Monthly Archives: March 2010

Purity Tests

I can’t really explain this phenomenon. It’s like a magic black box. I can only tell you what the output is.

When an anti-establishment movement starts, it isn’t picking at the edges of the establishment belief. It disagrees with a few of the fundamental axioms of that establishment. This means that it intends—literally—to remake society. Revolution isn’t a necessary outcome, but big changes are if it is to have any meaning.

When the Conservative movement that we now know started, it disagreed with the fundamental axiom of the New Deal that government—specifically the federal government—needed to play an active role in our economic world. When that idea was later expanded to the social world, the Conservative movement was born.*

As movements such as this go on, they get concretized in policies and laws. For the New Deal, it was Social Security, the Fair Labor Standards Act on the economic side and the Civil Rights Act and Court-based school integration on the social side that had the most profound and lasting effects. As opposed to the abstract ideals that put these laws into effect, it’s a lot easier to criticize something once it’s in effect. Sure, some people are able to game the Social Security system etc.

As these systems ossify into concrete structures, the people who put them in place trim around the edges but never call into question the fundamental axioms and dismiss as heretics those that do. When the system stops trimming around the edges in any substantial way, the fundamental axioms become subject to debate. It must be that the fundamentals of the system are broken since we can’t seem to make it work, hmmm…..

This coming decade is the 1970s of Conservatism. It is intellectually dead. Asked David Frum. Frum isn’t even questioning one of the fundamental axioms of conservatism. He’s just suggesting that they try and achieve it differently. It’s sort of like suggesting that it might have been a bit silly and counterproductive to make people change the name that they called another race all the time would get you in big trouble with liberals in the 1980s (and even among many today).

At some point these systems are unable to respond to change and the undermining of their axioms seems to become self-fulfilling. Free market dogma has even been abandoned to some extent by Alan Greenspan. Failure after failure with increasing severity has caused big problems for the axiom of the free market.

Yet there is no cogent response from the conservatives. They just say more deregulation and more tax cuts even though taxes are at a very low rate in comparison with the 50s.

I don’t know why these people’s minds harden, but they do. I don’t know why the philosophies can’t adapt, but they don’t.

The result is a set of knee-jerk responses to problems whose time has passed, or perhaps whose old solutions generate even more problems. America has a deep ingrained history of tax revolts. It is unsurprising that the very high taxes of the 1950s generated axiomatic revolt. But during the 1980s, the knee-jerk axiom of tax cutting started causing massive damage to our economy and our social fabric. That’s one thing that fueled it. To deny that resentment over wealth transfers to minorities was a part of this “revolt” is as dishonest as to say that race alone was a sufficient condition for it. It was certainly part of the mix. But huge decades-long intellectual-political movements rarely, if ever, are fueled by one thing. Even the Civil War (war being a political conflict in kind) was about more than abolition, no matter how heroically we like to paint it.

Massive income inequality that has only been treated (but never cured) by massive debt bubbles is one of those effects. The erosion of public institutions of all kinds like schools, libraries, roads, and other kinds of infrastructure is another. The fact that all of this upheaval is connected in people’s minds with changing social norms regarding women, minorities, and gays is somewhat hard to deny and the argument is too complex for most people who simply see a cause that is part of a correlation, or even an effect.

Income equality has forced more women into the workplace, which has resulted in more women demanding economic and social equality. It isn’t the pink Betty Friedan mafia that forced these women to work. Similarly, abortion and gays aren’t responsible for divorce and drug addiction. Economic forces torquing social relationships are at the bottom of these issues. The fact that some people are able to withstand these forces further and longer (i.e. are “moral” and “personally responsible”) earns them a merit badge, but only delays the onset of the blowback.

Thus, the 50-year old conservative movement is not only no longer able to address our current problems, it is exacerbating them and people know it. The panic on the right is not so much about a political reversal, but about the fact that it is becoming apparent that they are not trusted to solve problems any more at all. A New Synthesis is trying to come forward, just as it tried during the 90s before sustained right wing pressure and a series of unfortunate events (the stock market crash of 2000 and 9/11 are the primary ones) caused people to revert to the Conservative axioms of the then-recent past. The New Synthesis lacks the ideological purity of the old conservative movement or the old liberal movement.

