Monday, July 31, 2006

"Politics is Identity"

St. Yglesias speaks!
I think heterodoxy is great. Which is to say that I have a certain number of more-or-less heterodox views -- about the death penalty, about affirmative action, about gun control, about education, etc. -- and I think those views are great. But in virtue of my thinking those views are great, what I actually want is to convince people to adopt my views, which is natural. Being heterodox is a bad thing, not because everyone should conform to the prevailing orthodoxy but because if you're heterodox it means your side is losing the argument -- the goal is to turn your heterodox views into the new orthodoxy. Thus, I find a lot of this liberal hawk special pleading on behalf of Joe Lieberman a bit disingenuous.

I mean, back in the day (circa spring 2003) when liberal hawks were riding high was there a big move afoot to ensure that a robust dovish faction remained in the Democratic Party for the sake of serving the higher goals of diversity and heterodoxy? Of course not -- that would have been silly. The idea was to remake the party in their image.
The thing that has really been bothering me about the way the Lamont/Lieberman debate has developed is the fact that one side doesn't really see the debate as legitamite. If they did Anti-Lamont forces would debate policies and ideas for the future of the party. Instead you have a bunch of people who won't dare defend Lieberman on his merits attacking the opposition on essentially procedural grounds.

Since primary challenges are a long-established legal part of our government this has lead to some... "interesting" arguements. The lamest and most popular is the heterodoxy argument stated above. But that's well worn. In the NY Times, instead of arguing that Connecticut should vote for Leiberman becuase he represents their views David Brooks argues that the fact that "[Lieberman] is transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men". I seen people argue that the Lamont challenge is not legitamite becuase he's being funded by out of state blogger. It would be a half-way decent point too, if Lieberman wasn't getting a larger percetage of out of state funding (74%!) than his challenger.

Jon Chait wrote a piece at the begining of this whole affair that while wrong is at least honest:
In the end, though, I can't quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What's holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman's sins. It's a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent.
I think this get's right down to it. They don't like Lieberman but they really don't like the left-wing. It's called "irrational fear of hippies". Ezra extrapolates on this: "Politics is identity" he says, and the political identity of many of these Anti-Lamonter's is defined by opposition to outsiders. They arose in opposition to the New Left and when faced with a totally new paradigm (what we might call "Netroots") they find themselves unable to distinguish the difference. Of course they see Kos as the harbinger of fascism: he doesn't like TNR, right? Everyone who's not us is the same.

In a round-about way Chait hints at a debate on the merits of the two candidates... sort of:
Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.
It seems some Anti-Lamonter at least are honest about the task before them even if they don't want to undertake it. After all, to convince people that we shouldn't try to "intimidate other hawkish Democrats" it helps if you argue that Hawkish Democrats are right on the merits.

Identity politcs is destructive though a fair amount will always be with us. Certainly there are many on the Pro-Lamont side who are just as petty. However, we should never duck a debate especially one as important the the future of the Democratic party as this one.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Federalism is good for Liberals

Reasons that I think Federalism is good for Liberals:

1. It’s more Democratic.
I’m not someone who believes that more Democracy is automatically a goal in itself. But on the whole, and certainly in my own world, I have to believe that more representation and a greater level of accountability is preferable. Congress is particularly bad. Gerrymandered, representing often hundreds of thousands of people, they listen out of necessity to lobbyists and special interests. The State and Local level are far better avenues for representation and accountability. Most Liberals tend to agree that local = accountable & democratic = good.

2. It force Liberals to get serious
The past twenty years saw a dramatic withering in the rhetorical power of Liberalism and Democrats. Democrats could depend on an ironclad majority in Congress that seemed impregnable; why care about State Governments or the South when the majority is secured? Liberal interest groups grew an unhealthy reliance on the Judiciary. Even twelve years after Republicans took over the house, the Democrats struggle to GOTV.

Only very recently have Liberals, such as Dean, realized that politics is about winning every race – state, local, federal. That a majority in Congress comes from a majority of the people. That meant a long, hard road of relearning how to talk to the red states. Federalism encourages that process by re-engaging liberalism with the lost states and people that have a lot to gain from social moderation and economic liberalism.

3. It’s Tactically safer
I reached political awareness after 1994. Thus, my image of liberalism has been decline and defeat, with only occasional oases of safety and marginal victories. My goal is to preserve and protect what we have gained, even if it necessarily limits what can be done in the future. A perfect methodology is to appropriate the same strategy Conservatives used to protect their way of life – devolve political power to the States and Localities. California will be free to institute gay marriage, protect abortion, and even institute stronger health policies. We may even see the day where Federalism is the thin wedge used to break free from draconian drug laws and nonsensical immigration policies.

