Saturday, August 22, 2009

Nodding Towards Nullification

On a conference call organized by Americans for Prosperity, Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Michele Bachmann, two of the more reliably nutty members of Congress, made some oblique references to nullification when discussing the states' response to healthcare reform. From TPMDC:

A caller asked DeMint what the states could do in order to stop unconstitutional action by the federal government on health care. DeMint replied, "I think the key to pushing back against the federal government is some governors and state legislators who champion individual freedom."

DeMint said he would love to see states go to court to invoke the Tenth Amendment: "If we had some states come together and say the only way to save this country is to push back." He also added: "I think you'll see some states say no more, we're not going down with the federal government."A few minutes later, Bachmann commented on this possibility as well, noting that the efforts of some Republican governors to reject stimulus money failed in large part because they were too isolated from one another. A collective action, on the other hand, would stand a much greater chance of success.

The idea that states can selectively ignore or deny the validity of federal laws is nullification. Responding to the statements of DeMint and Bachmann, Josh Marshall - who, by the way, holds a PhD in American History from Brown, where he must have studied with Gordon Wood (jealous!) - calls nullification "a crackpot idea from the start" that "hasn't been seriously entertained anywhere in the county since the Civil War (with the exception of feigned attempts in the South during the Civil Right Era)." This is basically true, but allow me one small quibble: the assertion that nullification was a "crackpot idea from the start" doesn't ring perfectly true to me.

Nullification can be traced back before the Civil War to Thomas Jefferson, who most clearly articulated the idea in response to the almost-certainly unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which, among other things, criminalized "false, scandalous, or malicious writing" against the government. Jefferson was enraged by the Acts, and not just because they were a transparent power grab by his political rival, President John Adams.

In 1798, the consensus on the relationship between federal and state power was fragile at best, and Jefferson's Kentucky Resolution asserted boldly that "the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself." To that end, Jefferson (and James Madison, who drafted a similar resolution in Virginia) articulated a more compartmentalized vision of constitutional interpretation, arguing that each branch and level of government had the authority to interpret the Constitution for itself. Madison, it should be noted, was not willing to go as far as Jefferson on this notion: he proposed using the federal judiciary to settle disputes, and though he admitted it would not be a perfect system, he still insisted that "as some such Tribunal is a vital element, a sine qua non, in an efficient & permanent Govt. the Tribunal existing must be acquiesced in, until a better or more satisfactory one can be substituted." Basically, governments need an ultimate arbiter. Jefferson, for his part, preferred to settle disputes by democratic referendum (a view he defended in an 1823 letter). The problems with this approach are obvious, but it's still a bit of a stretch to assert that this theory was "crackpot from the start." It was certainly wrong, but Jefferson and Madison weren't just any random folks writing about government (cough) - and hey, they were wrong for pretty interesting reasons.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How Democracy Is Supposed To Work

Sen. Grassley recently remarked that the "the outpouring of anger" at healthcare townhalls has convinced him that reform efforts should be changed. Conor Clarke lays out what the Senator doesn't seem to understand:
I think it's worth mentioning that the Grassley theory of "the public" is pretty much the exact opposite of how American democracy is supposed to function. Famously, public representatives are supposed to distinguish between the "vicious arts" of faction (Madison's words) and the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community" (Hamilton's). Of course, it might be the case that protestors laying seige to Fort Grassley actually represent the aggregate interests of the public. But you won't find evidence for that conclusion at a townhall meeting.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Washington, D.C.! It's Paradise to Me

I'll be heading back to D.C. this weekend, and beginning the day I arrive, my schedule will permit very little free time - so don't expect regular updates for at least the next several days. If I run across something interesting, I'll try to post a quick reaction or a question about it, but that might be all I have time to do until my schedule loosens up a little bit.

If you'd like some bloggy reading material while I'm away, allow me to plug the work of a couple of friends. First, JDR's superb blog Deep Focus, which offers incisive, thoughtful, and well-informed (the latter is a particular rarity when it comes to his favorite topics) commentary about whatever the author read in the NYT that day politics and the media, particularly with regard to the Middle East. I also eagerly anticipate bloghaddad's newest offering, In the Woods. It's just getting up and running, but I have high expectations, since it's coming from an exceptionally talented and refreshingly provocative writer. If you want a sample of his stuff, check out the comments on a few of my posts. (And he's someone whose first forays into blogging precede my own - making him something of an elder figure around here.)

