A Republican Confesses

The Republican Party has been rotten since the days of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Some of the less crazy Republicans are now acknowledging the party’s downward trajectory. This apology was written by a political consultant, Stuart Stevens, for The New York Times (I’ve removed some historical and self-serving parts):

I spent decades working to elect Republicans, including Mr. Romney and four other presidential candidates, and I am here to bear reluctant witness that Mr. Txxxx didn’t hijack the Republican Party. He is the logical conclusion of what the party became over the past 50 or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race-baiting, self-deception and anger that now dominate it. Hold Dxxxx Txxxx up to a mirror and that bulging, scowling orange face is today’s Republican Party.

I saw the warning signs but ignored them and chose to believe what I wanted to believe: The party wasn’t just a white grievance party; there was still a big tent; the others guys were worse. Many of us in the party saw this dark side and told ourselves it was a recessive gene. We were wrong. It turned out to be the dominant gene.

What is most telling is that the Republican Party actively embraced, supported, defended and now enthusiastically identifies with a man who eagerly exploits the nation’s racial tensions. In our system, political parties should serve a circuit breaker function. The Republican Party never pulled the switch. . . .

There is a collective blame to be shared by those of us who have created the modern Republican Party that has so egregiously betrayed the principles it claimed to represent. My j’accuse is against us all, not a few individuals who were the most egregious.

How did this happen? How do you abandon deeply held beliefs about character, personal responsibility, foreign policy and the national debt in a matter of months? You don’t. The obvious answer is those beliefs weren’t deeply held. What others and I thought were bedrock values turned out to be mere marketing slogans easily replaced. I feel like the guy working for Bernie Madoff who thought they were actually beating the market.

Mr. Txxxx has served a useful purpose by exposing the deep flaws of a major American political party. Like a heavy truck driven over a bridge on the edge of failure, he has made it impossible to ignore the long-developing fault lines of the Republican Party. A party rooted in decency and values does not embrace the anger that Mr. Txxxx peddles as patriotism.

This collapse of a major political party as a moral governing force is unlike anything we have seen in modern American politics. The closest parallel is the demise of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, when the dissonance between what the party said it stood for and what citizens actually experienced was so great that it was unsustainable.

This election should signal a day of reckoning for the party and all who claim it as a political identity. Will it? I’ve given up hope that there are any lines of decency or normalcy that once crossed would move Republican leaders to act as if they took their oath of office more seriously than their allegiance to party. Only fear will motivate the party to change — the cold fear only defeat can bring.

That defeat is looming. Will it bring desperately needed change to the Republican Party? I’d like to say I’m hopeful. But that would be a lie and there have been too many lies for too long.

Other Lives Matter

Charles Pierce of Esquire starts with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964:

The great modern conservative project, launched by the Goldwater campaign . . . and perverting itself and the Republic by tiny degrees ever since, has finally reached its inevitable end-point in the kind of president* that project had, by those same tiny degrees, made inevitable. This is the moment transcendent, this is the moment revealed. The great modern conservative project turned itself, by those same tiny degrees, into an authoritarian opposition to a democratic republic and all its institutions. Steadily, it abandoned decency, civility, science, reason, and simple humanity. And here we are . . .

A crippled nation, literally a sick nation, watching a feckless (or worse) administration* taking actions that actively make the public health situation worse, watching Pinochet tactics in the streets, and promising to bring those tactics to a number of American cities in advance of a national election, with all that implies and entails. And doing so by relying on policies drafted and implemented by a previous Republican administration [George W. Bush’s] back in the days when this president* merely was a guy presiding over a televised freak show, and not creating one out of the country he was elected to lead. It took long, hard, relentless work by hundreds of conservative politicians, judges, journalists, consultants, billionaires, think-tanks, and foundations to bring the country to this miserable pass.

Akim Reinhardt, writing for Three Quarks Daily, starts with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980:

Reagan’s advanced age and patriotic message rang true with older voters, while his bold (and ultimately false) promise of a quick yet fiscally responsible cure to stagflation attracted worried and struggling Americans. His electoral hammering of incumbent Jimmy Carter signaled the return of ideals that had not held sway since the 1920s: an unregulated free market economy, and the exaltation of individualism . . .

The Reagan Revolution resuscitated pre-Depression American conservativism . . .  . Under Reagan’s leadership it emerged as a right wing coalition of low tax free marketeers; small government individualists; white racists . . . resentful about civil rights; Cold War hawks; and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals.

