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On Conservatism

In a 1975 interview with the libertarian magazine Reason, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan said:

If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

As President Reagan notes, the meanings of the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have changed, depending on the time and place. Even as recent as the past few decades, the terms have generally evolved, with many Republicans who were formerly considered ‘conservatives’ now known as RINOS (or, ‘Republicans In Name Only’ — a term that questions their ‘conservative credentials.’).

So then, what actually defines what Americans would today call ‘conservatism’? And what does that definition tell us about current political events in the United States?

In this post, we’re going to define and describe contemporary conservatism by discussing economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek’s 1960 essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” (taken from his book The Constitution of Liberty).* After that, we’re going to use this definition to look at both current events and the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism in America today.

In that particular essay, Hayek discusses his opposition to being labeled a conservative, preferring instead ‘liberal’ in the classical sense (today’s readers would call him a ‘libertarian,’ though he rejects that term as too “manufactured”). True, he notes, today’s classical liberals often find themselves voting for the conservative party (in this case, the Republicans) — but this is more of an alliance borne from common opposition to modern liberalism (the term commonly used today to describe left-of-center ideals, generally found in the Democratic Party).

Hayek goes on to define conservatism (through comparison with classical liberalism) as an ideology characterized by:

  1. Resistance to change (and thus opposition to modern liberalism),
  2. Fondness of authority, and similarly,
  3. Defense of established hierarchies,
    a. (Revealing itself through, among other things, imposition of moral/religious beliefs and norms)
  4. Obscurantism
  5. Nationalism (or, more specifically, anti-internationalism)
    a. Imperialism

I should stress that this summary does not do justice to Hayek’s piece, and while I will dig a bit deeper below, you really should read his original essay.

The most basic point Hayek makes about conservatism (and the one that underpins each of the five points listed above) is that it is an ideology opposed to change. This is reflected in the movement’s very title, which implies that its adherents wish to ‘conserve’ the familiar.

The underlying aversion to change plays out as a defense of established authority (which generally seeks to uphold the status quo and advocates for ‘law and order’ policies) and outright rejection of facts that may challenge that authority (be it religious or political). This later point is the ‘obscurantism’ mentioned above, and it is interesting to note the example Hayek uses to explain it:

I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution or what are called “mechanistic” explanations of the phenomena of life because of certain moral consequences which at first seem to follow from these theories, and still less with those who regard it as irrelevant or impious to ask certain questions at all.

 

By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position… Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

Hayek’s essay, of course, was published in 1960 — but even today, conservatives remain quite skeptical of science. In 2012, four of the GOP’s eight contenders from the presidential nomination (Perry, Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum) rejected evolution in favor of creationist views, while a whopping 58 percent of registered Republicans believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

Republican voters and candidates are similarly skeptical of other positions that may challenge an established worldview but are nonetheless backed by scientific consensus, such as global warming.

The key point here is not that Republican voters (and here I am using ‘Republican’ in the implicit understanding that today’s Republican party is the conservative party) are ‘stupid’ or even anti-science. I do not think they are stupid, and I only think some of them are anti-science insofar as that science challenges their defense of the status quo. After all, Democrats in the 1800s (who were, at that time, the conservative party in the United States) were more than happy to justify the subjugation of African Americans through appeals to the ‘scientific theories‘ of the day.

The conservative resistance to change also shows itself through simultaneous anti-internationalism and imperialism.

On the prior, Hayek argues:

It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Again, his words remain relevant today. Consider the nationalistic rhetoric GOP officials employ to excite their base. Or the foreign terms they use to criticize their opponents’ policies (the phrase “European-style” comes to mind). The implication, of course, is that such policies are inherently bad simply because they are ‘un-American.’ Hayek, on the other hand, urges addressing policy proposals on their merit, regardless of their country of origin. (As an interesting aside, the association of conservatism with nationalist sentiment seems to be so strong that simply exposing voters to the stars and stripes appears to make them more likely to vote Republican.)

Take this notion that conservatism is distrustful of that which is foreign and then consider Hayek’s contention that “the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes,” and we arrive at Hayek’s charge of imperialism. In other words, conservatism’s tension with foreign ideas causes it to attempt to forcibly impose its owns ideals on other nations.** Hayek argues strongly for the marketplace of ideas, maintaining that conservatism’s fear of the unfamiliar leads to the kinds of democracy promotion now associated with neoconservatism.

[T]he more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he tends to regard it as his mission to “civilize” others – not by the voluntary and unhampered intercourse which the [classical] liberal favors, but by bringing them the blessings of efficient government.

I would argue that this passage provides a fairly apt description of modern Republican foreign policy, with the Bush Administration’s pursuit of democratization through military force being one obvious example. Additionally, opinion polls reveal that conservative voters tend to hold foreign policy views in sync with Hayek’s description. For instance, registered Republicans generally see Islam and democracy as incompatible and see conflict between Islamic countries and the West as inevitable.

This brings us to our next point regarding Hayek’s definition of conservatism: religious authority. Remember that Hayek roots conservative philosophy in resistance to change and, accordingly, fondness of established authorities; for many, there is no higher an established authority than their particular religious beliefs. Here, both classical and modern liberals favor the view that religion should not factor into policy decisions.

The conservative, in contrast, often defends governmental policies that publicly preserve (or even promote) society’s dominant religious beliefs. Liberal efforts to maintain a “wall of separation” between church and state are thus seen by conservatives as an attack on the established order, rather than an attempt to maintain equality before the state.

Consider gay marriage, to take one example:

  • The average conservative would likely oppose gay marriage on the grounds that it violates religion and tradition. Accordingly, they would generally view it as an attack on an established religious and moral code.
  • The average modern liberal would likely favor marriage equality on the basis of maintaining equality of opportunity before the state. They would reject the idea that religious codes should play a role in defining which group of people should be able to claim state-conferred benefits.
  • The average classical liberal would likely say that marriage should be a purely private matter altogether. The government should neither recognize marriages, nor provide benefits on a basis of marriage.

Those positions are, admittedly, grossly simplified; each ideology has a number of subgroups and individuals with differing opinions. Still, the basic point stands: in general, conservatism feels threatened by modern liberalism’s perceived attack on established social and cultural institutions.

This plays into the suspicion of science (discussed above) as well. First, as religious explanations of natural phenomena are (for many conservatives) the established authority, any scientific claims that challenge them are seen as threatening. Hayek also describes conservative distrust of science as a tension between the fear of the unknown and the allure of certainty offered by established authority.

What I have described as the [classical] liberal position shares with conservatism a distrust of reason to the extent that the [classical] liberal is very much aware that we do not know all the answers and that he is not sure that the answers he has are certainly the rights ones or even that we can find all the answers.

 

He also does not disdain to seek assistance from whatever non-rational institutions or habits have proved their worth. The [classical] liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him.

Despite these various differences between the classical liberal and the conservative, Hayek acknowledges their political alliance (think Ron Paul’s alliance with conservatives in the Republican Party, though he is a libertarian). This alliance, however, is viable only because “it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions.” In other words, the history of a policy or institution seems largely to define the conservative position, while it is largely irrelevant to the classical liberal. Rather, their alliance results from the fact that classical liberals are able to frame their preferred policies as a defense of traditional society, and their mutual dislike of modern liberalism.

Now, view all of this in light of the last four years.

Discontent with the status quo (The Afghanistan/Iraq Wars, the Great Recession, the post-9/11 security state apparatus, a dysfunctional health care system, etc…) swept Democrats into the executive and legislative branches of government in 2008. Rejected and fractured, the Republicans were able to regroup and form a unified front against the Obama Administration.

This is key: the Republicans’ organizing principle was not a platform of alternative policies but, rather, opposition to any policies that President Obama and congressional Democrats advocated — despite the fact that many of them (health care reform, cap and trade, the DREAM Act, etc…) were policies that Republicans either created or previously supported. By characterizing the president’s policies as a foreign attack on traditional America (and even decrying the president himself as foreign, through the ‘birther conspiracy’), the conservatives were able to reinvigorate themselves at a time when the modern liberals had greater political momentum.

