Archive for May, 2001

Jeffords Leaves

Sunday, May 27th, 2001

The last words of the quintessential act of American rebellion, the Declaration of Independence, are “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont recently bolted the GOP to give Democrats the control of the Senate by one vote. Jeffords’s honor may have remained intact with this admittedly smaller act of rebellion, but likely, the prospects for his life and fortune, far from being at risk, stood to be enhanced. You may give Jeffords credit for sincerity, but certainly not for courage. Jeffords would have been courageous if he had switched when Republicans controlled the Senate and the move may have cost him politically.

Careful examination by groups as diverse as the American Taxpayers Union and Americans for Democratic Action shows that Senate voting records really do form a bi-model distribution. Democrats, even Conservative ones, tend to vote one way, and Republicans, even Liberal ones, tend to vote another way. Even purported Democratic Conservatives like John Breaux of Louisiana very often vote with their more Liberal Democratic compatriots. There are a handful of Republicans, most noticeably Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Olympia Snowe from Maine, who really do wander the barren and dangerous no man’s land of “moderation.” Jeffords’s voting record could really put him honorably in either party, but he would by no means be a mainstream Democrat. It will be interesting to see if Jeffords’s voting record changes now as a declared Independent.

Jeffords is personally popular in his own state so party affiliation provides at best only a slight advantage or impediment with Vermont voters. However, quitting the GOP and voting with Democrats gives Jeffords some important advantages. Term limit restrictions on committee chairs would have deprived Jeffords of the chair of the education committee. Because of his crucial switch, he was able to negotiate with Democrats for a critical environmental committee chairmanship. Just think of it, an Independent, selected to chair a Senate committee.

Jeffords argues that President George Bush is more Conservative as a President that he ran as a candidate. It is unclear what particular part of the Bush platform, his tax cut or his education initiatives surprised Jeffords. Bush’s legislative program is pretty much what he promised in his campaign. Bush was after all a “compassionate Conservative.” What did Jeffords expect, a Liberal?

Much is made of the fact that Bush neglected to invite Jeffords to a White House ceremony honoring a Vermont teacher as a small slap on the wrist for working against the Bush tax plan. If such a small act would cause Jeffords to switch political parties, it would imply a sorry petulance inconsistent with the dignity Jeffords wishes to project.

A more plausible reason for switching is that his political leverage is greatest now. As a Republican, he was just one member of a party led from the White House. The Democratic power base, by contrast, is now the Senate. If Strom Thurmond, straddling one hundred years of age, were to become incapacitated and be replaced by a Democrat selected by a Democratic governor, Jeffords would loose leverage in negotiations to switch parties. Sure, the Democrats would have welcomed his abandonment of the GOP, but they would have had to make fewer concessions to him given the majority they already would have.

When Senator Phil Gramm switched from a Democrat to a Republican, he resigned and submitted his name to the Texas voters for approval under the auspices of his adopted party. When Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell rose from a Democrat to a Republican, he, like Jeffords, who descended in the opposite direction, did not bother to resubmit his name for voter approval. It should be noted that when Nighthorse-Campbell switched, current Democratic leader Tom Daschle criticized Nighthorse-Campbell for not doing the “honorable” thing and calling for a special election. Neither Nighthorse-Campbell nor Jeffords did anything disreputable in leaving their parties, but certainly, Gramm has set the standard for party-switching honor.

The loss of the Senate is surely an important set back for Republicans. However, Democrats may find (as Republicans have) that it is often easier to be the party in opposition than to labor under the responsibilities of leadership. In addition, if the Senate proves too obstructionist it may become a convenient political target for Republicans. Democrats should be careful what they wish for, lest they get it.

A Place in the Square

Sunday, May 20th, 2001

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment to the US Constitution.

“The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” — Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1819.

