Saturday, August 29, 2009

ted kennedy 1932-2009

I have a very particular take on the death of Ted Kennedy, who was the last Democratic presidential candidate that I worked for as a student (in 1980) and the second to last (the other being Bill Clinton) that I worked for, at all. I concur in the encomia being given Sen. Kennedy as a legislator, leader, and ideological symbol, particularly in his last decades when age and a fortuitous second marriage appear to have turned his life around. But he and his family also caused enormous and to some degree irreparable damage to progressive causes in this country, and I think that story needs to be told, as well.

To understand what I mean, it is necessary to think back to what liberalism meant 40 years ago. Last year our faculty hosted Peter Edelman, one of the "best and brightest" of the original Kennedy era [although associated with RFK more than his brothers] and currently a law professor in DC. He is also famous as the husband of Marian Wright Edelman, and for leaving the Clinton Administration rather than support an essentially conservative welfare bill.

What struck me about Edelman was two things. First--while plainly very liberal--he was both earnest and open-minded in his presentation, taking seriously questions from liberal, radical, and conservative faculty members with equal aplomb. Second, and perhaps more memorably, he was something of a square, even a stuffed shirt, looking like he stepped out of Mad Men except for a few additional lines on his forehead. It is difficult to remember that this was once the universal face of liberalism: earnest, committed, but not in the least culturally threatening, making one feel that liberal policies were nothing but the logical extension of Lincoln, Roosevelt, and other leaders of the past. Had I listened to him long enough, I would have been ready to sign up.

The Kennedys changed all that, and Ted Kennedy most of all. It is not just his personal behavior which, it must be noted, did not change after Chappaquiddick but only his early 60s when he married a much younger woman. It was the cult of personality that attached itself to him, to the Kennedy family, and (if to a lesser extent) to Clinton and Obama after him, so that progressive or liberal politics became defined less by clear ideological guideposts than by personal loyalty to one or more charismatic leaders.

This combination of self-indulgent personal behavior and cult-of-personality politics--which are of course closely related--convinced a sizable portion of the American population that the Democratic Party was simply outside the cultural mainstream, a party of spoiled children (and adults) that was unworthy of their support under virtually any circumstances. I still remember campaigning for Kennedy in New Hampshire in the winter of 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Some people would welcome you to their homes and tell you their memories of JFK and RFK which at that point were only a decade or two old. But others would slam the door in your face, as if to say, he is so counter to my understanding of myself and my family that there is nothing even to talk about.

I think that we see the good and the bad parts of this legacy in today's politics. There is plainly a great deal of idealism in the Obama Administration . . . together with a leader who, unlike Kennedy or Clinton, appears to have grown up in his first rather than second half-century. But there is also a powerful distrust of government and political leaders, and the sense of an unbridgeable gap between sides, with a substantial portion of the country--a third, 40 percent, the precise number varies with time--that has more or less permanently identified liberalism with the undermining of traditional values and a threat to the moral order. There are obviously many causes for this, but the lack of personal integrity on the part of Kennedy and his heirs--and the sneaking suspicion among many that there was a link between their personal and political indulgences--were an important part of the glue that held it together. That too is Ted Kennedy's legacy, and worth remembering as the country moves on.

Monday, August 24, 2009

still more on civility and the health care debate

I have a pretty small blog, so when I get seven comments in a few days, you know that I've touched a nerve. I was moved particularly by the comments from Dan Shaviro, who noted his efforts to engage conservative intellectual arguments on health care, and Frank Pasquale, who described the role of his Catholic faith in the formulation of his positions on health care and other social justice issues. It is possible that I was unduly harsh or dismissive of their positions.

The problem is that it is not only them. In Saturday's New York Times Charles Blow had a column "Masters and Slaves of Deception"--a title plainly chosen to inject racial tension into an essentially nonracial issue--in which he describes conservative opponents of health care reform as "crazies" and suggesting that there was no point negotiating with their "cabal." Joe Klein chimed in in Time magazine, calling Republican positions "obscene" and "heinous" and saying that it was difficult to maintain a two-party system when one of the two major parties "has been overrun by nihilists." This sort of stuff is being written by liberal academics, journalists, bloggers, and so on ever day.

