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Rick Santorum’s “Liberty, Happiness And The Role Of Stuff”

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an op-ed in which Rick Santorum pledges that  “…in my first 100 days as president, I’ll submit to Congress and work to pass a comprehensive pro-growth and pro-family Economic Freedom Agenda”. No one is more receptive than I to an “economic freedom agenda”, yet Mr Santorum’s has my bullshit detector howling like an air-raid siren.

In a recent speech at the First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, Mr Santorum said that economic policy focused on the accumulation of wealth is unhealthily concerned with “pursuing stuff”.

Property is just stuff. And America isn’t just about pursuing stuff. That’s one of the problems I have sometimes with our fellow conservatives, is that all we talk about — ‘Oh, Rick, presidential candidates just focus on stuff. Focus on taxing and spending, the economy. Don’t talk about anything else. Just focus on stuff. That’s what Americans really care about.’

Mr Santorum here is discussing rival interpretations of the idea of “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Though it is nonsense to think that there is any one thing that “Americans really care about”, Mr Santorum is surely right that Thomas Jefferson and his fellows in the founding 1% had more than just the accumulation of property in mind. But he is wrong that they were committed to the pre-modern Catholic  interpretation of freedom and happiness Mr Santorum invoked in his speech:

America and our founders understood that if we were just a bunch of folks that cared about stuff, we have a very, very narrow view of freedom. We have a very, very narrow view of what God’s call is in our lives. Because that’s why He gave us these rights. To pursue happiness.

…..’Happiness’ actually had a different definition, ‘way back at the time of our founders. Like many words in our lexicon, they evolve and change over time. ‘Happiness’ was one of them. Go back and look it up. You’ll see one of the principal definitions of happiness is ‘to do the morally right thing.’ God gave us rights to life and to freedom to pursue His will. That’s what the moral foundation of our country is.

As a matter of historical fact, the dominant conception of happiness at the time of the founding was the empiricist hedonism of John Locke. Locke had it that we are moved by our beliefs and desires, and that the master desire is to enjoy pleasure and avoid pain.  As for happiness, Locke said, “Happiness then in its full extent is the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…”  “Property” almost took the place of “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration precisely because the founders’ notion of happiness was so materialistic. Happiness is pleasure, and property or “stuff” is such an indispensable source of pleasure and bulwark against misery that the pursuit of property and the pursuit of happiness almost come to the same thing. For Christians such as Locke, and many of the founders, it was so important to heed God’s will not so much because divine commands are inherently authoritative, but because Heaven’s promise of infinite pleasure made Christian virtue a prudent bet.

Anyway, the likes of Jefferson would have agreed that to be happy is “to do the morally right thing” only to the extent that “to do the morally right thing” is already defined in terms of conduciveness to happiness. And the idea that the point of freedom is to do God’s will would have been affirmed only to the extent that it is due to God’s will that we are constituted to seek “the utmost Pleasure we are capable of…” The big political idea of the Enlightenment is that earthly happiness, not divine authority, is the only credible moral foundation of political authority. The long and short of it is that Mr Santorum is guilty of revisionist history. One only has to remember that John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, tried to make it illegal for Catholics to run for office in New York to get a sense of just how unlikely it is that the founders would have signed on to anything resembling Mr Santorum’s interpretation of liberty, happiness, and the role of “stuff”.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mr Santorum’s ten-point plan makes only incidental contact with economic freedom as many free-market-minded folk understand it. It may or may not be a good idea to rig our regulatory structure to make it easier for giant petrochemical companies to frack or build giant pipelines, but it’s unclear what it has to do with economic freedom. Do pipelines and fracking have something to do with God’s will in Mr Santorum’s mind?

Mr Santorum promises to “triple the personal deduction for children and eliminate the marriage tax penalty”. What does any of this have to do with economic freedom? If paying people to have children makes them more free, why don’t the childless deserve equal freedom? Because freedom is the freedom to do God’s will and God wants us to have big families? The “pro-family” elements of Mr Santorum’s plan are transparent attempts at social engineering through fiscal policy.

Mr Santorum says he’ll “cut means-tested entitlement programs by 10% across the board, freeze them for four years, and block grant them to states—as I did as the author of welfare reform in 1996.” This is unintelligible. If subsidising families through the tax code somehow adds to their freedom, then reducing subsidies to the relatively poor—to those who qualify for means-tested benefits—must logically decrease theirs. This is simply upside down. There is a compelling case that individuals require a certain material minimum to ensure that their economic liberties have real worth. If Mr Santorum’s cuts would leave Americans below that threshold, they would amount to an assault on the economic freedom of the disadvantaged.

If “economic freedom” means “a system rigged to the advantage of petrochemical companies and large middle- and upper-class families”, Mr Santorum’s proposal might have a lot to be said for it. I could be wrong, but I suspect it doesn’t really mean that.


