Economics, Political Philosophy

No Longer California Dreamin’

The reason why I am not a liberal is because liberal means can never achieve liberal ends—and nowhere is that more apparent than in the state of California. For decades, California has been an enclave of liberalism, an experiment in liberal governance and liberal ideology. Even when Arnold Schwartzenegger was elected governor, ostensibly as a Republican, he governed as a center-leftist. The Republican Party in California has become a virtual irrelevancy, and the California Legislature is now subject to Democratic super-majorities in both houses.

And what is the result of California’s full-throated embrace of liberal policy? This article in The Washington Examiner lays the truth bare:

What are Californians getting for all this government spending? According to a new census report released Friday, almost one-quarter, 23.5 percent, of all Californians are in poverty. One-third of all the nation’s welfare recipients live in the state, despite the fact that California has only one-eighth of the country’s population. That’s four times as many as the next-highest welfare population, which is New York. Meanwhile, California eighth-graders finished ahead of only Mississippi and District of Columbia students on reading and math test scores in 2011.

Middle-class families that want actual jobs, not welfare, are fleeing California in droves. According to IRS data compiled by the Manhattan Institute, since 2000, almost 2 million Americans have left California for other states. Their most popular destination: Texas.

It is ironic that the Democratic Party champions itself as guardians of the middle class, when California shows how liberal policies have the effect of hollowing out the middle class. California has become an enclave for the super-wealthy and the super poor—those in the middle take the worst squeeze. California has become a state where income inequality is some of the highest in the country, despite the notion that liberal social and fiscal policies will create a more equitable society. Despite years of liberal policymaking, California has not become a more equitable place to live.

At the same time, California’s tax rates are some of the highest in the nation. While liberals love to argue that Proposition 13, which limited the Legislature’s powers to raise property taxes, are the reason for California’s woes, the truth is far different. California has some of the highest tax rates of any state in the country, and has a highly progressive tax structure with seven brackets. Despite having a tax system that does everything that the left argues should be done, California is a fiscal basket case.

So what is California’s real problem?:

The real cause for California’s fiscal crisis is simple: They spend too much money. Between 1996 and 2012, the state’s population grew by just 15 percent, but spending more than doubled, from $45.4 billion to $92.5 billion (in 2005 constant dollars).

California simply spends far more than it takes in, despite having some of the richest parts of the country, California’s unquestionable prosperity cannot accommodate the needs of an ever-expanding government. And the response of California’s left-wing government has been to further raise taxes, forcing an even-greater exodus of middle-class jobs to states like Arizona and Texas. What we are seeing is a state that is coasting by on past successes, but rapidly reaching the inflection point where California threatens to become a failed state.

If that seems like hyperbole, it is not. We can already see it happening on the municipal level. The city of Stockton, California has become the largest municipality in the country to file Chapter 9 bankruptcy. (Chapter 9 is a rarely-used part of the federal Bankruptcy Code that allows cities and counties to reorganize their debts in the same way that companies may file Chapter 11 bankruptcy.) But Stockton isn’t alone: three other California cities have also filed for bankruptcy protection, an almost unprecedented event.

The root causes of these bankruptcies are overly-generous public-sector pensions that are no longer sustainable, massive public spending, and tax revenues that are shrinking as the middle class flees for more sustainable climates. Yet these trends are not being fixed, they are being exacerbated as Sacramento continues to push for more and more spending and higher and higher taxes.

Indeed, California faces a fiscal time bomb that could swamp the entire state. CalPERS, the public-sector pension system in California is facing a fiscal crisis. It has even resorted to filing lawsuits against bankrupt cities to try and get additional money to remain solvent. As California’s tax base becomes increasingly polarized, the flow of money needed to give public-sector employees lavish benefits decreases. But the powerful public sector unions have a stranglehold over state government, which makes meaningful reform virtually impossible. When CalPERS goes bust, as is inevitable, the economic effects would be dire.

And that doesn’t even get to immigration: California’s lax immigration enforcement and lavish welfare benefits have created a massive Latino underclass. Illegal immigration costs California taxpayers up to $1.6 billion every year, a sizable fraction of California’s overall yearly deficit. Even if those costs are inflated, the very real cost of providing benefits to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants is having an effect on California’s already-precarious fiscal situation.

The California Canary in the Fiscal Coal Mine

California’s looming failure is a warning to the rest of us. California is being buoyed by its prior good fortune, it’s abundant natural resources, and its excellent climate and geography. But even these natural advantages cannot hold its decline at bay forever. Should nothing change, California will face fiscal collapse, and it could take the rest of the country down with it. A fiscal crisis in California would have massive ripple effects across the entire United States economy. But the political will for reform is simply not there. With no effective resistance to the liberal orthodoxy in California, there is nothing to slow down the stream of bad policies contributing to this mess.

But what cannot go on forever will not, and sooner or later the results of these bad policies will hit in full force. Sooner or later the unsustainable trajectory that California is on will meet the ground, and when it does, the end result will be messy at best—and that’s the most optimistic way of putting it.

