Monday, November 5, 2012

Don't Blame Me

Democracy is a dispiriting spectacle. Elections ought to showcase a democratic society at its best, with an interested and informed citizenry flocking to the polls to reward the candidate who has run the most honest and informative campaign with the opportunity to govern in accordance with firm principle and sage counsel. Instead, with record levels of cash fueling record levels of partisan hysteria, this election is making the Bud Lite ad campaign look like the Oxford Debating Society. Election Eve 2012 finds a weary electorate, as numb as a stalker victim after two years of relentless courtship, thinking, “Whatever happens, at least tomorrow night it will be over.”

Let’s hope. The very real possibility that a narrow margin in the popular vote could lead to another 2000-style smoke-filled-room slugfest is too depressing to contemplate. Only the lawyers win in that scenario. But then they always win. Keep your fingers crossed.

I don’t know that I have anything more intelligent to say than any of the other thousands of commentators who are delivering authoritative views on this election. We’re all commentated out at this point. I’m not going to try to tell you who to vote for. Instead I’m going to give you my two cents’ worth on your duties as a citizen.

I’m a bit of a contrarian on this point, so steel yourself. Here’s my Rule Number One for voters in a democracy: If you’re not sure who to vote for, don’t vote. That’s right. If you can’t make up your mind, stay home. Let those of us who have put some effort into figuring out who’s less likely to screw things up determine the outcome. The more uninformed voters who skip the election, the more the informed votes count. Thank you for sitting this one out.

If you don’t think your vote makes any difference anyway, so why bother, I encourage you not to bother. If voting is too much trouble, please forget it. I’m not going to get in your face about it. I’m not even going to feel superior for voting, believe me. You’re probably right in saying that my little vote doesn’t make any difference. But my one little vote is all I’ve got, and the fewer people who vote, the more my one little vote counts. It’s the aggregate of votes that makes the difference, and I’d like to think it’s an aggregate of as many quality voters as possible, meaning voters who are paying attention.

It’s a mistake to say that voting is a patriotic duty. Informed and intelligent voting may be a patriotic duty, but not many people are up to that. I really wish the others would stay home.

I’ll get roasted for saying this, of course. I’ll be accused of having a partisan agenda because high turnout tends to favor one party over the other. There’s a fight raging now about attempts to depress voter turnout; that’s another matter and I’m against it. If you want to vote, you should get the chance. I’m not talking to you. But if you just weren't paying any attention until that nice college kid collared you on the way into the bar and signed you up to vote, I encourage you not to work too hard to find the polling place tomorrow. Go to the bar instead. I mean it. Unless you have strong feelings, or at least a reasonably educated guess, about who is more likely to govern wisely, don’t vote tomorrow. I’m the last guy who’s going to give you any grief about it.

And whatever happens, you will be able to say, “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for the guy.” Those of us who did will have to take the rap.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Europe on Fire

It’s satisfying to be proved right, but there’s little joy in it when the call you got right was a prediction of disaster.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in economics. I’m a self-educated amateur who tries to keep up with the basic concepts and how they play out in the real world. Sometimes I think I understand why things happen the way they do; sometimes I have no idea what’s going on. Occasionally something like a conviction about proper policy solidifies.

Ten years ago when the euro usurped the national currencies of twelve European countries, I told the few people I happened to discuss it with, “It’s a bad idea.” Nobody seemed to be especially alarmed by my skepticism, and I didn’t really have an axe to grind. But I knew it was a bad idea, because a very lucid and instructive book had told me so.

In her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations, subtitled Principles of Economic Life, the urban theorist Jane Jacobs discussed the vital role a currency plays as a feedback mechanism for an economy. The book was an investigation of what makes some regions thrive and some stagnate, and one of its key ideas was that the fundamental unit for the care and nurturing of an economy was not the nation but rather the city. It is networks of cities and their surrounding regions, each specializing in what it does best and trading with others, that make up an advanced economy.

