USA, world

Kenya and International Impotence

DEMOSHMwai Kibaki

The world recently celebrated a rather unceremonious “monthiversary.” Kenya–which up until a month ago was often described as the brightest spot in East Africa, if not the whole continent–is still in chaos. See some of the haunting reports and photographs of The Vigilante Journalist if you doubt that fact.

A month ago Kenya’s president, Mwai Kibaki (at right), “won” reelection. After this incredibly questionable result was announced, “tribal” violence “erupted.” Estimates are that by now at least 800 have been killed and 300,000 displaced. Though many forces–best known in America are presidential candidate Barack Obama and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan–have attempted to reach some accord between President Kibaki and the oppositions leader Raila Odinga, none have succeeded, or even produced much externally-visible progress.

If one pairs this sad story with the continued mess of Darfur, you’ve got a good base for a pessimistic soup which proves that the international community is unable or unwilling to help create lasting peace on the continent. Even worse, you could find proof that Africans themselves are incapable of living in peace.

But I wouldn’t say that. Nor would I interject the ever-growing messes of Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the ever-simmering border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea as proof that East Africa’s the bad side of the continent. Or that nothing can change.

We could reasonably say that all of this makes a strong case for a reconsideration of priorities at the United Nations and other international bodies. That it also shows signs that Africa’s still growing and maturing, and though it may sound (or even be) patronizing, the current problems on the continent are necessary growing pains for young nation states with limited resources.

Before that though, I must admit something. On nearly every topic I’ve written about thus far and will write about through the rest of this piece I know enough to appear–to most–to know what I’m talking about but not enough to actually know what I’m talking about. It’s an admittedly dangerous fact that means I should probably be barred from talking about it at all. Alas, I’m not.

And so I can tell you that though we could make this to look like a strong case for the United States to disengage from the impotent United Nations, it’s not. And that I remain hopeful that though progress in Africa and elsewhere is slow and all UN actions are encumbered by the veto power of self-serving states like China, Russia, and the United States I think the organization shows progress.

Surely the Bush presidency and the farce that was made of international law in invading Iraq was bad. Surely it is troubling that both Russia and China are willing and able to stand up against even the most well-intended efforts to intervene for human rights.

But in the broad stroke of history, progress is unquestionably toward greater openness, greater rule of law, and greater democracy. Surely there are a number of painful steps left–many ugly and troubling steps–before the world arrives at the place I’d like it to be. But as long as and as strong as I can, I’ll hope that someday soon the world will be more like the hope for Kenya from last December, and less like the pessimism engendered by the Kenya of this January.

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politics, USA

Moderating the “Undocumented” Issue

corazón girlDallas Protest March

They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.

They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.

Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.

This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.

But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.

The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.

The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.

From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.

From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.

The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.

The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).

Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.

Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.

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american society, politics, USA

Watching America’s Game

IowaPolitics.comObama Campaigning in Iowa

It’s chaos. It’s a circus. It’s a money parade. It’s undemocratic. It’s pointless. It’s cheap drama. It’s the real American Idol.

That’s right everyone, it’s the middle of America’s presidential politicking season.

I could make a list, but I doubt I need to. You know that many people–in America, but especially in stable parliamentary systems–find this whole mess in which America is now submerged mildly absurd. Myself, I fluctuate between hearty agreement with their bafflement and tut-tutting consternation with the foolishness of the critique.

First, a few points. The way the Democratic party’s contest is held in Iowa is absurd, perhaps even undemocratic. The priority given to Iowa, New Hampshire, (now) Nevada, and South Carolina is, at best, unfair. The rush to have the earliest nominating contest has, this year, been harmfully chaotic but is a direct consequence of the truth of the last sentence. Too much money is raised and spent in the quest for a party’s nomination.

Having made all the necessary concessions to critiques, I’ll now heartily and blindly defend America’s system.

The most important point is that the system I defend is open. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim it’s always democratic, but it usually is. And open and democratic are better than most parliamentary systems can claim in nominating their candidates for leadership.

It’s no secret that Gordon Brown was to be Tony Blair’s successor from the first day that Labour took power in Britain. And it’s also no secret that only politicians determined that point. Lay members of the party had no say in who would lead the party. It’s like the way American Vice Presidents are selected–behind closed doors with unknown calculations being made.

But that’s also the way that parliamentary parties pick their leaders, and thus their analog of President. In America, a candidate has to win the support of a plurality of his party’s members, and then a plurality of the country’s electoral college voters (a chastisable system in itself, but not our topic here). This seems to me far more democratic than a system whose candidates are selected by a small group of full-time politicians whose party is than approved by the people.

