Blogs and Think Tanks
I let an unformed idea sneak out the other day in a post on a loosely related subject, and it attracted a lot of interest where people recognized the implications of what I was asking. The question was this: Can blogs -- and related network technology -- serve some of the purposes that one would want progressive think tanks to serve? (Ed Kilgore at NewDonkey.com put the case for new progressive think-tank capacity very succinctly last week. I particularly appreciate the distinction he politely draws between "real live think-tanks" that generate ideas and "talking-points distribution organizations.")
It's become clear to me from comments on other sites, particularly Matthew Yglesias, that I should have been clearer about what I meant. The term "think tank" obviously covers a multitude of sins. (As does "blog.") What I'm thinking of is the think tank as a generator and tester of new ideas and perspectives, in just the way that Kilgore suggests: "the product development side of the political business." For example, if there is a political need to present an alternative approach to Social Security private accounts, could a self-organized network of bloggers, commentors and other participants work out some of the technical and political problems collaboratively over a fairly rapid period? That is, agree on a basic framework that would be equitable and minimize risk to individuals, figure out a way to deal with transition costs, find a creative way to sell the plan, etc. (I recognize that there is a sizable faction that would argue that the only appropriate response to Social Security privatization proposals is to yell and scream that the conservatives want to destroy Social Security and let seniors eat dog food while giving trillions away to Wall Street, but I think at the very least there should be a Plan B on the shelf.)
I use this example because it's largely already occurring, with Kevin Drum, Kieran Healy, Brad deLong and others making significant contributions, even if they are not explicitly working together. On a broader question, such as the liberal response to terrorism, I just noticed the TerrorWiki, which uses a somewhat different approach to aggregate and refine ideas. The idea of collaborative monitoring of legislation that I mentioned in the original post is a more mundane version of the same thing.
A lot of questions remain, however: How will ideas and information developed through this method of never-concluded deliberation be wrapped up, in the way that recommendations or specific proposals from a think tank are often wrapped up? How will the analysis be delivered to members of Congress or other policymakers who are not necessarily blog-readers, which is one typical activity of such think tanks? How would one ensure that the mundane work such as number-crunching or literature searches gets done? How would one give the product of such an analysis the imprimatur of credibility that comes with a report from, say, The Urban Institute? Are any of these things necessary?
What actually would be the competitive advantages of such an approach: Speed? Spontaneity? Depth of collaboration?
I'm particularly interested in the potential of collaboration not only across blogs, but through wikis, or perhaps some other variation of social software yet to be developed. The Wikipedia definition of a wiki begins "Wikis generally follow a philosophy of making it easy to fix mistakes, instead of making it hard to make them." Although that generally applies to projects that are aiming to accumulate facts rather than ideas, so that the term "mistake" is well-defined, it is very much the spirit that I am looking for here. I'm envisioning a culture in which crazy, flawed, provocative ideas can be thrown out freely, and if there is some merit, however small, a process of correction and refinement will follow. The other day, for example, Kevin Drum proposed eliminating the corporate income tax -- a provocative idea I've been interested in also (in exchange for full taxation of dividends and capital gains) but that raises a lot of problems and questions. He got a lot of good response in his comments, but perhaps that process could be refined in order to come up with a more complete proposal.
Here's what people commenting on this idea thought I was referring to, but I'm not:
* More think-tank staffers starting blogs. Not a bad thing, and Max Sawicky, Steve Clemons, John Irons and others are good examples. But not everyone is capable of producing a good blog (indeed, the esteemed Becker-Posner team seems to be having some trouble), and people at policy think-tanks are already in a fairly privileged position to get their ideas into the public debate. More interesting are people outside that world who are capable of contributing to the development of ideas, from perspectives in business, within government (this would be a great opportunity for, for example, a government analyst who has to operate anonymously to provide some knowledgeable insight about policy), or academia. In fact, in the discussion of the need for progressive think tanks that I've been involved in for several years now -- without much to show for it -- one often hears an assertion like, "There must be a lot of academics who have really good policy ideas and want to get them into the public debate." That's not as true as one would hope; many academics in the social sciences are too caught up in the narrow internal questions in their own fields or the demands that go with advancement in the academy, but there are exceptions. Increasingly, a way to get out there as an exception is through a blog, such as Crooked Timber.
* Think tanks starting blogs. Again, if someone wants to start BrookingsBlog, that's not a bad thing, but not what I'm thinking of. In general, these are likely to be as interesting as John Kerry's blog. Especially for an organization that is a 501(c)3 non-profit, too much care is required with what goes out under the official imprimatur of the organization to allow the spontaneity and flawed ideas of a blog. (c)3's have to be very careful about lobbying and cannot do or say anything that implies electioneering. Just the review process alone would slow things down, something I've seen for myself. On the other hand, anyone running a think tank should not stand in the way of someone who wants to write a blog independently.
To me the gratifying thing about writing a blog has not been in reaching the broad public, which I don't expect to do, but in the community it forms, both internally (i.e., among commentors here) but across other sites and other commentors. Even if these communities are narrow by any standard of mass media, they are something that can be used much more creatively for the production of knowledge. I intend to devote some attention to this question over the next year or so, and encourage other thoughts or suggestions of people to talk to and things to read.
Ideas in Liberal Politics, Part 2
In the previous post on this subject, I used a mostly-wrong comment by Jonah Goldberg as a starting point to riff on the differences between liberals and conservatives in having a sense of their own intellectual traditions. I read another piece last week that I want to comment on, although my comments will be less extensive because the source material is mostly correct, but I have a slightly different take.
A friend called to my attention Peter Levine's blog, and in particular Levine's essay-post, "What's wrong with the left, and what we can do about it,". Levine is an exemplary public scholar, who has written serious books on political philosophy but also devotes himself to more practical questions such as how to involve young people in politics. (I don't know him, although we travel in similar circles.)
