Intarnets law?

4 October 2009

I’ll be honest.  I don’t spend a great deal of time being thankful I’m not British.  Quite the contrary.

Witness, then, a novelty.

Voters will be given the power to rewrite laws under Tory plans to transform the way parliament works by importing a popular scheme championed by Barack Obama in last year’s US election.

[…]

Under the Tory plans, a parliamentary bill would be introduced in the way it is now. The first and main debate – the second reading stage, in which the broad principles of the proposed new laws are debated on the floor of the Commons – would be held in the normal way.

But once MPs have held this debate, the bill would be thrown open to voters before it is considered line by line at the committee stage. A website would allow voters to comment on and rewrite the broad principles of the bill, and individual clauses.

Contributors would rank comments so the most popular suggestions appear at the top. This is similar to mixedink, which allows voters to argue for and against various policies and suggest their own ideas.

I have a question for the hapless Mr Hague, who has the misfortune of floating this trial balloon: have you ever been on the Internet?

Seriously.  The difference between an actual policy debate and that which you’re likely to find through such a “popular legislative process” is like the difference between Glee and, well, an actual high school a capella group.  Don’t believe me?  Go onto the comments pages of The Guardian, or Politico, or indeed the one or two occasions somebody I don’t know has commented on this blog.  If you believed what you see on the internet not only would you not want the people to make law, you wouldn’t want them to vote for the ones who do.

I feel a little bit of indignation bubbling up in you already.  What an anti-democratic argument!  Well, maybe.  But then the internet isn’t really democratic.  In the UK, as I’ve written before, things have gotten a lot more virulent even than America, but the question still remains: why do these evil corrupt Congressmen or MPs get to make our laws?  Because we keep choosing them.  They may be unresponsive, lazy sexual predators with their snouts planted firmly in the trough, but they are ours.  Both in theory and in practice there’s nothing stopping anyone from choosing somebody different. To go further there is no excuse.

But people on the internet – by whom are they chosen?  Who decides that they are “the people,” that they speak for some unrepresented segment of the population?  Precisely no one.  They choose themselves, and the reason indeed that they are so often ignored is precisely because of a chronic inability amongst much of the blogosphere to follow basic rules of civility and reason, much less digest complex topics like the cod quota or the politics of disarmament.

But of course this follows from a misunderstanding of “the people” that the political class, in its rush to cater to the Internet Generation, has all-to-quickly developed.  There is no People, at least not in terms of some vast group of unrepresented and unserved proletariat bubbling over with untapped ideas and revolutionary passion.  In both Britain and America there used to be groups such as these.  Something was done about it.  (And by legislatures bereft of these excluded masses.  Funny that.)

Measures like this are really just a reaction to general apathy towards the political process, not the exclusion of some mysterious silent majority.  In their effect they are not only dangerously populist but dangerously anti-democratic as well, in that they threaten to transfer under the guise of enhanced popular sovereignty a law-making power that previously was enjoyed by the people only through the representatives all had the right to accept or reject.  On top of this now will be placed a class of “law-makers” no one asked for and nobody wanted.  Good intentions being what they are, you put yourself on the receiving end of a downmarket House of Lords – the Senate meets the Sun.  (This really isn’t fair.  In the House of Lords there’s at least someone to check and make sure you’re not mad.)

Of course, one might reply, anyone can participate.  Those who do cannot be held responsible for those who do not.  True perhaps, but that is to elevate the theory at the expense of the practice.  If there were such a system, in which people could alter legislation, online, at will, and assuming in Wikipedia-style fashion anyone could, who would actually do it?  Not everybody.  Not the people without access to computers and/or the internet (in the US at least 20%, according to the International Telecommunications Union; I couldn’t find UK statistics but it’s probably comparable or higher; broadband penetration is far lower).  Higher proportions – far higher – for the poor, blacks, etc.  Scratch most of those who work full-time or more.  Mothers with children are probably out, especially if they’re single parents (of either gender).  Tinkering with legislation won’t pay the mortgage.

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

So who will be left, besides these groups too “apathetic” (i.e. struggling) to care?  The wealthy, the bored, and of-course-I-know-best political obsessives who are too reserved, selfish or extreme to actually seek office for themselves.  (Read: me.)  I don’t doubt a few decent people will trickle through – but I don’t doubt they’ll trickle back out again, most of them.  The effect will be that the best-off, most-driven and frequently most-extreme people will take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on the legislative process.  They will be little dictators each and every one.

The example of Wikipedia is instructive.  From its roots as an open source encyclopedia, it has gradually resolved into an organization with permanent staff, a bureaucratic structure that includes courts to resolve disputes between editors and a model heavily-dependent on a few very devoted and profligate senior editors, trusted through their experience and seniority to protect the vast store of information from the ever-present prospect of vandalism.  At least with Wikipedia I can still, if I like, go in and make productive changes.  With the law there’s no such chance: once it’s done, it’s done.  There’s no “work in progress” about it.

This is not to defame the prospect of models like open source governance.  It is promising.  But it is also young.  And this is true of the whole Internet – it moves far faster than even the most youthful and adaptable of its users (and certainly moreso than the legislators tasked with putting it to some political use), and law as an institution depends on consistency far more than adaptability or representativeness.  It’s far more important than you can count on the law than that it be modern or include you in its construction.  Most murder laws were written under an incomplete franchise.  That doesn’t make them bad laws.

This policy, like most attempts to shoehorn the internet into law-making, is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in an attempt to figure out where your sphere went.  It is the wrong solution to the problem of disengagement and inclusion.  Want the public to get back into politics?  Empowering a few frothing obsessives is not the answer.  Try public holidays on election day – public holidays in general.  A reduction of the work week so people have more time for politics.  Or subsidized child care.  Mandatory overtime.  Compulsory voting.  All very scary and socialist ideas probably.  But at least they have the benefit of being fair and of appealing to what is, in fact, the people, rather than those of their number who are indolent, obnoxious, and bored.

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Microsoft blows hard

1 October 2009

My friend Amy sent me an article by the indefatigable Charlie Brooker today.  To be honest, I’m not sure what it is he does, other than that I’d rather like it, thanks.

The topic of his opprobrium this week were Apple users and their pathological, borderline sexual relationship with their computers, contrasted with the hateful battered-wife feeling anyone with Windows Vista (or XP or that giant chocolatey fudge dragon ME) knows all too well.  While bemoaning the constant evangelism of Apple users he does point out that, for better or worse, they do honestly believe.  Microsoft has been forced to resort to a series of propaganda videos in an attempt to promote their new OS, the cryptofascistically-named Windows 7.

(As an aside, maybe the problem is that Windows keeps trying all these crappy names.  I don’t know who would want anything called XP, much less 7.  I think they’re trying to subliminally appeal to Star Trek fans.)

Microsoft: resistance is futile

Microsoft: resistance is futile

Nerditry aside, upon reading Brooker I actually tried to watch the Windows 7 video he talked about. It depicts a group of people – a group Microsoft unsubtly suggests you should emulate – throwing a party.  But it’s not just any house party.  It’s a Windows 7 launch party.  In it, explained the bespectacled hipster, you and your friends who have the opportunity to get together and try out all the new features of the Windows 7 OS in a safe, fun and it’s implied consequence-free environment.  And they were here to help.

I got about a minute in.  It was insufferable.  It was awful.  If the Apple people are the kids who always got the Tamogatchi or Airwalks or Nintendo DS before you did, then this Microsoft ad featured your parents, six months later, ostentatiously showing off whatever bauble it was that vaguely tingles your memory as having been cool back before it was so downmarket even old people could have them.  But it was something else, too, somehow more sinister.  Like your bachelor uncle has the Tamogatchi, but he has no idea what it is, he’s just using it to get close to you even though your parents privately warn you to stay away from him for reasons that were never clear until now.

I shut off the video.  I think maybe I was sweating.  But then my long-suppressed Nixonian tendencies creeped in.  I’m no quitter, no matter how sadistic and reprobate the subject matter.  I have a college education.  I took a class in propaganda with a guy who kills people for the Shin Bet. I know who Derrida is.  I can handle this.

Gettin’ this party started (I’m comin’ out)

Pink?  Anybody?  No?  Okay.

I go first to Microsoft’s designated YouTube page, cleverly titled LaunchParties.  True to form, it has nearly 120 videos, all of them titled in that spastic mashed-together way thatadmitsabsolutelynospacesorpunctuationwhichhasbeenMicrosoft’sspecialtyforsomanyyears. I’m surprised they let us have capital letters to differentiate the titles.  This must be the kinder, gentler Microsoft.

HostingYourParty

The screen starts all blurry with the caption “Hosting Your Party” in big white letters, because all social interactions generally begin with both title card and a load time.  (Mine do, anyway.)  After a few seconds, it fades away, and we have a scene of four people in a kitchen.

