Jul 212010
 

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou’s original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

May 162010
 

Via Tim, I see that the United States has leapt into the rabbit hole.

The very same administration-to-be that campaigned on a platform of restoring the civil liberties eroded by Bushitler etc. to Americans and everybody they arrested is now, er, taking more of them away than even Bushitler did.

Several weeks ago I saw a story on a blog somewhere about Obama’s authorising the assassination of an American citizen abroad (sans due process, naturally) because he was suspected of terrorist activity. I didn’t write about it then because I was sure it was a right-wing conspiracy lie.

Apparently it’s not.

Other restorations of our civil liberties include proposals to deny terrorist suspects arrested on US soil their Miranda rights, strip American citizens accused of terrorism of their citizenship, and treating American citizens arrested for terrorism as enemy combatants and barring them from trial in normal American courts.

I’m a bit confused about this, because while I obviously think restoring civil rights is a wonderful thing, these plans all sound to me like stripping Americans of every possible legal and Constitutional protection based solely on an accusation of a particular crime.

Perhaps the definition of ‘civil liberties’ has Changed™ since 2008. Perhaps, as appears to be the case, this legislation has been proposed by eeeevil Republicans. But if the latter is so, why are the good and kind Democrats in charge not screaming bloody murder about it? Why are they not swearing with their every last breath to use their Congressional majority to kill these bills stone dead?

And why, in the name of all that is holy, has the era of Hope and Change not only not reversed any of the rights-abuses perpetrated by the previous administration, as was promised, but perpetrated new ones itself?

Not that I ever expected him to be, but Obama is surely not the saviour he tried to make us all believe he was. And I absolutely do not understand why it is an outrage for Bush to read our emails but it’s fine for Obama to authorise the assassination of an American citizen. I do not understand why it is an outrage for Bush to deny foreign terrorism suspects their rights but it’s fine for Obama to do the same to American citizens on American soil. I do not understand why it was good that Obama was going to try Kalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civil court in Manhattan (where he would never get a fair trial), and now it’s also good that Obama’s not going to try American terrorism suspects in civil courts (where they might just have had a chance at a fair trial). I do not understand how American Congressmen can even propose this sort of thing during the administration of a constitutional lawyer, when the merest idiot can see that it’s plainly unconstitutional. There are no exceptions for terrorism in the Bill of Rights.

Are Americans really that frightened of terrorism, that they’re willing to put up with this stuff? I mean, the last time our government started abusing its own citizens, we had a giant fucking war with it.

And to be fair to him, it’s not just Obama at fault. Given that Republicans (including would-be president John McCain) have proposed a lot of this legislation, I’m afeard for what will happen if they win a majority in the elections later this year.

In fact, I’m afeard, full stop. Maybe it’s time to look into getting British citizenship after all…

May 072010
 

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.

Feb 182010
 

Stephen Hill at CiF posits some kind of equivalency between Greece’s budget catastrophe, and the ensuing debate about whether the solvent EU countries should bail it out, and California’s budget catastrophe, and the debate about whether the solvent US states should bail it out.

Apparently Greece isn’t that large a proportion of the EU economy, so no big deal – but California represented a whopping 14% of the US economy before it went bust.

California’s situation in some ways is more worrisome than Greece’s. Having a state that is one-seventh of the national economy in dire straits is a threat to the nation’s economic recovery. It is analogous to having Germany struggling instead of Greece, striking at the heart of Europe. California has been shaken by widespread layoffs and furloughs – the city of Los Angeles just laid off 1,000 more workers – and core social programmes have been slashed. Millions of low income children have lost access to meal programmes, and community clinics have been closed. Almost 3 million low income adults have lost important benefits such as dental care, psychological services and mammograms.

In addition, while both California and Greece are in major belt tightening mode, at least in Greece all families and individuals still have access to healthcare and a long menu of other social supports that Europe is known for. In California, even before the crisis millions had no healthcare, and now more have lost their jobs and their health insurance. Unemployment compensation is miserly, as is the overall safety net, which impacts consumer spending and further weakens the economy.