I recommend reading Levine's essay in full, but here are his basic points and my comments:
1. That "the Left" (defined broadly) should not assume that its disadvantage is merely in money, message discipline and viciousness, and attempt to emulate "the Right" in those categories. I basically agree that there is a profound mistake in looking at the institutions, the tactics, and the tone of the right and treating them as a formula for political success, to be emulated as closely as possible. For example, I have always thought that people who argued, "We need a Heritage Foundation for our side" were ignorant about what the Heritage Foundation actually does and just how effective it is (or, to be frank, it isn't), and also inattentive to the strengths and shortcomings of the existing constellation of liberal and liberal-centrist policy organizations and media operations.
On the other hand, you do need money to develop a message and get it across to people, and you do need to respond to attacks and critiques as they come along. Too often, the lag between a Bush or Republican claim and the response has been measured in days, not hours. (The best example: it took two days before any Democrat/liberal was able to criticize Bush's "Mission Accomplished" appearance on an aircraft carrier, and by the time the criticism -- for wasting federal dollars, for dishonesty in explaining why Bush had to land on the carrier -- arrived, it merely gave the photo op another day or two of free time. Fortunately, that stunt backfired of its own accord.) There must be a capacity to respond in the same news cycle to anything that comes up. That's not something that would "damage an already fragile civic culture," as Levine warns. It's just one of the rules of the game in the world of modern media.
2. That "the Left lacks vision...their crisis is intellectual not tactical." True, or as true as such a broad generalization can ever be, but Levine says some things in support of this position that deserve further examination. First, he argues that it was back when Bush seemed most likely to win reelection that "Democrats had the incentive to develop new visions and new directions. They failed to do so." Now, Levine argues, because it seems more likely that Kerry can win merely on Bush's failures and his own better tactics, he will not develop an alternative vision, which will leave him with no mandate except to maintain the New Deal order.
This seems to be a variation on the mythology of the right, in which the darkest moments, particularly the aftermath of Goldwater's defeat in 1964, have been reinterpreted as an era in which their great forefathers (as discussed in my previous post), hiding in their catacombs, designed a philosophy. I'm not sure that theory holds up to scrutiny. It's not how the ideas associated with the New Deal came into being, or Clinton's governing agenda, which was designed after the election and ultimately turned out to have been adapted from Paul Tsongas's. The real possibility of having to govern the country will induce more creativity than the blank slate of futility.
It's also a little unfair to the other candidates. Although Kerry has not yet put forward much of a "new vision or new direction" -- it's certainly not too late -- I would continue to argue that Edwards did -- in a way that will certainly influence the Democratic Party in the future -- and so did Lieberman and Kucinich, whether you agree with either one of them or not, and while Dean's campaign had less substantive content than one would have expected, his stance and tone were an important challenge to Democrats and can be as important as ideas.
[Update: In the first version of this paragraph, I called the Dean campaign "astonishingly vacuous." While I think it was suprising to realize that a campaign that attracted such broad support at first really didn't have much to it besides opposition to the war and excitement about the campaign itself, that phrase went much further than I meant to. I thank Lerxst and other commentors for calling me on it.]
Levine notes that "political candidates are not the only ones who develop new political visions," which is truer than he realizes. In fact, I don't think they can develop them at all. Having worked on a presidential campaign in 2000, I came to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do within a campaign, even an idea-driven campaign, is to develop new ideas, because the field operation, the message-of-the-day, the press, dealing with the candidate's time, etc., consume everyone's energy. The best a campaign can do is to pick up on and promote ideas already developed, and so I see campaigns as the moment where we measure the availability of new ideas in the larger world, and the success of other groups and people in developing the kind of visions and policy blueprints that candidates can use. If the candidates fail to do so, it is at least in part an indication of the failure of the think tanks or other institutions that are supposed to do the job.
Levine goes on:
the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left?people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit's Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos?strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don't see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the "blogosphere," I don't know who they are.
At the risk of seeming blog-o-centric, which I'm not, I think in fact there's a lot of deeper thinking in this sphere, and the potential for more. Leaving Kos, whose site is really a campaign news site that's also a platform for a lot of other people, aside, I don't agree that Marshall and Drum are "strictly tactical thinkers": they are exactly what's often missing in the idea-generation process of politics: people with tactical intelligence about politics who also can go deeper on policy and public philosophy. All of us, whether we write blogs or opinion journalism in traditional outlets, face the temptation to jump at every stupid thing we see come out of the administration, and there are so many that every blog journalist can sometimes be the first to catch some outrage and garner some quick notice. I've done it, and it's usually when this weblog gets the most hits and trackbacks. To use a phrase that Bush might have used once, it's like "swatting flies" instead of maintaining the discipline to really construct an alternative vision. But there are a lot of flies, they're big and they bite. I take from Levine the point that we should try to maintain that discipline, and also to acknowledge blogs like Matthew Yglesias's or Crooked Timber, among others, that go well beyond the day-to-day fly-swatting.
We also all struggle with the fact that, as much as we may understand that we need an alternative liberal philosophy, all the theorizing is for nothing if we don't change the underlying conditions of government. If we don't restore some revenues for the public sector, we will wind up in less than two decades with a deficit equal to 10% of GDP, and at that point, no way to save the economy except to pare tje public sphere back to its bare essentials. If we don't stop the progression toward federal courts packed with judges determined to return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence, there will be as little opportunity for new visions as FDR had in his first years. And if we cannot bring an end to American unilateralism, we will soon live in a world so hostile that we have virtually no ability to influence cross-border concerns such as air, water, labor, security. Changing these circumstances are preconditions for any fresh vision of national possibilities, and the first step toward changing these circumstances is to change administrations.
