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In Search of a Red Line

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I hadn’t planned to write about the Donald Trump 2018 “World Turned Upside Down” tour, in which allies are foes and we should trust the untrustworthy. Really, based on what I have previously written, I had very low expectations. I had, as they saying goes, priced in Donald Trump’s expected behavior. Now that it is over, where do we stand?

Putin keeping Trump waiting for an hour was one of the oldest displays of dominance in the book. It needs no explanation, and it allows no argument. You’ve been publicly pwned, Donald.

It appears that there was no giveaway where Trump would recognize Russian annexation of the Crimea. The most credible source for this is Vladimir Putin, who remarked in an interview that the two had agreed to disagree about the Crimea. There was a lot of tension in the Ukraine that Trump would concede Russian annexation as a fait accompli. He was certainly talking that way last week. This is not to say Trump has changed his tune in any way, or that he won’t recognize the annexation in the next meeting — which is already being planned.

Former CIA Director John Brennan issued this tweet after the meeting:

John O. Brennan

Yes, the President’s behavior was disgusting and irresponsible. He was painful to watch. So what else is new? America Made Moronic, Day 542. It differs only in degree from Day 541, in which the European Union was the first “foe” he named when asked.

You clearly get a smell that “he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.” But what objective facts do we have at this time?

It is not enough that he pursues a policy of friendliness to Russia while picking fights with long-standing allies. You don’t want to criminalize policy; that is a bad road to start down.

I know that some citizens see any discussion of Russian tampering with the 2016 election as an attempt to delegitimize the result. Let’s put that to bed once and for all: Hillary Clinton lost. Hillary and the Democrats did not effectively mobilize their own coalition of voters, If they had turned out the vote in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, she would have carried Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Adding these states, she would have had 278 electoral votes and she would be president. The Russians could have hired strippers to take voters to the polls and it wouldn’t have made any difference.

So, having established that, can we now intelligently discuss Russian activities to undermine Western democracies, and what we are to do about it?

Congress could help by passing resolutions directing the President to pursue specific policies and desist from others. After all, he is there to execute the will of Congress. They could do a lot to circumscribe his scope of action if they wanted to. Of course, they would have to write tight language, not vague, meaningless sentiments that are open to anyone’s interpretation. The Republicans have three months to zip in a spine.

If both houses of Congress were to pass a resolution directing executive policy and Trump ignored it, would that be grounds for impeachment? Actually, Congress can declare through resolutions specific executive actions that are impeachable offenses (see item 6 here). There are firm constitutional grounds, as lawmaking authority is given to or withheld from Congress by Article I.

Many people are currently saying that the President has wide constitutional scope with respect to foreign policy. That is not exactly true. When the Constitution was drafted, the United States was far from world power status. We have precedents for presidential scope, many of which are unhealthy.

Woodrow Wilson was practically a force of one at Versailles in 1919. Arthur S. Link, a biographer who admired Wilson and described his behavior as a “higher realism”, nevertheless admitted:

[Wilson] wrote most of the most important diplomatic correspondence on his own typewriter, sometimes bypassed the State Department by using his own private agents and advisers, occasionally conducted important negotiations behind the backs of his Secretaries of State, and in general acted like a divine-right monarch in the conduct of foreign relations. Wilson took personal responsibility for the conduct of the important diplomacy of the United States chiefly because he believed that it was wise, right and necessary for him to do so. Believing as he did that the people had temporarily vested their sovereignty in foreign affairs to him, he could not delegate responsibility in this field to any individual.

It was somewhat trying to be around him. He was the only head of state among the Big Four at Versailles; this situation was not welcomed by Britain, France or Italy. The other powers had no intention of being told where to get off by the American President.

Wilson’s Fourteen Points bore me. God himself had only ten.
— Georges Clemenceau, French Prime Minister

[When asked how he had done in Paris] Not badly, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ [Wilson] and Napoleon [Clemenceau].
— David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister

Wilson was never able to get the Senate to ratify the Versailles Treaty. He attempted to appeal to the American people over the heads of their Senators, touring the country making speeches. Already physically exhausted at the start of the tour, he suffered a series of strokes in September 1919. His wife, Edith, restricted access to him and effectively took control of the Executive branch for the remainder of his term.

Barack Obama came up with the simple expedient of replacing Senate ratification with an executive order when he declared America would enter the Paris Climate Accord in September, 2016. Somewhere, Woodrow Wilson was smacking his head. Wilson had written extensively on government before becoming President; why hadn’t he thought of this?

