Mantra 2019

My new mantra: “Enable democracy.”

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Crapitalist Pig

I have never been an especial friend of organized labor because by the time I reached political consciousness, Big Labor had gone from being a righteous force hoping to meet the owners of capital on an equal footing to an entitled deadweight on the American economy.

That was 40 years ago, and today the pendulum has swung far into the favor of management and capital. We need a rebalancing, lest the nation find itself in a war between socialism and democracy.

The current occupant of the White House, lacking anything resembling an educated feel for the tides of history, misses this entirely. Worse, he has no respect for labor because he never put in a hard day’s work in his life, never had to work for anyone but daddy or himself, and never had to live on minimum wage.

This is a liability that will eventually cost him dearly with his base.

Happy Labor Day.

Over the Aisle: This You Must Defend

Marie Myung-Ok Lee finds herself conflicted about attending a controversial author’s reading and wonders: what does “speaking up” actually mean?

Source: Politics and Prose

Lee writes a fascinating article that is worth the long read for two reasons.

Most obviously, she is a progressive who is uncomfortable with the Antifa’s Red Guard style tactics. I take that as a positive: the more either side the US declines to align with its most extreme fringes, the more I nurture the hope that we will avoid civil war.

But what I find most telling is the grounds on which she criticizes the Antifa rabble shouting down a speaker: her problem is that the speaker is actually more sympathetic to their point than they realize, and if they listen they would understand. You see, the author they were shouting down was NOT someone like Richard Spencer. Because he was different than Spencer, because his position was closer to those of Antifa, he deserves to be able to speak.

It apparently does not occur to Ms. Lee that there is a greater crime being committed than the failure to recognize the importance of nuance in a political position. What Lee fails to do is to say – or even suggest – that the problem with the Antifa tactics is that they are not expressing their own right of free speech as much as they are denying someone else theirs. Lee – a writer who thrives on the rights granted by the Constitution – is unwilling to defend that right. By implication, indeed, free speech is not a right but a privilege to be granted only to those who agree with you.

I pick on Ms. Lee, and perhaps unfairly. She is not the issue. The problem is that on the progressive left it is okay to listen politely to someone you agree with, but that someone you disagree with does not even merit the privilege of a public forum. The problem is that it has become okay on the American left to suggest that those whose ideas I find repugnant have no right to self-expression; or, indeed, that there are ideas which must not be aired, even in a free society; and to do so without having to worry about being questioned by your fellows.

In so doing, the left runs the risk of sacrificing its opportunity to take political leadership of this country at a time when, even in the eyes of this conservative, the nation needs a liberal opposition capable of credible leadership.

The Democrats will probably take home a great victory in November, a “blue tide” that will give the Executive Branch the opposition it deserves. If it is to get the opposition that the nation needs, the left must make clear that it offers an inclusive vision of the future, one in which there is even a place for people whose ideas they find repugnant. Nothing will undermine that more quickly than questions about whether the left is prepared to uphold and defend the Constitution.

An Economic Issue

In a fascinating London Review of Books essay earlier this Spring, the distinguished historian Peter Clarke engages in a singular attempt to resuscitate the reputation of Enoch Powell, the late British parliamentarian and classicist who became infamous for a xenophobic address in Parliament in 1968 that was later dubbed the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Acts of political rehabilitation are to me suspect, particularly in the case of a man whose legacy has been hijacked by the lunatic fringe. This one is difficult to dismiss out of hand because it is taken from the perspective of history. Clarke does not attempt to justify or defend Powell’s most odious ideas: if Clarke is an apologist for Powell, he appears motivated not by ideology or ulterior drives, but by a sense that history is ill-served in settling for a one-dimensional caricature of an influential figure.

Let us be clear: Enoch Powell rode into the scrap heap of history at full gallop and of his own free will. But a cursory review of his life reveals at least  two salient truths: first, that artful couching, superb logic, and fine language do not improve a repugnant idea; and second, that the espousal by an individual of one or more bad ideas does not prima facie brand all of the other ideas espoused by that individual as bad.

I will return to that second theme in another post.