Back to the blog issue: on the whole, I think good blogs by smart people have the capacity to put the process of debate and development of ideas on a much faster track. Imagine the old days when an interesting article might appear in a quarterly such as The Public Interest or the older American Prospect, it would circulate, letters would appear in the next issue a few months later, others would respond, the author would reply and strengthen her ideas, then a more prominent figure might give a speech based on the idea, a member of Congress might draft the idea into legislation, a foundation might fund a demonstration project and then an evaluation. Months and then years would pass. Some, not all, of this knowledge production can be done so much more quickly now, and blogs, together with online platforms associated with traditional media, think tanks, or independent projects like opendemocracy.net make up the new marketplace of ideas, now speeded up like every other marketplace: the ebay of ideas.
3. That liberals/Democrats are the real conservatives, and good for them. This is Levine's most provocative and subtle point.
Today's progressives are not only conservative about New Deal institutions. They are eager to conserve natural ecosystems and minority cultures (especially poor, indigenous ones). They are more fiscally conservative than Republicans. They are also more resistant to scientific innovation: witness their response to genetically engineered crops. They have adopted traditional conservative priorities by objecting to federal power in the areas of law enforcement (the USA Patriot Act) and education (No Child Left Behind). And they are the biggest defenders of institutions, such as public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities, that promote the high culture of the past.
This isn't quite right -- for example, it's currently the right that resists scientific innovation or independence; what progressives are more likely to object to is the rapid commercialization of technologies such as genetic engineering before the health and environmental implications are fully understood. (Wow, there's a probably whole essay here in how the Enlightenment pairing of scientific progress with rapid development of market capitalism has essentially been undone by this group of radicals. But that's for another day, and probably another writer.) Mostly Levine's point is correct. And Levine could make his point more strongly by discussing the deficit, where once again, liberals will find themselves in the position of restoring fiscal sanity, whether they like it or not.
4. That this "Left-Conservatism" is not enough of an agenda to win elections. Here Levine gets very close to an issue that I've tried to deal with a lot, although he gets at it in a different way. Levine sees paralyzing contradictions in this conservatism, and I agree. I think the problem is not the conservatism so much as the fact that liberals don't own up to it. Despite all evidence, we operate on the assumption that those who call themselves conservatives advocate modest ambitions, a limited government, and open markets. In contrast, liberals think they are offering compassion, greater spending, bigger government. The Bush agenda of short-term spending and long-term starvation has left Democrats disoriented. There's no kid we can point to who's not getting her school lunch because of Bush -- although there will be before long. As I've argued before, Democrats haven't been slick enough about breaking the tackle, and moving the occupy the space that the other side has left open. For example, the creative response to a $550-billion piece-of-crap Medicare prescription drug bill is not a $1 trillion alternative, as the House Democrats proposed. It is a $300 billion alternative that's structured to be far more effective and generous to individuals. It's the challenge of getting beyond the politics of "more," and finding a way to embrace what is conservative in the best sense about our vision and recast it as a more forward-looking and less reactive set of ideas.
These are Levine's macro-comments, and then he gets into some specific suggestions for the substance of a liberal vision, which are good. I have some comments on those as well, but I'll cut this post off right here and respond to the rest of his brief and eloquent essay soon.
"Another Negative Consequence...Of Marijuana Trafficking"
My wife received this press release from the DEA. Next time you're tempted to toke up, please consider the possibility that you are allowing yourself to be a pawn in a comic sequence of criminal bungling that might ultimately have led to a child going without a heart valve transplant.
U. S. Department of Justice
Drug Enforcement Administration
Special Agent Elizabeth M. Jordan
Public Information Officer
SEIZES APPROXIMATLY 140 POUNDS MARIJUANA
RECOVERS HUMAN ORGAN TISSUE FOR TRANSPLANT
Special Agent in Charge Anthony P. Placido announced today the arrest of two individuals trafficking marijuana in the Buffalo region of New York, the seizure of approximately 140 pounds of marijuana and the recovery of human organ tissue for transplant destined for Buffalo General Hospital and Hamilton Hospital, Hamilton Ontario. The alleged defendants inadvertently took possession of the organ transplant tissue boxes during their attempt to retrieve boxes containing marijuana.
SAC Placido stated: "This case demonstrates another negative consequence affecting the general public and innocent bystanders as a result of marijuana trafficking. Agents of the Buffalo District Office and members of the Niagara Frontier Transit Police Department are commended for their diligent efforts, aggressive investigating and expeditious return of the human organ tissues to proper medical authorities."
On February 23, 2004, at approximately 5:30 p.m., the DEA Buffalo Resident Office received a telephone call from a Niagara Frontier Transit Police Department Detective regarding the seizure of approximately 140 pounds of marijuana at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
Special Agents responded to The Buffalo Niagara International Airport and through coordination with the Niagara Frontier Transit Police Department learned that a female had mistakenly taken two packages at the Airport, which had been shipped from Atlanta by Cryolife Inc. via Delta Airlines. These packages contained two human organs. One contained a pulmonary valve packaged at a temperature of minus 275 degrees Fahrenheit in order to keep the tissue alive for immediate transplant in Ontario, Canada. The other package contained a saphenous vein, packaged in the same manner, en route to the Buffalo General Hospital. Both of these organs are valued at $10,000.00 each, according to Hospital authorities. Agents established a liaison with hospital officials and learned that the heart valve was needed for an emergency transplant surgery for a teenager or young adult. The vein was intended for a coronary bypass graft surgery.
The unknown female took possession of these packages at approximately 11:30 a.m. and the only information that she provided to the Delta Ticket counter was her false identification as Tabatha CAMPBELL. This unknown female had a phony tag on her shirt identifying her as an employee at Dual Printing in Buffalo, NY.