In this case, then, it was terribly mean of the Obama administration to deny California a federal bail-out paid for by the taxes of the other 49 states. That’s, like, super unfair, because:

But ironically California’s current plight may serve as a warning to Germany and France. Over the last several decades, California’s once thriving economy served as a kind of backstop for other American states. California has subsidised low population (and often conservative) states by only receiving back about $.80 for every federal tax dollar it sends to Washington DC. Californians have sent tens of billions of dollars to conservative states such as Mississippi, Alaska and North Dakota, which receive about $1.75 for every dollar sent to Washington.

Yet when Governor Schwarzenegger asked the federal government for a return on that long-term support, the White House shut the door and the Republican states long subsidised by California were unsympathetic. Memories are short, as is gratitude.

Leaving aside the question of optimal single-currency zones – which Hill never addresses – let’s look at this central point about the unfairness of leaving California to its fate.

For years, Hill says, California was the wealthiest state in the country, and the federal taxes its wealthy citizens paid subsidised the poorer, less populous states of the union. Now California has farked itself, allowing and encouraging its legislature to spend the state into massive debt – and wealthy California wants the poorer states to subsidise it!

Surely this is exactly what Guardian writers (and readers) loathe, the idea of the poor subsidising the wealthy? They certainly profess to hate incidences of it in the UK and cry that the transfer of money from poor to rich is a massive injustice (that will, no doubt, be further perpetrated by the Tories if they win the next election). California’s budget crash has not made the poor states it used to subsidise any wealthier; in fact, it’s probably made them poorer. So why in the world should the poor states make themselves even poorer because the people of California were happy to elect legislatures that spend like drunken sailors?

Somebody please explain to me why, suddenly, the Guardian is in favour of the poor subsidising the rich.

Feb 022010
 

… to me. This blog is one year old today.

Via the Croydonian, this.

As bold plans go, this one is tres bold. Now obviously, districts within US states are redrawn after census so that each district contains roughly the same number of people.

But I have never heard anyone suggest that US states themselves should be redrawn after census so that each state contains roughly the same number of people. Considering that state boundaries are essentially arbitrary, I don’t find this particularly unreasonable. And it would certainly solve the problem of overweighted small-population states and overweighted large-population states.

However. For the moment, gerrymandering is limited to the states at the moment. Extending the temptation to gerrymander to the entire country, and putting that temptation squarely in the hands of the US Congress, is a very poor idea.

Additionally, redrawing state boundaries to make federal elections more efficient would play merry hell with state and local governments. In the US, state and local governments do actually do things, and are responsible for a great many competencies that would be sorely affected by altering the geographical perimeters of each state every ten years.

There is also the problem of revenues. Federal taxation would of course remain largely unaffected by this, but much of what state governments do is paid for by state taxation, be it sales, income, property, or some other form of levy. As you might expect, much of the wealth of the US is concentrated in urban areas and centers of high population, or else in areas where wealth-generating industries are located.

Look at the map provided:

redrawn states

This redrawing of states would create, I predict, revenue problems particularly in the South, which is the poorest region of the US already. The states labelled Pamlico, the Delta, Tombigbee, Brownia, and Pecos all represent the poorer areas of North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. At the moment, these areas which generate little public revenue are all effectively subsidised by the wealthier parts of those states. Dallas and Houston especially pay for much of the public services in the rest of Texas. Redraw the boundaries in accordance with this map, and these poorer areas will see a drastic reduction in transport maintenance (roads especially), public education, and other state- and county-provided services such as law enforcement and rubbish removal. That, or they will be themselves subsidised by the federal government, putting them in hock to the rest of the nation like poor cousins fallen on hard times.

Now, one can argue that some of these competencies are things no government needs to provide, and maybe that’s true, but at the moment state governments do provide them, and there is little chance of that changing any time soon. The fact of the matter is that, at the moment, there are concentrations of wealth and population within states that enable those poorer areas to get by. Divide them from the sources of public revenue, and those poorer areas may become even more deprived. There is always a chance, I suppose, that those poorer areas might adopt reforms that would make them extremely attractive to businesses and industries, but experience (and cynicism) suggest that is unlikely.

