May 26, 2013

The Conservative Reform Movement Has Little to Do With Policy

I ain't got no Nobel Prize, but I'm going down guns blazing
Paul Krugman and Mike Konczal team up again me and Jonathan Chait to argue that, despite mine and Chait's assertion of a conservative reform movement, there isn't much meat on their policy bones.

There's something to that as far as the specific policies they mention (climate change, the danger of inflation), but I think they're rather missing the point.

You see, whether some policy is labeled "liberal" or "conservative" is a rather fluid thing. As people have pointed out a gazillion times, Obamacare is basically indistinguishable from Bob Dole's 90s healthcare plan, developed by the Heritage Foundation and first passed by Mitt Romney. Yet the minute people associated that set of ideas with Obama, average Republicans instantly created an iron-hard belief that Obamacare represents the death knell of American freedom, and rearranged their policy views accordingly.

The problem with the conservative movement isn't that mainstream Republican policies are all insane (they are), it's that the party has completely lost its shit. It is "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." Taking the debt ceiling hostage, for example, is not the action of a conservative party. It's the action of an extremist party, willing to risk economic Armageddon for trivial policy changes.

Honestly, to a large degree the problem is today's Republicans don't believe in the American system. They're unpatriotic.

This is, I think, due to the conservative media ecosystem and the perverse incentives of minority parties in the US constitutional system. Conservative media is ruled by liars, con men and charlatans who actively profit from having Democrats in power, and who whipped the Republican base into a seething frenzy after the election of Obama. Matters of policy have dissolved almost completely into the froth of tribal resentment and Obama hatred, which produced a huge class of new Republican house members who were slavering to attack the president with whatever tool was closest.

The problem with this is that Obama has left precious little policy space for Republicans to mark out their separate territory. Ezra Klein put this in an interesting way recently:
If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.
This is a pretty good description save for the laughably ridiculous idea that Barack Obama has ever even thought seriously about anything below about a 4. If we set up a possible scheme of universal healthcare plans, starting with a UK-style complete socialization of the entire healthcare sector at 1, moving through single-payer at 2-3, Obamacare + public option and/or Obamacare + Medicare buy-in at 4-6, and Randcare (i.e., every man for himself and devil take the hindmost) at 10, then Obamacare as is sits at about a 7-8.

But in any case, as Ezra says, the Democrats have set up shop across almost the entire policy spectrum. There's almost nowhere sane for a Republican to sit and still strongly differentiate himself from the president, which is absolutely critical to survive in today's GOP.

The president seems to have a genuine belief in bipartisanship for its own sake, and keeps moving right and right, and right some more, in an effort to meet Republicans halfway. It has failed every time, for the simple reason that everything Obama touches turns to ashes in the Republican mouth. (I don't know that Obama would have had more policy success if he had stuck more to the left, since moderate Democrats were his biggest problems in 2009-10. But all that outreach to the right certainly got him nothing from Republicans.)

So, as far as I can tell, the Republican Party has a social problem, driven partly by crappy elite pundits, partly by an extremist and nutty base, and partly by the fact that Obama won't leave them any non-crazy policy space to call their own. (Interestingly, this suggests that the project of folks like Bhaskar Sunkara to drag American politics to the left might help Republicans become less crazy by dragging Democrats off native Republican turf.) The project of "reformish conservatives," as I see it, is about creating a new Republican discourse that 1) is capable of engaging with normal knowledge delivery systems, eg science, and 2) doesn't think Democrats are Satan incarnate. If they succeed (and let's be clear, I wish them the best of luck, but they probably won't), then a policy realignment will happen almost without effort.

Because if there's anything the Republican base is good at, it's forgetting what happened five minutes ago.

Me-Related Link Roundup

This is mostly for my mother, but she's right that I need to be keeping better track of my stuff. To wit:

1. I got a piece published in Grist for the first time, about DC food trucks and young conservatives.

2. Here's my print piece about "reformish" conservatives. Paul Krugman and Mike Konczal think I'm full of it. Response forthcoming.

