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Archive for September, 2010


[ 9 ] September 23, 2010 |

To state the obvious, this non-action is awful both on the merits (making the permanent extension of Bush’s upper-class tax cuts more likely) and as politics (name me the district where voting for middle-class tax cuts and against upper-class ones is “politically risky.”) The only consolation is that the Blue Dog clowns most responsible for this fiasco are also the most likely to end up out on their ass this November, and good riddance.

The vastly disproportionate influence of the rich on American politics isn’t exactly news, but the willingness of many House Dems to commit political suicide in order to defend an awful and very unpopular policy for the upper class is about as stark and depressing an example as you can get.


Members of Congress Should Interpret the Constitution

[ 7 ] September 23, 2010 |

The odds that I will agree with David Bernstein over Dahlia Lithwick are…not good, but in this case Bernstein is right. I’ve been trying to condense the paper I presented at WPSA earlier this year into blog format (very short version: the United States doesn’t have a regime of “judicial supremacy” in any meaningful sense, and this is probably a good thing), but I can’t see what’s objectionable about Christine O’Donnell saying she’ll scrutinize legislation for its constitutionality while considering it; indeed, if anything legislators are obliged to do so. O’Donnell’s particular constitutional arguments might be objectionable, but that’s a different issue. As long as they don’t actually defy court orders, there’s nothing wrong with reaching judgments about the Constitution that differ from those of a majority of the Supreme Court at any particular time.

Put it this way — despite the Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement on the subject, I do not believe that the equal protection clause of 14th Amendment prohibits local school boards from voluntarily integrating their schools. If i were a school board official in Louisville or Seattle I would reluctantly agree to abide by the court’s decision, but I certainly would have gone ahead with the programs before the fact despite knowing that 5 members of the Supreme Court might disagree with me. And just as Bernstein would be sympathetic to O’Donnell’s constitutional arguments, I also wouldn’t start agreeing with a pre-New Deal conception of federal power if the Supreme Court suddenly started throwing out important economic legislation on commerce clause grounds — and nor, I’m sure, would Dahlia.

There are many, many things to criticize Christine O’Donnell for — but she’s right that the Supreme Court doesn’t and shouldn’t have a monopoly on constitutional deliberation.


[ 3 ] September 23, 2010 |

Krugman makes a good case. And, yes, the idea that the “messaging” from someone no non-professional pays any attention to is more important than their ability to do the job is absurd, even in narrow political terms. Even if this wasn’t the consistent finding of political scientists, it should be intuitively obvious. Someone who’s out of work or working two crappy jobs or is terrified about losing their job isn’t going to become happy with the incumbent party because of some stirring rhetoric from an executive branch official, up to and including the president.

“Fiscal restraint”

[ 6 ] September 23, 2010 |

Jon Chait points out that for a generation now GOP proposals for Doing Something About Big Government have followed a predictable not to say neurotic pattern:

Republicans keep running on platforms consisting of specified measures to increase the deficit and unspecified pledges to reduce it. Inevitably, they fail to reduce it. Then the party faithful decide the problem was leaders who lacked true conviction, and so the new leaders promise to mend their ways. Then they do the same thing all over again.

The current federal budget:

21% Medicare and Medicaid

20% Social Security

20% Military

6% Debt service

So two-thirds of the budget is made up of spending that can’t be altered significantly under anything like current political conditions. What both parties like to ignore in their superficially different but largely identical ways is that

(a) Wealth transfer payments to the elderly and America: World Police both remain very popular; and

(b) We have a extremely dysfunctional political system, in which among many other hoops that have to be jumped through you need a 3/5ths majority in an already wildly un-representational body to get any legislation passed (why anyone other than the politicians who benefit from dodging responsibility thinks this is a good thing remains difficult to understand).

So making any significant cuts in about 2/3rds of the budget is at present total political non-starter.

Which leaves everything else.

14% of the budget represents all federal programs and subsidies (other than Medicaid) for the benefit of poor people. It’s true there are some cost savings to be had by cutting this significantly. It’s also true there are some other costs that would be incurred by turning the US into Brazil.

7% is veterans benefits of all types and vested federal pensions.

3% is education

3% is transportation and infrastructure

2% is scientific and medical research

1% is non-military foreign aid of all types

4% is everything else the federal government does: running the courts and the administrative regulatory state, the park services, farm subsidies, grants to communist ballet groups etc etc.

