State of the Union

‘Game of Thrones’ Between Two Battles

HBO; a White Walker
HBO; a White Walker

After two of the most apparently subpar episodes of the series occupied the middle of this current “Game of Thrones” season, many watchers were starting to wonder if the “double-D” showrunners extraordinaire, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, were starting to run out of material to write well.

Though the show is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, this season has for the first time begun to forge well past the confines of the books, not just taking liberties with its adaptation, but spinning storylines of its own anew, setting the new canon. And the past two weeks’ episodes prior to this past Sunday boded poorly for the success of “Game of Thrones” without A Song of Ice and Fire.

Then “Hardhome” happened.

This past Sunday’s episode opened by uniting the storylines of two of the most compelling characters in the series, the drunken, witty, apparent political genius dwarf Tyrion Lannister and the fierce, charismatic, apparently fireproof Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, and closed by confronting humans led by the youthful Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, with the very visage of death itself, unstoppable hordes of newly raised undead and their commanding White Walkers.

The grand battle scene between Snow’s Night’s Watch men and the tens of thousands of Wildlings they had come to persuade to flee to relative safety south of the Wall, and the White Walker-led zombie hordes, immediately drew comparisons, most favorable, to “Blackwater,” the full-episode siege of the capital city of King’s Landing. Yet if the appearance of the armies of the dead marks the turning point in the series that it does seem to indicate, then the contrasts between the battles may be the more relevant point.

“Blackwater” was about relationships. What felt like a grand, cinematic battle scene unprecented on the small screen on the first watch now reads as a series of close, intimate set pieces upon rewatching. There is very little actual fighting, relatively speaking, as the camera moves around to documenting the intersection of most of the series’ storylines at one moment of peak stress.

With Stannis Baratheon’s troops laying siege to Kings’ Landing to claim the throne from the illegitimate Lannister children, the yellow-haired Worst Family in Westeros (up to that point) all understand acutely that the stern Stannis will give them no quarter. Queen Cersei prepares drastic measures of euthanasic mercy to spare her children Baratheon blades. Her hated brother and temporary Hand of the King, Tyrion, nervously commands the city’s defense, as the titular King and psychopath Joffrey betrays the full teenage petulance that his mother’s shielding has allowed to flourish when he is not torturing and maiming. The Hound personally abandons the battle and his post, while Stannis mounts the walls essentially unaided.

The battle of Blackwater Bay is much more a series of two-person set shots revolving around a central moment of stress than it is a war film. And regardless of who prevails, one of the sides we have been following will in fact win, and continue their story.

Of “Hardhome,” however, showrunner David Benioff in the perfunctory post-show filmed discussion says, “This isn’t a battle, really, it’s a massacre.” When the White Walkers appear with their hordes of zombie “wights,” it is immediately known that there is no hope of victory. A partial sea evacuation was already underway, so time could be bought for it to get a few more boats off. But the deaths of tens of thousands could only be forestalled. And while episode director Miguel Sapochnik has rightly received much praise for narrowing the battle and the shots to the last defense of the bay, there are no relationships or storylines at stake in Hardhome: there is only death.

And with the reanimated corpses of about 50,000 freshly slaughtered Wildlings newly drafted into the apparent Night’s King’s White Walker and zombie army, death is now officially on the march.

As GOT returns for its second-to-last episode of the season tomorrow night, “The Dance of Dragons,” we will begin to look in earnest for resources and leaders who can save the race of men from the creep of eternal winter. And few seem more naturally suited to that task than Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons. Carried by Emilia Clark’s commanding performance, Queen Daenerys’s strength has poured through the screen, even as she has often let her youth and idealism run ahead of her potential better wisdom. She commands armies, frees slave cities, and she rose from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre with dragons reborn upon the earth.

And it only stands to reason that if dragonglass can kill White Walkers, and Valyrian/dragon steel can as well, then dragon fire should be a powerful weapon against the wintry death. The “song of ice and fire” appears to be approaching full volume.

Ultimately, though, one queen, even a queen with dragons, will not be able to defeat Death. It would seem likely that a coalition will have to be marshaled among many if not all the forces of Westeros. And that will require more than force of will, more than Unsullied and Second Sons and dragons. Obtaining the resources to defeat the march of the dead will require politics. And, as Tyrion so helpfully instructed Daenerys this last Sunday, “killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.

Last week we saw the icy White Walkers in their full fearsome display. Hopefully this Sunday we will see the fiery dragons fully grown. Most of all, we hope to see Tyrion’s political genius channel Daenerys’s epic presence and power. The fate of life itself may depend on the show’s unity in that balance.

 

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Rand Gets Abortion Politics Right

Gage Skidmore / cc

In the 24 hours after Rand Paul officially announced his presidential campaign, the Kentucky doctor has shown off both edges of his trademark combative political style.

On the “Today Show” yesterday morning, Paul went after NBC reporter Savannah Guthrie when she pressed him on his frequent attempts to split the foreign-policy baby. For a candidate with unconventional politics that will necessarily not fit into the easy categories relied on by 24-hour news, Paul has often displayed thin skin and a paucity of patience that could bode poorly for his ability to weather an 18-month campaign that will only get more confrontational.

Before the day was out, however, Paul performed the abortion-politics reversal so many pro-life conservatives have been anxiously waiting for in the years following the Obama campaign’s “war on women” meme. In doing so, he reminded us that he first truly broke out as a national figure by picking a filibuster fight no other Republican would touch.

As Dave Weigel reports, the Associated Press pressed Paul on the issue of abortion exceptions, and he responded by noting his votes for bills that included exceptions and those that didn’t. When Paul was again questioned by a local reporter citing a DNC e-mail blast that referenced his previous answer, however, he turned it back around, asking,

Here’s the deal—we always seen to have the debate waaaaay over here on what are the exact details of exemptions, or when it starts … Why don’t we ask the DNC: Is it okay to kill a seven-pound baby in the uterus? You go back and you ask Debbie Wasserman Schultz if she’s OK with killing a seven-pound baby that is not born yet. Ask her when life begins, and you ask Debbie when it’s okay to protect life. When you get an answer from Debbie, get back to me.

As the earnest people at Vox have been documenting, the ideological uniformity that distinguishes activists on both sides of the abortion issue is far rarer in the American public at large. Yet for reasons that readers can supply for themselves, pro-life politicians and positions are far more likely to receive widespread critical media coverage, examining their answers on questions about fringe cases. The fringe cases of very late-term abortions, and whether they should be legal or not, are rarely given the same intensity of mainstream media examination.

Wasserman Schultz’s response revealed her lack of practice:

Here’s an answer … I support letting women and their doctors make this decision without government getting involved. Period. End of story. Now your turn, Senator Paul. We know you want to allow government officials like yourself to make this decision for women — but do you stand by your opposition to any exceptions, even when it comes to rape, incest, or life of the mother? Or do we just have different definitions of ‘personal liberty’? And I’d appreciate it if you could respond without ’shushing’ me.

While she may not get raked over the coals the same way an RNC chair would for an equivalent categorical statement, Wasserman Schultz immediately concedes the abortion ballgame, declaring legal abortion apparently up to the moment of delivery to be the official Democratic party position.

What stands out in Rand’s reversal is that he did not go after the media for a perceived unfairness. He went right after the DNC. As much as many conservatives may enjoy sticking it to their perceived media enemy, even in our disintermediated age it doesn’t do a candidate any favors to constantly be showing up the ref.

Launching attacks at Democrats cuts out the middleman, and may be one of Paul’s best rhetorical tactics to win enough of the traditional Republican base to have a chance at the primary nod. Paul’s libertarian streak will always keep him from being the candidate to reassuringly confirm the base’s priors, and his attempts to shroud foreign policy restraint in hawkish rhetoric can at times appear ungainly. Distinguishing himself as the most skilled assailant of Hillary Clinton, then, could give Paul an appealing in with the base.

In a GOP primary field that will likely eventually turn into a circular firing squad, Rand’s ability to rise above the intraparty fray, while still appealing to untraditional constituencies, may be his best political path to success. To pull it off, however, he’ll have to display more skilled reversals, and fewer thin-skinned retorts.

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Put a Stop to Stoplights

In 1982, two small children were fatally struck by cars passing through the small Dutch village of Oudehaske. Concerned about the safety of their roads, the townspeople requested a traffic evaluation from their regional safety inspector, a man by the name of Hans Monderman, who would later be described by Wired as “the sort of stout, reliable fellow you’d see on a package of pipe tobacco.”

Monderman faced a quandary. The road cutting through the village brought drivers accustomed to the speeds of empty highways into the heart of the town center. But he did not have the budget to install any of the traditional traffic engineer’s solutions to speeding, such as warning signs and speed bumps. So instead Monderman recommended that the village, which was also undergoing an aesthetic consultation at the time, try to look more “village-like.”

Rather than installing humps and bumps, warning signs and stoplights, instead of building guardrails around sidewalks or elevating the curbs, Monderman tore out the curbs altogether. He uprooted as many signs as he could legally get away with and replaced the standardized asphalt with red brick and slightly curved gray “gutters” that produced a road that looked five meters wide “but had all the possibilities of six.” Thus instead of traveling down a roadway that passed through a village, incoming drivers were thrust into a village, full stop.

Under conventional traffic-engineering guidelines, this was madness. Without signs, markings, and separations telling cars and villagers alike where to go and how to behave, people would be thrown into chaos that practically invited reckless driving and more accidents. Yet instead, Monderman was pleased to see, drivers recognized that their environment was different and ambiguous, and they slowed down to navigate with care, subtly negotiating their way through the space with eye contact and hand signals exchanged with those around them, whether in cars, on bikes, or on foot. Car speeds dropped by 40 percent, four times what conventional traffic control could promise, and the village was undeniably safer.

This was the birth of what would come to be called “shared space,” a traffic and urban design movement that seeks to remove street barriers, markings, and signs in order to create environments where pedestrians, cars, and bikes all have equal claim to the street and navigate the space socially and spontaneously rather than relying on timed lights or instructional signs. Since Monderman’s work in Dutch villages like Oudehaske, shared space principles have been implemented in experiments across Europe. And they’re worth Americans’ attention as well.

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The removal of signs, signals, and markings from a street inverts the logic that has governed our roadways for almost as long as automobiles have been mass produced, as doing so moves decision-making from the engineer who designs the street back to the people who use it. The absence of speed-limit signs means a driver must read his environment and modulate his speed appropriately. The absence of stop signs and stoplights means neither driver nor pedestrian is told when to go or when to stop; each must instead make those decisions spontaneously in response to conditions on and around the road.

But the engineer has held the reins of decision-making tightly for the past century, for reasons both technological and ideological. After Henry Ford’s 1908 introduction of the Model T, automobiles suddenly became not just the playthings of the very wealthy but an affordable means of transportation for millions. As historian Clay McShane writes, “For the first time, cars were cheap and reliable enough for mass commuting,” flooding cities and suburbs alike with a new species of citizen of the road. Significantly larger than pedestrians, less predictable than streetcars, and ultimately much faster than either, automobiles were soon seen as reckless endangerments of society.

With this potent new technology being introduced to necessarily inexperienced users, accidents were commonplace and fatalities, especially of children, quickly accumulated. University of Virginia historian Peter Norton estimates that “more than 210,000 were killed in traffic accidents in the period 1920-1929, a figure “three or four times the death toll of the previous decade.”

