Posts Tagged ‘Cass Sunstein’

Why I Despise Sarah Palin

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

One of my friends asked me this question. Actually, he accused me of despising her (which I admit to) and postulated that feminists and liberals hate her so much because she stands for “a sort of  ‘reincarnation’ of the traditional post-war female that scares the bejesus out of liberals for a variety of reasons.”

I can’t speak for every liberal, or every progressive, or every feminist – but I can speak for myself – and I tell you, it is not Palin’s  status as a reincarnation of the traditional post-war female (a description which I incidentally don’t find that fitting) that leads me to despise her. It is that she found herself to be a very capable demagogue. Frank Rich in The New York Times explained it well this Sunday:

The essence of Palinism is emotional, not ideological… The real wave she’s riding is a loud, resonant surge of resentment and victimization that’s larger than issues like abortion and gay civil rights.

Palin constantly positions herself as a victim of the conspiracies of the elite. As interviewers lob her softball after softball, she points out the few outliers and claims she is a victim of a giant conspiracy. As a local blogger files a frivolous ethics complaint, Palin claims she is being targeted for persecution by Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. A similar logic of collective victomhood makes its way into every speech she gives; she constantly sets up a dynamic of “us” against “them” – the “Joe Sixpacks” versus “the Hollywood/NY elite” and the “real Americans” against those “who [see] America…as being so imperfect…that [they are] palling around with terrorists [who]…target their own country.” What this accomplishes is what Cass Sunstein in the Spectator describes as the dyanmic of self-reinforcing moral outrage:

Political extremism is often a product of group polarisation and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarisation. In fact, a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society. The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about non-members. With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarisation as group members continue to talk.

Sunstein does not link this to Palin – but it is clear that she is playing with this exact dynamic. This stands in stark contrast to John McCain who, to his credit, realized how dangerous this dynamic was and tried to calm his crowds down; and it stands in contrast to Barack Obama who has deliberately taken an approach that minimizes this dynamic of escalating moral outrage – challenging his audiences when they seem to be dehumanizing the other side. Palin though escalated her rhetoric. Her crowds became more extreme – in the way that like-minded groups do, especially when united against a nefarious and dehumanized “them.”

Why do I despise Sarah Palin? Because she is a demagogue, and more important, because she is an effective one.

(more…)

Theories of the Financial Crisis: Animal Spirits

Monday, May 11th, 2009

David Brooks is a reliable barometer of the opinions and beliefs of the Washington establishment (and I don’t mean that as an insult.) The figure he cuts is a rather odd combination of an amateur (but insightful) anthropologist and a insider protecting the system. All of this makes it significant to note that David Brooks has on several occasions stated that the root of this financial crisis is a “loss of confidence.” He has stated this in several of his columns, including his one immediately following the September 15 freefall:

At its base, the turmoil wracking the world financial markets is a crisis of confidence.

Many of Geithner’s critics have said that he is treating the financial crisis primarily as a liquidity crisis – which is defined as “a ‘general feeling of mistrust in the banking system’ conducting to a temporary disappearance of credit.” This is a common form that a crisis of confidence in the financial system takes.  

The Congressional Oversight Panel in their report [pdf] written to evaluate the TARP bailouts, for example, described what they saw as one of Geithner’s asusmptions :

One key assumption that underlies Treasury’s approach is its belief that the system-wide deleveraging resulting from the decline in asset values, leading to an accompanying drop in net wealth across the country, is in large part the product of temporary liquidity constraints resulting from nonfunctioning markets for troubled assets. The debate turns on whether current prices, particularly for mortgage-related assets, reflect fundamental values or whether prices are artificially depressed by a liquidity discount due to frozen markets – or some combination of the two.

Paul Krugman has also often made this point – stating that Geithner seems to be acting as if we were in a liquidity crisis – in which the loss of confidence is the cause of the problem – instead of a solvency crisis – in which the loss of confidence is a symptom of the problem. 

