Posts Tagged ‘Ross Douthat’

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.

Greenwald v. Larison & Douthat

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

I had felt compelled to respond to Glenn Greenwald’s slander of Ross Douthat in his trademarkable relentless and dogmatic style — but thankfully, Daniel Larison had a thoughtful but sufficiently angry response.

Greenwald, stuck in his ideological wind tunnel, is extremely sloppy in this piece. He confuses all matter of “discrimination” and “censorship” and “threats of violence,” lumping them all together into one undifferentiated mass. His main thesis is supposedly about the equivalence of Christian censorship and Muslim censorship — but his real aim seems to be to slander Ross Douthat as an anti-Muslim bigot based on the fact that Douthat is more outraged over the prominent example of bowing to censorship regarding South Park than over an obscure case of a play in a particular Texas town.

Greenwald — in his ressentiment — loses his sense of the forest as he focuses on the trees. Larison though makes the essential point that Douthat does miss:

The far greater problem we have today is not that we are too inclined to yield to Islamist demands in Western countries, but that we are far too ready to disregard the lives, property, dignity and political rights of Muslims in their own countries if we think it might marginally enhance our physical security.

[Image by Pink Fluffy licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Google/China, Liberal American Exceptionalism, The Failed War on Drugs, Defending the Individual Mandate, Counter Counter-Insurgency, Idiocrats, and Men Did It!

Friday, March 26th, 2010

1. Google v. China. I’ve refrained from posting on the Google v. China battle going on until now. So much of the praise for Google’s decision seemed overblown and I wasn’t sure what insight I had to offer, even as I read everything on the matter I could. But now, the wave of criticism of the company is pissing me off. I get the source of the criticism – that Google is so quickly criticizing other companies for staying in China after it left, and that Google’s partial exit may have made business as well as moral sense.  But motives are new pure – we’re human. Those who the critics accuse the company of merely using as a pretext for a business decision see the matter in other terms – according to Emily Parker of the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese twitterverse is alight with words like ‘justice’ and ‘courageous’ and ‘milestone’ “ and condolence flowers and cups being sent to Google’s offices in China.

What the Google/China conflict highlights though is the strategic incompatibility of a tech company like Google and an authoritarian state like China. One of James Fallows’ readers explains why Google and China could never get along:

Internet search and analytics companies today have more access to high quality, real-time information about people, places and events, and more ability to filter, aggregate, and analyze it than any government agency, anywhere ever.  Maybe the NSA can encrypt it better and process it faster but it lacks ability to collect the high value data – the stuff that satellites can’t see.  The things people think but don’t say.  The things people do but don’t say.  All documented in excruciating detail, each event tagged with location, precise time.  Every word you type, every click you make (how many sites do you visit have google ads, or analytics?), Google is watching you – and learning.  It’s their business to.  This fact has yet to sink in on the general public in the US, but it has not gone un-noticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government wants unfettered access to all of that information.  Google, defending its long-term brand equity, cannot give its data to the Chinese government.  Baidu, on the other hand, would and does…

The reader goes on to explain how China would slow down and otherwise disrupt Google services in China enough to ensure that Baidu would keep it’s dominant position. This, he explains is:

…just another example of the PRC’s brilliant take on authoritarian government: you don’t need total control, you just need effective control. [my emphasis]

Which is why it is so important that a country like China have constant access to search engine data. In a passage deleted at some point in the editing process from a New York Times story (which an internal Times search reveals to be this one), it was reported that:

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

2. Liberal American Exceptionalism. Damon Linker of The New Republic responds to critics:

[T]he most distinctive and admirable of all [America’s] qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.

3. The War on Drugs Is Doomed. Mary Anastacia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal echoes me saying: The War on Drugs is Doomed. (My previous posts on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

4. Defending the Individual Mandate. Ezra Klein explains why the individual mandate is actually a really good deal for American citizens:

The irony of the mandate is that it’s been presented as a terribly onerous tax on decent, hardworking people who don’t want to purchase insurance. In reality, it’s the best deal in the bill: A cynical consumer would be smart to pay the modest penalty rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for insurance. In the current system, that’s a bad idea because insurers won’t let them buy insurance if they get sick later. In the reformed system, there’s no consequence for that behavior. You could pay the penalty for five years and then buy insurance the day you felt a lump.

