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An Argument I Don't Expect To Have

Tuesday, June 30, 2009
An ungenerous person could easily take certain tactless comments out of context. I might note that someone with the slightest degree of sensitivity would hesitate before suggesting that my marriage will more likely fail due to a decision not to have children. Particularly when that statement has elicited a negative reaction in the past. I could go further, arguing that said my interlocutor has a sadly impoverished view of marriage if he thinks it requires the obligations of reproduction to remain intact. I could suggest that he is engaging in the sloppy and long-discredited "ought implies is" naturalistic fallacy. I would question the statistics he uses - are they so incontrovertible, is the correlation so strong, that one can make determinative inferences from them about individual couples? Has he the data about all the other characteristics that I have, which might outweigh the supposed liability of lacking children? I could also say that the other person is sliding dangerously close to an anti-choice position - that it is our job to have children, whether we want them or not. I would then respond by saying that whatever the adaptive or social bases for monogamous pairings, we are morally autonomous beings capable of using old institutions for new purposes. Traditional peasant food has become gourmet cooking, oftentimes without a significant change in preparation, but with an entirely different purpose. If I were want to impugn the other person's character, I could make broad-brush comments about the arrogance of believing one's own choices are appropriate for everyone. I could be cheap and ask the other person whether those who do not want - or cannot have - children should even bother getting married, since according to his supposed "sociological facts" they are doomed in any case.

I could say all of those things if I were of a mind to, if I believed that my friend really wanted to get into this. But I know he doesn't, does he?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:20 AM

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Monday, June 29, 2009
In response to Marriah's somewhat inflammatory comment. No, I have never blogged the words "2000 was stolen." But I did a quick search of old posts and found the following:

May 26, 2006:
It was hard to watch Al and not think about how he was robbed in 2000....

Septmber 21, 2006:
He [Broder] also makes the factual error of stating that Bush defeated Gore in the 2000 election, when everybody who knows anything knows that Gore won the national popular vote, and that more people voting in Florida wanted Gore rather than Bush.

April 22, 2008:
First, Gore didn't lose the national popular vote (he won 48.4% to 47.9%) and probably should have won Florida.
In a "fair" election without Nader and a media that didn't personally loathe Al Gore, Gore probably would have won a fairly comfortable 51.6% to 47.4% victory.

February 10, 2009
And I remember giving people crap for paying more attention to what happened in Florida than the fact that Gore had won the national popular vote and wouldn't be president. Stupid electoral college.

While the precise wording I used about 2000 wasn't what Marriah would have liked, in each instance I argue that the election of 2000 was improper, that the wrong person became President.

One would hope that one's friends would offer the most charitable interpretation of one's actions and words, rather than nitpick like an opposition researcher.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 1:36 PM

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Looking In the Mirror

Wednesday, June 24, 2009
I've been paying - if not close attention - real attention to what's happening in Iran. The people protesting are nothing short of courageous, and I wish them well. But, being an American, I have to think about what the events in Iran say about us. The civil disturbances in Iran threw the U.S. into rather unflattering light in two important respects. I put off writing about it, but thankfully others have raised these points. First, the Iranian people are in the streets after a stolen election, whereas in the U.S. in 2000 we sat around quietly and accepted the outcome. Yes, yes, the circumstances were somewhat different, but not really that different. In a republic the candidate with the most votes is supposed to win the office, and that didn't happen, and we just put up with it.

Second, well, I'll just quote Juan Cole:

Moreover, very unfortunately, US politicians are no longer in a position to lecture other countries about their human rights. The kind of unlicensed, city-wide demonstrations being held in Tehran last week would not be allowed to be held in the United States. Senator John McCain led the charge against Obama for not having sufficiently intervened in Iran. At the Republican National Committee convention in St. Paul, 250 protesters were arrested shortly before John McCain took the podium. Most were innocent activists and even journalists. Amy Goodman and her staff were assaulted. In New York in 2004, 'protest zones' were assigned, and 1800 protesters were arrested, who have now been awarded civil damages by the courts. Spontaneous, city-wide demonstrations outside designated 'protest zones' would be illegal in New York City, apparently. In fact, the Republican National Committee has undertaken to pay for the cost of any lawsuits by wronged protesters, which many observers fear will make the police more aggressive, since they will know that their municipal authorities will not have to pay for civil damages.