Early 20th-century cities already had a trusted source to turn to for answers to their problems, however: engineers. As Norton describes in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the 1910s and 1920s were a time of tremendous optimism in the power of scientific and technical solutions. The integration of mass waterworks and sewer systems had bought engineers particular favor in densely populated cities, while the business communities that paid for some of the first traffic engineers were enamored of Frederick Taylor’s ideas about “scientific management” in the workplace. As early traffic engineer A.G. Straetz wrote, “Traffic conditions on our streets and highways today greatly resemble the confusion and disorder which prevailed in the industrial production field twenty years ago.”

Newly minted traffic engineers saw city streets as simply one more public utility in need of expert regulation, like the water systems civil engineers had just installed. Instead of negotiating the complex social environment of the street, traffic engineers sought to optimize the flows of traffic through the urban “pipes.” Common-law tradition had long dictated that all users were to have an equal claim to the street, but as Northeastern University’s Clay McShane explains, “at the urging of traffic engineers … city councils replaced this ancient rule with new ordinances that gave cars the right of way, except at intersections.”

The auto industry and organizations like AAA assisted the engineers’ efforts by launching national campaigns to shift the blame for accidents away from the popular perception of reckless drivers and onto country-bumpkin pedestrians instead. Thus “jaywalking” was coined in advertisements and codified in law to brand pedestrians who dared step into the street as backwoods rubes, or “jays,” neither familiar with nor fit for life in the big city. And so the street was gradually surrendered to the car.

McShane notes one of the peculiar features of traffic engineering in the U.S. and indeed worldwide: its remarkable uniformity. The American system of governance is famously fragmented, after all, and nearly every municipality in every county in every state is empowered to make of its streets what it will. How, then, did their approaches all turn out almost exactly the same? McShane finds an answer in the nature of the traffic-engineering profession: “A unified, national profession with common education, professional journals, conferences, and shared consultants would push American cities toward traffic uniformity, the local autonomy inherent in the federal system notwithstanding. A network of professionals controlled the network of traffic control.”

According to Peter Norton, however, even the engineers were not destined to be entirely their own masters. The engineers’ greatest good is efficiency, which led them to a sympathy for streetcars and other modes of transit that could help alleviate pressure on the roads by more efficiently conducting people in and out of town. By 1923, however, the auto industry was seeing its formerly explosive sales growth start to slump, and fears arose that the market was “saturated.” To keep their market growing, automakers threw their weight behind a campaign to decry a shortage in urban “floor space” and urged reshaping and rebuilding streets to accommodate a greater supply of cars. “Induced demand” is a traffic-engineering phenomenon whereby the creation of more road space simply encourages more road use. Norton suggests that America’s highways and wide roads were originally the product of Detroit inducing its own demand.

With auto industry support, modernist planners’ fantastical ideas for remaking the American city were suddenly given the financial muscle to become possible and even mandatory. Highways would be brought into the heart of the city, people would be cordoned from the streets, and everything would be separated into its own gleaming sphere. Cronyist central planning bent well-meaning engineers to its ambitions and shut out ordinary citizens.

When European countries began encountering significant traffic congestion five to 10 years after the United States, they sent their own engineers to learn from the Americans and implemented similar standards, including the now ubiquitous traffic light and stop sign. “By 1938,” Norton relates, “the sociologist Louis Wirth could name ‘the clock and the traffic signal’ as the two symbols ‘of the basis of our social order in the urban world.’”

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On the night of the Academy Awards in 2006, journalist Tom Vanderbilt watched as Los Angeles Automatic Traffic Surveillance and Control engineer Kartik Patel attended to the city’s traffic system, conducting celebrity-packed limousines through the oppressive Los Angeles congestion even as he also coordinated the movements of some of his fellow municipal engineers who were picketing in the limos’ paths as part of a labor dispute. Vanderbilt writes in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, “As Patel furiously taps on his keyboard, lengthening cycle times here, cancelling a left-turn phase there, it becomes hard to resist the idea that being a traffic engineer is a little like playing God. One man pushing one button affects not just one group of people but literally the whole city…”

From the beginning, Peter Norton notes, “engineers seldom looked at traffic from the auto driver’s point of view,” no more than they did from that of a pedestrian or a streetcar passenger. Theirs was the “God-view,” surveying the entire system to maximize efficient flows. Hans Monderman was unusual, even for Europe, as a traffic engineer who saw through human eyes. A car enthusiast with a professed love of the Autobahn’s high speeds, Monderman ran his own driving school, which helped imbue him with an abiding understanding that cars are people, and people respond to the contexts they are given.

“When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,” he was fond of saying. And there were few parts of the received wisdom among traffic engineers that Monderman did not see as treating people like idiots: a sign warning of nearby cows posted on a road cutting through pastures, for example, or the panoply of barriers, safeguards, and redundancies built into roadways to accommodate the perceived inattentiveness of drivers.

The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek described one of the fatal flaws of centralized planning as the “knowledge problem,” whereby the planner could never have as much information as the sum of each actor on the ground. Even an engineer with all the real-time data that Kartik Patel had at his fingertips on the night of the 2006 Academy Awards is information impoverished compared to the pedestrians and drivers who encounter each other at an intersection. A standard unsignaled roundabout can move traffic up to 65 percent faster than a stoplighted intersection because drivers do not waste time idling at the light, waiting for the computers to grant them permission to move. In shared-space designs, traffic is always flowing, even if at cautious speeds, as people negotiate their way among themselves, using eye contact and hand signals to accomplish any needed coordination.

The English town of Poynton recently provided one of the most successful demonstrations of this principle. With a population of just 13,000, Poynton was bisected by a busy road that transported 26,000 cars a day on their way to and from London. The intersection in the heart of the town was heavily engineered with conventional lights, signals, signs, and markings in an effort to coordinate the dense traffic. Yet the area surrounding the intersection was dying, as fully 16 of 32 nearby business locations closed. Poynton commissioned urban designer Ben Hamilton-Baille to turn the intersection into a shared space, where cars were guided around subtly suggested roundabouts and pedestrians were free to cross. The returns to the town of Poynton were felt immediately, and today 15 of those 16 storefronts are now occupied and open for business. Despite the high traffic volumes, car speeds dropped and accidents fell, yet congestion did not increase because vehicles were able to continue moving at a constant, if slower, pace.

By contrast, Tom Vanderbilt describes Los Angeles as “essentially a noncooperative network,” and says, “What traffic engineers do is to try to simulate, through technology and signs and laws, a cooperative system.” “Shared space” allows for a Hayekian solution to a century of problems arising from centralized traffic planning.

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The planning enthusiasm of the 1960s that produced urban renewal and the Great Society also introduced the concept of “forgiving highways.” Understanding that some accidents may be inevitable, safety engineers in the United States and elsewhere designed enormous buffer zones to reduce the severity of the consequences of running off the road. They built highways to anticipate the dumb driver and protect him from himself.  Monderman did not mind that. But what irked him was when the forgiving highways treatment was extended into town—as it was in the U.S. to an extreme degree.

The very features that make a street feel safe to drive down—wide, straight lanes with comfortable run-off zones—encourage drivers to speed up and zone out, raising the risk of accidents due to a phenomenon called the “risk compensation effect.” As the famed Dutch engineer Joost Vahl once said, and Monderman eagerly repeated, “to make a street safe, you must first make it dangerous.” To demonstrate to visitors the safety brought about by his dangerous streets, Monderman was fond of walking into his redesigned intersections, backwards, with his eyes closed, allowing his visitor to observe the alert, civil drivers negotiating their paths around him. marapr-issuethumb

Monderman drew a distinction between the traffic world and the social world. The traffic world is the domain of the car, where people should speed along quickly and comfortably and unexpected surprises are best kept to a minimum. The social world, on the other hand, is the world of places, of people, where a driver is not expected to speed up and tune out but rather must negotiate his way through a place in conversation with both his environment and his fellow citizens.

This distinction is what separated Monderman from the rest of his profession, according to Ben Hamilton-Baille, the current standard bearer of the shared-space movement since Monderman’s death in 2008. Monderman was engaged in place-making more than traffic engineering, and Hamilton-Baille observes that in place-making there must be a clear conversation between the street and the buildings. The history of a place, the sorts of people that come out of its shops, whether a particular street is lined with retail stores or restaurants, all of these factors should be reflected in the street, and each street must be customized in accordance with its place.

This stands in stark contrast to the standardization of roads according to the rules of conventional traffic engineering. When a road is totally divorced from its context, when an identical stretch of asphalt runs through a hundred towns across the country, “when you removed all the things that made people know where they were, what they were a part of, and when you changed it into a uniform world … then you have to explain things,” Monderman argued. A clutter of signs and directional arrows is an attempt at technocratic compensation for the destruction of place.

Hamilton-Baille notes that American roads and suburbs present particular challenges for efforts to share space, as most of them were built after the advent of the automobile age and thus have few historical or structural signifiers of place to begin with. The development of more humane traffic patterns in America is therefore a project requiring good buildings as well as good streets, so that both can participate in the conversation of place. Here the shared space movement intersects with the work of other urban-design reformers: just as Hans Monderman sought to make village streets more “village-like,” so the New Urbanist movement, for example, has spent the past 20 years pursuing the reintegration of American neighborhoods into the traditional models of development that preceded the great planning boom of the 20th century.

“In the face of the countless technological and social disruptions accompanying mature industrialism,” Peter Norton writes, “Progressives substituted expert control for imperiled traditional or natural restraints.” The seeming collapse of the traditional street’s safety under the pressure of the automobile empowered traffic engineers in much the same way as the dissolution of traditional social safety nets rationalized the creation of the welfare state. A century later, however, conservatives have brought nearly every other component of the planning culture under scrutiny, as they press to reform and devolve our institutions to accommodate greater individual responsibility and restore traditional communities. Our streets and built environment are no less in need of such attention and reform. Hans Monderman and the shared space movement suggest the way—without making us wait for the planners’ lights to change.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor at The American Conservative. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.


Scott Walker Is Quick to Retreat

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is proud to preen before a CPAC audience, and affirm that his experience weathering a crowd of protesters in Madison proves that he has the mettle to stare down ISIS and the Russians. The power brokers of Des Moines, however, are one adversary that will apparently send him running for the hard-to-find Midwestern hills.

For those blessed with lives that do not involve keeping up with political staffing intrigue, Scott Walker’s PAC announced on Monday that it was hiring the political consultant Liz Mair to advise on social media and online outreach. Mair is a young, talented, rather libertarian consultant who is widely respected for being damn good at her job. Congratulations were quickly in order, and the Walker organization seemed to headed in a very smart direction.

Then the powers-that-be in Iowa noticed that Mair, like many intelligent observers of politics, had criticized their death grip on the presidential nomination process.

Mair also took shots at the grossly market-distorting ethanol mandates that the corn industry has paid handsomely to maintain, and which has been additionally protected by Iowa’s favored status.

Mair was not hired as a policy adviser on energy policy, nor as an adviser on social issues or immigration, where her libertarian streak likely runs counter to Walker’s views, or at least those he has an interest in being viewed as holding. She was hired as a consultant, a sign that Walker was willing to surround himself with the best people. It was a move born out of confidence.

And it has now become an embarrassing display of cowardice.

Late last night, one day after Mair was hired, it was announced that she had resigned, saying, “The tone of some of my tweets concerning Iowa was at odds with that which Gov. Walker has always encouraged in political discourse.”

