"Now, it's time for the happy recap." - Bob Murphy
Politics 2011 Archives
December 12, 2011
POLITICS: Old School
October 22, 2011
POLITICS: Let The Good Governor Roll
[T]he electorate will settle increasingly nasty bouts for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and the state board of education. Local ballots are dotted with contested legislative matchups, a handful of judicial contests in New Orleans, and parish offices in Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist.
The big national name on the ballot is Bobby Jindal, up for re-election to his second term as governor; Jindal, the nation's first Indian-American governor, turned 40 in June.
In Louisiana's idiosyncratic system, Jindal needs 50% of the vote today to avoid a runoff. He enters the day a prohibitive favorite:
Jindal, who easily won his first term in 2007, has raised over $11 million for his bid, trumping his nearest rival, Democrat and Clairborne Parish teacher Tara Hollis, who has raised only $40,000, of which $18,000 came in the form of in-kind contributions.
Louisiana, as a socially conservative Southern state, has trended Republican at the national level for decades, but only after 2005's Hurricane Katrina left the state's Democratic political elite badly discredited did Republicans really break through - Jindal won the Governor's mansion in 2007 and in 2010 gained the first GOP legislative majority in the state since Reconstruction. The inability of the state's Democratic machine to mount a credible challenge to Jindal is symbolic of those shifting fortunes in the state and the region, and also of Jindal's status as a rising star in the national GOP: Jindal is the same age as Mitt Romney in 1987, Rick Perry in 1991, Barack Obama in 2001, and Ronald Reagan in 1951. We will be hearing a lot more from him in years to come.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:55 AM | Hurricane Katrina | Politics 2011 | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)
September 27, 2011
POLITICS/BUSINESS: Job Creation and the Rich: The Facebook Story
President Obama is on the prowl for new targets for (1) raising more tax revenue and/or (2) demonizing "the rich" for campaign purposes. Among Obama's proposals, besides raising taxes on high-income individuals generally, is to more than double the tax rate paid by many private equity and venture capital investors from 15% to 35%, by reclassifying sales of their businesses (or shares in their businesses) as ordinary income rather than capital gains (more detail here and, drawn from prior versions of the proposal here and here). A common trope being retailed in some form or another by Obama and his allies is that taxing the wealthy and private equity and venture capital has no impact on job creation. As is common to liberal arguments, rather than argue that they are proposing a worthwhile tradeoff, liberals deny even the possibility that their policies involve any tradeoffs whatsoever. As well they might: the voters are hardly going to accept anything right now that impedes the growth of private sector businesses and jobs.
Now, there are a lot of economic angles to this argument, which have been ventilated in more detail elsewhere. But a concrete example may be useful in illustrating how wealthy individuals, private equity and venture capital contribute to the growth of businesses and jobs: the story of Facebook.
Facebook, as you may recall, was largely the brainchild of 20-year-old Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, and - to simplify a story that has involved a lot of acrimony and litigation - was founded by Zuckerberg and his roommate Dustin Moskovitz in February 2004 to provide a way for Harvard students to interact online. The company was not created in response to any consumer demand to spend money on such a product (seven years later, it still doesn't cost you anything to have a Facebook account, and the company's revenue comes mainly from advertising and similar streams). It was created because the founders thought it was a good product and that creating it would generate its own demand (the antithesis of demand-is-everything Keynesian economic theory). They were right - they got 1,200 subscribers within 24 hours, and the user base of Facebook has grown like wildfire for years since, to over 800 million today.
But while they were not exactly paupers - each invested about $1,000 at the start, and later $10,000 - there were limits to how far Zuckerberg and Moskovitz could spread their business idea without investment. Enter the money. First came Eduardo Saverin, also a Harvard student, the son of a wealthy Brazilian businessman; Saverin had reportedly made some $300,000 investing in oil futures, and put a stake in Facebook to become one-third owner and the company's first CFO. That got the venture off the ground, born from the start in commodity trading profits. (Saverin was later bought out to resolve litigation)
Just four months after the company's founding, in June 2004, it got a major investment: $500,000 from Peter Thiel. Thiel had been running his own multibillion-dollar hedge fund since 1996, and had made $1.5 billion in 2002 from taking PayPal (which he founded) public and selling it to eBay. Once again, an investor flush with cash from hedge fund profits and the sale of a new business provided the rocket fuel that allowed Facebook to take off from dorm-room startup to major online network. (Thiel reportedly received a 7% stake in the company, now worth well over a billion dollars).
As a startup, Facebook needed constant inflows of cash. The company moved its headquarters to Palo Alto around the time Thiel invested, and spent $200,000 in mid-2005 to buy facebook.com (its prior domain name was thefacebook.com). It cost money from the very beginning to defend against lawsuits. And the company seems to have lost millions in its first two years of operations.
Yet the product itself grew and grew, expanding overseas by the fall of 2005, and the constant inflow of capital kept it able to sustain that growth. Venture capital firm Accel Partners put $12.7 million into Facebook in April 2005, followed by Greylock Venture Capital, which invested $27.5 million that same year. By 2007, Microsoft invested $240 million in exchange for just a 1.6% stake in the company, implying that the whole enterprise was now worth $15 billion. Today, Facebook has over 2,000 employees, and expects to grow that to 9,400 employees by 2017.
Anecdote is not the singular of data, and like most stories of individual companies you can overdraw the policy implications from Facebook's growth. Yes, Facebook is an extreme example. Yes, Facebook grew in the shadow of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, but it also grew up in high-tax states like Massachusetts and California, and of course I couldn't tell you the particular tax rates paid by the various wealthy investors in the company. But Facebook's story, and thousands of others like it (if less dramatic) illustrate three timeless truths:
(1) Growing businesses need capital;
(2) Capital for risky startup ventures - especially ones with as steep an upward growth trend as Facebook - tends to come primarily from wealthy individual investors and from the venture capital and private equity vehicles they fund (the business career of Mitt Romney is full of examples of this); and
(3) The more of that capital you have, and the better the after-tax returns it can earn, the more seed corn there is to grow still more of those businesses.
You would think that President Obama - who at least in 2008 drew a lot of support from Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley ilk - would appreciate this concept. But Obama remains the same man who in the primary debate in 2008 in Philadelphia told Charlie Gibson that he wanted to raise the capital gains tax "for purposes of fairness" regardless of whether it brought in more revenue. Even as the economy has stagnated and dragged down his own political fortunes with it, Obama seems unwilling to even consider the importance of private capital in any recovery. Investors in new businesses, consider yourselves unfriended.
September 14, 2011
POLITICS: The Broader Meaning of NY-9
Last night's victory for Republican Bob Turner in NY's 9th Congressional District was not as resounding as the 22-point blowout in Nevada's 2d District, a district that is much more likely to play a role in contested Presidential and Senate races next year. And it shouldn't be oversold, for some of the reasons Nate Silver identifies. But Sean Trende's analysis is nonetheless a must-read regarding the broader trends it represents.
Also on a demographic note, this Atlantic article (aside from the error of forgetting - as I noted in the comments - that Rick Perry's 2006 race was not his most recent election) is a good roundup of why Perry is the GOP candidate who offers the best hope of capturing a competitive share of the Hispanic vote, as he has traditionally done in Texas.
UPDATE: Closing comments due to a spambot invasion, which tends to happen when the blog isn't updated frequently enough.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:00 PM | Politics 2011 | Politics 2012 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
September 9, 2011
POLITICS: Obama Vindicates Rick Perry on Social Security
The major controversy right now in the GOP presidential primaries is over Rick Perry's contention that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that can't deliver on its promises under its current structure. Mitt Romney doesn't exactly dispute this - in fact, Romney himself said the same thing in his book, but then Romney always did like to attack other Republicans for things he himself has said or done - but Romney's argument is that you can't say these things out loud and win elections.
Well, President Obama last night handed Perry a huge gift, by providing a vivid illustration of how Perry is right about Social Security.
Here is what the President said:
[The American Jobs Act] will provide a tax break for companies who hire new workers, and it will cut payroll taxes in half for every working American and every small business. It will provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled, and give companies confidence that if they invest and hire, there will be customers for their products and services...
The cut affects the 46 percent of all Americans who pay payroll taxes but do not qualify to pay federal income taxes. In the bipartisan deal last December to keep the Bush-era tax cuts in place for another two years, lawmakers signed off on a proposal to reduce the percentage of taxes that workers pay towards Social Security from 6.2 to 4.2 percent. That rate is set to go back up to previous levels on Jan. 1, unless Congress acts.
Now, as an initial matter, the problem with temporary cuts in the payroll tax is that they don't provide much incentive to hire new permanent workers. This is a recurring issue with Obama's proposals, like how he tried to use temporary stimulus payments to induce states to take on more permanent obligations under Medicaid, a deal a number of Governors rejected. If I'm a business owner, this sort of payroll tax cut may persuade me to hire more temporary or seasonal workers, but I'd be leery of creating new permanent positions knowing that the tax will pop back up as soon as we're past the 2012 election. There's certainly a good case to be made for slashing the payroll tax in the long haul - which would require fundamentally reworking how Social Security is funded - but as an economic matter a temporary payroll tax holiday is mostly a gimmick that will offer only a very limited bang for its buck.
Which brings us to the fiscal impact. If you take at face value the defenders of the Social Security status quo, their theory is that Social Security is not supposed to be a welfare program but a pension plan: workers pay into the system, which places their wages in a "trust fund" and later pays them back a defined benefit. As Perry - and Romney, in his book - notes, the system doesn't actually run that way. The only "assets" in the trust fund are "I owe me" bonds reflecting that the taxpayers will be asked to come up with revenues in the future, the same kinds of "my own debts are my assets" accounting that got Enron in trouble; meanwhile, the government spends the money as soon as it comes in, and hopes that it will continue getting enough future payroll tax revenue to pay future benefits. This is the textbook definition of how a Ponzi scheme operates and precisely why such schemes - as we saw with Bernie Madoff - inevitably go bust when they can't keep expanding.
Social Security already has that problem, as the most recent Trustees Report makes clear:
Social Security expenditures exceeded the program's non-interest income in 2010 for the first time since 1983. The $49 billion deficit last year (excluding interest income) and $46 billion projected deficit in 2011 are in large part due to the weakened economy and to downward income adjustments that correct for excess payroll tax revenue credited to the trust funds in earlier years.
With retirees living longer and benefits having been expanded in various ways over the years, the number of current workers supporting each current retiree has plunged dramatically since the program was established, a problem that will only get worse with declining birthrates and the Baby Boom generation entering retirement age. In other words, the conditions for ever-widening Social Security deficits are upon us already and will, by design of the current system, only get worse. The bill for the longstanding pattern of both parties on Capitol Hill raiding the program's surplus income to spend on other things has come due.
And with this crisis upon us and only designed to grow, what does President Obama propose? An even bigger bite out of the income of a program already in deficit:
Obama plans to cut revenues by $245 billion, or 36%, of the entire annual revenue (projected at $687 billion) of the so-called trust fund. Being that he will ostensibly slash half of payroll taxes, that number is surely too low...
This is the point in the storyline where a guy like Madoff gets led out in handcuffs. Let Obama make the argument that extending the temporary payroll tax cut is an economic necessity; we can have the argument about whether this is the best way to cut tax burdens on businesses and workers. But what he can't do is pretend is that Social Security is sacrosanct when just last night he went before the nation and proposed gutting its only source of funding just as it's plunged into the red. The next time Governor Perry lays out his case against the flim-flam accounting behind Social Security and its manifest inability to pay for its own promises, he will have fresh ammunition direct from the man he hopes to face in the general election.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:09 AM | Politics 2011 | Politics 2012 | Comments (45) | TrackBack (0)
September 6, 2011
POLITICS/BUSINESS: Green Jobless
Great nutshell summary of why government-funded "Green Jobs" have failed yet again, and why this should tell us something about the kinds of people who could be surprised by this. Like Joe Biden: "One role of government is to go where venture capital won't."
Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:35 PM | Business | Politics 2011 | Science | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)
August 24, 2011
POLITICS: Rip Van Moonbeam Awakens And It's Still 1980
I confess: on some level, I like Jerry Brown. He's one of those guys - like Pat Moynihan, Paul Tsongas or Bill Bradley - who really, truly and honestly believes in the goals of liberalism, yet is periodically honest enough to be blunt about its failures in the real world. He even studied to be a priest, way back when. One can argue, as Steven Hayward has of Moynihan, that it's a species of moral cowardice to cling to an ideology you know doesn't really work, but even as many times as Brown and his comrades disappoint me, their candor, even unintentional candor, is still refreshing and amusing.
I thought of this when reading an interview CNN's Candy Crowley did with Gov.-again Brown earlier this month, and how it dovetails with the latest reports from the CBO on the economy.
Brown's interview is revealing on a number of levels, given that he's one of the few elected Democrats left who has some historical perspective on how we're re-living the Carter years (Brown was California Governor from 1975-83 and ran for President in 1976, 1980 and 1992). First, he basically advises President Obama to raise taxes, but frankly admits that Obama needs to lie about doing so to avoid Walter Mondale in 1984:
CROWLEY: So you think the president needs to run saying, folks, we need to raise taxes?
