Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


A Spirit Not Quite on the Level

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, published last year in the United Kingdom, has attracted a great deal of attention in Europe without yet being the subject of many debates in America.  Its thesis, that economic inequality is a bad thing, is not the freshest tomato on the shelf.  The book's claim on the attention of opinion makers is, rather, that the balefulness of inequality can be demonstrated statistically.  Comparing data from several nations, and then looking at differences in the 50 states of the U.S., Pickett and Wilkinson conclude that "large income inequalities within societies damage the social fabric and the quality of life for everyone."  That is, they find a strong, positive correlation between economic inequality and each affliction on a long list of social problems, including: illnesses, both physical and mental; drug abuse; violent crime, and teenagers' pregnancies.  These problems are so severe and extensive that even prosperous people in unequal societies would be better off after income redistribution, since they would enjoy their diminished but still considerable personal wealth in safer, healthier societies that were more congenial and harmonious.

Pickett and Wilkinson argue that more equal societies have greater cohesion and higher degrees of social trust, which helps lubricate all kinds of social, political and economic transactions.  In the website that accompanies their book, Pickett gives an interview in which she says:

As human beings, we're very sensitive to social relationships.  We have an evolved psychology that makes us very aware of how others judge us.  If you think about it, some of the most difficult things to do, or the most embarrassing situations we're in, are ones where others can judge us negatively....  If we're looking at societies where the social distances between people are bigger, as they are in more unequal societies, there's just much more potential for all of us to feel that we're judged negatively by others . . .

The goal of The Spirit Level, then, is to incorporate this non-judgmental sensitivity into a wide range of public policies and social practices.  Which makes it all the stranger that Pickett and Wilkinson, after responding to some books and newspaper articles criticizing their work, recently posted this peevish announcement on their website: "Almost all of the research presented and synthesised in The Spirit Level had previously been peer-reviewed, and is fully referenced therein.  In order to distinguish between well founded criticism and unsubstantiated claims made for political purposes, all future debate should take place in peer-reviewed publications."

As Brendan O'Neill points out, this new stipulation is dubious intellectually, since a lot of crap gets published in peer-reviewed journals while intelligent things show up in magazines, newspapers and even, occasionally, blogs.  Given Pickett and Wilkinson's ultimate objectives, however, what's really striking is how anomalous their position is politically.  They come across as notably callous about the psychological wounds they're inflicting on people who can't get their critiques of The Spirit Level into a peer-reviewed journal.  What could cripple one's self-esteem more lastingly than being snubbed by two of England's leading egalitarians?  Even the term "peer-reviewed" would echo comfortably in the halls of Versailles.  The peers of the realm of intellectual discourse get to decide who is fit to join their ranks, and who is unworthy even to talk with them.  Pickett and Wilkinson won't second-guess the judgments of those peers - their peers - and won't waste their time responding to the riff-raff who were sorted out during the vetting process.

As Pickett and Wilkinson's countryman Samuel Johnson said nearly three centuries ago, "Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves."
Categories > Economy

Ashbrook Center

Under Leisure

I am ten miles from Plymouth Notch having come through two days of a perfect ride during which the weather could not have been better. Isabella loves to ride, loves to stretch her legs as long as I can maintain a good posture in the saddle. I am sitting by the side of the road smoking and sipping coffee, smelling wildflowers that I can't identify and pine everywhere. I will be here through the weekend paying homage to Silent Cal and will be home by Tuesday.
Categories > Ashbrook Center


Signs and Wonders

In honor of the prospective double-dip recession, I made double-dip buttermilk fried chicken for dinner a couple nights ago.  Looks prescient.  (It was yummy, too.)  Another punk jobs report today: a net loss of 131,000 jobs, with job levels from previous months revised downward slightly.  

Meanwhile, taxes are scheduled to go up a lot on January 1, when the Bush tax cuts expire. So I note with interest a 2007 academic paper I have in my files that studied tax increases and concludes: 

"tax increases are highly contractionary. The effects are strongly significant, highly robust, and much larger than those obtained using broader measures of tax changes. The large effect stems in considerable part from a powerful negative effect of tax increases on investment... In terms of consequences, our results indicate that tax changes have very large effects on output. Our baseline specification suggests that an exogenous tax increase of one percent of GDP lowers real GDP by roughly three percent..."

