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Politics and Economics

Wednesday, June 30, 2004
In the American Prospect today Matt Yglesias suggests that there is little that a President can do to affect the economy. Now while I generally agree with the thrust of his article, I think he is wrong on this point for a couple of reasons.

You might argue that Presidents are too dependent on Congress to effect the economy. However, Presidents can shape economic policy when they control Congress. So Bill Clinton deserves credit for any benefit derived from his 1993-94 fiscal policy, Reagan from his 1981-82 policies (he had working control of the House because of the Boll Weevils), and Bush for the entire four year term.

More importantly, Matt is missing the crucial importance of fiscal policy on the state of the economy. Short-term deficits can help boost demand, while large structural deficits can result in a rise in interest rates and a decline in the currency. Also, the nature of the tax burden can effect economic growth. The problem with the Bush tax and spending cuts is that it has shifted the economic burden onto the middle class consumers, who are the main engine of economic growth.

So I would contend that the Presidents are not just prisoners of the business cycle. When they can get their hand on the fiscal policy tiller, have a real ability to help the economy, or drive it into the ground. We should hold Bush accountable. Democrats are better stewards of the economy because our policies are not only fairer, but more effective. We should not be afraid to say so.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:23 PM

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Politics and Philosophy

Tuesday, June 29, 2004
There is a very interesting debate going on over at Brad DeLong's website about Rawls and Hume. It has degenerated into a discussion about utilitarianism, but nevertheless I have been impressed with the quality of the debate.

Which got me to thinking about the relationship (if any) between political theory and politics. This website is in an effort to bridge the gap between abstract and practical political considerations- it is up to you to decide how effective I have been. But some might argue that high-flown philosophical and historical notions have little purchase on the day-to-day political fracas. Which is one reason I think we as liberals are getting clobbered.

The conservatives have for years been peddling a flawed Randian moral psychology and getting away with it. Liberal politicians have called them mean and liberal philosophers have either ignored or dissected them, but there has been little cooperation between the two (with the exception of Bill Galston), which is why I think the right has been so successful. The difference between liberal and conservative philosophy has little to do with the intellectual merits- there is almost no serious thinker who thinks conservatives have a clue, which might be why the right is always bashing academia. No, the difference between right and left intellectualism is that conservatives have thought through ways to articulate their position in a way comprehensible to the public, and in doing so have not only been able to shift the political debate in their favor but also keep their team united. Nothing aids cooperation like knowing you're on the same team.

This rhetorical failure of the left has real consequences. It has enabled conservatives to persuade large sections of the public to their way of thinking. And the bigger problem is that, unlike 19th century conservatism, 20th century conservatism is without merit- it is simply wrong. It is so wrong it is antithetical to the democracy, something we are only now beginning to realize.

What the left needs is an understanding of political rhetoric. Conventional rhetoric is simply the ability to persuade, but high rhetoric allows its practicioners to close the gap between the conventional political discourse and more abstract reasoning. In short, is packages philosophical notions into digestible morsels. Reagan was spectacularly good at this. And this is also where Bill Clinton really let us down- unlike a Cuomo or a Kennedy, he was never able to communicate broader themes to the public. Instead, he operated within Reagan's paradigm and became a prisoner of it.

So we need our liberal philosophers (whether they be utilitarians, rawlsians, communitarians, or what) to huddle with our political strategists. Which means we need people who can talk to and synthesize the thinking of both.

Any takers?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:12 PM

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Some more nuance

Monday, June 28, 2004
First of all, I would like to apologize for not writing this weekend. On the one hand, I was being lazy. On the second, my wife and I were spending a lot of time together, and how could anyone fault me for that?

Now to the main subject. I don't know if Amy Sullivan wrote her post a few days ago in response to what I wrote (forwarded my blog to her), but whatever it was she apparently has been attacked a lot.

Here's how she responds to her critics:

For starters, here is what I'm not suggesting.

I do not think that we should have a Christian government. There are currently in Congress legislative proposals that would make this country a theocracy -- you might want to direct your ire toward them instead.

I do not think that a political candidate has to be personally religious. (We do know that Americans do not seem to be terribly open to electing avowed secular or areligious candidates, but that is another matter.)

I do not think that we should trample on the separation between church and state -- the wall is just as important for protecting churches from the state as it is keeping the state free from the influence of religion.

I do not support the Administration line that religious individuals and communities have been discriminated against and are oppressed.

And, no, I'm not suggesting liberals do what conservatives have and use religion as a political tool. That merely weakens political discourse and undermines the prophetic power of religion.

So where does that leave us? With my basic point: You cannot dismiss the 87% of the population who say that religion is an important part of their lives. Some of those people will always vote with the Republican Party, no matter what Democrats say or do -- that's fine. Some of those people are true-blue Democrats and vote with the party despite its traditional hostility to religion -- great. But in the middle is a group of conflicted voters.

What they care about is inequality (whether issues of poverty or corporate greed or globalization), about stewardship (using our economic and environmental resources wisely), about the morality of war and treatment of prisoners. Their concern for these issues often springs from their religious beliefs. And yet when they go to the polls, their choice is between a party that tells them that it's okay to be religious and a party that says they need to divorce their faith from their political decisions. So they vote, more often than not, with the Republicans. Or, they vote uneasily for the Democrats -- as I'm writing this, I've just received a message from a reader who says, "The Bush presidency is such a disaster that the Dems will not lose me, even though they do not make me feel too welcome in their party."

(By the way, plenty of readers write with variations of, "Well, if they don't feel comfortable or welcome, they can leave." They do. That's why the Democrats are in the minority. Thanks very much for that helpful and oh-so-tolerant thought.)

I understand that a lot of people are uncomfortable with the religiosity of Bush and Ashcroft and many religious conservatives. I am, too. But it should go without saying that they are not representative of all people of faith, that you can oppose how they have co-mingled religion and politics without decreeing that religion should never be mentioned in the context of politics.

