Reductio ad absurdum

Reductio ad absurdum: It means reduced to the absurd. It is a form of argument that reduces your opponent’s argument to an absurdity, in an attempt to show that the argument itself is absurd. But it only works if you point out the logical fallacies in the argument. It doesn’’t work when you simply extend your opponents comments to an illogical extreme, and then argue against this illogical extreme. That argument simply makes you look dumb.

I was fascinated by Senator Marco Rubio’’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address a few weeks ago. It was chock-a-block full of conservative talking points, and I would like to address one here: his contention that President Obama does not believe in the free market. Rubio said:

“Presidents in both parties – from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan – have known that our free enterprise economy is the source of our middle class prosperity. But President Obama?  He believes it’s the cause of our problems.  That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough.”

That is an interesting comment and a standard Republican talking point, but I don’t think I have ever heard Obama say that the free enterprise system was the cause of the economic collapse. Did I simply miss it?

I think what Sen. Rubio is suggesting is that Obama, like most economists, believe that the financial crisis that began with the collapse of the housing market, was caused, in part, by derivatives and collateralized debt obligations based on mortgage backed securities. This is the wild-west side of our capitalist system. But to suggest that criticism of out of control bankers is the same as believing that the free enterprise system is the cause of our economic woes is simply a bizarre form of reductio ad absurdum.

Rubio was not the first to suggest that Obama does not like the free market system. Republicans have been calling him a socialist for years, at least since he first started running for President, if not before. It is obviously absurd, but what does it say about Republicans that they have to reduce Obama’s arguments to an absurd abstraction, and then argue against that?

I think this raises two important questions:

1. Where does this idea come from?

2. What does it mean for our political system that so many Republicans would rather fight against a bizarre make believe version of Obama rather than the real thing?

1. Where does this idea come from?

As I mentioned, Obama did criticize the more out of control aspects of capitalism regarding the world-wide financial collapse in 2007-08. But then again, so did most economists. About the only people who don’t blame the bankers for pushing crappy mortgages, and then packaging them into derivatives and CDO’s, are Republican politicians. They have an alternate theory. In their view it was Barney Frank, and the Federal Home Loan program that created the housing bubble and led to the collapse. Rubio even alluded to this in his speech.

Conservatives also suggest that Obama’s approach to health care amounts to socialism. The only problem with this argument is that the individual mandate they complain about began as a conservative idea (to eliminate economic free riders) and was the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s supposedly market based plan for health care reform in Massachusetts. So it’s not really health care either.

What about other regulations? Republicans complain that Obama’s regulations are stifling the economy, but is this a sign of socialism? First, the reality is that the modern American economy is far less regulated, on a substantive level then it was in the past. Modern regulation primarily deals with the effects of certain business behavior, and does not deal with the actual operation of the market. Environmental laws deal with the pollution generated from industrial production, work place safety laws deal with the treatment of workers, and new banking regulations attempt to reign in certain economic behavior. None of these directly regulate the operation of the free market. But, once upon a time, this nation had a great deal of direct government involvement in the market. One example is the Civil Aeronautics Board, which controlled the airline industry. This board apportioned routes among carriers, and set fares. In other words, a government board (with representatives of the airlines sitting on the board) controlled the industry. This was eliminated by deregulation in 1978. So, from the beginning of the industry, until 1978, the American airline industry was directly controlled by the government. The government similarly controlled rail and freight shipping, and both were deregulated in the late 70’s (or early 80’s). Obama has proposed nothing like this.

From the 1930’s through the early 1950’s, there were other government boards that controlled major industries, like steel. These began as a product of the depression, and continued during the war to control war production. They were phased out at the end of the war, but elements remained in some industries until the 1950’s. Similarly, the telephone industry was a government regulated monopoly until it was broken up in 1984. Banks were also heavily regulated, starting with massive restructuring of the American Banking system in the early years of the Great Depression. These regulations were eased, starting with deregulation of the Savings and Loan industry in 1986. The newly unregulated S&L’s went on a lending spree, and collapsed a few years later, requiring government bailouts. And then the banks were deregulated in the late 1990’s, and we know what happened then. But the important point is that Obama has not suggested re-imposing any of these kinds of regulations. And even though many call for it, Obama has not called for the re-authorization of the Glass-Stengall act which kept commercial banking separate from investment banking.

It is also worth noting that in the early 1970’s, in an attempt to deal with inflation, both Presidents Nixon and Ford, instituted a variety of price controls over key products and commodities. This is a form of direct economic control found primarily in real socialist countries. It didn’t work, and no one tries in any more. The main point is that Obama is not suggesting anything of this sort.

The reality is that Obama’s actions on the economy are pretty standard modern governmental economic policies. Nothing out of the norm in the modern Western world, and nothing out of the norm in the range of Presidential behavior over the last couple of decades, at least since Reagan. So if it’s not Obama, what is it?
There is now a new breed of economic conservative, steeped in Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand.  They believe in a theoretical and pure form of economic free markets, which hold that the free market must be absolute, and absolutely free from regulation. They also believe that the market is the solution to every problem. They have become free market fundamentalists. And because they believe that the free market must be absolutely free, they view any attempt to regulate the market (even if pale by historic norms) as a dire threat.

2.    So, what does this mean for American Politics?

This view has a number of serious implications, but I’ll address two. First it means that conservatives are fighting against an imaginary enemy. They are note fighting against the real economic policies of Democrats, but their worst fears of what they imagine Democrats want.

It is hard to have a rational debate when you don’t even make an attempt to understand your opponents position and arguments in support of that position. This is obvious from much of conservative rhetoric, as exemplified in Rubio’s speech, and in Senator Rand Paul’s surreply to the State of the Union Address.

This means that means that political arguments are mostly dumb. Each side misconstrues the others policies and motives. Conservatives say that there should be no regulation of the market, and suggest that the founders wanted no government involvement in markets, an argument that is false on its face, as anyone who has read history knows. And in response, many liberals argue that conservatives are ignorant of history and willing to destroy the economy based on an untested theory. And the debate becomes a mutual shouting match.

The second problem is that when the arguments are based on extremes, every fight becomes existential. Republicans believe that they are fighting against someone who wants to destroy the free market (and not the reality that they are dealing with someone who wants to engage in a very mild form of regulation, one which is done in most countries on earth). And since they are fighting to save something fundamentally important, every issue is a battle for the soul of America.

I believe that this explains much of modern Republican behavior. One example is their willingness to stop most of President Obama’s appointments. How else can you explain their decision to stop Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense? This is also why they are willing to stop nearly every judicial nominee. In their mind they are stopping Obama’s judges, who are furthering Obama’s agenda, which is designed to destroy the free market. In their view they are not being obstructionist, they are saving the nation.

This view means that every Obama policy must be stopped, and stopped at all costs.

The Roots of Conservative Rage

I’ve been trying to figure out why many conservatives are so entrenched and embittered. One of the causes of the deep and rancorous partisanship in Washington is that some conservatives totally distrust Democrats and refuse to work with them on anything, while many others are deeply hostile to Democrats and highly skeptical of everything they say and do. (Some Democrats certainly respond in kind, but one issue at a time.) This distrust and disdain for Democrats is a manifestation of their political and philosophical views (as I will discuss), but that only gets us part way. So the question remains: why are they so bitter? What is the cause of this conservative rage?

I think there are a number of causes, and I’ll try to briefly describe them.

I:         The History of Loss

In order to understand why conservatives are so bitter I think it helps to set out a very brief thumbnail history of liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism, as some conservatives know, began with Edmund Burke’s reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution. The French Revolution was the culmination of over two hundred years of political liberalism, though before the French Revolution it wasn’t called liberalism. The first liberals sought to free individuals from the overbearing control of external forces. The first liberals were religious reformers, like Martin Luther, who said the church should not dictate matters of conscience. Once Luther broke the hegemony of the Church, other thinkers began to challenge the church in other areas, and the power of one of the dominant historic institutions began to erode. Eventually political philosophers started to question the power of the state (the other dominant historic institution). They sought to liberate the individual from the state’s overweening control over all matters of human affairs. These philosophers and politicians eventually became known as liberals, because they sought to liberate. The French Revolution began as a push for liberal reform, but devolved into a blood bath as some revolutionaries said that the only way to fully liberate French citizens was to (quite literally) decapitate the old order.

