Sunday, March 26, 2023

About Fred Bauer

My work has been featured in a number of places. A long-time contributor to National Review, I have also written for City Journal, Genealogies of Modernity, The Weekly Standard (RIP), The American Conservative, and elsewhere.

I am currently at work on a book on the role of ethical and social commitments for liberty.

Bibliography by Topic

I am a contributor to the audio op-ed platform CenterClip. You can follow me there.

I'm also available on Twitter, and you can sign up for email updates via Substack.


Friday, March 12, 2021

The "Talking Filibuster" Boomlet

When Joe Manchin said on multiple Sunday shows that he was open to reforming the filibuster to make it more "painful" for filibusterers by requiring them to talk, a "talking filibuster" boomlet was born. Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto has also come out in favor of the "talking filibuster," and opponents of the filibuster are celebrating on Twitter and elsewhere. However, this boomlet could be misleading in a few ways.

 Despite the press attention he got with this statement, Senator Manchin has long been a proponent of the "talking filibuster." For instance, he voted in favor of rules reform requiring it in 2011. The real question for Manchin is not whether he supports the "talking filibuster" but whether he is willing to reverse his longstanding opposition to the nuclear option to impose filibuster reform. As recently as 2019, Manchin boasted of his consistent opposition to the nuclear option and called a use of it "a betrayal of the people we represent." It's one thing if Manchin merely wants to work through regular order to achieve a bipartisan approach to filibuster reform; it's another if he goes along with a party-line use of the nuclear option.

 Manchin said that he wanted to make it "harder to get rid of the filibuster," but any use of the nuclear option reinforces the argument that the majority of the Senate can eliminate the filibuster and any other Senate rule on a whim. As Bill Scher recently noted, going nuclear to impose a "talking filibuster" makes it much more likely that the filibuster will soon be nuked entirely.

The appeal to a "talking filibuster" can itself be misleading, too. The "silent filibuster" much bemoaned by opponents of the filibuster is an invention of the Senate majority and depends upon the assent of the majority leader. Prior to the 1970s, many filibusters were "talking filibusters" because the Senate's business ran on a single track. Filibustering one bill froze the Senate in place. To make things more convenient for the Senate majority, Mike Mansfield and Robert Byrd formalized the practice of multiple tracking; if one bill was filibustered, the majority could let that filibuster stand and then simply pivot to another bill. This made it easier for the majority to cover more issues, but it also radically diminished the costs of filibustering. Unlike cloture (which is codified by the Senate rules), the practice of multiple tracking is a discretionary practice on the part of the majority leader. Chuck Schumer could restore the "talking filibuster" tomorrow.

Moreover, some proponents of the "talking filibuster" pitch this as a return to the old practice of filibustering (memorialized in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). However, some "talking filibuster" proposals would decidedly weaken the power of the minority to filibuster compared to the old talking filibusters. The "talking filibusters" of the days of old were basically wars of attrition. The filibusterers had to go through the ordeal of filibustering and proponents of cloture actually had to sit through it. If enough members of the majority were not there, the filibusterers could simply declare the absence of a quorum and cause the Senate to adjourn. (For much of the period between 1917 and 1975, imposing cloture required a vote of two-thirds of senators present and voting. Post-1975, cloture was changed to three-fifths of the whole Senate, which shifted the onus of imposing cloture to opponents of a given filibuster--cloture requires 60 votes no matter what.)

Some "talking filibuster" proposals, however, remove those burdens from the majority. For instance, a 2013 "talking filibuster" proposal by Tom Udall would have made it out of order for anyone (other than the majority leader or his or her designee) to ask whether there is a quorum during a filibuster more than once every 48 hours. This would mean that the majority would be free to go about its business while the filibusterers mounted their rhetorical resistance. Whatever the merits or flaws of that change, it is decidedly not a return to the talking filibusters of old.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Brand Expansion

 As an experiment, I'm starting a newsletter, titled "Rounding Up." ("What--another newsletter!" you say.) It's a newsletter of newsletters, focusing on policy reform. Here's what I have to say about it in the inaugural issue:

The conversation is increasingly moving in the direction of walled gardens (or silos or whatever). Everybody has a Substack, a podcast, a Slack channel, etc. Tanner Greer has some interesting thoughts along those lines: he argues that the shift toward a more siloed discourse means a fracturing of the public square and a loss of the cross-pollination that characterized the blogosphere. (Oh, for the good ol’ days of blogging!)

So how about a newsletter that offers glimpses into those walled gardens? Each issue of Rounding Up will be a series of links and quotes—particularly emphasizing newsletters, podcasts, and other media slightly off the beaten path. A newsletter of newsletters, as it were. Yes, there will be some links to “regular” online pieces, too.

I can’t begin to cover all topics in this newsletter, so I’m going to focus on a few. Many of these links will focus on political reform. There’s so much interesting material about reform these days: reimagining policy, confronting big questions, pondering political realignment, and all that jazz. So why not a compendium of links around that theme? This reform is not clearly about the “left” or the “right.” As the links below indicate, Rounding Up will include material from a variety of political persuasions. And it won’t just be about policy and politics, either. Snippets from culture, philosophy, the arts, history, and so forth could also be included.

