Ideology vs. common sense

I've got a bit of a pet theory on liberal vs. conservative ideology.  My take is that when it comes to markets, conservatives are more likely to be driven solely by ideology to the point of ignoring reality, whereas liberals are more likely to support whatever means achieves their goals, whether it be through free markets or government action.  Liberals in America believe in the power of the free market.  It's just that we also appreciate the destructive power of an unregulated free market (i.e., pollution, monopolies, etc.).  Thus liberals look to government to temper the worst aspects of the free market and appreciate that both free market principles and government regulation play a role in creating the desired policy outcomes.  Too many conservatives in contrast, place a blind faith in the virtue of the free market and see a free market as an end in and of itself. 

One need look no farther than this recent news item (hat tip to Ezra Klein):

Unless Congress steps in to stop it, the IRS is set to begin
implementing a wildly inefficient plan to outsource the collection of
past-due taxes from those who owe $25,000 or less. IRS employees could
collect these taxes for about three cents on the dollar, comparable to
other federal programs' collection costs. But Congress has not allowed
the IRS, which is eliminating some of its most efficient enforcement
staff, to hire the personnel it would need to do the job. Instead, the
agency has signed contracts with private debt collectors allowing them
to keep about 23% of every taxpayer dollar they retrieve. Employing
these firms is almost eight times more expensive than relying on the
IRS, but, according to IRS Commissioner Mark Everson, it fits in with
the Bush administration's efforts to reduce the size of government.

Over 10 years, the companies hired are projected to collect overdue
taxes totaling $1.4 billion, $330 million of which the companies keep
as fees. According to the IRS' own estimates, over those same 10 years,
the agency could collect $87 billion in unpaid taxes at a cost of just
under $300 million ? if allowed to hire sufficient personnel. In total,
utilizing the private sector instead of augmenting IRS personnel would
leave in the hands of delinquent taxpayers more than $85 billion owed
to the federal government.

In short, an ideologically-driven commitment to free market principles leads to an incredibly inefficient and sub-optimal outcome.  But hey, we're relying on free market principles, so it must be good–right?  I cannot imagine too many liberals supporting a policy regardless of its outcome and efficiency solely for the reason that the government rather than the private sector is the primary delivery vehicle. 

More on Kazakhstan

I hate to pilfer from Kevin Drum so shamelessley, but since I just posted on the visit from Kazakhstan's president yesterday, I wanted to add this additional take on things. 

BLACK GOLD….Spencer Ackerman reads Peter Baker's Washington Post story about the upcoming visit of Kazakhstan's president and notes that Baker is oddly reticent about mentioning Kazakhstan's vast oil wealth as a motivating factor for playing nice with them:

early in the piece Baker notes that other moderate-to-serious tyrannies
receiving Bush's thumbs-up are Azerbaijan and Equitorial Guinea, and he
also points out Dick Cheney's recent Caspian Sea excursion. But he does
this all without mentioning that what all these nations have in common
is possession of or access to quite a lot of a certain black, viscous
substance that greases the wheels of the global economy and
international relations.

….Look: There's a certain ridiculous tap dance in politics and in
the media about talking about oil, as if the simple recognition that
oil influences foreign policy is somehow a gauche or extreme statement.
That doesn't mean that everything reduces to a question of who has oil
and who doesn't. But what good does it serve to strenuously pretend
that oil has only a trivial impact on U.S. decision-making?

Spencer is right, and this is one of the reasons that Americans are
so clueless about how the rest of the world views us. I can understand
a reluctance to be associated with the fever swamps of oil-based
conspiracy mongering, but the plain fact is that a great deal of
American foreign policy is driven by concerns over the stability of our
oil supply. The rest of the world is well aware of this, and our blithe
pretense that we're not concerned with such grubby issues ? it's all
about democracy! ? is one of the reasons so many non-Americans don't
believe a word we say on other issues as well…

On our end, of course, most Americans just end up being perplexed. Why do foreigners think we're after everyone's oil? How can they believe such a thing about us?
The answer is easy: they believe it because there's a lot of truth to

Rumsfeld vs. Reality

So, I picked up my trusty N&O today and what should be the lead national news story (after the top story in the paper– NC 14th fattest state in nation), but Don Rumsfeld coming out against critics of the Iraq War in an LA Times wire story.  I'll leave it to others to critique the idiocy of Rumsfeld's pronouncements, but my main complaint is the extensive coverage of Rumsfeld's speech in the N&O and other sources.  Honestly, see if you can think of anybody with less credibility than Mr. “stuff happens,” “a few dead enders” et., Rumsfeld.  What he says regarding policy in Iraq matters insofar as he remains the Secretaty of Defense (in an utter testament to Bush's failure as a leader), but this blatantly political, non-sensical speech deserves to be ignored coming from someone with as little credibility on the issue as Rumsfeld. 