But that is only part of the story. The other, crucial part recognizes role the ascendant Tea Party played as a hybrid libertarian-conservative movement that espoused libertarian ideals through appeals to conservatism. But let’s walk that back a little and approach it a bit slower.

First, we should recognize that Hayek essentially lays the groundwork for this in his essay. He discusses his problems with the traditional Political Spectrum Line (seen below) that places modern liberals on the left (he calls them ‘socialists,’ though I would disagree with this label), conservatives on the right, and classical liberals somewhere in between.

Hayek believes this line diagram misstates the three ideologies’ relationships by assuming that classical liberalism is caught between modern liberalism and conservatism. In its place, he offers a triangular diagram (seen below) in which all three ideologies occupy a distinct space.

In order to fully understand this, we must recall Hayek’s argument that conservatism is defined by its defense of the status quo. Thus, in Hayek’s diagram, conservatism does not move in any particular direction. Rather, it only offers resistance to the opposing directions of modern liberalism and classical liberalism. Whichever side pulls harder dominates the political scene, with conservatism merely slowing (rather than halting) the march in that direction. Hayek goes on to say that as modern liberalism has, to date, pulled harder than classical liberalism, it has set the agenda (that is why, in the diagram above, conservatism is being pulled in the direction of modern liberalism).

“[T]he main point about [classical] liberalism,” Hayek writes, “is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.” Yet because the libertarian movement in America has generally existed (in politics) as a faction in the Republican coalition, it for years had to be largely content with helping them pull against modern liberalism.

Since Hayek’s essay was originally published, however, libertarians have increasingly employed a strategy of historical revisionism in order to exert a stronger pull on the conservatives. As implied by Hayek’s political spectrum diagram, after a certain amount of time, the policies of whichever ideology’s pull is stronger become established American institutions.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Social Security. When President Eisenhower took office, numerous Republicans wanted a wholesale repeal of the New Deal. But a sea change had occurred, and post-1930s conservatism was defending a different status quo than pre-1930s conservatism. As a result, Eisenhower took to defending the New Deal programs that had been broadly accepted, and was satisfied to reign in the excesses.

From a letter Eisenhower wrote to his brother in 1954:

Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it.

 

 

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

The first sentence of that second paragraph is noteworthy because eliminating those programs is precisely the aim of the libertarian movement. The obvious problem they faced was the same one Eisenhower mentions in his letter: should libertarians have tried to implement such an agenda, it would have been so unpopular (with both modern liberal and conservative voters), that “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”

A mere 10 years later, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would be attacked by President Lyndon Johnson for suggesting an overhaul of Social Security that most feared would be a step toward dismantling the program (see video below). Goldwater, it should be said, held distinctly libertarian views on domestic and economic issues (such as repealing labor laws and civil rights legislation), though his foreign policy was more conservative.

This Time article from that election observed that Social Security, “so long accepted by so many, has become a red-hot issue in a presidential campaign for the first time in 28 years.” [emphasis mine] The article notes the broad consensus reached between modern liberals and conservatives about Social Security, and their common opposition to Goldwater’s libertarian views on the subject.

Just what are the merits of Goldwater’s notion of voluntary social security? Most authorities, whether liberal or conservative, or whether in or out of government, agree that it is totally impractical.

Even though, since New Hampshire, Goldwater has virtually purged the word “voluntary” from his vocabulary, it has not done much good… Like it or not, it seems that Barry is going to have a tough time convincing voters that he did not mean what he said before he was sorry he said it.

[emphasis mine]

In 1964, Goldwater was decisively defeated by Johnson, the latter garnering 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. Worries about Goldwater’s stance on established institutions like Social Security undoubtedly contributed to this landslide, along with anxieties about Goldwater’s aggressive foreign policy rhetoric.

The circumstances that resulted in the creation of the official Libertarian Party also emphasize its fervent opposition to Republicans’ defense of the post-New Deal status quo. The Libertarian Party was founded in America in 1971 — during the Republican presidency of Richard Nixon. In fact, it was Nixon’s own actions, imposing wage-price controls and ending the gold standard, that prompted the formation of the party.

So, if conservatives accepted (and even defended!) programs like Social Security along with modern liberals, how could the libertarian movement overcome that kind of broad consensus?

Well, the first step in overcoming a broad consensus is to chip away at it. And the easiest way for the libertarian movement to do that is to recruit as many conservatives to its cause as possible. Remember that one of the differences between classical liberals (or libertarians) and conservatives is that the prior feels no loyalty for traditional policies and institutions simply on the basis of tradition. They (as with modern liberals) have little qualms about overhauling or changing existing policies and structures, whereas conservatives feel an affinity for what has already been established.

A basic strategy, under these circumstances, would be to redefine what is traditional and established, in order to court conservative support. This is exactly what has happened. Take the Tea Party as a more recent case study of this type of tactic. The need to reclaim lost traditions and re-establish the Founders’ America is a unifying theme of the Tea Party. By contrasting an imagined ‘Golden Age’ with a today in which traditional American institutions have been defiled or destroyed, the more libertarian wing of the Republican Party is able to exert a greater pull toward its own direction (as per Hayek’s Political Spectrum diagram).

This strategy rests, to a large extent, on historical revisionism. The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of thinkers that ranged from those (like Thomas Jefferson) who argued for a weak central government to those (like Alexander Hamilton) who argued for a strong one. They could not agree with each other while they lived, but some people today nevertheless wish to bestow upon them a manufactured consensus. The Constitution was not drafted by gods convening to create a perfect government, but by a group of incredibly brilliant men who disagreed about almost everything.

It may surprise some people to learn that Alexander Hamilton argued for a Congress elected for life, that James Madison considered giving Congress the ability to veto state laws, or that George Washington had his doubts that the Constitution would last more than a few decades. Given the controversy Obamacare’s individual mandate has caused, few people probably realize that both George Washington and John Adams signed health care mandates during their presidencies.

Thus, the very idea of a “Golden Age” is fundamentally flawed. Someone was always disappointed. Each of the Founders had different ideas about the proper role and size of government — and we are still debating these same issues today.

This strategy of redefining established institutions as un-American and unwise impositions in order to build a stronger coalition between conservatives and libertarians is, of course, not new. But the past four years has seen its use expand rapidly, as the coalition unified against the Obama Administration. Energy from opposition to new and unfamiliar policies (like Obamacare) was harnessed to redefine and attack formerly established ones (like, say, unemployment compensation and Social Security).

This is a very rough indicator, but Google searches (top line) and news stories (bottom line) using the word ‘unconstitutional’ soared during the 2010 midterms, and have remained high since.

Unfortunately, the term ‘unconstitutional’ is often misused, because deploying it is seen as a quick and easy way to question whether something is American. After all, the Constitution defines the lawful role of government in America, so deeming something ‘unconstitutional’ is saying that it is contrary to America’s founding document.

Here are a list of established programs and institutions Rep. Ron Paul believes are unconstitutional:

And here are the corresponding Supreme Court cases declaring every single one of these to be constitutional:

This is just a sampling, too. There are numerous other programs, policies, and institutions that are decried as unconstitutional by various other representatives and public figures. To offer just one more example, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senate in Alaska in 2010, Joe Miller, said that unemployment compensation was unconstitutional. (It’s not.) As an aside, Miller lost the race after the Republican incumbent he had unseated in the primary launched a successful write-in campaign.

Of course, a common refrain one hears when raising the fact that the Supreme Court has found all of these to be quite constitutional is that the court itself has been corrupted and its rulings are thus somehow invalid.

This ignores the fact that a body must exist to interpret the Constitution’s meaning when questions or disagreements arise. That body is the Supreme Court. To refer again to the Eisenhower letter quoted earlier:

I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is.

