Republican Delusion Empowers Obama

Ezra KleinEzra Klein made an interesting point in an article at Vox today, Why the President Becomes More Powerful When Congress Fails. It is a push back against Ross Douthat’s recent widely mocked column where he complains about the presidential overreach that he thinks Obama is going to perform. Klein noted that Douthat is right that congressional inaction doesn’t tell the president what to do, but it also doesn’t tell the president what not to do. Congress is dysfunctional and part of that dysfunction is that it can’t really stop the president from acting.

Implicit in Klein’s article is the idea that Congress actually wants the President to do things that it thinks it can’t be seen doing. Or to put it more correctly: Republicans want Obama to do things that in a saner world, the Republicans want to be and would be able to do. This is a critical issue that we saw very clearly last week when John Boehner called for Obama to address the border crisis through executive action at the very same time that Boehner was also suing Obama for dealing with a problem with Obamacare with executive action.

This gets to the great (And poetic!) Mario Cuomo quote, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” The big problem, at least since Obama became President, is that Republican politicians are no longer willing to abide by this. So in the House right now, the majority of the Republican majority are not willing to take 98% of what they want. That missing 2% would destroy the meter of the verse. And, of course, missing 50% would be totally unacceptable—the poetry would be unrecognizable.

But I think the Republican Party establishment really has to take responsibility for this. The truth is that it has nothing to worry about. The party is now well to the right of its base when it comes to actual policy. But the party establishment has allowed itself to be radicalized by the likes of the subgeniuses Rush Limbaugh and Roger Ailes. Watching the House Republicans, all I see is weakness. It looks like a caucus that is so afraid, that it is unable to do anything. Their base is mad about the border situation, but they can’t do anything, because they’ve become certain they were sent to Washington to destroy the federal government. These are the same people who represent states who get far more from the federal government than they send to it.

So the question is, when is the Republican Party going to make a stand? As it is, the only difference between the “establishment” and the “tea party” candidates are how extreme their rhetoric is. There is no discernible difference in their policies. But the party insists upon treating their voters as though they were children. They continue to allow this idea to fester that through force of will alone, they can have 100% of what they want. But they know that the base doesn’t actually want what they claim, and that if the party actually did what they said they were going to, it would be a catastrophe.

And we are left with the situation that Ezra Klein wrote about where the hated Obama has far more power than if the Republicans would just start acting like a normal political party.

Update (5 August 2014 11:33 pm)

I just noticed that Bernstein had exactly the same reaction to Ezra Klein’s article that I did, Republican Heal Thyself. Of course, he does it in his own (non-ranting) professional style:

So, yes, what’s happening in Congress is absolutely bad for Congress, and bad for the US political system. But it’s not really about Congress, or even about partisan polarization; it’s yet another consequence of a broken Republican Party.

Republicans Don’t Want Better Schools

DigbyWhat is so great about Digby is that she can blow your mind with a sentence like, “The idea that the Republicans are worried about ‘bad teachers’ when they encourage the practice of kids being taught at home by parents who aren’t qualified to teach someone how to get up in the morning is a joke.” These are the kind of things that seem obvious but which I somehow missed. And this is an issue that I care rather a lot about.

My sister homeschools her son. She has various reasons for this. But she is also well educated and provides the kind of learning and social environment that all but the richest of parents would envy. So I have nothing against homeschooling in general. But we often get into conflict when talking about the issue, because I am critical of the homeschooling movement. I think most parents homeschool their children for the wrong reasons. What’s more, most parents have no business teaching their children and end up being dependent upon prepackaged curricula that are more about protecting children from the great big world of ideas than about educating them.

