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Thursday, September 30, 2004
There's a lot to go over this morning. Normally I try to pick and choose, but today there is just too much I find needs consideration, so this will be a long post. First, the NYT and Washington Post have debate primers. Both are typically slipshod. The Post lays out a series of purportedly misleading assertions by Bush and Kerry, in effect making them morally equivalent and creating a he-said/she-said, pox on both your houses atmosphere. The problem is that while Bush's are egregious lies, Kerry's statements are just ones the Post happens to disagree with.

Taking a similar tack, the Times suggests that the foreign policy debate has failed to focus on major issues, has been too retrospective, and there is an implication that there's no difference between Bush and Kerry. I really don't think this characterization is accurate. One the first point, Iraq is the most important foreign policy issue we face, since we are now stuck in a Vietnam-style quagmire (again). Second, the retrospective evaluations are important, because they go directly to the competence of the Bush administration to govern. Lastly, the similarities between Bush and Kerry are more apparent than real: Bush has attempted to blur the differences between the two, but an honest examination of the evidence indicates that Bush is either unwilling or unable to pursue a new policy in Iraq.

I'm not even going to get into the distortions of George Will, who trots out the canard that Kerry has had multiple positions on Iraq. I'm only going to say it one more time: Kerry was for giving the President the authority to go to war in order to give him the capacity to go the UN. And he expected that the war, if it occurred, would be competently managed. Bush lied on the first, and botched the second. The End.

To climb back onto my anti-3rd party hobbyhorse, I am going to criticize David Broder's suggestion that the debate be opened up to 3rd party candidates. This would only encourage the development of 3rd parties, which would be a disaster for our political stability in general and progressive politics in particular. And I look with deep concern at the gathering impetus behind the instant-runoff system. Now while such a system might make sense in political primaries (which are inherently multi-candidate) and local elections (which are frequently in one-party communities), any widespread adoption of PR would be foolhardy. Remember, one of the chief problems facing the left is its comparative disorganization- it means we have little ability to organize or craft a coherent strategy or message. To create structural barriers and even rivalry among groups on the left by creating formally separate parties would only help conservatives. So just stop it! The Democratic Party is an umbrella organization for the left, where we can meet and negotiate. So why don't we start strengthening the party we have rather than trying to create new ones?

On another matter entirely, Matt Miller has a modest proposal to make everyone who votes on election day eligible for a cash award by way of a lottery. I truly hope this a joke. The very idea is disgusting. Must we debase the democratic process even further?

We have even more evidence that there is something very wrong with our republic, since it turns out a lot of Bush voters have not idea what he is for (by way of Daily Kos). Now some of the confusion might be because of Bush deliberately misleading people, and part because of weak media coverage. And part of the problem may be projection: people who have decided to like Bush may be projecting their own issue positions onto him. But it is disconcerting to say the least that we are dealing with one-half of the electorate which appears completely befuddled. While it is gratifying that it is not our side, this is no cause for celebration. These are our fellow citizens we are talking about. We need to rescue them, hopefully by emphasizing those issues on which Bush's own voters disagree with him.

There is a very interesting article this morning in the Washington Monthly by Benjamin Wallace-Wells. In it Wells compares the Republicans today to the Democrats of the 1970's, and predicts a similar electoral disaster for them. I certainly hope he's right, and I hope that political collapse starts now. But the crucial differences between then and now is that a)Democrats weren't stealing elections, and b)the institutional apparatus of the Democrats was in advanced decay whereas the Republicans now have the greatest propaganda machine in U.S. history. If substance is what is at issue, the Republican coalition should have disintegrated years ago. But we'll see.

Finally, Mike Davis is suggesting in Mother Jones that the Democrats have abandoned Black America. I find this suggestion outrageous. While it is true that Kerry and the Dems have not made many explicit appeals to black voters, I think this is because African-Americans's political concerns are now virtually identical to that of the population at large. Health Care, the Economy, Education, Progressive Taxation- the list goes on and on. These are problems that effect middle-class, working-class, and poor Americans alike. We really are all in the same boat, with the exception of those at the top. The one issue that does effect Black Americans specifically is voting rights, which the Democrats have been obsessed with this year both for the morality of the thing and because it effects the outcome of elections. I can understand Davis's dislike of the DLC (although I think he is being a little unfair), but let's not do the Republicans' dirty work for them, shall we? Blacks remain an integral part of the Democratic coalition, and should we win will receive due consideration. Because what helps them helps all Americans.

Okay, now I'm going to pretend to do work while I obsess about the debate tonight. I suggest you do the same.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:03 PM

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The Unreasonables

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
I have been plowing through John Rawls lately for a paper I'm writing. One of his ideas is that liberalism is an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. To decode this jargon, Rawls means that liberalism (in the broad sense) does not have to appeal to any one philosophical position- you don't have to agree with a specific way of thinking. Instead, political liberalism is where the different philosophical traditions converge. Kant, Mill, Locke, etc. all would be willing to accept something like contemporary liberalism. They wouldn't find it entirely satisfactory, but it would do well enough. Even modern Catholicism and Protestantism have accepted the liberal state (again, broadly defined) as not only acceptable, but just.

(Just in case my philosophy professors are reading this, please don't lose your hair over my gross simplifications. I'm just summarizing!)

What I'd like to draw your attention to is an important word: reasonable. Rawls does not say that all comprehensive moral or religious doctrines would be willing to accept liberalism. Instead, only reasonable ones would. The implication is that unreasonable doctrines must be exiled from the public forum. Why? Because Rawls' definition of reasonableness is that people are willing to act fairly with others in the spirit of reciprocity: they don't intend to dominate, bully, deceive, or whatever. Reasonable people are willing to have a real discussion and entertain the arguments of someone else. Unreasonable people just assert their moral superiority and expect you to submit to their superior wisdom.

So what happens in a liberal regime if there are bunch of unreasonable people? A faction, let's say, that wants to impose its particular point of view on everyone else? Whose only political loyalty is to the interests of their own constituency, to the detriment of every other citizen? A group that believes the ends justify the means, and who quite simply don't believe in playing fair so much as winning?

I'm sure you know who I mean.

Rawls isn't entirely sure what to do about unreasonables. His theory assumes favorable circumstances- it's an ideal theory. In a crisis situation, where a substantial minority, or even a majority, are not willing to engage in honest political debate and respect the democratic process, Rawls can only throw up his hands. This is not a criticism of him or his theory- he is writing with a different problem in mind.

But the problem is one that deserves addressing. The question of how liberal regimes can deal with illiberal citizens trying to undermine it is a very old one. It was of particular import in the 1930's when Communists and Fascists were displacing democracies using elections and force, and there is some concern that religious fundamentalists might do the same thing now in places like Turkey or Algeria. One of the problems with holding election in Iraq is that a fair election would probably result in a theocratic, shiite chauvinist regime. Not exactly what the Shrub had in mind.

I'm afraid that there really is no clear answer. The liberals won in the 1940's against fascism because we were able to enlist nationalism to our aid, and in the 1950's and 1960's when we were able to deliver the economic goods and the communists weren't. But the broader political phenomenon has never really been confronted. Nationalism can just easily aid subversives, as it did in Weimar Germany. And our economy just isn't as successful as it was once was. In short, in the past we may have just been lucky.

So the question remains. How can we stop our own citizens from subverting democracy? How can we liberals deal with the unreasonables while remaining liberals?

