessarily at WIV), advocates point to a pair of quotes, which Surowiecki cited, from research collaborators from the US who are claimed to have waffled on whether WIV might have worked with captive bats. Here he cites Peter Daszak, a US researcher who co-authored grants with WIV staff, receiving funding from US agencies.
Also, I don’t understand why Daszak tweeted of WIV “They DO NOT have live or dead bats in them,” only to later totally back off that statement.— James Surowiecki (@JamesSurowiecki) June 29, 2021
Surowiecki notes that Daszak later declined to rule out the possibility that WIV had any bats, suggesting that Daszak was backtracking.
I looked around, and found a fuller version of Daszak’s first quote, which limits his claim significantly. He said, “This piece describes work I’m the lead on and labs I’ve collaborated with for 15 years. They DO NOT have live or dead bats in them. There is no evidence anywhere that this happened.”
To me, that seemed significantly different. But Surowiecki answered, “I don’t get it. The WIV is one of those labs that he’s collaborated with, and he issued a blanket denial that it had live or dead bats.”
And that makes sense! It seems like Daszak first says the lab isn’t doing this work, then says “we didn’t ask them if they had bats.”
But to me, and to an academic researcher like Daszak, WIV is not “a lab.” It contains probably dozens of different labs, most doing nothing of interest to Daszak. It’d be like suggesting that because Daszak works with NIH researchers, he must know all about every animal colony NIH maintains. Daszak commented on the labs he collaborates with, which would also be the labs most focused on sarbecoviruses like SARS-CoV‑2. Rather than being self-contradicting, Daszak’s comments make total sense in this light: he’s saying that the work he knows about doesn’t involve live bats, but he can’t say there are no live bats anywhere in the entire, large research center. Contextual knowledge changes our interpretation, and thus shapes how we weight the likelihood of a secret bat colony.
A similar thing happened when we talked about the practicalities of actually keeping such a colony, and keeping it secret. I could certainly imagine it being practical for a field researcher to grab a mouse and bring it home for the weekend, but I also know it would go against their training and all sorts of standards for animal care and use. It would be against all sorts of rules, some of which may be different in China, but others are enforced by US funding agencies (which would hold foreign researchers to similar standards as US facilities), and are enforced by publishers as well. There’s no reason for a non-scientists to know those details, but it’s a firm barrier to some sort of ad hoc bat zoo at WIV. They want to publish in Science, Cell, and Nature, and they can’t (regardless of any regulatory differences between the US and China) if they don’t get ethical review for that research, and document that review and the conditions of the animals’ care at the time of publication. If they were working with captive bats, we’d see evidence in their published research, and likely in regulatory paperwork submitted with NIH and other funding agencies in the US, if not in China.
On top of the bureaucratic barriers to this work, Beyerstein tweeted a link to this interesting paper on growing interest in bat research, and the challenges of keeping a colony, especially of the insect-eating bats that are host to SARS-like viruses. Unlike a rat that you catch and bring home in a cage, a bat that you bring to the lab needs a lot of room to fly, and often requires elaborate work to get it to feed. If they maintained any sort of colony of horseshoe bats, that would probably have merited its own research publication. Maybe multiple papers. And it’d require maintaining a substantial facility and staff to care for the bats, maybe the size of a netted-in soccer field or more. Not something easy to hide. They’d probably consult with other people outside of China who have done similar work. There would be a trail of evidence in research papers, construction, and conversations with colleagues outside of China.
The few quotes that people cite as evidence some captive bats may have been kept at WIV all suggest something extremely casual, and there’s just no sign that you could run such an operation at all casually. Here’s what it takes to feed a colony of insect-eating bats:
Again, no one who isn’t a bat biologist has any reason to know all of that. How different countries, funders, and publishers regulate animal care and use, and what biologists have to do to maintain a research colony, are miles from most people’s daily experience. Exactly what academics consider “a lab” is irrelevant to most people’s lives. There’s absolutely no reason for anyone outside the field to know these details. But each of them shapes our intuitions, and the upshot is that ideas which seem implausible to the scientists closest to the question can seem much more plausible, indeed may seem most likely, to those farther away.