Eisenhower goes on to say that though some Supreme Court decisions “have been astonishing to me,” he cannot ignore or change them. A constitutional amendment is necessary to do that, in lieu of the court overturning its own ruling. Neither of these options are impossible, though they are difficult to achieve. A constitutional amendment provided for the income tax, for instance, after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional (Ron Paul still believes the income tax is unconstitutional, despite the fact it is now part of the Constitution). And the famous Brown v. Board of Education ruling, ending segregation in public schools, overturned the court’s earlier Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”) ruling.

For those that employ this strategy (such as the Tea Party), though, accuracy seems secondary to achieving policy objectives — because achieving those objectives necessarily requires a broader coalition involving conservatives, which in turn requires recasting established institutions and policies as unconstitutional impositions. To do this, historical accuracy must be sacrificed.

One final observation. Although conservative economic views can be enlisted to the libertarian cause by redefining what is traditional and familiar, conservative social views are much more difficult to manage because they are generally rooted in religion. Because the conservative believes religious codes should be the basis of governance while the libertarian believes that what little government they find permissible should remain neutral, it is very difficult (if not impossible) for the latter to recruit the former to his social views. Conservatives may be content to join libertarians against the idea of even a minimal social safety net if they think it represents creeping socialism, but they are averse to the idea of accepting things like full repeal of drug laws, abortion as a personal choice, and equal rights for homosexuals.

This divide has the potential to poison the libertarian-conservative coalition. Hayek notes this, writing that the average conservative “has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” Since the conservative bases his political beliefs in what he considers ‘the highest authority’ (polls show a significant number of Republicans cite religion as the most important factor influencing social views), he is unable to tolerate those that disagree with those political beliefs.

Accordingly, many libertarians downplay their social views, accepting that they must be sacrificed in order to achieve a broader coalition with the conservatives on important economic issues. Early on, the Tea Party purposefully eschewed social issues in favor of economic ones. And while the Tea Party eventually did begin to engage social issues, it always did so in a conservative fashion, maintaining the coalition.

Finally, let us return to President Reagan’s 1975 interview with Reason magazine. At the beginning of this post, I quoted Reagan as saying that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” One should keep in mind that as this was an interview with a libertarian magazine during a time in which Reagan was courting the Republican presidential nomination, his words were likely crafted carefully to appeal to the libertarian vote.

That said, even if Reagan was embellishing a little by calling libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism,” his general point about the modern relationship of the two ideologies still stands. He follows up with this:

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.

Perhaps, but the destination has largely been determined by the libertarians.

FOOTNOTES

*As much as I may disagree with F.A. Hayek’s Austrian economic theories (and, accordingly, the governmental policies he advocates — though, it should be said, his views are more reconcilable with the mainstream than Mises’), I nonetheless appreciate his writings.

**To clarify, the contemporary Democratic Party’s foreign policy has similar goals of democratization, but does not focus as much on military intervention as on diplomatic efforts and ‘sticks and carrots’ (that is, punishments and rewards to push countries toward adopting preferred policies). To the extent that they support military intervention, it is usually in favor of limited humanitarian intervention. Hayek, of course, rejects both.

 

The Ideology of Superman: Morning in America

This is Part 4 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–MORNING IN AMERICA–

The blockbuster comic event Crisis on Infinite Earths wiped the DC Universe’s slate clean in 1986-1987, allowing writer John Byrne to rebuild the character from the ground up. Byrne stripped Superman down to his core elements, while simultaneously building up a large and strong supporting cast. For the first time since Denny O’Neil’s attempt in the 1970s, Superman’s power levels were reigned in. The Man of Steel was still strong, but he no longer boasted every conceivable power.

Byrne also shifted the Clark Kent-Superman dynamic, writing Superman as the alter ego for Clark Kent. Many previous interpretations had portrayed the bumbling Clark Kent as the mask and the strong, confident Superman as the true identity. Byrne reversed this, making Kent confident and successful, and emphasizing Superman as the “mask.”

Clark Kent was re-imagined as a more confident character.

Confidence was returning not only to Kent, but to America as well. Fed Chairman Paul Volker determinedly wrung inflation out of the U.S. economy, while large, simultaneous tax cuts and ramped-up government spending stimulated the stagnant economy (creating huge deficits in the process). Unemployment was dropping and the economy was picking up steam. It was, as Ronald Reagan proclaimed, “morning in America.”

Both Superman and the United States had weathered the turbulence of the 197os and emerged more self-assured, in a more stable environment. John Byrne’s new Superman universe would persist until the late 2000s, when DC’s latest blockbuster event, Flashpoint, would re-launch the character’s books. Tellingly, this same general period parallels the prolonged economic stabilization that followed the U.S.’s defeat of high inflation, and the ascendancy of Washington’s neoliberal consensus. (The neoliberal consensus, broadly, refers to general agreement during this period over issues like deregulation and the lowering trade barriers.) Both periods began in the 1980s and lasted until the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Of course, this period also saw its share of changes. New creative teams would introduce or remove characters, and take the Superman books in different directions. Retcons (or “retroactive continuity” — essentially when a later comic book retroactively changes something about past continuity) were many and frequent. Likewise, American society would experience the AIDS crisis, the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the contentious 2000 presidential election, the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and much, much more. But all of these various events took place in the broader context of a political period ushered in by the Reagan presidency, and thrown into disarray by the War on Terror and the Great Recession (or, in Superman’s case, ushered in by Crisis on Infinite Earths and re-launched by Flashpoint).

In addition to restoring America’s confidence in itself, President Reagan also brought about a revival of nationalism. America in the 1960s and 70s confronted the uncomfortable truth that various social groups were excluded from mainstream society. This, along with the traumas of Watergate and the Vietnam War, fractured a sense of national identity. Reagan restored this vision of an average American identity — the hard-working, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American, who is able to achieve the American Dream via an honest job. There was great pride in being an American.

At the same time, Mexican immigration was beginning to increase dramatically, leading to an immigration policy overhaul in 1986. As with other periods of high immigration, certain nativist, anti-immigration sentiments began to spread.

John Byrne turned Superman into a full-fledged American citizen.

And so, for the first time, Superman — whose story was always that of the assimilated immigrant — was made a native-born American citizen. To be sure, this new origin still retained immigrant underpinnings. Superman’s biological parents were still Kryptonian. But now, instead of an infant Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) being rocketed to Earth, a developing fetus was sent in a “birthing matrix” (a futuristic baby incubator, of sorts). When the “birthing matrix” opened on Earth, Superman was born into the world, making him a full-fledged American citizen (thanks to the 14th Amendment).

Now, instead of being a story about an immigrant assimilating into American society, it became a story about the American boy discovering and studying his Kryptonian heritage, but still reaffirming his American identity. As Superman says in Man of Steel #6:

Krypton bred me, but it was Earth that gave me all I am. All that matters. It was Krypton that made me Superman, but it is the Earth that makes me human!

This new origin was later retconned in subsequent stories, reverting Superman back to his immigrant roots, but it nevertheless stands as a testament to the strong sense of a revived American identity.

Continue on to Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.


The Ideology of Superman: Breaking Down the Old Order

This is Part 3 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 1: The New Deal Democrat here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World here (when the post is ready).
Read Part 6: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–BREAKING DOWN THE OLD ORDER–

Many factors shook American society through the late 1960s and the 1970s: the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, oil shocks, the feminist movement, a new environmentalist movement, rampant inflation coupled with high unemployment, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation, and so on. The first of the baby boom generation (born in the late 1940s) were reaching maturity and causing shockwaves throughout society. Many rejected the traditional outlooks of their parent’s generation, endorsing the counterculture of the hippie movement.

Comics began to leave behind the outdated and outmoded Comics Code Authority. The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 featured a story arc in which the webslinging hero’s friend, Harry Osborn, is shown to be addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to give the issues its approving stamp, but Marvel ran it anyway. It sold tremendously well, condemning the Comics Code Authority to increasing irrelevancy.