Klein also had this near-perfect post on our unhinged debate on health care reform and added his take to the projections of Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen on how health care law will evolve in the aftermath of this legislation.

5. Counter-Counter-Insurgency. Marc Lynch describes a document he recently unearthed which he calls AQ-Iraq’s Counter Counter-insurgency plan. Lynch describes the document as “pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad’s way forward.”

6. Idiocrats Won’t Change. Brendan Nyhan counters a point I (along with many other supporters of the health care bill) have been making (here and here for example) – that once the bill passes, the misperceptions about it will be corrected by reality. I fear he may be right, but I believe it will change opinions on the margins soon and more so over time.

7. Theories of the Financial Crisis: Men Did It. Sheelah Kolhatkar looks at one theory of the financial crisis some experts have been pushing: testosterone and men.

Another study Dreber has in the works will look at the effects of the hormones in the birth-control pill on women, because women having their periods have been shown to act more like men in terms of risk-taking behavior. “When I present that in seminars, I say men are like women menstruating,” she says, laughing…

Positioning himself as a sort of endocrine whisperer of the financial system, Coates argues that if women made up 50 percent of the financial world, “I don’t think you’d see the volatile swings that we’re seeing.” Bubbles, he believes, may be “a male phenomenon.”

His colleague, neuroscientist Joe Herbert, agrees. “The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way,” he says. “Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster.”

A very interesting thesis. And one that strikes me as broadly true. I previously explored other theories of what caused the financial crisis:

[Image by me.]

The Unhinged Anger on the Right Leads to An Ill-Advised and Unhedged Bet Against Reform.

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

There are 2 broad lessons to take from last night:

1. Unhinged Anger Makes For Great Ratings.

Hell no!” John Boehner frothed, spittle flying as he cursed on the floor of Congress yesterday.

“This health care bill will ruin our country. It’s time to stop it…We’re about 24 hours from Armageddon,” Boehner had claimed earlier.

Baby killer!” an as yet-unnamed Republican congressman screamed at pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak on Sunday.

Nigger!” a chorus of protesters chanted to Rep. John Lewis, who also heard such things while being beaten nearly to death fighting for civil rights in the 1960s on Saturday.

Faggot!” screeched other protesters at Barney Frank that same day.

Just a few days earlier, a disturbing video recorded a man barely able to walk due to Parkinson’s disease being mocked and ridiculed by anti-health care Tea Party protesters.

A short time before that, a conservative millionaire was promising guns to “patriots” concerned about “what was coming.”

This overheated Manichean good-vs-evil rhetoric in which slight changes in wording transform you from a pro-lifer to a “baby-killer,” in which subsidies for the uninsured constitute a “government takeover,” or in which America is about to be overrun by destroyed yet again eventually must discredit it’s purveyors. At least, it must decrease in its effect over time.

Common sense has taught people that “when there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And Republican operatives epitomized by Karl Rove have taken advantage of this. Top-line Republican operatives have adopted with more vigor than the left ever did the tactics of the radical New Left of the 1960s: from attacks on the legitimacy of political institutions (from the CBO – which Rove accused of Madoff-style accounting this weekendto the Senate Parliamentarian to Congress to the Courts to the media to presidency) to the maxim that the “personal is political.” Unlike the New Left, they have virtually no agenda but to hold onto power and to, having lost it due to incompetence, tarnish the other side enough to get it back. Their hysteric charges represent the triumph of moral relativism. Their escalating outrage is an attempt to fool the American people.

This is how the rage has been created over a bill whose provisions are broadly popular and that is based on a plan offered by Republicans a generation earlier. David Frum cogently explained last night how even those Republicans “who knew better” were driven to bend before this unhinged anger that led the Republican Party to take an unhedged bet against reform, how it provoked them to declare this fight a make-or-break fight, and to take out all stops to their opposition, even though they stood little chance of succeeding:

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

…Yes [such talk] mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

That’s point #1: Cynical politicos out for short-term partisan gain and entertainers trying to get ratings foment unhinged anger to push their party to make a suicidal unhinged bet against reform.

