27 December 2005

Nostalgia Economics

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Roger Toussaint could not have chosen a more timely and opportune moment to lead his Local 100 branch of the Transit Workers Union on strike against New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority. His timing was perfect not because of the Christmas holiday, not because of the cold weather or the inconveniences and hardships he and his union and their 34,000 followers imposed on the City – but because at no point in the last decade has the issue of pension and health care costs been as prominently placed within the American political, economic, and social psyche as it is now.

It seems, though, that most Americans are delusional on the subject, or at least in deep denial. Several weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article about Duluth, Minnesota, a town that has apparently woken up to the cost of providing permanent, post-retirement health care for all of its former city employees, and which went on to track similar challenges in municipalities places across the country.1 Meanwhile, changes to Medicare and Medicaid are an evolving, complicated, and expensive proposition, while a “fix” for Social Security remains elusive (mostly because no one in our government seems willing to address it from a practical – as opposed to an ideological – perspective).

Nor could one read a news story about the strike and avoid getting hit with the completely-valid-but-increasingly-tired set of analogies to the crises within the automotive (or airline, or steel) industry. The joke about pensions and our economic future is so obvious that even some lefties are in on this one: Anya Kamentz wrote quite articulately about the strike for the Village Voice, where she has had a regular column addressing economic issues for the young-worker set; in her item from 21 December, “Pensions: Why All You Whipper-Snappers Are Walking to Work,” she mentioned both cars and airlines in the 3rd paragraph.2 This column is as guilty as any, with much space dedicated to the subject of Social Security, General Motors, pensions and retirement planning, etc., in recent months.

There is a reason for all the hullabaloo about how we in these United States (must) approach and address the issue of pensions, retirement funds, and health care (both for current and retired employees) – one to which Toussaint is either intentionally oblivious or merely in deep denial. Put simply: the systems are not sustainable in their present form. More to the point, it is this evident unsustainability – the obviousness with which our health care costs continue to rise, the fact that most Americans have a negative rate of savings, that employer-driven pension programs are dramatically underfunded – that made Toussaint’s and the TWU’s demands that much more galling.

It is a phenomenon I like to call “nostalgia economics” – which means exactly what it sounds like, a longing for what we perceive as the better, old-time economics of a previous era or generation.

So, Toussaint hit the nail on the head, and got quite a loud reaction.


The Times attributed a specific desire to Toussaint’s strike leadership: to keep the MTA from doing what other government agencies and corporations are doing (or at least considering): changing their benefit programs. The paper wrote “But Roger Toussaint, the president of the transit workers' union, said the walkout was aimed at stopping an employer offensive nationwide to cut pensions and other benefits. He said the transportation authority was mimicking corporate America. ‘What you have here is a scandalous attempt on the part of the M.T.A. to jump on the bandwagon,’ he said.”3 As if the TWU, by scrapping the process of binding arbitration and bringing an ungrateful city to a stand-still, would on its own change the course of American capitalism.

The situation is reminiscent of the unrealistic attitude many (western) Europeans have – one that says that after 50 years of relatively cushy, post-WWII, state-supplied benefits, their systems that allow early retirement and lush benefits are somehow immutable, regardless of what other changes may occur within their society or economy.4 Nonsense; it is absurd to say that benefits cannot change when the economic and demographic circumstances that underpin those benefits have changes. If nothing else, two basic facts necessitate modifications to these systems: the general increase in human life expectancy within the industrialized world, and the decline in birthrates in those same nations. Pension funds that once offered 10-20 years of comfortable retirement and now must provide for closer to 30 or 40 years; a retiree at 55, who lives until his or her mid-80s, is significantly more costly, both in terms of pension payouts and medical benefits, than the retiree who dies at 70.

Moreover, if our life expectancy has increased so, the expectation that we should not adjust retirement ages upward as a result is also delusional. Nor is it so absurd to ask that workers, if they wish to sustain an early retirement age like 55, therefore make an increased contribution towards their retirement funds in order to make it possible – or ask that they make the kind of sacrifice that comes with an early-retirement/buy-out package, namely: an overall reduction in benefits.

Even more offensive than Toussaint’s blustery fighting over benefits for current employees was his argument that the salary and benefits packages offered by the MTA must be maintained at the same level for workers who had not even been hired yet; these are the employees Toussaint referred to as the “unborn.” To argue that the MTA has a contractual or fiduciary obligation to live up to the terms of the current agreement and, therefore, not to change benefits for present employees is one thing; a case can be made that the MTA must live with and within the terms to which it previously agreed. However, for the union to demand that benefits must remain static even for employees who do not yet exist on the MTA’s payroll is beyond foolish. Has Toussaint even looked at the mess created by the absurd agreements between the aforementioned automotive or airline industries and their unions?