Martin Luther King Jr. rarely talked about religious values without connecting them to democratic ideals. He understood that you cannot appeal to people purely on the basis of a specific religious tradition. But he also understood how powerful religion was in influencing the way that so many people think. To wish it wasn't so is not useful.

To end on a personal note, I write about this subject not -- as some have suggested -- because I, as a person of faith, feel harrassed and discriminated against. I use myself as an example only to say that if I (a former Daschle and Bonior staffer with a half dozen Democratic campaigns under my belt) sometimes feel alienated by the way that liberals and Democrats talk about religion, then countless people slightly to the right of me on the political spectrum feel that way as well. Again, you can pretend that isn't so and you can say that you don't need those voters anyway -- I hope you're comfy in the minority party.

Now I certainly hope that she isn't including me in the group accusing her of trying to impose a theocracy. And here arguments on the practical advantage of reaching out to moderate evangelicals is absolutely correct. What I was suggesting in my post was that while the political calculus certainly pointed in the direction of incorporating spiritual arguments into the liberal agenda (which we did all the time before the 1960's), this strategy is morally suspect from the perspective of democratic theory and institutional stability. I'm looking at Amy's plan from a philosophical and moral point of view, rather than a prudential one.

So what am I saying, as opposed to what she's saying? Well, as far as I can tell, Amy thinks that liberals are only going to be able to build a political majority if they accomodate themeselves to the religious character of American life. And I respond by stating that using ANY religous justification from ANY religious tradition violates the terms of democratic discourse. So I'm siding with those who Amy claims want to exclude religion from the public square. Amy seems to think that we can use religous arguments to support liberal policies without inviting the problems involved with mixing church and state. All I'm saying is that I don't think that's really possible. Employing religious justifications into politics, even in the most general terms, is to introduce religion into politics. And we aren't supposed to do that.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:11 PM

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Supreme Court & Executive Secrecy

Friday, June 25, 2004
Unlike some liberals, I am all for executive secrecy. The President cannot get good advice if everything is going to show up in the papers the next day. I even think the NYT vs. Sullivan decision prohibiting prior restraint might have been mistaken. However, I simply cannot find a rational explanation for the Supreme Court's decision to delay a case involving the release of executive documents, particularly since the case is over two years old (I'm not sure about this though- can someone check it out?).

If they simply rejected the case, I could understand it. But to argue that providing the documents and/or being deposed would be unduly onerous to the President is simply outrageous. Have we forgotten the Clinton administration? Bill's presidency was brought to a halt by endless fishing expeditions. What was the court's rationale then> Why, that executive privilege does not protect the administration when there is reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. So how is this different from now?

I'll tell you what I think is the real reason that they are delaying any case- they don't want it to effect the election. Now why would that be?

P.S. I know Breyer voted with the majority. Don't ask me to explain it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:10 PM

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Fahrenheit 9/11

Thursday, June 24, 2004
I just saw the movie last night, and it was a lot of fun. The threater was packed, and there were a lot of liberal groups and media waiting for us when it let out. The piece at the beginning where it was Al Gore's election night "victory" got me a little choked up, as did the coverage of a woman who lost her son in Iraq. It was pretty strong stuff.

While it was certainly a very entertaining movie, and the best liberal propaganda I've ever seen (I mean that in a good way), Moore did play close to the line. He implies a stronger connection between Bush and the Bin Laden family (through the Carlyle group) than may be the case. People could come away with the idea that Bush and Osama were buddies from way back, which isn't quite right. It actually reminds me a little of how Bush & Co. through sheer rhetorical sleight of hand encouraged a belief in an Iraq-9/11 connection.

These quibbles aside, it was a powerful film. No independent who watches it is going to vote for Bush, which I think is the point. And the most damning critique is no image created by Moore: it is the pictures of a weak and stupid man sitting in a chair not knowing what to do, and so doing nothing.

Go see it. That's an order.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:09 PM

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Religion and Politics

Wednesday, June 23, 2004
I have enormous respect for Amy Sullivan's work at Political Aims, but today I'm going to pick a fight with her. Her principal issue is the relationship between Democrats and religion. I think most of her points are well taken: the Democrats are going to find it very difficult to win elections in America, the western world's most religious nation, without an understanding of how to speak to those powerful spiritual sentiments. And for strictly prudential reasons, I think this concern is appropriate. For example, the only two Democrats who have been elected in the last generation have been two Baptist Southerners.

But all this utilitarian calculus really misses the point. It may be smart to talk religion, is it appropriate in a democratic society to allow religion to enter into the public square? And I think the answer is clearly no. And that is why secularists are so unwilling to do so, even though they know it would be good politics.

There are good reasons for excluding religion from politics. When religious debates enter the political arena, the discussion quickly rises to the level of moral absolutes- one's opponents are not mistaken or misguided, but malevolent. Partisan debate then becomes much more virulent, and perhaps violent. Which is why we took religion off the political table in the first place. There were simply too many bodies.

And if religious justifications are used for policy discussions, then religious minorities are inevitably going to be discriminated against by religious majorities, who will be able to manipulate the coercive powers of the state to impose their spiritual vision. We should not forget that the acceptance of contemporary religions to religious pluralism is out of practicality, not conviction. It would be dangerous to open that door again.

Furthermore, religion is usually corrupted by its involvement in politics. Ambitious leaders parade their religions on their sleeves to win support while suborning church leaders and often pursuing agendas that have nothing to do with faith. And all too many prominent church leaders who have dabbled in politics have been caught with their pants down, either figuratively or literally. Look at the effect that its alliance with the medieval Kings and Emperors had on the Catholic church. Let's just say it wasn't pretty.

