Thursday, April 26, 2007

Now you tell us

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback said yesterday he no longer supports the immigration overhaul bill that he helped pass in the Senate.
"I would not vote for the same bill," Mr. Brownback told reporters yesterday morning, saying that after the bill passed the Senate he had a chance to study its effects and decided it led to too much immigration.
Better late than never I suppose, but why now? It's not like the problems of the current immigration regime were some big secret last year. (Hat tip to Derb)

Starving the Beast

Back to the thing about the carbon tax. Daniel is correct to think that politically speaking, the strategy is a little dated. Reflexive opposition to taxes has been a staple of GOP popularity since Reagan. But in Reagan's case, even if he didn't kill the welfare state or even seriously wound it, it was clear that regarding gov't spending, he was part of the solution instead of part of the problem. President Bush fils obviously has no such credibility, and the Republicans in Congress are no better and in some cases worse. So now we are in the unfortunate situation where the disconnect between spending and taxes is putting pressure on taxes instead of spending. But even here, to the extent that the GOP base gets a word in, it's better to keep the Norquist tax pledges and work harder to cut spending.

But why, really, can't the GOP take a "responsible" attitude toward funding the nation's public needs? It's a special case a simple reality of politics, something I plan to post more about later: big ticket issues, like the fraction of the national economy that the government is going to take for its own purposes, are never settled by horse trading. Instead, there are always a series of deals and modifications that reflect an underlying modus vivendi.

As it applies to taxes, there is very likely to be a disconnect between the collection of the tax and purpose that the tax is collected for. The money is taken away from the private economy forever (and is likely to continue to be taken away indefinitely) , but the ostensible benefits of the taxes may never come. It's famous talking point among tax protestors that one of the lines on your phone bill is a special tax to fund the Spanish-American War (ie, the one fought in 1898) which persisted for a century through the force of inertia (I think it was one of the Bush tax cuts that finally got rid of that one, though I'm not completely sure about that).

People are not going to care a whole lot about a nickel and dime item like that, but they will care very much about a gas tax, or any variant of it. It is a plausible thing to ask the American people for a collective sacrifice for a common good like environmental improvement or energy independence. But we should ask, are these goods real, or just a rationalization for the federal government to expand its power at the expense of individual Americans?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wow, just wow

Hat tip to Steve Sailer for this. Like everybody else, there is very little that really shocks me anymore, and Ms. Giovanni's poem would be no exception but for the chilling juxtaposition.

Economic populism

Another angle on Daniel's post: I don't buy that economic populism, conventionally understood, is very popular. If you don't believe me, you can just ask President Pat Buchanan, President Harkin, and President Gephardt.

I do think that economic anxiety is very high. But the set of people who take seriously the proposition that it would be fixed if we could just put a 40% tariff on all Korean televisions is just about less than epsilon, and getting smaller every day. Because global capitalism is such a dynamic thing, it is getting more and more difficult to build a personal franchise strong enough to guarantee economic security through all the turbulence in the world at large. Therefore, even the temporarily affluent feel the anxiety because most of whatever it is they have can go away a lot quicker than it used to.

Viewed in this light, the carbon tax is a two-way loser. For the old-school truck-driving populists, the carbon tax is bad because it hurts their consumption. But for the New Economy bobos, the carbon tax hurts their production. For them, (and for the economy in general) energy is largely a capital good. Like anyother capital good, its cost can (and will) be substituted or passed on to the consumer. But before then, it will also increase the anxiety of those whose ability to make a living is put in jeopardy.

Carbon tax

Daniel Larison and Matthew Yglesias are interested in why GOP and its pundits are not in favor of some kind of energy consumption-based taxes. Larison's post in particuar touched on several things, but the immediate politics of this are fairly simple. There are essentially three reasons why one might be in favor of enacting an energy tax.

