Saturday, October 27, 2012

***Romney. Bush economics. Teaparty.

Why do Democrats point back to the Bush administration so often? Because the Republicans seem to have forgotten everything that they should have learned about that economic history. Or, for whatever excuse, they misrepresent that history, either by ignorance or for raw dishonesty.

Personally, I think that everyone should vote against most Republicans based on the threat of a Teaparty victory. I see their “desired programs” as “dire consequences.” The Teaparty has already taken over the Republican party so completely that their convention hardly mentioned “Teaparty” even though that was the ideology fixed in the Platform. After the sweep of 2010, Republican states worked on the TP agenda, starting with state laws that are anti-abortion, anti-union, and anti-public school. Oh, let us not forget, wide-spread efforts for “voter suppression” for 2012. It is at the national level that they act against the social contract of the last 200 years. 

Extending now to the national level, the Teaparty agenda intends …
- a continuation of GOP imprudent refusal to face up to climate change;
- the repeal of our relatively new-found rights like clean air, clean water, safe food, safe jobs, control of epidemics ... by abolishing or de-funding government regulatory agencies (with the excuse of fixing the deficit);
- further degrading of school standards – schools have long been under assault by Creationists and homophobes – under the guise of “school choice” and home schooling (this works in part by dis-empowering teachers' unions);
- more reversal of the gains since 1960 for women's autonomy (including access to birth control and abortion);
- a return to “get treated in the Emergency Room when your cancer turns critical” as the US standard of compassionate medical care;
- appointment of Supreme Court Justices whose “strict construction” will eliminate Roe v. Wade as the bare beginning to rolling back regulation and 200 years of rights (laying a legal rationale to the deficit-reduction excuses mentioned above).

That's what I come up with in a couple of days of musing. I find it unlikely that President Romney could veto bills that a Congress sends him that implement these attacks on the social contract of the last 200 years. Norquist (anti-tax, anarchist) says, “Just give us someone with fingers that can hold a pen to sign the bills.” The Teaparty is reason enough to abandon him.

Ignoring all that, polls say that some people want to trust Romney with the economy. And not just because “Obama's is doing poorly” but because they believe something positive.

To choose Romney because “he is better on the economy” is, I think, less a consequence of logic than misplaced trust in false authority. For most of their argument, they use hand-waving and misrepresentation of the present and recent past. Paul Ryan (also, Ron Paul) cite economic theory from the 1930s in place of modern economists, theory, data, and experience; but their policy details hardly vary from “supply side.”

Supply side theory has lost its intellectual credibility so thoroughly that the term is no longer mentioned by Republicans – Its theory has shrunk to a slogan that Clinton disproved in 1994, "You don't want to tax the job creators." Yep. Contrary to their most fervid predictions of catastrophe, Clinton's taxes gave us growth and the promise of budget surpluses... surpluses that W. wasted, first by intention and then by incompetence. W. promised, explicitly, that his tax cuts would raise workers' wages, and that did not happen either – The Keynesian stimulus from huge deficits bred slow growth, gains in the stock market, increases for executives' wages, but no gains for workers. Then came the deregulation-crash that ended his term and many millions of jobs. 
Check the fact-checkers, but be sure to read their details:

"The fact checker" column by Glenn Kessler in the Wash. Post of Sunday, Oct. 7, gives both Clinton and Obama “3 Pinocchios” (out of 4), and asks that they “retire this talking point,” that "trickle down policies" led to the economic crisis. He concludes,
We nearly made this Four Pinocchios but ultimately decided that citing deregulation in conjunction with tax cuts kept this category out of the “whopper” category. Still, in his effort to portray Romney as an echo of Bush, the president really stretches the limits here.

Okay, here are details offered by Kessler. He does accept that Romney seemingly will create a huge deficit, and that there is no evidence that he can offset the tax cut for the rich with a repeal of deductions for the rich. That surely echoes Bush.

On the other side, he says that Romney does not echo Bush because some of the deregulation happened under Clinton, including the “repeal of Glass-Steagall law that separated commercial and investment banks.” Thus, those were not simply (or solely) policies of Bush. – That seems largely irrelevant to me, except that it suggests a counter-narrative that is even more potent. Namely: Okay, Democrats proved that they were willing to try deregulation. They are not knee-jerk “anti-business.” Especially since the crash, Democrats look at evidence of cause-and-effect and want to reverse course because of the consistent testimony, … but Republicans won't change. It is surely true that Bush and Republicans embraced that de-regulation before, and that they still do. Thus, those are Bush/ Republican policies that are being echoed. They own them by adoption, if not by birth.

