Sunday, February 13, 2011

February 10, 2011, 2:08 PM A Quiet February

My already-intermittent blogging will cease for most of this month. Real posting will resume once I’ve figured out how to successfully juggle punditry and fatherhood.
February 2, 2011, 2:22 PM

No Way to Run a Republic

The State of the Union has been (appropriately) eclipsed by the events in Egypt, but before it fades entirely I want to take up something Matt Yglesiassaid, explaining why he doesn’t find the entitlement evasions of both the president and Paul Ryan particularly worrying:
… to further defend feckless politicians, not only is evading the entitlement challenge politically smart but economically speaking there’s no reason to focus on the deficit right now. Imagine a car driving on a very straight patch of empty highway at 45 miles per hour. Thirty miles ahead comes a very steep curve that’s dangerous to take any faster than 20 miles per hour. You’re going too fast. You’re going to have to slow down soon. But right nowyou’re going too slow. There’s no reason to be driving 45 mph on an empty straight highway. The fact that in the future you need to slow down and take a tricky turn is neither here nor there.
I don’t think there’s any question that the government of the United States can respond to a real debt crisis, if and when it comes, with some sort of bipartisan deficit reduction package. The question is whether last-minute twists of the wheel (to borrow the Yglesian metaphor) are a good way to make public policy. The examples of TARP and the stimulus, both of which were pushed through Congress in what felt like crisis situations, don’t exactly inspire confidence, and the idea of following the same model to determine the size, scope and funding for the welfare state writ large seems like a recipe for a policy train wreck. (Lots of progressives didn’t care for the Simpson-Bowles deficit proposals, but even Nancy Pelosi would probably regard them as a model of good government compared to the mix of spending cuts and tax increases you’d get if Congress was forced to balance the books in a hurry.) And also a recipe for massive public backlash: If you thought the cynicism and anti-government sentiment inspired by TARP was bad, wait until Washington reforms Medicare and Social Security in the same mood of crisis-inspired panic.
This is where our political class is failing. Yglesias is right (I hope!) that significant spending cuts or tax increases don’t have to happen right this instant to avert calamity. But they probably do have to happen relatively soon, however gradually you phase them in, and it’s clear from polling that the public is completely unprepared for this reality. It’s a good thing that responsible figures in the Senate, from Tom Coburn to Claire McCaskill, are laying the inside-the-Beltway groundwork for deficit reduction. But at some point the realities of the situation need to be explained, and sold, to the American people. And because the State of the Union and the Republican response offer a rare chance to do some of that explaining, it strikes me as unfortunate that the president and Paul Ryan chose evasions instead. I understand all the political reasons why Barack Obama sounded like a C.E.O. putting the shiniest possible face on his company’s insolvency. But there has to be a better way to govern a republic.
January 31, 2011, 12:58 PM

Egypt: A Case For Optimism

In the midst of last year’s Iranian uprisings, I made the following point about the likely political consequences of the Great Recession:
In 1930s Europe, [an] economic crisis toppled democratic governments, and swept dictators into power. Liberal societies seemed ineffectual; authoritarianism was the coming thing.
The crash of 2008, though, may end up having the opposite effect. Over the last few years, both American alarmists and anti-American triumphalists have emphasized thedisruptive power of populist, semi-authoritarian political actors — from Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. But these regimes, which depend on petro-dollars for stability at home and influence abroad, may prove far more vulnerable to economic dislocation than their democratic rivals.
Amid the wreckage of the Great Depression, intellectuals and policymakers looked to fascist Italy and the Soviet Union for inspiration. But it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing a model in the current crop of authoritarian governments. It’s much easier to imagine them being swept away, if the recession endures, by domestic discontent.
January 25, 2011, 11:46 PM

The Politics of Evasion

If you were a visitor from Mars, watching tonight’s State of the Union addressand Paul Ryan’s Republican response, you would have no reason to think that the looming insolvency of our entitlement system lies at the heart of the economic challenges facing the United States over the next two decades. From President Obama, we heard a reasonably eloquent case for center-left technocracy and industrial policy, punctuated by a few bipartisan flourishes, in which the entitlement issue felt like an afterthought: He took note of the problem, thanked his own fiscal commission for their work without endorsing any of their recommendations, made general, detail-free pledges to keep Medicare and Social Security solvent (but “without slashing benefits for future generations”), and then moved swiftly on to the case for tax reform. Tax reform is important, of course, and so are education and technological innovation and infrastructure and all the other issues that the president touched on in this speech. But it was still striking that in an address organized around the theme of American competitiveness, which ran to almost 7,000 words and lasted for an hour, the president spent almost as much time talking about solar power as he did about the roots of the nation’s fiscal crisis.
Ryan’s rejoinder was more urgent and more focused: America’s crippling debt was an organizing theme, and there were warnings of “painful austerity measures” and a looming “day of reckoning.” But his remarks, while rhetorically effective, were even more vague about the details of that reckoning than the president’s address. Ryan owes his prominence, in part, to his willingness to propose a very specific blueprint for addressing the entitlement system’s fiscal woes. But in his first big moment on the national stage, the words “Medicare” and “Social Security” did not pass the Wisconsin congressman’s lips.
None of this was particularly surprising. It’s clear that both parties have decided that a period of divided government twelve months before a presidential election is the wrong time to make big moves on entitlements and the deficit. Better to wait, jockey for position, and hope that the correlation of forces after 2012 will be more favorable to their preferred solutions. And it’s clear, too, that they’ve decided (with honorable exceptions) that it’s too risky to even begin building support for the unpopular cuts or tax increases ahead. The bet, on both sides, is that there’s still time to work with, and that the other party will blink, or at least give ground, before the real crunch arrives.
Let’s hope they’re right.
January 25, 2011, 11:34 AM

