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.

Follow Up

Jonathan Haidt says that people elect politicians and favor or oppose policies, not based so much on anticipated outcomes as on what appeals to their moral intuitions.  He concludes from that that liberals should stop focusing so much on outcomes and purely utilitarian calculus and worry more about how to appeal to people's moral intuitions.

I think this is about half right for politicians and about two-thirds right for policies.

I agree that people elect politicians based on moral intuition, not on anticipated outcomes.  But I think that people re-elect politicians based on actual outcomes.  If the actual outcome is bad, no amount of intuitive appeal will make the politician popular when the next election comes around. Suppose either Obama or McCain had decided to put political expediency ahead of the public good in 2008 and come out against the TARP.  Suppose he had led his party in the revolt against it and the TARP had failed.  This decision would have been wildly popular. The bank bailouts violated everyone's moral intuitions in the worst way possible.  The candidate who defeated them would probably have won by a landslide.  Then the financial system would have crashed and the country fallen into a much, much worse economic downturn than it did.  And the heroic candidate who defeated the bank bailouts would become increasingly unpopular and lose the next election.  Granted, people  might not recognize the cause and effect at work.  They might not realize that allowing the financial system to crash caused the economic downturn.  But the practical unpopularity of economic ruin would far outweigh the theoretical popularity of letting the banks fail.

This is not pure speculation.  Consider Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Roosevelt ran in 1932 as a "Tea Party" candidate, denouncing Hoover for his deficits and pledging to make deep cuts in federal spending and balance the budget.  Clearly he thought this was a much more intuitively appealing approach than calling for a Keynesian stimulus.* And he was right.  Throughout his tenure, Americans surveyed continued to reject Keynesian logic and tell pollsters they favored spending cuts and a balanced budget.  But a funny thing happened.  When Roosevelt ran huge deficits and the economy made a strong recovery, he was wildly popular.  When he balanced the budget and the economy slumped, his popularity slumped along with it.  Clearly practical results trumped intuitive appeal, no matter what people told pollsters.

Policies are a bit more complex than politicians.  I do agree that people tend to favor or oppose policies based on what appeals to their moral intuitions rather than what the anticipated outcome is.  Then again, most people assume that if a policy is intuitively appealing, it will automatically get good results. What if people's intuitions turn out to be wrong?

Well, if an intuitively appealing policy results in immediate catastrophe, it is unlikely to be popular for long.  Raising the government debt ceiling goes against most people's moral intuition.  Most people, after all, have credit limits and can't unilaterally raise them.  It seems unfair that government does not have to play by the same rules the rest of us do.  And running up more debt during bad times always seems improvident.  So Republicans thought that refusing to raise the debt ceiling would be popular.  No doubt failure to raise the debt ceiling would have been popular, but the results would not.  The Republicans apparently assumed that people would consider the abstract principle that the debt ceiling should not be raised to be more important that concrete results. like, say, federal contractors not being paid, federal prisons not being guarded, border patrols ceasing, deposit insurance losing its federal backstop, no more air traffic controllers, and so forth.  But as the date loomed closer and closer and people became increasingly aware of what could happen if the debt ceiling were not raised, refusing to raise the debt ceiling started losing its appeal.  Moral intuition proved unequal to the challenge of the threat of catastrophic results.  Imagine how well it would have stood up to an actual catastrophe.

But immediate catastrophes are the exception and not the rule.  What of merely ordinary counter-intuitive policies with good results or intuitively appealing policies with bad results?  Well, I think that if politicians bite bullet and pass a policy that goes against most people's moral intuitions but yields good results, most people will find a way to modify their intuitions to accept the good outcome.  Certainly that is what supporters of Obamacare are hoping for.

But where I agree with Haidt is that unsuccessful policies that are intuitively appealing can be extremely difficult to get rid of.  That is why, for instance, so many drugs remain illegal, even though their illegal status does nothing to suppress use and merely leads to criminality and ever more intrusive police surveillance.  It is why there is such resistance to fighting AIDS by distributing condoms or needle exchange programs.  It is why religious conservatives resist vaccinating their daughters against cervical cancer or insist on abstinence-only education.  All of these things are about taking a stand against sin versus being complicit in it.  Effectiveness is really not the point.  Religious conservatives are well aware that sin isn't going away any time soon.  But so long as it exists, they are not willing to adopt policies that condone it.  Occasionally, the results of an intuitively appealing but practically disastrous policy can be so bad that even people who supported it end up admitting that their intuitions were wrong.  See Prohibition as an example.

