In Defense of GOP Extremism…

…is William Voegeli’s lead article in the latest Claremont Review of Books.  He paints a formidable defense of GOP’s “extreme” tendencies of late:  Brought to the present by a recent history defined by two fundamentally unprincipled parties compromising on a fundamentally unprincipled post-New Deal agenda—typically with Republicans serving as tax collectors for the welfare state—it should surprise no one (and yet, it does) that “moderation” ran out of things to do.

Among other works, Voegeli devotes special attention to Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.  Some key grafs:

To this day, 33 years after Nelson Rockefeller’s death, GOP moderates are still called “Rockefeller Republicans.” Yet Kabaservice shows that Rockefeller’s political career was the worst thing that ever happened to moderate Republicanism, since the New York governor who became Gerald Ford’s vice president believed: 1) achieving his personal ambition to be president was vital to the republic’s future; 2) more spending would solve any problem, political or governmental; and 3) not much else. . . .

. . . . We finish Rule and Ruin knowing a great deal about moderate Republicans, yet are left with no sure sense of the qualities that differentiate moderation from conservatism and liberalism. In the end, Kabaservice’s portrait of Republican moderates reinforces the judgment, made by Michael Barone in Our Country (1990), that their differences with Democrats were primarily sociological rather than political. The moderates who controlled the GOP before 1964 accepted that America would never again see government’s domestic powers confined within the limits that obtained before the Great Depression, or its international role to the one considered the norm before Pearl Harbor. But to entrust these new governmental responsibilities to the party that was a congenial home for Ku Klux Klan members in the South and corrupt machine bosses in the North was, in their view, unthinkable. Barone records Thomas Dewey arguing in the 1940s that “the Republican party is the best instrument for bringing sound government into the hands of competent men,” who would “prove that democracy can maintain itself as master of its own destiny, feed its hungry, house its homeless, and provide work for its idle without reliance on political racketeers.” Once Jim Crow and patronage-based urban machines had disappeared, the strongest rationale for moderates to continue to distinguish themselves from the Democrats did, too. Several politicians who started out as moderate Republicans, including former Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, switched parties in the 1970s. Kabaservice reports that three fourths of the people who still cared enough by 2002 to attend the 40th anniversary reunion of the Ripon Society, moderate Republicanism’s most important organization, described themselves in an informal poll as Democrats or independents.

. . . .

In the absence of a satisfactory account of its essential principles, however, centrism stands revealed as an “-ism” without an -ism, the chief reason it ultimately became a -wasm. Lacking a telos, centrism’s logical fate is to collapse into split-the-difference-ism, rendering it not only incoherent in theory but counter-productive in practice. That is, insofar as centrism is a political force that matters, it ends up inciting rather than restraining extremists. If centrists can be relied upon to embrace the middle position between two extremes, the partisans of each extreme have every incentive to make their positions more extreme, not less, before the centrists calibrate and then endorse the half-a-loaf resolution. For all their hopes and exertions, moderates not only do not moderate the political process and policy outcomes, but actually intensify and polarize fights over the nation’s future course.

. . . .

. . . . If or to the extent they were conservatives, those Republicans embraced an utterly domesticated conservatism that prepared them, in Jonah Goldberg’s words, to “gladly serve as Sherpas to the great mountaineers of liberalism, pointing out occasional missteps, perhaps suggesting a slight course correction from time to time, but never losing sight of the need for upward ‘progress.'”

. . . .Those who were in any respect more bumptious were guilty of “revanchism.” . . . [According to New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus devoted a book, The Death of Conservatism (2009),] “Now it is time for conservatives to repudiate movement politics and recover their honorable intellectual and political tradition.” The most honorable part of that tradition was, apparently, its docility.

. . . .

. . . . Scott Walker sought to revise a legal regime that had been in existence barely more than 50 years, not, as Dionne implies, settled by the battle of Agincourt. No matter. Once history’s ratchet has clicked in the direction of progress, however recently, that step is irrevocable and all measures intended to reverse it, illegitimate.  . . .

. . . .

. . . . Eisenhower was right to say the government cannot avoid responsibilities the people firmly believe it should discharge. But it would be useful to know how firmly the people believe in the discharge of each of modern government’s many, many responsibilities. Firmly enough to demand it, or firmly enough to pay for it?

Kabaservice’s response deserves attention, but I’m not persuaded by his defense for a reinvigorated “moderate” GOP.  He contends that “the moderates were not quite as unprincipled and ineffective as you suggest,” citing to Eisenhower as the last president to balance the budget three timesand reduce the ratio of national debt to GNP.  But Eisenhower did not have to grapple with Medicare, which stands far and away as the most expensive and uncontrolled entitlement program.  In his reply, Voegeli prods for more specifics of what, exactly, more “moderation” in the GOP would look like:  Are we just turning down the volume, or changing the station altogether?

Two years ago Mitch Daniels, Republican governor of Indiana at the time, gave a widely noted speech where he endorsed a “more affirmative, ‘better angels’ approach to voters” since if Republicans hope to win their support “it would help if they liked us, just a bit.” It’s just about impossible to quarrel with that advice.

But after finishing charm school, what do Republicans do? Is Daniels the kind of politician the GOP needs more of? My sense is that he was a very conservative governor over his eight years in office. Upon being elected in 2004, he began his administration by proposing the kind of fiscal balance you recommend-specifically, spending cuts combined with an income tax surcharge on families with six-figure incomes. The tax proposal went nowhere, however, and Daniels dropped it. Everything else he pursued and, mostly, attained sounds like a to-do list from the Cato Institute: cutting spending, writing property tax limitations into the state constitution, privatizing infrastructure, making health savings accounts the centerpiece of the state’s Medicaid program, expanding school choice, and signing right-to-work legislation.

If moderation needs to be substantive rather than just tonal, Daniels’s approach should have failed. He won a 58-to-40% landslide reelection in 2008, however, even as Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Indiana since 1964. Daniels even tripled his portion of the black vote from 7% in 2004 to 20%.

Indiana’s example also exposes the falsity of the claim that increasing taxes is the only way to increase revenue, often recited to prove that the “extreme” GOP, who is unwilling to raise taxes on principle, is simply incapable of leading.  It is a truism that “tax revenue to the government equals, always and everywhere, the tax-rate structure multiplied by the tax base. Thus, expanding the tax base is an alternative to increasing tax rates.”

Tenor and volume may be legitimate grievances about extremism.  Extremists don’t make good statesmen.  But it’s quite possible that the extremists have a point, and if so, ignoring them is not the solution.

Customer Feedback: Week 1, 2013

[Lay impressions on the week’s politics, reported to a hypothetical GOP leader curious to know whether and how the week’s political messaging was received. More information about this series here.]

Feedback on this week’s political news and messaging:

Out with the “Fiscal Cliff,” in with the “Debt Cliff”

The “fiscal cliff” seemed to end not so badly for the GOP as many feared.  Most people still conclude the GOP got outfoxed, but seems like some disappointed Democrats feel otherwise.  Ezra Klein assures them the president got his party a good deal.  Paul Ryan and Rand Paul both cast the next fight as one over the “debt cliff.”  That’s probably a good move.  No one knew what the “fiscal cliff” was.  We all know we’re $16 trillion in debt, and spending is nowhere close to getting in line with revenues.

On that score, I worry what would happen if Yuval Levin had been on vacation this week.  No one in leadership is messaging about the spending/revenues delta as clearly.  We hear a lot of talk about whether the GOP should step aside and let something “break” just to stir the public out of its apathy, that trust in financial institutions, and trust in the giant confidence game that is our national currency, is more delicate than we might think.

Greg Mankiw agrees:  “Ultimately, unless we scale back entitlement programs far more than anyone in Washington is now seriously considering, we will have no choice but to increase taxes on a vast majority of Americans.”

President Obama’s talk about the “top 2 percent” is shenanigans.  Flimflam.  Class war.  It has nothing to do with the numbers.  Never did. 

But most of the middle class doesn’t know who Yuval Levin or Greg Mankiw are.  And let’s face it:  Most people would rather believe the narrative that our problems would be fix if the wealthy “just paid a little bit more” than the narrative that we have an unhealthy addiction to government entitlements and we need to take our medicine.

Rep. John Campbell proposed one way the medicine might go down:  It’s better to go over a cliff under circumstances of your choosing, rather than some unknown time in unknown circumstances in the unknown future.  He also points out that market signals aren’t reliable when looking for symptoms of long term problems.  Markets only signal the short-term, not the long-term.  At any rate, this message, once polished up (explain what the short term pain is likely to be; explain what the future unexpected fallout might look like, etc.), could be a credible message.  Maybe not a winning message—again, I just don’t think a majority will willingly reject the president’s rosier narrative—but credible enough.

“The Smart Guys,” John Eastman and Erwin Chemerinsky, agree that the president cannot unilaterally borrow money.  So much for the “trillion dollar coin” and the “14th amendment option” flimflams. (The lawyers seem to agree with you, Kevin Drum.) And Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is bailing. For serious this time, it appears, and before the debt negotiations. 

Two years before he became president, Obama said “the fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure.”  Americans will justly give him slack for extenuating circumstances, but the spending and revenue have to at least be on a trajectory in which they’re expected to intersect at some point.  We’re not seeing that.  That’s leadership failure.

Rep. Campbell says he expects detailed spending cut proposals to be released in a week or so.  Time’s of the essence.

The Payroll Tax

The Obama-led “fiscal cliff” negotiations resulted in taxes rising on 77% of Americans with a mean increase of $1,635.  Almost half of the increased taxes—about 46%—will come from the bottom 80% of Americans.  Courtesy of that regressive payroll tax, the FICA, the contribution to Americans’ Social Security and Medicare “trust fund” accounts. 

The payroll tax is the soft underbelly of progressivism, so I don’t understand why GOP leaders have not scored more points here.  The reason the left is for such a regressive tax is because they’re juicing middle class Americans to continue supporting entitlements designed for the poor.  As William Voegeli puts it in Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State: “The government provides Social Security and Medicare to people who don’t need them for the sake of people who do.” 

The point, again, is the management of perceptions. A simple program to help poor people, including those who are old, would make it easy to distinguish the households that are net exporters of dollars from the ones that are net importers. Liberals don’t want to run that risk. They don’t trust the prosperous citizens in the net exporter households to be generous and public-spirited enough to keep voting for welfare programs once it becomes clear to them that they are financing benefits bestowed on others.

The left believes “people can be induced to support programs to help the poor, but have no interest in relying on the prospect they can be persuaded to support them.”

