Tag Archives: The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Pigford Bounces Around The Blogosphere

Daniel Foster at NRO:

On Jan. 5, 1999, a federal district court in Washington, D.C., approved a preliminary consent decree — essentially a seal of approval for a settlement — granting class-action relief for a wide swath of black farmers. Give or take an unseemly lawyer, it looked like the angels had won. It was a victory bipartisan in the making: Speaker Newt Gingrich had helped push through legislation waiving the statute of limitations for discrimination complaints, allowing the suit to clear a crucial legal hurdle. But the story was far from over, and Pigford v. Glickman would prove the settlement that launched a hundred thousand frauds.

The “Pigford class” — the range of individuals eligible to claim settlement money — originally was defined as

all African-American farmers who (1) farmed between January 1, 1983, and Feb. 21, 1997; and (2) applied, during that time period, for participation in a federal farm program with USDA, and as a direct result of a determination by USDA in response to said application, believed that they were discriminated against on the basis of race, and filed a written discrimination complaint with USDA in that time period.

Both sides acknowledged that the class size wasn’t likely to exceed 2,500. But the seeds of abuse were already sown. Despite the fact that the class was at first strictly limited to those who had “filed a written discrimination complaint” with the USDA, the settlement crucially allowed that most members of the class lacked any documentation of these complaints, purportedly owing to poor record-keeping by the USDA. So the resolution mechanism offered potential claimants two “tracks” toward settlement money. Track B required a higher bar for evidence — the “preponderance” standard traditional in civil actions, demonstrated during one-day “mini-trials” before court-appointed arbitrators — but it came with no cap on potential awards. Track A provided, in the words of the case’s judge, “those class members with little or no documentary evidence with a virtually automatic cash payment of $50,000, and forgiveness of debt owed to the USDA.” Track A claimants would also get their taxes on that debt paid directly to the IRS for them, and priority consideration on their next USDA loan application.

To get their checks, Track A claimants were required to show court-appointed facilitators “substantial evidence” that they had had “communication” with the USDA, a member of Congress, the White House, or any federal, state, county, or local official regarding a discrimination complaint. How “substantial”? According to the consent decree, “something more than a ‘mere scintilla’” — in practice, as little as the corroboration of one’s story by a single individual who was not immediate family. The definitions of “communication” and “complaint” were stretched as well: Under the agreement, even participating in a “listening session” with USDA officials was as good as filing a discrimination complaint. And in cases where there was no documentary evidence whatsoever of communication with the USDA, a popular defense was for claimants to explain that USDA officers would not even give them the forms and applications they requested — in one fell swoop both demonstrating the discrimination and accounting for the lack of a paper trail. Thus could blacks who had never cultivated land they’d owned or rented — who in point of fact might never have mown a lawn or tended to a shrub — claim that systemic racism thwarted their farming careers before they ever started. Such claimants came to be known as the “attempted to farm” class, and by some estimates as many as 92 percent of all Pigford filers marched under their banner.

Conor Friedersdorf at Sullivan’s place:

In the current issue of National Review, Daniel Foster has a long piece on Pigford vs. Glickman. As Wikipedia notes, the Pigford case is “a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging racial discrimination in its allocation of farm loans and assistance between 1983 and 1997. The lawsuit ended with a settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay African American farmers US$50,000 each if they had attempted to get USDA help but failed. To date, almost US$1 billion has been paid or credited to the farmers under the settlement’s consent decree.”

As Salonexplains, the case is a matter of public controversy largely because Andrew Breitbart has become obsessed with it. His allegation is that the payout is rife with fraud and political corruption. I haven’t mentioned the matter before because having witnessed Breitbart’s carelessness with facts, the egregiously sloppy journalism he publishes on a daily basis, and his hubristic, immoral, “ends justify the means” approach to activism, I have serious doubts about his integrity and a strong conviction that his ethical compass is broken. More to the point, I just can’t trust a damn thing he publishes, and having discredited himself on a national scale in the Shirley Sherrod case, a lot of others agree.

But I’ve enjoyed Foster’s work for awhile now, and critical as I’ve been of a couple colleagues he works with at NR, the publication retains the ability to publish solid pieces, especially the ones prepped for print.

Although I can’t personally vouch for the facts in his Pigford story, having never reported on the matter myself, it reads like a solid piece – one that raises serious questions worthy of scrutiny. Alas, it is behind National Review’s paywall, and that presents a problem: As press coverage of the Pigford case increases – Breitbart is touting it singlemindedly at CPAC, and the stories are inevitable – the conversation is starting to focus is on the man whose heat-to-light ratio detracts from a cool-headed assessment of facts more than anyone in America. One purpose of this post is to suggest that we’d all be better off focusing the discussion on the NR piece, paywall or no. Certainly, liberal bloggers writing about the matter should acquire access to it. I’d be curious to see if they have a persuasive rebuttal. If so, I’ll air it here. And if not – if the Foster piece has everything right – the story definitely merits attention.

Here’s a very brief summary:

– Everyone agrees that between 1983 and 1997, the USDA discriminated against black farmers.

– The class action lawsuit made eligible for compensation farmers or aspiring farmers whose interests were harmed due to USDA discrimination. (There were other requirements too, but forget that for a moment.)

– According to Foster’s piece, a 1997 census study found a total of 18,500 black farmers nationwide.

– Yet there are nearly 100,000 claimants in the Pigford case.

There’s a lot more to Foster’s story, and this matter generally. But that gap between the number of claiments and the total number of black farmers in America is what struck me. If accurate it suggests widespread fraud.

A word about the bigger picture.

There are conservative bloggers expressing outrage that Americans haven’t been told more about this story. It’s worth pondering that reaction. It’s understandable: the misuse of public funds is always a legitimate story, and I hope this one gets reported out if that’s what has happened. But the fact that Americans have never heard of the Pigford case before now is most damning because it means we were utterly ignorant of the fact that the federal government was discriminating against thousands of blacks for almost 15 years, and as recently as the late 1990s! That is far more troubling than the possibility that private citizens perpetrated fraud on a poorly conceived settlement (though it doesn’t excuse it).

One narrative taking hold is that the Pigford case is about political correctness – that the fraud is “reparations in disguise,” and is enabled by a mainstream media willing to look the other way rather than inform the public about an injustice. Anyone spreading that narrative ought to remember that although the federal government’s racism against some Pigford claimants has been written about some in the media, it remains an obscure story known to very few people – and most of them didn’t show any interest in the story until it fit into the narrative of PC excess and the left buying off votes.

There’s nothing wrong or unnatural about political adversaries tuning into a story when their opponents may be guilty of corruption. A rare benefit of partisanship is that it creates an incentive to expose bad behavior. And the rest of us shouldn’t care about their motives insofar as it affects how we go forward– if fraud has been perpetrated on a large scale, better that we learn about it if only to prevent the same sort of thing in the future. Had the federal government discriminated for years against black farmers, however, then paid them off efficiently and without fraud, the vast majority of people in the conservative movement – and most of America along with them  – would’ve ignored the whole Pigford matter entirely. Is that the mark of a society overrun by political correctness?

Surely outrage is warranted for the initial discrimination.

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

This is where you see “conservative” effectively becoming a synonym for “white populist.” You would think that the government discriminating against a class of farmers over 15 years, under three different presidential administrations, from two different parties, not in the distant, but recently, would be a pet cause for people disturbed by the overreach of government. In fact those who claim that banner, are disturbed by the remedy applied–not the problem, itself.

I’m reminded of David Brooks, lamenting the fact that Sonia Sotamayor didn’t go to school in the ’50s, while neglecting to mention that her alma mater (Princeton) didn’t even admit women until a decade later. The opportunistic rush to elide hard problems, in order to disparage imperfect, and perhaps even wrongheaded, solutions is an essential feature of modern conservative. In regards to blacks it shows itself in this sense that racism–even government-sponsored racism–isn’t actually a problem, people trying to fix it are a problem.

Mark Thompson at The League:

These concerns are poppycock – it is simply not the case that the discrepancy between the number of claimants and the number of black farmers in 1997 “suggests widespread fraud.”  As mistermix correctly points out, some very rudimentary fact-checking provides the answers to a lot of these concerns.*

For starters, this reporting elides the extreme severity of discrimination against black farmer, especially as perpetrated by the USDA: the average market value of a farm operated by a black farmer is only about 20% of the market value of an average farm operated by a white farmer, and even in 2007 black farmers applying for federal loans were able to receive loans of only about 1/3 of the amount of the average federal loan provided to white farmers.  Notably, in its settlement agreement in Pigford I, the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs.

Second, using the number of black-owned farms extant in 1997 as the sole baseline for comparison is absurd on its face, particularly in light of the fact that the number of black-owned farms declined by almost 50% between 1983 and 1997, and in light of the fact that the settlements cover discrimination over a 15 year period.  At the very least, then, the far more appropriate benchmark would need to be 33,250, the number of black-owned farms existing in 1983.

Third, the settlement quite appropriately covers not only actual farmers but also people who sought to acquire or start a farm and applied for a loan from the USDA.  These persons would never appear in statistics of “black farmers” since, by definition, they needed the loans to become farmers.

Fourth, until 2002, no statistical distinction was made between “black farmers” and “black-owned farms,” which is important in light of the fact that any farmer would have been eligible to apply for one of these loans.  We do know that when this distinction started to be made, in 2002, there were at least 50% more “black farmers” than “black-0wned farms.”  Assuming these statistics would have been similar in 1982, then the number of “black farmers” in 1983 would have been at least 50,000.

Fifth, these claims ignore the possibility of farms changing ownership during that 15 year period, thus creating multiple possible claimants.

Sixth, nowhere in Conor’s post or Breitbart’s original reporting is there a mention of the fact that just because a claim is made does not mean it will be granted; instead, both seem to believe that claims will be rubber stamped once made.  But to the contrary, 30% of claims that were made under Pigford I were ultimately denied, and there’s no reason to believe that the rate will be any lower under Pigford II; this is an abnormally high rate of denial for a class action settlement, suggesting that the USDA is in fact reviewing claims quite carefully.

Lastly, there are certainly going to be other legitimate claimants who would not fall into the categories outlined above.  But even if there are not, a quick look at the numbers I’ve put together here quickly reveals that we are well within the realm of reasonableness: if the remaining claims are all approved at the same rate as the Pigford I claims, there will be a total of between 60,000 and 65,000 approved claims.  We know that, at a minimum, there were 50,000 black farmers in 1983 who were eligible to apply for these loans.  Given that, is it conceivable that there were at least an additional 10-15,000 people who attempted to become farmers but were denied the needed loans from the USDA or who simply obtained their farms (whether through inheritance or otherwise) subsequent to 1983?  I think the answer to that is “absolutely.”

None of this is to say that there hasn’t been and will not be successful fraudulent abuse of these settlements.  Where such fraud is discovered, clearly it should be prosecuted.  And no doubt, given the stakes involved, it should not be a surprise if these settlements turn out to be more prone to fraud than most – we are talking about large sums of money readily available with a relatively low burden of proof.  Unfortunately, such a low burden of proof is probably necessary here – unless the overwhelming majority of claims are in fact fraudulent, it’s safe to assume that forcing them to be tried under a higher standard of proof would impose far more costs than they would save.

What is appalling here is the ease with which the information I’ve noted above is readily available, and the utter failure of both Breitbart and Conor (and, I assume, Foster) to cite any of it.  Increasingly, it seems that the role of more high-brow political journalism is simply to, consciously or not, provide intellectual cover for the base’s ill-supported memes rather than seeking truth or attempting to challenge the base.  Instead of talking to the base, they merely parrot it.**

[UPDATE: 1.  In the comments below, Conor acknowledges his error, for which he certainly deserves credit, and which is something that is certainly all-too-rare in the blogosphere.

Mistermix:

After Conor Friedersdorf was thoroughly “fisked”—to use a word he can understand—for pimping an error-filled National Review article that supported Andrew Breitbart’s attempt to start a race war out of a settled case of discrimination, he responded with a little humility:

All I can say is that it was an honest mistake, and while I wish I would’ve raised it in my initial post, I am at least glad that I blogged about this issue because a lot of folks who were wrong in the same way I was now have the benefit of understanding this controversy better. I’ll certainly deploy your arguments as this case gets covered elsewhere.

That lasted about as long as it took the author of the original National Review, Dan Foster, to put up a lengthy defense of his original piece:

The main thing you need to know about that defense is that, at many key points, Foster cites either Andrew Breitbart or Breitbart’s helper, Lee Stranahan, for factual evidence. He many have done independent reporting on his own, but when it comes down to the important facts, he’s citing a person Conor has acknowledged that he can’t trust. But Conor’s more than willing to pimp Breitbart’s story through an intermediary. How is that anything but useful idiocy?