I don't think health care is an easy issue, and I think it is likely that we will have some sort of national health care program sooner of later. Nor do I think liberals are the only, or even the primary, ones to debase the discussion. (A Google search for "right-wing crazies health care" generates 1 million hits, while "Obama extraterrestrial" generates three times than number, albeit some of them in parody mode.) But the people who think Obama is from outer space are not, by and large, law professors or respected journalists, while the people who call conservatives names frequently are. Aside from their rampant illogic--if we are dealing with a tiny cabal why is the bill so difficult to pass--this sort of talk it is wholly destructive of debate and discussion on any level, and not only with respect to health care. Its primary damage is not to the right, which largely ignores it, but to the left itself, which rather than fight for things it believes in (note the inexplicable cave on the "public option") appears to prefer blaming others for its failings. Here's hoping the debate will be more constructive in the fall.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

more on civility and the health care debate

Even for someone who grew up in New York, the health care debate--and the more general political discussion--is getting nastier and nastier. As I've noted both here and at my political blog [], much of this is indisputably coming from the right. But a matching and in many respects more insidious kind of escalation has lately been coming from the left, including many academics, as well.

Last week Frank Pasquale, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, posted "Of Rodeo Clowns and Health Care Despair" at the Balkinization blog. In it he referred to several arguments being made by health care opponents as "completely unhinged" and quoted another writer (Steven Pearlstein) saying that "Republican leaders and their ideological fellow-travelers" have become "political terrorists, willing to say or do anything to prevent the country from reaching a consensus" on health care. Dan Shaviro, in "Start Making Sense," refers to the "Republicans' hateful lying about death panels" adding that his arguments are aimed at those who are "sane and believe in civil society" but that "[t]he rest, apparently a large majority of their number, do not bear discussing." (In fairness, Shaviro also devotes substantial energy to discussing more substantive objections, including adverse selection and moral hazard, which he distinguishes from more emotional positions.) Writing not about health care but economic policy, Neil Buchanan at Dorf on Law describes Newt Gingrich, a senior Republican figure, as "peddling . . . outright lies and distortions" adding "there is precious little evidence that he has ever had an innovative idea in his life." In other posts he has referred to Gingrich as suffering from "partisan Tourette's" syndrome and suggested that he (Buchanan) would uncover the "excuses" of those who opposed his views on progressive taxation.

Language of this kind obviously won't convince anyone who doesn't agree with the authors: it is probably best understood as a metaphorical letting off steam in the midst of a heated debate that is not going particularly well for one's side. But it is enormously damaging, in a much more longstanding way--especially given the sources--than anything being said by opponents of the health care package. To see this, let's consider a few basic points:

1. There is nothing fundamentally irrational, insane, or otherwise illogical about opposition to the President's health care plan.--At a time of record unemployment and large and growing budget deficits, President Obama has called for dramatic expansion of the Federal Government's role in health care, while at the same time rejecting the funding mechanism (taxation of all or a portion of employer-provided health benefits) most often proposed as a way to pay for it. In the absence of any other obvious way to finance it, senior citizens and others have not unreasonably concluded that much of it will ultimately be paid for by reducing benefits that they now receive, a suspicion that has been further encouraged by repeated comments from Administration figures about the need to rein in, control, or prevent waste and abuse in Medicare and other existing health care programs. Their fears on this score may not reflect great generosity of spirit--one can make a pretty good case that more should be spent on younger and poorer people and less on older and wealthier ones--but they are hardly irrational and, indeed, no more selfish or mean-spirited than the behavior of any other group threatened with similar consequences. The allegation that these people are somehow being used by doctors, insurance companies, or other "special" interests is especially bizarre since most special interests in fact support the bill.