Consider the National Center for Education Statistics 2006 survey of the reasons that parents gave for homeschooling. Previous open-ended surveys created their own problems, so they offered parents six reasons to choose from as you can see in the following table:

Reasons for homeschooling Applicable Most important
Number Percent Number Percent
Concern about environment of other schools 935,000 85.4 341,000 31.2
Dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools 748,000 68.2 180,000 16.5
To provide religious or moral instruction 793,000 72.3 327,000 29.8
Child has a physical or mental health problem 174,000 15.9 71,000 6.5
Child has other special needs 316,000 28.9 79,000 7.2
Other reasons 221,000 20.1 97,000 8.8

What’s interesting about this is that you can see both what was a factor and what was the primary issue. “Academics” is the smallest of the “big three” reasons. The top two are basically just “moral” concerns: “Environment” and “Religion.” This is responsible for 61% of parents’ primary reason for homeschooling. Now, I’m sure that some of the people in that group were not homeschooling for religious or anti-intellectual reasons. Just the same, I’m sure that some of those who chose the “Academics” reason actually meant, “I’m afraid my child will get a bad education that doesn’t teach them that God created the universe in six literal days.”

So how bad is it? Well, last year, David Wheeler made quite a splash with his short The Atlantic article, Old Earth, Young Minds: Evangelical Homeschoolers Embrace Evolution. The subtitle is, “More Christian parents are asking for mainstream science in their children’s curricula. Will religious textbook companies deliver?” So the fact that some evangelicals actually want their children to learn real science was a big deal. I think that tells you how big the problem is.

So let’s get back to Digby’s insight. These are the parents that Republicans think are just great for teaching our children how to be good and productive citizens. When they push homeschooling, they aren’t thinking of my sister with her Biology degree from the University of California and all her liberal ideas. They are thinking of the people who are trying to keep their children from learning anything that Bronze Age Palestinians didn’t know. And we are supposed to believe that these Republicans are trying to improve public education by destroying teachers’ unions? No. They are trying to destroy teachers’ unions because they want to destroy teachers’ unions. And if they simultaneously destroy public education, that will be an extra benefit.

Improving My Parents Open Carry

My Parents Open Carry

This is a detail from the new children’s book, My Parents Open Carry. You may well have heard about it because it is making quite the splash. It tells the story of 13-year-old Brenna Strong and her open carry parents as they go about their day with loaded guns strapped to them. Everyone knows the true sign of civilization is being armed because you can’t trust anyone! The book fills a gaping hole in children’s literature. I have never, for example, seen a book about a child whose parents were so paranoid and politically belligerent that they needed to walk around with loaded guns on display. So I think it is excellent that this book is out. Now we need to have a book about the parents of serial killers. There are just so many holes in children’s literature. Stupid Obama administration!

I haven’t read the whole book—only as much as I was allowed to on Amazon. And that means just the first page. But based upon that, it is a dull affair. We learn that young Brenna is “dreaming dreams only a 13 year old girl would dream.” How evocative! With that little description, we know exactly who Brenna is: a stock 13-year-old girl from, How to Write a Children’s Book Children Will Hate. But that’s fine, because it’s pretty clear this book is not written for children. It is a political exercise—intended to get publicity for the open carry movement.

Need more evidence? The book opens with this sentence, “The Strong family consists of Richard Strong, his wife Bea and their 13 year old daughter, Brenna.” Note the traditional hierarchy. We know who’s in charge and we know the last name of “wife Bea.” But more than this, what children’s fiction writer decides to start a book ostensibly about Brenna by describing the family structure? After getting the hierarchy straight, the writers tell us where the family lives: modest home; medium sized town; Midwest. This is a far more un-threatening milieu than John Fitzgerald’s 1967 classic The Great Brain, set in 1890s Utah.

After we learn about generic Brenna dreaming her generic dream in her generic house in her generic hometown, her equally generic mother (Of course!) comes in and wakes her generically with, “Brenna, come on sweetheart, we have lots to do today. We have errands to run, people to see, and places to go!” Note the awkward use of the rule of three: “places to go” is implied in the others. It’s boring writing from beginning to end.

