Monday, November 30, 2015

Obama is Incoherent; the Rest are Insane

OK, so I have made the case that Obama's critics are more hawkish than he is.  But why does that prove that they are any more incoherent?  Because of the way that they are hawkish.  Their approach to the Middle East is one of omni-directional belligerence.

Syria is the most obvious example of complete incoherence in our foreign policy establishment, even more incoherent than our current policy under Obama.  Taking the most simple, dumbed-down (though somewhat outdated) map of what is going on in Syria's civil war, in March, 2014 it looked something like the picture on the right.  Pink represents the Assad government; green represents the non-ISIS rebels, and gray represents ISIS.  (Yellow is the Kurds).  We are on the side of the green forces. It should be obvious that our friends are facing the classic two-front war problem.  They are trying to defeat the pink guys and the gray guys simultaneously. One might think that this is a bad situation to be in.

It gets worse.  The map on the left (updated to December, 2014) distinguishes between rebels we might actually support (light green) and mixed our guys and jihadis (dark green).  Yes, that is right, we are hoping for the light green guys to take over the entire country.  This map also makes clear why Putin, though nominally fighting ISIS, is actually supporting Assad mostly against our guys.  The government-held areas do not border on the ISIS-held areas, so there is no direct war between then.  It is our guys getting it from both sides.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn't gone so well for our side.  The map on the right shows that ISIS has been growing, largely at the expense of mixed rebel territory, but also at the expense of government.  (See also this article with a map showing the change in control over time).  Not good!  But then again, let us not forget that the Syrian rebels aren't exactly nice guys either. They are rife with foreign jihadis, Al-Qaeda offshoots, and the like.  All right, you may say, granted Syria is a mess and our policy is incoherent, but after all Obama has been the one in charge, so why is anyone else to blame for the mess.  I would answer two reasons.  One is that his intervention was (to all appearances) against his better judgment, in response to pressure by our larger foreign policy establishment.

And if Obama's response has been inept, his rivals' have been just plain nuts.  Consider Hillary Clinton.  What is her response to the growing power of ISIS?  Why, to step up the war against Assad, of course, and to be more confrontational with Iran.  As this critic caustically put it:
[N]ot six days after ISIS slaughtered 130 people in Paris; a few more after it brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt and blew up a Hezbollah neighborhood in Beirut, Hillary Clinton is calling for tougher measures against… wait for it… ISIS’s enemies in the Mideast. . . . . Does it need to be spelled out? For Hillary, the ISIS terror may be a sort of pretext to take the war to those whom Bibi Netanyahu considers his primary enemy, Iran, and Iran’s Lebanese Shi’ite ally, Hezbollah.
Still, at least Hillary is not proposing to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Republicans are all for scrapping that and doing all they can to ramp up tensions with Iran.  Can we face facts?  Iran is a major enemy of ISIS.  By contrast, our dear friend Saudi Arabia is funding the madrassahs where Islamic militants are trained, backing fellow travelers even as they oppose ISIS, and enabling al-Qaeda in Yemen.  And we consider Iran and enemy and Saudi Arabia an ally why?  Maybe because because Iran has a nuclear program that could lead to an atomic bomb and Saudi Arabia does not? That makes some sense, but then why are so many people dead said against any sort of curb on Iran's nuclear program?

Look, I am the first to agree that there are no good guys in the Middle East, only bad guys and other bad guys.  When confronted with such a situation, there are two reasonable, coherent responses:

  1. Stay the hell out.  If bad guys fight other bad guys, why should we make it our problem?  OR
  2. Choose the lesser evil as a reluctant and limited ally.
Our foreign policy establishment, including Obama, but with others denouncing him for not being aggressive enough at it, has chosen exactly the opposite approach:
  1. Fight everyone at once and try to conquer all Mideastern actors on behalf of a handful of "good guys" who exist mostly in our imagination.  OR
  2. Choose the greater evil (Saudi Arabia and its cohorts) and back it for no apparent reason.
Obama basically seems to know that these latter two are not great ideas, but cannot resist the pressure to act on them.  The others are denouncing him for being "weak" in not carrying one of these policies even farther.  

So those are our apparent options in the Middle East -- incoherence, or insanity.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Incoherence in the Middle East: Blame Obama and the Whole Foreign Policy Establishment

To state the obvious, our Mideastern policy is completely incoherent.  Should I blame Obama?  Well, he is the President and is setting foreign policy, so obviously he is largely to blame.  But I would be more inclined to blame him exclusively or even primarily if his critics had coherent alternatives.  But their usual response is to be even less coherent.  All agree that the problem is that he his "weak" and we need someone to be "tougher" and provide more "leadership."  Unfortunately, their ideas of "toughness" and "leadership" make no sense whatever.

Complaints by his less sophisticated critics are easily dispensed with.  I outsource the job to this article:
Struck again by how cons approach foreign policy almost *entirely* based on what feels emotionally satisfactory. Not only do they neglect empirical analysis of what has happened & what might happen, but they condemn such analysis as weakness. hey condemn the effort to understand the parties & forces at play - the effort to understand *in & of iteself* - as weakness. They condemn Obama’s aversion to force even though O been bombing ISIS for months. Why? Because he’s not making them *feel* it. It’s not the actual bombing they want, it’s the martial rhetoric, the flag-filled chyrons, the Bush-with-a-megaphone feeling. They want him to say the right words, to call enemies the right names, to beat his chest, to show that America es mas macho. Whether war - the last one, the next one - "works" is neither hear nor there. It’s working if it’s making them *feel* the right way.
Yeah, basically.  Obama's political rivals or critics in the foreign policy establishment are to some degree just more sophisticated versions of the same.  Consider this LA Times Article on Putin's intervention and Kevin Drum's comments on it.  The article comments on Putin's boldness in intervening, the degree to which it has put Obama on the defensive, and how difficult it will be for Obama to respond, since every action he takes will look like a simple reaction to Putin.  Yet it admits that Putin (at the time) had launched 112 airstrikes, as opposed to 7,200 by the US and its allies.  Yet in the second-to-last paragraph, it adds, as a sort of afterthought:
But many analysts believe that neither Putin nor anyone else can wrest military victory from the bitter cauldron in Syria. And many expect Obama, who has made that argument since the conflict began in 2011, to continue to move cautiously.
So, Putin is extremely shrewd to walk into a military conflict that he has no actual prospect of winning, and we look like weaklings for holding back, so naturally we should plunge in as well.  Appearance is everything; outcome is nothing!  Of course, it is really hard to prevent a bad outcome from looking bad if it continues long enough.  I agree with Drum, "Maybe we should have started with that? Putin is essentially engaged in a PR campaign. Obama isn't taking the bait because he knows perfectly well it's a fool's errand."

But politicians and pundits are forced to be more coherent than low information voters in as least one detail; they are forced to come up with concrete and specific proposals.  So here, courtesy of NPR, is a table of what the candidates are proposing.