Lab leak advocate Alina Chan inadvertently made this point a few days ago when she wrote this:
One thing I’ve noticed is that experts in the hard sciences (mathematics, CS, physics) afaik are more likely to think that SARS-CoV‑2 has lab origins.— Alina Chan (@Ayjchan) June 27, 2021
But more experts in the life sciences afaik seem to think that a natural origin is more likely.
Could it be a matter of priors?
It is about priors. It’s incredibly telling that people with informed priors think a lab leak is extremely unlikely and that zoonosis is most likely, while those who know less about the murky day-to-day of biological research find the lab leak intuitively likely. Even at a different level of abstraction, biologists see these issues through different lenses. Biologists know that there are a lot of bats (about 1200–1500 species in the world, many undescribed), and that bats are good at hiding but travel all over. They also know that bats have a lot of viruses and that those viruses are good at hiding, and that there are a ton of ways a virus could leap to farmed animals, or animals that are caught live in the wild and brought to markets in big cities like Wuhan. That’s a causal chain that makes sense if you’ve studied biodiversity or tried sampling these things in the wild. At the same time, it all can easily seem incredibly tenuous to people who rarely see bats and don’t realize just how little we really know about the biodiversity all around us. But human error? We all see that every day.
Not to dredge up old fights, but a topic we discussed on the blog back in 2009 has cropped up in a couple of recent essays. The issue is whether there is a form of truth that literature can convey, perhaps even a level of literary truth which cannot be conveyed through other means. The topic came up originally in the context of ways we might interpret religious texts, but it applies more generally.
So, in this week’s New York Times book review section, we have an exchange between the editors and reviewer Mohsin Hamid in which Hamid explains:
Iâm a political animal. How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded â these things matter to me. So I write about them. Fiction and nonfiction are just two different ways of lying to try to get at truths. Fiction lies by fabricating what isnât there. NonÂfiction lies by omitting what is. Doing both is useful: it keeps me aware of sentences, a novelistâs obsession, and the power of the void that surrounds them, a preoccupation of journalists.
And in The Guardian, Avengers star Tom Hiddleston (he plays Loki), explains the value he sees in superhero movies:
Actors in any capacity, artists of any stripe, are inspired by their curiosity, by their desire to explore all quarters of life, in light and in dark, and reflect what they find in their work. Artists instinctively want to reflect humanity, their own and each other’s, in all its intermittent virtue and vitality, frailty and fallibility.
I have never been more inspired than when I watched Harold Pinter speak in a direct address to camera in his Nobel lecture in 2005. “Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond with the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Some times you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.”
Big talk for someone in a silly superhero film, I hear you say. But superhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings â stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.
This connects nicely with a piece John Wilkins blogged a couple years ago, attempting to clarify what it means to be a god:
Philosophers have always treated the deity as a high concept entity, something that has the attributes of perfection: all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, omnibenevolent and so on. This is a view of God that is presumed in most discussions of atheism, the existence of God, the problem of evil and the like. But it is a very rare view of God in actual, you know, religions. The religions of the Folk have divine deities of all kinds, ranging from the all-too-human and fallible variety of Norse and Irish mythology, through to the distant and unknowable gods of Epicurus. So what sort of a test should we apply to divinities?
I propose a rough and ready kind of test I call the Greek Pantheon Test: If it would be a god in the Greek Pantheon, then itâs a god. Of course, a number of divinities not included by the Greeks, the Titans, would also be divinities in my book, but that is a matter of restricting divine beings to Olympus, which is a cultic matter. If Chronos were unknown to the Greeks, heâd definitely be included as a god when they were given a description.
