The Democratic Legitimacy of Health Care Reform


In light of the Massachusetts Senate race and polls showing popular opposition to comprehensive health care reform, opponents of reform will try to paint efforts to continue the fight as going against the peoples’ wishes. This was happening before the Massachusetts election was even decided. Weekly Standard editor and noted fan of needless death in both hospitals and battlefields William Kristol wrote Monday, “I very much doubt, if Scott Brown wins in Massachusetts, that Nancy Pelosi will be able to persuade 217 other House Democrats to jam Obamacare down the throats of the American people.”

These arguments would make sense if the federal government made decisions based on polls it conducted of the populace, or by referendums in randomly selected states. But it doesn’t. Voters register their opinions through elections, and that is the only form of expression that’s at all relevant. And a look at the numbers there show a country that voted overwhelmingly for representation that would reform health care.

If you add up the populations of all the states where at least one Senator voted for the health care reform bill, the total is about 229 million, or 74.5 percent of the country. This is slightly misleading, though, as it does not account for states where one Senator did not vote for the bill and the other did. So I calculated the figure again, only dividing by two the population of states where this split occurred. The total is 192 million, or 62.767 percent of the country.

Let’s be clear. The vast majority of the country voted to elect representatives who support health care reform. It is the obligation of the Congress to fulfill that mandate and pass comprehensive health care reform. That the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the filibuster makes this difficult is unfortunate, but not an insurmountable barrier.

We Should Need Nothing, Nothing At All!


It’s been noted for years now, by Ohio State professor John Mueller among others, that statistically speaking terrorism just isn’t that big of a threat. Seasonal flu, for instance, is a much bigger killer, as are car accidents, and for years more people were killed by lightning than by terrorism. Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, was the most recent person to make this case, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

The response to Campos’ piece, as the response to all these arguments usually is, is that a risk-aware approach to terrorism is not possible. “This line of argument — that terrorism is statistically harmless compared to lots of other activities — will never work,” Kevin Drum wrote. “For better or worse, it just won’t.” Amanda Marcotte makes a compelling case that it, in fact, might:

1) Don’t be a pants pisser! Conservatives gain a lot of power by playing like they’re Big, Powerful Men. But the problem is that this directly conflicts with panicking over what are relatively marginal threats, no matter what Maureen Dowd says. The statistical arguments can and should be coupled with a cool bravery, of the sort that has sold 90% of action movies since they started making action movies. The hero (and sometimes heroine, finally) stares the scary monster in the eye, shrugs coolly, and dispatches with them without pissing their pants or showing fear. (We’ve been rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” at my house, and I can tell you that the show really took a turn for the better when they started to portray Buffy as cool and invincible at times, like when she blew The Judge up with a bazooka.) Even W. knew that he had to act resolute and unafraid in the days after 9/11. What the Republicans were smart about doing was insisting that everyone else act like panicked children, but I think it’s as appealing, probably more appealing, to act like an intelligent, courageous adult. And the stats can back you up.

The other emotion that we can put into play is shame. Those who panic, especially in light of these damning statistics, are pants-pissing infants, afraid of the dark. Using the statistics, this argument shaming conservatives is very helpful, especially since most of them have a big thing about seeming like big, powerful men (and their stalwart ladies). That they are anything but is a powerful point to make, and we shouldn’t shy away from making it, armed with statistical proof.

2) Airport security is a joke. Right now, the zeitgeist is more about annoyance at security hassles than it is fear of terrorism. After 9/11, that calculation may have been different, but right now, everyone’s sick and tired of the bullshit. The diaper bomber’s failed attempts to start a fire on a plane were meant to hurt Americans not just due to the symbolism of attacking on a cherished holiday, but also to strike fear by maximizing the number of people tied up in security headaches at the airport. My sense is that it did the opposite; it made people even more annoyed at how pointless and silly the whole security theater thing is. The contrast between the very real danger that you would miss a flight because of all the nonsense (and then be stuck in Holiday Traveling Hell) and the very distant, unlikely danger of a dangerous terrorist attack was heightened. Everyone I spoke to about the situation, no matter where they fell on the political spectrum, focused entirely on the silliness of it all. The horror stories were not of terrorism, but of relatives that were nearly prevented from going home after a dog died because of security theater, relatives that were erroneously put on no fly lists because someone with a similar name once called a flight attendant a nasty name, things like that.

