Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Taking Stock

I began this blog in the summer of 2008, right before the financial crisis hit. In the several years before this I had been reading all the Peak Oil and Doomer content I could find, and I have to say that I would not have been surprised to see our society collapse. I felt that our economy no longer created any value, since anything physical was manufactured outside the U.S. When the housing bubble popped I thought we would experience years of struggle and reinvention, going back to the old ways, and hopefully emerging better for it.

In the last few years the writings of Paul Krugman convinced me that outsourcing manufacturing and having an economy based on marketing and selling stuff is just another way things can work, and that there's nothing inherently wrong with it. I still believe that with the rise of countries like China and India we will see the limits of the oil supply, even with innovations like fracking. We don't have to run out, we just have to reach a price point where the cheap oil business model stops working, and then there will be a big change in the way we live. This might just mean that we start riding the bus instead of driving - but that's a pretty big change.

But I will admit that I've lost a sense of urgency. I gave up community gardening because I have a lot of other interests, I can afford to buy food, and I really don't have the time. Also I have been having trouble with tendonitis in my wrists and I try to stay away from very much yard work so I can keep playing guitar! So I've sold out and gone mainstream, but I'll certainly vote for things that will be more sustainable.

He's lost it, gone soft, you say - maybe you're right. I only have so much time and there's a lot of things I still want to do.

After five years we can see that our society didn't collapse and our economy is recovering. We were very fortunate that President Obama followed counter-cyclical or "stimulus" economic policies as far as he could. That, combined with the built in stimulus of social programs like Unemployment Benefits and Medicaid, allowed the economy to slowly grow in spite of all the cut backs at the state level (around 1 million public jobs lost). If we had followed the policies of Great Britain, as some were advising, things would be a lot worse.

Our society didn't collapse, but our government did. As we see ourselves lurching from one very short term budget deal to the next, I think we have to realize that things didn't use to be like this and that it's no way for a major world power to operate.

The financial crisis coincided with the takeover of the Republican party by its extreme elements. If the crisis had not occurred, would we have seen this anyway? I don't know; it had been building for decades and we had some of the same obstruction during the Clinton Presidency. But just as the terrorist attack on 9/11 enabled a militaristic interventionist doctrine that never would have been allowed in the past, so the mass unemployment and soaring deficits from the economic collapse enabled a wilder form of hard-conservatism. And we still don't know how this will turn out. The 2012 election showed that there is no future for a party that follows the Tea Party / Fox News path, but that doesn't mean they can't cause a lot of trouble in the next decade.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review of "The End of the Republican Era", by Ted Lowi

Just so you don't think he's got an axe to grind, he's also the author of "The End of Liberalism".

Lowi writes early in the book, "Separation of private from public, of which separation of church and state is one small part, is the necessity driving this book." He points out that while moral standards should have bearing on one's private life, they cannot be transferred to the public sphere unless you abandon democracy or have a society composed entirely of the same kind of people with the same beliefs. "The moral republic can be a Christian Republic, an Islamic Republic, a Jewish Republic, or even a republic espousing a civic religion like communitarianism (a Clinton attempt to use national power to punish criminals and discourage exploiters of welfare)". Since we clearly do not have such a homogeneous society and are a democracy, it is obvious that an attempt to impose one group's moral standards on the whole nation will not last; Prohibition is an example that comes to mind.

An interesting feature of this book is the classification of major strains of American thought. There is Libertarianism, identified as "Old Liberalism", the New Deal and the social programs of the 1960's, called "New Liberalism", and then of course, "Conservatism". Lowi sees Libertarianism as a relative of Liberalism. This may seem surprising, but he points out that both focus on the rights of the individual, with Libertarianism rejecting any role for the state in protecting these rights (other than defending property) and Liberalism seeing the state as an instrument for guaranteeing rights. Lowi is not the only one to make this association; Ron Lora in "Conservative Minds in America" calls the Economic Libertarianism of William F. Buckley Jr "Classical Liberalism". Conservatism is characterized by the belief in a moral standard, or put another way, a belief that there is such a thing as quality (to use Robert Pirsig's term, from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), that some things are better than others, and some people are better qualified than others to direct society. Unlike the Libertarians, Conservatives believe that the state should enforce these moral standards. Particularly the "State", rather than the Federal Government.

New Liberalism's fatal flaw is that it saw every societal ill as the violation of a right and engaged the full powers of the government to guarantee those rights, with no thought of prioritizing or of whether the task was even possible. The end result was the promise of a risk-free society. The difficulty of funding such a system and the impossibility of keeping that promise are obvious.

