Archive for November, 2012

Syria

November 29, 2012

Aleppo

Let’s not forget how this started. The opposition was scrupulously nonviolent until the regime responded with extreme violence. That (to borrow a phrase) opened the gates of Hell.

The rebels have committed some atrocities. Shooting captured soldiers is wrong. However, some perspective is required. Soldiers in war are subject to getting shot; and at least the opposition atrocities seem limited to combatants, whereas regime forces indiscriminately target the civilian population. Indeed, the intent is specifically to terrorize civilians.

Shabiha

That’s especially true of the “Shabiha,” non-military gangs of sociopaths deployed to rape and murder. Some of them, when captured, have also been shot. That, frankly, I’m fine with.

In any case, all this blood is on Assad’s hands, because when you start a war you are responsible for the inevitable consequences. Assad could still choose to stop it at any time.

Shabiha victims

But this horror could go on for a very long time, until one side or the other is beaten. The rebels won’t give up; they’re never going to return to acquiescence in rule by Assad’s criminal enterprise, and the international community could not bring that about, even if it wished to, which (apart from Russia and Iran), it does not. So the only hope is to end the regime.

I am appalled that the U.S. is not doing more to achieve this outcome. The Brits and even the French have recognized the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Oh, for the days when America exercised real leadership! Ours was the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence in 1948. But Barack Obama’s America is shamefully more wishy-washy.

And it’s not as though we don’t have vital national interests at stake in Syria. The longer the conflict goes on, the more it threatens the rest of the region. And Assad’s fall would be a huge strategic blow to his ally, Iran, arguably our biggest geopolitical adversary.

Some fret that we don’t really know who all these rebels are, and maybe some are bad guys. Well, it would be peachy if Syria could be handed off to a George Washington type, but one never gets such ideal choices in this imperfect world. And whatever government replaces Assad, it could hardly be worse; certainly not worse for us, if it’s not aligned with Iran.

And if we’re worried about the outcome, the best way to influence it is to be involved in the process. If we want a future Syrian government friendly to our interests, or at least less hostile, then it behooves us to befriend now the people who will shape that government, by supporting and helping them as strongly as possible. True, one can’t count on gratitude*, but what should we expect if we don’t even try?

Thus our failing to help the rebels more today could well prove vastly more costly tomorrow. And there’s a lot we can do on the cheap. Yes, we’re suffering war fatigue; is there no end to the Muslims we must bomb? But still, what do we spend a gazillion dollars on our military for, if not to use it? We can afford to lob a few at Assad’s goons – just so they know they’re not merely fighting women and children and ragtag under-armed nobodies. We can disrupt and demoralize the criminal forces without boots on the ground.

Assassinating foreign leaders is a no-no, of course. But in a war situation, military assets are legitimate targets, and that includes military commanders. Bashar Assad commands his military. Killing him with an American bomb, or drone strike, would be a very good thing. While that would not immediately end the war, and the regime would try to soldier on, I suspect it would fall apart, with in-fighting over the diminishing spoils of its criminality.

Would any of this be “legal”? The concept of international legality does have great value, but we should not permit that important value to be held hostage by the obstructionism of one or two shameful countries (Russia and China). The old expression, “The law is an ass,” applies in such a situation; it can be more important to do what is right than what is legal. And in this case, our position would not be a lonely one. This is no longer your father’s Middle East. Even almost the whole Arab world would welcome our acting more forcefully to end this mess. The squeals of Russia and China can be ignored.

*Old tale: Frog and scorpion want to cross the Jordan. Scorpion says, “Give me a ride on your back.” Frog says, “I’m afraid you’ll sting me.” Scorpion replies, “Why would I do that? We’d both drown.” Frog says OK, and they set off. In mid-stream, scorpion stings frog, and as they both go down, Frog says, “Why did you do that?” Scorpion replies, “This is the Middle East.” (Alternatively, “It’s in my nature.”)

