— Political Thought —

March 21, 2013


The Three Ts Are Proving to Be About Ruling Class Insulation

Justin Katz

What are Governor Lincoln Chafee's three Ts of economic development, again? Is it talent, technocrats, and tolerance? Or is it technology, tolerance, and twee ideological fashion? It can be so difficult to keep these gimmicky strategies straight.

This particular strategy is also turning out to be difficult to make work. In fact, it may just be a description of a handful of cities that chance made "hip," rather than a workable, replicable strategy for turning around any given city. Indeed — as should probably be expected when we give broad authority to powerful people to plan the society in which everybody will live — it appears that pursuing a "creative class" strategy tends to produce the sorts of communities that serve powerful people and the cool folks with whom they like to hang out.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


February 25, 2013


Things We Read Today (49), Weekend

Justin Katz

An article not about what it's about; sequester demagoguery; softening kids for "effort shock"; and the rise of grassroots fascism.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


February 24, 2013


Re: The Political Spectrum Goes 'Round and 'Round

Carroll Andrew Morse

My previous post referenced the circularly structured political spectrum that Justin proposed a few weeks ago. Samuel G. Howard criticized Justin's mapping in a post at Rhode Island's Future, one objection being that choosing individual emphasis versus community emphasis as a defining axis leads to problems that are intractable...

I suspect it would be difficult for anyone to choose between the individual and the community. I’ve always argued that we seek a more equal community so as to strengthen the liberty of the individual. My emphasis is on the individual, but the method works on the community. There’s no dividing line for that philosophy, the kind that sees equality and liberty as two sides of the same coin.
But because a choice is difficult doesn't imply either that it is beyond analysis or unimportant. Indeed, one of the leading contemporary academic authorities on the classification of political ideologies, Michael Freeden of the University of Oxford (the famous one in England), treats the ideas people have about the relationship between individual and community as central to understanding political choices they make and actions they undertake.

Here is Freeden, in a 1999 article about the intellectual evolution of the British left ("True Blood or False Genealogy: New Labour and British Social Democratic Thought"), describing a set of ideas about liberty that, in the 20th century, had come to replace "the old Hobbesian understanding of liberty as the absence of impediments to individual action"...

The first remained focused on the benefits liberty conferred on an individual, but did not rule out any intervention genuinely conducive to removing barriers to personal growth and welfare. The second concentrated on the benefits liberty conferred on society, developing the Marxist notion of emancipation to include human realisation only through full immersion in social life.
Add to the above a non-controversial assumption that some form of liberty should be a primary concern of government, and Freeden's two new foci for liberty exactly match Justin's individual versus community split.

In the same article, Freeden also discusses the difference between Britain's Fabian socialists and liberals...

For many socialists, though not for all, the logic of state activity was conceptually attached to the nationalisation of key public resources and services, but it could concurrently be employed to enlist state supervision and control of other important social practices. Notably, the liberal concern with the state as a source of potentially arbitrary and unaccountable power was largely removed from Fabian understandings.
So we have one strand of political thought that holds that government should supervise and control social practices while another that holds that it should not. An obvious question that follows is: if government isn't controlling social practices, then who or what is? Just acknowledging this question, along with making the reasonable leap that social practices and morality strongly overlap -- understanding that this entails some open and interesting questions about how they relate to and influence one another -- gives us a second axis in Justin's chart strongly congruent to Freeden's work, i.e. a dividing line between the belief that the state should supervise and control social practices and morality, versus a belief that the state should reflect of social practices and morality that have their origin elsewhere, in the broader culture. (However, it would be fair to add here that we want to be careful about defining culture in too reductionist a manner, where culture becomes simply everything that is not government).

Let's move from the general to the specific for a moment. One purposes the Freeden set out to achieve in his 1999 article was an accurately description of the "ideational roots" of the new Labour government of Tony Blair. If we take two of the dividing axes that Justin defined; i.e. emphasis on the individual, and a distrust of state supervision over social practices, which are consistent with Freeden's work, then the group that Justin labels as right-libertarians potentially ends up as a part of Tony Blair's governing coalition. I will hazard to say that respectable conservatives and libertarians can be found who would object to the suggestion that Prime Minister Blair's government was sympathetic to libertarians, while certain progressives might readily agree that Justin's chart points to how "neoliberals" hijacked the left in Great Britain -- and voila, we've got a discussion going about what is really happening in politics and governance, in terms that are "beyond just left and right". Such discussions are meaningful, not when they are about political labels alone, but when they are about the ideas that underlie the labels.

In the end, the only way to understand the alliances that citizens and groups actively involved in politics will make and break and the policies they will pursue is to understand how the view fundamental political and social concepts, and what common ground they share with their contemporaries. That's true up and down the line, for award winning academics and us yahoo local bloggers alike.

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February 23, 2013


What to Make of Chris Dorner's Admirers

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last weekend, a small number of people turned out at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, in some combination of protest and memorial for former LAPD officer Chris Dorner, who killed four people in Southern California, before killing himself during a standoff with law enforcement. Meanwhile, in the virtual world, a Facebook tribute describing Dorner as "a man who is willing to die for something instead of living for nothing" has received over 20,000 likes, while the Occupy Los Angeles Facebook site has offered a wish of condolence that Dorner "rest in power". While the number of admirers that Dorner has should not be exaggerated, he does have them.

It is obviously not simply Chris Dorner's grievances or the content of his "manifesto" that won him whatever number of admirers he has. Dorner was not the first to accuse the Los Angeles police department of corruption or racism, and he would have very likely remained mostly unknown had he not taken to murder. Dorner has become the focus of a fringe mini-movement because there are people who believe that his claims against the LAPD are more deserving of attention than they would otherwise be because he started killing individuals not directly related to his "issues".

During an interview on CNN, Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill opined that Dorner had "been like a real life superhero to many people" who could find watching him "kind of exciting". Dorner supporters are certainly more excited by his violence than they would be by the details of an administrative and judicial grievance procedure minus the murders. And while many of Dorner's supporters will explicitly disclaim that murdering innocent people is bad, it is the murder spree that has elevated him to the status of a cause, with the celebration of "action" trumping concerns about its justification or consequences.

There have been times in the past when the idea of the pathway to social change following behind a violent superhero might generate support beyond that of a weekend protest and some Facebook likes; we don't have to go very far back into history to find such times. Thoroughly modern ideologies with substantial followings from the first half of the twentieth century, e.g. various fascisms and some (but not all) forms of anarchism, regarded the individual acting on his will-to-power, with total disregard for societal norms that might impede ego-determined ends, as the example to be emulated and the natural leader of society.

The admiration expressed for Chris Dorner makes evident that impulses in humanity that drive people to idolize the violent superman still exist. It is not impossible to imagine that such admiration and idolization can be turned into a willingness to follow, if the superhero had an interest in doing so.

* * *

This is a very important reason why thinking about the possible forms of political ideology and political philosophy, what they look like and where they might lead, one version of which Justin posted a few weeks ago, is important.

jk-politicalspectrum-600px.jpg

The philosophies/ideologies that Justin placed in the ring represent, roughly, the post-World War II Euro/Atlantic consensus about what's legitimate, running roughly from various forms of soft-socialism to various forms of welfare-state capitalism. The cross-bar holds forms of "extremism" that don't fit neatly into that consensus. One idea that differentiates the ring from the cross-bar (though not necessarily the only one) is that the will-to-power of a violent superhero can be accepted as a legitimate political force in the cross-bar, but not in the ring. (Some of the best work I am aware of about how to appropriately separate extremism from its mainstream political relatives was done by a young Jerry Pournelle, back in the 1960s; I am of the opinion that 2 dimensions for political classification which he defined, and a third that he proposed, are still very relevant today)

What throws a society into a state of extremism, i.e. from the ring to the cross-bar, isn't wholly understood, making it all the more imperative to think a bit about what the beginnings of a slide into extremism might look like and what its warning signals are, so that folks who favor a more peaceful system can be ready to challenge and defeat any movement towards the social and political institutionalization of the barbaric side of human nature.


February 13, 2013


Representing Places as Well as People

Marc Comtois

In The Disenfranchisement of Rural America, James Huffman writes:

The county by county map of the 2012 presidential election clearly portrays the irony and unfairness of a nation of predominantly red communities governed by a blue, urban, national majority. President Obama won 52 percent of the states and 51.4 percent of the popular vote, but only 20 percent of the counties. Yet, everyone in every one of those counties is subject to the will of distant majorities lacking any understanding of or stake in the local communities they control. It wasn’t supposed to be that way, and should not be that way, in our extended national republic.

Democratic government at its best must be about more than the arithmetic of nose counting. Communities require representation if they are to survive in an ever more centralized world. Not the political interest groups we now call communities, but the real communities in which people raise their children, pursue their livelihoods, and nourish their friendships. These are the communities people call home, and they are slowly decaying with the loss of control over their own destinies.

As appealing and self-evident as it seemed at the time, one person/one vote was too simple to be right for a vast and diverse republic.

The much ballyhooed "Bloodless Revolution" in RI resulted in the seizing of political power from the towns to the urban core (as we now call it). It was an "end-justify-the-means" exercise if ever there was one. Yet, RI was in the vanguard of turning the "upper" house of the legislature--the State Senate--into nothing more than a differently-districted mimic of the lower House of Representatives. As Huffman explained, it was the Supreme Court that removed geography or "place" as a legitimate construction for governmental representation.
Prior to the 1964 United States Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims (here's some background ~ MC), most state legislatures included one house apportioned on the basis of population and a second chamber apportioned on the basis of counties or other geographical regions. Many of the former had not been reapportioned for decades, leaving growing urban areas with less representation per capita than rural regions. On the basis of the principle of one person/one vote, the Court found that the failure of most states to regularly reapportion their lower houses put them in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

While one person/one vote was widely accepted as the appropriate standard for lower state legislative chambers, most states defended their geographically apportioned upper houses by drawing a parallel to the U.S. Congress in which the Senate is apportioned on the basis of states rather than population. The Supreme Court rejected their argument, concluding that counties and other local entities are merely subdivisions of unitary state governments lacking any claim comparable to state sovereignty. “Legislators,” said the Court, “represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests...." On the technical question of what constitutes a sovereign entity, the Court was right. But history has shown that the Court was wrong in its understanding of the function served by geographically apportioned state senates. While state senators elected from geographic regions rather than on the basis of population certainly did not represent trees or acres, they did represent communities.

Indeed, State Senates are, or were, intended to be structured like the U.S. Senate, where each region, i.e. state, has the same representation (two Senators) regardless of population. At the state level, it was usually counties (or cities and towns like in Rhode Island) that determined State Senate representation. If that hadn't change, each state's citizens would continue to have equal representation along populist lines in the House and each place--each city and town--would be equally represented in the Senate (for bi-cameral state legislatures, of course). In Rhode Island, each city and town would elect one State Senator so that Jamestown and Providence or Newport and Exeter or Central Falls and Block Island would have the same representation. However, the Bloodless Revolution of 1935 changed all that and, obviously, we aren't going back. But Huffman explains that the unforeseen consequences (if not unwanted by the urban political machines) has been detrimental for rural communities:
Inexorably, the values and ambitions of urban America have been imposed on small town and rural communities. Despite the often broad agreement among their citizens, the rural communities of red county America have gradually lost control of their own destinies at the hands of statewide majorities marching to a different drummer....The point is not that the different drummer is blue and the rural communities are red. That is just the reality of 21st century American politics. The point is that, because of their minority status in statewide population terms and their lack of representation as communities, rural Americans are denied full self-governance.
The environment we live in imposes certain needs and priorities upon us. Country folk often have no idea the kind of issues that city dwellers have to deal with. And the reverse is also true. Money for a new irrigation project is much more important to a farmer than paying for street lights in the city. It's no surprise that these acute concerns aren't held in equal esteem by those with differing backgrounds and priorities. However, as Huffman argues, urban dwellers have the political power to prioritize their needs and desires far more than do their rural fellow citizens.

Maybe the other argument to be made is that the redundancy of State Senates should be dealt with by removing them and going to a unicameral legislature. That certainly wouldn't help rural communities any more, but it might make government (or at least legislating) more efficient (if that's a good thing?).


January 21, 2013


The Political Spectrum Goes 'Round and 'Round

Justin Katz

It started with an email exchange among the contributors to Anchor Rising. Somebody suggested that moderates are essentially liberals who "believe in economics." That got my mind (when hungering for procrastination) to filling out the rest of a political spectrum, and it turned into the circle illustrated below.


jk-politicalspectrum-600px.jpg




As you can see, there are eight categories, six of them along the spectrum and two cutting across it. The spectrum circle is divide into Left and Right hemispheres, and the categories are divided into thirds by two vertical axes.

The basic determinant of Left or Right is whether one tends toward equivalence of morality with government or with culture. The important thing isn't whether one believes that, for example, whatever the government dictates should be considered moral. Left libertarians would rail against such a conclusion. Rather, it's about the way in which people in different groups think about these things.

A left libertarian thinks government ought to stay out of his life, but he thinks everybody ought to stay out of his life. Generally speaking, he would prefer that whatever impositions do exist should be written into the law, where there are codified rules for fighting it. Or perhaps he just thinks that government mandates are inherently moral impositions and, therefore, should be avoided. Not long ago, I heard a libertarian speak as if the Golden Rule is the source of all evil in our society, but the rules that he favored (property rights, notably), he thought to be justification for the government's use of power to enforce.

The Left-Right question, in essence, is: To whatever degree authority of people over each other is legitimate, should the guidelines be written into the law, or should they be expressed through the interpersonal forces of voluntary social interactions? Very few people will have pure answers to that question, but one or the other option will ultimately prove to dominate; the culture may apply some pressure through the law, but it ultimately understands the authority to derive from the beliefs of the people who make up the society, not the conclusions of the people who control the government.

One of the two axes that define vertical placement is essentially a belief about human nature. Progressives and those on the far right tend to see humankind as able to be made perfect, whether that's through social engineering (on the Left) or purging and racial purity (on the Right). The apotheosis of this belief is the totalitarian, wherein the dictators or ruling classes find themselves to be so infallible that they ought to be permitted to control every aspect of everybody's lives. As the spectrum approaches this point, the distinction between government and culture breaks down, because the government is all.

The X marks on the vertical axes are meant to indicate that the spectrum continues on, but that there is some line that can be crossed after which the person will pick one side over the other. In the case of the left-hand line, the upper segment is a belief in the constancy of human nature and fallibility.

This doesn't mean humanity cannot be improved or changed, but that it's not possible to perfect it, and that any social system must take that reality into account. Ultimately, this is an underlying assumption of economics, which premises its studies of the causes and effects of human behavior on the principle that the results will be relatively consistent.

The other vertical axis concerns one's emphasizing the individual over the community, or vice versa. Again, the spectrum is ultimately unbroken, but there is a line that can be crossed from libertarian to moderate, on the left, and to conservative, on the right. For instance, I would consider myself to be pretty much on the line that separates right libertarian from conservative, and it would be a matter of some difficulty for me to choose between the individual and the community in a final analysis. (I strike that balance through theology, more on which in a moment.) But I absolutely don't think communal goods should be wrested from the individual without consent, nor that individualism oughtn't be argued against when it threatens the society.

I've already heard the complicating consideration that some extreme libertarians and anarchists believe that here is a rational order to the society that they would prescribe, but it isn't pushed through either government or culture. Some in this range (I'll confess) seem mainly to take for granted the structures that have brought themselves advantage, but more intriguing in my context here is that moving away from the most complete joining of the notion of human fallibility with the notion of the primacy of the individual creates a straight, back-door line to totalitarianism in one of two ways: either the strongest person or group dominates the lawless field and controls by physical, political, or economic power, or the faith in the need to impose order on anarchic principles begets a rigid collection of rules for organized action.

Either way represents a deterioration and reversal of beliefs across the circle: The emphasis on the individual becomes belief in the individual's perfectibility; the belief in human fallibility becomes a belief in the need for the community to set set the guidelines through culture or through law. That is to say that the Anarchist-Totalitarian axis is not at all stable as a matter of political theory or of personality.

My final word is on religion. I'd initially planned to superimpose a shape labeled "belief in God," or something like that, but decided that it would necessarily be too complicated. What one believes about God makes all the difference. A progressive may take the existence of God as evidence that human beings were made to be perfected, and that their moral laws should be written into the civic law. A right libertarian might believe that God's interaction with the individual is so personal and specific that any coercion risks interfering with that divine relationship.

In other words, a series of axes describing religious beliefs could probably be made to fit as another layer on this chart, but the principles behind it would be wholly distinct from questions of politics. Perhaps I'll take that up next time I'm procrastinating on a three-day weekend.


January 14, 2013


Things We Read Today (46), Weekend

Justin Katz

Perspective from on high; the empathetic view from my soap box; cover-up as economic development; what happens when that which can't go on forever doesn't.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


December 30, 2012


Politics Everywhere

Marc Comtois

We've talked about the problems inherent in "big government" around here for, well, ever. More government means more taxes (ie; "revenue"), more regulations and more of government trying to pick winners and losers. Rhode Island is a perfect example. Despite the myriad problems in our state, our politicians don't like dealing with the root causes. Instead, they tinker around the edges and do things like propose new ways to "manage" our economic development or nibble at our pension problems. The real issues: high taxes, an unfriendly business environment and political insiderism go unaddressed. And apparently that is the way the Rhode Island electorate wants it.

Nationally, we seem to be headed in the same direction. Here's John Hayward explaining how the enlargement and encroachment of government into our lives has led to politics "all of the time."

The expansion of government replaces competition with coercion. Free people lack coercive power, so they must compete with each other for business opportunities. Customers must be persuaded. Employees must be attracted. It’s messy sometimes, and the process must be policed for theft and fraud, but it’s generally constructive.

Government power replaces all that with a simple, brutal, zero-sum equation: what you are given must be taken from someone else.

We see this in Rhode Island. We see this across the country. It has put a greater emphasis on being on the inside to carve out exceptions.
The regulatory process is corrupted by both ideology and special interests. Even when it avoids outright corruption, the process is expensive, because it’s not constructive the way private competition is. Wealth and value are lost through forced redistribution. It’s a smaller, poorer world, in which political influence becomes valuable currency. Your fellow citizens are not your competitors – they are your enemies. They become selfish plutocrats or lazy parasites. Their defeat becomes an occasion for riotous celebration.
Red vs. Blue is the larger game, but there are many smaller contests out there. And there are plenty of people willing to exploit the desires, and more importantly the fears, of various voting "blocs".
[E]ffective political power requires solidarity – sizable groups of voters acting in concert, to press their common interests upon the State, whose officials in turn benefit from packaged electoral support. The best way to hold a large group of people together is to make them feel as if everyone else is out to get them. The most effective political adhesives are distilled from hatred and distrust. People who disagree with your agenda are “attacking” you or “robbing” you. How commonly do you hear dissent described in precisely those terms nowadays?
Hence, every election is "the most important evah!"
When the government controls everything, there is no constructive relief valve for all this pent-up tension. It all boils down to a “historic” election once every couple of years, upon whose outcome everything depends. They’re all going to be “historic” elections from now on. That’s not a good thing. It’s much better to have the freedom to choose your own collaborators on the voluntary journey to mutual prosperity. If you think they’re doing it wrong – if you don’t like the services they render, or the compensation they offer for your efforts – you can find other partners. It’s relatively painless, you don’t have to wait two years to make a change, and you’re not setting all the parameters of your life with every individual decision you make.

In politicized America, on the other hand, we’re asked to make hundreds of major life-altering decisions with a single vote… and many of those decisions boil down to our selection for the increasingly powerful office of the presidency: a decision we only get to make once every four years, choosing from only a tiny handful of plausible candidates – and that’s assuming the primaries are particularly lively. You might have noticed a good number of Democrats – from officials and pundits down to average citizens in social-media forums – making the case that the 2012 election permanently settled various issues, and demanding the other side meekly submit. One vote every four years, and if you lose, shut up and obey! That’s not a recipe for social harmony, especially since we know everyone currently espousing such views will instantly change their tunes ten seconds after the next election they lose.

Like in 2004, for instance? Regardless, we've all bought into the game.
Of course the character of this politicized nation is growing more sour. How could it be otherwise? We make too many decisions by voting for other people to make them for us. We communicate through force instead of persuasion – a one-way transmission of absolutes, rather than a productive exchange of ideas. Instead of actively testing and improving solutions to our own problems, we yell curses and shake our fists while waiting for political champions to emerge from Washington’s bloody arena, carrying the latest thousand pages of badly-written central planning as trophies.

Congressional representatives have always said some terrible things to each other, but it’s trickling down to infect the rest of us… and we’ve been maneuvered into a position where all of us stand to lose plenty, if “enemy” representatives win the latest high-stakes showdown.

Unfortunately, we've allowed government to grow to this point. It doesn't look like it will shrink any time soon. Unless it collapses.


December 26, 2012


The Soul That Needs Searching for the True Liberals

Justin Katz

This week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is an apt one for thinking on a grand scale — of the where-we’ve-been-and-where-we-must-go variety. Essays in that vein fill the tabs on my open browser window, and as is often the case, most of them come from the center-right’s great aggregator and one-line editorialist Glenn Reynolds.

Three that seem particularly closely related are by men whose first names very narrowly miss being one of life’s quotidian, cosmic coincidences: Roger Kimball, Roger L. Simon, and Robert Kaplan.

Mr. Kimball sets the table, writing about the shirked responsibility of our cultural institutions “to act as ambassadors linking the wisdom of the past with the requirements of the present in such a way that we could build responsibly for the future." As Thomas Sowell writes, in another of my open tabs, “The more I study the history of intellectuals, the more they seem like a wrecking crew, dismantling civilization bit by bit — replacing what works with what sounds good.”

If we separate out that huge number of people who consider themselves to be “liberals,” but who, going about their lives, aren’t deeply involved in intellectual definition of what liberalism requires them to believe, we are left with the collection of “progressives.” “Progress,” a dictionary may remind us, assumes a value judgment of which direction is forward, and the intellectuals of the political Left are only too happy to supply the answer.

Continue reading no the Ocean State Current...


December 7, 2012


What's At Stake in the Pension Lawsuit

Carroll Andrew Morse

Here is what is at stake in the lawsuit to void Rhode Island's 2011 pension reform law, Rhode Island Public Employee's Coalition et al. vs Chafee et al., being litigated in Judge Sarah Taft-Carter's courtroom today. The state's public employee unions are asserting a right to veto legislation that impacts their direct economic interests, i.e. there are certain acts approved by the legislature and the governor regarding expenditures of public funds that cannot become law without their express approval.

This veto differs from a gubernatorial veto in two significant ways. First, the Governor's veto can be overridden by the legislature; the unions would allow no one to override their veto. Second, the Governor's veto is expressly provided for in the state constitution. The unions do not believe an express constitutional provision is needed to establish their veto. They claim it is fundamental to their being.

The unions are also asserting exemption from certain laws already on the books. Rhode Island law is explicit that state employee retirement shall not be an object of collective bargaining. The exact language is "Any and all matters relating to the employees' retirement system of the state of Rhode Island are excluded as negotiable items in the collective bargaining process". Despite the plain wording of the law, in place long before 2011, the unions are demanding that their retirement benefits be negotiated through collective bargaining. Rhode Island law also states that municipal employee and teacher contracts (though not those of state employees) are limited to three years, while the union lawsuit is premised on the idea that post-retirement benefit raises are guaranteed by "implied" contracts that can literally last a lifetime. Lifetimes are longer than three years.

* * *

Ultimately, the courts in Rhode Island Public Employee's Coalition et al. vs Chafee et al. are being asked to decide whether the modern government appropriations process was scrapped when public sector collective bargaining was enacted in RI. Upon what principles the government appropriations process is based, and why people should be expected to go along with it are important questions to ask -- and to convincingly answer. Fail to acknowledge the question, and what remains is a system where people are expected to give stuff up to whomever asks most vigorously, a system of might makes right. When answered prior to the democratic era of history, justifications generally centered on a belief that the people of the earth were divided into rulers and ruled, and that rulers needed permanent claim on the property of the citizens so rulers would have what they needed to provide an orderly society.

As the idea that all people were created equal advanced over the course of history, granting one group in society the power to lay permanent claims on another was no longer tenable. Equality couldn't be said to exist in such an asymmetric arrangement, and the direction of cause and effect was rightly called into question; maybe it was the acceptance of permanent claims by one group over the future livelihoods of others that promoted a permanent division of the world into ruling and ruled.

In response, specific limits on the government's power to compel appropriations were instituted. Decisions to appropriate from the citizenry were restricted to the elected representatives of the people. There would no direct involvement or special vetoes in the lawmaking process for any groups not accountable to the citizenry, be it appropriations or any other kind of law.

Appropriations were also limited in time. Since government was made up of humans, putting people into permanent debt to the government would mean putting people in permanent debt to others; this was not consistent with the idea of equality. So government was restricted to only being able to rightfully and legally take what it needed to keep running for a limited time, until the next appropriations period, which would not be significantly longer than the interval until the next election, when a new set of decisions could be made, and accountable representatives of the people could decide whether more needed to be done or less needed to be taken. It is in this spirit that laws prohibiting contracts for arbitrarily long time periods were enacted.

These are the fundamental issues lying at the heart of Rhode Island Public Employee's Coalition et al. vs Chafee et al. Here in a place once known for a certain democratic radicalism, the plaintiffs want Judge Taft-Carter to decree that certain features of modern democracy have run their course, that collective bargaining law requires government to return to an older practice of allowing certain groups to lay permanent claims on the livelihoods of others, and that these special groups should be allowed to enforce their claims through a veto over the elected representatives of the citizenry. That is a lot to ask for.


December 5, 2012


Things We Read Today (38), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Evading the progressive ideology snatchers; under surveillance; the not-employed young; and growing up, one way or another.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


December 4, 2012


The Deterioration of New England Local Government (and of the United States)

Justin Katz

Paul Rahe's written an excellent essay explaining why libertarians ought to be social conservatives (via Instapundit), which is a point on which I'm writing for future publication. For the moment, though, this paragraph is more immediately relevant:

In America, [Tocqueville] found institutions, mores, and manners antithetical to what he took to be democracy's natural drift. Vigorous local self-government drew the inhabitants of New England townships out of their homes and into the public square. Initially, they made this move in self-defense, but the experience of participating soon became a pleasure all its own, and it induced individuals to abandon what he called "individualism" and to devote themselves to public concerns. In the process, these Americans learned to think ahead, they developed a powerful sense of their own capacity to cope with the vicissitudes of life, and they learned to cooperate with their neighbors and even with strangers in forming private associations for public purposes.

Rahe attributes much of the erosion of American civic society, including the ideas of local governance, private organizations, and moral self-control, to the sort of apathy that arises when generations forget what their ancestors saved them from, and what was necessary in order to accomplish that end. There's certainly a point to be made, in that regard, but I find myself returning to his phrase, "initially, they made this move in self-defense."

On the local level, it doesn't take quite the dramatic threat that is necessary to bring out the self-defense vote (so to speak) in big-time politics, which is one of the reasons pushing governance toward the local level is generally advisable. So why do we not see the apathy of prosperity looping back every now and then to a rejuvenated public engagement?

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


December 2, 2012


Another View of the Whole Political Landscape

Carroll Andrew Morse

While Ross Douthat's New York Times column from this week isn't exactly an election postmortem, it certainly suggests that a politics focused solely on economic efficiency is incomplete...

Beneath these policy debates, though, lie cultural forces that no legislator can really hope to change. The retreat from child rearing is, at some level, a symptom of late-modern exhaustion -- a decadence that first arose in the West but now haunts rich societies around the globe. It's a spirit that privileges the present over the future, chooses stagnation over innovation, prefers what already exists over what might be. It embraces the comforts and pleasures of modernity, while shrugging off the basic sacrifices that built our civilization in the first place.
Stagnation over innovation, and a preference for what already exists over what might be certainly sounds like it could be Rhode Island right now. So does that place RI on the leading edge of history, or as an early warning that there's still time to pull back from?

Fortunately (or maybe pollyannaishly), since I increasingly don't believe in the concept of modernity, I'm not quite as pessimistic as Douthat that we've reached some irreversible point of civilizational exhaustion. Which doesn't mean that improvement is inevitable, just that it's possible.


November 26, 2012


Things We Read Today (34), Monday

Justin Katz

Political theory (watching where you're going); bonds added to the pool of bubbles; safe regions in a pool with dangerous; government as the most dangerous bubble.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 21, 2012


Things We Read Today (32), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Taft-Carter takes the Iannazzi mantle; RI back to pre-democracy; the ascendance of unaccountable bureaucracies; and America gone mad (with the Big Blue Bug)

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 15, 2012


Another View of Romney's Loss II

Carroll Andrew Morse

National Review Online's Ramesh Ponnuru does not believe that Mitt Romney's problem was that his economic message was drowned out by social issues; he argues the Republican economic message heard by voters lacks broad appeal...

Romney was not a drag on the Republican party. The Republican party was a drag on him...

The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say...

The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation. Young people, too, are economically insecure, especially these days. If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters.



Another View of Romney's Loss

Carroll Andrew Morse

I don't agree with everything in this Robert Oscar Lopez election post-mortem from the American Thinker, but it's definitely a more interesting read than anything telling Republicans that electoral success is only attainable if they limit their message to promising thrifty and honest management of government designed by Democrats...

By now it's widely understood that all politicians are scum and that voting is a choice for the lesser of two evils. Nobody who's rational would have reason to believe that Mitt Romney's promises to cut the deficit would be more bankable than Barack Obama's long-forgotten promises to close Gitmo and scale back the use of drones. Yet Romney's love for the unborn was less convincing than was Obama's instinctual love for underdogs, the oppressed, the little guy, or whatever you call that class social justice theorists have dubbed "subalterns."

What happened? Twenty-twelve was, perhaps, a choice between mercy (Obama) and efficiency (Romney) in a lot of Americans' minds, and they asked themselves, "What does it profit a man to get a 4% unemployment rate and lose his love for the oppressed?" The question may sound naïve, but it nonetheless runs through people's minds. Republicans never bothered to ask the question, let alone answer it. And so Barack Obama got elected amid a burgeoning deficit and four years of unconscionable unemployment.

By now it's clear that "it's the economy, stupid" is not a timeless nugget of wisdom.

Rather, we ought to start saying, "It's got to be more than just economics, idiots."


November 8, 2012


Things We Read Today (31), Thursday

Justin Katz

On the politics (and policy) of exit polls, social issues, statism, and hugging.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 5, 2012


Things We Read Today (30), Monday

Justin Katz

Pre-election restlessness; race, politics, and advancement; differing job estimates without optimism; situational social issue calculus; old media as the election's big loser.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


October 24, 2012


Things We Read Today (26), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Mainly on government's bad incentives: bad housing spending in Providence, unlearnable spending lessons for the governor, stimulus corruption, and Medicaid reform.

Continue reading the Ocean State Current...


October 15, 2012


Deregulation Isn't the Problem; Bailouts Are

Justin Katz

Travis Rowley takes on the talking point that the "Bush tax cuts" and the deregulatory impulse are what (say it with me) got us in this mess in the first place.  The core of the argument goes to those government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) that backed mortgages for lower-income families:

Whenever Democrats cite “the failed policies of the past” in order to refer to Republican promises to loosen up government guidelines placed on private enterprise, they are purposely confusing plans to deregulate the marketplace with the lack of oversight on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – government-sponsored agencies (GSEs) that prominent Democrats sought to protect from Republican reforms.

As early as 2001 the Bush administration was warning that the size of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was a “potential problem” that could “cause strong repercussions in financial markets.” And Congressman Ron Paul (R) spoke of an existing real-estate bubble, and predicted that it “will burst, as all bubbles do.”


Put differently, it wasn't the deregulation that caused the problem; it was the promise of bailouts if things went wrong.  As I've pointed out in various parts, Fannie and Freddie became an alternative to government debt for a safe investment at a time when the stock market was creating more prospective money than even existed in the gross domestic product (GDP). ...

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


October 2, 2012


Things We Read Today (22), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Economic development options, from all-government to government-dominated; the heartless-to-caring axis in politics; Southern New Englanders' "independence"; solidarity between Romney and his garbage man; the media coup d'etat.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 24, 2012


Things We Read Today (18), Monday

Justin Katz

Many faces of big government: standardized tests; interest group buy-offs; government as marketing practice; and the United States of Panem.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 21, 2012


Founding Philosophy on a Friday

Marc Comtois

From Matthew Continetti's review of The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry P. Arnn:

An observer of contemporary American politics would assume that we have rights to just about everything—not only to those freedoms mentioned specifically in the Declaration, but also to an abortion, to marry a member of the same sex, and to food, housing, health insurance, transportation, and all the other accoutrements of a full and "equal" life. When most Americans talk about rights today, they are following the lead of our 32nd president, who told the Commonwealth Club in September 1932, "The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order."

For the men who wrote the Declaration and Constitution, however, the rights we possess are antecedent to society. Our right to property begins with our bodily selves. We exist, and therefore have a right to life. We speak, and therefore have a right to speech. We think, and therefore have a right to conscience. We have hands that can work, and therefore have a right to the fruit of that labor.

Government does not redefine rights as history runs its course. The teaching of the Declaration and the Constitution is that human beings institute government to protect the rights they already possess by virtue of being. We do not have rights to goods that exist only in society, such as health insurance, college loans, and pensions, since the provision and redistribution of these material benefits can take place only after government is established, and would require the government to infringe on our natural, pre-social, corporal rights.


September 20, 2012


Things We Read Today (15), Thursday

Justin Katz

Issuing bonds to harm the housing market; disavowing movies in Pakistan and tearing down banners in Cranston; the Constitution as ours to protect; the quick failure of QE3; and Catholic social teaching as the bridge for the conservative-libertarian divide.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 11, 2012


Things We Read Today, 8

Justin Katz

Today: September 11, global change, evolution, economics, 17th amendment, gold standard, and a boughten electorate... all to a purpose.


September 10, 2012


Things We Read Today, 7

Justin Katz

Today it's debt and gambling, from bonds to pensions to entitlements, with consideration of regionalization, ObamaCare, and campaign finance.


September 9, 2012


Things We Read Today This Weekend, 6

Justin Katz

First, scroll down and read Monique's postings on Rep. Spencer Dickinson. Then...

The topics of hope and hopelessness pervaded this weekend's readings, from absurd labor rules in schools, to the likely outcome of Make It Happen, to Spencer Dickinson's insider view, and then to Sandra Fluke.


September 8, 2012


Campaign Endorsements Are Stupid

Patrick Laverty

This is the crazy time of the year again when the politicians come to your door with their smiles and palm cards and ask for your vote. You see their ads in the paper and their yard signs scattered around town.

Another thing you see is endorsements for every race from President all the way to Town Council and School Committee. "The North Rumsticktonville Democrats endorse Bill Smith for Town Council!" Oh really? I never would have guessed that the town Democratic party would endorse the Democrat. And yes, I'm fully aware that the Republican parties do the exact same thing and that is equally silly. Just as when we see candidates touting that they are the "endorsed candidate" in the race when they have a primary. How'd that whole endorsement thing work out for Jim Bennett about ten years ago when he was running for Governor and had a primary against a little-known businessman named Carcieri? We've seen similar things happen in other races since then. The endorsement sometimes means very little to the voters.

I think it's great that the voters often reject these endorsements. It shows that they can think for themselves, which really leads me to wonder, does anyone care about endorsements when they're in the voting booth? I mean, how do I choose between the candidate that Willie Mays and Kim Kardashian want me to vote for or who Vince McMahon and Pat Sajak prefer? Do these sorts of endorsements actually work on anyone? If not, then what's the point?

I can understand it when an advocacy group like Fight Back RI or RIILE lists their endorsements. That sort of information can be helpful to a single-issue voter. But with the rest of these endorsements, who cares? If someone is going to vote for Candidate X simply because Mayor Y supports the candidate, I'm not so sure that person should really even be voting.

Before you head to the polls on Tuesday, please do your own research, find out about each of the candidates on the ballot. Use a sample ballot for your district and learn about each of the candidates. If you're going to take the time to vote, please also take the time to know who you're voting for and voting against, and at least have a good reason to vote for them. Do it for Kim Kardashian.


September 4, 2012


Things We Read Today, 2

Justin Katz

Today's quick(ish) hits touch on:

  • Partisanship as evidenced by Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, and Nick Gillespie.
  • The libertarian-conservative divide and this year's election.
  • Ed Fitzpatrick's one-way love of fact checking.
  • The dependency nation as an existential threat.

Read all about it on the Ocean State Current...


September 3, 2012


Things We Read Today, 1

Justin Katz

One thing I've learned, in years of blogging, is to be wary of proclaiming new regular features.  Yet, I've been finding myself at the end of each day with a browserful of tabs of content on which I'm inclined to comment.

So, as interest and time allow, I'll publish quick-hit posts containing commentary that is somewhere between a tweet and a full-on blog post.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


August 11, 2012


Barro's Welfare Error

Justin Katz

Via Ted Nesi comes a Bloomberg column by Josh Barro.  It's one of those commentaries in which it isn't quite clear whether the author is offering pure political advice or expressing his opinion, so I'll assume the latter.  In that context, here are Barro's thoughts on the balance of the economy and government:

If you concede that the purpose of a business is to provide well-paying jobs and solid benefits, then you cannot defend private equity. Private equity defenders must stand up for the idea that firms do not have a social obligation to retain and pay their employees; their function is to produce products and profits and getting them to do so more efficiently is good for consumers and for the economy as a whole.

… [Therefore, it's a] straightforward neoliberal proposition: The government should provide a robust safety net so that employers can be left free to hire, fire, open and close at will. A dynamic private sector is important, but it needs a substantial welfare state to support the people who fall through its cracks.


Barro's is an interesting argument, but its greatest asset is how clearly it brings into focus something that people across the country are beginning to sense, especially on the right:  The model of big finance and big business operating to supply wealth, with a robust welfare state picking up the pieces shed in the name of efficiency, is an excellent example of the ways in which the  money-shuffling sector is distorting the country's economy and government deleteriously in its own favor.

Barro introduces an error with his most fundamental premise that there is such a thing as one single "purpose of a business."  The purpose of a business is whatever the people involved in it want it to be.  If they value profit above all else, they'll follow Barro's reasoning; if they value a sense of community, they'll operate differently.

Indeed, the infinite variety of priorities is a large part of what makes people go into one industry or another — or one line of work or another.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


August 8, 2012


On State of the State: Getting RI Involved and on Track

Justin Katz

On the latest State of the State with John Carlevale, I discussed Rhode Island's civic scene and how residents can begin to get involved and sort through the system along with Lisa Blais, of Ocean State Tea Party in Action, and Marina Peterson, of East Bay Patriots. Of particular note, related to my habitual role as contrarian, are the discussions of whether we should want elected officials to "work together" and the relative merits of offering comprehensive solutions versus simply increasing economic freedom.

 

7-26-2012 What's a Citizen to Do to Become Involved? from John Carlevale on Vimeo.


August 1, 2012


Hopkins Center Milton Party (and Thoughts on the Fuel of Capitalism)

Justin Katz

The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights' panel discussion on the event of Milton Friedman's hundredth birthday offset "liberaltarian" Brown professor John Tomasi with June Speakman, a Roger Williams professor more inclined to agree with the prefix of the coinage. The panel would have benefited from the inclusion of an unabridged conservative who agreed with its root.

The most interesting idea placed on the Nick-a-Nees table was Tomasi's hypothesis that free markets can correspond with social justice if we think of the latter concept "in new ways." The people who developed social justice, he says, just "happened to be all from the left."

A conservative panelist might have suggested that there's no "happened to be" about it — that the very concept was designed to supplant the competing idea of charity and free association. Justice is the province of the police and the justice system, and "social justice" inherently suggests that those who hold the political levers can judge and impose their view of a just society on others against their will.

Watch video of the event and continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


July 27, 2012


The Context of the President's Context

Justin Katz

It's intriguing to observe the telescoping nature of the "context" to which folks are referring when discussing President Obama's infamous Friday the 13th Roanoake speech. The damning two sentences continue to be:

If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

The inferred meaning is that somebody else should get credit for the business that you built. The president's defenders introduce the entire paragraph and the next, arguing that the context shows Obama's statement to have been that business owners didn't build the infrastructure on which their businesses rely:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.


The critics expand the text in the opposite direction, to the paragraph before, arguing that the context is, if anything, worse than the gaffe, mainly because of the preachy, scornful tone:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

At this point, as I've argued (and continue to believe), the president's defenders are probably correct on the grammatical point of the key sentence, but his detractors have the better case on the context. In response, a liberal commenter on Anchor Rising criticized me for not including the whole speech. And happy, as ever, to comply, I took a closer look and did indeed come to a striking conclusion: Obama's context is even worse than I'd thought.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


July 19, 2012


Credit for Building, Blame for Dividing

Justin Katz

President Obama's teleprompter style has been the subject of substantial (often mocking) critical commentary, and with some justification, as this nearly parodic 2010 video from a Virginia classroom proves:

Given recent political events, one can sympathize with the desire of public officials to avoid extemporaneous speech. In a world in which one's every public utterance can be recorded, scrutinized, and exploited, one can't rely on an audience's capacity to get your drift and give you the benefit of the doubt. And it's all to easy to blurt out a sentence such as the now infamous, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

Predictably, in the realm of commentary, the debate has moved to the meta matter of whether commentators are deliberately misconstruing the President's meaning. On Slate, Dave Weigel charitably infers "a missing sentence or clause" that Obama neglected to utter because he was "rambling." On Reason, Tim Cavanaugh rejoins that "at some point it helps to look at that thing above the subtext, which is generally known as 'the text.'"

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


July 11, 2012


Of Receivers and Kings

Carroll Andrew Morse

Thanks to WPRI-TV's Ted Nesi, for inviting me to contribute a guest post to Nesi's Notes this summer.

The essay begins with the big picture...

If you are interested in understanding the eternal wisdom of the conservative viewpoint towards government, here are two questions to ask yourself: Do we really think that people are smarter now than they were in medieval times? Are we really sure we know more about governing ourselves than did our ancestors?
...and ends up in Rhode Island (Woonsocket, to be specific).


July 4, 2012


Happy Independence Day?

Justin Katz

The Ocean State Current encourages readers to spend some time today reading the Declaration of Independence and considering its continuing significance in our times.

Some of the particulars resonate as if addressing present issues:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. ...

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. ...

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation ...

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent ...

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers ...


But more profound, naturally, is the spirit of the document, and the pondering of it may lead one to question whether it does continue to have significance for many Americans — for enough Americans.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


February 29, 2012


Imagine Reevaluation of Political Philosophies...

Justin Katz

... It may be more difficult than it seems.
If dislike of dictators
Is contingent on progressive dreams

Over on the Current, I express restrained hope that some noise on the Left about Central Falls' receiver will spur reconsideration of liberals' long-running centralization project.

I note, too, that Anchor Rising's unease with the entire municipal receivership program goes back to a May 2010 post by Andrew.


January 31, 2012


False Denials of Comparison Between Roads and Families

Justin Katz

In further proof of his lax moral standards,* it took Mangeek too long to read my post responding to one of his recent comments for his own response to attract much attention, so I'll reprint it here:

... what I'm trying to say, Justin, is that I think conservatives (for the most part) are finding all the wrong explanations for why things are the way they are...

I can put a dollar-value on the per-pound impact of the weight of a car on roads. It's a direct cause-and-effect relationship that allows large vehicle drivers to externalize part of the societal costs they are responsible for onto those of us who live more modest lifestyles.

Meanwhile, while you can draw correlations between marital status and costs on society, I'm not sure they're cause-and-effect. In any case, we already 'reward and punish things we like/dislike' via different tax rates on married people, homeowners, business owners, and trust-fund kids.

Maybe society would be better-served overall if families were encouraged to (for example) drive safer, more efficient, and less costly vehicles (or buy smaller homes, or not take out $BIG student loans, etc.) than if we mandated which gender and legal configurations they were allowed to be. Just Sayin'.

It's important to note that my post was in reaction to his questioning the necessity of moral judgment in society. In the above, he does little more than agree that he's got no problem with the practice in concept, just on the particulars.

But on those particulars, his argument is clearly flawed. As a point of fact, he cannot "put a dollar-value on the per-pound impact of the weight of a car on roads." He could, perhaps, put such a value on the effects of a specific car under very narrow circumstances, but it could hardly accurately describe the different usages of the actual people he'd like to tax.

Let's say Joe drives a vehicle with a heavy curb weight — some kind of SUV — but he hardly ever puts additional weight inside it (after all, he's only 120 lbs), and he only drives it a quarter mile each morning and afternoon before he is across his city's border and therefore off the roads for which he's ostensibly being taxed. Meanwhile, 400 lb Bob has a much lighter curb-weight car, but he typically drives it filled to brimming with books and other heavy objects; moreover, his routine calls for him to drive it 10 miles each way across the town in which he lives.

And that's before we get into their driving styles. Joe takes it easy, while driving, and tries to slow down for intersections over greater distances. Bob is heavy on the gas pedal and the brakes, very often peeling out when starting and skidding when stopping.

In short, Mangeek cannot present his moral preference as a clear transfer of cost in a cause-effect relationship. Indeed, work in all of the relevant variables and defining the cost of cars by their weight isn't much different than attributing costs to divorce and out-of-wedlock births. All else being equal, I've no doubt that heavier vehicles exact more of a toll on the roads, but the same can be said of broken families.

Nowhere is Mangeek's skewed comparison more clear than in his closing. We aren't comparing a soft "encouragement" of vehicle types to a stiff penalty against particular relationships. Quite the opposite is true: He wants to exact a penalizing tax against owners of larger vehicles, while he objects to mere recognition of a family type that still ought to be considered to be ideal.

* Note: This opening phrase is tongue in cheek.


January 25, 2012


Dismissing the Fundamental Political Question

Justin Katz

Marc's post, yesterday, about the correspondence of a growing gap in wealth and a growing gap in once-expected behaviors between economic classes has led down some interesting roads and, I think, exposed some problematic thinking. One comment worth its own consideration comes from Mangeek:

"...shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms"

Why is this necessary? Let people live the way they want. Maybe traditional institutions and 1950s ideas about what a family is aren't what's best in a stagnating, globalizing economy.

America is clearly not going to be the dominant world economy in twenty years. We shouldn't stuff our heads in the sand and pretend that if everyone got married and stopped looking at porn, we'd get back on top. We need to break out of traditions and try some New Stuff (or some Old Stuff, depending on how you look at it).

Taking the second paragraph first, it's anachronistic to align economic malaise with a vision of our society as calcifying in dogmatic adherence to traditional norms. New Stuff won't inherently be beneficial within a context of changing circumstances just because its new. Indeed, a key benefit of the social standards that evolved up until around the middle of the last century was that they provided stability allowing society to adapt and address the circumstances of a changing world.

The circumstance that progressive economic and social policies require precisely flips the equation: They take economic growth as the given foundation on which to build a system of radical social change. That won't work. Children dealing with the fallout of their parents' divorce or growing up with the instability of an unmarried household won't be as well positioned to identify and address the changing world. Young men indulging their every sexual whim in a protracted adolescence will behave as their self-absorbed lifestyles suggest in other contexts, as well.

That doesn't mean that we must revert entirely to an increasingly abandoned social model, or that we shouldn't strive to maintain some real advances (the status of women high among them). It is folly, though, to take economic decline as an excuse to do whatever we want to do.

But then, Mangeek has proven in other conversations that he isn't actually interested in complete freedom of behavior. His willingness to use government coercion to get people to abandon large vehicles implicitly points to the problem with the first paragraph quoted above. Basically, what people want to do and what the community requires them to do for its broader health aren't in such accord that we can open the gates to unfettered individualism.

Generally speaking, there are two approaches to dealing with the social need to control and direct behavior. One is to create social institutions to which people hew voluntarily, but that impose expectations. Marriage is an excellent example: The institution has a variety of benefits, chief among them being social approval and support of the core household relationship, but it imposes responsibilities of fidelity and devotion. Its demands also extend to those doing the sorts of things that best happen within marriage, such as having children. The broad consensus about the importance of the institution creates pressure while leaving individuals free to engage in behavior that deviates from the norm.

The other approach to imposing necessary controls is to directly enforce them through government, whether by financial penalties, criminal prosecution, or the darker insinuations of a police state. In this case, a relatively small group defines behavior for everybody, and those definitions (we can expect) will tend to resemble their own limited preferences and to profit their social groups.

"Let people live the way they want" sounds like a liberating plea, but it stops where joint action begins. Those who want to live within a society that acknowledges across its institutions the unique nature of intimate male-female relationships (namely, that they tend to generate children) are out of luck. The residents of Cranston cannot even decorate their shared public school with a benign old prayer banner. In short, "let people live the way they want" is at odds with the first, more free, means of directing society described above.

Consequently, the slogan will lead toward the second, more authoritarian, means. As social problems emerge, the limited group with power will either dictate a growing regiment of behavior or prevent others from developing solutions to solve them.


January 10, 2012


Trillo's Flawed Government Theory

Justin Katz

I don't relish the observation, but it seems to me that Rep. Joe Trillo (R, Warwick) is displaying an unhealthy political philosophy in his quest for a Quonset casino:

"It would have to be bigger than Foxwoods, bigger than Mohegan Sun, otherwise it's not going to work," he said. "To just go with a regional casino, it won't be able to compete."

Trillo also envisioned a scenario in which a single operator would buy and run the privately-owned Twin River and Newport Grand, and the new Quonset Point casino. Asked if he had been approached by anyone interested in making such a major investment while the Mohegan Sun struggles financially, Trillo said an emphatic no: "I have purposely stayed away from any casino operators."

It's well and good, if true, that Trillo is avoiding the corrupting influence of those whose money would be necessary to make his vision a reality, but of itself, a vision of such scope and specificity is not an appropriate basis for government action. It isn't the job of elected officials to decide what sort of business on what sort of scale for what sort of market their area ought to have and then go about developing it.

Government should stick to ensuring that the marketplace remains competitive, broadly, and that its policies are not hindering the people from pursuing activities that, within limited boundaries of order and cultural integrity, they believe will be profitable and beneficial.



The Mood on the Right

Justin Katz

Roger Kimball expresses a pessimism with which I confess more than a little sympathy:

Tootling around Washington, I was struck by — well, not by its prosperity, exactly, but by what is clearly a lavish outlay of funds — your funds, in fact. Everywhere I turned there were huge building cranes. In one spot, I counted seven over the space of a few blocks. It looked a little like a third world country suddenly flush from newly discovered mineral reserves of some sort. Which I suppose describes the situation in Washington accurately enough, except that for "mineral reserves" you need to substitute "deficit spending." I remember meeting my friend Edward Shils several years ago in Washington: "My, they live well on our money," he said. What would he say today, I wonder, when Washington has come more and more to resemble Versailles circa 1780.

The cranes are markers of a "permanent political class," Kimball goes on to say, living well off of government largess and the investments on inside information and special-interest gifts that flow their way. And what's true for money is true for power — power over the smallest details of our lives.

Something’s happening — maybe it already has happened — to the republic conceived in liberty. The Tea Party sounded the alarm in 2010 and there was a rustle-bustle of acknowledgment. Their voices seem oddly, ominously silent now.

Part of that sense, I'm persuaded, comes from the (quite deliberate) allocation of newspaper column inches that might have gone to Tea Party–type stories that have instead been devoted to the antics of the Occupy movement. More broadly, and more hopefully, I think the Tea Party has gone from a movement to an organization, or rather organizations peppered throughout the civic sphere.

As an outside, grassroots movement, the Tea Party managed to sway some elections. Still, 2011 and its debt-ceiling debacle proved that the movement hadn't broken the threshold beyond which the political class hesitates to govern by illusion. And so, we all await the next election, puzzling out how to get a real reaction from government.

Conservatives' pessimism, then, may be the disquiet accompanying the sense that a lack of noise means a lack of action and momentum. We'll see whether that's the case. In the meantime, it's worthwhile to continue pointing to the path that it would be disastrous to take.


January 3, 2012


Big Finance Likes Totalitarianism, but Democracy Requires Hard Lessons

Justin Katz

I'll admit that I don't have much new to say about the continuing activities of the state-appointed budget commission now ruling East Providence:

The state-appointed budget commission overseeing the city's finances convened for the first time Wednesday, chose Michael O'Keefe, a former state budget director, as its president, and established its first priority: improving the city’s cash flow.

Essentially, that means debt; the city needs $10 million in tax anticipation notes, and the lowering of its rating to "junk" will make that "more difficult and expensive," as O'Keefe puts it. It all comes back to government debt and charming investors. We've discussed previously that the municipal takeovers are meant as "a statement to Wall Street," and the point merits continued emphasis. What Wall Street likes about state-imposed budget commissions is that they open the door to options that might benefit civic units as economic entities, but not necessarily as self-determinant civil societies. The state can take money from other parts of the state to hand to struggling cities and towns; it can impose taxes on local residents without fearing democratic reaction; it can change policies and, ultimately, contracts to address shortfalls.

At bottom, the problem is that the way in which the state determines a preferred mix of these solutions will depend on the influences on it. That means not only special interests, like organized labor, but also the general priorities of the class of people who occupy the state's bureaucracy and elected positions. The people who actually live in a city or town are not likely to rate very highly, and voters in other cities and towns are not likely to pay all that much attention.

