Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reflections on Robert Bork

So, Robert Bork is dead.  Admirers recall him in characteristically admiring terms, while opponents set aside the normal reluctance to speak ill of the dead.  I can make a few comments.

The Bork nomination fight was not as unprecedented as people say.   It is commonly said that the Senate was doing something new and unprecedented when it rejected Bork as a nominee for Supreme Court, but that is simply not true.  Richard Nixon had two nominees rejected for the Senate before successfully appointing Harry Blackmun, and encountered considerable resistance to William Rehnquist.

The Bork nomination sent Supreme Court nominations downhill -- but that was all,  Conservatives these days often argue that our dangerous polarization today began with the Democrats rejecting Bork for the Supreme Court.  If only they had confirmed Bork, Republicans seem to imply, all the polarization that happened since -- the two government shutdowns under Clinton, the Clinton impeachment, Bush v. Gore, the abuses of the filibuster, the debt ceiling crisis, and Republicans' current willingness to crash the whole system in order to destroy Obama -- could have been avoided.  This story sound way too much like the abusive husband claiming that he only beats his wife because she provokes him.  I will concede conservatives this -- the rejection of Bork has totally ruined the Supreme Court nomination process.  Prospective nominees since Bork have refused to give straight or honest answers to the Senate for fear of meeting his fate.  But I do not believe that all the polarization that has happened since can be laid that the door of the Bork nomination.  To call the hysterical behavior of Republicans for the past two decades payback for Bork is an extreme case of overkill.

I could live with the Bork of The Tempting of America on the Supreme Court.  After being turned down for the Supreme Court, Robert Bork wrote three books, The Tempting of America, Sloughing Toward Gomorrah, and Coercing Virtue.  Of the three, I have not read Coercing Virtue.  The Tempting of America expresses a controversial but defensible viewpoint -- that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its text, as understood at the time of adoption, and that the Supreme Court should not read new rights into it.  This is a tough enough standard that even Bork is not always able to live up to it.  Most famously, he endorses Brown vs. The Board of Education in its finding that school segregation was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, even though the practice was widely accepted when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed.  His reasoning is, in effect, that the phrase "equal protection of law" was written to ensure racial equality and must be interpreted with that end in mind -- but that our concept of racial equality does not have to remain frozen in 1868.  But he is so uncomfortable with this conclusion that it takes him three paragraphs to say so.  His discomfort is understandable.  If our concept of racial equality does not have to remain frozen in time, who knows what else might not have to remain frozen, either.

Bork also can't quite bring himself to endorse a ban on any school, public or private, teaching foreign languages to children before the eighth grade (Meyer v. Nebraska), a ban on Catholic schools (Pierce v. Society of Sisters), or state legislatures so grossly malaportioned that a majority is systematically excluded from electing a representative majority (Baker v. Carr).  He appears, however, to be willing to tolerate punishing some crimes with coerced sterilization (Skinner v. Oklahoma), to say nothing of a ban on contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut).  I am inclined to support Bork's essential thesis -- that no matter how bad the law, the Supreme Court may not strike it down unless it violates a specific clause of the Constitution -- though not his application in many cases.  And for an originalist who says we must follow the wishes of the Founding Fathers, he discusses them with a refreshing lack of romanticism or idealization.*  Only when he starts discussing the people who opposed his nomination does Bork's tone begin to veer off into authoritarianism or paranoia.  Bork disagrees with his opponents, such as the ACLU, public interest advocacy groups and so forth, obviously.  Such disagreement is understandable.  But never does Bork seem to acknowledge that such people might hold their views in good faith, or that they have the right to advocate for them, after all.  Ultimately, he seems to regard the mere existence of liberal advocacy groups and sinister and basically unacceptable.**

But the Bork of Slouching Toward Gomorrah scares the hell out of me.  But if The Tempting of America is controversial but defensible, Slouching Toward Gomorrah veers off into crazyland.  Bork does not just lament that society is heading downhill on greased runners, he seems to think that the entire Enlightenment was a huge mistake.  Not only does he condemn equality (with the grudging exception of equality before the law) as an evil that only a sinister elite favors, but even liberty seems to him like a dubious value.  The whole book reads like a longing to return to the Middle Ages, when intellectuals were securely in the pockets of the ruling elite and were paid to defend the status quo of power, not criticize it, and when any too-stubborn dissident who could not be bribed faced the possibility of burning at the stake.

It was from Bork that I learned that authoritarianism is not the same as statism.  Bork appears to concede democratic government as an inevitable evil, but want to limit its scope and be as authoritarian as possible in everything else -- families, churches, schools, workplaces, and so forth.  Incredibly, for a book written within a decade of the end of the Cold War, Bork says almost nothing about Communism -- and what little he does say borders on favorable.  He applauds Communists for banning rock music, saying that they understood that it was a threat to all authority.  If today's pop culture was what brought down the Berlin Wall, he would just as soon see it go back up again.  While I believe that Jonathan Haidt is right to criticize liberals for dismissing conservative concerns for group loyalty, authority, tradition, and sanctity as mere authoritarianism, in Bork's case, the accusation looks accurate.  Bork sets a high value on authority and tradition and is dismissive of freedom.  He also strongly seems to suggest that he regards respect for tradition and concepts of the sacred as valuable in and of themselves, as means of social control, regardless of their intrinsic value.  In Tempting, Bork acknowledges that some things are part of "the traditions of our people" without being very worthy.  In Gomorrah, he seems to believe that all institutions and traditions must be upheld, simply because they are established and traditional.

Bork sees as signs of our social decline Catholics who question the will of the Pope instead of automatically obeying, Protestants who question the inerrancy of the Bible for no better reason than that it is contradicted by physical evidence, oh yes, and the decline (in our universities) of "the critical, scientific spirit."  As evidence that political correctness is ruining the culture of our universities, Bork give the example of a non-art class being taught in an art classroom with a copy of Goya's Maja Desnuda on the wall.  When some male students in the class snickered at the nude, the professor asked the administration to take it down.  (When asked about the incident, she said that the painting did not offend her, she only wanted it removed because it was creating a disturbance).  I leave to the imagination what the response would have been, and whether Bork would have approved if the Maja Desnuda had appeared in any high school art room.

In fact, at the time Bork wrote, many trends were underway that he would presumably  have seen as favorable.  Income distribution was becoming less equal, taxes were becoming less progressive, and rates of incarceration were rising.  But none of these counted for Bork because some people criticized them, and only if these trends had been greeted with universal acclaim would they have been signs of moral health.  Also revealing is what Bork did not see as cultural decay.  Drug gangs shooting it out in our inner cities was a sign of cultural decay.  Firearms manufacturers openly marketing a produced under the name of Streetsweeper was not, and neither was the presence of armed militias running training camps dedicated to the overthrow of the federal government.  Black people believing mad conspiracy theories about the CIA trafficking drugs and inventing AIDS was a sign of social decay.  White people believing mad conspiracy theories about black helicopters, UN takeovers, or Elvis being alive was not.  Movies promoting senseless sex and violence was a sign of social decay.  Talk radio spewing hate and vitriol, including G. Gordon Liddy giving advice on how to kill federal agents, was not.  In fact, the bare fact that talk radio offended liberals was proof enough to Bork that it must be good.  In his denunciations of political correctness, Bork points out how easy it was to dismiss any evidence contrary to the theory as counter revolutionary props of the status quo.  Little did he suspect that in the coming years his conservatives would adopt the technique on a much larger and more powerful scale, dismissing any embarrassing contrary evidence as mere "liberal bias."