The TWU worried that to agree to a change in benefits for future workers would create a two-tiered system, with inequalities between workers of different hiring eras – presumably an inequality that would have a negative impact on newer employees. Yes, the idea that there might be a two-tiered system is correct, were the union to agree to changes in benefits. Yet this is no different from any other situation in which a firm hires one employee under somewhat different terms than another, because the needs, abilities, and obligations of the firm change over time. For example, the company that I work for once offered life insurance, but does no longer; but I don't resent my colleagues who joined at an earlier moment, when that benefit was still available; situations change, and so do benefits. (And in a competitive job marketplace, I am also free to look elsewhere for employment if I feel the need.) Furthermore, it is possible that the changes could benefit the newer employees: a switch from a defined-benefit pension plan (as is currently offered) to a worker-driven 401(k) investment model could create opportunities for those workers to control their retirement savings more effectively, as well as providing a source of savings against which they could borrow (e.g., for the purchase of a home). Newer employees might be willing to trade the risks of a 401(k) for the benefits offered by employee control.


The MTA is fundamentally supported by two economic streams: taxes and fares from riders. Any of us who use the MTA are making a choice and deciding to pay the MTA in exchange for the service it provides. But those of us who live in New York also pay for the system implicitly, as part of our taxes. Unlike, say, buying a car, where we have choice – we can decide that the price of a given model is too high, or the quality too low, or we object to the corporation’s (or even the union’s) practices, or we don’t like the pitchman’s tone or the salesman’s suit – and might opt to buy from a different manufacturer, with the MTA and its workers, New Yorkers have no choice. Their raises, their pensions, their health care costs comes from our pockets. That is absolutely as it should be, but that is also absolutely not permission to milk as much from the public purse as possible.

If it is not already clear, the MTA made mistakes here: in decisions about what to do with its surplus (and even in the way it announced it); in the decision to offer riders discounts during the holidays instead of making other investments with those funds; and in the run-up to negotiations as a strike loomed, when it was clear to almost everyone that Toussaint seemed determined to strike. Perhaps that was the MTA’s goal, to rid themselves of Toussaint-the-stickler, by forcing him to over-reach in moving so rapidly towards a strike. This may yet have been a successful strategy.

And cynically, but generally left unstated and uncommented-upon in the current brouhaha, is the obvious fact that a change in benefits might also negatively affect the Transit Workers Union’s own power, and the number of its future members. The union’s relevance is in clear measure tied directly to its ability to control as much about its employees lives as the MTA itself. That is threatened by a two-tiered system of salary and benefits. At a time when unions are very much on the decline in the United States, this is no small matter. It is also no excuse.

“In the harshest possible sense, employees, unions, and investors have all conspired to create the present disaster by choosing, for many years, to ignore the obvious implications of their respective actions, and by pushing for short-term gains without evaluating the real, substantive, long-term impact.” That’s what I wrote several weeks ago, apropos the corporate world – but it is no less relevant for public sector employees. Let me be clear: unions are an important component of an effective work force, they can be valuable in protecting basic rights, preventing unsafe working conditions, etc., etc. None of this, however, justifies behavior that is any more piggish, thuggish, or clueless than that of the union members’ employers, whether public agencies or private corporations. Fighting for one’s rights is essential, and worthwhile; fighting for licensed greed is not. Most of us carry around some nostalgia for “the good old days,” whatever they were to each of us individually; but we cannot go back in time in our economic choices any more than we can in our personal lives. Best to focus on the future in a practical, realistic, and eyes-wide-open manner. “Nostalgia economics” is unlikely to help.

1“The Next Retirement Time Bomb,” by Milt Freudenheim and Mary Williams Walsh, The New York Times, 11 December 2005. [The author is no relation to me.]

2The subject is so compelling that Kamentz is, according to her blog, now the author of a forthcoming book on why the vast population of post-college job-climbers seem (in many cases) so unconcerned about their economic futures. Should be a good read. As for lefties – fear not – The Nation stands firm with the union.

3“Transit Strike Reflects Nationwide Pension Woes,” by Steven Greenhouse, The New York Times, 24 December 2005

4Never mind the phenomenon of “Ostnostalgie,” in which citizens of the former “German Democratic Republic” – that is, East Germany – express their longing for the days of state-sufficiency that kept them happily penurious whilst forcing them to spy on each other. The only economic uncertainty they faced was the open question of when they would be arrested by the Stasi.

Lust For Music

More music over at sascha.com. This time, it's all about Iggy - all about getting your hands on music with energy and vigor. Hypnotized chickens optional.

18 December 2005

Land That I Love

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It is now official: the American system of checks and balances is broken, in three different places.

Within the Executive branch, the story released by The New York Times on Friday, 15 December1 details the first break in the system. According to the paper, President Bush has authorized – and re-authorized, repeatedly – the National Security Agency (NSA) to conduct wiretaps on American citizens without the required, court-provided warrants. Since his election in 2000, President Bush has sought to increase the power and secrecy of the Executive office at ever turn. In almost every case, the American people continue to suffer as a result. Bush has signed “executive orders” prohibiting the release of presidential files for decades, and thus imposing a Soviet-like secrecy upon our understanding of how our own government functions. Bush and his minions have sought to provide a legal rationale for torture. And the President has supported and sustained the creation of a series of legal Catch-22s for anyone who feels wrongly accused: in some instances, the government prosecutor can legally neither-confirm or deny the existence of the very law under which someone has been charged.

