On Seeing Obama in Chester, VA, 8/21

Notes on seeing Barack Obama, August 21, 2008

This event was held at John Tyler Community College in Chester, VA, about 15 miles south of Richmond, halfway between Richmond and Petersburg. The nearest development is a classic strip mall. We pulled into the campus at about 9:40, showed tickets to security, and parked. There were about 20 or so McCain supporters there with their paraphernalia.

We were required to fill out the tickets (name, address, willingness to help the campaign) to get in. Noah and I were assigned to Table 8, behind where the speakers would be, but ended up at Table 9, with some faculty and staff from John Tyler, someone from the Chesterfield Democratic Party, and with a woman who works for Americorps in Richmond and is a huge volunteer with the campaign.

The event was set up amidst some trees. Two stools with bottles of the water were in the middle, with picnic tables surrounding the speaking area. The speaking area was roped off. The media had a section about 20 yards away from where the speakers were.

About 15 minutes before the event started, volunteers came around and told us what the plan would be, and requested that we stay sitting during the event until afterward.

The event started with a campaign worker giving a brief pep talk encouraging us to get involved and to sign up by cell phone to hear the VP announcement. Then a local minister gave a brief invocation, followed by our friend from Americorps leading a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (there were two huge flags set up.)

During this time, numerous local politicians poured in—Bobby Scott, Doug Wilder, Dwight Jones—and the campaign bus rolled up as well, drawing applause. Virginia First Lady Anne Holton walked in and took a seat, drawing another round of applause.

The first substantive speaker to talk was someone from the campaign staff (I think) who talked about her experiences fending off homelessness. This opened the key theme, which was going to be economic security. She then introduced Tim Kaine and Barack Obama.

When Kaine and Obama came in, everybody was very excited and got up. Obama came by and shook everyone’s hand (including mine) and continued to do so for about 3-4 minutes. Then he said it was time to settle down, they had business to do.

Kaine spoke first and re-counted why he had been on board with Obama’s campaign from the beginning—famiilar spiel about need to change Washington, the failure of 8 years of Bush’s policies, etc. He said “risky” would be continuing to do same thing we’ve been doing and expecting any better, and electing someone who said they didn’t know much about the economy. Kaine said Obama represented excellence in government and that’s what the American people deserved; they shouldn’t have to settle for mediocrity. Kaine looked very comfortable up there and I thought that was a strong short speech (and that the pair looked good together).

Obama started off making some comments on the scenery and that he wanted to know where the potato salad and chicken were because it felt like a picnic. Then he started off by recounting what it was he had learned from being a presidential candidate for 17 months. He said 3 things:

  1. It’s a big country, and that we were “blessed to have this piece of real estate.”
  2. The American people are amazing, they really care about their communities and are involved. They are self-reliant and are not looking for a handout. They have shared common values
  3. However, the American people are worried about the present and even more so about the future.

Then he launched into a pretty strong populist attack on Bush’s economic record. He noted that family income had gone up $6,000 under Clinton, but had gone down $1,000 under Bush. He said the middle class felt sand moving under its feet. He said that people stretching to make ends meet had taken out additional home equity loans, which led to disaster because people in Washington weren’t paying attention. He said ordinary Americans need someone in the White House fighting for them.

Then he turned to an attack on McCain. After noting McCain’s “compelling personal story,” he said that no one disputes that McCain’s economic policies are the same as Bush’s. Then he jumped all over McCain’s comment that he didn’t know how many houses he owned. He said that McCain’s comment that the economy was in good shape made sense only because McCain is so removed from the experience of ordinary people. He also jumped on McCain’s comment defining the “rich” as people making over $5 million a year, as if someone making $3 million a year was simply middle class. And he jumped on Phil Gramm’s comments about economic troubles being simply “mental.”

I was impressed by his delivery of all this, which had a sort of sarcastic indignation to it. In fact, the intonation and delivery reminded me of some of the old Bill Cosby routines—the high pitched “can you believe how ridiculous this is?” tones with which key lines ere delivered.

Obama then turned to specific contrasts with McCain on a number of issues: taxes, health care, energy. He mentioned 95% of families would get tax relief under his plan; they would make health care available to everyone; he would launch an Apollo Project aimed at reducing dependency on foreign oil by 30%.

