29 December 2010

How to prevent Gerrymandering

In the wake of the latest Census reports comes the usual hand-wringing about the drawing up of congressional districts within each state. Ever since the emergence of permanent political parties, the power of partisan legislative majorities to divide a state map into monstrously shaped districts -- the original "Gerrymander" was a cartoonist's anthropomorphism of one such district in Massachusetts -- has been deplored by generations of idealists who've hoped and prayed for a rational, nonpartisan way to portion out representation. It seems not to have occurred to people that the original problem is in the Constitution itself. The Framers envisioned the House of Representatives to be the "people's" house of Congress, while the Senate represented the states. Yet once the federal government determines how many representatives each states should have, it's up to the states to draw districts. But if the House is meant to represent the people, and not the states directly, why are states part of the process at all? Why does the federal government divide the magic number of 438 among the states at all? The fact that the number of Representatives is set and only rarely altered may also be part of the problem. The solution may involve giving up the idea of having the same number of Representatives in each Congress. It should also involve skipping the states, since the House isn't their branch, and basing representation on the next most local level of organization: counties or their counterparts. These counties are pre-existing units; they aren't constructed arbitrarily for partisan purposes. Assigning representatives to counties eliminates gerrymandering. Let the federal government define the minimum number of people entitled to representation. If a populous county has more than that number, they get the appropriate number of representatives. If a sparsely populated county falls short, let a rule be established for bundling together contiguous counties until the combined population reaches the minimum for representation. If that means merging a "red" and "blue" county for election purposes, so be it. This plan seems simple enough, and I can't immediately imagine objections from either major party. States-righters might complain about a loss of sovereignty, but we've established that the House of Representatives isn't supposed to represent the states in the same way the Senate was meant to, so they have no cause for complaint. In any event, it isn't as if some distant federal authority would be dividing states into districts on an arbitrary basis; that's been the states' business all along. If people are serious about ending gerrymandering, and aren't just making a show of their highmindedness, they'd get to work on drafting and promoting a constitutional amendment to correct the problem. As I've pointed out, apart from the tedium of the ratification process, this shouldn't be that hard.

Lessons for militant Muslims

If the Danish police are to be trusted, it appears that they've broken up yet another plot by militant Muslims to attack the newspaper that printed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad a few years back. Some Muslims believe that their religion compels them to punish anyone who insults its founder or otherwise violates its taboo on "idolatrous" human imagery. In their minds, their duty to uphold the "honor" of their religion outweighs any the laws of wherever they reside. I can empathize with that feeling. Whenever I see a story like this one, I grow convinced that Islam is the special enemy of civilization and human progress. I feel like giving militants some taste of their own medicine by having a mosque burnt, or at least a Qur'an desecrated, every time someone even threatens harm to the cartoonists. I get the notion in my head that Muslims should be driven from every secular nation if they can't take a joke, or an insult, or can't accept that they can't unilaterally dictate the terms of public discourse. I get a lot of the same ugly feelings that certain Muslims experience when their values are insulted. The difference is that I do believe in the rule of law. I don't assume that because many if not most Muslims idealize a less free society than I'd like that I'm entitled to drive them from my midst or terrorize them into endorsing my values or renouncing their own. I also realize that the congregation in the mosque I'd burn most likely had nothing to do with conspiracies against cartoonists, and that burning their holy book might offend people who may well have had no opinion whatsoever about the cartoon controversy. I know that Islam itself isn't necessarily my enemy, though militant chauvinists definitely are. Even then, I have no right to kill a militant Muslim, even if I consider him a threat to my freedom. My feelings must defer to the law. So must everyone else's feelings -- and their religious sentiments. Unless you live in a sharia theocracy, the law comes before the claims of your faith. If you put faith first, you are an outlaw and it's up to society to determine what to do with you. Otherwise, you're stuck living like the rest of us who have to deal daily with insults to our intelligence, our aesthetic sense or our sense of decency. If you can get others to do something legally about what offends you, fine. If not, you accept that you can't get your way all the time but you're still free to practice your religion and speak out in its defense. If caricatures are intolerable to you, then you're probably living in the wrong place -- and if caricatures in another country's newspaper offend you where you are, you're probably living on the wrong planet. But I don't have the right to act on that assumption and remove you from the planet or my own neighborhood. Muslims in the West perhaps don't appreciate enough that they live and work in the developed countries through the sufferance of non-Muslim majorities who, were they to act on their own fears and prejudices, could easily wipe Islam off the map of Europe. My point isn't to scare Muslims into tolerance, but to remind them of the benefits of tolerance and respect for law that they already enjoy. Throwing tantrums about cartoons is an act of ingratitude as well as a display of objective barbarism. In fact, it's an insult -- and what would you say we should do about that?

28 December 2010

Can Republicans reach out to the 'Have-Nots?'

Conservatives are pessimistic by nature. In America Reaganite entrepreneurial optimism challenges the pessimistic impulse, but it always seems to pop to the surface even in optimistic times. Thus, in the midst of Republican celebrations of their takeover of the House of Representatives, Jonah Goldberg publishes a column warning the GOP that it faces demographic doom. While the latest census numbers appear to favor "red" states, Goldberg sees long-term demographic trends favoring Democratic constituencies. "the core Democratic coalition of minorities, secular suburbanites, single mothers and people dependent on the government for their jobs is growing," he writes, "The core Republican coalition of culturally or religiously conservative whites is comparatively shrinking."

What this means, Goldberg suggests, is that Republicans won't be able to get by simply by preaching to the choir in the future. The GOP -- or any conservative movement, presumably, -- will need to persuade people who don't automatically buy into party doctrine. The columnist explains the nature of the challenge:

The only way for the GOP to make real progress toward becoming a majority party is by making and winning arguments. That’s true of all political parties, but some more than others. The Democratic party is dedicated to transferring money from people and institutions it doesn’t like to people and institutions it does like. Since there will always be more “have-nots” than “haves,” that puts the GOP at a disadvantage, which is why making persuasive arguments is so much more essential for conservatism than it is for liberalism, and why coasting on short-term demographic advantages is so much more dangerous.

Goldberg himself might not be the best person to respond to his own challenge. Even the "have-nots" are unlikely to believe that Democratic redistributionist policies are motivated purely by like or dislike. In their eyes, Goldberg may automatically handicap himself by identifying his own party with the "haves." The beginning of persuasion will probably include convincing people to reject the implicitly adversarial dichotomy of "haves" and "have-nots." While Republicans claim to abhor "class warfare," they may find it hard to abandon class consciousness as long as they believe that classes are formed by right and wrong behavior. If he wants to convince "have-nots" that they shouldn't "punish success" by oppressing the "haves," won't he have to make them believe that, in most cases, they deserve their "have-not" status? That doesn't seem like the approach most likely to win votes, but it's probably the argument Republicans want to make. Theirs remains a moralistic attitude; on some level they remain convinced that the poor don't deserve the standard of living they claim as their right. But if they want to win elections, they'll have to find some way to flatter the "have-nots" without compromising their own principles too severely. The more philosophically conservative approach, I suppose, would be to argue with whatever statistics help you that welfare states are unsustainable and that their inevitable collapses leave dependents worse off than when they started and less capable of helping themselves out of austerity. Beyond that, Republicans must somehow persuade "have-nots" to trade an already-fading trust in government for faith in entrepreneurs and a readiness to entrust them with the maximum freedom from regulation, taxation, etc. as a condition of their own employment. To sum up, "have-nots" must be made to appreciate their condition of dependence on employers and renounce any sense of entitlement inconsistent with employers' profit margins. No wonder Goldberg sounds pessimistic. But maybe he has a better idea. If so, he isn't sharing.

27 December 2010

Libertarian Psychology?

The latest issue of Reason has an interesting article in which science correspondent Ronald Bailey reports on the research of a group of social psychologists who are exploring "the Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology." Based on a sample of more than 10,000 libertarians, the research focuses on responses to a Moral Foundations Questionnaire that determines the relative weight respondents assign to different "moral foundations." The same questionnaire had been used on self-identified liberals and conservatives, with each group ranking some foundations relatively irrelevant and others highly relevant. The researchers found that self-identified libertarians ranked all five foundations low. They were: "harm/care," "fairness/reciprocity," "ingroup/loyalty," "authority/respect" and "purity/sanctity." The first two were favored by liberals, the latter three by conservatives.

Bailey reports that the researchers recognized a "liberal academic bias" in the Moral Foundations Questionnaire. That is, it failed to include "liberty" as a "moral foundation." Including it, they found, unsurprisingly, that libertarians ranked it more highly than either liberals or conservatives. For the sake of arguments, you can take the questionnaire yourself here. I just did and I fall far below the "average politically moderate American" score on Purity/Sanctity, but please don't draw conclusions. I'm actually below average on everything but Fairness/Reciprocity, though I'm close to the median on Harm/Care. Make of those facts what you will.