Jacobs discussed the feedback function of a currency at length, saying, “Today we take it for granted that the elimination of multitudinous currencies in favor of fewer national or imperial currencies represents economic progress and promotes the stability of economic life.” The European Commission couldn’t have put it better. But Jacobs dissented, pointing out the key function of a freely traded currency in regulating an economy. When a country exports too little and imports too much, the resulting decline in the value of its currency (because it is no longer in demand) ought to help correct the situation by making its exports cheaper and imports more expensive. It’s a feedback mechanism which Jacobs compared to the physiological mechanism of a rise in CO2 in the lungs triggering a contraction in the diaphragm.

The problem is that different regions of a country may have different economic needs. Jacobs cited the example of the rise in the British pound due to the demand for North Sea oil and how it killed the English pottery industry by making its exports too expensive. Having a national currency, Jacobs said, was like having a group of people engaged in diverse activities whose breathing was regulated by a central brain operating on consolidated CO2 data for the whole group. If you’re lying on the couch, the enforced breathing rate is probably OK; if you’re trying to swim or play tennis, you’re in trouble.

Of course, we’re not going back to having regional currencies in the United States. A big and culturally homogeneous country like the U.S. can get away with having a national currency because population mobility can compensate to some extent for the burdens imposed by a one-size-fits-all monetary policy. And it’s true that having a single currency over a large area lowers transaction costs and thus facilitates trade. But there are always trade-offs, and in Europe today the costs of the single currency imposed on the disparate collection of economies that makes up the EU have obliterated the benefits.

I wasn’t the only one who said this was a bad idea, of course; in 1998 the British Tory leader William Hague said the the euro would become “a burning building with no exits.” He was shouted down, and the imposition of the single currency proceeded. If ever a man was entitled to say, “I told you so,” it’s Hague.

How could the Europeans do this to themselves? Because politics always trumps economics. The people that wanted a federal Europe because they thought it would rival the United States as a world power knew that the single currency would force countries to surrender more and more sovereignty. A single currency can’t work without a single regulatory authority, lender of last resort, etc. And sure enough, in the face of the economic disaster that would be precipitated by a euro breakup, the measures being discussed are precisely those things: a banking union, jointly issued euro bonds and other measures that mean a further shift of power from Rome, Madrid, Paris, Athens and even Berlin to Brussels.

A lot of Europeans don’t like it, but it’s too late. They’re trapped in the burning building. The Greeks may have invented democracy, but their democracy is totally impotent in 2012. Both their choices in their recent election were bad: either excruciating austerity or a rebellious stance that would probably have led to their expulsion from the euro zone and precipitated a continent-wide collapse. Brussels has the whip hand because the Greeks like everybody else gave up their freedom of choice in exchange for the illusory prestige of a world class currency.

Jane Jacobs could have told them it was a bad idea.

Sam Reaves

Monday, June 18, 2012


A ruckus in the Michigan state legislature has seen a pair of female legislators censured for, depending on whom you believe, either a lack of decorum or their impertinence in challenging male attempts to own the abortion issue. Representatives Barb Byrum and Lisa Brown were barred from speaking on the floor of the house after they proposed an amendment to an abortion bill making proposed restrictions on abortion apply to vasectomies. The dispute, which does not feature especially high levels of statesmanship or rhetoric on either side, seems to center on Brown’s use of the word ‘vagina’ in her remarks.

The Republican boss who refused to allow the women to speak is an easy target here; whether he was genuinely shocked by hearing the anatomical term or simply intent on shutting down debate, he has hardly advanced the cause of democracy by clamping the censor’s hand over his fellow legislators’ mouths.

But outrage over his high-handedness should not obscure the sleight of hand constituted by the women’s proposed amendment. Byrum was quoted as saying, “If we truly want to make sure children are born, we would regulate vasectomies.” This is an egregious and perhaps willful misconstrual of the objection to abortion. Byrum’s implication is that opposition to abortion is based on the idea that any prevention of pregnancy is wrong. But abortion opponents are not outraged by the idea of preventing pregnancy (leaving aside the most devout Catholics); they are outraged by the idea of ending pregnancy by terminating the life of the fetus. A vasectomy prevents pregnancy, but there is no fetus involved. Byrum’s attempt to conflate vasectomies with abortions is therefore totally irrelevant to the central question. She is attempting to sell us the notion that opposition to abortion has nothing to do with the fetus.