If this blog doesn't reference the writings of Messrs. Reger and Haddad very frequently, it's not because they're not producing good material, but because I don't want to invite the reader to make comparisons between their work and my own. I have to hang on to my audience somehow...

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Here Are A Few Suggestions

Contra Paul Krugman's column today, Megan McArdle doubts that the federal government's response to the financial crisis validates "big government":
...We did three things differently than we did in 1932:

  1. We didn't follow a contractionary monetary policy
  2. We shoveled gigantic wads of cash into the banking system without much regard for who it was going to, or what they might spend it on
  3. We maintained a high level of spending that kept aggregate demand from contracting as powerfully as it did in 1932.
Only the last, I think, can be seen as a vindication of "Big Government" in the sense that Krugman means. It's also totally unsustainable, and it will be interesting to see what happens to the economy as the government is forced to pull back on the stimulus over the next year or so by either raising taxes, or cutting back on spending. [...]

I'm not sure what we just went through validates any reasonable philosophy of government, except "give officials room to make ad-hoc decisions, and hope they don't do too badly."
The set-up of that response is awfully misleading. Right-wing critics of "big government" generally have rather harsh critiques of the American welfare state, which is comparatively modest (as a percentage of GDP, we spend about half as much on welfare services as the highest spenders - Denmark and Sweden - and spend substantially less than nearly every European nation). As Krugman points out, when the Great Depression hit, most of the "big-government" safety nets that have helped people avert the worst today - Medicare and Social Security being two of the most prominent - didn't exist. So the existing structures of what conservatives derisively call "big government" are as important in evaluating the weathering of this crisis - and the effectiveness of "big government" generally - as the spending decisions made by Congress, the Fed, and the President.

And as for McArdle's shrug that the only lesson from this crisis is "give officials room to make ad-hoc decisions, and hope they don't do too badly": how about admitting that there is a proper time and place for Keynesian macroeconomic policy? How about abandoning visceral opposition to any kinds of government intervention in the economy? How about recognizing that government sometimes has to behave differently from individuals - so when individuals are cutting back, governments can and should spend more? When John Boehner advocated that the government "tighten its belt," it wasn't just some guy talking - it was arguably the nation's most powerful Republican actually suggesting that the government cut off spending in the middle of an economic crisis - possibly pushing the country into a depression - either to show solidarity with American citizens, or attempt to balance its budget during a recession, or some other wacky idea that he apparently saw as the solution to our economic woes (I won't pretend to understand what goes on in that guy's head).

The government's ability to mitigate the worst of this crisis was due in part to actions that, granted, cannot be continued indefinitely, but to suggest that weathering this storm says nothing about the virtues of big government takes some pretty remarkable libertarian tunnelvision.

The Other War

Over at Obsidian Wings, Eric Martin is highlighting a piece criticizing the Feminist Majority Foundation's support of troop escalation in Afghanistan. The argument is twofold: it notes that further warfare will only add to the suffering of civilians, especially Afghan women, and it criticizes the new Afghan political elite for being every bit as backwards and misogynistic as the Taliban was. The authors write:
Under the Taliban, women were confined to their homes. They were not allowed to work or attend school. They were poor and without rights. They had no access to clean water or medical care, and they were forced into marriages, often as children.

Today, women in the vast majority of Afghanistan live in precisely the same conditions, with one notable difference: they are surrounded by war. The conflict outside their doorsteps endangers their lives and those of their families. It does not bring them rights in the household or in public, and it confines them even further to the prison of their own homes. Military escalation is just going to bring more tragedy to the women of Afghanistan [...] The U.S. military may have removed the Taliban, but it installed warlords who are as anti-woman and as criminal as the Taliban. Misogynistic, patriarchal views are now embodied by the Afghan cabinet, they are expressed in the courts, and they are embodied by President Hamid Karzai.

This brings up the important question of what, exactly, we're trying to achieve in Afghanistan. Policymakers have surely factored human suffering into the grim arithmetic of determining the costs and benefits of war, but what if the authors are right - what if it's the same villainy, only with new villains?

