Political debates: 2- He said:

First, as soon as we start ‘balancing’ freedom of individuals with anything else, we’re already coming untethered. The only ‘balance’ there should be is the one the Constitution strikes between the individual and the state – a balance which has inexorably tilted toward the state since the founding, and accelerated with the expansion of the administrate state/bureaucracy. Second, the ‘collective’ has no rights. Rights travel with individuals. Individuals may choose to exercise those rights as part of a group (e.g. free speech by a protest march, owning private property with an investment team) but the rights are tied not to the collective but the individuals thereof (hence why I and many conservatives believe Citizens United was properly decided).

Anyway – I’ve been trying out the following argument on my socialist (truly) uncle to no avail, but let me see if it works on someone I consider much more rational. The reason we argue so divisively over politics, fight tooth and nail for every inch of our ideology, and most often fail to compromise is that the state impacts so much of our day-to-day lives. Government at all levels is so large and so expansive that we have to fight there, for fear of losing any semblance of the individual. For example – I sit on my county’s Board of Adjustment. We literally have ordinances that prescribe the size, number, and spacing of trees/brush/plantings that must encircle each type of commercial building. We spent an hour at our last meeting arguing if the current level of forestation on a piece of private property was sufficient to meet the statute for building a self-storage facility. And this is at the county level – let alone the state or federal level. When government starts to prescribe something as minute as the trees on my property, you’re damn sure I’m going to argue like hell when they try to mandate what gets included in my health insurance plan (something of infinitely greater importance to my overall wellbeing).

And when government gets so big – particularly at the federal level – you know who wins? Other big things – big business, big labor, big lobbying, etc. This to me is the overarching argument for smaller government at all levels. And you know why politicians of both parties don’t want that? As Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds is fond of saying – insufficient opportunities for graft. Smaller government – even with a decent safety net – would greatly increase the odds of compromise because no longer would we be talking about things that strike to the very core of our individuality. We’d be back to talking about whether there should be a tariff on Chinese goods, for lack of a better example. If you want politicians to get out of the pockets of ‘big’ things, you need to reshape the incentive structure – and so long as ‘big’ always wins (because they have the time/money/resources to actually figure out how government actually works), there will be no incentive to trim it down. And the thing that is mind-boggling to me about poorer Democrat voters is that they are getting royally f**ked by the upper class of their party who are the very elite who create the system that keeps them poor and dependent. [Yes, that last sentence was a bit of a gratuitous cheap shot, but you get my drift.]

+1 on getting rid of gerrymandering. I’d do away with it in a heartbeat. Draw horizontal and vertical lines across each state. We’d see partisanship go down in a New York minute.

On the inequality bit – I wish Democrats would admit they want equality of outcomes. Don’t be coy about it – out with it. Let’s have an honest debate. I’d love to know what a liberal’s ideal top tax rate is. What percentage of total taxes should the top 1% pay? Top 5%? Top 20%? When will we have enough? Here’s the thing that makes me die inside though – and what tells me that today’s liberals don’t actually care about raising people out of poverty – we know certain behaviors greatly increase the likelihood of being a middle class family and yet liberals outright REFUSE to facilitate policies that would incent those behaviors. Please read Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart – fantastic illustration of this. We KNOW that waiting until you’re married to have kids is a quote-unquote good thing. We KNOW that finishing high school is a similar good thing (but no, it must be in a public school taught by a unionized teacher, wah wah). And yet – nothing.

Lastly (for now) – pulling out random numbers is exactly how you expose the fraud of government spending. No one will fix the abomination that is Medicare fraud until you point out instead of giving quality healthcare to Grandma, government is busy researching whether rhesus monkeys respond to phallic symbols on the second Thursday of the month.