I'd suggest that a healthier solution — in the long term, and with an eye toward effective democracy — would be to let a city or town run out of money. Let it reach the point at which it cannot provide services or pay employees. Or, alternately, that it must raise taxes and impose fees almost immediately. If we're to be a self-governing people, we have to experience, together, the consequences of incompetent leaders and bad decisions.

Of course, if people start learning such lessons on the small, local scale, they might begin applying them at the state and national levels. And we couldn't have that, now could we?


December 21, 2011


Open Thread: Traditional Politicking vs. Occupy Wall Street

Carroll Andrew Morse

Open thread question, especially to those who have been impressed by at least the energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement: As several hundred people assemble in Pawtuxet this evening, on the shortest day of the year and just a few days before Christmas to make an important decision regarding their future political direction, how is this assembly of citizens looking to make a difference in their goverment and society any less worthy of respect than Occupy Wall Street?


November 20, 2011


The Understand Occupy Wall Street, All You Need To Understand is All of Political Philosophy, Part 1

Carroll Andrew Morse

Looking towards Marxism to explain Occupy Wall Street, as a number of writers have recently done, doesn't go far enough to explain the sort-of-movement's set of agenda items, or its choice of means for achieving its agenda. To fully understand the Occupy Wall Street Protests, its Providence counterpart, and how they differ from the Tea Party organizations, a wider view of political philosophy is needed -- in fact, a view of all of it. Fortunately, understanding all of political philosophy is not quite as daunting a task as it may initially sound (especially when you have bloggers to guide you).

* * *

Alfred North Whitehead once said that "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato". If you believe Whitehead, all you need to do to understand all of philosophy, political philosophy included, is digest the entire works of Plato. Of course, Whitehead’s claim was ridiculously broad; obviously it was the combination of Plato and Aristotle who at one point or another said everything on the subject of philosophy there is to be said.

Slight hyperboles aside, it is safe to say that most if not all of the important concepts still used in philosophy today were developed by the ancient philosophers. The differences that separate modern from ancient philosophy are in the normative, i.e. in the widespread acceptance of basic set of rights possessed by everyone, commoners and aristocracy alike. In the words of 20th century philosopher Allan Bloom, rights are “new in modernity, not a part of the common sense language of politics or of classical political philosophy". In the ancient world, it was possible to think deeply and be concerned about concepts such as justice and virtue, yet still not be troubled by a practice such as slavery. This was not possible after the idea of universal equality had taken root. The political implication of this, also in Bloom's words, is that modernity is “constituted by the political regimes founded on freedom and equality, hence on the consent of the governed".

I don't believe that philosophers or historians have settled on any single explanation of how the idea of the political equality of all men (and eventually women) crept decisively into society's way of thinking over the millennia between Ancient Greece and the Enlightenment, but one theory worth pondering is that it was catalyzed by the spread of Christianity, with its core belief in all men being equal in the eyes of God. We do know that a connection between a Creator of all and equal rights for all was expressed at the beginning of the American Declaration of Independence, meaning that America’s founders either really believed in this idea, or if they didn’t, they were unable to identify a better alternative to base the existence of equal rights upon.

In tracing how ideas of liberty and equality made their way to the United States, historian Bernard Bailyn has noted they arrived in various forms: "Enlightenment abstractions", "common law precedents", "covenant theology", and "classical analogy", some more philosophical, some more practical. The Enlightenment abstractions -- the most purely philosophical part -- included the early and very successful theory of individual equality that had been posited by John Locke. Locke's idea was that all men possessed a natural freedom in a "state of nature", but that other men and unpleasant aspects of nature threatened that freedom. In response, individuals made a contract with another, agreeing to give up a small part of their natural freedom, to protect themselves from the threats that had the power to limit their freedom in a more severe way.

There were two great counterpoints to the ideas of Locke. One came from Edmund Burke. Burke rejected the idea that the goal of society was to restore man to life as it might have been in a state of nature. Burke doubted that such a state had existed in a meaningful way at any place or time. Man had always lived surrounded by other men and, in response, society had evolved habits and institutions that could protect an “ordered liberty” that would be something substantially less without them.

The other great reaction to Locke was that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Unlike Burke, Rousseau shared Locke's idea that the goal of political organization was to get man as close to an ideal state of nature has possible. However, unlike Locke, he didn't believe it would follow naturally from the pursuit of individual interests. Instead, Rousseau believed everyone had to subsume their individual wills into society's "general will" in order to experience true freedom in modern existence.

I would not go quite as far as Alfred North Whitehead did in tracing everything back to any single thinker or very small set of thinkers but, over the past 300 years, there hasn't been very much added to the combinations of underlying assumptions about the modes of political interaction explored by Locke, Burke and Rousseau. Their work has endured for centuries, because they each painted coherent pictures of how human instincts and intuitions about political interaction combine with conscious ideas of individual freedom and equality. There are some modes of human thinking that don't really change, and a good comprehensive description from seventeenth or eighteenth century still applies today -- so long as we are willing to stick with that normative idea that all men and women are created equal.

Social science taxonomists of various stripes would say that Locke, Burke and Rousseau gave expression to modes of thinking that are liberal (in the classical sense), conservative (which is a little different from "American" conservatism) and radical (which is a different thing from liberal), respectively. (But just in case, I've missed someone big, I will create an open thread immediately below this post, for anyone who wants to make a case for a fourth, orthogonal political philosopher).

What has been added to the work of the early modern political theorists is a whole lot of history, allowing for some assessment of whether the various theories are really all that logical, once the reality of human nature is added.

* * *

Looking across the breadth of political philosophy, the differences between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street become obvious. At the very fundamental level, the movements capture very different aspects of possible human reactions to political problems. The Tea Party movement, with its focus on Constitutional government, i.e. on preserving institutions and habits that have served many people very well for many years, are mounting a Burkean defense (of a day-to-day system, somewhat paradoxically, that is heavily justified in terms of the ideas of Locke.)

The Occupy Wall Streeters and Occupy Providencers, on the other hand, are tapping into the side of human nature explored by Rousseau -- the philosopher of the big three whose ideas by-far provide the worst guide for building a livable political program...



Open Thread: Is there a Big Idea in Modern Political Philsophy that's Not Somewhere in the Work of John Locke, Edmund Burke, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau?

Carroll Andrew Morse

I can't think of a body for this post that makes clearer what's in the title.


November 17, 2011


The Cultural Cycle We're In

Justin Katz

Commenting on the image cut by "union protesters" (that is, protesting union members), Alice Losasso of West Warwick quotes Scottish historian Alexander Tytler as follows:

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to complacency; From complacency to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage."

I'd like to think that the cycle can be broken, but I'm not so sure. As Tytler indicates in the preceding paragraph, the forces pushing toward decline control the vote because they get goodies from the system. The topic brings to mind a comment that Phil left yesterday to one of my pension posts:

I think it is appropriate to try to stifle reform that targets aging retirees. Do you want your generation to be the one that breaks contracts and faith with your elders once they have stopped working?

My "elders" fashioned the yoke of government regulation and inside dealing that is strangling our economy; they set fire to the cultural pillars that must stand in order to sustain liberty and abundance over the long term; they worshiped their own untrammeled independence to such a degree that they failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers to maintain the Ponzi schemes that they developed; and they made themselves promises at the expense of those whom they deigned to beget. The generation that once declared, "don't trust anyone over 30," is now insisting, "don't discomfit anyone over 60."

For my part, I'm utterly unpersuaded that those now approaching middle age, much less those who are younger still, are therefore obligated to maintain the scheme. There is no moral obligation for a young, struggling family to ensure a cushy retirement that maintains an arbitrarily high standard of living for people who have ceased to produce. But to enforce that obligation, and others like it, my "elders" will be only too happy to place increasing power in the hands of an incompetent governing class that will persist long after the gray years of the Boomers — probably until the entire civilization collapses or a bloody revolution sets things aright. From my perspective, some rational, not-exactly-arduous reforms now would be preferable.

ADDENDUM.

Russ was happy to point out in the comments that the Tytler quotation is actually a common misattribution. That's fine. Just as I wouldn't argue that a cultural observation must be true because some historian made it, I won't discount that it might be true even if he didn't say it, especially for use in a more philosophical-type blog post.


November 11, 2011


What Kind of Progress?

Justin Katz

Peter Thiel's cover story for the October 3 National Review is worth a read. Essentially, he breaks "progress" into distinct components and argues that the United States is losing steam on the most important. Part of our problem, he argues, is that we've culturally begun to behave as if every aspect of society moves forward in some sort of inexorable march:

Today's aged hippies no longer understand that there is a difference between the election of a black president and the creation of cheap solar energy; in their minds, the movement towards greater civil rights parallels general progress everywhere. Because of these ideological conflations and commitments, the 1960s Progressive Left cannot ask whether things actually might be getting worse. I wonder whether the endless fake cultural wars around identity politics are the main reason we have been able to ignore the tech slowdown for so long.

It's not only on the Left that one finds this (although it seems most pronounced, there). One often gets the impression during general political/philosophical discussions that the modern zeitgeist includes a strong faith that history and evolution inevitably move toward an Elysium of technological wonders, economic surplus, and unmitigated equality not of opportunity, but of outcome.

So, moving toward a social shift that advocates successfully paint in the colors of advancement — whether same-sex marriage, de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants, the silencing of supposedly intolerant voices, or public funding for abortion via government control of healthcare — comes to be seen as inherently compatible with innovation and liberty. That imperative holds no matter the method of achieving the shift.


November 7, 2011


Political Donors as the Judges of Right and Wrong

Justin Katz

Readers of the Sunday Providence Journal will be familiar with the "In Quotes" column that typically appears on page A2; basically it's a few notable quotes from the week, usually with a picture of the speaker. This week, one in particular caught my eye, because it's from Brown professor Wendy Schiller, and I think it expresses a surprisingly simplistic thought for a political science professional.

On the huge inflow of funds to Gina Raimondo's campaign fund:

If this person who's advocating changing the pension system can attract that kind of support, it is an external signal that she's on the right track.

Actually, it's not. It's a signal that people with big money to devote to politics like something about Raimondo's prospects. No doubt, some of it has been donated in admiration for her pension efforts, but (as I've been suggesting for a while, now) some of it is surely related to her likelihood to be a progressive warrior when she translates her pension caché into a higher office.

It's a bit humorous, though, to read a Brown professor seeing big campaign money as a form of validation. I haven't followed Schiller closely enough to offer this as more than a musing, but I do wonder whether her analysis would be the same were the treasurer likely to be a far-right stalwart once she'd moved on from the pension mess and the treasurer's office.


October 18, 2011


Will OWS Have Next Steps?

Carroll Andrew Morse

Michael Morgenstern, a Brown University graduate and blogger sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street movement, does an excellent job of summing up OWS' political and organizational let's-call-them-challenges-for-now with this short passage...

Anarchy doesn’t work. Income disparity will always exist to some extent. Destroying a system rather than working with it (at least to some extent) is extremely dangerous, and very few people in history has shown themselves to be good at that. Change is difficult, and it requires a vision of an alternate future. If the vision is yet to be formed, we need a roadmap to the vision. And the greatest truth: not everybody can be represented in every element of this movement. Like a clever politician, the movement has allowed each member to see him or herself in it; but like any politician, its true test will come when it is asked to actually make a decision.


October 6, 2011


Ah, Communism: the Political Structure of the People!

Justin Katz

This is about what one should expect from a communist utopia:

Until May, a sign inside the gate identified the property as the Beijing Customs Administration Vegetable Base and Country Club. The placard was removed after a Chinese reporter sneaked inside and published a story about the farm producing organic food so clean the cucumbers could be eaten directly from the vine. ...

Many of the nation's best food companies don't promote or advertise. They don't want the public to know that their limited supply is sent to Communist Party officials, dining halls reserved for top athletes, foreign diplomats, and others in the elite classes. The general public, meanwhile, dines on foods that are increasingly tainted or less than healthful — meats laced with steroids, fish from ponds spiked with hormones to increase growth, milk containing dangerous additives such as melamine, which allows watered-down milk to pass protein-content tests.

Communism, like socialism more broadly, is about the haves buying off the have-nots with promises and rhetoric to make their tyranny sound charitable. At the end of the day, the wall around the edible food supply is just as high or higher, and the people outside have less opportunity to develop their own.


October 4, 2011


Does Anyone Else Find It Ironic, Or Possibly Redundant, That They've Come to Occupy the Most Anti-Corporate State in the Country?

Monique Chartier

A contingent from "Occupy Wall Street" is now gearing up to "Occupy Providence". Earlier this evening, WPRO's Matt Allen interviewed Bob Plain. He is covering the Occupiers' Rhode Island campaign, which is currently in the planning stage. (Hey, Bob, when you get a minute, can we hear more about the hand signals employed at their meetings?)

From the beginning, the Occupiers' principles and goals have been passionate but somewhat diffuse, not to say vague. Even The Daily Show professed to being a little unclear on the point. But since then, the original "Occupy Wall Street" chapter has penned a Declaration. From it and from statements by Occupiers themselves, they seem pretty down on corporations and capitalism and business.

Well, go-o-o-o-lly, Occupiers, welcome to Rhode Island!!! Your principles were implemented here long ago. Accordingly, we now have the worst business climate in the country, with the corresponding economy, (non)employment rate and shriveled tax base to show for it. With the state having been corporately pre-trashed before your arrival, you should feel right at home!

By all means, stay and "occupy". But you don't need to go all out. Rest up for the next state. Patronize our coffee shops. Be sure to make your way over to Thayer Street at some point (you'll love it).

In terms of the mission, your work here is done.


August 27, 2011


Snow Drifting Across the True Meaning of the Wall

Justin Katz

A central reason that I don't often write about pop literature and such — apart from the fact that, as fun as doing so can be, my time is better spent elsewise — is that the online practice of warning about spoilers seems to me to indicate a potential threat to the sanctity of those moments when good books (or movies) can surprise and offer unrepeatable moments of revelation. But I've stumbled on a cross-blog conversation about George R.R. Martin's recently released A Dance with Dragons among some progressives, and their points seem to me to indicate a profound difference in the way people of differing politics view the world.

However, offering my take would be impossible without casual declaration of the single biggest spoiler of the plot, so be warned, ye who've yet to read all of the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series so far.

As I recall, Martin was a fundraising fan of Barack Obama during the last election season, so I've no illusion that he's setting out to write books with a conservative moral. That said, authors who accurately capture something in human nature inevitably support a conservative reading of society, because (as I've assessed) such a reading more accurately captures reality. Thus, it might be true that Martin would develop to substantial degree an underlying theme without intending or liking the real-life sociopolitical conclusions that naturally extend from it.

For those who haven't been following the series, the story is centered on the island/continent nation of Westeros, which more or less mirrors North America in climate, if not shape. The South is hot and somewhat exotic in a Central American way; the North is always cold. The seasons, while proceeding in the order of our own, don't follow a set calendar.

The society resembles a Medieval kingdom in which magic exists around the fringes, although it was stronger in living memory and appears to be resurgent. Events in the first book, A Game of Thrones, set into motion political turmoil just as dragons are heralding the return of magic on another continent to the distant east and dark, cold forces are rumbling in the far north. Those forces manifest in a race of Others, who may be generically described as ice demons with the power to raise up the dead as zombies.

The character with whom we're most concerned, here, is Jon Snow. "Snow" is the surname that the people of the North give to illegitimate children who cannot be fully integrated into their families (and lines of heredity), and Jon's father was the premiere lord of the region, the Warden of the North, Eddard Stark. (It's been clear since the first book, at least to me, that Jon is actually the son of Eddard's sister and a prince from a line of dragon-riding royalty, both dead, but that's not important, just now.)

Locked out of his family's development among the various nobles who'd begun jockeying for position, Jon went farther north to serve in the Night's Watch — a brotherhood charged with defending the northern border of the kingdom. Truth be told, the northern border pretty well defends itself, inasmuch as an ancient Wall of ice seven hundred feet high spans the entire continent from east to west. Moreover, with the fading of magic in the world, the dark creatures of the deep northern forest have sunk to the status of old wives tales, and the Wall is mainly seen as protecting the kingdom from the occasional raids of Wildlings — tribes of people who live in a more primitive manner but consider themselves more free.

The Night's Watch has therefore mainly become a maintenance crew that the kingdom uses in large degree as a service option for criminals who would otherwise be killed or left to rot in prison, led by more respectable characters who have for one reason or another found cause to step outside of the kingdom's society. Various circumstances (primarily the mass death of many of the brotherhood's most competent figures) conspire to place the teenage Jon Snow in the position of Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and Dances, the fifth book of a projected seven, spends much time describing his effort to prepare for the gathering supernatural storm beyond the Wall.

The core component of his strategy is to bring the Wildlings across the border to civilization — both to help man the Watch's score of crumbling fortresses and to prevent the tribes' becoming an army of zombies when the Others make their move. In Jon's approach, Alyssa Rosenberg, of ThinkProgress, sees a progressive restructuring of society, and the fissure that becomes a gulf between Left and Right emerges in a single adjective:

... Jon responds by becoming a nation-builder, redefining "the realms of men" to include the Wildlings, integrating them into Westeros's society with intermarriages, land, rebuilt castles, and alliances. In that decision, Jon does more to reconceptualize what Westeros should be than any of the five kings he’s stayed neutral from.

It's an astonishing act of political and moral vision. And his brothers murder him for it. Even more so than [Eddard's] execution, Jon's death feels to me like the most fully-realized tragedy in the novel. Where his father was a decent man of limited vision who was killed by an insane person, Jon learned Ned's lessons, but he also showed a moral and political flexibility his father lacked, and was murdered by a shattered institution he was trying to force into a future where it would be able to survive.

I'll put aside the fact that many readers would dispute the insinuation that stodgy ol' Eddard wouldn't have acted just as young, daring Jon does and get right to the word that marks deep ideological differences between conservatives and Rosenberg: "shattered," as in the "shattered institution" of the Night's Watch. A better adjective would be atrophied — atrophied as a result of the apathy of a society that no longer trusts its own traditions sufficiently to exert even minimally adequate effort in the preservation of an ancient institution.

The mission of the Night's Watch, far from being heroic, is no longer considered to be serious, for most of the kingdom. Collectively, Westeros feels as if the Watch ought to continue to exist — almost as a park ranger service — but it is a subject of mockery to suggest that the rangers face anything more terrifying than unwashed savages and a lifetime of winter weather.

So, to some degree, I side with Spencer Ackerman in his argument against Rosenberg, but he errs (or accedes to error) in a way that a conservative worldview would help avoid. Ackerman suggests that Jon's decisions are guided by a pragmatic intention of increasing the manpower of the Night's Watch, not a unitary vision of humanity:

Nor does Jon display any interest in building a nation. The Wildlings don't get integrated into the North. They get a ghetto in the Gift [a largely uninhabited region south of the Wall], in which they're dependent on the Night's Watch. Jon strolls his Brothers into the Gift to hand out what provisions he can spare -- and while he does so, he makes a pitch for the Wildlings to join their old enemies in the Watch. ...

Others might call Jon a usurper. He's not a king. He's a controversial, compromise choice for Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. The Night's Watch is a brotherhood of guardsmen. Its job, as understood by anyone south of the Wall, is to keep the Wildlings out of Westeros. And what did Jon just do?

Inasmuch as Ackerman is describing a matter of perspective and the attitudes of the characters in the books, the error is not clearly his, but it is an error to see the Watch's mission as he describes it. Seeing it otherwise makes of the Wall a fabulous metaphor on which to drape social and political commentary.

Plainly put, the Wall is a defensible line across the narrowest region of the continent that incorporates all of the most desirable geography for habitation and trade. It defends civilization from an ancient darkness that would destroy it. With that darkness long receded, some people choose to exist beyond the Wall, where they can claim greater individual liberty (albeit with the more superficial freedom that comes with rejection of civilized norms). But with the tide of evil again rising, that choice is no longer tolerable to the larger society of mankind, and Jon is in the most likely position in the realm to spot that reality. The Wildlings have to be brought within the defensible border and encouraged to bolster the Night's Watch, the traditional institution that has heretofore symbolized for them the militant arm of a society that would force them to be "kneelers."

Thus, while Ackerman's main point in his post — that "if you wish to change the realm, you have to engage in the painful, arduous task of building legitimacy through... recognized institutions" — is insightful and in accord with conservative principles, it skips the larger, more important point. Just as Jon Snow wasn't interested in nation building, he wasn't interested in changing the realm. He spends almost zero time lamenting that Wildlings and Westerosi can't just get along.

He does, however, frequently make note of the practices and assumptions that prevent the two sides from communicating and interacting effectively. Animosity between them is a practical hurdle to acknowledge and overcome, but it isn't a moral imperative that must be assuaged. The mating and marriage practices of Wildlings aren't to be respected in the sense of multicultural appreciation, but in the sense that they must be tolerated to the extent that one wishes to work alongside those who hold different views. Some of the ways in which Wildlings differ from Westerosi might be admirable in a certain context, and (more often) they might be inconsequential to Jon's proximate mission, but some of their differences, particularly their lack of discipline, must be changed.

Moreover, Jon's egalitarianism exists entirely within his sense of honor and duty, as components of a traditional moral code, as well as his respect for the rules by which men and women agree to live. While the Wildlings are inside the Wall, they must respect the laws of the kingdom, just as while he's a sworn brother of the Night's Watch, he must resist the call of family and political intrigue.

That's why, contrary to yet another progressive commenting on the book, I'm concerned that Jon's apparent killing at the end of the book is not a shining literary moment, but possibly a failure of the author to develop a principal character in a consistent, believable way. But commentary on that will have to await another post.


August 24, 2011


A "Meddling" Government Directed by "A Few Players"

Marc Comtois

Justin's post brought the word "meddling" to mind. And that made me remember this from Tocqueville:

The nature of despotic power in democratic ages is not to be fierce or cruel, but minute and meddling. Despotism of this kind though it does not trample on humanity, is directly opposed to the genius of commerce and the pursuits of industry.
Reading from that same chapter, further down, Tocqueville wrote this:
When the bulk of the community are engrossed by private concerns, the smallest parties need not despair of getting the upper hand in public affairs. At such times it is not rare to see on the great stage of the world, as we see in our theaters, a multitude represented by a few players, who alone speak in the name of an absent or inattentive crowd: they alone are in action, while all others are stationary; they regulate everything by their own caprice; they change the laws and tyrannize at will over the manners of the country, and then men wonder to see into how small a number of weak and worthless hands a great people may fall.
Of course, back then, he also observed, "Hitherto the Americans have fortunately escaped all the perils that I have just pointed out..."


August 12, 2011


Saving Everybody from Themselves

Justin Katz

On July 14, Andrew put up an excellent post responding to a comment from Michael Morse and explaining what we mean when we talk about the inherent corruption of the public sector, particularly with respect to unionization:

When someone regularly deals on a firsthand basis with people in need of real help -- and in the case of public safety workers, people who are in real danger -- it is natural to prioritize the needs of those making or answering calls for help ahead of the monitions raised by people not immediate in distress, who are asking for relief from the strains they feel are being created by publicly-imposed obligations. But just like self-interest is not inherently bad, but leads to problems when pressed too far, so too can the impulse to help those whom we have most direct contacts with create problems and confusion, when effects of our actions on people outside of our personal interactions are too severely discounted. No human being is immune to this, which means no human system is immune to this.

The next day, Michael made a relevant appearance in a Bob Kerr column titled, "It keeps happening because no one tries to stop it":

... among the shooting victims and stabbing victims, those injured in traffic accidents and those hurt in fires, are the drunks. There will always be the drunks because, says Morse, they are a problem that is tolerated rather than dealt with. There have been a few initiatives, some trying to shift the focus from the physical to the psychological. But they haven't gotten anywhere. The drunks keep falling and the city has to keep picking them up.

"They're survivors," says Morse. "I don't get angry. They're using the tools at their disposal. They get to eat and get cleaned up at the hospital. If they're a little too ripe, they get new clothes."

There will always be drunks, but I'm not sure one can blame society for not "dealing with" their problems. Indeed, it's not unlikely that public efforts to assist alcoholics reinforce the thinking and bad impulses that draws them to the bottle in the first place. (Rephrasing it from language of personal decisions and responsibility to language of psychological disease doesn't gain us any ground, here.)

Being familiar with Bob Kerr, I'm comfortable inferring that his means of dealing with alcoholics problems would take some form of government action to alleviate "root causes." If they've got some diagnosable medical issue (such as depression), he'd have the government provide them with treatment and medicine. If they're lacking for material comforts, he'd have the government supply them. If they're chronically unemployed, he'd have the government employ them, train them, and give them subsidies while waiting for them to conclude that working a whole lot harder for a little bit of income beyond the subsidies makes sense.

In other words, he'd respond using methods that have seemed to me only to prolong adolescence and cultivate dependence when applied to teenagers.

Kerr begins and ends the column lauding a woman who took time out of her life to stop and call 911 to help a particular drunk passed out on the street. Even in a libertarian construct, there is an extent to which we are obligated to deal with drunks, even if only to keep them from disrupting the lives of everybody else. If the expense isn't too great relative to the society's wealth, picking them and helping them home is preferable to turning them into criminals.

But the error to which we incline when we take that woman's compassion as a model for public policy is one of hindering long-term objectives in the service of the short-term gratification that comes with feeling compassionate. We will never eliminate the problems of human society and remain human. To alleviate those problems, though, and to improve the lot of our fellows as individuals, we ought to focus less on assuring them that we will do everything we can for them and more on creating a society in which the rewards of better decisions can overcome the lure of self destruction.

That means making it less difficult for people to find ways of supporting themselves. It means getting government out of the way of both productive activities and destructive stumbles. And it means returning to a confidence in higher purpose and more profound truths than a Marxist can admit.


July 30, 2011


Government's Version of Accountability

Justin Katz

So, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to stop enforcing regulations if Congress doesn't modify them to account for the failure of those regulated to comply:

Frustrated by what he called a "slow-motion train wreck" for U.S. schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he will give schools relief from federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind law if Congress drags its feet on the law's long-awaited overhaul and reauthorization. ...

Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind isn't changed. Education experts have questioned that estimate.

Still, no one thinks states will meet the law's goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and English by 2014. A school that fails to meet targets for several consecutive years faces sanctions that can include firing teachers or closing the school entirely.

Therein lies the problem with repairing government ineptitude with greater and more-centralized government authority: Nobody actually believes government will use the stick against itself or its favored constituencies when the carrots stop working. Government self-regulation is a perpetual bluff.

ADDENDUM:

For those who might be tempted to make the distracting claim that I can't believe what I write because the legislation in question passed during the Bush Administration, I should note that I thought, said, and wrote much the same back when the law was still in the works.



Self-Government's Intrusion on Fantasy Life

Justin Katz

The argument over the value or harmfulness of television is an old one, but Ben Berger brings it to an important insight. He notes that the medium itself has downsides, and that it tends toward content that compounds them:

... Postman and his fellow media guru Marshall McLuhan both insisted that "the medium is the message," that it matters less what we watch than that we watch — watch rather than listen, read, or think in silence. Content is not irrelevant, of course: Watching violent programs in high doses correlates with reduced sociability and increased volatility, especially in youngsters. Watching crime shows and even news in high doses correlates with the excessive cynicism that the late media scholar George Gerbner called "mean-world syndrome," which impedes social trust and public-spiritedness. And a number of economists have found that TV's commercialism makes viewers more materialistic and less satisfied.

And as a medium, it taps into human — and American — tendencies that were already a risk factor to our freedom and democracy:

... Tocqueville captures our present dilemma. TV, like democracy, is a technology of freedom. It provides a window onto many worlds and offers vast amounts of information. It also caters ever more perfectly to the very proclivities — materialism and privatism — that in Tocqueville's view produce dissatisfaction and disengagement, tending "to isolate men from each other."

Therein enters the insight (emphasis added):

... Tocqueville, who would have appreciated the political dimension of our attention-deficit democracy: For those who immerse themselves too completely in their private worlds, self-government can seem an annoying intrusion. Such citizens may be tempted to delegate increasing authority to a centralized administration. Inattentive and inwardly focused, having lost the habit and art of associating, they would be unlikely to notice the erosion of their freedom and unable to stop it in any case. In the end, democracy as a technology of freedom may actually make citizens more dependent: dependent on an overweening administration and on the petty pleasures for which they sacrificed self-government.

This immersion has a further problem that Berger does not note: As the technologies that facilitate immersion advance, they become more dependent upon resources. A book once borrowed or purchased for relatively little expense can entertain for many hours. A movie lasts about two hours and requires a television and often a player or receiver of some kind, perhaps even a service.

So, not only does the private-world of insular and inactive television viewing make the call of town meetings and the voting booth an intrusion, but it creates a lifestyle that political forces can promise to help maintain — or threaten to eliminate.


July 29, 2011


Government's Disfigurement of American Society

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to highlight the following paragraph, from Kevin Williamson's March 7 National Review consideration of How the West Was Lost by Dambisa Moyo:

The U.S. and Europe have the worst kind of problems: ones that are easy to understand but difficult to solve. Our worst problem is that democratic governments lack the kind of robust fiscal controls that prevent the political class from pillaging the productive economy to feather the nests of its own members and their clients. (China has relatively strong fiscal limitations: a police state and poverty.) The West is in trouble not because Beijing is lending us money, but because of why we are borrowing it: At every level — federal state, local, county, school district, sewage-treatment authority — we have disfigured our institutions such that they function principally as wealth-transfer mechanisms for the benefit of the political class. The word for this is "corruption," and it is at least as much a moral problem as an economic one. We are our own disease.

Williamson oversteps in two respects. A nondemocratic government doesn't have fiscal controls against its own corruption that democracies lack. It just doesn't offer the frustrating promise that peaceful democratic action can thwart the political class's will over the long term. The only option is violent revolution.

Consequently, "our worst problem" isn't the lack of internal government controls, but the deterioration of our culture.


July 28, 2011


Whom Do the Public and Private Sectors Serve?

Justin Katz

Yesterday, I noted a couple of differences between the public and private sectors when it comes to the calculation of hiring new employees, prompting commenter Michael (himself a public employee) to write:

The big difference between the public sector and the private sector is the most important. The public sector exists for service and the private sector exists for profit. Government exists to service the people, hence the public sector.

It wouldn't be a semantic game to reply that Michael's distinction is awfully fine. The restaurant across the street exists serves the public, as do the convenience store and the mechanic's garage, the funeral home and the wedding planner, the insurance agent and the bank. Moreover, as the healthy economy around Washington, D.C., throughout the entire recession illustrates, the people who work within and operate government clearly profit by the activity. Indeed, much of the revelation about the public sector, over the past decade or so, has been that there isn't much (arguably any) financial sacrifice involved in the vocation of government service.

Until very recently, I might have ceded the point that the government is at least like a non-profit organization in that it doesn't need to show a profit beyond salaries for the sake of an owner, partners, or stock holders. But even that is beginning to seem like an assumed — that is, not accurate or real — difference. Consider:

... at least one credit rating agency has already made it clear that unless that agreement includes at least $4 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade, the country's AAA rating could be lost. Right now, the proposals under discussion cut around $2 trillion or less. ...

JPMorgan's Belton said clients have started asking how markets will respond if the U.S. loses its AAA rating. A drop to AA will mean permanently higher borrowing costs for the U.S. government, he said. And because government lending rates act as a floor for other lending rates, mortgages, student loans, corporate debt and other types of loans will become more expensive.

Add this to the general consensus that the government must allow itself to continue borrowing money so as not to default on interest payments to people who've invested in the government by buying bonds, and it begins to appear that the feds are really in the business of offering a low-risk investment opportunity. Corporate stockholders invest their money in the expectation that the company will be successful enough in serving the public that people will continue to pay profitable rates for its services. Government bondholders invest their money in the expectation that the government will continue to be successful enough in offering its own services that the public will continue to tolerate its tax bills.

Of course, with forty cents of every dollar that the government spends being borrowed, the federal government really isn't that far off from the Madoff scheme of paying prior investors with money from new investors. Also of course, the government doesn't have to be but so efficient in its service offerings, because those who receive them are for the most part not those who pay for them.

This lesson of the debt-ceiling debate comes close on the heals of the lessons of the stimulus program, which amounted to hugely expensive insulation of government entities and their employees from the effects of the recession. What we're learning is that the United States government and its subsidiaries exist primarily to ensure well paying and astonishingly secure employment to those on the public-sector payroll and a secure profit to those investing in the ability of American governments to impose taxes on the people whom they ostensibly represent.


July 26, 2011


The Kaleidoscopic Arguments Against Democracy

Justin Katz

Last week, in Tiverton, the committee tasked to create an alternative to the financial town meeting (FTM) held a hearing on its proposal. Basically, the budget process would follow the same steps, with the Town Council and School Committee submitting budgets to the Budget Committee, which puts together a final request for the consideration of the electorate. However, rather than having a few hundred voters (many with direct financial interest in the outcome beyond their tax bills) gather together in the high school gymnasium and offer amendments before voting on final approval by a show of hands, residents would be able to stop by a polling place for an all day referendum during which they would vote on the budget using a private ballot.

The Town Council and School Committee could place alternatives in front of voters, as could any resident, with the signatures of at least 50 people. If no option wins a majority of the vote, either a run-off referendum would decide between the two highest vote getters or the previous year's budget would remain in effect for another year, depending which version of the proposal the current Town Council and special-election voters approve.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the hearing was the series of objections offered by members of the Democratic Town Committee, most of whom have been active advocates of the policies that have doubled property taxes in the past decade. Joanne Arruda — a former Town Council member, current Budget Committee member, and plaintiff in a lawsuit apparently intended to punish the leader of a local taxpayer group for his civic activities — complains that (in the reporter's paraphrase) "anyone could get 50 signatures and put a budget before the voters." (Over course, with the FTM, anyone can do the same without any signatures.) And current Town Council member Brett Pelletier thinks it should remain the job of elected representatives to prepare the budget. In short, the referendum would be too democratic.

Meanwhile, Carol Herrmann, currently a member of the School Committee (and herself a public-school teacher, in Westport, MA, I believe), complains that voters will only be able to vote on the budgets as presented on the ballot. That is, the referendum would not be democratic enough.

My favorite commentary is in the "not democratic enough" wing of the attack and comes from former Town Council member Louise Durfee, herself a plaintiff in the aforementioned lawsuit:

"There's an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it," she said. "Both of these proposals give the Town Council power over the budget that it has never had before."

By eliminating the FTM, she said, just two members of the council would have veto power over any budget that goes over the cap, a possibility she saw on the horizon as pension contributions squeeze town and school budgets.

"Despite all the claims that this [referendum proposal] can increase participation, unstated and not disclosed is the other fact that under these proposals the budget control passes to the town council," Ms. Durfee said.

The only reason that's even arguably true is that her Town Council used every trick in the Rhode Island insider playbook, with some help from connections in the state bureaucracy, not to follow the plain meaning of the tax cap legislation. The referendum would close the loophole that allowed the Town Council to squeak by without taking the required 4/5 vote to exceed the tax cap, so the town would have to follow state law. In Durfee's political view, that constitutes a power grab.

The best part is that her justification is a professed need for future money grabs: She expects the pension crisis to drive tax increases well above the state cap and wants as few hurdles as possible to ensuring that residents, not the town government, have to downsize their budgets.

With a referendum, Durfee and her crew would have to dominate town government or at least gather 50 signatures to place a massive tax increase on the ballot, persuade a majority of residents to vote for it, and convince six of the seven sitting Town Council members to let the people's vote stand. With the FTM, as currently practiced, they can just follow their annual strategy of scaring a couple hundred town employees and heavy users of town services into taking a couple of hours to force their will on the other 15,000 of us.


July 8, 2011


Civics in an Evolving Society

Justin Katz

The topic of conversation, when Andrew spoke with Tony Cornetta on the Matt Allen Show, last night, was constitutional principle and the wise structure of our government. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


July 6, 2011


Gimme that Old-Tyme Constitutionalism!

Carroll Andrew Morse

The passage of the state budget, followed by a flurry of bills passed and not passed in the last week of the 2011 Rhode Island General Assembly session, were clear demonstrations of the value and the wisdom of two foundational principles of American constitutional governance.

1. The Division of Powers, more commonly referred to as the "Separation of Powers": In American-style constitutional systems, the Governor and the legislature both have a role in the making of laws, and it was this division of the lawmaking power that prevented an executive elected only by a plurality from imposing a tax policy that was unpopular with the majority. The legislature did their job of representing the 64% of the population who didn't vote for the current Governor or his program, accurately reflecting the fact that the Governor's high-profile taxation proposal was not popular or desired by the citizens of Rhode Island.

2. Bicameralism, Baby! The structure of two legislative chambers, neither of which owes its power to the other and both comprised of members who are electorally accountable to the people, was key in slowing down or stopping some of the legislation (the I-195 bill, binding arbitration) that otherwise would likely have been passed into law without appropriate time for public deliberation. Think how much different the outcome of the legislative session might have looked, if one individual like Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio could extend the power he holds over the Senate to the entire legislature. It is the bicameral structure of the legislature that prevents this from easily occurring.

There are often feelings that "old" structures of governance have only limited application in the modern world, but sometimes the structures of a venerable and tested system are exactly what is required to keep government responsive to the people.

Federalist 51 hits both the principles of the division of powers and bicameralism, for anyone interested in further thoughts on the subject.


June 26, 2011


"You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things."

Monique Chartier

Now here's a concept too often missing in politics. It was spoken by the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, on the Today Show Friday. (Lauer was interviewing the Dreamy One about the public pension and health bill just passed by the NJ Assembly.)

Matt Lauer: Your approval rating -- 47% of the people in New Jersey disapprove right now of the job that Chris Christie is doing in the state. Simply go with the territory?

Gov Chris Christie: Yes. You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things. And what makes what happened in New Jersey different than what happened in other places is, we did it in a bipartisan way. This is not just a Republican plan or a Democratic plan. It's a bipartisan plan where we compromised to put the people first, Matt. This is ... the taxpayer is going to be saved $130 billion over the next thirty years.

"You earn political capital in order to spend it to achieve big things." Like saving public pensions. Like not viewing tax dollars as monopoly money, to be casually spent and mandated on budget items of dubious public (in the broader sense) benefit. Like creating a business climate that doesn't chase the golden-egg-laying goose around with a tax-and-fee hatchet but rather, welcomes businesses - and jobs - to the state.

Like focusing your legislative efforts on putting "the people first" and your own re-election second. In the end, is there any point to getting re-elected if you are not achieving big things?

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


June 1, 2011


This Is Consolidation

Justin Katz

The Providence Journal editorial board highlights a piece of legislation that, while unlikely to become law, illustrates the potential consequences of consolidation for the sake of efficiency and ease:

... Sen. John Tassoni (D.-Smithfield) — a member of the state's AFL-CIO executive board, former business agent for the state's largest public-employees union, AFSCME Council 94, and the publisher of a union newspaper — wants to use his public power to oust Ms. Gallo. He also wants to replace the Board of Trustees that voted to fire those teachers. ...

Clearly, [Tassoni's rhetoric] can be taken with a grain of salt, given that he had not bothered to discuss his concerns with Ms. Gallo, and he has an obvious huge conflict of interest as a union official, elected to public office with the strong financial backing of government unions to promote their economic interests.

Hey, if the state can insert a municipal dictator (popularly known as a "receiver") to oust the elected mayor and make the elected city council less than an advisory body, then why shouldn't it also pass judgment on superintendents and school boards? That's consolidation.

The lesson extends even to less brazen steps. The farther governance moves from voters, as from local development of school policies among neighbors to regional and statewide implementation of policies, the more incentive special interests (notably unions) will have to fill elected positions with the likes of Tassoni. As the Projo editors note, Governor Chafee has already "removed several of the student-focused reformers... from the state Board of Regents," even though large segments of the state did not vote for this governor's election.


May 5, 2011


I’ll believe it when I see it

Marc Comtois

I’ll believe it when I see it. So starts the latest post by Seth Godin. It's apropos given the current controversy surrounding the bin Laden death photos.

We have to accept that once we start down the slippery slope of always (or never) believing, we end up in Alice-in-Wonderland territory. Do you have firsthand knowledge that the Earth is round (a sphere)? Really? Have you ever seen the tuberculosis bacteria? Perhaps it doesn’t exist, they might say it’s just a fraud invented by the pharmaceutical industry to get us to buy expensive drugs... Or consider the flip side, the Bernie Madoff too-good-to-be-true flipside of invisible riches that never appear. After all, if someone can't prove it's a fraud yet, it might be true!

Eight things you’ve probably never seen with your own eyes: Buzz Aldrin, the US debt, multi-generational evolution of mammals, an atom of hydrogen, Google’s search algorithm, the inside of a nuclear power plant, a whale and the way your body digests a cookie. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, nor does it mean you can’t find a way to make them useful.

Do governments and marketers lie to us? All the time. Does that mean that the powerful (reproducible, testable and yes, true) invisible forces of economics, history and science are a fraud? No way.

Once you go down that road, you’re on your own, no longer a productive member of a society built on rational thought. Be skeptical. Test and measure and see if the truth is a useful hypothesis to help move the discussion forward. Please do. But at some point, in order to move forward, we have to accept that truth can’t be a relative concept, something to use when it suits our agenda but be discarded when we're frightened or want to score a point....Merely because it's invisible doesn't mean it's true--or false.

I don't think it's that people are skeptical about the death of bin Laden. I think the attitude is more like the Reaganesque "trust but verify", right? But at some point, whether the photos are officially released or not, time will prove that bin Laden is really dead: when there are no more audio or visual releases from him, when his terrorist heirs continue to be silent...or when the photos eventually leak out.

ADDENDUM: Incidentally, don't take the above as giving the Obama Administration a pass on handling the after-action "messaging" or the like. In short, the military--as usual--did it's job. The politicians aren't.


April 19, 2011


Godin on the "Economies of small"

Marc Comtois

Seth Godin has advice for the little guy. Like small business or even a small state.

Economies of scale are well understood. Bigger factories are more efficient, bigger distribution networks are more efficient, bigger ad campaigns can be more efficient. It's often hard to defeat a major competitor, particularly if the market is looking for security and the status quo.

But what about the economies of small? Is being bigger an intrinsic benefit in and of itself?

If your goal is to make a profit, it's entirely possible that less overhead and a more focused product line will increase it.

If your goal is to make more art, it's entirely possible the ridding yourself of obligations and scale will help you do that.

If your goal is to have more fun, it's certainly likely that avoiding the high stakes of more debt, more financing and more stuff will help with that.

The marketplace has changed: the ability to produce, market and sell to smaller groups of consumers has been made easier with technology. Consumers minds have changed along with it--we expect flexibility and the ability to get just what we want when we want it at a decent price. It doesn't have to be the cheapest price, so long as we see value in the quality of the product. Economies of scale still do work, but maybe not always.
I think we embraced scale as a goal when the economies of that scale were so obvious that we didn't even need to mention them. Now that it's so much easier to produce a product in the small and market a product in the small, and now that it's so beneficial to offer a service to just a few, with focus and attention, perhaps we need to rethink the very goal of scale.

Don't be small because you can't figure out how to get big. Consider being small because it might be better.

In many ways, Rhode Island really doesn't have any other choice but to embrace its "smallness." We're not going to get geographically bigger and our population has stayed the same seemingly forever. The argument around here has been focused on the efficiency that can be gained by embracing the concept of economies of scale by consolidating government services, say, at the county level. But we're not holding our breath, are we?

We have to get leaner in government--"less overhead"--and consolidation still makes sense (despite my pessimism that it will ever happen). Less waste can free up money to deliver those government services that the majority of Rhode Island citizens desire--"more focused product line"--like an efficient DMV, good roads/infrastructure, etc.

So how do we do it? By "ridding [ourselves] of obligations and scale." More on that later.


March 24, 2011


The Never-Ending Upward Line of Government Spending

Justin Katz

Andrew suggested that government spending cannot continue to go up in a straight line indefinitely, on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


March 8, 2011


What Inspires Political Activity?

Justin Katz

A recent iteration of First Things' "While We're at It" feature mentioned the Wall Street Journal lament of feminist Erica Jong that breeding and raising children is a fad that just won't die. From the lament:

Unless you've been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life's greatest good. Never mind that there are now enough abandoned children on the planet to make breeding unnecessary. Professional narcissists like Angelina Jolie and Madonna want their own little replicas in addition to the African and Asian children that they collect to advertise their open-mindedness.

The intellectual problems that Jong evinces are plentiful. (Why, for one, should we criticize celebrities for adopting third-world children in addition to having their own, even as we point to "abandoned children" as a standing problem?) Much of what she writes can be dismissed on purely ideological grounds; that is, if the reader doesn't share the ideology, the points are without sense.

However, the First Things blurb is a little unfair, in that Jong's initial statements of ideological gunk are really just a foundation on which she builds more interesting walls, some of which are certainly reasonable, even insightful:

What is so troubling about these theories of parenting—both pre- and postnatal—is that they seem like attempts to exert control in a world that is increasingly out of control. We can't get rid of the carcinogens in the environment, but we can make sure that our kids arrive at school each day with a reusable lunch bag full of produce from the farmers' market. We can't do anything about loose nukes falling into the hands of terrorists, but we can make sure that our progeny's every waking hour is tightly scheduled with edifying activities.

Our obsession with parenting is an avoidance strategy. It allows us to substitute our own small world for the world as a whole. But the entire planet is a child's home, and other adults are also mothers and fathers. We cannot separate our children from the ills that affect everyone, however hard we try. Aspiring to be perfect parents seems like a pathetic attempt to control what we can while ignoring problems that seem beyond our reach.

In her attempt to connect these dots, Jong joins strange principles that jar discordantly with reality:

... although attachment parenting comes with an exquisite progressive pedigree, it is a perfect tool for the political right. It certainly serves to keep mothers and fathers out of the political process. If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don't have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit. What exhausted, overworked parent has time to protest under such conditions?

If there's a conservative who has advocated "attachment parenting" — which entails parents' effectively binding themselves to their children — I haven't read his or her work. And, moreover, if there's a politically active right-winger who wants to divert devoted parents from the political fight, he or she has wisely learned to keep that counter-intuitive intention quiet.

Perhaps her imagination doesn't reach that far, but Jong need only have brought to mind the conservative's vision of an ideal family... even a cliché version of that vision: One parent able to stay home with the children, neighborhoods full of such nuclear, one-income households and churches full of such families. After all, the kids don't need such close watching when there are parents watching from nearly every house on the block.

And I can't help but wonder, too, what the motivation for political activism is supposed to be (apart from dedicated advocacy for the Special Interest of Me) when children aren't part of the equation.



Reporting on Experts

Justin Katz

Theodore Gatchel notes a perpetual problem facing a public that wishes to be informed:

There are so many experts on virtually every subject imaginable that anyone who relies on them for information is faced with the problem of determining which experts to trust. Unfortunately, almost everyone falls in that category. Investors rely on experts for market information, patients rely on doctors, governments depend on intelligence agencies, and everyone listens to the weather report.

As experts proliferate, so do the differences of their opinions. President Eisenhower once said about the reports he received concerning the French in Indochina, "There are almost as many judgments as there are authors of messages." The problem then becomes one of determining which experts to believe. Eisenhower's complaint is every bit as applicable today as it was when he made it.

Gatchel suggests a report card system for experts to enlighten readers as to how particular experts' "predictions have panned out in the past." The problem, it seems to me, is that any such attempt does little but create another topic on which experts can proliferate.

Consider a generic weekly columnist for a major national newspaper: the number of claims and implied predictions in his work would quickly become so plentiful, with so much of their accuracy subject to legitimate debate, that it would become easy work to distort his overall success by selecting particular predictions and interpreting real-world outcomes in a particular way. The result would be the translation of opinion into ostensibly objective data — like a PolitiFact score sheet for the honesty of public figures.


February 21, 2011


Where's the Socialism?

Justin Katz

It always seems a bit silly, to me, to fight over words. Use of the word "socialism," for example, tends to be descriptive among conservatives. That is, we use it because we're trying to describe a system or institution that we're addressing, not because it polls badly and we want to throw tar on an otherwise unobjectionable thing. The reaction from the left, though, is often to insist that the term does not wholly apply, rather than to take up the real topic — which is that the aspects that the thing shares with an abstract whole socialism are objectionable in their own rights.

Kevin Williamson takes up that thread:

A more complete definition of socialism incorporates two criteria: The first is that socialism entails the public provision of non-public goods. The second is the use of central planning to implement that policy.

What is a public good? Economists distinguish between public and non-public goods on two grounds, features known as rivalry and excludability. Public goods, under the economic definition, are goods which are non-rivalrous in their consumption and non-excludable in their distribution. A couple of examples will make these distinctions clear. A rivalrous good is one for which my consumption of one unit of the good leaves one unit less for your consumption. A mango is rivalrous in consumption: Every mango I eat is a mango you cannot eat. But some goods are non-rivalrous: a highway, for instance. If I drive down a mile of highway, that does not leave one less mile for you to drive down.

Of course, with the disputes in which socialism arises, the boundaries of the economic term expands, such that some disputants behave as if all goods are ultimately public, and individual consumption is a presumption to be regulated by the state, which Williamson brings up subsequently:

The modern experience suggests that the economist Ludwig von Mises was only partly correct when he wrote, "The socialistic State owns all material factors of production and thus directs it." That was true for the authoritarian, single-party powers of his day. In our own time, the converse is a more accurate description of the real economic arrangement: Under socialism, the state directs the material factors of production as if it owned them. The state does not have to actually own factories, mines, or data centers if it has the power to dictate, in minute detail, how business is conducted within them. Regulation acts as a proxy for direct state ownership of the means of production.

The key example — not only in structure, but in evidence of socialism's inevitable failure — is public education as currently constituted, which despite the popularity of arguments about "socialism" is not often enough raised.


February 19, 2011


Rahe: "How to think about the Tea Party"

Marc Comtois

Historian Paul Rahe offers his perspective on the Tea Party. An extended excerpt:

Over almost a century, under the influence of the Progressives and their heirs—the proponents of the New Deal, the Great Society, and Barack Obama’s New Foundation we have experienced a gradual consolidation of power in the federal government. Legislative responsibilities have been transferred to administrative agencies lodged within the executive—such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the vast array of bodies established under the recent health-care reform—and these have been delegated in an ever increasing number of spheres the authority to issue rules and regulations that have the force of law.

In the process, the state and local governments have become dependent on federal largesse, which always comes with strings attached in the form of funded or unfunded “mandates” designed to make these governments fall in line with federal policy. Civic agency, rooted as it normally is in locality, has withered as the localities have lost their leverage. The civic associations so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville have for the most part become lobbying operations with offices in Washington focused on influencing federal policy, and many of them have also become recipients of government grants and reliable instruments for the implementation of federal policy.

Continue reading "Rahe: "How to think about the Tea Party""

February 18, 2011


Big Government or Small, the Culture Must Be Healthy

Justin Katz

It's unfortunate that Rich Lowry's article in the January 24 National Review, "What the Whigs Knew," is inaccessible except to subscribers, but two portions are worth typing out:

[Eva] Moskowitz combines a fiery faith in the ability of all children to learn with a traditional — nay, downright retrograde — means of molding them into successful students. The New York Times describes the educational philosophy of her Harlem Success Academy as "a mix of the liberal Bank Street College of Education approach and the traditional Catholic school model.

"Parents must sign the network's 'contract,' a promise to get children to class on time and in blue-and-orange uniform and guarantee homework, and attend all family events," New York magazine explains. Children who defy the school's strict rules must show up for "Saturday Academy" together with their parents. New students get instruction on how to walk appropriately in the school's "zero noise" hallways and how to engage in active listening — "legs crossed, hands folded, eyes tracking the speaker."

Of course, such an approach won't work for all students, and some parents won't care enough about their children to keep the rules, themselves, but there's something intuitive about the approach and something undeniable about the importance of the objectives that Moskowitz's policies seek to achieve, mainly parental involvement and a respect for structure.

The second portion:

America has become a less mobile society because so many people have lost touch with the Whiggish virtues, and even more basic ones. Society's most important cvharacter-forming and -reinforcing institution, marriage, is in retreat among everyone outside college graduates. This retreat is why we have a semi-permanent underclass, and it contributes to the struggles of the working class. The dependence on government of able-bodied adults is almost entirely a cultural phenomenon; the economic stagnation of the working class is partly one.

The Left has no interest in hearing this. It champions what can be thought of as a libertine statism — an expansive government that is neutral or hostile toward traditional values. It offers dependence on the state to those whose disorderly lives run counter to these virtues and makes it difficult to succeed in a capitalist society. It tends to create a society whose dysfunction is a constant call on government.

That pretty well sums up the conservative view of statism: The freedom offered is the freedom to be sufficiently self-destructive to have to rely on the government. Traditional values — that is, Western, particularly American traditional values — served mainly to strengthen the individual and the family. There's very little room for social engineering and bureaucracy in such small, localized groups.


February 16, 2011


Picking a Level of Democracy

Justin Katz

My Patch column this week laments the trick of picking a particular aspect of "the democratic process" as dominant for the sake of a particular issue:

... too often disputes about public policy hinge more on which side can use prettier words than which side better captures the will of the public, let alone adhering more closely to the truth. And in our political discourse, among the most beautiful and powerful words is "democracy."

