Friday, October 25, 2013

Create Moronic Chaos!

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Earlier this week, I noted some hilariously misguided statements posted on a comments board responding to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  That article had quoted me, in support of my prediction that upcoming federal budget talks would result in yet more damaging cuts to funding for higher education, saying this: "Other than football teams, universities are not popular with tea-party-type voters."

As I noted in Tuesday's post, this assertion seems not just obvious but uncontroversial.  Movement conservatives, even before many of them united under the banner of the Tea Party movement, had been going after higher education for years, with a combination of anti-intellectualism and attacks on the academy as a haven for lefties.  This is hardly something about which conservatives have been coy.

Just to add one more example to the quick list that I included in my post on Tuesday, one might recall that during the 2012 Presidential primary season, President Obama was quoted at one point saying that it should be a goal of American public policy to see that every child gets a college education.  He offered the statement as an aspiration, not a policy proposal.  One might imagine any of a number of plausible arguments in response to that goal, and we might even have ultimately concluded that the aspiration is not literally achievable.  That might have been a fair discussion.

That, however, is not how the Tea Party's favorite candidate responded.  The leading arch-conservative Presidential candidate at that time was former Senator Rick Santorum.  Speaking to a Tea Party group in Michigan, Santorum reportedly went out of his way to quote the President's comments and to respond as follows: "What a snob!"  He raised the specter of "some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate" people, and he said that Obama wants people to go to college so he can "remake you in his image."

It is all rather bizarre, then, to make an obviously true statement and see the level of vitriol that I saw on the comments board for the Chronicle article.  But my larger point in Tuesday's post was not about the vitriol itself, but that the comments were so humorously confused.  The commenters, in trying to defend themselves against an imagined attack on their intelligence, proceeded to demonstrate their incapacity to think clearly.

I then offered an alternative explanation for the broader phenomenon of embarrassing conservative rants on internet comments boards.  (See the comments board for almost any political book on, just as one of a multitude of online mosh pits.)  I linked to a comment by Paul Krugman, who had linked to a report that Fox News had spent years ordering its employees to set up dummy, untraceable accounts so that they could act as "sock puppets," posting pro-Fox rants on any comment board where anything had been written about Fox (even non-critical comments).  Krugman's surmise was that there was/is an affirmative strategy on the right to get not-necessarily-stupid people to flood the internet with stupid comments supporting right-wing claims.

In an email, Professor Dorf asked me a follow-up question: Why would it be sensible for any political organization (and Fox News is nothing if not a political organization) to convince the world that its adherents are stupid?  What is to be gained from paying employees to make bad arguments, rather than good ones?

The answer, I think, can be analogized to an interlude in the history of Professor Dorf's favorite basketball team, the New York Knickerbockers.  In the late 1980's, the Knicks were coached briefly by Rick Pitino (now the coach at the University of Louisville).  Before playing the Celtics one night, Pitino specifically said that "his team's only chance to beat what was obviously a better team was to create chaos."

This brings me back to an argument that I have made in a number of different contexts, which is that the conservative movement thrives when it undermines the rule of law, and especially when it undermines the institutions that can serve as counterbalances against the exercise of raw power that the wealthy and their right-populist supporters could otherwise exercise.

For example, after last year's Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act, I questioned whether movement conservatives should have been grudgingly happy with Chief Justice Roberts, despite his vote upholding the ACA under the taxing power, because his vote had preserved some shred of credibility of the Court as a nonpartisan institution.  Although some very good commentators had made that claim, my suggestion was that conservatives would actually want to undermine the Court's legitimacy still further, because the courts can be a countervailing force that restrains the powerful from getting their way.

Similarly, many others have pointed out that conservatives have an incentive to make the government run badly, even when they are in charge.  The most recent version of this, of course, is not just to underfund and undermine federal agencies (and then complain when they make mistakes), but to make all of Congress look bad, even when it is only the Tea Partiers in the House who are really being crazy.  The press and public tend to draw the conclusion that "they're all nuts."

So, even though I can understand why it is counter-intuitive to engage in a specific strategy that is based on having people say and do stupid things, the strategy seems to be to degrade the conversation always and everywhere.  One does not need good arguments to shut down what might otherwise be a productive conversation.  One need only make it impossible to have a conversation at all.