As for the GOP, there seem to be two competing views, one that thinks ending the “payroll tax holiday” was a good idea because it will make more Americans aware of the consequences of our entitlement programs, and another view that says the GOP needs to make more inroads with the middle class, and eliminating this regressive tax is an excellent way to do it.  There’s something to commend both, but I’m going to agree with the latter.  Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam make a good case for ending the payroll tax in Grand New Party:

When you think about why voters are less enamored of tax cuts than they used to be, consider that the biggest tax most working-class Americans pay is one that nobody even considers cutting. The theory behind the payroll tax, or FICA, is simple: Over the course of our working lives, we make “contributions” to Social Security and Medicare—mandatory contributions, of course—and eventually we get our money’s worth in the form of old-age pensions and medical care well into our dotage. The truth, of course, is rather different. Social Security and Medicare are “pay-as-you-go,” with today’s workers paying for today’s retirees, and the system is enormously regressive, since workers making more than $94,200 pay nothing into the Social Security system above that threshold. This financing scheme made a certain sense in an era of relative economic equality; today, in a less egalitarian era, it’s increasingly perverse. Not only does the payroll tax fail to mitigate inequality, but it actually reinforces it.

. . . .

The ideal course, however, would be to give up completely on the illusion that Social Security is something other than pay-as-you-go, and scrap the payroll tax entirely and pay for old-age insurance out of general revenue.

The alternative is to maintain FDR’s fiction that Social Security is a “trust fund” that we “pay into.”  If we were still in the first generation after Social Security was implemented, perhaps we could still maintain the hope that people would see that they were paying into Social Security as if into a trust fund, but weren’t getting benefits that way.  Boomers are finding what they paid in went to the previous generation, and their children—far fewer in number—can’t contribute enough to give boomers the same retirement they gave to their parents.  Why should we pay for Social Security as a separate line item if those payments don’t have any meaningful relationship with the benefits we’re to receive?  It’s a flimflam.  And as important as it is that those who vote for entitlements understand their costs, you don’t teach lessons about sound economic policy by perpetrating flimflam.

A few weeks back, the president’s social media team was pushing a “what does $2,000 mean to you” meme, $2,000 approximating the increase in taxes on the average middle class family if the Bush tax cuts weren’t preserved.  The president repeated it during his victory lap.  As it turns out, the GOP capitulated to the president’s rates, and taxes on the middle class still increased upwards of $2,200 through the payroll tax.  And that was the gist of AP’s lede this week

While the tax package that Congress passed New Year’s Day will protect 99 percent of Americans from an income tax increase, most of them will still end up paying more federal taxes in 2013.

That’s because the legislation did nothing to prevent a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax from expiring. In 2012, that 2-percentage-point cut in the payroll tax was worth about $1,000 to a worker making $50,000 a year.

I’m feeling more and more like the GOP got the better of the “fiscal cliff” deal.  At the very least, the Democrats failed to cover the spread.

Capital Gains and Estate Taxes

Were any efforts made to limit the increased capital gains taxes to efficiency innovation so as to encourage more investment in empowering innovation?  I didn’t hear anything.  Why not?  The president has made clear his objective is to create “fairness” by seeking to level total wealth, not growth for growth’s sake, or opportunity for opportunity’s sake.  If you oppose him full stop, you’ve already lost, because we’ve seen that it makes the GOP look like they’re just protecting the wealthy.  When the president takes the wrong position on a moral issue, but the right one is unpopular, then your play is to find the narrow area of agreement and push back on the rest with practical proposals. 

As for estate taxes, I don’t understand why this was a hard call.  The vast majority of Americans hate the estate tax.  According to a December 2010 ABC News/Washington Post Poll, 29% of respondents "support strongly" a policy of "Increasing the exemption on inheritance taxes so that only estates worth more than five million dollars are taxed," with another 23% saying they "support somewhat" such a policy. A puzzled Kevin Drum concluded “Like it or not, I think that most people simply have an instinctive feeling that you should be able to bequeath your money to whoever you want.” 

If politicians want to make the argument that a decedent’s assets cease to be property upon death, then make it.  If they want to make the argument that it costs the government resources to administer that property—like making probate courts available—then establish a rough approximation of that overhead and assess it against the estate.  Since we are dealing mostly with fixed costs here, though, that “tax” would likely be regressive, not progressive.  But if the justification for the estate tax is to “level the playing field,” to crack down on “trust fund kids,” then I have a thought experiment for you: 

Remember the movie Gattaca?  Imagine a future where one’s economic aptitude can be determined by a pre-natal genetic screening, sort of like in Gattaca. In the interest of establishing a truly egalitarian society where no one is unfairly advantaged at birth by the whim of nature or God, the government could require these screenings and strongly encourage the termination of pregnancies that would result in children who would undesirably deviate from the mean aptitude and upset society’s egalitarian balance.

This is analogous to the principle at work underlying an estate tax that transfers wealth out of the hands of family lineage for egalitarian redistribution by government. The idea that the moral right to property is rooted in the demonstrated merit in acquiring it is dangerous to liberty.  It is indeed the very opposite of liberty when it comes to property rights:  If my fellows can appear on my doorstep and announce their decision that my efforts don’t merit the car in my driveway and they’re here for the keys, then property is an empty concept.  As Hayek concluded from this in The Constitution of Liberty, “The proper answer is that in a free system it is neither desirable nor practicable that material rewards should be made generally to correspond to what men recognize as merit and that it is an essential characteristic of a free society that an individual’s position should not necessarily depend on the views that his fellows hold about the merit he has acquired.”   Indeed, the project of assessing merit would be hopeless anyway: 

Reward according to merit must in practice mean reward according to assessable merit, merit that other people can recognize and agree upon and not merit merely in the sight of some higher power. Assessable merit in this sense presupposes that we can ascertain that a man has done what some accepted rule of conduct demanded of him and that this has cost him some pain and effort. Whether this has been the case cannot be judged by the result: merit is not a matter of the objective outcome but of subjective effort. The attempt to achieve a valuable result may be highly meritorious but a complete failure, and full success may be entirely the result of accident and thus without merit. If we know that a man has done his best, we will often wish to see him rewarded irrespective of the result; and if we know that a most valuable achievement is almost entirely due to luck or favorable circumstances, we will give little credit to the author.

We may wish that we were able to draw this distinction in every instance. In fact, we can do so only rarely with any degree of assurance. It is possible only where we possess all the knowledge which was at the disposal of the acting person, including a knowledge of his skill and confidence, his state of mind and his feelings, his capacity for attention, his energy and persistence, etc. The possibility of a true judgment of merit thus depends on the presence of precisely those conditions whose general absence is the main argument for liberty. It is because we want people to use knowledge which we do not possess that we let them decide for themselves. But insofar as we want them to be free to use capacities and knowledge of facts which we do not have, we are not in a position to judge the merit of their achievements. To decide on merit presupposes that we can judge whether people have made such use of their opportunities as they ought to have made and how much effort of will or self-denial this has cost them; it presupposes also that we can distinguish between that part of their achievement which is due to circumstances within their control and that part which is not.

So long as property has been earned lawfully, without threats or coercion, it deserves equal protection under the law.  The estate tax is just more flimflam. 

“Opportunity Conservatism”

Newly-sworn-in Senator Ted Cruz messaged about an “opportunity conservatism”:

Don’t just say no to new taxes — fundamentally reform the tax code so that every American can file his taxes on a postcard. Eliminate the corporate welfare and complexity that enrich only accountants and lawyers.

Don’t just criticize union bosses; explain how closed shops confiscate wages and make it harder for low-skilled workers to get jobs.

Don’t talk generically about education; advocate school choice to empower parents and expand opportunity for children struggling to get ahead.

Don’t just dwell on the long-term solvency of Social Security; promote personal accounts to allow low-income Americans to accumulate wealth and pass it on to future generations.

Arthur Brooks on Hewitt’s show Wednesday also talked about an “opportunity society” for everyone. This is a winning theme.



Will the Great Doubling Stop Punishing Us and Start Paying Dividends?

Herbert Meyer thinks so

By the way it’s going to be a five billion-person middle class. This will become the most powerful force in the world. Their demand for our goods and services will set off an economic boom…I believe that we’re heading for not just a sonic boom, but maybe a supersonic boom.

I hope he’s right.

Enjoy your weekend!

The Doomsday Provision

[Originally posted at the main page.]


Why do we have the Second Amendment?  Wait, let’s back up.  Why do we have the First Amendment?  Speech is important to happiness and flourishing, we can all agree.  But that is not the reason that right was expressed, is it?  If it were, we should be puzzled to find in the remaining amendments so few other aids in service of happiness and flourishing.  “Why don’t you specify my right to get up in the morning, my right to walk down the street, my right to wear a hat?” scoffed Theodore Sedgwick of Connecticut at the very proposal of a Bill of Rights.  It is not merely that those rights are, by degrees, less important than the ones enshrined in the First Amendment.  It is not even that a government that abridged rising, walking, and hat-wearing would be less arbitrary and tyrannical in any meaningful way.  It is something else about the rights of speech and of assembly that demands recognition in a free society and that makes their service to happiness and flourishing, though deeply important, yet secondary.

That something else is the expression, in the First Amendment and, I will argue, in the Second, of those rights that reflect the sovereignty of the people.


Continue Reading

Book Report 2012

imageWhile the little one made 2012 a light blogging year, I tried to keep up with my book list as a consolation.  Past book reports are here:  2011; 2010; and 2009.

1. The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch.  This book by education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch received much attention after publication in 2010.  Ravitch gives a startling account of the turbulent experimentation our leaders inflicted on the American public education system in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving modern reformers no “control group,” no intelligible way of measuring new methods or systems. As a result, many recent reforms deemed “successful” might actually have been the result of unnoticed changes in local demographics or other cultural factors.  Thomas Sowell makes the case in Inside American Education that even per pupil spending, class sizes, and other education talking points may be red herrings at best.  imageAside from cultural issues that are difficult to identify, let alone address, one of the few things we can actually do is scrutinize education schools and the credentialing system.  In a paper delivered to a group of educators at Princeton in 1994, Professor Donald Simanek observed that

Most teachers have learned ‘methods and skills’ of teaching, but don’t have a solid understanding of the subject they teach. So they end up ‘teaching’ trivia, misinformation, and intellectual garbage, but doing it with ‘professional’ polish. Most do not display love of learning, nor the ability to do intense intellectual activity of any kind. Lacking these qualities they cannot possibly inspire and nourish these qualities in their students.

Ravitch provides a grim treatment of all the current options—with national standards receiving the brunt—but offers little in the way of alternatives.  She rejects lottery systems because they tend to limit opportunities to good students from good families who care about education enough to participate in the lotteries.  But she does not explain how any school system could possibly help children whose parents don’t even care enough about their education to try. Ravitch rejects school choice for the same reason: it fails to help students whose parents don’t avail themselves of the choices.  Indeed, every problem could be reduced to this basic problem, and Ravitch does not make a persuasive case that it can be overcome with “curriculum and instruction.”

