It’s back to CPAC tomorrow. I’ll be bringing some friends, meeting some friends, and hopefully engaging in some respectful and mutually informative conversations with folks of goodwill from the right side of that political spectrum that I’ve never really managed to find a place on. Maybe I’ll meet the guy or gal who will take Libertarianism back from gun nuts in period costumes and restore that respect for the intellectual defense of actual liberty that made guys like Thomas Jefferson so much fun at parties.

Or, maybe I’ll just see Ryan Sorba, a Young American for Freedom:

Say, Ryan – when you’re so homophobic that CPAC is booing you, you might want to take a step or two back. Get to know a gay person. Shake their hand. Hell, give them a big, all-American hug. But not too close. That’s the kind of thing that gets people wondering exactly what makes them so uncomfortable about the idea of same-sex attraction…

I find myself picking on ‘conservative’ politicos a lot here, and that’s not fair. Not that it’s unfair to them (they inevitably deserve it), but it’s unfair to the reasonable, informed, and rational conservatives out there – and it’s unfair to me, because it implicitly paints me as a faithful supporter of the political left, which I am not. So, let me say a brief word for Thomas E. Woods.

I had seen but not read Mr. Woods’ books, and in all honesty I was drawn to his CPAC breakout session in hope of fireworks. The topic of his speech was ‘nullification’, which has recently become Tea Party talk for ‘hoist the Confederate battle flag and pick up the Civil War where we left off’ – I anticipated blood-flecked spittle and wild-eyed, scenery-chewing screeds against the homosexual socialists who will shortly be arriving to convert us to atheism and abort our guns.

Nope.

Mr. Woods is an intelligent man. He is clear-eyed and coherent – and, most of all, he knows his stuff. I won’t recap his lecture in detail, but he basically made a strong case for the idea that state nullification of federal dictates deemed unconstitutional is not a particularly radical idea. On the contrary, it’s an important check on potential abuses of federal authority. He cited his sources. He structured his arguments cogently, and was able to both identify and address the most probable objections to his thesis.

Hey, I don’t know Mr. Woods. Maybe he sleeps wearing a tinfoil hat with a shotgun on his knee. But whether or not he’s a good example, let me make this clear, because it is both overlooked and underappreciated: there are some immensely intelligent, sane, and reasonable conservatives out there. I would like to ask them for a favor. Please, pretty please, with tax cuts on top … get a grip on your goddamned constituency.

I walked out of Mr. Woods’ talk and back into the reality of CPAC. Mr. Woods had reminded me of how important it is for states to be able to protect themselves from federal overreaching – now I was reminded of how utterly incapable capital-C Conservatism is of recognizing what that is, and what it isn’t. For a few precious minutes I’d been enjoying the part of my American-ness that delights in the rock-ribbed refusal to submit to tyranny. Sadly, I immediately had to switch back to the part of my American-ness that despises snake-oil and scare-mongering.

Oh, intelligent conservatives. Sweet, intelligent conservatives. Know that, by some reasonable standards, I am truly one of you – my mistrust for aggregated authority matches yours at every turn. Another day, I might be tempted to ask why you can’t be content with trying to limit government but instead try to push it into the private lives of Americans. But that’s a different issue. Please, one of you, please: stand up and tell your fellows to knock off all the hysterical bullcrap.

Please acknowledge that global climate change is probably not a multinational consipracy by scientists to pick on poor, helpless American manufacturers.

Please acknowledge that the motley crew of Deists who founded our great nation didn’t secretly intend to appoint Jesus Christ as President-for-Life.

And please, for the love of all things reasonable and rational, stop freaking out about all the evils President Obama has wrought. Even if the Health Care Reform bill IS some kind of socialist plot, it hasn’t even frickin’ passed yet. Nor has Cap and Trade, and nor have any of these theoretical gun-seizures or eugenics programs.

Stop freaking out about stuff that just isn’t true, because you’re putting us all in danger. Some day, there may actually be a real wolf for you to cry about.

Yep, for the next few days I’ll be at the Mariott Wardman Park Hotel in DC to witness the conservative political establishment in all its glory. If you’re in the neighborhood, you should come too! Why, you ask? Because whenever a large number of people gather to celebrate their ability to summarize their entire political philosophy in a single word, comedy gold will ensue. Come to hear career politicians rail against the culture of corruption in Washington! Come to insist that the government slash taxes and reduce the deficit! Come to mock the spineless, wimpy liberals who are plotting to seize your weapons and impose eugenics! Come to congratulate yourself on the fact that your values are the true values of the nation that voted you out of the House, the Senate, and the Oval Office!