The flaw of Conservatism is that it ultimately must be un-democratic. Coalitions are made, say Evangelicals with Catholics, with patrician Conservatives, in order to gain political power. But when this coalition wins and must govern, two of these three groups won't get their way on any given policy. This might be acceptable to other political unions, but it is not acceptable to Conservatives who believe firmly in the moral standards of their particular group. And if the coalition can somehow come to terms, there is always the risk of losing the next election. This idea is also unacceptable; democracy cannot be allowed to interfere with what is right for society.

Lowi wrote this in 1994, but his fear of the consequences of active Libertarianism seems to apply very well to today. "Note again what has happened in America since the collapse of the USSR. If we won, why do we feel so bad? What won? Certainly not democracy. The victory seems to have gone to a radical view of market-based capitalism. American government has been immobilized by a renewed public philosophy that is fundamentally antagonistic to government in general (Old LIberalism) and national government in particular (Old Liberalism in coalition with genuine conservatism). Representative government itself is in danger as a consequence...History is repeating itself, this time as farce rather than tragedy (Lowi called the failure of New Liberalism tragedy). Radical libertarian antistatism, far from producing the ideal political regime, can undermine the modest movement toward the ideal political system we have been able to attain. Hayek was the one libertarian wise enough to recognize that markets must operate within "the rule of law," which for him meant a particular kind of constitutional, stable, predictable political regime. But this meant good government, not no government."

In evaluating the three systems (Old Liberalism or Libertarianism, New Liberalism, and Conservatism) Lowi concludes: "What we have here is an inventory of ideologies competing as theories of state. In actuality they are off-the-shelf disasters for any people foolish enough to attempt to govern themselves by uncritically selecting any one such theory. Most Americans, being pragmatic, would tend to agree and proudly embrace the alternative "none of the above."...New Liberalism wins, because it can provide the only theory of the state capable of enduring all the alternatives (i.e. as I interpret Lowi, the relativism or open-mindedness of New Liberals can accept the legitimacy of the other two systems being in power). But it wins only by default. We have already seen how dangerously tragic New Liberalism can be. It is aging and decadent, useless without regeneration. Its core values require generous application of prudence and practical reason (words loved by conservatives)."

Lowi finally suggests we follow a governing philosophy of New Liberalism guided by only one moral principal: the rule of law. Remember, he began the book with the goal of excluding private morality from the public realm. He ends up allowing just one moral standard, the law, by which he means a directive that will stand up under legal scrutiny. This excludes general mandates such as requiring "clean air", or "a safe workplace", but allows specific laws where there is no interpretation required in order to know if you comply. He gives an example of how you could allow state laws classifying abortion as murder, as long as they met this level of specificity. Such a law would have to require a virtual police state for women, where they would have to register pregancies, report births, and any pregnancy that did not go to term would be investigated. Sound ridiculous? How else would you write the law if you truly equate any abortion with murder? His point is that such a law would never pass, because there's too many voters that don't agree with this.

Theodore Lowi has given a great explanation of the competing philosophies in American politics, along with some devastating criticism of New Liberalism that progressives like myself should take to heart. I think his "rule of law" solution, as opposed to the impossible risk-free society, may have promise.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review of "The Making of the American Conservative Mind (National Review and Its Times)" by Jeffrey Hart

Hart, a National Review editor and contributor, chronicles 50 years of the notable conservative magazine, profiling editors and major writers and recounting the NR's opinion of 10 Presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He reminds us of a time we have forgotten, if we ever knew it, when liberal thought dominated both Republican and Democrat parties, global communism was active in the United States, and the idea of conservatives having an influence on public policy was something that founder William F. Buckley and his team didn't expect to see in their lifetimes.

The goal was realized in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, Hart gives him 49 of the book's 368 pages and considers him one of the great Presidents of the 20th century, naming FDR and Eisenhower as the other two. The National Review found great fault with Eisenhower, but Hart shows him to be cunning and effective behind the mask of the amiable homespun rube, pointing out that what he didn't do (intervene in Hungary and Suez) was as important as what he did.

The profiles of some of the NR's personalities can be fascinating, consider that of Russell Kirk which especially appealed to me: quoting Kirk,"So far as I know I am the only American who holds the St. Andrews doctor of letters and I am quite sure that I am the only person who has been capped with the cap of John Knox (literally) and hooded with the hood of St. Ignatius of Loyola". Kirk was something of an anachronist, wore a cape and refused to use some technology, and philosophically had sympathy for the Southern Agrarians.

