Gay Marriage: Liberalism v. Democracy

Last summer, the Field Guide ran a three-part series on the tension between liberalism and democracy, particularly on how it plays out in developing countries, informing US foreign policy. But to see that tension, Americans need look no further than their own founding document.

The Bill of Rights, above all, is a list of what a majority cannot do through ordinary democratic processes. It is a bulwark of liberalism against the threat posed by democracy. The US Constitution, with its limited powers, cumbersome amendment process, and lifetime tenure for federal judges, is a grand scheme to guarantee the blessings of liberalism against the corrosive force of democracy. In American governance, liberty and democracy are not equal partners – liberty comes first.

The struggle between liberalism and democracy is so acute that hardly a Supreme Court session passes without conflict. The 2015 session included one of the most remarkable such cases in US history, Obergefell v. Hodges, through which the Court legalized gay marriage nationwide: a victory for liberalism, at the expense of democracy.

In a characteristically feeble opinion by Anthony Kennedy, five justices in the majority take a stand for liberalism. Marriage has long been regarded by the Court as a “fundamental right.” State restrictions on marriage have been struck down repeatedly over the past 48 years, including bans on inter-racial marriage, and limits on prisoner’s ability to marry. The majority’s decision extended this “fundamental right” to gay unions also, nullifying state governments’ bans on gay marriage.

In dissent, quite predictably, three conservatives pen disingenuous paeans to democracy – one each by Justices Roberts, Allito and Scalia. Scalia loves democracy so much, he once ordered Florida election officials to stop counting ballots, lest they come to the wrong result. The three of them, with Clarence Thomas, are such proponents of democracy, that just two terms ago they gutted the Voting Rights Act – freeing up southern states to go back to excluding minorities from the ballot box. They’ve gleefully squelched a democracy’s efforts to regulate campaign finance, and struck down gun-control legislation in American cities that have among the highest murder rates in the world.

But it’s far too easy to undercut the conservative dissents by invoking those Justices own considerable anti-democratic decisions of the past. They make some compelling points, which dont just merit an answer – they need to be soundly trounced, so that all may see the error of their ways.

While it’s unfortunate that the Court’s Opinion – now the law of the land – wasnt stronger, this bold stroke is worth repeating:

The idea of the Constitution “was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities….”

And even more eloquently:

[F]undamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

In other words, the specific complaint of the conservatives in dissent – that democratic processes were not respected; that states should be left to settle the gay marriage question as they see fit – has no place within the framework of the US Constitution, which exists significantly to exclude questions of fundamental rights from the democratic process. Majorities have wide latitude to make laws and set policy – but they cannot encroach on our most basic freedoms. And so when democracy and liberalism clash on this front, democracy must yield.

To understand why democracy was made to ride in the backseat behind liberalism, you have to go back to the birthplace of American democracy: the American Revolution.

We’ll meet you there next week.

 

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Race, Religion and Madness

There is a double-standard at play, with respect to our understanding of the Charleston killer. Though his act and his stated motivation conforms squarely within the legal definition of terrorism, many do not regard him as a terrorist, but as a common criminal – yet another well-armed, mentally-ill American. If, for example, he had been an Islamist, he would have been unequivocally identified as a terrorist, as were the conspirators behind the Boston Marathon and Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Consider this partial definition of terrorism, from the FBI’s website:

“Domestic terrorism” means activities… intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.

The definition calls for a specific act and an accompanying mental element. There’s no debate on the act. As for the intent, the accused put out a lengthy statement, declaring his racial and political beliefs and goals. And thus there can be no serious question as to whether what occurred in Charleston fits the legal definition of terrorism. It does, and obviously so.

And so we come to the curious reaction of many – including FBI director James Comey – who would not regard the accused as a terrorist, but as a mere criminal, and quite possibly insane. What’s happened is that white supremacy, as a political movement, has become so alien to mainstream America, that it’s no longer comprehensible as a cogent political philosophy.

Those who commit acts of violence in furtherance of white supremacy are not afforded the dignity of being labeled political activists. Rather, they are belittled as kooks and-or criminals. We make no attempt to meet or comprehend their arguments – we summarily dismiss them as the product of ignorance, at best, if not madness. This is progress.

In the first half of the 20th century, the white supremacy movement was a basic part of the American political landscape. One-time Klan members included President Truman, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Senator Robert Byrd. Today, its adherents no longer seem like political actors, but as crazies, who might as well be wearing tinfoil hats in place of white hoods. This, again, is progress.

