Poorly written music commentary, "that's life," and why education is good
I’d always wondered if August news is objectively slow or if it just feels slow because D.C. summers are so icky and gross. It seems to me that there’s objectively a lot going on, but it feels like real dog days anyway, so I’m going with the weather.
Tom Whittington: What do you think of the new Metric Album?
I don’t really know how to write about music or understand music on an analytic level. And with a band like Metric that I really love and have been listening to for almost 20 years, I to some extent need to reserve judgment and see how things marinate over time. When “Pagans in Vegas” came out in 2015, I was thrilled to have new Metric in my hands. Then over the years, it actually mostly dropped out of the rotation of stuff I listen to and became, I guess, my least-favorite Metric album. But then while thinking about my answer to this question I listened to it again, and there are some bangers on there.
At the moment my main impression is that I’m incredibly impressed with the lead track, Doomscroller.
I had no idea what the title of the album meant, so I googled it. Formentera turns out to be the name of a Spanish island that’s right near Ibiza but doesn’t have an airport, so to get there you need to take a boat from Ibiza. That makes it the chiller, lower-key, more grown-up version of Ibiza. Which is kind of how I see Metric at this point — a grown-ass band that’s not on a reunion tour or working through a break-up or trying a radical new sound but is absolutely maturing and changing. Doomscroller is over 10 minutes long and tries to tackle themes that are a lot more complex than a typical pop song. I was kind of annoyed that the Pitchfork review of the album acted like political and social concerns were new to Metric when this is the band that gave us Combat Baby, Monster Hospital (“I fought the war and the war won”), and Succexxy.
But the guy also says that Doomscroller “takes a class struggle subtext and renders it as bolded and underlined text,” which I think is a misreading of the song. While those early anti-war songs written while we were younger have straightforwardly left politics, I think on the newer album they are depicting and critiquing the experience of doomscrolling.
So I think it’s a great song by a great band. How many other tracks off this album ultimately make it into my Metric Top 20 remains to be seen.
Bill Kalahurka: Should we kill all the mosquitos?
For those who don’t know, there’s this idea that you could unleash special genetically engineered mosquitos into the breeding population who, through some science magic I don’t fully understand, would cause the deaths of all mosquitos. I think you’d want to be really careful — double- and triple-check the work — to make sure that the science is really understood here and would work properly. But in principle, we should absolutely do it.
Mosquitos kill tons of people, climate change is going to make mosquito problems worse, and malaria parasites are evolving resistance to our medications. Mosquito-borne illness is an “out of sight, out of mind” problem in rich countries, but it continues to be a serious issue and there’s a very real chance that it could start impacting us again in the near future.
Amber: You’ve written a lot about the failure of the environmental movement broadly to pursue emissions reductions rather than owning fossil-fuel interests. Are there any groups that you think are doing good work in this space?
I do want to be clear that at the end of the day almost all of the mainstream environmental groups recognize a good compromise when they see one and are going to enthusiastically back the IRA, even if I disagree with some of their rhetoric and points of emphasis.
But in terms of real alignment, I’m very close to the Breakthrough Institute and the philosophy they call ecomodernism. I interpret that philosophy as meaning essentially you take seriously the scientific facts about pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. but while also taking seriously facts like “it’s good for people to have access to energy” and “it’s good for human beings to exist and flourish.”
Lost Future: Matt do you have a vision for employee vs. independent contractor provisions? There seems to be a lot of emotional energy on the left around the 'independent contractor' working status as being bad, paradigmatically Uber and Doordash workers. This culminated in AB5, which comes close to making being a freelancer of any kind impossible in California- hence ongoing protests there by truck drivers who, confusingly to the far left, want to be independent and don't want to be employees.
The distinction seems to be a regulatory vestige from the 20th century, and I personally would like to see ICs receive more of the benefits that employees do, directly from the government (health insurance, retirement savings advantages, etc.) As a high-income self-employed person, do you have a big-picture vision here?
In theory, the obvious solution here is to have a more robust welfare state, many fewer work-linked benefits, and a much more liberal attitude toward these employment law questions.
