Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Dangerous Farce

With income inequality in the US breaking records, it is not surprising to see a kind of social Darwinism returning to the scene as a farce of bad faith among the global elite. Chrystia Freeland's article in the Atlantic on the new superwealthy contains a lot of interesting material. This nugget particularly reveals the potential for self-righteousness among our self-anointed elite:
I heard a similar sentiment from the Taiwanese-born, 30-something CFO of a U.S. Internet company. A gentle, unpretentious man who went from public school to Harvard, he’s nonetheless not terribly sympathetic to the complaints of the American middle class. “We demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world,” he told me. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.”
Well, if statistics are to be believed, the people in the American middle class have been taking a pay cut relative to the wealthy for years.

What does seem very clear is that the elite upper class will do anything possible to avoid taking a pay cut. The near-crash of 2008 showed that our economic elite was quite willing to make use of government assistance in order to survive; they were not willing to die by the social Darwinian sword with which they had cut down so many in the middle class. The housing bubble and the Wall Street tycoons it fed were lifted by the flow of money from government agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The fortunes of money managers have been built on government subsidies, protections, and loopholes. (To be clear, the elite have every right to defend their economic interests, but so do the middle class and the poor.)

The case of "free trade" offers a revealing instance of contemporary trends. Rather than being a kind of victory for the free market, "free trade" has often become merely companies playing nations off of each other in hopes of getting the most subsidies. Consider the following story from the New York Times:
Aided by at least $43 million in assistance from the government of Massachusetts and an innovative solar energy technology, Evergreen Solar emerged in the last three years as the third-largest maker of solar panels in the United States.

But now the company is closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China....

Factory labor is cheap in China, where monthly wages average less than $300. That compares to a statewide average of more than $5,400 a month for Massachusetts factory workers. But labor is a tiny share of the cost of running a high-tech solar panel factory, Mr. El-Hillow said. China’s real advantage lies in the ability of solar panel companies to form partnerships with local governments and then obtain loans at very low interest rates from state-owned banks.

The NYT notes that, within a year of opening the Massachusetts factory in 2008, Evergreen was already investigating opening a factory in China.

So 800 manufacturing jobs were lost in what was supposed to have been a growth industry in the United States. Millions of dollars were extracted from taxpayers in the US and no doubt millions more will be gained in the People's Republic of China. The point here is not to criticize the actions of Evergreen Solar: our government has created the conditions so that a corporation can game the trade-subsidy system, and the company's management is merely operating rationally within that set of conditions.

But it may be time to reconsider whether our government ought to continue that set of conditions. However much some of its members may desire it, the elite does not live in a bubble. Wealthy nations, with a strong middle class, guarantee the global infrastructure upon which this self-proclaimed global elite depends. In the short run, many in the global elite have profited from the current economic order's undermining of the middle class. In the long run, however, the global elite need stable societies.

For allies of small government, the rise of this self-appointed global elite has been problematic. The undermining of the middle class has led to the strengthening of government power. Many of the poor seek an empowered central government to dole out subsistence-level benefits. Meanwhile, the elite have encouraged a stronger central government in order to use it as a conduit to channel more wealth to themselves. President Obama has spoken about the need for the United States to out-innovate the world, but it remains decidedly unclear whether diminished innovation is the real source of our economic troubles. With employment levels faltering and a government and an economy increasingly dependent upon borrowing money, it may be time to consider addressing this increased inequality as contributing to economic stagnation and as threatening the free-market foundations of our economy.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fanatic---Critique Thyself

Bill Maher slams the "teabaggers" as ignorant rednecks or something and says that the Founding Fathers would have "hated [your] guts" (video at the link). In support of his claim that the Founders would have hated many Tea Partiers' religious convictions, he quotes John Adams: "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it." Sounds like a pretty thorough denunciation of religion, doesn't it?

Well, maybe not quite. Adams made this claim in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, but there's a crucial context that Maher is omitting:
Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been on the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it."!!!! But in this exclamati[on], I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion, this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in public Company—I mean Hell.
In this letter to Jefferson, Adams seems less to be making a wholesale rejection of religion than to be claiming that a wholesale rejection of religion is just as fanatical as a belief that the state should allow only one religion (a statement that Joseph Cleverly, Adams's former schoolmaster, once made).

It is somewhat ironic that, in a diatribe attacking the supposed stupidity of others and implicitly suggesting that religion is the province of the ignorant and depraved, Maher mangles a quotation and reduces the complexities of Adams's thought to a crude, and mistaken, caricature. While some of the Founders were not afraid to challenge orthodox Christian beliefs (at least by the standards of many today), to identify them all with the rejection of religion is an unfortunate distortion. Moreover, the virtues of science and intellectual enlightenment, which Maher says he supports, are in no way helped by wild quotations out of context. It is that attention to context and to detail that helps distinguish the scientific worldview.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chafee Turns Back on E-Verify

Republican-turned-independent Lincoln Chafee, the new governor of Rhode Island, breaks with the past gubernatorial administration and reverses a measure instructing state agencies to verify the eligibility of potential employees to work legally in the United States:

The 2008 order, which sparked protests and heated debate, directed state departments and vendors to use the federal E-Verify database to check the legal status of new hires. It also required State Police to enter an agreement with federal immigration authorities.