So there are plenty of examples of executive overreach that we could revisit. If this experience causes us to rein in the scope of the President, it will have some redeeming benefit.

 

 

 

 

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Feckless

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Let’s begin with an incident that, although it has had saturation coverage, has not been treated properly. On her TBS show on 30 May, Samanta Bee made this statement directed publicly at Ivanka Trump:

Do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless c—!
[https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2018/06/01/samantha_bee_ivanka_trump_feckless.html]

The next day, Bee issued this apology on Twitter:

I would like to sincerely apologize to Ivanka Trump and to my viewers for using an expletive on my show to describe her last night. It was inappropriate and inexcusable. I crossed a line, and I deeply regret it.

Let’s accept Bee’s apology literally. Her use of the c-word has been flogged to death in the past four days. Everything that can be said about it has been said about it.

I want to discuss her use of feckless, for which she has not apologized, and for which I do not expect any apology to be forthcoming. According to The Free Dictionary, feckless is defined as:

  1. Careless and irresponsible;
  2. Feeble or ineffective.

In order to accept Bee’s application of feckless to Ivanka, we have to accept that Bee’s position on the immigration practices of the Trump Administration are unquestionably morally correct. At least, that her position is  Then, either Ivanka would be careless and irresponsible in not advocating morality within the administration, or ineffective in the way she was going about advocating morality.

On CNN yesterday, Michael Smerconish interviewed comedian Spike Feresten (who wrote the 1995 “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld). Feresten’s remarks illustrate the thinking from whence this attitude originates:

There’s this popular misnomer that comes from the right, that these are liberal writing rooms, and there not.

The writing rooms that I’ve been in, the Letterman writing room, “Saturday Night Live,” my own show, what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right. When I’m sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.

We look at news and we’re social judges. And this is a right or wrong issue that she’s commenting on and I don’t think we should be caught on the word she used because I think we’re all fine with it. We’re all OK; our ears aren’t bleeding.

We should be caught up with what she was talking about. What she was trying to point out with her humor. And that is this horrible Administration policy, where children and parents are being separated.

[http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1806/02/smer.01.html]

I believe that what Feresten meant to say is, “When I’m not sitting down and going hey let’s tow the whole – tell the water, tell the line for the left today.” I will proceed on that basis, and accept the responsibility if I am wrong.

What I most want to call attention to is the part where he said, “what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right.” If one really believes this, then one has to claim that those who support the Trump Administration policy accept that what they are doing is morally wrong and are going to do it anyway.

I find this to be a monumentally arrogant position to take. He delegitimizes those who disagree with him. He maintains that it is a question of morality, not subject to politics. We objectively know what is right and wrong. He and Samantha Bee are right, and those who disagree with him are wrong.

It is easy to see how the faultfinding man of words, by persistent ridicule and denunciation, shakes prevailing beliefs and loyalties, and familiarizes the masses with the idea of change. What is not so obvious is the process by which the discrediting of existing beliefs and institutions makes possible the rise of a new fanatical faith. For it is a remarkable fact that the militant man of words who “sounds the established order to its source to mark its want of authority and justice” often prepares the ground not for a society of freethinking individuals but for a corporate society that cherishes utmost unity and blind faith.
— Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951), p. 139.

Hoffer’s landmark study is backed by the experiences of mass movements starting in the Roman empire, moving through the French Revolution with its successive levels of terror and culminating in most violent century since the Dark Ages, in which over 100 million people were put to premature and gruesome death by their own governments. To be cavalier about the consequences of having such moral arrogance and playing an established role in paving the way for it in this country is careless and irresponsible. Bee and Feresten are, in a word, feckless.

There, I said it. And, unlike Bee, I have taken the effort to support my use of the term.

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.
— Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (1807-1874)

More immediately, how do you think Trump got his following? He’s primal and instinctive, but he’s no philosopher-king. There are a large number of people in this country who have their own ideas of right and wrong, and they materially differ from the ideas that Bee and Feresten have of right and wrong. It would be a good thing if everyone could get in a room, debate the relative merits and figure out how we are going to move forward as a nation. But that is not what is happening.