I'm open to suggestions.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:02 PM

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Of Polls and Predictions

It appears that one of my appointed tasks this year is to cheer up discouraged Democrats. Ruy Teixeira has effectively rebutted the Gallup polls, but some folks might also be concerned about the predictions of political scientists at this year's APSA (The Gadflyer mentioned this a few days ago, but I can't find the link). The models indicated that Bush should receive about 54% of the vote. So we can expect Bush to cruise to victory, right?

Wrong. These models are principally economic models: if the economy is growing, the incumbent usually wins. Since we have had GDP growth over the last year, these models predictably forecast a Bush victory. Unfortunately for these models, however, the nature of economic growth has changed a great deal in the last few years. Remember, many of these same models predicted a landslide Gore victory. The problem is a de-coupling of overall economic growth and median incomes. To put it in laymen's terms, the rich people are eating the whole pie. Any income gains are being concentrated at the top, therefore the economy may seem to be doing well even while the middle class continues to suffer. There is an interesting article in the American Prospect on this very point. This problem bedevilled the forecasters last time, when the economy was doing fine measured as GDP growth. But when you looked at median income, the 2000 economy wasn't as swell.

So don't take these forecasting models too seriously. They've been wrong before, and for very much the same reason.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:01 PM

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What do we DO if they try to steal the election?

Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Digby, among others, is worried that the Republicans are going to steal the election. A glance at voter suppression efforts in Florida, Ohio, overseas, and other places certainly raises this possibility. Recent history also underlines the concern. There appears to be a distinct possibility that yet again the candidate who a plurality of voters favor in the voting booth is going to lose.

So what we do about it? That's a tough one. Democratic politics is based on an underlying consensus about both the substance and process of politics. It has always been vulnerable to faction. A faction, according to Madison, is a group in society whose interests are the severe detriment either to another group or to the interests of the community at large. Factions are particularly dangerous when they refuse to accept the norms of the democratic process- in other words, when they will lie, cheat, intimidate, and manipulate in pursuit of their goals, consequences be damned.

This seems to be a pretty good working definition of the conservative movement today. Its overarching aim to to oppress undesirables in America, and its policies will either accidentally or on purpose undermine the health of the our security, society and economy. And as we have learned, they will do anything, literally anything, to gain and hold power.

It is very difficult in a democracy to cope with groups who do not believe in democracy. But we certainly have to try. Part of the solution is to respond in kind, but only up to certain limits- we do not want to become what we detest. But we do need to beef up our legal apparatus and be active as watchdogs. There is already a good deal of this. We also need to prime the media to pay attention to this issue. Kerry's surrogates need to be out there screaming about voter suppression. This will both get the media to focus on the issue, but it is also a covert negative attack against Republicans. Which brings us to our third tactic, to make Republican ruthlessness a campaign issue. George Bush benefits because he looks tough. Fine, we will take that perceived toughness and transform it into a weakness by making him look like a tyrant in embryo.

Hey, it's even true.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:01 PM

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Kerry's Theme

Monday, September 27, 2004
One of the things Republicans are good at, and one of the key features of a persuasive message, is a central unifying theme. I think that our central theme should be responsibility. This idea has a number of different applications. In the first instance, Kerry to point to this value at it motivates him: his service in Vietnam, his work as a prosecutor, and his time in the Senate (where he make a brief aside to the ease of mischaracterizing his votes). He can re-frame the 1960's as a time of passionate citizen involvement, making sure that he respects both sides of those tumultuous debates. The point here is that all Americans took their role as citizens seriously.

Kerry can then make the contrast with Bush. The irresponsibility of the Bush Administration is an easy case to make. There is the personal irresponsibility (everything is fine, Iraq is great, what bad economy) and even worse, the political irresponsibilty of big deficits, a reckless rush to war, the failure to fund his own programs, the misrepresentation of the state of the country and his programs.

Kerry can then re-connect to broader themes. I am convinced that the way Democrats can win is to focus attention away from personalities and back towards policies. Point to this directly- that substance is more important than soundbytes. Kerry can talk in specific terms how his plans value personal responsibility as well as the responsibility of a community to all of its citizens. There is also our responsibility for the mess in Iraq, and our broader duties in the world as its leading power.

The message needs to culminate in a call to action. Kerry needs to tell people that just voting for a candidate is not enough- that Americans need to take responsibility for their country. They need to get informed, to get active in their community, to pay close attention to the candidates and their policies. There is a potential for some soaring rhetoric here.

I think this, or something like it, should be Kerry's stump speech. He needs to hit the same points every day- it is the only way to get them through. I also believe that it hits all the major points we need to: Kerry's background and personality, Bush's failings, and a transcending of the Republicans with a focus on solving problems and active involvement. It is vital not just to plead for votes but to challenge people to do something. Not only is it necessary on policy grounds, but I think people will be impressed to hear a politician to ask them for something other than blind support.

Obviously I wish this had been his acceptance speech, but I still think there is time to hone his message. The debates are a good initial opportunity. Since the debates are in many cases joint press conferences, I think Kerry should outline in his opening statement what he is going to talk about (responsibility), and then keep harping on it. He should use this theme in its variety of permutations both on the attack and defense. It will make his performance not a scattershot series of one-liners but a total speech. It will minimize the importance of his personality while highlighting his best points and Bush's weakest ones, while centering attention on substance, where he is strongest.

I thought about actually writing out the speech, but I didn't have time. But let me know what you think.

By the way, it looks like today this website will have been viewed over 1000 times. Lately there has been a spike in readership. I just want to thank everyone who is reading my random thoughts. It's flattering that anyone is interested in what I have to say.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:00 PM

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Preaching to the Deluded II

Sunday, September 26, 2004
I have continued to think over what I wrote two days ago. Part of me worried that I was too dimissive, that I was calling Bush supporters stupid. I want to make sure that people don't extract that idea from the first post. I do not think they are stupid- I think that they are being manipulated by their leaders and let down by their institutions. I do not blame the citizens, except in that I blame all of us.

If American Democracy is in a state of decay, then we are all responsible. The ability to be a critically thinking, active participant in public affairs does not come naturally. It is a learned skill. I do think that all people everywhere have the capacity for self-governance. The question is whether the objective ( cultural & socioeconomic) circumstances permit it, and whether the republican institutions work effectively to cultivate it. The first criteria continues to hold in the United States, although the decline of the middle class and increasing social balkanization is worrying. It is on the second criteria that we have manifestly failed.

Our educational institutions must return to their original purpose: to instill in students the skills and disposition to be self-governing, both in the individual and the collective sense. Our leaders must stop playing to our worst qualities, something I think the Republican party is far more guilty of in this era than the Democrats. And we must rebuild or replace those institutions which used to bring people into the public space and taught then how to be there. The bureaucracy, political parties, the media, interest groups: all in the past supported and channelled civic virtue, but all are now either too weak to do the job (the first two) or are actively demobilizing people (the latter two).

These are of course overwhelming big-picture solutions to gigantic, systemic problems. What can we do to make a difference now? Unfortunately, we must accept the constraints under which we live. At the moment, people are moved more by symbol than substance. We must accept this and learn to express ourselves in ways that are persausive and comprehensible. But I believe we must also appeal to the better angels of their nature. We must try to wake them up, to give their minds no rest, to prick their conscience and their reason. John Kerry, and Democrats, and every citizen must give our sleepy or distracted fellow citizens no rest. We must arouse them to their real obligations and true interests. I believe it is possible, and I believe it must start now.

Okay, enough overwrought language for one day. Tomorrow I'll talk about how I think Kerry can do all this, in the process winning the election and beginning the process of re-knitting the republic. And I'll talk about how I think the vast majority of people are in fact eager for such a message.