If you're interested in joining this experiment, please subscribe! If you do, you'll get a round-up of links no more than once a week.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pilgrims at 400

 For National Review this Thanksgiving weekend, I wrote about an obscure American colossus: the 81-foot-tall National Monument to the Forefathers. (There are some pictures at the link if you want to see this 19th-century giant.)

New Englanders in the 1800s embraced a cult of the Pilgrims, portraying them as founders of what would become the United States. In a famous 1820 oration, Daniel Webster called Plymouth “the spot where the first scene of our history was laid.” Virginia’s Jamestown, built by tidewater adventurers, might have been the first English settlement chronologically, but Webster and other New Englanders sought to make Plymouth (and Boston) first in principle.

History’s commemoration here bears the hints of political theory, or at least political apologia. While Webster’s 1820 speech on the Pilgrims celebrated “civil and religious liberty,” it also turned to broader conditions that at once supported such liberties and could also be advanced by them. He argued that the relative economic equality of the Pilgrims laid the groundwork for a democratic society, as the continued diffusion of property was essential for the continuance of republican self-government. To Webster, the Pilgrim project was partly about defending liberty, but it also demanded the promotion of the general welfare, virtue, and religious devotion.

The piece looks at architecture, the Pilgrims (400 years later!), and the role of history as a vehicle for legitimization for a pluralist democracy.

If you can't get enough of the Pilgrims (and who can!?), see also James Panero's reflection on Plymouth Rock for the New Criterion.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

State Power and the Cold War

For National Review earlier this week, I wrote a piece about making the GOP a party of Lincoln for the 21st century. That piece thinks about how the GOP can support both pro-worker and pro-growth policies. Right now, there's a bigger debate going on about the future direction of the Republican Party, with many people arguing that it should become more of a pro-worker party.

I'd like to turn for a second to a subtext of this debate. One narrative for debates about the future of the right goes something like this: The American right was for a long time the party of laissez-faire and minimal governance--in ideals if not in reality--so arguments for making the GOP more populist are also call to break with this inheritance of movement conservatism and move in a more statist direction.

This argument has certain elements of truth (many elements of the American right have been proponents of more libertarian or "classically liberal" economics). But it might also elide some important points, especially that the American right has long been a proponent of massive state action.

The famous "three-legged stool" of movement conservatism (social conservatism, market-based economics, and Cold War hawkishness) had state power at its core. As I've written before, proponents of an assertive stance against the Soviet Union focused on American state power as a key vehicle--more about government military spending, and much less letters of marque. Moreover, that government spending on the Cold War also often functioned as a form of industrial policy. ARPA/DARPA invested in many key technologies (such as the Internet), the space program spurred on many innovations, and defense contracting provided a major source of industrial production. And there were political implications for these investments, too. South California was both a major aerospace hub and a citadel for the GOP. (Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, cutbacks in aerospace and defense in the aftermath of the Cold War were soon followed by a GOP retreat in the Golden State.)

This suggests that the theoretical divisions between the policies of traditional "movement conservatism" and a more populist politics might not be quite as sharp as they first seem. The belief that government action plays an essential role in securing the conditions of freedom and the recognition of personal dignity might be seen as a throughline. We no longer live in the world of 1979, so the precise policies might have to change, and much could be gained through looking back at the deeper traditions of American politics for fusing civic regulation and personal freedom. A politics of the commonwealth, national integrity, and liberty has a long lineage in American life, from the Federalists onward. Conservatives in the 20th century drew from that tradition, and they still can draw from it in the 21st.

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Conviction and Responsibility

In a recent essay for the new American Purpose site, Aaron Sibarium offers a characteristically thoughtful analysis of the risk of a "Weimarization" of American politics.* I thought I might devote an old-school blogpost to Sibarium's conclusion, which draws from Max Weber's famous essay "Politics as a Vocation":

In 1919, one year into Weimar’s short-lived life, the German sociologist Max Weber gave a talk titled Politics as a Vocation, in which he outlined two moral systems the statesman must navigate: an “ethic of conviction,” which demands that he pursue justice; and an “ethic of responsibility,” which demands that he consider the consequences of his doing so. In at least some cases, Weber suggested, the second imperative trumps the first. Social justice is all well and good, but it does not justify burning down the Reichstag—or, one might add, the Minneapolis police station.

Needless to say, Weber’s compatriots did not get the memo. The ethic of conviction dominated left and right alike, until it pushed Weimar over the volcano’s edge. What they lacked is what we presently need: an ethic of responsibility to temper our convictions. The only way we’ll avoid the flames is if both sides rediscover it.

For fun (again, old-school-blogpost style), let's riff about how the "ethic of conviction" and "ethic of responsibility" can relate to each other.

Contemporary media culture places a huge premium on the performance of conviction, abounding with moralizing denunciations of one's political opponents, chest-beating declarations of virtuousness, and proclamations of impending ethical crisis. This frenzy over conviction pervades political analysis (obviously), but it has also permeated our broader media culture.

However, conviction without responsibility degenerates into a carousel of posturing. Conviction can be thrilling, even intoxicating. Social media shows how professing conviction (to raucous applause, of course) can be an extraordinary dopamine hit. Yet a sense of responsibility is needed to give that conviction a moral seriousness.

Responsibility in part involves interrogating the character of one's own thought. Blind conviction can leap from moral outrage to moral outrage, but responsibility demands applying perspective. That perspective can help temper and focus that conviction. Seeing the muddiness of the world can help us treasure the glow of truly good things even more. Seeing what it means to live in the world can inform our convictions (as those convictions in part draw from our bigger understanding of the world). 

