Monday, April 5, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility and Incremental Change

"The legitimate debate is whether we borrow and steal from our kids or we get out of town and send the bill to our kids for something that we're going to consume today."

This is what Senator Coburn (R-OK) said to justify singlehandedly cutting off unemployment benefits to thousands of Americans until the Senate made a greater commitment to Sen. Coburn's conception of fiscal responsibility. There is something profoundly ironic about this statement.

(I'm a little hesitant to use Senator Coburn as a proxy for the entire Republican Party, but the sentiment he expressed here is a talking point that was widely used during the "debate" on healthcare, and continues to be a big part of the GOP's anti-government rhetoric, so I don't think it's terribly problematic to do so in this context.)

As much as it's possible to ascribe an ideology to today's GOP, it seems to be focused on sending legislators to Washington to make sure that the government does nothing. The idea here seems to be that doing nothing and never spending money is fiscally responsible.

But doing nothing is not free, and not spending money when it needs to be spent is the opposite of fiscal responsibility. Ultimately, every choice has a cost, and somebody always has to pay for it. Sen. Coburn's statement is ironic because he accuses the Democrats of doing exactly what seems to constitute the GOP's entire modus operandi these days: making the cheap, easy choice in the short term, while punting the expensive, difficult choice down the road for future generations to deal with.

This was the Bush administration in Afghanistan. For seven years, American troops were there without a clear mission, in insufficient numbers to accomplish much of anything, waging a war that was not paid for. By contrast, President Obama has made the difficult decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops and adopt an aggressive strategy that will undoubtedly carry a high cost both in American lives and money.

Why? Because allowing medieval-minded thugs to shelter our worst enemies deep in Central Asia is an unacceptable alternative. The cost of doing nothing is too high.

The same is true of climate change. In the face of scientific uncertainty, but where the potential consequences of being wrong are huge, the responsible choice would seem to be erring on the side of safety (see Pascal's Wager). Yet again, the GOP opted for the cheap and easy choice, avoiding the policies that would impose short-term costs and postponing an overhaul of our infrastructure that would lead to long-term benefit. Once again, President Obama has an ambitious and expensive vision of where the country needs to go. It will cost money - a lot of money, in fact - but it is ultimately the better choice.

Why? Best case scenario: because while we wait, China is surging ahead of us, and we are losing valuable competitive ground to a rival power. Worst case scenario: because Al Gore is right and at some point in the future either we, or our children, or our descendants, will have to deal with the mass of interrelated crises that will stem from climate change. Again, the cost of doing nothing is too high.

There is always a cost, even when you do do nothing. These are just two examples of a general attitude that favors punting the costs down the road, rather than making prudent investments in the future.

Politico recently reported on the fairly hostile reception that Representative Paul Hodes (D-NH) received from Carmen Guimond when he returned home to meet with constituents. The story describes how Ms. Guimond, an elderly woman at a seniors' home, refused to shake the hand of Rep. Hodes, because he voted for the healthcare bill. When Rep. Hodes tried to explain to her the specific benefits that the bill would deliver by 2020, she replied, "We'll all be dead by then."

(I mention Ms. Guimond by name mostly for ease of reference, not to unduly pick on her. Her views on the healthcare bill are no doubt shared by many, and I hope that it's clear that I am taking issue with the view she's espoused, not singling an elderly woman out for ridicule. But it's rare that a political truth is stated as succinctly and as aptly as this one.)

On one hand, it is hard to fault Ms. Guimond for being unenthusiastic about a bill that doesn't promise immediate benefits to her. Yet on the other hand, I have no trouble faulting her for being hostile towards it. "We'll all be dead by then" is not a philosophy that leads to good government. It is, in fact, a selfish and disastrously short-sighted attitude. Where would Ms. Guimond, or any of us, be today, if American statesmen had spent the last two hundred and forty years refusing to consider a timeline that extended any further than the span of their own lives?

Fiscal responsibility and incremental change are two major planks in the Republican platform. I firmly believe that there is value in these principles. I agree that money ought to be spent responsibly or not at all. Personally, I am fairly open to non-incremental change, but the concept that we ought not be too hasty and should think hard about the consequences when adopting new policies is certainly valid and ought to inform the decisions of our legislators.

