WHAT IF PAUL RYAN PROPOSED A HEALTH INFLATION TAX ON SENIORS INSTEAD?

In honor of Paul Ryan, I have a thought experiment up on the Washington Monthly blog:

“My fellow Americans, it’s time for straight talk, tough decisions, and tight belts. Health care inflation is a prime driver of our long-term debt. That’s why I’m going to save Medicare with my Health Inflation Tax. It’s a simple solution: each senior will just have to pay a tax equal to the increase in the cost of their Medicare to the government beyond 2.7% a year. So if your individual Medicare costs us 10 percent more next year, your tax will cover three-quarters of the increased cost of your care (the other quarter is on us!). Here’s the best part: if you want lower taxes, you just need to use less healthcare. And you can be proud knowing that as your Health Inflation Tax goes up and up, Medicare’s net cost to the government will never increase by more than 2.7% again. Now let’s come together and get my Health Inflation Tax passed. No demagoguery allowed.”

How popular do you think this plan would be? Would it have gotten the same forty Senate votes Ryan’s plan did on Wednesday?

Read it here.

WHAT IS LINDSEY GRAHAM TALKING ABOUT? (or “Poison Duck?”)

Lindsey Graham went on Face the Nation today to trot out one of his favorite metaphors:

“If you want to have a chance of passing START, you better start over and do it in the next Congress, because this lame duck has been poisoned,” Graham told CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer.

“The last two weeks have been an absolutely excruciating exercise. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ a controversial topic – some say the civil rights issue of our generation, others say battlefield effectiveness – was passed in the lame-duck session without one amendment being offered,” Graham said.

This is the same guy who warned that the healthcare bill would poison the well for immigration, climate, closing Guantanamo, and the year 2010. It’s a favorite phrase of Lindsey Graham’s. And it’s totally bogus.

It’s bogus because it’s based in a view of politics like marriage counseling, where to get anything done the participants need to trust each other and share common goals, and offenses or betrayals can be paralyzing. When Lindsey Graham talks about poisoning the well, the implication is that Republicans may want to get things done that Democrats want too, but be unable to make them happen because they’re not feeling good about Democrats.
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HISTORY: NOT OVER YET

I was surprised to see Ross Douthat, in commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, invoke Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, a post-Cold War tract whose star has fallen somewhat since 9/11. Fukuyama argued that whereas the 20th century was marked by intellectual crisis between liberal democracy and its ideological competitors, fascism and communism, once the Soviet Union fell, only liberal democracy was left standing. Now, Fukuyama argued, there is no viable, transnational ideology remaining to compete with liberal democracy, which satisfies a human aspiration for freedom that the Cold War proved to be universal. Thus: the end of history. Liberal democracy is here to stay, and things will not get too much better or worse from here on out. Since his book came out, of course, Fukuyama has gotten slammed by critics on the right convinced that with the Islamist Menace, what we’re actually in is not the End of History a la Fukuyama, but the Clash of Civilizations a la Samuel Huntington.

The stronger critique of Huntington, I’d say, comes from the left. Fukuyama describes, in Douthat’s words,

the disappearance of any enduring, existential threat to liberal democracy and free-market capitalism.

Like Huntington, Douthat places “liberal democracy” and “free market capitalism” in the same breath. Like two syllables on Sesame Street that inch closer together until they become a single word. On a global scale, the ideological competitor to democracy – to one person, one vote, people’s meaningful exercise of voice over the decisions that impact their lives – is laissez-faire capitalism.

Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God offers a great (and very funny) exploration of how acts of consumerism get rebranded by elites as the new acts of citizenship and the market is christened as democratic. But markets are not democratic. And as Michael Moore reminds us with a confidential CitiGroup memo in his new movie, the people who the markets award the most power know this (as he says, the bottom 99% of the population “have 99% of the votes”).

Who will decide what happens to natural resources or public sector jobs in a third world country? The majority of the people who live there, or international elites with structural adjustment plans and threats of turmoil? Who will decide whether a group workers for a union? The majority of the people who work there, or managers that wield the power to harass and fire them?

Those questions will make history.

HOUSE OF ROCK

Loyal readers may have noticed my latest way of compensating for my neglect of this blog is to search out hooks to link back to things I wrote in the days of not neglecting this blog. In that vein, check out the part of Obama’s speech today where Obama cites the Sermon on the Mount:

Now, there’s a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells the story of two men. The first built his house on a pile of sand, and it was soon destroyed when a storm hit. But the second is known as the wise man, for when “the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house, it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”

It was founded upon a rock. We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand. We must build our house upon a rock. We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad.