Back to libertarians, the researchers found that "libertarians scored lower than conservatives and liberals on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Low scores on agreeableness indicate a lack of compassion and a proud, competitive and skeptical nature." They're like liberals in their openness to new experiences and their low sensitivity to disgust; on the latter, they apparently experience even less "ick factor" than liberals. They're systemizers rather than empathizers, apparently reinforcing that lack of compassion. Libertarians, strange to report, have a stronger tendency to utilitarian solutions than other groups, putting the greatest good of the greatest number over the value of individual life, though they are individualists in just about every other respect. The lack of compassion may be a factor here, too, as may be (this is my own speculation) a stronger sense of necessity, of having to do what you have to do.

To his credit, Bailey doesn't publicize this research in order to flatter fellow libertarians. He notes a finding indicating that libertarians, like other ideologues, develop "an intellectual feedback loop" in which uncompassionate individualists "find more and more of the libertarian narrative agreeable and begin identifying themselves as libertarian." Bailey finds this account "fairly convincing," but he thinks that any pejorative connotations should be outweighed by an acknowledgement that "libertarian morality...changed history by enabling at least a portion of humanity to escape our natural state of abject poverty." Progress, he implies, depends on libertarian morality because it rejects both the "primitive moralities embodied in the universalist collectivism of left-liberals and the tribalist collectivism of conservatives." Love of liberty rather than love of mankind, Bailey concludes, "is what leads to true moral and economic progress." If he means that progress depends on some people not caring at some point what others think of their work, there's probably some truth to his position. But there's a difference between not caring what people think of what you do and not caring what happens to them as a result of what you do. I don't know whether libertarians as a group go to that next level, but I suspect that some do. Whether than indifference has anything to do with progress is a question libertarians and students of libertarianism ought to consider.

Time to stop the bucks?

The new issue of The Nation includes reader responses to a November article, "The Money & Media Election Complex," by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, that hint at a wider awakening to the need for radical election reform. Nichols and McChesney bemoan the public's dependence for information on campaign advertising that isn't subject to the same official scrutiny for accuracy to which commercial advertising has been historically subject. The First Amendment sanctification of political speech and the Supreme Court's equation of spending with speech has made political advertising unaccountable to any objective authority; the Constitution appears to entrust no one with the power to tell a political advertiser that he has no right to lie. The authors of the original article describe a dire state of affairs, but two letter writers feel that they didn't offer strong enough remedies.

From Austin TX Cyndi Collen writes that Nichols and McChesney's article "needs to be the basis of a push for campaign finance reform" that should extend to "a ban on political advertising on TV because it's dangerous to your health, like the ban on TV cigarette peddling." From Corvalis, OR, Leo W. Quirk scoffs at the authors' recommendation that the government provide free ad time to candidates in order to level the playing field. "Since, by the writers' account, TV campaign ads absorb two-thirds of all campaign funds, wouldn't the proper solution be a legal ban on those TV ads? TV campaign ads are already banned in England. Let's think big. Repeal any First Amendment protection for election campaign ads on television, radio and billboards, and prohibit all such ads. Candidates could still use debates, newspaper, magazine and Internet ads, mailers, fliers, books and phone calls."

Constitutional jurists would probably scoff at Collen's analogy, while Quirk's complaints have been anticipated by the authors. They look to expedients like public financing because they acknowledge that, given prevailing precedents from the Supreme Court, "we don't see any way to avoid the requirement of a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling." When Quirk writes about repealing this or that, nothing short of amending the constitution will empower him to do so. Any such amendment will be a tough sell, because every opponent will portray it as an abolition of freedom of speech, a conspiracy of "government" to silence private-sector dissent. I think the effort should still be made, but reformers should also pursue the intermediate option of regulating political advertising to establish a standard grounded in truth and fact. This option, too, will present challenges, since all political propagandizing includes a degree of speculation (e.g. that your opponent's election will be bad for your constituents) that is obviously unverifiable. Also, ideological assertions aren't exactly falsifiable; you can't necessarily prove that someone's assertion that his opponents course is "wrong" is "wrong" if we don't all agree on the premises involved. Nevertheless, some authority should exist to require advertisers to eliminate gross misrepresentations from TV or radio spots before they're aired. Explaining to the public that the First Amendment doesn't entitle people to lie should not be that hard a sell; nor should amending the Constitution if necessary to make that fact more obvious. In the long term, we should try to get political advertising off the airwaves if no way can be found to level the TV playing field without making candidates dependent on the state. Millionaires will find other ways to influence people; it's not as if they were helpless before TV was invented. The long-term goals remain the same: prevent a class-system of candidates based on funds; liberate politicians from the burden of fundraising so they can do their proper work; and don't enable lying in the name of the right to dissent. Any step toward any of those goals is a positive step.

23 December 2010

The Long War for 'Christmas'

It was brought to Mr. Right's attention earlier this week that Nina Totenberg, a National Public Radio reporter, had recently mentioned during a program that she'd attended a Christmas party. What really caught his attention was the way Totenberg mentioned it. Her phrase was "...pardon the expression, a Christmas party."

"Pardon the expression," he muttered repeatedly, as if probing himself for a sore point, "Pardon the expression....And some people don't think there's a war on Christmas!"

Mr. Right does, of course. He believes devoutly in a conspiracy of secular humanists for whom the name of Christ is as offensive, if not as painful, as the sight of a cross is for a vampire, and who've pressured people from broadcasters to department-store employees to replace the sacred syllables with that most offensive euphemism, "Happy Holidays." As he understood it, Totenberg was baldly voicing the same disgust all liberals presumably felt on hearing or, worse, speaking, the name of the Savior.

Merely from hearing his presumably third-hand account of Totenberg, however, I drew a different conclusion.

"Isn't it possible that she's making fun of herself?" I suggested, "That she was satirizing the political correctness everyone associates with NPR for some reason?"

"I'd love to believe that was the case," he answered. From him, that was a conciliatory note.

The "war on Christmas" has been mostly a one-sided affair. I write "mostly" because I've seen some evidence of absurdly overboard secularism, most notably when a bank hung signs for March 17 wishing patrons, "Happy Shamrock Day!" Even then, however, I infer no hostility to Christianity, but a sensitivity, sometimes excessive and mostly speculative in nature, to those few people who can't hear religious words without hearing unwelcome proselytizing as well. I'm not one of those people. I'm an atheist to the extent that I feel fairly certain that there is no being who is both creator of the universe and afterlife judge of its sentient souls, though I admit the virtual impossibility of disproving conclusively the existence of an omnipotent being. But I take no offense when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, no more than when one says, "God bless you" after I sneeze. If someone expresses good will to me I accept it. At the same time, I appreciate the concision and inclusiveness of "Happy Holidays." Not only does it condense, "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," as Tom Tomorrow pointed out quite nicely in a recent cartoon, but those outside the Christian tradition can infer a Hanukkah or Kwanzaa greeting from it, whether that's meant or not.

Those like Mr. Right who assume that large numbers of secular elitists are offended by the name of Christ mistakenly assume that everyone attributes the same sort of power to the holy name that Mr. Right does. The people who abhor "Happy Holidays" find "Christmas" meaningful in a way most people, including most Christians, do not. They act as if it were some sort of act of power to utter the syllable "Christ," and take it as proof of their belief that some people seem not to want to hear the word. They imply that uttering the name is a duty of faith; whether or not others assume a proselytizing power in the word, they do so assume. The defenders of the word "Christmas" reveal their own motivation when they attribute motives to their supposed opponents. They assume that anyone who insists on "Happy Holidays" interprets "Merry Christmas" as an act of aggression -- and in their defensive insistence on the term, they threaten to make it so.

Again, it's important to remember that the vast majority of people who may casually wish you a Merry Christmas this weekend intend no provocation whatsoever. The war for "Christmas" is waged by a relative handful of blowhards whose persecution anxiety is essential to their sense of identity. It helps their self-esteem to believe that they and their values are always under attack by envious, resentful people. No one should humor them by taking offense when wished a Merry Christmas. Rather, the burden of civility is on them not to take offense when wished any number of Happy Holidays. It's when someone does take offense, not when someone says "Merry Christmas," that friends of civil society, secular and religious alike, should recognize an enemy -- or, to be more civil about it, an asshole.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone.

Losing Our Religion?

One of the local newspapers today called my attention to an item on AlterNet in which Ted Cox recounts his abandonment of Mormonism and claims to be representative of growing numbers of Americans who are giving up religion. Cox describes a rationalist utopia in which a greater availability of information enables young people to discover how religious leaders are either wrong on facts or willfully misleading followers. Attempts to make religion more hip or more tolerant will fail, Cox predicts, because people can prove to themselves that no religion is right about everything.