Of course, one can fairly ask whether this is the result of bitterness as a result of losing the nomination.  Perhaps if Bork had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, he would have retained the relative sanity of his earlier work.  However, the intemperate paranoia of Bork's later work is more than ample to convince me that I am really glad he was not confirmed for the Supreme Court.
*In particular, Bork, although a supporter of states' rights, is extremely critical of Jefferson for taking states' rights to extremes that he considers threatening to the survival of the union.  He admires John Marshall, but is critical of many of his opinions.
**It should also be noted that Bork acknowledges that the left has largely abandoned its interest in economic issues and ceded that territory to the right.  He fails to acknowledge the obvious however -- that this represents a huge victory for his side.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

So, with all that out of the way, do I seriously believe that today's Republicans have become pre-Enlightenment conservatives in today's fast-paced society?

Obviously Republicans are not all the same.  At the far extreme are Glenn Beck and his fans, and the ones who march in 18th Century costumes and call for a return to the Founding Fathers.  Let us make no mistake what they think they are talking about.  They regard the Constitution as a document straight from God, believe that the Founding Fathers had established the ideal and perfect social order, and that and variation from the ideal social order they had founded can only be degeneration.  In other words, society should be frozen in amber, even as technology changes, and being true to the vision of the Founders means re-creating an 18th Century society with present-day technology.  This is the very essence of pre-Enlightenment conservatism.

Admittedly, these pre-Enlightenment conservatives are willing to admit that there was trouble in paradise in the form of the little matter of slavery.  The Glenn Beck/18th Century costumes wing of movement conservatism does acknowledge that slavery was a blemish on our society at the founding, and that to be ideal it would have to change in that one regard.  But they take a decidedly modern conservative approach to ending slavery.  Active agitation against slavery just makes slave holders dig in their heels; the only acceptable way for slavery to end is for it to die out on its own.  And they regard an 18th Century society, minus slavery and with modern day technology, as the ideal society that must be held in stasis and never allowed to change (except in technology).

Of course, this crowd does not know much about what the 18th Century social order was really like.  They simply take their ideas of libertarianism and minimal government and assume that it was what existed when this country was founded.  They are wrong.  I confess I have only glanced at, not read The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and I do not know enough about the history of the era to know to what extent I should accept its thesis.  But I have seen enough to recognize that the book describes what the 18th Century social order looked like and why it was far from any sort of modern libertarianism, or, indeed, anything modern-day American, anywhere across the political spectrum would want to duplicate.  It was a society that did not truly have the concept of the state being separate from society, and certainly a social order incompatible with anything like modern industrial capitalism.  He further argues that the full transformation did not end with the Revolution, but only truly came to fruition in the early 19th Century.

All of which leads me to an inescapable conclusion.  The Beck wing of the conservative movement may say it wants a return to the Founding Era and the society and values of the 1780's.  But what they are actually seeking to create looks a lot more like the 1880's -- the Gilded Age.  Beck himself more or less gives himself away in his choice of villains.  Glenn Beck famously hates Progressivism.  His favorite villain is Woodrow Wilson, but he believes the decline really began with Teddy Roosevelt.  And who were these Progressives, Wilson and Roosevelt included?  They were the people who opposed the worst excesses of the Gilded Age.  They did not favor ending industrial capitalism by any means, but they favored curbing its abuses through anti-trust legislation, labor and consumer protection, workers' compensation, anti-trust legislation, regulation, limiting big money in politics and so forth.  If the people who sought reforms to end the Gilded Age are Beck's villains, what are we to conclude, if not that the Gilded Age is the ideal society that he favors?

As for more mainstream movement conservatives, my guess is that most of them also basically regard the Gilded Age as our golden age and would like to get back to it.  But they also understand that such a project is not politically feasible.  But if they do not openly express a desire to return to the 1780's or the 1880's, plenty of mainstream Republicans are unwilling to budge from the 1980's.  When confronted with the suggestion that things have changed since the 1980's and that perhaps they should change their program to adapt, they respond that conservatism stands for universal the timeless principles and therefore does not have to change its program.

The timeless truths embodied in their program are that we should cut taxes and gut regulations.  Pointing out that a top marginal rate of 70% and a top marginal rate or 36% may not be the same thing, or that government once regulated the route and fare of every truck, train, plane and ship in the country, makes no difference.  These are distinctions for people who accept the moral legitimacy of taxes and regulations, and believe that they are best determined by social utility.  If, on the other hand, you believe as a universal and timeless principle that all taxes and regulations are morally illegitimate, but recognize that eliminating them altogether is not practical, then it is a universal and timeless truth that taxes are always too high, regulations are always stifling, and that a crusade to cut taxes and gut regulations is always a moral imperative.

Though it gets less attention, some of the same consideration applies to monetary policy.  Conservatives often praise Paul Volcker, Ronald Reagan's chairman of the Federal Reserve for tightening monetary policy, no matter how painful.  They seem to take an almost prurient delight in the pain he inflicted -- skyrocketing interest rates, a severe recession, farmers bankrupted, Latin American thrown into economic crisis -- and urge today's Fed to do the same thing.  Why, one might ask?  Volcker was willing to inflict so much pain to break an inflationary spiral that had reached 14%. Given that we don't have an inflationary spiral right now, and that there is a severe recession going on and an international economic crisis despite the Fed's monetary expansion to soften the blow, why should we want to make things even worse?  The usual answer we get is fear of inflation.  But just how much pain do we have to inflict, not just on ourselves, but the rest of the world, in the interest of  fighting an inflation that hasn't even shown up?

It makes more sense if you don't think of monetary policy as a means of achieving an economic end, but as a sort of moral imperative.  Monetary expansion, or, as it is called, loose money, is a sign of moral laxness.  Tight money means moral rectitude.  And if you think of these as universal and timeless moral principles -- that taxation and regulation are morally illegitimate, that tight money is always a moral imperative -- then there is no need to change policies to adjust to changing circumstances.  Ronald Reagan's policy prescriptions are not just responses to certain economic circumstances, but universal and timeless truths that must always be followed.  And this really is moving in the direction of treating public policy as a branch of theology.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Modern Conservatism

So, what is modern conservatism?  I will start with two comments.  One is that I am no scholar of modern conservatism.  I have not read Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, or other conservative philosophers.  But secondly, I do not think being a scholar of modern conservatism is necessary to comment present day right wing politics.  Few of our politicians are scholars of any ideology and few still (proportionately) of the voting public.  I do not believe, therefore, that any more than the crudest approximation of modern conservative ideology is necessary to discuss practical politics.

With that out of the way, I would define modern conservatism in comparison and contrast to pre-Enlightenment conservatism.

Modern conservatism is secular:

Modern conservatives individually may be either believers or non-believers.  Even the non-believers may encourage religion as necessary to promote good behavior.  But  modern conservatives do not believe that God has decreed any one social order.  Modern conservatism began as a critique of classical liberalism, but it has adopted at least one classical liberal premise -- "Because God said so" is not a sufficient argument.  When modern conservatives want to argue for a particular institution, policy or tradition, they make their argument in secular terms.

Modern conservatism upholds the status quo:

Generally speaking, modern conservatism rejects not only revolution, but reform as illegitimate.  Social engineering is a dirty word to modern conservatives, while the Law of Unintended Consequences is almost sacred.  Modern conservatives do not see society as a static unit ordained by God, but they do see it as the product of a long process of development, a set of organic traditions, a spontaneous order, the workings of the free market, or similarly complicated process.  What they do not see society as is a rational construct that is the product of conscious decisions by individual social planners.  Or, put differently, God did not say, "Let there be a specific social order," and neither did any human actor.  The social order, in one form or another, is seen as a complex, fragile, tightly interdependent whole.  Tampering with any part of it may have unforeseen and possible devastating consequences to other, far-flung parts of the whole.

