Wednesday, March 26, 2008


It has sometimes been noted that John McCain isn't much of a details man. He speaks of al Qaeda and Iran as one, despite the Shi'ite/Sunni divide. (In fact, this is a complex area and there have been attempts at Islamist action across said divide, but that doesn't justify not knowing about it.) He also doesn't seem to care deeply about economics. He seems more or less willing to go along with fusionist orthodoxy ("conservatism") on most things, but he isn't deeply invested in it.

McCain can most sympathetically be understood using Jane Jacobs' distinction between the "guardian syndrome" and the "commercial syndrome" of morality. Outside the US, the right is almost entirely identified with the latter -- the idea of finding value, of innovation and entrepeneurship, of being self-interested but respectful of the rights of others, and not too concerned with how well they do so long as profitable interaction is possible. In the US too, people like Gingrich and Romney seem to perfectly embody the commercial syndrom of morality, as of course do the doctrinaire libertarians.

The anxiety that McCain speaks to arises from the suspicion that too much commercial success undermines the military virtues that the barbarians outside the commercial gates retain. From this perspective, the problem is not the intelligence of our strategy, but the maintenance of those virtues. Understanding our enemies too much or thinking about the ways we might work with semi-adversaries to isolate them is risky, because guardian virtues are undermined when they are understood. If you analyze honour, loyalty or courage, you lose them.

The position McCain represents is just as dialectical as Obama's. After all, it is the achievements of commercial, scientific and liberal civilization that makes America better than those it is fighting, but it is just those achievements that undermine the pre-commercial, pre-scientific and pre-liberal virtues necessary to fight. McCain has had the imagination to see in some strands of environmentalism and goo-goo political reform seeds of a post-modern guardian morality. Although McCainism tends to declaim against "relativism", it's real target is an excessive attachment to objectivity. Ideally, a soldier fights for what is his because it is his, and cheerfully acknowledges the right of his enemy to fight for what is the enemy's.

Obama's Grand Unified Theory

So what does the "race speech" tell us about how Obama thinks? How does it fit in with the unity-mongering and meeting-with-foreign-dictators stuff?

At bottom, I think Obama's basic theoretical framework is in dispute resolution. The worldview is sometimes attributed to his experience as an organizer, but it could also be that of a corporate litigator. He thinks of the world as filled with non-zero-sum games, in which the win-win alternative of making a deal and dividing the surplus isn't taken because each side is gripped with a narrative that makes rationally self-interested compromise difficult or impossible. The intellectual problem is to look at the interests coolly and dispassionately and see where the surplus-maximizing position lies. But the harder problem is to be sensitive enough to how the identity-constituting stories keep both sides from doing that. It's Harvard Negotiation project stuff, but it also works with who he thinks he is.

Obama doesn't particularly claim to come from nowhere or have no loyalties. He is instinctively cosmopolitan, on-the-left and tied to his adopted black American Protestant identity. But I think he recognizes that to advance the interests he is loyal to requires figuring out what other people's loyalties are, "recognize" them and then figure out how to get to the best possible resolution of the bargaining problem they represent.

Obama loves to put things dialectically. In this, the successful politician he most resembles is Tony Blair. His central rhetorical trick is restating positions he is arguing attractively and strongly, but in such a way that they obviously have limitations he hints at transcending. Dreams From My Father is hardly a black nationalist book -- but it engages very sympathetically with black nationalism, not unlike the way in which Audacity of Hope engages sympathetically but critically with fusionist conservatism. In Dreams, black nationalism is twinned not with white racism, but with the white romantic liberalism of the family he grew up with. The good thing about that liberalism is that it tries to transcend tribalism -- the bad part is that tribalism is too central to the human condition to be transcended. In fact, much of what is most admirable about liberalism comes from the folkways of Northern European Protestants -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

Obama thinks he solves the dilemma by making the same move Rawls made in Political Liberalism towards incompletely theorized common ground across more comprehensive narratives. The master discourse though is narrative negotiation, not procedural justice.

Interestingly, I think McCain also represents a reaction to the dilemma of a universalist liberalism rooted in particularist traditions it is unable to defend. But he responds differently.

Pithier Version for Canadians: Obama isn't Trudeau. He's Mulroney.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

That's One Big Tent

Charles Murray, of all people, thinks Obama's speech on race was the best of any American politician ever.

The Pithlord agrees.

Sympathy for the Devil, Part II: The Case for the Reverend Jeremiah Wright

The only way to make this case is in the geekiest possible manner.

Let A represent the existence of the Reverend.
Let p represent the probability of serious bodily harm to a white person walking in the streets of South Chicago for one hour.

If we look at matters purely from the point-of-view of white America, the basic problem black America presents is not politicization. It's lumpenization. If Reverend Wright takes a gangbanger and makes him a church-going married guy who thinks the US government planned AIDS, white America is better off. (Black America is too, of course, but I'm trying to be hard headed here.)

I get off the "conservative" bus whenever I hear complaints about identity politics. There just isn't any other kind of politics. If an issue of public policy does not seriously intersect with identity, then it isn't a political issue. If there is any merit to democracy at all, it is that it provides a framework in which identity groups can be mobilized and then compromise.

(It isn't directly relevant to this post, but where I get off the "progressive" bus is when I hear complaints about how heinous it is that groups they are opposed to engage in identity politics. Dude, if the Cree can do it, then the white Baptists can do it.)