Yet when dealing with the state of the economy, Brown seems befuddled by the Return of Malaise, and certainly lacking in the swagger of his staffers:
CROWLEY: Do you see unemployment in California, absent any help from the federal government in the near term, --(CROSSTALK)
Not exactly the tune Brown was singing during the 2010 campaign. Perhaps Brown could consider what else 2011 has in common with those years - specifically, a hapless liberal Democrat in the White House and Jerry Brown as Governor.
Brown isn't the only one recalling the days of the Misery Index. Conn Carroll notices the CBO finding consumer confidence down to levels reminiscent of the Carter years:
[C]onsumer spending has been lower in the past year than the levels that would normally occur given consumers' income and wealth - suggesting that other factors, such as pessimism about the prospects for income growth, may be restraining spending. As an example, for much of 2011 so far, only about 10 percent of consumers have expected to see real gains in their income in the year ahead, matching a level of pessimism last seen in 1980.
Yes, the business cycle produces recessions, as surely as the weather produces storms. Both Carter and Obama inherited messes, just as did Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy. But the economy's protracted lifelessness under Carter and Obama is not simply the arbitrary hand of fate. It doesn't have to stay 1980 forever.
August 3, 2011
POLITICS: The Case of the Missing President (Or: Negotiations, Part III)
GOP aides and lawmakers, speaking on background, portrayed Boehner as the calm negotiator who repeatedly exasperated President Obama.
The article's worth reading in its entirety for a good deal more color on how Boehner overcame the dissension within his own caucus on passing the second House bill (the first being the Cut, Cap and Balance plan, not counting the vote on the Ryan roadmap). If that's how it went down, it seems pretty clear that Obama was simply an obstacle to getting a deal done - not the only adult in the room, as he portrayed himself, but the one guy who had nothing to contribute to the process and was actually in the way.
Which brings us to the next point. A big part of why the whole political spin war was so acrimonious throughout these negotiations was the asymmetry in transparency among the participants. The House GOP side of the argument was played out in public: the House passed two plans before the Senate even held a vote on a plan backed by Senate leadership. Everybody knew what the House would do if it controlled the process, and what its negotiating posture was. (The House Democrats, of course, were marginalized, as the House minority always is). The Senate Democrats and Senate GOP leadership each floated plans that were less concrete (until the point late in the game where Reid held a vote on his own alternative), but at least could in some general way be evaluated by the voters and the media.
But throughout the entire process, President Obama never put a plan where the voters could see it. No proposal was circulated by the White House, and the President and his spokesmen refused to go into any specifics beyond a few public statements about small-bore issues like depreciation rates for corporate jets. That posture has its advantages - on an issue of less intense public attention, closed-door back-room dealing can be the way to get rhetoric set aside and the parties moved ahead on reaching their bottom lines. It also gave Obama political advantages, since he could take potshots at the GOP plan while offering no target to be criticized without complete deniability for the White House.
But the downsides manifested themselves in other ways that helped poison the process and ultimately cripple the President. Denied competing plans to pore over, the media coverage ended up focusing on he-said she-said disputes about things that had happened behind closed doors (like Obama's blowup with Eric Cantor) and competing spin over what Obama had or had not offered. Energized Tea Party activists were given a choice between a no-compromise conservative bill they could see, and a closed-door backroom deal with Obama they couldn't evaluate beyond their willingness to trust the DC establishment that created this mess in the first place. Even liberal activists were offered very little to work with. Obama ended up sending out mass emails like this one last Friday:
Imagine you got to be a fly on the wall in a closed meeting of the House Republicans yesterday.
First of all, in all my years receiving direct mail and emails from Republicans, I do not believe I've ever gotten anything so abjectly begging for a deal, any deal. Obama was hectoring his supporters to get behind absolutely anything that would pass, without even the slenderest nod to what might be in it (this is how he ended up with a progressive Congressman describing the final result as a "Satan sandwich"). Second, the barrage of Tweets from Obama then targeting each and every state's delegation made him sound like a 13-year-old girl trying to start a trending topic about Justin Bieber, rather than the Leader of the Free World directing events. Remember when liberals sneered that Sarah Palin was "president of Facebook"? Well, that was Obama last week - President of Twitter. Except as the actual President of the United States, he should have had better ways of influencing Congress than Twitter. Third, Obama's expectation that the voters and swing-district Congressmen and Senators would rally behind a backroom deal without any public defense of its specifics was a disastrous misreading of the public mood in general and the mood of newly-elected, Tea Party-backed Republicans in particular.
And finally, Obama's backroom strategy destroyed his leverage. As John Podhoretz noted in the Post column I linked to earlier today, Obama's inability to either work out a deal in private or rally public support behind any particular plan resulted in a deal that left out the one thing he had demanded, any tax hikes. And indeed, whether or not the Hill's account is accurate, it is telling that Obama insisted that his entire role be performed offstage where the public couldn't verify what he was doing or where he stood except by taking the word of him and his spokesmen. That amounted to a total surrender of the 'bully pulpit,' despite Obama's frequent appearances to repeat his vague appeals for a "balanced" approach - Republicans could see that he wasn't willing to take any stand for which he'd be held accountable, and so they inferred, correctly, that he'd never stand ground he'd taken in private if he feared to take it in public. His silence on the specifics rendered him weak and vulnerable, and ultimately impotent. He became the man who'd take any deal, so of course he got none of what he asked for.
That part, no amount of spin about the blow-by-blow of the closed-door negotiatons can conceal.
POLITICS: Negotiations, Cont'd
Following up on my post below, contrast this view of President Reagan's breaking of PATCO with this take on President Obama's ineffectual efforts to get tax hikes into the debt ceiling deal for a sense of how presidential negotiating tactics can have further-reaching consequences.
BUSINESS: Negotiating Through The Media
There are many species of bad journalism, most of which involve too much opinion by the writer, but sometimes the opposite is true and a writer gives you the apparent facts without the context needed to make sense of them. Let me use an article from the NY Times about 30 Rock to illustrate a common type of bad journalism that I find to be equally amusing and annoying: reporting negotiating positions without bothering to explain to the reader to take negotiating positions with a grain of salt, let alone how to interpret statements made in the course of negotiations. This has been a common thread in scores of articles these past few months about - among other topics - the debt ceiling negotiations, the Libya war, the perpetual Israel-Palestine 'peace process,' the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, the Mets' legal dispute with the Madoff trustee and other business machinations and their efforts to re-sign Jose Reyes, and the legal imbroglio surrounding the Dodgers. I've read more articles on all these topics than I could count that failed to give the reader the guidance to put the parties' statements in the context of the underlying negotiating dynamics.
The Times tells us, first, that Alec Baldwin has said he's leaving 30 Rock after next season, a departure that of course would be a terrible blow to a show built around the tensions between his (awesome) character, Jack Donaghy, and Tina Fey's Liz Lemon. It may well be true that Baldwin sincerely has other things on his mind, maybe even a run for public office, and/or that he's feeling he's done all he could with the character. But it's at least equally likely that he could be persuaded to stay on if NBC offers money or other contractual concessions to make it worth his while.
Then we get the response from NBC brass and from Lorne Michaels, the show's executive producer:
Executives from the show and NBC aren't sure, but they made it clear in interviews here this week that his departure would not mean an automatic end to the award-winning comedy.
Again: I don't doubt that NBC would very much like to extend the show's run one extra season for syndication purposes; many a sitcom past has been kept on past its proverbial shark-jumping point for that reason. If 30 Rock is still making money at that point, the network would probably try to soldier on without Baldwin. And Lorne Michaels has never been a guy who thought any of his cast members were indispensable (to put it mildly). But this all smacks strongly of a negotiating posture: the network and Michaels are doing interviews here precisely to send Baldwin the message that he's not holding all the cards. And the reporter, Bill Carter, doesn't breathe a word of that, probably because he knows full well why they are giving him these interviews.
Of course, Greenblatt and Michaels have their own competing agendas:
Mr. Greenblatt did open the door to a possible disagreement with Mr. Michaels over the re-entry of "30 Rock" onto NBC's schedule. The show's sixth-season premiere has been postponed until midseason because of the pregnancy of its star, Tina Fey.
Of course, if Baldwin's future with the show is in doubt, that's one reason the network would not want to commit valuable Thursday night prime-time space, plus Greenblatt is taking charge of a fourth-place network and probably should keep his options open. But NBC has to keep Michaels happy, too; as the creator of Saturday Night Live, he remains a vital part of the network's brand image. Michaels' certainty here is obviously intended to send an unsubtle message that he will not be a happy camper if the network moves his prime-time baby out of its Thursday night sinecure.
I don't mean to pick on Carter, who in this article has at least offered us enough quotes from each of the participants that a skeptical reader can piece together what is really being said here; that's not always the case with this sort of journalism. But in general, reporters aren't doing their jobs if they don't report how someone involved in negotiations could stand to gain from taking a particular position in public, and worse still if they straight-facedly claim that someone will never make a particular concession (e.g., Jose Reyes won't talk about a new contract during the season), when in fact they might well do so for the right price. The dynamics of negotiations and how they are handled through the media can differ across situations, but there are a finite number of basic underlying approaches to negotiating, and they crop up across many different fields of endeavor.
Consider the debt ceiling debate - surely many Republicans would have preferred to pass 'cut, cap and balance,' and some were genuinely opposed to raising the debt ceiling at all. But for many people involved in the fight, pushing for the ideal policy, even if it was the policy they wanted, was also a matter of getting leverage to extract a better deal when the time came to compromise. Similarly, many Republicans sincerely opposed any deal that would raise any taxes at all; others may have been willing to trade some revenue-raisers for something better, but found it convenient to stay in line with the ATR pledge against tax hikes as a posture unless and until that better offer materialized. None of this is insincere; it's just good bargaining.
Learn to look for the signs of negotiating postures between the lines of news articles, and they will surface again and again in every section of the paper.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:26 PM | Baseball 2011 | Basketball | Business | Football | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2011 | Pop Culture | War 2007-12 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
July 11, 2011
POLITICS: Love It or Leave It
So, a member of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors - Jeff Stone, a Republican - has proposed splitting the state of California, with San Diego and the largely rural, Republican-leaning south east of the state becoming "South California," and LA remaining with the liberal coast and northern part of the state. You can follow the link to the LA Times for the map of what his proposal would look like. Secession proposals of this nature are a hardy perennial on the Left and Right alike, and are almost always bad ideas, although there is at least a fair argument that California as currently constituted is (1) too large any longer to serve the role of responding to local needs unmet from Washington that is a major part of why we have a federal system in the first place (as the LAT notes, "[t]he proposed 51st state would be the fifth largest by population, more populous than Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania"), (2) essentially dysfunctional, and (3) particularly unresponsive to the needs of the 13 million residents of the 13 counties in question.
But what's really interesting here isn't a proposal by one member of the board of one county, but rather the response by a spokesman for Governor Jerry Brown:
"If you want to live in a Republican state with very conservative right-wing laws, then there's a place called Arizona," Brown spokesman Gil Duran said.
Now, I don't know about you, but saying that millions of residents should just leave the state if they don't like California's liberal laws, dysfunctional finances and horrendous business climate doesn't really disprove the point that the Sacramento elite really and truly do not care about the Republican-leaning parts of the state or the people in them. California's unemployment rate is 11.7% compared to 9.1% for the nation as a whole (given California's size, I'd guess without doing the math that means the rest of the country may be as much as a full three points below CA). Even the NY Times says California's budget crisis may be the worst in the nation, with a $26.6 billion budget deficit comprising nearly a third of the state's budget. California owes $2,362 in debt per resident of the state, and pays a 20% premium to borrow money compared to better-run states; its A- credit rating from Standard & Poor's is the worst in the nation. A recent budget deal only barely convinced S&P to avoid an immediate further downgrade, and S&P is still concerned that the deal doesn't solve the state's long-term "backlog of budget obligations accumulated during the past decade."
Gov. Brown's office may think that's a record to get cocky about, but maybe it's time California showed a little humility about the failures of its political culture and business climate, and learned a few things from its more conservative neighbors - and maybe even from some of its own citizens.
July 6, 2011
You too can ask President Obama a question on Twitter, using the hashtag #askobama. Of course, the tiny fraction of those tweets to be answered will doubtless be carefully screened, and the answers vetted before posting them. I'd say Saturday Night Live should satirize this, but it already did, the last time something like this was tried as if it was a totally brand-new idea, in March 1977:
June 30, 2011
POLITICS: The Biggest Money
This graph is pretty compelling as far as looking at who contributes the most to political candidates and campaigns. This is the status quo that the critics of independent expenditures are so desperate to protect.
June 29, 2011
LAW/POLITICS: The Centralizing Impulse
Michael Barone has an excellent essay on what the partial dissent in Wal-Mart v Dukes says about how businesses should be run. As someone who practices a lot of class action defense, my main interest in the case* was the procedural aspects, including the point on which the Court was unanimous: you can't use Rule 23(b)(2)'s mandatory, no-opt-out class action device and "Trial by Formula" for suits seeking individual damages. But Barone focuses on the real fissure that led to the 5-4 split on whether the case presented common, class-wide issues - the fact that Wal-Mart delegates discretion over personnel decisions down to the local store level and holds managers accountable simply for results - and how the dissent's approach would spell the end of that entire management style. This feeds into one of Barone's larger points: so much of "progressivism" is, for all its emotional hostility to big business, fundamentally dependent on an economy and society in which decisions are made on a nationwide basis by large, centralized institutions like big corporations, the federal government and large labor unions. Defined-benefit pension plans, nationwide class actions, a massively complex corporate tax code, volumes upon volumes of federal regulations - all these things are spectacularly ill-suited to addressing a decentralized world in which even people connected to large institutions are genuinely empowered at the local level, to say nothing of their poor fit with smaller businesses that lack the economies of scale to cope with byzantine federal regulatory demands, rent-seeking plaintiffs lawyers and long-term pension and health care costs for current employees.