At some point he also launched into a critique of Republican’s campaign tactics. “The Republicans don’t know how to govern, but they do know how to politick and win elections” was the quote. He said that he was being subjected to negative scare tactics—lying about his religion, making stuff up in the recent book published by the Swift boat author. He said this was nothing new, every recent Democratic candidate had been subjected to it. These tactics work because people distrust the government so much. They see the government hasn’t accomplish much and say “a pox on both your houses.” And he is sympathetic to that point of view. People need a sense that in Washington you have someone who is going to listen to you.

He stressed that instead of making the election a referendum about Barack Obama, it should about the American people. “It’s not about me, it’s about you.”

Obama then took questions from the audience. The first was from a middle-age white woman who identified herself as a technical writer. She asked about Obama’s perceived inexperience on foreign policy and what he would do to overcome any such inexperience. Obama responded pretty straightforwardly: he’d shown good judgment about Iraq and McCain had not; he had excellent advisers (cited Nunn, William Parry) and that he’d be looking to both sides of the aisle for good advice; he would not walk into the White House unprepared.

The second question was from an African-American man who identified himself as a postal worker. He had two questions, one about what would be the top priority his first 120 days in office, the second about where he stood on privatizing the postal service.

Obama said sitting down with the generals and working on a responsible withdrawal plan from Iraq would happen on day one. He said the top domestic priority would be energy policy.

He then launched into a quite interesting explanation of why he opposes privatizing the postal service. Yes the postal service loses money on some transactions. But there is a public role in stitching everyone together, no matter where you live. What has made the postal system great is the idea of universal service. This principle applies to mail, telecommunications, roads. The problem with privatization is that non-profitable places get excluded. This doesn’t mean the postal service shouldn’t be looking at how to be more efficient—in fact he would call for an audit of every government program as President.

The third question came from a white woman identifying as a schoolteacher. The question was about No Child Left Behind. Obama said one of the main problems with No Child Left Behind was that the money to implement it was left behind. He said he supported accountability efforts but that schools that do a good job with poor children should not be punished on the basis of low test scores.

The fourth question was from a white male, 40-ish. After praising Obama’s campaign team He asked a question about what would happen with the grassroots organizations Obama has built if he became president.

Obama said that the organizations would still have a vital role to play in holding him and government accountable. He said it wouldn’t be like “okay, see you in 4 years.” He wants citizens to have an ongoing role. He said he would try to run the most transparent government possible and make information available to citizens and journalists.

The fifth questioner was an African-American woman. She noted Obama had stressed the middle class, but wanted to know, by midway through Obama’s first term, how the poorest voters would benefit from Obama’s presidency.

Obama responded by saying that what most poor people want is the opportunity to rise into the middle class. Most poor people work hard, without sick leave, health insurance, a pension, but they work hard. He cited the tax break plan, a number of things to benefit the elderly poor (such as extending mortgage benefits to those who don’t itemize their taxes), cutting out income taxes on social security. Then he talked about education and offering all high school graduates funding for college via tuition grants in exchange for community or national service. He didn’t really talk about wage raises as such.

Finally, the last questioner was a white bearded guy looking a little bit like a stereotypical academic (that would be me!) I started to talk before the mic came and Obama said “you’re not following the rules!” But then it came and I asked him as follows:

“Your friend Karl Rove recently made some comments about Richmond, to the effect that this wasn’t much of a town and that the fact that Gov. Kaine once led it is of no great significance. Do you have a response to that, and more generally, what would your administration do to make the job of people like Mayor Wilder a little bit easier?”

The question (like several of the others) drew some applause including from Gov. Kaine. Obama addressed the first part, saying that a politics of insult was part of the problem. We have to reject that and the politics of division. He said imagine if everyday life had the same ethics you see in politics and people were constantly being insulted. That’s unacceptable and we shouldn’t accept it.

He then said for cities the federal government first should live up to its stated funding commitments. He then went into a long discussion about the need to rebuild urban infrastructure. This included a pretty funny little rap about airplane travel and how ridiculous it is this country doesn’t have a good high-speed rail system. He said that in Beijing at the Olympics the whole world is getting to say how much they’ve invested in their infrastructure, which is now better than ours.

Then he closed by saying that much in politics is complicated, but some things come down to common sense and basic questions: who are you fighting for, why are you in politics in the first place. He said he would be fighting for the American people, with our help he could win Virginia and the election and change the country and the world.