Watching from England, Burke was horrified, and said that there is much in traditional society and social norms worth preserving (or conserving, hence “conservatism”). He said that tradition is collected wisdom, and cultural norms and social institutions are the source of social stability. Burke was not opposed to “liberty” or the goals of political liberalism—he had supported the American Revolution as a member of the British Parliament—but he did oppose dramatic or radical change. Better the devil you know, he suggested, than the devil you don’t, particularly when history shows that many devils are released in the chaos of radical change.

Over the last two hundred plus years since the French Revolution the world has changed dramatically. At each stage, political liberals have been at the fore-front of this change. In many cases these changes improved society—the abolition of slavery, the broadening of the political franchise, the expansion of civil rights—but in other cases the changes were disastrous, most noticeably with communism and socialism. And at each stage, political conservatives have been yelling STOP. (The conservative writer William F. Buckley said that the role of the conservative is to “stand athwart history and yell STOP.”)

The history of the last five hundred years has been the history of conservative loss. From Luther on, liberalism has advanced and conservatism retreated. This is particularly notable if you focus solely on the United States. Conservatives lost the fight over slavery, the fight over laissez-faire economics, the fight over women’s suffrage, the fight over unions (though they are making a come-back in that one), the fight over civil rights and segregation, the fight over equality for women, and now it appears that they are losing the fight over marriage equality.

It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of years of losses don’t grind you down, don’t wear on you. I suspect that it has, and I believe that this record is one of the causes of conservative rage. They have been pushed far enough, and they don’t want to be pushed any further.

II:        The Culture Wars

Conservatives seek to preserve what they view as traditional society. As noted, historic conservatism suggests that there is great value and collected wisdom in cultural traditions and social norms. (A point that I agree with in general, while noting that some traditions are quite odious.) Conservative politicians seek to preserve—to conserve if you will—traditional norms and social institutions. And so their political battles are not just about advancing conservative political goals—limited government, deference to the constitution, strong national defense, etc.—but also about achieving conservative social and cultural goals.

Yet despite their best efforts the culture has changed, and changed dramatically. But it hasn’t changed because of the efforts of liberal politicians. Despite what conservatives believe, there really is no collusion between liberal institutions (like TV, movies, and music) and liberal politicians. They may share a similar world view, and liberal politicians may support the ideas of cultural openness that allow a wide variety of entertainment to flourish, but that’s not the same thing as saying that liberal politicians are causing cultural change. Put another way, just because the liberal idea of openness creates the cultural environment that allows pornography to exist, doesn’t mean that liberal politicians created, caused, or even endorse pornography.

Society has changed for innumerable reasons. Some are certainly political, but politics is not the main driver of social change. I personally believe that the major contributor to social change is science (and its offish step-brother technology). One example is progestogen—the birth control pill. The pill allowed women to control their bodies, and this had a dramatic impact on society. It spurred the “sexual revolution” (which eventually—though perhaps tenuously—led to the rise of pornography) and it allowed women to participate in the economy. This opened a floodgate which still has not closed. It changed gender roles and traditional families. It threw over our traditional male dominated society, and fundamentally altered our economy. And while liberal politicians were generally supportive of these goals, they did not create them. The effect was political, but the cause was not.

And therein lies the problem. Despite the political gains that conservatives have made since 1980, the culture continues unabated on the same trajectory. Liberals might say that the culture has gotten more open and tolerant (and a majority of the public seems to agree) but conservatives say it has gotten more licentious and depraved.

Conservatives have won a great deal politically in the last thirty years or so, but they have clearly lost the culture wars. And since culture is, in their view, intimately tied to politics, this means that many of their political gains are for naught. This produces a sense of futility and growing frustration.

III:      The Manichean Worldview

Conservatives tend to see themselves as trying to preserve and protect society against those seeking change, and as a result they tend to see the world in an “us versus them” paradigm. This is true even though there isn’t really a single “them” trying to change society. There are many “thems,” and they are not necessarily related. For example, technological advances, as noted above, are one of the main drivers of social change. It is typically profit making businesses that exploit technology (and not liberal institutions like academia or non-profits). And here is the irony: conservatives proclaim themselves as the champion of profit making businesses, and so they are the champion of one of the main forces that erodes traditional society. In any event, and despite this glaring paradox, conservatives tend to feel embattled, and feel like the whole world is aligned against them.

This “us versus them” mindset fits nicely into the American political structure. We have two dominant political parties in the United States, and these two parties compete head to head in every election and over every political and social issue. The two party system is partly the result of historic happenstance, but it’s also partly the result of our “winner take all” electoral system. Other countries have systems that allow voters to vote for more than one candidate for an office, which helps third parties to get candidates elected. But our system doesn’t support this, and so we have two dominant parties.

Having two parties make it seem like every issue breaks down into a choice between the liberal or conservative policy, and the Democratic versus Republican solution. This is silly and simplistic, but it has become the standard view. Unfortunately our news media seems to have embraced this simplistic worldview. It is, after all, much easier for a reporter to simply present the liberal argument versus the conservative argument than to actually analyze the problem and actually take time describing all of the possible solutions to the problem. (This isn’t really fair to reporters. Some might actually want to do that work, but have limited budgets and tight deadlines.) We also have a culture that likes simple head to head conflict, and the two party system seems to fit this perfectly.

So, many impulses in American society present issues in a simplistic duality. And some conservatives have a tendency to see the world as aligned against them.  Some of those conservatives believe that they are fighting against the forces of evil, and since they are, in their minds at least, on the side of the angels, every battle becomes a fight between good (conservatives) and bad. And who is it that they are always fighting against? Who have conservatives been fighting against for five hundred years? Why liberals of course. Because of this Manichean “us versus them” world view, some conservatives have come to believe that liberals are constantly pushing policies that harm the nation. And some conservatives take this one step further and ask this question: what kind of person promotes, advocates, or endorses policies that are bad? Why, a bad person, of course. And so some conservatives come to believe that liberals are bad. If you don’t believe me, I commend you to at least two books: “Deliver us From Evil,” by Sean Hannity and “Treason,” by Ann Coulter. What do you think the Evil is that Mr. Hannity wants us to be delivered from? Liberalism. And the subtitle of Ms. Coulter’s book pretty much says it all: “Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism.”

So some conservatives believe they are actually fighting against the forces of evil, and have come to believe that liberals are evil. Given that, is it surprising that some conservatives refuse to work with Democrats on anything? Is it surprising then that they act as if every political battle is existential?  Is it surprising that conservative politicians say that elections are about saving society?

IV:      So Close They Could Taste It

Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 conservative principles, ideals, and political arguments have been in the ascendance. In 2000 George W. Bush won the presidency, and the Republicans held on to narrow majorities in the House and Senate (with Vice President Dick Cheney as the tie breaking vote.). In 2002 Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate, and eight in the House, thus broadening their governing majority. In 2004 Bush won reelection and the Republicans picked up four seats in the Senate, giving them a commanding 55 seat majority, and five in the House, giving them a comfortable 232 to 201 majority. After a twenty year climb they had solid majorities in the House and Senate, and for six years (2000 to 2006) they controlled the executive and the legislative branches.

And? And did they turn the economy around? Nope. They got sidetracked by a war of choice in Iraq, and nearly totally discredited themselves. And rather than fight for their economic goals, they got sidetracked by divisive social issues. (But recall how the two are intertwined.) They did force through a massive tax cut, on a nearly party line vote, claiming that it would spur the economy and shrink the deficit. And how did that work? Well, we’re now fighting over massive budget deficits, so one could argue that it didn’t work very well. They also continued to push for deregulation, and it was an unregulated financial industry that nearly destroyed the world’s economy. Oops. And finally, did they save the culture? Nope again. Drug use and crime rates might have gone down, but have you turned on your TV lately? Most conservatives see out society as an open cesspit.

