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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Follow up on strikers' problem in a liberal society

My recent post on "strikers' problem in a liberal society" tried to make the point that there is what I call a conflict in values when it comes to unions' resort to striking tactics.  I hope I made clear (despite the indulgent footnotes [1] (and several parenthetical remarks (and related meanderings (which I am wont to do (especially when I have a lot of time (like now))))) what the basics of this conflict were.

However, I think I left the reader hanging a bit, without giving much indication of where I was going or what I wanted the takeaway to be.  Here's a brief (I hope) summary of what I want people to come away with as well as a qualification of some of my harsher language.

First, I think it's possible someone could have read my post and come away with the impression that I was accusing labor historians as being apologists for violence.  I do think someo of them fall into that role, and more certainly, a number of them gainsay violence.  However, what I call "gainsaying" is often no more than establishing necessary context to counter a simplistic, manichean narrative of "business good, unions bad."  Also, I have trouble finding any labor historian, save one (a trotskyite acquaintance of mine), who has actually in their writing or in their personal statements given me any reason to believe they condone violence by workers, and even the exception is prone to contrarian-sounding hyperbole that may mask a more decent motivation that I sometimes decline to see.  Finally, several labor historians have written on labor violence and have not shied away from exploring unions' role.

Second, I mentioned in a footnote, but did not elaborate further, that the state during strikes is often very guilty of perpetuating or condoning unnecessary violence or itself engaging in it.  It is possible that state-implicated "unnecessary" violence ("unnecessary" being perhaps a term of art) is used more against unions during strikes than  union-implicated violence is used or even threatened against employers or replacement workers.  This is, at least theoretically, an empirical claim that might be proven or disproven, and I'm open to the possibility that what I call the "specter of labor violence" is perhaps only a subset of, or a defensive reaction to, what is a fundamentally violent system.

Third, my principal goal is to address an attitude in a criticism I sometimes see.  This criticism goes, "the strikers were advocating for a just society, and they might have succeeded if the state hadn't 'sent in the troops.'"  My point is that there are perfectly understandable reasons for the state to intervene in strikes that have the potential for violence, and further, that if one accepts commonly held assumptions about the rightness of violence and the principal function of the state, then state intervention is (in principal and perhaps even usually) a good thing and something to be welcomed.


[1] Hah!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The strikers' problem in a liberal society

First, let me clarify what I mean by "Liberal society." It can mean many things, but for the purposes of this blog post, it means a legal regime that recognizes a person's legal right to pursue any lawful calling and to quit his or her job whenever he or she wants.  A corollary states that the liberal state, as part of its obligation to protect its citizens those others who reside in its jurisdiction, has the sole prerogative to use force and thereby denies to others the use of force to constrain others' choice of where and whether to work.[1]  No society, including the United States, is perfectly "liberal" in this sense, but I wager that the U.S. is at least liberal enough to fit the bill for the average case. I say "liberal society" and not "liberal legal regime" because "liberal society" sounds better and "liberal legal regime" is too toothy and cumbersome.  But in this blog post, I mean "liberal legal regime."

Now, on to strikes. During a strike, the union's goal is usually to convince its members to abstain from work, to withhold their labor collectively, in order to convince the employer to negotiate with the union or if the employer agrees in principle to negotiate, to convince the employer to adopt certain contract terms the union finds acceptable.  Another, closely related goal, is to advertise to others that there is a labor dispute and, especially if the employer is involved in a customer-oriented industry, to induce customers to boycott the employer's product.

This description is quite a wide brush stroke, because there are shades of other reasons people and unions strike: "hate" strikes (when, for example, white workers refuse to work alongside black workers); "syndicalist" strikes (workers strike over one or even several points of dispute, but don't necessarily seek a contract, preferring instead to use shop-floor revolts to assert their preferred labor conditions); "sympathy" or "secondary" strikes (striking to support workers in another dispute or refusing to cross picket lines simply because they are picket lines even if the workers who so refuse are not involved directly in the dispute). I think these are all related to the general phenomenon of strikes I am writing about, but I will focus on the simpler case of workers in a shop trying to withhold their labor to force a concession from their employer.

To address the strikers' problem, I am positing a situation that does not always occur, namely, a situation in which the employer tries to use replacement workers.[2]  Sometimes, of course, the employer prefers to wait out the work stoppage. (In some cases, the employer may welcome the work stoppage, such as when business is slow and keeping people on the payroll represents more an added expense, or when, especially during an industry-wide strike, the work stoppage creates a shortage in supply of whatever good is produced and creates a corresponding increase in demand.)[3]  In such a situation, where the employer introduces replacement workers, he or she is trying to undermine the union's attempt to withhold labor.

What's the union to do? In a liberal society, not much, at least not much that is legal. The union pickets can shame the replacement workers (e.g., call them "scabs"), can try to reason with the replacement workers (e.g., explain why they are striking in an effort to convince them not to cross the line), can try to offer inducements not to work (e.g., during a smelter strike in Denver in 1899,the union offered food vouchers, redeemable at sympathetic stores, to replacement workers who pled hunger as a reason for crossing the line.  The goal was to encourage these workers to honor the strike).

What strikers cannot do in liberal society, inasmuch as the state's monopoly over "legitimate coercion" is concerned and inasmuch as the state is truly "liberal" in the sense I discussed above, is use "coercion" to prevent the replacement workers from crossing the picket lines. Strikers cannot legally, for example, threaten replacement workers who cross the line, and (I assume) they cannot legally form some sort of "human barricade" to prevent free passage of the replacement workers.  The state in the liberal society, again inasmuch as that society is liberal and the state aligns itself with that liberalism, is charged with ensuring that people's right to pursue any lawful calling. It might use its own "legitimate" mechanism of force--the police or national guard--to ensure that right when it is allegedly endangered by strikers.

In case it isn't clear from what I wrote above, I am hinting toward the specter of "labor violence." In American labor history, and most other "[Name-the-nation] labor histories," there have been occasional and spectacular instances of violence arising in the midst of strikes.  For America, think of the 1877 railroad strikes, the Pullman Strike in 1894, and the "Herrin Massacre" during the 1922 coal strike.  There are also more punctuated and more targeted instances of violence that might be ascribed to labor radicals, such as the attempted assassination of GM CEO Alfred Sloan.  But I'm focusing more on the instances where the goal of violence is to discourage strikebreaking. 

These instances illustrate a potential problem for strikers. If the state does its job to protect people's right to work where and when they want, it must at some point draw a line against activities that can be described as coercive.  We can probably mostly agree that certain activities fall among the proscribable activities within the competence of the state qua state.  Taking a baseball bat and battering a replacement worker, for example, is "violence" by almost every recognized sense of the word "violence."  I suspect that even the very union-friendly labor historians whom I know would acknowledge such battery to be "violence," even if they (or some of them) insist that the violence is somehow justified.  It is also, I believe, at least understandable that the state sees its responsibility in such a situation as to prevent the violence.  Even those same labor historians who might claim that in some cases striker-initiated violence be justified might recognize that the state has an interest (even if they say it's not a defensible interest) in asserting its prerogative to control or prevent violence.

There are some instances where the line is fuzzier. Some of the tactics I mentioned above that strikers might use might conceivably be considered coercion.  Shouting "scab!,"  for instance, might imply a threat that something worse than being called a name will happen to the replacement worker.  Setting up pickets to "inform" passersby that a labor dispute is going on might at least by implication have an effect that is more strident and more robust than simple education on current events at the factory.  Sending a "conscience committee" to represent "the situation" to recalcitrant replacement workers is to my mind even iffier

And herein lies one problem.  Where and how ought the state to draw the line?  In the early 20th century, up to about 1930, the state sometimes drew the line at places we of today's sensibilities might bristle at.  During a smelter strike in Denver in 1903, for example, a state judge issued an injunction that forbade strikers not only from threatening replacement workers, but from advertising the strike. The context for this injunction, it should be noted, was a very destructive move by the union in question when it commenced its strike (the workers left the smelters without drawing down the furnaces, an action that essentially ruined the part of the property in which the melted ore froze over; one might also mention incidents of outright fighting between union members and replacement workers.)  Still, extending the prohibition the mere advertising of the strike likely seems too far to most of us in the U.S. in 2012. [4]

And another problem for strikers, it seems to me, is that they--most of them, with some exceptions as always and allowing for the inconsistency of thought-in-practice that afflicts almost all humans--sincerely buy into the notion that "informing" and "persuading" and "shaming" are as far as they ought to go.  I'll even venture the hypothesis that whatever strikers' actual feelings, which might be a historically contingent fact, in practice they have usually acted this way.  I suspect in other words that if one took a tally of every single event in history that could count as a strike, one would find the vast majority to include no instances of what most people would identify clearly and unambiguously as "violence."