1. To raise revenue for the federal gov't.

For the GOP, this is actually a negative. The amount of revenue to be raised wouldn't significantly help solve the government's fiscal problems, and it creates a moral hazard for the gov't to enrich itself at the expense of individual Americans (or families). This would be mitigated if the gov't (or hypothetical GOP pundits) could show that the revenue generated would finance some end that widely-agreed upon and widely-distributed benefit. In practice, these things tend not to work. In particular, the tie-in to the income tax doesn't seem plausible to me. The Democratic party (and the Left in general) is not in a position to offer any kind of substantial tax relief because they will have to keep tax rates high in order to keep from cutting benefit levels in the various social welfare programs as such programs are about to go on a demographic swan dive. On a more emotional level, the Left hates tax cuts and they just bitterly earned a legislative majority.

2. To help the environment.

Given the track record of doomsday predictions by environmentalists, any Republican who went for this ought to be sued for malpractice. Among other things, there's a dirty little secret that those propping the conventional wisdom of global warming don't like to talk about. That is, if one accepts the pessimistic view of global warming, the draconian "solutions" (Kyoto, energy taxes) don't solve anything.

3. To provide energy independence from the Middle East and other politically unsavory places.

This is legit, but would probably be oversold to the voters.

In Yglesias' case, I think he might be misreading the political landscape as well. The tree-hugger types have spent so much energy hating on the Republicans, I don't think a carbon tax is enough to turn the GOP into a green brand. And even if it did, I still don't think it would be enough toflip the support of bobo-Liberals anyway.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sneak Previews

In a brief note regarding the French Presidential election, Stanley Kurtz touches on the demographic angle. France, like most other European countries, is caught between declining birth rates and and burdensome entitlements characteristic of the modern welfare state. This is fairly well known.

However, there is a related phenomenon that ought to be getting more attention that it is. France is suffering the incremental corruption, not just of the political leaders, but of the culture at large. So even when the leadership (or the even voters) want real reform, the body politic is so degraded that they can't get it.

The demographic situation in the developed world is difficult but not necessarily irreparable. As Kurtz' source points out, even though the population is getting older, it is still healthy. Furthermore, over the decades, the nature of work has changed to where we as workers are still capable later in life. With smart reforms in entitlements, workforce adaptations toward the productivity of formerly-retirees, and the ingenuity of the individual, the developed world still has a fighting chance. But can the French pull it off? The field of battle runs through the heart of M. Beaucheron and his retirement benefits.

This is part of the reason why, jingoism aside, America truly is the best hope for the world as we know it. For the real big-ticket items, demographics, engagement with Islam, energy, America is in objectively better shape than the other developed nations. But at least important as that, America still has the spiritual strength to believe in fixing its problems whereas the rest of the world is largely resigned to fate.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

McCain redux

I was just as surprised as Daniel Larison that George Allen failed in his reelection campaign for US Senator from Virginia, at least partially due to gaffes caught on YouTube. So maybe I'm not the one to ask either, but I'll commit a few words to pixels as well.

First of all, Daniel is quite correct that GOP primary voters oppose jihad, either Shiite or Sunni, and want to avoid appeasing it if at all possible. (This is pretty basic so far, but it seems to exasperate Daniel.) From here, Daniel reasons that the GOP primary will be a posturing contest over who can out-macho the next guy on the War on Terror, or Iran in particular.

On that score, I have to part company. Just because no one is in the market for Chuck Hagel-style anklebiting, doesn't mean the GOP base can be bought off like the AARP holding out for bigger COLAs for Social Security. The issue doesn't frame that way. Support for the War on Terror will be a plus for the candidate who can show the voters that he is tough and smart. Anything that sounds like bluster will be filtered out, unless it's too provocative, in which case it will work as a negative.

Btw, who are these voters who "think that Mr. Bush has generally done a bang-up job all around?" I don't know of any.

Back to McCain. It is true, I would guess, that those who support McCain do so because of his steadfastness on the War. But as far as getting the nomination goes (or even seriously threatening for it), I don't think it will help much. This race, especially with the presence of President Bush dominating the background, will come down to persons and personalities and who can rescue the value of Brand Republican from the bear market of the last two years.

John McCain is not the guy. He's too old, not necessarily chronologically, but whereas before he presented himself as mavericky, now he's just crotchety. And all his policy apostasies (campaign finance reform, immigration, etc.) might be forgiven except for this: he has spent the better part of a decade hating on mainstream conservatives, and they haven't forgotten.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In which I defend people other than Jonah Goldberg

I suspect this whole business is coming to an end quite soon, but before it does, I wanted to revisit the Alterman/Larison thesis from the beginning, apart from our consideration of Jonah Goldberg. Simply put, the whole thing is a crock.

