Archive for December, 2011

Bill Moyers – No Choir Boy

Interesting post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog by one participant in the “skirmish” between Mark Bauerlein and Bill Moyers concerning the latter’s (well-known?) dirty tricks.  Here is one segment:

The skirmish began when I cited current discussions in early 2009 of a dirty trick Moyers had played while serving in LBJ’s administration, specifically, a search for any homosexual scandal among Barry Goldwater’s staff. The act certainly undermined Moyers’ persona as a figure of conscience and justice, a character he had successfully presented in many years of television work.

See here for the whole thing.  BTW, Moyers is yet another mark against PBS.

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Many political scientists believe, following Mr. Dooley, that the Supreme Court is impacted by election results and public opinion.* For example, Roy Fleming and Dan Wood find in an American Journal of Political Science piece “that public opinion directly affects decisions by individual members of the Court.”  Moreover, they “show that the result holds across various issue areas, is not restricted to only a few justices, and that the justices’ responses are relatively quick with a lag of only one term.”** Likewise, Kevin McGuire and James Stimson in the Journal of Politics show that “public opinion is a powerful influence on the decisions of the Supreme Court.”

Of course, the extent to which such external influences matter is vigorously debated and these findings only represent half of the debate.  Nonetheless, it does make me wonder whether a Romney victory in the Republican nomination contest will send some signal to the Supreme Court that they will take into account when they determine the constitutionality of ObamaCare.  In particular, will Justices Kennedy, Roberts, and Alito – all of whom may be less motivated by personal preferences and jurisprudential arguments than their peers – be more open to voting in favor of ObamaCare given the signal that a Romney victory sends about the salience of the issue among even its putative detractors in the Republican primary voting pool?  Consistent with the literature cited above, a Romney victory may give these justices some sense that a positive vote will not impair the Court’s standing in the public since Romney himself did not suffer extensively from his support for a similar plan at the state level.

A Romney nomination could be an important signal in this way since a potential marginal Court member may be concerned about supporting ObamaCare in the face of a pretty solid majority opposed to that legislation (again, assuming that public opinion influences how justices think and behave).  Seems like yet another possible reason for Republican voters to vote for an alternative to Romney (and to a lesser extent, Gingrich, who supported RomneyCare until very recently).         

* In an amusing piece that can be accessed here, a group of political scientists show that Supreme Court justices have also bet on election results! BTW, note the not so subtle political bias of the writers. I wonder if such banter from conservatives would so easily slide through the review process of even this relatively less serious academic journal.

** Roy B. Flemming and B. Dan Wood.  “The Public and the Supreme Court: Individual Justice Responsiveness to American Policy Moods.” American Journal of Political Science   Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1997), pp. 468-498.

*** Kevin T. McGuire and James A. Stimson.  “The Least Dangerous Branch Revisited: New Evidence on Supreme Court Responsiveness to Public Preferences”   The Journal of Politics , Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2004), pp. 1018-1035.

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2011 Surprises

It has been an odd year. As I look back at my journal entries from the beginning of the year, I reflected on some of the surprising events of the past twelve months.


Domestic Politics

  • The retirement of Barney Frank (I would have bet that they would have had to carry him out in a box decades from now)
  • The weakness of the Republican field for the Presidency (given the poor economy and the President’s low approval ratings, one might have expected far more).
    • Relatedly, the resurrection of Newt Gingrich (consulting historian and futurist) and Herman (“Imagine There’s No Pizza”) Cain
  • The tragic attempt to assassination Gabby Giffords and the stunning strength she revealed in her recovery
    • Relatedly, the failure of Democrats to use this event to frame the case for additional gun controls.
  • The Congressional Republicans ability to raise to an art form the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory (Case 1: the extension of the payroll tax cut)
  • The fact that President Obama would stop idolizing Franklin Roosevelt and begin idolizing the vile Teddy Roosevelt


International Politics

  • The Arab Spring and the collapse of the Gaddafi regime
  • The drawdown in Iraq (who would have guessed that we remembered how to end wars)
  • The expansive use of drones and the deafening silence over their use to execute US citizens
  • The Orwellian term “kinetic engagement” and the media’s willingness to swallow it.


  • The actual retirement of Brett Favre (who would have guessed that this time was for real)
  • The Packers winning the Super Bowl (as a Wisconsin native, I always expect the Packers to fail)
  • The collapse of the Colts
  • Tim Tebow (yawn)

I am sure I missed a few big surprises. Any serious omissions?

