Tag Archives: politicians

One Reason to Limit Access to Guns

With a renewed national dialog about gun safety (I am adopting James Fallow’s nomenclature; let’s focus not on controlling guns, but on improving gun safety), I want to point out that stupidity and aggression are not constitutionally protected, and when you combine them with guns, bad things can happen. Things like:

  • A 6th grader bringing a gun to school for “protection,” and then pointing that gun at other children
  • A man forcing another man to do the moonwalk at rifle point
  • A man shooting and killing his roommate in an argument over how to cook pork chops
  • A man pulling a gun on a furniture delivery man in an argument over paying a delivery fee
  • A man going to his apartment and bringing out a rifle after having his penis size insulted in his apartment building pool

No 2nd Amendment exegesis here. Just noting that people can do a lot of awful things, and when you put killing devices in their hands, those awful things can get even worse.

Of course, 60% of my examples took place in Florida, so maybe the answer is to have tougher gun laws in that state, but leave the rest of the country alone.


We All Get Government Help

OK, maybe not all of us. But a lot of us. Really a lot. Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler has an article in the Washington Monthly about what she calls the “submerged state,” or the massive amounts of money at play in various tax deductions (eg. the mortgage interest deduction) that benefit particular populations.

As the chart below shows, there are all kinds of tax deductions that many people take, but those same people continue to insist that they don’t get any help from the government. Mettler’s point, backed up by her survey data: despite their cost, these programs are invisible to the public, making the public more susceptible to claims that government is too big.

Congress Becoming a Parliament?

Jack Balkin has a great post describing how Congress, particularly the Republicans, are acting like a European style parliament. His forecast: more gridlock, worse policy, and a decaying country.

Increase in National Debt by President

Increase in national debt...by president

When Presidents Break the Law (e.g. Bush)

There is a new book out called Because It Is Wrong: Torture, Privacy, and Presidential Power in the Age of Terror. Written by Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor who served in several legal roles in the Reagan administration, including Solicitor General, and his son Gregory Fried, a philosophy professor at Suffolk University, the book explores “the ethics of torture and privacy violations in the Bush era.”

Harvard Magazine recently ran some excerpts from the final chapter, where the Frieds move off of torture per se and more into the general obligations of a president to the people.

They discuss that at times a president might break the law because he thinks the law will not allow him to do what is necessary to save the country, as did Jefferson in 1807 and Lincoln in 1861.The Frieds liken this law breaking to civil disobedience, with “a fundamental allegiance to the political community and its system of laws and government.” Executive law breaking while maintaining ultimate fidelity to the state and its system is civil disobedience; law breaking outside this fidelity is a coup.

But the Frieds also emphasize that civil disobedience, with fidelity to the state, requires admitting your law breaking. Like civil rights protestors who willingly went to jail, executive law-breakers under the Fried model…

“…break the law in a way that emphasizes their allegiance to the rule of law and the existing system of laws and institutions in general, with the exception of the law or set of laws in question. They break the law openly. They break the law reluctantly only for reasons of deep principle and in situations of great urgency, after making a good faith effort to change the law by legal means. They do not resist or avoid the representatives of the state when they arrest them. The practitioners resist by pleading their case in court, and they accept their punishment if the court goes against them, trusting that their fellow citizens will see the light eventually.”

The Frieds note that unlike MLK, a president takes an oath to uphold the law. Yet quoting Aristotle, they claim that the law cannot always foresee what is in the public interest. But if the executive gets to decide what is in the state’s best interest, what is to prevent the executive from becoming a tyrant? Here is where their call for open law-breaking is essential. The risk of being found guilty by the jury of citizenry will keep executives from going too far. “A chilling effect is exactly what we need when it comes to the rule of law.”