What is happening is that people like Bee and Feresten, who have access to channels of communication, use that to promote their point of view, wrapping themselves in the mantle of righteousness (“what we’re doing is right and wrong, not left and right”). As I have documented earlier, people who have a differing concept of right and wrong are fed up with being shouted down and labeled, and plumped for the first person who would stand up and push back, however badly.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who put Macomb County, MI on the political map, went back in 2017 to try to understand what had happened. It takes effort just to peel away the demand characteristics and get a real conversation going.

To learn from these Macomb voters, they had to be able to speak freely. They feel they are under attack – from younger generations in their own families but also in their communities. Some have been ostracized by close family members criticizing them for their vote, others confess they have been “called racist, a xenophobe, homophobe, whatever phobe they could come up with.” One woman’s son was bullied after his 1st grade class held a mock election: “my son hears us and he says, ‘I’m going to vote for Trump,’ and two of the kids in his class started yelling. Like, ‘You’re going to vote Trump? Are you crazy?’ And just started yelling at him.” This is personal.
— Stanley Greenberg and Nancy Zdunkewicz, Macomb County in the Age of Trump

This is the real double standard in American public life. The general tone is that anyone who does not follow the orthodox Progressive line is fair game to be insulted, labeled and denied a hearing.

If Samantha Bee wants to use her show, which is a comedy show about politics, to advocate political positions on public policy, she gets to do that. People who don’t like it can change the channel. But it is a mistake to think that, because those who disagree with her do not get to voice their contrary opinions, that they buy into her version of right and wrong or will allow themselves to be dictated to any more than Bee and those who share her moral norms will tolerate being told where to get off.

People who are good with words like to think that, because they can show greater verbal facility than those who disagree with them, they have all the cards. They think that, because they argue more stridently, more cleverly and more loudly, that they have won the argument. They have not, and 2016 was a proof statement of this. Just because people stop arguing with you to your face, doesn’t mean you have won them over.

It is the height of presumption for Bee to determine the proper order of Ivanka Trump’s priorities for her. It would be entirely warranted for Ivanka to reply: Who died and left you Pope?

If you follow these trends to their logical conclusion, you get two groups of Americans who have utter contempt for each other as moral agents, believe that reasoning is a waste of time and effort and demand resolution now, in the form of total surrender by the other group (“You lost, live with it”). If you’re wondering why people are making YouTube videos forecasting a future civil war, this is why.

 

 

Written by srojak

June 3, 2018 at 12:01 pm

Nationalism

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Events of the past year, and discussions about those events, caused me to take a deeper look at the subject of nationalism.

Is It a System of Political Organization?

To discuss nationalism, we have to agree on what we are discussing. This turns out not to be all that simple.

The idea of nationalism depends on the conception of the nation. By 1700, in Europe, some nations were clearly identifiable: France, Spain, Poland, Russia. Others were very confusing. Was Great Britain one nation, two (England + Scotland), three (+ Ireland) or four (+ Wales) ? Was Brandenburg rightly part of Prussia or Germany?

Nations such as France and Russia were identifiable from a common ethnic heritage. But the United States came into existence because of an idea of government. What was to demarcate the membership of the United States as a nation? There has always been some disagreement as to who could really be a citizen of the United States.

Nevertheless, by 1900 the nation-state dominated the world landscape. Those who did not have their own nation-state and were subject to rule by others longed for nationhood of their own. Over the course of the twentieth century, many of them obtained this, although not without much turmoil and some bloodshed.

Or Is It an Attitude?

Overlaid on top of this, to some extend out of necessity, is the attitude of the citizen toward the nation. Since the nation is more abstract than the clan, the nation requires a greater degree of emotional commitment from the citizen than does the clan or the nation would be irrelevant. The French Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle if it did not demand commitment from the citizens. This commitment revolutionized war, because the nation-at-arms could mobilize far more soldiers than the neighboring kingdoms.

Human nature being what it is, the citizen wants to believe that his nation is the superior nation, that his nation can tell any other nation where to get off. This attitude has often been identified as part of the package of nationalism. Einstein called nationalism “the measles of mankind,” likely focusing on the attitudinal aspect. This attitude has also been identified by various terms, such as jingoism or chauvinism.

While I recognize that others have considered the political organization and the attitude bundled together, I do not find it analytically useful to do so. Hereafter, my discussion of nationalism shall be confined to the political structure and not the attitude.

Alternative Sovereignty Structures

A sovereign political entity can make laws and engage in foreign relations. It has relationships with the individuals belonging to it where:

  • They identify themselves as belonging to the entity;
  • They accept the legitimacy of the entity to make laws, demand obedience and tribute and otherwise claim their allegiance.

