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Nobody Likes the Bitch Seat

Tuesday, May 31, 2005
I know I don't.

Courtesy of the New York Times, we learn that train passengers avoid the middle seat for the extremes of left and right. This is not surprising. In the middle, you are squeezed from both ends. You face the difficulties of getting up held by the window seat, and still can't see outside. In fact the only circumstance in which I can imagine that the middle would be any fun is if you were extremely fat: then you could press out on either side and damn the inconvenience for others. It takes a great deal of self-confidence, or desperation, or a tiny physique to make the middle attractive otherwise.

Of course I can't resist the political analogy. The middle has become a very uncomfortable place. On the right someone is driving their elbow into your kidneys while they yammer in your ears and attempt to steal your purse. The person of the left might give you room but no help: they are busy staring out the window or reading a book, arguing with themselves under their breath. Sometimes the two of them start arguing past you, demanding that they take sides. So the temptation to get up and find another seat on either extreme is an irresistable one.

Economically and politically we are becoming a train full of empty middle seats. And who can blame us?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:51 PM

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Education Revolution

Monday, May 30, 2005
Ruy Teixeira has argued that the Democrats need to embrace some new policy proposals in order to capture the "party of change" mantle. He suggests that education policy is a good place to start, since NCLB has been such a dud. Unfortunately, the D's are mainly focused on just increasing funding, which feeds stereotypes about Democrats and is of questionable utility (since the U.S. already spends more per child than most countries).

One of the frustrating things for legislators about the education issue is that everyone thinks they're an expert, since they went to school. But I do have some real experience with education, and I'm here to tell you that however bad you think it is, it's actually worse. I have just recently thrown up my hands at teaching college because of the profound inability of college freshman to learn. Whether it's unwillingness or the lack of skills, my students have gotten less competent every year. And these are college students. I can't imagine what the non-college bound are like.

So here is my general proposal for a Democratic education policy. First, abolish the summer vacation. Kids forget half of what they learned the previous year because they stop thinking for 3 months. The U.S. also has substantially fewer days in the classroom. Instead, move to a trimester system with two weeks between each period and a week break in the middle.

Second, extend the school day. The latch-key kid syndrome exists because we as a country refuse to admit that all parents work. When a child gets home at 3PM, there is nobody there. If we stretched the day to 5 or 6, we could supervise children and fit back in the arts, tutoring, and electives that we have squeezed out lately.

Third, start school at the age of 4. We've all been talking about universal pre-school. Let's just do it.

Fourth, strengthen accreditation standards. I don't think the "ouptuts" model of evaluating teachers is helpful, since teachers can't choose their students. But I do think we can make sure that educators know something about the subjects they teach. We should abolish "education majors." Instead, teachers should get a degree in the subject they are planning to teach.

Fifth, we need to put teachers in charge of their classrooms. Right now there are major discipline problems because teachers have to go begging to parents or school bureaucrats. Forget that: let's treat them like the professionals they are and let them impose order.

Sixth is curriculum. In Europe, they learn in middle school what we do in high school, and they learn in high school what we do in college. So we should just push substance back four years. Do we really think that Americans are just dumber than other kids? I'm convinced that a lot of the problem is that we just don't expect kids to be able to learn anything. So we shouldn't be surprised that we don't.

Now there are a lot of objections to this set of proposals, the most important of which is that it would cost too much money. Well, all I am suggesting is imitating what other countries do. Why is it that they get so much more bang for their buck? If we can't educate a child year round on 10,000 a student, something is very very wrong. But even if it did take more resources, it should come from the federal government. Education policy is a paradigm case of New Federalism: where the federal government provides resources and general direction to the states in areas of policy, while the states and localities work out the details.

Would this stuff be hard? Absolutely. Would if work? Probably. Would it send a message that Democrats are serious about fixing our educational system? Definitely.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:49 PM

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Happy Birthday To Me

Friday, May 27, 2005
No, not my birthday. My blog's birthday. It has now been one year since I started writing this thing. When I started I wondered whether or not I had the discipline to keep at it, particularly with the ambitious goal of daily posts. But here I am, and I'm still having a great time.

There will be some changes in the future - I'd like to change the layout and will be abandoning the old "Publius" handle because so many other bloggers use it (which I didn't know until I started writing). But don't expect me to go anywhere - I'm having way too much fun. Plus this blog provides an important outlet for my obsession with politics. Without it I'm sure my wife would have divorced me long ago. She had gotten really tired of hearing me yell at the newspaper every morning.

Blogger doesn't have a system (yet) for arranging posts by topic, but because a lot of my readers are comparatively recent, I'll be putting together a "greatest hits" list grouped by subject category on a post later today or tomorrow. There are some older posts I'm still proud of, and it would be nice if somebody finally read them.

Finally, I would like to thank the people who have made this blog possible: Zola, for all the late night arguments, which served as a model; Ruy Teixeira and the folks at BTC News for providing links to my site; my cats for helping me write it; and my wife for threatening me if I didn't.

Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:48 PM

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Immigration: Politics

Thursday, May 26, 2005
First I want to apologize for the intermittent post lately. I just started a new job and it's been pretty frenetic at first. But I will be able to return to a regular schedule pretty soon.

As promised, I'm going to talk about the super-sensitive topic of immigration and why there is no apparent middle ground. People who criticize illegal immigration get accused of being racists, and those who come out for continued immigration in general get accused of anti-Americanism. I have gotten an earful of both, although more of the former than the latter.