The article made a few perfunctory efforts to try and be fair, but mostly it was a great example of why it is nice to be in power. Rumsfeld's illogical and false assertions were reported with hardly any challenge but a boilerplate quotation from Ted Kennedy.  Actual honest reporting might have actually challenged the accuracy of his statements and his credibility on the issue.  Then again, that's asking the journalist to actually do some work.

I was going to leave it at that, but later today, I came across a great post on the matter from Kevin Drum.  My favorite parts:

Rumsfeld asked this:

the growing lethality and availability of weapons, can we truly afford
to believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased?

no, we can't. And needless to say, no one believes this. Not Democrats,
not Republicans, not anybody. Osama and his pals are fanatics, and
negotiating with fanatics is pointless.

But Rumsfeld's speech was never meant to be taken seriously. It's
just crude agitprop designed to keep the proles from wondering if the
Cheney wing of the Republican Party is actually doing anything to make
the world a safer place. The question has never been whether we should
open talks with al-Qaeda, it's been what we should do to stop them from
killing us. Should we fight a war in Iraq that's served primarily as a
recruiting bonanza for radical jihadism? Should we refuse to talk to
the Middle East's biggest regional power because we think that merely
being in the same room with them is a sign of weakness? Should we
encourage Israel to fight a fruitless war against Lebanon while
simultaneously egging on American hawks who think a bombing campaign
against Iran will fix all our problems? Should we spend homeland
defense money on dumb projects in loyal red states instead of taking
port security seriously?

Let's see. How about no, no, no, and no? But those are questions
Rumsfeld would prefer not to address since they put the spotlight on
the fact that the Bush administration has accomplished nothing over the
past five years except to make a bad problem even worse ? which is a
pretty remarkable record when you consider how bad the problem was to
begin with.

New York Times vs. Duke Lacrosse

A really good story today in about how the New York Times has done such a poor and biased job covering the Duke lacrosse case.  While that is certainly interesting in its own right, I think the article is quite valuable for so accurately summing up the state of the evidence.  One phrase summary: they didn't do it.  As to the overall tone of the Times' Coverage there is this nugget:

This fits the Times's long-standing treatment of the
case as a fable of evil, rich white men running amok and abusing poor
black women. Sports columnist Selena Roberts helped set the tone in a
March 31 commentary seething with hatred for “a group of privileged
players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie
their social standing as human beings.” All but presuming guilt,
Roberts parroted false prosecution claims that all team members had
observed a “code of silence.” (A correction ran six days later). She
likened them to “drug dealers and gang members engaged in an
anti-snitch campaign.”

Substantively, I think the most interesting aspect of the article is that it highlights the fact that the Durham Police's chief investigator produced no written notes from the actual period of the investigation.  His notes, produced several months after remarkably match all of Nifong's contentions and, not surprisingly, are frequently contradicted by other investigators who actually took notes at the time of the alleged crime.  Other key points on the evidence (reader discretion advised):

The 23 pages of hospital reports by two doctors and four nurses show
no vaginal or anal tearing, no significant bruises or signs of beating,
and no visible injuries other than minor scratches on her knee and heel
and a mild swelling of the vaginal walls that could have come from
consensual sexual activities, including performing with a vibrator.

identified none of her alleged attackers in two photo viewings. Then,
on April 4, Nifong arranged an outrageously suggestive,
pick-any-lacrosse-player session that grossly violated local and state
rules and (in my view) the U.S. Constitution. She picked three, of whom
at least one since-indicted defendant, Reade Seligmann, has an airtight
alibi, including a video showing him at an ATM a mile away at the time
of the supposed rape.

