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My Life

Right, then. I'd been meaning to say something about this book. I think it's best to really think of it as two books rolled into one. The first one, about Clinton's days as a rising politico in Arkansas are quite good. The main limitation here is that it's a book about Arkansas politics in the 1970s and 1980s which is not the most inherently fascinating topic in the world. Still, I'm interested in the question of where politicians who aren't just leaping into the family business come from and how they get ahead, so I found this interesting. You get a lot of good memoirish stuff here about Clinton's relationship with his sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries within Arkansas progressive politics -- William Fulbright, Dale Bumpers, Dave Pryor, Jim Guy Tucker, etc. -- along with things about his adversaries on the other side, and the friends and allies he made in other states.

The second book, about his presidency, is rather more disappointing. The Starr stuff is fine, as far as it goes, but if you want to read about this you should really read The Hunting of the President and if you've read Hunting you really don't need to hear what Clinton has to say about it. The parts that deal with substantive policy and politics, on the other hand, are really quite disappointing. The trouble is that nothing gets explained, instead you just kind of have this blow-by-blow account of federal government related stuff that happened in the nineties. If you don't know what stuff happened, you might learn a thing or two. Or else you might just get confused, I couldn't really say. But if you're looking to really learn anything about what Clinton thought -- hoping to get an inside look at the process -- which would seem to be the merits of a Clinton-authored memoir, you don't get it. It's just sort of "John said X, Jane said Y, so I did (X or Y) because (John or Jane) was right." There's no real account of what happened, arguments aren't really put forward, etc. The fundamental flaw here is that whenever Clinton is talking about people who are still influential in left-of-center politics he wants to be uniformly nice about them.

One assumes that this is motivated by a desire to consolidate his position as an "elder statesman" in the Democratic Party and to avoid harming his wife's political career. Those are both reasonable priorities, but the right way to deal with them would have been by not writing the memoir until such time as he felt ready to really tell us what he thinks. Instead everyone is his "close friend and frequent golfing partner" no on turns out to have been an idiot, an asshole, or just really brilliant at X but totally lacking understanding of Y. There's no bitching and no moaning, which means that there's no real praise of anyone either, because no one can stand out in the sea of banal niceties.

I would imagine that most presidential memoirs are like this, though I haven't read any, but it makes for pretty disappointing reading. So far, then, Joe Klein's The Natural is the best book about the Clinton years of which I'm aware, which is unfortunate, because I think a better, longer, more thorough book is needed. Maybe someday....

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (88) | TrackBack

Hewitt and Armitage

Check out Hugh Hewitt's interview with Deputy Secretary of State Dick Armitage . . . in an interesting way, Armitage seems to be pretty consistently taking less pro-administration stances than Hugh is.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (95) | TrackBack

Belton's Dilemma

Patrick thinks he's holding to the "pessimistic response," but I find that what really gets people in those circumstances down is considering the possibility that they're just kind of girly.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack


Julian Sanchez writes:

I'm always a little puzzled by a rhetorical strategy I occasionally encounter in friendly political arguments. I'll often, unsurprisingly enough, end up taking a libertarian position, and midway through the back-and-forth, my interlocutor will respond with something like: "Well, you're a libertarian, so of course you think that, but..." as if to suggest that an ideology is some kind of suspect ulterior motive, along the lines of "Well, you work for ADM, so of course you're for ethanol subsidies." But of course, that's sort of backwards: I don't believe in low taxes, strong property rights, free trade, and robust civil liberties because I'm a libertarian. Rather, I'm a libertarian because I believe all those things for other independent reasons. (And the "because" here is constitutive, not causal--being a libertarian, in other words, just means believing those other things.) It's as though once you can slap a label on a view, you've banished it, in the way we used to think knowing the true magical names of evil spirits gave us power over them.
I think the best way to rationalize the use of this rhetorical device is to understand it as a means of located at what level of abstraction the debate is proceeding. You might have been assuming that you and your interlocutor had some shared premise, and you simply didn't understand how he could fail to see that your conclusion followed from the premise in question. But then you realize that you're disagreeing because he's a libertarian and doesn't agree with your background premise. You may then think that the dispute about the background premise isn't really worth having and say, "well, you're a libertarian, so of course that's what you think" secure in the knowledge that you're not missing some key step in the argument. Since any given casual conversation is probably not a good moment to decide that your entire ideology is wrong and you should be a libertarian, there's really nothing more to say, and you walk away sure that you're right.

The same kind of dynamic in reverse is why an article called "The Liberal Case Against The Minimum Wage" or "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage" or "The Libertarian Case for Universal Health Care" would be more interesting interesting than the converse ones. "The Libertarian Case Against The Minimum Wage" and "The Liberal Case for Universal Health Care" are both pretty banal, and probably cover well-ploughed territory. People who aren't libertarians (in the first case) or liberals (in the second case) are going to feel that the author can just be ignored. He's a liberal so of course he thinks there should be universal health care, but I'm not a liberal so why should I care what he thinks about this.