The New Synthesis is wonderfully stated in the health care bill. It is a largely liberal end—affordable, sometimes free health insurance, and therefore health care, for all—carried out through a complex set of conservative means. The “exchanges” are more or less “markets” and the whole idea is that they will provide people with enough information equality to allow market forces to drive prices down. Indeed, the mandate generates a larger market, which, according to Neoclassical economic theory should make it both more efficient and more information equal.

An earlier example of the New Synthesis was “welfare to work.” There was a liberal goal—employment and a good standard of living for all—that was done in a conservative way, namely by forcing people to quit accepting direct wealth transfers. The theory was that the increased transaction costs, or friction, from all the moving parts would more than sustain itself by keeping people from being sucked into a permanent dependency on welfare. Liberals to this day curse this program and point out its flaws. But very few of them criticize the Section 8 program which sends the poor out to rent housing on the market thereby deghettoizing them to a significant degree (not totally to be sure) and tearing down the theoretically more direct wealth transfer of public housing and all of its other social ills.

The trouble with this synthesis or any other is that it is difficult to explain. Politicians explaining it end up saying too much and say nothing at all. It’s too easy to pick at the parts. Welfare queens. How is that fair? Simple things like “how is it fair” are how anti-establishment axiom-questioning movements get started. It seems that syntheses suffer from being a kind of dipole product of two establishments and when people belong to neither establishment, they don’t really care.

In other words, people who aren’t part of the conservative movement don’t care that the health care law uses markets and people who aren’t liberals don’t care that it gives almost everyone health care. They mostly care whether it will work. When a movement’s axioms stop generating solutions, the begin to crumble. Until a new one comes along, there is some kind of synthesis.

The Old Synthesis was embodied in a number of liberal goals also done in conservative ways. For example, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are liberal goals: clean the environment. But at the time they were implemented, the primary responsibility was given to states, therefore they were done in a conservative way: not by federal power. When most states just left implementation to the federal government, this aspect of the Old Synthesis (so-called ‘New Federalism’) fell apart.

The thing is, I have no idea whether there really is a new liberal movement, or the other pole of the New Synthesis is simply the old liberalism. It definitely rejects the notion of everyone being left to the fate of markets, and it definitely rejects any kind of “market” or judgment based on genetics and victimless lifestyle choices, but I simply can’t say if this is just a long term oscillation or something new. The New Synthesis, as I’ve called it, is definitely part of an oscillation, but I just have to think about whether the poles oscillate or generate. I have written before that there is an equilibrium to American politics, but I’m not so sure now, and I’m not sure that the dynamics are one dimensional so as to say there if there is a natural equilibrium along one axis that it exists along the other.

An early sign of the problems with liberalism was when liberals began rejecting liberal ideas put forth by Republicans. It was Ted Kennedy who killed Nixon’s health care reform plan. It failed a purity test, perhaps simply because of its source. It was an sign of the conservative movements ossification that the Clinton presidency was rejected by conservatives just because he was a Democrat. Similarly, the total rejectionist approach of Republicans to Obama’s health care overhaul, it being so conservative in implementation, tells you that conservatives are spent as a movement and to the extent Republicans are conservatives, they are just about holding up purity tests to conform with the old solutions.

* N.B. That the Conservative movement did not come to power on the basis of making the military more robust. It was not until the 1970s that Democrats as a party were considered weak on military matters.

A Mathematical Relationship

The Senate’s ability to use parliamentary tricks to delay based on the principle of inter-Senator comity should be proportional to actual inter-Senator comity.

In other words, at this time, everything should have to come up for a majority vote within the timeline set by a majority. Like the House.

