Archive for the ‘Liberalism’ Category

The Sheeple of r/libertarian

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The rantings of a self-proclaimed “Libertarian Asshole” who is so incredibly deluded as to think that the America is approaching something worse than a despotic government — an “Absolute Despotism!” — aren’t generally worth responding to. But I like reddit — and I like libertarians. Which is why I’ve been consistently frustrated with the regressive turn that the /r/libertarian has taken since Obama’s election.

How else to explain the popularity of the Libertarian Asshole’s factually-challenged post blaming “Liberals” for the Bush administration’s regulation being enforced in his story?

As a liberal, let me tell you that stories of government corruption and government idiocy, of victimless crimes prosecuted and overreach make me mad. I believe in good government — and not government and regulation for it’s own sake. I believe a law should not be unjustly applied. Liberals have made a strong showing in opposing regulatory capture – when organized lobbies of special interests (such as optometrists) are able to get a regulatory agency to act against the interests of the public and in favor of the lobby. That’s why liberals have fought against the FCC to allow for more competition on the radio waves and that’s why liberals pointed to the corruption in the Minerals Management Service. That’s why Matt Yglesias — one of the web’s most prominent liberals — focuses so much on opposing rent-seeking and unnecessary regulation. As a liberal, I believe the government is capable of acting in the public interest — but that citizens must always provide a check against the inevitable abuses.

I only state this because in the world of the Libertarian Asshole, the phantom “Liberals” are those who say the “Law’s the Law” as they turned in runaway slaves because they…are like “cheap whores” with no self esteem.

With that brilliant insight into the Liberal mind, this Asshole struck r/libertarian gold — as 268 redditors and counting demonstrate.

——–

One more thing: The Libertarian Asshole apparently wasn’t satisfied with a rather sympathetic story of a businesswoman who was busted for selling decorative contact lenses without prescriptions and made to sell her car.

He had to embellish. And by embellish, I mean, apparently, to lie. A few minutes on Google reveals the following:

  1. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that Da Young Kim, who ran an internet store selling contact lenses, was “arrested” for doing so.
    Fact: The Court records and the FTC’s records both show that this was a “civil complaint” — not a criminal one. No where does the news or any other source support the out-of-the-blue claim that Kim was arrested.
  2. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that the FTC spent “your tax dollars on an undercover sting operation.”
    Fact: There’s nothing in the news or in the record or elsewhere on the web to back this up. None of the evidence presented against Kim was from any sting operation.
  3. Lie: The FTC acted because they believed the internet store run by Da Young Kim “might not be checking every customer’s prescription.”
    Fact: According to the FTC complaint, Kim kept no records of prescriptions at all. This wasn’t a few contact lenses sold without prescription — this was a business plan.

Connecting the Dots on Epistemic Closure

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

The epistemic closure debate has been raging around the internets these past few weeks — and it has generated some extremely sharp commentary among liberals who pay attention to conservatives and conservatives who have been drummed out of the “conservative movement.” Slate now even offers to test your web browser history to see how epistemically closed you are. Here’s some of the more insightful comments I’ve found:

Ezra Klein:

“Epistemic closure,” Julian Sanchez writes, is the toxic result of “confirmation bias plus a sufficiently large array of multimedia conservative outlets to constitute a complete media counterculture, plus an overbroad ideological justification for treating mainstream output as intrinsically suspect.” It is, in other words, the conditions necessary for a political movement to fool itself into believing whatever’s convenient. And, Sanchez says, it’s one of the serious problems facing the conservative movement right now.

Jonathan Bernstein:

[T]he real test of whether conservative (and Republican) decision-makers really believe the nonsense rhetoric that they often use will be Sarah Palin, 2012.  For there can be no question but that a lot of Republican pols act as if they are fully captured by what Andrew Spung calls the “screamosphere” — thus the endless repetition of factually incorrect assertions, such as the “10/6“  and “16K” claims about health care reform.  But of course pols of all stripes — not to mention propogandists such as those on talk radio — have never been known for being especially careful about facts.

Bruce Bartlett:

After about half an hour I decided to start asking people what they thought of the article. Every single one gave me the same identical answer: I don’t read the New York Times. Moreover, the answers were all delivered in a tone that suggested I was either stupid for asking or that I thought they were stupid for thinking they read the Times.

I suppose this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. After all, the people I was questioning weren’t activists from the heartland, but people who worked on Capitol Hill, at federal agencies, in think tanks and so on. They represented the intelligentsia of the conservative movement. Even if they felt they had no need for the information content of the nation’s best newspaper, one would have thought they would at least need to know what their enemies were thinking.

