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The title quote, uttered by President Obama to describe the choice we have in the 2010 elections, captures the essence of the on-going struggle between humanity’s inner-angels and inner-demons, a struggle which produces the realization of both our dreams and our nightmares, depending on which prevails in any given moment of history.

The refrain “we want our country back” is the refrain of those who fear progress, who cling to a mythologically sanitized past rather than forge a path into the inevitable future. It attracts, along with those who are making some vaguer, narrower reference, those who want to take the country back from, among others, women, African Americans, Hispanics, non-Christians, and Gays, groups which have succeeded in diminishing the opportunity gap between themselves and the white, male, Christian minority that has historically maintained that gap to their own advantage and in accord with their own bigotries. And while we have progressed in diminishing the gap, the legacy of history remains with us today, and demands our forward-looking rather than backward-looking attention.

Those who have the courage to hope, to aspire to do better, don’t ever want their country “back.” We always want it “forward.” Our history has been the story of a people moving forward, conceived in a Declaration of Independence which continued and contributed to a transformation of the world already underway, accelerating our reach for future possibilities, and our removal of the shackles of past institutional deficiencies. It was a nation of Progressives, of people who knew that you don’t just accept the institutions handed down, but always seek to refine and improve them. It was a nation that drafted a document by which to govern itself, one which proved insufficient (The Articles of Confederation, drafted and adopted in 1777, though not actually ratified until 1781), and then got its representatives together to try again, ten years later, and get it right (producing the U.S. Constitution, which was a document drafted to strengthen, not weaken, the federal government).

The drafting and ratification of our brilliant Constitution marked a beginning, not an end, a point of departure through which to express and fully realize our collective genius, not an impediment to the use of our reason and will to address the challenges yet to come. It was drafted by people wise enough and humble enough not to imbue it with the quasi-religious hold it (or an insulting caricature of it) now has over some contracted imaginations. It was meant to be a source of guidance rather than a source of idolatry. It provided the nation with a robust legal framework through which to address future challenges, some of which were already visible at the time, and some of which were not, but which the framers knew would ceaselessly present themselves (and which many thought would promptly make the Constitution itself obsolete. The fact that that hasn’t come to pass is a tribute to our ability to make from the document they created in a given historical context one which adapts itself to changing historical circumstances).

Ahead of the country remained the abolition of slavery, the protection of individual civil rights from state as well as federal power, a far-too-late end to the slaughter and displacement of the indigenous population (too late because they had already been nearly exterminated, and removed to tiny, infertile plots of land), the institution of free universal public education, the extension of suffrage to unpropertied males and women, the passage of anti-trust laws to preserve a competitive market, the establishment and necessary growth of an administrative infrastructure which immediately preceded and facilitated the most robust acceleration of economic growth in the history of the world, the desegregation of our schools, the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the beginnings of absolutely crucial efforts to address the long-term detrimental health and economic consequences of environmental contamination.

There never was a moment in the course of this story when there weren’t challenges yet to be identified and addressed, many of which could only be successfully addressed by means of government, and, often, only by means of the federal government (e.g., the abolition of slavery, which ended up requiring the federal government to prosecute a civil war; the enforcement of Civil Rights protections; and environmental protections covering interstate pollutants). Our Founding Fathers understood that. Thomas Jefferson himself said that every generation needed to refine its institutions to adapt to changing circumstances and meet the challenges of their own day. Such people never wanted their country “back.” They always wanted it “forward.” And they dreamed of establishing a country that would renew rather than renounce that commitment with every new generation.

Though there are many today who don’t get this, most don’t get it by means of blurry vision and historical inconsistency, rather than a retroactive commitment to what they claim currently to be an immutable truth. It is a tiny minority today, utterly detached from reality, who want to completely abolish Social Security or Medicare, though there are many who vehemently oppose health care reform and improved financial sector regulation. The difference between those past acts of our federal government that we have come to take for granted and whose value we almost universally recognize, and those present acts of our federal government that so many (so absurdly) call a “socialist” threat to our “liberty,” isn’t in the nature of the policies themselves (they are actually very similar in nature), but rather in the difference of perspective granted by elapsed time and an improved quality of life.

The impassioned, angry, vehement opposition to today’s progressive reforms, almost down to the precise words and phrases (including cries of “socialism”), is virtually identical to that which confronted the passage of Social Security and Medicare in their day. It is the perennial resurgence of the same faction, the same force at work today as in those previous generations: The voice of fear, the clinging to past failures and deficiencies for lack of courage, the perception of progress as a threat rather than a promise, though those same cowering souls could hardly imagine living without the promises of progress fulfilled before their birth and in their youth. They take gladly from those progressives who came before and fought to establish the world they now take for granted, but fight passionately against those progressives of today striving to provide similar gifts of social improvement to future generations.