What, still not convinced you should attend? Well then, let me put it this way…

[Cue the music]

It’s party time at CPAC! It’ll be a grand affair!

The very best and brightest of the right wing will be there!

A novelist who cheated on his taxes and his wife!

A guy who wants the gays to die (he’s ardently pro-life)!

A lobbyist for pharma who, as top Tea Party schemer,

Taught this other guy a thing or two ‘bout rousing crazy screamers!

There’s Cheney’s girl – the torture-fan, not the abomination –

And if there’s climate change in hell, this guy might lead the nation!

The mastermind whose strategies send Bush and Dole down swinging,

And a guy who flouts Geneva with his waterboards and singing!

This guy’s a godless liberal, but screw it, he’s a fixture.

And look! We’ve brought Macaca back, your favorite frothy mixture!

We gave this guy another job he’ll keep less than a week,

And we’ll let these two compete to be our party’s favorite freak!

We’ve got ourselves an actor! A Latino! And a Jew!

And we’ve even got a black guy who likes black guys less than you!

So come on out to CPAC, join the noisiest minority

As they wonder why America relieved them of authority.

We haven’t seen so many stars of right-wing politics

Beneath one roof since Nuremberg in 1946!

 

A little over-the-top? Definitely. I look at it as sort of a decompression exercise, like a deep-sea diver about to surface – if I can smash Godwin’s Law into tiny slivers before the festivities get started, I hope to avoid being torn limb from limb by the sudden shift in rhetorical pressure. Anyway, I’m looking forward to it. Hope to see ya!

-A

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has sent plenty of criminals (and apparent non-criminals) to his state’s active death row, but now he’s taking credit for billions upon billions of deaths – mountains, literal lakes of corpses. Per the San Antonio Business Journal:

“Our principled leadership has created an environment that allows us to compete for jobs, investment and business, and defend the economic climate that has made Texas the top exporting state in the nation for the eighth straight year.”

And what environment might that be? What climate pushed Texas to the top? Why, the prehistoric environment that shaped Texas billions of years ago, the climate that bred and killed the vast biomass that would one day become the Lone Star State’s vast petroleum deposits. If we look at the actual components of the export portfolio that makes Texas #1, we see that black gold accounts for the lion’s share of what is getting shipped out. In this regard Gov. Perry’s principled leadership has consisted primarily of governing a state that’s sitting on a bunch of oil. Which can only mean one thing: Rick Perry has a time machine.

Do not mess with Rick Perry. He can make it so you were never born.

With apologies to Chris Rock

It’s like there’s a civil war going on in the US right now, and there’s two sides: there’s conservatives, and there’s teabaggers. The teabaggers have got to go.

Nothing makes a teabagger happier than not knowing the answer to your question. “Hey, what’s an example of your running mate having ever endorsed financial regulation?” “I’ll try to find some and bring ‘em to ya. Keepin’ it real … American! Not like those Northern Virginians!” Teabaggers love to keep it real. Real dumb.’Cause teabaggers don’t read. Reading is like kryptonite to a teabagger.

You can’t have a political platform when you’re around teabaggers, you can’t have a theory of government, you can’t have a budgetary policy! Well, you can have it, but you better move it in at three in the morning, call it the American Freedom Act and hope teabaggers think it’s going to buy Bibles for heterosexual Marines. Can’t have actual policy! Why? Because teabaggers will break into your political base and claim it’s socialism.

Teabaggers that ran for election under your party brand will get you kicked out of your safest district, come over the next day and go, “I heard you got beat.” Teabagger, you know you wrecked that campaign! You didn’t hear it, ‘cause you were doing it.

You can’t go meet with the leader of the nation you love, you know why? ‘Cause Teabaggers will throw a primary challenge at you. “It’s so great we’ve got a conservative, we gotta throw a Teabagger in here!”