Modern conservative debate strategies, such as they are

[ 17 ] September 22, 2010 |

“Comedian” Tim Slagle wrote a post slagging Morrissey for calling the Chinese a “subspecies” for “their” treatment of animals. I’m with Slagle on the condemnation, though I’m not as surprised as he seems to be that Morrissey would say or write something controversial. It’s not like he’s written a song from the perspective of a young man flirting with organized racism or another in which he imagined putting Thatcher to the guillotine or anything. In short, color me unsurprised that Morrissey’s courting controversy as a means of bringing attention to a cause—the unethical treatment of animals in China—he’s only supported since he was eleven. Is his remark vile? Of course it is. That’s not the point.

The point is that Slagle, is a terrible writer, and also that, his particular form of cultural illiteracy is, a sign of things to come. I’m not bagging on the man because he clearly knows nothing about Morrissey, or because he thinks being a woman is an insult (“his current diet … is obviously too high in soy-estrogen”), or even because of his aforementioned problem with, the written word. His brand of cultural ignorance bothers me because Wikipedia exists. Claiming that a band that broke up in 1987 “put out several gloomy pop albums in the late eighties and early nineties” is not only factually incorrect, it suggests a mind as incurious as it is lazy and ignorant. Simply put, cultural critics should know something about the culture they criticize, as well as a little something about the ones they find it politically convenient to defend. For example: Buddhism did not originate in China and is not a “cult.” That Slagle defends the Chinese against Morrissey’s racist remarks with a demonstration of his ignorance about all things Chinese would be amusing were “the reverse tu quoque” a little less common.

As you know, the classic tu quoque works like this:

Person X: It should be illegal to put babies on spikes.
Person Y: But I just saw you put a baby on a spike!

In this example, Person Y tries to undermine the argument of Person X by calling him a hypocrite. This is, obviously, a fallacy. But in a world in which people stand by SASQUATCH ISRAEL, the only way to improve a fallacious argument is, it seems, to double down on it. The reverse tu quoque, then, goes something like this:

Person X: It should be illegal to put babies on spikes.
Person Y: (putting a baby on a spike) But I just saw you put a baby on a spike!

In this example, Person Y tries to undermine the argument of Person X by calling him a hypocrite while doing the very thing he claims to want undermined. Because it requires a demonstrable act of self-refutation, the reverse tu quoque should only be attempted by the brave, and even then only when speaking to the stupid. Because the rest of us? We see through it. Not that that will stop people from using it, especially when, as is the case over there, it seems to be an editorial imperative.

The Future of Public Service Announcements?

[ 4 ] September 22, 2010 |

I think an ad campaign like this is just what the United Nations needs to get the US to pay its dues. Or to fulfill pledges to fund the Millennium Development Goals. Or to galvanize public support for a global Tobin tax.

The Vote Fraud Fraud

[ 2 ] September 22, 2010 |

It never ends.

The Effects of the Hyde Amendment

[ 5 ] September 22, 2010 |

In convenient video form:

Hyde: The Status Quo Is Not OK from Center for Reproductive Rights on Vimeo.

Moral Movements and Foreign Policy

[ 0 ] September 22, 2010 |

Joshua Busby has a new book out on transnational campaigns that might be the best new contribution to the advocacy networks literature since Keck and Sikkink’s original Activists Beyond Borders. In Moral Movements and Foreign Policy, Busby proposes a theory of the conditions under which such movements succeed at securing commitments from states:

Whether states accept commitments made by principled advocacy movements depends primarily on how three factors conjoin: 1) the balance of material incentives facing states, 2) the cultural resonance of the messages and 3) the number and preferences of policy gatekeepers. States will support moderately costly actions against their material self-interest when the issue is framed to fit with the country’s values and when policy gatekeepers personally consider these attributes important.

The story Busby tells about the sources of such frame resonance are perhaps most interesting. Drawing on a variety of older literature as well as his casework (climate change, HIV-AIDS, the ICC and debt relief), Busby emphasizes not only ideational messages themselves but also the attributes of messengers as a constituent part of a successful or unsuccessful frame. This is borne out as well by preliminary findings from my focus group research in the human security area: practitioners often argue that the attributes of the entities pitching new ideas impact the likelihood of those ideas being “picked up” in global civil society.

Besides the argument and the cases, another contribution of the book is the conceptual precision Busby brings to bear – distinguishing political from policy successes, state interests v. the micro-motives of individual politicians, issues v. campaigns. But he leaves a few questions open – such as how “policy gatekeepers,” targets of advocacy influence within governments – are analytically distinct from “advocacy gatekeepers” such as those outlined by Clifford Bob and his collaborators in their study of how ideas flow through advocacy networks. Are these two distinct forms of gate-keeping power or simply differently positioned actors at different points in the advocacy chain?