This strikes me as a good example of an appeal to a religious text on the basis of insight, rather than authority. About a million years ago I blogged about a debate between Sojourners’ Jim Wallis and Americans United’s Barry Lynn where Lynn said the problem with politicians quoting the Bible is that unlike quotes from other literature, quotes from the Bible are appeals to the author’s inherent authority rather than to the author’s particular insight. In other words, biblical quotes are used to support your argument based on who said it (God says don’t oppress strangers) rather than why they said it (because you yourself have experienced slavery). I thought at the time, and I still do, that Lynn was making an insightful distinction, but it cuts against his argument. In a multireligious democracy, we should be concerned when politicians’ arguments rely on appeal to the authority of their particular religious texts (especially if theirs are shared by a religious majority). But contra Lynn, not all Bible quotes are appeals to divine authority. “The Bible says not to steal wages from your employees” is an appeal to biblical authority. “Let’s not copy Moses’ mistake when he hit the rock instead of talking to it” is an appeal to biblical wisdom.

I bring this up because I think it explains why, as a non-Christian (in a democracy with a Christian majority), I’m not bothered on a gut level when a Christian President quotes the New Testament parable about building your house on sand or on a rock to make a point about our economic recovery. The plain meaning of Obama’s speech is not that the Bible commands us to make new rules for wall street, investments in education, etc… His plain meaning is that this metaphor from his tradition, which may be familiar to many listeners, illustrates well why it’s urgent and worthwhile to do so.

This is not always a clear-cut distinction. But I think it’s a useful one. Maybe a useful thought experiment in assessing what kind of appeal to religious text we’re dealing with is to consider: Would using this quote in this way make sense if the speaker’s religion were different from the quotation’s?

ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE

After years of resisting the inevitable, Ben Eidelson has finally succumbed to our demands for him to start a blog of his own. Better late than never.

In his inaugural post, Ben considers Obama’s conversation with Joe The Soon To Be Country Music Star in light of Rawls’ veil of ignorance:

Lots of philosophical liberals push the idea that we should endorse whatever social arrangements we would support if we didn’t know who in our society we were going to be. But one concern about these “veil of ignorance” appeals is that they demand an awful lot of empathy. For them to work, those of us who are upper- or middle-class need to be able and willing to abstract from our actual lives and reckon with the possibility that we could have been poor. What’s interesting about Obama’s argument is that it appeals to a similar principle of prospectivity or impartiality, but in a way that’s less demanding. For Obama’s version only calls on us to entertain possibilities we’ve directly experienced: Make policy as if you didn’t know what stage of your life – your own life – you were in. One important limitation of this appeal, though, is that it only works in the context of a society with substantial upward mobility.

As they say on the internets, “Read the whole thing.” Including the comments, which include three Eidelsons and a cast of other characters.

I’ll just add that there’s an interesting study out there arguing that rich people who have moved far up the income scale in their own lives may tend to be more conservative about class issues than their equally rich peers because their own experiences may justify a belief that people as poor as they were could “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” the same way they did.  It can be easier for these Horatio Algers to disregard claims from the poor or their advocates about barriers to moving up the income ladder – even if those barriers were in fact different, or non-existent, in their own rise to success (like me, Ben may have stories from Jewish day school about discussions along the lines of “Jews came here with nothing and we made it, so why don’t Blacks do that too?”).  Ange-Marie Hancock, in her book The Politics of Disgust, calls this “false empathy” and discusses how public perceptions and public policy about women on welfare got made based on people’s attempts to put themselves in those women’s shoes without noticing they had no soles.  She calls out Senators (particularly women) who supported making moms on welfare track down the fathers of their children for child support as a condition of continued benefits, and didn’t consider the potentially deadly consequences.

THE THOUGHT POLICE STRIKE AGAIN!

Check out this graph from the NYT review of 24:

But “24” also jukes to the far side of political correctness and even left-wing paranoia. In two different seasons, the villains seeking to harm the United States are not Middle Eastern terrorists but conspirators directed by wealthy, privileged white Americans: in the second season, oil business tycoons tried to set off a Middle East war, and last year, Russian rebels turned out to be working in cahoots with a cabal of far-right government officials.

Then riddle me this: In how many places in America are you likely to avoid criticism/ seem more enlightened/ charm those hated liberal professors/ earn a glowing profile from those hated liberal journalists/ make friends by suggesting that what look like terrorist attacks by foreign enemies are really engineered by big business and/or the GOP?

Not many.

Which just goes to show how vapid a term “politically correct” is. It serves two related purposes: first, to reinforce an idea that the left is made up of rigid illiberal thought police; and second, to earn awful ideas consideration from reasonable people on the grounds that to dismiss them out of hand would be politically incorrect.