The two packages that CAMPBELL was supposed to pick up from the Delta Ticket Counter contained approximately 140 pounds of marijuana. The packages were to be picked up by Dual Printing at the Delta Airlines ticket counter. Agents contacted the owner of Dual Printing and learned that there were no females working for the company that fit the description of CAMPBELL
DEA Agents and NFTPD Detectives immediately established surveillance, ran exhaustive computer checks and interviewed confidential sources in the area to identify this female.
At approximately 8:30 p.m., the Agents learned that a call had been received at the airport inquiring about the current location of the unclaimed packages of marijuana. This unknown male asked the attendant if the packages could still be picked up. The Agents and NFTA Officers continued their surveillance in the Airport in an effort to observe anyone to come accept the packages. Another call was received at approximately 11:30 p.m. The caller stated that someone was attempting to pick up the packages and needed assistance at Delta Counter to help them.
At approximately 12:00 a.m., a female approached the Delta Ticket Counter with the two packages containing the aforementioned human organs. The female was arrested by the Agents nearby the counter after swapping the organs for the marijuana. The female was a Canadian citizen identified as Tabatha BRACKEN (DOB-04-26-76). Other Agents observed Dalvan ROBINSON (DOB 06-22-61) a Jamaican national of Lockport, NY, attempting to flee the area and placed him in custody.
Upon recovery, the agents were scrubbed for surgery and surrendered custody of the organs to surgeons in order to preserve the packaging for evidentiary use in the pending criminal case.
The defendants are scheduled for arraignment this afternoon in the Western District of New York
The investigation continues
Is The New Republic "On Our Side"? Should It Be?
The Daily Kos, which is generally one of the best and most comprehensive Democratic political blogs, has decided that the cause of the week is to attack The New Republic, because "it's not on our side."
Kos is right about one thing: Sometimes, even to this day, The New Republic is treated elsewhere in the press as a standard-bearer of liberalism, as a Democratic party journal, or as defining the left edge of mainstream thought, so that anything to the left of it can be dismissed. Obviously, that's a ridiculous way to classify the magazine, and wouldn't have been accurate even in the days of Walter Lippman, when TNR took the "liberal hawk" position favoring entry into World War I against the anti-interventionist "Lyrical Left" exemplified by Randolph Bourne. But that misperception is not the magazine's fault.
Kos's whole line of argument is actually somewhat offensive to me. The point of a magazine is not to be "on our side." I don't read a magazine to have my views reinforced (that's what I've got blogs for). I read political magazines to learn something I don't know, to hear a viewpoint well articulated that expands or challenges my own, or, above all, to read good analytical journalism, with real reporting. I have to admit, I often skim The Nation and The American Prospect, and put them aside bored because every story is, "here's another reason Bush sucks," without any significant reporting -- not that I don't think Bush sucks, but I don't need to read another rehash of it. By the same measure, The Weekly Standard can often be worth reading, while The American Spectator and National Review are not, because they are simply cheering on the presumptions of their readers. (The American Prospect has improved recently.)
I've been reading the New Republic for a very long time, although with several gaps when I thought the magazine had become uninteresting. Unlike Lisa Simpson, I didn't have a subscription to The New Republic for Kids, but I probably would have if such a thing existed. I remember reading it as a politically obsessed teenager, and the reporting of people like Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke, who were probably in their early 30s at the time, and neither one much more liberal than they are today, was a great window onto Washington of the Carter era. When Michael Kinsley and Rick Hertzberg were the editors, it was a great and lively magazine, although the growing obsession with Israel and "Is it good for the Jews?" (the counterpart in its day of Kos's question, "Is it good for the Democrats?") began to weigh it down.
Then came Andrew Sullivan, who I think ruined the magazine, not because of his conservatism, but with his determination to pull it away from its base of political reporting into all sorts of directions of ungrounded cultural commentary. There's only so many times I want to read Camille Paglia's musings on Madonna -- give me the goods on Senator Baucus, please! I can't remember who came first after Sullivan, Charles Lane, under whom the magazine seemed lifeless, or the late Michael Kelly. Kelly was good at nurturing young writers, but, in the first tragedy of his life, he, like Christopher Hitchens, sacrificed his considerable gifts, and the magazine's, to his prurient obsession with Bill Clinton.
But today I really think that The New Republic is as good as its ever been. (Well, I can't say ever, since I'm not actually a hundred years old.) Certainly the best it's been since before Andrew Sullivan. And the reason is that the core of young actual journalists is as good as it's been since Barnes and Kondracke. Ryan Lizza, Jonathan Chait, Michelle Cottle, Michael Crowley, Franklin Foer, Jonathan Cohen, Noam Scheiber -- they've all been there a while, know what they're talking about, and produce big, significant stories all the time. John Judis and Spencer Ackerman have done more to advance the story of the misuse of the CIA than anyone else. Crowley (a friend of mine) wrote the definitive piece on the abuses of the congressional process and the mistreatment of Democrats. The measure of a magazine should be the quality of its writing and reporting, not the degree to which it corresponds to it's readers' views.
Is this reporting sometimes going to be unhelpful to Howard Dean or other Democrats? Absolutely. Does that constitute being "hell-bent on destroying our most likely nominee"? Of course not. Take, for example, Franklin Foer's recent TNR cover story on the problems Dean would face as a result of being among the most secular people ever to run for president. Kos doesn't give examples of the stories he thinks will destroy Dean, but I'm sure this would be one he would have in mind. But the article didn't cause any additional harm to Dean other than to reveal existing facts. The article was a well researched and thoughtful analysis of how public expression of religious faith came to figure in American political life, how relatively recent the phenomenon is, how Bill Clinton dealt with it, and how the attacks on Dukakis in 1988 as liberal, such as over the Pledge of Allegiance, were really meant to mark him as secular. These are all true and important facts, like them or not, and will be a burden for Dean, which he will have to strategize around. (It's one more reason he will have to build an electoral majority without the South and border states.) Putting these insights together in a sharp analysis is a contribution to our understanding, not an attack on Dean. And Dean obviously took some lesson from it -- the wrong one -- since it sent him running to the Boston Globe to announce that he had some sort of relationship with Jesus, although the actual nature of the relationship ("He's been an example for 2000 years, which is pretty remarkable when you think about it!") seems rather platonic by the standards of the Fourth Great Awakening.