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* - Disclaimer: My firm was involved in the case, this post is solely my own opinion, etc.
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June 20, 2011
POLITICS: Where Do I Sign?
Expecting consistency from left-wing political activists is folly, but rarely does one get such a glaring example as the Washington Monthly's Steve Benen on presidential "signing statements." Watch, and your head will spin.
During the Bush years, liberal commentators suddenly discovered that they didn't like the longstanding practice of "signing statements" by which the President offered his own interpretation of legislation he was signing, in some cases declaring his intention to ignore unconstitutional provisions. Now, in a better world, presidents would just veto laws containing unconstitutional things - this was, in fact, perhaps the most frequent basis on which presidents used the veto power in the 19th Century - but the use of signing statements to set forth a public defense of Executive Branch prerogatives has a long and bipartisan history, and there is a quite respectable argument that such statements preserve the President's role as head of a co-equal branch of government with as much right to his interpretation of the Constitution as Congress or the Supreme Court.
Anyway, Steve Benen was one of the liberal bloggers who pushed the anti-signing-statements hysteria without consideration that there was any argument for defending the practice whatsoever:
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MAKING A STATEMENT....Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has caved to White House demands on a wide variety of issues, but when it comes to presidential signing statements, the Pennsylvania senator has actually been pretty good. A year ago, he even tried to introduce legislation that would allow Congress to sue the president over his use of these legally dubious documents. He asked at the time, "What's the point of having a statute if ... the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like? ... If he doesn't like the bill, let him veto it."
We have a bizarre dynamic at play: Congress passes bills, Bush signs the bills into law, and then, in several instances, after the president issues signing statements, the Bush administration decides not to do what the law mandates.
Specter added, "If the president is permitted to rewrite the bills that Congress passes and cherry-pick which provisions he likes and does not like, he subverts the constitutional process designed by our framers."
REMEMBER SIGNING STATEMENTS?.... There are plenty of reasons to look forward to the end of Bush's presidency, but I'm especially pleased at the prospect of having a president who won't sign bills into law, only to announce soon after which parts of the law he plans to ignore.
SIGNING STATEMENTS.... It's hard to know where to start when detailing George W. Bush's assaults on constitutional norms, but near the top of any list would have to be his signing statements. The former president used them to give laws passed by Congress a little "touch up," explaining which parts of the law he didn't like, which parts he'd ignore, etc.
But even at the outset of the Obama Administration, Benen was suddenly untroubled by the idea that Obama was going to use signing statements for the same basic purpose:
Obama said he would consider using signing statements as president, but would take a modest approach, and limit them to bills that include provisions of dubious constitutionality.
Which brings us to...
June 20, 2011, "Taking a hatchet to presidential power"
Also note, the same day as this letter about recesses, House Republicans also began pushing a measure to prevent the president from issuing "signing statements" - another power presidents have been using for generations.
What I find remarkable about all of this is comparing the seriousness of the times and the severity of the GOP's restrictions. In effect, President Obama is being told, "You have to fix the economy, win several wars, fix the housing crisis, respond to disasters, improve American energy policy, and keep the country safe, all while being fiscally responsible. But you can't have a full team in place; you can't enjoy the same powers your predecessors did; you can't use the same tools your predecessors used; and you can't expect the Senate to function by majority rule the way it used to. Good luck."
Good thing President Bush wasn't expected to solve any difficult problems, never had his appointees bottled up in the Senate, and never had anybody try to stop him from using longstanding presidential powers like signing statements! Because Steve Benen would have been there to tell them off!
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June 16, 2011
POLITICS: Militarizing America: The Nick Kristof Plan
So often, the problem with the New York Times op-ed page is not just the left-leaning politics, but the poor quality of the contributors, despite the fact that they occupy some of the highest-paid and most-visible perches in the punditocracy. And the hallmark of poor quality punditry is the failure to think through the implications of one's arguments. So it is with today's column from Times columnist Nick Kristof.
Kristof's thesis is that the US military is actually a "socialist" institution that should be a model for our society:
[I]f we seek another model, one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity, one that seeks to curb income inequality, we don’t have to turn to Sweden. Rather, look to the United States military.
Now, it's reasonable as far as it goes to point out that the military, being wholly-owned and operated by the government, does not behave like a private for-profit enterprise. But does Kristof really think the military isn't too bureaucratic and inefficient to be a model for the private sector? Hint: it is, because it's a government bureaucracy, but we tolerate that because it performs an essential and irreplaceable function. Even leaving that aside, however, let's look at the essential characteristics of the military as a workplace, few of which Kristof seems to have thought through and many of which, I'd guess, he would find objectionable as applied to the private sector:
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1. The workforce is not free. You join the military, unless you are discharged, you must serve out your enlisted term of years. Most American workers are free to change jobs, and even if you have a contract for a stated period, the Thirteenth Amendment protects you in most cases from being compelled to do more than pay money damages for quitting. Not so with soldiers, who can be imprisoned for desertion. Also, enlisted soldiers often must live in housing provided by their employer (depending on their rank and other conditions), and ordinarily have few rights of privacy against inspection of their living quarters. They can be shipped hither and yon without their consent.
2. The workforce is not unionized. The military's complete control over working conditions is in no way obstructed by collective bargaining or work rules. Nor are wages protected by statutory schemes such as the Davis-Bacon Act.
3. The employer is largely immune from suit. Americans with Disabilities Act? Sexual harrassment litigation? Medical malpractice? Age Discrimination in Employment Act? Never heard of them. Most of the workforce is under 40, disproportionately male, physically fit, and until very recently did not permit open homosexuals to serve. Military culture is distinctive, and feminists in particular have long complained of the persistence of a 'macho' culture. The upper ranks of the military are naturally dominated by men, because women are barred from the jobs (i.e., combat) that provide the most important opportunities for advancement.
4. The entire workforce is armed and wears uniforms. I'm guessing this is not the case in the New York Times newsroom.
As it happens, the things that make the military so cohesive, and so willing to accept wages and working conditions that would be objectionable in the private sector, are inseparable from its dangerous and violent mission, focus on combat and, yes, its irreducibly masculine culture. As Jonah Goldberg traced in his excellent book Liberal Fascism, Kristof is following an impulse here that recurs with great regularity in the liberal imagination: the desire to replicate the "socialist" nature of the military - or of civilian life in times of total war - without its military-ness. Goldberg draws extensively on the history, from post-World War I progressives (including FDR) seeking to recreate the conditions of the wartime Wilson Administration, to LBJ's War on Poverty, to Jimmy Carter's "moral equivalent of war" on energy consumption - he might have added Kristof's colleague Paul Krugman, who is constantly harping on the economic conditions of the World War II era as a model. But they always fail; men who will run uphill into a machine gun nest for their comrades simply will not do the same thing to sell dishwashers, and no amount of re-imagining of fundamental human nature will make them do so. Militarized societies inevitably founder on this basic reality; they face constant pressure to become wholly militarized and regimented, yet sooner or later they still fail to sustain conditions in which ordinary citizens act like soldiers. As my RedState colleague Repair Man Jack commented, "they tried that in Germany and Italy once. The results weren't what anyone could have hoped for."
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June 13, 2011
POLITICS: The Last To Know
The president jokes - and not for the first time - about "shovel-ready" projects in the stimulus not being actually shovel-ready. It's staggering how little attention you have to have paid to American government before 2009 to be surprised by this.
Obama's inexperience has proven to be awfully expensive. Next time, let's not elect a guy whose first order of business is to spend nearly a trillion dollars on something with no idea how it works. That would be a good start.
June 9, 2011
LAW/POLITICS: The Perils of Complexity
As a practicing lawyer, I naturally have a professional interest in vague and/or complex legal rules that require lots of expensive legal research, training and experience to understand and explain. But complexity isn't just costly to consumers of legal services, and thus a burden on business as well as on citizen access to the courts. It's also a drag on the economy and on personal liberty, as businesses and ordinary citizens must choose between paying lots of compliance lawyers or steering too wide of increasingly large gray areas. It risks in particular the unfair, arbitrary and sometimes corrupt or discriminatory abuse of the criminal justice system to prosecute things that were hard to foresee as violations of the law. And it demeans democracy, as the actual making of law is done by judges and bureaucrats rather than citizen-elected legislators.
One of the greatest virtues of Justice Scalia in his quarter-century on the Supreme Court (he celebrates 25 years on the High Court in September) has been his structural critique of, and systemic assault on, unnecessary legal complexity. In three opinions this morning, he focused attention on three different aspects of that same problem - one of which was graphically illustrated by yesterday's news regarding the widespread practice of waivers under Obamacare. And last week's news regarding the indictment of John Edwards illustrates how the failure to heed Scalia's wise observations has made a hash of efforts by campaign finance "reformers" to regulate political speech in the United States.
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1. Sykes v United States: Vagueness By Judging
In the first case, Sykes v. United States, Scalia dissented from an opinion by Justice Kennedy regarding the Armed Career Criminal Act, which punishes the possession of firearms by felons with three prior "violent felony" convictions. Congress, however, did not set out an exhausive list in the ACCA of what is a "violent felony," and since every state has its own set of felonies, there has been repeated litigation over what is and is not a "violent felony," and the Court has adopted a variety of tests for determining whether a particular state felony counts. Blasting "today's tutti-frutti opinion" for failing to choose among these tests, Scalia tore into the entire process of using repeated Supreme Court cases to define what Congress, in the ACCA, has failed to define:
As the Court's opinion acknowledges, this case is "another in a series,"...More specifically, it is an attempt to clarify, for the fourth time since 2007, what distinguishes "violent felonies" under the residual clause of the [ACCA], from other crimes. We try to include an ACCA residual-clause case in about every second or third volume of the United States Reports.
My assessment has not been changed by the Court's later decisions in the ACCA "series." Today's opinion, which adds to the "closest analog" test ... the "purposeful, violent, and aggressive" test ... and even the risky-as-the-least-risky test that I had proposed as the exclusive criterion, has not made the statute's application clear and predictable. And all of them together - or even the risky-as-the-least-risky test alone, I am now convinced - never will. The residual-clause series will be endless, and we will be doing ad hoc application of ACCA to the vast variety of state criminal offenses until the cows come home.
Scalia found especially unhelpful the Court's technocratic analysis through crime statistics of what felonies tend to be associated with violence (a chronic problem with using the ever-changing body of social science research to determine the meaning of a statute or Constitutional term that was adopted at a fixed point in time):
[T]he more fundamental problem with the Court's use of statistics is that, far from eliminating the vagueness of the residual clause, it increases the vagueness. Vagueness, of course, must be measured ex ante - before the Court gives definitive meaning to a statutory provision, not after. Nothing is vague once the Court decrees precisely what it means. And is it seriously to be expected that the average citizen would be familiar with the sundry statistical studies showing (if they are to be believed) that this-or-that crime is more likely to lead to physical injury than what sundry statistical studies (if they are to be believed) show to be the case for burglary, arson, extortion, or use of explosives? To ask the question is to answer is to answer it.
Finally, Scalia homes in on the real culprit: an overly-meddlesome Congress:
We face a Congress that puts forth an ever-increasing volume of laws in general, and of criminal laws in particular. It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nittygritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt. I do not think it would be a radical step - indeed, I think it would be highly responsible - to limit ACCA to the named violent crimes. Congress can quickly add what it wishes. Because the majority prefers to let vagueness reign, I respectfully dissent.
2. DePierre v. United States: Lawmaking By Legislative History
One of Justice Scalia's best-known crusades, at least among lawyers, is against the use of legislative history to determine the meaning of statutes. Now, there are good reasons at times to look at the historical record at the time a statute or Constitutional provision was enacted to get a general sense of how terms were understood at the time and what problem a particular enactment was targeted at, but Scalia's point is twofold: (1) when Congress speaks clearly, its work should not be undone by what was said at some point by some participant in the legislative debate and (2) legislative history is rarely a trustworthy guide to what the majority who voted for a bill intended - it can easily capture just the thinking of some staffers. And of course, if you have to research legislative history every time lawyers argue over a statute, that makes litigation more expensive, and the law harder to understand for non-lawyers who don't keep volumes of USCCAN on their bookshelves.
In a characteristically acid-tipped concurrence to an opinion by Justice Sotomayor holding that "cocaine base," for sentencing purposes, includes all forms of cocaine base and not just crack, Justice Scalia unloaded on the Court for taking the time to include a discussion of legislative history in its analysis:
Everything in-between could and should have been omitted. Even if Dr. Byck had not lectured an undetermined number of likely somnolent Congressmen on "the damaging effects of cocaine smoking on people in Peru," ... we would still hold that the words "cocaine base" mean cocaine base. And here, as always, the needless detour into legislative history is not harmless. It conveys the mistaken impression that legislative history could modify the text of a criminal statute as clear as this. In fact, however, even a hypothetical House Report expressing the Committee's misunderstanding (or perhaps just the Committee staff's misunderstanding, who knows?) that "cocaine base means crack cocaine" could not have changed the outcome of today's opinion.