H-ey!  Welcome to the party,” says a young blonde-haired woman holding a cutting board with what looks like cheese.  Right off the bat, I’m not sure about this.  Cheese Lady welcomes me kind of like you do when you’re expecting someone and you realize someone arrives but you’re turned around and you start to greet them as you’re turning to face them and only realize about halfway through that not only isn’t it who you expected but it’s also no one you’re happy to see.  I, the viewer, am a door-to-door insurance salesman who happened to stumble into this party.

But that won’t stop the kinder, gentler Microsoft from shoe-horning me in anyway.  Gee thanks.

After what looks like a moment’s hesitation Cheese Lady decides what-the-Hell-he’s-here-anyway and the camera pans out to show Cheese Lady’s friends: Old Lady, Hipster and Colorful-Polo-Wearing-Therefore-Both-Hip-and-Respectable-Black-Guy.  For short I’ll call him Kanye.

My new friends

My new friends

Now instantly I’m put at ease by Kanye.  These people have black friends, and as someone who has black friends himself this is crucial to me.  I don’t want to be involved with some racist operating system.  I really don’t want to be involved in an operating system that isn’t cool.  So Kanye serves two crucial purposes.  His is a comforting presence.

Cheese Lady tells me all about how they’re launching Windows 7 with house parties and how you can actually use Windows 7 to organize it.  Metaphysically I have a problem with this, as I thought the purpose of a launch party was that you didn’t have something before and now you do.  I think Ocean’s Thirteen dealt with this issue.  Anyway I can organize it with some special software, upload pictures – “That’s his favorite,” she says, placing a suggestive hand on the Hipster’s arm.  He kind of mumbles “That’s my favorite” and they all laugh at him, even the Old Lady, whose relationship to this group of “friends” is not yet clear.

“In a lot of ways, you’re just throwing a party with Windows 7 as an honored guest,” Kanye says.  “Sounds easy – and it is!”  But I thought this was supposed to tell me how to throw the party, Kanye.  If it were so easy, I’d know how to throw a party without Windows 7.  And I don’t.  That’s why you’re here.  Kanye’s getting on my nerves.

He redeems himself a moment later, though: maybe I want to know “how some hosts want their party to flow.”  Oooh!  Flow.  That’s a cool word that’s generationally-appropriate.  I’ve seen it on TV!

The camera is panning back and forth and zooming wildly at this point and I start to feel an epileptic seizure coming on.  It’s not helped when Hipster says, “Now the first thing you want to do is install Windows 7,” prompting a series of ‘D’uhs’ from the other guests.  Man, they really don’t like him.  He’s so put down by this that he had to go back and redub his next couple lines afterwords to edit out the sobbing.  Other guests appear unaffected.

Old Lady says we should choose the activities that are the most fun.  You’d know, Grandma.  She starts going on about some “host notes” that have bonus activities on them.  “Right?” says Cheese Lady enthusiastically-sarcastically.  You know?  I didn’t know.  I feel a little stupid.  In fact I feel bad for Hipster now.  I totally know how he feels.

Hipster’s party started out “like any good party,” with drinks and mingling.  And Sir Harold Pinter showed up.  I love his plays.  I’ve never seen any of them, but I like the idea of his plays.  I can’t believe Hipster got him to show up.  “And you know what was great?” Cheese Lady says, plowing nervously through my digression about Sir Harold.  “It was totally informal, like, everyone just kind of crowded around the computer in the kitchen.”  Wow!  Just like us now!  I’m a part of something.

But Cheese Lady still seems to have had an excessively authoritarian style to her party.  When she says she led everyone in an activity immediately after producing the computer (which she stole?  How she got it isn’t clear), Old Lady is taken aback.  “Oh well I let everyone fool around with a Snap for a little while.”  “Me too!” Kanye shouts.  What’s Snap?  Is that a thing?  This is getting tense and I feel stupid again.  I’m getting the sneaking feeling these people aren’t going to buy any insurance.

Now there’s a cockfight over how many activities we did.  “I did three!” Hipster shouts pompously.  No wonder they don’t like you.  “When you’re close to the end -” Cheese Lady begins, only for Grandma to but-in with “Wanting everybody to leave,” provoking general laughter and shushing now that she’s got drunk on her Long Island Iced Tea and telling our secrets.  When you’re close to the end,” Cheese Lady grits her teeth, we should go to Help. It’s a great way to tie everything together.  So is a call to the emergency services, which I am placing now.

“Make something you’re doing personal to someone at the Party,” Kanye enjoins me.  “Like the way I made Chip’s files get transferred by Windows Easy Transfer.”  Ooo there, Kanye.  Too personal.  Way over the line. “I also found it really helped to name the first person to be first with the hands-on activity, and have them pick the next person.”  Oh, like you did with poor Chip?  So we can all join in on the torture, and dip our hands in the blood?  You’re sick.  You’re a sick fuck.

Everybody thinks this is all sunshine and raindrops, though.  “On a more serious note,” Grandma says with a mock frown – this Edward Albee horror show apparently not being serious enough – “Decide what activities you want to do a day or two in advance.  Some activities require -”

She stumbles for a word here.  Is she lying to me?  What does she want?  “Modest set-up.”  Phew.  Thought it was serious.  “Like you need two computers to do the webchat,” says Kanye.  Hahahaha say all.  Obvi.  “None of the set-up is too hard.”

“It helped me to remember that I’m not a salesman,” Kanye chips in.  But I am a salesman.  Northwestern Mutual Li – “And part of the fun of a launch party is seeing what you already know.”  I know how to use Vista.  I knew how to use XP.  Why are you replacing them, again?  For that matter why is no one answering my questions?

“Can you believe that they put the launch of Microsoft 7 in our hands?” Kanye asks.  “They must be crazy!”

“Crazy to let you be involved, maybe,” Hipster shoots back.  He gives an all-in-good-fun smile.  But they’re totally gonna have it out in the parking lot afterwards.

“Well it does make sense,” Cheese Lady intervenes, trying to save her shitty party from the indignity of violence.  “Windows 7 is all about the computer user!”  I think they used to call us people.

“It ought to be a party!  Have fun out there!”  They’re letting me leave?  Oh my God.  I rush to grab my bag and brochures and bolt out the house as Hipster makes some trendy devil-symbol at me with his hands.  Or maybe it’s “call me”.  Does he want insurance after all?  Was he hitting on me?

Win7AcceleratorAndSlices

All right, fine.  Let’s see how your parties actually went.  Here Hipster is hosting in a party in his dingy little apartment with his hipster friends.  All the men are in open-necked collared shirts; all the women are minorities.  So far, so good.

He wants to show me something new about Internet Explorer 8.  He turns to “Frank” – “Hi-iii,” he crows.  He’s probably related to Cheese Lady.  Or maybe he just wants the Cheetos coming around the room, which have been seized by the interracial girlfriend perched on his lap.  This is called web slices.  Now I can keep in touch of websites on my favorites all day long.

“Oh yeah,” Frank says like LL Cool J.  I think the guy sitting in the chair backwards has a mustache.  How passé.

Frank shops for t-shirts on “auction sites” a lot.  Do they mean Ebay?  It’s the only one I know.  And then we cut to the screen – I’m sorry, I move over to see the screen better at the house party – and it has Ebay on it.  Frank wants a Van Halen 1984 t-shirt.  Wow.  Van Halen.  Maybe time to move on, man.

Frank decides not to buy it and delete the page from his “slice,” which looks exactly like a favorites page.  (An AC/DC poster won out – a dubious choice, but whatever.)  Now Hipster takes me to show me the “Accelerator,” which clicks directly from an address that doesn’t include a map to a mapping system, shaving literally seconds off of my web time and conveniently avoiding the use of certain heretical websites which I could have just put in my “slices” anyway.  Phew.

“I want the rest of you to pick a word or phrase and accelerate it, leaving a new page for the next guest.”  You can do the stupid map thing here, too, apparently.  I’m nervously fingering the life insurance brochures in my pocket.  This doesn’t feel right.  The guy sitting behind Hipster just gasped with amazement at his electronic version of telephone.  “Is that a hamster?” he asks.  I’m outta here.

MyMicrosoftWindows7HouseParty

I try to watch a couple more but – oh, what the hay, I’m so excited to have my own house party I can’t stand it.  Let’s go!

(doorbell rings)

Me: Oh h-ey, welcome to my Microsoft Windows 7 launch party!

Doritos Girl: Thanks!  I brought Doritos!

Me: Awesome!  Everybody’s just inside!

We enter a room with Old Man from Bus Stop, My Mom, and Environmentally-Conscious Co-Workers and Drinking Buddies.

Me: Everybody, this is *voice trails off*

All: Oh hi!

Me: I’m super-excited to introduce Windows 7 to you.  This is, like, totally a killer app.

All: Yeah!  All right!

Drinking buddies high five.

Me: And what’s best about it is it’s designed for us computer users!

Co-Workers: It’s almost like we’re people again!

Me: That’s right.

