Archive for June, 2010

Tea Party Metaphysics


I have been surprised, and even a bit amused, to see the Left wrestle with the meaning of the tea parties that have sprung up across the United States over the past year or so. Some of what they have said is ridiculous, and surely insincere; can anyone actually believe that the tea parties are about race?  J. M. Bernstein, writing in The New York Times, theorizes that the tea parties are ultimately about metaphysics—in particular, what he calls “the myth of individual autonomy.”

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding….

Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that  one’s very standing and being as a rational agentowes nothing to other individuals or institutions.    The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state.  Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them.

There’s something to this, but not what Bernstein thinks.

For all those on the Left, let me explain the tea parties in simple terms:

  1. It’s about the money. Imagine that, in a bout of largely ignorant infatuation, you marry someone you really don’t know very well. And imagine that, in your first year of marriage, your new spouse spends everything the two of you earn and more, racking up credit card debt equal to another 50% of your income. You’re concerned, and say that the two of you need a budget. “Oh, I’ve thought of that,” says your spouse, and shows you a plan according to which you’ll spend 50% more than you earn every year for the next decade. Wouldn’t you be concerned—even alarmed—even angry? It has nothing to do with politics or metaphysics. Most of those at tea parties are motivated by this:
  2. Debt

  3. It’s about the Constitution. Tea partiers worry about the Obama administration’s staggering power-grab: GM, banking, Wall Street, health care, insurance, and on and on. What Constitutional provisions permit this? Are there any limits on government power that Obama or other Leftists are willing to recognize when they are in power? If so, we haven’t seen them yet. And it’s hard to see how a vision like Bernstein’s could admit any. For him, the individual, autonomy, rights, liberty—all are fictions. The tea partiers worry a lot about tyranny, not because they hold “wildly fantastic beliefs,” to quote Bernstein, but because the barriers against tyranny in the American system of checks and balances being demolished. They do not believe that tyranny is already here, but that we are moving in its general direction and removing the obstacles that protect us from it.
  4. It’s about socialism. Tea partiers see the Obama administration as moving the U.S. sharply in the direction of socialism. Bernstein derides that belief as “hysterical.” But it’s hard to see why. His own ideology gives the government an absolutely central and in principle unlimited role. Hayek defines socialism as the conscious direction of social forces to consciously chosen ends; that’s pretty clearly the ideology of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party, their shyness about the label notwithstanding.


But I said there was something to Bernstein’s thesis. There is a philosophical foundation to the tea party movement. The movement isn’t restricted to this philosophical stance; anyone can and should be worried about financial and Constitutional irresponsibility. Anyone can look at the Communist nations or at European socialism and find its low-growth, high-unemployment, low-innovation record something to be avoided. Still, most tea partiers think there are principled, rather than merely pragmatic, limits to the growth of government’s power over the individual.

The tea partiers are not nihilists:

In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing.  Lilla calls the Tea Party “Jacobins”; I would urge that they are nihilists.

This is stupid. I put it that bluntly because, earlier in his article, Bernstein makes it clear enough what the tea partiers are: they are Lockeans. They believe that government governs legitimately only with the consent of the governed. They believe that people have natural, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and property. They believe this not because they think of individuals as removed from any sort of social setting or relations of dependence with other people, but because they are capable of drawing a distinction Bernstein isn’t: between society and government.

The issue is not the metaphysical question identified by Bernstein, of whether individual precedes society or vice versa. That’s a chicken-and-egg question on which tea partiers may remain agnostic, or take whatever position they like. The real issue is the status of the state. Bernstein writes,

It is by recognizing one another as autonomous subjects through the institutions of family, civil society and the state that we become such subjects; those practices are how we recognize and so bestow on one another the title and powers of being free individuals.

There is a huge difference between the family, voluntary civic associations, and the state. My family, my church, my political party, and my employer cannot imprison me. They cannot put me to death. They cannot fine me or seize what I have. They cannot tax me. Their power is restrained by my ability to walk away. Not so with the state. What is the source of its authority over me?

The tea partiers have an answer, the answer of Locke, of the American founders, and of the Constitution: my consent. That’s a position with a long and venerable history.

Bernstein, as far as I can see, has no answer. The figures he admires do, but those answers have led, over the past two centuries, to tyranny and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And the tea partiers are the nihilists?