2.  Ten Universal Principles, by Fr. Robert Spitzer.  Robert Nozick once mused whether one could construct an argument so powerful that it “left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence.”  Fr. Spitzer relates one such argument:

Every once in a while a student will try to say, “How do you know that the principle of noncontradiction is correct?” And I simply give him Aristotle’s response in book 4 (chapters 3 and 4) of the Metaphysics. In that work, Aristotle toys with people who are uncertain about the principle of noncontradiction, by pushing them to silence and the status of a vegetable, because every claim they make would have to be meaningless. He reasons that if contradictory claims are just as valid as noncontradictory claims, then all words and all claims are meaningless.

The ten building-block principles Fr. Spitzer examines are:  (1) The Principle of Complete Explanation (“The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data”); (2) The Principle of Noncontradiction (“Valid opinions or theories have no internal contradictions”); (3) The Principle of Objective Evidence (“Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based upon publicly verifiable evidence”); (4) The Principle of Nonmaleficence (“Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it”); (5) The Principle of Consistent Ends and Means (“The end does not justify the means”); (6) The Principle of Full Human Potential (“Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not according to the level of development currently achieved”); (7) The Principle of Natural Rights (“All human beings possess in themselves (by virtue of their existence alone) the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property ownership; no government gives these rights, and no government can take them away”); (8) The Principle of the Fundamentality of Rights (“The more fundamental right is the one which is necessary for the possibility of the other; where there is a conflict, we should resolve in favor of the more fundamental right”); (9) The Principle of Limits to Freedom (“One person’s (or group’s) freedoms cannot impose undue burdens upon other persons (or groups)”); (10) The Principle of Beneficence (“Aim at optimal contribution to others and society. The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).

3.  The Devil’s Delusion, by David Berlinski.  One can perhaps understand a thoughtful agnosticism; but what explains the fervor of the New Atheists?  Why insist, in Tom Bethell’s words, as “an article of our secular faith that there is nothing exceptional about human life”?  Why ought we “take the side of side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs,” as geneticist Richard Lewontin prescribes, “in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, and in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories”?  As Berlinski puts it, “Why should any discerning man or woman take the side of science, or anything else, under these circumstances?  It is because, Lewontin explains, ‘we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”  But “[i]f one is obliged to accept absurdities for fear of a Divine Foot,” Berlinski replies, “imagine what prodigies of effort would be required were the rest of the Divine Torso found wedged at the door and with some justifiable irritation demanding to be let in?”

4.  The Homevoter Hypothesis, by William Fischel.  Prof. Fischel’s most famous example of the estrangement of “homevoters” and local governments is the California Supreme Court’s decision prohibiting the direct funding of schools by local property taxes, leading to the Tax Revolt of the late 1970s that enacted Proposition 13.

5.  Ameritopia, by Mark Levin.  About a third of it is comprised of other works, many of which I’d already read, along with some commentary, much of which I felt I’d already heard.

6.  The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution and What We Risk by Losing It, by Larry Arnn.  A Churchill biographer, professor of government, and president of Hillsdale College, Arnn is a thoughtful and charming writer with the ability to infect his reader with reverence for the founding documents.

7.  The World America Made, by Robert Kagan.  See my review here.

8.  The Rise of the States, by Jon Teaford. During the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney said “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Though perhaps overbroadly stated, that’s a well-established tenet of modern conservatism.  Both Professors Teaford and Fischel submit demonstrate that, in fact, state and local governments are professional, competent, innovative, and responsive to their constituents’ needs.  The states also did much of the heavy lifting in experimenting with different forms of taxation; after much trial and error, Wisconsin was the first state to come onto the idea of requiring employers to report their employees’ income.  But much of the state’s inventiveness and responsiveness are impaired by centralization of power at the federal level and the redirection of state and local dollars through Washington. Rail projects have largely been failures since the 1960s, and if forced to spend their own dollars, state and local governments likely wouldn’t. Yet when taxes are laundered through a central national government and sent back to the states with strings for such projects, accountability is reduced and these pet projects, complete with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, can proceed like in the good old days.

9.  Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics, by Bill Boyarsky. After his service during World War II (as a sailor stuck in Alaska), Unruh, the son of an illiterate sharecropper, availed himself of the G.I. Bill and became a major player in 1960s California politics, presiding over the Assembly during a period of legislative professionalization in which California became a model of state governance.  Among his achievements, Unruh passed the Unruh Civil Rights Act, being painfully aware of his own inauspicious birth status. Unfortunately, power also fed Unruh’s addition to sex, and though a radical prostatectomy might have saved him, “he dreaded that it would leave him impotent, taking him out of a game that was very important to him, the game of sex, played over and over again, with many, many women.” He died of prostate cancer in 1987.

10.  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson.  A book widely mischaracterized as a treatment of the homogeneity of ad men in the 1950s, Wilson’s protagonist is not concerned about conformity as much as navigating a brave new world of opportunities and personal integrity.  Presented with a job prospect assisting with a campaign for mental health, Tom Rath responds, “I’ve always been interested in mental health!”  In fact, after his traumatic war experiences, Tom is not much interested in anything, and suffers between his cynicism and his obligation to provide for his family. The film of the same name starring Gregory Peck is nearly as good as the book.

11.  Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas.  The chilling story of the German people’s descent by degrees into apathy and tacit assent to the Third Reich, and the Church’s role by abdicating its function in political society:  As Bonhoeffer put it, the church plays a vital role for the state through its obligation to “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.”

Bonhoeffer then famously enumerated “three possible ways in which the church can act towards the state.” The first, already mentioned, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions and their legitimacy—to help the state be the state as God has ordained. The second way—and here he took a bold leap—was “to aid the victims of state action.” He said that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society.” And before that sentence was over, he took another leap, far bolder than the first—in fact, some ministers walked out—by declaring that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” Everyone knew that Bonhoeffer was talking about the Jews, including Jews who were not baptized Christians. Bonhoeffer then quoted Galatians: “Do good to all men.” To say that it is unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian church to help all Jews was dramatic, even revolutionary. But Bonhoeffer wasn’t through yet.

The third way the church can act toward the state, he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.” The translation is awkward, but he meant that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of the wheel to stop the vehicle. It is sometimes not enough to help those crushed by the evil actions of a state; at some point the church must directly take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating evil. This, he said, is permitted only when the church sees its very existence threatened by the state, and when the state ceases to be the state as defined by God.

12.  Seeing Like a State, by James C. Scott. Liberty appeared relatively late in history because the precondition of a state is a legible society—a population arranged in ways that make possible such basic state functions as taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.  Systems of property rights, standardization of weights and measures (in one part of Malaysia, it is typical to estimate the distance to the next town in terms of rice-cookings), paternal last names, and so on can all be explained by the state’s need to make society legible.  Scott argues that this need for legibility, added to a capacity for large-scale social engineering, a high-modernist ideology that supplies the desire and determination for such engineering, and an effete, supine populace characterize “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” in human history. Liberal democracy serves as a countervail by its respect for private activity, economic activity (to prevent the stifling of unknown processes and innovations), and, most importantly, accountable representative institutions.  It takes a conscious act of self-denial on the part of statesmen to respect the freedom of individuals, and not merely impose order on the people.

13.  The Road to Freedom, by Arthur Brooks.  Questions about the size of government and the reach of regulations into economic life and rates of taxation fundamentally are questions not about money but morality. In example after example, Brooks underscores that the good life has little to with wealth and everything to do with earned success. Entrepreneurs themselves earn 19% less than government managers and even work longer hours. Yet they’re happier people, Brooks reports.  In fact, income qua income plays virtually no role in happiness. Between 1972 and 2004, average American income increased by 50%, from $25,000 to $38,000 in 2004 dollars. Yet the percentage of Americans claiming to be very happy stayed virtually unchanged at 31%. A 2001 Ohio State University survey found that people who did not feel responsible for their success spent about 25% more time feeling sad than those who felt they were responsible for their success.

One of the reasons Americans tend to be happier people is that, among developed Western nations, Americans are among the least likely to believe that success is arbitrary. Americans are twice as likely as the French and three times as likely as Italians and Spaniards to say that success comes from hard work rather than luck. The singer Bono observed that the Irish “look down on” success: “In America, you look up at . . . the mansion on the hill and say, ‘One day . . . that could be me.’ In Ireland, they look up at the mansion on the hill and go, ‘One day I’m gonna get that bastard.’”

The serious moral issue, Brooks points out, is not the unequal distribution of money in the United States, but the unequal distribution of free enterprise in the world. The places in the world where poverty is in retreat are the places where property rights are protected and trade and markets are allowed to flourish. Conversely, the places where people still subsist on less than $1 per day, places like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lack a functional free enterprise system and strong property rights, labor under oppressive bureaucracies, and lack investment capital.

Redistribution, on the other hand, rests on shaky moral ground. The injunction to care for the poor, under the major religions represented in the U.S., is individual in nature. The payment of taxes in the normal course is not typically regarded as fulfilling one’s moral duty to the sick or poor. As even several members of the “one percent” pointed out, taxation is not charity.

14.  Still the Best Hope, by Dennis Prager.  In his newest polemic, Prager explains what he calls the “American Trinity,” consisting of values expressed on our currency: “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum.”   It’s a fun read with a lots of biting observations and amusing excerpts of interviews and stories from his experience as a radio host. My favorite story:

[A]s a radio talk show host, I was shown a video of people reacting to radio talk shows. Organized by a firm that specializes in analyzing such shows, the members of the listening panel were carefully chosen to represent all major listening groups within American society. I quickly noticed something odd, however. There were no blacks among the selected listeners. I asked why. And the response was stunning.

Blacks had always been included in these listener test groups, I was told, but not anymore. This was not because the firm was uninterested in black listeners; on the contrary, blacks compose a significant segment of the radio audience. They were not invited because the company had discovered that almost no whites would publicly differ with the opinions of the blacks on the panel. Once a black listener spoke, whites stopped saying what they thought, if what they thought differed from what a black had said.  

15.  imageOutliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  This might be my favorite read of the year, and almost everyone I know was subjected to my rendition of one or more of Gladwell’s fascinating observations.  If you’re having a baby, you heard me recount how it’s better to be born early in the year because the kid will be a few months older and thus accumulate more confidence and attention of teachers and coaches.  If the conversation turned to technology, you heard me explain why Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other tech moguls were, talented, yes, but largely just in the right place at the right time—all born within a few years of each other and each coming of age at exactly the time personal computing emerged.  And just because it’s my favorite account in the book, you heard how high-power-differential cultures like Korea’s produce lousy airline pilots and that it requires an egalitarian spirit to tell the pilot “hey, dumdum, it’s too foggy to land the plane without the instruments.”

16.  Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, by Edward Feser.  Aquinas is always relevant, and Feser is a contemporary authority. I’m looking forward to reading his takedown of the New Atheists in The Last Superstition.

