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.

S. 190: It Has Attained Myth Status

September 30, 2008

McCain spent months during the nomination process trying to convince us he was against all government regulation.  “I’m always for less regulation,” Wall Street Journal quotes him saying six months ago. He added: “I’d like to see a lot of the unnecessary government regulations eliminated.”  He now is now suggesting that he has been championing legislation that would have created regulations sufficient to have avoided the present crisis.  I have not seen McCain explicitly make such a far-fetched claim, but certainly many of his supporters seem to believe this.

McCain has pointed to his sponsorship of S. 190 in 2006 to show that he is not as hard line as he presented himself earlier.  His supplicants seem to have picked up this ball and run right out of the stadium with it.

Some people have actually claimed that the present crisis would have been averted if “McCain’s bill” had passed.  We have to stop right there.  McCain did not even believe that the scope of the bill could have such an effect when he endorsed it.  The bill was written in response to an accounting scandal that rocked Freddie Mack and Fannie Mae. In the best of all circumstances the bill would have helped avert (this is hotly contested) the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack, but that had happened before the current crisis.

In his speech in which he announced his sponsorship a year and a quarter after the bill was introduced, he said”

Mr. President, this week Fannie Mae’s regulator reported that the company’s quarterly reports of profit growth over the past few years were “illusions deliberately and systematically created” by the company’s senior management, which resulted in a $10.6 billion accounting scandal.

He does in his concluding sentence allude to problems for the economy if effective regulations are not implemented but this was not the focus of the speech at all.

At this point in time some form of the bill was on the floor of the Senate and it was capable of being voted on but it was entirely ignored had would never be voted on.  An amended form of the bill came out of the committee but to my knowledge there is no record of the bill as was when it emerged from the committee.  There is only the notation that it was changed.  Significantly omitted from McCain’s four minute speech is any encouragement that it be voted on, whatever it was.

Many people say that the Democrats filibustered this bill to prevent the Republicans from passing it.  There is simply no record of that at all.  Others say that it was the threat of a Democratic filibuster that prevented the bill’s passage and I have been unable to turn up any hint of that either.

The truth is that a significant number of Republicans opposed the bill.  The American Enterprise Institute was against it.  It is hard to imagine that this opposition was not reflected in the attitude of the majority of Republican senators.  Furthermore one of the most prominent lobbying groups for deregulation was opposed to it.  In this light it is easy to see why no Republicans were championing the bill at all.  Nor to my knowledge were any Democrats in the Republican-controlled senate.

Because the bill was fated to wither on the legislative vine and die unvoted upon in a few months, McCain vote was entirely safe.  He could create the appearance of a record without doing anything or even voting against the Republican “base.” The proof of the political purpose of his sponsorship, as opposed to substantive support, is that the bill was reintroduced in 2007 without McCain sponsorship or support.

The sole remaining deviation from McCain’s record of voting to deregulate Wall Street and the financial community was with respect to the Sarbanes-Onley bill, which in the wake of corporate accounting scandals required enhanced reporting.  After passage this fell on harsh criticism from corporate executives and McCain said that he regretted voting for it.

Other than these two minor deviations, I believe that McCain until now has been an ardent proponent of deregulation.

The Economy: Pouring Gasoline on Fire?

September 18, 2008

The United States does not have enough money to sustain its own activities.  For reasons that I did not understand, nor apparently Alan Greenspan, rather than curb our country’s excesses we went into historic levels of indebtedness.  Our foreign debt has more than quadrupled and our total national debt is over three trillion dollars.

This previously unknown level of debt quite predictably caused the dollar to weaken.  As the dollar fell we have made a variety of efforts to prop it up but the weight of our debt has been too much for the interim measures we have undertaken.

While our leaders were focused on a war we entered into for reasons that have never been adequately explained by our leaders, they did not mind the store at home so that reckless lending practices were allowed to metastasize.  This certainly artificially sustained the economy for a while and just as certainly these practices were unsustainable over the long haul.  They were doomed to fail with fluctuations in the real estate market and like all houses of cards a tremor would be ruinous.

For reasons the Bush administration can best explain we were caught unprepared.   We have been forced to take measures that will be hard for our economy to endure if they are successful in stemming the current disaster.  At a time when we are borrowing money almost as fast as we can, the government is committing its resources to propping up its financial and insurance institutions.  This diversion of funds that are already inadequate to meet expenses will add to our sorry state of indebtedness.

The second measure that we are taking is to print more money.  Yesterday the Federal Reserve announced that it will be dumping $56 billion into the economy.  When you print the stuff that is pretty easy to do. This however will contribute to the downward spiral of the value of the dollar.

