State of the Union

GOP Romps; Gov’t Shutdown a Distant Memory

In October, I wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times, in the wake of a government shutdown that now seems like a tempest in a teapot:

The first step is the most basic and most urgent: to prove to the country that Republicans are capable of governing …

There is plenty of other important business to attend to … Topping the list is the so-called farm bill—a grab bag of agricultural support programs that hung fire last summer because of the tea party’s insistence on steeper cuts to food stamps than Democrats could stomach. Since both sides agree that spending on food assistance should decline as the economy recovers, a deal on precisely how much shouldn’t be impossible to reach.

With a good farm bill, Republicans have a chance to show the country they are serious about government reform—if they can muster the courage of their convictions. To do so, the party must demonstrate that it is as serious about weaning agribusiness off federal subsidies as it as about controlling spending on the needy.

Also on Republicans’ radar are bills to overhaul federal transportation and water infrastructure programs. These aren’t headline grabbers, but they are an opportunity to demonstrate that the party can function legislatively.

Ha!

Needless to say, absolutely none of this happened. (A farm bill was passed and signed into law, but there was nothing in it to cheer reformers.) Nothing of any significance made its way out of Congress. The GOP hewed to an ultrasafe, I’m-not-him strategy, and it payed off.

And Republicans are, as I write, poised to take control of the Senate. If anything, results are even better for the GOP than analysts had anticipated as of yesterday. Rep. Cory Gardner trounced Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, a state carried twice by Obama. The Georgia Senate race will not require a runoff. Florida Gov. Rick Scott held off Charlie Crist, and Gov. Scott Walker did the same, comfortably, in Wisconsin. Sen. Pat Roberts relatively easily handled the independent Greg Orman. Iowa, too, looks to flip to the GOP. For the second consecutive statewide race in my adopted home state of Virginia (also carried twice by Obama), pollsters undercounted Republican support: It seems Sen. Mark Warner will just barely squeak past challenger Ed Gillespie. (N.B.: Can there be any doubt, with Gillespie’s employment by the Bush White House, that the establishment is back?)

Nationally, things broke sharply for the Republicans.

Only poor Scott Brown, lately of New Hampshire, was left on the outside looking in.

What does it all mean?

I still think, though perhaps somewhat more tepidly, the conventional wisdom—that is, don’t overinterpret these midterms, with their whiter electorate and their overwhelmingly red battlegrounds—is sound. Hillary Clinton cannot possibly do as poorly among whites as President Obama. The electorate will look vastly more like 2012’s electorate than 2014’s. And so on. …

What does it mean for the short term?

Washington Post Wonkblogger Zachary Goldfarb writes:

The president apparently has grand ambitions for the final two years of his presidency—even if Republicans control the Senate. Here’s an interesting line from Politico last week: “Aides are discussing potential areas for agreement: tax reform, infrastructure, sentencing reform, renewing unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage and expanding early childhood education.”

It’s cute of the president’s aides to think any of this is in the cards. For “areas of agreement” to translate into actionable legislation, House conservatives will need to make concessions to Democrats. They’ve given no indication of a willingness to do so. Will tonight’s results soften their resolve? I strongly doubt it.

You’re living in two countries, locked in mortal combat.

The red one won handily tonight.

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‘Not a Tea Party Bomb Thrower’ Is Not Good Enough

Nicolas Raymond / Flickr.com

The Washington Post editorial page has an endorsement in the local Arlington County, Va., race I wrote about last week. It is a neat little encapsulation of much that is wrong with Beltway media, in addition to being a train wreck of logic.

It begins:

By almost any measure, Arlington County is a local and national success story, having remade itself over two decades — with a big assist from Metro — from a green but sleepy suburb into a still green but diverse, dynamic and highly desirable set of communities. Lately, the political comity that helped guide that transformation has frayed amid a bitter debate over a proposal to build an expensive streetcar line on fixed tracks along Columbia Pike.

On this thorny central question, the Post essentially sides with Democrat Alan Howze (who, again to fully disclose, is a personal friend to whom I’ve contributed money):

We happen to agree with Mr. Howze that the streetcar would yield long-term economic benefits and added passenger capacity that buses — even expanded ones — cannot replicate. …

Mr. Howze … [cites] a consultant’s estimate that a streetcar would generate $2 billion to $3 billion more in benefits than would improved bus service over a 30-year period, plus several thousand additional jobs. We’ve seen nothing to cast serious doubt on the consultant’s numbers.

And yet, the paper endorses purple Republican John Vihstadt because … because … he’s a nice guy:

[H]e made the case against the streetcar in a civil and cogent way.

And because he seems pretty smart:

[M]any Democrats have accorded Mr. Vihstadt grudging respect as someone who formulates and presents his views intelligently; he is no tea party bomb thrower.

Seriously? Is that it?

Well, no.

The kicker: Vihstadt is “a badly needed independent voice in a heavily Democratic county. … Whether Mr. Vihstadt prevails or not, it’s important for Arlington to have the debate; without him, the board runs the risk of groupthink.”

On its face, this is a reasonable assertion.

But in the context of our politics nationally, it’s been the foundation for self-pauperizing, self-crippling fiscal policy. (Before you jump on me over the Federal Reserve and quantitative easing, please re-read the preceding sentence and home in on the word “fiscal.”)

As it happens, “Not a tea party bomb thrower” is going to be one of the central talking points you’ll encounter after Tuesday night’s Republican victory. The party, you’ll be told, recruited the “sane” candidates, avoiding Christine O’Donnell and other tea party witchcraft. It’s true, as far as it goes. The problem occurs one stratum below: the Beltway media’s idea of what constitutes “sanity” is itself suspect.

In the same way that Fred Hiatt’s editorial page, among many others, aided and abetted the Iraq war, the establishment lent cover to those “tea party bomb throwers.” The “fiscal cliff,” sequestration, the debt-ceiling crisis—none of this could have come to pass without the “badly needed independent voices” of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. As soon as the frame of deficit crisis was hung around an economy on the brink of deflationary spiral, the likes of Ted Cruz had all the legitimacy they would ever need to wreak havoc in a divided electorate.