So the introduction of religion in politics is morally suspect, harmful to the democratic discourse, and dangerous for the purity of the church. Does this mean that people should just leave their religion at the door when political disputes challenge their deeply held beliefs? Not entirely. As Rawls has argued in Political Liberalism, we can justify our positions using moral arguments the premises of which our political opponents will accept. There is no reason you can't have a strong ethical component to democratic debate, as long as you can frame it without specific appeals to a particular religious authority. And if you can't, then you don't have much of case, do you?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:52 PM

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Clinton's Memoirs

Tuesday, June 22, 2004
I have an idea. How about we all read Clinton's book before we comment on it?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:51 PM

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The Population Question

Monday, June 21, 2004
The NYT times article today about the Bush efforts to undermine U.N.-sponsored population control efforts really got me thinking. Not about abortion rights- I'm sure my fellow bloggers will deal well with that angle. No, I mean about the whole population question, which increasingly looks like one of the THE questions of the 21st century.

There are two interrelated issues at stake: the environment and economics. To put matters in context, let's lay out briefly the demographic history of humanity since the middle ages. There was population stability in most of the world in the 15th-18th century, except for India, China and Europe, where the population doubled. By 1800, there were 300 million Chinese, 200 million Europeans (in the Americas and Europe proper), and about 200 million Indians. In the 19th century, the whole world went through a population boom, roughly doubling. China and India grew more slowly, and Europe much faster but a lot migrating to the Americas, which zoomed from 20 to 140 million people. Now in the 20th century, the population of Europe has almost doubled again, the U.S., India, China have tripled, and the rest of the world increased by a factor of TEN.

The contemporary population increase in the third world (outside China and India) is simply unprecendented. The U.S. experienced similar growth in the 19th century, but it was in a low-density temperate zone and much of the increase was due to inmigration from Europe. Also, whereas the European surge of the 19th century was accompanied by industrialization (and greater wealth), the current 3rd world rise has not. With their economies reliant on extraction of natural resources (oil, timber, etc), and requiring more agricultural land, they are devastating their local environments (which are inherently low-yield food regions anyway) and causing mass extinction of flora and fauna. And the fact that they have extractive economies means that they have no long-term economic gains (one the trees are gone, they are gone), and that their current gains are low-value.

The first world did a great thing by improving agricultural and medical techniques, bringing down the infant mortality rate. But the birth rate did not fall in tandem, leading to disastrous economic and environmental consequences. Just to explain what has happened, let's assume that the 3rd world population had just doubled and they exported only half of their natural resources: per capita incomes would be 2 and 1/2 times what they are now. Outside africa, this would mean average family incomes of just under 10,000, which is a major improvement of what we see today- it would qualify as what we once called a "second world" economy.

So you could say that the Bush administation's policy is helping to condemn the developing world to continued poverty and environmental degredation. Typical.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:49 PM

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Advertising to Kids

Saturday, June 19, 2004
There's a piece in the American Prospect today about the negative effects of marketing to children. It's pretty outrageous stuff. But then I thought, "hey, this is a wonderful issue!" Not only is it good policy to limit corporate advertising to kids, but it's also good politics. It combines anti-corporate rhetoric (which is one of our best but least-used strategies), and a moral issue. I mean, it's about protecting children! It would also drive a wedge between the corporate and christian wing of the Republican party. It reminds me a little of the V-chip issue, except this one is both a real problem and has political teeth.

It's important when you frame a political issue that you plan on how your opponents are going to respond. I think that the right would likely claim a) that we are advocating a "nanny state," but I don't think that has ever been all that effective. The second is b) it violates the principle of the free market and civil liberties. I would hope they take such a position, because "conservatives" would be forced to say that corporations have a right to brainwash little kids, and that protecting corporations is more important than protecting our children.

Bring it on.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:48 PM

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Kerry Fundraising

Thursday, June 17, 2004
The Bush folks thought that money would be their ace in the hole. The plan was to bury the Democratic nominee in negative ads the moment he clinched the nomination, defining him as a flip-flopping peacenik lefty. It didn't matter who the Dems nominated. After all, money rules.

But it didn't work, and now Bush has spent that precious horde of funds with no evident result. Kerry still has a narrow lead and his negative, while higher, are not in the dangerous range. Part of this is because Kerry just doesn't come off as a left-wing wacko. Part of it is because Bush's ads were drowned out by bad news from Iraq.

But the other reason that Kerry is still alive is that he managed to keep up with Bush. The crucial breathing space after the nomination was sown up was the moment of his greatest danger, and he had to spend the next several months generating his own war chest. That moment in time didn't turn out to be disastrous because independent Democratic groups filled the liberal void and blunted Bush's message. Some reporting has expressed concern that the liberal groups have already spent all their money, so are now going to be less effective. My response is that it doesn't matter so much- they have fulfilled their function already.

Now Kerry is raising an extraordinary amount of money, in fact out-raising Bush. Now he partly has to do this because Bush is being nominated a month later than Kerry, giving him more time to raise and spend money before public financing kicks in for the general. But it is still a remarkable feat, driven mostly I believe by hatred for George Bush. Whatever the cause, I am pleased to see that the Democrats are finally building a small donor base, something the Republicans created thirty years ago. The internet has helped too. Overall, I have never seen such an aggressive Democratic fundraising effort- I get a call or mailing almost every day. So we can be fairly confident that Kerry will stay competitive in the ad war, shifting the focus to campaign strategy rather than money.

All of this money news raises what I believe are two issues, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term issue is whether Kerry is sucking up all the Democratic money, which will put our congressional candidates at a disadvantage. We'll have to see. The long-term issue is the more worrisome- our politics has been to reduced to little more than quarterly FEC reports, devoid of any substantive policy content or even campaign strategy. It makes you miss the old days of horserace coverage.

No wonder voters think politics is boring.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:46 PM

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Why Jefferson Doesn't

Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Maybe that's a little too strong, but you get my point. Jefferson is one of the most revered of American founders. And to his credit he did write the Declaration of Independence and the Northwest Ordinances. But.......