Have a nice Sunday.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:59 PM

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Preaching to the Deluded

Friday, September 24, 2004
I think I have solved the puzzle of why people support Bush, despite his manifest incompetence and their disagreement with him on the issues. It is not just because of his faux folksy, it is not just because they are afraid and want a Great Leader. It is because they are completely disconnected from reality.

Last night I couldn't sleep and was surfing the net and found this story by way of Pandagon. It is a truly frightening, but very revealing story. Students at an affluent school learned about the issue positions of the two candidates without knowing which candidate was which (this is called a blind screen in the business). They were then asked to pick a candidate based on those issue positions. The overwhelming majority came out in favor of Kerry. And what was their reaction, and the reaction of their conservative parents? Certainly not to re-examine their political loyalties, or to applaud the excellent civic education their children were receiving. No, instead they got mad because they had been "tricked."

Many Republican voters support Bush because they are "comfortable" with him (as noted by the WSJ via Taegan Goddard). But they also support him because of a pre-existing predisposition. They decided for whatever reason that they were going to be a Bush supporter, and that is the end of it. You don't abandon your team just because they are lousy- that makes you a bad fan. And politics, after all, is just a spectator sport these days.

But enough sarcasm. Bush voters support Bush not because they like him, because they are like him. Bush similarly is unwilling to face reality, and will project what he wishes to be true onto unfortunate reality. Josh Marshall wrote a very interesting article in the Washington Monthly making this very point. Iraq is just the best example. Many observers are beginning to realize how deluded Bush really is- check out Krugman, Herbert, Drum, or the evening news. It is going to hell over there, and Bush is claiming it is hunky dory. Now it is possible that he is just a liar, but while it is even more frightening is if he isn't, the fact is that Bush shows all the classic signs of someone is utter denial. Just like his constituents.

Psychologists teach about a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. This is where your beliefs conflict with each other or with reality. The healthy thing to do is to embrace that conflict, to use it as an opportunity to sort through your opinions. This requires a great deal of intellectual honesty, but it also requires moral courage and mental discipline. Inner conflict is hard. Our natural tendency is to shy away from such conflicts, to pretend that they aren't there. Confronting cognitive dissonance is against our natural inclinations- it takes work, and we have to be educated to do so.

As should be obvious, an unwillingness to deal with reality has major political implications. The case for democracy largely rests of the capacity of citizens to deliberate rationally and reasonably about public issues. If the citizens are unwilling or unable to do so, then public debate becomes impossible. Campaigns become little more than invective and misrepresentation, and politics without substance. Unless you've been in a cave this year, you'll get what I mean.

Which is what makes the story about the school kids so discouraging. The teacher without even realizing it had embarked on a process of teaching her students to grapple with cognitive dissonance. The kids resisted, as might be expected. But the parents also resisted, which tells me that they are no more willing to take up the burdens of citizenship and rational discourse than their children are. And so the infantilization of the American Republic continues......
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:58 PM

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Deficit Politics

Thursday, September 23, 2004
One of conservatism's critiques of democracy is that the people might realize they can vote themselves other people's money (i.e. rich folks). Well it turns out that they were almost right, only it is not the people but conservatives who will tax others to their benefit. And it's not the rich who pay the price tag: it's the future. Of course, the NYT still finds a way to blame the Democrats.

I am a fiscal conservative. Not one of those newfangled types who like tax cuts and ignore deficits. But the old-fashioned sort that thinks you should only spend money that you have. To me it's a moral question. Permanent structural deficits are only acceptable when the people who will have to pay the money back are receiving the benefits. So if you want to borrow money to build a bridge or a school, that's fine. But if you want it for a tax cut or to write retirees a check, that is intergenerational warfare.

Some might say I am really picking a fight with liberals, since many of them are bothered by the Democratic deficit hawks. I think the differences are really quite narrow: they want to spend money on social programs targetted to kids, and so do I. That's human investment spending, to borrow a Clintonism. But I do fall into the camp that thinks that the growth of entitlement of spending is a problem. With the aging of the population, we are fewer workers supporting more retirees. The ratio of workers to retirees used to be 15-1, now it's 3-1, and it's going to 2-1. Given that U.S. incomes have stagnated, we are looking at massive tax increases on workers with declining incomes.

Our politics need to be clarified. Democrats are NOT the big spenders, Republicans are. The deficits shrank under Clinton's policies (enacted BEFORE the Republicans took the Congress), and they have increased steadily under the last three Republican presidents. Conservatism has simply abandoned fiscal discipline. This has yielded them short-term political benefits at the price of compromising the future of our economy and corrupting our politics. They are demagogues, pure and simple. Their political message is the most depraved imaginable: have a free lunch, and make your kinds foot the bill.

As usual, I think Democrats should straightforwardly confront the issue. Yes we will have to finesse some of the details or present the Republicans with an easy target (they want to cut your medicare!). However, the Democrats can get a lot of mileage among independents and moderate Republicans if they can enunciate a clear position. I think the key is to connect the deficit to the general problem of the recklessness, ruthlessness, and incompetence of the Bush Administration.

The most effective political ad this year was the first move-on ad. We must learn from that, and act accordingly.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:58 PM

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Unfair Attacks?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004
There are two pieces in the NYT that need responding to. The first is from the purportedly liberal Nicholas Kristoff. He appropriately criticizes the campaign for being too negative, but then in typical media fashion decides to spread the blame around. Sure, he says, the Republicans are naughty, and they should stop it. But so should Michael Moore. And Kerry should stop "demagoguing on trade." There are a number of major flaws in Kristoff's reasoning. First of all, most of the attacks against Bush happen to be true, while nearly all of the attacks on Kerry happen to be false. This is not a matter of personal opinion or partisanship. You can say that harping on Bush's National Guard Service is a cheap shot, but it is scarcely commensurable with the blatant fabrications of the Swift Boat Vets. But this is the mainstream media, and they really aren't interested in facts anymore.

Secondly, there is a difference between Michael Moore, a marginal figure in the Democratic Party (I believe he supported Nader last time), and the ENTIRE REPUBLICAN PARTY. The RNC in NY was an orchestrated attack on Kerry, whereas Bush was mentioned only indirectly at the DNC, and then usually on policy grounds. The Republican National Convention was one big festival of lies and personal attacks. Once again, Kristoff is equating incommensurables.

Thirdly, on this "demagoguery" on free trade. This is the typical media elite belief that there is only one intellectually respectable side to trade questions (but look at this). Like immigration, it is very difficult for the opposing side to even get a hearing in the public forum. This is particularly frustrating for me because on both issues I remain ambivalent. I have never been able to reach a conclusion on the matter in part because there is little honest public debate about it- anyone who criticizes what I find to be the suspicious arguments of the elite view tends to be dismissed as a demagogue or barbarian. While it is true that there are few jobs that have been LOST to outsourcing, it is also true (though seldom mentioned) that most of the NEW jobs being created by U.S. companies are being created overseas. Hence our jobless recovery. But this opinion clashes with the dominant elite view, so it is dimissed. As usual, the concerns of the unwashed masses are ignored. (Am I shrill today or what?)