As Philip Klein wrote when Walker first reversed himself to kowtow to the ethanol mandate earlier this month: “If Walker can’t stand up to Iowans, how will he stand up to the Islamic State?”

Walker has enjoyed rock-star status among the conservative grassroots and many insiders alike, precisely because of his cultivated image as a principled fighter who could take a punch and still come up victorious. His battles with Wisconsin public sector unions are his calling card, and chief credential, to the aforementioned point that he tries to stretch them into the foreign policy credential he sorely lacks.

Walkers’s rapid capitulation to an Iowa and Breitbart backlash to a smart staff hire is more than a misstep on his way to building a campaign, then. It undermines his entire rationale for being a candidate.

Being president requires saying no to allies expecting a yes even more than refusing adversaries who never had any other expectations. If Scott Walker is happy to get conservative kudos for fighting unions, but unable to resist the slightest bit of pressure on his right (with even Erick Erickson providing cover), he won’t look like the man needed to clean up the right, much less the country.

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A Beginner’s Guide to ISIS

Day Donaldson / Flickr / CC

Graeme Wood of The Atlantic has just published one of the most serious, searching profiles of the ideology of the self-proclaimed Islamic State that you will encounter. In it, Wood travels the globe in order to interview ISIS’s intellectual champions and allies, asking them to articulate why they find Baghdadi’s claims to authority to be rigorous, authoritative, and binding (though they each skirt the issue of their own professions of allegiance in order to stay out of jail). Wood goes on  to interview the foremost scholars on the organization’s ideology, who heap scorn on those who seek to dismiss ISIS as simply “un-Islamic.” Wood writes,

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Wood explains just how damaging some of that misguided miscategorization has been, when he details how the U.S.’s attempt to use a senior jihadist cleric, and ISIS critic, to persuade ISIS to free U.S. citizen Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig may have guaranteed his demise:

It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. …

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations.

He also details ISIS’s obsession with the town of Dabiq, where they believe a final millenarian battle with Rome will take place, bringing about the Day of Judgment.

If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself.

Wood finally offers “quietist Salafism” as a possible ideological off-ramp that could channel those seeking extremist faith into pursuing their own purification, instead the purification of the world of an ever-growing list of apostates: “The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here.”

The entire essay is very worthwhile, and a serious engagement with ISIS’s ideology in order to try and understand how to use ISIS’s commitments against it. He writes, “It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism,” and that its authority will wane should it not be able to continue expanding as it is ideologically committed to continually attempt. How best to starve the Caliphate is a difficult and fraught question, however. I recommend reading the whole thing.

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Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!

Illustration by Miguel Davilla

Could Republicans get around the Democratic populist flank? Heavens, let’s hope so.

Thomas Edsall, the New York Times online columnist and veteran WaPo political reporter, fretted this week that a surging group of young conservative reformers might have learned the GOP’s lessons after 2012 well enough to steal the Democrats’ traditional economic thunder, and that Hillary could be too tied up in Wall Street to stop them. For those of us on the reformist right that may seem rather too rosy a scenario to hope for, but the column did bring out several noteworthy political developments. (Ramesh and Yuval offer the official reformocon corrections at NRO, justly pushing back against Tea Party firebrand Mike Lee being part of a lurch to the center.)

Edsell worries that “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity, and fairness.” Most of the elected Republican rhetoric on wage stagnation and income inequality that we’ve heard in recent months, coming as it is from Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, rings pretty hollow. Haranguing Obama for the fact that the post-recession economic recovery has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent smacks more of partisan opportunism than a reformed platform when it is unaccompanied by any serious effort to grapple with the deep structural forces that have been driving that economic polarization for several decades now. Occupy rhetoric in Republican mouths often sounds even more jarring than Congressmen who decry the cronyism of Solyndra in the same breath that swears fealty to the farm bill. Jeb may be the only major politician currently alluding to the wave of work deskilling and automation.

Opportunity is much more comfortable territory for conventionally conservative politicians, but as for fairness, Wick Allison wrote here immediately following the 2012 election,

A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.

The times are indeed changing, as the reform conservative™ Lee-Rubio tax plan offers expanded child tax credits that are—very significantly—refundable against the payroll tax, and which are paid for, in part, by capping the home mortgage interest deduction for the first more-than-modest $300,000 of a home. While that may sting relatively middle-class homeowners in expensive markets like Washington, D.C., it seems a reasonable trade-off to keep from continuing to subsidize holiday homes in the Hamptons with an intended middle-class tax break.

The most humorous part of Edsell’s column comes as analysis of what reform economics could do to the GOP coalition:

If Republicans compromise on taxes, conservative Christians are going to worry that compromise on abortion will be next. Anti-immigrant forces are already convinced that Republican leaders will cave in to pressure to enact liberal immigration reform. Many of the party’s most loyal constituencies fear that if this leftward turn continues, the entire conservative edifice could implode.

Conservative Christians need not worry that abortion abandonment is next; it’s already past. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform has long ranked just behind expanded free trade agreements on the Congressional GOP list of priorities. If there’s one constituency the GOP has not dared disappoint, it is the donorists.

Conservative reform ideas are certainly still under heavy attack from the conventionally minded right, but what Edsell gets very right is that there is currently an dynamic open policy debate on the right, where the Democratic party, as I have heard echoed by frustrated friends on the left, mostly seems economically exhausted.

It has been over 25 years since the Clinton family was engaged in any similar sort of policy entrepreneurship, and their past 15 years have been spent overwhelmingly in the donorist circles that run the gamut from simply self-interested to the disturbing and predatory. One great unknown is whether Hillary has the political wherewithal to upset the coterie of plutocrats who have been funding the Clinton Foundation and placing advance down payments for influence in the form of her lucrative speaking fees.

The question is: is there anyone other than a Bush to pass out the conservative pitchforks and torches?

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Can Mike Lee Make Romney a Rugged Communitarian?

Dave Lawrence (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When the news broke this weekend that Willard Mitt Romney looks to be seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency one more time, the conservative reaction in much of the media was a mix of laughter and grim disbelief.

As expected (and necessarily, given 2012’s results) the Romney camp has been persistently messaging that “this time will be different.” Or in language Mitt might be comfortable with, “past performance does not necessarily predict future results.” So let’s, for the sake of argument, think through how 2016’s Mitt Romney could actually be different.

First, we have to look at where Mitt is. A 67-year-old long-term unemployed former Staples director, Romney has spent the past two years with grandchildren and his extended family, heartily denying any interest in renewing his former job search. After so recently failing in a campaign mostly distinguishable for its lack of authenticity, one would think that the only way for Mitt to be emotionally up for another run is to cut himself loose to simply be the man he was always reported to be: a loving, decent, warmly awkward family man fiercely committed to his church and community. That is the “Mitt” that the Romney 2012 advisers bizarrely didn’t want voters to see.

According to Politico‘s survey of former Romney advisers, Mitt sees a new campaign being built around three pillars: poverty, middle-class mobility, and a muscular foreign policy. Politico notes that poverty has become a passion of Mitt’s former running mate Paul Ryan following inner-city tours conducted by civil rights leader Bob Woodson.

The question is how a man described by one of his supporters as “the worst communicator in the world [with] no message,” who in the immortal words of @DragonFlyJonez “reminds me of every boss I ever hated,” and who reportedly chalked up his 2012 rejection to “gifts” showered by President Obama to young and poor voters, could possibly come up with a credible message to sell about his poverty-fighting sincerity.

Fortunately, yesterday morning at the Heritage Foundation, Romney’s co-religionist Sen. Mike Lee gave a speech laying out just such a message:

But as I see it there is one issue – one challenge facing the American people today – that rises above the rest in its complexity, its magnitude, and the reach of its consequences. Directly or indirectly it affects nearly every other public issue you can think of, and should therefore be placed squarely at the center of our reform agenda.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, that issue is the family – its increasing importance and its declining stability – and I believe it may be the single defining challenge of our time.

What makes Lee’s message particularly promising—and important—is that he acknowledges the economic as well as the cultural pressures that have dramatically reshaped the state of the American family. Conservatives all too often treat the family as an institution that exists outside of economics, a natural byproduct of rightly ordered souls. The decline of stable, intact families and the rise of premarital childbearing are seen solely as signs of moral decline and social dissolution, rather than also being results of escalating economic pressures on Americans at each stage of life. That habit has been particularly convenient for the GOP’s power brokers as it has meant that social conservatism has not threatened corporate conservatism’s monopoly on fiscal policy priorities.

Lee counters,

Many of the men retreating from marriage today are not doing so confidently. They’re not defiantly rejecting tradition and embracing postmodern values. No. For many, their retreat from marriage is a constrained, insecure choice, driven by a lack of social and economic opportunity. So our pro-family, anti-poverty agenda must account for both sides of the coin.

Lee’s “pro-family, anti-poverty” agenda goes beyond his child tax credit proposals to include criminal justice reform to reunite vulnerable young men with their fathers, and he points to “transportation, labor, and housing systems that make it harder for parents to find decent jobs, get by without two full-time incomes, or make it home in time for dinner with the kids.”

A social conservatism more focused on strengthening families than fanning culture war flames, motivated by a modest economic populism, and demonstrating an understanding of the full range of pressures working- and middle-class Americans are under, could be truly formidable. Lee’s rugged communitarianism derives in part from his understanding of the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the tremendous civil society networks that have grown out of his church. Mitt Romney would seem as likely of a candidate as any to be able to grasp the roots of such an appeal to family and community.

In the end, is Mitt Romney the man to carry that banner all the way to the White House? Almost certainly not. Too much of 2012 Mitt was the real thing as a candidate, a corporate consultant who lost four-to-one among voters whose top priority was a candidate who “cares about people like me.” And if Politico is to be trusted, Romney’s circle is already teeming with more excuses for his 2012 failure than sound acceptances of their shortcomings. What’s more, the 2016 field will be much stronger, with faces much fresher in a country desperate for a change.

However, if Romney splits enough support from Jeb to weaken them both, he could conceivably still play kingmaker, and grant the full family-friendly reform platform to another candidate (John Kasich? Marco Rubio?) along with his financial network.

There would be something altogether fitting about the successful reform of the Republican party in 2016 coming about through the political redemption of Mitt Romney.

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2014 Says Goodbye to Tom Coburn

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Jim Antle reminds today in The Week that whatever New Year’s cheer conservatives share as Republicans retake the Senate leadership gavels in 2015 should be tempered by the loss of Tom Coburn, who spent the past 20 years proving that a politician could at once be both right-wing and reasoning.

After the last Republican electoral tidal wave in 2010, Michael Brendan Dougherty profiled Coburn’s fiscal rectitude:

A large flat-panel television hangs in the lobby of Coburn’s office. Most senators have sets playing Fox News, CNN, or C-SPAN, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves. Coburn’s is tuned to USDebtClock.org, a website with over 50 live metrics. National debt, average household debt, M2 money supply, interest on debt, debt held by foreign countries—the numbers zoom by. Over $13 trillion in United States debt. Nearly $800 billion in Medicare and Medicaid obligations every year. $690 billion for defense and wars. More than $77 trillion in total Medicare liabilities. The chart whirs like a fiscal doomsday machine.

