Tag Archives: republicans

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.”

Are Businessmen Evil?

Jane Mayer’s article in the New Yorker about David Koch and his brother Charles and their massive funding of right wing political causes is an absolute must read. Regardless of political leaning, I think everyone should be disturbed by the ability of two incredibly wealthy men to so powerfully affect the political discourse in our society, and to do so anonymously.

But the article also made me think about how the Kochs and other businessmen are so determined to lobby government to support “free enterprise,” or at least to quash regulations that might hurt their business. The article discusses how the Kochs are using the same strategy on global warming – fund enough junk science to convince people that there is no scientific consensus – which the tobacco companies used so effectively to stall regulation of nicotine.

The issue I’m contemplating is not one of maximizing profits, but a broader moral issue. What makes a CEO who knows his product is harmful fight so hard against regulation? Does he take his fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder profits that seriously? Is he so focused on his own compensation that he doesn’t care what health problems he causes? The Kochs are nutjob John Birchers, so I expect them to screw over the world, but what about all the other CEOs? What about those who are fighting against environmental regulations even though they know that the global warming science is solid? Or Wall Street CEOs fighting against regulations when they know that their companies caused the financial meltdown? Or coal mining CEOs fighting safety regulation after an explosion in their mine killed 29 workers?

Look, I’m not anti-business. To the contrary, I am solidly pro-business. I’ve worked at companies, I’ve started companies, I consult to companies. My whole life is built on business. I understand the profit motive. What I don’t understand is the willingness to screw over the public in order to make more money. These CEOs would never in a million years think it was OK to stab a man and steal his wallet, but they have no problem poisoning him with industrial waste in order to save money. When do these people have enough? Where is their sense of human decency?

Americans Want Income Equality

Despite all the rhetoric out there about free markets and entrepreneurship and meritocracy and winners getting just rewards, results from a new survey (done by a professor at Harvard Business School, the fountainhead of free enterprise) show that Americans actually want a more equal distribution of wealth. Moreover, it turns out that most Americans have no idea how unequally wealth is currently distributed.

I posted recently about Timothy Noah’s long piece on income inequality; now he summarizes the results of the aforementioned survey. The survey shows that Americans generally think that the richest 20% of us own 60% of the wealth. In reality, the richest 20% own 85%. The survey also reveals that when shown graphs illustrating America’s income distribution, Sweden’s income distribution and an equal distribution, most American’s chose the Swedish graph. The equal graph was second, and the actual American graph came last.

Or, look at this graph from the survey (hat tip to Baseline Scenario for pulling the graph from the original pdf):

American's ideal wealth distribution

Americans very clearly want a more equal distribution of wealth than they have now. They aren’t agitating for it because A) they have no idea how unequal things really are; and B) there is an aspirational optimism in Americans whereby they always think that they will end up at the top.  But the next time some Tea Partier or Fox pundit starts talking about how Americans love the current system and are totally OK with hedge fund managers making $1 billion per year, remember this graph.

The Role of the Supreme Court

Following up on last week’s post regarding the new opening on the Supreme Court, Dahlia Lithwick at Slate wrote a piece more up to her normal standards, discussing how a court that “shows restraint” essentially just perpetuates the political power dynamic currently in force, enabling tyranny of the majority, which is exactly what the founding fathers wanted the judicial branch to be a bulwark against.

Lithwick’s article draws heavily on this awesome NY Times op-ed by Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at University of Chicago. His money quote is here:

Although the framers thought democracy to be the best system of government, they recognized that it was imperfect. One flaw that troubled them was the risk that prejudice or intolerance on the part of the majority might threaten the liberties of a minority. As James Madison observed, in a democratic society “the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended … from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.” It was therefore essential, Madison concluded, for judges, whose life tenure insulates them from the demands of the majority, to serve as the guardians of our liberties and as “an impenetrable bulwark” against every encroachment upon our most cherished freedoms.

Lithwick also refers to this Huffington Post piece discussing how the Democrats have greatly improved their messaging on this matter, linking economic populism with the role of the Court, as in this quote by Vermont senator and Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy:

“Congress has passed laws to protect Americans in these areas, but in many cases, the Supreme Court has ignored the intent of Congress in passing these measures, oftentimes turning these laws on their heads, and making them protections for big business rather than for ordinary citizens.”