4. It’s more in line with the Constitution
The design of the Constitution never intended the current level of political power to be concentrated in one body. It was intended to be considerably diffused among the states, localities, and nationally. The result of political concentration has been poor management by Congress, a hyper-struggle over power within the nation, and a winner-take-all system. Not to mention considerable debt. A weaker Congress will be able to deal more efficiently with specific areas, while the States can deal with areas of their own competence. In addition, a failure by one state to act intelligently won’t really damage the other 49.

5. A Thousand Flowers…
Liberalism is partially about the willingness to experiment, to grow as a country. To try out different programs and ideas to combat a list of social problems. Often, this is best accomplished not by one massive, all-or-nothing program, but by an iterative series of experiments. States learn from other states. Good programs are emulated, bad ones ditched. This kind of low-risk, high-reward system is only possible with the growing commitment of political issues to states.

While The Poor People Sleepin'...

Noted without comment:
The growth of employee compensation, already thought to be the slowest in any post-World War II recovery, has been even weaker than previously assumed, the Commerce Department said Friday.


Wages grew at a 1.8% real annual pace, revised from 2.2% earlier. With the workforce growing about 1.3% per year, real wages per worker were up about 0.5% per year, about half the previous estimate.


In the political sphere, Democrats have argued that the booming economy of the past four years has not benefited everyone equally. The incomes of the vast majority who labor to earn their livelihoods have been stagnant while those who let their money work for them have prospered.

Republicans have countered that the strong economy has been creating enough jobs to drive the unemployment rate down to 4.6%. Lower taxes have increased take-home pay, they say, and barriers to entrepreneurship and risk-taking have been reduced.

The new figures bolster the Democrats' side. Wages were stagnant, but income from assets rose even faster than previously believed.

While income from labor was revised lower by a total of $115.8 billion over the three years, income from owning capital was revised higher by a total of $139.9 billion.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Upgraded look and feel

Please complain if there's anything missing. I don't have any graphics programs on my computer so the background image of money isn't translucent like I'd want it to be. if anyone has a second please download it and lighten it for me. I can upload it where it can be used (and if you want maybe you can shrink it too).

Anyhow, there you go.

Update: Thanks Eric for being the first to get my the lighter image!

He Earned His Hormones Fair And Square

I'm not a sports person, but sports do provide plenty of opportunities to examine our ideas of justice, fairness, and desert. So, springboarding off of my earlier post on the doping charges being leveled against Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, I want to talk (read: gripe) a little bit about the way we typically think about deserving something.

Landis's defense:
Sounding more defiant than the day before, eyes flashing and voice steady, Floyd Landis looked into the cameras Friday and said he would prove he "deserved to win" the Tour de France.

In his first public appearance since a urine test showing a testosterone imbalance cast his title into doubt, the American said his body's natural metabolism - not doping of any kind - caused the result, and that he would soon have the test results to prove it.

What difference, exactly, does it make whether Landis's high levels of testosterone are the result of a regimen of drugs or just a natural fact of his physiology? Insofar as higher levels of testosterone give Landis an advantage over his competitors, it seems like those levels are unfair and undeserved. What makes Landis so special that facts about his physiology totally beyond his control make him "deserve" anything at all? That testosterone didn't literally fall out of the sky...but it might as well have.

Now, in the case of sports, you can sort of wave this talk away as pointlessly academic because, after all, you can just treat sports as ways of evaluating whose natural physiology is best suited to such-and-such activities. That works because the outcome of a game is just precisely insofar as the winner has abided by the rules. (This is part of the reason I find sports so inconsequential and, therefore, boring.)

Most of the rest of the world isn't like that; the outcome of an event typically has implications for the welfare of at least one person. Frequently, as in the case of many government activities, the outcome has very significant implications for the well-being of many individuals. In terms of the concept of "desert", though, the analogy to sports survives entirely intact.

We tend to think things like, "Mr. Jones earned his money because he's a smart, capable, hard-working individual. He deserves the things he has." And once we tie an asset (e.g., money) to the idea of desert, we become increasingly disinclined to see that asset redistributed. "What did that poor person do to deserve Mr. Jones's money?"