So we read retired Rhode Island Superior Court Judge Stephen Fortunato proclaiming that a direct vote of the people on the issue of same-sex marriage "is a ploy to subvert the orderly workings of our democratic processes," which he describes as legislators' sitting as moral and intellectual judges, only subsequently held to account by voters. On a completely separate issue, we read the contrasting view of former Tiverton Town Councilor Brian Medeiros that an ordinance capping the town's budget increase at 2.5% would represent a usurpation by the Town Council of "rights reserved solely for the people of Tiverton."

The first example is merely an example, and I go on to focus on the latter. And, of course, I don't exempt myself from slipping into convenient definitions.


February 1, 2011


For Whom They Work

Justin Katz

Maybe it's a small thing, but such ideological tells as the sentence that I've emphasized in the following paragraph from an unsigned Projo editorial have been catching my attention more, lately:

It's no violation of the First Amendment for Mr. Chafee, a liberal, to do what he says he will do: Ban his people from talking in these talk-show echo chambers on state work time. (His administration made an exception for emergencies such as storms; he may find there are lots of emergencies.) After all, you don't have to work for Mr. Chafee.

Is it stating the obvious to suggest that even public officials appointed by the governor work for the people of the state? It's not a minor point, in this context: If department heads and other employees of the state's executive branch of government work for the people, rather than for the public CEO, then it's not just imprudent, but inappropriate of Governor Chafee to create barriers to their communication with their actual employers.

Inasmuch as they're not using "state work time" to promote matters completely disconnected from their public jobs, banning them from addressing tens of thousands of talk-radio listeners should be coupled with bans on addressing much smaller audiences in person or by other media. Surely the Providence Journal would object to such executive overreach.


January 26, 2011


Drunk on Taxation

Justin Katz

Speaking of statism, the Providence Journal editorial page betrayed its inclination in that direction, recently, on the topic of alcohol tax:

Congratulations. By beating each other's alcohol tax down to zero, neither New Hampshire nor Massachusetts is collecting revenues that it could.

And where does this new era of tax-free booze to the north leave Rhode Island merchants with their 7 percent liquor sales tax? In a tough competitive place. ...

This region must start thinking of itself more as a confederation and less as a collection of six feudal rivalries. The six New England states should agree to a region-wide liquor tax. They could all end up richer.

"They," obviously, means the state governments, not the people of New England, who could, by the editors' advice be more extensively taxed if they were more effectively trapped by cooperating governments. Lost in the analysis — not even mentioned — is the benefit of this interstate competition to consumers, who are not, especially with alcohol, necessarily of the leisure class.

Yes, yes, we can all agree that alcohol is, in a technical sense, unnecessary, and sometimes, it turns wicked. But one's perspective on taxation and the relationship between the state and the people is much more broadly applicable.

Watching the exchange of dollars for alcohol and lottery tickets while in line at the liquor store, one is tempted to wonder what percentage of the taxes and gambling profit the government siphons off before handing the money back in the form of inefficient services. No doubt, the editors would defend their position suggesting that sin taxes force residents to support important government activities (such as infrastructure and education) that they'd otherwise let slip, if left to their own choices. That only returns to the statist point: it comes down to one group of citizens taking from another to support their own priorities, which they assume to be more important and which, in many cases, winds up benefiting them financially.



Principles Opposed to Slavery and Statism

Justin Katz

Once again, I find I must recommend an inaccessible article in National Review, this one by Gettysburg College history professor Allen Guelzo:

The antidote to slavery, Lincoln insisted, was also economic free labor. In the 19th century, free labor was the shorthand term for a particular way of viewing capitalism: as a labor system, in which employers and employees struck bargains for production and wages without restriction and where the boundaries between these two roles were fluid enough that today's employee could, by dint of energy, talent, and foresight, become the employer of tomorrow.

Slavery was the polar opposite fo free labor. With very rare exceptions, it denied the slave any future but that of being a slave, and it replaced the open-ended arrangements of employees and employers with a rigidly dictatorial system. The harmful effects extended beyond the slaves themselves, Lincoln wrote, because in the process, all labor became stigmatized as "slave work"; the social ideal became "the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned work," rather than "men who are industrious, and sober, and honest in the pursuit of their own interests." Men who are industrious — that, of course, described Lincoln. Slavery, then, was not merely an abstraction; it was the enemy of every ambition Lincoln had ever felt.

Especially interesting are the links that Guelzo implicitly draws between the social system built on American slavery and a social system built on statism. For one thing, both characterize a relationship of freely exchanged employment as its opposite:

Lincoln was aware that pro-slavery propagandists had begun claiming in the 1850s that laborers in northern factories were, in reality, no more free to make wage bargains than slaves on southern plantations. In fact, they claimed, "free labor" was worse off, because employers had no obligation to provide health care for mere wage-earners or to support them in childhood and old age, the way slaveowners did for their slaves.

Not for no reason, then, did the Confederate government organize itself in line with the principles of its guiding institution:

... while the Union government contracted out its wartime needs to the private sector, the Confederate government set up government-owned supply facilities...

Historian Raimondo Luraghi called it "quasi-socialist management."

Despite the links between slavery and statism, two considerations have to taken into the balance, one qualifying the case of the former, the other the case of the latter. First, the slave-based system, here, is specifically that of the mid-to-late 1800s — the last guard, as it were, striving to maintain the system. In prior eras, slavery was simply a fact of life coexisting, however discordantly, with evolving notions of liberty.

Second, statists often begin with the well-being of the lower classes primary in their minds. In that respect, their views are opposite those of slaveholders. What unites them is the notion that the great majority of human beings are better off letting experts with centralized authority govern their lives. No matter the impetus, that sounds like slavery to me, no matter how beneficent.


January 24, 2011


Advice for the Young Regulator

Justin Katz

Kevin Williamson churns out the economic heresies when he defines "social value" as "the stuff society actually values" and "profits" as "evidence of the creation of social value." Much of modern discourse is a debate over semantics, but choose the words as you wish, the underlying economic principles remain the same, and Williamson is entirely correct to explain the perversity of heavy government regulation as follows (addressed as if to the newly appointed regulator):

You can see the problem: You want to regulate because you do not trust competition among firms to serve the public interest. But regulation becomes just one more arena for . . . competition among firms. Round and round we go: Instead of competing to sell people the tastiest hamburgers at the lowest price, or competing to hire the most productive Teutonically efficient burger-slingers at the most efficient wage, companies compete in the field of regulatory-compliance efficiency, which does not shovel any greasy social value into anybody’s ravening public-interest maw at all. The weird thing is that the more you regulate, the more McDonald's will discover that its most important profit-controlling variables are only tangentially related to selling people hamburgers. The clown finds out that Jack in the Box got himself a waiver from Obamacare, and now he wants one for the Hamburglar and Grimace, and we're right back to the original competition among firms that you didn't trust in the first place, but with a perverse twist: Instead of competing to provide social value in the marketplace, firms compete to wring profit out of politics.

And that, if we extend Williamson's logic outward, introduces competition among politicians to make promises to powerful parties, so that they can define social value in such a way that the firms will support their campaigns and arrange for special deals and lucrative gigs when the political career runs its course, not only for the politicians, but also for the regulators and the people whom they hire to come up with the rules.

So, the rules pile up, creating unnecessary, unproductive jobs navigating them, drawing profits and wages away from people who create things that society actually values, rather than people whose main occupation is trying to convince others that they're acting in the interest of "social value." Moreover, the rules become a minefield limiting the ability of new firms to arise and compete with the big boys, who therefore can get away with much more of the objectionable activity (devaluing labor and the rights of the community) that much regulation is broadly meant to curb.

But here's the thing: Betamax and the Arch Deluxe and Clairol's Touch of Yogurt Shampoo (seriously, that existed) just get yanked off the shelves when hordes of people don't buy them, and the great big milling laboratory of the marketplace tells Joe Businessman, who is really a research scientist seeking social value, to shelve that particular hypothesis and maybe not expect a bonus this year. But there's no feedback mechanism like that in government, which means that when you do stupid, you do immortally stupid. You might find yourself asking why Alabama has a law against having an ice-cream cone in your back pocket at any time or chaining your alligator to a fire hydrant. (What was the precipitating episode there, Bubba?) You get Americans in the 21st century still paying the temporary emergency telephone tax to fund the Spanish–American War (1897–98). On and on it goes. Forever. Deathless stupidity tends to accrete and clog up the system, over time, and Washington is a factory whose workers produce deathless stupidity like it's their job, like they're getting paid for it. Because it is. Because they are.

January 22, 2011


The Crashing System

Justin Katz

Unfortunately, the decision at National Review to cease providing access to the online issues of the magazine to print subscribers has left me unable to copy and paste interesting passages from its pages, and inasmuch as I'm not going to pay for two subscriptions and like the portability and markability of actual paper pages, I'm not willing to switch media. But some thoughts from an essay by Anthony Daniels are worth typing. (The article's here, if you can access it.)

The angry young people [of Europe], not unnaturally, want the same privileges that their parents awarded themselves in the high-minded name of social justice, on the live-now-pay-later principle. Why should they, the younger generation, have to live harder, more arduous, less secure lives than their elders lived? If their parents enjoyed free education, secure employment with guaranteed holidays and sick pay, and early retirement with generous unfunded pensions linked to the rate of inflation — what the french call les acquis — why should not they? Is not an ever-rising standard of living, with more and more entitlements and holiday destinations within the reach of al, the fundamental law of the universe, to say nothing of the meaning of life?

There are moral and philosophical aspects of the topic, of course, but the economics are full of lessons (emphasis added):

That the scheme of the welfare state was in essence improvident if not outright criminal was known from the very first. The British Labour politician for long revered in some quarters of Britain as the founder of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan, famously or infamously boasted that the great thing about the National Insurance Fund (from which various benefits were to be paid the sick, the unemployed, and the retired) was that "there ain't no fund." Payments were thus to be met from current tax receipts, which, if insufficient, were to be augmented by borrowing. Bevan gloried in the improvidence because he knew that it would change once and for all the relationship between the citizen and the state, increasing enormously the power of the political class and its bureaucratic clientele. It would destroy saving for a rainy day as the personal source of security, replacing it with dependence on the government. A strong government needed a feckless population, and — certainly in the case of Britain — got it.

To some extent, this system provides an economic boost by transporting wealth from the future to the present, via borrowing. Moving more of that inclination from private debt to government debt helped to obscure the economic fact that the future might need that money.


January 16, 2011


Rules Should Require Effort

Justin Katz

I said (somewhere) it back when Republicans were in the minority in the House, and even though the filibuster technique has been helpful to causes that I've supported in recent years, I'll say it again: this sounds reasonable to me:

... Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat ... proposes that lawmakers be on the floor debating throughout the time they are relying on filibusters to derail measures. "You shouldn't filibuster casually" by being able, as currently allowed, to invoke the tactic "and go to dinner or go on vacation," he said. ...

[Democrats] also want to abolish the system of secretive "holds" senators can use to delay presidential nominations without identifying themselves and their reasoning.

There's no reason that politicians can't organize relay speechification when the legislation justifies that degree of opposition, and there's no reason that they can't identify themselves when they want legislation held.

With the reach and authority of the federal government continually expanding, a strong case could be made that more types of legislation should require supermajority votes, but that's an argument that has to made, not assumed.


January 15, 2011


The Point of Separation

Justin Katz

RI Bishop Thomas Tobin asks the key question:

Nor should the so-called "separation of church and state" be used as a weapon to silence the faith community, or restrict its robust participation in the debate of important public issues. I've found that whenever I've spoken out on public issues — e.g., abortion, gay marriage or immigration — some irritated souls, arguing the "separation of church and state" will insist that I'm out of line. In fact, religious leaders have every right, indeed the duty, to speak out on public issues. If we fail to do so, we're neglecting our role as teachers, preachers and prophets. And if we don't bring the spiritual dimension, the moral dimension to the discussion of these issues, who will?

The obvious answer is that they will — those who wish to push the notion of separation. What they tend to oppose, I'd suggest, is not the insertion of extralegal principles into the law, nor subjective judgments about morality. Such things are unavoidable and, in any case, their saturation of public discourse flows more regularly from secularists; they just change the terms to "rights" and "justice" and assert their interpretation of such concepts to be mere objectivity.

The objection of secularists is to foundations for government action that derive from other institutions and sources of authority than themselves, whether that means religion or, more generally, tradition. It is illegitimate, they argue, to look to a Supreme Being for guidance or the long history of mankind's consideration of His moral demands, because they wish to provide the guidance in His place.


January 13, 2011


Party Games in "Non-Partisan" Tiverton

Justin Katz

Back in 2007, I argued against non-partisan elections in Tiverton. Those who disagreed took a very community-oriented view:

ARGUING AGAINST asking Tiverton voters whether they'd like to return to partisan elections after one cycle of nonpartisanism, Charter Review Commission member Frank "Richard" Joslin made two points that have the ring of Rhode Islandry: First, that residents who actually vote (or get involved) know who belongs to what party, and second, that Joslin's fellow members of the Tiverton Democratic Committee are so ideologically diverse as to make party labels of negligible value. At the previous meeting, Commissioner Frank Marshall had asserted that everybody elected to local office is there simply to work hard and do right by the town.

Thus do Rhode Islanders like to believe about themselves. Everybody who cares knows, so inside information is by definition public, and everybody votes for the person, not the party, because the individuals are so independent and well intentioned.

That's all well and good, and to large extent true. But party isn't nothing; otherwise, there would cease to be a Tiverton Democratic Committee.

I raise the debate now because it came to light in the comments of my liveblog from Monday night's Town Council meeting that the lone Republican in Tiverton's delegation to the State House, Dan Gordon, was not informed that his peers would be briefing the local governing body. In fact, the same thing happened at the last regular School Committee meeting.

There are certainly legitimate reasons that the relevant clerks for the municipal government and the school department did not contact the only non-incumbent elected representative that Tiverton has sent to the General Assembly for this session. His contact information might not have been readily at hand or accurate. And the Democrat senators and representative might have merely forgotten to mention the meetings, even after the Republican's absence at the School Committee meeting.

It is conspicuous, though, that Rep. Jay Edwards is a member of the Democrat committee... as is Town Clerk Nancy Mello... as are three of the five School Committee members... as is, I believe, the Democrat candidate whom Gordon defeated in the last election. As Joslin once said, everybody knows who belongs to what party, especially those who continue to operate as members thereof.



Primary Power to the People

Justin Katz

John Fonte's review of The New Road to Serfdom, by Daniel Hannan, focuses mainly on international policy — and avoiding Europeanization and submission to anti-democratic supranational bodies. However, given periodic discussion around here about the structure of government and of elections, this is the passage that most caught my eye:

Hannan is particularly impressed with the American system of primary elections. He points out that in Britain and Europe, candidates for parliament are chosen by the political parties. This leads to the perpetuation of a closed political class and the exclusion of issue positions favored by the public but frowned upon by elites. In the U.S., by contrast, an outsider can defeat the party leaders' choice in a primary; this fosters a more democratic process, and brings into the open issues that elites prefer not to discuss.

Some readers are impressed with European parliamentary systems that allow votes among multiple parties, which must then form coalitions for governance, but as the quotation above states, voters are reduced to electing parties, rather than people. It's not quite so simple, of course; it's in the interest of the parties to find and promote politically attractive candidates, for one thing. But as the Tea Party movement has illustrated, even in our more-individualistic system, establishment partisans will only take popular appeal so far, unless forced.

Beneath the talk of voter choices, one surmises that those who admire European governments rather like "the perpetuation of a closed political class" — mainly because they do not trust the unguided masses to elect wisely. Better, they think, to let voters choose from a slate of general principles and leave the actual exercise of power to people who know how to use it.


January 12, 2011


Sympathy for the Dictator

Justin Katz

My, isn't that totalitarian hand attractive for reasons small and large. From Another RI Blogger:

Sheldon Whitehouse was a sponsor of S2847, Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation Act (CALM Act), which has been a long, long time coming. What this bill does is finally requires the television networks to make the volume of the commercial advertising to match the programming. Hallelujah. This has been high on my list of irritants for many years.

I remember being a kid and watching TV in bed in my upstairs bedroom. The latest from Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley. All would be fine until the commercials would come on at an increased volume. My father would yell from downstairs "Turn that TV down!". So I'd get up and turn the volume down. Then when the program came back on, I couldn't hear it. So I'd get up and turn it back on until the next commercial break. "I said turn that TV down!" Back and forth we’d go.

Now a father, RI Blogger has had that familiar experience of loud commercial waking a light-sleeping baby.

Look, government regulation of television volume is not likely to signal the end of the republic, but the oppression of "there ought to be a law" is a patchwork, encouraging voters to acclimate to the big government mentality and investing them in its exercise of power. In both of RI Blogger's examples, the conspicuous factor is the willingness to deal with the supposed hardship for the sake of Happy Days. If loud commercials were apt to drive viewers away from television, then those who control programming wouldn't allow them. But television is apparently now a right and a necessity, so we get the U.S. Senate wielding its power to make it a more pleasurable experience.


January 10, 2011


Evolving the Welfare State

Justin Katz

Jim Manzi argues that, as conservatives strive to claim a decisive voice in governance, we should see the welfare state not so much as a demolition project, but as remodeling, with a different end-goal in mind:

... it would be foolhardy, from a conservative perspective, to eliminate a system so central to day-to-day life and long-term planning — and especially to do so all at once, acting on an unproved theory.

While it is always possible that some future society will find a way to cultivate widespread wealth and stability without a welfare system, or that existing welfare systems will wither away, the welfare state appears to be concomitant with the growth that capitalism creates. As far as can be determined from history, the idea of an advanced capitalist society without a welfare system is misplaced nostalgia — or more accurately, an anachronism. It is like wishing for a commercial jet aircraft without wing stabilizers. ...

... First, the primary purpose of the system should be to support capitalism, not to oppose it. Second, we should seek the system's maximum alignment with the elements of human nature that make us want it in the first place. Together, these two criteria simply mean that we should be as informed as possible about the costs and benefits created by the welfare system as we seek the greatest possible benefit for each unit of theoretically forgone growth that we invest in it. Third, we should attempt to shoot ahead of the duck by modifying the welfare system in a fashion that anticipates foreseeable changes in society and technology while leaving us maximum flexibility to respond to unforeseeable changes.

This all begins to sound like the folly of central planning — only declaring that our experts will manage the beast better than their experts. To be sure, we should not forsake those who simply fall through the inevitable economic and charitable cracks of a freely operating society, and we should not pull the rug out from under those who have taken the central planners at their word without offering a path off of it. Still, if increased individual autonomy and shrinking government are not the goals of reform, then the same incentive structures that have pulled the welfare state to its current position will remain in place.

The distinction manifests in all aspects of government operation, including in education:

... For several decades, a goal of the libertarian Right has been to voucherize social programs so that the government provides the cash but allows private firms to compete in markets to provide the services. But this is not always as practical as it sounds. ...

To return to the example of K–12 schools, the focus on true privatization has been both doctrinaire and artificial. If school choice ever grows beyond Tinkertoy demonstration projects, taxpayers will appropriately demand that a range of controls be imposed on the schools they are funding. Would we allow families to use vouchers to send children to schools that taught no reading or mathematics, but only bomb-making, or that offered lavish "support payments" to parents that were, in effect, bribes? No, we would inevitably — and justifiably — have a fairly detailed set of regulations, along with inspection, adjudication, and enforcement mechanisms. At that point, what would be the difference between such "private" schools and "public" schools that were allowed greater flexibility in hiring, curriculum, and student acceptance, and had to compete for students in order to capture funding? Little beyond the label.

Publicly funded private schools is an oxymoron, but greater flexibility to meet different needs and to improve general performance through market competition can nonetheless be found in a public-school system involving parental choice and the freedom of schools to operate outside of collective-bargaining agreements and other restrictions. The most basic institutional requirements of a market would be present: consumer choice and widely distributed buying power on the demand side, capacity and flexibility on the supply side.

Here, Manzi embarks on the same sort of argument from extremes that his entire promotion of temperance eschews. The conservative principle of trade-offs and individual assessment of costs should make it obvious that the problem that Manzi raises is a matter of the degree of vouchers. The core rationale behind including private schools in a voucher system even if, for example, they concentrate on religious education, is that the state is giving the money to the parents for the purpose of education, not "establishing" the religion that its money ultimately supports. That perspective draws obvious lines for vouchers.

The system could be one in which parents can allocate every penny earmarked for their children's education to the full-fledged public school of their choice, including charter schools that are freed from some of the chains of the broader system. But parents could also receive a portion — say, only that money which they pay into education through taxes — if they opt for private schools. In that way, the vouchers are only relieving the parents of the burden of paying for schools that their children do not use. Even by that structure, the government could reasonably have limited requirements that the schools actually teach basics like mathematics, whatever else they include in the curriculum.

The idea, again, is not to change the guiding principle of the overwhelming state machine, but to increase the autonomy and authority of individual citizens.


January 6, 2011


Affecting What We Can

Justin Katz

In a November article for National Review (yes, I'm a bit behind), Keith Hennessey offers ten methods by which elected officials can begin "moving incrementally in the right direction" when it comes to the economy. Most of the items deal with particular issues and ought to be considered, but his #2 speaks to a general approach to governance and ought to be elevated above the rest:

Two. Set the right goal: creating the conditions for growth rather than trying to create growth. Policymakers need to get the policies right and let business leaders decide how to run their firms. Corporate leaders are sitting on unprecedented piles of cash, waiting to see what Washington will foul up next. Take Washington out of their decision-making by creating a stable, predictable, low-cost business environment. They will then decide how best to hire, invest, and expand. Your job as an elected official is not to create economic growth or jobs, it is to create the conditions under which the private sector creates growth and jobs. Stick to your lane and let business leaders stick to theirs.

It is accurate as both a slight and a neutral statement of fact to say that legislators and government executives are not qualified to direct industry and the economy. Actually, nobody is, on a macro scale, but politicians are especially unqualified, and moreover, it is dangerous simultaneously to insert powers of specific economic development into the same hands that hold powers of policing and taxation.

The line between setting conditions and dictating mandates can be gray, in spots, but it's the principle that matters: Let the people investing their reputations and livelihoods on particular endeavors determine the best methods, and make it easier for them to move forward.


January 5, 2011


Don't Lament the Inevitable; Change the Thinking

Justin Katz

It's always amusing to read such things from an editorial board that has, among other things, advocated for centralization of the healthcare system:

One of its themes is how much government policy has been taken over by self-interested individuals who rotate between government and the private sector (including academic) jobs. They use government jobs as a way of ensuring even greater riches for themselves when they get out. Perhaps the most noteworthy are the "scholars" paid vast consulting and directorship sums to promote certain interests. In doing so, these academics become rich themselves.

Such "scholars" are supposed to be disinterested seekers after truth. In fact, all too many are just businesspeople in search of the fast buck, combined, of course, with the respect due to professors.

The Providence Journal can question the scholars' authenticity all it wants, but the distance between the financial-services individuals whom it attacks and those whose fortunes are based on the promotion of particular ideologies as academic research is not far. For that matter, wealth is not the only motivation for corrupted thinking on the campus.

More to the point, though, when a system relies on "experts" and "scholars" to set policies that, although ultimately filtered through a representative democracy, affect huge expanses of the economy and human life, the incentive will be inevitably strong to procure those labels and slap them on special interests. After all, who is more of an expert than the person who lives and breaths a topic?

This is a core flaw in all approaches to problem-solving via government, whether the area is finances, education, or healthcare.


January 3, 2011


A Mechanism for a (Slightly) Longer View

Justin Katz

The Dear Mr. Chafee letter by John Marion, of Common Cause, makes a generally applicable suggestion that might lead to food for thought:

... I would suggest that when Gov.-elect Chafee makes most of his decisions, he should use a 25-year time horizon. ...

The electoral cycle is short because we insist on accountability through the ballot box. If our leaders had generation-long terms of office we could not send them signals about whether we approve or disapprove of their actions frequently enough. But a four- (and for members of the General Assembly, two-) year electoral cycle creates an incentive for politicians to be shortsighted in their policymaking.

Arguably, the party system acts as a mechanism for extending the political horizon somewhat. If politicians are concerned about the health and growth of a political party, then they have incentive not to push policies that will whiplash.

Two "of courses" arise. First, of course, a longer view of that sort can be extremely detrimental. Think the Democrats' scheming to create an electoral base with illegal immigrants, destitute inner-city minorities, and public-sector organized labor.

Second, of course, (and relatedly) the longer views of political parties tend to favor policies that increase the influence of government. If the goal is to build constituencies, then policies that increase dependents over time will bring their own reward. The necessity of limiting government's reach is something that each generation must learn (which is difficult when pretty much the entire educational system from kindergarten through college preaches a different gospel), and it will tend to ebb and swell with the health of the economy and the periodic overreaching of the creeping socialists.


December 30, 2010


Dealing with the Second Primary

Justin Katz

It seems as if something has significantly changed in electoral politics — or else, that something that has been changing crossed into a visible field of light. The most striking example may have been in Alaska, where Senator Lisa Murkowski rejected the decision of the Republican Party's primary voters and ran as a write-in candidate, ultimately defeating Republican Joe Miller. In Rhode Island Doug Gablinski (D, Bristol, Warren) attempt the same feat, and of course the governor's race was four-way, with independent, Democrat, Republican, and Moderate candidates.

In some respects, one could say that the general election is becoming another shot at a primary, with all of the strategic opportunities that entails. Particularly, I think of the verb "to primary" — indicating the strategy whereby a faction unhappy with a particular office holder runs a candidate against him or her in the primaries. That will surely become a possibility in future general elections, with a special interests, like public sector unions, trying to knock disfavored politicians out in the primaries and then trying to split the vote so that the opposite party wins the general election.

So, legislation proposed by incoming Republican representatives Patricia Morgan and Michael Chippendale to create runoff elections that ultimately bring the race for office down to two candidates is certainly reasonable:

They say the creation of a runoff election requires an amendment to the state Constitution that would need to be passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, then approved by voters in the next general election. ...

"This year there were 12 races in Rhode Island won with less than 50 percent of the vote. I fear this is an issue that will only grow over the next several election cycles," [Morgan] said. "Ultimately we'll see more disenfranchised voters, which will contribute to the existing problem of voter apathy and mistrust of the government."



Politics and Redemption

Justin Katz

The talk was of political theory and second chances for Michael Vick when I spoke with guest host Tony Cornetta on the Matt Allen Show last night. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

I didn't go into the sales pitch, but please email or call (401-835-7156) me to pledge financial support — as subscriptions, donations, or advertising — for 2011 to help us create a full-time job within Anchor Rising.


December 29, 2010


Beware Too-Efficient Government

Justin Katz

Over on the WPRI site, Ted Nesi is running a series of "Dear Mr. Chafee" essays by "five of the state’s smartest citizens." I'll admit that I'm a bit suspicious of his claim — inasmuch as I'm on the list — but Tom Sgouros, who penned the first in the series is surely among the more intelligent on Rhode Island's far left. Of course, he therefore more clearly enunciates the error in progressive thinking:

... lurking under most of these issues is one big issue: the relationship between the state and the cities and towns. Our governments exist to provide a set of services we all need. The strange thing is how we think that having governments constantly at odds with each other is the most efficient way to deliver those services.

In the minds of Sgouros's ilk, the American experiment in government — democracy, checks and balances, and all that — has either been proven a failure or perhaps should never have been attempted. To Sgouros, "governments exist to provide a set of services." To the founders who signed the Declaration of Independence, "Governments are instituted among Men" to secure "certain unalienable Rights." The founders knew that a government empowered to be efficient was empowered to — and would surely find reason to — oppress.

What's astonishing is that Sgouros cites evidence that ought to speak against centralization for just the opposite, using Central Falls as an example:

...would the mayor have made the bad decisions he made without seeing the state as a separate party able to bail him out ...?

The only way increasing the centralized hand would decrease mayors' inclination to pass bucks upward would be if the leaders of local communities weren't elected by their communities, but appointed by the state. That is, if they were accountable to the state for their positions. The American experiment meant to make government accountable to the people, but in the name of efficiency, Sgouros has already discarded such notions. It shows in his terrible understanding of how democracy is structured to function:

... the forms of cooperation have to become part of the government, since a "system" that depends on the good will of this mayor or that governor isn't a system at all.

I shiver to contemplate what "the forms of cooperation" might be, but I also shiver to think that voters actually believe that elected officials' core motivation should be "good will." Many do, of course, and many of them probably share Sgouros's worldview. After all, he's happy to rely on the good will of state legislators and leaders — perhaps a national technocracy — although that's largely because he trusts his allies to control them.

What voters ought to trust in is the desire of leaders to stay in office and their realization that the people are empowered to remove them. The closer those leaders are to the people who can vote them out of a job, the more effective that mechanism will be. That those higher up the chain, at the state and national levels, have made a practice of bailing leaders out when they've failed as miserably as in Central Falls does not in any way suggest that centralized government will be more accountable.


November 25, 2010


Thankful for the Window

Justin Katz

Roger Simon's Thanksgiving musings struck me as particularly poignant:

My real beef with Barack Obama is that he does not want to acknowledge that [America represents human aspiration to the world] or he doesn't believe it. I don't know which. But in any case he rejects it. I saw that most clearly on what was for me the worst moment of his sad presidency — when he failed to respond publicly in support of the democracy demonstrators in Iran. He wouldn't be a window for their dreams and aspirations. Ironically, given his own bloviations, he offered them no hope. He wasn't a wimp — to come back to Smith's dichotomy in his first paragraph. He was something worse — a cold narcissistic fish, interested in only his now-absurd negotiation with Ahmadinejad and, of course, in himself. He left the Iranian students with no window — no American dream for their world.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I sincerely hope that Barack Obama and what he stands for is just a bump on an ever-bumpy road and that we are on our way out of the slough of despond that our country finds itself in. I think we can all agree, however, that this slough is pretty deep. Getting out of it will not be as easy as a few tea party victories. The work has only just begun. But it's worth the effort, most certainly.


November 18, 2010


Returning States' Role in Civic Structure

Justin Katz

One can sense a desire, in the broadly defined Tea Party movement, to repeal something among the many decisions, amendments, and statutes that have diluted the Founders' experiment of divided government powers. Todd Zywicki marks the introduction of the Seventeenth Amendment to the list of candidates for rethinking:

Election of senators by state legislatures was a cornerstone of two of the most important "auxiliary precautions": federalism and the separation of powers. Absent some direct grant of federal influence to state governments, the latter would be in peril of being "swallowed up," to use George Mason's phrase. Even arch-centralizer Hamilton recognized that this institutional protection was necessary to safeguard state autonomy. In addition, the Senate was seen as a means of linking the state governments together with the federal one. Senators' constituents would be state legislators rather than the people, and through their senators the states could influence federal legislation or even propose constitutional amendments under Article V of the Constitution.

The Seventeenth Amendment ended all that, bringing about the master-servant relationship between the federal and state governments that the original constitutional design sought to prevent. Before the Seventeenth Amendment, the now-widespread Washington practice of commandeering the states for federal ends — through such actions as "unfunded mandates," laws requiring states to implement voter-registration policies that enable fraud (such as the "Motor Voter" law signed by Bill Clinton), and the provisions of Obamacare that override state policy decisions — would have been unthinkable. Instead, senators today act all but identically to House members, treating federalism as a matter of political expediency rather than constitutional principle.

The Seventeenth Amendment also, it seems to me, put another arrow in the notion of federalism by giving special interests even more opportunity to sow together constituencies across state borders. There are points to be made on both sides, but there are reasons for representative government on multiple tiers.

In general, though, I doubt the prospects of passing amendments to address this sort of complex civic question. What's needed, perhaps, is a single amendment — the Return to Foundations Amendment, or something — that pulls together several of the ideas for repeal and modification that are floating around as separate movements.


November 15, 2010


Unemployment Benefits and Change

Justin Katz

Being unemployed for long periods is a terrible experience for those who lack the resources to survive an extended financial drain. Especially when a family is on the line, the hopelessness and fear of joblessness is one of modern life's greatest anxieties.

Still, at a certain point, unemployment benefits begin to become a weapon of dependency for government agents:

Thousands of out-of-work Rhode Islanders will start running out of unemployment benefits on Nov. 30 unless Congress acts to renew certain federal benefit programs.

About 30,000 unemployed people are collecting jobless benefits in Rhode Island, where the unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, fifth-highest in the nation.

If certain federal benefit programs expire as scheduled late this month, about 17,000 unemployed Rhode Islanders would run out of benefits sooner than they otherwise would, state figures show.

Short-term help is, I'd argue, a just and reasonable responsibility of state government, and during times of economic stress, the federal government should shift funds from other expenditures to help the states in their efforts. But when nearly two years of government subsidies come to be seen as a humanitarian necessity, the calculation begins to change.

After all, those who are kept afloat by such funds are less likely to make changes that might improve their circumstances while contributing to the economy. That's true on a personal level, with the decreased the likelihood that workforces will move from place to place or industry to industry as the economy requires, or reconfigure their living circumstances toward more sustainable expectations and better fortified family supports. It's also true on a political level, with the ire of unemployed voters focused on maintaining and extending their temporary benefits rather than pressuring politicians to cease their games and get out of the economy's way.


November 10, 2010


New England's Liberal Conservative Non-Schizophrenia; Or Something

Marc Comtois

Robert Whitcomb ruminates over the "psychological" conservatism of New England:

New Englanders are in fact more psychologically conservative than most of the rest of the country, whatever the social and economic liberalism ascribed to them by the press.

That their rates of divorce, illegitimacy, alcohol and other drug abuse, personal bankruptcy and other signs of social dysfunction are less than most of the country's speaks to the region's social stability (call it "conservatism'') compared to, in particular, the Sunbelt.

There, many folks like to call their states "conservative'' but the chaotic personal lives of so many folks belie that description.

Without digging around, my sense that Whitcomb is correct, here. But then he goes on to allude to a sort of dispositional conservatism, at least when it comes to politics:
Why do New Englanders tend not to make big changes in their political representation, whatever the national gyrations?

I'd guess it's because they're more wary than most of the country of promises of change. And they don't have as schizophrenic views about government as many Americans: They know that any advanced society needs a lot of it.*

Well, not quite. Look what happened in Maine, where Republicans swept through Augusta, winning the Governor's race and both legislative Houses. Or New Hampshire where both Congressional and Senate seats are now held by the GOP and the legislature flipped to Republican super-majorities (after drifting Democratic in recent years from its own version of Yankee Conservatism). No, New Englanders aren't immune to making big political changes. At least not all of them.

Perhaps it would be more insightful to look into why 4 of the 6 New England states seem to be political outliers this year and, generally speaking, why dispositional conservatives are so politically liberal. I think Whitcomb is close to identifying it when he says, to paraphrase, New Englanders recognize that modern society requires big government. In other words, there are plenty of New Englanders (particularly, it seems, in Mass., RI, CT and VT), who are interested in conserving the current state of political affairs because they benefit directly from the status quo via jobs or benefits or entitlements. So, in this case, dispositional conservatism reinforces political liberalism. Oh, and self-interest.

*As an aside, regarding that schizophrenic conservatism exhibited elsewhere, here we see a similar thought process as that exhibited in today's aforementioned ProJo editorial concerning "fiscal hyper-hypocrisy".


November 8, 2010


Letting Government Be Neutral

Justin Katz

Catching up on my reading, I highlighted the following, from First Thing editor Joseph Bottum's thoughts on the Ground Zero mosque controversy:

Real democracy is messy. It's got protestors and agitators and banners and manners and morals and financial pressures and gossip and policemen on horses keeping an eye out to make sure it doesn't turn violent. Oh, yes, it's also got government, but apart from paying for those policemen, government ought not to be too deeply involved as these things sort themselves out. If what the Muslims want to do is not illegal, than government should have nothing more to say.

That does not mean, however, that everyone else should also have nothing more to say. The attempt to build a large, new mosque and Islamic center anywhere near the site of the World Trade Center is so offensive, so bizarre, and so deliberate that it should be stopped.

And stopped it will be, through the offered mediation of New York's Archbishop Dolan, or the skittishness of the financial community, or the disturbance of the neighbors, or the anger of the protestors, or the refusal of the building contractors. It will be messy, and it will be sharp. Inspiring and disturbing, with loud shouts on the streets and a few quiet words in the back rooms.

But that's democracy—it's how things get done when you accept that government shouldn't do everything. The churches and the synagogues have long experience with this kind of democratic negotiation. Time for the mosques to learn how to do it, too.

It comes down to this: As the ostensibly neutral arbiter and the licit wielder of deadly force, the government should not determine what its principles (society's principles) should be. That includes the mandate for "tolerance." At lower levels of government, the people should be able to insert their principles into government as they see fit, but the moment government steps in to resolve disputes — as opposed to ensuring the conditions in which they can be resolved without violence — being unalterably tolerant of one perspective inherently requires being intolerant of perspectives that oppose it.

If the arbiter insists, even, that "hate" is inadmissible as justification, then his criteria are no longer objective; hatred is all too evident in the side with which one disagrees and too difficult to see among those who've reached the one's own conclusion.



If It Were Rational, Their Power Would Decrease

Justin Katz

Theodore Gatchel suggests that one way to improve the function of Congress is to narrow the focus of each legislative item:

If the Democrats had broken health-care legislation into smaller, "clean" bills, each of which dealt with a single aspect of health care, President Obama might well have gained more of what he wanted, and Tuesday night's results might have been very different. If the Democrats had included tort reform and letting insurance companies compete across state lines — both of which could reduce consumers' costs — in their agenda, they undoubtedly would have received much-needed bipartisan support.

Gatchel notes that politicians dislike such an approach because it would make it more difficult to slip unpopular and self-serving measures into laws. It would also reduce incumbents' access to deniability — claiming to have opposed unpopular aspects of bills, but pointing to positive aspects as the areas of focus. The extreme nature of ObamaCare's legislative process shows the ultimate form of that reasoning; it became starkly the reality that legislators were pointing to a few positive intentions — regardless of practical likelihood — and insisting that they compensated for whatever might prove to be in the bill.

One should note, in counterbalance to Gatchel's suggestion, that there are circumstances in which piecemeal legislation can be less effective, even incoherent, even harmful. On a broad scale, the example comes to mind of leftist regulatory schemes that favor large incumbent businesses deleteriously mixed with rightist free-market principles, creating a free rein for monopolistic powerhouses.

That danger could easily be mitigated, however, if bills contained provisions that required all of their key components to be passed individually before they collectively became law.


October 30, 2010


Some Truths Well Put

Justin Katz

I'll be relieved when today has passed, for community engagement reasons, and I'll be relieved when Tuesday has passed, for political involvement reasons, and I'll be relaxed when November has passed, for professional reasons. Which all serves obliquely to explain why I'm just now, of a Saturday morning, catching up on Mark Steyn's week of insightful daily posts. Read them all, by all means, but as usual with Steyn, a few paragraphs stand out from each. On Tuesday:

An America comprised of therapeutic statists, regulatory enforcers, multigenerational dependents, identity-group rent-seekers, undocumented laborers, stimulus grantwriting liaison coordinators, six-figure community organizers, millionaire diversity-outreach consultants, billionaire carbon-offset traders, a diversionary-leisure "knowledge sector", John Edwards' anti-poverty consultancy, John Kerry's vintner, and Al Gore's holistic masseuse will still offer many opportunities, but not for that outmoded American archetype, the self-reliant citizen seeking to nourish his family through the fruits of his labor. And nor for millions of others just struggling to stay afloat. A statist America won't be a large Sweden — unimportant but prosperous — but something closer to the Third World, corrupt and chaotic, broke and brutish — for all but a privileged few.

The new class war in the western world is between "public servants" and the rest of us. In Washington, the marching bureaucrats are telling us government doesn't suck. But in Greece, the bloated public service has sucked so much out of the economy there's nothing left.

On Wednesday:

Got that? If you own a deli, you better have, because New York is so broke they need their nine cents per sliced bagel and their bagel inspectors are cracking down.

In such a world, there is no "law" — in the sense of (a) you the citizen being found by (b) a jury of your peers to be in breach of (c) a statute passed by (d) your elected representatives. Instead, unknown, unnamed, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats determine transgressions, prosecute infractions and levy fines for behavioral rules they themselves craft and which, thanks to the ever more tangled spaghetti of preferences, subsidies, entitlements and incentives, apply to different citizens unequally. You may be lucky: You may not catch their eye — for a while. But perhaps your neighbor does, or the guy down the street. No trial, no jury, just a dogsbody in some cubicle who pronounces that you’re guilty of an offense a colleague of his invented. ...

This is the reality of small business in America today. You don't make the rules, you don't vote for people who make the rules. But you have to work harder, pay more taxes, buy more permits, fill in more paperwork, contribute to the growth of an ever less favorable business environment and prostrate yourself before the Commissar of Community Services — all for the privilege of taking home less and less money.

On Thursday:

In the 20th century the intermediary institutions were belatedly hacked away—not just self-government at town, county, and state level, but other independent pillars: church, civic associations, and not least (as the demographic profile of Dillon indicates) the basic building block of functioning society, the family. After the diminution of every intervening institution, very little stands between the central authority and the individual, which is why the former now assumes the right to insert himself into every aspect of daily life and why schoolgirls in Dillon, South Carolina think it entirely normal to beseech the Sovereign in Barackingham Palace to do something about classroom maintenance. ...

The object is to reduce and eventually eliminate alternatives — to subsume everything within the Big Government monopoly. Statists prefer national one-size-fits all — and ultimately planet-wide one-size-fits-all. Borders create the nearest thing to a free market in government — as the elite well understand when they seek to avoid the burdens they impose on you. John Kerry, a Big Tax senator from a Big Tax state, preferred to register his yacht in Rhode Island to avoid half-a-million bucks in cockamamie Massachusetts "boat sales and use" tax. Howard Metzenbaum, the pro-Death Tax senator from Ohio, adjusted his legal residency just before he died from Ohio to Florida, because the former had an estate tax and the latter didn't. This is federalism at work: States compete, and, when they get as rapacious as Massachusetts, even their own pro-tax princelings start looking for the workarounds.

Bazillionaire senators will always have workarounds — for their land, for their yachts, for their health care. You won't.

And today:

In California, the people can pass a ballot proposition, but a single activist judge overrules them. In Arizona, the people's representatives vote to uphold the people's laws, but a pliant judge strikes them down at Washington's behest. It is surely only a matter of time before some federal judge finds the constitution unconstitutional. It is never a good idea to send the message, as the political class now does consistently, that there are no democratic means by which the people can restrain their rulers. As Pat Cadell points out, the logic of that is "pre-revolutionary".

What Judge Bolton in Arizona and Judge Walker in California have in common and share with Mayor Bloomberg's observations on opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is a contempt for the people. The rationale for reversing the popular will in all three cases is that the sovereign people are bigots. In Arizona, they're xenophobic. In California, they're homophobic. In New York, they're Islamophobic. Popular sovereignty may be fine in theory but not when the people are so obviously in need of "re-education" by their betters. Over in London, the transportation department has a bureaucrat whose very title sums up our rulers' general disposition toward us: "Head of Behavior Change."

What Steyn excels at laying out is the application of a basic understanding of America's conception of liberty and the civic structure that supports it to broad issues of the day. We can see those applications in every layer of government. Town-level school committees that bend to the will of state-and-nation-level labor unions that have had decades and publicly funded full-time jobs to restructure the public debate in such a way as to hinder necessary change. State legislators who apparently have no concept of the effects of the legislation that they pass at the behest of self-interested and ideological constituencies, and a gubernatorial front-runner whose "vision for Rhode Island's recovery" is 100% driven by the decisions and top-down crafting of government policies — picking industries and individual winners and, of course, spending more money on government activities. A federal government that is nakedly hostile to citizens who wish to govern themselves by different standards than the ruling class prefers.

Pared down, there are two paths to take this coming Tuesday — chosen at every level of the ballot. One begins to turn the nation back toward a liberty and self-autonomous spirit that can restore the United States to its city-on-a-hill status and, indeed, ensure that the nation continues to exist as such. The other allows the noose to continue tightening.


October 19, 2010


Cause and What-Can-Effect

Justin Katz

This unsigned editorial in the Providence Journal makes a reasonable case:

Much of the debate about unemployment assiduously avoids the basic causes of long-term joblessness and falling wages.

One is globalization. Large U.S. companies, aided by modern telecommunications and fast transportation, find it increasingly easy to move jobs abroad, where the wages tend to be much lower than they are (or were!) in the U.S. This produces a race to the bottom that drags down U.S. wages and employment.

The writer goes on to note some of the contributing factors, as well as a couple positives to the trend: higher investment yields and improved living conditions for the benefiting countries. But what he or she fails to address is the differing degrees to which government can affect the issues that come into play.

People in poorer countries will work for less. That's a fact. Technology has lowered barriers to overseas production. Another fact. China is playing protectionist games. All of these can be addressed in different ways, but all methods are likely to be slow and risky.

What our domestic government can do is to ease the burdens that it places upon our own economy. That's politically difficult, of course, not only because it requires government to give up some of its reach and authority, but also because it will force powerful constituencies — on both sides of every issue — to make adjustments to evolving reality. But there is no other option that doesn't turn our "race to the bottom" into a race to authoritarianism.


October 12, 2010


A Foreign Reason to Get Our Own House in Order

Justin Katz

How about a frightening assessment of our relationship with China:

Why would China so brazenly challenge the world's economic powers like this? Because the country's leaders know what our leaders are only beginning to understand — that China would probably win a global trade war.

It's certainly worth reading Eric Weiner's entire essay for the details of his argument, but the point that I draw from his conclusion is that America's indebtedness and creeping cultural dependency have left us with no good governmental cards to play. Extrapolating a way forward, I'd suggest that Americans need to increase their efforts encouraging the Chinese people to push back against the abridgment of their rights and, perhaps more importantly, to begin restructuring our society so that we're less dependent on foreign loans and more apt to produce and to do business with our own countrymen and women.

Which strongly relates, it seems to me, to Peggy Noonan's latest insight into the national mood:

For those who wonder why so many people have come to hate, or let me change it to profoundly dislike, "the elites," especially the political elite, here is one reason: It is because they have armies of accountants to do this work for them. Those in power institute the regulations and rules and then hire people to protect them from the burdens and demands of their legislation. There is no congressman passing tax law who doesn't have staffers in his office taking care of his own financial life and who will not, when he moves down the street into the lobbying firm, have an army of accountants to protect him there.

Washington is now to some degree the focus of the same sort of profound resentment that Hollywood liberals inspired when they really mattered, or seemed really powerful. For decades they made films that were not helpful to our culture or society, that were full of violence and sick imagery. But they often brought their own children up more or less protected from the effects of the culture they created. Private schools, nannies, therapists, tutors. They bought their way out of the cultural mayhem to which they'd contributed. Their children were fine. Yours were on their own.

It all comes down to a desperate need to return the focus of our nation to individual autonomy, which requires, most of all, that more of the necessary restraints on others' behavior be accomplished through cultural means, rather than governmental. Central management and individual liberty are mutually exclusive, in the long run, and since we can't manage our way to a stronger global economic footing, we have to achieve it through our heritage of freedom and personal volition.


October 9, 2010


Green and Blue v. Red

Justin Katz

An op-ed in the New York Post, by Sen. James Inhofe (R, OK) points to a couple of topics worth discussion:

One insidious force keeping unemployment high is regulatory uncertainty: Companies that could hire (or re-hire), don't — because they're worried about what new restrictions will be coming down from Washington.

Congress bears much of the blame — especially for the new "financial reform" law, which leaves so many details to be filled in later. But a major contributor to businesses' worries is the Obama Environmental Protection Agency, which is issuing a daily barrage of rules and regulations threatening jobs in American industry.

So concludes "EPA's Anti-Industrial Policy: Threatening Jobs and America's Manufacturing Base" — a new report from the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (on which I serve as ranking member).

Inhofe goes on to describe three of the four "most egregiously anti-business proposals" of the EPA, on which the report focuses:

  • New rules for industrial boilers
  • Unnaturally lowered ozone levels
  • The claim that the agency has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide

The fourth proposal addressed in the full report (PDF) has to do with regulation of Portland Cement plants. Notably, all of the proposals have had the effect of putting Republicans and private-sector unions on the same side of advocacy — because both sides have reason to fear policies that could cost the economy almost a million jobs, many of them industrial.

But the Republicans don't have entirely clean hands on a broader view. Return your thoughts to Inhofe's lament over regulatory uncertainty. Such uncertainty is surely an inevitable consequence of our deeply divided political sphere. Indeed, the only thing that has been certain, over the past two decades, has been that government authority would grow and expand, but with a modicum of respect for free market principles that has driven the economy of the United States. Republicans of the current generations have failed to pull government in the other direction — with many, including President Bush, apparently quite comfortable with its expansion. That consistent trend enabled companies (particularly large companies) to adjust and plan for their own benefit, and smaller businesses and individuals could predict what rules would persist and which were prone to adjustment.

What President Obama and the Congressional Democrats have illustrated is that the balance cannot hold. Eventually, government's size and power becomes such that expansion requires it to rewrite rules by which other social powerhouses thrive. That's the line being crossed. Businesses operate by the larger principle (crass as it is) of profit, which makes it unlikely that a new corporate executive regime will change policies based on whim. When they do, the fact that companies are replaceable means that the gap they leave will be filled; another company will spot the poorly managed competitor's dash to the cliff and maneuver to fill its abandoned space. There is no secondary government.

Government, by its nature, is subject to the whims of those who hold its reins. Especially when public offices become the domain of independently wealthy politicians, they become prone to ideological excess, and ideology defines its own larger principles, making their decisions much less predictable. The nation's deep political divide matters most of all because the size of government grants unwieldy power to the side that happens to be winning for the moment.


October 6, 2010


Nancy Driggs Sums Up a Campaign's Rationale

Justin Katz

On Saturday, Tiverton Citizens for Change hosted a fundraiser for local candidates, featuring speeches from several. Nancy Driggs, Republican for RI House District 70 (Portsmouth, Tiverton), gave us something a bit more comprehensive than a review of local issues. Here is what she said.


My name is Nancy Driggs, and I am the non-incumbent candidate for RI State Representative, District 70. I was graduated from the Univ. of Pennsylvania undergraduate, and from the U.C.L.A. School of Law. I am licensed to practice law in California, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. My major areas of practice have been in the corporate/securities area, both at the SEC and a major Boston law firm, and then for almost 20 years, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as a litigator in child custody cases of child abuse and neglect, and ultimately termination of parental rights to free the child for adoption.

I have been married to John Perkins, a partner in the RI small business of Wellington Yacht Partners, for 34 years. We have three children, a daughter who is a pediatrician/neonatologist at Women's and Infants, a son who is a financial analyst in Maryland, and another son who is a lawyer in Boston. We have two and three-quarters grandchildren.

In order to discuss what I consider the most compelling issues in our state, I have to discuss underlying principles, which guide me, and which inform these other issues.

The well-being of children, the most vulnerable amongst us, has been, always, a top priority for me. I believe, however, that we, as a society, and within our state, are destroying many young lives.

In my years of legal work in this arena I have seen the devastation wrought on families by our current "entitlement" and "benefit" culture. We have created, and continue to create, generations of government dependents. We have ruined families. A father's role to support offspring is ignored — the state (substitute taxpayer), instead, becoming the provider. We have neutered and made irrelevant, any sense of personal accountability and responsibility for actions — substituting, again, the taxpayer to provide for their children.

I remember being in Family Court in Providence for a hearing. I represented, at that time, the one year old child of an 18 year old mother. The child was in foster care because of mother's domestic violence issues with the child's father. It became clear that day that mother was again pregnant, and I asked her how she expected to take care of that child. Her answer? I get aid from the state. There was no sense that aid actually came from taxpayer's pockets. There was no shame that she would be taking it. There was no personal accountability.

I think, however, that this new vocabulary of "entitlements" and "benefits" that I witnessed in my work in the child custody arena, is symptomatic of society at large. And it needs to be changed. It has replaced the vocabulary of "fiscal accountability" and "personal accountability" that I grew up with. We are living in a surreal and dangerous world right now in Rhode Island where the government is demanding more and more money from the taxpayers to fund its ever-growing self and its many programs, and the taxpayers are finally saying, "enough, I'm out of here."

And when the taxpayer goes, whether an individual, or a corporation, so go jobs, and so go their revenues from the state's coffer.

It is as simple as that. We need to bring fiscal reality back into focus. We use the words "balance sheet" and "balanced budget," but we ignore the definition. A financial statement and a budget are balanced when liabilities equal assets. We don't run our household budget by expenditures that are based on a hoped-for gift from Uncle Sam, who, by the way, we know is also bankrupt and hugely in debt. We shouldn't run our state this way, yet that is exactly the FY 2011 budget our State Representatives passed last year.

We know that when our household incomes are down, the first things we give up are the "extras" — eating out, movies, trips. We don't first turn off our electricity, or the heat. Yet, we are told by our current representatives that if we cut back state spending the first thing to go will be police, firemen, ambulance, schools. That is nonsense, and it is time to call it that.

We don't have a revenue problem in Rhode Island. We have a spending problem, exacerbated and heightened by this mentality of "entitlements" and "benefits." My passion is to return "fiscal accountability" and "personal responsibility" to their proper and necessary function in society.

The America of our history, and our glory, always has been a "can do" country. We are the land of the free and the home of the brave, but we are at the brink of destroying the very values that still make us the country to which everyone wants to immigrate. Americans traditionally have been a hard-working people, intent on making a better life for those that follow. And until recently, that dream could be a reality. No more. If we don't stop this reckless, unaccountable, unprincipled spending — at every level of government — for the first time in the history of this country our children will NOT be able to have the opportunity for a life better than ours.