Fiscal Cliff Notes

November 23, 2012

Here’s the deal:

Tax revenues rise. Not rates – revenues. Raising rates is bad because it disincentivizes work, enterprise, and investment, and encourages tax avoidance. But rates needn’t be raised; the money can be gotten by curbing deductions, which are worth over a trillion a year. And instead of fighting a political WWIII over which deductions to kill, the better solution is to cap the dollar amount of deductions any taxpayer can take.

Romney proposed this during the campaign. It would mostly hit the rich, especially the very rich. Now, it’s true that (contrary to “Buffett rule” hogwash) the rich already pay by far the lion’s share of all income taxes; they should not be seen as a bottomless well of cash for redistribution; nor should their wealth be regarded as somehow illegitimate, deserving more taxation punitively. All that said, it’s my judgment (as a fairly rich Republican) that given the country’s fiscal situation, richer people should pay somewhat more.

And capping deductions is a particularly fit way to do that. The mortgage interest deduction, for example, encourages over-large (and multiple) houses, by forcing other taxpayers to subsidize them. The charity deduction likewise makes other taxpayers subsidize the pet causes and vanity of rich people. Capping deductions would curb these undesirable inequities while still allowing the middle class to benefit reasonably from these deductions and others.

The President is probably right that a reasonable deduction cap can’t produce as much added revenue as he advocates. But he wants too much; that should be seen as an opening bid to be bargained down. Other countries that have tackled similar budget imbalances have done it with a heavy preponderance of spending cuts over tax increases, which is better for economic health.

That our problem really lies with spending is obvious because taxes high enough to close the gap would be far too high for the economy to bear. Indeed, you could never actually raise revenues that much, because it’s self-defeating — the more you tax, the less taxpaying economic activity you have.

What to cut? Defense. Yes. A lot. We need to maintain geostrategic muscle, but the truth is that a huge part of our over-bloated defense budget contributes nothing toward our actual security. A great part of it is political patronage, keeping Congressmen sweet. Unfortunately, because whenever billions are at stake, you can’t banish politics, so it will be easier for the Pentagon to cut meat than fat. But we must try.

Social programs: benefits for the poor and disadvantaged should not be cut. I’ll say it again: we are a rich country and we can, and should, take care of the less fortunate. That’s actually only a small part of government’s social spending. It’s the much greater welfare for the affluent that must be cut.

The big pig here is Medicare. Romney also actually said that benefits for wealthier people will have to be trimmed. Yes, bless his heart, he did say it. But for social spending in general, here again you can’t get politics out of it, meaning it’s a lot easier to screw the poor than the better-off, because the latter carry so much more political weight. Yet again we must try. “Means testing” must become the watchword for all these programs – i.e., only the needy should be “entitled.” That’s the only fair way to achieve swingeing reductions; probably the only way at all.

Another point: no phony cuts, or phony pledges of future cuts. Congress is good at this game: legislating draconian cuts in, for example, Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals, that (wink, wink) will never be allowed to actually take effect. (That was how Obamacare was seemingly transformed from a huge expense to a money-saver.)

So there’s the deal. The only possible deal; the deal that has to happen. But Obama flubbed it before. I voted against him mainly because I didn’t believe him capable of achieving it now. Let’s hope I was wrong.

Humanity: The Fall?

November 18, 2012

Civilization is often decried as a “fall” from a more blessed state of nature. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden because of their “sin;” recently I reported on a talk about the “Sins of Civilization.” And now I’ve read a book titled The Fall, by Steve Taylor.

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers. Reaching that lifestyle’s ecological limits about 8000 BC, we invented farming. This enabled settling down in villages, which grew into cities, and eventually nations. That’s where some think it all went wrong.

Taylor places “The Fall” about 4000 BC, ushering in 6000 years of “insanity.” The trigger was climatic, drying out a swath of terrain between northern Africa and Central Asia, launching these lands’ “Saharasian” peoples on the move and warping their psyches. In particular, Taylor’s villains are “Indo-Europeans” (or “Aryans”), apparently originating in the Black Sea region, who swept through the whole area and basically fathered “Western” civilization.