The number of demonstrators arrested in Tehran on Saturday is estimated at 550 or so, which is less than those arrested by the NYPD for protesting Bush policies in 2004.

You don't lose your civil liberties all at once, but one at a time. Usually when you're not paying any attention.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:03 AM

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Campaign Finance and Public Policy

Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Nate Silver has built a statistical model over at his website that seeks to explain congressional roll call voting behavior with campaign contributions. The naive model of how this works is that special interests buy off elected officials with funds, either through giving money before hand so that the elected will be beholden to them, or afterward as a reward. Unfortunately for Nate, he doesn't seem to have read the voluminous political science and economics literature on this subject, which has never been able to conclusively demonstrate a strong effect. Brendan Nyhan and John Sides summarize all the reasons why Nate's analysis is faulty. There just isn't any clear evidence that campaign contributions buy political support.

That last statement might seem surprising coming from me, given how much I care about campaign finance reform. Ah, but you see I don't subscribe to the naive model of money = votes. I think there are a number of ways that campaign contributions could have an indirect or constraining effect on the decision-making of congresscritters. Money might just make lobbying more effective. Elected officials might try to neutralize potential opposition by co-opting groups that could fund a rival. Or it could just be the case that, because you need money to get elected in the first place, it tends to be pro-corporate types that win election in the first place (particularly in political primaries). These are all scenarios that would take very sophisticated models to test. I just hope some talented social statistician picks the idea up, because at the moment I really don't have the time.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:57 PM

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To Clarify

Friday, June 19, 2009
I want to expand a bit on what I wrote yesterday in response to Rebecca's comment. I certainly place most of the blame for our generation-long failure to do anything real about our problems on our leadership class - in both parties. But ultimately we elected these people. The point I'm trying to make is that it's not enough for a republic to get all fired up and put people who say all the right things into office. You also have to hold them accountable for what they do once they're in there. The American people should have risen up and demanded Congress investigate George Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes, but we didn't, because too many of us were either too ready to believe that they "kept us safe" or didn't like the spectacle it would create. We should be burying the Congress in phone calls and letters demanding real health care and financial regulations with teeth. But we don't because we can't be bothered.

The fact is that Obama and the Democrats in Congress are about to punt on health care, climate change, labor law, financial reforms - you know, everything we elected them to fix - and do you know what's going to happen? Nothing. Either they'll get re-elected anyway, in which they "get away with it," or the Republicans get in office and make everything worse. And the lesson for politicians won't be "fix these problems or else." It'll be "don't try to do major reforms." And the country will continue to circle the drain.

I'm beginning to agree with Martin Luther King - the real obstacle to reform isn't the right, it's the moderates.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:36 AM

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Heath Care Reform Driving Into A Ditch

Here we go again. The Senate Finance Committee, in its infinite fealty to insurance companies, leaves the public option out of its bill and then is surprised to learn that taking out the major cost-saving measure is going to make health care reform really expensive, forcing them to scale back the program? Do they think we're idiots?

So, where is our "Great Leader" in the face of the collapse of his single biggest legislative initiative? Oh, are we just going to "keep our powder dry" some more so he can screw up the climate change bill too? Can we have some of that audacity we heard so much about in the campaign, please?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 7:25 AM

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Thursday, June 18, 2009
It's not a lack of knowledge that ruins states, but a lack of determination. Every country faces problems, but what distinguishes a healthy regime from a sick one is whether the political system is capable of implementing reforms. You can see this in the history of many countries, as they pass from an age in which a sense of realism and compromise led to the solution of major challenges to an age in which problems simply grow worse and worse and nothing is done to address them. In the early Roman Republic, the aristocrats in the Senate gave way before popular pressure, granting the general public a share of political power and accepting a dimunition of their social and economic power. But in the late Republic, the very same class refused to accept even the most modest of reforms in the face of manifest dangers. When pressed they did not give in, but resorted to violence and hence destroyed the Republic.

