What is Conservatism?

November 12, 2008

I’ve been hearing a lot about where this country is politically and I have to confess that I do not understand much of what is being said. Yesterday I heard a Republican say that “America is right of center.” I sincerely do not understand what that means. I presume that it was intended to mean that Americans support the Republican agenda, but the election offered little to support that position and polls uniformly show that the majority of us support the political issues advanced by so called “liberals” such as opposition to the Iraq war, health care revision, regulation of financial institutions, and establishing a trade balance.

It seems to me that the notions of conservative and liberal are indistinct to say the least with conservatives proposing dramatic changes to the society at least over the last eight years (I’m thinking tax reduction during a war, the “Bush Doctrine” which permits attacking other countries that might be a threat in the future, domestic warrantless surveillance, rendition, Guantanamo and the related human rights issues, abdication of federal oversight of financial institutions, stuff like that) and liberals advocating a return to a balanced budget and trade balance, and rolling back many of the recent changes implemented by the administration.

Another instance of this confusion about what is conservative and what is liberal is the recent Supreme Court case, argued Tuesday, in which the Court heard arguments about the FCC’s right to penalize “fleeting profanity.” The FCC for example fined PBS for airing interviews with old blues men who sometimes used the “s” word.

During oral argument it appeared that the “conservative” judges favored upholding the FCC’s right to control the use of any bad words, while the liberals seemed to disfavor this relatively mild form of censorship. In the courts conservatism is not marked by a philosophical opposition to governmental intrusion into our lives, as conservative judges tend to favor this type of censorship, to favor expansion of the police power and generally to disfavor using civil rights to limit the powers of government. At least in cases involving these competing interests the conservatives are more likely to be on the side of the government. On the other hand when government interferes with business, they are more likely to be on the side of business and the limitation of government.

This reminds me that when the constitution was adopted there was no bill of rights, to Thomas Jefferson’s great disappointment. The conservatives, who generally had opposed the inclusion of a bill of rights, coalesced into the Federalist Party which favored a strong federal government. Federalists were also much more pacifist than Jefferson’s following. I guess the conservatives on the bench take inspiration from John Adams and the Federalists at least in part. The conservatives of that era were for radical changes in the government to centralize and strengthen the power of the federal government.

The just finished presidential election illustrates the blur between conservative and liberal, as these terms are commonly used. McCain could not effectively distinguish his policies from those of Bush. McCain could not identify any bright lines that distinguished his policies from Obama and appealed to the voters. Eventually he seemed to stake his campaign on “character” issues, which to some degree is a euphemism for personal attacks. He did this is substantial part because he could not find the “right of center” where Republicans say most of us reside.

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We’ve seen Crashes

October 23, 2008

Please forgive the sports fans in Washington State if they are less shaken by recent Wall Street events than people elsewhere.  This is the epi-center of disaster as announced by Mount St. Helens twenty some years ago.  The only good news a sports fan has had in the men’s sport arena is that Clay Bennett left town with the Sonics.  (The Seattle Storm stands alone as local fun and exciting team.)

Sports fans here are familiar with the feeling of the bottom dropping out of things.  The way we look at it the stock market still has 60% of its former value, what’s to complain about? That’s not a crash, more like fender bender. Heck, the Huskies football team has not won a single game since mid season last year. If you combine all of the wins of the football teams of Washington, Washington State and the Seahawks you get two, both of which occurred it seems like months ago.  That and one of those wins was against an intramural team.

In some ways the Mariner season was a foreshadowing of the Market crash.  The ownership spent extravagantly on players with no intrinsic value.  Our general manager speculated that our single power hitter, Richie Sexon, was going to come back after a miserable season to the form he showed the first year of his contract. The general manager believed that Richie’s performance continue to improve, failing to recognize that all cycles must end and Richie was closer to receiving social security than a home run crown.

Some teams have a retro game where the players wear uniforms from a by-gone age.  The Mariners had a retro season where we got to relive the pleasures of watching the team during its expansion phase.

The Mariners announced there new general manager in the newspaper today.  The announcement began with the most dreaded words in the team’s forlorn history:  “Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong decided.”  I couldn’t read on.

There is a rule that a team may not make announcements during the world series.  This is viewed as a distraction from the game apparently.  There are two exceptions to the ban on announcements: (1) the league gives its approval; or (2) the announcement is not significant. It is not clear which of the two exceptions applied to the Mariner announcement. Maybe both.

This proclamation did not rate coverage by the New York Times, and you have to hunt for it on the sports web sites.  In terms of substance and understanding the reasons for the selection, these announcements are a lot like reading the transcript of a presidential debate.

Being as how this guy is from Milwaukee it’s a little like the Pilots or a small piece of them is returning to Seattle.  But who wanted the Pilots back?


Another Local Approach to Foreclosure Crisis

August 27, 2008

Seattle this spring adopted a small loan program to help foreclosure victims. The program was so narrowly defined that it could not help most of the people needing assistance, but represented a step in the right direction. The principal recommending feature of the program was that the money advanced to homeowners was treated as a secured loan, so the cost of the program would be quite limited.

San Diego’s City Attorney proposes another inexpensive approach that warrants study. He is pushing the City Council to pass a moratorium on foreclosures. Cities and local governments could certainly do this. There might be an argument that the legislature had not conferred this power on local governments, but this at the very least is debatable. The possibility of a challenge alone is no reason to avoid doing something that is helpful to people.