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Here’s the list. I’ve met seven of them, but only know three very well. And, of course, I not only know lots of Tea Party Patriots, but think of myself as one.

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Businessmen Are Stupid

That’s about all I can conclude from this article:

The chairman of the Business Roundtable, an association of top corporate executives that has been President Obama‘s closest ally in the business community, accused the president and Democratic lawmakers Tuesday of creating an “increasingly hostile environment for investment and job creation.”

Ivan G. Seidenberg, chief executive of Verizon Communications, said that Democrats in Washington are pursuing tax increases, policy changes and regulatory actions that together threaten to dampen economic growth and “harm our ability . . . to grow private-sector jobs in the U.S.”

“In our judgment, we have reached a point where the negative effects of these policies are simply too significant to ignore,” Seidenberg said in a lunchtime speech to the Economic Club of Washington. “By reaching into virtually every sector of economic life, government is injecting uncertainty into the marketplace and making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses.”

Well, DUH! Since when has socialism, the central direction of society and in particular the economy to consciously chosen ends, been good for business? Its essence is the substitution of political decision-making for private decision-making, and the substitution of politically chosen ends for privately chosen ends—e.g., making a profit. The Democratic Party over the past ten years has become a thoroughly socialist party. That’s not a surprise; it’s happened in plain view. The Democratic platform in the last election was virtually indistinguishable from the platform of the CPUSA during the 1990s.

The Democrats’ policies are not only bad for business; they’re bad for the rest of us. They’ve been eager to copy Europe, where slow economic growth, 8-10% unemployment, ballooning deficits, stifled innovation, and a hopeless job situation for young people have become the norm. Why do people think that’s desirable?

Any businessman who remains a Democrat is an idiot.

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We’re in the third month after the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, and the extent to which the federal government has not only failed to contribute to a solution but has constituted a stumbling block is becoming clearer every day. It may be the only thing becoming clearer:


There’s a growing sense that things are unraveling, while those in charge in Washington play golf and conduct politics as usual. Jay Tea writes,

I’ve always been enamored of Professor Glenn Reynolds’ oft-repeated aphorism: “I’ll believe there’s a crisis when the people who say there’s a crisis act like there’s a crisis.” It’s a great BS detector, but it has some corollaries that I’m finding truly terrifying.

What does it mean when those people say there’s a crisis, I agree that there’s a crisis, but they refuse to act like there’s a crisis?…

The Obama administration wastes no opportunity to remind us of how dire the situation is in the Gulf. But its actions are utterly inconsistent with their words.

While the oil is still spewing, we have certain needs to best respond to the ongoing catastrophe. And those needs are not only being ignored by the Obama administration, but — in some cases — being actively sabotaged.

We need a strong, focused BP — the people who ran the rig that failed so disastrously — to lead the efforts in stopping the flow. They were the ones who ran it, who were in charge of it when it blew up. Unless we think they deliberately destroyed it, they are the best people to know exactly what happened and how best to stop it.

Instead, we have an administration that seems hell-bent on destroying BP. Hell, last week they extorted a $20-billion-dollar shakedown out of BP. And, cynically, the primary motive wasn’t to get that money, but to secure the federal government’s first dibs on BP’s assets should they file bankruptcy in the US. This was the same move the Obama administration pulled with GM and Chrysler — bypassing the normal rules of bankruptcy and screwing out the other creditors….

We need an easing of normal restrictions and limitations, freeing up all parties concerned to react swiftly to the impending slow-motion disaster. Instead, we have the Coast Guard turning away skimmers for inadequate life jackets, states being blocked from building berms due to long-term environmental impact concerns, foreign vessels and offers of assistance and expertise being ignored.

We need to find ways to minimize the immediate economic impact of the disaster, to somehow compensate for the loss of revenues from the damage in the Gulf. Instead, we have a proposed moratorium on all new offshore drilling, throwing even more people out of work, removing even more oil from our national supply.

We need to get the best and brightest and throw them at the problem. We need the experts, the geniuses, to figure out how best to stop the ongoing crisis, repair the harm it has caused, and prevent it from happening again.