The nation-state has been so predominant a unit of political sovereignty that it is useful to consider alternative possible forms.

The Clan

There are still places in the world where people identify themselves as members of a clan rather than citizens of a nation. In such places, the concept of citizenship as we know it has no meaning. Others in your clan are your people, whom you will rely upon to keep strangers off your back.

My brother and I against my cousin;
My cousin and I against the stranger.
— Arab proverb

In such an environment, if your people can’t count on you when the chips are down, you won’t be able to count on them, either. It is dishonorable to cut and run from your obligations to your people. All the various folk stories and fables from different cultures where the older, wiser man invites the younger men to break a bundle of sticks as a bundle are meant to reinforce this.

The Dynasty

The dynasty is larger than the clan, but still more personal than the nation. As it is personal, people owe service to the person of the king or lord. The king can have tenants-in-chief, such as dukes or counts, and delegate down. But you can’t have too many levels of delegation or the personal relationship, which is the glue that holds it together, falls apart.

Even as late as the 1800s, ordinary people in dynasties such as Russia or Austria felt a bond of obligation to the Tsar or Emperor. But it was fraying under the pressures of modernity and scale. The dynasties were growing bureaucracies, and while both bureaucrats and lords demand service, only lords offer service in return. The bond was also literally being alienated, in both senses of the word: estranged and converted into a fungible commodity that could be exchanged for money. The dynastic bond works better under feudalism than capitalism.

Britain and France led the world down two divergent evolutionary directions from the dynasty. France continued to be a dynasty, with unresolved conflicts regarding the rights and duties of different classes of subjects, until the conflicts blew up in 1789.

Britain had to confront its structure during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Britain had been formed one hundred years before as the personal dynastic union of England and Scotland under the Stuarts. Now the English Parliament did not want any more Stuarts after Anne, because they were all Roman Catholic. Where did that leave Scotland? Where did that leave Britain? Anne had pushed for negotiations aimed at keeping England and Scotland together, and the 1707 Act of Union officially recast the two realms as a unified nation. Thereafter, political development continued in the English direction, with Parliament collecting power at the expense of the monarch.

Internationalism

On the other end of the scale, there is internationalism. After the disaster of World War I, the idea of internationalism became attractive to many people as a possible means to end war. Certainly, if all the world were ruled by one government, there could not be wars between states because there would only be one state.

Whether or not it would end violent conflict was a different question. We don’t need two states to have violent conflict. All we need is an aggrieved minority and a ruling group who are unable to work out their differences any other way and resort to violence. Syria is the standout example of this, but there have been others.

All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers, but they could not afford to encourage any illusion that tended to impair military efficiency. So long as defeat meant the loss of independence, or some other result generally held to be undesirable, the precautions against defeat had to be serious. Physical facts could not be ignored. In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four. Inefficient nations were always conquered sooner or later, and the struggle for efficiency was inimical to illusions. Moreover, to be efficient it was necessary to be able to learn from the past, which meant having a fairly accurate idea of what had happened in the past.
— George Orwell, 1984

You might also want to think twice before promoting a plan to end war. As Orwell, speaking in the voice of Emmanuel Goldstein, pointed out, the possibility of a war your country can lose is the ultimate guarantee of your right to your own sanity.

The Settlement of Political Differences

Persuasion and rational argument look appealing as a means of settling political issues. However, they presume that there is some shared common ground among the participants upon which a persuasive argument can be based. If two sides with opposing viewpoints disagree on everything, including norms and even facts, it is very hard to resolve the differences with words. Both sides go home muttering about how arguing with idiots is like playing chess with a pigeon.

Most people don’t like conflict, so they try to put off resolution of political issues, kicking the can down the street if they have to. Unresolved political issues pile up and get noisy. They nag and demand resolution. If a political issue must be resolved and cannot be resolved with words, there is only one way remaining: violence. One side prevails, and the others go under.

Violence is very unpleasant, and I don’t want to be cavalier about contemplating it. Violence is what the internationalists are hoping to avoid. However, not having nations does not guarantee the avoidance of violence. It may make violence certain, as you rope together all kinds of people with no shared norms, values or moral foundations into a single polity which must be subject to a single law. How are they going to get any kind of agreement? How are they going to persuade one another rationally and peacefully?

