Category Archives: History

What would a progressive Supreme Court look like?

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, paired as it is with the 2016 election, leaves the future of the Supreme Court hanging in the balance. Yet while it’s obvious what a conservative future for the court would look like, it’s unclear what direction a progressive court would take. While conservatives have used judicial activism in recent years to reshape American politics, it is, somewhat ironically, murky what an activist progressive agenda would be.

Conservative judicial activism

The myth that liberals favor an activist Supreme Court is popular on the right. It is based largely on the legacy of the Warren court, though the most frequently cited “activist” decision, Roe v. Wade, was decided during the conservative Burger Court, and was written by Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee. A better reading of history, informed by works like Ian Millhiser’s “Injustices” and Erwin Chemerinsky’s “The Case Against the Court,” shows that for most of the court’s history it has been activist in favor of big business and powerful elites. The most famous decision in this vein is 1905’s Lochner v. New York, in which the court invented the “liberty of contract” to strike down labor regulations. (This sounds abstract, but Millhiser does the amazing service of drawing from contemporaneous documents to show how squalid working conditions at the time were.)

More recently, as well, conservatives on the court have had an activist streak. They have rewritten the Second Amendment, even though the previous interpretation had been settled for centuries. The court struck down key provisions in the Voting Rights Act, even though it had recently been repeatedly reauthorized by overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress. Conservatives on the court also memorably argued strongly in favor of striking down a president’s signature piece of legislation on grounds that most legal scholars (and Reagan’s solicitor general) found laughable. (Twice!) Conservatives on the court gutted Arizona’s popular public financing system. And the court has watered down Roe v. Wade, to the point where, for many women, the right to abortion exists in name only.

The point here is not to simply bring up the many qualms liberals have with the Roberts court, but rather note that in each case the court is exerting judicial activism: It is either overturning decades of precedent or it is exerting supremacy over the elected branches of government. Rather than favoring an “activist” court, for the last three decades, liberals have fought for a more constrained court, one that respects precedents on issues like abortion, guns and interstate commerce and empowers the elected branches of government and regulatory agencies.

That could all change. With the death of Antonin Scalia, a Democratic president — whether Obama or his successor, should Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders win in November — would have the opportunity to flip the court and also possibly to replace Ginsburg and Breyer, two liberal giants. It is also not unlikely that either Clarence Thomas or Anthony Kennedy could leave the court in the next five (or if a Democrat won in 2020, nine) years. But even without Thomas or Kennedy leaving, a Democratic president would shift the balance of the court inexorably toward the left. This would be the first time since 1968 (1968!) that the majority of SCOTUS justices were appointed by Democrats. The flip side is equally important: A Republican win would lead to two or even three decades of hegemony on the court. A conservative court would likely embrace Lochnerism and begin striking down labor, health and environmental protections with vigor.

What would a progressive court look like?

Having been out of power for so long, thinkers and writers on the left have tended to view the court largely as a threat to progressive values, rather than a means to promote them. (It is important not to overstate the power of the court to bring progressive change, as Gerald N. Rosenberg argues in “The Hollow Hope.”) This leaves us in an interesting situation: Progressives are finally poised to have control of the Supreme Court, but the progressive agenda largely consists of overturning bad rulings like Shelby, Heller, Parents Involved and Buckley.

The last time that Democratic nominees filled the Supreme Court, progressives eagerly proposed ways that the court could protect the oppressed. Legal scholar Frank Michelman, for instance, argued that basic rights to food, shelter and healthcare, are guaranteed by the Constitution. Today, such imagination seems less widespread, though the possibilities of an activist progressive court are endless.

Imagine if the court decided that the Hyde Amendment is unconstitutional, because abortion is a fundamental right and the government should facilitate, not restrict, access to abortion. Imagine if, rather than simply allowing school desegregation plans to be implemented, the court mandated more of them, since schools across the country are rapidly resegregating (see chart). Imagine if the court declared thatunequal funding for poor schools and schools that are majority students of color is not simply a gross injustice, but one that is in violation of the Constitution. Imagine a court that didn’t think confronting racial injustice was behind us, but rather in front of us. Or a court that opened the doorway to prosecute corporate environmental, labor and human rights abuses. Or a court that took seriously pay discrimination, unfair scheduling and wage theft, rather than limiting the ability of workers to file class action suits. The court could defend whistle-blowers and limit the surveillance state, which disproportionately preys upon people of color. By strengthening the Fourth Amendment, the court could rein in prosecutors and police officers, paving the way for decarceration.

A progressive Supreme Court could immediately end solitary confinement and would certainly find unconstitutional injustices in our current bail and public defensesystem. Further, in much the same way that the conservative court has worked to strengthen conservative causes by disempowering workers and empowering billionaires, a progressive court would empower cities to have more latitude in decision-making. Rather than just roll back Shelby, a progressive court could rule that voter ID laws and proof-of-citizenship requirements are unconstitutional. The court could also strengthen protections for workers trying to unionize or rule that right-to-work laws are unconstitutional. A progressive court would enshrine equality of political voice as a legitimate reason for campaign finance laws.

Progressives need an agenda for the court

Yet it’s unclear where many of the potential appointees stand on these issues, which of these areas to prioritize and what if any litmus test a Democratic president would apply on these issues. On the right, the situation is a bit different. As legal scholar Mark Tushnet notes, “Basically, anyone whom Ronald Reagan selected for the Supreme Court who had strong ties to the Federalist Society would have done just about what Scalia did.” Court watcher Jeffrey Toobin notes in “The Nine” that Bush had a very clear agenda for his appointees: Preserve the power of the president and begin dismantling Roe v. Wade. When Bush vetted possible candidates, Toobin notes, conservative activist groups were consulted, and at one point 60 “pro-family groups” were called so that Rove could make a case to them for the then-prospective nominee, Harriet Miers.