By comparison, they who commit indistinguishably insane acts under the auspices of religion are called “extremists” or “radicals.” Instead of likewise dismissing them as criminals and crazies, Islamist terrorists are dignified as political activists. While white supremacy has been dispatched to the dustbin of bad ideas, killing in furtherance of religion still has a recognizable logic, such that its advocates are not immediately identified as insane, criminally or otherwise.

What constitutes sanity or madness in a given time and place is informed by cultural and social norms, and even economics, and always has been. Michel Foucault filled three hundred pages adding window dressing to this simple observation, in his tedious classic Madness and Civilization. That we might treat the Charleston shooter as a mere criminal, or a madman, is an improvement. One hopes that we, as a society, will come to see violence committed in the name of religion to be no less mad.

 

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Refs:

https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism/terrorism-definition

http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/245649-fbi-head-wont-call-charleston-shooting-a-terrorist-act

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/22/white-house-won-t-back-fbi-chief-on-charleston-terror.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/18/call-the-charleston-church-shooting-what-it-is-terrorism/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/06/18/let-s-call-charleston-shooting-what-it-was-a-terrorist-attack.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan_members_in_United_States_politics#Edward_L._Jackson

Liberty v. Security

Centuries ago, an English jurist opined that it was better that a few good men be killed on the highways each year, than the rest of us should live in tyranny. Ever has it been thus: increased security, which one acquires by increasing the power of government, comes necessarily at the expense of liberty. It might be possible to eliminate nearly all crime – but to do so, one would have to eradicate almost all liberty.

Just as your plumber and electrician would gladly, for a price, improve your plumbing and lighting, so too would your police force make you safer – and safer – and safer still. When the Obama administration insists that they require certain provisions of the Patriot Act to make Americans safer, we have good reason to believe them. But no matter the intentions of these well-meaning professionals, our objective isnt to maximize our plumbing, lighting or security without respect to cost. Beyond a certain point, a society will prefer a certain amount of crime – rather than having a police camera at every intersection and in every living room, and-or the power to monitor all electronic communications.

While the natural evolution of government is, inexorably, to grow ever larger, the US now has a rare opportunity to go against the natural order of things, and to shrink the size of its security apparatus. At a minimum, the expiry of significant portions of the Patriot Act should be taken as an occasion to reevaluate the nation’s security priorities, particularly on how they impact privacy and the power and intrusiveness of government.

Of course one must avoid the conceptual error of the bureaucrats whose deregulation of the financial services sector unwittingly paved the way for the 2008 financial crisis. One does not want to be the man who throws away his umbrella because he hasnt felt a raindrop in ages – failing to realize that the umbrella had been keeping him dry all along. Americans have enjoyed relative quiet since the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, without experiencing domestic terrorism of that magnitude. By reducing the power of the police, we necessarily make terrorism, large scale and small, that much more likely.

Walt Whitman wrote that great poets needs great audiences. Analogously, great leaders need a great electorate. And it is unfortunate that no one in Congress trusts American voters enough to accurately frame the debate over extending the expiring portions of the Patriot Act. It is indeed a matter of sacrificing liberty for security, or vice-versa. The problem in part is one of trust – that the electorate is not expected to react reasonably to an act of terrorism – or three or six – much less accept it as a fair price to pay for increased liberty. Politicians like Rand Paul should stop equivocating, and make that case, because that indeed is the tradeoff we as a society must inevitably make.

Not everyone will agree on the same balance to be struck between liberty and security, but it is the sort of issue that a democracy is ideally suited to hash out. We look forward to that debate, should our elected officials muster the courage for it.

 

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Editor’s note: the Field Guide is off for an early-summer vacay. We’ll be back with new material in mid-June.

 

The Case for Public Television

The US dominates the world’s market for electronic entertainment. As far as global reach, revenue and influence, no nation has the equivalent of Hollywood. But while US companies like HBO, Showtime and Disney tower over their foreign analogs, the same cannot be said for the humble Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is dwarfed by its British counterpart, BBC. Last year, CPB got $450 million from the US government; meanwhile BBC got $6.5 billion from the UK. BBC News’ operating budget of $560 million by itself matches PBS’ total budget, for everything.