Dougherty continued,

Coburn has made his war on pork something of a crusade. In the spring of 2006, as the Senate prepared to lard up a $92 billion emergency supplemental bill with an extra $14 billion in pet projects, Coburn offered an amendment to strip out 19 of the most indefensible items, then used a parliamentary maneuver to force his colleagues to debate each of them separately. Coburn called it the “Clay Pigeon” strategy. One of his targets was a $500 million bonus from Trent Lott to military contractor Northrop Grumman. Another was a $5 million giveaway from Richard Shelby to the Alabama seafood industry for “promotional materials.”

And goes on to explain that,

Though he doesn’t articulate it, Coburn’s passion for fiscal matters cannot be explained by actuarial concerns alone. … for Coburn, financial rectitude and moral rectitude are roughly equivalent. Pork corrupts politicians. Office budgets are a personal excess. And Washington’s petty financial corruption has infected the rest of the country, debilitating the character of its people.

‘We’ve gone from self-reliance to dependence,’ he offers as a diagnosis. ‘It is cultural,’ he says, ‘but where did they learn that? From us.’

Come to think of it, maybe Senate Republicans won’t miss “Dr. No” after all. The rest of us should miss him already.

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The Localist Manifesto

Why Place Matters is a collection of essays that make the case for place. As co-editor Wilfred M. McClay writes in the introduction, “There is no evading the fact that we human beings have a profound need for ‘thereness,’ for visible and tangible things that persist and endure, and thereby serve to anchor our memories in something more substantial than our thoughts and emotions.”

That essential “thereness” drained out of American life over the 20th century, which makes a recovery of place an urgent project for the 21st century. The lesson to be gleaned from this book is: centralization is bad, but centeredness is good.

English philosopher Roger Scruton contributes an essay on the role of cities, particularly city centers. Scruton shows that “many of the most important cultural and social functions of the city cannot be performed by a conurbation without a heart.” “The suburbanized city is a city of absentees,” who flee in a hundred directions as soon as the work day ends, and for good reason: “they do not like city centers when they are alienating, ugly, and inhuman, the normal case in America.”

Scruton’s solution is a conservative defense of aesthetic planning, to be carried out through “side constraints, rather than descriptions of some goal to achieve.” These constraints on development maintain the city’s aesthetic integrity but avoid dictating what purposes buildings must be used for. Scruton’s goal is to make city centers lovely, that citizens will draw together in a place where the interplay of civic life can once again gain full force.

Architect Witold Rybczynski’s “The Demand Side of Urbanism” echoes Scruton by pointing out that development designed to satisfy deeper human goods must be able to compete to attract people. He emphasizes the benefits of historical layering in development to avoid a Disneyland-like ambience of artificiality. “A real city, as Jane Jacobs pointed out long ago, must consist of old and new buildings that provide opportunities for diverse experiences,” and consciously building in continuity with existing structures provides a brake on flights of creative fancy by exuberant architects. The entire setting must be kept in mind when planning, and nothing better exemplifies this than the “main street model” of mixed-use development, which allows people to live above storefronts and commercial arteries, keeping a city center continually filled to avoid the deadening dread that creeps over a darkened business district abandoned by the end of rush hour.

Where Scruton makes the case for an aesthetic center to hold a city together, historian Joseph A. Amato shows how vital a narrative center can be for anchoring a place to its own past. Amato seeks the solitary and uncelebrated local historian “to reconstruct and preserve, against all likelihood, the unique experience and conditions of a place in an age of ever-increasing specialization, centralization, and homogenization.” These historians’ “fidelity is not to methodology and professional discourse but to details, anecdotes, and eccentricities.” Even as Scruton’s revitalized city centers draw people back from the undifferentiated suburbs, Amato’s historians would help preserve the differentiation of local places across the country, strengthening each as the center of its own story.

Cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan carries narrative centers to far-flung places, describing how the “primitive” peoples that 20th-century anthropologists objectified are better seen as “cosmopolites” who lived at the center of their own cosmos. “These peoples, for all the simplicity of their material culture, had a strong sense of self-importance … they lived at the world’s geographic center” and “were also located at the world’s population and cultural center. Experience convinced them of their centrality.” The revelation that they were not the world’s geographic, population, or cultural center destroyed their self-significant status: “Once they recognized their marginality, they were no longer cosmopolites. They were ethnics,” defined in opposition to the truly central “globalists” who homogenize the world in their own image. Ethnics, far from resting easily in their own centrality, are engaged in a constant struggle to reaffirm consciously their heritage, their foods, their traditions and habits.

Tuan’s solution is that “each child is to be regarded as the heir to not only the best that her own people has achieved, but to the best that humankind has achieved.” An education in a common human claim to Shakespeare and the Mahabharata is best accompanied by Amato’s local history, however. As McClay and his fellow editor Ted V. McAllister write in the preface, “whether we like it or not, we are corporeal beings, grounded in the particular, in the finite conditions of our embodiment, our creatureliness.” That corporeal attachment, for many of the authors, demands its own reinforcement with local traditions. It is first by loving the local that we learn to engage the global.

This lesson is emphasized by Mark T. Mitchell in his philosophical rebuke to cosmopolitanism of the sort promulgated by leading liberals like the University of Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum. Mitchell argues that their austere world-citizenship leaves little room for attachment to the particularities that make life vital at a human scale. Mitchell offers instead a “humane localism” that resists the excesses of tribalism.

Co-editor Ted McAllister explains why liberation from limits “does not lead to creative freedom but to boredom, emotional and spiritual fragmentation, and tyranny.” For all the attention traditionally given to American mobility and spreading out, “American history is as much the tale of place-making as of seeking space,” he writes. As Europeans arrived on a continent that was to them entirely unknown, they proceeded to carve it into places by the imposition of localized limits. America was constructed out of almost entirely self-made places, attached and organized in traditions of self-rule from the very beginning. Even the pursuit of the frontier is seen, in this light, as “one of the greatest place-making adventures in human history—the constant settling and organizing of towns that brought order and stability to previously lawless spaces.”

Pepperdine’s Pete Peterson describes local government gone wrong in a scenario that took place in Bell, California a decade ago. A city of 36,000, Bell held a referendum to amend its bylaws to permit more local control and require less reporting to state authorities. Fewer than 400 people went to the polls, and the change passed by a vote of 336 to 54. The city manager and council salaries soon swelled to many multiples of those in comparable small cities, as officials gorged themselves in the absence of oversight from above or below. Their corruption trials were complicated because their scheme had, after all, been popularly approved. All the localist philosophy in the world, it seems, cannot help a people too disengaged to care.

On the other side of the scale, however, Peterson tells the story of the cleanup of Polihale State Park in Kauai, Hawaii. The state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources informed residents and businesses dependent on the park, which had been ravaged by a tropical storm, that they would have to lobby to increase the agency’s budget before it could repair the damage. Facing bankruptcy if they operated in bureaucratic time, Kauai residents banded together as volunteers to pool resources in order to save their livelihoods. They accomplished what the state said was a one-year cleanup process in approximately eight days. People invested in their places have the self-governing instincts to rise up when government fails.

Ari Schulman tackles the traditional foil to placedness: mobility, which Schulman, senior editor of The New Atlantis, reconceives as “discovery.” He traces how Huck Finn and Jim used the Mississippi river, before it was tamed, to slip away from the strictures of their place and engage in discovery as they travel downstream. Jack Kerouac updated their pursuit for the automobile age in On the Road, as his characters explored the open road, finding discoveries along man-made paths as they escaped the ties that bound them. Such active adventuring wanes with the ubiquity of digital mapping, Schulman fears. GPS and Google Maps rob the world of mystery.  thisarticleappeared-novdec14

If the American frontier closed in 1890, the frontier of the unknown within may have closed around 2010. McClay, Mitchell, and others worry that the easy mobility of information saps the attention paid to place. Christine Rosen makes such disruption the topic of her contribution, “The New Meaning of Mobility.” She argues that technological mobility disrupts place by bringing “the Outside in,” eliminating the boundaries that sheltered home life from work. Moreover, constant connectedness homogenizes experience, reducing the lived differences of being in any particular place.

For all the philosophical questions pondered in Why Place Matters, the practical core of the book is quite strong. In addition to Scruton’s case for form-based codes and Rybczynski’s for mixed-use development and “demand-side urbanism,” the book contains a place-based discussion of transportation by New Jersey Department of Transportation veteran Gary Toth, a localist analysis of philanthropy by William A. Schambra, and a hopeful look at the prospects for localist politics to grow on the right by Brian Brown.

Ted McAllister closes his essay by noting that “Healthy freedom, at least in the American story, require[s] places that move citizens to love where they live, to find themselves part of a local story … and to invest their time and energy in the evolution of a place strange, distinct, and perhaps even a little weird.” Why Place Matters provides resources that challenge, educate, and encourage anyone disquieted by a felt loss of attachment to consider seriously how place might be revived and our civic life reinvigorated.

Jonathan Coppage is an associate editor of The American Conservative.


Thanksgiving Doorbusters Backfire on Big Retail

This Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart opened at 6 pm, as did Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s, Sears, Belk, and Sports Authority. Dick’s Sporting Goods opened at 5, along with Best Buy, Toys R Us, and JCPenney.

Many decried the invasion of Thanksgiving Day itself by the teeming hordes of Black Friday doorbuster deals, and some even called for boycotts of stores that tore employees from their families on what was declared to be “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” But few, I would suspect, held high hopes that their efforts could even slow the unleashed passions of American consumerism as retailers competed to chip away at Thanksgiving’s protected status year after year.

This year, however, something funny happened: sales slumped.

Industry group the National Retail Federation had been predicting strong growth for this kickoff to the holiday shopping seasons, but reported yesterday that sales from the entire Thanksgiving weekend, Thursday through Sunday, fell by 11 percent, while the number of shoppers venturing out over the weekend fell by 5 percent. According to the New York Times, “Executives at the retail federation … appeared at a loss to fully explain the drop-off.” Some pointed to early sales, others to the possibility that the recession still lingers. At the same time, they argued that significantly lower fuel prices and a strengthened economy kept people from being reduced to scrapping for bargains.

Perhaps the numbers are simply an inexplicable blip. But at least for now, we may have a concrete data point of possible hope in the seemingly doomed struggle against commerce’s march upon our culture.

Brandon McGinley wrote that expressed concerns about Black Friday consumerism was “in fact classist condescension” as “Many upper-middle class Americans simply cannot comprehend that Black Friday might be the only day when one can afford a modest luxury.” One gets the sense from his article that he sees cohorts of blue-blooded WASPs condescending to the great unwashed masses who venture out to snap up discounts. And there surely were some WASPish blue-bloods who so condescended.

But the numbers generally do not bear out the idea that opposition to consumerism is a classist exercise. According to the National Retail Federation, people with incomes over $50,000 (roughly the national median) were in fact more likely to shop over the weekend than those with incomes below that mark, 60 percent to 50 percent. And the breakdown of when consumers first braved the retailing crowds shows the two sides of America to be virtually indistinguishable. And while I grant that a more granular breakdown of the data could tease out more differences, I would not be surprised to see the general trend hold.

Let’s hope that this year’s numbers spook the big retailers, and makes the prospect of extending, or even continuing, the hours that they must pay time-and-a-half to their entire workforce too risky a proposition. For in the rhythm of national life, we should be able to take one day away from our normal pattern of purchasing in order that all but the most essential workers may gather with family and offer “Thanksgiving and Praise.” The retail worker, which is the most common occupation in every one of the fifty states, should not be broken from that national rhythm simply because capitalism’s actors find themselves incapable of refraining from eating away at those institutions upon which capitalism depends.