This does NOT mean that there is no middle ground. But there are deeply held beliefs on both sides. Pro-immigration forces, led by Latinos, are trying to protect a vulnerable constituency and people who are frequently their co-ethnics. Anti-immigrant forces are very afraid of the future, and have somewhat of a tendency to xenophobia. So the immigration debate is pushed by the extremes of the debate, both of whom are very passionate.

But the real problem is one of political leadership, not rabid constituency. Hispanics are the largest share of new migrants, and they have become the largest potential swing group in American politics. The Republicans face a demoralizing calculus: if they do not do better among Latino voters, they are quite simply doomed within the next 20-30 years. Both parties recognize the importance of this new voting bloc, and the strategists in both parties are falling all over themselves to cater to it. Many of them think that the most important issue to Hispanics is immigration, so they call for more open borders. In reality the most important issues to Hispanics are health care, jobs, and education (just like everybody else), but what can you do?

The Democrats, with their humanitarian and pro-minority bent, have generally been in favor of large immigration and generosity to illegals. Their quandry is that they would like to win over the white working class vote, which is anti-immigrant. The Republicans, on the other hand, already have that anti-immigrant constituency, which threatens to truncate their ability to appeal to Hispanic votes. The business community also likes things the way they are since they can use illegals to block union formation, hold down wages, and circumvent regulations. So the Republican strategy has been somewhat schitzo, because the party is so divided.

Immigration is an easy issue for neither party, precisely because they are experiencing countervailing presssures. The real question is whether this issue will grow in importance or fade. If it grows, then it will probably consolidate Latinos behind Democrats and the white working class behind Republicans. If it declines, then Democrats will have to fight to keep those voters.

If it were possible, I believe that the correct political, as well as policy, stance is to sharply distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, encouraging moderate amounts of the former while dealing with the latter. Then we should use the New Populism argument of Sirota etc. to appeal to the Latino votes on the issues which are both more important to them anyway and which they share with other Democrats (AND the white working class). It will be difficult to thread this needle, but we need to find a way.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:47 PM

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Some Compromise

Tuesday, May 24, 2005
For my take on nuclear option compromise, go here.

The short version? It sucks, but what are you gonna do?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:46 PM

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Immigration: Policy

Monday, May 23, 2005
Two of the salient issues which divide both parties are immigration and trade. While on the latter issue it appears that there is an emerging consensus on the left, on the former we are still nowhere. And the issue is climbing the charts. It's not just Lou Dobbs on Moneyline: laws dealing with the issue are being proposed at the state and local level. There is the amnesty/guest worker bill introduced by McCain and Kennedy, and there are punitive laws being proposed in various border states like Arizona.

The politics of immigration are a little strange. The desire to win Latino votes has lured Bush & Co. into courting them with favorable migration policies, but much of his own party rejects such a stance. On the other hand, the left is generally pro-immigrant, but there is some belief that moving in a nativist direction could pick up some of those precious white working class votes.

So there are two real questions here: the politics and the substance. I'll focus on the substance of the question today, and the politics tomorrow.

The basic arguments of the anti-immigration position are that 1) immigrants are taking away American jobs and depressing wages by glutting the labor market, 2) immigrants are not assimilating - we are creating a balkanized society.

These two arguments have serious problems. First, immigration per se is really just a way of expanding the size of the labor force. Theoretically there is no difference between a population that is growing by way of childbirth and one that is importing new workers. Second, most of the evidence indicates that today's immigrant are assimilating just as rapidly as previous populations.

The pro-immigrant arguments are that 1) immigrants do jobs that Americans don't want, and 2) we are a nation of immigrants and it is hypocritical to deny them a chance. These positions are problematic too: 1) we have a large underemployed indegenous labor force (African-American males), while immigrants have been used by sweatshops as a way to hold down wages and break up unions; and 2) previous waves of migration were legal rather than illegal.

I want to dwell on the last point for a minute, because I believe it is crucial for understanding this debate. There is a profound difference between legal and illegal immigration. Every country has a right to regulate its own migration policy - I don't have any more right to move to France than my next-door neighbor has to live in my house. So no country is required to accept any and all comers. They decide who and how many to accept based on prudence and humanity.

Some immigration advocates attempt to annihilate this distinction by suggesting that there be a policy of completely open borders, a policy which no nation on the face of the earth has ever embraced. Granting an amnesty to illegal immigrants is effectively rewarding law-breaking behavior, and is an insult to those who have been waiting years to get their citizenship legally.

None of this is to say that illegal immigrants should be denied medical treatment or persecuted. It simply means that they should be returned home. And I also am not in favor of closing the border entirely - a moderate amount of immigration is a positive good for the country.

I have been in the uncomfortable position of being caught between two extremes. On the one hand are those in favor of open borders, a policy which would be both unprecendented and disastrous, and on the other hand xenophobes who don't want any immigration. There is, I believe, a middle ground on this issue: moderate, regulated amounts of immigration with more effective border control and a more efficient visa process. Illegals should be dealt with kindly but firmly. Call it the Goldilocks policy.