For years, Americans suffered through the “Palmer Raids” of the marauding attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer. These were followed (without much distance) by the nearly-interminable era of J. Edgar Hoover as head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), during whose reign massive files were developed on “critics” of the American government in one form or another. In each case, however, governmental over-reach was followed (belatedly) by firm backtracking, and even by new laws clarifying what actions government agencies were allowed to take against Americans. Now, however, the historical tradition of spying on one’s own citizens has merged with a cynical and naïve presidential belief that only one man is qualified to make decisions about our safety and security, and that is President Bush himself. On the basis of information we cannot review or analyze, and despite a growing record of knowingly-false public statements, we are to trust President Bush. We are being asked to believe that Mr. Bush can and should be allowed to break the law (in this case, the Foreign Services Intelligence Act) when and if he deems it necessary.

If it is not obvious, then let it be stated clearly: this is completely contrary to the principles that underline American Constitutional law. The president is bound by the laws of these United States, as passed by the Congress, and as affirmed into law either by presidential signature or by Congressional vote. Here, there is law in effect, passed by Congress and wholly controlling the activities of the National Security Agency in this regard. In fact, the President – this one, and all others – is not sworn to protect and defend the United States, but rather is sworn to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” So, when Mr. Bush says “I authorized the National Security Agency, consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution,” he is, in fact, lying.2 He certainly seems to have authorized the NSA’s actions - but that he did so is not Constitutionally-consistent; rather it is extra-Constitutional and nothing short of a violation of Mr. Bush’ oath of office. Moreover, in basing his actions on his belief that he is sworn to protect the nation, he misplaces the clear and valuable emphasis on how America can best be defended: by upholding the law.


Breaking point number two falls to Congress, for abdicating (and not for the first time under the Bush Administration) responsibility for monitoring whether and how the Executive branch follows the laws passed by the legislature.

At the time of the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, held just a few months ago, one concern expressed most loudly by Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was that Mr. Roberts appeared to take Congress’ authority to make laws too lightly. Specifically, Specter mused that in Roberts’ rulings as a judge, he had often seemed too eager to throw out laws passed by Congress, and had not shown proper deference to the Constitutionally-outlined role of the Congress as the law-making body of U.S. government. These concerns were echoed by other Senators as well.

Fast forward. In the Times’ breaking articles on the subject of the NSA’s domestic intelligence operations, the authors note that several members of Congress – including several high-profile Democrats, like Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator John D. Rockefeller IV – were briefed on the Bush Administration’s plans to circumvent the Foreign Services Intelligence Act and ... did nothing, it seems. Complain, perhaps, but not so that it ever became public. Pelosi, for instance, is quoted thus: “‘The Bush administration considered these briefings to be notification, not a request for approval,’ Ms. Pelosi said. ‘As is my practice whenever I am notified about such intelligence activities, I expressed my strong concerns during these briefings.’”3 In this context, “expressing strong concern” seems to have even less force to it than showing up at a rally or signing an online petition. One wants to ask: Ms. Pelosi, were you previously unaware that the President and his cronies held you and your views to be irrelevant? What could possibly be more serious than an Executive branch that believes it has unhindered powers to spy on Americans? What other action might you have taken, as Minority Leader?

Whether Senator Specter was also informed several years ago that President Bush planned to override U.S. law through an Executive Order remains to be determined. However, at a minimum, one hopes that he will find the same strength of will and purpose needed to follow through on his call for hearings – and that Specter will, once again, assert the rightful role of Congress as the body responsible for creating U.S. law.


Unquestionably, we have The New York Times to thank for the news with which we must now contend. Yet it is difficult not to read the paper’s coverage of this ongoing issue with a tinge – or is that, a twinge – of disappointment. By its own admission, the Times held off publishing the piece for a year: a year during which the Administration continued its activities un-chastened; a year during which the Times was, itself, wrapped-up in a scandal involving truth-telling and the competency of a reporter; and a year that followed the miserable months of 2002 and 2003, during which the paper failed to vet thoroughly information provided by the Bush Administration about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (information, needless to say, that turned out not to be true).

One wants to congratulate the Times for its diligence, for taking the time to research this story thoroughly and for presenting it when they did – just as the USA Patriot Act is being considered for re-authorization. However, this whole episode, along with the paper’s previous reporting in advance of the Iraq war, represents just another shameful episode in American journalism; it is the third break in our system of checks and balances, of which a free and independent media are the recognized fourth column supporting our national structure. The Times is by no means entirely to blame; bad reporting has been rampant, many journalists and editors also failed to detect the bullshit they were handed about Iraq, and still others neglected to note that some of the “news” they were passing off was effectively just a bought-and-paid-for infomercial on behalf of the Bush Administration. But as the so-called “paper of record” in these United States, one has to ask: you couldn’t have conducted this additional research in less time? You couldn’t have spared the American public an additional 12 months of domestic intelligence work, spying activities you knew to be in violation of U.S. law?