Abortion arouses profound passions on both sides, which is all the more reason to discuss it dispassionately. Some claim that only women are qualified to debate the issue, since they are the only ones directly affected by it; this line of reasoning collapses if we ask whether men are the only ones qualified to debate, say, the military draft or chemical castration. Matters of public policy affect everyone, and logical premises and conclusions have no gender. The most that can be said is that men should approach the topic of abortion with a measure of humility.

Let me start by saying that I think a case can be made for abortion in the early stages of pregnancy; let me continue by saying that I think Barb Byrum’s equation of vasectomies and abortions is dishonest. She must certainly understand that the central question in abortion is whether or not the fetus has rights. Bringing vasectomies into the discussion can only be an attempt to distract. If the central question about abortion is simply whether or not women have a right to prevent pregnancy, then it’s an easy issue. But it’s not, because there is another living being involved besides the mother. The question has to be when and how that being acquires the rights we attribute to a human being.

If you are going to make a case for abortion, you have to tackle the question of the rights of the fetus head-on. Attempts at misdirection only make people suspect that your case is weak. So what about it? When does a fetus become human?

Saying that life begins at conception establishes a nice bright line of demarcation, and there’s a lot to be said for bright lines in debating complicated matters. But if life begins at conception, then does a miscarriage have the same status as the death of an infant? Millennia of human practice seem to indicate that it doesn’t. The parents may mourn, but there is generally no inquest, no funeral. We have chosen to act as if very early on, a fetus is not yet a fully existing human being. This view allows the use of intrauterine devices for contraception, which do not prevent conception but rather prevent implantation in the uterus. They are in fact abortifacients. Again, there is an implicit recognition that conception does not produce a fully realized human life, only the potential for one.

But if we concede this, we have to take very seriously the fact that the fetus does indeed develop into a human being. What other outcome is there? Advances in pre-natal medicine that allow the survival of premature infants at earlier and earlier stages make it very clear that the fetus inexorably builds a claim to full humanity, and no amount of insistence on the mother’s rights over her own body can trump that. How can a human being’s right to life depend on the will of another? A woman may understandably waver in her attitude toward an unwanted pregnancy; if one day the mother decides she doesn’t want the child, then changes her mind, does the fetus’s array of human rights switch on and off depending on the mother’s state of mind? At some point, we must concede that the fetus is vested with human rights, independently of the mother’s desires. Calling the fetus a parasite hardly disposes of the issue; children are totally dependent on others for their survival for years after birth. Declaring them parasites does not strip them of their rights.

I don’t claim to know when a fetus becomes vested with human rights, but I do claim that there has to be such a point. I’d suggest that fetal viability outside the womb in line with current medical capabilities might establish a reasonable criterion. But I’d argue for strict adherence to that criterion once established. It’s tough to see any justification for late-term abortion except danger to the mother’s life.

So I think you can make a case for abortion in the early stages, but once the fetus is viable I don’t think it is any longer exclusively a question of a woman’s rights to her body. There are two sets of rights involved now, and no amount of misdirection can change that. The questions get tough at that point, even if you are passionately committed to choice. The increasing incidence of sex-specific abortion in some immigrant communities in the U.S., favoring male children over female, has to pose uncomfortable questions for the pro-choice movement. If you don’t squirm, you’re not thinking.

Abortion is a harder issue to think through than Barb Byrum wants us to believe. And men are not the only ones who need to approach the topic with humility.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Listen up

The state of political discourse in the United States continues to deteriorate, with right and left trading insults instead of arguments and moderation going the way of bell-bottom jeans. Congress is paralyzed and the country seems to be split into two hostile camps, with the Tea Party on one side and Occupy Everything on the other, and no middle ground where reasonable people who want to solve the country’s problems can meet.

It’s a depressing picture, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. I think it’s a waste of time to try to figure out who started it or which side is more unreasonable. Unfortunately, that’s what most of the discussion seems to be about. It’s a lot more emotionally satisfying to score points and get high-fives from like-minded people than it is to engage in real discussion of the issues and try to discern the correct policies to follow.

