Tag: rhetoric

Slashing Popular Programs Contest

House Republicans proposed some (tiny) spending cuts this week and the Obama administration will likely propose some (tiny) cuts next week in the federal budget.

So get ready for a barrage of slasher stories! National Journal started us off yesterday with the headline “WH Slashes Heat for the Poor.”

Coming down the pike are dozens of stories about how policymakers are planning deep, vicious, and inhumane cuts that will undermine the foundations of the republic. A 5 percent cut to a program that has risen 50 percent in recent years will not be a simple “trim,” but a brutal, gouging “slash.”

Every single one of the upcoming cuts will be to “popular” programs. So policymakers will propose a $1 million cut to mohair subsidies, and the headline will be “Congress Slashes Popular Mohair Program.”

In reality, government spending has soared over the last decade, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. So let’s enjoy the coming crop of over-the-top slasher stories, and treat them as a genre of modern publishing art.

I propose a “Slasher Story of the Month” contest for February. Send me an email if you see a great slasher story, and I’ll get my crack assistant, Amy, to analyze the rhetorical content. The winning story will have the most frequent uses of “slash” and “popular” to describe the programs that the godless heathens in Congress and the White House plan to ransack and decimate.

(Bonus points for any editorial cartoon showing Attila the Hun with the word “GOP” on his helmet hacking away at a defenseless child with “nutrition subsidies” on her shirt).

The Public Isn’t Buying

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Angry Left Obama’s bête noir?

My response:

Would the president help himself by making a clearer ideological declaration – as many on the “professional left” are asking him to do? Hardly. POLITICO tells us this morning that those “professionals” lament “the president’s reluctance to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, who spoke without apology about his vaulting ideological ambitions.” One of those professionals, Robert Reich, urges Obama to present “a clear and convincing narrative into which all the various initiatives neatly fit, so that the public can make sense of everything that’s done.”

The public is quite capable of making sense of everything that’s been done. It’s doing it, and it doesn’t like what it sees. Reagan spoke boldly about his vision because it arose directly from fundamental American principles – individual liberty, free markets, and limited constitutional government. Obama avoids presenting “a clear and convincing narrative” because if he stated his vision more clearly it would be even less convincing than it already is.

Thus, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was right to complain about the criticism’s coming from members of the professional left, who spend their lives cloistered in academia, the mainstream media, and other such redoubts, talking to each other. But Gibbs’s problem is deeper: It’s the product, not the pitch.

You Can Laugh All You Want To, But I’ve Got My Philosophy

There’s an interesting back-and-forth between Dan Foster at National Review and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post over whether there’s a symmetry between libertarian (or conservative) preference for smaller government and progressive advocacy for a larger or more active one.  Ezra wants to maintain that the former is “philosophical”—one might use the more loaded “ideological”—in a way that the latter is not.  And his argument has some intuitive appeal, but I think ultimately misfires:

But like a lot of people, I actually don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

Now, this much I take to be true: Ezra and other progressives, talk show rhetoric notwithstanding, don’t have some abstract desire to increase the size and power of government independently of particular functions they want government to serve.  But that doesn’t mean his contrast between his “practical preference” for larger government “where it seems to make sense” and the “philosophical preference for small goverment” will fly.  As long as we’re invoking philosophy, it may be useful to deploy the hoary distinction ethicists often make between teleological and deontological principles—very crudely, the distinction between principles that specify ends or goals, and principles that specify rules that constrain our pursuit of ends or goals.

In a teleological frame, the asymmetry Ezra is positing makes a certain amount of sense. Progressives’ desire for larger government is mostly instrumental, while libertarians and conservatives seem to treat smaller government as an end in itself. But I think this is somewhat misleading. You could also say that Ezra and I both favor a government exactly large enough to accomplish its legitimate functions, albeit with very different views of what those functions are. In part this difference is “practical”—or at any rate, empirical—on both sides: Neither of us, presumably, think the government should squander taxpayer money on ineffective programs, but we have different background views about the relative effectiveness of government and civil society at achieving worthy aims.

But flipping explicitly into a deontological frame, we can see another difference—and here I think there is a real symmetry. You could say that where we differ is in how much weight we give the citizen’s prima facie claim against coercive interference. I think that claim ought to have quite a lot of weight, such that there are a relatively small number of public goods sufficiently vital to justify overriding the presumption against interference. Even assuming we agreed on the probable utilitarian benefit of some particular government program, I think it is fair to say Ezra gives a lot less presumptive weight to such claims. If you do not see anything seriously morally problematic about compelling people to contribute to projects and goals that (granting assumptions about efficacy, for the sake of argument) seem broadly worthy, you’ll be inclined to see government as an all-purpose mechanism for remedying a whole array of social problems. Which particular problems justify larger government will then be determined by “practical” considerations, but the background premise about the weight of the claim against compulsion is going to be exactly as “philosophical” for the progressive as for the libertarian or the conservative.