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Wal-Mart Wars

Monday, February 28, 2005
Recently, Wal-Mart's attempt to enter the New York City market was defeated, which seems to have helped spark a significant debate on the nation's biggest employer.

The company has very few outright defenders. Heck, there's even a website dedicated to bashing it. The basic liberal critique is that it is anti-labor, given its union-busting practices and its policy of low wages, low benefits, importation of suspect foreign goods, and its pressure on its suppliers to do the same. However, even some conservatives (like Bainbridge) have criticized Wal-Mart for its delerious effects on small business and damage to small towns. They're also mad that it receives government subsidies in the process.

Now the real debate is what to do about it. Some of us would like to take a hammer to Wal-mart's buildings. Others just want to stop subsidizing it (like Bainbridge), while the likes of Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias want to pass laws regulating its behavior to prohibit its worst practices. Max Sewicky seems to want to limit Wal-Mart's growth because of its harmful effects on small proprietorships. Robert Reich wants consumers to take on more of the burden, since their obsessive pursuit of low prices is what makes Wal-Mart so successful in the first place.

So where do I stand on this? I suppose you could place me in the Bainbridge-Sewicky camp. My objection to the "management" strategy for dealing with Wal-Mart is that it does nothing to rescue small entrepreneurs. Having your own business is a major component of the American dream, and as I have said before, we need to preserve it. I also reject the real economic benefits of giant retailers. Unlike producers, I fail to see what economies of scale are generated by selling products (as opposed to making them, where there are efficiency gains to be had). I think the only reason Wal-Mart can generate cut-rate prices is because of its exploitative labor & lobbying practices. There is really no reason why a small store (or a consortium of them) could not negotiate deals from their suppliers that would be just as good as a Wal-Mart that didn't have horns.

Versus Reich, I think he is forgetting the collective action problem. Certainly it is in everyone's individual interest to get the best deal. I am unduly sacrificing myself by buying the more expensive good, something particularly difficult to do when my dollar is stretched thin as it is. The reason we have governments is to solve these problems by using government sanctions to impose a solution so that people can do the right thing without getting penalized. We don't drive on the right side of the road out of some social imperative, but because the state just arbitrarily decided that is how we are going to do it. Thank God.

On a side note, Drum & Yglesias think that Bainbridge and Sewicky have an undue romanticism about small-town, small-business America. Yglesias describes this as a communitarian attachment, while Sewicky objects to this term in favor of populism. I think this debate just reveals that Populism, with its desire for property ownership, is a closely related to a traditionalist version of small-town communitarianism. The ideas really are in inextricable. And contra Drum, just because he doesn't think small town life is so great doesn't mean that we should allow a big company to destroy a way of life that many people find a wonderful one. I think we need to preserve the possibility of small town America, which means we have to preserve small companies and put restrictions on big box retailers.

Having said all this, I have a proposal. Why not pass a franchisers' bill of rights, giving them more autonomy and real independence from their mother company. By shifting the center of gravity within these organizations, we might capture the benefits of having big commercial networks while preserving the possibility for independent entrepreneurs.

Just an idea.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:07 AM

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Monster Watch

Sunday, February 27, 2005
Two things to note today. First, more evidence that it is useless to engage with the right in intellectual debate. Why? Because they don't really care about reality, only domination. The Republican media consultant Frank Luntz's "handbook" (which I found here) implicitly concedes that Republicans are uninterested in rational discussion. They'll say anything, no matter how flawed or vicious, in order to win. So much for the original purpose of this blog. When I started I still believed that there was someone on the other side reasonable enough to argue with. Silly me.

Speaking of reasonable, can you believe this guy? He even looks like a lieutenant to Darth Vader! How am I supposed to compromise with or even respect the "values" of someone who wants to prosecute teenagers for murder because they got abortions? In case anyone has forgotten, the only time late term abortions happen, in fact the only time they used to be legal, was when the life of the mother was in danger!

Remember Roe v. Wade? It said that abortions could be restricted after the first trimester barring threats to the mother's life, and I'm willing to bet that in Kansas "casual" late-term abortions were never permissible. So the late term abortion law recently passed by congress is redundant unless you have decided that the lives of unborn childen always outweigh any interest the mother has, including her continued existence.

The anti-choice crowd rhetorically covers its bases by saying that abortion in the case of rape, incest, or life of the mother is still acceptable. This move on so-called "partial birth" abortions demonstrates that they really never meant that. To them women really are just vehicles for baby production.

Have a nice sunday. I have to go cool off now. God I hate those people.......
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:06 AM

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Cultural Elitism?

Saturday, February 26, 2005
Here we go again. In light of the discussion by Meyerson, Teixeira and other about Democratic weakness among the white working class, Bull Moose deploys the now conventional argument that working class voters are more interested in "values" issues than economic ones. Democrats will not succeed until they find a way to bridge the gap on culture.