3. Talk America, Inc. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co.: Lawmaking By Bureaucratic Fiat
In the third of today's trilogy, Justice Scalia filed a concurrence to an opinion by Justice Thomas regarding the meaning of some FCC regulations. There are longstanding rules (subject to some exceptions not relevant here) under which courts defer to administrative agencies in determining the meaning of the statute the agency is charged with enforcing. Justice Scalia wrote separately to explain why he was rethinking one corollary to that rule, extending deference to an agency's interpretation of its own regulations:
On the surface, it seems to be a natural corollary - indeed, an a fortiori application - of the rule that we will defer to an agency's interpretation of the statute it is charged with implementing ... But it is not. When Congress enacts an imprecise statute that it commits to the implementation of an executive agency, it has no control over that implementation (except, of course, through further, more precise, legislation). The legislative and executive functions are not combined. But when an agency promulgates an imprecise rule, it leaves to itself the implementation of that rule, and thus the initial determination of the rule's meaning. And though the adoption of a rule is an exercise of the executive rather than the legislative power, a properly adopted rule has fully the effect of law. It seems contrary to fundamental principles of separation of powers to permit the person who promulgates a law to interpret it as well. "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner." Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws ...
Obamacare Waivers and Bureaucratic Lawmaking
The issue of combining the executive and judicial functions was a great source of controversy during the Bush years, as many liberals reacted with loud horror at the Bush Administration's use of "signing statements" - a longstanding practice used by all prior Administrations - to announce where it would not comply with laws it deemed unconstitutional. Yet the problem has mushroomed under the Obama Administration, with nary a peep from the same critics - not only has Obama continued the use of signing statements, he has also refused to defend the constitutionality of duly-enacted laws. And of course, the excessive reliance on bureaucracies to make, enforce and construe the law has expanded apace under this Administration together with its push for more regulations, more "czars," and more government meddling in business.
The latest example of this is the news that Obamacare - the bill you famously had to pass to find out what was in it - doesn't expressly authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to grant waivers from the statute's requirements:
[T]he Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) never had the authority to issue waivers from Obamacare's annual limit requirements.
This is a far larger issue than signing statements, given the massive reach of the statute into American domestic life, and the waiver process is a graphic real-world illustration of Justice Scalia's concern about arbitrary enforcement when laws are not clear on their face, accountable to Congress and applied uniformly across the population:
In what's become a bit of a pattern for the Obama administration, there's at least an appearance of political favoritism in favor of those who lobbied for HHS to grant itself waiver power. Many of the administration's nearly 1,400 waivers, including the waivers that went to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district in April, went to companies and entities that lobbied their support behind HHS's drive to grant itself that power.
United States v Johnny Edwards
For another such graphic illustration, look no further than John Edwards, a two-time presidential candidate who 59 million Americans voted to make Vice President in 2004, and who now stands under indictment for taking money from contributors to cover up an affair and illegitimate child. I have no sympathy whatsoever for Edwards, but after the initial rush of schadenfreude wore off, the fact remains that his criminal prosecution, too, raises some troubling questions about the complexity of the law. Much of the original debate about the legal investigation of Edwards was about whether he could be charged with misusing campaign contributions to pay off his mistress, on the theory that this is not a valid campaign purpose. But instead, Edwards was charged under precisely the opposite theory: that taking money from big backers to pay off his mistress, without reporting them as campaign contributions, violated FEC rules because paying her off was for the purpose of advancing his campaign. Edwards was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.
This is, if you recall, not the first time a major figure on the national political scene has faced a campaign finance investigation or prosecution under rules that are far from clear, ranging from the IRS investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich to the investigation of then-Vice President Al Gore to the conviction of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. In each case, there was much controversy over the complexity of the rules involved and the lack of precedents for the charges being levelled - witness Gore's famous lament, under a provision of the Pendleton Act that hadn't been enforced since 1883, that there was "no controlling legal authority." You may find these protestations unconvincing as to those politicians you disagree with, but one of the basic principles of clarity in the law is that you shouldn't pass criminal statutes if you wouldn't be prepared to see them used against someone you like. Ad hoc-racy is not democracy in the world of campaign finance any more than it is under the ACCA.
Maybe we need to listen more to Justice Scalia and that old military maxim, KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
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May 25, 2011
In the past three years, there have been three special elections in upstate New York in districts the GOP could or should have won.
Each time, the GOP bigwigs nominated a member of the hated and dysfunctional state legislature.
Each time, the grassroots was dissatisfied with the nominee, who lost.
In 2010, Republicans picked up five House seats in New York - more than any other state - and not one of those newly-elected Members of Congress was a state legislator.
Coincidence? I don't think so. More here. And for Democrats spinning this as a national-referendum or indicator of a coming wave like Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts in early 2010, a reminder here of a key feature of Brown's win: it was a statewide race with presidential-election level turnout, something we haven't seen in any of the special House races the past three years.
POLITICS: The Stakes
Excellent Paul Ryan video that neatly captures the two sides' differing approaches to controlling the explosive growth of the costs of Medicare:
May 13, 2011
POLITICS: Kohl Out
I told you last month that Herb Kohl, Wisconsin's Democratic senior Senator, hadn't raised even a penny in the first quarter of 2011, leading to questions about whether he would run for re-election in 2012. Kohl was best known for being not known - he kept an extremely low profile in the Senate, and the best you can say of his Senate career is that, to quote Animal House, Kohl has a long tradition of existence in the Senate. Today he makes it official: he's not running for re-election in 2012.
Kohl's retirement sets off a scramble to identify the candidates for what will doubtless be a very high-profile race, given the recent political controversies in Wisconsin and its status as a potentially crucial 2012 swing state. The A-list Democratic candidate is recently deposed Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who commands loyalty from the base and top-flight fundraising capability; given that Feingold was beaten in 2010 by relative unknown Ron Johnson (52%-47%) without the assistance of a scandal or other major controversy, running him sets up a pure test of whether the state's rightward shift will endure in 2012 with the elevated turnout of a national election.
The GOP "dream" candidate is Paul Ryan, who of course is also being courted in some circles to be a presidential or vice presidential contender, but Ryan has a safe lock on an otherwise Democratic-leaning district, a powerful perch in the House and young kids, so he may pass on this race. The other main candidate who's already jumped in is former two-term Congressman Mark Neumann, who lost a moderately close race to Feingold in 1998 (50.55%-48.40%) and finished a distant second to Scott Walker in the 2010 Gubernatorial primary.
Then again: it's a job opening in Wisconsin, and guess who's out of work!
Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:54 AM | Politics 2011 | Politics 2012 | Comments (21) | TrackBack (0)
May 3, 2011
WAR/POLITICS: Podcasting on Bin Laden
I dropped by Coffee and Markets to talk about 9/11 and the takedown of bin Laden. A few of the points I was making came out a bit awkwardly, but it was a fun show.
My voice always sounds better in my head than it does on radio, where I come out sounding way too much like Kermit the Frog.
WAR/POLITICS: Inconvenient Facts About The Takedown of Osama bin Laden
One good rule of thumb if you are arguing politics - or practicing law, as I do - is that if your argument requires you to prove that something never happens or somebody does nothing good or right, you have started off with two strikes against you. Never is a hard thing to prove and an easy one to disprove. In the real world, bad ideas work sometimes, bad people do good things sometimes, brilliant plans fail sometimes, and time and chance happen to us all. This is, in fact, why the wise conservative recognizes the wisdom of crowds and the benefit of tradition: things must be tried many times by many people to see what works most, and what works in one situation may not work in another. Thus, while we can fairly debate the respective amount of credit given to President Obama and his senior advisors for taking out Osama bin Laden, there is no useful cause served in arguing that the Administration should get no credit. Many national leaders far worse than Obama have done something right in office. In the long run, Obama's political success will stand or fall on his record as a whole.
A related caution is that the early news reports of almost anything are liable to be wrong, especially in wartime. I took great pleasure in the report offered by Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan that Osama bin Laden had died using one of his wives as a shield, but we are still seeing questions raised by some anonymous sources over the accuracy of Brennan's statements. Even if Brennan's account holds up, it may not be the last thing reported by the media regarding bin Laden's death that turns out not to be true.
With those two cautions in mind, we must pity the dilemma of the anti-war Left in facing the enormously popular and inarguably successful takedown of bin Laden.
To the mere Democratic partisan, there is no real conflict: as long as people like the results achieved under President Obama, his party wins. But the anti-war Left spent most of the Bush years shrieking to high heaven about Bush shredding the Constitution, staining the integrity of the nation, yadda yadda yadda. Everything he did in pursuing the War on Terror had to be the WORST THING EVER, and every effort made to argue that you were beyond the pale of civilization if you approved of the Iraq War, the detention of unlawful combatants at Guantanamo Bay or various secret CIA facilities, the use of "enhanced" coercive interrogation techniques (or for that matter any interrogation outside the Geneva Convention's name-rank-serial number questioning of traditional POWs), or the "assassination" of terrorists. This is the politics of outrage, the idea that you win arguments by being the angriest man in the room, that rather than argue that policies are not worth the costs and tradeoffs that come with every successful policy, they were inarguably wrong in every particular.
Consider the waterboarding debate. As it turns out, the CIA only waterboarded three men (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri), leading to the question of why the Left made such a colossal stink about it in the first place. Certainly, given those facts, nobody on the Right has argued that waterboarding or any other form of coercive interrogation should be the only or even the first recourse in interrogation (or even that they be used at all with criminal defendants or legitimate prisoners of war) - the argument is simply that these are sometimes-useful tools in an interrogator's toolkit and that, in some extreme hard cases, it can be justifiable to use those tools against the very worst hard-core senior terrorist leaders. But critics of waterboarding have mostly long since painted themselves into the corner of insisting that the tradeoffs involved don't need to be debated, because coercive interrogation never yields any information of any use in any situation.
This is poor ground to make a stand on.
Initial reports on the extensive detective work that led to cornering bin Laden have indicated a couple of things that are terribly inconvenient for these arguments. First, it appears that the initial lead that allowed bin Laden to be tracked down was the name of his courier (he used one or more couriers so he could stay off cell phones and the internet, a lesson he learned after a criminal trial revealed that our intelligence services were tracking him by cell phone), and that the nom de guerre of the courier was provided by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libi to CIA interrogators. Both men had been held at precisely the sorts of "secret prisons" the Left denounced, and both subjected to coercive interrogation; in KSM's case he was one of the three men waterboarded. The Left, being unable to accept even the possibility that waterboarding might have contributed anything ever to anyone, has sprung into full damage-control mode, but inadvertently made many of conservatives' points for us. For example, ThinkProgress apparently thinks it is helping the cause by quoting Don Rumsfeld on the key leads coming from "normal interrogation tactics" at Guantanamo. But of course, if you spent years arguing that Guantanamo should be shuttered and all detainees subjected to the Geneva Conventions and tried in civilian courts, accepting this premise destroys your entire argument. Spencer Ackerman makes a lengthier effort to distance the information given by KSM and al-Libi to CIA interrogators:
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003, with al-Libbi following suit in 2005. A U.S. official tells the Associated Press reports that Mohammed gave up the courier's nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, while in one of the CIA's brutal "black site" prisons. As Marcy Wheeler notes, that's not the same thing as saying the 183 waterboarding sessions Mohammed received led interrogators to the nom de guerre. But let's be charitable to them and presume it did. According to the Washington Post, al-Libbi confirmed the alias as well.
Once again, Ackerman has to concede basically every other piece of the Left's argument - against GTMO, against CIA interrogation, against secret CIA prisons - in order to protect the Holy Grail of arguing that waterboarding never, ever, ever works. What he's left with is the contention that when a guy confesses to the good cop, that means the bad cop was not a factor in anything that followed (the phrase "fruit of the poisonous tree" may ring a bell to some lawyers). And oh, yeah, those two guys gave up the lead that started it all.
It gets worse for Ackerman's side:
It took more traditional sleuthing to get al-Kuwaiti's real name, according to the Times. That meant putting more operatives on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan to track him, yielding a partial name. Once they had that, they unleashed "one of their greatest investigative tools": the National Security Agency's surveillance net. The NSA monitored email and phone traffic until they had his full name: Shaikh Abu Ahmed.
You will note the absence of any reference to the NSA getting a search warrant for this. Once again, after all the huffing and puffing and lawsuits about NSA surveillance, it turns out that it, too, played a part in tracking down Public Enemy #1.
Are we done yet? No, we're not. Thankfully, due perhaps to being off the internet grid, bin Laden wasn't tipped off to the fact that we were on his trail by the fact that WikiLeaks had disclosed files showing we had tracked the courier by name to Abbottabad. But from WikiLeaks' files we learn something else very interesting:
The file suggests that the courier's identity was provided to the US by another key source, the al-Qaida facilitator Hassan Ghul, who was captured in Iraq in 2004 and interrogated by the CIA. Ghul was never sent to Guantanamo but was believed to have been taken to a prison in Pakistan.