Hart is a conservative and criticizes the Supreme Court moving into areas that should be left to the legislature. He also sees the need for two strong political parties and was glad to see the Democrats recover from their lunge away from the mainstream with George McGovern in 1972. He is bordering on critical of the National Review in recent times, pointing out that they weren't being intellectually honest when criticizing Clinton's tax increase and then arguing that the good economy under Clinton was due to George Bush Sr., whose tax increase they opposed as bad for the economy. "The magazine appeared to be dogmatically against raising taxes whatever the circumstances and whatever the deficit. That is, National Review, on the grounds that lower taxes meant less government, always supported tax cuts. But in the real world, Americans wanted such programs as Medicare and Social Security, and these had to be paid for...was NR losing its independent critical edge?"

His analysis, via Norman Podhoretz, of Clinton's success is hilarious: "If he had not been so great a liar, he would not have been able to get away not only with his own private sins but with the political insults he was administering to some of his core constituencies...And so, through a kind of political and psychological jujitsu, it came to pass that Clinton's worst qualities were what enabled him to accomplish something good."

I highly recommend "The Making of the American Conservative Mind". It has helped me understand the different philosophical groups that make up the Republican Party. It is no betrayal of principal for a faction within the party to attack President Obama as a liberal for following the policies of Dwight Eisenhower; this group saw Eisenhower as a liberal, and he governed as one at a time when the Republican party was controlled by East Coast liberal elites. Buckley didn't vote in the 1956 election because he could not support Eisenhower. But the National Review and Buckley prized intellectualism, clear thinking, and reliance on facts rather than ideology. They also came to see the limits of their conservatism with a society that functions by consensus. Reagan was about as far as it went. And this was not the Reagan who lost the 1976 New Hampshire primary to Ford because he promised to trim 90 billion 1976 dollars (!) from the federal budget and planned to pay for it by cutting off the federal subsidy, allowing states to pay for whatever programs they wanted with their own revenue (meaning New Hampshire would have had an income tax or no schools). This was the Reagan who had learned from that experience that while Americans like the idea of self reliance, they also take certain things in the social environment for granted.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The People Of Wisconsin Have Spoken

And they came out solidly against public sector unions. That this could happen in Wisconsin, one of the early supporters of workers rights, is a sign both of the irrelevance of unions in today's workforce and how incapable we are of dealing with the slightest bit of subtlety in our political discourse.

When we talk about public sector union employees, we're mainly talking about teachers. Just think for a minute about what happens when teaching jobs don't pay as much, have little job security, and lose retirement and health care benefits. Will bright, dedicated high school graduates still want to get a 4 year degree plus a 5th year and probably a masters degree in order to get a teaching job? What will we do for teachers? Will we drop the requirement of a College degree? Of course thinking of a teacher with no degree is ridiculous, but if you don't have a pool of educated applicants what else could you do?

This is the sort of discussion we should have before we vote to break the public unions. Yes, there are problems with unions, they need to get their head out of the sand and make some concessions for the good of the system; but take them away and there is no check on the sort of cutbacks I describe above. Do you really think those things won't happen?

It comes down to this: what kind of a society do we want to live in? Do we want children to grow up with a good education and be able to give something back? We could ask a similar question about many other issues; one of the benefits of paying taxes is being able to live in a beautiful, innovative, vibrant, well-functioning community.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Place for Dissent in a Democratic Society

The privilege to dissent from the majority is probably the most important Constitutional right in our Democracy. In America you may hurl insults at the President of the United States, publicly campaign against laws passed by Congress, or support any idea, however disagreeable it may be to some, and your right to do this is protected.

We allow and encourage dissent because we know it makes us stronger, it protects us from group-think, and allows the possibility that the majority just may be wrong.

So when I say that to resent and oppose a law arrived at by the democratic process is undemocratic, I have to also say that you have every right to do this. What am I saying then? I guess I'm arguing for having some priorities and picking your spots. If you dissent in every case where the group decision is different than your own, I question this. There is value to the continued functioning of the group and many times this outweighs the value of taking a stand against something you disagree with.

During the Internet boom of the late 1990's I did contract computer programming for ConWay Transportation. On occasion we had meetings with the regional Service Center managers to figure out application functionality. When there was a difference of opinion within the group, the managers had a way of dealing with it: the question was asked "are you willing to die on this hill?" Most of the time the person wasn't willing; when they were we spent a lot of time and resolved the issue. The idea here is that if the group is going to get anything done, they can't have a long drawn out debate whenever there is a disagreement. Some internal screening has to decide which things are important enough to spend a lot of time on. The person was being asked if they thought their issue was important enough, they got to decide, not the group. However, keep in mind that everyone knew how much time we had for the meeting and how much we had to cover. Also, if you were willing to die on every hill people would stop listening to you.

