The Plight of Conservative Comedy: Where’s the Right’s Daily Show?

Fox News has astronomically high ratings. Rush Limbaugh rules talk radio. But liberals dominate political comedy. The few attempts to create a conservative satire show have either not found mainstream success (News Busted, a YouTube series with views typically in the low 30,000s), aired far outside of prime time (Red Eye, filling Fox’s 3 a.m. slot), or been promptly cancelled (Half Hour News Hour, with 13 episodes on Fox). Are right-leaning satires doomed to failure?

The creators of Flipside don’t think so. Their once-a-week program, in the vein ofThe Daily Show or The Colbert Report but with a generally conservative tilt, hosted by comedian Michael Loftus, will premiere this fall. Can it work?

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Most explanations for why Republican-friendly satire struggles pin blame on conservative philosophy. Comedian Mike Macrae told me in an email,

Most American comedy traditions stem from the concept of resisting or questioning authority on some level. Our comedy is about rascals and rule-breakers. Mark Twain skewered the notion of Europe’s cultural hegemony over the rustic New World and its new nation of upstarts. Most Marx Brothers movies are essentially about them evading some arbitrarily deputized authority figure, be it the hotel detective or the sailor in charge of finding stowaways. Cheech and Chong wouldn’t be as funny if marijuana weren’t made pointlessly illegal by right-wing cultural pressures. The common thread in these and other American comedy staples has been that the foils are generally motivated by values that we tend to associate with conservatism or, in some cases, the Republican Party platform itself.

Alison Dagnes, an academic who examined politics and comedy in her book A Conservative Walks Into a Bar, came away with the conclusion that:

The nature of conservatism does not meet the conditions necessary for political satire to flourish: conservatism is harmonized and slow to criticize people in power, and it originates from a place that repudiates humor because it is absolute.

These theories may sound attractive—especially to liberals—but suffer from deep deficiencies. For one: Humor doesn’t rely on the objective nature of the social structure, but rather, one’s subjective understanding of it, which is often fraught with bias. For instance, majority of Republicans think that racial discrimination against whites is as bad as discrimination against minorities. “During the last four decades the Republicans and conservatives in general have conceded a lot of the progressive premises,” Kfir Alfia, one of the executive producers of Flipside, told me. “I would question that premise that conservatives are in a state of, or a position of authority.”

What’s more, skepticism of authority is a conservative tenet itself. It was the great conservative philosopher was Edmund Burke who said, “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.” In the Obama era, there are plenty of liberal institutions ripe for mockery. South Park has brilliantly lampooned many of the left’s excesses, from PETA, to raceenvironmentalismAl Gore, San Francisco smugnessabortiontoleranceanti-smoking activists and celebritieslots of celebrities.

So philosophy isn’t the problem. Indeed, history shows that conservative-leaning comedy isn’t inherently unviable. Half Hour News Hour, for example, did well in its time slot despite weak reviews. Financial concerns, not low viewership, killed it. “Essentially, they were trying to run a broadcast show on a cable budget,” Matthew Sheffield, an executive producer atFlipside told me. “It was a lot cheaper to run Oliver North’s ancient war clip show than it was to do that.”

Before Comedy Central settled on the Colbert Report/Daily Show model, it hadTough Crowd With Colin Quinn, a well-liked panel comedy show with many very funny conservative commentators in conversation with liberal ones. (For a representative segment, watch the famous Giraldo/Leary fight over North Korea.)But Tough Crowd struggled with ratings, especially with younger audiences, so it was cancelled to make room for Colbert. Before Tough Crowd, there was Bill Maher’s Emmy-winning Politically Incorrect, which, unlike his current show on HBO, Real Time, had more equally balanced panels and less demagoguery.

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So if philosophy isn’t preventing conservative comedy from flourishing, what is? Structural, demographic, and financial issues.

Successful comics often rise up out of thriving, crowded standup scenes, which tend to mainly exist in urban areas. Jon Stewart, for instance, spent five years in the New York City comedy world before landing a show on TVBig cities tend to be liberal, and it stands to reason that so would be the people who attend comedy clubs in them. Funny urbanites who are conservative may decide that there just isn’t much of a market for their political material. One comedian who I was referred to declined to be interviewed because, the comedian said, the conservative label, “has never been good to me.”

Similar impediments exist in the entertainment industry, which has a not-undeserved reputation for being run mainly by liberals. “People always ask why there aren’t a lot of really big conservative comedians but I think the deck is stacked against that and I doubt it will ever happen in my lifetime,” Nick Dipaolotold The Daily Caller, mentioning that he suspected that his politics were why HBO wouldn’t air a recent hour-long special he taped. There just aren’t many outlets for conservative comics. The feeling, as Stephen Kruiser writes on Breitbart, is that “most liberals in the entertainment industry expose themselves to conservatives about as readily as they would a leper colony.”