Matt Yglesias:

Just as conservative legislative politics isn’t really about free markets conservative judicial politics isn’t really about restraint. The rhetoric is just rhetoric, and the reality is that conservative politics is about conservatism—about entrenching the power and influence of the dominant economic and sociocultural groups.

Jonathan Chait:

Michael Brendan Dougherty writes:

[T]he Tea Party is nothing more than a Republican-managed tantrum. Send the conservative activists into the streets to vent their anger. Let Obama feel the brunt of it. And if the GOP shows a modicum of contrition, the runaways will come home. …

The Tea Party movement creates the conditions in which the activist base of the GOP can feel like it is part of the game again. They can forget Bush-era betrayals, swallow their doubts, and vote Republican this November. The next Reagan is coming, the next Contract With America will work, the next Republican nominee will be one of us. All it takes is for someone to appreciate the anger—and it doesn’t matter that she supported the bailouts that enraged them or the candidate who forsook their ideas and support.

Former GOP staffer Scott Gallupo comments, “I don’t deny the Tea Partyers’ sincerity. But anyone who doesn’t see the reality of the Dougherty scenario is simply being painfully naive.” [my emphasis]

Jonathan Bernstein:

The accusation isn’t that conservatives all reach the same conclusions about everything, nor is it that conservatives are excessively politically correct, nor is it that conservatives demand strict adherence to a set of ideas if one is to remain a conservative in good standing.  It’s rather about information, and what counts as evidence about the real world.  Sanchez’s point is that if one only gets information from a narrow set of sources that feed back into each other but do not engage beyond themselves, that one will have a closed mind (not his phrase, by the way) regardless of what one does with that information.

Ross Douthat:

It’s precisely because American conservatism represents a motley assortment of political tendencies united primarily by their opposition to liberalism that conservatives are often too quick to put their (legitimate, important and worth-debating) differences aside in the quest to slay the liberal dragon. After all, slaying liberalism is why they got together in the first place! And it’s precisely this motley, inconsistent quality, too, that encourages activists and pundits alike to stick to their single issue or issues and defer to the movement consensus on everything else. So pro-lifers handle abortion, Grover Norquist handles taxes, the neoconservatives handle foreign policy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute handles environmental regulations and nobody stops to consider if the whole constellation of policy ideas still makes sense, or matches up the electorate’s concerns, or suits the challenges of the moment. This unity-in-opposition was a great strength for the right for a long, long time, but it’s made conservatism much more brittle and less adaptable than it needs to be right now.

Daniel Larison:

The dispiriting part of all this is that hating liberals more than loving liberty is hardly a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it has defined a large part of postwar conservative politics all along. As Prof. Lukacs wrote in his “The Problem of American Conservatism” 26 years ago: “Many American conservatives, alas, gave ample evidence that they were just conservative enough to hate liberals but not enough to love liberty.” What we have seen over the last ten years is a tendency to make loathing for liberals the thing that truly matters, and usually liberty becomes important to most conservatives only when it is useful to berate liberals. To the extent that liberals have defended constitutional liberties against anti-terrorist government intrusions, it is the latter that most conservatives have embraced. It is not just that loathing for liberals exceeds love of liberty, which might be true for members of all kinds of ideological movements, but that love of liberty becomes almost entirely contingent on whether or not it can be marshaled in opposition to liberals.

Barack Obama:

If you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile. If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website. It may make your blood boil; your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship. So too is the practice of engaging in different experiences with different kinds of people.

Government Is Good!

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Reagan’s deepest and most profound legacy to the right wing today, to the Tea Party, to the populist right is a selection of wry quips about the inefficacy and incompetence of government told with a grandfatherly charm. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem!” he said. “Government is the problem!” the placards at populist right wing gatherings now read.

This grotesque anti-government view regularly embraced and advocated by the populist right is incoherent, ignorant, and idiotic. It is the intellectual equivalent of blaming “The Man” or “Them” for all problems. While a (sometimes even paranoid) distrust of centralized power has always been part of American politics, the populist right today has elevated this sentiment to their core principle. It’s great efficiency as a rallying cry is that it papers over differences between the few but influential libertarian-minded who oppose government power on principle and the more numerous right wingers who see liberal government as an attack on their culture. What they both agree on (while a Democrat is in charge at least) is that the government is the problem.

This political coalition is animated primarily by anti-government rhetoric. While on some level it is a mere ideological trope, fervently believed only by the ignorant, used to rally the base to a revolutionary fervor and to create party unity, it has taken on the patina of truth in the eyes of so many it must be challenged.