“How will the other EEC countries feel about having to carry identity papers? Won’t they resist too?”
Sir Humphrey felt not. “The Germans will love it, the French will ignore it, and the Italians and the Irish will be too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it.”
Yes, Minister, “The Writing on the Wall”

Just bringing all of Europe together collects people with very different senses of the entitlement to privacy and the obligation of law, among other differences. It was always going to be a rickety structure that could shelter all of them under one common legal framework. And, because Britain has a political tradition that does not allow the politicians to ignore the people completely, or to keep asking the people a question until they get the “right” answer, it was inevitable that the British people drew a line under their sovereignty and said, “You will not go further.” Which is what happened in the Brexit referendum of June 2016.

 

Written by srojak

April 18, 2018 at 10:33 pm

Unalienable Rights

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Spare some critical thought for this famous passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

In order for them to be unalienable rights, they have to be endowed by God. They can’t come from human society, or else human society would have the power to revoke them. Without endowment from God, they would only be privileges that the state allowed for its own purposes and could claw back any time it was expedient.

This is what President Eisenhower was talking about when he said:

Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.

Here is the full quote, from a 1952 speech:

And this is how they [the Founding Fathers in 1776] explained those: ‘we hold that all men are endowed by their Creator…’ not by the accident of their birth, not by the color of their skins or by anything else, but ‘all men are endowed by their Creator.’ In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. With us of course it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion with all men are created equal.

He wasn’t being superficial about faith, and he wasn’t advocating being spiritual but not religious. He was encompassing all persons of faith in a Deity of revealed truth, but offering wide latitude to the varieties of belief in that Deity.

The twentieth century has exposed the fact that there is nothing self-evident about these truths. Some of us believe them; others don’t. They are fundamental and derived from faith, but hardly self-evident.

Written by srojak

December 17, 2017 at 9:27 pm

Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit ambulancechaser.com (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

Conserve Exactly What?

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I wanted to write something about what Conservatism is and where it is going before the Election Day, so that I was not perceived as being wise after the event. Evidently I was not alone in thinking this way, because I have seen three major thought pieces in the last month:

For context, the reader may also want to refer to these links:

All quotes are from the above.

Continetti

The Continetti article is a good place to start, both because it launched the discussion and because the author attempts a historical review of conservatism. He identifies four waves of conservatism:

  1. The Old Right initially organized against the original progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and were always marginalized.
  2. The 1950-s era wave of William Buckley, James Burnham and Russell Kirk (among others), who were, in Continetti’s words, “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty and academic” — and still politically marginal.
  3. The 1970’s New Right, full of political fire and brimstone, who took credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power (more on that later).
  4. The religious right, whose fire and brimstone is not confined to politics.

Here is the first major problem that I have with Continetti’s analysis. Are the religious right really conservative? Well, it depends on how you define Conservatism, doesn’t it?

The relentless quest for votes.

The relentless quest for votes.

Back in the high summer of collectivism, between 1930 and 1963, Conservatism was not really a vote-winning political brand, so it was easier to keep the definition clear. I don’t believe that you ever would have seen a yard sign claiming a candidate was a Texas Conservative before 1963. Now, because of the perceived success of the New Right, conservatism is a label that can win votes, so we see dilution. As a result, we are not really sure what conservatism is anymore.

The Old Right did organize in opposition to Progressivism — not in reaction to it, as progressives would have you believe, but in principled opposition to its expansive tendencies. They did not accept the claim that human society could be perfected along rational lines. They rejected the expansiveness of Progressivism. If you’re not clear on what I mean by expansiveness, consider the slogan, “Yes, we can,” which is the ultimate expression of expansiveness. That opposition to expansiveness is the real unifying principle of Conservatism. Not, “No, we can’t,” but, “Should we?”

People on the religious right, who want to bring about the New Jerusalem, who want to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth, are themselves expansive. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs, just to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about them. Conservatives can make common cause with them — or anyone else — but do not mistake the religious right for Conservatives.

So, having established that Continetti really doesn’t have a good working definition of Conservatism, it is hardly surprising that he is willing to grant conservative credentials to Donald Trump. If the religious right can be accommodated, can’t the populists?

Continetti concludes:

 The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism [sic], to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

I am not sure if Continetti meant adversarianism as a portmanteau of adversarial + Arianism = heresy, especially given his use of other religious terms (e.g., chiliastic).

