Bloom Briefing 13: March for Science; Gorsuch; Syria; Dystopian Healthcare

Welcome to the 13th edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, I explain why the March for Science is so important, defend Democrats’ filibustering of Neil Gorsuch, contemplate the importance of temperament and trust in a wartime leader (Syria), and highlight the crowdfunding of medical expenses as one of the most dystopian symptoms of our society.

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Why We March for Science

Some people have found the decision to stage a march for science (scheduled for April 22 in Washington, D.C.) to be counterproductive. The general thread of these arguments is that by adopting the explicitly political tone of the Women’s March, scientists and science-supporters risk reinforcing the narrative that science is inherently political – that scientists simply use the veneer of methodological rigor to support whatever their political conclusions may be.

Such a perspective, however, is a perversion of a postmodernism that doesn’t believe in any truth at all. The best of postmodernism teaches us that you and I are likely to have different interpretations of the same event because we bring our entire lived experience to bear when we witness it. The worst of postmodernism teaches that because we don’t experience the same thing, there is no truth, no objective reality, only subjective experience.

The right often likes to attack the left for buying into this latter (unhelpful and untrue) part of postmodernism. But curiously, it is now the right that is employing the most flagrant version of this attitude, accusing scientists – whose work by definition is unforgiving of bias – of being a hoax, fake news, etc. Politically this means de-funding scientific research.

The March for Science emerged as a response to threats to funding which are existential in nature for scientists. Science is expensive. Cutting of funding will make it impossible to make the kind of scientific progress part and parcel of this country’s history. The purpose statement from the March itself reads:

“Science, scientists, and evidence-based policymaking are under attack. Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk. It is time for people who support science to take a public stand and be counted."

This is absolutely true – attacks on science will put “our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk” – but there is an additional reason undergirding why I will march for science: science and democracy are mutually reinforcing.

It is no coincidence that the concept of liberal democracy re-emerged in the late 17th and early 18th centuries at the same time as the concept of science. The age of Newton was also the age of Locke. Science requires certain freedoms to be successful. Scientists must sometimes ask questions that are taboo. Which of the sun or the earth revolves around the other? How old is the earth? Do man-made pollutants contribute to global warming? What will be the consequences of global warming?

The other side of this equation is also true: science strengthens democracy. A country that can get correct answers to questions about the changing nature of the physical world will be better equipped to deal with it. Money and resources and lives will be saved. Jobs will be created as science becomes profitable (see: big pharma).

The founders knew that the relationship between science and democracy was mutually strengthening. Many were scientists themselves, like Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush. To preserve and protect scientific inquiry, America’s founders also founded or funded many of America’s earliest institutions of higher education, including Washington and Lee, Washington College, Dickinson College, Hampden-Sydney College, Hamilton College, and the University of Pennsylvania.

On April 22nd we take to the streets, not simply because science funding is important for our health, food, air, and water, but because it’s important for our democracy.

Viva la Resistance!



Impeach Gorsuch?

Earlier this week, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed by 54 senators (including nominal Democrats Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, and Joe Donnelly). The appointment of Gorsuch will inevitably go down as one of the most rancorous, ignominious, and disgraceful episodes in the history of the Senate.

Leading up to the confirmation and in the time since, any number of pundits have suggested that Democrats were doing something politically foolish in threatening to filibuster and then eventually filibustering Gorsuch (two-and-a-half examples here, here, and here).

As Nate Silver delineated in the FiveThirtyEight slack chat, there are essentially four reasons people give for why the Democrats shouldn’t filibuster.

  1. Their political capital is better spent at a later date

  2. It would be unpopular

  3. Energy should be focused on other means of opposing Trump

  4. There’s nothing to be won from not confirming Gorsuch.

None of these is a winning argument. With each of these we should ask who believes this.

The Democratic base wanted all-out resistance against Gorsuch. They (rightly) viewed the refusal to even vote on Garland as deeply unfair. Republicans broke with the entire history of the Senate to not even allow the Garland vote. It was an openly partisan attack on an institution which, for a long time, both parties have subtly agreed to allow to have at least a veneer of non-partisanship. It would actually have been bad for Democrats with their base not to filibuster Gorsuch. A failure to filibuster would have countenanced primary challenges against every Democratic senator who wasn’t on the record as supporting the filibuster.

The argument that filibustering would be unpopular generally rests on the notion that Democrats would get tagged with removing the last vestiges of the veneer of non-partisanship from the Supreme Court. This argument ignores the fact that Republicans did just this during the refusal to vote on Garland. John McCain even promised that there wouldn’t be a vote on any nominee of Clinton’s were she to have won the election Democrats showing their united opposition to a Supreme Court seat that was stolen by Republican partisanship is only an acceptance of the new Republican-written rules of engagement on Supreme Court nominees: outright partisanship.