I think part of the problem here is the presumed superiority of blogs to "old media." Most blogs have a stance, and some are specifically intended to be on someone's side, particularly the zillions of Dean blogs. Blogs are great, obviously, and if one reads a lot of them, one can get a very well-rounded view of a lot of topics. Just to take one example, the Daily Kos itself had some posts breaking down the internal labor movement politics that led to the SEIU and AFSCME endorsements of Dean that were superb, and there is very little in the mainstream media that can provide comparable insight into the internals of the labor movement. But there is still a place for a real political magazine, one that brings together real reporters and analytical opinion writers who cover a fairly wide range of views, with good editors and an intention to provoke and surprise. The New Republic is doing that as well as any magazine in the U.S. right now, and whether it helps or hurts Howard Dean should be the last thing the magazine or its readers think about.
Again, Blaming "Government," Not Bush
A number of bloggers, starting with Josh Marshall, have noted and ridiculed this passage from David Brooks's New York Times column Saturday:
Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering. Our government couldn't even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq — thank goodness, too, because any "plan" hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.
It's offensive on many levels, but also a good example of what I've been talking about in my last couple of posts: the administration's bizarre ability to turn their own specific policy failures into general indictments of government, which in turn actually supports their political agenda that rests on an aggressive rejection of government.
I think I actually said something nice about David Brooks here once, and he always looked pretty good in the company of most of the Weekly Standard writers, except Chris Caldwell. But I take it all back. Since I wrote that nice thing, Brooks has managed to, in the course of grudgingly supporting gay marriage come out in opposition to dating ("Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide"), has retailed the stupidest stereotypes of New Yorkers, has been a mouthpiece for the flimsiest White House spin about "the ownership society," and now this.
Is Bad Government Good Politics?
At the end of my last post, about whether Bush's domestic initiatives can be compared to Nixon's, I made the point that the sloppiness, complexity, and general fraudulence of both the Medicare drug bill and No Child Left Behind would lead to backlashes, but that the backlash was likely to help the Republicans, because it would further stir up anti-government feelings, and reinforce the sense that government can't do anything right. The blogger Angry Bear commented here that this was "just screwy enough to be scary." I didn't really deal with the question of whether I think it's a deliberate strategy, or just the accidental outcome when people who don't particularly like government programs and listen only to K Street lobbyists try to craft liberal social programs.
Given a choice between a conspiracy theory and a screw-up as an explanation, I usually vote for screw-up. But in this case, I'm willing to speculate that there's something deliberate about it. At the very least, someone in the White House is thinking about it in just these cynical terms. To understand why, you have to go back to those one-hit wonders, the "lucky duckies."
The lucky duckies had their fifteen minutes in a Wall Street journal editorial on November 20, 2002, with the title, "The Non-Taxpaying Class." The Journal argued that "thanks to a growing number of absolutely legal escape hatches," too many people paid little or no federal income tax. "Who are these lucky duckies?" the Journal asked. Not, as you might imagine, Conrad Black or the corporate clients of tax-shelter promoter KPMG, but the working poor and middle class, about 16 million who file income tax returns without tax liability.
The editorial was a window into a way of thinking that usually does not dare speak its name.
After all, the provisions that raised the personal exemption and the standard deduction, created and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, and then added the child tax credit were great bipartisan achievements of the 1980s and 1990s, and priceless innovations in social policy. Conservatives who could never stomach an increase in the minimum wage could live with the EITC, which is no substitute but at least helps the minimum wage dollar go further for people supporting a family. The change in tax policy, along with expansion of Medicaid, also deserves credit for the partial success of welfare reform, because moving from welfare to work was no longer quite such a leap off a financial cliff. And even George W. Bush had endorsed the idea when he promised in the 2000 campaign to cut taxes for "the waitress with two kids who makes $20,000," although he did not acknowledge that the $20,000 single parent already pays no taxes, thanks to these innovations, and that his plan did nothing for her.
The lucky ducky editorial seemed odd at first because the Journal is supposedly against taxes, period. Their idea of equality would seem to be that the rich as well as the poor should pay no taxes. But the Journal's objection to the elimination of income taxes for the working poor was not fiscal, it was psychological. Even those in the 10% bracket, the editorial said, paid an amount that was, unfortunately, "not enough to get his or her blood boiling with tax rage."
Ah, rage. That's really what this is all about. Conservatives used to be threatened by the rage of poor people; now apparently they'd like to see more of it, as long as it can be directed exclusively toward government. Without the rage, poor and middle-income voters might continue to see government as providing economic security, a modicum of justice, and essential services that the private sector can't. They will support entitlements, without feeling any of the burden that those entitlements pose to those able to pay.
It wasn't in the cards, though, to actually reverse these tax-code innovations. To get the 2001 tax cut passed, Bush actually had to swallow a further expansion of "the non-taxpaying class," when Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine made her support contingent on making the child tax credit partially refundable to low-income working families. (That is, such families can get cash back even if the credit exceeds what they owe in income taxes.) In 2003, the tax cut expanded the child credit for everyone except these poorer families, an "oversight" that was "discovered" only after the bill passed. A backlash resulted in legislation to expand the credit again, but that bill was loaded up with so many more tax breaks for wealthier people that it became expensive and died.