17.  The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, by Elisabeth Badinter.  Though a mother of three, Badinter bewails the undue pressure women still feel to have children and offers advice and admonitions from what one hoped was a bygone strain of feminism.  Writing to the daughters of boomers who “had scores to settle with their feminist mothers,” who “were quick to answer the siren call of the natural,” and who “think that the position of wife and mother was as good as any other,” Badinter warns that “pregnancy signals the end of pleasure, freedom, and the carefree life of non-mothers…. The final image of the guillotine could not be more eloquent.” Bandinter insists that having children is not instinctual, not based in natural urges or any form of teleology.  It derives instead from “emotional and societal factors,” and childless women “are spared nothing—not the sighing from their parents (whom they deny the joy of grandchildren), not the incomprehension of their friends (who want everyone to do the same thing they’ve done), and not the disapproval of society and the state, both of which are by definition pro-birth and have countless little ways of punishing you for not doing your duty.”  Badinter warns that the virtues of motherhood are overstated and that most mothers regret having had children.  She urges that, if you do have children, at least avoid breast-feeding, pushed by “the ayatollahs of breast-feeding,” which conditions women for subservience by turning them into “a walking meal” or a “giant pacifier.”

To her credit, Badinter cites the most damning criticism against her, offered by Austrian child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in his letter declining the offer to supply a preface to Badinter’s earlier book, Mother Love:

I’ve spent my whole life working with children whose lives have been destroyed because their mothers hated them … . Which demonstrates that there is no maternal instinct— of course there isn’t, otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many of them needing my services— and that there are many, many mothers who reject their children … . This [book] will only serve to free these women from their feelings of guilt, the only restraint that means some children are saved from destruction, suicide, anorexia, etc. I don’t want to give my name to suppressing the last buttress that protects a lot of unhappy children from destruction.  

18.  Up from the Projects, by Walter Williams. The autobiography of an inspiring American. Nearly two years ago now, I began writing an ambitious piece exploring the extent to which the Baby Boomer generation could be blamed for some of our more vexing political and social problems.  I was stymied because of the homogeneity of that generation.  A better example than Williams could scarcely be found.  Citing to his ability to get work experience—and earn money—before minimum wage and child labor laws foreclosed those opportunities to today’s youth, Williams recounts that it was finally a group (today, they would be a union) of seamstresses who got him fired from his hat-making job.  “They found out what I was using the sewing machines after they went home and on Sundays, and they didn’t like the competition.” He also credits his mother’s tough love for keeping him out of trouble, noting that “Parents nowadays, unlike their parents, don’t have as much will or stomach to allow their children to suffer the consequences of irresponsible behavior.”

Contrary to Prager’s account of whites giving a wide berth to black prerogative, Williams recounts how his university professors were not afraid to challenge his conceptions about the world.  When Williams explained that he held a view contrary to his wife who presumed people were friends until they proved otherwise, his UCLA professor explained that he failed to account for a third alternative:  “that people don’t give a damn about you one way or another.”

19.  The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz.  Some thoughts on Stiglitz’s book are included in my brief submission to the inequality symposium.

20.  The Market Revolution in America, by John Lauritz Larson.  imageAs early as the founding, community-based economies were losing their primacy as regional economies and then a national economy assumed the spotlight.  Americans began their centuries-long struggle to balance enormous prosperity and wild volatility presented by industrialization supercharged by finance. By 1783, says Larson, a national economy eager to surge awaited transportation improvements, the establishment of a currency, the mobilization of capital, and the reactivation of trading connections that only a muscular national government could quickly and effectively provide. “Without the new Constitution,” Larson writes, “the institutional integration that followed in the next three decades might have been postponed or prevented altogether.”

For these reasons, Alexander Hamilton advocated policies early on favoring commercial interests, creditors, contracts, and funding of the national debt as forming the core of economic development.  Still, nothing could prepare Madisonians for the erosion of capital’s moral underpinnings worked by the great confidence game that was the Bank of the United States. Yet even after Republicans killed the bank in 1811, President Madison himself signed the legislation chartering the Second Bank in 1816 in the wake of the financial crisis that followed the War of 1812 and local bank runs of 1814. Though not without its fits and starts, the American economy, supercharged by the government’s role in stabilizing the currency and freeing up credit, hummed along.  At the same time, however, the very infrastructure that made wealth and opportunity more abundant and accessible also undermined the essential morality of the free market. “Pre-modern social and economic values celebrated static, traditional relations,” Larson writes. The traditional networks of face-to-face transactions and community exchange characterized by kinship, friendship, and familiarity were quickly receding in favor of complex and impersonal commercial networks.

I’ll have more to say about Larson and Zingales (below) in an upcoming piece.

21.  The Brief Against Obama, by Hugh Hewitt. Spilled milk at this point.

22.  Hostile Takeover: Resisting Government’s Stranglehold on America, by Matt Kibbe. Like Lessig’s, Schweizer’s, and Zingales’s recent books, Kibbe makes the case against crony capitalism.  This, Kibbe suggests, is the answer to the question:  Why is the Tea Party vilified despite its stated objective of eradicating crony capitalism and even establishing an Office of Congressional Ethics to that end?

23.  First Things, by Hadley Arkes.  Prof’s Arkes’ opus; a magnificent apologia of the natural law.

24.  Falling Up the Stairs, by James Lileks. A humorist in the vein of the great P.G. Wodehouse.  I couldn’t tell what era this comedy-suspense takes place, but given the protagonist’s frequent reliance on pay phones, I had to conclude somewhere in the 1980s.

25.  imageConstitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths, by Hadley Arkes. Prof. Arkes traces the natural law tradition through the history of western jurisprudence, which has always assumed that “neither the law nor its practitioners would be witless.”  A 15th century Italian law decreed “that whoever drew blood in the streets should be punished with the utmost severity.” Despite the letter of the law, Blackstone later observed, it clearly did not “extend to the surgeon, who opened the vein of a person that fell down in the street with a fit.”  Likewise, an 1825 federal law made it an offense to “knowingly and willfully obstruct or retard the passage of the mail, or of any driver or carrier, or of any horse or carriage carrying the same.”  Yet, writing for the Supreme Court in the 1868 decision in United States v. Kirby, Justice Field held that a sheriff who knowingly and willfully arrested a mail carrier charged with murder was not liable under the literal effect of the statute since people of ordinary sense could ordinarily make distinctions between interferences that were “justified” or “unjustified.”

The natural law, for Prof. Arkes, are those premises that must be accepted as preconditions of a rule of law, such as “We do not hold people responsible for acts they were powerless to affect.”  Rules of basic statutory construction—guiding judges how the understand the positive law—are not themselves positive law.  And thus the rule under Federalist No. 78 that a later-enacted statute takes precedent over earlier statutes is based in common sense and reason—in the natural law.  As Hamilton remarked, they were “not derived from any positive law, but from the nature and reason of the thing.” So preposterous was the idea that the Constitution should be understood as a positive law document that, during the debate over the Bill of Rights, Theodore Sedgwick of Connecticut scoffed, “Why don’t you specify my right to get up in the morning, my right to walk down the street, my right to wear a hat?” The Constitution, after all, while defining the process by which positive law may be promulgated, cannot itself spring from positive law.  As Locke said, it had to find its origins in that understanding “antecedent to all positive laws,” and that authority was “depending wholly on the people,” through their natural right to be governed only with their consent.

With such principles in mind does Prof. Arkes trace Justice Marshall’s elegant reasoning in Fletcher v. Peck that an implied constitutional prohibition against the impairment of contracts, notwithstanding the express prohibition contained in the Contracts Clause, may be deduced as a presupposition of the Ex Post Facto Clause.  In a concurring opinion, Justice Johnson underscored the vigor of natural law reasoning, remarking that “the reason and nature of things” would “impose laws even on the deity.”

But where Marshall and Johnson might have used the natural law to bind the hands of the Almighty Himself, by the mid-20th century it was powerless even to condemn the architects of the concentration camps. Justice Robert Jackson acted as prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials.  As a jurist having dismissed the natural law as an empty doctrine, Jackson could find no basis for his prosecution, as no positive law then existed. Rather than reverse his position on the natural law, Jackson based his prosecution on the Kellogg-Briand Pact of the 1920s, which bound its signatories to refrain from “aggressive” war.  Yet from a purely positivistic standpoint, the Allies’ campaign at Normandy was likewise “aggressive.”  Without invoking discussions of whether certain military actions were “justified” or “justified,” whether they were directed toward “just” or “unjust” ends—without invoking the natural law—no prosecution could be made.

All this just in chapter one. Prof. Arkes deserves a wide readership.  I’ll close with his quote from the opening of chapter two:

A dear friend, who has done premier work in the neural sciences and several books on philosophical psychology, remarked that he wanted, as the epitaph on his gravestone, “He died without a theory.” A former colleague of mine remarked that I had a “theory” of natural law. But I can join my friend in saying that I, too, have no “theory.” To say that someone has a “theory” of natural law is to suggest that an observer, looking on, can see played out before him people seized with “theories” – that he may stand there, in a wholesome detachment, seeing theories of various sorts whizzing past. From that vantage point we are encouraged to make judgments about the theories, or fragments of theories, that are plausible or implausible, right or wrong, true or false. I said then: Just tell me the ground on which you are making those judgments about the theories that are plausible or implausible, true or false, and you would have been led back to the ground of what I understand as the natural law.

26.  America-Lite: How Imperial America Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered In the Obamacrats), by David Gelernter. Yale professor David Gelernter’s polemic attacks the left wing intellectual culture wrought from two modern historical events: the Great Reform of elite American colleges, changing them from society colleges into intellectuals’ colleges, and the rise of Imperial Academia.  If the content of these terms is somewhat amorphous, it is enough to reflect on the explosion of the number of colleges, universities, faculty, and administration in recent history, the transition from teaching to research, and shift leftward particularly with the New Deal. Intellectuals are “theory makers.” Facts are to be accounted for or replaced with theories.  Yet intellectuals are extremely reluctant to yield their theories even in the face of inconvenient facts.  Gelernter offers as an example the forced busing between the 1960s and 1980s.  Although it did no good, intellectuals countered parents’ resistance with charges of racism.  Even when a 1978 RAND study concluded racism was not the reason—instead, parents preferred their children to attend school nearby—intellectuals were reluctant to accept its findings. The “scatter-site public housing” of the late 1960s is another example, “in which stable ethnic communities were bombed with multi-megaton low-income housing projects. Those projects tend to destroy the value of other houses in the neighborhood—that is a fact; the world happens to work that way—and many middle-class people put their life savings in their homes. The projects tend to increase street crime: another mere fact, of no significance to the new establishment.”

Intellectuals are fundamentally inert, yet they overwhelmingly promote progressive policies. This explains why so many major progressive policies fail yet are never ended.