Geithner, for his part, rejects this assertion that he is treating the problem as a liquidity crisis. When asked, he said it was, as all financial crises are, a combination of the two.

If this is primarily a crisis of confidence, there have been a number of historic examples of how these were contained. For example, this is a description of the resolution of the Panic of 1907 – in which J. P. Morgan’s timely intervention demonstrated how this could be done:

Shipments of gold were on the way from London to New York, and confidence had returned to the French Bourse, “owing,” reported one paper, “to the belief that the strong men in American finance would succeed in their efforts to check the spirit of the panic.” During a panic, confidence is almost as good as gold.

As politicans saw how these crises could be contained – and as they realized Morgan who had successfully beaten back several of these panics was getting near his end – they created the Federal Reserve to officially take on the role Morgan had been unofficially occupying, the lender of last resort and de facto regulator. 

As panics are short, they generally do not affect the fundamentals of the economy – but in a liquidity crisis such as this, restoring confidence is a more delicate task. It involves restoring what John Maynard Keynes referred to as “animal spirits” – those positive energies that cause people to be trusting and optimistic that are essential to a thriving economy. As Keynes wrote in his seminal work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money:

Even apart from the instability due to speculation, there is the instability due to the characteristic of human nature that a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectations, whether moral or hedonistic or economic. Most, probably, of our decisions to do something positive, the full consequences of which will be drawn out over many days to come, can only be taken as the result of animal spirits – a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction, and not as the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. [my emphasis]

This idea of animal spirits has created an opening for what appears to be Obama’s favorite branch of economics – behavioral economics. While economics generally treats human beings as homo economics, rational, self-interested (indeed, selfish), individuals who act entirely to serve their best interest (and who know what their best interest is) – behavioral economics takes a more scientific view of human beings. They try to understand human behavior through testing and real-life examples rather than through theoretical models. Some of Obama’s top advsiors from Cass Sunstein to Austan Goolsbee are known to be proponents of behavioral economics. And a recent article by Chrystia Freeland in the Financial Times, suggests that Obama’s administration may be using behavioral economics to solve this crisis, describing how “emotions might yet save the economy“:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

I don’t have the expertise to judge if this crisis is one of solvency or confidence or whatever else it may be. But at this point there is a feeling – almost of a wind at the back of the economy. (I certainly hope this is the case.) It does seem to me that the lack of confidence is a major cause (rather than merely a symptom) of this crisis; and Obama’s gradualist approach, with every move telegraphed and thus predictable – seems to be generating confidence.

Replacing Souter

Monday, May 4th, 2009

There’s a few different schools of thought on how Obama should go about replacing Justice David Souter. Dahlia Lithwick – a few months ago – called on Obama to make his next appointment “a hero, a bomb-throwing, passionate, visionary, liberal Scalia.” Others are just calling for Obama to place someone liberal enough to counter-balance the extreme conservatives appointed by Bush. Conservatives and right-wingers are calling on Obama to appoint someone “moderate” – though given the political circumstances, it is almost guaranteed that they will not accept any appointment, no matter how “moderate.” All of this is based on a rather direct analysis of the Supreme Court – presuming that decisions are and will be made based on political viewpoints. 

I’m not trying to say that we should accept Justice Roberts’s oft-cited analysis of the judge as umpire – just calling the law as he sees it. I thought Obama made an excellent point back in July 2007 when he critiqued this view:

 When Roberts came up and everybody was saying, “You know, he’s very smart and he’s seems a very decent man and he loves his wife. You know, he’s good to his dog. He’s so well qualified.”

I said, well look, that’s absolutely true and … in the overwhelming number of Supreme Court decisions, that’s enough. Good intellect, you read the statute, you look at the case law and most of the time, the law’s pretty clear. Ninety-five percent of the time. Justice Ginsberg, Justice Thomas, Justice Scalia they’re all gonna agree on the outcome.