Government is not inherently bad, inefficient, incompetent, destructive of liberty, or even liberal. Instead government is probably the single most influential force for good in our daily lives, acting in ways barely noticed even as its absence and failures would be and are noticed.

Friedrich Hayek, that great right wing theorist, said in his speech accepting the Nobel prize for economics, that the government had erred in attempting to engineer society. The proper role of government, Hayek believed, was that of a gardener tending her garden rather than of an engineer creating a machine. The populist right has bastardized this critique of Hayek’s and taken to demonizing the gardener while praising the garden as the greatest great thing since great things began to get greater (as Sean Hannity often says.)

What is lost in the populist right wing view is that our society, our economy, our nation, this greatest great thing ever, would not exist without the government tending it. I have been challenged – with apparent seriousness – to name anything the government ever did that was worthwhile.

In fact, the greatest product of the government is America itself – which, though like a garden has many individual parts, is given coherence by the gardener. The government has 4 main roles in shaping our nation:

1. Government acts as a check on corporations. Corporations exist to make profits – and as such externalize as many costs as they can; history has demonstrated that given the choice between doing the moral thing and doing the profitable thing, corporations will do the profitable one. This isn’t to say they are evil – it is merely to acknowledge their nature. Thus, given a choice between polluting the communal air and taking expensive steps to reduce that pollution, corporations have chosen to pollute. The costs of their actions are diffused while the benefits and profits are concentrated. Given the vibrancy of America’s market economy and the growing power of corporations, this is perhaps government’s most important role: to ensure that corporations have the incentive to make the moral choice. Most often this is accomplished with regulation, which though demonized by the populist right, is essential to America’s vibrant society and free market. Regulation is what allows us to open a can of beans without finding a human finger, to buy a standard mortgage and know our rights are still protected to some basic degree, to eat poultry without worrying too much over food poisoning, to buy a car and know it has met certain safety requirements, to breathe fresh air and to drink clean water. We can do all of this because of government regulation acting as a check on corporate greed.

2. Government underwrites social order. While the government is not present at every moment in our lives, it underwrites a certain type of order and undertakes to ensure that certain elements of a partially unspoken social bargain are upheld. For example, the government provides courts of law to resolve disputes and employs people to prosecute crimes. It has undertaken various steps to prevent terrorist attacks. It maintains regulations as above. When there is a crisis, the government assumes greater powers and responsibilities to protect the status quo and restore order.

3. Government makes long-term investments in the nation. While corporations and individuals control most investments, the government has, since its inception, funded various long-term projects from investments in infrastructure to space travel to education to medicine to military technology. These investments have led to everything from sending men to the moon to creating the internet.

4. Government provides certain services. From subsidies for the elderly (Social Security) to disability and unemployment benefits to disaster relief to cheap postage, to – soon – a transparent and standardized marketplace for health insurance – the government provides a selection of valuable services that are important yet under-served by the marketplace dominated by corporations looking for large, quick profits and non-profits that are often underfunded.

The internet itself is a great example of the role government plays in our lives. It was based on technology created by government scientists. It was enabled by government regulators who prevented AT&T from blocking access to their infrastructure which would have choked off the internet before it began. Access to the internet making it more widespread has been enabled by government programs as well as individual and corporate decisions. (For a neat list of how the government affects everyone on a daily basis, take a look at this article by Douglas J. Amy.)

This view of government is inherently liberal, even as the goods provided can be more broadly appreciated. Without government, there would be no rule of law, no free market, no corporations (which are government-created entities), no property, no freedom of speech or religion or assembly. Individuals without the protection of government have the freedom their power allows them to seize. With the careful use of government though, restrained and judicious, individuals can be empowered.

Liberalism, like the conservatism of William F. Buckley, Friedrich Hayek, Edmund Burke, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Ronald Reagan, is not about extending the role of government everywhere. It is the path between seizing the commanding heights of the economy and the anti-government hysteria of the populist right in which the government is used to empower individuals:

Liberalism in a market-state must exhibit a preference for the individual over the corporation and government and must empower individuals against bullying and coercive measures of these large institutions.

Sometimes that means the government must be constrained; and sometimes that means it must use its power to balance against other forces such as large corporations.

Government, used wisely, is good and the creator of free markets and the guardian of individual freedoms. This isn’t just a liberal idea or a conservative one. It is an American idea – indeed, the base of our American system.

[Image by Pittsford Patriot licensed under Creative Commons.]

