Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Triumph of Willful Men (and Women), and What to do About It

The best thing to come out of the health care debate, as far as I can tell, other than a lukewarm bill whose merits and demerits will continued to be debated ad nauseam (I’m for it, though I’m glad I don’ t have to vote for it, on the record) is the call for the reform of the filibuster. If the filibuster is changed or eliminated, that would be, in my opinion, real, lasting reform. I’m not so sure about the health care bill. And getting rid of the filibuster would be a salutary change in progressive thinking. For reasons that I cannot fathom, liberals, progressives, democrats, have been over the past decade profoundly uninterested in discussing structural reform of the American government. The Bush-Gore election should have been an occasion for serious talk about Electoral College reform, and no more Floridas should have been a top issue for any new Democratic administration. And likewise, on January 20th 2009, Obama should made clear that ending the filibuster (at a time when the Dems only had 58 seats in the senate) should have been a top priority, rather than wasting months with oleaginous talk of bipartisanship.

The complete lack of interest in the reform of any constitutional arrangement is a hallmark of contemporary progressives, and it distinguishes modern progressives from Progressive era progressives, New Deal progressives, or Great Society progressives, all of whom expressed great interest in changing the way the government works in fundamental ways, and often tried to neuter the filibuster’s potential for gumming up the government works. (But, BTW, kudos to the “little band of willful men” who tried to prevent US entry to WWI. ) Getting around the nine old men on the US Supreme Court, and if Roosevelt’s court packing was too blatant a way around it, the need to do so spawned all sorts of constitutional innovations. And trying to loose the southern grasp over the senate, both in terms of committee chairmanships, procedure, and filibusters, was a major cause for civil rights liberals in the 1950s and 1960s. But for all the talk of change that ushered in Obama, there has little serious talk until now of changing the structure of government. There are reasons for this. Sstructural change is not inherently partisan; changing the filibuster or electoral college rules could help either party. They are not bread and butter issues. And arguably the filibuster is more murky now then it was half a century ago. It is no longer the prerogative of dixiecrats but is an equal opportunity delaying tactic, used by both sides freely. But besides adding to the profoundly antidemocratic nature of the senate, it makes the senate a place where serious legislation goes to die. Its fine to expand the health care system, try to pass a cap and trade bill (good luck), or tackle immigration reform (good luck again), but it is only when progressives learn again that the forms of the government are not inviolately given, and are, in the hands of the people, possess an inherent plasticity, that reform will really matter. The rest is just soundbites. The Obama presidency has had its first real encounter with structural and procedural reality, and I hope they and we learn from it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Incrementalism, in Part

One of the major questions in the health care legislation and the endless conundrums of the debate is whether one can start with small gains and advance to bigger and bigger ones. And the answer is, of course, sometimes incrementalism works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Those who defend the current senate bill sometimes point to social security and civil rights as successful examples of incrementalism. Perhaps. One can read the evidence in both ways. While it is certainly true that by excluding domestic and agricultural works from the original social security act in 1935, at the behest of southern senators, there was a huge gap in the coverage and fairness of the social security act, which was only remedied in subsequent decades. On the other hand, the creation of social security system strikes me as a far more radical act than anything contained in the current health care bill, which fits into the model of regulated capitalism, and does not, it seems fundamentally transform the health insurance industry. (This might be debated in some quarters. Much depends on how the health exchanges work in practice.) And civil rights seems like an even worse case for incrementalism. This is a complex subject, but I would argue that though the series of executive orders and state and federal laws from 1941 through the early 1960s on civil rights were significant, but racial equality was really instituted in this country by a wrenching revolution in the mid-1960s, in one convulsive fell swoop.

One thing is clear. If all the big issues are delayed until a future date–I think of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians—incrementalism will get you nowhere, and the unresolved issues will unresolve all the issues the parties thought they had resolved. There is a Zeno’s paradox of incremental reform; of perpetually taking half steps and never arriving at one’s destination. This has me very worried. On the other hand, Edward Bernstein was right, and Kautsky and Lenin were wrong. I think the current bill is okay, and if I were a member of congress, I would support it. However, it does mean that for the foreseeable future, health insurance in this country will continue to be doled out by for profit private insurers, and the United States is likely to continue to have one of the worst health insurance systems in the developed world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Obama and the Morning After

President Obama's speech on Afghanistan left me hoping that he succeeds but deeply skeptical about the prospects of his escalation. The left and right are already picking it apart for obvious reasons, and if it fails he may well stand alone. The biggest fallacy behind it, I fear, is the belief that a surge in Afghanistan will have the same useful impact as the surge in Iraq. But any analogies between the two countries are badly flawed.

As Juan Cole points out, Afghanistan and Iraq are very different societies. And the factors that aided the success of the Iraq surge--some of them ugly forms of ethnic cleansing--won't necessarily apply in Afghanistan.

No two wars are alike, and it is a great mistake to assume that what works in one will work in another. In countries as different as Iraq and Afghanistan, the complexities and dangers of each nation make for vastly different military situations.

President Obama has devised a strategy that recognizes conservative desires for a military solution and liberal desires to get out. Both sides can find much to criticize in it.

My fear is that there is no war that the US and its allies can "win" in Afghanistan the way you win a conventional war. That will make for a very messy ending to this conflict. While I hope that President Obama's policies hasten the end of this fight in some form, I can only contemplate them with a deep sense of skepticism.