You know the worst thing about Teabaggers? The worst thing? Teabaggers always want credit for things they’re supposed to do. A teabagger will brag about stuff a normal person just does. A teabagger will say something like, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s death panel.” You’re opposed to state-sponsored euthanasia, huh? Bully for you! Welcome to the same page as everybody else! “I’ve been so focused on state government, I haven’t really focused much on the war in Iraq!” What do you want, a cookie?! If you want to lead the nation you have to be able to do more than one thing at once! You can’t just pick your top few favorite issues and ignore the rest and still hope to lead, you low-expectation-having mother#%&*er!

Theory: Journalists are too irreligious to report properly on issues involving religion.
Credentials Required to Support this Theory: A doctorate in cognitive psychology supported by extensive field work  
Actual Credentials: A B.A. in Communications, an M.S. in Social Research, a case of religious exhibitionism and an axe to grind
 

 We all know that you’re supposed to send a thief to catch a thief. But should you then send a third thief to report on the subsequent capture? Billy Hallowell thinks so. 

The GOP’s web-enabled wunderkind has rubbed shoulders with the Heritage Foundation and MTV’s  ‘Real World’ – but while his interests are many and diverse, the ones that he allows to sit beneath his name at williamhallowell.com are: ‘faith’, ‘American politics’, ‘media’, and ‘society’. A reasonable argument could be made that any one of these things is actively destroying any or all of the others, but Mr. Hallowell is particularly concerned about the relationship between doors one and three. Specifically:  

“…Past Gallup polls have shown as many as eight in ten Americans claim allegiance to Christianity.  Clearly, these numbers show the need for proper journalistic understanding and presentation, especially when covering stories rooted in Christian themes. Not enough journalists are regular church goers.”  

The primary target of Hallowell’s ire is ‘God’s Warriors’, Christiane Amanpour’s 2007 CNN mini-series. Its primary fault, Hallowell feels, is “an enhanced level of relativism” – particularly when it comes to “equating the deaths as a result of radical Islamic fascism to those of contemporary Christianity and Judaism.” No doubt the victims in question would be hard-pressed to identify the distinction to which Hallowell alludes, and Hallowell himself does not pursue the matter. Even assuming that it is indeed fundamentally preferable to be killed by Christians or Jews, however, one key question remains:  

What makes him think that religious persons would do a better job of reporting on religion?  

There seems to be a hint of gonzoism in Hallowell’s journalistic philosophy. As a general rule, objectivity and detachment are celebrated in the field – but Hallowell finds this arrangement unsatisfactory when it comes to coverage of religious issues. He argues that “a lack of [religious] diversity” in the newsroom (by which he appears to mean “not enough Christians”) leaves the American news media unequipped to bring sufficient understanding to bear on matters of faith. He does not, however, make much of an effort to back up this contention, which may be because it makes very little sense.  

How many convicted murderers do we have reporting from crime scenes? How many war correspondents carry rifles? In fact, there are only two areas of the news media that are dominated by practitioners, namely ‘sports’ and ‘politics’ – in which realms the retired jocks and the unelectable hacks are celebrated precisely because they’re lousy journalists. A deep and emotional partisanship regarding the subject of your reportage makes for great entertainment, but it doesn’t win a lot of Pulitzers. Is there some reason to think that religion is somehow different, and that an abiding (religious?) attachment to the subject matter improves a journalist’s integrity rather than degrading it?  

Well, is there?  

Maybe. I don’t know. More to the point, neither does Billy Hallowell. He’s got a big ol’ problem with the way religion is portrayed, and he’s got a theory of how to fix it. Unfortunately, that theory appears to be based more on wishful thinking than peer-reviewed studies of journalistic psychology. Billy Hallowell is a man of faith, a blogger of note, and a toxicon.

"Do, or do not. There is no try." - Yoda, Jedi master and wishful thinker

Yoda was wrong. There is definitely ‘try’ – unfortunately. We’ve looked at the dangers posed by the ‘perception-gap handicap’ between actual and perceived competence; thinking that one can do something one can’t, or thinking one knows something one doesn’t, can lead otherwise intelligent people into the jaws of grizzly bears. Living up to one’s full potential (or even just continuing to live) is not a simple task, but fortunately it’s a pretty simple equation. Getting things done, and having them be the right things, is all about Operational Competence (OPCOM):   