If Hamilton is the forerunner of modern American nationalism, then Jefferson is the apostle of states rights. Jefferson truly believed that any increment in power to the central government resulted in a loss of personal liberty. He seemed blind to the fact that the states are more often a threat to civil rights than the federal government. The behavior of southerners vis a vis African-Americans is the obvious example. The only time that the condition of black Americans has improved, it has been at the behest of the national government- the states are a brilliant demonstration of the problems of majority faction. Jefferson is indirectly responsible for the Civil War, since his doctrine of nullification was contained within it the seeds of secession. He was no fried to the American Union, which makes it strange that Lincoln so relied on him. Also, Jefferson's states rights rhetoric has been used a smokescreen for attacking any government program to the benefit of the middle class or the poor, which jibes poorly with Jefferson's egalitarian rhetoric.

Jefferson's agrarianism has also had baleful consequences. He fed the latent anti-urban feelings of the society, arguing that republics could only survive if they were based on small farmers. Now it is certainly true that small proprietors are essential for a stable popular government, but why farmers? Why not shopkeepers? The problems run deeper than that, however. Jefferson believed that industrialization would lead to the end of civic virtue and the rise of dictatorship. He wanted the U.S. to concentrate on agricultural goods and import all finisher products. Jefferson, if he had successfully blocked industrialization, would have condemned us to third-world poverty.

I don't really need to talk about Jefferson's racism and hypocrisy in regards to slavery, do I?

Jefferson's foreign policy was also disastrous. Rather than building a strong military to act as a deterrent and secure American interests, he relied on a passive neutrality. When U.S. ships were being seized by the British and American sailors impressed into the British navy, Jefferson responded with a predictably ineffective embargo.

In sum Jefferson's vision of the world was either faulty on its own terms (agrarianism), or an ineffective method to his aims (states rights as guardians of liberty). Hamilton was clearly won the historical debate- this is his country, an America which is militarily strong, industrially powerful, and with a central government actively defending individual liberties.

None of this is to say that there is NOTHING in Jefferson we should admire. He did help prevent the spread of slavery into the Midwest, and he was an eloquent defender of human liberty. He had enormous faith in democracy (the lack of which is perhaps Hamilton's greatest flaw). Finally, there is something to Jefferson's idea of political decentralization as a means to egalitarian policy. But does this make him a great founder? Does he deserve his iconic status? Not really. Those laurels should be worn by a different man, one who's only honor today is the ten dollar bill.

Shame on us.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:45 PM

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Why Hamilton Deserves a Monument

Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Ron Chernow's excellent biography will hopefully revive public interest in our least known founding father. This would be a welcome change, because no person in American history has had a more profound and long-lasting effect than he has.

Let's just review his amazing career. An illegitimate orphan from the Carribean, he arrived in New York in 1772 and immediately dived into revolutionary politics, where he became a leading pamphleteer in his teens. In 1776 he dropped out of Columbia to join the Continental Army, and within a year he was George Washington's Chief of Staff. He led the decisive assault at Yorktown, and then retired to get his law degree. Concerned with the instability of the country under the Articles of Confederation, he began working for a new Constitution, and was instrumental in calling the Convention at Philadelphia. With the document written, he teamed up with Madison to write the Federalist Papers, the greatest contribution by America to political theory until John Rawls. In those papers he articulated what would become the modern notions of executive power and judicial review. He also led the successful fight for ratification in New York.

At 32, Hamtilton was named the first Secretary of the Treasury, where became Washington's de facto Prime Minister (only Robert Kennedy has rivalled him in influence among Cabinet officers). There he restored financial order to the country, establishing a central bank, assuming state debts, and laying the foundations for American industrial power. He also established the theory of implied powers and the role of the President in the policymaking process. Finally, he was the original exponent of a realist foreign policy (not the Bush kind, the cautious kind). Oh, and he was one of the first major leaders of the abolitionist movement in America.

Out of office in 1794, he retained great influence in the Federalist Party. He feuded with John Adams over the Quasi-War with France. In 1800 he convinced Federalists to support Thomas Jefferson over Aaron Burr in our first major electoral crisis. Burr never forgot, and when Hamilton again blocked him, this time for Governor of New York, Burr dishonorably shot him in a duel (we all know that part). Hamilton was only 47 years old.

So why don't we all laud him as man essential to our present success? Because Jefferson and Adams and their partisans have spent 200 year blackening his reputation. Even men like FDR, who was one of our greatest Hamiltonians, wrapped himself in Jeffersonian rhetoric and assailing Hamilton as an economic elitist and monarchist?

All this also raises another big question. If Hamilton is so great, what are we supposed to think of Jefferson, his biggest rival? I'll compare the two men tomorrow.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:44 PM

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Presidential Greatness

Monday, June 14, 2004
Okay, I've calmed down a bit from yesterday. Maybe I can be a bit more rational now.

The first thing to question from the McLaughlin group is that their survey of presidential greatness was conducted by the Federalist Society, so I might be a little suspicious, but most of the results seem consistent with previous research.

What standards should we use for grading a President? I think that a number of things enter into Presidential success. Popularity is certainly one of those things, but it is more than just being well-liked. Instead, great leaders can embody and enunciate the deeply held aspirations of their constituents. Other key features are domestic success (did they pass their agenda?), foreign policy credentials (maintaining U.S. security, particularly if they fought a successful war), did they strengthen their political party, were they an effective administrator, and most importantly, did they strengthen democratic institutions. This all sums up into whether they left the country stronger than they found it (or at least stronger than it otherwise would have been).

Greatness is a notoriously slippery concept. It can just mean influential, but that means that people like Hitler are very great world figures (though bad for their country). If we say that someone had a positive effect, it opens up a historical can of worms, because this frequently causes us to project our current political disputes onto the past. This is why history is "an argument without end."

So just for fun, let's rank the President's using the usual typology: great, near great, above average, average, below average, failure. Great Presidents are indispensible men, near great had a major positive impact, above average somewhat extended or preserved the country, average Presidents are unexceptionable, below average had little major impact, and failures were positive banes.