(looks around)

Me: There’s something wrong.

My Mom: What, honey?

Me: There’s, uh… there’s no black people here.

My Mom: Well I didn’t know you knew any –

Me: That’s not the point, Mom!  God, nobody wants to use some racist operating system.

Co-Workers: That’s right!  Yeah!

Me: Look, I’ll just go online and e-mail some.

Old Man: Don’t use that!

Me: Why not?

Old Man: That’s the search engine whose name must not be spoken!

Me: Oh, right.  I’ll use accelerator – what the fuck is that?

My Mom: Honey, language.

Me: My computer’s shaking.

Co-workers: Why, that’s Aero Shake, the feature that let’s you clear away all your clutter!

Drinking buddies: YEAH!

Me: You mean like minimizing?

(they frown)

Co-workers: No.

Me: Well why won’t it stop?

Old man: Charlies!  In the trees!

Me: That’s irrelevant.  Stop it old man, or you won’t get your $20.

My Mom: Honey, respect your elders!

Me: The computer’s on fire!

My Mom: Why that’s Windows 7’s new Burn feature.  It’s designed to detect awkward social situations and start a distraction!

Me: Somebody call the fire department!

Doritos Girl: My hair’s on fire!

Drinking buddies: YEAHHHHHH!!!!

(they urinate on the rapidly-advancing flames)

My Mom: Oh, I’ll get some paper towels.

Co-workers: You know, this is really irresponsible.  Fires like this contribute to the greenhouse effect, which is killing our Earth.

Doritos Girl: AAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE AAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

(she runs away, chased by Drinking Buddies and my Mom with a paper towel)

Me: But – my launch party!

Drinking buddies (outside): The roof!  The roof!  The roof is on fire!

Me: You guys better stay here.  I’ll get help.

Two hours later.

Me: Whelp… Windows 7 burned my house down.

My Mom: Oh honey, I’m sorry.

Me: Too bad about my co-workers.

My Mom: Oh you’ll make new ones.

Me: Yeah. But so will Microsoft.

Our German friends went to the polls this evening in what was variously described as a “yawner,” “soporific” and “one of the dullest in living memory” in which turnout reached a record low. How low is as yet unclear: there seem to have been about four million fewer votes cast this year (depending upon the number of outstanding ballots).  That kind of drop should translate to a fall of 5-7 percent in terms of turnout, for a “lowest ever” result of around 70-72%.

(Yes kids. 70% is the lowest ever in Germany.  Let this be a lesson that there are other – and I dare I hazard the sacrilege of saying better – ways of doing democracy.)

However I would submit that this has been a crucial poll for both Germany and the world.  Suffice it to say that Germany remains, even now (especially now), the economic engine of Europe.  Their unemployment is now below even our own – the benefit of a strong social safety net built at great cost during years of boom – and the first shoots of global recovery have appeared there.  Along with France it essentially decides the direction of Europe, flail though Britain might (indeed, rightly or wrongly); it is a cornerstone of America’s Afghanistan policy, its European policy, its Iranian policy, its Russian policy… I run on.  (And could.)  But in short, this was an election of great significance to us – and not, indeed, just for foreign policy. What is happening in Germany is heading for us, too.

Background

On a basic level the political system is – was – dominated by two large parties and a number of smaller ones.  The Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) are centre-right – though the name falsely implies some commitment to clericalism, more prominent in their Bavarian branch than generally.  They’re generally the party of rural areas, the country, and the south of Germany, especially Bavaria.  The Social Democrats (SDP) are centre-left – the party of the unions, workers, cities, especially in the north.  They have between them provided every Chancellor in modern German history.

In addition there are the Free Democrats (FDP, known colloquially as the ‘Liberals’), re-established along with the SDP and CDU/CSU at the refounding of the Republic.  They’re just that: though what we would call relatively “progressive,” as with most modern classical liberals  – sounds weird, especially as in America we term it “libertarian” – what the FDP really cares about is economics and driving government out of business.  As such it’s slightly socially moderating to either the SDP or the CDU/CSU, but economically quite radical.  Wealthier, college-educated urban Republicans would be quite at home here, and the FDP appeals to an educated, wealthy urban/suburban demographic.

Unlike other democracies (and totally unlike the US) Germany does not allow a leader to have less than the total support of Parliament, called Bundestag; that means no minority governments as in Canada.  Throughout most of modern German history neither major party could gain a majority in parliament.  This meant not only that the FDP always chose who governed, but assured that they were almost always in government.  Though they were always the bridesmaid and never the bride, this made them relatively impervious to shifts in the electorate or their own vote totals.  Vice-Chancellor Genscher thus served in that role for twenty years and was continuously in government for twenty-five years under three chancellors.  Neither party cared much for them, but there was rarely a way around them.

But in the 1980s two other forces have appeared.  The first were the Greens (known as Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, or Alliance ’90/The Greens, after the coalition between Western and Eastern parties formed after the fall of the Berlin Wall).  Starting slowly the Greens eventually shucked off their origins as a protest party and became willing to join a government (perhaps reflecting their growth from a niche environmentalist party to the favored outlet of the wealthy, urban left).  This was a major development: for the first time a government could be formed without the free-market FDP, making a socially leftist government possible.  It also tipped the subtle balance of German politics; given the unlikelihood of the Greens’ siding with the conservative Christian Democrats, it had the effect of opening up possibilities for the Social Democrats while driving the FDP even further into the CDU’s arms, as for the first time they faced opposition without them.

Reunification brought with it a new party.  First called the Party of Democratic Socialism, then combined with a coalition of ex-SDP members, the Left is a motley crew of ex-East German communists, far-left anti-communist reformers, disaffected Greens and Social Democrats, frustrated workers and welfare recipients.  It is the first quality that has made them anathema to the rest of German politics: initially it met with a cordon sanitaire of the type deployed in the Netherlands, Belgium and France to stop extremist parties from joining government.  At first it didn’t matter: the Left was a small party focused mainly in the East, so drawing fairly equally from potential CDU/CSU and SDP voters, and for the first decade of its existence it struggled both to repudiate communism and connect with the electorate.

Change is rarely spare

That changed in 2005.  The economic reforms of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder managed to trigger a Bangkok dilemma: his actions were considered unacceptable to leftists and insufficient to rightists.  The Greens, in power for the first time since 1998, occupied only three or four non-economic ministries and provided little resistance.  In 2005 the SPD-Green alliance rallied on the back of the personal unpopularity of Angela Merkel, then CDU/CSU leader; but it was to no avail.  The government lost its majority.

Left leaders Gregor Gysi (ex East German Communist, above) and Oskar Lafontaine (ex-SPD, below)

Left leaders Oskar Lafontaine (above) and Gregor Gysi (below). Guess who was a Communist

But the CDU/CSU did not gain one.  Indeed they lost nearly as many seats as did the SPD.  The big winner was the Left party, now co-headed by a high-profile SPD defector, Oskar Lafontaine.  Lafontaine and others balked at Schröder’s reforms, which were seen to be uncompassionate, excessively pro-business and – worst of all – Anglo-American.  From a low of just two seats in 2002 the Left gained 54.  This is basically because the German system, mixed-member proportional, makes big changes between major parties require big changes in the overall vote.  This rarely happens, and a government has a majority of only 20-40, including coalition partners.

Drive a wedge of 54 into that – 54 members of Parliament that no one will have and that consequently will vote against anyone – and you have a problem.  Germany had that problem.  No coalition of two parties gained a majority.  Of the many options only one was plausible: a “grand coalition” of both CDU/CSU and SDP.

How can two opposed parties work together?  Tenderly.  Schröder had to go – and go he did – and in his place were Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, formerly his second-in-command.  Steinmeier was a politician with limited public exposure, first as head of Schröder’s private office and then as Foreign Minister, and despite an even split of ministries between the grand partners it was Merkel who gained credit for being public-spirited and a “safe pair of hands.”

Despite predictions they survived the entirety of their four year term.  But predictably Merkel and the CDU/CSU entered the election with a big lead over the SPD.  The entirety of the election campaign did nothing to dent that lead.

Yesterday and what it means

The results are contained here.  (Don’t laugh, Wikipedia is filled with elections nerds, and unlike so many national election bodies writes with an eye to general clarity.)

The traditional CDU/CSU-FDP coalition “won.”  But this was on a very small increase in seats (13) for the CDU/CSU (and a drop in votes).  These were mostly “overhang seats,” a German quirk which basically awards bonus seats because an opponent wins more individual seats than their party vote would allow.  This benefits the two major parties, as they win most of these single-member seats on the basis of strong regional and local support.  (It makes its last appearance this year – German courts ordered it quashed by 2011.) The SDP lost a record 76 seats and came an anemic second.  Here’s the kicker, though: both major parties had their worst result ever.  Only a bare majority of Germans voted for both parties of government combined.