2. The attempt to divert attention from the underlying reasons for opposition to the bill, and focus it on a handful of rowdy demonstrators, is both empirically unconvincing and has distasteful historical precedents.--Every major poll shows large and growing opposition to the health care proposal and President Obama's overall performance, a skepticism which (at least on the first count) crosses party and regional lines. To attempt to discredit literally tens of millions of opponents based on the rowdy behavior of a few hundred demonstrators is--in addition to being bad politics--logically incoherent and morally untenable. It is also, to say the least, historically ironic: as several authors have pointed out, this is precisely the argument that was made against Vietnam War protesters and (earlier) civil rights demonstrators, who likewise had their share of rowdies but also had winning arguments and (eventually) majority support.

3. Even the most bizarre and extreme arguments being made by protesters, if exaggerated, contain important kernels of truth that should not be dismissed by policy-makers.--The two arguments most commonly cited as irrational are (i) the "death panels" suggestion and (ii) the distinction between Medicare and socialism (as in, no socialized medicine but don't touch my Medicare benefits). Obviously, these are not arguments that would be made by law professors. But neither are they wholly incoherent. The death panels argument reflects, if crudely, the fear that the new legislation will set spending priorities in a way that puts older and weaker people at the bottom of the barrel: hardly an idle fear given the rules in other national health care systems and the indifference that liberals have shown toward religious values on matters ranging from abortion to end-of-life issues. The socialism vs. Medicare argument--which I doubt anyone except President Obama has actually made--reflects a not unreasonable distinction between elderly people, who are uniquely vulnerable and may not have the ability otherwise to provide for their own health care, and younger, healthier people whose tradeoff between security and independence may be quite different. For similar reasons society provides financial protection for the elderly (social security) that is not extended, and which no one seriously proposes extending, to the remaining population. Again, this may or may not be a convincing argument--one could argue that children are more vulnerable than old people, and certainly a better investment--but neither is it irrational, incoherent, or reflective of a false consciousness.

Why do liberal commentators persist in a smear campaign that is both logically unconvincing and unlikely to gain them much political traction? It may help to reflect upon the life experiences of today's liberals and their view of recent history.

I think that most contemporary liberals--especially in academics--have never been exposed to serious conservative opinion, other than the law-and-economics version which is (in my view) more a bastard version of marxism than real conservatism, anyway. In particular, few of them have any grasp of the worldview identified with the evangelical and Catholic churches and their very real sense of Government as a dictatorial, anti-religious force in contemporary life. Unable to comprehend the underlying moral bases for opposition to abortion, gay marriage, or an overbearing Federal Government, they tend to place the opposition into categories they are more comfortable with--race, gender, economic self-interest--and attack it on that basis. Indeed, many younger liberals are not even comfortable with economic issues, seeing all opposition as based on "racism" or "bigotry" and the evil effects of television advertising.

One most also consider the liberal interpretation of recent political history. Eight years of the Bush Administration were rendered tolerable only by the sense of its supposed illegitimacy and the hope of something better after. The notion that Obama is less than a savior--that he is following a trajectory not essentially different from that of Carter or Clinton before him--is simply too much to handle. Unable to face the increasingly obvious fact that most Americans don't share their agenda, they turn to conspiracy theories.

What is most chilling about this kind of rhetoric--what I think makes it ultimately worse than anything the Republicans are doing--is its effect on young people. At the end of the day, nobody thinks that the town hall meetings are a model of political behavior. But today's students see their own teachers--the people they look to as role models--using words like crazy, unhinged, or liars to describe people that they disagree with on domestic policy issues. They see careers advanced, and reputations made, using terms that a fourteen year-old would be punished for using at the dining room table. What is going to be their future, and what will the effect of all this name-calling be when today's politics have long since been forgotten?