Enough on Kristoff. The other matter we should be aware of is the proposed reduction in public housing funds (see here). The cuts are targetted to the northeast, and particularly New York. This is just appalling. New York housing prices are absurd, as are the assumptions behind the proposed cuts. What is most ridiculous is that the Republicans, who have barely left town, are once again sticking it to New York, and to a region of the country dominated by Democrats. Apparently Republicans are all for welfare, as long as it is red state welfare financed by the blues. I have yet to find a counter-example among Democrats: they never shift the burden onto red states to the benefit of blue. Those people really are shameless.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:57 PM

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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Tuesday, September 21, 2004
As soon as you are finished reading this post, go read David Niewert's post on the emergent fascist character of today's conservative movement. It is the best description I've read so far, and I'm pleased to see that it is the beginning of a six-part series. You should also check out James Wolcott and Kevin Keith for some more evidence of the irresponsible and undemocratic nature of the right wing of the Republican party.

Now I don't think that all Republicans are this way- in fact, I suspect that many of their voters are well-meaning people. But the leadership of our opponents has clearly gone around the bend. If they aren't planning ot actually subvert the democracy, they certainly have shown no real consideration about maintaining it.

The question for me is, what do we do about it? How do avert the fate of Weimar Germany- yes I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. If we respond literally in kind, we just feed their extremism and intensify political conflict. If we just play above board, then we allow them to continue abusing us (and the country), which will help them win. It is a bit of a paradox.

My impulse would be to directly confront the radicalism of their behavior, and how it damages our common citizenship. By emphasizing our alternative vision, in sharp distinction to their own, we can not only oppose them but lay the groundwork for our own agenda. I believe what we must do is transcend them. Like Lincoln in his debates with Douglas, we must go to the heart of the problem: how to preserve the American Dream, and how to preserve the Republic. By taking it to a higher plane, we can reveal the right for the tawdry and mean-spirited bunch they are.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:57 PM

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For all you non-philosophy majors....

Monday, September 20, 2004
There has been a very interesting series of posts about the role of moral relativism in contemporary liberalism, all kicked off by Eugene Volokh. A bunch of bloggers have chimed in- Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, and Brian at Cooked Timber. This debate has devolved a bit into disputing the meaning of words like cognitivism and expressivism, which probably just confuses the laymen. Heck, it confuses me at I have a degree in this stuff. So let's step back and identify in commonsense terms what this dispute is about.

Conservatives at least since Goldwater have accused liberals of being culturally permissive, that our mantra is of the "if it feels good, do it" variety. Conservatives assert that the decline in traditional sources of moral authority (like the church) and the erosion of Victorian morality is undermining the health of the U.S. and/or is leading us all to hell (literally).

Although it may surprise you, I think conservatives have a point. It is true that many on the left have hesitated to accuse anyone (other than conservatives and white males) or moral wrongdoing. The reasonable concern about intolerance of minorities sometime makes us unwilling to criticize any action on moral grounds (unless it is intolerance). But of course most liberals, both rank and file Democrats and philosophers, believe no such thing. Only those of the somewhat wacky postmodernist new left have subscribed to such a theory. Conservatives knew they could paint the entire liberal movement with that broad brush, and were eager to do so. Clinton tried to move to immunizing the left from these accusations, but his personal behavior undermined his case.

Is there anything of philosophical or political merit here? Well, it is important to distinguish the two basic forms of relativism: cultural relativism and moral relativism. The former says that societies create their own sources of value, and the latter says there are no sources of value. There is obviously a link between these two, but the latter is a far more extreme position. Philosophically it is a non-started, particularly where political theory is concerned. And as Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, cultural relativism has actually been used by authoritarians as justification for oppression (witness the whole "asian values" question). I agree with Nussbaum- we should reject both forms of relativism, and embrace the universalism that was always at the heart of the liberal message, that all people everywhere deserve to be treated with respect. This is both good politics and good theory.

Finally, I think it is funny that it is the right which attacks the left for moral relativism. Liberals actually forthrightly defend the positions they are for, and these positions are usually moral ones. It is the right which in politics acts in an amoral (or immoral) fashion, believing the end justifies the means. As usual, those who care most about morality in words pay it little regard in deeds.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:57 PM

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Targets of Opportunity,or, We Have a Lot of Work to Do

Sunday, September 19, 2004
Yesterday I spent all day in central Pennsylvania canvassing for John Kerry. It was some of the most fun I've ever had. Don't scowl- I'm serious. The three hour bus-ride to and from was interesting. I met a lot of very nice people and made some new friends. The campaigning itself was even better. We went to a working class black/latino area in the Harrisburg suburbs. Turnout there was 4% in the last election, and they had always been ignored in the past. They didn't know anything about the election other than that they didn't like George Bush, and they didn't think they mattered. No one had ever visited there before (Remember, this is a swings state). Five minutes of conversation later, a goodly number of them were enthusiastic about Kerry, and we even got some volunteers.

I have a feeeling this is a situation that holds for much of the country. Poorer and disenfranchised communities are a natural Democratic constituency, and indeed should be our base. But for years we have targetted almost exclusively on while middle class swing voters in the suburbs. Now we should still go after those people, but can you imagine what we could do in states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania if we mobilized 50% of working class black/latino voters? We'd be hunting the Republicans with dogs and flashlights.

So get on the bus!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:56 PM

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Off To Campaign

Saturday, September 18, 2004
I'm going campaigning for Kerry in a swing state at the crack of dawn this morning, so I won't be able to post until tonight. But I will tell you how it went when I get back. Wish me luck!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:56 PM

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The Law of Expected Consequences

Friday, September 17, 2004
Neoconservatism has had a strange history. It began as an offshoot of New Deal Liberalism, but became disenchanted with the 1960's Great Society - they claimed that liberal programs, while well-meaning, frequently rushed in where angels feared to tread. This was little more than a valuable note of caution in the face of large, far-reaching problems. Neocons later articulated what they called the Law of Unintended Consequences. This is basically the balloon theory of public policy: anywhere you step on a balloon, it will just pop out someplace else. In other words, the neocons just threw their hands up at problems. They were still Democrats until they were alienated by the anti-war protestors and the Carter foreign policy. Their transformation into Republicans was complete when they discovered the beneficial uses of religion. Now they have become some kind of strange breed of imperialists who think that democracy can flow out of the barrel of a gun.

EJ Dionne has laid out what is bizarre about neoconservative foreign policy, but I want to point out some amusing things about their domestic policy. Contemporary conservatives (neo- and otherwise) have moved aggressively in the direction of privatization. They claim that the discipline of the market is inherently more efficient than "government planning." (a phrase by which they conflate any government program with Stalinism) As evidence the conservatives point to past government failures and the manifest success of the private sector.

As usual, we can ignore those pesky things called facts. The neocons have done a lot of that with foreign policy, as you know. But now we have some more evidence of the wonders of privatization, both reported today in the New York Times. First, the charter school plan has been a complete failure, which should raise serious questions about the school voucher proposal. In addition, it turns out that private medicare is considerably more expensive than the public version (check it out). And how can we forget the spectacular success of private military contracting in Iraq?

This is the sad thing about neoconservatives: they started out with a perfectly reasonable caution about government programs and an equally reasonable opposition to the Soviet Union. But their failure to adhere to their own original principles has made them the determined enemies of everything they once championed, or profess to champion now. They have even ignored their own Law of Unintended Consequences, any adherence to which would have led them to oppose the Iraq adventure and be very suspicious of something as untested as privatization.

It would almost be funny if they weren't ruining the country.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:55 PM

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Thursday, September 16, 2004
I have been silent on Iraq thus far. In part this is because there were a lot of smart people already talking about it, and also because I wanted to wait until I had thought through the issue enough to have a clear position. But we are at a stage when every person needs to make their views known. So here goes.

