My friend kohenari has offered a nice riff on a NY Times Sunday piece about proposed legislation in Arizona that would allow students and others to carry guns on campuses in that state. You can read his comments here: guns on campus.
As someone who stands in front of classes of 200+ students every semester, I want to add three things:
1. I am not going to feel even a little bit safer if a gunman rushes into my classroom and 100 of my students pull out guns to try to defend either me or themselves. I might—MIGHT—be able to talk one madman down, or hide, or whatever. I can’t do that for 100 or more scared people;
2. MOST BULLETS MISS MOST OF THE TIME. THEY DO NOT HIT THEIR INTENDED TARGET! I am convinced that the “self-defense” arguments gun advocates spout as they make their case for silly gun laws rest on a gunslinger fantasy. People imagine themselves as Clint Eastwood on a dusty street who can outdraw and out shoot the bad guy. But it’s just not true. Even trained people, whether police officers or soldiers, miss most of the time. (That’s why we give soldiers automatic weapons with big clips, or even belts of ammunition.) 100 scared students firing in a small room, missing and missing and missing, is likely to lead a to bloodbath far beyond the chaos a madman can cause. You might feel safer, but you won’t be;
3. Even trained people screw up. There was, apparently, an accidental shooting at a gun show in my town yesterday. You can read the story here: gun show shooting. For me, the operative points are: that a professional gun dealer placed a loaded assault rifle in his display table, at which point it discharged; and that THE BULLET PASSED THROUGH A POST 6-8 INCHES THICK BEFORE PASSING THROUGH ANOTHER PERSON AND STOPPING IN THE BODY OF A SECOND PERSON. These weapons are unbelievably powerful. Misses will penetrate walls and kill people in neighboring rooms, on the sidewalks outside, and lots of other places. And they can do so by accident, even if the person in charge of the weapon isn’t drunk or emotional (a fairly common condition on a college campus), or a madman … which fortunately isn’t.
To quote the conservative saints Ronald and Nancy Reagan: “Just Say No!”
If there’s one media meme that needs to die amidst the Libyan revolution, it’s “unrest in Libya is making the price of your gas go up.” Your desire to fill your tank for $5 or $10 less than you now have to pay does not justify several hundred million people across the Middle East living in oppression and cruelty.
The only people who have a right to be worried about the increase in the price of gas (and everything else, since gas drives the world) are the poor: any relative increase in their cost of living is devastating. Which is why we ought to have an effective welfare state.
But the rest of us, middle class (or better off, for those of you who are better off), need to accept that it’s immoral to bemoan cost increases that can be lessened only by maintaining the suffering of a vast portion of the world’s population.
The times, as someone once noted, they are a’changin’.
Rolling Stone, Psyops, and Investigative Journalism
As I was reading today’s investigative bombshell in Rolling Stone, on the Army’s apparent use of psy ops techniques on US Congresspeople visiting Afghanistan, I was struck by a question that I think has a disturbing answer: why is there so little good investigative journalism outside journals like Rolling Stone?
The short answer to my question is that Rolling Stone is one of the few news sources these days that pays its reporters to go out and investigate things. Whether it’s Matt Taibbi’s explorations of the financial crisis, or Michael Hasting’s piece on Gen. McChrystal, Rolling Stone gives its reporters time to go prospecting, accepting the reality that sometimes its reporters will come up blank.
This practice stands in stark opposition to the dominant news model today. In the internet age it’s speed that predominates. What matters is being first with the “new” thing since that’s how you drive hits and links to your source page. In-depth, careful examination of the facts doesn’t do the trick, at least not often enough. And, notably, in the race to be first, ”facts” become fungible things: no one much takes the time to make sure what they report is “true” for fear that someone else will report the “fact,” gaining an edge in the race for page views.
As an aside, I am struck by the yawning chasm between the logic of the internet age and that of my profession. As a faculty person I am blessed with the chance to think and ponder and make false starts and develop my ideas over time. I began the research for what became my first (coauthored) book, Street-Level Leadership, without really knowing I had begun it, riding along with a student who was a Sergeant of a police department. I commenced that project in 1990. The book was published in 1998. My book on the militia movement, Rage on the Right, began (again serendipitously) when I moved to Spokane, WA in 1992. It was published in 2003. And my recent work, Globalization and American Popular Culture, has managed to make a second edition, giving me time to refine and reimagine parts of it. I look forward to continuing this process into a third edition.
Don’t get me wrong: I monitor the news today like everyone else does: online, in fits and snippets. It’s brilliant in times of crisis, since people on the ground can give us a real feel for the events as they unfold there. But we seem to have lost something of a culture of investigation and contemplation in the bargain. So thanks, Rolling Stone, and here’s hoping lots of others decide to follow in your wake!
As I did during the Egyptian revolution, I am currently watching Glenn Beck’s take on the Libyan revolution. He has a remarkable imagination.
Apparently, Barack Obama wants Islamic radicalism to triumph globally. Beck’s logic is fairly hard to follow—it’s not really logical, after all—but as best as I can figure out, Beck believes that Obama has failed to support real democratic revolutions across the Middle East, while supporting radicals. In Iran, for example, Beck insists that Obama failed to support the anti-regime revolutionaries a year or so ago. Since Iran is a form of a theocracy, failure to oppose the government of Iran means we support Iranian radicalism. In Egypt, by contrast, our support for the revolution was tainted (in Beck’s mind) by the fact that some of the revolutionaries prayed during the revolution—meaning, apparently, that they are Islamic extremists. In Libya, Beck insists that Obama has not been sufficiently supportive of the revolution there, meaning that he is again opposing “real” democratic revolution in favor of Qaddafi’s horrific regime.