Obama Year 2, Quarter 1 Progress Report

Well, this is going to be a much different set of grades than I gave the President back in January. It could have been that Health Care Reform was not the decisive battle of Obama’s first term. the GOP could have decided to give a little, but they didn’t. I’m not sure I blame them. When in the last 40 years have the Dems shown such spine over policy? Yes, they went for blood during Watergate—but to what tangible policy end? Yes, Clinton beat the Republicans both during the government shutdown and during the Impeachment. But it hasn’t been since Medicare and the Civil Rights Act that such sweeping laws were enacted by Democrats that are here to stay. Therefore, I almost don’t blame the Republicans for betting on the Dems crumbling. After all, who was in the White House calling the shots? A bunch of Clinton veterans that never quite got over 1994. Well, they decided that not trying again was more likely to bring about a repeat of 1994.

Generic Congressional polls show a clear peak in GOP numbers at the end of January. They peaked too early. It is very likely they will pick up seats, but I doubt they will win either House. Not now. What happened this week is that the Republicans went all in and lost. This will embolden the Democrats on all fronts. And assuming they don’t vastly overreach, they will be on a roll. The GOP was so convinced people had given up on Obama in January that they arrogantly started goofing around with unemployment and told everyone HCR was dead so that the insurers went and raised rates. They barely appear to be chastened now, though the cooling off period isn’t over yet.

Current (Last)

Education Policy: B- (C)

Reforming the student loan system is a wonderful victory. Can anyone tell me why we were just handing money to banks to give government guaranteed loans out? The best retort they could come up with was that eliminating this program would cost jobs. That’s what the telemarketers said when the No Call List (the best thing the Bush administration ever did) went into effect. They also said that borrowers wouldn’t get the same level of service. Haha. That is ridiculous. The Direct Loans servicing is the same phone-tree and Internet-based “service” as the private lenders.

The recently proposed “reform” (it’s essentially repeal) of NCLB is a good move as well. However, the “Race to the Top” program is not universal. California, for example, got no money. Reforming standards is one thing, but it won’t be long before the feds can no longer ignore what’s going on in the states which is nothing less than a cataclysmic lack of funding. Oregon, God Bless ‘em, figured out they could tax the rich and it would help.

The Environment: C (C-)

I haven’t heard anything from Obama on the environment since the Copenhagen debacle. Why the better marks, then? Again, because we know Obama is empowered. Only better things will come of this. Still, global warming is the issue of the century. HCR was the issue of last century—it just took this long to finally do. Nothing else left on the agenda even comes close to mattering this much, but other than the magical “green jobs” we don’t hear much.

Foreign Policy: B (various)

For the quarterly report, I’m not going to break this out, but I was very harsh last time. However, the secure home footing makes things better here on all fronts. Obama may actually break the far-right coalition government in Israel and get the parties back to the table. Iraq is having an election. World powers are making painfully slow progress, but progress nonetheless, on keeping nuclear weapons away from the theocratic Iranian state.

Health Care: A (C+)

Enough has been said about this already. Even if you are a public option fundamentalist, at this point, you have to realize that we have 4 years with two federal elections intervening before the exchanges go online to enact a public plan. My guess is that a robust public plan with triggers (in other words, it only goes into effect under certain cost scenarios either for the government or for individuals, or maybe even states) will go into effect if Obama is reelected. Otherwise, it will either (a) be enacted out of necessity sometime before 2020, or (b) the existing law will reduce costs enough and cover enough people to make it not necessary.

The Economy: C (D)

The Right keeps harping about jobs—something they really don’t give a shit about. “Jobs” in Republispeak means tax cuts. The left wants financial market reform. All of that’s great, but what we really need to get people back to work right now is to keep the Fed from tightening rates any time soon and some kind of relief for the states. Another stimulus wouldn’t be felt in time for the election and may not be necessary. The Stimulus cushioned an already bad recession and the HCR bill will create all kinds of employee mobility, but I’m not sure what to do in the short term for lower unemployment short of some kind of government backing of business loans.