Well, there is a clear partisan difference here.  The Democrats want to admit Syrian refugees and oppose the phrase "radical Islam" while Republicans (except Bush and Cruz) want to exclude them and all want to use the phrase "radical Islam."  More depressingly, only Sanders and Cruz are willing to exclude the use of ground forces in Syria.  Not even Rand Paul is prepared to rule it out, although he appears to lean against it.  The other Democrats and Rubio want to limit ground forces to special ops (who are probably already there), while Fiorina is not prepared to send in ground troops "yet."  The other Republicans either endorse ground troops or lean toward them, except for Gilmore (who?).  Only Rand Paul, O'Malley and Sanders clearly reject a no-fly zone (which would greatly increase our risk of a direct confrontation with Russia), while Clinton, Rubio, Kasich, Fiorina, and Bush all endorse it.  Cruz is unclear but appears, once again, a voice of relative sanity.  Ted Cruz as the voice of sanity, now there is a disturbing thought!

One question not even asked is how the candidates stand on the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Most Republicans have vowed to reject it, although the current focus on ISIS makes it less likely that any will go so far as to start a war with Iran.

But these questions, while interesting and worthwhile, do not address a lot of fine points at stake, particularly the matter of alliances, who we should work with and against. It is on that topic in particular that Obama's critics are a whole lot less coherent than he is, and that topic that I mean to address next.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Bit of Insane Optimism

Any chance that the alarm surrounding Turkey shooting down a Russian plane might make our leaders think twice about a no-fly zone?  That raises our chances of shooting down a Russian plane? No?  Well, I can always dream.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Hitler and Guns

All right, I may be a little late to the game commenting on Ben Carson's notorious remarks that Hitler came to power because Germans lacked the guns to stop them, or that the Holocaust succeeded because the Nazis took away the Jews' guns.  The action usually cited was a 1938 law requiring guns to be registered.  It is alleged that the Nazis, having a list of who owned guns, then confiscated them and proceeds to subjugate the now-helpless population and exterminate the now-helpless Jews. Many refutations have rained in, but a lot of them miss important underlying assumptions and simply reinforce the gun culture's conviction that firearms are necessary to resist tyranny.  Others comments, however, are significant, as are some that the refuters have missed altogether.

In particular, it is not useful to point out that strict gun control began under Weimar, with a ban on all private guns in 1919 as part of the disarmament under the Treaty of Versailles, or that firearms registration began under Weimar in 1928 when the complete ban on guns was relaxed.*  Gun advocates would simply see this as supporting their point.  They see a democratically elected government as simply the Nazis waiting to happen.  Many incorporate this into their narrative.  The innocent and well-meaning Weimar government registered all firearms.  Then the Nazis were elected and confiscated the guns, as a prelude to imposing a total dictatorship.  We must therefore keep guns legal and free from registration, because you never know when the Nazis might be elected here, seize them, and institute dictatorship, if no genocide.

Gun advocates may also point out, with some justification, that Weimar's anti-gun laws were not very effective.  The Weimar ban on guns did not prevent Freikorps (private paramilitaries) from flourishing, or Freikorps from doing battle with Communist revolutionaries, attempting a coup, or from terrorizing their opponents in Bavaria.  Clearly there is some truth to statement that when guns are outlawed, only outlaws carry guns.

But there are other ways in which events in Germany clearly go against the NRA's preferred narrative.  These should be stressed.  First of all, the alleged confiscation of guns did not happen -- except for Jews.  The 1938 statute relaxed firearms restrictions for others, but barred Jews from owning guns.  This is significant, but I will get to it later.

In the NRA outlook, it is assumed not only that democratically elective government is simply tyranny waiting to happen (Hitler came to power by election!), but that private paramilitaries outside the control of government are the natural defenders of liberty.  The whole history of Weimar calls this assumption into doubt.  Because if there was one problem the Weimar Republic did not have, it was a shortage of private paramilitaries.  There were paramilitaries everywhere, the Freikorps, the Communists, and other extremists.  But they were not champions of liberty against an oppressive government.  They were the threats to liberty, terrorizing and killing whoever opposed them.  I suppose today's militia types might acknowledge that not all private paramilitaries are necessarily good guys but that simply shows that good guys need guns so they can defend themselves against the bad guys.

That runs into a definite problem.  The good guys in Weimar did, in fact, form their own paramilitary in an attempt to counter the bad guys.  The "Weimar coalition" of parties that supported the Republic formed the Reichsbanner following the Beer Hall Putsch in an attempt to counter the paramilitaries that were attacking the Republic.  Its initial years were ones of relative quiet, but with the onset of the Great Depression and the growing power of the Nazis, its role in fighting their violence and intimidation grew.  More hard line members broke off and formed the Iron Front to fight the Nazis. But these groups ultimately did not prove and effective counter-force, and when the Nazis came to power, the "good guy" paramilitaries were easily suppressed.

And no, this is not because Weimar gun control measures disarmed the good guy militias while leaving the bad guys untouched.  It was for two main reasons, both rather embarrassing to hardcore Second Amendment fans.

First off, people who genuinely respect democratic norms and the rights of others don't want to contest power through paramilitaries.  They want to contest power through the orderly democratic process.  Militias shooting it out on the streets are an immistakable rejection of the democratic process.  (And it is a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse that anyone even needs to point out this obvious fact).  Well, so what, NRA types may say.  When the bad guys have guns and start shooting, do good guys want to be helpless before them?  Bad guy paramilitaries can't be wished away, after all; they must be confronted by force.  But this misses the point.  When the state of a country's politics reach the point of good guy paramilitaries and bad guy paramilitaries shooting it out in the streets, liberty is already lost.  What is left is not liberty at all, but the law of the jungle, which is freedom only for people at the top of the food chain.

And second in a direct confrontation between paramilitary and regular military, the paramilitary doesn't have a chance.  Because this didn't just apply to "good guy" paramilitaries.  It applied to bad guy paramilitaries as well.  Most famously, consider the Beer Hall Putsch.  Hitler's paramilitary marched.  The army fired.  The paramilitary scattered, and the revolt was over.  A crackdown ensued. It persuaded Hitler not to attempt violent revolution again, but to seek power through the electoral process.  And, as with the Ku Klux Klan, the only successful paramilitary revolt in our own history, the point is not moral, but tactical.  Our own militia movement need not have anything morally in common with the Nazis to learn some tactical lessons from them.  Or consider Hitler's Stormtroopers or SA.  They were his paramilitary that terrorized opponents.  They numbered three million, versus the small 100,000 man army.  They were armed.  Many were WWI veterans.  Yet when Hitler allowed the army to crack down on the SA, they went down without a fight.  Others have commented that many people in occupied countries did offer armed resistance, to little avail.  As for Jews, they made up about 1% of the German population.  Armed resistance would certainly have been easily defeated.  The much-admired Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not even slow down the Holocaust.

And all of this raises yet a third point.  The Jews were so few as to make armed resistance hopeless. Some people move this question to the German people in general and say that the German people were not able to resist the Nazis because they were disarmed.  But the real reason the Nazis did not meet with resistance was that they were generally popular.  Insurrectionist types tend to assume that their fantasied armed rebellion will the by The People (good guys) against The Government (bad guys), and that the people will all agree when the time for revolution is ripe and be able to act with unity.  But the simple fact is that no domestic government can endure without the support of at least a significant minority of the population.  The glorious uprising will invariably take the form, not of the People against the Government, but of the people against each other.