The progressive moment, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have a clear ideological litmus test for the court, or top priorities in making appointments. Should a Democratic president favor an appointee with a strong background on choice, but who opposes limits on campaign finance? And what if a candidate has a strong progressive background but is a white man, given how important lived experience to judging? Further, might the progressive movement want to make a strategic decision to de-prioritize the court to focus money and organizational muscle elsewhere? Should there be a more concerted effort to create a pipeline for progressive legal talent? How will the court shape the constraints on other branches of government?

Progressive legal scholars should begin debating these ideas and laying out legal justifications for them. Elite liberal thought leaders should begin to think about the possibility of a progressive court. Presidential candidates vying for progressive votes should say where they stand; not just on overturning bad conservative decisions, but on blazing the path to the future. And activists should begin considering what their demands might be, while think tanks begin to support them with legal research and advocacy. Possible Supreme Court appointees should be vetted based on their positions on these important questions.

On the right, organizations like the Federalist Society have dramatically re-envisioned the possibilities of the Supreme Court. Recently, conservatives have begun organizing a movement to wipe out decades of precedent and bring back the Lochner era, in which the court would strike down minimum wages and labor regulations. The right, in short, has done what progressives have not: invested serious intellectual and organizing energy into creating a more conservative court. To combat this, we need a progressive agenda for the court. Progressives may well soon take the reins. But we don’t know where the hell we’re going.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

On Income Inequality: An Interview With Branko Milanovic

Branko Milanovic is a World Bank economist and development specialist. He’s currently a visiting presidential professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center and a senior scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center. His book, The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, examines—as the title suggests—income inequality. Milanovic and Demos Research Assistant Sean McElwee recently discussed Milanovic’s research and the major shifts within the inequality research field.

Sean McElwee: You’ve been researching inequality for a long time. Inequality as a topic, for a while, was very unpopular. How has the way that inequality is discussed changed in the last decade?

Branko Milanovic: Well, yes, I’ve been researching inequality, income inequality to be precise, for many years. One could even argue that since the late 1970s to early 1980s it was a topic that had no particular appeal to economists. That is, until five to six years ago.

SM: So then, what happened to change this?

Branko Milanovic: What happened is, I think, first and foremost, the recession. Secondly, the mainstream economics became discredited, not because it could not predict or prevent the crisis, but because it was actually saying, until the very last moment, that the crisis cannot and will not happen.

Plus the realization by many people, when the crisis hit and they could no longer borrow as before, that their incomes had not grown in many years, is what really brought up the issue of inequality. Like, “how is it that some people’s incomes have increased a lot and my income stood still?” It was, of course, known by those few who dealt with income distribution before, but it never penetrated much into the economics profession nor into people’s consciousness. Then, with the crisis, things suddenly changed.

SM:  One of the things that I thought was most interesting about your work is this idea of the citizenship rent.

You said something like 60 percent of your income is determined at birth and then 20 additional percent by how rich are your parents. I was curious if we included race and gender in that, what percentage of your income do we know before you even begin your pre-K.

Branko Milanovic:  Global inequality studies were made possible by two events that occurred at about the same time, in the mid-1980s. First, for the first time ever we had income distribution data for most of the countries in the world. Before, you didn’t have household surveys from the Soviet Republics, China and most of Africa. That changed around mid 1980s/late 1980s.

The second thing that changed was, of course, globalization, the inclusion of China and formerly Communist countries in the world market, and thus much greater awareness of the large income gaps between countries and peoples, and of course greater competition.

The graph (for year 2008) shows on the horizontal axis a person’s position in their own country’s income distribution, and on the vertical axis, a person’s position in global income distribution. Thus, the poorest Americans (points 1 or 2 on the horizontal axis have incomes that put them above the 50th percentile worldwide). Note that 12% of the richest Americans belong to the global top 1%.

It turns out that—depending on the year and how detailed your data are—some 50 to 60 percent of income differences between individuals in the world is due simply to the mean income differences between the countries where people live. In other words, if you want to be rich, you’d better be born in a rich country (or emigrate there). You can see that in the figure here, where very poorest people in the United States have an income level which is equal to that of the middle class in China or even upper middle class in India.

So that’s very striking. At least half of your income is determined by where you live, which for most people is where you were born. Then about 20 percent is due to the income level of your parents. So, your citizenship plus your parental background explain around two-thirds or even 70 percent of your income.

Then, obviously, if I had data for gender, race, ethnicity and other things, which are similarly exogenously “given” to an individual, that percentage would go up, perhaps to more than 80 percent.

Sean McElwee: So it’s at least 80 percent, possibly more?

Branko Milanovic:  I am quite confident that if you were to add other things which, I underline, you did nothing to deserve or to be penalized for, you would go, probably, over 80 percent of your income being thus determined.

The lion’s share of that is due to citizenship, or for the individuals like myself who are just residents of rich countries and still get all the benefits, to the residency. This is what I call “the citizenship premium” or “citizenship rent.”

SM: There is more or less a way to deal with inequalities within countries, but how do we deal with inequalities across countries, especially given the way there’s the borders? The fact is, if we’re worried about the rich controlling the U.S. political system, the rich nations, very much control the international political system.

Branko Milanovic: For global equality there’s no mechanism, there are no clear tools, because there is no global government.

Essentially if you think of global inequality, you might say that you have, other than aid, two other tools. One is increase in the growth rate of the poor countries. And this is how, interestingly, you end up in a very curious position, from having started to worry about inequality ending up worrying primarily about economic growth of poor countries.

The second thing is migration. Migration reduces overall inequality on the assumption that when people from poor countries go to rich countries, their incomes go up.

Obviously, migration, while needed to reduce both global poverty and global inequality is not a panacea. Not everything is rosy: first, it could be that the incomes of the people that stay behind are reduced if most skilled people emigrate. This may still reduce global poverty and inequality but it does raise moral issues since we may end up with some countries that would, in the era of globalization, have to disappear: everyone will be better off if they migrated.