The Reagan Revolution deeply affected American politics, economics, and culture. Americans are still living in the world it remade. Newly committed to free market economics, fetishizing individualism while demonizing government, and slowly absorbing the disaffected whites in the aftermath of civil rights, the Republican Party immediately began winnowing its moderate wing and completely eliminating its liberal wing, eventually transforming itself from a center-right party to an increasingly far-right party. . . .

American society has always celebrated individualism, arguably more so than any other nation. But that vaunted individualism was usually tempered by grand historical epochs that limited untrammeled self-interest through means both good and bad.

That is no longer the case.

Victorian culture’s dubious emphasis on personal restraint has long since withered. The generation of adults who survived the Great Depression and WWII are almost entirely gone. The Cold War ended nearly 30 years ago, its coercive demands for unity and conformity now a distant memory. Today’s senior political leadership is drawn from a cohort that, even as far back as the 1970s, was derided as the Me Generation.

Healthy democratic institutions and shared governance need citizens and politicians to maintain at least a modest concern for and deference to the greater good. Unfettered self-interest has the potential to spawn no-holds-barred competitions that supplant the public interest with a single-minded focus on acquiring power and wealth. And the delicate balance between collective and personal self-interests, with its sloshing equilibrium, had tilted to one end long before Dxxxx Txxxx took power.

Now the Vice Lord rages from his gilded bully pulpit as his crooked, broken regime reaches a lurid nadir of unfettered self-interest. He and his have willfully ignored, discredited, attacked, and destroyed longstanding norms of common interest. Through blase cronyism and nepotism, naked corruption, and the profound incompetence that inevitably accompanies such crimes, they have widened the cracks in an imperfect and vulnerable political cultural that was already struggling to bind us together.

Dxxxx Txxxx is not a shocking aberration. Rather, he is the banal culmination of four decades of runaway self-interest. . . . Forty years in the making, his corrupt presidency symbolizes the heights of unchecked self-interest and shamelessness, made acute by his own mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders. Txxxx needed a perfect storm to get elected, and then unleashed a storm of runaway self-interest on the White House. He is the extreme, and hopefully also a turning point. The final, loudest wailing of American immaturity and selfishness.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times starts with last week:

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida said something remarkably stupid the other day. . . .

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

Actually, this isn’t true. . . . But [that] is beside the point. The reason we need to close gyms isn’t to protect the people working out, it’s to protect the other people they might infect. Even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers . . .

Prof. Krugman could have cited a remarkably stupid statement from another Republican governor, Mike Parson of Missouri:

“These kids have got to get back to school,” Parson said in an interview Friday. . . .“They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.” 

Will their teachers, parents, grandparents, babysitters too?

Back to Krugman:

Five months and almost 140,000 deaths into this pandemic, many Republicans still can’t or won’t grasp the point that choices have consequences beyond those to the individual who makes them [or for whom we make them, like children].

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

Again, this should be obvious. It’s common sense; it is also, as it happens, basic economics. Econ 101 has lots of good things to say about free markets (probably too many good things, but that’s a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of economics says that free markets, left to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” — costs that individuals or businesses impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but spreading a dangerous virus poses exactly the same issues.

Yet many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

Some readers may be aware that Senator Rand Paul — who proclaims himself a libertarian — has been doing a lot of sniping at Dr. Anthony Fauci….. What struck me, however, was the way Paul justified his attacks on epidemiologists’ recommendations: by invoking the free-market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Whatever you think of Hayek. . . ., this is bizarre. Decentralized decision-making can do lots of things, but establishing scientific truth isn’t one of those things. And even conservatives used to understand both that expertise matters and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.

But conservatives, and Republicans, have changed. The modern American right is all about denying that people have any responsibility for each other, and muzzling experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.

And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a large part of the reason America is failing the Covid-19 test so spectacularly.

Spinoza, Nietzsche and Living in a Material World

Charlie Huenemann, a philosophy professor at Utah State, was interviewed in April by Richard Marshall for Marshall’s “End Times” series. It’s a good interview, and I especially liked the way Huenemann compared the philosophies of Spinoza and Nietzsche.

images

    Baruch and Friedrich

[CH] I think of Spinoza as a radical religious reformer. I think he was trying to say this: “There is a single entity whose nature determines the structure and existence of the universe, and that entity is the thing that people have been calling “God” for many centuries. But they got the metaphysics (or theology) very wrong, and now we’re in a position to figure out what this divine thing really is, and to see how the writers of scriptures managed to get the basic moral of the story right, while getting all the metaphysical stuff wrong. And by the way, if you understand what I’m saying, you’ll see that there’s no harm in allowing philosophers to write about such things.”