True responsibility addresses the demands of charity. Responsibility joins conviction to care--the sense of something outside ourselves and the awareness of worldly vulnerability and fragility. It might even hint that, if our conviction is to have a robust purchase, it can't rely on merely the idolization of our own preferences but has to draw from some deeper sources.


*(Speaking of challenges facing the American republic, I'll toss in a link to a recent-ish National Review piece of mine on that very topic: Francis Fukuyama, David Brooks, and the renewal of the resources of liberty.)

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Notes on revolutionary panic

The importance of mass media and cultural stakeholders in promoting so-called "moral panics" has long been recognized by theorists, from the pioneering work of Stanley Cohen onward. Cohen noted the role of politicians, media organizations, and activists in fomenting a sense of cultural anxiety. As this Oxford entry on moral panics outlines, the process of generating a panic relies on a three-step process: "The first is exaggeration and distortion of who did or said what; the second is prediction, the dire consequences of failure to act; and the third is symbolization," which means identifying some figure as a threat.

We might extend this idea of a moral panic to consider the aims of a revolutionary panic. In a revolutionary panic, revolutionaries and their allies whip up a sense of (catastrophic) anxiety in order to provoke a broader frenzy. This frenzy aims to polarize and raise the stakes of politics. Those who do not participate in acts of revolutionary purgation confess their guilt by this refusal to participate--silence is, as it were, violence. Because they could be adapted by various deplorables, facts that counter revolutionary narratives are inherently suspect, as are those who dare to mention them. (There might be real shortcomings that revolutionary panics invoke, but they will approach these challenges in a mode of venom and catastrophe.)

The workings of revolutionary panic also tend to degrade the individual. Because the stakes are so urgent, toleration cannot be allowed.  Those "allies" of the revolution should cut off all contact with those on the "wrong side of History," including family members. The revolution demands total commitment. Those who violate the precepts of the revolution should, of course, be banned from employment.

If normal politics is about the calibration of disappointment and hopefulness, revolutionary panics instead invoke the most radical despair in order to conjure a utopian urgency.  Because the present is so wretched--because the normal discourse of politics cannot work--revolutionary disruption and even violence are the only ways forward. If the aim of revolutionary politics is regime change, then proponents of a revolutionary panic have every incentive to show that politics under the existing regime cannot work.

As revolutionaries of various stripes have understood, part of undermining this existing regime also means disrupting the symbols of the regime as well as of the accumulated images that represent the past settlements within this regime's history. The Americans who pulled down the statue of George III in New York after the Declaration of Independence did so to indicate not the hopes of a more perfect union with the mother country but instead a radical break.

Whatever its purportedly moral claims, revolutionary panic is in many ways about power-politics. Members of an elite that want to extend their power might seek to feed this panic in order to strengthen their own positions. In contemporary societies, a revolutionary panic can be a vehicle for bureaucratic power struggles--who will get patronage, funding, or prominence. Many revolutionary panics might invoke the name of the oppressed but do so in the interests of the powerful (or at least those who are close to being among the powerful).

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

False Justice

I've written on this before, but I thought I'd flag this passage from Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self, a philosophical survey of evolving notions of selfhood in the modern age.  At the end of Sources of the Self, Taylor reflects on the way certain efforts for radical social reform can become corrupted, shifting from moral improvement to the denigration of the "deplorable."
High standards need strong sources. This is because there is something morally corrupting, even dangerous, in sustaining the demand simply on the feeling of undischarged obligation, on guilt, or its obverse, self-satisfaction. Hypocrisy is not the only negative consequence....
There are other consequences of benevolence on demand which Nietzsche didn't explore. The threatened sense of unworthiness can also lead to the projection of evil outward; the bad, the failure is now identified with some other person or group. My conscience is clear because I oppose them, but what can I do? They stand in the way of universal beneficence; they must be liquidated. This becomes particularly virulent on the extremes of the political spectrum, in a way which Dostoyevsky has explored to unparalleled depths.
Many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up with implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable, even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoyevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism.
Taylor here offers a warning: efforts for sweeping social reform--even while marching as an "ideology of universal love and freedom"--can degenerate into a program of despotism when they lose an affirmative sense of the good and instead focus simply on attacking those they characterize as fallen.

Those movements that rely on mass denigration, humiliation, and vituperation might not strengthen human bonds but undermine them. Atavistic impulses toward domination and cruelty can wear the mask of "justice," too.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Notes toward a voluntary test-trace-and-isolate regimen

I'll open this by saying I know nothing about epidemiology or, really, medicine. This is classic blogging fodder: amateurish spitballing. The topic of today's spitballing is policies for a voluntary test-trace-and-isolate regimen for coronavirus.  I'm not saying that we should adopt such a regimen from a medical perspective; instead, I'm looking at how we could implement such a regimen if we decided it was desirable.

If, as Robert VerBruggen has argued, public compliance with continued lockdowns is slipping, what's next? Many in the national media have fixated on testing.  But testing alone is merely a diagnostic tool; by itself, it won't slow the spread of the disease. The celebrated economist Paul Romer has proposed mass testing (of up to 30 million Americans per week) in order to create confidence and diagnose the sick, but even his plan calls for some quarantine for the sick. Ezra Klein has a useful overview of some plans (including Romer's) to reopen the economy through more testing and tracing. They're pretty demanding. Avik Roy has another plan for reopening here.