And there is a political issue of absorption of migrants in the recipient countries. Still, migration today, despite much attention it receives, has been relatively stagnant and small. In the last quarter of century, the percentage of people who live in the countries where they were not born has been stable at between 2 and 3 percent. Or to go back to your previous question, for 97% of the people in the world, half of their income is decided at the moment when they are born.

SM: Catherine Rampell in her New York Times review of your book, noted income mobility, and I think it gets at this distinction you like to make between good inequality and bad inequality. 

Branko Milanovic:  The bad or undeserved inequality would be the one that arises from the factors over which you have no control: what was the income level of your parents, whether you were born male or female, what is your race, and things like that.

The good inequality is inequality of effort, work, luck and so on.

SM: Okay. So let’s talk about your paper. There’s been a lot of recent research on GDP growth and inequality and it’s actually kind of shifted almost to the left, it sounds like, with more inequality leading to lower GDP growth. You find that actually it is a little more nuanced than that.

Branko Milanovic: I think that with the paper you mention, which I did in collaboration with Roy van der Weide from the World Bank, the novelty is that we “unpack” both growth and inequality.

In the past, the use of these two aggregate and “unnuanced” measures like GDP per capita and Gini coefficient, regressed on each other across countries, yielded the results that were all over the place: from a positive relationship between high inequality leading to higher growth to a negative relationship, to a very weak or non-existent relationship.

We thought of unpacking both growth and inequality. What does it mean? We don’t look at the growth of the mean only; we look at the growth rate at different points of the income distribution, we look at the growth rate of the very poor, say bottom 20 percent of people, we look at the rate of growth of the median, or among the top 10 percent or 5 percent, or top 1 percent.

Then, similarly, [we] disaggregate overall inequality into inequality among the poor, among the rich.

I think our most interesting finding—based on the U.S. data from 1960 to 2010, huge micro-censuses, conducted once every ten years and which include one percent of the U.S. households—is that if you look at income growth of the bottom 20% or bottom 40% of the population in period  “t+1”, that income growth is negatively correlated with inequality which existed in period “t”.

Let me put it in simple terms. Let’s suppose I’m a guy who is poor. I live in Massachusetts in 1990. Then the rate of growth of my income between 1990 and  2000, would be negatively correlated with income inequality that existed in Massachusetts in 1990. So we do it across all fifty U.S. states. Obviously, overall growth rates have declined over the last 50 years; also the shape of the growth rates across various income levels (the poor, the middle, the rich) has changed, as you can see here in the graph, but the negative correlation between inequality and subsequent real income growth of the poor remains.

It used to be that the U.S. growth was pro-poor, in the sense, that the growth rates among the poor were higher than amongst the rich. Now it’s the opposite. But that particular relationship between inequality and growth of the poor, we find it throughout the entire period. We can only speculate what are the reasons that make inequality be so bad, pernicious even, for the growth at low levels of income.

GrowthRate

Now, when you move to the top of income distribution, the story changes. Inequality may not be bad for the rich; actually, it’s positively correlated with their growth rates. So if you’re really a rich person in Massachusetts in 1990, then your growth rate, between 1990 and 2000 is going to be positively correlated with inequality which existed in Massachusetts in 1990.

In other words, the bottom-line is that we believe is evidence there to show that the rate of growth of the poor people is negatively affected by high inequality.

SM: The argument by many people who are center-left has been, “Oh, we now know that inequality is bad for growth, so the rich should get behind measures to reduce inequality,” but if you’re correct they actually do not have that political incentive.

Branko Milanovic: That’s a very good point, that’s your point, we don’t make it in the paper, but it’s very true. If you take what we find in the paper, that the growth coefficient on inequality for the rich is positive, then they don’t have an incentive to fight inequality. For their growth rate, inequality is good. It undermines the case for a sort of self-interest of the rich to be more accommodating.

This interview originally appeared on Policyshop.

The Republican Party’s cynical electoral philosophy

Last week, the Supreme Court upheld a law that could disenfranchise 600,000 Texans. But the effects of the law won’t fall equally: African-Americans and Latinos are 305 percent and 195 percent less likely (respectively) to have the necessary forms of identification than whites. The Republican party is increasingly unpopular, and relies almost exclusively on white voters. The charts below show the 2008 if only white men voted and if only people of color voted (source). Since 2008, people of color become a growing share of the voting population while the GOP has, if anything, moved further to the right. It has further alienated voters of color with racist attacks and laws. But as they say: if you can’t beat ‘em, make sure they don’t vote. Over the last four years the Republicans have gone through elaborate attempts to make sure populations that don’t support them don’t get a chance to vote.

 Since 2006, Republicans have pushed through voter ID laws in 34 states.  Such laws did not exist before 2006, when Indiana passed the first voter ID law. The laws were ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud, but a News21 investigation finds only 2,068 instance of alleged fraud since 2000 (that is out of over 146 million voters). They estimate that there is one accusation of voter fraud for every 15 million voters. As Mother Jones notes, instances of voter fraud are more rare than UFO sightings. There have been only 13 instances of in-person voter fraud (the sorts that a voter ID law would reduce), while 47,000 people claim to have seen a UFO.

On the other hand, research by the Brennan Center for Justice finds that, “as many as 11 percent of eligible voters do not have government-issued photo ID.” Those who do not have ID are most likely to be “seniors, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students” – i.e. people who vote Democratic (chart source).

There is now a large literature studying the effects of voter ID laws. James Avery and Mark Peffley find, “states with restrictive voter registration laws are much more likely to be biased toward upper-class turnout.” The GAO finds that, voter ID laws reduce turnout among those between ages 18-23 and African-Americans (two key Democratic constituencies). A 2013 study finds that the proposal and passage of voter ID laws are, “highly partisan, strategic, and racialized affairs.” They write, “Our findings confirm that Democrats are justified in their concern that restrictive voter legislation takes aim along racial lines with strategic partisan intent.” [Italics in original] The authors also find that increases in low-income voter turnout triggered voter ID laws. A more recent study finds, “where elections are competitive, the furtherance of restrictive voter ID laws is a means of maintaining Republican support while curtailing Democratic electoral gains.” That is, not all Republican legislatures propose voter ID laws – only those that face strong competition from Democrats. If Republicans are concerned about election integrity, why do they only pass voter ID laws when they’re about to lose an election? Because they’re using these laws for partisan advantage.

