Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Artifice of Natural Law

I was going to comment on this NYT piece when I read it a few days ago, but I've been finishing up some work, and now Sully's beaten me to the punch. It's a profile of Robert George, the Princeton professor and natural law theorist. George's advocacy of natural law makes him something of an anachronism among philosophers (at least at secular institutions) and something of an icon among conservatives. I first became familiar with his work a couple of years ago when I began to delve more deeply into the intersections of political theory and theology, and he's doubtlessly one of this generation's most important scholars of religion and politics.

His approach to the subject also happens to be phenomenally misguided - and, it increasingly seems, openly ideological.

Let me explain a little bit, since this article gives (it seems to me) an unhelpfully shallow explanation of some of the major issues at play. Early on, the article begins to list some of George's biggest fans:
He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as “one of the biggest brains in America,” or, on one broadcast, “Superman of the Earth.” Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research.
Ok, so what is this "13th-century Catholic philosophy" that has Major Intellectual Figures such as Glenn Beck, Karl Rove, and George W. Bush so enthralled? It's natural law - so we might call George, as Sullivan does, a "natural lawyer." The proponents of natural law include a long list of major Catholic philosophers - including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco de Vitoria. Let's assume that Glenn Beck has never read Francisco de Vitoria. What does he find so appealing about this philosophy?

At its core, natural law is basically the idea that the natural world, since it was created and ordered by God, exemplifies God’s wisdom and intent. The artificial order, then, should be modeled after the natural order, in order to reflect the plan and genius of God. I recently noted, in a paper on this subject, that "the considerable persuasive and explanatory power of this theory lies in its appeal to deeply-held convictions and its power to develop theories that seem intuitive." Sullivan's post echoes this point:
But my deeper point is actually an agreement of sorts: there does seem something intuitively right about seeing our "nature" as some sort of guide to the way we should live our lives. But this is the beginning of an argument, not an end to it. What do we mean by nature? How do emotion and reason interact? How precise and universal can we be in adducing morals from something as diverse and varied as the fruits of natural selection? How can we be sure we aren't smuggling in all sorts of pre-existing views of what nature is and what morality is when we declare something "unnatural"?
This does a neat job of summarizing the immediate problems that arise from removing natural law from abstract speculation and actually using it to guide politics. Sullivan's main beef with George and the natural lawyers is their approach to homosexuality, and indeed, it's a revealing look at the way a supposedly intuitive, rational approach to politics quickly becomes arbitrary, gnostic, and theocratic.

The official Catholic position on homosexual sex is that it's "unnatural" - referring, quite literally, to the notion that sex is by nature procreative and physically unitive of male and female, and since homosexual sex doesn't fit that definition, it's inherently incompatible with what is "natural" - and therefore ordered by God, since God created the natural order. This is, to put it lightly, a fraught position, as numerous writers have demonstrated. It's not necessary to revisit their points here (but if you're interested in more reading on the topic, see Jon Corvino, Jeffrey Siker, and others). Suffice it to say that, as is plainly evident from this line of argument, it's impossible to have natural law without a certain requisite amount of theology.

That's why this claim, recently made by Justin Rigali, a conservative cardinal closely associated with George (and in a speech that the article suggests George wrote) is so frustrating and misleading:

These principles did not belong to the Christian faith alone, the cardinal declared; they rested on a foundation of universal reason. “They are principles that can be known and honored by men and women of good will even apart from divine revelation,” Rigali said. “They are principles of right reason and natural law.”
This is completely wrong and intellectually dishonest. Those principles do belong to divine revelation. Natural law is by definition impossible without divine reason, so either Rigali doesn't understand natural law or he's just being a liar. I'd actually be hard-pressed to say which. People tend to defer to scholars with George's pristine credentials (including degrees from Oxford and Harvard), and it's tempting to argue that one's own views are accessible to anyone employing right reason.

