Archive for July, 2009

Through One Mind to a Whole Other World

July 30, 2009

Here is the email Officer Justin Barrett of the Boston PD sent to a Boston Globe reporter, which resulted in Officer Barrett’s suspension from the force:

Most of the commentary on this will focus, justifiably, on the deep racial hatred.


Going Postal

July 28, 2009

Terry passes along the following:

Here’s another entry for your too-big-too-fail series:
Is the USPS too big and/or too essential to fail? Should it be allowed to collapse upon itself like the dying star it is? Should/Could it be privatized?

Is the USPS too big and/or too essential to fail? Should it be allowed to collapse upon itself like the dying star it is? Should/Could it be privatized?

I agree with the article that our postal system remains an outrageous bargain, so my prescription for their shortfall would be to raise prices.  I have no real objection to the USPS being shut down and privatized, but I don’t see it happening.  My guess is, if nothing else, there would be national security objections.  But maybe not.  I really have no idea.

The Stopped Clock Rule

July 27, 2009

I’m not a big fan of the  By and large, I think they’re a bunch of wankers.

But this short article about Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson’s ability to get things done — to get the legislation they wanted through congress — is worth reading.

The Moral Argument

July 27, 2009

Ezra Klein asks: what happened to the moral argument for health care reform?

It seems this argument was key to getting national health care passed in Sweden and Taiwan.  While opponents were talking in cold economic terms, proponents were talking about ethical obligations.  In T.R. Reid’s words:

Both countries decided that society has an ethical obligation — as a matter of justice, of fairness, of solidarity — to assure everybody has access to medical care when it’s needed. The advocates of reform in both countries clarified and emphasized that moral issue much more than the nuts and bolts of the proposed reform plans. As a result, the national debate was waged around ideals like “equal treatment for everybody,” “we’re all in this together,” and “fundamental rights” rather than on the commercial implications for the health care industry.

Frankly, I doubt how well that would work in America.

For starters, and most fundamentally, we’ve never quite cleared ourselves of Adam Smith thinking.  I’m referring not  to Smith’s notion of free markets, but to Smith’s moral philosophy that undergirded and justified it.  Smith’s argument was not just that free markets work best economically, but that they result in morally correct outcomes: everybody rationally pursuing their own best interest results, in the aggregate, in morally correct outcomes.

Thus, the distinction between economic arguments and moral arguments that Klein and Reid presuppose is one a lot of Americans still do not make.  (On this front, Max Weber remains extremely relevant, I think.)  I don’t mean to suggest that most Americans (or Swedes or Taiwanese) consciously think in or about these categories.  Only that most American thinking still runs very much within the grooves laid down by Smith, and those grooves never separated economics from morality.

Since Smith’s economics and his moral philosophy were individualistic (because rooted in his individualistic anthropology and epistemology), most Americans’ moral thinking and economic thinking are, likewise, identically individualistic.  Notions like solidarity and “we’re all in this together” just don’t carry much weight.  Public policy arguments based on them have never been terribly successful, except during some of our wars.

Say “solidarity” to 10 Americans over the age of 30 and you’re likely to be called a Communist at least 3 times.

Similarly, arguments featuring “equal treatment for everybody” don’t do all that well.  A big chunk of Americans don’t much believe in that — don’t believe in it at all on economic issues like being able to access health care.  Nor do they much favor “fundamental rights” in the economic sphere.  The only fundamental right is to an equal shot at working to make enough money to buy yourself some health care.

I’m not sure if that kind of thinking is still a majority mindset in America, but it very clearly is the mindset of at least a large, vocal, and pretty organized minority, that happens to pull the strings of one of our 2 major political parties.

So while I share Klein and Reid’s view that there’s a moral argument here, I don’t think the health care reform effort would be notably better off if proponents relied more on that argument.

Another Resignation

July 27, 2009

God resigns as governor of Alaska the universe:

So to serve the Earth is a really intense responsibility, because I know in my soul that Earth is of such import in our very volatile universe. And you know me by now, I promised a couple thousand years ago to show MY independence…that’s why I rested on the seventh day. That was foreshadowing.

via Sullivan

Pryor’s Priorities

July 27, 2009

Somehow I’ve gotten myself on Sen. Mark Pryor’s email list.  Probably it was by sending him an email a while back, complaining he was a wholly owned subsidiary of Sen. Ben Nelson.

Regardless, I got a kick out of his most recent missive, containing his summary of his legislative activities.  There are 3, presumably listed in order of importance:

  1. He got the Corps of Engineers to waive some fees for use of Corps-maintained lakes and such, so Americans can afford a vacation in these tough economic times.  This required the writing of a letter.
  2. He got an amendment to the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958 passed, protecting owners of “assisted-opening” pocketknives from undue government intrusion.  (“A pocketknife for many Arkansans can serve as an entire toolbox, and the government really has no business taking that away from them.”)
  3. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs, he held a hearing examining competition in the health care sector.

Pocketknives and fishing fees.  Somebody tell the Architect of the Capitol to start planning which buildings to rename in honor of Sen. Pryor’s pathbreaking career.

Note that in reporting on his health care hearing, Pryor manages not to say anything whatsoever about, much less take a position on, the issues actually holding up health care reform legislation.

A Near Miss

July 27, 2009

Matt Yglesias sees reality without actually quite seeing it:

Meanwhile, the geography of the 2010 Senate races is also highly favorable to the Democrats. And given the contrast between ironclad discipline on the GOP side and the “anything goes” attitude on the Democratic side, it looks like for a while yet we may be in a California-style dynamic where Republicans can’t win elections but Democrats can’t actually pass a governing agenda.

