October 08, 2005

Matthew Yglesias Is Not Making Sense

Keiko Yoshimura's talk at LASSO mentioned some work of Lawrence Horn's on optimistic and pessimistic constructions:

Hooray, my computer is barely working
Alas, my computer is almost working

both seem odd, even though if your computer is barely working you're in better shape than if your computer is almost working. (Yoshimura's talk was very interesting--about "only," its two Japanese equivalents, and what this tells us about presuppositions, entailments, and assertions; but I don't think I should blog it here even if I had anything intelligent to say.) Which reminds me of this passage from Yglesias:

I will make one observation, however, that I've gleaned from my reading of various head-scratching takes on the future of politics. If you set out to write something detailing how trends X, Y, and Z indicate that the Democrats will probably prosper in the future, you wind up sounding very optimistic. Conversely, if you set out to write something about how trends X, Y, and Z are all holding the Democrats back, you'll sound very pessimistic. The reality, however, is that unlike in the 1980s the Democrats have been losing by very small margins. If there are three pro-Democratic trends that could combine to put them over the top, that means (relatively pessimistically) that unless all three things happen they'll keep losing narrowly. In the case of The Emerging Democratic Majority the text is peppered with references to "when memories of 9/11 fade...," but thanks to the failure of that one trend to happen, the prediction turned out wrong. Conversely, if you've got 48 percent of the vote and three big problems, those are actually three opportunities -- you don't need to solve all of them.

Now, the bold part seems to mean the following truth: "If X, Y, and Z happen, we will win" sounds more optimistic than "If A, B, and C happen, we will lose." Hooray! We might win! But in fact the first gives you worse odds than the second, because X, Y, and Z all have to happen. (Assuming, as perhaps is implicated, that you probably won't win if X, Y, and Z won't all happen.)

But the underlined part mystifies me a little. If the Democrats are losing narrowly, it seems that it shouldn't take three trends to put them over the top. If there are three trends that each could give Democrats a boost, and Democrats are losing narrowly, then (unless the expected boosts are minuscule) it seems as though Democrats should do well even if one of them doesn't pan out. That's "If X, Y, or Z happens we will win," which both sounds and is optimistic.

Similarly, if you've got three big problems, that could mean that you have three opportunities--if 3% of the population is voting Republican because of A, and 3% of the problem is voting Republican because of B, and 3% because of C, then solving one of A, B, C will give you 51%. But if the problems are serial rather than parallel--if 3% is voting Republican because of A, B, and C, and all those problems have to be solved in order to win them over--then all three problems have to be solved to get to 51%. Each problem isn't a separate opportunity.

Now it may be that "The Politics of Polarization," which sounds pessimistic, really details parallel problems such that Dems win if we solve one; and EDM, which sounds optimistic, details serial trends so that the Democratic majority won't emerge unless they all come to pass. I haven't read either one, so I don't know. But it doesn't seem as though the best way to frame this issue is in terms of trends that seem to favor Dems or hold us back--that's a question of whether positive action is necessary to alter them, or whether they'll come to pass if nothing intervenes. That's an orthogonal issue to the question of whether the trends need to co-occur to take effect, or whether they can have separate effects; and that's what Matt seems to be getting at in re optimism and pessimism. (The best cause for optimism, it seems, is that the losses really have been narrow.)

I will note that, thanks perhaps to TAPPED's crack editors, Matt Y. spelled Marshall Wittman's name right.

Posted by Matt Weiner at October 8, 2005 03:34 PM