Is USPS as American as Pumpkin Pie?

Chidem Kurdas

The United States Postal Service is in a deep financial hole that looks to get deeper unless the institution undergoes a major revamp.  Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says current bills in Congress do not provide enough savings to get out of the hole.

US Mail has historical roots. What would Benjamin Franklin, who was appointed the first American Postmaster General in 1775 by the Continental Congress, do in this situation? Given the flexibility that existed in his time, he could no doubt make the changes to adapt the organization to the 21st century.  That flexibility, however, is gone.  Continue reading

Sliding Toward the Individual Health Insurance Mandate: An Absurdist Analysis

by Mario Rizzo

I am not an expert in US Constitutional law, but I am not totally uninformed either. And yet (or because of this) I was shocked to see the completely crazy “analysis” that appeared, as an opinion piece, in the Wednesday, November 16th issue of the New York Times. The author is the anti-trust and health law scholar Einer R. Elhauge of the Harvard Law School. I am somewhat relieved to find that he is not a constitutional law expert either.

Nevertheless, the article is notable for how casually it treats the legal issues. Continue reading

The Targeted Killing of Anwar al-Awlaki

by Roger Koppl

Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike today.  If you recognize the name Awlaki, then you know that he was bad guy.  He was a propagandist for Al Qaeda who seems to have inspired the Fort Hood shooting, in which Nidal Hassan killed 13 people.  He was also an American citizen, born in New Mexico.  He was charged with no crime.  No attempt was made to arrest him.  The United States government seems to have had no plan to try him or charge him with any crime.  He was simply targeted for killing, and killed. Continue reading

Kissinger on Bismarck

by Chidem Kurdas

A man described as both great and evil, Otto von Bismarck-Schönhausen makes a fascinating study,  as Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck: A Life demonstrates.  Henry Kissinger reviewed this biography in the New York Times Book Review, highlighting the diplomatic and political victories the unifier of Germany won through nimble maneuvers.

The review is a bravura tribute from one practitioner of realpolitik to another. Yet a closer look at Bismarck raises doubts as to realpolitik.

While admiring Bismarck’s subtle power games, Mr. Kissinger  admits that the result lacked institutional balance and “sowed the seeds of Germany’s 20th century tragedies.” But he takes issue with the connection Mr. Steinberg draws from Bismarck to Hitler. Kissinger points to the contrast between the two characters. “Bismarck was a rationalist, Hitler a romantic nihilist,” he writes. “Hitler left a vacuum. Bismarck left a state strong enough to overcome catastrophic defeats …”

Nevertheless, Bismarck’s actions led to those catastrophes. Continue reading

Constitution Bashers’ Internet Fallacy

by Chidem Kurdas

There’s a ferocious backlash against the Tea Party’s reverence for the U.S. Constitution. Court decisions against ObamaCare’s compulsory health insurance provision have further stoked the hostility.

One common and obvious line of attack is that the Constitution is old-fashioned and out of synch with our world of satellites and Twitter. Continue reading

Two Visions Fuel Political Attacks

by Chidem Kurdas

Apparently left-liberal pundits are convinced that people oppose government expansion either out of stupidity or cupidity—not, say, out of a sincere belief in freedom. The oft-repeated story is that ignorant and misguided masses are being led by greedy business interests. Paul Krugman’s recent column is one of  many examples in the genre where billionaires intent on ravaging the country provide the bucks while clueless Tea Partiers provide grass roots brawn.

The best insight regarding this type of criticism comes from Thomas Sowell, whose analysis of two distinct visions of human nature puts current attacks into long-term perspective. Jerry O’Driscoll referred to this work in his comment on anti-intellectualism, a charge often levied by the same left-liberal critics.

In A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles (published 1987, new edition 2007), Professor Sowell contrasted two fundamental views that go back several centuries. Continue reading

Anti-Intellectualism and Freedom

by Chidem Kurdas

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, a historian who died in 1970, is very much part of politics several decades after it was written. The past two years brought many charges of anti-intellectualism by left-liberals against people on the other side of the political divide.  The latest in Hofstadter-inspired critiques is an attack on Tea Partiers by Will Bunch — The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama.

The term anti-intellectualism does not just denote those who don’t care for intellectuals. Rather, Hofstadter presents it as an ideology, an “ism” that periodically besets American culture and deprives intellectuals of political power. This deprivation disappears under certain administrations. Thus regarding the late 19th and early 20th century he wrote that “In the Progressive era the estrangement between intellectuals and power … came rather abruptly to an end.”

Similarly in the New Deal: “Never had there been such complete harmony between the popular cause in politics and the dominant view of the intellectuals.” Unfortunately – from Hofstadter’s perspective – this harmony was disrupted by right-wing reaction against policies associated with intellectuals. Continue reading

Constitutionalism: Point/Counter-Point

By Chidem Kurdas and Thomas McQuade

In our previous post, Thomas argued that voter feedback is weak in constraining the exercise of legislative power. Chidem countered that the other fundamental constraint, the constitution, is therefore all-important. Commentators were divided, with cogent arguments pro and con. We continue this discussion.