The crowd then stood and applauded vigorously, and he came around for another long round of handshakes. I got to look him in the eye a little longer this time but couldn’t think of anything to say other than “thanks, Senator.” I then called out to his bodyguard/personal assistant Reggie Love, a former Duke basketball player, that Coach K was getting the job done at the Olympics. He smiled and said “yes, but let’s see how they do against Argentina.”

Obama then signed a bunch of collected items, and he and Kaine gradually disappeared back onto the bus. The crowd filtered away leaving the media behind to file their stories.

Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Still More on Taxes

Here in one shot is the final set of replies I served up over at Barticles regarding taxes and justice. Enjoy…

 To the various respondents:

1)      On the question of how one can support a regime of liberal rights without necessarily believing they are “natural” rights in the strong sense (i.e. applicable in all times to all places). (I respect those who think we do have such strong natural, but don’t think the argument for rights needs to rest on that point of view being accepted.)


There are two alternative strategies for accounting for rights without appealing to timeless, natural rights. First is the argument laid about John Stuart Mill in his classic text Utilitarianism, in which he argues that rights are simply codifications of rules which long centuries of human experience have shown to be best suited to advancing human utility. The right of freedom of speech has been established, according to this logic, because experience has shown that social progress is maximized when individuals are given free rein to express their ideas and no ideas are silenced.


A second strategy would be to start from the premise that freedom consists in being able to govern ourselves, free from domination by outside forces or by overly-powerful internal forces (such as say, feudal lords). From that premise, you can derive support for all kinds of democratic rights, on grounds that things like free speech are needed if we are to remain non-dominated, self-governing people, and that these things are so fundamental to self-governance they should be secured as rights in a constitution. If you further believe that freedom requires a certain amount of personal autonomy—that we shouldn’t be forced into a particular line of work, or be forced to marry someone we don’t want to, etc.—that would provide justification for additional rights, some of which may be so fundamental they should be hard-wired into a constitution.


The common thread in both these lines of thoughts is the notion that rights are morally justified by the various goods they secure (be they security, self-governance, personal autonomy). I think this way of thinking about rights give us a better sense of why they are really important.


Going back to the question of taxes:


You can’t have a system of property rights without government, and government requires taxation. If you want to have a system in which individuals have a legally enforced right to property holdings, you have to be willing to pay taxes. (So far, even libertarians should agree; only possibly anarchists could object.)


But property rights don’t just pop out of thin air, waiting for government to enforce them. Government has to define, to specify them. If I find a dollar on the ground, am I allowed to keep it? If so, how is that different from if I find an unattended car with the keys in the ignition—am I similarly allowed to take possession of that car? If I jointly own a piece of property and I die, does the remainder of the property go to the other owner, or to my heirs? Do spouses have a right to one another’s income? Am I allowed to cut down branches from my neighbor’s tree that hang over my property? How much in the way of royalty fees must internet radio stations pay to copyright holders? Is the landlord or the tenant responsible for household repairs? Are investors liable for the debts the companies they own incur?


Government has to make rules governing these and many many other situations in which there are potentially conflicting or ambiguous property rights claims. This is significant because 1) the existence of functional market without functional government is impossible; governments are need to specify these laws, keep property records, prevent fraud, provide police enforcement, etc. There is simply no such thing as a free market independent of government. It’s also significant because 2) the specific rules and regulations government adopts in creating a property rights regime will necessarily impact the specific returns actors in the economy receive.  Whether I can build a chemical factory on my vacant lot a block away from Carytown affects the potential returns I can get from that property; so too do all the various laws specifying the precise extent of property rights.


Beyond these absolutely essential functions, modern governments also provide public goods, without which we’d be a much poorer society. The way these public goods are created also directly impacts the shape of the market and the returns individuals receive within them. An obvious example is the evolution of the computer industry in the 20th century, which is inseparable from the role of government spending and research. If the public hadn’t made the investments it made, we wouldn’t have so quickly reached the era of personal computers. Another example is the Internet—a direct product of public activity. Think of all the entrepreneurs now making a livelihood off the Internet; the market returns they are able to get are directly affected. Yet another example is suburban real estate development, which is enabled by the construction of public roads. Yet another would be any new large-scale industrial enterprise in the
United States, which typically receives a host of public subsidies from state and local governments.


