Tea Party: Putting God In Government

Last year, I wrote a piece for the Daily Caller suggesting that libertarians and economic conservatives would be unwise to align with the Tea Party. My point was that what underlines the Tea Party movement is social conservatism.

In short, the Tea Party isn’t a movement full of supporters of gay marriage, immigration reform, etc, I suggested.

Last weekend, academics David Campbell and Robert Putnam disclosed in the New York Times some of their long-running research into national political attitudes. They used interviews with 3000 people going back to 2006 to identify the type joining the Tea Party. Their research enabled them to “look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”

And what did they find? Their analysis cast doubt on the idea that the movement was fueled by “nonpartisan political neophytes”. In fact, Tea Party supporters were highly partisan Republicans. “More important, they were disproportionately social conservatives in 2006 — opposing abortion, for example — and still are today. Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics.”

The academics conclude: “The Tea Party’s generals may say their overriding concern is a smaller government, but not their rank and file, who are more concerned about putting God in government.”

 

 

 

Assisted Suicide — A Moral Case

Ross Douthat plays fast and loose in his New York Times column today, “Dr. Kervorkian’s Victims.” One moment he says there isn’t a moral case for assisted suicide—just one based on an “impulse toward mercy” – and then he suggests there might be one. But then argues that if we acknowledge such a right to suicide, then what’s to stop anyone from deciding to die, even if they are not suffering from a terminal illness.

Of course, there IS nothing to stop anyone deciding to end their life, and most sensible countries long ago decriminalized attempted suicide – India’s Supreme Court two months ago urged the Indian Parliament to “delete” a law that seeks to punish failed suicides, saying it was anachronistic and lacking in compassion.

But suicide is one thing – the person committing it or attempting to do it — is involved in a self-sufficient action. Assisted suicide is something else: others are being asked to help. And so a case has to be made.

My late mother, Barbara Dettmer, who underwent assisted suicide in Switzerland nearly six years ago, would have scorned Douthat’s arguments against assisted suicide. She would have insisted emphatically that it was up to her to decide when and how to go. She would have said it was a matter of civil liberties, common decency as well as compassion. She would have said her physical suffering had earned her the right to ask for assistance to end her life.

She chose assisted suicide after struggling for more than three decades very bravely with crucifying pain. Her multiple, progressive and incurable diseases were not helped by palliative care and her quality of life had been reduced to an appalling existence. Her body was wrecked. She was not terminal but chose to be. Modern medicine has shifted many out of the terminal category and they linger in the incurable one, condemned to a life of suffering prolonged. Some would call it torture.

The Swiss organization, Dignatas, who Douthat sneers at, allowed her to regain her dignity. My mother’s last moments were peaceful – two very sympathetic nurses were in attendance. She had no doubts about what she was doing. My family and I supported her “right” to die because she asked us to and because we accepted the civil liberties case for assisted suicide while also sharing at the same time an “impulse toward mercy.” None of us have had any time, by the way, for the rather suspicious Jack Kervorkian, who is the main target of the Douthat’s NYT column.

Douthat worries that there is too much arbitrariness in deciding who should have the right to undergo assisted suicide and predictably he talks about slippery slopes. But many of the biggest human dilemmas can’t be subject intelligently to a black-and-white mindset. When it comes to assisted suicide it must come down to a matter of individual choice. And we should be humble when someone decides that they want to go through assisted suicide, however painful it is for us.

Obviously, there need to be practical checks and balances and the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, outlined a couple of years ago some fine guidelines for when his department would not seek a prosecution against those assisting others to commit suicide. The emphasis and focus of the guidelines were spot-on and seek to protect the vulnerable from manipulation, coercion and trickery. Factors against prosecution include: the expression of a clear, settled and informed wish by the person electing suicide, who has to be terminally ill or suffering from a severe and incurable disability and degenerative condition.

See Assisted Suicide category for other posts on this subject.