President Bush and his cronies have created and perpetuated a number of aphoristic fallacies that seem to inform their every activity. These are: that trust equals secrecy; that secrecy equals protection; and that protection equals responsibility. The wrong-headedness of these sentiments are now in evidence in a President who, exposed publicly for his illegal spying on his own citizens, sees fit to proclaim that he will continue to pursue such activities again and until he, and he alone, sees fit to stop.

1“Bush Secretly Lifted Some Limits on Spying in U.S. After 9/11, Officials Say,” The New York Times, 15 December 2005

2As quoted by The New York Times, “In Address, Bush Says He Ordered Domestic Spying,” by David Sanger, 18 December 2005.


10 December 2005

A Beatles-like Convergence

Need music? Over at sascha.com, The Polyphonic Spree, Elliott Smith, and The Shins converge...

Future Perfect

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my parents started chatting about the choices they now have to make under President Bush’s brilliant new Medicare scheme: what supplementary insurance plan to buy, what benefits they will and won’t have, what kind of paperwork will need to be completed. Fortunately, this was a conversation with someone with great knowledge of the subject – and not with me. I tuned it out. Completely.

It is not as though the changes to prescription and other health benefits for retirees are irrelevant; that’s not at all true. The details are highly relevant, to the poor (figuratively and literally) people who need to sift through the complexities of the system to survive, as well as those of us who are young(er) and employed – we the people who are paying into and, ultimately, now paying for the system, so that we can bankrupt ourselves and our own future. Well, that may not be the purpose, but it is certainly likely to be the effect.

And that is precisely why I tuned out: the details of how the plan works now will be entirely different by the time I am ready to retire or when I am in a position to need the support of Medicare or Social Security. If the plans even exist at that point, which they likely will not. Either way, they are unsustainable in their present form, as the demographics of our nation skew increasingly towards the elderly, as more money is drawn out of the system than can ever reasonably be put in, and as consecutive legions of incorruptibly corrupt Senators, Representatives, and Presidents pander for elderly votes now rather than a more youthful, future prosperity.

Now go one step beyond government entitlement programs to look at personal retirement savings, in whatever form – cash, IRAs, 401(k) plans, and general investments. Hopefully, everyone has some savings of some kind, and makes an effort to build it over the course of their working lifetime. Not that it necessarily matters. The interconnectedness of our financial and entitlement systems simultaneously force us to take advantage of the connections, even as it also endangers us.

The benefits of all these connections are obvious: we save, we invest, we plan, because it is good for us in the long run, and because our tax system (mildly) incentivizes the process. We save because we are told that Social Security may help us, but that our own savings and other supplements to the system will guarantee us more comfort and more economic and social freedom. Our savings are placed in extended growth structures, hopefully to earn more money in the long run than they might, conservatively, in the near term. We buy our homes both because it seems like a good long-term investment, and because our tax system encourages us to do so, if we can. All of this may seem like an issue predominantly left to or discussed among the more educated and high-earning parts of our society, but that is not accurate; union members and others working in different parts of the American industrial and service sectors may receive retirement planning benefits and are encouraged to use them. Even corporations like WalMart are reconsidering the types of benefits they offer to their most entry-level employees (though many employees likely will remain financially unable to take advantage of those benefits; they need to cash just to live).

The dangers to this are equally obvious, though we prefer not to think about them: it could all be worthless. Whatever I imagine I will be able to save for my retirement, no matter how much professional help I receive to encourage me to save, to determine the amounts to be saved, and to guide those investments and manage those funds, a crash of some kind is possible. The need to support an insupportable Social Security, Medicare, or some other hard-to-control element of our economy could force changes that would affect more than those receiving the benefits of those programs – including corporations in which we have investments, and upon whose success we depend financially. Higher taxes or inflation could eat away at our retirement funds or their spending value. Banks could fail, yet insured deposits are only covered to $100,000 – a ludicrously small sum when contemplating twenty or more years of retirement. No portfolio diversification could possibly account for or accommodate all of these theoretical disasters.


A ready-made example exists in the macrocosm of General Motors, a disaster that has been waiting to happen for decades. GM recently announced that it plans to lay off as many as 30,000 employees, and cut a variety of costs, to achieve more than $15 billion in overall savings. As GM’s chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner recently noted in the The Wall Street Journal, talking about the firm’s high health care expenditures for present and past employees, “American auto makers and other traditional manufacturing companies created a social contract with government and labor that raised America's standard of living and provided much of the economic growth of the 20th century. American manufacturers were once held up as good corporate citizens for providing these benefits. Today, we are maligned for our poor judgment in ‘giving away’ such benefits 40 years ago.”1

Well, not quite; GM was forced for create this “social contract” by a powerful labor union and a government that for much of the 20th century supported the union’s activities implicitly. More to the point here is the impact of that “social contract” beyond the world of GM’s own employees – a problem that may well affect our collective future. When GM lays off employees, those employees suffer, and so do the smaller businesses and economies that depended on those GM employees to spend their money in local stores and restaurants. When GM renegotiates pension benefits, retirees suffer (and so do the micro-economies they feed), and so do current employees, who either make greater sacrifices for their own long-term benefit ... or do not. Neither is an ideal situation. When GM’s stock goes up, as a result of the layoffs, a different set of people benefit, even as others suffer.