DC dealt with various issues, including cocaine addiction, in its "Green Lantern" title.

DC also dealt with tough issues, most notably in its Green Lantern title, written by Denny O’Neil. That book constantly pitted Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) in a battle of ideologies against his friend and sometime partner, Green Arrow (Oliver Queen). The series addressed issues such as environmental protection, race relations, and, famously, drug addiction as Green Arrow discovered his ward, Speedy, was addicted to cocaine. And yes, countless others have noted the irony of a character named Speedy eventually being addicted to cocaine, so I don’t need to do so. But really, Green Arrow should have seen the writing on the wall with that one.

Superman’s world changed as well. The late 1960s saw new creative teams and a new art style mark a departure from the Mort Weisinger era (Weisinger edited the Superman comics during the 50s and 60s. He retired from DC Comics in 1970.).

The familiar elements of a Superman story changed drastically. An all-new supporting cast was introduced, new villains challenged the Man of Steel, new situations arose. As CBR’s Robot6 blog notes:

Before long, readers got to know his neighbors in 344 Clinton Street’s apartments, as well as various Kryptonians (like Supergirl, Krypto and the other Super-Pets, the Phantom Zone criminals, and residents of the Bottle City of Kandor).

Indeed, the revamped Superman titles added new characters of their own almost from the very beginning. Cat Grant, Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, Maggie Sawyer, Colin Thornton, Ron Troupe, Jerry White, and Emil Hamilton all interacted with the existing supporting cast, and with each other, in various combinations.

Print journalist Clark Kent got a promotion when Galaxy Broadcasting System president, Morgan Edge, bought the Daily Planet and made Kent a TV news anchor. Big business was back in action, and deregulation was gaining steam. A Republican governor named Ronald Reagan was gearing up for a presidential bid to unseat incumbent Gerald Ford.

The 12-issue maxi-series "Crisis on Infinite Earths" rebooted the entire DC Universe.

The structure of a Superman story changed as well. Gone were the normality-interrupting gimmicks that defined the previous period. Now, stories were more character-driven. Writers were disassembling the status quo of Clark Kent’s world, albeit less violently than many of the social and economic forces challenging America in the real world.

American confidence was sinking, and with it Superman’s powers. Denny O’Neil’s brief stint on the comic saw Superman’s powers diminished by a third in a story arc entitled “Kryptonite Nevermore!” The description for the collected edition even says that “this story turned Superman’s status quo on its head.” The depowering would not last for long, however, as subsequent writers soon took to re-powering the Man of Steel for their own purposes, but Superman was no longer a static character replaying the same tired formula over and over again. His world was in flux.

Superman’s world would shift hugely one last time in the 1980s, and then settle into a new norm. The huge, company-wide crossover blockbuster event of 1985-86, Crisis on Infinite Earths hit the re-start button on all of DC’s properties, including Superman. The Man of Steel was de-powered yet again, his cast culled and revised, and his convoluted history streamlined, all marking a new normal.

It was morning in America.

 

Continue to Part 4: Morning in America here.


The Ideology of Superman: The New Deal Democrat

This is Part 1 of 7-part series of posts discussing Superman comics and how they reflect American society and culture.

Read the Introduction here.
Read Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.
Read Part 3: Breaking Down the Old Order here.
Read Part 4: Morning in America here.
Read Part 5: Big Business and Brinksmanship here.
Read Part 6: America in the Post-Soviet World (when the post is ready).
Read Part 7: Reconnecting with Humanity here (when the post is ready).

–THE NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT–

Superman, "Champion of the Oppressed."

When Action Comics #1 hit newsstands, America was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Although still nursing an isolationist foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy had shifted radically. An ascendant Democratic Party brandished the full force of the federal government. Without passing any judgment (positive or negative), it is safe to say that during this time unions were strengthened, social safety nets fortified, big business strictly regulated. This was FDR’s New Deal.

New Dealers were self-proclaimed champions of the common man, and Superman was no different. In fact, Action Comics #1 describes him as a “champion of the oppressed.”

This image may seem foreign to many people today who see Superman as the embodiment of the status quo, but Superman of the 1930s and 40s was a social crusader, in both identities. Muckraking journalist Clark Kent spoke truth to power in his job at the Daily Star (later, Daily Planet), while pining after Lois Lane. In another indicator of the times, Lois Lane was introduced as a gossip columnist who wrote “sob stories,” but desperately wanted to a real reporting beat. The ironic twist of the comic was that Lois Lane was “manlier” than bumbling, impotent Clark Kent, though Lane’s pursuit of true news pieces would inevitably lead to some sort of danger from which the masculine ideal (Superman) would need to rescue her.

Superman destroys slums so that the government will be forced to improve living conditions.

Not much escaped the super-crusader’s youthful eyes in those days. Though he could only jump an eighth of mile (a far cry from his later ability to fly), Superman had no trouble taking on wealthy mine owners for the lax safety standards they subjected their workers to, or slick businessmen who tried to co-opt the Superman image for profit. In fact, in Action Comics #8, Superman destroys a city’s dilapidated slums in order to force the government to rebuild better housing. Just before he does so, he tells a group of delinquent children: “It’s not entirely your fault that you’re delinquent– it’s these slums– your poor living conditions.”

As a product of the times, Superman was also something of an isolationist at first. A story spanning Action Comics #1 and 2 saw Superman taking on the fiendish military-industrial complex about 23 years before Dwight D. Eisenhower made the term famous in his farewell address. The complaints sound incredibly familiar: corrupt politicians, influential lobbyists, deceitful arms producers and manufactured wars. Who says Superman isn’t in touch with today’s issues?

Luckily for the fictional Americans of the late 1930s, Superman was around to prevent the United States from being needlessly embroiled in a conflict between two fictional (though perhaps European) countries.

Superman joins the war effort.

All for naught. America’s isolationist tendencies would crumble before the full force of the Pearl Harbor attacks. And even before that, President Roosevelt angled to help the Allied cause in any way possible, through programs such as “Lend-Lease.” And as America mobilized for war, so too did Superman. The July after Pearl Harbor, for instance, Superman was seen on the cover of Superman #17 holding a shocked Adolf Hitler and grotesque Prime Minister Tojo, the much-despised leaders of the Axis Powers.

Families across the United States bought war bonds, rationed goods, planted victory gardens, and build weapons to help the war effort. Superman assaulted Axis leaders on the covers of his comics.

American had entered the second World War.

Continue on to Part 2: Defender of the Status Quo here.


Why the DREAM Act Should Pass

A recent Gallop poll shows a slight majority of Americans favor passing the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act). The DREAM Act was first sponsored in 2001 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (UT). It passed in the House this year and even had a majority of support in the Senate (55-41), where it failed to overcome a filibuster.

Basically, the bill would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children if they join the military or pursue higher education. Read the text of the Senate bill here, and the House bill here.

The consideration of the DREAM Act by this Congress stands as perhaps the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform since the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. That bipartisan bill (brought down by bipartisan opposition) actually contained the DREAM Act as one of its provisions. While the DREAM Act is only a small step on the longer road to comprehensive reform, it is nevertheless worth passing. Here’s why:

  • It is a step toward resolving the status of illegal immigrants currently living in America
  • It will provide the military with ample recruits
  • It will yield economic benefits for the entire country and raise government revenue

Let’s examine these points one by one.

–RESOLVING THE STATUS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS–

Illegal immigration is tough to measure, but a Department of Homeland Security report places the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2009 at approximately 10.75 million. For context, that’s about 3.5% of the entire U.S. population that same year (which, according to Census Bureau estimates was about 307,006,550 people). That’s bigger than the population of Native Americans (1%) and only a little bit less than the Asian American population (4.6%).

The question that has been plaguing Congress is: what do you do about this sizable segment of the population?