And this means some uncomfortable things.  Given that (1) paramilitaries are no match for regular militaries and (2) a significant sub-section of the population will support the government, this means that armed rebellion by a private paramilitary will have to start out hitting soft targets, i.e. terrorizing government supporters.  That is precisely what Hitler's paramilitary did, and quite successfully.  It was only when they took on the armed forces directly (and prematurely) that they were crushed.  This is the pattern any revolt by irregular forces will have to take.  It ain't pretty.

Note that I qualify this statement by saying that it refers to domestic governments.  A foreign occupation is a different matter.**  A foreign occupation may very well rest on brute force alone and not have the support of even a significant minority of the population.  But even the worst occupation will have collaborators, and an irregular resistance will have to start out by targeting them. Furthermore, there is the tendency of revolutions to devour their children.  People who fully agree in hating the government in power my bitterly disagree on what is to replace it.  And once people get in the habit of resolving disputes by violence, it can be hard to break.  The same applies even to resistance movements fighting a foreign occupier.  Certainly in WWII, resistance movements were severely divided between pro- and anti-Communist forces.  In Yugoslavia and Greece, where resistance forces managed an effective guerrilla warfare, the forces of the resistance fought each other as much as they fought the Germans, and civil war co-existed with resistance.  The opposite side won in these respective countries, but neither were nice guys or champions of liberty.

All of which is a way of saying that the theory that private paramilitaries are the natural champions of justice and the final defense against oppressive government falls apart as soon as one learns anything about actual, real-world paramilitaries.  So it often is when beautiful theories are brought face-to-face with ugly facts.

*The 1938 registration law actually relaxed firearms restrictions for non-Jews even further.
**A government of collaborators installed and supported by an occupying force is an intermediate category.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Another Comment on Health Insurance

Besides the dropout of an important insurer, one huge complaint about Obamacare is that the policies it offers are not very good.  The deductibles are so high that they offer nothing for ordinary healthcare but only serious illness.  Certainly that has been my experience with my own policy.  Although somewhat overlooked, this has been a common complaint about health insurance policies even before Obamacare, but the general trend does seem to be toward higher deductibles.

Nonetheless, even with the deductibles I think insurance policies have advantages for the simple reason that it is expensive to be uninsured.  Insurance companies are able to use their monopsony power to get providers to accept lower payments from them than they do from the uninsured.  Even if your insurance does not cover a service, people who have it benefit from the lower reduction offered insurance companies.  Sometimes the amounts are quite large.  The other reason being uninsured is expensive is that many providers require the uninsured to pay the full price up front before seeing them.  If you have insurance, they require only a copay up front.  Granted, if the service later turns out to be within the deductible, you get billed for it later on.  But, besides the reduced price providers offer to insurance companies, you have at least the option of paying in installments instead of all at once.

Of course, all this will probably be less than the premium price.  Indeed, insurance companies make their money by collecting more in premiums than they pay out to claimants.  Specifically, health insurers make more by collecting more premiums from the well than they pay out on behalf of the sick.  And that basic model will apply, Obamacare or no Obamacare.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Bad News for Obamacare

Uh-oh.  This latest is not from Republicans eager to see Obamacare fail, but from Sarah Kliff, a serious healthcare wonk who wants to see it succeed.  Apparently UnitedHealth may withdraw from the exchanges next year, saying they are not profitable.  In most states, it is not that big a deal, but in New York and Nevada, UnitedHealth is a major player and its withdrawal would be disastrous.

But the issue is bigger than UnitedHealth. The question is whether it is simply the first of many to withdraw from the exchanges.  Certainly I know that in my own state of New Mexico, Blue Cross Blue Shield is withdrawing from the exchanges when the regulators would not allow it to make the large rate increases it wanted.  This is not a good sign.  It may herald the "death spiral" that Democrats fear and Republicans eagerly hope for.

Of course, if the exchanges do start to fail, that will pose a problem for Republicans as well.  If the exchanges begin to seriously malfunction, the pressure will be on to do something about them. Responding to serious problems on the exchanges where many people buy their health insurance by shutting them down altogether and replacing them with nothing will not be a popular action.

The rubber may hit the road for repeal and replace.

Some Hills are Not Worth Dying On

So, it would appear that Republicans have found a new issue to threaten a government shutdown -- Syria refugees.  Not cutting them off altogether, not even changing the substance of the vetting process, just making it slower and more cumbersome.

This shows something significant, I think.  It shows that really the issue triggering the government shutdown is secondary.  What the Republicans really want is to have such a showdown, and to win it.

And on this one they probably will.  The author of the article stresses that Republicans could win this one because this time Republicans are united Democrats are not, but ignores the underlying reason why that is so.  The reason that in other shutdowns Democrats stayed united and Republicans split was that the issue leading to the shutdown was unpopular on the substance.  Shutting down the government to voucherize Medicare or cut Social Security or shut down Obamacare after people use it to get health insurance is going to be unpopular.  The public sides with the President and blames Congress for the showdown/shutdown not just because these things are structured in the President's favor, but because they agree with him on the underlying issue.  On other issues, Obama could say, "The Republicans are shutting down the government because they want to cut Social Security/take away people's health insurance."  The Republicans had a hard time blaming Obama because most people did not support what they wanted to achieve.

This time, Republicans can say, "Obama is shutting down the government to force us to take in a bunch of Arab refugees without properly vetting them."  Obama will have a hard time blaming the Republicans because most people will not agree with him on this.

Furthermore, Obama will do his brand serious harm if he goes to the mats on this.  The author of the article says that Democrats voting against this bill risk being labeled as "soft on terror" in the next election.  But if there is one thing the Obama Administration has proved, it is that how a Democrat votes does not matter.  If the President proposed something unpopular (nationally or locally) and a member of his party votes against, they will not get any credit for that vote.  As members of the President's party they will be tarred with whatever the President favors.

In the meantime, the Republican demands are fairly modest.  They will clog the admission process but not stop it.  The harm to refugee admissions is not that great.  The harm to the Democratic brand is immense.  My advice to Obama is to cave and agree to sign the bill.

Of course, once Obama agrees to something, it automatically becomes poison to Republicans.  What they want is not any particular concession.  They want to win a loud public showdown and make clear to the base that the concessions were forced over on Obama against his maximal resistance. Concede on this and they will simply ask for more.  My answer to that is fine, let them.  Keep conceding and conceding and conceding until the Republicans are forced to make unpopular demands.  Then hold the line and force the showdown.  Why, if you are lucky, you may force the Republicans to overreach all the way into conceding on the refugees as well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Distinguishing Between Positive Economics and Normative Economics

Okay, I am late to this one, but I have been wanting for some time to comment on this column and this follow up (via  Paul Krugman) on why politicians don't follow economists' suggestions.  The author says that their decisions are often political rather than economic, and that it is perfectly legitimate to make policy on a political basis:
Economists tend to assume that there is a single right answer (even if they disagree bitterly among each other about what the right answer is). They explore what is “correct” from a theoretical point of view and are puzzled when their “correct” ideas are not followed. Political scientists don’t usually start from the basis that there is a single correct way to do things. Instead, they assume that there is more than one interpretation of what is correct, and try to come up with theories about which “correct” answer is chosen. There is no correct answer when there are competing rival views that are not easily testable in a complex world where one cannot readily carry out controlled experiments with obvious real world interpretations.
. . . . . . 
Instead of relying on expertise, we should figure out what people actually want from policy (and map the forces that block or channel their efforts to express and act on their desires).
And in the later column:
More broadly, and more contentiously, one might push back at the notion that all that matters therefore is an analysis of the facts and the correct theory. That certainly matters, but we live in a world of fundamental uncertainty. Thus, there are many judgment calls, where the facts are ambiguous or unhelpful.
. . . . . . . . 
Values – and not just smarts and theory — help shape how you come down on uncertainty.
This struck a chord with me for two reasons.  It is about the difference between positive economics and normative economics -- the economics of description and the economics of prescription.  When I took freshman economics in college, at a time when inflation and nominal interest rates were unusually high (yes, I date myself), the difference was explained that positive economics says, "As long as X continues, interest rates will remain high."  Normative economics says, "We've got to get interest rates down."