Point #2. This Was Waterloo.

The Republican Party made a huge wager that they could block health care reform, and lost. Senator Jim DeMint rather infamously declared in a secret call to anti-reform advocates:

If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.

Newt Gingrich echoed this point:

This could be the bill that drags his whole presidency down and they look back on it and suddenly the whole thing is unraveled.

Ralph Reed wrote in an email last week:

Our goal: To shock Congress into abandoning Obamacare (which will also effectively end the Obama Presidency and save freedom in America).

That was their game plan, their goal. They wanted a repeat of 1994. Their strategy in opposing the bill presumed it would never be able to pass. They escalated the rhetoric to insane levels. The less hysterical merely called it the “government takeover of 1/6th of the economy.” Bent on manipulating public opinion, the more cynical asked “innocent” questions:

Will America become another failed Cuba-style Socialist state? [Source.]

Do you think your political affiliation might eventually play into the decision on whether you get the life-saving medical treatment you need? [Source.]

A nation of Terri Schiavos with a National Euthanasia Bill? [Source.]

The more hysterical began to panic about legislation containing death panels, killing grandma, forcing government-mandated abortion, euthanasia, and reparations for slavery, authorizing government jackboots invading your home to take your children for socialist indoctrination, and overall, destroying America as we know it unless we arm ourselves and “prepare for what is coming.”

As the American people find out the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “No!” – as they find out that the claims were made to monger fear for partisan gain – and that the bill that a plurality of people oppose contains mainly provisions that most people support – as the reality of this reform sinks in, the Republican Party will lose traction. As David Sanger quoted David Axelrod in the New York Times:

“This only worked well for the Republican Party if it failed to pass,” David Axelrod, one of the president’s closest political advisers, said at the White House as he watched the vote count for the final bill reach 219 in favor. “They wanted to run against a caricature of it rather than the real bill. Now let them tell a child with a pre-existing condition, ‘We don’t think you should be covered.’”

Now that the bill has been passed, we can focus on whether the health care plan’s tinkering with our dysfunctional system is making things better or not – as Ross Douthat says. And we can focus on the 10 things health care legislation will do right away. Obama can make his case for what he is doing (again to Sanger): “to sell the government’s oversight role over doctors and insurance companies the way he is trying to sell financial regulation: as a leveling of the playing field, in favor of consumers.” The passage of the bill re-shapes the coverage from “what could happen” to “what it is doing.” And the Democrats are more comfortable with that argument. Perhaps most frightening of all for Republicans, if this bill accomplishes what its supporters claim it will, it will re-shape the political landscape – as Bill Kristol explained in warning Republicans against cooperating in 1994:

It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining the growth of government.

This won’t necessarily benefit the Democrats. Republicans don’t need to keep doubling down on their anti-government rhetoric; but for the present, it seems they will.

Today, the most profound effect though is a different one. By passing this bill, Obama has proved he has yet again broken the backs of the idiocrats who threw every rhetorical, legislative, and political obstacle at him. He has showed the patience and passion which won him the presidency can be translated into presidential achievements. The bill only tinkers. It isn’t dramatic reform. But it’s core accomplishment is dramatic: a change to our core social bargain; as explained by James Fallows:

[T]he significance of the vote is moving the United States FROM a system in which people can assume they will have health coverage IF they are old enough (Medicare), poor enough (Medicaid), fortunate enough (working for an employer that offers coverage, or able themselves to bear expenses), or in some other way specially positioned (veterans; elected officials)… TOWARD a system in which people can assume they will have health-care coverage.

This is an historic achievement. It is a moral one, and it is, counter intuitively, an important step towards controlling societal spending on health care.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Mining Right Wing Critiques for Some Honesty

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

I’ve gotten tired of being outraged at every self-serving lie and every new line crossed and picking apart idiotic arguments by right wingers. This served some purpose during the campaign – and I believe it is important to do when disinformation campaigns are being waged (as during August of the health care debate). But it is not what I feel most comfortable doing.