Notes on the Oscar Nominations

They’re out! And I’d like to thank the Academy for doing a bang-up job this year.
First, they gave a Best Picture nod to “Winter’s Bone,” even though the smart money had been suggesting that Ben Affleck’s cops-and-robbers entertainment “The Town” would grab the last slot instead. I’m enjoying Affleck’s mid-career reinvention as a director of Bostonian crime stories (“Gone Baby Gone” wears much better on repeated viewings than Martin Scorsese’s Boston-accented Oscar winner “The Departed”), but “Winter’s Bone” was in a different league: Haunting and riveting, primal and genuinely surprising. Also, it’s precisely the kind of film that deserves some Oscar love: An actual little movie that could, with no-name stars and an obscure director, as opposed to notionally “little” movies like “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan” that enter the lists with star power and studio muscle to spare.
Speaking of star power, the Academy also deserves kudos for declining to issue a Best Director nomination to Christopher Nolan, whose “Inception” was dizzying, dazzling, immersive, entertaining — but ultimately shallow, in a fashion made less forgivable by the self-seriousness that Nolan’s blockbusters always wear on their sleeves, and haven’t yet quite earned. If there were 10 Best Director slots, I wouldn’t begrudge him one, but as it stands the nominators got things right: “Inception” is in with the 10 Best Picture nominees, as a gesture to Nolan’s crowd pleasing inventiveness, but the Best Director category has been reserved for filmmakers with fewer fanboys, but better films.
Finally, this year’s Oscars will feature the best roster of Best Actress nominees that I can remember: In a different year, any one of the five nominees might have cruised to victory. The statue will almost certainly go to Natalie Portman, with Annette Bening as the dark horse; Nicole Kidman already has a Best Actress Oscar, and Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t been at this long enough to have her marvelous turn as Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone” rewarded on the big stage. Nor has Michelle Williams, most likely — but her “Blue Valentine” performance would get my vote.
The Academy can’t take all the credit for its choices, though. This was just a flat-out good year for the movies.
January 24, 2011, 4:29 PM

The Politics of ‘Star Wars’

If you want to read a serious rebuttal to Michael Lind’s recent argument that America needs a political party that unites techno-optimism, secular utopianism, and a commitment to restoring the mid-century nexus of “big government, big business and big labor,” I recommend Walter Russell Mead’s recent post on the limits, moral and otherwise, of precisely the political and social model that Lind is pining for. For my part, I want to focus on Lind’s case against “Star Wars”:
If there was a moment when the culture of enlightened modernity in the United States gave way to the sickly culture of romantic primitivism, it was when the movie “Star Wars” premiered in 1977. A child of the 1960s, I had grown up with the optimistic vision symbolized by “Star Trek,” according to which planets, as they developed technologically and politically, graduated to membership in the United Federation of Planets, a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN. When I first watched “Star Wars,” I was deeply shocked. The representatives of the advanced, scientific, galaxy-spanning organization were now the bad guys, and the heroes were positively medieval — hereditary princes and princesses, wizards and ape-men. Aristocracy and tribalism were superior to bureaucracy. Technology was bad. Magic was good.
So here’s my question: What did Lind think of the prequels? Because in a sense, George Lucas addressed nearly all of Lind’s issues with the “Star Wars” universe in movies one through three. (I am bracketing the more creative interpretations of those films …) Queen Amidala of Naboo, Princess Leia’s mother, turned out to be an elected queen, who moved on to senatorial duties after serving out her term as monarch. (How a teenager managed to navigate Naboo’s version of the Iowa caucuses remains a mystery …) The once-mystical Force was given a scientific explanation, in the form of the “midichlorians,” the micro-organisms that clutter up the bloodstream of the Jedi and give them telekinetic powers as a side effect. And the lost Old Republic that the rebels fight to restore in the original films was revealed to be , well, “a sort of galactic League of Nations or UN,” with the Jedi Knights as its peacekeeping force and the lightsaber as the equivalent of the blue helmet.
For Lind, then, I can only assume that watching the prequels was an immensely gratifying experience. And for the rest of us, the knowledge that Lind’s prescription for “Star Wars” helped produce three of the most disappointing science-fiction blockbusters ever made should be reason enough to reject his prescription for America without a second thought.
January 21, 2011, 12:47 PM