We had a book on normative economics, applying economic analysis to public policy decisions. However, it tended to blur the distinction between positive and normative economics.  Policy decisions are typically made for political rather than economic reasons and yield an outcome different from the one that the free market would have made on its own.  But this is, properly speaking, mere description rather than prescription, a positive observation and nothing more.  The authors tended to treat such policy decisions and outcomes as inherently illegitimate without seriously justifying that underlying assumption.

The author here makes the opposite error.  He takes for granted the legitimacy of making decisions on a political basis.  But he seems strangely indifferent to the economic results of such decisions.  

Or, put differently, macroeconomists generally agree that when the economy hits the zero lower bound (i.e., when the economy remains below capacity even when the central bank cuts short-term interest rates to zero), austerity causes the economy to get worse, and that a shrinking economy raises the debt burden relative to GDP.  They also generally agree that raising interest rates under such circumstances worsens the recession.  These opinions are in the realm of positive, not normative, economics.  

It is possible to believe that deficits are so evil, or tight money so virtuous, that we should pursue fiscal and monetary tightening in a recession, regardless of the harm to the economy. That would be an instance of normative economics -- as is the assumption that we should always fight recessions rather than let them play themselves out.  A good discussion of normative economics should be grounded in a solid background of positive economics.  A proper debate on deficit reduction at the zero lower bound would take into account the general macro consensus that the economy would be hurt as a result and consider whether the value of deficit cutting outweighs the harm it will cause. Conflicting values and interests would play out, but with their eyes open to the probable outcomes of their actions.  

The error of the author is to ignore what economists are saying about probable outcomes and treat values and interests as the only important thing.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Anti-State versus Anti-Other

Republicans are doing what they so often do -- denouncing intrusive Big Government while calling for bigger and more intrusive government to crack down on immigrants, beating the drums of war, and calling for everyone to rally around the police and exempt them from any criticism.  Is this hypocritical?  I would say it is less hypocrisy than an error in terminology.  Or as this wise observer put it, it is the difference between being anti-state and "anti-other."  And here is the thing -- anti-other can easily masquerade as anti-state.  Ron Paul and his followers are classic examples.

I got a useful insight from Jonathan Haidt's discussion of the moral foundations -- particularly the foundation of in-group loyalty.  If maximizing your in-group's autonomy and sovereignty are important goals, it went a long way toward explaining to me why right-wingers are so strongly opposed to international cooperation, from the United Nations to trade agreements.  They are threats to national autonomy and sovereignty.  And it explained why conservatives are strong advocates of states' rights -- the importance of local autonomy and sovereignty.  And, incidentally, I am more sympathetic to that viewpoint than I have been in the past.  It is clear that on the matter of the euro the ignorant masses were right and purportedly enlightened elites were wrong.  Introducing a trans-national currency really was a dangerous infringement on national sovereignty that undermined countries' ability to manage their own economies and left them at the mercy of their creditors.*  In the Iraq war, the very worst insurgents were the international jihadis with no local ties and therefore no stake in the country's long-term survival.  So such concerns are legitimate, and confronted with them I (we) should give the matter greater thought before rejecting them as simple bigotry.

But too strong a focus on preserving one's in-group autonomy and sovereignty and protecting it from outside contamination can lead in a very ugly direction.  It is an obvious case of us-and-them thinking.  And it sees the state's proper role as throwing a protective circle around Us to shield Us from Them.  Superficially, this sort of outlook can seem anti-state because we don't want the state meddling in matters between Us, since the state is never truly one of Us.  Thus preserving the autonomy and sovereignty of one's in-group means minimizing the power of the state over it.  Thus the anti-other outlook can seem extremely libertarian and anti-state to the extent that it wants to deny or at least minimize state authority in dealings among Us.  But if the role of the state is to draw a protective shield between Us and Them, then there no need for any limits on its power in dealing with Them.

Note, too, that although fine distinctions among Them** are unimportant and parsing them is simply proof that the speaker is not one of Us, there are degrees of other-ness.  Us-and-Them is best seen, not as a sharp dichotomy, but as a series of concentric circles.  The outermost circle are hostile foreign powers and anyone who resembles them.  For instance, in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, a whole lot of people were unconcerned with the fine distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq, or between Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and the Taliban.  They were all Muslim, Mideastern, and enemies, so why bother distinguishing between them.  Likewise, I assume that when Mike Huckabeee responds to the ISIS attack in Paris by calling on us to scrap our nuclear deal with Iran, it is because neither he nor his supporters are interested in such fine details as that the Iranian government is fighting ISIS!  Yet at the same time, when North Korea began ramping up its nuclear program around the time we prepared for war with Iraq, there was no appetite for war with North Korea -- partly, no doubt, because such a war promised to be bloody, but also because it was obvious to even the more pig-headed that North Korea had nothing to do with 9-11 and was therefore not an obvious target for revenge.

Foreign countries in general occupy the next circle.  Here there is a tendency to see foreign countries in two categories, friend and foe.  With a foe (including countries like North Korea that we are not actually at war with, but are clearly hostile), the only options are war and complete disengagement. Friendly countries are the enemy of an enemy.  We expect them to support us in all our wars and will, in turn, support them in all their wars.  Failure to support a friendly country in its wars (either by that country or by us) is counted as a betrayal.  But the anti-other outlook distrusts any sort of international cooperation (except for fighting the same enemies) as a threat to national sovereignty. Thus they distrust not only diplomacy, but even lower level engagement, such as trade.  Here clearly the anti-state viewpoint (free trade!  No protectionism!) comes into conflict with the anti-other outlook (protect Us from Them).  That is why Ron Paul's opposition to NAFTA, or the Republican rank-and-file opposition to the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement are so important.  They are signs that a purported anti-state outlook is really anti-other.

Next come foreign nationals trying to enter the US.  And here all pretext of being anti-state vanishes. Militarization of the border, immigration raids, maximally intrusive surveillance of anyone entering on a legal visa, any number of annoying business regulations and red tape to prevent hiring anyone without a Green Card -- all these are clearly state action in its most intrusive and coercive.  They are also clear examples of what happens when the state tries to fight the will of the free market, in this case, in labor.  A true anti-state libertarian would emphasize this point.  An anti-other viewpoint may regret the regulatory burden on businessmen (many of whom are Us), but simply does not see state coercion against Them as an issue.  Likewise, we can imagine that in the war on terror, an anti-other would oppose any state dragnet over domestic telephone and e-mail record on the grounds that the state should keep its hands off me, but might have no objection to extremely intrusive surveillance over international communications on the grounds that anyone communicating with a foreign country is probably up to no good.

