Posts Tagged ‘Tea Party’

Wall Street Journal editorials are usually very good, the WSJ‘s editorial page being one of the few of major newspapers whose authors are economically literate. The editors recently argued that last Friday’s late-hour budget agreement was “The Tea Party’s First Victory.”

Maybe it was. But consider this passage from the piece:

Republicans also showed they are able to make the compromises required to govern. We realize that “governing” can often be an excuse for incumbent self-interest. But this early show of political maturity will demonstrate to independents that the freshmen and tea party Republicans they elected in November aren’t the yahoos of media lore. A government shutdown over a spending difference of $7 billion and some policy riders would have made the GOP look reckless for little return.

Here the editors are misreading the political tea leaves. There is nothing that “the freshmen and tea party Republicans” can do that will change the opinion of most media outlets that they are “yahoos” bent on “reckless” endangerment of the republic. Indeed, that is one of the more charitable ways to describe what liberal pundits and editorial pages will write, not to mention think, about these Republicans. And when I say they can do nothing to change that, I mean it: Even if the Republicans had capitulated entirely to the Democrats’ opening offer of—what was it, $9 billion in cuts?—it would have been explained not as evidence of the ‘maturity’ and ‘reasonableness’ the WSJ seems to believe but because of something rather less flattering. (My guess: either (a) stupidity, (b) a secret Machiavellian strategem, or (c) some combination of the two.)

If I’m right about that, and the central currents of media and liberal opinion of these Republicans will not change, then why should either they or the WSJ bother worrying about it?

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Last week an astronomer claimed that the earth’s precession required a reevaluation of the zodiacal chart. His announcement created a firestorm, leading to stories of worry and even panic in all the major news outlets in America. It was initially shocking to see just how many people were discomfitted by this news, to see just how many people apparently believe that their zodiacal sign has some actual bearing on their lives. But then one realizes this should not be so surprising, since we are and remain a superstitious species.

One thing that disqualifies astrology from being a science is precisely its lack of causal regularity. There are no laws of astrological causation, no claims that if this happens, then that will always follow. No astrological claim has any predictive force; they are too vague and unspecific for actual evaluation. And they are unfalsifiable, meaning that it is impossible to tell—again usually because they are so vague—under what conditions they could be false.

So why do people continue to listen to astrologers? Why do they read their (vague, unspecific, unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific) horoscopes? One would like to think it is for entertainment purposes only, the way one will watch and be entertained by a play, even though one knows the actors are only, well, acting. But the sensation caused by the news of changes in zodiac signs suggests that many people put far more stock in astrology than as mere entertainment. Humans are, after all, seekers after patterns: We see two or three data points, and we leap to fill in the causal gaps, creating a narrative that is comforting and reassuring for its completeness and its integration into what we already know or believe. And once we have discovered—that is to say, invented—a causal pattern, we are loath to give it up. All future data points, consistent or not with the received pattern, we accept, ignore, or twist, as the case may be, so that they seem to comport with our story.

It is not news that humans do this, even if it is dispiriting that, amidst all our education and enlightenment today, we still seem just as susceptible to astrological explanations as the ancient Greeks were.

Consider the recent case of the Arizona shooting. The blood had hardly been spilt before some were inventing their astrological explanation of the event. The stars were aligned just so (there was a “climate of hate“), the moon and the planets were in the proper position (Sarah Palin had done x, the Tea Party had done y), the proper incantations had been sung (the Constitution was read aloud), the proper dolls were pricked (ObamaCare was threatened), and thus the proper demons called forth (and there is more violence in the offing). Given all this, the shooter apparently had almost no choice to do what he did and thus can hardly be held responsible. The stars, the planets, the incanations, made it inevitable.

Of course, it is not impossible that the Arizona shooter did what he did because of Sarah Palin, “eliminationist rhetoric,” and so on. We do not know why he did what he did, so we cannot rule that out. On the other hand, because we do not know why he did what he did, we . . . do not know why he did what he did.