But think about the fundamental arguments behind natural law: we know what to do because of what we see in creation. Yet why should creation have any meaning? Why should nature hold any authority? I addressed this question a few months ago:
The Christian idea of a world created ex nihilo is not a world that precludes contingency, but it is a world where the contingent embodies (in some way) a divine idea or image, if not divine intent. It is a world in which, as Louis Dupré writes, "nature retains an intrinsically normative character," a "further stage in the process of revelation." For Christian thinkers of centuries past, nature was filled with meaning, if not intentional structure. Again, as Dupré puts it, "the epistemic apriori imposed no categorical structure upon the real, but a perspective for reading what was directly, but never simply or exhaustively, given."
Natural law is essentially one step beyond this position - there is a categorical structure given in nature, because nature reflects the intent of God. It is therefore impossible to conceive of natural law without believing that a) God exists and b) God created the universe. The idea that this is possible, as Rigali says, without religion, on a foundation of universal reason, "even apart from divine revelation," is ludicrous.

The political implications, of course, are too tempting for any social conservative to ignore, so they insist on this insulting farce. All while ignoring the fundamentally theological presuppositions and consequences of their argument. After all, can
anyone convincingly explain how a system of government and laws based on clerical interpretations of God's intent can avoid being - at the very least - a soft theocracy? And a gnostic one at that? Someone has to interpret what is natural and what is not; what counts and what doesn't; what reveals God's intent and what is simply an anomaly. This will require people with some religious training. Right reason, separate from religion, indeed.

But nonetheless, the battle lines have been drawn, and the political consequences are clear. Christians of various stripes have come together to push this idea - hey, all it takes is a common enemy in the dreaded gays for conservative Christians to discover ecumenism. And they have every right to push these ideas in the political square.

Just don't try to argue that they're not fundamentally religious arguments. It's insulting.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Could Do This Punditry Thing..., Ctd.

Again, some better-known, more talented writer anticipates yours truly. Here's Jonathan Chait on the Republicans' healthcare blunder:

The United States is on the doorstep of comprehensive health care reform. It's a staggering achievement, about which I'll have more to say later. But the under-appreciated thing that strikes me at the moment is that it never would have happened if the Republican Party had played its cards right.

At the outset of this debate, moderate Democrats were desperate for a bipartisan bill. They were willing to do almost anything to get it, including negotiate fruitlessly for months on end. We can't know for sure, but Democrats appeared willing to make enormous substantive concessions to win the assent of even a few Republicans. A few GOP defectors could have lured a chunk of Democrats to sign something far more limited than what President Obama is going to sign. And remember, it would have taken only one Democrat to agree to partial reform in order to kill comprehensive reform. I can easily imagine a scenario where Ben Nelson refused to vote for anything larger than, say, a $400 billion bill that Chuck Grassley and a couple other Republicans were offering.

But Republicans wouldn't make that deal. The GOP leadership put immense pressure on all its members to withhold consent from any health care bill. The strategy had some logic to it: If all 40 Republicans voted no, then Democrats would need 60 votes to succeed, a monumentally difficult task. And if they did succeed, the bill would be seen as partisan and therefore too liberal, too big government. The spasm of anti-government activism over the summer helped lock the GOP into this strategy -- no Republican could afford to risk the wrath of Tea Partiers convinced that any reform signed by Obama equaled socialism and death panels.


The Republicans eschewed a halfway compromise and put all their chips on an all or nothing campaign to defeat health care and Obama's presidency. It was an audacious gamble. They lost. In the end, they'll walk away with nothing. The Republicans may gain some more seats in 2010 by their total obstruction, but the substantive policy defeat they've been dealt will last for decades.

As I noted just over a week ago, I made this exact point back in October, two months before David Frum and Jonathan Chait got around to it. Just sayin'.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brilliant Idea!

