Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Joe Klein speaks the truth

This quote, via Sullivan, says exactly what I've been saying here for some time:
The denizens of the left blogosphere consider themselves the Democratic Party's base. But they are not. For Democrats, as opposed to Republicans, the wing is not the base; the legions of loyal African Americans, union members, Jews, women and Latinos are. In the end, the sillier left-village practitioners are stoking the same populist exaggeration—the idea that Washington is controlled by crooks and sellouts—that conservative strategists like Bill Kristol believe will bring the Republicans back to power. The perversity of this is beyond comprehension.
I think it's impossible to understate just how pernicious this sort of idea can be to any sort of progressive change. I'll be the first to insist that the system has problems, and doing away with Senate holds and reforming the filibuster are essential to a functioning democracy. But practically all political reform is built around the hope for change. What the leftbloggers seem not to realize is that the right's tone is their tone for a reason: they don't want to change anything! But presumably left-leaning activists do, which makes the whole situation puzzling. If you want to, you know, change things, you have to project an aura of infectious optimism, an excitement about reform and a rock-solid belief that, even if it takes a long time, you can make change happen. There are many big targets that need real reform: the Pentagon, health insurance, how we use energy. Obama has so far won a small but significant victory over the first and a (presumptive) big victory over the second. That he didn't accomplish every single thing that can be done should merely be a call for more action in the future.

I ordinarily ignore the big bloggers on the left. It's true that Greenwald, Kos and the rest of them occasionally have good insights, but I just can't stand the stench of ideology that comes from those places. The Democratic Party is blessedly free of identity politics compared to the Republicans, but perhaps the one exception is the big left blogs that seem to mostly exist to identify who's a good liberal and who's not, and to devise continual litmus tests to that effect. I suspect that these activist types and much of the right are driven fundamentally by feelings of powerlessness, that all these folks have internalized that message, and that this drives visions of a Washington run by crooks and thieves and sellouts--if you feel like you are continually getting the shaft, how could you feel otherwise? Nevertheless, if the left's strategy for acquiring power is, as it seems to be, to behave erratically, emotionally and inconsistently in the hopes that Democrats are going to tremble in fear before them, they need to rethink things. At best, this behavior will merely make Democrats ignore the activist base on the left, and all of a sudden we'll have two Tea Party movements. To the extent that this is about "face", I've always felt that the ability to swallow one's pride is a very underrated political skill.

The End of Common Musical Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coates mourns it:
I'm not much for nostalgia, but one of the things that sucks about getting old (at least for me) is an end to a common musical culture. I think I have, like, one friend that's waiting to hear what TV On The Radio is going to next. But for the most part it's an individual experience. We're all our own DJ now. For better or worse.
Well, it's not just music. It's television and movies and books too. And it's mostly happening due to social trends that have been in the making for the last seventy-five years at least. At one point, music was almost entirely a communal experience. But decades of advances in making music more portable has made music far more individual than it used to be. Additionally, as with television, there are simply far more choices now than there used to be. As it turns out, lots of choices plus individual tastes is a recipe for nonpolar and idiosyncratic tastes in culture consumption. Perhaps it's obvious in retrospect.

I think it's got to be a good thing, though, that one can now easily find communities devoted to the same things you are in a way that wasn't really possible ten or twenty years ago. The internet truly is marvelous.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The point of all this

Eugene Robinson writes a concise, thorough argument in favor of the Senate bill:
For the first time, we will enshrine the principle that all Americans deserve access to medical care regardless of their ability to pay. No longer will it be the policy and practice of our nation to ration health according to wealth.

When you blow away all the smoke, that's what this fight is about. The Senate bill lacks a public health insurance option, the House bill is burdened by gratuitous abortion restrictions and the final product of a House-Senate conference will probably have both those failings. But once the idea of universal health care is signed into law, it will be all but impossible to erase. Over time, that idea will be made into reality.

Not that it will matter to the bill killers.

2000 forever?

Coates, on health care reform: "I think we're having visions of Ralph Nader."

Well said. I have been having the same feeling. I don't know what about the activist left that makes them so self-defeating, but it seems to exist to an extent that simply isn't present on the right. And I'm hard-pressed to think of a strategy more likely to lead to marginalization and irrelevance than the "kill bill" strategy that Kos and Hamsher have begun. It's not so much that all their points are wrong, though most are fatuous, but rather that its advocates would abandon a process that is only inches away from the endzone to begin an entirely new process--reconciliation--which is unprecedented in an initiative of this size, only lasts five years, and would entail unpredictable and likely damaging changes to the policy in question. It would be one thing if the bill killers were lining up former Senate parliamentarians and getting them on the record admitting that they had a case. Short of that, I'll stick with the people who know what they're talking about who say that it wouldn't work. But this strategy makes no sense whatsoever. It cannot be taken seriously because there is no way to know how it would turn out or how the bill would look like. I do believe it would have been smart for Democrats to draft a health care bill under reconciliation rules and move it along with the regular plan, as a back-up in case things got sticky, but that didn't happen and there's no reason to think reconciliation would indeed produce a better bill. The arrogance of these folks, not just in terms of procedure but in terms of policy points (suddenly they know more on the subject than their oracle, Krugman!), has been shocking. Like 2000, we're dealing with people who are sabotaging their own interests mostly out of a perceived loss of face. Left out of these conversations are the expansion of coverage and subsidies, which I always figured were very much the point of this process.

Additionally, the timing of this onslaught--i.e. coming so late in the game, and right after Lieberman extracted his necessary concessions--coupled with the contradictory nature of the complaints, can only leave one with the conclusion that most of this outrage is simply an emotional rather than a logical reaction, and one that casts serious doubt on the utility of the blogger-activist model. To be frank, the rapidity and emotionality that blogging encourages can be the enemy of smart strategy and longsightedness.

What is clear to me is that much of the leaders of the activist left are mediocrities who lack real vision and leadership. There are any number of ways the bill could have been improved, but making the fight over the public option--by far the most contentious part of the bill, as well as a minor provision--into a proxy over the entire bill, progressive activists were putting themselves at much greater risk of being disappointed. By lashing out as they did when they did, they sent a message that they couldn't be reasoned with, even by people who fundamentally agree with their argument but disagree with the particulars in this case, and by threatening to try to kill universal health care, they are effectively saying that they are willing to jeopardize the Democrats' signature issue if they don't get their way. Presumably they are trying to signal that they are not to be taken for granted, which is fair enough, but the way in which this has been executed is silly, sloppy, and likely to hurt them in the long run.

The difference here isn't between the progressive and the pragmatic left, or between progressives and moderates. It's between the ideological left (for lack of a better term, as I don't believe we're dealing with Maoists and Trotskyites here) and everyone else to the left of center. Personally, it's unclear to me what they gain from this whole debacle, though I'm sure they don't either. One halfway suspects that this is just an identity politics squabble.

On Dollhouse

Matt Yglesias is unsympathetic to Joss Whedon. He's right that cable is a better venue for him. But while Firefly was indeed a great show, Dollhouse is failing because it isn't a great show. It has gotten pretty good at times (now is one of those times), and putting the show in the 8 p.m. Friday "death slot" didn't really give it much of a chance, but ultimately Whedon has to shoulder the blame for a fundamental lack of vision pertaining to the show. It's been clear for some time that the show is at its best when its focus is on advancing the arcs at a breakneck pace. The past handful of episodes have been astonishingly good, some of the most densely packed and exciting television of the past few years. Conversely, the show is virtually unwatchable when anything else is going on. Much of the show's episodes have been "engagement of the week" shows in which some of the dolls go on (usually boring) adventures, while we spend time exploring the general ickiness of the idea of the Dollhouse.

The problem here is that that sort of thing is more scary when it's hinted at or implied, rather than rhetorically debated by characters in the show. And the show has often tried to have it both ways in wanting to show the monstrosity of the Dollhouse while trying to present us with sympathetic characters who happen to work there. Few television shows present intensely unlikeable people in the roles we're supposed to like--The Sopranos comes to mind--but there is a reason for this. Who wants to watch a show full of bad people? If you're going to try to do this, you're going to need something above and beyond to make people like it (such as a piercing look into American capitalism and family at the dawn of the millennium, like the Sopranos). And as it turns out, Whedon doesn't really have the chops to make something like this work, as his talents lend themselves to either creating likeable, flawed, human characters or completely evil bad guys. His best bad guy was The Operative in Serenity, and even he was a little fuzzy in terms of characterization.