In America’s system, a candidate must be liked and chosen by normal people. They can’t merely call in a small number of favors within the party, they must be chosen as the best candidate by a lot of non-politicians. And I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. This circus may be a dislikable result of a system that tries to give people–normal people–a say, but it gives people a say.

And then there’s this: I find this game we’re playing–however over-moneyed, shallow, and pointless–at least a little bit exhilarating. The result may not always be perfect, but it’s more exciting and democratic than any other system I’ve seen.

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american society, USA, world

“There is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves”

Source: cursedthingBill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose last Friday. He said a lot of interesting things, and though they also did a fair bit of rehashing tired arguments about the presidential campaign, it is a pretty good interview to watch.

Without question, the line that most caught my attention was this one: Mr. Clinton said, making what felt like a rather precarious jump, that the American people now know as they never have before that “there is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves.” That America’s citizenry recognizes that the problems we face as a country: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, health, and immigration, are all outside of the control of any single government, even the most powerful.

Though Clinton wouldn’t have been a good politician if he regularly denigrated the intelligence of the American people–as I sometimes think is appropriate–I do think he’s overstated the case. One doesn’t have to look very hard in this country to find people as convinced as ever that America has the right to impose its will upon the world. That its policy can and should be to unilaterally do whatever it wants, whenever it judges itself justified.

I have no doubt that those who easily forget that the United States is merely one country in a much larger world is shrinking and continues to shrink. But I find it incredibly hard to accept the argument that the whole populous has come to this revelation.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton is doubly right. More Americans than ever realize that their government doesn’t run the world, and every day a few more do. Further, he’s right in that the world is indeed a less “Amerocentric” place than at any other time since the Second World War.

Certainly, the attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a number of people out of the delusion that they lived in an impenetrable fortress from which they can run roughshod over the whole world and never face any consequences. Unfortunately, from there they went on to allow Mr. Bush to convince them that the wisest course to restore their illusory security was to depose Saddam Hussein–a hideous man no doubt, but hardly a grave threat to American security.

It is in Mr. Bush’s nearly-unilateral, (now known to be) misguided, and poorly executed invasion of Iraq that many Americans realized that they cannot persist as a hegemon. So too has Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush’s intransigence on climate change, and the many failed attempts to reform America’s broken immigration laws.

All of this has made clear that Americans do not have sole control over their own destiny. Though I hate the over-simplistic term, “the emergence of China” has clearly changed the world. For one, America’s recent economics hardships have been far more localized than many expected.

There was a time when a devaluation of the American dollar was an absolutely terrifying scenario for world economics, but it hasn’t had the expected debilitating impact. As the world slowly decouples from the formerly-all-important American economy (and thus its government), this country, like Britain before it, will have to recognize that it is not the king of the world.

Love or hate the former President, he is right about that.

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politics, USA, world

The Nuclear Dilemma

I’m rather certain that my favorite Republican presidential candidate during the 2000 election cycle was John McCain. I’m also rather certain that he’s my favorite this time too. It’s not that he’s perfect. Far from it. I’m well aware that he’s got flaws, and I’ve certainly taken issue with some of the things he’s said.

Lest we go too far into America’s political realities, let’s get back to nukes. But this is not about Iran, North Korea, or the kind of nuclear technologies that go boom. We’re talking about the significantly less frightening kind that just boil water.

Nuclear technology and environmentalists have never been friends. And so the idea that they’ll suddenly become so is unlikely. But John McCain is right about one thing: environmentalists need nuclear power.

To their credit some have come to this realization. Stewart Brand, who created The Whole Earth Catalogue, which The Economist described as “a path-breaking manual crammed with examples of small-scale technologies to enable individuals to reduce their environmental impact” that still has fans in environmental circles.

But Mr. Brand, like Mr. McCain, has embraced the importance of nuclear power to the greening of America. Also like Mr. McCain (and myself), he fails to see what’s so bad about nuclear power and the requisite waste storage. Again, The Economist:

For years, he held the orthodox environmental view that nukes were evil. He now confesses that this was merely “knee-jerk opposition”, and not a carefully considered opinion. His growing concern about global warming, which he calls “the single most important environmental threat facing mankind”, explains his U-turn in favour of this low-carbon but hugely controversial source of electricity.

The turning point came, he says, when he visited Yucca Mountain, a remote site in the Nevada desert where American officials plan to bury the country’s nuclear waste. … Although greens and other anti-nuclear activists oppose the Yucca Mountain project, Mr Brand says he realised that “we are asking the wrong question” about nuclear power. Rather than asking how spent nuclear fuel can be kept safe for 10,000 to 100,000 years, he says, we should worry about keeping it safe for only 100 years. Because nuclear waste still contains an enormous amount of energy, future generations may be able to harness it as an energy source through tomorrow’s better technologies.

