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A Bit Of A Conundrum

Monday, March 30, 2009
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have deep reservations about the accumulation of political power in the hands of executives, particularly the presidency. Every week there's another sign that the White House as evolved from the "vital center of action" it was during the Cold War era into the only game in town. Recent examples would include Obama administration excluding Congress from the policymaking process in Afghanistan and the reliance of the Treasury and the Fed to deal with the financial crisis with Congress playing very much a secondary role. I'm happy that some others have started to notice the concentration of power in the hands of the president by the likes of Bruce Ackerman and John Balkin, among others, but for too many of punditocracy and American citizenry there's far too much willingness to transform the president into an elected dictator with a fixed term.

Ideally Congress should re-assert its role as the chief legislative branch. It should assert itself in both foreign policy (where it should be a partner to the executive) and domestic policy (where it should predominate). That's my favored outcome.

When I refer to Congress, I am most definitely not speaking of this Congress. The current Congress is far too ready to sell out the nation's future for personal political advantage. One might claim that such a state of affairs is inevitable, but in the past Senators and Representatives playing a leading role in public affairs. Whatever one thinks of the substance of the Republican Congress of 1995-1996, they most certainly acted as the equal of the White House, if not more. It might even be that Congress' present pusillanimity is a product of its weakness. Should they assume greater responsibility and demonstrate such to the public, they might act responsibly.

A lot of liberals are frustrated with the Democratic Congress today, particularly with the Senate. The Democrats are all too willing to sell our civil liberties and to lavish patronage on their campaign contributors and home state industries. I think the recent posts from Yglesias, Chait, and Klein to this effect have a great deal of merit. I think Chait is right when he points to the willingness of Democrats in Congress to cater to business interests at the expense of the country. Ezra has a point when he says that the institutional incentives are more important than party discipline, but I think he's gliding over Chait's other explanations: that the Democratic moderates haven't learned that they won't get re-elected if the President is seen as week, and that there are a lot of "pro-business" Democrats and an entirely "pro-business" Republican Party, which makes it extremely difficult to get anything meaningful done on health care, financial regulation, and the environment - all of which impinge of business.

Let me just quote Chait here, because I think he has his finger on the main problem.

A second factor encouraging Democrats to buck their presidents is the role of the rich and business interests. Unless you are a high school student reading this article in your civics course, in which case I'm sorry to dispel your illusions, you will not be stunned to learn that the affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman's friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers.

What's more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan's Carl Levin parrots the auto industry's line on regulating carbon dioxide.

Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats. A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush's regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That's why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal-and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population.

Whether what Yglesias implies - that most "moderate" Democrats are actually shills - or whether they would like to do the right this is irrelevant. The fact is that under our current system of campaign finance, Democrats are too beholden to the top 10% of the population to do anything that seriously impinges on their interests. They are too reliant on the funds to be raised from large corporations to challenge them. If they did so, they would be buried in money in the next election. It's really that simple.

So what does this have to do with presidential power? Just this: if the Congress is so corrupted by special interests that it can't act in the interests of the public good, then the president is the only figure with the potential to act when necessary in the common interest. One of the reasons that Congress has become a body only capable of saying "yes" or "no", and is incapable of making its "no's" meaningful, is that Congress (and especially the Senate) lacks the political will - either individually or collectively - to do anything risky. It's members are committed to their own re-election (abetted by large dollars) rather than their institution. The Congress' failure to act has opened the door to the President. All the President has done it walk through it. Placing the bulk of political power in the hands of one man has become convenient, but convenience is rarely a safe course of action for republics that wish to remain so.

So I want a strong Congress, but that Congress is going to have to be reformed first. We need real campaign finance reform and an end to the abuse practices of the Senate (such as the filibuster and the hold). Those might not be interesting topics, but liberals need to find out fast that all the good things we want for the country are going to impossibile without them. Our only other alternative is to give Obama even more power and hope he does what we want him to. Frankly I don't trust anyone that much.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:49 PM

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This and That

Friday, March 27, 2009
This morning we did the walk-through of the house we rented. I then had to go to work, when all I really wanted to do was start moving in. Regrettably we have to wait until next week to do so. Oh well.

I can't get into any specifics about my present project at work, but let's just say I'm always surprised at how much influence lowly peons like myself have over major policy initiatives. I'm the one drafting the language for the policy, and you can't imagine how much room I have to shade things in one direction or another. Wacky.

