Thursday, January 28, 2010
1. The Filibuster and a Dysfunctional Congress
Under Senate rules, three-fifths of the Senate must vote to limit debate (cloture) before a bill is voted on. This amounts to a requirement that any legislation controversial enough to raise the ire of the minority would require 60 votes, rather than 51, to pass. It's not a completely unreasonable rule. It helps defend against the "tyranny of the majority" by requiring broader agreement - certainly a good thing. It prevents an overbearing majority leader from preventing Senators from saying their piece on a piece of legislation. All in all, it doesn't have to be a bad rule. But in the hands of the modern Senate, it has swiftly become not a defense against the "tyranny of the majority", but a tool for the tyranny of the minority. In the 1960s, no Senate term had more than 7 filibusters. That pace had increased by over seven-fold in the first decade of the 21st century, when no Senate term had less than 49 filibusters. The 110th Congress set a record of 112 filibusters against the Democratic majority, a huge spike in activity. While recent Republican filibustering has been most notable, the modern increase in the utilization of filibusters is unequivocally bipartisan. While the filibuster can certainly be justified in any given situation, it's modern use has hampered representative self-government. Judicious application of idiosyncratic rules is not undemocratic, but persistently applying a super-majority standard on legislation is. Trends in the confirmation of presidential nominees are comparable. According to the Alliance for Justice, every administration since the Carter administration has seen a lower percentage of its judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate than the previous administration. As of November, less than a quarter of Obama's nominees have been confirmed. Once again, taking a principled stand against judicial nominees is fine, but nobody can reasonably claim that Bush's nominees were less than half as qualified as Reagan's (91% confirmed vs. 44%), or that Bush's nominees were about twice as qualified as Obama's (44% vs. 23%). In the end these practices don't simply obstruct an opposing party; they obstruct American self-government.
2. Mandatory Expenditures in the Federal Budget
The year 2009 was the first in American history in which every dollar of federal revenue was dedicated before Congress voted on a single spending bill. Whether it went to Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt, or prior defense appropriation bills, every dollar of federal revenue was allocated without a single vote from the Congress elected to office in the fall of 2008. Naturally, that didn't prevent the new Congress from continuing to appropriate money - they simply borrowed money to cover their expenses. Gene Steuerle has tracked the growth of mandatory spending through his "Fiscal Democracy Index", which is the percent of government revenue not allocated for mandatory programs. This index has declined markedly over the last several decades, and like the rise of the filibuster it is a bipartisan failure. Also like the filibuster, the problem isn't mandatory spending or entitlement programs per se; the problem is that these things have gotten so out of hand and out of proportion to our revenue collection that once again, they prevent us from governing ourselves. We collect taxes to pay for the projects and decisions of previous Congresses. That isn't self-government, that is the tyranny of the past. An increasing share of our budget also goes to interest payments to foreign creditors. There is nothing wrong with borrowing money from abroad. It is a practice that has gone on for centuries. But as it increases we lose our influence of our domestic policy making.
3. The Misuse of American History
One of the trends that has bothered me recently is the use of the Boston Tea Party as a symbol for the Tea Party movement, as well as the broader populist-libertarian fusion movement spearheaded by Ron Paul. I've previously opined on this phenomenon here, but in a nutshell my point is simply that the rallying cry "no taxation without representation" has effectively been truncated after the first two words, when the Founders had placed considerably more emphasis on the second two words. Many of the Founders did obviously embrace a much smaller government than we do now, but this observation is misleading for two reasons: (1.) many of them were not supporters of small government in the first place, particularly the Federalists, who included some of our most honored patriots. (2.) Social and economic life has changed considerably since the 18th century. New public goods have emerged and the characteristics of American civilization have changed. We do know that Thomas Jefferson was, in his lifetime, what we would now call a "libertarian". We have absolutely no way of knowing whether Thomas Jefferson, observing the conditions of the twenty-first century, would be anywhere close to being a libertarian today. His approach to public goods issues in his writings on publicly supported education suggest that he may have been staunchly opposed to modern libertarianism. Particularly in the cry "no taxation without representation", but repeatedly elsewhere, the Founders demonstrated that the crux of the American revolution was not necessarily small government, but representative government. This isn't to say that small government isn't an important part of American civilization. It was extremely important in the 18th century, and it still is an essential value today. Broadly speaking, all Americans still share the sentiment that "the government that governs best governs least". The point is, it must be the people who decide what those parameters on government are. Recent misuses of American history don't simply provide fringe political movements with cover for their ideologies: they purge our history of it's emphasis on self-government, just as the abuse of the filibuster prevents my Senators from representing me, and just as excessive mandatory spending prevents my representatives from appropriating my tax dollars.