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Former governor of New Mexico Gary Johnson is still running for President but has bolted the Republican Party for the Libertarian Party.  If Johnson is running for the sake of principles rather than ego or other self-interested motivations, this decision is a wee-bit premature. 

Sure, Johnson was treated horribly by the Republican establishment and the media.  And if he gets the LP nomination and hurts the Republican candidate in an important Electoral College state, the GOP has no one to blame but itself for not treating him well enough to keep him in the tent.

However, Johnson doesn’t even know yet who the Republican nominee will be and whether he’d actually prefer Obama to that candidate – since he will not win the White House, will almost certainly siphon off more GOP voters than Democrats*, and thus potentially throw a close election to Obama (see Ralph Nader 2000 in Florida for one recent case – though this is a lot less solid than what you might think if Dartmouth and UCLA profs Michael Herron and Jeffrey Lewis are right about the pair-wise preferences of Nader voters). 

The siphoning effect is likely to be highest if the Republican Party nominates someone perceived to be more statist like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney and lowest if the party selects John Huntsman or Ron Paul (indeed, the LP vote share might plummet in the latter case).  Now I could see someone like Johnson not really caring whether you get the candidate of RomneyCare or President ObamaCare.  But would Johnson really like to hurt a Paul or Huntsman candidacy?  If he were the marginal voter, would he really pick Obama over either of those two – or even Romney given what is at stake (hello, Supreme Court seats)?  And if he wouldn’t do that as the counterfactual marginal voter, why would he want to have that potential effect as a candidate? 

Of course, it is very likely that Gingrich or Romney will get the Republican nod and so Johnson might just be gearing up for that eventuality.  But I would have liked him to let things play out a bit before throwing his hat back in the ring.  Indeed, I would have liked to have seen him depart the race while endorsing Huntsman or Paul rather than bolting the party.  This would have helped his views/positions in the current fight within the Republican Party and given him an opportunity to move the ball in the right direction within a future Republican presidency should his candidate (say Huntsman) win.

I suppose an LP libertarian or Johnson himself could argue that his candidacy will be more high-profile than most LP nominees and could cause the eventual Republican nominee to position himself in a way to combat the siphoning effect.  In other words, he could make the Republican nominee pay attention to libertarian issues.  But I’m doubtful that this will be the case in any meaningful sense for policy outcomes (even if campaign rhetoric changes marginally) and thus worry that the risk of swinging the election is more likely than any real reward.

A couple of other things about Johnson’s decision:

1.  Johnson noted in his campaign launch e-mail that he opposes “expensive foreign wars in places like Libya and Afghanistan.”  However, as I noted a while back, he isn’t pure when it comes to advocating foolish, other-regarding military interventions.  In particular, he supported the recent US military intervention in central Africa and suggested he might consider it wise/just in the case of Sudan as well.  I guess these aren’t ruled out because they aren’t expensive (?!) – which is hard to say ahead of time given the possibilities of blowback and the almost inevitability of mission creep.  

2.  Johnson is a pro-choice libertarian and noted this as one of his key policy positions.  As I argued earlier, a libertarian need not be pro-choice (or pro-life) by definition and thus many libertarians will be turned off by Johnson’s position (which may suggest less siphoning than you might get otherwise).     

3.   Johnson notes, “I support marriage equality for gay Americans as required by the Constitution.”  What does he mean by this, and does this make him a libertarian centralizer as opposed to an advocate of more thoroughgoing federalism as a bulwark for liberty and the principle of subsidiarity? And regardless of whether marriage equality is the right position, is it indeed required by the Constitution?

*Along with other data, David Boaz and David Kirby show the Republican-leaning nature of libertarians by noting that in 2008, John McCain outpolled Barack Obama by 71 to 27 percent among libertarians.

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David Brooks has an interesting piece in today’s NYT (I must admit, he has written more than a few fine columns this year).  He notes that the Obama administration assumed office drawing on parallels to the Great Depression and FDR. It has since abandoned this historical analog and turned, instead, to the Progressive Era. The remainder of the column argues quite persuasively that there are few useful parallels to be found here.

A teaser:

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.

In sum, in the progressive era, the country was young and vibrant. The job was to impose economic order. Today, the country is middle-aged but self-indulgent. Bad habits have accumulated. Interest groups have emerged to protect the status quo. The job is to restore old disciplines, strip away decaying structures and reform the welfare state. The country needs a productive midlife crisis.

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A career in the toilet

Noticed the following groundbreaking story from The Hill today:

Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.) has proposed legislation that would let fire stations around the country apply for grants of up to $100,000 to build women’s restrooms, showers and changing facilities.