Although many conservatives advocate mass deportation, this is a costly and utterly unrealistic solution. Prominent Republicans like President Bush and George Will have recognized this fact. Immigration and Customs Enforcement head Julie Myers has placed the cost of mass deportation at around $94 billion. From CNN.com:

“An ICE spokesman later said the $94 billion did not include the cost of finding illegal immigrants, nor court costs — dollar amounts that are largely unknowable.

He said the amount was calculated by multiplying the estimated 12 million people by the average cost of detaining people for a day: $97. That was multiplied by the average length of detention: 32 days… Finally, the department looked at personnel costs, bringing the total to roughly $94 billion.”

What is notable about these rough calculations is that they also fail to take into account the economic impacts of mass deportation. Illegal immigrants both work and consume — two basic tenets of any human existence. In fact, many illegal immigrants came to America because of the job availability. In 2009, Mexicans were about 62% of all illegal immigrants. Part of the reason for the influx of undocumented immigrants from Mexico is due to the fact that Mexico’s labor market cannot currently sustain the number of workers it has at its disposal (though this may change in the near future). Put another way, there’s too many people and not enough jobs. Combine this with American companies’ willingness to hire low wage workers in order to keep prices down, and you have a recipe for mass migration, though the poor economy has actually decreased the number of illegal immigrants in America in the last few years.

The result is that illegal immigrants are firmly implanted in the American labor market. In fact, immigrants often produce jobs where they live, mainly due to the basic economic laws of supply and demand. Immigrants, like every else, have to consume in order to survive. They must rent a home, buy food, clothes, etc… This increased economic activity gets money circulating and creates jobs. Removing this large segment of low wage workers would shock the American job market by removing a huge segment of the population that contribute to both supply and demand.

And that’s only if the government had the stomach for taking such drastic measures. For one thing, mass deportation is a political nonstarter. It would be a difficult issue for American businesses to support. The reasons for this are simple: companies always want to have the advantage over their competition, and immigrants provide companies with that advantage. A 2009 paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta concluded that “firms employing undocumented workers enjoy a competitive advantage over firms that do not employ undocumented workers.”

Illegal immigrants are too frightened of deportation to complain about poor working conditions or low wages, and so accept these conditions, which drives prices lower for the consumer and provides the company with an advantage. Rising prices would be bad for business, as would be losing thousands of workers, so its easy to see why large businesses would likely oppose a mass deportation plan. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, predicts that mass deportation would reduce United States’ GDP by 1.46%. Also, mass deportation could take years to fully implement (and that’s only if it turned out to be possible), and companies would not wish to see their advantage erode if rivals were able to maintain their advantage for a bit longer.

So, that is the state of the debate. To be sure, there are issues I have not touched on, like whether illegal immigrants cause violent crime (studies show they do not, and they may even make some areas safer) or depress wages (maybe for a smallest, lowest paid segment of the population, though it is also linked to wage increases for many others), but this blog post is to focus mainly on the DREAM Act, so I don’t want to get too sidetracked.

With mass deportation untenable, the only other plausible way of solving this issue is some form of legalization. Critics like to use the term ‘amnesty’ to describe any legalization of illegal immigrants currently in the country, despite the variety of ways it could be handled. For historical context, one should remember that President Reagan signed a bill that both tightened border security and provided amnesty for about 3 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

The lack of real alternatives to some sort of path to citizenship and the partisan attacks on ‘amnesty’ has led to an atmosphere where Congress refuses to pass any immigration reform, and states end up taking matters into their own hands. The DREAM Act, however, stands as a politically viable bill that could partially alleviate some of the problem (though not all).

The Migration Policy Institute reports that around 2.1 million illegal immigrants could become citizens under the DREAM Act’s provisions. That same study estimates “that roughly 38 percent of potential beneficiaries — 825,000 people — would likely obtain permanent legal status” under the DREAM Act. Under the Senate version of the bill, illegal immigrants who entered the country as children (younger than 16) and have lived continuously in the United States for longer than 5 years are eligible. Even though it still leaves some illegal immigrants in America without a path to citizenship, it nonetheless provides a sizable segment of the illegal population with the opportunity to become American citizens. This will have economic benefits for the country (as described in the final section) and brings the entire country a step closer to resolving the status of illegal immigrants already living in America.

–MILITARY BENEFITS–

The DREAM Act would provide the American military, currently fighting two wars, with additional, much-needed recruits. A key provision of the bill dictates that one of the ways an illegal immigrant child could become a citizen is through military service.

This would be a boon to the military, which saw a dearth of recruits in the 2000s and failed to meet many of its recruiting standards. In those years, according to a 2005 Guardian article, the military “stopped battalion commanders from dismissing new recruits for drug abuse, alcohol, poor fitness and pregnancy in an attempt to halt the rising attrition rate in an army” and “recruiters, who were under pressure to meet their monthly quotas,” let their standards slip.

The recession has largely reversed this trend, as more people are unemployed and attracted by the pay and benefits of the military as opposed to the uncertain American labor market. In 2005, the unemployment rate was around 5%. Now (December 2010), it stands at almost double that (9.8%). Still, this is no reason to discount the benefit of added recruits that the DREAM Act would provide. For one, the enhanced recruitment numbers of the recession may continue into the recovery, or they may not. This likely depends on the state of the job market, which is lagging behind most other recovery indicators with high unemployment. Either way, the DREAM Act would be beneficial for the purposes of recruitment levels.

Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute noted in “Staying Power” in Foreign Affairs that counter-insurgency doctrine “implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.” He adds that by the end of 2010, “there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous,” which is far short of 400,000. Theoretically, 100,000 Afghan or coalition forces should make up this gap. Now, it is extremely unlikely that President Obama will send an additional 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. O’Hanlon notes that already, “Obama has more than doubled the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.” This, along with the administration’s decision to provide 30,000 additional troops instead of the higher requests made by then-Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2009 and the hope for a drawdown makes it unlikely that Obama will consent to doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan yet again. Still, the commander-in-chief cannot command troops that do not exist. The DREAM Act provides the ways and means, though the ultimate choices of command lies with our leaders.

The main point is that the DREAM Act would provide a needed supply of soldiers in return for granting them citizenship. And, really, would we want to deprive American citizenship of men and women who are willing to defend America with their lives?

–ECONOMIC BENEFITS AND GOVERNMENT REVENUE–

Some opposition to the DREAM Act is coming from people who do not want federal dollars extended to these immigrants to help pay for their schooling. Participating illegal immigrants would be able make use of various loan programs (Federal Direct Loans, Perkins Loans) and work study programs, although they would not be extended grants (like the Pell Grant).

The key difference here is that loans are repaid, unless they default (but, of course, default has its own consequences). Recent figures suggest a 7% default rate of college loan borrowers (legal) in the United States — an increase over earlier years, likely due to the recession.

In general, criticism of this facet of the bill (providing college loans to illegal immigrants) seems to come from people who do not want federal dollars to go to illegal immigrants for a couple general reasons:

  • They think that this would reward breaking the law and incentivize people to come to America illegally, and
  • That illegal immigrants (because they are not citizens) should not benefit from tax dollars.

These are legitimate concerns, but (in my estimation) the long-term benefits outweigh any short term costs.

The first concern is easy to address. The law specifically identifies young children (younger than 16 years old when the entered the United States) who have been in the U.S. “for a continuous period of not less than 5 years” before law passes. In other words, it will only be available to illegal immigrants who were not the decision-makers in their families, and who have already been in America for several years. It (unfortunately) does not address the underlying needs for more comprehensive immigration reform, and thus would not reduce the rate of illegal immigration, but neither would it prove to be an opportunity for new illegal immigrants. It would only apply to those already here.

The second concern takes a bit more explaining to address. For one, illegal immigrants do pay taxes — various studies say that between 50% and 75% of illegal immigrants pay state, local, and federal taxes. Certain taxes are inescapable, like sales and property taxes. Corporate taxes can be included as well, since those are generally passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices. Illegal immigrants also pay payroll and income taxes through withholding (and “about 6 million unauthorized immigrants file individual tax returns each year” according to the IRS).