More to the point, isn’t accepting the progressive vision of corporatism and the welfare state as an objective fact what Republicans have more or less been doing, with infrequent lapses, since Richard Nixon? Is this not just another go-along-to-get-along tactic that has fueled frustration with the Republican establishment?

Gerson

Michael Gerson is an evangelical and a neo-conservative. He was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. This makes him a somewhat suspect advisor for conservatives, but let’s see what he has to say.

The main point of Gerson’s article is that:

Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but also the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame while working for candidate and then President Bush.)

Given how post-ideological Bush the man appears to have been, I can understand why Gerson might want to defend the merits of the Bush Administration. The ideas of the Administration might well have been more properly the ideas of key advisors, including Gerson.

A fundamental problem with neocons was their “internationalist foreign policy,” prominently featuring a misguided belief in nation-building. To summarize concisely, neocons originated as disillusioned leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were alienated by the attitudes of the 1970s Left toward Israel, the Soviet Union and the exercise of power by the United States. All that would be understandable, but the neocons kept their expansive Wilsonian approach to foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Gerson has a point when he says:

But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.

But what we need to do is pick through the agenda Gerson outlines and understand what is worth having and why. David Frum illustrated the problem on the ground:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

How do we get ethnic and religious inclusion while ensuring that the costs of these policies do not land on the people who are least able to bear them? How do we turn education reform into a meaningful program that prepares Americans for the realities of the 21st century, rather than an empty slogan that affects nothing in the real world?

Domenech

Ben Domenech wrote directly in response to Continetti, and also has some rejoinders for Gerson:

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

But that fusion was always weak and strained. As explained earlier, there was common cause with the religious right on national defense, limited government and family values, but the religious right had an expansive approach to family values that was not compatible with conservatism or with Gerson’s “moral aspiration rather than judgment.” Meanwhile, there are also the libertarians, who do not buy into the conventional understanding of “family values” at all. Libertarians want more autonomy than the religious right is prepared to grant. Libertarians also want nothing to do with an internationalist foreign policy.

The Republican party from 2008 to 2015 was an uneasy coalition of libertarians, the religious right and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Then Donald Trump came along.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

All this is true, but doesn’t tell us how to go forward. And many conservatives have been more than willing to prostitute themselves, by being pro-business rather than pro-market, to green-light the efforts of corporate executives to “warp America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others” by fobbing risk off on others while keeping the reward for themselves. Libertarians have been especially susceptible on this issue.

So, while the institutional problems Domenech cites are very real, institutions are composed of people, who in turn are animated by ideas. Conservatism needs to do the soul-searching, to examine its ideas.

Buckley

Francis Buckley looked at thought leadership on both sides of the political spectrum and found a lot to dislike.

We had thought the Great Chain of Being washed away by the rise of science, by 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, by Jefferson and the Founders. But we were wrong. As long as there are elites, there will be people who think they deserve their place atop the greasy pole, that resistance is futile, that the underclass must learn where they naturally belong. And that’s what many of our left- and right-wing elites have come to believe.

Buckley’s criticism of the left is beyond the scope of this essay. His criticism of the right begins with a review of the criticisms made of the Trumpkins.

For George Will, they were “invertebrates.” For Charles Murray and Kevin Williamson, the story is one of white working-class vice, of drug use, divorce, and unwed births. If the underclass wasn’t working, that was its fault. After looking at one town, National Review’s Williamson wrote, “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

I find that Williamson has a point when he says:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

If they are victims of anything, they are victims of a progressive education system that said it was OK to dissipate your disposable time on leisure and hitch yourself to the consumption-debt-repayment treadmill. People in the credentialed white-collar middle class who think they don’t have to confront the same problem have another think coming. At the same time, why should the white working class be exempt from the self-examination they would dish out to others: how long are you going to keep on being a victim? At what point do you stop being a victim of your upbringing, your culture and your education and assume moral responsibility for your own continued participation in it?

Charleroi, PA is 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town has experienced intense economic distress as a result of the decline in manufacturing in southwest Pennsylvania, The people there want to have their way of life protected in the face of these changes. OK, but if we are going to do that, would we do that for the people who live in the Core City neighborhood of Detroit? If not, where is the justice in that? Would that be racism? It is sure going to look racist to the people in Detroit. The Economist called it, “compassion for us; conservatism for them,” and rightly so.

I have my own take on this. I would have liked to continue to live in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to make choices, and I did so — I moved. Staying is also a choice. You takes your choice, and you pays the price.