Voter ID laws are also racially motivated. A recent study finds that voters are significantly more likely to support a voter ID law when they are shown pictures of black people voting than when shown white people voting. In Minnesota, Take Action Minnesota showed that a pro-voter ID group had a picture on their website showing a black inmate voting and a man wearing a mariachi outfit – clearly playing off racial stereotypes.

But this isn’t the only time Republicans have tried to leverage state-level advantages into federal gains. After the 2010 walloping, Republicans decided they would need to tilt the odds in their favor. Using their control of state legislatures, they gerrymandered districts to ensure their victory. In 2012, Democrats actually had a larger share of the popular vote for the House of Representatives, while Republicans gained their largest House majority in 60 years. Cook Political Report noted, “House GOP Won 49 Percent of Votes, 54 Percent of Seats.” How? They changed the rules of the game. Karl Rove came out and said it in an op-ed, writing, “He who controls redistricting can control Congress.” They won in districts that were drawn specifically to allow them to win. There were certainly other factors at play, but it’s hard to image Republicans winning as many seats without their nifty swindle.

As Tim Dickinson points out, this isn’t the end:

In a project with the explicit blessing of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a half-dozen Republican-dominated legislatures in states that swing blue in presidential elections have advanced proposals to abandon the winner-take-all standard in the Electoral College…Thanks to the GOP’s gerrymandering, such a change would all but guarantee that a Democratic presidential candidate in a big, diverse state like Michigan would lose the split of electoral votes even if he or she won in a popular landslide.

If Republicans have their way, we’ll eventually be back to the days of the poll tax and the literacy test, where the votes of blacks, youth and the poor simply don’t count. We’re already half-way there; one study finds that the indirect costs of obtaining a voter ID are higher than the cost of a poll tax was. The Senate, with its antiquated system of two Senators per state means that the largely rural, old, white and conservative Midwest and South have far more sway than liberal metropolitan areas. By one estimate, 0.59% of the U.S. population will decide control of the Senate this election. This gives Republicans a strong advantage in the Senate, something to remember if they win it this election.

Republicans have also made use of felony disenfranchisement to boost their electoral success. Some 5.85 million Americans are denied the vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Because of the racial bias in our criminal justice system and the war on drugs, a disproportionate share of these voters are black. One study finds that because felons are more likely to be poor and people of color, disenfranchisement benefits Republicans. The authors estimate that, “at least one Republican presidential victory would have been reversed if former felons had been allowed to vote.” Further, they find that such laws may have impacted control of the Senate, and even more state and local elections. It’s no surprise that in Florida, a state where 10% of voters can’t vote because of a felony conviction, one of Rick Scott’s first moves as governor was to tighten rules for felons trying to gain voting rights. To add insult to injury, some 2 million incarcerated citizens are often counted as residents of the place where they are incarcerated, rather than their home. This allows districts where prisons are built to gain disproportionate influence because districts will often include large, non-voting prison populations. In Ward 6 of Rhode Island, prisoners represented 25% of the population.

The radicalism of the Tea Party and the Republican party at-large is partially due to the fact that they don’t represent the whole population- they represent a primarily white and middle to high income voting bloc. And that’s how Republicans want to keep it – they know they can’t win in fair race, so like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, they set all sorts of obstacles in their opponent’s way. Hopefully, much like Dick Dasterdly and Muttley, their plan will blow up in their faces. Voters will be so angry about Republican attempts to suppress the vote that they’ll turn out in even higher numbers. Evidence suggests that a shift in turnout would have important effects on policy. Sadly, convicted felons, undocumented immigrants and many citizens without ID will still be denied the vote. In the cartoons, cheaters never win, for Republicans it’s been a successful electoral strategy for three decades running.

 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Salon.

Religion is historically contingent

Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.

At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.

Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies.  Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, thedisbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.

Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,

there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.

Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”

One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…

He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …

This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.

As Karl Marx writes,

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,

Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.

While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.

These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. This sounds extreme, but of course it is not. A brief glimpse at the history of theology shows that it has always been embedded and interpreted by a society under ideological blinders. Views on the trinity were decided by Constantine. The initial Sunni-Shiite divide was largely a political one, not a question of doctrine. This isn’t to degrade religion, but simply acknowledge the fact that it is understood by humans, with their attendant biases. As an example, Paul’s dictum, “he who does not work, neither shall he eat,” is popular with both V.I. Lenin and Michele Bachmann. Religion is not simply something given from above, it is something believers wrestle and engage with.

In the U.S. we can see a rather sad example of the power of material conditions to create ideology and shape religious beliefs. The United States was built on the economic exploitation of slaves. To defend the practice of slavery, Europeans and Americans devised the ideology of race. Race does not exist biologically – the color of someone’s skin says nothing of their genetic makeup, intelligence, etc. Race had to be created, and religion and science provided the justification. Science spent decades trying to prove that blacks were inferior, using objective methods like brain size, skull shape and other pseudo-scientific ideas. As Paul Finkelman notes,

Lo and behold, [Louis Agassiz] discovers that white American males are the smartest people on earth, followed in gradation by the English, the French, and then other Europeans, and then other races, with blacks always on the bottom. Ah, curiously, some English scholars do the same thing. They discover Englishmen are actually smarter than Americans, followed by French and other Europeans. And guess what the French discover? That the French are really smarter than both.

The example of race is actually interesting because some Christians didn’t buy it. They believed that God had created humans on the same day; this was Louis Agassiz’s original position. It was the “objective” scientists who pored over skull fragments to prove that blacks were inferior. But many Christians also accepted the myth of race, and read these ideas into their Bibles. The “curse of Ham” was claimed as proof that racial hierarchy was acceptable and blacks were inferior. Judge Leon M. Bazile declared, “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.”