Being no fan of religion myself, I wish I could share Cox's optimism. I suppose I can if we stick to Cox's actual subject: Americans with internet access and a willingness to do some self-assigned research. There probably are plenty of Americans for whom religion stands or falls entirely on whether it can accurately describe the world and the past. Many more, I fear, and more still in other parts of the world, apply different standards to faith, not just because they're intellectually uncurious, but because they seek and apparently get more out of religion than explanations of natural phenomena. The big thing they get, I suspect, is a sense of belonging that satisfies an urge stronger among them than among those who spend more time alone in front of computers. The feeling of belonging can give people a sense of strength and security for which they'll willing to swallow a lot. The need to belong can fluctuate over time, depending on how secure people feel. Even in America, I fear, the trends applauded by Cox probably aren't irreversible. Fifty or sixty years ago secular reason seemed to be on the march everywhere on earth, including the Arab world. If you think of that as an uphill climb, there's been some backsliding since then, and not only in the Arab or Muslim world. Maybe Cox has numbers to back up his optimism, but I don't share his faith for the long haul. Not until people again believe that they can achieve real progress on their own, acting collectively and politically, will they again turn away in meaningful numbers from promises of divine protection or postmortem rewards. That itself requires a kind of faith that isn't immediately verifiable -- a faith in collective and individual human potential. That faith has been under assault by generations by ideological skepticism, and by now the real challenge for secularists may be getting people to believe the possible rather than doubt the impossible.

21 December 2010

Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Tradition

Joshua David Hawley's Theodore Roosevelt: Prophet of Righteousness tends to confirm my view that the 1912 presidential election marked a turning point in American history that set the Republican party's course to the present day. Here's how Hawley explains it.

Since the close of the Civil War, the Republicans had been the party most consistently associated with federal reform. Their postbellum commitments to a strong national government, territorial expansion, and economic development were the foundation of the electoral alliance that made Roosevelt's regulatory reforms possible. These doctrines were Roosevelt's orthodoxy, they were the ideas he would rearrange and refashion to create his progressivism. But Roosevelt's intellectual development outpaced his party's and eventually diverged from it entirely. He never succeeded in convincing the party leadership that the traditional Republican support for industrialism and economic growth required in the twentieth century a regulatory partnership between business and government. He failed to convert the party elite to his claim that social cohesion and national unity were impossible without a social welfare state...one calibrated to cultivate the warrior virtues, dissolve class loyalties, produce industrial efficiency, empower collective action, and reawaken the public's moral sense. But neither the Republican leadership nor the workaday voter warmed to that vision. It was too statist, too coercive, too intrusive and expensive to capture the imagination of many Republicans. With Roosevelt's exit in 1912, the party drifted slowly toward the other leading interpretation of its historic commitment to industrial growth: economic liberalism. Republicans embraced an agenda of diminishing interference in the affairs of business. They coupled it with a firm belief in the market and the natural order of the private sector. It would take a catastrophic depression to bring American voters to endorse a social welfare state. Republicans were never more than reluctant converts. (239-40)

Hawley suggests that Republicans' rejection of Roosevelt's ideas was motivated in part by resentment of his past domination and fear of renewed domination by a man still relatively young by the political standards of his time. The pejorative terms Hawley uses to describe Roosevelt's vision above could just as easily have been used to describe many critics' opinion of Roosevelt himself. He came on too strong, seemed too much of an egotist, was too ready to question the motives of people who disagreed with him. Rejecting the message came automatically with rejecting the messenger. Hawley himself finds little of substance in the Republican critique of Roosevelt. For him, the 1912 election may as well have been a two-man race between two avowed progressives, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Including the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, and the leading independent candidate, Eugene V. Debs, in Hawley's account might have broadened the context for Roosevelt's repudiation by the public and the Republicans alike. As it is, he goes too far in claiming that the electorate rejected Roosevelt and his "Bull Moose" Progressive Party. He argues that the result showed that the public preferred Wilson's style of progressivism over Roosevelt's, but he also acknowledges that Wilson received fewer popular votes than the Democratic nominee of four years earlier, who lost to Taft in a landslide. In that context, it may be more plausible to argue that die-hard Republican loyalty to Taft, not a general preference for Wilson, cost Roosevelt a victory that could have changed the course of American history.

Hawley clearly prefers Wilsonian progressivism. The big difference between Wilson and Roosevelt, he argues, is that Roosevelt's vision of progress took consolidation and centralization as givens and sought sufficient regulatory powers for government, concentrated in the executive branch, to check corporate power on behalf of the people, while Wilson wanted to use law to break up trusts and monopolies in order to level the playing field for new players. Despite his reputation as a "trust buster," Roosevelt considered mega-corporations inevitable, and considered it government's place to ensure through regulation that they operated for the public good. He thought Wilson's policy was backward and counterproductive, but Hawley sides with Wilson and his adviser, Louis D. Brandeis, who convinced the Democrat that consolidation didn't automatically result in greater efficiency, as Roosevelt presumably believed. Brandeis and Wilson believed that the opposite was true, that monopoly led to waste, while competition motivated competitors to maximize efficiency, thus best serving the public. That issue aside, Wilson, a political scientist before he entered politics, feared that Roosevelt's focus on executive-branch bureaucracy would lead to abuses beyond the reach of the other branches of government.

Hawley himself is troubled by Roosevelt's apparently consistent preference for bigness. He characterizes his subject as a "Christian Darwinist," a person who practiced conventional piety (Roosevelt once referred to Thomas Paine as a "filthy little atheist") but accepted the premises of evolutionary theory and applied them to sociology, anthropology, and so on. He believed in racial evolution, identified with civilization, moral development and military power, with a little imperialism thrown in for good measure. Most troubling for Hawley, he appeared to believe that government must evolve in response to evolving economic conditions, acquiring more regulatory power to check the power of trusts and monopolies. That troubles Hawley because the author believes in natural rights that place permanent limits on state power -- or else he believes that the Founders thought that way. According to such a view, any increase in state power, however motivated, is a threat to the individual liberty governments ideally exist to defend. Roosevelt felt that he was defending individual liberty against corporate power by increasing government's ability to check corporations, but Hawley seems to believe that Roosevelt, if he got his way, could not help but hinder individual liberty, regardless of his good intentions. Wilson and Brandeis had the better solution to corporate consolidation, in his view. Throughout the book, Hawley expresses suspicion of political plans that seem to depend too much on personal virtue rather than legal rules for success. His Roosevelt is reminiscent of John McCain, an avowed admirer of the Rough Rider. Both men, allegedly, trusted more in the rule of "righteous" men than in a constraining rule of law, and deeply resented any challenges to their own sense of integrity.

Roosevelt grew more militant and less politically correct later in life, agitating impatiently for American intervention in World War I while advocating eugenics programs to prevent "race suicide." Hawley restrains himself from rhetorical overdrive, but I can imagine some people putting the book down thinking that Roosevelt had become a kind of proto-fascist. Hawley himself seems to think that Roosevelt remained too committed to American ideals of freedom to ever go that way, but also sees Rooseveltian progressivism, and even the Wilsonian version to an extent, as a menace to individual liberty on some level.

Hawley wasn't out to do a hatchet job on Roosevelt, however. He thinks 21st century Americans "could stand to hear his sermons again" because Roosevelt "knew two things worth remembering that contemporary Americans have forgotten." First, he writes, Roosevelt "knew that liberty is a fundamentally social undertaking," something more, that is, than individual freedom of choice. Wilsonian progressives and modern Republicans have gone too far toward a "vaguely antisocial" ideal of liberty in Hawley's view. Second, Hawley's Roosevelt saw politics as "a profoundly moral enterprise," albeit in a secular sense of the word. He believed that politics included molding society in order to create the type of citizen fit for a constitutional democratic republic. Tension between the public good and individual liberty may be inevitable in that case, but Hawley concludes that "Our politics would benefit if we recovered the link between civil character and liberty." Left and right alike, he suggests, have lost track of the link by focusing on different, perhaps mutually exclusive priorities. Hawley's book is finally a critical but fair introduction to Roosevelt's thought, but if Roosevelt himself has anything to offer the 21st century, we can only find it by putting Hawley aside to confront Roosevelt in his own words. My resolution for the year to come is to do just that, to determine whether Theodore Roosevelt can point us toward an independent, patriotic politics for our own time.

20 December 2010

The 'Repeal Amendment'

The incoming Republican controlled House of Representatives is now expected to push for ratification of what would become the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Known among supporters by the charming label of the "Repeal Amendment," it would empower a two-thirds majority of states to repeal any act of Congress. A website promoting the amendment gives its text as follows:

Any provision of law or regulation of the United States may be repealed by the several states, and such repeal shall be effective when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions for this purpose that particularly describe the same provision or provisions of law or regulation to be repealed.

Needless to say, some Democrats and liberals have already come out against the amendment. They consider it undemocratic because a theoretical supermajority of states can be had without representing a majority of the U.S. population. But that's also true about ratifying a constitutional amendment in the first place -- a fact that might temper some opponents' dismissal of the amendment's chances. Its chances may actually be doomed by the Senate remaining under Democratic control, but that could change after 2012. Then, it'd become a question of whether we have a supermajority of states-rights minded states, and the sparsely-populated mountain states might make a difference in the amendment's favor.