Big government is a malignancy. Its many impersonal tentacles are wrapping themselves around more and more of our liberties and freedoms, most often in the guise of compassion. Big government needs to be excised from our lives.

This is probably the most important election in the history of our country. This election is about the soul of our country, and us. This election is about private property rights, about who is more entitled to the fruits of your labor, your wallet, and to make decisions of where your money should be spent — government or you. This election is about the proper role of government and the individual in society.

I believe in free enterprise. I believe the individual should be free to keep as much of his/her money as possible, and to determine where that money should be spent. I believe in the Constitution, and the limited role of government it envisions.

I believe if we return to my passion, replacing the current culture of "entitlements" and "benefits" with the principles of "fiscal accountability" and "personal responsibility," if we allow these principles to inform our tax policy, our regulatory policy, our education standards, our healthcare debate, we will have gone a huge distance in bringing our cities, states and nation back from the brink of bankruptcy — moral and fiscal — upon which they all teeter.

This is why I am running.


October 5, 2010


Balancing a Budget; Balance Lucky Parent Syndrome?

Monique Chartier

Yesterday's RISC-Y Business NewsLetter contained a Woonsocket Call article (not available on line) describing the onerous cuts to the school budget identified by the school committee.

Mayor Leo T. Fontaine has sued the school department on a bid to balance its budget and on Monday school officials may meet his challenge with a stunning round of cuts not seen since the city budget battles of the early 1990s.

Villa Novan sports at all levels will be up for elimination School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said Friday, and also all regular student transportation services.

A committee attempt to erase the remaining $2.8 million in red ink in the 2010-2011budget could also include the elimination of all teacher assistants at the elementary level and a cut of approximately $500,000 in capital expenditures on which the city is entitled to receive 80 percent reimbursement from the state.

I e-mailed an observer of Woonsocket politics yesterday to express exasperation that cuts had been identified only at the point of a lawsuit and to inquire whether he was aware of potential cuts that didn't make the list. The gentleman, not a bleeding heart on any front, replied below with little sympathy for my premise.

Let's establish the facts on the ground before taking up his questions.

- Woonsocket has an inadequate tax base. Not "inadequate" like Providence, which has a tax base but is legally barred from levying 45% of it. In Woonsocket, it simply doesn't exist in a sufficient mass, no matter how many tax laws are changed.

- Teacher pay in Woonsocket is in the bottom quarter statewide and they pay a 20% health co-share.

- We don't (myself included) all have $100,000+/year jobs. So there are "poorer" households and poorer communities.

Now to his questions.

Before I begin this debate, I need to know if you believe that suburban students are entitled by their good fortune (lucky parent syndrome) to have more opportunities offered to them? If so, why? If not, then how should the obvious socio-economic differences among the various cities and towns be balanced to assure equal opportunities?

Does the rest of the state not have an obligation to balance, if not equalize, opportunity, defined here as a good education, for children in less affluent communities?


October 1, 2010


Floating Anarchy

Justin Katz

Elsewhere in the world, conditions akin to slavery:

Forced labour and human rights abuses involving African crews have been uncovered on trawlers fishing illegally for the European market by investigators for an environmental campaign group.

The Environmental Justice Foundation found conditions on board including incarceration, violence, withholding of pay, confiscation of documents, confinement on board for months or even years, and lack of clean water.

The video included in the story tells of abandoned ships on which the companies, for some reason, keep lone crewmen. On active ships the condition is one of servitude, with all of those old manipulations, such as deliberate debt traps and physical abuse.

What's striking, from the standpoint of political thought, is the way in which the story points to the narrow path along which societies must tread. On the one hand, governments are necessary that can enforce basic rules concerning freedom and treatment of fellow human beings (and, yes, resource management). On the other hand, poverty and a lack of opportunity are the conditions that drag people into this modern slavery, and one needn't trace personal stories far, I'd wager, in order to see an abuse or poorly conceived intervention by government agencies.


September 30, 2010


The Unthrilling Election

Justin Katz

On last night's Matt Allen Show, Matt and I pondered why there seems to be little excitement around Rhode Island's gubernatorial race. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


September 29, 2010


The Straight Line Crosses Political Groupings

Justin Katz

Timothy Sandefur's edifying review of the shift in legal thought on the Supreme Court during the era of President Franklin Roosevelt's progressive revolution points, among other things, to the way in which political groupings do not draw straight lines across history, such that a conservative or progressive today would have agreed with their supposed forerunners:

For a legislature to exert power in this way — for the personal benefit of the lawmaker or his allies — would be to act arbitrarily; to exert its mere will. But the due-process-of-law clause allows states to act only pursuant to law — that is, general rules serving the public good. In 1874, less than a decade after the Fourteenth Amendment added a new "due process of law" clause to the Constitution, the Court held that states could not take property from some citizens to benefit others because such legislation was not "law," but "a decree under legislative forms." Legislation restricting freedom only to enrich a particular faction, or lacking any basis other than legislative say-so, abridges liberty without due process of law.

Progressive-era lawyers recognized that this legal doctrine was among the most serious obstacles to redistributive legislation. They therefore formulated a theory that the due-process clause required only fair procedures, and that the constitutional prohibition on legislative arbitrariness — which they derisively labeled "substantive due process" — had been concocted by "activist" judges who merely enforced their individual political views from the bench. The judges of a previous generation would have been stunned by this accusation, but by the 1930s, it had become common in the legal academy and among younger lawyers. The clash between the two interpretations of the due-process clause would form one of the central dramas of the New Deal decade.

As it happens, I agree with the progressives, as described in the above. Within the boundaries of the Constitution, states ought to be able to be given maximal leash, with residents never deprived of the right to work to change policies or to leave, and the expectation that state governments that choose poorly will watch productive residents leave and take the health of the local society with them. The problem is that federalism turned out to be an argument of convenience for factions outside of the judicial majority.

The insight of the progressives in the text that I've just quoted was that there exist rules laid out in the law concocted by people in a system of self government and that the people could therefore change them. Experiment. In terms of government, there isn't some abstract, pure Law to which legislatures and jurists must hew, because that abstraction turns out to be suspiciously similar to the opinions of the ruling class. But once they gained the majority, the progressives set about undermining the rules that made possible the very notion of due process:

... the Constitution explicitly bars states from "impairing the obligation of contracts," a prohibition adopted in response to uprisings like the 1786 Shays's Rebellion, in which farmers mobbed foreclosure sales, closed courts, and demanded "debtor stay laws" like that enacted in Minnesota. Laws limiting lenders' ability to recover from defaulting borrowers dry up credit and stifle economic expansion, which is why James Madison described them as "wicked" and "contrary to the first principles of the social compact." Even law professor William Prosser, who helped Minnesota legislators write the law, confessed in 1934 that the contracts clause "was inserted in the Constitution for the purpose of preventing precisely [this] type of legislation."

When a bank foreclosed on the Blaisdell family's boarding house, they sought to extend the redemption period. The judge refused, finding the law unconstitutional, but the Blaisdells appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the law in a 5–4 decision. Admitting it could not be reconciled with the Constitution, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes nevertheless held that the law was justified by the economic "emergency." It was "no answer," he claimed, "to insist that what the provision of the Constitution meant to the vision of that day it must mean to the vision of our time." To say "that the great clauses of the Constitution must be confined to the interpretation which the framers, with the conditions and outlook of their time, would have placed upon them" simply "carrie[d] its own refutation."

With legislatures thus freed to to do anything, provided it coincided with the ideologies and opinions of a majority of Supreme Court justices, the deterioration of the American experiment began in earnest. In our day, the federal government has stepped up its own involvement — from minimum wages to, now, healthcare — making real due process — the ability to organize and work for change in response to unjust laws — that much more difficult, and the decision of our rulers that much more arbitrary.


September 27, 2010


Servility with Outward Liberty

Justin Katz

In a review of Kenneth Minogue's The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life (subscription probably required), Diana Schaub touches on a topic that is subtle, but central to current political disputes. "Freedom is mentally and morally demanding; bondage is easy (painful and miserable, but easy)," she writes. Therefore, we are beginning to see the emergence of "a new 'dependence of mind' compatible with the outward forms of freedom."

The "one right thing" to do — the new orthodoxy — becomes defined not by the individual, with reference to authorities that may be addressed on their own merits, whether scriptural, traditional, or empirical, but by social activists, with government as "the agent of human improvement":

Servility takes a double form: "On the one hand, human beings are mobilized . . . to be the instruments of the social purpose of perfecting the world. On the other hand, as the beneficiaries of free-standing rights, they have been liberated from most frustrations and inhibitions on their right to satisfy all their own impulses. They are, in other words, to be collectively dutiful and individually hedonistic." Both attitudes entail servility. One's ideas and pieties are acquired through social osmosis. One follows along, obeying or at least mouthing the right slogans. Meanwhile, one's day-to-day behavior is impulsive, not under the guidance of long-range reason. To mention just one instance: "Saving for a rainy day" (the practice of delayed gratification) is not imperative, or perhaps even possible, when the state taxes you for the provision of all needs. Consumption, debt, impulse-buying, and gambling are all officially encouraged. The servile mind is enslaved to society without and the passions within.

Arguably, the skill that Western society developed, over millennia, was one of self discipline yielding a higher liberty, and when liberated from oppressive domination by others (through democracy) and given structures that facilitate the choice to rise above the base urges of the self (mainly through religion), humankind will strive and advance.

It is well known history (and, truthfully, current events) that people desiring to dominate can leverage that understanding to impose servility in the name of stamping out personal urges, with a corruption of religious structures as the primary vehicle. What we're seeing, in our place and time, is the encouragement of poor behavior so that the dominators have reason to impose their own order to manage the consequences through government.


September 22, 2010


A Government-Everything Complex

Justin Katz

News comes this morning that the inclusion of a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" has sunk a defense policy bill in the U.S. Senate:

Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an effort by Democrats and the White House to lift the ban on gays from serving openly in the military, voting unanimously against advancing a major defense policy bill that included the provision. ...

Democrats included the repeal provision in a $726 billion defense policy bill, which authorizes a pay raise for the troops among other popular programs. In a deal brokered with the White House, the measure would have overturned the 1993 law banning openly gay service only after a Pentagon review and certification from the president that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt troop morale.

Although I oppose progressives' efforts to impose social engineering on our military forces, my larger concern, on this issue, is that such policy decisions are unnecessarily bound up with budgeting, such as the aforementioned raises. If it's true, as the Democrats have asserted, that they're merely following "public opinion," why ought the controversial issue not be handled on its own? The other day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) announced his intention also to append a bill that would have (had it not been blocked) allowed young illegal immigrants "who attend college or join the military to become legal U.S. residents."

Add in with this social stuff policies that more appropriately belong in a bill addressing military spending. I'm thinking of the F136 engine for the F-35 Lightning II jet engine. Back in the mid-'90s, the bidding process left the engines in the hands of the company Pratt & Whitney (the F135), but General Electric/Rolls-Royce managed to secure funding for its alternate, as well.

Four years ago, the Department of Defense and both administrations began attempting to withdraw funding for the F136, but Congress has kept it going. The core remaining argument on behalf of the engine is made on the grounds of market competition — although it's questionable whether a single entity's purchase of two products creates real competitive incentives for either provider.

What makes the engine issue particularly relevant is that President Obama has vowed to veto the defense policy bill if it includes funding for the F136. The opportunity, therefore, for political maneuvers that have nothing to do with the well being of the military or the nation would have been huge if a pledge to veto wasteful spending had come up against the waves of homosexual and immigration activism.

These are the sorts of complicated and difficult-to-follow conflicts that arise with big government, of which the much-forewarned military-industrial complex seeks to make use to ensure continued economic benefit to interested parties. Yet, the typically left-leaning folks who decry such back-room cooperation when it comes to businesses and the military would like nothing better than to extend that same complexity and opportunity for diversion and corruption to every aspect of American society — healthcare, finances, the "green" industry, and on and on and on.


August 27, 2010


Fighting Tyranny Inherently Breaks the Rules

Justin Katz

I've been meaning to comment on the latest development in the governance of Central Falls: the city council's decision to hire an independent lawyer, apparently without knowing how it will pay the bill if Receiver-King Mark Pfeiffer, appointed by the state, refuses to allow it.

The move by the council is a reaction to state-appointed receiver Mark A. Pfeiffer's announcement last week that to close a $2.1-million deficit in last year's budget and a projected $6.3-million hole in the current year, he will need to raise the tax rate by 10 percent. For homeowners, that will mean the rate per $1,000 of assessed value will go from $19.22 to $21.14. There are different rates for commercial and industrial buildings.

On the limited matter of whether the council should be spending scarce resources on such a thing, it's difficult to argue with Amy Kempe, here:

[The council's prospective lawyer, Lawrence] Goldberg said the council needed its own lawyer in cases where it disagreed with Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer has told the council to use the city solicitors, but Goldberg said they now answer to Pfeiffer.

"They have divided loyalties," Goldberg said.

Amy P. Kempe, spokeswoman for Pfeiffer, said Tuesday night that Pfeiffer wouldn't approve a new lawyer.

"They should utilize the services of the solicitor's office so as not to add extra expense to the city of Central Falls," Kempe said.

But this is the problem with dictatorship. People lose trust in the process for addressing grievances or (rightly) conclude that the route is unduly long and complicated. To resolve differences with the receiver, the people of Central Falls would have to change enough state officeholders to halt a targeted law. Otherwise, they'd have to argue to a judge that the law or the actions being taken in its name are illegal. To expect city solicitors to take on their own boss in the name of residents, through their elected council, is little more than a banana republic pretense toward representative democracy.

Of course, beneath all of these fine procedural points, we can only shake our heads at the capacity of the state government of Rhode Island to come up with a way to make the mayor and city council of Central Falls look like victims.


August 26, 2010


A Model Governor and Some Pointers on Government Structure

Justin Katz

Among New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's accomplishments has been knocking President Obama from the cover of National Review magazine after a summer-long run. As the related article shows, however, Christie's more significant accomplishment has been successfully plucking at strings that many of us have spotted before:

... it was true so far as it went. [Democrat Senate President Stephen] Sweeney had shown leadership on pensions, working with the governor to assure broad Democratic support for reform. This struck some in the state's labor movement as a special kind of betrayal, since Sweeney was himself head of an ironworkers' union. But it made sense. Private-sector unions like Sweeney's depended on economic activity for work, and his members were suffering mightily through the recession, even as public-sector labor was shielded from the worst of it.

Thus did Christie split the Democrats in the state legislature from their traditional labor base, exploiting fissures both between public- and private-sector unions and between the teachers' unions and the taxpaying public. Having taken their best shot at Chris Christie, the opposition now found themselves chastened, confused, and cannibalized.

When problems become as deep as those facing states like New Jersey and Rhode Island, it becomes more difficult for Democrats to cobble an alliance of constituencies that are insulated from the damage of their policies. (Which is not to say that enough people can't be hoodwinked into erroneous support.) What's fascinating, though, is the evident importance of the basic, boring structure of the government:

Nor could the Democrats, having lost the public-opinion battle, count on stopping Christie's budget in the house: New Jersey's constitution gives an oppositional majority little in the way of procedural tools to block a determined governor's path. As the only at-large elected official in the state, the governor not only commands the bully pulpit but appoints all the key executives — from attorney general to education commissioner — who might stand in his way. Moreover, his line-item budget veto is both powerful and precise, giving him the ability to strike whole clauses or decrease individual appropriations to the cent. The only thing the governor can't do is raise spending.

In Rhode Island, it would be more appropriate to call the governor the opposition, and it is he (or she) with "little in the way of procedural tools" to block a strong majority in the General Assembly. I typically favor the legislature in the structure of a divided government, but our state proves decisively that many of the reasons that I do so are able to be subverted. Gerrymandering, for one thing, protects incumbents and facilitates the development of reliable voting blocs for politicians. I'd also note that New Jersey's legislators are paid sufficiently well that somebody who is neither independently wealthy nor liable to see office as a profitable aspect of his or her private occupation could justify a run for public office.

As for the governor's office, I'm not so sure that I'd want fewer of his lower executives to be elected, butthe line-item budget veto would be a worthy change to local law.


August 6, 2010


Public Servants as CEOs

Justin Katz

Joe Mysak takes up the topic of Bell, California's highly paid public servants:

In his only statement to the press to date, the $787,637 man, [City Manager] Robert Rizzo, told the Los Angeles Times, "If that's a number people choke on, maybe I'm in the wrong business. I could go into private business and make that money. This council has compensated me for the job I've done."

To which the answer should be, "go right ahead." One hears this point frequently from highly paid government administrators, and while it's legitimate to allocate compensation sufficient to attract talented people, it's also true that candidates for public-sector jobs aren't necessarily the same as candidates for similar private sector jobs. A school district employee who has risen through the ranks from teacher to principal to superintendent has highly specific experience that may not garner a six-figure salary (plus the equivalent of public sector benefits) in another field.

Of course, as Mysak goes on to relate, the situation in Bell is egregious even so:

"There are darned few $787,000 salaried positions anywhere in the private sector for managers who run an organization of similar size," said Girard Miller, a public-pension and finance consultant at PFM Group in Los Angeles. Bell has 80 full-time employees, according to its latest financial report.

Unfortunately, while Bell is extreme, the reality is that government has become so broad, complicated, and pervasive that few citizens care to keep tabs on such matters to the extent necessary. The only rational response, in my view, would be to shrink it and limit its responsibilities.



When Government Shouldn't Operate as a Business

Justin Katz

Amid examples of failed loan guarantees, Providence Journal reporter Bruce Landis interviews Gary Sasse about the 38 Studios deal, in which a videogame company has $75 million in backing from the state of Rhode Island:

If the company doesn't pay, Sasse pointed out, "The taxpayers of the state would be on the hook."

"You're playing with other people's money," Sasse said, and argued that it's too risky a use of tax money.

He also said that the qualities most important to companies are good schools, a trained work force, low taxes and an infrastructure in good condition. Without them, he said, in the long run other economic development tools such as loan guarantees "aren't going to get you where you want to be."

The cliché — with which I typically agree — that government should run like a business comes to mind, because when it comes to loan guarantees, we're moving beyond the phrase's intent. What government should emulate, in the private sector, is the imperative to provide a better product more efficiently — to pretend that its revenue entails a consensual exchange of money for service that it must justify to the payers.

That is a wholly distinct approach from behaving like a business in the sense of taking financial risks with the hope of making money. Even mitigated risk is inappropriate when the investors (taxpayers, in this case) have no choice but to participate and do not have clear, direct rewards to which they are contractually entitled should things work out well.


July 31, 2010


Why Dependency Is Chronic

Justin Katz

The article, by Neil Downing, takes the tack of describing people who find their Social Security checks indispensable, but the recipient numbers are the important part, to my mind:

Now, 200,202 Rhode Islanders are collecting Social Security benefits, according to newly issued figures from the Social Security Administration’s Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics. ...

Nationwide, Social Security beneficiaries now number more than 52.5 million, up from 50.9 million as of December 2008, and 49.9 million as of December 2007.

Drawing on U.S. Census data, 19% —almost one-fifth — of Rhode Islanders receive some sort of Social Security benefit (which compares with 17% nationwide). The ratio is going to grow, given retiring Baby Boomers, shrinking generations, and longer lives, bringing the feasibility of the program into question.

The larger lesson (which one can see national politicians, especially Democrats, have learned) is that it's possible to buy constituencies. The trap of European quasisocialism (or the real thing) is that the political parties begin striving to prove that they can better manage benefits, not to admit that they are far less competent than the citizenry to manage individual lives.


July 27, 2010


Brilliance Isn't Enough

Marc Comtois

Thomas Sowell, writing about a planned vs. free-market economy, remarks on the contrast between wicked smart planners and the small decisions made by the average Joes and Jills:

How was it even possible that transferring decisions from elites with more education, intellect, data and power to ordinary people could lead consistently to demonstrably better results?

One implication is that no one is smart enough to carry out social engineering, whether in the economy or in other areas where the results may not always be so easily quantifiable. We learn, not from our initial brilliance, but from trial and error adjustments to events as they unfold.

Science tells us that the human brain reaches its maximum potential in early adulthood. Why then are young adults so seldom capable of doing what people with more years of experience can do?

Because experience trumps brilliance.

Elites may have more brilliance, but those who make decisions for society as a whole cannot possibly have as much experience as the millions of people whose decisions they preempt. The education and intellects of the elites may lead them to have more sweeping presumptions, but that just makes them more dangerous to the freedom, as well as the well-being, of the people as a whole.

Yes, too many of our "brilliant" elites continue to mistake intelligence for wisdom.


July 23, 2010


The Government They Prefer

Justin Katz

It's always notably plausible that there's a larger truth in the mix when I agree with Bob Kerr, but while his column lamenting the possibly fatal restrictions that the Tiverton Town Council has placed on an annual charity event, this year, counts in that regard, I'd suggest that he should think on the larger lessons that the controversy teaches about government. As Kerr describes it:

For seven years, Jane Bitto, who owns Evelyn's Restaurant with her husband, Dominic, has gone to Town Hall to get the permit for "Singing Out Against Hunger," three days of music in September that has raised a lot of money and a pile of nonperishable food for East Bay Community Action’s food pantries. Last year, in a bad economy, it raised $25,000. ...

There have been complaints. That's what Bitto heard when she went to Town Hall. There have been complaints from people living on the opposite side of Nanaquaket Pond from Evelyn's. The music is too loud and it goes on too long, they say.

As Kerr touches on — and as I've seen occur time and again in local politics — the process wasn't one in which people with complaints were asked to step forward to make them and confront those whom they wished to restrict. Council members made general statements about hearing complaints — complaints submitted through the typical Rhode Island method of a note, visit, or phone call to people with power — and blindsided their target only when the time to the event was too short to mount an effective response.

Kerr calls it "the flip side of small town charm." Over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site, I beg to differ. This turn of events is the entirely predictable consequence of small-town fiefdoms. "Community minded" tends to mean a town or neighborhood conforming with a small group's personal preferences, with differences resolved through imposition rather than compromise. Just like we weren't the ones who turned this year's financial town meeting into an offensive circus, or who strove to ban the Easter Bunny from the public schools a couple of years ago, it isn't us selfish tax-hawk newcomers who aren't willing to tolerate a little prime-time music come a late-summer evening.

Rather, it's the same folks who regularly squash businesses' attempts at economic development. It's the same contingent who skirted the law to raise taxes by an oppressive amount and who then sued TCC President Dave Nelson for having the audacity to complain about their tactics, including Town Administrator James Goncalo's sending of false documents to the state. In other words, Kerr and his sympathizers should look at their concept of a government that cares and question whether it's possible to preserve such an entity from people who care above all about themselves.

I've heard it stated many times that those who hate the town — as indicated by an aversion to massive mid-recession tax increases — should leave. Oddly, I don't expect to hear similar suggestions when the indication of that hatred is aversion to live music in a public place for an excellent cause.


July 22, 2010


Concerns About Process in Central Falls

Justin Katz

The city of Central Falls is surely better off without Mayor Charles Moreau in office, and many of us likely share the opinion (from afar) that he'd best serve the state by taking this opportunity to quietly exit public service (which phrase I type with some difficulty, in this context). But let's take a moment to phrase in frank terms what has happened: The state has appointed a person, unaccountable to voters except through the multiple steps from him to the Department of Revenue to the governor, who has stripped an elected official of everything except the title of his office and some entry-level pay on the premise that "you can't have two leaders." If he so chooses, that appointee, retired Superior Court Judge Mark Pfeiffer," could do the same to the City Council.

On a personal level, the outcome for Moreau is probably just, but the bare facts of the case ought to give us pause.



Less Organized Freedom

Marc Comtois

In the latest Claremont Review of Books (sub req'd), Wilfred M. McClay discusses President Obama's resume, Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, the Tea Party and Turner's Frontier thesis as a preamble for his proposition that the path to national renewal lay in a less organized America.

There is a danger of overorganization in American life, of an over-emphasis upon credentialism and specialization, forces that taken in excess can cripple our sense of human possibility, and along with it the health of our communities, and our liberty. President Obama wants everyone to go to college, and he sees this, not unjustifiably, as the federal government's lending a generous helping hand of opportunity. But perhaps it is less generous than it seems. Perhaps we already have too much schooling in our culture, too much hegemony of the schooled, too much licensing, too much regulation of experience, too little space to move around and find our own way, to experiment and make mistakes, to exercise the power of personal initiative without the supervision of experts, nannies, busybodies, and others who should spend more time minding their own business.

Perhaps we have become too concerned with pedigree, with the right schools, the right career path, and so on....Indeed, there was a time well within the memory of many living Americans when one's advancement in life was not so heavily determined by the credential of where, or even whether, one attended college....One of the greatest of America's 20th-century presidents—and one of the most literate and historically informed since the time of the founders—was Harry S. Truman, who did not have a college education at all, but instead began working for the Santa Fe Railroad when he graduated from high school....

We need to restore and preserve a less regimented, less status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America. We need an economy and legal structures that are as open as possible to enterprise and innovation. An educational system that is open to all, and geared not to the manufacturing of credentials (or artificial and dysfunctional rites of passage) but to the empowering of individuals. A society that concerns itself with the knowledge and skills a person can acquire, not where or how he acquired them....

[We need to celebrate] the enduring frontier spirit in America, which far from being deplored, ought to be celebrated and nurtured. In doing so, we will be celebrating the ability of this country to give unprecedented scope to the amazing and unpredictable depths of the human person, depths that cannot be produced factory-like by the right schools or the right social arrangements, but emerge from the unpredictable and often surprising potential in the minds and hearts and spirits of ordinary people when they are left free to pursue their ambitions. The examples of Lincoln and Alaska exemplify qualities of character and spirit that are at the heart of what this country is at its best, and that we should want to foster and preserve in the years ahead.


July 19, 2010


Smaller as Well as Divided

Justin Katz

It's fortuitous that I'm a bit behind my blogging schedule today, because Marc's closing point happens to relate to my thoughts upon reading Red Jahncke's criticism of the Dodd-Frank Act regulating the finance industry. Jahncke gives a little history:

Under Glass-Steagall, banks were local and regional champions. In New England, for example, Connecticut had Connecticut National Bank and Rhode Island had Fleet Bank. Then, as the states formed regional banking "compacts," New England had Bank of New England and a much-larger Fleet. No matter how well or poorly managed (many failed), these institutions cared. Local and regional bankers knew local and regional businessmen.

Then, in 1994 Congress scrapped state control of interstate banking under Glass-Steagall and allowed nationwide branching. Banks became behemoths with no loyalties and no person-to-person knowledge or understanding of borrowers.

In 1999, Congress repealed the rest of Glass-Steagall, i.e. its separation of commercial and investment banking. And that unleashed huge, highly complex, diversified financial conglomerates -- a very new phenomenon. The short experience with these giants has not been good.

As Anchor Rising readers will surely be able to recite, this is far from the whole story, inasmuch as it was a particular type of asset underlying complex derivatives and forms of investment insurance that catalyzed the collapse. In other words, the bigness and complexity of the banks may have caused problems on their own, but without implicit government backing of — and government incentives for — risky mortgages, investors would not have been as willing to ignore the stability of the table on which the house of cards was being built.

Those tasked with investigating investments — and regulating them, as Jahncke points out — didn't fear the financial structure when they perhaps should have, but they also didn't fear the instability of loans going to people for amounts that they could not afford. Referring back to Marc's post: divided government can, in some instances, get us the least-bad of both sides, but it can also result in a toxic combination, as powerful players find that sweet spot for manipulation in the crack that runs between laissez faire and subsidization.

As for Jahncke's concerns, I'll agree that the Dodd-Frankenstein monster has gone in entirely the wrong direction, essentially writing the problems into the law, and that a different reform could be helpful toward stabilizing the market. But no reform could match a cultural decision that we're all better off knowing our bankers and sticking with those dedicated to our own local markets.


July 14, 2010


A Faulty Concept of Government

Justin Katz

It feels a bit like giving in to provocation to respond to a July 6 column by the Newport Daily News's Joe Baker, but the piece seems so indicative of a certain error in political philosophy that I've talked myself into thinking a response worthwhile. (A link, however, is not worthwhile, because the paper offers no means of directing readers anywhere near the actual piece in question.)

Even sympathetic readers should be able to spot the instances in which Mr. Baker's approach shows signs of fundamental error by leading to conflicting conclusions separated by mere sentences. Note, for example, Baker's description of the idyllic, simple times during which our government was formed. The government could be limited, he appears to be arguing, because a simple society doesn't need a Big Brother. For one thing:

The population was smaller and organized into a series of communities in which it was hard for a criminal to hide...

But things went wrong when:

... shysters soon realized that this lack of government oversight allowed them to play hard and fast with the rules so they could make money.

But shouldn't the "community" that once guarded against criminals have been able to spot the shysters? And in times of less mobility, wasn't it easier for criminals to skip town and strike again? Of course, by "shysters," one gets the impression that Baker's not thinking crook, so much as businessman, which leads us to the other glaring incoherency in his piece:

Big corporations like a weak national government because it bolsters their hand when they want to puff up that bottom line. That's why huge international companies try to restrict the input of local governments, which have much more to lose from whatever these companies want to do.

But if the objective of evil corporations is to thwart local governments, what better mechanism could there be than a strong national government? After all, corporations with interests in multiple states, are likely to have more incentive to sway the federal government in creative ways than local governments have understanding and influence with their national representatives.

The problem comes down to Baker's basic understanding of government and its purpose:

Government keeps a system in place that provides order for the greater good of the nation as a whole and not for any one particular interest group.

As a practical matter, big government actually creates a focal point for the attention of the loathed "interest groups," and the notion that it can be trusted to be a neutral arbiter is one that Baker would surely dispute in other contexts. As a philosophical matter, what those who share Baker's politics tend to forget is that the community — and the nation — is something bigger than government. We government-haters think that societies are sufficiently complex to have undirected systems that serve the greater good more effectively and efficiently than central planners ever could.

Government is the entity, within the larger community, that we entrust with such tasks as require force, especially policing and war, but also some degree of check against the tyranny of the powerful, which is where public infrastructure comes in. There's a balance to be struck, but in Joe's world, we should begin by placing overriding trust in the entity who doesn't have to ask for money, but can tax, and that doesn't have to persuade against proscribed activities, but can arrest, jail, and even kill.

Do I really have to explain why that's not a great idea?


July 12, 2010


Tom Ward Gets to the Core of the Question of Government's Philosophy

Monique Chartier

... in his Vally Breeze column a couple of weeks ago for the Fourth of July.

Do we want to be left alone for "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," as Thomas Jefferson wrote in our Declaration of Independence, or do we prefer the soft tyranny that comes with the security of a welfare state that minimizes the rewards of honest labor in order to eliminate the risks that come from a life badly led?

July 10, 2010


Complication Underlies the Conservative Critique

Justin Katz

Jeffrey Friedman's analysis of the origins of our current economic crisis and assessments thereof is worth reading, but he wraps it in the pose that everybody else is wrong:

To their credit, liberal analysts realized from the start that the cause of the recession was a banking crisis, not a housing crisis. In explaining the banking crisis, however, liberals used a theory drawn straight from the rotten core of contemporary social science: the theory of "moral hazard." It suddenly became conventional wisdom that the crisis had been caused by banks that rewarded successful employees with big bonuses but failed to penalize losses. This was said to have encouraged recklessness. Later, conservatives came up with their own variant of moral hazard, according to which bankers took too many risks because they knew that their banks, being "too big to fail," would be bailed out if their bets turned sour; so why not make the riskiest, most lucrative bets?

Most reasonable spectators would, I think, disagree with Friedman in that they'd acknowledge the role of each of these factors — and others, as well. Friedman would respond that the evidence is against them:

The intellectual bankruptcy of these theories lies in their assumption that the bankers knew they were making "reckless" bets. This assumption is demonstrably false: Ninety-three percent of the mortgage-backed bonds acquired by commercial banks either were rated AAA — the safest possible rating — or were issued by Fannie and Freddie, giving them an implicit government guarantee. Because of their perceived lack of risk, these bonds generated less revenue than did bonds with lower ratings. Revenue-hungry bankers who were oblivious to risk never would have bought Fannie, Freddie, or triple-A bonds; more lucrative double-A, single-A, and lower-rated mortgage-backed bonds were always available. Both the liberal and the conservative moral-hazard theories are therefore wrong. For the most part, the bankers didn’t deliberately take big risks, or they would have taken big risks that paid a higher yield.

Friedman ought to have paused before submitting his essay to National Review and considered whether it's plausible to assert that anybody — anybody with a coherent understanding of events — had really made it integral to their scenarios that entities looking for safe, long-term bets (such as pension funds) had been lured into overt risks. For most people and groups with money in the game, the risk was actual, not intentional, although those advising them might have had some inkling of the instability of the underlying assets.

What appears to have happened, in a nutshell, is that the marketplace — consisting of players with various degrees of savvy and awareness — decreased the degree to which it assessed risk in terms of the thing being traded and increased the degree to which it assessed risk in terms of the entities involved. Investors weren't betting on the likelihood that the sun wouldn't come up the next day; they were betting somebody else's assurances that it would not. Because of implicit government backing, traders and ratings agencies gave mortgage-backed securities ratings on par with those given to the government, and because of their size and the safety of being at the top of the ladder, large firms and their agents behaved as if they expected their losses to be mitigated, should things go awry, and because the above put smiley-face stickers on the trades, everybody else bought in.

For none of those involved is an acknowledgment of risk necessary.

Friedman pivots, on this obvious fact, in order to reach the point that truly interests him: That we have to acknowledge the complexity of life and the possibility of error. What's interesting about this, to me, is that Friedman thinks he's introducing something new. Such statements as the following read as if drawn from foundational documents of modern conservative political theory:

The experts, the regulators, and the bankers were ignorant of a risk caused by a complication that hadn’t occurred to them. The experts, regulators, and bankers were wrong; but they were not evil. They were simply outwitted by a complex world. ...

A more sophisticated approach would attend to the fallible ideas not just of voters but of bureaucrats, legislators, and judges — and to the roots of these ideas, both mass and elite, in cultural sources of (mis)information and ideology, such as the mass media and formal education.

All Friedman is doing, here, is describing the basic reasons for the conservative worldview — from libertarian principles of limited government to the Christian belief that evil is an illness and delusion, not an individual personal quality.


July 3, 2010


Exceptionalism as Limit to Options

Justin Katz

On the question of American exceptionalism (subscription required), James Bennett puts aside conservatives' emphasis on abstractions like "freedom, prosperity, and innovativeness" as well as liberals' emphasis on "America's unique evil or guilt." Rather, he looks to culture and history to explain how the United States differs from other countries in a substantive way.

His analysis comes down, essentially, to three factors: family structure, geography, and narrative. On the first, America follows other English-speaking nations in its traditional liberty of family structure. Adults in the Anglosphere have long chosen their own spouses, sent their children out into the world to do the same, and minimized expected structures of inheritance such as primogeniture, the result being as follows:

... The individual in the English-speaking world has always been psychologically more independent and less willing to place himself under the control of others. He expects to be on his own, with a spouse of his own choosing, to make his own way in the world, and if possible to live in a home of his own.

America is then uniquely defined by the effects of the American continent on the variations of English-speaking peoples who arrived on its shores during and after the Age of Exploration:

America's uniqueness can be explained in two main ways. First is the "frontier thesis" of the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. In the 1890s Turner wrote that early settlers in America underwent a psychological transformation because of the constant lure of open land to the west, which turned deferential, class-conscious Englishmen into egalitarian, assertive, republican Americans. The other view, most recently stated by David Hackett Fischer, is that, in essence, all the ingredients that made Americans what they are today were present when the first colonists left the British Isles. According to Fischer, what the Americans brought to the wilderness was at least as important as what they found there.

Subsequently, the circumstances and methods of our national founding institutionalized these attributes in the legal language of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and subsidiary documents. All three factors — culture/family structure, geography, and institutional narrative — have carried the uniquely American character into the present time. One significant consequence is the inadvisability of emulation of picked and chosen attributes of other countries:

The Anglosphere in general is poorly adapted to large-scale, planned, centrally directed state enterprises or invasive measures to promote equality of outcome. Governmental mechanisms have been and will continue to be used on a pragmatic basis, but they are not immune to public-choice problems, as can be seen in the regulatory capture of the home-mortgage industry, or the taxpayer bailout of the auto industry. Our history is filled with short-term successes of government action that eventually succumbed to these public-choice problems and required reform or abolition. The government financing of railroad construction after the Civil War was a scandal-ridden disgrace, for example. When we try to be like the French, Germans, or Japanese, we are particularly liable to poor implementation, because our cultural structures are dissimilar to theirs. Government-run enterprises in those countries are likely to work better than they would here. Even if it were desirable to imitate them, we would not be able to do as good a job.

To put it in analogy, one cannot drive a bulldozer like a motorcycle. Bennett points out, as a contrary example, that the French are more comfortable with meritocracy in government, so the state bureaucracy has developed a practice of identifying talented students and channeling them to itself. One can see an attempt at emulation in President Obama's plan to forgive the (government-owned) debt of college graduates if they go into "public service." America's discomfort with the government's picking winners, though, requires us to use generic acquisition of a college degree as the evenly applied criterion, while at the same time making college degrees universally accessible. The attempt at institutionalized meritocracy therefore will fail.

Broadly stated, the factors that have fostered the United States' dynamism do not fit well into a statist public structure. That helps to explain why civic statists are so frequently simultaneously social liberals. It's possible (if functionally deluded) to be an economic conservative and social liberal; by contrast, socio-cultural conservatism generates habits of mind at odds with economic liberalism. A person acculturated to strive for the good of his own family will resent the attachments of economic dependents to his or her estate without his consent. That same person placed within a bureaucratic milieu will not be an effective socialist because, in effect, his capitalistic individualism will color his judgment.

ADDENDUM:

I'd further suggest — if I had the time to go that far beyond Bennett's argument, just now — that the American system more closely comports with human nature. That is to say that cultures that are better suited to socialism are merely papering over individualism. Personal interests will ultimately corrupt such systems, leading to economic malaise and civic turmoil.


June 26, 2010


Government as Lone Shark Collector

Justin Katz

I've written, periodically, about my belief that debt is the new method of indentured servitude. If we can get young adults to enter the working world with hundreds of thousands of dollars in education loans, some additional thousands in credit card debt (incurred on the expectation of profitable labor after graduation), with car loans a near necessity, and housing options pushing them toward entering into mortgages, we've taken away a great deal of the freedom that economic independence imparts. The situation gets chilling if this story is anything more than journalistic sensationalism of a few peculiar cases:

It's not a crime to owe money, and debtors prisons were abolished in the United States in the 19th century. But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts.

In Minnesota, which has some of the most creditor-friendly laws in the country, the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 60 percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009, a Star Tribune analysis of state court data has found.

Not every warrant results in an arrest, but in Minnesota many debtors spend up to 48 hours in cells with criminals. Consumer attorneys say such arrests are increasing in many states, including Arkansas, Arizona and Washington, driven by a bad economy, high consumer debt and a growing industry that buys bad debts and employs every means available to collect.

Whether a debtor is locked up depends largely on where the person lives, because enforcement is inconsistent from state to state, and even county to county.

In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January, a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man "to indefinite incarceration" until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.

I expect we'll see this trend expand as the federal government takes on more responsibility in the finance sector, including the bailing out of too-big-to-fail banks. The reality that every loan shark has always known is that some debts cannot be collected. That's the risk of lending. If the government begins stepping in to jail those who fall behind, the public is taking the role of the crooked-nosed debt collector banging on the door and the balance of risk and benefit that makes lending a healthy application of free will and mutual benefit begins to evaporate.



Lamenting the Impossibility of Having and Eating the Cake

Justin Katz

This short article about job prospects for young adults in Greece catches many of the various nuances, but it still seems as if there's a disconnect of cause and effect. Consider:

From their settled perches, the elders criticize and cluck. The young, they say, have either no initiative, a dearth of opportunities, or some combination of the two. They fear that young people will be unable to start their own families and they fret over the prospect of Greece’s demographic undoing.

The youth of Greece are merely responding as the culture in which they were raised taught them. They feel owed — and their elders don't appear to be enthusiastic to undo the government catering that they've enjoyed in order to secure opportunity and a healthy polity for their children. This is the inevitable result of a big nanny-state government.

Now begins another phase, which one suspects was part of the intention of those who strove to set this international movement in motion:

[Twenty-year old Olga] Stefou believes that the government is bound to respond to her discontent. And she has suggestions: Greece should make up its budget shortfall by pulling its 122 troops from Afghanistan and levying steep taxes on the Orthodox Church rather than squeezing the workers, she says.

Moving six score troops from active to inactive duty and transferring wealth from a Church is not going to make up for the demands of unemployed youth with high expectations as to what the world owes them. It is, however, subtle evidence that there are people strategizing to turn a shiftless and insecure generation into a political, quasi-military weapon.

It makes for an interesting, frightening question to consider the addition of the Muslim fanatics currently permeating Europe to the dynamic. Secular revolutionaries may discover that the discontented troops that they've been carefully cultivating find something more compelling in the notion of jihad than of a worker's paradise.


May 26, 2010


Repeating Public-Sector History

Justin Katz

It seems humanity is fated to always reconvincing itself that it's got the problems all figured out and can henceforth hand broad control to government entities. Ed Achorn makes a contrary suggestion:

Britain confronts what has historically been the great threat to representative republics. A majority of voters, whipped on by self-interested politicians, eventually figure out how to game the system to steal from a minority of productive taxpayers. As an avaricious government expands, the pummeled taxpayers have less incentive to produce and the economy struggles, with massive public debt ensuing. When the money runs out, social upheaval follows, with the imposition of dictatorship.

You can read about it in the ancient historians.

Or you can look at Central Falls, where the citizens have lost their power, through their elected representatives, to make their own decisions. A receiver will decide for them.

It may seem a little off to present a bankruptcy-style receiver as a "dictator," but such consolidations of power, following upon a representative form of government, necessarily look like a benign, good idea at the beginning. True, there are checks and balances in the case of a municipal ruler, but the point of Achorn's column is that Central Falls is a warning of things come at higher levels of government.


May 13, 2010


Ionic Politicians and What The Really Know

Marc Comtois

Boston's Mayor Menino made one of his typical gaffes the other day when he was describing such "ionic" Boston sports moments like that time Varitek split the uprights for the Patriots. The Assistant Village Idiot (an "iconic" title ;) explained that the sports-knowledge and vocabulary deficiency that Menino displayed is an indicator about politicians' knowledge on most subjects in general:

They know lots of important information about getting elected: what emote-words voters want to hear, what the party breakdown is in various regions, what types of advertising are most effective, what issues are currently hot, whose hands need to be shaken, how to raise money. As many of them are lawyers, they also know legal terminology pretty well. Some don't have much beyond that in knowledge of the law, but there are a fair number who actually do understand it. They know how their own legislative bodies work, who is responsible for what, and something of who the key people are.

That’s about it. You can't count on elected officials at any level actually knowing more than that. Getting sports names and facts wrong is not an interesting oddity--it is a window into the rest of their knowledge. There's nothing wrong with not knowing something about a subject. There is something very wrong about pretending to know a subject when you don't, and then asserting legislative power over it.

Unfortunately, as we rely more and more on government to get through our daily lives, we come to believe that our politicians are experts on almost everything. The truth is, of course, that they're not, so they turn to career bureaucrats--with an interest in maintaining their own relevancy--for guidance. That is, if they deem it necessary and don't think they can get by by faking it.


April 27, 2010


The Overt Fishiness of Government

Justin Katz

A recent column by Mark Patinkin profiling a Rhode Island fisherman contains this unsurprising gem:

After each haul, [Niles Pearsall] has to painstakingly throw back restricted fish — sometimes half or more of what the nets haul up. The irony is that many are dead anyway. He said it's like throwing $20 bills into the sea. ...

He claimed there are two reasons the government has it wrong. First, the rules are out of date. And second, he said, government test boats dragged areas incompetently, came up with few fish and decided that meant they were scarce. Pearsall says more seasoned fishermen dragged the same areas and came up with full nets — lately more than ever.

Government does have a role in ensuring that self interest doesn't drive the total draining of natural resources. The problem is that, when it becomes too big and its purview too broad, the democratic feedback loop cannot function. The only way public bureaucracy can even come close to managing various interests related to a particular industry is if political forces put knowledgeable people in the right positions with incentive to balance the claims of various parties.

But who's going to pressure politicians on behalf of fishermen when we're having to pressure them to manage our healthcare reasonably?


April 19, 2010


What Is Government For?

Justin Katz

At last, a comment from Stuart worth further exploration:

...the point is that governments were created to use our - yours and mine - pooled resources to create BETTER things than we could have created by our lonesome selves. In fact, good systems of government like that of the USA are the biggest friend of capitalism because they create the conditions and mitigate some of the risks where capitalism can flourish.

Well, some might argue that "governments were created" to give the dominant person or faction a means of making everybody else accede to his or their demands, but I'll allow that society's concept evolved, building up to a recreation of the concept of government. What's interesting about the above paragraph, though, is that each sentence describes a different concept of government: The first is left-wing, treating the government as a collective bee-hive, in which the members are all parts of a social organism. The second sentence presents a more right-wing positioning of government, as a mechanism to enhance the individual capacity of the governed.

It should surprise nobody that I think the first concept to be deeply flawed, not the least because it makes the typical progressive error of conflating government with the very concept of organization. All varieties of groups form in order to accomplish things beyond the ability of the individual, whether they are religious, economic, social, cultural, or governmental. Each type of organization will have different sources and applications of authority, depending on which aspect of society it inhabits, and "government" is sort of the final layer. And it should be a very thin layer, inasmuch as we leave to government the authority to use force — both of imprisonment and violence — whereas we insist that the other groups remain voluntary.

The difficulty that left-wingers face, within this model, is that too few people are willing to submit to their will voluntarily, so they wish to move more and more of their policy preferences into the category of organization that uses force. In other words, through all of our evolution, progressives wish to bring the notion of government back to being a mechanism by which the dominant faction imposes its desires on everybody else.


April 9, 2010


Growth Rather than Radical Reworking

Justin Katz

The following passage, from an autobiographical essay by Fr. Richard Neuhaus, from 2002, caught my eye, because it strikes me as a generally applicable principle for organizational growth, as opposed to continual redefinition:

The Church's teaching lives forward; it is not reconstructed backward—whether from the fifth century or the sixteenth or the nineteenth or the twenty-first. But through all the changes of living forward, how do we know what is corruption and what is authentic development? Recall Cardinal Newman's reflection on the development of doctrine, a reflection that has been incorporated by magisterial teaching. He suggested seven marks of authentic development: authentic development preserves the Church's apostolic form; it reflects continuity of principles in testing the unknown by the known; it demonstrates the power to assimilate what is true, even in what is posited against it; it follows a logical sequence; it anticipates future developments; it conserves past developments; and, throughout, it claims and demonstrates the vigor of teaching authority. And thus it is, said St. Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century, that in authentic development of doctrine nothing presents itself in the Church's old age that was not latent in her youth. Such was the truth discovered by Augustine, a truth "ever ancient, ever new."

Basically, the idea is to define what is essential in both principle and structure and to measure all changes by that. In the case of the United States, for example, we could say that we have the Declaration of Independence for principle and the Constitution and other documents for structure. It will risk a wayward path to pursue the principles of the Declaration by subverting the structure of the Constitution, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, both for the Church and the nation, people love the idea of expediency. With healthcare, the motivation is to simply declare that all will have it. With our evolving sense of personal freedom, the flawed mandate is to simply grant it, structural considerations be damned. Neither is possible, because the idea behind our national founding and the Idea behind the Church's founding is a holistic kernel in which the forward-moving history was contained.


March 24, 2010


"Servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind"

Marc Comtois

In these times, the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville seem as apt as ever:

[Government] takes upon itself alone to secure [the people's] gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood....For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?
According to de Tocqueville, it is a misunderstanding of the concept of equality--which rightly understood should be an equality of liberty and opportunity, not of standing--that leads a democratic society down the primrose path to dependency upon government.
[Government] extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Thus, the tropes of democracy are maintained so that "we the people" may elect our own masters.
Our contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions: they want to be led, and they wish to remain free. As they cannot destroy either the one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large who hold the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large.

ADDENDUM: Michael Ledeen noted basically the same passages a couple days ago, but is optimistic:

Tocqueville had it right, and it’s exactly what has happened on his old continent. Europe has fallen under precisely that sort of tyranny, and our would-be tyrants thought they could do the same here.

But the scheme did not succeed, at least the way they planned it. Instead of embracing the tyranny, the American people unexpectedly rose up against it. To use Tocqueville’s metaphor, Americans acted like a recalcitrant child and refused to behave. At which point the tyrannical wannabes decided to slap us down and make us behave properly. They were forced to carry out a coup, a baldfaced seizure of power. Thus, the Demon Pass. Thus the two most memorable lines from the coup plotters: (Pelosi): “we have to pass it to find out what’s in it,” and (Hastings): “there are no rules. This is the U.S. Congress.”

That was not the way it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to go quietly. Instead we fought back, and the final outcome of this big fight–the one I foresaw more than a year ago–is still in doubt. The would-be tyrants may prevail; after all, they have the awesome power of the state. But we have the numbers and a superior vision.

Americans can be very tough in this kind of fight. Ask King George.


March 17, 2010


Making the United States Exceptional Again

Justin Katz

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru had an excellent cover piece in the National Review before last on the domestic battle over American exceptionalism, which divides pretty conveniently along the current line of left and right. President Obama is obviously a key figure in the dispute.

Not surprisingly, what strikes me is the gargantuan task facing those of us who'd like to defend and reassert the principles on which our nation was founded:

Corporations, meanwhile, are also becoming more dependent on government handouts. Rivalry between business and political elites has helped to safeguard American liberty. What we are seeing now is the possible emergence of a new political economy in which Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government all have cozy relations of mutual dependence. The effect would be to suppress both political choice and economic dynamism.

The retreat from American exceptionalism has a legal dimension as well. Obama's judicial nominees are likely to attempt to bring our Constitution into line with European norms. Here, again, he is building on the work of prior liberals who used the federal courts as a weapon against aspects of American exceptionalism such as self-government and decentralization. In­creasingly, judicial liberals look to putatively enlightened foreign, and particularly European, opinion as a source of law capable of displacing the law made under our Constitution.

Liberal regulators threaten both our dynamism and our self-government. They are increasingly empowered to make far-reaching policy decisions on their own — for instance, the EPA has the power to decide, even in the absence of cap-and-trade legislation passed by Congress, how to regulate carbon emissions. The agency thus has extraordinary sway over the economy, without any meaningful accountability to the electorate. The Troubled Asset Relief Program has turned into a honeypot for the executive branch, which can dip into it for any purpose that suits it. Government is increasingly escaping the control of the people from whom it is supposed to derive its powers.

I'd suggest that the Republicans of the Bush years proved that the temptations for corruption and intermedling are too great at the national level. Even the best intentioned of people will find it difficult to resist the urge to reach in and fix every problem in sight — which is to say that they'll convince themselves not to relinquish the power of their offices. The only possibility, that I can see, is a resurgence of attention to local and state government, forcing freedom and federalism back up the tiers of government and pulling authority back toward the people.



How Centralized Education Could Turn Ugly

Justin Katz

Right now, public education is such an expensive catastrophe that top-down imposition of standards and reasonable organizational principles is an attractive option. But there's a very dark side to the impulse, hints of which can be found here:

Governors and education leaders on Wednesday proposed sweeping new school standards that could lead to students across the country using the same math and English textbooks and taking the same tests, replacing a patchwork of state and local systems in an attempt to raise student achievement nationwide. ...

The stakes could be high. President Barack Obama told the nation's governors last month that he wants to make money from Title I - the federal government's biggest school aid program - contingent on adoption of college- and career-ready reading and math standards.

We tend to think of textbooks and standards as sort of pure and objective vessels for knowledge, but they do a lot of cultural work. Perhaps you recall the overt political correctness of word problems in math. In English, the studied texts inherently use the tools of language to construct arguments and convey sensibilities. Controlling textbooks, in other words, brings with it an opportunity to define common understanding, to associate political ideology with "clear thinking," or at least "good writing."

And students of history will surely see the probability that standards will not long be left with the single mandate of educating Americans. A review of the book The Science on Women and Science — which is a collection of essays on the application of Title IX equity rules to scientific education — brings home the point. Title IX has wreaked havoc in athletics and transferred to classroom curricula, the movement could leverage standards in pursuit of equal representation, in a field, as opposed to academic excellence.

As with all consolidations of power, the justifications have their appeal, and the people acquiesce with the understanding that there's consensus about the proper focus and scope of that power's usage. Once it's pooled, though, power attracts a different sort of animal (or allows those present to shed their disguises).


March 12, 2010


The Quick Defensiveness Against Warnings of Tyranny

Justin Katz

If you're following my posts on the Tiverton Citizens for Change blog, you might have noticed my liveblog mention of Tiverton Town Council Member Hannibal Costa's comparison of federal mandates on the town to the rise of the Nazis. His comment was surely a bit on the incendiary side, given the minimal nature of the requirement (emergency training for town officials), but the general argument is right on, and one that he's been making as long as I've been watching town politics.