Championed by many pundits as a model for responding to coronavirus, South Korea has implemented not just a vigorous testing regime but has also turned itself into a public-health panopticon, with government officials having massive (and warrantless) surveillance powers to identify those exposed to coronavirus and the authority to confine those sick with it.  (See these pieces in The Atlantic and Lawfare for more on that.) Lyman Stone has suggested an ambitious mandatory quarantine regime.

I thought it might be useful to highlight some policy options for implementing a voluntary test-trace-and-isolate regimen. Why voluntary? As a political question, mandatory test-trace-and-isolate programs would probably require sweeping new legislation at the federal level--to revise privacy law, expand surveillance, etc.  As the past couple months might indicate, even a historic crisis hasn't been able to break intense negative partisanship's hold on the Beltway. Plus, mandates might further polarize public debates about responding to coronavirus.

These voluntary programs would be, I think, a much lighter lift on the federal level.  They would mostly involve spending money, something Washington is still quite able to do. And I would suggest that any money spent on a test-trace-and-isolate regimen could be well worth it.  Even if you don't think such measures would save lives (that's a medical question), they would likely increase the feeling of public safety, which would help the economy recover. The fact that they are voluntary means that these measures wouldn't be as comprehensive as mandatory plans, but--in conjunction with each other--voluntary compliance could still have an effect.

Again, these are not policy proposals I'm endorsing from a medical perspective. Instead, I'm looking at some small-bore policies that could help lay the groundwork for a voluntary (that word again) test-trace-and-isolate regimen. (If that regimen is worthwhile at all is above this post's paygrade.) I use "would" in these proposals, but, again, this is spitballing--not a dogmatic program.

There are four components (so far) for this voluntary regimen: tracking; quarantine and sick care; protecting the vulnerable; and general diagnosis and containment.

Establish a voluntary COVID-19 tracking app that can be installed on smartphones.  (Probably, this would be done in collaboration with major tech companies, since it seems unlikely that the U.S. federal government currently has the wherewithal to invent one de novo. Apple and Google have collaborated on a platform for this that government agencies could adopt.) People would not be required to install this app, but the federal government could offer certain rewards for doing so. It could even pay people some sum ($50/month?) in order to reward the use of this app.

This app would track the movements of every user.  When each user was diagnosed, other users would be notified if they had been exposed to that person.  Those people could then get tested. People who had an app report for possible exposure would be guaranteed testing (though ideally testing will be available to all who want it). Potentially, people also exposed could use this app to claim sick-leave benefits if they stayed home.

Municipalities would use data gathered from app or from interviews with the afflicted to notify public of possible vectors of exposure. Also, federal grants could help these municipalities hire more tracers to interview people with confirmed coronavirus to ask about their activities, personal interactions, and so forth.

Quarantine and sick care:
The federal government would pay for everyone who is diagnosed with COVID-19 to move into a voluntary quarantine area (such as a room in a quarantine hotel paid for by the government).  These people could choose to bring their family members with them, including minor children, though that would not be required.

Those diagnosed with COVID-19 would receive guaranteed sick-leave pay, whether funded by the government or private  insurance. We don't want people who are sick with coronavirus to show up for work.

It's up for argument whether or not those exposed to coronavirus but without a firm diagnosis should be given a chance for quarantine in a government-sponsored area. On one hand, that could further help minimize the risk of spread. On the other, crowding together people with and without COVID in a hotel might end up infecting a lot of people.

Protections for the vulnerable:
Coronavirus seems most deadly for the elderly, and a significant portion of coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and so forth. Erecting a cordon sanitaire around these institutions could help reduce the death-toll. Probably, state and local officials would have to take the lead here, though the federal government could apply this to VA institutions, too.

One approach would be to designate certain elder-care facilities as "COVID-clear facilities." Only those who are diagnosed to be free of an infection would be allowed to be treated there.  Visitors would either be banned or strictly limited (though that would be the case for other facilities, too).  Those who worked at these institutions would have to live in a COVID-clear dormitory (to be shuttled back and forth to work and not otherwise allowed to interact with the outside world).  The only other people who could work in those facilities would be those diagnosed as having coronavirus antibodies.  Because these people had developed immunity to coronavirus, they couldn't spread it to the vulnerable.

Staff without antibody resistance or unwilling to move to a voluntary COVID-clear dormitory could temporarily work at another facility.  Moreover, untrained individuals with antibody resistance could be given super-quick training to work at COVID-clear facilities.  They are many jobs at elder-care facilities that do not require years of training to do. (Probably, some medical-licensing requirements would be waived to do that.) Also, antibody-resistant staff or COVID-clear volunteers at other institutions could temporarily switch to work at COVID-clear facilities.

Similar combinations of COVID-clearing and antibody-only workers could also be used to protect important economic nodes (such as meat-processing plants).

General diagnosis and containment:
Temperature and/or pulse-oximeter checks at entrypoints of buildings, stores,etc.

Universal mask-wearing.

Reductions in mass gatherings.

More testing.

Other social-distancing protocols? (This isn't a post about social distancing, though that would still probably play a role in a voluntary test-trace-and-isolate regimen.)