One idea that is worth consideration is one that drove Powell through most of his political career: that some government programs, policies, and actions have value that cannot be measured by economic or purely utilitarian means, and indeed that some policies and actions that may appear economically foolhardy are nonetheless good ideas. As Clarke notes:

It wasn’t part of [Powell’s] doctrine to scrimp on the legitimate functions of the state as he saw them; and if a function were deemed legitimate, he made very high claims indeed. Intuition rather than economic logic guided him. For example, he began a speech in 1981 – in favour of public subsidy of the ferry service to Northern Ireland – by stating his premise as the sort of mere common sense everyone would accept: ‘Communication is the essence of all government: it is not for nothing that the mail is the Royal Mail.’ The idea that such conclusions can be reached by treating the royal status of the mail as axiomatic would surprise many latter-day Thatcherites, who argue that the market could sort this problem out more efficiently.

This was a tough one for me to get down initially: it flies in the face of good business sense and an approach to policy-making that has been ascendant for at least 160 years. It implies that the Congressional Budget Office brand of economics-based cost-benefits analysis does not always produce the best policy.

My instinct is to argue the opposite: I do not think we give enough consideration to non-partisan cost-benefits analysis when making policy decisions; that programs are born and outlive their usefulness because of ideology, pork-barrel politics, or bureaucratic self-interest.

But Clarke’s article on Powell compels me to rethink my orthodox adherence to that principle.

Here are the questions I am pondering:

  1. If we cannot measure the return-on-investment of a policy, is it worthwhile?
  2. What makes that policy more or less worthy than a policy whose impact can be measured in a material form?
  3. Have we placed too much reliance on economics as a measure? Or do we place insufficient reliance on economics and cost-benefits analysis?
  4. Is it time we recognize that decisions taken by non-commercial actors (individuals, organizations, governments) may and sometimes should be made for reasons that defy economic logic or even pure utility?
  5. Should we identify and recognize other determinants of policy quality?
  6. On what basis do we decide which means of analysis is best for a given policy?

I have been long away from the study of these matters, so I recognize I may have meandered onto well-trod ground. If so, please tell me.

A government run by roving bands of ideologues, self-interested legislators, and nest-feathering bureaucrats is a recipe for revolution.  At the same time, government by abacus taken to its logical end is a tyranny. On a river of hard questions we must navigate our way back to a passage between those two extremes. The alternative is The End of America As We Know It (TEOAAWKI).

In Re Barr and the Bee

With regards the fact that Samantha Bee still has a job on television while Roseanne Barr does not, I see four possibilities.

1. Some unknown authority has issued a secret decree to the effect that an offensive sexist slur is less egregious than an offensive racist slur.

2. The leadership at TBS lack the courage and conviction of the leadership at ABC.

3. An educated progressive immigrant can get away with things that an native-born high-school dropout cannot.

4. Some combination of the above.

I am no fan of Barr or her politics, and I find Bee’s show rather more entertaining than Roseanne’s ever was, even though Samantha and I roost on distant squares of the political plane.

That said, I find both sets of comments equally loathsome, and if one of these two comedians deserves to be collecting unemployment for her  remarks, both do.

Agriculture

It is a mistake to tar our entire modern agriculture and food distribution system with the worst behavior of its meanest participants.

The proper response to the excesses of industrial agriculture is not to destroy it in favor of small scale farms and locovore culture, but to punish the miscreants, remove perverse incentives, and generally to redress the problems in the system.

Fix big ag. With a hammer. And the threat of an alternative.

Anderson Cooper says Infidelity is not the Point

CNN’s Anderson Cooper says the fallout around allegations leveled against President Donald Trump by porn actress Stormy Daniels is not about the infidelity, but paying to hush it up just before the 2016 US election.

Source: Anderson Cooper: It’s not about the infidelity

Anderson Cooper is not entirely correct. The issue of whether Mr. Trump committed adultery – and did so for the worst of reasons – may be irrelevant to Mr. Cooper under his code of values and beliefs. This does not mean that the issue is irrelevant to all Americans, for at least two important reasons.

First, many voters care whether or not the President of the United States has sufficient personal integrity to adhere to his wedding vows. To some of us, a man who would casually flaunt a vow he took before G-d and the law cannot be trusted with the future of the nation.

Second, and more important, Mr. Trump has been elected into office by a party and by voters who espouse socially conservative values. As the nominal head of that party – a party which took Bill Clinton to task for his infidelity two decades ago – it should not be unreasonable to expect himself to behave in accordance with those beliefs in his personal life. If he cannot, he can hardly call himself a social conservative.

A genuine conservative should be troubled by the President’s behavior.