The big point here is that there simply isn’t a free market untouched by government action; and that the specific character of government action shapes market returns. Consider one more example: human capital, and the income one’s skills are able to command in the market. One’s particular skill set is influenced (not determined, but predictably influenced) by the quality of schools one has attended. If one went to a public school, a public university, or received a government scholarship at any point, or went to a private school financed by tax-deductible private contributions, then the skills you developed and can now earn a profit from have been shaped directly by public action. If there were such a thing as a free market, you wouldn’t have had access to this crucial public good, which would have been bad for you and your economic prospects both a) because you likely would have fewer skills yourself and b) because you’d be living in a society in which many fewer people had such skills, meaning the overall productivity and quality of life of the society would be lowe


So where do taxes fit into all this? Taxes are part and parcel of the overall system of property rights. If we take seriously the fact that taxes are necessary to undertake the public action which sustains and shapes property rights regimes, we will recognize that it’s not the case that you have a “market” that generates returns and then a government that comes along and takes those returns away from us by taxes. Actors in the market wouldn’t have gotten those returns in the first place without the general activities of government, and the specific quantity of those returns are also shaped by the specific nature of those public activities.


That’s why A) we don’t have a right to our pre-tax income and B) we shouldn’t use our pre-tax income—which itself is an artifice of the specific regime of property rights in place at a given time– as a baseline for thinking about how fair the overall tax system is. Indeed, for thinking about distributive justice, asking how fair the tax system is generally a misleading way to ask the question; what we should be asking is how fair the property-rights-and-tax-system is as a whole.


Let me give one more example to spell out the logic behind and implications of conclusion A. Suppose I do in fact find a dollar lying on the street. Suppose also we’ve had dramatic tax reform and simplification (a cause with which I have some sympathy) and that now all taxes are collected via a sales tax on all purchases. In
Virginia, let’s say through the political process we’ve settled upon a sales tax of 9%.


Now in this scenario, I would have the right to keep that dollar as an unused piece of paper under my mattress, untaxed, for the next 30 years. Or I would have a right to spend it, and have 9% of its value taxed away at the point of sale. I wouldn’t have a right, however, to spend that dollar and not be taxed at all. If I (and everyone else) did have such a right, there would be no taxes, and consequently no system of property rights (or legally valid currency, for that matter), and we would be back in a state of nature nightmare ruled by force and fraud. Consequently, we don’t have a right to our pre-tax income as such.


Again (I hope) even many libertarians will follow me so far on this. But some may say, well we don’t have a right to all our pre-tax income, but government should only take the minimum necessary to keep the system intact. On this view, if (continuing the scenario laid out above), the 50 states each set their own sales tax rates, the state with the lowest tax rate would by the same fact be the “freest,” less oppressive state.


I disagree with that view. If say Mississippi had a tax rate of 6 cents compared to Virginia’s 9 cents, but Virginia provided more and better public goods than Mississippi,
Virginia might be the better, more prosperous place to live. Moreover, there would be nothing inherently less free about living in Virginia than in
Mississippi, even though the tax rate is higher. If that higher tax rate has been established by legitimate, democratic measures—with the approval of the people’s representatives—then no one’s rights or freedoms have been compromised; all that has taken place is a democratically sanctioned revision of the property rights system. In particular, it would be utterly invalid and illogical for a Virginia resident to claim that they have a moral right to have the $75,000 income they earned in Virginia with its 9% tax rate, instead be taxed at
Mississippi’s lower tax rate of 6%. By now hopefully the reason why such a claim is invalid should be clear; the fact that an individual is able to earn $75,000 pre-tax in Virginia depends heavily on the specific bundles of public goods and market-shaping government activities present in the state, which quite likely could not be sustained if the tax rate were slashed from 9% to 6%.


One further footnote: a public good does not have to be GDP-enhancing to be a public good. Public parks and health care for veterans and housing subsidies might have only a marginal (if any) impact on GDP. But they might improve quality of life in noneconomic terms (parks), or express or repay our debt to those who’ve served the country (veteran’s benefits), or assist persons who are not able to gain access to essential goods via the market (housing assistance).  Governments can legitimately act to provide such public goods when and if they serve other purposes deemed as important by the public.


