hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Saturday, July 27, 2002
Current project: Research and write an article titled either

"What America Needs Done: A Suggested Platform For Idealistic Liberals"


"Three Phrases, Six Words That Could Make The Democrats The Majority Party: `Middle Class, Common Sense, Golden Rule'"

here is the initial, relatively polished seed kernel which guides my thinking:

Middle Class (unavoidably polarizing) issues: progressive taxation (income redistribution) , refundable tax credits for health care and education, eliminating many special interest tax credits and subsidies, supporting private-sector unions, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, other safety net programs, social insurance, taking on special interests in favor of public interests:

Common Sense (unifying middle ground, reforming) issues: Gun Control, Abortion, War on Drugs, National Defense, Education, Public sector unions, Environment, Special interests, Death Penalty, Tort and Regulatory reform, Judicial issues, Immigration, campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, voting rights for DC residents, feminist issues, affirmative action;

Golden Rule (spiritual, moralizing) issues: "Employer of last resort", Foreign aid, Nation-building, Education & Equal-Opportunity programs for the poor/disadvantaged, No State lotteries, Voluntary humanitarian military missions

Middle Class issues:

guiding idea: "Everyone who is willing to work for it should be able to afford the essentials of a decent, middle-class life"

These should be the "bread and butter" issues for Democrats, which distinguish them from Republicans, and convince the average worker that their lives will be better under Democrats than Republicans.

The key polarizing idea is "progressive taxation" (the liberal word), or "coercive income redistribution" (the conservative/libertarian word). Liberals may think that it is unwise to redistribute income through the tax code (for incentive, efficiency and technical reasons), but it is not immoral. Conservatives believe such redistribution is either 1) immoral, evil, a government theft of private property, or 2) very very very unwise, playing with fire, and thus any social safety net and the consequent redistribution should be kept to a bare minimum.

A good exposition of the liberal point of income redistribution/progressive taxation are two essays by Paul Krugman, one a review of Dick Armey's book "The Freedom Revolution", the other a review of a book on the living-wage movement:



Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid: Blessed be the Trinity. No privatization, some reforms (like means-testing) may be considered. Bottom line: the safety-net must be preserved.

Progressive taxation: (unrepentant class warriors . . .wheee! just kidding). How progressive should the system be? Offhand, I would say gephardt's 97-98 tax bill is a good place to start

Private Sector Unions: We should not idealize unions: Sometimes they are corrupt, and sometimes they seek special favors at the expense of the broader public. But unions are almost the only political counterweight to big money, and the loss of that counterweight is clearly bad for society. Unions help keep us a middle class society, and we should give them all principled support.
priorities of the anti-union movement: to keep workers docile disorganized, and underpaid;

Health care tax credits: Universal Health insurance through refundable tax credits: We choose tax credits instead of Single Payer because 1)tax credits are simple to implement 2)they have some bipartisan support 3) less risky politically. If tax credits don't work, we can move on to Single Payer.

Education tax credits: Daycare, preschool. For School Vouchers(!?), see below.

Taking on special interests in favor of public interest: examples: Cracking Down on Tax Havens, making corporations count stock options as an expense, ending the strange practice of giving broadcasters public airwaves licenses for free, instead of auctioning them off on behalf of the public.

Common Sense issues:

"Common Sense" issues are either non-ideological issues, or issues that we wish to make non-ideological, by uniting people over a broad middle ground. Especially, we attempt to take the sting out of polarizing (and often inane) “culture war” issues, and try to form a broad consensus which can heal the polarizing wounds. This might require taking on people on the right and left. Also, “common sense” issues refers to reforming programs that have failed (eg. the War On Drugs), and taking on certain powerful non-ideological special interests.

War on drugs: The War On Drugs is the second most important race-relations issue (education is first) in America today. End the war on drugs, and use the freed up resources for the war on terrorism and violent crime. Money for drug treatment, selling (or giving) to children remains a federal crime, no selling drugs and no using drugs in public areas

Abortion: A moderate position on abortion (safe, legal and rare) No state funding for abortion, incentives to "choose life" and for adoption, funding for birth control and sex ed (subject to its being effective)

Education: Three broad principles 1) A voluntary national test/curriculum and the surrounding infrastructure, spelling out what kids should know and giving parents/teachers the tools to teach them. 2) Equalizing funding between rich and poor school districts (a good compromise: more state/federal money for poor school districts) 3) School vouchers, in order to put power in the hands of parents, and not district administrators, teachers unions, and politicians (a good compromise: more charter schools)

national defense: Anti-Star Wars, pro-everything else. But defense should not have an unlimited budget: In any well-run organization there are uncomfortable trade-offs and competition for resources. Inefficient, marginally useful programs must be reformed or shut down. Difficult decisions must be made, and the Military brass + defense contractors must not be able to bully politicians from making them.