Social Issues: (A) n/a

This is one where you just can’t win. But I have to say, a cautious slow repeal of DADT in the military and an otherwise clever willingness to stay out of other issues is smart. America is getting over gay, and Obama is leading on this issue without doing more than the most careful nudge. It’s as fast as you can go without getting gains zeroed out by blowback.

Domestic Terrorism: B(A-)

This is one area where I’m starting to change my fears. On the one hand, I’m not sure what another underpants bomber incident would do at all. But I’m way less worried about that than I am about some McVeigh teabagger doing something nutty. That’s not Obama’s fault and I doubt it would accrue to the political benefit of his enemies, but our country has been in shock for almost 10 years now. We are gently getting over our collective PTSD. The last thing we need is another shock on a different front. I don’t think the Feds have been dealing with the McVeigh teabaggers as publicly and as forcefully as they need to stop. It worries me.

OVERALL: B(C)

HCR. Everything else is ancillary. However, Obama can only get back to an ‘A’ in my book by holding 235+/55+ seats in Congress this November. He’s made sure he’s remembered as a good President. Now, to become a great one, he needs to start leading us back to some new American consensus. Asking that of him is ridiculously unfair. It’s even harder than HCR, and no President has been able to make any kind of vision hold together for more than a fleeting moment for a very, very long time. Still, that’s the task at hand.

David Cameron 2012?

In case you don’t have a hobby of following UK politics, then you might not know who David Cameron is. Cameron is the leader of the Conservative Party in the UK. He is expected to be the next Prime Minister, though it’s not clear if the Tories will get a clear majority at this time. But, here’s what’s interesting.

Cameron is a typical aristocratic Tory, but his strategy for winning is to not campaign against the UK’s socialized medicine. He wants to “mend not end” the NHS.

The Labour Party has been in power for 15 years and it’s “New Labour” iteration has run out of steam politically and policywise and suffers from a very uncharismatic leader in Gordon Brown and still bears the legacy of the Iraq war around its neck. Plus, it owns the recession. It’s in a similar position to the DLC Democrats in 2000. The population has not moved away from the general principles of the party, but they want faces more than new policies.

Cameron is trying to oblige them. It may work or it may not. But if it does, will we see an American Cameron promising to “mend not end” Obamacare in 2012?

Not unless there is a giant shift in the GOP’s strategy and they will have to talk themselves out of learning from recent history, which, for example, forced the Democrats for 30 years to be militaristic to avoid looking like McGovern. And Mitt Romney—the logical choice to be this person since RomneyCare is ObamaCare—is taking himself out of the running for this.

Paging Mayor Bloomberg…

Don't Force A Decisive Battle When You're Weaker

When the ink dries on Sunday, the post-mortems will range from all kinds of inside baseball stories to how smart everyone is, but there was one fatal mistake that the Republicans made: the declared this battle the “Waterloo” of the Obama presidency.

War strategists of all eras would never tell you to engage in a decisive battle without having the advantage (some would say “overwhelming force.”) Clausewitz thinks that to win a war you have to fight this battle and win it, but you only go for it when you have the advantage. Otherwise, you must maneuver your army into the advantage until you can resist. The Republicans forced the decisive battle in 2009 instead of maneuvering until close enough to election season. Part of this lack of maneuver was their failure to vote for anything and turning HCR into a vehicle to destroy the Democratic party instead of forcing the Democrats into intra-party policy pie fights. While those pie fights were had, no one was under the illusion that a bill could fail without disaster, even for those Dems who vote ‘no.’

If the Republican leadership had demanded a piece-meal approach (which they did) but actually made it happen, they probably could have derailed this whole thing. For example, a vote in September on eliminating pre-existing conditions only and having it pass 80-20 in the Senate could have gone a long way. Their blind hatred for Obama refused them to allow him to do anything, and in the process they failed to ignore the dynamics of their inferior numbers.

