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Monday, March 9th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Clive Crook in his new Financial Times column faults Obama for:

telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.

This is his second column on the subject – and he bases this claim on a small portion of Obama’s overall plan. He does not fault Obama for proposing to increase the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 39%, as Bush’s tax cut legislation actually mandates unless it is amended; he does not fault Obama for pusing for health care reform; he does not fault Obama for pursuing cap-and-trade legislation; he does not fault Obama for any range of allegedly “socialist” policies – rather he takes issue with the fact that Obama plans to cap the deduction for charitable contributions, so that those making over $250,000 get the same percentage credit for a charitable contribution as someone making less than $250,000. 

In addition to this rather minor tweak of our tax system (which Crook points out will generate a large amount of revenue thanks to the extreme concentration of wealth in our society), Crook raises the more substantial issue of how health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation, both of which he favors, are being paid for:

[T]he revenues from cap and trade are spent mainly on wage subsidies and tax cuts tilted toward the working poor. The down-payment on the cost of healthcare reform is financed by an additional tax increase on the rich.

Crook seems to be trying to conjure that bane of neo-liberals and conservatives alike – class warfare! All of this based on the assumption contained in the beginning, that Obama is “telling almost all taxpayers they can have everything for nothing.”

But is this so? Crook bases his argument on the presumption that the status quo is fair. He says that if Obama is planning on paying for health care reform without levying any additional taxes on the majority of Americans, then this majority is getting something – or in the exaggerated vernacular of those who make opinons for a living, “everything” – for nothing. 

But this same majority of Americans getting “something for nothing” here allows a very small minority to control a far disproportionate amount of resources. The legitimacy of these social bargains – whereby those with power and wealth are allowed to keep their power and wealth peaceably – rarely enters into the minds of those who benefit most from the bargain until we enter periods of unrest and instability. In many parts of the world – China, Pakistan, Russia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Iceland – the current crisis is calling into question the legitimacy of their social bargains in fundamental ways. In America, this crisis is calling into question the historically recent amendments to our social bargain from the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. 

The crisis might have prompted a sort of reactionary liberalism that sought to rollback the Reagan revolution in its entirety – much as Reagan’s reactionary conservatism sought to undo the Great Society. But instead, liberalism is guided by Barack Obama whose liberalism accepts some of Reagan’s most profound critiques and incorporates them into a new liberalism, leavened with both the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.

Clive Crook’s invocation of the lazy masses being offered everything for nothing strikes me as a more refined take on Rick Santelli’s famous rant about the “losers” who took out loans they could not pay for. What strikes me about both sentiments is the sense of who the “losers” are – not the corporations and Wall Street bankers who lost the most. To call them “losers” may be morally appropriate but rings hollow when you’re speaking about those who benefited the most from our societal bargain. These “losers” may be feeling the pressure from our flagging economy but having benefited disproportionately during the boom of the past thirty years – and especially the Bush recovery – are still quite well-off. Those who “lost” the most also had the most – and still, after losing so much, often have more than the majority of the population. The real “losers” in the complete derogatory sense of the word as the individuals who took on mortgages they could not afford and now will be left with nothing but bad credit and the knowledge that they too contributed to the financial meltdown.

In other words, the real losers are not those whose prosperity (based on fees generated from borrowed money) is diminished, but those whose prosperity was never quite achieved as they borrowed money (generating the above-mentioned fees) to acquire some portion of their American dream of prosperity.

Crook while complaining about those being offered everything for nothing fails to acknowledge the system itself which has been redistributing wealth upwards for some time now. What – a different version of Crook might ask – did the 95% of Americans receive for allowing the top 5% to control most wealth? They received the promise of a growing economy that would lift everyone up – and the assurance that certain basic services would be provided, even to the least of our citizens. So, if the wealthy will be paying $4.10 more per day to help maintain the stability of the society which has provided them with the opportunity to become so wealthy, I wouldn’t call that something for nothing.

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Process Revolutions

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Lawrence Lessig
[Photo by Robert Scobel.]

[digg-reddit-me]Lawrence Lessig described an interesting concept in his “Change Congress” presentation. He briefly mentioned an idea that I do not recall hearing before; yet this idea neatly provides a missing explanation in my understanding of change and revolution.

Throughout history, revolutions, though beginning with glorious idealism, have almost never ended well. The French Revolution was a bloody affair that devolved into totalitarianism; the revolution of Communism was likewise bloody and totalitarian; the same can be said of many of the smaller and less ideological revolutions against colonial powers and monarchies. As often as not, the main change these revolutions accomplished was to replace one evil with another.

A period of change is always a period of danger – and when the leaders of a revolution are focused on achieving hubristic goals, especially goals based on abstractions and ideology, they must resort to totalitarian means. As Arthur Koestler in Darkness at Noon wrote about a fictional Communist revolution:

The sole object of revolution was the abolition of senseless suffering. But it had turned out that the removal of this second kind of suffering was only possible at the price of a temporary enormous increase in the sum total of the first.