The author: Christina Romer (along with her husband Paul Romer, also a UC Berkeley economist of substantial reputation), chair of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers.

Romer announced her resignation this morning.

Categories > Economy


The Objectively Lefty Press

One aspect of the Journolist controversy that bears noting is what it reveals about the mind of the Press.   For one, I found it interesting that Ryan Avent, now an editor at The Economist was a Journolister.  In one post about Governor Palin, he :

complained that Obama's supporters were missing a chance to attack. "If we were the GOP, we'd be taking this opportunity to shout long and loud how unprepared Palin is--'She doesn't even know what Fannie and Freddie are . . . . That's the difference in the game as played by us and by them.

When I subscribed to The Economist, I often found it interesting that their American coverage tended to lean to the Left, even as I found their European coverage more even-handed (at least on most issues).  Avent's presence on the list confirms my suspicion.  He was hired by like-minded folks, or to serve the same agenda.

Then there's Chuck Todd's lament.  He said:

"I am sure Ezra had good intentions when he created it, but I am offended the right is using this as a sledgehammer against those of us who don't practice activist journalism.

"Journolist was pretty offensive. Those of us who are mainstream journalists got mixed in with journalists with an agenda. Those folks who thought they were improving journalism are destroying the credibility of journalism.

"This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It's very depressing."

Todd was not on Journolis.  He is upset that the mere existence of Journolist will seem to confirm what conservatives have long been saying about the press.   What I find interesting is that Todd thinks it is relatively easy to distinguish advocates from journalists.   It seems to me that the the reason why the list grew to be so big is that it is often hard to tell the difference.  The trouble is not that good and well intentioned reporters like Todd are deliberately biased.  The trouble is that objectivity is impossible.  The key questions for journalists are what story to tell and how to tell it.  Does one begin a story about the war in Iraq with the body count (American or Iraqi?), with Saddam's tyranny? With government corruption?  With a story of good work by U.S. doctors there?  Etc. There's no objective way to answer that question.  It is a lie to pretend there is. 

Science does not tell us what is a fact or what facts to study.  That's, ultimately, a moral judgment.  And morals cannot be studied scientifically, at least not if we define science after the modern fashion.  One might even say that it is the belief, on one hand, that only modern science can give us truth and, on the other, that moral judgments can be made better by experts, trained with the modern scientific method that, combined with the abstract acknowledgment that science does not teach morals, that is the foundation of modern liberalism.

Categories > Journalism


Zinn's of Omission

To follow up my post a few days ago, I thought I should note Ron Radosh's comments on Howard Zinn's FBI file.  Radosh grew up in the world of American commnists, and has studied the Party's history closely, so he knows the turf.

So what is in these files? First, the FBI had evidence that Zinn was a member of the Communist Party of the United States, and lied about his membership when being interviewed by FBI agents. The first file on the subject appeared in March of 1949, when an informant noted "that he (ZINN) is a Communist Party member and attends meetings five days a week." Zinn was then employed by the American Labor Party, which itself gives credence to the informant's report. By that date, the ALP- created in the early forties to give NYC labor a left-wing ballot on which to vote for FDR-had been taken over lock, stock and barrel by the CP. It never would have hired non-Party members as full time employees.

Another informant described Zinn as a "person with some authority" in the CP group to which they belonged. Zinn, he said, taught a course for his comrades on "basic Marxism." On June 12, 1957 another informant told the Bureau that when he was transferred to the Williamsburgh branch of the Party in 1949, "HOWARD ZINN was already a member of that section." It was his impression that  "ZINN was not a new member, but had been in the CP for some time."

Zinn, however, denied he was a Communist when questioned by the FBI in 1953. It is important to note here that unlike those who testified before Congressional investigating committees, Zinn was not under oath. The reason Zinn denied his membership was the same as that for other  Communists. The Party instructed them not to, even when asked to testify before committees like HUAC. As some of the Hollywood Ten members revealed years after their own investigations, if they said they were Reds, that would only prove that the Red-baiters were right when they called them Communists! It would undermine their pose as good liberals, who were only taking pro-Soviet positions because they genuinely believed in them, not because it was the Party line.