To reiterate my gravamen against Mr. Purple: the Republican party did not lose in 2008 and 2012 because of social issues; and marginalizing the tea party is no guarantee of success in 2016. The tea party’s economic agenda, to be sure, sucks (with refreshing exceptions such as Sens. Mike Lee and Marcio Rubio’s family-friendly tax reform proposals). But the Republican party establishment’s economic agenda also sucks.

And on Tuesday—across the Potomac in Washington, and perhaps here in Arlington as well—the voices of “sanity,” of independence, of the Green Lantern and his magic ring, of let’s-eat-lunch-together-more-often bonhomie, will be seen to have prevailed.

Sigh.


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Don’t Fall for Purple GOP Pickups in the Northeast

Charlie Baker for Massachusetts Governor Facebook
Charlie Baker for Massachusetts Governor Facebook

Republicans are on the verge of picking up six House seats in the New York/New England region, according to the Wall Street Journal—and they will have done so, it’s argued, by plumping for the Purple:

As a group, Republican candidates in the region this year have focused on the pro-business, small-government planks of the GOP platform. Some have avoided the social issues familiar in the campaigns of their peers in more conservative states.

Charlie Baker, the GOP candidate for governor in Massachusetts, supports gay marriage and abortion rights, while Richard Tisei, who is running for a House seat and has featured his husband in campaign ads, skipped the Massachusetts GOP convention this year because of its socially conservative platform. Tom Foley, the Republican candidate for governor in Connecticut, supports abortion rights and said he wouldn’t try to end gay marriage, which is permitted in the state.

If these seats do indeed flip to red next week, you can expect a lot of media types in Washington and New York to urge the party to jettison the traditionalism while leaving intact an economic agenda that overwhelmingly benefits elites.

This would be terrible advice.

The essential thing to bear in mind about these midterms is that they’re, well, midterms; as I’ve noted before, America is two countries, and Republicans dominate the smaller one. And the smaller one is what’s up for grabs on Tuesday. Just because Republicans win in these (traditionally competitive) congressional districts does not mean they will be able to win statewide, and among a browner and younger electorate, in 2016 with the same agenda.

Republicans did not lose in 2012 because Mitt Romney was pro-life or opposed to gay marriage. And they’re not going to win because Charlie Baker is the opposite of those things. They’re poised to win, as David Frum notes, because a majority of voters will “protest that proceeds of economic recovery [are] not reaching most Americans.”

These same conditions will obtain in 2016. Republicans either will coalesce around an agenda that addresses the struggles of working- and middle-class Americans, or they will lose. A shiny elite veneer on social issues will gain the GOP nothing except a demoralized religious base.

Remember this as you’re forced to listen to the inevitable paeans to Purple.


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Purple Is the Worst Color in Today’s Politics

Locally and nationally, seemingly everywhere, my senses are assaulted by the color purple.

Purple is the expression of a beau ideal in modern American politics: that just-right mix of red and blue in the eyes of elite media. The fiscally conservative, or “responsible,” social moderate. The live-and-let-live economic libertarian.

In a sure sign that you’re about to read an unconscionable puff job, George Will had a recent column that began with a dateline, in this case signaling an on-location report from Shawnee, Kansas.

Historically, whenever George Will visits someone in person, he is there to sing that person’s praises in a tone of uncritical effusion. His tete-a-tete with “independent”— put another way, purple—Senate candidate Greg Orman is a classic of the genre:

Orman discusses policy problems with a fluency rare among Senate candidates and unusual among senators. From his firmly Republican father, who owns a small furniture store in Stanley, Kan., Orman acquired an animus against “the beehive of regulations”: One regulation is a “pinprick,” but cumulatively, regulations are akin to “falling into a beehive.” He is reading Paul Ryan’s new book, “The Way Forward,” and shares Ryan’s anxiety about how nearly 60 percent of federal expenditures are not subject to annual appropriations. He also shares Ryan’s dismay that a single mother earning about $20,000 can pay, in effect, a marginal tax rate twice as high as the 39.6 percent top statutory rate on the affluent because she can lose government benefits and incur expenses when she increases her earnings.

Orman is anxious about the deficit explosion that will occur when the cost of government borrowing doubles, as surely it will. (“Deficits are nothing more than deferred taxes.”)

Sweet Jesus, if that pabulum is what passes for fluency, then I’ll take my chances with gibberish.

Orman’s apparent migration from Obama 2008 supporter to Mitt Romney 2012 supporter is an example of a kind of summum malum of fiscal politics in the Obama era, dominated as it has been by the doyens of austerity.

Not all that long ago, the Republican party was divided by supply-siders like the late Jack Kemp, whose optimistic faith in the power of tax cuts bordered on cult-like fervor, and more soberminded budget-balancers like Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush. The former were willing to tolerate higher deficits on the belief that lower marginal taxes would eventually finance themselves by stimulating growth and productivity (as late as 2001, Kemp’s protege, Rep. Paul Ryan, was making the case for the stimulus potential of tax cuts during a recession); the latter were willing to raise taxes to close budget shortfalls.

There are, alas, no Bob Doles left in the Republican party, but their graying peers still populate the capital in the form of entities like the Campaign to Fix the Debt.

And for reasons that probably have a lot to do with partisanship, the Kempian cult has gone the way of the (pardon the expression) Dolerite wing.

They’re all austerians now.

The fruits of austerity since the crash of 2008 have been downright rotten. The balance of evidence suggests that American and Europe elite picked the absolute worst time to behave as though the Great Recession was at all similar to those of 1981 (when inflation was high) or 1990-’92 (when bond markets were spooked by high deficits and the threat of inflation).

Throughout the early years of the Obama administration, we ran historically high deficits—and yet runaway inflation has failed to materialize. Washington worked itself into a crippling panic over deficits—a panic that that birthed destructive and mindless politics such as sequestration, the “fiscal cliff,” as well as the by turns comic and macabre drama surrounding the statutory debt ceiling. As a sideline to the unnecessary material pain, the spittle-flecked gamesmanship over annual deficits killed any chance of a bipartisan deal on long-term debt—which is a genuine threat just over the horizon.

What to show for it all?