Chidem:  Constitutionalism is the idea of subjecting political power to rules that stand above that power. The concept took a long time to develop and became effective only in some societies. Its roots go back to the Magna Carta of 1215 in which King John of England accepted limits to his authority and an earlier Charter of Liberties. Today’s struggles about the US Constitution are but another chapter in this long history.

Public choice pioneer and Nobel-prize winner James Buchanan powerfully made the constitutionalist case. Geoffrey Brennan and Buchanan offer this definition in The Reason of Rules (1985): “the essence of the constitutionalist approach is that political action (including the making of laws) be conducted according to certain rules (or meta-rules).”

In the alternative view, majority voting is the ultimate source of morally legitimate political power and there should be no constraints on it.  Buchanan and Roger Congleton (Politics by Principle, Not Interest, 1998) argue that in the absence of meta-rules politics devolves into majority-seeking deals where some benefit at the expense of others.   Continue reading

Understanding Politics: Point/Counter-Point

by Thomas McQuade and Chidem Kurdas

Our previous post and the ensuing discussion raised points for and against the appropriateness of understanding markets as complex adaptive systems. We discuss here whether the same approach can say something useful about modern political systems, taking the US as the illustrative example.

Thomas: I think it could be useful to apply concepts from complex systems to understand governmental arrangements. I’ll concentrate here – with a very broad brush – on the legislative branch. Congress and its agencies can be seen as a social arrangement in which the participants pursue their particular aims via repeated, structured interactions. This process adapts to inputs from voters, lobbyists, and others. A body of legislation and associated directives is an emergent effect.

Two interrelated aspects of this particular system stand out immediately—its concentration of power and the relatively weak feedback constraining the exercise of this power. In these respects, it differs markedly from markets and science.  Continue reading

Time for a Truth Commission

by Roger Koppl

London’s The Times reports on evidence suggesting “George W. Bush ‘knew Guantánamo prisoners were innocent.’”  (HT: Radley Balko)  Supposedly, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were all in on it.  “The accusations were made by Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to Colin Powell, the former Republican Secretary of State, in a signed declaration to support a lawsuit filed by a Guantánamo detainee.”

According to The Times, “He [Wilkerson] said that many [persons] were turned over by Afghans and Pakistanis for up to $5,000.”  The problem with these payments is clear.  Paying persons serious money to turn in supposed terrorists creates a powerful incentive to invent false charges so that you can get the money.  In that part of the world, $5,000 is very serious money indeed.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many persons swept up in that operation were innocent persons who were sold out to fatten a wallet.

Karl Rove has said that waterboarding is not torture.  (Go to about 3:07.)  He has also said that “harsh interrogation” produced lots of good actionable intelligence (2:25).  That’s not a credible remark in my book.

In the US, our government has rendered, sequestered, and tortured.  Our government has flouted the rule of law and suspended habeas corpus.  It has made war on a nation that was not a threat to us in any way.  It has spied on us without the legal nicety of a specific warrant.  It has, in other words, grown tyrannical.  Isn’t it time for a truth commission?  It is too much to hope for a real criminal trial of our highest officials, but is it really too much to ask for the truth?  Patrick Leahy called for a truth commission in February 2009.  It’s time.

Sign of the Times: A Note

by Mario Rizzo

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial “ObamaCare and the Constitution” in Friday’s edition. It covers ground similar to my post below.

However, there is sentence that bothers me, not because it is wrong, but because it expresses the temper of our times:

Judicial and media liberals are trying to dismiss these challenges [to the constitutionality of Obamacare] as a revanchist attempt to repeal the New Deal, or, worse, as a way to restore the states’s rights of Jim Crow.

Yes, it is quite unfashionable, even among conservatives, to want to repeal most or all of the New Deal. It is true that finding the current healthcare bill to be unconstitutional would in no way threaten these hallowed laws. However, I wish that the New Deal were not so beyond reconsideration. I think many economists would agree that much of its legislation could, with general benefit, either be repealed outright or be seriously revised. We can begin with the labor legislation.

It also bothers me, although I fully understand why, some people insist on associating “states’ rights” with Jim Crow or with slavery, for that matter. But for intelligent people not to see the advantages of federalism is inexcusable. After all, slaves were private property but we don’t therefore assume that all manifestations of private property are bad. Well, at least not most people. I hope.

Our Inconvenient Constitution

by Mario Rizzo 

The question of questions for the politician should ever be — “what type of social structure am I tending to produce?” But this is a question he never entertains. (Herbert Spencer, “The Coming Slavery.”)

It is hard for an abstraction to win against a poor mother with a kid who is uninsured. But this kind of phenomenon has been the story for a long time.  

Human beings are prone to ignore the long-run, hard to measure, and more abstract consequences of their actions, especially in the public sphere. Each decision is taken is response to some concrete problem or need. “It is all about people; it is all about jobs; it is all about health,” we are told. Sometimes it is about the goals of special, concentrated interests. Other times people think of themselves as voting for the concrete interests of worthy individuals or groups.

Of course, there is usually a net social loss of wealth or efficiency. But that is not the main loss. The real loss is the weakening of the institutional and legal framework that can protect us from a serious diminution of liberty.   Continue reading