The Coverage of Sarah Palin

I see that Nate Silver has brought his usual statistical acumen to bear on my suggestion, in this week’s column on the media’s dysfunctional relationship to Sarah Palin, that a “majority of Americans …are neither Palinoiacs nor Palinistas.” Not so fast, he writes, citing a recent Politico survey on American attitudes toward various public figures:
The survey asked people not just what they thought about these political figures, but also how strong their opinions were. In the case of John McCain, for instance, 11 percent of respondents said they had a very favorable view of him, and 25 percent had a very unfavorable view. What I’m interested in is which politicians induced the most of these ’strong’ responses, whether or not they were favorable or unfavorable.
Three politicians led the pack: the previous two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush — and Sarah Palin. Mr. Obama was viewed very positively by 22 percent of respondents but very negatively by 33 percent of them, for 55 percent total. Ms. Palin’s total was 53 percent, broken down as 14 percent positive and 39 percent negative. Mr. Bush’s was 52 percent (16 percent positive, and 36 percent negative).
… And so, to Mr. Douthat’s chicken-and-egg dilemma — which came first: Ms. Palin or the media’s sometimes obsessive coverage of her? — we might want to add a third actor: the audience.
This is a fair point, and something I should have acknowledged in the column. Blaming the media and Palin for their increasingly toxic symbiosis risks understating the role that the public plays in generating demand for obsessive Palin coverage. The press wouldn’t go to well so often if people weren’t eager to drink.
But let’s be clear on what’s going on here. Silver writes that “an unusually large number of Americans … have a strong view of Ms. Palin.” Likewise, TPM’s Josh Marshall, in a revealing post defending his Web site’s heavy Palin coverage, writes that Palin “slices right through the society and generates one intense response from one side and a completely opposite but equally intense response from the other.” Both of these lines make it sound like Palin generates love and fear in roughly equal measure. But in the poll Silver cites, Palin’s “very positive” numbers, while high, are not staggeringly so: Using this (admittedly) crude metric, she inspires slightly less devotion than George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton, and slightly more than Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. It’s her negative numbers that are off the charts: No politician, from Bush to Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi, is hated so intensely by so many Americans.
And this is what’s so problematic, to my mind, about much of the Palin coverage: The media often acts as though they’re covering her because her conservative fan base is so large (hence the endless talk about her 2012 prospects), when they’re really covering her because so many liberals are eager to hear about, read about and then freak about whatever that awful, terrifying woman is up to nowRead more…
January 20, 2011, 3:00 PM

Michael Kinsley’s Utopianism

Various bloggers keep quoting this line from Michael Kinsley’s column about Tucson as though it contains some special wisdom:
It is, [Obama said in Arizona], “a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do.” This sounds like a noble sentiment. But who is to blame for what ails the world if not those who think differently? If those who think the same as you are responsible, it’s time to start thinking differently yourself.
It’s a clever line, but a seriously noxious concept. However wrongheaded you believe your ideological opponents to be, laying “all that ails the world” at their feet represents an absurd politicization of human affairs, and a spur to the most self-deluding sort of utopianism. After all, what ultimately ails the world is its inherent imperfectibility — its fallen character, if you’re a Christian; its irreducible complexity and tendency toward entropy and dissolution, if you’re a strict materialist. This is true on all the great issues of the day. No matter how many lives may be saved or lost because of health care policy, no lives will be saved forever, and every gain will be an infinitely modest hedge against the wasting power of disease and death. No matter the wisdom of our politicians or the sagacity of their economic advisors, no policy course can guarantee universal wealth or permanent economic growth. And no matter the temperature of our discourse, the state of our gun laws, or the quality of our mental health care, nothing human beings do can prevent the occasional madman from shooting up a crowded parking lot.
Particularly in a liberal democracy like ours, where the range of policy disagreement is relatively narrow by historical standards and nobody’sactually a Nazi or a theocrat, the beginning of political wisdom is the recognition that only a small fraction of existing human suffering can possibly be relieved by voting in one party or the other. That’s the wisdom the president was expressing: He was right, and Kinsley is completely wrong.
January 20, 2011, 11:09 AM