A toxic political climate, a lengthened employment slump, on top of anemic GDP growth.

Indeed I’d be willing to say that, cumulatively, the politics and economics of austerity have been the domestic equivalent of the Iraq war—an unforced error of disastrous proportions.

But, ah, those short-term deficits are falling, and fast!

Lately, my sorrow at the Preeminence of Purple is in my face, literally, everywhere I turn—in the form of campaign yard signs.

Where I live, in deep-blue Arlington, Virginia, there’s a surprisingly hotly contested race for a county board seat. John Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent, captured the seat in a special election in April and is seeking election to a full term this November. His campaign’s yard signs are tricked out in, you guessed it, purple—a nod, no doubt, to the “big-tent Republican” philosophy he touted for the Weekly Standard. The “big tent” here, as always, denotes fiscal conservatism and social inclusiveness.

This local campaign (full disclosure: Vihstadt’s Democratic opponent, Alan Howze, is a personal friend to whom I have contributed money), has turned largely on a controversial project to build a streetcar service that links southern Arlington to neighboring Fairfax County. (This is a portion of the county that’s not served by the Washington Metro system.)

Vihstadt vigorously opposed the streetcar, likening it an extravagant “vanity project” that will detract from the county government’s “core services.”

This argument—which helped to flip 20 percent of registered Democratic voters into his column back in April—is flatly absurd.

For those readers not familiar with Arlington, let me paint you a brief picture: Its government is flush with cash. Its unemployment rate is, by national standards, obscenely low. And it has undergone robust population growth in recent years.

Inward migration into Arlington has in turn led to a school system bursting at the seams with children—this, is in a dense urban landscape already short on open space and, hence, vanishingly few ideal lots on which to build new schools.

Vihstadt has cleverly parlayed concerns over school overcrowding—we’re talking about a city with scads of overeducated, hyperambitious parents who fret about elbow space for their privileged offspring—into a more general disaffection with county-government spending priorities. (That the county board has for years been ruled by an often insular-seeming single party, the Democrats, has only added to the disaffection.)

More than hyperventilation about teacher-to-pupil ratios, however, it’s obvious to me that Vihstadt has tapped into the broader appeal of the Purple. Everyone, including a fair number of NoVA progressives, fancies himself fiscally “responsible.” It just so happens that, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, self-styled “responsibility” has proved to be more like recklessnesses. In an environment of cheap money, low inflation, persistently high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure, elected officials continue to opt for disinvestment—because, don’t you know, we’re “broke.”

In this current crisis, youMr. Purple, are the problem.


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I Have Seen Healthcare’s Future …

Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com
Syda Productions / Shutterstock.com

Now seems like a good time to re-up my prediction that we’re headed toward a messy policy convergence on healthcare: a mixed bag I’ve calledOrydencare”—that is, a cradle-to-grave system in which Medicare has undergone premium support reforms along the lines proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden, with Obamacare more or less remaining in place.

This is—very broadly speaking—what conservative healthcare wonk Avik Roy has in mind with his plan to (as he puts it) “transcend,” rather than repeal, Obamacare. In addition to reforms of the Affordable Care Act, Roy’s proposal would shift many Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries into a new, more tight-fisted universal system of private-sector exchanges.

While lightly praising Roy’s realism on Obamacare’s essential permanence—and he no doubt deserves praise for this—liberals have balked at his provocative companion plan to reform social insurance for the elderly. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, for instance, writes that “Roy is especially hostile to Medicare and Medicaid. This is entirely consistent with conservative hostility to all social insurance.”

But, honestly, what’s so terrifying about moving future Medicare enrollees into a system of managed care? Most baby boomers are covered by such plans right now. Does it make any sense to then move them into a fee-for-service system to which they’re not accustomed—and which everyone, including liberals, agrees is dysfunctional?

Instead of waiting for baby boomers to descend en masse into an outdated system, why not look at this as a rare generational opportunity? Baby boomers relished the chance to rebel against the Greatest Generation. So why not let them rebel against their parents’ overburdened healthcare system too?

Remember you heard it here first. Orydencare for all.

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He Who Governs Nearest, Governs Most?

Jeffrey Scism / Flickr.com
Jeffrey Scism / Flickr.com

In a letter written in 1816, Thomas Jefferson famously asserted:

No, my friend, the way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best.

Jefferson’s insight—that the dispersal of power throughout multiple levels of government will help ensure the preservation of liberty—has informed antistatist conservative rhetoric pretty much for as long as such rhetoric has existed. It’s a truism of classical liberal thought: the concentration of power begets tyranny.

Yet is this truism entirely true? Certainly as regards race, something like the opposite proved to be the case from Jefferson’s time to the civil rights era. States and localities brutally suppressed liberty, while the federal government, in particular the judiciary, gradually assumed the role of guarantor of minority rights.

But I think the issue—call it the tyranny of the local—extends far beyond race.

It should seem obvious to most that state power is sort of like the Cosmic Cube of Marvel Comics lore (sorry, I just took my kids to this show in downtown D.C.): that is, it’s subject to abuse in fragments as well as in toto.

I wrestled with this back in 2010, writing in reference to the tea party, aka, That Which I’ve Wanted Nothing to Do With:

Administering transfer payments—the redistribution of wealth—is often one of the least complicated things that the federal government does, requiring simply the collection of a tax and the cutting of a check. It is far, far less intrusive, for example, than the creepy surveillance apparatus that surrounded us even before 9/11.

And it’s arguably less intrusive, less “nanny”-like, than what local government does. Think of your interactions with your municipality: It hits you, literally, where you live—the composition of your neighborhood, the dimensions of your house and the lot it sits on, the standards that govern the guts of your house: electricity, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning. It collects taxes on that property to pay for the school your children attend. It collects your trash and yard waste.

By comparison, Nanny doesn’t reside in Washington. She’s in city hall or the county seat. She’s on your school board and sewer board and in the zoning office.

With the exception of anarcho-capitalists, virtually no one denies the need for and legitimacy of this sort of governance. But the early-modern conservative movement trained its fire instead on things like free school lunches and social insurance for the elderly. High taxes, overgenerous welfare, excessive regulation—these were the things that animated the Reagan insurgency, again with a focus on Washington. Petty corruption in Congress (check kiting, the House Bank) as well as the specter of new federal gun regulations—these are what sparked the 1994 GOP takeover.