So Kos and John Aravosis (of AMERICABlog) have apparently decided that Congressional Democrats (especially in the Senate) have compromised on too much and it's time to kill healthcare reform. Great plan. After a grueling, eighteen month-long primary campaign arguing about competing health care reform plans, a grueling general election campaign arguing about whether to enact meaningful health care reform at all, and nearly a year of legislative haggling over a massive (and massively-important) piece of legislation - with all the attendant promises, deals, spent political capital, hours of analysis and argument and hard work - let's just throw the whole damn thing out so a bunch of pissed-off lefties who have never had the responsibility of governing can enjoy a temper tantrum with an even bigger-than-usual dose of self-righteousness. All while thousands of Americans continue to die each year because they don't have health insurance, and millions more live in crippling financial insecurity because of skyrocketing costs. Both of which are problems that this bill would solve.

It's perfectly reasonable to be upset that some reforms have been watered down, but it's completely childish to argue that a good bill that will vastly improve the current system is worth scrapping simply because the left didn't get everything on its wish list. I've spent no small amount of time criticizing the Republican base for its stupid, immature, fantasy-land approach to governance, and the same message applies to the netroots in this case: Grow. Up.

(And, of course, Toby Ziegler has already said this better than I can, so I leave you with this! The best bit starts at 1:15.)

"And if you think demonizing people who are trying to govern responsibly is the way to protect our liberal base, then speaking as a liberal, go to bed, would you please?"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Just War?

Michael Walzer, who knows a thing or two about the topic, raises some questions about Afghanistan:
After all the mistakes, the cost of “winning”—significantly reducing the strength of the Taliban, stimulating local resistance, training a national army, working with Pakistan to shut down al Qaeda havens across the border—may now be too high. The number of troops that would be necessary to “win” may be far greater than the number the president has committed and far greater than the American people would be willing to commit. And if that is true, then the continuation of the war can’t be justified—for it is one of the key criteria of a just war that there be a realistic possibility of achieving a just peace.
This sums up my own attitudes about the strategic costs/benefits of Afghanistan pretty well. But Walzer points out that there may be another, more convincing argument for seeing things through:

Things have not gotten better for most Afghans in those years, and for many of them, who live in the battle zones or who endure the rapaciousness of government officials, things have probably gotten much worse. At the same time, however, there have been some gains, in parts of the countryside and in the more secure cities. American and European NGOs have been doing good work in areas like public health, health care, and education. Schools have opened, and teachers have been recruited, for some two million girls. Organizations of many different sorts, including trade unions and women’s groups, have sprung up in a new, largely secular, civil society. A version of democratic politics has emerged, radically incomplete but valuable still. And all the people involved in these different activities would be at risk—at risk for their lives—if the United States simply withdrew. Given everything we did wrong in Afghanistan, the work of these people—democrats, feminists, union activists, and teachers—is a small miracle worth defending against the Taliban resurgence.

Indeed, I think we have an obligation to do that—and I also think that most of these people would agree (they should be asked). And it is here that there is a realistic possibility of success: the cities can be held, civil society fostered, and NGO projects in the countryside protected, even with fewer troops than the president has committed. But for this work there is no obvious end; a year and a half won’t be enough.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I Could Do This Punditry Thing...

Or this think-tank thing. Or this presidential speechwriting thing. (Ok, maybe not.)

But I was still a few weeks ahead of David Frum when I wrote (regarding healthcare):
Salam is right to note that if you think an idea will be bad policy, it is responsible to oppose it. But think of the nature of Republican opposition and its likely consequences. Leading Democrats from President Obama down have all repeatedly stated that they want a bipartisan bill, but at the end of the day they'll pass healthcare reform with or without Republican input. There have been minor substantive ideas from Republicans (namely, tort reform), but overall, the Republican "contribution" to this debate has been scaremongering and demagoguery led by the likes of Sarah Palin and Betsy McCaughey - with their ridiculous lies about death panels, euthanasia, abortion, socialism, etc. Republicans had their chance to make real contributions to healthcare reform. They had the opportunity to ensure that the final bill, even if they found it objectionable, would at least be mitigated by some conservative provisions. But they never took that opportunity. For the most part, they've been content to sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs. Since the passage of healthcare is nearly guaranteed, they are being profoundly irresponsible, and yes, nihilistic, if they refuse to try and positively change something that they believe will be disastrous.
Yesterday, Frum, in a post about healthcare and global warming legislation, expressed similar sentiments about the results of what he called Congressional Republicans' "'no, no, no' policy":

Republicans could have been architects of improvement, instead we made ourselves impotent spectators as things get radically worse. [...]