Fair enough, but what bothers me is his description of the liberal position as "cultural elitism." What exactly is elite about not wanting to oppress others? Economic elitism asserts that the wealthy should govern the economy and reap most of the rewards, political elitism that the top knows better how to run the country. Both of these types of elitism identifiably benefit the upper class. But what about cultural liberalism? I don't see how tolerance and diversity benefit the top at all.

In reality, the only "values" which benefit the elite are cultural traditionalism, since it splinters the working classes and allows the elite to continue their political and economic dominance. Don't ask me, ask Max Weber.

So never call cultural liberalism "elitism." The real cultural elitism is being practiced on the right, not the left.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:05 AM

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Thursday, February 24, 2005
Harold Meyerson notes that Democratic support among the white working class has collapsed, with Kerry losing by 23 points. Ruy Teixeira states that Kerry lost among white southern moderates by 15 points, while Clinton won them by 2.

This is deeply disconcerting to me, particularly given that my background happens to be as a white working class southern moderate. I have always believed that the working class should lay at the heart of the Democratic party's concern, and the fact that we are losing them so badly speaks to a real disfunction in either how we run campaigns or (worse) the positions we evince.

Let me put is succintly: there is simply no way the Democrats are ever going to win while losing these two constituencies so badly. I don't want to hear a strategy unless it takes these two (overlapping) groups into account. Ones that don't are just doomed to fail.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:04 AM

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Got Books?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005
I find this a pointless discussion. There are some slanders floating around on the right that Democrats have become a party without any ideas or core principles. This theme is now being advanced by liberals as well (see Michael Tomasky's piece here). Tomasky suggests that Democrats have become far too concerned with tactical rather than intellectual concerns. Pandagon could be read to support this view, but I think he might have something a little different in mind - namely our problem is that we are tactically hesitant to deploy "big ideas," not that we don't have them.

Okay, there a few ways I can respond to this assertion. The first is to note the number of important liberal philosophers versus the number of conservative ones. Here we go...

Liberal: Aristotle (sort of), Locke, Hobbes (sort of), Rousseau, Montesquieu, Mill, Rawls, Nussbaum, etc. I could go on awhile.

Conservatives: Burke (sort of), Plato (sort of), Nozick (sort of), Hobbes (sort of).

Now by "sort of" I mean that the thrust of a thinker's work is liberal, but some the details my not be, or the contemporary movement might reject the writer's work. The crucial point to make for the conservative philosophers is that the modern conservative movement would completely repudiate Burke's gradualism, Plato's feminism and communism, Hobbes' atheism, and they forget that Nozick takes most of his libertarian argument back at the end of his book.

So what we have is a completely lopsided debate between left and right in intellectual circles. Conservative political philosophers are virtually a contradiction in terms, not because the academy is biased, but because conservative ideas are stupid.

A response to this point could be that there is an important distinction between philosophers and public intellectuals. Okay, please give me the name of a serious conservative intellectual who speaks to public affairs. Right, me neither. The fact is that in America we really don't have public intellectuals any more. It's a sad fact, but there we are. I mean, would you really describe the latest CPAC conference as a gathering of intellectuals? Don't make me laugh.

Furthermore, there is plenty of substantive work that goes on on the left. Just take a look at the last TNR issue and its commentators (here and here), all of which are dedicated to discussions of where liberalism should go next.

It is true that lately Democrats have given a lot of thought to message and positioning, but I think that there are two excellent reasons for this. First, the Republicans have built a formidable "message machine" that makes it hard to get any ideas through. The right has successfully tipped the rhetorical playing field, and we need to shift it back. Second, we need to remember that on substance most people agree with liberals. I've said this a million times and it remains true: once you strip issues of partisan labels, the center-left persuasion constitutes a tremendous majority. What the Republicans have done is compensate for that disadvantage, not eliminated it. It's one of the reasons they have to play so rough. If they played fair, they'd lose.

Which brings me to my final point, namely that Pandagon is correct that narrow tactical positioning is a mistake, particularly for a party out of power. Bull Moose's Clinton analogy is dead wrong because Presidents can act tactically, but it is disastrous for an opposition party to do so.

So if Tomasky is saying that Democrats need to focus on broader issues and think strategically rather than tactically, then I absolutely agree. But if he is suggesting that we all become pseudo-intellectual fanatics like the conservatives, I think he's making a serious mistake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:04 AM

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This is truly disturbing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005
If you ever had any doubts that Republicans are off their rockers, I mean truly bug-eating, feces-rubbing insane, then this should alleviate them. Those people really are fanatics. Their love for Dear Leader has reached the point of being a cult of personality. All they need to be told now is who to put in concentration camps. Oh wait, we already know: us.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:03 AM

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Monday, February 21, 2005
I have a lot of little bits today.