By: W. W., Democracy in America, The Economist, February 28, 2012

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mitt’s Legacy”: Health Reform Worked In Massachusetts

On February 8 the Center for American Progress hosted an event featuring Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, where she discussed the success of the Massachusetts health care reform law signed by former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) in 2006.

Attorney General Coakley discussed the framework of the law and explained how it’s played an essential role in providing unparalleled access to health care coverage for Massachusetts residents. She and CAP President Neera Tanden also discussed why the Affordable Care Act’s adoption of the Massachusetts framework fits comfortably within the United States’ constitutional authority.

In her introductory remarks, Tanden said that “the Massachusetts law, though sometimes maligned in our national debates, is actually an incredible success story, and has really demonstrated to the country how effective health care reform can be, and the Affordable Care Act can be.”

She mentioned the new CAP report “The Case for the Individual Mandate in Health Care Reform,” and said that Massachusetts’s embracing of the individual mandate in addition to its nondiscrimination over preexisting conditions has allowed its health care reform to flourish.

Flourish so much, Tanden said, that “98.1 percent of the state’s residents were insured at the end of 2010, compared to 87.5 in 2006, when the health care law started. Almost every child in the state is insured, and premiums in the individual market dropped 40 percent as the Massachusetts law was fully implemented.”

In her speech, Attorney General Coakley described the Massachusetts health care law, saying that “in some, but not all particulars, the Massachusetts Act of 2006 was really the prototype for what has become the Federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” Like the Affordable Care Act, Massachusetts’ reform includes a state-operated health insurance exchange, subsidies for low- and moderate-income individuals, and a mandate that all individuals who can afford health insurance purchase coverage, or an individual mandate.

Coakley said, “The law has resulted in the highest health care access rates in the nation, it has improved both access to and affordability of health care for hundreds of thousands of residents, while maintaining a high level of quality, and I think that’s important.

“We don’t talk about quality so much, but it’s part of what we are concerned about. Access, cost, quality: Ensuring two is relatively easy, if you want to do all three, not so much. And this has been, and is still, our challenge and our goal, and as a work in progress, I think the facts demonstrate that rather than our experiment proving a risk to the rest of the country, Massachusetts as a test laboratory has a lot to offer.”

She said, “We’ve seen significant improvements in the care of our residents. From 2006 to 2010, adults from all income groups, but in particular lower-income adults, experienced a significant decline in reported unmet health care needs due to cost. … we also have seen significant overall economic benefits for our state as a result of this.”

In terms of costs, she said, “[w]e’ve seen a sharp decline in the amount of spending on the so-called ‘free care,’ [when an uninsured person visits an ER, for example, and costs get passed on to the insured in higher rates] about $300 million, and that’s 33 percent less than we spent in 2006.” And nongroup or individual insurance premiums cost 40 percent less.

Attorney General Coakley also discussed why she believes the Supreme Court will not overturn the individual mandate. Massachusetts, she said, is giving a very positive endorsement for the mandate, and it is “a constitutional act by Congress.” It would be quite surprising if the Supreme Court overturned “the 70 years of precedent that have been set” by case law establishing what Congress has constitutional authority to regulate, including commerce such as health care.

After her speech, Attorney General Coakley spoke with Tanden about health reform. In response to an audience question about the constitutionality of the mandate, Tanden said that “when you say that people have coverage when they go to the emergency room, that immediately means that they’ll  be cost-shifting, and the individual mandate is just a way in which people have the same responsibility for their own health care so they’re not shifting costs anymore.”

As Attorney General Coakley asserted, Massachusetts is an essential—and the only U.S. example—of the importance of the individual mandate in ensuring affordable access to health care for all.


By: Center for American Progress, February 27, 2012

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Health Reform | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mount Up For More Republican Swagger”: Conservative Hobbyhorses for 2012

Traditional Republican concerns—opposition to domestic spending and gender equality—have dominated the Republican presidential campaign thus far. But there are some new conservative fixations that will be important in the months to come. Generally, they have all been invented—much like opposition to an individual health insurance mandate—in reaction to President Obama’s moderate and generally successful policies and political strategies. Here’s a guide to five of them.

Election fraud: Ever since the paranoid fringe of the right, by which I mean most Republicans, convinced itself that ACORN stole the 2008 election, conservatives have been trying to pass laws to prevent voter fraud. Republican-controlled state legislatures all over the country are passing rules that risk disenfranchising large numbers of voters, especially the poor, minorities and people with disabilities. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, earlier this month, Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former member of the Federal Elections Commission, told a panel what he thinks are “three best things your state can do to prevent voter fraud”: require presentation of a photo identification when voting, require proof of citizenship when someone registers to vote and “tighten up the rules on absentee ballots, so [for example] when you request an absentee ballot you have to put in a copy of your driver’s license.”