Essentially, I do not think this is a good plan. It would be nice to have fairer and more efficient federal representation, but not at the cost of disrupting and in some cases even destroying the provision of state services.

Nancy Pelosi: dumb

 indolence, political blunders, US-bashing  Comments Off on Nancy Pelosi: dumb
Jan 212010
 

From the Telegraph:

Republican leaders in Congress called for a reworking of the bill, which would provide near universal coverage and aimed to bring down long-term costs. But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House Speaker, argued that because Massachusetts already had near-universal health coverage under a state law, the vote should not be seen as a referendum on the issue.

“We don’t say a state that already has health care should determine whether the rest of the country should. We will get the job done. I’m very confident,” she said.

It’s because Massachusetts already has just such a health care system as the one Pelosi’s Democrats are proposing that the opinion of their citizens is worth more than that of any other state’s.

They know what it’s like. They know what it costs. And they know that if the Democrats get their retarded bill passed, the citizens of Massachusetts will be paying through the nose twice.

That’s one of the great things about the federal system, you see: experiments can be tried in the states that want them, and the results can be judged by the rest of the country as either worth duplicating or worth abandoning. Massachusetts has done the experiment the Democrats would like to foist on the whole country. Not only have the other states looked at Massachusetts and said, ‘Dude, that doesn’t look like it’s working out so well, maybe we’d better not try it here,’ the people of Massachusetts themselves have said, ‘This isn’t going so well for us! Don’t try it at home!’

I reckon Nancy Pelosi should take a long, hard look at what’s happened to the healthcare system in Massachusetts, if for no other reason than because costs there have skyrocketed beyond all expectation, and seriously reconsider whether she wants to push the same money-suck on the entire rest of the nation.

Unless, of course, she wants to go down in history as the Politician Who Bankrupted America. Because you can bet your sweet buttocks it won’t be Obama who gets blamed. A man who can rise to president from two years’ experience of national office and prior experience in a Democrat safe seat and in a Democrat safe state’s legislature is more than canny enough to figure out a way to let some other poor bastard take the fall.

Jan 202010
 

Scott Brown, the Republican candidate, appears to have won the special Senate election in Massachusetts.

Predictably, there is over-hype from the right (‘Healthcare reform is dead! Yay, woo, a victory against creeping socialism!’) and under-hype from the left (‘These things are vastly complicated, the rest of American still wants healthcare reform, this election is not indicative of the true feeling of blah blah blibbity blee.’)

When Scott Brown is seated, the Senate Democrats will no longer have their 60-member supermajority, which as far as I’m aware was what they were counting on to pass their obese and unwieldy healthcare bill. So yeah – maybe that bill is dead.

Unless they decide to hold their vote before Scott Brown is seated. And Harry Reid won’t agree to seat him until the Mass. Secretary of State has certified Brown as the winner. And as we all remember from Election 2000, certifying a winner can be a long and thorny process fraught with much concession and recantation and fro-ing and to-ing and suing and accusations of fraud and faulty paper ballots (paper ballots? really?) and HEY LOOK, it’s the Supreme Court, and Katherine Harris’s political career is over forever, poor woman, through no fault of her own.

So maybe that bill isn’t dead.

The only genuine effect Scott Brown’s victory has had, as far as I can tell, is that it’s been great for morale on the right, and pretty bad for morale on the left (however much they downplay it).

But it’s one Senate seat in a special election won against a dreadfully unpleasant Democrat candidate in a state where they’d had the same self-important blowhard in charge for almost 40 years. While that’s Change the people of Massachusetts Can Believe In, I’m sceptical of claims that it’s a reely reely big deel y’all, TEA PARTY REVOLUTION!

But I’ll happily eat my words if I’m wrong.

P.S. It’s getting harder and harder for me to comment on American politics without descending into silliness.

UPDATE: Lulz.

H/T Hillbuzz.