The furious rejectionist frenzy of the past 12 months is exacting a terrible price upon Republicans. We’re getting worse and less conservative results out of Washington than we could have negotiated, if we had negotiated.

As is, we’re betting heavily that a bad economy will collapse Democratic support without us having to lift a finger. Maybe that will happen. But existing party strategy has to be reckoned a terrible failure. Most Republicans will shrug off that news. If polls are right, rank-and-file Republicans feel little regard for the Washington party, and don’t expect much from it. But it’s the rank-and-file who are the problem here! Republican leaders do not dare try deals for fear of being branded sell-outs by a party base that wants war to the knife. So we got war. And we’re losing. Even if we gain seats in 2010, the actions of this congressional session will not be reversed. Shrink Medicare after it has expanded? Hey- we said we’d never do that.

I hear a lot of talk about the importance of “principle.” But what’s the principle that obliges us to be stupid?
I confess that I don't know, but I'm sure Sarah Palin is somehow involved.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Thanks, Sarah!

For answering my question:
Is it possible that the Palin Right has diminished the office so much that they really think any warm body with the right views on abortion can do the job? What planet do they live on?
Apparently, that's exactly it:

O'REILLY: Do you believe that you are smart enough, incisive enough, intellectual enough to handle the most powerful job in the world?

PALIN: I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values.

Well, there you have it! I was right.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lessons from Ft. Hood?

Allow me a respectful dissent from Jeff's take on some of the various reactions (specifically, those of Andrew Sullivan and Jeffrey Goldberg) to the shooting at Ft. Hood.

Jeff writes:
Both Goldberg and Sullivan effectively call for investigations into American Arabs/Muslims, particularly those in the military. Right, good idea: let’s alienate the few Arabs/Muslims who love their country – in spite of their country’s and fellow soldiers’ prejudices against them, drawn out by incidents like the Fort Hood massacre – enough to die for it.

Fort Hood was incredibly tragic, and incredibly sad. Did Major Hasan scream Allahu Akbar? It does not matter. He may have believed himself to be religiously motivated, he may have had ties to radicalizing Imams, but at the end of the day — he was clearly disturbed. Indeed, the military and society as a whole should watch out for people who gave warning signs of mental instability — but not warning signs based on their religious or ethnic identity, which is what Goldberg and Sullivan are demanding.

This characterization conflates the reactions of Goldberg and Sullivan, which were actually quite different. In fact, Sullivan wrote the following about the shooting on November 6:

It's a tragic massacre in the first place. It will doubtless increase suspicion of Muslim servicemembers, which in turn propels more religious polarization, which makes winning this war harder still. You can instantly see how the Malkins will spin this, and how a war on American Muslims can get jump-started in America.

And he posed the following questions about reactions to the shooting the same day:

[Should we] Screen all potential Muslim soldiers in [the] future? Have special surveillance of such soldiers? It's easy to see how this might make matters worse just as it might make them better. Michelle Malkin, remember, favored interning Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Is that what the anti-Jihadists now want for American Muslims? Or what, exactly?

Denial of these Islamist currents, even within the military, is dangerous and foolish. But equally, over-reacting to them is dangerous and foolish.

Sullivan's statements don't quite add up to "effectively call[ing] for investigations into American Arabs/Muslims, particularly those in the military." Granted, he did write that "if political correctness is preventing this vigilance, it needs to be pushed back, and hard," but that's a qualified statement, and in any case it seems pretty self-evident. If warning signs were ignored because no one wanted to cause offense, that's obviously unacceptable. (For the record, I think it's extremely unlikely that that will prove to be the case, and some of the people making this claim are just taking potshots at liberals.) But Sullivan made the suggestion in a qualified way, and explicitly rejected the "ROOT OUT THE MUSLIMS!" sentiment that undergirded a disturbing amount of conservative reaction.