But thanks in part to a center-left/libertarian consensus on a suite of urban issues, it’s possible that a more holistic approach to government reform might emerge. Jonathan Chait has a must-read essay on what he calls “Big Small Government.” Chait twins the excesses of the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department (to that he could have added the sexual horrors permitted tacitly for decades by police in Rotherham, England) with onerous municipal regulations on housing density and occupational licensure; he writes, too, of poli-sci research demonstrating that state election outcomes are driven by considerations of national politics.

His provocative conclusion:

The myth of localism is rooted deep in our political psyche. Left and right alike use small and local as terms of approbation, big and bureaucratic as terms of abuse. None of us is equipped to see that the government that actually oppresses us is that which is closest to us.

What all this means, perhaps, is that, as a polity, we’re unhealthily obsessed with the federal government. For conservatives, this obsession, hardly confined to the fringes, often borders on paranoia. And the legacy of Jefferson has left them blind to the kind of government intrusiveness and bullying (and worse) that actually, and profoundly, affects our daily lives. Granted, when I say “our,” I’m talking about those of us who live in or near large or mid-sized cities. Still, I’m confident that if conservatives running for office maintained a sense of proportion about the ills, real or imagined, of a strong central government—if they didn’t quite so readily extol the virtue of state and local government—it’s possible they wouldn’t frighten a majority of the national electorate, as they currently do.


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It’s Crunch Time for Republican Realists

KUT Austin / Flickr.com
KUT Austin / Flickr.com

Projecting outward from this Pew Research poll, one glimpses how difficult it will be for a non-hawk to capture the 2016 Republican nomination. Of this data, the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake writes:

Less than a year ago, just 18 percent of GOPers said that the United States does “too little” when it comes to helping solve the world’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 46 percent.

Over that same span—from November to today—the percentage of Republicans who say the United States does “too much” has dropped from 52 percent to 37 percent, and those who say the United States does about the right amount has declined from 26 percent to 14 percent.

As with proposals to reform popular entitlement programs, GOP voters appear to have a low pain threshold. “Take it out of the other guy’s hide” thus has its foreign-policy equivalent: “Dovish, when all is quiet.”

Unlike during Obama’s first term, when realism looked both easy and wise, all is no longer quiet. Now, realism is hard. The relentless-seeming barrage of bad news from the Middle East and Eastern Europe meets with troubling equanimity from the White House. Vox’s Max Fisher describes the president’s long-view restraint and “stubborn optimism” this way:

This may be the closest that Obama, in his second term, has come to a foreign policy doctrine: everything will work out in the end, and America needs to resist the impulse to overreact to today’s crises abroad. This confidence is alarming to US foreign policy elites—in part because it is so different from the reactive, crisis-to-crisis leadership that Americans are used to. It flows out of Obama’s commitment to restraint; to avoiding the disastrous overreach of not just George W. Bush, but of an entire string of Cold War presidents who mired the US in one conflict after another.

A realist-minded GOPer will be forced to make a similar case—as much against the centrist-hawkish chirpers sitting in the dugout of the Washington press corps as to his own base.

Daniel Larison worries, rightly, that Gov. Chris Christie is all swagger and no substance and “all too representative of his party’s elites.”

But the party regulars are reconciling themselves to swagger.

I say buckle up for more of the kind of fun depicted above.


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Orwell: Progressives Aren’t Fascists

luna715/Flickr.com
luna715/Flickr.com

Thanks to the website Open Culture, I came across George Orwell’s 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not only does Orwell suss precisely the nature of Hitler’s menace and the source of his popularity, he provides a neat thumbnail description of European liberals and social democrats that could easily attach to today’s American Democrats:

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

Dig that prescient reference to birth control!

There’s a variety of reasons—see Santayana, Garry Wills, and our own Dan McCarthy—why liberalism leads to force and coercion, but it’s simply not the case that progressivism or modern liberalism or whatever you want to call it is akin to European fascism and Nazism, a virulent outgrowth of German romanticism that should not be confused with the rationalist-materialist hubris of Marx, Engels, and scientific socialism. Since I began blogging semi-regularly four years ago, the conceit that, well, Nancy Pelosi should check her sleeve for a swastika, has been a constant irritant.

I’m glad to learn that the great Orwell would have been similarly irritated.


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Orwell: Progressives Aren’t Fascists

luna715/Flickr.com

Thanks to the website Open Culture, I came across George Orwell’s 1940 review of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Not only does Orwell suss precisely the nature of Hitler’s menace and the source of his popularity, he provides a neat thumbnail description of European liberals and social democrats that could easily attach to today’s American Democrats:

Also [Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.

Dig that prescient reference to birth control!

There’s a variety of reasons—see SantayanaGarry Wills, and our own Dan McCarthy—why liberalism leads to force and coercion, but it’s simply not the case that progressivism or modern liberalism or whatever you want to call it is akin to European fascism and Nazism, a virulent outgrowth of German romanticism that should not be confused with the rationalist-materialist hubris of Marx, Engels, and scientific socialism. Since I began blogging semi-regularly four years ago, the conceit that, well, Nancy Pelosi should check her sleeve for a swastika, has been a constant irritant.

I’m glad to learn that the great Orwell would have been similarly irritated.

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Development of Non-Toxic 2016 GOP Agenda Continues Apace

The release of Rep. Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty “discussion draft” last week marks another milestone in a long, painstaking, and necessary project: the development of a non-toxic policy agenda on which the next Republican presidential nominee can run.

Zooming out, we see Republicans, like Tiktaalik, slowly transitioning out of the primordial soup of supply-side dogma. There was Rep. Dave Camp’s comprehensive tax reform proposal. It’s revenue neutral and maintains progressivity. Relatedly, Ryan takes care to insist his own proposal is “not a tax cut.” It’s true the conservative movement didn’t exactly leap for joy at Camp’s proposal—and there’s a myriad of reasons to doubt that the GOP could ever muster the courage to eliminate as many loopholes and deductions as it would take to reconcile the math of the Ryan budget.