Daniel Foster at National Review:

I think my piece largely speaks for itself (although there was certainly some stuff that had to be cut: the original draft was twice as long as what ended up in the mag), and so I hope Coates and Thompson will read it. But let me briefly try to answer their criticisms, in order. (Apologies: if you haven’t read it, some of this will lack context).Thompson has seven points. Here’s one:

. . . this reporting elides the extreme severity of discrimination against black farmer, especially as perpetrated by the USDA: the average market value of a farm operated by a black farmer is only about 20% of the market value of an average farm operated by a white farmer, and even in 2007 black farmers applying for federal loans were able to receive loans of only about 1/3 of the amount of the average federal loan provided to white farmers.  Notably, in its settlement agreement in Pigford I, the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs.

Okay, the story fully grants that there is statistical evidence of discrimination against black farmers in the relevant time period, so we’re not in disagreement there. To say, though, that “the USDA expressly refused to agree that it would cease discrimination against black farmers in its loan programs” in the settlement is a bit off. It’s sort of a “when did you stop beating your wife?” question. The settlement meant that the USDA didn’t have to admit, in the legal sense, to discrimination (though we’ll see later that they fell all over themselves to admit it in the moral sense), and that they could avoid the messy process of investigating and adjudicating it. Like many (most, all?) settlements, the USDA traded cash for the risk of legal liability.

Here’s two, four, and five, and seven, which are related:

Second, using the number of black-owned farms extant in 1997 as the sole baseline for comparison is absurd on its face, particularly in light of the fact that the number of black-owned farms declined by almost 50% between 1983 and 1997, and in light of the fact that the settlements cover discrimination over a 15 year period.  At the very least, then, the far more appropriate benchmark would need to be 33,250, the number of black-owned farms existing in 1983.

[. . . ]

Fourth, until 2002, no statistical distinction was made between “black farmers” and “black-owned farms,” which is important in light of the fact that any farmer would have been eligible to apply for one of these loans.  We do know that when this distinction started to be made, in 2002, there were at least 50% more “black farmers” than “black-0wned farms.”  Assuming these statistics would have been similar in 1982, then the number of “black farmers” in 1983 would have been at least 50,000.

Fifth, these claims ignore the possibility of farms changing ownership during that 15 year period, thus creating multiple possible claimants.

[. . .]

Lastly, there are certainly going to be other legitimate claimants who would not fall into the categories outlined above.  But even if there are not, a quick look at the numbers I’ve put together here quickly reveals that we are well within the realm of reasonableness: if the remaining claims are all approved at the same rate as the Pigford I claims, there will be a total of between 60,000 and 65,000 approved claims.  We know that, at a minimum, there were 50,000 black farmers in 1983 who were eligible to apply for these loans.  Given that, is it conceivable that there were at least an additional 10-15,000 people who attempted to become farmers but were denied the needed loans from the USDA or who simply obtained their farms (whether through inheritance or otherwise) subsequent to 1983?  I think the answer to that is “absolutely.”

As to the number of black farmers, I mention both the 18,500 and 33,000 numbers in my piece; neither jibes with the number of claims that have poured in. The point about the difference between black-owned farms and black farmers isn’t really true either. Take a look at this table from the 1992/1997 Ag census. It does in fact distinguish between black-owned farms and black-leased or -rented farms, and it provides numbers for black tenant farmers. They hew closely to the 18,500 figure. But even if we take the biggest number that Thompson’s multi-step statistical conjecture produces — 50,000 black farmers — we’re still missing half the claimants. It’s also worth noting that the type of loans and assistance the USDA is alleged to have withheld from blacks were for farm operators, not agricultural workers broadly construed. So if that’s what Thompson had in mind in making his distinction then it’s not clearly relevant. Look, I — and parties on both sides of the case — yield that USDA record-keeping makes it difficult to pin down how many black farmers there were at any given time. In fact, much of my article is basically an argument that that problem is what opened the case up to fraud.

Doubling back now to Thompson’s third point:

Third, the settlement quite appropriately covers not only actual farmers but also people who sought to acquire or start a farm and applied for a loan from the USDA.  These persons would never appear in statistics of “black farmers” since, by definition, they needed the loans to become farmers.

Aye, there’s the rub. The original Pigford class contained a few hundred farmers, and while the settlement was being negotiated, both sides agreed that when it was all said and done, there would likely be no more than 2,500 or so potential claimants. But trial lawyers and a sympathetic judge wrote the claims process in such a way that almost no proof was required to collect $50,000. Not only did you not have to prove that you were actually discriminated against by the USDA — you didn’t have to prove by a preponderance of evidence that you had even applied for a loan. Again, this is all in the piece and I won’t rehearse it here. But ask whistle-blower Pigford claimants and even advocates for Pigford II about the category of “attempting to farm” claimants, which by some measures account for the vast majority of outstanding claims.

And lastly Thompson’s sixth point:

Sixth, nowhere in Conor’s post or Breitbart’s original reporting is there a mention of the fact that just because a claim is made does not mean it will be granted; instead, both seem to believe that claims will be rubber stamped once made.  But to the contrary, 30% of claims that were made under Pigford Iwere ultimately denied, and there’s no reason to believe that the rate will be any lower under Pigford II; this is an abnormally high rate of denial for a class action settlement, suggesting that the USDA is in fact reviewing claims quite carefully.

Once you’ve read the bit in my piece about the standards of evidence required to collect $50,000 under the settlement you’ll laugh out loud at that last sentence. And if you read Andrew Breitbart’s report, in which he interviews USDA workers who actually rubber-stamped the claims, you’ll see that approval was nearly automatic in a number of jurisdictions.

Now let’s deal with Coates. Here’s the meat of his criticism:

This is where you see “conservative” effectively becoming a synonym for “white populist.” You would think that the government discriminating against a class of farmers over 15 years, under three different presidential administrations, from two different parties, not in the distant, but recently, would be a pet cause for people disturbed by the overreach of government. In fact those who claim that banner, are disturbed by the remedy applied–not the problem, itself.

Indeed it would be extremely worrisome if the federal government under three different presidents and two different parties had discriminated wholesale against black farmers. But the queer thing about the USDA programs at the heart of the Pigford case is that they were locally administered. The USDA bankrolled these loan programs, but they were actually run by hundreds or thousands of county boards in dozens of states, virtually all of them elected by the local farmers. Centralized, top-down, discrimination by the federal government would be awful but plausible; the sheer number and geographic scope of the claims suggests a remarkable universality. Maybe it is the case that a thousand different county boards, independently, thought blacks didn’t deserve farm operating loans. But there are also anecdotes about claims coming out of the Washington, D.C., suburbs; out of Chicago; out of a county in Arkansas where the entire loan board was black. . . .

As to his point about what this case, and my story, says about racial politics in America, I can only reiterate: There was discrimination against black farmers, and it was shameful. But so too is the race-hustling, trial-lawyer greed and fraud that has come out of the settlements. I didn’t even include in the piece stuff about reparations activists and unsavory Nation of Islam types glomming onto Pigford as a proxy for their own goals. E.g. Gary Grant, President of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalist Association (BFAA), which played a pivotal role in expanding Pigford settlements, went so far as to tell Fox News in 2001 that he doesn’t care if all the claimants are really farmers. “If you are an African-American, you deserve $50,000 because your roots are in farming and your folks have already been cheated,” he said. “You are collecting what your grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to.” In 2003, BFAA vice-president Ridgely Muhammad, who moonlights as “minister of agriculture” in the Nation of Islam, wrote on a black nationalist web site that the Pigford settlement illustrated both promise and peril for the reparations movement: the promise of showing how to navigate the “legal flaws in current reparations lawsuits” and the peril of allowing “white ‘do gooder’ lawyers’” to profit from the proceedings. Faya Ora Rose Touré (Rose Sanders until she elected to step away from her “slave name”) is a Selma, Alabama civil-rights lawyer who won an appellate court ruling to extend the filing deadline for Pigford claimants. She has also long been a dogged fighter for reparations, having once gone to court alongside Johnny Cochran to seek compensation from corporations that profited from slavery. Today, she is Shirley Sherrod’s lawyer. And then there is Dorothy Tillman, a former (Obama endorsed) Chicago alderman who during her tenure in public life has made reparations her signature political issue, and who has been recognized by Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.), Congress’s greatest champion of reparations, for her work for “Black farmers and for justice.” The list goes on.

Breitbart and documentary filmmaker Lee Stranahan, who is working on a Pigford project, tell me they have recently recorded evidence of a black activist giving what Breitbart called a “demented Princeton Review” seminar on how to game the settlement to a packed black church in the South. I haven’t seen the tape so I didn’t run with it and I’ll reserve judgment, but I do know (and again, it’s in the piece) that real black farmers who were really discriminated against are still hurting, because the settlements were structured to spread the money far and wide, and right quick, not to actually bring relief to struggling black farmers who are still working the land.

To paraphrase Coates, the point is this: You would think that a bunch of fraudsters and fringe ideologues using legitimate claims of past discrimination to bilk taxpayer dollars and propagate a divisive program of grievance politics, not in the distant or recent past, but today, would be a pet cause for people interested in overcoming the legacy of racism in this country. In fact those who claim that banner are disturbed by the exposure of that problem — not the problem itself.

Adam Serwer:

Pigford I

As the Congressional Research Service report notes, “as of November 2010, 15,642 (69%) of the 22,721 eligible class members had final adjudications approved.” Foster says you’ll “laugh out loud” at the necessary evidentiary standards for filing under Track A, but someone could have plausibly walked away from reading Foster’s piece believing none of the 94,000 claims would be dismissed, when 31 percent of those in the original settlement were.

The claimants were required to show “substantial evidence” that they were entitled to part of the settlement. This doesn’t fit neatly into an article, so it’s understandable Foster didn’t include it, but I’ll just blockquote it here:

• a copy of the discrimination complaint filed with USDA or a copy of a USDA document referencing the discrimination complaint;

• a declaration by a person who was not a member of the claimant’s family, stating that the declarant had first-hand knowledge that the claimant had filed a discrimination complaint with USDA and describing the manner in which the discrimination complaint was filed;

• a copy of correspondence from the claimant to a member of Congress; the White House; or a state, local or federal official averring that the claimant had been discriminated against (except that, in the event that USDA did not possess a copy of the correspondence, the claimant also was required to submit a declaration stating that he or she sent the correspondence to the person to whom it was addressed);

• a declaration by a non-familial witness stating that the witness had first-hand knowledge that, while attending a USDA listening session or other meeting with a USDA official (or officials), the claimant was explicitly told by a USDA official that the official would investigate that specific claimant’s oral complaint of discrimination.

In his response, Foster alludes to the Big Government report that claims to cite testimony from “USDA workers who rubberstamped the claims.” Adjudicating whether the claims have merit was not handled by the USDA; it’s handled by a court-appointed third party, who is backed up by another court-appointed monitor who double checks the claim. The USDA can provide evidence as to whether or not a particular claim is false, and I’m guessing that might be what he means.

Let me just point out, though, that if 31 percent of the claims are being denied, it literally means they aren’t being rubber-stamped. The reason the terms were so generous was that, as Media Matters points out, folks at the USDA were literally throwing complaints into the trash, making documentation on the government’s end difficult. There’s basically a choice here — you can make it easier to prove a claim and risk that some terrible people will try to defraud the government, or you can make it so difficult that a number of people with legitimate claims won’t be able to prove they were discriminated against. In either case, it’s possible, even likely, that some people who deserve money won’t get it and some who don’t will. But that doesn’t amount to “massive fraud,” nor do I think it discredits the entire process.

Fortunately, if you believe that the old terms were too generous, there are additional fraud protections in the Claims Resolution Act, that further empower the claims adjudicator and gives access to claims information, including the names and address of the claims filers, to the GAO. Not that you’d know that from Foster’s piece. Chances are if/when someone tries to file a fraudulent claim, both we — and Congress — will hear about it.

Around 74,000 people filed claims past the deadline, the vast majority of these were dismissed for not meeting the deadline. The large number of late claims prompted the Senate to pass — unanimously, I might add — a second settlement.

Pigford II

$1.15 billion was approved to address the claims that weren’t handled by Pigford I. The total number of dollars anyone has been paid from this is zero. Every single one of the late claimaints who didn’t squeak through under Pigford I will have to refile, and according to the USDA, not a single claim has been filed yet because the court hasn’t assigned an adjudicator. It’ll be another two to three years before any Pigford II claims are adjudicated.

That’s what makes the allegation of “94,000 phantom farmers” are getting payouts inaccurate. Foster never mentions that only around 16,000 have seen any money at all, while around 7,000 other claims were denied (“the gravy train shows no signs of slowing down”). He’s using the total number of claims filed in the past, leaving the reader with the impression that all of them will be approved, even though all the late filers have to refile. His original piece also leaves the impression, both in his discussion of the evidentiary standards being used for Track A, and the use of the 94,000 number in his conclusion, that everyone is just getting handed a check by the USDA. Just get your friend Carl to say you were a black farmer.