Tomorrow I'll talk about why it has been difficult to reach a sensible middle ground on this issue, and where we might go from here.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:45 PM

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Campaign Finance

Sunday, May 22, 2005
One of my pet issues is how political campaigns are financed. I am a big critic of our present system, which gives a tremendous advantage to candidates with celebrity & money, and creates the appearance of corruption in government. I have always believed that the Buckley vs. Valeo decision which struck down limits on campaign spending effectively creates a wealth test for office and violates the equal protection and one-man-one-vote standards (I am not alone in thinking this.)

Which is why I am somewhat disturbed by the Decembrist's suggestion (in concurrence with Calabresi) that campaign contributions are a useful method for registering intensity of political desire. The idea is that democracy requires means for impassioned minorities to make their opinions felt.

This argument has very little merit, for two reasons. First, the only "impassioned minorities" who have influence under the present system are wealthy ones. If every group had an equal capacity to donate funds to candidates, things might be different. But the vast majority of campaign funds are from corporations and millionaires. Second, I can hear the world's tiniest violin playing in the background for the wealthy and powerful as they argue that their donations are needed to have their interests represented in Washington. Because they NEVER get their way on the Hill, do they? Ridiculous.

My belief is that any candidate who receives a major party nomination should receive both direct subsidies and vouchers for campaign advertising. No one should be able to spend more than a small sum of money on political campaigns, even their own. And millionaires and interest groups that want to run "issue ads" can do so up until 60 days before the campaign and should be prohibited from mentioning a candidate's name.

And the First Amendment? Let's just say that your right to swing your first stops at my face. No rights are absolute, a fact that the simpletons on the right wing have some trouble grasping.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:44 PM

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Leaving the Wilderness

Friday, May 20, 2005
Timothy Noah believes that the Democrats are pursuing a policy that will condemn them to minority status for the forseeable future. They have publicly written off the idea of regaining the Senate in 2006, they have opposed what is essentially a progressive Social Security plan by Bush, and they have become obsessed with "process" stuff like the filibuster.

Let me just say that I would never hire Noah run a political campaign.

There are perfectly sound reasons for every position the Democrats have taken on these issues. On 2006, Reid is just trying to lower expectations and further the "one party rule theme." He is also trying to remind people that the Republicans control the Congress, which bizarrely enough I lot of Americans don't know. Finally, by making this claim Reid is probably trying to insulate himself from charges that the Democratic fight is over narrow partisan purposes: after all, if they can't win in 2006 anyway, what's the point? (I don't necessarily think that Reid is right to make these arguments, but they certainly are rational ones.)

On Social Security, Noah might have a point if benefit cuts were required it all. If they were, I can see concentrating them at the top. But Bush's plan is asking for certain benefit cuts now to avoid potential benefit cuts later, which seems like a decidedly odd approach. Further, the Democrats have won the political debate on this issue precisely by reminding people that Social Security is universal program for security: it emphasizes the idea that we are all in this together, and it ensures that every American has a stake in the program. And by the way, the biggest hit wouldn't go to the wealthy, but to the middle class, which is both awful policy and dumb politics.

Finally, Noah has failed to understand two things about the filibuster fight. First of all, the Republican strategy really is beyond the pale. There are times when you have to focus on process in order to preserve not just the process but the fairness and stability of the entire political system. An effort to repeal the 2-term rule or to cancel elections would be a "process" story too. Does Noah think that Democrats would be advised to just go along with those too?

Secondly, the filibuster war gives the Democrats a valuable opportunity to further their best narrative: that the Republicans in Washington are a bunch of radicals who will do anything, including overturn the Constitution, in an effort to pursue their out of the mainstream agenda and feather their nests. If the voters are thinking about this story, they won't vote Republican. Which means that we would capture the Senate in 2006.

So stop worrying, Tim. Don't you realize that we're winning?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:44 PM

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This is what I mean by exploitation

Don't just take my word for it. Read this.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:43 PM

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What a Disappointment

Thursday, May 19, 2005
So it turns out that rather than a sober discussion on the effects of class, the NYT series is yet another effort by a frustrated novelist to transform personal stories into a pulitzer. The last 2 entries in the series have been nothing but a sentimental collage of anecdotes with a vague unifying theme.

Today's article is about the difficulty in transitioning from one socioeconomic strata to another. I have had personal experience with this. When I was young, I bounced all the way up and down the income ladder. Much like the person interviewed in this piece, I was least happy when I was best off financially. So I am not saying that there is not some level of psychological discomfort as one heads up (or down, I suppose).

What bothers me about this article is its emphasis on those who have improved their financial position. But what about people who haven't, or who have sunk from the middle class into the ranks of the working poor? Yes there are very real problems with being rich after having been poor, but compared to those who have never risen at all.....cry me a river. Not having enough friends isn't fun, but not having rent is a disaster of a very different magnitude.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:42 PM

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Nuclear Wednesday

Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Is this the day the world ends?

Today Bill Frist is planning to bring wingnut judicial nominee Priscilla Owens to the Senate for a vote. To recap for those of you who have been hiding under a rock: owens is the test case to see if the Democrats will filibuster, and if they do, he intends to break 2 senate rules. First they will break the 2/3 requirement for any rule change, and second they will break a 200 year tradition by killing the filibuster. Oh sure, they'll claim that it's only for judicial nominees, but we all know that they will extend the priniciple to ordinary legislation.