In Colorado, these two sides, these two opposing forces of Hope and Fear, are embodied in our U.S. Senate and Gubernatorial races. In both races, it is the urbane, highly informed, business savvy, pragmatic Progressive pitted against the retrograde, chauvinistic, insular and regressionary Conservative. Michael Bennet, as I have written before at some length (Why Michael Bennet Truly Impresses Me), is a model of reason, civility, humility, and subtle systemic understanding, all focused on how to leave our children with more rather than less opportunity than we ourselves have enjoyed. Ken Buck, his opponent, is a sexist troglodyte who accused a rape victim of “buyer’s remorse”  (though the accused rapist admitted in a taped phone call from the police station that he had in fact raped her!), a candidate who opposes access to abortions even by victims of rape and incest (condemning some pre-teen girls to a premature motherhood that will, in some cases, utterly destroy them). With the same indifference to reality, Buck is committed to the pseudo-economic certainties of his ideological camp, certainties which defy the lessons of history and the prevailing economic models of those who actually study the subject.

In our gubernatorial race, we have a very similar match-up, with Democratic candidate John Hickenlooper (currently the very popular mayor of Denver) as a model of the rational, urbane entrepreneur (who, after being laid off as a geologist in his youth, opened a very successful brewpub in a downtown Denver area –LoDo– which, through his enterprise and hard work, he helped to turn into a very robust restaurant and bar district), opposed by Tom Tancredo, the U.S. Congressman (from my district, CD 6) who became nationally and internationally infamous for his outspoken xenophobia and belligerent anti-immigrant demagoguery. Again, it is a race of hope against fear, a repeat of similar struggles we have seen around the world throughout human history, with prosperity and human welfare flourishing where hope has prevailed, and a contraction of wealth and opportunity taking hold where fear prevails (sometimes accompanied by nightmares of violence directed against the scapegoats who have been identified as personified targets of that fear).

Economically,  Hope counsels that we employ the best economic models to forge the best fiscal and economic policies possible to ensure the robustness, sustainability, and equity of our economic system, while Fear counsels that we base our economic policies on information-stripped platitudes, contracting rather than expanding, insulating rather than competing, cowering rather than aspiring. A hopeful people invests in its future; a fearful people stuffs its money in a mattress. A hopeful people works to create a higher quality of life, while a fearful people works toward enshrining past achievements and, by doing so, obstructing future ones. A hopeful people seeks to expand opportunity; a fearful people seeks to protect what’s theirs from incursions by others. A hopeful people reaches out, looks past the horizon, and works toward positive goals. A fearful people builds walls, huddles together, and obstructs the dreams and aspirations of others.

But this year, in this election, it is not just any other incarnation of the struggle between Hope and Fear. It is the most dangerous form of that struggle, the form it takes when we are on the brink of inflicting on ourselves enormous suffering. Because the struggle this year is characterized by a terrifying discrepancy in passion: The angry, fearful mob is ascendant, while cooler heads are too cool, too uninspired, to face that mob down and disperse it.

It is under just such circumstances when, historically, Fear prevails over Hope. It is under these circumstances, circumstances that the hopeful among us are allowing to take hold, when countries get sucked into the nightmare that fear produces. This is what responsible, reasonable people of goodwill cannot, must not, allow to happen.

Vote. Make sure everyone you know votes. Confront the angry, frightened and frightening mob and insist that we are better than that. Don’t let them put this state, this country, and this world back into Reverse again, as it was from 2001-2009, when America became a nation defined by fear, with a government defined by the belligerent ignorance which is Fear’s most loyal servant. Let’s keep this nation in Drive, and move hopefully into the future. In 2008, many of us were excited by that prospect, and in 2010, we should remain warriors of reason and goodwill in the face of the Grendel of small-mindendness awoken by the small, fledgling steps forward we have taken as a people. We need to defend, preserve, and advance what we accomplished in 2008. We need to move forward, not backward.

Don’t sit this one out. Don’t let the brutal tyranny of Fear and Ignorance rule us.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

  • Uncle Fish:

    Steve,

    The Website looks iteresting…I, too, seek thoughtful dialogue out of the mainstream, sound-byte media that unfortunatley directs the thinking of too many Americans.

    I’ll take a stab at your comments on Fear v. Hope and the “we want our country back” mentality:

    The political unrest in this country is not about fear v. hope. It’s not about Republican v. Democrats. It’s not red v. blue. It is not us v. them. It is not that simple nor is it that meaningless.

    It is far more complex and far more meaningful.

