The Siege of Grand Rapids

Poor seniors in Michigan are advised to dilute their soup during the shutdown..

NPR´s Patrick Center, reporting from Kent County, Michigan, on the suspension of the USDA´s Commodity Supplemental Food Program:

Kent County’s Community Action Agency is recommending its seniors stretch the food they already have — by watering down milk and soup.

(via Joey Fishkin at Balkinisation)
ratburgerThe shutdown isn´t really hurting anybody, of course. Stories like this are just lefty spin.

Note to literal-minded critics: the tasty ratburger is mine not Center´s or Fishkin´s, and it´s hyperbolic commentary, not reporting.

Fishkin´s essay, on the decay of empathy under rising inequality, is worth your time.

It´s Harry Reid´s Alamo too

Bohner´s attempted revolution also targets the Senate.

Harry Reid´s political interests are loosely aligned with President Obama´s but they are not identical. (For one thing, Reid cares a lot more about the 2016 election.) It´s striking that in the current showdown with John Boehner´s House Republicans, they are both standing firm. No surrender, no negotiation.

Charles I executionBoehner is, willingly or not, leading an attempt at not one but two constitutional revolutions, that it took the Westminster House of Commons 270 years to achieve. The first is against the President or monarch: to use the power of the purse to establish the supremacy of the parliamentary majority over the executive. Westminster started this fight in 1641 and won it with Charles I´s execution in 1649.

The second is to establish the supremacy of the lower over the upper house. After a trial run in 1832 over Grey´s Reform Bill, the House of Commons established its primacy over the Lords with the 1911 Parliament Act. The vistory came after a huge struggle sparked by Lloyd George´s redistributive ¨People´s Budget¨ of 1909. Boehner´s proposals would downgrade the Senate from an equal partner to a consultative appendage to the House, not only on the budget but on any controversial legislation like ACA.

Reid, like Obama, has no choice but to fight this putsch to the end. Fortunately for Senate Republicans, budget procedures do not allow filibusters, so GOP Senators are spared an explicit choice between their ideology and their status. Most to them by report didn´t think much of Ted Cruz´s pseudo-filibuster.

Neither Charles I nor the House of Lords had democratic legitimacy, so the changes were clear improvements. This cannot be said of Boehner´s campaign, which if it succeeds will upend a constitution designed on the principle of a balance of powers, in order to prevent the democratic tyranny of a president or congressional majority. Americans are brought up to think this scheme superior to the untrammelled rule of a whipped Commons majority, and on balance they are right.

Some will object to the comparison. Quite apart from the merits of their causes, Speaker Lilburne, John Hampden, Charles Grey and David Lloyd George were politicians of a different calibre to John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They had also thought things through.

I have a snooze

The GOP boycotts the public commemoration of the March on Washington.

Where was the party of Lincoln at the commemoration of the March on Washington and MLK´s great speech?

Former President George H.W. Bush: too poorly to attend (he´s 89)

Former President George W. Bush: recovering from surgery

Former Governor Jeb Bush (invited to stand in for other Bushes): other engagements

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: no reason published (spoke at a special Capitol event  on July 31, the true anniversary, along with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) [Correction from comments: August 28 was the true anniversary; the earlier event was presumably brought forward to fit with Congress´ recess.]

House Speaker John Boehner (invited to speak): other engagements

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (invited to speak): other engagements

Former GOP Presidential candidate Senator John McCain: other engagements

African-American GOP Senator Tim Scott: claimed not to have been invited, then pled other engagements.

The earlier Capitol event provides a figleaf, but where was it on TV? If the GOP were serious about reaching out to black voters, its leaders would have been fighting their way to Obama´s microphone on the Mall with their crutches.

African-Americans will draw their own conclusions. The Democratic Party is not always a reliable or effective ally in politics, but it´s the only one they´ve got.



The Equality of Elfland

G.K. Chesterton’s “democratic faith” demanded that the choosing of spouses be left to ordinary people, not the state. Which ideological tendency today best practices what he preached?

In his delicious essay “The Ethics of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton wrote:

     This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.

Hear, hear. But the practicing democrats here, it seems to me, are liberals. We’re the ones who want the mating of the sexes to be left to ordinary people, not the State. Conservatives are the ones who want to tell Anderson Cooper that he must choose a wife—and Christine Quinn that she’s not allowed to.

Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.