4. The American Imperium
I had a very hard time finding good data to capture the extent of the American military empire, but I still believe this is worth noting. The first thing that I found very quickly was that the absolute number of troops stationed abroad is currently lower than it had been mid-century. With the end of the Cold War and Vietnam, our only substantial deployments are in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I think there is still cause for concern. First, current military operations are considerably more capital-intensive than previous operations, which were quite labor-intensive. Therefore, deployment might not be the right metric. We are also on a war footing in Iraq and Afghanistan in a way that we weren't in Europe during the Cold War, and we started these wars in a way that we didn't in Korea or Vietnam. Another qualitative difference is our unequivocal military superiority, which far surpasses any advantage we previously had over the Soviet Union. If you add to this our proxy-powers (Israel, Egypt, etc.), the American military empire, spread out in over 700 international bases, is formidable. Once again, empire in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Our security umbrella over Western Europe (which arguably still exists) was a force for good that fostered democracy. Some of our territorial occupations are justified as a temporary means of stabilization after a necessary war. But empire nevertheless introduces risks. Overextension, the militarization of foreign policy, and unjust occupation of foreign territory can serve to weaken self-government here and abroad. Lethal force is an appropriate policy tool in certain circumstances, but it is a dangerous tool because it is also the primary method of squelching liberty and democracy. At least since the Enlightenment, human beings rarely willingly acquiesce to subjugation. It must be forced upon them. And the more we extend our military empire, the more likely we are to be the instrument of that subjugation.
Conclusion. None of these threats make the failure of American democracy inevitable. I personally think such a failure is highly unlikely. But that doesn't make these problems any less threatening. The point is, they have to be overcome. Some positive developments are already apparent. The Gang of 14 admirably prevented excessive dysfunction in the Senate for a brief period. No end is in sight to the rise in mandatory spending, but policy makers are definitely cognizant of the problem, and there has recently been discussion of more reasonable revenue policy. In addition, entitlement reform has been featured in health reform legislation. Our misuse of our own history is obviously a much harder trend to fight, and our military empire seems equally irreversible. Nevertheless, General McChrystal has recently indicated that he wants to begin negotiations with the Taliban, and President Obama has already drawn down troops in Iraq. Nothing is ever certain, and as I hope I've emphasized there is nothing inherently wrong in many of these trends. The problem is unsustainable excess in each of these areas. A solution is attainable, and worth fighting for because it will define the legacy of the United States of America for centuries, if not millenia, to come. Greek and Roman statesmen and thinkers still influence the way we live today: an absolutely humbling realization. And yet the American Republic is more expansive and powerful than Rome could have ever dreamed of being. We need to maintain an American Republic that will beget a civilization in 4010 A.D. that we can be proud of, just as Rome laid an admirable foundation for civilization today.
Saturday, January 9, 2010
- Andrew Sullivan documents the National Review Online's positions on various detention techniques, and deconstructs Jonah Goldberg's claim that conservatives don't support what went on at Abu Gharib.
- John Ferling writes about seven myths of the American Revolution in the Smithsonian. I haven't read this article yet, but Ferling is very good.