Now New Donkey and others have suggested that maybe the Dems should fold on this issue in order to preserve the filibuster. My response is simple: we will have backed down under pressure, effectively eliminating the filibuster anyway. In the future the majority will just say "nuclear option" and the minority will give way. However, if we win this vote, then no one will ever try to do it again. We are united and may win this vote. We should draw the line in the sand here and dare them to cross it. It is finally time to show Republicans that we are not to be trifled with. This is our best opportunity to preserve minority rights in our political system, and we cannot walk away from it.

So pay attention today. Assuming Frist follows through with his plans, the future of the Senate is at stake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:42 PM

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More on class

Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Leaving aside its overwrought style, the 2nd installment of the NYT series on class is a good one. It turns out that the rich live longer. So now we have not just a wealth test for office, but also a wealth test for life. Peachy. Remember all that crap about there being rationing if we adopted national health insurance? Well it turns out the we have rationing anyway, except that it's based on the size of your wallet. We should all be ashamed.

Elsewhere, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein buy into the bad argument that social stratification is okay as long as there is social mobility. The problem with this position is that it just accepts the "winner take all" society in which those at the very top of a profession or organization accrue all of the awards. There's a great Monty Python routine that demonstrates what's wrong here: when an educated man pompously asserts that Alexander the Great conquered the known world, the uneducated man asks "didn't he even have a cook?"

No accomplishment, however grand occurs in a vacuum. Any member which contributes success deserves commensurate rewards. There is another word describing a situation in which some reap the rewards from another's labor: exploitation. The extreme form of exploitation is called slavery. Perhaps you've heard of it.

So when the U.S. economy is growing, but wages are falling, employment is stagnant, and incomes are flat, while the top 10% gets all of the economic return, I don't call that okay. Even if the rich started out poor, it's still just slavery by any other name, and continues smell to high heaven.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:41 PM

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David Brooks: Misproving his point

Sunday, May 15, 2005
I'm not going to go into a great deal of detail on Brooks' latest foray into Orwellianism. The basic gist of his op-ed is that there are a lot of lower middle/working class Republicans out there who agree with the right on social values and foreign policy but disagree on economics. Brooks thinks that to secure these voters they should push the "opportunity society" agenda.

I find this a pretty fanciful solution to a misdiagnosed problem. All the Pew study seems to confirm is Thomas Frank's thesis that working class voters are voting against their economic interests in favor of symbolic appeals to patriotism and rural values.

Brooks admits that the leadership of the Republican party has little sympathy with the real material concerns of the working class, but he fails to realize that the economic interests of that leadership is strongly antithetical to those of the working and lower middle classes. The "business class conservatives" can't reach out to the poor and middle in any real way because those are the groups they are exploiting. The last thing the right wants is to talk about class - if they did, they'd lose.

Brooks also fails to understand that if even if they wanted to, the elite right couldn't reach out to the "poor Republicans" on economic issue. The opportunity society, by further undermining the social safety net, will actually make their situation worse. Bush spending has scarcely "laid down a welcome mat" to the poor: the overwhelming percentage of that money has gone to corporations and defense contracts.

Finally, Brooks has been pretty slippery in his definitions. To talk about the poor, the working class, and the middle class are all very different things. Spending some money in inner cities isn't going to cancel our the big benefit cuts coming at the middle class as part of Bush's social security plan. Flattening the tax code to the benefit of the top and the expense of the middle, or smashing labor unions, isn't going to help much either.

Brooks is right about one thing. Democrats don't believe that people can make it "on our own." The core liberal message is that we are not alone - that we are all in this together. As individuals, we are indeed largely at the mercy of forces "beyond our control." It is by acting together that we can really achieve something. But that's not something a wealthy columnist would know or care much about.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:39 PM

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Thinking about class

Saturday, May 14, 2005
Ruy Teixeira at the Emerging Democratic Majority continues to write on the white working class and how Democrats can win them. According to his work, the problem of rebuilding Democratic support in this constituency is THE essential question. In a less distinctly political vein, the NYT is beginning a series examining class in America.

I welcome these discussions. For me, class is not about winning extra votes, or even about maintaining a stable democracy. It's a very personal commitment to what I believe is the essential problem of American life: the injustice that allows sons of privilege to coast through life while requiring the daughters of the poverty to sweat blood just to survive.

So I'm going to be following these discussions very closely, and commenting on them frequently.

Go read the first installment of the article. And take a look at the public opinion polls, which show some encouraging things (that class-based liberal policies enjoy widespread support) and some discouraging ones (taxing inherited wealth is unpopular).

I think the NYT article was generally a well-balanced one, although I question their definition of "meritocracy". The piece suggests that the formal barriers to economic opportunity have been removed, but that the background advantages of wealth and education as well as economic trends are creating new class stratifications. Is this really meritocracy? Do you really want to look me in the face and say that poor inner city Bronx kids are inherently less worthy of economic success than prep school kids in the Hamptons? I didn't think so.

Merit is about who deserves what, and by that definition, we don't have a meritocracy at all. What we have is an upper-class guild system in which the high-status/income professions require expensive credentials (PhD's, law degrees, etc.). Access to these credentials in turn is restricted by an educational system that only really educates a small segment of the population, who happen to be wealthy. Most public school kids outside affluent neighborhoods will never receive the intellectual training to enable them get into Yale.