The great anti-totalitarian novels of the second half of the twentieth century, Brave New World, 1984, Darkness at Noon, and Animal Farm, all drove home this single insight: that ideological, goal-oriented revolution inevitably led to totalitarianism; that when revolution prioritized the ends over the means, enormous suffering was the immediate result.

The rare alternative to these goal-oriented or ideological revolutions are process revolutions. While American history has had a number of ends-focused revolutions – the original American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement – these movements all had more or less discrete goals which could be achieved (seceding from Britain; preventing the secession of the South; and ending the legal discrimination against African Americans). These were revolutions whose purpose was not to tear down the existing social and governmental structures, but to amend them in discrete ways.  The concrete nature of the goals of these revolutions in addition to extraordinary leadership1 of these movements mitigated the dangers inherent in revolution and rapid change through American history.

What Lessig points to is that there have been other less dramatic, and equally as important, revolutions in American history. Lessig cites some examples: the Second Constitutional Convention; the Progressive movement; and the Watergate reforms. These revolutions focused on creating and changing processes rather than on specific ends; their results have profoundly affected our society and have been generally beneficial, standing in stark contrast to the more extreme and more painful ideological revolutions.

Lessig suggests that today our society may be primed for another process revolution, that a political movement may be able to reform our politics in order to allow us to tackle the many festering long-term problems we face: global climate change; terrorism; growing domestic and international inequality; a broken health care system; an imbalance of power in Washington; institutional corruption; a declining manufacturing sector.  Senator John McCain in his 2000 campaign and Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign2 did and have based their candidacies on reforming our politics to allow us to tackle the more fundamental problems we must face.

Obama has taken the further step of advocating process-based change.  He does not just want universal health care; he wants to televise the task force and committee meetings, and make as many of the discussions of how to implement this idea public and available via television and the internet.  While Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, tried to push through health care reform by meeting secretly with lobbyists, cramming her bill with special deals for all sorts of special interests, and threatening members of her own party who proposed alternate plans, Obama believes that how we achieve health care reform is as important as achieving it.  With this, and many other policies, and given many of Obama’s top advisers, it is clear that an Obama presidency would attempt a process revolution to set the country back on the right track.

As you might guess – based on his focus on long-term issues and on the corruption of the political process – Lawrence Lessig was an early endorser of Barack Obama. (Lessig’s lecture referenced here, is below the fold.)


  1. George Washington; Abraham Lincoln; Martin Luther King, Jr.: all canny politicians who married idealism to pragmatism, who exercised great restraint, who called on our “better angels”, and who did not seek personal power. []
  2. Though John McCain has paid lip service to reform in his 2008 campaign, he now endorses most of the fruit of the tree he called corrupt. []

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Posted in Election 2008, Obama, Political Philosophy, Politics, Videos | 3 Comments »

A Moderate Reputation: Explaining McCain’s Changes of Heart

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

Image by Wigwam Jones.

[digg-reddit-me]The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation.
That away,
Man are but gilded loam or painted clay.
-William Shakespeare

John McCain has a reputation as an independent, a moderate and a maverick. This reputation is his greatest asset – far more important than his speaking ability or war record or anything else. It is the reason he was the Republican best positioned to keep the White House with the political tide clearly favoring the Democrats.

He built this reputation over many years by repeatedly taking stands against his party in the 1990s – on campaign finance reform, on tobacco legislation, and on pork spending – and in the early years of the Bush administration – on torture, on tax cuts, and on immigration reform – and by then staking his presidential campaign on the issue of Iraq against the political zeitgeist. But since his political near-death experience this past summer, McCain has either softened his opposition to the Republican Party line or embraced it, potentially destroying this reputation. The famous aphorism states: “Good will, like a good name, is got by many actions, and lost by one.”

So, there is a great deal at stake when the question is asked: Why did he change his positions?

For those who do not wish to give McCain the benefit of the doubt, the answer is obvious: he is pandering to win an election. For those who do wish to give McCain that benefit, the answer is less clear. Generally, the defenses of these changes in position range from denying there has been a change to explaining in various ways how the change shows consistency to a whole hodge-podge of other excuses.

As someone who was an admirer of Mr. McCain’s in 2000 and through the early years of the Bush administration; as someone who talked to and emailed all of my friends asking them to support McCain in his primary fight in 20001 ; as someone who believes that politicians are politicians even if their reputations are golden2 – I see three plausible and non-exclusive explanations for McCain’s change that are consistent with his appeal, his reputation, and his career.

1. McCain’s Last Chance for Glory

Coming into the 2008 race as the establishment candidate, McCain saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, because of his unorthodoxy.  He who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject these initial stands, these bases on which his reputation was built. This is the explanation that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have offered up:

“There was a time when some Republicans like John McCain agreed with me,” Obama said, of his calls to roll back Bush’s temporary tax cuts for the richest Americans instead of making those tax cuts permanent.

“There was a time when Senator McCain courageously defied the fiscal madness of massive tax cuts for the wealthy in the midst of a costly war,” Obama said.  “That was before he started running for the Republican nomination and fell in line.”