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Sunday, March 29, 2020

Institutional Politics

In National Review last month, I looked at the theme of institutional politics.
One of the central questions of American (and not only American) political thought is the dependence of self-government on broader cultural resources and some geopolitical infrastructure. That dependence was an animating topic of debates during the Founding, in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, during the New Deal, and, yes, even in movement conservatism in the 20th century. Different political orientations might emphasize different elements of this institutional importance, but concern with this topic can be seen across the political spectrum.

Across American history, policy played an important role in addressing those ends. Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, Henry Clay’s “American system,” Lincoln’s industrial policies, the Homestead Acts, the various investments in infrastructure and technology during the world wars of the 20th century — all these testify to the longstanding interest in using government policy to promote certain political ends. The goals of such policy efforts might vary, from ensuring an industrial base so that the nation can compete in great-power politics abroad to promoting a freeholding middle class at home. But these efforts all took seriously the role of certain institutions in promoting the public good and political liberty.
I thought this post could be an opportunity to look at (okay--write a string of observations about) some elements of this turn to institutions.

Yuval Levin's book A Time to Build takes institutions as its core.  According to Levin, institutions are "the durable forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures that we do together." Levin surveys various institutions--from government bodies to schools to media organizations.  He outlines the challenges they face and what could be done (especially from within those institutions) to make them function better.

In a column in First Things, R. R. Reno reflects on that Levin's discussion of institutions. One of the things he highlights is the way institutions offer a kind of groundedness for our individual lives:
We imagine we can go it alone, but in truth, institutions give shape, direction, and stability to our lives. We champion equality, but institutions require hierarchies. So we are pulled in two directions. We naturally gravitate toward institutions. Even the free-spirited establish informal fraternities; dedicated surfers and mountain climbers come together to celebrate shared passions. All the while, we don’t want to see ourselves as “joiners,” and we shy away from a strong vocabulary of loyalty.
For a model of atomized politics, all that matters is the individual or the state.  But an institutionally informed politics attends to those ways that institutions shape our lives as individuals. Moreover, it might seek as a public policy aim to shore up certain institutions and institutional networks (such as the family or industrial supply chains) in part because it holds that institutions have a tacit knowledge that is not easily replaced.

The latest issue of American Affairs has a passel of articles related to institutions, grouped under the heading of "Corporatist Models in America and Asia."  Michael Lind looks at the deeper trend of institutional alliances in American policy, while Gladden Pappin considers empowering certain institutions in calling for a 21st-century corporatism. Looking across the Pacific, David Adler and Reza Hasmath examine corporatist models for economic development in South Korea and China. Adler's piece, for instance, highlights the way that institutions as nodes of knowledge can lead to innovation (and how their loss can hamper innovation): as South Korea gained the ability to manufacture key technologies, the ability to innovate in those technologies soon followed. 

One of Mickey Kaus's great strengths is his contrarian streak. At a time when proponents of institutional politics seem to be gaining ground, he raises doubts about "corporatism." 
The main problem [with corporatism] is that it's inegalitarian in a very non-American way. Who says reporters get to be the eyes and ears of society, with a special "press privilege" (under one popular consitutional theory) that ordinary citizens don't get? Why do executives at Facebook, say, get included in tripartite talks but not other executives at other websites? Why do they make so much money, anyway? It’s one thing if they've attained their economic status through free and fair competition. It's another if they’re formally granted extra power because they're prosperous at the moment — thereby enabling them, in a corporatist order, to maintain their advantage into the future.
Corporatism inherently seems to create a bias in favor preserving that status quo -- of protecting the big boys in the room, especially if that's an arrangement that’s worked in the past. Is the Trump administration really going to break up Google on antitrust grounds if Google successfully designs the virus-testing website for 350 million people (something Google may or may not actually be doing)? We get all the inequality of capitalism, without the justification that it’s been earned in a market -- and without a competitive market’s ability to automatically adjust to new conditions, invisible handishly. That inequality’s all the nastier because it seems more permanent— reflecting your station in life, your role in the organism. It’s no accident corporatism was the economic model of … well, you know what it was the economic model of.
These are not insignificant objections. There's a risk that elevating certain institutional interests can be a way of encouraging sclerosis and self-dealing. Perhaps that's part of the reason why the post-World War II corporatist consensus began to unravel in the 1970s; the layers and layers of corporatist agreements combined with a shift in geopolitics made the American economy dysfunctional.

By favoring certain giant interests, corporatism can help cement a new quasi-aristocracy, and there's no guarantee that this newly empowered corporatist elite will look out for the common good. After all, the era of Too Big to Fail seems to have many corporatist elements for finance, and TBTF seems to have extended the negative effects of financialization.

Of course, the excesses of neoliberal atomization have also undermined the vitality of the American economy, and new, market-dominant behemoths in finance and tech have also formed. (Arguably, part of an institutionally-informed economics would also seek to police institutions that grow too vast and anti-competitive. This has been a major theme of Matt Stoller's work.)

Perhaps there's a way of threading the needle of looking out for key institutions or sectors without also entrenching a managerial elite, or at least having enough churn that this managerial elite is not entirely closed. Certainly, certain institutional investments in things like telecommunications infrastructure could benefit a variety of stakeholders. A tight labor market could be a vehicle for strengthening individuals workers as well as unions, which could then gain more bargaining power within bigger corporate institutions. "Buy American" provisions for certain federal purchases could be a way of preserving some manufacturing institutions within picking specific companies.

