Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Purity of politics is to demand one outcome


I really just want to try out my analytical chops here; seldom does one get the chance to examine a clearly stated position that doesn't include invective against opponents.

Why, then, vote for him at all? For me, it’s entirely about the issues he is raising, which I believe are important for the country’s future. Hillary Clinton and her various boosters in the media have made the argument that it’s impractical and even irresponsible to raise a demand like “Medicare for all” and “free public college” that could not possibly get through the next Congress, even if Democrats eke out a majority in the Senate. They presumably want a candidate to offer programs that could be the result of protracted negotiations between a Democratic president and Speaker Paul Ryan – like a two percent increase in infrastructure spending in exchange for a two percent reduction in Medicaid block grants. I disagree with this approach to politics.
Like it or not, all legislation is the result of "protracted negotiations" between at least two sides.  In the case of the House, for the foreseeable future, make that three sides:  Democrats, Speaker Ryan, and the "Freedom Caucus," or whatever they call themselves.  Ryan can't even get a budget through the House right now; he faces, not negotiations, but ultimatums.  What would Bernie Sanders do about that?  Seriously, I'm asking.

What Sanders is proposing are political guideposts – ideals, if you like – according to which we can judge whether incremental reforms make sense. He is describing, whether you like them or not, objectives toward which we Americans should be aspiring. That’s a central activity in politics. Should it be confined to issues of Democracy or National Affairs? Or is it the kind of activity that is entirely appropriate for a nominating contest? Ronald Reagan and the conservatives thought so during the 1970s. And I think Democrats should be thinking this way now. So I applaud Bernie Sanders for not limiting his proposals to what might appear on a President’s often-ignored budget requests.
FDR and LBJ, two presidents who truly enacted ennobling and even revolutionary legislation, didn't do it by proposing "political guideposts."  I'm not even sure what "political guideposts" are, outside of metaphors in essays. Lovely abstractions tend to get ground into dust by reality.   Even as I write,  Paul Ryan can't get the House Republicans to agree on a budget.  As Lee Drutman noted (via Charlie Pierce):

The deeper problem for Ryan and the rest of the Republican leadership is that House Freedom Caucus is more and more the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party. And its reflexes have now been trained to distrust whatever leadership does. Any whiff of compromise smells like the cronyism of politics as usual. Hence that sour "crap sandwich" stench of budget politics under divided government.
Need I point out the "cronyism of politics as usual" is a variant on the complaint made against Hillary Clinton, is, indeed, the complaint Judis tacitly makes?  And the complaint against "politics as usual" is what is creating that "sour 'crap sandwich' stench", no matter which side of the aisle the complaint comes from?  And the stench is no longer even the problem:  by law, Congress is supposed to adopt a budget resolution by April 15, and that isn't going to happen.  Does Bernie bring the administrative WD-40 to lubricate these gears?  Aren't what the Freedom Caucus is raucously insisting on fairly described as "political guideposts" which they insist the American people elected them to aspire to?

If we don't want protracted negotiations and compromise, apparently we're electing a dictator.  Or are we just wishing for rainbows and unicorns?  Again, I don't mean to slip into cheap insult, I really want to know:  what's the alternative to compromise?

Let’s now consider the proposals themselves. I have my doubts about Bernie’s banking plans, and I am not going to consider climate change because I think Clinton and he agree about that. I’ll confine myself to what I think of as his big three:

1) Free public college education: Sanders’ argument for this seems to be unobjectionable. A half century ago a high school education was required for a decent job; and every American was entitled to free public high school education. We’re coming to a time when a college degree will be essential for a decent job. Shouldn’t all Americans be able to get one, even if they come from a low-income family? And there’s another consideration. Shouldn’t today’s parents be freed from the anxiety of worrying about whether they can afford to send their children to college? I just returned from a visit to a friend in Europe who has been unemployed (from no fault of his own) for several years, and whose wife recently died. His children are of college age, and in America, he would be in no position to send them, but in the country where he lives, he can send them for free, and they are doing splendidly. Shouldn’t the United States aspire to this? (And note that it should be done as a universal New Deal-style program, as Sanders proposes, and not as another neo-liberal means-tested program that will invite all kinds of Tea Party-type resentments.)
Yes, we should.  College was practically free when I went (well, compared to what public school tuition in Texas, which is my basis for comparison, is now).  But we have 50 states and 50 state legislatures, and even Medicaid is shared with the states because the Feds don't want to pay for it all.  And we know the Supremes won't allow Washington to tell the states what to pay for and how to pay for it.  So what do we do?  Nationalize all the state college systems and land grant universities?  Does anybody see this happening?

And someone should point out that "Tea Party-type resentments" are no longer confined to the Republican party.  One of the worst legacies of the Tea Party is that it is threatening to become politics as usual in both parties.

2) Medicare for all: I wouldn’t recommend extending the current Medicare program, because it is becoming a Byzantine mess (I was recently denied Medicare coverage because of some regulation about registration that neither I nor the people I asked at AARP had ever heard of.) What Sanders is proposing is that healthcare coverage began at birth for every American and be financed through taxes rather than through a crazy quilt of premiums, deductibles, co-payments, welfare subsidies, tax credits and what have you. Yes, that suggests that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is inadequate. I am not prepared to defend that assertion against the health experts who stand ready to insist that it is the be-all and end-all, but I have had enough experience with my family and friends to know that it, too, is a mess. It’s not universal, it depends too much on the middle class insured subsidizing the uninsured (again a cause for resentment), coverage is very spotty, and the rules regulating small businesses, the self-employed – you name it – require a degree in health care accounting to comprehend. Amend it for the time being, but in the long run, America should aspire toward a system much more similar to those in Europe, where, besides guaranteeing universal access, makes medical school free to those who qualify and go on to practice, and where, as a result, doctors don’t need to make $400,000 a year to pay back loans. (See proposal #1)

Okay, middle class subsidizing the uninsured is a cause for resentment.  Fine.  Have you considered the case of Medicaid, and why it is so paltry in some states?  Have you considered how many people already think they pay taxes that go to undeserving people?  That comment from Slate I quoted earlier presumes "my taxes" go to "my school," and "poor schools" are poor because they serve poor people.  It doesn't work that way in Texas:  school taxes go to the district, not to an individual school. But how the money is distributed is the very basis for the Brown decision.  Sadly, even Brown couldn't mandate equitable distribution of funds to all schools under a central control.  I remember the state of the art school near a wealthy development in "liberal" Austin, while the schools on the "wrong" side of town were left in deplorable condition.  Same tax base for both, same school district distributing funds to both; but one was treated like a step-child.  So, sure, we should have universal health care like they do in Europe, but here's the fundamental problem:  we aren't Europe.  We are, as the Supreme Court affirmed in its rulings on Obamacare, the United STATES of America.  Much as we might like to impose a single program on everyone, we can't.  Because Social Security doesn't create the resentment that Obamacare does (supposedly you "earn" the former), and because Medicaid keeps Medicare from being socialism for the "undeserving."

Sad, but true.

3) Political revolution: I am not sure if Sanders specifies how he wants to reform our oligarchic system of financing campaigns. Americans might not want public financing. They may prefer the direction we were going in 1974 – limiting contributions and spending – that the Supreme Court short-circuited with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. But something has to be done. And it would probably require a new liberal-dominated Supreme Court, which stands in reach if Democrats win in 2016. (And this is a reason why I hope Hillary Clinton does wrap up the nomination and wins in November.) But the point is more than that. With some interruptions, the American system since 1896 has rested on disenfranchisement of large parts of the people: some people not being allowed to vote, others simply not voting. And the possibility of major reform, as sketched out in #1 and #2, rests very much on an invigorated electoral majority that goes to the polls and on politicians that are forced to compete on their merits rather than on the money they have raised. Clinton boosters scoff at the term “political revolution,” but something like that is what is needed to turn the country around.

I don't scoff at "political revolution."  I look at history.  England had a "revolution."  They deposed the king.  Took him back in a few years, though.  France did the same; it was after the King was restored that France finally became a republic.  Russia tossed out the Czar; they got the Soviets in his place, and now Putin.  Tell me again about revolutions that burn everything to ashes and start fresh with new insights.  Even the American Revolution was just an extension of British culture, with less fealty to the monarch.  Besides, no democracy elects a President or leader to be a revolutionary.  They elect an administrator, a figurehead, a symbol, a statesman.  Nobody elected Fidel Castro.

I quoted this at length because none of it is, finally, an argument for Bernie Sanders.  It's an argument for change, but an incoherent one.  We need change to come from a simple, pure directive which everyone has to accept because negotiation and compromise lead to impurity.  We need to impose a single-payer system on all 50 states because that, too, is pure and simple and best for all.  Or it will be, if we can work the kinks out.  And we need a political revolution because, well, because politics in America is not what we were told it was in elementary school.

It involves too much compromise and protracted negotiation, for one thing.

At least, that's more and more the argument I'm hearing.  And it's making less and less sense.

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