Without repealing these tax breaks for the working poor, there are other ways to make low- and middle-income people feel the rage that the Right wants to stoke. One very long-term gambit that John Podesta, the former White House Chief of Staff now running the Center for American Progress, pointed out recently is the creation of more and more vehicles in which investment gains can be sheltered tax-free. The Health Savings Accounts created under the Medicare bill are a minor version; the Retirement Savings Accounts and Lifetime Savings Accounts to be proposed in the State of the Union Address would be the real deal. By shifting most investment income into these tax-free vehicles, the tax burden will fall increasingly on relatively poorer people who get their income from work. More significantly, when a future president is forced to raise revenues, there will be no way to bring this income back into the taxable base. Congress could disallow any future contributions to these tax-exempt accounts, but the money already in them would continue to accumulate tax free. That means that the inevitable tax increases in the future -- what the Dean campaign has cleverly taken to calling "The Bush Tax" -- will have to take the form of rate increases on a narrower base. When middle-income people see their tax rate go from 15% to 20%, simply because so much other income is off the table, that might get their "blood boiling with tax rage."
But the other way to stoke rage is through complexity and confusion. It's probably more effective in the short-term. There's no more reliable way to get people to hate government than by creating situations where every interaction with government is fraught with hassle and uncertainty and where it's never clear just who is accountable. But that's a good description of what life will be like under the Medicare drug bill. Senior citizens will have to first decide whether the deal is worth it to them, at a premium of $420 a year (but maybe more). And then, in theory at least, there will be several private insurers offering them coverage, and they will have to decide which offers the better deal for them, now and in the future. And then, of course, they will have to fight the insurer over every claim, with the insurer given the right under the law to give preference to certain drugs and to shift those preferences around.
(Just as I was wrapping this up, and looking for an article that explained this complexity, Clinton HHS Secretary Donna Shalala appeared with a Monday op-ed that does a good job of it. Her angle is that the Department will now have to "transform a complicated, ideologically driven piece of legislation into a practical drug benefit" in order for it to be successful, but all the examples she cites are written into the law and cannot really be changed by the regulatory process.
Standard Medicare is complicated, and particularly frustrating for what it doesn't pay for: nursing home care and prescription drugs. But compared to the prescription drug scam, it's simplicity itself: You turn 65, you become eligible. You go to the doctor, or the hospital, Medicare pays. End of story.
Ultimately, that's what the right dislikes about entitlement programs like Medicare. It's not that their spending is hard to control. It's that they make government look good. At their best, they're seamless, painless, hassle-free. The rules are clear, and everyone eligible is treated equally under the law. They run so smoothly and efficiently that people don't even think of them as government programs, leading to the anecdote, which is told in perhaps a half-dozen versions, of the senior citizen who approaches a Senator in an airport in the midst of the 1993 struggle over the Clinton health plan and pleads, "Just don't let the government get a hold of my Medicare." (Here is the version of the story that carries the official imprimatur of David Broder, but of course the original source is a Cajun fabulist.) That will no longer be the case with Medicare, at least, which is guaranteed to become a very frustrating and elusive benefit, even if no less costly.
Another good example of the perhaps deliberate complexity of Bush programs is in the tax code. It's true that the benefits for low-income workers, the lucky duckies, were not cut and were slightly expanded. But the next time you do your taxes, try filling out the form for the Additional Child Tax Credit. Or, worse, the refundable child tax credit. And then consider that low-income people filing for these credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit are also twice as likely to be audited as people who make more than $100,000. It's hard to come out of that process feeling the government is responsive and respectful of people struggling to support their families on a minimum wage job.
When the backlash comes, against Medicare, No Child Left Behind, or even these tax policies, most people assume that the backlash will have to hurt Republicans, since they were in charge when all these provisions were passed. But as long as Democrats/liberals don't figure out how to talk about these things, as long as they don't have an alternative other than more funding for these flawed programs, they will not be able to capture the backlash. If it becomes a general backlash against government, which seems likely, then there is no reason that Republicans can't use it to bolster their claim as the anti-government party.
I don't know if this is, top to bottom, the understood strategy of the White House and congressional leaders. Actually, I'm sure it's not. Conservatives who think their party has "lost its moorings" are obviously not in on the plan, and maybe no one is. But in the case of Medicare in particular, I can't believe that no one in the White House fails to understand that there will be a fiercely negative reaction. I'm pretty certain that the people who do understand this have also thought about how to turn that reaction in their favor.
The right-wing provocateur Grover Norquist last year sent liberals into a tizzy with his adolescent boast that he wanted to "shrink government to the size where you could drown it in the bathtub." Of course, that never made much sense. A smaller, smoother, less capricious government would be a more popular one. The real plan, I think, is to create a government so big, impenetrable, unpredictable and aggravating that we will want to drown it in a bathtub.
The Grand Bargain
A week or two ago, I mentioned that one of the unresolved issues in the Medicare legislation was how to prevent companies that are paying for prescription drug coverage for their retirees from withdrawing that coverage and moving them into the federal system, dramatically increasing the costs of the new program. Fortunately, our president is not one to shrink from tough problems, and he took a stand and got it solved:
GeorgeWBush.com :: President Bush Optimistic on Modernizing Medicare with Prescription Drug Coverage
a corporate executive who is from Caterpillar ... assures me that corporations have no intention of -- if there's a Medicare reform bill signed by me, corporations have no intention to what they call dump retirees into a system they don't want to be dumped into. And I appreciate that commitment by Rich Lavin.
Rich Lavin, you da man! Perhaps one day seniors will have pictures of you in their living rooms, replacing FDR.