The harder question is what to do in the real world — any loophole will inevitably be abused, but you also don’t want to overreach and totally crush flexibility. I guess I would mostly urge regulators to err on the side of caution here. Most of the big outcry about “gig economy” jobs arose during the very weak labor market of the mid-Obama years. That was a macroeconomic situation ripe for exploitative labor arrangements, but today’s tighter labor markets should on their own do a fair amount to rectify this.
Shoshana O’Keefe: Why aren't you more bullish on Pete Buttigieg for president? You write the words “I like Pete” a lot, but I've never seen you say much stronger of an endorsement. He seems to have a similar pragmatic and data-informed worldview and policy approach as you do, and I think he's one of the Democrats' most talented communicators. Do you think he will be President one day and if not, what are the main obstacles that exist for him?
I like Pete! And he is clearly a skilled communicator. I was even told a few months ago that he is the most nationally popular Democrat, which is a pretty good reason to be bullish on him.
My resistance in terms of going all-in on Buttimania is that Pete does not have a demonstrated track record of winning in a purple or reddish electorate (the way Gretchen Whitmer, Jared Polis, Laura Kelly, and Roy Cooper do), or of particularly appealing to non-college voters. So I don’t mean to be particularly down on him or anything — Pete is the most compelling figure in the Biden administration and is the best-available version of the 2022-vintage version of the national Democratic Party.
The problem is the 2022-vintage version of the national Democratic Party is a party that is going to be perpetually climbing uphill in U.S. Senate elections and hoping the opposition nominates a lot of Oz-style buffoons. I want to think bigger than that.
Harrison: Relative to what's likely to happen (Senate control is a tossup, but House is almost certainly going to be GOP), do you think the Beltway press is not only particularly lax in asking Republicans what their agenda would be on things like inflation, but specifically under-covering Kevin McCarthy, the next Speaker of the House? What are your thoughts on him?
I hate the genre of commentary where people complain that reporters aren’t asking the right questions. But I really do feel here that House Republicans deserve to face not “tough” questions about their plans, but just, like, any questions at all. There should be a total softball interview with McCarthy where the reporters ask him, “What kind of bills about abortion would you support? What do you think about Social Security? Should we cut taxes? Are there programs you want to spend more on?” Then other people could write takes. I wish the people who covered Capitol Hill were more curious about this stuff.
JC: Any thoughts on the DCCC strategy to boost the more extreme MAGA Republicans in some primaries? Good idea, bad idea, good in some cases but not others?
I think doing this to Rep. Meijer in the House in particular was bizarre when Democrats have several dozen vulnerable incumbents they could be spending money protecting. I saw the case for doing it in the Colorado Senate race (where it didn’t work), but it’s very odd as a DCCC play and it’s positively dangerous in some of these gubernatorial races.
Nicholas K: I find it very odd that Speaker Pelosi would visit Taiwan despite the Administration making it pretty clear they do not support such a trip, especially given the current situation and Democrats interest in keeping the focus on domestic legislation. Biden claims out of institutional respect for Congress he did not address this with Pelosi directly. For me, it feels like another sign of “lame duckism” if the Speaker from the same Party does something in foreign affairs the President does not support.
One of Pelosi’s best qualities as a congressional leader is that (like Mitch McConnell) she’s not someone who has strong opinions or preferences about public policy — she’s a caucus leader in the truest possible sense.
China is a big exception to this. If you read Molly Ball’s biography of Pelosi, you can see that human rights in the PRC have been a huge passion of hers for decades, and it’s something she fought pretty bitterly with Bill Clinton about in the 1990s. I do agree that it’s fundamentally inappropriate for the Speaker to be tripping up a same-party POTUS like this. But I do sympathize with her on the merits. And even though I always say that doing the right thing is extremely overrated in politics, you can’t begrudge an elected official the occasional principled stand. To some extent, that’s just life.
Max S: I notice you often say “that's life” in your posts and interviews. You don't need to defend that habit: it's a common expression, and I always know / agree with what you mean. But given the nature of your work, I suspect you spend time thinking about what's intrinsic to the human experience versus what we can change through policy, technology, etc. So out of curiosity: do you have a rule or principle for things that deserve “that's life” as a response?