In 2006, the Democrats won six seats in the Senate, giving them a 51 to 49 majority (with two independents), and 31 seats in the House, putting them in the majority. Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the Presidency, in a near landslide over John McCain, and Democrats expanded their majorities in both houses, and when Sen. Jeffords switched parties they had a 60 seat super majority in the Senate. The Democrats picked up twenty one seats in the house to take a 257 to 178 majority. And with those majorities, Democrats pushed through a number of bills Conservatives despise, chief among them Obamacare and a modest economic stimulus.

Republicans were that close. And then the country rejected them. They are now fighting a rear guard action, trying desperately to dig in, get a toe-hold, to stop every liberal advance.

And not only are they fighting a rear guard action politically, but also culturally. (See II. above.) They believe that if they lose here, they will simply have to fight again, but this time further in their own territory. And so each fight is important. Each fight is, in some regards, existential.

The fight over Obamacare was existential because they knew that if they lost, they were losing the fight over government control of health care. After losing the main battle, every other fight would be a skirmish over the degree of government control of health care, not over the philosophical question of whether or not the government should be involved in health care. The 2012 election was existential because conservatives knew that if Democrats won, they would likely push for expanded rights for gays, possibly including marriage. And in their view, one more pillar of traditional society would fall.

And so every fight in Congress, no matter how minor or silly, becomes an existential fight for the soul of America. The result is that every fight is existential, and every issue a crisis.

Part V:                       The Echo Chamber

You can’t talk about conservative rage without talking about the rise of conservative media—particularly talk radio and FoxNews —and its impact on enraging conservatives. In fact it seem like the whole point of talk radio and FoxNews is to enrage conservatives.  They feed their listeners a steady diet of outrage. Their descriptions of liberals and the policies of the Democratic Party are nearly always negative, and descriptions of conservatives and the Republican Party nearly always laudatory. Both distil and refine the conservative message of the depravity of liberals and the nobility of conservatives. They almost always present every idea, every policy, every vote, as a fight between the forces of goodness and light (that is conservatives) against the forces of darkness and evil (that is liberals). This creates a reinforcing feedback loop, and the message gets purer and meaner, and the audience more outraged.

The topic is the subject of many books and magazine articles, and I don’t think I need to belabor the point. You need only turn on the television and watch a few minutes of Sean Hannity, or turn on the radio and listen to Rush Limbaugh, to understand what I am talking about.

Conservative media supports the trivial message of partisan duality. It provides a constant reminder to its followers of what they have lost at the hands of liberals, and what they stand to lose should Democrats win again. It is rage, pure and simple.

Part VI:          The Results of Conservative Rage

In many cases (I am loath to say in all) some conservatives actually have come to believe that liberals are an evil force in the nation. We see this in the title of books by provocateurs like Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity, and hear it from talk radio and on Fox News. But this view permeates a great deal of conservative views towards liberals. Not long ago, here in Kentucky, a teacher got in trouble for writing on the board of her classroom that you can’t be a Democrat and go to heaven. I have heard from more than one person that they have heard ministers actually say that in church.

Adding to conservative rage is the fact that many liberals fail to understand how angry conservatives are, and how betrayed they feel by their society, their culture and their nation. And so many liberals mock their pain, ridicule their arguments, and laugh at their tears of frustration, which only makes matters worse.

Most liberals do not understand the depth of conservative rage. They do not understand that many conservatives believe—really and truly believe—that liberalism is the main cause of most, if not all, of the problems facing the nation. Liberals fail to understand that many conservatives see liberalism as a destructive force and liberals as the hand-maiden of national decline.

The result of conservative rage is that some conservatives view liberals as evil, and say so, which ads an ugly dimension to our politics. And some conservatives believe that liberals are evil, and refuse to work with them on anything.

There can be little doubt that this view is one of the contributing causes to the poisonous level of partisanship in Washington, and much of the country. Many conservatives now approach many issues as if they are an existential struggle for the soul of the nation. They say that if Democrats win it will result in the destruction of the nation.

How can you be bipartisan when you consider your political opponent evil? How can a true conservative work with a liberal when they believe that liberals have been responsible for the destruction of the traditions they once held so dear? They can’t, and they don’t.

A conservative media (talk radio and Fox News) feeds this beast. And the Tea Party seems to have internalized this view, and now campaign against any Republican politician for merely working with Democrats (see, for example, former Republican Senator from Indiana, Richard Lugar.)

In their need to fight everything liberal, and every Democratic proposal, Republicans end up doing silly things, like abandoning long held policy positions—Cap and Trade & The Individual Insurance Mandate are two recent prominent examples. They savage former allies for simply questioning conservative orthodoxy. Witness the opposition to former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

And so we have on party that opposes, in a reflexive, knee-jerk manner, everything the other side does. I saw a political cartoon that said that if Obama said he liked to breath the Republicans in Congress would announce that they oppose oxygen. It is almost that bad.

The consequences of conservative rage are political gridlock and a politics of constant crisis.

The Roots of Poisonous Partisanship

There has always been political partisanship in this country, but we seem to be at a stage where it has become so poisonous that politicians refuse to work with each other because many believe that the politicians on the other side of the political divide are untrustworthy, unpatriotic, and un willing to make policy choices that actually help the nation.

I’’ve heard a great deal of talk about how to deal with this issue. There is a group called “No Labels” that is trying to bring politicians together to solve problems without concern to their partisan labels. There are also groups pushing a “civility oath” for politicians to sign pledging to deal with issues in a civil manner.
I think these ideas are nice, (actually I think they are “cute” but I don’t want to be dismissive and add to the tone of negativity and hostility), but I don’t think they’ll succeed because they don’t address the real root cause of the problem. The issue isn’t just that politicians are being disagreeable. The issue is that they have fundamentally different views of how the world works, and what the role of government should be within that world. Simply being nice is not going to bridge that divide.

But the other, deeper problem is that both sides have gone from believing that the other side is simply presenting a different policy choice to believing that the other side is choosing policies that are designed to harm the nation.

I don’t think we’ll ever truly solve the issue of partisanship because people will always have very different views on how things—economic, political, social—work. But I think we can deal with the issue of poisonous partisanship and minimize it if we understand where it comes from and what it means.

So what are the causes of our current poisonous partisanship?

There are a number of causes, and I will discuss them briefly. Each probably warrants more analysis, but I have neither the time nor inclination to do that now. But I will note that they are cumulative. One in isolation may not be a real problem, but in combination we reach critical mass and the pile melts down.

The Two Party System. The two party system creates a false dichotomy and the silly idea that every issue and problem falls neatly into the liberal v. conservative, or Democratic v. Republican paradigm. It also creates the silly idea that for every problem there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. This is obviously simplistic, but this false dichotomy creates the belief for some people that if there is a right solution and a wrong solution: if there is a Democratic solution and a Republican solution, and if I’m a Republican and I think Republicans are right, then the Republican solution must be right, which must mean that the Democratic solution must be wrong.

So the two party system creates the idea that policy choices are choices between good and bad, and between right and wrong.

Political Shenanigans. Both parties engage in political shenanigans that only deepen the partisan divide. Perhaps the best example is partisan gerrymandering, where state level politicians manipulate political districts to ensure politically safe districts. Often, when Republicans control the process, they are willing to gerrymander a few districts to create safe Democratic districts while at the same time gerrymandering many more conservative leaning districts to produce many more safe Republican districts. And, of course, in those states where the Democrats control the state house they do the same thing.

Kentucky is unique because Democrats control the state House and Republicans control the state Senate. And so we have Democrats in the house gerrymander House districts and Republicans gerrymander Senate districts.

The result of these ideologically divided districts is that the real battles are in the primaries, between moderates and hardliners. And in those districts that are very conservative, or very liberal, you get very conservative or liberal representatives. And the result is that the current Congress, according to some studies, is the most ideologically rigid Congress in modern history. The other result is that these politicians don’t have to worry about talking to, or trying to appeal to, moderates or partisans on the other side, because they don’t have to rely on them for votes. And so the result is that many politicians have almost no experience dealing with partisans from the other party, which means that they don’t know, understand, or take seriously the views and policy positions of the other party. And this only exacerbates the partisan spiral.