Though I’m not as sanguine as Mr. Brand about the ease with which technology will reharness our spent nuclear fuel, I fail to see how opposition to nuclear power is anything but a knee-jerk reaction. Given the choice between filling even a few hollowed-out mountains with spent nuclear fuel or flooding a number of small island nations and coastal cities into nonexistence I think the choices is obvious.

Surely green power-generation technologies exist, and surely they’re becoming more efficient by the year, but they’re hardly ready to be the sole fuel sources for the world. The most well-known options–wind and solar–are both inefficient and far from dependable. It doesn’t take much to realize that without wind or sun they’d produce no power.

Nuclear power certainly is not a perfect technology, but it’s the most carbon-neutral and dependable option available. Power generation companies in this country and around the world realize this and are working to build bigger, safer, and more productive nuclear power stations (usually near existing ones, to avoid the “not in my backyard” problem). And though the most obvious allies for the power companies push to lower carbon dioxide emission are greens, they’re still the people most likely to step out and oppose it.

The issue of safety with nuclear power stations is still the foremost for most opponents. It’s worth noting, as I have, that compared with coal, nuclear is incredibly safe. The number of deaths related to the Chernobyl disaster is easily dwarfed by the number killed mining coal in China in a single year.

Certainly that doesn’t compare with the estimated zero killed by wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal power plants, but this is again ignoring the issue of viability as dependable producers of electricity.

Nuclear is hardly the ideal choice. Were completely safe and renewable energy a viable option in the next few years, I would readily support it. But it’s not. What’s currently available is the unsavory choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, and between those two nuclear is certainly the safer and more environmentally-friendly option. Until renewable sources of energy are dependable and efficient enough, I think nuclear remains the only acceptable stop-gap for a carbon-concerned environmentalist. The sooner that’s realized, the better.

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politics, ruminations, USA

Governing is Campaigning

Mark Halperin, a political writer for Time, got a great deal of flack for a recent column in the New York Times. The column, entitled “How ‘What It Takes’ Took Me Off Course,” consists primarily of Halperin sharing the revelation that there is a difference between the campaigning for president and being president. As he says:

For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.

But now I think I was wrong. The “campaigner equals leader” formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.

He then cites both Clinton and Bush as examples of good campaigners who were, at times, terrible at the “being president” thing.

Understandably, many people, myself included, felt the urge to do little more than scream “Duh!” and allow Halperin to take on all our dismay with the way politics is covered in America. Many went so far as to make the erroneous claim that only Halperin could have ever made this error. That is something my experience says is completely untrue.

With the benefit of waiting a few days, I managed to realize that Halperin’s point is both more interesting and accurate than even he seems to have realized.

If Halperin’s essential point is “campaigning isn’t governing,” I think the crucial truth that he missed is that media coverage–and perhaps reality–tends to make it look like “governing is campaigning.” Any member of America’s House of Representative is no doubt aware that their presence there is perpetuated by them taking almost every off-day and weekend to go home or elsewhere to campaign and raise money. This problem is slightly less troublesome in the Senate, where the six year terms frees most members from the constant act of worrying about their political future.

But heads of the executive branch are perhaps seen more as campaigners than anyone else. Early in his term as president, George W. Bush pushed a number of centrist policies–the education reforms of No Child Left Behind are probably the most prominent–in the hope, expressed most cogently by Karl Rove, of building a permanent Republican majority. And though the internal discord of the party–especially on immigration–seems to make that hope less and less likely, there’s no denying that the effort was a conscious campaign.

Even with no possibility of reelection, and a party that’s doing it’s best to forget that he exists, George Bush is still campaigning. Most visually, yesterday’s Annapolis summit–which featured little more than a symbolic meeting between Israel’s Ehud Olmert and Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas–is widely read as a bid for a more positive legacy for W. and for his Secretary of State Condelleza Rice. This is also to say nothing of the president’s newfound penchant for fiscal discipline. Or his constant refrain that though he may have the worst approval rating in recent memory, it’s higher than that of the Democratic Congress.

So if we venture back to Halperin’s assertion that “campaigning isn’t governing,” I can’t avoid feeling that the correct response is “duh.” But, I would make clear that the two are commonly conflated, both by the media and by those in powers. If yesterday’s events at Annapolis prove nothing else, it gives some heavier credence to the inverse of Halperin’s thesis.