Another point: Kessler thinks it is important that “tax cuts” alone did not cause the crisis... but I think nobody has ever claimed that. The citations he began with each mentioned deregulation. However, the tax-cut created deficits are not irrelevant. Kessler quotes these words and then goes on as if he never read them –
Obama campaign deputy press secretary said that “the tax cuts contributed to the crisis in multiple ways, including by driving up the deficit, ....”

If Bush had continued Clinton's taxes (and Clinton's surplus), there could have been serious thought for a larger stimulus plan, without the long term deficit looming so dire. Claiming huge, magical gains from tax cuts is entirely an echo of Bush (and Reagan!), as is the claim that the middle class would be the people who would see the benefits.

-The Bush cuts are still in effect – if they work, why aren't they working? Among tax proposals that economists expect will create jobs, income tax cuts for the rich rate near the bottom.

- Hand-waving: It is a substantial misrepresentation when Romney does not credit the stimulus with saving 3 million jobs. It is a substantial misrepresentation when he ignores the fact that projections, “predictions” by the Obama economists made before he took office, were skewed to the favorable side because the crash was worse than everyone imagined … the December numbers on jobs were worse than reported, and weren't fixed until June. On rare occasions, Romney has admitted that the recovery was about as good as expected, so this is phony hand-waving rather than simple stupidity or ignorance. (Which fault is a more serious?).

Romney has plenty of concrete promises of rosy outcomes. The policies remain the Teaparty promises: no new taxes (more cuts); deregulate Wall Street; deregulate polluters; fire government employees; abort the incipient regulation of health insurance.

This boom is supposed to appear because of a joy-of-austerity, joy of the promise of dirtier air, joy of lost medical care. And despite the sucker-punch of a million lost government jobs in regulating, teaching, etc.

If the Teaparty is not enough reason to reject Romney, his incoherent imitation and exaggeration of Bush's economics ought to be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Foreign policy, Romney versus Obama

The debate on foreign policy confirmed half of what I expected from Mitt Romney. Romney disagrees with Obama, not on any specific policy, but on presentation. The other half of what I expected was not actively confirmed, but I think that was a failure of the event.

What I think is, Obama follows Teddy Roosevelt's line, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick"; where Romney imagines better outcome from, "Shout, and carry an even bigger stick."

Here are a couple of what someone has called "irregular conjugations."
Romney's dimension goes,
I am bold, frank, and plain-speaking;
You are a bit argumentative;
He is rude, belligerent, and overly hasty.

Obama's dimension goes,
I am thoughtful, civil, and effective;
You are sometimes not confrontational enough;
He is meek and apologetic.

It is easy enough to see how the sociology will usually work here, where the "bold, plain-speaker" will regard the quieter style of response as meek and insufficient.

Romney has repeatedly called Obama apologetic. For a couple of years, I wondered if Obama was not confrontational enough in dealing with Republicans (in particular), but I came to recognize that Obama was wiser than me in a couple of cases – being civil and thoughtful proved to be effective in ways I had not imagined.

On the other hand, during the development of the consulate crisis, Romney blurted out political pronouncements of "apologies" based on misreading a pre-event memo as a post-event response. He embraced "too hasty" as his style.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Constructing the Constitution

The strict constructionists find excuses to reverse the social contract of the last 220 years, by saying “Well, it might be nice, but it is not in the Constitution.” That philosophy not only might give us the loss of any federal help on the rights to clean air, clean water, safe food, and safe working conditions … all of which, please recognize, are already targeted by the Teaparty. The particular decision on Obamacare surprised observers in several respects. After the constructionists were impressed by the silly broccoli metaphor during oral argument, the betting odds turned against a decision allowing the program. The decision for it was a bit of a surprise, but not as surprising as its justification – Roberts' decision allowed the program, but built in an argument to weaken a rather old precedent for federal use of the commerce clause.

Not long before, the 2010 decision on Citizens' United expanded the scope of corporations. This becomes more alarming when you consider that the newer rights and entitlements (220 years of social contract) were, often, necessitated by the size and scope and social heedlessness of the corporations that employ everyone – Today's economic and material status quo stands in strong contrast to the era of the Founding Fathers when 80% of the population farmed.