This leads us to B), which has to do with questions of distributive justice. This topic was only hinted at in the RTD op-ed, so it’s fair to request a fuller explanation as a couple of posters have. The view here again is that 1) there is no “free market” apart from government activities in establishing a property regime and 2) the specific shape of such activities affects market returns, often in profound ways (as the human capital example hopefully shows). Consequently, we should not conceive of pre-tax income as the moral baseline for evaluating the fairness of tax policy, as if you had pretax income generated by “the market” on one side and government intervention only after the fact.  Rather we should focus our evaluations on the overall system of property rights and taxes (remember, no property rights without taxes!)—that is, on post-tax income.


Now, the practical upshot of the argument that we don’t have a moral right to pre-tax income is not that government should confiscate all market earnings. That would never be agreed to by a democratic government. And the notion that people should be rewarded for hard work, innovation, and cleverness, as well as for the contributions the use of their skills makes to society, is a compelling one. But it’s not the only relevant moral consideration to keep in mind here. If it were, old people and those who are disabled or otherwise can’t earn sufficient market returns to sustain themselves would be allowed to starve. So the notion of rewarding effort and endeavor must be traded off against competing moral considerations in judging our overall system of property rights and taxation (and subsequently, in the setting of actual tax rates).


Here we enter into fundamental moral debates about distributive justice which are beyond the scope of this little debate to enter into, although as the op-ed said I think we should be having more such debates. Here’s just one example of a relevant moral question: if I went to public high schools, and a public four-year university, all at taxpayer expense, and now am making great money in the six figures, can I protest if society (through democratic means) decides that it requires more of “my” pre-tax income in order to give more of the same opportunities I had to the next generation of citizens?


Two final notes: throughout all this it’s important to recognize that government isn’t an alien entity. It is us, our agent. That’s why we fought the British! Taxation without representation is illegitimate; taxation with representation is legitimate, necessary, and an essential part of a prosperous society. Thus Benjamin Franklin:  “Private property . . . is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing, its contributors therefore to the public Exingencies are not to be considered a Benefit on the Public, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honor and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or as payment for a just Debt.”


Second, no one can deny (and I do not) that there are some government expenditures which are not worthwhile and do not serve a compelling public good. To the extent this is the case, we should reform our political institutions and/or expand citizen oversight over our decisionmakers. It’s equally likely, however, that there are some public goods which are now underprovided, and where we would be better off with greater public investment. Judgments about both sorts of problems ultimately rely in the hands of democratic publics—that is, all of us.


Finally, it should be noted here that the ideas I’m advancing are neither original nor by any stretch of the imagination radical. At most, they are simply an explication of the principles behind our current system of taxation, and a defense of that system against the idea that government has us in chains via its current level of taxation. I’m not going to have time to make any further responses in this venue, but if you’re interested in reading authors who have developed the set of ideas I’m drawing on here in more detail, here are some recommended books:


The Cost of Rights by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes (

University of

Entitlement by Joseph Singer (


The Myth of Ownership by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel (

New York

Published in: on May 1, 2007 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tax Debate, Continued

Bart Hinkle of the RTD has on his blog a couple of potentially important criticisms of my op-ed on taxes today, and I posted a lengthy response over at his site, which I’ll reproduce here:

Thanks for the comments. Three responses. 

1. On the first point, you are right that not necessarily all government spending contributes to economic growth; but a lot of it does.  The
U.S. has a very low tax rate compared to other industrialized countries that have comparable prosperity to us (and often, better outcomes on social measures such as poverty and health care coverage). Anyway, the point of the argument here is not necessarily that we should raise (or lower) the total tax rate, but that we should recognize that our private incomes depend heavily on the provision of an effective set of public goods. This is true not only for government workers or businesses who get government contracts or restaurants which serve government workers or companies that benefit from publicly-generated technologies; it’s true more generally as well. So while we do have a right to critically assess what government does, the notion that our pre-tax income is “ours” and that government encroaches upon our freedom more and more with each additional dollar of tax it imposes is deeply flawed. The income we are able to get is thoroughly dependent upon our being part of a social system of which government is a central part, and not simply a function of our individual effort. The fact that the average American’s income is several order of magnitudes larger than that of residents of many developing countries is not a testament to our superior personal effort, but the fact that we are part of a social system that a) has and has had an effective public sector for many years that has provided essential public goods such as infrastructure, education, and public safety and b) that we’ve established and enforced (via government) a system of property rights which (while not perfect) has tended to encourage economic growth.