Today's system is an aristocracy employing an egalitarian national myth in a ruthlessly Orwellian fashion. Just look at how any observation that there is inequality of economic opportunities leads to vengeful cries of "class warfare." Sure, the truly brilliant or lucky can climb to the top (or, depending on where they started, to the middle). But why is it that for some mere adequacy is sufficient for success, and for others exceptional talent and hard work is necessary? Does that sound like a "meritocracy" to you? Me neither.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:36 PM

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Dead Language

Friday, May 13, 2005
I was thinking the other day of how to describe myself ideologically. Depending on the issue, or how you are framing the question, I suppose you could call me a liberal, moderate or conservative. Yet I am a very partisan Democrat. How can that be?

Let me try to highlight what I mean:

Conservative: fiscal responsibility, pro-small business, foreign policy realism, skepticism about centralized government programs, wariness about institutional change, concerned about illegal immigration.

Liberal: pro-social welfare, pro-labor, pro-environment, anti-corporate, pro-civil liberties, skeptical of free trade.

Moderate: an instinct for pragmatism and compromise. Always try to find a middle ground with reasonable people on the other side of an issue.

So given this laundry list of positions, how in the world could I ever describe myself as a true, aggressive liberal Democrat?

Easy: all of the conservative positions I have can no longer find purchase in today's conservatism, and pragmatism and reasonableness are no longer characteristics of the Republican party. We're talking about a big-deficit, big government, imperialist, radical, pro-monopolist, open borders party here. I fail to see what' conservative about that.

Political discourse in America has been fundamentally corrupted, or at least radically transformed, because the labels we have traditionally used to describe things no longer have any real meaning. It would be like trying decide whether Hammurabi was a liberal or conservative. We're just talking about a completely different intellectual framework here.

The liberal and conservative positions exist as useful terms only in relation to eachother. They are mutually exclusive, binary descriptions, like black/white, rainy/sunny, good/evil. What happened in the generation is that the definition of one of those binary terms has dramatically changed. Conservatism today has virtually nothing in common with the conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. I even wonder how much it has in common with Ronald Reagan.

Liberalism, on the other hand, still has pretty much the same self-understanding it did thirty years ago. This means that there are now millions of voters who were once conservatives who either a) continue to vote Republican out of some sort of confusion, or b) don't know where to turn.

I think the old-style conservatives should follow my lead into the House of Liberalism. If liberalism changes what it means, if it expands its definition of what liberalism is, it can win over many of those disaffected (or soon to be disaffected) voters, without really losing any of its ideological edge. I am now very comfortable with the label of "liberal," because my liberalism means both fiscal restraint AND pro-social welfare; pro-small business AND pro-labor. I think we can square this circle, in part because the new right has taught us how much those positions ultimately have in common.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:36 PM

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Explaining Republican Weirdness

Wednesday, May 11, 2005
The vast majority of the people are against the Schiavo intervention. And the nuclear option. They are unhappy with the state of the economy (this is pretty scary) and our presence in Iraq. The numbers on Social Security Privatization are still heading south. So why, in the face hostile public opinion, do the Republicans go ahead and push these issues anyway?

Avedon and Digby have a theory: that Republicans don't worry about public opinion because they don't worry about elections. Essentially they think that the "fix" is in, and therefore don't have to worry about public accountability. If the elections are being stolen, public opinion is simply irrelevant.

This is a pretty serious accusation. But there are alternative explanations. It could just be hubris: they have been in power so long they can't imagine losing it. Or it could be that they don't have much respect for Democrats' ability to wage a real campaign. After all, the last really good campaign we ran was in 1992. Or their leadership has perhaps decided that they don't have to worry about re-election because of gerrymandering/term limits. House and Senate members in strongly Republican areas aren't going to lose, and the President can't run again, so where's the problem? Remember, the moderates in the party, the ones representing marginal districts, have zero influence these days. Or it could be that Republicans believe they exist in a "faith-based" reality, and therefore these numbers don't really mean anything. Finally, it could be that the Republicans think that they can move public opinion in their direction. After all, they've always been able to do so before.

All of the these hypotheses have some merit, but I'd like to propose another possibility. I think the reason Republicans don't worry about public opinion on the issues is that they believe that issues don't matter. If you believe that the voters don't make decisions based on policy, then you don't have to worry about what they think about policy.

Imagine you're a Republican, and look at the last election. The economy was mediocre, there were scandals, Bush made a mess of the debates, Iraq wasn't going well, etc., etc. And the Republicans still win. Why? Because of "values" (which of course aren't real issues at all - there is always going to be some convenient group to attack), and because of "character" (Bush is a regular guy and Kerry is an elitist snob). This would certainly be evidence that the voters don't make their decision based on substantive issues of public concerns. Therefore there is no accountability and you can do whatever you want.

Of course the Republicans are completely wrong about this. Issues DO matter, and you can't suspend the forces of political gravity forever. The War on Terror more than anything else re-elected the Republicans, and without another massive attack, its importance will fade over time. I'd contend that it's gone as an issue already. When was the last time we had a terror warning? (Interesting that they stopped after the election, isn't it?) The media has moved on. The chief topics of discussion these days are the corrupt radical right and their attempt to defend DeLay, kill Social Security, destroy the Courts and the Senate, and impose a theocracy on the country. How is this a popular re-election strategy again?