But the larger point is this: a net tax reduction for the rich is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

Climbing down the income ladder, Ryan, in presenting his anti-poverty plan, with its devolution to states and consolidation of public assistance spending, noted that “this is not a budget-cutting exercise.” Yes, there’s the matter of reconciling these reforms with the harsh math of the Ryan budget. And the “accountability standards” to which states and local agencies would be held smells an awful lot to me like the anti-poverty version of No Child Left Behind.

But—and again—the larger point is this: a net reduction in spending on the poor and vulnerable is now a radioactive position on the mainstream right.

The recovery from “The 47 percent” and “You built that” will remain a tough slog over the next 18 months. However, the momentum is clearly in the direction of rational reform. The Tea Party era—in which “conservatism” for all practical purposes stood for an unholy alliance of plutocracy and Dixie revanchism—is clearly coming to a close.

Just how the all the manic energy of the last five years will be brought into the fold of a plausible governing agenda remains to be seen. The Room to Grow agenda represents the seedbed of ideas that might eventually become an appealing campaign platform. I like, in particular, Andrew Kelly’s ideas on higher-ed and job training, and Carrie Lukas’s emphasis on fiscal reforms that improve work-life balance.

Broadly speaking, the “reformocon” carriage is an interesting one, fraught with tension but full of possibility: that of the nontechnocratic wonk; of superintendence of the welfare state in a pro-market direction. Of bottom-up or middle-out reforms that issue from the top. The idea of a Medicare premium support system is qualitatively different than, say, Ronald Reagan’s original position on Medicare. But if the arrow is pointing in a rightward direction, can each faction of the right buy into it? Can you sell the idea of “reform” to people on a steady diet of Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin? Personally, I think the right would be better off it admitted—no, more than admitted—that “spontaneous order” does not and will not ever lead to a safety net or social insurance for the elderly.

But perhaps I worry too much. One of my themes in this space is the belief that the Tea Party was a cultural temper tantrum more than a granular programmatic shift. It may turn out that tea partiers can be lead to the water of an essentially neoconservative domestic agenda more easily than anyone currently imagines.


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WSJ Overhypes Story of ‘Scrambling’ over Health Exchange Uncertainty

At first glance, I thought my informal bet—that a red-state governor will soon claim he stood up to the Obama administration over the formation of health exchanges, despite knowing full well that his or her constituents wouldn’t be eligible for tax subsidies—had died a quick death.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal:

A number of states are scrambling to show that they—not the federal government—are or will soon be operating their insurance exchanges under the 2010 health law, in light of two court decisions this week.

The efforts are aimed at ensuring that millions of consumers who get insurance through the exchanges would be able to retain their federal tax credits if courts ultimately rule against the Obama administration.

The rest of the story, however, doesn’t bear out this picture of “scrambling.” It’s true that a few of the states mentioned—Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico—have Republican governors. And while Arkansas is bona fide red state, it has a Democratic governor. So we’re not talking here about the likes of Rick Perry or Sam Brownback “scrambling” to secure tax credit eligibility on behalf of their states. That’s to be expected. If such governors were willing to forgo expanded Medicaid money, I don’t see why they’d be in a rush to protect health exchange subsidies, either.

There’s a golden political opportunity in the offing, it seems to me. The aforementioned Perry; or Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal; or New Jersey’s Chris Christie; or Ohio’s John Kasich—one or all of these potential presidential contenders could appeal to their party’s base by making a fresh case that they refused federal blackmail. At the very least, they could ensure the Gruber-gate story has legs for weeks to come.

Mind you, I’m not saying I’m prepared to believe them. (One would think the argument would already have been made at some point over the last two years.) But this whole rotten enterprise is an exercise in post hoc opportunism. This is the next logical step.

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How Long Before a Red State Gov Says He Knew It All Along?

A few more thoughts on Gruber-gate:

1. It seems the exponents of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling on Obamacare subsidies have moved from the position that the ACA passively fails to authorize tax credits through federal exchanges to the idea that it actively prohibits them. That’s pretty astonishing.

2. A second clip featuring Gruber surfaced in which the MIT economist said the same thing he did in the first video. I don’t know what more to add to my reaction to the initial revelation. It seems to me that Gruber did not “misspeak” on either occasion; he believed residents of states that hadn’t set up exchanges would miss out on subsidies until such time as the federal exchanges came online. It’s plausible, too, that he was encouraging states to cooperate with the law in order to score consulting contracts. One could see why he’d be loath to admit this now.

3. There’s another meme that’s about to be set loose: that it took “guts” for Republicans not to set up Obamacare exchanges, that is, accept the bribe of federal money. It’s only a matter of time before a Republican governor says he interpreted Obamacare in this fashion all along. Perhaps one with presidential aspirations—say, Rick Perry. I’ll take bets on who it will be, and when.

4. Finally, on substance: A couple of bloggers at law professor Jack Balkin’s website have some helpful analysis on why the Halbig case is hogwash. Of particular interest is this:

Putting aside the fact that no one thought the states wouldn’t want to run the exchanges themselves (indeed, Senators were demanding that option for their states), the exchange provisions simply do not work in the same way as Medicaid.  Unlike the ACA’s Medicaid provisions, the exchange provisions have a federal fallback:  Medicaid is use it or lose it; the exchanges are do it, or the feds step in and do it for you.  In other words, this isn’t Medicaid; it’s the Clean Air Act (CAA).  If a state decides not to create its own implementation plan under the CAA, its citizens do not lose the benefit of the federal program—the feds run it. The same goes for the ACA’s exchanges and so it would be nonsensical to deprive citizens in federal-exchange states of the subsidies.  More importantly, if we are going to compare apples to oranges, the ACA’s Medicaid provisions have an explicit provision stating that if the state declines to participate, it loses the program funds (this was the provision at issue in NFIB v. Sebelius in 2012).   The ACA’s subsidy provisions, in contrast, have no such provision, strong evidence that the subsidies were was not intended to be forfeited if the states did not participate.  If the challengers are going to insist on strict textual arguments, this is exclusio unius 101: the rule of interpretation that provides that where Congress includes a specific provision in one part of the statute but does not include an analogous provision elsewhere, that omission is assumed intentional.”