    The political unrest is about taxpayers v. politicians…

    It is about outsiders v. insiders…

    It is about selfless leadership v. self-serving leadership…

    It is about fresh faces that have yet to be bought and sold v. the entrenched that are over-sold…

    It is about government of the people v. government of the career politician…

    It is about spending within our means v. the budget unconscious…

    It is about the productive, independent Americans v. those that rely upon OPM (other people’s money)…

    It is about the worker class v. the welfare class…

    It is about the net tax producers v the net tax receivers…

    It is about those that support the system v. those that work the system…

    It is about individual freedom v. collective slavery…

    It is about individual rights v. collective demands…

    It is about the productive class v. the entitled class…

    It is the career worker v. career welfare recipient…

    It is about equality of opportunity v. equality of outcome…

    It is about American independence v. European-style dependence…

    It is about charity’s role v. government’s role…

    It is about private profits v. socialized losses…

    It is about private enterprise v. government bailouts…

    It is about truth v. propaganda…

    It is about semantics v. government-speak…

    It is about integrity v. immorality…

    And…I could go on, but the point is, the country is multi-colored. The cause of frustration and outrage among the population is multi-faceted and goes far beyond the tired old two-party system

    My generation cares little about the false battles between Democrats and Republicans. We do care about the America that we were promised…where hard work over long periods of time, punctuated with prudent risk taking and a little luck can lead to a prosperous and independent lifestyle, where individuals took responsibility for their actions and their inactions, where leaders were admired, finances were managed and government was controlled.

    …just thoughts from the West Side.

  • Thanks, Uncle Fish. I appreciate your perspective. As you might have guessed, there are a few details I would engage you on! But first: Welcome to the site, and thanks for contributing. I hope to see your posts and your point of view often.

    Please take everything in my response as a friendly challenge in the context of robust public discourse.

    First, I completely agree with your rejection of the two-party system as the defining framework for ideological conflict. To the extent that one favors any political party, it should be because that party’s positions most closely align with the positions adopted by oneself as the result of a careful non-partisan analysis. Partisanship should follow from rather than lead our political positions. Nothing I’ve written here suggests anything else.

    Second, while you identify some legitimate areas of debate (e.g., how to balance reducing the debt with investing in the future. See The Economic Debate We’re Not Having: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=247), you mistake particular positions on those issues with justification for an ideology which closes the mind and forstalls continued inquiry and analysis. One of the tendencies I’ve noticed in the presentation of your ideology is a heavy reliance on arbitrary assertions, but little ability to actually make the case. Just calling the view you are rejecting “simple” and “meaningless,” and your own “complex” and “meaningful,” doesn’t make it so, nor did anything in your post ever get beyond the level of unsupported assertion.

    As I’ve written elsewhere (The Foundational Progressive Agenda: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=317), one of the virtues that would best serve our democracy is the humility to realize that the world is indeed a complex place, and that what we think are absolute answers may not be. Ironically, while claiming to be stating the position based on that awareness, you stake out the one most oblivious to it. The positions you listed are conclusions rather than analyses, assumptions not arrived at through any careful procedure.

    More fundamental than, for instance, “living within our means” (particularly in the collective rather than individual sense that I interpret you to mean it from some of your other dichotomies) is “doing the analysis” and committing ourselves to improving the robustness, sustainability, and fairness of our political economy. Furthermore, your dichotomies are not fundamentally interconnected, defining a coherent orientation: If the analysis were to determine that you’re right, and that deficit reduction should always trump, for instance, infrastructural investment, that doesn’t tell us what our priorities should be with the revenue we do take in. You haven’t provided a systematic way of making such determinations, but rather a smorgasborg of disconnected ideological assumptions.

    From my perspective, you’ve listed all of the superficial ways of depicting the conflict in America which precisely fail to capture that “complexity” and “meaningfulness” you alluded to. For instance, “politicians” are also “tax payers,” and are agents in a principal-agent relationship with the electorate that employs them. The more precise way to capture the relationship is through a large body of analysis, crossing several disciplines (e.g., economics, law, business administration), called “agency theory”. Libraries exist on the topic, and, yes, it is entirely relevant and applicable.

    But digging beneath the surface, the value judgments, the oversimplifications, and instead using a system of analysis, is an expression of a commitment to coping with the complexity and meaningfulness that you simply attribute to your position, without actually incorporating awareness of it into your position. Instead, your ideology is one based on reductionism, casting the world in terms of gross over-simplifications.

    Politicians, for instance, are really just people, much like the rest of us, driven by some combination of self-interest, values, and all of the other motivations that play out within each of us, falling along a spectrum very similar to the spectrum that the rest of us fall along. They are not the caricature of “other” that you latch onto. I happen to be in complete disagreement that they tend to be more selfish than average; I think, on average (and with plenty of exceptions), they are more committed to some vision of the public interest than average. But that is certainly open to debate: The point is not to curtail that debate with precipitous and shallow caricatures of reality, but rather to recognize the true complexity of reality.