But the problem for right-leaning televised comedy may also have to do with audiences. Historically, it’s young people who have favored news mixed with humor, and polls have shown young people trending liberal for years. Fox News’ viewership is older, of a different generation than any up-and-coming standup comics, and many of its members hold pretty traditional views. That’s not exactly the audience that’ll help nurture boundary-pushing, conversation-making comedy. On Half-Hour News Hour, for instance, one writer complained that “the best material we wrote was rejected because the network considered it too controversial.”

In fact, the closest thing Fox News has to The Daily Show (Red Eye) is broadcast at 3 a.m. In Fox style, the show primarily takes the form of a panel and doesn’t include the more expensive-to-produce field pieces. Its racy humor might be off-putting to much of Fox’s primetime audience, but it’s doing relatively well with young people.

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Loftus already has had a successful career as a comic and a writer. He has an hour-long special to his name (You’ve Changed) and he can woo a city crowd (he often stops by Hollywood Improv in LA for a set). Though I’m a liberal, I’ve enjoyed his bits before (and was excited to see him hosting the show).

If Flipside succeeds, it might be because in this era where high-quality web videos for niche audiences are thriving, it can avoid some of the structural obstacles other attempts at conservative satire have faced. Flipside’s looking for broadcast distribution, but it’ll also try to build an audience online. One of its producers, Kfir Alfia, has worked in TV before and seen “really, really funny things go through a horrible development process and have the funny squeezed out of them,” he says. “We’re not going to have a board of directors with a stick-up-their-ass network to have battles regarding content.”

The pilot episode of Flipside proves there’s plenty of potential material, though the punch lines could use some tuning. One bit mocks Harrison Ford for warning about the effects of global warming and then “flying his plane to get a hamburger.” It’s a promising setup, but the payoff—Mattera spraying aerosol cans in studio—falls flat. Another bit lampooning the possible Hillary Clinton documentaries is funny, but a jab about her attractiveness stuck me as gauche.

Of course, politically infused comedy from both sides of the spectrum is tough to pull off. As Norm Macdonald put it to me, “The problem with coming to comedy with any ideology is the surprise is gone. We know the punchline.” Marc Maron told me that he moved away from his more overtly liberal jokes, because “when you’re doing ideological comedy, from a point of view that pre-exists you, it’s very tricky not to carry water for someone else’s agenda.” The Daily Show, for example, seems aware of this. Jon Stewart happily mocks Democrats, drawing vituperative harangues from lefty viewers. The first great conservative comedy show will put humor before ideology. As Mark Twain noted, “Humor is never artificial.”

What if economic growth is no longer possible in the 21st century?

Co-Written with Lew Daly.

For decades, rapid economic growth has been the norm for developed countries. An educated workforce, a large population boom, major technological advances, and abundant fossil fuels were the key components of growth, generating substantial and broadly distributed increases in standards of living in many countries. We have grown so used to such growth that we inevitably view it as a panacea for a host of economic ills, whether it’s a deep recession or income inequality.

We now understand, however, that the postwar growth paradigm is not environmentally sustainable. We also know that the shared prosperity it once delivered is itself unraveling. With these combined trends, something has to give in order to maintain living standards.

One possible scenario, with surprisingly good news for average Americans, is that constraints on growth will force political leaders to accept redistribution as a policy tool. Indeed, if we cannot grow our way to broadly shared prosperity again, redistribution is the only way to save the middle class.

Many economists have warned that the old model is dying out. In a much-cited paper, Robert Gordon argues that the rapid growth we take for granted is not only historically anomalous but likely to slow significantly in the 21st century, pointing in particular to diminishing returns from technology as one major drag. Developed countries have already picked the “low-hanging fruit” of technological advance (in Tyler Cowen’s phrase), and future innovations will produce far less growth, he argues.

Steven King, chief economist at HSBC, similarly argues, “The underlying reason for the stagnation is that a half-century of remarkable one-off developments in the industrialized world will not be repeated.” Gordon also points to rising inequality, which has led to stagnating middle-class wages, as a drag on future growth. As a result of these trends and others, average annual growth will fall below 1 percent in the 21st century, he predicts.

Then there is the impact on the global economy that will result from combating global warming. Working from a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million (PPM), Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre predict that achieving this target will require a substantial slowing of growth, mainly borne by the United States and China. The U.S. and China must keep growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years, they say.

In an interview, Roemer tells us that these results are optimistic; after all, some economists have argued that growth may not occur at all. In the paper, the three argue that “there is no politically feasible solution to the climate change problem unless” both the U.S. and China “honestly recognize the connection between restricting emissions and curbing growth.” In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office’s long-range analyses use a growth projection of 2.2 percent on average over the next 75 years.