Students from a North Carolina Christian school were recently visiting the White House. During a respite, students joined hands and began a prayer on behalf of the President. After a short while, the Secret Service broke up the prayer and reportedly told the group to “take it outside.” Perhaps the moment of prayer was slowing the progress of the tour group or perhaps the Secret Service was just awkward and did not know what to do. The scene was an inconsequential little incident, but it may serve to remind us how uncomfortable religion in public places makes many feel in what Stephen Carter has called the “culture of disbelief.”When Carter wrote the Culture of Disbelief in 1993, the Christian Right, at least the part typified by Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, convinced some that churches were conspiring to institute a theocracy. Religion, many contemporary Americans believe, ought to be treated as a hobby indulged on Sunday mornings, with no real place in serious public discussion. Stephen Carter is a political Liberal and religious believer who, by contrast, laments that religion has been virtually eliminated from the public square, denuding public discussion of an important source of wisdom. When people of faith speak, people squirm.

The first freedom protected by the First Amendment is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is different and distinct from freedom of speech. It is not just freedom of conscience. The First Amendment protects religious institutions from the state.

The worst political outcome is tyranny and one way to prevent tyranny is to have different and independent centers of authority. Religion is one such center. Religion and spirituality are at their best when they act in resistance. Stephen Carter calls religion a “bulwark against state authority” and suggests that “the idea of religion as an independent moral force … is crucial …to the role of religions as intermediate institutions to which citizens owe a separate allegiance.”

In 1990, the Roman Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor warned that Catholic public officials who supported abortion rights might be formally separated from the church, i.e., excommunicated. The action was considered an inappropriate intrusion of religious belief into public debate. Stephen Carter cites New York University law professor Burt Neborne as arguing, “When you accept public office, you’re not a Catholic, you’re not a Jew. You’re an American.” Carter argues it is possible to be both a person of faith and in public office.

Carter contends that Liberals cannot, on the one hand, argue that religious leaders have no business becoming involved in public policy issues, when they did not complain when religious leaders supported positions they favored. There was no claim by Liberals that religions should mind their own business when the Catholic Church in the 1950s threatened to excommunicate public officials who supported segregation. Liberals did not object when Catholic bishops supported the ill-fated nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s. Liberals did not oppose the Southern Baptist Church when it nurtured and supported the civil rights movement. If you accept the legitimacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson in the public square, Rev. Pat Robertson cannot be excluded because of his faith perspective.

Carter’s most trenchent argument is that government has a positive obligation not just to be neutral with respect to religion, but also to be deferential to and accommodate religious observance. When otherwise reasonable legislation comes into conflict with personal religious practice, Carter argues that the state should have to show a compelling interest before restricting such a practice. In a relatively rare act of deference, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court agreed the state interest in the education of children was not superior to belief by the Amish that they should remove their children from school after the 8th grade. More often, such deference has not been shown. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court did not respect the rights of members of the Native American Church to use the controlled substance peyote, a religious practice that predates the United States. There is probably not a little religious, let us say “insensitivity,” in the failure to recognize that state should not have prevented the “free exercise of religion” in that case.

If we expect people to be true to their conscience, we must accept that sometimes religiosity informs that conscience. This represents healthy respect for plurality in a democracy. Some people are thoroughly spiritual. They cannot and ought not be asked to separate the core of what they are in exchange for the right to be seriously listened to in the public square.

Dear Justin

Saturday, May 12th, 2001

Dear Justin,
It is an important parental prerogative to inspect a child before he leaves home to enter the world. On a cold a day, a parent will check to make sure their youngster has his gloves on, that his head is topped with a hat, and that his coat is secured. Since this high school graduation marks your entry into the world, it is time for your last minute inspection. This check is, of course, a silly indulgence. Most of what parents can help a child with, they have done over the years and any last minute words, no matter how sincerely offered, are likely to be quickly forgotten. A parent might be able to button up a coat at the last minute, but there are no quick adjustments to character. Nonetheless, permit me the illusion that these words will not be lost.

Any burdens you may have, Justin, are burdens of wealth; wealth of intelligence, wealth of humor, and wealth of talent. Those for whom success comes easily often suffer from two aliments: the inability to sympathize with people who are less fortunate and the tendency to become discouraged when faced with unexpected adversity. Empathize with those who have higher personal barriers to overcome and face with courage the inevitable obstacles life will put in your way. Do not loose faith in yourself.