Basically, Beck insists Obama loves chaos. And since, apparently, the President of the United States can control everything that happens everywhere in the world just by talking about it, if he wanted to stop the chaos, he could. And since he doesn’t stop it, he must want the worst possible thing for the US and the world—which for Beck is political disarray and the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist revolution.
There’s so much wrong here it’s hard to unpack. But let me just hit three points. First, it is possible to pray without being an extremist. Second, there might well be religious radicals among the anti-government forces in both Iran and Libya. Third, and this may be the most important one of all: it took 18 days to bring down the Egyptian regime, a government that had been in power for 30 years. We might be about to see the collapse of the Libyan regime, which has been in power for 40 years, in even less time. What, when it comes to promoting democracy across the world, is Obama doing wrong?
It’s just a question. But I think it’s a pretty good question.
Last week, I posted a long piece in which I argued that the accelerating collapse of the authoritarian regimes across the Arab world was grounded not—as Glenn Beck would have it—on some well-organized conspiracy run by Google and Facebook, but on the collapse of the legitimacy of those regimes.
And now we have, perhaps, Libya. One thing I did not mention last week, but am reminded of today, is the endurance of these regimes. Mubarak succeeded Sadat who had succeeded Nasser for a span of over 50 years. The ruler of Tunisia had lasted for 23 years. The leader of Yemen has been in power for more than 30 years. And now, Qadaffi, has been in power for 40 years.
One interesting component of this list is that in demographic terms, all of these people came to power over a generation—or more—ago. More than half of their citizens have likely never known a different leader. More, they have no emotional connection to the regime’s founding myth: its story of colonial resistance, or of shared sacrifice in wars with Israel or other nations, or any other narrative the regime has used to ground its legitimacy.
Instead, all such persons know is the regime’s corruption and repression. They know they have to give bribes to get anything, and that their prospects in life are never going to get any better. All they know is that the regime operates as George Orwell has O’Brien describe Big Brother operating: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." (George Orwell, 1984.)
I hope Libya can break that image, and with as little violence as might be even imaginable. Those old regimes have lost whatever vestige of legitimacy they had left. Now it’s just a matter of whether or not the thugs win.
In response to my earlier post, mcentellas offered the entirely on-point comment,
"But it doesn’t even matter! By law, his mother’s citizenship makes him a “natural born” citizen (like me), regardless of place of birth!!"
He’s right—which is why all this debate is both so fascinating and so ridiculous. John McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone, but to US citizen parents, one of whom was an admiral in the US Navy. Americans born overseas are still Americans, and people born to one US citizen parent have the right to dual citizenship. Thus, even if Barack Obama had been born in Kenya, his mother was an American, and so he was entitled to American citizenship as a birthright, regardless of where he was born.
To suggest how deep the crazy of the birthers goes, I have heard some claim Obama’s mother renounced her citizenship while in Kenya, stripping him of this right (again, assuming that he was born in Kenya. Which he wasn’t.) They have no proof of this, of course, but the lack of proof isn’t a deterrent here: Obama is apparently being protected by … someone. Similarly, I have had a conversation with a student who purported to have proved Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii because he had found Obama’s Social Security number online—!—and it was from Maine, not Hawaii.
The Republicans have a crazy tiger in their midst, and it’s not Sarah Palin. I’m not sure we’ve seen anything like it before.
A story’s been running around the web that 51% of likely voters in the GOP primary next year are birthers, meaning that they do not believe that President Obama was born in the United States, and so is ineligible to be President.
This story is based on a poll done by a group called Public Policy Polling. You can find their summary, and a link to the full report here:
The paragraph that has drawn the most attention is:
"Birthers make a majority among those voters who say they’re likely to participate in a Republican primary next year. 51% say they don’t think Barack Obama was born in the United States to just 28% who firmly believe that he was and 21% who are unsure. The GOP birther majority is a new development. The last time PPP tested this question nationally, in August of 2009, only 44% of Republicans said they thought Obama was born outside the country while 36% said that he definitely was born in the United States. If anything birtherism is on the rise."
Additionally, the PPP analysis examined the question of what kind of voters—birther or not—were likely to support various potential candidates for the Republican nomination for President next year. They found:
"Well among the 49% of GOP primary voters who either think Obama was born in the United States or aren’t sure, Romney’s the first choice to be the 2012 nominee by a good amount, getting 23% to 16% for Mike Huckabee, 11% for Sarah Palin, and 10% for Newt Gingrich. But with the birther majority he’s in a distant fourth place at 11%, with Mike Huckabee at 24%, Sarah Palin at 19%, and Newt Gingrich at 14% all ahead of him."
Overall, PPP found that when they re-aggregated the birther and non-birther parts of the GOP electorate, that Romney ended up in 2nd place, with 17% support, while Mike Huckabee led the field at 20%. Sarah Palin was third at 15%.
I actually don’t know enough about PPP as a polling organization to assess this. Their poll is of 400 people who they call “primary voters,” although they must mean likely voters since no one can possibly have voted in a presidential primary yet. They assert the +/- at 4.9%.
But man oh man, if this is accurate, we’re in for one long, strange 2012 … and presidential election years are ALWAYS long, strange trips through America’s image of itself.
Of course, it does mean I’ll have plenty to occupy my time with, so that’s a bonus!