By saying this is a "problem," I do not intend to interject a criticism.  Some apologists for violence and some champions of the working class and some advocates for "labor militancy" see such a disinclination to violence as a sort of "false consciousness." [5]  But I'm inclined to see it as a sincere respect for some standard of right and wrong.  And I happen to agree with that standard.  I'm no pacifist, but I do think that violence, domestic or foreign, ought to be either a last resort, or an only resort, to obtain "a vitally important end."  As desperate and "vitally important" as a dispute over wages and working conditions on jobs can seem--and I admit, I have never myself been in the severe and degrading circumstances that have in the past been the context for much of labor violence--I don't think these issues necessarily become therefore "a vitally important end" in the sense that I intend it.[6]

I'm saying, rather, that (most?) strikers' notion that violence is unacceptable is a "problem" in the sense that it's a conceptual difficulty strikers deal with.  They might speak as if the jobs they are striking for are "their" jobs, with perhaps a whiff of a belief in a proprietary interest in these jobs.  They might even speak as if the jobs are extensions of themselves in a way that, say, a mere piece of non-real property is not an extension of oneself.  They may believe, in short, that something approaching 'self-defense" is on the line, and yet I posit that most of them, at least today, would not endorse actual, according-to-Hoyle, physical violence.

What I'm talking about is more than the difficulties of simple line-drawing, although the difficulties of line-drawing are an issue.[7]  I'm suggesting also that there is a conflict in values, and a conflict over the legitimacy of those values most of us in the U.S. in 2012 are inclined to accept.  We place a value on life and safety from violence.  We place a value on peaceable assembly.  We place a value on freedom of association and the attendant freedom of speech to promote one's views.  We place a value on personal autonomy.[8]  All of these values enter the picture when it comes to strikes.

I ask my pro-union friends and my fellow labor historians to keep in mind some of the costs involved when they promote "labor solidarity" or even more modest, institutionalized tools to help unions, such as union shop laws (which, for lack of a better term, is my name for what are called "right to work" laws).

[1] Perhaps this is more of a feature of "states" in general, whether liberal or not.  Max Weber supposedly elucidated this concept--a monopoly on legitimate coercion or a monopoly on legitimate violence--as the defining feature of the state.  The one source that people often link to in order to demonstrate his definition is an essay he wrote on "Politics as a Vocation." [click here]  I must not have read it closely enough or understood it as well as I ought to have, but although Weber in that essay does mention the state as that which observes a monopoly on violence, he does not seem to theorize the concept all that much in the essay, or at least not as much as I would expect from the instances in which his name has so often been invoked in support of the concept.  I have some reservations about the concept, especially the "legitimate" part of "legitimate violence."  And I also wonder about the many instances of what can be called "violence" that are in some way tolerated by (or more accurately ignored by) the state, as well as other practices that might be deemed "coercive" but nevertheless accepted (or ignored) by the state. There seems to be a question-begging aspect to this definition that bothers me.  Again, as I'm not a theorist or a political scientist, and I don't mean to question that definition overmuch.  And I recognize that I may simply be misunderstanding Weber's essay.  I do think, however, that any "liberal state" worthy of the attribute "liberal" would protect people's basic prerogative to pursue any lawful calling and, especially, to quit their jobs.  My own definition of "liberal society" is question-begging in this way (how is a calling "lawful" in a way that doesn't invoke the definition of "lawful" in the first place).

[2] I'm not a fan of the word "scab." People who serve as replacement workers are often in very marginal positions and I wager that as often as not are in worse situations than the strikers. To smear them as "scabs" represents, in my view, a striking lack of compassion or empathy. Of course, maybe I'd feel differently if I were the striker and someone was crossing picket lines to take "my" job.

[3] I'm no economist, and perhaps I am using "shortage of supply" and "increase in demand" incorrectly, as far as the discipline of economics is concerned. However, I wager that in some cases, employers and sometimes even unions think along the lines of limiting supply and increasing demand. This way of thinking appears to have been true of the administration of the United Mine Workers and the coal operators' associations of the "central competitive field" of bituminous mines (mines located primarily in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania) from c. 1898 through c. 1910.

[4] I should note I am purposely bracketing, for the sake of this blog post, state and quasi-state violence that goes over the line.  One might cite President Cleveland's zealous use of soldiers--over then Governor John Altgeld of Illinois--to break the Pullman Strike on the disingenuous pretext that the federal government was merely protecting the free-flow of the mails (I say "disingenuous" because the union offered to facilitate the free-movement of rail cars carrying U.S. mails.)  One might also cite the violent liberties various "citizens alliances" took during the Colorado "labor wars" of 1903-1905 (and in other states in other years), under the tacit--and sometimes explicit, with the aid of national guardsmen--approval of the governor, George Peabody.  Any discussion of "the state and the unions" ought at least to acknowledge that the state goes (sometimes? often?) overboard in its exercise of powers against workers.

[5] I name all three separately--"apologists for violence" and "champions of the working class" and "advocates 'labor militancy'"--because I see them as discrete positions.  I submit that even if those who hold these positions sometimes overlap, they need not necessarily overlap.

[6] Maybe sometimes it can be.  I can imagine scenarios--company town, company store, little possibility of exit or "voting with one's feet," robust and arbitrary enforcement of "vagrancy" and "criminal breach of contract" laws--where the resort to violence approaches something that can be justified.  Even in those instances, I believe that violence is to be considered an altogether regrettable, even if necessary, action.  At any rate, it behooves me, as jester at scars who never felt the exact same wound, to keep in reserve at least some of the moral judgment I might mete out in such situations.

[7] Per my discussion in footnote [1] above, I have concerns about what is and is not "coercion" in the sense entailed by "monopoly on legitimate coercion."  It seems to me if one takes the definition attributed to Weber very far, one must claim that the state has at its core pretensions that are essentially totalitarian.  Maybe that's the point and maybe it's supposed to be a thought-provoking parable on the dangers of (too much) statism.  I confess that my thoughts have been so far provoked, but I'm not sure what else I can do with the concept other than reassert the definition.

[8] I suggest that even at the points where such values cause such disagreement--abortion; the death penalty; time, place, and manner restrictions on some forms of speech; campaign finance reform; the PPACA mandate--people on most sides of these issues, at least when pushed gently, acknowledge the existence of these values as legitimate and state either that the conflict is not rally a conflict of values, or that exceptional circumstances require the circumscription of these values.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Not an easy piece

An iconic scene in an iconic movie has an iconic character played by Jack Nicholson who faces the pettiness of an iconic waitress and who comes up with an iconic retort to that pettiness.

In case you don't want to click on the Youtube link, here's a summary:  He orders some sort of breakfast, with special requirements: an omelet with tomatoes instead of potatoes.  The waitress says "no substitutions," so he orders an omelet and asks for a side of toast.  The waitress says the diner offers no sides of toast.  He protests.  She threatens to get the manager.  He orders a chicken salad sandwich on toast, with no butter and no mayonnaise and no chicken, with a bill for the chicken sandwich so she will not have broken any rules.  When she asks what to do with the chicken, he tells her to hold it "between your knees."

I have just presented the scene out of context and it's out of context that I'll continue to discuss it in this blog post.  But first, something about the context.  I have seen at least part of the movie the diner scene comes from, "Five Easy Pieces."  Or at the very least it was on TV several years ago back and I channel-surfed, and I saw much of it in between watching other shows on other channels.  As far as I can tell, the movie is some character study of a piano virtuoso born into an upper-middle-class family who for some reason opts for the semi-anonymous life of an oil rig operator.  (Apparently, being an oil rig operator is so easy even someone who is born into the upper middle class and whose life to to that time had involved no training in that job can do it.)

During the movie, Nicholson's character goes through a series of adventures, one of which is the famous diner scene I have described and linked to above.  The scene probably plays an important role in the movie.  It probably helps define, and elaborate on the viewer's understanding of, Nicholson's character.  One clue to the role of this scene is the admission, at the end of the clip, that Nicholson's character didn't get his toast.  (In fact, he and his gal friends are thrown out of the diner.)  In short, I allow that if I fully understood and appreciated the movie (and my understanding and appreciation is less than "full"), the scene would resonate in a way that is much more nuanced than it might seem without the context.

What's my gripe with the scene then?  It's the way some people celebrate it.  Some people seem to think of the diner scene as one of those "perfect retorts" of the sort that one would have oneself oneself if only one had thought of it first.  And the target of the retort is the rules-supersede-all-that-is-sensible-and-decent mentality, what people seem to mean when they rail against the "bureaucratic mindset."  You see, we all encounter stupid rules and inflexible employees who enforce these rules without giving any or at least much regard to how the inflexible enforcement of the rules affect those the rules are enforced against.  The waitress is standing in the way of something that Jack Nicholson's character wants and something that he has a right to:  a side order of toast.  She is the machine of bureaucratic rules, and Nicholson finally pops and rages against the blind subservience to the rules.  (Hah!  you thought I was going to say "rages against the machine," didn't you?)