Like a lot of people, I believed Colin Powell when he spoke before the U.N. Everyone in Washington, from both political parties, believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Therefore, I was tempted by the argument that we had to intervene in order to uphold U.N. resolutions and the peace terms of 1991. I am not opposed to the use of force, as long as it is employed wisely and with restraint.

But in th end I was opposed to the Iraq adventure. There were two reasons. First, I thought that Congress had abdicated too much of it role in foreign policy and warmaking. These are powers that were intended by the founders to be shared among all three branches of the federal government. External relations fall under federative, not executive powers: Presidents therefore had usurped too much authority. This was not simply a constitutional abstraction for me: I questioned whether there had been an adequte debate on the subject, both in Washington and among the citizenry. The media seemed to too quick to ridicule opposing arguments, there was too much blurring of 9/11 and Iraq (which were separate issues), and there was too much exploitation of the issue by the Republicans.

I do not blame people who disagreed with me on invading Iraq. Many people were deceived by the Bush administration. They believed they were voting to give the President the leverage he needed to get U.N. support. If there was no U.N. support, the agreement was that Bush would return to Congress for a second resolution. But he broke his word. At the time, only the most cynical of us could have believed he would do so. In this instance, the cynics were right.

All of this is ancient history, except of course for the lessons we should have learned about trusting George Bush. But there was another factor which made me uneasy: the sheer incompetence of the Bush Administration. I had been appalled by the belligerent, incoherent, and counterproductive foreign policy pursued by Bush the moment he took office. For a moment it looked like 9/11 had saved him (and us), because it forced the President to build an international alliance rather than undermine them. We needed friends to fight the war on terror, whereas before all he had been doing was actively isolating us (confronting the Europeans, Japanese, Russians, and Chinese simultaneously).

But then came Iraq. I heard too many different rationales for going in. I heard nothing about what we would do when we won. It was absence of any apparent plan for restoring stability to the country after we had destroyed it that led me to reject the policy. I heard too many rosy scenarios, when every good strategist knows that most things will wrong. Bush tried to repeal Murphy's Law, and we are all paying the price.

It is this incompetence which brings us to the present. The situation is steadily worsening, as the New York Times has reported, and as Juan Cole has so ably discussed. This administration will never be able to get us out of this mess. So no matter whether you were for the war or against it, you should vote against Bush. As usual, he has botched the job.

Of course, there is a real debate as to what we should do next. A quick unilateral withdrawal is unlikely and unwise, because it would instantly result in a civil war. Kerry seems interested in trying to internationalize the effort and gradually reduce our commitment. It is likely that there will still be a civil war, but there is a greater possibility that we can leave some kind of federated state behind. This is probably the right strategy, but we cannot get into specifics until Kerry has taken office. There will be a substantive debate at that point, a debate we should have had two years ago. But this debate will only occur if Kerry is elected President. Which is yet another reason that he must be elected. Because with Bush, we can only expect more of the same: disaster.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:54 PM

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Softball for Kerry

Wednesday, September 15, 2004
So we already knew that George Bush hated gays, poor people, veterans, muslims, and blacks. But old people?

Talk about an easy home run! President George Bush has proposed a 17% increase in Medicare premiums this year, to make it a 56% increase during his term. And now candidate Bush has opposed any delay of those increases Given the importance of the elderly vote in any election, it's nice to see that Kerry is on the offensive on this issue (see here).

I still remember what my grandfather told me when I was first getting interested in politics: cut anything you want, but don't touch my medicare. Medicare was what undid the Gingrich Speakership, and it might just undo Bush.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:54 PM

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Do Issues Matter?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Opinion polls show that Bush and Kerry are close, with Bush enjoying a slight lead. But these same polls indicate that people are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, unhappy with the economy, think Iraq is a mess, and agree with Democrats by healthy margins on almost every issue. Given these conditions, we would expect Kerry to enjoy a healthy lead. Reporters should be writing premature obitiuaries for the other guy, not ours.

So what gives? There are a lot of explanations. The polls could be wrong, of course, or we could just be seeing the tail end of the Bush convention bounce. That's quite possible. Another hypothesis is that the voters will not embrace Kerry as an alternative until they see him on the same stage as the President- much the same way that Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992, and Bush in 2000 benefitted from credible debate performances against formidable and experienced opponents. We could also be dealing with a hostile and/or easily manipulated media. Our little experiment is not quite done, but so far the AWOL and Kelly accusations are mere whispers on the campaign.

Yet another possibility is that there is one issue, namely national defense, where the Republicans have a clear advantage. And we just happen to be in an election where that is the most important issue (see Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias. From this perspective, the Clinton Presidency was kind of a fluke, coming as it did in between the Cold War and the War on Terror. There is something to this argument, but I think there is something very disturbing about it. If people are accepting the manifest disaster that is the Bush foreign policy, then they are either being duped, are misinformed, or are imperialists. I don't think voters really agree with the Bush foreign policy- I just think that Bush is still benefiting from the rally-around-the-flag effect and his own, deliberately fostered, climate of fear.

Michael Tomasky has another, far more radical theory: issues don't matter. The Republicans are far better organized and ruthless, to their credit, but they also realize that they can't win with issues. So they don't- they win with personality. So they smear their opponents and misrepresent their own candidate, whatever it takes. Issues are hard see, so they are easy to fuzz. It is also easy to mischaracterize and oversimplify complicted policy proposals to your advantage and your opponent's detriment. The lesson for Democrats is, yes, be more disciplined, but more importantly, stop thinking elections are won on the issues. Because if they were, we would still be the majority party.

There is a certain amount of truth to this, and as a piece of analysis Tomasky's argument is quite seductive. Not least of all because we would then be free to smear the other candidates in kind, which would be therapeutic if nothing else.

As fun as it would be, playing the character was is ultimately playing into the hands of the Republicans, What we should be doing is re-framing the debate back towards the issues. This is the only way we can win, and the only way elections should be won. Tomasky implies as much at the end of his article, but he is ambiguous.

So if Michael thinks that we should be more aggressive and creative about controlling the agenda, then I couldn't agree more. But if he is saying that we should just focus on character, then I think this is bad advice.

But there is good news. The polls are getting better. And Kerry has been more aggressive and policy oriented since the convention. What we really need now is some solidarity, and a little patience.

And for my jury duty to finally end.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:53 PM

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Monday, September 13, 2004
After many years in graduate school, I have more than a passing acquaintance with the quality of contemporary college students. The depth of ignorance in freshmen is truly shocking. Professors have to start from ground zero- it's like high school never even happened. To those of you who are parents: do you want to know what your children are learning in school? The answer is nothing. Zilch. Oh, there is a good school here and there, and good students will find a way to learn something no matter where they are. But I remember a lot of kids just as smart as I was who are working at book stores today. They just got bored one day and checked out. Let's not even talk about the kids who struggled.

People have been bemoaning the state of public education in this country for years, ever since A Nation at Risk was published in the 1980's. International students laught at how poorly educated Americans are. This situation has profound effects on our long-term economic position: we are becoming a nation of Wal-mart employees because that is all we are qualified for.

It's not that the talent isn't there, or the willingness to work. It just seems to be that there is no public commitment to the value of education. We talk a good game, we just never do anything. I have a friend who is a teacher. His first year he flunked a bunch of his students, and the result was that the parents and the administration jumped down his throat. People act like the schools are failing the students, but parents are failing both. It is far too easy for the child to play his teacher and his parent off against one another.