“If you want to know what the federal government is really doing, just look where it’s spending our money. Two of every five dollars goes to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, all of which provide some form of insurance. A bit more than a buck goes to the military. Then there’s a $1.50 or so for assorted other spending - education, infrastructure, environmental protection, farm subsidies, etc. Some of that, like unemployment checks and food stamps, is also best understood as forms of insurance. And then there’s another 40 cents of debt repayment. Calvin Coolidge once said that the business of America is business. Well, the business of the American government is insurance. Literally. If you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large standing army.”—Ezra Klein, The Washington Post, February 14, 2011. With thanks to npr.
In my last, brief post on Glenn Beck’s take on the Egyptian revolution, I made the point that in Beck’s view, the world’s democracies are vulnerable to attack by global revolutionary forces. Beck argues that the Egyptian revolution presages a coming global revolution by jihadis against democracies, and that because the revolution is “well organized”—by Google!—democracies are likely to lose. The Egyptian revolution, then, is the first step in the collapse of the western way of life, and so should be feared, not honored.
Beck’s wrong, of course—and not just for the obvious reasons, like good, old-fashioned reason: why in the world would Google, a for-profit enterprise whose entire existence is premised on its ability to collect information and then to market it by delivering it to consumers on behalf of advertisers, want global jihadi revolution?
Rather, Beck’s wrong as a result of his staggering ignorance of a concept central to politics: legitimacy.
Legitimacy is a government’s right to rule its people. Governments are seen to be legitimate to the degree their people believe that government has the right to rule over them.
Legitimacy can have many sources. In monarchies, at least in history, legitimacy derived from familial ties and the notion of the divine right of kings. In theocracies, legitimacy derives from a people’s sense that the rulers are anointed by or otherwise represent a religious truth. In democracies, legitimacy derives from a people’s right to elect those rule over them (among other sources).
Note that it is entirely possible for governments to be illegitimate. Military dictatorships, police states and any regime that uses force to intimidate or coerce its people into compliance may well rule, but rule with little actual legitimacy.
In the long run, though, legitimacy matters. For example, when people perceive their governments to be legitimate, they have demonstrated remarkable willingness to sacrifice to support the state in tough times. Examples include Britain during the Blitz, the Russians during the Nazi invasion, or Americans after 9/11. Faced with great problems, people who perceive their governments to be legitimate rally round the flag and accept the pain of the moment for a greater cause.
As a consequence, legitimate governments are hard to destroy. It can be done, but it’s really, really hard.
By contrast, illegitimate governments tend to collapse under pressure. Egypt offers a classic case: as soon as the regime’s enforcers were outnumbered, and the army refused to back them up, the regime fell. The same is true for the regimes of the former eastern bloc, and of Soviet communism itself. Likewise, no one much protected the Hussein regime once it was pretty clear it was going to lose, and most Afghanis were happy to see the back side of the Taliban. (The emergence of resistance movements in those countries after their regimes were defeated lies in part in the United States’ failure to establish legitimate regimes in those unhappy countries.)
So what’s going on in Egypt, and in Tunisia, and in perhaps more countries across the Arab world is not stage one of a global jihadi revolution. It’s a collapse of illegitimate regimes. Ideally, the people there will be able to create new, legitimate regimes in their place.
So don’t worry, Glenn. Those of us living in political systems that are generally seen to be legitimate don’t have much to worry about. Had al Qaeda managed to fly 50 planes into 50 buildings in the US on 9/11 (and we’re blessed that they didn’t), the United States would still be here. It would still be free, and it would still be powerful. We have a legitimate government, and no terrorists stealing airplanes and flying into buildings can intimidate us into surrender.
In the end, that’s why legitimacy matters. We have the strength to choose the governments we wish to have, and the freedom to tell the fear mongers and the agents of repression to go to hell.
“And nobody yet has, nobody yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak and no, not, not real enthused about what it is that that’s being done on a national level and from DC in regards to understanding all the situation there in Egypt. And, in these areas that are so volatile right now, because obviously it’s not just Egypt but the other countries too where we are seeing uprisings, we know that now more than ever, we need strength and sound mind there in the White House. We need to know what it is that America stands for so we know who it is that America will stand with. And, we do not have all that information yet.”—
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”—Article VI of the United States Constitution
I am watching Glenn Beck for sheer entertainment, and he has now linked the Egyptian revolution to “extreme Islam,” “radical communism,” and now, I kid you not, Google and Facebook. They have all, it appears, conspired to bring Egypt’s government down. All to expand the influence of radical Islamism.
Oh: and now the community organizers—can you say Barack Obama?—are at fault.
We’re all going to fall, apparently. It appears that the government of the United States and of every other democratic nation is so weak and so illegitimate that they are susceptible to a revolution led by young people who want chaos.
I am of course happy for Egypt. As I think about why it took Mubarak so long to go, I can’t help wondering if at least part of the reason he took his time is that he needed time to try to hide all the assets he has plundered from the country over the last 30 years. Here’s hoping the Egyptian people get them back, and that it never happens again!
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”—The 9th Amendment to the United States Constitution. A reminder that not everything has to be stated in the Constitution to be a right of the people.
Read your post on nullification. A lot of nullification supporters cite Madison and Jefferson; however, Madison lived long enough to see the nullification crisis of 1832 and several things to say about it. I posted some of his quotes on my blog back in December: http://wanderingreveries.tumblr.com/post/2129149467/nullifcation-hue-and-cry-renewed
In short, Madison was not a fan or proponent of nullification.
Thanks so much for your link. You are indeed entirely correct. Moreover, Jefferson governed as a strong president, deferring much less to the states than his Constitution-drafting era rhetoric would anticipate. The same is true of Madison.