Little discussion seems to take place about the relative merits of corporate health in one direction or the other, until disaster is imminent: not among the unions, which greedily assume that more benefits for their workers is, by default, better for everyone; and not among the bankers and investors who push GM to take what are presumably called “long-term” steps that may have short- and long-term consequences beyond what they can imagine. In other words, GM's fortunes affect can affect the entire marketplace into which it is tied: employees, dealers, repairmen, parts suppliers, consumers, and of course, investors. Those investors may also be retirees, with no association with or connection to GM except as shareholders; and their long-term financial health may be at odds with the needs of those present or past workers whose jobs, salaries or benefits GM may soon cut.


GM’s Wagoner wrote that “we at GM do not want a [government] bailout” – nor should they receive one. In the harshest possible sense, employees, unions, and investors have all conspired to create the present disaster by choosing, for many years, to ignore the obvious implications of their respective actions, and by pushing for short-term gains without evaluating the real, substantive, long-term impact. Could there possibly be a GM investor who thinks (or, indeed, has thought for years now), in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that bigger, less-well-made, less-fuel-efficient cars and trucks actually had much of a future? How does any investor – never mind a manager or employee or union official – ignore the rise of Toyota and the implications of its success for GM’s many weaknesses?

The fallibility with which GM’s managers, unionized employees, and investors made their respective decisions only proves the equal fallibility of the rest of us, too. We save for our futures because we must, because to do otherwise would be pure folly, and because we hope that our economy and its various elements will all hold together long enough to take us through our own lifetime. Knowing all the variables, recognizing our fallibility, should make us more politically active, more insistent that the problems we can see on the horizon – the problem of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and beyond; problems that bear such a striking resemblance to GM’s current woes – must be addressed. Instead, it seems to make us more complacent, or resigned. Maybe instead of “Future Perfect,” this essay should have been called “Things Fall Apart.”

1“A Portrait of My Industry,” by Rick Wagoner, The Wall Street Journal, 6 December 2005

04 December 2005

Abortive Politicking

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Following the Democrats’ second-wave loss in 2004 – losing the race for the presidency and gaining no ground in Congressional seats – many articles and authors began to suggest that for the Democrats to regain momentum in the future, they would need (among other things) to “get religion,” and begin to acknowledge that there are socially and politically acceptable “liberal” perspectives on abortion other than simply being firmly for its unfettered access.1 It was an intelligent suggestion, a nuanced acknowledgment of both the divisions within the Democratic party and the varied perspectives of many Americans (regardless of party). However, as we have seen from the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, and in the building discussions around Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito, the Democrats seem to have rejected the idea; instead, Democrats are doing everything they can to make blind abortion politics central to the party’s approach once again.

This is a mistake. One obvious reason why this is wrong-headed are the very real divisions on the issue. Reasonable people should be able to agree that abortion is bad – which is to say, that no one should wish the need for or act of an abortion on any woman. Regardless of whether one believes in life-at-conception, or takes a more distanced view of the fetus as subservient to the woman bearing it, an abortion is a serious and invasive medical procedure and not one to be pursued lightly. Moreover, more effective sex education – pairing the idealistic goal of abstinence with a realistic acceptance that people do have sex and should “protect” themselves – might help reduce the need for abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Were Democrats to admit more openly that all this is true – in effect, to take the battle for abortion beyond the currently-limited view, and to accept that people who find the idea of abortion troubling may not be inherently bad people – they might be more successful politically, and attract conservative values voters who are put off by the party’s un-nuanced insistence on unfettered access to abortion services. Senator Hillary Clinton has been among the most vocal proponents of this approach, one that should be picked up and more widely emulated by other Democrats.

Stuck In A Moment

Instead, the traditional Democratic approach remains the current one, and it can be seen most clearly in Congress, in the discussions around Supreme Court appointments and the question of whether any new Justice will form a majority that rejects Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established (weakly) a Constitutional right to abortion. To be sure, the Democrats are not alone; the Republicans have made abortion as much of an issue as anyone. The lefty perspective seems to be that fire must be met with fire: for each realization that a nominee personally favors restrictions on abortion, there must be an admission that, according to the principle of respect for legal precedent, the law behind Roe v. Wade is well-established and therefore not to be questioned. From Roberts to Miers to Alito, unless readers go beyond the headlines to seek out information about these nominees’ other perspectives on the law, one might assume that this is the single most important issue Constitutional issue around.

There are a number of reasons for this blindness. One mis-perception played on most heavily by the left is that a reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision means the end of abortion access in the United States. This simply is not true. The famous Supreme Court decision established that abortion is considered a right at a Federal level, reducing the ability of the states to legislate how and under what circumstances it is performed in their own realm. But over-turning this (poorly-grounded) Supreme Court decision only means that the states would once again have the ability to make more of their own decisions about abortion writ-large. The likely result is that some states certainly would pass laws blocking most or all abortion services – and many others would not; conservative states might adopt restrictive legislation, liberal ones may not. While this is unquestionably not beneficial to women in conservative states who need an abortion, and will have broad social consequences for many Americans, it simply does not represent the whole-sale banning of abortion access that Democrats lead people to believe will occur of the Roe v. Wade precedent is overturned.