At the same time, I believe Republicans are undermining the two-party system and our democratic institutions by using their considerable clout to promote fantastical claims and lies about the efforts of their opponents instead of engaging in more pragmatic or fair-minded criticisms. Right wingers who back the Republicans have likewise mainly fallen into this trap – aside from a few notable exceptions (Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, David Brooks.)One of my goals then will be to not only promote these individuals – as Andrew Sullivan for example is – but to read the propagandist crap from more mainstream right wingers and mine it for legitimate criticism.

I’ve had this thought in my head for a few weeks – and have been reading wit this in mind. But when reading items like this by Steve Huntley in the Chicago Sun Times, it becomes very difficult:

Someone’s brain is clearly addled – for there is nothing contradictory about claiming you inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression (which it technically was) and that it is even worse than was thought (especially as several weeks after Biden’s remark, the Department of Commerce released the official statistics revising its statistics down for the past year as it periodically does.)

It amazes me that such paragraphs get past an editor.

Other concerns – while perhaps legitimate – are so self-serving they are hard to reconcile with past views. For example, Wesley Smith over at National Review‘s The Corner did not from my reading of him bring up the subject of the “rule of law” at all during George W. Bush’s presidency. However, now he brings it up with a hard criticism of the Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana:

Part of the sleight of hand here is a subtle mischaracterization of the change. Obama is not “refusing to enforce federal marijuana laws” but rather shifting resources away from targeting these groups, or as Devlin Barrett of the Associated Press described it, prosecutors will be told that “it is not a good use of their time to arrest people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state law.” And Smith doesn’t acknowledge the long tradition (he refers only to Andrew Jackson) of presidents refusing to enforce laws as part of the checks and balances described in most textbooks on the Constitution. Smith also ignores the far more serious violations of the rule of law that Bush committed in actually ordering the law be broken and declaring it void when it violated his duty to protect Americans.

This sudden concern for the rule of law – concern suggesting it was incredibly fragile and can be destroyed in an instant – seems to reinforce the point I made earlier – that the strong positions taken by conservatives regarding curbing executive power and discretion are entirely unprincipled. They have everything to do with the fact that a liberal is now in power and will be abandoned again when they have power.

However, I did find one conservative critique I could endorse: Marie Gryphon’s piece in the National Review that makes the case against scapegoating Ken Lewis of Bank of America. To blame him for accepting the deal he did – especially given the amount of pressure he was under from Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and those working with them is ridiculous. Whether or not there is a legal case against him, it should not be pursued.

Reevaluating George W. Bush’s Legacy

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I think Ross Douthat gets something rather right in his column today – though I can’t quite endorse his thesis wholeheartedly. One glaring omission from Douthat’s analysis of the Bush presidency is the overall War on Terror – and especially the extraordinary legal measures Bush took in the aftermath of September 11, from instituting a policy of torture to various executive power grabs to the twin wars in the Middle East.

But what Douthat gets right is that Bush’s presidency was truly radical and ideological in the first term and caused significant damage to America’s power, both its base at home and in its influence abroad. And then, Bush spent most of his last term moderating these excesses and trying to undo the damage he had caused. In Douthat’s words:

America has had its share of disastrous chief executives. But few have gone as far as Bush did in trying to repair their worst mistakes. Those mistakes were the Iraq war — both the decision to invade and the conduct of the occupation — and the irrational exuberance that stoked the housing bubble. The repairs were the surge, undertaken at a time when the political class was ready to abandon Iraq to the furies, and last fall’s unprecedented economic bailout.

Both fixes remain controversial. But for the moment, both look like the sort of disaster-averting interventions for which presidents get canonized. It’s just that in Bush’s case, the disasters he averted were created on his watch.

This capacity to turn around and change (always while avoiding manning up and taking the blame) is one of the core components of Bush’s presidency. But one must also look to the damage Bush did to our civil institutions in the name of the War on Terror; one must look to the effects of avoiding taking any serious action on climate change; one must look at the fiscal shape he left America in heading into a time when we needed greater government spending.

