Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: politics (page 2 of 23)

My political philosophy and personal philosophy are not the same

Today’s must-read blog post is by Will Wilkinson, musing on the differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of how they view personal responsibility. Here’s how he describes his own view, coming from a libertarian background:

I find all of this especially interesting because my own drift from right-leaning libertarian to libertarian-leaning liberal has a lot to do with issues around the conditions for robust agency and the role of broad socio-economic forces in establishing those conditions, or not. I’ve come to accept, for example, that diffuse cultural forces, such as racism or sexism or nationalism or intergenerational poverty, can deprive an individual of her rightful liberty without any single person doing anything to violate her basic rights. This takes me a long way toward standard liberalism. But I find that my gut nevertheless leans right on issues of personal responsibility.

I agree that many people are in dire straits and suffering for absolutely no fault of their own, and that policies ought to be in place to provide meaningful material assistance. Still, I find I want an ethos of effort and individual responsibility to prevail, and I continue to think people who chose their way into trouble need to be told exactly what Welch seems to be telling the OWS folk: we’re not going to feel too sorry for you if you made some bad decisions about taking out mortgages and/or student loans, even if everybody you knew was making them too.

And here’s where he breaks ranks with progressives:

Progressives are sincerely inclined to impersonal, socio-cultural explanations of success and failure, but I think they’re also generally of the opinion that an ethos of initiative, hard work, and individual responsibility will impede the political will to offer assistance to those who ought to get it. I’m not sure that they’re wrong. After all, those who tend to oppose progressive transfers tend to do so partly on the basis of their disbelief in the faultlessness of the needy.

Here’s what I think most conservatives and libertarians fail to understand about liberals. On one hand, we have political philosophy and on the other we have personal philosophy, and they are not the same. I’ve been saying since 2004 that liberals are values voters just like conservatives, it’s just that our values are different.

The sentiments he ascribes to progressives do capture our political philosophy quite well, but not our personal philosophy. I see myself as an agent who has great influence over his own fate, and hold myself responsible for the poor decisions I have made. And when it comes to friends and family members I feel the same way. It would be nice if nobody I knew were without health insurance, but my advice to those who are is to find a way to get a job that provides health insurance. Or to save money they spend on other things and buy individual health insurance instead. My advice to people who can’t afford to pay their bills is to look harder for a job, to acquire new skills, and to cut expenses. At the individual level, the ethos of personal responsibility is the only one that makes sense.

Regardless of what I (or progressives) think the government should do, the truth is that waiting for someone else to bail you out is obviously a non-starter as a personal strategy. As a voter and an activist, my goal is to see the government do more to help people who are victims of the current downturn and of long term economic trends. But at the personal level, my goal is to encourage people to do more to take care of themselves.

Among the people I know, differences in political philosophy do not translate to large differences in personal behavior. Liberals tend to be just as frugal, industrious, and responsible as the conservatives. They also tend to hold themselves to the same moral standards. The idea that a progressive political philosophy translates to a hedonistic personal philosophy is simply incorrect, and I think that most anyone who knows any actual liberals would agree.

More on the victimization of the rich

Yesterday, I linked to a Malcolm Gladwell piece that included the following sentences:

The rich have gone from being grateful for what they have to pushing for everything they can get. They have mastered the arts of whining and predation, without regard to logic or shame.

It put me on the lookout for other examples of rich people whining about being victimized, and reminded me immediately of this week’s Economist cover story — provocatively titled “Hunting the rich.” Here’s how it starts:

THE horns have sounded and the hounds are baying. Across the developed world the hunt for more taxes from the wealthy is on.

Economist hunting the rich

This is important because the basic demographic to which The Economist appeals is rich people. (Before you argue with me, purchase a dead trees issue and check out the ads.) Clearly this is a message that they are confident will resonate. Fortunately, being The Economist, they are willing to engage with actual facts:

First, the West’s deficits should not be closed by spending cuts alone. Public spending should certainly take the brunt: there is plenty of scope to slim inefficient Leviathan, and studies of past deficit-cutting programmes suggest they work best when cuts predominate. Britain’s four-to-one ratio is about right. But, as that ratio implies, experience also argues that higher taxes should be part of the mix. In America the tax take is historically low after years of rate reductions. There, and elsewhere, tax rises need to bear some of the burden.

Second, there is a political argument for raising this new revenue from the rich. Spending cuts fall disproportionately on the less well-off; and, even before the crunch, median incomes were stagnating. Meanwhile, globalisation has been rewarding winners ever more generously. Voters’ support for ongoing austerity depends on a disproportionate share of any new revenue coming from the wealthy.

This is basically the argument I see most progressives make regarding taxes. Tax revenue has been going down for years and the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for years. Clearly US economic policy has disproportionately benefitted rich people the most, and they can best afford the tax increase. The article then goes on to endorse an Obama-like tax plan. Hunting the rich, indeed.

Actually getting involved in politics

Matthew Yglesias answers a question from a reader about what to do to contribute to political change in this country. As the reader points out, reading political blogs, watching The Daily Show, and chatting about it with your spouse is not really going to get it done.