This latter point about withholding and entitlement taxes is especially important. Because of withholding, many people qualify for refunds come tax season. Illegal immigrants often do not file for refunds because they do not want to attract any federal attention. Likewise, illegal immigrants still pay Social Security and Medicare taxes even though they will not be able to use either program unless they become legal.

Still, illegal immigrants seem to be a drag on state and local budgets. Whereas federal tax money goes to programs illegal immigrants will never utilize (Social Security and Medicare, for example), state and local dollars are spent on things like education and welfare services, which illegal immigrants families will use. In general, the amount of state and local tax dollars spent on illegal immigrant families is a small part of the total, but it is still more than they contribute to state and local taxes.

The obvious solution (since mass deportation is unrealistic and expensive) is to remove all the boundaries to their attaining higher paying jobs, and paying taxes on those higher wages. A Center for American Progress study noted some of the effects of the 1986 immigration reform. For instance, barriers to illegal immigrants’ upward mobility are removed, and their newfound citizenship “encourages them to invest more in their own education, open bank accounts, buy homes, and start businesses.” Additionally, it notes that legalization is correlated with higher wages (which translates into increased tax revenue)

Yet, the DREAM Act does simple legalization one better. It encourages higher education. In 2008, the median income for male high school graduates was $32,000, while that of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 71.88% larger ($55,000). The jobs these college graduates will be going into will not only be higher-earning, but also more highly skilled, which should help the United States stay competitive in a global marketplace. Legalization will also have the benefit of making these higher incomes fully taxable.

Providing student loans is crucial to this goal, despite opposition to the parts of the bill that allow the government to extend them to illegal immigrants. First of all, it is incredibly difficult (if not nearly impossible) for students from low-wage earning families (as most illegal immigrants are) to make their way through college without some kind of student loan. American students of many different socio-economic backgrounds take out student loans. If a middle class American must borrow in order to feasibly pursue a higher education, how much more difficult will it be for a lower class illegal immigrant to fund higher education?

If the aim is to encourage higher education (and thus higher paying jobs) and citizenship, it would seem counterproductive to deprive these children of the means to invest in their (and our) future.

–CONCLUSION–

The DREAM Act is not a comprehensive immigration reform that will provide a needed overhaul of the current system. Yet, it deserves passage because its provisions would greatly benefit the country — it would take a step toward solving the issue of illegal immigrants currently residing in America in return for a service. That service (either military or educational) would yield future benefits for American security and prosperity. The DREAM Act may have recently failed passage in the Senate, but it is a proposal that has been around for almost a decade. Here’s to hoping it stays around, and becomes law in the near future.


A Stimulus By Any Other Name…

This opinion column was published in the Main Line Times and the Delco Times on December 16, 2010.

*Correction — In my column, I mistakenly referred to the stimulus package passed in February 2009 as the “2008 stimulus bill.” This has been corrected in this blog post. Sorry.

On Dec. 6 President Obama gave a speech on the temporary, bipartisan agreement reached over the Bush tax cuts and unemployment benefits. He described the compromise as one that “will spur our private sector to create millions of new jobs and add momentum that our economy badly needs.” Read: stimulus. Make no mistake, the compromise package is just that. ’s “Free Exchange” blog notes that it contains a one-year cut in the Social Security payroll tax ($120 billion) and allows businesses to write off all investment expenses ($200 billion).

This is in addition to extending unemployment benefits, which is a politically easy way to provide stimulus funds. Such benefits are generally pumped right back into the economy as the unemployed spend on necessities. Extending them could also, somewhat paradoxically, be cheaper than not. Many people apply for Social Security Disability Insurance when unemployment runs out, and people on SSDI are less likely to return to the work force.

And then there’s the most famous part of the package – the Bush tax cuts. While there was some debate over whether the wealthiest Americans would keep their cuts or not, the safest decision was eventually made. Although it worsens the immediate deficit, temporarily sustaining all the cuts avoids the mistake FDR made in 1937 when fiscal tightening (that is, tax increases and spending decreases) plunged a recovering economy back into recession. Of course, tightening will be needed in the medium run (hence the temporary nature of the extension), but for now legislators have been able to shunt aside that argument.

In light of these facts, it is interesting that nowhere in President Obama’s speech is specific mention of the term “stimulus.” Of course this is understandable given the much-maligned reputation the word has (wrongly) earned over the past two years. Many Americans feel as if the 2009* stimulus bill was an exercise in wasted money despite the fact that a full third of it went to tax cuts and credits. Let us then begin the re-education process. Stimulus by any other name is still stimulus.


Sestak vs. Toomey for PA Senator

Now that the primaries are behind us, the brawl for the Pennsylvania Senate seat is heating up. This blog post will be one in a series of posts I hope to write in which I lay out the stances of various candidates that will be on the ballots this year.

I hope that reading about those issues that matter to you will get you to the ballot box, and that this blog has helped you make an informed decision.

Update — WHYY’s Marty Moss-Coane interviewed with each of these candidates on her radio show, “Radio Times.” Follow the links below to listen, or find them for free in the iTunes store under “Radio Times”:

(Note — I’ve culled most of the information on the candidates’ stances from their own campaign sites (links: Toomey, Sestak), from OnTheIssues.com (links: Toomey, Sestak), and from ProjectVoteSmart.com (links: Toomey, Sestak). )

Economy and Business

  • Toomey
    • Tax cuts (for both individuals and businesses) and deregulation to spur economic growth
    • Opposes the Jobs Bill
    • Opposed the Stimulus Package
    • Make the Bush tax cuts permanent
    • Decrease government spending
    • Voted to end offshore tax havens
  • Sestak
    • Supported the Stimulus Package to stabilize the economy
    • Tax cuts for the middle class
    • Allow Bush tax cuts to expire
    • Federal investment in new industries
    • Supported the TARP Program (bailouts) to stabilize the financial sector
    • Close tax loopholes
    • Supported “Employee Free Choice Act,” which would end the need for a ‘secret ballot’ to vote on unionization after a majority of worker signatures have been collected
    • Increase the minimum wage
    • Discretionary spending caps
    • Voted to extend unemployment benefits during the recession
    • Invest in small business
    • Supported HOPE for Homeowners to help people refinance their mortgages
    • Supported government purchase of ‘toxic assets’ to help keep credit flowing
    • Supported Credit Card Holders’ Bill of Rights
    • Supports Pay-As-You-Go, which requires increases in spending to be accounted for

Health Care

  • Toomey
    • Opposes the recent Health Insurance reform
    • “Giving individuals who buy their own health insurance the same tax benefits that employers enjoy when they buy health insurance for their employees”
    • Allow health insurance companies to compete across state lines
    • Tort reform
    • “Allow small businesses and groups to join together to form association health plans to lower the cost of providing health care”
    • “Encourage a market for renewable health plans to help people with preexisting conditions keep their health insurance”
    • Increase awareness of health care cost
    • Voted to help establish tax-exempt Medical Savings Accounts
  • Sestak
    • Supported the recent Health Insurance reform
    • Opposes single-payer, but supported public option
    • Stop insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions
    • Health Insurance Exchanges
    • Support of stimulus package that provided funding for states so they could avoid cutting Medicare/Medicaid.
    • Invest in preventive care
    • Voted to regulate tobacco as a drug
    • Voted to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program

Immigration

  • Toomey
    • Opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants in America
    • Secure America’s borders
  • Sestak (I cannot find Sestak’s position on this issue)

Energy and the Environment

  • Toomey
    • Offshore drilling for oil
    • Nuclear power
    • Utilize the Marcellus Shale
    • Opposes Cap and Trade
  • Sestak
    • Favors alternative energy sources
    • Supports Cap and Trade
    • “Reduce the human impact on climate change”
    • Reduce carbon emissions
    • Tax credits for renewable energy
    • Fund research and development of alternative energy
    • “Increase investment in water infrastructure development.”