So here you go:

Great: Washington (the indispensable man for the founding)
FDR (saved capitalism, american democracy, and the world)
Lincoln (saved the country and freed the slaves)

Near Great: Polk (doubled the size of the country)
Wilson (implemented Progressive agenda, won WWI, defined U.S. foreign policy)
Truman (Marshall Plan, Cold War)

Above Average: Teddy Roosevelt (conservation, trust-busting)
Lyndon Johnson (civil rights act, great society)
Andrew Jackson (championed popular participation)
Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase, symbolic importance)

Average: James Madison
John Adams
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams
Zachary Taylor
William McKinley
Grover Cleveland
Dwight Eisenhower
George H.W. Bush
Bill Clinton
Benjamin Harrison
John Kennedy

Below Average: Martin Van Buren
John Tyler
Millard Fillmore
Franklin Pierce
Rutherford B. Hayes
Chester Arthur
Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Hoover
Howard Taft
Richard Nixon (if it weren't for watergate, he would be above average)
Ronald Reagan
Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter

Failure: U.S. Grant
James Buchanan
Warren Harding
Andrew Johnson

Remember, this ranking is based on what someone did IN the Presidency, hence the lower than expected rankings for Jefferson, Adams, Van Buren, Madison. Also, there are figures that had a dramatic effect on our history that were never elected President. I'll talk about them tomorrow.

So why do I rank Reagan so low? His positives are that he did evince American optimism, opened up to Gorbachev, and did change the nature of political debate. These successes are mitigated by several major foreign policy blunders (lebanon), coddling dictators, and running up a gigantic deficit, which is sort of the opposite of being a good steward. The thing that really pulls him down though is his effect on our politics. His central message is that government is illegitimate. I can't see how this is positive.

And Jefferson? His major accomplishment was the Louisiana Purchase, which was sort of dumped in his lap. He was a good symbolic leader, but like Reagan he taught us that any government action was a threat to our liberty, cleverly sweeping under the table the ability of states to violate rights. His foreign policy was a big fat joke.

Please tell me what you think. I can take it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:43 PM

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Reagan the Great?

Sunday, June 13, 2004
I watched the McLaughlin Group this morning and could only feel disgust. The entire episode was about the "greatness" of Reagan. Greatness is not the same as goodness. He was among our more influential Presidents, but his influence was in precisely the wrong direction. Reagan changed the public debate in America, but by pitting us one group against the other and teaching us to think that our problems were beyond our ability to solve. That's what you mean when you say government is the problem. And let's not even discuss the disastrous fiscal policy, superficial religiosity, and hypocritical "optimism" that Bush seems so anxious to imitate. Modern conservatism is a jackboot with a smiling face.

And it is a travesty to suggest that Reagan replace Hamilton on the 10 dollar bill. Hamilton is our forgotten founder. He established the foundation for a strong military, an industrial economy, and a central government capable of defending not just our security but our liberty. He was the champion of everything Reagan opposed. To erase his memory is an insult.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:42 PM

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Not Really Polarized?

Saturday, June 12, 2004
The New York times has a story today asserting that the citizenry is not really politically polarized. It claims that the mass of voters is fundamentally centrist, and in fact the gaps have narrowed. Instead, it is the elites that have become more extreme, which has presented the voters with a choice between two unacceptable alternatives.

I think that this article is almost right. Now I am a bit of partisan, but I would contend that only one party's leadership has become strongly ideological. The Republicans have moved steadily to the right over the last several decades (ever since Goldwater), while the Democrats veered left in the 1970's but moderated in the 1980's and 1990's. In other words, only ONE party is really out of the mainstream. So why don't the Republicans get clobbered in elections? Because they have systematically misrepresented their own positions and that of their opponents- because they've been lying.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:42 PM

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Re-districting III

Friday, June 11, 2004
This is the last one, I swear.

What I wrote yesterday should not be taken as asserting that there is nothing wrong with the re-districting process. Gerrymandering is rife, and it does pose serious dangers for democracy. The good news is that there are still 100 swing districts out there, but the bad news is that there are 335 seats that are locked in for one party or another. Except for some urban districts which are 90% Democratic, each of the safe seats contains substantial numbers of voters who have been effectively disenfranchised. The average safe seat is reducing between twenty and forty percent of its voters to political nullity. So why vote?

Furthermore, there is no obstacle to a continued decline in the number of swing districts. This creates an aggregate unresponsiveness- incumbents are increasingly insulated from political challenge (and their constituents). It also makes for permanent political stalemate.

So what are we do to? The easiest thing would be for the parties to call a truce and return to a maximization strategy (where they draw lots of marginal seats) rather than a risk-minimization strategy (reducing the number of competitive seats). I'm not so hopeful. Some states have shifted responsibilities to judicial commissions, but I am skeptical they'll be able to remain independent from partisan control. Another possibility is that the Supreme Court could demand a standard of competitiveness for state plans, that the districts in each state should reflect as closely as possible the statewide demographic balance. This would make it almost impossible to elect a racial minority, however.

A final possibility would be to change to a system of proportional representation for electing Representatives. Citizens would vote by party, and whatever percentage that party receives in a state would be the share of the House seats in that state. This would eliminate the need for re-districting, guarantee minority representation, and likely enhance turnout.

There are several problems here as well. First, it would strengthen party organizations, which would make me happy but upset others. Voters would lose the ability to vote for individual candidates, being forced to cast ballots for parties instead. Second, the connection between localities and the central government would be severed- the state would be the only unit of political analysis. Finally, it would aid in the development of minor parties, which as I have said elsewhere would be incompatible with the Constitution. The last objection might be met by establishing a threshold of say 15-20% before a party would be eligible for representation.

The fact remains that this system is broken, and there are just no easy solutions to it. If you have any better ideas, let me know.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:41 PM

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Re-districting (II)

Thursday, June 10, 2004
This is such an important subject that I'm going to talk about it again. What I want to quibble with today is the idea that Democrats have a hopeless task in gaining a majority because gerrymandering has reduced the number of swing districts. The theory goes like this: Democratic representatives are all in strongly liberal seats, and Republicans are all in very conservative seats. The 2 parties have embraced a risk-minimization or incumbent-protection strategy to shrink the number of competitive districts, meaning that there are now very few seats that will ever flip, no matter national tides. Charlie Cook says there are now only about three dozen competitive races this year, with each party controlling half. This means that the Democrats would have to "run the table", win every toss-up seat, to gain a majority. So the odds are very low.