But What About...

More to the point, the Democratic obsession with abortion undermines the party’s success on other issues – and in particular seems to cloud the judgment of how to handle Supreme Court nominees on these points. Of the many issues that may be before the Court in the coming years, questions about the erosion of basic freedoms and liberties (as represented by the USA Patriot Act, or recent efforts to overturn habeas corpus requirements), the movement towards greater government secrecy (e.g., the Bush-Cheney victory on concealing the workings of the administration’s energy task force), the role of religion in public life, and even the relative weight of the rights of individuals versus businesses, are all subjects of a pressing nature. Yet these other issues appear to go largely unexplored in public hearings, and in news coverage of those hearings, with abortion taking center stage as the key battle over whether or not to vote against – or filibuster – a nominee. This despite the fact that Roberts, Miers, and Alito have all been involved in controversial decisions on many of these issues, with broad ramifications for Americans.

So, one must ask: How valuable is abortion access relative to the many other freedoms Americans enjoy – and which are under threat? It isn’t that abortion should be restricted; abortion should not be broadly restricted. But it should also be kept in perspective as one right among many – even (if not especially) for women; there are other areas of daily life where women also need to continue to secure their rights, from treatment in the workplace to the handling and adjudication of sex crimes. At the same time, abortion must also be recognized as an issue where there can be legitimate emotional and religious differences of opinion, among individuals and within and among communities. Americans must find a way to strike a balance that does not allow one individual’s choices to be constrained, but is respectful of opposing points of view.

Y Chromosomes

As a man, my perspective may be anathema to women. But, again, I am not suggesting that abortion be restricted. Rather it is that in a large – and growing – series of political battles taking place in America, the Democrats’ energies are misplaced when Roe v. Wade is publicly positioned and defended as the only sacred object of American jurisprudence. As it stands, Democrats are positioning themselves to lose the near-term battle – after all, they were unable to stop Roberts, and Alito looks relatively secure – as well as the broader war.

1See for example “If I Had Hillary Clinton’s Ear,” by Michael Slackman, The New York Times, 5 December 2004 and “Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion,” by David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, 17 November 2004; and “Democrats Map Out a Different Strategy; The 2008 nominee must appeal to red states, analysts say. Hillary Clinton may not qualify.”, by Peter Wallsten and Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2004.

New Look – Same Great Taste

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Back in May 2003, I wrote about being bugged by a friend to switch to the more technically-sophisticated “blogging” technology used by most web logs – specifically, I wrote about my resistance to such a change, arguing that the ease of site maintenance for my system made the switch unnecessary. It was true then, and it is true now. But...

The proliferation of RSS, or “real simple syndication,” has changed the name of the game. For those unfamiliar with the technology, RSS allows many common e-mail programs and web browsers to pull content from a web site when it is updated; instead of going to check on a site, you can have the content delivered to you, and without providing an e-mail address to do so. The technology for RSS has been around for some time, but until last week, no one had asked me about whether my site could be accessed this way. Then, someone did; and that question dovetailed with my own interest in trying to expand opportunities for my readers. Hence the changes you may have noticed to the site design – and some comments on those changes:

  • First of all, for anyone who wants to add this site to their news readers/RSS systems, the URL for that is: http://www.thetruthasiseeit.com/atom.xml. I do consider the addition of RSS to be a definite improvement!1

  • Likewise, Blogger.com’s system provides an easy interface for reader comments. So, comment away.

  • All of the old content is still accessible: on the upper right side of the page are links to the original site archives, organized by date. As content grows under the new structure, I will evaluate whether that old-style archive continues to be useful.

Finally, I should address the issue I raised back in 2003: the technology. In fact, I have written a number of times about the challenges humans face when using new technologies, and of avoiding a situation where those new tools quickly become more burdensome, demanding, or degrading than they are helpful. We humans are not always so good at controlling our impulses, and technology can exacerbate our worst instincts. Still, I also believe that we can control ourselves, and our various tools, if we try. Switching to a more sophisticated blogging software will not, I expect, change my writing habits much; I remain as interested in writing thoughtfully and engagingly about politics and culture as I was beforehand. I am no more or less likely to post new content more frequently than once a week. And posting to the site may be easier, but the process of thinking and writing remains the primary challenge – at least for this site. Which, like it or not, I can now truly call a “blog.” I hope you enjoy it.

1Ok, technically, this is an “Atom” feed, not an RSS feed. But it should make no difference to you, dear reader. For additional information on using RSS/Atom feeds, see the following:

For Mozilla’s Thunderbird (e-mail): http://opensourcearticles.com/articles/introduction_to_thunderbird_8

For Mozilla’s Firefox (web browser): http://kb.mozillazine.org/RSS:_Live_Bookmarks_overview_%28Firefox%29#How_to_add_a_Live_Bookmark

Microsoft Outlook does not support RSS on its own, but Microsoft does offer offer add-on programs; see: http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/assistance/HA011750001033.aspx.