Surely the inverse of your thesis being true doesn’t provide sufficient reason to justify your own weak thesis. But the constant conflation of campaigning and governing is not Halperin’s fault, it’s not media’s fault, and it’s not exactly the politician’s fault. It may, however, be a reflection of the sometimes pitiful nature of American democracy.

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american society, politics, USA

Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

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american society, politics, USA

The State of the Unions

UAWBelieve it or not, there was a time and when the rich and greedy — let’s make them monocled as well — captains of industry had something grave to fear in these United States beyond the possibility that their indefensible tactics would be caught and stopped by government oversight. There was a time when the people, yes the people, could stand up to their employers and demand better working conditions, better pay, or better practices.

Before I go too far into a mythical and unrealistic vision of the unionized past, three key facts should be made explicit. First, this country was never well-unionized beyond a few enclaves–primarily the public sector and heavy industries. Second, to the extent that unions were ever powerful, they never reached high up the job ladder. And finally, unions never secured unlimited government support, tacit or explicit. Since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, no doubt the most supportive of all American presidents, laws have been making it ever more difficult to organize.

Overarching those facts is the most salient of all: ever fewer people belong to labor unions. Unions are small and getting smaller. The fracturing of that labor market, the departure of most heavy industry, and stricter organizing rules make the future look bleak.

The most powerful unions in this country are probably those least in need of organizing. The Writers Guild of America went on strike on Monday–but television and film writers are hardly the ideal of blue-collar workers that unions are usually associated with. Writers may not be the best paid workers in Hollywood, but they’re hardly scraping by month-to-month.

For blue-collar workers, the last time the once-powerful United Auto Worker’s struck, during negotiations with Chrysler, the strike lasted less than six hours. This isn’t because the privately-owned car company feared the losses that would come from a prolonged strike, but because it was absurd for them to have a strike while workers were asking for so little.

The causes of the weakness of organized labor in this country are both long-standing and new, international and extremely local. Perhaps most saliently in our history, unions struggle as “communistic” and thus immediately distasteful. They’re also no match for the growing and compartmentalized white-collar job market that seems to be this country’s future.

Further, few of the emerging industrial powerhouse–Brazil and China, but India, and perhaps Mexico as well–have well-organized labor movements. This allows costs there to be not only low for “first world” standards, but also low in comparison to what the workers would feel they deserve. The low cost of manufacturing elsewhere means that manufacturing unions, like the UAW, can’t ask for much because the workers they represent could be easily and cheaply replaced if they demand much.

All of this bodes poorly for labor unions in this country. And whether you fête or mourn the passing of organized labor, it’s hard to deny that it’s passing diminishes the say of average people in the economy. The primary way for people to make sure that a company doesn’t misbehave is increasingly being reduce to reliance on concerned “whistle-blowers”–who aren’t faring too well either–and government oversight. I, for one, am none too happy about that.

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american society, politics, USA

The Ron Paul Phenomenon

Ron PaulFor those who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Republican candidate for president. His “netroots” are bigger and stronger than any other Republican candidate, perhaps stronger than any other candidate. Any positive story about Ron Paul that makes it to Digg or Reddit is almost certain to make the front page.

All of this begs the questions: Who is Ron Paul? And why are people supporting him?

In the shortest form, Ron Paul is a conservative libertarian, a former obstetrician, and a Congressman from the state of Texas. He’s the only Republican running against the war in Iraq and he’s for the abolition of about as much government as people want him to kill.

All of that’s interesting, and certainly rare among Republicans. But how did Ron Paul raise over $4 million in a single day–more than anyone but Hillary Clinton? After all, most count him as unlikely to get the Republican nod, his support is well under 10% in both the early primary states and across the nation. This turns on its side the notion that a candidate only gets money for being electable.

In seeing all of this, I can’t avoid the feeling that Ron Paul’s supporters like him mostly for what he’s not. His supporters seem to thrive on news of every “mainstream” slight of their candidate–most recently Fox New’s Sean Hannity has been fueling their ire. They also love to rail against the fact that when he wins after-debate polls, they’re regularly dismissed as hacked. Though such stories would seem to validate the idea that Paul is a non-electable non-entity, they actually energize his “netroots” and help him to raise ever more money.

So let’s make a short list of the things Ron Paul isn’t: (1) he’s not a “neoconservative” hawk–in fact his foreign policy is probably the most isolationist of any candidate; (2) he’s not a mainstream candidate–validated by the repeated stories of scorn; (3) he’s not a traditional Republican–he’s unaffiliated with and unsupported by the “Religious Right,” and doesn’t seem troubled by that; (4) he’s against the IRS and most other government entities–whether or not he’s for the FairTax, people like that he hates parts of the government as much as they do.