I have commented, after reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine,” that the United States really has been taking on the attributes of many South American countries.  It has a diminishing middle class; the polarization of wealth distribution is greater than it has been since the beginning of the industrial age, before the first timid implementation of the restraints complained of by Republicans.

Like our neighbors to the south we have promoted the power of the executive to a greatly heightened level. We have reduced oversight of private financial activity while loosening restraint on governmental activity with respect to its citizens.  Like South American countries we have gone deeply in debt and our financial institutions are not stable.  Similar to them our currency is falling.

The current measures to cure the crisis are not the smoke and mirrors approach that we have adopted in the past. At the same time if they avert disaster they will leave us with an economy in worst condition than we thought it was in before the crisis.  In short we will bring the crisis in the wings that we already knew about a few steps closer to center stage.

Alaska Scratches its Head: “Really?”

August 30, 2008

Here’s a discussion of the selection of Palin in the Anchorage Daily News with interviews from both sides of the aisle. Here’s commentary from Fairbanks’ Daily News-Miner, which celebrates the recognition and harshly questions McCain’s judgment.

Here’s a funny blog by an Alaskan.

I’m looking for Alaskan praise of Palin as a vice presidential candidate. Can anyone point me to it?  There doesn’t seem to be much on this exhaustive compilation.

The best analysis I’ve seen of this pick is at Politico.

Washington Republicans Seek to Alter 14th Amendment

June 3, 2008

Last week the Washington Republican Party defined, as a platform item, the elimination of the law that causes people born in the United States to be citizens. This law of course is the <a href=”http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment14/”>14th amendment to the Constitution</a>. This amendment, as we know, is a cornerstone of the civil liberties, that we celebrate in our tributes to democracy. This is quite a bold step for defenders of our country’s historical values.

This historic undertaking was not supported by Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna, who alluded to disregarding 200 years of judicial history. He said, though, that it does not make much difference because people don’t remember what’s on the party platform.

Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser was not daunted by constitutional history, saying that this amounted taking a case to the Supreme Court to ask it to reinterpret the Constitution. He no doubt would argue to the conservative justices that the constitution is a living document and should not be interpreted according to its plain meaning or the intent of the drafters. He would have to argue that it should be interpretted in light to the social menace that he sees.

The constitutional provision that the Washington GOP wants re-interpretted is

All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States . . .

On the face of it its hard to say that the Washington GOP has any regard for the constitution.

There is precedent for a narrow reading of the 14th amendment. If our local GOP did research on this topic they no doubt found encouragement in the Dred Scott decision which, as far as I know, was the last time section 1 of the 14th amendment was interpreted in a manner other than its plain meaning.

Roger Clemens and Partisan Politics

February 26, 2008

In 2006, when the Democrats threw off the shackles of being the minority party and took control of the House there was a lot of talk about how Henry Waxman was going to get to the bottom of the scandals and controversies that beset the federal government almost daily. He was a very tough cookie who would unearth and bring to light the clandestine nefarious conduct that was dragging our nation down. Well, we have finally seen the product of these mighty labors: Roger Clemens probably took steroids or human growth hormones! One thing is absolutely clear after Mr. Waxman’s public hearings: Mr. Clemens certainly has not been taking extension classes or drugs to enhance his mental acuity.

As pitchers age, they typically lose a few feet off their fastball, meaning it doesn’t go as far in the same period of time as it once did. If it once took the ball say 0.38 seconds to get to the plate, when the pitcher reaches his thirties 0.38 seconds after the ball leaves his hand it is still arriving at the plate instead of being safely tucked into the catcher’s glove. In order to compensate for this loss of velocity an older pitcher relies on the vast store of knowledge about hitters that he has accumulated over years of pitching. He becomes a wily veteran. (Left handers become crafty veterans.)

Clemens did not follow this paradigm. As any baseball card collector knows, Clemens’ career followed the recent trend set by Barry Bonds, the home run king. In his thirties he became bulkier, bigger than his predecessors at his position, and achieved staggering statistics. (Each of them had excellent stats to begin with.) Instead of declining in the August years of his career, Clemens like Bonds, improved as if the historical curve of productivity over the number of seasons played had been turned upside down. Until he left Boston after a dozen years as a power pitcher with a high number of innings, Clemens’ career seemed to be on the downward side of the historical productivity curve. At ages 30, 31 and 32 he was injured and his number of innings-pitched declined each successive season. Finally at age 33 he had a losing season and appeared to be through at least as a staff ace. Then the resurgence in Toronto. His “high performance years” were the dozen years that he spent in Boston, earning three Cy Young awards among many other awards. That was amazing but it was incredible that he won four Cy Youngs after leaving Boston at the age of 34!