At the same time, modern conservatism recognizes the necessity and inevitability of change:

While modern conservatives distrust all reforms as "liberal social engineering," they also realize that change is inevitable, and that any attempt to freeze society in amber is itself a form of social engineering.  Modern conservatives are therefore most accepting of change if it happens on its own without anyone specifically intending it.  The proper mechanism depends on the branch of modern conservatism.  Perhaps an organic tradition may develop slowly or a spontaneous order emerge on its own.  To a libertarian, a mass of atomized actors may all individually decide they want something new and convey that change through the mechanism of the market.  Or a brilliant entrepreneur may come up with a new invention that has far-ranging social consequences.  For instance, when Henry Ford invented the assembly line and changed cars from a  rich man's luxury to a product available to the general public, this invention had far-ranging consequences.  It broke the power of the railroad companies which once had such a stranglehold on commerce and travel.  Making travel much faster from any point to any other had complex effects on residential density.  And (rumor has it) easy access to cars worked a loosening of sexual mores.  But Henry Ford did not intend any of these far-ranging social effects; he was just making cars.

All of this illustrates an obvious reason why pre-Enlightenment conservatism is no longer viable in the modern age.  Before the Industrial Revolution, one might realistically fantasize about a static, unchanging society.  Since the Industrial Revolution, it has become obvious the technological change is with us to stay.  And to expect technological change not to bring about social change is simply unrealistic.  And yet some Republicans are doing just that these days.  That will be the subject of my next post.

Pre-Enlightenment Conservatism

Conservatism in its modern form is a relatively recent phenomenon, generally attributed to Edmund  Burke.  But conservatism in the sense of upholding the status quo of power is presumably as old as status quos of power that require upholding.  But older forms of conservatism -- what I can pre-Enlightenment conservatism -- have certain traits that are really not viable in any modern society.

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism assumes a social order decreed by God:

This is what I mean by politics or policy as theology.  Such an outlook treats any challenge to God's ordained social order as a challenge to God Himself.  The danger of such an outlook to democratic politics, or any sort of normal politics, should be obviousl

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism calls for social stasis:

As we say in twelve-step organizations, progress, not perfection. Indeed, progress and perfection are essentially incompatible.  Consider: progress means improvement; perfection means there is no room for improvement.  To anyone who believes that a certain social order is decreed by God, that social order is presumably not perfect because it is made up of flawed and sinful individuals.  But if all people followed their proper roles, has God intended, then such a society is as perfect as anything that can be achieved in this sinful world, and any change in the social order will necessarily be for the worse.  The most anyone intent on improving society can do is denounce people's individual sins and call on them to live up to the proper (social) roles God intended for them.  But any sort of reform -- not just in an attempt to improve society, but even to adjust to changing conditions -- is degeneration and, indeed, blasphemy.

Pre-Enlightenment conservatism can be conservative, reactionary, revolutionary, and perhaps even reformist, but never liberal or progressive:

An important qualification is in order here.  Pre-Enlightenment conservatives are all conservative in the sense of believing that there is a certain social order that must be conserved against all change.  But they are not necessarily conservative in the sense of believing that that order is the social order as it exists today.  Certainly a pre-Enlightenment conservative can be conservative in the sense of defending the current status quo of power, and than any flaws are simply the result of individual sin.  Conservatives of this type are most likely to arise when the current social order is being challenged, in order to uphold it against challenges.  Alternately, pre-Enlightenment conservatism may be reactionary, seeking to return to a social order of the (recent and remembered) past.  From this perspective, the true, proper social order ordained by God existed until recently, and present-day society is acting in defiance of it.  This type of conservatism is most likely to occur when society has undergone recent, disruptive changes and many people long for a recent past before the changes happened.  But sometimes pre-Enlightenment conservatism takes a more radical view -- perhaps reformist, perhaps revolutionary, perhaps even millenarian.  Such a viewpoint sees society as radically out of synch with the social order that God intended, and in need of major changes to bring it into conformity with God's will.

What pre-Enlightenment conservative can never be is liberal or progressive because these are ideologies that embrace continual change and improvement.  

To offer a concrete example, let me express gratitude to Albion's Seed for its description of the Puritans as excellent examples of reformist-to-revolutionary pre-Enlightenment conservatives.  The Puritans certainly offered many radical challenges to the contemporary English social order. They challenged primogeniture (the rule that all family land goes to the oldest son), entailment (limiting land to a particular family), escheat (the rule that if the owner of land dies without an heir, all land reverts to his feudal lord) and various taxes and burdens on inheritance.  They called the English family into question, permitting divorce if the conditions of a marriage were not kept, forbidding husbands from beating their wives, and protecting wives, children, servants and slaves from the "unnatural severity" of the head of household.  They challenged the authority of the king and nobility, built a society with no hereditary aristocracy, and built a government in New England in which authority rested on election by the people.  In England, what began as a movement seeking reforms to "purify" the church and state ended up becoming a revolution which overthrew the monarchy and beheaded the King for treason almost 150 years before the French made such things fashionable.

Yet the Puritans were also pre-Enlightenment conservatives in the sense that they believed that there was only one right social order, ordained by God, and that once a proper Christian commonwealth was established any change was degeneration and deviation from God's will.  "New," "novelty" and "innovation" were all used as perjoratives, to indicate falling from the Truth.  "Change of any sort seemed to be cultural disintegration."*  If the Puritans were not conservative about contemporary England, they were conservative in believing in perfection, not progress, that God intended one social order and only one, and that no changes were to be tolerated.

By contrast, the Royalists who colonized Virginia were conservative to reactionary pre-Enlightenment conservatives.  Initially, they were conservative conservatives, seeking to uphold the status quo in contemporary England from Puritan challenge.  When the Puritans seized power in England, Royalists migrated in large numbers to Virginia, now as reactionary conservatives, seeking to re-create the social order as it had existed in England before the Puritans came to power.  Either way, they, too, saw "new," "novelty," "innovation" and "modern" as perjoratives and any change as disastrous.

It was in the late 17th Century that the early stirrings of the Enlightenment began and a radical new ideology arose -- the ideology of classical liberalism.   This bold new ideology denied that God intended any particular social order.  God gave people individual rights, no more.  The social order was no more than a set of institutions rationally created by the people to safeguard their individual rights.  If at some future time, the people decided that other institutions or a different social order would safeguard their rights better, they were free to make changes, or even to overthrow the whole system.  This new ideology of classical liberalism was brought to America by Quakers in the later 17th Century.  It was adopted by the Virginia Royalists.  It was widely held on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the 18th Century.  It was the ideology of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Classical liberalism was also the ideology of the French Revolution, where it proved to be capable of dangerous excesses.  When all social institutions are regarded as optional, as artificial constructs that can be cast aside when they are no longer rationally seen as useful, it turned out that serious social breakdown and upheaval can ensue when someone takes this ideology too seriously.  It was in response to this danger that modern conservatism arose.  Modern conservatism was a reaction against classical liberalism, but also influenced by it.

It will be the subject of my next post.

*Albion's Seed, page 56.

The Republican Party and Politics as Theology

If I were to attempt to define what went wrong with the Republican Party, it would be that they abandoned modern conservatism in favor of pre-Enlightenment conservatism and began treating politics and policy as a branch of theology.  I do not know what will restore the fortunes of the Republican Party.  But I know that until they stop treating politics as a branch of theology and embrace modern conservatism, health will not return to our democracy.

Needless to say, after making such a statement, it is only right that I define my terms.


Theology technically means the study of God.  But in fact, theology covers more than seeking to understand the nature of God.  It also means seeking to understand God's will, particularly God's will for us humans, and how we should obey God's will.  This what is known as moral theology, or Christian ethics.  It faces the constant difficulty of distinguishing between what is actually God's will (or a serious moral issue) and what is mere social convention.  C.S. Lewis addresses this issue beautifully on the subject of sexual ethics.  All Christians in all societies, he argues, should dress modestly and not provocatively, and may be straightforward in their speech, but not prurient.  But how to tell modest from immodest dress, or direct from prurient speech, is extremely culture-bound.  His advice is to follow the accepted mores of one's culture, regardless of what they are.  This can be particularly difficult when they are rapidly changing.  In that case, he recommends assuming the best about others so long as such an assumption is sustainable.  If Lewis were to look at the Religious Right today, he would presumably agree with them in condemning sex outside of marriage, and regarding homosexuality as a perversion.  But he would disagree that these goals can be achieved only by specific social conventions.