My claim is that those who celebrate this scene sometimes go overboard.  They operate under the assumption that if rules seem stupid, then they necessarily are stupid and must be broken regardless of the collateral damage.  Worse, the celebrants operate under the assumption that it's okay that Nicholson's character insults the waitress, or at least it's not so bad as to call into question his actions.  She deserves it because she's a bureaucrat waitress.

"Sometimes" really means "sometimes" and not always or not even necessarily most of the time (after all, I did write it in italics, and when I put something in italics, I mean it!).  I am pick and choosing my anecdotes (cue in the tired but true point that the plural of anecdote is not data....there I go with the italics again, but this time not for emphasis!), and the celebration I claim others make of the scene may be more noticed by me than other interpretations of the scene offered by people who, unlike me, have seen the whole movie.

Still, at least one anecdote illustrates my point.  Take this post at the "middle-age cranky" blog.  The author uses the scene as an example of what is for him a decent illustration "of the frustration in that time [c. 1970] for people who blindly followed the rules, no matter how nonsensical those rules were."  He doesn't really comment on whether the waitress deserved her treatment--except perhaps when he describes her as "rigid," and we're probably supposed to know that "rigid" people don't deserve our respect--and he uses the scene primarily as a starting-off point to discuss the allegedly mindless rules he encounters in his career as a freelance technical writer.

Now that the caveats are out of the way, I'll start by noting how convenient the scene is for those who praise it as a strike against THE MAN (well, as a strike against THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE RESTAURANT EMPLOYEE).

First, the rules in this case border on the extreme and unbelievable.  I find it incredible that a diner would not serve sides of toast.  The audience might have viewed it differently, or slightly less sympathetically, if Nicholson's character had noticed that the diner served huevos rancheros and therefore had ordered a side of corn tortillas.  After all, you need corn tortillas to make (some versions of) huevos rancheros, but people don't generally order sides of corn tortillas with their breakfast.  Not that having them for breakfast is wrong, but it's just not the staple of the good ole American dining experience.  I'll also point out that when Nicholson's character learns he can't have "tomatoes instead of potatoes," he accepts that limitation, if grudgingly.  My point is, I imagine the character or the audience might accept a similar limitation on corn tortillas

My second point about the scene's "convenience" is the waitress's rudeness.  She is not only "rigid" in her enforcement of the rules.  She is also pretty far to the rude side of the rude-friendly spectrum, and not in the waitress-who-works-at-a-truck-stop-diner-and-seems-rude-but-has-a-heart-of-gold sense.  She was unapologetic about the restaurant's policy and adopts a tone of "of course these are the rules, didn't you read the small print by the asterisk we put on the last page of the menu?"  If anyone is deserving of the Nicholson treatment, she is.

Fair's fair.  The categorical "no toast" rule is a foolish one.  It might have been different if it had been a special circumstance, say, the diner is perilously short on bread and it needs to, temporarily, impose the ban to make sure there's enough bread for the sandwich-rush at lunch and dinner.  But that doesn't seem to be the case here.  And again, what diners, as a matter of policy, don't serve sides of toast?

And there are indeed rude servers. I personally think it's better to approach encounters with such people with the assumption that the server is overworked and underpaid, or perhaps is having an off-day, or has to deal with a dictatorial manager, or the restaurant is short-staffed, or what seems like rudeness might actually be only a defensive ploy because she knows the management is inflexible on the "no substitutions" policy and she'll get in trouble (or at least scolded for the n'th time) if she doesn't enforce it right away.  But I acknowledge it can be frustrating to deal with passive and not-so passive aggression of that sort.  Certain people (say, a piano virtuoso born into an upper-middle-class family) might not have the service industry experience to make approaching the situation with empathy a realistic possibility.  And maybe at the end of the day one can make a plausible case that a rude affect calls for a sharp retort.

So where are we?  What's accomplished by the Nicholson character's put down of the waitress?  He doesn't get his toast and he and his colleagues get kicked out of the diner.  He's also delivered one of those witty comebacks that other frustrated patrons who have to deal with the lowly service workers wished they had given in lieu of resorting to lectures about good service and about how traumatic it is not to get it.

I think I'm saying something more than simply "we need to be nice to service workers," although we do need to be nice to service workers.  In keeping with my wonted humorless and priggish disposition when it comes to such things, I see in the Nicholson retort a fundamental disrespect for others, a facile notion that the proper comeback is sometimes something you just gotta do regardless of who gets hurt in the process and regardless of the triviality of the "offense" you have suffered.

Wow!  I probably come off as a moralizing jerk.  I admit that my point, taken to an unwarranted extreme, would require me to be courteous to the executioner as I'm walked toward the scaffold, should my circumstances ever become so dire.

And again, the function the scene serves in the movie might very well be more nuanced than I'm allowing.  Maybe a careful viewing of the movie suggests that we are to see Nicholson's character as someone to be criticized and not as someone to celebrate, as someone who really wants to be an island but can't because no man is an island, or as someone who doesn't realize that living in a society means complying with some stupid sounding rules.  And I'll also say that the point of view represented by "middle-age cranky" above, from which I have gathered so much anecdotal straw to build a knock-downable scarecrow out of, might be an interpretation that strays from the movie's main point.

But my main takeaway is that we shouldn't celebrate that comeback uncritically.

UPDATE 12-1-12:  I've edited this post for clarity.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Mining for a heart of gold: my 3d party vote

[This post is cross posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, all with a nifty photo of James Weaver, third party candidate for the Greenback Party in 1880 and for the Populist Party in 1892:  click here to read it and the comments there.]

As I've noted, I voted for Gary Johnson.  In large part, I drew the inspiration for my vote from Jason Kuznicki's point that we might look at our vote as an expression of how we affiliate ourselves, as a sort of self-declaration of principles (again, my apologies if I am in some ways misconstruing his argument, but that was my takeaway).  One feature of such self-declaration, however, is the false sense of purity one might take away from it.  This feature is dangerous and probably unavoidable.  And although self-declaration seems the way to go, any disposition toward honesty requires the self-declarers to acknowledge this danger upfront.

One reason to vote for Johnson is that in theory, he would scale back or check the power of the military, and (even more theoretically and more doubtfully had he by some fluke actually won) he would scale back the power of the executive.  Affiliating with this idea is pretty easy, but dangerously so.  Yes, on paper I am disgusted with Obama's martial rhetoric and his robust prosecution of war and targeted killing, all the while wondering whether targeted killing, to the extent it's truly targeted, might be an improvement over bombing an entire neighborhood in the hopes that the "bad guy" will be killed amid all the innocent victims.  But in my day to day life, I don't really think about it other than as something that is really unfortunate and that I wish weren't happening.

I also have to entertain the suggestion that I, to quote Colonel Jessup, "can't handle the truth."  To point out--rightly, I might add--that America's military adventures often don't make us safer or that any true invasion of American soil would likely be met by effective armed resistance by the citizenry, such as was done during a policy disagreement over taxes in the late 1700s, does not negate the fact that if someone tried to storm the walls that protect me, the military would likely be first in the line of defense and that I would appreciate its doing so.  (Heck, if my life be in danger, I probably would not hesitate, if I could, to call 911, and be grateful to the very police department that has recently been proven to tolerate torture in the past.)

Similarly, although in an issue less momentous than war, I chose my side and chose it early when it came to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  I wanted and want the act to survive, and that outcome is much more likely with a President Obama than it would have been under a President Romney, or, I will add, under a President Johnson whose first name isn't Lyndon.  I rooted for Obama this time around in a way that I really didn't in 2008 because of the PPACA. In 2008, I wanted him to win but was distrustful of what I interpreted as, as I've mentioned before, the idolatry of a mere human and a might makes right mentality.

To be clear, I see something to be concerned about in some of Johnson's positions.  One example is his position that "TSA should take a risk-based approach to airport security. Only high-risk individuals should be subjected to invasive pat-downs and full-body scans."  He might be right on the merits, but considering who in practice might be targeted as "high-risk individuals," that policy statement, taken by itself, might easily appeal to a constituency more inclined to find scapegoats than security threats.  Although this is perhaps a subject for another day, his immigration policy strikes me as having the (unintended) potential for draconian results.

Yet I got the happy (for me) result of an Obama victory with the self-satisfaction that comes from endorsing a candidate whose message mostly coincides with the type of approach I would like to see when it comes to defining and resolving America's problems.  Like everyone else, I live in an imperfect world condemned to imperfection.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I shall (probably) vote for Obama [UPDATED!]

Having just written a post about why I'm disappointed in Obama, I'm now going to write about why I shall (probably) vote for him, and not Mitt Romney, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.  (There are other 3rd party candidates, but Stein and Johnson are the only ones on the Illinois ballot, and I don't know much about the others anyway.)