The fact that so many, despite this yawning gap in the causal account, claimed to know why he did it, suggests that astrological thinking remains with us. We do not know whether the shooter in this instance listened to Sarah Palin et al., we do not know whether he sympathized with the Tea Party, and we do not know whether he cared about ObamaCare; even if he did listen to Palin, was a Tea Party sympathizer, and cared about ObamaCare, none of that would yet prove that those were in his mind when he conceived of, planned, and then took his actions; and even if they were in his mind, that still would not yet mean that he was not himself responsible for his actions. An awful lot remains yet to be shown, then, before we could reasonably come to that conclusion.

One commentator pauses to consider the implications of the fact that the pervasive astrological explanation of the Arizona shooter’s action actually contains no causal account. But the pause is only initial, because he claims that “causal responsibility is not the core issue here. Rather, moral responsibility is” (emphasis in the original). His argument is that even if the “vitriol” in our public political discourse had no causal effect in this case, it does not mean we should not be held morally responsible when we say “grossly irresponsible, terribly immoral, unacceptably impermissible” things. Yes, indeed. But actual (not moral) causality is precisely what is at issue here, because people are laying blame for the event at the feet of people and events other than the shooter himself.

Yet another commentator argues that we should not have “physics envy” in our attempt to explain why the shooter did what he did. He responds to the objection that no “direct causation” has been shown between the metaphorically violent rhetoric and the actually violent action by calling this “an impossible standard of proof.” He has a point. Human beings are complex creatures, and it is very difficult—even, perhaps, impossible—to give the exact chain of causality that led to any given action of any given person.

But we must admit that we are a very, very long way away from such an account. All that has been offered so far is a just-so story about what kinds of things might have played a role, what kinds of words and rhetoric might have affected him, in what way such things might have affected him, and so on. But just-so stories are not scientific, because not causal, explanations. They are not even serious attempts at scientific explanations. They are just stories.

The event at issue here is a multiple murder—a gravely serious affair. If it has demonstrated just how apt we are to leap to unsubstantiated narratives fitting our prior expectations, it then also demonstrates how important it is to slow down and make sure we get things right. Let us find who the responsible parties actually are—not who they might be—and let us hold them accountable. We might not need an account of causation that would satisfy the physicist, but a murder conviction requires a higher standard of proof than stories.

Astrological accounts of human behavior, however appealing or entertaining they can be, do not contribute to our understanding of human behavior, but instead to our prejudices about it. We must not allow them to determine our judgments in this or any other important actual case.

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[Author's note: Although I wrote it before the election, I embargoed this essay until today, lest anyone think I was advocating for a political party or for an electoral victory. The sentiments expressed below are unrelated to any partisan agenda.]

Billionaire businessmen and philanthropists Charles and David Koch have come in for a lot of criticism lately, and in all the best places: among others, in The New York Times (both Paul Krugman and Frank Rich), in New York Magazine, and in an improbably long piece in the The New Yorker. The charges in all the accounts are the same. The Kochs are “covert” bankrollers of the Tea Party, shadowy “tycoons” funding a relentless campaign to discredit President Obama and his policies, and, more generally, financial supporters of numerous initiatives whose real goals are to help them line their pockets—all either in secret or behind a false mask of charity and patriotic rhetoric. According to critics, when the Kochs talk about “individual liberty” and “free markets,” what they really mean is “get the government off our backs so we can make even more money.” And people supported by the Kochs who espouse similar notions are just puppets pulled by the strings of the Kochs’ billions.

As someone whose work has sometimes been supported by the Koch Foundation, the criticisms directed at the Kochs are thus also directed at me, as they are at the other professors, students, academic institutions, charitable organizations, and others that have benefitted from the Kochs’ giving over the years. If the Kochs really are this bad, however, am I required, in good conscience, to abjure any and all connection to them?