 

Trump and the English Language

For those of us who miss having a President able to mangle and abuse the English language with aplomb because there is no Bush in the White House, the choice is obvious. There is, of course, Donald Trump, who displays his dexterity with the English language in an angry letter to the New York Times to complain about the coverage he gets from one of his pet peeves, columnist Gail Collins. Yup, that’s the one he says has a “face of a dog.”

He wrote: “Even before Gail Collins was with the New York Times, she has written nasty and derogatory articles about me. Actually, I have great respect for Ms. Collins in that she has survived so long with so little talent. Her storytelling ability and word usage (coming from me, who has written many bestsellers), is not at a very high level. More importantly, her facts are wrong!”

 

 

Let’s Roll — Time for Tax Cuts And More Stimulus

“The movers and shakers of our society seem…oblivious to the terrible destruction wrought by the economic storm that has roared through America.” Thus writes the New York Times’ Bob Herbert, who notes in a weekend column that “nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is more than 14 percent of the population. That is an increase of 4 million over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years.”

And as for the middle-class, Herbert observes, they have “hobbled for years with the stagnant incomes that accompany extreme employment insecurity” and are now in retreat. The economic fear stalking America goes far to explain the severe fall in popularity of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party.

For all of my fears of the social conservatism that is veined through the Tea party movement, the public focus for most Tea Partiers is on the economy. But their answer is not the right one to deal.

Understandably, they blame government. It was government that gave us the runaway juggernauts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; it was home-ownership encouragement from both sides of the Washington DC political aisle that gave us sub-prime; and it was the administration of George W. Bush that believed “deficits don’t matter” and presided over the greatest splurge of public spending since Lyndon Johnson.

So, why trust government now? For the Tea Partiers it is time to get back to basics – to the U.S. Constitution, to balanced budgets, to limited government. All noble aims. For many of them, though, read “no government” when they say limited government. But this isn’t the time to say “no government” — we need it to sort out the mess it co-authored.

Unfortunately, in the same way that Tea Partiers are going back to basics and mistaking the sky-rocketing deficit as the problem, so various policy-making elites are returning to unsophisticated positions. Free market advocates are becoming more uncompromising; Keynesians more Keynesian. All are over-focused on ideology.

In this fevered political environment the administration is more timid than it should be. The U.S. needs another financial stimulus. Yes, this would add to the federal deficit but when you have cancer, to survive you need to take some poisons as therapy. Convalescence can come later.

For Republicans – and the Tea Partiers – that is heresy. For them “big government” explains the economy’s weakness, and high unemployment is evidence that the President’s fiscal stimulus failed. But this is wrong. As the Economist magazine notes, “the notion that high joblessness ‘proves’ that (the) stimulus failed is simply wrong. The mechanics of a financial bust suggest that without a fiscal boost the recession would have been much worse.”

There has been growing confidence that America will escape a double-dip recession but that is far from certain. The jobs market remains in a slump, recovery is anemic, property prices continue to fall, a further wave of home foreclosures is on the cards.

In 1937-38, fiscal and monetary contraction killed dead a recovery, sending the economy back into a prolonged slump that didn’t end until World War II.  And as Arthur Laffer argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year tax hikes had much to do with the problem. “The damage caused by high taxation during the Great Depression is the real lesson we should learn. A government simply cannot tax a country into prosperity.”

That lesson seems belatedly to have been absorbed by Obama aides, who are now supporting the idea of extending the Bush tax cuts, except for the top 2 percent of earners.

But this crisis is not a normal cyclical one. There are serious structural aspects to it, as the PIMCO chief executive Mohamed El-Erian has been maintaining. His point?  Policymakers must implement a “structural vision to accompany their current cyclical focus. Measures are needed to address key issues, which include the change in drivers of growth and employment creation; the high risk of skill erosion and lost labor productivity; financial deleveraging in the private sector; debt overhangs; the uncertain regulatory environment; and the unacceptably high risks facing the most vulnerable segments of society.”

El-Erian’s recommendations include “pro-growth tax reform, housing finance reform, increased infrastructure investments, greater support for education and research, job retraining programs, removal of outdated interstate competition barriers and stronger social safety nets.”