Read the whole thing.  Radosh makes a strong case that it was Zinn, not the FBI's informants, who lied about Zinn's party membership.

Categories > History


Holiday Road

I'm going on a family road trip, so no blogging until the middle of next week.

Hail Marty Moose.

Categories > Leisure


The Ryan Plan As A Starting Point

The New York Times notes that House Republicans aren't exactly falling over themselves to campaign on the Ryan Roadmap.  I like Ryan.  He seems like the kind of politician who is more interested in principle than short-term political advantage.  His Roadmap (though perhaps not perfect) is an attempt to create a responsible and internally consistent program for solvency rather than cynical positioning.  I doubt most of the House Republicans who are refusing to sign up for the Roadmap are being idealistic.  Most are probably looking at the state of the economy and the generic ballot.  Why risk it all by signing up for a plan that includes major cuts to middle-class entitlements?  But the more cynical House Republicans might be right on this one.  The Ryan Roadmap is a good starting point for intraconservative conversations about how to restructure economic policy, but it should not be the official or semi-official policy agenda for the GOP in 2010 or 2012.  The Roadmap has several political flaws that make it dangerous, but that can be improved upon.

The first problem is that the Roadmap seems to raise taxes on the middle-class while cutting them on the rich.  this could hardly tee up the tax issue better for Democrats.  Having passed tax cuts for most and being in the process of raising taxes on high earners, the Democrats could play off a Republican plan that would do the opposite. The ads write themselves.  In this sense, Ryan's plan is worse than the tax plan that McCain ran on in 2008.  While McCain's plan didn't offer many positive policy changes to most people in the middle-class, at least it didn't offer a tax increase.  An alternative to the Ryan tax plan would be a policy that cut taxes on investment and most middle-class families while raising taxes on some high earners (but to no more than 35% of their income.)

A second problem with the Ryan Roadmap is its approach to health care reform.  The Roadmap's tax treatment of health insurance would destroy the current system of employer provided health insurance and throw tens of millions into the individual health insurance market.  The theory is that this new class of health care consumers who will be spending more of their own dollars on health care will put pressure on health care providers to bring down costs.  I'm down with the theory, but I can see why most people might disagree.  You would lose your employer-provided coverage that is worth x number of dollars and be given a tax credit smaller than the value of your current insurance.  So either you buy "inferior" coverage or you pay more for the same level of coverage.  Or maybe you both pay more and get less.  This is a liberal demagogue's dream.  Supporters of the Roadmap's approach might argue that structural changes in the market will bring down costs for the individual, and that cheap, renewable, and individually owned health care policies will increase your health security (since you would keep them if you changed jobs),  and that health care costs off your employer's books will increase your take home pay.  The problem is that all the benefits are speculative and the downside risk seem enormous.  One of the most important strategies to achieving market-oriented health care reform will involve crafting a series of incremental policies that show demonstrable benefits to subgroups without forcing the mass of Americans into a terrifying leap.  This mean creating choices for people who might want to trade less coverage for more take home pay or more disposable income.  The successes (hopefully) of those subgroups could then be used as arguments in favor of more comprehensive reforms.  

I'm glad that Ryan is out there selling his approach.  The more people who know about his idea the better, but there is no one right and politic answer when it comes to health care policy.  Here are some suggested policies that individual Republicans might run on (aside from the obvious and worthwhile ones on which there is already a Republican consensus like repeal Obamacare, tort reform ad interstate purchasing):

1.  Add a market-based option for Medicaid clients based on Mitch Daniels' Healthy Indiana Plan.  This would require tinkering with the funding mechanism for Medicaid and would have to make state acceptance of Medicaid funds conditional on removing coverage mandates that might make such a plan illegal in that state.  It would also tend to encourage states to liberalize their insurance markets.

2.  Add an HSA/catastrophic coverage plan modeled on the Mitch Daniels plan for Indiana state employees to the health insurance options available to federal employees.   