There is one Constitution of 7 Articles and 27 amendments, but that is not the whole of our “constitution”. There are laws and interpretations and the principle of stare decisis, which says, “no arbitrary changes from the past.” It seems to me that modern Supreme Court justices follow stare decisis most of the time, because there is no problem; but any of them are willing to overturn precedents. In their respective confirmation hearings, Sotomayor and Kagan each argued convincingly that “judicial activism” is simply not a useful concept.

The record shows that, yes, for a couple of decades after WW II, the liberal issues, supported by liberal justices, showed more apparent activism, but for the last couple of decades, it has been the conservative issues and justices who overturn more decisions. So, “being active” is not the criterion for the folks who still object to judicial activism.

Decisions are built not only on previous law, but also on understandings of science and philosophy that may go on for pages in a crucial decision. So the Constitution includes the original text with the Bill of Rights, later amendments with short changes, and important decisions, some of them with explanations. The philosophy of the Founders is taken into special account – the Declaration of Independence is a second document that is often taken as being important for widening the jurisdiction of the Constitution, to include a larger set of hopes and promises... and more federal power. The Constitution is an important anchor, but it is just a starting place for what we believe and what we follow.

I was surprised when I first heard a discussion of the United Kingdom being a "constitutional monarchy". This seems to be an useful and meaningful description, in spite of the fact that that country has no written constitution. It does have an on-going, consistent process, and they do have a very similar, resulting, rule of law that "governs" the government. When courts rule on the Constitution, more history is implicated than merely the words of the Constitution.

In the Dred Scott case in 1857, Justice Taney hoped to end the long-festering disputes about slavery. The idea of “all men being created equal” bumped up against a contradiction, in slavery. Of course, that "equal" phrase was in the Declaration, not the Constitution... Should it matter? Lincoln's Gettysburg Address pointed back (“four scores and seven years”) to the signing of the Declaration, but his argument helped to create that modern opinion that the Declaration should matter. The issue in Dred Scott was, Did a Northerner have to return a slave?

Taney wrote an opinion that decided “Yes”, based on revised "fact" – He concluded that those African American slaves were not to be considered human beings. So they had no rights. This left the South with their preferred version of laws, and left many in the North outraged. I wonder if the Civil War would have arrived even sooner if that decision had fallen the opposite way. On one side or the other, many laws would need to be changed. The Court took the course of establishing a particular “fact” that made it natural to review, to declare (even) some old laws to have been unconstitutional. The decision did so. (I don't know what Taney would have done about free blacks in the North.)

Taney argued that the people at the time of the founding of the country did not recognize blacks as people. As I read it, he was the first practitioner of construction by “original intent.” Basing a decision on “revised fact” is generally less offensive to stare decisis than a new version of law based on old facts. Taney's serious error is that the facts he used were already, in 1857, too far from true.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, the court faced a question of whether “separate but equal” treatment of blacks would meet constitutional standard for equality. This time, the court settled for a sociological “fact” of great dubiety. Could any parade of facts have shown where separate was equal, to a rational and fair audience?

Brown v. Board of Education, 1954, was explicitly based on a review of facts, documented especially in a sociological text by Gunnar Myrdal. Separate had not been equal. Laws needed to change, to recognize that the whole slew of Jim Crow legislation of 50-plus years was inherently not-constitutional. The SC did face up to the contradictions. The new facts mandated change, to enforce the constitutional guarantee of equal rights. Schools were the prominent target of immediate change.

These are examples of how facts affect law in civil rights. The provisions for “equality” in the Declaration of Independence, reinforced by explicit instructions in the 14th Amendment, gave the national government an enormous new scope of activities to overcome injustices and promote fairness. Other phrases have seen expansion of protections, freedoms and entitlements, too. 

The facts” are relevant; accept that the scope of laws can be expanded as a logical consequence. Here are several more, in very few words.

Eisenhower's building of the Interstate Highway System was justified by these "facts" – national security and national defense needed the ability to move soldiers and materiel across the country. And it needed healthy citizens to fill the ranks of an army. And there is the commerce clause that permits expansion of activities in many ways never dreamed of by the founders, who never knew any "national corporation." The health of the citizenry depends on clean air and clean water.

The constitution evolves. The new decisions become part of the wider constitution that is to be preserved.

I think I learned an important legal distinction between "facts" and "law" during the news coverage of the Appeals decision on California's Prop. 8 (gay marriage). The judge made summaries in those two categories, including 81 findings of fact. Reportedly, the SC would be almost forced to accept the judge's conclusions of fact, while they would be free to dispute his conclusions about how previous law - in this case, the Constitution - should be applied.

The daily coverage of the case indicated that the opponents of gay marriage leaned heavily on facts that were bar-room rambling (or, chat-room, these days), and history that either was a-historical or not relevant. The customs of the 1780s are not part of the constitution, but they did inform the writers. Men had rights, women and children did not. Women and children were chattel, and could own nothing. Those are facts that have changed.

Sociology may describe a tiny role for teen-revolt, but modern biology says that same-sex attraction is not a sinful choice, but (if you want this language) is the way God made some people. Competent science says that people who are homosexual are not notably criminal or insane. The defenders of Prop. 8 were reduced, it seemed, to admitting something like, "I read it somewhere on the internet."

Once the old-time asymmetry of marriage is removed (done! in the minds of the younger generation), there seems to be full justification for extending legal status, rights, protections, etc. The legal rulings from California generated great optimism on the gay-marriage side. The SC would have to do a large amount of legal twisting to avoid the natural extension of rights. However...

I used construction of the Constitution with forethought about the Teaparty mantra of "strict construction"; and about the 3 justices who endorse some version of original intent and strict construction.

What is strict construction? – adhere to the words that are written, and nothing else, using original intent, perhaps, as construed from either the authors of the Constitution, or the legislators, or the people of the time, by making use of old dictionaries when necessary. Mix-and-match to get conclusions that feel right.

Theoretically, it ought to be possible to come up with a consistent interpretation that way, given time to develop it. In practice, strict construction (to me) has been an excuse for self-indulgent decisions with a so-called conservative flavor: It serves as an excuse to pretend that no science exists beyond the 18th century, no new rights and entitlements; there are no new items of social contract embodied in 220 years of decisions. In other words, they have a program of radical retrenchment, not conservation. Because they grant themselves so much leeway, I am never too surprised at whatever those justices will decide.

The arbitrariness of strict-construction decision-makers is promoted by the novelty of their doctrine. Each Justice can choose to carve a path without much critical feedback – they are the defining authorities. The arbitrariness of their outcomes is illustrated by their disagreements on where "strict construction" leads them. I read documentation on that in a book praising Clarence Thomas.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Natural rights and social contract

The Teaparty advocates of natural rights limit their approval, it seems to me, to the negative rights. They don't want the government to interfere; but they also don't want the government to provide freedoms and entitlements that expand the social contract beyond its early days. The Founding fathers created, first, the Articles of Confederation. That made a hopelessly crippled central government. They replaced the Articles with the today's constitution, where the central government was also deprived of some power. Teapartyers today regard the latter, sometimes, as almost a holy document, while also imagining it to be as weak as the Articles. Now, I'd say that most Teapartyers do want most of the new entitlements, but they have been led to idealize powerlessness by a modern set of anarchists.

Since those early days, there has been an extensive re-working and re-writing of the social contract. It was necessary to accommodate 200 years of history. A.  Farmers are no longer 90% of the population. B. The needs and the ills of urbanization would have torn apart the country, if there were job entitlements and protections. C. Science and philosophy created new conditions, and new contradictions; doing nothing would have violated basic principles of fairness. Major changes arose or were justified when the Declaration of Independence was added as a “basic document” of our meaning of freedom and fairness. The vast increase in the wealth of society is another main source of evolution of rights and entitlements.

If someone mentions the point, I'm willing to accept that the Constitution should be re-written explicitly, or at least have some new amendments, to make it easier for the national government to do what it it needs to do. Is it really efficient to enforce a national mandate by bribing the states with federal funding, and coerce them by threatening to withhold it? But, further, I want to say, If you don't like the way that the Constitution has been re-interpreted over the years, what is needed is a set of amendments that formalize the necessary changes. It is hostile and stupid to try to throw out the newer 200 years of social contract.

Mitt Romney, in the infamous May “47%” tape, sneers at people thinking that they are entitled to health care, food and a roof over their head. As a wealthy industrial state, do we want to allow people to starve or be forced to live under bridges? I'd say that the answer is No, but that is not the consequence of his answer. We have pretty minor assurances, so far, for health, food, and shelter. We have a longer history of some other entitlements, like public schools, good roads, firemen, policemen, safe jobs. There is a shorter history of safe food, safe water, clean air, but all those are proper expectations of modern civilization.

At the root, the problem is that “paying for them” is an impediment to one's private enjoyment of wealth (worship of Mammon?). The overt excuses are separate and diverse, and never impressive. In some recent rhetoric, they implicitly class all “government jobs” as inherently fake-jobs, as compared to “private industry”, so they favor privatization. Teapartyers in Congress have resisted Obama's attempts at job creation/preservation following those rationales. They have opposed federal Recession help for localities to fund police and firemen, and national building of needed infrastructure as stimulus.

We need schools. We have free, public schools, with some standards for education. Teapartyers prefer home-schooling and charter schools, especially if they can avoid standards that teachers' unions tend to insist on, like, decent teaching of evolution, climate science, or sex education. Teapartyers have lately recorded successes in both breaking teachers' unions and in funding charter schools (unusually non-union).

We have public roads. Eisenhower justified the national roads system under the excuse of national defense. I suspect that we will yet see costly failures from the privatization of turnpikes.

Workers have the right to decent hours and conditions. – The protection agencies are among the primary targets of the Teaparty.

Cleveland has the right to a river that does not catch on fire; Pittsburgh has a right to breathable air. Generally, fishes should have a right to rivers that are liveable, and wildlife should have a right to natural environments. However, the Teaparty faction seems to be broadly committed to ending the EPA, with no mention of preserving its functions.

Up til Obamacare, we had a minimal level of health-care entitlement. Ron Paul was not well received when he presented the Libertarian position, that emergency rooms should not provide unpaid-for life-saving care.. I imagine that most Teapartyers do not recognize that this entitlement, as an enforceable entitlement, only dates to the 1980s, as a provision for accepting Medicare payments. (Justice Alito sniffed at a mention of this during the Obamacare case, it was reported, “And how did that happen?”) Emergency room care (only) for life-threatening emergencies (only) is inefficient, insufficient for decent health, and far behind the entitlement offered by every other advanced country.

Two other aspects of health entitlement – and social contract – deserve mention. Parents have duties towards the health of their kids, regardless of their own personal religious prejudices; children are no longer dependent property which can be treated howsoever the parents prefer. Parents cannot avoid certain vaccinations for their children. Further, they cannot deny care for critically ill children. I have not seen the Teaparty attack this part of the new social contract, unlike their visible successes against unions, public schools, and the right to an abortion.

These rights for children arose after children were recognized as having independent rights as human beings. I think it is similar to the rationale by which wives are no longer as the property of their husbands; they are independent human beings, with rights of self-determination. I wonder how many of today's young people know that child abuse practically did not “exist” before the 1950s, because the rights of parents were exclusive. We see very rare cases, these days, where parents justify injuries as the result of (literally) “beating the devil out of” a child. Teapartyers include these people but I haven't seen any fight on this issue... except, say, for the revival of physical punishment in schools (Texas, today's news report).

Somewhat similarly, it is more recent than that when it was established (generally, I think, but I am not sure) that a husband could be charged with raping his own wife. “Ownership” is no longer the accepted social contract. Here's another place where the Teapartyers have not been shouting, but their war on autonomy of women leaves me wondering how far they will go.

Women have a right to abortion. Women have a right to birth control.... which was illegal in many states until the Supreme Court expanded on a “right to privacy” which itself is derivative. These aspects of women's autonomy are particular targets of the Fundamentalist core of the Teaparty. This is seen in the last two years in dozens of laws proposed at the national level, and dozens enacted among hundreds proposed in Republican states. Several states have enacted the pre-abortion requirement of “trans-vaginal ultrasonic probes” as a form of harassment for those using their right to an abortion. And Romney (following his competitors) endorses a Person-hood Amendment, as does his formal party platform.

Unlike some newer constitutions, which are modeled on such things as UN Declaration of Rights, the US Constitution does not explicitly guarantee these rights; and it riles some people to see 220 years of the government taking on new “powers”. Well, the interpretation of the constitution has evolved. It might be neater if the Constitution did spell out more federal powers, during this time that the social contract evolved, and the notion of rights and entitlements evolved. It does spell out those rights in a series of Supreme Court decisions.

The Teaparty has listened to anarchists and concluded that taxes are bad; therefore government is bad; and let's get rid of them all. I can't see how that is compatible with maintaining civilization.