    I believe part of the problem is indeed the “in-group/out-group” lens through which many see the world, obliquely eluded to in “insiders v. outsiders” on your list. However, it is not some actual division of the world into political “insiders” and “outsiders” (an exaggerated and conveniently invoked conceptualization) that is the problem, but rather the perception of the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and the insulation of one’s own perceived in-groups against the perceived out-groups competing against you. Ironically, your perspective is far more guilty of “insider” bias than those to whom you attribute it. The real expressions of the in-group/out-group problem are found in rabid anti-immigrant positions, opposition to gay marriage, and opposition to policies which try to address the discrepencies in opportunities due to the chances of birth that still very much plague our culture and our political economy. Ironically, you are the insider protecting your turf, not the politicians who oppose you.

    You refer to the distinction of equality of opportunity v. equality of outcome, but it is a false distinction, a straw man argument, since all policies you would probably classify as committed to the latter are really committed to the former, but with a different understanding of what it entails. There is a legitimate debate to be had about how to accomplish it, but that debate should be predicated on the agreement that there remains a very serious gap in opportunities due to chances of birth yet to be addressed.

    Personally, I agree that what we currently call “affirmative action” is far too superficial, and not nearly “affirmative” enough: We need to make a far greater investiment in far more fundamental commitments to addressing the opportunity disparities, by improving education, community development, and child and family services, providing proactive and focused services to help those with the most curtailed opportunities for success in life gain a real opportunity to succeed.

    Reliance on “selfless” leaders, in place of all of those “selfish” ones seems particularly subject to one’s ideological lens, and unexamined assumptions about what serves the public interest. Since we can’t see into people’s hearts, and have no objective way to discern their inner-motivations, I suggest that we combine the personal respect of granting them all the benefit of the doubt until they objectively prove otherwise, while also making the public policy assumption that they, like most people, are at least in part motivated by self-interests, and design our institutions so that while they pursue their own interests they also incidentally advance ours. That’s that whole “agency theory” thing again. And it’s why markets, for instance, are so wonderfully robust: because they so organically align individual and collective interests (to the extent that they really do, which is substantial but limited).

    Your distinction between “fresh faces” and “over sold politicians,” along with your distinction between “government of the people” v. “government of the career politician” are pure chimeras. Again, agency theory. It reminds me, of all things, of the error of the Bolshevik Revolution, in which too many people were seduced by the idea that as long as you put people in power who supposedly represent your interests, they will therefore act in your interests. Unfortunately, once they are in that position, no matter how fresh their face is or how much they are “of the people,” they no longer have identical interests to those they represent (in fact, no one ever has identical interests to anyone else).

    The genius of the United States is that we don’t depend on the myth of altruistic government, but rather on the institutionalization of democratic accountability for performance. And we would be far better off if we exercised that popular sovereignty by measuring performance according to precise analyses of the issues and systems addressed, and how responsibly and knowledgeably they were addressed, than according to how well officials pander to the popular and oversimplified perceptions of how to address them that you advocate.

    As for “within our means” v. “budget unconscious,” again, what we don’t need is the reduction of economic analysis to a pseudo-economic platitude. Sometimes, deficit spending is very much the right economic and fiscal choice, and sometimes it isn’t. The reduction of the challenge to “debt is bad” is meaningless: Debt is bad, but imminent economic collapse is worse, for instance. The attempt to impose a platitude where an analysis is needed is not at all helpful.

    To me, the rest of your distinctions fall into the same general pattern, reifying an increasingly obscene concentration of capital in ever fewer hands as somehow the just defense of “one’s own money” against those terrible poor people who don’t deserve any of it. It’s a perspective based on a complete lack of understanding of the legal and economic significance of property rights, and how they are an arrangement among people rather than any particular one being some natural moral imperative.

    The main argument in favor of well-defined private property rights is that it is highly functional for the production of wealth, not that it is an inherent moral good. It isn’t. Why, after all, is it morally preferable that someone born into extreme wealth can go his or her whole life contributing absolutely nothing to the production of wealth while accessing an inordinate portion of the wealth produced, while someone who works long hours and long years in dirty, unhealthy, exhausting conditions for a low wage is compensated with a thousandth the amount of wealth that the privileged hier had access to?

    That doesn’t satisfy any moral imperative, just a functional one, and a functional one that can be satisfied with somewhat less social injustice. But an ideologically blinded populism has come to think that absolute private property rights, and the unlimited intergenerational accumulation of private wealth that is a correlary to it, is a moral imperative rather than a legal arrangement, in complete ignorance of historical and anthropological reality. Looking for ways of refining that bundle of legal rights to increase both functionality and fairness is simply a legitimate part of the human enterprise.

    My position is: Do the analysis, and base it on sound reason applied to reliable data, contextualized in a fully conscious understanding of the range of variation and possibilities in the world, leavened with the humility born of recognition of the complexity and subtlety of the world in which we live, all in service to the public interest carefully defined.