What California show us is that liberalism is rife with internal contradictions. Liberalism teaches that economic inequality is dangerous, yet years of liberal policies have produced shocking inequality in California, The rich Los Angeles suburbs like Beverly Hills, Malibu, or Brentwood exist just miles from some of the most blighted urban landscapes in the country. Liberalism says that the middle class must be defended, yet California’s middle class is fleeing the state, and those that remain are getting squeezed ever tighter by high prices and high taxes. Liberalism says that government should be the solution to our problems, but California’s government is one of the most dysfunctional in the country. California is proof that liberal means can never achieve liberal ends—and each year those contradictions only grow.

What California needs is a complete reorganization. California can succeed, it has all the natural benefits in the world and still enjoys the benefits of being a center for technology, aerospace, biotech, and other fields. Despite California’s brain drain, it still has a substantial part of its educated workforce left. The ingredients for success are all there, but California’s dysfunctional government and left-wing hegemony is keeping it from success.

Restoring California’s Dream

What California needs is to reform its pension system, even if it creates massive political costs. It needs to dramatically cut unnecessary spending, including stopping giving such lavish benefits to illegal immigration. Proposition 13 may have kept California’s property taxes artificially low, but that’s been offset in some areas by insanely high property values in certain areas of the state. Property tax reform may well be necessary, but it should be combined with a simpler, flatter, and less punitive income-tax system and a reduction in both business taxes and unnecessary regulations.

California has benefitted from a highly-educated workforce, but that cannot continue so long as California’s schools are failing, both K-12 and higher education. Instead, California needs to do what the rest of the country must do: reform the educational system from a sinecure for bureaucrats into a result-driven system that teaches the skills needed for the 21st Century workforce. Right now many of the people working for California’s high-tech industries are foreigners on H1B visas—and while those workers add a great deal to the state, it’s not sustainable over the long term. Developing a better educational system will make sure that California can maintain its high-tech economy into the future. If they fail to do that, California will become an also-ran.

California demonstrates the reasons why liberalism doesn’t work: because if you do everything that liberalism says, you don’t get a more equitable or modern economy. The problem is that for many of the stakeholders in California’s broken system, there is no impetus to reform. The public sector unions have every reason to keep sucking at the teat until it runs dry. The educational bureaucracy has no desire to reform and threaten its gravy train. The ultra-rich don’t care what tax rate they pay because they have enough wealth that the difference between losing 10% to taxation and losing 5% ultimately doesn’t impact their standard of wealth. A Hollywood movie star doesn’t care what their tax rate is, they are paid an obscenely large amount of money and their finances are handled by an army of lawyers and accountants. The small business owner who can only afford a part-time bookkeeper is acutely aware of the impact of taxation. Yet the Hollywood celebrity has far more political clout than the small-business owner.

Sadly, the only way that this system will likely be reformed is when there is no other way possible. The liberal welfare state is ultimately unsustainable, but is extremely difficult to reform. California was once a symbol of America’s cultural, technological, and economic might. Yet now it is becoming a warning. If we fail to heed that warning, California dreamin’ will become a national nightmare.


Leviathan Unchained

Harold Meyerson, writing in The American Prospect argues that Americans are “hypocrites” because we dislike regulations in general, but like specific regulations:

Last Thursday, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey that revealed what Pew termed “Mixed Views of Government Regulation.” But “mixed,” in this case, means anti-regulatory in matters of ideology and pro-regulatory in practice. Asked whether they believed that government regulation of business was necessary to protect the public or that such regulation usually does more harm than good, just 40 percent answered that regulation was necessary, while 52 percent said it did more harm than good.

But then came the specifics. Pew asked whether federal regulations should be strengthened, kept as is, or reduced in particular areas. When it came to food production and packaging, 53 percent said strengthen, 36 percent said keep as is, and just 7 percent said reduce. In environmental safeguards, the breakdown was 50 percent strengthen, 36 percent keep as is, 17 percent reduce. In car safety and efficiency, the split was 45, 42, and 9 percent. In workplace safety and health, it was 41, 45, and 10 percent. And with prescription drugs, it was 39, 33, and 20 percent.

This is hardly a new discovery—public opinion polls have shown similar results for decades. In general, Americans dislike government regulations, but they want stronger regulations in specific areas.

The Overreaches of the Regulatory State

Meyerson thinks that this is hypocrisy and that Americans are “in denial.” Meyerson misses the point:
when Americans are directly effected by regulations, they oppose them. But it’s easy for Americans to want those “other guys” to be regulated. And in fact, the numbers are not that heavily weighted towards more regulation. A plurality thinks that there’s too much regulation, a slightly larger plurality thinks that there are two little. A smaller plurality thinks that the amount of regulations are fine the way they are. Together, the number of people who want fewer regulations or the status quo outnumber those who want to expand the regulatory state.

And as the regulatory state grows and the state and federal level, we will likely see the number of people wanting to roll back government regulation rise. Take these examples:

A preschooler at West Hoke Elementary School ate three chicken nuggets for lunch Jan. 30 because the school told her the lunch her mother packed was not nutritious.