Luckily I don’t have to answer that question: The charges are in almost all cases either false or grossly misleading. They may fit a narrative typical of a Hollywood movie, where evil rich businessmen connive to manipulate others for their own benefit, but conspiracy theories like those rarely match reality. The Kochs themselves have responded to the various allegations, but there are at least two clear reasons why the allegations must be either false or misleading.

The first relates to the Tea Party movement. Attending a Tea Party rally or listening to people sympathetic to the movement, one cannot help but be struck not just by how articulate they are, but how genuine. They mean what they say, and conviction like that simply cannot be bought. By contrast, paying people to claim they believe things that they really don’t is a rather dicey affair: It is almost always transparent, and mercenary offers like that appeal to only a small number of people in any case. But the Tea Party phenomenon is astonishing precisely because it is not orchestrated from the top. Indeed, its decentralized, bottom-up character is one of the keys to its success. The hundreds of thousands of people who have attended rallies nationwide have done so because they have sincere beliefs on which they decided to act.

The second reason that charges against the Kochs are false or misleading relates to their alleged influence in higher education. The Kochs have given millions of dollars over several decades supporting students, professors, academic institutions, and nonprofits that are either sympathetic to their worldview or at least willing to give it a fair hearing. Yet what proportion of professors today subscribe to the Kochs’ view? Less than one-tenth; probably more like one in twenty. How could this be, if the clandestine reach of the “Kochtopus” is so far and wide?

Consider what they are up against. According to the New Yorker article, Charles and David Koch “have given over one hundred million dollars to right-wing causes” since 1980. That sounds like a lot, but it averages only about $3.5 million per year. Generously adjusting for inflation, assume it is the equivalent today of even $10 million per year. That is enough to pay the full salary and benefits of perhaps seventy professors in the country per year. That would be seventy out of some 1.7 million, or a vanishingly small .004%.

Considering, moreover, the substantial predominance of left-leaning political and economic worldviews on today’s campuses, one begins to see why the money the Kochs are donating hardly warrants the hyperventilating rhetoric it is receiving. For better or worse, theirs is a small minority view on college and university campuses, and the money they give is dwarfed by the resources that left-leaning faculty, centers, programs, and institutions regularly devote to discrediting positions like theirs and to advocating contrary views.

But putting aside money and numbers, what of the Kochs’ ideas themselves? The Kochs support limited government, free markets, protections of private property, individual liberty, and peace. This is approximately the political-economic vision of America’s founders. Perhaps that is a “radical” view in the minds of an average New York Times columnist, but it still resonates with many Americans who understand that that vision has enabled more freedom and prosperity for the average person than any other system of political economy ever tried. It is moreover an inspiring moral vision: human beings as unique and possessing a dignity that requires both individual freedom and personal responsibility, and a system of social institutions that leads to prosperity and peace.

These are the ideas that are so ominous and threatening?

Charles and David Koch are those rare specimens who take their convictions seriously enough to put their own money where their mouths are. One might in the end disagree with their vision, but for standing up for what they believe, and for being willing to shoulder their part of the burden of maintaining a free society, I say they should be not vilified but applauded.

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David Boaz at Cato discusses the fact that the Tea Party phenomenon—and it is a phenomenon—continues to “freak out” commentators on the Left. He writes (preserving his links and italics):

With a few rare exceptions like [Jonathan] Rauch and John Judis, non-conservative intellectuals are just freaked out by a mass movement against big government. Jill Lepore, Sean Wilentz, E. J. Dionne, Frank Rich — they just can’t imagine that real middle-class Americans could honestly oppose President Obama’s tax-and-spend agenda and march in the streets against it — just like, you know, they did against the war and stuff. It’s got to be racism, billionaires, extreme libertarianism, extreme authoritarianism, the John Birch Society, something. And so they tell the president that the Tea Party is reminiscent of “the Know-Nothings and Father Coughlin.” Why oh why can’t we have better historians?

