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).


Same as the Old High

If Marx posited that religion is the opiate of the people, then we have reached a new, more clarifying moment in the history of the West: Opiates are now the religion of the people.

Andrew Sullivan

This is a plague ripping America apart from within, far greater public health crisis than AIDS ever was.

And the Presidential solution is to give it to his wife to manage.

Once again, the band plays on.

The Color Yellow

I’m old enough to remember a time when we didn’t have to wonder whether or not the Kremlin has a secret video of the President of the United States paying Russian hookers to urinate on a bed in his Moscow hotel room.

Source: The Pee Tape | The American Conservative by Rod Dreher

First off, Rod Dreher’s lede above may turn out to be the single line that best sums up the through-the-looking-glass world in which we have lived Donald Trump declared his candidacy on June 15, 2015.

Second, though, the entire issue demonstrates the craven cowardice of POTUS 45. A courageous person would defy the Kremlin to release the tape, and face the music rather than live with the implication that Putin could hold him by the leash of blackmail.

Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly,) the current occupant of the Oval Office has proven himself a coward of the worst order, morally unfit for any position of responsibility for human life, much less the responsibility of command, much less the responsibility of Commander-in-Chief.

The White House’s response to this situation is a litmus test of the character of its current tenant. The grade thus far is an F-.

Defining 21st Century Republicanism

Republicanism is not the defense of the status quo, or of the past. Today is not perfect, and any true telling of history belies the rose-toned filters of nostalgia. Not all social and political evolution touted as “progress” is good, and much should be resisted in favor of more measured change. But to resist change entirely is as misguided as the insistence that we live in a perfect world, and no betterment is possible. That is not Republicanism or conservatism: that is delusion with the taint of egocentrism.

Republicanism is not the belief that all progress to date, drawn from an arbitrary line in the past, is somehow misguided. It is the nature of all institutions – and government most of all – to foment efforts that are utter folly, or that are of temporary utility only. The former must be uprooted without mercy; the latter must be carefully but firmly closed. But there are those that are of lasting an important benefit and, when flawed, should only be replaced when the flaws may be removed, benefit may be increased, or the efficiency improved.  To root out necessary and valuable efforts merely because they fail an ideological test is the mark of an extremist. To do so merely because they were brought about by those less conservative is the mark of a reactionary.

Republicanism should be, instead, the effort to achieve the betterment of ourselves, our nation, and our world through the thoughtful, compassionate and more perfect application of time-proven principles. It is the hot steel of progress formed by the hammer of time-honored ideals against the anvil of our proven institutions, and tempered by the cool water of wisdom.

In governing a complex nation of 330 million souls, the head must lead the heart, not the other way around. Our righteous instincts, our desire to do the right thing by the ideals we hold sacred, those beliefs that Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” must advise all we do, but they must be subordinated to the knowledge that all actions have unintended consequences, and that no action, however worthy it might seem, is tolerable if it undermines the core principles on which our republic is based.

To be a Republican, then, is not to hew to a line that stands against progress: it is, instead, to be the rudder that guides the advance of the nation down a course that ensures its constant and timely improvement while guarding against the tempests of change and the shoals of stagnation.

An Ideology, Not a Blueprint

A great quote from Bryan McGrath in Information Dissemination:

Libertarianism strikes me (and others) as a fine bit of political ideology when alloyed with other ideologies.  Their preference for dramatically limited government helps pull Conservatives to the right, and the preference for removal of government from the private sphere appeals to many Liberals seeking to advance social policies.  Unalloyed however, Libertarianism is a quaint, interesting, and ultimately unsuitable approach to governing a modern Republic, especially a world power.

I wouldn’t limit that to Libertarianism. I’d extend it to all ideologies.

Taking Out the Trash

Reading John Bolton‘s thoughtful review of Peter Collier‘s Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick (“Blue Jeane” in June’s Commentary Magazine), I was surprised to learn that Kirkpatrick was lambasted during her career by feminists. How is that possible? A woman who succeeded in academic circles that had heretofore been dominated by men, who considered herself a feminist, and who rose to the highest levels of government, was rejected by the very people who should have been cheering her success.  Bolton notes:

As she put it, “with a bitter smile,” in Collier’s description, “Gloria Steinem called me a female impersonator. Can you believe that? Naomi Wolf said I was ‘a woman without a uterus.’ I who have three kids while she, when she made this comment, had none.” A professor at Brown named Joan Scott said, “She is not someone I want to represent feminine accomplishment.” And those were the polite criticisms.

So much for sisterhood. My point, however, is not about feminism. It is about trash politics.

I had a discussion on Facebook recently with my friend Ada Shen and a gent by the name of Greg Diamond. Greg, for those of you not following Orange County (California) politics, is a self-proclaimed “very liberal” Democrat running for State Senate in the 29th Senatorial District representing the cities of Brea and Fullerton. Greg and I would likely find ourselves debating the opposite sides of any given issue, and I have some very strong objections to some of his positions.

Nonetheless, as I told him in our conversation:

I tread carefully on feelings because I think it is high time to exorcise the ad-hominem attack from politics. We need to assume the best of intentions on the part of those with whom we disagree, not the worst (unless proven otherwise in a court of law, of course.)

I write this not to pat myself on the back, but to point out that it is possible to have a conversation with a liberal (or, in a liberal’s case, a conservative) with whom we disagree without having the discussion implode into name-calling and a suspicion that the other person is an Epsilon-minus semi-moron.

If the internet has a downside, it is that it has aided in the decline of political dialogue until most of it rests in the gutter. Enough, already. The loss of civility in political discussion does not elevate a cause, convince a skeptic, or improve the nation. Let’s give respect, even undue respect, to those who disagree with us.

After all, this is, in the end, the United States. It would be nice to keep them that way.