But it’s those five percent of the cases that really count. And in those five percent of the cases, what you’ve got to look at is—what is in the justice’s heart. What’s their broader vision of what America should be. Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire but the issues that come before the Court are not sport, they’re life and death. And we need somebody who’s got the heart—the empathy—to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old—and that’s the criteria by which I’ll be selecting my judges. Alright?

Ed Whelan over at the Corner is trying to make a big deal out of what he’s calling Obama’s lie – which is that judicial philosophy is unimportant. He cites the above quote as proof Obama thinks judicial philosophy is unimportant – but he doesn’t seem to have read it closely, as you can clearly see Obama say:

[I]t’s those five percent of the cases that really count.

The person Whelan really should be attacking – if he believes judicial philosophy is unimportant – is Justice Roberts who sought to minimize the role of politics in his decisions (at least in his pre- and post-appointment rhetoric.)

But what I’m interested most in is a justice who can move the other members of the Court – either through personality or their compelling understanding of the law. One historical type that has moved the Court would be a politician – such as Sandra Day O’Connor or Earl Warren – whose personality drew other justices to accept some of their decisions, and gradually shaped the Court over time. This is why I think it’s a bad idea to appoint a liberal version of Justice Scalia – whose personality actually hurt his politics. Jennifer Granholm is a good possibility on this front. As would Hillary Clinton or Al Gore if they were only younger.

In the alternative, Obama could appoint an ideologically interesting thinker – who is liberal, but nevertheless, thinks outside of the box. The two people that come to mind on this score are Cass Sunstein and Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is probably too young yet – and Sunstein has not only encountered surprising resistance to his appointment to an obscure position, but he probably would like an opportunity to take a crack at enhancing that position and testing his theories on libertarian paternalism. 

Finally, I like Harold Koh for the post – even though it is unlikely he fits into any of the above two categories. He’s national security thinker with a great resume. I don’t know his record on most issues – but I’ve heard him speak on national security law – my main interest – and he has strong, nuanced positions, viewing our national security apparatus as a whole system rather than as a series of isolated issues. He would be a strong voice in reigning in an executive branch that has barely pulled back in terms of it’s assertions of power in the national security arena.

The Last Thing We Need Is A Liberal Scalia

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Dahlia Lithwick, who I rarely fail to mention, is one of my favorite writers, had a piece a few days ago on what she wants. In a Supreme Court justice that is. And I lightly paraphrase:

Wonky liberal lawyer seeking a hero, a bomb-throwing, passionate, visionary, liberal Scalia for a seat on the Supreme Court!

One of the main facts revealed in all those recent scholarship of the Rehnquist (O’Connor) court, though, was that Scalia’s brash personality and insulting style actually pushed the moderates to the left – or drove them to be less susceptible to being wooed to Scalia’s side in an argument. Though the Court has indisputably moved far to the right since Scalia entered it, seven of the past nine Supreme Court justices have been appointed by Republican presidents. The two appointed by Clinton were moderates chosen to be confirmed by a Republican Congress. Yet, the Court has only moved slowly towards conservative positions. There are many explanations of this, but for anyone who considers the social dynamics of the Court to be significant – and from her article Dahlia seems to be one who does – then Scalia’s antagonistic approach to O’Connor’s sloppy reasoning and Kennedy’s pomposity certainly must be one factor. A brash, bomb-throwing liberal then is exactly what the Court doesn’t need. 

What I think it does need is a libertarian-minded liberal who can forge an alliance with Scalia on certain issues – and perhaps Thomas as well. Both Alito and Roberts seem to be enamored of executive power – and perhaps that was why it was they who were chosen. I consider them lost causes. But Scalia and Thomas are conservatives of an older school – one which a contemporary liberal – such as Lawrence Lessig or even Cass Sunstein – has much in common with.

I think Dahlia would be happy with that though – a Lessig, a Sunstein, and a Lawrence Tribe. Perhaps a Harold Koh and an Elena Kagan. Instead of a bomb-thrower, I think Dahlia just wants a liberal with a vision instead of an incrementalist. On that, I agree.