*I have only been using the term, “government” here – but I mean, the federal government. I have used the terminology this way so it may better function as a response to the populist right which generally speaks of “the government” when they mean only the federal government.

Thumbnail Sketches of Democrats and Republicans

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

David Brooks, yesterday, in the New York Times:

For the past 90 years or so, the Republican Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism. For a similar period, the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security. Over the past century, they have built a welfare system, brick by brick, to guard against the injuries of fate.

As usual, Brooks’s column was thoughtful. But I had a bit of a problem with his summary of each party, even acknowledging he means each party at its best.

It’s always hard to come up with a thumbnail sketch of each party – because there are always things which contradict what you say. Each party can be said to contain multitudes, even though a casual glance almost always reveals just enough to confirm whatever stereotypes you might have.

To my mind though, the real difference between the Republican Party and Democratic Party, even only on domestic matters and with each party taken at it’s best, is not fairness versus freedom and economic dynamism versus economic (or family) security. The difference between the parties is not primarily determined by what positive things they seek to provide: I wouldn’t say that Republicans value fairness less or freedom more for example. Rather, the difference can best be summed up by either looking at what each party views as a more legitimate way of achieving social ends or by looking at what each party sees as the bigger threat to citizens.

There are going to be counterexamples and such to this summary, but I think it reveals deeper truths than Brooks’s.

Legitimacy: Republicans attack the idea that government can legitimately be used as a tool to achieve broadly agreed upon ends. They look to private institutions to guide the course of society – the invisible hand even; this means private capital markets, private corporations, and religious organizations. Democrats accept these institutions, but they see the government as legitimate tool as well.

Threats to Citizens. In area of domestic policy, Republicans see the biggest threat to citizens as the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security. In the area of domestic policy, Democrats see the biggest threat to citizens coming from corporations, unchecked by the government – which they blame primarily for impinging on citizens’ freedoms, creating unfair results, and undermining family security.

Alternatively, the version of Republicanism becoming more dominant today sees the biggest threat to citizens as coming from an ideology called liberalism – which brainwashes citizens through the media and seeks power anywhere it can – churches, corporations, the media, the government. This view sees politics as a cultural battle.

I’ve tried to make these non-judgmental and descriptive – and I think it is evident which approach makes more sense. Neither political party seems to me to have a very different view of what they want America to look like: They both support personal freedom and fairness, economic dynamism and family security. America has established a complex system of tradeoffs between these values – and few in either party seek to overturn that. They seek slight modifications this way or that – it’s just a matter of rather small degrees of difference. The bigger difference is in how each party sees the path forward – what is sees as the legitimate ends to achieve the necessary changes, and how it diagnoses the problems that need to be changed.

Any alternate sketches of this difference – along the same lines – attempting to be non-judgmental and descriptive – are welcome in comments of elsewhere.

For what it’s worth, I would say the Tea Party and much of the energy on the left comes from those rejecting each of these frameworks – and who see both corporations and government as the problem. I’m not sure what countervailing force they propose though.

Check out an older post of mine for my view of the basic principles of liberalism.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Net Neutrality Is What Made the Internet a Libertarian Utopia

Friday, October 30th, 2009

[Forgive me, because this morning I am feeling expansive, and as such, I am omitting the usual qualifiers that constrain my opinions.]

The internet is the nearest thing to a libertarian utopia in the history of the world. It creates the closest thing we have seen to a frictionless market, a perfectly free market – and it is, for the most part, tax free. It allows the closest thing we have to maximum free speech and freedom from censorship. It allows every individual a platform to be themselves, or whatever else they choose to be. It circumvents and undermines governments that attempt to control it. It was created to allow for the maximum of freedom with a minimum of cost. It is resistant to centralized control – and makes it more and more possible to decentralize power. It has unleashed the forces of innovation and creativity that libertarian theory has always posited would come with freedom. It is perhaps the greatest force for expanding liberty in the world since the American revolution (or the fall of Communism.)

How did the internet develop this way? How did this profoundly destabilizing and decentralized network develop? Was it some Galtian genius who set up servers on cargo ships in international waters? Was it some giant corporation which decided it could profit from it? Not quite. And perhaps the story of how the internet developed helps explain why is it that liberals and not libertarians are the ones defending the internet.