The amendment's boosters consider it necessary to "restoring our nation's economic liberty." That doesn't exactly follow, since any given state is in theory as much a danger to individual "economic liberty" as the federal government is. The Repeal Amendment really expresses an enduring fear of centralized government and a persistent sense of alienation from national identity in some parts of the country. But if it gets through Congress and gets ratified in the normal way it'll be the supreme law of the land. The least that can be said about its supporters is that they know what they want, know how to get it, and aren't intimidated by the odds against them. Amending the Constitution is within anyone's power, and the advancement of the Repeal Amendment on the national agenda ought to prod some concerned citizens into coming up with counter-proposals. If you don't like this amendment, come up with something better.

The Rich are to blame...for what?

Since Kathleen Parker spends so much time bashing Sarah Palin and appearing on the "moderate" CNN, she may have felt that she needed to remind readers of her column that she remains, in some sense, a conservative. Her chance came while writing a column that starts off bashing fellow Republicans for their efforts to censor the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report in an attempt to minimize Wall Street's responsibility for the 2008 meltdown. On this issue Parker is scathing, warning that the GOP's "selective wordplay" blazes a "dark path for citizens to follow." Then she decided that her column needed balance, that she had to find something to criticize Democrats about that would appear equivalent to the Republicans' orwellian antics. She settled on the argument made against extending Bushite tax rates that, in her words, "giving tax breaks to the rich will add to the deficit." She gets in trouble almost immediately by appearing to confuse the deficit with the debt, but her argument would appear to be the same in either case.

[W]e have become quite accustomed through the repetition of this idea that the rich are somehow hurting the poor and disrupting the proper functioning of an engorged and profligate government.Permit me to reword the issue just a tad. Let’s say Joe is $100 in the hole and yet continues to spend money like a drunken fool. Mary has five bucks, which she declines to share because she has to buy food. Joe is insistent. His debt will get worse if Mary doesn’t help out. This may be true, but Mary isn’t convinced that helping Joe pay down his debt will do any good as long as he continues to spend. She’s betting that Joe will just dig a deeper hole, and she will have less security of her own.You see the problem. It isn’t the money. It’s the dishonesty of the argument. Allowing wealthier Americans to keep the amount of money they are now getting isn’t adding to the debt. Yet, the effect of this oft-repeated trope has been to demonize “the wealthy,” as if they somehow have wronged their fellow citizens by working hard and achieving what everyone else wants.

The analogy doesn't read right at all, unless Parker presumes that the "rich" are living on as tight a budget as Mary is. Her real point would be made more clearly if she would decide whether she's writing about the deficit or the debt. If we stick with the deficit, she would have a point if she meant to say that the only way the deficit grows is if we keep spending beyond our means. But if the subject is debt -- presumably the national debt -- then we can't cut the amount we owe already to creditors by spending less money. More money needs to come in before that debt can be paid off. Parker or someone else might argue that it's unfair to make the rich shoulder more of that burden if they, not being needy, never compelled the government to spend more than it took in, but the national debt remains a national responsibility, and the responsibility for paying it off ought to be distributed according to Americans' ability to pay without sacrificing a minimal standard of living. This is not a matter of "punishing success," as Parker implies -- no more than drafting Americans into the military in wartime would be "punishing life."

In any event, how much more dubious is the proposition that tax breaks expand our debt than the counter-notion, beloved of faith-based supply-siders, that cutting taxes always results in increased revenue and thus reduces both the deficit and the debt? We should at least be grateful, I suppose, that Parker doesn't make that claim, but her theme probably required a tone of intellectual modesty. I also suppose I should appreciate her efforts to be evenhanded, but sometimes two sides just aren't equally wrong. Twisting arguments to make them appear so, for the sake of appearing nonpartisan oneself, is just another symptom of Bipolarchy pathology.

18 December 2010

Who are the reactionaries?

[T]he biggest roadblock today is that so many of America's best-educated, best-placed people are invested in old social models and old visions of history to do their real job and help society transition to the next level. Instead of opportunities they see threats; instead of hope they see danger; instead of the possibility of progress they see the unraveling of everything beautiful and true.

Who do you suppose Walter Russell Mead is describing in the text above? I'll give you a hint: It isn't the Republican party or the Tea party. Instead, it's America's presumably liberal intelligentsia, who fail to realize that the state-based social model of twentieth-century is unsustainable, that "the promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept," and that therefore "power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large." The intelligentsia resist this change, Mead claims, because their professions are still bound by a "guild mentality" that seeks to monopolize information when it needs to be decentralized and disseminated as broadly as possible. To survive, it appears, we all need to master what the "guilds," in Mead's account, would have us depend on them for. Mead himself looks forward to a process of "disintermediation" that will "enable many Americans to dispense with the expensive services of the professional classes," whether lawyers, accountants or possibly even doctors. There seems also to be a need for despecialization, as the new society requires "multi-disciplinary, synthesizing intellectuals" who can master "the essentials of many complex subjects, integrate the insights from this kind of study into a coherent social or political vision, and communicate what they have learned to a broad general audience" -- presumably without the benefits of job security that guild principles of tenure once provided.

Mead assumes that intellectuals resist the necessity of change because they see it being imposed by a right-wing conspiracy. He insists, however, that "there is a liberal case for the overhaul of our knowledge industries as well as a Tea Party one." Liberals who want to provide essential services to the most people need to find alternatives to bureaucratic distribution, he asserts. If accessibility is the goal, technology can help us, but traditional "guild" providers will resist restructuring that might make their role obsolete. But Mead presumes that "the more you care about the poor the less you can care about the protests of the guilds."

Mead's suggestions deserve consideration. Right off the bat, however, I observe that his transformative notions depend on a populace that knows how to assimilate and apply all the information that technology will make available to them. It's possible that he confuses access to information with actual education; he may also assume idealistically that folks will just know what to make of what they find online. Mead writes vaguely about "deep reform in primary and secondary education" when the circumstances he perceives should make those reforms his topmost priority. In his enthusiasm for decentralized autodidacticism he seems not only to put the cart before the horse, but to push it forward himself while the horse grazes. He'll find it a heavy cart. Criticize the products of modern public education all you like, but I don't think Mead's ideal of decentralization and decredentialization solves the problem. This is a question of scope; while he rightly places a high priority on maximizing accessibility, public education makes maximum accessibility an absolute imperative that probably shouldn't be left to the chances of entrepreneurship. That's one reason why I'm less ready than Mead to give up on the idea of the bureaucratic administrative state. None of my reasons has anything to do with my own job security. Another reason is that the state represents a commitment to everyone that simply doesn't exist in even the most high-minded private enterprise. I'm not saying that Mead thinks this way, but to give up on the state is akin to saying that not everyone can be saved. Give up on that, and a lot more may be given up than Mead might like. If that thought makes me a reactionary, I hope at least to be, paradoxically enough, a progressive one.

16 December 2010

Who does Obama represent?

Ever since I read an op-ed by Ishmael Reed in the New York Times I've had mixed feelings about it. Reed criticizes progressives who criticize the President for being insufficiently combative in his comments on the Republican opposition. He writes that white progressives fail to understand that an angry Obama will inevitably be perceived as just another angry black man, and presumes that Obama would lose popularity if he used the same kind of anti-Republican rhetoric that boosted Harry Truman's popularity back in 1948.

Reed also takes a passing ad hominem swipe at white progressives. Their quickness to anger when their will is thwarted to any extent, he suggests, is proof that they're spoiled. "Unlike white progressives," he writes, "blacks and Latinos are not used to getting it all." To this he adds cryptically, "They know when not to shout."

In the context of this article, Reed seems to mean that, like poor people of color, Obama knows better than to shout when it will only get him into deeper trouble. In the same article, he chides white progressives for making things more difficult for the President and possibly alienating minorities from the progressive movement. This raises a question: is Reed saying that white progressives should learn "when not to shout?" If so, why? What's the risk to them? Should they fear reprisal from the same people who usually take reprisals against "angry" or "militant" minorities? Or should they fear reprisal from the minorities themselves, who seem likely, Reed insinuates, to take offense if white progressives continue to criticize the President? He assumes that white progressives think that Obama is answerable to them only. "When these progressives refer to themselves as Mr. Obama’s base, all they see is themselves," he writes, "They ignore polls showing steadfast support for the president among blacks and Latinos." Does that mean that white progressives should show deference, if not to the President himself, then to his minority loyalists, whether or not they're the majority of the President's party? Does Reed mean that the President is less answerable to white progressives than to other Democratic constituencies? The thing to bear in mind while asking this question is that Reed isn't even attempting to defend the President's record, as many Obama loyalists of all colors have tried to do. Instead, he's writing against criticisms of the President's "deportment," as Reed puts it. His moral is that the President is under no obligation to give voice to the anger of his self-styled progressive supporters, and is better off not doing so for reasons white progressives are too tone-deaf or color-blind to understand.