But if discerning God's will in individual conduct is difficult and dangerous, in politics and public policy it is vastly more so.  Again, any religious conservative would do well to heed C.S. Lewis on this.  Christianity does not endorse any particular political program, nor are the clergy the best specialists in coming up with one.  His own proposal for what a Christian society would look like would be one in which everyone worked for a living, making something useful, and there was no conspicuous consumption or status goods.  It would be hierarchical, with everyone obeying and deferring to their natural superiors.  And it would be joyful, rejecting worry or anxiety.  One can argue with him on any of these, but his basic point -- that Christian social policy is about general goals of what society should look like, no any particular concrete step to achieve them -- is sound.  Too often, today's religious conservatives assume that certain policies -- or worse, certain politicians -- are either wholly good or wholly evil, either the work of God or the Devil.  This leaves no room for the normal business of politics -- negotiation and compromise, often on matters of little or no intrinsic moral significance.

It is the assumption that God intends a certain social order or, worse, specific policies or politicians, that is what I mean by treating politics or policy as a branch of theology.

Next:  Pre-Enlightenment Conservatism

Sunday, November 18, 2012

False Memory, pp. 466-540 (with intervals)

So, as I suggested in my last post on the subject, I omitted the Ahriman parts because they deserve their own section.  Up till now Koontz's portrayal of Ahriman has been mostly annoying.  Certainly we need some scenes from Ahriman's perspective to explain how his brainwashing works and what he is up to.  Koontz does this to some extent, but ultimately leaves a lot of clues dangling and unexplained.  Instead, he wastes a lot of precious time and energy showcasing how evil Ahriman is.  Apparently exercising mind control over patients, implanting phobias to torment them, raping female patients and subjecting them to unspeakable depravities, and driving some patients to suicide and spectacular just isn't evil enough for Koontz.  He has to flash back to Ahriman's past and show him killing both parents, burning down their houses to cover the evidence, dissecting live animals, and so forth.  He also makes him part of a sinister plot to take over the world.

The sinister plot to take over the world does have one advantage, though.  It means that Ahriman is no longer the puppet master in control of everything, in fact, he is no longer any more than a bit player.  And with Ahriman no longer in control, he can be used for comic relief. There is always an obvious risk in the comic villain, of course.  Laughter is generally incompatible with either hate or fear, so a comic villain tends not to be so menacing or so truly evil as a serious one.  But then again, Ahriman has already established his evil to everyone's satisfaction, and seeing the puppet master lose control can be the best revenge.  This is the first time reading about Ahriman has actually been fun, so let us savor it for a change.

Ahriman has a new patient with a most creative and original phobia that Ahriman had no role in creating.  She is the wife of one of those entrepreneurs who were rampant in the 1990's who made a half billion dollar fortune selling designer toilet paper internet stock.  She was was once a huge Keanu Reeves fan, but has now developed an uncontrollable fear of him.

Interestingly to note, her name is never given.  She is simply referred to as the Keanuphobe or, later, when our heroes see her in a pink suit, as the pink lady.  Her lack of a name is striking.  Normally, Koontz gives even very minor characters names.  For instance, all personnel at the New Life Clinic have names.  The nurses who attend Skeet, the doctor on call, the security guard who makes a total of two short appearances, and even the head nurse, whose single appearance takes a single page, has a name.  The lab tech who draws Martie's blood for testing has a name.  The police who respond to Susan's suicide have names.  A few waiters, sales people, and the security guard in the gated community where Skeet attempts suicide do not have names, and that makes sense.  They are seen only from the perspective of Dusty (or Ahriman).  Since the person seeing them does not know their name, it is not given.  Thus far the only other character whose name is known to a POV (point of view) character whose name is not given is the unnamed Famous Actor who Ahriman programs to bite the President's nose off.  Koontz unwillingness to name the Famous Actor (other than to say he is not Keanu Reeve) is understandable.  It he actually identified a real famous actor, calling him a drug addict and as stupid as the character is portrayed, he might get in trouble with the actor's lawyers.  And if he made up a name, people would complain that for such a famous actor, they have never heard of him.  But in any case, Famous Actor is a minor character.  We lose very little by not knowing his name.  The Keanuphobe (as we shall see) plays a major, indeed, critical, role in the story.    Are Internet con men so famous that Koontz couldn't make up a name for one and his wife?

In any event, while shopping and eating lunch, Ahriman notices a red-faced man driving a beat-up old camper truck seems to be watching him.  Furthermore, wherever he drives, the beat-up truck follows. The man's name is not given because Ahriman does not know it.  But we do.  The truck has two very strange antennae on it, and the red-faced man has a passenger -- Skeet.  Ahriman has his manservant take his other car to the parking lot next door.  He then has his secretary, Jennifer, drive his car to the dealership for maintenance and trails the two men trailing him.  Once Jennifer drops off the car, she takes off walking because she is a health and fitness nut.  Skeet and Fig follow her.  Comic scenes ensue.  Ahriman knows that, as a health and fitness nut, Jennifer will eat at Green Acres, a health food restaurant.  His own tastes run more to sweets, as unhealthy as possible, so we get an entertaining scene of him looking around the counter for something he would be willing to eat.  There are actually some chocolate coconut bars "no butter, margarine, or hydrogenated vegetable shortening," but he takes them anyhow, at a discount because the hostess is so relieved to be rid of them.  He also makes comical observations about Skeet and Fig's poor surveillance technique and increasingly starts thinking of Jennifer as a horse, given her taste in food.  He wonders if Skeet and Fig are gay lovers, and if he could endure the sight of them in action while shooting them.  And he notices a white Rolls Royce at Green Acres and wonders how anyone with the wealth and taste to drive such a car could eat at such a place.  (Any guesses what unnamed character that is?).

Fig and Skeet follow Jennifer home and are followed by Ahriman.  When she goes in and nothing further happens, they take the dog out, let him poop, and then collect it in a blue bag and throw it in the trash.  Ahriman retrieves it, not knowing yet what he intends to do with it.  (This, too, will be significant and comical).  He trails Fig and Skeet to the beach.  They wade out into the ocean with their electronic gear, trying to contact UFO's.  Ahriman is baffled, but doesn't have time to figure it out.  Instead, he shoots them in the chest.  "Your mother's a whore, your father's a fraud, and your stepfather's got pig shit for brains," says Ahriman to Skeet.  And this, on page 527, is our first hint that this particular family may be more than random victims to Ahriman.  Just as he is about to shoot the dog, he notices that it is barking at someone behind him.  He turns around and sees the unnamed Keanuphobe.  Yes, the white Rolls Royce was hers, and while Fig and Skeet were following Jennifer and Ahriman was following Fig and Skeet, the Keanuphobe was following Ahriman.  Oops!  She turns and runs and Ahriman, slowed by wading through sand, is unable to catch up.  She makes her escape.

Killing directly, with a witness present, has Ahriman in a most vulnerable position, the more so because he does not have mind control over the Keanuphobe and therefore cannot erase her memory.  She is also rich enough to afford security and prominent enough that killing her would attract a great deal of attention.  But Ahriman has one advantage -- she is a paranoid, and he has a psychological training to manipulate her.  Although he has not used his psychological training much, preferring to use mind control, it is real, and he knows what to do with it.  The patient has watched every Keanu Reeves movie many times over.  So Ahriman calls her and convinces her that The Matrix is real.  (The Matrix had just come out when the book was written).  Really we are all living in pods in a false reality controlled by an evil computer.  Needless to say, this would have been totally ineffective against any normal person, but dealing with a paranoid, it is perfect.
Previously she had sensed enemies on all side,s with numerous, often inexplicable, and frequently conflicting motives, whereas now she had one enemy to focus upon: the giant, evil world-dominating computer and its drone machines. . . . As a paranoid, she was convinced that reality as the mass of humanity accepted it was a sham, that the truth was stranger and more fearsome than the false reality that most people accepted, and now the doctor was confirming her suspicions.  He was offering paranoia with a logical format and a comforting sense of order, which ought to be irresistible.
At the same time, Ahriman has to be aware that he is losing control of the situation.   He is talking the most outrageous nonsense to a crazy person and becoming aware that he is starting to sound (and feel) crazy himself.  His goal is to get the Keanuphobe to come to his office so that he can program her and make the problem go away.  He is hopeful.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

One Reality Republicans May Take Away from This Election

I would also like to add one little second thought on whether this election will force Republicans to face unpleasant facts.  Last time I was skeptical, believing that while reality is extremely difficult to deny when it comes to election outcomes, more complex and remote realities will remain deniable.  But I am beginning to think that was too glib.  I personally would not put too much stock in people who direly warn that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections.  Quite simply, the popular vote from 1992 onward has been fairly close.  But I think Republicans are finally beginning to face facts and realize that their glory days of 1980 to 1988 are not coming back.