Well, the editors of the Newport Daily News thought Costa's statements egregious enough to merit a chastisement in Wednesday's paper (making a curious reference to his "ilk"). This morning, I explain why the editors' reaction is, itself, a bit extreme and, moreover, potentially dangerous.


March 9, 2010


A Desire for Central Planning

Justin Katz

Eamonn Butler thinks that Canada's spending reform model is the solution for governments with spending problems:

The Canadians' first move was to appoint a minister for public-service renewal — a single individual with the authority to drive change and make sure that all ministers did their bit. They put nothing off limits, not even health care. There were no spending targets because they knew that departments simply spend up to such limits. But there was a complete review of all government activity.

Ministers had to define what their department was for and ask whether it really needed civil servants, or could it be done better by private bodies or by the public themselves. With a reform minister rather than a finance minister in charge, everyone bought into this as a total rethink of how the government served citizens, not just an exercise in penny-pinching.

I don't know enough about Canadian politics to know whether Butler's characterization is accurate or how the structure of government differs from that of the United States, but a couple of general observations are still possible. First, such a program depends heavily on the person in the reform ministry chair. Inasmuch as we don't have a parliamentary system, I would argue that our chief executive, the president, should fill that role, and that the people of the nation should vote to select him.

The related "second" is that benevolent dictatorships look good on paper but require a sacrifice of liberty and self-governance that is (and ought to be) anathema to the American system. If subordinate ministers did not rebel and workers did not strike, it is probable that they had some confidence in the particular leader to address matters as fairly as possible. But it is also probable that they saw no benefit in doing so, because that leader had power over them.

My suggestion is that the United States should head in the other direction: less government intervention. The reason our politics are so contentious and our special interests so gargantuan and influential is that we've consolidated far too much power in Washington, D.C. Spread that out, back to states and municipalities, and not only will there be less motivation for lobbyists to consolidate attention on federal seats, but the people will be better able to mount counter actions, thus increasing pressure on special interests to keep their demands reasonable.


February 8, 2010


Taking Back the Government

Justin Katz

An interesting strategic discussion has developed in the comments to a post from last Thursday. Writes Michael:

How do we regain control of our government? I don't know. Politics is a rich man's game now, and probably always was, just not as blatant. Without lobbyists in the State House, or White House peddling their influence things might be a little better. I am not innocent here, my union, th IAFF has a huge lobby in Washington, and a lot of local clout as well. I believe that this is a direct result of us trying to maintain an equal footing at the upper levels of government. Collectively, firefighters are able to contribute money to get some leverage, leverage that would be used by people and institutions with opposing views about things like minimum manning, equipment, training, working conditions and safety.

Get rid of the lobbyists on both sides and begin there. Stop making it so expensive to win an election, but how?

To which BobN responds:

It's a very complex question, but here are some stream-of-consciousness thoughts:

1. In the worst case, a second American Revolution. Not recommended. I think we have the obligation to do everything in our power to avoid going down that path.

2. That's why it is so important for people to re-learn (or learn, since it isn't much taught in school any more) American history, and to become politically active. (Is it a Statist conspiracy that public school "health" classes encourage kids to be sexually active to distract them from being politically active?)

3. Politics isn't necessarily a rich man's game, if enough people can be mobilized. Sure it takes money - some professionals estimate $10K for a state rep seat, double that for a state senate seat. And at the state level, those local races determine everything because the GA has all the power. You don't need a state-wide TV or radio buy to run for rep in District 31 - most of that money would be wasted. The right candidates can tap into grassroots-level money and use it effectively in ways that are tightly targeted on their districts.

4. Here's one way to look at it: if each of the 3500 people at the first Tax Day Tea Party contributes $3, that's a rep seat budget.

5. The experience of the past year gives me hope that people are seeing through media propaganda, making message more important than money. As voters become more informed and aware, that dynamic will strengthen. The imminent threats to family budgets from unemployment, nationalized health care, and government employees outstripping them in income and benefits, have angered many people enough to get off their couches and get active. This is very healthy for society.

6. Contributing to the weakening of money is the internet. Putting ads on Youtube or your website costs nearly nothing, and if they are really good they go viral to provide a size and quality of audience that money can't buy. Blogs are rapidly growing their influence relative to TV and big newspapers.

That said, the Statists have been amassing power for decades and the government/Progressive machine has a great deal of power woven into the system. Defeating them will not be easy and it will not take only one election cycle.

My first thought is that the problem with the "block the lobbyists" impulse is that lobbyists — aka, citizens — have Constitutional rights to petition their government and otherwise speak and contribute toward elections and legislation.

My second thought may sound simplistic, but I'd suggest that the answer to all of these problems is to move away from centralized government. If more issues are decided by state governments, representing relatively small portions of the country, and town governments, overseeing populations in the thousands, there simply won't be as much incentive for multimillion dollar advertising campaigns. This is true not only because the audience/electorate would be much smaller, but also because motivated residents could more easily counteract big-dollar campaigns with grassroots assistance and community interaction.

The difficult part — even once a critical mass of people stop being lured by the promise of marginal economies of scale savings through regional and national administration — will be electing a political class intent on dispersing its own power, replacing incumbents with non-politicians who will fight to claim power from above while pushing as much as feasible to tiers of government below. That's an long-shot type of task that'll have to begin with representatives way at the bottom of the hierarchy building up constituencies to demand the return of their authority and pushing for an end to gerrymandering so that lower political structures that cover geographical areas (i.e., towns and cities) have direct lines (and career paths) to higher offices.


February 6, 2010


The Window and the House of Cards

Justin Katz

Apart from the complications of Rhode Island law, as a matter of political theory, this strikes me as a reasonable argument:

The lawsuit [by the city of Woonsocket], which also names State Controller Marc A. Leonetti and General Treasurer Frank T. Caprio as defendants, said the money [that the state was supposed to give towns for automobile excise taxes] was appropriated by a legislative act of the General Assembly and that means Carcieri, Leonetti and Caprio have "a clear legal duty" to pay it.

"He may submit the budget, but he does not have the authority under the state Constitution or state law unilaterally to change the General Assembly's budget after it has passed," [Woonsocket Mayor Leo] Fontaine said.

I've long been including, among my complaints against Governor Carcieri, that he is far too passive about describing the ownership of the budget. Even though we're into the second month of the calendar year — and the legislative session — legislators have yet to act on the supplemental budget. So, the governor should pay out whatever money is due, to whomever it's due, until the money runs out and then just shut down. "I'm bound by law to follow the General Assembly's budgeting," he could say, "and they've chosen to spend the account dry rather than take corrective action." It's their responsibility.

WPRI's recent poll data gives reason to hope that the public is coming around to an understanding of the political dynamics, in this state. Overall, 53% of Rhode Islanders blame the GA for the budget crisis, with another 25% splitting blame between the legislature and the executive. Perhaps based on relative degrees of attention, the General Assembly fares worse as the age of the respondent goes up. Moreover, 61% of respondents want cuts in spending and services and not in taxes.

If increasing understanding is to translate into the appropriate electoral actions — rather than merely contributing to the general grumble — the governor must make the necessary political decisions crystal clear. He should declare that the General Assembly's failure to act has been an open window next to the budgetary house of cards and then get out of the way of the inevitable.


February 5, 2010


A Relationship with Knowledge

Justin Katz

First, a line that's supremely relevant for those of us who've been beating our heads against a wall of political inertia, in Rhode Island:

In my experience, compulsively objective scientists are evenly matched, or even outmatched, by shamelessly subjective humanists. More than once I’ve been shocked by colleagues who seem unable to grasp that richly elaborated accounts of personal experiences do not refute claims about statistical tendencies.

That's from R.R. Reno's response to a book addressing our relationship with knowledge by Paul Griffiths:

The first half of Intellectual Appetite provides a metaphysical analysis (or, more accurately, the grammar of a metaphysical analysis—Griffiths operates as formally as possible to encompass a wide range of metaphysical options) that allows us to explain why, for a Christian, the basic move of "enclosure by sequestration" trains the mind to be false to reality. The world is not made up of tiny little bits of disconnected reality, all just waiting for our mental appropriation. Everything is saturated with the sustaining power of God’s creative will. Nothing merely exists, because everything comes into being and endures in the shimmering light of the divine gift of existence.

By the phrase "enclosure by sequestration" Reno means to indicate the human tendency to disassemble the components of reality for inspection. As a practical matter, this is how the limits of our own capacity for comprehension require us to proceed, but the danger is that we'll pick and choose those components that serve the reality that we prefer to conceive. If we were to stroll farther into the metaphysical weeds, I'd suggest that we do, in a real way, succeed in constructing our own realities, but that doing so does not make each variation equally valid. They can all be measured by their distance from and movement with respect to objective Truth.

In this view, nothing — no action or thought — is inactive, because what we believe the world to be manipulates reality as surely as what we do with our physical bodies. So, I disagree with Reno's interpretation, here:

In his Confessions, St. Augustine provides a particularly vivid account of the power of spectacles. He reports that his close friend Alypius, though possessing a good and cultured character, became addicted to the bloody, violent games that provided civic entertainment in the ancient world. At first, Alypius "held such spectacles in aversion," Augustine writes. One day, some friends persuaded him to go. Alypius steeled himself, closing his eyes to avoid participating in the barbarism. At the crucial moment, as the blood gushed and the crowd roared, "he was overcome by curiosity," and "he opened his eyes."

But Augustine's account does not turn toward ownership, as the phenomenology preferred by Griffiths suggests. On the contrary, all the images Augustine uses point in the opposite direction: "He was struck in the soul by a wound graver than the gladiator, whose fall had caused the roar." "His eyes were riveted." He "was inebriated by bloodthirsty pleasure." He becomes addicted and captivated. It isn't that Alypius owns the spectacle. The spectacle owns Alypius.

It would be closer to the truth, I'd suggest, that however much he may enslave himself to his own fixations, the voyeur is actually pursuing a sense of ownership of the gladiator's final moments, as if for a collection of images that the spectator has accumulated. Moreover, the scene allows him to participate without immediate bodily risk — to benefit whether the gladiator survives or dies.

The viewing is not passive. It constructs the communal hand that forces the gladiator into a fight for his real life. It represents a movement toward a particular understanding of reality, one in which the senses are deadened to violence in a way that minimizes the travesty and in which the participant is not a person with a soul with which to communicate, but an object. Hence, the progression toward ever more gratuitous scenes and perhaps an increasing likelihood of acting them out.


January 29, 2010


Howard Zinn

Marc Comtois

It shouldn't go unremarked that radical left historian Howard Zinn has passed away at the age of 87. Zinn, Matt Damon's favorite historian, is best known for his A Peoples History of the United States, a controversial work that has generated mountains of debate within (and outside of) the historical profession. (He even caused a stir around here back in 2004 when he was invited to speak at South Kingstown High unbeknownst to many parents). Disagree with him or not, Zinn will remain hugely influential in the fields of history and political thought for years to come.

Continue reading "Howard Zinn"

January 12, 2010


Funny That Progressive Thought Hasn't Made Any Progress

Justin Katz

The current print edition of National Review includes a collection of pieces on turn-of-the-last-century founders of modern liberalism that are valuable not the least in the degree to which they shed light on current strains of thought on the Left (strains that seem not to have progressed very much, in the last hundred years). Although it does not appear to be in free online form, yet, subscribers can read Jonah Goldberg's article on economist Richard Ely here. Of particular note is the imagery that Ely offers with respect to a leftist understanding of how society should function:

"The nation in its economic life is an organism," he wrote, "in which individuals, families, and groups . . . form parts." Hence competition and self-interest are generally bad things, working against the tide of progress. After all, organs in the human body do not compete against one another, so why should organs of the body politic? History, like evolution itself, was moving toward greater social cooperation. And it fell to experts to decide how to advance that process. "A new world was coming into existence, and if this world was to be a better world we knew that we must have a new economics to go along with it." Not only did this vision provide a perfect rationale for empowering social planners, it necessarily consigned the rights and liberty of the individual to being an afterthought — hence Ely's advocacy of what he called "coercive philanthropy." If experts can glean which way social betterment lies, who is the individual to object? The job of the economist is not to consider discrete questions about how to, say, maximize productivity or measure discretionary income. It is to fix society in all its relations, right down to each individual. The goal of the economist, Ely believed, was to hasten "the most perfect development of all human faculties in each individual." Whether the individual wanted that development was irrelevant.

The equation of society with an organism ought to be more disturbing than it appears at first glance. For one thing, the statement that organs cooperate, rather than compete, is arguable. Each organ will attempt to draw to itself what it needs and absorb that sustenance until it is sated. The difference, from human beings, is that organs aren't exactly mobile within the body; they must await the allocations of more dominant parts of the body. Which brings us to the second thing — namely, that organs exist within a hierarchy. On a cold day, your body will draw heat, as necessary, from your feet in order to supply your torso and your head. (I recall an article from my youth titled "To Keep Your Hands Warm, Wear a Hat," or something similar.)

Think of the disruption to the body if the pinkie toe could move and took up the notion that it could be a heart or a brain. Thus do progressive planners think of society. Sure, they'll take care of each and every appendage, but every citizen must know his or her place, and not surprisingly, the planners themselves are confident that they belong in the skull, with its warm comfort, thick walls, and incomparable view.


January 7, 2010


Intellectuals

Donald B. Hawthorne

Thomas Sowell:

...It may seem strange that so many people of great intellect have said and done so many things whose consequences ranged from counterproductive to catastrophic. Yet it is not so surprising when we consider whether anybody has ever had the range of knowledge required to make the sweeping kinds of decisions that so many intellectuals are prone to make, especially when they pay no price for being wrong.

Intellectuals and their followers have often been overly impressed by the fact that intellectuals tend, on average, to have more knowledge than other individuals in their society. What they have overlooked is that intellectuals have far less knowledge than the total knowledge possessed by the millions of other people whom they disdain and whose decisions they seek to override.

We have had to learn the consequences of elite preemption the hard way — and many of us have yet to learn that lesson.


January 5, 2010


Proof of the Existence of Government

Justin Katz

Somehow, one is not surprised that this instance of governance has not sparked the shock and outrage that accompanied the decision of Swiss voters to ban minarets:

... the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has ruled that the government of Italy must remove crucifixes from public school classrooms throughout that country. According to the decision of the court, "The presence of the crucifix . . . could easily be interpreted by pupils of all ages as a religious sign." This, the court said, could be "disturbing for pupils who practiced other religions or were atheists."

Yes, public/private distinctions apply, but the question is one of governance. The Swiss have determined public scenery to be subject to public considerations of culture, and the Italians should be able to do the same with public classrooms. If a distant, largely unaccountable government in another country can decide such matters of local taste, then — whatever one's belief in God — there's no such thing as self-government.



Rights and Benefits

Justin Katz

As Monique insisted, last night, healthcare is not an "inalienable right." Because it requires other people (doctors, et al.) to provide services, it is actually a consumer good. It's a vital one, to be sure, and one for which people will exchange significant percentages of their resources, but that doesn't make it a right.

It does, however, make it an attractive target for people who would like to control your life, such as the current collection of Democrats and their armies of government bureaucrats, who believe doing so to be their right. The ideological distortion of the nature of healthcare serves no purpose but to disguise the fact that government cannot provide this "right" at a lower cost than people can procure it for themselves. If the Democrats' motivation were otherwise, their solution would exclude all of the interference and fluff and provide for the government to grant healthcare to those who want it but can't afford it, and deliberations would consist of a debate about what aspects of "healthcare" are rights, and which are extra. Instead, the objective of legislation has clearly been to determine who controls the industry and how.

Recasting the structure of healthcare "reform" with the assumption that healthcare is a right shows the notion to be nonsense. What other "right" do we require citizens to purchase? What other right requires that people provide the services and that employers offer access to those services as a benefit? Again, rights aren't the sort of things subject to determination of cost effectiveness.

Ezra Klein makes a related point when he suggests that "health-care coverage is not a benefit. It's a wage deduction":

Cost control is not, in fact, all pain and no gain. It's some pain in return for a fat raise. A 2006 study, for instance, by Harvard's Katherine Baicker and Amitabh Chandra used malpractice payments to estimate the effect of premium increases on wages. They found that a 10 percent increase in health-care premiums "results in an offsetting decrease in wages of 2.3 percent" and an increase in unemployment of 1.2 percentage points. Compensation is basically a set sum for employers, and they don't seem to care much whether it goes into wages or into health-care costs.

Assessments of value exist all along the healthcare service chain. Doctors become doctors because the career presents an opportunity to earn the standard of living that they desire through an occupation in which they have an interest. Employers provide health insurance because it helps them to attract and retain employees more effectively than simple cash remuneration. Heretofore, as with all benefits, workers could presume the exchange to be worthwhile; they were giving up part of their natural pay in order to gain something that would cost them more were they to pay for it individually. If one spouse's employer provides better value, the couple switches. If the employee is healthy, he or she opts to take the money instead. The legislation on track to become law merely layers on disguises that enable citizens to ignore the fact that healthcare has a cost.

Back to Klein:

When Americans rejected managed care [such as HMOs], in other words, they didn't know they were ending wage increases, too. But since 1990, wages have tracked changes in premiums more closely than they've tracked the growth of GDP. Maybe if more workers knew that, they would be more interested in efforts to control health-care costs.

Anybody who has watched unions negotiate their contracts can appreciate the point. They'll give up wage increases if their negotiators believe that health insurance benefits will ultimately result in a greater transfer of wealth, and vice versa. What legislators who profess the healthcare-as-a-right doctrine are effectively doing is declaring that somebody must pick up the bill for extensive coverage without reference to the exchange in wages or economic activity or whatever else the burden will land on. And because those ultimately paying the cost won't know the dollar amount (indeed, they probably won't realize they are paying it at all), the bill can only increase.

Personally, I see it as more appropriate to insist that we have a right not to pay more for a service than we are willing to pay for it.


January 1, 2010


The Future We Face

Justin Katz

So another year closes, and another company comes under the umbrella of United States of America, Inc.:

The federal government said Wednesday that it will take majority control of troubled auto lender GMAC and provide an additional $3.8 billion in aid to the company, which has been unable to raise from private investors the money it needs to staunch its losses.

As it happens, one of my family's vehicles is currently subject to a GMAC loan, leading me to wonder, first, why my debt shouldn't disappear if my government is purchasing the company and, second, how penalties for failure to pay might change if the feds settle in to ownership. Debtors prison, perhaps? Of course, the government has been meddling in the lending game for years, helping to dig the population's debt hole to its current globe-crossing depth (to China), and as a National Review editorial blurb suggests, the president, at least, has conflicting intentions:

With unemployment persisting at painful levels, President Obama casts himself as the scourge of the "fat cats"--he has taken to the language of vacuous populism--castigating banks for making too many risky loans.

At the same time, he dressed down a group of bankers, demanding they make more loans, which means riskier ones.

Arguably, GMAC is in its current position because it made loans that its business model did not support. With government involvement, politicians can sift through potential borrowers and determine which groups are high-risk/high-value (and therefore deserving of subsidization by taxpayers) and which groups are just high risk. That way, risky loans can be rephrased in moral terms and promoted as a debt that society owes the oppressed.

Combine that debt with another that politicians with too much power have incurred and which Nick Gillespie foresees as bringing us to this state of affairs:

There is a looming showdown in American society between public-sector employees and the rest of us, in terms of job security and, especially, unsustainable gold-plated retirement and health benefits that are working hard to bankrupt whole states such as California, New York, and New Jersey. As with some parts of the private sector (domestically owned auto companies, for instance), basic compensation packages were hammered into place in a very different America, and conferred massive future benefits when politicians were either too stupid or too cowardly to confront basic questions of fiscal responsibility.

Government has long been the answer for those who wish to play philanthropist with other people's money and for those who wished to ensure ever-increasing comfort and security through collective manipulation of a democratic system.

Which brings us to an essay by Patrick Deneen, which I found via Mark Shea. One must swallow a very particular interpretation of history in order to agree with Deneen's entire essay, but his conclusion has the resonance of truth:

The choice facing America today is grim: it shows every sign of a willingness to embrace the Chinese model, a model it will likely choose to remain "competitive," but also daily demonstrates its habits of blandishing a citizenry that demands to be coddled. The "democracy" continues to demand its fair share of a dwindling pie, an expected denoument when citizens have been redefined as "consumers." I wager that in 10 years' time, the nation will either have sunk itself beneath the untenable weight of continuing payment of a bribe that could never be sustained — and will look like a third world "banana republic" — or, it will have "successfully" made the transition to another regime, an form of autocratic capitalism in which the State will change the terms of the bribe, paying us with materialist distractions in exchange for our political rights and equality. I daily see signs of both prospects, and can't clearly discern at the moment which will arise. Either way, our culmination is grim, for in either event we will cease in any real sense to be a Republic.

Either way, the strategy is to beg, borrow, and steal for a continuing supply of illusory comfort, the difference being whether we chase denial into the mentality of a basket case or give totalitarianism a try, trading freedom for cheap loans, subsidized toys, and deteriorating healthcare. Neither choice is sustainable, but some minority portion of society might squeeze another half-century or so out of the delusional scam.

Of course, there's a third option, entailing real tolerance of political differences and a widely dispersed government structure. Luckily, we're all familiar with the necessary terms — federalism, checks and balances, representative government, property rights, due process — requiring us merely to reaffirm their meaning and importance.

It is in this last possibility that I find room for hope for the new year. Calamities may loom, but Western civilization will not collapse over night. Our national memory of principles of freedom will not dissipate with the winter clouds. Therefore, start where it all must begin: with your self, your family, your town, your state, and your nation. Be vigilant of changes and affronts far and wide, but begin where you can have the most effect.

Your example and lessons to loved ones will ripple throughout society. Your affirmation of principle in the town hall will echo to Providence, to Washington, to Brussels. Such could be the catalyst expanding a new invigoration around the planet, one well-lived life at a time.


December 31, 2009


A Commission (a "Panel," if You Will)... That's the Ticket!

Justin Katz

Thomas Sowell puts it pretty starkly:

The appointment of White House "czars" to make policy across a wide spectrum of issues — unknown people who get around the Constitution's requirement of Senate confirmation for cabinet members — is yet another sign of the mindset that sees the fundamental laws and values of this country as just something to get around, in order to impose the will of an arrogant elite.

The problem is that it isn't just the political elite who lack a sufficient understanding of the real value of democratic processes. Sowell blames "dumbed-down education in schools and colleges that have become indoctrination centers for the visions of the Left," although the reference to political direction might obscure the essence of the poorly formed vision — namely, that it is possible for people to figure out and design broad social programs that will improve life for all if they're only given the power to implement them. And so, we get this disappointing, but not surprising, editorial from the Providence Journal:

Neither Congress nor the Obama administration (nor that of George W. Bush) has shown the gumption to act honestly to confront these costs. Perhaps commissions will give them adequate cover to take on the "special-interest groups." (We're all de-facto members of several such groups; one man's pork is another man's national treasure.) ...

So a bipartisan congressional committee should pick the members of these commissions and give them as much power as possible. Such panels would probably feel compelled to recommend higher taxes and sharp cuts in some programs.

In the Projo's telling, such a plan is all up-side: giving an unelected panel as much power as possible (to break some eggs) with adequate immunity to push elected representatives to do that which the public does not want. That attitude is a recipe for totalitarianism and a collapsed nation, but it's frighteningly pervasive. Everybody, after all, has a vision that would clearly work... if only it could be forced on the nation.

As if to prove its own incoherence, the editorial shifts gears to complaints that people are heeding ideological sympathizers whom they trust to specialize in sensing political winds, rather than giving rein to Congressional "staffers specializing in the subject at hand" as they craft complex legislation. The essay ends thus:

Representative democracy is a terrible system, but, as Churchill noted, better than all the others.

One might get the erroneous impression that the editorial writers are supporters of representative democracy, even after they'd spent a few hundred words advocating for rule by unelected groups and behind the scenes staff experts.


December 27, 2009


With a Combination of Powers, the Devil Smiles

Justin Katz

We're all familiar with the concept of separating powers across government. Especially in the United States, the notion of checks and balances is woven throughout civic education. Too few in the modern era appreciate the importance of separating powers across society. Not for long will powerful people in business, religion, and government maintain mutual respect out of intellectual habit; such respect will only flow perpetually from the actuality of power. The businessman will respect the religious leader because the former's customers trust the judgment of latter. The politician will respect the businessman because the latter has economic clout.

Hopefully, we in the West are beginning to wake up to the fact the more we look to government to handle, the more power politicians will demand and the more authority they will assert. Thus, as an editorial explains in a recent Rhode Island Catholic, a government tasked with ensuring equality will interpret its authority in such a way as to draw parameters around tolerable religious beliefs and practices:

The bill, which claims to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, would regulate churches including the Catholic Church as employers. It would make it unlawful to require a Catholic priest to be male, unmarried or not in a civil marriage, since no priest would be able to clearly demonstrate that their time was wholly spent leading prayer, liturgy or worship and promoting and explaining doctrine. The Bishops of England and Wales have protested the bill and its immensely serious consequences for over two years. ...

Catholic Bishops reject claims by the government that as long as priests spend 51 percent of their time leading worship and preaching the Gospel they would be spared any hostile legal action. They suggest that priestly ministry is so diverse and includes pastoral work, private prayer and study, administration and building maintenance that it would be impossible to guarantee that such a condition could be met. The rejection of the government’s claims includes the objection by Catholic Bishops that the government would now effectively define what work a priest must perform. Last month an amendment to protect the liberty of churches was rejected by the House of Commons and as a result the bill will likely become law next year.

News of strengthening allegiances across Christian denominations is clearly related:

"For religion, militant secularism is just as dangerous as militant atheism was. Both tend to exclude religion from the public and political sphere, relegating it to a ghetto, confining it to the area of private devotion," [Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion wrote in an introduction to a book of speeches by Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI].

The archbishop added that in modern Europe the "unwritten rules of political correctness" are increasingly applied to religious institutions, to the point that believers can no longer express their religious convictions publicly because it would be considered a violation of the rights of non-believers.

Archbishop Hilarion said Europe's political unification had brought with it the risk of a new pan-European "dictatorship" that would impose a single model of secular humanistic values on all European countries.

Religious leaders are not innocent in the modern movement to grant government authority to implement preferred social policies, so the first step in combating its overreaches will be admission of culpability and reconsideration of political philosophy. Even now, when it comes to economic and (sadly) environmental matters, the belief that government can simply dictate the enlightened practices is proving to have an insidious allure among the faithful.

It will not prove possible to imbue an all-powerful government with respect for the individual and communal rights granted by an all-powerful deity. To the extent that such a thing ever seemed possible, the impression relied entirely on secular leaders' respect for the power of individuals and communities in other social spheres. Where government sees opportunity to marginalize those checks on its power, it will.


December 23, 2009


Impressions from a Declining Country

Justin Katz

Sometimes the order in which one processes information can create broader impressions than the individual items suggest. For just such an experience, first watch Steven Crowder's short video about the crumbling, desolate city of Detroit, whose condition he attributes to the loving manipulations of big government.

Now consider this news:

Almost two months ago, the Commerce Department cheered the announcement that the third quarter GDP had grown at an annualized rate of 3.5%. The Obama administration hailed it as a sign that their economic policies had spurred real growth. Even when Commerce sharply revised the number downward a month later to 2.8%, the White House continued to argue that the lower number still meant that the US had turned the corner, even after a number of critics asked how Commerce could have missed the number so widely. ...
Today, Commerce backtracked even further. The annualized growth number for Q3 turns out to have been 2.2%, a revision of over a third from its original estimate two months ago...

... The Cash for Clunkers program and the first-time homebuyer tax credit was estimated to have contributed as much as half of the original Commerce estimate of 3.5%. Assuming that to still have contributed at least 1.5% of the final GDP, that leaves a rather pathetic 0.7% growth in Q3 without it. It's barely a recovery at that level.

And this morning, we learn:

November saw a dramatic increase in the number of houses sold in Rhode Island — up 61.1 percent compared with November 2008, according to statistics compiled by the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.

Part of the increase can be explained by a one-month-only $8,000 tax credit that expired at the end of November. Part of it may be related to the false prediction of growth. No doubt, there's also a genuine improvement of buyer mood; people who have been in the market for a home are more comfortable with the probability that prices are at or near their new bottom and that interest rates aren't going any lower. University of Rhode Island Economics Professor Len Lardaro puts it thus: "we're [now] in a typical recession, not a free-fall, like we were in a year ago."

Nowhere, however, has anybody explained what specifically is going to turn things around. Even up to the Commerce Department, it seems as if economic forecasts are taking as an assumption that 4% or so is simply "normal" growth, to which the economy will return as a function of its essential nature. The picture that is actually beginning to emerge more resembles an old car, and all variety of government officials, economists, and media cheerleaders are standing around trying various tricks and gimmicks to get the beast moving — not the least by employing positive thinking: "It's just about to go, now!" It whines and whirs and sputters, but it isn't turning over. And it's cold outside.

Of course, economic movement is only necessary for certain destinations. We can trust, for example, that Detroit will come to us. Rhode Islanders should be especially aware of the fact that, by contrast, economic turnaround and improvement must be pursued, not awaited


December 20, 2009


Prescriptions for Failed States

Marc Comtois

In the most recent Claremont Review, William Voegeli examines some of political and institutional factors that have led to California's current crisis, particularly the role that Progressivism has played. Key to his argument is the understanding of what early twentieth century Progressives in California were trying to achieve:

According to historian Alonzo Hamby, the framework for Progressive politics was the conviction that the political conflict was between "the people" and "the interests." It followed that the highest political duty was to help the people resist and ultimately triumph over the interests. One problem with this framework is that it lends itself better to the disdain than to the practice of politics. "The Progressives did not like politics," writes political scientist Jerome Mileur, because "the politics they saw was not about the public purpose of the nation, but was instead consumed by local interests and private greed, indifferent alike to the idea of a great community and the idealism of grand purpose."

...Progressivism's anti-politics was designed for the people as they ought to be, not as they really are. Positing that the fundamental choice is between the people and the interests presupposes that the people are authentic only when they are disinterested. The Progressives' goal was to equip the people with the means to advance encompassing, lofty ambitions by thwarting the interests' narrow, selfish ones. The means to this end was to collapse the constitutional space between the people and the government, dismantling the political mechanisms that conferred unfair advantages on connected insiders.

Today, the ballot initiative is probably the most recognizable Progressive remedy, which is practiced in California to a seemingly greater scope than other states, but the direct primary replaced the smoke-filled room, electing judges, recall elections and the ubiquitous referendum were also instituted.

This so-called "hyperdemocracy", as Voegeli explains, is reliant on a weird dichotomy. While the people can be a check against the interests, the Progressive solution of more direct political involvement requires both their disinterest in politics per se, but requires an interest in policies. Most people simply can't make enough time in the day to lead their lives and keep an eye on policies and politicians.

Realizing that this wasn't enough, the Progressive solution lay in the expert administrators, who naturally take it upon themselves to make the proper choices for the silent masses who are usually just not that into politics. Thus, civil service and the spread of the "unionocracy", as Voegeli calls it. Rhode Islanders know where Voegeli is going here, so I won't linger on well-trod ground. Yet, his observations about the Golden State seem applicable to the Ocean State.

...the political strategies of both conservatives and liberals concentrate on how to deal with that angry public. The conservative strategy is to get the public angry, and see that it stays angry. Conservative talk-radio hosts compete to identify the latest and most astounding outrage, and to see who can denounce it most stridently. The liberal strategy is...to avoid rousing that public to anger, but also, when the voters do put on their war paint, to wait for their ire to ebb due to the passage of time and the inevitable reappearance of life's many nonpolitical preoccupations. When the anger has passed, government-as-usual can resume without meddling by citizen-amateurs....

The evidence is incontestable: the liberal strategy of waiting for the public's anger to subside is far sounder than the conservative strategy of hoping it will gather strength. The liberal calculation rests on a shrewd assessment, not only of human psychology but also of modern mobility. California is not yet East Germany, which means that one of the ways Californians who are mad as hell can decide not to take it any more is by moving away.

Sounds familiar. Voegeli has a two-part solution for California that may also apply here in Rhode Island:
First, the state's Republican Party will have to break free from the gravitational pull of the Progressive legacy to establish itself as the vital political intermediary between the public's desire for fair and frugal public services, and a newly chastened government that delivers them conscientiously. The historical record clearly establishes that direct legislation and galvanizing leaders are not adequate to this task, and independent administrative experts can be trusted only to sabotage it.

Second, the institutional capacity of the Republican Party will be inadequate to its mission unless it persuades Californians that they have an urgent, abiding, and legitimate interest in reclaiming their government from the public employee unions who have asserted squatters' rights over it. The logic of Progressivism called for independent administrators to discern and implement the people's disinterested, inchoate aspirations for government. Instead, the permanent government has become increasingly adept and brazen at advancing its own private interest by invoking platitudes about the public's. The vindication of the public's real, as opposed to its faux, interest will require walking back, over several years, the depredations the permanent government has perfected over decades.

As Voegeli explains earlier, populist-based "rebuke[s of] the governing class in the manner of Network's Howard Beale: "We're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it anymore!" only work for so long and can only go so far.


December 7, 2009


How Dead Can Capitalism Be…

Carroll Andrew Morse

…when Harvard University's alumni magazine is publishing articles about Ayn Rand that end on this note…

Nearly 30 years after her death, Rand’s once controversial philosophy of individualism and capitalism has become part of the warp and woof of American political culture.


November 14, 2009


Issues-Based Politics and Government Philosophy

Justin Katz

Bishop Thomas Tobin makes a fortuitous juxtaposition in a recent edition of his "Without a Doubt" column (emphasis added):

Therefore I'm looking for candidates who will explain their stance on the dignity of human life and how that translates into action. I want candidates to address the value of marriage and family, and explain to me how homosexual marriages won't erode the traditional underpinnings of our society. I'd like to find candidates who’ll support the comprehensive reform of the health care system in a way that preserves important moral values. I'd like to see candidates embrace authentic educational choice and describe to the public how such competition would be good for our community. And I want candidates who can repair the economy and maintain fiscal discipline without placing the burden upon or targeting the unemployed, the homeless, the indigent elderly or the immigrant.

Certainly, there are "comprehensive reforms" of healthcare that would point in a direction of increased consumer choice and autonomy — which I believe to more fully conform with the Church's understanding of reality than increased socialization. However, none of the plans currently being described with that phrase are otherwise than degrees of government takeovers and mandates. In other words, they're precisely of a kind with the political theory that created the education regime into which the bishop would like to introduce choice.

It's a central plank in Christian social teaching that ends do not justify means. The end of helping ailing people does not justify the cost of diminished freedom of conscience and autonomy of action inherent in direct government manipulation of the society any more than the objective of ensuring an educated population did in the past.

It seems to me that the quality of our students' education has been on a steadily declining course, under government watch, and that the majority of young Americans are educated in an environment in which officials are explicitly forbidden from behaving as if it is more likely than not that God exists. Regrettably, it's not a topic that I've had the time to explore in detail, but I would hope that the Catholic Bishops would devote some resources and prayer to the question of what effect the Democrats' "comprehensive healthcare reforms" would have on Catholic hospitals, not to mention Catholic employers that cover employees health insurance... even if there are conscience clauses and restrictions on support for abortion.


November 13, 2009


Death, Taxes, and the Impossibility of Separation

Justin Katz

In an essay in the current issue of The RI Catholic, I attempt to link my conversion from nihilism to Catholicism with the impossibility of truly separating church and state by way of introducing my heretofore monthly column in the publication:

Faith-filled or faithless, no such existential philosophies can be sopped off the skin like bath water. They have consequences. They show on the faces that we present to the world.

Moreover, they determine what sort of obligations we acknowledge. One hears often about a separation of church and state, but there can be no such thing. Even a culture that takes the impetuous stand that nobody has a right to impose restrictions will paradoxically find itself knocking down doors in search of hegemony, lest somebody, somewhere tells somebody else what to do. Even a government that preaches an individual autonomy to "define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life," as the Supreme Court put it when finding a Constitutional right to sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas, will collect taxes and allocate the dollars by its own mysterious process.


October 3, 2009


Patinkin's First Hand Exposure to Failure of Communism

Marc Comtois

I don't usually associate ProJo lifestyle columnist with hefty political writing (that's not a slam at Patinkin--I generally enjoy his columns--but politics isn't his usual "beat"), so I was impressed with his Saturday column in which he writes about his first-hand observations on the failures of communism.

Much of the 20th century was a contest between Communism and capitalism. It seemed a valid race, because Russia was the one other superpower, a military giant that beat us into space.

I was stunned when I looked behind the scenes.

Communism was an economic disaster. That’s why it failed.

The theory was for the state to erase the rich-poor gap by guaranteeing jobs for all at equal pay. In countries like Russia, laborers made the same as bosses. That way, instead of working selfishly for personal gain, people would supposedly strive for the common good.

That sounded fine in the time of the czars, when the masses starved while the rich had palaces. It may even sound good today when Wall Street CEOs make $50 million while undermining the economy.

There’s only one problem. Communism doesn’t work, and for a simple reason. It goes against human nature.

Capitalism, on the other hand, recognizes the truth about people. We are selfish. We only will work our hardest — and thereby build up society — if it gets us ahead.

But what about the Communist theory that folks will work harder still for community and state?

I thought I’d find at least some of that. I didn’t.

Read the rest of his column to read what he did find. Patinkin's experience rings very true with on of my own. In 1992, I spent Christmas in Riga, Latvia while working on an American cargo ship. The Iron Curtain had fallen, but the country was still in the middle of a transition out from under Soviet power. There were still Soviet troops in the streets and Soviet memorials (guarded by the aforementioned troops) and Communist propaganda was still in evidence. These contributed to a lingering resentment among native Latvians. For instance, I witnessed a young woman get harangued by two or three older Latvian ladies and found out it was because she was a "White Russian", in other words, an interloper.

Yet, there was also optimism in the air, the feeling amongst the native Lativians I talked with (OK, in the "American Bar"!) was that they were ready to embrace freedom and an open economy. And the currency of choice--as Patinkin also described--was the US dollar. I haven't been back since then, but I'm sure Latvia has experienced the growing pains of capitalism. However, despite the failures and missteps, I'd bet that most Latvians don't want to go back to the "good old days" of a planned economy where everything is depressingly "equal."


September 25, 2009


Catholic Democrats

Marc Comtois

Roger Williams University PoliSci Professor and OSPRI Fellow Ernest Greco has a piece in the ProJo advocating for a European style Christian Democrat party. While I don't think U.S. political ground is as fertile as Greco does for a new political party, he offers a concise summary of the big picture.

Unfortunately, too many of America’s Catholic ethnics...still seem to be firmly anchored to the Democratic Party. Especially in the blue states of the Northeast and the Great Lakes, an informal coalition and division of labor appears to have developed within that party.

“Progressives,” as our social democrats and liberal democrats collectively label themselves, control the party ideology, platforms and nominations, especially at the national level. We Christian democrats turn out the votes in places like Johnston, Pawtucket and Kalamazoo. They control the Supreme Court and we get the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Public Works. They rely on the support of those notorious “cafeteria Catholics,” who seem to think that the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage, and the authority of the family are not nearly as important as a higher minimum wage or “taxing the rich.” We equally numerous “cafeteria Democrats” have (mostly) stayed with our grandfathers’ party because of tradition, an unhealthy attraction to patronage, and a mysterious belief that any candidate on the ballot with a “D” after his name may be the second coming of FDR or JFK.

Greco's analysis seems to describe the national picture well, but it doesn't quite fit Rhode Island. Rhode Island's Catholic Democrats hold the reins of political power from the State House to the DMV and DPW. Their answer to the question that CCRI's David Carlin asked, "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?", is emphatically YES. I don't see that changing any time soon.


September 18, 2009


Yes, a Little State Can Learn from a Big State

Justin Katz

Wouldn't it be refreshing if this sort of thing were written about our small Northeastern state?

[Texas] Republicans did not take the bait [to raise taxes]. Governor [Rick] Perry told the legislature to not even bother sending him a bill with a tax increase, because he would not sign it. Instead, he submitted a budget in which every spending line was a zero — an act of political theater, to be sure, but an effective one. Republicans ran a classic good-cop/bad-cop routine on the bureaucracy, with Perry taking a hard line against tax increases and Rep. Talmadge Heflin, at that time the new Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, meeting with the heads of the state's 35 largest agencies and asking them to start from zero. The agency chiefs were told that they had to keep spending at less than 87.5 percent of the previous year's level, draconian cuts by the standards of most state governments, but they were given maximum flexibility in achieving those goals.

Particulars can vary; ultimately the philosophy is what's important:

"There are certain truths that have to be agreed to," Perry says. "One is that economies grow when they are free from over-taxation, over-regulation, over-litigation, and they have a skilled work force. Government isn't difficult in theory — don't spend all the money, keep taxes low, have a fair and predictable regulatory climate, keep frivolous lawsuits to a minimum, and fund an accountable education system so that you have a skilled work force available. Then get the hell out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector does best. It's simple in theory, but it's difficult to accomplish. In Texas, we've implemented that theory, and it's produced an economy that has no match in America."

That description looks like the photo negative of Rhode Island.


September 17, 2009


Nebulous Rationality

Justin Katz
Corruption of culture is a nebulous and subjective concept which has been used toward evil authoritarian ends for as we can remember. Sorry, unless there is a clear victim, legislation of such morality, or culture as you call it, is not a proper function of government, as you would certainly agree if the progressives took control and sought to impose their own morality and culture upon you.

So writes Dan in a comment, here. As a historical matter, I'd argue that, while (yes) the "nebulous and subjective concept" has been used for evil, it has also been used to focus and advance Western civilization. The idea is to get better at applying it, not to declare ourselves beyond its necessity.

But we could argue history and import until the sun comes up and still not say anything new or change anybody's mind, so let's pick up the thread with another sentence of Dan's, written here:

... there is a difference between having a broad and intrusive law like prostitution law which actually makes certain activities that shouldn't rationally be prohibited illegal and a narrow law like theft for which enforcement requires a certain amount of investigation to confirm the elements.

It can hardly be argued whether objective rationality has also contributed to "evil authoritarian ends" in history. Recent history. The problem is that it isn't objectively rational and only appears so, in our conversation, because Dan places arbitrary restrictions on its allowable origin and permissible application to determine who judges what as harmful and to whom.

A person who believes that God will punish a society for toleration of prostitution is advocating a personally rational policy when he supports the criminalization of prostitution. To declare his internally rational worldview invalid in the formation of the law is to establish a state religion premised on the impossibility of such a God. In another direction, a person who sincerely believes that his own will is the determinant of reality is also being perfectly rational in advocating for policies that allow him to subject others to what some might call harm. With a nod to our progressive friends, one could bring to mind, as an example, a greedy corporate executive who advocates politically according to his rational self interest, even though the proposed policies are unreasonable by community standards.

Libertarians, I'd further argue, found their views on an irrational faith that the only harms that matter are direct and provable and the dogma that all must accept their criteria for the passage of laws. Both counts are absurd. Anybody who thinks human beings are capable of discerning the waves of cause and effect and articulating their observations with sufficient clarity to codify them into law is irrational.

Center-mass conservatives see tradition as the means of learning, over time, what practices cause harm, often on a profound scale. That which does not pick my pocket may yet bring down my house, and a wise society will seek to give its citizens a means of expressing the dangers that they see, while preserving the rights of those with their eyes on different threats.

We accomplish the feat by constructing a governing system that enables tiers of community norms. It gives us all sorts of room to decide whether and at what layer of government to accomplish the inevitably muddy work of agreeing to laws in order to maintain the freedom of our beliefs and to work together and compromise wherever possible. So, the town should be free to zone strip clubs out, while the state should leave strip clubs alone but prevent the establishment of prostitution as a region-defining industry, and the federal government should protect the rights of sex-trade advocates to speak and protest at town council meetings.

To put it plainly, we work the subjective stuff out on as small a scale as makes our decisions effectual.

The decision about whether prostitution should be legal in Rhode Island is logically prior to the method of making it illegal, so Dan's subsequent objections about leaving "selective enforcement" up to the police is premature. If we agree, however, for the sake of argument, that prostitution should be illegal, then we might also agree that the prostitutes should not be the target of the penalties and that enforcement may also be constrained to limit investigatory efforts. The principle would be that, if you don't get caught, then the transaction was really and truly a private matter.

The grandest irrationality of the state's pro-prostitution libertarians is the apparent believe that a state with a governing system conspicuously strangling the private sector — that can't keep its hands off even minute details of life — will somehow adhere to a libertarian ideal when it comes to prostitution. Now that it is widely known that prostitution is legal, here, the government will not fail to extend its reach into the occupation, should the "loophole" making it legal become, instead, a portal.

What the libertarians will accomplish, with their small-government zealotry, will be an intrusive regime that fails to flush out the illicit. Regulation of prostitution means licensing, testing, workplace inspection, and more, and all it does is create a legal subset, leaving those who will not, cannot, or do not want to live within the rules to create an even seedier black market.

Of course, Dan professes not to care about seediness. Even if a majority of prostitutes are merely trapped in the trade to support their hard-drug habits, it remains a private matter. Once again, to believe that such a society as ours will not cry for government to do something to help such poor souls is to believe something more incredible than found in the strangest sects of the jungle.

Readers will note that my tack, when progressives et alia strive to impose their morality, is to argue that the imposition ought to be made at the state level (or smaller) and then to argue why the law wouldn't achieve its stated aims or is wrong or reckless for other reasons. This isn't only a strategic move; it's also reflective of strong convictions that a rational system can only operate in such a way.


September 12, 2009


Government and Society

Justin Katz

Robert George offers an important basis for emphasis here, but there's an important inward extension to his description of the law:

The law is a teacher. It will teach either that marriage is a reality in which people can choose to participate, but whose contours people cannot make and remake at will, or it will teach that marriage is a mere convention, which is malleable in such a way that individuals, couples, or, indeed, groups can choose to make of it whatever suits their desires, goals, and so on. The result, given the biases of human sexual psychology, will be the development of practices and ideologies that truly tend to undermine the sound understanding and practice of marriage, together with the development of pathologies that tend to reinforce the very practices and ideologies that cause them.

The inward extension is that, as much as the law is a teacher, its "students" in a democratic society must ultimately approve of the lesson. It's a matter of give and take — mutual reinforcement. The country's people construct the law, and the law helps to guide their behavior. Regulations act as guidelines toward a desired end.

This same adjustment must be made to an excellent piece by RI locals Michelle Cretella and Arthur Goldberg:

Legislators and justices will do well to heed the findings of J.D. Unwin, British anthropologist and author of Sex and Culture. After studying 86 societies spanning 5,000 years of history he found a distinct correlation between increasing sexual freedom and social decline. Unwin postulated that when social regulations forbid indiscriminate satisfaction of sexual impulses, the sublimated sexual impulses are channeled into a "social energy" that builds society. Conversely, he found no instance in which a society retained its creative energy after abandoning monogamous male-female relationships.

The described findings certainly represent a crucial splash of cold water, but it isn't merely "legislators and justices" who should feel its chill. Indeed, if such personages come alone to the revelation, it would be inappropriate for them to impose it on an unwilling nation. It is the entire network of intellectual and cultural elites that must heed the warning.

The unique project of the United States is to regulate outside of the law as much as possible. American society comes to agreement about the minimum boundaries within which everybody can achieve their goals, and the law provides those boundaries. The difficulty when it comes to marriage is that one side would like the law to enable its goal of declaring same-sex relationships to be indistinguishable in any profound way from opposite-sex relationships. Cultural elites have proven scandalously blind to the fact that such a proposition is utterly preposterous in just about every light (biology not least among them), requiring traditionalists to point out that the requested modification to the law would make it more difficult for our society to maintain its goal of advancement — even cultural survival.

It would be difficult to overstate the fundamental importance of this debate, because the culture of marriage is perhaps the most significant means of non-government regulation of behavior. Reading Cretella and Goldberg, those of us who trace political threads might find significance in the fact that sexual libertinism is so often married with statist, progressive movements. Just so, it's difficult not to wonder whether radical redefinition of our entire society isn't the actual goal of those who wish to modify marriage.


September 11, 2009


The Moment Change Happened

Justin Katz

By coincidence, each of the past two days brought a question from somebody about my political beginnings. The answer to the when is 9/11. Practical philosophy had always been appealing to me, but it had previously followed a literary and cultural context, rather than a political one. That changed on a September morning. It wouldn't be to presumptuous to state that a majority of Americans chose a different psychological path through reality, that day, as well.

The "Let's Roll" moment may have been the first evidence of this broad, pervasive change, but it actually occurred at precisely 9:03 a.m., when the second plane hit the second tower. During the final moments of American innocence, between planes, we were all thinking that the first was some bizarre accident, maybe an expression of individual lunacy, or at most a fluke success of a small group of foreign crazies. At 9:03, we all realized that, to put it clinically, this would have to be addressed.

One could make the case that our current politics essentially reflect ripples of that moment. It's permeated and incorporated all else in the political theater, but the need to fix... that something... is the central fact. On the right, the something is ultimately the West's belief that it can construct a fantasy in which to live according to social rules that an author of children's books might contrive. It has a military and foreign affairs component, obviously, and that directly relates to immigration and cultural assimilation. Less directly, a conservative's vision of facing reality means a return to tradition and morality — at the extremity, seeing our weakness and apathy as punishment from God.

On the left, the fact to be fixed is American arrogance and greed. Behind all of the "root cause" references is a sense that an unmatched lust for power has made the United States the unprecedented superpower against which no other nation can compete. In a secular form of divine retribution, terrorism (indeed, Islamofascism as an ideology) is the fruit of American manipulation of global political and economic systems for its own benefit. A nicer, more compassionate, more deliberately just and humble society would negate hostile response.

For seven years, those leaning toward the latter camp watched President Bush do just about everything wrong, and where he did something they might otherwise see as right, they took him to be draining the visceral strength from their patented plea to their fellow men. The election of Barack Obama to the presidency wasn't a desperate attempt to return to the reality of 9/10; Clinton, or any other known quantity, would have sufficed for that. Rather, his promise of "change" was a pledge to move forward toward the cultural and governmental repair that circumstances (and cunning deceit) had prevented for the purpose of preserving the machinations of an economic elite intent on exploiting the world.

Meanwhile, President Obama's being wrong on the importance of a strong, resolved demeanor in the international realm has freed those leaning toward the rightward camp from the inadvisable and arguably calamitous prudence that W. had just about exhausted. In this presentation, the tea parties and town halls are a declaration that the millions of Americans awoken to the necessity of action by the attack eight years ago will not go back to polite submission. They see energy taxes, corporate takeovers, heavier regulations, and socialized healthcare as (probably deliberate) attempts to humble their country, and they foresee the world's aggressors vying to be the first to knock over the docile giant, place one foot upon its neck, and declare itself to be an even greater being.

Flung into motion by the one-two confirmation that something would have to be done, this back and forth will continue until some event, perhaps in the nearer than farther future, affirms the beliefs of one side or obviates the question. In the meantime, we must mourn, and our mourning must take the form of vigilance and, despite it all, unity.



The Size of the Incentive

Justin Katz

A couple of things that I've read, recently, reinforce a healthy concern about the sheer size of the aggregated pool of power that a growing government creates and the incentives that it generates. The first example comes from an article by Kevin Williamson in National Review about Congressman Barney Frank (subscription required):

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac thought they had a shot at becoming the bond market. It was not long ago that the U.S. government was expected to be running surpluses, or near-surpluses, for the indefinite future. The folks at Fannie and Freddie calculated that this meant that Washington was going to be selling fewer Treasury bonds than it had been, and that the GSEs' bonds, with their implicit federal backing, would be able to fill the void, in effect displacing Treasuries as the new benchmark for the bond market. Issuing the benchmark bond, the GSEs would be able to borrow at the "risk free" rate, i.e. what the U.S. government pays to borrow. With a line of credit at the Treasury, the implicit backing of Uncle Sam, and the power that comes from issuing the benchmark in the all-powerful bond market, the GSEs — privately owned corporations, bear in mind — would have enjoyed a combination of political and economic power normally reserved for entities that have armies and navies. Fannie and Freddie were so sure that they’d end up stealing Treasuries' pride of place that they trademarked the name "Benchmark Bonds" and began issuing them.

It was the implicit government backing — which has the implicit power to take resources by military force — that made those dreams conceivable.

The second example comes from a First Things piece in which Reuven Brenner argues that government negligence facilitated the financial collapse. For one thing:

By accepting the rating agencies' opinions as the criteria for the amount of leverage that banks could apply, the Federal Reserve turned the ratings agencies into a quasi-official monopoly. And by securitizing trillions of dollars of structured bonds on the strength of these ratings, the financial system put the ratings agencies into a pivotal position in the economy. The ratings agencies never grasped their new roles. On the contrary, they saw their monopoly position as a license to print money by issuing rubber-stamp opinions about structured product that they neither understood nor cared to understand. Meanwhile, in the case of the federally sponsored mortgage corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government made it cheaper for a while for anyone to speculate in the housing market.

With the housing-related organizations, the federal government lost sight of its role by behaving as a social engineer dabbling in home ownership. In the case of the ratings agencies, the government took its eye off plain principles of economics that it ought to guard because of its belief in regulators' ability to comprehend and manipulate minute trends. The pool of power is there, glittering with the reflected light of prosperity, and is simply too much for human beings to guard, even if they are nominally accountable to voters. With all of that money and influence at stake, there's further incentive for distortion and political theater to leave others with the blame:

... relying on government and the Federal Reserve to access capital is not the same as relying on banks and other financial institutions. Bankers make decisions about who gets the loans, and on what terms, based on the ability of entrepreneurs and managements to carry on successfully. But a government's decision to finance ventures—as in the case of the auto industry—is based on political clout.