I'll repeat what I and others have said before.  One individual's vote will not decide the election.  I'm under no illusions that my vote means anything.  And a not too rational part of my psyche tends to believe that the Chicagocracy might (accidentally, of course) neglect to count my ballot if it contains a vote for president for someone whose last name does not rhyme with "Oh bomb, hah!"

Having gotten that out of the way and ignoring what to some might be the logical takeaway (i.e., don't waste the time voting, then), I'll mention the two reasons I'm aware of for voting that don't involve whatever value comes from representing myself to the people at the polling place (i.e., my neighbors) as someone who votes and therefore as a respectable citizen.  Here are the two reasons:

  1. It still is one vote and it adds to the message of total votes.  What's more, if I vote for a third party, the "marginal utility" of that vote is magnified (a little bit) in that it's one more chunk on the pile in advocacy for the  type of change I really can believe in.
  2. As Jason Kuznicki suggested at the League, how we vote--because it's essentially a private act--is more of a decision of how we choose to affiliate ourselves.  (Read his post here, it's possible I'm misrepresenting somewhat his argument, but I think I'm capturing its spirit.)
Reason #1 above might justify, even to the point of encouraging, me to vote for either Stein or Johnson over Obama or Romney.  If I vote for Stein or Johnson, I'll get more bang pop! for my buck.  Reason #2 is perhaps as good an argument as I can find for voting my conscience, seeing it as a way of affirming my commitments with the universe, or whatever.

I don't wish to deride #1 too much, but it is unclear what politicians will take away from the votes that Stein or Johnson will get.  A vote for Stein might assure the Democrats they're doing the right thing, from their strategists' point of view, that is, they can claim that whatever support Stein wins demonstrates that the Democrats truly are the party of the center.  A vote for Johnson would probably be interpreted as disaffected Republicanism, and I don't think the GOP will look at it as a repudiation of their position on civil liberties or foreign policy or the drug war.  Rather, the GOP (just like the Dems) will interpret it and spin it how they want to.  That's the cynic in me speaking.

Jason's point is more provocative, even if I'm not completely understanding it or accurately representing it.  (I've never met him personally, but I can tell from his writing that he's much smarter than I am, and when I read his posts, I usually sense I'm not fully getting all that's in them).  It also allows me to consider each of the candidates more seriously.  So here's my rundown.

Romney.  I simply cannot vote for him.  I really do believe he will be at best Obama-lite on foreign policy or at worse Bush-lite.  I'd prefer the Devil I know to the one I don't on that score, at least when it comes to someone who until very recently adopted what I believed to be a war-mongering stance against Iran, Syria, and even Russia.

I do admit that he probably would operate as more of a centrist on domestic policy than his primary rhetoric would have me believe.  But I believe that the one, low-cost (for him) way to appease the social conservative faction in his own party will be to appoint social conservative justices to the Supreme Court.

When it comes to health care I think Romney is a gamble (of course, I realize the ACA itself is a gamble and that my bar for success is quite low).  At least from the time of his convention speech onward, he has changed his "repeal Obamacare" talk to "repeal and replace Obamacare" and even to "repeal the bad parts of Obamacare [the mandate] and keep everything else that people like."

I suspect that's what he sincerely would like to do, but I think there are three scenarios in which a president Romney "reforms" the ACA.  The first two would depend on a a GOP-dominated Congress (defined as a GOP majority in the House and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate) winning enough votes from the other side of the aisle to pass something.  This something will be either a repeal of the ACA with a replacement along the lines that Romney is suggesting, or a repeal of the ACA with the promise of a "bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission" to look into further reforms of health care, whose conclusions will be both more respected and more ignored than the conclusions of the Simpson-Bowles commission.  I think the latter is at least a possibility, and I don't trust Romney to veto it and insist on the former.

The third scenario does not require a GOP-dominated Congress.  All it does is require him to appoint as Secretary of Health and Human Services someone who is hostile to the law and frustrate, or even "suspend," its implementation.  That may or may not be legal, but there are a lot of shenanigans that he could do.

Since there is no real reason why I might vote for Romney, the choice comes down to Obama, Stein, and Johnson.  Again, the "marginal utility" argument for voting for a 3d party might or might not work, but that isn't something I'm going to look too much at.  My main concern is Jason Kusnizki's argument about who I affiliate with.

Under that argument, I would like to believe I would choose to affiliate with Stein or Johnson.  They are pretty good on civil liberties and ending, or putting us in the position to see the end of, the state of perpetual war.  At least one or both of them also promotes some policies that I like, such as curtailing the war on drugs.

But it's not a slam dunk, either.  I read Johnson's platform several months ago and at the time decided he engaged too readily in starve-the-beast type of reforms.  Now that I've reread the platform (see it here), I think he either sounds less extreme or has changed the platform to accommodate people like me.  (That is, I'm sure that one day, he was reading my blog, decided my critiques of libertarianism were spot-on, and then ordered a change in platform.  Such is the influence of Pierre Corneille!)  Still, he wants to repeal the ACA and the principal solution he has to the problem of "uninsurable" people is what strikes me as the x-factorish "simple block grants to the states, where innovation will create efficiencies and better care at less cost."

I'm lukewarm about some of Stein's prescriptions.  They seem to follow the mantra of "if only we enact a law that mandates what we want, then that's what we'll get."  I admit that I haven't looked over her platform as thoroughly as I have Johnson's.  But she seems too.....optimistic about what the state can do without things going awry.

Which brings me to Obama.  Should I affiliate with a president who has what some call a "kill list"?  Maybe not, although I confess that from my standpoint much of that talk strikes me as academic or, in some ways, overwrought.  The "strikes me as academic" stance ought to offend anyone who cares about such issues, but I really do suspect that whatever the "kill list" refers to is an organic continuation--even if it's a continuation that worsens things--from past policies dating back at least as far as Harry Truman and probably further.  A president Johnson or Stein would, I am sure, on their first day issue several executive orders renouncing all sorts of practices.  One month later, however, when the actual authorizing statutes come up for consideration for repeal, or when other statutes are offered to criminalize certain executive actions that otherwise met some (if arguably specious) standard of legality, they would demur to whatever committee is working on it in Congress.  Six months later and after daily counterterrorism and national security briefings, they would note that while they support "the spirit" of the pending legislation, they would advise against a rush to action and offer to issue another executive order that offers a super-duper promise never to use such tactics in exchange for withdrawing the pending legislation.  Eighteen months later (if not sooner), in their first bona fide national security crisis, they'll quietly rescind the super-duper-promise executive order and order an attack against a person who is a clear and present danger to some U.S. military base that they have theretofore declined to dismantle per their campaign promises.

That's a very cynical view of things, and it ignores the main gist of Kuznicki's argument that we are choosing to affiliate with the pure of heart.

But I'm not.  I want Obama to win.  However satisfactory it would be for me to vote for Johnson, I admit that I'm rooting for Obama, although I also admit the country will be an interesting place if the Libertarian or Green party gets 5% of the vote and qualifies for federal funds, provided they have an organizational structure in place that'll prevent a fight-over-money that we saw with Perot's party-child.  In short, I fear that affiliating myself with Johnson (or Stein) would be hypocritical.

Anyway, that's probably why I'll vote for Obama.

UPDATE:  I voted for Gary Johnson.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

About the "I'm not disappointed in Obama" post I was going to write

There was a time when I was going to write a post entitled "I'm not disappointed in Obama."  In that post, I would've said, essentially, "I told you so."  During the summer and fall of 2008 when he ran for election and during the time of his transition, the winter of 2008-2009, I wrote several posts warning against what I saw as the near deification of Obama or what I saw as the impulsive, potentially dangerous devotion to a mere human.  (If interested, you can see the posts click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) In the post I was going to write, I was going to say that many of my predictions turned true.

Now, saying "I told you so" is poor form, so I won't say it now, even though I have succumbed to the vanity of citing my own posts on the matter.  But if you read the posts, you'll notice that my "predictions" were general and grounded, in large measure, in cynicism.  And it is probably the case that general predictions grounded, in large measure, in cynicism usually turn true, so my own predictions were not particularly prescient or noteworthy.

The original impetus for writing the post about why "I'm not disappointed in Obama" was an attitude I had witnessed as early as spring 2010 at a labor history conference.  A large majority of the attendees were specialists in American labor history.  They may not have been intimately familiar with the minute intricacies of presidential politics or the tricks and turns of different presidential administrations (some were more "social" or "cultural" historians), yet they knew, or should have known that any president faces constraints on his actions, that "liberal" or "leftist"-friendly presidents make compromises and come up short.  (In such a crowd, you can find no shortage of people who condemn President Franklin D. Roosevelt for curbing the power of unions through legislation that to the uninitiated empowered unions dramatically.  They have a point, but my point is that it's a well-trodden road.)  Yet they were not only disappointed, but surprised, that this happened in Obama's case.  The occasion for their surprise....I don't remember exactly.  It had something to do with the health care law and some sort of compromise or pending compromise on the "cadillac plans" enjoyed by certain unions.  I don't even remember what the compromise was or even if it was actually made.  But the point is, they were indeed surprised.