All of these are, fundamentally, conceptual decisions that Whedon made at the show's inception and has since tried to backtrack, which has led to more than a little storytelling whiplash. The show has, at times, attempted to be a queasy weekly show about prostitution, an exploration of situational ethics and tabula rasa, an undercover show, a post-apocalyptic thriller, a show about an escaped active, a show about slavery and abuse, and a show about political corruption and upheaval. In this season, the show has been going in so many different directions that it's almost as though Whedon has given up trying to establish any sort of consistent tone or message, and it's all the more staggering considering he's had just north of 20 episodes in which to do all this. The show would have been immeasurably better had he just picked a show to do instead of radically changing the tone of the show to something he's not good at on a near-weekly basis. It has, however, had some good plotting recently and seems to have found its storytelling groove. I suppose this isn't much different from the normal shakedown period for most shows, but since Whedon's previous series was pretty much consistent and awesome right out of the box, it's tempting to want to think he's got a golden arm. Of course he doesn't. This said, Dollhouse is still much, much better than Studio 60, a real flub from a great storyteller.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Another blow against the "War on Drugs"

Needle exchange programs are no longer banned from receiving federal funds. I understand a lot of peoples' frustration that Obama is taking issues like this and dismantling the Bushian security state very slowly, but there has been slow and steady but real, if low-key. And, frankly, I'm not sure there's any other way he can take them.

Yep, that backlash sure is coming...

"Support for the health care reform bill that Democrats are pushing through the Senate has risen six points since early December, according to a new national poll, and although a majority of Americans still oppose its passage, only four in ten agree with Senate Republicans that the bill is too liberal."
To be sure, if Democrats were passing the bill Republicans claimed they were passing, then it would cause backlash. But they aren't, and most people aren't going to see much of a change on a day-to-day basis.

This post by Jon Chait has been going around:

'Mr. Bayh said that the health care measure was the kind of public policy he had come to Washington to work on, according to officials who attended the session, and that he did not want to see the satisfied looks on the faces of Republican leaders if they succeeded in blocking the measure.'

Evan Bayh! When you've turned the somnolent, relentlessly centrist Indiana Senator into a raging partisan, you've really done something.
This strikes me as true, and it is very real evidence that the GOP's legislative strategy hasn't been very good. They've filibustered literally everything, lied without compunction, and in the process have seemingly annoyed the living shit out of every Democratic senator there is. Which makes me wonder if the GOP's intense partisanship isn't going to pay further dividends for the Democrats. Public option aside, the cost of bringing the conservaDems on board health care was fairly light. I tend to think that this was a matter of personal ideology for the conservative Democrats in question (Lieberman obviously excepted), rather than just a matter of insurance industry bribery. So, what happens if the same dynamic reasserts itself on financial reform? What if Republicans decide to use the same playbook, introduce endless delays, and yell about socialism again? I think it's a near certainty they will. But will it have the same effect of pushing conservative Democrats into the arms of the mainstream Democratic Party? It very well might. It's true that Wall Street will spend a lot of money trying to kill financial regulation, but the insurance companies spent a lot of money trying to kill health care reform and, barring some late-hour dramatics, it would appear that they've failed. Furthermore, it doesn't appear that the provisions of financial regulation should be more difficult for conservative Democrats to swallow ideologically than HCR. I can't imagine a Democrat of any stripe having a problem with a consumer financial protection agency, for example. It's true that HCR is a signature Democratic issue and literally a generational opportunity, but banking regulation has been a key Democratic issue back to the New Deal as well, of course. I have no idea what the odds might be, but it will be interesting to find out how things go.

Perhaps this is optimistic, but it is certainly possible that the end result of the endless health care debate will be a more coherent and united Democratic Party, at least in terms of its Senate cohort. And if that turns out to be the case, we'll have the Republican Party's polarization to thank for it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

They better not be frat boys pulling a prank

Thieves steal Auschwitz 'Work Sets You Free' sign

The Two Peggy Noonans

I'm firmly convinced that "Peggy Noonan" is two separate people who trade off writing conservative-oriented columns. Peggy #1 is an honest, intelligent right-of-center writer who isn't sparing of her own side. This is the Peggy who disowned Bush in 2005 and basically slammed Sarah Palin as an identity politics gamble from the start. I like Peggy #1--what's not to like? She's smart, fearless, and interesting.

Then there's Peggy #2, who is pretty much a standard-issue Laura Ingraham-style right-winger who writes the most bizarre and partisan nonsense you can imagine. She sounds just like Bill Kristol or Chuck Krauthammer, but the fact that everyone knows what she's capable of makes her somehow worse. This Peggy writes about how she fell in love with Reagan's shoe, or how it would be irresponsible not to speculate whether Bill Clinton has mob ties, or how the facts on torture should remain mysterious.

I can furnish links to all these, but what's the point? Anyone who follows politics has to have observed this phenomenon. I like to think that the Two Peggys live in the same house, forever trapped in some sort of strange merging of identities, as depicted in the film Persona. You know that it's got to be something weird to account for the exceedingly odd nature of her punditry.

I guess Peggy #2 showed up for work today:
"It is one thing to grouse that dreadful people who don't care about us control our economy, but another, and in a way more personal, thing to say that people who don't care about us control our culture. In 2009 this was perhaps most vividly expressed in the Adam Lambert Problem."
And what is the Adam Lambert Problem? (Aside from the new name of his band going forward, I hope!) Steve Benen explains:
"[I]t seems Adam Lambert is a singer, made popular by "American Idol." Lambert, who is gay, did some racy number on ABC several weeks ago; the network freaked out; and it caused a national stir for about a day and a half.

Noonan, however, sees a larger significance: 'Mr. Lambert's act left viewers feeling not just offended but assaulted.... It cannot be exaggerated, how much Americans feel besieged by the culture of their own country, and to what lengths they have to go to protect their children from it."

I don't know why, but I feel especially uncharitable to Noonan today. This is fucking bullshit, and if she were an op-ed writer for a newspaper that cared about the product it was putting out, it wouldn't have made it into print. People are upset because the economy isn't getting better and because the nine month-old health care debate is not seen as directly related to what they're going through. The growing pessimism toward Democrats and Obama's agenda aren't some sort of mystery. This is a phenomenon that occurs very often under a certain sort of situation. Both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were swept into office after their respective center-left parties failed to revive the economic problems in both countries, and when that took a little longer than people hoped, both leaders' popularity suffered. Both seem to have bottomed out around the same time: late 1982. As it turns out, the combination of high unemployment and Christmas put people in a shitty mood. And here we are in late 2009. This isn't exactly rocket science.

But Noonan, whose response to a question about Ockham's Razor would probably be something along the lines of, "No, I use Gillette," would rather connect American's bad mood to some obscure performance that most people either didn't watch or hadn't heard of or, if they did, probably shrugged it off. People just don't react the way to "shocking" musical acts now the way they did back in Noonan's heyday, the 1980s. Madonna might have legitimately shocked people back then, but after decades' worth of her imitators, shock jocks from Howard Stern to Marilyn Manson, as well as the proliferation of anger porn like Fox News, Americans have become accustomed to unparalleled levels of coarseness in our culture. It's not exactly something to be proud of, and I'd rather see a society where everyone respects each other, where everyone is honest. But I'm not exactly going to cry myself to sleep over it.

Noonan, though, seems to think that people base their moods on what goes down at the American Music Awards. Like all conservatives, she sees politics primarily as a battleground for the culture war, and she does not in fact seem to see a boundary separating them. Now, obviously, what's happening in the culture can have an effect on politics. But like the similarly misguided obsession with Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction", this act has few, if any, political implications. It has few lasting cultural implications. Reading what he did, it sounds little different from Madonna's old antics, or Prince's or Michael Jackson's, for that matter.

But this column is an excellent specimen of that species of conservative argument that says that, hey, X happened, and it was shocking. This clearly means that America is suffering from Y and Z. Therefore, Republicans should run things. I don't know what the lazy editorial equivalent for the left is--probably blaming everything bad in American society on racism and the GOP's courting of racists--but the wingnut argument is much, much more annoying. Adam Lambert has nothing to tell us about the state of the union. The unemployment rate, however, does. Most people* don't base their vote on homoerotic music performances--though considering that Prince was a huge star in the 1980s and the Republicans dominated the 80s, I can't say that with absolute certainty.

So, #2, please go home and let #1 write something next time. Thank you.

*I mean, aside from Republicans

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Still "Party of Bush"?