Well, nothing. That poor person certainly didn't earn Mr. Jones's money. But, then, neither did Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones didn't earn his intelligence or his capability. For that matter, he didn't earn his work ethic, either. Those are all characteristics that are inherited through genes or sculpted by external forces. Nobody chooses to be hard-working, at least not ultimately. Such a choice, in any event, is itself going to be the result of entirely accidental facts about one's physiology or environment. To put it another way, you can't choose to choose to be hard-working.

Desert, as a concept, often plays a very useful role because it inclines us to set up institutions that allow for very large degrees of autonomy and privacy. At the margins, though, we run into cases in which by infringing upon the demands of the concept of desert we can create a situation that is, on balance, more just. In such cases it's useful to remember that desert is a useful idea, but not an intrinsically valuable one.

P.S. - There is an unfortunate use of the word "desert" that allows us to say things like, "All people deserve to be treated with respect." I think those statements are true, but they seem to use a somewhat different definition of "desert" - one less tied up with the idea of "earning" something - than the one I'm referring to above.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Blogging is stupid

I'm sick of Bloggers.

They're narrowminded, either arrogant, temperamental, or both, self-aggrandizing ego maniacs with self-esteem issues. If they aren't putting on a transparent-thin shell of openmindedness to 'welcome dialogue from opposing sides,' they're nitpicking endlessly at language choices and erecting straw men composed of two straws and a narrow reed.

Listing their sins is tedious. The insistence on scanning endlessly for 'bias' in newspapers, or worse, fellow bloggers, as if anyone still cares about the myth of impartiality. The dependence on smug, short items with an unfunny, snarky comment. Especially arguing, endlessly, over definitions like 'Liberalism', as if the political future of America depends on what goes into Webster's. I have no idea why media types persist in treating them as important, original thinkers. Invariably they are clearinghouses of herd-like opinion, spearheads of the likeminded with all the autonomy of an actual weapon. After all, originalism is not rewarded with hits.

That being said, I do think that, in the aggregate, they have a positive effect. Back out from the dross and vapid opinion of the individual blogger, or even the group. What bloggers have achieved as an aggregate is worth saving.

First, they've removed all elements of pretension from the wider world. Pretension is too expensive, these days. It's rigorously mocked and derided by whatever side is the enemy of the speaker. Public figures, and especially the broader media, may be able to escape to some extent behind a bland wall of verbal buck-passing. But overall they are highly conscious of a higher level of scrutiny for intellectual consistency, honesty, and lack of arrogance.

It's like a honing process, a survival of the fittest. The arguments have to be topnotch, the presentation and message superb, to survive the relentless internecine blood war of bloggers. Hence the cram-like work by Liberals to achieve the intellectual coherency and on-message focus that Conservatives achieved some time before. Whereas Conservatives once owned the blogging wars, and hence the media, smart Liberals survived, and fought back.

You can see it also in the dramatic reduction of easy Liberal targets. You don't get many Ward Churchills, these days, or dumb Leftist Professors make soft comparisons to Hitler. The spotlight is on, and everyone is feeling the heat.

Second, there is some level of an asymptotic arrival at the truth. It's like the iteration of a wikipedia page. Certainly there is no hope of either side backing down an inch from their prepared positions. But outside observers can glean the essential truths and unrebutted arguments from the pages of text. It's like the position of the jury after two teams of attorneys have attacked the evidence. What is left, in a way, represents the unvarnished truth, simply because varnished truth would be swiftly attacked.

Finally, for now, it does a good job of being democratic, small d. Within each of the camps, conservative and liberal, there is the big tent. They have arrived at similar viewpoints, usually nearly identical, but they come from all walks of life, and that comes out in how they arrive at similar conclusions. And while the two camps hate each other, it is impossible to be totally unaware of the other. They depend on each other for material and arguments. While someone watching Fox News could be blissfully unaware of the other side, reading Conservative blogs will lead you to Daily Kos, if only through a link to 'morons strike again.'

It's terrible what blogging does to an individual person. They become caricatures of themselves, unable to grow, creatures of reflex. But at least there are positive effects on the big scale.

Three Second Memory

Everybody knows that goldfish are stupid. The irrefutable evidence lies in their (perhaps somewhat mythological) habit of eating any food that's put into their bowls, even to the point of bloating their little golden tummies to death.

Humans, on the hand, are geniuses. The evidence lies in our big brains, big tools, and resulting domination over a big planet.