Abortion part 62: Question Answered?

I guess I am who New Age Democrat has in mind when he says abortion is a "fixation." Or perhaps I am just staying on top of what is an ongoing debate in the party over abortion rights. New Donkey and Kevin Drum about a potential wedge issue for Democrats on the abortion issue. They suggest we emphasize birth control as a way to reduce the number of abortions. They believe that there are a heck of a lot of "pro-life" people who would accept this as a meaningful approach, while on the other hand it would be accepted by the pro-choicers. I think this is a very promising idea. I remember thinking that when the morning after pill came out, it could totally change the abortion debate. So maybe this is the correct way to re-frame the issue without changing the substance. I need to think it over more, but it's a hopeful sign.

On a related note, this is a worrisome comment by Bull Moose. Not that he is in favor of a pro-life candidate because he has the best chance to win. That's fine - I certainly don't believe we should run anti-choice people out of the party. But what I wasn't aware of is that Bull Moose himself is pro-life. This changes the character of his advice a bit. If he were pro-choice and suggesting a modification of Democrats' stance on abortion, then it looks like sensible tactical analysis. But when someone who is anti-choice himself suggests such a change, it makes me worry that his advice is part of a hidden agenda to transform the party. Now I don't want to poison the well, and we should continue to take what Moose says seriously. But it does give me pause, and will likely give more than pause to others.

The Election Mystery

Abramowitz has an apparent solution to my query yesterday. It turns out that moderates did support Bush 54-46, which accounts for his victory given higher Democratic turnout. I suppose that the exit polls indicated self-identified moderates, while the NES study places voters objectively by asking them for their issue positions. So it looks like we have a lot of self-identified conservatives who are really moderates, and a lot of self-identified moderates who are really liberals. Interesting.

What continues to bother me is the believability of Abramowitz's NES-based conclusion. The election last fall looked like a turnout war in which Rove focused on conservatives and Democrats reached out to the middle. Now we are supposed to think that what really happened was that Bush won the middle while Kerry rallied his base? This just doesn't accord with the election I saw. Something remains fishy here.


An op-ed by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post defends Wal-Mart to a certain extent. He says that yes, Wal-Mart is supposed to be evil and all. But then we tend to forget that working class people have to shop at Wal-Mart because they are economically stressed. They really do provide the best deal in town.

It is conventional to focus on the consumer when defending Wal-Mart, but Robinson fails to understand that the reason that people have to shop at Wal-Mart is because companies like Wal-Mart prevent them from shopping anywhere else. He fails to mention that the primary causes for middle class economic pressure is that their incomes have not gone up in thirty years, in large part because companies like Wal-Mart pit them against 3rd world labor, break up unions, and give no benefits. They have perverted Henry Ford's dictum that you need to pay your workers enough to buy your product by reducing their employees (and others) to the point where they can ONLY buy their product.

Robinson is doing something like exculpating a pimp because his whores want to work him to get our of poverty. Hey, why don't we do something about the circumstances that forced such a choice in the first place? What a crazy idea!

The Block-Grant fiasco

The Norquist master plan is well-advanced. In the 1990's, they transformed a bunch of federal programs into block grants to the states in the name of state flexibility. Now they are cutting block grants and loosening requirements so they can do away with those programs. This is classic right-wing two-step. Don't oppose social welfare spending in principle, instead shift the responsibility to the states. Then you just zero out the program or let the states do it. What we will never see is a forthright argument that we should ditch medicare or medicaid. Americans will just wake up one morning and it will be gone.


Last by not least, we pay a visit to Mr. Brooks' Neighborhood. In today's episode, Brooks joins liberals in decrying giant deficits. He talks with passion and eloquence about the burden being placed on young people for the benefit of their parents and grand-parents. Has Brooks joined the cause? Of course not. Because at the end of his article there is "the turn." The solution to this problem is Social Security Privatization! Apparently Brooks has not gotten the memo on the fact that the Bush privatization plan a) doesn't deal with the funding problem, and b) would require lots of new borrowing. And you might not have noticed how he fails to ascibe any blame for the deficits after he talks about Social Security, where he underhandedly shifts blame to the Dems for opposing privatization.

Has Brooks forgotten how we got into this fiscal whole in the first place? It was the stupid tax cuts four years ago - without them we would be running at balance. If Al Gore had been elected, excuse me, had been allowed to take office, four years ago, we wouldn't be having this problem.

