Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Founding

Thanksgiving, Churchill 1944

A friend sent along these few words from Churchill.  It's good as is, and a wonder to hear the great man speak of our day of gratitude.  Just another reminder that all we behold is full of blessings.
Happy Thanksgiving.
Categories > The Founding


Supercommittee Ends; Superelection Begins

"Retrospective determinism" is the term historians use to caution against the mistake of treating the fact that something did happen as proof that it had to happen. Don't forget, in other words, that the chain of events leading to a particular denouement included choices and contingencies, many of which could have gone this way rather than that way, possibly altering the final outcome.

Sometimes, though, it really is hard to see how events could have turned out differently. Congressional and White House negotiators spent the summer trying to come up with a "grand bargain" to, in the short term, raise the debt ceiling and, over the coming decade, make the national debt a shrinking portion, not a growing one, of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. They couldn't strike that deal, so they agreed to raise the debt ceiling, in stages, by $2.1 trillion over the coming year. In exchange, the deal met the demand by the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that every dollar by which the debt ceiling was increased be matched by a dollar of deficit reduction. 

The August 2011 agreement specified cuts in spending to many, though not all, federal programs.  Additional deficit cuts would either happen automatically, if Congress did nothing, or according to the plans devised by a congressional "supercommittee" that was evenly divided in every way: six members of the House, three from each party; and six senators, three from each party. If the supercommittee came up with a plan that reduced the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion, Congress could vote it up or down - but not amend it - and the president could sign or veto the law if Congress passed it.

The failure of the supercommittee, confirmed this week, was foreordained in the sense that the overlap between the list of all the deficit plans congressional Democrats could agree to, and all the plans Republicans could agree to, turned out to be a null set. There was, most fundamentally, no way to split the difference between the Democrats' insistence that any deficit reduction plan had to include some tax increases and the Republicans' insistence that no tax increase could be part of the plan.

The supercommittee's failure to agree on a deal that the full Congress could vote on means that the automatic cuts agreed upon in August are supposed to take effect in 2013. The structure of those cuts was designed to be unpleasant enough that the supercommittee members would have real incentives to come up with a bipartisan plan. At the same time they reflected how each party thinks about what its highest priority does and does not include.

The automatic cuts will affect a lot of federal discretionary spending, but not such big safety net programs as Social Security and Medicaid. Democrats give highest priority to the entitlement programs for two reasons, one political, the other psychological. The political reason is that it's easy to rally voters, especially older ones, against the threat of cuts to these programs. The psychological one is that Democrats regard these programs as their party's most glorious achievements in the 20th century. To acquiesce in curtailing or restructuring them would put a question mark where Democrats want an exclamation point. The problem with protecting entitlements at all costs, however, is that those costs will eventually include some discretionary domestic programs that Democrats believe are vital to the nation's well-being, as Mark Schmitt has argued

The gamble in setting up the supercommittee was that at least some Democrats would be be so opposed to those domestic cuts that they would vote for entitlement reductions as the lesser of two evils. That's not what happened. The other part of the gamble was that Republicans would be so opposed to automatic cuts in defense spending over the coming decade that they would vote for tax increases as the lesser of two evils. That didn't happen, either. As Peter Beinart contended, Republicans have reached the point where national security concerns have been subordinated to the mission of limiting government and holding the line against tax increases. 

That Congress was amenable to serious cuts in discretionary spending on both domestic and defense programs may be construed as an indication that Capitol Hill, for the time being, is content to live with the modest curtailment of deficit spending that results when entitlement cuts and tax increases are both off the table. It could, on the other hand, mean that Congress is content to live with this padlock on future spending because it knows that it will always possess the key to that lock. Both parties, that is, feel that they'll figure out how to avoid the inevitable spending cuts that are supposed to begin in 2013. The history of past efforts to force spending discipline on Congress by threatening automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, such as the Gramm-Rudman limits of the 1980s, gives every reason to believe that Congress can figure out a way around the limits it imposes on itself.

Another sense in which the supercommittee's failure was baked in the cake was that its stalemate is a pretty accurate reflection of the electorate's unresolved marching orders about what the government should do. Republicans prevailed in the elections of 2004 and 2010, Democrats in the elections of 2006 and 2008. With a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, and a Republican majority in the House, the voters have given partial, ambiguous endorsements to both party's approaches, but clear, unequivocal support to neither. This ambivalence is not surprising. Clear support for the Democrats would mean big tax increases, and clear support for the Republicans would mean big entitlement cuts. Neither will be pleasant, and the desire to postpone having to choose is understandable.