The Adversarial Culture. We have a culture that is focused on, and rewards conflict. As mentioned, our political system is based on a head to head fight over ideas, policies, and candidates. We are also a culture that loves sports: we love competition and the head to head battles that sports represent. Even in those sports that are not based on head to head competition—like running or golf—we tend to focus on (or at least the media focuses on) the leader and nearest rival, so that the competition is presented as a head to head battle.

We revere the free market, and competition (which is a form of conflict) is the heart and soul of the free market. We like consumer choice and like the idea that through this choice consumers pick economic winners, and cast economic losers to the side.

Finally, we have an “adversarial” legal system that is based on the idea that we can determine truth an intellectual and evidentiary battle between litigants. The result of all of this is that we have a culture that reveres conflict. And, unfortunately, we transfer this belief in the value of conflict to the public policy debate.

The end result is that policy debates become epic battles. So what should be, for example, a discussion of how to limit gun violence becomes a battle between those who want gun control and those who champion individual rights.

The Trivializing Media. We have a popular culture and a news media that likes drama over substance. The most popular movies tend to be action and conflict oriented. Occasionally deep and thoughtful movies do well at the box office, but that is the exception and not the rule. And often those movies are couched in conflict, as the recent movie Lincoln, which focused on the conflict over passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The news media finds it much easier to present every problem as if it were a dramatic battle between two opposing warriors, than to delve into the complexities of problems, issues and policies. Drama has become the sum and substance of our culture, and our news media’s approach to just about everything. The ever popular “how does that make you feel” question is about human angst—that is drama—and not about trying to understand an issue. And this interest in, or bias towards, drama fits in ever so nicely with our two party system. So our two party system creates a trivial duality, and the news media runs with it.

This duality is increasingly fed by the more partisan of the news outlets, FoxNews on the right, and MSNBC on the left. Each depends on the simplistic duality, and profits from it.

Conservative Rage. There are some segments of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that have come to view liberals as a force of evil. I discuss this in much more detail in my posts called “The Roots of Conservative Rage.”

This conservative rage means that some conservatives look at every issue, every political battle, as if it were an existential struggle for the very survival of America. Every political or cultural battle is a struggle between good and evil. Every issue becomes a crisis. Every vote is existential.

Liberal Response. I wish I could say that Liberals have taken the high ground in responding to the way some conservatives act. I wish I could, but I can’t.
Far too many Democrats respond to the Republican pettiness by being petty themselves. There was, for example, a web site devoted to “dogs against Romney” because Romney once put his dog in a crate on the roof of the car when the family traveled on vacation. I don’t know what to make of Romney’s action, but what kind of dufus actually spends time to create an anti-Romney web site based on that?

I find the general tone of Republican politics nasty and silly, but I can usually ignore it. When Democrats react in kind, I’m truly embarrassed.

The history of the last thirty years has also produced an unattractive smugness among some liberals. They look at Republican claims and behavior over that period and see little but failure. They see Republican claiming that tax cuts will increase revenue and shrink the deficit, and then see deficits balloon after each tax cut. They hear Republicans claim that any tax increase will kill the economy, and then note that the economy grew substantially after Clinton raised taxes, and stagnated after Bush cut taxes. They hear Republicans talk about the need for a robust national defense and an aggressive foreign policy, and then look at the disaster that ensued when President George W. Bush put those policies into effect in Iraq. They hear Republicans say such insightful things as “We will be welcomed as liberators” in response to the invasion of Iraq, and see that the opposite was true. For many liberals the Bush administration was the zenith of conservatism—the fulfillment of every conservative desire. And it was a complete disaster. And in the last five years it appears, more and more, that the truth is nearly the exact opposite of what Republicans claim. (Pre-election polling is but the clearest example.)

The result is that many Democrats have come to believe that the Republican Party has become a party of buffoons. But unfortunately it is also more than that. Some liberals have come to view conservatives in the same way that some conservatives view liberals. Some liberals look at the disaster of the Bush administration, and the insistence of many Republican politicians that the solution to our current problems are the exact same policies that failed for Bush, and they believe that conservatives are endorsing these policies not because they think they will improve things, but because they actually want to make things worse. They believe that, for example, Senator Mitch McConnell was willing to enact legislation that would harm the economy in an attempt to unseat President Obama. And so some liberals view conservatives as nefarious.

The end result is that both parties have come to believe that the other party has cracked. Republicans believe that Democrats want to introduce social legislation that will turn this nation into Sodom and Gomorrah. Democrats believe that Republicans want to destroy the government and turn the nation into a naive free market paradise where the riches go to the swiftest, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Now, I ask you, how are we supposed to get these guys to work together?

Do you really think a civility pledge will fix this?

Liberals versus Conservatives. As I noted in a separate post titled “The Roots of Conservative Rage” many conservatives see themselves as a firewall against liberal policies tha they view as harmful to the nation.

To paint this with a metaphor, conservatives tend to see themselves as defensive linemen lined up against the liberal offense, trying to stop the latest hail-Mary pass into the end zone (to approve gay marriage or ban assault rifles or whatever outrage conservatives are aligned against). In some ways this makes conservatives focus on liberals in a strange and unhealthy way. Sometimes, if you watch Hannity, or listen to Rush Limbaugh, you would think that conservatives are obsessed with liberals. And you would be right.

But liberals don’t tend to view the world this way. They see problems and then look for solutions. Sometimes those solutions involve chucking tradition, but in many cases they don’t. So liberals don’t see themselves as aligned against conservatives. Liberals don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on conservatives. (They do spend some time, and MSNBC seems to be strangely obsessed. But if you look at a great deal of the more thoughtful liberal press – magazines like Harpers or the Atlantic – they focus more on issues than conservative politicians.)

Unfortunately this liberal response only further enrages conservatives. Liberal indifference bugs conservatives. I think they would like it better if more liberals were as focused on them as they are on liberals. But liberals are not, and this gets under their skin, and makes it more difficult for the two parties to work together.

The Partisan Echo Chamber. Driving much of this partisanship (and driving the nation into the ground) is an increasingly partisan media. FoxNews and talk radio dominate the right, and liberal imitators (like MSNBC) are a pale reflection. But both operated within the simplistic worldview that there are only two sides, and the other side is crazy. The pervasiveness and repetition, particularly on the right, helps drive the message home (and drive rational people crazy).

So what is the solution? I’ll address some ideas in a post titled “An Antidote to Partisan Poison.” Stay tuned.

The Destructive Duality

The American government is frozen because the two parties are completely at loggerheads. Neither is willing to work with the other or willing to compromise in any way. The two party completely distrust each other. Each party seems convinced that the other is nefarious, engaged in politics and championing policies that are harmful to the nation.

In order to address the nation’s problems we first need to figure out a way to get our politics unstuck. But in order to do that, we need to understand how it got stuck in the first place. How did politics become so divisive?

First, I should note that there have always been times when politics was nasty. Often the periods of extreme nastiness corresponded to eras when the nation felt it was at a crossroads. The first truly nasty election was in 1800, when the first big battle over the direction of the government, between the John Adams and the Federalists, who believed in a strong and activist national government, and Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, who believed that government should occur mostly at the state level, and that the national government should leave the states largely alone. Throughout history the most raucous politics occurred during periods when there were serious differences in the views of how government should work.

(Curiously politics tends to be less bitter and divisive when the nation faces real existential crises, like during wartime.)

We are clearly in the midst of such a period, as some Republicans try to dismantle government, and as both parties try to figure out how to deal with the future. But one new element seems to be a visceral suspicion of the motives of the other party. I call this the destructive duality. It is a duality because we have two parties fighting it out, and it has become destructive because both largely refuse to work with the other.