I can’t avoid the feeling that this list of the things Mr. Paul is not does more to empower his support and fund raising than anything he is. Nowhere do we see reasoned defenses of his isolationist foreign policy, or validation for the idea that the federal government should be made as small as possible. And his supporters seem to thrive on that very fact, they never seem to find it odd, or uncomfortable.

Ron Paul’s support seems to be both diffuse and uninformed. As just one example, Daniel Meissler who calls himself “a serious Ron Paul supporter” came to a shocking realization in September: “Ron Paul is Seriously Flawed as a Candidate: We’re Just So in Love with Him that We’re Not Paying Attention.” Though I’m tempted to say that the headline alone points to the fact that few supporters know much of what he stands for, a quick list of some of Mr. Meissler’s grievances:

  1. He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  2. He’s not for federally funded public education (federally subsidized college loans)
  3. He not for national health care
  4. He would abolish consumer protections
  5. He would abolish the EPA and other environmental safeguards
  6. He would overturn Roe vs. Wade

All of these “flaws” are things that one would legitimately expect from a libertarian Republican, but Mr. Meissler (and many who commented on his post) were unaware. Seduced by what he was not, they had–and Mr. Meissler still does–supported him regardless of his positions.

In a country satisfied with neither its president nor its legislature, Ron Paul allows people something to turn to and support that is clearly not of the tradition of those institutions. He’s been adopted by the disillusioned and the distracted, satisfied by what he’s not, untroubled by what he is. The successes of his campaign are, to me, the perfect illustration of the independent voter’s malaise with modern American politics. But that hardly means he’d make a good president.

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good to know, politics, USA

Considering the “FairTax”

Until recently, I wasn’t aware that “progressive” had an opposite. Surely, many Democrats would prefer that Republican or conservative were seen as opposites of progressive, but they’re not. “Regressive,” I now know, actually is the opposite of progressive, at least in taxes. (And in hindsight, I feel dumb for not having thought of that.)

Fairtax advertisementThis is a distinction I didn’t know would ever matter, and perhaps it never will. Nonetheless, it’s useful as at least a few presidential candidates–mostly Republicans, and none of the frontrunners–are promoting wholesale tax reform, like the “FairTax.”

Before we go too far, a brief introduction. In the simplest terms, taxes can be progressive, proportional, or regressive. Income tax in America is progressive, in that the more you earn, the more you (theoretically) pay–both in pure cash value and in proportion to income.

A proportional tax is something like conventional sales tax, in which all citizens pay the same percentage. That means that regardless of income, all citizens are effectively charged the same tax for their purchases (this fluctuates geographically, but that’s a separate issue.)

Thankfully their are no widespread and regressive taxes that I can use as an example. The rate of a regressive tax decreases as income increases. Which means that, if assessed on income, hedge fund manager are taxed less than their secretaries. This is currently true, but it is generally considered a problem with the tax-code rather than good policy.

Instinctively, I think most Americans would feel that progressive taxes are ideal, fixed taxes reasonable depending on circumstances, and regressive taxes barbaric. Our tax code usually supports this idea, though some interesting issues crop up when one looks critically at these distinctions.

The sales tax as it currently exists could be considered regressive. After all, on goods bought under the tax, the extremely poor and the extremely wealthy have to buy similar quantities of essentials–food, toiletries, clothes. Yet, in relation to income (or wealth), richer people pay a lower proportion or their net worth than the poor.

This distinction can be made to seem erroneous if one remember that sales tax is a tax on consumption not income. But if it were to become the sole tax administered in the country, the distinction would become a much more important one.

The FairTax, supported most prominently by Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, is effectively a flat national sales tax. In order to abolish the IRS (which seems to be the basis for most of the plan’s support), FairTax legislation would mandate a flat tax (of 23%) be assessed against all retail sales. This means that against income, the tax would be far more regressive than America’s current income tax structure.

In order to “assure” that this tax is the good progressive kind, the program would entitle all people to a “prebate.” This rebate would assure that there would be effectively no tax paid on “necessities” (calculated from the federal poverty line). This sounds good, but what about those living below the poverty line who fail to receive the prebate? In the situation of the homeless, there seems a dangerous possibility that the FairTax might be regressive. But I have to admit it’s an admirable plan–far more so than I originally saw (see below).

EDIT (11/30/07): This piece contained a factual error, pointed out by Alejandro Gonzalez, regarding the rebate of the FairTax. I had mistakenly believed it to be a rebate only for those below they poverty level; it’s truly a “prebate”–paid in advance–to all citizens to subsidize the price of “necessities.” The final paragraph has been amended to correct the error.

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