Posts Tagged democrat

Applied Randology #15: Party Lines

Welcome one and all to the Grand Finale, the very last week of “Atlas ‘Clubbed” — which I will admit in retrospect should’ve been called “Atlas Blogged,” or even more accurately, “Atlas Trolled.”

But it’s too late for that now, and more importantly — tomorrow’s the election! So here’s how this blog’s waning days are going to break down:

*Today, a thorough review of everything Atlas Shrugged has taught us about American politics in 2012.

*Tomorrow, what lessons should Democrats and Republicans each learn from Ayn Rand going forward?

*Wednesday will obviously be dedicated to the election results, to whatever degree they’re definitive by morning.

*Thursday, some final reflections. How reading Atlas Shrugged (twice!) has affected my beliefs and attitudes personally. “Dessert for Thought” if you will.

*Friday I’ll cast this sucker in amber and announce my future blogging plans.

So, without further ado…

PARTY LINES

For most of American history, our two political parties were ideologically diverse, with lots of different conflicting interest groups existing within each. And while there are still factions within them, the parties have become far more ideologically cohesive over the last half-century.

The Republican Party in particular has become extremely doctrinaire: conservatives today speak of their “Cause” and their “Movement,” and their candidates face a number of “purity tests” and “pledges” on their way to office.

These are characteristics of a “closed” ideology, a belief system that is less interested in adapting to reality than forcing reality to fit its ideas. And such belief systems can be extremely effective at doing that. But the approach has its limits. Push reality too hard and reality pushes back.

In contrast, Democrats are the more diverse party, and this is why congressional Republicans can vote in almost perfect lockstep and unanimity but congressional Democrats often have trouble maintaining the party line.  To the lay voter who pays scant attention to politics, all this makes Republicans look strong and righteous, and Democrats look weak and confused. On a public relations level, the “closed” ideology has an advantage.

So even though this blog was initially intended to be as non-partisan as possible, as the election drew nearer I felt it necessary to declare that independent voters should definitely, absolutely pick the Democratic Party — not always, but for now. Because ideologies that are open to evolution and change are good, and ideologies closed to new evidence are bad. And while history tells us that polarized ideological parties aren’t good for America in general, as long as we have them we should vote for the one that is “open” and not the one that is “closed.”

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn presents two ideological factions, one that swears by proper science and factual evidence and moral justice, and one that ignores the reality in front of their eyes by hiding behind a broken philosophy. In today’s world, partisans can more or less agree on this dynamic but put each other in the opposite roles. Ayn, for her part, says the faction of objective truth is the anarcho-capitalist faction, and the faction of false belief is the faction of social democrats.

Of course I started this blog because I think Ayn’s fictional world has great relevance to our own, but obviously I believe that as far as her world relates to America in 2012, Ayn got the morality of the political factions backwards — but NOT because of the politics themselves.

See, I don’t think libertarianism and conservatism are “false beliefs,” nor do I think liberalism is fundamentally objective and right. I think defining moral right and wrong along political lines is one of Ayn’s biggest mistakes. The moral dividing line isn’t libertarianism v. social democracy, it’s how you think about your beliefs that matters. It’s not left or right, but open or closed to evolving.

Looking at it that way, it just so happens that the Democratic Party is morally right and the Republican Party is morally wrong, not because of liberalism and conservatism, not even because of what each party claims its moral values are, but because the Democratic Party as a whole is open to new ideas and evidence in a way that the Republican Party as a whole is not.

Ayn dedicates her whole book to the idea that one way of thinking is morally right and one way of thinking is morally wrong — she just doesn’t live up to her own definition of the right way. And neither do her followers.

So let’s examine how well our real-world parties fare against this Randian standard. Three axes: economics, social policy, and political strategy.

1. ECONOMICS

When Ayn was doing all that world-building in Atlas, I made clear that I found the broad strokes of her vision effective because I think fiscal discipline and small government make an enormous amount of sense. I think Democrats fail to fully appreciate the burden of excess regulation and regulatory uncertainty, and I think liberals tend to vilify capitalism and business as an abstract generality even though they are the world’s great drivers of prosperity. On top of all that I find the idea of a lean, mean, stream-lined state that leaves as much as possible to the liberty of the people to be a beautiful and elegant theory of government.

However, we must abide by logic and reason and the evidence of the applied sciences in our universe, just as Rand would have us do in her own customized version of the universe. And that means we must recognize the serious threat that climate change poses to economic prosperity and human quality of life more generally. We must recognize that as a matter of history, radical income inequality and political plutocracy lead to a collapse of the economic buffer between rich and poor otherwise known as the middle class (or the bourgeoisie, if you prefer).