On a bigger level, your post hints at the profound problem of ahistoricism in American political discourse today. Our desperate search to find “authority” in the Framers for our preferred points of view on contemporary political issues has encouraged a politics in which we offer hit-and-miss, selective samplings of historical quotes that back our point of view, rather than contextualized comments that recognize both the politics of the moment and the context of an evolving, developing United States. It’s a curse, but one we seem stuck with for a while.
A new meme is running around in the background of American politics today, one that, if its logic takes hold, would radically restructure the power relationship that currently exists between the federal and the state governments.
I’m talking about the return of nullification.
Nullification is a doctrine that holds that states have the right to reject—nullify—laws that states believe violate their rights, or that overstep the federal government’s proper authority (as determined by the state governments themselves). Originally asserted in the 1830s as part of a tax debate, the doctrine went on the ground Southern resistance to any apparent encroachment on the right to own slaves.
Over time, the notion that states could nullify federal laws fell away. The Civil War, federal regulation of railroad rates and the food supply (and numerous other programs), the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the elaborate grants-in-aid programs by which US tax money is shared with state governments (in return for state compliance with federal rules) all shifted the balance of power from the states to the federal government. There was resistance to this shift, but it happened nonetheless.
But it’s back. One feature of the tea party movement is contained in the concept of “10th Amendmenters.” Such persons assert that since the 10th amendment reserves the powers not specified in the Constitution to the states, or to the people, the federal government is not authorized to take any action not explicitly described in the Constitution.
I can offer a recent account of this logic through a recent letter to the editor from my local, strongly Republican paper. I have excised identifying information, but the writer asserts:
"The advocates of strong states refer often to several of our Founding Fathers as the source of these ideas. In fact, our country’s very name, the United States of America, shows that the original plan put the states first.
Jefferson and Madison wanted the states to be sovereign, reserving to the national government only a limited number of powers to help the states work together.
A source of confusion is the supremacy clause, which many mistakenly think gives the national government dominance over the states in all matters. But that ignores the whole clause which states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof … shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” Any law that exceeds the limits set forth in Article 1, Section 8 are not made “in Pursuance thereof.” If any national law is not in compliance with that section, it can be declared by the state to be null and void.
Since the Constitution is an agreement between states, it is a state’s right to disagree with unconstitutional law. States’ powers under the 10th Amendment have been upheld by the 1997 Supreme Court in Printz v. United States. It is time for states to reassert their power because it is clear that the national government is out of control.”
There’s actually so much wrong here it’s hard to unpack it all. “Several of our Founding Fathers” are, of course, not ALL of the framers. (And since they’re all dead, it’s not clear to me why they get a vote on this matter but I don’t.) The question of which term matters more, “States” or “United,” was effectively settled by the Civil War—it’s “United.” “A state’s right to disagree with unconstitutional law” is, in fact, contingent on the law being declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, not the state’s legislature. Article 1, Section 8 contains something called the “necessary and proper clause,” which explicitly gives Congress the power to make laws not directly defined in Section 8. And, of course, there’s the whole pesky 14th Amendment, which radically amended the power of the federal government viz a viz the states—and which, since it comes AFTER the 10th Amendment, trumps—amends—it.
Let me be clear: it is perfectly legitimate to insist that we ought to amend or overturn the 14th Amendment and restructure the constitutional balance between states and the federal government once again. It’s just not okay to claim the 14th Amendment doesn’t exist, or that it is somehow unconstitutional because it essentially overturned the 10th Amendment—the one you think ought to “count.”
But such arguments of logic are not the point. The point is 10th Amendment people are insisting on the radical restructuring of the balance of power between the federal government and the states, and things like the civil rights laws of the 1960s, equal protections for the aged and the infirm, and yes, the recent health care reforms are in play. The fight is real, and consequential. We need to pay attention.
A job candidate for a position apparently took a phone call from his wife during his interview with the unit supervisor. The candidate continued to chat casually on the phone until hanging up and returning to the conversation with the unit supervisor.
Don't know if you read the Monkey Cage but this post/article (http://www.themonkeycage.org/2011/02/the_invisible_american_welfare.html) is very interesting. A quarter of food stamp recipients claim to "have not used a government social program!"
Do you think that's denial on the part of the survey respondents, self-deception, or just a matter of food stamp recipients having low social capital and therefor not understanding the relationship between their benefits & the government? The rest of the table is equally intriguing.
I do try to check out the Monkey Cage, but I don’t get to it as often as I should. I appreciate your sending me this link.
There’s lot of stuff going on here. One huge thing is that people generally don’t recognize that they’re receiving a government service even when they’re getting it. This is true across the board: we don’t think about the tax subsidies that fund our roads nor do we think about the chain of regulatory regimes that have to work to deliver water and electricity to our homes, for example.
A telling moment along these lines for me was during the protests against health care reform: some people held signs saying “Get Your Government Hands Off My Medicare!”
Recipients of these programs tend to have a fairly high level of social capital, so it’s not just a matter of that.
Associated with this willful ignorance of what is and isn’t a government program is the notion of deservingness. People tend not to think of themselves as the beneficiaries of government programs if they believe themselves to deserve the benefits the receive. “Welfare recipients” get undeserved handouts; we simply get what we earn. The fact that those “earnings” are in fact redistributions of wealth from working persons to others (mostly the elderly, in the form of Social Security and Medicare benefits), is simply not part of the conscious mind.