The agreement, known as 287(g), gave specialized immigration enforcement training to some troopers, allowing them direct access to an electronic immigration database to quickly check if a suspect in custody is in the country illegally.

The unemployment rate in Rhode Island is 11.6%, which is one of the worst in the nation. David Frum has wondered about the seeming absence of a voice for the American worker in many elite debates about immigration, and Chafee's repeal may provoke more thoughts along the same lines.

Rhode Island legislators are proposing a bill that would reinstate E-Verify in the state hiring process.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Udall Resolution Hits

Via Greg Sargent, here's the text of the Udall Resolution. Sargent provides the following summary of its points from a Senate aide:

Clear Path to Debate: Eliminate the Filibuster on Motions to Proceed

Makes motions to proceed not subject to a filibuster, but provides for two hours of debate. This proposal has had bipartisan support for decades and is often mentioned as a way to end the abuse of holds.

Eliminates Secret Holds

Prohibits one Senator from objecting on behalf of another, unless he or she discloses the name of the senator with the objection. This is a simple solution to address a longstanding problem.

Right to Amend: Guarantees Consideration of Amendments for both Majority and Minority

Protects the rights of the minority to offer amendments following cloture filing, provided the amendments are germane and have been filed in a timely manner.

This provision addresses comments of Republicans at last year's Rules Committee hearings. Each time Democrats raised concerns about filibusters on motions to proceed, Republicans responded that it was their only recourse because the Majority Leader fills the amendment tree and prevents them from offering amendments. Our resolution provides a simple solution -- it guarantees the minority the right to offer germane amendments.

Talking Filibuster: Ensures Real Debate

Following a failed cloture vote, Senators opposed to proceeding to final passage will be required to continue debate as long as the subject of the cloture vote or an amendment, motion, point of order, or other related matter is the pending business.

Expedite Nominations: Reduce Post-Cloture Time

Provides for two hours of post-cloture debate time for nominees. Post cloture time is meant for debating and voting on amendments -- something that is not possible on nominations. Instead, the minority now requires the Senate use this time simply to prevent it from moving on to other business.

A few points in response:
  • This proposal does lessen the number of choke points, by ending the filibuster on a motion to proceed. This vote has often been taken to be a key vote in evaluating the strength of a proposal. It definitely offers one weakening of minority rights.
  • This proposal does greatly increase the power of 51 votes. The majority only needs to wait out the minority (and the minority's delaying tactics will be limited by the fact that they cannot filibuster the motion to proceed to debate). That may be good; that may be bad. But it seems a fact of this proposal.
  • The process of how this vote is taken matters. If it establishes the fact that 51 votes can change the rules in defiance of the tradition (and rule statements claiming) that the Senate is a continuing body, the success of this proposal with less than 2/3 of the Senate would greatly weaken the power of the minority.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

McConnell: GOP Showed Restraint in '95

Mitch McConnell has an op-ed in tomorrow's Washington Post bringing up a few facts about filibuster "reform." The first is that the Senate GOP decided to keep the filibuster even when it gained power in January 1995:
Just two months after securing a congressional majority for the first time in 40 years, Republicans strode into the Senate chamber on Jan. 5, 1995, to cast the first vote of the 104th Congress - a vote to limit their own power.

Sen. Tom Harkin had proposed changing Senate rules so that it would take only 51 votes to shut down debate instead of the traditional 60. Though it was clearly in the Republican majority's short-term interest to support the measure, every one of us voted against it, as did then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and senior members of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, including the majority leader and the president pro tempore.

The second is that Reid has done certain things to shut Republicans out of the process in the Senate:

What these critics [of the filibuster] routinely fail to mention (and too many reporters fail to report) is the precipitating action: the Democratic majority's repeated use of a once-rare procedural gimmick that has kept Republicans from amending bills that are brought to the floor. This practice, known as "filling the amendment tree," leads to a question that answers itself: Why would Republicans vote for action on a bill that, we've been promised, we'll be blocked from contributing to in any way? If the majority wants more cooperation, it could start by allowing differing views to be heard.

Over the past four years, Democrats have used such gimmicks to pursue their most prized legislative goals while attempting to minimize the number of uncomfortable votes they've had to take. My Democratic counterpart in the Senate, Harry Reid, has played quarterback, setting records for the number of times he has blocked Republicans from having any input on bills, cut off our right to debate and bypassed the committee process in order to write bills behind closed doors.