I could try to raise the level of debate by droning on about quality of evidence and standards of argument, but instead I’m going to try to irk everybody on both sides by pointing out that nobody has a monopoly on truth. In doing this, I’m not arguing for a mushy, content-free centrism. I’m not going to try to sell you “everybody is a little bit wrong and a little bit right” and leave it at that. I have distinct political views, and if you’ve read many of my posts you know what they are. I think there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to most questions about social and economic policy, and I think they are empirical questions capable of resolution.

But I also think that policy decisions often involve trade-offs and compromises between legitimate interests and that opposing views, even if mistaken, can alert us to things we need to consider. Shutting them out hampers the pursuit of truth. Most of all I think that in discussing complex chaotic systems like a human society, a little intellectual humility is called for.

So put down your megaphone or your brick and listen up. Below are some things liberals and conservatives need to understand. The list is not exhaustive and you can carp about my phrasing and quibble with labels. (I’m using liberal and conservative in their commonly accepted meanings in American parlance, nothing complicated.) And yes, these are superficial propositions, designed to get people thinking and talking. Now listen up.

Three things conservatives are right about that liberals need to recognize:

1. Personal responsibility (or lack of it) is a key element of any social pathology.
Most liberals know this, even if they won’t admit it. They know that you can give some people an adequate income and they will still prefer to steal, that mere possession of weapons is not what makes people violent, and that if you don’t hold people accountable for their actions there will be no restraint on their actions. Liberals demonstrate that they know this by loudly calling for accountability whenever the miscreant is above a certain income level. But they are squeamish about accountability for the socially disadvantaged, which is patronizing and short-sighted.

2. Taxation reaches a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly.
This one ought to be obvious, both as a thought experiment and on the historical evidence. Up to a point, you can raise taxes and get more revenue, but pretty soon the rich start to wonder why they should go to the trouble of starting another company and creating another five hundred jobs when ninety percent of the money is going to go to the government. Or they understandably start looking for ways to hide their money. High tax rates deter enterprise and drive the rich away—remember when all the famous British people were living outside the U.K.? You can argue about exactly where the point of diminishing returns is, but what you can’t do is go on trying to solve problems by creating entitlements and answer every query about paying for them simply by saying, “We’ll tax the rich until their eyes water.”

3. Deterrence works.
Deterrence works on the streets; ask New Yorkers. When they started locking people up for jumping the turnstiles and spray-painting the walls, the streets got safer. And deterrence works on the international level, too. When Qadhafi saw what happened to Saddam, he coughed up his weapons program pronto. The problem for liberals is that deterrence is ugly. Deterrence requires a credible threat, i.e. occasional exemplary violence, and that’s not nice. Liberals think, in the face of all the evidence, that people are basically nice and that if you are nice to everybody they’ll be nice to you. Conservatives know better.

OK, now that I’ve got the liberals steamed up, it’s your turn, conservatives. Here are:

Three things liberals are right about that conservatives need to recognize:

1. Tolerance is a virtue.
We all used to live in tribes, and tribal loyalty used to be a survival mechanism. But in this globalized, urbanized society we have to share space and resources with a bewildering variety of aliens. For the whole thing to work, everybody needs to be equal before the law, and everybody deserves respect as an individual. Conservatives know this, but it’s all too easy, in a reaction against the grotesqueries of political correctness, to revert to a lazy tribalism and indulge your hostility or contempt for people you don’t like. This is a moral failing and a political one as well.

2. Patriotism is not a substitute for thought.
Patriotism is, you might say, the modern version of tribalism. But it’s an improved version; particularly in the United States, patriotism means loyalty to a concept of nationhood that transcends ethnicity, admitting anyone who embraces the ideas of the Constitution to citizenship. And that's a good thing. But patriotism is not license. It’s one thing to say that we have to rally round the flag when we go to war; it’s another to cut off debate about whether we ought to be going to war. And the virtues of our concept of nationhood do not entitle us to do as we please wherever we please. We are still bound by moral strictures that outrank an executive decision or an act of Congress.