It really is frustrating when someone begs to get help for a problem they created. Frankly if a crazy neighbor gambles his life savings away and then wants me to loan him money so he can win it back, I am not going to give him the cash. I am going to call someone to get him help.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:02 AM

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Statistically Bizarre

Saturday, February 19, 2005
This is a real puzzle. I've been thinking over the following contradiction over the last several days. In looking at the polling data and analysis of several posts about the last election, there appear to be some real contradictions. Here's what I mean.

1) Chris Bowers points out that "swing voters are becoming a myth." By this he means that the electorate is becomings so polarized that the middle is unimportant. In his quote from Teixeira's analysis, the size of both parties coalitions are about equal, but the Republicans had higher approval ratings for Bush than the Dems for Kerry, hence the Bush win.

2) New Donkey logically replies that in a close electorate, every constituency really is "swing." All you need to do is shave off a few points of any group's support and it changes the outcome of the election. He also claims that Chris is ignoring independents. I don't think this is fair, because if you recall the exit polls Kerry won among independents and moderates by a healthy margin.

3) Bowers responds by pointing out that a) voters are less likely to change their minds, b) are less likely to turn out to vote, c) the real gap between D's and R's is that the R's really, really loved Bush and the D's just like Kerry, d) probably because of the above, the Republicans strategy appears to be to mobilize their own base rather than going for the middle, therefore e) Democrats should do the same by focusing on a mobilization strategy. What I wonder is how we do this without becoming totalitarian fanatics like the Republicans.

Okay, here is what confuses me:

4) Alan Abramowitz reveals that the Democrats in fact out-mobilized the Republicans in 2004. We turned out our base better.

Okay, let me get this straight. The two partisan bases are of equal size, the D's turn out their base better, they win among independents, and they still lose? I can't think that the Republican loyalty to Bush was that decisive a difference, or am I wrong?

So how in the world did we lose? The only thing I can figure is that either the Democratic base really is smaller than the Republicans, and all we did we close the gap between the two (I'd have to look at the polls to see what their sample was), or that we are losing a substantial part of low SES voters. Either possibility is worrisome, but I'm still scratching my head about this one.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:51 AM

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No, F*** YOU!

Thursday, February 17, 2005
I don't usually get involved in name-calling, but this is outrageous (via Atrios and Orcinus). Let's see, war veteran, President, builds houses for the homeless, has conducted dozens of elections all over the world, vs. who? Some blogger? Doesn't he work at a bank or something? To claim that Carter is a traitor because you don't like him is really beyond the pale.

I have just finished taking this crap from Republicans. I love my country. I love my country about as much as I love my family. I'm as ardent a nationalist as you can be while still having your head screwed on straight. I grew up off an Air Force Base in the Deep South, for the love of God! I concede not an inch of patriotism to anyone.

In fact, if anybody deserves the term "traitor," it is today's neofascist right. They are the one who is trying to subvert the democracy, who have no respect for the Bill of Rights, and who have no real belief in equality of opportunity. Not enough for you to call them Anti-American? While how about their support for the Confederacy? My friend calls the Confederate Flag the "traitor's flag." Don't you find it interesting that the right has such an affinity for the people who tried to secede from America?

Okay, I feel better. Rant over. On a more substantive note, Instapundit claims that the left is in a quandry because it looks like Bush's gamble in Iraq may pay off. To this I have three replies. First, it remains to be seen if Iraq will succeed. Analysts have been concerned not about the election or how things are while the U.S. is still there. What we are worried about is the outcome when we leave. Will Iraq become an Iranian client state? Will another dictator emerge? Will there will a civil war? Will the Kurds secede, sparking a war with out NATO ally Turkey?

Second, just because a gamble succeeds doesn't mean that it was a good idea to make it. We don't praise people who bet their children's college fund on a turn of the roulette wheel in Vegas, not even if they win. Some gambles are simply not worth taking.

In Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction and no links to terrorism, and Saddam Hussein was safely contained. The invasion has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and gravely compromised America's standing in the world. Sorry guys, but even if Iraq turns out well (which I still doubt), it still wasn't worth it. If it does, that's great, but we still should never have done it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:50 AM

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Getting Serious

Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Digby is frustrated because Democrats don't seem to have the killer instinct. When we have a good political issue, we don't stick with it, and we don't really go for the jugular. Pandagon has recently made a similar point.

I'm not so sure. In fact, I see real reasons for hope. There is some indication that the Democrats in Congress have become much tougher. Dean's election as Chair is one example, and the combative rhetoric of Reid and his colleagues in the Senate is another. There is a renewed emphasis on maintaining cohesion in the Democratic caucus, which appears to be paying dividends in the Great Social Security Debate.