Yet today's Republican Party has arrived at extremely narrow definitions of these terms. Fiscal responsibility seems to have come to mean "basically never, ever spending money on anything." And incremental change seems to mean "postponing tough choices until we are dead and leaving these problems to another generation." Sen. Coburn exemplifies the former, while Ms. Guimond exemplifies the latter. Incremental change is in the driver's seat, and fiscal responsibility is the argument advanced to kneecap policies that might threaten the status quo.

Construing these terms in this fashion renders them little more than arguments advanced after the fact to justify unflinching support of the status quo and hostility to change, rather than actual first principles upon which to build a philosophy of government. In its present state, then, the GOP has surprisingly little to bring to the table in terms of substantively informing the dialogue over what course our country ought to take.

All this being said, I'm going to end this post on an optimistic note. The current political situation cannot remain in its present state for long. As I mentioned in a previous post, American history has a momentum that tends to knock things down if they try to stand still for too long. We didn't get to where we are today by refusing to change when the circumstances required us to. A confluence of forces brought the Republican Party to its present condition, and those forces will ultimately run their course. Things might get worse before they get better, but I am confident that sooner or later the GOP will reconstitute itself as a party that actively seeks to shape this country's future, rather than clinging stubbornly to its past. When that day comes, we will all be better off.

Monday, March 29, 2010

That Hopey-Changey Stuff

I move onward, the only direction.
Can't be scared to fail, searchin' perfection.
- Shawn Carter

Today, mainstream American politics no longer seems framed as a struggle between two competing visions of change. Rather, due at least in part to the battle lines that were drawn in the healthcare debate, it has become a struggle between the proponents of change and the defenders of the status quo. The dialogue, such as it is, has not been about what form change should take, but whether things ought to change at all. John McCain announced that the Democrats should not expect cooperation on anything after healthcare. Seriously - no cooperation, at all, on anything? That is a bold statement, and it reflects a huge amount of apparently unconditional attachment to the status quo.

But America has never been about accepting the status quo. Generation after generation, this country has been built by ambitious immigrants and visionaries, enabled by a social and political system that eschewed rigid class and heredity privilege in favor of socioeconomic mobility and meritocracy. The dead hand of the past can only hold us back as much as we allow it to. By and large, our historical narrative is one of choosing positive change over the status quo, of believing that we, collectively, have the power, the wisdom, and the resources to build a better future, rather than accept a flawed present. It is an optimistic vision of the future, and I would argue that it has driven much of American history.

Westward expansion, the commitments we've made to maintaining global security in the past century, the space race, the struggles for civil rights at home - the United States of America has accomplished some truly great things. And we've done so by moving forward, even when doing so presented immense challenges, confident that collectively we've had the power to build the better world that we envision. In the past, we haven't shirked our responsibility to each other, to ourselves, and to future generations of Americans when faced with these challenges. It's imperative that we not to do so now.

Sarah Palin has been rallying her supporters to "take back our country." To her, I would say that this is not, nor has this ever been "your" country, at least not in the sense that the statement implies. America has never chosen fear over hope, intolerance over acceptance, complacency over action, nor anger over compassion. America has always harnessed its collective energies to move forward, not back.

If you want to pretend you're living in the early 19th century, that is of course your right as an American. But if you think you're going to take the entire country there with you, I suspect you're in for an unpleasant surprise. History shows that Americans are remarkably attached to "that hopey-changey stuff" for which you've shown such contempt - except we call it "optimism." And, to answer your question, history shows that it tends to work out pretty well for us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Whose Waterloo?

Recently, Republicans have spent a lot of time talking about how passing healthcare reform would kill the Democrats in November. But would it?

I feel more comfortable saying that passing healthcare reform would be potentially terrible news for the Republicans. Whatever he was saying last fall, Obama and his advisors probably knew that the Republicans were going to fight this thing tooth and nail. And so they did, constantly falling back to new arguments as they lost ground. First they went the morality route (death panels, killing grandma, etc.). When that failed, they went the fiscal responsibility route. When the CBO's estimates came out and shot that one down, they fell back to arguing about procedure instead of substance - as though political horsetrading, reconciliation, deem and pass, etc., were odious things that they'd never heard of and would certainly never dream of doing.