Republicans often argue that there was a natural balance to the court before Scalia’s death. The truth is that the Supreme Court has been a conservative institution going back to the 1960s. Such an argument is a kind of faux-moderation that claims that a tilt towards one’s own views represents balance, but a tilt towards the views of one’s opponents would represent a radical undermining of the institution’s purpose.

The entire episode around the Supreme Court appointment is a depiction of Republicans writing new and dirtier rules about how to deal with political appointments and Democrats wringing their hands over whether or not to play by the same set of rules. Meanwhile the media seems to think Democrats will get tagged with politicizing the court if they simply agree to play by the same set of rules Republican have written.

If Democrats were to play by the same set of rules, the rallying cry for the 2018 mid-term elections would be “Impeach Gorsuch.” It has about as much likelihood of happening as a repeal of Obamacare, but it would get the base motivated and highlight the fact that Democrats were no longer willing to fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

The point is not that there’s nothing material to be gained from opposing Gorsuch – Republican were always going to force him or someone else through – it’s that it keeps attention on the decay of political norms that Democrats can (I believe) successfully argue was primarily the work of Republicans.



Syria

In response to a chemical attack carried out by the Syrian army against its own citizens, Trump launched a series of missiles at Syrian air force base. Many progressives have been calling for some intervention in the Syria conflict for some time. Progressives tend to believe that the U.S. has a moral obligation to be the world’s police officer. Stray too far from acceptable levels of oppression (by using chemical weapons, for example) and the full force of the U.S. military may come crashing down upon you.

For this reason, Trump has received an unusual (for him) amount of praise for his “decisive” action against Syria, even from progressives. In a true sign of the times, Republicans who were against intervention during the Obama Administration have supported Trump’s intervention while some progressives who were for intervention during the Obama Administration are criticizing it now.

Neither of these positions is as inconsistent as it may seem at first. War is inherently messy. One can reasonably support military conflict when one trusts the person in charge and oppose it when that person feels untrustworthy.

Unsurprisingly, I have a lot more sympathy for those progressives who were pro-intervention under Obama and against it now than I have for Republicans who were against it under Obama but for it now. Obama is a far more thoughtful, discerning, and trustworthy leader than Trump, and that makes all the difference when it comes to waging war.

Ask yourself if you believe Trump has really considered the consequences of his actions. Ask yourself if he understands what the next moves of ISIS, Assad, and Putin might be. Ask yourself if he will attempt to minimize collateral damage. Ask yourself if he has respect for the American lives he will endanger. Ask yourself why, if he feels the slaughter of Syrians with chemical weapons is awful, he is adamantly opposed to letting refugees into the country. If you have good answers to these questions, then support for military intervention may be justified. If not, you might want to consider these questions before advocating intervention.



Crowdfunding for Illness

Last month at Buzzfeed, Ann Helen Peterson wrote a phenomenal deep dive on the world of crowdfunding medical expenses. This has to be one of the most dystopian phenomena in late capitalist society. People market their medical ailments in the hope of generating enough sympathy from others that they donate to help offset the cost.

As Peterson writes, “There’s always been need in modern capitalist society. There has not, however, always been the requirement to market one’s need.” The sticking point is a fundamental shift in the concept of charity.

“This paradigm sets up a dangerous expectation in which giving is contingent upon being moved, entertained, or otherwise satisfied with the righteousness of a fight. I’ll give, this arrangement suggests, but only if you give something to me — tears, sadness, hope, cuteness — first.”

It doesn’t take a lot of reflection to observe that this isn’t exactly the most charitable of attitudes. It’s almost transactional. It’s essentially the creation of a marketplace of charity. In contrast to the organization-based charity of the late 19th and early 20th century (Odd Fellows, Elks, Knights of Pythias, etc.) or the government sponsored programs of the Great Depression, both of which allocated resources to everyone affiliated with the group (or in the case of government programs, everyone [footnote about much of the New Deal being flagrantly racist]), much of charity is now person-to-person. Those who can craft a compelling message will win, and those can’t will lose.

“While crowdfunding platforms themselves may not be discriminatory (although they do prohibit “controversial” campaigns like abortions and euthanasia) the crowdfunding paradigm is not itself fair. It discriminates without intending; much like society at large, it benefits those who are skilled and young and attractive and connected.”

We might also add, "and white" to the end of that list.

Regardless, I highly recommend a full read of the article. It’s superb.



Other Reading:

At the New York Times, Ian Austen detailed the story of natural quintuplets exploited by the Canadian government.

Also at the New York Times, Noam Scheiber profiled the way Uber is conducting psychological experiments on its drivers.

At The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan reminded us that Trump’s election was about racial resentment more than economic anxiety (complete with The Intercept’s characteristic insistence upon making every story about Democratic incompetence).

At Slate, Jamelle Bouie wrote about how Jeff Sessions is undermining the Justice Department’s core mission from within.

This Twitter thread from conservative pundit David Frum about how mainstream media biases actually favor Trump is also worth your time.



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