In short, I believe that politicians who are intuitively appealing but practically harmful are often elected, but rarely reelected.  I believe that counter-intuitive but highly successful politicians and policies alike can overcome people's initial doubts.  But I believe that intuitively appealing but practically harmful policies can be extremely difficult to get rid of.  And I think Haidt should acknowledge the importance of outcomes as well as intuitions.

*Okay, so Keynes didn't come out with his theories until around 1936, so this is an anachronism.  But you know what I mean.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Moral Foundations of Ending FEMA

The whole question of whether Mitt Romney wants to end FEMA because of his remarks during the Republican Primary.  His words bear repeating;
Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that's even better.  Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut – we should ask ourselves the opposite question.  What should we keep? We should take all of what we're doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we're doing that we don't have to do?
 Romney's position on FEMA is moderate compared to some people's.  Ron Paul wants to abolish FEMA altogether and makes clear that he approves of the good old days when a hurricane destroyed Galveston and the federal government did nothing.*  Other right wingers have discovered a new reason to hate Hoover.  Not only did he cause the Great Depression with his overly interventionist response to the stock market crash, he had already proven himself a socialist by leading federal disaster relief during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.  

Liberals are baffled by all this.  Is it really possible for anyone to think it is better for Galveston destroyed than for the federal government to lift a hand to help?  So I will do what I now make my habit when conservatives advocate something that baffles my liberal sensibilities -- run it through Jonathan Haidt's moral analysis.  Haidt argues that liberals have tunnel vision when they focus solely on harm avoidance, with some secondary concerns for justice and freedom.  Instead, he says, liberals should consider that full range of moral foundations that conservatives value -- besides harm avoidance, justice and freedom, we should consider the value of in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and reverence for the sacred.  So, how to these values apply to disaster relief, especially to abolishing FEMA.  And are such arguments likely to have much traction?

Harm avoidance:

Obviously, disaster relief, including by FEMA, is about harm avoidance.  Everyone (I trust) agrees that mitigating harm during a natural disaster is good.  Disaster relief is always a popular charitable cause.  FEMA, when competently managed, plays a major role in harm mitigation.  What values beyond harm mitigation are opposed to FEMA?


Liberals, Haidt says, tend to equate justice with harm mitigation while conservatives and libertarians see it more as just deserts -- as karma.  He has even expressed concerns that this could go too far -- treating the mere fact that people have suffered misfortune as proof that their misfortunes were deserved.  For the most part, I do not see these concerns applying to natural disasters.  Natural disasters are perhaps the most obvious case possible for bad things happening to good people.  

But there are exceptions.  In every natural disaster, there are people who put themselves in needless danger by taking unnecessary risks.  These are people who don't buy insurance and want FEMA to cover all their losses, people who build in flood plains because they can get federal flood insurance, people who live next to the forest and refuse to clear their land as a firebreak and expect the Forest Service to protect their houses, people who defy evacuation orders despite being healthy and wealthy enough to leave and then expect to be rescued, and (for that matter) people who go hiking during blizzards or take excessively dangerous rock climbs and then expect search and rescue to save them.  I have considerable sympathy for conservatives who lack sympathy for such people.  They not only put themselves in danger, they endanger rescue workers and waste resources that might go to rescuing  people who are genuinely just unfortunate.  But these simply means that we should modify disaster relief somewhat to penalize people who take unreasonable risks.  Getting rid of FEMA altogether is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Furthermore, I see no evidence that there is wide popular belief that most people caught in natural disasters are to blame for their own misfortunes.  Quite the contrary, the overwhelming response to a natural disaster is one of sympathy and helpfulness, with resentment toward the minority of people who take unnecessary risks as decidedly secondary.


