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Sep. 9 2010 — 6:32 pm | 0 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

You can’t export democracy

Yglesias writes:

If you look around, it turns out that the Anglophone countries, the Nordics, Switzerland, and Netherlands are the oldest established permanent floating constitutional democracies in the world. And they’re also generally the least-corrupt countries. And generally the most-prosperous. I think this is generally a question of joint causation and mutually re-enforcing trends rather than democratic governance leading to the adoption of “good policies.” All these countries are actually full of stupid policies—in Sweden a privately owned store can’t sell Tylenol and the United States invaded Iraq to eliminate a nonexistent nuclear weapons program—but we succeed nonetheless. By contrast I’m not sure having Joseph Kabila call up a bunch of smart policy wonks would do a ton of good. And in general, we’ve had a lot more success having people from badly-governed countries move to better-governed ones than in having people from well-governed countries show up in badly-governed ones and tell them how to do things.

This is pretty much true. Policy is important, but deeper civic and cultural attitudes are more important to the continued well-being of a democratic society. That being said, a lot of the nitty-gritty of policy debate is going to have consequences down the road. Maybe it won’t change the basic fact that the Anglophone countries, the Nordic countries, Switzerland, and the Netherlands are all basically still the most free, liberal societies in the world. But it will effect things like upward mobility, long-term financial stability, and unemployment rates. Likewise, civil liberties are directly impacted by specific policies, and certain policies that either diminish or enhance our civil liberties can have massive social impacts. And yes, the more liberal, democratic countries are going to generally trend toward better civil liberties than many of their counterparts, but the war on terror, the war on drugs, and the rest of our very bad social policies have very real, very direct impacts on our society and citizenry. Policy matters, I think, because it can create sea changes in the very cultural assumptions that helped shape our societies in the first place – assumptions like what level of privacy we should expect in our own homes, bodies, or while traveling. So there’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here.

Yglesias finishes with, “I think democracies do well largely because the norms it takes to keep a democracy going are generally beneficial rather than because democracy leads to smart policies.” This underscores just how viciously untrue the myth is that we can somehow ‘spread democracy’. Unless those social and civic norms are in place already, a society that hasn’t been democratic isn’t going to become democratic overnight. The reason Germany was able to revert to democracy after the fall of the Third Reich was exactly because democracy had already taken root there prior to the rise of Hitler. Fifty years later, the Russians were nowhere near as prepared to accept democracy when communist rule came to an end which is why Russia is nothing at all like an actual democratic state today. And Iraq not only had no history of democratic rule, but not really any cultural or intellectual democratic past either. Iran does, to some degree, but notions of democracy and freedom in Iran would still be almost unintelligible to Westerners. Afghanistan is even less rooted in any familiar traditions, making our continued presence there even more foolish and wrong-headed.

In any case, one last thing to note is that policy is important because it is something we chose to do. We have to debate policy because it’s something we have some control over.

Aug. 1 2010 — 9:42 am | 257 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Wait a minute, is this joint shutdown or what?

I only ask because, well, here I am, here it is. Here we all are. The curtains haven’t quite come down it would appear.

Jul. 31 2010 — 11:43 pm | 151 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

So long and thanks for all the fish

I’m a little late to the good-bye party. It’s been really great writing here these past months – nearly a year I think, but I’ve lost track. The whole crew here – staff, but also other writers – has been extremely kind, helpful, welcoming and it’s been a neat experience. It’s a shame the project has come to an end. I hope others like it spring up and flourish. I hope to work with Coates and the True/Slant staff on whatever future projects they pursue with Forbes, though – like everyone else around here – I really have no idea what the plan is. I remain hopeful that good things will grow from the seeds planted here.

If you’ve enjoyed reading me here, you can also read me and a number of other excellent writers at my primary digs, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. I also write at the Washington Examiner’s Opinion Zone blog. Or you can follow me on Twitter. Meanwhile – and for now at least – I will have this blog archived here, and will continue it there as well. So lots of places to find me if that’s something you’re interested in doing.

Thanks to all the regular readers and commenters who make this all that much more fun. Your insights, scathing criticisms, and witty banter were all very much appreciated. Come comment and berate me at these other places as well. Keeps me honest.