So much for the idea that the Iraq War yielded us no benefits in the hunt for bin Laden.
Is all of this the last word on how bin Laden was tracked down? Of course not. As I said at the outset, we are likely to learn a good deal more, and perhaps unlearn some things that have already been reported. But that's why it's not a good idea to make arguments that only work if the other side is 100% wrong about everything. It's why Attorney General Holder professes himself agnostic as to whether "enhanced" interrogation contributed anything to getting bin Laden and Press Secretary Carney won't answer the same question. The American people seem to know better; while the first poll on the subject gives good marks to President Obama for handling bin Laden, his approval rating tops out at a bump up to 56%, 51% (including more than a third of Democrats) also say that President Bush deserves some credit as well. Certainly the facts as we know them right now support the conclusion that you can't separate the capture of bin Laden from the multifaceted Bush approach to counterterrorism that produced the witnesses and leads that let the intelligence and defense apparatus do its job in running the investigation - and Osama bin Laden - to ground.
April 21, 2011
POLITICS/BUSINESS: Concentrated Ignorance
The Soros-funded "Think Progress" (two lies for the price of one!) pays a number of writers to obsess about finding the Koch brothers under their bed. Powerline's John Hinderaker administers a spectacular beat-down to one of those writers, Lee Fang, on the subject of a particularly loopy conspiracy theory about oil futures. It's quite clear that Fang does not know even the first thing about the commodity futures markets or the oil business, and makes one glaring error after another on the subject - not minor errors, mind you, but errors like not having the first clue how markets work, how oil companies make money, or how oil prices were affected by the global economic slowdown in late 2008.
It can often be frustrating dealing with left-wing blogs, because they have so much more paid manpower and free time compared to the largely volunteer corps of conservative blogs, which are disproportionately staffed by people with day jobs and families. But in cases like this one, what matters more is the competitive advantage of the conservative blogosphere in having more people who have actual experience in the business world.
April 20, 2011
POLITICS: Abortion By The Numbers
With the recent debate over federal taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood bringing the abortion debate back to the surface, it is sometimes useful to look at the numbers to get a little perspective on why this issue is such a large one. (All of these are estimates, and sources vary, but there's no serious debate as to the scale of the numbers).
Number killed or missing in action in all wars in U.S. history: 1,343,812. Adding the wounded: 2,489,335.
Number killed or missing in action in U.S. wars since 1973: 12,387. Adding the wounded: 96,680.
Number of executions in U.S. history dating back to 1608: 15,269.
Number of executions in U.S. history dating back to 1930: 3,859.
Number of executions in U.S. history dating back to 1977 (after the Supreme Court lifted a decade-long moratorium): 1,099 through 2008.
Number killed in the September 11 attacks: 2,977.
Number of detainees waterboarded by the CIA under President Bush: 3.
Number of abortions in the U.S. since 1973: 53,310,843 through 2010.
Number of abortions per year in the U.S. since 1973: 1,402,917.
Number of abortions per month in the U.S. since 1973: 116,910.
Number of abortions per week in the U.S. since 1973: 26,979.
Number of abortions per day in the U.S. since 1973: 3,841.
Number of abortions by Planned Parenthood in the U.S. in 2009: 332,278, more than 900 per day, or 27.6% of all abortions in the U.S.
You know, there are a lot of issues I care about, as a conservative Republican. I don't especially like having to draw lines in the sand over abortion, and if you're reading this, even if you're pro-life, chances are you don't either. But it is useful at times to prick our consciences with the sheer scale of this atrocity, happening daily under our noses. Liberal activists and lawyers devote massive efforts every year to battling the death penalty - yet all the executions of the post-Roe era don't even add up to a third of a day's worth of the number of abortions. We agonize, and rightly so, over the cost in life of our wars - but the toll of abortion is equal to fighting the Battle of Antietam, or two Battles of Okinawa, every single week, or two entire Vietnam Wars every month. Our commentariat was racked with paroxysms of moral reproach over three prisoners being waterboarded, yet considers it gauche to even mention well over three thousand abortions daily, each of which destroys a biologically unique human being. (Your religion may override your regard for the science, but there's no way around the fact that an unborn child has his or her own unique genetic code, the definitive scientific hallmark of an individual).
Numbers alone can't make the moral judgments that constitute public policy for us. But they can certainly inform our sense of perspective. And looking at the number of abortions is a reminder that maybe, sometimes, we go too far in trying to make this just another issue.
March 17, 2011
POLITICS: Andrew Cuomo Wakes Up And Smells The Tea
The biggest political story of 2011 is at the state level, where new Republican governors like Scott Walker and Rick Snyder have followed in the footsteps of Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie by seeking not only to cut short-term spending to address their states' immediate budget crises while resisting tax hikes, but to attack the #1 source of their states' long-term fiscal problems: excessive long-term commitments to pay and benefits for (mostly unionized) state and local public employees. Local Democrats in many states have responded with apoplexy, reflecting their political and financial dependence on those same unions. In other states, where the Democrats still hold the statehouses, they've had to swallow some spending cuts, but are nonetheless in denial - Jerry Brown in California has tried to close his budget gap with a 50/50 mix of spending cuts and tax hikes, Mark Dayton in Minnesota has pandered to the DailyKos crowd by proposing to double the state's top income tax bracket, Connecticut's Dan Malloy - elected by the slimmest of margins - blasted Walker's collective bargaining reforms as "Un-American" and proposed a battery of tax hikes, and Maryland's Martin O'Malley even went to the Corzine-esque extreme of giving the keynote speech at a union protest against his own budget, swearing to avoid "Midwestern oppression."
But oddly, at least one newly-elected Democratic governor seems to have come to grips thus far with reality, and it's maybe the unlikeliest of all: New York's Andrew Cuomo. The son of liberal icon Mario Cuomo, the Clinton-era HUD Secretary, the successor to Eliot Spitzer as the state's crusading Attorney General; nothing in Cuomo's history before the 2010 election suggests he's anything but a standard-issue liberal. Nor did he take office under any urgent need to court swing voters; while New York's usually liberal electorate gave the state Senate back to the GOP and swung more House seats from D to R than any other state in the Union, Cuomo himself cruised to victory by almost 30 points over his clownish self-funded challenger, Carl Paladino, and the state GOP boasts a depressingly shallow bench of prospective challengers.
Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo's agenda sounds like it could come straight out of the Christie-Walker playbook. The NY Daily News' Bill Hammond has an overview of Cuomo's promises and the obstacles he's faced, mainly from his own party. Some highlights:
-Negotiating for concessions on existing contracts from the public employee unions.
-Cutting health care, Medicaid and education spending. (see here; a quarter of the state's residents are on Medicaid).
-Capping property taxes to "limit the growth of these levies to 2% a year or the inflation rate, whichever is less," similar to the cap passed by Christie in New Jersey. (see here on how the cap would work to restrain school spending; the cap easily passed the GOP-controlled State Senate but faces stiff resistance from the Democrat-controlled Assembly and has provoked outrage from the teachers' union).
-Opposing all new tax hikes, especially a "millionaire's tax" on incomes above $200,000 promoted by the Assembly Democrats and supported by $1.5 million in ads run by the teachers' union (see here).
-Touting reform of the LIFO (last in, first out) rules that require teacher layoffs to be done by seniority rather than performance. (see here; Cuomo has backed down on doing anything about the LIFO rules but claims to be willing to replace them if a new system is installed for evaluating public school teachers).
As Hammond notes, Cuomo's progress - and even the sincerity of his commitment, as on the LIFO issue - has been uneven; he's yet to get real concessions from the Assembly or the unions (other than getting buy-in from hospitals and health-care unions on his health care cuts) and still faces a battle with Senate Republicans over ethics and gerrymandering bills. But if Cuomo has made some of the right enemies, he's made some strange bedfellows, too. His approval/disapproval ratings among Republicans are the same as among Democrats, and Rudy Giuliani has noticed that Cuomo is facing New York's fiscal realities by working from the GOP playbook:
Giuliani said in an interview Wednesday that the Democratic governor "has gotten off to a very good start."
And while Cuomo has to navigate public-sector union opposition, he's actually getting backing for his budget and tax proposals from what may be as much as $10 million in outside ads by the Committee to Save New York, a post-Citizens United alliance of business and real estate interests with private sector construction unions and the public support of Democratic former comptroller and onetime bitter Cuomo foe Carl McCall. Here is a taste of the Committee's ads:
The question is why Governor Cuomo is trying to govern like a Republican, at least on fiscal issues. Certainly, after a life in liberal-Democratic circles, he's hardly had a road-to-Damascus conversion of principle, and he faces no real threat from the state GOP. The obvious reason is simple realism: even David Paterson tried to get a property tax cap passed. The state's finances are such a garish illustration of the failure of big-government liberalism that only a complete fool could deny the need for a change of course. A second reason is that Cuomo is, whatever his other faults, a guy who believes in doing things. He doesn't want to end up as the same impotent failure, hog-tied by dysfunctional Albany, as his three predecessors (George Pataki, like many moderate Republicans, had a good first year in office but followed it by not really accomplishing squat for the next 11 years; Spitzer was flailing even before "Client #9," and the functionally illiterate Paterson never had a prayer). The money's just not there for more liberal experiments; unless the state changes its ways, Cuomo will leave office with nothing accomplished, and he knows it. A third may be that Cuomo's investigations of the corruption in state pension funds - including targeting former Democrat comptroller Alan Hevesi and Obama Administration 'car czar' Steve Rattner - opened his eyes to the depth of corruption in business-as-usual Albany. And national ambition may be another driver - if Barack Obama wins a second term solely by virtue of a weak GOP field in 2012, four more years of Obama will almost certainly leave the Democrats looking for a new national leader unencumbered by Obama's fiscal profligacy if they hope to survive. Cuomo may be hoping to craft an image as some sort of fiscal centrist with an eye on 2016.
New York conservatives, often scorned and abandoned by the state GOP, don't and shouldn't trust Andrew Cuomo any further than we can throw him. But we can certainly get behind enough of his agenda to send the message far and wide that even blue-state liberal Democrats recognize the need for Daniels/Christie/Walker-style reforms to how our states do business. If even Andrew Cuomo can wake up and smell the tea, why can't your state?
March 15, 2011
POLITICS: 95% of the Public Supports Spending Cuts?
Greg Sargent, the Washington Post's in-house left-wing activist, has a hilarious post up analyzing the latest WaPo poll. (The post was originally entitled, "The pubic agrees with Dems, but they don’t know it," although eventually someone caught on and fixed the typo.)
Everybody has typos; what's more enduringly amusing is Sargent's effort at spin:
A big majority, 64 percent, thinks the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit is through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes, while only 31 percent think the best way is through only spending cuts. The former position is the one held by most Dems, while the latter is the one held by many Republicans.
(Italics in original; bold added). If you are keeping score at home, you just heard a left-wing activist admit that 95% of the public believes spending cuts are the best way to reduce the deficit, whether or not that plan also includes tax hikes. Going to the poll itself, only 3% believe the best way to cut the deficit is simply raising taxes. And what's more, that's the public - not likely voters or even registered voters, but all adults. Which is one reason why the entire poll is garbage ("all adults" don't vote for issues; voters vote for candidates). Another, of course, is that Sargent is, as usual, mouthing talking points here in claiming that the Democrats want serious spending cuts (this narrative doesn't even last the whole piece, as later on he cites support for "the Democratic argument that budget cuts will cause job loss," which is more like what Democrats usually argue when these issues come to a head. But notice that the Post didn't ask whether tax hikes would cost jobs, the answer to that one being painfully obvious). And as noted, even with all the poll's flaws, there's only 3% public support for closing the budget gap by soaking the taxpayer.
As I've explained previously, the real argument worth having isn't about the deficit at all, it's about what the ratio of public spending should be to private sector income, with the deficit being only a symptom of the problem of public spending crowding out the private sector. Sargent is trying to frame the debate as one about closing the deficit in a way that reduces the focus on spending cuts, and using an essentially worthless poll to do so. But when even that poll shows respondents by a 95-3 margin saying you have to cut spending to cut the deficit, the Democrats should think long and hard about choosing that hill to die on.
March 7, 2011
POLITICS: Fighting The Last War
This is a slight tangent, but having read only glancingly about him over the years, I hadn't known that Taylor was a fraud. It's amazing how many of the most famous early celebrity "scientists" and pseudo-scientists this is true of - Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Mead, to pick a few obvious examples (Rachel Carson's work stops short of outright fabrication of studies, but doesn't stand up much better to retrospective scrutiny). One of the lessons we should have learned years ago is that really groundbreaking research needs to be double-checked - sometimes it's completely bogus, and even when it's diligently done, further evaluation usually turns up more qualifiers. And yet, the widely-publicized theories of these "pioneers" ended up lingering long in public consciousness.
POLITICS: Figures Don't Lie
In case you missed it, Iowahawk had some fun at the expense of a fairly typical example of Paul Krugman's work. He responds further here.
February 18, 2011
POLITICS: I Don't Want No Tea. It Gives Me A Headache.
