Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘Boundaries of the possible

Why I Can’t Stand Disney

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I can’t stand Disney. At one time, I had difficulty articulating why. But it came together when I read Jennifer Hochschild making this point a while ago.

The theme of most Walt Disney movies boils down to the lyric in Pinocchio: “When you wish upon a star, doesn’t matter who you are, your dreams come true.”

Nonsense of course. It does matter who you are, not because people get what they deserve, but because things are not fair. And wishing is worthless, fighting for it is what matters – fighting with others.

When we organize, our dreams have a chance of coming true.

Written by David Kaib

May 19, 2014 at 11:10 am

On Harry Reid’s Opposition to (Some) Plutocrats

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Not long ago, elite Democrats began to reflect the concerns of ordinary people by talking about rampant and increasing inequality. This is a particularly good frame for Democrats seeking public support, but they soon abandoned it in favor of more bland talk about ‘opportunity’.  I suspect this is because ‘inequality’ is a very bad frame for anyone seeking support from financial elites–the donor class–which is necessary but often ignored in our talk about politics. As I’ve insisted repeatedly, our political talk often begins from the premise that the public drives politics and policy, while certain things (like money) can  interfere in this process. But in reality, money drives much of the process, with the public having influence within the bounds set by money. That is, assuming they have any influence at all. Organized people can beat organized money, but people who aren’t organized don’t stand a chance. And that describes most of us, most of the time.

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Written by David Kaib

May 12, 2014 at 10:44 am

Public Support for Abortion Rights and the Perils of “Support”

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Jodi Jacobson, at RH Reality Check, talks about the disconnect between the public and politicians on abortion, which touches on something I’ve been emphasizing here.

Consistent rejection by actual voters of attempts to give the state control over women’s bodies tells us three things. One, polls that attempt to divide people into neat boxes such as “pro-choice” and “pro-life” or to measure support for hypothetical restrictions on abortion in generic terms do not reflect how people really feel about safe abortion care. In fact, when asked specifically about who should make decisions on how and when to bear children and under what circumstances to terminate a pregnancy, voters make clear they do not want to interfere in the deeply personal decisions they believe belong between a woman, her partner and family, and her medical advisers, even in cases of later abortion. In short, voters do not want legislators playing god or doctor.

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Written by David Kaib

November 22, 2013 at 9:24 am

To Change the Education Narrative, Build a Movement

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Fund Our Schools

This morning there was a great segment on the Melissa Harris Perry Show where she interviewed Diane Ravitch about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.  I’ve had my disagreements with Harris Perry over education in the past. But it’s obvious that she cares deeply about public education. And it’s been clear to me that, even when her guests have largely accepted the frames of choice and accountability and crisis, she has remained skeptical. Given the dominance of the position Ravitch criticizes, it was nice to have a segment where she, later joined by Pedro Noguera and Trymaine Lee, could lay out the critique of the corporate education reform movement and discuss some of the impacts on students.

That said, there was one question posed by Harris Perry that didn’t get addressed, that I wanted to offer my own answer. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Chained CPI, Social Insurance and Two Kinds of Politics

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Social Security was enacted in response to mass mobilization. It can only be saved through mass mobilization.

The president’s new budget proposal includes both Chained CPI, a cut in Social Security benefits, and cuts in Medicare benefits.  As Shawn Fremstad  notes, the White House’s assurances that the ‘most vulnerable’ will be protected are not to be taken seriously.

It’s troubling for any number of reasons, including that the defenses offered are nonsense.  Chained CPI is arguably a more accurate measure for working people, but the existing measure clearly underestimates inflation for seniors, who spend far more of their income on health care, where costs are rising faster. Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit, which doesn’t matter (at least at the moment), and no one actually cares about it, and Medicare costs could be dealt with through costs controls rather than benefit cuts. Read the rest of this entry »

Rob Portman, Strategy, and Politics of Character

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[Update: via Dan Nexon, check out this post on this issue by David Meyer, Coming Out and Opinion Change.]

This week, conservative Senator Rob Portman announced his support for marriage equality.  Portman reported that his experience with his own son was the catalyst for his change of position.

Marriage Equality Act vote in Albany NY on the evening of July 24, 2011 photographed by the Celebration Chapel of Kingston NY

The moment of the Marriage Equality Act vote at the capitol building in Albany NY June 24, 2011. In the balcony of the chambers. photographed by the Celebration Chapel of Kingston NY.

“I’m announcing today a change of heart on an issue that a lot of people feel strongly about,” Portman said. “It has to do with gay couples’ opportunity to marry. And during my career in the House and also last couple years here in the Senate, you know, I’ve taken a position against gay marriage, rooted in part in my faith and my faith tradition. And had a very personal experience, which is my son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay and that it was not a choice and that, you know he, that’s just part of who he is, and he’d been that way ever since he could remember.”