What’s Wrong With the Stimulus Plan

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Aside from the partisan power play that seems to be motivating most of the Republican opposition to the stimulus plan, there are a number of fair-minded criticisms.

First, the plan lacks the Obama touch – the deft promise to cut those programs that don’t work and to make sure the ones that are around still do work, the libertarian paternalistic designs of Cass Sunstein, the nimble government program that does not coerce but merely offers opportunity. Of course, there is a sensible reason for this. The stimulus is needed right now – and it will take time to design new programs with this balancing between libertarian principles and liberal ends in mind. So, Obama has decided that this stimulus package must work within existing programs – which Republicans have used as an excuse to attack those programs.

Second, there is not a clear exit strategy. Many of these spending measures and tax breaks are supposed to be emergency measures that the government will only maintain during this crisis – but new spending and cuts in taxes both are hard to roll back. The idea that taxes are hard to raise is, of course, the basis of the “Starve the Beast” strategy that conservatives adopted (as described by George Will):

For years, many conservatives advocated a “starve the beast” approach to limiting government. They supported any tax cut, of any size, at any time, for any purpose, assuming that, deprived of revenue, government spending would stop growing.

But they found out that spending was also hard to cut:

But spending continued, and government borrowing encouraged government’s growth by making big government cheap: People were given $1 worth of government but were charged less than that, the balance being shifted, through debt, to future generations.

Obama’s stimulus plan involves both increasing spending and cutting taxes. The question is – can we then raise taxes and cut spending after this is over? Obama has clearly indicated he intends to – and to shore up America’s long-term fiscal solvency by dealing with entitlement spending too. If he is able to pull off this Grand Bargain, then he will belong in the rank of the best presidents. If he is not, then this temporary increase could have disasterous effects.

Third, by trying to act so quickly, there will inevitably be unintended consequences. To avoid as many of these as possible, the bill should be cleaner and its provisions should work faster.

Fourth, as Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post:

As it turns out, President Obama didn’t make the tough choices on the stimulus package. He could have either used the program mainly (a) to bolster the economy or (b) to advance a larger political agenda, from energy efficiency to school renovation…There were tough choices to be made – and Obama ducked them.

This bill is something of a muddle so far, in part because of the need for speed, and in part because Obama has let the House and Senate Democrats craft the bill, waiting to give his input until the conference in which the bills passed by the House and Senate will be reconciled.

Fifth, the bill offers both short term stimulus measures and downpayments on longer term (and worthy) projects. A stimulus bill should only include spending in the short term. The 75% goal Obama has set is too low. Every dime in the stimulus package should be out by the end of 2010. Kay Bailey Hutchinson ably stuck to this point in her Meet the Press appearance this past Sunday. Her confident demeanor and obvious grasp of policy made me wonder what had led John McCain to bypass her in choosing his Vice Presidential nominee. 

In short, most of the bills problems seem to come from the speed with which it is being forced out. This is a tradeoff Obama seems to be willing to make – as this bill is intended primarily to demonstrate that stimulus is coming and the problem is being taken seriously.

The Dynamics of Moral Outrage, Group Hatred, and Violence

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Reem Al Ghussain, an English teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza in the Guardian:

[My children] ask me: “Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” My child in fifth grade asks me: “What did we do to them?” I tell them that they want to take our land and they want all Palestinians to die.

It is this attitude, this indoctrination that passes down hatred and a sense of the ‘Otherness’ of the enemy from parent to child, that is at the root of so many long-simmering conflicts. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, channeling George Orwell:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” – just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.  For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate – such concepts can’t even be understood – because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted.  Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives?  How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

So many of these conflicts – one might say almost all of them – end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency:  excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.:  the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them.  X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

As Bill Bishop described in Slate the tendency of groups to polarize towards extremes (in the context of the Palin rallies in the news then):

We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and adviser to Barack Obama, described how this dynamic works in a social setting as a preface to his discussion of “leaderless jihad“:

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and I were involved in several studies of punitive damage awards by juries. We began by asking one thousand or so demographically diverse people to register their judgments about misconduct by various wrongdoers. We asked them to rate their moral outrage on a scale of zero to six, where zero meant “not at all outrageous” and six meant “exceptionally outrageous.” We also asked them to come up with an appropriate dollar award…

[As our] goal is to understand how juries really behave – or more ambitiously, how outrage develops in the real world…we conducted a follow-up study, involving about three thousand jury-eligible citizens and five hundred deliberating juries, each consisting of six people. Here is how the experiment worked. Every juror read about a personal injury case, including the arguments made by both sides. Jurors were also asked to record, in advance of deliberation, their individual judgments on a bounded numerical scale, and also in terms of dollars. Next they were asked to deliberate together to reach a verdict, both on the bounded scale and on the dollar scale. Our goal was to discover the relationship between people’s individual judgments, in advance of deliberation, and the ultimate views and actions of group members who have discussed the matter.

You might predict (as I did) that deliberation would lead to compromise, and hence that the verdicts of juries would be pretty close to the median of punishment judgments of jurors; but your prediction would be badly wrong. It turned out that the effect of deliberation was to create a “severity shift.” When people began with a lot of outrage, their interactions made them significantly more outraged than they were before they started to talk. And with dollar awards, the severity shift was especially large. The ultimate award of juries was usually higher than the award favored by the median juror in advance of deliberation. In many cases, the jury ended up with an award at least as high as the highest award favored, in advance, by any of the jury’s members.

Sunstein connects this experiment of moral outrage and social dynamics to Marc Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad”:

Drawing on the data, Sageman offers an arresting conclusion, which is that a major explanation of Islamic terrorism lies in patterns of social interaction that transform moral outrage into extremism. In his account, terrorists are not mentally ill, poor, uneducated, sociopathic, or victims of trauma. In the main, they are ordinary individuals who move to radical positions as a result of discussions with like-minded others. Sageman focuses in particular on the rise of what he calls “global Islamist terrorism” – a large and loosely organized social movement that is subject to no command-and-control structure and has prospered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. What makes Sageman’s account distinctive is his emphasis on the crucial role of social networks – in the real world and on the Internet – and his effort to show that an understanding of those networks has significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for how to safeguard national security. At the same time, Sageman offers general lessons about how enclosed enclaves of like-minded types help produce political beliefs and action of many kinds, including violence.

This same dynamic plays out on many different scales in our society and in societies around the world, with differing levels of ferocity. How a society deals with this dynamic helps determine it’s stability, or lack. One of the ways to address this issue seems to be dialogue and communication among polarizing groups – and friendships between these groups – a principle which Obama, to his credit, has often stood for. As Americans increasingly clustering and moving into areas in which they are ideologically comfortable, as they tend to find media outlets that cater to their ideological preferences and ignore as biased those media sources that do not, we are moving away from those aspects of American society that have tamped down extremism and encouraging this dynamic of polarization.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate things about American polarization. It’s hard to believe we are close to the point that Russian academic Igor Panarin is predicting – that America will break into six seperate parts [map]. Much more significant is the extent to which this dynamic plays out amongst Muslim populations that are trending towards extremism and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as these situations demonstrate extremely heightened forms of this dynamic. Without understanding this dynamic, we can never address the root of these issues – and we will be tempted to respond without adequate reflection.

What’s Next: The Court

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Before the election, some Republicans were trying to gin up some controversy by imputing obscure and extreme judicial views on Barack Obama – focusing especially on remarks he made in July 2007, described here by The Hill:

“[Chief] Justice Roberts said he saw himself just as an umpire,” Obama said. “But the issues that come before the court are not sports; they’re life and death. We need somebody who’s got the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.”

Obama said that 95 percent of cases can be judged on intellect, but that the other 5 percent are the most important ones.

“In those 5 percent of cases, you’ve got to look at what is in the justice’s heart, what’s their broader vision of what America should be,” Obama said, adding that justices should understand what it’s like to be gay, poor or black as well.