As Laura Murphy, Washington Legislative Officer of the ACLU noted Thursday at the National Press Club, “There is a long history of efforts to restrict the right to vote to gain partisan advantage.” Murphy says laws requiring proof of citizenship or photo identification at the polling place, along with restricting early voting or eliminating same day registration, are all examples of these Republican vote suppression tactics. People who lack mobility due to disability or inability to afford a car may be disenfranchised. “These anti-fraud laws are the real threat to our constitutional rights,” says Murphy.

Down with the EPA: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the leading climate change denier in Congress, spoke at CPAC this year, the first time he has done so in five years. He proudly restated his famous assertion that climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” receiving big cheers.

What happened in the intervening years? Republicans flirted with reality. Their 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, supported taking action against climate change. But Barack Obama won the election. As soon as he did, Republicans dropped their concern for the environment in favor of rigid partisan opposition. The energy magnate Koch brothers have largely funded the rise of the Tea Party movement and other current Republican campaigns, and the grateful beneficiaries in the new Republican Congress have introduced reams of legislation to repeal or prevent actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It has become a conservative shibboleth, repeated by Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail and at conferences such as CPAC and the Americans for Prosperity “Defending the American Dream” summit in November 2011 that the EPA is preventing economic and job growth. With Republican candidates promising that increased oil drilling would reduce rising gasoline prices, you can expect to hear a lot more of this argument in months to come.

Keep out the immigrants: Republicans and conservatives typically claim that their concern about immigration from Mexico is in no way racially motivated; it’s supposedly all about border security. But when conservatives speak to each other, they sometimes admit the truth: they’re afraid that more Latinos will mean a diminution of the cultural and political power of non-Latino whites. “After Obamacare, immigration is the most important issue [in this campaign], otherwise the whole country goes the way of California and we never win again,” Ann Coulter told CPAC.

When I interviewed anti-immigration leader and former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo in South Carolina last month, he was even more blunt. “Santorum has actually taken a step in the right direction, and did so in a pretty gutsy way, by saying we need to reduce legal immigration,” said Tancredo, when I asked why he hasn’t endorsed Romney, as he did after dropping out in 2008. “One of the biggest problems with immigration today is lack of assimilation…. we are trying to actually stop [assimilation]. All the crap about multiculturalism is just that, crap.”

Tancredo’s sentiments were echoed at an anti-multiculturalism CPAC panel that featured notorious xenophobes such as Peter Brimelow, with a guest appearance by Representative Steve King (R-IA).

Obama is bad for Israel: “If you want to see how to treat an ally, look at how Obama has treated Israel and do the opposite,” declared former UN Ambassador John Bolton at CPAC, to big applause. “He has pressured Israel mercilessly not to attack Iran.” The presupposition that it would be in Israel’s interest to attack Iran is debatable at best, but it’s one that conservatives share.

Obama’s position on the Middle East peace process has been no less favorable to Israel than his predecessors’, including George W. Bush. But Republicans have been attacking him repeatedly for imaginary infractions, such as supposed rudeness to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also complain that Obama called for a two-state solution that begins with the pre-1967 borders with land swaps to follow. This has always been US policy, but that hasn’t stopped Republican presidential candidates from complaining that Obama “failed to stand for Israel.”

This is, of course, all about politics rather than Israel’s security. Evangelical Zionists want Israel to steal the entire West Bank and eject its Arab residents to fulfill a biblical prophecy. By supporting Israeli expansionism, Republicans are hoping to excite that element of their base and, if possible, win over a few Jewish votes in Florida. It also helps keep Sheldon Adelson’s money flowing.

Obama kowtows to America’s enemies. Given that Obama has done a much better job than Bush of finding and executing members of Al Qaeda, Republicans will have a hard time painting Obama as weak on national defense. But they’re trying to find a way. Since Obama has been more effective at taking out the organizations and regimes that have actually attacked the United States than President Bush was, Republicans are reviving the cold war menace from China and Russia, and fear-mongering about Iran.

Bolton and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, among others, repeated this theme frequently at CPAC. “The Obama administration has forgotten that American strength is not provocative to our enemies, American weakness is,” said Bolton, “and Obama specializes in that…. What are we doing about Russia and China? Zip.” Specifically, Republicans such as Romney complain that Obama has failed to confront China for manipulating the yuan. They also argue that Obama was mistaken to try to sooth tensions with Iran and Russia, and that those efforts have gone unrewarded. While some of the specific accusations may be debatable, the overall theme—that Obama is endangering American security through cowardice—is preposterous. But since Republicans equate foreign policy strength with boisterous swagger, it’s fair to assume they actually believe it.


By: Ben Adler, The Nation, February 27, 2012

February 28, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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