George Will, channeling (and hacking to pieces) Charles Kesler, claims that the President’s belief in progress blasphemes the Founder’s belief in natural rights and limited government. He has half a point. But it doesn’t much matter. The Founders’ beliefs deserve to be challenged. And once one jumps outside the conservative bubble, where all that matteres is culture and rhetoric, is to realize that progressive critics of the original constitution won on the institutional level, definitively, about a century ago.

I have to take exception with Mark’s post from last Saturday. In it, he slammed George Will, channeling a book by Claremont professor Charles Kesler, for claiming Barack Obama was part of “a conspiracy against the Constitution embracing Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and LBJ.” Actually, the Will/Kesler thesis has something to it. Obama almost certainly does disbelieve in natural rights and other things (most of the) Founders believed in. But to the extent he does, good for him. And to the extent that Will and Kesler want the original constitution back, they’re a few generations too late.

Kesler is, as Mark puts it, a “third-string Straussian” only in the sense that we’re all third string compared to a scheming genius like Strauss. Kesler is of course extremely conservative, but a very intelligent and serious scholar with whom one can amicably disagree in conversation, as I have. While I haven’t read his book, I would submit that it’s less likely that the book has no argument than that Will, in a 750-word column that quotes a few sentences from the book, fails to do justice to it. And I’m baffled by Mark’s claim that Will is “as intelligent a figure as the Red team has to show.” One could bounce a squash ball off the walls of the Hudson Institute’s conference room and hit a dozen smarter ones.

Even Will’s breakneck summary, though, is not completely implausible. The question is whether it matters, and whether Obama or Will is the real radical here. Continue reading “Does Barack Obama blaspheme the Founders? Sort of. Good for him. And it doesn’t matter.”

Party of now

This weekend I posted some reflections on the remarkable reversal of our soi-disant conservatives from, um, conserving stuff to a program that puts widespread waste front and center.  It occurs to me that another equally striking new Republican theme is a truly bizarre attitude to time, specifically that we should live as though it stops now.

All sorts of things that will happen in the future have just been taken off the table.  Planet getting too hot? Well, this summer was pretty bad, but the air conditioning worked, and it isn’t like south Florida will be underwater for my vacation this winter. This year’s drought-ravaged corn harvest is poking food prices up a little, but I didn’t see any lack of steaks  at the supermarket today.  People under 55 won’t be retiring for a decade or so;  why are you looking at their medical care way out there?  Workforce now in school won’t be up to the job when they graduate?  Well, none of them can be of any use to us this week, and teaching them hits my tax bill right now.

Perhaps this is what you get when old men take over, especially old rich men.  The crowd at the Republican convention really has nothing to gain from being conservative: what’s best for them is to just use up everything quickly. (And, of course, for some of them an imminent rapture would seem to make thinking about the future not only silly but impious…)

Party of waste

What moral/religious/ethical principle can the broadest possible spectrum of a diverse nation agree on? It might seem to be the fifth commandment, but it isn’t. That one is on something of a roll – even Texans are losing their traditional enthusiasm for having the state kill people, and murders are  on a twenty year slide – but we have a military, we allow some killers to plead self-defense,  and police carry deadly weapons with broad consent.

I propose that it’s an eleventh commandment, Thou shalt not waste. There’s lots of waste around, but who puts forth a moral justification for whacking the fin off a shark and throwing the rest of it back in the ocean to die? Who expects to be admired for leaving windows open in the winter, or throwing away food?  Tiny symbolic sacrifices figure in some religions, but I can’t think of any faith or tradition that doesn’t broadly condemn waste as foolishness, a character flaw, or a sin.  I myself take the last view, not in a pietistic or obsessive-compulsive way (I don’t print on the back of used paper, nor drive the smallest possible car the least I can).  I have too much stuff and my house is too big, but I try to keep on top of it and most important, I’m not proud of, say, the computer gadgets I don’t use and haven’t recycled yet.  My personal hostility to waste distinguishes clearly between waste and use: I think that we are obligated to do what we reasonably can to assure that everything that gets used up creates the most possible value. Much more important, I claim that this rule is very broadly accepted as a moral, not just an economic, principle. It is, in particular, a conservative principle; it’s not an accident that before the formal organization called “The Republican Party” went insane with fear and hate, it was quite hostile to waste of all kinds.