The Fairness in Restrooms Existing in Stations (FIRE Stations) Act, H.R. 3753, says these grants would help promote gender equity in fire houses. The findings of the legislation says most were built with a “single-gender workforce” in mind, that 50 percent of all fire departments do not have any women employees, and that women make up just 3.7 percent of all firefighters.

One has to wonder about the Congresswoman’s sense of priorities.  Really, she wants this to be her issue.  This is what Congress should be spending time debating, since there aren’t more pressing problems?  It is barely worth my time to even mention, and I’m not being paid by the citizens of California to represent them in Congress.

But, more importantly (and I doubt something that has never for a second entered the Congresswoman’s mind): why is this a federal issue?  The US federal government should concentrate on what kind of bathrooms municipalities have for their public service employees?

How does a member of Congress have the luxury of spending time on this kind of crap?  Well, when your district voted almost 80% for Barak Obama in 2008, you don’t have to worry about Republicans.  Or, for that matter, common sense.

[Sidenote: In November, the House Ethics Committee, composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, voted unanimously to investigate Richardson related to possible illegal use of staffers.  She responded that she is being targeted because she is African-American.  Even Californians deserve better than this.]

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Christmas Story Politics

It is difficult to be surprised anymore when you see politics seep into every nook and cranny of our lives.  However, it was still a bit jarring when my wife showed me a Christmas children’s story that revolves around politics. 

The book in question is David Davis’ Librarian’s Night Before Christmas.  I highly recommend against indoctrinating your children with this tract – though the author certainly has to be credited with entrepreneurialism (of the worst kind) by writing a book that librarians all around the country were probably falling over themselves to buy.

The book begins with a public librarian shelving and mending books on overtime since “the powers that be” cut the library’s staffing budget (the horror).  Of course, the saintly librarian cheerily fulfills the public’s needs anyway (what public servant doesn’t?) and then wonders if the love of “great books” has “come to an end” (as if the classics aren’t available anywhere else, not to mention that the great books section of contemporary public libraries is a tiny fraction of their collections). 

Well, fortunately, Santa arrives and saves the day as he and his elves resupply the library with classics such as Hawthorne and Austen as well as children’s books and romance novels.  Of course, Santa also chides “a censor, who wished some books gone” (forgetting of course that even those who typically want to prevent libraries from buying certain books with public funds aren’t arguing for censorship).  Saint Nick, alas, has no way to deal with the problem of the “book-budget cutters” “Cause if they could read, they just read Ayn Rand” (since only a knuckle-dragging idiot would want to limit public expenditures on libraries)!  Then Santa takes off calling for people to do a good deed and teach others to read.                  

There is one virtue of the book: it mocks politicians for pork-barrel spending.  However, there is no realization that a lot of library spending is really just middle and upper class welfare.  In particular, public libraries fund private entertainment and research – so is it really that much more noble than typical pork barrel spending?  In the case of this book, Santa doesn’t deliver non-fiction books or government documents that would educate citizens about government – and thus could be justified within a classical liberal framework.  Instead, Santa delivered romances for one of the citizens, Molly McNast.  Isn’t this kind of targeted private entertainment what the library would have done with public funds if it hadn’t been for the nasty budget-cutters?  And can this really be a proper end of our tax dollars (remembering that they are coerced, not volunteered)?

I think a classical liberal could justify the existence of public libraries that function as repositories of government documents and contain basic books on government, history, philosophy, economics, and history.  These would be justified on the grounds that a democracy requires a citizenry that has the basic knowledge requisite to be self-governing.  Much of this could now be provided by a few computer terminals hooked up to the web.  In the same way that publicly funded education can be justified, a robust children’s section could also be warranted so as to encourage basic skills formation (though the library should be colocated with a local publicly funded school so as to avoid double spending). 

However, I see no way, consistent with a free society, to justify the majority of what is contained in our public libraries today.  These places are filled with rows of fiction (romances, horror, etc), trashy magazine, and even DVDs of recent blockbuster films!  There certainly isn’t a market failure argument for why these should be publicly provided – only a welfare argument that can’t fly in a truly free society.  Indeed, the paternalist variant of welfare statism might insist that the public provide only those things that raise up the least well-off rather than pandering to baser tastes such as Fabio-adorned romance novels, Cosmopolitan magazine, and morally questionable movies such as Natural Born Killers.   Unfortunately, library collections today are decidedly low brow while sometimes even lacking that which could be justified in a free society.

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