  • I realize that a more prosaic and keen-eyed reader of the above essay might take issue with the particular contrast between investing in our future and stuffing money in a mattress, since we are not, in fact, investing money we have to stuff in a mattress, but are rather investing money borrowed off of our future. I recognized this right away, but decided not to use the more appropriate counterpart of investing in our future: Declining to utilize credit liquidity, which has proven so essential to successful modern business models (so much so that the freezing up of credit contracts the economy). It just would have been too cumbersome an analogy for this particular essay, though the failure due to fear is just as strikingly illustrated even in the more precisely accurate analogy.

  • Uncle Fish:

    Oh, Boy…where to start? So much ammunition for debate but so little time as I work to build a life for myself and my family while concurrently having to carry the “net tax receivers” (more on this later) along for the ride.

    But first a diversion back to the comment that sparked my initial response – take a look at whose using fear as a motivator these days:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-obama-campaign-20101022,0, 6665217.story …funny how the same playbook keeps popping up.

    Steve, you address my 10-minute brain fart of an outline as if it were a dissertation for a Master’s Degree.

    There is a lot of substance in that outline, however. Let me address some basic philosophies:

    The manufactured divisions between Democrats and Republicans, Red and Blue, are false and keep many citizens distracted from the important debate. This serves those in power well by controlling the debatable issues.

    My positions, as written in the outline, provide a simple but deep and accurate depiction of the political dichotomy as it exists in American society today. For a 10-minute effort, it is astoundingly insightful.

    Let me tackle just a few points from your response:

    Politicians are certainly our Agents and hopefully some of them actually pay taxes, too. The fact that they receive income from tax receipts makes them “Net Tax Receivers”. They may pay tax on income received but that income is tax-derived. As such, they should uphold themselves to a higher standard in both their personal and professional lives. Unfortunately, the higher standard seems to translate into a position that is above the citizenry and electorate, rather than servant to it.

    Three examples come to mind:
    • Members of Congress are not subject the Healthcare Reform legislation passed last year. They have their own plan and that plan provides richer benefits and is not available to mere citizens.
    • Members of Congress are exempt from “insider trading” regulations that apply to publicly-traded securities. These are the laws that sent Martha Stewart to prison for 4 months and disgorged hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit from her.
    • Under proposed regulations in “Cap and Trade” – which will hopefully never again see the light of day – Members of the “Congressional Country Club” do and will continue to live in huge homes and fly private airplanes that consume more fossil fuel in a week than the average citizen consumes in a year. All this while espousing, and possibly legislating, conservation and austerity among the rest of us.

    “Government of the people V. Government of the career politician” is not the chimera that you hope it is. These monsters are real, alive today and can be seen in the “Congressional Country Club” that senior Congress-people with decades-long tenures have created for themselves. Term limits in Congress may be what’s needed to break up these powerful blocks of power that have been created by the career politician.
    Occupants of the White House come and go, but career Congress-people, that have been in office for decades, are solely responsible for the current state of affairs (social, economic, international and political) that we deal with daily. They need to be held accountable.

    If “equality of outcomes” becomes the required standard, we will all suffer the fate of the Russian automotive industry of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

    Our society provides exceptional opportunities for all social strata to receive an education. One must strive to receive it and there is an obligation on the part the students to maximize that opportunity. Education is one of the key drivers of robust economic activity, but it cannot be forced. Not everyone that shows up for class should get an ‘A’. Doing so renders that baseline measurement meaningless.

    The fact that opportunity exists is evidenced by the hundreds of thousands that fight to cross our borders every year, risking everything for a better life. Legislation cannot force one to step up and take advantage of the opportunities. Affirmative Action, though effective in its day, has run its course. We don’t need more excellent professionals of a certain ethnicity (in any field), we simply need more excellent professionals.

    Our governing documents provide for the pursuit of happiness. Thankfully, they do not define happiness nor do they guarantee that happiness will be achieved.

    Opportunity is far more important than outcome, and therein lies the heart of the issue that separates the “productive class” from the “consumptive class”. We have a vibrant and growing consumptive class in this country. The consumptive class is the unproductive segment of the “Net Tax Receivers” – see above – and their ability to consume far outweighs the productive class’ ability to produce. Hence the growing national debt used to provide social benefits.

    The inherent problem with well-meaning social benefits is that they evolve into entitlements. Once entitlements are ensconced in a social system, these entitlements evolve further into rights. As rights, they can never be taken away. Follow the progression of social benefit programs in Greece and France – and the resulting social unrest it has ultimately created. This is the end-result of a program of beneficence that was supposed to take care of everyone.

    You speak of the immorality of unproductive members of the “lucky sperm club”. I would posit that the growing numbers of the consumptive class pose a far more serious threat to our freedoms. The unproductive wealthy consume their own capital. Who are we to judge whether that capital is put to productive use? Is that not the essence of our private property rights – one of the foundations of our society?

    The consumptive class consumes public capital and thus has a higher moral obligation to society at large. We, however, do not demand accountability from this class as that has been deemed inhumane. The programs that support this segment of society increase every year and currently include housing, food, medical care, education, clothing, heat and A/C, mobile telephones and car repair. All with nothing required in return. Is this not the greater immorality?