Other economists have come to similar conclusions about the connections between growth and sustainability. Early in 2012, Kenneth Rogoff argued that maximizing growth must be weighed against the negative possibilities of growth, like global warming. Indeed as James Gustave Spethnotes, environmental impacts are the most significant challenges to growth: “Economic activity and its growth are the principal drivers of massive environmental decline.”

Growth constraints will push the issue of distribution to the forefront of political discussions. In his forthcoming book Capital, Thomas Piketty predicts that growth will slow to between 1 and 2 percent — 19th-century levels — by the end of the 21st century. This trend, he further argues, will be accompanied by higher returns to capital and lower returns to labor, thereby exacerbating inequality.

The conclusions that flow from these observations are stark. The old economic paradigm relied on unsustainable growth, so we must change the paradigm. For decades, our rising standard of living came at a deep cost to our environment and our children’s future. There is simply not enough planetary bio-capacity to grow our way out of the messy moral discussions of distribution. The idea that inequality is merely an inefficiency to be corrected with a technocratic fix or perpetual growth is no longer tenable.

Fortunately, we have plenty of GDP that could help the middle class, with approximately $200,000 a year potentially available for each family of four. Given that the median family of four only gets about $67,000 a year at this point, it should be clear that it is possible to grow and strengthen our middle class, significantly, while adjusting to the lower GDP growth we are likely to experience in the future.

The question is, will political leaders accept the need for distributional remedies, or will they continue to side with the wealthy against the struggling middle class?

Conservatives defend inequality out of self-interest — nothing more

Conservatives have justified inequality for decades, arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism and broadly beneficial. This intellectual edifice has begun to collapse.

Supply-side economics rest on the assumption that the wealthy drive economic growth, and that by reducing taxes on them, we can unleash latent economic potential. In fact, however, investment is driven by demand, not supply (a point acknowledged by the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein). If there are viable investments, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two top economists on inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

Recently, two IMF papers confirmed what Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand. This stunted demand means fewer opportunities for investment, stunting growth.

Add to this growing body of research the fact that a robust defense of inequality is increasingly difficult to muster when every other OECD country has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent was widely decried, because a large swath of research shows that the rise of the 1 percent did not come from natural economic forces, but rather rent-seeking.

The evidence is clear: The economic benefits of inequality have been massively oversold. Inequality is, in fact, a detriment to growth. So why has the right not conceded the argument?

The answer is class interest.

“Class interest” does not mean that the wealthy are nefarious schemers. Instead, it means there are various cognitive biases that lead them to justify and perpetuate inequality. For instance, Kris-Stella Trump conducted experiments in which participants were asked to solve anagrams in a high inequality scenario (the winner received $9 and the loser $1) and a low inequality scenario (the winner got $6 and the loser $4). When asked what a fair distribution would look like, the high inequality group preferred an inequality of $5.54 ($7.77-$2.23) while the low inequality group preferred inequality of $2.30 ($6.15-$3.85). She concludes: “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality.” Inequality perpetuates inequality.

Paul Piff finds that the wealthy feel more entitled to their earnings and are more likely to show personality traits typically associated with narcissism. Recent research by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthavee finds that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right, and also more likely to believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. As people get richer, they think that tax policies favoring the rich are fair — not because of the macro-economic benefits, but because of how they benefit me.

These cognitive biases, rooted in class distinctions, have deep implications. As a young economist argued in 1846, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright examined the policy preferences of the very wealthy and found that they generally fall in line with their class interests. The wealthy were far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter,” or that minimum wage must be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line,” or that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not meant to demean the policy preferences of the wealthy — only to examine the motives. For too long, the wealthy have couched their economic ideas as being broadly good for the country, but in fact, de-unionization, capital market liberalization, and austerity benefit themwhile leaving the rest of us far worse off. It’s time that we were all honest about why we support the policies we support.

Now of course, not everyone who supports conservative economic policy is wealthy. Indeed, there is a large literature devoted to the question why the working class supports policies against their own interests. Engles calls this phenomenon “false consciousness,” writing to Franz Mehring, “the real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” Thomas Frank proposes that working-class conservatives are swayed by social issues. Ian Haney Lopez argues that racial animus still plays a role. Rick Perlstein notes the power of identity politics. The American ethos of upward mobility certainly plays a role; truck drivers in Tallahassee vote for tax breaks on Wall Street believing that they may someday posses enough wealth that an estate tax might affect them. John Steinbeck noted the power of aspiration, writing, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

But when it comes to wealthy conservatives who favor economic policies that hurt many Americans: Bartels’ previous investigation of economic and political power finds, unsurprisingly, that those with a higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings. It seems obvious, but it is important to connect these dots: Not only do the wealthy have interests divorced from the broader interests of society, but they also have the political heft to turn those interests into policy.