Steven Calebrisi, founder of the Federalist Society, wrote a very influential piece appearing in the Wall Street Journal in which he combined the most extreme possible interpretations of the statement about empathy (first taken out of context) with a somewhat bizarre (but politically very useful for the McCain camp) interpretation of remarks Obama made in a 2001 radio interview about the Warren Court. This led Calebrisi to the grandiose conclusion that:<

Nothing less than the very idea of liberty and the rule of law are at stake in this election. We should not let Mr. Obama replace justice with empathy in our nation’s courtrooms.

Putting aside the fact that Calebrisi did not find it necessary to raise his voice against those who used his own legal theory – that of the unitary executive – to actually and explicitly place the president above the law, Calebresi’s concern here is misplaced, as I think you can see just by reading the passage above from The Hill.

But if Calebresi’s half-assed op-ed doesn’t help us understand who Obama would appoint to the Court, then what does?

After all, Supreme Court appointments can be a president’s greatest legacy – affecting policy for many years after a president has gone.

Potential Supreme Court Justices

Obama, as a former constitutional law professor, has obviously put a great deal of thought into who he might appoint to the Supreme Court. Many names have been floated – politicians like Jennifer Granholm, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, and Ken Salazar; academics such as Harold Koh, Elena Kagan, and Cass Sunstein as wel as a number of current judges. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens likely to retire during Obama’s term, and David Souter wishing – according to Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine – to withdraw back to the19th century lifestyle he enjoys in New Hampshire away from the Court, Obama could get three – and if Obama is reelected in 2012 – even four nominations to the Court. Justice Scalia will undoubtably do everything possible to avoid retiring during Obama’s presidency, but he is getting older as well – and would be 80 by 2016. Justice Kennedy would be 80 as well – but he does seem to so enjoy being the swing vote that it is hard to see him ever leaving the Court.

Superficial factors in choosing the justices

  • Any justices Obama appoints will undoubtably be younger than is traditional – as Bush recently appointed two conservatives in their 50s in Roberts and Alito.
  • It is also likely that, as the Supreme Court has traditionally been factionalized by race, religion, and gender – from the mid-1800s when there was a “Jewish seat” on the Court and a “Catholic seat” to focus on keeping women and African Americans since the 1980s – Obama will want to appoint at least one woman and on Hispanic to the Court.

The Dynamics of the Court

Obama has spoken of how Justice Warren – as a former politician – was able to win majorities by winning over the other justices. Jeffrey Toobin, writing about the Court over the past decade, has described Sandra Day O’Conner having a similar role during her tenure. In fact, since the Court’s founding, former politicians have had a way of dominating the stately and apolitical Court – beginning with John Marshall. Which is why the first appointment Obama makes should be a former politician – probably a woman. Especially if John Paul Stevens, the unofficial leader of the liberal wing of the Court, retires, Obama will want a strong personality to take his place. As Janet Napolitano is the favorite to become Attorney General, that leaves Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan and a former state attorney general as the most logical choice.

Beyond this first choice of a female politician, Obama’s options are more open.

For his second nomination I would reccomend an academic – Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law, or Harold Koh, dean of Yale Law, would be the logical choices here – as both are young and prominent liberals in academia. Koh’s name has apparently been generating real buzz as a potential Obama pick.

Certain to be on any short list is Cass Sunstein is an important legal scholar and a close friend of Obama’s. He recently wrote a book with the conservative economist Richard Thaler about libertarian paternalism.

There is one potential candidate I have not heard mentioned though – and especially if Scalia were to retire from the bench, this former Scalia law clerk, former Reaganite, and former libertarian would be the perfect choice – Lawrence Lessig, whose innovative work founding Creative Commons and now the Change Congress movement, and whose influential work on internet law, copyright and corruption have made him a legal star.

Libertarianism v. Liberalism

With these four appointments, Obama could profoundly alter the Supreme Court’s ideological make-up – by replacing the traditional statist liberals and Rockefeller Republicans on the Court making up it’s current left wing with a charismatic pragmatist, and other liberal, and two libertarian-influenced liberals.