Foster finds the USDA’s widespread, systemic discrimination against black farmers to be inconceivable, because of the scale involved. “Centralized, top-down, discrimination by the federal government would be awful but plausible, the sheer number and geographic scope of the claims suggests a remarkable universality.” I find that to be an astonishing argument. Jim Crow was not a “centralized, top-down affair”; it was a matter of “local administration.” “Local administration” is how segregation worked; it’s how Southern Democrats did things like ensure the benefits of the New Deal would be restricted to whites.

I also had a really visceral emotional reaction to Foster’s original conclusion:

At a December 8 signing ceremony, President Obama heralded Pigford II as the close of “a long and unfortunate chapter in our history.” In a way, one hopes the president is right—that the credulity, or perhaps the shame, of the American government and its taxpayers cannot be strained to accommodate the petty greed of more than 94,000 phantom farmers, and that the con will finally have run its course. But that is unlikely. Two Pigford style class-action suits—one for Hispanic farmers, another for women—with the potential to dwarf current settlements are working their way through the courts. Like so many Pigfords to the trough.

Look, the genteel white populism of this paragraph can’t be explained away. Not only have those greedy black frauds stuck their snouts into your wallet, but the Messicans and womens are on their way. There’s simply no way to credibly pivot from a statement like this, which attacks the very idea of financial restitution for past wrongs, to genuine concerns about farmers who deserved money that didn’t receive it because of the settlement terms.

Historically speaking, according to the Congressional Research Service citing an internal USDA report tracking their practices between 1990 and 1995, the crowd at the trough actually looks considerably less diverse:

According to the commissioned study, few appeals were made by minority complainants because of the slowness of the process, the lack of confidence in the decision makers, the lack of knowledge about the rules, and the significant bureaucracy involved in the process. Other findings showed that (1) the largest USDA loans (top 1%) went to corporations (65%) and white male farmers (25%); (2) loans to black males averaged $4,000 (or 25%) less than those given to white males; and (3) 97% of disaster payments went to white farmers, while less than 1% went to black farmers. The study reported that the reasons for discrepancies in treatment between black and white farmers could not be easily determined due to “gross deficiencies” in USDA data collection and handling.

Shortly afterward, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman suspended farm foreclosures and ordered an investigation into the matter. Before then, no one had been particularly bothered by it, for obvious reasons. Some snouts are more welcome at the trough than others.

I have no doubt that some people will try to defraud the government out of money here, nor do I discount the possibility that some have. Frankly, I think the bigger worry is that some people who deserve money will be bilked out of it by people posing as agents or lawyers and promising to ensure, for a fee, claimants get their settlement money. A class-action settlement is a juicy target for con artists. Those people deserve to be in jail. The fact that some people will try does not invalidate the government’s effort to rectify past wrongs.

Finally, I just want to address Foster’s original nut graf:

And in finally securing justice for himself and the few hundred farmers who first joined his class-action suit, he’d unwittingly set off an injustice greater than the one he sought to rectify: one that would involve the waste of billions of dollars, systemic fraud implicating top federal officials, the unseemly electioneering of two presidential campaigns—even murder.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but I don’t see how Foster has proved that billions were wasted or that there is systemic fraud in the Pigford settlement. It’s only “unseemly electioneering” if you pretend there wasn’t substantial bipartisan support for the settlement, or if you think the president is unmoved by racial injustice and merely spends his entire day thinking about how to get whitey’s money. The idea that the settlement itself is responsible for people who planned to defraud the government by making a false claim and murdered a witness they feared might talk is just stupid.  But this paragraph certainly reflects the ideological disposition of most conservatives — that efforts to rectify past racial injustices always create “more injustice” than the original crime.

Publius at Big Government:

At a press conference at CPAC featuring Rep. Michele Bachmann, Rep. Steve King and Andrew Breitbart, black farmer Eddie Slaughter tells his impassioned story about how the Pigford settlement has actually hurt the original and actual victims of discrimination at the hands of the USDA.

Adam Serwer and Daniel Foster at Bloggingheads

Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene:

This is going to get complicated quickly. My apologies. If you’ve never heard the word Pigford before this may be a post to skip. In my last stint guestblogging at The Daily Dish, I wrote a post about the Pigford controversy, where I basically argued that since it’s inevitably going to be an ongoing matter of dispute, the best way to talk about it is to focus on the reporting published in National Review by Daniel Foster, a writer whose basic integrity as a person I trust, rather than the stuff published by Andrew Breitbart, whose outspokenness on the matter is clearly outweighed by the numerous instances in which he has brazenly injected egregiously misleading information into public discourse.

So often, stories like this turn into conversational train wrecks. I see one coming – and an opportunity to do better. Let’s treat this like a complicated matter, one where even people writing in good faith can make mistakes, making it a perfect fit for the vetting function that comes from honest back-and-forths in the blogosphere.

The vetting started immediately. I’d noted an aspect of Foster’s piece that seemed particularly persuasive to me. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Serwer, and Mark Thompson pushed back hard. I quickly saw that I’d been mistaken in buying into that particular argument, and said so. As is their wont, the folks at Balloon Juice misunderstood and misrepresented my narrow apology.

Meanwhile, National Review posted Foster’s piece online, so that folks no longer had to rely on my poor summary. Foster pushed back against his critics. Serwer went another round. And then the good people at Bloggingheads arranged for a diavlog between Foster and Serwer, which can be seen here. Some of the conversation is tedious through no fault of the interlocutors. This is a complicated story to talk about, especially for an audience that isn’t initiated. Other parts are riveting. It isn’t often that you see two writers with wildly different takes on race in America willing to confront one another and converse in ways that make both of them uncomfortable.

The exchange that has played out is basically what I hoped for when I wrote that initial post urging engagement with Foster’s piece. I’d wager that Foster, Serwer, Thompson and Coates would all write things a bit differently if they could redo this whole exchange. On the whole, however, I think they’ve all conducted themselves rather well: more precisely, whatever their mistakes, they’ve all argued in good faith, with intellectual honesty and a desire to leave the public better informed about the matter at hand. Put another way, if everyone merely rose to the level of imperfect reporting, analysis and argument displayed here, American public discourse would be greatly improved.

But damn, this is a messy, maddening process. Among the writers I’ve mentioned, there were heated exchanges, hurt feelings, occasional suspicions of bad faith, tedious intervals that didn’t make for particularly entertaining journalism… and as a reader, one had to wade through all of it for the payoff of being a lot better informed on the other end… but even being better informed, there wasn’t the satisfaction of easy answers or resolution to all the disagreements.

What I find so wrongheaded about the Balloon Juice approach to this story – and the approach taken by folks who emailed me insisting that I should have never written my initial post – is the glib insistence that merely wanting a robust exchange was tantamount to being Andrew Breitbart’s useful idiot.

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It All Comes Back To The Bush

Andrew Sullivan rounds up here, here and here

Jennifer Rubin:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush’s second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty–though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Adam Serwer:

Rubin doesn’t even attempt to prove causation — eight years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and last week there was an uprising in Tunisia. Ergo Bush deserves the credit. This is deeply paternalistic — in Rubin’s version of history, the Tunisians who faced down the security forces of an autocratic regime are practically bit players in their own political upheaval.

The point is not to make an actual argument, but to inject a political narrative that will retroactively vindicate the decision to go to war in Iraq, as though the American people would ever forget that the Bush administration justified that decision by manufacturing an imminent danger in the form of WMD that were never found.

“Democracy in the Muslim World” was not the primary reason given for invading Iraq, and even as a retroactive justification it remains weak. As Matt Duss pointed out last year, the RAND Corporation did a study concluding that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” But as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so Rubin presses on:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Perhaps the most bizarre of Republican foreign policy instincts is the belief that the President of the United States can force the foreign policy outcomes he desires through sheer force of will. This is what Matthew Yglesias has dubbed the “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”

Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor:

One question in Ms. Rubin’s column does have a clear answer however. “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?” she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: “Little to nothing.”

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin’s piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word “democracy” had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, “That’s democracy,” a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. “No thanks.”

The Obama Administration’s policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush’s approach, particularly in his second term. It’s true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren’t much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.

After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt’s parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That’s a situation that persists today.

More Rubin:

While those in Tunisia tell me there is no specific sign of an Islamist presence yet, it remains a real concern for those pressing for a secularized, democratic government.

One final note: while Muslim autocrats in the region have reason to worry, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that regimes do not face the same threat of instability. In Jordan and Morocco, for example, the kings in those countries enjoy a “perceived legitimacy.”

Nevertheless, George W. Bush must be pleased to see the debate breakout over the best route to Middle East democracy. It was only a few years that the liberal elite assured us that Muslim self-rule was a fantasy.

Daniel Larison:

I don’t know about “the liberal elite,” but people opposed to the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq and ruinous “freedom agenda” actually argued that it would be extremely difficult to construct Western-style liberal democracies in countries that had no political tradition of representative or constitutional government. This is true. It is extremely difficult, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort and resources devoted to it, and it remains a foolish thing for the U.S. to pursue as a major foreign policy goal. What we also said was that it was outrageous and wrong to invade another country, trample on its sovereignty, wreck its infrastructure, and impoverish its people. What was even worse was to claim that we had liberated it, when we were actually handing it over to the tender mercies of sectarian militias and establishing what turned out to be a repressive government that often resorts to police-state tactics. In 2003, Muslim self-rule was already a reality in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The fantasy was the idea that the U.S. could forcibly topple an authoritarian government and readily install a functioning liberal democratic government in Iraq, and that this would then lead to regional transformation. Except for the first part, none of this happened. So far, the Tunisians seem to be managing much better on their own than Iraq did under the tutelage of U.S. occupiers.

Greg Scoblete:

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country’s revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it’s not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge “what we expect” makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we’re talking about.

If, however, we don’t actually know what’s best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

More Rubin:

Now a final note: The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about “causation.” But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. And the notion that democratization and rebellion against despotic regimes do not spread regionally after a successful experiment is belied by history (e.g. Central America, Eastern Europe).

Larison responds:

Well, the country did descend into chaos, Iraqis laboring for a secular country were killed and exiled*, and that wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere. These also happen to be the effects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, which involved invading and devastating a country for bogus national security reasons and then trying to dress up the entire debacle as an experiment in democratization. The outward forms of democracy didn’t entirely fail in Iraq, but what those forms did was politicize ethnic and sectarian divisions and fuel years of inter-communal violence. Looking at the chaos unleashed by what war supporters kept insisting on calling “democracy,” nations throughout the region associated “democracy” with foreign occupation, civil strife, and constant violence. For that matter, there has been no “successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq.” There is an elected government with increasingly authoritarian and illiberal habits governed by sectarians pretending to be secular nationalists.

Rubin continues:

Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong.

No, Bush’s critics understood, usually better than his supporters, that Iran had some measure of constitutional and representative government before the Pahlavis, and Turkey has been gradually developing as a democratic republic since WWII. Opponents of the disastrous war and the “freedom agenda” said that democratic and representative government was alien to almost all Arab countries. Lebanon was and remains the exception. That was true. Maliki’s semi-dictatorship in Baghdad does little to change that assessment. Bush based his conviction that the U.S. should install democratic government in a predominantly Arab country on the general lack of such governments in Arab countries, which democratists concluded was a principal source of jihadism. To the extent that Bush and his allies were serious in wanting to democratize Arab countries, they were taking for granted that democratic government was alien to these countries, which is why the U.S. had to introduce it directly through active promotion. What Bush and his allies also said was that democratic government was part of a “single model of human progress,” and that therefore every society should be governed this way, and furthermore that every society was capable of governing itself this way. That was the far-fetched claim that most of Bush’s critics couldn’t accept, because it is nothing more than an ideological conviction.

Will at The League:

The analytical gymnastics Jennifer Rubin is forced to perform here to defend the invasion of Iraq are pretty impressive. If the Tunisian revolution spurs reform in neighboring countries, her line of reasoning goes, Iraq’s quasi-democratic political process must be having a similar effect in the region. I know little about the Middle East and less about Tunisia, but let me suggest one important distinction: If the “Jasmine Revolution” inspires emulation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it will have something to do with the fact that Tunisia’s political upheaval was a genuinely organic, popular movement that isn’t perceived as the result of outside meddling. Whatever the merits of Iraq’s new government, it will never enjoy that type of currency in the region, which is why overblown claims about the positive regional consequences of our invasion remain so unpersuasive.

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Everbody Do The Hippie Punch!