The possibility or impossibility of creating an effective, liberal Afghan government is a question that the Obama administration will have to face head-on. The sad answer is probably that Afghanistan's geography alone - to say nothing of its history, culture, or politics - makes it almost impossible for NATO or any other outside force to establish effective political rule, much less political rule that would be acceptable to Westerners. (I think the authors' assessment of the war as imperialist aggression is myopic, but that's a different argument.) But still, after reading their argument, my main reaction was to ask for patience - the war is not yet over. Perhaps there's still a chance.

But ultimately, the exact nature of the political leadership and the state of women's rights in Afghanistan are secondary concerns: the main mission of the war is to fight terrorism. Security from al Qaeda is the goal that will determine NATO's course of action and the metric by which its success will be judged. The question is this: does the Obama administration think that nation-building in Afghanistan is the best way to fight terrorism? Lots of people are discussing Marc Lynch's recent contention in Foreign Policy: "I just don't really see why trying to build an Afghan state is a significant American national interest, or that it can be done at a price commensurate to its significance." If Afghanistan becomes a (relatively) safe and stable place, can't al Qaeda simply regroup somewhere else? And if that's the case, is there any point to nation-building in Afghanistan? Eric Martin notes that, in addition to achieving very little in national-security terms, it would simply strengthen the hellish conditions Afghan women and children live in:

The authors do highlight one (of) the primary obstacles to creating a liberal-ish government in Afghanistan that will safeguard women's rights: there are no major political factions, or constituencies, that would push for - or even support - such a government. [...] And in pursuit of propping up this corrupt, warlord dominated, misogynistic government, we are killing thousands of Afghans - including and especially women and children. In addition to creating conditions that lead to more and unspeakable hardships for those same women.

I don't know for certain if that's true, but I worry it probably is. If the current leadership retains power, women will continue to suffer. If the Taliban regained power, women would suffer. The only chance for women in Afghanistan is the hope that credible Afghan political leadership (however backwards) could be engaged and pressured by the international community into reforming and modernizing its treatment of women. If Afghanistan is isolated from the world, that hope is gone. But maybe it's naïve to believe it could exist in the first place.

Perhaps chief among the neoconservatives' fantasies was the conviction that democracy could be created at gunpoint. Maybe human rights activists are just as deluded to think war and nation-building can change anything for women in Afghanistan. Are there really just two options - abandonment or nation-building - both of which are hopeless?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Talking About It

After running a 5K this morning, my dad and I visited a local running store. There was a collection of running medals hanging near the entrance - medals won by customers and donated to the store to be used in Special Olympics competitions. A little coincidence tonight, then, when I read that Congressman Frank Kratovil of the Maryland 1st serves on the Board of Special Olympics Maryland. I'm sure they do great work in Maryland, just as they do here. I also read that Rep. Kratovil attends Episcopal Church in his hometown, that he plays guitar, that he has a wife and four sons. Normally I don't spend so much time reading up on the biographical details of freshman members of the House, but I wanted to get a better sense of why someone thinks he'd be better off dead. This is Representative Kratovil, hanging in effigy at a healthcare protest in Maryland:

Politico notes that whoever tied the noose seems to know what they're doing.

The point of this post isn't to associate all opponents of healthcare reform with the smirking jackass pictured above; it's not to suggest that all conservatives are contemplating violence against elected officials - or anyone, for that matter. If the events of the last few months have shown us anything, it's the importance of precision in language. This photo is the most notorious icon of a debate that has turned unbearably sour. But in showing it and explaining my thoughts on this issue, I still want to be very clear that while Republicans might not all be polishing their effigy-making skills, the dishonesty shown by the party's leaders on healthcare is staggering. Even by their standards.

Not everyone has a massive forum like a television channel, a newspaper editorial page, or a blog with a million readers (though if wishing made it so!) - but anyone who has a forum at all, even a small one, needs to speak up. Even if it's just your co-workers in the break room, your friends on the email chain, or your relatives at the family get-together, healthcare reform is too important to lose for lack of conviction. On this issue, the worst are full of passionate intensity.