Mitt Romney made a splash in a presidential debate when he said that he would eliminate funding for public television in the US altogether – as part of a larger effort to reduce the deficit. But as some observed at the time, CPB’s $450 million is only about one one-thousandth of the annual US budget deficit. Anyone serious about reigning in deficits would not focus on a line-item whose elimination would leave the deficit 99.9% intact – so why was Romney singling out Big Bird?

It wasnt ever about deficits – if conservatives had a real concern about those, they wouldnt use every economic boom and bust as an occasion to slash taxes on the super rich. Intrinsic to the conservative religion is the belief that markets are the answer to our every need – and that government provision of goods and services is an evil to be eradicated. The problem with conservative dogma is that economists have documented many markets that fail to do what we need them to do: allow buyers to communicate wants, and sellers to answer them. One well-understood failure is in the market for “information goods.”

Producing good, reliable information is an increasingly unrewarding business. For decades, the most respected and cited news sources have been family-owned – including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Without shareholders to answer to, they could compromise on profits and improve the quality of the news, with a commitment to investigative journalism and overseas reporting – both especially expensive and unprofitable arms of the news business, but essential to an informed public.

In past years, American network news divisions were never expected to generate a profit, serving instead to elevate their network’s public profile. But decades of corporate management have eroded many once-fine institutions. Gone are network news programs and anchors with the stature of Cronkite, Jennings, Rather and Brokaw. In their place are interchangeable newsmodels, better known for their grooming than their insight or integrity. The Journal has been absorbed by the Murdoch empire. Cable news outlets prefer low-cost, high-return punditry to journalism – and devote hours to vacuous treatments of sports, business, weather, celebrity, and the photogenic disaster-du-jour.

In polls, Americans show their awareness of public television’s superior performance in the provision of news, consistently ranking PBS as their most trusted source, and by a wide margin. More broadly, Americans regard Public Television as the nation’s most trusted institution, public or private! And while PBS is perennially regarded as, far and away, the best source of children’s programming; few realize that PBS prime time audiences are enormous: 50% larger than HBO and 60% larger than CNN – while PBS operates on a budget that’s a scant fraction of either.

PBS today scrapes by on minimal government support, relying heavily on private donations. The problem with this system is the phenomenon of “free riding”: you donate to your local public television station, and your neighbor free rides, enjoying the benefit of your generosity for nothing. The aggregate effect of this behavior is the gross underfunding of a desirable service.

Centuries ago, societies figured this problem out, and found a solution: taxation. We dont sit around waiting for drivers to make donations to keep our roads under repair, or for fellow citizens to throw a few bucks to the police department to keep the streets safe. The creation and dissemination of quality information is no less valuable than roads and security, and no less prone to market failures. Public Television should be funded now more than ever, commensurate with the demonstrably high quality content it provides, and to make up for the increasingly dismal performance of corporate news outlets.

Public Television does a lot of good, for very little money. That’s the real reason conservatives hate it – and the same reason why they hate social security and medicare, and are terrified of the ACA – it works!

 

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Refs:

http://www.cpb.org/appropriation/history.html

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2013/pbs-most-trusted/

http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2014/01/fox-news-once-again-most-and-least-trusted-name-in-news.html

http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/01/30/pbs-is-americas-most-trusted-tv-news-source-or-maybe-its-fox-news

http://www.pbs.org/funding

http://www.pbs.org/about/financial-statements/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PBS

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporation_for_Public_Broadcasting

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_News

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_good

http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/10/04/pbs-hits-back-at-romney-does-not-understand-the-value-of-public-broadcasting/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/14/downton-abbey-and-how-pbs-got-cool.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/02/business/media/pbs-shifts-tactics-to-reach-wider-audience.html?pagewanted=all

 

 

 

 

 

Who’s Down with TPP

It aint your grandpa’s trade agreement. Though the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership is attended by the usual chorus, featuring competing refrains of “International Trade Took My Job” versus “International Trade Got me a Better Job, plus some Sweet Deals at Walmart,” the controversial aspect of TPP isnt the opening of borders through the elimination of tariffs. It’s about strengthening the power of corporations over national governments, and limiting governments – democratic or otherwise – in their ability to regulate industry.