Found on Jonathan Chait’s blog

Freddie at L Hote:

There are many myths within the political blogosphere, but none is so deeply troubling or so highly treasured by mainstream political bloggers than this: that the political blogosphere contains within it the whole range of respectable political opinion, and that once an issue has been thoroughly debated therein, it has had a full and fair hearing. The truth is that almost anything resembling an actual left wing has been systematically written out of the conversation within the political blogosphere, both intentionally and not, while those writing within it congratulate themselves for having answered all left-wing criticism.

That the blogosphere is a flagrantly anti-leftist space should be clear to anyone who has paid a remote amount of attention. Who, exactly, represents the left extreme in the establishment blogosphere? You’d likely hear names like Jane Hamsher or Glenn Greenwald. But these examples are instructive. Is Hamsher a socialist? A revolutionary anti-capitalist? In any historical or international context– in the context of a country that once had a robust socialist left, and in a world where there are straightforwardly socialist parties in almost every other democracy– is Hamsher particularly left-wing? Not at all. It’s only because her rhetoric is rather inflamed that she is seen as particularly far to the left. This is what makes this whole discourse/extremism conversation such a failure; there is a meticulous sorting of far right-wing rhetoric from far right-wing politics, but no similar sorting on the left. Hamsher says bad words and is mean in print, so she is a far leftist. That her politics are largely mainstream American liberalism that would have been considered moderate for much of the 20th century is immaterial.

Meanwhile, consider Tim Carney and Mark Levin. Levin has outsized, ugly rhetoric. Carney is, by all impressions, a remarkably sweet and friendly guy. But Carney, in an international and historical context, is a reactionary. Those who sort various forms of extremism differentiate Levin and Carney because Levin’s extremism is marked in language, and Carney’s extremism is marked in policy. The distinction matters to bloggy taste makers. Meanwhile, Hamsher’s extremism in language is considered proof positive of extreme left-wing policy platform. No distinction matters; genuinely left-wing politics are forbidden and as such are a piece with angry vitriol.

Greenwald, meanwhile, might very well have actually left-wing domestic policy preferences. I honestly have no idea; Greenwald blogs almost exclusively about foreign policy and privacy issues. In other words, his voice is permitted into the range of the respectable (when it is permitted at all; ask Joe Klein if Greenwald belongs at the adult table) exactly to the degree that it tracks with libertarian ideology. Someone whose domestic policy might (but might not) represent a coherent left-wing policy platform has entrance into the broader conversation precisely because that domestic policy preference remains unspoken.

I hardly even need to explain the example of Markos Moulitsas. Moulitsas is a blogging pioneer and one with a large audience. But within the establishmentarian blogosphere, the professional blogosphere of magazines, think tanks, and the DC media establishment, he amounts to an exiled figure. See how many times supposedly leftist bloggers within this establishment approvingly quote Moulitsas, compared to those who approvingly quote, say, Will Wilkinson, Ross Douthat, or John Cole. Do some of these bloggers have legitimate beef with Kos? Sure. But the fact that his blog is a no-go zone for so many publications, while bad behavior from those of different ideological persuasions is permitted, ensures that the effects of this will be asymmetrical. I believe that people have to create positive change by changing their own behavior, but I also am aware that the nominal left capitulates to demands that they know the right absolutely will not capitulate to themselves. And so the right wins, again and again.

No, the nominal left of the blogosphere is almost exclusively neoliberal. Ask for a prominent left-wing blogger and people are likely to respond with the names of Matt Yglesias, Jon Chait, Kevin Drum…. Each of them, as I understand it, believe in the general paternalistic neoliberal policy platform, where labor rights are undercut everywhere for the creation of economic growth (that 21st century deity), and then, if things go to plan, wealth is redistributed from the top to those whose earnings and quality of life have been devastated by the attack on labor. That there are deep and cogent criticisms of the analytic, moral, and predictive elements of neoliberalism is an argument for another day. That those criticisms exist, and that they emanate from a genuine left-wing position, is a point I find perfectly banal but largely undiscussed in political blogs. And that’s the problem. Whatever those bloggers are, they are not left-wing, and the fact that they are the best people can generally come up with is indicative of the great imbalance.

Matthew Yglesias:

I don’t really know what it means to criticize a writer for holding that his own views are “the truth of man.” Obviously, I agree with my political opinions and disagree with those who disagree with me. If I didn’t agree I’d change my mind.

But one point that I agree with here, is that while I’ll cop to being a “neoliberal” I don’t acknowledge that I have critics to the “left” of me. On economic policy, here are the main things I’m trying to accomplish:

— More redistribution of money from the top to the bottom.
— A less paternalistic welfare state that puts more money directly in the hands of the recipients of social services.
— Macroeconomic stabilization policy that seriously aims for full employment.
— Curb the regulatory privileges of incumbent landowners.
— Roll back subsidies implicit in our current automobile/housing-oriented industrial policy.
— Break the licensing cartels that deny opportunity to the unskilled.
— Much greater equalization of opportunities in K-12 education.
— Reduction of the rents assembled by privileged intellectual property owners.
— Throughout the public sector, concerted reform aimed at ensuring public services are public services and not jobs programs.
— Taxation of polluters (and resource-extractors more generally) rather than current de facto subsidization of resource extraction.

Is this a “neoliberal” program? Well, this is one of these terms that was invented by its critics so I hesitate to embrace it though I recognize that the shoe fits to a considerable extent. I’d say it’s liberalism, a view recognizably derived from the thinking of JS Mill and Pigou and Keynes and Maury “Freedom Plus Groceries” Maverick and all the rest. I recognize that many people disagree with this agenda, and that many of those who disagree with it think of themselves as “to the left” of my view. But I simply deny that there are positions that are more genuinely egalitarian than my own. I really and sincerely believe that liberalism is the best way to advance the interests of the underprivileged and to make the world a better place. I offer “further left” people the (unreturned) courtesy of not questioning the sincerity of their belief that they have some better solutions, but I think they’re mistaken.

That’s hardly a comprehensive reply to everything DeBoer wrote, but I hope it’s an explanation of what the hell happened to me.

Jonathan Chait at The New Republic:

I’ll cop to a couple things. First, I’m not a left-winger. I don’t agree with the left about very much. If you’re looking for genuine left-wing thought, this is not the blog for you.

Second, I don’t spend a whole lot of time discussing left-wing thought because my interest in ideas is primarily, though not completely, in proportion to their influence on American politics. There’s room for bringing in ideas that have little or no impact at the moment, but I don’t do much of that.

One time I did argue with the left was on health care reform, where you had left-wingers making the absurd claim that the Affordable Care Act did not improve the status quo. I found this created an angry reaction and multiple accusations that I was engaged in “hippie punching” or other unfair attacks on the left. So, from my perspective, it seems like left-wingers get upset if I engage with with and upset if I ignore them. Obviously, they wouldn’t be upset if I wrote about their ideas and agreed with them, but on most issues I don’t agree with them.

Naked Capitalism:

The post discusses the positions of quite a few political bloggers, including Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Mickey Kaus, Jon Chait, Kevin Drum, and the economic, social and career forces that contribute to the rightward pull.

And I have to say I understand that part, even thought I do not sympathize. Readers have often said I should be on certain TV shows. And logically, I should be on at least some of them. But guess what, they won’t have me (not even Democracy Now, but that’s because they are not that interested in finance, and when they do that type of story, they seem to prefer either Real People or academics). Even though a TV veteran says it has a lot to do with bookers (they are pretty much all female and he insists they prefer to book men), I suspect another big reason is my outspoken views. One ought to think that would make me a useful guest, since good talking heads TV often involves friction between participants with diverging views. But some types of divergence appear not to be terribly welcome.

Kevin Drum:

I plead guilty to some general neoliberal instincts, of course, but I plead guilty with (at least) one big exception: I am very decidedly not in favor of undercutting labor rights in order to stimulate economic growth, and I’m decidedly not in favor of relying solely on the tax code to redistribute wealth from the super rich to the rest of us. What’s more, the older I get and the more obvious the devastating effects of the demise of the American labor movement become, the less neoliberal I get. The events of the past two years, in which the massed forces of capital came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the world economy, and yet, phoenix-like, have come out richer and more powerful than before, ought to have convinced nearly everyone that business interests and the rich are now almost literally out of control. After all, if the past two years haven’t done it, what would?

E.D. Kain at The League:

Now, I agree that a real left-wing – socialists, serious advocates of unionization, etc. – is not terribly well represented at least in the corners of the blogosphere that I haunt. I don’t believe, however, that this is simply due to some larger, concerted effort to ignore and marginalize the left.

First, I think that the left-wing as Freddie wants it to exist represents a very small demographic in this country. It is not surprising, then, that it is less represented in public debate and online.

Second and much more to the point, I’ve seen Freddie make this complaint before – that his arguments and positions were being written out of debate. This makes no sense to me. When we started The League, Freddie was by far the most linked-to among us. Even now that he no longer (or very rarely) blogs, his posts tend to generate links all over the place. Hell, it wasn’t long ago he got a link at The Dish for a comment he made on someone else’s blog post. This is because Freddie is a tremendous writer, and people find his arguments and ideas – and the way he presents them – compelling and interesting. He’s fun to read. And he gets all these links and responses and discussion in spite of the fact that he is a died in the wool leftist.

Indeed, so far as I can tell the greatest threat to Freddie’s ideas receiving no exposure by Very Serious People is Freddie deBoer himself. By removing himself from the debate he has contributed vastly to his own complaint. Because Freddie was getting his ideas out there and then he stopped. Maybe he was frustrated because his ideas weren’t spreading into the liberal blogosphere the way they were getting attention on many conservative and libertarian blogs. That’s fair – it certainly can be frustrating to feel as though you aren’t being taken seriously by the people who matter most. I guess I’d just suggest patience.

Actually patience might not be enough – Freddie should organize. If organized labor in this country is withering it isn’t for lack of money or political influence, it is because those who advocate for its survival are not organizing for its survival. In the age of the internet there is no reason people like Freddie aren’t creating their own publications to push their ideas to the surface. Freddie could do it, and he should. It would be far more beneficial to his cause then posts lamenting the decline of the left-wing in America.

The barrier to entry for ideas is lower than it has ever been – but those last hurdles – the Washington establishment; the Very Serious People and institutional bloggers and so forth – they can be hard to leap, no doubt about it. But I don’t think Freddie is right to stop trying.

Doug J.:

Can anyone deny that Glenn Greenwald will never get a gig at Cato or Reason, that Digby and Matt Taibbi will never get gigs at the Atlantic (I consider GG a libertarian)? Can anyone deny that Glenn Greenwald would generate more pageviews than anyone who is at Reason or Cato, that Digby or Matt Taibbi would get more pageviews than anyone but Sully at the Atlantic?

Of course, the first rule of establishment corporate journalism is that you do not call it establishment corporate journalism. ED (for example) would like to earn living as a journalist, so it’s natural that he pooh-poohs Freddie’s point. I don’t mean to single ED out; to the contrary, the fact that he takes deBoer’s point seriously at all puts him miles above Joe Klein and James Fallows and the rest, who will always simply ignore these sorts of arguments.

They may not even know that these arguments are valid. After all, it’s hard to make a man understand something when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.

Steve Hynd at Firedoglake

Mike Konczal at Rortybomb:

3. One thing I’ve noticed that separates the people Freddie disapproves of from everyone else is that the ones Freddie disapproves of are primarily journalists. Journalists of policy, of ideological movements and changes, and of institutional day-to-day fighting, but liberal people whose primary career training and arc are one of journalism. A journalistic approach to politics has its strengths and its weaknesses. Its strengths are a solid understanding of the micro elements that move things forward or backwards yard-by-yard. Its weaknesses can be a form of source capture, and a myopia on what is achievable in the short run rather than what moves things in the long run. I don’t think the professionalization of bloggers as reporters has moved them rightward, but it could be argued that it has caused them to focus on the short-term, in part because what the Democrats were trying to be bill-wise required a lot of explanation and in part because journalism requires that.

In its worse form, it becomes what Jay Rosen and others call A Church of the Savvy, where access, the art of the possible, and a healthy disdain for broader scope thinking are all privileged.   This is less disdain for socialist or left-wing thinking (which is disdained by all kinds of people) but disdain for outsiders, a broader and more worrisome issue than Freddie lets on.

4. It’s important to realize that the right-wing wonks Freddie seems to respect as building a long-term vision are running under different assumptions of what to do.  To them, the problem isn’t thinking of a better solution to a problem, it’s arguing why there is no problem.   This comes from an explicit goal to view their project as an ideological one, one that comes out of a Banfield critique that social science is necessarily ideological. This, by definition, orientates towards long-term visions of the possible.

Freddie might want to engage with a left-modified form of the Banfield critique, one that points out when you have a wonk politics hammer every problem looks like a nail. Aaron Bady noticed this with the wonkosphere’s embrace of DIY U and other producitivity related ‘solutions’ to higher ed (also googling that made me realize I stole the title of this from Aaron, sorry!). If all you know are techniques of neoliberalism, then those are the solutions you’ll naturally gravitate towards. That’s different than where Freddie goes, which is one centered around prestige and access.