Now the counterintuitive outcomes of this test: angels are gods. St Michael is indiscernibly different from Thor or Mars or Huitzilopochtli as a god of war. Saints are gods. Mary and the Evangelists play a role as intermediaries between the High God and worshippers, just as the Vyantaras in Jainism, or the Demiurge in Platonism and the daimones in Greek mysticism. Jinn are gods. They have, as the Disney film put it, âsuper-phenomenal cosmic powersâ. Prophets can also be gods. Ancestors, especially in the Confucian tradition, are gods. Devas in Tibetan Buddhism are gods. Any religion which has superhuman agents in it, has gods, no matter what the philosophically pure elite theology may say.
The Justin Barrett view of gods as âMinimal Counterintuitive Agentsâ â effectively humans with superhuman powers â ties in with this. A god is a superhero or supervillain. They are like us in all respects except their abilities or some other superstimulus feature. This is the folk view of gods, and it is something that philosophy of religion had better come to terms with sometime.
Not only is Thor a god in the Norse pantheon, he’s also a god in the Marvel pantheon, and so too is Spiderman, and Superman and Batman on the DC side. Whether written as sequential graphics on a page, or produced as a movie, or written out as a novel, or passed down as oral tradition and edited into a canon over millenia, people use such godlike figures to work through complicated ideas about why the word is as it is, how we ought to behave, and how we can make things better. The adventures of Superman and Batman and John Constantine offer arguments about how things should be, and the literary techniques they use are not so far from what you find in the parables and allegorical letters of the Christian New Testament or the clearly literary stories told in the Old Testament.
Recognizing that truths exist in these literary works doesn’t require science to surrender any epistemological ground, nor does it require us to take any stance for or against the claim that there is some additional form of truth in religious texts.
The great science writer Stephen Jay Gould expressed an element of this in his essay Wide Hats and Narrow Minds:
But if we laugh with derision, we will never understand. Human intellectual capacity has not altered for thousands of years so far as we can tell. If intelligent people invested intense energy in issues that now seem foolish to us, then the failure lies in our understanding of their world, not in their distorted perceptions. Even the standard example of ancient nonsense â the debate about angels on pinheads â makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number. In certain theological systems, the corporeality or noncorporeality of angels is an important matter indeed.
And, in a world before calculus, the amount of space occupied by an infinite number of infinitely small objects was hardly a trivial matter. Here, angels were standins for the sorts of fictional objects scientists often invoke: point masses, magnetic monopoles, frictionless surfaces, etc. Angels were the only object everyone involved could coherently conceive of that existed in great numbers but might have no mass or volume, so they were invoked to clarify a confusing and complex mathematical problem. Just as these sorts of scientific fictions show us truths about scientific reality, characters in fictional works let us take ideas to a limit and perceive truths about reality we might not have seen otherwise.
To me, and no matter what fictional engineers say, this view ennobles literary works, whether we are tracking Job’s travails, Ahab’s monomania, or Joss Whedon’s take on the Avengers.
Hand in hand together
We shall not be moved
“We Shall Not Be Moved,” Trad. civil rights song
On Wednesday, November 2, the people of Oakland peacefully, politely, closed downtown Oakland and the Port of Oakland – the nation’s fifth busiest port.
It’s hard to say how many people spent at least part of their day at the intersection of 14th Street at Broadway. Broadway was closed for two long blocks, the side streets were, too, and all were filled with people. The plaza in front of City Hall was filled as well, with tents, with free food, with DJs, with silkscreening stations, with speeches, and with impromptu teach-ins. Occasionally, a large mass would gather and march off to protest in front of a bank or other corporate malefactor, but those marches left the center of the strike filled with people.
At its peak, I’d guess there were over 5,000 people present, and in the course of the day, I’d be amazed if fewer than 20,000 participated. I’ve seen estimates as high as 100,000, which strikes me as high but not implausible. By the end of the day, the City of Oakland and various other local businesses had instructed employees to leave work early, and many simply told their employees not to come to work.
