Archive for the ‘Conservativism’ Category

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.]

Real Fiscal Responsibility & Deficit Politics: Republicans

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

See Part 1: An Introduction here. Parts 3 and 4 discussing the Democratic approach and then lessons from this moment of “welfare scleroris/imperial overstretch” coming tomorrow and Friday.

Republicans have called themselves, and are once again trying to position themselves, as the party of fiscal responsibility. This is the pendulum swing of deficit politics in its second repetition – as Republicans run up massive deficits during their time in power and then attempt to pass off the blame for raising taxes or cutting programs onto the Democrats who succeed them in office.

The political challenge the Republicans face is intriguing. Their ideology holds the solution to the deficit is to shrink the size of the government. Yet the Republican base consists of corporate America, the military, and the elderly – the largest beneficiaries of current government spending. Given this, it’s not surprising that while in power Republicans have expanded rather than shrinking government. Bush expanded Medicare further than anyone since LBJ created it all while cutting taxes and engaging in two wars and allowing Congress to engorge itself with discretionary spending increases never before allowed. Bush was not an isolated example. Like his apparent role model, Ronald Reagan, he saw deficit spending as a way to win politically in the short term as you gave everyone what they wanted – and protected those interest groups who supported you – while in the long term the incredible irresponsibility would force government to shrink, and perhaps even discredit the idea of a competent or sustainable government program. In other words, deficits were the way to “starve the beast.”

Republicans did not jettison this approach along with Bush when they began to repudiate his legacy. John McCain – for all his talk of fiscal rectitude – offered more of the same in his campaign agenda. He proposed dramatic tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts (while masking this by proposing the elimination of pork barrel spending which represents a minuscule portion of the federal budget.) As an alternative to the stimulus, McCain and the Republicans attempted the same trick – attacking the plan for adding to the deficit with spending while proposing a plan that would add even more to the deficit through tax cuts (which the Congressional Budget Office determined was a less effective way to stimulate the economy.) For Republicans, increasing the deficit by cutting taxes is “fiscally responsible” – while increasing the deficit with spending is “generational theft.”

What’s tricky is how Republicans position themselves with regards to the looming fiscal crisis. The business conservatives who make up an influential portion of the Republican base tend to propose pragmatic but politically impossible solutions like cutting spending to the other core Republican constituencies – the elderly and the military, and sometimes, even the tax and other subsidies to big corporations. The other groups seem primarily concerned with ensuring that their own government dollars continuing to grow. The past two times a liberal has taken office following several terms of extreme fiscal irresponsibility by a Republican though, a semi-independent movement has sprung up, thus changing the political dynamics in the Republican party. This movement of citizens concerned about the size of government, of government debt, and especially of liberals being in charge of this government (which suddenly seems more intrusive now that it is in the control of those they don’t sympathize with) was incarnated in Ross Perot’s two presidential campaigns, the 1994 Republican Revolution, and today, the Tea Parties. In each instance, this movement has coalesced around an inchoate frustration with the way things are coupled with the remarkably fixed position of opposing everything the Democrats do, opposing tax increases, and supporting the reduction of the deficit. Though this logically must lead to cutting government programs, which programs will be cut always remains vague which works well enough until a Republican gets in power.

To balance and rally these constituencies while out of power – the anti-tax fiscal hawks, the elderly relying on government programs, the military reliant on government spending, and the corporations who profit from government favors – Republicans have adopted a framework whereby they condemn any new spending as “generational theft” while protecting the status quo. Within this framework, Republicans claim their protection of the status quo which is screwing over my generation is actually about protecting my generation. This language also comforts the elderly who don’t wish to see any reduction in their benefits. Under the Republican approach, the only elderly who will see a reduction in benefits under the Republican plan are the eventual elderly of the younger generations – as the government programs they are now paying for cease.