Goldberg, for his part, wrote:

But I do think that elite makers of opinion in this country try very hard to ignore the larger meaning of violent acts when they happen to be perpetrated by Muslims. Here's a simple test: If Nidal Malik Hasan had been a devout Christian with pronounced anti-abortion views, and had he attacked, say, a Planned Parenthood office, would his religion have been considered relevant as we tried to understand the motivation and meaning of the attack? Of course.
I think he's wrong - aside from the usual suspects who jumped to conclusions within minutes of the news, there were quite a few people who considered that radical Islam could have something to do with this. But they recognized that a hotheaded reaction could provoke violence against a vulnerable minority group, so they withheld judgment. That's the obvious point that Goldberg misses: the situation with regard to American Muslims and radicals among them is much more tense than the situation with regard to American Christians and the radicals among them. No one is "ignoring" the meaning of this - we'd just like to know what that meaning is before putting American Muslims at risk for the sake of making political hay.

So obviously, I'm far less inclined to support Goldberg's writings on the matter - I just wanted to make the point that their reactions were not the same. And to the extent that either of them call for investigations, Goldberg is much closer to that position, but he never actually advocates for such a thing. In fact, he says (regarding the case of Jonathan Pollard, an Israeli spy) that the witch-hunts and profiling against Jews after Pollard's arrest were wrong - but that the FBI should not have subsequently ignored suspicious activity by American Jews for fear of causing offense by seeming to profile them. The point is reasonable: if there is one spy, or terrorist, or whatever, that has infiltrated an organization, it is reasonable to assume (from a security perspective) that there could be others. This does not excuse profiling and witch-hunts. But it does mean that worries about political correctness should not override real security concerns. (In any case, as I said, I doubt political correctness had anything to do with the inaction on Hasan's case, so this is probably a moot point.) And I do agree with the argument that Jeff cites from Marc Lynch - that we have to combat a "clash of civilizations" narrative from emerging.

The reason I'm hesitant to judge either way is simple: the investigation is still ongoing. In the meantime, the wisest course is to withhold judgment about what this means until we know why Hasan did the things he allegedly did. Declaring that we understand what this means before we have all the facts in front of us is premature and potentially dangerous.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Case You Hadn't Heard

Sarah Palin, who was once (and to many, still is) the Future Of The Republican Party, has a book coming out in a few days. Apparently, its content is heavy on perpetuating campaign infighting. The book, of course, is called "Going Rogue," and so its main purpose is probably to salvage the narrative that Palin was mistreated by slick political operatives and rendered unable to get her message out to Real America. The real Sarah, I'm sure the book will tell us, is a hardworking, straight-talking, no-nonsense hockey mom who has no patience for cocktail-party Washington politics and campaign shenanigans.

OK. Now try to reconcile that with the fact that, after torpedoing a presidential campaign with her outrageous and offensive antics, she returned to Alaska and quit her job as governor before finishing a single term. Since then, she's been spending her time fighting (and losing) a media battle with a high-school dropout and soon-to-be Playgirl model. Who happens to be the father of her unwed teenage daughter's child. What a circus. Of course, to some this sounds like the exploits of a major political leader, and someday the President of the United States. Like Abraham Lincoln.

Is it possible that the Palin Right has diminished the office so much that they really think any warm body with the right views on abortion can do the job? What planet do they live on?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Today's Conservatism, In a Nutshell

If you want a near-perfect encapsulation of what passes for conservative "thought" these days, I highly recommend this celebratory post at the Corner. It hits all the main points: caring more about winning than being right; rejoicing in the real pain of gay people; a massive and unfounded persecution complex; a creepy and condescending practice of pitting all arguments as "real people" versus "elites" (who are gay! GAY!); masking nasty prejudices in smarmy, Leave-It-To-Beaver B.S. about "tradition"; and making lame allusions to people like T.R. in an effort to associate legendary Americans (and old-school Republicans) with the modern Republican party, even if those Americans would find today's Republicans repugnant. If there were some sort of ridiculous Reagan hagiography thrown in for no apparent reason, it would be the Corner Post To End All Corner Posts.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One Year Later

The news organizations are doing their "One Year Later" pieces on President Obama's election, so I thought I'd join in on the fun. If you've been reading the blog since January 20th, you already know my thoughts on his presidency so far (or at least those thoughts I've written posts about), so I thought I'd link to some old pieces about the election that turns one year old tomorrow.