Seriously, are our leaders incredibly gullible or do they just think we are? Mr. Lavin is a human resources guy at Caterpillar, with no more power to make a long-term "commitment" for his own company than for all of American business. Of course corporations will shift retirees into a federal system if they can. They would probably be irresponsible not to, at least according to the viewpoint that the management's sole responsibility is to maximize returns to shareholders, a view which management still seems to hold except when it comes to their own pay packages.
The twelve conferees actually working on this legislation have a tough choice to make. If they add some provision to penalize companies that "dump" retirees, they will face a tough fight with guys they don't usually say no to, big-company lobbyists. On the other hand, if they do nothing, they risk producing a bill that the Congressional Budget Office will have no choice but to score as costing far more than they have room in the budget for, because they will have to assume that many of these retirees will flow into the Medicare system.
It's a fair bet that in the end they will find some "incentive" for companies that keep taking care of their retirees -- in other words, throw money at the companies as a reward for doing exactly what they're doing now. Or, as the Times reported just as I was writing this, they will structure some sort of cap on total Medicare spending, which means that as costs go up because companies dump their commitments to retirees, Congress will be forced to cut other aspects of Medicare. Either way, we'll pay!
There's an opportunity here for liberals to do more than just yell about the outrage (although we should also yell) or acquiesce in a bad bill because we can't be against prescription drug coverage. The key is to stop trying to fight the trend. Big business is going to try to get out of it's obligations to retirees, as well as to current employees, and there's no point either trying to block the door or bribing corporations to stay in the room. "Make the trend your friend," as they say on Wall Street.
We should begin thinking about the outlines of a Grand Bargain between business and government, one that could take our economy and our society to a new level of both economic dynamism and security for all.
The fact is that companies like Caterpillar and the auto companies really are saddled with very costly burdens, dating back to a long-ago era when strong unions negotiated their members' way into the middle class, by demanding that in exchange for a lifetime of hard and dangerous work, the companies provide economic security for the last years of that lifetime. That was a wonderful era, part of what made this country great in the '50s, '60s, and even the '70s. But it's also long gone. Today new companies emerge without any of those burdens from the past and without any intention to take them on in the future, and international competitors also don't carry health and pension burdens from past decades. That's the biggest challenge facing several of the industries that are responsible for most of the job losses in the swing states of the next election.
Ultimately, many of these costs are going to be "socialized." That is, the companies are going to push them onto the public through bankruptcy or other means, forcing the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to absorb their pensions and federal programs such as the expanded Medicare benefit to pick up some of their health benefits for retirees. And for current employees, they will continue to pull back health benefits or ask workers to pay more.
Since this is going to happen anyway, let's offer business a deal: the government will absorb these responsibilities, in exchange for a significant increases in taxes on corporations themselves and on those whose income comes from corporate profits, and also for an increased minimum wage to allow workers to bear some of these costs themselves. The net result would be an advantage for American business. Higher taxes would be more than offset by reduced health and pension costs, and older companies would be able to compete more effectively against newer companies without the burden, and foreign companies. The cost of taking on a new employee would be lower, even though the minimum wage was higher and the employee would still have pension and health benefits.
It would also provide the spur for a complete revamping of the American social contract and tax structure, which, it seems to me, is the only way out of the mess that has been made by the current administration.
This is really just the roughest sketch of a pretty big idea, but the Medicare paradox got me thinking about it and I wanted to get the outlines of a thought written down. So thanks, Rich Lavin! I'll try to expand on this and add some numbers over the next few weeks.
Muliplication of Risks
The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel's father was my pediatrician, so I've always assumed he was a smart guy. (I don't know him.) He hit on a very important point in his story about the Medicare bill today. Fortunately for those of us who don't subscribe to the WSJ, Brad DeLong posted about half of it. Medicare Reform?: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal:
[The so-called "premium support"] is a big switch from today's Medicare. The current system charges every participant the same premium, provides a fixed menu of benefits, and generally pays doctors and hospitals on a fee-for-service basis. About the only way the government controls spending is by squeezing those fees. The change would be akin to the continuing move away from defined-benefit pensions (for which employers promise a monthly check) to defined-contribution pensions like 401(k) plans (for which employers put aside money and workers manage investments). It would give the elderly more choices of health plans -- though not necessarily as much latitude to pick a doctor as they have today -- and force them to bear the consequences of such choices.
We have to stop looking at each of these proposals, whether it's Medicare premium support or partial privatization of Social Security, in isolation, and instead see them, as Wessel does, in the context of a much larger pattern in which we have, as a society, exchanged security for risk, always in the name of choice. The shift in pensions is one good example, and so is the shift of most individual savings from FDIC-insured accounts to mutual funds and direct stock ownership. (see p. 4 of this report.) The reemergence of huge long-term deficits is another example -- it creates a lot of problems, but one of them is simply that it increases the risk of heading into a future economic downturn without the capacity to stimulate the economy.
Choices are great to have, but at a certain point, shifting everything from secure foundations with limited choices, to high risk ventures with more choices, actually makes it harder to make realistic choices. How can you decide whether to put your retirement savings in a high-risk venture if you're not sure whether your basic medical needs will be taken care of through Medicare? A certain base of security is essential for people to take the risks of entrepreneurship and investment. At the same time, many people, especially those influenced by the casino ideology of the right, will go "all in," making the riskiest choice in each area, without the careful evaluation of the consequences of interlocking risks which modern economics shows is one of the most difficult calculations for anyone to make.
I hope Democrats can begin to learn to talk not just about programs, programs, programs, but about the consequences of this overwhelming shift away from security, toward risk and choice, risk, risk and more risk. It's not just about Medicare and Social Security, ever popular as those words and programs may be, but really about how we make fundamentally responsible choices for the future.