Instead, we have a panel of experts finding their words distorted and their explicit rejection of a suspension of offshore drilling rewritten into an endorsement. And we have a new panel of “experts” who have absolutely no experience or knowledge of oil drilling, but have absolutely solid leftist credentials in Big Oil Bashing and environmental extremism.

He outlines four possibilities:

There are several possible explanations for this, and I have no idea which is the most frightening.

1) The disaster isn’t as bad as we all think it is, and the Obama administration knows that.

If that was true, then their “never let a crisis go to waste” response is understandable. Heinous, but understandable. This is an opportunity for them to push their agenda, and push it hard.

2) The disaster is as bad as we think, but the Obama administration doesn’t realize it.

This would be entirely in character with this administration. They are the Peter Principle writ large: they have been promoted past their level of competency. They simply can’t grasp that this disaster is a game-changer, so they are simply playing the game that they have played all their lives. Not because that’s what they think is best, but because that’s all they know how to do. “When your only tool is a hammer, all your problems start looking like nails.”

3) The disaster is at least as bad as we think, if not worse, and the Obama administration knows it.

If that is the case, then the only explanation that makes any sense is that they believe that the whole thing is a lost cause, that it is pretty much an unstoppable catastrophe, and they’re figuring that since we’re all pretty much fucked, they might as well get theirs before it all goes to hell.

4) The disaster isn’t as bad as we think it is, but the Obama administration doesn’t realize it.

That’s the fourth possibility of my little 2×2 matrix here, but I give it very little weight. It’s the most Pollyannaish of the possibilities, and fits in with the first part of “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” I only include it here for the sake of completion.

I don’t know how bad the disaster is; I suspect no one knows at this point. But I’m sure the Obama administration doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. They have a very simple playbook: no matter what happens, blame it on your political enemies, and use it as an excuse to grab money and power. That’s all they know; that’s all they do. The facts are basically irrelevant.

Richard Fernandez sees this as part of a larger picture, in which things are getting very strange. Peter Orszag is leaving his position as budget chief just in time to avoid trying to cope with historically unprecedented deficits that are threatening the fiscal solvency not only of the United States but of the entire Western world. General McCrystal appears in Rolling Stone bashing the President as unprepared and uninterested in the situation in Afghanistan. Obama has called him to Washington, probably to be fired. But no one seems to doubt the truth of what he said; the only surprise is that he allowed himself to be quoted saying it.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Fernandez concludes. In the comments section, he spells it out clearly, in a way that I think needs to be quoted in full and thought about carefully:

I think Roger correctly senses a something that is not quite right. We’ll eventually find out what exactly is the matter. What is worrisome isn’t the possibility that a President can have problems functioning. The Constitution anticipates that. What’s worrisome is the deer-in-the-headlines response of the institutions which would potentially work out these situations. It’s disturbing that General McChrystal should criticize the President openly. Military men should not do that. But if the civil institutions (the press, the Senate and political institutions) are unable to 1) clarify; 2) reassure 3) act in a timely fashion then you will have more incidents that inevitably damage the system.

The system is supposed to ascertain the facts discreetly, rationally and consensually. It already seems to have failed the a priori quality control task. But it still has an a posteriori role. If the the President is fundamentally competent it is the duty of the system to reassure the public this is so. To tell the doubters they’ve got it wrong. But so PC-shy, compromised and yoked to the system have the gatekeepers become that there is no clean rag left to tidy up the dirty rags. It’s not just the President that is going down in flames, but the whole pyramid that generated, validated and nurtured him.

Where are the unimpeachable voices, the respected judges, the sage professors, the holy and wise men, the men above suspicion who can look inside the Holy of Holies and say … thus? We have abolished them. In their place we’ve installed reality show contestants, celebrities, freaks, and talking heads. You wouldn’t take kewpie doll from them. With the system in that condition, stasis results and we’re only going to get more McChrystal incidents.

And if it so happens that the President, as Roger speculates, has a breakdown or manifestly gets in over his head, where are these sages who can depute themselves into the Oval Office and persuade the President to do … thus? Or are we in a situation where only the strict letter of the law, as exercised by the Senate, will decide all? Once the lawyers get in on it, the odds get slimmer.