Matt offers two suggestions: write Congress and promote your views out there in the world, among people who may not agree with you. I second both of those recommendations. I can say first hand that I have changed the political views of some friends and family members through sheer persistence and a willingness to be annoying. I would also point out that I have had my changed on some subjects by engaging with people who disagree with me.

I would also add that there are two more organized venues that you can become involved with if you want to create change — activism and campaigning. Getting involved with activism involves joining organizations that advocate for a specific policy or principle and then working on that cause. Amnesty International, the ACLU, and, for that matter, the NRA are national activist organizations. There are activist organizations focused on local issues everywhere as well.

Campaigning is another option. Organizing for America already has volunteers phone banking to recruit even more volunteers and registering voters. We also have a local election in October. When you campaign, you forget what you know about the insufficiency of the President’s jobs plan or the fact that we escalated the war in Afghanistan, at least while you’re volunteering. You’re there to make sure that the least bad viable candidates get elected. I realize that this is offensive to ideological purity, but it is essential work.

Whatever frustrations I have with President Obama or North Carolina governor Bev Perdue, the truth is that they are both infinitely better than John McCain or Pat McCrory from where I sit. Obviously liberals need to pressure elected officials to support the policies that are important to us, but Democrats are more amenable to pressure from liberals than Republicans are. The long term goal has to be to build a progressive political organization strong enough to elect truly liberal candidates rather than moderate ones. To do so, we need liberals to show up and help build the party.

Obviously not all of these options are for everyone, but if you’re frustrated with the state of things, you should choose one or more and throw yourself into it. I volunteered during the 2008 Presidential campaign, but I didn’t really get into it until 2010. It was August 28, the day of the Restoring Honor rally that Glenn Beck was throwing, and I was just incredibly frustrated by the whole thing. It occurred to me that wandering around the house being angry at Glenn Beck wasn’t going to do anything to create a world that resembles my ideals more than it resembles his, so we went down to the local Democratic headquarters and started volunteering.

In closing, I’d urge you to read this post by Ta-Nahesi Coates, which explains as well as anything I’ve read that creating change is the responsibility of the people who desire that change. Being disappointed in President Obama or frustrated with the Tea Party is a waste of time. The only thing we really control is the amount of effort we put into getting what we want.

Are libertarians cultural free riders?

L’Hote accuses of libertarians of holding liberals in contempt even as they revel in the culture that liberals created:

Cosmopolitan libertarians live in liberal urban enclaves, surrounded by liberals, taking advantage of the kind of governmental cultural and transportation infrastructure that liberals created. They consume movies, novels, music, and theater crafted in overwhelming majorities by leftists. They operate in environments where the liberal spirit of tolerance and freedom from conformity underpins everything, yet they will identify again and again the liberal hand as the one of villainy.

It’s not just liberals, either. Plenty of conservatives certainly live in big cities and enjoy the best that blue states have to offer. Here’s his point:

I don’t understand why these people believe that they can express such disdain for cultural liberalism while maintaining the benefits of it. There’s a bizarre faith among this country’s rarefied political class that they can cede every major political battle to the the reactionary fringe and yet maintain their arty bohemian privileged lifestyles.

The modern pluralistic society that we appear to enjoy was built by people whose ideas were seen as radical in their day, and I assume they had plenty of scorned heaped upon them by their beneficiaries back then as well. That said, the next time you see a libertarian gushing about their favorite taco truck, you can feel free to make a rude gesture.

The tension between political campaigning and activism

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the conflict between political campaigning and activism for awhile now, and an incident that’s getting a lot of play today provides the perfect opportunity. In short, a frustrated Organizing for America campaign staffer in New Mexico sent an email bashing Paul Krugman and left wing activists for criticizing the debt deal that President Obama agreed to.

Unsurprisingly, people on the left who are already frustrated with the White House are taking this as a sign that the Obama campaign has adopted the strategy of bashing the left in order to ingratiate itself with voters in the middle. Greg Sargent argues that’s not the case. Here’s what he says:

Some folks on the left are pointing to the campaign’s failure to adequately shoot down this story as a sign that the campaign perhaps sees political gain in riling up the left, as part of some kind of triangulation strategy to win independents. I just don’t believe this is the case. It seems far more likely that they see this kind of story as nothing but a headache, and want it to go away. My bet is they worry — rightly or wrongly — that publicly reassuring liberal critics won’t necessarily gain any good will from them, only risks giving the story more oxygen, and gets them involved in a fruitless public dispute about whether they’re triangulating and “hippie punching.”

What Sargent fails to get at, though, is the fundamental tension between someone like Ray Sandoval, the campaign staffer who sent the email, and left-wing activists like Paul Krugman. I have been doing some volunteering with Organizing for America this summer, and I have a good idea exactly what’s going on.

Ray Sandoval’s job right now is to recruit as many volunteers as possible. They’re calling Obama supporters from 2008 and asking them to volunteer now in order to get ready for 2012. The idea is to build up the ranks of the volunteers as much as possible so that there’s a trained core group in place for 2012 when the campaign really kicks off. The bottom line for a campaign worker is that as disappointed as anyone may be in the President, standing aside and letting a Republican win would be infinitely worse. And, of course, if you’re really a committed campaign worker, cognitive dissonance isn’t really going to allow you to be disappointed in the President anyway. You’re putting in long, mostly thankless hours working for this guy. Reading the latest column on why he’s failing at his job is probably not your idea of a good time.