I fear I see the same degeneration in our own country. In the past we were always, however delayed, able to address the daunting challenges before us - independence, the end of slavery, civil rights, industrialization, unionization, the depression, our emergence as a great power in the world - at every juncture we always, however fitfully, seemed to be able to move forward. Until now.

How many problems do we face today that are persistent, beyond rational dispute and yet remain unaddressed? The decline of the middle class, environmental degredation, a corrupt and bloated financial sector, and most especially the problem of health care - none of these problems are new; only our periodic willingness to talk about them is new. And that is all we do - talk. Whenever a political leader makes a concerted effort to solve them, he fails.

It can't be attributed just to personal failures of leadership - as I've said many times, you can't blame an individual for a system problem. The fact is that for a generation the entrenched interests in our society - financiers, insurance companies, agribusiness, the military & defense contractors, energy suppliers - in every case they have managed to block reform. Conservatives have no interest in doing anything because they profit from the status quo (that's why they're conservatives). Liberals get into power and they are still unable to act because of obstruction from the Republicans AND "moderate" members of their own party.

Despite my many sallies on the topic, this is not strictly a question of campaign finance reform. If that were the sole source of our political constipation, I think something might have been done about it years ago. And it's not just the irresponsible and self-serving policies of the conservative movement and their deluded followers. I can't even bring myself to lay the blame with the press, however much I want to. I'm past believing any of those things. No, I think it's worse than any of those things. I think it may be that too many Americans have become too cowardly, too fearful that any change will be worse, to withdrawn from the world and too passive before its tumult to be willing to act in any way to improve the conditions of their society. They focus only on their own garden at the cost of the common good. Perhaps our political "leaders" have fostered this natural human tendency towards civic solipsism, but whatever the ultimate sociological cause, the fact remains that we may no longer be a people not able, but just willing, to govern ourselves.

God help us.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:57 PM

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Don't Blame Rawls For Obama

Monday, June 15, 2009
In a recent piece highlighted by Paul Rosenberg of OpenLeft, a blogger historian named "Nonpartisan" attributed Obama's failure to confront the forces of institutionalized conservatism to the philosophy of John Rawls. According to Nonpartisan, Rawls' theory copes with the problem of pluralism through the use of an overlapping consensus in which "a core set of policies and governing principles" is the object of overlapping comprehensive doctrines. Nonpartisan thinks that by doing so, "extreme" positions outside of the political consensus, whether on the left or right, are effectively marginalized, shifting the Overton window decisively to right. Apparently Obama doesn't pay attention to the left and caters to the center-right because Rawls said that "extremists" should be ignored in favor of a bipartisan (and implicitly center-right, pro-establishment) consensus.

Now Obama may be caving into the right because he wants to stay in the middle of the American ideological spectrum. But if Obama is doing so because he thinks John Rawls said he should, then the President clearly has no better understanding of Rawlsian theory than Nonpartisan does.

Nonpartisan's account of Rawlsian theory makes a number of gross errors, and his interpretation of Rawlsian justice is nearly the opposite of what Rawls wrote. First, the object of the overlapping consensus is not government policies, but the principles of justice as embodied by justice as fairness. Contrary to what Nonpartisan implies, Rawls does not abandon his commitment to the difference principle or fair equality of opportunity in Political Liberalism, but only alters their grounding from one based on a metaphysical Kantian conception of the person to a political theory based on an overlapping consensus. Nonpartisan isn't describing Rawlsian theory - he's characterizing a modus vivendi in which the current balance of political forces is used as the basis of consensus, an approach Rawls explicitly rejects. Nonpartisan's example of debates about tax policy or war are not subject to the overlapping consensus, because all the overlapping consensus deals with are constitutional essentials and the common sense of justice. Rewarding billionaires because they're greedy has nothing to do with justice and would fall afoul of any reasonable comprehensive doctrine AND the difference principle.