The destructive duality starts with the fact that we have two – and only two – major political parties. So every political issue because a head to head fight between Democrats and Republicans. Then you add to that our cultural fascination with competition and conflict. Our elections are “first past the post” and winner-take-all, elections, and most campaigns are fought as one candidate against another. Most often this is Democrats versus Republicans, and occasionally it is liberals versus conservative, but mostly today, despite the rhetoric, it is moderates versus conservatives. And so most political discussions are framed as Democrats versus Republicans, and issues get framed as having a Democratic solution and a Republican solution. Our cultural fascination with conflict and a belief in the value of competition ads a nasty element, and makes elections frantic and mean.

The next component involves the way people think about their beliefs. Most people tend to believe that their ideas are right. That is why they believe them. Most political parties, their candidates, and their partisans, start with the idea that their political ideas are right. They believe that of all the ideas out there, of all the possible options, theirs is the best, it is the most correct, it is, in a word, right. So Democrats think that their ideas, their policy choices, the programs they endorse, create, fund, and support, and the best. These, Democrats believe, are the best solution to the problem, they are good for the nation, and good for the people. Republicans, likewise, think that their ideas, policies, programs, etc., are right. That makes sense. But over the years each side has also come to believe that the other side is wrong. This is largely a product of the dominance of our two major parties. Because we have only two major parties, we discus political ideas in the framework of only two possible positions, the Democratic position and the Republican position. The reality is, of course, that there are any number of possible ideas, views, policies, positions, programs, etc., but that tends to be ignored, and we (meaning the media) present most every idea as if it is a choice between two, and only two, positions. And those two positions are the Democratic position and the Republican position. And since each side is convinced that their ideas are right, the only logical conclusion is that the other side’s ideas are wrong.

Far too often this simplistic view is then taken to the next step. If an idea is wrong, isn’t it, almost by definition harmful? If the right solution is good, doesn’t that mean that the wrong solution is bad? In the real world it doesn’t because there are many possible solutions. But in the warped world of American politics, where there are only two possible alternatives, if one is right the other must be wrong, and if one is good then the other must be bad. And if an idea is bad, doesn’t that mean, almost by definition, that it is harmful? Again, this is almost logically follows. So, in the warped world of American politics, each party has come to believe that the other party isn’t just presenting an alternate solution to a problem, it is actually presenting a solution that is wrong and harmful. There is one more step: what kind of person actively supports, endorses, and advocates for policies that are wrong and harmful? The answer is almost inescapable. A bad person promotes ideas (policies, programs, etc.) that are wrong, bad and harmful.

If Republicans, for example, are convinced that tax cuts will always help the economy, the corollary is also probably true, no tax cuts may hurt the economy, and tax increases will certainly harm the economy. And so Republicans become convinced that Democratic politicians who are preventing tax cuts, or proposing tax increases, are actually – and purposefully – trying to harm the economy. This is but one example, but many Republicans have come to believe that most Democrats are prompting policies that will harm the nation.

For many Republicans it is so obvious as to be painful that welfare harms the recipients, and abortion harms the nation. It is clear beyond words that liberal policies have harmed the nation in the past, and liberals continue to promote similar policies. Women’s liberation destroyed the family, and now liberals are advocating for gay marriage. Liberals have pushed policies that have hurt the country, and they keep doing it. (Liberals, of course disagree.) What kind of political party advocates policies that are bad, that are wrong, and that are harmful to the nation? Why a party that is bad and destructive. And how should you react to a party that is promoting things that will harm the nation? The answer is obvious, you stop them at all costs.

If you listen to the rhetoric of some of the more extreme politicians, or partisan commentators, you hear this message loud and clear. Listen to Rep. Louis Gomert of Texas, or conservative commentators like Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter. They are clearly convinced that Democrats are a danger to the nation. Many Republicans believe this, and so refuse to work with Democrats on anything in Congress.

This view causes people to distrust not only the actions of their opponents, but also their motives. In this view a bad person is capable of anything, willing to lie, cheat or steal to achieve their nefarious ends. Even when they seem to be acting responsibly, there is always the possibility that they are trying to dupe you. So every word and deed is mistrusted.

I use Republicans as an example, but the reality is that there are Democrats who view Republicans in the same light. I think there are more conservatives who think this way than liberals, but there is no doubt that some extremely partisan Democrats feel this way. I know because I’ve worked with them. But again, I think it is more prevalent among conservatives. There are a couple of reasons it is more prevalent among conservatives. The first reason is that conservatives tend to view recent history as the story of the fall from grace, and that fall was hand delivered by liberals. Liberals don’t view the modern world in the same light. On the whole they think that the modern world is a pretty good place, and they certainly don’t blame conservatives for every ill facing the nation. Conservatives feel like liberals have destroyed their world (see the Roots of Conservative Rage) and they are not happy about it. The second reason is that conservative media feeds this narrative. Conservatives have hours upon hours of commentators blasting away at liberals. They have talk radio, with dozens of prominent hosts. They also have FoxNews, and a host of television commentators. Liberals, on the other hand, have never had successful radio programs (although there are a few out there) but they do have MSNBC.

This idea – that the other side is bad, evil, and must be stopped – has always been around to one degree or another. But the problem today is that this has become the dominant view. One reason for this is the rise of partisan news outlets, first conservative talk radio, then FoxNews, and now MSNBC. Demonization is their stock in trade. Each focuses on the idea that those with different views are not merely people with different ideas, but people with bad and potentially destructive ideas.

The other reason is far more troubling, and that is that the ostensibly “non-partisan” news media has effectively lost the ability to think rationally. The “main stream media” present almost every issue as if it were a battle between two sides, when the reality is that most issues don’t break down that way. Take, as but one example, the issue of global climate change. More often than not the MSM (Sarah Palin’s Lame-Stream Media) will have a story and present a climate scientist, and then a conservative (politician, economist, commentator, etc.) for “balance.” They want to present balance even when there is no disagreement. The do this, in part because conflict sells. So if you can present an idea as a simple, head to head conflict, you can get people riled up, and get ratings. The news no longer (or rarely) looks at nuance, they rarely dig deep into ideas and try to present them as complex issues. And they virtually never present more than two possible solutions to any problem. So the news media is deeply complicit it the national descent into triviality and stupidity.

And so we have the destructive duality. Democrats present their ideas without wavering, and Republicans do the same. Each presents the other as stupid at best, and criminal at worst. Each side is convinced that the other is wrong, their ideas bad, and their policies dangerous. And so they refuse to budge. How can you compromise with a party that is hell bent on destroying the nation? You can’t.

There are many recent examples that prove the point. Take the debate over setting the maximum rate for student loans. The Democratic and Republican positions barely differed, yet it took months of acrimony to reach an agreement.

So how do we deal with this destructive duality? The easiest first step is to understand it, and see through it. Parse the partisan rhetoric, and laugh at the silly duality. Once you understand it, almost every political statement becomes amusing. Mitch McConnell says basically two things: liberals are evil, and conservatives are here to save the world. Both are absurd caricatures.

Another step, if you are in politics, is to avoid it when you can. Treat your opponent as someone with a different view of how to solve a problem, not as someone with a bad or destructive view. Present your ideas as one choice among many, and treat your opponent’s ideas seriously.

But these two steps only get you so far. The real problem is that our “culture” treats every issue in a simplistic way, and as a destructive duality. Virtually every issue is presented as liberal versus conservative, or Democratic versus Republican. And this has become destructive because it has impacted our ability to think critically. Real issues are more complex. There are many causes and many possible solutions. By ignoring this, the destructive duality has impacted our ability to reason, and to solve problems.

We need to figure out a way to get past this. We need to figure out a way to convince the public, the media, and the major political parties, that every issue is not a battle between liberals and conservatives, or between Democrats and Republicans. We need more than this simplistic and destructive duality.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to allow for the participation of viable third parties. If the debate in Congress is over a Republican proposal, a Democratic proposal, and a Tea Party (or a Green Party) alternative, it will be obvious that the choice is not between left and right, and hence not a choice between right and wrong, or good and bad, but a choice between policy alternatives. In my view the only way to break the destructive duality is to bring third (and fourth and fifth) parties into our political system. This is why I’ve developed a proposal to allow multi-seat districts. It will allow more parties, and more ideas, in to politics. It will destroy the destructive duality and break the back of political gridlock.