States' rights libertarians also look very much more anti-other than anti-state.  The underlying assumption in states' rights libertarianism is that only the federal government can oppress and that the actions of states, even if they are identical to federal actions, are inherently less oppressive.  But, although an assumption that the states can do no wrong is clearly contradicted by empirical evidence and contrary to libertarian opposition to all government, but it does fit well with the value maximizing in-group autonomy and sovereignty.  It should not be surprising that Ron Paul and a lot of neo-Confederate psuedo-libertarians belong to this tendency.

Finally, although not so Them as foreigners, fellow citizens are not necessarily Us.  I was particularly struck by this with a poster to Rod Dreher (which he wrote a separate column about, but which I am not going to go to the trouble of finding) in response to white support for black protests against the police.  The post made quite clear that the author saw the role of big city police as protecting the  SWPL (pronounced swipple.  Look it up) from the ravening black hoards and that the only authentic way any white person can respond to a police shooting of a black person is to line up behind the cops as one's own.  Questions of investigating individual crimes, making arrests, and justice to individuals did not seem to register in his view.  He did not seem to regard crimes by one black person against another as any concern of the authorities.  Indeed, it is far from clear that he even thought the urban police should investigate a crime by one white person against another.  Also unaddressed -- growing rates of interracial marriage and whether a white person may "authentically" care about a black spouse or their multi-racial children.

In short, the basic view of less government for Us and more for Them is not really incoherent if looked at from the right angle.  But from any angle, it is still ugly.

*Although, just for the record, the gold standard has exactly the same failing, and it seems strange to see Ron Paul sorts of libertarians, so prescient on the euro, fail to see the similarity to gold.
**Such as the difference between Communist, socialist and fascist; between Muslim and atheist; between Sunni and Shiite; and between any factions and distinctions of people who look vaguely Mideastern.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Our Politicians and Pundits Should Take a Page From Socrates

Ah, the things you unexpectedly run across learning about an unfamiliar topic.  Ancient Greece, for instance.  Looking through Xenophon's Memorabilia, his recollections of Socrates (Xenophon was a pupil of Socrates) for what he says about Socrates and the failure of Athenian democracy, I can across the following delightful passage in Book Three, Chapter Six in which Socrates persuades a young hothead to learn something about public policy before running for office:
Ariston's son, Glaucon, was attempting to become an orator and striving for headship in the state, though he was less than twenty years old; and none of his friends or relations could check him, though he would get himself dragged from the platform and make himself a laughing-stock. Only Socrates, who took an interest in him for the sake of Plato and Glaucon's son Charmides, managed to check him. 
For once on meeting him, he stopped him and contrived to engage his attention by saying: “Glaucon, have you made up your mind to be our chief man in the state?” 
“I have, Socrates." 
“Well, upon my word there's no more honourable ambition in the world; for obviously, if you gain your object, you will be able to get whatever you want, and you will have the means of helping your friends: you will lift up your father's house and exalt your fatherland; and you will make a name for yourself first at home, later on in Greece, and possibly, like Themistocles, in foreign lands as well; wherever you go, you will be a man of mark.” 
 When Glaucon heard this, he felt proud and gladly lingered.
Next Socrates asked, “Well, Glaucon, as you want to win honour, is it not obvious that you must benefit your city?" 
“Most certainly.” 
“Pray don't be reticent, then; but tell us how you propose to begin your services to the state." 
As Glaucon remained dumb, apparently considering for the first time how to begin,Socrates said: “If you wanted to add to a friend's fortune, you would set about making him richer. Will you try, then, to make your city richer?" 
“Would she not be richer if she had a larger revenue?” 
“Oh yes, presumably.” 
“Now tell me, from what sources are the city's revenues at present derived and what is their total? No doubt you have gone into this matter, in order to raise the amount of any that are deficient and supply any that are lacking.” 
“Certainly not,” exclaimed Glaucon, “I haven't gone into that.” 
“Well, if you have left that out, tell us the expenditure of the city. No doubt you intend to cut down any items that are excessive.” 
“The fact is, I haven't had time yet for that either.” 
“Oh, then we will postpone the business of making the city richer; for how is it possible to look after income and expenditure without knowing what they are?” 
“Well, Socrates, one can make our enemies contribute to the city's wealth.” 
“Yes, of course, provided he is stronger than they; but if he be weaker, he may lose what she has got instead.” 
“Therefore, in order to advise her whom to fight, it is necessary to know the strength of the city and of the enemy, so that, if the city be stronger, one may recommend her to go to war, but if weaker than the enemy, may persuade her to beware.” 
“You are right.” 
“First, then, tell us the naval and military strength of our city, and then that of her enemies.” 
“No, of course I can't tell you out of my head.” 
“Well, if you have made notes, fetch them, for I should greatly like to hear this.” 
“But, I tell you, I haven't yet made any notes either.” 
“Then we will postpone offering advice about war too for the present. You are new to power, and perhaps have not had time to investigate such big problems. But the defence of the country, now, I feel sure you have thought about that, and know how many of the garrisons are well placed and how many are not, and how many of the guards are efficient and how many are not; and you will propose to strengthen the well-placed garrisons and to do away with those that are superfluous.” 
“No, no; I shall propose to do away with them all, for the only effect of maintaining them is that our crops are stolen.” 
“But if you do away with the garrisons, don't you think that anyone will be at liberty to rob us openly? However, have you been on a tour of inspection, or how do you know that they are badly maintained?” 
“By guess-work.” 
“Then shall we wait to offer advice on this question too until we really know, instead of merely guessing?” 
“Perhaps it would be better.” 
“Now for the silver mines. I am sure you have not visited them, and so cannot tell why the amount derived from them has fallen.” 
“No, indeed, I have not been there.” 
“To be sure: the district is considered unhealthy, and so when you have to offer advice on the problem, this excuse will serve.” 
“You're chaffing me.” 
“Ah, but there's one problem I feel sure you haven't overlooked: no doubt you have reckoned how long the corn grown in the country will maintain the population, and how much is needed annually, so that you may not be caught napping, should the city at any time be short, and may come to the rescue and relieve the city by giving expert advice about food.” 
“What an overwhelming task, if one has got to include such things as that in one's duties!” 
“But, you know, no one will ever manage even his own household successfully unless he knows all its needs and sees that they are all supplied. Seeing that our city contains more than ten thousand houses, and it is difficult to look after so many families at once, you must have tried to make a start by doing something for one, I mean your uncle's? It needs it; and if you succeed with that one, you can set to work on a larger number. But if you can't do anything for one, how are you going to succeed with many? If a man can't carry one talent, it's absurd for him to try to carry more than one, isn't it?” 
“Well, I could do something for uncle's household if only he would listen to me.” 
“What? You can't persuade your uncle, and yet you suppose you will be able to persuade all the Athenians, including your uncle, to listen to you? Pray take care, Glaucon, that your daring ambition doesn't lead to a fall! Don't you see how risky it is to say or do what you don't understand? Think of others whom you know to be the sort of men who say and do what they obviously don't understand. Do you think they get praise or blame by it? And think of those who understand what they say and what they do. You will find, I take it, that the men who are famous and admired always come from those who have the widest knowledge, and the infamous and despised from the most ignorant. Therefore, if you want to win fame and admiration in public life, try to get a thorough knowledge of what you propose to do. If you enter on a public career with this advantage over others, I should not be surprised if you gained the object of your ambition quite easily.”
This should be required reading for all Presidential candidates!  I also highly recommend it for all pundits interviewing candidates or moderating debates.  Maybe they should use them as a model for questions to ask the candidates.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Donald Trump and the Black Vote

But in large part, the real purpose of my last post was to counter a rather foolish article in Cracked, 5 Ways Donald Trump Perfectly Mirrors Hitler's Rise to Power.  In particular, the author's fears that Trump will win by courting the black vote.  I wouldn't worry too much.