03 December 2005

The Imminent Collapse of the Law

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Reading all of the hullabaloo about the so-called-theory of “intelligent design” – and the ardent desire of many of this nation’s Christians to turn back the clock on our use and understanding of science – can leave a person with a raw, gnawed-at feeling. There are many good articles1 about the absolute hogwash of “intelligent design,” so this article shall not recount those arguments. Yet what seems so far to be unexplored, and possibly of greater concern than the attacks on Darwinian evolution or the basic tenets of scientific methodology, is what “intelligent design” also suggests must change in our understanding and practice of law. If “intelligent design” is accepted in American schools as a valid theory to explain the origins of the universe – accepted as science – then must we not also consider its approach to interpreting data as valid in court?

In the U.S. courts, at both the state and Federal levels, criminal and civil litigation proceeds based on a burden of proof: the understanding and interpretation of evidence presented by plaintiffs or prosecutors (or, also, by defendants) that seeks to show – to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the famous phrasing – responsibility for a particular allegation. Proof may take the form of an object identified with a particular act (e.g., a blood-stained knife, a letter revealing criminal intent), the testimony of a witness, or the testimony of an “expert witness,” a professional in a specific field whose knowledge can help interpret and support (or rebut) the presentation of other evidence. Once the evidence has been presented, a judge or jury is then responsible for making a decision about a claim based on the strength of that evidence. This entire process is founded on reason and logic, and it is one of the great strengths of the American legal system that claims made against a person must meet a certain threshold of proof: that the burden rests with the accuser to prove guilt.

Imagine, though, what would happen if American courts accepted explicitly, and as a matter of common understanding, that not all actions are provable. Or if all evidence presented in court – no matter how logical, no matter how much it is based on testable proof, no matter how much such evidence relies on accepted science – can be considered implicitly suspect. Or if judges and juries were allowed (or even encouraged) simply to chose not to believe what would otherwise be considered conclusive evidence, not because they can disprove it but because it contradicts their faith. To some degree, all of this happens already: juries and judges do decide that evidence is questionable, that a witness’ testimony is difficult to believe, or that the assembled facts fall short of the sufficient burden of proof. Yet as citizens, we trust that these decisions, whether we consider them favorable or not, are largely made from a basis of reason, according to evidentiary standards grounded in commonly-accepted science.

Take, for example, paternity lawsuits. As a society we – and our courts – have come to accept that the scientific understanding of deoxyribonucleic acid is “true,” is provable, and that the similarities or differences between two DNA samples can reveal whether those samples are from the same person, from people related by blood, or from genetically unconnected individuals. DNA comparison tests are used in a number of different legal contexts, including to prove paternity – to determine who is the father of a child. Under an “intelligent design”-informed courtroom, however, this process must be discarded, or at least seriously questioned, since a very similar kind of DNA analysis also shows that humans and apes are related genetically. If the DNA analysis that points to the genetic and evolutionary connections between humans and apes is not acceptable to “intelligent design” theorists, the same DNA test that implicates someone’s paternity cannot be valid either. While this will surely delight those men who seek to escape the burdens of fatherhood, woe to the good Christian whose claim of paternity is rejected by a court despite DNA evidence, solely because another man testifies that he believes he himself is the father. Biology be damned.

Perhaps, though, the DNA example is not sufficient; after all, the “intelligent design” theory accepts that there may be connections between human life and other species; it just believes that these connections are the result of that “intelligent designer’s” handiwork. And so DNA may be one such element, a trail left behind by the “designer” to mislead us, to make us exaggerate the implications of such a genetic connection between humans and apes.2 Where, then, does one draw the line with “intelligent design,” to demarcate the realms in which proof of various kinds is tested and then accepted at face value – or is denied because it does not meet the needs of religious belief? At a very basic level, if the responsibility for the creation of humanity rests with an external (if unidentifiable) “designer,” then how can any individual be held responsible for their actions, no matter what the proof? Should each of us be allowed to argue that our actions, goals, and motivations cannot be understood by anyone, ourselves included, because they are the work of the intelligent designer responsible for our very being? Should we be absolved of responsibility for our actions on the basis of such a claim?

The long-term impact of “intelligent design” on science will be negligible, because the foundations of science are long-standing and strong, and will continue in other nations not infected by the viral mythology of this mock-scientific theory and its Christian-American religious motivations. Even the change in the American scientific community is likely to be minimal, since some states (and cities and counties) will reject the teaching of “intelligent design,” while the children who learn it will ultimately be forced to accept its irrelevance should they choose to pursue careers in biology, medicine, physics, or other hard sciences. The law, though, may be less firm; it is more mutable, may be more susceptible to new interpretations, and relies heavily on precedent. All we need now is a civil or criminal court case in Kansas, or elsewhere, to reject the obvious in favor of the intangible – to embrace the idea that it is acceptable to reject all proof in favor of an intangible but deeply-held belief – and we will be on our way to a whole new nation. Certainly one that the very intelligent designers of our Constitution surely never imagined.