October 28, 2008: "I Voted Today"

November 3, 2008: "What's at Stake Tomorrow"

November 3, 2008: "Really, Though..."

November 4, 2008: "Once More"

November 5, 2008: "A New Day"

November 5, 2008: "What This Means"

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Obama at Dover

"As Obama comforted families at a tragic moment, he also had to contemplate a tragic dimension of his own presidency: It's nice to talk about change, but you can't wipe away yesterday." - Maureen Dowd.

This is a sad but important and insightful observation. I share her worries.

Obama was left a mess of incredible proportions by people who take no responsibility for their deadly mistakes. But I think the President has his eye on the ball, and I continue to hope this dark past won't swallow up our chance for a better future.

"I Noticed Something: You May Notice Something Quite Wonderful in Most Everybody You Meet"

From the original 1950s radio series "This I Believe," an essay from Robbins Milbank, who died in 1985. Listen to the recording if you can. This is a profound and beautiful piece.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Jacob Weisberg is tired of the "phony debate" over Fox News's bias:
There is no longer any need to get bogged down in this phony debate, which itself constitutes an abuse of the fair-mindedness of the rest of the media. One glance at Fox's Web site or five minutes randomly viewing the channel at any hour of the day demonstrates its all-pervasive political slant. [...] What's most distinctive about the American press is not its freedom but its tradition of independence—that it serves the public interest rather than those of parties, persuasions, or pressure groups. Media independence is a 20th-century innovation that has never fully taken root in Europe or many other countries that do have free press. The Australian-British-continental model of politicized media that Murdoch has implemented at Fox is un-American, so much so that he has little choice but go on denying what he's doing as he does it. For Murdoch, Ailes, and company, "fair and balanced" is a necessary lie. To admit that their coverage is slanted by design would violate the American understanding of the media's role in democracy and our idea of what constitutes journalistic fair play. But it's a demonstrable deceit that no longer deserves equal time.
I don't have much to add to this except to say that it's dead-on, and the whole piece is worth reading. The "Murdoch Model" of openly-biased newspapers was one of the things that bothered me most about English media and political culture. Of course, it's fashionable to claim that such a system is simply more straightforward; that American newspapers are biased, but they're just not open about it.

I think that's an oversimplification. I'm not naive enough to suggest that the major newspapers are completely unbiased, but it is true that most of the time, the professional journalists who work at those newspapers are trying to present a story as accurately as possible. Whatever political slant ends up in the story is usually in spite of, not because of, the journalist's intent. With Fox, it's just the opposite. (Of course, Jon Stewart is all over this.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Nihilism and the HSA Problem

Reihan Salam has a smart, but ultimately misguided, take on the Finance Committee's healthcare bill:
Among Democrats and liberals, there is a belief that Republican opposition to the various Democratic proposals represents a kind of "nihilism," and that because Baucuscare resembles proposals offered by liberal and moderate Republicans in the 1990s, today's opposition is obviously unprincipled if not insane. My sense is that we've learned a great deal about health reform over the intervening period, and that, as Christensen, Grossman, and Hwang have argued, it is disruptive competition that promises substantial improvement in the cost and quality of medical services over time. I'm increasingly convinced that the only way to move in this direction is to create a system of universal catastrophic coverage and universal health savings accounts, as proposed by Martin Feldstein and a number of others. The emerging consensus among congressional Democrats moves us in a very different direction, towards a highly centralized, highly regulated system that will give entrepreneurs very little room to dramatically improve care. With that in mind, I don't think opposition is "nihlistic"; rather, I think it's responsible.
Health Savings Accounts are an interesting approach to the healthcare problem - certainly they would eliminate many of the distortions that currently plague the healthcare market, and removing insurance companies from the process of paying for regular healthcare expenses would drive consumers to make more careful decisions while encouraging competition among doctors and hospitals. Having a third party foot the bill dramatically increases costs. As David Goldhill wrote a few months ago: "Want further evidence of moral hazard? The average insured American and the average uninsured American spend very similar amounts of their own money on health care each year - $654 and $583, respectively. But they spend wildly different amounts of other people's money - $3,809 and $1,103, respectively [...] If it's true that the insurance system leads us to focus on only our direct share of costs - rather than the total cost to society - it's not surprising that insured families and uninsured ones would make similar decisions as to how much of their own money to spend on care, but very different decisions on the total amount to consume."