I support medical marijuana, but only if properly regulated. My impression is that it is not properly regulated in California, so I need to look at the other states that have approved it to see who does a good job. I think something like the Michigan version is good.

[Note: This has been, and should continue to be a state issue, but it has federal implications because marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law.]

I am not generally in favor of allowing it for recreational use, but think that criminal penalties for minor possession should be reduced to the level of a misdemeanor. This is generally the case in Kentucky, where position of small amounts (less than 8 ounces) is a class B misdemeanor, punishable with a fine or up to 45 days in jail, or both. (Ken. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 218A.1422.) It is also a crime to cultivate and traffic the drug.

I don’t know if it should be removed from the Federal Controlled Substance list, but it certainly shouldn’t be a Class 1 drug. It should probably go way down the list, which would allow more testing of its use for medicinal purposes.

Finally, I support current legislation to allow the growing and production of industrial hemp. There are not many times when I can say that I agree with Sen. Paul & McConnell, but this is one of them.


Medical Marijuana Pro-Con at

1-800 Medical Marijuana at

Marijuana Policy Project at

Science Getting it Right

The modern world is the world of science getting it right. Computers and cell phones are dependent upon silicon computer chips that are the product of advanced materials sciences that rely, in part on the teachings of quantum mechanics to explain how electrons are transmitted within the chips. Modern communication technology, including cell phones, the internet, wireless communications, and data transmission satellites are all the product of modern science, including esoteric number theories, quantum mechanics, and advanced astronomy and cosmology that allow the precise positioning of geosynchronous communication satellites. It all works because science got it right.

We live increasingly long and healthy lives because of scientific advances in medicine, which are dependent upon modern understanding of biology, which is largely dependent upon understanding how genes operate and interact, and all of this is dependent upon the process of evolution. We live long and healthy lives, we benefit from many marvels of modern medicine, because science gets it right.
Every time a person uses a cell phone, logs onto the internet, uses GPS to determine their location or get directions, or benefits from modern medicine, they are essentially endorsing the modern world of science. They may not realize it, they may even doubt the science, but the reality is that modern technology works because science got it right.

I’m baffled then when I hear people, particularly intelligent people with advanced degrees, question the science of climate change. The science of climate change is based upon the same scientific principles, theories, methods and protocols that make computer chips work, that allow cell phones to make a call, that send rockets with rovers to Mars, that create disease resistant crops, and that eradicated diseases and improved health around the world.

How have all of these scientific advances worked, when somehow science gets it wrong regarding climate change?

The scientific principles underlying climate change are extraordinarily simple. No quantum mechanics, no warping of the space time continuum. The scientific theories underlying climate change has been around for well over a century, and in that time has been tested and confirmed. Like it or not, we live in the world of science getting it right. And that applies to climate change.

A Note On Global “Cooling”

Conservatives like to point out that in the 1970’s there was supposedly a great deal of concern about “global cooling” and the possibility of a new ice age. They like to refer to this to imply that scientists are a bunch of idiots and frequently get things wrong. The implication is that if they were so off base in the 1960’s regarding the possibility of “global cooling,” they’re most likely off-base now with claims of global warming. It’s a nice argument but is completely untrue.

Here’s the basic story of “global cooling.” My details are taken largely from a paper published by the American Meteorological Society called The Myth of the 1970’s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus, which is available at:]

As noted previously, scientists have understood since the 1890’s that adding carbon based gases, particularly carbon dioxide or CO2, to the atmosphere would lead to increased atmospheric temperatures.

But in the 1950’s and 1960’s the amount of smog and visible pollutants (known as aerosols) were becoming a major concern. Some scientists suggested that the amount of pollution could block solar ration and potentially lead to the cooling of the planet. Just as a day is cooler when it is cloudy than when it is sunny because the clouds block the solar radiation, perhaps smog would have the same effect.

In the late 1960’s a few scientists published articles in peer reviewed journals and gave talks at climatology meetings presenting these ideas. But this was, based on an analysis in the AMS paper, a distinctly minority view.

Unfortunately the story was picked up by the “main stream media” and Newsweek published a story in 1975 called “The Cooling World.” The New York Times also published two articles discussing the possibility of global cooling. The Times, unlike Newsweek, did note that this was far from a consensus view on the impact of pollution on the environment. In fact, as noted above, it was the decidedly minority view. There is a chart on page 9 of the paper (Fig 1, pg. 1333 of the original Journal article) that shows the number of papers on global warming versus papers on the possibility of cooling in the peer reviewed journals. There was one article discussing the possibilities of global cooling in 1967, two in 1971, and one in ’74. ‘76, and ’77. In contrast, there was 1 warming article in ’65, ’67, ‘69 and 1971. There were two in 1970, 4 in ’71, 3 in ’74, 7 in both ’75 and ’77, 4 in ’76, 8 in ’78 and 5 in 1979. All total for the period, there were 7 cooling articles, 44 warming articles, and 20 that discussed issues of climate change but were neutral as to whether the overall climate may warm or cool.

Climatologist debated the issue, analyzed the data, and found it lacking. The “debate” over “global cooling” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s took place in scientific journals, and shows how science works. An idea is proposed, and then it is analyzed and written about in journals. If facts support the idea it becomes consensus science. If facts don’t support it, it gets dropped. This is precisely what happened with the scientific discussion of global “cooling.”

Global cooling was proposed in the mid-1960’s as a plausible idea, but climatologists and other scientists analyst the information and determined that it was incorrect. The idea was dropped by climate scientists. Unfortunately the fact that the debate, or actually only part of the debate, became public, gave the general public the sense that there was disagreement or discord in the science. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “debate” over the possibility of global cooling shows that science works.

The Simple Science of Climate Change

The critics of the science of global climate change act as if climatology and the science if global climate change are somehow complicated, obscure, or esoteric. They also act as if it is a new-fangled theory, dreamed up by modern day Luddites. Both are simply not true.

The science of climate change is very basic, very simple. Most people have personal experience with the underlying science behind “global warming.” Most of us have done a simple science experiment, probably in high school, where we added salt into water and noted that it changes the freezing point. The basic idea is that an impurity in a solution changes the physical properties of the solution. Adding salt to water changes the freezing point.

Air is a gaseous solution of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and some trace elements. There is also gaseous – or vaporous – water in the air. Changes in these elements, or in other impurities in the air, change the physical properties of the air, particularly its ability to retain heat.

Believe it or not, must people have first-hand experience with this phenomena. Humidity, which is the measure of water vapor in air, changes the ability of air to retain heat. Most everyone knows this. The humidity in the air is why it typically stays warm at night in the summer. If, for example, it gets up to 86 degrees on a humid summer day, it might only cool off to the low 70’s at night. But if it gets up to the same 86 degrees on an early fall day, a day with low humidity, it may cool off into the 50’s at night. Anyone who has spent time in the desert has also experienced this effect. It may get into the 90’s or 100’s during the day, but it often cools down into the 40’s and 50’s at night. Places in the tropics, where the humidity is high, may also reach the upper 90’s during the day, but only cool into the low 80’s at night. The reason is that the water vapor in the air helps the air retain heat, or in the case of the desert, the lack of moisture in the air allows the air to cool quickly once the sun is down.

This is part of what is known as the greenhouse effect. The idea was first developed by the French scientist Joseph Fourier in the 1820’s. A British scientist named John Tyndall did studies in the 1850’s that helped explain why water vapor in the atmosphere held heat. He also said that other impurities in the air, including carbon, could help the atmosphere retain heat. Finally a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius put it all together in what is now known as the “Greenhouse effect”. There are two components to the Greenhouse Effect. One component is that the impurities in the air alter the heat retention properties of the air, and the other component is that the impurities in the air alter the ability of the atmosphere to block infrared radiation emanating from the planet. So humidity allows the air to retain heat. Arrhenius did his work in the later early 1900’s.