I’ll admit to some hesitance about the first option, given as it explicitly plays into unhelpful gender roles, but attacking security theater is both doable and wise. Liberals interested in a common-sense conversation about terrorism would do well to try that line of attack.

Cohen: Obama Unserious in the Face of Magic-Wielding Supervillains


Eliot Cohen is one of the more respected neoconservatives currently working. A professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and a veteran, he has solid intellectual credentials and a more personal connection to foreign policy than most hawks, and indeed was a critic of the conduct of the war in Iraq prior to being brought into the Bush administration in 2007. This is a thing he actually wrote:

Neither Mr. Obama nor the predecessor he still complains of have been able to get beyond the trope of “extremists who have perverted a great religion.” J. K. Rowling has given her readers a more thorough understanding of Lord Voldemort than the West’s leaders have given their populations of whom we fight, what really animates them, and what the challenges that lie ahead will be.

Yes, Cohen is really complaining that Obama and Bush talked about terrorism with a greater sense of nuance than Rowling described a fictional villain. If ever there were a better example of the right’s Manichean and naive treatment of national security challenges, I have not seen it.

Vote-Counting Rides Everything


Time‘s Max Whittaker has a good piece on the upcoming federal challenge to laws against same-sex marriage. Given that Supreme Court action is the only federal way to invalidate state constitutional amendments, some decision ruling that marriage discrimination violates the Equal Protection Clause will be necessary for national marriage rights will be necessary. The question is whether that decision is possible today. I have to agree with Andrew Koppelman that it isn’t:

The high court has issued powerfully pro-gay-rights decisions at key points in the past 20 years — including striking down criminal statutes forbidding gay sex six years ago. But it has never voiced a word of enthusiasm for gay marriage. That has left scholars and longtime legal veterans of the gay-rights movement fearing disaster for gay marriage, should the issue be decided by the conservative-leaning Justices. “When I try to count the votes in favor of same-sex marriage on the Supreme Court, I have trouble getting to one,” Andrew Koppelman, John Paul Stevens Professor of Law at Northwestern University, told TIME.

I’m no lawyer, but you basically need two things for a ruling like this: a fundamental right to marriage in the constitution, and a decision that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination. The former is taken care of; Zablocki v. Redhail established a fundamental Constitutional right to marriage. The latter is trickier. While scholars like Koppelman have argued compellingly that discrimination against gays and lesbians is a form of sex discrimination, the Supreme Court has never accepted this. Thus, they have not applied the standard of “intermediate scrutiny” to laws infringing on gay rights, the standard generally used in sex discrimination cases. Intermediate scrutiny, in sex discrimination cases, requires discrimination to have an “exceedingly persuasive justification,” according to the Court, which is a tough standard for same-sex marriage opponents to meet. But in Romer v. Evans even the Court’s liberals did not apply intermediate scrutiny, instead using a rational-basis test to overrule an anti-gay constitutional amendment in Colorado. Rational-basis tests only require that a policy be “rationally related” to a “legitimate” government interest. This is far easier for same-sex marriage opponents to argue than the the “exceedingly persuasive” requirement of intermediate scrutiny.

Now, this does mean that a ruling against marriage bans is impossible. Intermediate scrutiny, in addition to its use in sex discrimination cases, is used in cases concerning fundamental rights, like marriage. But as a matter of politics, Koppelman is right. I doubt that, assuming a rational-basis test, any member of the court would rule against marriage bans. Even if, say, Ginsberg, Breyer, Stevens, and Sotomayor agree to use intermediate scrutiny and overturn the ban, I doubt even more that Anthony Kennedy would go along, as he was the justice who made the decision to use a rational basis test in Romer v. Evans. There’s a good case to be made that marriage bans are unconstitutional. It’s just not one the Supreme Court is ready to accept.

On Perchance to Dream

So this past week, on a lark, I got Matt Zeitlin to send me a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s “Perchance to Dream”, his defense of the novel in an era where it’s no longer, technologically speaking, necessary. I knew it was going to be a tough sell. I don’t read fiction and share Steven Johnson’s belief that television and film are making us far smarter. I expected Franzen’s piece to smack of Ludditism and condescension, rather than an honest grappling with the argument of people like me that text is an inferior way of telling stories to video.