Any viewer of Mr. Waxman’s hearings was able to eliminate one possible explanation of Mr. Clemens’ career revival after leaving Boston. He is neither crafty nor wily. One would generally not associate his mental activity with success of any sort.

The most interesting aspect of these hearings was that they were partisan. Partisan! Can you believe it! Republicans generally undertook to defend the honor of Mr. Clemens and attack his accuser, Brian McNamee. Most Democrats, such as Representative Waxman, were hostile to Clemens and approving of his accuser. How on earth did this become a partisan issue? I wonder how the parties line up on other pressing issues of the day like who should win American Idol, why doesn’t Britney behave, what can be done to bring back the sparkle to the Oscars, why does Ann Coulter have such a big adam’s apple?

The easy explanation is that each party recognized Mr. Clemens as a person whose financial interests are championed by Republicans. He does after all demand twenty million dollars to participate in a six month season or a portion of one. This is not big stuff compared to war profiteering but it admits you to the circle.

Maybe the notoriously lame Democrats are hunting for some icon that they can take down. This might be some sort of feast of sublimation. When confronted with their record of futility in investigations, they can say “Whud’ya mean, did you see us handle Clemens?”

Maybe the Republican see a disciple of their the-end-justifies-the-means philosophy. Clemens sought wealth and fame and broke the rules to get there. After his a ascension a bunch of nit pickers bring up the rules. What is important is that he made it, not how. Its like pumping up reasons to invade a country, granting no-bid war contracts, torture and stuff like that. It’s an emergency so shuddup.

On the other hand the Democrats might be resentful that Clemens actually did something. Their champion would be the player who couldn’t convince himself to take steroids (clearly a minority), but who would never think of identifying those who did, particularly late in the season.

The Republicans certainly must admire the enduring nature of Clemens career. There is no end in sight. Right after 9/11 our vice president told us that it would probably take about eighty years to eradicate terrorism from the face of the earth. (This certainly seems like reasonable estimate.) More recently Mr. McCain has told us that it might take one hundred years just to triumph on Iraq front of the global war on terror. Nearly perpetual war for hopefully perpetual peace in an arguably Orwellian society. Maybe Clemens’ chemical fueled fastball is a symbol of the petroleum sucking war. Who knows? (The prevailing theory of what we are doing in Iraq is that this massively fuel-consuming activity is for the sake of securing the supply of the resource depleted by the activity.)

I’m not sure what subliminal message Clemons carried that caused the committee members to line up according to party but somewhere in all that there is a clue to what is going on in Washington D.C.

My Causus Meeting

February 11, 2008

I’m a 60-year old first time caucus goer living in a middle class neighborhood in the 46th District. Over the years I’ve had a more than casual interest in national politics but I’ve never before been drawn to participate in any political activity so early in an election year. It has been a long time since national policy and priorities have gone according to my preference, so I guess frustration was part of the draw to this year’s caucus.

I had found McCain interesting until he started campaigning in earnest. He lost me in his efforts to blend into his party, a party that seems to have lost its roots and to have been hijacked by zealots committed to returning economically to the industrial age of the late nineteenth century and for foreign policy to the third century B.C. I miss the days not too long ago when Republicans advocated a balanced budget, and moderation in spending with some obligation to the poor and the middle class. So I was interested in attending the Democratic Party caucus.

As I walked down the street to the elementary school where the caucus was to be held, I noticed that there were significantly more cars parked on the street than usual. Three blocks from the school cars were circling the block looking for a parking place. I had never seen this before, as the neighborhood is entirely residential and school events never create such a parking problem. The scene reminded my of hunting for street parking before a Sonics game.

People got out of their cars and walked to the school as if they were going to church. Mostly couples but some singles and small groups; they talked quietly among themselves, no shouting or laughing. I fell into line and found myself conducted toward the assembly room of the school. The line slowed to a crawl outside the door, as people at the front of the line squeezed into the crowd within.

The congregation inside the assembly room was supposed to be organized by precinct. Looking over peoples shoulders you could see a few people were holding up scraps of paper with numbers on them. These numbers obviously were precinct numbers but you couldn’t read them very well and many were obscured by the crowd but it didn’t matter anyway because the people were wedged into the room so tightly that no one could move. Nonetheless, good tidings seems to emanate from his petrified thicket of lost voters. A warm murmur blanketed the throng, folks seemed congenial and patient. As the precincts were assigned rooms in the school, the assembly room cleared out enough for others to find out what precinct they were in and where that group had gone.