With 256 Democrats and 218 needed (in general) there are 3,459,965,951,052,355,749,646,715,294,272,474,277,142,288,000 different ways to get 218 votes from 256 Democrats in the House and 2,160,153,123,141 different ways to get 50 votes from 60 Democrats and the Maine twins. Of course, it was really more about getting the last 10 of these both from a pool of maybe 12 gettable ones, still something that can be done 66 different ways (that’s enough combinatorics for this post).

History is riddled with arrogance leading armies into decisive battles that could not be won. Waterloo is arguably not one of them, but Napoleon’s attempt on Moscow and Hitler’s are both good examples. Had the Soviet army tried to save every inch of Soviet territory at the beginning of Operation Barbarosa, it is unlikely they would have won, and very likely that Hitler would have been at the Urals in the summer of 1942. Instead, the Russians gave ground at great price, something the French with their Maginot line, did not do. Ultimately, the Blitzkrieg got so far into Russia it effectively outran its logistical tail (which it had almost done in France, but the French didn’t notice). Then, the Russians hammered them. They outmaneuvered!

Another example from the Napoleonic wars might be the Battle of Jena. It was the end of the Prussian army, and Napoleon picked the spot.

Anyway, the Republicans were unwilling to give up their forward position (preexisting conditions) in order to allow for maneuver in the rear and so they picked a fight where even their total unity in resistance (except Cao one time) could hardly be deemed enough to allow all of the possible ways of getting the majority votes needed to be extinguished in detail, or reducing that probability in large degree by taking advantage of the usually favorable dynamics of midterm elections.

In contrast, Obama let the defeat in January wrap the GOP into a false sense of victoriousness. Anthem raised their rates and Senator Bunning used his holds to deliberately hurt people. Then, the Health Care summit showed that they still had nothing to offer, even when they could have consolidated that victory for, again, something like a few small regulations. They stonewalled thinking that the Brown victory sealed the deal even though talk of reconciliation had been going on since the beginning of the debate.

I can’t help but think that it wasn’t so much arrogance as just hatred of Obama that led to this grand strategy. Or maybe it was the feeling that they could simply repeat the tactics of 1993. Well, (I think it was Twain that said…) history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The major differences were that even though the numbers in Congress were roughly the same, the Democrats in the 103rd Congress were never cornered into an existential fight over health care—it was all kinds of issues, and I doubt that they could have achieved that unity. But what is more critical perhaps is that Bush I was not as unpopular as Bush II when he left office and Clinton only had 43% of the vote versus Obama’s 53%—10% more!

And the health care situation was nowhere near as bad then as it was now.

Luttwak says that strategy is marked by its paradoxical logic. Peace brings war. Victory brings defeat. This latter point is what happens when irrational exuberance about a victory leads to overconfidence and overextension. (To give the Germans some credit, they were able to resist the Soviets as long a they did by constant counterattack immediately after major defeats, catching the Russians too proud of themselves.) But ultimately, the fundamentals favor the stronger side—then it becomes a matter of execution.

This isn’t saying that I couldn’t have written an even more in depth of the Democratic failures and how they led to defeat, if that occurs. The Democrats weakness is their disunity, just as the Republicans unity is theirs (the paradox again). But there has to be a winner and a loser.

There will be 216.

The bill will pass.

This prediction is based on a gut feeling mostly, but also the fact that there are not enough hard “noes” right now, and, because the Dems made it through the week’s media cycle. Friday is “trash day” for news, and then it’s the weekend. The hypocritical gripes about “deem and pass” failed to gain any traction outside of the beltway. What gained traction in Congressional offices, though, were a number of polls showing that Dems are better off voting for this bill than not. The only thing left to make noise is the leadership with its carrots and sticks, and members know that all of them are on the table here. Don’t be surprised if Bart Stupak can even be bought for something (killing a federal court appointee who is too pro-life? That’s a rare scalp for someone who’s not a senator).

Obama will sign the Senate bill on Sunday, and the Senate will take up the sidecar on Monday. I would not be surprised if there are big problems in the Senate, but by then the original Senate bill will already be law, and I don’t think there are 10 Dem defectors in the Senate. There may be 9, but not 10. I’m confident that the Senate bill will pass not because of any faith in the Senate, but because they will be scared not to correct their own mistakes.