Nonetheless, the financial pages remind us every day that sovereign debt crises are hard for democracies to avoid, but really, really hard for them to solve. The voters are running out of elections cycles in which they can decide by not deciding. Now that all politics is fiscal, the 2012 election is likely to be dominated by the choice between the parties' mutually exclusive approaches to taxing and spending.
Categories > Economy

Men and Women

Man's Best Friend

I sometimes wonder if dogs were placed on Earth to remind Man of what unconditional love is. Here is a story out of China recently about a dog who is refusing to leave the grave of his recently-deceased master, forgoing food for a week until local villagers began trekking to the cemetery to feed him. This is reminiscent of other tales of dogs grieving their deceased owners; one picture in particular has been making the rounds on Facebook lately of a dog on the floor beside the coffin of a slain U.S. soldier. The devotion of these special animals is something to marvel at. Throughout most of my childhood I had a fantastic companion, a mix between an Australian shepherd and a border collie, who would sleep at the foot of my bed almost every night while I was growing up. He was so protective of me that even if my own parents moved too quickly towards me or lingered with a hug or hand on my shoulder for too long, the dog would begin to make his displeasure known. A wonderful creature that I miss a great deal. Childhood without a dog would have had a dark hole in it. In light of the Chinese story, it is worth mentioning Senator George Graham Vest's Eulogy of the Dog for recollection:

Gentlemen of the jury: A man's dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince...If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.

Thank God for dogs.
Categories > Men and Women


Post-Debate Thoughts

I ended up working and attending the debate here in Washington last night; it was an interesting experience. Saw Steve Hayward briefly as he was coming in; he beat me to sharing his notes on the debate over at Power Line. Do read them. The most interesting part of being there in person was gauging audience and candidate reactions. Some things are small--such as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman being the only ones remaining on stage during breaks, while Michele Bachmann was always running back onto the stage at literally the last second--and others big. The reactions of the live audience are important to shaping the tone of the room. When Cain made his "Blitz" mistake about Wolf Blitzer, the crowd struggled to hold in their laughter, and it was the prolonged giggling that finally clued Cain into his mistake a little while into his answer and allowed him to correct himself. Answers from Perry, Santorum, and Cain most often seemed to elicit eye-rolls, head-shakes, and uncomfortable shifting in the seats. Responses from Gingrich, Paul, Huntsman, and Romney tended to draw the most support, with Paul also receiving his own fair share of eye-rolls in the midst of applause for him.

One of the most interesting exchanges of the night was on the immigration question. Gingrich managed to address it far, far better than Perry has been struggling to over the past few months, and the crowd reacted well to it--Newt's immigration answers drew a lot of applause from the audience. Thought that was interesting. Overall, it was a good night for Gingrich and he'll hold onto his place as the non-Romney candidate for now. Perry and Cain, meanwhile, both continued to have bad nights as they exhibited a sore lack of preparation for addressing foreign policy. I shared some of my real-time notes and pictures over on Twitter. This was the eleventh debate of the primary season; we have three more to go before the Iowa Caucuses on January 3rd, and five more before the New Hampshire primary on January 10th. 
Categories > Elections


Small-souled political parties

The formation of majorities is supposed to be difficult under the Constitution.  David Brooks takes a shot at explaining something fundamental about American electoral politics, constitutional government, and our two party system by referring to Sam Lubell's invented political solar system idea.  At any moment there is a Sun Party (the majority party which drives the agenda) and the Moon Party (the minority party which shines by reflecting the solar rays).  He gets it only partly right.  He understands that we are in a volatile period in which the "Sun"-like majority hasn't formed, but he misses the idea of realignment (and/or critical elections) that would help him explain his point. The point is not that both parties have developed minority mentalities, as he says, but rather the point is that neither party is capable of really dividing and polarizing the country in such a way that it may persuade the country to come in its direction (say the way Democrats did in the 1930s, thereby crafting the last of our Suns) electorally in order to create a grand majority, around which the Moon(s) would revolve. The Democrats are currently holding on to "policies" they have created over three generations, but are not persuading new folks that the centralized welfare state is worth saving (or constitutional). Mere interest and passion (entitlements) is what is holding the Democratic Party together, and sometimes it makes for a majority, sometimes not. On the other hand the Republicans are incapable of giving a sustained and powerful argument in favor of limited constitutional self-government. They thought they were doing it in the 1980s with Reagan, but not quite. The electoral victories they have had since seem fleeting. They really must become grand partisans and must make the persuasive intellectual arguments first, before making the electoral gains that could be said to look something like the formation of a new long term majority.  They have yet to do that; certainly the presidential candidates are not doing that; see tonight's debate and discover how none of them were born under a rhyming planet. Therefore, the next many (two, four, eight ?) electoral cycles will be much less meaningful than Brooks would like. Until the voters are presented with a real choice and an argument on an issue that seems critical to citizens, and one that transcends normal party lines or coalitions, there will be no Sun, there will be no long-term majority.  The next couple of decades will be fun, messy and fun, and inconclusive.  For those of you who are miserable in the midst of this massive fact and have no other medicine but hope, read the Letters from an Ohio Farmer.
Categories > Elections

The Founding

Giving Thanks--Reading the Federalist (and C.S. Lewis)!