I once wrote a post defending George W. Bush’s legacy – arguing that he had been just bad enough to exacerbate our longstanding problems without escalating them beyond the point of no return – and that he had created a unique moment where the next president who I believed would be Obama would be able to take advantage of the situation. But given the the financial crisis and the continuing domestic polarization over War on Terror policies, I’m not sure how true this still is.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Ross Douthat’s Snap Judgment

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Up and coming conservative (and big Jindal fan) Ross Douthat’s snap judgment from Tuesday night of Bobby Jindal’s response to Obama’s not quite State of the Union:

If that’s the best the Right has to offer as a rebuttal to Obama, American liberalism is going to be running untouched down the field for years to come.

Health Care’s Place in Obamanomics

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

This tidbit from James Pethokoukis’s blog over as USN&WR makes me want to read Douthat’s and Salam’s new book:

Another interesting healthcare reform option is highlighted by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in the book Grand New Party. Uncle Sam would require individuals and families to put 15 percent of their income into health savings accounts. If you run out of money before year-end, the government steps in. If you don’t, you get the money back or it rolls over into a retirement account.

This idea seems to have promise – though without seeing the ancillary details, there are some glaring issues with it on process grounds, even as you can see the proposal working out ratehr well under most circumstances in the world. It seems to penalize those with families, by reducing their retirement funds; those without an income would not have to face the trade-off that seems essential to their system working – choosing between retirement savings and health care; and preventive medicine would seem to be discouraged, although it is seen by most wonks as the surest way to reduce overall health care costs. Why get a regular check-up if you’re depleting your retirement savings to do so?

The plan seems designed mainly to tackle two political problems – the lack of health insurance for many Americans; and the moral hazard of having unrestricted access to health care. It’s rather ingenious, even if I’m not sure that the second factor should be taken too seriously. People want to avoid going to the doctor – or at least I do. This policy almost seems designed to create a massive sociological experiment. Aside from short-term medical emergencies, people would be forced to create health care and retirement strategies that balanced their long-term financial needs with their short-term health care decisions. Should I get the botox, or save more for retirement? Should I schedule this regular check-up? Should I spend money on these various preventive steps and live longer – or save more so I can spend my fewer years in a splendid retirement?

I’m sure it’s worth checking out the book just to see what other ideas Salam and Douthat have to reinvigorate conservatism.

But for now, Obama’s plan – or some variation between the rather similar Clinton, Obama, and Edwards plans – is the right way to go. It’s the shortest route to improving our current mess.

The core problem we need to solve though isn’t that our health insurance system as currently instituted is flawed, but that health insurance as the primary means of dealing out health care is flawed. Politically, the Obama/Clinton/Edwards path of patching up the current system is the only feasible one at the moment – to improve the status quo marginally. But there are far too many perverse incentives – for health insurance companies, for patients, for doctors in a health insurance system.

Of course, James Pethokoukis has greater things on his mind than our rotten health care system. He seems to be concerned that if Obama is able to pass a program that actually gives substantial benefits to Americans, it will move America to the left. Which is why he has now declared that it is the responsibility of the Republicans to stop this idea or face destruction. After all – the average American hasn’t seen much improvement in their lives as a result of the government in a long time. His theory is, once a competent liberal is able to pass a plan that substantially improves a problem in the lives of many Americans, then people will abandon the anti-government rhetoric of the conservative movement and abandon the program of incessant and regressive tax cuts.

The fear of socialism lingers like a spectre.

So, Pethokoukis proposes Republicans do anything they can to stop “Obamacare,” in order to save themselves. His little speech reminds me of a football coach trying to psych his team up for the game. But he’s playing with fire.

In light of this market disaster, this financial earthquake, some necessary changes are required to be made to our grand social bargain. Free trade is a good thing – but it creates chaos in it’s wake. The financial crisis is just the latest symptom. Obamanomics is a pragmatic, liberal approach to treating the core disease – which is not free trade or globalization, but destabilization. Obamanomics does not ideologically prescribe government intervention as Reaganomics proscribed it. Rather, it is a series of pragmatic first steps. It does not have as it’s goal the creation of some Great Society as previous versions of liberalism did; and it also does not merely try to find a Third Way between the Left and Right as Clinton did.