Government engineers designed the internet as a network that was decentralized and thus “network neutral,” so as to be resistant to a nuclear assault on the United States. It was designed to be adaptable. Many academics worked on the project on behalf of the government – and were among the first to gain access to it. The large corporations of the time that controlled America’s communications grid – primarily AT&T – were resistant and attempted to strangle this competitor in its infancy, as they tried to discriminate against the data being sent over their lines. Corporations, attempting to derive maximum profit from their assets, also attempted to exert maximum control. AT&T only allowed “authorized” objects to connect to its network – and in fact people did not own their own phones. They licensed them from AT&T. Thus, it was only forceful intervention by the FCC that allowed the internet to develop, that opened up the communications network of the United States to innovation.

AT&T and other corporations, attempting to add to their profits, now seek to find another stream of revenue by undermining net neutrality, one of the foundational principles of the internet itself. They seek to introduce new frictions into this nearly frictionless market and to prevent it from becoming so easily a platform for individuals. Opponents of net neutrality claim that the several attempts by corporations to create policies that were contrary to net neutrality should be ignored because they did not succeed. (They did not succeed because the FCC shut them down.) They claim that there is no need to articulate clear principles about what net neutrality is because so far, the attempts to undermine it have failed. They claim government regulation regarding this would retard “innovation” – when it was government intervention that in fact created the possibility for such innovation.

This libertarian utopia was created by government engineers and protected from powerful corporations by forceful regulation.

Many corporate libertarians (such as Adam Thierer) have embraced the fallacy that the government is the only threat to individual liberties, or at least that the government is always a greater threat to liberty than any other force. They also often count corporations as “individuals” as they are considered such by the law. Thus they have a knee jerk opposition to regulation of any sort – even regulation meant to allow their own values to flourish. They favor freedom for corporations from government over freedom of individuals from corporations because they see the government as the primary evil in the world.

The are many different varieties of liberals, but the group of which I count myself believes that large corporations as well as government both are major threats to individual liberties. We favor smart regulation that does not restrict individuals, but instead restricts corporations who often use their power and clout to deprive individuals of rights. We agree with many libertarian attempts to constrain the government in the area of national security and attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but believe that government intervention in some form or another is often needed to restrain corporations from taking away the rights of individuals. We realize that the free markets exist not in spite of the government but because of it, because of a balance between governmental intervention and the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations.

[Image by sea legs snapshots licensed under Creative Commons.]

That Annoying “Pox on Both Their Houses” Mentality of the “Independent-Minded” Press

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Jacob Weisberg of Slate has written one of those typical, independent-minded, liberal attacks on the nanny state that crop up when the Democrats are perceived to have a monopoly on power. This type of piece always bothers me even as I agree with most of it on substance – in part because it is only written when Democrats are in power, and in part it has a hidden thesis: a moral equivalence between the liberal and right wing positions. Here’s Weisberg:

The underlying left-right divide is not about whether government has the right to promote private virtue but, rather, about what kind of virtue it should promote. Republicans demand paternalistic policies that uphold morality or social order. In Indiana, where I recently spent my vacation, you can pick up fireworks or a handgun anywhere, but good luck buying a six-pack on Sunday. Democrats, by contrast, deploy paternalism for health and safety reasons, yielding a different set of absurdities. In California, pot is on the verge of becoming more permissible than cigarettes. Both left and right take pleasure in mildly persecuting those who fail to meet their civic ideals.

There’s certainly an insight here – but it does not get to the heart of the liberal-right wing divide. It doesn’t attempt to deal with the civil libertarian strain in the Democratic Party which contrasts with the support for a national security apparatus above the law supported by the Republican Party. It doesn’t address the various mild strains of populist economic and social libertarianism in the Republican Party which are at war both with the economic royal-ism in the party and with the Democratic Party’s focus on regulation and government involvement in ensuring a fair process and/or preventing unfair ends.

In other words, Weisberg takes on this loaded topic but only discusses the “mild persecutions” that we can see changing rather than the structural positions that affect us far more deeply. The caricatures of the left and the right that Weisberg draws then aren’t very persuasive because they ignore the base of these competing political views.

Weisberg is actually conflating two different points in his attempt to even-handedly criticize the left and right. Liberals – especially urban liberals – tend to focus on policies which improve the collective status of most of their constituents. At best, they are – as Weisberg says, quoting Cass Sunstein – “nudges” towards healthier, safer activities. At worst, they are annoying and unnecessary constrictions on minor everyday freedoms like where you can smoke, what you can buy at a restaurant. Suburban, exurban, and rural areas tend to have less of this – whether they are dominated by liberals or conservatives.

On the other hand, the right wing claims it is against government encroachment and in favor of a more libertarian society; but this is a falsehood, as the bulk of the right supports right wing government encroachment and opposes liberal government vehemently. This is what is driving the Tea Partiers – not a fear of all government, but a fear of liberals in charge of the government.