Monday, August 17, 2009

still grating after all these years

We're on the market for a new car--my '98 minivan has 170,000+ miles and doesn't qualify as a clunker, I'm sure, only because of the same plot designed to destroy Medicare and substitute Arabic for English in our schools. We're leaning toward a Prius or another Subaru, but being a fair-minded person I thought I would take a look at the comparable GM offerings as well. What I saw was, well, not exactly encouraging.

The good news is that the car in question (the Malibu) doesn't seem far off the mark of other Japanese or American companies. It looks nice, has decent ratings, and offers a hybrid version that's behind the Prius but ahead of most other brands. The price is the same or a little bit lower than the competition.

The problem is how they try to sell it. One would think that a company that was close to going, or had actually gone, out of business would think about changing its way of doing business. Instead, the moment I walked in, I remembered why I had stopped buying American cars more than a decade ago. Whereas a Toyota dealer can't wait to show you the product (if indeed there are any left), here they seemed anxious to talk about anything but. I was asked my name, address, "time frame," and price range and regaled with incentives and option packages before I was allowed to approach the car. When I asked how it compared to other models--the answer to which, as I said, is not too badly--the dealer shifted the conversation to how expensive the others were, as if only someone who couldn't afford a Japanese car would even be there.

It's easy to be critical. I would get testy too if I worked in a showroom where no one came in all day long (only two other people showed up, both for service, the whole time I was there). But if this is how they are doing business it's hard to see how they will turn things around. It is an overused term, but there really is such a thing as culture: national, regional, and corporate. It's a very hard thing to change: and first, you have to try.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

reelin' in the decades

There are perhaps six groups that I would take the train to New York on a 90 degree day to see, but Steely Dan is certainly one of them, so when the invitation came--free tickets, at that--I was on my way. It's hard to explain why I like Steely Dan so much, although perhaps easier if you lived through the 70s. The 70s were a contrary decade, and Steely Dan were the ultimate contrarians. Everyone else did rock, so they toyed with jazz. Everyone else sang about love and fulfillment, so they sang about prostitutes, ne'er-do-wells, and aging men (thirty was old then) who tried to hit on college-age women, usually without success. Everyone else gave concerts, so they quit touring and became a studio band. Indeed, from the early 80s to the mid 90s they ceased to exist, altogether, finally coming together again to do new albums, give concerts, and otherwise amuse their many fans only in the last 15 years.

I saw Steely Dan on my fortieth birthday, in 1996, when they were pushing 50; now I'm 50-plus and they're 60 or so. In the 90s they were mixing their old classics with new materials, some of it actually quite good. This time they stuck mostly to the classics, doing a whole album ("The Royal Scam") together with hits from their other 70s albums. Whether because of the new, elaborate arrangements--there must have been 15 people on the stage for most of the show--or because sound systems have improved in the past 30 years, the songs actually sounded better than they had in the originals. When they launched into a double encore of "My Old School" and "Reelin' in the Years," two particularly sardonic, college-y ballads, the crowd of aging hipsters was on its literal and metaphorical feet.

On the way home I turned on my Blackberry and noted a strange coincidence. On the very night that police had to restrain protesters at several "town hall" meetings on health care, two aging, contrarian rockers had given a concert, in the heart of the radically chic West Side, with nary a security man in sight. What is the country coming to, I wondered, when rock concerts are safe and tidy and political meetings are dangerous? Perhaps people simply have a certain quotient of contrariness to express and they do so in different ways. Or perhaps the people at the town halls should listen to more Steely Dan.

Friday, August 07, 2009

race, class, and the health care proposal

Lately there have been a spate of charges and counter-charges regarding race in politics and, especially, criticisms of the Obama Administration. First came Gates-Gate where the race issue was admittedly hard to avoid. Then came posters showing Obama as Heath Ledger as the Joker with the word "socialism" in the background--a stretch, I think, but perhaps with some hidden racial overtones. Now Paul Krugman, in the NY Times, has written that the angry behavior of opponents of Obama's health plan is driven by "the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the “birther” movement," part of the "angry white voter" strategy that dates back to Richard Nixon. (Comments on Krugman's column were closed by 9:15 this morning, suggesting that the angry people may have included some Times readers.)