I expected all that, but I also expected he’d try to make the piece something more. He doesn’t. Instead of aiming to write a real defense, he decides to pathologize those holding any other positions in this debate. Here’s his explanation of the Internet:

It seemed clear to me that if anybody who mattered in business or government believed there was a future in books, we would not have been witnessing such a frenzy in Washington and on Wall Street to raise half a trillion dollars for an Infobahn whose proponents paid lip service to the devastation it would wreak on reading (“You have to get used to reading on a screen”) but could not conceal their indifference to the prospect. It was also clear to me why these ruling interests were indifferent: When you hold a book in your hand, nothing will happen unless you work to make it happen. When you hold a book, the power and the responsibility are entirely yours.

Did private industry and the government develop the Internet because it’s a transformative innovation that has challenged millions if not billions of lives for the better? Of course not. They wanted to kill books, because books give people power, whereas it’s impossible to have one’s own interpretation of a film or television show. Except that Franzen doesn’t actually believe this, because Franzen does not believe that individuals should have power or responsibility at all:

That all these trends are infantilizing has been widely noted. Less often remarked is the way in which they are changing both our expectations of entertainment (the book must bring something to us, rather than our bringing something to the book) and the very content of that entertainment. What story is there to tell, Sven Birkerts asks in The Gutenberg Elegies, about the average American whose day consists of sleeping, working at a computer screen, watching TV, and talking on the phone? The problem for the novelist is not just that the average man or woman spends so little time F2F with his or her fellows; there is, after all, a rich tradition of epistolary novels, and Robinson Crusoe’s condition approximates the solitude of today’s suburban bachelor. The real problem is that the average man or woman’s entire life is increasingly structured to avoid precisely the kinds of conflicts on which fiction, preoccupied with manners, has always thrived.

Here, indeed, we are up against what truly seems like the obsolescence of serious art in general. Imagine that human existence is defined by an Ache: the Ache of our not being, each of us, the center of the universe; of our desires forever outnumbering our means of satisfying them. If we see religion and art as the historically preferred methods of coming to terms with this Ache, then what happens to art when our technological and economic systems and even our commercialized religions become sufficiently sophisticated to make each of us the center of our own universe of choices and gratifications? Fiction’s response to the sting of poor manners, for example, is to render them comic. The reader laughs with the writer, feels less alone with the sting. This is a delicate transaction, and it takes some work. How can it compete with a system that spares you the sting in the first place?

So the problem with modernity is that our lives are too…good? That there isn’t enough conflict? That we don’t have the kind of pain created by forced communitarianism of the past? Ignoring that this plainly isn’t true–somehow the television and film industries keep rolling despite their apparent lack of subject matter in Franzen’s eyes–Franzen refutes it mere sentences later. “In the long run, the breakdown of communitarianism is likely to have all sorts of nasty consequences,” he bemonans. Well, what are they? Write about them! Franzen complains that this has been turned into a “disease” not worthy of discussion. Well, if it’s worthy of discussion, discuss it! He has things to write about. It’s just that he can’t do it nearly as well as other media can.

Then Franzen flips again and starts talking about the need to be a “social isolate” to write well, praising literary recluses past and present. And there’s the rub. Franzen likes the life of a novelist, but he hates that it is being usurped by the commoners. That philistines like you or I can live free of societal constraints which he can then mock. It’s the same problem he has with women and racial minorities, who he blithely equates with pre-packaged brands at supermarkets. We’re not members of the tribe, and we’re chipping away at its privileges. And that makes him very, very, uncomfortable.

P.S. To be clear, if people want to write novels for each other and read them, fine. I have no problem with that. I don’t find much use for them but I’m not one to judge how other people spend their time. But as a society we continue to operate under this absurd notion that novels are somehow “better” for you than other media, or an inherently higher form of art. That’s ludicrous and people like Franzen who propagate it are silly.

Philosophy and Political Discourse

This is really idealistic on Ned’s part, and gets to the heart of the folly of his and others’ efforts to turn the political discourse into a political philosophy seminar:

Part of the reason why I’ve been writing about political philosophy so much lately is because I’m tired of bemoaning the lack of popular understanding regarding this issues. If we–meaning liberals and people who care about these questions in general–want people to learn, we need to fucking explain.