At the same time, there is a new move towards rhetorical flexibility: Democrats should focus on the issues that unite them and that play to their advantage (on class issues like the estate tax). On issues where Democrats disagree, or they are weak, they should give their membership some freedom to roam (like abortion). This requires finesse, but is essential to constructing a political majority, which is necessarily heterogenous. On the abortion issue in particular, despite my real objections to the anti-choice position and my concerns about an ambiguity strategy, I do not think that we should read anti-choice Democrats out of the party. We should just make sure that they don't diminish the party's commitment to abortion rights or support archconservative judges. A big tent, however, is just fine.

So cheer up, Democrats! There is reason for hope. And if this Social Security proposal implodes on the Bushies, we just might have a whole lot more to cheer about in 2006.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:49 AM

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Still Waiting

Tuesday, February 15, 2005
First, here is an example of why I love liberals. 4500 roses? Can you really imagine conservatives doing something like that?

Now to less heartening news. There appears to be some more evidence for Thomas Frank's thesis that cultural issues trump economic ones, and will continue to complicate any Democratic strategy. Bull Moose (commenting on Judis & Teixeira) notes that abortion is cutting into the Democrats' Latino vote, and Teixeria's analysis of poll data that Kerry's failure among white working class women was grounded not just on Security concerns, but the failure of his economic message. That failure may be because Kerry was an ineffective messenger, but this is still a cause for concern. This jibes with what a friend has told me about campaigning in the South. He said that people were ready to vote for the likes of Max Cleland, but his pro-choice position made it impossible.

You can certainly put me in the camp of people who think that cultural issues generally, and abortion in particular, is perhaps THE achilles heel of the party. What I am STILL waiting for is a useful strategy for dealing with the problem. Bull Moose has said repeatedly, as his latest article does, that Democrats need not change their positions. His quote of an Hispanic organizer suggests that Clinton's recognition of the regrettable fact of abortions ("safe, legal, and rare") certainly points towards one approach, one that Hilary Clinton has embraced herself.

What I fear is that by accepting the tragic quality of abortion, we only advance the anti-choice narrative, setting us up for further defeats down the road. I think what we really need to discover is whether there is a moderate, persuadable constituency on the abortion issue that doesn't like abortion but doesn't want it illegal, and whether that constituency is contained within the swing voters we are after (working class, Catholics). If there is, maybe I can be persuaded to shift our rhetorical approach and embrace the "abortion reduction" strategy.

But I want to be clear about one thing: this can never, never mean that any woman who wants an abortion can't have one. So this means that we have to change the cosmetics of the issue without changing the substance. If anyone can figure out a way to thread that needle, sign me up. But I remain sceptical.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:48 AM

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Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 14, 2005
My wife and I have returned from a little weekend jaunt to New Orleans. If you haven't been there, you should. The French Quarter is great, the Aquarium is neat, and the food is wonderful (the Gumbo Shop should be a national landmark).

Speaking of Valentine's Day, I loved Stephanie Coontz's column about the development of romance within marriage, and the rise of Valentine's Day as a romantic holiday. Love really can triumph over everything.

Now back to politics. There is some interesting thinking going on about how to deal with the Democrats' problems in the South. Stirling Newberry has made the point (in the context of talking about budget issues) that the Democrats need to embrace the role of economic development as a method of breaking out of their fiscal box. He points to the Republicans circa 1860-1920 as a model, but I think a better example would be the Federalists and Whigs. I have made much the same point in previous blogs myself, so it's nice to know I'm not the only one out there thinking along these lines.

There is also a promising new project in the form of the Institute for Southern Studies , which is doing some concrete work on resolving liberalism's problems in the South. They too look to an historical example as inspiration, in this case Reconstruction. Of course, given how that worked out, I wonder how good of an example it really is. But I am watching with interest.

That's all I have for today. Enjoy time with your respective sweeties today.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:47 AM

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You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter.

Thursday, February 10, 2005
Hello all! Wife of Publius here. I’ve been asking him to write about Ann Coulter for months, but he says, “What is there to say? She’s ridiculous. It would be a waste of my time.” But finally, he agreed to let me to write a blog entry about Ann Coulter. So, here it is:

Ann Coulter is a stupid bitch.

That is all.

What, you want an explanation? Okay, here:

Reason 1.
Reason 2.
Reason 3.
Reason 4.
Reason 5.

Hey, Ann Coulter: You’re not smart, you’re not pretty, you’re not interesting… go away!

P.S. Publius: "I approved this message."
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:47 AM

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Why Deficits Matter

Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Bull Moose thinks that the Democrats should emphasize deficit reduction, while Chris Bowers thinks such a strategy might compromise other progressive values. Where should we be on this issue?