It was never any mystery to me why Republicans hated Bill Clinton so much.  He was a Democrat and he was President.  Nothing more was needed.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan won an electoral college landslide over Jimmy Carter of 489 to 49.

In 1984, Reagan won an even greater landslide against Walter Mondale, 525 electoral votes to 13.
1988 was less overwhelming, but the senior Bush nonetheless won over Michael Dukakis by the the comfortable margin of 426 electoral votes to 112.  Democrats were developing the reputation (in the words of David Barry) of not being qualified to plug in an electric blanket, let alone win the Presidency.  And Republicans developed what every conservative professes to hate the most -- a sense of entitlement.  In particular, they developed a sense of entitlement to the Presidency and to assume that the sorts of electoral landslides that had gotten as a matter of routine in the 1980's would be theirs forever.  This sense was strengthened when the senior Bush fought the Gulf War, 1990-1991 against the advice of many Democrats, made a quick and easy victory, and seemed invulnerable going into the 1992.  Then a recession hit and the Democrats won.

It should be noted, by the way, that what brought Ronald Reagan to power was the stagflation of the 1970's -- a combination of a weak economy and double digit inflation.  Reagan agreed to back Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve in the painful but necessary measure necessary to break the inflationary spiral -- tightening the money supply, no matter how painful, until inflation cried uncle.  With Reagan's backing, Volcker put the squeeze on the economy, raising interest rates as high as 20%, and throwing the economy into a severe recession.  But the inflationary spiral was broken.  As soon as Volcker was satisfied that inflation was under control, he let up on the brakes, and the economy quickly rebounded.  It was at the very peak of growth (returning to capacity) at the time of the 1984 election.  I recall well at the time that George Will mocked overly enthusiastic Republicans who thought that Reagan has repealed the laws of business cycles and that we would have prosperity forever.  And, indeed, no one came right out and said so, but certainly the implied promise was that, after suffering so severe a recession in 1981-1982, we would be rewarded by never experiencing one again.  As long as this appeared to be the case, Republicans continued to win the Presidency by landslides.  But inevitably, recession reared its ugly head again, people were shocked to realize that the business cycle was still with us, and Clinton won.  Republicans dismissed his victory as an anomaly because Ross Perot was running a third party candidacy.  Republicans presumed that every vote for Perot would otherwise have gone to a Republican and were therefore able to dismiss Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996 as illegitimate, because he never won a popular majority.

In 2000, the junior Bush won a razor-thin electoral majority of 271-267 and actually narrowly lost the popular vote.  But because the states that went for Bush were less densely populated than the ones that voted for Gore, they were geographically larger, and electoral maps created a misleading impression of a strong Bush majority.

In 2004, Bush did win the popular vote and had a more comfortable electoral margin of 301-237.  But, once again, geography was misleading, and his advantage in rural areas made his margin of victory look much wider than it really was.  Thus, although Republicans should have recognized that their glory days of the 1980's were long gone, they looked at the electoral map and saw a landslide.

In 2008, the country suffered its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and, unsurprisingly, the incumbent party lost.  Obama got an absolute popular majority a strong electoral college victory of 375-163.  The peculiarities of geography made this victory appear less than it was, but the impression of an overwhelming red state majority was no longer possible to maintain. Republicans still refused to accept the results.  Just as the 1990's wins of Bill Clinton could be dismissed as anomalies because Ross Perot's third party candidacy skewed the results, Obama's 2008 victory could be dismissed as an anomaly because of an economic crisis and unrealistic expectations as to what he could do about it.   Republicans assumed that if they only held the line for four years, the natural order would reassert itself, and the would once again hold the White House, as was their right.  They could still dismiss three of the last five Presidential elections a anomalies that would not be repeated.

Then 2012 struck.  This election was not so easy to dismiss as an anomaly.  This time there was no third party candidate to skew the results.  The economy was lackluster.  And yet, the Democrat won once again.  Furthermore, the electoral map was vary similar to the last one, suggesting that a stable coalition was in place.    The contrast to what certain Republican pollsters had been predicting was stunning.

What happened, so far as I can tell, was that the Democrats won an election under unfavorable circumstances, one that cannot be explained away by a third party candidate or an economic crisis.  And suddenly Republicans are beginning to recognized that their landslides of the 1980's are over for the foreseeable future.  Worse yet, they are beginning to come to grips with the fact that the presence of a Democrat in the White House is not some sort of bizarre anomaly, or an outrage against the natural order, but a normal occurrence.

If they are able to assimilate that into the world view, then we may, indeed, begin to see the beginning of the decline of the madness.  At least I can hope.

Since I Can't Get Away from my Favorite Topic

Well, I said I had done my last post on the election, but it just won't go away.  The latest:  Mitt Romney's teleconference with donors in which he said that people voted for Obama because they were bribed.  As many have commented, this bears a remarkable resemblance to his earlier comment to donors that 47% of the population would never take personal responsibility and care for their lives.  The general assumption seems to be that saying it once might just be pandering to donors, but now Romney has said it twice, so he must really mean it.

I will make two comments on this.  One is that although I will not presume to say what (if anything) Romney does or does not believe, obviously he thinks this is what Republican donors want to hear.  Given Romney's closeness to the Republican donor class, it seems safe to assume that his belief is accurate.  The other is that he makes at least some attempt to explain normal people to his donors.  So I suppose this counts a little in his favor.  In any event, regardless of what Romney thinks, this appears to be what Republican donors think.  I don't want to give power to any party beholden to donors who hold so many of their countrymen in such contempt.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Back to False Memory, pp, 416-543 (with omissions)

But enough distractions with trivial matters like the election.  It it time to turn back to more important things like False Memory.  When we last left our heroes, Dusty and Martie, they had just rushed Dusty's younger brother, Skeet, out of the New Life Clinic before the evil Dr. Ahriman had the opportunity to program  him to commit suicide.  Ahriman saw their car speeding away and recognized from the look on Dusty's face that he knew what was going on.

Dusty and Martie take Skeet to stay with Foster (Fig) Newton, weird misfit who also paints houses for Dusty.*  Fig says very little, but goes around all day plugged into a radio like an "electronic IV bottle" listening to radio shows about "UFO's, alien abductions telephone messages from the dead, fourth-dimensional beings and Big Foot."  His trailer has a satellite dish to pick up UFO signals.  Inside, it is full of TV and computer screens full of mysterious data, tracking equipment, and charts.  He keeps a bedroom stacked with books about all the sorts of things Skeptical Inquirer likes debunking.  In short, Fig is too paranoid even for Dean Koontz.  This makes him the perfect choice to babysit Skeet.  Granted, when Dusty first says Skeet may be in danger, Fig jumps to the rational conclusion that some drug dealer is after him.  But he has no trouble at all believing their stories about brain washing and mind control.  He is only disappointed that the villains are not aliens, cross-dimensional beings, or even government.  But he guesses right the fourth time, that it is the American Psychological Association.  When they ask  you he guessed, he says there are only five possible suspects.  The fifth is Bill Gates.**

Dusty tells Fig not to bother going to work, since everything is soaked from the rain anyhow, just keep Skeet and Valet the dog safe and out of sight.  (Presumably Dusty will pay Fig for his babysitting services).  Dusty and Martie are going to Santa Fe to talk to Dr. Ahriman's victims there.  They deprogram Skeet, leaving him with only one program -- stop taking drugs!  Fig looks on, not in the least surprised by what he sees.  He also gives them a toy truck to hide their gun in so they can get it past airport security.