This wiki entry on the Clean Air Act seems apposite:

Although the 1990 Clean Air Act is a federal law covering the entire country, the states do much of the work to carry out the Act. The EPA has allowed the individual states to elect responsibility for compliance with and regulation of the CAA within their own borders in exchange for funding. For example, a state air pollution agency holds a hearing on a permit application by a power or chemical plant or fines a company for violating air pollution limits. However, election is not mandatory and in some cases states have chosen to not accept responsibility for enforcement of the act and force the EPA to assume those duties.

Again: I can’t believe this contest is even necessary. Sigh. Carry on.

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Jonathan Gruber and the Smoking Gun That Wasn’t

Conservative economist Scott Sumner offers up a desperately needed example of intellectual honesty on l’affaire Gruber. (For those who haven’t been keeping score at home: Some libertarians last night released a video of Obamacare “architect” Jonathan Gruber in 2012 seemingly affirming the reasoning of the D.C. Circuit Court’s ruling on the legality of offering healthcare subsidies via exchange.)

Sumner actually watched the video and noticed Gruber’s remarks were taken out of context (context: what a concept!):

That seems to suggest he agrees with the recent court ruling.  But he actually disagrees with the ruling.  Indeed he seems to regard the ruling as ludicrous.  That doesn’t look good.  Until you realize that the quote was taken out of context, and that the comments immediately preceding the quote tells a very different story: “Yes, so these health insurance exchanges . . . will be these new shopping places and they’ll be the place that people go to get their subsidies for health insurance. In the law it says if the states don’t provide them the federal backstop will. The federal government has been sort of slow in putting up its backstop in part because I think they want to sort of squeeze the states to do it.”

That seems to imply the federal backstops would provide health subsidies.  So how can we reconcile these two statements?  I believe Gruber was trying to say that the federal government was being slow in setting up the exchanges, because until they did so, those states without state exchanges would get no subsidy.  Once the federal exchanges were set up, they would all get the subsidy.

What I don’t understand is why commenters were providing me with the quote on top, but not the second quote, which provides important context.

The cherry-picking of off-the-cuff remarks isn’t the worst thing about this absurdist drama. Take a step back: Michael Cannon, the Cato mastermind, basically went on a fishing expedition to find someone with standing in the Halbig case. His lightbulb: the average citizen has standing! And now this bombshell video: the Gruber remarks were the first and so far only piece of documentary evidence I’ve seen that anyone actually believed subsidies weren’t intended to be offered via the federal exchanges. This evidence was discovered two years after the lawsuit was filed.

We already had a murder charge without a body; now we have a smoking gun with all its bullets. I’m sorry. We’re not in the realm of reasonable disagreement. The charitable explanation is that this stuff is pure unmitigated cuckoo cockamamie BS. The cynical explanation, per Sumner:

BTW, which of the following two statements represents the conservative view on the role of the courts?

A.  The courts should interpret the laws passed by the duly elected members of Congress, and should not be substituting their own views.  Original intent is what matters.  Unelected judges should not set policy.

B.  Yay!!  the courts have just gutted the ACA, which was an awful law passed by Congress.

I used to think it was A; now I wonder if it is B.

You’ll pardon me if I don’t find this behavior—this abusive legal chicanery—the least bit “conservative.”

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Obamacare vs. Dr. Evil’s Legal Eagles

Decades ago, a few friends and I were listening to Not For Kids Only, an album of Appalachian folk songs recorded for charity by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. An older brother entered the scene, barking, “What’re you guys listening to? This stuff’s for kids!” My friend, who, it should be noted, was quite stoned, retorted, “No! It says right here—‘not’ for kids only.’ ”

I thought of my old buddy, bless his heart, when I learned of the D.C. Circuit’s ruling—its “ringing affirmation … of the rule of law,” according to the reliably florid Charles C.W. Cooke—on Obamacare’s insurance-exchange subsidies.

The right’s chortling reaction, in sum: It says right here — “Exchanges established by the State”!

I’d sincerely like to imagine that Cato’s Michael Cannon was stoned when he discovered this quirk in the text of the Affordable Care Act. But I’m afraid it’s a lot easier to imagine the pinkie ring and prideful guffawing of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil.

I didn’t think “They’re going to make you buy broccoli next” could be topped.

Oh, was I wrong.

The two judges who comprised a majority of the D.C. Circuit panel argued that the government failed to provide evidence that the authors of the law did not intend to funnel subsidies through state exchanges only. Well, why would such evidence exist—if, as seems exceedingly likely, it never occurred to anyone that the subsidies were so structured until Cannon announced his discovery? “It was a carrot dangled in front of states, just like the promise of more Medicaid money,” the plaintiffs speculated. If so, then why the backstop of a federal exchange? What’s the point of the thing if not to convey subsidies to eligible customers? Much to the dismay of supporters of the ACA, there was no Plan B after the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid expansion. And so the money remains unspent.

There’s no getting around the fact that those who drafted the law are guilty of a linguistic oversight. In a sane world, the matter would have been dispatched through a technical corrections bill, much as President Clinton and Congress ironed out a kink in U.S. Code that granted citizenship to those born abroad and one of whose parents was a U.S. citizen. Before the correction, the government granted citizenship only to those whose fathers were citizens.

But we’re not living in a sane world right now. We’re living in the world of massive resistance.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m hardly a fan of Obamacare. I’m with those who champion a cheaper and cleaner method of achieving universal coverage. I suppose it could be argued that the Halbig case is one way of getting there. But when its mastermind heads the “Anti-Universal Coverage Club,” I kind of doubt it.

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David Brat’s Half-Cocked Theological-Economic Fusionism

Michael Tanner recently—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing for years, economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever, but as a moral imperative.

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry. The Washington Post called Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that, to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr., tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes:

In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.

“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”

In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible, they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!

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Eric Cantor Rides Tea Party Tiger, Is Devoured

If you look at the arc of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s last three years of service in Congress, it begins, in 2011, with an ambitious insider’s game to undermine the Speaker of the House. Cantor was the tea party whisperer; he was their not-so-secret champion; he was the guy—“Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion”—who stood between John Boehner and a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy with the Great Satan.