However, the Bible can just as easily be used to critique slavery. Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As David Brion Davis has shown, this curse has been used to justify oppression against Jews and the poor as well. He argues that these sentiments didn’t exist when the Bible was written, but were added in later. This is not to say science is evil, or that scientists are evil — any more than the Crusades prove that religion is evil. It is simply to say that humans qua humans will never think without being deeply ingrained in cultural circumstances. We’re simply too flawed.

When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.

The criticism of “radical Islam” in fact bears resemblance to another dodge today. In the wake of usurpation, violence and plunder, white Americans look at blacks and worry about “cultural pathologies,” where only economic deprivation exists. At the core, the fallacy is the same — ascribing a negative culture to an oppressed and maligned group.

During the debate, Bill Maher claimed, “Islam at the moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” A more correct assessment is that the material circumstances in the Middle East, many of them the legacy of colonial repression and exploitation, are the motherlode of bad ideas. But it is Maher and Harris (and, of course, Hitchens) who support these very policies. Ultimately, the attack on Islam is a convenient dodge, a means to obfuscate the harm of past oppression under the guise of liberal pluralism. Religion will always exist and will reflect material circumstances; it is therefore best to support religious moderates, but also remove the despair and deprivation that allow violent ideologies to flourish.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!

Conclusion 

English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

The GOP’s libertarian time bomb: Why “going Rand” would be an electoral disaster

The time has come again for a perennial theme in politics: the idea that Republicans should “go libertarian.” The questionable premise, forwarded most recently by Robert Draper and Emily Ekins, is that the Republican Party could sweep up millennials, who are “socially liberal” and “economically conservative,” by adopting a more libertarian message. The ascent of popular startups like Uber and Airbnb — which have about them a decidedly libertarian flavor — has only strengthened this supposedly conventional wisdom.

Here’s the thing, though. The data show that this is an unlikely possibility, but more problematically, doing so would actually decimate the Republican base. The truth is, libertarianism is antithetical to conservatism.

The Republican base, broadly speaking, is made up of five often-overlapping coalitions: business conservatives who seek low taxes and low regulation; foreign policy hawks who seek a strong defense budget; social conservatives who fear moral anarchy; racists and nativists worried about immigration and affirmative action; and elderly retirees who rely on Social Security and Medicare. This coalition is already difficult enough to maintain, but in the future it will become more difficult.

And a “libertarian” message would only further erode the base.

Business conservatives seem like they would be the most open to a libertarian message. After all, lower taxes and less regulation are amenable to both groups. But Republicans are already very pro-business and anti-regulation; to go further in order to pull in a few more libertarians would entail (1) decreased fiscal or monetary intervention, or (2) the elimination of corporate subsidies. Both of these moves would alienate business conservatives, who, after all, rely significantly on government support (to the tune of $92 billion in 2006) and accept the need for countercyclical spending policies. Libertarians might struggle to support Republicans doling out farm subsidies year after year, subsidizing exports and bailing out big businesses and banks, but business conservatives demand it.

Foreign policy hawks would also find many of the core tenets of libertarianism — skepticism of foreign interventionism, opposition to the NSA and a healthy loathing of the military-industrial complex — to be problematic. Republicans could try to peel off support among libertarians by opposing torture, closing Guantanamo and investigating the NSA, but it’s tough to believe that the party of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld would be able to garner much trust. The swift turn of Rand Paul from libertarian anti-interventionist to foreign policy hawk attests to the difficulty in going this route.

Social conservatives would likely be the most difficult challenge to libertarians. Libertarians tend to support individual  liberty:the right to gamble, drink, smoke, watch pornography, take one’s own life, participate in any form of sexual activity and use drugs. Needless to say, these views would be incredibly problematic for the moral majority coalition, which still forms an incredibly important part of the Republican base. It was Hayek who wrote in “Why I’m Not A Conservative”: “The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes… like the socialist he regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds onto other people.”

While it’s often considered impolite to note in public, a rather significant base of Republican power is still nativism. Witness the hysterical response to Central American refugees, the baseless claims against Obama’s citizenship, and the opposition to any immigration reform that doesn’t include a moat full of crocodiles across the border. But most libertarians are strongly supportive of open borders. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan calls it, “The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP.” In a world when even the “reasonable” Republicans are still spouting xenophobic drivel, witness Ross Douthat’s columnworrying that “the bills under discussion almost always offer some form of legal status before enforcement takes effect, which promises a replay of the Reagan-era amnesty’s failure to ever deliver the limits on future immigration that it promised.”

Finally, there are the elderly retirees, whose support Republicans maintain by making sure that any spending cuts fall on the backs of the poor – not the old. One wonders how they would receive the Cato Institute plan to turn Social Security into private savings accounts subject to market forces. Many would balk if a politician called Social Security “federally mandated generational theft,” but this is how Nick Gillespie regards it. Social Security and Medicare are sacrosanct and any attempt to reform them is likely a “third rail” that would lead to electoral death for the politician that tried.

The problem with libertarianism is mainly that few people agree with its ideological assumptions — but will often come to the same political answer. But this means that most people will be “libertarian” on some issues, rather than use a libertarian mode of thinking to get there. So people may be programmatically libertarian, but ideologically disagree with fundamental assumptions. As political scientist Seth Masket writes, “Basically everyone agrees with libertarians on something, but they tend to get freaked out just as quickly by the ideology’s other stances.”

These contradictions are obvious, and Draper’s widely discussed piece touches on some of them. For instance, there is Mollie Hemingway, who claims to be a libertarian, but is anti-choice and rejects gay marriage. She argued that although “‘people should be free to organize their own lifestyle,’ the state had a unique interest in protecting heterosexual marriage, because it was ‘the relationship that’s ordered to producing children.’” She might want to turn to Ayn Rand, who argued that, “but it is improper for the law to interfere with a relationship between consenting adults” and noted that “abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”

Or what of Murray Rothbard’s claim that “the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.” Hemingway is a programmatic libertarian — she likes some proposals, but rejects the radical individualism libertarianism truly entails.