5. I’ll gladly defend Ezra and Matt on the charges Freddie throws at them. Their key points they raised early over the past two years – that the Senate would become obstructionist not just at a bill level but in a “running down the clock” manner and that would have major consequences (Ezra), that the GOP would not pay a price for their obstruction as people look at their checkbooks when they vote (both) and that the Federal Reserve is a major battlefield for the recovery and progressives/liberals aren’t ready to move, even intellectually, on how to fight for it (Matt) are all major things that happened from the past two years.   Ezra in particular has covered the day-to-day amazingly well with a large quantity of work meant to be accessible to a wide range of readers (I write 2 posts every other day and feel like Charles Dickens), and if Freddie’s real critique is that liberals don’t likes unions Ezra has written a lot about how the Obama administration is overlooking them.

As for Matt’s neoliberalism stuff, I read it is coming from his engagement with land use. But to make it clear, I’m in favor of a hella robust regulatory state, but I agree with large parts of his critique. If you worry about why work associated with women is denigrated to second-class work and why women are underpaid relative to men you have to look at why dental hygenists do the same work as dentists for less pay and prestige. If you worry about the carceral state, our policy of putting the maximum number of people within the criminal disciplinary net and high recidivism and subsequent lack of mobility, you have to look at that fact that it can be illegal to hire ex-cons as low-level service employees; illegal to give licenses, and thus hire, ex-cons for things like “barbering, nail technicians, cosmetology and dead animal removal.”

Andrew Sullivan:

The Dish has always tried to remain friendly to outsider voices and distance itself from the Inside the Beltway closed conversation. In that sense, the most glaring lack in Freddie’s post is a list of who exactly we ought to be reading and engaging but aren’t. Isn’t that the obvious solution? If we’re missing worthy far-left blogospheric voices, who are they?

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Galt Has A Moment And A Movement

Christopher Beam in New York Magazine:

Just before Thanksgiving, in an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Ron Paul called for Congress to be groped. The Transportation Security Administration, having rolled out its new airport body scanners, had decreed anyone who opted out could be subjected to the now-infamous enhanced pat-down. “Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this,” Representative Paul said, waving his finger in the air. “Get the X-ray, make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping pat-downs.” Perhaps this would put Congress in touch (quite literally) with real Americans.

Paul, the 75-year-old Texas libertarian and quixotic 2008 Republican candidate best known for his quest to abolish the Federal Reserve, is used to fighting lonely battles. But this time, he had company. Fox News went wall-to-wall on the (nonexistent) health hazards of body scans, naked outlines of passengers, and pat-down paranoia. “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested,” said newfound freedom fighter John Tyner to a TSA agent in a video that went viral. The left backed Paul too. Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald argued that the screenings had “all the ingredients of the last decade’s worth of Terrorism exploitation.” Blogger Jane Hamsher of Firedoglake called the X-ray devices “porno-scanners.” For one beautiful moment, the whole political spectrum—well, at least both vocal ends of it—seemed to agree: Too much government is too much government.

Maybe it was inevitable that the National Opt-Out Day, when travelers were going to refuse body scans en masse, failed to become the next Woolworth’s sit-in (how do you organize a movement that abhors organization?). It turned out most Americans actually supported the body scanners. But the moment was a reminder of just how strong, not to mention loud, the libertarian streak is in American politics.

No one exemplifies that streak more than Ron Paul—unless you count his son Rand. When Rand Paul strolled onstage in May 2010, the newly declared Republican nominee for Kentucky’s U.S. Senate seat, he entered to the strains of Rush, the boomer rock band famous for its allegiance to libertarianism and Ayn Rand. It was a dog whistle—a wink to free-marketers and classic-rock fans savvy enough to get the reference, but likely to sail over the heads of most Republicans. Paul’s campaign was full of such goodies. He name-dropped Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek’s seminal TheRoad to Serfdom. He cut a YouTube video denying that he was named after Ayn Rand but professing to have read all of her novels. He spoke in the stark black-and-white terms of libertarian purism. “Do we believe in the individual, or do we believe in the state?” he asked the crowd in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on Election Night.

It’s clear why he played coy. For all the talk about casting off government shackles, libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics: loud and cocky and occasionally profound but always a bit unhinged. And Rand Paul’s dad is the craziest uncle of all. Ron Paul wants to “end the Fed,” as the title of his book proclaims, and return the country to the gold standard—stances that have made him a tea-party icon. Now, as incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Fed, he’ll have an even bigger platform. Paul Sr. says there’s not much daylight between him and his son. “I can’t think of anything we grossly disagree on,” he says.

There’s never been a better time to be a libertarian than now. The right is still railing against interventionist policies like TARP, the stimulus package, and health-care reform. Citizens of all political stripes recoil against the nanny state, which is nannier than ever, passing anti-smoking laws, banning trans fats, posting calorie counts, prohibiting flavored cigarettes, cracking down on Four Loko, and considering a soda tax in New York. All that, plus some TSA agent wants to handle your baggage.

Libertarianism has adherents on the left, too—they just organize around different issues. Whereas righty libertarians stew over taxes and bailouts, lefty libertarians despise de facto suspensions of habeas corpus, surveillance, and restrictions on whom you can marry. It’s not surprising that the biggest victories of the right and the left in the last weeks of this lame-duck session of Congress were about stripping down government—tax cuts and releasing the shackles of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Much of Americans’ vaunted anger now comes from a sense of betrayal over libertariansim shrugged. Right-wing libertarians charge that the Bush presidency gave the lie to small-government cant by pushing Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and a $3 trillion war. Left-wing libertarians are furious that Obama talked a big game on civil liberties but has caved on everything from FISA to DOMA to Gitmo. Meanwhile, the country faces a massive and growing deficit (too much government!) that neither party has the power or the inclination to fix. If there were ever a time to harness libertarian energy—on left and right—it’s now.

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with the round-up

Beam and Julian Sanchez at Bloggingheads

Matt Welch at Reason:

Beam’s piece ends on an extended Big But, in which we hear warnings about doctrinal purity, extreme Randian selfishness, Brink Lindsey leaving Cato, and minarchy being “an elegant idea in the abstract.” In the real world, not bailing out banks “would have unfairly punished a much greater number” of homeowners, and so on. Plus, that one Tennessee house burned down, and: Somalia! He ends the piece like this:

It took 35 years for Ron Paul to reach the center of American politics. And it could take another 35 before he or someone like him is back. It’s certainly a libertarian moment—but it’s not liable to last too long. Libertarianism and power are like matter and anti-matter. They cancel each other out.

Radley Balko at Reason:

The first two-thirds of the article are a sort of tour guide of libertarian personalities, factions, and general philosophy. It comes off a bit like Beam describing to Manhattanites some exotic new species discovered in Madagascar, but I suppose that probably is how libertarians come off to people outside the politics/policy/media bubble. This portion of the article is mostly fair, though are still some revealing word and phrase choices. (For example, the Koch brothers are only “infamous” if you don’t happen to agree with them. Just like George Soros is only infamous if you’re opposed to the causes he funds.)

Still, the first two-thirds of the article is mostly a quick and dirty introduction to or primer on libertarianism and the movement surrounding it, with Beam largely playing a neutral storyteller, interviewer, and interpreter.

It’s in the last third of the article there’s a noticeable and disruptive shift in tone. After establishing a certain trust with the reader that casts himself in the role of a mostly neutral observer and chronicler of this libertarian uprising, Beam then stops describing libertarianism, and starts critiquing it himself. The critiques are selective. He picks a few issues, broadly (and sometimes inaccurately, or without appropriate detail) describes the libertarian position, then describes why libertarianism fails on that particular issue. Taken as a whole, these critiques are supposed to support his thesis for the latter third of the article, which is that libertarianism is utopian and impractical. (He neglects to explain how the current system has produced better results, but that’s a different discussion.) I don’t think much of Beam’s critiques, but then I’m also a libertarian.

But it’s not the critiques themselves that I found off-putting. If this had been a straight Jacob Weisberg-style trashing of libertarianism, we could evaluate it on those terms. But this is more subtle and, I think, in some ways more pernicious. This was a thrashing disguised as a primer. That Beam makes these critiques himself comes off as abrupt and, frankly, condescending. There’s an aesthetic I’ve noticed among some journalists that libertarianism is so crazy and off the rails that it’s okay to step outside the boundaries of decorum and fairness to make sure everyone knows how nuts libertarians really are. (A couple years ago, I emailed a prominent journalist to compliment him on a book he had written. His strange response: He thanked me for the compliment, and then ran off several sentences about how dangerous and evil he thought my politics were.)

Reihan Salam:

Radley Balko has written a characteristically astute critique of Chris Beam’s New York magazine article on libertarianism. I think Radley says all that needs to be said on the subject.

Instead, I’d like to throw out a few other approaches to the subject that might have worked better:

(1) While talking to a good friend, we came to the conclusion that while cultural conservatism’s influence has been fading (something we both lament, albeit in different degrees) and while social democratic thinking is moribund, certain kinds of libertarian incrementalism (think Ed Glaeser and Tyler Cowen), not just resigned but comfortable with the idea of a social safety net in an affluent society, have grown more influential. Libertarian purists hate it. But they’ve grown less relevant. This piece might have focused on criminal sentencing, the war on drugs, etc., with a “we’re all libertarians now” coda. The trouble with this piece is that it might be really boring. But it would make sense. And it would avoid a lengthy discussion of minarchism.

(2) A much more fun piece, attuned to a New York audience, would open with the Tea Party’s libertarianism and make a strong case for its hypocrisy: they call themselves libertarians, but here are the subsidies they love, the un-libertarian restrictions they champion, etc. This section would be tendentious and unfair, but that’s the fun of it. And then the piece would argue that modern-day New York city, for all its taxes and regulations, is the real home of liberty: look to the cultural freedom, and also to the entrepreneurial energy of Silicon Alley, etc. Bracketing whether or not this is fair, it would be a provocative piece about who really owns liberty.

(3) Drawing on Amar Bhidé and Tim Wu and Tyler, one could also write a straightforward piece on how Tea Party libertarians and minarchists are misguided because more freedom and more affluence and more government tend to go hand in hand. We get more free and less free at the same time, along different dimensions. Again, this piece might be boring, but not necessarily.

David Weigel:

Beam’s history and etymology are going to be useful to outsiders, who don’t pay attention to this stuff. It’s a better case against libertarian policy, if you want that, than a shouty “investigative” blog post at some liberal site that connects a congressman’s staff to the Koch family with the assumption that evil has just been uncovered. But no case against libertarianism sounds very compelling right now, because any alternative to the managed economy sounds great to a country with 9.9 percent unemployment.

Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure. So do the socialists who came up with the ideas that motivate Democratic politicians. Voters don’t care much about where ideas come from as long as they have jobs. Now, the real test for libertarians will come if a year of Republican austerity budgeting is followed by economic growth. In the 1990s, the new, libertarian-minded Republican congressmen and governors discovered that fast growth allowed them to cut taxes and grow budgets for services that voters liked. In the 2010s, if unemployment falls, will the libertarian Republicans keep cutting budgets and reducing services? It doesn’t sound impossible right now.

E.D. Kain at The League:

In any case, I suspect the many reactions to Beam’s article are not because of any of its insights but rather because it is long and in a prestigious publication, and because it is written in such accessible language. It may not do anything but scratch a few surfaces and regurgitate a number of old anti-libertarian tropes, but that’s to be expected. Look, here I am commenting on it myself, largely because it is long and because so many other people are commenting on it and because I’m surprised at how little it really says about the Libertarian Moment in question.

Matthew Yglesias:

I liked Chris Beam’s NY Mag article on libertarians, but I want to quibble with this:

Yet libertarianism is more internally consistent than the Democratic or Republican platforms. There’s no inherent reason that free-marketers and social conservatives should be allied under the Republican umbrella, except that it makes for a powerful coalition.

People, especially people who are libertarians, say this all the time. But we should consider the possibility that the market in political ideas works is that there’s a reason you typically find conservative and progressive political coalitions aligned in this particular way. And if you look at American history, you see that in 1964 when we had a libertarian presidential candidate the main constituency for his views turned out to be white supremacists in the deep south. Libertarian principles, as Rand Paul had occasion to remind us during the 2010 midterm campaign, prohibit the Civil Rights Act as an infringement on the liberty of racist business proprietors. Similarly, libertarians and social conservatives are united in opposition to an Employment Non-Discrimination Act for gays and lesbians and to measures like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that seek to curb discrimination against women.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Let me refine the point a bit. The left-right division tends to center around the distribution of power. In both the economic and the social spheres, power is distributed unequally. Liberalism is about distributing that power more equally, and conservatism represents the opposite. I don’t mean to create a definition that stacks the deck. It’s certainly possible to carry the spirit of egalitarianism too far in either sphere. An economic policy that imposed a 100% tax on all six-figure incomes, or a social policy that imposed strict race and gender quotas on every university or profession, would be far too egalitarian for my taste. Soviet Russia or Communist China are handy historical cases of social and economic leveling run amok.