I'm skeptical that the DCCC's strategy for the midterms is going to work. If one assumes that the deficit is going to be the key issue at that point--terrain naturally more favorable to Republicans--it seems smarter to emphasize that GOP plans to cut the deficit (like Eric Cantor's recent one) call for huge cuts to unemployment, COBRA, plus the spending freeze--aren't very pretty. And pick some good issues to go positive on, like hopefully the economy's improvement. I don't think there's much anger at Bush anymore, though there clearly should be. We're in the Obama era now. And the Democrats will rise or sink with him.

Remember when Chuck Norris was cool?

Not anymore. And this is not to mention that this message has been delivered before:

More signs of the liberal revolt

Obama's approval/disapproval is at 51/41 according to Gallup. Not exactly stellar, but good, and on the uptick. And Democratic support for health care reform is holding steady at ~46% according to yesterday's poll, though admittedly the data was taken before the Lieberman fiasco. The "rebellion" is not real at this point, and the activist types mostly speak for themselves.


Tomasky echoes my own personal experience:
When I was more to the left ideologically, I found over time that I didn't like what struck me as a need to be in a state of more or less constant anger about the world; ever on the lookout for enemies and sellouts. That just isn't me, psychologically or emotionally. I decided I was ill-suited to the left in emotional terms, so I became a more mainstream liberal. Very comfortable with it.
I couldn't do it either, which is why I moved more into the mainstream as well a few years ago. Plus, there's the Christianity thing. I'm not talking about social issues, so much as the idea that the world just cannot be perfected--we can change things, improve things, but fundamentally, we'll never change the human condition. We'll never completely eliminate greed, the will-to-power, ignorance and the rest from humanity. We can restrain them, though. We can make progress, we can exceed even our wildest expectations over time. But we'll never triumph over all the bad things I mentioned, because humans can't really triumph over human nature. And we have to realize that progress is always a lot more tenuous than we think. Case in point: torture.

The thing is that the most vociferous advocates on both sides of the spectrum don't seem to share this view. I respect that kind of idealism, even if I don't agree with it, even if it pisses me off when it's willfully obtuse, as much of the netroots "rebellion" over health care has been. But if you think it's possible to create a perfectly just society, then every injustice can't help but be an infuriating reminder of how far away we are from where we need to be. If you don't think it's possible to create a perfectly just society (emphasis on perfectly), then you see injustices and try to fix them. There's an idealism to group #1 that can often lead to frustration, which reminds me about the scores of communists who got disillusioned when their perfect society didn't materialize and subsequently became right-wing, like Irv Kristol and Whittaker Chambers.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not all progressives have lost their minds

Paul Krugman is eminently sensible here. The comments below are priceless. Even though I think Krugman often gets it wrong when he wades into politics, I agree with most all of what he says here, and it's quite amazing to see "progressives" dismiss what he has to say wholesale while admitting they don't know as much about the issue as he does, just as they are dismissing pretty much everyone else whose job involves policy analysis for the left. I guess they just want to be angry.

The Democrats' health care divide

Ed Kilgore has some thoughts:
[T]he Obama administration has chosen the strategy of deploying regulated and subsidized private sector entities to achieve progressive policy results. This approach was a hallmark of the so-called Clintonian, "New Democrat" movement, and the broader international movement sometimes referred to as "the Third Way," which often defended the use of private means for public ends [...] To put it more bluntly, on a widening range of issues, Obama's critics to the right say he's engineering a government takeover of the private sector, while his critics to the left accuse him of promoting a corporate takeover of the public sector. They can't both be right, of course, and these critics would take the country in completely different directions if given a chance. But the tactical convergence is there if they choose to pursue it.
I think this gets at the difference between leftism and liberalism, at least in my formulation. Leftists tend to find the existence of things like a private insurance industry intolerable and see politics as a zero-sum moral conflict, which is ironically how the hard right sees it as well. I tend to think this is misguided. Sure, the insurance industry is monstrous, but that fact alone shouldn't make the difference between extending health care to millions of new people or not. At least, it shouldn't to me. And hopefully the new regulations will make things better in that respect. Liberals tend to reject the leftists' entire worldview and are more interested in fixing problems by whatever means are available. Both groups tend to be concerned about the same problems, but the track record is such that liberalism has gotten quite a bit accomplished historically (Great Society, New Deal) while leftism, particularly the sort of antagonistic leftism that flourishes on the blogosphere, has a pretty poor track record in American politics. FDR's shift from the former to the latter during his second term was thankfully brief, as it led to his biggest defeat with respect to the court-packing scheme.

The leftist and the rightist both have their ideologies, but the liberal really doesn't. Which is part of the reason I am one, I think. I just can't stop considering the sheer volume of inanity coming from the leftists recently--concerns that seem to have materialized out of nowhere (I had only really heard criticism on the employer mandate before this). That this stuff never includes the standard liberal terms like, say, "expanding coverage", or "improving affordability", just that evidently the bill is "not worth passing" because it doesn't have a government health care option (though it does have a private one) makes me think that the people who run all this organizing are more than a little cretinous or stupid. It pains me so. If these folks are trying to ensure that progressives are ignored as much by this generation of Democratic leadership as much as they were by the last one, they're doing a hell of a job.

The latest health care poll

32% in favor now, vs. 47% opposed. Clearly the politics of the moment are not pretty, but I'm not sure this poll says what we might think it says. Consider this poll from August 5 (i.e. right before the month of health care hell exploded): "A new CNN/Opinion Research survey finds 50% of Americans support President Obama's health reform plans, with 45% opposed." If one assumes that the 45% of people opposing the plan in July still oppose it--a sound assumption, I think--then this means that opposition has not significantly changed over the past five months. Support, obviously, has declined significantly.

Now, it's true that part of this drop has come from the left wing over some of the tactical compromises that the Democrats have made to pass something. But I think that, in a larger sense, this poll is really just measuring fatigue with the issue. People are tired of hearing about this issue. They're tired of the debate. They're a bit angry that it's gone on as long as it has, presumably at the detriment of doing things to materially improve the economy, and considering that most of the provisions don't kick in until 2013 it's not exactly a wrong impression. I can't say I blame them. I've been tired of this particular debate for some months now.

If I'm right, though, I'm pretty sure that the threat of mass backlash against the Democrats for passing this thing isn't likely. My guess is that opinion will rebound after the bill is actually passed. Once the coverage goes from "Who's going to win?" to "What does this bill actually do?", as it will after it passes, it will probably restore much of its former support. And in the years to come, as the Republican predictions prove false, it will be seen as gutsy and determined governance against tough odds. People right now are registering their weariness and apprehension of the process through polls, but I don't think it's really morphed into outright mass anger at this point (outside of the previously existing anger, I suppose). If the oppose number had gone up to, say, 55%, you might be able to make that case. It hasn't. Yet.

I think that in the aftermath of this battle, Democrats need to look at how they played the politics of this thing and learn some lessons from it. Between Max Baucus's freelancing, not working through the August recess, and building up progressive hopes on the public option only to dash them, there are a lot of lessons to be learned here. In the end, however, these reforms will be judged by their effectiveness, not by how popular they were in December 2009.

P.S. Despite this, Obama's popularity is still roughly where it's been for the past few months. Interesting.

Egalitarianism and tax rates

Bruce Bartlett offers a deal to liberals (via Sullvan's blog):
Over the years, I have asked a number of liberal friends if they would take this deal. They would get a pot of net new government spending of some amount--say 1% of GDP--to spend any way they like to help the poor. But in return, they would have to let me have a low-rate, consumption-based tax system and I would agree to raise taxes enough to pay for the additional spending. It seems like a free lunch to me, but I've never found a liberal willing to even consider the deal. They are too wedded to maintaining steeply progressive tax rates on income as a matter of equity.
I'd probably be more willing to do this than most. Europe shows that it's definitely possible to have less progressive taxation without sacrificing social equality, and if the deal included much more state support for union organizing it might be worth doing. When you get down to it, everything suggests that strong unions are a better tool in terms of egalitarianism than are progressive taxes, and a good safety net is similarly quite helpful. These are bigger priorities than maintaining a (nominal) progressivity in the tax system, in my opinion.

