Category: Politics

Field Theory

It’s an unusual election cycle. Hillary Clinton has the Democratic field to herself, and is effectively unchallenged, as if she were an incumbent seeking reelection. She faces less competition for her party’s nomination than did incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Gerald Ford in 1976 – or two-term sitting Vice President Al Gore in 2000. While there are several theories bandied about to explain why no other strong candidates have emerged, the most persuasive is the perception that Hillary Clinton cannot be beaten, leading the nation’s most talented and ambitious Democrats to the same conclusion: stay out of her way.

This observation is not intended to diminish the candidacy of Bernie Sanders or Lincoln Chafee, both of whom have been good public servants, and hold generally sound policy positions. Sanders’ weakness as a candidate is much more about his style than his substance. In a better world, his positions would frame the debate for numerous socio-economic issues, particularly in an era of extreme wealth and income inequality.

On the Republican side, the field is the largest seen by either party in modern history, with 17 candidates, each of whom with a better chance to win the nomination than Sanders or Chafee (or Jim Webb). In a healthy democracy of more than 300 million people, it should neither be rare nor surprising to have 20 individuals pursue the presidency in a given election cycle. In fact, one might regard the state of the Republican field as a rarely-attained ideal.

But politicians are (almost) never so smart or dumb as we imagine them to be, particularly where their self-interest is implicated. Thus it is that the extremely small size of the DNC field and the unusually large size of the GOP field can each be explained by a single theory. Just as Hillary Clinton is so strong a candidate that she’s scared every significant possible challenger from entering, the GOP field is so dismally weak that even George Pataki thinks he has a shot.

To be clear, the Field Guide would take the large size of the GOP field as a kind of opinion poll. Early front-runners Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz were not intimidating enough to keep others out of the race. Each time another Republican enters the field, he tacitly opines that the candidates already in the race are beatable. The persistence of Donald Trump’s candidacy underscores this point. Far from being drummed from the race by the seasoned politicians against whom he’s contending, Trump handily won the first debate, and now has more than double the support of the strongest of his rivals!

All of this bodes well for liberals. As strong as Hillary Clinton seems to experienced DNC politicians, the GOP field seems remarkably weak to Republicans. With an electoral map that enormously advantages Democrats, liberals have every reason to be optimistic.

 

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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.

 

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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No Freedom to Discriminate

The US Supreme Court seems poised to end state bans on gay marriage in the few states that still do not permit it. Under the 14th amendment, states are not allowed to deny “equal protection of the laws” to any person. As distinctions between traditional marriage and same-sex marriage wither under scrutiny, state bans on same-sex marriage become ever more apparently a bald denial of equal protection, and will very likely be declared unconstitutional by the Court when it renders its decision in the coming months.

But just as one form of discrimination is about to be stamped out, another is trying to emerge. Such discrimination occurs in a commercial setting – when, for instance, a gay couple goes to a baker for a wedding cake, and the baker refuses. (This is analogous to racial discrimination from the Jim Crow era, when a black person seeking a room in a whites-only hotel could be turned away by the manager.) Unlike bans on gay marriage, which are perpetrated by the government, this form of discrimination is committed by private citizens – and there’s no federal law against it.

While the Bill of Rights and the 14th amendment secure individual rights against federal, state and local governments, they are generally inapplicable to the rights we hold with respect to each other. That’s why the US needed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to end apartheid. Under federal law, before the Civil Rights Act, the proprietor of a shop could turn away any prospective customer or employee for any reason whatsoever. One could choose to serve and-or hire blacks only, whites only, Catholics only, Jews only, etc. – and the US Constitution had (and still has) nothing to say about it. While the Constitution forbids governments from maintaining whites-only buses, or blacks-only universities, it allows private parties to do as their conscience (or lack thereof) dictates. It is because of the Civil Rights Act – not the Constitution – that private parties cannot discriminate on the basis of “race, color or creed” in the course of operating a business.