3. Invest in better designed and better funded reinsurance pools for those with preexisting conditions..      

Categories > Politics


What Went Wrong with Obama, Part 10,389

With Obama's approval rating sitting at about 45 percent according to the latest RCP average, and the Missouri landslide vote against Obamacare yesterday, expect more and more of the media chin-pullers to be dumping on the guy as much as the NLT community.  Jay Cost has a typically interesting piece (because it's quantitative and qualitative) up at RCP reflecting on Obama's mistaken grand strategy.  I especially agree with this portion toward the end:

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest. This is precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1995 and 2000, and it is what the President's promises of "post-partisanship" suggested.

Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters - who have abandoned the President in droves - might still be on board.

Categories > Politics


Keeping Cool in DC

Schramm and I made a whirwlind visit to DC yesterday to attend the official presentation to the Library of Congress of Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together, a collection of essays about Coolidge's continuing relevance for modern politics.  It's a worthwhile collection, with pieces by Amity Shlaes, Burt Folsom, Alvin Felzenberg, Robert Ferrell, Ward Connerly, John Kerry, and others, including Schramm and me.  It's available on Amazon.  The presentation featured a good talk by James H. Douglas, governor of Vermont--who, I was surprised to learn, is a Republican.

We met some worthy folks, including Coolidge's oldest great-grandson and several individuals from the Calvin Coolidge Memoral Foundation, several of whom, Schramm was delighted to learn, are motorcyle aficionados. 

The book has an endorsement on the back cover from a certain former governor of Massachusetts, leading a friend to quip, "A book about why someone matters, with a recommendation from Michael Dukakis? Anyone else see the irony in this?"

Categories > History

Pop Culture

The Politics of Culture

The Sage of Mt. Airy argues that the wearing of a burqa must be taken as a political statement.  Citing Claire Berlinski

Because this is our culture, and in our culture, we do not veil. We do not veil because we do not believe that God demands this of women or even desires it; nor do we believe that unveiled women are whores, nor do we believe they deserve social censure, harassment, or rape. Our culture's position on these questions is morally superior. We have every right, indeed an obligation, to ensure that our more enlightened conception of women and their proper role in society prevails in any cultural conflict, particularly one on Western soil.

Obama sees this differently ("[F]reedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion.  That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders.  That's why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.")

By the way, the Sage defends himself (and other residents of Mt. Airy) against this fiasco

On another cultural matter, baseball season brought out these Mexican flag-waving exhibitionists.  (The great counterpoint remains this Rick Monday play, during an even worse era.)   Pitching star Fernando Valenzuela made his debut, to the waving of Mexican flags in Dodger Stadium, in honor of his nationality.  I don't recall anyone taking offense, and no one should have.  When other nations of the world add to this country, that's one thing.  When they seek to subvert its core principles, that's another, whether it is done by a foreigner or by the president of the United States.  

Categories > Pop Culture


The Economy

Victor David Hanson gives a report from the field.
Categories > Economy


What Does Too Conservative Even Mean?

This Jonathan Rauch article has been making the rounds.  Rauch argues that the Tea Parties (which he usefully links to the phenomenon of conservative independents who operate as "debranded Republicans") are providing Republicans with a short-term jolt of energy, and a highly motivated voting base, but threatening to pull the Republican Party too far right for the long-term health of the party.  Rauch argues that these conservative independents are highly ideological and will abandon the party if it seems to be adopting policies aimed at winning over swing voters.  So the Republicans will face the lose/lose choice of either losing a large segment of its voting base or turning off swing voters. 

I'm not sure that is true.  For one thing, I'm not sure that conservative independents are moving the Republican Party in a more conservative direction - well not exactly.  I believe they might be moving the party in an identity politics direction in which the identity is "real conservative", but where the policy implications are hazy. 

Sharron Angle, with her talk of privatizing Social Security and Medicare and using "Second Amendment remedies" if her side loses, seems to be the ideal example for what happens when the Republican Party goes too far right.  But I'm not sure how much her distinctive opinions on the issues helped her win the nomination.  She seems to have won primarily by constructing an identity as the authentic, insurgent conservative rather than the servant of any political establishment. 