Thus it's confusing when such smart creatures mimic brainless ones. Take our Senate's passage of a bill that expands oil drilling in the Gulf Coast, rhetorically supported in large part as a way combat continually rising fuel prices. There are many fascinating aspects of this bill - for example, that if turned into law, some of the dividends from the extracted oil and natural gas would be given to the nearby states instead of only to the federal government; or that certain congresspeople who normally support drilling would suddenly oppose drilling if their states wouldn't benefit financially from this bill; or, even more interestingly, that legislators who normally oppose drilling would consider supporting this bill if their states weren't negatively affected.

But I'm not here to point out senators' internal inconsistencies; that's Garry Trudeau's job. I'm here to call humans stupid. Why else would we think the long-term solution to oil dependency was to continue sucking oil out of the earth faster than it is replenished? Why else would so much more money be dumped into finding new places to drill oil than into finding alternatives to oil?

Because we're goldfish. We like to consume, and no whiney long-haired hippie with speeches about the planet's mother spirit, nor any scientist with tales of woe about distant, abstract concepts of resource depletion will dissuade us from consuming. There's nothing unnatural about this; unfortunately, though, there's nothing natural about drilling for oil.

I would like one day to devise the perfect campaign to encourage environmentalism and conservation in the developed and developing worlds. I imagine it will involve reminders about how our grandchildren will inherit our world and our mistakes, and how attractive things like redwoods and tigers should be preserved so we can continue to enjoy them. This is not my ideal message, but it seems so far to be the most effective.

In the meantime, the environmentalists will continue to operate as a disjointed, misrepresented, maligned faction of society, and Ted Stevens will continue to be an idiot.


If this ends up being confirmed, one can only imagine that the blow to American illusions about international athletic dominance could stagger Congress into doing something legislative about drug use in sports generally. (In addition to spawning all manner of weepy, over-wrought stories about how "Lance never did that".)

So right now let me just go on the record as saying that, as far as I can tell, the only real issue with performance-enhancing drugs in sports is that actual sports leagues almost never have consistently enforced policies themselves. Congress really shouldn't be part of the puzzle. Whether the International Cycling Union (or MLB, etc.) should ban doping is entirely a function of what sorts of rules the ICU and its fans would like to see established. I don't know much about the ICU, but my impression of MLB, for instance, is that the league doesn't really object to doping - it probably makes the games more exciting, which, for baseball, is an accomplishment - but they don't want to come out and make doping formally allowed. And that is probably a function of Congress's righteous indignation whenever the subject comes up.

I gather that the politics of the Tour de France are somewhat different, and more nationalistic, in nature, but the basic problem of inconsistent enforcement (Landis appears to have failed his drug test three days before he won the race) seems to remain.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fortunately For Me, I Don't Care

Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Alan Miron responds to the Senate's abortion vote on Tuesday this way:
Abortion is an issue where imposing one policy on the entire country is disastrous. There are passionately held positions at both ends of the spectrum, yet most of the population falls squarely in the middle. Imposing policy at the federal level generates polarization and acriminony that is desctructive of a civil society. Leaving abortion policy to the states allows for different outcomes in different places, which means a broad fraction of the population can feel its views have at least been heard.
That's all fine, I guess, provided that you have no substantive moral or political views on abortion itself. Yes, the majority of the population "falls squarely in the middle" of the debate, but that majority consists of individuals, each of whom has his or her own preferred set of abortion laws. The catch is that it's unlikely that any of those individuals actually believes that abortion ought to have a different legal status in each state; it's much more likely they each think that each state ought to enact his or her preferred set of abortion laws.

This is a basic case of the fallacy of division. The mistake is thinking that because the collective opinion of the majority is muddled that the opinion of each individual member of the majority is similarly muddled.

It's not that there's nothing whatever to this compromise business, it's just that it's kind of a cop-out of the actual ethical question to just cut straight through to the compromise. There's no question that life is easier if you haven't got moral beliefs, or refuse to let them enter into the picture, so I can see the appeal of trying to abstract away from people's differing views. The fact, however, is that most people do have such moral beliefs and it's rarely productive or wise to act as if they don't or that they won't be important.

School choice that doesn't screw over the poor

Via Political Animal:
Harry [Brighouse from Crooked Timber] passes along an idea from Julian Betts about a market-like system in which schools have a fixed pot of money to bid for students:

Betts suggests this: first fund the schools equally on a per-student basis. Then distribute trade-able rights to admit highly advantaged students; and allow schools to auction those rights. Schools would then be forced to figure out how much they valued the money they were spending relative to the highly advantaged children they wanted. We don’t know what the outcome would be. At one end of the spectrum you’d have schools with high concentrations of advantage and not much money; at the other end of the spectrum high concentrations of disadvantage and loads of money. It would probably take a few years for administrators to work out what the real costs of disadvantaged children were; but they would have a powerful incentive to work it out.