This analysis is correct as far as it goes. It is true that the number of competitive races has declined, and it is also true that the parties have deliberately reduced the number of marginal seats. The assumption is that the one is causing the other, which might not be true.

We need to look carefully at how we define "competitive races." People usually use the vote percentage for incumbents. A competitive race is one in which the incumbent receives 55% or less of the vote. And a graph of the number shows that the number of such races has declined steadily in the postwar period. But this way of defining marginality cannot disentangle the effects of incumbency from gerrymandering. A better measure is to look at the Presidential vote in each district. And here, there has been some decline (from 150 to 100 marginal seats), but there remain 100 districts that could go either way! That's a lot more than 36, abd that there are a lot of incumbents who are potentially vulnerable.

My only point here is that while re-districting has been a contributing factor to declining competition, the advantages of incumbency and big money have also influenced declining competition. There are still plenty of opportunities for Democrats to win seats. And a majority.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:40 PM

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Re-districting (I)

Wednesday, June 09, 2004
Praise the lord, a good decision from the Supreme Court! Or in this case, a non-decision. The Court has refused to consider an appeal by Colorado Republicans to a rejection of their redistricting plan. It would have been better if the Court had accepted the case and then explicitly rejected mid-decade redistricting, but I'll take what I can get. Now we'll have to see what they do with the Texas map.

Now it is probably true that the redistricting is not technically unconstitutional. And in the 19th century state legislatures routinely re-drew the lines when a new party took power, whether it was a year ending in "2" or not. But this was also a time in which congressional districts were not drawn according to the one-man, one-vote standard either. Do we really want to return to that? Of course not. The Supreme Court finally decided that such a practice was inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution. This is why we call the Constitution a living document- we can always reconsider what we once thought acceptable.

This new political ploy is among the most dangerous the Republicans have employed recently. Together with the recall of Gray Davis and the 2000 Florida election fiasco, the right is violating the norms of democratic competition by expanding the scope of conflict. In other words, they are not just playing the game, but trying to change the rules to their advantage while it is being played. Nothing is more threatening to the stability of of a republic. Both sides have to accept that the rules and traditions are binding, whether they are written in the formal constitution or not. Otherwise, the intensity of the fighting gradually escalates into actual fighting, as well as reducing faith in the political process by the citizenry.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:39 PM

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Republican Weakness

Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Only very recently have Republicans evinced any worry over their political prospects. With control of Congress since 1994, "winning" the Presidential election of 2000, and the return of foreign policy as a major political issue after 9/11, conservatives generally believed that they were looking at the beginning of a new era of dominance by the right.

This is the line we were fed, anyway. But I believe that there were several indications that, whatever the wisdom of their policies, their real political position was actually quite fragile. There are two key pieces of interrelated evidence. First, detailed polling of the voters on public policy issues reveals that conservatives narrative consistently lose to liberal ones. Now, if you put a candidate or party's name with a position's description, then the right does prety well. But if you remove any such identifiers, then the liberal story defeats the conservative one by large margins on nearly every issue, including foreign policy and taxes. The right has essentially been misrepresenting both its own positions and that of the left's, which is in the long-term an unsustainable political posture. There is bound to be a backlash by the voters if the right's agenda is ever fully implemented, the beginnings of which we are now beginning to see.

The second hint of Republican weakness has seemed to many a source of strength: their ruthlessness. Conservatives have relied on almost exclusively on ad hominem attacks in political debate, smearing the reputation of their opponents rather than rebutting their arguments. They have also consistently violated the norms of U.S. political conflict (bullying interest groups, mid-decade re-districting, dirty tricks, etc.), and completely shut the minority out of the legislative process. I have a simple question- if Republicans are in such a strong position, why do they need to do any of these things? They have been forced to act ferociously (and perhaps illegally) to win elections or pass legislation. Is this the behavior of a strong, confident majority party? Shouldn't the "majority" party be able to play fair in elections, argue the substance of issues, and get laws through congress without abusing the minority (and even their own)?

I'd say not. I think that Republican ruthlessness, rather than a source of strength, is instead a sign of weakness. This isn't to say that the left has only to wait around for the right to fall apart. It only means that we shouldn't be afraid of them. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:08 AM

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Divided Dems

Monday, June 07, 2004
You know the old joke by Will Rogers: "I don't belong to an organized political party, I'm a Democrat." Since at least the civil war, the Democratic party has been a badly divided party, particularly in comparison to the more disciplined and homogenous Republicans. Thirty years ago it was the battle between the northern liberal wing and the southern conservative wing, and since the 1980's the fight has been between the progressive Wellstone part against the centrist DLC faction. Democrats have no governing ideology, and agree only on their dislike for Republicans.

There is only one problem with this story. It's wrong. It confuses organizational with issue coherence, and is trapped by history. Like much of American politics, advocates of this narrative think it is still 1968.

It is true, there was a time not so long ago when the Democrats differed on a lot of issues. But I would contend that today's dispute between the liberals and moderates has more heat than light. Instead, I think that the Democratic party is pretty much homogenous when it comes to issues. Think about it- how many real substantive policy disagreements do Democrats have? They are all pro-environment, pro-labor, pro-minority rights, suspicious of corporations, and in favor of a cautious and multilateral foreign policy. You no longer have true conservatives in the party- they are all either Republicans or dead.

I would contend that the differences are now more strategic than substantive. The moderates think we should emphasize the areas of agreement with the suburbs, while the more progressive groups think we should highlight our differences with Republicans in order to give voters a real choice and to mobiilize our base. Of course, we should do both, something the Republicans have been doing for years.