The FDP surged to 93 seats (the CDU/CSU had 239), which means their partners will contribute some 30% of the coalition’s total, a number unprecedented in Germany and indeed most modern parliamentary democracies).  This was the greatest night in their history.  Their success has been so profound that they are actually within striking distance of being Germany’s second party – an unheard-of development.

Both the Greens and the Left also had the best nights in their history.  Though they maintained only their single constituency seat, in urban Berlin, the Greens surged over the 10% mark for the first time to take 68 seats.  The Left did better still – they surged to 13 constituency seats, including a majority of those in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, and rose to 76 total.  Only the success of the FDP prevented the Left from forcing the two main parties back into grand coalition.  For the first time, the three opposition parties’ total votes and seats outnumbered either of the two parties of government.

It can’t be surprising that the collapse of the SDP aided both the Greens and the Left – despite leadership under leader Steinmeier which, if not stentorian, was not at all disastrous.  The SDP is at serious, even terminal risk of becoming merely a pan-German leftist fraction, splitting their traditional voters with the Greens in the West and the Left in the East.  There is no love lost between the two, especially as the Left is (bizarrely) depriving the Greens of some of their anti-establishment luster.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didnt drink it all in one go

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle, who hopefully didn't drink it all in one go

But Merkel must be said to have lost, too.  Her majority comes from the FDP’s success and they will not fail to let her know it.  Worse, whereas the grand coalition allowed her to govern “above politics” while avoiding any difficult questions – with the SPD’s tacit consent – the FDP have become unashamedly radical in their economics and their opposition to green politics, and they will push Merkel in their direction.  She cannot simply shrug, as she did with the SPD, and agree that the differences are irreconcilable for the sake of the government.  (Hence the suggestion that she actually preferred the prospect of a new grand coalition.)  The FDP will take their ball and go home if she doesn’t give them almost everything they want, and it’s likely she’ll do just that.  The consequence of not doing so is implicit in this interview, where the FDP leader tries to put down fears about a “centre-right” government: this “party of all people” is perfectly capable of making a government itself one day, especially if they continue to shine in the face of a taciturn, unhelpful Christian Democrat majority.  “We wanted reform – our own allies betrayed us,” etc.

Clearly people are fed up in general, and there is a sense that the financial crisis has revealed that the traditional manner of doing business – by whomever – has failed.  All three smaller parties were fired up; anyone in government is meanwhile seen to be tainted.  This is a trend that has been growing and escalating as the post-9/11 world has taken shape.  It will continue to do, especially if the far right-wing National Democratic Party – neo-Nazis in all but name, handicapped only by being run through with agents of the security services – manages to begin making an impact.  So far, though, Germans are far more ready to cast a ballot for ex-communists than neo-fascists.

Elsewhere

These trends: the decline and fragmentation of major parties; surge in support for parties with more hardened, philosophically coherent (and so inflexible) beliefs on the fringes of the political spectrum; and an increased tempo of attacks by the mainstream against that fringe which has the effect merely of eroding further their own popularity; they don’t exist in Germany alone.  Britain, France, and the US face similar problems and have electorates of similar prosperity and more similarity of mind than many think.  They may not vote for the same things, but all follow the same cues.

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

British National Party rally (Sentinel)

In the UK all three parties have been hurt by the financial crisis and the related row over MPs’ expenses.  As in Germany, the collapse of the primary center-left party has not unlocked a surge for the center-right: people want Labour out but they don’t want the Tories in.  In the meantime disaffection with the political system and calls for reform are reaching a fever pitch.

A brief surge in the popularity of independents and other parties seems to be abating, but then there are established fringe forces to turn to: the conservative anti-European UKIP, the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists, and the ultra right-wing BNP.  As yet there isn’t really a well-organized leftist force along those lines, partly because of the defeat of the unions by the Conservatives and the Trotskyists by Labour coupled with the presence of two established, mainstream left parties who can exchange votes between them.

Strangely in a solely first past the post system, like the UK or US, you seem to get more minor and fringe parties than you ever do in a country that actually lets them win.

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

Villepin (left) and Sarkozy (right) - as it were

In France personality politics seem to count for more than ideologies (and really, Gaullism‘s less an ideology than a state of being), but the success of the National Front – they made it to the second-round of the French presidential election in 2002, which saw Jacques Chirac re-elected with 82% by a coalition of mainline conservatives and leftists of all stripes who encouraged a vote for “the crook, not the fascist.”  Though the rare and unexpected success was not repeated two years ago, terrible splits rage through the political class as the Socialists continue to gleefully tear each other apart and the entire ruling class of the governing UMP is embroiled in the Clearstream trial (or, put so much more delicately in its native italics, L’Affair Clearstream).  Clearstream sees the President of the Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, suing the last Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, for allegedly falsifying a document listing Sarkozy as the recipient of a defense kickback.

Such behavior obviously makes off-the-grid candidates like young Communist leader Olivier Besancenot and perennial Franco-German Green Daniel Cohn-Bendit more palatable to the general public. Interestingly 2007 saw a moderate force appear and challenge the two main parties for the presidency, the Democratic Movement under Francois Bayrou; but after failing to endorse either remaining contender and disappointing results in parliamentary and European polls it looks to fizzle.  People can say what they will – nobody votes for a moderate party.

Canada faces an even more daunting prospect.  Unable to form a majority government after three elections in four years, with another looming, the Parliament split between the center-left Liberals and center-right Conservatives is further cleaved by the increasingly left-wing New Democrats and the Quebecois sovereigntist Bloc.  Add atop that a Green Party which polls 10% but doesn’t win a seat and you have a centre-right, and at times quite right-wing, government for whom only about 35% cast a ballot, against left wing votes of something like 52% (and a further 10% who would prefer not to vote in Canada at all).  The continuing inability of Ottawa to form a government is really a consequence of the annihilation of the Progressive Conservatives at the 1993 election, masked for eleven years by outsize Liberal majorities drawn from the resulting chaos.

There’s little prospect of a similar fate for either the new Conservative government or the Liberal opposition – though one might take the selection of a philosopher as their leader to be a sign of some despair – but a snap election today would probably ratify that of the last two polls.  This is no “message” from the people, besides that they don’t much care for anyone they have and don’t think it’s worth voting for anybody they don’t.  Quebec, lacking a separatist majority, is so divided between the mainstream parties that it returns almost uniformly separatist members who wouldn’t take part in any government (despite a half-baked attempt to replace the Tories with a Liberal/NDP coalition with Bloc support, which triggered an extraordinary dissolution of Parliament and a change in the Liberal leadership.

And then there’s the USA.  Our situation is a bit different because of the overwhelming difficulty of altering the basic structure of our government (which assures it’s only been done once or twice, and then relatively minor changes); the non-parliamentary system of government which makes it more difficult to logically tie a Congress together with a government; and the non-ideological political parties.  Make no mistake: Democrats are liberal and Republicans conservative out of convenience.  History is littered with liberal Republicans (and continues to be clogged with conservative Democrats).  Our parties are first and foremost regionalist.

But indeed all of these factors coalesce to make the situation worst of all the others.  Our ossified political system, reflective of an age in which travel, communication and authority were totally different, practically breeds disaffected.  A high rate of abstention is one way.  Another is the recent spate of specifically ideological “independent” (of what?) movements.  Ross Perot and Reform and Ron Paul come to mind most prominently. (But not Ralph Nader; his relationship with the Greens was uncertain at best.)

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

Ron Paul - a new force in politics, like him or lump him

The American system – for reasons totally alien to its practice – tends to suppress most of these movements.  That’s the effect of the primary system: force dissident candidates to fight intraparty elections rather than stand independently or found a new party entirely.  Like most of the progressive reforms of the early 1900s, primaries have had unexpected and almost totally anti-democratic side effects.  (Thanks for that, WJB.  Where was that cross of gold again?)  Not for nothing are the British Conservatives, riven themselves with internal dissent and still broadly unpopular, adopting the primary for their own candidates.

The object then becomes not the creation of new parties but the “capture” of existing ones.  The Democrats and Republicans are subject to an unending series of political, ideological and personal coups as different factions with different priorities attempt to seize control of the party – and through them government – via favored candidates.  (Hence the otherwise inexplicable vitriol on the liberal wing of the party towards Hillary Clinton, not usually thought to be a McCarthyite herself.)  Even these movements are often as geographic or personal as ideological – Nancy Pelosi has ensured the placement of liberal, Californian allies at the head of a number of key committees, even ousting and replacing John Dingell (Michigan – Ann Arbor and Detroit Suburbs) on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But even this broad, non-ideological two-party consensus – encompassing a space which would otherwise be occupied by five or more parties were they ideologically- or geographically-based – has come under increasing strain.  Progressive Democrats are having a harder time governing with conservative Southerners now than at any time since civil rights and the phenomenon of Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber and other populist figures have driven a deep, festering wedge into the Republican ranks.