Schools would have the right to accept the students they wanted, but good schools would end up with very strong financial incentives to accept poor students and bad schools would end up with plenty of money to use to attract better students (as well as to buy more books and hire better teachers).

This is weird becuase I was suggesting the same idea to my girlfriend who works at the Oakland Unified School District teaching the difficult kids (they're not stupid, they're just jerks). At the time I noted a couple problems with the idea which Harry assures us Betts deals with. A couple issues off the top of my head: How do we decide who is a "highly advantaged student"? Is this decided by the school? How would we stop rural schools with little competition from gaming the system?

Monday, July 24, 2006

OK, I'll get down to business.

The Conservative Nanny State by Dean Baker. Here's my damn review:

I read this book becuase it came on good recomendation and it was free to download and cheap to buy. The promise of the original review was that it was chock full of new ideas and I'd say that at first I was expecting "new ideas" to mean "new policy proposals". The book does indeed have that but more importantly it has genuinely interesting new ways to think about things.

But before I get to that I want to talk about my expectations. I was expecting to hear yet another tirade about conservatives and how their policies are bad. Baker obviously thinks that, but doesn’t seem interested in proving conservative policy is bad. Instead, he merely wants to show that conservative arguments for those policies are bad.

Take for example copyrights and patents. He argues that if we accept that protectionism is bad because it distorts the market then we must accept that Intellectual property rights in general are bad since they distort the market far more. Now, obviously all good liberals like you and I know why this line of reasoning is oversimplified: we have to distort the market to encourage innovation. I wondered why Baker didn’t see fit to tackle this argument but then it finally hit me like the last 5 minutes of a M. Night Shyamalan` movie: He’s trying to force conservatives to argue for their policies on liberal grounds. Whoa! Also, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time.

This trick of arguing against the argument instead of the thing itself would be a neat parlor trick on it’s own but here Baker does it for a purpose: Once he’s forced you onto liberal ground he sucker punches you with some far out new ways of thinking about things. In the case of IP this is rather straightforward: Baker is an economist and so he’s come up with some alternatives to the copyright system which should be reasonably familiar with anyone who reads the liberal blogs (vouchers?!). He gives the subject a more thorough treatment than I’ve seen elsewhere.

But he talks about a lot more than IP. Here’s a novel argument against conservative complaints of “double taxation” of corporate profits: since the limited liability of a corporation is a product of big government, big government can charge whatever it sees fit for the privilege. If would-be corporate owners don’t like the terms they can just form a partnership without government involvement.

Or how about free-trade agreements: if we were really concerned about making the economy more efficient through trade we’d focus on the places where trade with other countries would help the most. Currently, this isn’t cheap mass-produced goods, but middle-class professions specifically doctors.

But these aren’t airy-fairy musings on Baker’s part, he has actual policy proposals: for the last example, an international standard for doctors that would allow qualifying doctors to practice in any country signing the agreement. For dealing with white-collar tax cheets: automatically deduct taxes from transactions just like we do for wages. To help make taxes more progressive: start taxing internet transactions. Tax fund transactions. And – Gasp – try to fid a better way to hold down inflation besides having the FED put a bunch of poor people out of work.

Anyhow, you should really read the book. With a price of $0 and a breezy 100 pages there’s really no excuse.

Sunday's Best

OK, what you have to understand is that I'm recovering from a tonsillectomy, which involves a lot of sitting around trying to keep yourself entertained despite only being able to eat foods of a certain consistency and not being able to leave the apartment. It therefore seemed not entirely unreasonable, at the time, for me to be watching Brit Hume interview Dennis Hastert on Fox News on Sunday. I mean, I'm getting kind of desperate.

Anyway, when the conversation turned to Iraq we got this exchange, which I thought was so good I'd never be able to find the transcript:
Hume: The Iraq war looks like a drag. You've got Congressman Gutknecht, Congressman Shays saying that this is going badly...How do you think it's going?

Hastert: I think it's not going as well as I would like to see it go. But as soon as you get the — between the Shiites and the Sunnis — that strife settled, I think we can move forward. I think there is a foreign influence there that's disruptive and I think that's getting shut down. (Emphasis added)

Being on the brink of success has never been so terrifying.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


A new blog and a fresh begining. I just finished reading "The Conservative Nanny State" and I'll be reviewing it shortly. Also, I saw a turtle earlier today.