After a moment's reflection, I thought of Paul Johnson, Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), Thos. Sowell, Michael Fumento, Roger Kimball, David Gelernter, George Gilder, and the late Milton Friedman for starters. These are prominent public intellectuals associated in some way with the mainstream Right (or in Friedman's case very recently so), not directly involved with politics or the Bush Administration, not directly involved with the neocon/paleocon thing or other intramural battles on the Right, and cordial to but not intimately involved with National Review or the mainstream conservative media. I'm sure others could supply other examples.

The idea that Eric Alterman is somehow above all these people is ridiculous of course, but frankly I don't think anybody expects anything from him. The idea that Daniel Larison agrees with him is not a credit to him, or at the very least was written in the flush of anger without much deliberation.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I will choose free will

"Sure, there’s a tendency among some of us, myself included, to look askance on even those traditional conservatives who continue to treat Lincoln as something other than a tyrant and even less patience for those who may now think that the New Deal was worth the trade-off of killing what little remained of the Constitution (not that these folks would acknowledge that this was the trade-off), but considering what we’re talking about paleos are quite restrained and mild in their annoyance with these folks." - Daniel Larison

Like my hero Jonah, I'm going to make a serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been advanced in such detail before. That is, I'm going to color in some of the dialog from the prior posts with a demonstration that the paleocon failure (and several other things besides) is at bottom an oblique denial of free will.

All of us realize, whether we state it this way are not, that sometimes other people's actions are contingent, and sometimes they are just facts of nature. That is we, want to imagine that another person could choose between more than one course of action (presumably between things we prefer and things we don't), and that we can mentally put ourselves in that person's place and advocate for one choice or another based on the perceived consequences. But, only some of the time.

The direct impact of any one person's actions is very small. Everything meaningful he accomplishes is necessarily filtered through other people's actions. Therefore, we want to be able to take some credit or assume some fiat power over other people's actions. But, total fiat is just as meaningless as none at all. First of all, one person's mind cannot handle the complexity of total fiat over everybody in the world. Second, analysis of human affairs reduces to triviality, eg, there is no reason to persuade President Bush to avoid war in Iraq when we could just as easily have said that Saddam Hussein should relinquish his claims to leadership there.

Taking these as boundaries, how do we tell the difference? How do we designate an action for which we should consider other possibilities versus some other action that is just part of objective reality? Frankly that's a subject that people should think about a great deal more than they do. But a big part of the answer is that we can legitimately consider alternative actions in circumstances where we have some sort of personal connection to the actor.

My favorite example of this is the pyramids of Egypt vs. your choice of breakfast cereal this morning. The reader knows, with the memory of standing in front of the kitchen cupboard, that he could have picked Froot Loops instead of Frosted Flakes. But the product of thousands of sweating slaves is just part of the landscape, like a canyon or a mountain. (Btw, if Daniel is still following, Joe Sobran makes a similar point in one of his favorite metaphors: the scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholoson's nostril is cut is memorable not because of the amount of violence but because we identify so strongly with his character.)

From here, there are two important premises to having a sufficient personal connection to appreciate the contingency of someone else's action. First, it takes a fair amount of plain effort, and second, it means that the other party also gets to evaluate you. Let's leave that second one aside for the moment but the first is very important. Part of the effort into making a connection with another person is the willingness to accept the other person's frame of the world: his perceptions, his intentions, his constraints.

If for some reason you are unwilling to make that effort, you can't justifiably pretend to act on that person's behalf. It's as though that other person is a plastic figure who will move at our whim. (Btw, forgive the the earlier reference to Ken and Barbie, I should have explained it better.) All people have God's gift of free will, especially our antagonists.

Sticking up for Jonah

Really Daniel, I'm quite prepared to believe that Jonah displays any number of faults (or least idiosyncracies that we might not approve of), but we wouldn't know it from the examples you cite. About Lindbergh, he pretty clearly argues that he's not trying to tar Yglesias with Lindbergh, but instead attempting to at least partially rehabilitate Lindbergh.