We're still hearing echoes of all these arguments today, but now Boehner and the rest are basically just trying to intimidate Democrats out of voting for it by saying they'll lose in the midterms. Some Dems have stepped up - courageously, I would say - and addressed that explicitly, saying they're willing to take that risk. Good for them. Sometimes doing the right thing and doing the safe thing are miles apart.

But I'm not sure that the Democrats are going to lose big in November, the way the Republicans are predicting. People have short memories. If healthcare reform passes, the world will not end immediately. Government stormtroopers will not break into homes to drag senior citizens off to face death panels while forcing their family members at gunpoint to change doctors. Congress will move on to address other issues, like the economy and financial reform, and the populist rage that the Republicans have been fueling will subside (for the record, it's not even clear that healthcare reform is unpopular among the majority of Americans - most of the polling numbers suggest that people aren't so much unhappy about the bill as they are unhappy that the Democrats have taken so long getting it through, and success will change that).

So, while the Democrats and voters move on, the Congressional Republicans will have a "now what?" moment. As some of them have threatened, they can continue to act like petulant children and oppose literally everything the Democrats put forward. But I doubt that anything else on the legislative agenda will be as contentious as healthcare. Even the teabaggers, crazy as they may be, are furious at Wall Street, and I suspect that the GOP can ill-afford to alienate them by bringing government to a halt again to protect multi-million dollar bonuses for the people who wrecked the economy. And Boehner and McConnell will have a very hard time going on national television and explaining why job creation for unemployed Americans is a bad thing. If the obstructionism continues, it's going to be the Republicans who face an uncertain future in November, not the Democrats.

Boehner has warned that the Democrats will suffer in the midterm elections for this. And maybe they will, at least this year. But after the healthcare scare is over, whether that's this November or somewhat further down the road, the Republicans are going to find that whatever gains they made by scaremongering were only temporary. Ultimately, I suspect the congressmen who egged on an angry mob that waved Confederate flags and spat on and hurled racial and homophobic epithets at elected officials will end up looking worse than the ones who risked their political future to do what they felt was right. (I'm aware that these were isolated instances, and not everybody in the mob did it, but that's the thing about forming an angry mob - if you're part of it, you tend to be held accountable for its actions, whether you personally did it or not.)

Alternately, congressional Republicans could try a change of tack and only open their mouths when they have something constructive to add to the debate. But either way, they will have lost whatever initiative they ever had, and it may be a long time before they're in a comparable position to threaten the Democrats' agenda.

Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said that healthcare was going to be Obama's Waterloo. And maybe he was right, although not in the sense that he meant. Is healthcare reform Waterloo? Could be. But right now, the Republican Party is looking a lot like Napoleon (small, with an inferiority complex). And the Democrats are looking a lot like the Duke of Wellington.

(And he's the guy who won.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Information Value and Free Speech

Note: These are some ideas that I've been kicking around lately. It's certainly possible that other people have devoted more substantive thought to this than I have and articulated it better. I don't claim these as original ideas - I've directed no research towards this question, so I have no idea who may have already said what about any of this. On the other hand, it's also possible that there's not much merit in this, and that nobody has spent time thinking about it. Anyways, this post falls into the category of "random thoughts."

Let's start with the premise that information is valuable. This proposition is likely as close to being universally accepted as anything can be. Whether you're gathering military intelligence or stock tips, having knowledge is an advantage.

The next premise is that information dissemination used to be a very expensive venture. Imagine the costs associated with transmitting a large volume of information over a great distance one thousand years ago. Let's say a phonebook, from Baghdad to Reykjavik, in the year 1000. (Ignore the anachronism for the sake of illustration.) You're in Baghdad, and you need to get all the information contained in that phonebook, consisting of thousands of names and numbers, to someone in Reykjavik. You don't have a printing press, so you're going to have to pay somebody to copy out all of those thousands of names and numbers by hand. Then you're going to have to arrange for the copy to be conveyed halfway across the world. This will entail horses, ships, and other not-so-fast modes of transportation. This is also happening in an era where bears, bandits, and storms carry a real risk of your courier getting killed and this information being lost en route. So, if you want to really make sure that your phonebook gets to Reykjavik, you would be well-advised to at least duplicate your efforts: multiple hand-made copies, multiple couriers, multiple ships/horses. Result: it's very expensive to get that phonebook to Reykjavik. Given the expense of all this, you're going to be very reluctant to transmit information unless it's actually valuable in some sense.