Adieu, adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Jul. 30 2010 — 8:07 pm | 50 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Anthony Weiner is really, really pissed off

Here’s Democratic Congressman, Anthony Weiner going off the handle on GOP opposition to the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act:

Which has been cleverly compared to this famous Al Pacino bit:

I wonder when someone will have the guts to give Mr. Weiner the same treatment over his severely hawkish and – dare I say morally reprehensible – views on Israel?

Jul. 30 2010 — 6:47 pm | 104 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Obama’s expansion of the surveillance state

Julian Sanchez has an excellent piece over at The American Prospect on the Obama administration’s surveillance power grab:

At issue is the scope of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s power to obtain information from “electronic communications service providers” using national security letters (NLS), which compel private companies to allow government access to communication records without a court order. The administration wants to add four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to Section 2709 of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which spells out the types of communications data that can be obtained with an NSL. Yet those four little words would make a huge difference, potentially allowing investigators to draw detailed road maps of the online activity of citizens not even suspected of any connection to terrorism.

This has serious implications for our privacy online, and represents a serious expansion of government into our personal lives – giving anyone concerned with government overreach yet another reason to have serious doubts about this administration’s commitment to civil liberties. Unfortunately, the vast majority of progressive activists don’t seem all that concerned with this or any other abuse of power the current administration has carried over from their predecessors or expanded upon.

Sanchez ends on a chilling note:

We increasingly live online. We flirt, shop, read, speak out, and organize in a virtual space where nearly every action leaves a digital trace — and where those breadcrumb bits often track us through the physical world as well. If the Obama administration gets its way, an agency that has already proved itself utterly unable to respect the limits of its authority will have discretion to map our digital lives in potentially astonishing detail, with no judge looking over their shoulders. That the administration and the FBI would seek such power under the guise of a “technical clarification” is proof enough that they cannot be trusted with it.

As I’m fond of saying, things will get worse before they get better.

Jul. 30 2010 — 6:34 pm | 739 views | 0 recommendations | 35 comments

Shirley Sherrod’s missing that leg she needs to stand on

I’m not exactly surprised that Shirley Sherrod is planning to sue conservative blogger, Andrew Breitbart, but I do find the whole affair troubling. Liberals and enemies of Breitbart are excited by the news, but I think they fail to grasp its implications.

First off, should bloggers face lawsuits for posting misleading information about political figures or anyone else for that matter?

In Britain, libel laws are so lax that bloggers and others in the media are effectively censored by the threat posed by potential lawsuits. Often just the threat of a lawsuit is enough to shut down a potentially controversial report. Whether or not Breitbart was right or wrong to post the video, should he face civil penalties for doing so? What repercussions might this have on the blogosphere and the American media writ large? What does this say about the state of free speech in America?

Second, Sherrod is very unlikely to win her suit in the first place. As a public figure making public remarks, suing for defamation becomes extremely difficult and with good reason. As Ed Morrissey notes:

Sherrod is a public official, which makes that kind of lawsuit darned near impossible.  Breitbart used the clip to criticize the NAACP, not Sherrod directly, although she certainly came into the line of fire.  People are allowed to criticize public officials in harsh and even unfair terms, especially when they make public remarks.

A court is not likely to look favorably on this for another reason — Sherrod’s public statements about Breitbart. She accused him of being pro-slavery, which is a ridiculous and demagogic attack.  Even if a court somehow found that Breitbart acted with malice specifically towards Sherrod to a level that overcomes the right to criticize public officials and that he lied about Sherrod specifically in doing so, under those same terms Breitbart would have a countercase against Sherrod.  Otherwise, Breitbart has become enough of a public figure that Sherrod’s statements about him would probably not be actionable, either.

Which leaves us with a whole lot of sound and fury. Breitbart will come out of the mess with more publicity and a stronger brand. Sherrod will have her extended fifteen minutes of fame. And the Obama administration will try to quietly navigate the sidelines, hoping desperately that the focus stays on Breitbart and not on the fact that it was the USDA that actually forced Sherrod out.

In the end, I doubt this will add up to anything more than some extra filler for the chattering class’s slow summer.

Jul. 30 2010 — 4:18 pm | 17 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Feeling good!

I like this:

Jul. 30 2010 — 4:00 pm | 33 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Candy flavored meth?

Andrew Stuttaford has the goods on the latest attempt by do-gooders in Congress to save The Children. He points to this snippet at Firedoglake (that’s right, you get a Corner link and a Firedoglake link for the price of one!):

Last night the United States Senate voted to double the penalties for the nation’s newest existential threat: brownies made with marijuana!