Reed wrote his piece a few days before Jonah Goldberg's latest column appeared, but the latter article is an interesting counterpoint to Reed's defense of Obamian cool. Goldberg does comment in a somewhat patronizing way on a display of presidential anger, but in context his criticisms prove to be a kind of backhanded compliment. Ironically enough, the object of Obama's anger in Goldberg's account is the "purist" (i.e. progressive?) wing of the Democratic party that opposes the compromise between the President and GOP leaders that extended unemployment benefits in return for a continuation of Bush-lowered tax rates for the rich. While Obama's "undisciplined diatribe" against the "purists" reminded Goldberg of "Charlie Sheen without his Ritalin," he also sees it as a "part of growing up" that is admittedly "painful" for a President who has had to admit, the columnist believes, that he was wrong in his approach to governing. As Goldberg sees it, Obama contrasted himself to Sen. Clinton during the 2008 primaries by portraying the presidency as a bully pulpit from which he could lead primarily with inspirational rhetoric, while Clinton argued for the pragmatic necessity of old-school deal-making and arm-twisting. In Goldberg's account, Obama was compelled to resort to Clintonian tactics to get his healthcare bill passed because he'd failed to persuade the public with rhetoric alone.

Whether Goldberg gets his history right or not, he brings us back to the question of presidential "deportment" and whom he speaks for when he speaks from behind the presidential seal. A faction of Democrats are angry at Obama because he doesn't appear to be articulating their anger at Republican obstructionism, while Reed hints that a silent minority-majority of Democrats wants the President to keep his cool. Obama was criticized for appearing too cool during the 2008 campaign, but appeared to be vindicated by his victory. Leaving the strategic wisdom of his deportment aside -- as well as the question, raised by Goldberg, of whether he's keeping his cool at all -- the question of whom he represents when he speaks really ought to be irrelevant. Historically, the President of the United States has often identified himself as the only person in government who represents the entire American people, but the Founders didn't envision his office as representative. That was the point of having the President chosen indirectly through the agency of the Electoral College. When a President stresses his role as a representative, it's usually in an effort to expand his power or override the usual checks and balances. But if a President represents anything, it's not the people but the nation. The people have Congress to represent them in all their diversity. The President's business, arguably, isn't to echo the mood of any faction or section but to act, more than speak, in the nation's interest as he can best construe it, within his constitutional bounds. If any group feels that the President isn't speaking for them, their responsibility is to speak for themselves. If they think the President isn't acting on their behalf -- that's another story, and on that point neither Reed nor Goldberg nor anyone can tell anyone else not to criticize him. If progressives are criticizing Obama's deportment rather than his record, they might prove foolish. But if neither he nor the opposition are serving the national interest, no American is obliged to keep cool about it. To the contrary, we should know when to shout.

15 December 2010

Working Families Party or Winning Fusion Players?

In the current Nation columnist John Nichols declares victory for the Working Families Party in two statewide elections last month. To give you a sense of his perspective, Nichols believes that the WFP of New York has "for a decade been a key player" in state politics. He finds fresh proof of its...playfulness in the election of Democrat Tom DiNapoli as state comptroller. DiNapoli owes his win to the WFP, Nichols claims, because it "provided the margin of victory" for the Democrat. Nichols is even more impressed, however, by the performance of the newer Working Families Party of Connecticut. In that state, Democrat Dan Malloy won the gubernatorial election by a narrow margin. Had Malloy depended on the Democratic line alone, Nichols notes, he would have been outpolled by the Republican candidate by 20,000 votes. Malloy is the next governor because an additional 26,308 citizens voted for him on the WFP line.

It's easy to see the point Nichols is trying to make. He'd like Democrats-elect to appreciate their dependence on Working Families votes by adopting more progressive policies. He hopes to convince all of us that the results from New York and Connecticut give the WFP some sort of leverage it can use to pressure Democrats into more progressive governance. All his premises depend on an assumption that Working Families voters would not vote for Democrats who aren't endorsed by the WFP. The Connecticut WFP website asserts that the party will support only those Democrats "who will stand up for our values, like creating good jobs, making healthcare more affordable, and fair taxes on the middle class." This page describes the screening process that determines whether Democrats (or Republicans) will receive a WFP endorsement. Fine. Perhaps the Connecticut party has more spine than its New York counterpart, which compromised its values in return for a Democrat allowing himself to appear on its line. But a party decision to endorse or not is one thing. The real question is whether the WFP can enforce its will on registered members. Can it convince voters who presumably identify themselves as progressive liberals not to vote for a Democrat, especially if that means, as the two elections under discussion imply, that Republicans will win? Could it convince members to vote for a candidate of the party's own creation instead of a deficient Democrat, if that also means Republican victory? If I were a Democrat, I'd doubt it -- and I'd respond to WFP lobbying accordingly. The Working Families commitment to fusion voting virtually rejects the possibility that the Democratic party might not be good enough for working families during the current economic emergency or the perpetual emergency of Republican menace. If the WFP has won anything through the election of Democrats, I suspect it's the party's fundraisers who are celebrating the most, since writers like Nichols have given them blurbs to boast over in advertising. Whether they've made politics in New York or Connecticut more liberal or more progressive -- whether they've won anything real for their constituents, is doubtful.

14 December 2010

The Fatal Center and the Magic Middle

Thomas Frank of What's the Matter With Kansas fame now has a monthly platform as the "Easy Chair" columnist for Harper's. His column for January, "The Fatal Center," is a play on Arthur M. Schlesinger's 1940s manifesto of the "anti-communist left," The Vital Center. As the title might tell you, Frank's piece is a diatribe against centrism or, as he calls it, a misplaced belief in a "Magic Middle" that should be refuted once and for all by the midterm elections. He notes that pundits two years ago blamed Republican defeats on the party's abandonment of the center, but observes that the GOP has traveled further to the right since then, and has triumphed. Now, of course, many of the same pundits say that Democrats had gone too far to the left, and must move toward the center. Had the pundits been correct about the necessity of centrism, Republicans rather than Democrats should have been shellacked in November. What does the opposite outcome prove?

Frank sees centrism as a creation of a punditocracy interested mostly in "protect[ing] themselves ... from accusations of bias." Liberals as a class are tempted by the mirage of the Magic Middle, he argues, because "there is something characterisically liberal about describing one's project as a defense of 'sanity.'" Disparaging liberals, Frank seems impatient with reason, or at least with "reasonableness."

First, reasonableness's faith in rational economic behavior was drowned in a flood of obviously fraudulent mortgage loans -- a trillion dollars' worth of them, a torrent that also carried off whatever authority was held by the financial professionals who packaged and sold them to one another....But other men of reason and expertise then proceeded to bail out those financial professionals, to restore them to their bonus-happy status quo ante -- while leaving you and me to struggle through the worst times in seventy years. As I write this, the forces of reason are allowing banks to claim their files are in order to continue foreclosing on people's houses even though all evidence suggests that those banks didn't bother with basic paperwork requirements....Never has the system seemed more obviously rigged or the rule of
professionalism more like a bargain between cronies.

It requires some effort to keep in mind that Frank isn't necessarily calling for a "politics of unreason" on the part of the left, but is rather denouncing a false "reasonableness" conditioned by a "Magic Middle" centrism that identifies reason with splitting the difference between the two most powerful factions. But Frank does seem to be saying that a politics of reasonableness, perhaps in any sense, is inadequate to the challenge posed by irrational and well-funded reactionary movements. He closes his article by saying that the Tea Partiers' self-described toppling of "elitists" missed its true target, eliminating centrists rather than hard-core liberals, but "deserves our respect nevertheless. For smashing our complacent faith in the Magic Middle and for giving the world a hard and unmistakable lesson in the architecture of American power, every citizen owes them gratitude."

What should those grateful citizens learn from the lesson? In broadest terms, Frank himself is in no mood to compromise, but what form would his ideally uncompromising battle with reaction take? Too literal an understanding of "centrism" may blind Frank or his readers to the virtues of moderation, which is not the same as the middle of the road. Moderation is an avoidance of extremes that exist in nature, not a matter of splitting the difference between any two factions. The persistent confusion proves again how useless "centrism" is as a political category, why Thomas Friedman's hopes for a "radical center" to combat the bipolarchy are hopeless. Identifying moderation with centrism only to dismiss it is dangerous. So is Frank's possible abandonment of any hope of appealing to voters' reason. He'd like to answer class war with class war, but would he go so far as to answer class hate with class hate? Would the rise of a tea party of the left, consciously driven by demagogic class-baiting propaganda, indifferent to the need to prove its premises to objective bystanders, really remedy the problems of the moment? I wouldn't mind seeing an experiment, but I won't guarantee how it turns out.

'No Labels?' Not for long...

The air was leaking out of the new 'No Labels' movement on behalf of moderate politics almost before it held its first public event at Columbia University yesterday. That was because the person most likely to serve as the movement's front-man, Mayor Bloomberg of New York, had declared over the weekend that he had no intention of running for President in 2012. Regardless of Bloomberg's prospects, however, No Labels was received with immediate skepticism, at best, from many opinion-makers. The makeup of yesterday's event somewhat justifies the skepticism. A movement dedicated to moderation, compromise and common ground should aspire to be as comprehensively representative as possible; it should "look like America" in its diversity of opinion. But one group was very conspicuous by its absence, and that absence, to the extent that it appears to result from exclusion, will serve to label No Labels, whether they want a label or not.