27.  Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman. Goodman defines “health policy orthodoxy” as a commitment to two principles: (1) The really important health issue for poor people is access to care, and (2) to ensure access, waiting for care is always better than paying for care. According to Goodman, many people involved in health policy “are more concerned with whether people are insured than whether they get healthcare.”  In other words, if you have to ration scarce medical resources somehow, rationing by waiting is always better than rationing by price. The commitment to this view, according to Goodman, explains why many advocates of the ACA are willing to overlook the doctor shortage the reforms fail to address. If the dollar price of health care can be reduced, a resulting increase in the time price is unimportant, and perhaps even laudable, since the time price will be distributed more evenly, which is appropriate if health care is a public good. It doesn’t seem to matter that we pay twice—once in time, once in money—for healthcare. Indeed, the increased time price caused by the ACA is so unimportant to adherents of the orthodox view that MIT professor Jonathan Gruber wrote a paper on Massachusetts health reform with no mention that the wait to see a new doctor in Boston is more than two months. One man’s feature is another man’s bug. Our problems in health care politics, like in the rest of politics, remain epistemological.

28.  The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The enthralling account of the formation of al-Quaeda, the rise of bin Laden, and how American intelligence began to close in on them—ultimately, too late.

29.  The Pentagon’s New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas P.M. Barnett.  Preventing global unrest, military coups, and generally keeping world democracy trending upwards depends on facilitating smooth integration of the “gap” nations into the “functioning core,” argues military strategist Thomas Barnett.  The middle east is such a quagmire because it has such poor “soil” for democracy, and yet such a wealth of strategic oil reserves, that it both has trouble forming and maintaining stable democracies and threatens world security through oil supply.  That’s certainly not to say U.S. policy in the middle east has been always right.  It hasn’t.  But adopting a policy of “no middle east policy,” i.e., isolationism, is simply not an option.

30.  I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism, by Charles Kesler. imageThis is an important book that I intend to review soon.  For now, here is a summary of Kesler’s setup:  Kesler traces the path of “liberalism’s” 180 degree turn from a philosophy of freedom to a philosophy of power. Modern liberalism lacks any working definition—a desirable characteristic that imposes no discernible limits to those in power. Eric Alterman, a professor of English and journalism who likes to write books defending liberalism, declares, “liberalism arose as a matter of pure pragmatism with next to no theory in the first place and was led by a politician [FDR] who prided himself on his willingness to try almost anything. . . .” Pragmatism disclaimed ultimate truths, abstract theories, and final ends in favor of a method that seeks and finds truth in “what works.” Kesler writes that “to be a Pragmatist was already to incline against some of the main ideas of American constitutionalism.”

Kesler argues that modern liberalism came about in three waves: the first wave coming with the presidency of Woodrow Wilson; the second with FDR, who cynically adopted the label and suggested “conservatism” to his opponents; and the third with the resurgence of big government in the 1960s. Modern liberalism is a frayed admixture of evolutionary rights doctrine, state-directed social and economic policy, a philosophy of history oriented around the inevitability of rational progress, and a faith in political leaders. Obama inherited that frayed liberalism.

31.  California: A History, by Kevin Starr. A terrific brief history of the Golden State by a preeminent California historian.

32.  Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism, by Walter Williams.  A collection of Williams’s op-eds and essays.

33.  imageComing Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray.  This important book received much attention when it was published in January 2012.  Murray argues that a variety of social and cultural forces since JFK’s assassination in 1963.  Murray argues that four characteristics have always been central to American life: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion.  He makes the case that America has declined in each of these areas.  Cognitively gifted Americans traditionally struggled to fit in with the rest of American life.  No longer.  Today, Murray argues, we no longer feel sorry for the exceptionally able student who has no one to talk to; instead, “we need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with one another.”  Students at elite schools are drawn overwhelmingly from the upper-middle class.  A large number of these come from what Murray calls the “SuperZips”—where Americans are more likely to be married, in their first marriage, employed, work longer hours, and be white or Asian.  Although whites are increasingly losing their majority status—about one in ten counties has a majority of minorities—the SuperZips have been insulated from this demographic change.

The insular nature of this new elite poses problems for America’s social fabric.  As cultural elites wall themselves off in the SuperZips, the rest of America, left to its own devices, has decreased its civic participation since 1960s.  Social and economic norms have crumbled as well:  The divorce rate exploded in the late 1960s, and from 1970-74, 24% of first marriages among Americans with college degrees ended in divorce within 10 years.  Two decades later, that figure dropped to 17%. During the same period, Americans without college degrees divorced more often at a rate of 34-36%.  The bankruptcy rate increased from 1986-2005, reaching over seven  times the rate of 1978. Church membership has declined.  Disability claims increased since 1960 out of pace with actual physical disability rates, suggesting widespread fraud. The infamous “Sunshine Club” on the Jersey Shore during the 1970s epitomized the idle, secular, uneducated, single male culture.  Murray offers anecdotes of unmarried males living with their girlfriends and their children, living life on the sofa and tagging along to the grocery store with their heads buried in portable gaming devices.  By the 1980s, men with college degrees decrease their leisure time to work more hours; but men with high school degrees found ways to increase hours devoted to leisure.

Planners have not found adequate substitutes for the values traditionally instilled by stable families.  If we cannot find ways to restore those traditional aspects of American society, Murray argues, we may have no reason to believe our most troubling problems will get any better.

34.  The Triumph of Conservatism, by Gabriel Kolko.  My brief review of this important book can be found here.  I also intend to include a treatment of it in a forthcoming piece.

35.  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin.  My first Lincoln biography, I chose Goodwin’s in anticipation of seeing the new film based on it.  It is quite good, although I expected to find a much lengthier treatment of the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

36.  Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman. This classic work is as relevant today as when it was published in 1962, though its principles are not especially better received today than they were then.  The battle for hearts gives us failed, prodigal policies of the Bush administration, and the battle for minds falls on deaf ears. The enterprise of freedom does, at times, seem bleak.

37.  Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. And then, a gleam of hope.  Written four years ago, each of its prescriptions for the GOP is still entirely accurate.  Would if they were heeded by leadership, we may win an election before I am an old man.

38.  A Capitalism for the People: Recapturing the Lost Genius of American Prosperity, Luigi Zingales.  I will have much to say on this in a forthcoming piece.  Zingales is a passionate advocate of free markets, and a passionate opponent of crony capitalism.  He even hints at gaps in accountability of corporate boards to shareholders.  This is UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge area of expertise, and I would be anxious to know how he comes down on that issue.

39.  Graveyard Special, by James Lileks. Another humorous whodunit.  Lileks seems partial to the 80s—lots of amusing political and cultural references from the era.

40.  The Constitution of Liberty, by F.A. Hayek. A masterpiece.  But Blaise was right—the postscript “Why I Am Not a Conservative” is not on par with the analytical rigor of the principal work.

How to Frame the Economic Inequality Question

It’s safe to say I disagree with him on the merits, but Timothy Noah frames the question provocatively in the correspondence section of the latest Claremont Review of Books, responding to William Voegeli’s unfavorable reviwe of his book The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It:

It’s important to begin by pointing out that “Why does economic inequality matter?” is not a question that many people asked 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. It wasn’t asked 100 years ago because the U.S. was closer than it’s ever been before or since to being violently overthrown by radicals. The ruling class assumed it had to be mindful of inequality in order to keep the government out of the hands of anarchists, socialists, and other troublemakers. The question wasn’t asked 50 years ago because the U.S. was competing for hearts and minds with the Soviet Union and our leaders understood that too much economic inequality would hurt the American argument (which we ultimately won). Today there’s no chance the government will be overthrown by radicals, and Communism is, for all practical purposes, dead. Consequently, the question must be addressed on the merits.

I can’t evaluate Noah’s historical claims, but taking them to be true, Voegeli produces an apt rejoinder:

I close by remarking on Noah’s wistfulness about the absence of internal radicals or external Communists who might prod us to equalize incomes.  It is in keeping with his hopes, now certainly flagging, that Occupy Wall Street would catalyze a politically irresistible redistributive movement.  In his book’s final sentence–“The worst that we could do to the Great Divergence is get used to it”–Noah is trying to say something to the Americans indifferent to that great crusade. But perhaps they, in their reluctance to enlist, are trying to say something to him about their abiding desire for economic vigor and absolute mobility, and their abiding fears about the power and decency of redistributive government.


Customer Feedback: Lay Impressions on the Week’s Politics, No. 2

clip_image002First, some revisions to the mission statement of this series.  As a relatively attentive, firmly right-of-center, yet critical constituent, I offer this “customer feedback” to a fictional GOP leader curious to know whether and how one constituent received the week’s political messaging.  The light analysis is offered to convey those impressions gleaned from a casual political diet of mostly talk radio (Hugh Hewitt via podcasts), news radio (NPR, live and via podcasts), an RSS stream of a few dozen sources (including NRO, Reason, Sullivan, Drum, Powerline, Volokh, Ezra Klein, The Fix, City Journal, New Geography, and lots of smaller blogs), and occasionally following a similarly eclectic Twitter stream.  The analysis is specifically not offered as fully researched analysis per se.  (But feel free to engage, of course.)  They’re mostly uninterrogated first impressions.

The basic idea is that the major political issues of the day ought to be digestible by, at the very least, an educated political observer with a day job.  And it is in the spirit of Federalist 62, where James Madison remarked: “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?”  The GOP leadership has to educate that sort of person—not conservative pundits and talk show hosts—what they’re up to.  If you didn’t convince me you’ve got a righteous position, you’re most certainly not reaching any of the unconverted.

I may also talk about other items from my news feed in the past week not directly related to GOP politics, particularly on slow political weeks like this one.

On with the feedback:

The “Fiscal Cliff”

Relatively quiet on this front this last week due to the holidays. Things started back up again yesterday apparently.  Speaker Boehner is convening a meeting with House Republicans Sunday night, I hear, a rare event that suggests the President has given him some reason to think there’ll be something to talk about.

Before I go further, let me take stock.  I don’t understand clearly what the GOP is fighting for.  If I had to say the first thing that popped into my head, it’d be that the GOP is trying to keep the tax on millionaires from going up.  I understand that’s not really it, that they’d be ok with increasing those revenues if they got some “serious” and “meaningful” and “nonfictional” spending cuts.  And they don’t believe the Democrats when they say trust us, we’ll identify the  cuts later.  I read, I think Drum or Klein, this week or last saying that, historically, that approach has worked just fine: Dems propose an amorphous amount of cuts, and they usually do make them when the time comes.  But I’m keeping the Regular Joe cap on for now, and I can’t really put in clear terms what the GOP’s goal is here any better than I could put in clear terms what the GOP’s “Replace” plan was in the “Repeal and Replace Obamacare” message.

