(Cross-posted at the Century Foundation’s Taking Note)
Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein both review Texas Governor Rick Perry’s book, Fed Up! Our fight to save America from Washington.
Matt notes what he calls “The ten weirdest ideas” in that book. Many of Perry’s ideas are, indeed, weird, such as the claim that Al Gore is part of a conspiracy to deny global cooling. Yet if I were grading Matt’s review, I would be forced to deduct points for redundancy. I’m just not convinced that Matt digested this complex work with the kind of detailed textual analysis that (say) Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz applied in several ancient and modern languages to the Talmud….
Case in point: Matt’s point #5 states “almost everything is unconstitutional.” Yet points 7, 6, and 4 identify other weird arguments in which Perry claims that some sensible, long-standing public policies are unconstitutional. That’s nice supporting detail, but I can’t let that go. Matt also considers “weird” several items that are merely illogical or self-contradictory. I’d put into this category #8 (“Medicare is too expensive but must never be cut.”) and #2 (“Not only is everything unconstitutional, activist judges are a problem.”). To paraphrase Jon Chait, it’s not weird to combine logically inconsistent arguments for maximum demagogic effect.
I’ve heard that Matt was once a Harvard undergraduate. That alone provides justification to mark him down. Yeah, I’m a former Harvard TA,
Ezra Klein goes counter-intuitive. His post is titled “Rick Perry’s book is good, really.” Ezra was not a Harvard undergraduate. So he gets a higher grade, though in Harvard fashion he himself grades Perry based on an overly generous curve:
“Campaign books are terrible. I know that. I tried to read former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty’s ‘Courage to Stand,’ book, which was perhaps the worst book I ever read.”
Klein credits Governor Perry for writing a book that actually discusses ideas—one idea, anyway–rather than providing the usual “autohagiography.” Perry’s big idea rests on the 10th Amendment. As Ezra summarizes it, Perry believes that “most everything the federal government does is unconstitutional.” By “most everything,” Perry argues that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, national minimum wages, and more…are unconstitutional federal usurpation of state powers.
As a matter of policy substance, this is appalling. Someone, somewhere, prefers to change Social Security so that it’s backed by the full faith and credit of Illinois. Maybe that’s the same person who wants to figure out how to address wealth disparities between states, or to balance the accounting across state systems for people who live 50 years in New York and retire to Florida.
To get a bit more serious, I’ve written many times about our family challenges caring for my intellectually-disabled brother-in-law Vincent. When my mother in-law suddenly died, our family was in crisis. We needed to move Vincent from his childhood home in Oneonta, New York to live with us in suburban Chicago. Vincent weighed more than 340 pounds. At precisely the moment he faced some of the most complicated medical and social service needs, virtually every program or service he required was disrupted because he had crossed state lines. His New York Medicaid eligibility was severed, and we encountered problems for months enrolling him in Illinois. This created serious problems for his medical care. It also rendered him ineligible to join the waiting list for key services he had used all his life.
Precisely two things worked like clockwork: Vincent’s Medicare and his Social Security. These operated seamlessly, though the change of address and the guardianship paperwork took maybe 20 minutes in Oneonta’s charming little Social Security office. Why someone would mess with these basic pillars of American social insurance–I don’t know.
As a matter of constitutional interpretation and political philosophy, Perry’s perspective is equally appalling. Ezra Klein understands that Perry’s substantive position is behind the times by, oh, a century. More than I do, Klein rather admires Perry’s willingness to carry 10th Amendment principles to their logical conclusion. At least that makes for a diverting book.
The relentless application of one narrow principle to an extreme conclusion is no sign of intellectual rigor. Quite the opposite; this is a sign of rigidity in a world of plural values. Arguments that produce extreme conclusions are interesting because they force us to go back and refine our original premises and arguments. Pushing a single principle to an extreme conclusion, and then believing the extreme conclusion because it follows from your narrow argument, is almost the definition of fanatical. Any approach to the American constitution that would overthrow a century of settled law and effective policies is–almost by definition–a really primitive way to analyze and apply our nation’s founding documents.
In any event, I hope every voter carefully reads Perry’s book. If his argument sinks in, I’m buying Intrade shares of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.