Six Broader Insights From the Kavanaugh Saga So Far
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Most news analyses are written by experts. But sometimes an event is of such importance that it is worth sampling some outsiders, and so I would like to consider last week’s Senate testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. I don’t know who “Squi” is, my day job stopped me from watching, and I don’t recall the possible names of the cited drinking games. Still, the broader saga has made a big impression on me. Stepping back from the most partisan elements of the day-to-day, I see the following as most noteworthy.
Alcohol is an underrated factor.
I am struck by how many of the accusations – from various women, not just Ford – suggest a role for alcohol in tales of abuse. Whether or not you believe any particular story, few can argue that alcohol is never connected to this kind of behavior. In the 1980s the U.S. had a major crisis with teen binge drinking and alcoholism, and many of those problems persist today, albeit at lower levels.
You might think the hearings would lead to a new consideration of alcohol as a major social crisis. If so, I haven’t seen it. Just a few weeks ago the World Health Organization released a report suggesting that 3 million deaths annually could be attributed to alcohol, or 1 of every 20 deaths worldwide. That barely made a splash in the news.
Americans don’t care enough about other problems.
I do understand why the issues behind the Kavanaugh hearings have resonated with so many people, and why about 20 million Americans watched. But can you imagine comparable rapt public attention for a debate over whether subsidies to science should be increased, what to do about climate change, or how to promote greater freedom to build in major U.S. cities? Yet those decisions also will affect the lives of many millions of Americans. Overall, we are asleep at the wheel.
There is an asymmetry between male and female perceptions.
Most men are not abusers, yet very large numbers of women have been abused. So if a man is an abuser, there is a good chance he has abused a fair number of women.
That means many well-meaning men experience sexual abuse as a relatively rare phenomenon. They haven’t done it, and most of their male friends haven’t either. At the same time, most women have abuse, rape or #MeToo stories, and they experience these phenomena as relatively common and often life-altering. Probably they also have heard multiple such stories from their female friends. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is crucial to understanding the discourse and the often fundamental differences in opinion.
Our criminal justice system isn’t very good.
Whether you think Kavanaugh is innocent or guilty, we can all agree there are large numbers of intelligent people on both sides of the debate, and even after a week of intense national scrutiny there is no resolution. The reality is that ordinary accused people, who are basically presumed guilty by the criminal justice system, don’t receive very fair judgments. And if Kavanaugh is innocent, might we hope that this experience will make him more sympathetic to the plight of the unjustly imprisoned and accused?
The Democrats are in a fog.
Regardless of your own views and loyalties, I would like to point out that the Democrats don’t seem to know what they are doing.
In the prediction markets, the Kavanaugh confirmation was priced as low as “below 40 cents to receive a dollar if he is confirmed” right before the hearing. At times after the hearing that market rose almost as high as 80 cents, which roughly suggests the market viewed the chance of confirmation as rising from below 40 percent to almost 80 percent, based on the events of the day.
Yet I read many Democrats insisting (quite plausibly, I should add) that she was a humane and convincing witness, and that Kavanaugh was obnoxious and evasive. Maybe they’re right, but still it seems the Republicans understand something about how to stage political theater, and then interpret that theater in the media, which the Democrats do not.
This is how social change happens.
I’m not sure this particular set of events will bring about the social changes I am looking for. But the extreme emotions and the heated debate help Americans and the rest of the world form and change their impressions of this country. And yes, some see America as the world’s laughingstock.
This is not the end of the republic, but it is part of how we redefine what the republic stands for. For better or worse.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
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