On these matters, the places where ideal theory must either bend to meet cold hard reality or break upon impact, the value of some government regulation and a socially intelligent tax system should be obvious. Yet in the face of not only repeated freak hurricanes, but also financial disasters and the fiscal recklessness of its own recent leaders, the Republican Party refuses to amend its ideal theory to improve its relationship with reality. And considering the great potential of that theory, the fact that it is the Democrats who have the healthier relationship to math, facts, history, and responsibility is a huge self-inflicted wound and a deep mark of shame on the GOP.

Again and again, the 21st century Republican Party has had the opportunity to live up to the virtuous ideas of its historical forebears, and again and again it has failed. Today’s Republicans talk a good game, but when you educate yourself on how they actually behave in office, you see that they are Rand fans fetishizing Francisco’s speech about money as karma, one of the most logically sloppy sections of the book.

2. SOCIAL ISSUES

This one could not be simpler. Liberalism today means being pro-abortion, pro-sex, pro-gay… social liberalism has a decidedly more libertarian reputation in nearly every category. Ayn tested, real world approved!

Which isn’t to say social conservatism doesn’t have merits. Its attention to questions of social stability and positive environments for raising children are important concerns to have. The surprisingly fast acceptance of gay marriage is, I think, largely due to the fact that the fundamental right gays are fighting for is access to a conservative, traditional institution of family and stability.

And please notice that for both sides, they win on social issues when they are “pro” something. When liberals violate the libertarian virtues of their popular positions and start going all “nanny state” about cigarette packaging or soft drink sizes or whatever, it rubs people the wrong way. That’s a “con” of social liberalism.

But the “cons” of social conservatism are far worse, at least politically, because social conservatism today is defined largely as anti-sex, which must be the most losing political argument in the Western world. Ayn would be utterly apalled.

Now, there is actually a Randian argument in favor of conservative attitudes towards sex, founded in the fact that Ayn believes sex is unavoidably an exchange of spiritual value. The rights to accessible birth control and abortions, while enormously important for the economic and social freedom of at least half the population of America and the earth, do create a culture in which the relationships between sexuality and pregnancy, sexuality and sheer personal intimacy, are loosened. That raises some valid questions about spiritual health, moral values, and the cultural environment in which our children develop.

But that certainly doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of modernity, including women’s rights, science, and higher education. And sadly, just such a rejection is the headline characteristic of a number of religious conservative movements today.

And so, just as it was with economics, I believe the right champions important moral questions that the left would do well to consider, yet goes so overboard with religious/ideological fervor that it disqualifies itself from wielding power.

3. POLITICAL STYLE

This is where I find myself viscerally upset by today’s Republican Party. Particularly if you buy into the moral value of being rational and objective about facts, the political strategy of the 21st century GOP is truly vile.

I think it’s simplest to put it this way:

The only serious tactic in the Republican governing arsenal since 2008 has been to hold the economy hostage. On the stimulus bill, on health care reform, on the debt ceiling, on the jobs act… the GOP consistently sabotages the nation’s short-term or long-term economic health, and then blames Obama. Does anybody recognize that tactic, can you think of anyone else who uses it? I can. It’s John Galt.

You see, the thing that makes Ayn Rand fandom so disturbing is that Ayn Rand doesn’t believe in democracy. She believes the wealthy deserve complete freedom from taxes and social responsibility as a matter of moral justice, and so the only just laws are those designed to protect the wealthy from the population at large. To Ayn Rand, the purpose of government is to protect plutocracy from the dangers of democracy.

And this is what the Republican Party of 2012 is really doing, except instead of abstaining from government like the fictional Galt, they work to take over government from the inside, which Galt specifically rejects.

I don’t think this is an intentional conspiratorial cabal situation. It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as this: the billionaire Rand fans fund The Party. The social conservatives and the small government fiscal hawks vote for The Party. And The Party, which believes in money but doesn’t believe in government, makes sure to do what the funders want, and really doesn’t give a shit about the governing part that the social conservatives and the fiscal hawks have a genuine stake in. In the end, the public is left in ruins and the richest took the money and ran, and by their moral logic this is not only okay, it proves they were right all along.

And that’s why you have to vote Democrat by default. That party believes in democracy. It’s a party of many creeds and colors, a party of economic opportunity and legal equality. It is within the historical tradition of great American government. It is not the most aggressive or impressive to a superficial observer, but it is the better option.