In some respects this year really has been an extraordinary one.  All of that plus the suggestion by a sitting governor that perhaps secession was legit after all and the inexplicable running battles over health care and climate (60% of the Congress is Democratic, yes?) and it’s no surprise that there’s a bumper crop of independents getting a lot of earlier exposure.

America’s a weird case.  In almost any other country I would say that both parties here are headed for a thumping (and both generally perform poorly in a generic ballot).  But the Constitution was not designed for parties and did not lend us a system that manages the inevitable ones well; and the two major parties have had decades – indeed centuries – to craft everything to their advantage and build up structures necessary to blunt even the best-funded challengers.  (We were speaking of Ross Perot.)  It also hurts that there are little in the way of central party structures; parties are not national affairs as in Europe because America is not a metropolitan country, with a clear center and periphery.  The people – political leaders, staffers, fundraisers – necessary, able and willing to craft any sincere challenge to the political center are not concentrated if they exist at all, and the ideological confrontation required for pieces of one party or the other to collectively defect simply isn’t there.  Animus, even hatred, has not yet translated into intolerance.  Part of that is because American politics is an older man’s game than most.  They are simply not as passionate, or hot-headed, depending on your view.

The party system we have will not last forever; but I can say that only in an abstract historical sense.  It could go on for a hundred years or a thousand or ten or through the day after tomorrow.  I don’t know.  There are signs that it’s corroding, and badly, in a way incomparable to the past – but this isn’t quite unique yet.  I am certain, if nothing else, that discontent with American politics will only continue to grow while the two parties continue their singular dominance of the country.  Don’t be fooled by good turnout recently (and ours still isn’t very good); it’s the break in the fever that foreshadows a renewed attack of the virus.

The bottom line is that it appears, at least to me, that the consensus built after World War II – not ideological, for that departed long ago, but the basic structure of how Western countries allow themselves to be governed – is breaking down.  Record losses for major parties, record gains for minor ones, fringe candidates with growing bankrolls and calls, even here, for broad-based electoral reform.  This evinces an entire hemisphere of people unsatisfied with their legacy.

The common thread seems to be a belief that the major political groups, the parties of government, have sacrificed a coherent, rigorous system of beliefs for the possibility of a vague electoral mandate.  Those parties and figures who reject that path, and prefer to offer an honest explication of their ideology, have begun to surge instead.  (Though in Europe and Canada more than here.)  If the parties of government are going to continue to be that in the future, the horror of triangulation and microtargeting will have to give way.  Ideology must be on offer; not just “real beliefs” or “convictions” coupled with vague platitudes about a stronger future but systems of seeing the world, the civil society, politics and the place of government in them.

Otherwise it will be extremists, unafraid to bare to the world their vision for it, who will benefit. For in a democracy ideological battles are no different than electoral ones: in the end it’s a matter of who chooses to show up.

If you live in the Western world and have at any point crossed paths with a television set, you’ve probably seen, heard or rioted against this classic Kanye West moment:

(N.b. In order to prop up Viacom’s flagging market share this grainy, shitty video will probably be removed in fairly short order. This means you’ll have to do their own research. I trust you.)

Now it would be easy to simply dismiss Kanye as a gay fish, but I won’t.  I’m a sensitive man who understands the soul of the frustrated, lonely multi-platinum recording artist.  Indeed, I dare say Kanye’s story is not as  superficial as it seems. He’s not just some nutty overpaid radio star. Oh no, my friends. Kanye’s doing something here. Something big. Something, dare I say it, historic?

I must tell you first about a favorite philosopher of mine.  His name is Soren Kierkegaard.  His first name is spelt with that fucked-up Danish ‘o’ and I don’t have the patience to look up the alt-code.  But you get the idea.untitledLittle Soren was a strange child – needless to say.  There was a sense of brilliance to him, tinged distinctly with creepiness, perhaps inspired by his selfish siblings who insisted on dying of unpleasant 19th century diseases while Soren was young.  Except his brother. He became a bishop. It’s enough to fuck anybody up.

But eventually little Soren’s parents died and he now had both a solidly middle class upbringing and enough disposable income to avoid real work – as any true philosophical genius must.  And so he set off to make his great works, which challenged the assumptions of his society – and eventually all the world.

Starting to sound familiar?

Try this on for size:

“He writes because for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes.” – Kierkegaard, Either/Or

“I wanna make popular music, but I want less fans.” – Kanye West, Vibe Magazine

Kanye helpfully said that quote while I was in the middle of a second reading of Kierkegaard. It was thoughtful of him. I think it might have been fate.

Because you see, it got me thinking. The work from which that quote was taken, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, was a really obscure attack on the philosophical mores of the time. He charged that it allowed only two ways of living life: engaged “aesthetically” in drinking, carousing, whoring and other assorted douchebaggeries; or “ethically,” which consists of getting married, being bourgeois and dying old with children. But Kierkegaard said no!  There is a third option. In his case it consisted of Jesus, but this was the sort of Jesus in whom belief and love are accepted as absurd and cherished for it. Kind of a bad ass Jesus.

Both you and Coach Carr need to step away from the underage girls.

Both you and Coach Carr need to step away from the underage girls.

In order to communicate this point Kierkegaard wrote stories, not works of philosophy, and made his point through characters of his own creation – all of whom were thinly-veiled puppets himself, buried deep within still more obscure twists and turns. The person referenced by the quote above was one of these, Johannes the Seducer, who busies himself by trotting around Copenhagen stalking, meeting and then seducing underage girls before he unceremoniously dumps them at the end of a six-month period. (Consumer protections have always been strong in Denmark, even if statuatory rape laws have not.) The book is about Johannes’ relationship with Cordelia, a 16 year-old girl. You might be forgiven for mistaking this character for Kierkegaard, who had his heart broken by… a 16 year-old girl.

Johannes the Seducer, Kierkegaard’s doppelganger, acts a lot like Kanye does. Kierkegaard did, too, at least in his youth. Both were devil-may-care; both stirred unending controversy in the media for their public comments; both, despite protesting about wanting fewer readers, could barely contain their word vomit. (Kanye shouts in that blog of his; Kierkegaard published constantly, including a postscript five times longer than the book it followed.)  Both have issues with their treatment of young girls. And both, of course, are deeply concerned about finding their place in a world in which they don’t quite fit, a world with nothing to believe in. Kierkegaard was never really accepted by anybody, or read outside of Denmark before 1900; as for Kanye,  as late as 2005 some of his plastics still said Kayne.

This is how I cracked the code, you see. Kanye is not just an out-of-control narcissistic superstar. He is not just the out-of-control narcissistic superstar. But he’s not doing it simply because he has everything a person could ever want and still finds himself empty, unsatisfied and alone. I mean, he’s not Michael Jackson. (Too soon?)

No. Kanye is in fact out to teach us all a grand lesson. Kanye is in the process of creating from his very own self a living embodiment of the philosophy of Kierkegaard, one that will make Kierkegaard’s own seem petty and silly and in the process shake our very world to its core.

First he attains his greatest success and greatest controversy. He’s young, insecure, desperate to set his place in the world. (Why else his madcap declarations about already being in the history books?) He does everything wrong and nobody likes him even as they recognize his brilliance. But it can’t go on forever, can it?

Him... or Kanye?

West 52, Monkey 48

He’ll have a change of heart, settles down. Pumps out some kids, maybe gets himself elected to Congress? (Don’t you even tut like it’s at all improbable. People in England elected a monkey.) He’s calmed down, got respectable. But he’ll still be missing something, as will we all, deprived of random outbursts of his lyrical genius and social insanity.

That’s when he reaches the third stage – the religious stage. But this isn’t the 1900s, is it? Maybe this isn’t anything like what Kierkegaard wrote. Maybe it won’t involve Jesus at all. I don’t know. Who can know what a genius like Kanye, who has by now transformed his entire life into a very living a work of philosophy and art, the greatest of all time, will develop when the glorious climax of his life explodes into our consciousness? Will he bring upon us an entirely new philosophy? A new religion? Will he, indeed, reveal himself as the Promised Return of Christ himself?

None of us can know where this onrushing epiphany will lead, or indeed when it will happen. None of us can dare to predict. But we can have faith – dear friends, we can know that it will someday come! Because the sheer tonnage of excellence that Kanye revealed last night, the depth and breadth of his long and tortured road into our very souls, cannot be foreseen any more than it can be denied. He is doing something great – just as he has always said. And we’ve never listened!

Kanye will teach us. He will teach us because he loves us… and he loves us because he loves himself.

Amen.

I’ve temporarily run out of steam on soccer, so I guess it’s back to politics.  At least until I can afford to buy an album to review or something.

It seems like I’m not the only one running out of steam.  The fracas festering over the long hot weeks of August has put the health insurance initiative onto the back foot in a serious way.  That culminated over the past weekend with a serious trial balloon put up by senior Obama officials, including Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, that seemed to accept the likelihood of the loss of the “public option.”  Their reward for this suggestion was a few warm words from ex-Democratic Senator Richard Shelby (R – Alabama) and the rekindling of a newer, stronger liberal uprising than even the one I sensed coming in July.  (You can read that slightly-updated post here.)