If Weisberg had picked apart these two conceptions – of a right wing that claims to be against government, but instead is only against liberals in the government – and of the differences in the role of government in urban versus non-urban areas, he might have had two pieces rather than one – though neither would have fit as easily into the “pox on both their houses” mentality that independent-minded observers in both observers tend to adopt.

[Image by hegarty_david licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must Reads of the Past Two Weeks! (Extended Edition): J Street, NPH, Liberalism, Topless, Colombian Hippos, Grassroots, 1990s Reunion, Insuring Illegals, and the Iranian Time Bomb

Friday, September 18th, 2009

J Street. James Traub of the New York Times profiles the new Jewish lobbying group J Street. For anyone who is interested in the Israeli-US relationship, a very interesting read that tries to profile one group trying to change the dynamic in Washington.

The Unique Figure of Neil Patrick Harris. Andrew Sullivan has an interesting take on Neil Patrick Harris, and speaking with Emily Nussbaum of New York magazine, Neil Patrick Harris also has an interesting take on Neil Patrick Harris. Takeaway line from Sullivan:

Everyone is a shade or two away from normal; and the pied beauty of humanity should not be carved into acceptable and unacceptable based on things that simply make us who we are.

Liberalism Defined and Defended. E. J. Dionne writing for Democracy magazine reviews Alan Wolfe’s book [registration required] (which was one of the inspiration for this post of mine on the 10 Principles of Liberalism). An excellent review of a book I now feel compelled to read:

Wolfe notes that “it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.” Exactly right.

Topless. Meghan Pleticha writes for Alternet about her experiment where she “legally exposed [her] breasts in public.”

There they were — in the sunlight, the eyes of God and New York Penal Law 245.01 — my boobs out, nipples blazing. The girls sitting on the blanket next to us giggled. Some passersby glanced over, smiles on a couple of the guys’ faces. My nipple ring glinted in the sun. Amazingly, I felt relatively calm. Warm. Neither lightning nor cops had struck me down. Furtively looking around, I noticed some guys attempting to be respectful. Maybe they were just thinking be cool or she’ll put her top back on, but gentlemen would glance over and grin, but rarely stare.

The Colombian Hippo Problem. Simon Romero of The New York Times describes how Colombia is dealing with yet another of the legacies of the larger than life Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin who was gunned down sixteen years ago: an infestation of hippos who are thriving in Colombia’s ecosystem after escaping from Escobar’s private zoo.

The Right Wing Grassroots. Daniel Larison has a rather insightful piece on his blog regarding the relationship between the conservative elites and the right wing grassroots. I don’t endorse his entire analysis, but worth reading.

Like the Opening of a 1990s Political Joke. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post sketches a 1990s reunion of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. An interesting quote by Trent Lott:

I thought it might be a good time for us to show that a president, a speaker, the leaders, can find a way to come together. If three good ol’ boys from the South like the ones you’ve heard today can find a way to get it done. I know the outstanding leaders that we have in the Congress . . . can get it done.

Insuring Illegal Immigrants. Ezra Klein makes the case persuasively:

Illegal immigrants are clustered in service sector and food sector jobs. They clean buildings, prepare boneless chicken breasts, wash dishes, pick food, and generally do jobs that are much more conducive to spreading germs than, say, blogging is. I don’t know exactly why Rep. Joe Wilson and Lou Dobbs and all the others in their cohort want to make it more expensive to hire American workers and make it more likely that Americans get sick, but that’s why I’m not a political strategist, I guess.

The Iranian Time BombGeorge Friedman of Stratfor sees a world of trouble arising from the Iranians’ pursuit of nuclear weapons – as he analyzes how almost every interested party seems to misunderstand the interests and willingness to act of every other interesting part, which he believes could result in catastrophic consequences à la the opening of World War I.

[Image by Eamonn.McAleer licensed under Creative Commons.]

Protests Against Liberals Running the Gov’t (cont.)

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I should have made a bit more clear in my post yesterday that Andrew Sullivan was well aware of the contradictions within the right wing response to Obama – and had articulated a coherent response to them from his conservative, Oakshottian perspective earlier yesterday in a post I had printed out to read. He did reach a bit too far in seeing that particular silver lining to this movement though.