February 9, 2011
POLITICS: Making Stuff Up
As anyone who has spent any time reading them knows, left-wing bloggers and activists tend to live in a world of their own, in which the most outrageous sorts of allegations against conservatives and Republicans are not required to be supported by any evidence. This is especially true when it comes to accusing conservatives and Republicans of bigotry and other improper motivations; left-wingers feel free to lecture us on how they know better than we do what motivates us and how we think, and leave conservatives and Republicans stuck attempting to disprove a negative.
In theory, the Washington Post is supposed to be a reputable newspaper and above this sort of thing. But Greg Sargent, the former Talking Points Memo blogger and the Post's current in-house left-wing activist, doesn't see himself as bound by such mundane considerations as having evidence before slandering an entire movement. Consider this Tweet today from Sargent:
Hah! RT @Redshift4 TP leader compares Tea Party to abolitionism, civil rights, & women's suffrage. // 3 things they want to reverse
I saved a screenshot here in case he takes it down:
Now, if you're familiar with Twitter, this Tweet is sort of odd, as he appears to be Retweeting a user named @Redshift4 and adding his own comment after the slashes, but @Redshift4 appears to have only Tweeted once and this wasn't in that Tweet. So, it's not clear at all how much of this Tweet is Sargent's "original" thought or, for that matter, what Tea Party "leader" (there are almost as many as there are Tea Partiers, which if you know anything about the movement is kind of the point) he's quoting. But it is nonetheless clear that Sargent is at least endorsing the notion that "they" - presumably all Tea Partiers - want to "reverse" the work of the abolitionists, the civil rights movement and women's suffrage and restore slavery, Jim Crow and the male-only vote.
This is outrageous. I realize that slandering grassroots opponents of the Obama Administration is considered necessary by the left-wing blogs, that left-wing bloggers are often so unfamiliar with ordinary Americans as to find their motivations inscrutable, and that Twitter lends itself to off-the-cuff oversimplifications. And I realize that grassroots movements, by their nature, include a broad enough array of opinion and attract enough cranks that you can find somebody in a movement of millions to support just about any old fool thing. But we are talking here about bedrock elements of our Constitutional structure - the 13th, 14th, 15th and 19th Amendments - and legal and social changes that are by now deeply embedded in our society, none of which has anything to do with the stated purposes by which the Tea Party movement has attracted such a wide following. Sargent cites no evidence, and I expect him to cite none, that any significant sliver of the Tea Party movement, let alone the dreaded "they" that appears to refer to the entire movement, has designs on reinstituting slavery and segregation and denying women the vote. Even the 9/11 Truthers had more to work with than this.
The Washington Post should consider whether it stands by Sargent's characterization of the motives of the entire Tea Party.
February 3, 2011
POLITICS: It's The Coverup
I'm about due for the next installment of my "Science and its Enemies on the Left" series, last updated here, and doubtless another example will be today's scoop at RedState showing the Obama Administration deep-sixing the CDC's annual report on abortion statistics.
Really, I feel sorry by this point for anyone who fell for Obama's rhetoric about his fearless support for scientific integrity. Specifically, it's been a bad couple of weeks for advocates of concealing the reality of abortion, and it's going to get worse.
January 24, 2011
POLITICS: Why 2012 Is Not 1996
A little history can be a dangerous thing, and in advance of Tuesday's State of the Union Address by President Obama, political commentary will be focusing on Obama's ability to replay 1995-96, when President Clinton rebounded from a similar rout in the midterm elections to more or less coast to re-election (while Clinton finished below 50% of the popular vote, it was only a "coming home" of Republicans in the campaign's closing weeks that averted a more lopsided result; the outcome was not seriously in doubt).
Undoubtedly, Obama will have the opportunity to take advantage of many of the same dynamics that favored Clinton's re-election, and he may succeed for those and other reasons. But history never repeats itself precisely. It is worthwhile to reflect on the many things that worked to Clinton's benefit that Obama can't count on:
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1) The Democrats Still Hold The Senate: Clinton lost both Houses of Congress in the midterms, the third president of the past century to do so, the others being Truman in 1946 and Eisenhower in 1954. Both were re-elected; Truman used the GOP as a foil to confront, Eisenhower showed he could cooperate with the Democrats, and Clinton did some of both. Each was able in one sense or another to run on the same divided-government rationale that had helped them lose Congress in the first place.
Obama won't have the same crisp contrast with Congress; the unpopular Harry Reid is still running the Senate, and sooner or later it will become impossible to conceal that fact. History suggests that this can matter: Obama's the third President in the past century to lose only the House and keep the Senate in the midterms, and the other two - Taft and Hoover - both got slaughtered (Hoover carried just six states and drew 39.7% of the popular vote, Taft carried just two states, finished third in a three-way race and drew just 23.4% of the popular vote).
2) The GOP Candidate in 2012 Will Not Be A Leader of The GOP Congress: A hugely underrated factor in Clinton's revival was the fact that his opponent was also one of the leaders of the Congressional Republicans across the table from him; in addition to Bob Dole's other flaws as a candidate (his age, his status as an ideas-free compromise-driven moderate, his lack of executive experience), Dole couldn't run a campaign independent of Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Congressional GOP, which not only tied him down on particular issues but also diminished him in the eyes of the public, as Clinton alone would negotiate with - and face down - a team of which Dole was only one representative. Whoever the GOP nominates in 2012 will have the ability a presidential candidate usually has to declare some level of independence from his or her Congressional party.
3) Obamacare passed; Hillarycare didn't: As unpopular as the Clinton Administration's health care plan was, it wasn't a major issue in the 1996 campaign because it had failed and, with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, it wasn't coming back. (Ditto Clinton's destructive BTU tax). Not so Obamacare, which remains very much a live issue. There's clearly a decisive majority supporting repeal right now in the House, and possibly a majority could be mustered in the Senate (certainly if the GOP gains more seats in 2012), but obviously not enough votes to override Obama's veto. Unless Mitt Romney wins the nomination, the GOP will almost certainly run a presidential candidate who can and will mount a full-throated campaign in favor of repealing the bill. The same will be broadly true of a number of Obama's big-spending, big-regulating initiatives.
4) The Economy: The unemployment rate is the most obvious of numerous economic indicators showing the U.S. economy in bad shape in 2011: unemployment, as low as 4.3% when voters elected the Democrats to control Congress in November 2006, was 6.5% when Obama was elected and 8.5% when he was inaugurated, and he expended much political capital arguing that his "stimulus" package would fix this with federal spending on "shovel-ready" projects; instead it peaked at 10.6% in January 2010, and remains above 9% a year later. These are very high numbers historically; since 1960, the unemployment rate has been above 6% on election day five times, and the only time the party in power wasn't booted was 1984, when the 7.2% rate was the lowest it had been since before President Reagan took office and had plunged more than three points in two years. By contrast, the unemployment rate in 1996 was 5.4%, down from 7.4% when Bill Clinton was elected. If Obama can't make the argument that Presidents Reagan and Clinton made - that they were not only making major headway on unemployment but in better shape than they were when elected (in Reagan's case, the slight drop in unemployment was accompanied by an enormous drop in interest rates and inflation and a stock market boom) - he'll face an electorate that is much more suspicious of entrusting him with the economy for four more years.
5) War: It is little remarked today, but a significant factor in Clinton's loss of prestige in 1993-94 was as a result of his obvious unreadiness to be Commander-in-Chief and resulting series of fiascos in the deployment - or not - of American troops. The timeline of that period shows a straight line from Clinton's indecsiveness in Somalia (the "Black Hawk Down" battle of Mogadishu) to the ignominious withdrawal of U.S. assistance from Haiti in the face of opposition armed mainly with machetes, to the genocide in Rwanda that followed when it was apparent that the U.S.-led "New World Order" would not have the will to back up its own rhetoric.
But to Clinton's good fortune, other than the situation in the former Yugoslavia (the massacre at Srebrenica took place in July 1995), the overall global situation was unusually peaceful in 1995-96, as the world continued to reap the dividends of the end of the Cold War and associated boom in international trade. Even longstanding hotspots like Northern Ireland, Palestine and South Africa were making efforts at peace; it would be a few years before it was obvious to casual observers that the September 1993 Oslo accords were not a plausible foundation for peace. Most importantly, by 1996 there were few American troops in harm's way. And the differences between Clinton and Dole on overall national security strategy were not dramatic. The election was fought almost entirely on domestic policy.
This will not be the case in 2012. America is still at war in Afghanistan, as well as maintaining a significant presence in brittle Iraq. It is possible that tensions with North Korea and the strategic rivalries with China and Russia could calm down, but the multifaceted issue of what do do about the threat of the political project of radical Islam remains a divisive issue, and the war in Afghanistan is specifically divisive within Obama's party in a way that no foreign policy question was in 1996. It's premature to predict how the national security issues will play out, but it's hard to imagine them being as completely secondary as they were in 1996.
6) Money: In 1996, Bill Clinton was able to raise a massive warchest and start spending it very early, famously deploying direct TV ads in battleground states as early as July 1995. Obama, who is expected to raise a billion dollars for his re-election, will have no trouble doing the same, but ironically, the Republican nominee in 2012 may be helped at the front end by the chaos of the presidential field; it will be more difficult to hammer one front-runner with ads the way Clinton did to Bob Dolegingrich (as you'd have thought his name was from the ads). And it seems unlikely, in the current environment, that the opposition will simply run out of money the way Dole did between wrapping up the primaries and launching his general election campaign. I'll be very surprised if the Republicans are as hobbled by a financial imbalance as they were in 1996.
7) Obama's Not Clinton: This should be an obvious point. Obama has his strengths as a politician, notably his ability to deliver prepared speeches, but he lacks Clinton's gifts as a retail politician, he's prickly when questioned, and of course unlike Clinton - who learned triangulation as a way of regaining the governorship of Arkansas after his 1980 defeat - Obama has no real experience of moderate governance to fall back on. Clinton signed a longstanding conservative policy priority (welfare reform), and didn't campaign against it; Obama's most significant nod to the center so far was signing a temporary extension of the Bush income tax cuts, but he has promised to run against them.
8) No Oklahoma City: One of the fortuitous events that played into Clinton's hands was the Oklahoma City bombing, and while Tim McVeigh was not in a conservative of any stripe, Clinton was able to slow the Right's momentum by blaming Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh for encouraging "anti-government" sentiment. Obama's allies tried the same thing with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but their palpable desire to score political advantage from the tragedy, combined with the fact that the shooter turned out to be a left-leaning nutjob with no connection whatsoever to conservatives, fatally undermined that argument, as subsequent polls have shown that solid majorities don't blame political debate for the shootings.
All of this is before we observe other features of the landscape not existing in 1996, like blogs and the Tea Party movement, as well as the possibility that John Boehner, having lived through 1995, will not repeat all of the same mistakes made by Newt Gingrich. As I said above, none of this is an argument that Obama is necessarily doomed or can't repeat some of the aspects of Clinton's revival plus some new tricks of his own. But treating 2012 as a straight replay of 1996 is not just bad punditry, it's bad history.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Politics 2011 | Politics 2012 | Comments (41) | TrackBack (0)
January 20, 2011
Patterico notes a meme being rapidly spread by left-wing bloggers: that Glenn Beck told his viewers to shoot Democratic Members of Congress in the head. This is, sadly, the kind of thing the left-blogs try to put over on their readers, hoping it will stick quickly before the facts can come out. But I would not advise doing that while the likes of Patterico are on the case.
Here's the actual transcript that Patterico links to, and as you can see, you'd need to be illiterate to fall for the spin being put on this. After a lengthy diatribe about the growing danger to Democrats posed by hard-core radicals and Communists in their own coalition, Beck concludes:
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Tea parties believe in small government. We believe in returning to the principles of our Founding Fathers. We respect them. We revere them. Shoot me in the head before I stop talking about the Founders. Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government.
Now, you may argue that Beck is being alarmist here with regard to the notion that domestic left-wing radicals are really all that likely to assassinate Nancy Pelosi, but that's not the argument that's being made; the argument being made is that Beck said something completely and totally different from what he was actually talking about. The "you" he is talking to is the Democratic leadership in Congress.
I'm almost embarrassed for anybody gullible enough that they fell for this one.
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January 19, 2011
POLITICS/LAW: The Winning Statistic in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
There are a welter of issues raised by the public policy debate over same-sex marriage and whether to treat it, for purposes of the law, as identical to traditional opposite-sex marriage. Among other things, there is the broader debate over the propriety of valuing tradition (i.e., the collected experience by trial and error of large numbers of people over time) and the respect we give to broad-based popular sovereignty in evaluating human relationships. But even treated purely as a matter of quantifiable empirical social science, the legal debate comes down to whether there exists any rational basis for distinguishing the two relationships. The burden of establishing the complete absence of such a rational basis is on the proponents of court-mandated "marriage equality." And new Census data makes that burden harder to carry.
While I'm in favor of granting civil-union status to consenting same-sex adults, I have made the point at great length previously (see here and here) that the most obvious legal argument for why opposite-sex relationships are different from same-sex relationships - and can be recognized as such in democratically-enacted laws - is that they are vastly more likely to produce children, for reasons so biologically obvious they should not have to be repeated. Now the New York Times has given us some statistics from the Census Bureau that confirm the relatively low number of same-sex couples that are raising children (even before we get to the issue of bearing biological children): "About a third of lesbians are parents, and a fifth of gay men are." The Times article breaks this out by region, but even its most optimistic spin shows an incidence of child-rearing that would be very low by the standards of opposite-sex couples:
About 32 percent of gay couples in Jacksonville are raising children, Mr. Gates said, citing the 2009 Census data, second only to San Antonio, where the rate is about 34 percent.