GOP, you’re not giving me much reason to cheer you on here.

On NPR yesterday, Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving gave a city bus tour of some of the issues at play.  I usually don’t jump on the “NPR is a front for the DNC!” bandwagon, but the tilt seemed pretty clear.  Granted, I’ve been complaining about the GOP’s messaging, so if you’re painting their picture I can’t fault you for picking up the ugly brush.  But Elving discussed the history of the “debt ceiling” dating back to WWI, that it’s been raised “scores of times” and has “just kept going up” without incident—without ever a whisper of concern, from the sound of it.  (Is he right?)  Raising it should have been just a fait accompli, Elving seems to suggest.  But then, Elving goes on, “just in 2011 the newly elected Republican majority in the House dug their heels in and said, you know what, we’re not going to pass that, and we don’t really worry whether or not we’re going to default on the obligations, the debts, the bonds of the United States government because, well, because we just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

But wasn’t that right about the time debt surpassed GDP, an unprecedented, worrisome, and newsworthy event?  Even if raising the debt ceiling was heretofore commonplace, spending has not been trending with historical levels.  And the “newly elected Republican majority” got there ostensibly because of that, among other things.  To suggest they just decided, as if on a lark, to “dig their heels in” seems wrong under the circumstances.

That’s one of several unfair attacks I heard on the Republicans this week.  As if they weren’t doing themselves enough damage.

Last Friday, Larry Arnn offered House Republicans this very sound Constitutional advice on Hugh Hewitt’s show:

What the Republicans should do right now, by the way, is they should drive the system back toward its constitutional operation.  The government doesn’t work so that the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate and the President can have long discussions and decide what to do.  It works instead by the two houses both passing the bill.  And so the Republicans have passed a bill.  They might very well have stuck with the one they passed and said, look, now it’s time for the Senate to pass a bill, and if they won’t pass a bill, it’s their fault.  And they should stick to that.

Now if the Senate passes a contrary bill, that happens all the time, and then they have what’s called a conference committee, and the conference committee is made up of people from both houses, and they follow rules, and the rules are: step one, take everything that’s in both bills; step two, take whatever else you need that’s in between the two bills to achieve the purpose of the two bills—nothing from outside the parameters of the two bills.  Now by the way, that happens every week in the American Congress, and that is the solution to this problem.

And one of the reasons the Republicans have trouble is that they forget that they should just stand on that.  And Boehner should say, “look, it’s no use for me talking with the President—I mean, I’m happy to talk to him any time, but we’ve passed a bill, it’s time for the Senate to pass a bill.  And then when they pass a bill we’ll have a conference and it’ll be a compromise, and both houses will pass it and then this will be over.”

That seems just right to me, and  it turns out that’s just what Republicans did.  Eventually.  Using their indoor voices.  As if they didn’t want anyone to know about it.  I didn’t hear about it, even though I was waiting for it, until I dug it up in this piece on Huffington Post trying to learn about the House bill that Arnn talked about (link provided from my RSS feed—I won’t go to HuffPo’s website because of the obnoxious videos that autoplay three yards downpage):

“These bills await action by the Senate. And as I, Eric, Kevin and Cathy said yesterday in a joint statement: if the Senate will not approve these bills and send them to the president to be signed into law in their current form, they must be amended and returned to the House,” Boehner said on the call. “Once this has occurred, the House will then consider whether to accept the bills as amended, or to send them back to the Senate with additional amendments. The House will take this action on whatever the Senate can pass –- but the Senate must act.”

Why wouldn’t this be the first option if you’re the Speaker?  Why even attempt a private session deal with a recently re-elected president?  He’s supposed to be a post-private-sessions president anyway.  Why keep participating in these private sessions?  And then why only do you get around to the whole constitutional, bicameralism thing in the quietest week of the year?  This might have given you some procedural cover had you done it a month ago.  Now it’s probably too late.

In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid charged that Speaker Boehner was running the House as a “dictatorship.”  (Politico riffed with a “Lord of the Flies” reference.) A “dictator” would have gotten Plan B passed.  A “dictator” would not be on the brink of getting blamed for a “fiscal cliff” with nothing to show for it.  I imagine Reid knows that Boehner can’t come out and say “Reid calls me a dictator, but he couldn’t be further from the truth:  Everyone knows I’ve completely lost control of my caucus!”  But Reid understands how to message this.  Craven though it is.

One final thought on this, resurrected from the comments of last week’s Customer Feedback:  If Republicans are “posturing” here, which Republicans are doing more “posturing”? Establishment Republicans like Boehner? Or Tea Party Republicans? I think the former just wants to get a deal done; they’ll try to make Democrats look like wastrels when in recent memory Republicans have not been much better. The Tea Party folks, on the other hand, seem to really care about getting spending/revenues in line, even if they’re a bit tunnel-visioned about it. They’re not “posturing”—they don’t care about perceptions as much as their principles, for better or worse.  They blocked earmarks in 2011 and, more importantly, established the Office of Congressional Ethics, “the only independent watchdog ensuring that members live up to the ethical rules,” which wouldn’t exist if the Tea Party didn’t insist upon it, according to Larry Lessig. (I recently read that many of the insider trading-esque loopholes catalogued in Peter Schweizer’s 2010 book Throw Them All Out were closed after that book’s publication. Anyone know whether this was done through the OCE?)

So, Establishment Republicans are craven and have no principles. Tea party Republicans are dangerous in their unyielding fidelity to principles. That meme gets Republicans coming and going.

The Gun Control Debate

The left really hates Megan McArdle.  The flap over David Gregory’s banned magazine and the pending police investigation is obviously just political theater.  Do any pro-gun folks think it’s effective?  It’s just not my taste. [Ok, Mark Steyn’s column this weekend is pretty good.]

So while the usual suspects throw rocks at each other, The Volokh Conspiracy takes the direct route, continuing to offer the best discussion on gun control over the past couple weeks.  Eugene Volokh concludes that the answer to the haunting question “so what are we going to do about it?” is, in the end, to very thoughtfully, and very sincerely, do nothing.  Or, at least as much as we do about drunk driving deaths.  I have to agree. Whatever the causes are, they are subtle and indirect and will be little assuaged by blunt legislative measures.  “[W]e should not presume that there’s somehow a moral imperative to Do Something. In fact, there’s a moral imperative not to do something that’s likely to make matters worse.”

Prison Reform

NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted a wonderful discussion on how some states—including Ohio, led by Republican state senator Bill Seitz—are getting “smart on crime” by reintroducing more rehabilitation measures.  Do I ever agree.  GOP leaders, take note:  This is an issue that will win you points with voters who are tired of “young-white-men’s” economic philosophy and “old-white-men’s” social philosophy.

Right to Work

Forbes published a list of the “best states for business” drawing a correlation between business-friendly states and right-to-work states.  Government gives favors to big business and big labor, and I don’t know that the balance is so out of whack in labor’s favor that it warrants a culture war.  Private sector unions have been worn way down over the past couple of decades anyway.  I typically take a pass unless we’re talking about public sector unions.

But no, Right to Work is not unlibertarian.  Hayek said it best, in The Constitution of Liberty:

It would not be a valid objection to maintain that any legislation making certain types of contracts invalid would be contrary to the principle of freedom of contract. We have seen before (in chap. 15) that this principle can never mean that all contracts will be legally binding and enforceable. It means merely that all contracts must be judged according to the same general rules and that no authority should be given discretionary power to allow or disallow particular contracts. Among the contracts to which the law ought to deny validity are contracts in restraint of trade. Closed-and union-shop contracts fall clearly into this category. If legislation, jurisdiction, and the tolerance of executive agencies had not created privileges for the unions, the need for special legislation concerning them would probably not have arisen in common-law countries. That there is such a need is a matter for regret, and the believer in liberty will regard any legislation of this kind with misgivings. But, once special privileges have become part of the law of the land, they can be removed only by special legislation. Though there ought to be no need for special “right-to-work laws,” it is difficult to deny that the situation created in the United States by legislation and by the decisions of the Supreme Court may make special legislation the only practicable way of restoring the principles of freedom.


clip_image001Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin points out that the belated “emerging Democratic majority” might not be as viable as Democrats hope—particularly if the GOP can remediate some of its perennial stupidity.  Democrats’ pickups—particularly millennials and Hispanics—may not be long for the party, demographically speaking.  When Ruy Texeira dreamed of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he may have had Democrats like Truman, Pat Brown, or even Clinton in mind, who would get behind the natural gas revolution to bolster blue collar jobs; encourage more detached housing and dispersal of work rather than small, cramped, urban living; and focus like a laser on taxing Wall Street income rather than lumping Main Street in with it.  As McArdle puts it:  “Yes, some people don’t work very hard to earn their money, or earn it in ways that seem illegitimate.  But the solution is to change the law so that it’s harder to earn money in illegitimate ways, not to take the majority of their money in taxes–and the majority of the money of other people who work quite hard indeed.”

Or as Clayton Christensen points out, via Reihan Salam, industry overinvests in “efficiency” innovation (short term investments) and underinvests in “empowering” innovation (long-term investments); thus, lawmakers should change the way we tax capital gains by reducing the tax burden for longer-term investments:

We should instead make capital gains regressive over time, based upon how long the capital is invested in a company. Taxes on short-term investments should continue to be taxed at personal income rates. But the rate should be reduced the longer the investment is held — so that, for example, tax rates on investments held for five years might be zero — and rates on investments held for eight years might be negative.

(To my dear fictional GOP leader, this is another issue that will win credibility and voters to your party.)

But as I’ve said, it seems to me the left is more concerned with a general principle about wealth per se: The “one percent” is not vilified because they acquired wealth illegitimately, but simply because they acquired wealth “excessively.”  And yet, says Kotkin, “The Holy Places of urbanism such as NewYork, San Francisco, Washington DC also suffer some of the worst income inequality, and poverty, of any places in the country.”

This progressive economy works from the well-placed academics, the trustfunders and hedge funders, but produces little opportunity for a better life for the vast majority of the middle and working class.

The gentry progressives don’t see much hope for the recovery of blue collar manufacturing or construction jobs, and they are adamant in making sure that the potential gusher of energy jobs in the resurgent fossil fuel never materializes, at least in such places as New York and California. The best they can offer the hoi polloi is the prospect of becoming haircutters and dog walkers in cognitively favored places like Silicon Valley. Presumably, given the cost of living there, they will have to get there from the Central Valley or sleep on the streets.

Not surprisingly, this prospect is not exciting many Americans. . . .

