Friday, November 19, 2004


One problem we democrats have in some of these fights is not being sufficiently persistent. We bring up a controversial issue or claim, watch the firestorm for a bit, and then drop it if we don't get immediate positive results. The Bush National Guard story, for example. It brought a lot of talk in January and February, but then we just let the issue settle. We need to be prepared to just present some of our claims as given and let our opponents fight them. And we need to continue to do so even in the face of controversy. Also, we need to just not accept defeat, or even a draw in the argument. I think this is important right now with the current Tom DeLay 2-step that is underway.

Tom DeLay is under investigation for criminal activity and faces indictment. Given this prospect the Republicans have revoked a rule that they pushed through to require congressional leaders to step down if indicted. This is ridiculous. We need to regularly describe the Republican party as griped with moral decay and corruption. The initial reaction will be harsh, but we need to continue and not back down. We will face anger and hostility for a long while at first, but if we refuse to back down, we will prevail. This has two advantages. First we will eventually win the argument over DeLay. But sticking with the claim will counter the belief that we don't fight.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Critical Review

In my opinion one of the largest issues dividing liberalism and conservatism today is not being discussed directly. It is the idea of critical review.

That is to say that a broad and diverse group of independent observers should subject any new idea to criticism, pointing out flaws and suggesting changes, before the idea is adopted. I think that human history has shown conclusively that if you wish to make any large complex system work, it is absolutely essential that you apply this idea of critical review to any new ideas or changes to the system. Today, liberalism is broadly supportive of critical review(see note), while a large and politically powerful section of conservatism is opposed to the idea. They seem to believe that critical review is too untidy and that the better course of action is to find some person of great moral character and rely upon his direction. Again, human history has pretty much shown this to be a disastrous course.

Note: When I say broadly supportive I don't mean slavishly happy to be criticized. We are human, we prefer to have our ideas praised than condemned. However, we do realize the value of critical review and while we might express our displeasure at your criticisms, we do recognize the value. Hence, in a forum such as this you will see open criticism allowed and encouraged and you will face strong counter arguments when you bring those criticisms. This is also because we likewise believe that your criticisms should be reviewed critically.

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Democrats Message

One problem we democrats have, I believe, is in simply marketing our message poorly. We often try to sell people with aspects of the liberal agenda that they find least attractive, when we can present the message in other ways that are much more attractive to the listener.

Take unemployment for example. There are nearly a million more people out of work than when Bush took office. We often talk about that only in terms of the suffering of those who are unemployed, invoking ideas of charity and sympathy. Now most folks are charitable enough, but many believe that there are strict limits as to what government can do. Also, folks are generally not that receptive to be lectured by others on how sympathetic or charitable they should be. But consider this, those million unemployed are also a million fewer people shopping in the small businesses that most people work at or run. If these people were working as they wish to, more small businesses would be more profitable, more people would be working there and the rest of us would have more people to sell our wares to. We would all be better off. We democrats could do a better job selling it to small business owners and the like.

Another area is the environment. We often sell it only as a general feel good issue. But I tried the following argument once with a winger and he was receptive. Consider this situation. I own property next to yours and I'm going to start up a business of some sort that will generate a great deal of waste. As it turns out to make it profitable my only option is to dump the waste on your property. No one would argue that I have some inherent right to just dump it there. I can either pay you for the right to dump or find some other way to make money. The same idea applies to industry dumping its pollution. If its toxic enough we can just say no, and otherwise some fee or fine can be paid. There is no inherent right to just dump whatever. As such this is a matter of industry being required to pay its own way.

We need to think about being able to present the rest of our message in these kinds of ways.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Flat Property Tax

Atrios at Eschaton has put forth a request for useful bad policy ideas to help illuminate the differences between Republicans and Democrats. My suggestion for this is a flat property tax.

The bad tax proposals so far are a flat income tax or a national sales tax. These are terribly regressive and, in my opinion, make no sense in terms of political philosophy. What of government functions or operations suggests that taxes should be based on income or spending? Instead I suggest that the one function of government that even conservatives can agree is legitimate is defense of property. As such then for each dollar of property one should pay a fraction of its value to cover these costs, hence a flat property tax. One advantage is that the taxes you pay don’t go up just because you get a raise. Only if you purchase something that requires federal government support do you pay additional taxes. This tax, unlike the sales and flat income, would be fairly progressive, although it’s not clear to me know if it would be more or less progressive than our current system.

I am working on examining some federal statistics to try and figure out how such a tax would have to be structured. If anyone knows anything about this, has seen any work on the subject, I’d be very interested. I’d also be interested to know if there is no work on this idea, why that is so. Why should there be people working on things as silly as a national sales tax and no one working on something like a flat property tax?

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Democrats on Gay Marriage

A lot of commentary has gone into the idea that the ‘values’ voters decided the election and that the Democrats were badly hurt over the gay marriage issue and we need to reach out to some of these folks. Consider that actual concerns over gay marriage range from those who feel that it is a greater threat than terrorism to those who simply are concerned that changing things is risky and don’t see the advantage to making this change. While the democrats will never win over the first set, those closer to the second position can be talked to. However, we do need to frame our message correctly. The problem with our message, I think, can be summed up below.

The main points that we should be putting forth in our message are:

  1. We certainly recognize the very legitimate concern in general that change brings risk. When an institution is generally working changes should be made carefully and with considerable thought. The larger the change the more thought and care is needed before making it. As democrats we may be more willing to take risks than is altogether common, but we do understand the basic concern.

  2. Recognizing this we are not supporting the complete modification of the institution of marriage in all its guises across the country. As democrats we typically feel that this change is worth making, but at this point we see only that two states are making changes to their laws. We approve these changes and are interested in seeing what the outcome is, but each state will have to judge the results in these states and act upon them accordingly. Our only request is that these folks in Vermont and Massachusetts be left alone to make these changes in accordance with their state laws and customs so that we may all learn the actual impact of these changes. No more is requested or expected of any other citizen in the nation.

  3. Also, in the second item, I said "marriage in all its guises". By that I mean that we recognize that marriage is both a religious institution (and as such a matter of deep personal conviction which the state has no business regulating) and a secular institution involving legal responsibilities which clearly the state has a role in. We stand as firmly as anyone that the state has no business meddling in the way any particular church defines marriage or on whom the religious blessing will be granted. We recognize only the possible change in the institution and benefits regulated by the state. This is why among democrats there has been much discussion and advocacy of ‘civil unions’ rather than marriages. We do want to make this distinction clear.

  4. Our reasons for supporting gay marriage or ‘civil unions’ is that we see love and commitment as good things for individuals and for society. We believe that fostering these things is a good thing in itself and that the civil institution of marriage provides the best framework in which to encourage this. We certainly believe that secular law can safely be amended to encourage love and commitment with homosexual couples as well as it already does with the heterosexual. We believe that no damage will be done to heterosexual religious marriage by this change. Nonetheless we favor a thoughtful approach to making these changes.

  5. We also feel that this is a civil rights issue. Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, a committed union being one of those benefits.

  6. The religious among us do not believe that we can know with certainty God’s judgement on this issue or so that we can render that judgement on our fellow citizens. We believe it is better to support love and commitment through secular law than to try and render God’s judgement. The religious among us tend to believe that it is a sin to try and render God’s judgement ourselves even if we are correct, and a terrible sin to do so if we are wrong.

The above points are the sorts of things that we need to try and communicate, probably with fewer words, but those ideas might help address some fears. I feel that to a great extent the message coming from a large part of the Democratic populace has been more like:

  1. You must be a hate filled religious fanatic and bigot to even think there could be any problem with introducing gay marriage.

This message is not as good at winning votes as many democrats seem to think it should be.

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Horns of Hattin

I'm reading a book on the history of the Knights Templar and the account of the battle of the Horns of Hattin seems to me to be relevant to the current situation of this country and its two main political parties. While the events were part of the Crusades and the Christian versus Muslim wars that followed, the relevance has to do with how the battle was fought and the personal and social dynamics that led to the defeat.

The battle at the Horns of Hattin was a decisive and crushing defeat for the Crusader states in the Holy Land although it need not have been. In 1187 a truce between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin was breaking down and war broke out. The two leading military figures were Gerard de Ridfort, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and Raymond of Tripoli. In July the Christian forces gathered near Sephoria, some 20 miles west of Tiberias where Saladin's army was camped. Given that the land between the two armies was an utterly barren desert devoid of water and that the Christians controlled the Holy Land (Saladin was trying to take it back) Raymond sensibly argued that the wise course of action was to wait for Saladin to come to them so that the Christians could attack an exhausted and dehydrated enemy. Gerard argued instead that this was cowardice and the proper course of action was an aggressive assault on the enemy. Gerard won the argument, the Christians advanced across the desert, arrived exhausted and dehydrated and were slaughtered.