The only problem I have with flat tax arguments is this: everybody knows the reason why the rich pay less in taxes than they're supposed to is because they have the resources to find loopholes/tax shelters/etc. and thus get out of part of their societal obligations. If we were to flatten the income tax, I don't understand the mechanism by which the wealthy would just stop trying to find ways out of paying their taxes. Lowering the top bracket from around 70% in 1980 to about 40% now doesn't seem to have sated the desire for wealth among wealthy. It's only natural that they'd want to keep as much of their money as possible--everyone wants that--but while flat-taxers insist that making the tax code flatter would necessarily make it "fairer" and less susceptible to fraud, I am deeply pessimistic. If we were to establish a flat income tax at say, 22% and simplify everything to the extent that there weren't any huge loopholes in the tax code, it could perhaps work for a time. But, eventually, it's just the nature of these things that loopholes get added, the wealthy will make donations, and it will all go back to the way it was, only now the rich really would be paying less than the average person, proportionally speaking. It's not like there isn't an argument in favor of regressive taxation, but it's not exactly a political winner. And given what we know of de-progressivizing income taxes, is there really grounds for debating this scenario? I'd be happy to hear how Congress would suddenly and scrupulously enforce tax justice after adopting a flat tax, because if they were so committed to that principle, they could put it into practice at any time, perhaps as a trial run for people like me who don't think it could be done? What's more, is it really realistic to think that conservatives would stick to aggressive enforcement of a flat tax system? This principle doesn't exactly hold sway on the right these days. I think I'd more seriously consider it if the right was constantly harping on tax cheats in addition to complaining about high tax rates, as a part of a broader argument about social justice (i.e. you should pay what you owe for now, and we'll do our best to make that more fair, but breaking the law is unacceptable). I'm not on board with this sort of reasoning, but it is debatable. Instead, you get stuff like George W. Bush arguing that rich people are going to get out of taxes anyway, so we should just lower them on the wealthy. There are many words one can affix to that argument, but just isn't one.

However, I have no real objection to Bartlett's shifting some of the tax load onto a VAT. Flattening what's left has some problems, as I see them. Any successful tax system has to be predicated upon the assumption that people are going to try to cheat it every which way they can, which the VAT is. The flat tax seems to skirt this reality, and this is why I remain suspicious of it.

20 Questions for Bill-Killers

Nate Silver asks them. My biggest one is: when did sticking it to the insurance companies become more important than making sure everyone can afford health care?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christopher Columbus--the ultimate capitalist!

Dave Weigel's latest on the Tea Partiers is great, but I especially liked this bit:
Andy, a North Carolina activist who hoisted a sign that read “American Capitalism: 1492-2009 RIP,” suggested that a Republican Congress could start repealing Obama’s agenda in 2011 if they took power in the midterms. “That’s what happened with Clinton,” he said.
Right wingery--objectively pro-Mercantilism!

One more gripe

Okay, so I've been annoyed at online progressives recently. I don't fault them for wanting more on any number of issues--so do I. But this gets to the root of the problem: "Insurance companies win. Time to kill this monstrosity coming out of the Senate... They're still trying to stick us with the mandate, right? Another government bailout of a broken industry."

I just remember two years ago when Obama's lack of a mandate was taken as proof by many (like Paul Krugman, notably) that he wasn't a real progressive. Now it's the opposite. These people are reacting just as emotionally as the right wing, along with the concordant lack of priorities or perspective.

And I say, good. Because if health care is seen as a disappointment by liberal bloggers, it might just satisfy Joe Lieberman enough for now.

Credit where it's due

"Taking an important step on the thorny path to closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the White House plans to announce Tuesday that the government will acquire an underutilized state prison in rural Illinois to be the new home for a limited number of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo."
Just something to keep in mind, you know, when considering whether Obama has any follow through. It would have been easy to just let this matter drop. There's not much of a constituency for this sort of thing, outside of civil libertarians. To press forward on it shows a not inconsiderable amount of political courage. Regardless of what he does on everything else security-related, he deserves some kudos for this.

I also think he acquitted himself well enough on the healthcare front. Not a popular opinion among net progressives, but they should have spent their time organizing against the filibuster from the start instead of obsessing on the public option--and they probably would have gotten the second if they had done the first. It would have been a harder fight but a more important one. At every stage, Obama has worked on getting the best possible deal he could get. And he's mostly been prescient on what was possible and what wasn't (the White House was bashed by some for pursuing triggers at the outset of the Senate negotiations, but as it turned out, that was probably on the outside limit of what could have been done). He's been the clear-eyed pragmatist he always billed himself as, and while this health care bill isn't going to be anyone's first choice it'll help a lot of people. It's always the first step that's the hardest, and it sure looks imminent.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Better progressive politicians, please

Everyone seems to be talking about Joe Lieberman and healthcare these days, but I want to make an orthogonal point about progressives. Here's Nate Silver:
"But of course, politics isn't purely objective: it's a people business, and now you have some people (liberals) who are going to lose a lot more face than they would have by making the same capitulation a week ago, and moreover will have to lose it to Joe Lieberman, a person whom they singularly detest. So, while I know what I think should happen here, I just don't know that it will."
I've long been skeptical about progressives' focus on the public option as The. Most. Important. Part. of the bill. But the reason that liberals are going to lose face here is that, for whatever reason, they miscalculated strategically. Threatening to torpedo health care if it lacks a public option was, in my opinion, an error. In order to be effective, threats must be credible. You can bluff, but people have to believe that you might be crazy enough to follow through. The notion that liberals would torpedo health care reform over the public option wasn't ever really credible. It is a bargaining position and everyone knows it. Would Russ Feingold really want to take questions on why he decided to let 30 million people go without insurance because he didn't want to lose face on the public option? I think not. Furthermore, such a defeat would undoubtedly lead to a complete collapse in public confidence in the Democrats as a governing party, would energize the GOP and make short work of the Democrats' agenda. There is no universe in which health care failing--even in a compromised state--is good news for liberals. I suppose one could argue that allowing the current system completely collapse would make single payer quite a bit more palatable to the public, but this would entail a great deal more suffering for many people than would be necessary if one were to try to prop up the current system while setting the groundwork for a Swiss-style system in the future. This is the only way in which the progressive strategy is defensible, but the arguments along that score aren't exactly the sorts of points that would make people more inclined to vote for you. Throwing some fire around might increase your name recognition and energize the base, but if you can't deliver it just pisses people off. This is to some extent what happened with the right, and why you're seeing Tea Party types ousting establishment Republicans in many districts. It would have been better to just level with people, I suspect.

All of this is to say that quite a few of the progressives in Congress simply don't understand how this thing called "politics" works. They should have taken a page from the president, who has been clear in his priorities--covering the uninsured, cutting costs, eliminating the worst excesses of the current system--instead of trying to play a power game in which they were much weaker than they thought (polling of the public option aside).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Dysfunctional Congress

Yglesias is right, but this is really the Founding Fathers' fault. In fact, virtually everything in our governmental institutions that makes no sense is their fault. In their defense, it was 200 freakin' years ago, and we could easily fix these problems if we were inclined to. I don't think we are. I don't think we want to accept how intractable our debates have become.

Basically, the rules of the Senate--in which minorities can stop or slow down legislation easily--don't make any sense and aren't democratic, unless you assume that there won't be partisanship and that people will therefore have little incentive to obstruct. Which happens to have been what the Framers assumed. Additionally, the absolutely nonsensical notion of Midterm elections only makes sense if you ignore political parties--it's a kinda-sorta referendum on the president (who isn't on the ballot), running against a leaderless opposition party. But if there weren't parties, there wouldn't be a particular problem with the setup. And the biggest problem of all--the electoral college--makes sense if you imagine an election in which a dozen people run for president competitively and someone wins with like 30% of the vote. Then the EC looks like a good way of making it seem like there was a conclusive winner.

So, the Founding Fathers made a bad assumption in thinking there wouldn't be political parties (though they didn't ban them in the Constitution, for whatever reason). Parliamentary systems embrace the party idea and tend to be more democratic, accountable, and dynamic--just better, in other words. None of these are new insights (a young political scientist named Woodrow Wilson proposed replacing Congress with a parliamentary system in his Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1890s, after spending a lot of time observing how Congress worked), and while I don't think our system of government is hopeless, it definitely needs some tweaks.

What I find very interesting about the debate about Senate obstructionism is how steadfastly Democratic Senators cling to the filibuster. It's true that they no doubt want it to stick around for when the GOP controls the chamber again, and doing away with it would diminish their individual power immensely. But the filibuster hurts the Democrats far more than it hurts the Republicans. The declining poll numbers and lack of enthusiasm for Congressional Democrats has stemmed mainly from Democratic voters frustrated that Congress isn't doing anything. However, I have yet to see any evidence that this factor has hurt Republicans in decent years. After all, 3/4 of the party still approved of Bush after Iraq, Afghanistan, the financial collapse and Katrina. And while the party now hates NCLB and Medicare Part D, they weren't particularly exercised about them at the time. Even now, the GOP is wholly excited about winning seats in next year's midterm elections, despite the fact that the GOP has put forward no concrete ideas and is essentially uninterested in governing. Republican voters don't much seem to care what their party does or doesn't do--they just want to see it in power. It's just a big culture war game to them. So, if in the future the Democrats were to adopt a Mitch McConnell-style strategy and filibuster everything, Republicans wouldn't care. They don't expect anything from the GOP. They just want to keep the Godless commie atheist lesbians out of power. The filibuster debate is asymmetrical--not only is the institution inherently conservative, but it is positively tilted toward Republicans. Until the Democrats get this through their heads, it's going to keep hurting them.