Of course, political clout sometimes passes under the name of national interest, a phrase that bankruptcy judge Arthur Gonzalez used in his opinion concerning the objection of investors challenging the administration's use of TARP money for Chrysler: He wrote that the U.S. government "made the determination" that it is in the "national interest to save the automobile industry, in the same way that the U.S. Treasury concluded that it was in the national interest to protect financial institutions."

Using national interest as a criterion for financing has allowed politicians at all times and in every country to usurp the responsibilities of the private sector. It is happening again in the United States, and without much resistance, since the public's attention has been focused on the failure of private financial institutions to correct their mistakes. This failure destroyed public trust in these institutions, especially since their mistakes were visible, whereas the mistakes of the government—without which the private sector could not have carried on with its own—were less visible.

We can and should hold private institutions accountable (in part, ahem, by enabling competition and allowing them to fail), but we also shouldn't neglect the questions of whether our rule-keeper is competent and whether it's even possible for any person or group to be up to the task of keeping rules in proximity to the lure of combined governmental and economic power.


September 7, 2009


Truth Amidst Error

Justin Katz

The question of papal infallibility has probably been on the minds of conservative Roman Catholics since the publication of Caritas in Veritate. Not surprisingly, the encyclical's controversial pararaph declaring an "urgent need of a true world political authority" has dominated coverage and conversation. Some on the right, perhaps having not had a chance to digest the entire document, have fallen back on the "challenges both sides" truism, which is certainly applicable, but not excusive of the Holy Father's call to develop the United Nations into the source of the "real teeth" required for "the family of nations."

Cardinal Henry Manning provides a framework for considering Catholics' obligation for agreement, here quoted in a First Things review by Edward Oakes of Mark Powell's book surveying papal infallibility from a Protestant perspective:

So, in the face of this contradiction between his maximalism [with regard to papal infallibility] and his dismay at the pope's ruling, he had no choice but to adopt Newman's more minimalist interpretation. "The Decree of Leo XIII was absolutely true, just, and useful," Manning said in painful embarrassment. "But in the abstract. The condition of Ireland is abnormal. The Decree contemplates facts which do not exist....Pontiffs have no infallibility in the world of facts, except only dogmatic. The [rent strike] is not a dogmatic fact, and it is one thing to declare that all legal agreements are binding, and another to say that all agreements in Ireland are legal." This was exactly Newman's view in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk (1874): "But a pope is not infallible in his laws, nor in his commands, nor in his acts of state, nor in his administration, nor in his public policy. Let it be observed that the Vatican Council has left him just as it found him here."

As arose in yesterday's post related to literature, there are deep truths visible only in artificial constructs in which complications may be constrained. A novel draws out truth by defining the reality of the setting, characters, and plot in such a way as to bring it into focus; the Author of life, however, has defined reality with an eye toward evoking a truth that humanity must strain beyond its own reason to see. The pope, in the minimalist understanding, cannot run afoul of that truth, even as he remains fully human — which is to say, fully fallible — when it comes to the complications of circumstances. As Oakes quotes Cardinal Avery Dulles:

... when the Church, through its highest teaching office, defines a truth pertaining to revelation, divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error. But it may well be necessary, as ­generations pass, to reinterpret the defined dogma in accordance with the presuppositions, thought categories, concerns, and vocabulary of a later age.

To my eye, frankly, Pope Benedict's controversial paragraph reads as if out of nowhere — as if it required further qualification in a round of editing that didn't happen. The encyclical may be seen as an exhortation to expand our sense of community across the entire globe, and the pope is manifestly wise when it comes to first principles and the requirement to acknowledge the complexity of human society. Consider (all quoted emphasis in original):

Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility. The "types of messianism which give promises but create illusions" always build their case on a denial of the transcendent dimension of development, in the conviction that it lies entirely at their disposal. This false security becomes a weakness, because it involves reducing man to subservience, to a mere means for development, while the humility of those who accept a vocation is transformed into true autonomy, because it sets them free. Paul VI was in no doubt that obstacles and forms of conditioning hold up development, but he was also certain that "each one remains, whatever be these influences affecting him, the principal agent of his own success or failure."

In striving toward a truly just society, we must beware of making gods of men and be aware that God works through our individual consciences. Thus:

The significant new elements in the picture of the development of peoples today in many cases demand new solutions. These need to be found together, respecting the laws proper to each element and in the light of an integral vision of man, reflecting the different aspects of the human person, contemplated through a lens purified by charity. Remarkable convergences and possible solutions will then come to light, without any fundamental component of human life being obscured.

The moral internationalist necessarily walks a line between directing systems and leaving people free to reject direction. The precariousness of that line emerges in the subsequent paragraph, in which the pope insists that we "prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone." The counterbalancing weight that we too easily neglect is that spiritual development requires that the individual be free to strive and fail. Promotion of a human guarantor of economic stability cannot but displace the divine guarantor of eternal salvation. Benedict goes on:

The principal new feature has been the explosion of worldwide interdependence, commonly known as globalization. Paul VI had partially foreseen it, but the ferocious pace at which it has evolved could not have been anticipated. Originating within economically developed countries, this process by its nature has spread to include all economies. It has been the principal driving force behind the emergence from underdevelopment of whole regions, and in itself it represents a great opportunity. Nevertheless, without the guidance of charity in truth, this global force could cause unprecedented damage and create new divisions within the human family. Hence charity and truth confront us with an altogether new and creative challenge, one that is certainly vast and complex. It is about broadening the scope of reason and making it capable of knowing and directing these powerful new forces, animating them within the perspective of that "civilization of love" whose seed God has planted in every people, in every culture.

Intrinsic to the vastness and complexity of this "creative challenge" is the reality that success cannot be achieved in a wholly deliberate fashion. It requires a trust in a sort of communal reason in which God can work through each individual — an ambiguity between the powers of different social aspects. In other words, political authority must be bounded by religious, economic, and cultural authorities. Lines between these aspects are artificial and, especially where they place them in hierarchical order, will inevitably be exploited. That is why political bodies, which by definition have recourse to police and military force, must be limited in scope and checked by other such bodies. One of global scope will not fail to implement global tyranny, no matter what abstract laws its founders put in place to restrain it.

In like fashion to the armies of would be social engineers that the West has generated, Pope Benedict appears to be drawn to the elevation of political forces to control economic powers. Such is the implied solution to this problem:

Owing to their growth in scale and the need for more and more capital, it is becoming increasingly rare for business enterprises to be in the hands of a stable director who feels responsible in the long term, not just the short term, for the life and the results of his company, and it is becoming increasingly rare for businesses to depend on a single territory. Moreover, the so-called outsourcing of production can weaken the company's sense of responsibility towards the stakeholders — namely the workers, the suppliers, the consumers, the natural environment and broader society — in favour of the shareholders, who are not tied to a specific geographical area and who therefore enjoy extraordinary mobility. Today's international capital market offers great freedom of action. Yet there is also increasing awareness of the need for greater social responsibility on the part of business. Even if the ethical considerations that currently inform debate on the social responsibility of the corporate world are not all acceptable from the perspective of the Church's social doctrine, there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference. In recent years a new cosmopolitan class of managers has emerged, who are often answerable only to the shareholders generally consisting of anonymous funds which de facto determine their remuneration.

It would be a fatal error to set political authority, with the gauze of democratic accountability, as essentially the manager of the managers. All such power must ultimately filter through human beings, and those whose offices are titularly governmental are no less prone to greed and corruption than those whose offices are corporate. Socialistic solutions accomplish only the joining of police power with economic power, whereas any workable plan that would preserve individual freedom would have to set these powers in productive conflict.

Business managers must be addressed as people, not forces or offices. They must be held answerable to all, in a social sense, not to a few in a governing regime that is answerable to all in a highly manipulable democratic process. We must not fool ourselves into promoting a moral government as the guarantor of moral businesses.

Just so, the appearance of a "new" project of developing a worldwide community does not negate humanity's fundamental inability to comprehend all forces on a global scale. The individual person cannot be trusted to comprehend and control the intricacies of even a small village, and joining us together in legislative brain trusts does not increase our capacity for articulation. Instead, we must rely on a spiritual form of intelligence that subverts individual intentions for the universal good and remain fully cognizant of the reality that human beings will always and everywhere face a powerful temptation to reverse that subversion.

Just as no bolt of divine truth strikes a pope upon his elevation making him a superhuman seer, no wave of global charity will whelm a global governing bureaucracy. Cardinal Dulles phrased it well that "divine providence, working through a multiplicity of channels, will preserve the Church from error" on matters that it is the Church's role to discern. Similarly, only divine providence, working through the even greater number of channels throughout human society, can preserve us from tyranny.


September 6, 2009


Toward Discourse or Direction?

Justin Katz

Aesthetically, it's hard to disagree with Arthur Blaustein's argument for the value of literature to civic health:

Novels offer genuine hope for learning how to handle our daily personal problems—and those political issues of our communities and our country—in a moral and humane way. They can help us to understand the relationship between our inner lives and the outer world, and the balance between thinking, feeling, and acting. They awaken us to the complexities and paradoxes of human life, and to the absurd presumptuousness of moral absolutism. They can give us awareness of place, time, and condition—about ourselves and about others. As our great Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner said, the best literature is far more true than any journalism.

Being an apparent progressive, however — the piece seems to have first appeared in Mother Jones — Blaustein betrays a somewhat narrow view of intellectual richness. The lamentations against shortened attention spans and the sensationalization of news are well justified, but the value of literature to the likes of Blaustein is less to deepen civic discourse than to ensure agreement before discussion has even begun:

We depend on our fiction for metaphoric news of who we are, or who we think we ought to be. The writers of today's political and social realism are doing no less than reminding us of our true, traditional American values — the hope, the promises, and the dreams. When we read these novels, we learn about who we are as individuals and as a nation. They inform us, as no other medium does, about the state of our national politics and character—of the difference between what we say we are and how we actually behave. They offer us crucial insights into the moral, social, and emotional conflicts that are taking place in communities across America.

A novel necessarily restricts circumstances to suit the theme, and although doing so draws out Faulkner's truth truer than facts, it sets aside other applicable truths that muddy judgment. Blaustein notes that novels "give us awareness of place, time, and condition," but they are conditions of the author's choosing and construction, and from an ideological, strategic standpoint, controlling publication and promotion thereby controls readers' sense of reality.

Personally, I take the supposed coarsening of civic dialogue to be an indication of growing pains more than decline. The Internet has given society the tools to keep up with the pace of cable news — to pluck stories of interest from the constant stream and debate their significance. Twitter's a step too far, but blogs also offer a remedy to the magnification of non-news. With a handful of networks (whether on the classic channels, cable, or satellite) and print publications controlling the spigot, it was easy for splashy, yet insignificant, news to drown out all else; with the current multiplicity of outlets, it is possible for the public to look around the celebrity controversies and see the policy events that would formerly have been obscured behind them.



Govern or Be Governed

Justin Katz

Returning home from the Johnston, a couple of weeks ago, I floated along in the fast lane of 195, my mind flitting through political thoughts, and it took me a moment to register the fact that traffic in both of the other lanes had come to a crawl. A sign explained the reason: "Left two lanes closed ahead." Per highway etiquette, I pulled into the first opening available. Let's just say that my action was unique among those in the lane that was actually moving.

After a dozen or so cars flew by, I pulled my work van back into the fast lane but kept pace with the slow-moving space that I had just occupied. The two truckers between whom that space had been saw what I was doing, and the one behind maintained my opening while the one ahead modified his speed to that of slowest lane. The mile or so between us and the actual merge cleared like the upper cell of an hourglass, and the traffic began to move at a tolerable pace. As we approached the merge, the cars that I'd blocked alternated politely into traffic, and I like to think that the newly established pattern held at least for a little while.

It occurred to me that those whose advantage I'd squashed may have resented the presumption, but if we individual representatives of society step forward for small and large corrections, it is indeed possible to exist without government officials dictating and directing, waving flags to corral us into functional routines. Two news stories came to mind, the first out of Westport:

The homeowner... found the suspects in his house when he returned from running errands at about 3:50 p.m., police said. When the suspects ran out of the house, he chased after them. When two construction workers drove by, he flagged them down and they joined the chase, police spokesman Detective Jeff Majewski said.

One of the suspects, running with a pillowcase full of jewelry, handed the goods over to one of the construction workers and continued running, Majewski said. Officers, including the Dartmouth K-9 unit and Westport harbormaster, conducted a "massive search" in the area for a few hours before finding [Gerald] Thorpe, he said.

The mugshot of Mr. Thorpe that accompanies a Sakonnet Times editorial on the topic shows a man surprised and confused, cut and dirty, not yet suffering from the poison ivy through which he'd crawled. As the editors wrote:

Police don't normally recommend that citizens pursue bad guys (things might not have ended so happily had one of these men been armed). But in an age when people supposedly no longer get involved (fear of lawsuits and the like), the response this time was nice to see.

A thematically similar story from Seattle didn't end well for the indignant citizen, although not in the way one might expect:

A plucky teller foiled a robbery attempt at Key Bank in Seattle. But the story does not end happily. When a small man in a beanie cap, dark clothing, and sunglasses pushed a backpack across the counter and announced, "This is a ransom. Fill the bag with money," teller Jim Nicholson ignored his training and "instinct took over." He lunged across the counter and attempted to grab the thief by the throat, or at least to pull his glasses off. The nonplussed would-be robber bolted for the door with Nicholson on his heels. A couple of blocks away, with the help of others, Nicholson tackled the guy and held him until police arrived.

Two days later, Key Bank got in touch with Nicholson. A bonus, perhaps? A commendation? Not quite. He was fired. It seems he had violated the bank's strict policy that tellers should always comply with robber demands. A Key Bank spokesman has not returned a call asking for comment.

A private company can set its own policies, of course, but it's an insidious tendency of modern society to discourage folks from acting on their freedom to stand for principle, to take risks that establish social expectations and proclaim an unwillingness to be victimized.


September 4, 2009


The Appearance of Free Stuff

Justin Katz

Could it all be as simple as getting folks to think through their arguments? That's an encouraging thought, but probably overly optimistic. Consider (emphasis added):

In Amsterdam, where I spend part of the year, every time I go the pharmacy and take out cash to pay for a prescription, the pharmacist and all the well-insured customers who never seem to pay for anything watch me like I've pulled a frog out my pocket. Then the pharmacist looks at me and my money with pity and says, "Oh, you're American." She doesn't elaborate.

Appearances can be deceiving. Frida Ghitis's observation of Europeans' government-induced delusion is of a piece with Senator Whitehouse's remark that government healthcare takes a cost burden from the shoulders of European businesses. I'd suggest that, whatever they may believe along the leading edge of Western Culture's decline, Americans should be proud that they are resistant to scammers and schemers proclaiming how easy it all could be if we'd just accept their offers to give us something for nothing.


September 3, 2009


Wearing Out the Public

Justin Katz

Matt Allen and I touched on the legislative process on last night'sMatt Allen Show and the way in which it wears the public out as legislation moves toward law. After all this heat and energy, we still have multiple versions in the Senate over which to argue, likely with various provisions, all of which have the potential to drift out of awareness only to reemerge during conference. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


August 25, 2009


Running into the Arms of Government

Justin Katz

The reader really must sympathize with Froma Harrop's frustration and ire, and I'm truly sorry for the loss of her husband. The conclusions to which she comes, from that point of view, are, however, plain wishful thinking based on an idealization of an alternative straw to grasp:

An economic note: In 2006, William "Dollar Bill" McGuire, CEO of parent-company UnitedHealth Group, walked off with a $1.1 billion golden parachute (on top of the $500 million he had already raked in) — though he had to return some of it in an options-backdating scandal.

What we wouldn't have done to have traded Dollar Bill's minions for a government bureaucrat. The bureaucrat would have given a simple "yes" or "no" based on official guidelines. He or she would have had no personal stake in denying you care.

Government office workers are not mere binary switches in a machine of rigid operation. Observe, even, the ordeal of some Tiverton students who wished to attend an out-of-district public school. Officials within the system led the families to believe that they were all set until, with less than a month to go before the resumption of classes, five strangers with no qualifications beyond the ability to garner a few thousand townie votes decided that the district could not risk setting a precedent.

Rather than simply imagining the purity of a government system, we would be better served to focus on the question of how McGuire was able to siphon billions from his company without putting it at a fatal competitive disadvantage. Until some employment changes enabled me to switch, a month or so ago, I also had UnitedHealth insurance, and were that still the case, I would have no realistic means of reacting, as a consumer, to Harrop's dramatic warning about the company's method of "service."

The problem that we face is that government mandates and regulations have created a mirror image, in the private sector, of a government program. With or without a public option, increased regulation means fewer entities able to clear the bar and enter or remain in the market, which means fewer providers seeking to exploit each other's excesses and affronts.

Harrop laments that her family had to leverage political influence to get the care that her husband required; the value of such political connections can only go up to the extent that the government involves itself in healthcare.


August 19, 2009


The Special Interests Are in the Details

Justin Katz

Lee Drutman reminds readers of a point that Milton Friedman made often:

And yet, start reading the actual legislation, and you quickly realize the U.S. health-care system is a dizzying jumble of a thousand and one interconnected pieces, which means a lot of little rules and incentives to get right if any reform is going to work (hence the very long bill). And so, while the public debate carries on in two colors and one dimension, a handful of Washington policy "experts" who actually can grasp the infinite subsections and crevices of health-care law work tirelessly to shape legislative language far from the spotlight.

And who are these "experts"? Well, mostly (though not entirely), they are the representatives of doctors, hospitals, insurers and pharmaceutical companies, i.e., the special interests that have both the resources and the stake to actually invest in the expertise one needs to deal in the details. The health-care industry is now reportedly spending more than $1.4 million a day on lobbying.

This is a fundamental problem with treating government as an overarching means of social organization. By the time activists and partisans have riled enough people to get an assertion of government power rolling, entrenched forces and special interests have positioned figure out how to roll it in their favor. One suspects, by the way, that the overlap between those doing the riling and those guiding the roll is significant.


August 14, 2009


Czars Are Un-American (That's Why We Use a Russian Word to Describe Them)

Justin Katz

It doesn't take a stethoscope to hear the reckless "what could it hurt" beat behind the creation of a "pay czar":

Q: So what happens Thursday?

A: Thursday is the last day the companies can submit proposed pay packages for the 25 highest earners at each one. At least one company, General Motors, said Tuesday it already had submitted its plan.

Q: What's next?

A: [Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation Kenneth] Feinberg has 60 days to review the proposals, then accept or reject them. He is expected to meet and negotiate with the companies during this period. He also will approve broader compensation formulas that will apply to the 75 next-highest-paid workers at each company.

Seven hundred of the wealthiest, most powerful corporate types in the United States, and the infrastructure that has heretofore granted their proclaimedly outsized remuneration, now have incentive to exert influence on a single person. It doesn't take a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian to see where this is going.


August 11, 2009


The Case for Fixing Corruption First

Justin Katz

With the return of producer Maverick from vacation, Friday night's Violent Roundtable is now up on Matt Allen's PodCast page.

Somebody commented, after the show, that it was interesting to hear me respond to news from the Democrat representative from Cranston, Peter Palumbo, of a possible "Traditional Values Caucus" in the State House with the admonition that repairing Rhode Island's corrupt system must take precedence over all else. In case it wasn't clear what I was saying, it should be obvious that I'd support the goals and probably the actions of such a group.

I'm just very wary of being distracted by showmanship about social conservatism if it means that the things that'll destroy the state continue. Basically, I don't want conservatives being roped into the coalition of the corrupt because they're promised some thin gruel on causes about which they care. And there may be a danger, here, of being outmaneuvered by progressives if they can neutralize the importance of corruption issues because they have a "traditional values caucus" to run against. For one thing, it disrupts alliances with those who fancy themselves moderates.

Such a position relies upon a sort of holistic view of corruption: Although it has existed under every shade of government, structural corruption of our political system (e.g., statism) has arrived hand in hand with corruption of our morals. It's possible that things didn't have to progress in that manner, but I suspect that traditional values will not long survive in a politically corrupt system, in part because such a regime stokes envy and greed. But in a healthy system, the case for morality can be made to win, though non-governmental instruction and pressures, because it's correct.

It may be a choice between winning on political corruption with the real chance to strengthen traditional values and losing on political corruption only to see wins on social issues prove ephemeral.


August 8, 2009


Why We Won't Grow Up

Justin Katz

I wasn't sure what to expect when I responded to Michael Morgenstern's offer to grant me access to a digital copy of his movie, Castle on High, which is currently part of the Rhode Island Film Festival, with a screening tomorrow at the Columbus Theater. It was definitely more engrossing than I'd expected.

The documentary follows the race for president of the student council at Brown University, with three candidates who couldn't have been better scripted were the film fiction:

  • The overly involved and not immediately likable, umm, studious member of the council who looks the cliché of a villainous mastermind, but who is clearly the most qualified for the job.
  • The languorous and ever-tardy council member about whose attractiveness his acquaintances gush.
  • The Asian rocker dude who's never participated in student government and whose motivation for running is never explained to satisfactory degree.

Watching the film, the politically inclined over-thirty-something may still catch him or her self choosing a side according to adolescent criteria, rather than applying that elusive adult clarity and logic. The broader context of that tendency is the predictable impression that real campaigns and matriculated politics are not much different than those involving a campus governance body with no apparent authority. The random students whose extemporaneous commentary illustrates a profound superficiality, one suspects, are not that much worse informed than the grown-up electorate at large.

And that's where Castle on High is most revealing. Where are the teachers?, I wondered. Early on in the film, council members note that it seems all they do is debate parliamentary procedure; a faculty adviser could offer the perspective that mastering that aspect of governance is among the most important things they can derive from the experience. An experienced coach could have helped the, umm, studious young man to mold himself into a stronger candidate — a stronger person — with some obvious pointers (telling him, for example, how his repeated referral to the university president by her first name contributed to others' impression that he's pretentious*). Other instances that scream for instruction abound.

Independence is a critical lesson of college life, to be sure, but even as it brings back fond memories, watching the kids cavort to a children's song during a concert on the lawn jars against the knowledge that, during filming, others of their generation were participating in a military surge that would help to secure a nascent democracy in the desert of civilization's cradle. Not all young Americans need or should be soldiers, and there should be space for youthful indiscretion, but if we find the similarities between the practice democracy of a student council and the functional democracies that constitute Western civilization disconcertingly similar, perhaps the problem is that we're not teaching our children, or ourselves, that there's something greater toward which to aspire.

* I've been informed that calling President Simmons "Ruth" is a "Brown thing" that all students do, in which case it would have seemed odd for the candidate to differ — although his emphasis on personal conversations contributed to the impression. This was just an example, however, that I'd found particularly pointed, being uninitiated; the characterization of the student as "pretentious" isn't mine, but was voiced by several other students in the film, and professorial instruction could have been helpful. (I realize, of course, that snickers might be justified at the suggestion that Ivy League professors might have helped a student to avoid pretension.)


August 6, 2009


A Fireside Chat with Dan

Justin Katz

Alright, there wasn't really a fire, but since we're talking radio, I like to imagine that there was one. Dan Yorke and I had that sort of conversation, yesterday, on 630AM/99.7FM WPRO. Those who missed it or who would like to revisit something (for kind or scurrilous reasons) can stream the whole segment (about an hour, without commercials) by clicking here, or listen to portions:

  • On Anchor Rising, my writing habits and schedule, and blogging specifics (traffic, money, etc.): stream, download (5 min, 49 sec)
  • On our blogging mission (or obsession) and the effect that AR and blogs in general are having: stream, download (3 min, 46 sec)
  • On profiting (or not) from online writing: stream, download (4 min, 03 sec)
  • A call from Mike and discussion of "excellence" in Rhode Island and the effects of local participation, with Tiverton Citizens for Change as an example: stream, download (12 min, 45 sec)
  • On Dan's opinion that RI reformers need a "big win" and my belief that we focus on smaller victories: stream, download (2 min, 52 sec)
  • On hopelessness and a magic wand policy change in Rhode Island (public sector union busting) and the problem of regionalization: stream, download (6 min, 48 sec)
  • On what to do about unions: stream, download (2 min, 18 sec)
  • On the coalition of problems in RI and whether all are addressable by the same principle (dispersing power and building from the community up, as well as a tangent about binding arbitration: stream, download (6 min, 2 sec)
  • On the Republican Party in Rhode Island and awareness of reform groups: stream, download (4 min, 7 sec)
  • On prescriptions for Rhode Island and the lack of leaders: stream, download (6 min, 34 sec)
  • A call from Robert and discussion of Republicans and the Tea Party as a political party: stream, download (3 min, 14 sec)
  • On the Moderate Party: stream, download (2 min, 9 sec)
  • A call from John and discussion of Steve Laffey's plan: stream, download (1 min, 42 sec)


Blame the Government for Healthcare Foolishness

Justin Katz

The government (abstractly speaking) has somehow wiggled its way into a comfortable position in which, as an entity, it need never take blame. Consider a letter from Ben Jones, in Providence:

When my wife and I moved to Rhode Island, my wife's employer-provided insurance plan increased its pricing to over twice the cost, with fewer benefits, than rates for me as an individual. Unfortunately, I discovered that I could not buy insurance in Rhode Island as a sole proprietor, since I had rejected my spouse's employer's plan. Being forced to choose a group plan that cost us more and delivered less didn’t seem like much of a choice to me.

A public health-insurance plan might have offered a true choice, or at least kept the private insurers' rates competitive. In Rhode Island, two insurers cover 95 percent of people with health insurance, limiting our choices further.

Tracing the history of Rhode Island healthcare — of which there is no helpful summary for the immigrant — one observes that the General Assembly created Blue Cross as a non-profit. Apart from that, the state has layered on sufficient mandates and regulations, some microspecific in scope, that we arguably have experience with a "public option."

Take Jones's specific complaint: His lack of eligibility for health insurance as a sole proprietor is a statutory allowance created as part of legislation with the following purpose:

The purpose and intent of this chapter are to enhance the availability of health insurance coverage to small employers regardless of their health status or claims experience, to prevent abusive rating practices, to prevent segmentation of the health insurance market based upon health risk, to spread health insurance risk more broadly, to require disclosure of rating practices to purchasers, to establish rules regarding renewability of coverage, to limit the use of preexisting condition exclusions, to provide for development of "economy", "standard" and "basic" health benefit plans to be offered to all small employers, and to improve the overall fairness and efficiency of the small group health insurance market.

This is what it looks like when a government imposes "options." The only difference under the regime that Jones advocates is that the government would not be forcing distinct (or semi-distinct) entities to operate its preferred plan; it would just regulate and mandate directly as a definition of its offering.


August 3, 2009


Out of Touch Every Which Way

Justin Katz

Something's curious about Mark Barabak and Faye Fiore's presentation of the lack of street creds in Congress when it comes to healthcare:

Too much, too fast, too expensive. Those are some of the objections lawmakers have voiced against the healthcare overhaul Democrats are attempting on Capitol Hill.

But many Americans think Congress is out of touch. How, they wonder, can lawmakers empathize with the underinsured or those lacking insurance when they receive a benefits package -- heavily subsidized by taxpayers -- that most of us can only envy?

It isn't the editorializing that's striking; at this point, that's expected. What's odd is the one-sided insinuation that comfy legislators can't empathize with a public that lacks a "public option." Put aside the reality that there isn't anything fundamentally more secure about Congress's benefits than those of Americans in the private sector. They can lose their jobs, and sufficient pressure from the public would ultimately succeed in decreasing the benefit.

Most peculiar is the implicit notion that, even as legislators cannot empathize with the healthcare realities of their countrymen, they ought to take upon themselves the responsibility of rewriting those realities.


July 26, 2009


On Victims and Libertine Oppression

Justin Katz

Today's epiphany — which I wouldn't be surprised to find to be common understanding among a great many people more insightful than myself — is the intellectual proximity of those who would erase from the books any "victimless crime" and those who see a "victim" of a social crime in every unhappy circumstance. The first believe that an act must directly harm an innocent party in order to be a crime, and the second, agreeing, qualify the circuitous, unintentional effects of social movements as adequate evidence of victim-producing acts.

For my part, I find it more practical to consider the presence of a victim to be only one factor in determining whether something ought to be a crime, and not necessarily the definitive one. After all, any undesired consequence can be reformulated as an imposition on a victim, reducing the debate over appropriate laws to a tug of war across the sliding scale of victimhood and, then, pitting one claim against another.

The thought arises in response to a comment from Dan to my most recent post on the matter of legal prostitution in Rhode Island:

Justin, I have been a long-time reader of Anchor Rising. I fully support your efforts to reduce the size of the state, out of control spending, corruption, and intrusion into the private lives of citizens. Which is precisely why these isolated pet "moral" issues of yours and Matt Allen's bother me so much, they are such transparent hypocrisy and they undermine all of the good that you do here. How do you determine what private consensual conduct should be regulated by the state and what private consensual conduct should not be? And why should you be the one who decides these "moral" issues for everyone else, banning any conduct which you don't think a righteous person should engage in? I submit to you that the most positive philosophical and practical change you could make for yourself would be to drop these moral crusades against victimless crimes. If somebody isn't harming anyone else, and a transaction is consensual by all parties (human trafficking/slavery/abuse aside, we already have laws against that) then the state should not have the right to intervene. A victimless crime is no crime at all, and the state certainly does not need an excuse to grow itself, spend money, and regulate its citizens further, I think we would all agree on that. The kindest thing you can do for someone is stop trying to save them from themselves. We, as people, all have the God-given right to do as we wish with ourselves as long as we do not harm others in the process. Any coercion that infringes upon that right, whether it is by the state or some private action, is an abomination.

For the presentation of a direct rejoinder, it might be sufficient to note that the essential observation of the post was the concession by the progressive legislators who oppose closing the prostitution loophole that it is not a "victimless crime":

Where does this leave the remaining women, likely the large majority of prostitutes, who engage in sex work by choice, whether out of [1] economic hardship or because of [2] substance-abuse problems?

Even a conservative can discern a fair degree of victimhood in either of those circumstances, as emphasized by efforts of those who profit from the women's condition to perpetuate it. To wit, it is not enough simply to declare that no victim means no crime; one must prove the prior point that there is no victim.

Of course, even believing the women to be victims, I'm not inclined to rely on that conclusion as the basis for supporting legislation to criminalize their profession. Therefore, I'm even less inclined to construct the argument that would prove society to be the victim, although the case would be strong. Instead, let's focus on the core proposition of Dan's comment, which he poses rhetorically as questions:

How do you determine what private consensual conduct should be regulated by the state and what private consensual conduct should not be? And why should you be the one who decides these "moral" issues for everyone else, banning any conduct which you don't think a righteous person should engage in?

The plain answer is that I determine what conduct ought to be discouraged, what conduct ought to be encouraged, and how that direction ought to be pursued based on the rational application of principles that are inherently and wholly religious in nature. The mildly less plain extrapolation of that statement is that everybody performs a similar assessment — unavoidably, as a consequence of self-cognizance.

It won't surprise readers, even as it may shock them to read it stated, that my judgment is primarily guided by the efficacy of the various possible policies at drawing the maximum number of people toward the realization of Christ's divinity, with all of the spiritual and material benefits that I believe to be consequent to that revelation. Others judge the possibilities against a scale of emotional satisfaction, whether the social average or their own, and a multitude of other options and combinations thereof exists.

With respect to Dan's second question, I can only explain that my rational application of Christian principles leads to the conclusion that I should not — cannot — "be the one who decides these 'moral' issues for everyone else." However, it is the most fundamental of assumptions, in any democratic system of government, that individual citizens must possess the freedom to define their own societies to the greatest conceivable degree. The liberties involved with private behavior pale in significance when compared with the right to apply one's judgment to the system under which one must live.

Balancing the inevitable contradictions of such an imperative quickly becomes a complicated matter — impossible absent a tolerance for disagreement. The fullest expression of that tolerance (true tolerance) comes in the acceptance that fellow human beings will congregate elsewhere to live an incompatible manner. That is why I would oppose an international or national ban on prostitution. The inverse of that opposition, however, is an insistence that we be able to ban the practice at a lower tier of government; as things stand, the lowest feasible tier is that of the state.

From there, the issue becomes a persuasion of preferences, and I want my society to be one in which sex is not available for commerce. We could have a very interesting discussion about the reasons that should be the policy, which would bring the degradation of the women (and men) back into the conversation, as well as introduce the cultural diminution of sex, marriage, and ultimately human life. The immediate point, though, is that I think enough of my fellow Rhode Islanders agree with my final conclusion that the law ought to be changed.

I'll debate the intricacies right down the dregs of disagreement, but public opinion probably would not require such debates prior to a decision to ban prostitution outright. Those who take Dan's point of view seek to present the question in such a way as to declare the preferences of that majority invalid, and the likes of Rep. David Segal undertake the slithering strategy of preventing the question's ever being directly put based on one prevarication or another.

Either way, the dark underbelly of bold libertarianism rolls around to expose the moral sclerosis by which libertines would impose their vision of society on everybody else. A philosophy that would declare even "private actions" to be "an abomination" if they seek to affect the behavior of others is not, in the end, concerned with rights and civic freedom, but with coercing the state to protect its own immorality.


July 24, 2009


So Much for Of the People, By the People, For the People

Justin Katz

While perusing YouTube videos of one of our [cough] U.S. Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse, for a bit of writing that may turn out to be more than a blog post, I came across an astonishing indication of Mr. Whitehouse's political philosophy in a prepared Senate floor speech from June (italic emphasis in speech; bold emphasis added):

At last, government must act. The problems of healthcare in America are rooted in market failures. We can't wait for the market to cure a problem rooted in market failure. It is nonsense. We've got to change the rules of the game. We also can't pay for one thing and expect another. We've got to change the incentives. We don't expect Americans to go out and build our highway infrastructure for us; we do that through government. We can't sit around and wait for our health information infrastructure to build itself, either.

There's so much baloney to wade through, in this paragraph, that it's difficult to focus in on the critical matter of government's relationship to the people. To say, for example, that it is "nonsense" to expect a market correction of a market failure not only airbrushes the role of government(s) out of the unhappy result, but also stands as a nice contrasting illustration of real nonsense sounds like. The market's ability to correct itself is one of its most important defining features; it is certainly more flexible, in that regard, than a large, bureaucratic government. On a moral level, we may not like what the market is correcting for, but that is a reason guide the correction, not to begin rewriting rules.

The comparison of an "information infrastructure" with a physical network of paved roadways is similarly inane. Apart from a few facilitating computer centers and such, "building" the former suggests two things: designing it, and forcing people and organizations to use it. The design element is common to all systems, but the requirement of usage is unique. A web of pavement across our vast nation would be too huge an expense for most entities to create, even though, as proven, all are eager to have one. If a "health information infrastructure" were the gaping hole that a lack of roads in an industrial society would be, businesses and other organizations could easily fill it. Indeed, the infrastructure already exists for any two computers (almost) across the world to communicate.

But the truly frightening tell in the commentary of our aristocratic friend is his image of a government distinct from the people and taking on responsibilities independently of them. Our of/by/for-the-people society has discerned that the federal government provides the appropriate route for maintaining highways that reach beyond state borders — although states pick up their roadways, towns maintain theirs, and I have yet to receive a call from a public employee to schedule the repaving of my dilapidated driveway. Likewise, if our society determines that the government ought to operate our healthcare system (and I sincerely hope that we come to our senses before that happens), then it will be nothing other than "Americans' going out" and making it happen. There is not supposed to be an "us," in American government, exclusive of the national Us.

Of course, if Sheldon were to admit such a thing, then his cry that "at last, government must act" could not be a mere assertion, but would have to be the conclusion of a laborious proof. Indeed, given the structure of the Constitution, made explicit in the tenth amendment, it must be proven that all other courses are ineffectual.

The scary thing is, however, that Senator Whitehouse's statement is probably not a rhetorical maneuver around the need for such proofs, but an expression of his actual understanding of his role as a "leader" and Congress's role as a branch of government.


July 22, 2009


America's Elected Geniuses

Justin Katz

John Stossel shows that it doesn't take but a little of that common sense of the right-wing variety to produce an "oh" moment:

It's crazy for a group of mere mortals to try to design 15 percent of the U.S. economy. It's even crazier to do it by August.

Yet that is what some members of Congress presume to do. They intend, as the New York Times puts it, "to reinvent the nation's health care system".

Let that sink in. A handful of people who probably never even ran a small business actually think they can reinvent the health care system.

Expressing fear that Americans will fail to be sufficiently incensed to put a stop to the lunacy, Stossel quotes some of his blog commenters who offer the predictable retorts, which one may paraphrase as "we've got to do something for the uninsured" and "you're just backing rich interests." The first is open ended, and the second is irrelevant.

When building a particular system, as part of a larger society, we begin with a goal and seek the most direct path. But when we come upon a principle that, if ignored, would inherently corrupt our design, we must turn to alternate routes. The decisions at each intersection are what ultimately constitute our divided political philosophies, and on this particular issue, too many people wish to march straight through the warning signs, ensuring that we'll arrive at our destination bloodied and infected (and with the availability of treatment severely curtailed).

It would be wonderful if we could simply hand our elected representatives the directive to just "make it so" and trust that they would manage a workable solution. That isn't reality.


July 11, 2009


And So the Power-Grabbing Grows

Justin Katz

I'm not sure why Governor Carcieri would choose this time in the history of the state and nation to add to the messages that Rhode Island sends out to reinforce its image as a state in which various factors make it very difficult to operate and advance. He has declined to veto legislation (PDF) that leverages for another purpose the legal authority of school districts to force the sale of private land to the town so as to expand schools.

The town of North Providence will be purchasing a 15-acre lot with the explicit purpose of blocking a specific developer and maintaining open space. If that's the precedent, now, then via simple General Assembly statute, a town council may thwart the development plans of businesses and individuals in the name of "passive recreation."

To be honest, I'm not sure that Article VI, Section 19 of the state Constitution — which the legislation cites as authority — actually permits the act. The language of that section deals with taking extra land when a public use is being planned; in this case, the town is taking land that happens to abut a park that already exists. Section 18 empowers the General Assembly to permit the taking of "blighted and substandard areas," and there may be other sources of land acquisition within Rhode Island law. The cynic in me suspects, however, that there's a reason those permissions were not cited.


July 5, 2009


The Grit and Grime of History as Modern Metaphor

Justin Katz

The beastliness of tarring and feathering has probably been the most deeply disturbing smack of history as I've worked my way through HBO's John Adams presentation on DVD.

During a childhood vacation, I walked through a wax museum with my parents, and although much of the attraction is lost to my memory, I still remember the figure of a wax dummy hanging from a hook through his molded midriff in a dungeon setting. The associated placard informed visitors that the phrase "off the hook" derived from this particular practice, and I haven't heard or uttered the cliché since without recalling the excruciating sideways arch of the body — as well as the fact that even those who were released before they'd bled to death typically died anyway. Herman Melville's description of the "keel-haul" in White Jacket did me the same service, just barely rescuing the experience of reading the book from status as a lower-magnitude form of torture. Colloquial English — a linguiphile learns over time — is riddled with images that ought not be as lightly uttered as they frequently are.

A reaction to the tarring scene with broader and more subtle application is the constitution of the mob, which drew in even some among our national heroes. One hears of a "mob mentality," but I suspect that it's not quite so monolithic a phenomenon. Some among the group are doubtless bloodthirsty, perhaps relishing the opportunity to taste power as the peasants of Dickens's Paris relished wine — the drip of conviviality — that a broken cask had poured across the filthy cobblestones. Others (the film's Sam Adams) become entranced at the opportunity that the desperate flex of community muscle imports. Still others (John Adams) intuit the danger of testing their own powerlessness and attempt no more than to persuade somebody nearby that the act is barbaric.

It makes us no better, only more fortunate, that such scenes are reduced mainly to metaphors in the modern public square. There was more grit to life, in those days, and the harsher our quotidian experience, perhaps the fewer barriers simple aesthetics can supply against unspeakable displays. Inoculation to us is an inconvenient trip to the pediatrician and a chance of fever. Abigail Adams (in the movie, at least) sat her children down to be sliced across the arm and infected with smallpox puss taken from a dying boy in the doctor's cart outside, with the grim risk for the patients being death. (I'd note, here, the genius of the film's creators in interweaving the emotional threads of the Declaration of Independence with the question of whether all Adams children survive the procedure.) When that is the look of preventative medicine, death by the infection of tar burns mightn't scorch the conscience as deeply.

Still, the grime of plain life through which our forefathers waded does bring into relief some realities of more lasting duration. Throughout most of the four parts that I've watched of the seven, Adams has been away from his family. Upon returning to America well into the late 1880s, he requires his children to introduce themselves from amidst the masses as he stands with an awkward smile on the dock. His history being as yet unwritten, he faced the frustrating drudgery of politics and the fear of failure no less than any who struggle toward some end in the twenty first century. Matters of aptitude and luck certainly contribute to the building up of Great Men and Women, but this portrayal of our nation's founding reminds us that sacrifice and risk, and willingness to accept both, mustn't be disregarded.

In our time of unprecedented leisure and safety from life's fluctuations, the demands of public responsibility aren't offset by the universal difficulty of just living. Mark Steyn sees this dynamic in Sarah Palin's sudden resignation from office:

If you like Wasilla and hunting and snowmachining and moose stew and politics, is the last worth giving up everything else in the hopes that one day David Letterman and Maureen Dowd might decide Trig and Bristol and the rest are sufficiently non-risible to enable you to prosper in their world? And, putting aside the odds, would you really like to be the person you'd have to turn into under that scenario?

National office will dwindle down to the unhealthily singleminded (Clinton, Obama), the timeserving emirs of Incumbistan (Biden, McCain) and dynastic heirs (Bush). Our loss.

Whatever the accuracy of Steyn's analysis of this specific story, his theme is worth considering. Public figures who are self-standing in a financial sense and ensconced in a social sphere in the sense of status have a disproportionate advantage when it comes to the personal hazards of office. A rarified clique may liken the snickers of their peers to flogging, but there remains a difference between emotional and physical scars. We can take it as true that the only guillotine public figures need fear is the sharp bite of comedians' monologues, and the modern pillory is a photograph in the ephemeral medium of the tabloids.

For those with the good (and great) fortune of summer manses to which to retreat in shame, the risk may be lightly taken, but to regular folk, the actual modern threats captured in historical metaphors of torture and pain are real enough — apt to be ruinous. For the former, being "off the hook" of public scrutiny means a return to life; for the latter, the wound may yet prove economically fatal.

To whatever extent the difference between the two perspectives is likely to prove unhealthy for our polity, it is exponentially more so for our culture. Though it is now the temper of the cynical to scoff at the notion, Americans once believed of their nation that grit and principle could carry one — rough edges and street creds intact — to the very top. As our civilization advances its technological ability to file down the barbs of life — such that a latter-day John Adams could fly his dear Abigail to the Netherlands for a weekend and stay connected with his children via the Internet — an inequity in the sacrifice that service and striving require may well establish an aristocracy in which the term "representative" joins the list of mere metaphors that once denoted something tangible.


July 3, 2009


Who Has More Control Over Centralized Government?

Justin Katz

Quite revealing, the underlying premise of regular Providence Journal contributor Tom Sgouros's latest. He describes new education standards recently promulgated by the state Board of Regents that appear to give local school committees and districts more freedom in designing their curricula. What's the problem with that?

The upshot is that school districts will be freed from the fiscal shackles that bind them and can manage their programs to increase their productivity. Sounds good? Even better, how about we say they can empower high-quality local school leadership to manage a streamlined 21st Century cutting-edge high-quality education program. What this means, of course, is there will be nobody to insist that elementary music classes aren't just an hour of listening to the radio once a week with the regular teacher. If some school committee wants to call that a "high quality music program," then there's now officially no one to say otherwise.

So wave a fond farewell to your school librarians, the music and art teachers, the drama teachers and all the extras that make kids want to go to school. After the June 4 meeting, they won't be required, so how long do you think your town will keep them?

What an astonishing view of government accountability! It would appear that an appointed (not elected) state board must be petitioned to change the rules because local school committees are all but unreachable... at least, Sgouros doesn't mention the possibility of petitioning local government representatives to maintain programs that are important to residents.

The reason for this view is indicated by the three paragraphs that Sgouros spends complaining about property tax caps. If a town is constrained (one would prefer them to be restrained) in the amount of money that it can demand from residents, and if those residents insist that important programs such as music and library remain, there's only one place to go, no? And applying pressure to the deals that unions have cajoled and bullied out of school districts is unthinkable to Sgouros's crowd.

That doesn't mean, of course, that Tom and some among his peers don't sincerely believe in the value of the programs that instruction costs are squeezing out. They know better than anybody that unions leverage state and national levels of power to implement ever-expanding contracts, so it makes sense, if they wish to protect programs, to install safeguards at that level. They've also learned that more powerful, higher, tiers of government may more easily be reached by powerful parties than by lowly taxpayers, whereas national lobbying influence and millions of dollars for expense on campaigns are not quite as indomitable in communities run by neighbors for neighbors.

I, too, believe that school children ought to have a wide range of opportunities for educational experience. Indeed, their loss is indicative of the American education establishment's race to the bottom — focusing its resources on those who are more difficult to educate and thereby lowering the environment to a utilitarian plane for all. If America is to remain competitive with nations of differing economic, cultural, and demographic character, creativity and a capacity for innovation will be critical.

I also believe, however, that mandating creativity from the top down not only is oxymoronic, but tends toward corruption. I'd therefore join Sgouros in encouraging Rhode Islanders to show that they "care what kinds of services are delivered by our towns." The most effective way of doing so is to approach that local committee whose members one sees walking their dogs and picking up prescriptions at the local drug store on a daily basis.


June 27, 2009


Rock-Star Pols and Deterring Regular Folks from Government

Justin Katz

Mark makes an interesting point in the weekend Steyn:

The real bubble is a consequence of big government. The more the citizenry expect from the state, the more our political class will depend on ever more swollen Gulf Emir–sized retinues of staffers hovering at the elbow to steer you from one corner of the fishbowl to another 24/7. "Why are politicians so weird?" a reader asked me after the Sanford press conference. But the majority of people willing to live like this will, almost by definition, be deeply weird. So big government more or less guarantees rule by creeps and misfits. It's just a question of how well they disguise it. Writing about Michael Jackson a few years ago, I suggested that today's A-list celebs were the equivalent of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria or the loopier Ottoman sultans, the ones it wasn't safe to leave alone with sharp implements. But, as Christopher Hitchens says, politics is showbusiness for ugly people. And a celebrified political culture will inevitably throw up its share of tatty karaoke versions of Britney and Jacko.

The retinues to which Steyn refers are the staffs that, for example, must accompany President Obama on a jaunt out of the White House for ice cream and, for another example, that Governor Mark Sanford sought to escape with his liaisons. With the former example, I'm beginning to think that may be part of the political point. As Steyn notes, it's laughable to think the wave of Obama's entourage permits him to truly intermingle with "regular folk," but it does create a scene — not unlike a rock-star sighting. Although not beneficial to the public that elected him, such scenes are certainly worth the cost to a politician who is so dependent on his image.


June 22, 2009


Too Much Work Being Done

Justin Katz

Quip though it may have been, this paragraph from an article about the General Assembly's probable rush to pass a bunch of bills over the next couple of weeks expresses the appropriate sentiment:

House Minority Leader Robert Watson, a vocal critic of the Democratic leadership, quipped that the state may be better off if the Assembly passes fewer bills. "It's a step in the right direction," he said. "Less is more up here."

Why should such a long-standing civic entity require so many laws to be passed? The article mentions around 2,000 bills to be addressed. Hasn't the state of Rhode Island had sufficient time to explore most of the questions that government should consider its purview to answer?

The state won't begin to turn around, I'd suggest, until some significant number of the bills on the table propose dismantling the laws that have been put in place. Not only is less more, but the only healthy path requires diminishment.


June 10, 2009


RI Unionization and First Preferences

Justin Katz

Amidst a parade of economists and business advisers who see the prominence of unionized labor in Rhode Island to be a hindrance to economic growth in the state, the labor point of view is interesting:

George H. Nee is the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and a member of the state Economic Policy Council, which advises the governor on economic issues. He says the state's unions prop up the Ocean State economy, making sure workers, after covering basic needs, have enough money left to afford a dinner out or a shopping trip to the Providence Place mall.

"It's a different perspective on the economy. If workers have disposable income, that benefits the whole business community," Nee said. "We don't benefit as a country or a state with a race to the bottom."

A pamphlet promoting unions in Rhode Island says the states with the highest levels of unionization have higher hourly wages, lower rates of poverty and fewer residents without medical insurance.

In contrast:

In 2008, the Chamber started a campaign — the Workforce Freedom Initiative — to slow the growth of unions. It says states with the highest levels of unionization have lower levels of economic growth and higher levels of unemployment than areas where unions are weak.

At issue, here, is a basic question of cultural preference that relates to national — and international — debates about the shape that our society should take. The dominant view in Europe, also ascendant in the campaign and victory of President Barack Obama, is that our focus should be on individuals' well-being: by union and by force of law "making sure workers, after covering basic needs, have enough money left to afford a dinner out or a shopping trip to the Providence Place mall." The source of that money is a secondary consideration, which is why public-sector unions are so harmful.

The alternate perspective, heretofore characteristic of the United States of America, is that an environment of economic freedom will foster a system of creative destruction that will, yes, permit some to fall into economic hardship, but that over time will improve the economy and advance technology such that everybody will benefit. The definition of hardship will shift from scrounging to eat to scrounging to pay for a television to scrounging to afford monthly Internet bills. (Suffering persists, of course, but it comes to be seen as extreme hardship.)

I'd suggest that strength of the first point of view is largely attributable to the success of the second. That is, unions haven't really had to explain from where the money would come, because the economic system was sufficiently healthy that nobody's minded much the bleeding. As the give-a-man-a-fish paradigm comes to dominate — drawing the productive toward itself with a gravity of comparative circumstances — the economy will atrophy, and the trajectory of hardship will head back the other way.


June 8, 2009


After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 3

Justin Katz

As I intimated yesterday, conservatives' appropriate fear of populist movements connects with our conviction that the nexus of power and desire ought to be checked. (One can be fearful even of that which is necessary, of course.) During Friday night's all–Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show, Marc and Matt kicked off a related conversation in which the latter took the position that structures allowing more direct democracy — such as public referenda — ought to proliferate.

The problem with developing a taste for simple majority rule is that the masses know what they want, but not necessarily how to go about getting it or, even less, how to balance competing needs and interests. This isn't to take the line that the dirty common folk lack the intelligence to comprehend cause and effect and the possibility of unintended consequences; the salient factor filters through the mechanics of a movement. However well a given voter comprehends how his own interests might be balanced and what compromises would be tolerable in achieving them, by the time political action builds to critical mass, his interests and negotiable thresholds must be overlaid with thousands of variations.

If a movement is to avoid a fizzle from noise, it must be led. Only in sharp, very specific outrages will large groups of people congeal with minimal guidance to answer a question of public policy. In most cases, a handful of leaders with the time and motivation must sort out the series of binaries by which more subtle decisions are reached — "yes" to this policy, "no" to that one, "yes" to this request, "no" to that demand. When the democracy remains representative, those leaders may be held accountable for the results, even as their daily popularity rises and falls over each answer. When those leaders are as voices in the crowd — shouting out suggestions to which the populist cry returns a "hear, hear" — their accountability dissipates, as does the feasibility of subtlety. It becomes guidance by explosion, not by instruction. A herding of votes.

When it comes to the practical operation of a society, democracy is best enacted in escalating tiers — elections followed by referenda followed by revolution — but always with a philosophical tendency to worry about anarchic expressions of power. A population enthralled with its democratic override is at risk of wielding it too lightly, toward ends that are never adequately articulated until the knots cinch tight.


June 7, 2009


After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 2

Justin Katz

A second conversation in which sufficient articulation proved difficult on Friday night's all–Anchor Rising Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show related to Matt's statement that the Catholic Church is in some respects an anti-American institution. Having such a strong statement catch one off guard doesn't make measured extemporaneous response an easy accomplishment, but upon reflection, I'd suggest that Matt is backing into a perilous political philosophy.

The Roman Catholic Church — any church, for that matter — should not be an "American" institution. The U.S.A. exists as an entity and as an idea; to the extent that an authentically American church were not redundant, it would be dangerous. A religion with policy conclusions in lock-step with the practice of the American idea would necessarily lend theological import to a quintessentially secular project. It would be a fundamental establishment of religion, marrying Church and State.

There is not only great value in, but essential need for cultural institutions completely separate from the reigning polity — with a source and structure of authority that is distinct from the nation's governmental strategy. Where members of the hierarchy are wrong in prudential matters, Catholics should discuss (even debate) the issues and argue for the Church's proper role, but all should realize that the Church's interests are not the same as the country's. Sometimes one will be wrong, or the human beings who guide it will step beyond their appropriate boundaries; sometimes the other will be the culprit; but that's reason to accept them as mutual ballast.