In one of the more positive reports, an Associated Press correspondent deemed it "auspicious" that No Labels "attracted several GOP-aligned officials who were defeated in last month's midterm elections." To be more specific, those Republicans -- or in the case of Gov. Crist of Florida, a Republican apostate -- were defeated in last summer's primaries. If such characters serve to signify No Labels' bipartisanship, they also signify something else that was probably implicit in the group's anti-polarization mandate. The group may claim that it's "Not Left, Not Right," but its choice of martyred Republicans marks it as an anti-Tea Party movement. Members may reject the label. They might point out, maybe rightly, that they reject polarizing extremism from the left wing of the Democratic party. But the symbolism of yesterday's event is inescapable. Maybe they invited Tea Partiers, and maybe some were there who weren't mentioned in reports, but No Labels leaves the impression that its call to common ground leaves TPs out.

Christopher Beam's article on Slate typifies the almost contemptuous reception No Labels has received in some circles. He writes:

Everything you need to know about the new political group No Labels is contained in its slogan: "Not Left. Not Right. Forward." It's smug. It sounds like an Obama campaign catchphrase. And it ignores the whole reason politics exists, which is that not everyone agrees on what "Forward" is.

Beam argues that No Labels simply wants to ignore that the public itself is ideologically polarized. "Politicians aren't any meaner now than they were 30 years ago," he writes, "It's just that over the last few decades, the two parties have become more ideologically coherent." For some people, though, that's just another way of saying politics has gotten meaner. Meanwhile, Beam tries to minimize the number of truly independent voters in the country, claiming that swing voters (his definition of independence) represent no more than 10% of the electorate. At the same time, he claims vaguely that structural incentives exacerbate ideological polarization, and that these can't be remedied without "labels" that tell people what a group's ends are, not just its means.

The group itself explains its, er, label this way:

The “No” in No Labels means no preconditions, a “No” to the hyper-partisanship of labels.We cannot make progress until we check our preconditions at the door. In this way, we will mobilize the people who feel that we cannot go on this way forever. We must create a political force powerful enough to say "No," to the stagnation that paralyzes our nation.Hence, our name, No Labels, is significant for this very reason, that it begins with a no rather than the yes. It says “no” to the labels that would define us as separated when in fact, we are one country with common hopes and aspirations.

In this context, labels are simply cues to ignore other people's opinions or interests because they're "special" or, worse, "un-American." This mission statement is at odds with Beam's fatalistic account of fundamental, irrepressible disagreement on the meaning of "forward." I don't know Beam's own politics, but he seems to take for granted that there is not or can't be an objectively compelling definition of forward, or of the common good, while No Labels' appeal to "common hopes and aspirations" at least acknowledges the possibility. No Labels' understanding of the common good may inevitably put it in opposition to the Tea Partiers, who have their own understanding that is absolutely conditional upon individual entrepreneurial freedom. The TPs may have a skewed notion of the common good, one with little regard to the good of each or all, but at least they have a notion. I don't know if someone like Beam, who seems to question whether there's a common good at all, is the best person to judge them or the No Labels group. The group may have problems from the start, but it doesn't quite deserve the catcalls it's been getting from cynics and fanatics alike.

13 December 2010

'Democratic society needs Republican scientists'

Daniel Sarawitz doesn't make the above claim at Slate because he thinks that Republicans or political conservatives bring any special insight to scientific inquiry, or because he desires more equal representation of political viewpoints in the academy. Instead, he's simply saying in a roundabout way that more Republicans ought to be scientifically inclined. He's discovered that an alarmingly small number of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, and he worries that the stat represents a general alienation of conservatives from the sciences. There's a temptation to blame the stat on a cultural disdain for knowledge, or a preference for superstition, and Sarawitz himself suggests that a generation of conservatives too easily identify science with divisive political issues like climate change and stem-cell research. But I think that kind of negative identification can be exaggerated. Science is much more than the sum of its controversies, and some areas of science are of obvious interest to defense-oriented Republicans. So if self-identified Republicans don't seek careers in the sciences, I'm less inclined to attribute that to a cultural aversion to science itself than to Republicans' narrow entrepreneurial bent. I suspect that many Republicans would rather be the person who sells the next big discovery than the person who actually makes it, since salesmanship is where the money's made. The individual research scientist isn't seen as an entrepreneur, and since the typical Republican probably does see himself as an entrepreneur, he may be more likely to imagine himself hiring a scientist than being one himself. Nor do I assume that the Republican includes the research scientist in his imaginary cabal of evil elitists out to rule the world. Scientists wouldn't rank among the most trusted professions if that were so. The most plausible explanation for an ideological or partisan gap among scientists is that people who become scientists are plainly not interested in making the largest pile of money possible. Scientists, then, are unlikely to have the entrepreneurial mentality that's most receptive to Republican propaganda. Whether there's something about them that makes them more receptive (despite a sizable percentage of political independents in their ranks) to Democratic propaganda is a question I leave to others. But it may be that if society honored and rewarded scientists in a manner more proportionate to their contributions to civilization, more people would be scientists who might otherwise be Republicans.

The commodification of health care and its consequences in the courts

A Virginia judge has ruled that the section of the health-care reform law that requires individuals to purchase a health-insurance plan or suffer penalties is unconstitutional, on the ground that the Constitutional grants the government no power to oblige people to purchase a commodity or punish them for failing to do so. His decision as a whole is being received as a mixed verdict, since Republicans had hoped that he would strike down the entire law. The Obama administration will certainly appeal the ruling, but should expect no different result from the U.S. Supreme Court as currently constituted. The ruling is probably the inevitable consequence of American persistence in treating health care as a commodity. It's probably not what most Americans meant who said that health care was a right. Were it a right, or had the law made it so, there'd be no talk about buying it or being made to buy it. You'd simply go to the hospital and get it, but that would require a more drastic overhaul of the entire health-care sector of the economy than most Democrats dare contemplate, if not a nationalization of the medical profession. If those alternatives sound radical, today's decision throws into question the wisdom of half-measures aimed at enacting a right through commercial transactions. Instead of questioning the judge's ideological credentials or his reading of the Constitution, blame the party in power for writing a bad bill and the system that made them think this was the best option.

10 December 2010


A newspaper alerted me to an interesting editorial in the new In These Times in defense of "the public" against a shallow libertarian individualist onslaught that consistently grades "public" inferior to "private." Eve Ewing sees a need to combat a growing prejudice in favor of privatization that she blames on capitalism.

The logic of this mode of thought has skewed roots in the principles of supply and demand, and it goes something like this: if something is scarce, it is desirable and valuable; conversely, if it is abundant and readily available it must be cheap or worthless. This calculus can reduce any and all things into commodities, the relative value of which can be determined by their level of unfettered availability to average people.

That's just the beginning, really. In my discussions with Republicans, they explain the innate inferiority of the "public" by blaming it on the inherent inefficiency of political bureaucracies who are somehow immunized from and unaccountable to the usual market disciplines that supposedly enforce efficiency. Recall Mr. Right's frequent contention that war is the only thing the public sector can do better than the private. The fallacy here is that bureaucracy is something exclusive to the public sector, and that there's no such thing as office politics that work to protect the inefficient in the private sector. Cynicism about the public sector is fueled by misplaced idealism about the private, but I don't think you can explain the growing aversion to the public and the accelerating privatization of social life entirely in structuralist terms -- unless you want to get more ambitious and attribute all demands for greater privacy in general, in all aspects of life, to an idea of individualism that is capitalist in origin.

Ewing defines the public as "the embodiment of a promise, a social contract, that we make to one another: to be mutually accountable and dependable, to cooperate in pursuit of the common good and to communicate openly and honestly when we can’t easily agree on what the common good is." Mutual accountability is the sticking point. Just about all of us mark off areas of our life where we deem ourselves unaccountable to other people; sexuality is the most obvious or common case. A large part of our disagreement over the common good is a dispute over mutual accountability. Am I accountable to everyone else for what I do in the bedroom? Some will say my acts have public consequences (children I can't afford to raise, for instance) and should be subject to public scrutiny or censure. Since the Sixties, if not earlier, Americans have struggled to liberate themselves from forms of accountability that seemed outmoded or no longer justifiable. The struggle has put the principle of accountability itself at risk. I'm open to someone tying this to capitalism, but it's not so easy to identify this privatizing impulse with the "Right." If anyone believes that redeeming the "public" is a struggle against the Right exclusively, they're most likely mistaken.

As Ewing notes, "Public does not mean government institutions or government ownership." It's not just the stuff that right-wingers don't like. It's also an essential part of the identity of any citizen. It used to be a standard American belief, from the Founders at least through the Progressive Era, that an American citizen's character was defined in large part by his public activity. You proved your virtue or your morality by public-spirited activity. Somewhere along the way that ideal has been lost as we've been sold on a new ideal of personal autonomy in which neighbors count for less than self-selected circles of virtual "friends." Our sense of citizenship may be dangerously close to LeBron James's sense of teamwork. James doesn't join a team in order to help it win a championship; he joins so the team can help him win a ring. So it is with Americans who think the nation is only worth defending so long as it maximizes their personal freedom and personal profits. Ewing's article is full of touchy-feely language about "belonging" and "emotional comfort," but stronger language might be helpful in these times. "Obligation" isn't bad, but "duty" might be better.