There is one more consideration, and it comes from David Wong:

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” Let’s say you’re a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen’s and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you’re paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. 

So it is a complex and messy issue with two parallel dimensions:

  • The ethical dimension, at the individual level, where I am more inclined to side with Williamson;
  • The political dimension, at the community level, where I am more receptive to Buckley. At the community level, there are also public policy issues. Do you want whole communities being abandoned because of economic dislocation? Where do they go?

Even though the specific issue here is more complex and muddy than Buckley probably has in mind, and even though I don’t think it fair to pick on Williamson, his main point is still valid:

Williamson reminds one of the unfeeling strain in contemporary conservatism. It’s something we’ve seen in Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, Randians, and not a few libertarians. What Romney and Cruz communicated was a perfect fidelity to right-wing principles and an indifference to people.

As they sales proverb goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Politics is a people business. Ideas animate people, but the ideas come second to people.

In the interest of not making a long story even longer, I am going to skip forward to Buckley’s conclusion:

My atheist friends who themselves adhere to the highest codes of duty and honor might nevertheless want to consider how often they’ve observed antique republican virtue on display on college campuses or on television. What they’ve seen instead, for the most part, is the detritus of a culture that has lost its religious anchoring and with it any semblance of a moral culture.

They have dispensed with God and for their sophistication ask to be accepted by the intellectuals of the left as fellow members of a privileged elite in our Great Chain of Being. But in abandoning the religious tradition of the West, in their contempt for the invertebrates, the OxyContin sniffers, the takers, they reveal the icicle lodged in the conservative heart.

Before Conservatives can overcome any left-wing bias in the media or any other true-but-incidental issue in being heard, we have to overcome this. The vast majority of the electorate sees “the icicle lodged in the conservative heart,” and wants no part of it.

Is There Anything to Conserve?

What does the term Conservative even mean here in the US anymore? In Britain, at least, they are rigorous about their labels: Liberals were almost completely displaced by the Labor Party by 1924. Here, we are more sloppy with our words, and we pay a price for that.

After eighty-some years of Progressive government (it depends on what you count Herbert Hoover as), there is precious little left to conserve. Meanwhile, we have to come to terms with urbanization, specialization, autonomy and deep pluralism.

We need an ideology that really cares about people, not just one that does a bad job of trying to appear like it cares. We need to put all the productive people first, not just those who can be donors. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million in 2012 and whiffed completely. His money did not help Romney defeat Obama, and he went 0-for-5 in congressional races. It’s still one person, one vote.

We need to be clear on the difference between pro-market and pro-business policies. We need to remind everyone constantly that a moral foundation of capitalism is that the people who bear the greatest risks have the greatest upsides. There will always be people who want to ditch the risk and keep the reward; it is bad public policy to let them do it.

That means that people who choose to earn a wage or a salary have chosen a lower-risk, lower-reward life. It is unethical to leave them exposed when trade policies change so that others can reap all the rewards in terms of profit and lower-cost consumer goods.

The majority of adults with whom I have spoken do not want those who genuinely cannot take care of themselves pushed to the wall. We need to lead the conversation on what “deserving” means. We are going to have to rebut the schoolmarms who want to take the side of whomever cries first.

We are going to have to face up to intellectual bullies who tell us, “Everyone knows John Rawls said …” We are going to have to push back more and take pushback better. We are going to have to control the language battlefield, or we will always be on ground of someone else’s choosing.

We need to stop the appalling waste of human lives that progressivism encourages. We have a drug problem in this country because we have the demand for drugs. We have a population insulated from risk living lives devoid of meaning, having no higher purpose than consumption and leisure, so they make problems for themselves. Did you ever see those videos on YouTube where they say that, by some year in the near future, India or China will have more honor students than we have students? We can’t afford our current levels of wasting people’s lives in such a world.

We can’t afford to tell people, “We’re not interested in what you can contribute because you have the wrong plumbing.” Or the wrong skin color. We can’t afford to have people who hate to go to work because they expect to be groped or humiliated or ridiculed for being who they are. Actually, we make people hate to go to work for a whole lot of reasons, but that is another essay for another day.

We need to humanize the costs of progressive policies. On Wednesday, the election will be over, but the problems will not. Progressives make more promises to more people, with continually less ability to make good on those promises. A regime based on redistribution will only lead to more intense and ugly fighting over a shrinking pie. A focus on production and the people who make it possible is the only way forward.

Written by srojak

November 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm