Saturday, February 27, 2010

A BLOG POST FROM A SPECIAL GUEST

Tonight is the Jewish holiday of Purim. That means that I am about to deliver an oration this evening, and by the end of the oration, I will post a transcript of the talk on the "Annual Purim Speeches" page of my website, www.danielspiro.com. I encourage you to read it Monday morning.

Now to the business at hand. This week, for only the second time, the Empathic Rationalist blog will be written by a guest. The writer is former Oregon Senate candidate, and VERY nearly the Junior United States Senator from Oregon, Steve Novick.

I asked Steve, who has been one of my closest friends for decades, to provide a post on whatever he wanted, and told him that I would not edit it. It's ironic that the topic he chose is a recent Supreme Court decision, because, given the nature of my day job at the U.S. Department of Justice, I'm not personally willing to write a blog about the law. Indeed, permit me to include the disclaimer that the following statements and implications are Steve's alone; I offer no public opinion about them.

So here it is -- Steve Novick's guest post:



Citizens United and the Corruption of CEOs’ Souls

Like most of you, I’ve been awfully worried about the implications of the Citizens United case. I think it’s quite possible that the Supreme Court just pushed us a big step down the road toward being an out-and-out banana republic. Having the power to spend vast sums of money to determine the outcome of elections, I don’t see how big corporations can be expected not to use that power; and I don’t think we can be na├»ve about the ability of large sums of money to influence elections.

I don’t think the members of the Court who were in the majority are worried about increasing corporate influence in American politics. But did it ever occur to these good Christian men that they were also warping the souls of the corporate executives who will feel compelled to take advantage of their enhanced ability to corrupt the political process?

One of the greatest books ever about American history was the autobiography of the journalist Lincoln Stephens, who chronicled the systematic corruption of American politics – at every level – around the turn of the 20th century. One of the most interesting stories Stephens told was about his meeting with the timber magnate Weyerhauser, whose company is still a behemoth. The person who suggested that Stephens interview Weyerhauser told him: “I know about him because of a law case. He wanted to log lumber down streams so small that boats could not float on them, and he couldn’t legally, because they were not ‘navigable streams.’ So he had the courts decide that logs were boats; a stream that navigated logs was a navigable stream ….”

So Stephens went to see Weyerhauser. Here are the most interesting selections from the discussion:

“I am never interviewed,” he said. “I don’t care for write-ups.”

“I don’t propose to write you up,” I said. “I want to write you down.”

He stopped, looked. “Come in,” he invited …

I told him that I had learned that he had started with nothing and acquired a fortune and half the forests of America. “What did it cost you?” I asked.

His intelligent, wide-open eyes saw something of my meaning. His smile vanished; his face grew serious. “You mean – “

“Yes, I mean that there are lots of able men in this country who have set out with no capital, made millions, and then tell us it cost them nothing but work, hard work. I think it cost them – something else. I think it cost them as much or more than they made. How rich are you?”

He sat still a moment, then rose and closed his office door. When he came back – all very slowly, deliberately – and sat down, he said seriously: “I don’t know how rich I am. I’ll ask the bank downstairs to make an estimate for us. And I don’t know what it has cost me – either. I have often wondered. You mean the things I have had to do – to do business? Yes. I thought so. Well, that has bothered me a great deal. I have often wanted to talk it over with somebody. There was nobody –“

“Why not your pastor?”

“Oh, the clergy – they don’t understand.”

“They just tell you to stop it?”

“Yes, and you can’t.”

“Well, there’s your banker, other successful business men,” I suggested.

He saw my smile, but wouldn’t join in the jest. “Some of them worry too,” he protested, “but –“

He stopped, shaking his head.

“They just say go on?”

He nodded, abstractly. We were silent a moment; he was thinking; he wanted to talk.

“What do you have to do -?” I asked softly, and there was an immediate response. He had been looking down; his face turned up to me, and he said: “I’d like to tell you. Can I? In confidence? You can’t print it, of course.”

I hesitated; it wasn’t fair to the magazine to take this for myself, but what could I do?

“I promise, sure,” I promised.

He told me what he did to get hold of the timber, how he did it, how he got and used power in politics. And he told me, questioningly, how he justified it. He began with the ordinary practices of a business man, contributions to campaign funds. He was testing me. Did I judge? Did I show shock? I didn’t. I saw the compulsion on upon him, said so, and he, encouraged, opened up more and more of the picture. We were shut in there all the forenoon, three or four hours. I did not try to help or hurt him, just listened, and he talked himself out. Toward noon he got back to his balance of profits on money and his loss in – something, and he remembered his promise. HE called the bank downstairs on the phone.

“There’s an man here,” he said, “who has asked me how rich I am. Can you make a rough estimate? No? Too long a job? All right.” He hung up. “He doesn’t know either, can’t say offhand.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” I said. “Does it?”

“No. That isn’t the point. We’ve got the cost; the profits don’t matter.”

I wish the Justices of the Supreme Court had read that passage before they made their decision in Citizens United.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

BIPARTISANSHIP

A couple of weeks ago, a very politically conservative friend of mine asked me to write a blog-post responding to an article in the Washington Post published on February 7th. The article, entitled “Why Are Liberals So Condescending” begins as follows:

“Every political community includes some members who insist that their side has all the answers and that their adversaries are idiots. But American liberals, to a degree far surpassing conservatives, appear committed to the proposition that their views are correct, self-evident, and based on fact and reason, while conservative positions are not just wrong but illegitimate, ideological and unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, all the appeals to bipartisanship notwithstanding, President Obama and other leading liberal voices have joined in a chorus of intellectual condescension.

“It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation -- as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a ‘Bolshevik plot’ – and the country’s failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

“This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government -- and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.”

I could go on, but you get the drift. Liberals are viewed as dogmatic, disrespectful to the point of disdainful, and ultimately uninterested in any ideas that emerge from the American right. More to the point, to the extent that a meaningful left-right dialogue is completely absent from the American public sphere, the fault is assigned primarily to the liberals, who are seen as far less open minded than the bulk of their conservative counterparts.

Is it true? Are liberals primarily to blame for the pathetic state of our left-right dialogue? Candidly, I find that question about as pointless as asking who was more at fault, the Hatfields or the McCoys. Once the feud reached a fever pitch, who cares how it started, and who could possibly identify one “family” as any crazier than the other? Right now, the voices on both left and right have become thoroughly shrill and disrespectful to the other. But what’s worse is that the statesmen and women in the so-called center – the ones who call themselves “bi-partisan” and claim that they are attempting to work across the aisle – have become anything but trustworthy. Just look at the moderates in the Senate who held out their support for the Health Care bill until they were able to extract a large helping of pork for their home state. Now, when someone calls him or herself “moderate” or “bi-partisan” s/he comes across as an opportunist with an agenda. The action these days is clearly well to the left and the right of center. And I don’t see either group being terribly interested in listening to, or respecting, the other. Frankly, it hardly takes a great diagnostician to spot that problem.

Those of you who read my first book, The Creed Room, remember how important I think it is for liberals not only to appreciate the arguments that fuel conservative thought, but also to recognize that without some sort of buy-in from the business community, progressive reforms will be at best reformist tinkering. If we want to fight a war – whether it’s against climate change, poverty, or any other enemy of progressivism – we need all hands on deck. Conservatives can fight their wars simply by cutting taxes and gutting Government agencies. But it’s not so simple for us progressives. When it comes to Government, we’re not trying to flush something bad down the drain, we’re trying to design a beneficent, efficient system on a rather massive scale. It’s easier said than done. And without a broad range of support – in other words, without some degree of bi-partisanship – the potential for meaningful change is severely limited.

One of the reasons why I supported Barack Obama is because I thought he could help foster a bi-partisan spirit in Washington. In that regard, he certainly gets an A for Effort. He has appointed Republicans to his cabinet. He has continued George Bush’s policies in bailing out Wall Street and in continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When the Republicans threatened to filibuster a bill, he immediately backed down, despite the fact that his Party has the clear majority in both houses of Congress. And when it came to articulating his positions (such as when he claimed to advocate a “public option” in the health care arena), he repeatedly announced that he was not wedded to any one approach and would be happy to entertain alternatives.

Many of these steps have driven progressives to distraction, but Barack felt no compulsion to appeal to his base, or at least not ONLY to his base. This is clearly a guy who likes to get along with everyone and started his job with optimism that he could do just that. Though he never explicitly said he’d be “a unifier not a divider,” we all inferred that message from his campaign speeches. Unfortunately, as much as Candidate Obama promised in that regard, that’s how little President Obama has delivered. This is the most polarized climate that I can recall in Washington in the 40+ years that I’ve lived here.

We’ve all heard the expression that some people can turns lemons into lemonade. Barack Obama has figured out a way to turn lemonade into a big fat lemon. He’s taken that A for Effort in Bipartisanship Class, and turned it into a D for Doh! I’m referring to the fact that once it became clear that the GOP wasn’t going to play ball with him, he continued to try to play with them. He made no attempt to reward his supporters in Congress or punish his friends. He never embarrassed the GOP into filibustering or stood up to Democrats who threatened to oppose his agenda. And when the time came to make speeches, this supposedly great communicator came across as distant, professorial, and frankly, just going through the motions. Gradually, people on both sides of the aisle have started to wonder if he really feels passionate about the issues, or whether he only wanted to get elected and hob-nob with celebrities. It was as if every time any Republican or Blue Dog Democrat stood up to the guy, he simply said “Oh, never mind” … and a couple days later, you’d see him on TV entertaining some championship sports team or a group of other celebrities with that big, Hollywood smile on his face.

Barack is way too telegenic to become the next Jimmy Carter. But at the rate he’s going, unless there’s a second act, he might well be a one-term President who someday gets hailed as the “best ex-President who ever lived.” Somehow, that’s not exactly what supporters like me had in mind.

When I was beginning my career as a Government litigator, one of my agency’s grey eminences took me aside and taught me a principle that I’ve never forgotten. “When you’re a Government lawyer, you’re expected to be so ethical that you’re essentially tying one hand behind your back. Just don’t tie both.”

Barack’s problem is that he so desired to be bi-partisan and to get along with everyone that he’s let his enemies tie both hands behind his back, and he doesn’t even seem to be panicking about it. Perhaps he should rethink that strategy. Like the writer of the Washington Post suggests, there’s no reason for him to condescend to conservatives or treat them with disrespect. That will merely backfire. But it’s high time for him to take off the gloves and fight. Ram the health care bill through the reconciliation process. Find another popular bill and force the GOP to filibuster it for a full month. Don’t just say that the GOP is the “party of no,” let the cameras demonstrate that point to the American public. And all the while, speak respectfully about the GOP … and to the extent that they have legitimately valid ideas, implement them! But do it unilaterally. For when it becomes to bi-partisanship, it’s time to make THEM come to you. You’ve tried the other path. How’s that working out for you?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

FISCAL CONSERVATISM IS A PROGRESSIVE PRINCIPLE

In the last few weeks, Barack Obama has generated a white hot reaction from the progressive community for his embrace of a domestic spending freeze beginning in 2011. All over the U.S., progressives expressed their condemnation. According to the progressive mantra, the President is selling us out. He is making a lame attempt to triangulate – to appeal to the right-wingers whose support is seen as crucial to the adoption of ANY part of his legislative agenda.

Let me say for the record that I am not happy with the announcement of the domestic spending freeze. But my criticism doesn’t stem from a disdain for fiscal conservatism. In fact, I view fiscal conservatism to be a highly progressive cause, one that should be embraced at all times … unless the country is facing a severe economic or military crisis. My concern with Barack’s proposal is that it treats domestic spending as the most expendable basis of the national debt. I would obviously prefer that Barack impose a similar freeze on military spending, or that he increase taxes on the one group of Americans who sacrifice the least during times of need. Yet the one thing that bothers me more than the approach Barack is taking is the one most progressives would have him take: spend, spend, spend and let the deficit be damned! Not only is this the definition of irresponsibility, but it violates the fundamental principle of modern liberalism: don’t allow market mechanisms to destroy the rights of those who the market ignores.

Progressives note that the economic marketplace ignores the needs of the environment. As a result, we are environmentalists. Progressives also note that the marketplace ignores the needs of the underclass. As a result, we support economic equity and all sorts of poverty programs. Progressives note that the economic and political marketplace ignores the equal rights of women and minorities. As a result, we support affirmative action (to differing degrees) and the basic tenets of feminism. Progressives note that animals have no say in the marketplace. As a result, we tend to support animal rights … and some of us (present company included) are even vegan.

But what about the rights of our children and grandchildren? The political and economic marketplace would appear to ignore them as well, don’t you think? They can’t vote, and they don’t buy goods and services. Accordingly, they make no direct demands on the powers-that-be. Sure, there are some adults who speak out on behalf of future generations, but their advocacy comes across as all too abstract and nebulous. To say that the future generations have their spokespeople is like envisioning the civil rights movement without African-American participation – talk about a movement lacking in poetry and passion.

Fiscal conservatism, otherwise known as “pay as you go,” is a cause that embraces millions if not billions of interested parties who are unable to speak for themselves. As such, it ought to be viewed with the same sanctity as the other progressive causes. So why isn’t it?

Perhaps the word “conservative” in the name of this cause is a turn off to progressives. Or more to the point, it’s a turn-ON to many on the right. But the problem is that while right-wing politicians love to demagogue about their fiscal conservatism, how many of you have actually seen a conservative politician embrace this approach? Reagan? Hardly. The man built up big deficits, supposedly in order to defeat the Soviet Union. W? Are you kidding? He had his own wars to wage, and exercised about as much discipline with the budget as he formerly exercised with alcohol. How about W’s dad? Didn’t he famously go back on his pledge to implement “no new taxes”? Sure, but look how that well that worked for him among conservatives. H.W. Bush was crucified for increasing taxes – and all he was trying to do was come closer to “pay as you go.”

Whenever there is a Democrat in the White House, Republicans fall all over themselves in trumpeting the need for fiscal “restraint.” But all that means is that they would like to restrain the implementation of progressive initiatives. To a staunch conservative, if you let Democratic Presidents spend to their hearts’ content, you’ll get (a) handouts to the poor, which only make them lazier and less productive; (b) new government bureaucracies run by arrogant, paternalistic nannies who think they know what’s best for the American public about literally everything, and (c) pork projects intended disproportionately to reward legislators from Blue States and Districts.
When you think about it that way, any sane person would favor fiscal restraint.

Watch what happens, however, within a nanosecond of the moment a Republican is elected to the White House. Suddenly, the commitment to a balanced budget flies out the window. And the reason is simple: once they realize that deficit spending need not entail handouts to the poor, the creation of new paternalistic bureaucracies, or pork payments to liberal legislators, Republicans come to recognize that they can enjoy the benefits of a don’t-tax-but-do-spend policy. Do you want to spend whatever it takes to get the best military money can buy? Why the hell not! Do you want to reduce taxes and unleash the wealth that will generate a full-employment economy? Who wouldn’t! Do you want to slash domestic spending in those areas that are not necessary, like subsidies for rich farmers? Well … in theory yes … but in practice, that will just piss people off, generate a lot of controversy that we don’t need, and threaten our entire agenda. So let’s just keep cutting taxes and increasing spending on our favorite causes, and that way we’ll at least remain politically popular. Who’s going to mind other than people who haven’t been born yet?

And so it goes. The Republicans are no more fiscally conservative than the Democrats. In fact, as I’ve suggested, they are likely to be LESS conservative, because Democrats are at least duty bound by their own principles to care for those neglected by the marketplace.

Unfortunately, the Democrats’ sense of duty to future generations only goes so far. So now we are being bombarded by progressive voices who are calling for more and more spending, even if this means bigger deficits. This is said to be necessary to accomplish what everyone takes to be Job 1: create more jobs. Personally, I’ll go this far in agreeing with the budget-busting strategy: if we really have reason to believe that deficit spending in 2010 and 2011 will be necessary to reduce the national debt in 2012 and 2013, then sure, borrow the money. This would indeed make sense if we are mired in a short-term economic crisis that could be alleviated with the right kind of stimulus package, which would unleash lending by banks, hiring by businesses, and spending by consumers … and thus result in a rapid increase to our tax base.