Yes, I am ranting a little, but I have a broader point. I just want to remind my readers what the original purpose of public education was. Not to create good workers, or virtuous people, or provide free baby-sitting. It was to create citizens- people who were capable of participating in public life, who can think critically, know their history, and can separate the wheat from the chaff (proverbially speaking).

Anyone who has read this blog should know that I am deeply concerned about the health of our democracy. Well, this is one major source of the problem- our public schools are not doing their job. Students graduate without the slightest ability to understand abstract ideas or dissect a problem. They have no idea how the country got here or why, and they could care less.

This is not a situation without consequences. Citizens are not born, they are made. And if we don't bother to cultivate the capacity for self-governance in our children, then they'll be that much more vulnerable to the appeals of demagogues.

So what can we do? Testing is a panacea- it tells you where you are but not how to improve, and there are significant distortions introduced into the educational process by a focus on testing. No, serious policy analysts know how to address the problem: reduce the student-teacher ratio to about 15 to 1, get rid of summer vacation, keep kids in school until 5 or 6 PM, give teachers real control of their classroom, emphasize teamwork and critical thinking over lecture and rote memorization, and make the academic curriculum a whole lot tougher (come on, do you think Americans are just dummer than Asians and Europeans?).

Why haven't we done all of this long ago? Because it would take money and will, and we have been sadly lacking in either. Remember- you get what you pay for. And so do your kids.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:52 PM

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What 9/11 Means to Me

Saturday, September 11, 2004
First, I want to apologize for not writing yesterday- I was having trouble logging into by blogger account.

This is, of course, the third anniversary of 9/11. Like most people, I remember exactly where I was. I was walking to class when a received a phone call from my wife, who was in New York at the time, telling me she was all right. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me. It took me a few minutes before I realized she was not making a bad joke.

Everyone has stories like this. Where we were, what we were doing, how we felt. There was a wide range of emotions, from anger to fear to confusion. But what I remember most is the brief moment after the attack, when we were finally one country again. Everyone I met was part of me- we were all in this together. It was a moment of possibility- a chance to heal some old divisions between the "two americas," whether you are referring to rich and poor america, or black and white, or red and blue.

And then something happened that I will never forget. Something that filled me with a rage and disgust that rivalled my reaction to the attack on the towers itself. Our President, our leader, looked us in the eye and told us the best thing we could do for America was to be afraid, and to go shopping.

I'm not even going to get into the contradictory message here. What really riled me was that our President had taken this golden moment of national unity and squandered it. You see, for decades there had been a slow ebbing of civic vitality: fewer people were involved, and fewer cared. We had lost faith in our ability to act as a people to solve problems. But the shock of 9/11 woke a lot of people up, and you could see in people's eyes, in the way they walked, that they were ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

And he tells us to go shopping. Rather than appeal to the best in us, he appealed to the crassest materialistic instincts. He told us to be afraid- not in so many words, but in what he didn't say. Not "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" but "be afraid be very afraid" and "when the times get tough the tough go shopping." The opportunity was lost, and with it we reinforced our old habits of anomie rather than transcended them.

Great leaders in times of crisis appeal to the best in us, and they try to rally us behind the cause, behind the nation, behind some nobler ideal. Crisis can be a good thing- it can force us to reconsider, to think and act anew. This is true in personal terms as well as public- after a relationship collapses and the mourning is over, there is the exhilirating feeling of possibility, a chance to make yourself over. But in this time of crisis, the President rallied us not behind ourselves, or an ideal, but around himself. This is not what great democratic leaders do- it was what demagogues and tyrants do. It is what people do who are primarily interested in their own power, not the public trust.

I really shouldn't have been surprised. This is a party which benefits when people tend to their own garden. The people, my "Third Estate," are only powerful when they act together, when they are conscious of themselves as a people. Alone, we are weak and isolated. If people don't pay attention, then they are easy to manipulate. This benefits those who already have power. So whenever the right emphasizes our fears (which divide and paralyze us) or our narrow self-interest (go shopping!), it means there are fewer people in the room when decisions are made- that the people that do have influence have fat wallets.

So I suggest that tonight you light a candle in honor of those who died three years ago. And in honor of our great leader, I suggest this afternoon you do what he asked- go to the mall.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:50 PM

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Let's See What They Do Now

Thursday, September 09, 2004
We are now going to be able to conduct a controlled scientific experiment on the media. It will demonstrate precisely how biased they really are towards the Bushies. Will they cover the (verified) accusations about Bush's military service (or lack thereof) with the same energy, attention, and breathless excitiement that they covered the Swiftboat Liars.

Initially, things look promising. 60 minutes covered the Ben Barnes interview, where the latter stated that he helped Bush get out of military service, and the AP has evidence that Bush skipped out out on later duty, lied about it, and the White House covered it up. The New York Times and the Washington Post are carrying the story. The Administration's response has been, well, embarassing (see Josh Marshall for the transcript). It looks like these guys might even be guilty of a crime (by way of Atrios) - I think that would be obstruction of justice, the same one they impeached Clinton for. So pay close attention- if the media buries the story, then we can be certain that it is fatally corrupted.

As for the Kitty Kelley book, I'll confess to conflicted feelings. On the one hand, I would delight in seeing those people get a taste of their own medicine. On the other hand, I really, really don't like all these very personal allegations. Either way, as Democrats we should lay off unless the accusations turn out to be true (which means we need to make sure they are investigated). So while I agree with Nick Confessore that these claims are distastful, they still need to be investigated, both in the interests in truth and in fairness to the Kerry campaign. I just wish that the media would research a story before they printed it. But that is apparently too much to ask.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:50 PM

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Jury Duty Is Not Fun

Wednesday, September 08, 2004
And neither is military service. Or paying our taxes. But ordinary people do these things because they feel a sense of obligation- they do it because they know they are supposed to, that it is their jobs. Right now I am performing jury duty, which despite all the inconvenience, I am willing to do. Would I rather be in Florida? Sure (Well, not right now, of course). Heck, I'd rather be at work! But most people don't just duck out. They try and postpone the day of reckoning, but when the time comes they do the right thing.

Which is what is so appalling about George Bush. He ducks out on military service and lies about it (here). This is a perfectly legitimate political issue: it is something he is ducking now. In the same vein, he may have covered up connections between 9/11 and the Saudis (here). This is a man without any sense of moral obligation, or even a surface familiarity with honesty. What I want to know is, where are all the Republicans who bashed Clinton when he was "disgracing the White House"? Whatever happened to setting a moral example?

On the other hand, there are other rumors that we should lay off of until we know more. He may have done coke in his 40's at Camp David while Poppy was President (see here), and there are even rumors he is still drinking or is on anti-depressants. If true, these would all be very damaging. But I think we need to be very, very careful how we throw these accusations around. Otherwise we are no better than Republicans.

Oh, and as for jury duty, all I have to say is that there are a lot of bad lawyers out there, and a lot of jurors who aren't as stupid as they seem to think we are.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:49 PM

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The Publicity Criterion

Tuesday, September 07, 2004
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that no political argument is acceptable unless it meets what he calls the criteron of publicity. This means that the argument that is being made is openly and honestly debated. The motivations, policies, and consequences of any action are obvious to all. This criteron prohibits the "necessary lie" of Plato and Strauss. Political leaders must not pretend to be something they are not, or mischaracterize their policies, or manipulate the people in a direction that the leader thinks is best for the country, whatever the people might believe.