National Security

  • Toomey
    • Supports SDI (“Star Wars”)
    • Supports War in Afghanistan
    • Supports War in Iraq
    • Sanctions on Iran
  • Sestak
    • Improve care for returning soldiers
    • Supported employing additional troops to Afghanistan
    • Voted to provide “additional equipment to protect our troops in harm’s way”
    • Ensure civil liberties while providing for National Security
    • Reassess the Patriot Act
    • Support G.I. Bill
    • “Economic instability around the world [is] the primary danger to our nation’s security”
    • Close Guantanamo Bay
    • Treat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
    • Withdraw from Iraq
    • Restore habeas corpus for detainees

Abortion

  • Toomey
    • Pro-life
    • Encourage adoption over abortion
    • Opposes using tax dollars on abortion
  • Sestak
    • Pro-choice
    • Voted to support stem cell research
    • Ensure access to contraception

Education

  • Toomey
    • Supports charter schools
  • Sestak
    • Increase Pell Grants
    • Support early education
    • Increase funding for Head Start
    • “Reauthorize the Teach For America program, which recruits and trains recent college graduates seeking to enter into the teaching profession.”
    • “Establish tuition repayment program for individuals with degrees in Mathematics and Science who commit to serve as a teacher.”

Gay and Lesbian

  • Toomey
    • Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage
    • Banning gay and lesbian people from adopting children in Washington, D.C.
  • Sestak
    • Supports civil unions
    • Provide “federal civilian LGBT employees with the same partnership benefits that are currently offered to all spouses of federal employees”
    • Repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act”
    • End discrimination in the workplace
    • End discrimination in the military

Gun Rights

  • Toomey
    • Few limitations on gun rights
  • Sestak
    • Regulations on gun ownership
    • Federal ban on assault weapons

Internet

  • Toomey (I cannot find Toomey’s position on this issue)
  • Sestak


Beck Check: Coolidge and Harding

Glenn Beck spent a portion of his February 9 show discussing the presidencies of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. I was interested in his talking points, so I decided to run some fact-checking. Here’s the results.

“Coolidge and Harding decreased the real per capita federal expenditures – the size of the government – from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924. These policies, along with fostering the mentality of self-reliance – the opposite of what the progressives had been preaching in the previous 20 years and the opposite of what progressives teach now. They’re not saying ‘be self-reliant’, they’re saying ‘too big to fail, you can’t make it without the government’s safety nets.’ Stand on your own two feet, America!”

This statement, like many Beck make, is a bit misleading. In the interest of time, we will limit our discussion to his comments regarding Harding, Coolidge, and their economic policies. Were they really the antithesis of the preceding years’ progressivism?

President Calvin Coolidge

We’ll start with the value of this statement ‘on its face’. Did Coolidge and Harding decrease the real per capita federal expenditures from $170 per year in 1920 to $70 in 1924? Yes and no.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what source Beck used, but one of my main sources in researching his claim was a Cato Institute publication by Randall Holcombe titled: “The Growth of the Federal Government in the 1920s.” The Cato Institute is a libertarian think-thank that describes its mission as “to increase the understanding of public policies based on the principles of limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and peace.“ I assumed that because of Cato’s reputation (UPenn gave it excellent rankings in its 2010 ranking of think-tanks, including a #2 spot in the area of Domestic Economic Policy) and its advocation of limited government (a position with which Mr. Beck would likely concur), that the research of the Cato Institute would be a fairly noncontroversial in fact-checking Beck.

First, let’s define “Real Per Capita Federal Expenditures.” Federal expenditure per capita is how much money the federal government is spending per person. That is, it is the total federal government spending divided by the population. When we define this as “Real,” it simply means we’re adjusting for inflation. Because of inflation, comparing the dollar amounts of one year to another is an unequal comparison. Thus, the amounts need to be converted in order to nullify the effects of inflation and see how much the amount really increased or decreased.

As the following chart from the Holcombe paper shows, total real per capita federal expenditures in 1920 was $390.98. In 1924, that total was $194.85.

Quite a decrease.

Much of this decrease had to do with World War I. Federal expenditures increase largely during wartime in order to fund the war, and then subside once the war is over, because the military is no longer in need of large funding to sustain the war effort. In order to try to account for this, there is a second column in the table above. This one tries to subtract defense expenditures from the total. This is where Beck, it appears, is getting his numbers. According to this table, the 1920 federal expenditures per capita, minus defense, were $170.15, and those in 1924 were $70.36. Again, a nice decrease.

It would seem, then, that Beck’s statement is somewhat true. Of course, he is discounting a large part of the federal budget, but (and this is purely conjecture based on what I have seen of Beck’s opinions), he may feel that this discounting is justified as national defense is a necessary expenditure, and he would possibly want to limit his discussion to the federal government’s expenditures of which he disapproves.

Either way you look at the numbers, however, there is a nice decrease in federal expenditures. So Beck seems justified either way.

Holcombe, though, contends that the table suggests “there are war-related expenditures in the government budget even after subtracting defense, veterans, and interest expenditures. This makes it apparent that one cannot accept nonwar expenditures as unrelated to the war.” Although the table attempts to extricate total expenditures from military spending, there is still at least somewhat of a relationship between the two.

But let us overlook this for a moment and continue on with Beck’s statement. Let us assume that Coolidge and Harding were largely responsible for the decrease in real per capita federal expenditures, and not the end of World War I (a large leap). Even if this were true, Coolidge and Harding still did not reach the pre-war levels of real per capita federal expenditures — levels that occurred during the Progressive Era. In 1916, before the war began, the total was $83.60, as compared to Coolidge and Harding’s $194.85 in 1924.

Also, Beck comments only on 1920 to 1924, which should seem odd considering the Harding-Coolidge years actually stretched to 1929. Beck fails to mention that real per capita federal expenditures minus defense (the numbers from the second column that he cites during his show) actually rose after 1924. In 1929, at the end of the Harding-Coolidge run, the total expenditures minus defense had risen to  $89.30. Not a large increase, but much bigger than the total minus defense for 1916, which was $22.75. The total expenditures until 1929 actually continued to decline until 1927, as the table shows, and then increased, reaching $195.41 in 1929.

Holcombe says that:

“From 1924 to 1929, before Depression-related expenditures would have found their way into the budget, nonmilitary expenditures increased by 27 percent, all during the Coolidge administration. If we take the decline in expenditures up through 1924 as a winding down of the war effort, there appears to be a considerable underlying growth in federal expenditures through the 1920s–growth worth examining more closely. What at first appears to be a relatively stable level of federal expenditures in the 1920s actually is substantial underlying growth, masked by a decline in war-related expenditures.”

Yet, Holcombe says, “It would be misleading to try to judge the growth of the federal government in the 1920s only by looking at aggregate expenditures.” With this, we go beyond Beck, who leaves the discussion simply at expenditures. Holcombe notes several areas in which the government grew under Coolidge and Harding –

  • the creation of government-owned corporations (which began prior to Coolidge and Harding, but did not stop during their terms)
  • the expansion of federal aid to states
  • expansion in the role of the post office and the salaries of its workers (“postal deficits in the 1920s were caused by the expansion of postal services and the provision of many services without charge or considerably below cost.”)
  • expanding the enforcement of prohibition (for instance, Coolidge created the Bureau of Prohibition)
  • aid to the agriculture industry (“Whether evaluated financially or with regard to programs, the 1920s saw considerable government growth in the agricultural industry, and laid the foundation for more federal involvement that was to follow in the New Deal.”)
  • antitrust action

Below is an excerpt regarding antitrust action during the Harding-Coolidge years:

Expenditures are the easiest measure of the size of government, but tell only a part of the story of government growth. Government regulation also has a substantial impact, but is harder to measure.[23] Starting with the Sherman Act in 1890, the federal government began its antitrust activity to try to limit the economic power of businesses. Only 22 cases were brought before 1905, but the pace started picking up later in that decade, which saw 39 cases brought between 1905 and 1909. From 1910 to 1919, a total of 134 cases were brought, showing increasing antitrust enforcement. But there was little slowdown in the 1920s, which saw a total of 125 cases. [24] As Thomas McCraw (1984: 145) notes, “By the 1920s antitrust had become a permanent part of American economic and political life.” One might anticipate, after an increase in cases, that firms would be more cautious in their activities to avoid antitrust cases being brought against them. But McCraw (1984: 146) further notes that in the 1920s a large proportion of antitrust cases were brought against firms that were not normally regarded as being highly concentrated. Antitrust enforcement in the 1920s was vigorous and increasingly broad in scope.