Taxes and Small Business

With tax day taking place last week, I’ve been thinking about the impact of taxes on the economy, and in particular about the conservative talking point that lowering taxes on small businesses will unleash growth and create jobs.

This is related to, but different than, another classic conservative point: that lower income tax rates will create more tax revenue. Regular readers know well my disdain for this theory (the Laffer Curve), which has never been supported by any research. Read my posts here and here to see more of my laughing at Laffer.

In the case of small business taxes, I decided to build a little model and see what impact reduced taxes would have. You can see the results below:

Reduced taxes on small business

In this case, we have the same small business generating $1,000,000 in annual revenues and $250,000 in annual pre-tax income. Right now, at a 40% tax rate, this business delivers $150,000 to its owner. If taxes were cut in half, to 20%, the business owner would make $200,000 instead. Now, our business owner might be forward thinking, looking to invest in his business, and use the extra $50k to hire a new worker. But more likely, he is going to use that extra $50k to put an addition on his house, or buy a new car, or pay his kid’s college tuition. In short, tons of small business owners are not going to use their tax break to hire people and expand, but rather to buy stuff.

Supreme Court Nominee is Political, not Legal

Dahlia Lithwick has an article in Slate lamenting that the icons of liberal constitutional law are not even in the running to replace Justice Stevens, and are invariably depicted as radicals, while the equivalent judges on the right are likely to be nominated as soon as there is another Republican president.

Lithwick seems to think that this disparity is somehow part of the legal community, but in fact it has nothing to do with lawyers or the law. This disparity exists because Republicans are simply better at playing the game than Democrats are. Republicans are cohesive, all staying on message and using the same talking points, while Democrats tend to be all over the map. In addition, Republicans are far more savage, willing use words like “radical” or “threatening” to describe candidates (mild-mannered law professors, for the most part) whereas Democrats are more likely to use words like “gosh, I’m just not sure I agree with that man.”

Lithwick asks “Why should conservative law students be moved and inspired by their legal rock stars while liberals are sent the message that theirs are outrageous?” as if law schools can somehow fix this problem. I hate to criticize Lithwick, since normally her writing is so good that I practically have a crush on her, but in this case she is missing the point. Law schools can’t solve this problem; voters can.

Grover Norquist is a Terrible Person

Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, inventor of the “starve the beast” approach to government, and hater of all things that aren’t middle or upper class, showed in today’s Wall Street Journal why he is so terrible. As he was shoveling snow outside ATR’s headquarters, he said:

“Think about it…a government which can’t plow the streets and can’t fix the potholes wants to tell us how our toilets should flush, what size cars we should drive and whether we should paper or plastic when we buy our groceries.”

Let’s ignore the piss-poor parallelism of his statement, as well as his conflation of local and national government initiatives, because that is mostly stupid, as opposed to mean, to focus on the substance of his remark. Because what he is saying is that since he and his fellow low tax crusaders have starved governments of the revenue needed to perform basic services (eg. plowing snow), government is therefore incompetent, and thus shouldn’t be trusted to do anything. I know, that is the entire modus operandi of starving the beast, but rarely do you get him to say it so clearly and cruelly.

This is How Republicans Win

Because Frank Luntz comes up with catchy, albeit false, lines. He is a master (and I do mean master…you have to respect his talents, even if he uses them in a bad cause) at creating a narrative that appeals to the average American. Read about him here and here.

Why Americans Hate Congress

This is just one example, but of course there are zillions. Richard Shelby, Senator from Alabama, has put a blanket hold on 70 Obama nominees. Not because he has any concerns about those nominees, but because he is pouting that funds haven’t been released to build an FBI explosives center in Alabama and because he thinks the Air Force tanker procurement system isn’t fair to Northrup Grumman, which has facilities in Alabama. So let’s be clear: despite the massive deficit, Senator Shelby wants pork for his district, and he is willing to let all sorts of government agencies go unmanned until he gets his way.

And let me remind you that Alabama has 4.7 million people, or 1.7% of the US population. So one guy, representing 2% of the population, can put big chunks of government on hold until he gets his share of wasteful spending. And then he will give speeches about the importance of fiscal discipline. This is why polls show that Americans no longer respect Congress.

Read the story here, complain on his website here.

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.