1Link to Reason article: http://www.reason.com/cy/cy111505.shtml and http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/17/AR2005111701304.html

2Why would the “designer” want to mislead its creatures? Perhaps it is a whimsical and capricious being, such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. (http://www.venganza.org/)

[Originally written and posted 20 November 2005]

Nanny v. Clergy

By A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

One large complaint of America’s so-called conservatives – those who claim the mantle of “fiscal” or small-government Republicans and those who fall into the Moral Majority class of GOPers – has long been that what Democrats and liberals have created is the “nanny” state. Their clever term is meant to suggest that what American lefties want (and have, to some degree, achieved) is a kind of socialist state super-structure that looks after the specific needs of its citizens the way a nanny would watch over her young charges. For the Republicans, the implication is that the American left does not think citizens capable of guarding their own basic self-interests and needs, from housing to medical care. To a great degree, in fact, they are correct; the lefty perspective on how to “help” people can be seen as paternalistic and controlling.

In response to the lefty-nanny state, the Republicans have spent more than forty years working on their own model, funding think tanks and investing in media networks, waiting for the day they could push their proposal to the fore. Oddly, however, despite decades of work – hours and hours developing theory, days and days spent at conferences, and word after word after word of foaming manifesto – the GOP government model is very similar to the Democrats’ version. It just has a different name.

The Republican version? It is called the “clergy” state. Now, do not confuse this terminology with a “theocracy,” such as can be found in Iran; a theocratic state is clearly at odds with the American Constitution, and few things are more precious to Republicans than that document. Rather, the theory behind the clergy state is more straightforwardly moralistic and less governmental: leaders (also known as politicians) should stand upright and tell citizens what to do, remind them of the consequences of not acting as they suggest, and then leave them alone. That’s the theory; just like with church (or synagogue, or a mosque), the GOP wants politicians to stand up, give direction, and step aside.

No, really, it’s true. Republicans do not want a theocracy; Constitutional issues aside, a theocracy is unhelpful because it demands an essential level of confrontation with every opposing perspective, and the state must always be the victor. A theocracy cannot tolerate even the concept of dissent, never mind whether that dissent is valid or representative of widely-held views. (In this, theocracies share characteristics with so-called “permanent revolutionary” governments such as the old Soviet totalitarian model, China, or the Iranian socio-theocracy, which cleverly combines both religious devotion, socialism, and permanent-revolutionary zeal.) Nor do Republicans want a return to the full-on paternalism of an earlier age, even though it sometimes appears so. After forty years of civil rights legislation and other protections of the lefty nanny state, the GOP has realized that not everyone will do as they ask, and that is no longer the true goal.

Indeed, the clergyman-politicians of the GOP, and the theorists behind them, are increasingly comfortable with the idea that there might be “offenders” – people who are simply unable or unwilling to follow the recommendations of those who know best. They accept this implicit dissent because they need it, because the people who fail – who fail to follow the rules, who fail in life – provide useful examples of what not to do, how not to live. It almost looks like a pyramid: the misery of the poor helps keep the middle class above them in line; the struggles of the middle class helps to support the ongoing success and exponentially-increasing wealth of the elites at the top. For Republicans, there is great comfort to be found in all of this because it does so closely mirror the workings of the Bible, where the righteous are saved and the sinners are damned, and that is basically that. (Well, it mirrors the Old Testament, anyway; it is hardly Christ-like.)

So you see, don’t you, why things are the way they are in the United States these days. The mess we are in is similar to the horrors witnessed by Martin Luther in the 16th century, when he realized the scope of the corruption in the Catholic Church and rebelled against what he saw as the “sale” of the sacrament to the wealthy. President Bush fancies himself a pope, an infallible interpreter of law, deed, and history. In his Veterans Day speech this year, the President said “Evil men obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience must be taken very seriously, and we must stop them before their crimes can multiply.”1 Indeed! Bush noted that “Like the ideology of communism, our new enemy pursues totalitarian aims. Its leaders pretend to be an aggrieved party representing the powerless against imperial enemies.” How true! He continued “And our debate at home must also be fair-minded. One of the hallmarks of a free society and what makes our country strong is that our political leaders can discuss their differences openly, even in times of war.” But, of course! The President solidified the point by noting that “While it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my decisions or the conduct of the war, it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.” And President Bush concluded his speech with this point: “We do know the love of freedom is the mightiest force of history, and we do know the cause of freedom will once again prevail.”

Think about that “once again.” One wonders where freedom has gone to in the meantime. Perhaps it is hiding under the skirts of that voluptuous nanny the Republicans hope will soon be unemployed – hiding there along with opportunities for health care for all Americans, and the ability to earn a decent wage, and the right to make decisions about one’s own life according to one’s own values. So you see, don’t you, why things are the way they are in the United States these days. If only we (the people) would do as they (our clergy-politicians) say, it would all be so much easier. And what with all this talk of “evil” and “enemies,” and the grand, moralistic vision for how everyone should act, well, any resemblance to a theocracy is purely coincidental.

1A transcript of President Bush’s speech can be found via The New York Times, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/11/international/11bush-transcript.html?pagewanted=print

[This post originally written and posted 13 November 2005]