Topic: Government and Politics

Pay No Attention to the Man behind the Curtain

I’m sorry, but this just makes me ill. In a post he actually titled “The Magic Ballot,” Arjun Appadurai writes:

The word is MAGIC. On the night of November 4, it felt as if something magical had happened, and perhaps there were others, like me, who used that word. But it is not the biggest word in current public use and I wish it were more fully available to us now.

We’ve chosen someone to work for us. We’ve hired him. For a job. We did it through the (yes, rather nifty) process of democracy. And… That. Is. All. Barack Obama is an employee. He’s not a magician. We can fire him later if we like, and he’s not going to retaliate by turning us all into toads or shooting lighting bolts out of his eyes.

I know that many believe that priests can perform miracles, at least of certain kinds, but Obama isn’t a priest. Tuesday night did not and could not make him one. It’s superstitious, impious, or both, to think that something as common as a democratic election could endow anyone with magical powers.

I regret that we are forced to catch the special aura of this election without a deep and serious space for the idea of magic, magic as it used to be. It would help us fill this rhetorical void. It would let us name the un-nameable and it would let us enjoy our means even without certainty about our ends. It would let us enjoy this week without dragging it immediately into boring predictions about what Nancy Pelosi will do, about how many huge headaches Obama will face, about how heavy the coming storm will be, and how fragile our collective sources. We have hardly crowned Obama and we have promptly begun to mourn for him, as if he is has already been vanquished by his foes.

Crowned??? Sir, this is a Lockean republic, not a New-Age theocracy.

But wait, it gets worse:

Magic, anthropologists have always known, is about what people throughout the world do when faced with uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm, while ritual (also magical in its logic) is performed to forestall or prevent these very things. Magic is not about deficient logic, childish mental mistakes, clever priestly illusions or other mistaken technologies. It is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control. Can we deny that the infusion of 700 billion dollars into our banks is a magical act designed to make our banks rain credit again? Has it worked yet? Are we discarding our belief in banks and credit as a result? Magic is a method for deploying modest technical means to address outsize ethical challenges. Human beings have always done this and always will. We might as well have a grown-up word for this set of practices.

If we really just spent $700 billion on magic, then I want my money back. There’s probably a decent First Amendment challenge in there somewhere, wouldn’t you think?

Some of us, when faced with “uncertainty, catastrophic damage, injustice, illness, suffering or harm” do not resort to magic. We turn to reason, hard work, rectitude, compassion, courage, and thrift. We also note that the government so often tends to interfere with all of these things.

But I guess we don’t have to bother with any of that anymore: The Great Barack is going to save us — magically — from all kinds of disasters!

So the election of Barack [sic]… is also magical in a much more serious way. It has been performed and produced by voting citizens at a moment when America and the world face risks of an enormous order. We have named these risks frequently in the media and the public sphere in the last few weeks: risks of total financial meltdown, of global warm-up, of war without end and terror without faces and sources. And our existing tools for risk management have failed miserably. Should we be surprised that the American electorate has rediscovered magic without knowing it?

Surprised? If you’re right, we should be very, very worried. And no, my objection is neither partisan nor personal. If McCain had won, I’d have made a post mocking the near-religious qualities his followers had invested in him, too.

Whither Fusionism?

One of the victims of the Bush presidency, along with limited government and the Republican Party, has been “fusionism,” the idea that conservatives and libertarians ought to come together to oppose the forces of socialism (and The Left generally).  Indeed, this Tuesday’s election probably saw the highest-ever percentage of libertarians – depending on how you count them – vote for the Democratic presidential candidate (at least in the modern era, with the possible exception of the Nixon years).  This despite that Democratic candidate being commonly seen as the most statist major-party candidate in history.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin who blogs at the Volokh Conspiracy and in his day job is a law professor at George Mason (currently visiting at Penn) – Ilya being a popular name among libertarian legal community – today puts up a smart post on the state of the erstwhile libertarian-conservative.  Here’s a snippet:

Obviously, a lot depends on what conservatives decide to do. If they choose the pro-limited government position advocated by Representative Jeff Flake and some other younger House Republicans, there will be lots of room for cooperation with libertarians. I am happy to see that Flake has denounced “the ill-fitting and unworkable big-government conservatism that defined the Bush administration.” Conservatives could, however, adopt the combination of economic populism and social conservatism advocated by Mike Huckabee and others. It is even possible that the latter path will be more politically advantageous, at least in the short term. 

Indeed, if conservatives choose some version of the Huckabee-Palin route, fusionism is dead – and so, might I add presumptuously, is the Republican Party.  That just ain’t where the majority of the nation is, or where it’s heading (though, as Ilya says, that direction may be politically advantageous in certain parts of the country under certain circumstances).