3. The richer you are, the better you can afford to pay taxes.
This one has to be considered together with the above remark about diminishing returns, of course. But a moment’s reflection shows that if you start with a billion dollars, you have a lot more left after paying a third of your income to the government than if you start with fifty thousand dollars. And if you can’t make do on two-thirds of a billion dollars, you need a lifestyle adjustment and I mean right now. Yes, this is an argument for progressive taxation, which conservative purists abhor. And I hesitate to make it because of the slippery slope which leads to punitive taxation, a concept liberals find impossible to resist. The only admissible object of taxation is to cover the government’s expenditures. And insisting on a flat tax as a principle makes for clarity. But when income inequality is spiking and a world-scuppering debt crisis looms, I’m OK with a reasonably progressive tax system with rates capped at a point somewhere shy of the deterrent level.

There you have it; if you see something you don’t like, tough. It’s time to stop congratulating yourself on the loftiness of your values and get down to business figuring out how the world works and how you and your fellow citizens can cooperate to solve its problems.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Political Brain

The current issue of Reason magazine contains a very interesting excerpt from a book by Jonathan Haidt, called The Righteous Mind. In it Haidt, who is a psychologist by trade, deplores the increasing political polarization in the U.S. and discusses the genetically-based psychological dispositions which underlie people's political inclinations. It's fascinating reading.

Haidt certainly does not believe in determinism when it comes to political views; he emphasizes that genes produce only a "first draft" of the brain which is modified by experience throughout the developmental process. But he doesn't believe in a blank slate, either. He cites a study of DNA in 13,000 subjects that found genes governing neurotransmitters that differed in people who described themselves as liberals and conservatives. The conservatives were more reactive to threats; the liberals derived more pleasure from novelty and change. Stereotypes leap immediately to mind.

But genes aren't the whole story; the next step is Haidt's particular area of interest. He focuses on the narratives people construct to give their lives meaning, the "simplified and selective reconstructions of the past, often connected to an idealized vision of the future" which, imbued with moral values, help people to make sense of a chaotic world. Haidt has identified various dichotomies of values (e.g. fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal) around which our narratives tend to coalesce and shown how they underlie people's political views, with differing political stances prioritizing these concerns differently.

In exploring how people of differing ideologies might find common ground, Haidt found some interesting things. There is an asymmetry in "obstacles to empathy", with liberals finding it harder to understand the conservative position than vice-versa. Haidt found that while conservatives might rank some values lower than liberals, they at least recognize all the values liberals espouse. On the other hand, liberals find some conservative values (sanctity, for example) impossible to swallow. They find it hard to imagine that conservative positions could be based on thoughtfully held values.

This may account for the peculiar vituperation of some liberal rhetoric (as when Village Voice columnist Michael Feingold wrote that Republicans "should be exterminated before they cause any more harm"). Liberals feel entitled to voice things which would appall them if said by a conservative because they do not recognize conservatism as a legitimate belief system. Conservatives, meanwhile, are only further alienated by the self-congratulation of liberal opinion, causing some of them to retreat further into anti-intellectualism and their own vituperation.

None of which, of course, is any guide to who's right. Haidt's concern is not to take a position but rather to illuminate why we believe what we believe and to establish some common ground for the solution of our problems.

As somebody who has done some veering and tacking across the political spectrum in his day, I found all this very interesting. I like to describe myself as a moderate libertarian (though I think I'm going to start telling people I'm a Whig), but the first distinct political views I remember formulating were considerably farther to the left. A lot of conservative values appeal to me: the emphasis on personal responsibility, a hard-nosed understanding of the value of deterrence and a mistrust of the overweening state, to name some. On the other hand, tolerance and openness to new experience and different people are pretty high on my scale of values, and while I acknowledge the conservative insight that traditions are usually there for an evolutionarily sound reason, I balance that with the liberal insight that if we never question tradition we never get progress.

In short, I recognize that things are complicated. What part my genes play in all this is speculation: my parents were devout and culturally conservative but voted Democratic, largely out of a concern for civil rights; I have two brothers who are arch-conservatives and another one who is more or less like me. Go figure.

The intractable diversity of political opinion is an annoying feature of life. We know we're right; why can't everybody else agree? They never will, for the reasons Haidt adduces. But they don't have to in order for progress to occur. In response to any given problem, the only pertinent question is, "What is the proper policy?" And if the machinery of democracy is carefully maintained, an acceptable policy can emerge from the interaction of parties with divergent or conflicting views. It's a messy process and it doesn't always produce the best policy, but it avoids civil strife.