But technological progress has made the transmission of information cheaper. Let's say we're trying to get that phone book from Baghdad to Reykjavik 500 years ago instead of 1000. It's still going to be fairly expensive, but far less so than it was 500 years earlier. By 1500 you've got a printing press, so you're not going to have to spend so much time and money getting the book transcribed by hand. You've got better navigation technologies, so ships are less likely to sink on the way there, and you're less likely to feel the need to duplicate your efforts. It's going to be cheaper and easier still in 1600, in 1700, and so on.

Today, getting that information from Baghdad to Reykjavik now happens literally instantaneously, and at no measurable cost to the transmitter. Forget horses, ships, printed or handwritten copies and the rest - this is now a matter of clicking a mouse. Today, information transmission is cheap, fast, secure, and generally easy.

This is where I feel like I'm on shakier ground. Let's say the cost of transmitting a piece of information to one million people is X. Let's say the aggregate value of transmitting that information is Y. A rational person will only transmit that information if Y>X.

I posit that right now, in 2010, X is (for many people) close to zero, because communications technology has reached a point where it is basically free to communicate instantaneously with a wide number of people. So if X is zero, information with any positive Y value at all will be worth transmitting. Put differently, in this day and age there is no piece of information that is too worthless, trivial, or frivolous to communicate across great distances to many people. (For the record, I am a big fan of free speech and reducing barriers for communications. The advantages are obvious and manifold. Right now, though, I'm taking a look at the other side of the coin.)

One problem with this analysis is that characterizing information as valuable or frivolous begs two overlapping questions: First, valuable to whom? Second, how to measure value? I'm not really sure how to answer these. On one hand, I intuitively feel like society is made better off by the publication of information relevant to healthcare reform than by photographs of Paris Hilton in a compromising position. Yet the paparazzo who snaps the picture of Paris Hilton will almost certainly be paid more for his work than a Washington correspondent who gets a scoop on healthcare reform.

Additionally, I firmly believe that we are collectively worse off when people on any side of the political spectrum deliberately muddy the waters with disinformation. But while disinformation is not valuable to society, it may have value to the disseminator: it may give a politician a lead in the polls, or a talk radio host a ratings boost, or it may forestall regulation and thus boost a corporation's profits. So there's a real problem related to even the most approximate form of value calculation here. Maybe this is such a case-by-case, context-specific inquiry that it's impossible to impose a standard.

But leaving that aside for the moment: what if the cost involved in disseminating information has, in the past, played some sort of gatekeeper function, by keeping "worthless" information out, and ensuring that anything that was widely disseminated had some value? If that's true, and the cost of dissemination has dropped to almost zero, then there's no longer any kind of gatekeeper. Anybody can put anything out there, and we're constantly bombarded with nonsense - including, perhaps, this blog post.

So here's my final, non-rhetorical question: do the scope of our free speech laws still make sense? If we no longer have a cost-based gatekeeper, should the law play that role, by stepping in to redraw the line in a spot that makes more sense for the world we live in today?

The most cited example of the limits of free speech is that nobody has the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. I would argue that in this day and age, many of the communications that influence the course of national politics would fall into this same category. For example, when someone who knows better goes on national television or talk radio and announces that the President is an Indonesian-born Muslim who intends to use health care reform to create death panels, that is going to cause panic and confusion - much like shouting "Fire!" in a theater. Today the whole country, maybe even the whole world, is the theater. And the internet, along with a perpetually hungry 24-hour news cycle, has given more Americans than ever before the capacity to shout whatever they want. Perhaps the law ought to be more concerned with the consequences. To paraphrase the junior senator from Minnesota: we're entitled to our own opinions, but we're not entitled to our own facts.

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

So far it seems that Republicans were unswayed by this week's State of the Union address. This is unsurprising. Minority Whip Eric Cantor went so far as to say that he didn't appreciate Obama's lecturing tone. Fair enough. Likewise, while he didn't say it in so many words, President Obama doesn't appreciate Congressional Republicans failing to act like adults who were elected to govern. Hence the lecture. Act like children, and like children ye shall be treated.