It’s surprising how explicit Spinoza is about all this in his Theological-Political Treatise. He basically says just what I said, though with greater care, and elegant Latin. And saying that was hugely radical for his day. The hypothesis that it was somehow a cloak meant to disguise a view that was even more unthinkable seems to me very unlikely. If that’s what he was up to, then he was an idiot, or at least completely out of touch with his audience. The book he wrote was seen immediately as about the most heretical thing a person could write. So it’s implausible to suspect that he was pulling any punches.

[RM] You say you pit a Spinoza naturalism against a Nietzsche naturalism. Can you sketch for us the salient elements that form this contrast and what it tells us about contemporary attitudes towards naturalism . . . ?

[CH] I should say at the outset that I myself don’t feel like I have a dog in this fight. I suspect the naturalism I would describe as Nietzschean is probably true, and that it’s sort of disappointing, and Spinoza’s naturalism is far groovier, but implausible. . . I can’t blame someone for going in with Spinoza: it’s profoundly moving to see the whole of nature as divine. On the other hand, if someone throws in with Nietzsche, they should be fully aware of all they are repudiating. In distinguishing the two kinds of naturalism, I mainly want to direct readers’ attention to the “meaning of life” consequences of these ways of being a naturalist.

Anyway, on to the distinction. Spinoza sees the universe as divine in some important sense. There is an essence to it that lives and breathes in all of its parts. We can come to know that essence through rational demonstration, but he also leaves room for a more immediate and somewhat mystical access to that essence. In his naturalism, humans are part of nature in a way that might best be called “belonging”: we share an essence with all natural things, and in virtue of sharing that essence we can come to know our universal union with all things and attain a special kind of joy in contemplating it. It’s in that sense that I’d call Spinoza’s nature a sanctuary. It’s a sanctuary from despair, alienation, and disconnection – which, incidentally, must have been significant forces in Spinoza’s own life. To be a Spinozist is to see all things, including oneself, as an expression of divinity.

But Nietzsche’s naturalism is quite different. Here I need to be careful, because I think Nietzsche isn’t perfectly consistent over his writings, and sometimes (especially when Zarathustra is speaking) nature is every bit as holy and mystical as anything found in Spinoza. But in other moods, Nietzsche seeks to establish a naturalism that is more like our modern-day naturalism, which is fundamentally a denial of any special features of the universe that might make us feel more at home. The universe itself is a product of chance; that life evolves in some parts of it is entirely accidental; humans are pushed and pulled by all sorts of blind, non-teleological [i.e. non-purposeful] forces. Nothing is inherently significant, and that certainly includes us. Clearly Spinoza agrees with some elements of this (such as denying teleology and any special human significance), but somehow Spinoza manages, at least by the end of the Ethics, to restore a sense of natural divinity and belonging.

In the parts of Nietzsche’s philosophy that might be called “nay-sayings”, any sense of belonging is obliterated as merely wishful thinking. We stand at the edge of an uncaring abyss, which is oblivion, death, and meaninglessness. This is followed by Nietzsche’s “yea-saying” part, in which we take it upon ourselves to create meaning, etc. But that challenging, never-ending project of “becoming who you are” makes sense only against a backdrop of an utterly uncaring natural world. To put the distinction into a tidy formula, Spinoza thinks we need to sync ourselves with nature, while Nietzsche thinks we need to weaponize it in the war we wage against meaninglessness. (That strikes me immediately as too tidy, but on the other hand I kind of like how it sounds, so I’ll stick with it!)

Because of their similarities, Nietzsche was enthusiastic about Spinoza early on, but I think he eventually saw Spinoza as illegitimately allowing himself a refuge under the banner of “reason”. If Spinoza had sought true authenticity, he would have torn that banner down and faced down the irrational, chaotic indifference Nietzsche saw in the natural order. (This indifference of the world was an important element in Nietzsche’s own life, too.) It’s the will to power we are dealing with, according to Nietzsche, not the reason for all being.