As I wrote after last Christmas,

The true costs of consumerism may not come from the seeking of happiness in material goods. That is a story as old as time, and most of us come to grips with its emptiness at one point or another. Instead, it may be the impressing of the whole world into the service of our desires and convenience, reducing the people we rely on to a mere means of our satisfaction.

For at least a day, let’s hold out hope that consumerism overextended itself, and finally found a point of exhaustion from which we can begin even the smallest of recoveries. Happy Advent.

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Will the Lame Duck Congress End an NSA Dragnet?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguelyartistic/1120818507/

In October 2001, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner wrote and passed the USA Patriot Act to empower U.S. surveillance agencies in the wake of 9/11. In 1975, Sen. Patrick Leahy cast his very first vote, for establishing the Church Committee, which lead to the most significant pushback against the U.S. surveillance state on record. Last year, the two legislators combined efforts to write the USA Freedom Act as an answer to the surveillance abuses exposed by Edward Snowden’s leaked documents. And possibly as early as this week, Leahy will have his bill on the Senate agenda.

As Leahy prepares to surrender the gavel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and return to the minority, he persuaded Harry Reid to put the upper chamber’s NSA reform on the lame-duck agenda, setting up a cloture vote to move to consideration of the bill soon. While the House passed a USA Freedom Act earlier this year, Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and allies managed to gut so much of Sensenbrenner’s original language that many of the fiercest civil libertarians in the House ended up voting against the watered-down bill. And while Leahy’s bill is recognized to be stronger and a genuine effort to end NSA bulk collection of U.S. phone records, it, too, has undergone enough weakening to bring many reform proponents against it.

Marcy Wheeler at EmptyWheel collected her objections in a post, “Why I Don’t Support USA Freedom Act,” writing that

  • No one will say how the key phone record provision of the bill will work…
  • “USAF negotiates from a weak position and likely moots potentially significant court gains…
  • “USAF’s effects in limiting bulk collection are overstated…
  • “USAF would eliminate any pushback from providers…
  • “USAF may have the effect of weakening existing minimization procedures…
  • “USAF’s transparency provisions are bullshit…
  • “Other laudable provisions — like the Advocate — will easily be undercut”

Likewise, Patrick Eddington, a former CIA analyst who covers civil liberties for Cato, wrote earlier this year that “this bill in its current form will not fundamentally alter the powers of the Surveillance State.” By contrast, he sees hope for the libertarian-liberal coalition that attached an amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill in the House limiting NSA activities, and thinks that same coalition has a chance to prevail in the conference committee. Should that occur,

that victory would pave the way for potentially blocking PATRIOT Act and FISA Amendments Act extensions next year, and if necessary (in the case of the FAA, in 2017). And if those extensions can be defeated, their demise would achieve far more than the USA Freedom Act ever could.

Wheeler detailed her own fixes for USA Freedom here.

Even Rand Paul has signaled that he will oppose the bill for extending the Patriot Act’s sunsets without significant enough reforms. If resident Senate civil libertarian Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado join Paul in turning against Leahy’s effort at NSA reform, one has to think that this once-promising bipartisan bill that emerged in the wake of Edward Snowden’s most serious revelations will fail, and the effort to rein in the surveillance state will move onto other attempts at appropriations amendments, fights around sunsetting provisions, and other efforts in the new Congress, albeit under a new Republican majority with freshly-empowered secrecy hawk Richard Burr helming the intelligence committee.

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A Corporatist GOP Needs a Little Crazy

While failure is an orphan, success has many fathers. So when it comes to the overwhelming Republican wave of last Tuesday’s midterm election, well, conservative op-ed pages began to resemble an oddball version of the daytime TV show Maury, with scores of prospective baby-daddies scrambling to claim their paternity.

On Friday, David Brooks was generous enough to waive his own claim, but he did speak up in favor of the Chamber of Commerce, explaining that the corporate and institutional identities of many Republican candidates, outsourcer-in-chief David Perdue, attorney, consultant, and Army vet Tom Cotton, etc., mean that the Republican establishment is back in charge, and thankfully interested in governing:

The new Republican establishment is different from the old one. It is more conservative. It’s shaped more by the ideas of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the American Enterprise Institute than it is by the mores of the country club. But, at least judging by the postelection comments coming from all corners, it does believe in politics, in legislating, in compromise.

Brooks contrasts this level-headed GOP with the Tea Party team of 2010, for “During the Palin spasm, Republicans seemed to detest the craft of governing. Hothouse flowers like Senator Ted Cruz preferred telegenic confrontation to compromise and legislation.”

The problem with this framing can be seen in Ross Douthat’s Sunday column two days later, which pivoted to the 2016 presidential contest by noting the promise of a clash between the two most creative policy entrepreneurs among the prospective presidential aspirants: Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

Douthat notes Paul’s contributions on criminal justice reform, minority outreach, and a foreign policy of realism and restraint (though he chafes at “Paul’s more stringent libertarianism”), as well as Rubio’s embrace of the reform conservative domestic policy agenda on taxes, the safety net, and Obamacare (while worrying at the prospect of a Rubio administration’s foreign policy possibly being defined by “incaution and quagmire.”)

Of those looking to next helm the Republican party nationally, then, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul represent the most interesting thinking that’s most suited to the challenges of the present day. Both, it should be noted, have done so in part through various partnerships with ur-Tea Party reformer, fellow Sen. Mike Lee. And all three came into the Senate in 2010 as a veritable hothouse bouquet, riding waves of the very Tea Party fever swamps that Brooks is so glad to see recede. Lee in particular has reaped a great deal of praise in Brooks’s column for his reform proposals even as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ted Cruz in spearheading the Obamacare defund-government shutdown drive only a very short year ago.

As Douthat has noted before, the GOP has factions committed to new ideas and serious reforms as well as to reckless brinksmanship and scare-tactics politics, and “These two factions are actually one and the same.” David Perdue may be less likely to tilt at debt ceiling windmills, but he also would seem much less likely to take an interest in reforming the earned-income tax credit into a broad wage subsidy, or partner with Dick Durbin on sentencing reform, or take on Wall Street subsidies and crony capitalism. Not to mention that the new class of serious senators have foreign policy fever swamps of their own.

Being an establishment Republican may be enough to buoy a corporate candidate to surprisingly comfortable victory in a red state election during a nationwide GOP tidal wave, but memories have to be incredibly short to forget that the generic Republican loses soundly when rolled out in a presidential contest. For Brooks to write that “working-class voters will trust Republican corporate types so long as they are deeply embedded in their communities, so long as they have demonstrated loyalty to the whole society and not just the upper crust” is either an insult to Mitt Romney’s church and charity work, or a willful disregard for reality.

For Perdue and McConnell to compromise with the Obama administration by fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be much less interesting, and potentially much less beneficial for the party’s appeal, than if Rand Paul or Marco Rubio were to join Elizabeth Warren in breaking up the biggest Wall Street banks. Compromise can come from the edges, where there is more room for creativity.

The GOP may now have enough of a firewall to withstand an unfavorable 2016 Senate map. But if it wants the chance to actually govern after that election, without fighting a Democratic veto pen, it’s going to have to think a little less country club, and a little more crazy.

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Why Elbert Guillory Won’t Hurt Kay Hagan

Rand Paul thinks a committed Republican candidate could pull in 30 percent of the black vote in 2016. Elbert Guillory would settle for 10 percent in the next 24 hours.

Guillory is a 70-year-old black Republican state senator in Louisiana who has captured the hearts and minds of conservative websites over the past month as his Free At Last PAC cut ad after ad hammering vulnerable Democratic Senate candidates. After debuting his argument against Mary Landrieu in his home state, Guillory was recruited to adapt it for commercials against Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, and Kay Hagan in North Carolina.

Even if, as various local Democratic operatives suggested to Dave Weigel, Guillory is too much of a known political wildcard to truly upend Louisiana’s partisan balance in the black community, his initial, extended proof-of-concept attack on Mary Landrieu was superbly executed. It also shows, by contrast, the probable limits of Guillory’s effectiveness in making an impact further from home.

This ad is grounded in Guillory’s own attachment to his Opelousas community, “Academy Street, the hill section.” He voices the not-uncommon sentiment in the black community that they are taken for granted, and receive little attention or influence in exchange for their near-unanimous electoral support, and closes on Landrieu’s own confused attachment to place as he urges voters to “send her back home to her father’s house, or to her mansion in Washington, D.C., or to wherever the heck she lives, because one thing is for sure: she does not live here, on Academy Street, on the hill.” From everything I can judge as an outsider, it is an ad that knows its audience, and its target, and its context.

Guillory’s hit on Kay Hagan, by contrast, is at the other end of the spectrum in his range of commercials.

As opposed to the grounded familiarity of Guillory’s Landrieu take-down, here he only alludes vaguely to North Carolina while recapitulating standard lines against “limousine liberals,” with the briefest of shots of the Raleigh skyline. Worse, however, he trots out the slavery rhetoric, calling Democrats “our new overseers,” as “we’ve only traded one plantation for another.” As the thoughtful Twitter account @BlackRepublican said:

However well-intentioned Elbert Guillory may be, the Our America PAC running the ad is not likely to help Thom Tillis break that 10 percent mark in tonight’s election; if it has any effect, the ad may only poison the well a little further thanks to its sloppy use of slavery.

Elbert Guillory may be beloved of Fox News bookers at the moment, but he is also emblematic of a Republican party that has done so little to cultivate its black support that it must use an (admittedly talented) state senator from Louisiana to try and appeal to voters on the other side of the South. Guillory is right, however, that it would not take a large defection of black voters to have major electoral implications.

To get to that point, Republicans can follow Rand Paul’s lead. Paul got off to a shaky start with an uneven performance at Howard University last year, but instead of getting spooked by the pushback he has continued having conversations with black communities across the country. That’s what it takes to build trust, and comfort.

Nate Silver’s predictive warlocks give Kay Hagan a 69 percent chance of retaining her seat come tomorrow morning, and if Thom Tillis pulls the upset it will likely be without any sizable uptick in black support. But when Republican politicians with as divergent politics as Rand Paul and Chris Christie can each claim approval ratings among their respective state’s blacks in the 30s, conservatives nationwide should wake up to the electoral possibilities available just outside their comfort zone.

Come 2016, they could make all the difference.

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The End of Ownership and the Obsolescence of Ayn Rand

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After returning home from 20 years of warring and wandering, the Greek hero Odysseus was confronted by his long-suffering wife, Penelope, who could not accept the homecoming of her husband without personal reassurance, so tested she had been by the gods and the years. So she called for their bed to be dragged from the bridal chamber, sparking Odysseus to shout,

Wife, I am much displeased at what you have just been saying. Who has been taking my bed from the place in which I left it? He must have found it a hard task, no matter how skilled a workman he was, unless some god came and helped him to shift it. There is no man living, however strong and in his prime, who could move it from its place, for it is a marvellous curiosity which I made with my very own hands.

There was a young olive growing within the precincts of the house, in full vigour, and about as thick as a bearing-post. I built my room round this with strong walls of stone and a roof to cover them, and I made the doors strong and well-fitting. Then I cut off the top boughs of the olive tree and left the stump standing. This I dressed roughly from the root upwards and then worked with carpenter’s tools well and skilfully, straightening my work by drawing a line on the wood, and making it into a bed-prop. I then bored a hole down the middle, and made it the centre-post of my bed, at which I worked till I had finished it, inlaying it with gold and silver; after this I stretched a hide of crimson leather from one side of it to the other. So you see I know all about it, and I desire to learn whether it is still there, or whether any one has been removing it by cutting down the olive tree at its roots.

