Sunday, February 21, 2010

Let ‘em filibuster

Almost since the beginning of his administration, I have had the gut feeling that President Obama’s bipartisan, compromise-oriented approach to legislation was a mistake. I have had endless debates with friends (especially my wife, Susan) about whether this approach was tactical on Obama’s part, or a function of some deep-seated, almost pathological need to “get along” (perhaps combined with a failure to grasp the profound significance of the underlying ideological differences). I do not pretend to be a political pundit, nor a psychoanalyst, so I won’t go further into the motivation debate. But certain effects seem fairly clear: Obama thought that by outreach and compromise, he could move legislation, including and especially health care reform, through Congress. The Republicans, on the other hand, although quick to decry partisanship when they are in power, saw their best advantage in sheer obstructionism, and this they did very well, helped by the rules of the profoundly undemocratic U.S. Senate.

In these private debates (as in my 1/17/10 blog post), I argued that Obama would have been better off to come out swinging. If he had seemed to be fighting for the little guy, and the Senate Republicans were obviously blocking his every move, then it would have been clear to everybody who the villains of the piece were. His legislation might have been blocked – but it was anyway! By being seen as a fighter, his chances of increasing the Democratic majority in the midterms would have improved.

At least in my small circle of friends on the Left, this idea of mine seems to be coming pretty widespread. People are, in fact, holding it forth as a model for how Obama should go forward. “Let ‘em filibuster” is a call I hear more and more often. At a recent discussion we organized for the Boston local of Democratic Socialists of America, all three panelists put forth an analysis that seemed, to me, strikingly similar to mine. They ended by saying that Obama needed to find some pieces of legislation, however small, that he could move, and push them through Congress quickly. I raised my hand and commented that, based on what they had said so far, it seemed like even if Obama couldn’t move anything through, it would be better for him to try and fail due to visible Republican obstructionism. Somewhat reluctantly (they didn’t want to give up the dream that Obama could pass something), all three panelists agreed.

Unfortunately, as I reflect on the outcome of the recent Massachusetts Senate election, and some other thoughts about the nature and makeup of the U.S. electorate, I have come to have some doubts about at least the short-run effectiveness of this strategy.

The AFL-CIO commissioned a poll after Scott Brown’s election, which showed some very interesting results. Among other things, it showed that nearly two-thirds of Brown’s voters want him to “be bipartisan and work with Obama and congressional Democrats, rather than stick to his conservative philosophy and work to defeat the Democrats’ agenda”. Since Brown won about 50% of the total vote, this suggests that one third of the electorate makes no deeper analysis when voting than “I’m not happy with the way things are going, so I’ll vote for the other party.”

A behavioral tendency I have noticed in many voters may partially explain these results; if it doesn’t explain them, it may mesh with them to reinforce the result. In conversations with various friends and coworkers over the years, especially people who do not see themselves as particularly “political” people, I have noticed that many people apply a very simple model to the solution of social problems. Specifically, they:
  1. Think everybody sees the same problems they do, and sees these problems in essentially the same way, and, 
  2. Think that the solution to these problems is essentially technical, and that there is general consensus among experts on how to solve them (even if they, themselves, don’t understand what the solution is).
With this set of beliefs, it is natural to think that, if the party in power can’t seem to get it done, then flipping to the other party is the best solution. Maybe the other party will be more effective. Failing to understand the role and importance of ideological and theoretical differences means failing to understand that the other party may “effectively” move in a direction that does nothing at all to solve the problems you perceive, either because they are acting according to a bad theory, or because they are trying to solve a different set of problems altogether.

In a recession, for example, a worker may take it for granted that the problem is “getting the economy going again”, and that this necessarily entails restoring or creating jobs, and good jobs at that – anybody can see that! But someone else may think that the definition of “getting the economy going again” is a matter of profitability and a rising stock market. If he’s elected to office, the policy this second person pursues may not be oriented towards restoring good jobs. Or, the politician may think bringing back jobs is important, but believe the way to do it is by a supply side approach: cutting taxes on the rich, while practicing fiscal austerity by slashing social programs to “stabilize” the economy. This policy will have a very different effect on outcomes then the massive Keynesian stimulus that might be proposed by some other politician, who had a different theory as to the solution to the same problem.

But if you don’t understand these effects of ideology and theory on outcomes; if you simply assume that everybody sees things essentially the same way you do (always excepting a few “radicals” and “nut cases”), and that fixes to social problems are subject to well-understood technical fixes like designing a stronger beam or choosing the right wire for an electrical circuit; then it makes perfect sense to flip your vote whenever the party “in power” doesn’t seem to be able to “get it done”. With this kind of attitude, even such an obviously obstructionist strategy as a filibuster may have an unobvious effect – causing you to vote for the filibustering party, not because you agree with their positions, but because their successful obstructionism makes the other party seem unable to effectively govern.

In light of these considerations, I am no longer so certain that a “Let ‘em filibuster” strategy will do much for the Democrats’ electoral results in the short run. But I still think it is better for Obama to fight and lose than to just lose without a visible fight. The AFL-CIO poll suggests that the electorate is divided roughly into thirds – one third left leaning, one-third right leaning, and one third that flips one way or the other depending on which way the wind is blowing. The long-term objective for the Left (and for the Right, for that matter) must be to hold onto and firm up our base, while trying to educate at least some of the flip-floppers.