And that's it for me this week. Here's the very greatest Southern accent ever in a film (because I'm kinda obsessed with it):

Obama is a 1940s liberal on foreign policy

An intriguing idea from Mike Tomasky.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


They don't really have any constituency so far as I can tell, but these idiots are beginning to annoy me:
"How could they"? MoveOn demands, exhorting their members to pressure fence-sitting senators to “unravel this deal.” Health Care for America Now and FireDogLake are similarly incensed. Even Democracy for America, Dean’s former campaign group, is holding the line. “The continued talk of finding a ‘compromise’ in the Senate which would eliminate the public option in the health care bill is a negotiation with defeat,” their latest mailing blares.
Could they bother to pretend that they actually care about the goal of this legislation: you know, getting more people health insurance?

There is, at this point, no real reason to treat the public option this way. Expanding Medicare does as much to move us toward single-payer as a public option would (which is to say, not much). How is an opt-out public option that negotiates its own rates better than a non opt-out nonprofit private option that does the same? It isn't, so far as I can tell.

Of course, if your goal is to avoid "defeat" in the sense of losing a tactical argument and/or making yourself look weaker, then it makes sense to go through with this. But this sort of stuff should be called out for what it is: nonsense.

The liberal revolt has been delayed for now

This does not surprise me:
A new Public Policy Polling survey concludes that "liberal unhappiness with Barack Obama is still largely anecdotal and not very widespread" after finding that 95% of liberal Democrats approve of the president and 3% disapprove.
I love reading blogs and writing this one, but there is a tendency toward blogosphere solipsism (i.e. blogopsism) in assuming that bloggers bear any relation to voters. It's not even a real cross-section. But if the Hamsher Axis actually has 3% of liberals to its name, I'd say it's doing pretty well for itself.

Then there's Ezra, describing the Administration's thought process:
A public option would be nice, but if it's not there, then that's fine, too. Full auction of permits is a good idea, but if most get given away to corporations, then that's how it goes. Infrastructure spending is good, but if tax cuts are the price of passage, then tax cuts there shall be.
I think this is well-said, and I think that most liberals realize that there are political constraints on what can be done at this point, and would be perfectly happy with a health care plan that isn't perfect but that helps most people out. But, then again, most liberals don't read blogs every day. I often read bloggers (like Matt Yglesias) who complain about the hothouse environment of cable news, and its deleterious effects on our political culture. But the blogosphere is basically the same sort of environment. It's unavoidable, given the medium, and liberal bloggers will naturally get frustrated at Obama's progress. But Obama understands that, in the long run, tactics aren't particularly relevant. If you took the hill from the front or the rear won't matter as time goes on, it'll be whether or not you took the hill. But if the blogosphere were to ignore the stupid little stories of the day and to filter everything through a broader lens, there wouldn't be much of a blogosphere.

Just a reminder that it's important for all of us to make sure to get our reality from outside the blogging world as well.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

America's Best/Worst Pundits

via Erik Kain:
  • America’s Worst Pundit: Glenn Beck, with 488 votes.
  • America’s Worst Pundit Runner-Up: Rush Limbaugh, with 390 votes.
  • America’s Best Pundit: Jon Stewart, with 443 votes.
  • America’s Best Pundit Runner-Up: Rachel Maddow, with 245 votes.
There might well be some liberal overrepresentation in the sample here, and the fact that I think these results are pretty much correct probably seals it. Stewart and Maddow, in my opinion, add something to the conversation even if you disagree with them. They have points of view, but they are aware of them and don't elevate party loyalty above all else. What I especially appreciate is that both will, on occasion, criticize President Obama while not questioning that he's on their side, trying to do the right thing. A lot of the shrill leftblogging you hear about (and that Sullivan's been publishing letters on) invariably proceeds from the assumption that Obama is some sort of stealth conservative, instead of a leader making the best decisions he can based on political realities. I don't think we progressives should settle for that, and sometimes he's going to need to be pushed. But some don't realize that Obama isn't the enemy. And some do--i.e. the stereotypical Mac Power Users* of the leftosphere, who do little else but sneer at the idiots who disagree with them.

I agree with Beck being the worst pundit in the United States. He barely even tries to hide that he's an opportunist looking to sell as many books/movies/performance tickets while he has access to the FNC viewership, stirring up ugly paranoia for pure profit. Satan's going to have to build a new circle is all I'm saying. But I'm not so sure that Limbaugh belongs in second place. He's vile and despicable, but there are worse pundits out there. In terms of people whose views and opinions have done serious damage to America over the past eight years, you really can't do much better than Bill Kristol. He's always wrong, and energetically wrong at that. In a lot of ways, he was the John The Baptist to Dick Cheney's neocon Jesus, clearing the intellectual path for Cheney to tramp through, warring and torturing all the way. And yet he's still around, and still taken as a serious intellectual leader by Republicans. Plus, he always says the same thing. That's where my runner-up vote goes.

*I said stereotypical. I know many people who fit the description who are wonderful people.

A health care deal?

So the AP says. That would be nice. Watching Ben Nelson fold like a cheap card table after losing his abortion amendment vote was the highlight of my day. I sure hope Republicans aren't hoping that he'll somehow scuttle health care. He's Ben Nelson. Look him up in the Thesaurus, you'll find inert right by his name.

Lieberman's the only one who would really have the guts to derail this thing, and that he seems to be warming to some sort of compromise suggests that it's going to happen. But, then again, what the hell do I know? Unending slogs like this and the Hillary vs. Obama campaign really bring out my neurotic side. I can't wait for it to end.

Tribunes of the people

Like most, I have some real reservations about the president's strategy in Afghanistan. I don't like the idea of leaving the country back to the Taliban, but I similarly don't like the idea of sticking around playing the elephant-shooter to Afghanistan's warring tribes. I'm not nearly qualified to speak to the merits of said plan, but I am qualified to discuss this factoid:
A new Quinnipiac poll finds public support for the war in Afghanistan is up nine points in the last three weeks, as American voters say 57% to 35% that fighting the war is the right thing to do. President Obama's approval for handling of the war is up seven points in the same period.
I find this absolutely fascinating, considering that virtually the entire press establishment and much of the blogosphere panned Obama's speech and approach to the conflict last week. Too dreary, I kept hearing. Not inspiring enough.

So much of the media and the blogosphere seems to think that they have some sort of keen understanding of, in Ms. Palin's undying turn of phrase, "Joe Six-Pack". But they largely don't. They don't even have Palin's level of understanding of these folks. They present themselves as having some sort of blue-collar perspective, but the amount of times (particularly in relation with Obama) that they've egregiously misjudged popular sentiment sometimes boggles the mind. I'm just remembering all those times when the press declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the debate by a landslide, while polls of the people who watched the damn thing gave it either to Clinton narrowly or to Obama outright.

Punditry is worthless.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

In favor of consistency

I don't support Andrew Sullivan's Trig Palin birth theories. I happen to believe that even politicians deserve some privacy, and so long as there is no hard evidence suggesting anything amiss, I don't think there should be any expectation that she should have to prove herself. The public does not have a right to know every personal detail about its public figures, and while Sullivan seems to think that the no privacy standard is acceptable, I see it as being a gateway toward legitimizing fringe theories by setting an unacceptably high level of disclosure. To put it briefly, as soon as Sully finds a flight attendant that says that Sarah and Bristol switched babies, I'll concede it's time for her to present evidence.

This being said, if Sarah is going to join into other birth certificate theories--if she thinks that its fair game to question other people on this matter without hard evidence--shouldn't she bite the bullet and release the Trig stuff? If she's going to apply that standard to others, why not to herself?

And, yes, this is a joke. Consistency and Palin are like oil and water. I think that endorsing birtherism will wind up being her equivalent of McCarthy's taking on of Eisenhower.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The end of Monk

I was an addict of the show during its first two years or so, until I went away to school and didn't have access to cable for some time, so I kind of dropped it. I've watched it a little bit more in recent weeks as the end has been approaching, and it's pretty much as I remembered it: a charming, entertaining show, generally B/B+ quality on a week-to-week basis. Tony Shalhoub has gotten quite a bit of acclaim for his role on the show, and he's one of my favorites as a character actor, so it has been great to see him achieve such success in a lead role. (Full disclosure: I somewhat randomly met the man a while ago, which only wound up justifying my conviction that he's one of the best actors working today, as his real-life persona is pretty much the complete opposite of his Monk role.)

