A blog of politics, law, religion, and the tricky spots where they collide.

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Marveling at Democracy

I caught a few minutes of a CSPAN radio call in show. A moderator and two person panel fielded questions from three phone lines. “Republican,” Democratic,” and “Independent.” As you might predict, there were some differing views from the caller. But they shared some common ground. Specifically, they were all utterly bonkers.

Every single person who called in espoused both bizarrely extreme policies AND made at least one major factual misstatement. (One of the democrats, for example, seemed to miss that gasoline refined from crude oil was not the same stuff as the natural gas extracted through fracking.)

And these are the people who are passionate enough about politics that they listen to C-SPan radio and call in. In other words, they’re voters. And they’re probably more informed than the bulk of the electorate.

But once all these votes get considered collectively, things mostly workout. I know things aren’t perfect. But they’re way better than they woudl be if any of these callers got their way on everything.

According to Ben Labaree’s history, The Boston Tea Party, the Founding Fathers were actually pretty appalled at the destruction of the tea.

According to Ben Labaree’s history, The Boston Tea Party, the Founding Fathers were actually pretty appalled at the destruction of the tea.

Wait, “Inner City Culture”?

I missed an important point in my previous post criticizing Paul Ryan and his supporters. Paul Ryan is a guy who never met a market he didn’t want to french kiss. But the moment he starts talking poverty, suddenly it’s a fuzzy culture thing.

Don’t look for actual economic causes of systemic poverty. Don’t look at the systemic and deliberate stripping of wealth from vulnerable neighborhoods. Don’t ask why the labor market is so soft and the home ownership rate so low. Just blame “inner city culture.” It’s just some intangible inferiority Ryan believes all those “inner city” folks have.

I’m just saying, you can’t blame people for mistaking him for a racist.

Could you show me the "inner city" on a map?


Why is it controversial to recognize that much crime and social breakdown aligns with low-income black neighborhoods? Golly, I wonder if they are related. Not inherently, of course, but it’s obvious they go hand-in hand in our culture. The author’s point is that Obama can say similar things about inner-city culture (yes, I said it—it’s an easy and useful reference term), and can get away with it.

Lots of people speed on the Interstate. If you’re a cop, it’s your job to pull some folks over now and then. It’s not a problem if some of those folks are black. It is a big problem when all of those folks are black.

You’ve identified black people as the source of a variety of social ills on a number of occasions. But rural, white meth addicts don’t get a mention. Nor do the urban white folks largely responsible for off-shoring jobs and wage depression. The extent of the analysis of poverty seems to be a slightly frillier way of the unambiguously racist “black people are lazy” slur.

There are three reasons Obama can talk about generational poverty as one part of a broader discussion about poverty in America without drawing the heat that Ryan draws. First, he’s established a record of talking about poverty in its entirety. He’s going to discuss all of poverty, not just the part that suits his political purposes. International poverty has been a major agenda item for Obama. Second, Obama’s not a tourist. Maybe you don’t think highly of a few years as a community organizer. Whatever. Obama spent a real chunk of his life working in a very real, very hands on way with some very poor folks. At some point, you’ve shown enough commitment to a cause that you can bring up some of the darker stuff without people assuming you’re a hater. Third—and yes, this is a double standard—if Obama starts sounding a bit like Paul Ryan, people assume he’s trying to reach out to Paul Ryan. Or somebody a lot like Paul Ryan. He probably is. People understand how the game is played. They’re willing to cut him a bit of slack because they know that when the chips are down Obama has their backs.

Put more simply, Obama has the record needed to be taken seriously when he talks about poverty. Paul Ryan’s record suggests that he’s just casually sniping at black people to pad his resume.

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)

Society, Technology, and the Libertarian

I’m interested in the statistical overlap between the tech industry and the libertarians. It makes sense. My friends in the tech industry have commercially valuable skills in high demand. If the part of the American Dream where you generally work hard and life generally works out is true in any industry, it’s true in tech. There are plenty of open jobs that pay quite well in the industry—and it’s easy enough to forget that this isn’t true for everybody.1

Except … libertarianism only makes sense if you have a strong notion that your property is yours and you deserve it. It requires a strong notion of both property and individualism. That’s a curious thing to believe in an industry where value is primarily linked to intellectual property and the ability to do clever things with other people’s data. Afterall, intellectual property only becomes valuable because other people think it is important. The Coca-Cola trademark has value because it lives in the minds of billions of peole around the world. A social network like Tumblr is only valuable because it has millions of users. Google is only valuable as a search engine because it connects its advertisers to its users and its users to the things they are actually looking for. Remove the users, the advertisers, or the third party content and it’s nothing.

If you’re a subsistence farmer, you might be able to make a solid case for self-reliant individualism. But the technology industry is as far from subsistence farming as you can get. Everything depends on somebody else—and on having a full complement of laws, regulations, standards, and social norms to endure that all those interactions with others go smoothly.

The internet is a giant collection of connected computers that only works because of communally agreed protocols. You can’t invent a better metaphor for the way that society and the rule of law allow individuals to band together and become more than the sum of their parts. It’s kind of ironic that the world’s largest metaphor about functional government spawns so many libertarians.

  1. Somebody, no doubt, will want to argue that people in other industries should just go back to school and learn to be a sys admin or something. This could be a very reasonable career path for a handful of people. It doesn’t scale. 

Please have no leniency on me. To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me.

Megan Rice, the 84-year-old nun and anti-nuclear activist, who was sentenced to 35 months in prison for her activities during a protest.

If, at any point in your life, you start to think, I’m sort of a bad ass, remember Sister Rice and Plowshares. They broke into a nuclear facility, splashed blood on it, and when confronted by a guard started singing and offered him food. They were convicted of sabotage. Not just trespass, criminal mischief, petty vandalism, or something it would be reasonable to be convicted when you’re an 84 year old hitting a massive cement facility with a hammer. Sabotage. The one with a potential prison term of up to twenty years that’s usually used against terrorists and Nazis. Except instead of being a Nazi, Sister Rice is an old nun who thinks this military industrial complex has gotten out of hand. Afterall:

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

Common ground with the libertarians

I should stop making fun of the libertarians for a bit. They make a pretty good point. I don’t mean their thing about how all government is inherently coercive and how taxation is theft. That’s juvenile. Part of being an adult is that you behave decently in public and chip in when the bill comes due. And I definitely don’t mean their thing about how the government has an implicit monopoly on abusing power or the Ayn Rand will to power stuff.

But their basic proposition is right. If you give individuals too much power over others they’re likely to either abuse it or bungle it. That’s where the progressives and the libertarians should find some common ground. Limited government, checks and balances, transparency, and accountability all guard against misuse of power and incompetence. (I happen to feel that smart regulation does the same thing for private power.)

But the theoretical common ground is hardly a secret. Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of specific proposals that both the libertarians and their counterparts on the left can get behind. Same-sex marriage was one. Legalization or decriminalization of marijuana was another. (While neither of these issues is wholly settled, the momentum is clearly on the progressive/libertarian side.) But what else? There is certainly common ground on surveillance, search and seizure, military contracting, military anything, and so on. But what brass-tacks specific proposals see support from both the further right and the further left?

We are stronger when America fields a full team.

—Barack Obama, elegantly capturing how absurdly wasteful it is to tolerate such a high unemployment rate.