On the other side are activists, who play the essential role of holding the President accountable for the promises he made in the 2008 campaign. They also have the long-term job of advocating for progressive principles, and ideally moving the political debate in their direction. The main complaint most people on the left have with President Obama is that he seems to be abandoning those principles without really putting up a fight. They see the apologists for the President as weakening the progressive side.

The difference in motivations of everyone involved is enough to explain the conflict. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next year or so, because this conflict will need to be resolved in some way for President Obama to be reelected.

Our current situation in a nutshell

You call file this as the greatest subhead of the year:

The debt-ceiling debacle revealed that politics is broken in every possible way and there’s no point in explaining complicated matters to the American people.

The column is by Jacob Weisberg at Slate, and I urge you to read the whole thing. It sure feels to me like America has chosen an irreversible path of decline.

It’s hard not to feel despair at this point

As the big debt ceiling deadline nears, it is becoming increasingly clear that our government is not up to the task of writing a bill that will raise the debt limit and allow the government to function as normal. I am completely persuaded that not raising the debt limit will have disastrous consequences. I am also convinced that President Obama unilaterally raising the debt limit may forestall total disaster, but it won’t save the credibility of the United States government.

We have raised the debt ceiling dozens of times, and the fact that we cannot do so now underscores the fact that the federal government is now completely dysfunctional. Make no mistake — this dysfunction is the fault of the Republicans. For a bill to pass, it has to have the support of Republicans in the House of Representatives and Democrats in the Senate and of course a signature from the President. The House Republicans have chosen to ignore this fact and instead take hostages.

Tonight, it looks like their plan blew up in their face. In the next 72 hours or so, a few dozen Republicans are going to have to decide whether to hold firm with their caucus and destroy the economy, or vote for a bill that Democrats in the House will support. I honestly can’t predict which path they will choose.

Update: This Paul Krugman column makes the case that the media’s failure to clearly point out that the entire debt crisis is the result of Republican attempts to extort policy concessions from the President by threatening the credit line of the US government is a big part of the problem. How are voters supposed to hold politicians accountable if the media is not accurately reporting the degree to which they are complicit in creating our problems?

Relinquishing our own rights via tort reform

Last night, I watched Hot Coffee, a documentary that’s extremely critical of the tort reform movement. It occurred to me a long time ago that the civil court system is one of the few avenues by which regular people can seek redress against the rich and powerful, especially against corporations. The others are by voting for politicians who are pro-regulation and consumer rights, through organized labor, and in more recent times, by publicizing your cause on the Internet.

Corporate interests consistently work to undermine those channels to insulate themselves from being held accountable by regular people. Hot Coffee makes it clear exactly how business interests have spent tons of money to weaken the court system and even eliminate it entirely through binding arbitration clauses in contracts.

These practices are fundamentally undemocratic, and the money that has been spent on them has an effect that distorts the legal system in a way that is profoundly negative for regular citizens. Businesses spend huge sums to elect judges who will rule in their favor in civil cases and more importantly, will uphold state legislation that caps the damages that can be awarded in civil trials. Those same judges are consistently right wing on every social issue imaginable, and tend to take a narrow view of civil rights as well. Corporations spending money to expand and protect damage caps for plaintiffs are keeping people like Radley Balko in business when it comes to the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings as well.

Most importantly, the documentary shows how the corporations built public support for laws that almost nobody would be in favor of if they actually understood how they worked. It’s a must-watch. It’s airing on HBO now, and will be available on Netflix sometime in the future, I guess.

Differentiating between politics and activism

I’ve been thinking persistently about the difference between politics and activism basically since Barack Obama was inaugurated. As the old saying goes, politics is the art of the possible. Activism is about fighting for principles regardless of their possibility. We run into problems when we expect politicians to be activists, or expect political campaigns to be activist movements. Likewise, activists oftentimes make poor politicians. That said, political change is contingent on effective activism. In short, activism creates the changes in public opinion that result in political change.

I have a lot more to say about this, but Ta-Nehisi Coates just posted a useful illustration of what I’m talking about.

Democrats celebrate freeing the hostages

This is all that needs to be said about the budget deal:

Details on the appropriations deal are still hard to come by, but you don’t need the details to know that substantial short-term cuts in domestic discretionary spending will hurt the poor while harming macroeconomic performance. The problem with not agreeing to the deal, of course, is that a government shutdown would also hurt the poor while harming macroeconomic performance. If you genuinely don’t care about the interests of poor people and stand to benefit electorally from weak economic growth, this gives you a very strong hand to play as a hostage taker. And John Boehner is willing to play that hand.

The other problem is that Democrats somehow think that cutting a bad deal to free the hostages is something to be proud of. Here’s Senator Claire McCaskill on Twitter:

Compromise. That wasn’t so bad was it?


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