Jan 152010
 

Let’s talk about Cass Sunstein.

For those of you out of the know, Sunstein is head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a part of the Executive Office of the president of the US. He is informally known as the Information Czar, roughly equivalent to one of the many, many posts held in the UK by Peter Mandelson. It is a creepy competency, and it is perhaps only fitting that it should be filled by a professor of law at Harvard, which Sunstein also is.

The North West LPUK blog flagged him up today as a dodgy customer, and indeed, it looks as if he is one.

For someone expert in constitutional law, Cass Sunstein is all about some bansturbation that would interfere directly with the rights explicitly protected in that constitution, namely the right of free speech.

According to this post at Infowars, in 2008 he prepared a white paper that outlined the responses government might make to the over-prevalence of conspiracy theories (though, alas, their link to the paper does not work):

On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.

1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.

2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?

And what does Sunstein define as “conspiracy theories” that should potentially be taxed or outlawed by the government? Opinions held by the majority of Americans, no less.

Among the theories identified in the paper as possible targets for censorship are the beliefs that Oswald did not act alone, that global warming is a deliberate fraud, and that sunlight is good for the body. These are all pretty inoffensive ‘conspiracy’ theories. Most of those suspected of involvement in the Kennedy assassination are now dead (or, in the case of Castro, as near as dammit), and it does not seem reasonable to censor conspiracies regarding an event about which we will likely never know the gospel truth. On the other side of the spectrum, whether or not climate change (global warming) is an immediate threat is something scientists predict we will know within 50 years. Why suggest censoring a conspiracy theory that has a built-in sell-by date? And the benefits of sunlight are backed up by numerous studies which show that sunlight is an excellent source of essential vitamin D. As long as people are equally aware of the dangers of skin cancer due to exposure, why attack this claim? [CORRECTION: Sunstein does say that believing sunlight is healthy is false and dangerous, but he does not class it as a conspiracy theory.]

What possible reason could Sunstein have for advising that such innocuous views be suppressed?

One can only presume that Sunstein is deliberately framing the debate by going to such absurd extremes so as to make any belief whatsoever into a conspiracy theory unless it’s specifically approved by the kind of government thought police system he is pushing for.

That seems plausible to me. If harmless conspiracy theories warrant taxation or bans, what do harmful ones deserve? (Remember, many places still have the death penalty in the US.)

Sunstein is also known to have called for the First Amendment to be re-written, to have advocated internet censorship (beyond what already exists, presumably), and to hold the belief that Americans should celebrate Tax Day. This last was so bizarre to me that I had to search it up for verification. In an article for the Chicago Tribune which Sunstein also published on his website at the University of Chicago, Sunstein wrote:

In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully “ours”? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without support from bank regulators? Could we spend it (say, on the installment plan) if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live?

Do not get up tomorrow and drape your house in black! For tax day is not a day of national mourning. Without taxes there would be no liberty.

Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending.

It may be reasonable, in some cases, to cut tax rates. What is unreasonable and, in fact, preposterous is the all-too-familiar conservative rhetoric that flatly opposes individual liberty to the government power to tax and spend. You cannot be for rights and against government because rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.

If government could not intervene effectively, none of the individual rights to which Americans have become accustomed could be reliably protected.

Most rights are funded by taxes, not by fees. This is why the overused distinction between “negative” and “positive” rights makes little sense. Rights to private property, freedom of speech, immunity from police abuse, contractual liberty, free exercise of religion–just as much as rights to Social Security, Medicare and food stamps–are taxpayer-funded and government-managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well-being.

This raises some important questions, to be sure. Who decides, in the United States, how to allocate our scarce public resources for the protection of which rights for whom? What principles are commonly invoked to guide these allocations? And can those principles be defended? These questions deserve more discussion than they usually receive, unclouded by the dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public fisc.

In any case, to recognize the dependency of property rights on the contributions of the whole community, managed by the government, is to repel the rhetorical attack on welfare rights as somehow deeply un-American, and totally alien or different in kind from classical or “real” rights. No right can be exercised independently, for every rights-holder has a claim on public resources–on money that has been extracted from citizens at large.