So why does everyone think that Democrats are an anarchic party united by nothing? The answer lies in what Marx described as false consciousness- when what people profess to believe does not jibe with their real interests or the objective reality. Liberals think they are divided because they are used to thinking that way, even when this view no longer reflects reality. The problem is definitional. Each part of the Democratic coalition thinks of itself not as a liberal or a Democrat (and sorry, the Democrats are inescapably the vehicle for liberal politics), but as a member of whatever group they are most attached to: an evironmentalist, a gay rights advocate, what have you. Not that a feminist isn't also anti-WalMart, just that she thinks some other issue is more important. And this is where you find the only real differences in the party: how we should rank-order issue preferences. Whoopee-dee-doo. When you win the majority of Congress and the President, you can push for ALL of your agenda, no matter what has gotten the most attention in the election. This is how coalitional politics works.

But we liberals don't think of ourselves as part of a broader egalitarian movement, which cripples our ability to communicate a compelling message or to organize properly. Our disorganization is precisely that: organizational. We don't have a strong institutional structure that helps us coordinate and plan. And we and the country have paid the price.

I would like to make an even more controversial point, namely that the Republicans are the truly divided party, not the Democrats. They actually do violently disagree over issues: the Republican party is split between the libertarian and christian wing, and they disagree on a whole range of issues. But what the right has been able to do is paper over these differences, partly by constructing a powerful narrative that combines elements from each group, and partly by building a strong party organization with influential (and long-serving) leaders. And they all think of themselves as part of the conservative movement, working together through the Republican party. Ta-dah.

So we have a case in American politics where the ideologically united party is organizationally weak, and the ideologically divided party is organizationally strong. The latter has been victorious over the last several years, which tells you a lot abot how vital organizational and thematic unity really are.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:06 AM

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The Reagan Legacy

Sunday, June 06, 2004
My usual Sunday wrap-up was somewhat sidelined due to the day-long tribute to the Great Communicator. I'll admit to being conflicted. On the one hand, I have long criticized Reagan's policies, and am uncomfortable with all the glowing commentary. On the other hand, it seems in poor taste to beat up on the dead. So I'll restrict myself to pointing out the over-the-top sentimentalism of the press corps at every "tragic" event (do they know what the word tragedy actually means?). And I'm also waiting eagerly for efforts by the Republicans to capitalize on the death of their fallen leader. Oh, but they'd never do anything that crass, would they?

Of course not. Not them.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:05 AM

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The Great Wal-Mart Debate

Saturday, June 05, 2004
In the American Prospect today, James Hoopes compares Wal-Mart to GM. This is specious argument. There is a dramatic difference between the great robber barons of the last century and the retail chains of today. The manufacturing concerns left something behind because they made things. Retail stores will leave nothing, because they make nothing. Their economic effect is at best simply trivial, because all they do is sell the goods that someone else produces. At worst, they wreck the delicate network of small proprietorships which is a cornerstone of a democratic economy.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:05 AM

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The Return of the Rural Democrats

Friday, June 04, 2004
Everyone should read this post by John Nichols. His comments on the importance of rural areas for Democrats cannot be overemphasized. While the suburbs remain the true swing districts in U.S. politics, agrarian areas retain their political importance. By conceding these areas, the Democrats have given the Republicans a tremendous advantage. This advantage is partly electoral. It allows the Republicans to enjoy a real advantage in the Senate, which is gerrymandered in favor of rural counties, and to a lesser extent in the electoral college.

The second advantage is more damaging, because it is symbolic. For better or worse, the democratic myth of the small farmer has extraordinary resonance in America, and there has always been some suspicion about cities. By abandoning the country, the left has allowed the right to portray itself as the champion of the heartland and of small-town values. They can underline their pseudo-populist message and easily portray Democrats as (urban) elites.

On their merits, the Republican accusations of elitism are absurd, but they will continue to be effective as long as we permit it to continue. We must emphasize our support for small towns and rural areas, which should be easy to do given the left's hostiltity to large corporations and the right's dependence on them. So we can employ a strategy of economic populism, while changing the subject away from social issues. Nothing new here. What is more important is to highlight the place that rural America plays in the egalitarian narrative.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:04 AM

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When the Personal is Political

Thursday, June 03, 2004
In an interview yesterday on the O'Franken Factor, conservative columnist David Brooks criticized partisans who make evaluations of their opponents without personal knowledge of them. This is a basic misunderstanding of the democratic process. Our public discussions should be on public rather than private matters. The relationship between personal character and public virtue is an uneasy one at best. Many of our most talented political leaders have been not very nice people, and some of our most moral politicians have been disasters. The comparison between Bush and Clinton is just the easiest example.

In fact, there is profound distinction between public and private morality. Private morality is something very easy to understand- would we want to be friends with this person? But public morality is trickier. Cavour said it best: "If we did for ourselves what we did for our country, what scoundrels we'd be." In other words, when one is responsible for the lives of others, conventional personal ethics can be counterproductive. We need not be quite so abstract, however. Politicians with public morality have policy positions consistent with their reputations, and faithfully attempt to implement the policies they advocate. Finally, they are responsible to the public trust: they do not embezzle, for example, or deliberately undermine the democratic process. Unfortunately, public morality is much more difficult to understand or explain. Which is why the media tends to focus on "character."

Which feeds into the second problem with Brooks' perspective, that it is covertly conservative. Not just in the sense that so few people will ever have personal knowledge of public officials (does this mean we should defer to those elite few who do?), but in that the right has always championed a superficial moralism (I don't cheat on my wife) while they have had problems with presenting themselves as what they really are (compassionate conservative??).

Focusing on personal character is not just irrelevant, but insidious. The political debate in America has been debased by character attacks. The right rarely directly engages in substantive discussion: they just call the other guy a liar or traitor or some such nonsense. All they really use anymore is ad hominem attacks. The fact that these sorts of accusations are damaging to democracy itself doesn't seem to stop either conservatives or the media from using them. Let's take Al Gore's recent speech as an example. Rather than rebutting any of his arguments, the right just called him crazy and the media wondered about the effect on Kerry (making it a process story). Where is the room for democratic discourse?