Dusty and Martie check into a hotel near the airport, read over Closterman's file on Ahriman's Santa Fe victims, deprogram each other, and make love.  Oddly enough, although no graphic details were given, I really didn't want to know about that last.  I am not sure why.  Dusty and Martie are husband and wife, after all.  Presumably they have relations quite regularly.  So why don't I want to know about it?  Maybe I just want to give them some privacy.  Maybe because what we have seen about their marriage makes clear that it is about so much more than sex.  Or maybe it is because thus far sex has only entered the story in the form of rape and various depravities, so that I have trouble even processing the idea of regular sex anymore.

Meanwhile, Dr. Ahriman, who has made a duplicate key to their house, goes over to see how they figured out what was going on.  He sees the note from Closterman and hears Susan's message identifying him as her rapist.  Their phone also has a message from the travel company, confirming their reservations to Santa Fe.  He destroys the tape, calls an unnamed person under his control, who is activated by the name "Ed Mavole" and gives instructions to burn the house down.  (Tum dum dum!  Watch this mysterious person.  This will not be the last).  He also notifies his backers in Santa Fe that Dusty and Martie will be out and investigating, and to let them go if they don't uncover anything, but kill them if they Get Too Close.  Here we get to hear the details that Ahriman is part of a larger conspiracy, that he perfected mind control techniques for the others and taught it to them, that the conspiracy exercises power behind the scenes, and that it allows Ahriman to use his mind control powers for personal entertainment, while others are forbidden from doing so on pain of being fed to the crocodiles (in Santa Fe?!).  We also learn that Ahriman is worried that his backers might find out just how far he is carrying his private games and be displeased.  Whether this is a crocodiles-level displeasure or not is not made clear.  We also get to see more senseless and extraneous preening and posturing about how evil he is, that i once again omit.

I will add here that I really don't understand the purpose of the institute in Santa Fe and what it is supposed to add to the story.  We have been dealing with Ahriman alone up until Closterman mentioned being intimidated by thugs that reeked of authority.  The institute is about to play a major part in Dusty and Martie's adventures in Santa Fe, and then disappear again as we return to a private feud with Ahriman.  I am not sure why Koontz bothered at all, except perhaps to add a few standard action-adventure scenes to pad the story out.  If I were rewriting the book, I would be inclined to leave them out altogether and focus solely on the characters and their very personal conflict with Ahriman.

Anyhow, Dusty and Martie fly to Santa Fe in the winter with their gun-in-truck smuggled in in their carryon.  (This was before 9-11, but after airport security had been ramped up due to terrorist attacks in other countries).  They interview various Ahriman victims.  One of them shows them the Bellon-Tockland Institute, Ahriman's backer.  It is a mysterious, super-secret, highly fortified compound, with the stated mission of "Applying the latest discoveries in psychology and psychoparmacology to design more equitable and stable structural models for government, business, culture, and society as a whole, which will contribute to a clean environment a more reliable system of justice, the fulfillment of human potential, and world peace."  To Dusty, this sounds a lot like brainwashing.

Obviously, they are Getting Too Close, so some Bellon-Tockland thugs put down a spike strip in a remote area to cut their tires, and take them captive for a "hump and dump" operation.  They throw Dusty in the trunk, but keep Martie in the back seat because she is the prospective humpee.  The dump will take place at an old, abandoned Indian well.  When they reach their destination, Martie pulls the gun they smuggled in the truck.  She tries to talk her way out without killing anyone, but the thugs reach for their machine pistols, so Martie has no choice but to shoot and kill them.  She and Dusty drop the bodies down the well, bury the gun, and drive to Albuquerque, where they park the car in a quiet side street, drop the keys down the storm sewer, and check into a cheap motel that accepts cash.  They buy sandwich materials and beer, to help them sleep.  (Again with the alcohol!  But this is its last appearance in the book).  They take long showers, and don't make love.  (And, once again, I really don't want to hear about it).  They discuss whether they are willing to kill Ahriman, and whether the Bellon-Tockland Institute would come after them.  But in the end, they are not ready to kill him, not yet.

I have breezed through this part quickly, particularly the adventures in Santa Fe, because it does not fit very well.  The B-T Institute, the secret conspiracy, the hired thugs and so forth don't really feel like part of the story at all.  The proper story is about Ahriman and his victims.  This part is a detour that the story on the whole would be better without.  It does serve one useful purpose, however.  It gets Dusty and Martie out of the picture long enough to allow a comic and entertaining section, with Ahriman changing roles from shadowy figure or annoyingly excessive villain to a comic villain.  That can be kind of fun, as we will see in my next post on the subject.

A Few Final Reflections on the Election

We are now hearing a lot of reports on how badly the Romney ground game was run, compared to Obama's highly efficient one.  Comments one:
While the Romney campaign waited for Orca to function as planned, the Obama campaign had placed signs outside every one of the city's thirty-three polling places, and was fully staffed with two volunteers outside each polling place, and a strike list volunteer inside, all day long from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. 
 Apparently, there are some things community organizers are better at running than CEO's.  A get-out-the vote effort is one of them.  That was what convinced me during the last election that Obama had the executive ability to be President.  Of course, just as being able to run a corporation well does not necessarily translate into running a campaign well, being able to run a campaign well does not necessarily translate into running a government well.  I have been underwhelmed by Obama's governing style.  But it it yet one more point of evidence that running a company well is no proof of the ability to run a government well.

I will also say that at the time Obama announced the contraceptive mandate it seemed like a huge mistake.  He had exempted churches from the mandate, why not exempt church-affiliated organizations (like schools and hospitals) as well?  Obamacare is controversial enough already.  Why court more controversy unnecessarily?  But actually the decision seems to be working well for him.  Taking one controversial action has served as a lightening rod, attracting all opposition to this one, fairly minor portion of the law.  Opposition to the rest of it has been largely forgotten.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why I Didn't Throw Away my Vote on Johnson

Well, I had hoped to finish up on Johnson before the election, but life intervened, so here we are.

Conor Friedersdorf regards Obama's drone strikes (whose power to terrorize and disrupt lives means that their effect go far beyond the people killed), his willingness to include a U.S. citizen among the targets, his war in Libya without congressional authorization, his crackdown on whistle blowers, and his continuation and normalization of Bush's worst civil liberties violations as absolute deal breakers.  At the same time, he certainly has no illusion that Romney would be any better.  And I basically agree.  These are not trivial issues.  These are the primary reason I so fiercely opposed George Bush.  And Obama has continued them. Johnson opposes all of these. He has none of Ron Paul's alarming baggage.  And I thought (at least during the Bush Presidency) that these were the most important issues to me.  So I should vote for Johnson.  And yet . . .

And yet Johnson is yet another businessman who thinks that the principles of running a business translate into a national economy.  He is mistaken.  He favors balancing the budget overnight and keeping the Federal Reserve from fighting economic downturns by monetary expansion.  He may even favor a precious metal standard.  I disagree with Josh Barro, who appears to dismiss the War on Terror and civil liberties concerns as trivial compared to the economy, but neither am I prepared to dismiss the economy as trivial either.  And I agree with Barro that the economy is a moral issue, that it is not moral to crucify mankind on a cross of gold, and (above all) that these things are not entirely separate, that policies that throw an economy into crisis encourage an angry, scapegoating mindset that is dangerous to freedom.  And I agree with him that "'[D]on't worry, Congress will stop him' is not an argument you should have to make about your candidate for president."