Defending the Filibuster

Frustrated by the fact that Republicans were able to use the filibuster to block or temper numerous "progressive" power grabs during the first two years of the Obama administration, Senate Democrats, led by Tom Udall (NM), seem to be making a determined play to modify the filibuster. Meanwhile, Harry Reid is in negotiations with Republican Senate leadership about some kind of compromise or deal about the filibuster. Brian Beutler at TPM has done some excellent reporting on this, though there is still much uncertainty about the actual movements. In 1975, Democrats changed the filibuster rules by using the controversial strategy of invoking the "Constitutional option," one Udall and friends seem inclined to use when the Senate reconvenes later this week. This "option" would find that the Senate could modify its rules (including the filibuster) by a bare majority vote on the first day of the Congress. Normally, it takes 2/3 of the Senate to change the rules. Ironically, the reform of 1975, by requiring a 3/5 vote of the whole Senate to override a filibuster, actually made the filibuster stronger and helped it become more common.

Filibuster reformers have a few different options. Perhaps one of the more striking ones is requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster. As Beutler explains,
Here's how they propose to change that. Under this plan, if 41 or more senators voted against the cloture motion to end debate, "then you would go into a period of extended debate, and dilatory motions would not be allowed," Udall explained.

As long as a member is on hand to keep talking, that period of debate continues. But if they lapse, it's over -- cloture is invoked and, eventually, the issue gets an up-or-down majority vote.

This change would offer a radical shift in the burden of the filibuster, transferring it from the majority to the minority. There is something to be said for this reversal, but making the filibuster threshold 41 votes (instead of, say, one-third of the senators voting) would be a great weakening of the power of the minority.

Furthermore, Udall's plan may provide a further weakening of the filibuster in that it seems to suggest that cloture never needs to be successfully invoked for a majority to override the minority; it only needs to wait that minority out. So 51 votes (or even fewer) could have greater power in the Senate.

Udall has a number of proposals floating around, but all have the same goal: weakening the power of the minority. Democrats have a smaller majority in 2011 than they did in 1975, but the caucus is also much more under the thrall of a "progressive" ideology as well. One of the key tenets of many self-styled "progressives" from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama is the importance of centralizing power. A bicameral legislature helps check this centralization, and the filibuster, by stressing the need for bipartisanship, further exasperates "progressives" eager to have government by monolithic ideology.

Some Republicans may think that, with the GOP controlling the House, the party would be insulated from any diminution of the filibuster---and that 2012 will bring Republicans to power in the Senate and the White House, so a weakening of the filibuster now would set the stage for a conservative empowerment shortly in the future.

This would be an incredibly short-sighted assumption. According to the conventional Washington narrative, Barack Obama went from being politically untouchable to being a political Untouchable in under two years. There's no reason to think that that process can't be reversed. It would be a foolish thing indeed to underestimate Obama's political strength.

There are deeper structural issues at play as well. Republicans and Democrats will both have their time in the minority. Partisan alienation is never in short supply in our republic, and the traditions of the Senate that limit the power of smaller majorities help build a bipartisan consensus. Checks on small majorities (and that's what the filibuster is, in part) incentivize cooperation and help keep the federal government from dissolving into wild swings as one temporary majority flips into another.

In the days ahead, a few questions remain. Perhaps the most prominent of them: Are the Democrats really serious about "reforming" the filibuster? True, Senate Democrats have almost unanimously signed off on a letter asking for some procedural changes in the next Congress, but there's a lot of vagueness in that desire for change. While "progressive" netrooters salivate over ending the filibuster, numerous Senate Democrats approach this issue more as practical politicians and less as ideologues. Senators know that the filibuster can be a valuable tool when they are in the minority, and have an interest in keeping that tool. Democrats might be able to herald as a great victory some weakening of the (sometimes abused) power of anonymous holds. They might put on a good show of Senatorial kabuki, rile up activists, and leave things pretty much the way they are.

Or they might decide to make a real move against the filibuster. Republicans should fight any radical assaults upon the power of the minority. Under the current Democratic gameplan for attacking the filibuster, there are a lot of delays that Republicans can use to rally popular support in defense of the rights of the minority and the spirit of compromise. The "opening day" could presumably take "weeks" as Republicans demand debate on rules changes.

Moreover, this debate about Senate rules could put a hold of the Senate's business. As a memo from one of Beutler's sources states,
Reform Senators would need to object to any attempt to transact substantive business or seek a unanimous consent request to that effect. The objective is to ensure that the reformers do not waive any rights to amend Senate rules on opening day by majority vote.
The GOP could use this tactic to its advantage. After all, the Obama administration does have a number of pressing issues, especially the raising of the debt ceiling. How much patience with the public have with a seemingly unchastened Democratic party attempting to arrogate more power to itself instead of doing the nation's business?

Having experienced a substantial setback in 2010, "progressives" are trying to reach for more power and undo checks on the power of future "progressive" forces. It remains to be seen whether Republicans and moderate-minded Democrats will allow them to succeed.