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Saturday, March 10, 2012

THE CW OF THE MSM

The retirement announcement of the soon to be late and already unlamented Olympia Snowe has predictably unleashed yet another tsunami of punditry by the usual suspects about the regrettable rigidity of today's Congressional Democrats and Republicans.  This has been coupled with bathetic nostalgia for the good old days when giants of accommodation walked the halls of Congress, regularly reaching out across the aisles to craft compromises in the sacred middle of the political spectrum.  This, I believe, is what is referred to in those compressed fragments of communication called tweets as the CW of the MSM.  Those of us with pretentions to a somewhat better class of education prefer the phrase consensus gentium, believing, as we do, that it always sounds better in Latin.

Never mind the false and self-serving claim that the ideological rigidity of those on the right is mirrored by a like rigidity of the few remaining Members of Congress who can plausibly be described as "on the left."  Rachel Maddow has nicely skewered that fiction.  [I leave it to someone more agile at these things than I to provide the link in a comment.]  I should like to call into question the central thesis, namely that the vanishing breed of "moderates" like Snowe [and her colleague with the extraordinarily irritating voice, Susan Collins] are more open-minded, more flexible, more willing to engage in the quintessentially democratic act of compromise, than their more inflexible colleagues to the right or the left.

What follows is an hypothesis, not a thesis, because I do not have hard data to support it.  But I would be happy to put money on the proposition [not a Romneyesque ten thousand, to be sure, but certainly a fiver], because I am sure its central idea is correct.

Let us choose a single very large and complex issue of public policy -- health care reform, say, since we all remember the debates and maneuverings that led to the passage of the Affordable Care Act [also known, to Republicans, as Obamacare, and to some candidates for the Republican presidential nomination as Obamneycare].   In a leap of conceptual simplification worthy of a neo-classical economist, let us suppose that all the many possible positions, pro and con, on health care reform can be arrayed along a one-dimensional spectrum from left to right.  We may imagine that at the extreme left is true socialized medicine, with no insurance companies, no for-profit hospitals, and the central government paying the entire bill from the general tax fund.  Somewhat to the right of that terminus,  but still situated well to the left, is a single payer version of the current health care system.  The extreme right, we may suppose, is represented by the position of Dr. [and Congressman] Ron Paul, who says that uninsured trauma patients who show up in the Emergency Room of a for-profit hospital should be left to die -- rather like the old nineteenth century practice of letting a house burn if it did not sport a plaque showing that the owner was a subscriber to the private firefighting service.  [Those plaques, incidentally, are now valuable collector's items of Americana.]

Each member of the House or Senate, we shall now assume, can identify some point on that spectrum of positions that corresponds to his or her ideologically most preferred policy -- some complicated combination of coverages and exclusions, guarantees and options, in the maelstrom of the American health care system.  Now I am going to make a really serious conceptual simplification, genuinely worthy of a General Equilibrium theorist.  I am going to assume that each person, having located himself or herself at some point on the line, finds that each position to the left is less acceptable, the farther to the left it is from that point, and that each position to the right is also less acceptable, the farther to the right it is from that point.  [Those who have actually read my Tutorial on the use and abuse of formal models in political theory will recognize this simplification from the work of the Australian political scientist Duncan Black, but that, as they say, was in another land, and besides the wench is dead.]

OK.  Got that?  A line the points of which are different health care reform positions, arrayed from left to right, and Members of the House and Senate positioned along that line, looking with increasing disfavor to positions to their left or right according to how much farther right or left they are.  Let us suppose the line looks like this:

            ___________________________________________

Now, imagine some senator positioned somewhere along the line -- to the right, let us say.  Let us invent a name for him, a name so absurd and comical that no actual senator could ever actually bear it.  I know, how about Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, or Jeff Sessions, for short?  Let us suppose that Jeff Sessions is positioned, on the issue of health care reform, like this:

            __________________________________JF________

Jeff Sessions, we assume, prefers the package of health care reform proposals identified by the point on the line where we have located his initials, and if he had the power to enact a bill, that is exactly the bill he would choose.  But I am betting [this is where the hypothetical part of all of this comes into play] that he would be willing to compromise to at least some extent to get most of what he wants, striking a deal with Jim DeMint to his right or Jon Kyl slightly to his left [but still securely within the conservative segment of the line, of course.]   I may be wrong, of course.  Maybe Jeff Sessions is totally and immovably inflexible on the issue of health care reform.  But I would bet more than a fiver that that is not so.  Recall our assumption that the various positions are less and less acceptable to anyone located anywhere on the line the farther away they are, to the left or the right, from where he or she is located.  It follows from this assumption [never mind the proof, if it isn't obvious] that there is a compact space of possible positions around Jeff Sessions, all of which would be acceptable to him in a compromise, if he were able to get one.  Let us suppose this situation looks like this:

            ______________________________(___JF____)_____

Presumably, every single Senator and Representative can be modeled on the line in the same fashion.  Some will have very wide brackets around their initials, some very narrow brackets.  The width of the bracket, in this little model, is a visible representation of that politician's flexibility, or willingness to compromise.

Now, my hypothetical thesis is this:  the people located near the break between the Democratic [left] side and the Republican [right] side of the line, people like Olympia Snowe, do not in general have brackets around their initials that are noticeably wider than the brackets around the initials of people located near the left end or the right end of the line.  But because they are more often in play when one side or the other is attempting to assemble a winning coalition, they acquire the undeserved reputation for being reasonable, willing to compromise, non-ideological, or public-spirited.

I watched the very public wooing of Olympia Snowe during the health care debate, and it was my distinct impression that she had an extremely narrow bracket around her initials [so to speak].  She just happened to be located at the fault line between the two parties.  My informal guess is that the most flexible members of the Senate were actually the most liberal Democrats, who were willing to make enormous compromises to get something, anything, done.

There is of course not the slightest possibility that anyone in the MSM will take note of this, or will adjust the CW by so much as a micrometer.  That would require intelligence and the willingness to consider a new idea.

4 comments:

Superfluous Man said...

But what would be do about ALEC? If you're not familiar with it, it is an entity that offers pre-packaged right wing legislation, available to members of the Republican party in all fifty states.

On another note and likewise off topic, there was a great article in Harper's magazine about the private fire fighters who during the California fires that destroyed so many homes last decade, only put out fires on homes that were insured or reinsured by AIG. Well worth reading although rather lengthy. It turned out to be a debacle despite the lessons of history that indicated this was a recipe for disaster.

http://harpers.org/archive/2009/10/0082671

Charles Pigden said...

A slight misquotation Professor Wolff. The line is


But that was in another country [not 'land'];
And besides the wench is dead.

Marlowe, Jew of Malta, Act IV, Scene 1.

It's a terrific quote from a play which is in other respects, shall we say, a little problematic.

Loved the post

Charles Pigden said...

A slight misquotation Professor Wolff. The line is


But that was in another country [not 'land'];
And besides the wench is dead.

Marlowe, Jew of Malta, Act IV, Scene 1.

It's a terrific quote from a play which is in other respects, shall we say, a little problematic.

Loved the post

Superfluous Man said...

Another contemporary use of "the wench is dead" spotted this morning.

http://www.courthousenews.com/2012/03/16/44741.htm