In theory, then, a Keynesian influx of spending might make sense to jump start our economy. But in practice, you’ll forgive me for being cynical that a second stimulus package would accomplish that goal. After all, the first such package was hardly a lean, mean economic-multiplier machine. Rather than being finely tuned to direct Government funds precisely to those areas where they could have the greatest impact on the economy, the first stimulus package had “political compromise” written all over it. Right wingers got their tax cuts, and not necessarily the tax cuts that were most needed to address our economic woes. And legislators from the left and the right got their pork projects, all of which could easily be justified; after all, even the notorious Bridge to Nowhere would have created at least SOME jobs.

Until I can see that this Government is responsible enough to wage a war on unemployment with smart, state-of-the-art weapons, I remained unconvinced that massive stimulus bills are the answer. But I am equally unconvinced that the GOP has somehow “seen the light” when it comes to fiscal responsibility. To me, this issue requires a bi-partisan solution. Barack must demonstrate that he is serious in this area, and he has already made efforts in that direction. But he can’t do this alone. We need to hear from the Republicans something that will convince America that once they’re in power, they won’t return to their own budget busting ways. To accomplish that, it is time to hear the GOP get on the airwaves and explain when it is that deficit spending is appropriate and when it is not. Let’s hear the Republicans address the behavior of their hero, Ronald Reagan. Are they willing to criticize their hero’s legacy in that regard? Or are they going to argue that the “Cold War” demanded huge deficits? And what about 9/11, did that support the need for big deficits as well? Surely, we all must recognize by now that a politician in power can ALWAYS find a pretext to justify deficit spending, and unless times are unusually good, that pretext can sound pretty reasonable … if you’re not an honest-to-God deficit hawk.

We can no longer afford to keep growing our national debt. Anyone with any clue about present demographic trends would have to agree with that statement. But how can we stop our addiction to deficit spending? How can we take “protecting the unborn” to mean something broader than simply caring about fetuses? It is the primary responsibility of the Republicans, as the party NOT in power, to convince us all that they are sincere on this issue and not simply taking a position that is convenient at the moment. For now, you’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

PAGING MR. GORE

I was all set to write a post this morning about fiscal conservatism and why it is actually a cause that LIBERALS should usually embrace. Unfortunately, something inconvenienced my plans. For the third time in a week, Washington, D.C. was hit with a snowstorm.

Last weekend's nasty snowfall resulted in a car accident for my family; some Einstein nailed us from behind while we were stopped at a red light. The next storm resulted in a day of missed school. And today's little shower has brought something like 2 or 2 1/2 FEET of snow to our southern hamlet. This is the second time that we've had at least two feet of snow in DC this winter, and I don't ever remember having that much snow in the 40+ years I've spent in this city; maybe it happened once or twice, but certainly not twice in the same winter.

Some will take this opportunity to mock Al Gore for talking about global warming. How, they might ask, can we be "warming" if we are constantly dealing with snow 100 miles south of the Mason Dixon line? But let's keep in mind that D.C. frequently gets below 32 degrees in the winter. What isn't common for us is so many STORMS. And this is precisely what Al Gore predicted: that as our climate changes due to our carbon consumption, storms will be increasingly frequent and increasingly powerful.

Tonight, my family is without electricity and heat, as are hundreds of thousands of others in the D.C. area. I am typing this from the home of a friend who rescued us in his SUV late this afternoon. But after being in a frigid home for the better part of the day, and after contemplating all of my neighbors and friends who can expect to spend several days in that state and all the millions upon millions of people whose lives will be impaired and even lost during the upcoming decades because of the man-made effects of climate change, I find myself making a simple request: can we PLEASE not take climate change off the front burner as a pressing public policy issue?

I heard Barack say that getting people back to work is our number one priority, and I know that my conservative friends are consumed with the need to fight terrorism and to put our budget back in order, but I'm getting the distinct impression that we are on the verge of making a tragic error if we ignore the lessons from "An Inconvenient Truth." I worked to elect Barack Obama to be a progressive leader, and one of his greatest tasks as a progressive had better be to fight against climate change and the Neanderthals who continue to deny its existence. Whatever can be done to help him in this cause, let's do it.