The Radicalization of the Brookings Institution
One of the more mystifying side-stories of the Watergate scandal was Nixon's directive to firebomb the Brookings Institution in Washington. It's mystifying because to anyone in Washington in the last two decades, Brookings has hardly seemed a left-wing threat to the conservative establishment. Mostly it has been, as Timothy Noah put it in a review of Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, "a bastion of centrist technocrats, many of whom are Republicans." In the early 1990s, I would have said that Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute occupied overlapping positions very near the center of the American political spectrum, with Brookings perhaps two degrees off-center to the left, and AEI perhaps five degrees off to the right. Since then, AEI has moved consciously to the right, and Brookings has not changed in any deliberately way, although the relatively new president, Strobe Talbott, is certainly more dynamic and engaged than his predecessors.
But, perhaps thanks to the radicalism of George W. Bush, these centrist technocrats have been drawn into a position of quite vigorous, and very significant, opposition:
Consider the Tax Policy Center, joint venture of Brookings and the Urban Institute. Home of the best analysis, in real time, of all the tax bills as they've moved through Congress, the best information on the Estate Tax, etc. Look also at this wonderful short essay by Eugene Steuerle -- who's actually based at the Urban Institute, but is a partner in the Tax Policy Center, a Reagan Treasury official, and the very definition of a centrist technocrat. It's a profound indictment of a political culture that rewards the already-advantaged without regard to whether the policies result in any larger benefit for society, all the more powerful because it is written in the measured tones of a centrist.
Or, read the new book by Brookings foreign policy specialists Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, America Unbound. It is a challenge to "the fundamental premise of the Bush revolution, that America's security rested on an America Unbound," but written by people who have a thorough understanding not just of Bush's policies, but of the historical and international context.
There are other examples as well, not only at Brookings but at other institutions. The radicalization -- not by their own choice -- of so many "centrist technocrats" by the extremism of the administration is one of the most important, neglected stories of the last few years. Among other things, it gives the lie to all David Brooks's nonsense about how all opposition is driven by "Bush-hating." These are not people who are eager to hate a Republican president. They are accustomed to serving in responsible positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations and are undoubtedly surprised to find themselves in this position. And this phenomenon will have an impact for years to come, as these scholars help to craft the moderate/progressive alternative to the Bush revolution.
I wonder if money in politics doesn't matter as much as it did...
One of the few issues on which I have some real expertise is campaign finance reform and the role of money in politics. (Although I'm also sick and tired of the issue.) I have to finish a book chapter about the topic in the next week or two, and so I wanted to update a statistic that I had calculated a year or two ago: In 2000, every newly elected member of Congress, with one exception, from a competitive district spent more than one million dollars to get elected. And the exception spent $980,000. So the barrier to entry for a competitive congressional race would seem to be $1 million. That applies not just to challengers facing incumbents, but to elections for open seats.
The other day I set out to update that statistic. I assumed the price of entry would be higher -- perhaps as much as $1.5 million. And there were some incredibly expensive races last year -- the top 25 spenders range from $8 million down to $2.3 million. But I noticed two interesting things: First, all five of the top spenders, and seven of the top ten, lost. (That's not entirely surprising, because with a few exceptions, these are self-financed candidates, who sometimes lack other political skills.) Second, as I started looking at the freshmen, unlike 2000, there were a few who not only didn't spend a million, they were actually outspent. On Long Island, for example, Rep. Tim Bishop beat an incumbent with only $800,000 to the incumbent's $1.3 million. In a Republican-leaning district in Louisiana, a guy named Rodney Alexander won a hair's-breadth victory, also spending only $800,000. And there are several other examples as well.
Not that $800,000 isn't a lot of money. It's more than most people can raise in small contributions. And I don't mean to minimize the role of money in politics. Incumbents still raise enough to scare off all but the bravest, richest, or most well-connected challengers. Maybe all these are anomalies. But it's also possible that as politics becomes a little more ideologically polarized, money might matter a little less. Perhaps money has more influence in an environment of ideological and party ambiguity, when a candidate can get away with running thousands of ads that either tear down his opponent or fudge his own positions.
Another example: Presidential fundraising. Coverage of Governor Dean's fundraising success has noted that he broke Clinton's 1992 single-quarter fundraising record, but more interesting to me, all of the Democrats are exceeding what Democrats have been able to do in the past, by a lot. Here's a link I found to an FEC chart comparing fundraising through January of the election year from the 1998 election through the 1996 election:
In 1992, all of the Democrats put together, including the nutcases, had raised less than $18 million at that point, of which Clinton had $5.5 million. Today, at the end of just the third quarter of the year before the election, all the Democrats together have raised about $84 million. These are not directly comparable numbers, of course: the campaign started earlier; these numbers aren't adjusted either for standard inflation or actual inflation in campaign expenditures such as television time. But the bottom line is that it has proven easier for these Democrats, particularly Dean, Clark and, to some extent Edwards and Kerry, to raise money than they probably imagined. The Internet is part of the story. Bush is the other part of the story -- all of a sudden, there is motivation for small donors. Powerlessness, combined with the particular qualities of these candidates, are actually helping the Democrats get out of the trap that Tony Coelho built for them in the late 80s, of dependence on big corporate donors, many of whom give to Democrats solely on the gamble that they would continue to control at least one house of Congress.
The third example is the possibility that Haley Barbour (who is, basically, what George W. Bush would be if he hadn't stopped drinking) might, just might, get his ass kicked in his attempt to become the lobbyist/governor of Mississippi.
None of this is a huge change in the culture of politics. But one of my deep convictions is that we often miss these big shifts, and that by the time we pass legislation or other policy changes to respond to problems, the problems have either evaporated or shifted form. I'm not sure this is the case with money in politics, but I'm surprised to find that it's not as easy to make the case about the problem.