The challenge Obama has given to the Republicans though is to propose a solution to the looming fiscal crisis through health care reform. Republicans have responded by claiming that the plans will add to the deficit (contrary to the Congressional Budget Office) while at the same time they have been attacking any measures in the plan which might actually cut costs. For example, Senator Coburn has said, “If you’re a senior and you’re on Medicare, you better be afraid of this bill” – which is a difficult position to maintain while at the same time holding that any deficit spending today is “generational theft.” But it is of course, the only political answer they have.

The Republicans – for short term political expediency – are creating an interesting political dynamic (and an impossible situation for the country.) They are telling the elderly that any spending that adds to the deficit is stealing from their grandchildren and children – while telling them to be afraid of any cuts to the programs they like. Meanwhile, as they filibuster any attempts to alleviate the situation, they inculcate the belief among the younger generation that the government cannot do anything right – pointing to the approaching fiscal disaster as proof. The hope must be that if they are correct that this disaster cannot be averted, their obstruction of any attempt to avoid it will be forgiven, especially if the disaster itself discredits the government, thus bringing the younger generation ideologically closer to the Republican position.

Thus is the logic of deficit politics and starve-the-beast governance.

Health Care Reform and Its Unintended Consequences

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

I said I was going to make a point of noting solid criticisms of the Obama administration by mainstream conservatives and right wingers.

Mona Charen of the National Review wrote a solid piece that didn’t resort to blatant falsehoods as far as I could tell that made a solid case against health care reform. Her basic point is that she doesn’t trust the Democrats:

Every single page [of the health care bill] proclaims something that is dubious — that the Democrats know what they are doing.

Rather than talking about death panels, she points out that electronic recordkeeping has overwhelmed doctors with information they are not used to having to sort through – and thus has made hospitals less efficient. (She cites no study, but it is certainly plausible that this would be a short term effect.) Preventive care, she explains, while probably saving lives could end up costing more – as “more and more of us are tested for more and more diseases.”

Her big point is that this health care reform is “brought to you by the same people” who brought you Medicare and Medicaid – and that the costs of these programs were vastly underestimated. As she points out:

In 1965, Congress predicted that by 1990, Medicare would be costing $12 billion. The actual cost — $90 billion.

Long term forecasts of government spending – or really anything – are a fool’s game, and Charen is right to point this out. On a macroeconomic level, there are too many factors to take into account – and that’s not even counting “black swans” that change everything. In this case, the major factor causing the government health care costs to be so off was the explosion of health care inflation in the 1980s which has only gotten worse since. But it’s not clear that Medicare or Medicaid played any role in this – especially as their costs have been below that of private insurance.

Bill Clinton made a similar point to Charen’s yesterday in trying to make the case for why the health care reform should be passed:

There is no perfect bill because there are always unintended consequences…

Yet, Clinton maintained:

The worst thing to do is nothing.

As Steven Pearlstein writing for the Washington Post described the price of doing nothing (and was later echoed by Barack Obama):

Among the range of options for health-care reform, there’s one that is sure to raise your taxes, increase your out-of-pocket medical expenses, swell the federal deficit, leave more Americans without insurance and guarantee that wages will remain stagnant.

That’s the option of doing nothing…

This is the answer Democrats give to the sensible concerns of Charen and those like her: there inherent uncertainty in any attempt to change a macroeconomic trend, but given where we are headed if we do nothing, it’s worth trying.

The only other option is to give up.

This is exactly the sort of sensible criticism that – in my opinion – conservatives should be making. However, the answer should not be to do nothing, but to “tinker” instead of instituting massive top-down changes, and to adopt the measures that work after tinkering. For the most part, this is exactly the approach the current bills take – which is a testament to the fundamental insights of the conservative movement of the past few decades. To take into account this fundamental insight while promoting a liberal agenda is in fact the essence of Obama’s approach: It’s why 40% of the stimulus was tax cuts; it’s why the key health care reform is to create a market that allows individuals to make decisions based on information that is more transparent; it’s why the answer to global warming is a cap-and-trade program that decentralizes authority and whose main mechanism is a market. That this has been Obama’s approach is what has forced the right wing opposition to him to become so unhinged.