Anyways, the tone of Obama's speech suggested that he was most concerned with keeping Democrats working hard for the solutions America desperately needs and trying to inoculate them against catching a case of midterm election fright and "run[ning] for the hills." Any Republican cooperation, he seemed to imply, would be welcome but unexpected.

Here's a bit that I really liked: "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well."

In the first part of the statement, Obama stresses that the fact that the Senate currently needs 60 votes to pass a bill has nothing to do with the Constitution. The only significance to the number 60 is that which is given to it by the Republican vow to filibuster against pretty much anything Democrats propose. As we've seen, requiring 60 votes to get something done apparently results in worse, not better, legislation, as it forces Harry Reid to pander to Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. All that political horse-trading and back room dealing that the Republicans are complaining about? All a direct consequence of their filibuster threat.

The second part of the statement, "responsibility to govern," hints at that. Again, I don't see this to mean that Obama really expects Republican collaboration on anything (with the exception of climate change; moderate kudos once again to Lindsey Graham for actually doing his job). Rather, I suspect that Obama is signaling that if the Republicans choose to do nothing except try to hold up his agenda, they will be responsible nonetheless for whatever has to happen for the legislative branch to function, whether that's the afore-mentioned horse-trading and back room deal-cutting, or using the controversial reconciliation maneuver to get around the threat of a filibuster.

So, summing up and translating what I hope Obama is saying with that statement: We have a majority in the Senate, which is all that the Constitution says we need to pass laws. If you refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of that majority, refuse to contribute meaningfully to policy-making, and try to use the rules of the Senate to keep us from governing, we will govern on our own. If that means cutting deals and using the rules of the Senate to our own advantage, the ultimate responsibility for that rests with you, and we will make sure that the voters know it in November. And don't even think about trying to tell them otherwise.

So, if Republicans think they can keep up with the obstructionism and win big in November, I think they'll be badly disappointed. It's been a rough year for Obama agenda-wise, but we're talking about a smart and ambitious leader who showed during the campaign that he learns from his errors quickly. Can you name a single mistake he's made twice? Shifting his focus to job creation is a smart move that forces Republicans to explain to voters why they're holding things up, whereas healthcare put the burden on the Dems to explain what they were even trying to accomplish.

Obama is still facing a tough fight in getting his agenda through Congress, but it looks to me like he knows what he's doing. Let's not forget that as much as he's an Ivy League intellectual, an idealist, and a gifted orator, the President is also a graduate of the Chicago School of Bareknuckled Politics. He knows how to win a fight.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Barack Obama, the State of the Union, and the Winter of our Discontent

For the sake of full disclosure, let me say that I like Obama. In fact, I like Obama a lot. I voted for him, I gave money to his campaign, and I worked for his campaign as a legal observer in New Hampshire on Election Day. That complex and nuanced worldview of his makes me suspect he's one of the smartest presidents we've ever had. This isn't to say that I support all of his policies wholeheartedly and unquestioningly - Afghanistan is one I've been questioning lately - but given the thought processes he brings to bear on the issues, I tend to pretty much agree with his agenda.

Tonight's State of the Union address reminded me of all of this. Our president sees the big picture, how all the pieces fit together, and what we need to do to get those pieces on the table. There are definitely obstacles to such an ambitious agenda, even a really terrific speech doesn't change that. It's going to be tough - but it's doable.

Last week, taking a long view of things, it was hard to see the U.S. as anything but a superpower on the decline. But after tonight's speech, I can see another way to fit where we are now into the bigger picture. Here's what I hope the historians have to say in a couple of generations:

After the fall of the Soviet Union, America found itself in a previously unheard of position: a sole superpower, a hyperpower, even, facing a world without a single nemesis that could rival the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War seemed to vindicate the supremacy of capitalism and of American military might. America's leadership went on a deregulation binge, and in the absence of a powerful rival the old Cold Warriors who still formed the bulk of the country's military policy establishment started looking for ways to project American military power even further across the globe.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, capitalism woke up with a hell of a hangover. The military establishment came dangerously close to irreparably botching the war they'd chosen (Iraq), and found themselves even closer to disaster in the war they hadn't planned on (Afghanistan).