As I have had occasion to remark in the past, I don’t think that the Tea Party’s motivations are all that mysterious. Vast and expanding government debt to finance vast and expanding government intrusion into people’s lives: that is pretty much it. So I share Boaz’s bemusement at commentators’ professed inability to comprehend.

One thing I think Boaz might be missing, however, is the possibility that these commentators, or at least some of them, might perfectly well understand what motivates the Tea Partiers—which is precisely why they accuse them instead of uncontrolled and irrational anger, racism, inhumanity toward others, and assorted other moral vices.

Expanding spending and centralized control are necessary parts of and deeply integrated into their political worldviews. They are willing to engage opposition on this or that policy, on this or that spending level increase; but a generalized opposition to debt and control is something that questions their premises, and so something they are far less willing to entertain. Premises are also far more difficult to justify, especially to skeptics. Much easier, then, to demonize one’s opposition by suggesting their views have roots in despicable motives.

Perhaps some of the commentators to whom Boaz links are genuinely flummoxed by the Tea Party phenomenon. But I think it is more likely that they are surprised by its strength and durability, have recognized the size of its threat to what they hold dear, and thus have decided to discredit it as best they can.

Time will tell whether the whether their strategy will work. Indeed, we should know in roughly fourteen days, give or take.

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Like many other people, I was underwhelmed by the recently released Republican “Pledge to America.” Longwinded, wishy-washy, and mostly tinkering on the edges.

I am not a member of the Republican Party (or any other party), and I am indeed one of those who fails to much difference of substance between the two major parties—at least on fiscal issues. There are differences on social issues, but, as I have argued before, those issues pale in importance to the fiscal reckoning that looms before us.

I am not alone in thinking this. In fact, I believe this cluster of fiscal concerns constitutes the core of what animates the Tea Party. It is what explains why they oppose some candidates, including some Republicans, and why they favor others, including some independents. Their surging influence gives me some hope that we might finally address this issue, and it is why I welcome their contribution.

But I am not here to defend the Tea Party qua party either. I want us to get our fiscal house in order—now. To that end, I humbly offer what I believe would be a winning, and indeed inspiring, agenda for an ambitious group of politicians.

Call it “The Principles of American Renewal”:

1. No new taxes of any kind.

2. No new spending of any kind.

3. An immediate, across-the-board 5% reduction in the budgets of every department, agency, bureau, institute, and program currently operated under the auspices of the federal government. That includes both “discretionary” spending and “mandatory” spending budget items.

4. Do the same next year, and then freeze all spending levels there unless a super-majority of both houses of Congress approves otherwise.

That’s it. It’s not much, but I think it has considerable virtues.

First, it does not require us to argue about which agencies, offices, etc. should be cut and which should not—cut them all, with proportionate equality.

Second, no one can claim, at least not credibly, that there is not at least 9.75% of fat (what two years of 5% cuts amount to) to cut in every single line of budget in the federal government.

The 2010 federal budget (October 2009–September 2010) entails spending $3.55 trillion dollars. So this policy would entail a 2011 budget of approximately $3.37 trillion, and a 2012 budget of approximately $3.20 trillion—a savings, after two years, of some $350 billion, bringing federal spending down to what it was all the way back in . . . 2008. Is anyone willing to claim that the federal government was just not spending enough in 2008?

Third, if Daniel Mitchell is correct (H/T Roger Ream), a policy like this would rapidly balance the annual budget, and it would be a good first step toward addressing our longer-term national debt.

Fourth, there are many, many households and business who have had to make similar adjustments. Many of them indeed have gone completely under and wish they only had to make a 9.75% adjustment over two years. So this pledge could enable its supporters to claim that they understand our economic difficulties and are willing to do their part.