It is considered rather gauche to discuss class today, and the inequality debate is therefore situated in a purely theoretical realm. Liberals are constantly confused and aggravated about why the preponderance of evidence that austerity doesn’t work (while stimulus does) and that inequality harms society is lost on a large portion of conservatives.

Well, let’s face it: Those who support austerity and inequality are not really about “trickle-down” economics or “efficiency and equity.” They are protecting the interests of the upper class.

As Jonathan Swift warned, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

The Tea Party’s perverse leftist fantasy

The left has spilled pages of ink and innumerable pixels wondering why the middle class votes against its interests, debating the effect of the Democratic Leadership Council, and which candidate would be the best presidential contender in 2016 (one of us is guilty ofsuch indulgences). Lefties have harangued Barack Obama, even suggesting that Richard Nixon was more liberal. By doing this, the left has has succumbed to right-wing ideas about social change – that it comes from great men, rather than collective action.

Throughout history, we can find examples of this mythos. FDR, the liberal hero, was not a Nietzschean overman, he was confined by his circumstances. Economics professor Richard Wolff argues that he could only raise marginal tax rates to 90 percent, create a vast array of make-work programs and push through a universal pension because capitalists were so terrified of a mobilized left.

Similar outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus.” That is, no matter how conservative Nixon was, he simply could not veto the bills before him without either being overridden or digging deep into his limited cache of political capital. In the same way, no matter how much Obama may want to pass universal health care or gun regulations, he cannot. The central lie of the DLC was not neoliberalism, but the idea that the presidency mattered. By shifting the focus to an almost sacrosanct view of the presidency, the left has forgotten about movement building to fawn on “progressive heroes.”

Consider the press around Bill de Blasio, the newly elected progressive mayor of New York City. For the most part, it has succumbed to the “great man” narrative, and many New Yorkers wait with baited breath for him to single-handedly obviate income inequality. But de Blasio’s success was not his alone, and his governance will not be either. As Harold Meyerson documents, it was the Working Families Party, which spent decades building a progressive infrastructure in and around the city that de Blasio needed to win and it is WFP defense attorneys, city council members and public advocates that will make his time as Mayor successful.

 

If a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office it may well be due to the tireless efforts of organizations like National Employment Law Project, Demos, Project Vote, Common Cause and others that register voters, build coalitions and sue states just to get them to comply with laws on the books.

The best palliative for this great-man obsession is “The Lego Movie.” In the movie, the “Master Builders,” await a prophesied “special” to destroy Lord Business. When they finally meet the special, Emmet, they find him entirely banal. Eventually, they realize there is no savior, and that they must use their own talents and abilities, contribute what they can to create an emancipatory movement. Such is the debacle of the left. Our hero, long prophesied, has come, and though he is extraordinarily capable, there is simply no way that he can single-handedly end all wars, pass immigration reform, save Social Security, stop the rising oceans and slash rising inequality.

In “The Lego Movie,” the opposition was not only wrong about who would bring change — they were wrong about how change would come about. The Master Builders thought they were going to use their existing institutions and infrastructure. Although they did not use manuals, they still loathed to deviate from the prepared plan. It is Emmet’s insight that the plan is fatally flawed – there is no need for a vanguard party, but rather a mass collective action. His insight is scorned by the council who expected to simply storm Lord Businesses’s offices again, even after Metalbeard’s failed assault. For us as for them, the existing institutions and infrastructures are only part of the equation. Sheldon Adelson votes, like you and me, but he also spent more than the residents of 12 states combined on the 2012 election cycle. In their recent study, Larry Bartels find that the wealthy are not only more engaged in terms of voting, they are also more likely to vote, donate money to campaigns, attend rallies and meet with or call candidates. The left cannot continue storming the Presidency and expecting change.

The right learned the lesson of 1930s and began a mobilization of their own, one which has become so powerful it is almost unseating them from power. The Tea Party is, in nearly every way, a leftist movement. It is based on a perversely egalitarian sentiment, a “makers and takers” narrative, and leftist mobilization. Many may be surprised to learn that the Republican primary candidate who raised the largest percentage of his money from large donors was the most moderate: Jon Huntsman. Like the communists and socialists of the post-depression years, the Tea Party has obliterated the paradigm, pushing change from outside the political system.