The difference here is that Julian seems to think that he's come to various libertarian conclusions each on independent grounds and that it's just a kind of coincidence that when you add all these conclusions up what you get is libertarianism. I think a more realistic picture of people's political ideas (people who think a lot about political ideas, that is, other people probably have a very different belief structure) is that a small number of background beliefs about matters moral and empirical are driving their conclusions on various subjects. Correctly identifying those beliefs can be crucial in helping to understand what's going on.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

Transition Costs!

They must not teach math very well at Hillsdale College ("educating for liberty since 1844") since 2003 graduate Keith Miller seems to think that 1 minus 1 equals 3. The fact that I've seen this precise op-ed published about 1 billion times makes me seriously question what's going on in America's conservative think tanks. It's obvious -- obvious! -- that whatever merits Social Security privatization may have, the one thing it really won't do is allow us to maintain the current benefit structure for oldish people past 2018 without raising taxes. Indeed, it would do the reverse.

The honest case here -- obviously, again -- is to say that in exchange for a one-time expenditure of tax revenues to float the system during the transitional period you could more-or-less permanently solve the problem. On the other hand, it's really not clear that there even is a problem here, as the Social Security trustees are using what seems to be an improbably low projection of future productivity growth in their models. But if a problem does arise, it would be easy enough to cut the rate of benefit growth down to something less than the rate of wage growth but still higher than the rate of consumer price growth, or do any of half a dozen other things.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Debate Debate

In comments to this post Will Wilkinson notes that by "winning the debate" I mean "winning elections while having a debate about this" rather than "winning the debate on the merits." I don't know that the debate on the merits really can be won. It seems to me, it has always seemed to me, and it will always seem to me that the strong claims of ideological libertarianism (as opposed to the empirical observation that this or that government program might not be a good idea) are just patently and obviously absurd, though I know perfectly well that this view is held by many intelligent, though grossly immoral individuals. It strikes me as a tautology to say that coercion in the pursuit of the common good is justified, and, indeed, necessary, though as I say people disagree and I don't know how one could possibly resolve such a disagreement. Hence we clash on the field of politics where the pro-coercion side deploys coercion (we're pro-coercion, after all) and the anti-coercion side deploys dishonesty (since most people want what's best for most people).

I recall a really good blank stare moments from back when I was in a seminar taught by Robert Nozick my junior year in college. Do you really believe that?

UPDATE II: Ah, I see Volokh has a reply on this point. I find it pretty unconvincing. Basically he says the outlandish hypothetical he outlines wouldn't fall under the conditions laid out by the suspension clause. It seems to me, though, that if we're going to bend the rules anywhere, it would be better to bend them here than to do the bending Volokh is contemplating. More broadly, absent "rebellion or invasion" or the threat of an imminent invasion it just doesn't seem that you have the sort of compelling threat to the country that would warrant a setting aside of the normal rules of procedural justice. The constitution is not a suicide pack, but losing operational control over Falluja for a limited period of time isn't suicide.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (47) | TrackBack

Run Amok

Lots of mockery among civil libertarians of this Eugene Volokh argument in re: the Gitmo detainees case, but I have a serious question. Doesn't the constitution specifically contemplate that circumstances might arise under which the government can suspend the writ of habeas corpus as an emergency measure? If so, isn't the right thing to say that if this sort of unlikely scenario were to emerge that congress could cross that bridge when we come to it through a suspension? It's very hard to see how under the actually obtaining circumstances, or anything remotely resembling them, that the Court's ruling will create a serious burden. That seems more than good enough to me.

UPDATE: See also Kieran Healy.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (91) | TrackBack

More Honesty Please

Andrew Sullivan and Gene Healy both denounce Hillary Clinton's insidious plan to "take things away from you [a group of wealth people] on behalf of the common good." And I'm glad they did it. If I may plug my column again this is a debate that liberals will win every day of the week. And it's the debate we should be having -- this is the real ideological divide in the country.

June 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (52) | TrackBack

The Economy Is Stupid, Stupid

Today's column -- enjoy.

June 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (39) | TrackBack


Andrew Sullivan's ham-handed attack on William Raspberry's defense of Fahrenheit 9-11 really makes Raspberry's column (and, by extension, the film) seem a lot better than I felt like it was when I first saw it. We're seeing here the confluence of both the very severe inherent flaws of the "fisking" genre and, apparently, a rightwing driven absolutely batty by the prospect of seeing their president get hit below the belt. Meanwhile the right threatens to establish a dictatorship if "responsible" voices on the left on the left don't restrain Moore. Well now.

June 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (50) | TrackBack