Arrhenius also noted that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause the atmosphere to retain heat. Arrhenius actually thought that heating the atmosphere would be a good thing, and would help prevent a new ice age which might destabilize humanity. In a book called “Worlds in the Making” published in English in 1908 he said that if “the quantity of carbonic acid [CO2] in the air should sink to one-half its present percentage, the temperature would fall by about 4°; a diminution to one-quarter would reduce the temperature by 8°. On the other hand, any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth’s surface by 4°; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8°.” (p53) [See, e.g. the American Institute of Physics, which has an excellent history of the science behind Global Climate Change at:]

His numbers were off for a number of reasons, including the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide, but his description of the basic science of global warming, or climate change, was dead on. Raising the amount of carbon dioxide (and other carbon based impurities) in the atmosphere alters the ability of the atmosphere to retain heat and causes the atmosphere, and the planet as a whole, to heat up.

This has been the dominant model of climatology ever since (with a brief foray into global cooling, as discussed below). So we have known for well over 100 years that adding carbon to the atmosphere would warm the planet. The terminology changed recently because it was clear that the impact was not simply warming. The additional heat in the atmosphere manifests itself in disruption of normal weather patterns, and can result, as it did the past winter, in unusually cold temperatures in some regions. So now we use the more accurate terminology of “climate change” but the scientific principles remain the same. They are simple, and well established scientific principles, and they are principles that have been around for over 100 years.

Environmental Regulations

Conservatives like to complain about environmental regulation and the burdens they place on business and the economy. In order to fully discuss issues relating to the environment we need to discuss the costs, reasons, and efficacy of environmental regulations.

Let’s start the discussion with a broad hypothetical: an industrial facility that emits pollutants into the environment. The first question to ask is whether this is a problem or not. It depends on what is being emitted. Let’s just say that it is smoke from burning coal for power, and the smoke is full of soot and carbon and sulfur and nitrogen and mercury (and lots of other toxins). And let’s just say, for the sake of the hypothetical (though it is not hypothetical it is a true fact) that many of those pollutants are quite harmful and can kill if breathed over a long period of time. I would suggest, and I think that most people agree, that this is a problem. Unconstrained emission of dangerous pollution is a problem. That leads to the next question: what to do about the emission of pollutants?

Let’s use a different hypothetical to address this issue: let’s say that a factory dumps a harmful liquid effluent waste into the river. Is this a problem? If the pollution is killing fish or making the water undrinkable, that is clearly a problem for the people downstream from the factory. Let’s deal with the issue of the property rights of the people downstream, which are known as riparian rights. If the factory is making the water downstream undrinkable or killing the fish, the land owners downstream are having their property rights harmed. They have a legal right to be compensated for that harm. At common law they could sue for damages, which would be measured by the economic harm they suffered. If the damage is ongoing it is also possible to sue for an injunction. An injunction is an equitable remedy, and while equity is newer (it dates from the 17th Century in England) than the common law (which dates from the 14th Century), it is a well-established and time tested remedy to harm. So historically those directly affected by pollution could bring a legal action to rectify the harm.

Let’s broaden the hypothetical. There are now lots of factories along the river, it is a big river, and it feeds into a big lake. To take it out of the hypothetical we can all it the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. Now it’s not just one factory polluting and harming individual property owners along the river banks. It is easy for a downstream property owner to show harm and prove the source when there is one source of the emissions. It is a different task with multiple polluters and many people downstream, and some only subject to indirect harm.

There are a number of possible ways for those who are injured, or feel aggrieved, to vindicate their rights, or to find some sort of solution. We know this because many of these solutions were tried in this country from the 1950’s through the change in environmental laws in the 1970’s, and we’re seeing the same process repeat itself in developing countries like China and India. One solution is litigation. Throughout modern history those who have been harmed can go to court to seek redress. But in a complex situation like I describe above – lots of facilities and lots of people harmed – how do you identify the cause, show the harm, and clearly prove damages? It’s not easy, and the history of the early environmental movement proves this out. It also does not help matters when the factories have money to hire good lawyers and exert political influence (which often subtly influences the legal system) and those who may have been harmed are poor and politically powerless. Litigation (and lobbying, not to mention bribery – not common in the U.S. today, but still quite common around the world) is expensive. So, without regulation, if we rely solely on litigation, there are still costs imposed on business.

Another possible solution is what lawyers call “self-help.” Self-help means taking action outside the legal or political system to resolve the problem. One common self-help solution used in the 1960’s was to plug the discharge pipe and allow the effluent to back up into the factory. This caused anything from a mess on the factory grounds, to the destruction of equipment. There are other forms of self-help, with the most extreme being to burn down the factory. These impose a cost on business: they have to clean up or rebuild factories, repair equipment, and in some cases hire guards to protect the facility.

People are most likely to resort to self- help when they have no other reasonable options. It was used in the 1960’s because it was extremely difficult to prove harm when there were lots of facilities. It was also used because factories (and the companies that own them) often have the money to hire lawyers and thwart litigation. So both litigation and self-help create financial costs and burdens on business.

Another solution is for the parties to appeal to the government for some other solution. Citizens can seek laws that limit discharges that are difficult to identify but that harm large numbers of people. Businesses seek laws to limit legal liability and the costs of litigation. (But here’s the thing, the more businesses successfully limit their exposure to litigation, the fewer fair and legal options available to potentially aggrieved citizens, and the more likely they are to turn to self-help. We see this in China today.) So a compromise is reached. Government imposes a limited range of regulation, and in exchange businesses obtain limits on their liability. If, for example, a business can show that they were complying with environmental regulations they will be immune from a suit for any resulting harm. That is the trade-off: be regulated but limit liability. So perhaps regulation is actually a desirable option. It removes the costs of potential litigation, the cost of potential repairs from self-help activity, and the cost of hiring an ever larger coterie of armed guards. Not a bad trade off. And that, in very broad strokes, was the issue in the late 1960’s, as the Cuyahoga River burned and the government debated regulating factories to protect the environment.

The nation’s first environmental laws, NEPA, created a fairly simple framework. Every facility that emitted pollution, either into the air or water, had to be identified, and the type and extent of their emissions listed. Then, in certain circumstances, they had to use the best available pollution mitigation technology to reduce the total amount of emissions. In a number of cases, however, there was no requirement to immediately install emission control technology. In certain industries, power generation for example, the requirement was that when the facility was upgraded the pollution reduction equipment had to be added. But if it was not upgraded there was no need to add the technology. A few pollutants were deemed so harmful that they had to be eliminated entirely from the discharge. At first this was a huge cost to business, as they were forced to install pollution control technology. But over time pollution mitigation technology became part of the operational machinery, and the costs came down. I should also note that these requirements created an entirely new industry of engineers who designed pollution control technologies, factories that made pollution control equipment, and consultants who help businesses comply with environmental requirements. So while there was a cost to those industries that created pollution (through burning coal for power, for example), entirely new industries were created.

I should also note that there was another cost to this framework. In those industries that were “grandfathered,” meaning they did not have to immediately install new pollution control technology until they modified their equipment, some chose to put off modifying equipment as long as possible. This made economic sense on one hand, because it deferred the cost of the pollution control technology. But it made no economic sense on the other hand, because new more efficient and less polluting operators came along, and they had a cost advantage because they had new and more efficient equipment. This may have reduced the cost of environmental compliance for some industries, but at the cost of technological competitiveness.

So there was and is clearly a cost to business for environmental regulations. But what conservatives fail to note is that there are costs to business without environmental regulations, and that the regulations created a trade-off, which was the near elimination of self-help (and the costs associated thereto) and the significant reduction in the cost of litigation (and those costs).

This was roughly the history of most environmental laws in the United States and Europe in the late 60’s and early 70’s, and it is the current path of environmental regulation in emerging economies like China and India.