And those are on the issues where Republicans are supposed to agree with Libertarians. Nick Gillespie touches on the minor contradictions in an interview for Draper’s piece:

Republicans always saw libertarians as nice to have around in case they wanted to score some weed, and we always knew where there was a party. And for a while it made sense to bunk up with them. But after a while, it would be like, ‘So if we agree on limited government, how about opening the borders?’ No, that’s crazy. ‘How about legalizing drugs? How about giving gays equal rights?’ No, come on, be serious. And so I thought, There’s nothing in this for me.

He leaves some equally problematic things out: legalized prostitution, restrained foreign policy, massive defense cuts, abolishing social security and Austrian economics. None of these will curry favor with the Republican establishment. The question is not whether there are a large number of Americans who would be excited by libertarianism; the question is whether the Republicans could maintain their current coalition and also court these voters — this seems unlikely.

Then there’s the fact that Rand Paul, once an ardent libertarian, has had to step back on numerous positions. There’s the fact that Gary Johnson alienated the base and Ron Paul looked loony in 2012, opposing the Iraq War, calling for an end to the federal reserve and arguing that the government should legalize all drugs. Ronald Reagan, who successfully used libertarian rhetoric (see: A Time for Choosingeschewed it when governing. The Republican Party has long used libertarian rhetoric while pursuing statist policies. The Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, ranks the 50 states based on “freedom,” but weights “tax burden” as 28.6% of the metric and “freedom from tort abuse” as 11.5%, while “civil liberties” only account for 0.6% of a state’s score and “education policy” 1.9%. In Mercatus-land, alcohol, gun and cigarette freedom rank above marriage freedom, and abortion goes unmentioned. A libertarian turn for conservatives would be nice — libertarians actually hold the free market views conservatives claim and actually accept the importance of reason and individual liberty. But this is the reason it will never happen: True libertarianism would decimate the Republican base, so instead a half-hearted libertarianism prevails — stripped of policies, it subsists on empty rhetoric. But then again, the last few Republican rebranding efforts have been empty rhetoric, and so will this one.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

How to Fight Oligarchy: Lessons From The States

Patrick Flavin is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baylor University. He is also doing pioneering work in the area of policy representation at the state level. You can find a discussion of his work here. I talked with him about his studies and what they tell us about fixing our democracy.

Sean McElwee: What exactly did you do? You have a rank of states by political equality of representation, what does that mean?

Patrick Flavin: All the papers use a pretty similar method. It basically measures how strongly the relationship is between the higher your income is and the likelihood that your ideology will be well-represented by policy. So think of two people and we had a number line from a one to a ten and the state generally passed policy measures that are a six and someone who is at the number line at the six would be well represented, someone with a one would not be well represented. So the table ranks how much income correlates with that. In Mississippi there is a strong relationship between your income and your representation, in North Dakota that relationship is not strong.

S: Does the inequality of a state affect the inequality of representation?

P: Usually states with higher levels of economic inequality also tend to be the most politically unequal. States with a big divide in rich and poor in income also tend to have a bigger divide in political representation. It’s not a one-to-one relationship or a perfect correlation, but it’s a general pattern. For example, Mississippi has a fair amount of really poor people with more liberal preferences, but Mississippi tends to pass very conservative legislation.

S: You had an interesting paper on what constitutes responsiveness. For some people  it’s ideological preferences and for some people it’s how much money is being brought back to the state.

P: The study of political inequality bounces between two measures. The first is opinions or ideology, which we discussed before. The second is interests. We would assume, I would argue rightly, that those at the bottom end of the spectrum would prefer more spending on public assistance and greater public spending. Surveys support that idea. I find that states that have stricter campaign finance laws pass more egalitarian policies on public assistance. That’s another way of measuring representation. There is not an agreed upon way of doing this. Martin Gilens looks at individual policies. We all tend to be finding the same thing, which is that there is unequal representation between the rich and poor.

S: But you’re the only one who has done this on the state level, which gives us a chance to see what works. What works?

P: One relationship is disclosure laws. There are three ways to regulating campaign finance. The first is ensuring that donors have to disclose who they are donating to. The second is limiting how much donors can give. The third is moving to a public financing system. The only type of policy I found with a strong relationship with my measure was disclosure requirements. I think that’s important because disclosure is something that both parties can agree on. There tends to be more agreement on the question. I also find that states the more strictly regulate lobbying and lobbyist interactions and what type of gifts they can give – those states are more egalitarian in terms of whose opinions get represented. That’s a good thing to learn for the states and possibly bring to the federal level. This policy is especially good in the wake of Citizen’s United, because in the wake of Citizen’s United individual and organizational limits allow individuals to spend independently.

S: Now what policies don’t have a strong correlation? You found, for instance, that more participation for low-income voters doesn’t have a strong effect.

P: Right. That’s depressing but it’s also consistent with what others have found. Places where the poor turn out they don’t seem to have more representation, which is a very troubling finding. The poor don’t get a whole bunch of a boost from voting. There is also research showing that minorities get less of a representational boost from turnouts than whites [Flavin refers here to the research of John Griffin and Brian Newman.]

[Interviewer’s Note: Flavin also points out that other studies find that turnout affects representation. One study specifically examined the low-income turnout, and found policy responsiveness increased with a higher low-income turnout. See this summary.]

S: Could gerrymandering and housing segregation explain the racial gap?

P: That’s probably part of the explanation. You have districts with Democratic candidates winning with 90% of the vote. It can definitely help explain racial inequality, but it can’t help with income inequality.

S: You also have a study that finds the more regulations a state has the more money that is distributed to the poor?

P: Yes. There are six policies I looked at: disclosure, limits on individuals, limits on organizations, whether there are public funds for governors, public funds for legislatures and clean elections. I gave each state a score for each year examined [1962 – 2006]. Then I compared it to what percentage of a state’s budget goes toward public welfare in general and then to cash assistance in particular.