I may be missing something, but I find it awfully hard to see racial overtones in the health care debate. What I see, instead, is incipient class warfare: the 70 or 80 percent of people who are more-or-less-satisfied with their health care are not particularly anxious to share it with the 10 or 20 or 30 additional percent (depending on the proposal) who would benefit from the Administration's proposals. This isn't particularly admirable, but it was surely foreseeable, particularly as the entrenched groups are concentrated and organized and the challengers are diffuse and demoralized. (Where is Mancur Olson when you need him?) That Obama has been unwilling to take on the largest entrenched interest (unions) by calling for taxes on excessive health benefits, choosing instead to pretend that we could have expanded coverage without any significant sacrifice, has not helped things either.

The surprising thing to me is not the behavior of the health care opponents but that the Administration's supporters have not been better prepared for it. Part of it, I think, has to do with the education and sensibility of what passes for today's political left. People have been doing identity politics for so long that they seem honestly unable to confront what is essentially an economic or class issue. The marxist nostrum that everything is about class has been turned on its head: everything is ultimately about race, gender, or personal identity, even when at first it seems otherwise. So liberals talk about Skip Gates or Heath Ledger while conservatives rally people toward their basic economic interests. In elite circles the former may triumph. But as a long term political strategy, it's nothing short of bizarre.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

the empire state strikes back

I went to Cornell in the '70s, and taught there for a semester in the '90s, so upstate New York is not entirely unfamiliar to me. Still, it's different to vacation somewhere than to work there. For one thing, you have a car and free time, the latter of which I mostly lacked as a teacher (and both as a student). For another thing, it's warm, which happens maybe a week or two during the academic year. A trip back thus brings memories, but also prompts one to notice things which either have changed in the interim or which--being there all the time--you simply didn't notice the first time around.

One of the first things you notice is cultural. People, which is to say strangers, actually say hello in upstate New York, something which would probably cause you to seek police assistance in Philadelphia or New York City. There is also a certain live-and-let-live attitude which seems almost quaint by big city standards. At the Smart Monkey cafe in Ithaca, a vegan menu and environmentally-oriented magazines predominate, but one can also order a hamburger (on a natural roll, to be sure) if one desires. Not very consistent, ideologically speaking, but it does win points on the tolerance scale: perhaps the greater physical space provides opportunity for more cultural flexibility, as well.

A second, related point relates to political diversity and the limitations of the red state/blue state theory. Upstate colleges, and Cornell in particular, have always been more green than red: environmental consciousness runs strong but it's hard to find a copy of the New York Times, let alone serious left-wing publications. With the passage of time, and the settling of more alumni (or pseudo-alumni) in the college towns, this has morphed into a culture that at once liberal in its social attitudes but almost quaintly small town in its attachment to family, outdoor activity, and such quintessentially American pursuits as country (or pseudo-country) music. While eating breakfast at the Ithaca Bakery, I tried my hand at dividing the grown-up hippies from the beer-drinking and pickup truck crowd, until I realized that many of the hippies were the beer-drinking and pickup truck crowd: the urban distinctions simply didn't work in a small-city, postradical environment. Presumably Obama did well in Ithaca, but Bush might well enjoy the music better.

Which is not to say that cleavages don't remain. Across the football line in Canandaigua, where people shop at Wegman's and root for the Buffalo Bills, miles of strip development (and a beautiful beach) sat alongside a largely forlorn downtown and what was obviously a great deal of economic stagnation. We snacked at an all-crepes cafe with wonderful espresso and breakfasted at a greasy spoon with a one-page menu: but the middle seemed difficult to find. While cultural distinctions have blurred in twenty-first century America, it seems that economic distinctions have if anything gotten wider: or perhaps that cultural tolerance requires one first have a job. A point which seems obvious, on reflection, but which it sometimes takes a vacation to notice.