Let’s see if I can improve upon it:

Brenna was dreaming. It was one she’d had many times before about bunnies—baby bunnies. She loved baby bunnies, especially the white ones because they reminded her of her family. As she sat on a grassy knoll watching them frolic, her parents stood above her with their guns, shooting the baby bunnies one by one. Mom was going to make rabbit stew, which would last them all week. Pa had promised to save her one of the rabbit’s feet as a good luck charm.


Brenna shot up in bed. Her mother had shot a bullet into her daughter’s headboard. This was usually how her mother woke her on weekends. “Brenna, come on sweetheart,” her mother said. “We have lots to do today. We have errands to run, people to see, and places to go!” Brenna sighed to herself. No good luck charm after all.

Okay, so it’s not even good. But sadly, it is infinitely better than the three paragraph long insipid snor-fest that Brian Jeffs and Nathan Nephew provided us. Apparently their only qualification for writing this book is that they are the co-founders of Michigan Open Carry. But maybe that’s as it should be, because again, the purpose of the book is political and not, as the authors claimed, to create “an open carry adventure.” But that usage is interesting. Apparently, in the open carry community, an “adventure” is just getting through one day without accidentally shooting anyone.

One thing I’m especially interested in is that cover. The illustrator, Lorna Bergman, is competent, I suppose. But she is certainly not very interesting or inspired. It does, however, have the advantage of matching the prose. Be that as it may, what I’m struck with are the characters. Mother and daughter have blond hair and blue eyes. Father has light brown hair and blue eyes. It strikes me as awfully Aryan. And note: as far as I can tell, both of the writers have brown eyes. But the characters are also skinny and the writers are, well, a bit on the chunky side.

The whole thing is quite successful in one way: conservatives are whipping out their wallets and buying this book big time. But there’s nothing especially new about that. Conservatives have been supporting mediocre writers for decades. Now they’ve switched to supporting non-writers. And this book really will support the “open carry” cause, because all of that money is going to be funneled to Michigan Open Carry.

I am so jealous! I wish that I were a conservative so I could make a lot of money without the obligation of having to demonstrate any talent or hard work.

Libertarianism Incompatible With Democracy

Reason Magazine - Little Minds and Big BusinessWhile clicking around last night, I happened upon a 2011 Michael Lind article at Slate, Why Libertarians Apologize for Autocracy. He argued that libertarianism really is incompatible with democracy. I think he is right about that claim, although if you talk to actual libertarians, you will usually find that they are delusional. In my experience, most of them think that libertarianism is unpopular only because the people don’t know just how great it would be. The serious libertarian thinkers, however, know that libertarianism goes against the very idea democratic rule.

Lind noted that the two irradiating lights of the libertarian movement—Friedman and Hayek—very much saw the fundamental problem. You should read Lind’s article for his take and all the historical evidence. I will explain it here from my own perspective. Liberal democracies are the result of people starting with the idea that they want to maximize everyone’s freedom. Over time, they find that it is necessary to enact laws that go against the “maximum freedom” doctrine of libertarianism because, for example, my next door neighbor’s freedom to pollute is interfering with my freedom to live a healthy life. So people who are looking to maximize overall freedom naturally move in the direction of liberal democracy.

The problem with the likes of Friedman and Hayek is their focus on “maximum freedom.” They both want to remove all government-caused diminution of freedom, but don’t care about other things that reduce freedom. What this means is that they are interested in maximizing the freedom of those who, in a liberal democracy, already have the most freedom. Consider public schools. There are a number of reasons for having them, but one is compensate for the vagaries of birth. It should be clear to everyone that the freedom gained by public education is vastly greater than the cost of taxes to pay for it. Except it isn’t to the libertarian.

So libertarians find themselves interested only in one side of the freedom equation. They are looking to create a society in which some people have the maximum possible freedom. But you don’t need libertarianism for that! Kim Jong-un and his associates have the maximum possible freedom. So it is no surprise that libertarians would gravitate toward despots like Pinochet, who (unlike Kim Jong-un) use the language of free markets.