There is no longer any mincing of words: House Democrats are openly talking about scuttling the ship if it doesn’t carry some kind of government extension of health insurance, and it appears possibly that it’s abandonment could touch off a wave of protests that would make the town halls look like insignificant skirmishes.  This is what I meant about Obama’s potential failure being worse than 1994.  In 94 Democrats blamed Republicans.  If Obama removes the public option, Democrats will blame him.  His people have backed off the notion of dropping a public plan in a real hurry, but even suggesting it openly has been almost as damaging as allowing the bill to wither on the vine in the first place.

The flurry of activity of Obama’s first several months was designed to embolden the party, whose electoral success has left it inexperienced and fractured, while demoralizing Republicans. Before they could finish getting over the election you get the stimulus.  Before you can get a grip on that you get the environment bill.  Before you can finish chewing on that you get health care.  Fast and furious.  This has not been a wasted effort – part of the vitriol you see at town halls is likely pent-up anger amongst hardcore conservatives (and make no mistake that it is hardcore conservatives, not any Nixonian Great Silent Majority, though they ought not be disregarded because of it). But the failure of the town halls, and the failure of the first stage of this battle, is that enough time was left for such anger to coalesce and express.

The reason Obama and his people kept going on about this August deadline was to keep the pressure on and prevent Republicans from getting a grip on the battle.  Up until now the Republicans have been like the French in 1940: getting the shit kicked out of them so badly that they can’t imagine a situation other than having the shit kicked out of them.  This pause is vital time they need to regroup, and they are using it.  In retrospect it was a gift from Obama.  The idea that you can push for Congress to do something-anything, so long as it’s quick, and not actually hand them a bill is a bit ridiculous.  The chaos that followed was eminently predictable, though Nancy Pelosi was swift in marshaling her forces and getting something passed.  Of course as soon as progress looks likely there lies the Senate.

To whit:

House Democrats also are growing increasingly agitated at what they see as the Senate’s outsized role in the health care debate. Liberals are especially wary of the Finance Committee, the only congressional panel that has yet to pass health care legislation and where support for a public plan is weakest.

“The Senate needs to understand that they are one-half of the process, not the entire process,” said Engel. “This is not a matter of [Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max] Baucus or anybody else negotiating a bill, than coming to the House and saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’ That’s not how it works.”

So petrified is the White House of the now automatic Senate filibuster that they’re ready to throw in the towel without anyone actually having voted against it – and despite sixty Democratic votes in the Senate.  This is hardly the first time the once-rare filibuster has conspired to destroy legislation which has clear majority support in both houses.  It ought to be the last.

You may remember that in 2005 there was a big fracas about the so-called “nuclear option.”  Democrats in the Senate had successfully blocked several conservative federal court appointees, and Republican frustration has reached a boiling point.  They proposed a striking (and not-so-unprecedented) manuever: to change the rules of the Senate to forbid a filibuster.  The idea was rather ingenious: matters under filibuster require 60 votes to clear, and a change to the rules of the Senate requires 67, but an opinion of the chair on a point of order under parliamentary procedure may be overruled by a simple majority – 51.  Such a move would create a precedent effectively overturning the cloture rule.

It would have worked like this: a senator makes a point of order asking for an immediate vote to end debate (cloture) by simple majority. The chair – the Vice President or temporary President of the Senate – rules on this point of order;  for this process to work properly they would have to uphold it. A filibusterer (perhaps filibustero) would move to appeal the decision of the chair.  This is a debatable motion. To overcome it an opponent moves to table the appeal, which is not debatable and is voted on via a simple majority.  If the appeal is tabled, the chair’s decision stands and a precedent against the filibuster is created. That precedent would be binding.

Why all this complicated crap?  Because it’s the way the Senate works.  And herein lies the problem.

It’s time to use the nuclear option.  Many Democrats opposed it in 2005 – I can’t remember, but I probably did too – but we’re not talking about a couple of judges on the DC Court of Appeals.  We’re talking about the provision of health care for millions of people.  We’re talking about what Woodrow Wilson called “a little group of willful men” when the first rule against filibustering came about in 1917.  We are talking about a body that, to quote an Australian, most closely resembles a “tinselled abortion of the House of Lords.”  And make no mistake that this is precisely what the Senate has always been and remains today: an attack on popular sovereignty and a frustration to the will of the people, regardless of who is in power.

Senators would resist, you say.  Undoubtedly.  The plans in 2005 were scuppered by a “Gang of 14,” a group of senators who pledged to support a number of appointments, accept opposition to others and vote against the nuclear option, denying it a majority.  But that was four years ago, when Republicans had a 55-45 majority.  A whopping third of the Senate is different than it was then and there are 14 more Democrats.  Of the Gang of 14, four are gone – one to the Obama Administration, one retired and two lost re-election in 2006.  All of those seats are now Democrats.  Even if you include the remaining Democrats from the 14 in opposition to such a move, that’s only 46 votes against a nuclear option – not enough to stop it.  Perhaps some others would buckle; but when you consider the stakes – not a few judges but the centerpiece of the Democratic agenda, on which they were elected with an overwhelming legislative mandate, and which has been a dream of Democrats at every level for 50 years – there is only one right option.

It’s time for a majority to count for something.  Americans do not cast votes for their officials to do nothing, and yet too often that’s exactly what they get.  The Democratic Party said it would be different; it’s time to show it.  And should Republicans take back the Senate, a year from now or three or five?  They will be elected to lead and to govern.  They have the right, and should have the ability, to do so.  This is the democratic principle: that your opponents have as much right to rule as you should they secure a popular mandate.  Sixty votes is nobody’s mandate, which nobody foresaw and which was never writ in any Constitution or charter.  By clinging to it the Senate has become not merely anti-democratic – it always was – but ossified and corrupted by purely negative power.

No more.

[I have been promising this post for a week to as many as five different people.  As it happens it was rather prescient when I first started to compose it.  It will be less impressive as circumstances have overtaken things.  But regardless, Mom, here you go.]

Like most of the three or four cronies and political obsessives I’ve conned into reading this blog, I watched Barack Obama’s press conference on health care a few nights ago and read some of the initial reaction to it.  I suppose we’ll have to wait until new polling numbers come out to get a feel for the whole thing, assuming they say anything useful at all.  (My limited experience is that polls are mostly interested people talking to themselves through the public about their favorite topic while the rest of the country looks on with consternation.)

First a digression.  I have a history of making bad predictions.  I also have a history of making surprising, odd and wildly-successful predictions.  These two phenomena are connected intimately: I’m not afraid to be stupid, which means I can constantly make statements that others will dismiss out of hand but that can occasionally come true in a spectacular way.   All of the dozens of dumb predictions I make are quickly forgotten.  The ones that pan out, for which my batting average is far below randomly choosing from a given set of options, I sing about for months or years.

Not this one.  I’m going to make a bad prediction today: Obama’s health care initiative will fail.  I hope earnestly it’s wrong.  My moral conviction as well as my personal interest agitates against it.  And the systemic factors don’t support it.  Sixty votes in the Senate, two-hundred-and-a-lot in the House, a Republican Party focused principally on Obama’s birth certificate – the variables are good in a way that doesn’t remotely compare to 1994.  That’s part of the reason I think it will fail hard.  This thud will be resounding: forget 1994.

But first, a trip down memory lane

A very intelligent Australian psephologist called Dr Adam Carr coined a phrase about the 2007 election there.  He called it “the Bangkok dilemma“: a situation in which a governing party suffers a loss of credibility to both the electorate at large and its own core supporters.  (Or, in his words, gets screwed at both ends.)  In the service of his core demographic John Howard, the Prime Minister at the time, pursued a deeply unpopular labor relations policy (you remember kids… unions?  No?).  The possibility of it, and his fervor, alienated him from the majority of voters who didn’t much care about unions.  Its ham-handed failure alienated him from his own base.

Dr. Carr diagnosed such a failure properly – it wasn’t that Howard lacked the strength to carry his policy.  It’s that he was strong enough to do it.  Like Obama and the Democrats Howard got a working majority in the Senate for the first time in decades, in part because the opposition was so clumsy that they lost too big.  Like the Democrats, Howard’s legislation was something that was nursed within the party’s deepest darkest heart.  And despite that perfect storm he bungled it such that nobody was willing to trust him anymore.  From then it was only a matter of time.

The not-so-great debate

The not-so-great debate

Fast forward a few months to the middle of 2008.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were embarking on a slugfest for the nomination.  I didn’t have a dog in the race until New Hampshire, a situation I find astonishing eighteen months later.  I eventually picked Clinton for two reasons.  The big one was health care.

Clinton was seasoned on this issue: she’d been as tied up with the 1994 failure as anybody.  To me that meant she learned a valuable lesson about how to see it through next time; was hungry for it; and best of all still wanted a single-payer system.  To me this just made sense.