I come down firmly on the side of the deficit hawks. In fact, the deficits of the first Bush administration is part of the reason I am a Democrat. I can envision circumstances in which deficits are no big deal. In the 1960's and 1970's, when the budget was in structural balance, a small deficit was nothing to sweat about. But beginning with the Reagan tax cuts, he entered a brand-new era in which the federal government adopted the same fiscal strategy as the typical American household (borrow borrow borrow) with dire results. If we keep at it, the U.S. economy will totally collapse. That is a problem which transcends tactical political calculation - it is a real crisis, and we have to come to grips with it.

Some liberals have said that attacking the deficits just plays into the hands of Republicans. This is the infamous "starve the beast" strategy. If conservatives create huge deficits, then they can be used to justify cuts in social spending. If Democrats take over and decide to deal with the deficit, they either have to imitate Republicans or raise taxes, thereby serving either the policy or political interests of Republicans.

While I admit to the force of these arguments, I don't think they are decisive. There are ways around the Republican trap. First, I think we use deficits as a political bludgeon, much like Harry Reid's "birth tax." Second, I think it might be worthwhile to revive Clinton's distinction between investment (where borrowing is appropriate), say in education or infrastructure, and welfare spending, which should be financed out of available revenue. Third, it might be possible to craft our own version of a "starve the beast" strategy, where Republicans are faced with tremendous political pressure to raise spending or taxes. While it is certainly foolish to count on their sense of political responsibility, we could in fact make that the issue. I and other have argued that Responsibility is a unifying theme for the left. We can articulate an agenda that combines fiscal responsibility with social responsibility, which means we would be arguing for no debt and social spending at the same time.

Finally, we need to recognize that the real culprit of the deficits is the Bush tax cuts. Democrats can get a lot of mileage out of attacking corporate welfare (screw them, I say!), and we can use the issue of tax reform to our advantage. Remember, tax reform has two different elements: simplicity and flatness. The Republicans are focused on flatness (i.e. regressivity), which is politically unpopular, through the means of simplicity, which people like. But Democrats could construct a version of tax reform which also uses the popularity of simplicity in order to achieve greater progressivity. All it takes is a little political creativity.

So I think it is both politically feasible and morally necessary to figure out how to have our cake (budget balance) while eating it (social spending). What we need is a bigger cake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:46 AM

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Not-So-Intelligent Design

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Michael Behe is a defender of the so-called "Intelligent Design" theory. This is a purportedly scientific theory which suggests that, since the earth is so cool, it couldn't be an accident. Politically it amounts to an endorsement of creationism and a rejection of evolution. Now I can think of some logical problems with Behe's article, but I'm no evolutionary biologist. Lucky for me I'm married to one, so I asked her.....

Me: So honey, what do you think of Mr. Behe's article?

Her: This article arguing for “Intelligent Design” makes me questions Mr. Behe's credentials as a "Professor of Biological Sciences" at Lehigh University. In fact, let me check out his credentials right now.

(checking on her computer)

Let's see. His page on the Lehigh University website discusses his current research, which is on biochemical aspects of DNA, but his listing of "representative publications" doesn't show a single reputable scientific article. It's all on intelligent design. Let me look up his dissertation.

INVESTIGATION OF SOME PHYSICAL CHEMICAL FACTORS AFFECTING THE GELATION OF SICKLE CELL HEMOGLOBIN. University of Pennsylvania, 1978. Well that certainly sounds respectable. What the hell happened to him?

Me: Drinking too many lab chemicals? Never mind.

Her: He presents the following four arguments for "Intelligent Design":

1. We can often recognize the effects of design in nature.

Huh? How? He says that plate tectonics are enough to explain the Rocky Mountains, but not Mount Rushmore. We can see Mount Rushmore and recognize that it is not nature but design. This does nothing for “intelligent design”, only says that we aren't stupid enough to think that Mount Rushmore appeared naturally. He doesn't give any examples of natural phenomena that he considers to be caused by design.

Me: This is a fallacy called "confusing cause and effect."

Her: 2. The physical marks of design are visible in aspects of biology.

For his evidence, he cites the 18th century clergyman William Paley, who said living things were like a watch. Then he said that science has shown nature to be mechanistic, with cells and molecules behaving in predictable ways. Yes, that is true. But all this tells you is that nature is not random. Of course nature is not random. It is a system; it all evolved from a single source, so of course it all works the same way. People have trouble accepting that natural selection and other natural processes are not random; they can't conceive of things on the time scale necessary to understand evolution.

Me: People generally don't like the idea of the random. If you've ever seen "A Beautiful Mind" you'll recognize how adept human beings are at recognizing patterns that aren't there.

Her: 3. The next claim in the argument for design is that we have no good explanation for the foundation of life that doesn't involve intelligence.

What? As a biologist, I think we have excellent explanations for the foundation of life that don't involve intelligence. Read a book.

Me: What book?