So, if we want to be naturalists, we might ask ourselves just what it means to be purely natural beings. Is it to be inconsequential by-products of an meaningless process of generation and destruction? Or do we somehow attain an important kind of peace (or even salvation, in some sense) by coming to understand our place in nature? The people who popularize science tend to suggest something uplifting like the second view: human glory consists in coming to understand the vast cosmos, etc. Few people allow the first view any air time, except maybe dystopian sci-fi authors. I realize it’s no fun to mope about in existential despair, and it’s pointless to be pointless. Still, the real character of Nietzschean naturalism . . . needs to be seen clearly for what it is, and we’re guilty of false consciousness when we pretend that anything of alleged intrinsic value survives it.

[LF] With all this in mind, is there any doubt that Spinoza, Nietzsche, Huenemann and Marshall would agree that the current American president is a disaster and we should vote him and every other Republican out of office in November?

No, there isn’t any doubt. If you’re willing and able to support Democratic candidates in addition to voting for them, please consider doing so.

A Comment, a Column, and Carnage

“There isn’t any iceberg. There was an iceberg but it’s in a totally different ocean. The iceberg is in this ocean but it will melt very soon. There is an iceberg but we didn’t hit the iceberg. We hit the iceberg, but the damage will be repaired very shortly. The iceberg is a Chinese iceberg. We are taking on water but every passenger who wants a lifeboat can get a lifeboat, and they are beautiful lifeboats. Look, passengers need to ask nicely for the lifeboats if they want them. We don’t have any lifeboats, we’re not lifeboat distributors. Passengers should have planned for icebergs and brought their own lifeboats. I really don’t think we need that many lifeboats and they’re supposed to be our lifeboats, not the passenger’s lifeboats. The lifeboats were left on shore by the last captain of this ship. Nobody could have foreseen this iceberg.”

Someone calling themselves “Citizen” submitted that comment after reading Paul Krugman’s latest column in The New York Times. Krugman wrote:

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling more and more as if we’re all trapped on the Titanic — except that this time around the captain is a madman who insists on steering straight for the iceberg. And his crew is too cowardly to contradict him, let alone mutiny to save the passengers.

A month ago it was still possible to hope that the push by Dxxxx Txxxx and the Txxxxist governors of Sunbelt states to relax social distancing and reopen businesses like restaurants and bars — even though we met none of the criteria for doing so safely — wouldn’t have completely catastrophic results.

At this point, however, it’s clear that everything the experts warned was likely to happen, is happening. Daily new cases of Covid-19 are running two and a half times as high as in early June, and rising fast. Hospitals in early-reopening states are under terrible pressure. National death totals are still declining thanks to falling fatalities in the Northeast, but they’re rising in the Sunbelt, and the worst is surely yet to come.

A normal president and a normal political party would be horrified by this turn of events. They would realize that they made a bad call and that it was time for a major course correction; they would start taking warnings from health experts seriously.

But Txxxx, who began his presidency with a lurid, fact-challenged rant about “American carnage,” [is] doubling down on his rejection of expertise, this week demanding full reopening of schools in defiance of existing guidelines……

Until early 2020, Txxxx led a charmed political life. All his recent predecessors had to deal with some kind of external challenge during their first three years…..But Trump inherited a nation at peace and in the middle of a long economic expansion that continued, with no visible change in the trend, after he took office.

Then came Covid-19. Another president might have seen the pandemic as a crisis to be dealt with. But that thought never seems to have crossed Txxxx’s mind. Instead, he has spent the past five months trying to will us back to where we were in February, when he was sitting on top of a moving train and pretending that he was driving it.”

Unquote.

After hearing Txxxx speak at his inauguration, former president George W. Bush remarked, “Well, that was some weird shit”. When — not if — Joe Biden becomes president in January, Txxxx’s story about American carnage will have come true.

No More Bad Bailouts

An opinion piece from The Boston Globe describes a policy a sensible government would adopt:

Twice in a dozen years, Congress has undertaken enormous bailouts to rescue companies and individuals in the economy. In 2008, the federal government drafted legislation on the fly that bailed out the big financial institutions, but left many homeowners drowning with underwater mortgages. Amid popular outcry, Congress then promised to end bailouts forever with the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act in 2010.

Less than a decade later, Congress has authorized an even more enormous bailout. This time, the legislative process has been even more complicated. Congress once again scrambled, drafting legislation to address both the public health and economic emergencies stemming from COVID-19. So far it has rushed through five separate relief bills in a matter of months because each successive bill was insufficient to address not only the public health crisis but also the economic crisis. Congress will now likely take up a sixth bill in late July [assuming Sen. Turtle Face, the Kentucky Republican, agrees], in part to deal with the imminent expiration of expanded unemployment insurance benefits.