The point is that it has long been the case that accusations of cowardice have been used to promote aggressive action, when more defensive action would be far better and wiser. I believe that is going on now and is part of the reason we Democrats are losing the foreign policy and national defense debate. I strongly believe that the Democrats proposals for foreign policy and defense are far more sensible than those of the Republicans, but the Republicans are, like de Ridfort at the Horns of Hattin, more effective at accusing all who propose such policies as being cowards. We need to think of ways to combat this perception.

More on that in a future post.

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Friday, November 12, 2004

Goodwin's Law

Goodwin's Law was first created for newgroup and other internet discussion forums to keep flame wars down. It states that the first person to bring up Nazi's looses the argument. The thought was that people were far too willing to accuse their opponents of Nazism or Fascism and this would cut it down. However, this sound rule of thumb has become somewhat absurd in our current discourse. Goodwin's Law is now often invoked as a kind of absolute rule so that any accusation of fascism is automatically dismissed.

But this is ridiculous. Anyone presenting a political position wants to put forth ideas that will survive any honest critical scrutiny. But if a rule states that any no accusation of being fascist will be allowed than the one position which is guaranteed to be immune from honest critical review is fascism!

The correct principal of discourse should be that any accusation of a monstrous wrong should require extraordinary evidence. Casual accusations of fascist (or communist beliefs) should be disallowed. But to claim that any such comparison is forbidden is silly.


Social Security Reform

So far there is no concrete proposal for SS reform, but some outline of the plan being proposed by President Bush gives reason to comment.

Most of the commentary calling for reform, especially coming from this administration and its supporters seems to me based on a lot of mistaken ideas about Social Security, what's its role is, and how it operates.

My view on the proper functioning of the system is that it should be an insurance policy against destitution in old age. It makes no sense, and is no proper role for government, to force it's citizens to meet some state mandated savings or investment requirement for one's retirement. However, if one becomes truly destitute in old age, that will place some burden upon the rest of society and thus on the state. In the absence of a social security program, whatever method we choose to handle the elderly destitute, no matter how callous or generous it might be, will place costs and burdens upon the state and society. Therefore, it seems to me, it is well within the proper authority of the state to require each citizen to take out insurance against destitution in old age.

The frequent claims from the right that Social Security is about to fail are false. The program can continue to run for decades certainly, and perhaps indefinitely, as currently funded. The ability of government to continue to raid the program for other functions is soon to come to an end, but that is not relevant to the health of Social Security.

Note to that any reform to the system will be expensive. Incoming revenues to the Social Security Trust Fund are already allocated for benefits. Any reallocation of that revenue will require a change in benefits or the raising of other sources of revenue. The cost to the system varies with the proposal for reform, but several trillion dollars at the least would be required over the next ten years.

Given the above no reform is absolutely needed. However, I feel that the current system is undesirable from a cost perspective. We citizens pay far more into the system than is actually beneficial to society as a whole. The problem is not that it is an inefficient system for retirement savings, but that it is a system for insurance against retirement itself. That is, one gets paid off on the insurance policy if one retires. Because retirement itself is so likely, nearly all get paid, therefore the premiums required are quite high. If we were to spend the money to reform the system, it would be far better to transform it to a system of insurance against destitution in retirement. Such a system could be run with much lower premiums. The problem would be political, in that many would pay into the system (although much less than is now the case) but never collect. I don't know if such a reform is politically possible, but it would make more sense to me financially and philosophically.

The proposals coming from the white house, however, to privatize the program are completely ill considered. Moving funds out of the current program will weaken the insurance aspect of it, thus increase potential costs to society and the state in the future. Then the program is expanded to be a forced savings plan run by the government. If money is to be taken out of the insurance program, it should simply be returned to the people to be used as they see fit. The proposals coming from the White House violate both conservative and liberal philosophy. These proposals serve only to funnel money into the financial markets. While they have every right to do well on their own merits, weakening the necessary insurance aspect of Social Security to provide a windfall for that narrow sector of society is not the proper role for government.

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Tuesday, November 09, 2004


I've had a lot of thoughts running through my head about life, politics, government and such for a long time now. The past four years, and now this election, have really forced me to think through a lot of issues and to become concerned with the state of this nation. I'm using this blog to organize these thoughts and get them recorded. All coments are welcome.