Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fake Libertarians

The MSNBC commentator Lawrence O'Donnell recently called Ron Paul a "fake libertarian" because of his stands on sex and abortion, evoking predictable outrage from Paul fans on the Internet. Now, I'm not totally convinced by O'Donnell: a libertarian who believes abortion is murder would surely favor outlawing it, and a moralistic prig can be a libertarian as long as he doesn't impose his views on anyone else.

Much more troubling is Paul's pretentiously named and ludicrously unconstitutional We the People Act, which among other things would bar federal courts (including the Supreme Court) from adjudicating any claim based on "the right of privacy, including issues of sexual practices, orientation, or reproduction."

The subtext here is not only Roe v. Wade, but also Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the Texas law against sodomy and is still a sore point among Texas Republicans. But how can a libertarian be against a right to privacy? Paul's response is that such a right is not found in the Constitution.

This is an odd argument for a libertarian to make. The Ninth Amendment (part of the Bill of Rights,of course) says, in its entirety: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." One would think that this view of rights--that they inhere in the people, rather than being conferred by the government--would be popular with libertarians. So is Paul a fake libertarian? What's he after here?

The problem is not really that Paul is a fake, by the standards of American libertarianism. The problem is the fundamental phoniness of American libertarianism. It claims to stand for individual liberty and against government interference in our lives. But it sees no problem in state government interference in our lives. Libertarianism is much more about keeping the Federal government off the backs of the states than keeping the states off the backs of the people.

Take a look at the other things that Federal courts would be specifically barred from adjudicating under Paul's bill: "the right to marry without regard to sex or sexual orientation where based upon equal protection of the laws," and, of all things, "state or local laws, regulations, or policies concerning the free exercise or establishment of religion." In other words, keep your Federal hands off my city's hundred-foot cross. And its practice of reciting the Lord's Prayer in public schools. And if we want, we can declare Christianity the official religion of Texas, or outlaw the practice of Islam. Does that sound like individual liberty? More like collectivist tyranny.

Unfortunately, libertarianism has identified itself with the cause of states' rights, and to say the least that's not a cause that has ever been very friendly to liberty. Don't call them "libertarians." Call them "statists."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Note on Contraception

You've probably heard about the brouhaha and hoo-hah that followed the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services to require religiously-affiliated employers (but not churches) to cover contraception in the health insurance it offers to employees. The Catholic Church, as you might expect, is quite exercised about this; in fact, the bishops sent out a letter to be read at Mass denouncing it.

Without getting into a long discussion, let me just make a secondary point. It is simply incorrect to say, as right-wingers have been doing, that the "morning-after pill" is an "abortion pill". The morning-after pill works by the same mechanism as conventional birth-control pills. It prevents ovulation and fertilization. It may also prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. If you, like the Catholic Church, regard a fertilized egg as a fetus, then you could call it an "abortion-inducing drug" as the bishops' letter did, but only if you're willing to make the same statement about ordinary birth-control pills.  (The bishops' letter doesn't specify which drugs they're talking about.) The bishops are doubtless willing to say that birth-control pills should be illegal; is Rick Santorum?

And I know this isn't relevant to the moral and constitutional issues, but I do wish the journalist had asked that outraged Catholic woman that I saw on TV this question: "Studies say 98 percent of Catholic women have at some time used a method of birth control other than natural family planning. Are you among the 98 percent or the 2 percent?"

BTW, I've sent an e-mail to the public information office at the Archdiocese of Boston asking for some clarifications about the bishops' letter. They warn that they don't have time to answer all mail, and so far they haven't answered mine.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Pulling the Right Levers

Honestly, why is there so much political ineptitude in the world? Note to anti-Assad Syrians living abroad (none of whom are reading this, I imagine): do not take a couple dozen of your fellow citizens, break into the Syrian embassy and set fire to it, or even demonstrate peacefully outside it. This will have absolutely no effect on the situation in Syria.

Here's something that might: Gather a few thousand people and demonstrate outside the Russian and Chinese embassies.  Carry signs. Chant slogans ("Hey, hey, Hu Jintao, how many kids are you killing now?"). Burn a few flags. Invite journalists, especially Arabic-language TV stations.

Think about whom you're trying to influence and what your levers are. It's not rocket science.