That's something we all ought to be able to agree on in our diversity. All of us, left, right and middle, have a stake in keeping the political process honest and functioning. Democracy is messy and freedom of speech pollutes the airwaves, but they are our best guarantees against tanks in the streets.

Sam Reaves

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Means War

War is in the air. Liberals are rushing down to the recruiting office to join up as the Republican divisions mobilize for the War on Women. Meanwhile, conservatives are manning the watchtowers and calling up the militia for the coming Class War. Corporate America’s brutal War on Children has driven the little tykes into their bunkers. And the bishops and the TV evangelists are strapping on their helmets as Obama calls the generals to the sandbagged White House to plot the War on Religion.

The lamps are going out...

Fortunately, none of these is a real war. They’re just more of a type of fevered, unhinged attempt to hijack your sympathies that seems to be increasingly fashionable. And you can thank whatever you believe in for that, because real wars don’t get won on the cable news channels. If the War on Reason were a real war we’d be camping out among smoking ruins, because we lost.

The word war applied to anything other than a real war is hysteria, nothing else. It’s an irresponsible attempt to short-circuit rational debate and mobilize emotion. And that’s not how intelligent public policy gets made. The first effect of war is to dehumanize the enemy, and if you don’t consider somebody to be human, you’re going to have a hard time sitting down with him to cut a deal on complex issues which involve tensions between competing legitimate interests.

Anger is a great performance enhancer in a real fight, but it’s a really lousy quality to bring to the table when you have to sort out fact from fiction, weigh competing interests, evaluate precedents, estimate consequences and negotiate compromises. Bringing anger to a discussion of social or economic policy is like driving drunk.

It’s too bad we can’t license the term. Properly administered, the system would charge you to to label something a War, unless you’ve been in a real shooting war. If you lost your legs to an IED or saw your family incinerated by a napalm strike, we’ll let you use the word, because you’ll probably be reluctant to toss it around. Otherwise, you have to pay. The fees go into a fund to promote education in responsible rhetoric.

It’s time for a moratorium on the use of the word war applied to political or social trends you don’t like. When a real war comes, you’ll know it, and you’ll wish more people had kept their heads and tempered their rhetoric when discussing public policy issues.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Such a Rush

Now that Rush Limbaugh has apologized, let’s pay him the undeserved compliment of taking his position on the issue seriously. But first we have to determine what the issue is. From the howls of outrage on both sides you’d think it had something to do with sex. A young lady spoke up in favor of mandatory insurance coverage of contraception; with his usual subtle and nuanced approach Rush called the young lady a slut, making her behavior the issue and squirting lighter fluid on the already smoldering controversy about a Republican War on Women. Hotheads of all camps rushed to the barricades, and to most people it appears that the United States is convulsed in an argument over whether women should be having sex outside of marriage.

The real issue, of course, is mandatory insurance coverage and the creation of entitlements. And as far as I can make it out, Rush’s position is that the government ought not to prescribe what kinds of arrangements companies and individuals can or cannot make with insurance companies. That’s an arguable if controversial position, and it would advance the state of the discussion and increase the chances of a reasonable legislative solution to our health care problems if that’s what people were talking about.

But Rush couldn’t help himself. He had to start with the innuendo and the name calling, and now the debate is thoroughly sexualized. Rush is not the only one to blame, of course; the talk about a War on Women had started before he vented his toxic little rant. Liberals have been known to obscure issues through inflammatory rhetoric, too.

But Rush’s tantrum is an example of why people like me who think that conservatives are right about some important things are so dismayed by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates. With Rick Santorum at their head, social conservatives hold the whip hand in the race for the Republican nomination. And that’s not very promising for the Republican party, because the country’s not going to elect a man who frowns on contraception and doesn’t think that women should be having sex outside of marriage. It just isn’t. American men and women both like the idea of women having sex, in or out of marriage. You can deplore that, but you have to acknowledge it.