The girl’s turkey and cheese sandwich, banana, potato chips, and apple juice did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, according to the interpretation of the person who was inspecting all lunch boxes in the More at Four classroom that day.

The Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs — including in-home day care centers — to meet USDA guidelines. That means lunches must consist of one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetables, even if the lunches are brought from home.

When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones.

Imagine what will happen when something like that becomes commonplace. It’s one thing for a government regulator to go after “big corporations” with stupid and destructive regulations. But the second those stupid and destructive regulations effect the average American, it will be time to break out the tar and feathers.

And the school-lunch police aren’t the only example of regulatory insanity going on in America today.As one Nevada farmer found out, the regulatory state doesn’t give a damn about common sense or your rights:

I can’t tell you how sick to my stomach I was watching that first dish of Mint Lamb Meatballs hit the bottom of the unsanitized trash can. Here we were with guests who had paid in advance and had come from long distances away anticipating a wonderful dining experience, waiting for dinner while we were behind the kitchen curtain throwing it away! I know of the hours and labor that went into the preparation of that food. We asked the inspector if we could save the food for a private family event that we were having the next day. (A personal family choice to use our own food.) We were denied and she was insulted that we would even consider endangering our families health. I assured her that I had complete faith and trust in Giovanni our chef and the food that was prepared, (obviously, or I wouldn’t be wanting to serve it to our guests).

I then asked if we couldn’t feed the food to our “public guests” or even to our private family, then at least let us feed it to our pigs. (I think it should be a criminal action to waste any resource of the land. Being dedicated to our organic farm, we are forever looking for good inputs into our compost and soil and good food that can be fed to our animals. The animals and compost pile always get our left over garden surplus and food. We truly are trying to be as sustainable as possible.) Again, a call to Susan and another negative response. Okay, so let me get this right. So the food that was raised here on our farm and selected and gathered from familiar local sources, cooked and prepared with skill and love was even unfit to feed to my pigs!?! Who gave them the right to tell me what I feed my animals? Not only were we denied the use of the food for any purpose, to ensure that it truly was unfit for feed of any kind we were again threatened with police action if we did not only throw the food in the trash, but then to add insult to injury, we were ordered to pour bleach on it.

There was nothing wrong with the food, other than it didn’t meet the purely bureaucratic whims of the health inspector. And this wasn’t one deranged idiot going off on a whim: the state health inspector was constantly on the phone with her superior, who not only ratified each decision, but was apparently calling the shots.

This is the face of government regulation in America: it’s not about protecting people, it’s about power and control. Was the state protecting that elementary school student from anything? No, the options she was later given were worse than what her parents had packed. Was there any danger to the guests of that Nevada farmer? No, but because the government doesn’t want any deviation from their narrow rules, they acted like tinpot dictators and made the farmers throw away the food and pour bleach on it.

In a sane world, the people responsible for those decisions would be fired immediately. But this is not a sane world. It’s a world where too much power has been abdicated, too much common sense abandoned, and too much authority ceded ever upwards. And that is why Americans hate regulation—and as more Americans experience this kind of rampant idiocy, the number of Americans who see the regulatory state as the enemy will only increase.

And when Americans say that there are too many regulations on small business, they are absolutely right. Take for example what happened to a small business trying to operate a beer garden in Arlington, Virginia. Government bureaucrats at the local level are ofter just as rapacious and just as foolhardy as their compatriots on the state and federal level. For another example, watch this video outlining the many needless hurdles a small business owner has to go through to open an ice cream parlor in San Francisco.

We talk about how important it is to foster the growth of small businesses and how critical it is to get Americans working again. But as the above examples demonstrate, our system of massive government overregulation costs jobs and takes thousands of dollars out of the economy and into the hands of the government apparatchiks who administer this maddening system.

So yes, it’s easy for the average American to say that someone else should be regulated—given that the media has turned big corporations into mustache-twirling villains at every opportunity it’s no wonder that a plurality support more regulation. But when Americans look at the issue of regulation holistically, they see the reality that regulations hurt more people than they protect.

Meyerson thinks that the problem with America is that government isn’t powerful enough. But a government powerful enough to make BP, GE, or any other company do whatever government wants is a government that is powerful enough to make you do whatever government wants. And that doesn’t even get into a discussion of regulatory capture. Big business doesn’t hate government regulation—they’ve learned to use it as a cudgel to beat down competition before they can rise up to challenge the established players. That beer garden in Virginia can’t afford an army of lawyers and lobbyists to negotiate with the regulators—but a chain restaurant can. What is the result of this nonsensical regulatory overreach? Fewer small business and more powerful big ones.

American’s aren’t hypocrits—at least not in the way Meyerson accuses them of being. Rather, Americans need to understand that the same sort of regulatory insanity that causes schoolchildren to be given chicken nuggets or farmers to have to throw away perfectly good food is no less idiotic and no less harmful when it’s applied to big corporations.