The key factor in understanding Obamanomics is that it does not force it’s values in the hoped for end result, but instead in the processes of getting there. Rather than imagining a perfect world and attempting to bring America to this goal, Obamanomics tries to improve what is already here, especially by instituting processes that inherently reflect core values like transparency, accountability, fairness, a long-term strategic orientation, and an aversion to government coercion.

A Liberal Defends George W. Bush’s Legacy

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Or, how George W. Bush has been just awful enough

[Photo by schani licensed under the Creative Commons and found here.]

Many liberals argue that George W. Bush’s presidency has been an unmitigated disaster; most libertarians see George W. Bush as the worst thing to happen to America since our government interned hundreds of thousands of Americans purely based on race and expanded government involvement in the economy at the same time. Even many conservatives now see George Bush’s tenure as a series of betrayals. The past eight years have been a dark time – with the specter of terrorism hanging over our lives – with an economy that has only benefited the elites – with America’s standing and influence in the world dropping precipitously – and with a government flailing about in attempts to prevent the next attack, attempts that have primarily succeeded in undermining our inherent liberties.

There is clearly a broad consensus that the Bush presidency has been a failure. A recent poll of historians recently ranked George W. Bush’s presidency as the worst in history; late last year, The Atlantic ran a cover story asking what lessons we can learn from Bush’s failed presidency; the American people have given George W. Bush the lowest approval ratings for a president since polls have been taken; and recent news reports have shown that over three quarters of Americans believe our country is on the wrong track. The consensus clearly is that Bush’s presidency has failed. It’s true that a number of conservatives have tried to defend Bush – Ross Douthat for example pointed out that Bush’s disasters do not rival the catastrophes of Civil War or Great Depression yet. But even the group considered the architect of many of Bush’s policies – the neo-conservatives, have begun to argue – as have failed ideologues again and again throughout history – that it was not that their ideas that failed – rather their ideas were never truly tried. Bush must know he is in trouble when even the neoconservatives are attacking him as weak and ineffective – or to use the term they use, “liberal”.

Having a somewhat contrary nature, I’m not so sure this almost universal consensus is true.

While I do see Bush’s presidency as a disaster, I believe a kind of redemption can be found in this disaster because Bush’s presidency: (a) could have been much worse; and (b) has created a unique historical opportunity.

My postulate is that George W. Bush’s presidency has been just bad enough to avoid destroying the core institutions that form the backbone of our society while creating a virtuous backlash that will strengthen these institutions in the long term. Bush has abused his power just enough, and aggravated festering issues just enough, and presided over a decline that was so sudden that he has created near ideal conditions to move the country in a positive direction.

Throughout history, the price of radicalism has been steep and the chances of reversing deep-seated trends has been long. Conservatives who opposed the social welfare programs of the New Deal tried and failed for a generation to rollback the programs that Franklin Delano Rooselvelt instituted in the wake of a Republican-abetted disaster. Unsuccessful and marginalized, these conservatives finally settled on a strategy of indirection. They called this strategy “starve-the-beast.” Seeing that they could not win by attacking the institutions of the New Deal directly, they decided to deliberately increase government spending to irresponsible levels while cutting taxes – which would leave no choice for a hypothetical future administration but to raise taxes massively or to reduce the size of government. 1 These conservatives realized that the only way to achieve the ends they sought was to create a set of circumstances that proved their opponents wrong, to discredit, through their actions, the basis of liberalism and create a virtuous backlash against excessive governance. They had seen that effective change throughout history had only occurred when the reigning ideology was proved bankrupt by circumstances. These conservatives believed that if they could undermine the credibility of government enough, their ideology would be the only alternative.

Unfortunately for these conservatives, whatever George W. Bush’s intentions were, his administration has been the most effective proponent of liberalism in modern times – as it demonstrated the bankruptcy of contemporary conservatism, undermined the credibility of the Republican Party, and created precisely opposite virtuous backlash than which they intended.

