Wednesday, March 31, 2010

obama derangement syndrome

A lot of the commentary on the health care bill has suggested that Republicans suffered from being too conservative and need to compromise more in the future. A second line of comments suggests Republicans have been too angry or hostile and need to be more positive. I think that the first line of comments is mistaken, but the second has something to it.

The moderates vs. conservatives trope sounds appealing but doesn't stand up to analysis. McCain ran an essentially moderate campaign (notwithstanding Palin) and got killed. Since the GOP has followed a more conservative line, its polls are up and it has generally been on the offensive ideologically speaking. The health care defeat--a narrow win for the Democrats in a house where they have an overhelming majority--doesn't really change this.

But being conservative does not have to mean being strident or angry. Much of the response to the health care bill, including cries of socialism from the Tea Party types and solemn threats to repeal the bill before it takes effect, have unfortunately been of this variety. There's much to dislike about the bill: and I still think that a measure with dubious political support, potentially awful revenue consequences, and at least some constitutional problems--not to mention a four-year delay in several key provisions--is eminently subject to change. But calling it the end of life as we know it is unconvincing, and allows Obama and the Democrats to claim the high ground on an issue where they don't deserve it. Anger always sells poorly, especially amoung younger and female voters that the GOP needs to win back, or prevent losing further.

The Middle East issue has a similar dynamic. It's pretty clear now that Obama is not reliably pro-Israel, and that the Israelis will have to take action themselves (as I still think they will) to prevent and Iranian nuclear bomb. Principled opposition is both correct and inevitable. But there is little point in personalizing such opposition: suggestions that Obama is an antisemite, which he plainly isn't, or complaints about the White House Passover Seder contribute little to the debate. The reality is that American (including some Jewish) opinion on Israel is evolving, for reasons including domestic politics, the Iraqi and Afghan wars, and (not least) the presence of an unusually right-wing Israeli Government; that doesn't mean Obama shouldn't be challenged, but it's a mistake to think that changing Presidents would correct all of these problems, and a pressing need to think in longer terms.

It was fashionable a few years ago to speak of "Bush Derangement Syndrome": a though pattern in which otherwise rational people went bonkers at any mention of the 43rd president. I wonder if we're not seeing its reflection now. There's plenty to dislike Obama about, but he's going to be President for at least two, and maybe six, more years; yelling and screaming won't change that a whole lot. Besides look where the Bush Syndrome got us. To exactly the place, more or less, that the new angry people complain about.

Friday, March 26, 2010

cornell falls short

Well the Cornell basketball team didn't quite make it, losing to Kentucky 62-45 and failing to make it to the "Elite Eight" of college basketball. Notwithstanding a brilliant start and a brief second-half rally, the Big Red were simply overwhelmed by Kentucky's size, speed, and aggressiveness, at one point suffering a 30-6 run that brought to mind Penn's experience against Magic Johnson's Michigan State team in the Final Four thirty years ago. Perhaps sensing the inevitable, ESPN switched to the Kansas State-Xavier game shortly after halftime and stayed there.

One interesting aspect of the coverage was the assumption that Kentucky had the physical talent but Cornell was "smarter" and/or more disciplined, presumably because of its Ivy League status. I wonder. I went to Cornell in the 70s, and there were plenty of people who hung out in the gym or at fraternity parties: they had many virtues but intellectual prowess was not necessarily among them. Moreover the virtues of the Kentucky team--persistence, determination, the ability to change strategies when confronted with a different opponent--struck me as more or less the things that I would identify with, well, intelligence in the real-world if not the test-taking sense. DeMarcus Cousins, a Kentucky freshman, was quoted as saying that the game would not be a "spelling bee." The way he and his teammates played, if it had been, they probably would have won.