Political Philosophy, Politics

Andy Stern’s Liberal Fascism

Andy Stern, the head of the SEIU and one of President Obama’s biggest supporters has a shockingly honest piece in The Wall Street Journal calling for the United States to mimic China’s model of state-run economic development. Say what you will about Stern’s piece, it’s probably the most honest description of where the American left wants this country to go.

Let’s ignore the fact that China, while having improved its human rights record somewhat, is still a single-party totalitarian society that routinely arrests political dissenters, engages in torture of political prisoners, and censors the free exchange of information. Even beyond all those horribles, China is no model for the United States.

Here’s what Stern has to say about China:

. . .I was part of a U.S.-China dialogue—a trip organized by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the Center for American Progress—with high-ranking Chinese government officials, both past and present. For me, the tension resulting from the chorus of American criticism paled in significance compared to reading the emerging outline of China’s 12th five-year plan. The aims: a 7% annual economic growth rate; a $640 billion investment in renewable energy; construction of six million homes; and expanding next-generation IT, clean-energy vehicles, biotechnology, high-end manufacturing and environmental protection—all while promoting social equity and rural development.

Some Americans are drawing lessons from this. Last month, the China Daily quoted Orville Schell, who directs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, as saying: “I think we have come to realize the ability to plan is exactly what is missing in America.” The article also noted that Robert Engle, who won a Nobel Prize in 2003 for economics, has said that while China is making five-year plans for the next generation, Americans are planning only for the next election.

There are times when I think that it’s hyperbole to accuse the left of being closet socialists, when that attack is over the top. Then I see something like this. Here is the head of one of the Democratic Party’s most important constituency, a friend and informal advisor to President Barack Obama, saying that America should start adopting a five-year plan. Stern doesn’t even try to hide his arguments, or finesse them as does Sinophile Thomas Friedman. He goes right out and says that America should emulate a country that is 100% controlled by the Communist Party.

Liberal Fascism Is Right

Stern’s argument is the same argument that has been made time and time again about totalitarian states. The phrase “Mussolini made the trains run on time” came from somewhere—and as Jonah Goldberg demonstrated in his important and utterly misunderstood book Liberal Fascism, the statist intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s saw Fascist Italy as a model for the rest of the world. Stern’s love letter to Communist China is in the same vein.

In the 1930s, American journalist Walter Duranty of The New York Times covered for the crimes of Stalin’s Soviet Union, and held Stalinism as a model for the West to follow. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his work. Stern is just following in Duranty’s footsteps.

Stern argues that free-market capitalism has failed, and that the state-run model as exemplified by China is superior. Anyone who believes that has some screws loose—China’s development is not a model for anyone, not even the Chinese. Yes, the Chinese have boosted their economy and are rapidly industrializing and becoming a 21st Century powerhouse. But their fortune is not due to their model of government. If anything, within my lifetime we are likely to see a catastrophic economic collapse unless China fundamentally reforms.

Clean energy vehicles? Look at China’s high speed rail system—the one held up as a model by Sinophiles like Andy Stern and Thomas Friedman. It is not only massively over-budget, but what has been completed is shoddily constructed and unsafe. This has already lead to fatal accidents and a reexamination of the whole project.

Environmental protection? The environmental ruin of China provides more evidence why the China model is not one to emulate. Beijing and other major Chinese cities are filled with smog, and the government has been attempting to hide the truth about how bad China’s air is from its own citizens. The construction of the Three Gorges Dam caused massive environmental and cultural damage, but the Chinese government steamrolled it through. There’s no Chinese equivalent of the Sierra Club to lobby against the government on projects, at least nothing with anywhere near the power of the American environmental lobby. Is that a model that Stern would like the U.S. to adopt?

Economic equality? China’s level of corruption is endemic, as Freedom House notes in its Index of Economic Freedom. Bribery is all too common in China at all levels. The Chinese system is a system where the politically well-connected receive the spoils, and the rest mire through. Now, for someone like Andy Stern, who is part of the politically well-connected set, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. But for those not part of the political elite, Chinese-style corruption is the antithesis of economic equality.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. China is rapidly industrializing in the way that the post-World War II Soviet Union rapidly industrialized. The Chinese government is not as totalitarian as the Soviets were, but the result will be the same. China can produce all the “five-year plans” that it wants—just as the Soviet Gosplan did for decades. But the 20th Century was filled with the littered husks of governments that tried and failed to execute state-run central planning and failed. Even the ones that didn’t practice Stalinism failed. They failed not because they weren’t good enough at central planning, they failed because central planning of an economy doesn’t work.

And let me make a bold prediction—within my lifetime the Chinese system will either substantially reform or end up in a messy collapse that sends ripple effects across the globe. In fact, I don’t think that prediction is particularly bold, because that is what has happened every time a state has embraced central economic planning.