For all rights–call them negative, call them positive–have that effect. There is no liberty without dependency.

‘Without taxes, there would be no liberty.’

‘Rights are meaningless unless enforced by government.’

‘There is no liberty without dependency.’

And there is no tyranny without sophistry. This man is now Obama’s sophist extraordinaire.

Sunstein’s Wikipedia page informs me, as well, that he is ‘known for’ soft paternalism and choice architecture: our old friend libertarian paternalism, advocated in Britain by Sunstein’s counterpart Julian le Grand:

The idea, dubbed “libertarian paternalism”, reverses the traditional government approach that requires individuals to opt in to healthy schemes. Instead, they would have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, by buying a smoking permit, choosing not to participate in the exercise hour or adding salt at the table.

By preserving individual choice, the approach could be defended against charges of a “nanny state,” he said. “Some people say this is paternalism squared. But at a fundamental level, you are not being made to do anything. It is not like banning something, it is not prohibition. It is a softer form of paternalism.”

Many of Sunstein’s publications appear to have equally sinister connotations:

  • Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech (1995)
  • Free Markets and Social Justice (1997)
  • The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever (2004)
  • Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (2005)
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008)

The ‘Second Bill of Rights’ of FDR, by the way, contains the right to education, a home, healthcare, etc: the so-called ‘positive’ rights between which and liberty Sunstein sees no distinction. And according to Wikipedia, another strike against the Tories:

Sunstein co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008) with economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. Thaler and Sunstein argue that

People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.

The ideas in the book proved popular with politicians such as Barack Obama, David Cameron, and the British Conservative Party in general (Cameron is party leader).

I can only assume that Sunstein’s proposed tax on objectionable views is an example of a ‘nudge’ node in his ‘choice architecture.’

Sunstein’s objection to the First Amendment comes as a result of his theory of ‘cyber balkanisation,’ in which growing use of the internet has isolated people from the opinions of those who do not share their views. In his book Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech, he argues:

…in light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.

From this it seems clear that Sunstein views freedom of speech not as an end in itself, but as a means to the pursuit of ‘political deliberation and citizenship’.

I would like to note that Sunstein’s calls to ban ‘conspiracy theories’ if necessary are wholly inconsistent with libertarian paternalism, involving as they do not a nudge but an outright prohibition. A tax seems more in agreement with his philosophy of choice architecture, requiring people to ‘opt out’ of not holding objectionable opinions. But one has to wonder: if there is no liberty without taxation, what are we to do about a tax that directly suppresses one of our fundamental freedoms? Is that liberty, too? Is not-liberty liberty?

All of which makes the NW LPUK blog’s opening that much more relevant:

As the LPUK has pointed out to British MPs, George Orwell’s novel 1984 is “…a warning, NOT a blueprint.”

War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength. Freedom is Slavery.

And a tax on freedom is liberty.

UPDATE: A different view of Cass Sunstein and conspiracy theories is presented at the Bleeding Heart Show. I particularly like this analysis:

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

I think this is almost certainly accurate. Reducing alienation, however, involves identifying its source and correcting it. A lot of the distance and distrust Americans have for the establishment, and probably Britons too, is a result of feeling that the establishment is unresponsive to their needs and wishes. Protests and petitions have, most of the time, little effect on what the government does (witness the Iraq war protests here in the UK in 2003 and 2004; millions marched but the armed forces were deployed after shockingly little debate in Parliament).

When elections are won by extremely narrow margins, or fought almost exclusively in swing states or marginal constituencies, that leaves many citizens feeling ignored or effectively disenfranchised. And, of course, everyone who voted for the losing candidate or party is going to feel alienated from the incoming winner. The British also have the EU to contend with, in which many positions of extraordinary power are unelected and, to a large extent, unaccountable. There is also the phenomenon wherein the winning candidate/party fails to fulfill its manifesto, and so even those citizens who supported them become disillusioned and distrustful.