Why I Support Obama

Monday, August 18th, 2008

A few months ago, on the Long Island Railroad in the evening on my way home after work, a young black woman asked me if she could sit on the inside seat. (I always sit on the outside, and this was a three person seat.) After she sat down, she noticed the Barack Obama button I had on my bag at the time and pointed to it and said: “Thank you.”

We went on to have a conversation about the campaign and the Broadway play she had just been to – but that, “Thank you” bothered me. She was not a member of the campaign or a relative of Obama’s. I, in fact, have raised over $3,000 for the Senator, donated a good deal myself, and have tried through this blog as well as other activities to support his campaign. Although I do not know this for certain – based on the tone, the way she said it, and the rest of our conversation, I think that she was thanking me, as a white person, for supporting Barack, “her” candidate.

What I felt, but did not say, was that I was supporting Obama not because he was black or because any of my friends are black or because I wanted to make up for persecution of blacks in American history – but because … well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

One more story. A co-worker of mine described Obama to me as an empty suit, a typical, spineless, academic, elitist, whose only redeeming and unique quality is his race.1 He never believes me when I deny that my support of Obama is because of his race.

I have explained several times on this blog my gradual evolution from a McCain supporter in 2000 to an Edwards then Hillary than Obama supporter in 2007, including most recently here. By the summer of 2007, I had decided to support Obama – and had started talking about trying to work for the campaign.2

Since then, my opinion has been reinforced by events more often than it was challenged.

My decision to support Obama did not hinge on any single issue or position, but was a reflection of my attempt to gather as much information as possible about all of the candidates. I assumed that the direction the country needed to go in was rather obvious – as most Democrats and many moderate Republicans agreed, from Secretary of Defense Gates to Secretary of Treasury Paulson to Secretary of State Rice to Senator Clinton to Senator Obama to (I thought) Senator McCain. The real question is what specific policies, what methods, what means could be used to get there.

I did not support Obama because he was black, liberal, progressive, young, charismatic, or an idealist.

What did lead me to support Obama first was his character and judgment: he is a liberal pragmatist, with a conservative temperament, who seeks to understand the world as it is, to identify our long-term challenges, and to push (to nudge it) in a positive direction by tinkering with processes and institutions and creating tools to get people more involved in the government.

In addition, there are three extremely positive movements that are associated with Obama’s candidacy:

The intellectual ferment around Obama’s campaign – with Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Samantha Power, and many others, all reflective thinkers who have influenced his campaign policy and would play a role in an Obama administration – is tremendously exciting. Added to this ferment is a sense of humility that is a bit odd. Samantha Power, who traveled to war zones around the world in 1990s, and learned the lessons of Rwanda and Sarejevo and Kirkuk deeply, does not believe unilateral American force must be used to stop genocide. Rather she places the blame on a flawed international system. Lawrence Lessig describes our political system as inherently corrupt – yet his Change Congress movement is not a radical call to arms but a series of modest proposals designed to catalyze serious changes. Cass Sunstein’s and Richard Thaler’s libertarian paternalism probably best encapsulates the pragmatic steps that can taken to greatly improve the lives of most Americans.

The grassroots movement supporting Obama also reveals the hidden side of this past four years – as George W. Bush created a liberal majority. This movement represents a new force in American politics.

The international support for Obama demonstrates that, like many Americans, people around the world want a new face to represent America – a re-branding, and hopefully a reevaluation of America’s priorities around the world.

By the time John McCain abandoned sensible policies in his quest to win over the Republican base – and emphasized his least attractive quality, a preference for the use of military force – I had already decided Obama was the best candidate.

  1. Although I attempt to converse with my co-worker about this, our conversations always end up in some nether world of side topics – debating evolution or global warming or whether Congress has any power to intervene in foreign policy. []
  2. Unfortunately, a relative of mine persuaded me otherwise, saying that the wise thing to do was to wait it out. []