While red states lag far behind blue states in virtually every socioeconomic measure, they are great innovators of bigotry and intolerance. The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision in Hobby Lobby gave conservatives a new not-so-bright idea. The Court held that closely-held corporations can refuse to provide their employees with health insurance coverage for birth control, if doing so ran afoul of their “religious beliefs.” In other words, a corporation’s Constitutional “religious freedom” takes precedence over a federal law requiring them to provide insurance coverage for family planning.

Enter the “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) now working their way through state legislatures across the country. On their face, they seem innocent – as was the original RFRA passed by Congress in 1993, and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The idea was to give people the right to refuse certain impositions on the part of the government, when they conflicted with their religious beliefs. But a few red states got the notion to expand the application of these laws to private parties as well. And so if a gay couple asks a baker to bake them a cake, the baker might be able to rely on a state RFRA to refuse. The analog to Hobby Lobby is unmistakable, as it should be. Conservatives thought they found a new lipstick for their pig: by dressing up bigotry in the garb of religious freedom, maybe they could sneak it past the courts, and engender a whole new era of discrimination.

Indiana and Arkansas seemed bent on passing RFRAs that facilitated this new form of discrimination. And then something remarkable happened: corporate America rose up in opposition, and the GOP in both states were cowed into amending their laws so that bigots could not rely on them to discriminate.

The US Supreme Court has yet to hear a case on whether one can invoke ones religious beliefs to discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many states afford no protections for gays from discrimination. And Congress has thus far failed to pass a Civil Rights Act for gays. But it is heartening to see this new form of bigotry beaten back by public opinion. The LGBT community assuredly needs a federal Civil Rights Act affording them full protection from commercial discrimination, nationwide. And the road to that destination just got a bit smoother.

 

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Refs:

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employment_Non-Discrimination_Act

4 articles with comprehensive coverage of RFRAs: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2015/04/01/the-twisted-history-of-how-religious-freedom-laws-confused-everybody/

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/02/arkansas-religious-freedom-bill/70831330/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/02/asa-hutchinson-arkansas-rfra_n_6995826.html

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/02/indiana-religious-freedom-law-deal-gay-discrimination/70819106/

http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/employment-non-discrimination-act

 

Nuts over Water in California

California’s worsening drought has gained national and international attention. But what most reporting fails to convey is that California has the all water it needs for double, if not triple, its present population of 40 million – even in the worst drought in recorded history. That’s because the water shortage is not driven by the demands of the resident population, nor by industry generally. California’s water problem is an agriculture problem. Parsing it further, it is an almond and alfalfa problem.

As a matter of economics, the government is treating water like a public good, instead of like the commodity and production factor it truly is. Though water in California is getting scarcer, the price farmers pay for it is holding steady. And so instead of adapting to less water-intensive crops, they have gone right on producing the most water-intensive crops on the planet, planting more and more acres of them.

California’s 40 million people and non-farm businesses combined consume just 20% of the state’s water supply. The rest goes to agriculture. 10% of the entire California water supply goes to almonds alone. Another 10-15% goes to alfalfa. The math could not be weirder: alfalfa and almond production use more water than all of California’s residents and non-farm businesses combined. If Sacramento passed a law that made it illegal to water almond orchards or alfalfa fields, the water crisis would end that same day. You could double the size of Los Angeles too, and you’d still have enough water for every other purpose.

The problem with almond trees is that they are especially thirsty: it takes about 2100 gallons to make a pound of shelled almonds. By comparison, it takes just 300 gallons to get a pound of chicken, or 160 gallons for a pound of corn. In a healthy market economy, as water becomes more scarce, it will also get more expensive. Almond production should become less and less profitable, and shift to locales with cheaper water supplies. Water-stressed areas will adapt by planting crops that need less water. But California farmers are not asked to pay market prices for the water they consume. When deciding which crop to plant on a given field, the price of water simply doesnt factor in. And so, perversely, as the drought has worsened, almond production has increased – to nearly double what it was 20 years ago.