So why am I boring you with philosophical abstractions? Easy- the contemporary political right is blatantly and aggressively violating the principle of publicity. The aim of the radical conservatives is to repeal the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Progressive Movement. They want to ditch any kind of protections or assistance to workers. They desire to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy and onto the middle class. They believe that corporations should be essentially immune from any legal sanction or regulation. And their policies, when added together, would force women back into the kitchen, barefoot and weak. (On the last point- what else would be the result of anti-choice, anti-welfare, no child care, etc?) They also want to carve out an America Empire, with a permanent war economy and our boys and girls forever dying on distant battlefields for the sake of U.S. hegemony.

If this set of policies were clearly enunciated, do you think the voters would embrace it? Neither do I. The right knows this, so they are careful to cloak their ambitions and distract us from the real issues at hand. The foundation of the conservative agenda is deception, because what they want is simply unpopular. Which is why the right has moved steadily away from democracy and toward authoritarianism. This is why they are willing to tamper with election results, corrupt the democratic discourse, and smear their opponents. Because to win, they have no other choice. And they think that they just know better than the people they want to rule.

In the future, we can expect more of the same, whether they win this election or not. These people will never stop until they are exposed, repudiated, and humiliated. And it is our job to do so.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:48 PM

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More on Strategy

Monday, September 06, 2004
Everyone needs to check out Ruy Texeira's analysis of the recent polls. As usual, he's the best.

Also, I want to flesh out my response to Kevin Drum and Digby a little more. It seems to me that they have, in some sense, thrown in the towel. Not for this election, but for democracy. Why? Because the core principle of democracy is that citizens are capable of making good decisions about their own and their country's future. They make mistakes, but these mistakes are accidental and rectifiable. Democrats (small and big D) agree with Lincoln that while you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

We can all agree that about 45% of the population is permanently fooled by George Bush, and that he is trying to convince that middle 10% just long enough to get re-elected. Remember, his numbers have been lousy all year- ever since the consequences of his disastrous decisions have been manifest. Our job is to remind them why he is a failure.

To engage in character assassination and fear-mongering is not consistent with a democracy. To manipulate people's emotions in an effort to turn off their brains is not democratic. If both parties resort to demagogy, then we will have accepted the fact that America's people are, in Machiavelli's terminology, corrupted: they are just waiting for a master. I don't believe that's true. I don't believe it, and I can't believe it. Because if I did, what would be the point? I would be forced to go into exile or something.

We cannot give up on the people. We must believe that if we articulate the truth of the matter in a way they can understand, that they will come around. And even in terms of political strategy, it is smart to be honest. Why don't we just accuse the Republicans of playing to people's fears? Why don't we just call them on what they are doing, and how wrong it is?

I agree with Kevin- failing to defend yourself is a sign of weakness. But we don't have to fight dirty to do so. We just have to fight tough.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:48 PM

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What Should Kerry Do Next?

Sunday, September 05, 2004
I tried to post yesterday, but the system crashed so I have to write it all over again. Oh well.

In the aftermath of the Swiftboat Smear, the Republican National Convention , and the apparent Bush bounce in the polls, a lot of Democrats are worried about the election. There is a great deal of hand-wringing, which is overwrought and not helpful. But there is also some strategizing as to what we should do next.

First, the polls: Bush got a bigger bounce from a few of the overnight polls that I would have expected, but it is certainly not time to freak out. We won't know where the race really is until next week. Furthermore, Kerry's real position won't be determined until the debates. It is there that voters decide whether someone is capable of being President. Until then, Bush's numbers are probably inflated.

Now we can turn to some of the advice that Kerry is getting. Generally, Democrats want him to be more aggressive. Was I the only one who watched his speech on Thursday night? And did anyone catch Joe Lockhart on Sunday morning, or see any of the anti-Bush ads that are being released? Kerry has been extremely tough. So I don't think we need to worry on that front.

The question remains on how we should be aggressive. The NYT reports that a lot of Dems think we should focus on domestic issues. I'm not sure that relying strictly on domestic issues is a winner, because we tried that in 2002 and it didn't work very well. Certainly domestic policy is crucial, but it can't be our exclusive focus. On the other hand, Kevin Drum and Digby have thrown up their hands and decided we should get dirty. Now it might be emotionally satisfying to attack the character of our opponents, but this has two major flaws. First, we are supposed to be the good guys- if we will say anything to win, are we really any better than the Republicans. Tough is one thing, but demagogy is going too far. Secondly, the virtue of being liberal is that we are right: we don't have to lie. All we have to do is tell the truth in a forthright, coherent, and persuasive way.

So what should Kerry do? I believe he needs to make a general indictment of Bush's competence both on foreign and domestic policy. These guys have had four years of mistakes, mismanagement, and broken promises. Iraq was a good idea in theory, tax cuts might be a good idea if done properly, but these guys are a bizarre mix of a) ignorant, b) incompetent, and c) in hoc to greedy corporations. I could get more specific, but you get the idea. This attack both undermines people's faith in the President (one of his most important assets) and creates a segue to talking about what we would do specifically.

If this strategy sounds obvious, it is. And the good news is that there is every indication that Kerry is embracing this strategy. I would have wished that he would also talk about a few Big Ideas, but you can't have everything. Remember, the structural basis of the election is still in our favor. We just need to close the deal.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:47 PM

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Well Allow Me To Retort!

Friday, September 03, 2004
George Bush can give a pretty good speech (on paper), and someone who had been living under a rock for the last few years might have been taken in. But for anyone paying attention, this is all old hat, and an ugly hat at that.

Let me just respond to a few points:

On education....

"I believe every child can learn, and every school must teach-so we passed the most important federal education reform in history. Because we acted, children are making sustained progress in reading and math, America's schools are getting better, and nothing will hold us back.we passed the most important federal education reform in history."


"In our high schools, we will fund early intervention programs to help students at risk. We will place a new focus on math and science. As we make progress, we will require a rigorous exam before graduation. By raising performance in our high schools, and expanding Pell grants for low and middle income families, we will help more Americans start their career with a college diploma.

America's children must also have a healthy start in life. In a new term, we will lead an aggressive effort to enroll millions of poor children who are eligible but not signed up for the government's health insurance programs. We will not allow a lack of attention, or information, to stand between these children and the health care they need."

Important doesn't mean good, y'know. WWII was the most important event of the 20th Century. But I'll leave that alone- everyone knows that he has refused to fund the program. It's more than a little disengenuous to propose a program you have already cut or refused to fund, don't you think? And his results are bogus- there have been no substantial improvements.

On seniors....

"I believe we have a moral responsibility to honor America's seniors- so I brought Republicans and Democrats together to strengthen Medicare. Now seniors are getting immediate help buying medicine. Soon every senior will be able to get prescription drug coverage, and nothing will hold us back."

Of course, this program forces every senior to buy a medicare package that the company can then change at will. And the program prevents medicare from negotiating with providers, so it amounts to little more than a big subsidy to the bloated insurance industry.

On the economy....

"I believe in the energy and innovative spirit of America's workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers-so we unleashed that energy with the largest tax relief in a generation. Because we acted, our economy is growing again, and creating jobs, and nothing will hold us back."

Actually, his tax cut is really just a tax shift onto future generations, since it's paid for with debt, shifting the burden onto the middle class, and forcing states to raise (regressive) taxes. And he didn't mention that most of the benefits are going to those whose incomes are already growing rather than the other 90% of us. There has been very little stimulus in the plan, with wages and income declining and job growth anemic.

On government...

"This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family, and have a rewarding career. And government must take your side."

I thought this was the anti-government party?

On trade....