    Our governmental leaders, as our Agents, have a legal obligation to use the capital entrusted to them (through the tax system) for collectively beneficial purposes. Unfortunately, that capital is often used to encourage the growth of a dependant class, upon which their current base of political power rests.

    On Fear V. Hope?

    The ones that posit that they are most able to rescue us from ourselves are the ones to be feared the most.

    My hope is that the American electorate starts to educate themselves, starts to take responsibility for their own situations and to recognize this personal responsibility as the basis for our collective and individual freedoms.

    …just thoughts from Uncle Fish.

  • 1) American political parties emerged more-or-less organically in the early years of the republic, coalescing around Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s competing views of government, and evolving around similar themes ever since. While it is certainly true that political actors try to maneuver within that partisan landscape to their individual and collective benefit, it is a crude oversimplification to imply that the parties are their artifices, and that they can manipulate and control that partisan landscape in some sort of conspiratorial way. It is a perspective which is simply oblvious to the complexity of millions of wills interacting in complex networks of cooperation and competition, and the limitatons of any subset’s ability to fully harnass and control those dynamics.

    2) Your continued insistence on creating a unique conceptual category for politicians, which distinguishes them in some fundamental way from other people, offers no insight into the human condition or the nature of the challenges we face. Politicians are people, falling along a spectrum similar to the spectrum we all fall along: Some are more sincere and dedicated to the public interest, some more selfish and corrupt. There is no cure for the fact that they are people. It merely means that we are posed with an inevitable agency problem of aligning their interests with the interests of those whom they represent.

    This is also why your distinction between “government by the people” and “government by career politicians” is arbitrary and meaningless: Government by the people requires some agency, some set of individuals who act as the people’s agents in some capacities, and, as such, the agency problem is inevitably implicated. You have presented a false dichotomy to blur a real challenge, one which is met with more or less success: That of aligning our agents’ interests to our own. There is no cure for the existence of the agency problem, only better and worse institutional arrangements for addressing it.

    While I am not going to argue that Members of Congress, and other elected officials, don’t enjoy perks associated with their positions, there is nothing exceptional about that, or necessarily dysfunctional. People who attain high positions of power and influence receive benefits from having done so. My position is that the discrepency between their compensation and that of ordinary workers should be less extreme, but it is not really relevant whether their position is in government or the private sector. Highly compensated CEOs in the private sector occupy a very similar place in our political economy as government officials do: They do not directly produce the wealth (or, more broadly, utility), but perform managerial or support functions that are necessary and conducive to its production.

    Your specific examples, however, are mostly erroneous or exaggerated. Members of Congress receive the same health care package that all other federal employees receive, with the exception of having on-site care available. Our health care system is, and is still, predicated on employer-subsidized health care, in both the public and private sphere. That members of congress have such a health care package is completely unexceptional.

    Cap-and-trade is one of two principle ways to internalize the public costs of carbon emissions into the market price of carbon emitting fuels, a market price that applies equally to everyone, though those with more money can better afford to bear it. Members of congress have no special exemption from that market price. They do in fact pay the same increased costs of cap-and-trade as everyone else does.

    But I do agree that being an elected official is an honor and a privilege, and that the people have every right to expect of their public servants the highest standards of conduct. But I’m also realistic enough to recognize that they are also simply human beings, of whom we can demand as much as we choose, but from whom we should expect human behavior. The fact that that expectation will always be satisfied means that it justifies no political agenda other than the one which addresses the agency problem invovled.

    3) Of all developed countries, we have the most inequitable distribution of wealth, the highest violent crime rate, among the highest infant mortality rates, among the lowest social mobility rates, and the highest absolute number and proportion of our population incarcerated of ANY country on Earth, bar none. You call that “exceptional opportunities,” though it is exceptional only in its degree of moral failure.

    While you correctly identify a problem inherent in extending social services, which can then become entitlements, which in turn can become unjustifiable under a well-reasoned cost-benefit analysis but difficult to reverse, to use that recognition as a rationalization for simply neglecting the inequities and injustices we have allowed to fester is an act of convenient rationalization for indifference rather than responsible confrontation of an inevitable challenge. Millions of children suffer abuse and neglect, some in ways so horrible that it can only be described as “torture,” and you suggest that we have no responsiblity as a people to address their plight at all? And yet, to face up to our responsibility as a people to those children costs money, and commitment, one which involves looking for systemic ways of reducing the rate of such abuse and neglect, which means reducing the factors which contribute to it. The rest of the developed world has faced up to such responsibilities, and done so to a degree which far exceeds are own, and, despite your ideological assertions, they continue to live affluent lives. We are not incapable, neither in the extent of our resources, nor in the extent of our ingenuity, of addressing such challenges, and we should not be so socially irresponsible as to rationalize a refusal to do so.