But this type of discussion may be beside the point; libertarian-conservative (in the sense of socially conservative, economically squishy) fusionism may have run its course, a relic of the Cold War.  The new fusionism may well be fiscally conservative and socially tolerant (not necessarily liberal, just not wanting government to do anything about the way people live their private lives), including folks who might call themselves conservative cosmopolitans, crunchy cons, South Park conservatives, or indeed libertarians.  Or they might eschew labels altogether but are sick of the rot coming from (or to) Washington.  In other words: Purple America,

A Sweeping Rejection of President Bush

Left-liberal groups are quick to declare Barack Obama’s win a broad endorsement of the “progressive” agenda, their highly inaccurate name for more taxes, more spending, more entitlements, and more regulation. After a trillion-dollar increase in federal spending during the Bush administration and the biggest expansion of entitlements since Lyndon Johnson, it hardly seems likely that what’s troubling the American economy or the American people is an insufficiency of government.

The big problem for John McCain and the rest of the Republicans last night was George W. Bush and his big-government conservatism. Bush had a 25 percent approval rating, and Congress’s was even lower. Republicans hoped up until election day that voters would notice that the unpopular Congress was run by Democrats. But after 8 years of Bush and 12 years of a Republican Congress, just recently ended, voters saw the Republicans as the incumbents who were responsible for the mess in Washington. Concerns about Obama were sufficient to allow McCain to run 20 points ahead of Bush’s approval rating in a time of economic crisis. But the hole was too deep.

Bush and the Republicans promised choice, freedom, reform, and a restrained federal government. They delivered massive overspending, the biggest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, centralization of education, a floundering war, an imperial presidency, civil liberties abuses, the intrusion of the federal government into social issues and personal freedoms, and finally a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street that just kept on growing in the last month of the campaign. Voters who believed in limited government had every reason to reject that record.

Commentators who talk about whether the Republican party moved too far to the right, or too far to the center, miss the point. There are different kinds of “right.” See this New York Times graphic on independent voters, which picks up on some of the themes we’ve talked about in our work on libertarian voters. Lots of independents – as well as voters who identify with one of the major parties – hold broadly libertarian, or “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” views. A lot of those voters moved from voting Republican to voting Democratic between 2000 and 2006, and it looks like they did so again this year.

As we had predicted, Republicans racked up further losses in the most libertarian parts of the country, such as New Hampshire and the Mountain West. Obama won affluent, educated voters and professionals. And if conservative Republicans continue to respond to the loss of educated voters by declaring themselves proud to be “real Americans” who don’t care much for book learning and Darwinism and elite stuff, they will only accelerate the process.

Big-government conservatism, a toxic combination of the religious right and the neoconservatives, lost badly on Tuesday. But the voters didn’t give a ringing endorsement to big-government liberalism. Fifty-nine percent of voters call themselves “fiscally conservative and socially liberal,” and that’s a rich vein the Republican party is ignoring. If Obama governs as a centrist, he may make it very difficult for the Republicans to recover. But a candidate in either party who presented himself as a product of the social freedom of the Sixties and the economic freedom of the Eighties would be tapping into a market that both parties have yet to nail down.

Cato Today

Op-Ed: “Will the GOP Learn from This?” by Michael Tanner in the Orange County Register

As it emerges from the electoral rubble, the Republican Party must decide what it actually believes in before beginning rebuilding its battered fortune.

Michael Tanner on the election landslide

Republicans now have two more years in the wilderness to decide whether or not they actually stand for limited government and individual liberty. One wonders, whether they will hear the message.

Article: “Advice to President-elect Obama,” by Will Wilkinson in Marketplace

Here’s my advice: First, you’ve got to get spending under control….Second, drop the xenophobic claptrap….Third, get real on the ‘new energy economy.’

Op-Ed: “Is It Constitutional?” by Richard Rahn in the Washington Times

Which section of the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the power to bail out banks? If you don’t know, it could be because no constitutional authority exists for such an action. It is all too common for both Congress and the executive branch to ignore that the Constitution limits what they can and cannot do.

Op-Ed: “US Urged to Overhaul Nuclear Arsenal,” by David Isenberg in the Asia Times

The handling of US nuclear weapons and policy were recently center-stage due to two different events. First was the release on October 24 of a report billed as a nuclear weapons roadmap for the future by the US Air Force. Titled “Reinvigorating the Air Force Nuclear Enterprise”, it called for the establishment of a global strike command and a headquarters for air force staff to handle nuclear assets.

The Gap between Exit Polls and Reality

As of Wednesday afternoon with 97 percent of the results in, the poll results indicated that Obama had 52.4 percent of the popular vote. This means that everyone else (including John McCain, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader and “other”) received 47.6 percent. That is, Obama outpolled the rest by 4.8 percent.

But according to the exit polls, 13% of the electorate was black and they cast their votes 95 percent to 4 percent for Obama. This means that the black vote alone should have given Obama 11.8 percent more of the vote than the rest of the field [Because 11.8 = 13 x (0.95-0.04)].