In other words, the Frieds believe that an executive law-breaker should stand up and say “yes, I did commit that act” and let the citizens decide. They compare this, unfavorably, to the law-breaking in the Bush administration, wherein the law-breakers to this day refuse to acknowledge what they did. The Frieds make clear that they are not necessarily calling for prosecutions of Bush officials; they only point out that “there is a great danger to secret executive lawbreaking. What is done in secret could metastasize into the arbitrary, lawless power of the tyrant—as it did in the Weimar Republic, with Hitler’s rise to power.”

The Christmas Bomber and Miranda

Bad timing for David Rivkin, who used Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal for one of his monthly attacks on some Obama policy. This time it was about the Christmas Day bomber, with Rivkin saying that not immediately sending the bomber into military detention was “an intelligence failure of massive proportions.” Too bad that the very next day, today, the exact same newspaper reported that the Christmas bomber is again talking to the FBI, providing “valuable intelligence.” This also damages the arguments of this guy and this woman. Look, there are valid reasons to say that terrorists should be viewed as wartime combatants rather than criminals. But claiming that we won’t get good information from terrorists held in the civilian legal system is clearly not a valid reason. And there is at least one good reason not to throw them in military brigs: it creates an appearance of the US being at war with Islam, which appearance seems to generate more terrorists. Finally, I would like to note, again, that George W. Bush also tried terrorists in civilian courts. For Republicans to now claim that this approach is terribly weak is to be hypocrites of the worst sort. Which is, I supposed, to be expected from politicians.

Politicians Should Start Their Careers Outside Politics

I was reading recently about Senator Byron Dorgan’s retirement, and the article claimed that he had been in politics for 40 years. I looked up his biography on his official site and on Wikipedia, and both confirmed the 40 year figure. Dorgan worked in business for 2-3 years, and then became State Tax Commissioner at age 26, and has been an elected official ever since.

Then this weekend’s NY Times magazine had a long piece on the GOP’s moderate vs. Tea Party battle, as personified by the race in Florida between Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio. It turns out that Rubio has never done anything but hold elective office, serving as a West Miami city commissioner right out of law school.

Dorgan and Rubio might be great legislators — I don’t know enough about either of them to judge — but doesn’t it seem like we should want our politicians to have lived in the real world? Think of all the things we regular folks have to do: hunt for jobs, worry about insurance, cooperate with coworkers we hate, shop for cars, get things done at work, etc. Career politicians don’t have to do any of that stuff. They never need to execute and accomplish, and they get rewarded for being obstinate. They stop worrying about money, since they get to pay their family as “consultants” out of campaign funds. And they have staff to take care of life’s little details.

I’m not expecting our politicians to follow the lead of Cincinnatus, who left his farm to run Rome, and then returned to his farm. But maybe some experience in the real world, not the political world, would get our legislators to work — WORK — on policy, instead of spending all their time posturing and campaigning.

Stop. Listen. Think.

The more I read about politics today, the more it seems like nobody really listens to what anybody else says. One person’s words are just a starting point for an opponent’s talking points, which may or may not have direct relation to those initial words. Politicians, pundits and bloggers are all guilty of this, including your humble correspondent.

This dynamic struck me when I was reading a New Yorker article about drone strikes in Pakistan. The article questioned whether the strikes might be counterproductive, because they kill so many civilians. The article quoted enough counterinsurgency experts who felt that way to make the concept seem reasonable, and if it’s reasonable that we are doing something unproductive, let’s explore and find out. But can you imagine the shitstorm that would result if a politician actually tried to investigate the matter? If Obama announced a commission to explore the efficacy of drone strikes, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk would go ballistic (note the clever missile-based double entendre).

That thought made me realize that it’s incredibly hard to solve problems when we are unable to even discuss the problems. The possible counterproductivity of drone strikes is a legitimate issue. The question of whether a government-run health care plan is a good idea, especially given the overwhelming cost of Medicare, is a legitimate issue. How best to reform our financial system is a legitimate issue. But so many attempts to discuss these issues are drowned in demagoguery that we never get anywhere. For example, John Boehner (R-Ohio, House minority leader, complete douche) called health care reform “the greatest threat to freedom he has ever seen.” There are plenty of reasons to criticize the health care reform bill, but that sort of hyperbole doesn’t serve any policy purpose. Since both sides of the aisle agree that some reform is needed, wouldn’t it be more productive to have a reasonable discussion of policy than to ignore the facts and say things that are clearly false?