So it is my opinion that the Republicans have convinced themselves that the public's position on issues doesn't effect their re-election prospects. And I think that they are in for a very big surprise if they keep it up.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:33 PM

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Justifying Liberalism

Tuesday, May 10, 2005
There are two interesting streams of debate going on in the blogosphere that I have mulling over for the last several days. On the one hand, there is Ruy Teixeira's analysis of the Democratic "myths." He argues that many of the articles of faith for winning elections just don't hold water. He critiques inoculation, framing, mobilization, and unity in turn. Instead the challenge is to embrace a reformist message that speaks to the concerns of the working class and is uniting by a common overarching theme. Chris Bowers responds by suggesting that while much of what Ruy says has merit, the latter a) underplays the usefulness of pursuing the "myths", and b) adopting new positions on issues might just confuse the public or make us look indecisive. Instead, Chris thinks that Democrats must "grow liberalism" by addressing our very real handicaps within the institutions of the media, unions, religion and education.

On the other hand, Matt Yglesias wonders why there isn't a more aggressive populist element in the Democratic Party, noting Gephardt's anemic performance as evidence. David Sirota thinks that Clinton won on a populist campaign in 1992, and Edwards ran a very similar sort of campaign last year. So there IS room for populists in the Democratic Party, although we could do a lot better.

So what do these two strains of debate have in common? Well, the one asks a question and the other provides and answer even while identifying the difficulty of actualzing that answer. Teixeira wants to develop an overarching theme, while one is sitting out there waiting to be embraced, i.e. a version of populism. However, there seems to be a lot of suspicion about the viability of a populist campaign in the Democratic Primary.

The first thing to note is that I think populism (or at least an extensively modified version of it) is an integral part of any successful Democratic message. And I think that populism can sell in the party if it is pitched properly. Edwards had it just about right in 2004, and his failure says less about his message than about his liability as a candidate: he was inexperienced in a wartime election. If there had been no 9/11, or Edwards had served another term in the Senate before he ran, I think Edwards would have been the Democratic nominee, and that he would have decisively defeated Bush.

Having said all that, I think that just asserting a "people versus the powerful" or "Two Americas" message is insufficient. A New Populist/New Liberal message has to embrace a number of different themes, including the reformist one. It's not about just bashing corporations. It's about making room for ways of life that Americans hold dear (like small towns and small businesses) as well as real economic opportunities, about never forgetting that we are all in this together (necessitating real tolerance and mutual respect), and that everyone who contributes deserves a share in the rewards.

Now these things are very easy to say, and if you aren't careful they do sound substanceless or canned or just tired. Which is where new policy proposals come in. Once you have established your basic theme, you then use innovative policies that highlight that theme.

What we are really talking about here is a problem of justification. Democrats are in favor of equal opportunity, social tolerance, a strong middle class, etc. What we need is to explain why we are for those things. This is what a political message is: an enunciation of a political ideology cast in explanatory terms, terms that unite one's disparate policy proposals into a coherent vision while distilling their essence down in comprehensible terms. It's a tall order, but I don't think it's as far away as you might believe. Just read Edwards' and Obama's speeches. We're almost there.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:31 PM

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The Backlash Continues

Monday, May 09, 2005
When we got married, my wife decided I need to be more sensitized to the plight of women in America, so she made me read Susan Faludi's Backlash. Now I didn't finish it (nobody can - it's repetitive, depressing, and huge), but after that I was quicker to spot anti-feminist rhetoric than she was. And when there is a whole bunch of it published within a short period, I have to comment.

Yesterday was Mother's Day, so of course there were the predictable odes to motherhood. There were also backhanded critiques of women without children or who work while they do, also predictably. First, there is Katherine Ellison, who suggests that the challenges of motherhood actually make women smarter. And then there is this article in the Post by Jennifer Frey and Claudia Deane, who write a "trend" article in which a few affluent people are interviewed to paint a general picture that the double-day of working and child-rearing is actually fun. And then there is the always-annoying smears of any prominent woman, but particularly Hillary Clinton, as noted by Peter Beinart, who states that there is "the unstated assumption that high-profile women, especially feminists, must -- in their hearts -- be dovish, relativistic and secular."

The hidden message of the Ellison and Frey & Deane pieces? That women should stop complaining and embrace the tremendous burdens placed on them by society. According to the backlash narrative, we don't need federal child care, or pay equity, or a wage scale that permits 2 parents to work part time in order to stay in the middle class, rather than two parents working double overtime to do so. Of course not! They think that all women need to do is quit whining. Assholes.

For a good discussion of what should actually be done to help mothers, read this.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:30 PM

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Wanted: Development Strategy

Friday, May 06, 2005
I have argued for a long time that America needs to develop and adopt a re-industrialization policy. Now I have another piece of evidence that this is an urgent requirement for our economy: GM and Ford are dying.

No one should underestimate the historical importance of the U.S. car industry. America has been the #1 carmaker since WWI, and the making of cars has been one of the cornerstones of our prosperity. One could argue that we are just shifting from one set of industries to another. We quit making buggy whips, after all. Well I would respond: have people stopped buying cars? Have cars ceased to be an value-added item? On the contrary, our citizens remain obsessed with them, only now the benefits of cars are being sent abroad rather than used here at home to fuel economic growth. The impending disappearance of car manufacturing is a first-class economic disaster and a clear sign that our position as a leading economic power is in serious peril.