Maybe another way of looking at institutional politics would be to say that, over the course of history, the United States and other nations bounce between empowering institutions and weakening them. Centralization and diffusion work in a push-and-pull process. The middle of the 20th century saw considerable institutionalization, but the last part of that century witnessed the dispersion of many of those energies in the name of empowering certain individual efforts. Now, we may be experiencing a return to more institutionalized politics (something the COVID-19 pandemic could easily accelerate).

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Fixing the COVID Relief Bill

Senate Republicans are working on a measure to provide economic relief for the coronavirus crisis. I thought I'd write a brief post here on how this bill could be improved, particularly the cash-benefits portion. The phase-in and front-end means-testing provisions could both be stripped from the bill to make it more pro-worker and efficient.

  Here's an outline of the cash-benefits element of that bill:

Over at NR, Robert VerBruggen explains how the phase-in works:
To use the tax-wonk term, the benefit “phases in” at lower incomes, because it’s based on tax liability. To put it bluntly, poor workers can see their checks cut in half, and Americans with hardly any income will get squat.
So the COVID relief bill could give reduced cash benefits to many poorer Americans.  How many? AEI's Kyle Pomerleau has one estimate:
This seems to be a significant policy mistake. The coronavirus crisis is inflicting pain on Americans across the economic spectrum. It makes no sense that poorer Americans should receive less assistance during this time, especially because this is not a normal recession. Instead, this massive economic pain is being inflicted by federal, state, and local governments in the name of public health. Mitt Romney and Josh Hawley have pushed back against this effort to reduce aid to poorer Americans. We'll see if their efforts are successful.

Means-testing (the phase-out) poses its own problems.  This means-testing is based on a person's 2018 tax bill. Why should the fact that someone did well eighteen months ago mean that he or she should get less aid now? Moreover, front-end means-testing further complicates the bill and could create more delays in getting relief money into consumers' hands.

If members of Congress really are concerned about means-testing, back-ending it could be more efficient. For instance, Congress could impose a one-year tax surcharge of 0.5% on incomes over a certain threshold; this surcharge would dissipate after $1200 (or whatever the COVID cash benefit was) had been collected through it.  This would lead to wealthier Americans paying back their COVID cash benefits, but that payback wouldn't occur until taxes were due in 2021. It would put more cash into the economy now and would be more transparent.  (And that's if you think means-testing is even a worthy aim; David French thinks it isn't for this bill.)

As I wrote in NR today, the coronavirus crisis is a time of intense economic disruption, and it demands considerable civic solidarity. Equal cash benefits to compensate for the pain inflicted by this crisis could be a way of reinforcing that solidarity and providing needed economic stimulus.

(In addition to those policy reasons, there's a political reason why Congress should support more blanket benefits: the optics of providing less aid to poorer Americans during this tumultuous time are absolutely terrible.)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Working Politics

The editorial team at the Ripon Forum invited me to contribute an analysis of the political effects of populism to their latest issue.  I argued that both the British Tories and the Republican party might have an opening for a sustainable governing majority if they can cement their standing among working-class voters:
Brexit and populist American politics differ in key respects, but they share some common political contexts. Both were informed by a broader alienation from the political establishment, which has led to an appetite for change and for outsider political figures. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, the traditional parties of the left have loosened their hold on working-class voters in the wake of cultural and economic changes.
Populist-sympathetic voters have a mix of policy preferences. In the United States, they are often skeptical about high rates of immigration and the current architecture of global trade. Far from doctrinaire free-marketeers, these voters support a vigorous welfare state and are open to government regulation of large corporate interests. Even if many of these voters do not embody every element of social conservatism in their private lives, they also resent “politically correct” efforts to police speech and stigmatize social traditionalism....
British politics reveals some potential opportunities and pitfalls for Republicans in 2020. An increase in working-class support was essential for President Trump’s victory in 2016 and in some down-ballot congressional races. After two elections supporting Barack Obama, blue-collar counties in the Rust Belt and elsewhere swung to Donald Trump. In 2018, however, many suburban voters turned against the Republican Party.
Republicans in 2020 need simultaneously to keep some of their traditional supporters in the suburbs while also expanding their reach among the working class in rural, suburban, and urban areas. With the right policy and messaging strategies, they can do both.
You can read the rest here.

A lot of other people are thinking (and have long been thinking) about a mode of conservative policy that speaks to the needs of working families.  The launch of the new policy shop American Compass shows the growing interest in and policy-related potential for such an effort.

Oren Cass, one of the founders of this effort, calls for an "economic consensus that emphasizes the importance of family, community, and industry to the nation’s liberty and prosperity."  That emphasis on protecting family, community, and industry reflects longstanding conservative concern with promoting and protecting some of the mediating institutions of society.  Moreover, Americans have long believed that government policy does indeed have a role in supporting such institutions.

Cass elaborates on what this vision would entail:
Unlike the prevailing orthodoxy, conservative economics will take seriously the effects of social and market forces on each other. It will concern itself with the pernicious effects that high levels of economic inequality can have on the social fabric, the market’s functioning, and people’s well-being, regardless of absolute material living standards. It will give weight to the value of diffuse and widespread investment, not just the value of agglomeration. It will consider the benefits that locally owned establishments bring to their communities alongside the benefits that hyper-efficient conglomerates can deliver. It will insist on recognizing the importance of non-market labor performed within the household and community, rather than assuming that the higher monetary incomes in a society of two-earner families must indicate progress.
For one way of contextualizing some of the challenges facing working families, see also Cass's new report on the Cost of Thriving Index, which reveals how certain expenses (especially health insurance) are putting more pressures on American households.