When conservatives complain about environmental regulations the question should be, what is their proposed alternative? Do they want to eliminate regulation and return to litigation? Would that be less expensive for business? Or would they be constantly tied up with environmental laws suits, and eventually bankrupted by litigation costs? Or are they proposing a double whammy: remove regulation and limit legal liability? What do they think would happen then? Would the people who are harmed by pollution simply roll over and take it? My guess is that people would once again resort to self-help. This guess is supported by actual history and experience. And would it really be cheaper to deal with self-help? In some cases it might be, but in others it might not be. I suspect that in most cases it would be far more expensive.

The other question is whether there are different possible models of environmental regulation. What we currently have is a total ban on a hand full of toxic pollutants, and rules requiring limits on other pollutants, which are achieved by requiring that facilities use the best available technology to mitigate emissions.

Is there a better way to limit or reduce pollution? One way is to set strict limits on what can be emitted by certain facilities and certain industries. This would clearly reduce pollutions, but is probably the most intrusive and costly solution. For that reason it was rejected in the United States and largely throughout the world.

Are there other solutions? One idea was to try to apply free market principles of supply and demand to pollution and pollution control. That was done by setting a total upper level of allowable emissions based on the current level of emission. Each facility was then given a quota based on their current emission. If one company wanted to expand its operations it had to find another company that had reduced its emissions, and basically buy the second companies excess emission quota. This had the effect of creating a financial incentive for companies to reduce emission, since they could sell their excess quota. This was tried in the 1990’s to eliminate “acid rain.” It worked brilliantly, far better than expected. It resulted in faster reduction in sulfur and nitrogen based emissions and a cost far less than expected. Because it worked so well, and because it was based on market principles, it was widely embraced by the Republican Party. It was called Cap and Trade, and the McCain – Palin campaign supported it as the best method of pollution control. Unfortunately, after Barack Obama won the Presidency, and endorsed Cap and Trade to reduce carbon emissions, the Republican Party did a 180 and rejected Cap and Trade.

In my view, and based on history, Cap and Trade is the most effective method of pollution control. But because Cap and Trade has become toxic (pun intended), the current hodge-podge of regulations we have is the most effective and relatively cost effective system available.

The First And Second Amendments Compared

The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Supporters of gun rights quote the Second Amendment and act as if it says that there can be no law restricting the right to own a weapon. They read the phrase “shall not be infringed” as an absolute.
This sounds nice, but the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), noted that even the Second Amendment is subject to reasonable regulation. “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” The court noted that nothing “in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places … or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

Some supporters of gun rights act surprised at this concept. Do they believe that the rights protected under the Constitution are not subject to any restriction? Do they pay attention? All rights are subject to some level of restriction.

The best comparison, in my view, with restrictions of supposedly unrestrictable Constitutional rights, involves the First Amendment right to free speech. Were you to ask most people, I believe most people would say that this means that citizens have the right to say anything they want, without government restriction. But the reality is that there are many restrictions on this right.

The First amendment, in pertinent part, states: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ….”

Despite this fairly firm statement that Congress shall make NO LAW, there are lots of laws restricting the freedom of speech.

Copyright laws restrict the ability to speak freely by limiting a speakers us of other’s words or ideas. Defamation laws limit the ability to speak freely by allowing litigation over the use of certain words or ideas to describe another person. Obscenity laws limit the ability to depict certain things, thus limiting the right and ability to speak freely. There are also innumerable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on the ability to speak at will. Communities have noise ordinances that prevent a person from expressing their political views from a sound truck in a neighborhood in the middle of the night. Generally those are broad noise ordinances that prevent any loud noises in residential areas at night, but the impact is that it limits all forms of speech, even political speech. Communities have ordinances to deal with parades and protests. They can’t be stopped, but the community has a right to manage this activity in order to limit public disruption. And there are also a wide variety of broadcast restrictions on content broadcast over the public airwaves. There are also a whole host of laws regulating speech as action, what Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes referred to as “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” A person can claim they were exercising their right to free speech when they slip a robbery note to a bank teller (it has happened), or provoked a fist fight.

So, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” but the reality is that Congress has passed lots and lots of laws abridging the freedom of speech. The question is whether those are reasonable restrictions on the right to speak freely. The same question should apply to second Amendment rights. Is the restriction or limitation reasonable?

One could get into a linguistic argument over whether “shall not be infringed” is more or less definite that “make no law abridging.” Is “shall not be infringed” more definite than “make no law abridging”? Perhaps it is, but perhaps it is not. I would argue that “make no law” is more definite because “no” means “no,” while “infringing” is a legal term that implicitly implies that there is behavior that does not infringe. Infringe, by definition, incorporates limitations.

Despite what seems like clear and absolute language it is important to note that throughout American history there have been laws that have restricted the freedom of speech. The First Congress, with a number of framers present, enacted the Bill of Rights, but also passed laws that imposed restrictions on both speech and firearms, so one could argue that, despite the absolutist language, no one took those words to mean absolutely no restrictions. The reality is that, from the beginning, Congress and the courts allowed “reasonable” restrictions of all constitutionally guaranteed rights.

This raises a second argument frequently mentioned by gun right advocates: the slippery slope. Supporters of gun rights say that if Congress limits the right to have assault weapons, the next step will be more restrictions, then more and more, until all our rights are lost.

This sounds like a logical and reasonable argument, but the problem is that it fails the history test. Rights have always ebbed and flowed. Since the nation’s founding there have been periods of increased restriction, and then periods of easing of restrictions. Let’s look briefly at the history of restrictions on the right to free speech under the First Amendment.

The Constitution says that Congress shall make “no law” abridging the freedom of speech. But in the 1790’s Congress passed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the government. This was a clear restriction on the right to speak freely. That law was eventually repealed. The law was part of the intense hostility between the Federalists, under President John Adams, and his nemesis Thomas Jefferson and the Jeffersonian Democrats, and when Jefferson won the Presidency in 1800 his allies in Congress overturned the Sedition Act. (See, “What Kind of Nation” by James F. Simon, 2002.) This was only the first of a number of laws directly limiting the right of people to speak freely, and I’m not just talking about the laws set out above. Most of these laws were passed during periods of war or impending national emergency. President Abraham Lincoln imprisoned newspaper editors, in clear violation of the First Amendment. Congress passed a Sedition Law during the First World War, and a number of loyalty oaths and laws during the second Red Scare of the 1950’s. There have also been numerous state laws restricting pornography, and these laws were essentially nationalized when the U.S. Postal Service refused to allow such material in the mails.

According to the slippery slope theory, the slippery slope only runs one way. So once Congress passes these sorts of laws they will only pass more, and eventually – and inevitably – there will be more restrictions.

But guess what? Reality was starkly different. Congress has passed laws, then overturned them. Or more to the point, Congress has passed laws, and in the last fifty years of so the Courts have overturned them. So, if anything the slippery slope, particularly for speech, has gone the other way. Speech has become nearly unconstrained (except for a few reasonable restrictions set out above). Courts shave struck down most restrictions on speech, and now just about anything goes. While there is still no nudity on broadcast television, there is certainly a great deal of sex and vulgarity. In fact I must note the irony that the same people complaining about government restrictions in one area (gun rights) are complaining about the lack of government restrictions in the area of speech and the First Amendment.

Gun restrictions have also ebbed and flowed. There have been various gun restrictions throughout American history. States regulated guns to varying degrees before the Civil War. After the Civil War there was a great deal of concern that the 14th Amendment would force the states (primarily the Southern States) to allow the newly freed slaves to own guns. The most significant national gun restrictions were passed during the Depression. The most significant was the National Firearms Act of 1934, which prevented people from owning fully automatic weapons. This is enacted, in part, because of the crime wave caused during prohibition, and particularly Al Capone’s St Valentine’s Day massacre.

Since then, gun restrictions are often proposed in the immediate aftermath of a visible gun incident, such as the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan in 1981. The Brady Bill, which took years to pass, was named after former Reagan Press Secretary James Brady, who was grievously injured during the Reagan assassination attempt. Not long after the Brady Bill was signed into law, Congress passed an Assault Weapon Ban. Clinton signed this into law in 1994, but it expired in 2004, and has not been replaced. The simple fact that this law was allowed to expire, shows the fallacy of this slippery slope argument.