Whatever happens from here on to the end the major blame must fall on institutions like the media. While we don’t know what ails the President completely, we know what afflicts some parts of the media to a nicety. You can reasonably predict the steady of the turning of the coats, the feigned awakening, the fake realizations that are far more sickening than the pitiful sight that the President may present. It’s called opportunism. How long till certain former ‘conservatives’ who style themselves anti-Christianists proclaim that they’ve suspected all along? No, please. Spare us that.

Obama did not afflict the country like some Biblical plague. The establishment brought him on themselves.

Nor should we be surprised that having precipitated the catastrophe on themselves that this same elite will lack the wit to pry the hatchet from their skulls. After all if they were smart enough to fix this, why the hell weren’t they smart enough to see it coming? Logically I can only conclude that they’ll act with as much competence as they’ve shown they don’t have.

The Left has the remarkably ability to chew off its own arm to preserve that inner, shrieking beast. It will throw the last of its spawn into the flames to keep its miserable memes going, and it will probably do so now. Society will have gained nothing if they can dispose of their problems by turning their backs on Barack Obama. This has to finish and not be heaped upon one man. That’s the original definition of a scapegoat. The meme which falsely states that we should give up our freedom to the elect must be pinned to the spotlight right until the end. Right until it drives a stake through its own heart, by its own volition, by its own self-hatred. We must either learn of our own accord or we will have only postponed our doom to another day.

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Zombie Keynesians!

Greg Mankiw discusses the Obama administration economic policies at length, treating them as standard Keynesian prescriptions. I thought Keynesian economics had been refuted decisively by the 1970s, since the Keynesian policies of Nixon, Ford, and Carter led to stagflation. But Keynesianism is not dead; it has risen, zombie-like, as if out of a 1970-s horror movie. A decade of stagflation following the “increase spending” model; thirty years of prosperity following the “tax cuts” model; and the administration goes with spending.

Finally, economists are catching up:

Textbook Keynesian economics tells us that government-purchases multipliers are larger than tax-cut multipliers. And, as we have seen, the Obama administration’s economic team consulted these standard models in deciding that spending would be significantly more effective than tax cuts.

But a great deal of recent economic evidence calls that conclusion into question. In an ironic twist, one key piece comes from Christina Romer, who is now chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. About six months before she took the job, Romer teamed up with her husband and fellow Berkeley economist David Romer to write a paper (“The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes”) that sought to measure the influence of tax policy on GDP. Crucial to the Romers’ method was their effort to identify changes in tax policy made during times of relative economic stability, and driven by a desire to influence economic behavior or activity (to encourage growth, say, or reduce a deficit), rather than those changes made in response to a recession or crisis. By studying such “exogenous” tax-policy changes, the Romers could be more confident that they were in fact measuring the effects of taxes and not those of extraneous conditions.

The Romers’ conclusion, which is at odds with most traditional Keynesian analysis, was that the tax multiplier was 3 — in other words, that every dollar spent on tax cuts would boost GDP by $3. This would mean that the tax multiplier is roughly three times larger than Obama’s advisors assumed it was during their policy simulations.

…But several studies on government-spending multipliers have been conducted using techniques similar to those used by the Romers. And none has found government-spending multipliers to be so large as to justify assumptions about the inherent superiority of government spending over tax cuts.

Some excellent work on this topic has come from Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego. Ramey finds a government-spending multiplier of about 1.4 — a figure close to what the Obama administration assumed, but much smaller than the tax multiplier identified by the Romers. Similarly, in recent research, Andrew Mountford (of the University of London) and Harald Uhlig (of the University of Chicago) have used sophisticated statistical techniques that try to capture the complicated relationships among economic variables over time; they conclude that a “deficit-financed tax cut is the best fiscal policy to stimulate the economy.” In particular, they report that tax cuts are about four times as potent as increases in government spending.

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Take a look at these maps to show migration patterns. Here’s the one for Austin:


Black lines represent people moving in; red lines, people moving out.

For contrast, check out LA:


People are voting with their feet. Now if only they start realizing which policies have made Texas so much more attractive than California!

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Ann Coulter’s book Treason infuriated liberals by questioning their patriotism and, indeed, loyalty. It turns out Ted Kennedy was in communication with the KGB to try to undermine U.S. policy and promote a more favorable image for the Soviets. I expect big stories from the mainstream media any day now….

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