- Eric Rauchway debunking New Deal denialism. A very good read - this is actually an even more positive read on the New Deal than I'm used to hearing.
- A good post by Evan on our sister-blog about disciplinary boundaries - this one dealing with theology.
- Roger Farmer on the Natural Rate of Unemployment. Farmer has a new book coming out in March on this, which I am very much looking forward to (if I can find the time to read it).
- Scott Fullwiler on Milton Friedman's "helicopter drop" of money, and why it's essentially a fiscal operation. I haven't read the post in it's entirety yet, but the first paragraph summarizes the basic argument. This is a new blog that I follow - they're "post-Keynesians", which some people argue is the school of thought that is most faithful to Keynes himself. They don't play the games that New Keynesians (like Mankiw, Krugman, and Stiglitz do) with rational agents. I'm withholding judgement for now - it's just interesting to get a peak into their world.
- Lots on Tim Geithner, the New York Fed, AIG, and whether he should leave the administration. Brad DeLong sort of comes to Geithner's defense. I'm not particularly bothered by this either - or put it this way: I have a couple reasons why I wouldn't rush to judgement. If you're curious, feel free to ask me why.
- I was reading some of Keynes's General Theory this week and I came across a positive reference to Silvio Gesell - a 19th century amateur economist and social activist with some really strange and interesting views on money. Keynes has a few quibbles but generally likes him. I of course haven't familiarized myself with Gesell yet, but I thought he sounded interesting and the full text of his book The Natural Economic Order is here.
Friday, January 8, 2010
-- I found these very interesting - it's a series on the philosophy of time that relies heavily on physics, which is nice. Here are parts one, two, and three.
-- This is William Lane Craig discussing the "tensed theory of time". This is basically about how we divide time into "tenses" - past, present, and future. What constitutes the "present", exactly. And whether we can objectively divide time this way [a side note - I was surprised to find out Evan isn't particularly impressed with William Lane Craig. I'm not sure exactly why - I thought he was pretty good, although I didn't agree with everything he said].
-- An entire semester of lectures on Heidegger by Hubert Dreyfus, who I suppose is considered the world's foremost expert on Heidegger (certainly one of them at least). I haven't listened to this at all yet, but I have heard other interviews of Dreyfus about Heidegger. So eat your heart out - I imagine the only way to get a more thorough treatment would be to read Heidegger's Being and Time yourself. I guess I'll say here that one of the things that interests me most about Heidegger is how he makes temporality central to reality, and the applications this might have to political or social philosophy. A lot of Anglo-American political philosophers take a "de-temporalized" view - Anglo-American philosophy is notoriously de-contextualized in general. When it comes to political philosophy, think of a Hobbesian state of nature or a Rawlsian "veil of ignorance". There is no (1.) temporal context, and more importantly to me no (2.) recognition of the importance of political and social institutions for deliberately creating a future. Society is or should be timeless for most of these Anglo-American conceptualizations. Heidegger is nice because he breaks out of that: history is important and intentions for the future are important.
-- A Keynes quote I've always liked about time: "The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelope our future". Keynes's system is dependent on uncertainty about the future, which causes fluctuations in liquidity preference and the propensity to invest.
-- A Scientific American piece about why we experience time in one direction.
-- This is a one-pager I wrote around Thanksgiving about space-time and value theory. Very speculative - sort of a "why do we think about things in this way" piece. Nothing came of it and I'm guessing nothing will.
-- Finally, it's worth noting another reason why time has been on my brain lately - I'm taking a partial differential equations course this Spring (starting next week actually), so time will probably come up a lot there. Differential equations are often used to model dynamic systems of variables: in other words, the interaction and behavior of variables over time. One of the most classic dynamic systems to model, for example, is the Lotka-Volterra predator-prey model, where you look at the oscillation of something like the rabbit population and the fox population over time.