Bush’s effectiveness in advancing the goals he stood against comes has taken several interrelated forms:

  • Theoretical extremism: Although Bush has asserted virtually unlimited power – to torture, to detain anyone without charges, to engage in military action and wiretap without congressional approval – he has been relatively modest in his use of what he asserts are near unlimited powers. This has allowed significant forces to grow in opposition to this power grab without the widespread societal chaos that would have arisen out of a president fully exerting the powers he has claimed. (If Bush used the powers he asserts are his on a greater scale in America, our society would clearly be a totalitarian one. Instead, we remain a fragile liberal democracy until either Bush’s assertions of power are repudiated or are fully asserted.)
  • Overuse of a single method: Karl Rove directed three national campaigns – using national security, patriotism, and September 11 as partisan tools to bludgeon the Democrats. In each successive election dominated by these themes though, they lost effectiveness until 2006 when finally, they ceased being the controlling factor as the people – fooled for some of the time – handed an historic loss to the Republican Party. (If Karl Rove hadn’t used these themes so promiscously and shamelessly, more people might have put stock in the current smear campaign and fear-mongering being used against Obama and the Democrats.)
  • Exacerbating existing conditions: Bush has accelerated a number of longstanding trends: towards domestic inequality and the stratification of Americans into a class-like system; towards the decline in America’s power in the world; towards the government’s fiscal insolvency; towards the expansion of executive power; and towards the increase in the price of oil. This acceleration has exacerbated these issues so as to make them more noticeable.
    A lobster will not realize it is being cooked if it placed in a pot of water at room temperature and gradually boiled to death. In the same way, many Americans did not realize the dangers and the extent of the changes to American society that have been ongoing since at least the 1970s. The Bush administration – in a number of areas – raised the temperature fast enough and carelessly enough that many people have begun to notice. (If the price of oil had increased more regularly, people would be less worried about how it would be affecting them – and less attention would be paid to the largest transfer of wealth in human history that is currently taking place. If Iraq hadn’t demonstrated the limits to American power, it might have taken much longer for policy-makers to realize that we no longer live in a unipolar world.)
  • Suddenness: The suddenness of America’s decline in relevancy has led to a widespread desire for America to re-assume some leadership role with the next president – a desire reflected most significantly in the worldwide and domestic support for Barack Obama.

Bush has – in almost every respect – pointed America in the direction it needs to go. He has demonstrated what not to do. It is hard to imagine the libertarian or the progressive movements achieving their widespread support and strength if not for Bush’s presidency.

This election cycle has already demonstrated the strength of two responses to the Bush administration’s legacy – the libertarian response as embodied in the unlikely success of Ron Paul and the progressive response as embodied in the progressive netroots which powered Obama’s campaign. As a card-carrying civil libertarian and a lifelong progressive, Barack Obama has an opportunity to synthesize these two competing movements – to create a rough political consensus of the next steps we need to take. (I’ve written before both about how the libertarian movement and liberalism seem to be converging and about how Obama represents some part of this.) However, Obama’s vote for the FISA Amendments Act was a poor start to the creation of this alliance – as he took a position in defiance of both of these movements.

In a very real sense George W. Bush’s legacy depends on how well the next president is able to capitalize on the opportunity given to him – in this campaign and in his potential presidency. The final judgment on Bush will not be knowable when he leaves office. Rather, some years later we will be able to make a definitive judgment – after we see how intractable the problems he leaves for his successor are and when we see what precedents the next president will reject and which he will build upon. Bush may be forgiven for his disrespect for the Constitution if the next president repudiates these precedents. (After all, Washington was forgiven for Hamilton’s army; Lincoln was forgiven for becoming a tyrant for several weeks; and FDR was forgiven for trying to pack the Supreme Court.)

But while I argue that Bush’s primary legacy is that of a uniter-not-a-divider whose presidency set America on a better path, this rosy evaluation of Bush’s legacy still leaves three areas uncovered – areas in which Bush created unique problems rather than exacerbating existing ones: Iraq, the War on Terror, and global climate change.