The 23 pages of hospital reports by two doctors and four nurses show
no vaginal or anal tearing, no significant bruises or signs of beating,
and no visible injuries other than minor scratches on her knee and heel
and a mild swelling of the vaginal walls that could have come from
consensual sexual activities, including performing with a vibrator…

identified none of her alleged attackers in two photo viewings. Then,
on April 4, Nifong arranged an outrageously suggestive,
pick-any-lacrosse-player session that grossly violated local and state
rules and (in my view) the U.S. Constitution. She picked three, of whom
at least one since-indicted defendant, Reade Seligmann, has an airtight
alibi, including a video showing him at an ATM a mile away at the time
of the supposed rape….

What we have here is an alleged 30-minute gang rape, plus brutal
beating, taking place in a small bathroom by three men without condoms,
at least two of whom supposedly ejaculated; a rape in which police
found none of the defendants' DNA on the supposed victim and none of
hers in the bathroom. While the Times asserts that “experts
say it is possible for a rapist to leave no DNA evidence,” it's hard to
imagine the crime alleged to have happened here leaving none.

So, the big question remains: what in the world is Nifong doing still trying to prosecute this case??

We’re all losing

Another great column from Jonathan Chait this weekend.  He makes the point that although we tend to think of politics as a zero-sum game (i.e., one side's gains are the other side's losses) that sometimes (i.e., now) eveverybody loses.  Alas, Chait explains that right now, everybody is losing.

When conservatives see this same expansion of government, they see liberalism triumphant.  My colleague, Jonah Goldberg, is a good example. Last fall, in a column
in which he called Bush's domestic spending “lavish” and “spectacular,”
he wrote that, far from being ruled by conservatives, government was in
the hands of “moderates, squishes, apostates, New York Times-pleasing
'mavericks,' centrists and all the others who want to 'get beyond
labels' or get a standing ovation from the Brookings Institution.”

From the liberal or centrist standpoint, this statement is mystifying.  The Bush presidency has been rife with acts of big government, but
nearly all of them have been the sorts of things liberals and centrists
abhor. The Medicare giveaway, the corporate tax bill, the unprecedented
pork, the tariffs ? all were designed for no other purpose than to
maximize the profits of pro-Republican business entities.

The mistake Goldberg and other conservatives make here is in thinking
that because these policies were bad from a conservative point of view,
they must be good from a liberal (or, at least, a moderate) point of
view. In fact, they were awful from any point of view, save that of
their direct financial beneficiaries.

The politics that has
dominated Washington the last half-dozen years is a corrupt brand of
right-wing corporatism
. [emphasis mine]  People who reside in the highest 1% of the
income spectrum or have K Street lobbyists at their command have done
very well. But the philosophical program that most conservatives
advocate ? and by “most” I'm excluding the small minority who value tax
cuts over everything else ? has lost.

Conservatives and liberals both feel beleaguered for a good reason. The fact is, both of them have been losing.

Well, how about that, with the Bush administration, we are all losers (unless of course you are among the richest 1% of Americans, in which case it is extraordinarily unlikely you are reading this). 

The “Freedom Agenda”

Alright, I'll start out by being fair.  The real-world of politics forces politicians to be hypocrites all the time.  You just cannot choose the context and other political leaders you will have to work with.  George Bush clearly believes we need to do more to promote democracy throughout the world.  That said, the first two paragraphs of this story in today's Post do present a pretty disturbing picture of presidential hypocrisy:

“President Bush launched an initiative this month to combat
international kleptocracy, the sort of high-level corruption by foreign
officials that he called “a grave and corrosive abuse of power” that
“threatens our national interest and violates our values.” The plan, he
said, would be “a critical component of our freedom agenda.”

weeks later, the White House is making arrangements to host the leader
of Kazakhstan, an autocrat who runs a nation that is anything but free
and who has been accused by U.S. prosecutors of pocketing the bulk of
$78 million in bribes from an American businessman. Not only will
President Nursultan Nazarbayev visit the White House, people involved
say, but he also will travel to the Bush family compound in Maine.”

Sure, its good to promote democracy, but in the real world we often have to work with unsavory characters and regimes (i.e., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many, many others) to advance the national interest.  There's nothing wrong with this contradiction.  The problem, I would argue, comes from the fact that Bush's rhetoric about democracy does not seem to reflect at all actual U.S. policies towards other nations. 