In fact, based on the exit poll data, Obama should have outpolled the rest of the field by 7.3 percent, rather than 4.8 percent. See the following table.

% of voters

Obama

McCain

Spread (in %)

white

74

43

55

-8.9

black

13

95

4

11.8

hispanic

8

66

31

2.8

asian

2

61

35

0.5

other

3

65

31

1.0

TOTAL

7.3

Clearly, unless the vast majority of untallied votes are for Obama or voting machines are biased against him, exit polls are just too problematic to be used either because they don’t constitute a true random sample, there’s a lot of lying going on, or perhaps both.

SCOTUS Hearts Obama?

Will the Supreme Court be more, or less, of a check on the president during an Obama administration?

My guess:  Less.

First, as Gene Healy notes, Barack Obama has every incentive to preserve and enhance the power of the president.  His “Yes we can!” Justice Department will not be filing briefs with the Court telling it to take the president’s power away.

Second, the judges rumored to be on Obama’s short list for the Supreme Court, like Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan, are hardly unfriendly to the presidency.  As a scholar, Kagan is perhaps best known for her smart, nuanced 2001 law review article, Presidential Administration, which – while differing in many nuanced respects from Bush era legal framework for thinking about executive power – celebrates the president’s power to “jolt” bureaucrats “into action … [for] a distinctly activist and pro-regulatory governing agenda.”  She argues that federal courts should interpret the president’s statutory authority in ways that facilitate and enhance, rather than limit, the president’s powers.  Look for judicial appointments with similar views.

Third, my guess is that the Supreme Court as a whole, no matter who is on it, is likely to prove more congenial to Obama than it was to Bush.  As Neal Katyal argued in the Cato Supreme Court Review, Jody Freeman and Adrian Vermeule expand in the non-Cato Supreme Court Review, and Jack Goldsmith suggests in The Terror Presidency, the Supreme Court’s pushback against the Bush administration is at least partly a response to the Bush administration’s tin-eared and sweeping claims in favor of “inherent” executive power.  Even Bush’s Solicitor General, Ted Olson, is rumored to have advised this legal strategy would backfire by alienating the Court.

The Obama administration is likely to be smarter, by inviting the court to uphold various exercises of executive power on a case-by-case basis, rather than based on sweeping claims that the court must cede vasts swaths of decision making to the executive.  The court likes the former kind of argument for obvious reasons – it requires the president to check back with the court on an ongoing basis. But don’t fall into the Bush administration’s mindset.  A president who presents the court with smart, modest legal arguments for upholding his power don’t have less power.  He probably will have more.  As Katyal and others argue, the court may be more willing to give the President what he wants when the request is presented in a more modest fashion.

Fourth, remember that Justice Kennedy, the swing vote on the current court, famously votes his politics.  My guess is he is likely to side more often with an administration he likes and trusts – and that he will have an affinity for fellow cosmopolitan Obama’s, at least on the foreign affairs and national security front.

I’m guessing, for all these reasons, that those expecting the Supreme Court to continue to act as a drag on the centralization of power in the presidency, as it generally has in the Bush years, are likely to be disappointed in the Age of Obama.

Get Yourself a Crate of Scalpels

On Marketplace Radio Will Wilkinson offers some advice to the president-elect:

Congratulations, Barack Obama! You’re the next President of the United States. Sadly, the government’s so broke that even new curtains for the Oval Office are beyond the bounds of fiscal responsibility. Thanks to the war, the Wall Street bailout, the lousy economy, and the drop in tax revenue, your big campaign plans just got a lot smaller.

Here’s my advice: First, you’ve got to get spending under control. Yes: Bring the troops home, and shrink the military. But there’s enormous waste in the non-defense budget, too, and you need to go after it. You said we need to cut spending with a scalpel, not a hatchet. Well, if you don’t want to leave your kids with a crushing tax burden, you better get yourself a crate of scalpels.

Second, drop the xenophobic claptrap. The stuff from the debates about “mortgaging our future” by “borrowing from the Chinese to pay the Saudis” has got to stop. We are not, and cannot be, a self-contained fortress city. It’s good that capital markets are international. It’s good that energy markets are international. It’s good for prosperity and it’s good for peace that we’re all in it together. Help save America’s economy by making it even more open to the goods and people of the world.

Third, get real on the “new energy economy.” You’ve been claiming that the government can simultaneously create millions of new jobs, spur growth-enhancing innovation, and save the Earth by politically picking winners among energy companies. It’s a beautiful dream. But in reality, it means nothing more than the greening of corporate welfare and an increase in energy prices. Our struggling economy can’t afford that.

You’ve got Congress on your side and the wind of public opinion at your back – which is exactly why you should take it slow. This election was exactly what you said it was: a referendum on the last eight years of George W. Bush and his coalition. The voters agreed it was time to throw the bums out. But if you overreach, you’ll be tomorrow’s bum. Remember how popular Newt Gingrich’s Contract for America was? Yeah. Me neither.