In an objective analysis, Matt's imputation of anti-Americanism on the part of the Church based on the public policies for which some of its representatives advocate is identical to the impulse of those within the hierarchy who wish overzealously to leverage the government's powers of taxation. Both sides judge and prescribe as if the two pillars of society ought to be more of a continuous support, in which the visibility of light is indicative of fatal cracks, not expected separation.

Let's not dilute anti-Americanism. I don't believe it is Matt's point of view that the Roman Catholic Church takes as its goal the downfall or diminution of the United States as a secular construct. The institutional Church has watched governments rise and fall throughout its history, and there are multiple bold lines between supporting policies that are arguably detrimental to the civic body and calling for the downfall of a Great Satan. An instructive distinction exists between President Ronald Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and Pope John Paul II's view of communism as "a medicine more dangerous than the disease itself" that became "a powerful threat and challenge to the entire world."

Both the United States of America and the Roman Catholic Church are centrally concerned with liberty. For one, it's liberty from oppression by people; for the other, it's liberty from oppression by sin and evil. Those concerned with either in particular should pay close attention to the other, but nobody should expect their requirements always to be the same, just as nobody should drive the two apart because one — accurately or erroneously — points in a different direction from time to time.

The project of post-Enlightenment conservatism (as we understand it today) is to layer balances and restraints against human nature, and theologically, the impulse to declare opposition amounts to a Church of Me, in which the individual pushes away a perspective that ought to be given credence. Here, the philosophical thread leads to a final point of contention on Friday night — namely, conservative wariness of populism — which I'll address after I've trimmed some hedges and made my way through the Sunday paper.


June 6, 2009


After a Difficult Violent Roundtable, Part 1

Justin Katz

Last night's Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show was the most difficult public appearance/talk show that I've done yet. Probably because Matt correctly assessed that an hour of harmony wouldn't have been very interesting, his questions touched on a number of weighty subjects on which expressing comprehensive thoughts on the spot is not easy.

For instance, take Matt's reference to Rep. John Loughlin's suggestion that the government get out of the marriage business, and permit everybody civil unions, because "marriage is a religious concept." That attempt at compromise (I'd call it a cop-out) is simply based on a false premise. Marriage is not a religious concept; it transcends religion, not only in the sense that all religions throughout history have recognized its opposite-sex nature, as I mentioned last night, but also in the sense that it resides at the intersection of multiple social strata: religion (yes), but also family, heritage, government, property, history, and so on, all of which find relevance in the biological fact of a man and a woman's ability to become one in the person of a child.

Religion's role in marriage is to lend the mysticism that makes the relationship profound, and therefore worthy of lifelong vows. Ancestry roots children in their society. Property gives motivation for productivity and economic prudence, particularly with a long-term view of generations. And government's role is to protect the community that it governs, in this context, by protecting the familial structure on which all of Western society's progress has been founded.

Consequently, government has even more objective, secular interest in encouraging stable marriages — that is, permanent unions between intimate men and women — than it does in encouraging the additional social good of consistent mutual care, which is ultimately what civil unions would recognize. Even the requirement of intimacy would be impossible for the government to require or assume, opening the door for civil unions between anybody and anybody (or anybodies).

For government to reduce all mutual care relationships to a level field, relying on religious groups to define their profundity, it would create a necessary equivalence between them. By declining to adhere to a consistent definition understood across the aforementioned strata, the government referee would be declaring the concept of marriage available for redefinition and throwing it to cultural forces that include not only religious organizations, but also pop-culture industries. If nothing else, the social noise would end the marital institution's utility.

Matt's suggestion — fantastic in principle — that we should refuse to acknowledge the government's authority as lexicographer skirts an assessment of what is actually happening. Drawn forward by well financed and highly motivated special interests and prodded by a complicit media industry, the government has been forcing a new definition of marriage into the culture. That being the case, following Matt's political philosophy would actually require the people to demand that the government explicitly affirm the definition of marriage under which their culture has operated throughout history until such time as it is understood by all to have changed.

In other words, the trajectory of the change currently involves the government's redefinition in order to manipulate the culture. Those playing defense on the traditionalist side are not the ones ceding authority to the political class, nor is there equivalence between our attempts to hold the government in place and the attempts of radicals to drag it into the cultural fight.

The initial question that sparked our discussion, on the radio, was whether the government should be granting heretofore marital rights and privileges piecemeal, one by one, to same-sex couples. The topic shifted a bit by the time it got to me, but my answer would have been that such an approach is precisely the appropriate one. Formed back when people actually believed that same-sex marriage was sufficiently inconceivable that a constitutional amendment was not necessary, my view has long been that the governments at various levels should affirm the traditional definition of marriage and do so in such a way as to enable state-level legislation easing the difficulties that those with other relationship types face. Require that legislation to define new relationships and their privileges without reference to marriage (i.e., no "all rights and privileges of marriage" language), thus requiring our society to come to consensus about the justification, purpose, and meaning of each change.

Cultural forces will vie to define the new unions, and it would be appropriate for those on the same-sex marriage side to refer to themselves as married, if they so choose, as well as to strive for the broader society's similar understanding of their relationships. Over time, the culture may come to see no significant difference between civil unions and marriage, or perhaps the distinctions between mutual-care relationships and procreative marriages will become more prominent. All the debate, however, and experimentation would be performed outside of the core institution of marriage and without the government's being used as a lever to roll the cultural boulder.


June 4, 2009


Boycotting Solipstocracy: Government by the Unitary Self

Justin Katz
"From the beginning, I made it clear that I would not put any more tax dollars on the line if it meant perpetuating the bad business decisions that had led these companies to seek help in the first place," he said. "I refused to let these companies become permanent wards of the state, kept afloat on an endless supply of taxpayer money. In other words, I refused to kick the can down the road."

To prevent GM from becoming a ward of the state, Obama made it the property of the state.

"I decided then," said the first person in chief, "that if GM and their stakeholders were willing to sacrifice for their companies' survival ... then the United States government would stand behind them."

Here, I, Barack virtually identified himself with the United States government.

There you have just five of the "I"s that Terence Jeffrey counted in President Obama's speech about his administration's takeover of GM. Jeffrey goes on to ask an important question:

He did not say he would ask Congress to enact legislation to provide the executive with the funds needed to purchase 60 percent of GM or with the legal authority to restructure the company and oversee its business plan. He said: "I decided then ... the United States government would stand behind them." Remember: In December, Congress specifically declined to enact legislation authorizing the president to bail out the auto industry--let alone to purchase an auto company. What law now gives Obama authority to buy General Motors? The White House says, when pressed, it is the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that legislation was written specifically to allow the Treasury Department to purchase assets from "financial institutions." It says nothing about buying auto companies.

Ever since I began my all-too-American aggregation of debt with the purchase of a brand new Pontiac Grand Am GT on a fish huckster's wage, I've owned GM automobiles. Each time I've bought one, I've had a few thousand dollars worth of points from my GM credit card. Unless Ford or some Japanese automaker begins accepting those points, I'm afraid they'll be going to waste; I can't in good conscience support the machinations of a president who pats himself on the back for "deciding" that and how "stakeholders" in a private company should "sacrifice."


June 1, 2009


Is This How Democratic Compromise Is Supposed to Work?

Justin Katz

Put aside the contentious context of the debate in question. Doesn't something just seem wrong about this?

Because a compromise must receive unanimous support to survive, Roberge was then removed from the committee and replaced with Sen. Matthew Houde, D-Plainfield, who voted with the majority. Roberge said she was disappointed she was removed.

What's the point of having a rule requiring unanimity if it means merely that a legislative body must be able to put the right number of agreeable people in a room?



The Gravity of Big Government in Education, for One

Justin Katz

Despite agreement with the thrust of the initiative, this sort of thinking is proving insidiously detrimental to the health of the nation:

... the federal stimulus law gives Obama a powerful incentive to push the expansion of charter schools. The law set up a $5 billion fund to reward states and school districts that adopt innovations the administration supports. The fund is part of $100 billion for education over the next two years.

"We want to reward those states that are willing to lead the country where we need to go and are willing to push this reform agenda very, very hard," Duncan told the AP.

"There are a number of states that are leading this effort, and we want to invest a huge amount of money into them, a minimum of $100 million, probably north of that," he said.

"And the states that don't have the stomach or the political will, unfortunately, they're going to lose out," Duncan said.

Even though any given citizen will favor the results in one instance or another, we must cease encouraging the states to sell their sovereignty to a central government that knows best. Furthermore, it ought to transform warning bells to a cacophony that the federal government is making the purchase with money that it simply does not have and should neither take nor attempt to create.


May 7, 2009


Michael Morse's Budget Plan: What Civilians Can and Can't Do Budgetwise

Justin Katz

Michael Morse has up a humorous post describing his personal household deficit reduction plan, but his intended point isn't quite clear. It's worth reading the whole thing for enjoyment, though, before making it a subject of discussion.

In some respects, he illustrates well the things that families actually do have to cut back, but that governments tend not to parallel:

... Wait staff in area restaurants will no longer receive the customary 15% tip, 8% will now be the norm. ...

Charitable contributions will cease immediately. Also, all pets will be asked to leave. These pets will not be replaced until the current economic crisis passes.

But then, there appears to be a complaint about actions the government does take against public-sector employees:

All work performed at Morse's house will be subject to a 20% co-pay by the person doing the work. Plumbers, electricians and all other contract labor will adhere to these new cost saving measures until the economic crisis passes. This plan will save the Morse budget in two ways, the contractor will charge less for work performed because their co pay will also be less. Appliance repairmen with their gold-plated "service call" fees will no longer be tolerated, a set hourly fee will be paid.

Putting aside the odd use of the co-pay concept, the laugh comes from the fact that no contractors would accede to those demands. (Of course, when they really need work, they do drop their prices to the same effect.) Similarly, public sector workers are under no obligation to continue providing services that a government body requires.

And then, there are suggestions that are impossible for the individual family, but that would be very worrisome if the government were actually to attempt similar measures:

For example, Morse plans to stop paying co-pays for prescription drugs and doctors visits, and cutting his $100.00 emergency room payment in half with a projected annual savings of $2600.00. These fees are simply unsustainable. Supermarkets are being asked to lower their prices until this economic crisis passes, realizing an additional $1380.00 in annual savings.

When families feel the economic squeeze, they must do without, because they cannot suspend the laws of supply and demand. The government cannot perform that miracle either, although it does attempt to try more frequently than is healthy.


April 29, 2009


The Specter of a Problem

Justin Katz

Senator Arlen Specter says it all in just a single sentence:

"I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate -- not prepared to have that record decided by that jury," he said.

After three decades in the federal government, the folks who've labored to keep you in office become less important than the power. Everything is apt to become less important than the power.

So we should all thank Mr. Specter for the reminder that term limits are worth bringing up at every opportunity. (Of course, with centuries of cumulative years of "service" currently sitting in Congress, there's a whole lot of power likely to be brought to bear against such a movement.)



Participate, Because Somebody Else Will

Justin Katz

Herewith, the text of my speech at the Tiverton Citizens for Change Taxpayer Forum on Monday night. (Audio, with some extemporaneous differences: stream, download [5min 29sec])


Let's be honest. For most of us, this whole civic participation thing is a chore. It's a responsibility. We stay informed; we vote; and really that should be enough. One reason we have elected representatives is to free up the rest of us to be productive, keep the economy going, and pursue happiness.

And yet the previous speakers who called for increased participation — to the extent of committing ourselves to campaigns and elective office — are absolutely right. We may have no desire to make a career, or even a sabbatical, out of public service, we may have no thirst for political power, but that is precisely why we are needed. Simply put, if we don't step forward, somebody else will. Somebody who doesn't see government as a chore.

As an indication of what I'm talking about, I'm going to read a few lines from the infamous fire-truck petition:

This proposal is being sought because the item was not considered by the Tiverton Budget Committee in the docket for this year and because numerous members of the Tiverton Budget Committee have advocated a maximum increase in the annual tax levy not to exceed one percent or zero, because the Tiverton Budget Committee is recommending a slashed school operational budget in order to achieve their desired goal ... and because these same Budget Committee members are squandering the limited ability to utilize tax revenues under the State mandated cap of 4.75% to improve the community as a whole.

There's no statement of dire need to buy such equipment despite the horrible economy. No research about the likely changes in property insurance. No examples of lives that would recently have been saved. The authors of this petition didn't even bother to note properties that might have been preserved in the past. According to news reports, they didn't even consult the fire chief!

Their primary motivation, in other words, is to out-maneuver people they don't like on the Budget Committee, and secondly, to claim as much of your income as possible. Their design is to take money from every taxpayer in Tiverton and allocate it to the priorities of a few people with the time and motivation to manipulate procedure.

Some of these people either benefit directly from town government or are close to people who do. Others of them, well, who knows? Maybe they've got their eyes on the State House and maybe, in their long-term aspirations, on Congress. Maybe they just like the feeling of a little local prominence. Or maybe it's more like a high school popularity thing.

I want to stress, here, that I'm not talking about everybody in local government, whether I agree with them or not. But this is certainly a segment — a vocal and active contingent that must be countered. And the reason it must be countered is that if somebody is in government for personal gain, whether of the wallet or of the ego, or even if he or she just thought it'd be a nice way to get involved in the community, then that person is going to be more susceptible to special interests.

For example, throughout the recent teachers' contract discussions, we heard again and again, from the union as well as people on the other side of the negotiating table, that the money was "in the budget." The people of Tiverton — the argument went — wanted that money to go to the teachers' union. And now, here we stand, with all of the town's major contracts up for negotiation during a down economy, and the school committee chairman told the Budget Committee that he's got no bargaining leverage. The Town Council President claims it's easier to have too much money in the budget for labor and to put some back in the general fund if negotiations go well.

What these representatives should be advocating is to force the unions to negotiate against a taxpayer-mandated cut. Instead, there's been a push, which we'll probably see again at the financial town meeting, to postpone budget decisions until after the unions are all settled up. The Committee and the Council want to negotiate with an admittedly weak hand rather than to be able to say to the unions, "The money is not in the budget. At least you have your jobs."

You probably already know the argument that we'll hear if the FTM occurs after the fact. "These contracts are signed. There's nothing we can do. Except raise taxes. Oh, and by the way, we're going to need more money to staff, equip, and fuel our new fire truck."

Folks, we do have to start small, and that means simply attending the financial town meeting. But we also have to build, because these people, these problems, already permeate our system at every layer of government. TCC is available to provide some structure — and some moral support — at the town level, and the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition is growing at the state level for the same purpose, but there really is no substitute for participation.

We've reached the point in Tiverton and in Rhode Island that participation is no longer a civic duty or chore. It's a matter of self defense.


April 24, 2009


More Kids, Now

Marc Comtois

David Goldman (aka "Spengler") writes in First Things:

After a $15 trillion reduction in asset values, Americans are now saving as much as they can. Of course, if everyone saves and no one spends, the economy shuts down, which is precisely what is happening. The trouble is not that aging baby boomers need to save. The problem is that the families with children who need to spend never were formed in sufficient numbers to sustain growth.

In emphasizing the demographics, I do not mean to give Wall Street a free pass for prolonging the bubble. Without financial engineering, the crisis would have come sooner and in a milder form. But we would have been just as poor in consequence. The origin of the crisis is demographic, and its solution can only be demographic.

Continue reading "More Kids, Now"

April 22, 2009


Imposed "Responsibility" Is Just Coercion

Justin Katz

It's disorienting to hear folks who follow politics for a living take speeches as sincere explanations of politicians' hopes and intentions. One would expect, as a case in point, David Brooks to understand the dangerous undercurrents of a speech by President Obama that Brooks describes as "a small masterpiece" of "explication."

His view was clear. The market is dynamic and important, but it makes people reckless, parochial and dangerously shortsighted. The market needs adult supervision — a leadership class made up of people who appreciate the market but who also have committed themselves to public service, and who therefore take the long view and are more conscious of the public good.

Obama is building this new leadership class. His administration has become a domestic I.M.F., consisting of teams of experts who can swoop in and provide long-term solutions when systems — finance, housing, health care, education, autos — have broken down.

When the members of this new establishment are confronted with a broken system — whether it involves hospitals, energy, air pollution or cars — their approach is the same. They aim to restructure incentives in order to channel the animal drives of the marketplace in responsible directions.

Brooks does put forward two significant objections, but they're easily rebuffed. The first is that this "leadership class" might fail, to which the plain response would be, essentially, that the current system has failed and that the administration feels a moral obligation to try to right it. The second is that Obama's spending spree does not exemplify the responsibility and "hard choices" that he wishes to impose on others, ranging from passivity to Congress's worsening of his proposals to the attempt to do all things at once to his recent "cynical Potemkin cuts." But the simple answers to this are that America's problems are deep, requiring the large dollar amounts to stabilize, and that an administration can only work within its context and must cooperate with coequal government branches.

The way I see it, there are only two possibilities that join the president's Georgetown speech and his actions. His words could be cynical political rhetoric intended to obscure for citizens the differences between his approach and that of his opposition. That, after all, is how he got himself elected: by convincing everybody that he was going to govern the way that they wanted, even if each preference was incompatible with the other.

The other possibility is that Obama is sincere, in which case raising the specter of fascism is not unreasonable. The emergence of "planners" and (being human) their inevitable failure are milestones on the road to serfdom. Indeed, this leveraging of a market system for the government's use in serving the "public good" is the central theme of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism.

To repeat my suggestion at the Providence tea party, if we aren't free to take risks, we aren't free. If the government can "swoop in" and save us, then our eyes will always look first to the dark shadow circling around us. Moreover, the rest of our society isn't free if it is obligated to pay for insuring others' risks, whether those others are businesspeople or public officials who, by corruption or incompetence, find themselves with failures to cover up and all the tools of government to apply toward that effort.


April 16, 2009


Providence, RI, Tax Day Tea Party Speech

Justin Katz

Stream, Download

This is one of those times in history when a society must make a decision. Social commentators of the near future will say one of two things about us: If we fail to be heard, then these tea parties, these expressions of outrage across the nation, are the final lunge of a fading culture, riddled with the errors of an unenlightened past. Or, if we can rein in our government, these demonstrations represent the reawakening of the American spirit, reasserting the principles of the United States.

Our country is defined by its principles. There is no picture of the typical American. We aren't a race. We aren't a religion. We aren't a tribe or a sect or a straight line of lineage. The typical American is a person in motion. With a swagger. Sometimes a smirk. Often a smile. But always, there's a set jaw and a confident stride toward the future — toward growth and improvement and a better life for all who'll but seek it.

Future historians will either tell the tale of a nation that tipped the scales toward the final decline of Western civilization, or they will celebrate the character of a people who saved the world once again. Because it was right, and because it was who they were. Who we are.

We are called, most critically, not to stand against an external enemy — although that exists — but against a corruption of spirit. There is a cancer running through our culture that wants ease instead of opportunity, that takes a life of stability to be a higher goal than a life of achievement. Powerful interests will punish those who strive and excel because they want to be the ones providing everybody else's comfort — defining everybody else's well-being.

We here today do not savor work, but freedom. If we aren't free to err and struggle, we aren't free to succeed. If we aren't free to build organizations and businesses and lives according to our beliefs and our goals, and based on our own experiences, then we just aren't free. There is no stability without risk, and freedom is the only defense against stagnation.

The forces of stagnation have waged a decades-long campaign to advance their cause incrementally. Little by little. While they hold sway in the halls of power they inject their principles of big government and nanny-state dictation into the body politic, and then, when the poison reveals itself in painful consequences, they recede into the shadows and await their next chance.

When a welfare and social policy regime results in a desperate underclass, these forces point to a bogeyman of bigotry. Conveniently, it's always to be found among their political opposition. When quasi-governmental lenders back unsecure investments and build an edifice of financial straw, would-be magicians of the political sphere spread our great-grandchildren's earnings around in order to establish the principle that government knows best how to run all things, large and small. They connive to foster dependency. They know that an antidote never fully overcomes addiction.

They take, and they tax. They regulate, and they assert authority. They preach their own superiority. And every year, they control a little bit more of our lives, telling a distracted citizenry that they are all that stands between our families and utter collapse and that only their guidance can protect us from our prejudices. They push the fallacy that an increasingly complicated society requires centralized oversight and central planning, when the polar opposite is true. Well, I'm sorry, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Congressmen Langevin and Kennedy, but no matter how eloquent and genuinely intelligent our new president may be, even if he's the brightest bulb in that dim capital, his thinking is fundamentally flawed. It is dangerous. Oppressive.

If we cannot put a stop to the lapse in our national ideals currently seeping into Washington — very similar to the illness that has ravaged Rhode Island — we will cease to be the United States of America. If we cannot say to the president and his followers, "you lied — you sold us a break, a period of cooperation," if we cannot say that and make the schemers in our government stop pasting a radical pastiche where they promised the even lines of a new realism, then they will have no fear. They will march right into our lives. They will know that the nice image of helping our old country to cross the road to a time of undefined hope and dubious change is suitable propaganda to cover their power grab.

I suspect that most of you here today now understand that there was never any intention to compromise. Those who rule our nation — and who would rule the "global community" — have an idea of compromise that is merely to mouth some pleasing words about listening and then to do whatever they want, take whatever they want. And that is why we must be uncompromising in our message. Enough is enough. That is the statement that the people of these United States have to make. That we have to make here today. And that we must continue to make as we turn our country back toward the right direction in the months and years to come.


April 15, 2009


A Society Lacking Confidence Will Wither.

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn's column, yesterday, is more relevant to today's demonstration than may seem at first to be the case:

What's at the center of [Brown's Columbus Day] debate, and others like it, is whether we believe in our civilization anymore. Growing numbers of people seem to be losing faith in it.

To my mind, Columbus Day was never really about the man himself, or the historic events of 1492 and their immediate aftermath. It was about what he symbolized: courage, intelligence, endurance, a willingness to risk everything seeking new worlds. Columbus Day was a celebration of Western Civilization and, ultimately, the most magnificent country that arose in the New World, the United States of America.

The disparagement of Columbus, much like the disparagement of the Founders so popular in recent years, seems designed to break down the faith of young people, and in time most Americans, that this really is an exceptional place, a country that has achieved unique things in world history because of one thing: freedom.

A lack of belief in ourselves has much to do with America's current economic predicament. As we've drifted from a desire for opportunity to a demand for ease and stability, we've created the structure that enabled the "too big to fail" label and the concomitant greed. Furthermore, it is a loss of ideals that is leading us down the wrong path toward recovery.

More than anything, we must reclaim our confidence in the society that our founders intended to build.


April 14, 2009


Pulling Our Tail

Justin Katz

Drawing on an excellent quotation from Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Sowell makes a point that has been increasingly relevant, although it could be and has been made for decades — centuries, even:

Abraham Lincoln once asked an audience how many legs a dog has if you count the tail as a leg. When they answered "five," Lincoln told them that the answer was four. The fact that you called the tail a leg did not make it a leg.

It is too bad that Lincoln is not still around today. He might emancipate us all from our enslavement to magic words.

When you call something a “stimulus” package, that does not mean that it actually stimulates. The way individuals, banks, and businesses in general are hanging onto their money suggests that "sedative" package might be more accurate.

This is not a new phenomenon, peculiar to this administration. President Bush's "stimulus" package did not stimulate either. The same was true back in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "pump-priming" by spending government money to get private money flowing.

The circulation of money slowed down then the same way it has slowed down today.

Some of our biggest political fallacies come from accepting words as evidence of realities.



Fight Excess Power with Excess Power?

Justin Katz

Responding to my reference to Peter Schwartz's "Mob rule comes to Washington," RIC Professor Thomas Schmeling seems to think that I've written myself into a corner:

I'm confused. In this post you object to rule by the "mob" (which appears to be the democratically elected representatives of the people) and you object to "government unconstrained by the principle of individual freedom." I get that. We need, as James Madison told us, some protection against the "tyranny of the majority".

Now, it seems to me that what constrains government is the Constitution, and that constitution is best enforced against mob rule by an independent judiciary, free from political pressure (like the need for re-election)

However, you also denounce an independent judiciary as the "dictator branch" and a " judiciary supported by an aristocracy of bureaucrats".

So, what do you want...majority rule or protection of rights free from majority influence?

So, I'm confused. I'm happy to be edified on this but, for the moment, I'm tempted to think that your support for majority rule depends on whether the majority supports your substantive views. I hope that's not the case, as I'm sure you would not be so unprincipled.

One can see in this, perhaps, a foundation-level reaction to government growth that sends people down an erroneous strategic path. As our government becomes more centralized at the federal level, reaching more broadly and more deeply, the response that Mr. Schmeling advises for instances of executive and legislative overreaching is to elevate the authority of another branch of government sufficiently to respond.

Along that route, two ultimate outcomes are possible, neither of them attractive to those who privilege freedom. If we continue to cede social ground to government, one branch may eventually become so powerful as to actively impede the others unjustly; the executive might disregard the judiciary, or the judiciary might block efforts toward democratic reform. Alternately, the branches could coalesce even more thoroughly into a governing cadre, with the legislative and executive appointing allied activist judges and the judiciary affirming the right of the other branches to oppress.

Frankly, I disagree, philosophically, with Thomas's characterization that the Constitution "constrains government"; that implies the existence of a clear application to circumstances that the founders could not have foreseen, which I don't believe to be available for interpretation and which I don't trust a handful of unelected judges to discern. Whatever the legalities, it isn't mere semantics to insist that the Constitution be seen as delineating the boundaries of our government and defining its structure.

My objective in making points of order, so to speak, is to increase consensus that, whatever the ideology furthered by usurpation of power, the act itself ought to be opposed. When the President of the United States looks to be becoming the de facto CEO of any company receiving financial assistance from the government, and when the executive branch presumes to insist that such money be taken and/or not returned when the private organization wishes, that in itself ought to motivate sufficient opposition to bring about democratic correction.

In like principle, we also must return to a federalist approach that disperses power broadly, such that opposing "mobs," if you will, can grow in their own enclaves. It is very convenient for those who think they've got a full grasp of secular Truth to leverage the federal government to impose their views on the entire country, and to use that government to fix all problems, but the end result is an organic metastasis toward the death of liberty.


April 8, 2009


When the Dictator Branch Takes Over for the Representative One

Justin Katz

Andrew McCarthy puts it well:

Courts are not there to resolve national controversies, to stand outside and above the United States. They were created as a sub-section of government to remedy individual injuries, and they were given no power to enforce their judgments. That, indeed, is why Hamilton (in Federalist No. 78) anticipated that the judiciary would be the "least dangerous" branch: It would be "least in a capacity to annoy or injure" the "political rights of the Constitution." In fact, the law of "standing," which addresses what grievances litigants may bring before courts, teaches that the more a controversy affects the body politic rather than the individual citizen, the less appropriate it is for judicial resolution. It is for just such controversies that we have political rights.

We're on track to cede our rights of self-governance to a global judiciary supported by an aristocracy of bureaucrats. Needless to say, we'd be better off if the cart were derailed.


April 4, 2009


The Fundamental Dishonesty of an Antidemocratic Movement

Justin Katz

If one knows the history of the same-sex marriage debate, the opening paragraph of this editorialized report in the DesMoines Register strikes an odd note:

Basic fairness and constitutional equal protection were the linchpins of Friday's historic Iowa Supreme Court ruling that overturned a 10-year-old ban on same-sex marriage and puts Iowa squarely in the center of the nation’s debate over gay rights.

The redefinition of marriage in Iowa took a peculiar path, indeed, beginning in 1996:

  1. The Supreme Court of Hawaii declared a right to same-sex marriage.
  2. Although the state legislature ultimately circumvented the court, the federal government passed the Defense of Marriage Act to limit the ruling's implications for other states.
  3. Individual states, including Iowa, passed laws affirming that marriage is definitionally a relationship between people of opposite sex, typically with the intention of securing the protection of the public policy exception interpreted to exist to the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. In essence, if a state explicitly does not recognize same-sex relationships as marriage, the Constitution cannot force it to treat as valid a same-sex marriage enacted in another state, so states like Iowa made their understanding of marriage explicit.
  4. The Iowa judiciary has taken that statutory affirmation of preexisting principles as an occasion to redefine marriage in the state according to the judges' preference.

In a direct way, the judges of Hawaii exported their activism across state lines not in spite of laws designed to prevent such a thing, but because of those laws. The process does nothing so clearly as illustrate the extent to which democracy is becoming an (at most) dilatory control on the implementation of the social system preferred by the powerful. All that is required is for the powerful to couch their diktats in some mutable principle introduced in a high-level legal source (e.g., the Constitution); the most common such principle is "equal protection," but there may be others that are as yet unexplored.

In an interesting conversational thread on RI Future, commenter Brassband points to this mechanism when he questions the following sentences from the Iowa court's ruling (PDF, page 16):

The process of defining equal protection, as shown by our history as captured and told in court decisions, begins by classifying people into groups. A classification persists until a new understanding of equal protection is achieved. The point in time when the standard of equal protection finally takes a new form is a product of the conviction of one, or many, individuals that a particular grouping results in inequality and the ability of the judicial system to perform its constitutional role free from the influences that tend to make society’s understanding of equal protection resistant to change.

As a matter of grammar, what the court argues, here, is that a society may consider groups to be different in some legally allowable way until a particular individual or several individuals perceive discrimination and take the matter to the courts, and the judges — "free from the [social] influences" under which we ordinary humans labor — declare in their favor. Rhode Island College professor Thomas Schmeling subsequently puts that perspective in the company of a fundamentally sacerdotal yet "well-respected theory" that judges rule based on hunches that are justified in the fact that a jurist "not only has his/her own preferences but is also acquainted with constitutional principles, precedents, the views of other (and higher) court judges, so it's not totally subjective." Schmeling goes on to state the matter in terms of his own take:

... I think the Court here is actually making a sensible point, one which which you may well agree. Here's my read:

1. The legislature creates a classification. (let's use bans on interracial marriage as an example). That classification will remain until two things happen:

a. somebody becomes convinced that the classification creates an inequality (one that violates equal protection) and challenges it in court.

b. A court invalidates it.

Now, the legislation presumably embodies society's understanding of what "equal protection" requires, which (as in the case of bans on interracial marriage) may be nothing more than its irrational prejudices. If the courts do nothing more than reflect that understanding, it will never find any classification violative of equal protection and the court will have failed to fulfill its duty. (Do you agree so far?)

If the legislature's/society's judgement/prejudices accurately reflect the principle embodied in the Constitution's equal protection clause (state or federal...there might be a difference)...there is no problem.

However, if the legislature's/society's judgement departs from an accurate understanding of equal protection, that's a problem. To do its job, the court must obviously get beyond this judgement. To do this, the court must be "free from the influences that tend to make society's understanding of equal protection resistant to change". That is, the court should not simply reflect the views of the people and/or the legislature, it must uncover the "true" principle behind the equal protection clause, and use that principle to judge the classification.

If the members of the court simply say "I think equal protection clause should embody MY prejudices", I think we'll agree that the court has departed from its proper role.

If, on the other hand, the Court adopts a principled interpretation of the clause (which must, of necessity be independent of the prejudices of the judges AND of the prejudices of the legislature/society), the court has fulfilled its proper role.

Consider for a moment who has been excluded from the interpretation of equal protection's "'true' principle": the judges' personal views don't apply, the relevant legislators' personal views don't apply, the people's personal views (as expressed democratically) don't apply, and certainly the personal views of those who penned the Fourteenth Amendment back in 1868 don't apply. So from whence — by whom — is it determined that the true meaning of the equal protection clause requires that the true meaning of marriage be something other than what it has always been understood to be — a relationship between men and women?

Ah, there's the nub. The reality is that, like the interstate process of bouncing judicial rulings, the whole thing is a performance to enact the preferences of an elite class as written into the "hunches" of judges. On the page following the above quotation, the Supreme Court of Iowa states:

The same-sex-marriage debate waged in this case is part of a strong national dialogue centered on a fundamental, deep-seated, traditional institution that has excluded, by state action, a particular class of Iowans.

The whole dance — costumes, streamers, stage props, and all — is a distraction from the truth that the "particular class of Iowans" are not excluded by "state action," but by definition and by the way in which they choose to live their lives.* They are excluded by the fact that humankind has recognized a natural distinction of the intimate relationships into which men and women enter and sought to guide those relationships in the direction of social health — as understood not through contrived experiments, but by centuries of observation and social evolution — through an institution called "marriage," which it acknowledges and privileges as something unique.

Our nation's founders pursued representative democracy as a means of layering social control such that the most basic and profound questions would not become subject to immediate battles of power, but would require engagement of the process and efforts toward persuasion. Progressives' broad-based campaign has been to corrupt process for their own ideological benefit, and it will spell calamity whether the masses respond with a forceful expression of the only forms of power that remain to them or by stepping back and watching their civilization collapse out of an aversion to conflict.


* I am not invoking, here, the "homosexuality is a choice" declaration. I'm merely pointing out that — quite reasonably — homosexuals opt to form their lives around their affections rather than a traditional family structure.


April 3, 2009


There's No Socialism in America – Except Where There Is (And That's Why We Should Want More?)

Carroll Andrew Morse

Projo columnist Froma Harrop provides what I think is an excellent snapshot of contemporary liberal logic on the subject of "is the government turning socialist?"

You see, according to Ms. Harrop, there really isn't any move towards socialism in American government…

Princeton economist Alan Blinder reasons: “Socialism means public ownership and control of business, right? So which industries does the president propose to nationalize?”

None that anyone has noticed. Obama’s economic team won’t even nationalize the broken banks. But that doesn’t matter. The S-word can signify anything conservatives want it to.

And besides, socialism is already here in certain sectors of the economy…
By the way, socialized insurance has already established a beachhead on our shores. Ever hear of Medicare?
So we needn't fret about creeping socialism, because nobody wants it and because it's already here even though it doesn't really exist.

Got it?



There's No Socialism in America – Except Where There Is (And That's Why We Should Want More?)

Carroll Andrew Morse

Projo columnist Froma Harrop provides what I think is an excellent snapshot of contemporary liberal logic on the subject of "is the government turning socialist?"

You see, according to Ms. Harrop, there really isn't any move towards socialism in American government…

Princeton economist Alan Blinder reasons: “Socialism means public ownership and control of business, right? So which industries does the president propose to nationalize?”

None that anyone has noticed. Obama’s economic team won’t even nationalize the broken banks. But that doesn’t matter. The S-word can signify anything conservatives want it to.

And besides, socialism is already here in certain sectors of the economy…
By the way, socialized insurance has already established a beachhead on our shores. Ever hear of Medicare?
So we needn't fret about creeping socialism, because nobody wants it and because it's already here even though it doesn't really exist.

Got it?


March 30, 2009


Our Best Minds Must Be in Government

Justin Katz

Yeah, we could discuss the rights of a governing entity that is spending billions of dollars to prop up a specific company, but that would slide past the real question of political philosophy that makes this such a frightening proposition, no matter which step we highlight as the one in the wrong direction:

The Obama administration asked Rick Wagoner, the chairman and CEO of General Motors, to step down and he agreed, a White House official said.

On Monday, President Barack Obama is to unveil his plans for the auto industry, including a response to a request for additional funds by GM and Chrysler. The plan is based on recommendations from the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry, headed by the Treasury Department.

It is nearly irrelevant whether Wagoner deserves to lose his job (the answer being pretty self evident, if you ask me). The critical first principle requires an explanation of why it can be supposed that a handful of brains on a Presidential Task Force can be expected to step into a gigantic, ailing industry and prescribe the appropriate steps to save it:

Industry sources had said the White House planned very tough medicine in Monday's announcement, which turned out to be an understatement. And it went to the very top. The measures to be imposed by the government will have a dramatic effect on workers, unions, suppliers, bondholders, shareholders, retirees and the communities where plants are located, the sources said.

One needn't have the IQ of a Task Forcer to predict one likely path should the industrial plans of an entity with the power to tax fall flat. One needn't be a community organizing short-term Senator and first-rate orator to see the incentives tilting in all the wrong directions. When the chief executive of a business is — in fact, if not on paper — the chief executive of the United States of America, the need to safeguard a résumé and reputation meets with unparalleled power to buy and coerce cover-ups.


March 3, 2009


Sgouros's Answer Is Big Government

Justin Katz

Tom Sgouros likes the idea of centralized government. (He also knows just how to run it, it seems, at least better than a growing list of his fellow citizens, including our "absurd[ly] scolding" governor and the "blind squirrels" who advocate for consolidation.) In a recent column with the aim of supporting that affinity, he attempts to move his cups fast enough that readers won't notice a critical omission and a hint of his end goal.

His argument is that diffuse government, financed with local taxes, is a financial trap in a mobile society:

When people leave a town, it takes a while to cut the expenses of the services they used, if it's possible at all. If you have a hundred kids in a fifth grade, that's four classrooms. If ten of those children move away, that's still four classrooms, but with less money to pay for them. If a fire station is established to deal with a neighborhood of 500 houses, a town can't close it just because 50 of those houses are now vacant. A shrinking town doesn't need a smaller police department. If anything, experience shows it needs a larger one.

The opposite side of the coin is just as telling. A family with two school-age children moving to some rural town will likely cost that town as much as $30,000 in services, but provide only a fraction of that in taxes. New construction often requires new traffic lights, new water lines, new sewer lines and more. These expenses are never covered by the new tax revenue, and seldom even covered by occasionally imposed "developer impact fees."

He touts a study of the school district in Fairfax County, Virginia, that he's performed, but he neglects to offer any evidence that Fairfax is worthy of emulation or to explain what about that system would benefit Rhode Island. Sgouros points out that the cost of government of Jamestown (for example) has corresponded with a growth in population:

Town payrolls have gone up because towns have grown, and because of requirements imposed on them. Jamestown has twice as many year-round residents, and many more summer houses, than it did back in the days of two police cars. Rhode Island has about the same number of people as a generation ago, but our little towns are bigger and our cities are smaller. We have spread out across the landscape, and that has real consequences.

But do you see the spending of the cities contracting, or their leaders asking the state for less money? To quote Sgouros's arrogant tone: "Yeah, neither do I."

His hypothetical shrinking town is still going require four classrooms, and the rural town is still going to face the necessity of expanding its services; the former is still going to have to keep up unneeded water and sewer lines, and the latter is still going to have to install new ones. The only difference is that the ever-expanding cost of government — notably including the cost of Sgouros's union friends — would occur a little bit farther beyond the political reach of regular citizens.

Actually, that's not the only difference. It would also be a little bit easier for those with an affection for central planning and top-down dictation to implement their preferences. Writes Sgouros:

Want to know what else Jamestown has that it didn't have a generation ago? Special-ed students who used to be wards of the state, attending the Ladd School. Having special-needs children educated with other children is a good thing, but it's not free. When the state closed Ladd, do you remember how the state gave that money to cities and towns for special education? Yeah, neither do I.

What else didn't Jamestown have back then? Clean-water mandates imposed by the EPA, comprehensive planning laws, bus monitors on school buses, and yes, minimum staffing levels in public safety departments, imposed by the state. Here's the thing, though: all of these requirements were imposed for a good reason. Clean water, good planning, and public safety are all important.

One wonders what else Mr. Sgouros believes should be "imposed for a good reason." Centralized government is most successfully a mechanism for enabling a class of people who believe that they're smarter and more moral than the rest of us to tell their fellow citizens how to live. In the short term, it also serves to obfuscate the unsustainable costs of their policies.


February 13, 2009


Divine Right and the Modern State

Carroll Andrew Morse

Channeling John Locke and Edmund Burke via Newt Gingrich on last night's Matt Allen Show on WPRO radio (630 AM), Zack the Speculator provided a brief tour of the evolution of the philosophy of government in Western Civilization...

The great Newt Gingrich said this many years ago; he said the difference between us and England and the royalties and the monarchies is that they all believed that God gave the power to the king and the queen and the king and the queen gave a little bit of that to the people. What [John Locke] and [Edmund Burke] and the others that the founders read and believed in said was God gives the power to the people, and the people loan it to the government…that is something we should never forget.
It is interesting to note that if you begin from Zack's description of the authority of government being rooted in divine right…

…then replace God with some secular concept like "the forces of history" or "progress"…

…then replace the monarchy with a group of technocrats, or maybe even with a "vanguard of the proletariat", but in either case with a group of people who supposedly understand the needs of "progress" better than the common citizenry does…

…what you end up with is the Progressive ideal of government, with the leaders of the modern state demanding nearly unlimited power over the individual, to meet the needs of a higher-power of "progress" -- needs that the leadership tells you that only they can fully comprehend!

Alas, the idea of power rightfully belonging to a special class of citizens who are supposedly "closest" to the ultimate authority is still alive and well here in the 21st century.


February 5, 2009


A Topical Puzzle

Justin Katz

On the Matt Allen show, last night, Matt and I discussed the madness of the modern world — from CEOs who are practically daring the government to begin finding ways to limit their pay to teachers' unions that are risking PR devastation to keep their contracts growing. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


January 21, 2009


Just So Will Healthcare Fall

Justin Katz

It amazes me that we can watch these things, which should have been entirely foreseeable, and never return to our initial premises:

Some of the big-name Boston teaching hospitals that have managed to extract higher insurance payments include Children's Hospital and the members of Partners HealthCare, a group including Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women's. As a result, they may be paid two or three times more than a community hospital for the same procedure. ...

In addition to helping raise the average Massachusetts family's premiums by 78 percent since 2000, the 800-pound-gorilla hospitals are using their enhanced profits to expand into the suburbs and take business from smaller hospitals. For example, Partners has built a $43 million outpatient clinic in Foxboro, not far from Caritas Norwood Hospital. The objective is to drain day-surgery patients from Caritas, which because of its lower insurance reimbursements, is $4 million in debt. Caritas asserts that were it paid the same rate for delivering babies as the Partners hospitals, it would have lost no money in the third quarter.

Ensure funding for anything, and prices will go up. Increase the distance between the customer and the payment, and advantaged suppliers and middlemen will leverage their power for even greater dominance. And then comes the predictable reaction:

In response to these revelations, Governor Patrick has proposed having state insurance regulators stop excessive premiums. And he has convened a panel to embark on cost-containment steps in Massachusetts, something that is long overdue.

So now prices will ultimately be determined by a government whose interest is more directly in the payments than the service provided, conducted by a panel whose power is appointed, overseen by politicians whose underlying job is to raise money and be reelected.

What do you suppose will happen next?


January 9, 2009


The Next Big Oops

Justin Katz

Across the society, from cornered municipal officials to the national commentariate, people are preparing the way with palms for the eye-popping stimulus proposals of Obama and Congressional Democrats. A radio report, the other day, explained that the president-elect recognized that the stimulus plan required a tax cutting component, and although, unlike conservatives, liberals see tax cuts as expenditures, alongside a trillion dollar spending plan, a few hundred more billion tacked on to the end hardly registers. Why hasn't anybody thought of the spend-without-reservation federal economic strategy before?

One can almost hear the twenty-second century history books being written: "At that time the flawed idea that government spending needn't be controlled swept the troubled nation like an opiate wildfire."

Paul Krugman, for high-profile example, thinks that both the short and the long term focus should be on nationalizing budgets. "No modern American president would repeat the fiscal mistake of 1932," he writes, "in which the federal government tried to balance its budget in the face of a severe recession." Casting his argument in terms of state-level action, Krugman sees the advantage of federal concentration mainly as being that the federal government can "borrow [its] way through the crisis." Frankly, it's as if Krugman isn't aware that the federal government's financial prospects are affected by the economy:

Think about it: is America — not state governments, but the nation as a whole — less able to afford help to troubled teens, medical care for families, or repairs to decaying roads and bridges than it was one or two years ago? Of course not. Our capacity hasn't been diminished; our workers haven't lost their skills; our technological know-how is intact. Why can't we keep doing good things?

It's true that the economy is currently shrinking. But that's the result of a slump in private spending. It makes no sense to add to the problem by cutting public spending, too.

To any arguments involving the cost of paying workers to utilize those skills or of employing that technological know-how, Krugman would apparently answer: borrow.

Me, I believe the public needs a strong dose of this sort of thinking to counter its current delirium:

Former U.S. comptroller David Walker has long been a leading advocate of fiscal sanity, and I called him today to get his take on the latest CBO budget-deficit projections ($1.2 trillion for next year, trillion-plus deficits for years to come). "If trillion-dollar deficit numbers for several years in a row don’t wake up Washington and America to the nature of our fiscal problems, then I don’t know what will," he says.

Walker says, "For the first time in the history of the U.S., the federal government owes more in liabilities [including unfunded commitments for Social Security and Medicare] than American households are worth." And that gap is widening, he says. "The fiscal hole is getting deeper, and household worth continues to decline." ...

He adds, "We need to realize that the same factors that led to the subprime crisis — too much debt, too little attention to cash flow, ineffective risk management, and waiting to do something until the crisis hits the door — those same factors exist for the federal government’s fiscal situation, with one big difference: No one is going to bail out America."

Walker seems to have missed the lesson about economic rules not applying to the federal government, which can simply wish things to be true.


January 5, 2009


Taking Wealth Morally

Justin Katz

By all means, let's declare the immorality of gargantuan wealth. Every story of catastrophe and dire need must make the rightly ordered person marvel at the spiritual putrefaction of those who hoard their millions and billions. How could a man of clear conscience sift money idly through his fingers in such sums as could effect salvation for untold thousands? How detrimental to a woman's soul to ignore those who suffer in her time while she looks across potentially infinite generations of her own progeny who will be freed from the necessity of earning.

Let's not be squeamish in admitting the ugliness of even the passive greed that allows wealth to amass in obscene amounts under one's name, as if it jangled together by some sort of natural force of economic gravity. Let's assert a moral duty to cast those riches back out into the economy as both a charitable and a productive force.

But what then?

Inasmuch as the actions that lead to wealth — earning, investing, saving — are not immoral (indeed, are generally positive), the community's legitimate complaint is of the excessive proportion. Hoarding amounts that could never be spent is an iniquitous triviality when weighed against mouths that are never fed. On the other hand, the accumulation of vast wealth enables a higher degree of risk in investment, whereby society can benefit from the gamble, and a higher degree of conservation of property, whereby possessions that might otherwise be divided and drained are instead preserved. The initial difficulties, therefore, are determining how we ought to balance competing goods and who ought to be empowered to pass judgment.

In his May 25 op-ed in the Providence Journal ("The immorality of private wealth"), retired Superior Court judge and current law professor Stephen J. Fortunato, Jr., cites the amassment of wealth among such other "immoral" activities as "murder, rape, theft," running red lights, violating OSHA standards, "muggings and convenience store holdups." Moreover, his prescription is not the social opprobrium with which we might respond to an adult who whispers obscenities to children, but high taxes on the rich by a government with "a redistributive and a regulatory role." In short, the aptly named jurist unsurprisingly treats immorality and illegality as if they ought to be equivalent.

Thus, in answer to the above-described difficulties, Fortunato puts forward our representative democracy as economic arbiter. The government will decide how much is too much for what purposes. Our legislative, executive, and judicial triumvirate will draw a line above which elected and appointed officials allocate the appropriate usage of monetary wealth — this much to conserve open space, this much to support research, this much to preserve arts and culture, this much toward the welfare of our society's poor.

Unfortunately, with money flowing along this path, the difficulties can only compound. Previously, the transfer of wealth involved the relatively simple transaction of a provider's persuading a consumer to part with dollars, whether for luxuries, investments, or the emotional balm of charity. Now, the government has translated the wealth into power — greatly magnified by its aggregation — and muddied the judgment of its dispersal.

Parties begin to petition government officials to expend the public largesse on their preferred goods. The petitioners convert some of the power back into cash by way of campaign contributions or other perks of office (or perks available upon leaving office). They may promise moral gratification and burnished legacies. They may concentrate the flexed muscle of voters.

None of which is immoral, of itself, but observe what has happened: The economic power that exists naturally in any society has been overlapped in the same stratum as the legal and police power with which we vest government. The same segment of the community that can, to some degree, dictate behavior under threat of criminal prosecution can increasingly manipulate economic behavior under threat of regulation and confiscation. The one entity empowered to take money by force is increasingly a source of money for politically powerful lobbies.

In short, the point at which power and money flow together has greater gravity for corruption, and there is less independent power (in the form of independent wealth) counterbalancing it. Worse still, to the degree to which money is power, those with more are the ones ultimately increasing their control as the government asserts authority over the flow of capital and the determination of what and whom to tax and regulate.

So yes, let's conspire to take money from the rich and spread it across the society, but let's consider the possibility that the only way actually to accomplish that end is to empower those in lower economic tiers to take the wealth for themselves — not by force or democratic assertions of power, but through persuasion, production, and competition, which is to say through freedom and economic ingenuity.


December 31, 2008


Politicians as Wonderworkers

Justin Katz

Thomas Sowell's worth reading on the incentive to treat the impossible as if it simply needs to be enunciated as plausible:

People can get the possible on their own. Politicians have to be able to offer the voters something that they cannot get on their own. The impossible fills that bill perfectly.

As a noted economist has pointed out, nothing "could prevent the California electorate from simultaneously demanding low electricity prices and no new generating plants while using ever increasing amounts of electricity."

You want the impossible? You got it. Politicians don't get elected by saying "no" to voters.


December 6, 2008


Still Feeling the Violence

Justin Katz

Anybody who missed last night's Violent Roundtable on the Matt Allen Show — or who would like to listen to it again — can download it here.

I'll tell you that, from the other side of the microphone, that hour just flies by. By habit, I keep out a notebook during such discussions and jot down points to which I'd like to return. Matt keeps the show moving at a pace that leaves those notes bare of check marks. I'd like to salvage two points, though:

  • Marketing food stamps. It took a little of my drive-home time to articulate, but what bothers me about the idea of the government's marketing food stamps so more eligible recipients will apply is the message that it works into the culture. We've already done too much to erase the stigma of existence on the public dole. The more we do to market the "benefit" — not the least by declaring it an economic stimulus for the state — the more we cast it not only as something about which people shouldn't be ashamed, but as something about which they might actually be proud. "Hey, I'm helping to bring money into the state!"
  • State government departments' overspending. Paul Tencher bragged that Lieutenant Governor Liz Roberts (for whom he was chief of staff) operated within her budget, in contrast to other executive departments. What that declaration elides is the fact that all of the other departments have functions — actions that they are required to take and systems that they are required to perpetuate as a function of their very existence. The demands made upon them ultimately have their origin in the legislature. The lieutenant governor, in Rhode Island, is free of such burdens. Be that as it may, perhaps Tencher would agree with me that the various departments ought to have planned their activities within their budgets, rather than within the mandates that elected officials have placed upon them.

December 3, 2008


The Powers and the Victims

Justin Katz

I note something telling and pervasive in the latest anti-TCC assault by Tiverton Democrat stone-thrower Richard Joslin (currently online only; we'll see tonight whether it gets into the Sakonnet Times):

I know TCC supporters who are elderly, on fixed income and live mostly in North Tiverton. I am not upset about these people. I know they struggle with paying taxes. I think the TCC leadership uses these people and incites them with economic fear. I think these taxpayers deserve assistance.

I believe that the TCC in part is fighting for a large number of older wealthy adults without kids who bought very expensive retirement property here during the real estate boom of 2002-2007. Stuck now with houses whose value has plummeted, they are just looking out for their pocketbooks. Holding onto their wallets trumps any care for the future of education here.

Isn't that always the storyline from the Left? The ideas are presumed to be in the service of affluent greed, and those without the bank accounts who sympathize are mere pawns. Couldn't it be that the "root cause" of that right-wing evil can't be so simply drawn? One hesitates to point out something as obvious as the fact that those on fixed incomes have, if anything, more reason to "hold onto their wallets," but, well.

In his ideological determination, Mr. Joslin misses a blindspot that leaves him vulnerable to the charge of allowing union benefits to trump local education:

TCC says it wants budget cuts. Tiverton schools have already cut programs in sports, advanced placement, language, music, art and more. So, TCC, cut what else? Oust the teachers' union? As a 12-year resident and taxpayer I demand that we all make the TCC more transparent. They are arrogant; as newcomers they tell us that we have been incompetent and they know best. They point fingers at respected officials.

I haven't polled my peers, but I suspect that there'd be a softening of their wallet-grips if the argument weren't that programs have been cut and teachers need more money, but that teachers' compensation had been cut and the programs required more funding. Be that as it may, it's a curiosity, indeed, that those who argue so vehemently for the future of education seem incapable of articulating the thought that, in tight financial times, all increases ought to go to programs, rather than teachers (who make more individually, by the by, than whole households up here in the North).

Count me among those inclined to withhold further contributions from the obligatory charity of public education if the dollars are to be snatched from the table for the enrichment of adults, rather than for the restoration of programs that might allow me to return my children to public education without feeling irresponsible as a parent.


November 18, 2008


Further to the Future of the GOP

Monique Chartier

And another friend last week shared some of his own thoughts on the subject.

[Reprinted with permission.]

For our national party and the RIGOP, without question November 5, 2008 was the first day of the rest of our lives. What lies ahead is not a task for the timid, the inexperienced, or the unbalanced. As surely as our party will rise again, it will only recuperate from 2008 if it changes its flawed, compromised approach to growing its membership and winning elections.