Her: Go to Barnes and Noble to the "Science" section. There will be about fifty of them.

4. In the absence of any convincing non-design explanation, we are justified in thinking that real intelligent design was involved in life.

We are? This is an argument? Publius, help me out with this one; seems more like your realm.

Me: Well, this is another fallacy, called "Burden of Proof." Essentially Mr. Behe is trying to say that he doesn't have to prove intelligent design - that we have to disprove it. Unfortunately for him, science doesn't work that way. Which he should remember from graduate school. If he showed up, that is. Which I doubt.

Her: This guy might know his DNA, he might be very good at biochemistry, but he really doesn't understand natural selection or evolution. Apparently he has been totally wowed by the things he has seen while examining the workings of DNA, and he can't come up with a good explanation for they exist and has had some sort of religious experience. I have learned some amazing things by studying DNA as well, from an evolutionary viewpoint, and I believe they can only be explained BY natural selection, not in spite of it.

Natural selection is dreadfully inefficient, yet it gets the job done. Look closely at any biological system, and you will simultaneously be impressed by how well it works and confused by the many ways you could think of that would work better.

Let's use an example that Dr. Behe should understand very well, considering his dissertation was on the topic: Sickle-cell anemia. This is a disease that kills thousands of people a year, and is found primarily in people of west or central African ancestry. Sickle-cell anemia is caused by a single mutation in one of the genes for hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen around your body. This mutation causes the hemoglobin to be very unstable, and when exposed to any sort of oxygen stress (like exercise) the hemoglobin forms rods, which causes the red blood cells to stack up in an unnatural way and clog up your capillaries.

We have two genes for any given trait, one gene from your father and one from your mother. If you have two genes for sickle-cell hemoglobin, you have full-fledged sickle-cell anemia and probably won't live long, at least not without extensive treatment. Many children in Africa die of this every year.

If you have two normal hemoglobin genes, you're fine. So why is sickle-cell so common? In some African populations, as many as 20% of people have it. Natural selection should get rid of this disease since it's clearly not adaptive.

Well, I'll tell you why. A little thing called malaria. This disease, which kills millions each year, is caused by a parasite transmitted by mosquitoes that infects and reproduces in your red blood cells. If you've got the gene for sickle-cell, the presence of this parasite causes stress which in turn causes the cell to sickle and destroy itself, thus destroying the malaria parasite. Ta-da! No malaria.

If you have one gene for sickled hemoglobin and one gene for normal hemoglobin, then you are doing just fine in Africa, because you won't suffer from sickle-cell anemia (because about half of your red blood cells are normal) OR malaria (because half will sickle). Perfect, right? No. Because you can't guarantee that your kids will each get one normal and one sickled gene. Even if your spouse has one of each, the kids get your genes randomly. There's a 25% chance that your kids will have sickle-cell anemia and die, and another 25% chance that your kids will have normal hemoglobin and die from malaria.

That doesn't sound like intelligent design to me.

Me: Me neither.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:45 AM

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Exposing a Bait and Switch

Ellen Nagler is confused. She knows David Brooks is evil, but here he is in the New York Times proposing something that sounds perfectly sensible: creating tax-free individual investment accounts for children when they are born, so that when they turn 18 they will have a nice little nest egg. Similar ideas have been floated by more liberal types like Tony Blair and the New Century Foundation. Is this a place where the left and right can agree? Or has Brooks finally seen the light and is ready to pull a Brock?

Of course not. Don't be silly.

This is one of those ideas that sounds great until you really start thinking about it. Upon closer examination, you realize it undermines the social compact. The reason Social Security and the like are so valuable (and successful), what makes them so quintessentially liberal, is that they point to a social obligation to our fellow citizens. Given the rampant individualism of today's society, bordering on sociopathy, it would be a mistake to embrace a proposal that leaves people to believe that they really are "going it alone." It would merely advance the right wing theme that every person should take care of themselves.

This is where the bait and swich comes in. The right can propose this sort of thing as the thin edge of the wedge. Once it place, it creates further opportunities for dismantling the social safety net. You can imagine conservatives arguing the following: "Hey, this guy had $50,000 to invest and he blew it! Let him suffer!" Nice. Brooks betrays his broader "opportunity society" design later in the column when he suggests that this proposal would pave the way for eliminating taxes on savings and investments. Right. Which is why we should oppose it, given that something like 90% of all stocks are in the hands of the top 10%.

I suspect that if enacted it would become a vehicle for undermining the few protections we still have. For example, the money has to come from somewhere. If it were to come from the inheritance tax, that would be one thing. But what do you want to bet the money comes out of the hide of other social programs? People would starve now so they might feast later.