Wednesday, January 6, 2010
A couple weeks back, I worked through this documentary on the Spanish Civil War, which is especially rewarding because it is interview-heavy. It, along with a lot of thinking I've been doing over the last year on the inter-war economy, has helped to focus my attention on broader, more fundamental questions about the period from 1914 to 1945 - quite possibly the most catastrophic and revolutionary period in human history.
Although we present WWI and WWII in light of "making the world safe for democracy", to a large extent this was not the point or purpose of the wars at all. To a large degree, this extended war was a war between communism and fascism. Fascism lost, liberals became quickly disillusioned with communism, and the Cold War slowly wore communism down as well. I think instinctively we don't like this understanding of the wars. Great wars should have "good guys" and "bad guys" and the "good guys" should win, right? The point that the defining conflict of the 20th century was a conflict between two "bad guys" comes across as somewhat surprising.
I want to argue that this interpretation should not be a surprising thing at all. In a lot of ways, total war was pre-ordained at the Enlightenment, which released the forces of Reason. Reason applied to society constructs social mega-programs built from considerably smaller logical axioms. Undue faith in our reason leads us to trust these mega-programs, which are iterated synthetic a priori propositions: "true" propositions which are not axiomatic but which are also considered "a priori" because they are true independent of experience. These rational mega-programs are what we also know as the "-isms": communism, fascism, libertarianism, syndicalism, anarchism, etc. All are thrust upon society with absolute confidence in their own self-evidence. They are not tested or evolved - they are deduced - that is their hallmark: logical deduction. This is the spawn of unchecked Reason.
In societies where Empiricism dominated or at least competed vigorously with Rationalism, these "-isms" did not take hold. The value of a mega-program had to be demonstrated, so change was slower and planning was less grandiose. The political, economic, and social systems of Empiricist societies evolved, and were generally conservative and relatively undisruptive.
I think it's reasonable to suggest that from the outset global, total war was an inevitable result of the rise of Reason. Reason results in social mega-programs and complete faith in the value of these mega-programs. Since the logical faculties of human beings are bound to fail or vary, a myriad of these self-confident mega-programs could have been expected to emerge, and indeed did emerge. In this sense, Reason is very likely to be a divergent epistemological endeavor, whereas empiricism can be thought of as a convergent epistemological endeavor (this is quite a claim, I know - at first glance you would assume that experience would vary much more widely between individuals than logic would - I don't think this is true, although I can't really prove it here... I'm thinking along the lines of "the wisdom of crowds" type argument).
If, back in 1700 or so, we had to predict what would happen in the far future given the emerging landscape of epistemology, what would we conclude? I would argue that we would conclude that Empirical societies would slowly change and evolve into more efficient societies. They would try out new forms of organization, evaluate the adjustments they make, and proceed forward from there. The outcomes can be expected to be roughly as variable as human experience is. In societies where Reason dominates, we can imagine social theorists not moving incrementally, but designing and promoting programs constructed from basic axioms of human behavior. Whereas in empirical societies, a program of social organization may take decades of incrementalism to evolve, in rational societies, a philosopher dedicated to the task of designing a program of social organization could produce his tailor-made program in under a decade. So, back in 1700 we could expect socieites grounded in Reason to produce a number of mega-programs that involved a radical alteration of social organization. These mega-programs would appear paradoxical to the empiricist, because they are (1.) entirely untested, and yet (2.) vigorously believed in.
Given a basic assumption that human collectives can be extremely violent, I think someone in 1700 could have concluded that the Enlightenment and the rise of Reason necessitated:
1. The emergence of several different mega-programs for social organization grounded in Reason and a unique, internally consistent deductive logic,
2. Which are both untested and attract exuberant devotees, and that
3. That the incompatibility of these mega-programs will lead to conflict between the devotees of the mega-programs, so that
4. As soon as technology allows, and as soon as a critical mass of states capitulate to the various mega-programs, a total war between the logically deduced mega-programs will errupt
Contingent on the presence of a decently large population of Empirical societies, the early 18th century observer might also conclude that:
5. The empiricists will be left to pick up the pieces, because empirical social organizations will always be more robust than logically-deduced social organizations. Therefore, any rationalists allied with the empiricists will share victory, but will themselves slowly be superceded by the empiricists.