The idea behind this is that there is a single source for health care expenditure – the goverment. (Technically this is not a monopoly but a monopsony – when a market has only a single buyer.)  You go to doctors, get your medication, etc. etc. and the doctors receive payment from the government.  All the payment comes from one source so the desperate effort by doctors to keep up with most major insurers is rendered unnecessary, and the fact that the government becomes the single purchaser of prescription drugs essentially “captures” the pharmaceutical industry: Latisse is all well and good (and to Wikipedia’s credit it makes this gem look less stupid than it appears on TV) but if the government won’t pay for the drugs there’s a lot smaller market for them.  It incentivizes pressing medical research.

This is a question of what’s wrong with the health care industry.  It’s a failed market.  There are two really egregious types of market failures.  The first is when something of value is not valued.  (For instance, the environment – it’s very important but largely “free,” so pollution etc. goes unchecked.)  The second is when something is dramatically overvalued.  This is what’s up in healthcare.  The traditional supply and demand system doesn’t work in the healthcare industry: practically the only ceiling on peoples’ expenditure is actual ability to pay.  Normally, as the price of a thing increases demand should decrease.  Health care demand is far less elastic – people want it regardless of the cost.  They’ll abstain from buying it only when they absolutely can’t afford it.

This is based on information asymmetry.  My health is very important to me, but I don’t know precisely what I need to maintain it.  (Diet and exercise come to mind, but I’m one to talk.)  In many countries, their reply to this is a combination of strict advertising laws and a government-run health insurance (or health care) system that heavily disincentivizes frivolous and minor medications.  They won’t pay for Latisse, so doctors won’t prescribe it, whether or not I see Brooke Shields pleasantly cascading through a meadow with thick, full lashes. In the United States we lack this guarantee.  There are lots of ads and lots of insurers who’ll pay, because they don’t really pay – we do, in the form of an employer-paid system that comes back to us in the form of a draw on my wages.  Their failure to supply a designer drug to me, who is not well-equipped to determine whether I would ever need Latisse, risks that I’ll take my business elsewhere.  All we have left is the good offices of an agent in the form of a doctor, and then only in the case of prescription drugs, and then only insofar as the doctor is noble.  Many are.  Not all.

This, to the best of my meager understanding, is the problem we face.

Enter hope

Now Barack Obama did not before and continues not to believe in a single payer system.  (He sent mixed messages, because we campaign in poetry, but his positions especially early on were fairly clear on his opposition to a “mandate.”)  This could be and likely was for a number of reasons.  Conviction that the government shouldn’t bully insurers and their employees out of their own market.  Fear of a replay of 1994 on the same terms.  Concern about the cost of fully insuring the entire country.  Question whether it’s necessary to give insurance to those without through getting rid of everybody else’s.  Whatever.

Now I get that.  Totally redoing the entire American health insurance system is not something you snap your fingers and order.  It’s a massive technical, legal and logistical effort, even if you make no change to the physical provision of health care.  (This fascinating article by a former Amazon.com technology manager makes clear the difficulty of solving issues far less fraught.)  But then this is why I elect representatives in our form of a democratic system: complexity is not my problem.  My concern is what gets done, especially since it’s my responsibility to help him see it through. (And I thought I was just a nutcase posting on a dingy little corner of the internet.)

Tinfinger?

Tinfinger?

But the initial hearings lacked even a single advocate for a single-payer option.  The responsibility of this falls to Senator Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who is explicitly and vociferously opposed to a single-payer solution. In the House single-payer did get a hearing, if not in front of Appropriations, which makes the Senate’s omission all the more glaring.  It’s the Senate, not the House, in which this bill is really going to have trouble.  You’d think that more “deliberative” body would be more careful in its deliberations.

The fallback to single-payer has become the “public option.”  This is essentially a mandate that everybody be covered combined with the ability to sign up for Medicare or some new government-created system as part of a constellation of the usual choices.  (Blue Cross et al.)  The rationale is that those who already have their insurance and like it, which hype would have it is a significant percentage of people, can keep them.  Those who don’t can sign up for the government brand.  There are a number of variations involved, partly because a number of different committees are working on several different bills.  (They have a term for this in the Army.)

This “public option” itself is what is under heavy contention right now.  Though it’s quite vague, there’s not much question of taking anything away from anybody: no rationing boards or British doctors with bad teeth and breath coming to tell you that your four-month old son can’t have a lung transplant because he ought to buck up and be more manful about the whole thing.  These are right-wing phantasms which are to the best of my knowledge unfounded.  However, that does not mean criticism of the public option is unfounded.  The Bush-era chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (and familiar face from introductory college textbooks), N. Gregory Mankiw, posted the following on his blog.  It is as incisive as it is brief.

Would the public plan have access to taxpayer funds unavailable to private plans?

If the answer is yes, then the public plan would not offer honest competition to private plans. The taxpayer subsidies would tilt the playing field in favor of the public plan. In this case, the whole idea of a public option seems to be a disingenuous route toward a single-payer system, which many on the left favor but recognize is a political nonstarter.

If the answer is no, then the public plan would need to stand on its own financially and, in essence, would be a private nonprofit plan. But then what’s the point? If advocates of a public plan want to start a nonprofit company offering health insurance on better terms than existing insurance companies, nothing is stopping them from doing so right now. There is free entry into the market for health insurance. If a public plan without taxpayer support would succeed, so would a nonprofit insurance company. The fundamental viability of the enterprise does not depend on whether the employees are called “nonprofit administrators” or “civil servants.”

The bottom line: If the goal is honest competition in the provision of health insurance, the public option cannot do much good but can potentially do much harm. (emphasis mine)

Half of the reason I’ve always favored the single-payer option is that I don’t think a free market is the best way of regulating health care, especially in terms of breadth of coverage.  The other half is basic politeness: you stab someone in the front.  In this case the target is an entire industry, that of the health insurance, and I think it only sporting to fax them a death warrant first.

But Mankiw hits it right on the head.  Either the government will open just another insurance company, and let it go its merry way (sound familiar?) or it will create a super company that will drive the rest of the industry to the rocks.  What’s to prevent the insurance industry using its clout to secure delicious sweetheart buyouts from the government, or bailouts to prop up their service (competition is our watchword in the public option, after all)?  Worse still – what’s to prevent it simply being a gift to the private insurance companies through the ability to shuck off all the sickest and most vulnerable clients, passing them to the government at public expense?  It will be much like the “toxic assets” bank created in the bailout – only what will be toxic are people.

In short, the public option would likely mean either that we’d kill insurance or insurance would kill us.  At worst it’s dishonest; at best it’s bringing a knife to a gunfight.  When we own a tank.

Change – need we?

At least the public option would do something.  Now it looks like that, too, has run aground.

The Obama Administration’s tactic when confronted with opposition has been, thus far, the primetime press conference.  Why they prefer this to an Oval Office address is rather beyond me: but in every case until this one it worked.  Measures were passed, ranks massed, and the Congress stable, if hardly peaceful.  His latest press conference manifestly failed on that score.  His performance was widely panned and about ten minutes into watching it I found myself more interested in his choice of tie (and that of the reporters) than what he was saying.  It’s not that he was saying something too complicated.  It’s that he wasn’t saying anything.  (Except about the Gates arrest, in which he got the only good line of the night before promptly putting his foot in it.  This may have helped him, in a weird way – but not enough.)

And now comes the other half of our dilemma.  Leaving health care to the relatively conservative Baucus in an effort to ensure conservatives were suitably placated was bad enough, but now powerful House Democrats under the leadership of Mr. Waxman (D – California-Hollywood and Beverly Hills), who have generally enjoyed the support of the Obama Administration, appearready to abandon even the “public option.”  The result?

A left-wing uprising.  Which I was going to have predicted last week.  And to think I could have sounded so smart.

General Gordon at Khartoum

General Gordon at Khartoum

Even Barney Frank (D – Massachusetts-Brookline and Southwest Massachusetts), no particular legislative rabblerouser he, has declared that he is perfectly willing to do to the Administration and Waxman what the so-called “Blue Dogs” have: stall it.  Perhaps even kill it, from the sound of things.  And why shouldn’t they?  Why should liberals and left-wingers, who make up the bulk of the party, allow themselves to be run roughshod over by Southern and Western conservatives – many of whom the majority can afford to lose?  If they can look past party to their convictions – and I do not mean to suggest that the Blue Dogs do anything but this – there is no reason liberals shouldn’t either.  Many of them barely swallowed the abandonment of single payer in the name of progress.  This is too much.

At the end of the Politico article already quoted, one congressman remarked that at least “The progressives are in the room now.”  Why weren’t they before?  There are almost half-again as many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus as there are of the Blue Dog Coalition.  The answer is that they were treated as a foregone conclusion, despite having one of their own in the Speaker’s chair.  If you had to ask me what the terminal mistake of this process so far has been, it is that.  The Blue Dogs may yet get their way – but at immense public cost and possibly at the risk of the Democratic majority.  And should an electoral drubbing follow, they will pay with their offices.  Perhaps then they will wish the march to socialism had lived up to its brutally effective reputation.