Monday, March 22, 2010

the health care bill (again)

Well the bill is close to being law, which is a surprise compared to where we stood a few months ago, although less so when the large Democratic majorities--and the fact that they are almost certain to disappear this fall--are taken into account. I must confess to having mixed feelings about this development. I have always thought that the harsh Republican response to health care was misplaced: there's a pretty good case for market failure here, and conservatives have learned to live with one form or another of national health care in other developed countries. But I think the contrary sense--that this is some kind of defining moment that marks the high point of the anti-Obama conservative reaction--is equally misplaced. Here's why:

1. The attention span factor.--Democrats are trying to play this as a 21st century version of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security all rolled into one. This is an odd parallel, since the Democrats got creamed in 1966 and lost the Presidency in 1968, after the first two were passed. But I think it's exaggerated, anyway. Most people saw this for what it was: a liberal President, forced on the defensive, trying to salvage something of his agenda by pressuring his own party into supporting a bill many were plainly unenthusiastic about. He deserves some credit for political courage--he is certainly ahead of Bill Clinton on this score (although that isn't hard). But more people were talking about the Cornell basketball team today than the health care bill: I just don't think most people are nearly as focused on it as the Washington elite, and the gap is likely to grow rather than shrink in the coming months.

2. The need for further legislation.--Many in the media have played this as a yes or no issue: either there would be reform now or the issue would go away for another generation. In fact, the rapid growth of health care spending would have sooner or later required legislation anyway, and the current bill will likely need a series of amendments to meet revenue and other targets. Health care, in other words, is an ongoing issue: and Republicans may be better positioned attacking the budgetary and other excesses of this than attempting to defend a status quo that most knew deep down was indefensible.

3. The "the more they see it, the more they'll like it" fallacy.--Faced with largely negative polling data, Democrats have resorted to a transparency argument: the more people see of the actual legislation, the more they'll grow to like it. This almost never happens. The essential newspaper headline today was, "Congress passes bill that extends health care, saves money, and doesn't take anything away from anyone." Whatever happens, that won't, and--as people learn the actual costs of the bill--they are much more likely to turn against it than in favor of it. This is especially true given the workings of entitlement theory, which suggests that people become more angry at losing something they already have than grateful for getting something new: an unfair result, perhaps, but usually pretty dependable.

The biggest problem with health care, I think, is not so much the bill itself but that it has taken up a year of time that might have been spent addressing issues--jobs, economic growth, the war on terrorism--that most people seem to think are more important. In this sense, its closest parallel may be the Camp David peace accords, with President Jimmy Carter (like Obama with health care) became more or less obsessed with in the second year of his Presidency. Carter got an accord, and thirty years later it remains a signature achievement. But most Americans simply shrugged and wondered why he was spending so much time on the issue while the economy fell apart. The rest is history.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

yale leads the nation (again)

Yale University has banned faculty from sexual relationships with undergraduate students. The previous policy was to ban such relationships only for students under direct supervision of the faculty member. Parents don't send their children to Yale to sleep with faculty, one official helpfully explained, adding that the change had been coming (no pun intended) for some time.

Having attended Cornell in the 1970s, where dating students was something of a varsity sport--two of my five first professors got in trouble for it and even some women faculty were rumored to participate--I cannot say the proposal is unmerited. Still, like all legislation, the change leaves several important questions unanswered.

One question is the matter of negative implication. By banning relationships with undergraduates, Yale presumably does not mean to say that relationships with law or other graduate students are advisable or even acceptable. And yet it's hard to avoid this inference. (This is not a hypothetical either: one professor dated at least three students during the time I was at Yale Law, and several of my current colleagues were or are married to former students.)

A further question relates to effective dates: what if someone was in a relationship with a student at the time the bill (so to speak) became law? Are they expected immediately to end it? What of other relationships, even marriages, that initiated with such illicit contacts? Are they free from scrutiny, or--under the "fruit of the poison tree" doctrine--are they also suspect?