Bill Clinton saw that the country was more conservative than the Democratic party, and he moved the Democrats to the right and got elected. Even Barack Obama saw that, and he ran significantly to the right of his instincts and got elected. The Republicans have a similar problem: if they fail to see that the country is not as socially conservative as Rick Santorum, they’re going to lose. Maybe that’s what you’re rooting for. Me, I’m still holding out hope that one of our major parties will genuinely promote the things I think conservatives are right about, like fiscal restraint, tax and regulatory reform and a market-oriented approach to economic problems. And I have a feeling it’s not going to be the Democrats.

Republicans pay lip service to those conservative values but too often betray them. And if on top of that they are going to demonize people for having active sex lives fifty years after the sexual revolution, then I’ll be casting a hopeless vote for the Libertarians again and the Republicans will be sitting tight-lipped in the cold at the second Obama inauguration.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tired of Politics

I’m tired of talking and thinking about politics. And we’re still eight months away from the election. It’s going to be a long year.

Our public political discourse is poisonous right now. Rick Santorum says Barack Obama has “systematically, in every single way, tried to destroy the very foundational elements of our country.” Yikes! Meanwhile, the left’s response to Santorum is to try to associate his name with an obscenity. Sorry, no matter how appalling you think Santorum is, that’s not exactly holding the high moral ground.

There’s always been overheated rhetoric in politics, and we’ve survived other periods of great polarization in my lifetime (remember the ’60’s?). So I’m not panicking. But these are disheartening times for people who believe in moderation and compromise. War and financial crisis have strained everyone’s nerves, and stridency is the new eloquence. There’s lots of blame to go around; if you think Rush Limbaugh and Fox News started it, you’ve forgotten how the Democrats ambushed Robert Bork in 1989. (See Joe Nocera’s op ed in the New York Times.)

I’m tired of all the hysteria. There’s talk of a third-party centrist candidate, but the candidates aren’t the real problem. The real problem is the erosion of standards of argument and discourse.

When I was in high school I had to take a course called Civics. It covered the basics of how our government is organized, how laws are made and so forth, but there was also a unit on valid and invalid arguments. We learned about things like the ad hominem argument and the appeal to authority and why they are fallacious. I don’t know that it made me and my classmates paragons of rational argument, but I think it at least made those of us who were awake a little better able to detect various types of nonsense. Most importantly, it instilled the principle that argument ought to be based on reason.

I guess nobody’s studying Civics any more. I see all of the fallacies I was warned about in high school whenever I make the mistake of tuning into a political debate. And I mean on both sides, at all levels, from the corner tavern to the cable network shows. And it’s a non-partisan debacle: liberals commit these sins against reason as much as conservatives do.

Political opinions are, at heart, hypotheses about how the world works. And in theory there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to argue about those hypotheses dispassionately. But people don’t take the time to think through to the underlying hypotheses; they just assume that bad faith is the only reason anyone could disagree with them. If there are rational arguments behind the other guy’s position, they don’t want to hear them.

It all goes to produce the cacophony that passes for political debate in the United States in 2012. I don’t know what to do about it except refuse to be drawn in. Do me a favor and don’t forward me that incendiary blog post accusing the Republicans of wanting to return women to chattel status or the one accusing Democrats of wanting to install socialism in the U.S. And if you missed Civics in high school, take a half hour and bone up on your fallacies—there are lots of resources. Just Google ‘logical fallacies’ and start reading.

And wake me up the day after the election. I don’t have the heart for this.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, January 8, 2012


What will it take to get our politicians to sit down and talk seriously about solutions to our country’s problems? The primary season never brings out the best in candidates, but even allowing for that, the political class seems far more interested in scoring points like a bunch of seventh-graders trading punches than in arriving at intelligent policy decisions.

The first casualty is any kind of coherence. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were for an insurance mandate before they were against it. Barack Obama was against it before he was for it. Democrats oppose corporate welfare except when it benefits businesses they like; Republicans oppose corporate welfare except... wait a second, I’m repeating myself.

If you take a look at actual core beliefs, in so far as they exist and can be discerned, there ought to be the makings of a bipartisan consensus on some of these issues. Liberals have always been unenthusiastic about the drug war; now a Republican candidate is actually stating a principled opposition to it. What will it take to get people from both parties together to come up with a sane policy on drugs?