In the sections above, I listed a number of reasons why I can sympathize with Republican voters and right-leaning independents. I pointed out where I respect their philosophy and values at every opportunity. But once you come down to the basic, craven politics of it, I cannot escape this conclusion, based in fact and historical evidence, that to whatever degree you support the Republican Party of today, you are ignorant of, or in denial about, its true nature and its moral reality.

A democratic vote for an anti-democracy party is a reward for moral perversity and social injustice, anti-logic, anti-life, ignorance, denial, cynicism, contradiction, and self-destruction. Make your choice, America, but make it in full awareness of what it is you’re choosing.

That’s what Ayn would’ve wanted.

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Applied Randology #1: Hayek Anxiety

The 2012 election is heating up, so it’s time to start applying this book club to real life. Today, even though I vote Democrat, I’m going to explain how conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

Disclaimer: I’m not formally versed in economics, I just read this book recently. But if you are so versed, and want to school me in the comments, by all means. And if you aren’t and things get confusing, read yesterday’s primer on Keynes & Hayek for context.

Alan Greenspan

To get a sense of the strange ways Ayn Rand has impacted American politics, look no further than the arguments between Alan Greenspan and Ron Paul during Congressional oversight hearings, excerpted in Paul’s book End the Fed.  Greenspan was a member of the inner circle that workshopped drafts of Atlas Shrugged with Rand herself. Paul named his son Rand. Yet despite their shared philosophical background, they are completely at odds over the economy.

Greenspan, of course, ran the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, and Ron Paul hates the Fed. A lot. During the GOP debate on 1/23, he spoke about how the government doesn’t manipulate the economy through price and wage controls (aside from a minimum wage, I suppose), but it does manipulate the economy by controlling interest rates and money supply. That’s the Fed. Paul’s economics are pure Hayek, so he thinks we shouldn’t do that. Peg the value of the dollar to gold and leave the economy alone. After all, since capitalism is undeniably the most efficient system for creating vast amounts of wealth, we should want the market to be as free as possible.

Being richer than your parents: The Everywhere-but-America-n Dream

Income Growth in America, 1979-2005

But some people aren’t so sure the wealth capitalism generates will automatically get distributed on the merits, and the libertarian vision is completely neutral to outcomes. Increasing income inequality and declining social mobility are only the technical terms for, I don’t know, the Death of the American Dream, but to a pure libertarian the American Dream was only possible thanks to the nation’s laissez faire roots, so as long as the system goes back to that model the socioeconomic outcomes will be right by definition, no matter what they are.

America's Lovable Crackpot Grandpa

Which means if Ron Paul became president and had a Tea Party congress to back him up in liquidating the national debt and dismantling the Fed, the global economy would undergo a severe contraction, but that would just prove the whole arrangement was built on an illusion in the first place and any terrible consequences caused by ending it would be necessary adjustments to get back on a sustainable track. From the perspective of the people in this hypothetical whose lives were okay until Ron Paul’s policies rocked the world, this logic seems obviously insane.

Despite that, Ron Paul is vital to national politics because of his extreme ideological purity. People criticize the Republican party for prizing ideological purity over all else, but the real problem is that mainstream Republican ideology is not pure, it’s a sick, self-contradictory mess. Ron Paul’s system of belief is internally coherent even if it’s externally problematic: he has integrity.

For example, Ron Paul’s policies for restoring American prosperity are not aimed at lowering unemployment, because under pure Hayekian liberty the unemployment rate at any given moment always reflects the best the economy can do; anything better is just a bubble waiting to burst. Can’t find work? Tough shit. Put down the bong and learn how to compete for the jobs that actually exist, or prove your ideas are valuable in the free market and create some jobs yourself. That part sounds Republican enough.

Yet in the same debate where Paul talked monetary policy, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were in a rhetorical arms race over who could create more jobs by cutting Mitt Romney’s taxes from 15% to zero. That isn’t honest Hayekian politics, it’s pandering. The rich donor class likes the tax cuts, the struggling masses in the voting class like hearing ‘job creation.’ But cutting taxes to promote job creation is actually Keynesian.

Professional Bullshit Artists

After all, insofar as people spend their untaxed money it will stimulate demand, which will boost the economy and thus, eventually, employment and tax revenues. JFK did this. Granted, those were demand-side “trickle-up” cuts, not supply-side “trickle-down” cuts. But either way the law of diminishing returns applies. Cut taxes too much and the growth won’t produce more tax revenues on the other end. It becomes fiscally irresponsible.