Unrest within the House Republican conference boiled over in January 2013 with a hapless attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership (including three votes for Cantor). It was at this point, as symbolized by his loud and clearly irritated voice vote for Boehner to retain his position, that Cantor seemed to have recoiled from his game of sabotage. Sure, just days before, Cantor split with Boehner on the vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Yet, from that point until now, Cantor played the role of dutiful deputy. Maybe it was simply another tack: play nice until the next GOP wave, wait for Boehner to step aside, and smoothly ascend to the speakership.

I’d like to think, however, that Cantor was growing tired of the decrepit state of the GOP governing agenda in the wake of a resounding repudiation of Mitt Romney. At a party retreat earlier this year, he recognized the need for the party to appeal beyond the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and substantively address middle-class anxieties.

In his concession speech tonight, you could hear echoes of the embryonic reform-conservative movement:

What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have said we’re about, is, we want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions, so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have.

Add that to Cantor’s gestures toward some kind of constructive movement toward immigration reform, and we’ve got a sad and stunning moment in our politics: a conservative leader who ended, limply, where he should have begun. He rode the tea party tiger and discovered, too late, that he and his party might have profited from more bull sessions with Yuval Levin.

That’s a pity.

I know nothing of Prof. Dave Brat. But I know he is a political novice and, as he’s cheered tonight by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, I can’t help but suspect he will be yet another useless crank in a still-troubled caucus.

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Catching On to the Pyrrhic Victory of a GOP Senate

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Gage Skidmore / Flickr

And here you thought I was being all #slatepitch-y: In February, I argued that President Obama shouldn’t get too uptight about Democrats losing the Senate; and, more, that the dead-end ideological fealty required to control Congress is, paradoxically (but only seemingly), what prevents Republicans from being a true national party; and, finally, that a Congress fully under Republican control will make a fat target for Hillary Clinton.

Zeke J. Miller reports in Time that GOP moneybags, as well as potential Republican presidential candidates currently serving as governor, share the latter concern:

Behind closed doors and in private conversations with reporters and donors, GOPers eyeing the White House in 2016 are privately signaling they wouldn’t mind seeing the party fall short in this year’s midterm elections. For all the benefits of a strong showing in 2014 after resounding defeat in 2012, senior political advisers to some of the top Republican presidential aspirants believe winning the Senate might be the worst thing that could happen.

The opinion is most strongly held by Republican governors, who are hoping to rise above the Washington political fray. Already the central theme adopted by governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey, Rick Perry of Texas, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Scott Walker of Wisconsin is their ability to cut through partisan gridlock to lead their states. A dysfunctional Washington hamstrung by ideological division accentuates their core argument.

Others are taking a ride on my hobbyhorse. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently conveyed the similarly glass-half-empty sentiments of “Republican umbrella carriers” who “worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.”

The redoubtable Charlie Cook himself added:

This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren’t in Obama’s party, and they aren’t in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party’s “brand” and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.

Granted, Cook and Walter are not making precisely the same argument as mine, though I of course agree that a win in 2014 might give the GOP “false hope.” I go a bit further: I believe Republicans, or at least a good portion of those who matter, know full well that the party has a problem going into 2016, quite apart from what happens this fall. The crux of it is this: there’s nothing they can do to change it in the near term. The adjustments they need to make in order to recapture the White House—find some way to deal with undocumented immigrants; give up on tax cuts for the wealthy; acknowledge the painful trade-offs of any serious Obamacare alternative—would jeopardize their grip on Congress.

It’s possible that Republican leaders are merely biding their time until the Senate is in hand. Why rock the boat when you can win by default? I suspect, however, that the truth is more inconvenient: Rocking the boat will be no easier in 2016 than it is now.

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Hobby Lobby vs. the Order of Justice

The Crimson White / Flickr.com
The Crimson White / Flickr.com

Ross Douthat affectionately calls out me and Rod Dreher for applauding Patrick Deneen’s moral-economic brief against Hobby Lobby and other big-box retail chains. He laments that the paleo/crunchy-con mentality tends toward self-marginalization.

Speaking only for myself, I actually agree with Ross.

I’m not Catholic. I’m not a traditionalist (if I were, I’d have a lot of explaining to do regarding that infatuation with Keith Richards). When asked to describe my politics, lately I call myself a good-government Bush 41 conservative. (I maintain that H.W. was inferior to Reagan as a communicator and politician—obviously—but at least as great, and maybe even better, a president. I think his leadership during the meltdown of the Soviet empire was brilliant, and I’d take Dick Darman over Grover Norquist every day of the week. Sue me!)

All that said, I fear I’ve muddied the waters on where I agree with Deneen, and where I part ways with him (as well as, I’m going to presume, Dreher).

I am taken with Deneen’s argument that there is an uninterrupted continuum between the Founding (“progressive” in a Baconian sense) and the present; that classical liberals and modern liberals are both liberals. If there’s anything remotely distinctive about my blogging here and at U.S. News since ’10, I hope it’s been a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson. My gravamen, my conceit, my shtick is this: Government has grown alongside our continental economy. There is not a hydraulic relationship (one goes up, the other goes down) between markets and government. If our capitalists were smart, they’d favor effective social insurance alongside free enterprise. Etc.

While I sympathize, somewhat, with Deneen’s aesthetic recoil from Hobby Lobby and strip malls and big boxes, I don’t get nearly as exercised about such things as he does. In any case, I don’t think there’s much that can be done practically to change it at the level of policymaking. I’m all for traditionalists and orthodox believers bringing their beliefs to bear in the marketplace. To the extent that I used the Hobby Lobby case as a springboard for my last post, it was only tangentially about contraception and religious liberty. My beef is not with religious conservatives participating in modern capitalism; it is with those who conflate modern capitalism and the Constitution with Judeo-Christianity. I have a beef with them because this conflation, I believe, is one of the main drivers of our current antigovernment ferocity, the rampant and irrational fears of inflation, and the counterproductive fear over short-term budget deficits.

I could be wrong about that.