The definition of a group is a collection of different individuals. A group, by nature, is a compromise; you gain the benefit of numbers and shared resources and you give up some individual freedom. The only way to have a group that always does what you think is right is to leave the group.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

With no GOP, what happens now?

Am I assuming too much here? I don't think so. I had planned on writing a post about the amazing power and rare use of direct democracy seen in the protests against the Stop Internet Piracy Act, made possible by the Internet and the wide availability of Person Digital Devices (cell phones, computers, etc.). But this is more immediate, and is another example of democracy. How so? GOP leaders and strategists were over-ruled by the voters in the South Carolina primary; the same voters that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh have been feeding propaganda for years. Now these voters really believe

1. Barack Obama is a socialist who is raising taxes, expanding government, destroying capitalism, and leading our country down a path to ruin. Given this as a starting point, it is obvious that he must be stopped.

They also believe

2. he is so weak and ineffective (although at the same time he is a dangerous socialist threat) that someone as flawed and unelectable as Newt Gingrich can out-debate him and beat him in a general election.

GOP "elites" know this isn't true, and would give anything to stop Gingrich, but they also were happy to use the propaganda duing the 2010 midterm elections, and now they are seeing the downside of creating your own reality.

It is this force of deliberately misinformed democracy, maybe involving as much as 30% of Republican voters, that makes it impossible for the Republican Party to turn back the clock and return to its role as the reasonable voice for government restraint.

The question is, with the Democratic Party now winning all the Presidential elections for the foreseeable future, and most likely the decrease of GOP congressional power, where will that restraining voice come from? Unchecked progressivism is as much of a problem as unchecked conservatism.

Now it is true that the Democratic party has absorbed much Republican wisdom over the years. In fact what Bill Clinton began with Welfare Reform was continued by Barack Obama in his very Republican Affordable Care Act (it would have been even more Republican if he could have gotten some GOP cooperation). President Obama also offered a budget reduction deal with big cuts to entitlements, a deal that David Brooks angrily denounced Republicans for turning down. Many old style Republicans may find a place in the Democratic party for this reason.

But there is a difference, and the Democratic Party weakness of being driven by special interests and finding a government program to solve every problem needs a counterbalance. Who will provide it? Even if pundits like David Brooks and David Frum find a new party to get behind, or a revived version of the Republican party, this won't be a big enough group to counteract the Democrats. The group that supports Gingrich may end up in the Tea Party but they aren't big enough either, and the true Ron Paul grass roots Tea Party supports things that the first group doesn't agree with, like bringing home troops and non-intervention abroad.

So what will happen to our country as we sort this out in the next several decades? Maybe the young generation just coming up will change things; many of these are Ron Paul supporters. There is clearly an opening for an anti-war, more civil liberties party, but these are also natural positions of the Democratic party, and they will return to them if they are given political cover. It's hard to imagine the U.S. as a one party state, but I can't see anything else, at least with the issues I know of today.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What they talk about in those "Quiet Rooms"

It looks like we're going to have our debate about the role of government, even if Romney is the GOP candidate rather than Paul. And that debate has already started in the Republcan Primaries, thanks to the populist attack adds by Gingrich and Perry, which point out that Romney made his money at Bain Capital by taking over companies, laying off workers, and selling at a profit. These are normal activities in a free market (notice that Ron Paul defends Romney), as are more popular things like business startups. You can certainly make a case that good can come from the sort of thing Romney did, and you can even support the idea that this function is a necessary part of the market. But what about those workers who lost their jobs? That's the problem, and the fact that Gingrich and Perry think they can get an advantage by pointing this out means that even Republican voters agree.

Solutions could be proposed for this problem: Maybe you could regulate hostile takeovers, or maybe increase the safety net benefits perhaps focusing on retraining for the unemployed workers while providing them with living expenses. These are the sort of things they talk about in Romney's "Quiet Rooms". But why do they talk about it at all? Isn't this something you would expect to be the province of Democrats, not Republicans? Republicans know as well as anybody that you can't govern without the consent of the governed, and you can't allow outcomes like large numbers of displaced workers. The market solution for this may be that those workers are unemployed or under-employed for the rest of their working lives, and this is not socially or politically acceptable.

Of course, approaches like the ones above are anti-free market and create unintended consequences that we may not like. But we don't like seeing a bunch of people lose their jobs either, even if we're just looking at the opinions of Republican voters. That's why we need to have this debate.

The plans that come out of the quiet rooms are likely to be more acceptable to the business/corporate lobby than those that come from a popular political campaign.