The tragedy (from their point of view) of American history is that the "system" has failed to live up to its leftist potential when things could have gone otherwise, when, for example, we could've had a vibrant union movement if only THE STATE hadn't intervened on the side of THE CAPITALISTS during that one strike that, for example, THE UNION threatened the lives of THE SCABS.  (Another way of putting this is that the state used its police powers to prevent some people from killing others because the others in question had a different view on whether they owed allegiance to a union or a "working class."  Yet another way of putting this is that the notion of competing allegiances is more complicated than the narrative of "well, wi' any luck, the li'l guy might get some'ing out o' it this time exceptin' that Mister Pierpont Morgan has his way.")

Along the same lines you might hear from them, Oh, if only [name the president, governor, or mayor] hadn't sent in THE TROOPS, we'd have single-payer health care and syndicalism, with nary a whiff of oppression!  Some of them have a counter-narrative that runs thusly:  Some quasi-mythic but historically actual person, usually a governor, who was "the first person in the history of the world ever" to send in troops to protect the strikers might have helped usher in social democracy if only the people had risen up to it and voted for their economic interests.  When it comes to governors being "the only" one to send in soldiers to support strikers, I have seen this claim made of Colorado Gov. Waite Davis and Illinois Gov. John Altgeld. 

However, if it's too much to ask American historians to note what has been the dominant trend of American history that the historians in question have often repeated, or at least to note the institutional incentives and constraints on political actors, well maybe it's not too much for me to be more sympathetic to their frustration.  After all, I wanted a "robust public option" and yet settle, perhaps to a point of unreasonableness, for the gamble that is the ACA.  Things did not turn out the way I would've liked them.

But the "I'm not disappointed in Obama" post I was going to write, I would have said that we got what we could've expected from someone who seems (and in my opinion, seemed as early as 2004) to excel primarily in being good looking, giving platitudinous speeches, and benefiting from luck not of his own making.

But, but, but....I am disappointed in Obama.  And again, it's not all bad.  Some things he had little control over, and he indeed did the best he could.  The ACA is one of those, in my view.  And on some issues, like gay marriage, he eventually did the right thing.  And on others, like repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he pursued the policy change in the most respectable matter possible.  I'll also suggest that whatever the wisdom or cynicism or idealism behind his postponement authorizing the Canada/US pipeline, it was in at least some ways a gutsy move.  It became one basis among many of Romney's criticisms of Obama's energy policy.

But on some issues over which he had a lot more control he chose poorly when he didn't have to.  One example is his apparent ramping up of prosecutions against medical marijuana distributors when the states in which they are located permit them.  My problem is not only that I object to the policy, but also, I agree with Will Truman at the League, who pointed out something I hadn't really thought of but that rings true nevertheless, namely, Obama gave little guidance about his enforcement priorities ahead of time.  He promised he would defer to state laws, and then he reneged on that promise without fair warning.  Even if the president had given such warning, I admit I would disagree with his policy, albeit on less firm ground.

Another issue, which I have already discussed, is what I consider to be the unnecessary and still ongoing "we killed bin Laden" fest.  Yes, I get that "he is a man of political courage" and his approval rating may have dipped a few points for an entire two weeks if the attack he ordered had turned out fruitless.  But killing is killing and sometimes it's necessary, but it's always regrettable.  As I've said before, first, do not strut.

And then the war came.  Or rather, "the war continued."  It's winding down, except for where it's not (*cough*, Libya, *cough*), and I'll give kudos for Obama's refusal to commit himself to an attack on Iran, his refusal so far to implicate American forces in Syria, and what appears to my not-very-informed-foreign-policy-perspective to be his deft refusal to antagonize Russia needlessly.  (I'm out of my element here, but that's my sense.)

To be clear about my concerns, it's not so much that I find the drone attacks troubling, although I do, but not really because they're drones (I don't really see a moral distinction between collateral damage caused by drones over that caused by warplanes, unless one mechanism is more likely to incur more such damage than another).  It's not even so much that the president has what is effectively a "kill list."  (That does bother me, but I also think its more a continuation of practices that go back to covert-operations-with-plausible-deniability that stretch as far back to instances like overthrow of Mossadegh in the 1950s or the debacle that resulted, probably unintentionally, in the assassination of Diem in 1963.)  Nor is it even the prospect that the al-Awlaki (sp.?) was a U.S. citizen (I think due process ought due to non-citizens if it's to be due at all and while there's an extra disturbing factor when we're talking about a citizen, any problem I have has to go back to the original debate over targeted killing to begin with.)

What it is about, for me at least, is his escalation of the powers of the presidency.  In 2008, I did not expect Obama to abrogate Bush's arrogations of power.  In fact, in one of the posts I cite above, I said s much.  And he has disavowed the "enhanced interrogation techniques," such disavowal being, I suppose, a good start.  But he also signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act.  [click here to read James Hanley's explanation of the law and his criticisms against it, almost all of which I agree with.]

I'm not sure Obama necessarily promised anything much different.  But I am disappointed.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Pierre Corneille Book Review: Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear (1998)*

I am dissatisfied with this book, but I'm not sure if that's because it's actually a bad book or because it isn't the book I wish de Becker had written.  The edition I read (3d, and there have been more recent ones) certainly doesn't live up to the promise that I read as implicit in its subtitle--"survival signals that protect us from violence"--the promise being that, well, the author will give the reader useful tips on recognizing when "real" danger exists and how to handle those situations, while being free to recognize non-dangerous situations as non-dangerous.

As one of my professors once said, "a title is not a contract," and it is probably fair to say that neither are the blurbs written on the cover of the paperback version I read, which I can't cite because I've failed to take notes and I've returned it to the library.  But some of the chapters come so tantalizingly close to making it seem that de Becker is going to give useful tips and offer us a new way to look at promoting our own safety that I think I might be forgiven for thinking the book was going to be something it in fact was not.

De Becker offers examples, from victims or near victims of predatory crimes, of cues they implicitly noticed before they were attacked had they acted on these cues, they either wouldn't have suffered the attack or would have escaped earlier.  He relates for instance a scary, but he says true, story of a woman who, on her way home from work, is met at the entrance to her apartment building by a stranger.  This stranger uses many of what de Becker calls the classic techniques used by predators who stalk women:  the predator, for example, refuses to take no for an answer when he offers unsolicited "assistance" to help her carry groceries.  We then read that the woman, after being assaulted, picks up on other cues, and uses the resulting fear--the "gift of fear"--to save her life.

He has other stories.  One fellow upon getting an uneasy feeling in a convenience store, decides to leave and later finds out that store owner was shot just minutes later.  De Becker in another example notes how he advised one young person to be wary of a man on an airplane who was engaging in similar tactics that the predator in the opening story used.  In short, de Becker has some quite informative discussions of stalkers and domestic abuse, along with helpful information that restraining orders usually do not work as they're supposed to.

All well and good, but he doesn't give the reader much to do with it.  If a stranger engages another with the predatory tactics and the putative victim recognizes the tactics, de Becker is often silent on what are some of the strategies the mark can engage in.  In the first example I mentioned above, we see what the woman eventually did to extricate herself from the situation after the assault before what most likely would have been her murder, but we don't see what she might have done even earlier, say, when she was at the door to her apartment building and the man wouldn't take no for an answer when he intrusively offered to "help" her carry groceries.

De Becker does, I admit, give some explicit "how to" advice that is or can be helpful.  He points out, as I said above, that temporary restraining orders work in situations of domestic abuse more rarely than one might expect.  I assume that this admonition is true, or at least he offers what seems to be convincing evidence.  He reminds his readers, particularly women readers, not to be afraid of hurting a well-intentioned man's feelings when he offers unsolicited "help."  As de Becker says quite rightly, it's better to hurt someone's feelings than to put oneself in danger.  He also makes occasional suggestions--albeit in passing--that I endorse heartily.  I found myself nodding in agreement when he warns of the dangers of wearing headphones while we walk in public.

But de Becker doesn't follow through.  Temporary restraining orders might not work and might even make things worse, but there is very little practical advice about what a victim of domestic abuse is to do.  He says "go to a battered woman's shelter" and he says that there should be more such shelters.  Okay, but what about in communities where such shelters are not equipped to meet the demand?  He would probably say the woman should move.  But where?  and how to manage it when the abuser comes after her?

All we really get is a "real life" example of a woman whose roommate was in an abusive relationship.  The woman had seen de Becker do whatever it is he did on an episode of Oprah, and the woman who had the roommate extricated herself from the situation and moved back with her family.  That worked for her.  But her friend in the abusive relationship did not have a supportive family willing to take her in, and when a tragedy almost happened, her family blamed her and her friend who tried to warn about the relationship.  So at best the solution to the problem seems to be recognize the abuser early on and put a stop to the relationship before it gets that far.  Good advice.  But if it does indeed "get that far," the solution seems to be, don't have the problem in the first place, or be only the roommate of the victim and not the victim herself.