I've been planning on writing more about this subject for a few days, but let me just point you to blog posts here, here, and here. I think that regulating banks but leaving these behemoths intact is probably a big mistake. They're so large that if one goes down they drag the whole economy down with them, and their sheer size gives them the political influence to avoid or pervert meaningful regulations. I don't think we should break up EVERY big company, but finance is a uniquely important economic sector, since it so strongly influences everything else. I could be wrong about this, but from my perspective we'd be better off having a bunch of medium-sized banks so that idiot managerial decisions by a dozen people couldn't set off a major crisis.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:13 PM

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The Enduring Progressive Faultline

Tuesday, March 24, 2009
With the recent Democratic ascendancy, long-obscured disputes within liberalism are coming to the fore. I'm not speaking here of the neo-Hooverite Blue-Dogism that says we should worry about deficits in a time of near-Depression. That's not liberalism. Instead I'm referring to an underlying and long-simmering difference among liberals on how best to cope with market failures. The social democratic response is to displace the market entirely, but there's simply not the political will to go down that road, whatever the merits of that approach may or may not be. Instead what we're seeing is a debate between technocratic liberals who accept the contours of the current market regime but do see incremental reforms as necessary and those who think those whole system is profoundly flawed and needs to be fundamentally transformed.

The distinction between these two forms of progressivism is a very old one that was most sharply highlighted in the 1912 Presidential election. In that race you had two progressives running, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who articulated very different visions of how progressive aims are to be accomplished. For TR, big corporations needed to be accepted as an inevitable consequence of modernity, but their abuses could be checked through government regulation. For Wilson, under the influence of Louis Brandeis, the problem was existence of such large institutions. They were inevitably corrupting and needed to be broken up if the free market were to function. These debates resurfaced within the Roosevelt administration as competing factions pushed for the NRA-style system of corporatism, with business, government, and labor all working together, and a more straightforward anti-corporate approach. I'm grossly simplifying, but you get the idea.

What's important to remember is that these debates were never resolved. The triumph of Keynesian economics in the postwar era effectively short-circuited the conversation. Liberals in good standing could accept big business and high finance or rail against it in equal measure because the economy was working reasonably well and there were other battles to fight. The current economic crisis, however, so long in the making, is forcing these debates back out into the open. Geithner's plan accepts the continued existence of huge financial firms that are "too big to fail." Some of his critics think that this is a fundamental mistake, that if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big. Citigroup and Goldman Sachs are too large and politically well-connected to regulate effectively, and their activities so permeate the financial sector that if they collapse they'll bring the economy down with it.

I don't have a well thought-out position on the financial crisis or what to do about yet. I think there are reasonable liberals on different sides of the question, and I don't have sufficient expertise to make a clear judgment. But I do think liberalism looks to be at a crossroads, one a hundred years in the making. Either liberals are going to accept the primacy of big business or we're going to go to war against it. I know which side I'm inclined to be on.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:44 AM

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I Can't Think Of A Good Title To This

Thursday, March 12, 2009
My cat died yesterday.

I know that with all the death around me lately, I shouldn't be quite so upset. Perhaps my emotional reserves have been exhausted by the litany of bad news. Perhaps I'm so upset because this is the first time I've ever been present when one of my pets were euthanized. Maybe I'm just confronting mortality for the first time in all its brutal indifference to human sentiment and human need.

I feel ashamed for having wept so much. It's just a cat, I keep telling myself. We have lots of animals and there's bound to be a lot more of these. But I can't help it. I don't want death to ever be all right. I don't want to become inured to it. I always want it to hurt this much, or more than this much.

I try to think about good thoughts. Mathilda had a bewitching personality. She was demanding and playful and more than a little insane. She used to roll around exposing her belly and then get mad when you touched said belly. She was obsessed with chasing little fake mice. She yelled at you all the time for any reason and no reason. She loved eating by herself but wouldn't eat behind a locked door, so we had to start locking all the other cats in the office at feeding time. She had strange fixations that would last for a time and then disappear, like hiding in the hall closet for six months and then never going back in there again. I wondered at her strangeness. She was a puzzle I never really solved, and now I never will.

I also think about how sick she was over the past several weeks, how pathetically she mewled at us in the car on the way to the vet, how suddenly still she went at the end. It was so hard to walk out of that room knowing I'd never see her again. I knew she was gone, but it was difficult to accept nonetheless.

I'm making too much out of this, I know. It's insulting to everyone whose lost parents and friends and lovers. It's just a cat. She wasn't even really my cat - she was Brazen Hussy's. But I suppose ought doesn't always imply is, because I'm distraught all the same, and angry that half of her life was stolen from her and from us by cruel chance. I can see my way to resignation with my head, but not my heart.