In any event, I'll definitely be watching the series finale tonight, and I'll recommend it to you as well. Eight seasons is quite an impressive run for a show, in my opinion.

Fundamentalist hathos

These sorts of things give Christianity a bad name. Especially the first one. I realize it's a fairly small percentage who actually claim that they literally believe every single word of the Bible (and a nearly nonexistent portion that actually put all of them into practice, I suspect), but I never thought I'd hear people try to argue that the Bible's actual words need to be changed because it's too liberal. Having grown up around my fair share of fundamentalists, I can tell you that that's a new one to me. If you're a Christian and you think that the Bible is too liberal, the chances are that you're not liberal enough, however you're defining these terms.

I just don't even know what else to say on the subject. I think it's fundamentally (ugh!) improper to try to change words in Biblical translations in a way that is seemingly disconnected from any sort of rigorous scholarship, but that is rather coming purely from a political perspective. It's censorship, basically. Conservatives were right, political correctness really is truly out of control!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Americans become more accepting of torture

This is nauseating, but somewhat forseeable. I've felt this trend coming on for a while. I think the torture thing hits a couple of pressure points in the American psyche. There's the security issue, obviously, and considering the lack of concern during the Bush years over eroding civil liberties it's not surprising that the public is becoming more pro-torture. But I think in a lot of ways what you see here (and with the death penalty) is an overreaction to a very specific sort of threat. Americans have for centuries liked to view America as some sort of unspoiled paradise away from the pettiness and tensions of the rest of the world--the "City on a hill", a turn of phrase as old as America itself--and it tends to react most angrily and most violently when that self-image becomes untenable. It's the dark underside of that generally good American optimism--if you believe that everyone can make good if they try hard enough, despising those that don't comes naturally. And if you see yourself as a good person and someone tries to attack you for no reason you can see, uncomprehending hatred comes naturally to you.

This is not to say that one should sympathize with terrorists. They're crazy, though the societies that produce them usually aren't, and the complaints that anger them are often very specific (though misguided, and never sufficient to start murdering civilians). It is to say that we haven't really grown up yet. Our unwillingness to look beyond our borders and at the world at large--our provincialism, in other words--is incompatible with our being a major global presence and leader. It just reminds me of a quote from a Gore Vidal novel set right after WWII whose effect is, "Why should we stop being the smiling hayseeds of the world? Hasn't that always been good for us?" That says much, I think. And our blindness to our own evil--which, to be sure, is often outweighed by the goodness--will prevent any sort of sane worldview until it is resolved. So long as Americans are not willing to clearly look at our own motives and reasons for doing what we do, we're not going to get over these problems. We'll still be susceptible to the Cheneys of the world until then, regardless of what polls say people think they think about war. The torture question is, to my mind, an unfortunate effect of America's cognitive dissonance about itself.

To be fair to the American mentality, though, this country is basically still in its adolescence and it's possible that a generation that came of age during a time of irresponsible wealth and nation building will be more receptive to a more mature point of view, and I deeply suspect that it's the Polyannish memories of the elderly that drive this sort of mayhem. Eventually, we will get over this nonsense. But until then...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Spock Meme and Obama the Establishmentarian

DougJ takes a crack at why it's bothersome:
The Nixonian strategy that has largely dominated American politics for the past 40 years involved identifying Democrats as other—black, gay, Jewish, immigrant, intellectual, vegetarian, etc. (I was going to say as “communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers” but that doesn’t make so much sense in the age of David Vitter and Larry Craig). In short, not the kind of people you run into at the Applebee’s salad bar.

This probably won’t work for much longer, because soon there will just be too many black, gay, Jewish, vegetarian, intellectual immigrants. But it is the basis of modern national American politics. And when the media starts comparing a Democratic president to an alien, we should be alarmed.

I largely agree with this, with the caveat that the system has already broken down. The GOP tried extensively to otherize Obama last year, and it largely didn't work. I just don't believe that the American people really want another "Decider", they mostly just want competent government. The extent to which Obama is perceived to provide that will determine his popularity and reelection chances. Republicans have spread some fear and loathing over the past year, but I hardly think they've moved public opinion back on the questions of intelligence and qualifications. If they did, I have to believe that Sarah Palin's polling would look a whole lot better.

Amidst all this discussion of Obama's declining approval ratings and healthcare and the economy and everything, it's worth noting that Obama's support is roughly where it was when he was elected, and one suspects that polling showing Democrats not being enthusiastic about voting next year is more a function of frustration with the Democrats' large majorities in Congress, and a failure to either (a) effectively tar Republicans as obstructionists or (b) do away with arcane Senate traditions. Hopefully that polling might convince Democrats to think hard about considering these options.

On a related topic, Sullivan writes, "I expected a moderate non-ideological pragmatism but I didn't quite expect Obama to have lost his touch with the base as completely as he has. Among the young, he is no longer an icon of change but a symbol of the resilience of the Washington system." It's probable that plugged-in, netroots-style progressives believe this, but I don't really think it's true that the average young voter believes it yet. This is the sort of bloggy solipsism that rather annoys me, as it assumes that the blogosphere is a representative sample of opinion amongst the public, which isn't really true.

As for Obama himself, my theory (based on everything I've read about the man) is that his campaign persona from last year maps pretty closely onto his real personality. He's not a firebreather--as Edwards and Clinton at times pretended to be--and he's not a poseur. It might well be that Obama's merry postpartisan persona has taken him as far as it can, and that he's going to need to make adjustments to hold on to his standing. But to expect him to convert to, say, a populist firebreather (as many progressives seem to want, as they wanted last year) seems to reflect little understanding of what drives the man. Obama is Obama, for better for worse. For my part, I'm not entirely convinced he's figured out out how he sees the role of the presidency and how he wants to use his power, which is hardly unusual. Bill Clinton, for example, basically bumbled through his first two years and wound up alienating practically everyone in the country, but he eventually found his footing and his operation got sleeker. Obama hasn't made the same mistakes as Clinton (in particular, he hasn't pissed off unions nearly as much), but he's still learning, and he does have a tendency toward self-improvement and rising to the occasion. It's easy to forget what a lousy candidate he was during the early days of 2007--he was a stiff debater and often an indifferent speaker at smaller events. Eventually he figured it out. I have little doubt he'll eventually find his rhythms the same way as president, but he's not there yet, and aside from FDR nobody has ever entered the presidency on day one, fully ready to roll. Not fair to compare anyone to FDR in terms of political ability, but I still have confidence that Obama will surprise us all yet.

Left vs right moral equivalence --> (sometimes flawed) conviction vs. power

I find this debate tiresome. Any reasonable person looking at American politics at this point can't really contest the status quo. The Democratic Party, wrong as it may be sometimes, irritating as its various factions often are, does usually try to make decisions based off of fact, a humanitarian tradition and its perception of the common interest. The Republican Party, quite simply, just wants power. I realize that the latter statement sounds like I'm saying, "Spot is a dog." But emphasis should be placed on the word just. And anyone who actually trusts them to in any way decrease government power should discard their illusions, because Republicanism is less dedicated to worshiping freedom and more dedicated to worshiping power.

Let's conduct a thought experiment. For decades, the Democrats have listed universal healthcare as a critical priority. What if the Democrats had come into power and immediately disbanded SCHIP and imposed draconian cuts to Medicaid in order to help balance the budget? What if President Obama, after a campaign in which he denounced Hillary Clinton for supporting hawkish notions about Iran, lobbed a cruise missile unprovoked into its major nuclear facility, and received complete support from all stripes of Democrats? And then decided to privatize Social Security to garner favor with Wall Street? What could you say about such developments? Without arguing over the relative merits of these notions, it would be entirely fair to conclude that Democrats are raging hypocrites who are trying to gain political power by going against their own stated priorities. They would be laughed at when earnestly talking about the paramount importance of making sure everyone should get universal healthcare, or live in peace, and such derision would have been earned in this scenario. The Democrats, I feel, wouldn't do this. Heck, they're standing up to Obama's Afghanistan decision as we speak. Republicans, though, have done all their equivalents to these (and more). Perhaps a sense of this is from whence the Tea Parties spring, though I suspect it might have more to do with decades' worth of conservative rhetoric coupled with being out of power.