2. I do think (and if I had more space for a longer piece, would have tried to develop this argument more) that government places a critical role in not jus enforcing but also establishing and specifying property rights. An individual who claims “this is mine” is making an utterly meaningless claim unless the larger community accepts that claim is legitimate and is willing to enforce that claim against the encroachment of others. Then it becomes a right. 

Property rights in land, for instance, are essentially a monopoly on previously common or unowned resources that is granted to individuals by government. When we grant such monopolies to individuals, others lose a bit of their freedom–they no longer can cross or use the piece of land as they were able to before it fell under private ownership. For that restriction of freedom to be legitimate, it needs to be ratified by the larger community (acting typically through government). In establishing property rights, we essentially agree to establish a system of private monopolies, because it is believed that in this way we can best advance the common good. But as early theorists of property rights like Locke recognized, the extent of those rights is constrained by the requirement that they promote the common good. (For Locke on the legitimacy of taxation within a system of representation, see Second Treatise of Government, paragraph 140.)


But it’s not the case that government (in modern economies) simply enforces a pre-existing natural right to property. Rather government devises and specifies the nature of property, and also takes actions which directly affect the value of property. I have in mind here complex rules governing the transfer of titles and so forth; but also wholly artificial forms of property—such as patents which expire, and limited liability corporations—which simply could not exist without the actions of government. And these artificial forms of property constitute a major proportion of the American economy. An economy in which individual shareholders in corporations could be held personally responsible for the debts that corporation incurs would be very different from the one we presently have.


Government action also affects the value of property in very specific ways.  A house which is accessible by a public road and is connected to other forms of public infrastructure is vastly more valuable than an equally sized house that can’t be reached by a road. The important point here is that the specific value of our property holdings (including the income we receive) is inextricably intertwined with public activities.


For longer and no doubt more eloquent expression of this general set of ideas, I’d encourage readers to check out this series of blog postings by Elizabeth Anderson of the

University of
Michigan (here’s the link to part III of a three-part series, you can access the earlier parts from this link).


3. I don’t think that viewing property rights in this way (as fundamentally products of government) necessarily means we have to view all rights claims this way. Some rights claims are so ingrained in our political culture that they do indeed strike us as self-evident, and that in itself is not a bad thing.


But ask yourself this: what if you or are I had asserted an absolute right to express our views on politics and government in say 2nd century Rome, and went on to a launch a bitter, sarcastic attack on the rulers. What would have happened? Well, we’d probably have rotted away in dungeon somewhere. Nor would we have gotten a lot of sympathy from our fellow citizens, because the notion of a nearly absolute right to political speech was part of the Roman political culture at that time. If you had said, “but it’s self-evident,” you would have been laughed at.


So whether or not say political rights are in fact upheld in practice depends not only the actions of government in respecting those rights, but also whether there is a political culture which accepts and supports the moral legitimacy of such claims. Liberal (in the broad sense) political cultures do uphold such claims, and I’m glad of it. But this is a historical (and perhaps still fragile) achievement which (again) is inextricably intertwined with the emergence of liberal state constitutions (i.e. government action).


If one wants to believe that people by nature always and everywhere have and have always had the set of rights we today enjoy, that is fine, but it is a quasi-theological claim with little practical political significance. The enjoyment of such rights in practice, with which I am more concerned, depends upon the specific constitutions we establish and the evolution of political cultures supportive of such rights claims.


Published in: on April 30, 2007 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Tax Debate

The RTD this morning ran an op-ed of mine this morning criticizing the idea of “Tax Freedom Day”; it ran opposite an anti-taxation piece. Check it out!

Published in: on April 30, 2007 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

We’re On Hiatus At the Moment, But Check This Out…

If you haven’t noticed, this blog has been on hiatus for a few weeks, for the usual reasons: overload of other things to do, plus the need to take a breather. But we’ll be back in this space soon enough–perhaps in a somewhat revised format.

 In the meantime, students in one of my courses are writing a blog devoted to Richmond local affairs, urbanstudies.wordpress.com, which I’d encourage you to take a look at and respond to if you wish.

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 7:10 pm  Comments (1)  

Of Games and Gardens

Barton Hinkle has an interesting piece in today’s RTD comparing the top-down, bird’s eye view of the world offered by Sim City-style computer games with the more humble view of the world associated with what he calls the “respectful gardener.”

