Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Executive Agencies Independent of the Executive

Here’s a proposal: If you want agencies that set policy and priority to be independent of the Executive, don’t make them part of the executive branch!

The issue with such agencies is really that their missions are split: they are as much legislative as they are executive.  Congress, in its wisdom (or recklessness) has delegated some large measure of its legislative authority, the authority to create the rules by which we live, to such agencies; but they have also tasked those same agencies with enforcing the rules that they, themselves, concoct.

Does that not violate the spirit, if not the actual text, of the Constitutional separation of powers?

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Reasonable and Unreasonable “Disclosure”

It is no more reasonable to demand that Pete Buttigieg disclose who he did work for at McKinsey and what that work entailed than it would be to demand that a doctor or a therapist running for office disclose his or her list of patients and all their medical and psychological histories, or to demand that a lawyer running for office disclose his or her list of clients and the details of all their legal troubles.

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Making the Case for Impeachment

The leaders of the Democratic Party have spent the last three years creating an appearance of partisanship and an atmosphere of skepticism: by first raising the specter of impeachment (or an invocation of the 25th amendment) to remove Trump from the Presidency immediately after his election, even before he took office and, therefore by definition, literally before it was possible , never mind reasonable or necessary, to impeach him; by encouraging various candidates in the mid-term Congressional elections to campaign on that promise (“If elected, I will vote to impeach Trump”), thus making impeachment appear to be a convenient electoral strategy rather than a serious and ethical act of accountability; and by allowing their rhetoric about his alleged crimes to get so far out ahead of any actual investigations that the rhetoric was very rarely tied in any concrete way to demonstrable facts and seemed to be driving the investigations rather than resulting from them. The message they have communicated is simple: they always planned to impeach him; they were simply looking for a good excuse.

To be clear: Trump is both an appalling human being and an awful President. He deserves to be defeated at the polls in the next election, now less than a year away.  From the latest evidence, he has also abused both the powers and the oath of his office and deserves, in this moment, to be impeached. And the Congressional Republicans have forsworn any claims either to integrity or to principle by making it clear they intend to judge him solely as partisans and enablers, not as defenders of the Constitutional order and of the national interest.

But everything that preceded this moment has primed those who are not self-declared members of the “resistance” to presume that attempts to impeach Trump are not, and have never been, about “accountability” but, rather, are, and have always been, about power — about overturning the result of an election that the Democrats really, really didn’t like. And there is a legitimate question about which is worse: Trump’s tawdry abuse of the authority of the Presidency, by using the levers of foreign policy to help in his next election; or the Democrats’ tawdry abuse of the authority the Congress, by politicizing and cheapening the power of oversight, investigation, and impeachment in order to undo the results of the previous election. If either of those becomes a common part of our political culture then we are, indeed, in trouble.  No matter which way this goes, some set of bad guys gets rewarded for their bad behavior and some damaging precedent gets established for the future conduct of politics and governance.

The question is, what could Democratic leaders do now to overcome that sorry history and to convince the justifiably skeptical that, this time, they are actually and truly acting on honest principle instead of from base partisanship?

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Trump is Reprehensible: Does That Create a Moral Duty to Vote for His Opponent?

To use an analogy that is, admittedly, intentionally, and consciously way over-the-top in order to make the point utterly unmissable:

Yes, Trump is Hitler. But, if the choice you offer me is to get rid of Hitler by embracing Stalin, can I be blamed for, instead, wishing that a pox descend upon your house as well as his?

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A radical suggestion for the presidential debate…

Please keep in mind that the purpose of the debate is not supposed to be to make the moderators look clever, or to promote anyone’s candidacy, or to stir up the “horserace” aspect of the campaign that so obsesses political junkies.  It’s supposed to be about informing the voters as to what their choices are.

You don’t facilitate that by getting the leading candidates to regurgitate whatever has already been reported about them ad nauseum or to pick petty fights with each other over subtleties and minutiae; you do facilitate that by actually giving the other candidates a voice.

I have a suggestion: Perhaps your moderators for the upcoming debate could actually direct more of their questions toward the lesser-known candidates!

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Socialism, Capitalism, and the Liberal Republic

It is true that people — not only ignorant self-described “conservatives” but also many ignorant self-described “Socialists” — often throw the word “Socialism” around without seeming to understand what it means.  But,it is also true (OK, it is at least my not-so-humble opinion) that the many articles published recently trying to explain why various brands of “liberalism” are not actually the same as “Socialism” have been overly narrow and parochial in their view of what Socialism is and entails, limiting their argument to the simplistic (and flawed) formulation that it can’t really be Socialism if the government doesn’t “own” the means of production.

But, if that isn’t the defining nature of “Socialism”, then what is? For that matter, what is the defining nature of “Capitalism”? And how do either interact, for better or worse, with the moral premises and practical structures of our Liberal Republic?

In six parts:

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An Open Letter to the Republican Party

For as long as I can remember — and my memory goes back to Lyndon Johnson – the electoral message of the Democratic party has included, fairly prominently, the following proposition:

Vote for me! I’ll give you something and make somebody else pay for it!

In recent elections that proposition has not only been featured prominently, it has been the highlight. Remember the 1%? Remember how “the rich” are not paying their “fair share”? Remember Thomas Frank’s lament, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” What was his argument?

Hey, we promised to give you something and make someone else pay for it! You must not have been listening!

Yes, the Republican Party has been featuring its grumpy old men and its “back in the day…” cultural attitudes, and it has paid for that. Yes, it needs to have a serious internal conversation about what really are the core Republican principles, to differentiate them from the cultural and emotional fetishes that seem to absorb its “activists”.

But, in the end, even if they could get past all that, the question remains: how do you convince people to refuse a free lunch? How do you counter the allure of getting something for nothing?

You have to explain why that can’t work!

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A Trifle: Does the “right wing” really control EVERYTHING?

I don’t like the current administration and its boosters any more than you do, but really? In what country are you living where they control “nearly every element of our government and society?”

It seems to me — and much to their obvious chagrin — that there are vast swaths of society — and even significant portions of government — over which they exercise very little control at all…

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The “Janus” Decision

Actually, all workers need to do to fight back against the “Janus” decision is to continue to join and maintain membership in unions, despite the fact that they are no longer compelled to do so by an act of law.

If, as claimed, that decision results in a significant reduction in union membership, one might reasonably ask why the unions were unable to convince the departees that continued membership was worthwhile.

Perhaps, in that case, the problem is with the unions and not with the law or with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it.

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