The main problem is that this right wing movement is still somewhat amorphous. Lydia DePillis of The New Republic had this dispatch from the D.C. protest this past weekend explaining the core complaint of the movement:

Their complaint? Hard to say, really. Some, like the contingent of coal miners in hard hats with anti-cap-and-trade signs, had a concrete beef with the administration. But for most, there was both an incredible specificity to their protestations–all those czars, and ACORN, and Obama’s missing birth certificate–and a fuzzy vagueness.

“We’re losing America,” said Kris, from Maryland. “Government is trying to take over everything.”

It’s one thing I have noticed as well – both the specificity of what they are outraged over and the sense that the tawdry specifics don’t explain the rising crescendo of outrage.

Matt Welch – editor in chief of Reason magazine – tried to defend the protestors against liberals attempts to write them off – and to defend them against charges of racism. He does so by misrepresenting two liberal responses to the protests and then knocking down the strawmen he creates – which is about par for the course in terms of New York Post op-eds, but I expect more of Welch whose work I often enjoy. Welch would have done better to explain what he found most of the protestors stood for, but I suspect he would have had the same difficulty DePillis did.

So, instead, he writes that “popular left blogger Josh Marshall reported from his armchair” that this was a “Small protest.” Welch declines to link to Marshall’s post saying such – probably because if he had, readers might have found that this was one in a series of posts by Marshall and others at the TalkingPointsMemo covering the size of the crowd, and that Marshall had concluded his post with the D.C. Fire Department’s estimate of 60,000 to 70,000 saying the protest was “smallish by big DC protest/event standards but definitely respectable.”

Welch then goes on to say that the Center for American Progress claimed that the protest was marred by “racist, radical portrayals of Obama.” Welch has this to say about the evidence presented by Think Progress:

Among the dozen or so pieces of evidence? A placard claiming, “Ayn Rand is right,” and one of President Obama with the caption, “When his lips move . . . he’s lying.”

Once again – an extremely misleading selection by Welch given the main signs focused on by the piece, including this one:

Welch could have made the argument that focusing on these people was misrepresenting the crowd – but instead he choose to made a much less defensible point.

Nothing Welch says challenges the point I made yesterday – that right wingers are fans of big government run by christianist right wingers, but wary of any type of government run by liberals, such that even pragmatic, incremental, modest Obamaism is seem as a radical assault on their children:

The protests aren’t about the size of government or its role; they are a viceral response to the fact that a liberal now runs the government. That frustration is rooted in cultural and social issues, rather than economic ones.

There are libertarians who legitimately object to big governmen (Ron Paul and Matt Welch himself come to mind), and I can respect their views even if I disagree – but they don’t seem to be well-represented in the Tea Party movement, in the Republican Party, in the bulk of the emotional resistance to Obama.

The Libertarian-Democratic Alliance Will Survive

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Jon Henke over at The Next Right scoffs now at Markos Moulitsas’s prediction – a few years back – of “an emerging brand of ‘libertarian Democrats.’” Henke makes two mistakes in his scoff: first, he equates the tea bagging movement with libertarianism; and second, he is extrapolating from the immediate post-election dynamics to more general party dynamics in the future.

In the first, he is certainly right that the Tea Bagging movement has adopted libertarian themes and rhetoric – and there are certainly libertarians among this group. But there are also many right-wingers of other sorts. And if the Tea Baggers truly were outraged by government spending, they had eight years to get excited before Obama took office. The Tea Bagging movement is an odd combination of right-wingers angry with Obama using libertarian rhetoric and libertarians who are fed up with everyone in American politics except Ron Paul. But I’d be pretty certain that the majority of people at these rallies decrying socialism and government interference also join in the right-wing’s attempts to demonize Obama for his modest steps in reining in the national security state.  Henke – in equating the Tea Bagging movement and libertarianism does libertarians a rather severe disservice.

Second, it was inevitable that the libertarians that were part of the anti-Bush coalition would not fit so well into the pro-Obama coalition, despite their support for Obama over McCain in 2008. It was always clear that Obama would not move fast enough on national security matters – and would not even attempt to go far enough for libertarians – and that Obama’s domestic agenda, especially health care, goes against libertarian principles. That said, there are significant areas of agreement between libertarians, progressives, and liberals – and these are considerably stronger than those between right-wingers, Republicans and libertarians. On economic matters, the Republican Party has done very little to embrace free market reforms – instead, embracing a form of crony capitalism; on national security issues, the party has embraced every accoutrement of a police state; on spending, Republicans have been far more fiscally irresponsible; on social issues, the Republican Party has abandoned libertarian principles and embraced a christianist platform. The Democratic Party – on the other hand – is for reigning in the police state (though not enough); and on social issues, it often sides with libertarians; on economics and spending, this gets more complicated. Obama’s positions do seem at first glance to be exactly what libertarianism stands against – but if I’m right about what Obama is doing – that he is adapting the Democratic Party and liberalism to a market-state in which the state seeks to provide the maximum opportunity to its citizens rather than providing for them (as socialist, Communist, and post-New Deal American capitalist states did), then the Democratic Party’s economic platform will be less of a threat to libertarian values and the party will be more or less aligned with the libertarians on every issue.