Complications

Iraq

It is hard to imagine another president invading Iraq under the circumstances that George W. Bush did. The many American and the far more Iraqi dead that resulted from this foolish gamble, this dumb war, will surely burden his soul and must undermine any positive legacy he leaves behind. Even assuming the best of intentions, the Iraq war has proved to be a strategic blunder that has empowered Iran, destabilized the region, inspired more extremism, degraded our military, and only achieved the removal of minor antagonist. Making this strategic error worse was the hubris and idiocy that dogged every step of the occupation. Although our alliance of convenience with the Sunni extremists who were fighting us just a few months ago has helped to stabilize Iraq and even given the recent show of independence by the Iraqi president in his call for us to set a firm date of withdrawl, Iraq still has a long way to go before we can get out of this quagmire. Until we get out, the Iraq war will continue to eat our resources, undermine our global position, and strengthen our enemies.

The War on Terror

Domestically, the Bush administration has done virtually nothing to harden potential targets of terrorism – allowing the use of the funds appropriated for this purpose to be pissed away on pork barrel spending. The main steps it has taken within America seem designed primarily to expand executive power rather than to achieve any particular goals related to terrorism – asserting the power to crush the testicles of a potential terrorist’s child, to detain individuals without charges for indefinite periods of time, to torture, and to ignore any laws that limit the president’s power. Abroad, the Bush administration squandered our best opportunity to destroy Al Qaeda when it began to shift resources to Iraq and away from those who attacked us. The nexus of world terrorism shifted as a result of the War on Terror from the center of Afghanistan to the lawless areas of the Afghani-Pakistani border – where Chechnyan islamists, the remants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, veterans of the Zaraqawi’s Iraqi campaign, and other terrorists from around the world are now working together and with greater freedom than at any time since the attacks on September 11. The successes we have had in the War on Terror seem largely to be the fruits of our failures – as the islamist ideology has proven to be an unattractive one once it begins to rule any territory.

Global Climate Change

It is hard to imagine another president ignoring the growing signs and consensus of global climate change so steadfastly. The eight years the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases has wasted ignoring the problem – despite the near universal consensus of the scientific community – have made more drastic steps necessary to correct the problem before it is too late. What other president – with a legacy on climate change such as this – would have bragged at a recent G8 summit about being the “world’s biggest polluter“?

Conclusions

Lincoln Chafee, the Republican Senator from Rhode Island, observed upon first meeting Bush that Bush did not seem up to the job of being president. The past several years have proved this observation prescient. I cannot argue that Bush’s actions have been wise, although I do generally think that they have been well-intentioned. 2 But while George W. Bush and his administration have committed petty crimes, war crimes, and constitutional violations, attacked liberties, advocated the preemptive surrender of American values, usurped independent branches of the government for partisan ends, and caused the injury and death of thousands of Americans citizens and citizens of the world – it is Bush who created this moment – this moment for renewal that has traditionally been what sets America apart.

While Ron Paul believed we needed a revoliution to begin to reverse the growing encroachment of government (even if that required the exploitation of poisonous racial resentments) – all we really needed was George W. Bush.

If America truly is a great nation – and in order to redeem the vision of the Constitution of the Founding Fathers, of that great address of Abraham Lincoln, of the square deal of Teddy Roosevelt and the four freedoms of his cousin, of the city on the hill that an old Hollywood actor once invoked – we must take advantage of this opportunity. The American moment is now – as all of us, feeling the fierce urgency of now, must work to restore the America that we grew up believing in – to restore the ideal and to form a more perfect union. Throughout the dark times in American history, Americans have believed and fought for this idea of America – to make this idea a reality and to protect this idea from the encroachments of tyranny and totalitarianism.

Change doesn’t come easy – but the greatest legacy of George W. Bush is that he has made it easier – and given us this opportunity to create a more perfect union. There will be obstacles and compomises in the days ahead – but (yes) we can achieve real change. Bush, more than anyone, deserves responsibility for that.

  1. What else but this strategy could explain Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s massive deficit spending? []
  2. I know there are many who disagree. []