She didn't do this by highlighting any positions that would be clearly alienating to the majority. She didn't campaign on denying abortions to victims of incestuous rape or cutting off grandpa's Social Security check.  Looking at her television ads during the primary (I went on YouTube and might have missed some) I was struck by how identitarian they are.  They are almost entirely about how Angle in a "true conservative" and  "one of us."  It isn't that ideological appeals are completely absent, but they consist of "limited government, lower taxes, more freedom, reduce government" blah blah you hear from every Republican to the right of Scott Brown, and contain no explanation about how those principles would be applied to the real world.  When it came to the issues she emphasized in the campaign, Angle wasn't any more conservative than Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan.  When she was called out for her comments about privatizing Social Security and Medicare, she talked about how she supported the Ryan Roadmap.

In one sense Angle seems incredibly inarticulate, but she mastered a way of talking to an audience that considers itself conservative, is familiar with certain buzzwords, and is alienated from the Republican establishment.  The details of how or if private accounts are introduced into Social Security are less important than that the candidate be someone who will stay "one of us."  She didn't win a contest of policy or principle.  She won a contest of authenticity.  Her "Second Amendment remedies" comment can at least partly be explained not as a threat of violence, but as a hyperbolic gesture of solidarity.  The problem is that the candidate best positioned to win the conservative authenticity derby, isn't necessarily the candidate best able to speak intelligibly to people who don't self-identify as conservative.  Most people don't care if you are a real conservative and to the tens and tens of millions of Americans who don't consume much right-leaning media, many of the stock phrases drawn from the right-leaning media are either meaningless or vaguely threatening.  It isn't that these people disagree with this or that policy (though they might.)  It is that they don't know what the heck you are talking about.

Rauch presents a seeming dilemma.  The Republicans can move "right" and lose swing voters or move left and lose large numbers of conservative independents.  It is not obvious that there is a potential Republican majority without both groups.  The problem seems greatest when it is in its most abstract form.  Our current version of conservative identity politics can be a problem, but the problem is not that it is too ideological, but that it is that it is too identity-driven.  The best answer consists in finding ways of applying ideas like limited government, free markets, etc. to particular situations.  The challenge would then be to explain to self-identified conservatives how specific policies were drawn from conservative principles (free markets, greater family stability, etc.) and explain to swing voters how those policies will produce tangible benefits - and maybe increase the appeal of conservative politics in the process.       


Categories > Politics

Shameless Self-Promotion

Coolidge Matters

John Moser and I are hightailing it to the Mumford Room, James Madison Building, Library of Congress, for tomorrow's unveiling of the book Why Coolidge Matters: How Civility in Politics Can Bring a Nation Together.  Each of us contributed a chapter; see more about the book here.  The event is at noon, if you are in the area, do come by.


The Wilderness of Zinn

Yes, Virginia, Howard Zinn was a communist.  More evidence that we should be leary of those who think his People's History of the United States is the best and most important book to read about U.S. history.  Zinn was not interested in telling the whole truth about U.S. history. He was, as far as I can tell, interested primarily in reporting only those facts which helped his indictment of America, and reporting them in a way that helped advance his agenda.

Categories > History


The Art of War

Front-page WaPo article on the Pentagon portrait of General Peter Pace, former JCS Chairman, presents some basics about portrait painting.  Contrast his portrait with that of some famous contemporaries. 
Categories > Military

The Founding

The Crisis Affords an Opportunity

WaPo notes the attraction of Colonial Willliamsburg for Tea Party adherents and other anti-liberals who are inspired by the Constitution and seek guidance from the founding.  Obviously, they won't find what they are seeking in historical exhibits, however well done.  Of course, the Federalist Papers and other founding documents are on-line, but they require mentors for more than a superficial understanding.  Popularly written commentaries, websites, and media appearances can help, but nothing replaces an inspiring teacher.

Why not a consortium of trusted, thoughtful conservatives who can teach the founding to thirsty citizens?  The project will need to extend to every major and medium population center and require years of involvement.  The Ashbrook Center, Hillsdale College, and the Claremont Institute can offer resources, and numerous other think-tanks and scholarly centers can contribute to these "Committees of Correspondence" as well.   Maybe these fine institutions should just continue doing what they have been doing and not adjust their programs to the instant situation.  But it would be a shame to waste this constitutonal crisis.

Categories > The Founding


More Contrarianism

Another contrarian article about the oil spill out today from AOL.  Plus, don't miss Charles Lane in, writing on the silliness of electric car subsidies, something I've commented upon before.  Cheers.
Categories > Environment