This Is What They Actually Believe

All of this supports Jonah Goldberg’s thesis in Liberal Fascism—not that American liberals want to strap on jackboots and invade Poland, but that American liberals have an ideological blind spot that causes them to embrace state control of the economy, which inevitably leads to totalitarianism. What liberals like Andy Stern miss is that the Chinese government has the power to implement “five-year plans” because it also has the power to arrest dissidents, attempt to culturally eradicate the Tibetan people, and censor the free expression of its citizens. Once you give the government virtually unfettered power to control the economic affairs of the people, you’ve given them virtually unfettered power to control everything else.

That’s the lesson of the 20th Century, the one that American liberals never seem to have grasped. You cannot get to Bismarck’s welfare state without eventually getting to Adolph Hitler. You cannot get a Mussolini that makes the trains run on time without getting a Mussolini that oppresses the people. You cannot have a Chinese economy without emulating the bad parts of China either. Political power in a controlled market is a zero-sum game—every bit of power and authority you give to the government has to be taken from somewhere else.

That’s why America should not emulate China. America should start emulating America. Our Founding Fathers figured out, centuries ago, that the best way to have a successful and prosperous country was to unleash the people and allow them to flourish. The Founding Fathers didn’t fully understand this concept at the time, but they got it right.

Stern argues that free-market capitalism is failing America. Bullshit. What is failing in America is the very model that Stern wants—a system where the government controls ever more functions of the economy. Over the last few decades the size and scope of government has grown at an almost exponential rate—but has life gotten better because of it? What parts of the economy are the biggest messes? We have an education system that’s a basket case and is harming the future of this country. The education system is controlled almost entirely by the government, either directly or indirectly. Our healthcare system is a mess. Who’s the biggest power in healthcare? It’s Uncle Sam, through Medicare and Medicaid and a whole host of other programs. Our financial system has lurched from one disaster to another. And contrary to the spin, the financial fatcats by and large supported President Obama and have been getting rich off of his largesse since he was elected.

No wonder Stern wants more of the same. His union has gotten fatter and more powerful under President Obama, and if the United States emulated China, Andy Stern would be even more powerful.

China is no model for the United States. China is no model for China. The fact that one of the most powerful figures in American liberalism in the Democratic Party would openly embrace central planning in such stark terms is shocking—even though it’s been clear for some time that’s what they believe in private.


Dukakis 2.0

At The Weekly Standard, Noemie Emery hits Obama below the belt by saying that his Presidency is the Dukakis Administration that never was:

As Barack Obama sees his ratings descend toward the high 30s, he is increasingly described as the second coming of James Earl Carter Jr., whose presidency, gone but hardly forgotten, lives on in masochists’ minds. The comparison is unkind and not quite on target: This is less Carter II than the lost presidency of Michael Dukakis, which seemed a sure thing at this date 22 years ago, and from which we were saved by the elder George Bush.

Of course, no one thought Dukakis could be the messiah, but in other ways the connections are strong: both creatures of the liberal Northeast and of Harvard, with no sense at all of most of the rest of the country; both rationalists who impose legalistic criteria on emotion-rich subjects; both with fixed ideas of who society’s victims are, which do not accord with the views of the public; and both with a tin ear for the culture and a genius for creating wedge issues that split their own party. Obama has the Carter naïveté in foreign affairs—treating allies like foes, and vice versa—but it is the Dukakis campaign that provides the better parallel.

She has a point: President Obama managed to glamour the American electorate in 2008 without really giving anyone a sense of who Barack Obama is. He allowed himself to be a kind of empty vessel into which millions of Americans poured their hopes and aspirations. It was a tremendously successful strategy for getting elected, but it hasn’t worked since. The American people don’t want the President to be an empty vessel, they want the President to stand for something. And where Obama has taken his stands have all been on issues that are deeply popular with the American people.

Obama had the benefit of the charisma that Dukakis lacked, but Emery is right in pointing out that at the end of the day, President Obama is a doctrinaire liberal. His vision of the relationship between the American people and the state is a fundamentally left-wing one. President Obama was elected to be a post-racial, post-partisan centrist that would unite the country, heal the wounds of the Bush years, and move America forward. Nearly two years into his presidency, racial tensions are high, partisanship is worse than it was under Bush, and America is mired in economic doldrums. President Obama has lost nearly half his approval among independents precisely because he simply hasn’t governed like the way he promised.

Obama clearly wanted to be a transformational President, but the reality is that a President, no matter how talented, cannot transform this nation. Transformational leaders like FDR and Reagan came along at the right time with the right resonant message. Obama is trying to turn a center-right country into a country that reflects the values of the academic left.

It’s not surprising that he’s failed. Had Obama run as the conventional, doctrinaire academic liberal that he is, he would not have won. Now that he’s in office and acting just as the right said he would, it’s clear that Obama’s allegedly “transformational” Presidency is transforming his positive approval numbers into negative ones.

Campaign 2008, Political Philosophy, Politics

Obama And Redistribution

David Harsanyi has an astute piece on Obama’s collectivist tendencies:

Now, I’m not suggesting Obama intends to transform this nation into 1950s-era Soviet tyranny or that he will possess the power to do so. I’m suggesting Obama is praising and mainstreaming an economic philosophy that has failed to produce a scintilla of fairness or prosperity anywhere on Earth. Ever.