A rooted tree, carved into a bed, with the room and home built up around it. This was the anchor of Odysseus and Penelope’s shared life, the source of knowledge exclusive to them, and the sign by which their marriage was restored after two decades of absence. That is the essence of property, which James Poulos describes as the widely-understood foundation of liberty for the past several centuries.

Now, Poulos fears, property and ownership are going out of vogue, thus imperiling liberty. He says, “In our heart of hearts, and in our rational minds, we have replaced the right to ownership, and its accompanying yearnings, with the right to access.” George W. Bush’s “ownership society” policy push was doomed to failure from the outset, because the advent of the Internet obsolesced ownership, or at least accelerated the process.

The homes that decades of bipartisan policy subsidized were increasingly owned to be flipped, not occupied for the length of the mortgage. Music moved from records and CD’s carefully collected over the years to central databases that could be streamed from anywhere, thanks to Spotify. So with movies before them, with Netflix. Instead of owning cars, we can sign-up for ZipCar, or increasingly just ride in someone else’s via Uber and Lyft. Wireless Internet becomes a “human right,” because it is the means by which we buy access to everything else.  It can also be seen as the logic baked into the welfare state, as one no longer needs to own stocks and bonds if one has access to Social Security.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig picks at some of the main examples referenced in Poulos’s piece, writing “It is not immediately clear to me how one ever owns healthcare, abortion, or the internet. This is because these are all services, not goods.” This is more to the point, however. For as MIT economist David Autor (whose significant recent paper I discussed earlier here) described on a recent EconTalk podcast, increasing automation is moving the economic center of gravity for the average person from the production of goods to the provision of services. Capital-intensive factory work and the routinized white-collar work that supported it were the basis of the corporate-industrial economy of the past century. Those jobs, and any that can be routinized with any adequate success, are vulnerable to being replaced by computers and robots that do routine much better.

What is left are the competitive advantages of humans over machines: flexibility, sociality, and empathy. New services like TaskRabbit allow people to monetize their facility in running errands or performing complex tasks like janitorial work. Home health care is an exploding industry, both because of the aging of our population and the economic priority we put on health. What all these occupations share is a general resistance to being outsourced or automated. They are also the definition of unskilled labor. Because they rely, in essence, on the basic set of skills we inherit from being human, they can be done by almost anyone, leaving both wages and job security at a very low level.

If the vast majority of people have an economic future of unskilled service jobs ahead of them, while an increasingly select few program and own the capital-intensive, highly remunerative work of production, then our relationship with property is necessarily going to change. As Poulos wrote, “Policymakers, strategists, and citizens alike need to recognize that a major new political debate is emerging.”

Last week, Hunter Baker took to the pixels of The Federalist to make a charitable case for Ayn Rand, in which he argued,

The good society for an Objectivist is one in which a man stands or falls on his productivity. As Rand explained in her lectures on ethics, she saw production as the one great life-affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth or the sun. He must labor and produce.

Baker argued that Rand would see the industrious factory worker as more virtuous than a crony capitalist industrialist, and that valuing of work and productivity is a virtue that even Christians can admire in Rand’s thought.

The problem with rehabilitating Rand at this point in the course of human events isn’t that she was a militant atheist, a celebrant of narcissism, or any other of her manifestly evil qualities and positions. It’s that she doesn’t matter. Rand is an artifact of the industrial age, when Hank Rearden could smelt his steel with manly independence and grant himself delusions of standing apart from and above the world as a “maker.”

The economy of the 21st century looks increasingly likely to be an economy of service. Instead of “laboring and producing” his sustenance on this earth, man receives his goods from the machines that grow his food at astonishing efficiency, and produce his goods at previously unthinkable rates. What does he do with himself after that? Some on the left would like to grant him a basic income, an annual cash grant to every person to liberate him from the tyranny of necessity. Others on the right continue to labor under the idea of entrepreneurial production, whereby a man will pull himself up by his bootstraps by producing. Neither of these options are suited to an economy of service.

Instead of dabbling in the dead philosophies of our industrial past, Christians and conservatives can begin to sketch out how the offering of ourselves to others in free exchange can take place in a cultural context that borrows heavily from the ideas of sacred service embedded in Christianity for the past two millennia. Plenty of economic structures will have to be worked out in a world where, as Autor notes, people will have more attenuated claims on the wealth still produced by the investment of capital by “superstars,” as Tyler Cowen puts it. But the mindsets and philosophies that guide those structures will also have to be reformed. The virtue of market exchange is that it drives us together, to offer what we have to one another. And the promptings of necessity are likely an essential glue to that virtuous system.

And yet, as Poulos points out, access to goods is not the same as property. What Odysseus and Penelope shared above is not accessible by means of Airbnb. Pre-industrial property grounds one in place, and family, and tradition. As Kate Benner describes at Bloomberg View, TaskRabbit, Uber, and other on-demand services are by nature fleeting and relatively impersonal means of financial support. They can serve well to supplement some income around the margins, but they do not embed a person in a community in the same way as tending a storefront.

Even as we adapt to the latest set of disruptions and economic changes, even as we potentially can refashion our relationship to each other and our finances through ideas of sacred service, we should take care that we do not become so mobile and adaptable that we lose our traditions “by cutting down the olive tree at its roots.”


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Eugenics Is Built Into the Health-Obsessed West

Last Friday, Noah Millman voiced his objection to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s warnings against eugenic thinking.

Dougherty referenced back to America’s dark 20th century, when mandatory sterilizations of the poor and infirm were given the Supreme Court’s seal of approval with the line, “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” when Progressivism often meant eliminating the poor for impeding progress, and when compulsory sterilization continued, in my home state of North Carolina, into the late 1970s. American eugenics has been swept under the rug of our cultural and medical memory in a manner reminiscent of how Native Americans were once inconvenient supporting characters in the heroic settling of the West, and Southerners once sighed about how the races used to get along just fine before the Yankees came in and ruined everything.

Yet Dougherty doesn’t fear a new eugenics coming in “the explicitly racialist terms of the biodiversity-obsessed right. Liberal societies have the antibodies against that.” Instead, “it will come to us in terms of ‘quality of life,’ and ‘health and safety.'” In fact, “In the case of babies with Down syndrome, we are already eugenicists,” as up to 90 percent of Down syndrome pregnancies are aborted. Echoing the language of the white lesbian couple suing a sperm bank for accidentally giving them a black man’s genetic material, prospective Down families recognize “that the world is a difficult place for people with intellectual disabilities.” Preventing children from having to struggle through a difficult world is the sheep’s clothing in which eugenics makes its reentry, in Dougherty’s telling, as our cultural commitment to health erases those who do not live up to our societal self-image.

That is where Millman’s objections come in. Noah says Dougherty doesn’t have an objection to eugenics as such, but to abortion. Because the eugenic means are illegitimate, the ends are tainted. Millman presents the common Ashkenazi Jew premarital ritual of being tested for genetic markers for Tay-Sachs, a terribly painful, fatal, and incurable childhood degenerative disease. Had Noah and his wife discovered that they were both carriers for the recessive genes,

we could have chosen not to marry; or to marry but not to have children; or to marry and adopt children; or to marry and have children using either donor sperm or donor eggs; or we could have taken our chances and aborted any children who tested as having the disease. Those would all be ways of preventing what we didn’t want to happen: having children who suffered from Tay-Sachs.

Millman goes on to say that if a person objects to any of those options because it would be eugenics, then “you would logically have to object to all of them. Because that is what they have in common: they are all ways of making sure that our children won’t be born with a genetic disease.” Millman in fact claims that “eugenic motivations aren’t suspect as such, but perfectly normal,” so long as they are properly tempered with humility and a recognition of the inner life of others not like us. For “everybody wants their kids to be healthier, including being born healthier. There’s nothing wrong with trying to ensure that—unless there’s something wrong with what you are doing to ensure it, or unless you take your standards of what constitutes ‘health’ to unreasonable extremes.”

The problem is, taking “health” to unreasonable extremes is just what is at issue in this discussion. Dougherty doesn’t object to Tay-Sachs carrier couples adopting or even parting ways, after all. He voices concern over social policy and social stigma turning against those who fall short of an increasingly healthy society’s increasingly stringent expected standards. A moral abhorrence at abortion is certainly at work in his defense of Down children, as is no secret to anyone familiar with his work. But resisting the prenatal extirpation of the Down community is about more than the abortion wars. It is precisely about how poorly our society is equipped to understand health reasonably, and what consequences flow from that shortcoming.

In a different context in 2012, Yuval Levin wrote an essay for The New Atlantis entitled “Putting Health in Perspective,” which remains one of the best descriptions I have encountered of what he describes as “an old and very complicated problem for our kind of liberal democracy: our inability to properly rank health in relation to other public goods.” While I will condense the full genealogy, Levin argues, in essence, that modern political philosophy and modern science were both born out of a shift towards elevating health and bodily security above the more soulful goods in favor in Dante’s time and before.

Rene Descartes argued in his Discourse on Method for “the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life.” Francis Bacon pursued “the relief of man’s estate” in his torturing of nature to reveal her secrets. Following these fathers of modern science, modern political philosophy and liberalism were birthed by Thomas Hobbes (Bacon’s secretary) and John Locke, each of whom emphasized the natural law’s grounding in the pursuit of security and freedom from death’s early arrival.

It is worth quoting the next part of Levin’s argument at some length:

If nature is above all the source not of a desire for excellence but of a desire for relief, then society must be directed to relief first and foremost—relief from danger, fear, and pain. In that way freedom, another word for relief, became the aim of politics, while power and health became the goals of the great scientific enterprise.

The preservation of life—and not just any life but a healthy life as free as possible from pain and suffering—is thus at least implicitly taken to be the primary good and the foundation of all other goods by our kind of society. We have accepted Descartes’s premise and acted on it, even if we rarely consider it explicitly. (As Alexis de Tocqueville observed of our republic in a different context in the 1830s, “America is the one country in the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.”)

The dual pursuit of health and liberty has served us very well. Modern science is a marvel that has itself transformed childhood from a source of braced dread for parents during times of elevated infant mortality to a cherished (albeit sleep-deprived and still anxious) celebration. Liberalism has democratized the West, enshrined a discourse relatively suspicious of state coercion, and, at least historically in America, provided the room for a rich and active civil society to ceaselessly chase after problems to solve.

But as biomedical advances have taken the tools provided by the previous centuries’ advances in physics and chemistry and applied them to the human form, we have gained the power to manipulate that necessarily accompanies the power to heal. And now we have to discern how to use the tools science provides us.

Levin describes how the embryonic stem cell research debate gave a very pessimistic peek into what could be our biotechnological policy future. Media, politicians, and physicians united in urgent hyperbole as John Edwards toured the country promising that lifting a partial ban on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research would cause Christopher Reeve to stand up and walk again, and Arlen Specter claimed it held “the potential to conquer … all the maladies we know.” Those raising ethical questions were berated and blamed for the suffering of the sick. So far, we have found that “when the pursuit of health through science and medicine conflicts with even our deepest commitments—to equality, to the protection of the weak, or to responsible self-government—science and medicine typically carry the day.”