Hinkle has a couple of good points here. First, it’s undeniably true that many in the public policy world do tend towards a bird’s eye view of things, and have inclination towards wishing to implement rational plans that will create a public good. You can count me (for one) guilty as charged (and yes, I’m a big fan of Sim City and similar games–though not an uncritical one. See this piece I wrote in 2001, which offers some criticisms of the genre.)

Second, it’s also true that having only a bird’s eye view of the world can lead to hubris and a disregard of individuals, by seeing people as pieces to be manipulated rather than free creatures with minds of their own.

That said, I don’t think the gamer-gardener metaphor necessarily leads to the policy conclusions Hinkle implies in the couple of examples he gives. The first example is that of public health laws to ban trans fats in restaurant food; the second example is legislation to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

Let’s take the second case first. Hinkle says a respectful gardener will not try to tell others what to do in their own gardens. Fair enough. But public smoking legislation isn’t telling anyone what to do in their own gardens or private spaces. You can still smoke in your own garden, and you can invite friends over to your house and let them smoke. The legislation only comes into effect if you announce yourself as a business open to the public. Once you make that decision, you no longer are operating a purely private space; rather you are operating a space that the public has the right and responsibility to regulate so as to prevent public harms. We don’t allow public businesses to defraud customers or to practice racial discrimination, for instance.

So in this case, a policy of allowing smoking in public restaurants is essentially a policy to give some people the freedom to dump their smoke upon and increase the cancer risk of others. Replying that those who don’t want to go into smoky bars and restaurants don’t have to do so is not a reasonable response, because it places additional burdens (the cost of finding a place you can safely go, or the cost of not going out at all when you’d really like to because you know there will be smoke everywhere) on persons who haven’t done anything wrong, not upon the smokers who are creating externalities for third parties. In short, this is a case where competing liberties collide: the liberty of smokers to impose costs on others in public spaces vs. the liberty of non-smokers to enter any public location of their choosing confident that they will not be increasing their own cancer risk.

Let’s turn to the trans fat case. Here Hinkle is implicitly critiquing a form of paternalism in which the state says it know what’s best for people, and hence overrides their preferences.

But classical utilitarian philosophers, from John Stuart Mill in the 19th century to figures like Robert Goodin today, have long acknowledged, even in arguing for as much personal liberty as possible, that there are certain cases in which the government is justified in shaping individual behavior. One set of cases in when people are not fully informed about their actual choices, and hence unwittingly make choices in ways which undermine their own interests.

A second set of cases involves people having “preferences for preferences.” In these cases, individuals have both higher-order preferences (i.e. the desire to live a healthy lifestyle) and lower-order preferences (cravings for high-fat ice cream), which on occasion conflict with one another. Public policy which helps individuals act in ways which are consistent with their higher-order preferences then may actually enable individual freedom rather than hinder it; such policies might allow individuals to better be who they really (on reflection) want to be and to overcome internal temptations.

The trans fats example seems to fit both of these provisos. One could reasonably argue that consumers are not aware of what’s really in their food, and are unlikely to have the capacity to find out what’s in it. Because it’s reasonable to assume that everyone has a large interest in their own health, and that no one wants to jeopardize their own health without at least being aware of the risks they are taking, public policy which bans certain kinds of ingredients with no health value from use in public businesses (as opposed to what you choose to make for your family at home) can be justified; it’s simply a case of restraining one form of liberty (liberty to buy really fatty foods at a restaurant) in order to promote another (ability to eat restaurant food without unknowingly endangering one’s own health).

Again, in this case the distinction between private and public space is critical. Let’s agree with Hinkle that no one has a right (barring exceptional circumstances) to tell someone else what to do in their own home. But laws which ban trans fats from restaurant foods don’t affect what you choose to eat in your own home or how you choose to prepare the food. Rather, they regulate public transactions, recognizing that in the public world (as opposed to one’s garden) competing liberties often collide with one another.

Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 8:47 pm  Comments (3)  

Endorsing “What Works”

The RTD editorial pages  seem to have been overcome with a severe outbreak of decency and civility in the last couple of weeks. One of the best pieces of evidence for this thesis is the paper’s decision, publicized earlier this week, to fully endorse liberal columnist Leonard Pitts’s forthcoming series of articles on “what works” in confronting poverty and its consequences.