I do not doubt that certain hardcore libertarians or conservatives do see FEMA as in infringement on liberty. These are the ones who oppose all redistributionist taxation as a form of "enslavement."  These are the people who assure you that they will be happy to make voluntary donations to rebuild Galveston, to tax them for the benefit of the people of Galveston is morally indistinguishable from kidnapping them off the streets, carrying the off to Galveston, and forcing them "at gunpoint" to work on a chain gang rebuilding the city.  The fact that paying a tax is less intrusive does not make it less of an infringement on freedom, just more insidious.  Ensuring that the funding for rebuilding Galveston is entirely voluntary is infinitely more important than whether Galveston is actually rebuilt.  In fact, whether Galveston is ever rebuilt at all is not an appropriate public policy concern.  Let us be plain here.  The real argument here is that harm mitigation is not a legitimate public policy concern at all -- only freedom and justice are proper concerns of public policy.**  At least one libertarian has taken this to its illogical conclusion -- if an asteroid were on a collision course with earth and government had the technology to destroy it, it would be better to let all life on earth be wiped out than to spend taxpayer funds to prevent such an outcome.

I do not think this is a viewpoint that is likely to ever have much popular support.  If the liberal view that public policy should be solely about harm reduction is unbalanced, the ultra-libertarian view that harm reduction has no proper role in public policy  In its most extreme form, very few people are likely to see allowing the world to end in order to avoid paying higher taxes as freedom-enhancing.  After all, Patrick Henry notwithstanding, you have to be alive to be free.  In its less extreme form, most people are also unlikely to see the ruin accompanying natural disaster and the confusion apt to follow when recovery relies solely on voluntary donations as freedom-enhancing.

Furthermore, government routinely respond to natural disasters with much more intrusive infringements on freedom than just taxing people to pay for the recovery.  Governments order people to leave their homes; they set of roadblocks keeping people from going home; they order all traffic except emergency responders off the street; they declare martial law and send in the National Guard.  And furthermore, these measures are generally accepted as necessary given the emergency.  People expect government to restrict their freedom during natural disasters in ways that would never be tolerated under more normal conditions.  People accept these restrictions as necessary for their protection. In short, during natural disasters, most people are willing to temporarily let harm minimization trump freedom.  And, what is more, I think most people tend to see more intrusive governmental actions are more freedom-limiting than less intrusive measures, like taxes, offensive as this may be to some libertarians.

Finally, this is just guesswork on my part, but I suspect that most people's objections to redistributionist taxation is more likely to take a conservative/justice perspective than a libertarian/ freedom perspective.  In other words, most people do not object so much to their taxes going to benefit someone else as to their taxes going to benefit someone they don't think deserves the benefit.  Just as a guess, I would say that if you asked most people what they would be willing to voluntarily donate to and what they would be willing to see their taxes pay for, the lists would be very similar.  And disaster relief ranks right up their with cancer research among causes that people like donating to.

Group Loyalty:

This is more fruitful ground.  People argue against FEMA not so much on the grounds of freedom, but of federalism.  Government has a legitimate role in disaster relief, just not the federal government. This is often expressed in terms of freedom -- federal government is seen as much more dangerous and oppressive than state government.  Or freedom is equated with strict constitutionalism -- confining the federal government strictly within the bounds set by Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, and any expansion beyond that undermines the rule of law and puts freedom in danger.

I am skeptical that this argument will get very far.  Most people do not draw as sharp a distinction between levels of government as many hard-core federalists might wish.  The idea that an act that is perfectly acceptable and popular if a state does it becomes a monstrous act of oppression if the federal government is involved is simply to rarified to have much popular currency.  

More promising is the argument that close-knit communities should pull together and rebuild out of their own resources.  This is an appealing idea.  And I will say that natural disasters seem to bring out all the best features of group loyalty -- bringing a community together, neighbors helping each other out, close cooperation for the good of the whole, the desire to be helpful and so forth.  And natural disasters seem to suppress the darker side of in-group loyalty -- an us-and-them outlook, and a narrowing of one's moral vision.  Natural disasters simultaneously strengthen in-group ties within a community and widen the circle of most people's sympathy.  They are the only instance I can think of in which those two tendencies are not opposed to each other.

But natural disasters also run up against the limits of group loyalty.  A large-scale disaster often overwhelms the resources of a local community to deal with it.  Are there communities so tight-knit and so distrustful of outsiders that they would turn down outside help under the circumstances?  Probably some Amish or Hasidic communities would (while drawing on help from other groups of Amish or Hasids), and perhaps some far-from-lovable cults.  But I doubt any mainstream community would turn down FEMA if its own resources were overwhelmed.