The Senate unanimously passed Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)’s “Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act of 2009″ (S. 258) that targets pot brownies and other marijuana edibles preferred by some medical marijuana patients. The bill next moves to the House; if it passes that chamber, anyone making pot brownies or similar products could be subject to double the fines and jail time for regular marijuana.

Marijuana prohibitionists often hide behind vague threats to children, and DiFi’s bill is no different. Her “Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act” is framed to make politicians afraid to oppose. “How dare you voted against saving kids from dangerous drugs?” But DiFi doubled down on the “Reefer Madness”-style hysteria. In championing this bill, Feinstein raised the spectre of “candy flavored meth“ as the target of her bill.

Andrew writes:

Candy-flavored meth? 

Here’s the invaluable Snopes (admittedly from 2007, but that’s when Feinstein first started peddling this nonsense — in partnership, needless to say, with a Republican co-conspirator, Chuck Grassley) on this menace to the nation. Read it and ponder again the foolishness that is Washington, D.C.

The good news? I’m quoting the ultra-left-wing Firedoglaker and the right-wing National Review, both agreeing that this is absurd, stupid, nonsense. We have consensus, people!

The bad news is that the nonsense itself is also bipartisan, and the Senators have a bit more power than bloggers.

They’ve got the guns, as they say, but we’ve got the numbers.

Jul. 30 2010 — 1:50 pm | 60 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

I don’t know why you say good-bye…

I know a lot of my True/Slant colleagues are firing off final posts and saying their farewells, but I’m not ready just yet. True/Slant has been a good home for the short time I’ve been here. I’m not going to sign off until I have to, until they drag me away kicking and screaming. Until they shut the lights off and lock the doors. Until the fat lady sings. Until…

Well that’s not exactly true. I don’t typically blog on Saturdays, so I will likely sign off some time today. But not yet!

Jul. 30 2010 — 1:46 pm | 16 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The war on flowers

This is a wonderful little video on the war on marijuana flowers:


The war on drugs has made not one iota of difference on the consumption of drugs in America. It has stripped Americans of our liberties, robbed us of our tax dollars, and sent countless young men and women, many of whom are non-violent offenders, into jails and prisons across the country. The countless other side effects of the drug wars are too many to list, but it’s a tragedy for this country and I hope we’ll elect brave enough politicians in the future to bring an end to this farce.

(Via the Dish)

Jul. 30 2010 — 1:31 pm | 53 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Politics should be more like sports

Reihan Salam, responding to this Bruce Bartlett interview over at The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, writes:

My central disagreement with Bartlett is that I don’t think it’s very sensible to interpret political history as a series of psychodramas. One could present the same facts in a very different matter, e.g., noble congressional Republicans only passed the Medicare prescription drug benefit because they feared demagogic attacks from the left, which threatened a massive political defeat that would impair their ability to pursue pro-growth policies. This is a specious and self-serving narrative. But is it any less specious and self-serving than congressional Democrats who blame demagogic attacks from the right for their own failures on the fiscal policy front? For those who believe that we need to sharply increase taxes on middle income households, this view is a commonplace. Democrats would take precisely this step, the narrative goes, if only they didn’t have to fear ferocious attacks from the Republican spin machine.

Because Bartlett is a public intellectual who intends to persuade others, it’s worth asking about the effectiveness of his rhetorical strategy, e.g., referring to Tea Party activists as “dimwitted.” I’ve met a wide spectrum of people who identify with the Tea Party movement, and I can’t say I’ve met anyone I would describe as “dimwitted.” As I understand it, the basic goal of the Tea Party movement is to restrain the growth of government.

The only exchanges I’ve had with either Reihan or Bruce have been friendly ones, but I admit to coming down on Reihan’s side on this question. I understand that Bartlett is angry at the current crop of Republicans and feels betrayed by George W. Bush and dismayed by the Tea Parties, but at a certain point Bartlett’s rhetoric really begins to sound a lot like those he’s been critical of himself. Indeed, I would say that fiery rhetoric is a problem that Bartlett and many Republicans actually share.

When he writes:

I don’t think it’s very sensible to interpret political history as a series of psychodramas.

…I think Reihan stumbles on more than just Bartlett’s rhetorical problem. He’s stumbling on the central problem with conservative messaging in the age of Obama.

I think politics should be more like sports and less like psychodrama. Competitive, interesting, and – at the end of the day – not quite so terribly important that you lose sleep because your guy lost the election.