Barack Obama’s successful campaign for the Presidency is a long overdue checkpoint for a Republican Party that has lost its vision and stumbles blindly from one election cycle to the next, reacting cynically to every new idea and forgetting its own best old principles. Many in the Party may be uncomfortable with this – but if we remain the Party that cannot rally to the notion of more women, African Americans, and Latinos taking leadership roles in our pluralistic society, we will die. No matter who you are, what you look like or what language you speak at home, the Republican Party does have a message for you and you can be welcome – and grow personally and as a leader in public affairs – if you join us. Here are a couple of ideas with suitably wide appeal:

First, the successful Republican Party of the future will never abandon fiscal conservatism. Our ability to win and hold seats in Congress was doomed when an immediate past national Chair of our Party declared that we don’t talk about fiscal responsibility any more - setting off the most corrupt and noxious wave of earmarking nonsense in recent memory under our brand. If we are true to ourselves, we will work toward the day when every time a pollster asks which party is best able to manage the economy, the word “manage” creates a knee jerk reaction, “Republican.”

America must live up to the challenge of educating its children to compete in a global economy. For too long, the dumbing down of content, the evisceration of civics education championed by the politically correct crowd, and the misallocation of resources to classroom educators who oppose all change have dominated the scene, especially in little Rhode Island. A holy war is not called for. What is needed is a tenacious, well informed effort to focus the public’s attention on the choices we face in education, removing the jargon and other barriers to policy debates in education that the inside crowd has built up so well.

Finally, all the pablum about Democrat tidal waves, entrenched incumbents, the powers of incumbency to write juicy grants, etc. needs to stop. What would Rhode Island look like if Republicans had more control over the course of events? What concrete goals can we set to get us there? We need to stop making excuses first and foremost. It’s time to grow up.


November 17, 2008


The Shackles of PCism

Justin Katz

Here's a jarring line from a story about the ongoing battle between reporters and the corrupt in Russia (emphasis added):

"Beketov has lost a leg and is still in a coma, but that is not all -- threatening calls were also made to the hospital where he was taken," Reporters Without Borders said.

"Violence against journalists continues to be very much in the news in Russia... This cycle of violence must stop."

Cycle of violence? Surely Reporters Without Borders isn't suggesting that journalists' coverage of corruption is tantamount to their end in an exchange of violence. And yet, there it is: Apparently unaware that its language does so, the group equivocates and hands a portion of the blame to the victims.

The violence must stop, period, as must the corruption that begets it.


November 16, 2008


A Roman Role Model for Rhode Island?

Monique Chartier

As much for public-spiritedness of governing philosophy as for aspiration of tenure, the leadership of our citizen legislature might do worse than emulate this fellow.


November 15, 2008


A Windfall Bailout

Justin Katz

As I pumped sub-$2.00-per-gallon gas into my work van this morning, shortly after having listened to a debate about a GM bailout on Cavuto this morning while doing the dishes, something occurred to me that I'm surprised to have not heard mentioned: There's a common theme that runs from the bailout mentality through the idea of a windfall profits tax. In effect, the philosophy dictates that the people who run and invest in businesses are only responsible for a range of their successes and failures. Any remuneration above that range should be claimed by the government, and any losses below it ought to be reimbursed.

There's a well-known S-word for such a view of commerce.


November 9, 2008


Flooding the Social Car

Justin Katz

A clever cartoon on socialism from Day by Day, today.


November 8, 2008


Progress or return?

Donald B. Hawthorne

It's been a while since the term "Straussian" was thrown around. Rather than project interpretations by third parties onto others, here are some actual thoughts from the philosopher himself on the subject of progress:

When the prophets call their people to account, they do not limit themselves to accusing them of this or that particular crime or sin. They recognize the root of all particular crimes in the fact that the people have forsaken their God. They accuse their people of rebellion. Originally, in the past, they were faithful or loyal; now they are in a state of rebellion. In the future they will return, and God will restore them to their original place. The primary, the original or initial, is loyalty; unfaithfulness, infidelity, is secondary. The very notion of unfaithfulness or infidelity presupposes that fidelity or loyalty is primary. The perfect character of the origin is a condition of sin—of the thought of sin. Man who understands himself in this way longs for the perfection of the origin, or of the classic past. He suffers from the present; he hopes for the future.

Progressive man, on the other hand, looks back to a most imperfect beginning. The beginning is barbarism, stupidity, rudeness, extreme scarcity. Progressive man does not feel that he has lost something of great, not to say infinite, importance; he has lost only his chains. He does not suffer from the recollection of the past. Looking back to the past, he is proud of his achievements; he is certain of the superiority of the present to the past. He is not satisfied with the present; he looks to future progress. But he does not merely hope or pray for a better future; he thinks that he can bring it about by his own effort. Seeking perfection in a future which is in no sense the beginning or the restoration of the beginning, he lives unqualifiedly toward the future. The life which understands itself as a life of loyalty or faithfulness appears to him as backward, as being under the spell of old prejudices. What the others call rebellion, he calls revolution or liberation. To the polarity faithfulness—rebellion, he opposes the polarity prejudice—freedom.

Worthy of reflection, given all the talk about progress and change in today's politics.

I believe these words begin to get at what is the great philosophical divide in this country. If we are going to resusitate an alternative view to the now more dominant left-wing progressive world view, I think we are going to have to connect it back in certain ways to this baseline and then articulate it in a pragmatic way which people can intuitively grasp.

We have a lot of work to do.


November 5, 2008


Re: Marriage Amendments

Justin Katz

As Marc notes, traditional marriage won big, this election, despite a political turnout that would have seemed likely to point in the other direction. For federalist conservatives, these results are pretty close to the ideal of how things should work: The people of each state decide their policies, and when the judiciary over reaches, the people correct it.

Me, I see this heading quickly to the Supreme Court. That's the critical path left to same-sex marriage advocates. The state-by-state strategy is blocked by the will of civilian majorities, but a Constitutional Amendment at the federal level trumps all, and the Supreme Court has transformed itself into a vessel for short-hand amendments.


October 16, 2008


Looking into the Wilderness

Marc Comtois

Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos himself) recently wrote (h/t) that he wants to "break the conservative movement's backs and crush their spirits." He wants to "destroy their most beloved leaders" and silence "some of their most cherished voices." Further, he writes, with the 2008 election, the liberal/progressive/Democratic movement "[has] been blessed with an opportunity to help that process along." The neo-religious terminology is indicative of how "Kos" and many of his ideological allies view politics: "spirits", "beloved leaders", "cherished voices", "blessed with an opportunity".

I suppose that's the difference between the role that politics plays in the daily lives of leftist, partisan ideologues and traditional conservatives like me. My psychological well-being is not tied to whether or not Obama becomes the next President of the United States. I don't first look to politicians and government for answers. My optimism won't be undone by the success or failure of a particular politician or political party. And my faith resides in a higher power, not in the workings of fallible men. In short, I don't invest in the political careers of strangers as a way towards personal fulfillment.

Now I'm not naive and I know that there will be many conservatives emotionally devastated by an Obama presidency and a Democratic super-majority in Congress. I suppose they will be the proof to Moulitsas' theorem. But most conservatives won't "turtle" simply because a shiny new, liberal administration is in Washington, D.C. Remember, conservatives generally don't exactly view a potential McCain presidency as a new high-water mark for conservatism. No, the writing has been on the wall for a few months now, and conservatives are well prepared.

While I've chosen to side with the Maverick over the Messiah--my least worst of the two--I fully expect to disagree with whomever is elected President in 2008, if only by differing degrees. As such, I've made my serious philosophical differences with Barack Obama known. But my critique is not based on hatred or dislike for a man I don't know. Instead, it is based on my disagreement with his stated policies and his apparent worldview. Questioning his judgment based on past associations isn't a personal attack. Doubting the sincerity of a smooth orator with a sparse track record is not hate speech.

Yet, after years of GOP leadership, the American people seem ready to hand the keys of government over to the Democratic party and the cipher at the top of the ticket. It doesn't look like any minds are going to be changed this far along. So we will soon be witness to the Democrats' grand plans. They are sure they have all of the answers and are smart enough and good enough to see them through. They don't have much time to pay attention to the proponents of the past. Progress, after all, has won.

And no doubt they will take great pleasure in denigrating the conservative ideas they purport to have failed. Well, I suppose they will have earned their day in the sun.

But any potential success will depend less on the theory behind the policies implemented than on the practical effect those policies have on the lives of every day Americans. And the role that contingency plays--Will the economy continue to stagnate? Will we be attacked again?--and the concomitant reaction--Will Obama's policies hurt or help...or matter? Will a huminatarian peace-keeping mission turn into a war?--shouldn't be overlooked. The American people are not as patient as they used to be and will blame the President and Congress whether deserved or not. Lest we forget, way back in 2004 there was a so-called permanent Republican majority. It lasted all of 2 years. Voters could very well experience buyers' remorse in 2010 or 2012 as they did in 2006. The times change. Quickly.

As a traditional conservative, I believe that our society and culture was built on and continues to require certain principles that have proven successful over time. Though political winds may shift, bedrock principles aren't so easily changed. They have allowed us to prosper as individuals, as families, as communities and as a nation. They must be constantly defended and, where appropriate, modified, if slowly (to paraphrase Edmund Burke), to meet the new challenges of the time. And they endure, even if unheeded, no matter the ephemeral presence that occupies the Oval Office. After all, if conservative principles can survive long years in the wilderness of Canada (and Europe, for that matter), they can certainly survive an election cycle or two here in the U.S.A.

So, regardless of who is "running the country," I'll still continue to devote most of my energy to--and derive the majority of my happiness from--my family and friends and neighbors. And I'll continue to espouse and defend and debate over the principles upon which, I believe, offer us all the best chance for success. And, hopefully, I'll do it all with a smile and a chuckle in-waiting. It's only politics, after all.


October 13, 2008


The Government Just Allows You to Keep Some Things

Justin Katz

How quickly we could slide into tyranny! All it takes is a perceived need to reveal that human beings are very comfortable asserting government ownership and leveraging its power:

What if Congress suddenly awoke from its spineless ho-hum existence and passed a law that stated that heretofore every American's body would become the property of the federal government immediately upon death. And that all such bodies would be subject to inspection and all suitable organs harvested before the bodies would be returned to the families for burial.

Immediately all waiting lists for organ transplants would become a thing of the past and many new life-saving transplants would be developed. Gone would be a family's long agony as they awaited the availability of a vital organ to preserve the life of a loved one. Gone would be the risk of accepting a borderline organ in fear that a healthy one might not arrive in time. And gone would be the reluctance of doctors to accept older patients into a transplant program, preferring instead to selectively award rare organs to younger people with longer life expectancies.

Of course, the author, George Champagne of Greenville, isn't thinking just transplants. He also lauds the potential for "countless new medical procedures." I imagine sympathizers would also find advantageous the opportunity to inspect every American corpse after death for other reasons.


October 12, 2008


Creating a Void, or Filling a Vacancy?

Justin Katz

I just caught a few moments of Beyond the Politics with Bill Bennett, and on a question pertaining to the government's tendency to usurp the powers of civil institutions, black leftist academic Cornel West argued that the two could enhance each other, "if its done right." What's needed to make the difference, according to West, is strong leadership.

The obvious conservative response is to note that definitions of strength and leadership are subjective. However, even those who believe that their own views will be reflected in the applied force of a pervasive government ought to pause for reflection and consider process. How does one implement a system that places just the right leadership in just the right position to conduct the government-society cooperative? Given human nature, I'd suggest that it can't be done.

One approach would be to give those currently in power the authority to reach deep into the culture to shape its progression and then push better leaders into position. Clearly, though, the more strength granted to incumbents, the more difficult it is to give that strength to somebody else.

Another approach would be to find the Great Leaders, bring them to power, and then unleash their fabulosity. The problem here is that the momentum of the intention would attract charlatans and invite corruption, tainting the future government from the start. Moreover, mortality and the gravity of concentrated power being what they are, the Golden Honeymoon will necessarily be temporary, leaving a pool of power available for the claiming.


October 11, 2008


When Bullying Is What We Can't Do Individually

Justin Katz

Soon-to-be-former Town Councilor Brian Medeiros (who isn't running to maintain his seat) expresses a potentially alarming notion about governance:

Government is supposed to help us all do things we can't do individually.

If he's talking about communal defense against plausible military attack, then I'd agree. If he's talking about making teachers into an unaccountable class with disproportionate earnings and benefits, then I disagree. The point is that humanity developed societies to accomplish its larger, more complicated goals, but government and society are not synonymous. Some communal tasks are best assigned to families, to businesses, to religions, to cultural institutions.

It's particularly galling to hear a town councilor's protestation that we should have "an honest, respectful debate about what kind of town we want to live in" mere months after the body of which he is a part subverted public confidence in our financial procedures in order to pass a budget that faced tangible opposition. It's difficult to take seriously admonitions to work together as a community in order to avoid the loss of services when the local government maintains the character of the town — as they call it — by rezoning swaths of land to forbid commercial development and then leverages procedural technicalities to brush off applications submitted hastily to beat the zoning switch.

I kid you not that there's a local political action committee (PAC) that calls itself the Alliance to Preserve Tiverton's Quality. From my place in the working class quarters, that sounds like a group advocating on behalf of "quality" residents to ensure aesthetic lifeboats from our sinking economy. In that spirit, thwarting developers and squeezing ever more tax dollars out of residents is something that those pulling town levers couldn't accomplish individually.


October 10, 2008


Trying Different Things unto Socialism

Justin Katz

Yeah, I gotta vote "no" on this one:

Having tried without success to unlock frozen credit markets, the Treasury Department is considering taking ownership stakes in many United States banks to try to restore confidence in the financial system, according to government officials.

Treasury officials say the just-passed $700 billion bailout bill gives them the authority to inject cash directly into banks that request it. Such a move would quickly strengthen banks' balance sheets and, officials hope, persuade them to resume lending. In return, the law gives the Treasury the right to take ownership positions in banks, including healthy ones.

The Treasury plan was still preliminary and it was unclear how the process would work, but it appeared that it would be voluntary for banks.

"Restore confidence" is another way of saying "promise public backing and rescue." That's exactly what created the environment in which Fannie and Freddie allowed things to get so out of whack.

If we're not going to let the market be the market, then give a quick infusion of cash, with some strings ensuring repayment to the government, and leave it alone. You can't cure a sickness with more of the same poison.


October 3, 2008


Looking Forward in Tiverton

Justin Katz

I've got a letter in the current Sakonnet Times looking ahead in the effort to get Tiverton on a better, more sustainable track:

In short, if a revolt is to be successful and enduring, it must be considered, and from that necessity derives the difficult, often tedious work that must be done. Razing the town square requires only a match and the flick of a wrist; rebuilding Main Street requires thought and mutual action.

We have to come to understand our town and its governance intimately in order to apply pressure just so, just there (a little to the right) — with light prods to reposition policies where they are awkward or detrimental, with caressive persuasion to relax resistance to new, sometimes frightening ideas, and with the occasional painful tug through which we may find relief. That, in my estimation, is the framework within which TCC must act and in which citizens should participate. Change is a regimen, not a pill.


September 26, 2008


The Familiar Ring of Fascism

Justin Katz

Something from a recent David Brooks column ought to sound familiar:

The government will be much more active in economic management (pleasing a certain sort of establishment Democrat). Government activism will provide support to corporations, banks and business and will be used to shore up the stable conditions they need to thrive (pleasing a certain sort of establishment Republican). Tax revenues from business activities will pay for progressive but business-friendly causes — investments in green technology, health care reform, infrastructure spending, education reform and scientific research.

If you wanted to devise a name for this approach, you might pick the phrase economist Arnold Kling has used: Progressive Corporatism. We're not entering a phase in which government stands back and lets the chips fall. We're not entering an era when the government pounds the powerful on behalf of the people. We're entering an era of the educated establishment, in which government acts to create a stable — and often oligarchic — framework for capitalist endeavor.

After a liberal era and then a conservative era, we're getting a glimpse of what comes next.

From Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism:

In reality, if you define "right-wing" or "conservative" in the American sense of supporting the rule of law and the free market, then the more right-wing a business is, the less fascist it becomes. Meanwhile, in terms of economic policy, the more you move to the political center, as defined in American politics today, the closer you get to true fascism. If the far left is defined by socialism and the far right by laissez-faire, then it is the mealymouthed centrists of the Democratic Leadership Council and the Brookings Institution who are the true fascists, for it is they who subscribe to the notion of the Third Way, that quintessentially fascistic formulation that claims to be neither left nor right. More important, these myths are often deliberately perpetuated in order to hasten the transformation of American society into precisely the kind of fascist — or corporatist — nation liberals claim to oppose. (285)

As we've seen, ideologically fascist and progressive totalitarianism was never a mere doctrine of statism. Rather, it claimed that the state was the natural brain of the organic body politic. Statism was the route to collectivism. (335)

The real threat is that the promise of American life will be frittered away for a bag of magic beans called security. (393)

... both [George W. Bush and Bill Clinton] are products of a new progressive spirit in American politics. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberals believed that the demise of national security as a defining issue would allow them to revive the progressive agenda. They hoped to invest the "peace dividend" in all manner of Third Way schemes, including new-corporatist public-private partnerships, emulating the more enlightened industrial policies of Europe and Japan. ... The climax of all this was Hillary Clinton's attempt to take over American health care, which in turn released largely libertarian anti-bodies in the form of the Contract with America and the, alas short-lived, Gingrich revolution. (400)


September 21, 2008


NOW Morphs into NOD ... and Maybe That's a Good Sign

Monique Chartier

Perhaps it was inevitable, in view of their advocacy of certain issues which they perceive benefits all women, issues primarily, though not exclusively, advanced by one political party. And they certainly telegraphed this action ten years ago with silence in the face of Bill Clinton's serial harassment of vulnerable and subordinate women, a group whom they purport to champion.

In any case, with their endorsement Tuesday of an all-male (Democrat) Presidential ticket, the National Organization for Women has officially turned into the National Organization for Democrats.

This may be a good thing, in a strange way; an indication that America is in the final stages of moving past the consideration of gender in politics. Certainly this has been my own experience since jumping into politics almost ten years ago. Any negative reaction to my words or even presence in that time has been directed not at my gender but exclusively toward my stance on a particular matter.

In fact, this blithe indifference left me unprepared for the focus on gender which the arrival of both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin in the presidential race evoked. I took it for granted that the discussion about their candidacies would be centered exclusively on their qualifications, policies and governing records (... and, as with all candidates, any dirt that could be dug up or spun about them).

Now perhaps, with the endorsement by an organization with one gender in their name of a ticket comprised entirely of the other gender, we really have arrived at the issues-and-qualifications stage of politics in America. (Dirt, on the other hand, will presumably continue to have a revolting/guiltily fascinating presence.)


September 20, 2008


So What's the Lesson?

Justin Katz

Charles Pinning's op-ed in today's Providence Journal may present an awkward blend of maudlin setting and ideological sneer, but perhaps it offers a chance for productive conversation. Pinning puts the following in the mouth of an older male character from Providence's west side, speaking of the regular schmoes whom his elderly sweetheart just encountered at the supermarket (emphasis added):

"Right — they're always kept off-balance. It is the goal of corporations to do this. Deny traction, and you keep people herky-jerky, running in place and churning profits for you. Listen to this:" (He picked up the newspaper.)

"August 27, Business section, front page, headline: 'National Grid asks rate hike of about 5 percent.' It goes on to say . . . 'National Grid also wants the Public Utilities Commission to restructure distribution rates in a way that would protect the company from revenue losses that result from the conservation efforts of its customers.'

"Got that? The raping has been so blatant for so long that National Squid feels it can come straight out and essentially say, 'You can conserve all you want. We're still going to squeeze the same amount of money out of you! We're just shifting the charges to another area.'

"It's the same thing that the Narragansett Bay Commission is trying to pull by asking the PUC to raise rates because of revenue loss due to customers' conserving water over the past three years. People logically think they're going to save a few bucks by using less water or less natural gas — but no! The utilities . . . Narragansett Bay . . . they're petitioning the PUC to get the same level of bucks they want no matter how much water or gas you use. Where's the incentive to conserve? We might as well keep nice and cozy and warm, or use as much water as we want because they're gonna get the same amount of money, whether you use five therms of gas or five hundred; a thimbleful of water or a hundred gallons a day!

"How do I make it clear to people that these corporations have people on a gerbil wheel? That instead of being rewarded for doing the right thing, you will be punished."

Note the player that is conveniently left out of the condemnation: the Public Utilities Commission, itself — the existence of which gives the evil corporations a limited government body to petition, and the authority of which gives a sheen of legitimacy, even inevitability, to the corporate machinations, should it be persuaded. In the absence of such a group, National Grid might simply enact the rate hikes that it desires, and people would respond by seeking ways to conserve or look elsewhere. At some point, it would become sufficiently profitable for competition to arise (whether direct or with the presentation of an alternative), which safeguard comes with a higher threshold to the extent that market entrants face regulatory hurdles.

Corporations alone are not the enemy, here. Corporations in concert with a limited governing body that is human, and therefore manipulable, create the problem.

That perspective is why such news as the following brings out the conspiracy theorist in me:

The outlines of the plan [to rescue financial institutions], described in conference calls to lawmakers on Friday, include buying assets only from United States financial institutions — but not hedge funds — and hiring outside advisers who would work for the Treasury, rather than creating a separate agency. ...

At the end of a week that will be long remembered for the wrenching changes it brought to Wall Street and Washington, Mr. Paulson and Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, told lawmakers that the financial system had come perilously close to collapse. According to notes taken by one participant in a call to House members, Mr. Paulson said that the failure to pass a broad rescue plan would lead to nothing short of disaster. Mr. Bernanke said that Wall Street had plunged into a full-scale panic, and warned lawmakers that their own constituents were in danger of losing money on holdings in ultra-conservative money market funds.

People involved in the discussions on Friday said that Mr. Paulson said he did not want to create a new government agency to handle the rescue plan. Rather, he said, the Treasury Department would hire professional investment managers to oversee what could be a huge portfolio of mortgage-backed securities.

The current financial industry is not wholly a free-market animal. It's a pack of abnormally large beasts nurtured in a particular regulatory environment. And it begins to look awfully convenient that the government that nurtured the creatures will bring their power and responsibilities within its own walls. A quick scan of the economic landscape makes one shudder to think how many industries are evolving in this way.

In other spheres — the social, the religious, the historical — I can at least comprehend the other side's reasoning, and usually empathize with its motivation. But for the life of me, I cannot understand why subscribers to an ideology so distrustful of people with economic power believe that the answer is to consolidate that power, with other forms, in the hands of an even more limited group.

Absorbing everything under the aegis of Government doesn't put everybody on equal footing; it puts us within the walls of a political master.


September 17, 2008


The Problem with Activism, Per Se

Justin Katz

Although I obviously agree with his immediate point, something in this post by Damon Root strikes the ear funny, in a way that betrays the lack of long-term thinking among libertarians (emphasis added):

McCain's response? "That's an excellent point." I don't know if excellent is the word I'd use. When conservatives complain about judges "legislating from the bench," they mean protecting rights that aren't explicitly listed in the Constitution, such as privacy (or liberty of contract or the right to educate your child in a private school). Unless McCain starts campaigning to pass a new amendment reinstating slavery, I think Whoopi can rest easy. Besides, if she had read Lysander Spooner or Frederick Douglass, she'd know that slavery was already illegal before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Are liberty of contract or the right to educate children in private school really on conservatives' hit list? From the piece (of his own authorship) that Root links on the words "liberty of contract":

Dissenting from the majority in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which nullified that state's anti-sodomy law, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued that the Texas legislature's "hand should not be stayed through the invention of a brand-new 'constitutional right' by a Court that is impatient of democratic change."

Such views are widely shared on the right, where few subjects produce greater outrage than judicial activism, which conservatives blame for the forced imposition of liberal values on American society. But libertarians, who have frequently allied with conservatives in the effort to rein in the federal government, should not join their battle against the judiciary. There is no inconsistency between principled judicial activism and limited government.

Root goes on to explain that, in the past, "judicial activism was associated almost exclusively with the protection of economic rights" and "that a principled form of libertarian judicial activism--that is, one that consistently upholds individual rights while strictly limiting state power--is essential to the fight for a free society." What's jarring is that modern conservatives like those outcomes, and it's instructive to consider ideological groups according to the beliefs that they actually hold, rather than in the relativist terms that equate today's "conservatives" with yesterday's.

The lesson for Root, who presumably joins many libertarians in approving of the more-recent social outcomes of judicial activism, is that the mechanism by which political ends are achieved matters, because the ends have a way of (quote, unquote) evolving. He describes the first, economic wave of judicial activism as a reaction to a movement among the states toward "legislating a variety of new 'progressive' regulations," which amounts to a preservation of understood structures against the imposition of change. The social wave of judicial activism, by contrast, has entailed transforming the established understandings of "liberty" to include (most prominently) various sexual behaviors, with the trail leading predictably toward social recognition of all sexual relationships as equivalent in all respects.

The first wave made the statement: "The government can't change that." The second: "The government must change that." The next step (again, predictable, indeed, already underway) is: "The government must enforce that." In other words, one citizen's liberty has a way of becoming another citizens compelled compliance when there's an untouchable arbiter to persuade.

Peeling back Root's statements by one layer, it becomes apparent that one could say much the same about any form of government or government action. He writes that "a principled form of libertarian judicial activism... is essential to the fight for a free society," but both his boundary for principle and his chosen mechanism are arbitrary. One could just as easily declare that a principled dictatorship — a principled theocracy — is essential. The problem is that those who find themselves in positions of imbalanced power will find ways to control the levers of power, to ensure that their "principles" are included in the practical definition of the term, and the smaller the group that upholds the principles, the smaller the task of manipulating it.

Me, I say we should let states institute foolhardy, even oppressive rules, as long as folks are remain able to vote, to speak, and to leave. If Rhode Island were to forbid the use of private schools, for example, statistics suggest that I'd hardly be alone in taking my tax dollars and productivity elsewhere. Relying on judges to determine — especially for the entire nation — what is right and wrong, we invite a precedent that will remain even when judicial wisdom takes a turn that we oppose.


September 10, 2008


The Difference Is in What We Love

Justin Katz

Most workday mornings (especially if everybody in the house slept through the night), my drive over the Sakonnet River Bridge brings a wave of gratitude for the sights that fill my days. Similarly, the breeze off the water, whether warm or cool, as I cross the parking lot to church come a Sunday morning makes it that much easier to understand that life per se is a blessing, and life in Rhode Island, in Tiverton, serves to emphasize that fact.

I describe these sensations because those who love Rhode Island from an ideological cocoon (often receiving sustenance and livelihood in some degree from its corrupt civic culture) tend to go straight for the smear that reformers despise the place that they are attempting to improve and the people whom they are attempting to enlighten. Such was the case when one artist of aspersion, Patrick Crowley, the Assistant Executive Director of National Education Association Rhode Island, called me "the lead spokesman for 'I Hate Rhode Islanders'" in the Providence Journal back in January. And such is the rhetoric simmering behind the lips of those who would scald Tiverton Citizens for Change.

Nobody devoting hours to the cause of improving the place in which he or she lives "hates" that place. Such crusaders may be wrong. They may be right, although too eager. But differences of opinion at the local level indicate, at their most profound, that the disputants merely love different things about their home towns.

So, while I can't speak to the motivation of everybody who has expressed a desire for lower taxes and a less suffocating public sector, I can offer two examples of moments that leave me unable just to let Tiverton, and Rhode Island, be as they are. One (the obvious) comes as an echo to an envelope ripped open annually in the kitchen, bringing knowledge that a flat-rate mortgage is no protection against the town government's demands for more of homeowners' slender budgets. Ordering our household finances as carefully as we may is no charm against our representatives' promising our taxes for things we cannot afford.

The other example comes when I'm driving around the area on some errand and get a glimpse of the intriguing character of our surroundings. That geographic personality is an attribute that I lack the time and resources to explore, and its tantalizing, unattainable proximity directly affects citizens' quality of life. For too many of us, this town and state provide a setting for survival, not opportunity. For passing wistfulness, not sustained enjoyment. Yet, those who believe that the reins of power are theirs by right resent our refusal to accept legislated and negotiated largess as part of the inviolable scenery.

I don't know what sort of sensation will greet me with the evening wind outside the VFW hall on Shove St., Tiverton, after the first public TCC meeting, next Monday (the 15th), but I'm certain of the chance that it will contain hope, and he whose hope is nourished has much to love.


July 30, 2008


Separation of Advocacy and State

Justin Katz

Tiverton's public hearing on charter-related questions potentially to be placed on the next ballot didn't let out until after 11:00, Monday night, although many in the audience (including the Providence Journal's Gina Macris) left after the headline-grabbing debate over the future of the financial town meeting had ended. I stayed so late — despite dying stealth-blogger-gear batteries and a lack of worthwhile reading material — out of interest in the penultimate question, the passage of which would result in the insertion of the following language in the town charter (with the deleted text removed, per Monday night's vote, I believe):

No officer or employee of the Town, including the School Department, shall use, or cause to be used, Town property, goods, money, grants, or labor to influence the outcome of or encourage or discourage elector voting with respect to, an election, ballot question, Financial Town Meeting, or referendum; the foregoing shall not prohibit the distribution or publication of election, ballot question, Financial Town Meeting, or referendum information by the Town Clerk, the Board of Canvassers, or a Charter Review Commission.

During the discussion period, Town Council President Louise Durfee let it be known that she had consulted an ACLU attorney who believed the question to be sufficiently broad that a suit could be brought against the town on First Amendment grounds even before the rule had been invoked in response to an alleged violation. Inasmuch as she must file a W2 with the town, and is therefore an employee, she is concerned that she might be restricted from offering her opinion to a constituent while waiting in line at CVS on the grounds that she had expended town "labor" to promote her side.

Thus do lawyers leverage their own proclivity for distorting plain understanding to argue that reformist legislation might be subject to invidious interpretation beyond the scope of its language. By constitutional law, the argument goes, all town employees must be free to speak their minds, and some judge might interpret the above language in contravention of that right, so the law must be unconstitutional.

One needn't be a lawyer (indeed, it might help not to be) to comprehend that no judge could produce such an interpretation because the First Amendment forbids it. The language clearly does not explicitly propose a restriction of free speech, and I believe that a fair reading cannot do otherwise than conclude that it doesn't implicitly do so.

To illustrate this point, I asked Ms. Durfee whether she is currently permitted to respond if a constituent in line at CVS asks her whether she believes there to be a God. Her response, in concert with Councilor Brian Medeiros, was that, as a secular servant of the people, her opinion on theology is irrelevant. It is not. That only seems to be the case because church/state boundaries in the law have been so thoroughly traversed, thereby illustrating the legal delineation of public "labor," specifically by precedent allowing public officials to express opinions on religion, whether in the course of their duties or in their private lives.

If Louise Durfee, as an always-on-duty public servant, can speak her mind about religion despite clear proscriptions against her implementing such views via the resources and privileges available by virtue of her office, then certainly she could offer her views on a budget despite a charter rule intended to "prohibit the use of Town resources to influence the outcome of a voting contest."


July 29, 2008


Trash Day Rant Redux

Justin Katz

Given past experience with the vulnerability of our trash receptacles on garbage day, we should have known better. We shouldn't have run out of garbage bags. The children shouldn't have filled an unlined can. My wife shouldn't have put that can out on the street to be emptied into the truck.

But it seems to me that it ought to have been perceivable that the whole thing wasn't meant to be taken, and I'm close enough to that line of work to imagine that we were on the receiving end of a lesson about pushing the boundaries of those who serve us. Personally, were I a garbage man in a sour mood, my instructional method would have been to leave the can untouched. Moreover, were they garbage men who stood to lose my business, they might have been more circumspect about the conclusions to which I might come, and were their employer not assured of my payment no matter my personal impression of his company, I'd be more confident that a complaint would be justly addressed.



Links from a Busy Blogger

Marc Comtois

I've been busy with "life" (work, family, volunteering, recreation, Citadel board meetings;) and haven't had a chance to post much of substance. That trend continues, so here are a couple things I've found interesting over the last few days.

Jim Lindgren has looked into--and exposed--the activities and agenda of a group calling itself Service Nation that is trying to implement compulsory volunteerism. Heh.

A recent "random thought" by Thomas Sowell comes to mind:

Some of the most emotionally powerful words are undefined, such as "social justice," "a living wage," "price gouging" or a "fragile" environment, for example. Such terms are especially valuable to politicians during an election year, for these terms can attract the votes of people who mean very different-- and even mutually contradictory-- things when they use these words.
Apparently, we've now gotta put "volunteerism" (and "change") into this category.

Historian Victor Davis Hanson explains why Europeans Love Obama.

The Tax Foundation has found 15 ways to define "Income" and explains that its no wonder we can't agree on whether it's going up, down or staying the same.

Finally, I've yet to read it, but Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam have written a new book, Grand New Party, in which they seek to chart a course for the 21st Century GOP. (Here's an article based on the book). Basically, they argue that the future is in appealing to so-called Sam's Club voters. Here are two (one - two) reviews.


July 26, 2008


Lessons to Be Drawn

Justin Katz

In response to Mary Eberstadt's thought-provoking piece about the accurate prognostications of Humanae Vitae, Todd Zywicki notes (and Glenn Reynolds seconds) the possibility of a cost-benefit analysis with respect to the sexual revolution. It's difficult to draw a boundary around the topic; to put it in the form of a question that I posed a few years ago: "Would a married couple requesting the pill for the first time [in the 1960s] have believed anybody loony enough to suggest that gay marriage — let alone cloning — would be the result?"

If we seek common ground beyond all of those sticky issues, though, we might salvage a common point from among the rancor. Specifically, we might note that a different procedural course of implementing the sexual revolution might have preserved that which has been lost as "unintended consequences," while allowing exploration of the benefits of change. Had the Supreme Court not made contraception a positive right, with Griswold v. Connecticut, perhaps the people of the United States would have pursued their federalist experimentation in the way that is only possible when there are actually territories to be gained and lost. Thus would our national community culture have swirled around between drastically different sets of priorities, bringing what was common to the fore.

That is to say that we might accurately be able to include among the "unintended consequences" of the sexual revolution the undermining of a political philosophy that allowed the blending of subcultures to the benefit, ultimately, of all.


July 18, 2008


Open Thread: The Future of America and the Future of Conservatism in America

Carroll Andrew Morse

New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks believes that the government needs "to act in gigantic ways over the next few years"...

We’re entering an era of epic legislation. There are at least five large problems that will compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years.

First, there is the erosion of the social contract. Private sector firms are less likely to provide health benefits, producing a desperate need for health care reform.

Second, there is the energy shortage. Rising Asian demand strains worldwide supply, threatening industry and consumers, and producing calls for a bold energy initiative.

Third, there is the stagnation in human capital. During the 20th century, Americans were better educated than the citizens of any other power. Since 1970, that lead has been forfeited, producing inequality and wage stagnation. To compete, the U.S. will require a series of human capital initiatives.

Fourth, there’s financial market reform. In an intricately connected world, even Republican administrations cannot allow big institutions to fail. If government is going to guarantee against failure, then it is inevitably going to get more involved in regulating how businesses are run.

Fifth, there’s infrastructure reform. The U.S. transportation system is in shambles and will require major new projects.

Has Brooks set the right priorities? Has he missed anything or overstated anything? And how will conservatism fit into the future domestic policy agenda, Brooksian or otherwise?


July 2, 2008


John Adams

Marc Comtois

Ed Achorn had a piece yesterday on John Adams and recommended taking in the HBO mini-series that is now out on DVD (I hope to). Coincidentally, I had been thinking about Adams thanks to Matt Allen's (gratuitous plug!) Independence Day show over the past weekend, during which he read the Declaration of Independence and extolled the virtues of our great nation. The conversation was wide-ranging, and along the way he made an off-the-cuff remark along the lines that John Adams was a Democrat and Thomas Jefferson was a Republican.

Wha.....? I thought. I suspected it was based on the fact that Adams was a prominent member of the post-Revolution Federalist Party (along with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, incidentally), which advocated a strong central government. Given Matt's, shall we say, inclination against big government, I can understand why he'd think that anyone for a strong national government--no matter the time or place, I suppose--was akin to what we would call a contemporary, big government Democrat.

Unfortunately, I think Matt is anachronistically attributing the Federalist's desire to centralize power as the equivalent of today's conception of "big government." But he's missing the historical context surrounding the rise of the Federalist philosophy of government, which was based on a belief that they urgently needed to strengthen and tighten the internal ties of their nascent nation so it could survive in a belligerent world.

If anything, Adams is considered by most conservatives to have been the first American conservative; one of their own, much less a Founding era Democrat! He wasn't interested in encroaching on the rights of the population or imposing arbitrary taxes or monetary redistribution or instituting a vast bureaucracy or creating programs to address every ill, whether real or perceived. In fact, neither were his political opponents, Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. I guess the truth of the matter is that, in the Founding era, there really was no equivalent to the modern conception of a big-government Democrat. They came along with Woodrow Wilson and, later, FDR.

If so inclined, read on for a little of the historical context I mentioned.

Continue reading "John Adams"

April 22, 2008


Wait a Second, Mr. Marx

Justin Katz

Some aspects of Marxism have a sort of common-sense appeal on first reading. Those of a conservative bent may feel something to be awry, but it takes some sifting to raise, and even then the subtleties foil discussion with those of differing inclinations. Consider Mickey Kaus's confession of Obamaesque snobbery (via Instapundit):

If Democrats had delivered on the economy, Obama suggests, all those GOP cultural "wedge" issues would lose traction. This idea--that the economy trumps culture--isn't new. It's "materialism." The economic "base," Marxists would argue, determines the cultural "superstructure." If the economy changes (i.e. if small town Pennsylvanians get well-paying jobs) then the superstructure will change (Pennsylvanians will feel less intensely about their religion). ..

The problem for me is that I'm a Vulgar Marxist too. I've always believed that people need to eat, and want to get ahead and prosper. If you give them an avenue that lets them do that, they aren't going to let their religion, their music, their sexual habits, their families or their educational system stand in their way for long.

Speaking to the generality first, one should realize that Kaus is shuffling two decks together, here: one insisting that prosperity will ultimately drain the passion from a particular group of values (centrally, religion), and one treating prosperity as a trumping concern. The latter emphasizes that people will not let anything stand in the way of material comfort; the former assumes that religion inherently stands in the way. The former declares what economic success will do; the latter suggests how it may be used.

Thus do Democrats and liberals attempt to make their sheaf of cultural priorities seem necessities riding along with their promise of economic health. They'll claim that right wingers, with the intention of manipulating us economically, distract the masses with immigration, same-sex marriage, and terrorism, but the left-wingers want to market economic balms so that they can impose amnesties, cultural redefinitions, and multiculturalism.

Moving to the specific expectations of a comfortable population, the modern Marxist's assumptions aren't true. Wealth, for example, does not negate religion per se. Indeed, in the long run, a stable home life, defined by sexual control (for one thing) is a more sure avenue toward success than libertinism, but liberals eschew what they see of the judgmentalism of such expectations. It might be more accurate to suggest that they promise their economic fixes to distract from the economic hindrance of their social policies.

If progressives truly believed that their preferred cultural innovations would follow economic success, as a sort of social default, they'd be civil libertarians (and, of course, some are). Modern conservatives, by contrast, tend to believe that their cultural values are compatible with economic prosperity and freedom, but by no means assured. Therefore, they pursue the freedom of other social institutions, such as churches, to have a substantial effect on citizens.


April 21, 2008


High Rollers on the Hill

Justin Katz

I get that winning clients sometimes requires wooing them — especially in the glamor-obsessed entertainment industry. As a government activity, however, this makes me very uncomfortable:

When Steven Feinberg entertains people in the television and moviemaking industry, he entertains them in style.

He sprang for the Ravioli al Filetto at Venda's Café, the rib-eye special at Zooma, the 16 oz. center-cut sirloin at Siena , a filet mignon at The Capital Grille and along the way bottles of wine costing up to $39. He hired chauffeured cars to shuttle some of the stars of the Showtime series Brotherhood back and forth during nights out that ended at 3 a.m.

He treated actor "Joseph Pantoliano and family" to $203 worth of gondola rides along the Providence riverfront.

In his role as director of the state Film & TV Office, he sent $1,375 worth of gift baskets from Wickford Gourmet to the cast and crew of Evening, before they decamped.

And when Feinberg flew to California last summer, he stayed in a "premier ocean-view room" in the newly renovated Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica, that one magazine likened to "the city's hottest club ... a vision of movie-set cool." Though city-view rooms went for much less, his room cost fluctuated from $419 to $499 on different nights.

Every step of the way, Rhode Island taxpayers paid the bills.

Sure, other states do it, and RI House Speaker Bill Murphy (D, West Warwick) argues that Feinberg's activity has yielded "a tremendous return on the investment," but the whole effort is beyond the boundaries of what government ought to be about. I'd venture to suggest that few voters consider the dedication of their representatives to charming Hollywood; government isn't structured to behave that explicitly as a business. Frankly, the leadership on the Hill ought to turning over with sufficient frequency to make the company-legislature distinction clearer.

If, as a public collective, we wish to bring movie makers to Rhode Island, our government's appropriate approach is to get out of the way, not to fly a caviar charmer out to California.


April 20, 2008


China and the Olympic Spirit

Monique Chartier

My grimly favorite reaction to the protests which dogged the Olympic flame through London, Paris and other cities was by a Beijing Olympic official, curiously not named in this government sanctioned article, who said that the protests "blasphemed the Olympic spirit." The irony that the actions of the goons and thugs who have ruled China for many decades have exemplified the antithesis of the Olympic spirit seems to have completely escaped him.

In the meantime, since those protests abroad, the government has permitted days of counter-demonstrations within China.

People gathered in front of [French retailer] Carrefour stores, chanting slogans of "Oppose Tibet independence" and "Oppose CNN's anti-China statements," referring to the international broadcaster, the official Xinhua news agency said.

They also chanted "Support the Olympics," "Play up! China," and "Condemn CNN" through loudspeakers.

More than 1,000 people assembled in front of a Carrefour store in the northwestern city of Xian holding protest banners, Xinhua said.

The Chinese government dispatched troops to protect Carrefour stores and now seems to be signaling for the protests to end.

But in recent days state media have called for calm in commentaries that have underscored the need for social stability ahead of the Beijing Olympics, the first time the nation has hosted such a prestigious event.

China's dictatorship is too insecure to endure the passion of protests, even pro-Chinese and, by extension, pro-government ones. This insecurity has now infected the Nepal government, which has prohibited the climbing of Mount Everest beyond Camp 3 until May 10, when the Olympic torch is to reach the summit of Mount Everest.

The Nepal government's stand comes in the wake of a heightened concern of the Chinese government towards ensuring a safe passage for the beleaguered torch.

The restrictions imposed on the mountaineers include prohibition of taking pictures or sending out any news clipping about their Himalayan expedition to the world outside. Moreover, they cannot proceed beyond Camp 3, at a height of about 7,000 metre. Liason officials have reportedly been posted at various points to ensure that the restrictions are strictly adhered to.

* * *

A senior NTB official confessed the western media, in particular, was piqued at these restrictions imposed by the government on the request of the Chinese government.

"But the Olympic Torch has to be protected at all cost. It is unreasonable on the part of westerners to make such a fuss about these restrictions, which are only temporary. In any case, people should respect the laws of the land they are travelling in," said the official.

And The Kathmandu Post, via New Delhi Television, reports today that Nepalese security forces have been deployed to Everest with orders to "shoot if necessary"

Nepal government has deployed dozens of security personnel on Mount Everest with orders to shoot if necessary to thwart possible anti-China protests by Tibetans during Beijing's planned Olympic torch run to the summit.

The security personnel equipped with logistics and mountaineering equipment have already moved to Camp II situated at an altitude of 6,600 metres above sea level, according to officials.

Also, the soldiers have been given orders to shoot if necessary, The Kathmandu Post daily reported on Sunday, quoting officials.

Can we get confirmation from that unnamed Chinese Olympic offical that this climbing restriction, not to mention the shoot-first-ask-questions-later order, are in keeping with the Olympic spirit?


March 29, 2008


A Further Thought

Justin Katz

But let's not lose sight of a principle that looms pretty large in conservative philosophy: that social pressure is often the appropriate means of guiding individuals toward behavior that is healthy for society. This concept puts conservatives at the obvious political disadvantage of giving liberals cover to declare that they judge nothing but judgement and untruth (which is a lie), while conservatives must have the courage of their convictions and step forward in the face of error, even when doing so is difficult and involves skirting tricky lines and making one's self a target (which, by the way, arguably reinforces the healthy social pressure on the pressurer).

Popular interpretation of Jesus' admonition about being the first to cast stones has, I think, treated the stones as too broad a metaphor. In specific, they were instruments of execution. To treat them as representative of mere disapproval ignores the fact that Jesus' instruction to the woman was to go forth and sin no more, which required that she knew what was sinful, which required that her culture informed her.

Will it hurt a child, one day, to read judgemental language on the Internet regarding his parents and the circumstances of his childhood? Probably. But much more profound was the harm to the child done by those who determined the circumstances. Worse is the harm to victims of the legitimization of irresponsible behavior.


March 18, 2008


Principle Begets Innovation

Justin Katz

Tom Sgouros decries the lack of worthy investments for people with money. The problem, he's arguing, isn't that the wealthy don't have the money to invest; it's that they have nowhere to invest it; they're holding it or directing it to safer investments. Me, I'll take his argument at face value, because I think he points to a more fundamental, and ultimately more important, discussion:

To be sure, there are still niches to find and exploit, but in a world with the global competition we have now, those opportunities are narrower and more elusive than they once were. Our problem isn't a shortage of investors or funds to invest, but a real shortage of places to invest them.

Instead of showering our largesse on the investor class, shouldn't we instead be focusing our resources on all the other essential parts of the equation: the inventors, the markets, the workers, the supply chains? Just as an example, recent talk about finding renewable energy opportunities, like building blades for giant wind turbines at Quonset, or creating local markets for clean electricity, seem much more on target to address these problems than current state policies. If you understand our economic issues this way, slashing school and university funding to benefit investors hardly seems to answer the needs we face, but that's what's in store this year.

Just to be clear, we're not talking government subsidies for investment; we're talking "cuts in corporate and income taxes," as well as capital gains. That being the case, conservative readers will surely pick up on, and object to, Sgouros's view that allowing people to keep money that they've earned is equivalent to "showering our largesse" on them. To the contrary, as a key matter of principle, it isn't "our" money; it's theirs, and if they were to remove themselves from our tax base (speaking especially in the context of Rhode Island, here), then we'd have none of it.

I agree, however, that we have to focus (our intellectual resources, anyway) on "the inventors, the markets, the workers, the supply chains." The question is how we do such a thing. Sgouros makes a somewhat oblique reference to the fashionable green energy industry, but he doesn't explain what it would mean to "focus our resources on it."

Curiously absent from these discussions, it seems to me, is any mention of what motivates our ostensible targets. What do inventors and workers want? What creates markets and facilitates supply chains? Well, workers want to make a living. Inventors are the same, but are often driven by intellectual curiosity to chase specific ideas. Markets arise when people want or need something, and supply chains develop to... err... supply them and their components.

These are all intentions and actions that arise unbidden. They do not need government bureaucrats and special interests to get together around a mahogany table in an air-controlled room so that they can step beyond the door to a pool of waiting microphones and announce to the society what direction would prove profitable. Inventors will solve problems and seek applications for their innovations. The people who comprise markets will look for what they want. Businesspeople will attempt to marry available technologies with apparent demand. Marketers will work to coax that demand along. And workers will calculate their own equations of need, interest, and ability to find the best opportunities for themselves.

An elite Board of Social Direction can only retard this process. By its nature, such a body begins with a priori requirements (which are ultimately political), and the only market that it can promise, it must wrest from all of the above citizens for reallocation. As much as that approach may periodically be necessary (in times of calamity and war), it is by no means efficient and too often proves irrevocable.

It oughtn't be controversial to suggest that the class of people who exist somewhere between neediness and opulence are so positioned that they will, by opportunity and necessity, make the most productive use of resources, but only rarely is a public entity most advantageously positioned to decide what that use ought to be. In attempting to allocate resources, that entity will more often overlay unnecessary and counterproductive obstacles.

To maximize a system of competition, the proper role of government is to facilitate the removal of obstacles that create unequal barriers to entry. That can mean physical obstacles, such as those literally lying in the path of transportation, but it can also mean regulatory obstacles — minimum wages and benefits, mandatory coverages, insurance, and other costs imposed by government.

People love to imagine that they can determine specific and ideal courses for their local societies, and many have direct interests in particular political outcomes, but even if one takes the tack that all wealth is ultimately "our" wealth, a largesse that we dispense at our pleasure, it's a whopper of a presumption that we can collectively elect or appoint a board with sufficient good will, objectivity, and intelligence to direct our economy.

In short, if we truly are to the point that further "tax cuts for the rich" only serve to give them money for which they've no productive use, it shouldn't fall to government to fabricate areas of investment. Rather, just as it has let out the monetary leash, so to speak, for an investor class, it must now let out the regulatory leash such that innovators and workers can more easily slip through the door.


March 14, 2008


William Felkner: Freedom Is the Cost of Social Justice

Engaged Citizen

On January 28, the London Telegraph reported that 10 percent of the city's hospitals had denied surgeries to smokers and the obese. Doctors were warning the elderly that they were next; "the health care system cannot afford to give free health care to everyone."

In Canada, citizens weren't allowed to use anything but government healthcare. But so many people died waiting for care that the Supreme Court reversed the law and ruled, "access to a waiting list is not access to health care." Yet, this legal battle continues.

For many of us, this is no surprise. Socialized medicine is devoid of competition and consumer investment, and therefore costs rise out of control. But the issue here isn't the fallacy of universal health care; it's how much freedom we are willing to give up for the benefits we receive.

Ayn Rand once said that the difference between a welfare state and a totalitarian state is a matter of time. It appears that that time is now in many parts of the world. London decides who is worthy of care, and Canada holds its market captive like America holds the poor in public schools. Oppression sells its wares under the guise of "social justice" demanding that the government's safety net instead become society's fabric. Once people become dependant, individual freedom is lost.

So, when Governor Caricieri announced that some of our tax dollars would be used to discourage out of wedlock childbirths and promote marriage, the reception was less than homey. Government isn't supposed to help people make choices; it is simply supposed to write them checks.

But for those of us who truly relish freedom, this is indeed a perplexing situation. It is beyond debate that two biological parents constitute the preferred environment for a child. But does government have the authority to influence lifestyle, or, dare I say, "moral" choices? The governor's response was the only logical statement anyone might accept: "If taxpayers must pay for other people's lifestyle choices, we have the right to influence those choices."

In a market driven social service world, people put their money with groups representing the values they support. Secular or not, donations were a way for people to "make the world a better place" in a manner the donors found worthy. But it's not like that anymore — at least not in RI.

Rhode Islanders like to say they are compassionate, but that compassion isn't voluntary. In 2005, the Catalog of Philanthropy released a report called the Generosity Index that ranked states on their "giving." Rhode Island ranked second lowest in the nation on the amount of money donated to charity according to itemized deductions. During that same year, RI spending on public assistance programs was the third highest in the country. And this is nothing new. Our "giving rank" from 1997 to 2004 (most recent year reported) was either 49th or 50th.

So now that we have developed a system that dictates a high level of government-enforced charity, whose morals will we use to administer it? Even if the proceeds are derived by coercion and government charity is given without condition, it becomes a value system that sends serious economic and moral signals. Rather than representing the absence of judgment, the evaporation of stigma within our politically correct, amoral government welfare state is a choice of values.

For all the ink that has been spilt deriding the president's insistence on "staying the course" after four years of resistance in the Iraq War, you would think progressives so critical of Bush would have recognized the same problem after 40 years of failure in the War on Poverty.

Welfare reform was nibbling around the edges of entitlement. For a real surge in morals, charity would have to be, well, charitable. The best we can hope for with government in the driver's seat is the finger-in-the-air test. Seventy-nine percent of American parents want teens to be taught abstinence until marriage, or at least until they are in adult relationships leading to marriage. They've got a much taller challenge on the other side of the pond, where 80 percent of the overtaxed Brits still want to pay for "social" abortions as medical entitlements.

First of all, I'm very glad "social" abortions are not yet in the RI lexicon, and I'm not even sure what they are, but I know I don't want my money paying for them. On the other hand, I also don't want to tell others how to spend their money, as long as it's legal, even when I'm with the majority, I fear its tyranny.

Society can strike a balance between The Scarlet Letter and Murphy Brown. It is far better that this dynamic process takes place without the fear that the government will pick the winner. Instead competing value systems can exist simultaneously, and their successes and failures can inform one another. The best deal we can possibly hope for is for government to recede a bit, making space for private action to strengthen the fabric of society with the safety net remaining just that.

If society does continue government-administered charity, we must accept a little totalitarianism. Me, I prefer freedomism.

William Felkner is the president of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute.


March 13, 2008


Knotting Some Public/Private Threads

Justin Katz

One can hear, in the expected quarters, the admonition that Eliot Spitzer's $80,000 whoring habit is a private matter. I wonder how many who'd make that argument also see David Richardson's travails in Providence — where he recently requested proof of the citizenship status of an Hispanic customer to his store — as private.

I imagine that a sizable number of them would insist that Richardson's act, as a manifestation of racism, was a blight on our society and has repercussions beyond the individuals involved. But then, I'd say the same of adultery and prostitution.

Perhaps they'd take the tack that his business transactions are a public matter. But then a prostitute's business transactions would be the same, and a marriage is even more explicitly so.

The circumstances are different, of course, one involving an elected official and the other a store owner, but I don't see anywhere to draw a line between the two that makes one act private and the other public.


March 3, 2008


A Rationale Behind Corruption