When Barack Obama was running for president, my family hosted a house party for neighbors who were supporters and others who were on the fence. We met a lot of people that night from the surrounding blocks, and at one point we discussed why the election mattered to us - and why we were supporting then-Senator Obama. One neighbor, a hospital nurse, explained to a room of about 25 of us why healthcare reform meant so much to her. Every day, she said, she sees sick and injured people brought into the emergency room. Many of those are children, and accompanying them are nervous mothers and fathers. As she choked up a little bit, she described to a silent audience the look she so often sees on the faces of fathers who quietly take her aside - out of earshot of their wives and children - to tell her that they can't afford to pay for their child's treatment. Grown men, trying their best to protect and provide the way their fathers and grandfathers did before them - reduced to humiliation and tears as they softly plead, "Please help me. I can't pay for you to treat my child."

In this wealthy nation, where we can provide for so much, where we cherish equality, where we rise and fall as one - this is unacceptable. Even beyond that, it is unacceptable on a basic human level that anyone should go without such a basic necessity when the means exist to guarantee it. We can fight over policy details, but we are compelled by our basic compassion to have a good-faith debate on how to solve this problem. A good-faith debate.

That is, a debate where facts and arguments are met with facts and counterarguments. Where ideas are listened to, considered, and responded to honestly. Not a debate where the GOP's last Vice Presidential candidate tells outrageous lies about "death boards" and killing off mentally-disabled children. Not a debate where FOX News, GOP members of the House, and the Washington Times spread completely made-up stories about the government euthanizing the elderly.

Oh, and by the way: a debate happens when two or more parties engaged in spirited argument about an issue. When people who lack any understanding of the proposed healthcare legislation show up at town-hall meetings to scream nonsense, it's not a debate, and it's not good for anyone. I don't know whether these events are being organized by shadowy GOP organizations, but I do know that they're being promoted constantly on FOX News - both its television and radio components - in the form of wall-to-wall "news coverage." When people who live in an information bubble are fed a constant diet of anger, hatred, and lies, it's no surprise that they become totally unable to engage in dialogue with their fellow-citizens over an important policy change. It's just sad.

So yeah, I have no problem that the White House is getting out in front of this mendacious bile. In fact, I think it's wonderful that they're soliciting material from disinformation campaigns so they can set the record straight. Are they collecting a list of names? No. Are they asking for the content of right-wing propaganda so they can combat it? Yes. The lies on the right are like insects crawling in the mud under a rock: when somebody exposes them to sunlight, they'll shrivel. I understand if they're unsettled by a fact-based campaign. They have a lot of lies to be ashamed of.

A great example of the disingenuous flap over this non-story is the increasingly-addled Peggy Noonan (she of the delicate sensibilities), who wandered into the fray in her recent column:

But most damagingly to political civility, and even our political tradition, was the new White House email address to which citizens are asked to report instances of “disinformation” in the health-care debate: If you receive an email or see something on the Web about health-care reform that seems “fishy,” you can send it to The White House said it was merely trying to fight “intentionally misleading” information.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on Wednesday wrote to the president saying he feared that citizens’ engagement could be “chilled” by the effort. He’s right, it could. He also accused the White House of compiling an “enemies list.” If so, they’re being awfully public about it, but as Byron York at the Washington Examiner pointed, the emails collected could become a “dissident database.”

I have a question for you, Peggy. Why is this harmful to political civility? Should lies go unanswered? And is there any evidence whatsoever that the White House is creating an enemies list? Have they asked for the email addresses of the people sending this stuff - and even if they collected those email addresses (a fantasy so paranoid as to be almost beneath consideration), what, pray tell, do you think they might do? It's not like they'd arrest people, throw them in some lawless prison with no charge and no lawyer, and then torture them to get evidence for a secret illegal trial with no jury while asserting the right to hold them indefinitely. It's not Bush we're talking about here.

So yeah, we need to have this debate. We need to talk about this issue. But I have no patience for dishonesty, hatred, demagoguery, or ignorance. Certainly not now, when the stakes are so high. Counter the lies with facts. Fight ignorance with knowledge. And if you hear people telling lies about euthanasia, enemies lists, death boards, or anything else, correct them - calmly and politely, but firmly. This is the time to win on healthcare. This is the time to score one for those fathers.