The Republicans have proved that they can pretty much block legislation any time they take a serious mind to. If the outcome for Obama’s agenda is to be losing in any case, then coming out fighting won’t make him seem any less effective. He may still lose the flip-flopping vote, but at least he’ll have a better chance of holding on to his base. This may lead to less of a debacle in the mid-term elections, and at least, as Republican obstructionism enrages the frustrated core of left-leaning people who know their enemy, it may give those of us who are truly on the Left a better base to work with in the future.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


My teenage daughter and her peers, lately, are obsessed with movies and TV shows about teenagers having babies. I have watched some of this stuff with her (probably less than I should) – episodes from “The Secret Life of an American Teenager”, part of the movie “The Pregnancy Pact”. Even her new favorite show, “Life Unexpected”, is about the (implausible) consequences of teenage motherhood in the life of the baby, now a girl in her own teens. It’s not just shows for teenagers which have these themes, either – I remember an episode of the police show “Without a Trace” which would fit completely into the paradigm discussed in this essay, and that is just one more case among many.

From what I’ve seen, these shows:

1) Present abstinence-only as a legitimate moral choice, even if, as in “The Pregnancy Pact”, they may question whether it is the best one,

2) Tend to strongly argue for keeping and raising the baby as the most legitimate choice for a teenage girl ONCE pregnancy has occurred. Abortion and even adoption are strongly devalued as choices.

Within the context of the post-birth aspects of these kids’ lives, the shows do tend to show kids trying to be mature, and responsible, working hard on their relationships with friends and lovers, their own parents, and the baby’s father. This presents positive images for their teenage audience to live up to. On the other hand, since these fictional kids tend to be so good at this stuff, which in reality is so hard, even for those of us who waited until we were in mature, stable relationships (and had decent jobs), before we had our kids, that one effect is to make the “have your baby” choice seem less fraught than, in reality, it is.

But I’m particularly concerned about the growing acceptance of an abstinence-only policy as a legitimate moral choice, even if not a necessary one. In fact, abstinence-only is a bad choice, based on a false moral premise. It has absolutely no moral benefits, and tends to produce at least two bad moral outcomes.

First, I need to distinguish between abstinence-only as a policy, and simple abstinence. It is not morally wrong for a person to be sexually abstinent, if they choose to be. But abstinence-only is a policy that says the best (or only moral) way to avoid teenage pregnancy is to remain abstinent until marriage. Since effective birth-control methods are readily available in our society, there is no rational basis for this prescription. As a policy, abstinence-only “makes sense” ONLY if you accept the implicit premise that sex before marriage is morally wrong. This is the false premise on which abstinence-only is based.

Not only is sex before marriage not morally wrong, I would argue that most people SHOULD have (safe) sex before marriage. Marriage is an important decision, involving a melding of the whole complex of life choices facing two people and (yes) often the question of bringing more people into the world, who must be raised and cared for. Such an important decision should, in my opinion, be kept as free as possible from the heady influence of overactive hormones. Separating the choice to have sex from the choice to get married results in better choices about both.

Abstinence-only, even if it “works”, acts to make kids marry before they are ready. It is worth pointing out that, even on its own premises, abstinence-only is not a prescription for preventing TEENAGE pregnancy, but only PREMARITAL pregnancy. I can see no sound reason for viewing premature marriage as a moral “good” that we should design policies to foster.

And, of course, the reality is that (as even the birth-worshiping shows admit) failure of abstinence is an all-too-likely effect of a policy of abstinence-only. The TV morality plays try to gloss over the effects of such failures by depicting the noble struggles of a few fictional teens and their loving families to make their way through the forest of problems besetting them – and, yes, in real life many families do pull through, and come out all right on the other end. I have tremendous respect for the families who, caught up in this situation, manage to make it work. But a good outcome does not prove that the original choice was good. Certainly, in almost every case, the lives of teenage mothers, and their children are much, much harder than they would have been if the pregnancy had been deferred until a better time of life. In cases where other life factors are stacked against the family – factors like poverty, racism, unavailability of strong, supportive extended networks – the affected lives can essentially be ruined, as the stress caused by one bad decision leads to further bad behavior, resulting in pain and suffering for all that might have been averted with better initial judgment.

The morality plays paint a choice between evils, with teenage pregnancy, birth control, abortion and adoption all seen as ills to be weighed in the balance. But birth control is not an evil. It is a simple solution to a practical problem. Birth-control, not abstinence, is the moral choice for avoiding teenage pregnancy. And if birth control (or abstinence) fails, an early abortion or a “morning after pill” is clearly a reasonable and legitimate moral choice. As third tier possibilities, later abortion and adoption are both perfectly legitimate choices, in many cases better than bearing and raising a child for which you are not ready.

Abstinence-only, in short, is a moral position that makes sense only in the context of a Christian dream world, where the imagined word of God trumps the real-life needs of men, women and children. But sex is a normal, human act, not a sacrament, and premarital sex is not a sin. Birth control is a practical solution to an age-old problem, and is not in any way morally problematic. Insisting on a policy known to produce bad outcomes for real human beings, when a simple solution is available, is morally wrong.

In the real world, abstinence-only is not just an irrational or impractical policy. It is an immoral choice. And it should be shown to the world as such.