And then, the Republicans will make the strategically fatal error of campaigning on health care. Do you think people aren’t already tired of hearing about this? They are sick of it. Obama will have the win in his pocket, which has no small psychological effect. In March. Eight months later is a long time and other things will come up. People won’t be talking about a bill that won’t even go into effect for a while. And if they bring that up, then the obvious response is, let’s speed it up.

This isn’t to say that the Dems won’t lose some seats, but it won’t be the disaster people have predicted. The GOP peaked with the Brown win in Massachusetts.

Obama can govern effectively and eliminate the efficacy of the filibuster by reorganizing his entire legislative agenda around things that can be passed through reconciliation. This is similar to the strategy taken by the Republicans with the “nuclear option.” By threatening to make the filibuster irrelevant, Senators backed down on its use. This strategy would preserve the filibuster (not a great thing) but scale its practical effect back (a good thing).

There are not many things that can’t be at least nudged in the right direction with money, even if there are some cases where an actual coercive law would be better. Just consider, if you will, the drinking age of 21. There is no federal law. But the feds simply said if you want highway money from us, states, you better pass a 21-drinking age law. It took some time for some, but they came around.

It’s a major accomplishment for Obama. He’s going to have to start thinking about his next 2 Supreme Court appointments, and how he can pivot either a massive idiot like Sarah Palin into the 2012 GOP nomination—or, better yet, Mitt Romney who won’t be able to attack Obama’s signature legislative achievement because Obamacare is virtually identical to Romney-care. And Romney will be about as exciting to the right-wing base as McCain was.

UPDATE [3/22/10]: Except for being off 24 hours in the signing time, this has all come true and other commentators including DeLong and Josh Marshall have later made the same point about Romney.

Douthat: Wrong About Everything. Again.

It could have been a setup for a pretty good punchline. Instead it was yet another example of Conservatronogenesis. They seem to pay attention to the first year of classes in college and then think they’ve got everything figured out before they take on the upper division messiness. (Probably about the time they finish The Fountainhead or something.)

In Search of a Jewish Narnia.”

Part and parcel of Judaism’s resistance to explorations in the realm of faerie, he goes on, is a discomfort with the semi-dualism that’s necessary to classic fantasy — the idea of a Devil figure, in other words, who seems capable of actually conquering the mortal world (be it Narnia or Middle-Earth, Fionavaror Osten Ard) and binding it permanently in darkness. As Weingrad notes, correctly I think: “Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes.” Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.

Point by point:

  • Maybe there are forms of Christianity that embrace this kind of dualism, but it certainly isn’t built into the machine. The Christian God is more powerful than Satan. Satan seems to have more power over humans in Christian myth.
  • Judaism’s lack of a powerful Satan is clear. This is because Judaism is a monotheistic religion without an asterisk. God is God, he’s the only one, he doesn’t have parts at any level, or rivals. It is also why the Jewish afterlife is ill-defined and the religion is mostly agnostic about it.

But, the one that really gets me:

  • Tolkein’s Sauron is limited in power, subservient to God, and not even the arch devil! I guess Douthat only saw the movie. In Tolkein, Sauron is one of Tolkein’s lesser gods, like a non-olympian nymph or something, that survives the war between the major bad guy and the major gods, all of whom are subordinate to the transcendent one god.

So, Sauron is actually a bit like the Satan of second temple Judaism, specifically the book of Job, or the demons of medieval Jewish superstition. Of course Douthat actually links to example of Jewish fantasy authors and points out that a prominent one may be lacking because, well, the Christian and Germanic pagan past may not appear so romantic to Jews. (duh.) That should pretty much have settled it, but he had to go on and make an ass explaining the universe. Asshat.

This guy gets opinion column space in the New York Times and he just does not know what the fuck he’s talking about. Meh. It’s your liberal media.