Typically, Taylor romanticizes what he calls “primal” peoples – pre-civilizational, with some remnants among still existing native cultures. This is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Noble Savage: Peaceable, non-violent, with women honored and powerful (“matrist” Taylor says); sexually free and open; an empathic, egalitarian, sharing culture with no notions of property or wealth, “spirit” based religions, and people seeing themselves as embedded in webs of connection with other people and all of creation, respectful of nature and living in harmony with it. Result: happiness.

In contrast, after the “Fall” we became violent and warlike, despoilers of nature, hierarchical, greedy for wealth and property, unequal, with women oppressed (“patrism”); and sexually uptight with theistic religions and a psychology of ego and individualism, causing alienation and anomie.

Taylor blames all this on the climate change’s unique stresses and challenges, requiring a new mental adaptation, entailing sharper thinking and the Saharasians’ “ego explosion,” shifting people from a sharing ethos toward greater selfishness. However, it seems equally plausible that more cooperative sharing would have been a better survival strategy. But anyhow, the idea that humans before 4000 BC had an easy time of it is ridiculous. In fact, the modern human mental apparatus evolved tens of thousands of years earlier in response to the severe stresses of those times. (We apparently went through a population “bottleneck” which very few survived.)

I recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s book on declining violence; he discusses and rejects most of the “Noble Savage” trope. Now, Taylor does adduce a great deal of claimed evidence. But it’s virtually all anecdotal: such-and-such tribe in such-and-such valley supposedly practices such-and-such. This contrasts with Pinker’s focus on statistical analysis based on comprehensive global data.

The most famous piece of anecdotal evidence for Taylor’s picture, particularly of sexual openness among “primal” peoples, was Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. Yet Taylor never mentions Mead. And for good reason: she was wrong, bamboozled by lying Samoans having fun with her. But such problems were not unique to Mead.

And there’s a bigger one. Taylor uses modern anthropology to extrapolate to prelapsarian life, before 4000 BC. However, that predated writing, so we have zero verbal sociological evidence, and only the archaeological evidence of objects, whose interpretation can be problematical. For example, Taylor says the absence of weapons in early graves shows people weren’t warlike. Well, maybe weapons were too important to bury! And archaeology is pretty mute about whether people were sexually open, empathic as opposed to individualistic, reverential about nature, and so forth.

Thus, Taylor’s book is more like fiction than non-fiction, and often unconvincing fiction at that. Indeed, he writes at length about the supposed horrible psychological pain of “fallen” life. He sees almost all human activities (such as work) as vain attempts to hide from a black hole at the center of our souls. Maybe that describes Taylor – but not me, nor anyone I know.

I’m actually sympathetic insofar as Taylor contends that our underlying human nature is benign, and a lot of what civilization wrought, like war and organized religion, is kind of nuts. I argued, in my own last book, that people are more good than bad. And civilization, with technological advancement, does enable acting out our worst impulses. “Primal” peoples simply lacked the capability for warfare on a modern scale; but they didn’t wear “Make Love Not War” buttons. They did the best they could at killing, and there’s plenty of evidence that, for all their technological limitations, they were pretty effective.

As for harmony with nature, undoubtedly our forebears had us beat in woodsy knowledge. They had to; no supermarkets. But their rape of nature was, like war, limited more by technology than psychology. Yet here again they could be pretty effective. Western Hemisphere large mammals were wiped out soon after Man’s arrival.

At least Taylor, unlike some misanthropes, believes we’re now recovering from the “Fallen” paradigm’s “insanity” and returning to a lost golden age. But I don’t believe pre-4000 BC was any kind of paradise; what we’ve seen is simply progress. And Taylor’s explanation for it is (like much of his book) kind of strange. He says, “The fundamental difference between us and our ancestors 300 years ago may be that we are more alive than they were” (his emphasis). I don’t think so. He also holds that our cultural progress is actually somehow biological, and that biological evolution may be “not accidental, but propelled by a kind of force within living beings which makes them develop along predetermined lines.” No serious scientist believes such moonshine.