Portman said his son’s revelation led him to drop his opposition to same-sex marriage. “And that launched an interesting process for me, which was kind of rethinking my position,” he said. “You know, talking to my pastor and other religious leaders and going through a process of, at the end, changing my position on the issue. I now believe people ought to have the right to get married.”

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Written by David Kaib

March 18, 2013 at 6:32 pm

A Condition is Not a Problem: The Impact of Sandy

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[Update: I follow up on this post here, with a bit more on the political aftermath.]

There is an old saw in political science that difficult conditions become problems only when people come to see them as amenable to human action. Until then, difficulties remain embedded in the realm of nature, accident, and fate—a realm where there is not choice about what happens to us. The conversion of difficulties into problems is said to be the sine qua non of political rebellion, legal disputes, interest group mobilization, and of moving policy problems onto the public agenda.  Deborah Stone, “Causal Stories and the Formation of Policy Agendas” (1989).

What this means is that – despite the way we often talk about policy making both in political and academic discussions – it isn’t the case that facts lead simply to political action.  It’s quite common for some serious condition to fail to crack the agenda.  When it does, it won’t be simply because the condition has gotten worse, or because science gives us a clearer or more certain picture of it. Instead, the translation of a condition to a problem is a political process, a product of intentional action.  It isn’t natural – it doesn’t just happen.

I couldn’t help but think about this as countless people in my twitter feed either insisted that Hurricane Sandy would finally lead us to take climate change seriously, while others asked if we would as if it was simply a matter of how others reacted.  Either way, this is a wrong-headed way to think about it.  But it is also an extremely common one.

Underlying such statements is often a general model, one familiar to political scientists, although we often don’t make it explicit.  In this model, conditions are noticed by the public, which leads to changes in public opinion. This puts new issues onto the agenda, both terms of news coverage and formal government activity (committee hearings, government reports, bill proposed).  Interest groups form to champion the cause, or existing groups adopt the cause as their own, as long as voters are interested. Politicians, being driven largely by concern for re-election (here, meaning pleasing voters, which is not in fact necessarily the same thing) seek to take leadership roles on the issue.  If they don’t, they are punished at the ballot box, since unorganized voters have all the power.  Either way, this leads to a formal decision specifying some policy change. (‘Policy’, meaning a good faith effort to solve some commonly accepted problem through rules, rather than shifting decision-making to some other entity, and only secondary concern with the economic benefits to different corporations or industries that result).

Spelled out, it sounds naive.  And it is, which is why it’s rarely spelled out.  But this model is implicit in a great deal of our political talk.  Many others would take issue with some element of it, yet it still provides the assumed starting point.  And it makes effective action quite difficult, because the picture it paints is actually a formalization of a series of legitimations about separation of powers and democracy rather than a realistic or useful model of how politics works.

OF course, many people realize all this.  Bill McKibben notes the standard approach to these sorts of disasters is using the example of gun violence to introduce his point about climate change.

Crises come with a predictable dynamic in this country: 1) Gunman opens fire in crowded school/theater/shopping mall 2) anguished op-ed columnists say we should talk about gun control 3) we don’t. Now, in fact, we often collapse two and three—the anguished columnists just write about how we should talk about gun control, but of course we won’t.

Rejecting the dynamic for McKibben includes worrying less about the media, formal decision makers and ‘public opinion’ and more about aggressively challenging those with the real power.

So maybe this time, instead of waiting for history to repeat itself fruitlessly, it’s time to go where the action is and tackle the fossil fuel industry. 350.org, the global climate campaign I helped found, is launching a 20-cities-in-20-nights roadshow the night after the election in Seattle. We’re doing it no matter who wins, because we want to target the real players: each night, around the country, we’ll be engaging students from the local campuses, planting organizers in an effort to spark a divestment movement like the one that helped bring down apartheid (during the Reagan administration, with a GOP Congress).

I make no predictions about whether this will be successful. But I do think that changing how these problems are approached is essential. And maybe in doing so, people would come to a more nuanced understanding of how politics works, one that is less rooted in the civics textbook understanding of politics and a purely partisan lens. and more in an understanding of the vast power corporations hold not only over formal decisions, but the formal agenda and even what sorts of solutions can be discussed or held to be out of bounds and unreasonable.

Just because we can’t afford not to do this doesn’t mean we will. It is still a choice.

Written by David Kaib

October 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm

When is a Cut not a Cut? Framing and Medicare

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Scott Lemieux points to the confusion over “cutting” Medicare, arguing that not all cuts are created equal.