And local communities are not necessarily all that good at disaster relief, or inherently less oppressive than the federal government.  Certainly New Orleans was not during Katrina.  It should also be noted that the reason Hoover was put in charge of disaster relief in the 1927 flood, and why disaster relief began being seen as a federal responsibility was that local authorities were doing a terrible job.  Communities lacked resources to deal with the damage.  Black people were forced to work on the levees at gunpoint, left in flooded areas while white people were evacuated, imprisoned in refugee camps, and denied access to relief.  New Orleans officials deliberately blew up the levees protecting the poorer parts of town in order to spare the richer parts.  (No doubt this contributed to the widespread belief among black people that something similar happened during Katrina).

In short, I think that appeals to community loyalty as an argument against FEMA may very well have mainstream resonance, but are unlikely to survive the harsh reality of actually attempting the experiment.


This might seem like an odd question even to raise.  After all, the government's authority is at its height in the wake of a natural disaster, and notably receives respect.  Government authority is only one kind, though.  Conservatives also value the authority of parents, clergy, employers, civic organizations, and so forth.  Indeed, I suspect one reason they distrust government is the fear that it will seize all authority to itself and undermine these other authorities.  During natural disasters, though, most people are willing to defer to the authority of government and accept the temporary subordination of these other possible sources of authority.

Purity and sanctity:

Haidt likes pointing out that many things liberals favor as harm mitigation strategies are deeply offensive to conservatives because they are seen as not merely passively allowing, but requiring active participation, in sin.  Examples include offering free birth control, drug legalization, needle exchange programs, and so forth.  Needless to say, disaster relief does not fit into this category.

Another party of purity/sanctity that Haidt does not explore as much is seeing certain things, or people, as defiling.  In this case, the source of defilement would be the federal government itself.  The federal government would be seen as a sort of toxic chemical, necessary in some cases, but to be confined so as to prevent its contamination of our otherwise pure society.  I suspect that certain libertarians or hard-core federalists really do see it in these terms.  By contrast, the United States as a country, is clearly seen as sacred, hence the outrage over what liberals dismiss as trivial symbolic issues, like flag burning.  Furthermore, there is ample evidence that the United States is seen as more sacred than any state or municipality.  School children pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, not to their state flags.  Sports events begin with the Star Spangled Banner.  How many people even know their state song?  Many states fly a large U.S. flag with a smaller state flag below it, on a single flag pole.

Granted, the country is not the same as the government.  But the existence of a country more or less implies that it has a government.  And if people truly see their government as a desecration polluting everything it touches, even something so popular and uncontroversial as disaster relief, then that government has a serious legitimacy crisis at hand.  I do not see such a crisis with us.


Some extreme libertarians or federalists may see federal disaster relief as an outrage against freedom, or as a desecration of the purity of sacred federalism.  I doubt very much, though, that either of these ideas has much potential to go mainstream.  Two criticisms of FEMA may have some mainstream currency.  One is that is subsidizes people who put themselves in danger by taking excessive risks.  This, though, sounds more like  a call to reform FEMA to penalize the irresponsible than reason to abolish it.  The other is that it infringes on the self-sufficiency of communities and discourages them from rebuilding with their own resources.  This argument may, indeed, have mainstream appeal.  It is unlikely, though, to survive for long in the face of the harsh realities of communities whose resources are overwhelmed.  In short, I believe that abolishing FEMA is one of the ideas that appeals to portions of the Republican party faithful, but is unlikely to be popular to anyone else.  And the Republican party faithful seriously overestimate their numbers compared to the general population.

PS:  And right on cue, here we have just that:  An expression of fear that if government does too much in terms of disaster relief, people will lose their resilience and self-reliance and be unable to come to the aid of their neighbors.  I file that under group loyalty, and consider it the best critique of FEMA.  But I don't see it as a plausible argument for abolishing it.

*To be fair to Ron Paul, even in the absence of any government intervention whatever, Galveston would not be as badly devastated now as it was in 1900.  The technology did not exist then to know in advance when a hurricane would strike.  
**This view does allow for harm mitigation in the form of law enforcement and national defense.  But these can be defended in terms of justice -- punishing the guilty as well as protecting the innocent.