That appears to be George Washington's prayer in his Thanksgiving Proclamation "for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge...."  That "rational manner" was led by the Federalist Papers.

We remember C.S. Lewis, who died 48 years ago today, November 22, 1963.  Not to be confused with a children's story writer of the same name.

Categories > The Founding


Internet Freedom and Intellectual Property

For the last couple of years I have been telling friends of mine who are interested in law that, if their interest is in helping craft law and making a good deal of money while doing it, they ought to go into intellectual property and copyright law. This is where the major fights are popping up, made no more clear right now than in the battle brewing within the halls of Congress. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) are under debate right now, intent on helping save intellectual property--primarily music and film from Hollywood--that is being pirated and copied and distributed en masse without anything being paid to the creators and owners of those works. SOPA and PIPA would punish companies that post pirate content online and allow the government to shut down websites that post intellectual property. This is mostly aimed at foreign websites, particularly in Asia, that illegally traffic a great deal of American work to the huge black market. Proponents say it is a necessary step to protect the labor and property of U.S. firms from rampant piracy. Opponents claim that this is giving the government and certain firms far too much power, and that it will lead to dangerous curtailments of internet freedom.

The divisions in this show how contentious and big the intellectual property battle will be, and all sorts of odd alliances are appearing. In favor of SOPA you have Motion Picture Association of America, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the Recording Industry Association of America, Netflix, the Directors Guild of America, Viacom, Nike, L'Oreal, Ford, Pfizer, NBC Universal, the National Basketball Association, and scores of trade unions, business organizations, and entertainment industry groups. Yes, the AFL-CIO, Hollywood, and the Chamber of Commerce all working together. Silicon Valley represents the bulk of the opposition, which includes Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, eBay, Wikipedia, and Mozilla, in addition to groups such as the Brookings Institution, American Express, Reporters Without Borders, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Tea Party Patriots. The Tea Party allied with the Silicon Valley giants and ACLU.

Congress is even more split, with all sorts of unusual alliances being made over SOPA. In favor of the act are a diverse sets of members including Howard Berman (D-CA, from Hollywood), Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Opponents, meanwhile, include Darrel Issa (R-CA), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Ron Paul (R-TX), Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and John Conyers (D-MI). Odd, yes, to see Rubio, Feinstein, Boxer, and Grassley pitted against Issa, Pelosi, the Pauls, and Bachmann. I have not yet decided, but at this pointed I am leaning towards the argument against SOPA in its current form, and I say that as someone who has a very vested interest in protecting intellectual property, especially that of the entertainment industry. I just fear that there are not enough safeguards in SOPA in its current form, and that it would thus be dangerous to internet freedom and pose a direct threat to social media, Facebook and YouTube in particular. It is imperative that we find a way to stop online piracy, which costs American firms hundreds of billions of dollars a year, but we need to do it in a way that balances protecting both internet freedom and intellectual property.
Categories > Technology


You Choose the Caption!


a) Good thing the school levy passed!
b) It's true what they say: Ashland really is "someplace 'special'"
c) Why I'm sending my kid to private school

Or come up with your own!

Categories > Education

Foreign Affairs

Brussels Bureaucrats on Water

Deciding to look beyond massive problems like the increasingly possible extermination of the Euro, the collapse of the Eurozone economies, and the lack of soul and purpose being felt at the heart of the experiment in European union, the European Commission is rolling out a brand new set of regulations to be imposed upon its member states as laws. After three years of study and who knows how much funding, Brussels has dictated that water bottle producers may no longer say on their labels that water helps hydrate the body. If a producer claims this, they can face a fine and a two-year jail sentence. The British are, understandably, rather perturbed by this latest move by Brussels' bureaucrats, particularly since the British Department of Health recommends drinking 1.2 liters of water a day to avoid dehydration. However, if the European Commission commands that water is no longer a way to stay hydrated, then it must be so, conventional wisdom aside. I suppose there is no more reason, then, to have athletes drink water at European sporting events. This is obviously another reason to be skeptical about allowing a further transfer of power to the Brussels offices of the European Union.
Categories > Foreign Affairs