This is a good question since I’m not sure I’ve put too much thought into it.
I guess the main thing that I mean in invoking this isn’t that one should be complacent about the problems of the world, but that one should try to avoid experiencing too much frustration about them. In terms of demarcation, this is a concept I tend to invoke when I think other people are confusing the specific aspects of a situation with its more general properties. So for example, on climate change, you hear a lot about the evils of the fossil fuel companies and the climate denialists and Fox News. But the basic reality is that people are mostly a bit selfish, short-sighted, and parochial. So when the price of gasoline goes up, they don’t think to themselves, “the good news is that the modest reductions in fuel consumption this will spur are going to marginally improve the lives of future generations of people living in Bangladesh.” They think, “this sucks.”
And it’s not that I condone ignoring the interests of people who live in low-lying areas of tropical countries or the interests of people living in the 2060s. But once you realize that it’s not like there are other policy areas where Americans are eager to endure mild short-term inconveniences in exchange for large benefits to Bangladeshis, the situation starts to look different. If I said, “we should cut Social Security benefits by 15 percent and give the proceeds to cost-effective global public health programs,” there’d be a pretty clear moral logic to that idea. But it’s obviously not going to fly politically. And that’s life! The political system just isn’t going to make that kind of tradeoff. This is why we dedicate 10 percent of Slow Boring revenue to the GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund, and I’d encourage everyone to support that and other similar causes.
Mindtools Sharpener: As a(n analytic) philosophy major how do you deal with the fundamental meaninglessness of existence?
It just doesn’t bother me. I guess some people expect existence to be meaningful and then find that reality falls short of that expectation and are disappointed. But life just is the way it is and has the meaning (or lack thereof) that it has. So there’s nothing to be sad about.
John: Should Democrats running in non-Medicaid expansion states consider adopting a message where they accuse Abbott, DeSantis et al. of supporting blue state bailouts/handouts for CA+NY liberals by forcing their constituents to forgo benefits despite paying the same taxes?
Yes, I think that’s a good message — these extremists have us paying for Californians’ health care while our rural hospitals shut down for lack of funding.
Eric P: I’m fascinated by how Mexico punches so far above it’s weight in artistic and cultural spheres. Compared to most other middle income nations, (many in Eastern Europe, China, etc.) it’s not even close. The benefits of this to Mexicans and to the world are obviously immense, though you would miss this just looking at Mexico’s “fundamentals”. From a pure geopolitical perspective, independent, non-propagandized artistic and cultural institutions are important for the continued dominance of liberalism. With a lot of developing countries still left in the world, how do we steer them in the Mexico-direction rather than the China-direction?
Does Mexico punch above its weight? It’s a pretty big country, and the Spanish-language zone is enormous, so I think we’d expect to see a fair amount of Mexican cultural impact relative to countries like Serbia and Thailand with similar GDP per capita.
Now what’s definitely true is that freedom has a positive influence on cultural impact, even if you’re talking about a country like Mexico (or most of Latin America, frankly) whose political institutions are pretty flawed. The People’s Republic of China is just not the cultural powerhouse that a country of that size and wealth ought to be.
Ernest Ntangu: How can I, a college student in D.C., get more involved in pushing for housing reform in D.C.?
Start reading Greater Greater Washington, follow DC YIMBYs, learn the names and email addresses of your ANC single-member rep and council member and start contacting them frequently. Try attending an ANC meeting. Run in the next election.
Nate: Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe still coherent?
Was it ever? I’m skeptical.
AvalancheGenesis: As a notable advocate of Housing Abundance In My Backyard, I'd be curious for your YIMBY perspectives on:
1) That classic intersection of populism and land use reform, Georgism;
2) The critical claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act is a meaningful impediment to construction, in the same vein as e.g. CEQA environmental review abuse; and
3) What's the appropriate balance between landlord and tenant rights (e.g. subletting), since renters will still be a large population even with cheaper more abundant houses. I feel confident you aren't at the guillotine-left end of that spectrum, but unsure exactly where in the middle otherwise.
