Jonathan Coppage

2014 Says Goodbye to Tom Coburn

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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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?

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

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

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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