So what happens when science and medicine tell us that we have the ability to avoid bringing children into the world who would suffer all the many maladies associated with trisomy 21—Down syndrome? Apparently, we terminate the child along with the suffering. Does the calculus change if one is performing pre-implantation genetic diagnosis on embryos created in an IVF cycle to select for a normal set of chromosomes? Of course. But the families of Down children, not to mention people with Down themselves, might object to the idea that resolving the abortion issue resolves all the issues. The “disappearing faces” those families fret over still disappear, and the transformative gift of a Down child that (pro-choice) Martha Beck describes in her book, Expecting Adam is permanently denied to a new family.

The medical establishment has traditionally not performed well in appreciating disabled children as transformative gifts. As Caitrin Nicol Keiper related in her essay “At Home with Down Syndrome,” “One physician had the gall to lecture a shaken father, his baby in his arms, for not getting an amnio and ‘terminating.'” Beck herself describes the pressure her Harvard University Hospital doctors brought upon her to terminate her pregnancy. Ignorance often starts at the top, here.

Balancing health against other goods does not come easy to contemporary Americans, and fear in the face of suffering is rooted deep in the very philosophies that have shaped our world, and our minds. For Down syndrome, obstetrician Adam Wolfberg notes that termination rates seem to have declined or at least stabilized (and may never have been as high as they appeared in the first place), likely as a result of improving medical support and a widespread movement to give prospective Down parents better information, including access to other Down parents who carried to term.

What is clear is that this balancing, this discernment, will have to be a discussion at once society-wide and patient-specific. Most experts will be of little to no help, for as Helen Andrews (nee Rittlemeyer) recently recounted, the professional bioethics discipline is in most respects an abject failure, embodying the very worst of credentialist academic formalism, presenting a wide-ranging philosophical menu of Rawls, Mill, or Kant (if you’re feeling adventurous), and being willing to tell practitioners of biomedicine nearly anything except no.

Tay-Sachs is a cruel, fatal, degenerative disease that almost all would agree is best avoided by any licit means available. Down syndrome is a difficult chromosomal disorder that presents significant burdens to caregivers and precludes a “normal” life for the child, but avoiding it even by licit means is a much more complex question (but certainly not comparable to a father giving up a gambling habit). How do we navigate the differences, and obtain a proper definition and valuation of health? It won’t be easy, especially since, as Levin notes, “our regard for health, it seems, can easily coexist with a society that we would not otherwise be proud of.”

As Christine Rosen wrote on this very intersection of Tay-Sachs and eugenics,

Not all eugenic practices are equal, and often the same practices can have very different meanings when pursued in a different spirit or governed by a different moral purpose. Perhaps some forms of eugenics are sacred and some profane. But we ought never allow good intentions (or claims of holiness) to blind us to moral realities—especially the ways a new privatized eugenics, directed by individuals or specific communities, will affect the range of human possibilities for everyone.

Eugenics can be read in Francis Galton’s original light, as the pursuit of better, healthier genes, just with all the racist claptrap stripped out. But it cannot be understood apart from a liberal society’s unbalanced obsession with health, and the struggles such a society will have bringing its other wisdoms to bear.


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Mike Lee and Marco Rubio Broaden the Base on Taxes

Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida have been the two conservative politicians most actively engaged in the “reform conservative” project. Lee was first on the scene in calling for a “new conservative reform agenda” that brought family friendliness to the GOP tax discussion, but Rubio has been coming on strong with proposals for local deregulation and a new welfare reform. This spring, Lee announced that he was working with Rubio on a joint tax reform plan. And now we have it.

Lee and Rubio coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this week, setting out “A Pro-Family, Pro-Growth Tax Reform.” As expected, the op-ed brings together highlights from each of their respective proposals and speeches, outlining a proposal with an expanded child tax credit that is refundable against payroll taxes as well as income, two income tax brackets set at 15 and 35 percent with dramatically curtailed deductions, a transformed earned income tax credit (EITC), and other changes to means-tested welfare programs made in order to eliminate implicit marginal tax rates of near 100 percent for certain poor persons who gain employment. It also substantially revamps the corporate tax system.

For all the merits of their individual proposals, the most welcome section of the op-ed, as ever, was its philosophical break with the 47 percent-ism of the 2012 Romney-Ryan ticket:

Some conservatives we respect wonder if such tax relief for families would do enough to promote growth. But it bears remembering that the end goal of economic policy isn’t simply growth, but freedom—clearing the obstacles from each American’s unique pursuit of happiness. Millions of Americans up and down the income scale choose to invest their personal economic freedom in children and not just in commerce—in human and social capital rather than just financial capital. We believe it is wrong to punish such a choice.

Liberty well understood (the Declaration’s pursuit of happiness as Lee has been branding it), could be a potent rhetorical bridge between the Tea Party insurgency that unsettled Republican bigness as usual and the reformist movement currently seeking to coalesce a conservative coalition around solutions for the economically distressed and civil-society bereft. The word games we bat around in Washington shouldn’t be oversold, but the context of ideas does matter.

The GOP’s growth agenda served it well for many years, rising as it did out of the growth-choked stagflation years of the late 1970s. A no-nonsense temperamental fiscal conservatism united millionaires and self-starting small business owners alike into potent donor classes at the national as well as local levels. As has been recapitulated many times by now, however, the needs of “our present crisis” in 2014 are substantially different than those of 1981, and so demand their own application of prudence.

Republicans’ cultivation of that business-class base, for whom the economic growth agenda is the only agenda, drained its appeal to broader constituencies whose circumstances were undercut by economic dislocations. The 2012 presidential campaign ran that GOP aground in a ship helmed by a corporate consultant multi-millionaire and the Congressional face of fiscal austerity. From Lee’s Tea Party communitarianism, to Rubio’s nouveau growth agenda, to Paul Ryan’s own renewed commitment to the poor and working class, significant segments of the Republican party have woken up to the tremendous structural challenges facing middle- and working-class Americans.

People of good faith can disagree over whether a child tax credit is an optimal solution, but putting payroll taxes in the equation at all is a major step forward for a party that willingly sold off the payroll tax cut’s expiration in 2012 for a hike in the highest income tax bracket’s starting point. Revamping the EITC as a sort of reverse payroll tax makes a lot of sense, streamlining a heinously complex qualification process while extending it to working poor childless men, a group whose economic plight has contributed to the social unraveling of lower economic strata. These are policy proposals that do not presume us to be on the wrong side of the Laffer curve, and that proceed out of an understanding of the hardships facing 2014 Americans.

I don’t know the first thing about corporate income tax policy, and will thus refrain from opining about it. But smart people seem to like their approach.

We will have to wait for details to come out to make a full evaluation, and to ensure that this plan doesn’t fall victim to unexpected revenue shortfalls when scored, as Lee’s first draft did. But as part of a process, politically and philosophically, that brings conservative principles to bear on the problems of today’s America, Lee and Rubio’s efforts continue to be encouraging.

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Ted Cruz Crashes Defense of Christians Summit

Last night Ted Cruz stood up to offer the keynote address to a room full of Middle Eastern Christians and their allies at a somber but celebratory gala dinner dedicated to Christian unity in the face of persecution and genocide. Soon thereafter he stalked off under a chorus of boos, with the senator declaring the room to be full of hate and saying, “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.” The entire transcript of his remarks is included below, along with the complete audio I recorded 20 feet from Senator Cruz and the stage.

The plight of Christians in the Middle East has swept to the fore of public consciousness in recent weeks as ISIS and related organizations have systematically persecuted and murdered Christians, driving them from homes that date back to the very beginning of Christendom. The In Defense of Christians Summit was organized to bring together Christians of every sect and denomination to stand in solidarity with their persecuted brethren. Summit participants spent Wednesday on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress to drive home their message.

Ted Cruz, however, fractured that unity. Hours before his keynote yesterday, the Washington Free Beacon ran a customarily nuanced headline blaring, “Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.” The story referenced several of the leading Middle Eastern Christian leaders present and their own remarks about their region’s politics, taking particular pains to note that Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Raï has an open dialogue with Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Lebanese political party and State Department designated terrorist organization. Lebanon has a long history of inter-religious conflict and is split between Sunni, Shi’ite, and Christian communities. Many Christians in the region have either allied with or received shelter from Shi’ite Muslim communities in the face of radical Sunni organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Cruz’s spokesperson responded to that story, saying, “Sen. Cruz is appearing at the In Defense of Christians event tonight because he wants to take every opportunity to highlight this crisis, the unspeakable persecution of Christians. … America has been silent for far too long, and we need to speak with a united voice against this horror. Sen. Cruz is speaking to make the unequivocal point that religious bigotry in all its forms—be it targeting Christians, Jews, or minority Muslim sects—is an evil that must be exposed and combatted.”

When Cruz took the stage, however, after two days of declarations of Christian unity and recognition of the widespread persecution of peoples of all faiths, his remarks emphasized his devotion to the state of Israel. The crowd applauded faithfully as Cruz made the argument that ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, as well as Syria and Iran, were all equal participants in genocidal bigotry. Cruz then transitioned. After saying, “Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice. A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated,” Cruz then turned to the 1948 formation of Israel, a sensitive subject for many Palestinian Christians, and declared that “today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

It was at that point that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred. Even then, most of the crowd tried to reconcile with him as Cruz continued on to speak about “Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals [applause] who seek to—[applause]. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ [applause].” As he continued to press the issue, however, the crowd increasingly urged him to “move on” and booed, leading him to lament those “consumed with hate” and depart. Reportedly, Lebanese ambassador Antoine Shedid and three members of the Lebanese parliament walked out of Cruz’s speech:

In Defense of Christians executive director Andrew Doran later came to the stage to acknowledge the sensitivity of the Israel-Palestinian issue, but urged, “For the love of God, we’re here to talk about Christians and we’re here to be united.” When Cardinal Raï took the stage after the dinner, he related an old Lebanese saying, “At every wedding, there are a few wedding crashers,” said he was sorry for the events earlier that evening. He urged all in the crowd to put the unpleasantness behind them, an urging that echoed through the remarks of all the leaders speaking that night.

In a statement, IDC President Toufic Baaklini said,

In this case, a few politically motivated opportunists chose to divide a room that for more than 48 hours sought unity in opposing the shared threat of genocide, faced not only by our Christian brothers and sisters, but our Jewish brothers and sisters and people of other all other faiths and all people of good will.

Tonight’s injection of politics when the focus should have been on unity and faith, momentarily played into the hands of a few who do not adhere to IDC’s principles. They were made no longer welcome.

While the Cruz incident was a low-light for the summit, the Christian leaders gathered at the dinner continued to make vigorous defenses of the separation of church and state and the importance of inculcating pluralism in the Middle East. I sat next to an Iraqi man whose family had been turned out of their homes and had to flee the area their people had settled for thousands of years. Those sufferers should be the focus in discussing IDC and its summit, and they should not be made into pawns or proxies for other conflicts.

Transcript of Ted Cruz’s Remarks at In Defense of Christians Summit

[applause]

CRUZ:

Good evening. Today we are gathered at a time of extraordinary challenge. Tonight we are all united in defense of Christians [applause]. Tonight, we are all united in defense of Jews [applause]. Tonight we are all united in defense of people of good faith who are standing together against those who would persecute and murder those who would dare disagree with their religious beliefs. Religious bigotry is a cancer with many manifestations. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas [applause], and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran [applause], are all engage in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East. Sometimes we are told not to loop these groups together, that we  have to understand their so-called nuances and differences. But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on a murderous rampage throughout the region. hate is hate. And murder is murder.

Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice. A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated. In 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East faced murder and extermination and fled to the nation of Israel. And today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state. [mixed applause, boos, “come on”] Let me say this, those who hate Israel, hates America. And those who hate Jews, hate Christians. And if this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps, that the men and women here will not stand in solidarity with Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals [applause] who seek to — [applause]. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ [applause]. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians and behead Children are the very same people who target and murder Jews for their faith for the very same reason. [applause, murmering, objections]. I will say this. I am saddened [shouting].

[IDC President Toufic Baaklini comes out to urge respect]

I will say this, I am saddened, to see that some here, not all but some here, are so consumed with hate [no, boos], that they cannot enjoy [unintelligible, boos]. I will say this, if you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you. Thank you, and God bless. [boos]


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Think Tanks Go Lobbying as Washington’s Lines Blur

Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende lectures at the Brookings Institution in June. Utenriksdepartementet UD / cc
Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende lectures at the Brookings Institution in June. Utenriksdepartementet UD / cc

On Saturday,  just as Congressmen and their staffs were trickling back into town to take up pre-election unproductivity, the New York Times dropped a bombshell on the Beltway: “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.” Oil-rich countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Norway are said to have spent millions of dollars on Washington think tanks in order to buy everything from generic D.C. influence to help obtaining very specific Congressional appropriations for the countries in question. According to experts the Times consulted, several of the arrangements bring into question whether the think tanks, including the original and perhaps most esteemed of them all, the Brookings Institution, should have been registered as foreign agents.

Norway’s governmental activities are examined particularly closely, thanks to “Documents obtained under that country’s unusually broad open records laws,” indicating that Norway’s actions could be par for the course. Brookings has forged a close relationship with Norway, receiving millions of dollars from the Norwegian government while hosting Norwegian officials for events while arranging meetings with U.S. government officials. Norway also donated substantial sums to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which has recently issued reports urging U.S. military support in the oil-rich Arctic, a key Norwegian priority. The Center for Global Development, however, appears to have dispensed with any ambiguity in the nature of its relationship with the Norwegians, by including in its correspondence an explicit pledge to seek a doubling of U.S. forest protection funding (another Norwegian interest) to $500 million a year. An internal Norwegian government document explains that for a small country, “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.” The Center for Global Development Chief Operating Officer, upon seeing the Times‘s documents, responded, “Yikes. … We will absolutely seek counsel on this.”

As the Times indicates, think tanks are increasingly looking to foreign states for funding as the proliferation of, and increasing competition among, think tanks has strained their budgets and expansion plans. This is precisely the same mechanism that Tevi Troy identified as being responsible for the increasingly partisan and political nature of D.C. think tanks in his 2012 National Affairs article, “Devaluing the Think Tank.”

Troy gives a helpful history of the development of the think tank starting with the Brookings Institution, founded as a new model for formulating policy befitting the Progressive era. AEI’s Washington iteration was founded after World War II in order to clarify the unwisdom of the continuance of price and wage controls. The think tank was traditionally conceived as a “university without students,” allowing independent scholars to contribute to the body of policy knowledge without being swept into politics. In fact, think tanks were traditionally so determined to avoid politicization (or the jeopardizing of their 501(c)(3) tax status that they would occasionally err on the side of irrelevance. Troy relates a classic story that sums up just how differently think tanks operated then, in contrast with the present day of CAP and Heritage Action:

In his book The Power of Ideas, Heritage Foundation fellow Lee Edwards describes a pivotal moment in this evolution when, in 1971, AEI produced a study of the benefits and drawbacks of the supersonic transport aircraft that Congress was considering funding for the Pentagon. The study was delivered to congressional offices a few days after the Senate had defeated funding for the project in a close 51-46 vote. After receiving the apparently tardy report, Paul Weyrich — then an aide to Colorado Republican senator Gordon Allott — called AEI president William Baroody to ask why the helpful analysis could not have been available before the vote. Baroody’s response, according to Edwards, was that AEI “didn’t want to try to affect the outcome of the vote.”

And so Weyrich would go on to found the Heritage Foundation as an explicit repudiation of such a mentality. Drawing on mass-mail fundraising, Heritage often ran more like a political campaign than a university, and it proved the inspiration for many of the institutions to follow, left and right.

Foreign policy think tanks dipping their toes into foreign agency is just one more step along the path of the Washington political machine’s co-opting of its best resource of independence. Heritage and the Center for American Progress each have 501(c)(4) political action arms, and even AEI has been gradually trending in a more politics and newscycle-driven direction.

Power is the currency of Washington, and eventually its pursuit washes out all distinctions.


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Robot Employment Survival 101

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Fear not the rise of the machines? That appears to be the advice given by MIT economist David H. Autor in a paper he recently presented at the Kansas City Fed’s symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Responding to a significant uptick in economists’ concern over the effects of automation on employment, including the “stunning” results of a poll suggesting “that a plurality of mainstream economists has accepted—at least tentatively—the proposition that a decade of technological advancement has made the median worker no better off, and possibly worse off,” Autor suggests that it will be a lot harder to automate us all away than many journalists and expert commentators have indicated.

Autor argues that “Polanyi’s paradox,” whereby “We can know more than we can tell…” saves us from the threat of total automation dislocation, because there will always be jobs that rely on a variety of particularly human skills and tasks, skills and tasks that we can’t entirely explain to ourselves, much less to a computer. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi himself put it, “The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”

While jobs consisting almost entirely of routine tasks, i.e. those easily codified into rules that can then be automated, have been and will continue to be replaced by machine labor, then, there is according to Autor a natural buffer to keep many people employed (if not necessarily well paid). In fact, Autor sees a significant opportunity for computer-enhanced human labor, for “tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it.” The construction worker, in his example, has to manage too many variables in a fluid environment to be automated away. However, he can be given a backhoe to replace his shovel, enhancing the productivity of his labor while making backhoe-trained workers more valuable than the merely shovel-ready.

This is a blue-collar example of “skill-biased technical change,” more traditionally described by Autor’s fellow MIT professors (and techno-employment pessimists) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee:

Technologies like robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, and automatic transcription have been substituting for routine tasks, displacing those workers. Meanwhile other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the value of those jobs.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in their book a polarization of the employment market, where high-skill abstract-task intensive jobs are increasingly well compensated, and well complemented by machine labor. Low-skill Polanyi paradox jobs, like janitorial work and home health care, are also insulated from being automated away, but as Autor describes it, they are too well-insulated to even benefit from automation complementing their labor. Because their jobs require only the minimal amount of human reasoning that any competent adult can provide, their wages are depressed by the large supply of interchangeable labor. Middle-skill jobs, however, are nearly wiped out in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s analysis.

Here, too, Autor finds some reason for more optimism.He concludes that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely,” for “While many middle-skill tasks are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.” Moreover, “many of the tasks currently bundled into these jobs cannot readily be unbundled—with machines performing the middle-skill tasks and workers performing the residual—without a significant drop in quality.” Autor’s example here is the technical support call center where a human is retained as a social conveyance device for the troubleshooting heuristics of the computer system sitting in front of him. That may seem like efficient low-skill complementarity, but it in fact turns out to be very frustrating to discover that the technical support person has no knowledge, creativity, or initiative beyond what the computer tells them to read. Autor says “this is generally not a productive form of work organization because it fails to harness the complementaries between technical and interpersonal skills.”

Both Autor and Brynjolfsson and McAfee describe how systems are redesigned in order to take advantage of automation, however. Brynjolfsson and McAfee wrote that “a key aspect of SBTC was not just the skills of those working with computers, but more importantly the broader changes in work organization that were made possible by information technology.” They continued, “It was not so much that those directly working with computers had to be more skilled, but rather that whole production processes, and even industries, were reengineered to exploit powerful new information technologies.” Autor gives the example of Amazon, formerly reliant on low-skill runners to pick their products for shipping, dashing around the warehouse, bringing in Kiva Systems to design a more robot-friendly system where the shelves were programmed to come to the pickers, reducing the human job to only that task that could not be exported.

As the automated economy progresses, we would do well to remember that, while there is certainly a baked-in pattern and logic to computerized work, the programming away of jobs is performed by people. Programmers and management consultants decide how best to “reengineer” “whole production processes, and even industries” to take advantage of the capabilities of computers. That it so happens that jobs resembling those of the programmers and consultants, jobs high in abstraction, turn out to also be those best complemented, rather than replaced, by automation may be more than convenient.

The seemingly mundane routinized tasks of the Amazon picker, or the retail worker, or the technical support specialist may seem to be little more than drudgery and tasks to be automated. But, as Autor describes in several contexts, there are many ways in which those routine tasks can be embedded in more comprehensive work environments, and computerization can add value to the job as it stands. The trick is, the programmer and the consultant have to see the job in all its particularity before they could know how to complement it. They rarely do, and so those jobs are rarely complemented. They have to see how the support specialist uses his whole repertoire of human advantages before they replace him with a screen reader.

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Robot Employment Survival 101

Fear not the rise of the machines? That appears to be the advice given by MIT economist David H. Autor in a paper he recently presented at the Kansas City Fed’s symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Responding to a significant uptick in economists’ concern over the effects of automation on employment, including the “stunning” results of a poll suggesting “that a plurality of mainstream economists has accepted—at least tentatively—the proposition that a decade of technological advancement has made the median worker no better off, and possibly worse off,” Autor suggests that it will be a lot harder to automate us all away than many journalists and expert commentators have indicated.

Autor argues that “Polanyi’s paradox,” whereby “We can know more than we can tell…” saves us from the threat of total automation dislocation, because there will always be jobs that rely on a variety of particularly human skills and tasks, skills and tasks that we can’t entirely explain to ourselves, much less to a computer. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi himself put it, “The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.”

While jobs consisting almost entirely of routine tasks, i.e. those easily codified into rules that can then be automated, have been and will continue to be replaced by machine labor, then, there is according to Autor a natural buffer to keep many people employed (if not necessarily well paid). In fact, Autor sees a significant opportunity for computer-enhanced human labor, for “tasks that cannot be substituted by computerization are generally complemented by it.” The construction worker, in his example, has to manage too many variables in a fluid environment to be automated away. However, he can be given a backhoe to replace his shovel, enhancing the productivity of his labor while making backhoe-trained workers more valuable than the merely shovel-ready.

This is a blue-collar example of “skill-biased technical change,” more traditionally described by Autor’s fellow MIT professors (and techno-employment pessimists) Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee:

Technologies like robotics, numerically controlled machines, computerized inventory control, and automatic transcription have been substituting for routine tasks, displacing those workers. Meanwhile other technologies like data visualization, analytics, high-speed communications, and rapid prototyping have augmented the contributions of more abstract and data-driven reasoning, increasing the value of those jobs.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee discuss in their book a polarization of the employment market, where high-skill abstract-task intensive jobs are increasingly well compensated, and well complemented by machine labor. Low-skill Polanyi paradox jobs, like janitorial work and home health care, are also insulated from being automated away, but as Autor describes it, they are too well-insulated to even benefit from automation complementing their labor. Because their jobs require only the minimal amount of human reasoning that any competent adult can provide, their wages are depressed by the large supply of interchangeable labor. Middle-skill jobs, however, are nearly wiped out in Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s analysis.

Here, too, Autor finds some reason for more optimism. Read More…

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