My employer remained open, but I took the day off to see history made. This is the first general strike in the United States in almost 55 years, and the context of this strike is different from those that came before. I doubt any strike as successful as this has been assembled in so little time, with so little direct involvement from organized labor. In less than a week, the organizers seemed to have planned for every contingency, and accomplished all their major goals for the day. And they did so peacefully, and with barely more than a token police presence. I saw a police car blocking off Broadway when I biked in that morning, but even that presence was gone by the afternoon.
The crowds came for myriad reasons. Unions had tents set up, where they talked about their work, rallied their members, and provided some institutional memory. Various socialist and communist factions had tents and tables, too, as did the Black Panther Party.
But it wasn’t all politics. Next to the Black Panthers was the Buddhist meditation circle, where people sat in silent meditation all day, amidst throngs of people and not far from the massive sound truck, jammed with amplifiers and people exhorting those massive crowds. Elsewhere, an interfaith tent hosted services. Food justice groups organized a teach-in, and all day there were long lines waiting for the free food supplied by groups like Food not Bombs.
Musicians performed live in the plaza’s amphitheater, and a DJ spun records on Broadway in front of the Oaklandish shop (which was closed for the day). Inside the plaza, crowds danced as DJs hyphy and hiphop spun by various different DJs. A brass band wandered through, and a jugband ensemble took up residence in an office building breezeway.
Another long line led to a silkscreening station, where strikers could make their own sign that read “Hella Occupy Oakland.” Other folks handed out signs that read “This is our city and we can shut it down.” For myself, I brought some markers and cardboard, making a sign that read “Solidarity Forever” on one side and quoted a line from that classic labor hymn on the other: “Without our brains and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” While I was drawing that sign, two young guys of high school age asked to borrow my marker, and made their own signs. The spare cardboard I brought wasn’t hard to pass along to folks in need, and other folks made signs out of a massive pile of cardboard in the middle of the tent city that has been Occupy Oakland’s permanent home for these last weeks.
There were arts and crafts areas for children, too. I’d guess that 10% of the crowd was under 10, and there were blocks and crayons and toys for them in a children’s tent. Just like their parents, these kids were putting their imagination to work, building a better future.
Festive as the atmosphere was, people did come to protest, and to put those signs to work. Some people blocked the entrance to a Citibank office building directly across 14th street, and marches went further afield, to protest in front of various corporate offices. There were 3 major marches during the day, and various smaller ones. On the march I fell in with, I arrived shortly after the window at a Chase bank had a brick thrown through it, and the cracks in the glass were still crackling outward as I walked past. That was the only sign of violence I saw that day, and no one was cheering it.
For various obvious reasons, the media coverage of the day focused on a few broken windows and some other vandalism, but to do so truly misses the point. What violence took place involved perhaps 1% of 1% of the people present, and for the most part, those crowds policed themselves. A few people turned out hoping to start trouble, and a few of them succeeded, but it would be wrong to let those isolated incidents shade our perception of the day.
Everyone I met and everything I saw at Occupy Oakland was filled with joy, and it felt like nothing so much as an enormous street festival. Everyone was friendly, everyone felt connected to a bigger cause, and everyone was having fun. The news helicopters overhead couldn’t capture that part of the story, but there were loads of reporters on the ground with us, and there’s simply no way that they could have come away with anything but a positive impression.
At one point, a large group of people spontaneously joined hands and began dancing in a giant and growing circle.
A Teamsters Union truck pulled in for a while, blasting music and pumping up a different part of the crowd.
Tibetan monks and a Native American leader sang chants together.
Clergy at the Interfaith tent sang “this little light of mine.”
Folks shared tips on which sandwich shops were open, and where you could recharge your cell phone.
Giant and sometimes obscure banners flapped overhead. “Death to capitalism” stretched across 14th street, while the large and cryptic “Bioregional Fractional Banking” banner seemed to pop up everywhere. A couple of kids whose parents had let them skip school carried signs in support of teachers, while a 1 year old had a sign strapped on her back saying: “Too small to fail.”