These first years of Obama’s presidency were always going to strain the libertarian-Democratic alliance. But it seems the long term trends favor this alliance.

[Image by Brian Buchanan licensed under Creative Commons.]

A Generational Bargain (in which we are getting screwed)

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Back when California’s looming bankruptcy was in the news, George Will wrote:

California’s perennial boast — that it is the incubator of America’s future — now has an increasingly dark urgency…California has become liberalism’s laboratory, in which the case for fiscal conservatism is being confirmed.

Will may be right about fiscal conservatism – but he’s wrong in laying the blame for California’s problems on liberalism. The fault in California, like the fault in America, is deeper – a refusal by the Baby Boom generation to make tough choices to create a sustainable world, economy, or government. Bill Maher summarized California’s trap best:

We govern by ballot initiative – and we only write two kinds of those: spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.

California’s initiative system aggravated a tendency that has been dominant in American politics for some time now. The problem with California – and America – is a combination of two factors:

  1. a kind of accidental unholy alliance between liberals who push for more government spending to alleviate poverty and better the nation and conservatives who want to cut taxes – with neither group having the power or political will to be fiscally responsible at the same time as they push for their pet projects1
  2. the deliberate plan of the right-wingers who want to “starve the beast” – by which they mean encouraging the irresponsible system above of  increasing spending while cutting taxes (and these right-wingers do this knowing that the system is unsustainable and will crash, which is the only way they see to get rid of popular programs.)

This is a story of the cowardice of politicians and the idiocy of people.

This idiocy – in almost all of its forms – can be traced to the ascent of the Baby Boom generation as they took power with the Reagan administration. By increasing spending exponentially while cutting taxes – creating enormous deficits – Reagan supercharged (stimulated) the economy out of the stagflation of the 1970s. At the same time, he began the American government’s practice of becoming dependent on East Asia – relying on Japan to lend vast amounts of its money as our trade deficit with them grew. Reagan also began the trend of deregulation of industries – allowing them to take greater risks and reap greater profits if they succeeded – which also allowed companies to kick off a merger boom, leading more and more companies becoming too big to fail while they were regulated less and less. All of these steps led to an economy focused more on finance than industry – leading, along with factors due to globalization, to America’s industrial decline. The dominance of the financial sector in the economy, which is well known for its boom and bust cycle, led to a series of economic bubbles – and in fact, an economy in which growth was maintained through bubbles rather than real worth.

Beginning with Reagan, president after president stimulated the economy constantly – to avoid having to take the fall. But this system was unsustainable. As the Baby Boomers “surfed on a growing wave of debt” – both public and private – they sought to use debt to meet their rising expectations in the absence of creating real value. This was the generational bargain at the heart of the Reagan presidency – a bargain that allowed America to spend the Soviet Union into the ground and jumpstart the economy from the stagflation of the 1970s – but that, unchecked, thirty years later, now threatens our future.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

David Brooks explained this grave situation facing Obama and the difficult tasks ahead (focusing especially on the growing deficit). Brooks concludes with reasons for hope and despair:

The members of the Obama administration fully understand this and are brimming with good ideas about how to move from a bubble economy to an investment economy. Finding a political strategy to accomplish this, however, is proving to be very difficult. And getting Congress to move in this direction might be impossible.

Your cards do not improve if you complain about the hand you have been dealt. But it is essential to understand how we got here. We also must not be complacent now that a leader who we admire has been given power. Individuals are empowered to a greater extent than ever before in history – for good or ill. Which is why it is never enough to get the right man or woman into public office – even if this is a useful initial step. What we must do – as individuals – is to see the world around us clearly and take steps to effect what changes we can, to live the values we hold in our hearts, to reach out to those affected by our actions.

[Image by orangejack licensed under Creative Commons.]

  1. This is a bit unfair on the national level – as George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton – with opposition Congresses checking them – proved to be exceedingly responsible, putting America on a sustainable course after the tax-cutting, free-spending Ronald Reagan and before the tax-cutting, free-spending George W. Bush. []