Alas, Babylon

At this point I have little reason to believe things will get this far.  Delay is inevitable.  That isn’t in itself bad – but the fact that the price of the Blue Dogs have been the entirety of the House liberals, as evidenced by the collective outrage of very senior Democrats there, puts paid to the idea that the recess will allow time for a new consensus to emerge.  This was a compromise worthy of King Solomon.  Sadly.

If such difficulty exists in organizing the House to pass health care (and given the similar activities of Senator Baucus in the other place), what chance is there of mustering the votes necessary in the Senate, where the bar is higher, the margin of error lower and the leader there, as I have heard it put, “gun shy”?  They have little reason to act if the House merely scrapes together a bill, and certainly none if they don’t.

Meanwhile the Republicans in both chambers, small in number though they may be, have the negative at their backs: the opposition doesn’t need to provide an alternative.  They just have to dislike the plan.  Sometimes being the “party of No” is all you can, and should, do.  As Napoleon remarked: “Never interrupt your enemy while he’s making a mistake.”

So here we are.  And here lies my terrible prediction: that health care will fail.  Except perhaps it’s not so terrible.  Perhaps this has turned into such boondoggle that failure is the best we can hope for now.  For any good liberal this is a “die in the ditch” moment.  A health care bill that fails to provide health care to people that can’t get it, in a way the private sector can’t give it, is not worth having.  I say this as someone who is without.  I say this as someone whose family is without.  Not that it really matters.

The lesson of the Clinton failure was to avoid completely centralizing a major legislative effort.  The lesson of the Obama failure will be not to pretend you can split the difference when the extreme, however unpalatable, has the benefit of being decisive; and not to trust Congress with your major legislative effort.  That’s a shame, but it is also a fact.  Here’s another: opposition means never having to say you’re sorry.  Government means never being able to.

Then again, I make lots of bad predictions.  I can only hope this is one of those.

I guess.

[UPDATE: Apparently initial efforts to delay the crucial votes and convince the Progressives have been unsuccessful.  Shockingly.]

There was a brief write-up on Huffington Post two days ago of an article about the exclusion of economist Joseph Stiglitz from the Obama Administration. It came with a response by Paul Krugman on his Times blog.  I’ve surprisingly managed (and perhaps sadly) to make it through four years of college without having to get at Globalization and Its Discontents, so his exclusion is perhaps less grating to me than to Krugman.  But I found Krugman’s notion that Stiglitz represents the exclusion of an entire universe of thought – namely “progressive economics,” which I think a fair paraphrase – to be a rather provocative one. It’s a very funny notion that is derived from the fact that economics is – and always has been – a schizophrenic discipline.  It doesn’t know precisely what it wants to be. It ends up not being very much at all. And yet…

Economics was originally a philosophical discipline.  (Adam Smith was termed a philosopher before “economics” was coined as a term.  The first person to apply economics is supposed to be a man called Thales who decided to sweep away the illusion of philosophers as airy thinkers and give hope to generations of students full of useless ideas by using reason to corner the market on olives for a year.  Fat lot of good it did.)  It was at about the same time as the decline of a philosophical tradition called British empiricism.  In the 16th century the great debate was whether and to what extent people were born with knowledge or learned what they knew from experience.  Logic and mathematics were especially troublesome, since they seemed to just make sense.  The British empiricists believed, broadly, that only experience could teach us anything and that we were born only with a blank mind and our senses.  Their opponents with the rationalists, a continental group that believed we’re born with a sense of reason and experiences are only a series of events we tie together.  This triggered a dispute that continues to this day – and, not coincidentally, fractured on religious and national lines.

British empiricism did not survive as a system of knowledge, but with a temporary truce occasioned by Immanuel Kant (the pronunciation of whose name it is very important to treat with care) it survived into Adam Smith’s time.  And indeed the principles of empiricism and its successor analytic philosophy are all over economics – the rejection of certainty and of principles prior to experience, the preference for logic and mathematics above ethics and ontology (the study of “being”), and the rejection (ironically) or “irrational” impulses such as emotion.  Both became popular in Britain and the United States as they became the workshops of the world (and indeed the natural offshoot of classical economics, capitalism, has always been most popular in the Anglophone world.)  And in this capitalist heartland both economics and analytic philosophy continue to thrive.

But herein lies the problem: people don’t treat economics as a philosophy.  They treat it as a science. This is true as much of economists as of laypeople – as these articles, “High Priests and Lowly Philosophers: The Battle Over the Soul of Economics” and “Post-Autistic Economics,” suggest.  The message, approached in radically divergent manners in each article, is that economics as a discipline has been susceptible to co-optation by economists who advise on areas far outside their specific “technical” expertise, using their supposed understanding of the market to push a certain agenda. This turns not on the study of but faith in economics.  In the former the critique is of economists of the Neo-Keynesian school; in the latter it is of neo-classicists like Hayek (i.e. the right). In both cases a false air of certainty is assumed to promote what is essentially a system of ideological beliefs.

This is an entire novelty. In no “hard science” is ideology such an overwhelming issue as it is in economics, and in no hard science are those questions of ideology so irrelevant to the esteem in which the discipline itself is held.  (Can you imagine any Sokal Affair in economics, any similar rebellion against the presence of ideology period?)  None of the social sciences have effectively emulated economics’ grip on the public consciousness, either, though they are just as politicized and bitterly divided.  Political scientists, scholars of international relations, anthropologists etc. all deploy extensive models and statistical sets to make their points, but all are received with a patient nod and relative indifference to the public and the political class.

This is as it should be: ideas should slowly percolate through society to ensure that impurities are removed.  Yet economics has successfully removed this social filter, so any economist can – and will – go on television and pronounce loudly about The Way Things Are.  Worse than merely reserving unto themselves a privileged position in the debate on economic issues – which in the modern era have become all issues – economists have attempted and largely succeeded at removing them from the public sphere entirely.

Gone are the days when President Truman lamented the lack of “one-armed economists.” Instead we patiently and expectantly receive their pronunciamentos and, unlike any other intellectual discipline, they are separately polled about issues of public policy.  They get access that intellectuals in other fields could never dream of to the corridors of power. And their “expertise” effectively subverts not merely the rigor of their own discipline but the proper place of the market itself as subordinate to society. It is hard not to compare the economistic class to the religious leadership in Iran: they allow debate – as long as it does not deviate from the basic structure of the state (in this case, post World War II era market capitalism). Certanly this is not true of all. But it is true of enough of them.

It is in this context that Krugman cries out for “progressive” economists: essentially he seeks economists who will perhaps not take quite so slavish a line to traditional dogma and who will be effective at publicly backing up their assertions with some degree of certainty in the same way of the rest. He is lamenting an ideological hole in what is supposed to be an investigative and deliberative “scientific” discipline, built around careful examination of lived experience rather than endless speculation. This is the grand irony: the origin of economics in iconoclastic, atheistic and experiential British empirical philosophy has come full circle to brook a demand for exemplars of this sort of a priori certainty. Economists fell into just the trap that always plagued philosophy: assuming that their sense of reason was not simply better attuned but different from others’.

But economics is not different. It’s not a science. It is a “lowly philosophy,” and as the economic students at the Ecole Superiuere and elsewhere protested, much of its recourse to arcane models and Byzantine mathematics is designed not to enlighten but to obscure and facilitate endless appeals to authority: it is a sophistry on a grand scale. And despite the efforts of occasional Socrates figures in the economic community fighting this priestly class we have found ourselves in this situation, one in which our illusions have been shattered as comprehensively as at any time since Watergate – or indeed the Holocaust.

What we believe has been proved a lie: that economists knew has been proved a lie. This is the same phenomenon politicians suffered in the US and Britain after the 70s so earnestly documented by Adam Curtis in his documentary The Trap. A basic tenet of recent political history has been the monetarist assumption that politicians, like everybody else, are self-interested and not to be trusted. Somehow pointing that out seems to have exempted economists from the same assumption in the public mind. No longer. As usual the political class is bringing up the rear in this realization, but they too will come around. Then what of the temple and all its priests?

So no, thank you, Paul.  I’d not like a progressive economics.  Not, at least, until economists understand – or are made to understand – exactly what the capabilities and limitations of their discipline are.  It is bad enough to be confronted with specious vodou practitioners attempting to sell me a dogma thoroughly distasteful to me based on the fact that I cannot understand them: I positively refuse to commend the sale of my own beliefs utilizing the same disingenuous tactics. If Obama is going out of his way to avoid employing “progressive” economists, I’m glad. I hope desperately that his administration will not be guided by the advice of any economists, anymore than they would let decisions be made for them by a panel of lowly philosophers. At least philosophers know who they are.