23 July 2014

Cuomo's law: 'I can't "interfere" with it, because it is mine.'

The New York Times lays the smack down on Governor Cuomo today with a long report on the short life of the Moreland Commission, created by Cuomo with much fanfare to investigate endemic corruption in campaign financing and state government. The Times reports that, in fact, the commission was little more than a tool to intimidate the state legislature, and was discouraged from investigating people close to Cuomo himself. It was shut down once it had served Cuomo's purposes, but before it could serve what many considered the state's purposes. Touted as an independent entity, it is now acknowledged by Cuomo himself to have been subject to his will all along. He makes this point, apparently, to dismiss complaints that he improperly interfered with its work. "It's my commission," the governor told one reporter, "I can't 'interfere' with it, because it is mine. It is controlled by me." The scare quotes around "interfere" seem to be his. Presumably it was always his prerogative to determine who should or should not be investigated. At one moment he declares that "you can't set up an investigations commission to extort the Legislature. At the same moment he admits that the threat of the commission gave him leverage with legislators to advance his policy agenda. "They thought it was really abusive," he says, but in the end "they gave us everything we couldn't get last year."

From one perspective, this is just strong leadership, proving Cuomo the sort of hardball player the Democratic party needs at the state and national level. I might agree with that except for the apparent hypocrisy of Cuomo's "interference," which suggests that his real target wasn't corruption but opposition. This sort of intimidation is the sort of thing we expect from a leader like Vladimir Putin, except that there's no presumption of innocence for Cuomo's opponents as there is, outside Russia, for Putin's. Apart from that, an investigating committee that acts, in effect, at the leader's pleasure, investigating those whom it's convenient or useful to investigate, and neglecting (or scrupulously ignoring) everything else, looks pretty authoritarian. Yet who doubts that Cuomo will be re-elected this November. Few will feel motivated to vote Republican to punish him, understandably, and few will have the imagination or courage to vote for Howie Hawkins, Zephyr Teachout or any other alternative on the left.  Teachout, who has called on Cuomo to resign after today's story, is challenging Cuomo in the Democratic primary after failing to wrest the Working Families nomination from him. That alone proves that anyone who says there's no alternative to Cuomo is, to say the least, wrong.

22 July 2014

The ambiguity of the state

The Affordable Care Act is in trouble again. A three-judge panel of a D. C. appeals court has ruled that the IRS can't give tax-credit subsidies to people in the 36 states where "Obamacare" is operated by the federal government. The reason is in the ACA itself. It authorizes the IRS to provide tax credits to people who acquire health insurance through "an exchange established by the state." The two-judge majority, ruling in favor of a set of libertarian litigants, interprets this language to mean "an exchange established by one of the states of the union." Therefore, when the IRS authorized tax credits for people who use exchanges regardless of state or federal origin, it went beyond its legal mandate.

This is another ha-ha moment for Obamacare foes. They've complained from the start that legislators approved the ACA without reading the entire massive text, and today's ruling appears to prove the foolishness of such an approach. From an early point, however, the government was aware of the "glitch" in the language, but by that time Republicans in the House of Representatives were blocking efforts to amend the ACA in a helpful way. It became simply a matter of time before partisan or ideological litigants found a like-minded court or panel -- though in the present case the Obama administration is expected to appeal so that the case is heard by the full court, which is supposed to have a liberal majority thanks to several Obama appointees. If the full court overturns today's ruling, in which the majority were George W. Bush appointees, it'll be role-reversal time; Republicans will complain about partisan bias in the court while Democrats will claim objective vindication of their policies.

One is tempted to say, "Only in America." Elsewhere, I'd like to think, "the state" would be synonymous with "the nation" or "the government in its entirety." Here, however, that sort of thing is "statism," while "states' rights" as against the federal government are still largely held sacred. The ambiguity of the word "state" is one of the pitfalls of federalism into which the ACA apparently has stumbled. It was dumb of the drafters not to realize this, but it's just as dumb of this country that such a "glitch" could have costly consequences for so many people.