If you believe that “fairness” — a childishly subjective idea that ought to be quarantined to playgrounds and Berkeley city council meetings — should be meted out by the autocrats inhabiting Washington, D.C., your faith will be duly rewarded.

You know, once upon a time, the stated purpose of taxation was to fund public needs like schools and roads, assist those who could not help themselves, defend our security and freedom, and, yes, occasionally offer a bailout to sleazy fat cats.

Obama is the first major presidential candidate in memory to assert that taxation’s principal purpose should be redistribution.

For his talk about “hope” and “change”, Sen. Obama’s policy positions are nothing new, and nothing hopeful. They are based fundamentally on envy. “Redistribution” has nothing to do with fairness, and everything to do with greed. It is about demanding the work of others without having done anything oneself. Such an attitude is corrosive to democracy—the moment that the levers of the state can be used to rob from some to give to others, then such concepts as “equal justice under law” become just empty words.

I’m not so sanguine as Harsanyi about the future of this country. That so many Americans have been taken by the rhetoric of redistribution is itself troubling. The lifeblood of a democracy is in its citizenry, and when the citizenry decides to use government to line their own pockets with the wealth of others, they will inevitably take the country down the road to serfdom.

The Founders realized this, of course. That is precisely why they created a government of limited powers, enumerated in the Constitution. They lived in a time of out-of-control government when the Crown “redistributed” wealth from the Colonies to Great Britain. They saw the results of what happens when government controlled everything from the disposition of property to the publication of ideas. The strictures put in place in the Constitution exist to preserve the rights of the individual. Economic redistribution is premised on the idea that the individual has less right to their wealth than does the collective. Economic redistribution and individual rights are at odds, and for one to gain, the other must recede.

This country cannot embrace economic redistributionism and remain a democracy for long. The two will always be at odds. Obama is perhaps but a symptom of a larger sickness, and the cure is a reaffirmation of the principles of constitutional government.


Barack Obama Versus Alexis De Tocqueville

Armed Liberal, an Obama supporting blogger, has one of the more interesting takes on the whole Obama “bitter-gate” flap from a liberal perspective:

Here’s another thought: Obama believes that the people he’s discussing – poorer, gun-owning, church-going economic left-behinds in rural America are bitter and negative toward government because it hasn’t delivered.

There’s an alternate hypothesis, which is that they don’t think it’s supposed to. That there are a solid body of Americans who believe – with whatever justification or historical validity – that government’s role is to leave them alone. I’ll bet that people who believe those things tend to migrate away from major cities or never move to them, tend to go to church a lot, believe in guns, and in American culture. They are – wait for it – culturally conservative.

I think liberals can reach them, should reach them, and must reach them. I think they can because I think there are ways to reframe the ‘values’ issues that have divided us, and because I think that there is a key issue to bridge – the perceived value of what those poorer, gun-owning, church-going folks in small towns actually get from the government. . . .

I’ve asked for a long time what, exactly the Democratic Party has done in the last 20 years for a typical 35-year-old single mother who works as an administrative assistant in a big city. The answer: not a hell of a lot. Not anything I can think of.

To that I’ll add the question of what the Democratic Party has done in the last 20 years for the 35-year-old son of a factory worker who manages to get temp manufacturing jobs, alongside his wife, and tries to support his three kids doing it. He’s getting by because his dad had a great retirement plan and equity in his house. To him, the government wants to close his hunting areas to protect spotted owls, let his 14 year old daughter get an abortion without his consent, and charge him more and more for the priviledge.

So in a way, I’m agreeing with Obama – without the cultural baggage, which may be devastating to his candidacy.

Armed Liberal is doing something that the Democrats have failed to do—and that is take people who don’t agree with them seriously. That is something that Barack Obama isn’t able to do—because he has absolutely no cultural connection to Middle America. Obama’s statement about “bitter” voters was one of those rare moments in American politics where a candidate does something absolutely fatal: says what he or she actually believes. Obama’s appeal is all about the rhetoric of “hope” and “change” and other empty terms, but Obama’s substance is that of a man of the left. His statement was one in which the “hope” façade briefly slipped and the real Obama slipped through.

Barack Obama really does believe that the reason why cultural conservatives vote the way they do is because they’re “bitter” and they need to be shown the way. That attitude is arrogant and condescending to those who don’t share that viewpoint—but to those who agree, it’s “truth.” It’s the same argument that George Lakoff has been making for years—if one just “reframes” the issues, then Democrats will win the heartland.

It is, unsurprisingly, wrong. The left never really gets America. They don’t understand that cultural conservatism isn’t a recent backlash, but it’s the default state of American political life. Barack Obama, while a very educated and erudite candidate, should probably read some Tocqueville before spouting off again. The values of those Pennsylvania voters isn’t an aberration from the “real” American electorate, it is the real American electorate. Those Pennsylvania voters are the descendants of the largely Scots-Irish frontiersmen and women who settled this nation in the first place. They, for lack of a better term, are America 1.0—the people who made this country what it is.