In this respect, the class issue so cleverly exploited by the President in the election could prove the potential Achilles heel of today’s gentry progressivism. The Obama-Bernanke-Geithner economy has done little to reverse the relative decline of the middle and working class, whose their share of national income have fallen to record lows. If you don’t work for venture-backed tech firms, coddled, money-for-nearly-free Wall Street or for the government, your income and standard of living has probably declined since the middle of the last decade.

clip_image001[6]Kotkin doesn’t imagine this belated emerging Democratic majority has much to hold it together: Hispanics have been hit particularly hard by the economy with 28% of that ethic group living in poverty.  Besides, Hispanics tend to like big cars and homes with yards—anathema to the new Democratic Party’s gentry.  And they need blue collar jobs—not exactly in the new Dems’ wheelhouse.  The latest news from the sucking sound in California reports 800 oil jobs just emigrated from California to Texas, and I’m quite certain the left’s response is, more or less, “good riddance.”  But there just aren’t enough “internet jobs” to replace all the traditional ones we’re hemorrhaging, and it’s in no way clear that the out-of-workforce is suited for those jobs.  [Via Walter Russell Meade, more teens are foregoing college education to take “brown jobs.”] And millennials, the “screwed generation,” may follow the trajectory of the boomers before them, who started out left but moved to the center-right with Reagan and never looked back.  If the GOP revises their message and/or position on social issues that millennials hold above most everything else, it might fast-forward that shift in trajectory.


At City Journal, Steven Greenhut makes an interesting observation that, because the best way to diminish the value of something is to create more of it, the best way to diminish the value of legislators in the eyes of lobbyists is to create more legislators. Maybe he’s been reading this blog.

That’s it for the week.  Happy New Year!

[Late Add:  Gov. Bobby Jindal supports making the pill available over the counter.  This is a shrewd move.  As Andrew Stuttaford points out (in a post I otherwise didn’t care for), “His cannily pragmatic argument is based on the idea that making the pill available OTC will remove much (all?) of the rationale for including it under the HHS rules.” I like Jindal more all the time.]

Customer Feedback: Lay Impressions on the Week’s Politics

Here’s my angle:  I’m a political junkie with a demanding day job and a wife and toddler at home.  Any big chunks of time I can find (usually long walks with my daughter when she won’t sleep any other way) I try to spend reading books.  So I have to limit my political fix mostly to talk radio, skimming my RSS reader on my phone back and forth from the break room, and other stolen 60-second increments throughout the day.  Which suits me just fine:  Anything going on in politics ought to be able to digested by people with real lives. Something seems off about getting paid to offer political commentary:  when commenting is a business, consumers have no way of knowing whether something is not worth commenting on.  Which explains why every radio host begins his show with something like “lots to do today,” even if there’s not.  And it explains why my news reader is often so chock full of garbage.

So for what it’s worth, this collection of commentary on the week reflects how one right-of-center ordinary gentleman sees the political conversation.  If it’s not mentioned here, either I missed it or I just didn’t think it was worth mentioning.  Again, I don’t get paid to do this, for better or worse.  I may or may not try to do this on a regular basis.

The “Fiscal Cliff”

The President said the debt is not a problem in the short term.  On election eve, I asked whether our $16 trillion debt made 2012 something of a single-issue election.  No budget in almost four years; $4.6 trillion added to the debt in Obama’s first four years (more than what W added in eight years); highest deficits ever.  But the comments pretty resoundingly said No, the debt’s not a big deal short term.  This seemed to reflect the general mood of the voting public, too, who proceeded to reelect the President on November 6.

Now we’re suddenly about to nose dive off a “fiscal cliff.”  What?

The negotiations themselves seem to be about 80/20 posturing versus policy.  On both sides, but I’ve got to be honest, I think mostly on the Democrats’ side.  The President doesn’t really care about closing the deficit or reducing the debt.  He just told us he didn’t think it’s a big deal short term.  He’s more concerned about a particular version of “fairness” where “the wealthy” pay more.  I happen to think he’s wrong about that.  Tax the wealthy if you think it would really fix the deficit or the debt.  Make it part of an overall viable budget.  But the fact that he’s made it a gauntlet seems distasteful.  That he would turn taxing the wealthy into a principle to campaign on rather than merely a contingent detail to be worked out in a negotiation.

The media, of course, is daring the GOP to die on that hill.  In the words of the Washington Post, Speaker Boehner “fail[ed] to persuade conservative Republicans to extend tax cuts for the vast majority of Americans and let tax rates rise for millionaires.”  Would anyone really believe that the GOP would send us over the “fiscal cliff” just for the sake of tax rates on millionaires?  It’s the President’s gauntlet that makes the claim plausible.  The fact that he’s made this a campaign rather than a negotiation.

It’s much more plausible that, rather than dying on a hill to save tax rates for millionaires, the GOP is using the rates as leverage to get meaningful spending cuts from Democrats.  I think Republicans actually believe we need to get spending in line with revenues—this isn’t a radical advancement in American political thought; they aren’t trying to claim new territory like I think the President is by staking a claim to a principle that the wealthy have a moral obligation to pay more.

But Republican’s aren’t going to get anything like the spending/revenue parity they seek.  Again:  The President doesn’t think debt is a problem; he is fighting for higher taxes as a principle, not an expedient; and the media has his back.

On the GOP side, lawmakers like Rep. John Campbell seem convinced they need to pass something, “Plan B” even, to prove to Americans they were willing to deal after “the cliff” happens. Hugh Hewitt and other pundits think they understand messaging better than the GOP leadership, and that, instead, Americans would punish the GOP for violating their tax pledge; that the media would spin it as a tax increase if Plan B were passed before 12/31, so therefore the GOP would have to wait until 1/1, after we go off the “fiscal cliff,” so that the same rates would suddenly become tax cuts. Craven, yes. But that’s the game the MSM forces the GOP to play, Hewitt argues.

I don’t think I buy it.  I think the GOP would get hurt more by going over the cliff due to the “they just want to defend millionaires” meme than they would by compromising.  There’s plenty of time for the GOP to appease their base in the next two years.  Besides, their loss of credibility on fiscal issues has nothing to do with fights like this one—negotiating with a just-reelected president and controlling only one-third of the government (maybe ask why they kicked the can to exactly here in the first place).  What they can’t afford to do is alienate more moderates or lose the independents they picked up this cycle.  They just got beat in an election, arguably in large part because they got outplayed by the media.  Don’t double down on this one.  Hold your chips and reconsider your strategy.

On a personal note—and chalk this up to problems one is lucky to have—I have the option to take my bonus in 2012 or 2013.  Normally, I’d defer taxes and take it in 2013.  But this year, I guess the safe bet is to take it in 2012 before my rate (probably) goes up.

Chained CPI

Ah, another policy fit only for professional legislators and professional writers who follow professional legislation.  As I understand it, government prints money so it can fund entitlements.  Printing money causes its value to go down, what we call inflation.  To offset inflation, government increases entitlements.  Rinse and repeat.  Chained CPI cuts the entitlements so they increase behind the rate of inflation.  The idea of running entitlement programs by printing money seems wrong to begin with, but if we insist on doing it, then I guess this is the sort of funny way professional legislators would invent to mitigate these complicated effects.  Maybe it puts more skin in the game of the recipients and future recipients of those entitlements:  put pressure on your legislators to find other ways to keep inflation low; otherwise, you’ll see larger real decreases in your entitlements.

The National Debate Over Guns Heats Up

Mixed feelings on how the conversation is playing out.  I was initially encouraged by the emphasis on both sides on trying to foster a thoughtful, respectful debate.  But within the week, the tragedy was mentioned as a reason to accept the President’s “fiscal cliff” proposal, and both sides of the debate seem to be parroting the exact same arguments as ever before.  The conversation isn’t all bad.  Ezra Klein’s had some good, dispassionate posts.  I thought these examples of armed civilians stopping mass shootings at Volokh was interesting.  Maybe the conversation is better on the mental health front, which I’ve been neglecting.

I liked these comments from David Hoffman, via Volokh:

My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems [a good point; another reason I dislike our large class of professional opiners -tk]. This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order. If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.

That is: a national conversation about guns and violence, facilitated and sped up by the internet, reduces our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminishes our capacity live together in peace.

He’s not exaggerating.  Did you see how the gun control discussion went with Piers Morgan?  If you think our elite paid opiners are capable of leading us in serious political discussion, Mr. Morgan is Exhibit A in opposition.

Here’s a question I’ll be asking in our upcoming symposium on Guns in America:  A big reason—I’d argue the primary reason—for the Second Amendment is its function as what Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski calls a “doomsday provision” in the event of “those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed.”  So why is the gun control debate always only framed around “what’s the least amount of firepower one needs to oppose a burglar” when it really ought to be “what’s the least amount of firepower a group of individuals needs to wage a legitimate and credible rebellion against a tyrannical government?”  Why can’t we have a nuanced, thoughtful conversation about this?

The above quote explains a lot.

Secretary of State

Susan Rice is out of the running because of Benghazi.  People are getting fired over Benghazi.  CBS waited until after the election to release an edited-out clip of an interview with the President in which he acknowledges he did not call Benghazi a terrorist attack in the Rose Garden.  [Correction: it was the day before the election. -tk] Weren’t we shooed along prior to the election about this?  Move along, nothing to see here?  Right-wing conspiracy nuts said the press was going soft until after the election.  Boy, were they nuts.

I didn’t have any attention span left for Chuck Hagel.  Kerry’s now apparently the pick anyway.

Judge Robert Bork, R.I.P.

Along with Judge Learned Hand, perhaps one of the most qualified jurists never to serve on the Supreme Court.  As I discussed in the comments to Burt’s eulogy, he ably articulated and defended a principle of confined judicial power that, agree or not, at least poses the challenge to come up with another principle that confines that power.  Turns out, it’s still easier to Bork that challenge than to engage it.  Randy Barnett has some nice words as wellAnd originalism—even if it’s the positivistic variety—may be on the rise.  I think the good judge took his interpretivism too far, and that he was wrong that our Constitution and our Founders were not informed by the natural law. But given that so few today understand the natural law or how to apply it, I cannot count it too harshly against him.

Those were the highlights from my news reader this week.

The Fiscal Cliff and the Showdown Between Redistribution and Property Rights

…But first, Milton Friedman agreeing with a socialist:  “One of the reasons why I am in favor of less government is because when you have more government, industrialists take it over, and the two together form a coalition against the ordinary worker and the ordinary consumer.”  If today’s left can still nod its head to that, maybe there’s hope after all.

As the so-called fiscal cliff so-called negotiations plod ahead, I’ve been contemplating whether the President’s sought-after redistribution really is a mortal blow to those who believe in economic liberty–and to the GOP, who at least pays more lip service to that principle than their counterparts.  Those who believe there is a right in our property and income believe that the government shouldn’t take different shares from different people, that the essence of law is that it applies equally.  To some extent, Americans who believe in that principle have capitulated to yielding it somewhat to a relatively modest progressive taxation scheme.