Postcript February 10: Well, Syrians in Syria get it, so perhaps those abroad will catch on. From today's New York Times:

Activists said seven people were also killed in the city when troops fired on anti-government demonstrators drawn to the streets to protest Russia’s support of President Bashar al-Assad. Protesters said the theme of Friday’s demonstrations, which they hoped to stage nationwide, was “Russia is killing our children.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Letter to an Expat in Newt Country

A friend writes:

 "Could you please write a blog about how it isn't actually the 'entitlement' programs for the poor that  have gotten us into a recession. I could use some good information to quote down here in conservative FL. "

Wow, where to begin?

1. The Recession

Entitlements had nothing to do with the recession. The recession was caused by a bubble in housing prices (see, for example, Tampa and Miami in the chart), in which banks made loans to people who couldn't afford them on the assumption that housing prices would continue to go up. When prices stopped going up, and then started going down (around 2007), banks were left with a lot of bad loans. To make matters worse, a lot of those loans had been bundled into packages and sold to other banks, so nobody was sure exactly what each bank had. So banks didn't want to lend each other money, for fear that the other bank would go bankrupt. So nobody could get loans, so businesses started having trouble paying employees and ordering new inventory, so people got laid off. Which made everyone cut back on their buying, etc.

Republicans want to believe all this couldn't be the fault of the private sector, so they've got a story involving how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are "government-sponsored" although privately owned.... oh, forget it. The so-called subprime mortgages, which were mortgage loans to people who couldn't really afford them, were made by the private sector.

2. Entitlements

This is pretty much a scam. Entitlements are basically any program that doesn't require an explicit appropriation by Congress. Everyone says, "We have to do something about entitlements," Mitt Romney runs around  talking about the "entitlement society", and then after the election they say, "You knew we were talking about Social Security and Medicare, right?"

Here are some rough figures:

2010 Federal Spending

Social Security 
$701 billion
  520 billion
 273 billion
"Food Stamps" (SNAP)
   70 billion
"Welfare" (TANF)
   17 billion

Something does have to be done about Medicare and Medicaid, because their costs are going up very fast, but that's because medical costs are going up very fast. The Democratic solution to this is to try to control medical costs. The Republican solution is to accuse Democrats of "raiding Medicare" (because they show smaller cost increases), do nothing about medical costs, and then cap how much Medicare will pay. They thus remove the problem from the Federal budget by shifting it onto recipients. This is known as the "Ryan plan", and its fundamental cynicism is compounded by making it only applicable to people under 55, in the hope that they won't pay attention the way people 55 and over would, and that people 55 and over don't mean it when they talk about their concern about future generations.

3. Other

On the allegedly crushing burden of future debt, don't forget that Ronald Reagan doubled the national debt, and that around 60 percent of the current debt was incurred under the Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II administrations.

If you find yourself getting into arguments with libertarians, try this.

Some Remarks About the Florida Primary

1. In case you somehow missed the exit-polling results for Florida, here are are a few results I found interesting:
  • Gingrich ran eight percentage points worse among women than among men.  "The Daily Show" had a "focus group" of women before the primary, in which it turned out that divorced women hated Gingrich, while married trophy wives liked him.
  • A pretty clear demographic picture: Ron Paul got a remarkable 25% of the under-30 vote (versus 3% of those 65 and over) and almost twice as many males as females. No word on what fraction of Ayn Rand readers he got.
  • The vote for Paul steadily decreased with voter age, while the vote for Newt steadily increased.
  • Romney's remarks about "self-deporting" and Newt calling him anti-immigrant seem to have made no difference among Republicans. He got more than twice as many votes as Gingrich among non-Cuban Hispanics. His margin  among those who thought that illegal immigrants working in the US should be offered a chance to apply for citizenship was about the same (big) as among those who thought they should be deported. (To my surprise, there were more of the former than the latter.)
  • Inexplicably, Romney not only got 72% of those who thought Gingrich's positions were too conservative, he also got 52% of those who thought Gingrich's positions were not conservative enough. Poor Rick Santorum.
  • Romney did better among Catholics than the two Catholic candidates combined.
2. You may have been wondering why Gingrich was nattering on about Saul Alinsky. Most people know as much about Saul Alinsky as they do about, say, Sarbanes-Oxley. But if you're one of those people, you're not part of Newt's key demographic: those who live in the Glenn Beck looniverse. The latter is an alternate reality where America faces threats not only from Saul Alinsky, but from Sigmund Freud, Cass Sunstein, George Soros, Frances Fox Piven, and the coming Caliphate.

BTW, notice anything these people have in common? Hint: it begins with a "J". OK, except for the Caliphate.