Of course civilization, in this imperfect world of imperfect people, has been a mixed blessing – but a blessing nevertheless. Its main role is literally to civilize us. It’s within civilization that we are socialized to master our baser impulses and settle down to live in relative peace and harmony. This civilizing process is a key theme in Pinker’s book, showing how it has increasingly relieved humankind of the blight of violence.

Thus we enjoy lives far more rewarding than our “primal” ancestors could have experienced. Taylor’s halcyon picture of carefree ancient people living it up, off the fat of the land, in some Woodstock-like paradise, is absurd. I’ll take modern life – with dentistry.

* Taylor notes Julian Jaynes’s theory that modern consciousness only arose around 1000 BC in response to supposedly unique stresses at that time. That crock of hooey will be addressed here by and by.

Is There a Moral Duty to Relieve Suffering?

November 13, 2012

I recently read Christopher Wraight’s book, The Ethics of Trade and Aid: Development, Charity or Waste?* Wraight teaches philosophy, and examines the moral issue of aid, from a philosophical standpoint.

He cites a leading thinker, Peter Singer, who argues that if you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, you’re morally obliged to save her, because it costs you less than the cost to her if she drowns; and it’s no different if the person in distress is a thousand miles away. Thus, he says, you should give your money to relieve poverty in Africa, up to the point at which giving any more would leave you suffering more than the Africans.

Wraight himself actually suggests a moral equivalence between shooting someone and not giving a donation that would save a life; indeed, he says, the moral distinction between “killing” and “letting die” is a close one. And he quotes philosopher Jonathan Glover: “deliberately failing to send money to Oxfam, without being able to justify our alternative spending as more important, is in the same league as murder.”

Are these people out of their minds?

Wraight does acknowledge that deeds of omission are infinite, and one cannot be held morally responsible for not doing all of them.

But there’s a better answer. The shooting victim has a right not to be shot. Shooting unjustly interferes with him. Withholding aid from the starving African does not unjustly interfere with him. Moral obligations do not arise out of thin air, but out of relationships. You have obligations to family and colleagues that arise from your relationships with them. You owe nothing otherwise (except leaving people unmolested).

Moreover, you have a right to things that belong to you. That’s what “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence means: the right to pursue your own quality of life, and make it better than someone else’s. Working to lift yourself is not morally wrong. It’s the essence of economics that A gets money from B by giving B something B wants more than the money. Thus A has already made a contribution to human betterment, and is morally entitled to benefit himself from his earnings from that effort. And with everyone thusly motivated, that’s how we improve life for humanity as a whole.

The Singer/Glover notion smacks of the Marxist dictum, “to each according to his needs.” Fine for the recipients; but where’s the morality in obliging someone who has earned something through his good honest efforts to give it up to someone who has not earned it? And then why bother to earn anything?

So an African you’ve never met, even if he’s starving, has no right to your money (let alone more right than you yourself). You are not morally obligated to give to the poor till you’re just as poor yourself. And you don’t owe Oxfam a justification for how you spend your money.

None of this means you shouldn’t give donations; but it’s a choice, not a duty. And people do make that choice, for the perfectly rational reason that it makes them feel good, and avoids feeling bad. Wraight’s point about the infinitude of potential good deeds supports this. It cannot be a duty to help A if that means not helping equally needy B (and C, D, E, and a billion others). If not helping B were almost equivalent to murder, then there’d be no way to avoid that culpability. This is moral absurdity. Since there’s no alternative to choosing whom (if anyone) to help, the help must be seen as a choice rather than a duty.

Such altruism is actually a fundamental characteristic of human nature. As I keep saying, we evolved living in groups, where social cohesion was vital to survival. Thus we are programmed to care about others and their sufferings, and wanting to help. We are genetically wired to feel good for doing so, and bad when refusing. That’s why my toddler daughter jumped up, handed off her ice cream cone, and ran to help a stranger’s baby who had dropped a shoe.