There’s also a phenomenon in which people understand the social meaning of a political choice, and lie in order to avoid the social opprobrium that comes with a choice. Survey researchers discovered this when they correlated racist attitudes with education and discovered that better educated people appeared to be less racist. As these researchers refined their models, they discovered that many well-educated people were racists, but they understood that it was socially “bad” to be a racist, so they just lied to the researchers. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that welfare recipients offer similar hedges, especially in these times when we are thinking seriously about gutting the social welfare net.
In any case, it’s a fascinating question. And I love fascinating questions!
The Green Bay Packers are publicly owned by the City of Green Bay. Thus, in contravention of the currently dominant ideology that the private sector can always do things better than the public sector, the Packers’ victory in the Super Bowl yesterday was in part a victory of public officials outperforming their private competitors.
As a snarky aside, if anyone seeks an object lesson in how private egos can destroy once-great institutions, I suggest they investigate two NFL teams: Daniel Snyder’s Washington Redskins, and Jerry Jones’ Dallas Cowboys. Heck, Jones couldn’t even be bothered to make sure that everyone who bought vastly over-priced tickets to the game at his stadium actually had an actual seat at the game. But, unlike a mayor, Jones can’t be recalled.
As Glenn Beck might say, I’m not sayin’. I’m just sayin’.
As the hagiography of Ronald Reagan continues—and since I live in Illinois, near where he went to college, it’s pretty intense here—a few counter examples:
—Ronald Reagan signed six tax increases in his eight years in office. When he left office, the average middle class tax payer paid higher taxes—income, property, sales, etc., at all levels of government—than was true eight years earlier.
—Ronald Reagan never submitted a balanced budget to Congress. After eight years, the net difference in budgets between those Reagan submitted and the ones Congress approved was $10 billion. That’s all.
—Ronald Reagan proposed the complete elimination of the nuclear stockpiles of both the United States and the Soviet Union at Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. He negotiated with enemies.
—Ronald Reagan ran a government that sold arms to the Iranians, in contravention of US law, as part of efforts to get the Iranian-backed organization Hezbollah to release the Americans it held captive in Lebanon. When he left office, there were exactly as many Americans held hostage in Lebanon as there were when this policy began.
—Ronald Reagan ran a government that took the profits it earned from the sale of arms to the Iranians and transferred them to the contras, the forces fighting the Sandanista government in Nicaragua. This was a violation of US law—a violation that, ironically, made those who enacted a hero in the eyes of the supposedly law-and-order wing of the Republican Party.
—The federal government had significantly more employees at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency than it did at the beginning.
—Ronald Reagan legitimated the “don’t tax but spend anyway because eventually we’ll run surpluses” nonsense that still drives American budget thinking today.
I cannot doubt that Reagan was an inspirational figure to millions of Americans. But the myth has become much more substantial than the man. And none of us can live up to the standards set by saints—especially when the sainthood is a function of stylized memory, not the real world people live in.
You've talked bluntly about the debt before, so I wonder what your take on the debt ceiling debate is? I feel like you would a give a clearer answer than the talking points you hear from both sides.
Well, as always, I can try:
Let’s start with the basics. Last year, when it passed a budget, the United States decided to spend more money than it was going to collect in taxes and other sources of revenue. Its budget promised X dollars to various programs ranging from defense, the TSA, food inspection programs, drug testing programs, drug interdiction programs and the like. These programs hired/kept workers, established contracts with vendors, and otherwise planned to spend the X dollars they were promised. (Although, most planned for what are called rescissions, which is what it’s called when budget masters take back promised money in the middle of the year.) Notably, neither the agencies nor the vendors worried about the sources of the promised funds—e.g., whether they were sourced from taxes or from borrowed money.
Since it promised more money than it collected, the United States decided to borrow the difference—to run a deficit.
Under US law, the total debt (the total amount of money the US has borrowed, whatever year it was borrowed, but has not paid back) the United States is allowed to hold at any given time is set by law. There’s a whole set of reasons why this is the case, but the easiest one to grasp is that setting a debt ceiling allows citizens to have a handy-dandy gauge to measure what the total indebtedness of the United States is at any time. Otherwise, debt could be hidden in a maze of budget documents and there’d be no accountability for borrowing.
Obviously, then, if the United States wishes to do additional borrowing, it has to raise its debt ceiling before doing so. Otherwise, it would not be authorized to borrow new money that would take it past its old limit.
Sorry if this is pedantic, but it seems to me we ought to be clear about what the debt ceiling is, and how it works.
So now to the current debate. Some tea partyers are insisting that the debt ceiling should not be raised; that the United States should not borrow any more money. Alternatively—and this is the more serious scenario—some are insisting that while it may be impossible to do no borrowing going forward to the end of this year (I’ll hit this point in a moment), they should use the threat of not raising the debt ceiling as a tool to force budget cut commitments from the administration.
So let’s take scenario 1: no raising of the debt ceiling. This, as it happens, isn’t practical. The reason has to do with how budget commitments work in relation to government cash flow. As it happens, we are nearing the end of the fiscal year (June 30 marks its actual end). That means that the United States has already spent a huge chunk of the money it budgeted for the year—both collected from taxes and borrowed money. We’re 60% or so through the fiscal year. Salaries and vendors have been paid, benefits have been allocated—the money’s out the door. And while the federal government is about to see a huge influx of dollars in April, that money is already encumbered—meaning it has been allocated to various purposes, like salaries and programs and benefits and war.