The only answer, I think, is to hold a conference on the legislation, where the leading lights of statutory interpretation can hold forth on these and other key issues. To be held in New Haven, of course. With separate seating for students and faculty.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

reconciliation and the health care bill

It is now clear that there will be an attempt, however successful, to pass health care reform via the "reconciliation" route. My guess is that it won't or will only partially succeed, since moderate Democrats, whose support Obama needs, will not want to endanger their political futures on an increasingly unpopular measure. Still, the effort will be made, and it has to be given a serious chance of succeeding.

Supporters of the reconciliation route often argue that Republicans did the same thing when they were in power, so why shouldn't we? I think this is actually a bit of a stretch, since health care reform--a huge regulatory program with some tax and spending aspects--is rather more removed from the purposes of reconciliation than most tax and spending bills. (Imagine, for example, a change in Middle East policy being rammed through on the theory that it would save money by cutting aid to Israel.) But even if the comparison does hold, it is still not convincing.

For almost a year, everyone has understood that the "game" in health care involved the necessity of reaching 60 votes. The proposals were designed and argued, the issues debated, and the entire process shaped by this assumption. Scott Brown was elected in Massachusetts on a promise to deny the 60th vote , and opposed by Democrats on grounds he would do so. To say now that we didn't need sixty votes--heads we win, tails you lose, so to speak--will appear to most people like changing the rules in the middle of the gam. It's a little bit like the Phillies moving the right field fence out in anticipation of playing the Yankees, who have a lot of power hitters, in another World Series: it may be legal, but it doesn't look kosher, and it's unlikely to convince anyone who wasn't on your side to begin with.

I think that maneuvers of this type also feed a growing cynicism about the electoral process and, inadvertently, strengthen the Tea Party Movement and its adherents. The Tea Party types argue, in effect, that the Obama Administration is illegitimate: that it somehow manipulated the political system, the campaign finance rules, and perhaps even Obama's citizenship in order to win an election it didn't observe. The response to this ought to be a patient (or if you prefer, impatient) explanation that this was not the case. Instead the Administration actually does change a rule which everyone had understood to be fair in the middle of the process, with support from clever "scholars"--most of whom do not even bother to hide their partisan affiliation anymore--in doing so. How in the world will this do anything but strengthen the most extreme elements, or convince them that there is any alternative to the wholesale replacement of this Government?

Friday, March 05, 2010

image, reality, and the gender issue

A couple of events this week got me thinking about our society and its rather contradictory attitudes toward gender. Last night I attended a dinner and presentation in New York as part of the NYU tax policy colloquium. The presenter and all of the dinner guests under 50 were women, all bright, confident, and in at least superficially high spirits. Students and faculty participated in the seminar without visible gender distinction. Other than a lame joke about water breaking (one of the participants was visibly pregnant), the gender issue, so to speak, was by and large invisible.

I then took my customary brisk walk to Penn Station [I lived until age 8 in lower Manhattan and there are memories everywhere] where the TV news was blaring as usual. It seems that the current Governor of New York, a liberal State, employed a substantial number of state officials in a (successful) effort to intimidate a woman from seeking a protective order against one of the Governor's key aides. I don't remember all the details, but there was something a woman being smashed into a mirror, her clothes stripped off, the kind of stuff you usually see only on CSI. To make matters worse a secondary scandal, involving the failure to report free baseball tickets, was being treated as on a par with this episode. The previous Governor resigned in a prostitution scandal.

What exactly is going on then? Call me cynical, but it seems to me women are now pretty much the equal of men . . . if they went to Ivy League schools, worked at fancy law firms, and teach at reasonably good universities. Beyond that I'm much less sure. Or perhaps we are all, at each income level, living in two worlds: an official one of equality and mutual respect and a real one, not far below the surface, in which everything continue more or less as before. I think of my 14-year old son, who can name all the female body parts but seems to have only a vague idea that they are connected to real people. Perhaps equality between the genders is a bit like the Exodus from Egypt in the Passover Haggadah: a lesson that has to be continually relearned because there is an inevitable tendency toward backsliding. Or perhaps we are in an intermediate zone, like Jews a hundred years ago, where we have the illusion of having made it and the real struggles have yet to begin.