South Dakota Abortion Ban

In South Dakota, they are set to have a voter referendum on a state-wide abortion ban the prohibits abortion in all cases except where the mother's life is at stake.  Leaving aside the fact that there's no way a law this restrictive would ever be upheld by any federal court, including the Supreme Court, it is really quite interesting that this is the law that pro-life forces in South Dakota have pushed for.  I've read a number of articles that suggest that it is creating rifts in the pro-life movement.  For starters, even those who generally oppose abortion are usually willing to make exceptions for the health of the mother or in cases of rape and incest.  If as the article states, South Dakota is becoming the focal point for the abortion debate, those who want to largely eliminate abortion have picked the wrong fight.  Even in conservative South Dakota, polls suggest the law is headed for defeat. 

Nationally, the proposition that abortion should only be allowed when the mother's life is threatened receives only a small minority of support (18% according to a recent poll + 4% who say abortion should never be legal).  When you consider that over 40% of the public considers themselves “pro-life” it suggests that most persons have a considerably more expansive vision of what that means.  The fight in South Dakota does not seem to be one that abortion opponents can win. 

Re-framing the Iraq Debate

A couple of my colleagues had a very interesting op-ed in the News & Observer today about “A Way out of Iraq.”  Since they are my friends, I'll refrain from pointing out the many weaknesses and logical fallacies (just kidding, Bill) and offer only nice comments on it .  Anyway, the basic idea is that Democrats and those favoring withdrawal need to reframe the debate to effectively counter Bush administration rhetoric.  Here's the highlights:

The Bush administration's justification for continued operations in
Iraq — that it has become the central front in the global war on
terrorism — leaves almost no rhetorical space for an effective
counterargument (the opposition party has been labeled the
“Defeatocrats” and is said to be working on behalf of “al-Qaeda
types”). As long as the enterprise in Iraq is deemed central to
American national security, the only alternative to continued military
operations is to “let the terrorists win.”

The administration's rhetorical dominance stands in marked contrast to
polling data suggesting that a majority of Americans long ago soured on
the conflict. With the exception of a single poll on the eve of the
2004 presidential elections, a majority of Americans have consistently
said that the benefits of the Iraq war are not worth the costs.

Boettcher and Cobb argue that the best way out is to reframe the current conflict as a Civil War (shouldn't be too hard these days) as the best way to change the political dynamics on many levels:

Reframing Iraq as a civil war could allow Congressional critics to
distance themselves from earlier votes authorizing the war and win over
a public that is frustrated but reluctant to admit failure. Further,
this new frame should ameliorate the impact of sunk costs by creating a
new mental “account” for Iraq — the “civil-war” phase that requires
new expenditures of blood and treasure. Finally, it could also counter
the “Pottery Barn rule” argument by emphasizing the cost expended
during the “counterinsurgency phase” and the limits on America's moral
obligation to the Iraqi elite that have chosen the path of sectarian

To me, the fundamental question remains: is our precense doing more harm than good?  Unfortunately, it strikes me that the answer is the former and thus we need to find some way out.

Crack vs. Cocaine

One of the great inequities in our justice system is that penalties for crack, a drug used primarily by Black people, are many, many times harsher than penalties for cocaine, a drug used primarily by white people.  In most cases, these penalties result from a 1980's crackdown on Crack and the creation of absurdly long mandatory minimum sentences.  For years now, the federal judges forced to impose these sentences have been complaining and rebelling.  Finally, Congress seems to be catching on.  I was amazed to read in Slate, that there is actually a bipartisan effort to bring some rationality to sentencing on crack vs. cocaine.  It is even co-sponsored by Texas Senator John Cornyn, who from what I have seen over the years, is pretty much a troglodyte.  Such common sense is more than I would expect from this Congress, but it would be a great improvement if this legislation passes. 

The racial issues aside, which are important, it is also important to remember that while many non-violent drug offenders fill up our prison cells with their mandatory minimum sentences, violent criminals without mandatory minimums get paroled to make room.  More crackheads or more rapists and armed robbers on the street– I know which I'd pick.

Does the president really get what’s going on?