Obviously, the first way the author compares Trump to Hitler is that he scapegoats an ethnic minority.  And here I completely agree -- Trump should be condemned for that.  Of course, there is the tiny little difference that Trump does not have storm troopers intimidating his opponents by violence, so he really can't reasonably be compared to Hitler.  But ethnic scapegoating is in all cases an ugly business that appeals to people's basest instincts and ought certainly to be condemned.

The second point is rather a different matter.  "He'll sell his hate as hope for the poorest citizens in this country."  In other words, Trump is attempting to appeal to black voters by telling them that the illegal immigrants are stealing their jobs, and that black people might fall for it.  Naturally, the author sees this as dirty pool.

In this, the author is wrong on all points.  First of all, while Hitler did, indeed, peddle hate as hope, what really brought him to power was neither hate nor hope, but fear.  It is true that it was the Great Depression and 25% unemployment that brought Hitler to power, but it is not true that his votes were coming from the unemployed.  Hitler's share of the uncoerced vote peaked at 37%, but only 13% of the unemployed.  His appeal was to people who feared losing what they had, especially their jobs. The unemployed and others with nothing to lose were more likely to vote for the Communists.

Next, although liberals tend to see playing black against brown as dirty pool, it really isn't.  Seeking to attract the support of a promising ethnic group is politics as usual.  And have-not versus have-not rivalry is both normal and normally ugly.  Try, for instance, reading about black-Irish relations in the US in the 19th Century.  Not pleasant.

And as for whether this will appeal to black voters, the whole point of my last post is that black voters aren't all that interested in employment and bread-and-butter issues so much as in police-community relations.  Besides, what is Trump promising our inner cities:
Increase standards for the admission of refugees and asylum seekers to crack down on abuses.  Use the monies saved on expensive refugee programs to help place American children without parents in safer homes and communities and to improve community safety in high crime neighborhoods in the United States.
Does this sound like something that would appeal to black voters?  Placing children in "safer homes an communities" sounds very much like taking black children out of their communities, a thing the communities are apt to find threatening.  (Presumably even children without parents have grand parents and other relatives).  "Improve community safety in high crime neighborhoods" sounds very much like a police crackdown on black neighborhoods.

Even less likely to be appealing to black people is point three on the list, that Trump plans to fight gun violence by tougher mandatory minimum sentences for people who commit gun crimes.  Given that mandatory minimums are a major reason so many black people are in prison now, that doesn't exactly sound like a good way to win the black vote.  Oh yes, and he calls for crackdowns on crime in violent cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  "Chicago and Baltimore."  I can hear the code there.  Do you think black people can't?

Then the article descends into simple paranoia.

Nonetheless, I can think of other reasons why Trump is not going to win the black vote.  In the last election, he tried to win the nomination by going birther.  Do you think black people have forgotten? I don't.  His overall tone and style is a pander to the white working class one that does not appeal to black voters.  Campaign Zero classifies his plan to triple the number of immigration officers to identify, detain and deport illegal immigrants as harmful.  This is actually one police crackdown that is unlikely to affect black people much at all.  But general distrust of police intrusiveness is high enough to raise concerns for black people even if someone else is the target.

And suppose Trump does decide to pander to black voters.  What do you think he will do?  My guess is, do exactly what he does to pander to anyone else.  I Black Lives Matter activists ask him what he intends to do about police brutality, he will say that he as heard it is terrible, but under a Trump presidency he will put an end to it.  Somehow I don't think that will be convincing.

Bernie Sanders, Black Voters and Republicans

I know I have covered this issue before, but I seem to have the urge to come back to it.  It is a regular conservative complaint that black people only support the Democrats because they offer free stuff.  If there is one thing that Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and Black Lives Matter should prove, it is that that is not true.

Take Occupy Wall Street.  They addressed in particular bread-and-butter issues of economic hardship, unemployment, foreclosures, and the like.  Their motto "We are the 99%" was intended as one of inclusion -- people of all races and ethnicities are oppressed alike by Big Money.  Black people suffered disproportionately from unemployment and foreclosures.  But Occupy Wall Street remained resolutely white.  Its bizarre antics no doubt went a long way toward driving off potential allies.  So, no doubt, did the perception that it was just a bunch of whiny college kids upset at not getting top-of-the-line jobs right out of college.

But it also seems fair to say that a lot of black people did not want to hear about an undifferentiated 99% all equally oppressed by the 1%.  Being regularly pulled aside, frisked, and singled out for attention was not the experience of the 99%; it was the experience of the black minority.  Nor could the 1% credibly be blamed for the harassment black people were experiencing.

Republicans debate who is the true Tea Party candidate, but can anyone doubt that Bernie Sanders is the true Occupy Wall Street candidate on the Democratic side?  He talks about a more equal distribution of income, about raising minimum wage, about making education, health care, and opportunity more readily available.  He implies (without quite saying) that these can bring back the good paying blue collar jobs of yesteryear.  But black people aren't interested in those things.  They are a whole lot more interested in abusive cops and an extortionist criminal justice system.

Ultimately, black people's top concerns are not about bread-and-butter issues, but about race and the coercive power of the state.  In the clear light of hindsight, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising.

Think in terms of the hierarchy of needs.  Or imagine yourself living in a slum in some Third World country.  Government is corrupt and stifles dissent, your neighborhood is one of hovels and open sewers and garbage dumps and armed gangs (sometimes police, sometimes drug traffickers) drive through your neighborhood, harassing, extorting, and sometimes beating or killing residents.  What is your top priority?  Probably stopping the armed gangs and ensuring basic safety.  Better housing and cleaning up sewers and garbage dumps will probably only become top concerns when basic physical safety stops being an issue.  And worrying about corruption and dissent is far off in the distance.

So it is, in milder fashion, with Black lives matter.  It would appear, that in the taxonomy of property rights/political rights/civil rights, bread-and-butter issues and economic equality fits more into the category of political rights/majority rule than the category of minority rights.  Besides, as this article comments, the political rights/majority rule populist approach is poorly suited to defending minority rights:
Arguably, plebiscitary appeals about crime and punishment have contributed to the policies that created mass incarceration. Furthermore, economic populism identifies economic elites as the cause of the problem, stealing the American Dream from ordinary citizens. The intellectual foundations of the BLM movement implicate the majority and the American Dream.
So how are Republicans responding to all this?  Are they relieved to learn that black people really are less interested in free stuff than in being left alone by the state?

