Category: History

Guns, Bees, Terrorists and the Flu

About 3000 died in the 9/11 attacks. In the flu season that followed, about 30,000 Americans died – which made for a very typical flu season. And in the 14 years since 9/11, very few Americans have been harmed by domestic terrorism – while the flu has killed about 500,000.

Even in the worst of cases, the threat to life posed by terrorism is one or two orders of magnitude smaller than the threat posed by the flu. In its effort to fight terrorism, the US has invaded two (or three) countries, spent trillions, and killed far more people in the process than terrorism ever has. Meanwhile, unfailingly, the flu kills ten times 9/11 every season – with no speeches, no outrage, and no troops sent to foreign shores.

Watching the local news, there’s never a shortage of stuff to be freaked out about. Aspiring to be freaked-out rationally, Americans should be scared by the flu. By comparison, terrorism never amounts to very much, and the cure has proved to be far worse than the disease.

Unfortunately, we cant apply the same approach to diminish the threat posed by gun-violence. That’s because, unlike terrorism, guns actually kill a huge number of Americans – about 30,000 per year, very similar to the flu. About 1.25% of all US deaths each year are attributable to guns and the flu respectively. Terrorism: not so scary. Guns and the flu: scary.

So as we construct our narrative for what happened recently in San Bernardino, the key fact isnt that the perpetrators were Muslims. Muslims comprise 1% of the US population, but are responsible for just 0.6% of the mass shootings in the US in 2015 (2 out of 353) – making Muslims 40% less likely to commit mass shootings than everyone else in the US. You’re way more likely to be shot by a Christian.

That the attack in San Bernardino was an act of terrorism also isnt terribly crucial. This year, twice as many Americans will die of bee stings as they will from domestic acts of terrorism. Four to eight times as many will die from peanut allergies. Ordering these threats from largest to smallest: peanuts, bees and terrorists are really not all that scary.

The story out of San Bernardino is that yet another American went nuts, availed himself of his nation’s cheap and plentiful gun supply, and shot a whole lot of people. This story has played out so many times in recent US history that we hardly need to recite the litany of Columbine, Charleston, Sandy Hook, Colorado, Oregon, etc.

The US does not have a problem with domestic Muslim violence. Nor does it have very much of a problem with domestic terrorism. America has a gigantic problem with guns.

More next week….

 

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Conservatism: the Movement of Stupid

As president, he issued the executive order that established the Environmental Protection Agency. He supported and ultimately signed the Clean Air Act into law. He oversaw the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). He was a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and the civil rights movement, including affirmative action. He launched the “war on cancer,” and tried to pass a law that would have mandated employers to provide health insurance to their employees. Following up on a campaign promise, he dramatically drew down US ground forces in Indochina, and ultimately ended the draft. Meet Richard Nixon – whose liberal creds compare well with any president since.

Next consider Jimmy Carter’s record. He oversaw deregulation of aviation, trucking, rail, communications and finance. He reestablished the selective service, the precursor to the draft, while increasing military spending. And he appointed Paul Volcker to head the Fed, whose brand of conservatism has been the model for every Fed chair since, prioritizing the control of inflation over the maximization of employment.

Jimmy Carter, to be fair, was quite liberal in many important ways, initiating or improving numerous programs to help the poor, children, workers and women. And like every recent democratic president, Carter’s term in office was a period of fiscal restraint, with annual deficits never rising above 3% of GDP, and the overall debt, as a fraction of GDP, smaller when he left office than when he entered. (One of Carter’s earliest political missteps was a confrontation with Congress over pork-barrel spending.)

Many forget that Carter came to office – and left – as a southern moderate with a conservative bent, not dissimilar to Bill Clinton. While he had many pet programs to help the disadvantaged, he generally sought to reduce the presence of government in everyday life, as evidenced above all by the fact that he left behind a US government that was slightly smaller than the one he inherited from Gerald Ford.

Many also forget that Nixon’s domestic policies were almost uniformly liberal. While it is often remarked that Reagan would be rejected by today’s GOP for being insufficiently conservative, it is rarely appreciated that Nixon would today stand to the left of many democrats. So it was that the postwar era was a sort of golden age for America, when the DNC and GOP were both dominated by liberals, with conservatism enjoying no more than a regional popularity in a few isolated backwaters.

Above all, one must appreciate that, like LBJ and JFK, Nixon and Carter were each exceptional men. Nixon was renowned for a discerning mind; Carter’s brilliance has only become more apparent in the most spectacular post-presidential career in modern times. Not coincidentally, all were liberals, certainly by today’s standards.