Incidentally, I no longer have any patience for arguments like, “The general public is dumb, we need to keep things simple when explaining it to them.” Besides being obnoxious and condescending, it’s an abdication of moral responsibility. Because just being photogenic and having a soothing voice may get you elected and in a position to exert some small amount of influence on national affairs, but it’s not a long term solution. Instilling in people a sense of the philosophical principles we believe in, and more importantly, a sense of how to deal with the questions from which we derived those principles, is.

You know what would happen if every pundit had a good grounding in political philosophy? Economic conservatives would cloak their ideological leanings in Nozickian rhetoric, liberals would make more nods to (preferably) greatest happiness and (preferably not) the original position, and the debate would more or less go on as it had before. The sides would be funded according to pre-agreed interests, and the overwrought rhetoric would be more or less irrelevant to the question of who can round up enough money and/or grassroots organization to buy the votes of relevant legislators. Which is, in the end, the only thing that matters. You may convince impressionable freshmen that Rawls is the bee’s knees, but no matter how many times Karen Ignagni reads A Theory of Justice she’s still going to oppose insurance regulation. And if she changes her position, she’ll get sacked and AHIP will find someone else to carry on their fight.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Philosophical rhetoric would be actively detrimental to progressive ideals. For one thing, it emphasizes differences that, in the trenches, are hardly relevant. Ned is a Rawlsian. I think Rawlsianism is deontologist crap that distracts us from what politics should really be about, namely actually making things better for people. But I suspect we agree on 99% of actual policy issues. So while I argue with Ned about philosophy a lot, on things that actually affect people’s lives we’re a millimeter apart. That’s what matters, and that’s what arguments should be about.

Further, arguments about first principles don’t have victors. We’re not going to reach some endgame where everyone cowers in the face of Rawls’ astounding logic and we all agree to build a robust safety net. People get entrenched, whether due to self-interest, family upbringing, genetics or whatever. Ned can call that condescending, but acting like people will be anything but highly resistant to changing their beliefs just due to some philosophical arguments is terribly naive. So I think it’s more useful to have debates about how we can stop having people die from lack of insurance rather than arguing about whether it’s acceptable to use the government to reduce human suffering. The latter debate is stupid, can have no definitive winners, and distracts from the real human pain at the heart of the issue.

Moral arguments have a place in politics. But those moral arguments have to be connected to concrete examples of hardship if they’re going to have any force. Abstract ethical theory arguments almost never convince the other side, divide allies, and do nothing to address the underlying forces stopping progressive change.

In Defense of Vapid End-of-Decade Lists

I don’t usually watch a lot of movies. I tend to get to one a month, if that. But in the past few weeks I’ve taken time out for Zodiac, In the Mood for Love, and Capturing the Friedmans. After that I’ve got Synecdoche, New York and 25th Hour on the docket. This isn’t random. All of those were either on Roger Ebert’s or (more influentially) the AV Club’s decade-end lists. I had heard of them all before, but the lists were an essential reminder and made them stand out from the rest of the nearly endless “supposedly great movies I should get to sometime” list in my head. The result was that I watched at least three great (I trust AV Club and Ebert for a reason) movies that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

All of which is to say that Alyssa and Matt really miss the point in their condemnation of cultural listmaking. I suppose in an epistemological sense they’re right that it’s impossible, for reasons of personal subjectivity and time scarcity, that it’s impossible to have a “best albums” or “best movies” list that’s “correct” and reflective of anything other than personal taste, that’s not really interesting. Of course no list is going to be perfect. But almost everyone reading a given list is not going to have accessed one or more of the items yet, or have not watched/listened to it for years, or not heard it in the context of being art as opposed to cinematic fluff or mere dancehall fodder. That’s useful; that leads to (largely) positive experiences with culture that otherwise would not have occurred. Whether the list is “right” is more or less irrelevant. As long as it serves the purpose of exposing people to new culture, or experienced familiar culture in a new way, a list is performing a useful service. I have plenty to beef over in Pitchfork’s year-end song list but it got me to listen to The Big Pink, so it did its job. It wasn’t before their 2000-04 best-of that I listened to “Crazy in Love” outside of a middle school dance, which was more than worthwhile.

Of course, there are other ways to introduce people to culture, ones that don’t employ devices as reviled as lists. But the fact of the matter is that most people don’t have time or sufficient interest to slog through New Yorker-length treatises on underappreciated filmmakers or artists. We can spend our time bemoaning this as a symptom of cultural decline or embrace adaptations, like lists, that further cultural appreciation. One of these paths is more productive than the other.