Daniel Larison disagrees.  He says that since obviously Johnson will not win, it is pointless to worry about what a hypothetical Johnson Administration would do.  In fact, he is "puzzled" that anyone would worry about such a thing.  A vote for Johnson is a protest vote, intended to send a signal that one rejects the bipartisan consensus in favor of perpetual war and unrestrained executive power.  Who care about an economic agenda that would never be implemented.  And besides the President has much more unilateral power over foreign policy and civil liberties than over domestic and economic policy.  Then again, Larison appears to favor Johnson's fiscal policy as well.  And I agree with Larison's debate partner that the problem with a third party protest vote is that, while it clearly signals some sort of protest, it is not always clear what you are protesting.  Larison assumed that a vote for Johnson is a foreign policy protest vote, when Millman thought of it as a protest against the bipartisan consensus in favor of unlimited executive power and dismissal of civil liberties.  But the establishment might just as well read it as a protest against the bipartisan consensus in favor of paper money and a call for a gold standard.  (Larison appears to favor a Johnson protest vote both on foreign policy and fiscal policy).

And in the end I agree.  Protest votes are useless unless they send a clear signal what you are protesting.  So in the end, my view on Johnson is much the same as my view on Ron Paul.  I am too craven to accept the wreckage of our domestic economy as the price to be paid for ending the madness in the War on Terror.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reflections on the Election

First of all, in the words of Andrew Sullivan, meep, meep!

Next, I would be fine with either Obama making a narrow win in the popular vote and a decisive victory in the electoral college, or a narrow win in each.  What I dreaded (besides a Republican victory, of course) was either a split with Obama winning the electoral college but not the popular vote.  I expected the Republican reaction to such an outcome would be Donald Trumpian. And a prolonged stalemate while the votes in Ohio or (God forbid) Florida were endlessly recounted was more than I could bear.  Fortunately, we seem to have been spared either eventuality.

Third, I hope that Republicans emerge with the narrative that they were just about to win when Hurricane Sandy delivered the October surprise that swung the election to Obama.  It still won't seem fair, but claiming that Obama caused the hurricane sounds a little too crazy even for the Republican party faithful. I would much rather hear the party faithful blaming the unlucky timing of the hurricane for their defeat than accuse ACORN of rigging the election.*

If we are thinking about getting rid of the Electoral College, our voting system needs a lot of improvement.

It would be a mistake, I think, to read this election as a major realignment, rather than just another swing of the pendulum.   People read the 2008 election as a major realignment and proclaimed that the  end of the Republican Party was at hand.  Republicans regrouped and rode a wave of alarm over Obama's perceived excesses (as well as a still languishing economy) to victory in 2010.  Once again, people read the election as a major realignment and proclaimed that the end of the Democrats was at hand.  Instead, people reacted against the perceived excesses of the Republicans.  No doubt the pendulum will swing back again.

And finally, let's talk about Nate Silver, since everyone else is.  Certainly during the dark days following the first debate, Nate Silver was my main source of comfort.  And conservatives hated him because he told them what they did not want to hear.  To counter Silver and the other wonks, conservatives came up with Unskewed Polls, which was supposed to remove the liberal bias from mainstream polling.

Republicans, from Romney on down, appear to have fallen for their own propaganda.  At least, we are told, Romney had prepared a victory speech, but no concession speech.  He had a website ready for the transition.  And he was prepared to celebrate with a fireworks display. 

But when the rubber hit the road, it turned out that Unskewed Polls was to Nate Silver what Fox News is to real news, what the Washington Times is to the Washington Post, what the Conservapedia is to the Wikipedia, and perhaps even what Qubetv aspired to be to You Tube.  This has led some people to wonder whether the right wing will finally wake up to the realization that unpleasant realities don't go away just because you deny them; that when the math disagrees with your gut, it's because your gut is wrong.  But let's face it.  Human nature doesn't work that way.

The way I see it is this.  The more remote, the more complex, and the more abstract the matter under dispute, the easier it is to be persuasive in denying unwelcome facts.  Evolution, after all, took place over hundreds of millions of years and is not casually observable.**  Global warming is frightfully complex and beyond most people's powers of observation.  What most people know, after all, is their own local weather, which invariably has its ups and downs.  Everything else is too remote to seem real.  Claims that tax cuts reduce deficits may be disproven by the evidence, but the amount of the deficit is something abstract and unreal to most people, and so easy to disregard.  But elections leave no such ambiguities.  They happen in the near future, and the question of which candidate won is obvious enough to leave no room for debate.  So ultimately calling an election wrong is impossible to miss.  These others are easy to obfuscate, so Republicans will continue to do just that.

I will also make a comment on when Nate Silver gets it wrong.  In 2008 he predicted Obama would win by 6.1 percentage points.  He won by 7.2.  He predicted every state except Indiana, which he predicted would go for McCain, but which narrowly went for Obama.  In 2010, he predicted 34 of 36 Senate elections correctly.  He incorrectly predicted that the Republican would win in Colorado.  In fact, the Democrat won by a narrow margin.  And he incorrectly called the Nevada election for Republican Sharon Angle by 3 percentage points, when in fact Harry Reid won by 5.5.  Thus he predicted a 7 seat pickup for Republicans in the Senate, when it turned out to be only 6.  He correctly predicted 36 out of 37 gubernatorial elections.  The sole exception was in Illinois, where the Democrat  defied his predictions by winning by half a percentage point.  In the Senate, he called 31 out of 33 elections correctly.  The exceptions were North Dakota, where the Democrat defied expectations by winning by one percentage point, and Montana, where the Democratic incumbent also defied Silver's predictions and won.

Do you see a pattern here?  Silver's predictions are usually highly accurate.  (1) He usually only gets it wrong in very close elections.  (2) When he is wrong, it is usually in favor of the Republican.***  I can imagine three reasons why this might be.  One is that the polls are slightly skewed in favor of Republicans.  One is that his calculations slightly favor Republicans in close elections.  And the third is that, when it is too close to call, he goes for the Republican.  After all, so long as Silver incorrectly predicts Republicans will win close elections, the mistake can be dismissed as no one is perfect.  If he ever incorrectly calls a race for the Democrat, that will be seized upon as proof of liberal bias.

*Difficult theological question for Republicans:  If Obama's election was caused by an act of God, then who does that suggest God favored in this election?
**Except in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, pesticide-resistant insects and so forth.
***An exception is in the House elections in 2010.  Silver predicted a Republican gain of 53 seats.  The actual figure was 63.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ron Paul and Gary Johnson

Ron Paul has refused to endorse Gary Johnson for President, and that refusal is not surprising.  Despite their similar views on many subjects, there are deep-seated differences between the two that make them incompatible.  All their differences, it should be added, favor Johnson and make the decision whether to vote for him more difficult than the decision whether to vote for Paul.

For one thing, as many people have commented, Ron Paul's followers are kind of scary.  They have an almost cult-like devotion to their leader and the gold standard and turn out in droves whenever he is criticized.  During the Republican primary, they were noted for manipulating the process, infiltrating caucuses to push through their candidate despite the wishes of the majority, and other unsettling behavior.  Paul may be a libertarian, but his followers show disturbingly authoritarian tendencies.  When a politician attracts a very authoritarian following, regardless of his nominal ideology, this is strong evidence that his followers see some sort of a kindred spirit.  Johnson shows no such authoritarian followers.  During his governorship of New Mexico, he did start out with a CEO-like tendency to disregard the separation of powers and certain checks and balances.  But he learned and improved with time.  Certainly I see no threat to democratic norms from Johnson.  Paul makes me uneasy.

Next and most obvious -- the newsletters.  Although the newsletters are really just a symptom of what Ron Paul was up to at the time.  He had cast his lot with a faction of the libertarian movement that had decided to move in the direction of right-wing populism. This amounted to seeking an alliance with Pat Buchanan, the John Birch Society, neo-confederates, white supremacists, anti-government militias, vigilantes, Holocaust deniers, and anyone else who would back a gold standard.  The newsletters simply pandered to their worst instincts.  Johnson has no such distasteful baggage.