The same, fortunately, cannot be said of the general strike. While smaller than the organizers had hoped, it closed down commerce through downtown Oakland for the day, and emphasized the oft-repeated chant: “Whose streets?” “Our streets.” Not the banks’ streets, not the police’s streets, not even the City Council’s streets. Ours. And we made good and noble use of them.
Beginning at 4, much of the crowd made its way to the Port of Oakland, the historic center of the city’s economy. The goal was to prevent the night shift from being able to clock in, shutting down a different part of the city’s commerce for the night, reminding the multinational elites that they move jobs and goods and money around the globe only at the sufferance of the folks who work in these cities. The port workers supported the strike, but had agreed to a contract clause forbidding them to strike. By blocking the gates to the port, we gave them an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway.
So off we marched, in several waves of a few thousand. The 2 mile path to the port was packed with people, four lanes across, for hours that night, with crowds still streaming in at 7, when I had to head back.
Inside the port, the same festive atmosphere prevailed. The brass band was there, and someone was signing songs over his own amplifier. Folks were chatting with the remaining workers inside the port fence, celebrated with them as they came off shift and drove out. The few truck drivers parked along the port road seemed bemused and didn’t object to the crowds who climbed on top of their cabs and containers to get a better view. I tweeted: “The only thing more beautiful than the Port of Oakland at dusk is 5000 people marching on the Port at dusk.”
Helicopters and geese crowded the skies overhead, and even cameras in the helicopters couldn’t capture the entire mass of protesters. If there were fewer than 10,000 people in those marches, I’d be amazed, because they filled the entrance road for hours. I hear the police are estimating 7,000, and organizers claim 30,000. My guess would’ve been 15–20,000 anyway, which splits the difference nicely.
I’d always wanted to spend and evening photographing the port’s cranes at sunset, so on top of the sheer joy of watching the 4‑lane road fill up with miles of cheery protesters, I had a great time trying to find the perfect shot of the port. You can see a bigger sample of my photos at Flickr; I took 320 photos that day, which I whittled down to my favorite 38.
By the time I left, the Port Authority was well on its way to officially shutting down the port for the night. Trucks were backed up at the entrance to the port, and there were (unfounded) rumors of police massing to evict the protest. Much later that night, protesters occupied an abandoned building and invited the nonprofit that formerly used the space to return and continue providing services to the homeless. Riot police responded to that, and after protesters lit a barricade on fire, the police fired off some tear gas. But despite having massed around Oscar Grant Plaza itself, and despite fears that the bloody police riot of a week ago might repeat, the police remained calm, and protesters helped protect shops whose windows were broken by drunk and disgruntled troublemakers.
My sense of the day was much like what Jaime Omar Yassin describes:
Words fail, I was simply moved by the reality of all these people coming down to engage in an ‘illegal’ action that just a week ago would have been considered radical and subversive, but today was filled with happiness, community, respect and love. And the power of such a mobilization to silence and dispel the police, the power of people to write the rules of public space. That’s something I’d never thought I’d see in my lifetime.
I don’t know what will come of this. Will I see this again in my lifetime? Again in 2011? Will this change what happens in Washington, DC, or in Sacramento? Will this sort of protest spread, shutting down the streets of Manhattan or of Washington for a day? It’s too soon to say.
But I know that it changed me, and it feels like it changed Oakland. Even the forbearance of the police suggests a change. A week ago, who would have predicted that they would stay out of the way of the unauthorized blocking of major streets and the Port, and that they would responded about as minimally as possible to a act of civil disobedience that damaged property? (Their behavior wasn’t perfect: they arrested some legal observers and journalists along with whoever set the fire and broke into the building, but progress is progress.)
As I said before the strike, the goal was not to force some pre-determined list of demands on the city. The goal, as the poster said, was to show, “This is our city and we can shut it down.” That means we can also start it up again, and shape what the city will be and do. What shall we do with that knowledge and power?