09 December 2010

The Anti-Social Gospel

Newsweek reports this week on an allegedly new stage in the evolution (if they'll forgive the terminology) of the American Christian Right. Correspondents describe a movement away from the sexuality-morality issues that characterized the movement's "Moral Majority" phase, reflecting the urgency of economic issues for traditional Christian Right constituencies. Leaders and spokesmen are adopting a rhetoric that puts a providential spin on the doctrine of American exceptionalism. They argue that the U.S. is somehow specially favored by God, and that capitalism is an inextricable element of American godliness, so that the nation will lose God's favor if it goes "socialist" or otherwise abandons its exceptional character.

This may be a new stage of the movement's evolution, but the thought itself isn't new. If anything, if Newsweek is right, the Christian Right is reverting to the stance it took roughly from the 1930s through the 1960s, before the latter decade's social liberalization triggered moral-majority anxieties. Christian Rightism evolved from a two-front polemic waged by early "fundamentalist" thinkers against the progressive "Social Gospel" movement at home and an ecumenical Christian movement at home and abroad. The common thread was an insistence on doctrinal purity contrary to social gospelers' concern with serving the poor and ecumenicals' emphasis on broad areas of agreement for the sake of global Christian unity. Ecumenicals and social gospelers alike invoked an ideal of the "brotherhood of man" under the "fatherhood of God," while Christian Rightists tended to identify the godly community exclusively with those who affirmed correct doctrine. The rightists denounced their foes for materialism, allegedly neglecting the soul for the body's material needs, and for preaching a "gospel of works" contrary to God's indispensable grace. Fear of avowedly atheistic Communism only exacerbated rightists' hostility to both ecumenism and a social gospel that appeared to share some "communistic" goals. In those days, however, rightist denominations distrusted political activity; their recourse in the face of creeping communistic ecumenicalism was separatism, a refusal to congregate with anyone who was doctrinally suspect. The cultural changes of the Sixties provoked fears of a moral collapse that made it seem more urgent for rightist congregations to embrace politics in order to save or "take back" their country, and force of habit now probably impels them to remain politically active, despite warnings from disillusioned activists like Cal Thomas, in defense of the presumed economic analogue to right doctrine.

Think what you will about the defining mythological claims of Christianity, but no reading of the Bible reveals a self-evident affinity between semite monotheism and free-market capitalism. The social gospelers thought the opposite was true, especially after reading the actual Gospels, and so do many of their heirs today. But there is an indisputable individualist streak in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the mosaic utopia of each man with his own vine and fig tree, so often invoked by the Founding generation, to the Christian emphasis on each soul's exclusive responsibility for itself. In American history, Christianity has been split between those who see it as a command to share with the needy and those concerned chiefly with securing their own individual destiny. The Newsweek article opens with a meeting of liberal Christians who hope to counter the reactionary preaching of Christian rightists, but I doubt their prospects. Unless they're ready to match their political opponents fire for fire and brimstone for brimstone, which as liberals they probably aren't, I doubt whether they can convert many unbelievers to the old social gospel. Maybe they'll surprise me, but I won't hold my breath.

Operation Payback: Assange's avengers get personal with Palin

Throughout the day reports have tumbled in of cyber-attacks perpetrated by hackers against businesses who withdrew financial support from Julian Assange and WikiLeaks before his arrest. Now word arrives that hackers, following a well-publicized game plan known as "Operation Payback" have targeted both Sarah Palin's websites and her personal credit-card accounts. If there is a war of ideas, or a war for information underway, I suppose it's inevitable that sympathizers with WikiLeaks will want, however hypocritically, to take down hostile websites. My own view is that it's no more cool to strangle Palin's online voice than it was for anyone to silence WikiLeaks, or for people like Palin to cheer them on. Anyone who wants to say she deserves it, even if only as tit-for-tat, may as well say, just as they say of their enemies, that they only want freedom of speech for themselves. And if anyone says that identity theft or draining Palin's accounts, or whatever's being attempted against her, pales in comparison to Assange losing his freedom, that's still advocating lawlessness. How much further do you need to go before you're calling for her death? She really isn't worth the trouble. This stunt is both petty and criminal, and politics don't excuse it. Earlier this week I thought I exaggerated in writing about an "Internet Civil War," but now I see the conflict escalating. How soon before we see collateral damage?...

08 December 2010

A word from Theodore Roosevelt

From his biography of Oliver Cromwell:

Free government is only for nations that deserve it; and they lose all right to it by licentiousness, no less than by servility. If a nation cannot govern itself, it makes comparatively little difference whether its inability springs from a slavish and craven distrust of its own powers, or from sheer incapacity on the part of its citizens to exercise self-control and to act together. Self-governing freemen must have the power to accept necessary
compromises, to make necessary concessions, each sacrificing somewhat of prejudice, and even of principle, and every group must show the necessary subordination of its particular interests to the interests of the community as a whole. When the people will not or cannot work together; when they permit groups of extremists to decline to accept anything that does not coincide with their own extreme views; or when they let power slip from their hands through sheer supine indifference; then they have themselves chiefly to blame if the power is
grasped by stronger hands.

This quote could be used to criticize both those liberal Democrats who condemn President Obama's compromise with Republicans on the extension of tax cuts and the refusal of compromise by Republicans that forced capitulation on a question of fiscal discipline and deficit reduction. Roosevelt wrote it at a time of relatively loose ideology and meant it to be relevant not only to 17th century Britain but to all nations at all times. Before long he would provoke a showdown in his own party, played out in a general election campaign, that arguably contributed to an eventual hardening of ideological battle lines across the country. In doing so, he launched the century's most formidable challenge to the two-party system, outpolling a major party candidate who was the incumbent President.

I've been interested in Theodore Roosevelt for a while, and my interest is growing as the centennial of the 1912 campaign draws closer. I recently picked up Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt, the conclusion of his biographical trilogy, but right now I'm reading a volume from two years ago, Joshua David Hawley's Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. At the time of publication, Hawley was a clerk for Chief Justice Roberts, who goes strangely unmentioned by name in the usual author's blurb, as if Yale University Press feared that the book would be dismissed as a conservative polemic if Hawley's association with Roberts were made clear. Hawley proves a fair-minded critic of what he takes to be Roosevelt's animating beliefs, noting when diverse influences and impulses resulted in a sometimes incoherent philosophy. There's much to criticize in Roosevelt's philosophy, especially a militarism apparently rooted in a desire to redeem the family's reputation after his father's failure to fight in the Civil War. Even then, he deserves credit for walking the walk while talking the talk. He agitated for war with Spain while assistant secretary of the navy, and once he got his wish, he resigned to enlist in the military. Pushing sixty, he wanted to fight in World War I, but was denied the privilege by Woodrow Wilson. His militarism may simply be an extension of Roosevelt's defining attitude, as described by Hawley -- his belief that individuals proved their moral character by public acts as well as by private conduct. For Roosevelt, public service was a moral duty. The businessman proved his morality by the way he conducted his business, and could not measure success solely by his profits. The politician proved his by demonstrating integrity in office, and could not measure success solely by getting elected. Everyone was accountable to everyone else, if not also to God. That meant that businessmen as well as laborers were accountable to the nation if their business practices or their work stoppages hurt the rest of the country. As a Progressive, Roosevelt is sometimes seen today as an unsavory progenitor of modern statist liberalism, but he could never be considered a man of the "left," because he did not assume that Labor was always right. But while many of his attitudes would be considered extremely conservative today, he can't be ranked with the "right," either, because he didn't assume that Capital was always right. Who did that leave? Critics might say that left Roosevelt himself, a power-mad egotistical know-it-all, but while he believed that great leaders played important roles in history, he also believed, as he wrote in the Cromwell book, that a leader's success, or his descent into corruption or tyranny, depended on the quality of his fellow citizens.

In the future, I'll have more to say about Roosevelt as I finish Hawley, pick up Morris, and look again through collections of Roosevelt's letters and speeches. He hasn't been President in more than a century, but he remains a relevant voice today, so long as many of the issues he raised remain unresolved. If some people think that our troubles began with Roosevelt, it may be just as likely that we'll find some of the solutions in his thoughts on politics and government.

Was Jesus Insulted?

The Christian-right media are trying to stir up a jihad against a New Hampshire school that assigned Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as required reading for a finance class. The call to arms was first sounded by the parents of one of the students, who were enraged to discover that Ehrenreich had described Jesus Christ as a "wine-guzzling vagrant." At first glance, it seemed a self-evident insult to the anointed one. Obviously envious of some Muslims' apparent ability to intimidate the irreverent into submissive silence, some Christians want equal respect or fear shown toward their sacred persons. Whether they actually expect to compel the school to purge the book or are simply exploiting an opportunity to act out is unclear.