Consider, by contrast, the overall Census data for married couples. If you compare the "All Families" line to the "With own children, any age" line, you can quickly calculate that 60.2% of married couples have children in the household, and 74% of those include at least one child under age 18. If you break it out by the age of the heads of household, you see that a very large proportion of married couples in the prime child-bearing years have children at home - 24.6% for married teenagers, 37.7%, 22.8% and 26.1% for married couples 55-64, 65-74 and age 75+, respectively, but for the prime years 58.5% (age 20-24), 69.8% (25-29), 80.6% (30-34), 86.2% (35-39), 84.9% (40-44), 77.8% (45-49), and 62.1% (50-54). And the declining numbers after age 55 simply reflect people who have finished the job of parenthood. If that's not a statistically significant disparity, what would be? I defy anybody to come up with any significantly-sized sample of same-sex couples at any age that shows over 80-85% to be engaged in raising children.
At the end of the day, this is why the real action in the legal battle - other than simply judge-shopping - is in the proponents trying to change the legal standard by which their evidence should be judged. Because the data is against them.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Law 2009-13 | Politics 2011 | Comments (27) | TrackBack (0)
January 17, 2011
POLITICS/HISTORY: Rev. King's Day
We celebrate today a national holiday in honor of an ordained minister of Jesus Christ.
There are three men in American history distinguished enough that they have been honored with a national holiday - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King jr. - but only Dr. King has been honored solely for his time as a private citizen, having never held public office or military commission.
Unsurprisingly, to be so honored, all three men hold lessons for conservatives and liberals alike. All were in some sense revolutionary figures, unwilling to sit quietly on the status quo for the sake of comity and going along to get along, even at the sake of personal danger and the making of many enemies. Washington took up arms against his own government, and forged a new nation unlike any that had come before. Lincoln led a new, sometimes hard-edged political party that challenged a deeply embedded evil afoot in the nation, never backing down from his anti-slavery convictions even when accused of fomenting violence by anti-slavery radicals, nor when half the country took up arms in rebellion rather than accept his election. And Dr. King challenged, with stubborn persistence, the equally entrenched legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow laws. Yet by the same token, none of the three was a radical. Washington, like others of his generation, saw himself not as author of a new order but the protector of an Englishman's traditional liberties against novel encroachments such as new and unjust taxes. Lincoln, for all his hatred of slavery, was initially willing to accept the pragmatic half-measure of stopping its spread, and only came to the drastic step of emancipation in the midst of a horrible war. And Dr. King eschewed the call to arms of the African-American radicals of his day, pushing for reform through the system and calling on his fellow Americans not to reject their heritage but to live up to the promises of America's founding documents and answer to their Christian consciences.
America has never been an exclusively Christian country - Washington, for example, famously helped set the tone for religious pluralism with his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island - but we have relied again and again on the Christian faith of so many Americans to form an essential part of our national character. We cannot know where Dr. King's politics would have gone had he lived past 1968, and perhaps his legacy would be more complicated today if we did. Nor do we have any illusions that he was perfect; like many famous heroes of church and of state, and even prominent saints, he had his personal failings, such as plagiarism and adultery. But we know this much: it was no public office, no earthly wealth or power, but simply his faith in the redeeming power of Christ, for sinful men and sinful nations alike, that gave him the courage and the conviction to give moral leadership to a reluctant and at times bitterly hostile nation. Let us hope and pray we never run short of such inspiration.
January 13, 2011
I've been tied up a bit and was too late to the party to really add anything new to the blogospheric reaction to the Arizona shootings, but looking over the comments to this thread, I am reminded that many of the left-wingers still trying to score political points on this one are seriously beyond parody.
Everything we know about the Arizona shootings points to the same conclusions: Jared Lee Loughner was not any sort of political conservative or Republican, paid no attention to political conservatives or Republicans, didn't even vote in 2010, was your basic unhinged lunatic and recognized as such by the people around him, and had been obsessed with Congresswoman Giffords since 2007. Thus, any effort to use the shootings as an excuse to attack Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Jan Brewer, the Tea Party movement, etc. in any connection with the shootings is dishonest political opportunism, plain and simple. And yet the ecstasy of folks on the left in their immediate reactions to the shootings was palpable from the instant the story hit Twitter, and nearly none of those folks have allowed their initial reactions to be affected even slightly by the facts.
I know why this is being done, but I don't know why anybody should be expected to believe it. We all saw coming clearly the pre-existing desire of the Left to replicate how Bill Clinton benefitted from Oklahoma City. We also saw the the instant efforts to blame all the same people for the Discovery Channel shootings, the Holocaust Museum shootings, the suicide of a government worker in Kentucky, the Times Square bombing, the DC Sniper, etc., none of which held up at all after the facts came out. But the lesson of Hurricane Katrina remains embedded for the Left: the first out of the chute to build a narrative can set it in stone before the facts are available. So we see the same people using the same "frame" over and over again until they can get it to stick. This week's Word Of The Week was "eliminationist," which got recycled endlessly by Kos, Paul Krugman, Peter Daou and other usual suspects (samples here). Which is ironic, of course, as it is the Left that has conducted the noisiest campaign over the past several years to delegitimize the Tea Party and the Republicans it supports through a barrage that has little or nothing to do with discussion of political ideas and everything to do with trying to make citizen activists sound crazy, dangerous, racist, etc.
The merits of the argument that people on the Right were using "dangerous" rhetoric that could have hypothetically contributed to the shootings - even in the complete absence of any sign that they did - are also lame, best symbolized by this rather pathetic effort to explain why it's dangerous to use a crosshairs on a map of political election targets, but perfectly OK to use a bullseye. These angels-on-heads-of-pins distinctions are, unsurprisingly, not that effective in persuading the public, but effective in giving the media a deniable rationalization to keep running stories drawing a connnection that's not there.
What's left is a sort of passive-agressive rabbit-punching strategy: attack Sarah Palin in particular in an effort to politically destroy her over the shootings, then complain that she's politicizing the issue when she fights back (one day we had Chris Matthews saying Palin was "on the lam" for not addressing the attacks, the next she was being faulted for responding; heads I win, tails you lose). This is emblematic of people who cannot bear to take a fraction of what they dish out, and are uncomfortable with robust debate rather than a one-sided media narrative in which all media voices proceed from the same premises.
And you know who really has no standing to complain about extremists? Supporters of Barack Obama, that's who, as we can recall from the extensive evidence of Obama's long, sorded background with hate-spewing and in some cases violent extremists. Sarah Palin condemned Jared Lee Loughner after the fact; that may seem like a ridiculously low bar to set for public discourse until you consider that our current president directed large sums of grant money to Bill Ayers, an unrepentant member of the terrorist group the Weather Underground, to direct a distinctly politicized school curriculum after Ayers' crimes.* Of course, typical of the rabbit-punching strategy, the same people who concoct incredibly baroque theories trying to tie Sarah Palin to violent extremists argue that it is illegitimate and racist to discuss Obama's direct association with an actual terrorist.
None of the criticisms leveled at Palin or the Right in general here have been made in good faith. None at all.
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* - I have no idea if there is any credibility to this report that one such curriculum was used by the school attended by Loughner; World Net Daily is not exactly what you'd call a credible source. But the facts asserted by WND ought to be checkable, and checking them would give you the basis for an article less dependent on wholesale speculation than, say, this one.
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January 10, 2011
POP CULTURE: Bruce Springsteen and the Right
When New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss' signature anthem, 'Born to Run'. Governor Christie hails from Bruce's home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that's for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It's also partly demographic; Bruce's fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce's fanbase is - if anything - more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he's unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.
Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don't agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.
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One of the principal complaints of conservatives about the culture is that it's a sewer of indecency: too much sex, too much bad language, too much immorality of various kinds...in general, too much bombardment of the young and the unwilling with messages and imagery that subvert any effort to bring kids to maturity gradually, with the perspective of time.
Bruce may be a liberal, but on this count, he's been one of the good guys for a very long time. People bring their kids to Springsteen concerts and play his albums in the car without worry; out of his vast catalog, I can count on one hand the number of Springsteen songs I have to censor from my kids, and none of them are his major hits (on Live in Dublin, you can hear an audible crowd reaction to the line in 'Long Time Coming' where Bruce uses the F word). Bruce deals in adult themes without forcing his listeners into adulthood. Contrast this to a self-identified Republican like Britney Spears, who launched her career as an icon of underage sexuality, sings about threesomes and has presented an ongoing reality-show-style trainwreck of a life offstage.
In his personal life, Bruce is no perfect role model, but by and large he's avoided the public spectacle of a life of rock n' roll dissolution; he's raised a family (his first marriage collapsed quickly, but the second one has endured two decades), stayed out of trouble with the law, kept any tales of excess and vice out of the press. Clarence Clemons, in his book Big Man - which I highly recommend - recounts that Bruce had a "no drugs" policy for his band, more out of professionalism than anything else; while Clarence admits to violating this policy rather regularly, he nonetheless respected the fact that Bruce sought to hold himself and his band to some standards, if for no other reason than to keep the band from unraveling. (TIME's famous 1975 profile of Bruce noted his avoidance of drugs, an unusual stance in the 70s, a decade before Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign).
(2) Separation of Music and Politics
Bruce's first three albums were wholly apolitical; he didn't start to get into anything like social commentary until 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his first real stab at political activism was with the "No Nukes" concerts in the fall of 1979. Since then, his politics have been no secret, and Bruce's worldview has certainly made its way into his music. But for the most part, his songs seek to describe the world as he sees it and leave it to the listener to draw his or her own political conclusions. Anti-war songs like 'Souls of the Departed' and 'Devils & Dust' remained at a high level of generality and never veered into the self-parodic rantings of the likes of the Rolling Stones' 'Sweet Neo Con' or the tendentious retellings of fact in Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane' (which is still a great song, but a transparently political tract that makes a lot of demands of the listener).
Even when Bruce puts politics front and center in his music, he doesn't stack the deck against his audience. A perfect example is one of the rarer explicitly political songs in Bruce's catalog, 'American Skin (41 Shots)', a song about the politically charged shooting death in early 1999 of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean immigrant street vendor who was shot 41 times by a team of 4 New York City cops. The cops, for their part, contended that they thought he was pulling a weapon when he reached for his wallet to identify himself after being chased into the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building. In the hands of, say, Eddie Vedder or even Neil Young, an incident like this would have been an occasion for preachy denunciations of the cops as racist and trigger-happy. But Bruce, with a defter touch as a lyricist and understanding how many of his own fans are cops (many of whom protested the song when he debuted it at Madison Square Garden a few months after the shooting), was more balanced and sympathetic; while Diallo's innocent plight frames the song, the chorus starkly portrays the horrible life and death dilemma of the cops' split-second decision:
Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet, this is your life
Or consider 'Born in the USA,' which took on the hardships of many Vietnam veterans a decade after the fall of Saigon. Ronald Reagan, who presumably relied on his speechwriters for the line, famously misinterpreted the song as a straightforward patriotic anthem, which a lot of people did the first time they heard the chorus. Personally, I blame Bruce in part for the common misperception of that song; if he didn't want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the "USA! USA!" chant was at its highest ebb. But strippping away the iconography, the song itself simply tells the hard story of a guy who got shipped off to fight in Vietnam and couldn't catch a break ever since; while it's clearly an anti-war song (the best Bruce can come up with to describe the war's purpose is "go and kill the yellow man,") it's really neither a pro- nor anti-American song, just a human story of a group (Vietnam vets) that had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, the song symbolized the point in our history when the activist Left's hostility to the war and the men who fought it was giving way to a broad, bipartisan consensus that the veterans of that war needed to be treated better (the early to mid-80s were the same years that saw the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the election of pro- and anti-war Vietnam vets like John McCain and John Kerry to Congress).
Bruce has likewise mostly avoided excessive political speechmaking, signs and the like at his concerts; while he'll pop off now and then, he's a great believer in the idea that a concert is about "communion" with the audience, and so his shows never lose sight of the fact that Bruce is there to entertain and bond with the crowd, not to lecture from a distant pulpit.
(3) Roots and Respect
Related to the point about why people believed 'Born in the USA' was a patriotic anthem: for all Bruce's liberalism, and for all the times he's sung about breaking away from his native New Jersey as "a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young," he's always had an element of traditional love-my-hometown, blood-and-soil patriotism to him, and respect for his fellow Americans, that sets him apart from the cultural Left and its visceral contempt for both. Bruce has never been the type to bash America with broad-brush complaints about "Jesusland" and the like; you get the sense that he actually likes ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches, their muscle cars and their guns and their quaint middle-class notions about marriage and family and loyalty. As the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' sings, "Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good."