Dave Roberts writes a dialogue on the notion of growth in modern politics and economics. On one hand, he notes that economic growth has been the most powerful engine for genuinely improving human wellbeing, and on the other hand, that it’s doomed to run out, and that even as it can improve wellbeing, it typically creates massive inequality, hurting people rather badly. There’s no viable alternative to growth to keep the world turning, but there’s no viable explanation of how we can continue growing faster than our resources can recover. Ultimately, we wind up with this dilemma:
The idea that we’re going to become radically more egalitarian, with substantially more modest material expectations, and we’re going to do so voluntarily and peacefully, in less than a century … that’s unicorn porn.
I hear lots of happy ideas from the anti-growth folk, but I’ve never heard anything even close to a practical political plan to get from Point A — a country gripped by fears over the deficit, suspicious of government, hostile to taxes, leery of social engineering — to Point B, a vision of the future that would make John Lennon blush. “Imagine there’s no growth …”
Until that plan emerges, I’m going to stick with trying to wring incremental gains for justice out of social democratic capitalism. It doesn’t work as well as one might like, but nothing else seems to work at all.
On so many political issues of the day, I find myself taking that same stand, the pragmatic I‑wish-that-radical-plan-existed-or-was-plausible-but-for-now-let’s-do-this-thing-that-will-work stance that gets me labeled an accommodationist in some circles, and an Obama-worshipper in others.
That isn’t to say there’s no place for idealism in politics generally or in my own politics. Thoreau urged us to imagine our castles in the sky, after all. But he also told us to build our foundations under them. And sometimes there’s simply no foundation capable of supporting an idea.
And so we come to the President’s speech tonight. He propose a package of payroll tax cuts and small business tax cuts and unemployment benefit extensions and assistance for laid-off teachers and cops and firefighters and construction workers, all paid for not with free money the global markets are offering us, but by closing tax loopholes for corporations. I don’t think that’s enough. I think we need massive investments in infrastructure. I think the President needed to lay out a plan to tax the hell out of carbon emissions, that money spent to build wind farms and solar facilities and geothermal generators and highly efficient transmission lines and high speed rail across the country. And also to fix and upgrade bridges across the country. And to build new schools and fill them with modern labs and computers, the facilities to learn 21st century technologies including molecular biosciences. And heck, build more post offices and parks and monuments, anything that gets people working.
No plan that can be paid for by closing some tax loopholes can do the job. A big tax on incomes over $1 million would help. So would a hike in corporate tax rates, and capital gains rates. Corporate income is up lately, but individual income is down, suggesting that it’s worth more for corporations to keep their money than it is to invest in workers. That’s a problem of tax incentives.
That’s what I wanted to hear from the President. A plan that would be reminiscent of what FDR offered when he swept into office, not one like Bill Clinton suggested in 1993. Because this economy is a lot more like the Great Depression than it is like the first Bush recession.
But that plan wouldn’t even unify the Democratic caucus in 2011. FDR came to office with massive majorities, and with a public on the verge of overt revolution. Herbert Hoover, campaigning for another term in 1932, encountered crowds urging, “Hang Hoover!” After Hoover lost, and a wave election tossed out 158 incumbents (the second wave election in a row), veterans and the unemployed marched on Washington, chanting “Feed the hungry! Tax the rich!” In addition to the Hunger March in DC, thousands marched on Columbus, Ohio, to sack the capitol and “establish a workers’ and farmers’ republic.” Thousands occupied the Nebraska statehouse, and marchers in other cities took over municipal buildings and banks. In Iowa, farmers joined together to lay siege on Sioux City, Des Moines, Council Bluffs, and Omaha, barricading roads and tearing down jails to free their arrested comrades. Judges and lawyers who approved foreclosures were lynched or beaten. Then the banks ran out of money, leaving depositors penniless and farmers reliant on loans unable to plant crops.