In the final analysis, is doesn't matter if George Bush is a good man, or a religious man, or a nice one. It certainly doesn't matter if someone "has a good heart." It matters whether he is what he purports to be. And I don't need to know him personally to know that.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:03 AM

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Religion: The Other Latinos

Wednesday, June 02, 2004
Both political parties have been rightly focusing on the Hispanic vote. It is an inescapable fact that if the Latino vote continues to favor Democrats, then over the next several decades the Republicans will be condemned to minority status. This is because the percentage of the population which describes itself as Hispanic is rising steadily, and so far they are 60-40 Democratic most of the time. They aren't mobilized politically yet (their turnout rates are substantially below that of almost any other major voting bloc), but they will be someday, and the only way the Republicans are going to survive is if they can make that group competitive.

But I'm not going to talk about them. What I believe needs to be discussed is the other potentially large immigrant group which has yet to mobilize: other religions. Sectarian politics has always played a key role in U.S. politics. In the early republic most Episcopalians were Federalist and most Baptists were Jeffersonians. When the Catholic vote became appreciable, they became Democrats. Fundamentalist Christianity manifested first in the Democratic party (William Jennings Bryan is a good example), but after a period of acquiescence they then mobilized within the Republican party in the 1980's and 1990's, while the rising secular vote found a home within the Democratic party. Part of this split is regional, but there is some distinct and theological underpinning to the connection between religious identity and party affiliation (note the individualism of fundamentalist Protestantism with the social responsibilities inherent in Catholicism). Finally, there is the Jewish vote, which has been reliably Democratic at least since Harry Truman.

This is all going to change very soon. With new waves of immigration and some domestic conversion, we can expect the religious dynamic to alter considerably. We know that Latinos are generally Catholic, but we have yet to learn how their Catholicism will influence their politics (although there is some evidence that they are socially more conservative than older U.S. Catholics) But the more interesting question is, where are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists going to fit in? The Muslim community in particular is growing quickly, and there are now as many Muslims and Jews in America. It is unclear whether their growth will slow after 9/11. If it doesn't, they will soon become a significant bloc. The Asian Indian and East Asian populations are also growing quickly, and have yet to adhere strongly to either party.

The Republican hypothesis is that all of the devout, of any religion, will gather in the GOP. By appealing to conservative social morality and speaking in broad terms about faith and traditionalism, they hope to win over these millions of new voters. And they did have an edge until recently with Muslim voters through counter-mobilization against Jews. Bush won about 70% of Muslim vote.

Let me repeat: used to have an edge. Polling among Arab-Americans, the largest Muslim group in America, has Bush with a 70% disapproval rating. That's a big shift, and I'm betting that they are going to turn out at a much greater rate than previously. All the Democrats have to do is put up posters of Ashcroft.

This may only be a one-time opportunity for Democrats, since it would be very difficult to keep Muslims and Jews under the same tent. The only feasible strategy for doing so might be to aggressively push for a Middle East Peace Plan, which might sacrifice some of the more extreme voters on both sides of the issue but keep the rest.

The larger difficulty for the Republican strategy is the exclusivity of the Christian Right. They are clearly anti-Muslim and often anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic, and there is some generally pro-white mentality here. So Democrats might be able to appeal to these groups under the banner of religious tolerance and ethnic diversity, painting the Republicans as a threat to their religious liberty and social status. The left would have to play down its social liberalism in this scenario, which would have the added benefit of appealing to working-class Christians. But to do so might be to jettison one of the things that makes us Democrats in the first place. Which is a problem.

I'm not sure how all of this is going to play out. Stay tuned.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:02 AM

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The Draft

Tuesday, June 01, 2004
The draft has made a dramatic return as a political issue. Folks on the right are considering it because they want more manpower for Iraq, where the lack of troops seems to be one of the major problems. Some on the left want it in order to improve social solidarity, spread the burdens of the war, and maybe mobilize opposition to military adventures. (On the last point, I can say there is some evidence- young people suddenly start paying attention when you use the D word). Others on the left are against the draft because they believe that it is inescapably biased (the rich and connected will always escape service) and that it would militarize society.

Who's right? Well, like most issues in which the left is divided, both positions have some truth. I for one am very conflicted on this issue. To put it simply, before the war in Iraq, I was for a draft of a sort, but right now I am against it. I guess that makes me a flip-flopper :) . Seriously, militarization isn't the real problem. Many Western European democracies have universal conscription, and they ain't so militarized. No, the actual reason I'm opposed to the draft right now is very simple- because I don't trust these right-wing buffoons with it. They would inevitably write the most egregiously awful law possible.

In the abstract I am very much in favor for a draft of some sort, but not for any of the traditional reasons. It is simply that it is unhealthy for a democracy to have a mercenary army- which is what a volunteer professional army is. The creation of such an army was the key factor in the fall of the Roman Republic (here I go again), because the army became a distinct interest in society, and one that happened to have the final authority in adjudicating political disputes. Hence the rise of Caesar.

So I've been running around for several years suggesting the creation of a certain kind of draft, one modelled on that of Israel and Western Europe, where EVERYONE has to engage in national service, not just the military. And this is the crucial point. Every single person aged 18 would for a couple of years have to serve their country, and always outside their home community. No exceptions, no rich folks getting out of it.

This proposal would create an army in the tens of millions, which we do not really need. But note my use use of the word "national service" not "military." Some people would go into the army, but most would be responsible for some other task: public service that need manpower like social work, the peace corps, police work, and teaching. In exchange, at the end of the 2 years every American would be guaranteed some form of education, either college or job training.

If this sounds a lot like Americorps, it's no accident. Clinton's national service plan was one of the best laws he passed (albeit in truncated form- thanks to Republicans). The benefits would be multiple. First, kids would learn a bit about life in some other social context than their own, and also that there is something to care about bigger than themselves. Second, we would be able to educate a lot more people. Third, we would have the manpower to tackle a lot of social problems. And finally, we would end our all-volunteer army, which has always been a real danger to republics. To paraphrase Machiavelli, it is always safer to rely on your own arms than the arms of others.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:01 AM

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