The Suave Economist

Touching on men's fashion, politics, chivalry, and economics- and everything in between.

letters: Where capitalists get their principles

zachdex:

I have noticed a problem in American political discourse: leftists brands as cynics people who say that experience is a good guide for economic policy. This is too bad, and not true. I argue that experience is, in fact, a reasonable way to guide decision-making on economic policy.

Jean-François…

An Open Letter to the DTH

Because the DTH Edit Board decided to publish this instead of my response to their idiotic editorial on campaign finance, I’ve decided to print it here instead:

To the editor,

Usually, the leftist asininity found in “Keep elections in the citizens’ hands” is reserved for screeds at Huffington Post. Somehow, it escapes the Left how vacuous it is to simply call something “voter-owned,” then, voilà, declare it “clean” and “fair.” It ignores the inherent coercion required in a system where taxpayers are forced to subsidize every candidate, even candidates with whom they disagree. Should supporters of abortion be required to fund Rick Perry’s candidacy? The editorial subscribed to the demonstrably false Marxist framework of assuming corporate interests are monolithic (and, implicitly, its equally false corollary that corporate interests are synonymous with the Right).

Why is there a bias against corporations? They, as one presidential nominee ineptly put it, are people, too. Corporations are people and benefit people (workers, consumers, etc). They are an association of people which the Left arbitrarily decides should not participate in the political process. This is ironic considering that shareholders control corporate donations far more than labor union members whose (coerced) dues go to political candidates. It is also frequently ignored that corporations only make donations when their interests are affected, so Big Government naturally leads to more corporate donations.

Contrary to the editorial, “political power” is not placed in the “hands of the voters” when you remove their ability to fund candidates with whom they agree to whatever degree they desire. It’s taken out of their hands, and placed in the hands of incumbents. Limiting free speech in elections is not “democratic sanity”- it’s actually what we’d normally call “tyranny.” 

POWER

One critique in politics I never understand is that one party is doing such-and-such because they’re only interested in “power.” The Left accuses it of the Right, and vice-versa. But what does it even mean- that one side is only interested in power for power’s sake? It makes you picture some Voldemort-esque figure- ”All I want is vague, nebulous, formless power!” *evil laugh*- but then you remember that even Voldemort wielded his power for a specified purpose.

Yet, here it is, today, in Paul Krugman’s latest blog post: The GOP has shown “itself utterly uninterested in anything except gaining the upper hand.”

Au contrare, M. Krugman, the Republicans have actually made their intentions crystal clear. Actually, they’re the ONLY negotiating party to do so since no one else has published a budget proposal. And with the Ryan Plan, the GOP is also the only party to have a clear proposal for entitlement reform.

Krugman even makes that point a paragraph later, accusing the Republicans of seeking “privatization and big tax cuts for the wealthy.”

It’s hard to argue they’re “utterly uninterested” in anything but “the upper hand” if they’ve put forward policy proposals, but I suppose Krugman wouldn’t allow an opportunity to question the motives of the GOP with a semi-decent rhetorical ploy to pass him by. Though, hopefully we’ve all grown immune to Krugman’s tired caricature of Republicans as the baleful manifestations of Stupidity and Wickedness.

A Prediction

Sample news story from September 2012:

WASHINGTON- President Obama commemorates gay pride at the White House this evening, welcoming some of his gay and lesbian supporters and renewing his commitment to helping them “win the future.”

But unlike a similar event last year, this year, he finally used the opportunity to flash his rainbow stripes in support of marriage equality.

"I’ve said my views have been evolving," Obama said during a midday press conference. "Today, I can proudly announce that I support ending marriage discrimination based on sexual orientation."

Or something along those lines. Think about it. We’ve seen his views “evolve” in four stages:

1. As a state legislator, he supported gay marriage;

2. As a presidential candidate, he opposed it;

3. As president, he’s stated he said it should be left up to the states;

4. And finally, he says his views are “evolving.”

Show of hands: who believes Obama ever changed his mind or actually opposes gay marriage? He has refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, opposed Prop 8 in California, and described the New York passage of gay marriage as “a good thing.”

As the preeminent “pragmatic” politician, going into the 2008 elections, he knew better than the rock the boat as that innocent era of economic booms and Federal Marriage Amendment debates came to a close.

But 2012 will be different. He’s the incumbent. And momentum is with the gay rights crowd. More importantly, Obama is on the outs with much of the Left; i.e., the segment of the party that provides the enthusiasm, volunteers, and (more to the point) money. His approval rating nationwide stands at 47% according to the most recent CBS News/NYTimes poll. Within the numbers, his approval among Democrats is 76%- an almost 10% drop from January of this year.

Worse is the enthusiasm among Democrats about the future. Only 44% of Democrats believe the country is on the right track- an almost 15% drop from five months ago. Which makes sense. I mean, if you were a Democrat casting your ballot for the man you thought could wave his magic wand and make our problems go away, you’d be pretty disappointed too.