Which brings me to Nonpartisan's other major mistake. He asserts that "unreasonables" are exiled from the political debate because they are extreme, and that Rawls has no clear justification for who is unreasonable. This claim is precisely wrong. Rawls defines unreasonability as not accepting the principle of reciprocity and not accepting the fact that people will disagree about things. Contemporary right-wing authoritarianism runs afoul of both of these provisions, and contemporary social democracy doesn't. In fact, Rawls identifies social democracy (which would be at the extreme left of American ideological debates) as one of the few acceptable political regimes. I have no idea where Nonpartisan got the idea that Rawls didn't think we could call these "right" and "wrong" and thereby enable the right. In fact, one of the big difficulties Rawls leaves open at the end of his career is what to do with unreasonable comprehensive doctrines - almost all of which are right wing or religious in character.

Nonpartisan is wrong to blame Obama's political cowardice on poor John Rawls. We don't live in a Rawlsian world - I wish that we did. In a Rawlsian world, the pro-life position would be banished as an unreasonable political position, we'd have national health insurance and public financing of campaigns, and we'd have nearly draconian inheritance laws to prevent the concentration of political and economic power in a few hands. Obama and other D.C. Democrats should be reading more Rawls, not less.

cross-posted at Open Left
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:55 AM

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The Public Option Debate And What It Tells Us

Friday, June 12, 2009
I'm not an expert on health care reform, but from what I've read a single-payer system is the most straightforward means of reducing health care costs and expanding coverage. But I know a single-payer system is infeasible because it effectively destroy the very large, very powerful health insurance industry and would be very easy to demagogue as "socialism" or a "government takeover of health care." So like a lot of us on the left, I've been willing to go along with a more incremental reform as long as it has a public option as one of elements of reform. If private companies provide such spectacular service (HA), then people will stay in the private insurance market. If a single-payer plan is as good as we've been led to believe, then people will choose that option. Create a fair competition between a regulated private system and a public system and see which one works. It seems like a fair compromise.

But, as usual, the status quo isn't interested in compromise, because they don't want to solve the problem. The fact that health care costs are rising and that we have tens of millions of uninsured isn't a problem, as far as they're concerned - it's a good thing. They profit from the current system, so they want it to stay the same. Oh, they might grudgingly go along with a tinkering here or there, but only if they can get their precious individual mandate so they can squeeze the 50 million uninsured of everything they own.

These are NOT people you can negotiate with. Those of us who are sincerely interested in grappling with the country's many problems need to understand that the vested interests in this country want everything to stay the way it is now - they will ferociously oppose any significant reforms, however incremental, as the thin edge of the wedge. They created our present situation, and they wish it to continue. To put it simply: it's either them or us.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:37 AM

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Getting Used To Disappointment

Thursday, June 11, 2009
In the last week or so, Obama has:

1. Decided to give the Federal Reserve even more power.

2. Continued to move in a Bushian direction on civil liberties and the national surveillance state.

3. Nominated an anti-choice, anti-contraception senior official for Health and Human Services.

4. Is practicing indefinite detention, just not at Guantanamo.

Yeah, this is what I voted for.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:44 PM

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Why I Love Traveling

Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Brazen Hussy and I went to go see her family last weekend in Baltimore. The city is lovely. It's got a lot of that old East coast city charm like Boston and Philadelphia, but it's also a pretty manageable size and has retained some of its working class flavor. I liked it a lot.