But in any case, there’s a coherence between the two spheres. Liberals see a health care system in which tens millions of people can’t afford regular medical care, or a social system in which gays face an array of discrimination, and seek to level the playing field. The inequality may be between management and labor, or rich and poor, or corporations versus consumers, or white versus black. In almost every instance, the liberal position is for reducing inequalities of power — be it by ending Jim Crow or providing food stamps to poor families — while the conservative position is for maintaining those inequalities of power.

Economic liberalism usually (but not always) takes the form of advocating more government intervention, while social liberalism usually (but not always) takes the form of advocating less government intervention. If your only ideological interpretation metric is more versus less government, then that would appear incoherent. But I don’t see why more versus less government must be the only metric.

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Bloggers Contemplate A Door That Revolves

James Fallows:

Last night, on the “Virtually Speaking” discussion about the media with Jay Rosen of NYU, we talked about the phenomenon of things that everyone in the press corp “knows” but that don’t make their way into news stories or broadcasts. One such category involves things that everyone suspects but can’t quite prove — for instance, how involved Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were in the Valerie Plame case. Or, to make it bipartisan, about Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior over the years. But another category, which I think is even more important, involves things that everyone “knows” but has stopped noticing. This is very similar to what is called “Village” behavior in the big time media.

An item in this second category has just come up: the decision of Peter Orszag, until recently the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Barack Obama, to join Citibank in a senior position. Exactly how much it will pay is not clear, but informed guesses are several million dollars per year. Citibank, of course, was one of the institutions most notably dependent on federal help to survive in these past two years.

Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.

– Damaging, in that it epitomizes and personalizes a criticism both left and right have had of the Obama Administration’s “bailout” policy: that it’s been too protective of the financial system’s high-flying leaders, and too reluctant to hold any person or institution accountable. Of course there’s a strong counter argument to be made, in the spirit of Obama’s recent defense of his tax-cut compromise. (Roughly: that it would have been more satisfying to let Citi and others fail, but the results would have been much more damaging to the economy as a whole.) But it’s a harder argument to make when one of your senior officials has moved straight to the (very generous) Citi payroll. Any competent Republican ad-maker is already collecting clips of Orszag for use in the next campaign.

– Shocking, in the structural rather than personal corruption that it illustrates. I believe Orszag (whom I do not know at all) to be a faultlessly honest man, by the letter of the law. I am sorry for his judgment in taking this job,* but I am implying nothing whatsoever “unethical” in a technical sense. But in the grander scheme, his move illustrates something that is just wrong. The idea that someone would help plan, advocate, and carry out an economic policy that played such a crucial role in the survival of a financial institution — and then, less than two years after his Administration took office, would take a job that (a) exemplifies the growing disparities the Administration says it’s trying to correct and (b) unavoidably will call on knowledge and contacts Orszag developed while in recent public service — this says something bad about what is taken for granted in American public life.

More Fallows:

I made a mistake several days ago when lamenting Peter Orszag’s decision to take a senior job with Citibank, reportedly for several million dollars per year, so soon after leaving a senior Obama Administration post. Over the past two-plus years, Obama (and GW Bush) policies played a crucial role in saving Citi — and in not holding its executives (or other senior financial-world figures) accountable for polices that brought on the world financial crisis or reining in top-end pay as profitability has returned. Now a senior member of the Obama team — Orszag was budget director — was going straight to one of those top-end jobs, even as his former colleagues in the administration have their hands full fighting the social, economic, and political effects of the crisis on “ordinary” Americans who can’t find jobs or are losing their homes.

My mistake was not in pointing out this problem, nor in identifying it as the kind of thing that is notable precisely because no one even stops to remark on it any more. It was in the sentence that said, “Objectively this is both damaging and shocking.” That’s the difference between one-draft web postings and many-times-edited print articles. What I meant was, “Politically this is damaging and should be shocking.” Because the real point is that official Washington should notice this instance of structural corruption — but won’t.

If you’re wondering just how taken for granted such arrangements are in today’s Washington/ Versailles, here’s a data point. The Washington Post, still aspiring to be official journal of politics, has not published a single story about Orszag’s new job. Here is what its search function shows just now:
WaPo3.png

“Please try another search” indeed. How about “things that are depressing”? To their credit, the Post’s Ezra Klein and Ed O’Keefe each had one-line links on their sites, pointing to (respectively) the NYT “Dealbook” and Reuters stories on Orszag. (And those links come up if you search the Post’s site for “Orszag Citigroup.” Otherwise there appears to have been no “news” coverage by the Post. Klein also had this follow-up link to an item called “Our Peter Orszag Problem” on the Economist’s site.) The gap between the things the Post considers “scandals,” and a development like this, so taken for granted as not to merit mention, says too much about our politics.

More Fallows

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

Mr Fallows hits the nail on the head, but what this structural injustice means, politically and ideologically, remains unclear. In my opinion, the seeming inevitability of Orszag-like migrations points to a potentially fatal tension within the progressive strand of liberal thought. Progressives laudably seek to oppose injustice by deploying government power as a countervailing force against the imagined opressive and exploitative tendencies of market institutions. Yet it seems that time and again market institutions find ways to use the government’s regulatory and insurer-of-last-resort functions as countervailing forces against their competitors and, in the end, against the very public these functions were meant to protect.

We are constantly exploited by the tools meant to foil our exploitation. For a progressive to acknowledge as much is tantamount to abandoning progressivism. So it’s no surprise that progressives would rather worry over trivialities such as campaign finance reform than dwell on the paradoxes of political power. But it really isn’t the Citizens United decision that’s about to make Peter Orszag a minor Midas. It’s the vast power of a handful of Washington players, with whom Mr Orszag has become relatively intimate, to make or destroy great fortunes more or less at whim. Well-connected wonks can get rich on Wall Street only because Washington power is now so unconstrained. Washington is so unconstrained in no small part because progressives and New Dealers and Keynesians and neo-cons and neo-liberals for various good and bad reasons wanted it that way. So, what is to be done? Summon a self-bottling genie-bottling genie?

The classically liberal answer is to make government less powerful. The monstrous offspring of entangled markets and states can be defeated only by the most thorough possible separation. But public self-protection through market-state divorce can work only if libertarians are right that unfettered markets are not by nature unstable, that they do not lead to opressive concentrations of power, that we would do better without a central bank, and so on. Most of us don’t believe that. Until more of us do, we’re not going far in that direction. And maybe that’s just as well. Maybe it’s true that markets hum along smoothly only with relatively active government intervention and it’s also true that relatively active government intervention is eventually inevitably co-opted, exacerbating rather than mitigating capitalism’s injustices. Perhaps the best we can hope ever to achieve is a fleeting state of grace when fundamentally unstable forces are temporarily held in balance by an evanescent combination of complementary cultural currents. This is increasingly my fear: that there is no principled alternative to muddling through; that every ideologue’s op-ed is wrong, except the ones serendipitously right. But muddle we must.

So what is to be done about the structural injustice spotlighted by Peter Orszag’s passage through the revolving golden door? How exactly do we tweak the unjust structure? If the system is rigged, how exactly do we unrig it? In which direction can we muddle without making matters worse?

Ezra Klein:

But reading the coverage, I’ve been struck by a few things.

1. I’m not nearly so sure it’s about the money as other people seem to be. Orszag is fairly wealthy already (my understanding is he sold off an economic consulting firm when he became director of the Congressional Budget Office), and his lifetime of public service positions does not suggest a man particularly motivated by income. Rather, I think people are underestimating the lure of the job itself.

Orszag has gone as high as he’s likely to go in government, and he’s 41 years old. The guy isn’t done, but there’s not much more for him in Washington. So what is left for him?

Well, he could do academia or a think tank. But that’s a pretty sedate, low-stress existence compared with the tempo he’s kept up over the past few decades. Let’s say he doesn’t want to move into a wiseman or advisory role. New York Times columnist didn’t seem like a bad gig to me, but then, I’ve chosen to devote my life to similar pursuits. I’m not really sure why anyone would want to be a university president. You sometimes hear people say that he should’ve sat around and been fairly rich and respected, but I imagine that gets boring after the first decade or so.

Citigroup is a really big, really powerful institution. Orszag’s position in it is the sort of position that could one day lead to being president of Citigroup. If you’re him, and you’re trying to figure out an interesting and high-impact way to spend the next 40 years, I can see why it’s appealing. But it’s the power and the job and the opportunity, more than the money, that make it appealing.

2. The problem is less why Orszag wanted to go to Citigroup than why Citigroup wanted to hire Orszag. In Citigroup, you’re dealing with a bank that’s simply much more reliant than other banks are on connections with the American government, and other governments. Bank of America has similar needs, and so too do a couple of others, but it’s a short list.

Whether Orszag was a smart hire on these grounds is hard to say. It’s difficult to overstate how much bad will has developed between Orszag and the White House he used to serve. Some of that comes from perceived disloyalty in Orszag’s public statements — like his first New York Times column, which called for a short-term extension of all the tax cuts when the White House was arguing for the permanent extension of most of the cuts and the expiration of the cuts for the rich — but this move, which many in the administration consider politically problematic and personally distasteful, added considerably to the anger.

What Citigroup gets in Orszag is a brilliant policy mind and a deep understanding of government, not to mention a thick rolodex that certainly still has some friendly names on it. The reasons those things are valuable to Citigroup make most of us uncomfortable, and that goes double after the government bailed Citigroup out during the financial crisis. I highly doubt that the meetings between Orszag and Citigroup left him with the impression that he was getting hired to help with governmental affairs. His portfolio, in fact, is explicitly international. But I don’t know anyone who believes that it will stay that way.

Brad DeLong:

Look: Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that the most basic principles of good governance mandate that the American government have a long-term plan in place to match its long-term projected expenditures with its long-term projected revenues. Peter Orszag believes–as do I–that requiring that every policy initiative be paid-for in the long-term so that it does not increase the projected debt, say, ten years out into the future is the minimum low bar that policy should be able to clear.

Barack Obama has not taken Peter Orszag’s advice: he has not proposed only initiatives that are paid-for in the long-term. He has not pledged to veto bills that raise the projected debt ten years hence.

Peter Orszag is no longer in the government.

Does he now have a duty to tell those who read his New York Times columns the same things that he told Obama when he was in government?

Or does he have a duty to tell lies to his readers about what he thinks good policy is in order to advance the interests of an administration that he is no longer part of?

I would say he has the first duty.

Matthew Yglesias:

As I understand it, the concern is that the the job itself is a bribe. In a super-crass version of this, Firm A says to Regulator Z “you won’t be in this job forever, but if you make a lot of decisions favorable to Firm A then we’ll hire you after you quit.” In a more realistic version what happens is that Regulator Z observes that many of his predecessors have gone on to lucrative careers in Industry A and that they probably couldn’t have had if they’d pissed off all the Industry A CEOs. This biases his decision-making in a problematic way.

Sometimes I think this problem is more apparent than real. Any conceivable set of decisions that the FCC makes is going to be favorable to some set of large corporations. So being in the pocket of “big business” as such isn’t a big problem. But sometimes the problem is very real. The entire financial reform debate, for example, has featured a lot of ideas that put the interests of the financial sector as such at stake. Many observers, including Ezra Klein, have posited that shrinking the size of the financial sector overall should be a goal of reform. Obviously, though, people with an ambition to go get jobs in the financial sector are unlikely to espouse such goals.

Will at The League:

Peter Orszag’s new job at Citigroup is one of those under-discussed stories that makes me glad I read blogs. It also makes me depressed because I’m struggling to envision a plausible solution to the problems of regulatory capture and the revolving door between government and the financial services industry. You can imagine better policies arising in a lot of areas – farm subsidies, for example – if we magically removed certain political constraints, but even if you were given free reign to remake the United States’ political system, the problem of regulating an incredibly complicated financial sector would still be pretty tough to figure out.

If you’ll permit me to simplify things for the sake of brevity, the standard progressive view of the financial sector is that we need more and better regulators. This is complicated by the fact that regulation – particularly regulation that involves opaque financial practices – is complex and therefore vulnerable to companies gaming the system. Former high-level Administration officials accepting jobs at financial institutions that were just bailed out basically exemplifies these concerns.