And the things they complain about- unemployment, income inequality, Libya, etc-aren’t going away any time soon- except the War in Afghanistan which will, conveniently, end in September 2012 (I guess he’s listening to his generals insofar as David Axelrod is a general).

But what’s one thing that is eminently in his power to change that has consistently irritated his base (the people he desperately needs to turn out in high numbers)? Why, gay marriage. Endorsing gay marriage would only be a win for him. A large majority of the Democratic Party (69%) support gay marriage- and I have yet to meet a Republican or independent who currently support Obama but for whom gay marriage will be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Endorsing gay marriage would excite his base and give pundits an opportunity to compete in praising this “thoughtful, reflective, independent-thinking” president who’s willing to “risk his political career” to make a stand on a “controversial issue” ad nauseum.

While I disagree with same-sex marriage (civil unions are a-okay), I respect people with whom I disagree if they’re honest about their opinions. And I don’t mind politicians who change their minds, but when it’s conveniently close to the following election, it’s safe to call that opportunism. Although if I’m right, it would cement the fact that this president isn’t even cunning in his political cynicism. Even now, we simply expect it.

Seize the Day!

My first contribution to the newest lit-crit blog on the block, Mayakovski is Delightful.

A teaser:

Rarely do we see men cry- and not just a UNC-loses-to-Duke cry, but a cry where you can see their very soul in agony as their tears wash away whatever purpose they see in existence.

But that is the image with which we are confronted at the close of Seize the Day by Saul Bellow: a man, helpless, crying “with all his heart,” next to a casket with a crowd of mourners wondering who this man is.Although it is a novella, we know a great deal about the essence of Tommy Wilhelm. He is a man forty-four years of age, recently unemployed, close to bankruptcy, an adulterer but still married, and a son with an antagonistic father (from his perspective); basically, an example of the man J. Alfred Prufrock fears he may become…”

A Middle School Cafeteria Debate: The Constitution

Not many kids were like me, but, yes, I’ll admit I debated the Constitution in middle school. Our understanding of the Constitution had grown since elementary school (the days when we yelled, “It’s a free country!” whilst slamming another kid’s head into a pole), but it was still pretty simplistic:

"It’s soooo old!"

"But the Founders were pretty smart guys."

And you might have even heard one of us, we silly 6th graders, say something like this to discredit the founding:

"Here are a few things the framers did not know about: World War II. DNA. Sexting. Airplanes. The atom. Television. Medicare. Collateralized debt obligations. The germ theory of disease. Miniskirts. The internal combustion engine. Computers. Antibiotics. Lady Gaga."

And that’s the kind of argument Richard Stengel of Time puts forth in the cover article about the Constitution. He purports to further our understanding of the Constitution and to mediate between the left and right- and utterly fails at both; in addition to making a particularly unpersuasive case for the Living Constitution. I’m happy to concede that I’m no constitutional scholar- but I’d like to think I’ve wrestled with some of the issues the Constitution presents. It’s just not obvious that Stengel has as well.

As you might guess, he immediately sets up a strawman about originalists: the founders didn’t know about xyz, so how can we still accept the document they created? Fair question, but as he later explains, for the Founders (as it remains today), the Constitution “was a set of principles, not a code of laws. A code of laws says you have to stop at the red light; a constitution has broad principles that are unchanging but that must accommodate each new generation and circumstance.” Yes, precisely. This is hardly a profound insight- one that, in fact, every originalist, conservative, whomever would agree with. Justice Scalia has time and time again agreed with that idea.

But for Stengel’s argument, destroying this (mythical) idea of the Constitution as a “traffic cop” is a necessary exercise.  Once he convinces us that originalists actually believe that the Constitution “has a clear, fixed meaning,” he can supplant his own ideas in its place: that “[t]he Constitution works so well precisely because it is so opaque, so general, so open to various interpretations.” Basically, pay lip service to the Constitution while we do what we damn well please.

Well, no. The Constitution works so well because it allows augmentation (as Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution), meaning later generations can modify the document to take into consideration changes that the Founders happily admitted they could not foresee- as he says, “it was not written in stone.”

More importantly, while various interpretations are possible, there are interpretations that aren’t- just like there can be multiple readings of the epilogue in The Tempest, but aside from the Keunian perspective (an historicist claim that it’s asking for applause) and its corollary (that it’s meant as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theater), there’s not much else that would be correct.  There’s a limited range of interpretation. He even makes the analogy that the Constitution acts like a “guardrail”- we can drive anywhere we want on the road, but what he seems to forget about guardrails is that they don’t let us leave that road.

Stengel plays this game most obviously when he tries to argue that the Constitution is ambivalent about the individual mandate. And not only is it ambivalent, he contends it’s kind of silly to even argue the case on constitutional grounds.

Ummm… 

There’s actually a lot riding on that very question. He gives the usual litany about car insurance, taxes, serve on juries, etc.- ignoring the fact that the latter two are actually in the Constitution, while if you don’t own a car, you don’t have to buy car insurance. What the individual mandate does is say, “You exist. You have to buy health insurance,” a position that is unprecedented whether or not you agree with it.