America adjusted. Saying farewell to an attitude that promised opportunities without consequences, they elected a president who saw problems with solutions. Obama reigned in the banks and took his military policy cues from professional soldiers, like Petraeus and McChrystal, instead of civilian ideologues like Rumsfeld and Armitage. Looking at what needed to be done, he harnessed the energies of a dynamic democracy of 300 million people behind an ambitious agenda that launched America into the twenty-first century, leaving the twentieth century behind. And as the policies worked, the fearmongering of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Michele Bachmann largely ceased to resonate with voters who were once again optimistic about their country's future.

I don't expect this all to happen just because Obama made a good speech. But the speech was a reminder that it can happen, and that for all its troubles, America remains a place with most of the best advantages that any country can have. After a speech like that, it's hard not to feel at least cautiously optimistic about the future.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thoughts on the Supreme Court

I've grown weary of the Supreme Court. Maybe part of this is just the cumulative fatigue of the two and a half years I've spent reading their opinions. Or maybe I'm just jealous that the nature of legal writing requires me to eschew adjectives and use only the shortest words I can find, no matter how unappealing they may be, while Justice Kennedy gets to write like a paid-by-the-word 19th-century novelist. And Citizens United certainly doesn't make me any fonder of the Roberts Court.

In any event, I question whether the Supreme Court is what it ought to be. Sometimes I think about the Court as a kind of Council of Elders, appointed for life to interpret the sacred writings of our forefathers and force the modern world to reconcile itself to their vision. Uniquely qualified to tell us what Madison and the rest would have thought about issues that they could not have possibly contemplated arising in their tiny agrarian republic, the Council of Elders issues unreviewable decisions based on judicial philosophies that often have little to do with the world as it is. The good news here is that there's at least a level of independence to the court under this view, since some of the underlying judicial philosophies defy easy liberal/conservative categorization. The bad news lies in the disconnect between the Court and the country that feels the effects of its decisions.

Other times I think about the Court as a superlegislature. With the power to ratify the laws it approves of and veto the rest, it is as nakedly partisan as any other branch of government. Presidents choose their nominees from the pool of people best positioned to hold the party line for future decades. The good news here is that the rules of the game, while unofficial, are known to all, so no one party is really rigging the system at the expense of the other. The bad news is that a disingenuous system like this somewhat undermines the dignity of the institution.

Yet the appointment of Justice Sotomayor is a welcome reminder that the way individual judges approach their duties can still yield positive results, even in a flawed system. Her now-infamous "wise Latina" comment bothered me at first, but having spent a lot of time thinking about the type of thinking that it reflects, I now think, or at least hope, that it signals the kind of jurisprudence that I'd like to see more of. I don't think that we gain much by expecting our judges to not be human. Experience breeds understanding, and need not be mutually exclusive with objectivity.

Increasingly I wonder whether our political institutions still have the capacity to accomplish their prescribed tasks, or whether the country has changed so much since the framing of the Constitution that our tripartite system in its current form is still up to the challenge. Judicial activism is a term with pejorative connotations, but I have a hard time opposing a philosophy that actually strengthens the connections between our highest court and the world we live in.

Striking at the Heart of Democracy? Well, Maybe...

Verne hitched himself a few inches across the desk, and stuck a large finger at Bunny's face. "Kiddo," he said, "get this straight: I can buy any officials, just the same as I can buy any politicians, or anybody else that a bunch of boobs can elect to office. And I know what you're thinking - here's an old cow-puncher, without any fine ideals, and he's got a barrel o' money and thinks he can do anything he pleases with it. But that ain't the point, my boy - it's because I had the brains to make the money, and I got the brains to use it. Money ain't power till it's used, and the reason I can buy power is because men know I can use it - or else, by Jees, they wouldn't sell it to me. You got that?"
Oil!, by Upton Sinclair

By sheer coincidence, I happened to read this passage yesterday, just a few hours after the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission hit the news.
Oil! is the basis for P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, but other than a few characters and the physical setting, there aren't many similarities between the book and the film. The main point of conflict in Sinclair's novel is between capitalism and labor. Standing in for capitalism is the massive Southern California oil industry, portrayed as an entity wealthy and powerful enough to essentially buy the American government and use it to advance industry interests abroad and at home, while running roughshod over anything standing in the way. The above excerpt is a diatribe delivered by an oil boss who has just engineered the election of Warren G. Harding, gloating over his ability to covertly keep the labor unions under control. It's a fairly bleak picture of the United States as capitalist dystopia.

