Friday, September 18, 2009

The Knee-Jerk Conservatives

You know, I really want to keep this blog from being predictably partisan. But that goal is getting harder and harder. There was a time when Republicans had some good ideas that were consistent with their ideology, and which evoked knee-jerk objections from Democrats. Energy price decontrol (OK, that was actually started by Carter, but Reagan speeded it up). Tradable pollution permits.

But today Republicans don't seem to have any ideas at all, unless you call making the rich richer an idea. This outburst is provoked by a story in today's New York Times, about a Democratic plan to reform the student loan program. Instead of paying banks to make federally guaranteed loans to students, the federal government will make them directly. The estimated savings are $80 billion over ten years, which is to be redirected to Pell grants, community colleges, and early childhood education, among other things.

One congressman commented that debate over the plan bears “an eerily strong resemblance to the health care debate that rages on today.” And so it does-- both are about trying to bypass a bloated private-sector bureaucracy. But I was startled to discover that this comment was made by a Republican, and he meant it as a criticism of student-loan reform, not as a criticism of the Republican position on health care. To homo republicanus, it seems, the private sector can always do something more cheaply, even if we have to subsidize them to do it. The congressman also noted that the Democratic plan would cost 30,000 jobs nationally. So the Republican position now, apparently, is that government spending on completely unproductive jobs is a good thing. Using the same (bad) math that Republicans used on the economic stimulus bill, that's almost $3 million per job.

In the past, the one kind of federal spending that Republicans unequivocally liked was military spending. But since the private sector can do things more cheaply, why not use private contractors? So we had contract interrogators, contract embassy security, Blackwater, all of which worked out very badly. In the invasion of Iraq, some Army units had to scrounge for water in the 130-degree heat, because contractors weren't delivering enough. Later we had a bribery scandal involving contract water suppliers. What kind of army leaves its soldiers without water? And, oh yes, there was the Halliburton KBR electrocution problem. Is it unreasonable to suggest that maybe the military could do some of these things better itself?

So how do we explain Republican opposition to any kind of service delivery by government? Here are some possibilities:

1. Charitable, relative to the others: Republicans are so locked in their ideology that they will believe it even in the face of the evidence, or believe that constituents will.

2. Cynical: Ideology is just a cover for the wish to extract money from the public at large and deliver it to corporations that will support them financially.

3. Conspiratorial: What Republicans are really afraid of is that the government will be able to do some things more cheaply and effectively than the private sector, and that the public will see it.

I wasn't born yesterday. Of course, politicians worry about campaign contributions. Of course, people's guesses about how well policies will work are based partly on their personal preconceptions. That's OK. But shouldn't we expect that at some point facts and evidence will play some role?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Rule 1: Only Screw the Public"

"The allegation that [California State Senator Mike] Duvall slept with a lobbyist who does business before his chief committee prompted calls for ...  tougher rules of conduct for lobbyists." (AP, 9/10/09)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mystery Solved

Neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz has just published a book about the question that has been bothering him for the last thirty years, "Why Are Jews Liberals?" Podhoretz's magazine, Commentary, has published a symposium honoring the book, in which six well-known American Jews discuss why everyone else doesn't get it. This has caused a blizzard in the blogosphere, which The New York Times summarizes here.

Of particular interest is the response of Robert Stacy McCain, a former editor at the Washington Times turned full-time right-wing pundit. On his blog (called "The Other McCain," lest you think that John is a true conservative) he praises Michael Medved's observation that Jews' distrust of right-wing evangelicals is a big factor, and denounces "Norman Lear and others" for their "demonization of the 'Religious Right'" that has so misled Jews. But he doesn't stop there. He continues:

"This effect is compounded by a factor which, whether or not Podhoretz discusses it in his book, I didn't notice mentioned by the symposiasts, namely the town-and-country divide in American politics. Although the trend to suburbanization has somewhat ameliorated this generalization, most American Jews are fundamentally urban in their orientation, while most American conservatives are fundamentally rural.

"Think of Reagan, riding horses and clearning brush at his ranch -- it is an image that appeals to the "country" side of the town-and-country divide, embodying as it does the antique ideal of the American frontier homesteader.

"This 'rugged individual' ideal, the self-sufficient property owner zealously guarding his freedom, is intrinsic to what American conservatism is all about, and it is an ideal quite alien to the urban lifestyle. The city-dweller is inherently dependent on public services. He doesn't draw his water from a well, doesn't go out with a chain-saw to supply firewood for the winter, doesn't augment the grocery budget by hunting deer or growing his vegetables....

"If Messrs. Podhorhetz, et al., wish to promote conservatism among American Jews, let them find some way to encourage Jewish families to move to small towns in the Heartland, where their kids can grow up hunting, fishing and hot-rodding the backroads. A guy with a gun rack in the back window of his four-wheel drive truck may occasionally vote Democrat, but he's extremely unlikely to be an out-and-out liberal."

Well. Mystery solved. How many Jews can hear someone talk about how Jews live in cities, so they're not like us in the Heartland, without feeling queasy? Does anyone expect them to join a political grouping that says, if only you lived like us, you would think like us, but our thinking is alien to your lifestyle? If there were no religious Right, all we would need to explain Jews' liberalism is people like Robert Stacy McCain.

I'm not saying McCain's an anti-Semite; in fact, I doubt he is. And he's certainly correct, and insightful, about the urban-rural divide (which is why the Republican party is withering away). But the attitude of, "We're the real America, and you aren't as authentic as we are" is not one that most American Jews will accept.

Forget principle. Jews have always identified their self-interest with tolerance and equality, not with nativism. The former continues to be the hallmark of the left, the latter of the right. Incidentally, young people in general are notably more tolerant than older people (look at survey data on attitudes toward gays, for example), and were far more likely to vote Democratic in the last election.

The real mystery is why the likes of Podhoretz and Medved continue to be untroubled by these attitudes on the right. Perhaps they accept them. Perhaps it's time to put a new twist on that hoary old neoconservative epithet, the self-hating Jew.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Worth a Thousand Words

After reading my posting of August 17,Dave Weimer has sent along some Powerpoint slides comparing OECD countries that he used in a policy analysis class. Most of the points aren't labeled, but (fortunately for me) it doesn't take a health policy expert to figure out who that dot is to the far right. There are three slides; to see them all click on "Fullscreen" and then on the right and left arrows at the bottom. I presume the caption should say "Fraction" rather than "Percent."OECD Slides