    Ironically, not only does a minimal sense of social and moral responsibility require that we addess our social problems, but a rational commitment to long-term fiscal and economic responsibility requires it as well. We spend far more on our less-human-welfare creating reactionary policies than we would in the more proactive policies that address these problems before they destroy lives. The costs of incarcerating at any given moment 1% of our total population, for instance, far exceeds the costs of proactively addressing the root causes of that astronomically high rate of incarceration. Our starving of social programs, public health and mental health initiatives, and public education leads to a higher rate of undereducated, troubled, desparate, and mentally ill young people entering into adulthood, creating a perfect storm conducive to high rates of crime, incarceration, non-productivity, and dependency on public assistance.

    Finally, I have always emphasized that I consider personal responsibility to be a necessary cornerstone for a well-functioning society, but it is another one of your false (and dysfunctional) dichotomies to consider personal responsibility mutually exclusive of social responsibility. Are you really able to rationalize condemning millions of children, many of whom are infants, to abuse and neglect under the mantra of “personal responsibility”? The fact is, while everyone must be expected to do their utmost to cope with whatever hand they’ve been dealt, and our social institutions should incorporate that expectation into their incentive structures, we have indeed been dealt very different hands. A society based on a rational commitment to the public interest does not ignore this fact, nor does it justify continuing historical policies which privilege the most privileged at the expense of the least privileged under the mythology that doing so is providing equality of opportunity.

    I couldn’t agree with you more in the fervent hope that the American public better educates itself, because knowledge and systemic understanding of the nature of the world in which we live lead inevitably to a complete and emphatic rejection of your poorly informed, economically illiterate, socially and fiscally irresponsible, platitude-laden, inhumane and dysfunctional ideology.

  • Uncle Fish:

    The only platitudes offered are the ones contained in your verbose, rambling dissertation which you obviously mistake for eloquence. William F. Buckley you are not…

    An intelligent communicator does not beat one’s audience into submission with unintelligible b*%^@!t. That is reserved for the role of the philosophical charlatan.

    If espousing ideas in support of de-centralized government, state’s rights and personal freedoms are poorly informed, than I am as shallow as our Founding Fathers.

    If advocating that social benefit programs are better managed by private charity is ignorance, than I proudly sit in the bottom half of the half of the class that did not graduate from Denver Public Schools last year.

    If speaking out in favor of private property rights and allowing individuals to keep what they earn is immoral, then I am the most decrepit individual on your blog.

    If demanding that our government leaders be held accountable for the public funds they spend is lunacy, than I am the craziest man on the continent.

    If demanding that each individual be a productive member of society is inhumane, then I am the meanest man alive.

    Your personal philosophies may appear to be intellectually sound on the surface, but in practice they are most immoral and ultimately inhumane. Simply follow the current events in Greece and France to get a glimpse of the end game of excessive social largesse. It never changes. It’s human nature.

    To be a success in your quest for justice, I suggest that you spend more time on accountability of public funds and worry less about how the wealthy spend their private capital. You sight the vast discrepancy in incomes between the most productive captains of industry and those merely pushing brooms as a measure of grave inequity. A better comparison would be the standard of living of the poor within our borders v. that of the poor without.

    It is important to remember that the demands of the “consumptive class” will always exceed the ability of the “productive class” to produce. This fact is a basic tenant of human nature and does not make the “productive class” any more greedy than the “consumptive class”.

    Your philosophies for social justice are weak and those that hold similar view have a big problem. My compatriots in thought will out-work, out-produce, out-think anyone. That is who we are and what we do. We are the “productive class”, without which your waxing on standard of living is just talk. All ultimately admire our attitudes, our life views and our ability to overcome all of life challenges. Without us, your theories have no ticket of entry, no income to tax, no wealth to lust after.

    Those “social scientists” that pay for their life philosophies with an ever-increasing toll upon the productivity of others simply don’t have the work ethic, the fortitude and the perseverance to succeed.

    Oh, and your Cousin Obama? His burden is not his name, his genetics or his race. It isn’t that baseless. His burden is his weak ideology. He obviously hasn’t studied history enough to understand that his ideas of “hope and change” are not new. They have been tried elsewhere, many times throughout history and have always failed miserably. The pain of those failures has always been borne inequitably by the “poor and under-privileged”, the very populace that those hapless ideologies promised to protect. That is Obama’s burden, that is his legacy.

    Me? I have no fear. I do have lots of hope for the future. That hope is not without foundation, however, as I have a plan for a better, more prosperous future. You can join me, but you have to carry your own weight. Based upon your comments, I just don’t think that you are up to the task.

  • Microeconomic and legal analyses (both of which I’m professionally trained in) of our political economy may be platitudes to you, but your ideology depends on a “rubber-and-glue” response to every legitimate criticism (it’s one of the constants of Tea Party discourse), always struggling to flip reality on its head.