About Rod, I have to say that Crunchy Cons is just a really awful book, precisely because Rod hints at a very real, very important phenomenon, and then says virtually nothing useful or interesting about it. Frankly whatever Jonah's point about the sacralization of politics is supposed to mean, it's giving Rod more credit than he's due. For Rod to assert boboish fashion and food choices as a sources of spiritual renewal (and I do think that's a fair description of his work) is just as bad as anything he criticizes in the book. In fact, it was following the whole Crunchy Con thing while it was hot gave me a renewed appreciation for mainstream American conservatives, for having to endure anklebiting from the likes of Rod.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

In which I defend Jonah Goldberg

Besides my other general point about paleocons, the other thing I wanted to mention wrt Daniel's response to me is that, at least in this case, he's wrong on the merits.

StarTrek in-jokes notwithstanding, Jonah does fairly engage people who disagree with him. And in fact he was doing so in the very post Daniel complains about. I have no particular beef with most of Reihan's analysis, but I've got no idea what "lower-middle reformism" and "upper-middle reformism" are supposed to mean. Suffice to say, they are not terms in wide circulation. Whatever it is, coining a neologism gives the impression that it's describing an inherent phenomenon as opposed to a very temporary alignment of some small part of the American body politic. And that's essentially what Jonah wrote, and he was well within his rights to do it.

If Daniel wants to look for lack of engagement in the contemporary Right, Derbyshire is a much better example. Even in his case, I don't think it's malicious as opposed a recognition on his part that he doesn't have the time or interest to settle every last jot and tittle. He succinctly states his case in two or three go-rounds, and if people still want to disagree after that, so be it. If you really want his attention, you've got to be able to converse intelligently about the Four-Color Theorem or the depravity of Long Island home-improvement contractors.

The problem with paleos

"Koz says that “being paleo means never having to say you’re sorry,” which I might be inclined to spin as a compliment meaning that paleos never have anything for which they should be sorry. But obviously that is not his meaning. It means that paleos should feel bad that they keep more or less accurately pointing out the grievous dangers to this country long before these evils become obvious to everyone else, while no one pays any attention to the paleos and instead listens to the impressive frauds who continue to bungle everything and fail their country on a regular basis. Daniel Larison

No, It's actually simpler than that. It means that for an intellectual movement like paleonconservatism (or even for individuals in some circumstances), it's not sufficient to be right. We are not judged just on what we think, but also what we do, and paleoconservatism has done very little. I'm sympathetic to paleos in other ways, but in on this score we must judge them harshly.

The paleo v. mainstream conservative battle has been going on for a while, though the Bush Administration has exacerbated it a great deal. The paleos have a long list of complaints against mainstream conservatives, neoconservatives, and the world in general for that matter. Some of these complaints were justified, but most of them have been forgotten by everybody except the paleos. All of their pissing matches and refusals to compromise bear a real cost, and this is theirs. A tree that falls in an empy forest doesn't make a noise.

President Fred

While reading Daniel Larison's response to another post of mine, I chased a few links and saw this:

Enough time has passed since he wrote it that it's not completely fair for me to criticize it, since I have the benefit of a month's worth of hindsight. But leaving that aside, I will anyway.

In fact, I'll see Tom Bevan's third and raise him: if Fred Thompson gets into the race, he'll soon thereafter be the frontrunner and, I'm guessing, have a surprisingly easy path to winning the nomination. Why is this?

I'm glad you asked. Like I wrote yesterday, there's three criteria that GOP voters, if they're smart, have to have to nominate a Presidential candidate. He has to be on the right side on the half-dozen or so dealbreaker issues, he has to be a plausible demographic representative of Republican voters, and he has to have the right temperment and character for the job.

As it looks right now, Fred is the only game in town for the GOP.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The labyrinth

As I have been attempting to continue my study of the Polish language, I have come to the belated realization that in an odd way my textbook represents a microcosm of Poland. When I at college studying Polish last year, the professor assigned us a textbook "W labiryncie" based on the Polish soap opera of the same name from the late 1980's, episodes of which are used to complement the book. I have continued to use them for my independent study.