See, there?  That whole “ironclad discipline” vs. “anything goes” contrast?  There’s your problem.  That’s why “it looks like for a while yet we may be in a California-style dynamic where Republicans can’t win elections but Democrats can’t actually pass a governing agenda.”

Note, too, that Yglesias agrees with me that, contra Klein, there’s nothing about the senate rules that makes it inherently less amenable to discipline, as the GOP has been proving for a very long time, now, as both a majority and a minority.  It just takes leadership from the top, and pressure from below.  Republicans get the latter from talk radio and Fox News.  Dems should be getting it from superstar bloggers like Yglesias and Klein.

Yet five will get you ten that within 24 hours Yglesias repeats his claim that the problem is the system, not the people.

One more time: when there’s no price to be paid for breaking with your caucus, because your leadership won’t inflict one and progressive opinion shapers are giving you a pass by blaming the system, why not go off the farm?  The mainstream media love you because you look like a moderate and a Very Serious Person.  You get more leverage and therefore more control over the content of legislation and the president’s ongoing agenda.  The voters back home think you’re a stand-up guy or gal, voting what you think is right (or what is best for the home folks) instead of the party line.

Unless you represent a thoroughly liberal state (or district), of course you’re going to buck your party’s agenda.

Let me say I’m not arguing that  Dems should be forced to vote in total lockstep 100% of the time the way Republicans are.  We’ve seen what that got them; on the other hand, before they cratered, that discipline got them just about everything they wanted.  So I am arguing that on the Democratic Party’s biggest, most important, most desired, highest-profile agenda items, yes, you’ve got to be willing enforce some friggin’ discipline.

Bless him, Father Occam, for he has sinned.

July 26, 2009

In my continuing disagreement with the tendency of the twenty-something liberal bloggers to blame the system for Democrats’ inability to get things done, I take note that Ezra Klein has now gone well out of his way to do just that.

In commenting on the fact that Dems are losing patience with Sen. Max Baucus over his inability to get a health care reform bill moved out of his committee (the Finance Committee), Klein says:

But this isn’t, as some are suggesting, because Baucus is a schmuck. It’s because the structure of the legislative process is more important than the individuals within it. The House has majority rule and an internal structure that lends itself to party discipline. The Senate has the filibuster. And beyond the Senate having the filibuster, Baucus wants a bipartisan bill out of his committee.

It is no surprise that the chamber with majority rule and party discipline is outpacing the chamber with anti-majoritarian rules and a bipartisan bent. We’re seeing how difficult it is to build bipartisan legislation when the minority believes it can kill the bill.

Occam (supposedly) tells us we shouldn’t multiply entities unnecessarily — in this case, those entities are explanations for the failure of Max Baucus — and Klein has done exactly that.

Let’s review the three key facts:

  1. Baucus, for whatever reason, surely having nothing whatever to do with the fact that he’s gotten more campaign money from the health care industry than has any other member of congress, rilly, rilly wants his bill to be bipartisan.
  2. The GOP believes it can kill health care reform altogether, which would be a huge political albatross to hang around the Dems’ necks in the next elections; therefore no Republican has any incentive to vote for Baucus’s bill or even negotiate in good faith.
  3. Unlike the House Dems  — and, though Klein doesn’t mention this because it cuts against his blame-the-system argument, also unlike the Senate GOP — the Senate Dem caucus is totally undisciplined.


You don’t need any more than that to explain why Baucus can’t — won’t — get moving.  So long as he clings to his forlorn hope for a bipartisan bill despite fact #2, and so long as Harry Reid continues to let him, there will be no bill.

The existence of the filibuster rule is, at this point, irrelevant.  It doesn’t apply to committee votes.  The rules for committee votes are totally majoritarian.  Just like Klein’s beloved House rules.  All Baucus needs is 12 of the committee’s 23 votes, a simple majority; which means he doesn’t even need all 13 Democrats to vote with him.  He chooses not to proceed on that basis, and Senator Mudpuddle chooses to let him dawdle.

So, while Klein says “the structure of the legislative process is more important than the individuals within it,” that’s simply not the case with health reform.  The individuals in the system are more important than the legislative process.

Baucus is a schmuck (or at least a chump).  So is Reid.  So are the Republicans.  And that’s the problem.

Sort of Not Blaming the System

July 24, 2009

Matt Yglesias takes an ever so slight respite from blaming all our problems on the system instead of on the people in it:

Something a lot of progressive legislative leaders seem to have forgotten until this Congress actually got under way is that historically congressional procedure is a challenge to be surmounted when you want big change to happen. It’s not actually a fixed feature of the landscape that people “have to” accommodate themselves to. For years you couldn’t get a decent Civil Rights bill because segregationists controlled the Judiciary Committee that had jurisdiction. This problem was “solved” by just deciding to bypass the Judiciary Committee. When you decide you want to get things done, you find a way to get them done.

Exactly.  When you want to get things done, you find a way to get them done.

That’s what we need from the Democratic leadership, but aren’t getting.  They don’t want to find a way to get things done.  They want people to just agree with them.

Yglesias’s notion of finding a way to get things done is still all about changing the rules, but at least he’s now throwing some responsibility on the people in charge.

Being a cop means never having to say you’re sorry.

July 24, 2009

I hear that the officer who arrested Henry Louis Gates has said he won’t apologize for it because he doesn’t want to set a precedent — he doesn’t want people to expect cops to apologize when they screw up, or cops to feel like they should apologize when they screw up.

Yeah.  The last thing we want is for people with guns and handcuffs to feel like they should take responsibility for using them.  Too much of a burden on the little dears.