Or you can hire a private security firm.  Gavin de Becker has one in mind.  It's called Gavin de Becker, Inc.  In fact, not a majority but a hefty chunk of the book serves as an advertisement for the great things Gavin de Becker, Inc., does.  We don't learn a lot about what specific tactics we should use to escape a stalker or protect ourselves, but we learn how his business worked with police to protect some famous Hollywood celebrities and to capture one particularly wiley and violen perpetrator.  We also don't learn a lot (or anything) about pricing.  How much does it cost to get advice from Gavin de Becker, Inc.?  Is there a sliding scale?  How much does it slide?

Some of the advice Gavin de Becker, Inc., gives its clients:
  1. Ignore threats, except when you shouldn't, and you'll know the difference when a private security company tells you the difference.  
  2. Wait until the crime happens, and then you can talk with the private security company to second guess your decisions and what you should have noticed before the crime happened.
  3. Unsure whether your child might become violent?  Well gosh darn it, be a loving parent, and (the reader might assume) decline to have children who have any influences whatsoever outside of their family or who have absolutely no will of their own and who are complete tabulae rasae, or who have no mental disturbances that might in some situations manifest themselves violently.
  4. Trust you intuition, except, again,when you shouldn't.  De Becker has two examples of women who were fearful when they returned home or got off work.  Fortunately, we find that their fears are unfounded.  De Becker's psychoanalysis demonstrates that one woman's intuitive fear wasn't really fear of her (what happens to be high-crime) neighborhood but a manifestation of her desire to live in another city.  The other woman, we are glad to learn, suffers from an inferiority complex and has nothing to worry about as she walks alone in a darkly-lit parking lot after work.
De Becker has at least one answer to my objection.  He shies away from "lists of what to do" in part because each situation is unique and a list might serve to close off options or give people a false sense of security.  He wants to discourage us from making an idol of our fear, from being afraid, sometimes literally, of our own shadow when our own shadow is all we really have to fear.

Maybe the idol needs smashing.  De Becker cites recent (to the 3d edition) examples from local news outlets of near hysterical fear (actually, he relates these examples right after saying that he "never" watches local news and hasn't for some years).  He reassures us that we have already learned most of what we need to intuit real danger in preference to unreal danger (actually, he does this while making at least a little bit of hay about his unique experiences of having been a child who grew up observing domestic abuse...we all have our own reserves of fear-intuition, but hey, he's lived through it, so you should buy this book).  He teaches us that dogs don't necessarily intuit danger when we can't, but they merely respond to our own fear-intuition signalling (and he then declines to answer what to me is an obvious rejoinder, "if we have trouble recognizing our own signalling, maybe it'd be a good idea to have a pet who helps us in that arena").

My review probably seems more caustic than it ought.  The first few chapters were so intriguing and seemed to promise so much, that I almost hopped along to my nearest internet book provider and ordered my own copy to keep for my own reference.

Moreover, I've skimmed through a few of the reviews on "Goodreads" and most of them, which almost all seem to be written by women, are glowing.  It doesn't take intensive training feminist theory to realize that men have a lot of the power in this world, and that men victimize women in much greater proportions than the other way around, and that one practice that empowers men to do so is the systematic (or at least very frequent) denial of women's concerns.  It's the same practice that says, "oh, don't listen to her, she's probably hysterical," or, "if only she'd understand he's had a hard day, then maybe he'll stop hitting her."  It would be foolish--and sexist--of me to denigrate de Becker's contribution to empowering women to trust their own senses and their own intelligence even when other people in their lives undermine their legitimate concerns.

And I probably have to admit that trusting our own intuition and intelligence involves taking responsibility for them.  Maybe, contra my criticism about de Becker's paucity of advice for what a person in an abusive relationship might actually do, someone in that situation has so few good options the real answer is "do whatever it takes to protect yourself," not as a call to vigilantism, but as a call to realizing that at the end of the day, it's not the state will protect us.  It's our own common sense.

Still, I wanted more of the one thing and less of the other.  I wanted more advice and less of the "let's respect our intuitions" pep rally and less of the advertisement for the services of private security firms that only a certain percentage of us can likely afford.

In short, read it but don't buy it.

*This is part of a new feature I will, occasionally, do on this blog, called "Pierre Corneille's Book (or Movie, or Song, or Play, aut cetera) Review

Saturday, July 28, 2012

What Same Sex Marriage is "About"

I've gotten to reading the blog "American Conservative," in part because I like Noah Millman's work--he has a blog there--and in part because I'd like to understand the point of view of a group of people I don't identify with.

One recent subject that I've seen discussed there is the boycott against Chick-fil-a.  Some supporters of same sex marriage [ssm] have called the boycott because the companydonates money to campaigns that ssm and because the company's president about two weeks ago made clear his personal view that marriage should be between one man and one woman.  (Actually, I believe he said he supported the "Biblical definition of marriage," which, as pro-ssm advocate Russell Saunders notes, could mean the company's president is"going to be out there stumping for polygamy and forced matrimony to one's deceased husband's brother any day now." [internal links removed])

Before I go further, I'll make a necessary disclosure.  I support ssm and I patronize Chick-fil-a.  I'm uncomfortable with my practice.  For one thing, I have a very close relative who has been with her partner for more than 30 years and who lives in a state that as of 6 months ago did not even have a civil union law.  That state might have one now or very soon, but it certainly doesn't have ssm.  A civil union law or, especially, a ssm law would give my relative and her partner more legal security and, potentially, certain benefits they otherwise can't have now.  More security would also be in the offing for them if the Defense of Marriage Act be overturned or rule.  I assume the Chick-fil-a president's substantial donations go to preventing the enactment of ssm laws and civil union laws and to preventing the overturn or repeal of DOMA, two developments that would substantially help this couple.  I'll not defend my decision to patronize Chick-fil-a, but I felt I ought to disclose it.

Now, back to the "American Conservative."  At least two blog posts written by Rod Dreher and one article written by another contributor on that site deal with the boycott. They evince a bitterness about the boycott that I to my sensibilities and more robust than I'm used to seeing when it's a question of people deciding to spend or not to spend money at a certain business.

In part this bitterness is part of an objection they register to certain public officials, like Chicago's own Alderman Joe Moreno, who apparently has threatened to invoke his "aldermannic privilege" to prevent Chick-fil-a from opening a restaurant in his ward.  Other politicians, elsewhere, have apparently intimated that they would refuse a license to this restaurant because of its opposition to ssm.  I join these conservatives in objecting to what seems to me and to at least one legal scholar, as well as Russell Saunders in the post I cited above and another one he wrote a bit later, a clear violation of freedom of speech.  (I'm also concerned about the notion of "aldermannic privilege," but that's a subject for another day.)

But these articles go beyond the freedom of speech argument and declaim against the "morality" or the ethics of the boycott itself.  Rod Dreher in an article that criticizes Newsweek for what seems to me like unconscionable journalistic overreach (assuming the facts as he presents them are true), suggests that what he sees as media bias in this instance is

this kind of thing is why many Christians and other social conservatives fear what’s coming. It is not enough for many on your side to achieve your goals of legal equality. You seek to destroy anybody who dissents, including ruining them professionally. And you have the mainstream media on your side.

I will continue to patronize businesses whose owners support gay rights, as long as the products and/0r the service is high quality. Why? Because I can live in a society in which good people can disagree on things, and still get along, and trade with each other. I have eaten at Chick-Fil-A exactly once in the past three years. It’s not my thing. The food is fine, but I don’t eat a lot of fried chicken. But now, seeing what they’re enduring, with this media-driven hysteria, and knowing that more of this sort of thing is coming for businesses run by people like them — which is to say, people like me — I’m thinking, “Eat mor chikin!”

Again, Mr. Dreher's post is about an instance of what appears to be media bias and not about the act of boycotting itself (Newsweek apparently solicited information that it expressly hoped would damage Chick-fil-a's reputation, therefore, according to Dreher, expressing an unconscionable bias).  But this statement also suggests certain assumptions behind the opposition to the boycott that suggest to me a certain hysteria and, ultimately, a misunderstanding about what ssm is actually "about."

He portrays the issue at the center of the boycott as one on which "good people can disagree."  In this reckoning, ssm is just one of many policy considerations, maybe on par with whether we should increase the corporate income tax or make it easier to claim the Earned Income Credit.  Different people of different political and moral persuasions arrive at different conclusions based on their notions of the good and on the expected outcomes of a given policy.  In this view, ssm is not about right and wrong, it's about, well, whether to confer certain benefits to certain agreements by certain couples.