Of course, the only way to do this is to make government less important to our day-to-day lives in the first place. And maybe that’s how Republicans can salvage their messaging problem: government isn’t the answer, it’s the problem. And not only that: politics itself isn’t the answer, it’s just part of the answer and not a very big part of it in the first place. Your family, your job, your vacation time, your charitable works – these are all more important. And here’s how we can keep it that way…

Right now, for conservatives, politics are an all-consuming thing. The rise of the Tea Parties is partly a response to this fear that government is growing inextricably bigger. There’s nothing wrong with this. Politics may be super important to Tea Partiers, but if they do achieve some of their goals, maybe politics will be less important to Americans in the future, because the movers and shakers in Washington, D.C. won’t be able to move and shake quite so much.

But the rhetoric on the right is all too often angry, bitter, even conspiratorial at times. This is partly because there’s so much fear packaged into the idea that the actions of the political class will have such an enormous effect on the nation. The message is all too often that what happens in Washington will determine what happens everywhere else. The fate of ordinary Americans lies in the pockets of our politicians. Obama is making the country a socialist dystopia! Nancy Pelosi is going to brainwash our children!

The message is divisive, when it ought to be one that unites that broad cross-section of America that doesn’t really want to care about politics so much.I know plenty of people who are lifelong Republicans that hear some of the things diehard conservatives are saying and just don’t know what to make of it. They may not like the course of events in this country, but they like even less a sense that the proper response is perpetual anger.

If I had to craft a new message for the right, it would be that what happens in Washington should be of tertiary importance to our daily grind. It should sit right behind the sports page in our local newspaper. Congress should be a footnote in our daily meditations on life. Local affairs should be more important than the outcome of the day’s debate on Capital Hill.
Reagan is invoked too often in modern political discourse (I’m invoking him twice in one day!) and all too often as some exemplar of a pure conservative ideology. But we should invoke Reagan for his leadership regardless of his politics, and for his ability to unite rather than for the myth that he represented some Utopian brand of American conservatism. He was a great unifier of people – a man who knew how to present the country with a positive message and point the country in a positive direction.

There’s no simple answer to the right’s messaging problem, of course. This is partly because the ‘right’ as it now exists is in a state of political flux. Different factions within the broader coalition are vying for political and media influence. It’s only natural that this results in a few ideological cage matches. But to truly move forward and lead the country toward a fiscally sound, limited government where politics is no more important than the outcome of the Cowboys game, we need conservative leaders who can unite us rather than divide us.

And that remains no easy task.

Jul. 30 2010 — 1:22 pm | 62 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Arizona’s immigration law is on hold, so how about those boycotts?

“We are all very pleased to be playing in Arizona. I have read that some of the artists won’t come here. They are [censored] twits! Let’s face it: I still play in California, and as a gay man I have no legal rights whatsoever. So what’s the [censored] with these people?” ~ Elton John, at a concert in Tucson on July 22nd

As an advocate of very open-immigration and free movement of labor, I was dismayed when I first heard of the passage of SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial new immigration law.
As a resident of the great state of Arizona, I was further dismayed to learn that a number of bands, artists, city councils, and other organizations had decided to boycott our state because of the decisions of a few of our elected officials.

Boycotts, like economic sanctions, tend to hurt the people who are at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder far more than they hurt the people responsible for whatever the boycott was over in the first place.

Elton John fans are probably among the least likely of any Arizonans to be supporters of the immigration law. The most likely people to be hurt by the empty convention halls and vacant hotel rooms? Illegal immigrants who work as janitors, maids, and in other low-skilled positions whose services will no longer be required.

The fact of the matter is, boycotts are generally more about getting political activists and politicians attention than they are about helping people.

Now that certain key components of the Arizona immigration law have been put on hold by a federal judge, I wonder if the boycotts will start to drop off?

For me, the judge’s decision is undeniably good news – but I’m an open-borders libertarian on this issue.

The answer to our immigration problem is not to flood cash-strapped police departments with new non-violent offenders. Indeed, there are so many things wrong with the Arizona law, I won’t even begin to address them here. Suffice to say, I’m glad to see it placed on hold, and I hope the federal government can start working on a better program for the nation as a whole.

I like Ronald Reagan’s solution, myself: amnesty and a path to citizenship, something which Reagan granted nearly three million illegal immigrants back in 1986.