But the government getting involved is useless, right? Wrong. There is not a single example of a country industrializing without massive government support. Government policies have used subsidies, tariff protection, favorable regulations, etc., to encourage the creation of vital industries. Britain, the U.S., Japan Germany, France, Korea and now China all developed through explicitly mercantilist policies. The laissez-faire types simply don't know anything about economic history. Read a book.

Now I am not arguing that we should just write GM a check or give it another tax cut. Given the incentives of the global economy, they would still be shipping jobs overseas. What we do need to do is take the "race to the bottom" problem MUCH more seriously by establishing a set of international agreements on labor and wage policy (Robert Reich has recently come out in favor of this strategy in the American Prospect). And we need to use government policy to leverage the creation of NEW companies rather than just rewarding old ones. Creating a "favorable business environment" does not mean open borders, low taxes and no regulation. If it did, why is it that no new major industrial enterprises have been created in the last generation? Why is it that all of our entrepreneurs have been in the service economy? And why is Mississippi the nation's poorest state?

America no longer makes much. We have effectively de-industrialized, which is why our currency depreciation has not shrunk the trade deficit. In this sense we are in exactly the same position we were in two centuries ago when we were trying to industrialize in the first place. Alexander Hamilton recognized that it would take affirmative government action to create the conditions for industrialization and economic development. He didn't wait for some magic "free hand" to do the task for him - he rolled up his sleeves and made it happen. It's time we learned from his example.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:29 PM

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The Limits of Politics

Thursday, May 05, 2005
Steve Gilliard (via Kos) thinks that we on the left have been far too disengaged from popular culture. We don't write about a lot of major news stories because we find them beneath us, and because of this we are a) out of touch, and b) lack credibility when we talk about serious matters.

Conceptually, there are two different arguments here. The first is that liberals don't pay attention to "fluff" news, and the second is that we don't talk about it. I have no problem with Gilliard's first point: if we don't know what's going on, we won't know what's going on. It's hard to speak a language you don't understand.

But just because you are aware of popular culture doesn't mean that it's necessary to comment on it. What bothers me about the conservative practice of talking about every subject is that it politicizes everything. As my wife said this morning, it doesn't matter what the subject is: education, sex, religion, crime, trials - it's all become fodder for the political meat grinder. And this is simply not okay. The founding insight of liberalism is that politics has proper limits. That which effects all concerns all, but if something concerns only me it's none of your business.

So if we absolutely must comment on these issues, we should make their very triviality the point. Liberals don't comment on these things because they are simply not our concern. It's the right which wants society to have a say in every single choice you make. That way the next time Tucker Carlson or David Brooks want to politicize something apolitical, we can say "there those rightwingers go again taking away people's privacy by politicizing everything." Because that's a subject worth discussing.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:28 PM

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A Jihadist By Any Other Name.....

Wednesday, May 04, 2005
John McCandlish Phillips is cranky. He's an evangelical Christian, and he's tired of being persecuted by liberal columnists even at his own NYT. He's never seen it this bad, and wants to let everyone know that most evangelicals and conservative Catholics are nice, reasonable people. They helped found today's great universities, and by the way they founded America too. So stop abusing these moderate, right-thinking people already! Stop trying to purge God from America!


I'm sure that most conservative Christians are nice enough people. I even know a couple. That really isn't the point: I'm sure many supporters of the fascists were nice too. Why is fundamentally corrupting is their politics. I don't care what they believe in the privacy of their own home as long as they don't try to make me believe it too. Which is what we are dealing with today. Yes, people of religious faith have done great things. Duh. And yes many of our most important founding figures were men of God. But you know what? They weren't evangelicals. They were somewhere between mainline Protestants and Deistsm, and had a healthy suspicion of religious enthusiasm.

What's difference between religion & politics now and in 1800? First, we aren't talking about the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. That's not an issue most on the left get exorcised about. What we are more concerned about is real substantive policy changes driven by religious belief - like on gays or abortion or divorce. We are discussing major departures in public policy based solely on an aggressive religious doctrine.

Second, there is a difference in how religious politics is viewed depending on the times. In the old days, there was no major religious force in politics, so it couldn't hurt to throw the word "God" around. But today, there is a major effort to impose a particular religious vision on the rest of the country. It's the difference between saying that you'd like to kill that football referee when you're at home in front of your T.V. and saying it when you and fifty angry drunken buddies see that ref in the parking lot after the game. Context matters.

Let me explain to Mr. Phillips why his political evangelism is unconstitutional and alien to American tradition. The Constitution says that there will be no establishment of religion. Establishing a religion does not just mean that you set up a national church. It also means that you can't establish a government-sanctioned theology. So no claiming that we should pass your law because it comports with God's will. Because that amounts to claiming that your religious opinions are uniquely priveleged above mine.

Which is where the word "jihad" comes in. When we on the left claim that there is an American jihad underway, we are referring to the rise of Islamist parties in the the Middle East whose vision is to enact their idiosyncratic religious dogma on all members of the society, including unbelievers. These parties are borne out of a sense of frustration and alienation from the modern world, and want to turn back the clock to some supposed Golden Age.

And this is precisely what the Christian right in America is up to. The only difference, and I mean ONLY difference, between the two is that one quotes the Koran and the other quotes the Bible. So if you, as a Christian, don't like the label "jihadist," call yourself a "crusader"? Just don't forget that they're the same damn thing.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:27 PM

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Parchment Barriers

Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Hamilton famously claimed that the Constitution was just a piece of paper. It takes real work to make a political system real. Or, as Montesquieu said, the moving spirit of a political system is what gives it life, not a bunch of words on a document somewhere.