Of course, the status of pro-worker policies within the Republican coalition is a matter of some dispute.  Reportedly, some elected Republicans are considering an effort to expand guest-worker programs.  I've long been a critic of such programs as undermining civic integration and economic opportunity, and, in National Review this week, I explore some of the ways in which expanding guest-worker programs could undermine some key economic and political aims:
A tight labor market helps the paychecks of individual workers and their families, but it also provides other civic benefits. This demand for labor encourages an expansion of the labor pool, providing opportunity to those whose resumes might be otherwise ignored. Criminal-justice reform is a chic topic in the Beltway right now, and one of the biggest ways of helping those with criminal records integrate into American society is to have a tight labor market. Such a labor market will encourage employers to invest more in training their workforces, expanding opportunity for those with and without college degrees. Conversely, guest-worker programs can often be vehicles for undermining the bargaining power of American workers.
As Mark Krikorian notes, "the genuine difficulties some employers are having in finding staff have to be weighed against the beneficial social consequences of a tight labor market. Everyone agrees that stagnant wages for blue-collar workers and low labor-force participation are problems."

So it looks like the debate will continue.

(Speaking of debates: For WGBH, I analyzed the Ed Markey-Joe Kennedy primary debate earlier this week--and what that debate reveals about the underlying tensions of American politics. It doesn't quite fit in with this post's broader theme of working-politics reform on the right, but I wanted to give it a shout-out...)

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Populism, Quo Vadis?

Earlier this week in National Review, I found some affinities between contemporary "populism" and the founding of neoconservatism:
Having been youths during the Great Depression, many neoconservatives were essentially supporters of the welfare state, but they also diagnosed some of the ways in which the welfare state could undercut its supposed aims. The Public Interest, a major neoconservative organ, was stocked with articles about how some Great Society welfare efforts might end up not ameliorating but rather entrenching poverty.
However, the neoconservatives were emphatically not proponents of laissez-faire. Not only did they often support robust government efforts; they also had deeper reservations about the dynamics of the market. Irving Kristol famously mustered only two cheers (not three) for capitalism. While the material wealth produced by capitalism was in many ways a good thing, the endless pursuit of profit could also degrade traditional communities and sap important moral virtues. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell offered a sociological elaboration of this theme; the elevation of consumerism in an age of American plenty could undermine the virtues, including prudence and discipline, that a successful market economy requires...
When Hawley denounces the political vision of an autonomous “Promethean self,” that sounds rather like two cheers (or maybe one and a half) for capitalism. Just as neoconservatives looked at an American economic and political system under increasing pressure in the Sixties and Seventies, many of those sympathetic to a “populist” or “nationalist” correction see in the contemporary United States signs of disappointment and socioeconomic strain. In the 21st century, economic growth has slowed by many measures. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed. Partisan rancor and dysfunction hold the Beltway in their grip. Political radicalism, from socialism to the “woke” left to the “alt-right,” has gained new currency in some parts of the public.
These trends have left a black mark in the lives of many Americans. But they also might augur ill for liberal democracy and a market-based economy. Policy reforms to correct them can be less a flight from liberty and more a way to make the practices of liberty sustainable, a theme that has pervaded accounts of liberty in America from Hamilton to Tocqueville to the neoconservatives.
You can read the rest here.

There's a bigger tradition of diagnosing the limitations (or de-stabilizing tendencies) of democratic life not in order to end it but in order to make it more sustainable.

In his review of R. R. Reno's Return of the Strong Gods, Samuel Goldman offers a related reflection. Reno, he writes, believes in the importance of deep roots (in family, faith, and community) for the human psyche. We all crave these roots. For Reno, modernity and the "open society" model of the postwar consensus risk cutting us off from this essential foundation.
For one thing, [such a model] is too thin and rationalistic to provide the meaning most of us crave. A few people might be satisfied by the lesser goods of peace and prosperity. Many more are attracted to forms of community that offer greater fulfillment because they demand more of their members. Although he opposes so-called identity politics as another kind of idolatry, Reno recognizes its appeal. If the “open society” does not offer citizens a strong political purpose, it is inevitable that they will seek it in race or sexual orientation.

Second, openness can become an ersatz religion. Rather than a pragmatic strategy to avoid the worst, the refusal to make and enforce judgments is now seen as a virtue — perhaps the only one. Reno is not alone in recognizing that the terms “toleration” and “diversity” have become liturgical affirmations of a new moral orthodoxy...
...The real danger, he argues, is not the appeals to traditional morality, religion, and nationalism that provoke elite liberals to hysterical warnings of fascism. It is the refusal of any sacrifices to the strong gods, which invites them back in new and potentially violent forms.

Reno’s populism is based on a strategic calculation comparable to the one adopted by architects of the post-war consensus. In a world devastated by an excessive devotion, they promoted disillusionment and restraint. In a society that fosters weak loyalty or reverence, Reno encourages the reenchantment of the world. “Deprived of true and ennobling loves,” he concludes, “people will turn to demagogues and charlatans who offer them false and debasing loves.” 
Goldman implies that Reno's project may less be about throwing over "liberal democracy" (he doesn't want to end elections or throw religious dissenters in prison) and more about nurturing those deeper roots of the sacred in order to counterbalance some of the tendencies toward atomization.