* I got it as a prize from Philosophy Now magazine for my answer to their Question of the Month: How does language work? Mine was one of few responses that didn’t mention Wittgenstein. I’ve always thought his work was trivial. Wittgenstein’s most quoted point was that no matter how you define the word “game” you can always come up with an example not fitting the definition. So the word has multiple meanings. So do many words. So what?

Denialism

November 9, 2012

Michael Specter’s book Denialism spotlights a bizarre perversity: just when science and technology have vastly improved the quality of our lives, too many people respond not with hosannas but with fear and loathing. Human existence, from the start, has always been a battle with nature. And now, just as the tide of battle has turned, some people are actually on the wrong side.

They reject what they see as our hubristic, misguided and destructive “tampering,” in favor of anything that seems “natural.” Thus the turning away from modern science-based medicine and toward the bogus quackery of various “holistic” or “alternative” treatments.

Genetic Modification too incurs their hatred. Never mind that GM enables us to produce more and better food using less land, less pesticide and less fertilizer, thereby feeding millions of hungry children who would otherwise starve. And in fact we eat practically nothing that hasn’t been genetically modified. Only in the past, the techniques were primitive. For food unsullied by human manipulation, you’ll have to go back to the forest and eat roots and furry things.

GM foods have been a major part of the American diet for decades. The number of people sickened or killed: precisely zero. But tragically, fear of imaginary “risks,” especially in Europe, has blocked GM’s use elsewhere. Unable to sell any GM products to Europe, Africans also consequently shun GM. Result: more hunger and starvation. Not using GM has real risks, not imaginary ones.

There’s another perversity that’s (mostly) outside the scope of Specter’s book, but has many parallels. Just as people rebel against the science that has bettered their lives, there’s hostility toward the economic model that has done likewise: market capitalism. Indeed, the two – science and capitalism – have operated together synergistically to make a better world. Market capitalism promotes scientific advancement by creating the conditions for it to really pay off and spread its benefits.

And, just like scientific denialism, anti-capitalism is incoherent insofar as its advocates have no credible alternative. Their economic nostrums are analogous to the quackery that passes as alternatives to scientific medicine.

I am not claiming infallibility for either capitalism or science. Both have produced disasters. It couldn’t be otherwise: the world is big and complex, and no human enterprise can proceed with divine perfection. So we’ve had our Bhopals, Thalidomides, Chernobyls, and financial messes. That’s the unavoidable price for the benefits of science, technology, and the economic system that supplies the motivations to make the most of them. Renounce them and, yes, you won’t get Chernobyls or financial crashes. But nor will you get what makes life livable rather than nasty, poor, brutish, and short.

I’ll say it yet again: cars kill 30,000 Americans annually. But nobody crusades to ban them, like they crusade against the imagined “risks” of GM (or fracking). Where’s the logic?

Some also crusade against vaccinations, based on supposed harm which is likewise imaginary. This issue is the centerpiece of Specter’s book. It also ties in with anti-capitalism; crusaders see vaccination as a corporate plot by evil pharmaceutical companies. As if their employees get up in the morning with the mission of harming children to fatten shareholder profits.

It began in 1998 with a study by Andrew Wakefield purporting to link vaccination and autism. This was catnip for people predisposed to mistrust modern medicine, so it was off to the races – even though Wakefield’s study has been discredited (Wikipedia calls it “fraudulent” right in the first line), and not a shred of other evidence connects vaccination to autism. Anti-vaccinators are misled by the coincidence that autism first becomes noticeable at about the same age when children get vaccinated.

Autism is a complex problem, and science has not solved it. However, based on intensive studies prompted by the vaccination controversy, we can now be certain one thing at least cannot cause autism: and that one thing is vaccination.

But to the denialists, such factual evidence doesn’t matter (or is just part of the conspiracy). Specter names names: Barbara Loe Fisher, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr,, and the actors Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy.* These fear merchants, he shows, simply lie to support their baseless claims.