"To create more jobs in America, America must be the best place in the world to do business. To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation, and making tax relief permanent. To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy. To create jobs, we will expand trade and level the playing field to sell American goods and services across the globe."

Of course, it's hard to promote investment when you are anti-science. And the de-regulation has led to rampant corporate fraud. And Bush's free trade policies have savaged the midwestern industrial economy.

On tax reform...

"Another drag on our economy is the current tax code, which is a complicated mess-filled with special interest loopholes, saddling our people with more than six billion hours of paperwork and headache every year. The American people deserve-and our economic future demands-a simpler, fairer, pro-growth system. In a new term, I will lead a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code."

Read, flat tax or national sales tax. Which shifts taxes on the middle class and away from the rich. Again.

On labor....

"Another priority in a new term will be to help workers take advantage of the expanding economy to find better, higher-paying jobs. In this time of change, many workers want to go back to school to learn different or higher-level skills. So we will double the number of people served by our principal job training program and increase funding for community colleges. I know that with the right skills, American workers can compete with anyone, anywhere in the world."


"In this time of change, government must take the side of working families. In a new term, we will change outdated labor laws to offer comp-time and flex-time. Our laws should never stand in the way of a more family-friendly workplace."

By this he mean abolishing overtime and undermining labor unions. Are you catching on yet?

On urban poverty....

"In this time of change, opportunity in some communities is more distant than in others. To stand with workers in poor communities-and those that have lost manufacturing, textile, and other jobs-we will create American opportunity zones. In these areas, we'll provide tax relief and other incentives to attract new business, and improve housing and job training to bring hope and work throughout all of America."

While cutting money to states, housing, and job training. And boy, empowerment zones sure have worked in the past!

On health care...

"As I've traveled the country, I've met many workers and small business owners who have told me they are worried they cannot afford health care. More than half of the uninsured are small business employees and their families. In a new term, we must allow small firms to join together to purchase insurance at the discounts available to big companies. We will offer a tax credit to encourage small businesses and their employees to set up health savings accounts, and provide direct help for low-income Americans to purchase them. These accounts give workers the security of insurance against major illness, the opportunity to save tax-free for routine health expenses, and the freedom of knowing you can take your account with you whenever you change jobs. And we will provide low-income Americans with better access to health care: In a new term, I will ensure every poor county in America has a community or rural health center."

While businesses are shedding health care costs as quickly as possible, and workers don't make enough money to have anything to save for future health expenses. Has anyone noticed the level of consumer debt? It's at record highs. So this plan will just give a tax cut to people who have already saved money (read rich folks).

On lawyers...

"As I have traveled our country, I have met too many good doctors, especially OB-GYNS, who are being forced out of practice because of the high cost of lawsuits. To make health care more affordable and accessible, we must pass medical liability reform now. And in all we do to improve health care in America, we will make sure that health decisions are made by doctors and patients, not by bureaucrats in Washington, DC."


"And we must protect small business owners and workers from the explosion of frivolous lawsuits that threaten jobs across America."

This is just a jab at lawyers. Lawyers who defend people who've been lied to and exploited. And by the way, the number and cost of lawsuits cannot possibly be the cause of the rise in insurance premiums. Why? Because they haven't changed in the last decade. So there must be some other reason (greed of insurance companies).

On the Ownership Society....

"Another priority for a new term is to build an ownership society, because ownership brings security, and dignity, and independence."

I've talked about this before.

On Kerry...

"These changing times can be exciting times of expanded opportunity. And here, you face a choice. My opponent's policies are dramatically different from ours. Senator Kerry opposed Medicare reform and health savings accounts. After supporting my education reforms, he now wants to dilute them. He opposes legal and medical liability reform. He opposed reducing the marriage penalty, opposed doubling the child credit, and opposed lowering income taxes for all who pay them. To be fair, there are some things my opponent is for-he's proposed more than two trillion dollars in new federal spending so far, and that's a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts. To pay for that spending, he is running on a platform of increasing taxes-and that's the kind of promise a politician usually keeps.

His policies of tax and spend-of expanding government rather than expanding opportunity-are the policies of the past. We are on the path to the future-and we are not turning back."

Okay, I'll just sum up: Kerry is opposed to BAD proposals, and in favor of funding good ones. Any he wants to PAY for his programs, which are CHEAPER than Bush's and that Bush just wants to BORROW money for.

And the rest of the speech is like that MoveOn ad: Terrorism, Terrorism, Terrorism, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, God Bless America. Oh, and Saddam Hussein caused 9/11 (wink) and Kerry is a weakling.

Okay, I think you have all gotten the message. This guy is full of doo-doo.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:30 PM

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Whatever Happened to Freedom of Assembly?

Thursday, September 02, 2004
I've been paying close attention to the protests in NYC, and I must say I am thoroughly alarmed. So far they have arrested over 1700 demonstrators, nearly all of whom have been peaceful. Reporting from the NYT and other sources indicates that the police are using arrests as a crowd control technique, not only to convince protesters not to come back, but to deter other potential protesters. Now I can understand the police wanting to regulate demonstrations (public safety, etc.), but to stifle dissent because it is inconvenient? Am I missing something, or has the 1st Amendment been repealed? Wasn't the original purpose of a police presence at protests to protect the protesters? (wow that was an alliterative sentence) First they try and marginalize the protests by not granting licenses or putting them in the middle of nowhere, and now they try and intimidate the citizenry. How does all this obstruction serve the public interest?

I'm very interested in what Supreme Court has to say about all this.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:29 PM

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In Defense of the Two Parties

Wednesday, September 01, 2004
It is not enough to point to the flaws of 3rd parties- I think it is incumbent upon me to explain why the two party system is absolutely necessary for a functioning democracy. I will explain first why parties at all are useful, and secondly why we need a two (rather than multi-) party system.

E.E. Schattschneider said that functioning democracies are simply inconceivable without parties. This is because without parties, voters have no idea which government officials to hold accountable. Without the convenience of party labels, it is impossible to assign responsibility. Elected officials would find it too easy to blame some other member of congress. And the absence of political parties would place a tremendous burden on voters. Rather than selecting a party because of its governing philosophy, they would have to exhaustively research every candidate. Furthermore, the absence of parties would make it extraordinarily difficult for middle class candidates to run for office. They couldn't tap into pre-existing party networks- they would have to do it from scratch. Traditional social and economic elites, and celebrities, would have even more of a short cut to office than we have now.

So I've convinced you about the need for parties, right? So why only two? The reason we have 2 parties is structural (see Duverger's Law), but the reason we need them is also structural. Separation of powers and checks and balances makes it very hard to govern, and having only two parties makes it likely that one political coalition will be able to govern, to unite what the founders have separated. But the bigger reason is government accountability. A multi-party coalition would find it easy to shift blame to some other group.

But ultimately, the reason we have two parties is because there really are only two parties. This is true in any stable democracy. In Israel there are the Labor and Likud, in Britain Labor and Conservative, and in France Socialists and Conservatives. The minor parties shave off the edges of the major coalitions, but they more often play the role of spoilers than anything else. There are really just two parties in every country: the right and the left. There are those who are socially traditionalist, pro-corporate, and imperialist, and those who are tolerant, pro-labor, and democrats.

So why make it more complicated than it needs to be? The impulse towards minor parties is, I would suggest, just a strange "independence" chic. You can be in a democracy and be an independent. The whole point of politics is working together. So please, please, if you are on the left, join the Democrats.

And those on the right? You go ahead and make your third parties. It'll be great.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:27 PM

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