In effect, a failure to raise the debt ceiling would require substantial slashing of the operations of the federal government well beyond what I think most people can possibly imagine. In effect, you’d have to cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the annual federal budget (the amount of money we have planned to borrow from now through June 30) from 40% of the annual budget year—the time we have left in this fiscal year. Basically, after that, Medicare and Social Security checks would go out, since they have their own funding streams, but the rest of the government—including the parts fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to keep the airlines safe and fighting crime—would be gutted until July 1.
But that’s not going to happen. The adults in the room will bite the bullet, make promises that next year will be different (having just extended tax cuts that profoundly expand the debt problem), and move on.
Which brings us to scenario 2: politics. Right now, I believe the responsible leaders in the House—Boehner, et al—are using the threats of the irresponsible members (like Michele Bachmann) as political tools. It’s a game of chicken: deal with us, or you get her. As it happens, there’s absolutely nothing new or nothing wrong about this. It’s politics. It’s to be expected. Republicans may well get what they want, or, they may get blamed for the failure to solve the problem (as happened in the government shut downs of the Clinton years). But they’re using whatever arrows they have in their quiver, as is their right.
So I believe the debt ceiling will be raised, and the debate is mostly noise. The real fight will be in the next budget cycle. Speaking as someone who works for a university that has gone through a cycle of major budget cuts, inevitably followed by shocking tuition increases, I can only say it won’t be pretty. And so far, no one seems willing to be honest about the difficult choices we have to make across the board.
Every time Glenn Beck goes to his chalkboard, is it wrong of me to mentally project Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, fervidly finding phantom connections among disconnected points, all of which quite shockingly combine to prove the thesis he started with? Just wondering …
First, a statement of my bias: I hope the protests in Egypt end up with Egyptian citizens enjoying the benefits of living in a free, open society—or at least as free and open as possible, since no one lives in a perfectly free and perfectly open society.
I feel I need to start with that statement because I have a question about the ongoing protests/uprising/revolution there that I don’t think has been answered anywhere, one that might be taken as opposing the uprising: what comes next?
As it happens,I’m not even vaguely capable of answering this question for myself. All I can do is ask it.
I know this question is getting a fair amount of play from the scaremongers who see the Muslim Brotherhood imposing radical political Islam on Egypt in a post-Mubarak Egypt, but that’s not what I am wondering about—or, it’s not all that I’m wondering about.
Instead, I’m thinking about the kinds of social and political structures that need to exist to support functioning democracies. You simply can’t hand a society democratic procedures—elections, a constitution, a set of articulated rights and liberties—and say ta da! You have a democracy! We proved that in post-Soviet Russia, which we offered a whole set of democratic procedural advice to in the aftermath of 1991, but which has devolved today into little more than an authoritarian kleptocracy.
What I’m talking about is civil society. Functioning democracies provide space for their citizens to come together, join associations, interact, build social trust through repeated interactions, and learn the skills they need to emerge as local and community leaders. Barack Obama offers an extreme example of the importance of civil society: he started his political career outside electoral politics, as a community organizer, and then parlayed those skills—after losing his first election—into becoming president.
But civil society more often works at local levels. All of us—at least those of us living in functioning democratic societies—know of, or are ourselves, people who get things done. Such people know how to put organizations together. They know how to motivate action. They know how to address dissension within the group, and in so doing they model effective, moral civic action to others who can learn by their example. Civil society both builds leaders and provides space for tensions and frustrations to be mediated well before the intervention of the state is required. Or at least it can, and there’s really nothing else that will serve this function.
Civil society was utterly lacking in both Iraq and Afghanistan before the US invasion. Those nations’ vicious leaders had brutalized pretty much every last vestige of whatever civil society might once have existed out of those societies across decades of abuse. As a consequence, whatever institutions the United States bestowed upon those countries after deposing their existing governments, neither of those nations was going to turn into a democratic nirvana overnight. Both Iraq and Afghanistan lacked civil societies, and given that the United States tried to win those wars on the cheap, the US wasn’t going to help either country create civil societies—an activity US political leaders mocked as “state-building.” The lack of civil society, of course, is not the whole reason the wars there went wrong, but it’s a big part of the reason.
This informs my concern about the Muslim Brotherhood. At least part of the power of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in the fact that it has offered young men (men only, of course) a chance to grow and develop and build their skills for social leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood has thus served as a kind of civil society organization, albeit one whose ends are not those of creating a functioning democracy.
I wonder if, after fully 60 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt has sufficient institutions of civil society to make a real transition to a functioning democracy. I am fortunate in that I have a colleague who was born and raised in Cairo, and she, along with another colleague raised in Istanbul, are going to talk about these issues on Monday. But is seems to me that the question of “whither Egypt” will hinge not just on the demonstrators in the streets or the thugs with their batons. It will hinge on whether an order will be constructed that reinforces the oppressions of the old, or whether a new order can emerge from the shared desires of a people capable to bringing them into fruition.
It’s a hard thing to do. But it’s the only way it ever works.
My wife and I had an exchange this weekend that left me unsatisfied with my answer. As we were discussing events in Egypt (we were off work for two days during the Great Blizzard of 2011), she wondered why events there were being called a revolution and not a civil war. I actually didn’t have a very good answer for her. But as is the way of things, I kept musing, and here’s my attempt at a better answer:
Well, it depends.
Now, as it happens, I think that something along the lines of “it depends,” or “yes and no” is almost always the right answer to any seriously asked, complicated question. (It doesn’t make for good TV, of course, but I don’t make my living on TV.) But “yes and no” isn’t a particularly satisfying answer, so it requires fleshing out. The obvious follow on question is: it depends on what?
But first some social science. The politics of naming are embedded in the politics of framing, and the act of calling something one thing instead of something else is inevitably a political act. By this I mean that if I assert that I am something, that claim is linked to an array of social and political attitudes that frame the way others’ respond to my claims.