Free movement of labor, like free markets, is an economic boon no matter how you slice it. More immigration means more labor, more demand for goods and services, and more prosperity for everyone. It also puts pressure on foreign governments to compete for citizens, to create more open societies, and to move toward more liberalized economies.

Want regime change? Free markets and free movement of labor will get you there quicker than bombs will, and the change will be more sustainable.

Ironically, boycotts are the very antithesis of this concept. And equally ironic, the only thing that could have united supporters and opponents of Arizona’s immigration law here were the boycotts themselves. I know plenty of Arizonans who were against SB 1070 who were even angrier at the stupid boy-cotters and who felt solidarity with fellow Arizonans on this where solidarity was lacking over the law itself.

Now that the law is for all intents and purposes on hold, do you think the boy-cotters will stop? I doubt it – not until they’ve sucked the political marrow from the bones of this conflict. After all, the boycotts are more about the boy-cotters than they are about the immigration debate. But I could be wrong.

Jul. 29 2010 — 3:56 pm | 32 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Learning to swear in English in Korea

Via Kottke:

My college Spanish professors never went here.

Jul. 29 2010 — 3:29 pm | 1,141 views | 0 recommendations | 7 comments

Abortion and slavery

I’m not sure why Andrew thinks likening abortion to slavery qualifies as a Malkin award nominee. I certainly understand that it’s likely to bog down an already heavily loaded subject – but is it really so far off base on the merits?

If you believe in your heart of hearts that an unborn child is nevertheless a child – a living, growing, human being – and yet the law of the land dictates that said living, growing human being is not in possession of even the most basic right – the right to life – then how different is this from slavery?

Indeed, an unborn child is even more helpless than a slave. They have no chance to escape should their mother decide to have an abortion. They have no faculty, no choice in the matter. Is it such a stretch to liken the plight of millions of the yet-to-be-born to the past plight of slaves?

Certainly if one didn’t actually believe that abortion was wrong or that a fetus was actually a baby, this would be an awfully cynical thing to say. But what about people whose faith and beliefs teach them that the unborn are people just like you and me?

What about Andrew Sullivan whose Catholic faith teaches him that abortion is murder and that the unborn are fully human, fully alive and deserving of their right to life?

Recall, the ranks of abolitionists were filled with the religious – sometimes the fanatically religious. On religious and particularly on Christian grounds they opposed the institution of slavery. Now on those same grounds they oppose abortion. The arguments are the same. Why is this such a troubling comparison? Even if you are a supporter of abortion, why is this such a troubling comparison?

Jul. 28 2010 — 5:28 pm | 39 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

A middle ground on climate change

Noah Millman has another excellent post up at The American Scene. Here’s his take on fighting climate change – though you should really just read the whole thing:

What would be the consequences of implementing a tax on carbon only in the United States, without coordinated global action? You’d see some carbon-intensive activities move offshore to lower-carbon-cost regimes; this would probably increase the global carbon load. You’d see some reduction in carbon-intensive activities; this should reduce the global carbon load, but some proportion of this reduction would be due to a simple drop in consumption and hence lower economic growth. And you’d see some increased private investment in making existing activities less carbon intensive, and in providing non-carbon energy sources to substitute; this should also reduce the global carbon load, and any associated economic cost should be temporary. It’s difficult to predict what the net effect on carbon emissions would be in the short term – but it doesn’t really matter, because the goal isn’t to directly reduce emissions but to encourage that investment in incremental innovation.

Of course, the tax on carbon will itself have a negative economic effect. But this could be offset by reducing other taxes, the payroll tax and the corporate income tax being two obvious targets.

This makes sense to me. Millman also advocates government investment in technology that can be used to remove carbon from the atmosphere. I’m less certain that public spending on this will really amount to any tangible advances in technology, but I could be wrong. I think the government should start looking at ways to reform utility services. In a green, sustainable energy economy, granting monopolies to utility companies will simply not work. It’s time for a real energy marketplace, and the government should play a role in setting up that marketplace and then do its best to stand out of the way and let the market do the rest.

A carbon tax is going to be a part of this, but I think revisiting how we subsidize energy and especially fossil fuels will be equally important. Yes, taxing something we want less of is a great way to get less of it, but we should also stop subsidizing it! And I also agree that we could offset productivity-killing taxes like the payroll tax if we were to implement a carbon tax, replacing a bad tax with a good one. How could you not like that sort of trade-off?

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