The most conservative senator is liberal favorite Olympia Snowe

Tuesday, October 20th, 2009

Ezra Klein makes a very important observation in comparing Senator Olympia Snow’s approach to health care to more right wing approaches:

For all the talk of Olympia Snowe’s relative liberalism, this is a very conservative answer. It’s not necessarily a Republican answer, or a Tea Partier’s answer, but it’s a small-c conservative answer: It’s respectful of tradition, wary of unintended consequences, and suspicious of excessive ambition.

Klein continues:

[T]he health-care reform plan we’re likely to get is extremely conservative. It builds on the employer-based system, and because that system seems to work better than the individual market, puts in place some new structures to give folks on the individual and small-group markets the same advantages (size, scale and competition, mainly) that seem to have worked for large employers. As I’ve noted before, the basic structure of the plan actually looks a lot like the plan proposed by moderate Republicans in 1994. Only this year, Democrats are proposing it.

The fact that Olympia Snowe is the only currently serving Republican to date to sign onto a bill is substantially similar to what the moderate Republicans proposed in 1994 helps demonstrate – as does so much else – how far from common sense and how far to the right the Republican Party has moved.

To a large degree, the Republican Party is no longer conservative in any meaningful sense – it is a party of reflexively anti-Obama, right wing radicalism.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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.

In Case You Missed It: Best Reads of the Week on Whining Conservatives, Internet Battles, Peru, The Single Life, and the Unborn

Friday, July 31st, 2009

1. Whiny Conservatives. David Frum scolds conservatives for  quite whining and points out how silly they look doing so given how far the conservative movement has moved America since it gained power:

In 1975, the federal government set the price of every airline ticket, every ton of rail freight, every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil. It controlled the interest rates paid on checking accounts and the commission charged by stockbrokers. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce from one state to another, you first had to file a routemap with a federal agency. It was a crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. The draft had ended only two years before, but not until 1975 itself did Congress formally end the state of emergency (and the special grant of presidential powers) declared at US entry into the First World War.

2. The Battle for the Internets. Fred Vogelstein writes in Wired about the brewing battle between Facebook and Google for the internet.

3. Peru’s Moment. Most of the world has lost ground in the financial crisis and recession. Daniel Gross in Newsweek tells the story of one country that has managed the financial crisis perfectly (Peru), and their secret ingredient: leadership in the years leading up to the crisis:

In the latter half of 2008, being a poor, export-dependent, commodity-producing country set you up for a vicious downturn. But Peru has weathered the storm, in large part because President Alan García, an old leftist turned center-leftist, and the Peruvian central bank have proved adept at a set of capabilities notably lacking in the United States in recent years: sound fiscal and financial management. Fearful of a return of hyperinflation amid rapid growth, Peru’s central bank raised interest rates throughout 2008. Instead of spending the foreign currency that piled up on its books ($32 billion at the end of 2008), the government saved it. In 2008, Peru ran a $3.3 billion budget surplus.
And so, when troubles came, it was able to respond in textbook fashion. In December 2008, García announced a stimulus program, promising to boost government spending by $3.2 billion, and to take up to $10 billion in further measures. The total of $13 billion in promised stimulus doesn’t sound like much, but that’s equal to about 10 percent of Peru’s GDP.

4. New York Wins Again. Forbes has released a list of the top cities for singles. New York is – as in everything else – number one.

5. This strong, invisible and unacknowledged force. David Brooks (in a piece that Yglesias ridiculed, justly on some grounds) – manages to write an interesting meditation on the importance of the unborn to our society:

People live in a compact between the dead, the living and the unborn, and the value of the thought experiment is that it reminds us of the power posterity holds over our lives.

Bonus: This song came out months ago, but I just starting enjoying it recently, so here’s to sharing:

[Image by me.]

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. []