So here is what I encourage us all to do: stop, listen and think.

  • Stop: Before responding, take the time to hear somebody’s full argument. Don’t start preparing your response before they are done. Or before they have even started.
  • Listen: Actually listen to the argument, so that you can understand what they are saying. Don’t assume that you can extrapolate from who they are to what they will say.
  • Think: Truly think about what was said. What are the assumptions? Does the logic flow? Where do you agree or disagree?

If more people were to stop, listen and think, we could have far more effective discussions in this country. Of course, there is really a fourth step: respond honestly. In my example above, John Boehner doesn’t really think that health care reform is the greatest threat to freedom ever. He knows it’s not. He is just saying that because he’s been trained to talk in hyperbolic sound bites. And because he’s kind of an ass. But if we all – bloggers, protestors, commentators, politicians – can begin responding honestly after we stop, listen and think, then maybe we can all be trained to talk in terms of policies and positions instead of attacks and sound bites.

Judges Are People, Not Robots

During last week’s confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, there were repeated calls from all concerned to show fidelity to the law, to call balls and strikes, to keep personal opinions out of judicial decision making. These statements were emblematic of the modern rules of confirmation hearings, in which any admittance of the role of personal interpretation will automatically raise the hackles of the other side, whether it’s John Roberts admitting “yes, I generally side with the powerful” or Sotomayor saying “as an underdog, I understand where underdogs come from.” Instead, everyone maintains the fiction that it’s all about facts and laws.

Of course, being a judge is very much about ruling on how the facts of a case fit the law as written. But sometimes the facts don’t exactly fit the law, and so the judge has to make some….wait for it….judgments. If it was all automatic, just applying the facts and law, then we could have machines do it, or bureaucrats. Even the Wall Street Journal recently noted that “judges are not algorithms.” If this judging gig was just calling balls and strikes, then the Supreme Court and courts of appeal and every other multi-judge panel would never have split decisions; everyone would simply agree on the facts and the law.

But we do have split decisions, because the facts are sometimes complicated and messy, and how a judge thinks can influence how they sort through the mess. Rather than pretending this doesn’t happen, wouldn’t we be better off addressing it and actually understanding how a nominee might rule? Maybe not. That might inflame senators’ passions so much that nobody could ever be approved. But it seems crazy to have a system where everyone is lying, we all know they’re lying, and the lies are essential to making the system work.

By the way, I’m not just talking out of my butt here. The friendly staff at the U.S. District Court listened to my diatribe and gently corrected me where appropriate.

Food and Politics

I was listening to Micahel Pollan on the radio last night (yes, on NPR; I was drinking chardonnay and eating sushi too) do his usual spiel on food, although this time it involved him promoting his new film “Food, Inc.” And although I know his viewpoint already — the American diet is unhealthy and politicians don’t care because they accept money from food corporations — this time I got  angry.

Maybe it was because this time Pollan told a story I hadn’t heard before: about how in 1977 Senator George McGovern led a committee that called for Americans to eat less red meat, until the meat industry threw a hissy fit and forced the committee to water its position down to “eat less saturated fat.” I just hate the fact that a single industry gets to throw money at politicians and thereby screw the American public.

Or possibly it’s because Pollan was speaking in the middle of the debate over health care reform. Politicians are feuding over the cost of health care and insurance, but they continue to throw subsidy money at the corn farmers and beef ranchers whose products are what make our diet so unhealthy. Hell, even the Wall Street Journal ran a column yesterday in which a doctor said that preventing obesity would save enough money to cover everything and everyone else.

So politicians, I ask you, again, please try to do what is right for the American people, and stop doing what some lobbyist pays you $2,000 to do.