I condemn the US Republican party of the present era for a variety of sins, but today I wish to highlight its radiant, smug, knowing wastefulness. I know you can find examples of waste in other countries, and among Democrats, Independents, anarchists,…, and there’s a lot of waste that flows from ignorance, but no-one else has made it such a central, conscious, operating principle.

Let us count the ways: Continue reading “Party of waste”

If we all built it, who are we and what is it?

Reihan Salam makes a much better case for the Republican view of public goods than the Republicans do. But he still leaves a lot out.

The Republican convention contained a lot of claims, but the claims that were true weren’t substantive, and the claims that were substantive weren’t true. Those hungry for a serious piece of conservative argument should turn to Reihan Salam’s post on what the parties really think, and don’t always say, about public goods and whether the “you didn’t build that” argument really captures the essence of public goods.

It’s a great post and you should, as they say, read the whole thing. But in summary, Salam makes three main points:

1. If the government’s main business is providing public goods, and the point of taxes is to pay for them, then we should all probably pay a little more for them (and will need to, if the present level of government services is to continue). But political pressures have led Democrats to call instead for higher taxes only on the wealthy. This makes taxes look less like a civic virtue good society-wide household management and more like envy:

Higher taxes can be seen, in this frame, as a way to cut down tall poppies. Note that the valence would be very different if we all, or rather if all of us with jobs, should pay higher taxes to sustain the commonwealth, and high-earners should pay somewhat more than the rest of us. The tone would be very different.

This is one reason why the “You Didn’t Build That” theme resonates: it is a rebuke to the perceived punitive tone of the president’s narrow case for taxes.

2. Smart conservatism is not atomistic but has a broader view of what counts as the social preconditions for prosperity than liberalism does.

2a. It stresses the crucial role of social conventions, practices, and norms

2b. It thinks that state action often undermines those norms—is, we might say, “antisocial” rather than pro-social:

Conservatives and libertarians tend to understand America’s public framework as something broader than the state. Rather they see it as as a system of rules, institutions, and norms. One concern is that the expansion of the state has compromised the effectiveness of our institutions, undermined important norms, and created a “pebbles in the stream” dynamic in which the accretion of rules and regulation has contributed to stagnation.

[That argument actually mixes in 2c: government regulations undermine not only civil society but the market, presumably not the same thing though Hegel glossed it as such.]

3. Most of what government does has little to do with public goods anyway but involves transfers and insurance schemes that can actually crowd out public investment (here, and throughout, Salan cites Matt Yglesias, and seems tacitly to acknowledge Yglesias’ point that the Romney/Ryan economics would slash investment at least as much as it would slash transfers).

Of course, Salam’s points are so reasonable that no contemporary Republican politician (and, he’s right, few Democratic ones) would dare make them.  But they aren’t the final word. Going point by point:

Continue reading “If we all built it, who are we and what is it?”

What’s all the Fuss About Todd Akin?

Especially from the Republican side.

1)  If you believe, as the Catholic church does and most conservatives do, that abortion is murder, then it is irrelevant whether a woman becomes pregnant through rape or through consensual sex.  At the moment of conception, there is a human being with human rights attached to it.  It really doesn’t matter if someone was raped.  Making an exception for rape makes no sense, and in fact undermines the current right-wing anti-abortion position.  For Republicans to proclaim that they are shocked, shocked by Akin shows that they lack the courage of their convictions.

2)  Akin might have had a better argument if, in response to the reporter’s question, he responded something like this: “Look, rape is horrific crime.  It’s a terrible tragedy for a woman if she is raped and then conceives.  But that doesn’t excuse killing the child.”  The only problem with that is that a reporter might have followed up: “well, then what do you expect that the government should do for the rape victim?”  The answer for most Republicans would be, “nothing.”  Stuff happens in life, and this is one of those things that happens.  Deal with it.  That’s essentially was the answer of the audience during the Republican debates when Wolf Blitzer asked what we should do with someone who doesn’t have health insurance and then gets in an accident or discovers that they have a terrible illness.

And that leads to the seam in modern Republican “thinking,” if it can be called that.  If you think that the government has a responsibility to help the rape victim, why not the victims of other terrible accidents or illnesses?  Why does the rape victim “deserve” help but the muscular dystrophy victim not deserve it?