There is some favorable response in the more libertarian precincts of spectrum.  Although Campaign Zero no longer has an evaluation of Rand Paul, he had useful suggestions of four of their ten proposals -- coming in ahead of Hillary Clinton with two.  Marco Rubio has made at least some sympathetic comments.

But by and large, most Republicans' hostility to the state does not extend to its more coercive and punitive aspects.  The are "core functions" and not seen as part of Big Government.  And the main conservative reaction to black people wanting relief from the state in its more punitive aspects is, once again, to call for more individual responsibility.  Or rather, more collective responsibility.  Any singling-out black people in general receive is understandable in light of high black crime rates.  Bring down those crime rates, and the problem will go away.  A particular black person may be very individually responsible and refrain from crime and violence and still be singled out because of his race.  By all means, we do need black people to make a more concerted effort to bring down black crime rates, but no individual can do so alone -- nor will individual virtue necessarily be rewarded in this case.  That is not a comfortable message to most Republicans.

Monday, November 9, 2015

So, What if the Republicans Win Next Year

So, what do I expect to happen if the Republicans do win the White House next year?  They will hold all levers of power in the federal government and have a free hand to do whatever they want.  What will they actually do?

Well, first and foremost, my guess is that they will lose all interest in deficit cutting, and all resistance to raising the debt ceiling.  Deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House.  Hardliners will no doubt be convinced to raise the debt ceiling on the theory that it will take some time to correct eight years of Democrat profligacy.  And even if they vote no, a solid Republican majority will vote yes, so problem solved.

Pressure will be strong to repeal Obamacare.  I think it unlikely that they will actually do it, because repealing Obamacare will mean stripping ten to twenty million people of their health insurance overnight.  Too risky.  More likely, they will repeal the individual mandate.  The individual mandate is unpopular, so repealing it should be easy.  This will have the result of encouraging people not to buy insurance until they are sick, thereby raising prices, driving out healthy people, and driving prices even higher.  Death spiral!  Of course, it will be impolitic to openly come out in favor of causing insurance prices to spiral out of most people's price range!  Better be careful of letting your memos leak!  Republicans can hope to a considerable extent even to escape blame for spiraling prices.  Just blame it on Obamacare!  On the other hand, if prices spiral too high while they are in power, they may come under pressure to do something about them.

Having wrecked the exchanges, Republicans will then probably proceed to block grant Medicaid, and probably most other programs for the poor.  This will allow them to avoid immediate catastrophe, which they would be blamed for, and instead, slowly squeeze these programs to death by underfunding, while letting the states be blamed.

I do not expect Republicans to touch Social Security or Medicare.  That is simply too unpopular, even if only future beneficiaries are to be affected.

They will certainly escalate any number of conflicts in the Middle East.  They will probably try to avoid a full-scale ground war.  But when each escalation fails to produce the desired results, ground war is a very real possibility.

And obviously, they will make huge tax cuts that blow a hole in the budget.  Marco Rubio, one of the saner Republican candidates, plans to cut taxes by about a quarter.  And also to increase defense spending, not touch Social Security and Medicare for current beneficiaries, and pass a balanced budget amendment.  In theory, to do all those things and meet the interest on the national debt, he would have to cut all other spending to -- zero.  Of course, that won't happen.  More likely, Republicans in power will pass a massive, budget-busting tax cut.  They will attempt to pass a balanced budget amendment, be blocked by Democrats, and denounce liberal profligacy.  They will then make tiny but much-trumpeted cuts in spending and cheerfully coast along by borrowing until the next time a Democrat is elected, at which point they will freak out over those massive deficits and blame them on big-spending Democrats.

Republicans justify tax cuts on two grounds:

  1. They spur such economic growth that revenue actually increases and there is no need for spending cuts.
  2. They choke off revenue and thereby force a fiscal crisis and "starve the beast."
Obviously these can't both be true.  But they make a great game of head-I-win-tails-you-lose.  If tax cuts increase revenues, great, it avoids hard choices.  If they reduce revenue, great, we want a fiscal crisis anyhow.  Let's just hope it takes place with a Democrat in power.  And, in fact, the government has shown remarkable ability to borrow in seemingly unlimited amounts without consequences. Fiscal crises are largely a matter of choice.  Which works even better for Republicans.  Coast along borrowing as long as you want so long as you control the White House.  Once the Democrats commit the unspeakable outrage of winning the Presidency, set off a fiscal crisis, force him to take unpopular measures, and then ride the backlash to an even bigger majority next election.

But there is one natural limit finance by borrowing.  Over time, interest on the national debt will consume a larger and larger share of total revenue and gradually crowd out other items.  This happened to some degree with the Reagan deficits.  It will happen much more slowly now since interest rates are much lower.  But cutting revenues by a quarter should be a good way to get the process started.  The only problem is that, since it is gradual and not catastrophic, there is no way to control which party will control the White House when the pressure becomes unbearable.

And finally, Republicans will also no doubt move quickly to shut down any alternative energy sources that might reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and do their best to keep any other countries from cutting their emissions. With a little luck, they may be able to delay action on global warming long enough for it to pass an irreversible tipping point so that all attempts to stop it will be futile, so we might as well just keep burning fossil fuels.  Hurray!

In short, if Republicans gain the White House next year, I expect them to modify some of the crazy. But what even their saner representatives will do is bad enough.  They must be stopped.

Two Disturbing Tastes that Taste Terrifying Together

On the overall subject of partisan politics, I see a lot of articles on two basic subjects.

(1)  The Republican Party is stark raving nuts.
(2)  The Republican Party basically controls all levers of government except the White House, has an excellent chance of adding the White House as well, and the Democrats are powerless to stop them.

So far as I can tell, these are both true.  Republicans responded to their sweeping losses in 2008 by making the conscious, calculated decision to go insane.  They have been on a roll ever since.

Consider:  Republicans control both houses of Congress.  While the Senate appears to be up for grabs, the general consensus is that the House is solid Republican territory for a long time. This is not just the result of gerrymandering.  Any district system contains a subtle but inherent bias giving greater weight to rural and suburban districts over urban ones.  Democrats have no plan for overcoming this built-in advantage at any time in the foreseeable future.  Currently Republicans have unified control of 25 state governments while Democrats have unified control of only seven. And this is important.  National leaders grow out of state leaders.  One of the reasons Democrats maintained their dominance so long following the New Deal was their deeper bench at the state level.

Indeed, some have gone so far as to argue the the Republicans' advantage in superior organization, greater turnout in off-year elections, and well-oiled outrage machine are so strong as to give them dominance for the next 50 to 60 years.   

Possibly.  But I distrust predictions that far out into the future.  Republicans have two disadvantages as well.  One is the matter of demographics.  The share of the population that is white is declining and the share that is Hispanic is growing.  Younger voters are more Democratic and older ones more Republican.*

The other is that Republicans are stark raving nuts.  If they actually win control of all levers of government they are going to be faced with the dog catching the car problem.  When you have been handed the government on a promise to destroy it, what do you do?  Granted, insanity has been highly successful so far.  Republicans have made the government utterly dysfunctional, almost to the point of being non-functional, and then run on their opposition to that ungodly mess.  But what do they do when placed in charge of that ungodly mess?  Sure, people favor massively shrinking government -- unless they are personally inconvenienced by the process, in which case all bets are off.