We think of the world wars just another spectacular episode in the march of human history. The earliest we date the "inevitability" of WWII is November 11th, 1918. The earliest that we date the "inevitability" of WWI is perhaps German unification and the inauguration of the Second Reich under Bismark in 1871. I argue that we should have seen this coming much, much earlier than that. History is a series of choices by human beings, and human choice is dictated by the way we understand and interpret our world. As soon as Reason emerged in the modern world as a major and pervasive force for understanding the world, a global, total war was inevitable (clearly Reason pre-dates the enlightenment, but it seems to me it was kept in check by revealed religion before the modern era). The world wars were not another episode in history: they were a pre-determined historical singularity, necessitated by the epistemology of the Enlightenment. The precise actors and battles may not have been pre-determined, but the forces driving the conflagration were.
I've presented this largely as a modern drama: an internicine struggle among rationalists, as well as a contrast between rationalists and empiricists. Looking forward, what I think is significant is that modernism is not a foregone conclusion at all. First and foremost, pre-modern thought patterns have reasserted themselves in the age of holy terror. While the pre-modern factions in Islam that have lately resisted the West and sought to establish a new caliphate are the most prominent example, other (admittedly less problematic) examples abound as well. Christian Fundamentalism holds considerable sway in no less a polity than the United States. By "Christian Fundamentalism" I don't simply mean "Christian Conservatism," which can be entirely benign and often even beneficial. I'm refering to fundamentalism, which brooks neither logic nor experience as the primary path that humans must travel to find truth. In the former Soviet Union, many societies are reverting to their pre-Rationalist days, before the Communist mega-program, to the tsarism of a bygone era. This is also true of much of Africa, which, after throwing off the oppressive yoke imperialism (or more accurately, after having this yoke removed for them by a repentant imperialist) have not embraced constitutional democracy, but instead have relied on strongmen, warlords, and tribalism. And of course in other regions, Rationalism has not yet even been tempered. Marxism still dominates much of South America. Fortunately, East Asia has joined the empiricist camp with gusto, and even China and India are tentatively following in the footsteps of Japan, Korea, and Australia. On top of this re-emergence of pre-modernism, there is also the looming specter of post-modernism, which I honestly can't make heads or tails of in this schema.
This is one view of modern history, one that I find relatively convincing and meaningful. It doesn't answer every question, but I think it sheds new light on the world wars and the Cold War. These are epochal events, pre-ordained for centuries. We got through them. Thinking in these mega-epistemological-trend terms may be a useful guide for the future.
Or by promoting this view of modern history, perhaps I'm just setting up the prologue to a Rationalist mega-program of my own! In case that's what I'm inadvertently doing, I'll end on this entreaty: err on the side of evidence, experience, and caution.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
I've also noticed that these regular "link dumps" often have catchy titles... so mine will be "Assault of Thoughts". Literally speaking, it seems appropriate enough - I'm just going to be throwing a bunch of material at you. It comes from perhaps my favorite John Maynard Keynes quote: "words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking".
So for now:
- Yglesias links Mike Mandel's thoughts on the net national savings rate
- An Austrian School of Economics blogger and I spar over the liquidity trap, an idea that's been hogging a lot of my brain cells reccently
- Extended Taylor Rule bitching by John Taylor
- Krugman discussing the "depression within a depression" of 1937
- A less common argument for quantitative easing by the Fed
- Arnold Kling on Bernanke's speech to the AEA meeting in Atlanta: Bernanke defends low rates in the early 00's, and Kling agrees. Bernanke's position was not surprising to me, Kling's was. Apparently Krugman agrees too.