Socrates famously said that the one thing he knew was that he knew nothing. As it turns out, though, he was atypical. In general, people who are ignorant or incompetent tend to consider themselves very knowledgeable or competent, more so even than people who actually are highly knowledgeable or competent. Apparently this is because the skills you need to do something well are the same as the ones you need to recognize whether you are doing it well.
I have a strong suspicion that something similar is true when it comes to political bias and partisanship. Every once and a while you will meet someone who is hyper-partisan and biased, but who claims just to be an impartial rational observer of events. And you wonder: is he serious? Surely on some level he must recognize his own propensities, given that they are so glaringly obvious to everyone else. But no. From his perspective, it just so happens that all his political opponents are wicked and stupid. After all, didn’t he once criticize people on his own side for being too much like the other side? How can he be biased if he is critical of both sides? Etc.
When I hear criticism of a political figure whose politics I disagree with I try to do what I call a “tu quoque check.” Would I find this criticism persuasive if it was about someone I agreed with? The problem is that the brain is very crafty, and can come up with all sorts of pseudo-distinctions for how what the other guy did was totally okay when your guy did it.
On an unrelated note, last week’s New Yorker (yes, the New Yorker) contained a longish article by Jane Mayer on Charles and David Koch, a pair of libertarian businessmen who have donated to a variety of libertarian causes. The article is basically about how the Koch brothers are destroying democracy by giving money to political causes they believe in. Now presumably Mayer knows that there are liberal billionaires out there who give as much if not more money to promote liberal causes, and I suspect that she doesn’t view *that* as a threat to democracy. Why not? One answer would be that Mayer agrees with the liberal causes promoted by liberal billionaires, whereas she doesn’t always agree with the causes promoted by libertarian or conservative billionaires. But that doesn’t sound very persuasive. So instead Mayer tries to show that the Koch brothers’ political activism is malevolent for reasons that have nothing to do with their politics.
For example, Mayer makes a big deal about how secretive the Koch brothers are, even titling her article “Covert Operations” (David Koch, in particular, is so secretive about his political views that he ran for Vice President in 1980 on the Libertarian Party ticket). Quoth Mayer:
The Kochs continued to disperse their money, creating slippery organizations with generic-sounding names, and this made it difficult to ascertain the extent of their influence in Washington.
If the Koch brothers had merely founded the Institute for Conservative Evilness then at least everyone would know where they were coming from. But the Cato Institute? What does that even mean? On the other hand, presumably left wing organizations always have names clearly identifying their place on the political spectrum, right?
Here, via commenter Blue at the Volokh Conspiracy, is a list of some of the organizations cited in Mayer’s own article that are critical of the Koch brothers:
“Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group”
“Ari Rabin-Havt, a vice-president at the Democratic-leaning Web site Media Matters”
“A 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, described the Kochs’ foundations as being self-serving”
“According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1986 and 1993 the Koch family gave eleven million dollars to the institute.”
“The group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, seemed like a grassroots movement, but according to the Center for Public Integrity it was sponsored principally by the Kochs”
“Charles Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity, described the scandal as “historic. Triad was the first time a major corporation used a cutout”—a front operation—“in a threatening way. Koch Industries was the poster child of a company run amok.”
“Joseph Romm, a physicist who runs the Web site ClimateProgress.org, is infuriated by the Smithsonian’s presentation.”
As Blue notes, all of these groups are George Soros/left-wing foundation funded groups with innocuous sounding names, the very thing Mayer criticized the Koch brothers for being involved in. And with the exception of Media Matters, Mayer doesn’t even note that the groups are left-leaning.
Let’s try again. According to Mayer, Soros is different from the Koch brothers in that his political activism is completely selfless, whereas for Koch and Koch it’s really about advancing their own business interests:
Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent, and that “none of his contributions are in the service of his own economic interests.”
The Koch brothers, by contrast, have contributed to some groups opposed to taxing and regulating the oil industry, even though they own some oil related businesses. Of course, they also fund a lot of libertarian causes that either have nothing to do with their business interests or that are opposed to them, such as the $10 million given to the ACLU to help overturn part of the Patriot Act (those dastardly right-wingers, with their opposition to the Patriot Act!) So maybe their funding of libertarian groups that deal with environmental issues has more to do with ideology than self-interest. Still, the connection does cast doubt over the Koch brother’s funding, whereas you can’t say the same for Soros, right? Right?
Soros has made a boatload of money off his huge investment in the Brazilian oil company, Petrobras, a company that has benefited mightily from its deep offshore oil reserves. Barack Obama had the U.S. Export-Import bank extend billions of dollars of loans to underwrite Petrobras’s offshore oil development. Soros positioned himself to reap big gains just days before his pal in the White House pushed for billions in loans to Petrobras — a company from a country that can certainly tap the financial markets on its own to raise funds to tap oil off its shores. The company did not need easy money from American taxpayers. Yet there was Soros, who somehow was prescient enough to roll the loaded dice in taking a major stake in Petorbras. He got a double-dip type of return when Barack (“never let a crisis go to waste”) Obama shut down deep-water oil exploration off America’s own energy-rich coasts — further enriching the prospects for Petrobras and George Soros.
Soros’s pet think-tank, the Center for American Progress, constantly pushes green schemes. Democratic politicians are on board, as well. This group includes Barack Obama who, runs after one electric battery, solar power plant, and windmill after another (when he is not on the links or listening to live music at the club he created in the East Room of the White House). How generous have Obama and the Democrats been to the green schemers? The grand champion of budget-busting departments has been the “Energy Efficiency and Renewable Program,” which received $1.7 billion in 2008 and $16.8 billion in 2009, a 1,014% increase in just one year. Media reports over the past year or so have tied numerous Democratic donors to these “ventures.” They have been richly rewarded with taxpayer dollars . . . Who is a big investor in “clean energy,” by the way? Why, none other than George Soros, who announced back in October 2009 that he would invest at least $1 billion in “clean energy.”
Whatever happened to all the hullaballoo regarding hedge funds? Back in 2008 and early 2009, Democrats were busy blaming Wall Street, hedge funds, and Republicans for the financial crisis. We were promised that hedge funds would be regulated to the point of harmlessness, that their investors would have to be disclosed, their positions monitored, their leverage controlled. What happened to those promises? Well, that did not suit hedge fund managers — not at all. So the promises went away. And who was one of the biggest hedge fund titans out there? Why, it happens to be none other than George Soros, who made billions in 2008 from the financial and housing collapse and then made billions more in 2009 as the Democrats bailed out Wall Street . . . Obama, Dodd, and fellow Democrats just forgot that crusade against hedge funds, and Soros continues to rake in billions.
Soros has investments in the energy industry that would be harmed if our cheap and plentiful reserves were tapped to their full extent. Among his holdings are a huge one in InterOil that has big reserves of natural gas in New Guinea. Democrats are now trying to shut down our shale gas industry by attacking “fracking” — a method that is used to extract the gas from the shale rock that holds it. There is plenty of evidence that fracking is safe and sound — it has been used for many years. Nevertheless, the industry is under attack by Democrats in Congress such as Ed Markey, by Obama’s EPA, by the Center for American Progress, by Pro Publica — an outfit created and funded by Soros pals Herbert and Marion Sandler — and recently by MoveOn.org
So there’s that. For the record, I’ve never been able to get particularly worked up by the fact that Soros spends so much money promoting progressive/liberal causes. I disagree with most of what he stands for, but he has as much right to do so as, say, David and Charles Koch.