    What you don’t get is that property rights are complex, and a product of legal and economic history, not bestowed by nature. They have evolved over time, and continue to do so, as all truly useful institutions should and must. We have never had, and should never had, the crudely absolute private property rights that you advocate, which would, among other things, have prohibited the Civil Rights Act of 1964, since private owners of restaurants and other privately owned public facilities, in your oversimplistic understanding of the world, must always be allowed to do whatever they want with their property, lest we infringe on some mythical natural right they possess to do so.

    For that matter, if I want to emit toxic fumes from my home that sicken and kill my neighbors, well, it’s my home, isn’t it? Yes, I know that you will acknowledge the trespass involved, but that trespass is a function of the complexity of interdependent private rights, not a refutation of it.

    What’s misinformed is rote commitment to blind ideological suppositions, rather than a more subtle commitment to the task of affirmatively confronting our challenges as a people within the flexible legal and economic framework we have inherited. For you, and those who think like you, all you need to do is wave a rhetorical flag, and you’ve won the debate. For me, and people like me, you have to actually make an argument.

    Beyond that, your response is laden with strawmen, attributing to me positions I’ve never advocated (e.g., I absolutely believe in holding elected officials responsible for how they spend public funds, and have written on it extensively, using a system of analysis called “agency theory”).

    Leaving the problem of poverty to “private charities” is the failed historical norm, something that cannot adequately meet the need because, as everyone even slightly literate in economics knows, leaving the production of public goods or reduction of public bads (e.g., poverty) to private choices, without utilizing our agency for collective action to do so equitably, leads to the gross underproduction of those public goods or underreduction of those public bads, because the costs are borne individually for benefits that are dispersed publically. A large branch of microeconomic analysis, called “game theory,” addresses this with mathematical precision, and historical and empirical observation has overwhelmingly confirmed it.

    Furthermore, not only does private charity fail to meet the need adequately, it fails to meet it structurally. The problem of poverty is the problem of inequility of opportunity, which private charities cannot address. You want to throw a bone to the suffering and call it a solution; we want to address the problem and resolve it at its roots. And your constant depiction of the poor as being poor due to their own lack of effort or merit, and the unfairness of those who work for their money to have to carry the burden of those who don’t (in your self-serving caricature of reality), is indicative of how well people like you are likely to meet even the most superficial needs of addressing the problems of poverty, if left to decentralized and private individual choices (rather than a democratic choice to address the problem as a people). You want to reinstate Victorian England in modern America, arguing against our current sensible approach with Dickensonian outrage: “Are there no workhouses?! Let the poor go there, then, and leave me alone.”

    You only undermine your credibility by pretending, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, to have a better understanding of history than Harvard Law graduate and former Law Review editor Barack Obama. Western European countries, which have balanced a robust market economy with a democratic commitment to address the problems that markets do not, have had far more success than us by a variety of important measures, including lower infant mortality, lower violent crime rates, lower incarceration rates, higher self-reported happiness, higher social mobility, lower economic inequality (almost a complete elimination of poverty and almost universal moderate affluence), better public health care (full coverage at a lower price), equal or greater longevity, and comparable or only slightly lower per capita GDP. This is what you call utter failure?

    Can the balance we should strike between economic efficiency and robustness on the one hand, and economic sustainability and fairness on the other, miss on one side or the other? Of course. Greece and, to a less degree, France, overshot the mark, just as we have undershot it. And our failure to strike the right balance, refusing to address the information asymmetries of underregulated markets which allows those most centrally located to play that system at the expense of the public, has consequences just as dire, and generally corrosive, as their failure to do so.

    Unlike you, who denounce scholarship that you clearly don’t understand, and enshrine vague and poorly developed ideas as superior, I (along with tens of thousands of others) actually do the analysis, utilizing a large body of carefully accumulated empirical and historical evidence, and applying a huge body of carefully constructed analytical tools to it. I’ve commented in other posts about the dangerous anti-intellectualism of your movement, its blaming of the poor, whose poverty is so much more a function of the chances of birth than of any lack of merit, far more similar to the mid-20th century European and Asian totalitariansims than to the ideals of our own 18th century revolutionaries. And I’ve pointed out what a truly dangerous threat it is to the moderation and professionalism in politics and governance we have so long benefitted from, something the Tea Party is explicitly and fanatically trying to undermine, with, if successful, results that are bound to be similar to those that have ensued when similarly anti-intellectual immoderate fanatical movements have prevailed in other times and places.

    You can be as angry as you want, UF, and insist on your moral superiority as much as you like, but, in the end, it’s the arguments that matter, and yours barely exist, much less compete effectively. They are built most on assumed falsehoods rather than careful reason applied to reliable information, and on rationalized indifference to the usually personally undeserved and always publicly costly suffering of others in service to a smugly self-serving individualism. Your ideology simply crumbles, both morally and intellectually, upon careful scrutiny.

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