A relatively minor story just out of Congress serves as a good illustration. The House Agriculture Committee voted to repeal a US labeling law that requires meat to specify its country-of-origin. What’s interesting is why the committee moved to eliminate the law: not because they thought country-of-origin information was superfluous or irrelevant to consumers; but rather because the World Trade Organization decided that the labeling law discriminated against Canadian and Mexican firms. If the US fails to repeal the law, Mexico and Canada will be permitted to retaliate, and that will be costly.

Ignoring whether these labeling laws are actually good or bad for US consumers – we focus instead on the process. An international tribunal made a decision, and Congress is now likely to respond by changing US laws – not for the interests of their electorate (as if!), but without regard to their interests.

TPP goes even further. It would create new supra-national tribunals, in which firms could sue governments for their failure to respect TPP’s provisions. Prevailing firms could effectively collect their “lost profits” from taxpayers. And the tribunals would not be staffed by independent judges with lifetime appointments – but rather by corporate representatives on a rotating basis. Today you’re a plaintiff, tomorrow you’re a judge, and next week you’re a plaintiff again. Nice work if you can find it….

Tariffs have already been all-but eliminated across international borders by existing trade agreements. Modern-day trade agreements like TPP are much more concerned with dispute resolution processes and harmonization of national laws, to smooth things out for multinational corporations. That in itself isnt a bad thing. In past decades, the US pushed to make commercial laws uniform across the fifty states. The resulting Uniform Commercial Code has helped to facilitate interstate commerce.

But TPP would go even further, and may too much restrict the latitude of governments. For example, TPP takes aim at banking regulations. While we could all probably get on not knowing whether our pork chop hails from Texas or Manitoba, we should not be thrilled to see US banking reforms – passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis – undone.

Free trade is good – and freer is usually better. That the parties to a transaction may be based in different towns, states or countries isnt terribly important to the analysis. If everyone acts according to their individual interests, the net result is usually that everyone is better off. While things usually are that simple, circumstances arise when people, through their governments, should restrict trade to further a greater good.* And the problem with TPP is that it promises to run roughshod over democratic processes, by which individual nations tailor their laws according to their own values and their perception of the national interest.

 

Refs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Pacific_Partnership

http://www.thenation.com/article/168627/nafta-steroids#

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/05/19/the-mis-selling-of-tpp/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2015/04/30/battle-rages-over-key-obama-trade-policy/

http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2015-05-15/warren-claim-that-trade-bill-could-undermine-dodd-frank-is-right

http://news.yahoo.com/house-consider-repeal-meat-labeling-law-071204979–finance.html

http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/naughtybynature/opp.html

 

* For example, it doesnt much matter whether a factory releases carbon dioxide in Canton, Ohio or in Guangdong, China – the impact on global warming is the same. While people in one country might reasonably accept a dirtier local environment as a cost of having more local industrial jobs, their decision to not regulate carbon impacts people in all countries. And so it’s quite reasonable for other countries to limit trade with the polluting country, as a means of protecting their own environment.

Another example: Left to themselves, laborers tend to organize and demand better pay and working conditions. Therefore there is little pressing need for western countries to impose their own labor standards on the developing world. However some third world governments systematically harass and suppress labor movements in an effort to artificially maintain a competitive advantage. It is reasonable to respond with trade restrictions if only to ensure a level playing field, if not to promote human rights.

 

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The Welfare of Children

Welfare is, and has always been, about promoting the welfare of children – not adults. The name of the US’s first nationwide program – Aid to Families with Dependent Children – says it all. It wasnt a program for poor people generally, but for poor families with children. Its predecessor – numerous smaller programs run at the state and county level, collectively referred to as “Mother’s Pension Programs” – also had the wellbeing of children – not mothers – as its central purpose.

For the past forty years, the American debate on welfare has lost sight of what should be its organizing principle: improving the lives of impoverished children. America never got past Reagan’s preoccupation with the “welfare queen.” Even the welfare reform signed into law by Bill Clinton was crafted without respect to what should have been its overarching priority. For decades American policymakers have been asking the wrong questions about AFDC, and its successor, TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families), as well as numerous other welfare programs, such as Medicaid and Food Stamps (SNAP).

When scrutinizing welfare programs, Americans have become overly concerned with what economists refer to as “the moral hazard problem.” Like any form of insurance, social insurance is expected to impact behavior. Without car insurance, for example, you would drive more carefully. Without homeowners insurance, you might never use your fireplace. Lacking health insurance, you might never ski. In the absence of unemployment insurance, you might deal with your boss more deferentially. And indeed, without welfare, poor people with children might be more inclined to work, or to put in longer hours at work. These are all instances of “moral hazard” – of people behaving differently because they have insurance.