My precinct had a large class room at the end of the hall on the second floor. It too was filled with people standing around the sides of the room and at the rear. Perhaps from automatic respect for the absent teacher, people kept away from the front of the classroom and packed into the rest of it. It was a very well behaved group.

Most of the people in the class room were boomers, roughly my age. There were a few people of the 70’s set and very few people in their twenties or late teens. There appeared to be more women than men, but not by a wide margin, and the group seemed to be composed of comfortably middle class people. Demographically this appeared to be a Hillary crowd.

When we were all assembled a woman stepped to the front of the class and introduced herself as Diane something and said that she was the precinct chairperson. She quickly enlisted her husband and a friend to help and read a printed page describing the forthcoming procedure. She read kind of fast and the language seemed a little unclear, so at the end I had no idea of what we were going to do. She looked up and asked for questions. People looked at each other blankly but no one said anything so she pressed on. She described in her own words what we were about to do and it sounded like there would be a lot of talking and discussion, but I was still unclear about precisely what we were undertaking. They tallied up the voting sheets we had signed when we came in and determined that there were 72 people in our group and 14 undecideds among them, me included.

It was Clinton people on one side of the room, the Obamas on the other (like a spelling bee), with the undecideds sent to the rear. One person from each committed group spoke for one minute or so, then she selected one from each group to do it again. There was no opportunity for either group to speak among themselves and the undecideds weren’t given a chance to speak.

What interested me was that the speakers strongly tended to mouth the slogans bantered in the campaigns. There was very little reference to actual policy and what was said about it was not entirely accurate. Of course the one minute limitation had something to do with that, but it would be fair to say that most people in the classroom were not up on the details and did not seem to be terribly concerned about specifics.

One thing that I find very frustrating with campaigns is that the candidates exert a great deal of effort avoiding specifics. The idea is to avoid taking a position, so as to avoid alienating anyone. In 2004 most Democrats were against the war, but Kerry got the nomination because he was “electable” and a significant part of his being “electable” was that he didn’t say anything. I mean that in the most literal way, using “say” to mean transmit information. When he was campaigning for the nomination his talk about the Iraq War was incomprehensible. I found transcripts of some of his statements and, while long winded and full of terminology, it was literally gibberish. I couldn’t believe it at first but it truly was.

This caucus meeting though gave me the sense that the vagaries mouthed by politicians might mean something to people. No doubt people attach different expectations to broad words and phrases and in that way a politician broadens his or her base. The meaning associated with spoken generalities, however, could not be of primary importance to someone cleaving to a slogan-ish campaign pronouncement.

What was important to these people in choosing a candidate? For some of the women my age Clinton is a symbol of the recognition of women as equals. I know a woman for example who would never vote third party, voted for Bush twice but would vote for a woman regardless of party (that is Republican or Democratic) or platform. While such an extreme attitude is I’m sure rare, there were probably at least a few woman in my group who were influenced by gender sufficiently to lean toward Clinton. There was no one of color in my group so there was no such countervailing influence.

Nationally the issue of greatest significance has for years been the war. The subject did not even come up in my group until near the end when a little elderly lady stood up, spread her arms and loudly said “What about the war?” One person on each side of the room was promptly assigned that topic for a one minute discourse. Each speaker charged off into clouds of personal praise for his and her candidate and failed to mention the war, so people were again assigned the one minute topic. The Obama speaker said that Obama was more certain to end the war, but the Clinton speaker said that she was committed to ending as well.

Hillary Clinton drew cheers here this week when she shouted about ending the war, but to my knowledge she has never voted on significant war-related issue in a manner that was not endorsed by Bush. And I cannot discern anything in her voting record to indicate that she is not perfectly prepared to start bombing Iran. Her web site includes a commitment to keep permanent military bases in Iraq, to make a token withdrawal effort and have a few meetings on the subject. She talks about the strategic geo-political significance of the region. Getting out of Iraq clearly means something different to her than it does to most people I know.

My little precinct then took a second vote and one person went from Obama to undecided, thereby rendering his vote meaningless in terms in the final tally, as there were to be no undecided delegates. The undecideds seemed to split about evenly and three decided to remain undecided, putting them in the same position they would be in if they had not attended. The final vote: four to one for Obama.

The crowd leaving the school was almost as quiet as the one that had gone in, maybe a little more garrulous. It was a little bit like we had been to church. Participation in the caucus was a expression faith, faith in a political system and faith in the good will of neighbors. More than backing an agenda, the votes had been an expression of faith in one or the other candidate to do the right thing, however each voter saw that. My quest for some kind of analytical clarity was not advanced in the least but I walked down the street with a great deal of respect for the system and for my neighbors. People had been sincere, well intentioned, open and respectful of each other. A well spent afternoon.