On the subject of intelligence …

Relating to friday’s discussion of the role of espionage in our daily lives, take a look at this article from the New York Times. It makes some useful points about the successes and limitations of electronic intelligence gathering, and lays out some consequences for foreign policy that we didn’t consider.

I urge you to read to the end and to consider the implications of the phrase “turnkey totalitarianism.”

Enjoy your weekend.


An attempt at summing up the last month …

This article does a pretty good job of arguing that, while the last month may have dealt a blow to the Tea Party, the ideas that motivate its supporters aren’t going anywhere.

I wonder what you think of the author’s take on Madison and on the likelihood that the feelings that underlie the Tea Party’s animosity might actually disrupt the party system.

Let’s see what you come up with.

Before you talk about tax policy …

I strongly urge you to read this article from the philosophy blog at the New York Times. It really sets out that philosophical grounding of the two extremes of policy making in the U.S. today. Be warned though, when the author describes Nozick as a liberal, she means it in the classical sense, which is closer to what we would consider the libertarian position today.


Please, please think about this when you cast your policy arguments in moral terms.

In lieu of a debate in class …

So this week we were supposed to debate the merits and demerits of pork barrel spending, or, as it has come to be known in more genteel phrasing, earmarking. We didn’t have the debate, largely because the issue, which was relevant when I began teaching government, has become much less so since the House in 2011 “banned” the use of earmarks.

Another reason why I’ve given up on this classroom activity is that the subject just doesn’t make for good debate for the simple reason that the arguments for pork are based on an insider’s view of the legislative process, and the arguments against it are largely cries of outrage at the “frivolous” things that “corrupt” politicians spend our “hard-earned tax dollars” on. (Sorry for the scare quotes, but I don’t have a better way to indicated cliches).

I thought that the issue of pork was pretty much dead, but the government dysfunction epitomized by last week’s shutdown and debt ceiling debacle has brought pork back into the spotlight. (or perhaps heat-lamp? Ok, I’ll stop).

So, for your reading pleasure are two articles that argue in favor of rolling out the pork barrel once again. The first is from 1998, so most of the cast of characters will be unfamiliar to many readers. Remember this when you read about President Clinton and his healthcare plan. The second is from yesterday, and references pork as a way to avoid future government shutdowns.

Read them and let me know what you think. Is it reasonable to expect lawmakers to bring back earmarks in this age of radical deficit cutting?

This shutdown is a godsend for civics teachers

Ok, so the title is a bit of a joke, since it’s getting increasingly difficult to try to teach how the government is supposed to work when it so clearly isn’t working. But on the positive side, the current conflict between the executive and legislative branches (or, if you prefer the media shorthand, between the President and House Republicans) is providing many, MANY articles about some of the more arcane aspects of congressional procedure.

For example, in most years I would gloss over the whole notion of a discharge petition. But luckily, thanks to the reluctance of the Speaker to bring a continuing resolution to a vote, we have multiple articles on this rather obscure procedural maneuver.

Here’s one from the New Republic that goes really inside baseball both in describing what a discharge petition is and why we can’t have one right away. It’s particularly helpful in reminding us about the role that the Speaker plays in bringing bills to the floor of the house and explains why so much of the focus is on John Boehner.  And here is the Washington Post explaining why we’re not likely to see one, even though they think it would be a good idea. The National Review agrees.

So, read these articles and you should have greater insight into both the power of the Speaker and the discharge petition.

BONUS: The Debt Ceiling!

Now moving on from the shutdown to the debt ceiling, (which I’ve pointed out in class is probably going to be a disaster if there is no movement from Congress to raise it). Apparently there’s a growing feeling, at least among some Republicans, that breaching the debt ceiling might not be so bad. This article points out why people who take this sanguine view are wrong.  This piece, by a law professor from the University of Chicago (which is not known for its liberal politics) explains what the president could do to avoid a debt default if Congress does not act to raise the debt ceiling. I strongly urge you to read it as it provides a useful introduction to the way that the President can interact with Congress in an emergency situation. You should read it.

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories..

In fact, I really despise conspiracy theories for the most part. But this article from the New York Times is making me re-consider. 

Now, I know that by the legal definition there is no conspiracy here, unless someone can prove an actual act of bribery, or maybe fraud, but I couldn’t help reading this and thinking that it just seems wrong for any group, liberal or conservative, to plot to subvert the democratic process in this way. 

Maybe this is just how interest group pluralism is supposed to work. I wouldn’t have a problem with groups pushing positive legislation (by which I mean legislation that advances a new policy, not legislation that simply obstructs policy implementation or avoids legislative responsibility) even if I disagreed with the policy itself. 

I was already fed up with lawmakers acting like spoiled children who, having lost a game, pitch a fit and take their ball and go home. But this makes the whole thing seem much more sinister. And depressing. 

Blame the Constitution?