The State Water Project (SWP) is a massive state-run complex of reservoirs, aqueducts and dams that distributes water throughout the state, to cities and farmers alike. Its pricing scheme tells the whole story. Farmers in the central valley pay SWP about $50 per acre-foot of water. (3 acre feet are about one million gallons.) As water becomes more scarce, SWP does not auction it off to ensure that it goes to its most productive use. Instead, farmers either get water at a fixed price, or they dont, based on seniority. And so farmers keep on planting almond trees because they yield the best return per acre – because SWP makes water cheap for them. By comparison, Los Angeles pays SWP about $300 per acre-foot of water out of the same system. At that price, almonds cannot be grown. Desalinization plants produce water for about $2000 per acre-foot. At that price, farming is impossible.

It is fairly observed that almonds are California’s top agricultural export, more than double wine by gross sales. But agriculture is a very small part of a large, diverse state economy, accounting for less than 2% of California’s gross state product (GSP). Almond production itself is just 0.2% of GSP. But politicians are timid in their dealings with the powerful agribusiness lobby. People on the coasts are instead asked to conserve and pay for outrageously expensive desal projects and-or environmentally messy new dams and reservoirs, simply because politicians are afraid to ask farmers to pay the true price of the water they are using.

Agriculture in the Central Valley doesnt need to come to a dramatic end. But it does need to change, simply because the present practice is unsustainable. Taking shorter showers and washing your car less often is not going to do it. Spending billions on desal so that farmers can send almonds to China and alfalfa to Japan is sheer foolishness. We can be heartened that even in the worst drought in California history, there is still plenty of water to go around. It seems almost too obvious to observe that, particularly in California, water has value – and the state must let the markets reflect that value, to let economic actors make decisions based on real-world scarcities. Water welfare for farmers must end.

 

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Refs:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/05/_10_percent_of_california_s_water_goes_to_almond_farming.html

http://www.ecology.com/2014/08/29/water-intensive-food-impact-california-drought/

http://westernfarmpress.com/bullish-almond-market-reflects-concerns-over-crop-size-water

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/almond-supplies-will-continue-tight-even-big-2013-crop

http://westernfarmpress.com/tree-nuts/growers-balance-record-high-price-2014-harvest-against-uncertain-water-prospects-next-year

http://www.mercurynews.com/science/ci_25859513/nations-largest-ocean-desalination-plant-goes-up-near

http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_State_Water_Project#Controversy_and_modern_issues

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-california-almonds-20140112-story.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/wests-historic-drought-stokes-fears-of-water-crisis/2014/08/17/d5c84934-240c-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_California#/media/File:Gross_Domestic_Product_of_California_2008_%28millions_of_current_dollars%29.svg

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/magazine/californias-central-valley-land-of-a-billion-vegetables.html

 

The Grand Old Hostage Party

The nation’s creditworthiness isnt a partisan issue. No one – save perhaps a few tea party crackpots – wants to see the US default on its statutory obligations to its creditors, most of whom are American citizens and corporations. But in 2011, and again in 2013, that didnt prevent the GOP from threatening to force a default if its demands werent met.

These were particularly bizarre episodes in American politics. The two major parties agree on many fundamental matters of governance, covering the vast majority of public spending: education, social security, defense, medicare, highways, agriculture, etc. Debate primarily occurs on smaller spending issues. And resolution usually involves compromise, where each party gets some of its desires met and concedes some to the other party.

The debt-ceiling crises of the recent past were different. Instead of the usual “give us this in exchange for that”, the GOP tried “give us this or else.” Specifically, the GOP threatened to force the US to default if its demands werent met. To be clear: default is not a GOP policy goal. It’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. In fact, there’s nothing preventing Democrats from using exactly the same tactic: e.g., give us a public option for health insurance, or we’ll make the US default; raise taxes on investors, or we’ll refuse to fund the Pentagon. Easy-peazy.

Even though the debt-ceiling crises were resolved before the US defaulted, the GOP ploy imposed real harm on the US, which saw its creditworthiness downgraded for the first time in history. Estimates of the costs to the country as a consequence run into the billions.