The federal tax code ought to drive liberals crazy with its countless giveaways to insiders; it ought to drive conservatives crazy for its Byzantine distortion of markets. What will it take to get people to venture across the aisle and talk about serious, radical tax reform? I realize that all our politicians are on the take to some degree or other; that’s how you get elected. But a bipartisan committee that got serious about tax reform would give everybody cover; you could deep-six the whole rotten system and plead the tyranny of the majority to the offended donors.

There are real and profound philosophical differences between the parties and their constituent factions, and the tug-of-war over basic approaches will always be with us. But many of our problems could be ameliorated significantly by simply meeting on the common ground which already plainly exists. And the parties are too busy demonizing their opponents to sit down for some common-sense damage control.

Maybe the election will clear the air. Or maybe they’ll figure out who’s been putting psychotropic drugs in the D.C. water supply. But something has to change. Politicians ought to be held to high standards of argument and high standards of seriousness. Instead we get ad hominem attacks, irrelevancies and non-sequiturs and endless foolish promises that nobody, least of all those issuing them, expects to be kept.

What’s stopping them from doing better? We are. We the voters haven’t yet made clear to our representatives that we expect them to do better. It’s not just voting; it’s taking ten minutes to send an e-mail or make a phone call. It doesn’t have to be a partisan move; whatever your political stance, there’s almost certainly something you agree on with your neighbors. Let’s start with tax reform: call your representative and your senators and let them know that you think the federal tax code is a festering disgrace and you expect the mess to be cleaned up. A simpler, cleaner tax code will allow less scope for mischief by either side, and we’ll all gain.

Democracy takes work. This means you.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, January 1, 2012


New Year's Resolution Number One: revive the blog. When I started it, I swore I would never post just to be posting something; I would only write when I had something worthwhile to say. I still think that’s a healthy attitude, but unfortunately it reacts too easily with laziness to produce long blank stretches. So my resolution now is: exert yourself a little, find something worthwhile to say a little more often.

Just to ease into things, here’s a wild swipe at the topic that will dominate 2012:

I only have ten months to decide whom to vote for. I’d love to vote for one of the two major candidates in the fall, but it may be too much to ask, yet again. If pressed, I describe myself as a pragmatic, non-ideological libertarian. This means, roughly, that I think a light touch with taxes and regulation and minimal interference in our private conduct, with appropriate qualifications, is the way to go. And I think that most Americans are instinctively more or less libertarian, even if they don’t call it that. I could be wrong about that, but whatever the case, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels dismayed at the spectacle presented by our two major parties.

Neither of the major parties represents people like me. The Republicans are bellicose and nativist and the Democrats believe that problems are solved by creating entitlements. I usually vote Libertarian, but I’ve given up on the Libertarians making a surge into the mainstream. So offer me something, fellas. My expectations are low. I know I will never get a perfect candidate. Voting is usually about damage control.

I have a feeling that an adequate candidate is more likely to emerge from the Republican Party, just because I’m not sure there’s anybody among the Democrats who really has a clear idea of the limits to government. The only constraints that Democrats recognize are budgetary, and they can always fiddle those. What you need is philosophical constraints on government. Without those, there’s no way to keep government from metastasizing.

Republicans claim to have those philosophical constraints, but too many of them also think that the government ought to subsidize their businesses, protect them from competition and keep them from going under when the market turns thumbs down on them. They think the market ought to be free except in their case. And then there are the Republicans who want to send all the immigrants home and put even more people in jail for using drugs. There is also a hair-raising anti-intellectual strain among Republicans. I don’t think that a rough-hewn country manner disqualifies anyone from high office, but I don’t think it qualifies anyone in and of itself, either.

So which major party represents me? The problem is that there are a lot more than two political camps in any country, but we seem to have decided that two parties awkwardly jamming diverse camps into one big tent best provides stability. And the distribution of camps that has evolved has led to two huge messy coalitions, neither of which fully represents any substantial portion of the electorate.

I’d love to see it all get shaken up somehow. But I doubt it’s going to happen before November. So there I’ll be, outside the booth, wishing I could vote for somebody who had a chance to win.

Sam Reaves