So, a propos of the government shutdown that is now entering it’s third day, I came across two articles arguing that the constitution itself, is to blame for the malfunctioning government. Please read them and, based on your knowledge of the constitution comment on whether you think the authors are correct, and, if so what could be done to fix the problems.




Sorry to be such a downer.

The Politics of Cruelty

Before you stop reading, no, this isn’t going to be a post bashing the Republican party as cruel for shutting down the government and effectively denying services that are utilized by those Americans least likely to help themselves. It’s about how the Democrats, given this situation, might use cruelty to their advantage. 

We seem pretty far away from a solution to the government shutdown because it is in neither party’s political interest to re-open the government. Republicans can claim that they are standing up against Obamacare specifically and government spending generally; there’s a certain logic to shutting down a government that you have proclaimed is wasteful and inefficient at best and the enemy of the public at worst. Democrats have no reason to be seen as giving in to Republican demands, especially when the media has framed this as a petty squabble led by a small faction of extremists willing to hold the country hostage because they don’t like a law that was passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme court and “ratified” by a presidential re-election. Media narratives tend to be sticky, and I doubt that, even if the Republicans gave up on all their demands and it was the Democrats who then refused to open the government until the Republicans backed down on the debt ceiling, the public would change its mind and begin blaming the Democrats. So why wouldn’t the Democrats press this advantage?

One reason might be that public opinion polls are running squarely against the entire Congress, not just the Republicans, and that America’s chief Democrat, President Obama, isn’t all that popular either. But I think a more significant reason is that keeping the government closed hurts poor people, and Democrats, at least liberal ones, are psychologically averse to inflicting pain, especially on those who can least afford to bear it. Republicans, on the other hand are more inclined to let the poor suffer, if not actively make things worse for them. (I get this summary of Democratic and Republican attitudes towards inflicting pain from Tom Edsall’s book, The Age of Austerity which neatly compiles a lot of data from opinion polling and other research in chapter 2). So it will be difficult for Democrats to allow this shutdown to continue any longer than it has to, especially if it means no headstart classes for poor children. 

But maybe they should. After all, many of the recipients of government aid live in very red Republican-held districts. It’s possible that these people might be turned against the right wing if they can be led to believe that the Republicans are responsible for their lost benefits. It shouldn’t be difficult to maintain this belief, even if it isn’t true, since it makes more sense to believe that conservatives would cut benefits than liberals. After all, liberals don’t have the heart, right? And it’s not likely that Democrats are going to lose any votes for cutting benefits — especially, say Social Security disability benefits — in these states, or even in blue states, because what are appalled liberals going to do, vote for Republicans? 

When you take into account the persistence of media narratives and perceptions about the characteristics of Republicans and Democrats and add in the idea that people will be swayed by their own economic interests, it seems plausible that a prolonged shutdown that cuts deep into the economic lives of red-state republicans might possibly turn out better for democrats. In other words, they might have to be cruel to be kind. 

Shutdown: Day 1

I realize that the title of this post suggests that I will be keeping a running log of what the NYTimes is calling John Boehner’s Shutdown, but that’s misleading. There is just too much coverage in the mainstream media of the government shutdown that began today, and frankly, most of what I read is overwhelmingly depressing.

So today I’m going to post a couple of links to articles that you should think about.

The first one is an Op-Ed piece that looks at the American economic picture. A number of you have commented on the article about the shrinking middle class and the consensus seems to be that the phenomenon is the result of market forces and that there isn’t much the government can do. This piece (along with this one) may make you think a little differently.

The second article you should look at is this piece in Salon (sorry about the noisy ads  I don’t usually read Salon, but it showed up in my Twitter feed, so there you are). Since you are all getting more and more familiar with the constitution, I’d be interested to hear what you think of his arguments about how the constitution is to blame for the shutdown. Do you think that James Madison would agree?

A little history on government shutdowns

In the next week or so we should be hearing a lot about government shutdowns, so this article provides a little history on what happened the last time the U.S. government was shut down over a budget battle.

In particular I’d ask you to look at the way people play fast and lose with historical interpretation and with polling data. Remember this latter point in the spring when we look more closely at polling.

And now on to the even more frightening issue: the debt ceiling debate. We’ll be talking about this a lot in class in the next week or so, but for now I’d like you to read these two (admittedly liberal) takes on the debates in Congress.

First from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/27/us/politics/house-gop-leaders-list-conditions-for-raising-debt-ceiling.html?hp

And this from the Washington Post (only read the first section):


And you MUST read this, from the National Review online, which is supposedly the House Republicans’ initial gambit in the debt ceiling negotiations. Business Insider has a succinct take on this position calling it at total fantasy. I have to admit, when I read it, I thought that this was a joke, but apparently it’ s not.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, especially on the debt ceiling issue. Also check out some of the new links to articles I’ve posted in the “articles and links” page.