There would be some obstacles, of course. This policy would require reform in some entitlement regulations, and special-interest groups would complain about their funding decreasing. But politicians could insulate themselves from the worst of the complaints by claiming, truthfully, that their hands are tied by the need for across-the-board reductions; no one is being singled out for special treatment.

A pledge to support a program like that, backed up with, perhaps, a promise to resign if a candidate voted otherwise, would, I preduct, be a winning one. If enough people got elected on it, it might also actually do some good in Washington, making it a win for the rest of us as well.

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We have had some discussion on the curious case of Christine O’Donnell (here), and on the apparently dwindling advantage Republicans are enjoying over Democrats as we transition from primaries to the general election (here).

For the record, I am not a member of any political party. I am, moreover, repelled by arguments that people should vote for a party’s candidate because . . . he is the party’s candidate. I have no interest serving any party simply for the sake of serving the party. I want the right principles advanced, whoever, and from what party soever, the person should come who supports those principles.

I think George Washington was right when he said, in his 1796 Farewell Address, that political parties “are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.” He went on to argue:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

What Washington called “the spirit of party” was, he argued, “inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind”—namely, the tribal passion to separate the world into “we” vs. “they,” into rival and competing groups. This spirit can then easily become a desire to see “our side” win, regardless of whether our side is better than “their side” and regardless of the issues at stake or the facts of the matter.

I think this spirit of party is behind the attacks on O’Donnell from Republicans. Karl Rove is on a one-man wrecking-ball mission, it seems, to destroy her candidacy (here are more videos than you’ll be able to stomach of him attacking her), and Charles Krauthammer has joined the fray. Rove beats the drum on her dabbling in witchcraft and on “financial questions” in her past, but I think that is blowing smoke. What really angers him is that he thinks she won’t win; if she doesn’t, it would leave one more seat in the Democrats’ hands. Krauthammer has the same objection: What O’Donnell’s supporters are missing is “the point that what’s at stake here is control of the Senate.”

Right. We want our guys to be in control, not the other team’s guys. Perhaps Rove or Krauthammer would like to explain what exactly their party did during the eight years of its occupancy in the White House that should endear itself to citizens concerned about our most pressing issues now? I think there are two huge, looming, and ominous issues facing the country over the next several years, issues that dwarf all the others: (1) our spiraling-out-of-control fiscal situation, at the federal, state, and local levels; and (2) growing geopolitical instability and aggression.

Perhaps Republicans, or some of them at any rate, have awakened to the first issue, but, with a few exceptions, establishment Republicans’ recent conversion to the religion of fiscal conservatism does not inspire confidence. Democrats, for their part, seem willing to pretend the first issue doesn’t exist. And neither party is offering a coherent and plausible plan to deal with the second issue.

One reason the Tea Party has been able to exercise such astonishing influence is precisely that it is not beholden to any party. They want fiscal conservatives who will commit to the principle of constitutionally limited government. As they have now shown, they are perfectly happy to campaign against Republicans who are unwilling to discipline themselves according to that principle.

In this I think the members of the Tea Party are heeding Washington’s counsel. Washington predicted that parties could come to see their own survival and interests as being more important than the interests of the constituents or country they served. When that happens, Washington, argued, tyranny will result. Whatever else is true of the unorganized, decentralized, raucous, and motley Tea Party supporters, they seem to understand the dangers of the spirit of party, and they are moving to oppose it.

For that, I think they should be applauded, not vilified.

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This past weekend the New York Times published an opinion essay entitled “The Very Angry Tea Party.” Its author makes two main claims: (1) Tea Party activists are very, very, VERY angry; and (2) they are subscribers to a “metaphysical fantasy,” believe in “the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods,” have a “passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs,” and act out of an unreasoning fit of immature emotion just like “an enraged, jilted lover.”

This sounds just a wee bit overwrought (I won’t call it seething anger). But is any of it true? One cannot judge from the article, since it contains no actual analysis of the Tea Party movement or its members, no examination of their words or their documents or their arguments.