The political problem with establishing private accounts is that it enhances the influence of the market on politics. Thomas Frank pointed out this feature a few months ago in the context of social security privatization: if everyone's retirement is reliant on stocks, it gives Wall Street a veto on any government action. All Wall Street has to do to block anything it doesn't like is say that it would depress the value of their stocks, and their conservative allies could accuse Democrats of trying to ruin grandma's nest egg. I would rather not stick my head in a sack, thank you.

If Brooks' proposal were an add-on to the existing pension system, as its left-wing advocates have suggested, I would certainly be more open to the idea. But I suspect that it would displace rather than supplement existing arrangements, and serve as a backdoor method of eliminating what remains of our retirement protections. Frankly I don't trust anything, no matter how good it sounds, in the hands of Bush & Co. They will always find a way to bungle and pervert it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:44 AM

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Panglossian Elephants

Monday, February 07, 2005
Jared Bernstein has an artice in the American Prospect website that everyone should take a look at. While conservatives and their whores trumpet the substantial 4.4% GDP growth in 2004 (and with it a slight net increase in the number of jobs over the course of Bush's first term), wages have actually fallen. In other words, the pie is getting bigger but the share that the middle and working classes get is shrinking. Imagine a big fat guy at a party eating half the chips at a birthday party, and then the entirety of the cake. And when you remind him that it isn't his party, he tells you to shut up.

How is this possible? Easy. The benefits of economic growth are being monopolized by the people at the top. Over the last generation 98.6% of new wealth creation has been concentrated in the top 10%, so last week's figures are only the accentuation of a long-standing trend.

What we have here is a paradigmatic case of exploitation, in which some people work and someone else reaps the rewards. The worst instance of exploitation is slavery, but when employees work themselves half to death and generate profits for the company, which promptly cuts their wages, that counts as exploitation too. Hence the old-fashioned phrase "wage slavery."

Aside from the morality of the thing, there are other reasons to be concerned. This ssue is not just about economics, or even fairness (we know how much conservatives care about the latter). It is important to remember that the middle class in America is not a true middle class at all. Middle classes are characterized by independent proprietors, i.e. small business owners, farmers, and professionals. Working classes get their wages from others. The American middle class is an artificial one in which laborers have the affluence of a true middle class without being self-employed. It was created as a deliberate act of policy during the New Deal, and maintained by labor unions, government redistribution, and U.S. economic dominance. But now we have shrinking labor unions, government redistributing wealth upward rather than downward, and massive trade deficits. The American middle class is on its way out. And as I have pointed out repeatedly, no middle class, no democracy.

So while we "spread freedom abroad," we are laying the foundations for oligarchy here at home. Repealing the New Deal has consequences. And to those Americans who have decided that two men holding hands in public is more important than your children's ability to have a chance in life, the fruit will be bitter indeed.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:43 AM

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Yucky Speeches

Wednesday, February 02, 2005
First I'd like to apologize for the light posting this week. I have a friend visiting from out of town, and it seems rude to write blogs in front of him.


I couldn't watch the State of the Union. I just couldn't. Aside from my responsibilities as a host, and the fact that my wife has declared that "That man is not allowed in my house," the simple fact is that I just can't put myself through that kind of torture.

Which makes me wonder, are Democrats who avoid watching Bush's speech behaving appropriately or responsibly? Clearly we are acting to avoid psychological discomfort, but isn't it better to come to grips with that discomfort than pretend it's not there. We as liberals pride ourselves on our ability to rationally approach issues, to way all sides and reach a reasoned conclusion. But how can we do so if we don't honestly watch what even our enemies have to say? And there is of course the strategic necessity to know what the enemy is up to.

So maybe next time I should steel myself and watch the Shrub speak. Maybe it's my job as a political analyst and a good citizen. Maybe I'm taking the easy way out.

Or maybe I should just skim the transcript........
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:42 AM

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Woe Is Us

So birds are smarter than we thought and and kids are dumber? Oy.

And on another issue, can I just say that I am becoming truly disgusted with the increasing importance of personal wealth in politics? It looks like the de facto wealth test for office is becoming an ever-higher bar to political participation. I don't have anything against Corzine personally, but this is ridiculous. Why is it that we are forced to choose either candidates who have either sold out to corporate interests or are corporate interests? Our only other option seems to be candidates whose fathers were corporate interests.

I think that any Democratic candidate who does not meet the following standard should face a strong negative presumption: a person who has had to do her own taxes, wash his own dishes, go the the grocery store and cook his own meals. I want someone who has actually had to work for a living, who has really suffered, who knows what it is to struggle in this world. The only dynasts who need apply are those who have suffered severe physical or emotional trauma.

Oh and by the way, Bill Clinton, FDR, and John Kennedy would have met this test. And Bush would have flunked it. Sounds good to me.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:41 AM

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