So Akin tried to get out of the question, using the right-wing justification that as Mark points out has been there for a while in fever pits of Conservative America: if you get pregnant, then you must not have been raped.  See?  Everything works out okay!   Everyone is totally and completely responsible for their own condition.  There is no such thing as luck or the chains of circumstance.  The safety net, as St. Paul Ryan explained, is really just a hammock.

Do Republicans actually believe this?  I don’t know.  But their leaders seem to.  And they don’t want anyone to talk about situations when people’s lives are brutalized through no fault of their own.  The more that anyone does do this, it shows how ridiculous official Republican ideology is.

No wonder they want Akin out of the race.

A Friendly Debate with a Conservative Colleague

My friend and colleague Steve Bainbridge is out with a new article on “Corporate Lawyers as Gatekeepers,” which, if you are interested in corporate law, you should read (Steve is one of the country’s most distinguished scholars in the field).  But what piqued my interest when he sent it to me was his offhand remark that he is sending it out electronically to “reduce my carbon footprint.”

I couldn’t resist.  I responded, “Your CARBON footprint?  You pinko liberal fellow-travelling wimp!!  Resign your Republican Party membership now!”

And neither could he, responding:

It is possible to believe in anthropomorphic climate change AND believe that it is not an excuse for blowing up the size of government. To the contrary, it’s an argument for eliminating both the market AND the many regulatory distortions that mean people don’t pay a carbon price that includes all relevant externalities. Government’s role should be to eliminate any true externalities that rise to the evel of causing a market failure and then get out of the way and let the market solve the problem.

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Steve is completely right: it is indeed possible to have a coherent and realistic conservative policy on climate change.  (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s a different issue).  The problem is that the current Republican Party refuses to have one.  I wrote back:

That’s a totally fair position.  Now all you have to do is persuade a single member of the House Republican Conference or the Senate Republican Caucus, or any Republican power broker, of that…
And here’s where it gets really interesting.  Steve’s response:
When you convince any leading national Democratic politician that life begins at conception and that the law ought to at least take that into account in balancing the interests, I’ll take a crack at it.

Foul!  Belief in the existence of anthropogenic climate change and belief that human life begins at conception are two different categories.  I responded:

It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between a scientific fact (anthropogenic climate change), and a philosophical position (human life invested with human rights begins at conception).  Now, you could say two things about this:

1) Scientific “fact” is itself a philosophical position, and that is true.  And if someone wants to take the view that scientific determinations concerning the natural world have no more reason to be called “facts” than any other philosophical position, then they can do that.  Postmodernists do that.  I don’t, and I would be very surprised, to put it mildly, that you do.

2) The better analogy, I would think, is for you to say, “I will take a crack at persuading a single member of the Republican Caucus that anthropogenic climate is true if you will take a crack at persuading any leading national Democratic politician to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax.” Your position is that there is such a thing as a genuinely conservative climate policy, and I agree.  But I think that I would win that one going away, because I could find lots more Democrats to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax than you could find Republicans to support the existence of anthropogenic climate change.

But Steve wasn’t buying it.  He counter-offered with another challenge:
How about this: You agree to try persuading Obama, Pelosi, and Reid to unconditionally support renewing the Bush tax cuts for people earning > $250K per year. No deals, no quid pro quo. And you only have to persuade 3.
This last one was something of a joke, obviously.  But it does point to a real problem for modern conservatism, and thoughtful conservatives like Steve.  Their party simply rejects the overwhelming scientific consensus on the greatest environmental problem that the planet has ever faced.  Nothing comes close to that.  And while there may be profound differences between the parties on philosophical issues, off the top of my head I can’t think of any issue, at least since the Second World War, where one major party has made it an article of faith that it simply rejects on principle such an overwhelming scientific consensus.  The only thing close is evolution, and once again, it represents the Republican position that as a matter of principle, it simply will not listen to scientists.  Note that I stacked it against myself: I offered that he could persuade any member of the House Republican Conference, and he could only counter with “any national prominent Democratic politician.”  And he still couldn’t do it.
The only things that Steve could respond with were, well, issues of moral belief: 1) human life invested human rights begins at conception; or 2) cutting taxes for people making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year is the right thing to do or will cause economic growth (the latter really being an article of faith: in my view, it’s really more a philosophical position concerning just distribution of social wealth).
Now, to be clear, like any intelligent person, Steve does believe in the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  But he could not respond with an example of equally anti-empirical belief from Democrats.  That tells you a whole lot about the differences between the parties.  No wonder Steve is such a curmudgeon.