One might say that if misguided people won’t vaccinate their kids, it’s their own business (though kids who consequently die might disagree). But it’s not that simple. If, in a population, a critical mass of people have immunity to a disease, it can’t get a toehold and spread. But it can if enough people refuse vaccination. And that is exactly what we’ve seen as a direct result of the anti-vaccination hysteria. Diseases that had virtually disappeared in America and Europe are coming back.

Similarly, the world was within an inch of making polio extinct until some Muslim preachers in Nigeria denounced vaccination as a Western plot; polio duly resurged in Nigeria; and traveling Nigerians spread it elsewhere. Polio’s final eradication has been tragically derailed.

The war against disease, hunger, and all the rest of nature’s miseries, is tough enough without also having to battle, at the same time, humans who have enlisted on the enemy side.

*He also names Senator Tom Harkin for forcing a billion taxpayer dollars into studying and even promoting blatantly worthless “alternative” medicine schemes.

Electoral College Reform

November 7, 2012

I’ve been thinking about this issue since the ‘60s, when I wrote my first (unpublished) novel, about the mess of an inconclusive electoral vote when a president-elect dies. I’ve also toyed with the idea of a counterfactual history wherein Chief Justice Rehnquist dies before Bush v. Gore is decided. How would that have played out? Disastrous political chaos.

So the electoral college system does have its bugs. And of course, in that 2000 election, we did see the anomaly of the popular vote loser winning the electoral vote. It had happened before; and could well have happened this year. All this has promoted calls for reform.

We should remember that the electoral college was set up for a reason, and it was not to thwart democracy. It was part of the constitution’s compromise between large and small states, giving the latter a little extra mojo. It still serves that function – with no electoral college, no presidential candidate would concern himself with Nevada. It also serves to provide unambiguous outcomes in close elections. Just imagine if, with no electoral college, we had a national vote as close as Florida’s was in 2000 – thus, fighting over every ballot in every state.

Still it’s reasonable to want the electoral and popular vote outcomes to match. But a constitutional amendment changing the system is probably a non-starter, because it would require ratification by 38 states, and small ones (like Nevada) would be emasculating themselves. However, a constitutional amendment actually isn’t needed.

Here’s one path: each state’s electoral votes are not required to be cast as a block. Maine and Nebraska already divide some of their electoral votes among congressional districts. Other states joining them would reduce the chances for a popular vote loser being elected.

Some have also advocated states passing laws simply giving their electoral votes to the national popular vote champ. This too entails no constitutional change. And effectively abolishing the electoral college this way would not require every state signing up. In fact, it would only take one: California.

Look at it this way: with such a California law, could anyone win the electoral vote without the popular vote? Well, yes, Bush did exactly that in 2000, winning with neither the popular vote nor California. But that was by the tiniest of margins; not the proverbial “inside straight,” but an inside straight flush. A fluke.

No presidential campaign would sensibly try to thread that needle. Instead, they would switch to straight-out efforts for popular votes anywhere, to bag California’s 55 electorals. Get those, and the national popular vote margin should supply the rest of an electoral college majority. Thus, no more “swing states;” the national popular vote would become the whole game.

The beauty of this plan is that it would keep the electoral college as a fail-safe in the event of an inconclusive popular vote. California’s law could say that in such a case, its electoral vote would go to California’s popular vote winner.

I’m talking California here only to show the plan’s simplicity. In reality, California would never enact such a law. It’s solidly controlled by Democrats; why would they give Republicans a chance at its electoral votes? But the same objective could be achieved by a group of other states, with a large enough combined electoral vote. They would have to be swing states; none where one party dominates would want to give the other party a shot at its electoral votes. However, swing states like Ohio would be loath to give up their importance as swing states. So in the end, this beautiful plan is probably as chimerical as any other.

We’re likely stuck, then, with the electoral college. But it’s still a far better system than the one that prevailed through most of human history: succession by the eldest son.