It may seem shocking that many libertarians think that an autocrat could set up a libertarian utopia and once completed, the autocrat would just yield power. But libertarians are not known for their deep thought or understanding of human psychology. And note how much this idea sounds like Stalinism, where there was only going to be a dictatorship until the communist utopia was realized. And this is more and more how libertarians seem to me: like communists of the 1920s. But the truth is that Milton Friedman didn’t actually care who was running the government, as long as the rich got to do what they wanted.

Lind noted one of the most interesting contradictions of libertarian thought. It may claim to care about freedom in a general sense, but all its followers are ever interested in are issues of economic freedom. And it isn’t just any economic freedom—it is the economic freedom of those who are already rich. Consider this:

[W]here was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century? The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion—issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.

Lind doesn’t mention it, but the libertarians have been worse than apathetic to real issues of freedom like civil rights and police abuse. They have been antagonistic toward them. They always find some way to disagree with them. I never get into an argument with a libertarian in which they don’t at some point mention that local government is always better. They can’t seem to accept the fact that the worst domestic abuses of the government over the last century have been by state and local governments. Nor do they engage with the fact that “states’ rights” is code for anti-democratic and racist state policies. (Lind also noted that Confederate President and American traitor Jefferson Davis was posthumously inducted into the “libertarian hall of fame.”) Libertarian thought is not about freeing the average man; it is about enslaving him.

So I completely agree with Lind that libertarianism is incompatible with democracy. In fact, I’ll go further. I think that idea is cooked into the libertarian philosophy itself.

Joseph Merrick’s Short and Tragic Life

Joseph MerrickOn this day in 1862, Joseph Merrick was born. He is better know as The Elephant Man, an English “human curiosity” and celebrity. The story of his life is quite interesting, although incredibly sad. He was born seemingly normal, only showing initial signs of deformity at the age of two, which became distinct by the age of five. He was raised and educated as one would expect for a middle class child of that time. But things took a turn for the worse when his mother died when he was ten. His father remarried, and Merrick’s stepmother did not like him. In addition, his father beat him.

At the end of 13, he started working in a cigar factory. But soon his deformities had become so bad that he couldn’t do the work. After the factory job, his father got him a license that allowed him to be a door-to-door peddler. This sounds laughable, and was as successful as you might think. Of his home life at that time, Merrick wrote, “I was taunted and sneered at so that I would not go home to my meals, and used to stay in the streets with a hungry belly rather than return for anything to eat, what few half-meals I did have, I was taunted with the remark—’That’s more than you have earned.'” So at the age of 15, he left home for good.

By 17, he checked himself into a workhouse where he stayed for four years, even though conditions were horrible. He contacted a music hall owner and proposed they turn him into a human curiosity. This actually worked out rather well for a couple of years. But the government was trying to shut down such “freak shows.” It is interesting that there were concerns about “human decency,” but not really that Merrick had no other way of making a living. This is a broader problem we have today. I’ve never quite understood why the government has been willing in the past to pay farmers to not farm, but the same is not done for workers in industries like coal. (Well, we know why, don’t we: coal workers have no political power the way farmers in the past did.)

So after two years, during which Merrick was able to save the equivalent of about $10,000 in today’s money, he went on tour in Europe. But there, away from his normal management team, he was robbed of his savings and abandoned by his road manager. Merrick managed to make his way back to London where a doctor who had examined him a number of times in the previous years, Frederick Treves, admitted him for his bronchitis to London Hospital. By this point, at the age of 23, Merrick’s condition was much worse. And in addition to everything else, Treves found that the young man had a heart condition that would eventually kill him. (He died before it did, however.)

His case became publicized and with donations from the public, Merrick was set up in two rooms in the basement of the hospital where he was allowed to live out the rest of his life with a modicum of dignity denied him for most his life up until then. He died shortly after his 27th birthday. At this point, no one really knows just what Merrick suffered from. It would seem that it was a combination of things. Maffucci syndrome? Polyostotic fibrous dysplasia? Proteus syndrome? I don’t suppose it much matters.

Happy birthday Joseph Merrick!