Despite the moral hazard problem, we are almost always far better off with insurance than without it. It is the folly of conservatives to be preoccupied with the work ethic of poor mothers, who might take welfare as an opportunity to stay home and look after their children. They consistently fail to ask the most important question: whether welfare improves the lives of children.

At last, sanity is being restored to the welfare debate. This week, the New York Times ran an op-ed penned by the Chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He discusses, approvingly, several new lines of research that supply an empirical basis for the notion that welfare does indeed benefit children. The best and latest scholarship shows that welfare helps children live longer, healthier lives, obtain more years of education, and earn more. Welfare has a positive impact on such diverse phenomena as low-birth weight, high school and college completion rates, teenage mortality, standardized test scores and crime.

All along, the objective of welfare wasnt to make things easier for parents, but to alleviate the harm that poverty inflicts on children. It is encouraging to see this very basic insight embraced by the president’s chief economic adviser, and to see the welfare debate move back toward its proper area of concern.

 

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the NYT op-ed: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/11/opinion/smart-social-programs.html?emc=edit_th_20150511&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=32816889&_r=0

 

 

GOP Immigration Priorities Revealed

Where does the GOP really stand on immigration? Indeed, they arent entirely monolithic – some conservatives say they’d grudgingly allow a pathway to citizenship for some unauthorized immigrants; others say they’d like to see the US (somehow) expel all of its unauthorized immigrants – some 3.5% of the US resident population and 5% of the workforce – if only by elven magic and pixie dust.

Conservatives are all but unanimous in their opposition to President Obama’s common-sense, pro-family reforms, which exempt millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation. Many, including House Speaker John Boehner, have maligned Obama, claiming that he “cannot be trusted to enforce the laws as written” – implying that a GOP president would do things differently – that if the GOP had its druthers, US immigration policy would see a dramatic change.

Economists employ a useful concept: “the revealed preference.” Recognizing that some people (particularly politicians) will lie about their true mindset, we are wise to ignore their words when we have their actions to reveal their actual preferences. Revealed Preference Theory is in fact a whole lot more involved – but this facet of it closely tracks the popular notion that talk is cheap – and that walking the walk – as distinct from talking the talk – is the true indicator of someone’s heartfelt policies and beliefs.

So where do Republicans really come down on immigration? We might start by taking a look at how the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the US changed during the tenure of the last GOP president. When Bush Duh took office in January 2001, the unauthorized immigrant population was about 9.4 million. In 2003, it passed 10 million. During 2005, it surpassed 11 million. And in 2007, Bush Duh’s seventh year in office, the number of unauthorized US residents reached what remains an all time high of between 12 and 13 million – more than double the number in 1996.

Bush Duh’s presence in the White House had no impact on the steadily increasing number of unauthorized US residents. The only reason why their numbers finally plateaued and began to decline after 2007 is because a weak US economy made the US less attractive: fewer people tried to enter the US illegally, and a fair number of those already in the US departed.

Since Obama took office, and the Great Recession receded, the number of unauthorized immigrants in the US has leveled off at about 11.5 million. It may surprise some to discover that while Clinton and Bush Duh each oversaw periods during which the number of unauthorized immigrants increased by the millions, Obama is the first president in recent history under whom their numbers have roughly held steady.

But we arent here to discuss Obama’s immigration priorities – our aim is to discern the GOP’s real stance. And quite conveniently, it just so happens that yesterday the GOP passed its very first budget resolution in more than a decade. Given all the GOP tough-talk on illegal immigrants, you’d expect there to be a whole lot of new spending for DHS border security and immigration enforcement, right?

Nope. As it turns out, in its brand new budget resolution, the GOP didnt even maintain spending on immigration enforcement and border security at current levels. By cutting the benefits of most federal employees, the GOP, for all their hand-wringing, and their recent government shutdown threat, would effectively reduce the resources available for immigration enforcement and border security!

Le plus ca change. The GOP did nothing while millions illegally entered the US under Bush Duh’s watch. And just yesterday, in its budget resolution, the GOP revealed its preference for reducing the resources available to the Department of Homeland Security. So what does this say about conservatives’ real immigration priorities? – It reveals that immigration, for conservatives, isnt a priority at all.

 

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