5. My debut on DC's sorry excuse for a gossip blog. Beware kids, get between me and my highlighter box and bad things will happen. The strangest thing about that is that it's actually quite a fair piece—she reprinted my email in full, and it basically deflates the story. The thing that strikes me is that this is someone's job. Some media critics write really compelling stuff about vicious backstabbery on the Today show. Others scour Twitter for cursing and then write blog posts about people so much less famous than Matt Lauer even with scientific notation there wouldn't be space enough in the universe to represent the scale of the difference. Think about that for a minute and give thanks.

Oh, and this song isn't bad:

May 22, 2013

Revive Pedestrian Culture by Removing Stoplights and Sidewalks?

This is an interesting idea:

I do walk to work nearly every day, and there's definitely something to this critique. However I do like the long sidewalks where I can zone out and pay attention to my book. Perhaps we should just ban private autos from the inner city altogether?

May 20, 2013

The Laundry Files

I just want to leave a brief note about a book series I just finished, Charlie Stross's "Laundry Files." As per my usual habit of late, I listened to them rather than reading. Good stuff! They're nerd thrillers with a Lovecraftian horror gloss, very funny, very entertaining, well-performed, and passably written. It was interesting, actually, to see how Stross's writing improved over the series; the first one was towards the beginning of his career while the latest was only released last year. (Though there were still a few too many "The penny drops" for my taste.)

It's a four-book series, so far—there's a kind of looming doom thing going over the later books that hasn't come close to happening by the end of the fourth book, The Apocalypse Codex. Word is that he's planning on a 9-book series with the Big Event (called Case Nightmare Green in the books) towards the late middle.

Anyway, nothing much to say about these in particular. If you like thrillers, or spy-fi, or horror, they're worth a shot. I found them quite useful as an exercise inducement—always nice to have something compelling to bribe yourself with to get one's pushups accomplished.

May 15, 2013

How to Be a Dad

Buried in the jokes here Ze Frank has my dad's style pretty much pegged: Something worth shooting for, should I ever have kids.

The Sierra Club Was Once the Victim of a Politically Motivated IRS Attack

The 1950s and 60s were about the apex of dam building in the United States, and the capstone of the era was to be turning all of the Colorado through Grand Canyon into a staircase of reservoirs. The bottom and top had already been drowned in the form of Lake Mead (created by Hoover Dam in 1935) and Lake Powell (created by Glen Canyon Dam in 1963) respectively—the two largest reservoirs in the country. Two more dams were planned for the heart of the canyon: one at Marble Canyon and one at Bridge Canyon.

These dams got quite close to being built; I've explored the test tunnels drilled in the rock walls at the Marble Canyon site.

The Sierra Club led the campaign against these projects, culminating in one of the most famous advertisements of all time, a full-page New York Times spread asking "Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so tourists can float nearer the ceiling?" In response, pro-dam forces got the IRS to suspend the Sierra Club's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Though this did cause damage to their finances, membership more than doubled in protest and eventually, the dam plans were put down permanently.

Here's the full story, excerpted from one of my favorite documentaries, River Runners of the Grand Canyon:

Preserving our greatest natural wonder more than justifies keeping dams out of Grand Canyon for me, but in hindsight this was a stroke of luck even on raw economic development terms. Though clean hydropower is a nice benefit, it has been clear for twenty years and more that the truly key resource in the Southwest is water, and the Colorado is already badly over-dammed. Reservoirs are of no use if there is no excess water to fill them, and the region already consumes the entire output of the Colorado, which almost never makes it to its old outlet in the Gulf of California.

In fact, it's worse than that. Reservoirs lose a great deal to evaporation, especially in the arid and hot Southwest. Lake Powell is doubly bad, due to the porous sandstone in which it is situated, losing between ~400,000 and 800,000 acre-feet of water (130-260 billion gallons) to evaporation and seepage every year. With that and the perma-drought that has settled over the region, Lake Powell has not been full since 1999 and quite possibly never will be again.