It's an intriguing idea - but I think it inadequately addresses the problems faced by Americans who are uninsured because of poverty, and who, in an HSA system, wouldn't have enough income to put aside in their accounts to cover expenses short of the universal "catastrophic" coverage proposed by HSA advocates. For them, insurance is key - it lowers costs by pooling risk, so a subsidy to buy insurance would be more useful than a subsidy to directly purchase care. And subsidies - of one kind or another - do seem to be the only answer to the problem: HSA advocates like Goldhill admit that the government would have to provide subsidies to poor Americans so they could meet the minimum contribution requirements for their HSA. But is it realistic to think that the government could provide satisfactory subsidies to a more medically-vulnerable demographic without spending massive amounts of money? Keep in mind, all this would be taking place in a marketplace without the cost-reducing pooling benefits of insurance - and that, in turn, is based on the assumption that it's even possible to remove the insurance middleman from short-of-catastrophic transactions. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker in 2005:
If you are preoccupied with moral hazard, then you want people to pay for care with their own money, and, when you do that, the sick inevitably end up paying more than the healthy [...] "The main effect of putting more of it on the consumer is to reduce the social redistributive element of insurance," the Stanford economist Victor Fuchs says. Health Savings Accounts are not a variant of universal health care. In their governing assumptions, they are the antithesis of universal health care.
If you're like me, and you think universal coverage is the most important component of healthcare reform, this is a big problem. And I don't think that, as far as public policy goes, we are forced to make a choice between universal coverage and a sensible healthcare market that encourages competition and consumer choice (in fact, that's one major reason why I support a public option). That's why Salam is ultimately wrong not only about how "centralized" a post-reform system will be, but about whether or not Republican opposition to this bill is nihilistic.

Salam is right to note that if you think an idea will be bad policy, it is responsible to oppose it. But think of the nature of Republican opposition and its likely consequences. Leading Democrats from President Obama down have all repeatedly stated that they want a bipartisan bill, but at the end of the day they'll pass healthcare reform with or without Republican input. There have been minor substantive ideas from Republicans (namely, tort reform), but overall, the Republican "contribution" to this debate has been scaremongering and demagoguery led by the likes of Sarah Palin and Betsy McCaughey - with their ridiculous lies about death panels, euthanasia, abortion, socialism, etc. Republicans had their chance to make real contributions to healthcare reform. They had the opportunity to ensure that the final bill, even if they found it objectionable, would at least be mitigated by some conservative provisions. But they never took that opportunity. For the most part, they've been content to sit on the sidelines and throw spitballs. Since the passage of healthcare is nearly guaranteed, they are being profoundly irresponsible, and yes, nihilistic, if they refuse to try and positively change something that they believe will be disastrous.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Other Reactions

The reasonable, moderate, sober punditry meme developed in record time yesterday morning: by 9 AM EST, there seemed to be a "consensus" among people who determine what the consensus is that well, the only respectable thing to do now is turn it down. When that didn't happen, the respectable reaction became well, certainly this is nice and all, but it's a mixed blessing; let's see how we can turn this into a negative story. Hence the absurd NYT headline "For Presidency in Search of Success, Nobel Adds a Twist" and TNR's takeaway, "Obama's Nobel: Mixed Blessing At Best."