Sargent Shriver’s Christian Politics

From a moving remembrance by Scott Stossel, Shriver’s biographer:
A final note about his faith. The root of Shriver’s self-conception was as a lay Catholic who always tried to model his life after the ethics of Jesus as expressed in the Gospels. This has not been a passive pursuit. Always he was asking himself, Am I living my life as Christ would want me to?
What he derived from his faith was less the solace of Lord’s presence, or the promise of transcendence in the hereafter (though he did derive both of those qualities from his faith) than a kind of mobilizing vision for action here on earth. It is telling that in the 1930s Shriver invited Dorothy Day to speak at his undergraduate institution, Yale. Shriver’s Catholicism was in some ways analogous to Day’s: rooted in the ethics of the Christian Gospels; dedicated to working toward peace, social justice, and redemption of sufferinghere on earth; and concerned especially with the easing the plight of the poor and the disabled.
In some ways, Shriver and I were as different as can be: him an optimist about human nature, me a pessimist; him devoutly faithful, me a struggling agnostic. But I am nonetheless unequivocally sure of two things. First, if there is a heaven, Sargent Shriver is on his way there now–or no one is. Second, even if there is no heaven, his legacy of good works here on earth is an inspiration and a goad for all of us to do more and better.
There is no definitive Christian approach to politics. There are lines a believer cannot cross and ideologies that cannot be embraced, but a libertarian and a social democrat can both claim a Christian warrant for their approach to political affairs, and likewise a neoconservative and a realist, or for that matter a monarchist and a republican.
But the diversity and open-endedness of Christian political thought doesn’t absolve Christian politicians of the obligation to think seriously about the interaction between their personal faith and their public duties. Instead, it sharpens that obligation: Precisely because there is no single model for a Christian politician, every Christian in politics has an obligation to be amodel — to make it clear, in words and deeds, how their faith informs their activism, and to constantly test their political convictions against their theological worldview.
This was what Sargent Shriver did throughout his career — and more impressively, it must be said, that many members of the famously Catholic clan he married into. (I’ll always think of Jackie Kennedy’s great line about her husband, in the heat of the 1960 race: “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he is a Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic.”) Every Christian doesn’t have an obligation to imitate Shriver’s particular approach to politics, and indeed I’m glad they don’t. But no one can deny that his liberal Catholicism was a Christian politics: Admirable, comprehensive, and at the test, consistent.
That test was abortion, where Shriver was one of the few Great Society liberals to remain a pro-life liberal as well. He was the last abortion critic to find a place on the national Democratic ticket, and together with his wife, Eunice, he endured as the embodiment of a liberal road not taken on that issue. For that, as for everything he did in public life, he will be sorely missed.
January 18, 2011, 1:47 PM

The Roots of Overheated Rhetoric

Along with a host of pointless arguments about Sarah Palin, the aftermath of the Arizona shootings has inspired an interesting intra-liberal debate about how polarized America really is. Noam Scheiber, of instance, watched the president’s speech last week and came away thinking that Obama underplayed the reality of Americans’ ideological divisions. “After all,” he writes, “the reason the country is so polarized is that we disagree pretty strongly about what would strengthen our democracy (say, a richer social safety net versus greater reliance on the free market and individual responsibility).”
My colleague Paul Krugman made a similar argument last week, and Jon Chait echoed his points. But Matt Yglesias dissented:
I didn’t really hear congressional Republicans calling for increased reliance on the free market. Did they talk about repealing the 2003 Medicare expansion? Did they argue for eliminating SCHIP? Did they push repeal of continuity of coverage regulations? Did they take up my pet cause of letting dental hygenists clean teeth without giving dentists a piece of the action? They certainly didn’t push to repeal the rule that hospitals need to provide care to the indigent. Indeed, I often heard Republicans asserting that the most popular elements of the Affordable Care Act—most notably a ban on refusing coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions—could and should somehow just be severed from more controversial aspects of the law.
… George W Bush substantially expanded the federal government’s commitment to health care and K-12 education, yet liberals were absolutely convinced he wanted to roll back 100 years of welfare state expansion. TARP gave Barack Obama a once-a-century opportunity to transform the American economy through state control over the commanding heights, an opportunity he deliberately declined … due to the sincere belief of his team that doing so wouldn’t be in the interests of the United States. What’s interesting to me is that we have a kind of furious partisan debate despite the fact that we don’t see large disagreements about the basic principles of welfare state capitalism.
This is why it’s sometimes useful to consider American politics through the cynical lens suggested by Will Wilkinson’s election day commentary, in which all the sound and fury of partisan warfare is just a way to deceive ourselves into thinking there’s something more important at stake in each election than special interests jockeying for control of the fiscal commons. Our debates are so furious, in this reading, because our disagreements aren’t that significant: We rely on apocalyptic rhetoric about socialism and fascism, tyranny and freedom, to persuade ourselves that we’re actors in a world-historical drama, rather than just interest groups feuding over the spoils of governing a prosperous but somewhat decadent republic.