Analogies to hostage-taking are apt. Hostage takers commonly have no desire to harm their hostages. Rather, they use the credible threat of harm to extort what they can from the people who do care. This leads us to the most remarkable insight to come out of the debt ceiling crises: The GOP would only use such tactics because they believe Democrats care more about the nation’s well-being than they do. Try imagining a disagreement between two parents, in which one parent threatens to drown a child in the bathtub if they dont get their way. It’s the same tactic in a different setting, and, again, it only makes sense if the parent making the threat believes the other parent to be more concerned about the child.

Today the GOP is trying the same ploy with a new hostage – threatening to shut down the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unless their demands are met. Again, shutting down DHS is not a policy goal – it’s simply a threat to do gratuitous harm to the country. A shutdown would compromise the safety and security of ordinary Americans, impairing the Department’s ability to control the borders and prevent domestic terrorism. And of course any would-be terrorist can time their plans to exploit the situation.

The GOP’s venality cannot be overstated. Keeping in mind that Democrats are entirely able to use the same strategy – meet our demands, or else – the reason why one party has done it 3 times in 4 years, while the other party hasnt tried once, shows that the GOP itself believes Democrats to be more committed to the nation’s well-being than are they. Many of us have long suspected that conservatives had greater fealty to their empty, half-understood ideals than to the country those ideals were meant to serve. But now we know conservatives think so too.

 

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Colbert’s Last Report

The Field Guide acknowledges with regret the passing of the Colbert Report, a fine, rare, intelligent satire, which ended its ten year run yesterday. Stephen Colbert, the show’s host and creator, is departing to take over for David Letterman as host of the Late Show. While we’re sure that Colbert’s satirical wit will carry over, and look forward to enjoying its new facets and forms, the end of the Report all but surely closes the book on the character Colbert has played to perfection for a decade: the quintessentially obtuse, self-righteous and self-satisfied cable-news conservative.

It is not often enough observed that among pundits, liberals and conservatives are readily distinguished by their tone alone. There has never been a conservative equivalent to Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher or Al Franken – nor could there ever be. Conservatism is tedious business, and is as much defined by its monotonous, pseduo-religious humorlessness and fury, as liberalism is defined by wit and nuance. Though in fairness to conservatives, it isnt easy to tell a joke while wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross….

Take away the pompous self-righteousness, anger and indignation of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and little is left behind but a wool suit. Conservative national candidates are worse: the likes of Palin, Bachmann, Perry and Santorum are too shallow and slow-witted to deliver a punchline, much less blow a sax or croon a few bars of Barry White. When one comes across the similitude of actual intelligence among conservatives – in Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gingrich, Will or Krauthammer – invariably is it tinged with what one can only describe as “evil” – because, we infer, one who knows much must also know better.

Most conservatives lack the sensibility to be properly envious and bemoan the fact that great political satirists have always been liberals. Those of today build on the groundbreaking work of Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior and George Carlin, among others, who opened up new realms to commentary, using humor as a subterfuge to draw attention to issues that the public would be happier to ignore. To appreciate an irreverent approach to matters delicate and-or contentious, one must have a certain remove and an intelligence that, frankly, is rarely seen among conservatives, for whom taking things too seriously is seen as a virtue. However their knitted brows are a poor substitute for genuine seriousness, which brings with it the patient diligence needed to push inquiries beyond the easy and superficial.

Conservative pundits offer excesses of solemness and anger in place of real perspicacity, and as well a fog in which to hide the internal inconsistencies of their beliefs and the mutual antagonisms of their policy positions. Likewise does the humor and irony common to so many liberal commentators flow from a common source: they are the hallmarks of intelligence itself, which readily perceives the contradiction in all things, and humanity’s manifold imperfections. With those recognitions, compassion and comprehension naturally displace anger, and the intellect is freed to enjoy the variety, for good and bad, that is the spice of life.

And so we wish Stephen Colbert success as he moves on, mournful for the close of a splendid chapter, hopeful for one he begins anew on a bigger stage.

 

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Editor’s note: the winter holidays are upon us, and the Field Guide will only be posting intermittently between now and early January. We wish you a Merry and a Happy, and hope you’ll check in with us now and again.