Also, one small quibble: in focusing only on “principled advocacy networks” rather than wider forms of contentious politics, Busby’s framework refies an old and somewhat suspect distinction between “strategic” v. “principled” activity. But Susan Sell and Aseem Prakash’s research on intellectual property rights shows that firms and NGOs are not so unalike in either their motivations or their strategies: all organizations need to survive and surely some of the dynamics that occur between advocates and policy gatekeepers reflect the political economy of resources as well as ideas between states and NGOs.

Scalia, Originalism and the Ladder of Abstraction

[ 30 ] September 22, 2010 |

Adam Cohen notes Antonin Scalia once again asserting that the Constitution does not protect gender equality. His reasoning is superficially “originalist”:

Indeed, Justice Scalia likes to present his views as highly principled — he’s not against equal rights for women or anyone else; he’s just giving the Constitution the strict interpretation it must be given. He focuses on the fact that the 14th Amendment was drafted after the Civil War to help lift up freed slaves to equality. “Nobody thought it was directed against sex discrimination,” he told his audience.

Far from being convincing, this just illustrates some of the obvious problems with originalism:

  • As Scalia himself has argued many times, to the extent that originalism is defensible at all, it must be concerned with the constitutional text, not the subjective intentions of the framers and ratifiers of the text.    But that leads us to an obvious problem: the text of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause is not confined to race.    As you can see by scrolling down to the subsequent amendment, the equal protection clause could have been confined to race; it just wasn’t.    So, from a textualist originalist standpoint, what people thought it was “directed at” in 1868 is beside the point.    We’re bound by what they wrote, not by what they expected.
  • If we accept that the expectations of the framers and ratifiers have some relevance, then Scalia runs into a different problem: Brown v. Board. Scalia believes that Brown was right — but the vast majority of the 14th Amendment’s framers and ratifiers did not believe it was directed at segregated schools.   And Scalia also believes that the 14th (and 5th!) Amendments prevent any racial classifications, although very few people would have thought in 1868 that the 14th Amendment was directed at programs intended to help African Americans, and absolutely nobody would have thought in 1789 that the 5th Amendment forbade racial classifications of any kind.    The way he solves these problems is to climb originalism’s ladder: that is, to define the specific questions of “school segregation” and “affirmative action” at a higher level of abstraction, “racial equality.”   The problem is, once you’re on this ladder, there’s no principled reason to stop at any particular rung.   Why not climb one step further to incorporate “gender inequality,” which is obviously analogous in many respects and is not foreclosed by the text?
  • And, finally, Scalia’s belief that the Constitution provides no protection whatsoever against gender discrimination reminds us that originalism is very normatively unattractive.   Since originalism 1)leads to grossly unjust results that are not remotely compelled by constitutional texts, and 2)as we’ve seen does very little to constrain judicial discretion, who needs it?

[X-Posted at TAPPED.]

More on Patnernalistic Exemptions From Punishment For Women

[ 15 ] September 22, 2010 |

I strongly recommend Dahlia Lithwick’s article on the pending execution of Teresa Lewis, which covers some of the same issues of paternalism and the law I alluded to yesterday. I don’t believe that Lewis should be executed — but that’s because I oppose the death penalty. If she is to be spared, certainly her gender should be irrelevant, although there are other factors (such as her cognitive abilities) that might be. If the death penalty is defensible, it should apply to women who commit crimes that similarly situated men would be executed for. (And you respond that the death penalty is applied so arbitrarily that it’s impossible to make comparisons about “similarly situated” individuals at all — good point! — see my general position on the death penalty.)

An even better example of this was Karla Faye Tucker, as opposition to her execution actually became a cause celebre among right-wing death penalty supporters. Admittedly, there was also the pretext that her conversion to Christianity was the real reason to oppose her execution, but as Cal Thomas (to his credit) pointed out, it’s inconceivable that Pat Robertson et al. would have publicly campaigned to save a born-again African American man from the needle. The kind of paternalism this represents — even if it might benefit individual women in particular circumstances — is both indefensible and very bad for women in the long run.

As I said, my solution is to level up to a higher standard of human rights rather than level down to a lower one. But as long as the death penalty is given, it’s impossible to argue that women should be exempt from it. And if people argue for these exemptions, it’s good reason to believe that the punishment itself cannot be defended.

…see also this excellent post from Monica Potts.

Double Standards

[ 4 ] September 22, 2010 |

It’s hard to argue against the proposition that Peretz benefits from one.

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