The fact that Sinclair engaged in a fair bit of hyperbole and oversimplification doesn't greatly undermine his point, and I think that it remains a relevant one. Right now, the Obama administration is struggling to pass what ought to be common sense reforms in the wake of the financial crisis, and currently doesn't have anything much stronger than moral suasion to get the financial world to change its ways. In the face of intense populist anger and high unemployment, the big firms still feel secure enough to give out bonuses that strike many as obscene. All of this begs the question, who exactly is setting the agenda? I'm not sure I'd go as far as Sinclair did in venturing an answer, but in the midst of economic devastation and political confusion, Wall Street is still going strong, and Wall Street looks pretty confident that they're going to get off with little more than a congressional slap on the wrist for transgressions that call for significantly more than that.
Cui bono?

Bottom line: with a capitalist system as robust as ours, the amount of money that can be amassed behind a particular agenda is staggering, and the court's ruling has only made it easier for monied interests to do what they've already been quite successful at doing. Frankly, I'm not sure that this is ultimately likely to significantly alter the status quo. Our elected officials in both parties have been getting hefty support from big business for decades, and in return they've gone to bat for those interests in Washington. Need examples? Look no further than Chuck Schumer and Wall Street, Joe Lieberman and insurance, Lisa Murkowski and oil, and Robert Byrd and coal (although to his credit, Byrd has recently
changed his tune somewhat.) While The New York Times characterized the ruling as "strik[ing] at the heart of democracy," I question whether this decision truly reflects a change in substance, or merely a change in form. This is not to suggest that the court's ruling is really consistent with the ideals of democracy, but it doesn't appear to be wildly inconsistent with the way things have been getting done in the United States for some time.

As for the Supreme Court's reasoning, I'm not sure it's even worthwhile for me to have an opinion on it. If you want to know how I feel about the Supreme Court in general, check back in a couple of days.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

We Might Not Win This One

Lately I've had this vague sense that future generations of historians will look back at this era and say that the United States had the misfortune to face a number of threats to its existence at the very moment that it was least equipped to deal with any of them. One party is trying to govern, the other is opposing nearly everything that party does, and independents apparently don't have enough faith in either one to give them more than a year or two to produce results.

In the electorate, the body that's been charged with the not insignificant task of choosing our leaders, it is almost impossible to make out anything meaningful in the cacophony of what passes for debate today. The media has transformed politics into a spectator sport, where you score points by kneecapping your opponent, not by governing. Yes, politics has always been, and always will be, a necessary feature of the process of governance. It's inescapable. But it has become an absolute monster, devouring time, energy, and money, and leaving our elected officials with time for little else.

Most of us alive today can't remember a time when the United States wasn't going strong. Even in our rough spots, we were better off than pretty much any other country on earth. Economic slumps came periodically, but the economy always bounced back, stronger than ever. Even our biggest foreign policy setback, the Vietnam War, bloodied our nose, but it didn't knock us down. To some extent, America is a victim of its own success. Our track record has given us a collective sense of invincibility. Indeed, there is a shocking degree of complacency among Americans today, a sense that it's all right to ignore the facts and vote with a gut full of misguided rage at the changes we're all living through, because we'll all muddle through in the end, because we're America.

But that's not how it works. We don't get to win just because we're America, and the American Century didn't happen by accident. History isn't some scripted drama, where the United States sails through various crises, always destined to emerge victorious and lead the world, no matter what else happens. In every major crisis we faced and emerged from, the outcome was in doubt, and without strong leaders, we might not have come out on top. We got to where we were at the end of the 20th century through sound policies and solid leadership, not by taking our cues from talk radio and Fox News.

But Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are the symptoms, not the problems. Maybe it's a failure of education, or maybe the amount of information that we're saturated with on a daily basis has left us largely incapable of abstract thought. Or maybe the pace at which the world is changing scares people so much that they reject the uncertainty of meaningful inquiry and cling to political dogma and the comfort that it offers. Whatever it is, it is frightening and widespread.

Let's not kid ourselves. We're looking at a devastated economy, a strong and resilient Taliban, and an Al Qaeda that is still very much a threat. In short, we are facing a national crisis, and the United States has become borderline ungovernable. Yes, we're America, and yes, we tend to come out on top. But we might not win this one.