His agenda becomes clear towards the end of the article (if the snipes at President Bush didn’t give it all away) when he says: “[W]e cannot let the Constitution become an obstacle to the U.S.’s moving into the future with a sensible health care system, a globalized economy, an evolving sense of civil and political rights.”

In other words, “The Constitution as written stands in the way of the agenda I want to implement.” We ought to let me and like-minded individuals have free reign!

So basically, all this article amounts to is a poor regurgitation of John Dewey and past thinkers on the left who developed the idea of the Living Constitution because it very much stood in their way.

It’s ironic he titled his article, “One Document, Under Siege” because the only reason our Constitution is “under siege” is the kind of Living Constitution Stengel advocates. Sure, there are Tea Partiers who take their devotion to the other extreme, but if the Constitution actually means something, then Stengel & Co. need to change their tune. If not, then let’s just scrap it and start anew. That’s what some of my sparring buddies argued for over our bagged lunches. At least they were being intellectually honest.

Thanks, Fareed, But No Thanks

Fareed Zakaria, the former next Secretary of State/soon-to-be Henry Kissinger, penned a column recently for Time (which, fortunately, didn’t seem to target 10 year-olds like the rest of the magazine) where he argued that conservatism has lost touch with reality.  It (disappointingly) amounted to nothing more than a mash of media-driven hype using the media’s favorite tactic of pre-defining “conservatism” as “whatever Michelle Bachmann has to say” and then screaming, “THEY’VE GONE CRA-ZAY!!!”

The crucial point he fails to understand (or conveniently misses) is that conservatism is an approach to politics or a political philosophy, not a party- a misunderstanding the header for his article (“Party Politics”) betrays. Nor is conservatism an individual politician- or even a group of politicians.  Out of necessity, we use “conservatism” as shorthand for everything to the Right on our political spectrum, but we should never forget that conservatism includes figures as diverse as Friedrich von Hayek, Andrew Sullivan, Russell Kirk, David Brooks, William F. Buckley, George Will, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddhin, Christopher Hitchens (at one time), and Ron Paul.  Assuming all of them fit in an ideological straitjacket won’t work. If anything, it’s like the old joke about rabbis: ask three conservatives about quantitative easing, and you’re likely to get five different answers.

But he does make some (seemingly) damning critiques of modern day conservatism.

He says, “[R]ight now any discussion of government involvement in the economy- even to build vital infrastructure- is impossible because it is a cardinal tenet of the new conservatism that such involvement is always and forever bad.”

That’s a pretty simplistic (and inaccurate) caricature of what conservatives actually say (and even the Republican presidential candidates). The debate over the past few years has never been about anything conservatives would agree is a proper role for government.  It’s been about federalizing healthcare, potential overregulation, federalizing education, or the “stimulus” package. So of course they say no. It’s not as if we actually debated infrastructure, and even when we did (when debating the “stimulus” package), infrastructure spending was peripheral to the overall debate (as it totaled only 6.1% of the package). While many conservatives may be dispositional anarchists, they understand that, unfortunately, some government is required. If there were a bill that was solely dedicated to improving America’s infrastructure, most conservatives would sign on.

And he starts to sound downright Friedman-esque (Tom, not Milton) when he argues that China “has managed to use government involvement to create growth and jobs for three decades.” Really? He looks at China- who has only experienced growth because they’ve slowly introduced capitalism into the economy- and says that’s thanks to the government (that same government that killed millions of people before saying, “Woah, maybe we should try some of this capitalism thing”)?

Further down, Zakaria asserts that, during the healthcare debate, conservatives hadn’t bothered to study existing healthcare systems, is weird insofar as it is completely untrue. At least from what I read, conservatives took seriously what other countries have done- I even remember one who favorably reviewed the German system. Most conservatives rejected Obamacare not because of “abstract principles” but because what they saw from foreign systems struck them as pretty mediocre. If you’re looking for a lack of evidence, look no further than Obama’s claims about cost controls in the legislation- and by lack of evidence, I mean contradicted by evidence.

Basically, he doesn’t understand what conservatism is. He portrays Burke as a thinker who argued that “to change societies, one must understand them, accept them as they are and help them evolve”- which is true, but Burke never argued for ambiguous evolution or change for the sake of change.  Far from it- the change he envisioned had a particular end. He was a big believer in conserving unless there were a dire need for change.

Using Zakaria’s characterization of Burke, conservatives should have been relegated to the “Whoa, Nelly!” position during the health care debate- not actually opposing ObamaCare, just saying it should be implemented slower. Which is absurd because, ever since Burke, conservatism does have principles: the “traditional rights of Englishmen” or, for we Americans, “certain unalienable Rights” (“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”).  Conservative “reforms were powerful because they used the market, streamlined government and empowered individuals,” which is true. But, more importantly, they were powerful because they are commensurate with those “unalienable Rights.”

Conservatism is dedicated to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” So I can only hope modern conservatives Zakaria’s advice and stick to their guns in defense of those principles.