S: To put it baldly, then, if we don’t get money out of politics, it won’t matter as much if poor people vote?

P: If poor people voted at the same rates as rich people, I’d expect they’d be better represented but at an institutional, practical recommendations level, passing laws that limit campaign finance are doable, so I focus on the laws side of things. There is evidence that these laws work.

S: Do you have any thoughts on the DISCLOSE Act?

P: I find that the stringency of disclosure requirements is statistically related to the equality of political representation across the states. Out of possible campaign finance fixes disclosure requirements seem to have the most bipartisan support, though this support is certainly not universal. It is probably the most practical/realistic area to push for reform.

An ultimately unpersuasive response to my new atheism argument

Salon has posted a riposte to my piece. I (unsurprisingly) find it unpersuasive. Here are some thoughts. Luciano argues that,

While creationism is certainly quackery, I take issue with the idea that it is not a religious belief. Creationism is a religious belief by definition. It is the idea that god created the universe and animals in their current form less than 10,000 years ago. This may not be McElwee’s belief, but it is certainly the belief of Ham and millions of other Christians. If McElwee truly believes that young earth creationism is not a religious belief, I challenge him to produce a scientist who rejects the creation account in Genesis, but is nonetheless a young earth creationist.

I think the problem here is that Luciano thinks a statement can either be religious or scientific. I would disagree with him that creationism is religious in the same way I imagine he would disagree (rightly) with me if I said that Lysenkoism was scientific. Religion becomes quackery when it tries to make assertions about the repeatable, observable functioning of the natural world (i.e. a scientific claim).

Luciano notes, “Second, the ‘modern man’ is actually more moral than his predecessors.” I bring this up only because it was only recently that I predicted we would hear this line more often from the new atheist crowd (I address the use of the term NA in a footnote). That’s because NA is not in fact a defense of non-religion, but rather western imperialism. It is the new “Oreintalism” and like the old Oreintalism, it has only the scantest knowledge of the tradition it attacks.

He argues next,

However, the reality is that religion conveys no more wisdom on people than say, Aesop’s fables. But in fairness to Aesop, no one has ever cited his works as justification for irrational hatred and violence. The idea that religion is the only thing keeping people from moral nihilism is easily debunked by the fact that there are millions of people who reject religion yet lead moral lives.

Luciano does not realize that he has given religion the highest of praise! Here is the story of Kassie Neou, a human rights advocate from a Cambodia, during his time in a KR prison cell, as relayed by Samantha Power in A Problem From Hell:  

Captured nonetheless, Neou was tortured five times and spent six months in a KR prison with thirty-six other inmates. Of the thirty-seven who were bound together with iron clasps, only Neou’s hope of survival was rewarded. The young guards executed the others but spared him because they had gown fond of the Aesop’s fables he told them as bedtime stories.

This is the profound impact that a simple story can have on even the most deprived and violent individuals. It is no surprise that Christ, Buddha and Muhammad make ample use of metaphor, parable and analogy. I would argue that the truth’s within Nietzsche, Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Nabokov and Christ are at least as important as the truths found in Darwin and Gould, even if the former cannot be tested in any way other than being lived.

Luciano expounds on the violence point by ending his piece with the Weinberg quote I have regularly lampooned: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” This is the sentiment of an educated. white. man. If I persuade my readers of nothing else, I hope to persuade them that the utter humiliation and degradation of deprivation is a far more powerful impetus to evil than belief in the metaphysical. This has been my argument from the beginning, and I stand by it. Religious extremism, and to a large extent, religion itself, is a reaction to the broader political and economic forces within society.

Note: So apparently calling an atheist a “new atheist” is a slur: “First, I have never heard anyone refer to himself as a “New Atheist.” As far as I can tell, it is most commonly intended as a smear by believers and accommodationists – those who believe there is a common ground to be had between religion and science.” It then falls to me to develop a neologism. I think “evangelical atheist” will suffice.*

* I jest of course, “new atheist” is here to stay. It stuck in a way “bright” didn’t and it describes an important zeitgeist. It has been used by neutral sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and atheists themselves.

 

Right Still Leans on Social Darwinism

Conservative and libertarian arguments about social spending are rooted in the discredited Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.

Social Darwinism was the intellectual vogue of early 19th century sociology. The movement, led by Herbert Spencer, who coined the term, “survival of the fittest.” purported to apply Darwinian principles to the working of society. The attempt was doomed from the start because Spencer also relied on the discredited theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed down to offspring. Spencer also assumed that society was subject to “natural laws,” rather than being an artificial construction as prominent sociologist Lester Ward argued.

Spencer’s work suited conservatives, because he argued against social reform to help the poor because their poverty was to due to weakness. They were unfit and should be eliminated. He argued against all state intervention, which would impede the natural development and progression of society.

William Graham Sumner became a leading proponent of Social Darwinism, arguing that the wealthy were rich because of natural selection and argued that their wealth was a social service. Sumner argued that hereditary wealth allowed the fittest to pass on their virtues to children. He argued, “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.” That is, people are not shaped by society, but rather have intrinsic qualities and the market should filter out the weak from the strong.

In Sinclair Lewis’s, Babbitt, George Babbitt describes the tenets of social Darwinism,

The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God’s world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ’em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce! That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.

Social Darwinism assumes that markets are efficient and the only just way to allocate resources in a society and that any deviation from the market outcome would stunt society’s development by “coddling” the poor. This sanctification of the market became untenable for most Americans in the wake of the Great Depression.

The backlash against Social Darwinism eventually ushered in a progressive era. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thorstein Veblen exposed the fallacy that the wealthiest had superior scrupules or a strong work ethic. Henry George noted that, “Mr. Spencer is like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.” Peter Kropotkin, noted that the biological world was rife with interspecies co-operation and that this cooperation in the face of environmental struggle drove progress. The progressive era brought about programs to increase opportunity, shared sacrifice and the social safety net.