21 July 2014

The moral calculus of human shields

In Gaza, the charge against the Hamas government is that it is allowing its own civilian population to be killed as part of a media strategy, in order to inflame world opinion against Israel. Whether by embedding rocket platforms in residential sites or place like hospitals, or by telling civilians not to evacuate certain areas, as Israeli propaganda leaflets reportedly warn them to do, Hamas stands accused of cynical indifference to the lives of its constituents. For Hamas and its sympathizers -- or, to be more accurate, sympathizers with the Palestinian people, the reasoning is just as simple: Israel drops the bombs, so they are the murderers of civilians. If Israelis and their sympathizers are so concerned with the civilians of Gaza, they can stop dropping bombs. Of course, Israel is never going to let Hamas fire rockets at them with impunity, but Hamas can argue that that's not their problem. The Hamas leadership may feel sincerely that their strategy should checkmate Israel, that Israel's professed humanitarian sentiment should stay their hand if the people of Gaza stand between the bombs and the rockets. For the rest of us, the question is whether there's an objective way to assign moral responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza. If Israel is bombing regardless of the presence of human shields, they are immediately responsible, but if the people are there because Hamas is telling them to stay, then Hamas has to share responsibility unless you want to argue that Israel has no right to defend itself against rocket attacks. If civilians in Gaza are actively volunteering to play human shields, then they share in the responsibility for their own deaths. The mistake is to attempt to calculate who the "real" bad guy is. That'll force you to go back in time. Israel is responsible because of military occupation and oppression; Palestinians are responsible because they've never convincingly renounced the objective of reclaiming all Palestine; Zionists are to blame for claiming any part of Palestine after Islam had claimed it all centuries ago; Arabs are to blame for rejecting the original partition deal of 1948 and attacking the Zionists, and then acting as if they still deserve  their part of the deal. One note plays consistently: the two sides will not share the land. One or the other must dominate; to be poor neighbors of a Jewish state is as abhorrent to one as it is to the other to be the "tolerated" subjects of an Islamic state. Why the world still looks for good guys and bad guys in Palestine increasingly baffles me. I lean toward a simpler calculus: if each side has any share of blame for violence, regardless of proportions, then both are equally to blame, and both should be shunned by the rest of the world. But if the world feels responsible for the dead civilians in Gaza, and for the smaller number of civilian casualties in Israel, then maybe it should take responsibility for the "Holy Land" by taking the rule of it away from Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Arabs alike.  

18 July 2014

Poverty in the Home of Uncle Sam

Checking out the headlines on Google News this morning, I noticed that the Editors' Picks on the main page included a photo essay from Slate about poverty in Troy, New York, the city in which I was born and where I currently work. Here's the link to the story. It was interesting to see people from around the country, if not beyond, pass judgment on people who are nearly my neighbors, even though I know none of them personally.  The pictures portray "white trash" so the inevitably contemptuous commentary is more misanthropic than simply bigoted. You'll see a lot of predictable ranting about the need for more birth control, more "personal responsibility," etc., etc.  If only they had the will and the discipline, these people could lift themselves from poverty -- you've read it all, certainly. I'm not sure whether these poor Trojans are that much more dysfunctional than their grandparents. It's probably more likely that in their grandparents' time, the economy could still use people like these, but now it doesn't need them. That would put a greater pressure on them to strive and excel than their grandparents would have felt, assured as many of them probably were of jobs in "the mill" from the day they graduated high school to the day they retired. None of this makes the present-day poor blameless for their plight, but you can't judge them so inferior to their forebears unless you also acknowledge how much harder the times are. It might help, too, if you consider that it's not these people's fault that the times are harder, as some may believe. If you have an "adapt or die" attitude none of this will trouble you much, but it remains our prerogative, so long as the economy is a social construct and not a natural phenomenon, to ask "adapt to what?" and "sez who?" Exceptional people will pull themselves out of poverty, but it wasn't part of our social contract previously that only the exceptional should have a decent life. This sort of hopeless-looking poverty will stay with us until the American economy finds places for these people, instead of expecting them to shape themselves into the remaining slots, or until we no longer have the sort of surplus population that burdens many post-industrial nations. Either way, we could be waiting a while, and it may not get any prettier.

17 July 2014

If I were a Malaysian ...