It says much about American politics that, in just 20 years, the nation went from having a nuclear engineer for president (Carter), to one who could not even pronounce the word nuclear (Bush Duh), while enduring two terms of a GE spokesmodel in between. This is not a coincidence. Reagan’s legacy is the dumbing-down of presidential politics, if not the presidency itself – paving the way for a deluge of Quayles, Bush Duhs, Palins, Santorums, Bachmanns, and other lightweights who lack the mental acuity to be Washington DC’s sewer commissioner, much less pretend to the oval office. Conservatism is and has ever been the movement of stupid, for stupid, and by stupid, as exemplified by the exceptionally low quality of candidates it offers for national office, including the presidency.

 

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Refs:

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

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

http://politicalhumor.about.com/od/bushquotes/a/dumbbushquotes.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Volcker#Chairman_of_the_Federal_Reserve

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirmative_action_in_the_United_States#Richard_Nixon_Administration

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

 

Stupid Originalist Tricks

Why should liberals expend energy bashing conservatives – when conservatives do the job so much better? This week, the Field Guide takes aim at “originalism,” to again demonstrate that conservatism, at its roots, has no principles. It is not a political philosophy – it’s just a bunch of crap packed together by historical accident, and held together through a firm commitment to not thinking it to death.

Originalism, nominally, holds that the US Constitution should be interpreted the way the people who wrote it and-or ratified it would have interpreted it. Take the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship clause:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Hard to imagine how anyone who ever complained about judicial activism could suggest that the 14th amendment means anything but what it says: if you are born in the US, you are a US citizen. But it hasnt prevented conservatives from claiming that the US-born children of illegal aliens are exempt from the 14th amendment’s plain meaning.

Their argument seizes on the “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” requirement, somehow asserting that illegal aliens are not subject to US jurisdiction. Anyone who knows a little bit about law should know what the consequence of that would be. It would mean that illegal aliens could not be tried for any crime, nor compelled to appear for civil disputes either. They would have the same immunity as do diplomats (the actual, intended targets of the jurisdiction requirement), who can be expelled from the country, but cannot be brought to court to answer for their misdeeds. If that sounds crazy, wait – there’s more.

At the time of the 14th amendment’s ratification, the US had never had an illegal alien. The borders were open, and had been since colonial times. Anyone could emigrate to the US – and, under the common law, their children automatically became citizens. How could the writers and ratifiers of the 14th amendment possibly have intended an exception for a class of people that didnt exist!?

Moving on to the next stupid originalist trick: If you saw the GOP debate, you may have caught Marco Rubio advancing the loopiest anti-abortion argument to date. Per Rubio, the 5th amendment’s due process clause,

No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law….

applies to fetuses and embryos. And so we dont need state or federal anti-abortion statutes – abortion is already illegal under the US Constitution – we just need five justices to say so.

We happen to know that Rubio is an originalist, because after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell, (legalizing gay marriage nationwide), Rubio said,

It must be a priority of the next president to nominate judges and justices committed to applying the Constitution as written and originally understood.

So did the 5th amendment, “as written and originally understood”, really include fetuses and embryos as “persons” – and outlaw abortion from way back in 1791?

To answer that question, it helps to know that abortion was legal in all 13 states at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted – as it had been in all 13 colonies previously – as it had been for several hundred years under the common law. And so Rubio will have to find some other pretext for his political beliefs. Or he can simply abandon originalism, and interpret the Constitution according to some other style. We at the Field Guide are betting that he does neither – self-contradiction, after-all, is the conservative way.

 

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Liberty, Democracy and Gay Marriage

Dissenting from the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote,

Those who founded our country would not recognize the majority’s conception of the judicial role. They after all risked their lives and fortunes for the precious right to govern themselves. They would never have imagined yielding that right on a question of social policy to unaccountable and unelected judges.

In his own separate dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote,

This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

On the other side of the debate, a five-justice majority held that a person’s right to marry is so fundamental that it cannot be constrained by democratic processes. Justice Anthony Kennedy sums up the relationship between liberty and democracy embodied in the nation’s charter:

…[T]he Constitution contemplates that democracy is the appropriate process for change, so long as that process does not abridge fundamental rights.

As is often the case, both the Court’s prevailing liberals and its dissenting conservatives lay claim to the mantle of the nation’s founders. But which of them has it right?

Before 1776 Americans were British subjects, and regarded themselves as fortunate, compared to French and Spanish subjects, because of Britain’s longstanding liberal traditions. America’s pilgrims brought the principles embodied in the Magna Carta with them to the new world, including an expansive notion of individual liberty, safeguarded significantly by an independent judiciary.

Compared to liberty, democracy in 18th century Europe was relatively unknown. Scalia’s contention – that self-governance was 18th century America’s most valued liberty – isnt merely at odds with history, but with the plain language of the Declaration of Independence as well. Though the word “right” occurs ten times in the Declaration, it is never associated with the right to vote. The rights of rebellion and self-governance are not characterized as “unalienable” absolutes, but are conditioned upon a government’s failure to secure a people’s absolute rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The term “democracy” is nowhere to be found.