Obama is from another culture entirely. The reason why he fails to understand the voters of the American Midwest is he has absolutely nothing in common with them. He doesn’t share their culture, their philosophy, their worldview, and he certainly does not share their view of government.

Armed Liberal gets it right: Pennsylvania voters do see government as a problem rather than as a source of all solutions. The problem is that the Democrats aren’t going to change that by promising more government solutions. It isn’t about getting “value” from government—although that is important—it is that every time that the power of the state is increased, the power of the people is necessarily decreased. They don’t understand that opposition to Big Government isn’t pig-headed obstructionism, but it’s entirely pragmatic. They don’t get that there’s a reason while Middle America would rather get help from their neighbors and their churches than from a government agency. They don’t understand concepts like subsidiarity (which even though most Middle American voters don’t know the term, they understand the concept) and how important it is to have solutions that are close to the people rather than diffused to Washington. This country was founded on the principles of limited government by and for the people, supported and enriched by an innumerable array of voluntary organizations. That is the America of Alexis de Tocqueville and Andrew Jackson, and that is the America that still represents a key plurality in American politics today.

Barack Obama is a very intelligent person, a fantastic orator, and certainly someone who cares for people. He is also from a culture that is relatively alien to traditional American values. Despite all the passion from his supporters, the cold, hard reality remains that Barack Obama will never be President of the United States. He can’t reach out to Middle America because he is not of Middle America, and he doesn’t understand the culture of Middle America. His rhetoric of “hope” and “change” may enthrall those who see American culture as drastically needed a realignment towards “progressive” values, but to those who have a justified suspicion of putting all one’s trust in government, his message does not resonate.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder also gets it wrong. It’s quite fascinating to me to see progresive commentators make arguments such as this:

At his San Francisco fundraiser, Obama was sketching out a variation of the Thomas Frank argument about working class voters who seem to choose candidates whose policies cut against their economic interest. In Obama’s version, working class voters in the Midwest have been inured to promises of economic redress because both Democrats and Republicans promise to help and never do; since government is a source of distress in their lives, they organize their politics around more stable institutions, like churches or cultural practices, like hunting. The outlet for their economic duress is in lashing out, in giving voice to their grievances; In Obama’s formulation, Republicans are especially eager and willing to exploit cultural trigger points.

What Ambinder and most of the modern-day progressives keep failing to understand is that churches and cultural practices existed before the current economic downturn, before the Rust Belt existed, even before the Industrial Revolution reached the New World. The key mistake that Ambinder, Obama, and the rest make is assuming that cultural conservatism only exists because government hasn’t done enough for people—as though there’s something intrinsically wrong about not wanting more and more government services. They completely forget that this country was founded upon a justified skepticism and distrust of government—and far from being an aberration, the attitudes of Middle American voters are more true to the American tradition than their pro-government progressivism is.

Political Philosophy

The Creation Of A Conservative

David Mamet has a frank and amazing essay in The Village Voice about how he ended up going from being a “brain-dead liberal” to a conservative:

I wrote a play about politics (November, Barrymore Theater, Broadway, some seats still available). And as part of the “writing process,” as I believe it’s called, I started thinking about politics. This comment is not actually as jejune as it might seem. Porgy and Bess is a buncha good songs but has nothing to do with race relations, which is the flag of convenience under which it sailed.

But my play, it turned out, was actually about politics, which is to say, about the polemic between persons of two opposing views. The argument in my play is between a president who is self-interested, corrupt, suborned, and realistic, and his leftish, lesbian, utopian-socialist speechwriter.

The play, while being a laugh a minute, is, when it’s at home, a disputation between reason and faith, or perhaps between the conservative (or tragic) view and the liberal (or perfectionist) view. The conservative president in the piece holds that people are each out to make a living, and the best way for government to facilitate that is to stay out of the way, as the inevitable abuses and failures of this system (free-market economics) are less than those of government intervention.

I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.

Mamet’s piece is well worth reading, especially for those who are “brain-dead liberals” as it explains some of the reasons why Mamet drifted away from liberal orthodoxy. He ended up re-examining many of his old assumptions and prejudices and finding them lacking: his distrust of the military, his dislike of corporations, his view of government. He asks one of the most important questions that a person can ask about political philosophy:

And I began to question my distrust of the “Bad, Bad Military” of my youth, which, I saw, was then and is now made up of those men and women who actually risk their lives to protect the rest of us from a very hostile world. Is the military always right? No. Neither is government, nor are the corporations—they are just different signposts for the particular amalgamation of our country into separate working groups, if you will. Are these groups infallible, free from the possibility of mismanagement, corruption, or crime? No, and neither are you or I. So, taking the tragic view, the question was not “Is everything perfect?” but “How could it be better, at what cost, and according to whose definition?” Put into which form, things appeared to me to be unfolding pretty well.