Gun control: Sensible efforts to keep guns out of the hands of children, criminals and the mentally unstable, while protecting the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to own guns for hunting, sport, and to protect their family and property

Public sector unions: Good compensation, but greater accountability. In particular, Public sector managers (who are accountable to Politicians, who are accountable to the Public) must be given greater flexibility to fire workers they don't think are up to snuff

Environment: Pro-ANWR drilling: when I say “Pro-ANWR drilling”, I don’t mean so much I support specific drilling proposals so much as I support the concept of drilling, if the payoff is high enough. That is, I don’t buy into the notion of a “pristine” wilderness, which must be protected no matter what cost. I support weighing the benefit of the extra oil, weighed against the cost of possible environmental damage, and making a decision based on the facts on the ground, not on a priori principles; anti-letting mining companies mine on federal land for free, tradable emission permits, BTU tax. etc.

special interests : “no fault” auto insurance reform (taking on the trial lawyers), free trade (taking on the protectionists), etc.

death penalty: supporting the death penalty, making sure we get the right guy (ie. no testimony from "jailhouse snitches", videotaped interrogations, money for good defense lawyers, etc.)

tort and regulatory reform: sticking it to both trial lawyers and fanatically anti-regulation corporations

judicial reform:
here are the key judicial issues, as I see them: civil-rights & affirmative action,
roe v wade, separation of church and state, antitrust & regulatory law, labor law, environmental law, attitude towards due process, classified information and probable cause; tenth amendment issues (i.e. relationship between federal government and the states); you could also add second amendment law to the mix;

evaluating judicial nominees: judicial philosophy: + integrity & judgement: intellectual consistency, partisan biases, other systematic biases; other lapses in judgment;

These issues are a bit beyond me at the moment. I will eventually have to borrow an opinion from someone else. On the issue of roe v. wade, separation of church and state and second amendment law, I’m actually pretty conservative. For example, I don’t believe a right to abortion is written into the constitution. I don’t believe abortion should be illegal, but that should be for a legislature to decide, not the courts.

I believe the first amendment guarantees freedom to practice your own religion, and freedom from subsidizing the majority religion to any substantial degree, but I think the key term is “to any substantial degree”. Prohibiting a school principal from saying “ let us now have a moment of prayer” strikes me as pointless and ridiculous. In other words, I largely agree with those who say “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion” However, I am annoyed with those who use these church-state issues to ridicule ACLU-type minorities, to use them as a free punching bag to bolster their self-esteem, and to imply that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket because Johnny couldn’t read the ten commandments on his classroom wall.

I believe the right to bear arms exists, but that the government has the power to regulate that right to a substantial degree. To see what I mean here, see that “arms” refers not only to firearms but also tanks, nuclear weapons, etc. A fundamentalist view of the second amendment would seem to conclude that private citizens have the right to bear nuclear arms and the government can’t lift a finger to stop them. Since that is obviously absurd, I think any sensible person would agree that government must have the power to regulate the right to bear arms, but that the right exists.

voting rights for DC residents: not statehood, but DC residents must have representation in the Senate and Congress. This is probably best achieved by making DC residents parts of Maryland for voting purposes. Puerto Rico is trickier, because they have the opportunity to vote for independence, and choose not to.

campaign finance reform: unlimited contributions in exchange for 1. full disclosure (in particular, close the loopholes that allow anonymous campaigning) 2. some other possible conditions, like a mandatory "question hour" where politicians have to face interrogation on possible corruption. 3. A minimal but adequate level of public financing for those who have agreed to strict campaign finance limits.

an end to gerrymandering: competitive districts are vital to keeping politicians accountable. true, it might make politicians more desperate, with unpredictable consequences.

Affirmative action: reforming affirmative action so that it 1) helps disadvantaged minorities 2) does not antagonize whites. Perhaps using the military as a model.

feminist issues: equal pay for equal work. feminists say women make much less than men. Critics, say, if you account for differences in consecutive years of work, they make the same. I find this hard to believe, but in any case, we should make it equal pay for equal work experience, regardless of whether or not it is consecutive. also, upper class feminists are obsessed with how many women are CEOS or bigshots in general. this is not as important as the problems of single mothers, divorced women who face substantial income drops, widows below the poverty line, etc. The argument that women ceos will be more empathetic to women's issues is largely bullshit. CEO's are CEO's whether women or men. People at the top should be chosen strictly on merit, though of course diversity *is* often related to merit. For example, the CIA needs to hire more ethnics if it wants to do a better job collecting intelligence.

immigration is the big unresolved issue in American politics. Being the son of an immigrant, I don’t know how native Americans viscerally feel about this issue, so I’m going to defer to others. I would suggest however, that if native Americans completely shut the door on future immigration, America will be losing a part of its soul.

Golden rule:

“Golden Rule” issues are those that require us to make sacrifices for the good of others. Americans are very generous people: They just don’t think government is an effective vehicle for their generosity. But there are some things that can only be done by Governments. We can give a homeless person a meal: we can’t get him a job. Similarly, if we are serious about helping Africa / South America/ Asia / the Carribean, the federal government must play a large role. Private charities tend to be inefficient and piecemeal. Liberals should support “Golden Rule” programs because they are the right thing to do, and also because it will raise their standing with Evangelicals and the religious.

"employer of last resort": guaranteed, sub-minimum wage, above the poverty line, 50 hr a week job;

foreign aid, nation-building, One percent of GDP: Extensive supporting quotes from "the Sermon on the Mount")

education, equal-opportunity programs in general for the poor

opportunity for US servicemen & women to volunteer for humanitarian military interventions (e.g. Rwanda) Right now there is no such volunteer program in place because the military feels it might hurt cohesion.

No state lotteries: gambling is a sin, and government should not be encouraging (or outlawing) sin, even if gambling is a relatively harmless vice in small doses. Our children should go to school on clean tax dollars, not gambling money.