The key to all of Keynes’ ideas is that they’re cyclical guidelines, not hard and fast rules. The economy crashed? Cut taxes and spend money until it fuels a positive feedback loop. But once the loop is running, STOP. If the economy is booming, raise taxes and save a budget surplus. That way, next time the economy hits a negative feedback loop, we can cut taxes and fund public works out of the surplus and not rack up such a big deficit. Fiscal responsibility! Conservative and liberal policies are both right, they just need to take turns.

Now, Keynesian spending can be a problem — flood the economic engine with too much money and it stalls out (stagflation). Or even worse (and this was Hayek’s fear), it can make the up and down swings sharper instead of smoother. Like, say, if you give tax deductions and tax dollars to home-owners who can’t afford a mortgage, that creates a bubble. Or if you give out massive tax cuts during a boom, that explodes the deficit. But neither Barney Frank nor George Bush was masterminding an evil conspiracy. They don’t even like each other. It’s just the same mechanism at play as in lobbying: systemic corruption without widespread individual corruption.

So clearly politics gums up the Keynesian On/Off switch. Once politicians hand out Keynesian dollars, it’s very hard to stop. They’d lose votes! What if the business cycle slumps when they’re up for re-election? They’ll overuse Keynesian tools to stay in office! Indeed, this is part of why our tax code is a mess of deductions. Look no further than President Obama’s well-received State of the Union Speech. Great speech; I liked it. But it involved a lot more tax complicating than tax simplifying.

Chemo treats cancer, but it also makes you sick.

Once Keynesian spending becomes never-ending and aimed towards specific interest groups by career politicians, it actually could trigger Hayek’s Road to Serfdom feedback loop. But as we see today, private enterprise is part of that. It’s the corporatist-lobbyist-politician loop. George Orwell himself pointed out in his review of Hayek’s Road that the people are right to fear corporate serfdom as well as state serfdom. Fascism is both, after all. It’s a balancing act.

Hayek actually considered himself a liberal, but in classical terms, where it’s defined by economic liberty and only out of that can social liberty grow. He said of conservatives that they are only as good as what they’re conserving. Today’s Republican policies would conserve deficit-expanding tax cuts and a 70-year bipartisan tradition of endless deficit spending on the military-industrial complex. If Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is a vision of a bankrupt police state, the conservative party in America today is steering a course down that very road.

What then of the Democrats? They use the language of Ayn Rand’s villains, the language of social justice. And they’re part of the corporate-lobbyist-politician axis too. Yet neither group is full of secret nihilists; Rand is way too cynical there. Voters on both sides aspire to live by their principles and are maybe a little naive about policy, or like Rand’s heroes they simply can’t fathom their enemies or see their own flaws.

The reason I vote the Democratic side of the not-backed-by-gold coin is that the Democratic party’s parallels to the Randverse are straightforward and end there. Rand nails the naive self-defeating angle, and I get that. But that holds for the GOP too, and then on top of that the language of the Republican party has gone disturbingly meta. Conservative rhetoric uses Rand/Hayek arguments in ways that would produce the Rand/Hayek nightmare scenario. It’s not just self-defeating, it’s self-contradicting. It’s a Jim Taggart move if ever there was one. Except in our world it’s Rand’s language playing the role that social justice language plays in the Randverse. Ironic, idn’t it?

The Debt: Both parties, finally working together.

Standing in the middle of all this is Ron Paul again, who demonstrates both the incoherence of mainstream politics and the inability of a rigid ideology to solve the problem. He is anti-Keynes, so he’s in the party that calls itself anti-Keynes. But both parties use (and abuse) Keynesianism.

Basically Keynes is like a drug. Drugs can be medicine. They can be a social lubricant. But you need to use them in responsible moderation. Hayek doesn’t want us to overdose or drive drunk or end up broke and homeless (oops!). So credit where it’s due: Keynes is the most influential economist since Adam Smith, and not without reason. Hayek was an economist, sure, but his truly important legacy is his political philosophy, which warns us about the dangers of Keynes’ powerful insights.

And even Hayek cuts across today’s political lines. In his last major work, The Fatal Conceit, Hayek was as radically libertarian as ever. He suggested we should privatize pretty much everything. But he also said the state should enforce a universal health care mandate and guarantee unemployment insurance, even if private companies supply them. That way, maybe, even at the bottom of the business cycle, people wouldn’t be desperate enough to vote for a well-meaning party that would accidentally turn the country into a militarized police state. Maybe.

So yeah. Conservative economics makes liberal sense. Sort of.

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