“The Lego Movie” is in stark contrast to other “leftist” movies, like “Elysium,” that rely on “great men” to save humanity. “The Lego Movie” is not meant to be communist propaganda, but rather aims to obliterate the “hero narrative” that Joseph Campbell identified in “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is not “the special.” In fact, the the prophecy predicting such a figure was made up by Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius. But Emmet’s adventure over the course of the film still mirrors the Hero’s Journey narrative laid out by Campbell. However, somewhat contrary to Campbell’s outline, Emmet’s journey doesn’t change him. Instead, his journey changes those around him: his allies the Master Builders and the people of Bricksburg.

Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writers Journey” adapts Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the craft of writing. In it, he discusses the various kinds of heroes seen in storytelling. Emmet fits into the category of “Catalyst Hero”: “A certain class of Hero is an exception to the rule that the Hero is usually the character who undergoes the most change. These are catalyst Heroes, central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” Emmet’s journey teaches the Master Builders and the greater Bricksburg population that everyone is special and should use their personal talents to work together.

In this story, the hero is not unwilling, but impotent; he is not called, but rather stumbles upon his fate; and he does not grow, but rather those around him do. This is a far more realistic description of the reality of Obama’s presidency the salvific narrative that surrounded his election in 2008. His failures remind us that it is not “Great men” who act as a force for social change, but rather great movements. Norberto Bobbio recognized that the central feature of the left was the belief in human equality. As Rousseau said, “the destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders.” In  a brilliant bit, British comedian Robert Newman diagnoses the problem on the left,

When I first started getting involved with Radical-Direct-action-Non-hierarchical-Eco-autonomous-grassroots organisations, I didn’t understand the concept of no leaders. I thought I did; but I didn’t. And I’d go upto the nearest alpha male or alpha female and say, “Here’s what you should do – Why don’t you do this – It’d be great if you all did this – And when are you going to do this?” And they’d give you this look, that I never understood…

What this look meant was, “Yes, good Idea, why don’t you do it yourself? You print the leaflets, I’ll distribute them; you call a meeting, I’ll attend; you organize an action, we’ll come along”.

And from that moment, I realized that, my whole philosophical outlook changed. And from then on, instead of suggesting things other people could do, I stopped suggesting things altogether, in case they expected me to do them…

Such a problem won’t be found in “The Lego Movie,” where characters are exhorted to “start building” with whatever they have on hand. The left needs more middle class donors, giving not just to political campaigns, but unions and think-tanks. The left needs more writers, artists, policy analysts, historians and scientists. The truth, the one that no pundit will ever write publicly, is that it doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nominee is Warren or Clinton, what matters is whether there is a mobilized worker’s movement, student demonstrations and new and refreshed leftist thinking. McGovern didn’t end Vietnam; hippies did. We, the people, did.

Can We Make Environmentalism a Centrist Issue?

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book,What’s the Matter with Kansas?Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.

When asked about the most important global issue, 25 percent of Americans cite environmental degradation, while only 10 percent cite the economy. “Everyone studying American politics has been waiting for a new realignment because the last few decades have been marked by political apathy and the rise of a new voting bloc that is not strongly tied to either party,” says Dr. Benjamin Radcliff, professor of politics at Notre Dame and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life. “What is needed is some spark, either an event, like the Great Depression—or just a party capable of mobilizing this latent potential.”

Hedge-fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s recent pledge to pour $100 million into 2014 races could certainly create the political infrastructure to allow the left to capitalize politically on the next oil spill. A potent path forward is for the left to appeal to independent voters concerned about the environment. By adopting a moderate framing and language that appeals to both centrist thought leaders and disenchanted Republican moderates and independents, the environment could become to the left what race has been to the right.

Dr. John Roemer, a professor of political science and economics at Yale, wrote in a 2005 paper with Woojin Lee and Karine van der Straeten that “the Left might attempt to exploit global warming the way the Right has exploited racism.” He says that the issue is even more salient today, although the right is currently in a state of “cognitive dissonance” because of their anti-government ideology. His own upcoming book, Sustainability for a Warming Planet, uses terms like “intergenerational equity” and “sustainability” that are commonly used by centrists like David Brooks and Joe Scarboroughwho worry that the federal debt is unfair to future generations and on an unsustainable course. Such leaders thrive on issues like the federal debt and sustainability, a leftist concept that is intellectually harmonious with stewardship, a right-wing one. By using the language of responsibility and intergenerational equity, as well as homespun wisdom about “living within our means,” the left could create a broad umbrella coalition encompassing concerned centrists. Internationally, moderate right-wing parties have successfully co-opted the environment from the left; Angela Merkel famously won re-election in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy. In Britain and France, conservative politicians have been at the forefront of initiatives to adopt alternative measures of sustainable progress. France’s conservative Nicholas Sarkozy created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance to identify ways to move beyond GDP as the measure of economic progress. In Britain, conservative Prime Minster David Cameron also pursued a measure of happiness and well-being.