There’s nothing wrong with Medicare cuts per se; indeed, spending less per capita on Medicare should be a progressive goal. It’s a question of what these cuts mean. Evidently, cutting payments to the rentiers Republicans have sought to reward through Medicare Advantage is an unequivocally good thing. And reductions in payments to hospitals that come because there are fewer uninsured patients that hospitals have to treat are also a good thing. And this is what the Medicare cuts Obama supported come from. The Medicare cuts Ryan supports, conversely, come from requiring people to pay much more out of pocket for the same things, preventing them from getting insurance that will get the same things covered, or denying them the ability to get insurance at all.

I agree on the substance, but I think we need to rethink our terminology. Talk of ‘good cuts’ is counterproductive.  You can’t use the same word to denote taking benefits away from people that you use for delivering the exact same benefits for a better price. Those who oppose social insurance but want to shift as much public money into corporate hands as possible (that is, proponents of the Predator State) have an obvious interest in conflating the two. Those who want to protect Social Security and Medicare need to be a lot clearer about the difference.

Personally, I think “cuts” implies “benefits cuts” to most people, so I’d use it that way – always including the word benefits. Talk of saving money shouldn’t be referred to as a cut – and should always mention that it’s delivering the same benefits more cheaply. You should also always mention that Medicare is already providing health care more efficiently than the corporate insurance sector, misleadingly called the private sector.  Talk of Social Security cuts (which as Scott notes, are different, in that it’s always about a cut in benefits), in any form, should make one a social leper.  In essence, if you don’t want something to have a chance of happening, then you don’t want it to be floated without a massive freakout.  The reaction to such suggestions is how people know the boundaries of the possible. But ambiguity makes that more difficult.

Clarity is important both for getting the public engaged on this issue, where they are far more progressive than official Washington. It’s also important for ensuring accountability for those who present themselves as our allies.

Written by David Kaib

August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am

Economic Rights Must Be Contested

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Mike Konczal has a good post asking What Policy Agenda Follows From “You Didn’t Build That?” It’s well worth reading (and not just for all the great FDR quotes), and I agree wholeheartedly with the rejection of the idea that economic rights are pre-political and natural.  But I have one objection.

And so “liberty” for one comes at an expense of “liberty” for another. Since there’s no neutral way for the government to set these rules, certainly no abstraction like “economic liberty” to guide the path, the question over social control of property, as Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse put it, is “not of increasing or diminishing, but of reorganizing, restraints.” The issue here isn’t that everything is up for grabs – it’s that there is no “neutral,” and appealing to higher abstractions as “rights” or “ownership” don’t get you anywhere.

Now it’s true that there’s no neutral way to settle these questions.  But politics is rarely about neutral terms.  Liberty, like freedom and equality, are what Gallie called inherently contested concepts (pdf).  They are terms that have a evaluative dimension, that have a relatively uncontested core, but extensions will be disputed.  As Lakoff has long argued, it won’t do to abandon terms that are contested.  That just allows conservatives to advance their own vision of these terms.  It strikes me that conservatives have long since figured out that they can make anything contested simply by contesting it, which is a central way they seek to change the boundaries of the possible.

Because the New Deal ultimately rested on the Constitutional foundation of the Commerce Clause, it’s easy to forget that activists didn’t.  They relied instead on a contested version of economic freedom,  drawing on the Thirteenth Amendment, barring slavery and involuntary servitude, to justify labor rights and government efforts to manage the economy to ensure it met human needs and human dignity.* (By the way, Balkin and Levinson have a new paper on The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment I haven’t had a chance to check out but looks very interesting).

The conservative view of liberty is one of  domination–that employers should be free to dominate their employees, that the ability of capital to organize in corporations is a fundamental right but the ability of workers to organize in unions violates the rights of employers, that the right of the rich to further enrich themselves at the expense of workers inheres in the right of property while the right of workers to make enough to live is “socialism.”  Oligarchy unchecked by government or free association by workers.

Personally, I don’t believe that is an attractive view. And I don’t think most Americans think so either. But they rarely hear it put in such stark terms.  Bu they will only hear it if we engage in vigorous contestation. Avoiding contestable terms gets in the way of that, as does allowing the limits of the politics of the day to narrow our own conversations about what is to be done.

*The same thing happened during the Civil Rights Movement, where activists drew on notions of freedom and equality (not just the latter) and the Equal Protection Clause (which clearly requires government to affirmatively use law to protect people, not simply refrain from discriminating itself) but the DOJ and ultimately the Supreme Court relied on the Commerce Clause.

Written by David Kaib

July 25, 2012 at 12:11 am

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