This highlights one of the complexities of contemporary discussions of "populism" and "nationalism." Some see in these movements the project of overthrowing a "liberal" order characterized by civil liberties and democratic governance, while others see in them the possibility of correcting some elements of established orthodoxies in order to make the practices of liberty and democracy more sustainable.

Certainly, many of those idenitified with "populism" and "nationalism" these days are themselves profoundly sympathetic to the institutional principles we associate with "liberal democracy."  Josh Hawley doesn't want to repeal the Bill of Rights, for instance.  In the beginning of The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony makes clear his fundamental support for the inherited norms of political liberty; he thinks that the national model is a vehicle for preserving those norms.  Indeed, Hazony argues that political transnationalism might itself be at odds with those things that make liberal, democratic life possible.  The idea that a certain ideological rigor can undermine the practices of democracy is not confined to "postliberals," either.  One of the themes of Bill Galston's Anti-Pluralism is the way that a fierce neoliberal reaction against populism could itself pose a threat to pluralist norms and institutions.

None of this is to say that certain forms of "populism," "nationalism," and "postliberalism" might not actually be hostile to the practices of democracy and civil liberties.  (I tend to think that a lot of "-ism" talk actually obscures some deeper complexities and differences.)

And there is, of course, the second-order question of whether some of the concrete policy solutions offered by populists will actually address those tensions within the heart of (broadly speaking) "liberal" life.

But this does suggest that part of the task of statesmanship for a regime with robust protections for civil liberties and democratic elections might include attending to the deeper social textures and cultural capital that make those things possible.  That project of attention has a long lineage, from the American Founders onward.

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Sunday, December 15, 2019

Correction politics

Two pieces this week, and a common theme.

One looks at Marco Rubio's recent speech on an industrial policy.
In current debates on the right, proponents of neoliberal economics (especially on trade) have often joined forces with those who want to defend the “liberal international order” (or who wish, in any case, to maintain a proactive American foreign policy). In some ways, this alliance makes sense. Many view President Trump as the central question in American politics, and he has trumpeted his criticism of the post-1989 consensus on both foreign and economic policy. Moreover, American policymakers pivoted to international “free trade” agreements as a key element of geopolitical strategy in the aftermath of the Second World War.

However, in some other ways, there might be some tensions in this alliance. In many respects, the economic trends of 2001 to 2016 undermined the ability of the United States to continue as a ballast of the post-1945 geopolitical order. The extended slowdown in economic growth since Y2K has shrunk the size of the American economy relative to the rest of the world, and the social turmoil accelerated by the disruptions of the neoliberal economy makes it harder for the United States to realize long-term geopolitical goals.
A new effort at policy reform could be a way of reversing some of these destabilizing trends and place the US economy and geopolitical position on firmer grounds.

The other gives a quick analysis of the results of the new parliamentary elections in the UK. We can draw some parallels between American and British politics these days, but there are some significant differences, too:
There are obvious lessons here for American politics. As working-class voters migrate to the Republican column, the GOP will probably have to do more to represent blue-collar concerns in its policy platform. (In many respects, it looks like this lesson hasn’t been learned yet.) A radical swing to the left — especially on cultural issues — could pose a danger to Democrats in 2020. Many suburban voters are suspicious of Trump, but they are also repelled by plans to abolish private health insurance and impose radical “wokeness” upon the nation as a whole.

There are, however, some major differences between the U.K. and the U.S. here, too. Boris Johnson was able to make a novel alliance, simultaneously appealing to populist sentiments while also appearing as the champion of constitutional normalcy. The through-the-looking-glass world of recent years has presented many surprising inversions, one of which is that many members of the political establishment have themselves succumbed to the very constitutional pyromania of which they accuse populists. In the United Kingdom, establishment resistance to honoring the 2016 referendum ensured an extended constitutional torment. The British public (and observers abroad) witnessed month after month of parliamentary paralysis, as MPs voted not to leave without a deal, and then against every deal that was offered.
While the Trump White House has often leaned into disruption, Johnson instead offered a Tory victory as a way of moving past the constitutional chaos caused by Remain intransigence--"Get Brexit Done."

And what's the common theme? It's that reform can offer a way of lessening the risk of political radicalism. The radical disruptions of the high-neoliberal paradigm are fueling extremist forces on all sides. A kind of correction (one that reinforces national solidarity and shores up the working and middle classes) might end up draining some of the force from such polarizing movements.

Revealingly, this is a point raised by Dominic Cummings, one of the top strategists for Leave and for Boris Johnson, in a 2016 interview:
"Extremists are on the rise in Europe and are being fuelled unfortunately by the Euro project and by the centralisation of power in Brussels. It it is increasingly important that Britain offers an example of civilised, democratic, liberal self-government."
Andrew Sullivan has also echoed this point in his writings on the British election and Brexit.  Here's a snippet from his recent profile of Johnson:
[Johnson] has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

As Rubio, Josh Hawley,* and others have implied, taking on the challenges of reform can be a way of preserving certain certain key values and democratic practices.

(Speaking of Hawley, check out Charles Fain Lehman's recent profile of him.)