But did I mention that the author believes they are angry? In his article one finds all of the following:

  • “The Very Angry Tea Party” (the title of the article)
  • “seething anger”
  • “the anger of the Tea Party members”
  • “an enraged, jilted lover”
  • “the incubus of Tea Party rage”
  • “fierce anger that pervades its meetings and rallies”
  • “animosities”
  • “passionate anger of the Tea Party”
  • “exorbitant character of the anger Tea Party members express”
  • “such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs”
  • “galvanizing anger and rage”
  • “hysterical Tea Party incriminations”
  • “great anger”
  • “rage”
  • “fury”
  • “the rage and anger”
  • “atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods”
  • “nihilistic rage”
  • “such rage”
  • “the anger of the Tea Party”

Why, they are so angry that they even have a “fierce logic”!

And the second claim, that they are so fundamentally misguided? The author claims that they are in the throes of “the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency,” believing in the “metaphysical fantasy” that “each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions”; the Tea Party activists are “manufacturing, and even inventing, the idea of a sovereign individual who becomes, through them and by virtue of them, the ultimate source of authority” (emphases in the original). They are, moreover, “suppressing to the point of disappearance the manifold ways that individuality is beholden to a complex and uniquely modern form of life.”

A straw man. No one literally believes that he is entirely self-sufficient, that he is not dependent on a community, that he does not need the cooperation and assistance of untold others to get the goods and services on which he daily depends. That indeed is one of the great glories of markets, a point made repeatedly by Tea Party activists, that markets require widespread and far-flung cooperation that is mutually beneficial.

And “inventing” the notion of a sovereign individual? Perhaps the author has not read John Locke’s 1690 Second Treatise of Governmentfrom which America’s founders, and many of the Tea Party members, take explicit inspiration—which argued that people were by nature both free and equal, and that this equality begins with their natural sovereign jurisdiction over themselves. Or perhaps he is not aware that the Tea Partiers today are drawing on quite a venerable tradition that includes, of course, the 1776 Declaration of Independence, but also includes the 1689 English Bill of Rights, the English Leveller movement of the 1640s, the 1628 Petition of Right, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, and indeed the 1215 Magna Carta. This tradition, and each of these documents and events, affirmed the independence of individuals from the state, the subservience of the state to its people, and the right of the people to demand redress when their state became destructive of their “natural”—i.e., antecedent to the state—rights.

These precedents and this historical tradition do not by themselves justify positions for which Tea Party activists stand, but they are sufficient, I believe, to warrant actual attention. Whatever else might be true of the Tea Part activists, they have not invented these ideas.

The author uses Hegel—yes: not Lilburne or Locke or Montesquieu or Hume or even Kant, but Hegel—to criticize the Tea Partiers by claiming that they fail to understand that all of us “are bound to one another as firmly as lovers are.” He claims that the “rage” of the Tea Party is a result of jilted love: “when our love goes bad I am suddenly, absolutely dependent on someone for whom I no longer count”; “All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved.”

But of course she can and will survive. Yes, the Tea Party activists feel betrayed by a government they believe should protect their life, liberty, and property, but has now instead come to be a chief threat to them; yes, not all Tea Party activists all have exactly the same beliefs; and yes, some of the beliefs of some of them may actually conflict with some beliefs of others. Sure, yes, of course. But that is true for all political movements—indeed, for all human associations of any kind.

The federal government has been growing in scope and authority for some time now, and recently the rate of that growth has accelerated enormously. By some estimates, the total net present value of our public debt totals some $130 trillion, or approximately $433,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That, and not Tea Party anger, is what is “not just disturbing, but frightening,” and it, more than anything else, is what has animated the Tea Party. No metaphorical jilted lovers, no metaphysical fantasies: the cold, hard reality of a fiscally reckless government that increasingly looks out of control and is endangering the freedom and prosperity of this and future generations.

What is so mysterious about that?

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