I highly suggest you read the entire Holcombe paper, but those are essentially the points in the paper that I found related to Beck’s statement. I was also surprised by how well Holcombe seems to sum up the refutation of Beck’s claims. I’ll let Holcombe’s words speak for themselves:

Normalcy, in the Harding-Coolidge sense, meant peace and prosperity, but it also meant a continuation of the principles of Progressivism, which enabled the Republican party to retain the support of its Progressive element. Despite the popular view of the 1920s as a retreat from Progressivism, by any measure government was more firmly entrenched as a part of the American economy in 1925 than in 1915, and was continuing to grow. Harding and Coolidge were viewed as pro-business, [10] and there may be a tendency to equate this pro-business sentiment as anti-Progressivism. [11] The advance of Progressivism may have been slower than before the war or during the New Deal, but a slower advance is not a retreat. [12]

Late economist Herbert Stein (Former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Presidents Nixon and Ford and a member of the board of contributors for the Wall Street Journal) also wrote of Coolidge’s economic policies in his excellent book “Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy from Roosevelt to Clinton.” His conclusions regarding the Coolidge years (on page 28) also run contrary to Beck’s claims:

But if we use as a test of conservatism the degree of government intervention in the economy, the Coolidge administration was not conservative compared to its predecessors. Coolidge presided over a New Era, and the era was new not only in the height of the stock market; it was also new in the economic role of the government, and part of the confidence in the future of the American economy was so strong in the Coolidge days was confidence in the cooperative policy of government. When Coolidge said that the business of America is business he did not mean that the business of government is to leave business alone. He meant that it is the business of government to help business. That was even more positively the idea of his activist Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Coolidge did not undo the interventionist measures of the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson regimes. At the end of his term the federal budget was larger than in the time of, say, William Howard Taft. He reduced income tax rates, but we still had an income tax, which we hadn’t fifteen years earlier. Perhaps most important, his term was a period of increasing acceptance of the responsibility of the Federal Reserve to help stabilize the economy.

The Coolidge and Harding years, it seems, were not the years of limited government and abandonment of progressivism that Beck says they were. He may have had a few numbers correct (though he failed to properly identify them), but his implications are not entirely borne out by the facts.

(Beck goes on to describe the “Roaring Twenties,” and describes them as “arguably the most prosperous 8 years this country has ever seen.” A discussion of Beck’s “Roaring Twenties” description and how that decade compares to other economic expansions in American history (post-WWII boom and the 80s/90s, for instance) is the topic for a blog entry found here.)


What You Need to Know About the House Health Care Bill

The House of Representatives passed their version of the health care reform bill last night. But what does it all mean? The media coverage on the issue has been decidedly mixed. I’ll try to boil down for you the most important points on the House bill.

The first thing I should probably spend some time on is clarification. With all this debate over the validity of so-called “Obamacare”, many people may not realize that there are various versions of health care reforms bills floating around, and that none of them were authored by Obama (hence the irony of the name “Obamacare”).

Here are the details of the House version of the bill: (a good source of information are the NYTimes, and an NPR podcast entitled Health Care Legislation Deconstructed)

How the House Bill Expands Coverage to Uninsured Americans

  • Projected to cover 96% of legal residents under age 65.
  • Provides subsidies for individuals up to 400% of the federal poverty level $88,000 for a family of 4)
  • Expands Medicaid to 150% of federal poverty level ($16,000 for an individual; $33,000 for a family of 4)
  • No denial of coverage or higher premiums due to pre-existing conditions

How the House Bill Effects Businesses

  • Most employers will be required to provide health care for employees or pay a penalty of up to 8% of payroll.
  • Businesses up to $500,000 in payroll a year are exempt.
  • Penalties are phased in for businesses from $500,000 to $750,000
  • Small businesses are provided with tax credits to help them purchase health care

The House Bill’s Public Option

  • No state opt-out
  • Negotiated Rates — the public plan will talk to hospitals, doctors, and health care providers to negotiate a state-level payment rate

Costs of the House Bill

  • Gross Cost $1.1 trillion over ten years.
  • However, the Net Cost is $894 billion because of revenue raisers.
  • Revenue will come from surcharge on high income earners (taxes on individuals that earn above $500,000, or on couples that earn above $1 million  – projected to raise $460 billion)
  • Penalties for businesses who don’t provide health care (up to 8% of payroll)
  • Penalties for individuals who don’t buy health care (2.5% of income — but can apply for hardship waivers if can’t afford)
  • Medicaid/Medicare cuts
  • Corporate taxes/ fees

Health Insurance Exchange

  • The Exchange is essentially a marketplace where people can go to shop for health insurance. Currently, with our employer-based system, you can only really choose from the plan(s) your employer offers. Going out and buying your own insurance is expensive and messy. The Exchange creates a market of insurances options and allows you to choose which plan you want, allowing market forces to take their toll — the better plans will thrive and the uncompetitive ones will die.
  • Would begin in 2013.

Lobbyists’ Role in the Bill

  • Why was there no large-scale campaign launched against this reform by insurance industries, drug companies, and the like? Because this time around, they were brought into the fold. Yet, with lobbyists winning, the biggest loser stands to be — in many instances — the consumer. The pharmaceutical industry has lobbied for amendments, like one that would grant 12-year exclusivity to biologics, instead of 5. Read the article in TIME for more on that, but basically, it means that instead of allowing generics onto the market after a shorter waiting period (say, 5 years), it will now take 12 years for this to happen, when concerning biologics, which is rapidly growing. The downside to this is that generics help control costs by offering similar solutions for much less money. Essentially, this monopolizes the market for 12 years for each new biologic.

There was a Republican alternative to the House Bill, which included:

  • No public option
  • Individual mandate
  • State high risk pools
  • Not having language barring pre-existing conditions
  • Businesses can combine resources and buy health insurance across state lines
  • Reforms to control costs


The 2009 Election Voter Guide

In this blog post, I’ll list all of the candidates on the Philadelphia ballot and which ones the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News are endorsing, respectively.

Each candidate’s name (in this blog) will link to his or her website.

The Committee of Seventy has a lot of good information on the candidates, including links, and also good information on the seats for which they are vying.

Here are the candidates:

PA Supreme Court Justice (1 Seat)

District Attorney (1 Seat)

City Controller (1 Seat)

PA Superior Court (4 Seats)

Commonwealth Court Judge (2 Seats)

7 Seats are available for Court of Common Pleas Judge, and there are only 7 candidates, so I will not list them (follow the link if you want to know more)

4 Seats are available for Municipal Court Judge, and there are only 4 candidates, so I will not list them (follow the link if you want to know more)

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER ENDORSEMENTS

  • PA Supreme Court – Joan Orie Melvin (R)
  • District Attorney — Seth Williams (D)
  • City Controller — Al Schmidt (R)
  • PA Superior Court – Judy Olson (R)
    Robert Colville (D)
    Anne Lazarus (D)
    Teresa Sarmina (D)
  • PA Commonwealth Court — Linda Judson (D)
    Kevin Brobson (R)

DAILY NEWS ENDORSEMENTS

  • District Attorney — Seth Williams (D)
  • City Controller – Alan Butkovitz (D)

Follow some links, read up, get out and vote! Polling places open 7am – 8pm.