A scathing critique of Bush's foreign policy by Fred Kaplan in Slate this week. My favorite highlights:

“This has nothing to do with patriotism. It has everything to do with understanding the world in which we live.”

W. Bush criticizing someone for not understanding the world is like ?
well, it's like George W. Bush criticizing someone for not
understanding the world. It's sui generis: No parallel quite captures
the absurdity so succinctly….

[Buish]What's very interesting about the violence in Lebanon
and the violence in Iraq and the violence in Gaza is this: These are
all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of

What is he talking about? Hamas, which
has been responsible for much of the violence in Gaza, won the
Palestinian territory's parliamentary elections. Hezbollah, which
started its recent war with Israel, holds a substantial minority of
seats in Lebanon's parliament and would probably win many more seats if
a new election were held tomorrow. Many of the militants waging
sectarian battle in Iraq have representation in Baghdad's popularly
elected parliament.

The key reality that Bush fails to grasp is that terrorism and
democracy are not opposites. They can, and sometimes do, coexist. One
is not a cure for the other.

On the Iraqi Civil War:

Here, as a further example of this failing, is his summation of Iraq:

hear a lot about “civil war”? [But] the Iraqis want a unified country.
? Twelve million Iraqis voted. ? It's an indication about the desire
for people to live in a free society.

What he misses
is that those 12 million Iraqis had sharply divided views of what a
free society meant. Shiites voted for a unified country led by Shiites,
Sunnis voted for a unified country led by Sunnis, and Kurds voted for
their own separate country. Almost nobody voted for a free society in
any Western sense of the term. (The secular parties did very poorly.)

total number of voters, in such a context, means nothing. Look at
American history. In the 1860 election, held right before our own Civil
War, 81.2 percent of eligible citizens voted?the second-largest turnout ever.

There's more great examples that completely shred Bush's logic and international worldview.  Read the whole thing if you are curious. Bush is right about one thing– it is a very dangerous world we are currently living in.  Having a president with such an appalling misunderstanding of foreign affairs only makes it more so.  

My take on Pluto

Well, if you've seen any news today, you've heard that Pluto has been demoted and is no longer a planet.  I say, Hooray.  From what I can tell, the only reason they were even considering keeping Pluto as a planet is simply the fact that it has been considered one for a long time.  As a general rule, I think the argument “but it's always been that way” is about the worst justification one can make in favor of something.  Think about all the practices we now consider quite odious that have essentially been supported with this line of thinking (our historical treatment of Blacks, women, and many other groups is a good start).  Based on what I've heard and read, the science is pretty clear that if Pluto were discovered today, it is highly unlikely it would be considered a planet.  Despite the media reports to the contrary, school children are plenty adaptable– they can handle learning that there's only 8 planets, not 9.

Baby Gap

No, I'm not talking about the story with the cute clothes for your little one.  Rather, according to some interesting political science research, conservatives have a lot more babies than liberals.  In fact:

you picked 100 unrelated politically liberal adults at random, you would find
that they had, between them, 147 children. If you picked 100 conservatives, you
would find 208 kids. That's a “fertility gap” of 41%.

Arthur Brooks, the Syracuse University Professor behind this research, goes on to argue:

Given that about 80%
of people with an identifiable party preference grow up to vote the same way as
their parents, this gap translates into lots more little Republicans than
little Democrats to vote in future elections. Over the past 30 years this gap
has not been below 20%–explaining, to a large extent, the current
ineffectiveness of liberal youth voter campaigns today.

Certainly an interesting proposition, but I just don't buy the conclusion that it means that liberals are doomed over the long term.  For starters, on the social issues that seem to be ever more prominent, young people are always more liberal.  Many an otherwise conservative young person is quite tolerant of homosexual relationships, where a similarly conservative 50-year old would not be.  The pattern seems less strong for abortion, but exists there as well.  I just don't think all these “conservative” babies will be quite so conservative when they grow up. 

Finally, I'm not quite sure what Brooks means by “the current
ineffectiveness of liberal youth voter campaigns today.”  In
2004 Exit Polls, persons under 30 voted overwhelmingly (54-45) for Kerry– the only age group to prefer Kerry to Bush.  That does not strike me as a promising trend for conservatives.

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