Mamet hits on the fundamental difference between liberalism and conservatism as political philosophies in 21st Century America. Liberalism is an ideology that seeks perfection: we have to give everyone healthcare, we have to end poverty, we have to make everyone in the world “respect” us, we have to stop all semblances of racism. Those are the imperatives of liberalism. On their own, and as abstract goals, there’s nothing wrong with them at all. Who wouldn’t want to end poverty? Who wouldn’t want to see a world without racism, war, oppression or dominance?

Where liberals fail to understand conservatism is that they seem to think that conservatism stands for the proposition that war, racism and poverty are all fine and we shouldn’t care about them. That facile misunderstanding is why liberals never really seem to be able to engage with conservatives on a fundamentally deep level, and why liberals tend to ascribe all sorts of sinister motivations to conservatives.

Mamet, however, hints at the real basis for conservatism. We can’t cure war. We can’t end all poverty. We can’t make people into angels when they are not. The fundamental principle of conservatism can be roughly summed up into this: “sometimes life just sucks.” Even if we could fix the problems that create war, poverty, racism and injustice to do so would be to have a society robbed of free will—because the root of all these problems are found in human nature itself. That’s why Mamet rightly describes conservatism as the “tragic” view of human nature and liberalism as the “perfectionist” view of human nature. Conservatives recognize that there is no permanent solution for the ills of mankind—there are only advances which can ameliorate our conditions. We can’t create heaven on earth, we can only fumble around as best we can.

That is why liberals and conservatives don’t get along, and politically may never will. (Personally, of course, it’s a different matter. I’ve known many ardent socialists who are far more engaging than many of the people on my political side of the aisle. Sometimes one must simply agree to disagree.) A liberal sees a problem like health care and understands that the only viable solution is to make sure that everyone gets health care for free. It doesn’t matter whether or not that particular goal is attainable. It’s why liberals don’t tend to discuss things like cost/benefit analyses or economic concerns or questions of feasibility. The goal is to give everyone health care, and if that goal is not reached then the whole liberal world order breaks down. If we can’t give everyone health care for free than liberals have to tacitly acknowledge the central conceit of conservatism: that human nature doesn’t allow us to reshape society to our Platonic ideal. Then all liberalism becomes is a pale shade of conservatism. Without liberalism’s central conceit that collective action can radically transform the world, liberalism becomes rather hollow.

That doesn’t at all mean that liberals have bad motives—quite the contrary liberals almost always are idealistic in some fashion. The problem is that liberalism can never really mesh itself with reality: liberal means can never achieve liberal ends. The welfare state perpetuates a cycle of dependence. A foreign policy of naïvete emboldens dictators who subsequently move to slaughter more innocents. A government that takes it as its mission to help people ends up restricting the freedom of all.

My biggest criticism of liberalism is that it is too idealistic. If you’re absolutely convinced of the righteousness of your cause, why bother to examine your beliefs? At that point, an ideology becomes stagnant and inflexible. (It should be noted that Andrew Sullivan argues in his book A Conservatism of Doubt that conservatism is stagnating itself. His criticism aren’t always on the mark, but are worth examining.)

Liberalism today is a stagnant ideology. Liberals may win election (although usually be masquerading as moderates), but liberalism lacks any real understanding of itself. Most liberals these days begin and end their political understanding with their dislike of President Bush (who is not only not the living symbol of conservatism, but not particularly conservative at all in many respects). For one, Bush is a lame duck President. More importantly, any ideology that defines itself by what it is not is barely an ideology at all.

Mamet’s conversion from “brain-dead liberal” to conservative happened because he started to think more deeply about why he believed what he believed. This country would be much better off if more people—liberal or conservative—did the same.


Hands In The Cookie Jar

Not surprisingly, the DFL managed to get enough wobbly Republicans to override Gov. Pawlenty’s veto of their pork-stuffed transportation bill. Contrary to the typically childish arguments of some, the choice at stake here was not between fixing the problems with Minnesota’s transportation system, but not spending additional money for boondoggles we don’t need.

Every day, families across this state have to make decisions because they are feeling more and more financially squeezed. They have to make choice like whether they can afford to send their kids to camp or get the car fixed, whether they can afford a family vacation or health care. The fundamental arrogance of the DFL and the Democratic Party in general is that they want to demand that we make sacrifices, but when it comes to their pet projects they can always demand more and more of us. Minnesota’s families don’t have the choice to take money for their kids to buy that new plasma TV. Minnesota’s government shouldn’t be shaking down working families with a 5 cent/gallon gas tax increase so that they can spend another $1.1 billion on metro-area transit projects that only give a marginal benefit for the few.

We have to make sacrifices in order to live within our fiscal means. Government should have to do the same. The Democrats tried to paint this as a choice between fixing transportation or doing nothing—this was really a choice about setting priorities and ensuring that our taxpayer dollars went to responsible tasks rather than wasteful spending. The DFL, as always, chose poorly.

For all the talk about how it’s the Republicans that are supposedly “the party of the rich” the Democrats act as though they’ve never had to balance a budget or even think of making sacrifices in order to make ends meet. That’s part of being a responsible adult in today’s society—and once again we have a state government that is acting like spoiled children with their hands in the cookie jar.