For some superficial browsers, it's an additional insult to describe Jesus as a "precocious socialist." What sort of author portrays the Man of Galilee as a guzzler, a vagrant and a socialist? Assuming all the terms to be pejorative, we might expect the author to be an irreverent Menckenesque libertarian or a contemptuous Randian atheist. Barbara Ehrenreich is nothing of the sort. Nickel and Dimed is her attempt at empathy with the working class whose cause she espouses, an account of her effort to walk a mile in their shoes in low-wage jobs like housecleaning and waitressing. Where does Jesus fit into the narrative? Here's the controversial quote in context:

The preaching goes on, interrupted with 'dutiful' amens. It would be nice if someone read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he had to say. Christ Crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so he can never get a word out of his mouth (p.68-9).

Later in the book, Ehrenreich writes that her spiritual philosophy draws "on the Jesus who was barred from the tent revival, the one who said that the last will be first and that, if someone asks for your cloak, give him your robe as well" (108). On her website, Ehrenreich addresses the charge, apparently not a new one, that "wine-guzzling vagrant" is an insult.

In fact, Nickel and Dimed received a Christopher Award, which is given by a Catholic group in recognition of books "which affirm the highest values of the human spirit." In the section at issue, I observed that the social teachings of Jesus went utterly unmentioned at the tent revival I attended. The revival preachers clearly preferred the dead and risen Christ to the living Jesus -- who did indeed drink wine and could even make it out of water. As for the vagrancy charge: that’s what he was, a homeless, itinerant preacher.

Ehrenreich probably made an error of tone, failing to appreciate that "guzzling" isn't a flattering verb for anyone. She most likely used the irreverent language to emphasize Jesus's earthiness, his own perceived irreverence, as a man of the people. While she could have phrased that line more carefully, we can still ask whether Christians are taking offense because they misunderstand Ehrenreich, or because they understand her quite well. Some critics probably are simply ignorant and think she called Jesus a drunk. For others, Ehrenreich's account of Jesus renews the century-old battle over the "social gospel," the debate over whether Christians' primary mission is to minister to the material needs of the poor, by radically reforming society if necessary, or simply to save their souls. That debate isn't ending soon, but let's recall that it has nothing to do with the immediate provocation. Ehrenreich's musings on the messiah don't determine her book's relevance for a course on finance. Whether they're taken to insult Christ or Christians, they shouldn't determine whether Nickel and Dimed is retained in the syllabus. Any Christian mullahs who hope to make an example of the book or the school should be disappointed -- and if they think that imitating their Muslim counterparts will make a difference in the controversy, that's when an example should be set.

07 December 2010

Did fiscal conservatives compromise their principles?

Maybe I misunderstood, but it was my understanding that Republicans had objected to a further extension of unemployment benefits because the Democrats had not submitted a proposal to "pay for" them by cutting other forms of federal spending. Today, however, I hear that Republicans have agreed to support the extension of benefits in return for an extension of reduced tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. Something seems inconsistent here ... unless you're a faith-based supply-side ideologue. It's the persistent contention of such people -- I heard Mr. Right reiterating the argument just yesterday -- that cutting tax rates always results in an increase in tax revenue. The idea is that allowing people at all income levels to keep more of their money will inspire the poor to spend and the rich to invest. The rich make more money as a result and pay more to the government, at a lower rate on larger income, than they would had higher tax rates resulted in lower income, as supply-siders claim they must. Mr. Right in particular is fond of pointing out that this was once Democratic doctrine, that President Kennedy cut taxes and got more revenue in the early 1960s. Given the power of the American economy back then, however, it's fair to question whether the Kennedy tax cuts in their own right stimulated the economy in any significant way. JFK may have assumed that, given a surging economy, he could spare lower taxes and still get the revenue he deemed necessary. The economy of 2010 is not surging, and it's arguably the wrong time to test a hypothesis that tax cuts on their own stimulate greater productivity or taxable profitability.

For that matter, how many practicing Republican politicians actually believe the tax cut = more revenue thesis? How many right-wingers actually care whether tax cuts result in more government revenue? If they believe in limited government, I imagine that they care little whether tax cuts fund more government. The entire argument strikes me as a bit of sophistry aimed at independents and moderates who don't necessarily share reactionary Republicans' moralistic antipathy to taxation in general and would want assurance that government can still fulfill obligations that Republicans don't even necessarily endorse.

Even if we presume that Republicans are sincerely convinced of the revenue-stimulating effect of tax cuts, we must observe that they've opted to pay for the extension of unemployment benefits with a promise of revenue, not with any actual spending cuts of the sort they'd demanded. Whether the extended benefits will be paid for depends on the performance of the economy; as usual, Republicans stake much on a risky investment instead of accepting an immediate obligation. The President, for a short time, at least proposed to pay for the extension and other priorities by increasing taxes on those Americans most capable of paying them. He has now decided not to "play politics," making one wonder what he's doing in the White House beside satisfying his personal ambition to make history merely by being there. Someone needs to launch an all-fronts moral attack on reactionary Republicanism, and if the nation's top Democrat won't do it, what good does a two-party system do us?

An Internet Civil War?

Check out this profile of a "hacktivist" who claims credit for disrupting both WikiLeaks and countless jihadi websites as a matter of patriotic duty. More importantly, check out the comment thread as readers take sides between "the Jester" and Julian Assange, who has today turned himself in to British authorities to answer the Swedish rape charges. Some people see characters like "Jester" (who ironically uses Heath Ledger Joker symbolism as part of his defense of American values) as betrayers of an original hacker ethos favoring the maximum availability and dissemination of information -- while the more paranoid commentators question whether he's even a real person. His defenders draw lines dividing allies and enemies more conventionally and accept unquestioningly the government line that there is information that they don't need to know. You may also be amused by spectacular displays of ignorance or illiteracy regardless of ideology, as when one dissident identifies Orson Welles as the author of 1984. The article itself raises some questions about the propriety or reliability of a lone wolf using a potent tool of his invention ("Xerxes") to do damage on the Internet, though "Jester" himself claims that his attacks cause no "collateral damage" to unoffending websites or computers. In any event, if anyone still thought the Internet was in its age of innocence, you've been wrong for a while. Information may be meant to be free, or to be known, as far as some purists are concerned, but it was never going to be free for long so long as information, as power, was of interest to the powerful. For every irregular American patriotic hacker hostile to perceived enemies, there's probably many more patriotic and duly deputized Chinese hackers and counterparts in other countries who see the Internet as open territory for the projection of national interests and power. If the American Internet has seemed to have a libertarian if not paranoid bias, that is bound to change as jingoes of all nations try to assert dominance and silence dissent. Some people still attribute revolutionary potential to the Internet, and there may still be some truth to the assessment. But now its counter-revolutionary potential cannot be denied.

06 December 2010

National Security in a Democracy: Who gets to decide?

The latest WikiLeaks revelation has provoked fresh fury from the usual sources who claim that the fugitive site's publication of a list of foreign sites deemed critical to American security in a confidential 2009 survey is no more than an invitation to terrorists to attack those sites. This particular revelation strikes me as something that citizens ought to know. The information that the U.S. establishment considers so many foreign sites essential to national security, the national economy or even to public health should shock people, even if you consider the fact an inevitable outcome of globalized interdependence. It raises the natural question of whether Americans should allow our well-being to be so vulnerably dependent on foreign sites, and practically begs the question of who gets to decide the first question. Critics of WikiLeaks have been so concerned with denying information to enemies that the question of Americans' right to know these things, and their right to have a say in defining national security, have hardly been addressed. It seems to be taken almost for granted that a representative democracy, in which authority is delegated to elected officials and their appointed agents, comes with an implicit surrender of the average citizen's right to the same information his representatives receive. Since we did away quite early with the idea that citizens have a right to instruct their representatives, elections are followed by deference to elected officials' discretion. Since we have neither the duty nor the right to instruct them, we are presumed not to need the information they need to make the informed decisions that are theirs exclusively to make. As government has grown in size and complexity, citizens and politicians alike are more inclined to presume that the latter have special expertise, the lack of which disqualifies ordinary people from interpreting sensitive information correctly. We might draw the wrong conclusions, after all, or hold politicians, generals, etc. to simplistic moral standards. Government grows inevitably more complex as society grows more civilized, but that complexity and the expertise required to manage it shouldn't obscure the distinction between implementing and setting policy, or between policy and priorities. It should still be up to the American people to define national security for themselves and to set priorities for national security policy, but the inertia of institutional entanglements, as well as the self-interest of institutions and their personnel, obstruct the people's will. It may be claimed that voters set national-security priorities at election time, but the Obama administration has belied that belief and betrayed the believers. Elections are determined by advertising, not information. Now information has emerged, and while critics may claim that the information is dangerously decontextualized, the claim should force them to inform the public by stating the context clearly and frankly. Instead, we are told to resent the messengers and warned that information is dangerous in the wrong hands, including our own. This isn't exactly news. Since the time of the Roman Republic, if not earlier, empire has been recognized as a menace to representative government and electoral democracy. Change "empire" to "hegemony" and you see the threat in operation today. Laws probably have been broken to deliver documents to WikiLeaks -- but is that really the worst thing we've learned lately?