I once watched an episode of Politically Incorrect where someone suggested bombing all the Arab countries in order to scare off terrorists. He then said something like “Don’t ignore my idea just because it’s not politically correct.” The reason to reject that idea is that it would be unjust and calamitous. The irony is that when Politically Incorrect got booted off the air, it wasn’t for taking on a sacred cow of the left.

The term was popularized in the first place by Dinesh D’Souza. Then he wrote a book arguing that racism is merely “rational discrimination” by whites with a justified fear of “black cultural defects.” Then he got hired as a political analyst by the supposedly all-too politically correct CNN. For his next trick, he’s written a book arguing that conservatives can best discourage terrorism by allying themselves with radical mullahs against gay parents and women who have abortions.

But don’t dismiss his ideas out of hand! That would be political correctness.

FROM RECOUNTS TO RUN-OFFS

The latest turn in the Mexican election drama only confirms that it’s too soon to tell who will lead the country into the next decade. But barring a demonstration of truly massive fraud, it’s safe to say that Mexico will be led by a man who little more than a third of Mexican voters marked on their ballots on Sunday. The next President of Mexico will be the winner of what was ultimately a contest between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, a contest which a third of Mexico’s voters gave up the chance to weigh in on when they chose to vote for one of the three other candidates instead.

Some will no doubt respond that democratic elections are full of tough choices, and it’s on each voter to weigh whether it’s more important to pull the result towards one of the two foreseeable results (the first face of power, if you will), or to shift the sense of the politically feasible (the second face). But it’s worth asking whether that sort of calculation, scintillating as it may be – the same sort of calculation many Connecticut Democrats will have to make if faced with a three-way ticket come November – is good for democracy in the broader sense of how much control individuals have over the decisions that determine the conditions of their lives (a greater problem, by that standard – David Held’s – is the long shadow global capital casts over contests like this week’s).

Because it isn’t necessary that that sort of calculation be necessary.

Mexicans have far less cause than Americans to worry about throwing their votes away in congressional elections because Mexico has proportional representation. Both countries could take a further step towards reducing the centrality of cynical calculation from presidential voting by implementing instant run-off voting.

Instant run-off voting forces politicians to pitch themselves as ideal elected officials if they hope to be viewed in victory as something other than everyone’s second choice. And in elections like the one in Connecticut, and the one in Mexico, where critical, ideological choices are laid out more starkly than we ususally get to see them, it facilitates voters following Paul Wellstone’s imperative to vote for what you believe in – and observers judging better from the results what kind of leadership those voters want.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

The LA Daily News reports that a few more congressmen have joined up with a bid to repeal the 22nd Amendment’s two-term limit for presidents. Doesn’t seem to have a chance, and it’s hard to get worked up over one way or the other, but I do think the country would be a hair more democratic without the amendment. I generally think it’s a good thing for us to have social norms against third terms of the kind that already existed before 1947, but that’s a decision for primary and general election voters to make for themselves (or, in the case of FDR, not to) in each election year, not one for another generation to make for us. And it’s a norm individual voters should each decide to uphold or reject in their own selections, not grounds for a current or past majority to deny members of a minority or future majority the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice (same goes for the far less sympathetic ban on foreign candidates, especially in an era when the ostensible threat some English prince using his wealth and residual pro-British-empire sympathies as a springboard to the Presidency is that much less of a reasonable concern…). As Aaron Sorkin once wrote, when the system works, “we have term limits in this country: they’re called elections.”

The real implications of term limits are far greater here in Mexico, where elected officials at all levels are government are limited to single terms. I heard a convincing lecture here at UDLA last week echoing what some political scientists in the US have warned about term limits: they shatter the already-fragile subject-agent relationship between voters and candidates, in which voters do their best to evaluate the performance of their representatives and reward or punish them at the voting booth. That’s why the conventional wisdom we’ve heard repeated non-stop recently is that your first term as President is for re-election, and the second is for history – a charming idea, maybe, but not a very democratic one. And it becomes much worse when no one’s term at anything is concerned with getting elected again. Defenders of the term limits I spoken to here argue that in a parliamentary system where voters are choosing parties rather than candidates (a set-up the lecturer is opposed to as well, though I’m not), this makes little difference, even holding voting based on parties constant, in a scenario without term limits voters have the chance in party elections to reward or punish incumbents, and if those incumbents make it to the top of the party’s list, then all voters get the chance to take performance into account. This professor isn’t the only Mexican I’ve spoken to here who identifies term limits as one of the reasons they feel ignored by their elected leaders, who are looking ahead not to re-election but to currying favor with party elites to make it onto the ballot for a different office (Mexico also seems to provide support, incidentally, for another hypothesis about term limits: that they reduce institutional conflict between different branches of government as you see more of the same people cycling through different offices). Of course that concern is also heightened by the overwhelming perception of party corruption, which is itself the main argument I’ve heard from Mexicans for keeping term limits in place. So earning faith that the system works seems the first step here towards convincing voters here that elections are term limits enough.