 

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The Republican Party’s Future

November 4, 2012

Columnist George Will has said that, given the economy, if Republicans can’t beat this president, they should look for another line of business. (One might add, “given this black president.” This is not a basically racist country as lefties love saying; Obama was actually black before the last election; yet it does cost him some votes.)

If Romney loses, which I think likely, there will be a loud chorus of Republicans blaming their failure to nominate a “real conservative.” Like Rick Santorum? True, more Americans consider themselves “conservative” than liberal, but their conservatism doesn’t gibe with the fierce ideology of today’s Republican fire-eaters. Compassionate conservatism it ain’t. They are painting themselves into a narrow political corner. How often can they beat the drum for reducing government before voters get cynical because government only keeps growing, no matter how many tea-partiers are elected? And while Democrats demonize them as wanting to throw granny over the cliff, Republicans cannot deliver on their threats of cutbacks – not even Big Bird’s neck will meet the axe — so it’s a lose-lose position for them.

Of course we desperately need to curb spending; but it won’t happen without a bipartisan deal including taxes too. And Republicans won’t hear of it. Nevertheless, I believe Romney would actually make such a deal, achieving what Obama cannot. Yet, maddeningly, Romney seems to think he can’t say this. The lack of clarity  leaves Democrats free to posture as defenders of everyone’s government benefits, without being called on how to pay for it.

In 1992, after Democrats had lost five out of six presidential elections, some of them realized their leftwingery and interest group pandering wasn’t working, so spearheaded by Bill Clinton, they wrenched the party back toward the center. What Republicans need is not to ratchet up their ideological purity; but to wake up from that dream and wrench their party back toward the center. Otherwise they risk making Democrats the “natural party of government,” as they basically were for three decades up to the ‘60s.

Meantime, while the electorate is sharply divided, the voters in the middle – who actually decide elections – are not ideological nor swayed by policy arguments. They “vote for the man” they like better. They still like Obama better, skin color notwithstanding. Ronald Reagan was a big winner not because he was so conservative but because he was a “great communicator” whom people liked. But likeability counted for almost nothing in the Republican primaries. Romney would have been a far more appealing and credible candidate if he hadn’t had to go through the bizarrification machine of the Republican primaries. He’s tried to undo the damage, but probably too late.

Then there’s demographics. Republican voters aren’t reproducing as fast as Democratic voters; and, being older, on average, they’re exiting at a greater rate. Republicans’ core support base is white males, whose percentage in the population is inexorably shrinking. The demographic growing the fastest is Hispanics, not only by reproduction but via immigration, yet Republicans somehow thought it was a good idea to give Hispanics the finger. Of course they didn’t actually, but Hispanics can be forgiven for seeing it that way.

The irony is that President Obama gave Republicans a tremendous opportunity to gain Latino support because he failed to fulfill his promises for immigration reform and actually stepped up deportations, of over a million Hispanics. Welcoming immigrants – who come here to work and advance themselves economically – not to mention all those highly qualified foreigners whom American businesses desperately need but can’t get into the country – ought to be right in line with the Republican worldview. Instead they have succumbed to a brainless nativism. What a shame. (I was shocked recently to see The Economist listing Texas as only “leaning Republican.”)

And the Republicans have run a lousy, dumb campaign. With all the true things that can be said against Obama’s re-election (See for example my 7/12 post), why twist facts in ways that are bound to bite you in the ass? And after all the nonsense about “shipping jobs overseas,” what Republican campaign genius had the bright idea to spotlight the issue — with phony charges against Obama? All this erodes trustworthiness and the image of competence, and gets in the way of the main message. And while it’s healthy to change one’s mind sometimes, don’t make it seem constant and expedient – trustworthiness, again.

While both sides are equally guilty of running overwhelmingly negative ads, for Romney I think that’s been a fatal mistake. The conventional wisdom is that voters hate negative ads, but they work. However, voters already knew what they think of Obama and ads can’t much change that. But Romney is less known, and less liked, and hence needed to do much more to build up his own image as a palatable alternative, especially countering the negativity of Obama’s ads. It’s not enough just to show Obama’s weaknesses; you have to give people someone to vote for. 