Since you can read those pieces anywhere today (or just turn on your TV), I thought I'd highlight the assessments of people whose opinions aren't affected by their need to have a respectable reputation among the commentariat.

From the comments of readers of that TNR piece:
"Mr. Crowley et al.: You are all completely nuts. You can refuse a Nobel Prize if you want to express contempt for those who award it, or those who have received it, but to do so for the kind of cockeyed political reasons mentioned above is just totally self-defeating. And I think he has accomplished more internationally, Afghanistan aside, than a lot of people want to realize. The speech to the Arab world, his work with G20 and at the U.N., the decision on the nuclear shield, and maybe even the Iran negotiations have all made an impression on the world if not on TNR bloggers."

"All of these hideous attacks on this great honor to our President are the pinnacle of self indulgent, preening, arm chair nobody-ism. To a person, the attacks have made me sick, there's not a single decent point in any of them. If anyone deserves a Nobel, it is our brave President."
Ben Cohen at the Daily Banter:
America became a feared and despised state under the rule of the Bush Administration. The brazen disregard for global opinion, the trampling of international law, and the overt environmental destruction were hallmarks of a Presidency determined to project American power at all costs. With one election, the world forgave, and almost forgot the tragic Bush years as a young black President who spoke of hope rather than hatred, and cooperation rather than force swept into power.

This monumental shift cannot and must not be underestimated.

Steve Clemons:

...the Nobel Committee's decision to make Obama the only sitting U.S. president since Woodrow Wilson to receive the Nobel Peace Prize shows the committee's clear-headed assessment that Obama's "unclenched fist" approach to dealing with the world's most thuggish leaders has had a constructive, systemic impact on the world's expectations of itself. [...] What is brilliant about Obama and why he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize is that he is a global leader who clearly saw the gains that could be made in changing "the optics" of the global order, upgrading the level of respect between the United States and other nations, making a point of listening to other leaders.

Obama saw that before the world could move to a more stable and better global equilibrium, it had to believe it could -- and this is what Obama has done in ways that no other leader has in memory.

Josh Marshall calls it an "odd award," an assessment with which I'm inclined to agree, but makes a crucial point:
But the unmistakable message of the award is one of the consequences of a period in which the most powerful country in the world, the 'hyper-power' as the French have it, became the focus of destabilization and in real if limited ways lawlessness. A harsh judgment, yes. But a dark period. And Obama has begun, if fitfully and very imperfectly to many of his supporters, to steer the ship of state in a different direction. If that seems like a meager accomplishment to many of the usual Washington types it's a profound reflection of their own enablement of the Bush era and how compromised they are by it, how much they perpetuated the belief that it was 'normal history' rather than dark aberration.
Lindsay Beyerstein at Obsidian Wings:

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a parallel dimension where everything is inverted. Accepting the Nobel Prize makes you look bad? It's narcissistic to accept prizes from other people?

I am gobsmacked that some Democrats want the president to turn down the prize for his own good. What message would that send to the rest of the world? Something along the lines of 'Thanks, guys, but I'm really all about war'?

Of course the Republicans are going to freak out. Our guy wins a Nobel Peace Prize after 9 months in office, primarily for tinkering with the worst excesses of the wars their guy started. That's humiliating. Humiliated Republicans lash out, news at eleven.

But turning it down would be a slap in the face to an international community that is showing, in the most generous way possible, that it wants the U.S. back as a leading component of the global order. The issue is not Barack Obama. It’s what the president represents internationally: a symbol of an America that is willing, once again, to drive the international system forward, together, toward the humane positive-sum goals of peace and disarmament. The fact that Obama hasn’t gotten the planet there misses the point entirely. It’s that he’s beginning, slowly, to take the world again down the path.
The first commenter on the story at Wonkette:
I thought he won because he blew up the moon and ended the wicked tides that plague the planet, but I notice this morning the moon is still there, so one more massive failure.
I smell a new meme!