Wal-Mart Watch: A disappointing op-ed today from Robert Reich, who should know better. Somewhere in there, he’s trying to make the accurate point that government regulation has a role to play in overcoming the collective action problem under which consumers who prefer high-roading companies nonetheless patronize low-roading ones for the cheaper prices (this is a point he makes better in his book I’ll Be Short). Indeed, there is a structural problem which could be ameliorated by changing the perverse incentives behind the corporate race to the bottom. Thing is, it’s not only national legal change which could better reward companies which invest in their workers. It’s also coordinated organizing and media campaigns by labor and community folks organizing workers and consumers to reward better companies and punish worse ones. Taking the fight to Wal-Mart in particular is the defining challenge facing labor in the next decade. Because Wal-Mart is indeed bigger and badder than anyone else. So to write a piece called “Don’t Blame Wal-Mart” suggesting that all employers squeeze their workers equally is simply false and counterproductive. Reich gets a pedestal from which to play broker state technocrat, rising above parochial concerns, calling no one out in particular, pleading with both sides to be more fair-minded. Meanwhile, millions of Wal-Mart workers continue to face prejudicial treatment based on gender or immigration status, poverty wages, anti-union intimidation, and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory-style work rules. Sure, blame Bush, blame Nike, blame ourselves. But let’s blame ourselves in part for not blaming Wal-Mart nearly enough or as often as it deserves.

Beth, like me, is excited by this piece in the Times on the resurgence of grassroots organizing this election season. As she writes:

That’s great for democracy.

It’s also great for Democrats.

It’s always nice when the interests of the big-D and small-d (D/d)emocrats converge…

Beth argues, inter alia, that door-to-door campaigning makes it possible to customize the candidate for the voter. To which I would say, yes, with a caveat. Yes in the sense that politics in perhaps its best sense is about communities and about the harnessing of political institutions to effect tangible change in individual lives, and when Democrats fail to articulate a vision which speaks to individuals’ and communities’ circumstances and issues, they lose. As Sam Smith argued in a tremendous essay oft-cited on this site:

We got rid machines like Tammany because we came to believe in something called good government. But in throwing out the machines we also tossed out a culture and an art of politics. It is as though, in seeking to destroy the Mafia, we had determined that family values and personal loyalty were somehow by association criminal as well.

One Tammany politician, George Washington Plunkitt, claimed to know every person in his district…In the world of Plunkitt, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King or George Will. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

So the first non-logical but necessary thing we must do to reclaim democratic politics is to bring it back into our communities, into our hearts to bring it back home. True politics, in imitation of baseball, the great American metaphor, is also about going home.

Back in December, I chided the Times for an article in its magazine about the Dean organizing strategy which portrayed the belief of regular people that their political involvement, rather than a technocratic project, could be a natural outgrowth of concerns borne out of their personal lives as some sort of leery veureristic parallel to an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. I’m glad to see the Times get it better this time around, and am hopeful that the rest of the Democrats are beginning to as well.

My caveat would be that crossing the line from customizing the emphasis to customizing the policy tends not to work out so well either. The one thing I’ll say for TV is that it holds candidates accountable nationally for the messages they put forward locally, and helps to curb excesses of “customization” like Lincoln’s two speeches in favor of and against racial equality while stumping on the same day. One political scientist like to compare the nationalization of political campaigns and soft drinks. Apparently, back when my parents were walking to school in the snow (uphill both ways, no doubt), patrons at individual establishments could manually set the ratios of syrup, sugar, water, and whatever the hell else goes into their cola. Once Coke became a product that was the same everywhere, it was necessary to choose a formula that would appeal to the most folks national wide. The same has happened for campaigns, as it’s no longer feasible to customize the message for each district once much of the campaign happens on national television.

The good news here is that it means candidates are responsible in one part of the country for what they tell another and so my gloss on Beth’s point would be a warning that what Kerry can’t do is spin himself on one side of the issue in California and the other in Oregon.

The bad news about the shift away from the grassroots is something I’ve railed against to no end here, but the corollary to this particular piece of good news is the bad news that Democratic candidates have responded to the nationalization of the campaign by whoring themselves out to an illusory median voter rather than bringing new voters into the process by articulating strong progressive visions for the country from New York to Arizona to Pennsylvania to Florida and beyond.