This fall you journey off to college. In his first year at William and Mary University, Thomas Jefferson overindulged his social life and over spent his personal budget by 50 percent before his natural inclinations to studiousness took over. Avoid the example of Jefferson’s first year and leap to the model of his subsequent years. You have an important obligation to make full and constructive use of your gifts. Meet this obligation first.

You have honored your mother and myself by the young man you have become. At this point, I should point out to you the wonders of the world you now enter. It is perhaps fairer to warn the world of the wonder about to enter it.


The Impact of Free Trade on the Soul

Saturday, May 5th, 2001

“…There are times when the sacrifice of [the benefits of free trade] is in the broader national interest, or in the interests of preserving some of the values that Americans see as their obligation to export to other, less fortunate nations.” — Irwin M. Stelzer, “The Limits of Free Trade,” The Weekly Standard, April 30, 2001.

The economic case for free and unfettered trade is already well made. Both economic evidence and theory strongly support the conclusion that free trade increases the economic well being of all participants. Much of the increase in wealth in the post WWII era and the post-Cold War period, in particular, were strongly tied to the protocols of free trade. There will certainly be people and industries that are dislocated by the discipline of economic competition. In aggregate, however, wealth is increased and resources are more efficiently utilized. However, economic efficiency and welfare are not the only values against which public policies ought to be weighed. Free trade is more an expedient than an ultimate value.

Domestic labor organizations argue against free trade citing the lack of worker protection in foreign countries, but many times such arguments are motivated less by a concern for foreign workers and more by a fear of competition from poorer people willing to work for less. The AFL-CIO does not spend much political effort fighting for workers’ rights in the Sudan. Sudanese workers are not a competitive threat to American workers.

There are legitimate concerns that different countries might have environmental restrictions that are less stringent than those in the US. Some argue that trade should be used as a lever to compel compliance with US standards. While there is merit in this concern, it must be balanced by the consideration that different countries in different stages of development might reasonably strike a different balance between economic growth and environmental concerns.

In an ironic way, trade restrictions can reasonably be used as leverage to persuade countries to open up their markets. Imposing trade restrictions on countries that erect walls around their markets will mean that in the short run both the US and the other countries will be less well off. However, if such a policy opens up trade, short-term trade restrictions might prove salutary in the long run. However, sometimes even this argument degrades into an excuse for old-fashioned protectionism.

Free trade true believers argue that such trade encourages different countries to become more like us under the implicit assumption that being like us is a good thing. As free trade helps countries become wealthier, they will generally increase both worker and environmental protections. From a political standpoint, the economic discipline of free trade encourages a stable and open legal regime to mediate contractual disputes. The competition caused by free trade forces countries and companies to become more transparent and to loosen up the flow of information, which undermines repressive regimes.

However, the converse is also true. As we trade with other countries we may become, for better or worse, like them. Edwin Black recently published a book entitled, IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation. The book charges that IBM tabulating machines sold the IBM subsidiary Dehomag were used in the 1933 to 1939 censuses to create a cross-referenced data base of names, addresses, and family histories the Nazis used in implementing their Final Solution. The information from the censuses made the Nazi extermination of Jews more thorough in Germany than in occupied countries. (See Beatty, Jack, “Hitler’s Willing Business Partners,” Atlantic Monthly, April 4, 2001.)

In the 1930s there were already reports of anti-Semitic repression in Nazi Germany, evidence that was overlooked by IBM (and other US companies). The promise of profits made it easier to deliberately overlook inconvenient information. Hitler awarded Thomas J. Watson, the chairman of IBM, the Merit Cross of the Germany Eagle for his efforts.

Even if companies who are involved in trade are not active participants in repression, the promise of profits can cause these companies to avert their gaze from activities as varied as the anti-Semitism of the Nazi to the present day religious repression in the People’s Republic of China. Willingness to engage in trade with repressive regimes may in the long run compel repressive regimes to become less repressive, at least we can hope so. However, the long run can be a very long time and in the mean time our collective souls can be at risk.