FISA, Immunity, Pardons, and Luthor Collins

July 11, 2008

The recent discussions about immunity in the context of the FISA bill have stirred up a great deal of frustration among people who have been shocked or disapproving of the Bush administration’s apparent cavalier attitude to complying with the law. This resentment no doubt provides some of the fuel for the populist movement that seems to be carrying Obama along. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed to me frustration that there is not even any meaningful investigation of the charges. The administration does not have immunity but it does seem to operate with impunity.

Part of the public’s outrage about FISA relates to the appearance of hypocrisy. The same law-and-order people who advocate strong criminal sentencing standards advocate immunity for the corporate officials whose conduct apparently involved violation of constitutional rights on a massive scale. The sense of hypocrisy is heightened by the color and class distinctions between the criminal justice defendants and the corporate miscreants.

This frustration is very deep and involves what appears to be a failure of our system of checks and balances. The Republican Congress during the first six years of the Bush administration is widely seen as having allegiance to party over country or over the citizens of the country. During this time effort seemed to be directed to covering up the regularly occurring scandals. The two years of Democratic control of Congress have not been signifiantly different in terms of rendering people in the executive branch accountable for their transgressions. The FISA bill in granting immunity for illegal domestic surveillance was profoundly disillusioning for many. It went beyond disregarding disreputable behavior to condoning it.

FISA’s defender’s chant “national security” and to my knowledge there is nothing more than this rather empty slogan to support the position, a slogan that I had thought was used so much by the Nixon administration that it would not be heard again in connection with domestic activity. This slogan has also been used to justify the treatment of detainees and has been gradually rejected by the courts. Without anything to back it up it is just a slogan famously used around the world throughout the twentieth century. People need more substance to the claim for it to have traction outside of Congress.

The defenders of FISA point out that the guilty can still be prosecuted for crimes that were committed but few doubt that Bush will pardon everyone before leaving office. He, however, can only pardon for federal crimes and at least in theory any enterprising attorney general could investigate and prosecute under state law for crimes committed against its citizens. I doubt that anyone believes this will happen.

Bush is likely to pardon everyone in his administration, making the investigations promised by Obama unlikely. If McCain is elected he would not conduct investigations at all, at least as far as I know. The only way the Bush could be prevented from pardoning everyone would be for him to be impeached. If he were impeached, he could not grant pardons during the process. There appears to be no chance that this might happen.

Thus it appears that this itch to see criminal conduct exposed, or at least investigated, and punished will go unscratched regardless of the party favored in the next election. This rather sorry state of affairs is not without local precedent.

Civilization came to the Seattle area in the middle of the nineteenth century. Settlers first arrives on Alki, then some came to what is now the downtown area. A few located near the mouth of the Duwamish River between the two camps. Civilization, as everyone knows, requires government and the settlers were quick to elect a commissioner: Luthor Collins, our first governmental official. Two years after his arrival he was arrested for lynching a Native American. His civic leadership may have contributed to the dismissal of the charge. Later, having rooted himself in the administration of local affairs, he lynched two Native Americans and presumably it was his his august stature that prevented charges from being made.


Landlord Tenant; SB 6060

February 26, 2008

A bill that would overhaul the eviction process passed the senate by unanimous vote on Friday. SB 6060 is intended to streamline the process. I have not reviewed this sufficiently to comment on its fulfillment of that purpose, but those affected by it should submit any comments to their representative in the house quickly.


City of Seattle Audit

February 20, 2008

For those intrepid souls willing to look at something written by an auditor, the Seattle Auditor’s report for 2007 gives an interesting list of areas in which the City needs improvement. Some are refrains we hear year after year, but the report should be taken as a potentially useful tool for those engaged with the City on any of the listed issues. It covers topics ranging form the massively under financed duty to represent indigents to the substantially disregarded Cable Customer Bill of Rights, which got so much attention when it was passed. The report is here. Those who do not already subscribe might be interested in Nick Licata’s newsletter called “Urban Politics.” To subscribe go to urbanpolitics-subscribe@speakeasy.net.


Foreclosure Relief

February 1, 2008

Here’s a promising development. Seattle’s Mayor Nickels announced a pilot program which, through the offices of nonprofits Solid Ground and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, will provide foreclosure relief to householders earning $48,000 to $50,000 per year, about 80% of the mean household income. The program will loan money to forestall foreclosure and provide debt counseling. The loans are limited to $5,000 and the funding is small, $200,000, but the program will be assessed after 6 months to determine its viability.

My guess is that the amount will turn out to be a bit low, as typically people pay their last cent avoiding a foreclosure. By the time a foreclosure is begun they have little money to pay the lender and the cost of curing the default is much higher than the sum of the monthly payments that were missed. Default interest rates, trustee’s fees, attorneys fees, title reports, publication costs and the like quickly escalate the cost of curing a default. It is not terribly uncommon for these foreclosure-related costs to come to $5000.

In reality these will be loans to the vigilant and the informed, as the amount of money offered is most likely to be helpful before the foreclosure has progressed too far and accumulated a lot of extra costs.

The thing about this that appeals to me and which highly recommends it, is that the grant is for a loan and is presumably secured. The borrower agrees to refinance or sell the property to repay the loan. If the borrower is forced to sell the home, the borrower at least gets to receive all the equity in the house. If these loans are properly administered, they should all be repaid, or at least substantially all of them should be. It strikes me as a win-win type of program: the money goes back to the government and the home owner either keeps the house or sells and gets all the equity. The government’s net savings are substantial by avoiding responsibility for any sort of relief to the working family.