Dreher in another post advances another claim about "tolerance."  He writes about the decision by Bill Gates of Microsoft and by Jeff Bezos of Amazon to donate millions of dollars to help defend Washington state's gay marriage law against a referendum challenge.  Nevertheless, he will decline to boycott those two businesses, even though he disagrees with their decision:
Why? Because I like their products and services. That, and I am a tolerant person, and I believe that same-sex marriage is an issue on which people can disagree without removing themselves from the company of decent people. Second, I know that my own ability to participate in social and economic life depends on commercial tolerance from others — a tolerance I can’t expect to have if I don’t extend.
The issue here is "tolerance," and framing the issue that way suggests two conclusions that I don't think Dreher makes explicitly but that I suspect he would agree with.  The first is that "tolerance" is about accepting people for who they are and for the positions they advance in good faith.  The second is that ssm is about "tolerance" in this sense of the word.

His point in both these posts is that a boycott is only called for--is only ethical--when the stakes are much higher.  Preferably, for him according to the second post, the stakes should amount to "matters literally of life and death."  He might indeed make allowances for other standards.  In fact, in that second post, he asks readers for their view on where to "draw the line on giving your trade to someone over a political issue[.]"  I should note here that he is not claiming boycotts are illegal or ought to be illegal.  He is not denying the right of people to boycott, but the morality of boycotts.  He says as much explicitly in one of his own comments to his second post:  "Nobody denies that the right exists. The discussion is about when the exercise of that right is morally justified."  But the point I take from both his posts is that it is probably inappropriate, uncalled for, or at least uncharitable to conduct a boycott on matters that decent people can disagree on, including cultural issues like "tolerance."

Another article by a different author appears to make the same point as an aside.  The article I refer to is "Bullying Chick-fil-a" by W. James Antle III. The gist of his article is the attack on what are probably the unconstitutional measures to deny a license to Chick-fil-a in Chicago.

I will point out that his article is a bit unclear about what exactly is happening in Chicago.  He notes now-mayor-but-former-Democratic-whip-cum-Obama-Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emmanuel's alleged hypocrisy on the issue when he successfully engineered a Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 in part by running anti-ssm Democrats in socially conservative districts.  He also notes a statement, made on Fox news no less, that Emmanuel “did not say that he would block or play any role in the company opening a new restaurant here.  If they meet all the usual requirements, then they can open their restaurant, but their values aren’t reflective of our city.”  Still, he concludes with the standard disclaimer that ssm supporters "have every right not to patronize a business that gives money to their political opponents, as well as to voice their disagreement with Chick-fil-A’s president," and he adds that they shouldn't tolerate "thuggish threats" from people like Emmanuel. 

Of course and as I've said above, I agree that refusing licenses to Chick-fil-a because of its views on ssm is unconstitutional and even morally wrong.  (I say "morally wrong" because what if I want to open a business someday and the alderman doesn't like the way I vote?  Could he use the same rationale to deny me a license?)  And while I find the article a little vitriolic and suspiciously unwilling to account for the claim by Emmanuel's representative that the mayor won't actually wield the licensing power against the company, I agree with his main point.

But the article comes with a teaser right below the title.  This teaser is the first thing I saw when I noticed the link to the article on the "American Conservative" and has almost nothing to do with what the article actually discusses.  The teaser reads
If gay marriage is about tolerance, political intimidation of the restaurant undermines the case.
I want to be clear that I'm not sure whether to attribute this teaser to Antle.  I understand that in some publications, authors don't have a lot of control over the exact title that gets assigned to their articles, and they might not have control over the article teasers.  So I don't know for sure whose statement about tolerance this teaser comes from.  But at any rate, I think we can extract the same two assumptions about "tolerance" and ssm that I infer from Dreher's blog post.  "Tolerance" is the acceptance of differences.  For example, differences in whether to support ssm.  SSM is principally about "tolerance," or accepting gay people.

Now in these three pieces--the two Dreher blog posts and the teaser to Antle's article--I have inferred two assumptions behind opposition to ssm, assuming these pieces are representative.  One is that the debate over ssm is just a policy debate, on par with other policy debates.  It's important and different people have different views, but we're all part of the same team and we all take off our hats when they play the "Star Spangled Banner" at baseball games.  So the boycott is really just a "kumbaya...interrupted."  The other assumption is the notion that it's all about "tolerance" and although tolerance is important, let's not get carried away.

I respectfully--and I do mean "respectfully"--submit that these two assumptions are wrong.

To construe the ssm debate as "about" a simple disagreement among decent gentlemen and ladies obfuscates some of the very real, very immediate, and very material interests that ssm advocates are advancing.  I won't go so far as to say that it is impossible for someone to be decent and reasonable who declines to support ssm.  If supporters of traditional marriage* are honest with themselves and with me about what they want society to be like and about what they envision government's authority to be in extending that role, I will disagree but see where they are coming from.  Or, if a given supporter of traditional marriage perhaps hasn't thought through his or her position fully and perhaps may have contradictory views about what society should look like about about the role of the state therefor, well, I should realize I am capable of holding apparently contradictory views about such matters, too.  After all, I support the health insurance mandate even though I find its constitutionality and even its wisdom very questionable.

But it's not so simple as a mere policy disagreement.  For the supporters of traditional marriage, the debate over ssm is one part in a larger debate about what we mean by "the family" and about the state's proper role in shaping or endorsing or facilitating that notion of the family.  For them, the debate might also be about endorsement of gay relationships in general.  If society and polity permit ssm, then they lend their imprimatur of approval to such relationships.  Finally, inasmuch as traditional marriage is coincidental with straight marriages being ensconced into a privileged position vis-a-vis other types of relationships, ssm might even represent a challenge to, or even the dismantling of, "traditional marriage" in that sense.  (Kyle Cupp at the League has made this point, but I'm having trouble finding the citation.)  My point in all this is that for traditional marriage supporters, opposing ssm is part of a principled, but symbolic abstract debate over how we define things.

I'll add that that part of the debate is not unimportant for being "abstract" and "symbolic."  We must deal in abstractions to make sense of the world, and I'll not claim symbols are devoid of any practical consequences, nor will I claim we need make an idol of the "practical" over the "symbolic."  I'll also admit people who support ssm do so in part for the similar reasons supporters of traditional marriage invoke when they oppose it:  state recognition of ssm confers a degree of legitimacy and acceptance for gay relationships that has heretofore been denied them.  It's symbolic in that sense.

But support for ssm also invokes more immediate and material stakes.  Being allowed to marry means being allowed to enter into an agreement that confers certain rights, privileges, and prerogatives under the law.  Under non-ssm and non-civil union regimes, most of these rights, privileges, and prerogatives can be attained only by hiring a lawyer or hoping for free assistance from a gay friendly legal aid charity.  Even with with the legal documents in place, there is less of a guarantee that certain prerogatives--such as power of attorney--will be honored by the courts if challenged.  Or if they are a honored, it's possible they will be  honored too late.  Who wants to incur the legal expense and uncertainty of a trial after one is denied a visit to one's spouse at a hospital bed in that spouse's last hours in this world?  Even with civil unions and ssm, these relationships are sometimes in question and their portability is not settled, especially with DOMA being the law of the land.  But even if DOMA is repealed or invalidated by the Supreme Court, I believe it's still an open question, constitutionally speaking, whether states are allowed to refuse to recognize marriages from other states.

So, it is a policy disagreement, and it's possible for people to disagree in good faith and remain good drinking buddies at the end of the day.  But it's not merely a policy debate where the stakes are whether you get an A or a B in a high school speech class.  The stakes are asymmetrical.  Insisting on the "but decent people can disagree" formulation denies and to some extent delegitimizes the urgency some feel when, for example, they advocate a boycott against Chick-fil-a.

And now for tolerance and ssm:

"Tolerance" is not really what the three "American Conservative" pieces I discuss claim it to be, and ssm is not really about "tolerance" anyway.  One might think, reading these pieces, that tolerance means "accepting everything as within the pale for the sake of accepting things as within the pale."  There are usually restraints on the notion of what "tolerance" is, somethings beyond the pale that one must not tolerate.  I think most people, even or especially Mr. Dreher and Antle (or whoever wrote the teaser to his article), will refuse to accept as being beyond the pale.  Invoking "tolerance" seems to be a way of forbidding all but academic disagreement.

By that standard, upon hearing that Chick-fil-a's president gives money to combat ssm, a ssm supporter ought to say to himself or herself, "It's too bad he disagrees with me, and I wish he didn't.  I think I'll order the spicy chicken combo with lemonade."  (For the record and per my disclaimer above, this is pretty much what I do.)  Disagreement is sanitized into a debate merely about accepting people for who they are in a way that ignores some of the very material interests at stake, which I mention above.

And in the end, ssm is not only "about" tolerance.  At least for ssm supporters, it's about one notion of equality under the law.  Certain relationships between two adults are recognized as a matter of course, and certain relationships are forbidden or at least recognized inconsistently (by state) or incompletely (e.g., Illinois's civil union law) simply because in the former, the adults are opposite sex couples and in the latter, the adults are same sex couples.