In any case, I don’t think I made this point clear in my post on Hobby Lobby (which, for the record, I had never heard of before it became news).

While I’m at it, I might as well spell out what I think about the particulars of said case. On that score, I’ll associate myself with Yuval Levin’s recent post in NRO’s Corner. He writes that conservatives:

take the arrangement of rights and liberties at the core of the liberal-democratic understanding of society to exist in the service of sustaining the space in which society thrives, rather than of taking society “forward” and away from its roots. There is room in that space for different parts of society to sustain quite different ways of living, and room for people to debate our broader society’s social and political course – which can take different directions at different times in response to different circumstances. Liberty is not the yearned-for endpoint of that story, when we will be free at last from the burdens of the past. Liberty is what exists in that space now, what allows for different people (and groups of people) to pursue different paths and debate different options, and what allows society to address its problems in various ways as they arise. Liberty is not what we’re progressing toward but what we are conserving.

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). Sounding a lot like Burke and Nisbet, Wills wrote:

For if the state arises out of man’s social instinct, then the state destroys its own roots when it denies free scope to the other forms of social life. The state, when it is made the source of justice, must be equally and instantly available to all citizens; and, in achieving this, in sweeping away the confusion of claims raised by families, economic orders, educational conventions, codes of conduct, natural gradations of privilege, the Liberal leaves society atomized, each man isolated, with all the weight of political power coming unintercepted upon him. The higher forms of organization do not grow out of and strengthen the lower, but counter and erase them. This is what happened under the Order of Justice from the time when Plato pitted the state against the family to the modern breakdown of divided jurisdiction in the centralized state. …

The state, as extending throughout all other levels of social solidarity, must have a certain neutrality towards them all, and as the order-enforcing agent, it must take upon itself a certain negative, punitive function. This neutral and negative aspect of the state will be perverted, and become a positive push—as life-giving, rather than life-preserving—if the other forms of spontaneous activity wither; or if the state officials try to use their power to call up a positive vision of their own; or if politics is considered the all-inclusive area of man’s achievement of excellence. …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

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The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Played

Every Sunday, the rector of my church appends a brief note of spiritual guidance to the weekly bulletin. Recently, he noted that whereas “the world” encourages individuals to satisfy their desires, the Scriptures teach that we’re often to deny those desires.

That generality—“the world.”

I get it. I appreciate the New Testament connotation of the “world” as distinct from the church and its principles and disciplines. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right. “The world,” depending on where you live and which tradition you may or may not have been raised in, says a lot of different things. American consumerist culture, on the other hand, very definitely does encourage us—entice us, seduce us—to satisfy our desires. That culture is now global and, on balance, I think material human welfare is vastly better for it.

Thinking holistically of the human person, however, consumerism, with its valorization of individual choice and autonomy, is spiritually problematic.

And so it’s a great and terrible irony that the church—I should specify, a large segment of the conservative Protestant church—has invited “the world” into the church. It has embedded its economic imperatives into its doctrines. Indeed, it has elevated the marketplace into a thing affirmed and designed by God himself.

With characteristic brilliance, Patrick Deneen shone a klieg light on this “delicious irony,” with his post on the Hobby Lobby contraception case currently before the Supreme Court. A self-styled “religious corporation” seeks

to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. It defends its religious views as a matter of individual conscience, of course, because there is no moral, social, or religious context to which it can appeal beyond the autonomy of its own religious belief. Lacking any connecting moral basis on which to stake a social claim, all it can do in the context of a society of “disembeddedness” is seek an exemption from the general practice of advancing radical autonomy. Yet, the effort to secure an exemption is itself already a concession to the very culture and economy of autonomy.

Deneen of course is a conservative Catholic. I’ve yet to come across a rejoinder from a conservative Protestant arguing against Deneen’s contention that there is, or should be, a “separation of church and economy.” If no one has written it yet, someone will soon. For this is an unfortunate, ahistorical, heretical bedrock belief of the conservative base: the American economy is God’s economy. Any attempt to regulate it is contrary to the God-breathed Constitution. It is atheistic, humanistic, and tyrannical.

This could be the greatest trick the devil ever played.

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Rand Paul and Libertarian Switcheroos on Race

Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Like the very evenhanded Jamelle Bouie here, I think Sen. Rand Paul’s heart was in the right place when he remarked on the irony of a black president presiding over a domestic security apparatus that, decades ago, had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “You don’t have to support Rand Paul or his policy agenda to see that he was right to call out the president on the tension between his position and his actions,” Bouie writes.

Yet Paul’s invocation of race and civil liberties still gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Perhaps uncharitably, I see in it the same kind of ideological switcheroo that conservatives have, in the past, employed to distance themselves from other abuses involving race. Like segregation: over the years, the right has sought to evade guilt for this legacy by sowing confusion over party ID: Segregationists were Democrats! True, but only trivially so. (It was possible, back then, to be rightwing and belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson.) The more sophisticated version of this defense says that segregation was economically wasteful and inefficient; it violated free-market principles. Also true, and also trivial.

A similar rhetorical trick was brought to bear on South Africa in the 1980s. The Jack Abramoff-fronted International Freedom Foundation held up the apartheid government as a bulwark against expansionist communism. After apartheid ended—presto!—it was apartheid itself that was socialist: a “pervasive system of government regulation, regimentation and control.”

This kind of sleight of hand ignores the lived reality of libertarian ideas in America. As historian David Hackett Fischer has written, the ordered liberty of 18th-century New England was altogether different than that of Virginia in the same period, with its conflation of liberty and the “hegemonic condition of dominion over others.”

The unfortunate fact is that, when it came to segregation, apartheid, or domestic spying before Obama, the oppositionist energy issued from the left.

Too often, my conservative friends sound like post-WWII Frenchmen: we all joined the resistance! During the years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and the inauguration of Barack Obama, for example, the line was that Sen. Frank Church and the left had eviscerated our intelligence-gathering capabilities. Now you can find a positive gloss on Church at Breitbart.com!

Rand Paul’s criticism of Obama from this flank amounts, in my opinion, to an inadvisable sort of concern-trolling.

By all means, slam the brakes on the NSA.

But save the convenient harrumphing about MLK.

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