2. Unprincipled Moderation

McCain was never truly a conservative in the Burkean sense or a man of strong principles, but merely a political moderate who has been constantly seeking the center ground, no matter how far the center shifts. During the Reagan years, McCain comfortably held the right-center. After Bill Clinton’s election, McCain operated in the left center. In 2000, with a mainly pragmatic liberal consensus, McCain campaigned as a moderate liberal. As Bush pulled the country right, so McCain went – but this time with a bit of a lag. McCain’s response to Bush’s radicalism is to accommodate it. Now, running in a Republican primary, McCain has adapted – and running for president in the general, he will again. His “principled stands” were merely accidents of history, or perhaps occasionally orchestrated stands to enhance his reputation.

3. Manichaeism

McCain has always sought enemies in his career – and has organized all of his political positions by who he saw as the most serious enemy. The Soviet Union provided the first threat which ordered all of his political priorities, and so he entered Congress as a self-confessed ideologue, a “foot soldier” in the Reagan Revolution. He was a conservative Republican. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., he needed to find a new enemy. By the mid-1990s he settled on corruption in Washington. He backed campaign finance legislation to limit the influence of the lobbyists and big money contributors; he championed the Line Item Veto Act of 1996 to eliminate pork spending3 . Identifying another enemy he pushed to increase cigarette taxes to fund anti-smoking campaigns with the backing of the Clinton administration. When he launched his 2000 presidential campaign he said his goal was to “take our government back from the power brokers and special interests and return it to the people and the noble cause of freedom it was created to serve.” In a perfect encapsulation of his fervent yet ironic crusade, he compared his campaign to Luke Skywalker attacking the Death Star of special interests (including the Religious Right and the Republican establishment.)

After September 11, McCain had found a new enemy that was greater than the corruption of the political process and he was willing to put aside all of his domestic agenda to focus on the new enemy. So, McCain’s changes in position reflect his changing ranking of enemies.  He is willing to compromise all of his past positions because they are insignificant in the face of islamist extremism.

Concluding Thoughts

These are the three explanations that I have come up with consistent with McCain’s career, his character, and his politics. In the end, I think each explanation plays a role – but the dominant explanation seems to be the final one. It most fully explains McCain’s appeal, his reputation, and the timing of his changes. And frankly, it is the reason why I would be most wary of a McCain presidency now, at this moment in history.


  1. I also was a fan of Bill Bradley. []
  2. This includes Barack Obama – my favored candidate this go-round. []
  3. A victory which was overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1998. []

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Posted in Domestic issues, Election 2008, Foreign Policy, Iraq, McCain, Politics, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

Killing the United Nations

Monday, April 28th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Comments like these by Charles Krauthammer on McCain’s plan to create a League of Democracies1 make you realize what is at stake in the coming election:

“What I like about it, it’s got a hidden agenda,” Krauthammer said March 27 on Fox News. “It looks as if it’s all about listening and joining with allies, all the kind of stuff you’d hear a John Kerry say, except the idea here, which McCain can’t say but I can, is to essentially kill the U.N.”

It’s clear that McCain’s primary foreign policy instincts are Manichean, and that it seems likely that he would continue the worst of Bush’s policies, rather than following in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

It is only because of the contrast between the radical, ideological “conservatism” of the Bush administration that McCain’s policy positions appear reasonable today.

This “reality-based conservatism” of McCain’s led him to question the initial push to go into Iraq for a while; to stand against torture for a while; to reject Bush’s tax cuts in a time of war at first; to champion immigration reform for quite a while. But as he saw his last chance to become president slipping through his fingers, John McCain, who had once described himself as the unrepentant champion of lost causes, decided to reconcile himself to the Republican base and reject many of the principles he stood for.

Since his political near-death experience this summer, McCain has moderated his opposition to torture (refusing to extend its prohibition to the CIA), given up on immigration reform (focusing instead on cracking down on undocumented immigrants), stopped hinting to the press that he would withdraw from Iraq if there wasn’t sufficient progress (as was widely reported in the summer of 2007), embraced Bush’s tax cuts (after calling them irresponsible and regressive). Some have called this shifts part an indication of his conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. But what these observers fail to understand is the radical nature of the Bush presidency.

Edmund Burke believed that we must balance accommodation to the reality of our times with our core values. He believed in gradual change and opposed sudden changes in policy – but he also stridently opposed the radicalism of the French Revolution which had a similar foreign policy to the Bush administration, seeking to export the values of liberty, fraternity, and equality through the force of arms2

The irony is that McCain’s defenders, including Jonathan Rauch, defend his accommodations to radicalism by invoking the immutable opponent of radicalism, Edmund Burke himself.


  1. An idea which I believe could make a positive impact under certain circumstances. []
  2. As pseudoconservativewatch (an excellent Google find) explained:

    Edmund Burke invented the articulate philosophy of modern conservatism on the very basis of his critique of the French Revolution (see his Reflections on the Revolution in France). And yet in twenty-first century America, many who call themselves “conservative” are advocating a foreign policy of spreading principles of liberty and freedom to foreign countries in a manner hardly distinguishable from radical French revolutionaries. []

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Posted in Election 2008, Foreign Policy, McCain, Political Philosophy, Politics, The War on Terrorism | No Comments »

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