Both Roemer and Radcliff note that a key detriment to progress is the right’s fixation on eliminating government. “There’s simply no way to reduce emissions without some bureaucracy,” Roemer says. “You can’t fight global warming without government intervention.”

In America, some left-wing candidates have won in heavily right-wing parts of the country by using conservationist rhetoric. Bernie Sanders won his Senate seat in Vermont—a rural, white state that holds the record for longest-consecutive streak voting Republican in presidential elections—by, according to David Sirota, “visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters].” In Montana, a state that has voted Republican in all but one of the last ten presidential elections, Governor Brian Schweitzer won twice (the second time in a landslide) partially by wooing hunters and fisherman with land and stream access. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Governor David Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a re-election margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country with 66 percent approval among Republicans.

In hindsight, the potency of the environmentalist message should not be surprising. Religious traditions have always stressed the importance of living in harmony with the environment, and the very idea behind conservatism is not radically re-inventing the world in which one lives, lest unintended consequences ensue. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the environment used to be a non-partisan issue, and only recently became politicized. In her 2013 paper “A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming,” Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont, finds, “partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change” but rather, that “party polarization among elites has now trickled down to the masses.” She cites thefamous memo by Republican political distorter extraordinaire Frank Lutz, in which Republican politicians were encouraged to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The Pew data cited above show that swing voters lean toward Democrats on environmental issues. Rasmussen polling finds that voters overwhelming favor the Democratic position on the environment (51 percent to 34 percent). That leaves a lot of voters open for a sustainability-minded lefty, particularly in states where big businesses threaten land that was once preserved for hunters or fracking threatens water supplies.

According to Dr. Robert Bartlett, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, the problem has been framing. “Environmentalists tend to frame the issue in terms of harm and justice, while conservatives respond to in-group loyalty, sanctity, respect and stewardship.” Aaron Sparks, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the issue with Phillip Ehret, finds that about 20 to 30 percent of strong conservatives hold pro-environment attitudes (meaning they are willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment). But Democrats must be “smart about how they frame their appeal,” Sparks says. “Conservatives can be persuaded to accept the environmental argument if is pitched in a way that is consistent with their morality, which tends to emphasize the sacredness of nature and a focus on local, community-building issues.”

But a 2012 study finds that climate campaigns overwhelming continue to frame the issue as harm and care, fairness and oppression of marginalized groups. These liberal values don’t resonate with conservatives. Environmentalists might take a page from E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful:

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

Six Ways America Is Like a Third-World Country

Although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development – key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more. In some instances, the U.S.’s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that are snidely looked-down-upon as “third world.” Here are six of the most egregious examples that show how far we still have to go:

1. Criminal Justice

We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That’s significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners – and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.

Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year ­– that’s 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.

2. Gun Violence

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.

3. Healthcare

A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would actually save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.

4. Education

The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It’s no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are actually more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That’s one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.

5. Inequality

By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a large body of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.

6. Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it’s still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.

America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seat. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost – millions of people without health insurance. If we don’t critically examine these flaws, how can we ever hope to progress as a society?

Natural Gas Will Not Save the U.S. Economy

Co-Written with Lew Daly

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But it’s not just economists who believe that anymore. Such ideas are still widely accepted by thought leaders, journalists, and politicians who, together, form a strong consensus that the U.S. recovery should be bolstered by natural gas exploration and production. The McKinsey Global Institute claims in a recent report that a natural gas boom is one of the most important “game changer” ideas for U.S. economic growth, while The Economist writes, “Become a champion of a global fracking revolution, Mr. Obama, and the world could look on America very differently.” And in his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “I’ll cut red tape” for factories that use natural gas, and that “Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

But the belief that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” allowing us to grow rapidly in the age of global warming, is fit for a madman.

The current consensus is that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the consequences would be catastrophic (the Arctic melt would raise sea levels by tens of meters). So scientists have proposed a “carbon budget”: the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere without raising temperatures by 2 degrees. Using a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million—which has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency and Britain’s Stern Review—economists Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre have thrown cold water on the idea that natural gas is our nation’s economic savior. In a forthcoming paper, they argue that given that budget, the world’s two largest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, must keep GDP growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years.

These results may sound surprising, but they are in line with a growing body of research on stranded carbon assets, which are assets such as fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) that will lose their value well before they’re expected to. This can happen as a result of, say, market disruption (rapid advances in green technology like wind and solar polar or divestment) or government regulation (a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards). That latter is more likely because, even now, we have found way more fossil fuels than we could possibly burn without inviting long-term environmental disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s carbon-budget model, widely considered the most reliable, puts the budget for 2012-2100 at between 886 and 1119 gigatons of CO2. Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates. James Hansen of the Columbia Earth Institute and other leading scientists and economists argue that all extraction of coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, like the Canadian Tar Sands, must cease immediately and the extraction of conventional fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas, must be significantly pared down.

Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and other attempts to revive the U.S. economy based on fossil-fuel extraction are the equivalent of running up billions in debt and then running off to borrow more. The international community is already blowing through its carbon budget; the IPCC predicts that given “business as usual,” we’ll burn 1,000 gigatons of CO2 between 2012 and 2033, depleting the more conservative budget entirely and nearing the upper bound. We’ve already seen the consequences of temperatures growing by less than one degree Celsius, yet we’re on track to see themrise by more than six degrees by 2100. Our current trajectory tempts ecological and economic collapse, and yet, many are arguing that we accelerate the process.

Part of the problem is that our measure of growth, GDP, does not take into account the costs or sustainability of growth. One billion dollars of growth in the production of solar energy is not the same as $1 billion produced by coal in terms of ecological harm and sustainability, but GDP counts them equally. Instead we should measure progress using more extensive metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which factors the impact of greenhouse gas emissions into its calculations. Further, we should institute a carbon tax, preferably an international one. Some companies currently price carbon internally—meaning that they put a price on the carbon produced by their projects, and subtract that from any expected returns—but do so at widely varying rates. A Carbon Disclosure Project study finds that nine of the largest energy companies in the United States internally price carbon dioxide emissions, at a cost ranging from $15 per ton (Devon) to $60 per ton (ExxonMobil). Governments should consider the social and environmental cost of carbon dioxide when they are making infrastructure and research investments, regulating extractive industries like fracking and offering tax incentives. Against the EPA’s recommendation, the State Department decided not to consider the social cost of carbon in its analysis of the Keystone pipeline.

The State Department also didn’t consider the very likely possibility that the pipeline will become a stranded asset. We can only hope it will—because that would mean we’ve finally learned that if we don’t live within our carbon budget, the long-term ecological and economic harm caused by our relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels will obviate any short-term benefits to the economy. If we build our recovery on natural resources that need to remain underground to keep global temperatures stable, then we’ll be like the foolish builder in the Gospel of Matthew “who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Do Conservatives have a philosophy? Do Liberals?

Jonathan Chait is great.

When he’s not writing on the Keystone XL pipeline he’s generally pretty solid; I imagine we have deep disagreements, but presently, with a Republican party largely off the hinges, he’s writing on stuff I agree with. One qualm I stumbled upon:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about–greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich–are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, “[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”

As far as I can tell, this is total bunk. For one, I’ve met a lot of liberals and all of their political decisions are formed by deeply philosophical principles. Chait essentially contradicts himself in his next paragraph:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Now, liberals do have an underlying set of philosophical principles, i.e. utilitarianism. Conservatives, in Chait’s telling are more concerned with ideology i.e. government is always bad. In this paragraph it is the liberals with the deep philosophical claims, while the conservatives are simply reactionary. I would argue that, in fact, conservatives are likely right that a material improvement in someone’s life should not be the end-all, be-all of politics, because millenia of existing as human beings confirm that far more important to well-being are family, community, a sense of purpose and fulfilling work.

There was a time when conservative philosophy was represented in Republican policies, and not a reactionary conservatism, a conservatism that was logically coherent and powerfully persuasive, one that made you think (read: Michael Oakeshott or Leo Strauss or Carl Schmitt and, if I’m being gracious, Chesterton – though never Lewis). Now, that tradition is in shambles, mainly because the Republican party is no longer informed by a coherent set of underlying principles. That’s why Jon Stewart can satirize them so successfully, they are entirely nihilist. Chait recognizes this, in his newest piece on the EITC when he talks about a proposal that is once accepted by Republicans is immediately denounced when their opponents cite it. This is not philosophy, it is, ultimately, nihilism.

I grant that in politics, the lines of your philosophy are blurred. But you can still get a general reading. The humor that Stewart creates is in showing that all of the modern Republican party’s pretensions toward traditions and such are empty – their goal is to forward the plutocratic agenda, it is pure class politics. Chait believes Republicans want small government for no reason. What? No one just hates government out of nowhere; Republicans have a reason for it – primarily, helping those who benefit from smaller government (i.e. richie riches). I don’t know inside their hearts, but I’m guessing this because when big government helps wealthy donors (farm subsidies) the party has trouble getting rid of it. There are libertarians as well, their political program is also informed by philosophical principles – different from my own, but philosophical nonetheless.