In the 1980s, Social Darwinism re-emerged in the form of supply-side economics – the theory that the rich drive society and the poor hang along for the ride. As J.K. Galbraith noted of Reagan’s economic program,

Let us take supply-side theory at its face value, however modest that may be. It holds that the work habits of the American people are tied irrevocably to their income, though in a curiously perverse way. The poor do not work because they have too much income; the rich do not work because they do not have enough income. You expand and revitalize the economy by giving the poor less, the rich more.

The most prominent proponent of the new Social Darwinism was Charles Murray, whoseLosing Ground provided key support for anti-welfare crusaders by arguing that the social safety net has made the poor lazy and that society is splitting in two, between the hard-working and justly rich and the lazy poor. In his essay, “The Coming White Underclass,” Murray exemplifies the hands-off conservatism and “survival of the fittest” mentality of social darwinism:

To restore the rewards and penalties of marriage does not require social engineering. Rather, it requires that the state stop interfering with the natural forces that have done the job quite effectively for millennia… Restoring economic penalties translates into the first and central policy prescription: to end all economic support for single mothers. The AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) payment goes to zero. Single mothers are not eligible for subsidized housing or for food stamps. An assortment of other subsidies and in-kind benefits disappear… From society’s perspective, to have a baby that you cannot care for yourself is profoundly irresponsible, and the government will no longer subsidize it. (Italics Added)

More recently, Social Darwinism has been embraced by the Conservative wunderkid, Paul Ryan who worries that,

We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.

Paul Ryan’s “maker vs. taker” narrative is also resurrected Social Darwinism, where the poor are lazy and the rich are virtuous and all government intervention makes the poor lazier and robs the rich of their deserved rewards.

Although Richard Hofstadter declared social Darwinism dead in the early 20th century, he warned that “A resurgence of social Darwinism… is always a possibility as long as there is a strong element of predacity in society.” With inequality tearing at the social bonds necessary to maintain the welfare state, old Spencerian arguments are being used to justify cuts to the minimum wagefood stamps and Medicaid spending. As the famous Johnson ad goes, “poverty is not a trait of character, it is created anew in each generation, but not by heredity, by circumstances.”

Term Limits Are Not the Answer

One of the popular refrains after any government crisis or leadership failure is the call for “term limits.” The debt-ceiling/government shutdown debate is no different. Not at all.

But, unlike other reforms, which would improve the U.S. political system (campaign-finance reform, more earmarks, open primaries, a shortened campaign season, redistricting reform, actual journalism) or scrap it all together – parliamentary systems are way better – “term limits” would do nil to make our political system better. Instead, term limits would just shorten the time period politicians would have to wait before hopping into a cushy lobbying position.

Here’s a quick primer on how Congress works. A new congressperson comes in ready to change the world and learn that they ain’t shit. They learn that it’ll be a long time before they do anything other than voting up or down on bills other people have proposed. After a while, they get on a committee and actually start doing something. It’s something like that (my source for this is House of Cards).

So, being something of an armchair journalist, I decided to see how long each of the 32 House Republican dumbasses in charge of shutting down the government had been serving.

Here’s a rundown:

Justin Amash (2011) – 2 yrs.

Michele Bachmann (2007) – 6 yrs.

Marsha Blackburn (2003) – 10 yrs.

Mo Brooks (2011) – 2 yrs.

Paul Broun (2007) – 6 yrs.

John Carter (2003) – 10 yrs.

John Culberson (2001) – 12 yrs.

Ron DeSantis (2013) – < 1 yr.

Scott DesJarlais (2011) – 2 yrs.

Jeff Duncan (2011) – 2 yrs.

John Fleming (2009) – 4 yrs.

Scott Garrett (2003) – 10 yrs.

Phil Gingrey (2003) – 10 yrs.

Louie Gohmert (2005) – 8 yrs.

Tom Graves (2010) – 3 yrs.

Vicky Hartzler (2011) – 2 yrs.

Tim Huelskamp (2011) – 2 yrs.

Jim Jordan (2011) – 2 yrs.

Steve King (2003) – 10 yrs.

Paul Labrador (2011) – 2 yrs.

Tom Massie (2012) – 1 yr.

Tom McClintock (2009) – 4 yrs.

Mark Meadows (2013) – < 1 yr.

Randy Neugebauer (2003) – 10 yrs.

Matt Salmon (1995) – 18 yrs.

Mark Sanford (1995) – 18 yrs.

Steve Scalise (2008) – 5 yrs.

Dave Schweikert (2011) – 2 yrs.

Steve Stockman (2013) – < 1 yr.

Marlin Stutzman (2010) – 3 yrs.

Randy Weber (2013) – < 1 yr.

Ted Yoho (2013) – < 1 yr.

171/32 = 5.3 yrs.

Average in House = 9.1 yrs.

So almost all of the “cuckoo birds” who are in charge of the shutdown are juniors. They don’t have any relationships with the Democrats or moderate Republicans with whom they need to bargain.

I honestly think the most ironic article about the shutdown so far is “Ted Cruz shows need for term limits.” That’s right folks, the junior Senator who is bucking his party’s leadership to shutdown the government shows the need for term limits. Seriously. Someone said that (that someone is also happy about the shutdown, which may indicate the intelligence of his position).

Term limits would change the motivations. Instead of working on building relationships and working up the totem pole, Representatives and Senators would be inclined to spend time preparing for their life outside of Congress, rather than guarding their legacy. That means even more power for the bureaucrats, staffers and lobbyists swarming around the capitol.

If a politician is doing well, let them keep their job. The best way to weed out the gold from the dross, wheat from the chaff (or any other analogy you would like to use) is to actually make districts competitive, allow competitors access to public financing and open up primaries. Term limits, ironically, would leave us only career politicians, those interested in making a buck, rather than a difference. The problem isn’t career politicians, it’s career lobbyists and politicians more concerned about trying to get re-elected than actually governing. The problem is politicians who know their district is safe and therefore have no interest in compromising. Like the dummies who shut down the government.