The Miami Herald columnist is soliciting by email information about successful anti-poverty programs and initiatives from around the country; Pitts will be writing about some of those examples in the months to come. The RTD is encouraging local readers to email Pitts (and cc them) and tell him about any local-area programs that come to mind. (There are a few; more on them in this space later, perhaps.)

Kudos to the RTD for embracing this useful initiative.

Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 7:30 pm  Comments (1)  

On Molly Ivins

The RTD today printed a very respectful appreciation of Texas columnist Molly Ivins, who died earlier this week of cancer. Ivins was in the regular rotation of syndicated columnists published by the RTD.

Appreciations of the tough-talking Texas populist are to be found all over the Internet; one of the sharpest is that of Paul Krugman, which appears in today’s New York Times.

Ivins was a unique voice in American politics: a southern woman with a fighting populism, a gift for mocking the powerful, and a world-class b.s. detector when it came to the pronouncements of the powerful.  You can hire another columnist, and you can even hire another progressive populist columnist, but you can’t hire another Molly Ivins.

She will be sorely missed.

Published in: on February 2, 2007 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Debating the War on Terror: Bacevich vs. Beinart

Tuesday night at 7 p.m., Dr. Andrew Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism, is coming to the University of Richmond (details here) to give a talk on the relationship between the military and American democracy.

It promises to be a very interesting event: Bacevich is a Vietnam veteran and a cultural conservative who has developed a far-reaching and powerful critique of the ways civilian leaders have come to rely on military power in the past 15 years.

Bacevich also is a stern critic of one of the RTD’s “liberal” syndicated columnists, Peter Beinart. Beinart has made a name for himself arguing that liberals can fight the war on terror better and smarter than the right. Bacevich argues that both the liberal and conservative versions of the war on terror are far too confident of the ability of military power to actually change the world in ways to our liking.

For the fuller argument, see this sharp review of Beinart’s book by Bacevich–or come out tomorrow night.

Published in: on January 29, 2007 at 4:42 pm  Comments (5)  

“Let’s Not Worry About Who Killed Who…”

 . . . so famously spoke Homer Simpson in an anxious attempt to deflect too much scrutiny into his culpability in the death of next-door neighbor Maude Flanders.

The RTD has a similar message in branding Jim Webb’s pointing out that he was against the war in Iraq all along as not “constructive.” The RTD seems to be implying that Webb was simply trying to get in a partisan knock on the president.

This is exactly wrong, for two central reasons. First, pointing out that the Bush team had poor judgment and ignored the many expert warnings against the dangers of invasion and occupation is entirely fair, because we cannot divorce our judgments about the latest “surge” plan from our judgments about this administration’s competence and ability to make wise decisions.

The fact that the Bush team royally screwed up Iraq, and that many people who were not listened to in 2003 predicted such an outcome, has real bearing on whom the public should be more inclined to trust in discussing what to do about Iraq in 2007. That’s an entirely constructive point for Senator Webb to put before the public.

Second, at some point this country is going to have to have a thorough inquisition into not only the Bush Administration’s actions in creating this quagmire, but also the overall political and media culture which enabled the invasion to proceed so rashly, with so little foresight and planning for what would come next, and so little serious debate and discussion in either the halls of power or our mainstream media outlets. If Americans as a people want to avoid being pulled into future Iraqs, we have to ask the question of why smart, experienced people with military experience or with first-hand knowledge of Iraq had so much less influence in the military run-up than a handful of neocon intellectuals who thought re-shaping the Middle East would be as easy as shifting pieces around a chess board.

Yes, that’s a question with a critical tone, but it absolutely serves a constructive purpose, and indeed, a constructive purpose of the highest importance.

Implicit also in the RTD’s critique of Webb is that those who opposed the Iraq invasion had no “constructive” alternative for dealing with Iraq or prosecuting the war on terror. This too is false: typically, opponents of the invasion favored continued containment and monitoring of the Saddam regime, while concentrating American effort and resources on 1) going after Al-Qaeda directly and 2) continued diplomatic efforts to isolate Al-Qaeda and other terrorists from the mainstream of Arab opinion, such that they remained a fringe group.

That serious voices on behalf of this strategy were so little heard in mainstream media outlets speaks only to the broader failure of our political system (the media very much included) in preventing this disaster.

Published in: on January 25, 2007 at 2:23 pm  Comments (3)