If I am ambitious and at all politically savvy, I assert my identity in ways that I think are likely to solicit warm and supportive feelings from my audience. This is, among other reasons, a reason why the “Patriot Act” has that name instead of the “Massive Expansion of Federal Power to Spy on Americans Act, Containing Lots of Programs We Pushed Well Before 9/11” Act. (Which it actually was.) It’s why veterans and mothers almost always start their questions or statements at public events by announcing their status as veterans or mothers: since it is virtually socially impossible to be against either mothers or veterans, the act of labeling installs a solicitous frame around the persona of the actor.
Of course, politically savvy actors who oppose a given program inevitably try to counter-label it. Pro-choice activists refer to pro-life people as “anti-choice.” Pro-life groups insist that pro-choice groups are “pro-abortion.” The tea party chose that designation for a reason; those who mock the tea party use the sexual-tinged slur, “tea bagger.” The politics of naming frame the attitudes through which citizens see politics, or at least define the ways that namers wish citizens to see politics.
So, in part the answer to the question, “what does it depend on?” is: politics. Those who favor the change being advocated perceive of themselves as revolutionaries. Those who resist it see the insurgency as a civil war.
Notably, outside actors inevitably choose sides as they name the events on the ground. In the US at least, the Iraqi resistance to the US presence there was seen as an insurgency that led to civil war. Palestinians are viewed terrorists who resist the civil authority, Israel. The Tamil Tigers were an insurgency that needed to be crushed.
By contrast, the US media is fairly explicitly pro-protestor in Egypt. (Glenn Beck of FOX News is a notable exception.) They were similarly supportive of the revolution in Tunisia, and can be expected to be in favor of a revolution in Syria. Jordan, by contrast, might well be another story.
So it seems to me that at least part of my answer to my wife’s question is: politics. The difference between labeling something a revolution and naming it a civil war is deeply political, fraught with an array of social and political effects.
I do, however, want to suggest that it is more than just political. As an historical matter, it seems that those periods of social and political upheaval that lead to a change in regime tend to be called revolutions—e.g., the American, French, Iranian and Russian revolutions. Those that lead to the reinforcement of the regime’s power tend to be seen as civil wars—e.g., the American Civil War, the events that led to the partition of India and Pakistan, the Tamil resistance to Sri Lankan rule, etc. As the old saying goes, the winner writes the history, and over time, whatever order emerges after great strife is seen to have been the “proper” winner.
So is the upheaval a revolution or a civil war?
The logic of my analysis suggests that the answer is: yes and no. We’ll only know for sure after the fact. We can only hope what happens in Egypt is as painless as possible … which is probably the best any of us can hope for from afar.
2011 is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, and in commemoration, the New York Times has been running a series called “Disunion.” This series offers a number of eyewitness accounts as well as historical analyses of the events that split the Union. You can follow it on Facebook. If anyone is a Civil War or American history buff, I highly recommend it.
In the spirit of “Disunion,” I offer the following analysis. It turns out that West Virginia can’t be a state.
Why? Well, the Constitution of the United States says that no state can be formed by dividing a state, or by combining parts of different states, without the consent of the state legislatures of the affected states.
The thing is, what is now called “West Virginia” used to be part of the State of Virginia. “West Virginia” was formed only when the legislature of the State of Virginia decided to secede from the Union in 1861. Representatives from the mountain counties of Virginia decided that they did not support the decision of the Virginia state legislature to secede from the Union. Instead, the representatives from these counties decided to declare themselves the REAL legislature of the State of Virginia, and to call for the separation of the western, mountain counties of Virginia from the eastern, tidewater counties, into the new state of West Virginia.
Abraham Lincoln, not being an idiot, jumped at this opportunity. He immediately declared the representatives of the western counties of Virginia to be the “real” legislature of Virginia, and thus insisted that they had the legitimate right to call for the separation of the western counties of Virginia into a new state, West Virginia. Technically, then, the creation of “West Virginia” would be constitutional, since it was the “legitimate” legislature of Virginia that had called for the separation—at least according to Abraham Lincoln.
Except, of course, that Lincoln ALSO insisted that the state legislature in Richmond, Virginia did not constitute the legislature of an alternate government to that of the United States. That is, Lincoln refused to accept that the Richmond-based legislature represented a competitor government to that recognized by the Congress in Washington, DC. Indeed, throughout the Civil War Lincoln insisted that the southern states were simply areas “in rebellion against the government of the United States” (as he put it in the Emancipation Proclamation), not that they were representatives of a competitor government to that based in Washington, DC. In other words, he never acknowledged that the Richmond, Va., government had ceased being the legitimate government of the State of Virginia—meaning that Richmond’s consent was required for the creation of the State of West Virginia. A consent that was never offered—as was required by the US Constitution.
It is thus clear that West Virginia cannot be part of the United States.
Of course, I don’t teach or live in West Virginia, so this is probably a lot easier for me to say than it might be!
“The richest 1% of adults control 43% of the world’s assets; the richest 10% have 83%; the bottom 50% have only 2%.”—Want to know more about the global elite? Our business editor, just returned from Davos, will soon be answering your questions on Twitter. (via theeconomist)
Recently, in response to a question about why oil prices fluctuate so much, I offered a side comment (as I am wont to do): “I’d bring one more thing up, though. A gallon of gas (in the US, at least), is still a lot cheaper than a gallon of water (if you buy it in bottles from vending machines), and a lot lower than a gallon of Starbuck’s coffee (or some other fancy brand). I do find it interesting that people complain about $3 a gallon gas with a $4 cup of coffee in their hands.”