I don't think this point is even up for debate. If you look at the institutions of state power that are noticed by most people, it's notable that it's "limited government" conservatives that support them outsizedly, and "big government" liberals that are far more likely to express skepticism about them. The military and the police are the obvious examples. The conservative position of placing the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals--as expressed by opposition to thinks like Lily Ledbetter and opposition to worker safety and environmental regulation in general--are admittedly debatable in the particulars and might be construed as self-interest, but can also be seen similarly as a worship of power and of societal elites. Under this paradigm, it is unsurprising why Obama's background as a community organizer irritates them, as it is all about dispersing power rather than accumulating it. And right-wing rhetoric these days, when it touches on governance at all, is dedicated solely to speculation about next year's election instead of coherent plans going forward. They only care about regaining power, in other words, not trying to fix any problems or implement any particular vision.

If you need any further proof, just look at the sorts of people that the movement has elevated. Oliver North was a petty crook to most, but to the movement he was a patriot and a hero. In reality, he was just a power-hungry zealot whose agenda coincided with the movement's. Conservatives didn't stop liking Nixon after Watergate (as memorialized, somewhat hilariously, in "Sweet Home Alabama", which is really just a series of cultural backlash complaints), and from Scooter Libby to torture to rendition, virtually all of the Bush Administration's hamfisted power plays were heartily embraced by conservatives as essential elements of their movement going forward. There was no skepticism allowed of Bush during his day (sorry, Bruce Bartlett), but in all fairness it didn't really seem like many high-ranking pundits for the right were interested in doing so. And now that Bush is gone, trashing him is fine, but trashing Obama for everything he does or doesn't do, anything that fits their agenda or doesn't, honest or not, is completely acceptable to these people because it's in service of regaining power. So suddenly the GOP is an ardent supporter of the welfare state, in order to pander to seniors wary of Obama's agenda. This is, I suppose, a victory of sorts for progressives. But it's incredible that the right has, without anyone seemingly noticing, effectively ceded the battle over the scope of government that was their raison d'etre ever since Barry Goldwater. That battle was always over Medicare and Social Security. If they don't stand for shrinking those programs anymore, then what do they stand for? What else remains aside from power?

One could speculate that this sort of power worship mentality comes from a feeling of powerlessness, one that is frequently underscored by conservative rhetoric that paints liberals as a sort of unstoppable force. But no matter where the source is, counting on a movement that positively fetishizes gross displays of power to in any way give power back to the people seems to me woefully misguided.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Huck was right

I've pretty much gone full circle with Huckabee. I started out distrusting him, then wound up liking him a fair amount because of his seeming progressiveness on a number of issues, then wound up disliking him again because of his obvious lust for power that outstrips any convictions or better intentions he seems to have. I think he's more like Palin than most people realize, but he does hide it quite a bit better.

This being said, from everything I've read, he was absolutely right at the time to commute Maurice Clemmons's sentence, though obviously it didn't turn out too well. Handing out 100+ year sentences to teenagers makes absolutely no sense, and this sort of maximalist "throw the book at those scum" sort of thinking has led to the abysmal state of affairs here in California. Anger at crime is understandable, but the sort of overreactions that come with it end up helping nobody. And really, there is no justice to sentencing someone whose prefrontal cortex hasn't even finished forming to natural life in prison, and sentencing someone to life for anything other than murder or rape seems really excessive to me.

This being said, he's still a snake and I'm happy that he probably won't be in the running in 2012, as he was the GOP's strongest candidate and rather scary to me. It's looking more and more like Romney vs. Palin, which could easily be the most entertaining contest in history. I'd pay any amount of money to watch a reality show where those two had to share an apartment for a week. What would they even say to each other?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Prosperity Gospel

This passage (from Sullivan's blog) struck me:
It's staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty, fetishizes family while Jesus left his and urged his followers to abandon wives, husbands and children, champions politics while Jesus said his kingdom was emphatically not of this world, defends religious war where Jesus sought always peace, and backs torture, which is what the Romans did to Jesus.
It occurs to me that the Prosperity Gospel, as it has been called, is not something that occurs organically from Christianity. It is a perversion, even a negation, of the actual message of the religion, but it cannot be completely understood apart from a broader social context. The Prosperity Gospel isn't a cause, it's an effect, and it's an effect of the broader notion that there's some sort of relationship between wealth and goodness, which necessarily posits that the poor are morally unfit. Some liberal bloggers might insist that this is a cornerstone of conservatism, which isn't necessarily true in a philosophical sense, though this sort of Randism is awfully convenient to a lot of conservatives' priorities.

Jesus himself, of course, insisted that one cannot serve both God and money. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out ways to do both. Such is the nature of man. My view of this has long been that humans possess both material and spiritual dimensions to their existence, and this is why money can both buy happiness and it cannot. Adding more material possessions can fulfill the material dimension of existence but never the spiritual. And despite the religiosity of most Americans, my experience has been that relatively few are drawn to the faith for spiritual reasons. What appeal the thing possesses is similar to the appeal of something like Americans' simplified reading of concepts like Karma: that, eventually, following the discipline will make them tangibly better off. For quite a few people, Christianity is less a lifestyle than a smart business decision. PG speaks to this.

In the end, the increasing popularity of PG merely proves the fundamental lack of spirituality among many Americans. Spirituality is not directly related to religion--I've met many examples of people in which those characteristics were disjoint--but the latter is meant to help guide the former. Materialists will no doubt reject the entire division I've described, but I think there's a clear argument to be made here. A human race made of pure materialists wouldn't have bothered to try to understand the world better through art. All literature would just be self-help tracts. And there would never have been any religion at all were it not for some sort of spiritual longing. If human happiness were merely a factor of material wealth, there would be no sad rich people. There clearly are a number of them. That doesn't imply that poor people are going to be happier, as they do indeed lack on the material dimension of human existence.

In the end, though, I am pretty sure that the PG trend will really last. Admittedly, it has nothing to say to the billions of people around the world living in poverty, many of whom are Christians and haven't any wealth to show for it. There are plenty of rich assholes out there, and plenty of great poor people as well, and plenty of the reverse in both groups. The worldview underlying PG is not particularly rigorous, but it doesn't need to be. It is not an attempt to explain the world, as it fails miserably at that. It exists largely to make lots of people feel better about themselves and their present lifestyle. And that is a need that will exist for some time to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Filibuster blag

Counter to most liberal bloggers, I don't really think that the filibuster is unconstitutional in concept. I think the present version of it is pretty plainly intolerable--40 senators should not be able to veto something the majority wants--but I think that reforming the filibuster is a better solution than eliminating it completely.

The reason why is because I do think that there should be a mechanism for protecting minority rights in the Senate, but I don't think it should come at the expense of the entire ability of the majority to make policy. Elections are supposed to have consequences, after all. But I do think there's a solid argument that large majorities might lead to a scenario in which unwise legislation is rammed through without much of a debate, or that something might be plowed through in a moment of intense emotion that needs more consideration or that ever shouldn't happen at all, such as the limits on bonuses for AIG executives. Right sentiment, wrong idea.

So my solution has always been to allow a minority to block cloture, but not to allow it to be infinite. Put a clock on it. If 40 senators want to block cloture to have more debate on an issue, they should be able to do that, but only for, say, six months. Then, the bill goes up for a majority vote. If the minority was able to convince their colleagues and the country that a bill is a bad idea, then it should fail. If not, then it will pass. It seems to me that this sort of reform enhances the debate rather than diminishing it, and it seems a lot less prone to abuse than the alternative. After all, if my system were in place and Mitch McConnell were to filibuster every conceivable thing out there, it wouldn't make much sense since it would just postpone everything by six months. And the Republicans aren't going to convince everyone of everything in six months.

Of course, I don't think that filibuster reform is likely in the immediate term. But eventually Republicans are going to want to govern again (right?), and while the Democrats didn't filibuster everything that moved during the Bush years, they absolutely will when the Republicans eventually take over the Senate after having gotten the same treatment from them in the past, and since the Republicans have established a new 60-vote norm for anything, they'll have only themselves to blame.

Why is being governor better than being senator?

Ezra wonders. It's true that Texas has a weak governor position, which is to say that he or she doesn't get to pick department heads. But being governor makes you the single most powerful person in your state. You don't have to travel as much. You still make plenty of appointments, like judges, and if it's a big state you could have a good platform to launch national ambitions, which is much harder to do as one of 100 in the Senate, and a backbencher at that.

All this was why I figured that Charlie Crist would remain as Florida's governor instead of running for the Senate. The GOP must have promised him the moon if he ran, and ultimately they couldn't deliver for him. I used to think Crist was the most likely bet to restore sanity to the national GOP, but he's quickly become the symbol to the base of the corrupt Republican machine instead of a talented, moderate conservative who can win broad support. One by one, the GOP is sacrificing its most promising potential leaders in order to glorify nonstarters like Palin and Steele. This isn't the way back to long-term viability.