Nor can the newsletters be dismissed as a not-so-youthful indiscretion.  For one thing, they completely give the lie to Paul's claims that other politicians pander, but he is a fearless truth-teller who is not afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear.  The letters were a shameless act of pandering to some very disturbing people.  Paul’s attempts to disclaim them and deny any association with what went out under his name show that he is as willing to lie as any other politician.  Johnson, by contrast, is remarkably candid in admitting mistakes he made in the past and things he has changed his mind about.*

For another thing, the newsletters reflect a very dangerous psychology.  As wise observer put it, they are not really anti-state, but anti-other masquerading as anti-state.  The newsletters appealed to a wide range of xenophobes – racists, anti-semites, isolationists, and people who simply fear all change.  This is, of course, exactly the same psychology that underlies fears that any practice of Islam in the U.S. is a creeping shariah takeover, or that is terrified of releasing any terrorism suspects, even if proven innocent beyond reasonable doubt, or favors torture of terrorism suspects, just to be on the safe side.  The scapegoats have changed, but not the desire for scapegoats.  And if Ron Paul is the scapegoat seeking type, what is to stop him from seeking some new ones.

Finally, there is at least some evidence that Ron Paul has not left his anti-other past altogether behind.  

This Venn diagram illustrates not only how libertarians defy conventional left-right dichotomies, but how Ron Paul differs from conventional libertarians.  His three main differences from more conventional libertarians are that he opposes abortion, immigration, and NAFTA (and perhaps other free trade agreements), while conventional libertarians (including Johnson) favor them.

His opposition to abortion is the most defensible.  If you believe that life begins at conception (and there is no way to disprove it, after all), then abortion is truly morally indistinguishable from infanticide, and being a libertarian would no more mean condoning abortion than infanticide.  So I think his opposition to abortion does not disqualify Ron Paul from begin a libertarian.  It might also reflect his experiences as an obstetrician, delivering babies and doing his best to save a pregnancy in danger.  But at the very least, it also suggests that Paul is casting his lot with religious conservatives who are not notably libertarian.  (Gary Johnson favors repealing Roe v. Wade and returning the issue of abortion to the states.  But he opposes legislation against abortion before viability).

Opposition to immigration is harder to defend in libertarian terms.  Labor, after all, follows the same free market rules as everything else – it tends to migrate from areas of lower price to areas of higher price, and so to equal out prices over the long run.  And, as in other cases where government tries to block the workings of the free market, immigration restrictions lead to evasions and increasing repressive policies.  Paul wants to "do whatever it takes" to secure our borders, track and deport anyone who overstays a visa, and end birthright citizenship.  None of this sounds very libertarian.  In fact, it sounds like extremely intrusive and meddlesome government.  Once again, this is more anti-other than anti-state.  Johnson, by contrast, favors enlarging and streamlining the work visa system to bring supply and demand more or less in to balance and give people currently here illegally two years to obtain such a visa.  He would allow exclusions of immigrants for health or safety reasons, but not much else.

But then again, very few libertarians would go so far as to allow a total free market in immigration.  I thus find Ron Paul’s opposition to immigration less alarming than his opposition to NAFTA.  Why should that seemingly abstract issue be more alarming than something concrete like abortion or immigration?  Because all mainstream, right-thinking conservatives and libertarians favor free trade.  Gary Johnson, for instance, says that he favors free trade, period, and believes that any currency manipulations and so forth are minor matters compared to the benefits free trade offers.  People on the left may oppose free trade out of concern for saving U.S. jobs, or poor working conditions in Third World countries.  But on the right, opposition to free trade is found only in the made fever swamps that Ron Paul inhabited in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  The people on the right who oppose NAFTA are ones who oppose any sort of international cooperation at all as a threat to our sovereignty, who think it is a prelude to turning North America into something like the European Union, with the United States annexed to Canada and Mexico and the amero replacing the dollar.  Rand Paul is one who holds such views.  It makes one wonder about his father.

And, of course, Paul is a goldbug and Johnson is not.  Johnson favors tighter monetary policy and may favor ending the Fed, but his real focus is on fiscal policy and balancing the budget.   Reading Johnson’s website, one gets the impression he does not know much about monetary policy, is not much interested in it, and treats it as little more than an adjunct of fiscal policy.  Ron Paul wants a gold standard.   It seems to be his primary obsession.  A gold standard would be even more disastrous economically than Johnson’s fiscal and monetary tightening.  Johnson appears to be a flexible, non-ideological kind of libertarian who is willing to admit when he is wrong and change his mind.   Paul is a rigid ideologue.  Furthermore, although I know of no logical reason that support for the gold standard should correlate strongly with support for the John Birch Society, the Confederacy, Glenn Beck, and other forms of right wing madness.  But as an empirical matter, these views do, in fact, appear to correlate.

All of these are absolute deal breakers for me with Ron Paul.  None of them apply to Johnson.  And besides, Johnson is a likeable sort of guy who can win people over with his sunny personality.  Paul is not.  My only real problem with Johnson is that I think his economic policies would throw us into a major tailspin.  Given that he has not chance of winning, should this be a deal breaker?  That is what I will get to in my third post.

*Most notably, he was once a strong advocate of capital punishment who even mused aloud about lowering the age of executions to 14!  He has since decided that execution is the ultimate state intrusion on liberty and therefore something libertarians should oppose.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Should I Throw Away my Vote on Gary Johnson?

I voted on Saturday.  With a heavy heart and some hesitation, I voted for Obama.  In 2008, I walked sidewalks and pounded doors for Obama, hoping that he would reverse the rampant abuses of executive power committed by George Bush.*  He didn't.  Beyond ending torture, he left those abuses  in place, and strengthened them by making them bipartisan.  How much that was by choice, and how much it was forced on him by a still hysterical Congress and public is debatable, but those policies have remained.  Certainly voting for Romney was out of the question; Romney gives all appearance of wanting to continue the abuses, and perhaps even restore torture.

But what about a third party candidate?  I live in New Mexico, which is considered solid for Obama, so we can afford to throw away a few votes.  Our former governor, Gary Johnson, is running as the Libertarian Party candidate.  Johnson favors ending the PATRIOT Act, maintaining proper judicial oversight over all searches, requiring all terrorism suspects to be charged, and making airport security less intrusive and more risk-based.  He wants to avoid foreign wars.  He would even allow people wronged by the War on Terror to sue for damages.  In all this, he is definitely my kind of guy.

Unfortunately, he also wants to balance the budget in a single year.  He would eliminate federal support for Fannie and Freddie, which currently securitize up to 80% of all home mortgage, with the remaining one being held by the bank making the loan.  He apparently opposed raising the debt ceiling in order to force an immediate balanced budget.  He also favors much tighter monetary policy.  His website vaguely says, "Get the Federal Reserve out of the business of creating money, quantitative easing and other efforts to override the free market."  It also makes clear that he wants the Fed to focus on price stability only and not unemployment.  He has also said in an interview that he opposes "printing money,"** favors abolishing the Federal Reserve, and wants a "strong dollar."  All of these, I believe, would be disastrous for the economy (though not as bad as the gold standard Ron Paul proposes).  It is further evidence that success in business does not necessarily translate into understanding of a national economy.  

So in some ways I am right back where I was when the issue was Ron Paul.  Am I willing to vote for a candidate I expect to blow up the domestic economy because I support him on the War on Terror?  And, if not, why not?  Except that ultimately the decision was much easier with Paul.  There were reasons to dislike him beyond his economic policy.

To be continued.

*The War in Iraq was less of an issue, because we were already in the process of withdrawal.
**To be fair to Johnson, I do not think he means that remark literally.  Taken in context, it is clear that he means we should stop printing money to finance government expenditures, in other words, that we should balance the budget, not that we should adopt the gold standard or some other commodity-based money system.