Mathilda was just a cat, but we loved her, and we miss her very much.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:46 PM

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25 Influential Writers

Monday, March 09, 2009
Thanks BH! This is an interesting one. 25 writers who have influenced me the most:

1. Alexandre Dumas (pere)
2. David Michelinie & Bob Layton (they're a team)
3. Denny O'Neil
4. Stephen King
5. William Shakespeare
6. Niccolo Machiavelli
7. Aristotle
8. John Rawls
9. C.J. Cherryh
10. George R.R. Martin
11. John H. Elliott
12. David Chandler
13. J.F.C. Fuller
14. Guy Gavriel Kay
15. Robin Hobb
16. Anonymous
17. Homer
18. Margaret Weiss & Tracy Hickman (another team)
19. Raymond E. Feist
20. Alan Moore
21. Anne Rice
22. Joseph Conrad
23. Frank Miller
24. Yann Martel
25. Audrey Niffeneggar
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:36 PM

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I Watched The Watchmen

So what did I think of the movie? I'm really not sure. I've never seen a work of fiction adapted so faithfully from one genre to another. Watching The Lord of the Rings, it was easy to mentally separate the books from the movie and appreciate the latter as a distinct creative product. Viewing Watchmen, however, I began to wonder whether the makers of the film feared being jumped in the street by purists wearing Rorschach costumes. An eerie proportion of the dialogue and pictures were lifted directly from the comic books. So it's very difficult for me to evaluate how someone who hasn't read the comics is going to perceive the movie.

To the specifics. The casting was excellent, with the exception of Ozymandias. I thought the introduction brilliantly captured an enormous amount of background material in a very short period of time. I think that the changed ending worked perfectly well, from a storytelling perspective. The film effectively translated the basic structure of the story and the characters - better than I had hoped.


Many of us were skeptical that Watchmen could be made into a film. So much of the series was explicitly about comics, both in form and substance, that it was difficult to see how to interpret into a different medium. For example, movies generally need a linear storyline, and Watchmen most certainly did not. And here is where I think the movie got into trouble. The Comedian seemed to disappear from the second half of the film, and relatedly the big revelation at the end (which I won't spoil if you don't know it) lost much of its emotional power because the film took a fairly strict linear approach. As a consequence, the climax seemed a little clunky.

Having said that, I like the movie very much. I could quibble about a few lines that were cut or awkwardly moved, but one has to make allowances. I got the pleasure of seeing Rorschach tell his fellow inmates that he wasn't trapped in jail with them - they were trapped in jail with him. That moment alone made everything worth it.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:32 PM

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I Just About Spit Up My Coffee

Thursday, March 05, 2009
Here's an absolutely hysterical clip of Hitler ranting about the new Watchmen movie. No that is not a typo.

If you don't know the comic, you just won't understand. And I don't know what's wrong with you.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:36 AM

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On Seizing Opportunities

Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The only real legislative weapon in the Republican arsenal right now is the filibuster. They set a record for filibusters last session, and we can expect that they'll set another over the next two years. Given that the Republicans in Congress have adopted the same essential strategy as those in the California state legislature - we will block anything that does not give us everything we want - the Democrats are going to have to plan accordingly, particularly with respect to health care reform. I assure you that if national health insurance will need 60 votes and the Republican leadership will oppose Obama's plan - no matter what. So unless you want to watch the sad scrambling we saw around the stimulus package all over again, the filibuster is going to have to be dealt with.

There are, as I see it, two different possibilities: you can either go around the filibuster or through it. The first is to use the budget reconciliation process, which would only require 51 votes rather than 60. The Republicans see this possibility and are already making noises about wanting to "work with Obama" - which means smile a lot during meetings until it's too late to go to reconciliation and then stick the knife in. This may be what Obama uses to do health care.

But there are other issues than health care - namely the environment, and judicial nominees. While it's possible that climate change legislation could go through reconciliation, I wonder whether the Senate Dems will be willing to use reconciliation for everything. Besides this, the Republicans are already suggesting that they'll filibuster Democratic judicial nominees.

Now I think the filibuster should be done away with. The abuse of the institution has become so egregious that any jusitification for it is no longer sufficient. The Democrats have NEVER been as aggressive in using it, so it has essentially become a Republican veto on government policy - which is just ridiculous. And it is precisely on the issue of judicial confirmations that I suspect the issue will come to a head. It is also where I think Obama will have an opportunity to kill the filibuster - i.e., the "nuclear option."

In 2005 the Republican majority in the Senate (with 55 votes) threatened to ignore the Democratic filibuster and change the rules to make it impossible. The Republicans were screaming on the TV about wanting an "up or down vote." The so-called "Gang of 14" avoided the implementation of the nuclear option, but you can see where I'm going with this. If the Republicans filibuster say, a Supreme Court nominee, then the Democrats will be able to first claim that they want an up or down vote (playing quotes from the opposition would be fun), and when the Republicans refused to concede the issue, invoke the nuclear option themselves. Hell, Obama wouldn't even have to be the bad guy - he could leave it to Harry Reid to play Dirty Harry. The Democrats could even be reaonable and reduce the requirement to cloture to 55 votes, a proposal that was floated in the 70's.

The Democrats are going to have to confront this problem eventually. They're going to have to crush the Republican minority, or see everything they want to do blocked by an unreasonable pack of loons. And it's not like the filibuster is in the Constitution or anything. I'm hoping the Democratic leadership has the wisdom to do the right thing.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:50 AM

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