Identity politics can either be responsible or irresponsible. There is always a bit of a dilemma here, of course. If an identity politician is too responsible, then he or she may no longer be able to represent and mobilize the base. If an identity politician isn't responsible enough, then he or she won't be able to get concessions for said base.

What is the art of statecraft? Finding ways to make the incentives to be responsible better than the incentives to be irresponsible.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ding! Dong! The Pragmatic-and-Functional (sic.) Approach is Dead

Future generations of lawyers will never know how to distinguish the merely unreasonable statutory decision from the patently unreasonable one, since the Supreme Court just abolished the distinction. Thank God.

The Court also made it a little easier to fire non-unionized public sector employees. Some of the stupidity of the Lamer era is finally being dismantled.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Sympathy for the Devil: The Case for Hillary

Like most of my gender and class, I don't care for Hillary Rodham Clinton. I consider myself immune to his rhetorical charms, but Obama can write, and even after 8 years will be quite young, so I can imagine reading his memoirs a decade from now will wile away a lot of time. More importantly, since we cannot really know how politicians will behave in office, elections are most useful to shape their incentives. If Obama wins, it will suggest that supporting imperial adventures is not always good for your career, and that will mean fewer such adventures in the future (whether or not Obama himself will be inclined towards them). Plus, the Clintons are evil.

I hope and trust that the Superdelegates* will be impressed by the above logic, and do the right thing. But I have to admit that financial portfolio theory counts against me. BHO's sigmas are higher. He could do way better than HRC could, but he could also do worse. If a portfolio manager is given the choice between two assets with the same expected value, but with differing variance, and chooses the one with the greater variance, he/she/it is guilty of breach of fiduciary duty. So the Superdelegates should, if the polls continue to show what they do today, pick the castrating she-devel over the Muslim nationalist Manchurian candidates.

Admittedly, if they do, and she wins the general election, I will have to suffer at least twelve years of being profoundly irritated by the American head of state, causing me to avoid television and spend more time with my family. So give generously.

*I am a bit baffled by the word "superdelegates." This is the USA. Surely, all delegates are super!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Eliminate the RRSP contribution limit

Kokkarinen makes the case. I'm not a big fan of those who think we are on the wrong side of the Laffer curve in general. Lower taxes will usually mean lower revenues. But sooner or later, everyone wants to consume their income, so the additional deficits we might have now if we changed from a system with capped RRSPs to a system without them will have no real effect on the government's financial position. Eventually, the money shielded from taxes plus its returns will be taxed. And since the money will probably get a better interest rate than the government pays on bonds, the fisc will be better off, as will everyone else.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

620 Connaught Ltd. -- Good Result, Bad Reasoning

It is often said that the Canadian Constitution has nothing in it to protect property rights. But it is not quite so. There are constitutional restrictions on the ability of both levels of government to impose taxes, and these prohibitions indirectly protect property rights.

The provinces can only impose taxes if they are "direct" and "in the province." The federal government can employ "any mode or method of taxation"; however, the constitution still requires that taxes be set out in a money bill that originates in the House of Commons. Imposing a tax can't be a delegated power to be administered by some government official -- it must be done by Parliament itself. The Victorians who set up this thing thought these restrictions a big deal, since they go back to the English Bill of Rights and the final routing of the papists. "No taxation without representation" resounded in every Anglo place. And even if the restrictions on taking property through taxes are essentially procedural, they still do create a certain requirement of transparency.

However, these restrictions only work if the courts police the boundary of the concept of "taxation". There are no similar procedural restrictions on governments imposing fines or fees or user charges or pricing government property and services or taking property. So if these other ways of getting assets from private hands to the public treasury are not restricted in some way, the requirements for taxation cease to have meaning.

In principle, the courts recognize that non-taxation revenue measures have to be constitutionally scrutinized. Unfortunately, in its latest foray, the SCC gives way too much leeway to the man.

The case involved liquor licensing fees in Jasper National Park. If you want to sell booze in the Park, you have to get a licence, and pay $75 per year plus 3% of the value of sales from spirits and wines and 2% of the value of sales from beer. (The Pithlord complains parenthetically about the populist favouritism to beer drinkers.) Rothstein J. says that this is all OK, and not a tax, so long as the costs of operating the park far exceed the revenues generated.

That seems like the wrong test to me. If this were really about regulatory fees, the issue shouldn't be the cost of the parks as a whole, but the incremental costs of serving alcohol in them. The Feds don't seem to have had any evidence of these, so we get a lot of handwaving about "leeway", which is a bad way of enforcing the constitution.

There might have been a better way to look at this case. All the talk about "regulatory schemes" is a bit off topic, since the Feds' role here is not as regulator but landlord. It owns the park, and is really charging commercial rent. In the absence of monopoly power, the government can't get more out of its contracts than a private owner would anyway. In a sense, any captive audience is subject to monopoly power to some extent (which is why beer costs so much in airports), but since the returns to that monopoly situation will inevitably be extracted by someone (either the licensee or the government), there isn't any reason for the courts to get involved.

If the issue is recast as one of the Feds use of its property, though, it would provide some protection to licensees from regulatory increases in fees if those fees are inconsistent with the original license agreement. The State-as-sovereign can, of course, extract money from people in excess of what it can bargain for, but when it does it starts to look like a tax. So a narrower basis for decision would have been better.

The more significant problem with the decision is that, as written, it applies even to those fees that government charges for actual regulation, which is inevitably monopolistic. The lack of any need for a real link between the fees and the costs created by the party they are imposed is disturbing.