It's sort of like the Polish version of Dynasty or Dallas. It has more or less the same issues of bourgeois intrigue writ large: infidelity, the status game at the workplace, the battle between the cohesiveness of a family and outside adversity, the things that will move a woman's attention, and so on. But, compared to the American epics, the glam quotient is dialed down from 11 to 2.5, say. There's a drabness quality to everything we see, like cars or laboratories and the production values are very poor. But as important as those things are, the real drama doesn't depend upon them.

The kids are alright

Daniel Larison is a thoughtful, paleocon-ish graduate student at the University of Chicago. I suspect I will be riffing off his work more often to the extent that I update this meager blog.

In any case, he seems to agree with Eric Alterman that Jonah Goldberg is all shtick and no real thought. This is an example of an interesting phenomenon we've seen with interesting regularity recently: a meeting of the minds between the paleoconservatives and the Left.

Most often, of course, this is the fruit of shared opposition to the War and the supposed vulgarity of the Bush Administration. But today's topic nicely illustrates the peculiarities of each position: the professional Leftist Alterman can't see the humanity of those associated with the Right because of the bitterness and life-choking stranglehold of ideology inherent in today's Leftist politics. Whereas Larison imputes Goldberg's thoughts as necessarily vapid, swimming in the mainstream of American culture as they are.

This last is a paleocon trope that I wish more of them could see for themselves, since the paleocons often have very useful cultural commentary, but no accountability for any of it. Being a paleo means never having to say you're sorry. If they had been in charge, the problem (whatever problem it is) would have never happened in the first place. This is good as far as it goes, but it means that we have to retreat into our own personal little Barbie and Ken dollhouse where we have total fiat over our environment.

The whole shtick business that Alterman and Larison criticize Jonah for is especially unfortunate, #1 because it's an obvious genetic fallacy, and #2, because Jonah uses it a lot less than he used to. Not to say that he can't be wrong about this or that, but it's a little unfair to say that Jonah is an empty head while offering little if any substance yourself.

Primaries 101

Dear Andy,

Giuliani is joke.

Your pal,

By now, the whole world knows that Rudy has had two or three really bad weeks, mostly having to do with abortion. He was never a pro-lifer, but he recently stated he favors public funding of abortion, and that does not support the Hyde Amendment (which bans public funding), but only would not actively work to repeal it. Well, that was obviously a nonstarter, so he has since backtracked. Exactly where we think he stands now, frankly I can't be bothered to find out.

Aside from abortion, Rudy is still a terrible candidate. Most of his supporters, like Andy McCarthy above, are myopic enthusiasts about one particular aspect of being President, and really never consider the totality of the job, and the campaigns required to get it. So to fully appreciate the wretchedness of the hypothetical Giuliani nomination, we have to have a little primer on Presidential candidates in general. Basically, you have to have all of three things:

1. He has to have the "right" policies or issue stances, both for the party he represents and for the country as a hole.

2. He has to demographically represent his party.

3. He has to have a good temperment for all aspects of the role.

The GOP is in a pickle right now because none of their declared candidates satisfy these basic, "have-to-have" criteria. But Guiliani is the worst of the lot, he independently flunks all three.

Besides abortion and gay rights, he's bad on immigration, he has no particular credibility on taxes, and he has no appeal to anyone with enthusiasm for limited government. This last point is flying under radar at the moment, but is very important nonetheless. A lot of Americans, not just tinfoil leftists complaining about HalliBushCo, are nervous about the unchecked growth of Leviathan in the era of the War on Terror, and Giuliani will not assuage their fears.

Demographically speaking Rudy doesn't represent New York (which would be bad enough), he's a real New Yorker. People who vote Republican in Presidential elections don't identify with New Yorkers.

Finally, Rudy is also a general jerk besides. It says a lot, that by 9/11, New Yorkers themselves had had quite enough of him, notwithstanding the fact that he is almost universally credited with saving the city. And working the Presidential campaign trail is like being in a boxing ring with Joe Louis, "You can run but you can't hide." He will be found out.