In short, the solution for reducing alienation is more transparency in government and more democratic accountability. But to implement this solution requires that those with power in the establishment acquire a little humility and cease to act as if they believe they are smarter, wiser, and know what’s best for people. Unfortunately, ‘humble and willing to accept his own fallibility’ seems pretty much the complete opposite of Cass Sunstein, so I doubt this is a solution he, in his unelected, unaccountable power, will be pushing for anytime soon.

Jan 152010
 

A thoughtful post from Megan McArdle, in which she ponders Paul Krugman’s assertion that Paris, Frankfurt, and London don’t look poor (which, to be fair, in places they don’t):

But the standard of living in any given profession is much lower. Preserving London’s dazzling antique architecture has meant that most of the people I knew had much longer and more expensive commutes than their American counterparts would. They lived in smaller quarters that were hotter in summer and colder in winter. At any given professional level, you found British people doing things that only much poorer Americans would do, like bringing lunch, hanging their clothes to dry, or going without cable (though the Americans I knew said the cable wasn’t worth it anyway). People in Britain are not poor. But they have a noticeably lower standard of living than Americans do. If they were doing it in 1960’s vintage apartment buildings and tract homes, it would be quite obvious. When I lived there, I literally could not afford to eat meat regularly or take the tube to work, and as a consequence wore holes in my shoes. (In fairness, I was being paid in dollars and the exchange rate was awful–but I wasn’t the only one walking to save money.)

I don’t want to sound as if I’m saying Britain’s a terrible place–it’s lovely, and I miss it. But the amount that people are able to consume is much less than the amount Americans are able to consume, and many of the things they forego make real difference in things like personal comfort.

Leaving aside cable television (I also hear it’s not worth the money) and hanging the clothes to dry (most London flats are probably too small to contain a tumble dryer), on some levels I agree with McArdle, that Americans have in general more personal comfort than the average Londoner. Owning and operating a car is cheaper and more convenient in the US; utilities are cheaper, as are their installation; commutes are shorter for those living in cities with comparable public transport to London; houses and flats are generally cheaper; etc. And that’s only comparing cities to cities. Americans in the suburbs and out in the country pay even less for all of that stuff, and they have roomy houses with all mod cons and big lawns for children to play on.

But this is not to say that living in the US is idyllic. Even though the standard of living I’ve experienced in Britain is a bit lower than how it was in the US, there are certain trade-offs that mean I enjoy living here much more.

The rail network, though many Britons complain about it, is infinitely superior to what exists in the US. For my occasional journeys, I have no trouble getting where I want to go, and most of the time I get to do that travelling in a seat with a nice book. When I was commuting by train, I had the leisure of catching up on my marking with a cup of coffee, something I would never have been able to do if driving. I must also commend the London bus system and the Oyster Card.

High Streets (and their equivalents) are excellent, too. Being able to walk to the bank, the grocery store, the post office, and the corner shop is the height of convenience. I have never been able to do that anywhere I lived in the US; even when I lived in a small university town with a respectable sort of high street, the grocery store was miles away. Pubs, too, are fantastic. Most Americans have no access to anything like a pub; certainly few of them live within walking distance of a drinking establishment. Most of them have to drive if they want to go out for a drink; and in many states, if you want to drink at home, you have to purchase your booze at a state booze-purchasing place. Pennsylvania was particularly bad for this: beer could only be purchased in cases of 24 at the state beer store, and wine and spirits could only be purchased at the (separate, and sometimes all the way across town) state wine and spirits store.

Living spaces are smaller in Britain, of course, but this is not generally a problem for the childless, at least. And if few of your clothes can be put in the tumble dryer anyway, as is the case with mine, you really don’t notice the absence of the dryer.

I’m well aware that many people in London are far less well off than I am (when I’m working), and may have a very different perspective from mine, but quite often I also consider this: without the need for a car, or car insurance, or car payments, or gasoline, or health insurance payments, I already have more disposable income living in Britain. And when I consider as well that I actually pay a smaller proportion of my income in direct taxes here, then those small reductions in standard of living matter a great deal less.