The American Revolution was not born of a naked desire for self-governance. The text of the Declaration of Independence explains why the nation’s founders were driven to “dissolve the political bands” holding them to Great Britain: the king was running roughshod over their liberties. The bulk of the Declaration is a litany of complaints against an illiberal monarch.

Once one appreciates that the American Revolution was principally about liberty – that democracy was seized upon afterward as the best means toward that end – the particular form of the US Constitution makes perfect sense. Fearing that liberalism might be lost in the transition from monarchy to republic, the Constitution painstakingly limits democracy.

The original Constitution only granted suffrage to white men with property. The only government body they were permitted to elect directly was the House of Representatives. Senators were appointed by state governments. Americans still dont vote directly for the president, but for an intermediary body (the electoral college). And judges are still appointed by the president to lifelong terms.

To constrain democracy further, a Bill of Rights was appended to the Constitution. After amendments one through eight – in which 25 distinct rights are set above and beyond the reach of the majority’s will – the ninth amendment follows as a blank check for liberty for future generations:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Thus one cannot infer from the absence of a given right from the Constitution (like marriage – or gay marriage) that that right does not exist.

American liberty was not born in the American Revolution – it was carried over from a much older English liberal tradition that predates American democracy by several centuries. Democracy was a grand experiment, subject to considerable and manifold limits, to ensure that the prize, liberalism, would endure under a new form of government.

The US Constitution most acutely restricts the power and reach of the majority where it concerns our most basic rights – to prevent a majority from becoming a tyrant itself. Contrary to Roberts’ assertions, for centuries before the American Revolution, and centuries since, courts have stood as a bulwark against the day’s oppressors, upholding fundamental rights against usurpations by kings and majorities alike.

Conservative complaints that the Court’s decision is anti-democratic are accurate, but misplaced. Democracy was born after the American Revolution as a means toward liberalism – not as an end in its own right. Liberty is the older tradition, which democracy was established to maintain and defend – not undermine. When the two are at loggerheads, democracy must yield.

 

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Editor’s note: The Field Guide is on summer vacay – we’ll be back with new material in mid-August.

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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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

 

 

Cuba Libre

No matter the noble intentions of the Cuban revolution, Cuba has been a repressive oligarchy for more than half a century. And no matter the dubious motives behind the US desire for regime change in Cuba, everyone, everywhere should like to see Cubans gain political freedom. And so the question fairly asked is: what should the US be doing to facilitate regime change in Cuba?

The transition from despotism to liberty and democracy has occurred so many times in human history that the formula should by now be common knowledge. Countries as diverse as England, France, the US, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have all gone through roughly the same process to get from their illiberal, undemocratic beginnings to the modern states they have since become.

Once liberal policies toward private property and contracts emerge, along with institutions to enforce and maintain them, a country’s economic development accelerates – and within a few generations an ever-greater fraction of the population will rise out of poverty. And as people grow wealthier, they invariably seek a political voice commensurate with their economic power. This storyline was as readily observed in 18th century America as it was in 20th century Singapore.

The lesson learned is that despots can be traded into oblivion. This already is the tacit US policy toward China – that as Chinese industrialists grow more powerful, the oligarchic Communist Party will eventually be unable to contain them. Incidentally, US policy toward China is utterly irreconcilable with its policy toward Cuba. In the days of the Cold War, of course, it could have been argued that enriching a Soviet ally ninety miles off the coast of Florida was dangerous business. However since the demise of the USSR twenty-five years ago, Cuba no longer poses a security threat to the US. According to the same logic that has made China America’s largest trading partner, trade with Cuba today would pose a real threat to the Castro regime, and would be a boon to the cause of Cuban liberty.

No other approach works. Democracy and liberalism imposed from without – as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan – collapse for lack of the necessary foundation. Isolation – as in the case of North Korea – leaves the regime in control of the economy, reinforcing their power. Trading despots into extinction takes time, but it works, yielding stable, liberal democracies.

Of course despots in Cuba and China have their own motives. In China, an increasingly affluent population is kept docile by rising incomes (and fanatical media censorship!). Cuba’s government would probably also be willing to give up some control over the economy in exchange for economic growth. And once living conditions start improving, and expectations change, despots find themselves locked onto a course that will all but surely drive them from power.

Unfortunately, US policy toward Cuba is driven by a vocal minority, which itself has been unable or unwilling to learn the most obvious lessons from history – including, above all, the extraordinary failure of those policies to alter the status quo in Cuba after more than fifty years. An about-face is long overdue. The Obama administration’s tentative first steps toward building diplomatic and economic ties between the US and Cuba are a step in the right direction.

 

Editor’s note: It’s spring break in LFG-land – we’ll be back with new material in two weeks. Until then, peruse our archives, share your favorites with friends, leave a few smarmy comments – we read them all, and, if inspired, we may even shoot a little back at ya.

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