I came down with a sinus infection during the trip, so I spent most of it wallowing in agony, holding my head in my hands and trying not to cry. This activity was not the most enjoyable part, oh no. That's reserved to our "Duck Tour." Apparently many cities have these sorts of things. It's a retrofitted WWII amphibious craft that takes people around the city, showing them the sights while playing VERY LOUD music and - wait for it- everyone is given little whistles that are supposed to honk like a duck. I'll set aside the inherent absurdity of the activity. It is what it is. It would be pointless (although fun) to point out that the Duck Tour can't be claimed to be one of those silly things people do for their kids, since almost everyone on the bus was an adult. No, what made me miserable was the very loud noises involved, which dovetailed beautifully with my already excruciatingly painful headache.

To cap matters off, I had to listen to my two nephews blow on the damned things the rest of the day. Yippee.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:12 AM

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The Sotomayor Disaster

Thursday, June 04, 2009
Not a disaster for the country, but for the Republicans.

I'm cautiously optimistic about Sotomayor's quality as a judge. She's certainly got good credentials. Although she looks like another lukewarms middle of the road judge, I get warm fuzzies about someone from my old hood getting to the Supreme Court. I love her advocacy for campaign finance reform.

On the downside, her ambiguous position on abortion is a bit concerning
, but there isn't enough information there to have a real read on where she's at on the issue. If I were appointing her I would want a clear stand on the issue, and I expect the pro-choice members of the Judiciary Committee are going to want those assurances (of course, how do you hold her to them??). Also, I wonder if we're ever going to have another real liberal judge on the bench. Democrats always select types like Breyer, and the Republicans respond with Alito. I think at least one good lefty would be helpful to shout back at Scalia in chambers. And I wish we would have someone with experiences outside of the judiciary. Whatever happened to high elected officials on the Court? They've been some of the best judges we've had.

So on the merits I'm moderately pleased with Sotomayor. But I'm amazed what her selection is doing to the Republicans. It's as if they're trying to come off to the rest of the country as racists. This isn't just about alienating Hispanics, which their hard-line stance on immigration is doing anyway. No, the bigger problem is that their outrageous demeanor makes them look beholden to the most troglodyte element of their party, which will cost them among the all-important moderate swing vote. Remember, the reason that Republicans used dog-whistle politics to appeal to racists wasn't because they were afraid they'd lose the black vote: it was because suburban soccer moms don't want to feel like they're voting for racists. Karl Rove was an overrated strategist, but the current crop of Republican leaders is just spectacularly dunder-headed.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:24 AM

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Being Charitable

Monday, June 01, 2009
It's hard to be generous after what happened to George Tiller yesterday. I know I wouldn't like it if I were tarred by the criminal actions of extremists who happened to be on my side of a political question. I understand that there are people of good will on both sides of these questions, but it's alarming that virtually every act of political violence comes from one side of the debate.

The emotional reaction is to use this event to vilify one's opponents. It's certainly tempting to do so. Yet I know that even within the small circle of bloggers I read there is difference of opinion - a fact that makes me hesitate to write about this matter at all. If this were an isolated case, I would let it pass by. I'm not in the habit of demanding disavowals when one's fellow travelers turn out to be nutcases. Yet there has to be a line somewhere, and I think it is here. There's just been too much of these kinds of crimes for honorable people to ascribe these sorts of attacks to isolated acts of madness, because after a time they cease seeming quite to isolated. Not orchestrated perhaps, but we must remember that madness can afflict groups of people as well as individuals.

I think it's time for the self-described pro-life community to clean up its own house. Cut off those who implicitly condone violence against their opponents. Make an unambiguous statement that harassment and violence against abortion providers is beyond the pale. Support the protection of clinics. If the leadership of those working to outlaw abortion don't do these things, then their supporters should. We should use this sad event as an opportunity to draw some clear lines about what is and is not acceptable behavior in a political dispute. Because as it stands now, the drift will only be towards greater polarization and mutual demonization. And that's not good for anybody.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:20 AM

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