I’m gonna duck (3), say that Georgism is broadly good, and I think that on (2) it’s not that the Americans with Disabilities Act is bad but that the whole American culture of adversarial legalism is bad.
ADA says that my upstairs bathroom needs to be wheelchair-accessible even though a wheelchair-bound person wouldn’t be able to make it up the stairs at all. That’s annoying and it annoys people. But the real problem here isn’t the ADA. It’s that entirely separate laws relating to historic preservation mean it would be illegal to demolish my incredibly inaccessible house and replace it with a modern structure with a level entry and other appealing features. And then a totally different set of laws relating to zoning ensure that even if you were allowed to tear my house down and replace it with something new, it wouldn’t be economical to do so.
What we ought to do is start with a policy goal (“we want there to be more accessible dwellings”) and then we ought to make policy changes that advance that goal. That certainly might include regulatory standards for new construction. But it should absolutely include repealing rules that prevent new construction from happening. Because there’s no point in saying new buildings are going to have all these wonderful features but then there actually aren’t any new buildings.
The other issue with adversarial legalism as an approach to accessibility is it encourages a compliance culture. Amtrak has lots of stations with low platforms such that to board and disembark from a train requires the use of a steep staircase. Disabled people can’t navigate such a staircase, and ADA empowers them to sue Amtrak to ensure that a remedy is available. And a remedy is in fact available — Amtrak personnel will assist you in boarding the train, thus complying with ADA requirements. At the end of the day, though, assisted boarding up an awkward set of stairs is much more annoying to a person with compromised mobility than the superior solution of rebuilding the platforms to be high and allowing for level boarding. And as with most kinds of accessible design, level boarding is also good for lots of people who aren’t disabled — people with strollers, people with roller suitcases, people with young kids, people experiencing mild knee pain. Amtrak ought to care about accessibility and invest in level boarding. But ADA can’t make Amtrak care; all it can do is make Amtrak comply by making personnel available to assist the disabled with boarding if they need help and ask for it.
Alex Newkirk: If as FDB argues education doesn't impact relative knowledge and skills, only absolute knowledge and skills, and the system only rewards relative knowledge gains, what's the argument for robust public education? I'll note I don't actually subscribe to this view because I think knowing more about the world is an affirmative good, but what's the life outcome related argument?
I think Freddie deBoer’s obsession with the positional aspects of education is bizarre. I imagine some 18th-century version of FDB explaining that there’s no point in investing in mass literacy education because the kids of the elite will just come up with some new arbitrary signal that they belong on the top of the heap.
The point of teaching everyone to read is that reading is useful and helps induce a general upward trajectory of living standards. If everyone was better at math, understood compound interest better, and made more prudent financial decisions, we’d all be better off. Not just in the sense that each individual household would manage its finances slightly more responsibly, but the economy-wide cost of capital would fall leading to more investment and higher wages. We should try to teach people things!
Forrest: I know this is probably embarrassing, but how do you see your own influence among policymakers/White House advisers etc.? To what extent do you see your work influencing decision-making by actual power-holders?
I think that of all the different ways a columnist can wield influence, “key decision-maker reads a column, finds it persuasive, and decides to go do the thing” is probably the least realistic.
I’m not going to say it’s never happened, but I don’t think that’s the main way things work. What I think influential writers do is create nodes for discussion that end up helping like-minded people connect and collaborate, or see linkages between their own apparently distinct projects. I do pay close attention to the newsletter’s readership on the Hill because congressional staffers in particular are often asked to cover a very large amount of policy terrain and need information and ideas. But in truth, my tweets are probably more influential than the columns.
John from FL: Did the shutdown of your local DC public school and related testing & masking regulations change your views of school choice policies?
I think the premise here is supposed to be that because I thought DCPS was too strict, I should become more favorable to school choice. But in D.C., the charters and the private schools were significantly stricter than the regular public schools. Sidwell Friends has a girl wearing a mask on a swing outdoors on their brochure.
I’m pro-charter and the pandemic experience didn’t really change that. But in D.C., at least, it revealed to me what I think was a dark side to the charters being more responsive to parental concerns, which was that the parents showed worse judgment than the school administrators about the cost-benefit of extremely cautious NPIs.