But the President’s current posture seems to acknowledge that the proposed rate hike on “the rich” is not a means-tested compromise.  That is, it’s not really a meaningful solution to our serious budget and deficit problems.  The right has been banging on this point for months now, but to no avail, and that’s because it’s not really meant to be a pragmatic proposal.  If it were, it would be seriously bloodied by the right’s pragmatic rebuttal.  Instead, it’s an attempt to advance a principle of redistribution directly against the principle of private property.  The President has insisted time and again that taking more from “the rich” is “the right thing to do.”  (Please excuse the lack of source quotes and analysis—these are just my impressions, and it’s not the main point of this post.  But feel free to push back if you think my characterization is unfounded.)

As a political observation, taking a hard line against this has not served the GOP well.  Thus, I think the GOP should be willing to countenance a means-tested compromise.  But the fact that the President appears to be negotiating a principle here should give pause, because (a) if you’re talking dollars-and-cents while he’s talking right-and-wrong, you’re talking past each other, and (b) a “compromise” in which you win on dollars-and-cents when he wins on right-and-wrong is not a compromise but a loss:  a moral win trumps an accounting win every time.

If I’m correct so far, I obviously disagree with the President on principle.  I believe in property rights, and that property rights derive from the individual, not from government.  For purposes of the balance of this post, I’ll ask that you assume that as a working premise.  I do not intend to debate the premise itself.  What I want to explore is whether there is any room for compromise on the fiscal cliff rather than a winner-take-all scenario on the issue of property rights versus redistribution.

Assuming property rights belong to the individual, then, is there room for compromise in the face of more progressive taxation?  There’s at least one, and it takes us back to Milton Friedman’s broader point about unholy coalitions between government and industry.  One limit on the moral right to wealth is the extent to which wealth is created by virtue of proximity to government, e.g., by rent seeking.  That basic argument is uncontroversial, I think, and in a post slated for shortly after the holidays I will be exploring how the sweeping extent to which the idea applies in today’s economy undermines the preconditions of economic liberalism.  The gist is that most people don’t consider themselves government sucklings, yet they probably would be surprised to know how much their livelihood depends on government rents.  We’re closer to cronyism than we suspect.  And if proximity to cronyism impairs the moral nature of one’s wealth, it likewise undermines the objection to progressive taxation on that wealth.  In short, crony capitalism undermines the very principle of an individual right to property.  Progressive taxation thus could be couched in terms of the means by which government corrects (albeit in a very rough, mostly arbitrary way) the distortions that industry and the government itself perpetuate on the economy by their coalition against the rest of us.

Absent rampant crony capitalism, the conservative/libertarian principle is that there is little or no moral justification for taxing one person more harshly than another where that wealth was fairly and honorably earned and where the unequal distribution of wealth owes entirely to effort and skill, and perhaps luck.  But in an increasingly crony-ridden economy such as ours where superior wealth flows from something other than effort and skill and fair practices, a stronger justification for progressive taxation might exist.

But I wonder if there is more common ground.  Does the fact that we “stand on the shoulders of giants” undermine the moral claim to private property?  A young Robert Heinlein argued for an “inheritance dividend,” aka “social credit” in his first novel, For Us, the Living, in which every person receives a lifetime stipend from the government and works only if he or she wants to.  The wealth created by our ancestors is more than enough to serve as a dividend for us, the living.  Edward Bellamy had a similar vision a half century earlier in Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 (see my book report for a synopsis).  But these are both early versions of “you didn’t build that,” it seems to me.  They do not propose mere exceptions or qualifications to a private property rights framework.  They propose its replacement.

Am I wrong?  Can we have the bolder redistribution the President and many on the left seek while preserving the notion that there is an individual moral right to property and income?  I don’t see how.

Legalization, Temperance, and the Art of Persuasion

As a Republican “in the wilderness,” I listened with new ears to the most recent Intelligence Squared debate considering the motion to legalize drugs.  My views having transitioned from Against to Undecided, I expected the proponents’ arguments on this occasion might hit their mark.  To my surprise, they did not.  To the combatants in this particular culture war, I submit this dispatch from the fence.

First, if your audience is willing to consider abandoning its position for yours, it likely will do so only on the narrowest grounds available and, when put to a choice of alternatives, it will always change its opinion on “lower” things before it will change its opinions on “higher” things.  In my case, I consider it a significant shift of position toward the pro-legalization side to have shed my presumption in favor of criminalization.  The effective advocate will realize I would have gotten there by changing my mind about one of two things:  the relationship between drugs and people, or the relationship between drugs and the state.  Is it more plausible that I’ve formed new opinions about the conduct of shooting heroin and smoking crack?  Or that I’ve formed new opinions about whether and how the state should insert itself into that conduct?

The latter, it should be clear.  Why?  Because it is the narrower ground on which I can change my position, which presents the least amount of disturbance to my other preexisting beliefs and values.  Here, the former option would require me to change my opinion on a moral question about the rightness or wrongness of doing drugs.  While my opinions on the limits of government are also strong, moral questions take priority.  Thus, while I still would not be willing to grant drug use the status of a “right,” I may be (and perhaps already am) persuaded that many of our laws that intervene in this conduct are a bad idea.  The advocate who declines this opportunity of persuasion to instead insist upon a “right” to do all manner of drugs–that is, to insist I abandon my higher moral principle in favor of his–will necessarily fail to win converts who otherwise might be ready to join him.

Second, the judicious advocate seeks consensus, not domination.  Characterizing laws against drugs as “racist” tends to inflame rather than illuminate.  In my case, this claim, made by the pro-legalization advocates in the Intelligence Squared debate, actually tended to reverse my cognitive trajectory toward decriminalization.  I am not likely to continue a journey to a point of view that calls me a racist for previously holding a different view; better to hold the line and push back against the interlocutor who has, by striking at my character rather than my reason, made me his enemy.

Abraham Lincoln, who has a movie out I understand, offered similar advice in his Temperance Address that applies just as well to legalization advocates as it did to teetotalers in the 1840s:

Too much denunciation against dram sellers and dram drinkers was indulged in. This, I think, was both impolitic and unjust. It was impolitic, because, it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all, where such driving is to be submitted to, at the expense of pecuniary interest, or burning appetite. When the dram-seller and drinker, were incessantly told, not in accents of entreaty and persuasion, diffidently addressed by erring man to an erring brother; but in the thundering tones of anathema and denunciation, with which the lordly Judge often groups together all the crimes of the felon’s life, and thrusts them in his face just ere he passes sentence of death upon him, that they were the authors of all the vice and misery and crime in the land; that they were the manufacturers and material of all the thieves and robbers and murderers that infested the earth; that their houses were the workshops of the devil; and that their persons should be shunned by all the good and virtuous, as moral pestilences — I say, when they were told all this, and in this way, it is not wonderful that they were slow, very slow, to acknowledge the truth of such denunciations, and to join the ranks of their denouncers in a hue and cry against themselves.

To have expected them to do otherwise than they did — to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation, crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God’s decree, and never can be reversed. When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.

Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him, even to his own best interest.

In this spirit, legalization advocates might appeal more successfully to conservatives by first acknowledging the destructive force that drugs play in the lives of too many Americans, particularly those who are poor and lower-middle class, in contrast to the relatively wealthy and well-educated represented in the pro-legalization camp.  (It is this demographic divide that accounts for a great deal of the intellectual divide on the issue, I submit, given the stark difference that drugs play in the lives of educated trendy urbanites compared with a less educated lower middle class who are more dependent on family and thus more likely to suffer community effects of drug abuse.)  Also effective would be an acknowledgement of the noble purposes intended by opposing drug use, and to stop assuming base racial motives.

From there, the effective advocate ought to have won enough trust that his practical arguments will begin to hit their mark:  that there are more productive and efficient ways to prevent and cure the destruction drugs cause; that incarceration for drug use is tantamount to sending nonviolent drug users to “finishing school for criminals”; that one of the most powerful public sector unions, the prison guards, is rabidly in favor of the drug war because of the effect it has on swelling their own ranks and increasing their influence on public policy.  Moreover, there is no need for the sticker shock associated with the idea of legalizing all drugs.  There is an obvious middle ground short of creating a “right” to do all manner of drugs, such as repealing minimum sentences, replacing incarceration with rehabilitation, legalizing marijuana only, leaving these matters to the states and possibly even to municipalities, etc.

Republicans might be in a good position to get to a more sensible policy on drugs.  Perhaps even a better position than Democrats, given that Republicans are more comfortable drawing moral distinctions about certain behavior:  Republicans can support laws that make certain drugs unlawful or tightly regulated and still oppose overweening “nanny laws.” It might not satisfy libertarians, but surely they’d appreciate some momentum toward reform.

But so long as the motion is whether to grant unfettered legalization based on a supposed moral right to do drugs, I don’t see how anyone other than doctrinaire libertarians can support it.  We need a consensus that includes more than doctrinaire libertarians, and consensus will never be formed so long as the issue is framed in this way.

Good Thing You Don’t Watch Fox News

Or mebbe you do. Regardless, if you’re reading this, it’s not likely that you would have voted differently. And via US News & World Report, this:

Media coverage of President Barack Obama was largely positive in the final week of the presidential campaign, while coverage of Mitt Romney was mostly negative, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

October 29 to November 5. The report analyzed 660 stories from 59 media outlets.

And according to exit polls, President Obama carried the 9% who were “late deciders,” 50-44.]

And Romney’s last lead in the RCP “poll of polls“? October 29.

And then came that Hurricane Sandy thing, where the incumbent president looked and acted downright presidential.

Do I think Mitt Romney would be president-elect right now if the breaks and the weather had gone his way? The numbers indicate perhaps yes; I think no.

Because the press did its predictable thing for their man. Fox with a marginal objectivity, MSNBC with an unblemished record of zero percent objectivity.

And as Rush Limbaugh used to say about where he fit into the Fairness Doctrine, it doesn’t give equal time, Fox News is equal time. If the “late-decider” in the 2012 election only consumed mainstream news, he’d have got twice as many bad stories about Mitt Romney than good [33%-16%], and half again as many good stories about Barack than bad [29%-19%]. The only way to fairly balance even a bit would have been to consume some Fox.

In 2004, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas famously said the press would be worth 15 points to the Democratic Party’s Kerry/Edwards ticket, although he later revised that downward to 5.

In 2008, Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain by 7 points; in 2012, he defeated Mitt Romney by less than three. All things considered here, I’m honestly surprised it was that close: the Presidential Super Bowl is always played on the DNC’s home field. It should be of some cold comfort to Brother Mitt as he heads out to political pasture that he at least beat the spread.

Our main source here is The Pew Research Center’s “Project for Excellence in Journalism.” Gentlemen, I’d scarcely be able to tell you where to look for excellence in journalism, and your analysis–for which America should be thankful–is a confession that you don’t either. Your best hope is to try to shame ’em into it next time.

In the meantime, it is what it is what it is.