To insist on this formulation is to beg the question.  Part of what is up for debate is whether state non-recognition of ssm is indeed a denial of equality under the law.  And admittedly I have a lot of trouble seeing how it's not such a denial, leading me to agree almost completely with James Hanley that there is "no good argument against same sex marriage."  (My principal disagreement is that there's no good argument only if you accept certain assumptions about the powers of government, assumptions, I will add, that most people in the US, conservative, liberal, and libertarian, usually claim to accept.)

Don't get me wrong.  Tolerance is pretty cool.  The fact that these "American Conservative" pieces have recourse to tolerance means they're accepting tolerance in principle.  And the three pieces have something of a point in that a lot of liberals look down on conservative Christians when they should take to heart that different people have different needs and histories. It's hard to stomach, for example, the sneering and, in my opinion, classist comments I hear from fellow grad students in history when the conversation turns to how "stupid" conservative Christians are; one would think from these comments that they are a separate and inferior race of people.

But we're past the days when "tolerance" was all we could hope for.  We're past the days when the most loving thing non-gays were comfortable saying in public was "hate the sin, love the sinner."  We're past the days when Bowers v. Hardwick was good law, when a state could enact an amendment to ban equal rights laws based on sexual orientation, and when a major network station could produce a documentary that represents homosexuality as a pathology or perversion.  I desperately hope we're also past the days when lynching a man or woman because they are gay is something that is gainsaid or defended on the grounds of "gay panic."

One doesn't need to vilify one's opponents to note real and serious disagreements.  But it is also true that we can't make all policy disagreements simple matters of courtesy.  Nothing gets done if we do.  In practice I don't honor the boycott against Chick-fil-a and in theory I have qualms about it in terms of its wisdom, its effectiveness, and its tendency to turn off potential allies.  But the impetus for this boycott is not reducible to a malicious desire to destroy people who merely see things differently.  It gains much of its urgency from the very immediate and very material stakes that are an inherent part of the campaign for ssm.  To say it's just about "tolerance" misses the point.

*I use this term because, per Rod Dreher's usage, that seems to be how opponents of ssm prefer to think of themselves.  I do this in the spirit of collegiality and decency and not because I buy into what I see are the value-laden, even question-begging, assumptions behind that phrasing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

If it had been otherwise....

I have made no secret of the fact that I approve of Obama's health insurance reform (the ACA), nor that I am happy with the outcome of the case.  But as I've repeated in what was probably already a cliche by the time I was born, the devil is indeed in the details.

Now, I look at the many efforts by the writers of the Volokh Conspiracy to consider the meaning of the decision.  Almost all of them certainly dislike the result and are either surprised or upset at the ruling.  The possible exception is Orin Kerr, who if I'm not mistaken opposes the law on policy grounds, but believed that it was constitutional under existing precedent, even insofar was the mandate be considered a regulation of interstate commerce and not as a tax.

It is possible to adopt a perspective of Schadenfreude.   They "lost," and contributors there are struggling to find silver linings or to analyze the policy implications.  Sometimes, they venture into arguments that I find unpalatable.  See, for example, David Kopel's argument that Congress ought to overturn the "unconstitutional" mandate.  Now, I fully admit that a law can be unconstitutional even if the Supreme Court refuses to condemn it as such, and it is fully within the prerogative of the legislative branch to change the law for any reason, including its perceived unconstitutionality.  What I find unpalatable, however, is his invocation of the example of Andrew Jackson, who illegally pulled money from the Bank of the U.S. in order to "destroy" it and (not merely coincidentally, although Kopel doesn't mention this part, pay off his cronies at state-level "pet banks").

Anyone who champions the rule of law and the rule of the constitution ought to be disturbed at Jackson's easy flouting of the law, even an unconstitutional one.  I admit that some unconstitutional laws might indeed deserve to be flouted or disobeyed by the president, but it is hard to argue that one that was so complex and, in some ways, such a close call as the Bank of the U.S. issue, qualifies.  Would Kopel similarly champion a decision by Truman not to return the Youngstown Steel Mills, or a decision by Obama to say "fish it, I'm sending in my U.N. helicopters to imprison people indefinitely if they choose not to purchase a qualifying insurance plan"?

One might also wonder if Kopel would approve of a president who, say, agrees to use the U.S. military to violate America's treaty obligations to Cherokee Indians, even after the Supreme Court tells him not to?  An person unsympathetic to Kopel's argument might be tempted to say, "John Roberts made his decision, now let Sebelius enforce it."

But most of the posts at the Volokh Conspiracy are not like that.  Most of the posts reflect the intellectual curiosity and intellectual honesty that make the site such a joy to read.  I'd much rather read their after-the-fact diagnoses of what happened than the gloating at "paralegals, knives, and i.o.u.'s," one post of which says simply, and I quote verbatim:  "Gosh, I haven’t seen conservatives this mad at the Supreme Court since Brown v. Board of Education."  Apparently, the moral gravity of the ACA is exactly comparable to a state law forcing schools to deny persons of color the same advantages enjoyed by whites.

I'm glad that's cleared up.  Now I don't have to feel any trepidation that the law in its implementation might be a bad policy, or that the expansion of the federal government's prerogative might lead to a precedent I shall later find unsavory.

On the other hand, one might point out that Roberts's decision, while not based on the same reasoning or same part of the constitution, is part of the same trajectory that assures us the feds can imprison a terminally ill person for growing his own marijuana that he believes he needs as a pain reliever, even if he doesn't have mens rea intent to sell it or distribute it.

A question I have is what would the esteemed liberals at that site be writing if Roberts, as Mark Thompson at the League put it, had a bad hair day?  I suspect that we would not see informed comparisons to, say, the court's invalidation of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1935.  (I say "informed," because in retrospect, the temporary emergency measure that was the NIRA was, if you look into the nuts and bolts, an awful (in the bad sense) policy.  And I say "awful (in the bad sense)" to mean, pretty much the exact opposite of what loominaries at that site would support.  Of course, at least one of them is a historian, and he probably knows better.)

Another question I have is what would I have written?  Under my "posts" tabs here at my blog, I already have a rough draft of a post excoriating Obama for not relying on the tax argument.  I wrote that draft in full anticipation that the Court would strike down the law on commerce clause grounds.  At the time of writing that draft, I bemoaned his and his solicitor general's apparent refusal to rely on the tax argument (I hadn't realized they kept it in reserve as a "just in case" that I've read the decision, I know better).  I was going to criticize Obama for not, as he claimed in 2010, "stak[ing] his presidency on it."  If he was willing to "stake his presidency" on the ACA, my reasoning went, he would  have 'fessed up that it was a tax, and he had signed into law a new tax that in effect raises taxes among some people who earn less than his campaign-promised $250,000.

What else might I have written?  I don't know, but I might have had some bitter, Kopel-esque moments.  I would have railed against what I imagine would have been the widespread self-congratulation among some of the libertarians who opposed the law and whose arguments I found so distressingly convincing.  In the lead-up to the case, I certainly wasn't adverse to engaging in ad  hominem attacks against those same scholars.  I imagine I would very likely have indulged my own self pity.

As a famous leader once said a while back, if something really bad happens, and it takes something even worse to remedy it, and if that remedy hurts people who in some way were responsible for that really bad thing, then it's probably overall a good thing.  But we ought to also express a little bit of empathy and even love toward those who saw things differently, even if they were in the wrong, because we might not have been clearly in the right, either.  I insist that as hopeful as I am about the decision, the issues at stake with the ACA are not as fundamental and astounding as what that person was referring to, and the side of the right as we're given to see it is not that clear.

But it's still good advice.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Supreme Court says Romneycare is constitutional

It appears that almost all of the ACA is being upheld by the Court.  I'm surprised, to say the least, and I'm still not sure I agree with the decision, which I haven't read yet and probably will not understand when I shall have read it.  I find it hard to agree that the individual mandate is accurately described as a tax, even though I find the idea that it is a tax probably the most palatable of the possible arguments that might uphold the mandate.

However, as someone who supports the ACA, I am, of course, happy.  But I must temper my happiness with a few points:

  • The law is still a gamble.  The devil is in the details of how the act is implemented.
  • For all we know, there may be unseen and unforeseen loopholes in the price controls that, I understand, are written into the bill.
  • The act is not safe.  It can be overturned and might be overturned.
  • The act will come with real costs, and those costs won't be born only by the mythical 1%.  I hope that the costs are not so much that they will overburden those least able to pay or that they will result in a huge increase in costs or shortage of doctors.
Supporters, like me, should realize that it might have gone differently.  And in a different world and perhaps under a more consistent (and perhaps more honest) interpretation of the Constitution, it ought to have gone differently.  The act lives because the Supreme Court says it may, but the act is not therefore right.

Let's hope it works out.