I wish there were more people like Andrew Sullivan who really wrestled with their traditions to come up with a realistic conservative political program. When that happens, we could say that the right was infused with political philosophy. As it is, it’s just naked class interests (which is why Sullivan has distanced himself from the Republican party). Liberals, as far as I can tell, have a better, if not incomplete political philosophy, rather than a reactionary program of class interest.

The “donor class” and the minimum wage

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a new report estimating the effects of a higher minimum wage, conservatives pounced on the possibility that a minimum wage hike to $10.10 would cost about 500,000 jobs. But much like their reaction to the recent report about the Affordable Care Act, they are jumping to conclusions far too quickly.

First, there are reasons to be skeptical about the negative employment effect. Many studies find no negative employment effects. A recent report by Demos finds that by stimulating economic growth, a minimum wage could in fact create jobs. After all, a worker for one company is a customer for another. Minimum wage workers struggling to make ends meet are more likely to spend, reviving local economies. This is the argument forwarded by billionaire investment banker Nick Hanauer and economists like Joseph Stiglitz. It has strong theoretical support, as well as empirical support; studies show that poor workers are more likely to spend marginal income than wealthy workers.

Part of the problem is that the CBO relies heavily on simulations, rather than the empirical (observed) effects of the minimum wage. Textbook economics would predict job losses; if you make a good (labor) more costly, you reduce demand for it. But the world doesn’t work like a textbook. Workers being paid more may work harder (economists call this an “efficiency wage”). Workers struggling to make ends meet may not be paid in accordance with their ability, because they can’t credibly threaten to leave their job or unionize (they will simply be fired and replaced). The most famous study on the issue, by David Card and Alan Krueger finds that, “Contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model of the minimum wage … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” More recently, these findings were replicated empirically by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester and Michael Reich.

Looking internationally will not help Republicans. Even the right-leaning Economist magazine has argued that a minimum wage hike in Britain, “has done little or no harm” and instead, “Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale—and thus reduced wage inequality.” The U.S. minimum wage pales in comparison to other developed countries; Australia’s is more than double our own. Historically, too, the current minimum wage is anomalous. Adjusted for inflation, it is far lower than the $10.77 a worker would be making in 1968.

But even if some minor job losses materialize, raising the minimum wage is still good policy. The data show that 55% of the people making a minimum wage work full-time and their the average age is 35. Many of these workers are struggling under student debt, or the costs of raising children. These are not simply college students working on the side; for many people these jobs are the only source of vital income. For these poor workers, a $3 raise may be the difference between a Thanksgiving Turkey and empty stomachs.

The minimum wage has potent implications for our national discussion of inequality and upward mobility. Republicans have been paying lip service to the idea of reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility, but so far policy proposals have been sparse. The minimum wage is a perfect solution. It requires little government spending and is unlikely to have any significant effect on the deficit. It certainly doesn’t violate the “no new taxes” pledge. So a minimum wage hike would be the perfect conservative solution to inequality: targeted at working people (rather than the unemployed), minimal bureaucracy and no new revenue for the government. And studies show it would work. Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute finds that the declining value of the minimum wage has been a major driver of increased inequality. Citing the work of David Autor, he finds that more than half of the growing divide between workers at the median and workers at the lowest 10% of the income distribution can be explained by a declining minimum wage.

The CBO isn’t interested in adjudicating studies, but rather creating a consensus, and it generally errs on the side of conservatism. While the effects of the minimum wage on the job market is mixed and uncertain, the effect on upward mobility is not. The CBO estimates that in total, “overall real income would rise by $1 billion” and that a $10.10 minimum wage could lift 900,000 people out of poverty. The report estimates that those making less than $26,300 a year will their real family income increase by $300 dollars, and those making less than $51,400 would see it rise by $200. All told, more than 16 million workers will be positively affected. For many, that might enough to fix a broken dishwasher or afford Christmas presents. However, one group would be negatively affected: those earning more than $182,200, who would see their real family income drop by $700. Given that this classis the most likely to vote and donate money to Republicans, it’s unsurprising that the part will be slow to embrace raising the minimum wage. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent millions aiming to keep the minimum wage low.

Republican opposition indicates just how much the party has been co-opted by the interests of the donor class. While a large plurality of economists and more than 73% of citizens support raising the minimum wage, research by Larry Bartels finds that only 40% of the wealthiest Americans do. When combined with research by Martin Gilens and Kay Lehman Schlozman showing how the wealthiest Americans have a disparate voice in public policy affairs we begin to see why the minimum wage has yet to gain traction: class interests, not economics are driving the debate.

If Republicans are serious about reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility without increasing deficits and killing jobs, the minimum wage is the way to go. Sadly, they have been co-opted by a donor class less interested in good policy than their own economic interests.

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.