In response, Kohenari, a poltical theorist at Nebraksa who runs the entirely enjoyable Running Chicken blog, commented: “to my mind, it raises all sorts of fascinating questions about people’s preferences and expectations.”
Being a political scientist, one thing I am interested in (at least professionally) is why people are upset by some taxes but not by others. That is, some people willingly give their money to the government for some purposes (or in some tax schemes) while resenting others. Why?
There is, for example, one tax lots of Americans pay without any complaint at all: the lottery tax. People fantasize that their pay off will eventually be more than their investment. But it can’t be: on average, if lotteries paid more than they took in, states wouldn’t run them. States run them because they make money on them. That’s a tax, just a voluntary one.
The question of voluntariness surely matters in why people don’t mind paying for their lottery chance. People choose to play, so they choose to pay. Likewise, there is some thrill in the game as well: people like to imagine winning, and give up their money in order to play.
But it’s not even vaguely rational.
Let me offer the following thought experiment. Imagine you have two choices about how government will take—tax—$20. You can give it directly to government operations, or you can give it to an agency that might give some of it to government for some future operations, while at the same time offering you a chance to win some of it back—or in a best case scenario, gain a windfall should you win. The first choice is, effectively, the same as paying an income tax; the second is playing the lottery.
If this choice were to be made on purely rational grounds, there’s no question what the better choice is. Pay the income tax. Most of that money will be reinvested in the community in the form of police officers and fire fighters and roads and schools and, yes, pensions for your neighbors. In other words, you will see real returns on that investment. By contrast, the lottery is a fantasy. Whatever the thrill of the game, it is infinitesimally possible that you will win, and so for the most part you are literally throwing your money away. And given that some of your money will simply be transferred to those who actually beat the odds and win the lottery, there will be less return on your investment than you would have from an income tax. It’s a no brainer.
Except, of course, I’d bet that most of the people who spend $20 a week on the lottery would go ballistic if their $20 was taken in income taxes instead.
Practically, people—at least many people—would prefer to choose to seek a thrill and get less return on their investment than they would to choose the rational option of getting a direct, if often unperceived, return on their money.
Welcome to the world of democratic politics. Want to run for office, any one?
I know you're a politics professor, but I think that you're somehow stuck with dealing with the economy and how it functions as well. Would you explain what makes the price of gas fluctuate so much? I get different answers (including speculation, OPEC, treaties, and Obama) from just about anyone I ask. I'd really appreciate it :)
Well, I can try—
First, we ought to remember what goes into oil prices. Oil has to be extracted, sent to refineries, refined, transported to vendors, and sold. Each step of that process costs money, and of course each part of the system adds additional costs to the product—these extra costs are how the extractors, transporters, refiners, transporters and vendors make a profit.
In addition, another major component of the price of a gallon of gas—which is where most of use see the volatility of oil prices show up—is taxes. The price of a gallon of gas where I live is about $3.20 right now. It’s $8 or so in the UK. Much of that difference is taxes.
Oil is a global product subject to global fluctuations in supply and demand. Prices fluctuate when either supply or demand fluctuates. Thus, prices tend to go up when the economy is growing: increased demand promotes price increases. Likewise, it tends to go up at times when supply is limited, such as can happen when refineries go off line due to fires or, as happens twice a year in the US, they shift from producing winter to summer fuel blends, or vice versa.
Global crises inevitably trigger shortfalls, or fears of shortfalls, in supply. Oil is sold in the futures market, meaning companies buy oil well in advance of the time it is actually produced. They do this to guarantee continuous flow. So, a crisis today makes producers and buyers fear that there will be shortfalls tomorrow, driving prices up.
So far, this has been a pretty “free market” answer. But there is more to it than this. OPEC likes consistent prices, particularly at levels that help those countries pay for their operations (or line their private bank accounts) while keeping consumer countries from shifting to more expensive but home-generated energy sources like solar, wind and natural gas. (In this they are akin to drug dealers.) So they manipulate supply to meet this goal.
Likewise, there is surely speculation in the oil market—if investors decide that they can make more money trading oil futures contracts than some other item, they go to oil futures. The increased demand for futures contracts drives prices up. Such speculation is particularly likely when a global crisis happens: fear drives markets beyond their rational limits, and prices spike.
There is surely more to it than this, but this is at least part of an explanation.
I’d bring one more thing up, though. A gallon of gas (in the US, at least), is still a lot cheaper than a gallon of water (if you buy it in bottles from vending machines), and a lot lower than a gallon of Starbuck’s coffee (or some other fancy brand). I do find it interesting that people complain about $3 a gallon gas with a $4 cup of coffee in their hands.
I am a bit staggered by the “Twitter and Facebook caused the revolutions in the Middle East” meme running around right now. It’s akin to the “Reagan crushed the Soviet Union” fantasy. It assumes that the explanation for what has happened lies in western efforts and western technology rather than the efforts of the people actually enacting the revolutions.
Have these revolutions and revolts been aided and abetted by Facebook and Twitter and other social media? Absolutely. But other factors, like Al-Jazeera’s long pattern of articulating Arabs’ rage at their authoritarian regimes, fifty years of these regimes’ corruption and repression, and vast demographic and economic shifts going on around the world have played much, much bigger roles.
Some seem to be seeing trees fall and claiming that it was the saw that did the work, not the sacrifice and effort of the people actually doing the work. We should honor the risk-takers, not the cell phones in their hands.