There is one political party today (you know who they are) who have conveniently decided that they can ignore the Constitution whenever they like. This is not a question of debating reasonable interepretations. This is a matter of flatly ignoring important constitutional provisions. So today I'm going to talk about a few crucial clauses that are NOT in the Bill of Rights but are nonetheless vital for political equality and individual liberty.

No Religious Test For Office

This is in Article VI, clause 3: "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." This provision was developed in response to the anti-Catholic legislation in England. Now as a matter of law, anyone can apply for or run for office. But there is an important distinction between what is true de jure and what is true de facto. If the people are not motivated to follow this idea, then there will be a religious test for office anyway. Can an avowed aethiest be elected to office? How about a Muslim? Furthermore, we have a sitatution in which the President says he won't appoint anyone to office who isn't "right with God." And recently a key political figure has said openly that Muslims shouldn't be elected to anything. So what we see here is a blatant disrespect for the spirit and letter of the law.

The others I want to talk about are all in Article One, Section 9.

Habeus Corpus

"The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it." This means you can't throw someone in jail without a trial or accusing them of a trial. There has to be due process. Now there is some debate on whether the President or Congress has the right to suspend this writ. I'd guess that it's supposed to be Congress, since it's in Article I. But people disagree.

What is more important is the last part: the has to be a major threat to U.S. public safety. At present the President is suspending Habeus Corpus whenever he feels like it. Does the present circumstance rise to the level forseen by the Constitution? Clearly this is not a rebellion, and I'm not sure that it's an invasion. But I am very concerned about the cavalier dismissal of human rights demonstrated by this administration.

No Ex Post Facto Laws

"No...ex post facto Law shall be passed." This means you can't pass retroactive laws. You can't convict someone of something that wasn't a crime when they did it. This is one of the things that bugged me about the Terry Schiavo case. The courts had already ruled, and they intervened in an ad hoc way after the decision had been made because they didn't like the outcome. Sorry guys, but if you didn't like that case, you should have passed a law about future cases. We are not allowed to change the rules of the game after the game has started. But I'm not talking about the filibuster.....

No Bills of Attainder

"No Bill of Attainder ....shall be passed." The Bill of Attainder is a law in which the legislature declares someone guilty/an enemy of the state. No due process - just kill the guy. Laws are meant to be general, not specific to a person or event. When legislatures get involved in talking about personalities, individual liberty is under threat. We have gotten into a bad habit of personalizing politics. Saying we want Osamo Bin Laden "dead or alive" is worrisome enough, but passing laws that are concerned with individual persons (like Schiavo again) is antithetical to a democratic state. We are all equal you see, and all deserve a fair procedure. No one is special.

No Patents of Nobility

"No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States."

No aristocracy. Period. So why am I mentioning this? Because at the moment if your last name is the same as someone who's been elected to high office, you get to be elected too. We have nascent dynasties forming in this country, whether they be local ones (like the Tafts or Gores) or national ones (like the Kennedys, Clintons, or Bushes). As I've said over and over: democracies do not have the luxury of flirting with dynastic politics. So no, there is no law saying that we have an elective nobility, but our voters seem all to ready to believe that political talent flows in the blood.

It goes further than this. The underlying principle behind this Constitutional provision, as well as the "no religious test for office" one, is that of political equality. Not just equality in voting, but equality in office-seeking. No person should be advantaged (or disadvantaged) in seeking office because of who they are or what they have. Given the de facto wealth test for office in this country, created by weak parties and the repugnant Buckley vs. Valeo decision, at the moment those who are wealthy or famous have a chance to run for high office. If you don't have those qualities, then the bar is very, very high is many parts of the country.

So no, the Constitution has not been revoked or destroyed. But there are many elected officials who ignore or pervert it for the sake of their personal interests. More disturbingly, there are a lot of citizens who don't seem to take portions of it seriously either.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:26 PM

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Monday, May 02, 2005
Right to Privacy

In line with some of my previous suggestions, Pandagon thinks we need to think over how liberals employ the language of privacy. I still think proposing a "right to privacy" amendement might be worthwhile. If it passed, it would put Roe on firmer legal foundation. And conservatives who opposed it would be subject to arguments that they are in favor of the state meddling in people's homes.

MaxSpeak Is Really Smart.

Check it out. Apparently the finance problems with Social Security aren't being driven by an aging population, but by flat wages. Which makes sense, since wages have been flat for decades and social security is funded by a payroll tax. Duh. Why didn't I think of that?

Now I know why the Republicans are focusing on the aging pop thing. The last thing they want to draw attention to is flat middle incomes or maldistribution. By the way, I just checked out the numbers and as of 1998 the top 20% had 85 percent of net worth and the bottom forty had under 1%. Ah, the land of opportunity.

Why Are They Trying Destroy PBS?

Read the horror here. Remember, "balance" means "conservative domination." These people won't be happy until all we here is His Master's Voice.

Please Tell Me We Aren't That Stupid

There had better NOT be an indication that the Democrats are about to cave on social security with this pseudo-progressive element of Bush's plan. We should be hammering the "there they going attacking the middle class again!" theme until we go hoarse.

Have a nice day.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:25 PM

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