Yours in smaller government and a freer civil society,

Political debates: 1- She said:

Although I lean left, and I voted for Obama with lots of hope, I in no way blindly support his policies or rhetoric. There are a lot of flaws in him and his administration and I freely admit that, but I think most of that debate is a smokescreen. I think it is about both sides avoiding things we don’t want to talk about- because it makes us look bad, or because we are afraid there is no possibility of reconciliation. Who knows? Debating over whether he or his administration is at fault for a fatally flawed system ignores the greater point that most politically minded (young) people need to address which is

a)       How do we come to consensus on the things we can agree on (as an ideological basis for future policies) and

b)      How do we begin to tactically execute on those priorities in a way that balances freedom of individuals, some kind of safety net for those we deem to be unable to provide for themselves and deserving of some social support to enable them some dignity and the rights/ needs of the collective?

Politics has become so divisive- about how to beat the other guy, prove people wrong, take things away from one group so we can give it to another. But the reality is that we are all here together, and we do have issues that face us all and are better solved by finding common ground and then common solutions. There are collective action problems that must be solved together, and problems that when solved together are more likely to have positive and longer term solutions. At the same time it is unproductive (at best) to deny the individual as much power and responsibility for their own actions as feasible within a highly dense social population.

Both parties are now in bed with special interest groups in such a way that governance is almost impossible. It used to be that government was able to play mediator between factions within society who rightly or wrongly believed their interests to be mutually exclusive to other factions. At times government was able to help those groups find a common ground, and when they couldn’t both sides trusted them to arbitrate fairly for the best interests for society. Between campaign contributions and gerrymandering we have pretty well f*ed up the system we had working for us.

In terms of equality- I think is issue is less about the income equality, and more about the socio-economic level within which we think it is beneficial to have the majority of society exist. Once we have an idea about what that level is, there are a number of tactics that can be employed to attempt to bring more people to that point- but we haven’t agreed on that first piece. There are a lot of issues on the backend that make up the nuance- how much is any one individual or group responsible for their own poverty/ deprivation? Who has responsibility to change those circumstances- especially if we don’t all see ourselves on the same side? If I don’t agree with the moral choices they make how much do I get to dictate their behavior to balance the economic support I may be offering?

At the base level, any society attempts policies to contain chaos and anarchy: wealth redistribution, monopolies of violence and some form of bureaucracy are the main instruments by which that is accomplished but which nuanced articulation and instantiation of those policies we choose to use is undermined by the extent to which we are so busy yelling at and blaming the other guy for the things they are not doing…

Anyway… just a few opening thoughts 🙂

PS- I do think that pulling out random numbers from the budget about things we overspent on is both a red herring and unproductive but that might be the academic that still lives in my heart [response to a different thread]

So it begins

As many people know I like to debate, often more than is good for me. Over the last several months I have been having debates with people at work. (Yes, they were willing participants, I promise!)

One of the reasons I love my job, and my place of employment is the fact that I get to work with really intelligent, interested people. We happened to have a night out the same evening as the State of the Union. At first, I thought it would be a problem, exposing the significant political differences between myself and a few of my colleagues. Never deterred, I broached the subject with one I considered a friend and instead of assuming our friendship was over he agreed to have lunch and actually discuss the issues, like adults, and explore where we agreed and where we differed. He even offered homework to better understand where he was coming from!

Fast forward a month or two, and another person I work with heard about our ongoing debate. We began an email dialogue that has been highly thought-provoking (though slow as we are both very busy- although me less than him). A few weeks ago, as I was composing a response I realized that our dialogue might be of interest to other people. We disagree. A lot. But I think that we are managing to find the relevant points of clash and consider them in ways I don’t get a lot of exposure to elsewhere. I really value the ability to have hard conversations and I think we are lacking much of that in our current political discourse.  Although at times we veer towards jocularity (and have been accused of having a long-word contest) I think there is substance in the argument, and might help point out some of where our public conversations are missing.

Anyway, he graciously gave me permission to post the contents here for all to read. I hope you enjoy reading and that it might spur some intellectual reflection of your own. Always appreciate thoughts, responses or ideas in return, although I really can’t promise swiftness in my response.

They are rather long, so I will be posting as independent pieces, read in chronological order for it to make more sense.

Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.