Once again, the rescue legislation has been a bonanza for lobbyists, financial institutions, and big businesses, which have been able to get access to financing relatively swiftly and with few conditions. Once again, the public is left wondering where all the money went. And once again, workers and Main Street businesses have been relegated to second-class status. Small businesses have struggled to get limited rescue funds under the Paycheck Protection Act. Even with trillions of dollars going out the door, 40 million Americans remain out of work. The public health crisis continues, as testing remains woefully limited and incidence of the virus is growing in many parts of the country. Communities of color have been hit especially hard, setting back efforts to expand equality and opportunity.

This ad hoc approach to responding to economic crises is inefficient at best and malpractice at worst. Emergency response and disaster management professionals do not “wing it” every time there is a forest fire or a hurricane. They prepare in advance, developing policies and procedures so they can react swiftly and effectively. When Congress starts thinking about a response only after an economic crisis starts, it’s no surprise that the response isn’t very effective.

Policymakers should take a page from the disaster response playbook. Economic crises are emergencies, and just like with a fire or a hurricane, many aspects of a response can be anticipated — unemployment, income shocks, and liquidity constraints. What we need, therefore, is a standing set of procedures and policies — an emergency economic resilience and stabilization law that can be activated when a crisis hits.

The benefits of this approach are significant. Congress could respond to economic emergencies more quickly because it wouldn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time there is a crisis. Executive branch agencies would also be able to anticipate the administrative capacities needed to implement the program. And individuals and businesses would have a good sense of what happens during a crisis, reducing fear and uncertainty.

Because the standing law would address the major foreseeable problems, Congress could focus its attention on the unique causes of the specific downturn. In the case of COVID-19, for example, Congress would have been able to spend much of the spring focused on the public health aspect of the crisis, such as facilitating production of tests and establishing a contact tracing system.

A standing program would also reshape the political dynamics around rescue legislation. In the fog of an economic crisis, lobbyists see a bonanza: a chance to stuff goodies for their clients into must-pass legislation. Members of Congress who simply want good governance can end up using their limited political capital fighting off such bad policies or ensuring that uncontroversial provisions make it into the final bill rather than advancing the best policies.

While Congress would be free to change the economic resilience program even in the midst of a crisis, the fact that a program already exists would require members to explain any divergences. There would likely be fewer concerns about lobbying, favoritism, and corruption because the rules would be written without anyone knowing which particular companies need help—or which lobbied hardest. So what might such a program look like? We think it should have four parts.

First, it would end no-strings-attached bailouts by providing a restructuring process for large or publicly traded companies. The companies would have the option to get funding from the US government, but their shareholders would be wiped out. Their debt would be converted into equity — meaning the company would now be owned by its lenders and by the federal government, which would get a preferred equity stake. Alternatively, companies would still have the option to pursue a traditional restructuring in bankruptcy, but without federal aid.

Second, there would be a program for smaller businesses to cover payroll and operating expenses to prevent mass layoffs and closures on Main Street. The small business program would be akin to what Congress attempted with the Paycheck Protection Program, but with direct payroll subsidies for employers to maintain payroll and cover operating expenses, rather than operating through banks as third-party intermediaries.

Third, there would be reforms to the financial system infrastructure so that every person or business could get an account to which emergency government payments could immediately be credited. That would make it possible for people and businesses to get direct payments, like checks, much more quickly than they have in this crisis.

Finally, the program would include “automatic stabilizers,” a wonky term for policies that are automatically triggered based on data, rather than relying on repeated and recurrent congressional action. In the event of an economic crisis like the crash in 2008 or COVID-19 this past spring, funding for state and local governments, for example, would automatically kick in and would continue until the economy has bounced back.

A standing economic resilience program like this one is possible for a simple reason. We can predict many of the policy responses that are needed in a crisis. While every crisis undoubtedly has its own unique trigger and features, the next time won’t be very different. Rather than live through another round of ad hoc bailouts for the wealthy and powerful and suffering for everyone else, Congress should get prepared, so our country’s response to the next crisis can be quicker, fairer, and more effective.

Unquote.

This week the government was forced to identify some of the “small businesses” that received stimulus money. They included top law firms, the Secretary of the Treasury’s family business, several chains with wealthy private-equity investors, twenty-two tenants of an office building owned by the president, Kanye West’s company, the Ayn Rand Institute and the Archdiocese of New York. 

It would be cynical to say a sensible policy like this would never, ever happen in a country like ours.

(It would probably never happen in a country like ours.)