The libertarian/conservative rejoinder is that less regulation equals less opportunities for politically-connected firms to hijack the system. As a safeguard against future financial meltdowns, I find this unsatisfying for a number of reasons: First, attempts to describe the roots of the financial crisis solely through the lens of government intervention sound pretty silly. And second, if the regulatory and administrative superstructure of government is fatally compromised by insiders and corporate lobbyists, are we sure we  can successfully deconstruct that system from within? I think this is part of what liberals are getting at when they suggest the conservative movement is basically a front group for rich people and big business: sure, you might make election year noises about limited government, but genuinely populist conservative impulses take a backseat to corporate interests in a political and regulatory environment dominated by insiders. In other words, the Tea Party will never beat Goldman Sachs at its own game.

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Don’t Touch This Partisan Junk

Ross Douthat checks our heads in the NYT:

Imagine, for a moment, that George W. Bush had been president when the Transportation Security Administration decided to let Thanksgiving travelers choose between exposing their nether regions to a body scanner or enduring a private security massage. Democrats would have been outraged at yet another Bush-era assault on civil liberties. Liberal pundits would have outdone one another comparing the T.S.A. to this or that police state. (“In an outrage worthy of Enver Hoxha’s Albania …”) And Republicans would have leaped to the Bush administration’s defense, while accusing liberals of going soft on terrorism.

But Barack Obama is our president instead, so the body-scanner debate played out rather differently. True, some conservatives invoked 9/11 to defend the T.S.A., and some liberals denounced the measures as an affront to American liberties. Such ideological consistency, though, was the exception; mostly, the Bush-era script was read in reverse. It was the populist right that raged against body scans, and the Republican Party that moved briskly to exploit the furor. It was a Democratic administration that labored to justify the intrusive procedures, and the liberal commentariat that leaped to their defense.

This role reversal is a case study in the awesome power of the partisan mindset. Up to a point, American politics reflects abiding philosophical divisions. But people who follow politics closely — whether voters, activists or pundits — are often partisans first and ideologues second. Instead of assessing every policy on the merits, we tend to reverse-engineer the arguments required to justify whatever our own side happens to be doing. Our ideological convictions may be real enough, but our deepest conviction is often that the other guys can’t be trusted.

How potent is the psychology of partisanship? Potent enough to influence not only policy views, but our perception of broader realities as well. A majority of Democrats spent the late 1980s convinced that inflation had risen under Ronald Reagan, when it had really dropped precipitously. In 1996, a majority of Republicans claimed that the deficit had increased under Bill Clinton, when it had steadily shrunk instead. Late in the Bush presidency, Republicans were twice as likely as similarly situated Democrats to tell pollsters that the economy was performing well. In every case, the external facts mattered less than how the person being polled felt about the party in power.

This tendency is vividly illustrated by our national security debates. In the 1990s, many Democrats embraced Bill Clinton’s wars of choice in the Balkans and accepted his encroachments on civil liberties following the Oklahoma City bombing, while many Republicans tilted noninterventionist and libertarian. If Al Gore had been president on 9/11, this pattern might have persisted, with conservatives resisting the Patriot Act the way they’ve rallied against the T.S.A.’s Rapiscan technology, and Vice President Joe Lieberman prodding his fellow Democrats in a more Cheney-esque direction on detainee policy.

James Fallows was not impressed:

The TSA case, on which Douthat builds his column, is in fact quite a poor illustration — rather, a good illustration for a different point. There are many instances of the partisan dynamic working in one direction here. That is, conservatives and Republicans who had no problem with strong-arm security measures back in the Bush 43 days but are upset now. Charles Krauthammer is the classic example: forthrightly defending torture as, in limited circumstances, a necessary tool against terrorism, yet now outraged about “touching my junk” as a symbol of the intrusive state.

But are there any cases of movement the other way? Illustrations of liberals or Democrats who denounced “security theater” and TSA/DHS excesses in the Republican era, but defend them now? If such people exist, I’m not aware of them — and having beaten the “security theater” drum for  many longyearsnow, I’ve been on the lookout.

The anti-security theater alliance has always included right-wing and left-wing libertarians (both exist), ACLU-style liberals, limited-government-style conservatives, and however you would choose to classify the likes of Bruce Schneier or Jeffrey Goldberg (or me). I know of Republicans who, seemingly for partisan reasons like those Douthat lays out, have joined the anti-security theater chorus. For instance, former Sen. Rick Santorum. I don’t know of a single Democrat or liberal who has peeled off and moved the opposite way just because Obama is in charge.

A harder case is Guantanamo, use of drones, and related martial-state issues. Yes, it’s true that some liberals who were vociferous in denouncing such practices under Bush have piped down. But not all (cf Glenn Greenwald etc). And I don’t know of any cases of Democrats who complained about these abuses before and now positively defend them as good parts of Obama’s policy — as opposed to inherited disasters he has not gone far enough to undo and eliminate.

So: it’s nice and fair-sounding to say that the party-first principle applies to all sides in today’s political debate. Like it would be nice and fair-sounding to say that Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress are contributing to obstructionism and party-bloc voting. Or that Fox News and NPR have equal-and-offsetting political agendas in covering the news. But it looks to me as if we’re mostly talking about the way one side operates. Recognizing that is part of facing the reality of today’s politics.

Andrew Sullivan on Fallows and Douthat:

There is an understandable tendency for some of the sane right to keep pretending that there really is an equivalence in cynicism and partisanship between both Republicans and Democrats. But in truth, it’s the GOP that is now overwhelmingly the most hypocritical, inconsistent and unprincipled.

E.D. Kain at The League:

I’m quite certain that Obama did not in fact run on expanding the scope and intrusiveness of the TSA to include naked scanners and groping. I’m quite certain that many of the people defending the TSA and Obama’s various security efforts – from assassinations to drone attacks – would not be defending them were a Republican in the oval office. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure Obama himself wouldn’t support Obama policies if he were still a Senator rather than the Commander-in-Chief.

It would be one thing for Fallows to argue that folks like Krauthammer are hypocrites, or that Republicans in general are acting like hypocrites over this issue. That would hold water! But to exonerate liberals and Democrats – the very people who for years criticized the Bush administration’s overreach and security theater, and who are now directly responsible for the expansion of these policies – well, this strikes me as rather one-sided and biased on Fallows’s part. Accusing Douthat of false equivalency here doesn’t work. Both sides are responsible for this mess. If they weren’t, then the Democrats would have scaled back the security state. They haven’t. And now liberals are defending them in spite of that inconvenient fact.

Daniel Larison:

There are other ways to test Ross’ claim. PATRIOT Act renewal came up for a vote earlier this year. If the “partisan mindset” is indeed awesomely powerful, it should have been the case that Republicans voted overwhelmingly against renewal. Instead, renewal passed the House 315-97 with 90% of the nays coming from the Democratic side. The measure passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote after privacy reform amendments were stripped out at the insistence of some Senate Republicans. That tells me that aside from a handful of honorable exceptions, including Ron Paul, Walter Jones, and Jimmy Duncan, there simply aren’t very many Republican representatives who object to intrusive and authoritarian anti-terrorist legislation no matter which party controls the White House. For that matter, there aren’t enough Democratic representatives who object to this sort of legislation on principle, but there were 87. If the “partisan mindset” changed national security views as dramatically as Ross suggests, there should have been many more anti-Obama Republicans resisting renewal of the PATRIOT Act than Democrats.

We could go down the list of relevant issues, and the pattern would be the same. Partisanship does not change that much in terms of the positions taken by members of the two parties. What it can do is change the intensity of feeling. This means that antiwar activists and civil libertarians are caught in an odd bind: many of them are genuinely appalled by Obama’s continuation of Bush-era security policies on detention and surveillance (and especially by his outrageous new claim of assassination powers), they are disgusted that his administration is hiding behind the state secrets privilege to cover up for the Bush administration, and they object to escalating the war in Afghanistan. However, they know very well that the alternative to Obama is to have all of these things, plus torture, aggressive foreign policy in all directions, and possibly war with Iran.

Of course, people should be outraged by the intrusiveness of these new procedures (because the entire process is an absurd overreaction to a real, but limited threat), just as they should have been outraged by the damage done to constitutional liberties for the past decade and more in the name of anti-terrorism, but one of the reasons that there are so few members of Congress willing to cast votes against excessive anti-terrorist legislation is that their constituents do not value constitutional liberties as highly as they claim they do. More to the point, when it does not directly affect their constituents it is clear that there is even less concern for the constitutional liberties of others. Indeed, what we might conclude about a significant part of the backlash is that the slogan of the protesters is not so much “Don’t Tread On Me” as it is “Why Won’t You Leave Me Alone and Go Tread On Them?”

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast disputes the idea that the left has been quiet on the TSA:

Forget about little blogs like this one, which have been all over this TSA nonsense like flies on horseshit. What are the Big Boiz doing? Yes, Josh Marshall seems far more willing to give the Obama Administration and the entire process the benefit of the doubt than I am. But Digby hasbeennoting the absurdity of it all. HuffPo has had a slew of articles which can hardly be said to defending the TSA. Over at the Great Orange Satan, there’s hardly a rush to defend the Obama Administration. The Big Blue Smurf, as is his wont, has his customary series of one-sentence posts, mostly about nonsense, but since this is nothing new for him, it hardly qualifies as a defense of, or even silence about, Obama’s TSA.

[…]

Karoli over at Crooks and Liars cites a much-publicized (and much maligned in the progressive blogosphere, which shows that we are far more willing to criticize our own than the right is) article in The Nation which pointed out Tyner’s role as a libertarian activist and accused him of being a shill for the Koch brothers. The C&L piece cites other commentary on the Nation article, commentary which blasted it as a smear — which it is.

What NO ONE on the left is doing is defending the use of x-ray equipment and genital-groping as a means of “keeping us safe” — not even Ruth Marcus, who seems to feel that this system may be crap but it’s all we’ve got. This is far more skepticism than we ever got from the right, which marched in lockstep to the notion that “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about” in the context of the Bush Adminstration’s appalling record on Constitutional protections.

And this is the difference between the so-called “liberal commentariat” — at least the commentariat you get if you stick your nose outside the beltway. On the left, we are having a conversation among many minds. On the right, we get only one theme: Republican Good. Obama Bad.

Glenn Greenwald likes the column.

Adam Serwer at American Prospect:

Yesterday, I made some distinctions between liberals and Democrats, but I think Douthat is largely right in the sense that the Democratic Party has been largely silent about the continuity between Bush and Obama on matters of national security.

The most egregious example of this, of course, was the debate over the PATRIOT Act. As I mentioned yesterday, you had Sen. Al Franken making a show of reading the Fourth Amendment to Assistant Attorney General David Kris before voting renewal out of committee. You have Attorney General Eric Holder, who prior to being AG said the Bush administration “acted in defiance of federal law” with its warrentless wiretapping program, only to narrow his critique when he became part of an administration eager to use the same powers. There’s Sen. Patrick Leahy, who voted against PATRIOT Act reauthorization in 2006 but worked with Dianne Feinstein to block Sen. Russ Feingold‘s mild oversight provisions during renewal last year. The president who once wanted to repeal the PATRIOT Act then meekly signed its extension.

Democrats have, of course, blocked funding to close Guantanamo, fallen almost silent about this administration’s aggressive use of state secrets to obscure government wrongdoing despite some early complaints, and have remained largely quiet about the administration’s use of indefinite detention, once decried as “illegal and immoral.”

To say that Democrats who criticized such things before aren’t cheering now sets an arbitrary standard. The point is that, inherited or no, Democrats have lost the urgency they once possessed regarding the expansion of executive powers in matters of national security. No where has this been more dramatic than with the president himself, who once campaigned on reversing many of the Bush-era policies that he has in fact kept in place. The fact that Democrats have meekly acquiesced to this change as opposed to cheering it wildly doesn’t speak particularly well of their integrity.

Yes, it’s facile and stupid when the media draws false equivalences between NPR and Fox News, between pre-2006 Democratic opposition and the unprecedented Republican obstructionism of the past two years. But the reality is that the supposedly tyrannical Bush-era national-security state is largely unchanged, and Democrats have mostly stopped caring because they aren’t going to accuse the leader of their party of shredding the Constitution, even though the 2006 version of him very well might have. In the process, the party has perhaps forever legitimized some of the worst aspects of Bush administration policy by giving them the prized Beltway stamp of bipartisan approval.

The GOP’s outrage over the TSA is more partisan politics than libertarian revolution, and while I’m against the new procedures, I don’t think they come close to something like legalizing torture. But Douthat is right that on matters of national security, it is accurate to say that Democrats have for the most part learned to live with policies they once found abhorrent.

Alex Massie

Douthat responds

More Larison here and here

More Kain

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And Another One Bites The Dust

E.D Kain at Balloon Juice:

Why I am Not a Conservative

Short answer: When I think about the GOP retaking Congress I get cold sweats and flashbacks of 2000-2008. Ditto that for the prospect of say, Newt Gingrich sitting in The Oval Office. The only Republicans who are at all honest – like Gary Johnson who has really good civil liberties bona fides – would A) never win and B) are really way too economically conservative for me. So yeah, Republicans taking back Congress in a couple months is just bad news as far as I’m concerned.