If Romney wins, it will be in spite of his campaign, not because of it.

Note re Massachusetts: Senator Scott Brown is one of the few moderate bipartisan Republicans in Congress. How sad if he’s replaced with yet another regulation liberal partisan Democrat.

* * * * *

This should be my last pre-election post. No matter who you’re for, vote; it’s the one sacrament we can all perform. And whoever you vote for, please remember that voters on the other side may be (in your opinion) wrong – but they’re not wicked.

XXXXX (Censored by Liberals)

November 1, 2012

“Censorship” is one of the dirtiest words in the liberal lexicon; one of the worst crimes. Liberals hate it so, they often scream “Censorship!” when it isn’t even happening (like a library opting not to buy a certain book).

So what explains the outrage at the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? Which, after all, held that the government couldn’t censor a political film, merely because of some corporate contributions. So the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee means no one can be stopped from political advocacy. Not even businesses.

But liberals actually have a special understanding of the word “censorship.” It means restricting expressions they approve of. They believe in free speech for themselves. Thus we get the political correctness Thought Police on campuses, where the mantra of “academic freedom” applies only to approved viewpoints, while dissenting voices are delegitimized, persecuted, and silenced.

Yet remember how the left sacralized the word “dissent”? They even have a magazine flaunting that title. But they love dissent only from orthodoxies they oppose; dissent from their own orthodoxies gets no protection. Lawrence Summers was actually ousted as Harvard’s president for merely suggesting that one point in the politically correct catechism might be questioned. (And truthiness didn’t save him.) So much for academic freedom.

Behind all this is the ugly tendency to believe opposing viewpoints reflect not merely bad ideas but bad motives. When you think the other guy is not just wrong but evil, it’s but a short step to the fire. Let’s not forget how many people throughout history were literally burned alive for dissent from prevailing orthodoxies. The burners too thought they were justifiably dealing with evil. And in many Muslim nations “heresy” still carries the death penalty.

Voltaire supposedly said, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Today’s liberals just might take him up on that.

Back to Citizens United, the principle is a good one. Whether corporations are “people” or not, they are legitimate parts of society, have legitimate interests, and legitimate rights. This should surely include freedom of speech and participation in political debate (which of course their opposite number, labor unions, have always had).

The concern is that they’ll ruin democracy by buying elections. But you can’t “buy” elections. Money can get your message heard, but if voters don’t swallow it, you lose. Numerous candidates have spent fortunes and lost (like Michael Huffington, Arianna’s ex, who blew zillions on a Senate bid and was creamed).

The fact is, there’s only so much money you can spend on a campaign to good effect. An ad’s fiftieth airing won’t seduce voters; it will more likely annoy them.

And while it might be a problem if all the money were spent by one side, that’s hardly the case. The two main parties are fairly even in this regard; they neutralize each other in raising and spending money. And the amounts are not “obscene.” The billion or two spent on the presidential election is merely comparable to what L’Oreal spends advertising hair coloring. Choosing the world’s top leader is at least as important.

True, the need to beg bucks from powerful interests has corrupted politicians – long before Citizens United. However, the remedy shouldn’t be restricting political participation but expanding it. There should be a tax credit for campaign contributions (up to, say, $100). That would unleash a flood of citizen donations and wash out the importance of fat-cat cash. This would be a form of public campaign finance far preferable to any existing scheme. The cost to taxpayers would be more than made up (way more) by less special interest legislation. (Why don’t we hear more about this simple reform? Officeholders are afraid to change a system that, for all its flaws, gets them mostly re-elected.)

But meantime, democracy is threatened far less by corporate free speech than by the idea of government power to squelch it.

No censorship! Let a hundred flowers bloom!*

* To quote Mao – a nod to my commie readers. Of course, when those flowers of divergent opinion bloomed, a lot of the bloomers were thrown in prison.


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