If I were a Malaysian today I think I might want to lynch any Ukrainian or Russian I could find.  As far as I know we don't know whom specifically to blame for the shoot-down of yet another unfortunate Malaysian passenger jet, but unless the crash is proved accidental it will remain fair to say that the plane went down because the Ukrainian were fighting their idiotic civil war, with Russian idiots egging one side on and probably doing more than that. When conflicts like this break out, or when the Israelis and Palestinians get into one of their periodic brawls, too many people around the world want to take sides. They want to say these people are the good guys, those the bad; these the victims, those the aggressors; here the freedom fighters, there the tyrants. Whatever we say or hope about peace, for one side or another to get its way usually takes war, and with war comes collateral damage like we appear to have seen today. If we don't want war we can't take sides. The world should say that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are welcome anywhere; that neither Ukrainians nor Russians are welcome anywhere; and so on -- if we really want wars to stop and think we can do anything non-violently to stop them. If wars are wrong, then both sides in any war are wrong. If that's too sweeping a statement, you might accept that people who perpetuate pissant little wars like that in Gaza, or what the war in eastern Ukraine might become, are wrong regardless of whatever they stand for. To say that either side is right is only to perpetuate the conflict.

15 July 2014

The soccer war, American style

The tournament is over and the Germans rightly won, but Americans are still arguing over soccer. Our sportswriters have moved on, but some self-style political experts won't let the matter go. The lack of American success in the sport and its inferior status as a spectator sport in this country still must be accounted for. Ann Coulter stirred the pot for this tournament by snarking that soccer was un-American, something the descendants of immigrants would inevitably abandon but also somehow abhorrent to the authentic American spirit of individual achievement. At least one liberal commentator, Chris Hayes of MSNBC, rose to this bait. He deduced that American soccerphobes were adherents of an obnoxious exceptionalism; they only like sports that this country dominates internationally. Jonah Goldberg found Hayes's outburst revealing of the left's resentment of authentic American cultural patriotism. Goldberg himself did not attack soccer, but he seems to accept the premise shared by both major parties that partisanship, if not ideology, correlates with attitudes toward the sport. If you hate soccer, you're a know-nothing reactionary. If you love the World Cup, you enjoy seeing the U.S. humbled. In our rush to politicize all cultural phenomena we generalize blindly. I am absolutely certain that there are right-wing soccer fans in the U.S. -- there are lots of right-wing soccer fans around the world, after all -- and I'm even more certain that some left-wing Americans are as indifferent to soccer as they are to all sports. 

Andrew W. Lindner has made American hostility toward soccer an object of academic study. He conducted a survey of a limited, perhaps too particular sample group -- residents of Nebraska -- and found that futbolphobia correlates with a certain kind of reactionary attitude that can't be reduced to ideology or partisanship. Lindner concludes that hostilty to soccer is essentially nativist; it expresses a xenophobia exacerbated by the challenges of globalization and immigration. Respondents most hostile to soccer were also most likely to disagree with the assertion that immigration strengthens American culture. At the same time, very few respondents -- less than 10% -- described soccer as "un-American." If anything, that percentage probably would be lower in many states. 

I think Lindner is still reading too much into this phenomenon. After all, our ignorance of cricket is more complete and perhaps more inexplicable since that sport unites much of the English-speaking world. They play cricket in England, in Australia, in India and in the West Indies. Yet no one feels a need to account for America's absence from the cricket scene. For many it'll suffice to note that we have baseball instead. Cricket has international tournaments, just as soccer does, but for some reason Americans feel drawn to the World Cup, and feel a need to excel in soccer, but don't feel the same attraction to cricket. That's probably because soccer promoters have actively proselytized for their sport in this country for the past forty years in a way cricketeers have not.  They have made the World Cup an attractive thing that many Americans want to be part of, while our failures to date have turned off many other Americans who've drawn the sour-grapes conclusion that soccer is stupid. These are two attitudes that don't naturally correlate with our two prevailing ideologies. Some Republicans are as greedy for World Cup glory as anyone, while some Democrats dismiss the World Cup as they dismiss any irrational competition. The reality of American attitudes toward soccer may resemble our attitude toward independence from Britain, as described by John Adams: a third for, a third against, while a third didn't give a damn. Actual percentages may vary.

14 July 2014

The post-ideological millennium?

The Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, published a survey of "millennials" -- Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 -- and finds them socially liberal and fiscally "centrist." While all parties will cherry-pick the report to find results that suit or encourage them, the key finding seems to be that "millennials are not committed to one ideological form of government action." To summarize:

 When asked about policies to stimulate the economy,some of which would increase the scope of the federal government (such as raising taxes on the wealthy) and others of which would decrease it (such as cutting spending by five percent), millennials endorsed all the policies. Millennials favor action, and they appear to be less motivated by the governing philosophy behind the action

At the same time, millennials are skeptical about both government and markets. They recognize that governments can be "wasteful and inefficient," and also question whether "the centuries-old American belief that the free market drives economic opportunity still applies," even while many still look forward to starting their own businesses and being their own bosses. In short, they seem to believe in both the free market and the welfare state -- which tells me that there isn't really anything new about their attitude.  The belief that you could have both without contradicting yourself is really the post-New Deal consensus that prevailed from World War II until the rise of Ronald Reagan amplified ideological challenges from Goldwater Republicans, Randian Objectivists and libertarians in general. The Reason Foundation's findings suggest that the Great Recession of 2008 halted and reversed the pendulum swing of opinion toward free markets, even while millennials retain a vague commitment to limiting government spending.

Democrats and Libertarians alike have read the survey as bad news for Republicans, since it shows increased alienation from the social or cultural conservatism that increasingly defines the GOP for younger voters. Since the Reason Foundation is libertarian in orientation, its report on the findings looks for signs of hope that millennials will embrace free markets and limited government more unanimously. The authors attempt to blame the current skepticism about markets, and a perceived naivete about government spending, on many millennials' having to live with their parents due to continuing hard times. The more self-reliant (if not successful) they become, the Foundation predicts, the more fiscally conservative rather than fiscally centrist they should become. In the analysis, there are also hints of the old excuse that young people are economically illiterate. Some evidence admittedly isn't flattering to the respondents. The survey found that many were enthusiastic for government programs and supportive of more government spending until it was mentioned that these would require more taxes.

Elsewhere, the results leave the authors wondering whether millennials know the meaning of socialism. The survey shows a more favorable attitude toward "socialism" than toward a "government-managed economy," although most millennials still favor free markets. This confuses the Foundation, since in their view a "government-managed economy," whatever its inherent flaws, is "arguably less interventionist" than socialism. The authors blame this result on the ability of only 16% of respondents (in a separate survey) to define socialism "correctly" as "government ownership, or some variant thereof." While the Reason Foundation shows a fair amount of objectivity in reporting the survey results, I still wouldn't trust them to define socialism. "Government ownership, or some variant thereof" reveals that, as far as the Foundation is concerned, "government ownership" is the essential thing, the variations being relatively trivial. For real socialists, I presume, "ownership" of the government is just as important, if not more so, than what the government owns. For libertarians, the degree of "ownership" or control is what really matters, and what makes "government ownership" unacceptable, but it must make a difference whether the economy and the government are "owned" by bureaucrats (as libertarians implicitly assume) or by the working class. To clarify, I don't think the millennials understand socialism any more correctly than the Reason Foundation, but the mere word "socialism" clearly has lost some of its old repellent power. At the same time, "capitalism" has lost some of its charm, as the survey itself suggests. Respondents are less enthusiastic for "capitalism" than for "free markets," and while the Foundation likely sees the two as synonymous, the authors infer that millennials may identify "capitalism" with "crony capitalism" or "government favoritism," which libertarians themselves deem antithetical to free markets.  All of this is interesting to comment on, but none of it looms as large as the results pointing to a return to consensus. I suppose it'd be unfair if Republican economic policies are repudiated mainly because of an irrational identification of them with reactionary cultural attitudes, but there's also reason to believe that millennials are rejecting Republican economic dogma not because of but simultaneously with their rejection of Republican social dogma. After all, I doubt whether the 2008 recession changed anyone's attitudes toward homosexuals. But if these findings cause concern for the right, they don't automatically inspire optimism in the left, either. As the Foundation suggests, millennial attitudes remain in flux and a wide range of factors could change them in ways we can't fully anticipate yet. Nevertheless, if the findings mean that a less ideologically polarized generation is taking over, that should be good news for everyone.