Robert Caro quotes James MacGregor Burns on that long stretch between the November, 1932 election and the March, 1933 inauguration:
Crisis was in the air-but it was a strange, numbing crisis, striking suddenly in a Western city and then in the South a thousand miles away. It was worse than an invading army; it was everywhere and nowhere, for it was in the minds of men. It was fear.”
The Congress elected first in 1930 and then in 1932 was overwhelmingly Democratic, and was ready to act. For two years, they’d passed bills to aid farmers, homeowners, and the unemployed, with each proposal vetoed by the indifferent Hoover. As soon as he was out of office, Congress and the President could act quickly to establish all of the programs they agreed were necessary.
That’s not the situation that faced President Obama in 2008, let alone today in 2011. While he had a Democratic Congress, his margins weren’t wide, and many of those Democrats were unwilling to take strong action. The public wasn’t unified in demanding any particular actions; confused by the TARP mess, they weren’t even sure which party stood for what. President Obama has wound up taking the blame for a recession started by his predecessor, and worsened by the aversion of conservatives in Congress toward stimulative spending.
So while I wish the President’s speech were much stronger, I also know that he set his sights low because he knows that even the small potatoes he’s asking for are too much for this Congress. I want a bold, progressive plan, but the sort of plan that would excite me will encourage conservatives in Congress to dig in and demand their own supercrazy ideas, and then where are we.
So how do we get from A to B? What can I, or the President, or you, do to create a movement that will demand a new New Deal, the sort of real change the country needs?
Kevin Drum reports on an essay by James Heckman that would be depressing if it weren’t predictable. The basic idea is expressed in this graph:
The chart shows achievement test scores for children of mothers with different levels of education. Children of college graduates score about one standard deviation above the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes. Children of mothers with less than a high school education score about half a standard deviation below the mean by the time they’re three, and that never changes either. Roughly speaking, nothing we do after age three has much effect.
Drum echoes Heckman’s suggestion that this means we should cut way back on reform efforts aimed at secondary education, and even elementary schooling, and spend that money on early childhood interventions.
I tend to agree, with caveats. Standardized test scores don’t tell you much about how genuinely educated people are. As we see, these tests are basically measuring socioeconomic status, and one of the best things we can do to improve the next generation’s prospects is keeping kids in school, and getting them off to college, and then keeping at-risk students in college. People who drop out of high school usually do it for economic reasons, and that’s especially true of people who don’t complete college. But interventions that improve the number of students completing high school and college should have significant effects in the long run.
The focus on test-taking brought on by NCLB and the current crop of reforms can’t do much to encourage people to stay in school, or to become life-long learners. Standardized tests discourage independent study and innovative thinking, which is the name of the game in any good college, let alone high school.
There are ways that the educational system can be and should be reformed, but what this tells us is that the problems we face can’t be faced by firing teachers and shutting down schools. An educational system that raises up the lowest-performing students needs to be focused on issues of poverty, class, and race that limit students’ options.
A White House spokesman explained that the president will veto a proposal in Congress because it “would dramatically expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, … encouraging many to drop private coverage, to go on the government-subsidized program.”
One can see why the President would not want to help poorer children get health insurance at low cost. We already knew he doesn’t care about black people, and had long suspected his antipathy to the poor.
The proposal in Congress would add $25–40 billion to the program, which is administered by the states. The new funding would be paid for by an increase in the cigarette tax. Raising that tax would have the added benefit of reducing smoking, a major risk factor for parents and children. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the added spending would cover 4.1 million uninsured children, ensuring preventive care in a critical period.
The President also objects that the bill does not include his proposals to reform health insurance, but the Senate chairman responsible for the bill explained that the Children’s Health Insurance Program must be funded by September, and the unpopular President’s suggestions don’t have enough traction to move through Congress on that timeline. Senator Baucus, at least, would rather put children’s health above political concerns.