[…]

Long answer after the fold…

It’s certainly been a change of pace and perspective for me to blog here at Balloon Juice, and one I’m profoundly grateful to John for. I’ve been drifting leftward for quite a while now (from dissident conservative to fed-up libertarian to, more recently, pro-market liberal with libertarian and especially civil libertarian streaks) – so drifting leftward, but on uncertain feet. And one weakness of my blogging style and perhaps of the habits I’ve gotten into blogging at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, is that I’ve been able to walk this particular ideological tightrope past the point of its usefulness. The ‘pox on both your houses’ style really is sort of annoying after a while even if it is unintentional and even if it is due to honest doubt rather than an attempt to please everyone. Certainly it’s nothing to build one’s political philosophy upon. And quite frankly, the pushback I’ve gotten in the comments about having it both ways is fair, and it’s gotten me thinking – a lot – about picking a side. How you frame your argument and who you frame it for matters. Picking sides matters.

So I will. I no longer have any desire to be considered a conservative – and no longer consider myself one (I do have a somewhat anti-modernist streak, for instance, which I blame on all the fantasy literature I read as a child but which is more a sort of romanticism than anything very political. I recall as a child being quite depressed by the thought that no matter how far I walked in any direction from my home I would inevitably come up against a paved road. How this translates into right vs. left is another matter though it does make me a strong supporter of localism and buying locally and so forth.)

I’ll vote Democrat this fall and I’ll almost certainly vote Democrat in 2012. If I’d been a Senator last year I would have voted for the HCR bill. The Democratic Party has its flaws but at least it cares about governance, at least Democrats try to make the world a less harsh, more egalitarian place even when sometimes their policies backfire or are simply wrong to begin with. And liberalism generally is just more serious an endeavor than conservatism is. More wonky, more beholden to, you know, data and facts.

I have always voted Democrat in any case, even as a self-described conservative, and remain pro-gay-marriage, anti-war, anti-torture, and against the drug war, against the security state, against crony capitalism. It’s not my politics so much that have undergone a change lately (though they have as well), but my thoughts on who I should and should not align myself with, and why this is important

Conservative politics don’t even lend themselves all that well to conservative ends to begin with.

For instance, I’d say the generous maternity leave in Sweden or Germany is far more in line with a belief in the importance of family than our lack of any policy to that effect. If being pro-family is conservative then I guess I’m conservative in that way – but I think ‘family’ should include committed gay couples. If wanting a stable fiscal future is conservative, then again I suppose that describes me. But we can’t simply cut spending down to the marrow to achieve this, nor should we. Slashing taxes at all costs is not fiscally conservative. Raising them is much more so – and conservatives are by and large too irresponsible to even countenance this. Only a very few are considering cutting defense spending to help balance the budget. And indeed, there are a very few very smart, honest, hopeful thinkers on the right who I admire a great deal but they are only a very few. And not movers and shakers in any case. On the libertarian front – or the liberal-tarian front at least – I see much more hope.

I also share a good deal more cultural affinity with the left, broadly speaking, than with the right and my cultural politics have always reflected this. I watch Colbert and the Daily Show and almost never turn the channel to Fox News. I listen to NPR. I hang out mostly with liberals. I have very liberal views on most social issues. I still believe in the importance of decentralized power structures, checks and balances, and in not placing too much faith in the state – but again, these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right.

Dennis Sanders at Moderate Voice:

Blogger E.D. Kain’s “Up from Conservatism” post had me thinking about something that I’ve seen over the years. You take a guy who was a conservative that starts to see some of the problems. They start to see them grow bigger and bigger and start to take on a crusade to reform conservatism. However, they continue to focus on the issues plaguing the movement, until the problems are all they see. At some point, they write a post renouncing their ties to conservatism and citing how awful the movement is. They either choose to become independent or go over to the liberal side of the political spectrum.

On the surface, one can look at this as proof about how messed up conservatives are. I don’t doubt that. The current state of conservatism has caused many to pull up stakes and move towards greener pastures. But I am also bothered by another concern and that is: why are there so few folks committed to reforming conservatism? Why is there not an effort to make conservatism more modern in the way it has been done in the United Kingdom?

Conor Friedersdorf at Sully’s place:

On the six week road trip I took when I left DC and moved backed to California, a highlight was having drinks with E.D. Kain in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he lives with his wife and child, works a day job to pay the bills, and manages to produce lots of enjoyable blogging. He wrote a post a couple days ago that’s handily summed up by this line: “I no longer have any desire to be considered a conservative – and no longer consider myself one.”

Unlike me, but like a lot of politically active people, Mr. Kain finds value in associating himself with a political/ideological team. It ought to trouble movement conservatives that they’re losing a married father in a red state who champions localism, decentralized power, checks and balances, and not placing too much faith in the state, and especially that in his judgment, “these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right.”

There are many on the right, however, who’d celebrate his repudiation of the conservative label, because he says things like this:

I would have voted for the HCR bill. The Democratic Party has its flaws but at least it cares about governance, at least Democrats try to make the world a less harsh, more egalitarian place even when sometimes their policies backfire or are simply wrong to begin with. And liberalism generally is just more serious an endeavor than conservatism is. More wonky, more beholden to, you know, data and facts.

Mr. Kain is conflating the conservative movement, a deeply unserious and corrupt political coalition, with the political philosophy of conservatism, which is every bit as serious as liberalism, and isn’t inherently less wonky either.

I disagree with Mr. Kain on health care reform too. I opposed it, and would’ve much preferred something like the plan articulated here. But do I understand why he’s concluded that movement conservatism is to be abandoned? Yes, I understand, and much as I’d encourage him to vote for divided government this November, and to keep trying to reform the right, the more important message is directed at those who prefer a pure, narrow coalition of hard core conservatives to an inclusive one: Mr. Kain fits into neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party, but you’ve driven him toward the latter’s coalition by assessing his particular mix of beliefs and asserting that he is a statist on the side of tyranny.

Tim Kowal:

E.D. Kain explains why he no longer considers himself a conservative.  He gives a lot of reasons, some prompting one to ask why he ever considered himself a conservative.  But testimonials of anyone publicly “switching sides” always interest me, and prompt me to re-examine just why it is I find the left such a non-option.  And I think I can plow through all the unimportant things down to a couple of the core psychological-emotional motivating factors that defines whether any given person will identify himself as “conservative” or “liberal.”

One of those things is whether you truly believe a “conservative” or a “liberal” political worldview is sustainable.  I admit I am intrigued by the notion of having every necessity of life guaranteed by the state, particularly when “necessities of life” include things like high-speed internet access and hip organic cuisine—one just cannot survive with the stigma of being unstylish or out of touch with leftist fads.  And I am aware that Europe’s experimentation with this sort of indulgent welfare state is, by certain accounts, going quite well.  But forgive me if I just don’t believe it.  While I’m sometimes tempted by the idea of packing up and heading to a generous European welfare state and living it up while the ship goes down, my gut reaction is that the ship is in fact going down.  I don’t think one can ever not be a fiscal conservative unless one is convinced that the new-math of welfare-state economics can actually work beyond a few generations.  And I’m not [convinced].

Another deep-seated psychological reason I cannot throw my lot in with liberals is that I don’t have compassion for the most of the would-be beneficiaries of their social safety nets.  Some, sure.  But I’ve come to the realization that what I might consider terribly unpleasant, others consider perfectly tolerable.  Take one example:  My wife, though conservative, is a filmmaker and photographer, and thus has a long list of Facebook friends on polar opposite sides of the political spectrum.  When a video went around the internet a while back profiling an Orange County, California family living in a motel room, the liberal bloc of my wife’s Friends noted the travesty of conservative OC governance that would let something like that happen in such a relatively wealthy area.  But this family was paying approximately $800 a month to live in a motel room.  While Orange County is still an expensive place to live, it’s not so expensive that apartments can’t be found for that amount.  Moreover, when the interviewer asked the family why they don’t move somewhere, perhaps out of state, where the cost of living is much more affordable.  The family responded they had no interest in moving out of temperate and beatific Orange County.

This epitomizes the majority of accounts of the impoverished that I’ve been exposed to in my lifetime.  Discomfort, yes.  Dire straits, hardly.

More Dennis Sanders:

I’ve seen this coming for a long time: the formerly prolific, hetrodox conservative blogger E.D. Kain has abandoned the conservatives, passing the liberaltarian lable and going full on liberal.Not that being a liberal is a bad thing.  Living in the liberal bastion of Minneapolis, I have a lot (and I mean a lot) of friends who are liberal Democrats.  And I also happen to sleep with a certain liberal gentleman of Scandanavian descent.

That said in some ways, this is sad, because the American center-right needs more people like Erik.  And yet, this is not surprising to me, though it is quite confusing.  I don’t know if it’s age or what, but it has always seemed to me that Erik was trying to figure out who he was and where he fit politically.  One moment he’s a Ron Paulite, the next moment he’s supporting Scott Brown, the next moment he’s writing the ultra-liberal blog Balloon Juice.  Maybe he’s finally found out where he fits.  If so, then I am happy for him even though it is the conservative’s loss.

Daniel Larison:

I understand what Erik wants to do here, but it seems to me that it has been quite clear where he has stood and what side he has picked in all the many debates over the years. It was no secret that he was basically sympathetic to the health care legislation, to which I was opposed, and he was furiously hostile to the Arizona immigration law, which I find basically unobjectionable. The label he chose for himself was essentially irrelevant in both of those debates, and there was no danger that he would be confused with the people aligned on the other side of the argument.

I’m sorry to say that I find Erik’s post to be very close to the flip side of the argument that mainstream conservatives have deployed against dissident conservatives for years, which is that we associate with the wrong kinds of people, tolerate “liberal” arguments, and generally fail to be good team players when it comes to organizing for electoral politics and reinforcing absurd ideological claims. In other words, we are too close or insufficiently hostile to the other “side.” From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”

I had to grimace a little when I read Erik talking about his cultural affinities. The point is not that I object to most of his cultural affinities. When I’m in my car on long road trips, I listen to NPR, too, and I have several friends to the left of Russ Feingold (as well as friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans). I’m sure I could rattle off a list of other such “heterodox” behaviors, but I had thought that Erik agreed that these affinities have or ought to have no bearing on political coalitions. All of this reminds me of the ridiculous political categorizing that people wanted to impose on everyday habits during the debate over “crunchy” conservatism, as if eating organic vegetables or shopping at a co-op were proof of left-wing convictions. Erik continues:

I still believe in the importance of decentralized power structures, checks and balances, and in not placing too much faith in the state – but again, these are positions that are perfectly acceptable on the left in ways that my belief in gay marriage or higher taxes or non-interventionist foreign policy are simply not acceptable on the right.

Perhaps that’s true within the confines of conservative movement institutions and in many conservative media outlets and magazines, but it isn’t true of “the right” as a whole, and this exaggerates how acceptable decentralism really is on the left. There is sympathy for it in some circles, but is it “perfectly acceptable”? It probably depends on what’s being decentralized.

Kain responds at The League:

Perhaps I am still a rather conservative liberal, but at a certain point I just have to stop trying to come up with new contortionist tricks and taxonomical experiments to make my politics fit inside that particular label. If I were more conservative – if my beliefs on immigration or marriage were more to the right, or if my religious beliefs were very traditional in the ways that Daniel’s are, or if I distrusted government more – if any of these things were the case, I wouldn’t give a damn about the inclusiveness of the conservative movement, or the Republican party, or any of that – I would still call myself a conservative. But I am simply not all that conservative. And if the left is too statist, if liberals really do have a deep distrust of free markets or competitive federalism, or any of those other things that I think are important and good for society, well then perhaps they can be convinced otherwise. Perhaps in the end, only the ideas matter. Hopefully Daniel’s ideas about American exceptionalism and the limits of our nation’s power will be accepted by all political stripes. Hopefully good ideas will rise to the top of whatever ideological coalitions exist, and we will all evolve for the better.

As Conor notes in his post on the matter, there are many, many admirable, smart, honest people out there working to reform conservatism. And perhaps they will. One thing I noticed about myself was that I followed the British elections very closely, and was quite enamored with David Cameron’s Toryism – a rather liberal, modernized conservatism. I thought to myself, I could be a conservative like that. But then the coalition with the Liberal Democrats made me think even harder – would I fit in even better with that group? And the answer was yes, I probably would. I’m probably more the liberaltarian Lib-Dem than the modernized Tory.

I have nothing against conservatism the way I understand it, the way I wish it were represented and practiced in this country. I just don’t think that label belongs to me anymore.

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