Yes, in short, a stimulus from tax cuts that can help encourage consumption and unleash animal spirits AND more public spending to get things moving more.

For the Democrats tax cuts – especially for the wealthy – are anathema. But the U.S. needs to grow its way back into prosperity. For Republicans and Tea Partiers, more government spending is just an excuse for “big government.” Of course, federal deficits will need to be curbed in the long run – preferably starting within a couple of years.

Let’s go back to El-Erian’s point about there being a structural part to this crisis and observe the labor market.

According to the GOP Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, people who receive unemployment assistance are “spoiled.” In short, they should just get a job. Easier said than done. Americans have been used to employment snapping back after recessions. But there is clear evidence now that it isn’t just weak demand that’s responsible for stubborn unemployment but something more structural.

For example, unemployment has not fallen in the way it should have with increases in job openings. Many jobseekers do not have the skills needed by employers. This is nothing to do with being “spoiled.” Half of the eight million jobs lost in the recession were in construction and manufacturing. Many of those workers are unable to slot into jobs in education, say, or health services. Add to that the difficulty workers have now in re-locating because they owe more on mortgages than their homes are worth.

Looser monetary policy will not alleviate this problem. Libertarians  argue that government should have no role in trying to sort this out. But the free market will be too slow.

So far no single growth engine has emerged to pull the U.S. towards strong recovery. Consumer spending and business investment have been too weak. President Obama’s hope that the country can export its way to strong recovery looks forlorn. For that to happen, America’s trading partners need to be buying American goods. They aren’t. China and India are eager to head off inflation and are tightening. The PIGS economies in Southern European are cutting spending and raising taxes. So are some of the more robust EU economies, notably Britain. But unlike the European countries the U.S. has some leeway to increase public spending — the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds remains below 4%, well down from the 8% of 1990 and inflation remains weak.

So government has to seek to accelerate growth – by tax cuts, payroll tax holidays and further government spending. The debt can be focused on down the road when growth increases along with tax revenues.

The Irresponsibility of WikiLeaks

Until yesterday I was a strong supporter of the work of WikiLeaks: democratic governments are not transparent enough on the whole, and certainly in the “war on terror” there has been far too much empowering of the security services and far too many civil liberty abuses.  And both the Bush administration and Blair government lied to their publics – and the World – about the reasons for the invasion of Iraq. The disclosure recently by WikiLeaks of a video showing the killing of likely non-combatant Afghans was a public service.

But Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has been offensively cavalier with his uploading of 75,000 leaked battlefield reports and other secret and classified U.S. military material from the war in Afghanistan. As the New York Times among others has reported, the names of dozens of Afghans who have provided information to the U.S. military and NATO troops can be identified from many of the reports. A cursory search of some of the documents that I did today reveals informant family and village names: pinpointing them will not be that demanding for the Taliban.

Assange maintains that WikiLeaks withheld 15,000 reports to minimize the danger to informants. Asked on NBC’s Today show about whether he would view the killing of an informant by the Taliban as “collateral damage” in his bid the make public more of the details about the war, he responded: “If we had, in fact, made that mistake, then, of course, that would be something that we would take vey seriously.”

That isn’t good enough. Assange doesn’t describe himself as a journalist – he’s more of a transparency activist. But while he may not consider himself a journalist, he is engaging in journalism and, for the better sort of journalist, there are ethics and professional standards that are to be observed – that is if reputation is to be maintained. Journalists at the Guardian, New York Times and Der Speigel observed those standards at the beginning of the week when given by Assange exclusive access to documents ahead of their full online release. The three publications posted online documents but ensured informant information was redacted.

That is the approach I took when revealing for past stories and investigations the details of hundreds of leaked classified intelligence and law enforcement documents. And, yes, I engaged in self-censorship and erred on the side of caution. It wasn’t my job to assist narco-traffickers or terrorists or other spies to identify informants and to pull the trigger.

Assange has been highly irresponsible in what he has done. Both transparency and bringing home to Americans and Britons the futility and savagery of the war in Afghanistan could have been accomplished by more restraint – the kind of restraint shown by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Speigel.