The idea of patriotism and familial loyalty in its classic form - the love of hearth and home, of the dear and familiar, a preference for one's own over others - is one of the foundation stones of any form of conservatism, and one that comes in for frequent scorn from the internationalists and transnationalists of the Left. Bruce's songs appeal to conservatives who hold these things dear because he treats them with the respect due to serious things. This aspect of Bruce's view of the world can be seen in his ease and even enthusiasm at mingling with fans of all stripes, but it's also all over his songwriting. The sense of geographic rootedness starts with the omnipresence of New Jersey in his writing, even when Bruce struggled for a time in the early 90s with the pressures of being a local icon (memorialized in 'Local Hero': "First they made me the king then they made me pope...Then they brought the rope") and moved for a while to California. 'My Hometown,' of course, is one of the classic odes to the emotional pull of home even when home is falling apart, a theme Bruce was mining with deepening sadness by the time of 'Youngstown' and 'My City of Ruins'. Bruce's songs about busting out and hitting the open road are likewise frequently tinged with the nostalgic pull of home, as shown perhaps most clearly by the protagonist of 'Independence Day', in which Bruce's mournful vocals illustrate the conflict in a young man striking out on his own from a father he could never talk to and a town that offered him no future.
Bruce treats the ordinary, average American with respect, too. As Jon Stewart wryly put it, "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem...about losers." David Brooks, a sometime conservative and long-time Springsteen fan, connects Bruce's respect for the people in his songs to something deeper and more profoundly conservative:
In Springsteen's universe, life's "losers" always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.
There's never a snide or mocking tone in Bruce's depictions of factory workers, cops, waitresses, cowboys, steelworkers, guys who race cars in the street, distant fathers, single moms, or for that matter the country or the Church or anybody who takes the big things seriously. This is less common than it should be. Consider, for a fairly typical contrast, a sampling of lyrics from the Green Day song 'American Idiot,' the title track of one of the most successful albums of the past decade, now a Broadway musical:
Don't want to be an American idiot. Don't want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind f**k America.
It's not possible to imagine Bruce mustering that kind of sneering contempt for his countrymen and the land they live in.
(4) Consequences and Responsibilities
Springsteen will never be mistaken for a social conservative, given his consistent support for liberal politicians. But an overarching theme that recurs throughout Springsteen's writing - noted by the Brooks quote above - is the central theme of social conservatism: that actions have consequences, both moral and practical. So much of the lyrics and imagery of rock and post-rock pop is about one form or another of hedonism, the ancient Dionysian lure of indulging today without thought of tomorrow. But while the characters in Bruce's songs may be no saints, the world they inhabit is as relentless in tracing the consequences of their sins as anything sketched by Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo or Cormac McCarthy.
One of the starkest examples of that trend comes in 'Outlaw Pete,' the overblown but still oddly entertaining 8-1/2 minute cowboy opera that opens Working on a Dream. Pete, essentially a born criminal in the Billy the Kid mode, eventually decides to marry and retire from his career of murder and bank robbery to the quiet life, but he's tracked down by a remorseless bounty hunter:
He found Pete peacefully fishing by the river Pulled his gun and got the drop He said "Pete you think you've changed but you have not"
And he's right; Pete is pursued to the hills after that, and never seen again, his wife and child left behind and bereft by his past. Consequences, in Bruce's universe, aren't always equally distributed; the previously law-abiding protagonist of 'Johnny 99' gets 99 years for murder during a botched robbery from a tough judge, while the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' lets his brother escape to Canada for a killing in a bar fight after years of misbehavior. But in the latter song, it's the highway patrolman who must contemplate the compromise of his position as a result of his brother's crime. The law turns out not to be the end to the ripple effects of sin. As Bruce writes in 'Adam Raised a Cain':
In the Bible Cain slew Abel/ and East of Eden he was cast/ You're born into this life paying/ for the sins of somebody else's past. Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames/ Adam raised a Cain
Bruce applies the same lessons to love and sex. 'The River' is just one of an endless number of famous songs about teenage sex, except that Bruce follows the consequences with pitiless certainty as the protagonist gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up in a hollow shotgun marriage and a dead-end job:
Then I got Mary pregnant/ and man that was all she wrote. And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse/ and the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/ No flowers no wedding dress
Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don't remember/ Mary acts like she don't care.
For the flip side of that story there's the song that immediately precedes it on the album, 'I Wanna Marry You', in which the protagonist's reaction to a single mom is the most traditional stirring of the masculine heart: he wants to marry her and share the burden of raising a family with her, recognizing in full the measure of adulthood:
Now honey, I don't wanna clip your wings/ But a time comes when two people should think of these things/ Having a home and a family/ Facing up to their responsibilities
The protagonist of 'Hungry Heart' makes the opposite choice, walking out on his wife and kids, but he ends up regretting his wanderlust:
Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/ Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone
We're a very, very long way here from free love; love, in Bruce's universe, always has a price, but it's still worth paying. That's one reason why so few of Bruce's songs, comparatively speaking, are about the blush of first love and lust, and so many are built around fraying relationships and pledges to stay in it for the long term. Bruce writes about love through the eyes of a grown man who understands its cost. As 'The Price You Pay' puts it: "You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take...Now you can't walk away from the price you pay."
Bruce's sense of moral consequence undoubtedly derives at least in part from his Catholic faith, and that faith is another thing he shares more in common with the Right. It's no secret that conservatives in the U.S. tend as a group to be more religious, and more comfortable with public discussion of religion, than liberals in general and entertainment industry liberals in particular. Bruce's body of work isn't perhaps as overtly religious as, say, U2, and as with the light touch of his political commentary he often invokes the concepts and imagery of faith as a theme rather than delve more explicitly into matters of theology, but the recurrent theme of faith throughout his work offers a distinctive appeal that separates him vividly from many of his peers and endears him to religious, often conservative fans.
Hope and faith are linked everywhere in Bruce's songs, and are treated as perhaps the most important thing a man can have. In 'Badlands,' one of his most enduring concert staples, Bruce declares:
I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that could save me/ I believe in the hope/ and I pray that some day/ It may raise me above these badlands
In 'The Promised Land,' Bruce warns of "a twister to blow everything down/That ain't got the faith to stand its ground." Almost a quarter century later, in the powerful 'Into the Fire,' Bruce offers a prayer for the faith shown by the firefighters who perished on September 11:
May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love give us love.
'The Rising' goes further, building the entire structure of the song around the parallel between the firefighter's ascension of the steps of the Twin Towers with his ascension to the next life as the building collapses. And Bruce closes that album with an explicit prayer in 'My City of Ruins':
With these hands,/ I pray for the strength, Lord/ With these hands,/ With these hands,/ I pray for the faith, Lord/ We pray for your love, Lord/ We pray for the lost, Lord/ We pray for this world, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord
Bruce's revivalist streak is never more on display than in the marvelous 'Land of Hope and Dreams,' the theme of which is a train carrying passengers to a "land of hope and dreams" where "faith will be rewarded":
This train/ Carries saints and sinners/ This train/ Carries losers and winners/ This Train/ Carries whores and gamblers/ This Train/ Carries lost souls
In 'Living Proof,' Bruce treats the birth of his first child as a sign of God's goodness:
Well now on a summer night in a dusky room/ Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light/ Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon/ In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take/ Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make/ In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused/ Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof
Nor does Springsteen shy away from explicit references to Scripture; he draws directly from Bible stories in 'Adam Raised a Cain,' (Cain & Abel), 'The Price You Pay' (Moses and the promised land), 'Lion's Den' (Daniel and the lion's den), 'Leap of Faith' (Moses and the Red Sea, to which he returned in covering the old-time spiritual 'O Mary Don't You Weep,'), and 'Pink Cadillac' (Adam and Eve), among others.
This article by a Jesuit on Bruce's Catholic influences quotes Bruce noting, in a letter responding to Catholic writer Walker Percy, "[t]he loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life" and, speaking of the influence of Flannery O'Connor on the Nebraska album:
It was always at the core of every one of her stories - the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing - a component of spirituality - that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin - knew how to give it the flesh of a story.
Bruce's view of a mean, sinful and fallen world, repeated throughout his lyrics, is an unmistakably Christian perspective, and one specifically that appeals to social conservatives. Contrary to the caricature, conservative Christians are firm believers in the inevitability of sin, and indeed that reality shapes the worldview of conservatives who see God's saving grace as the sole remedy for sin. Springsteen may not share the politics, but his vision of man and God is much the same.
(6) Tone and Style
I've discussed here the themes in Bruce's work, his lifestyle and his interactions with his fans, but there's also something to be said for the man's tone, style and public persona.
One piece of that is sincerity. Bruce's music is all about passionate commitments, not ironic distance, and while temperamental preferences of this sort don't always split neatly along ideological lines, Bruce's approach - like that of many country musicians - by nature lends itself more to a fanbase tilted towards the kind of folks who go to church and get misty-eyed at God Bless America (even if Bruce himself never liked that song). From the early days of 'Born to Run', 'Thunder Road' and 'Backstreets' to 'Badlands' and "The Promised Land' to songs like 'No Surrender' and 'My Love Will Not Let You Down,' Bruce was always about taking the big things in life seriously, giving it everything you've got and holding nothing back, clutching fiercely to your commitments, and pursuing joy with the full knowledge that it's a respite in a hard life in a hard world. As Jon Stewart put it, Bruce "empties the tank" in everything he does. His marathon concerts - with no opening act, exhausting length, blazing energy level and even today few concessions to age - are part and parcel of that commitment.
Other aspects of Bruce's style contribute to his appeal to conservative-leaning fans. In a field full of boy bands, bent genders and perpetual adolescents, Bruce has always been an unapologetically manly figure, a sweaty, hard-working, blue-jeans-wearing, cars-and-motorbikes loving adult, a grown man who sings about a grown man's concerns. 25 years ago, Bruce's long-time romance with cars and motorcycles and the open road wasn't a "conservative" thing, but in an age of environmental nags and a red-blue divide between liberal cities obsessed with mass transit and bicycles and conservative suburbs and countryside still wedded to big cars and personal independence, Bruce's fascination with Cadillacs and Harleys seems positively reactionary.
Bruce Springsteen is, as I said at the outset, an unapologetic political liberal, albeit one with a distinctly 1930s tinge to his liberalism. He writes about many common liberal themes - economic inequality, hostility to big business, hatred of war - campaigns for liberal Democratic politicians and vocally opposes much of the conservative political agenda. No amount of lyrical exegesis or biography can or should refashion him into something he's not. But as I have tried to make clear, Bruce nonetheless has much in common with conservatives, and avoids many of the traits and themes that cause many other liberal entertainers to rub the Right the wrong way. And that's why you can find so many of his fans on the opposite side of the political fence from the Boss himself.
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January 6, 2011
POLITICS: "The Deficit" Is The Wrong Yardstick
Yesterday's swearing in of the new House and Senate, including the transition of power to Speaker Boehner and the new Republican majority in the House, inaugurates a new political season, in which "the deficit" promises to be front and center. President Obama is already sending up trial balloons about various proposals made by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission. But Republicans should resist efforts to frame the debate as being about "the deficit," because that term itself focuses on the wrong measurement.
Democrats like to talk about the federal government's operating budget deficit as if it is a matter of balancing income against spending. It's not. The money taken in by the federal government is taxes, but taxes are not income; they are simply a subset of the income of the private sector, in the same way that the money you withdraw from your bank account is only a subset of your bank balance. If you want to know whether you can afford to buy something, you look to the size of that bank balance (and the sources of real income that go into your deposits), not simply into whether you withdrew enough money to pay the latest credit card bill.
The mistake made in talking about "the deficit," then, is in assuming that fiscal responsibility comes from matching public spending with the government revenues used to pay for that spending in the short term, rather than with the actual income produced by the private sector. It is the money thrown off by the private sector that is the ultimate source of all public spending, and therefore any sane measurement of real fiscal responsibility will measure the outflows (public spending) as a fraction of real income (private sector income) rather than the intermediate step of taxing real income. The larger that fraction is, the less the private sector has to work with to continue producing growth and a high standard of living; in short, the more of our private sector income we are spending today on government, the less we will have to leave to our children, regardless of how high or low we set our tax rates. Put another way, the problem isn't that the government is spending more than the government takes in, but that the government is spending too much of what we create. (Keynsian economics, which is based on trying to create short-term growth with public spending, is fatally flawed because it ignores all but the shortest term effects of public spending - a predictable failing in the work of a childless economist and a director of the British Eugenics Society). Anybody who tells you that the federal budget operating deficit is a better measure of fiscal responsibility than comparing public spending to private sector income is simply trying to mislead you and isn't serious about long-term fiscal responsibility.
Moreover, the broader question isn't just federal spending, but all public spending, federal, state and local, although a good start to keeping a restraining hand on state and local spending is to refuse to use the federal government's fiscal printing presses to bail out imprudent state and local governments, and in the long run stop using Washington as a tax collector for state and local governments, as happens in the myriad ways that revenues are raised nationally and then laundered back to the states.
As I have explained before, the federal budget deficit is only a symptom, and an imprecise one at that. Public spending of privately created resources, depleting the source of future growth, is the disease. If we restore the proper balance of robust private sector growth to a limited public sector, we'll have no problem in the long run handling any operating deficits; if we don't, the size of the operating deficit will be the least of our concerns. If the GOP is serious about setting our fiscal house in order, the new Republican majority must resist at every turn the urge to treat the symptom rather than the disease.