But, some might argue, it is obvious that no degree of Republican misgovernment can possibly harm their political fortunes.  After all, the Bush Administration fought a ruinous war and ended with economic catastrophe, but that caused only short-lived damage to the Republican brand.  Governors Sam Brownback of Kansas and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana basically sought to destroy the public school systems in their states, and while that proved unpopular enough to spark a legislative revolt, it was not so unpopular as to cost them any elections.  Nor did Republican misgovernment cost them any elections in less ideological states like Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan, or Maine.

Still, if Republicans win full power at the federal level, they are more or less pledged to do some very unpopular things.  The activist base demands a root-and-branch repeal of Obamacare.  That will mean stripping ten to twenty million people of their health insurance.  Republicans are also more or less pledged to start phasing out Medicaid and Medicare, also very unpopular actions.  And the donor class would really like them either to cut Social Security or to turn it into a 401-k, either of which is generally seen as political suicide.  And they seem determined to start another war in the Middle East, with very poor prospects of a successful outcome.

All of which means that whenever the Republicans win the White House, they are going to be faced with a choice.  Either recover their sanity, or suffer the consequences.  Or, as Kevin Drum puts it:
This is the fundamental problem. British conservatives, in theory, could turn back the clock if they wanted to, but they don't. Their parliamentary system allows them to do it, but public opinion doesn't—which means that if they want to retain power, there's a limit to how far they can fight the tide. If American conservatives were in the same situation, they'd probably end up in the same place. Once they actually got the power to change things, they'd very quickly moderate their agenda. 
It's in this sense that our system of governance really is at fault for our current gridlock. Not directly because of veto points or our presidential system or any of that, but because these features of our political system allow conservatives to live in a fantasy world. They dream of what they could do if only they had the political power to do it, and they really believe they'd do it all if they got the chance. Thanks to all those veto points, however, they never get the chance. Full control of the government would disabuse everyone very quickly of just how far they're really willing to go, but it never happens.
Except that it very well could, if the Republicans win the White House next year.  And in that case they will be faced with a choice -- disappoint the base by moderating, or incur the outrage of most of the country (including much of the base!) by proceeding.

*These trends are related.  One reason Hispanics are a growing demographic is that they are younger that average.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reflections on the Republican Primary

I understand the conventional wisdom that Marco Rubio will be the Republican nominee. Conventional wisdom went something like this.  There were three candidates who represented the Republican establishment -- Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.  It was assumed that one of them would be the nominee.  Well, Scott Walker's campaign went nowhere until he got the message and dropped out.  Jeb Bush's candidacy is giving all evidence of tanking.  That leaves Rubio as the last establishment figure standing.

Challenging these establishment figures on the right are the Christian Coalitions candidates -- Ted Cruz, Mike Huckaby, Rick Santorum, and Bobby Jindal.  But these are presumed to be too crazy, even for Republican primary voters.  Challenging them on the left are the blue state Republicans -- Chris Christie and John Kasich.  But these are clearly too sane to have a chance.  And then there are the non-politicians -- Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina.  Conventional wisdom (mine included) was that these would meet the same fate as a wide range of Republican sensations last time around -- after a brief moment of glory, these would crash and burn.

Reality has not been cooperative.  Trump's lead endured much longer than it did last time around.  It has finally begun to fade, only for Carson to come to the forefront.  Apparently I was wrong when I expressed hope in the last primary that in Sarah Palin we had reached Peak Clueless.  Trump and Carson are basically male Palins, holding up their cluelessness as proof of virtue.  Both essentially say that you should vote for them because they don't understand all these complexities the Washington types keep throwing at us, and they will fix everything with plain old resolve (for Trump) or virtue (for Carson).  

A note to the Republicans.  If you must choose a non-politician as your candidate, could you please, please, please, please, please pick Carly Fiorina?  I don't know if she is any better qualified to be President than Carson or Trump, but she certainly could not be any worse qualified.  And she has at least one qualification that I consider very important in a candidate.  She appears to live in the same reality I do.  Carson appears to inhabit a completely different reality from the one I live in.  And Trump does not appear to see any need for reality whatever -- just tell whatever lies people want to hear and who cares about the consequences.  And at least one aspect of inhabiting the same reality I do that motivates Fiorina is that she appears to recognize that a President has to have at least some basic knowledge policy.  Trump and Carson, Palin-like, hold up their policy ignorance as virtue.

And if I were absolutely force to choose between Trump and Carson?  Between a candidate who inhabits a parallel reality and one who sees reality as a nuisance to be ignored?  In other words, between a knave and a fool?  The question there has to be, how knavish and how foolish.  In both cases, extremely.  Yes, I know all candidates lie to some extent, but I have never seen one as brazen, pandering, and completely indifferent to reality as Trump.  Carson thinks he understands reality, but understands a reality extremely parallel to the one most of us live in.  Trump does not seem to think that dealing with reality is part of a President's job at all.  And given that choice, I think I would very grudgingly prefer the candidate inhabiting a parallel reality to the one who has no use for the concept of reality.  Carson might eventually deal with reality if beaten over the head with it hard enough or often enough.  Trump's reaction to reality seems to be to lie and hope that it goes away.

The Latest Election

And in the latest election, the Kentucky Republican for Governor has been elected on a promise to shut down the state's insurance exchange and cancel the Medicaid expansion, i.e., to strip 400,000 Kentuckians of their health insurance.  And general news sections I see at Aol and Comcast, as well as Facebook feeds, seem a lot more interested in the endless saga of Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who refuses to issue same sex wedding licenses, the rejection of marijuana legalization in Ohio and Houston's shocking rejection of an anti-discrimination ordinance that would (among other things) guarantee the trans-gendered access to the restrooms of their choice.  Poor people being kicked off health insurance -- no biggie.  People who wear dresses but have penises being barred from the women's restroom -- intolerable.

In fairness to our media, Matt Bevin, the Republican candidate may have placed more emphasis on championing Kim Davis than on ending the Medicaid expansion.  To be fair to the media, they may very well think Bevin is so much hot air and will not actually act on it.  And apparently his latest position is okay, he won't actually take insurance away from Kentuckians already on Medicaid, but he will block anyone else from signing up.  After all, the governor of Arkansas promises to repeal his state's Medicaid expansion but the latest news apparently says that he is trying instead to get a waiver to make it more punitive.  Bevin may well go the same route.  And since, by all accounts, the Kynect exchange is popular, destroying it would presumably run into opposition.

But honestly folks!  Same sex marriage affects the 2% of the population that is gay.  The alternative is drawing up wills, healthcare powers of attorney, joint title on property, etc. and getting most (not all) of the benefits of marriage, with some inconvenience.  Restrooms and dressing rooms affect the 0.2% of the population that is trans-gender -- and the 50% of the population that is female and may be uncomfortable with a biological male in such an intimate space even if s/he psychologically identifies as female.  Lack of health insurance affects over 10% of the population and can mean lack of access to a wide range of non-emergency medical care -- including the sort of care that prevents emergencies from happening.  This whole business says some disturbing things about a lot of liberal's priorities.