The purists attack!

Chris Orr on the new Republican purity tests:
Beyond its exceptionally dubious prospects as a national political strategy, a few things about the document leap out. First, it demands that adherents oppose President Obama’s health care reform twice, but nowhere requires opposition to abortion (only the government funding of abortion), which is either a shocking slap in the face to social conservatives or, more likely, evidence that the compilation of this list was exactly as careless and haphazard as its stilted language suggests. [...]

Second, in a hamfisted effort to avoid the “Party of No” label, the ten points are all framed in terms of what Republicans are expected to support. The problem is, in seven of those ten cases, they explicitly define what they support in terms of opposition to President Obama. If he’d endorsed a Senate resolution on the innocence of kittens, the document would probably have included an item on the superiority of puppies. But don’t call them reactionary!

Finally, the authors have named this document “Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” drawing on the former president’s semi-famous line, “My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.” In their reading, 80 percent agreement is the floor of what Reagan would have tolerated, so if you fail more than two of their ten criteria, you’re out. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the sentiment the line--which is a plea for inclusiveness, not expulsion--was intended to convey.
And, of course, Reagan himself would easily have failed the test.

But this is all beside the point. These sorts of lists are the inevitable culmination of turning politics into a theater for cultural debates. It was smart for Richard Nixon to appeal to a very specific cultural identity and to really begin to frame politics as a sort of grudge match for public morality--after all, it got him elected handily two times. And it's true Nixon wasn't completely unprecedented, and that all politicians define their opponents and try to differentiate themselves from their opponents in different ways. In-group loyalty is one of the strongest pulls on human behavior. It's why Washington journalists who likely disdain Fox News stand up for it when it's being attacked, or why Hollywood rallied for Roman Polanski despite the fact that not everyone in Hollywood is an amoral hedonist. (Just most of them, I'm sure, even though I know some people in that group who meet the description and some who don't.)

So, it's smart to appeal to this loyalty, but this sort of thing has to be played delicately, or else literally everybody outside the group will be alienated and they won't join you. It seems like you want to keep the group united, while appealing to persuadable people on the outside by making the whole operation look appealing, to make it look like something they should want to be in on. This is precisely what Reagan did, despite starting his career as very much an identity politics maven and then maturing into something different. Ultimately, though, today's problems are rather different from what they were in the 1980s and the only thing holding Republicans together is increasingly that cultural identity. Everything else constantly changes--during the Bush years, spending was no problem, and now it's evil?--but it's that identity that still keeps them going. And the returns diminish every election cycle as America continues to look less white, less Christian, and less Southern, essentially.

And this is fundamentally why I disagree with people like Erik Kain who seem to think that after some further losses and disillusionment, the Republican base will finally start listening to reformist conservatives that care about fixing problems in the near future. The GOP is based more on cultural identity now than anything else, and so long as people believe things simply because Fox says them or disbelieve things because Barack Obama says them--in other words, so long as the truth of a statement is based on whether they're a member of the "club" rather than their track record of telling the truth--I think there's little hope of change within the Republican Party for a while. That will change in the long run, and in a decade or two the GOP will likely be completely unrecognizable from what we see today. My guess is that it will be a lot more the party of Ron Paul than the party of Jim DeMint, as the former happens to be the only person to present a conservative vision that resonates with significant numbers of young people. But that's decades off, and we're stuck with the party of DeMint for some time to come. It's going to take the most ardent culture warriors dying off before we start to see a real shift in Republican attitudes toward politics, but considering that the average Fox News viewer is in his late 60s, there is reason for long-term optimism for sensible conservatives.

P.S. Sully has a particularly good take on this as well.

How you can tell if someone really cares about cost-cutting

Or anything, for that matter. The Senate bill contains some very real long-term cost-cutting mechanisms, like the excise tax on high-value insurance plans, cutting excess Medicare Advantage spending, etc. It also spends a fair amount of money to insure people who don't have insurance, which admittedly costs money, though all of this is accounted for. This is not to mention that the bill will reduce the deficit by $120 billion. Basically, if your #1 priority is "bending the curve", then there's a lot to like in this bill.

Of course, if your stated #1 priority is cost-cutting, but your real #1 priority is to place yourself in the center of public discourse (like some certain pundits named David), then endorsing health care reform is simply not an option. Don't get me wrong, the plan before Congress should do much more on this front, as well as any number of fronts. But if you truly desire cost-cutting, this bill is a step in the right direction. And considering the nature of Congress, a step in the right direction is indeed a miraculous event, and one that can be built upon in the future.

I'll take Broder and Brooks at their word that they care about cutting costs. But they care about other things much more. And this is why I don't trust either one's opinions on much of anything these days.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

One can only hope

That something comes of this:

Despite the surface glamour of the Oscar race, studio executives have been waging a ferocious, and almost entirely private, debate about the value of joining the hunt.

The chase for prizes can add tens of millions of dollars to the cost of marketing a movie that, like “Crazy Heart,” may have been produced for peanuts. Sometimes, as with “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also fell to Fox Searchlight after a division of another studio passed on releasing it — Warner Brothers, in that case — the prize game pays off. That movie won a best picture Oscar and took in $141.3 million in domestic ticket sales, which were shared by Fox and Warner. But Universal was disappointed after spending heavily on “Frost/Nixon,” a best picture nominee, and its Focus Features division did only modest business with “Milk,” which was nominated as well.

An Oscars minus multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns wouldn't necessarily mean that obscure Icelandic films would start contending for real awards--the Oscars do better in ratings during years where people have seen the films, which still aligns the incentives in favor of pandering--but if they stopped with the campaigns, it would definitely be an improvement. I personally think that the entire concept of the Oscars is wrong. The tendency to try to pick The Best Movie of the current year invariably leads to a popularity contest, and while the Oscars sometimes get things right, the movies that sell the most tickets are of course rarely the most important or innovative ones. I'd rather see the Oscars happen with a five-year latency period. Let's take some time to see which movies stick in the public's consciousness, which ones inspire rabid cults, which ones spawn tons of imitators before closing the book on the year. I think it's safe to say, for example, that The Insider was a considerably better film than American Beauty, which confused misanthropy with insight; and Munich was obviously a much, much better film than Crash as well as Brokeback Mountain, the movie that everyone figured would win. But I'll readily admit that I thought much more of American Beauty the first time I saw it (my excuse was that I was, at the time, eighteeen). And I initially thought that Munich was sort of an average genre exercise until I watched it again a few years afterward and realized it for the masterpiece that it truly was. Sometimes something doesn't catch you the first time you see it, or maybe something inferior convinces you it's something it's not.

So, enhanced Oscar latency would probably result in better picks, I suspect, but then again there are some decisions (Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan?) that don't make any sense at all unless one considers the bribery campaigns that these studios wage to get their baubles. At the very least, we might be spared some of the more blatant Oscar head-slappers in the future.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good politics

Republicans are expected to largely oppose financial regulation. The particular sticking point seems to be creating a consumer protection agency for financial products.

Okay, so I think that the Obama Administration hasn't exactly handled the whole "Everyone hating the banks" situation incredibly well, and I think it's hurt the Democrats' numbers in general. But my strong feeling is that debate over financial regulation will very likely turn things around politically. Republicans are occupying an untenable position here, as most Senate Republicans supported TARP last time but now tend to lash out against it, and now they're going to oppose fixing financial regulation. The clear trend here is doing whatever helps the banks (and themselves), and while I'm sure that Glenn Beck will somehow shout "Socialism!" about consumer protection, I just don't think that argument will sell with the public.

In fact, I tend to think that the financial regulation fight is a win-win for Democrats, in addition to being the correct thing to do. If it passes, that's a real accomplishment that might help dissipate the enduring anger over the bailouts. If it doesn't get cloture, it seems to me that it gives Obama and Harry Reid a very real justification to go nuclear and kill the filibuster, especially if regulation is pitched in such a way that it enjoys overwhelming popular support. And if they don't want to do that, then they can talk about how Republicans used procedural tricks to kill the bill to rein in Goldman Sachs. I think that the last is the worst of the three possibilities for the Democrats (though I still don't think it would be bad for them) because it will probably just make people feel more hopeless in the face of Goldman and Citi, and passing a good bill would be a victory that would show that the banks don't control everything. It would bring some hope of making things better. And at this point, I tend to think that would be a nontrivial accomplishment for any politician.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.