OPCOM = Actual Competence (AC) – Perception-Gap Handicap   

If this incredibly unscientific equation is to have any value, however, it needs to have some values. First and foremost, let’s establish a mechanism for assessing Actual Competence (AC). For our purposes, competence can be represented as a percentage – a competence of 100% is the unattainable ideal of perfection in the relevant area, somebody who reliably performs as well as is conceivably possible. Conversely, a score of 0% indicates an absolute lack of capacity to perform in a given area. In real-world terms, a healthy adult might possess a 95% competence at tying their shoes, and a 0% competence at elephant-juggling.  Between these two extremes, ability might be distributed accordingly:  

  Examples: Area / Scope
AC Level of Competence Knowledge of Physics / Human Knowledge Basketball / Human Ability Personal Hygiene / Human Practice
10% No Clue, No Chance Average adult human John McCain (old, slow) Divine in ‘Pink Flamingos’
20% Rank Amateur Average undergrad physics major Average adult human Brad Pitt in ‘Snatch’
30% Hack Average graduate physics major Barack Obama (solid fundamentals) Jeff Bridges in ‘The Big Lebowski’
40%-60% Zone of Professionalism Average professional physicist Matt Bonner (journeyman pro) Average adult human
70% Expert Artem Ponomarev, Physicist at NASA Johnson Space Center Shane Battier (aging All-Star) Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’
80% Legend Willard S. Boyle, Nobel Laureate Kobe Bryant (lousy husband, good baller) Jack Nicholson in ‘As Good as it Gets’
90% All-Time Great Albert Einstein Michael Jordan Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Bubble Boy’

    

Note the importance of indicating the relevant scope of competence. For these examples, 50% competence represents a ‘generic professionalism’– a reasonable expectation for an average person with meaningful competence in this area. Thus, the average auto mechanic has a competence of 50% at fixing cars, while the average layman’s competence in the same field would be closer to 10%. So, what would happen if that layman decided to do an oil change? Disaster.   

Trust me.   

Let’s define the Perception-Gap Handicap that ended up costing me hundreds of dollars and my dignity. This handicap is clearly a function of the distance between AC and PEC; additionally, its magnitude will be influenced by just how lofty that PEC is (I was wrong to think I couldchange my oil, but at least I didn’t think I could fix the transmission). So, since we’re working with percentages, let’s assess the Perception-Gap Handicap as:   

|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100   

Which gives us an OPCOM formula of:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

Translation: The outcome of my efforts won’t just reflect my actual ability; it will suffer from any failure on my part to understand my own limitations. How much will it suffer? That depends. For example: say I enjoy playing basketball, and spend a lot of time playing pick-up at the YMCA (scope is amateur pick-up players). I’m quite the hotshot (AC=60), but I’m not quite as good as I think I am (PEC=70). Let’s do the math:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

= 60 – {|[(60 – 70) * 70]| / 100}   

= 60 – |(-10 * 70)| / 100   

= 60 – (700/100)   

= 60 – 7   

= 53   

So, my OPCOM is 53 – not bad, but I’d be better if I didn’t let an overinflated regard for my mad skillz lead me to jack up bad three-pointers and try to dunk in traffic. Still, I’m still an asset to my team. But what if the numbers were different? Let’s go back to my failed oil change. My youthful arrogance and instructions from the internet gave me a false sense of competence; I thought it would be easy. I thought that, within the scope of changing the oil on an old Chrysler Concorde, I (AC=10) could fully expect to do a successful, workmanlike job (PEC=50). Let’s see what happened:   

OPCOM = AC – {|[(AC – PEC) * PEC]| / 100}   

= 10 – {|[(10 – 50) * 50]| / 100}   

= 10 – |(-40 * 50)| / 100   

= 10 – (2000/100)   

= 10 – 20   

= -10   

That ‘-10’ – that negative OPCOM – is exactly what it sounds like. Costly failure, damage done without the goal being obtained. I thought I knew something I didn’t. That toxic confidence made me a toxicon, someone whose contribution to a process could only make things worse. I’ll say it again, to myself and to everybody: if you can’t do, don’t try. If you haven’t gone to med school and completed the relevant rotations, don’t go performing surgery on people. If you’ve spent the last six years on the couch, don’t try to run a marathon. The results will not be what you’re hoping for.   

NEXT: We examine what happens when millions of non-economists develop strong opinions about America’s fiscal policy, then vote.