  1. Neil, first, keep up the basketball analogies (even better if Ainge isn't in them). Second, loved your post. Just one thing. You said "conservatives would actually want to undermine the Court's legitimacy still further, because the courts can be a countervailing force that restrains the powerful from getting their way." Much more often than not the Supreme Court sides with the rich and powerful against the little people (excluding criminal defendants). The Court blocks important progressive progress all the time. I know that is a strong empirical claim which I can't back up here but it is true. Lucky for us, many on the right don't seem to notice otherwise their calls for ultra strong judging would be very loud (and that is beginning to happen anyway)with books like "Judicial Engagement," and Randy Barnett's libertarian call for strong judicial review.

  2. Thanks, Eric, for your positive response. Not everything can be about Ainge, but in the linked article, you can at least read him saying something arrogant and annoying (and being proved wrong).

    I agree with you that "[t]he Court blocks important progressive progress all the time." I discussed the seeming contradiction a bit more in my post from last summer that I linked in this post (re Roberts and the ACA). My basic thesis is that the rich and powerful are going to win most battles, no matter what the legal rules are. The question is whether they are better off providing the illusion of a level playing field, or whether they're better off when they don't even need to pretend that they're not stomping on the little people.

    I can see the upside of maintaining the veneer of fairness, even while they do everything possible to put judges on the bench who will make a mockery of any notion of justice. But the courts do actually hold against the elite with some frequency, so it is at least an open question as to whether those losses are too costly to bother pretending anymore.

    So, I would never claim that the courts -- especially post-Warren -- are anything but a slight drag on the power of the powerful. But the powerful people might one day decide that they would benefit from throwing off all pretense. They've certainly decided that the press was too much of a bother, and so was Congress. So they paid people to make a mockery of both.

  3. Dear Professor Buchanan,

    In my Comment to your Post of October 15, I concluded that the debt ceiling statute (“DCS”) was unconstitutional from the day FDR signed it into law. Although my position is based on a constitutional argument, it is instrumental to examine the nearly 3/4 of a century history of the DCS to examine how truly unconstitutionally flawed the statute was, and still is.

    Going into WW-II, our nation exhibited an inspiring case study in rapid mobilization. It was under this pressure of rapid mobilization that the 1939 Congress established the DCS. The borrowing mechanism they created, the Z = X - Y equation, was the most powerful spending machine that will ever be known to man. Our securities have become the backbone for the whole global economy.

    Unfortunately, the 1939 Congress did not know how to create a braking mechanism to this rapid mobilization spending. In creating a “ceiling” on ΔZ, Congress demonstrated the limits of their financial know-how. Congress intended to empower the Treasury, not rein it in. The DCS is a prime example of the unintended consequences that can follow on the heels of laws created under duress. The braking mechanism Congress did create resulted in an unconstitutional imbalance in the separation of powers.

    Ironically, FDR was the first victim of Congress applying the DCS as political leverage. FDR's DCS battle began in the months right after Pearl Harbor when, under the newly enacted Emergency Price Control Act, he issued an executive order that limited top corporate salaries to $25,000 after taxes.

    FDR's executive order infuriated conservatives and they vowed to kill FDR's executive order by any legislative means necessary. In his 1943 budget message, FDR requested from Congress to raise the nation's debt ceiling. The debt ceiling allowed the 1943 congressional conservatives to take FDR's fiscal policy hostage by indicating to him that they would, but only if the ceiling bill included a rider that repealed the President's $25,000 salary cap executive order.

    Both the House and Senate passed the debt ceiling bill; with the salary cap repeal rider attached. FDR well understood the importance of passing the higher debt ceiling bill, but he would let the bill become law without his signature. A default in the middle of WW-II was not an unthinkable option. FDR responded by signaling a non-surrender as he continued to battle to make sure that "not a single war millionaire would be created in this country as a result of the war disaster." FDR's relentless advocacy eventually prevailed in his far broader struggle to shape the wartime and that finance debate, as the 90% taxes on top-bracket income lasted well into the 1950's.

    [Cont Next Comment]

  4. [Cont From Prior Comment]

    On April 12, 1945, at the age of 63, FDR died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage . The final battles of the European Theatre , as well as the German surrender, took place in late April and early May 1945. The Empire of Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. Conservatives in 1943, a mere two debt ceiling extensions after the DCS came into existence in 1939, clearly discovered the problems their newly discovered leverage could wrought. One can only speculate whether the DCS would have continued beyond WW-II had FDR lived beyond the end of the hostilities.

    Vice President Truman succeeded FDR and served during the period our nation was coming down from its spending high. Under Truman, the ceiling was reduced from $300 billion to $275 billion in June 1946. This reduction was the only time in the history of the DCS that the ceiling was actually reduced. The debt ceiling would not increase again until 1954.

    Eisenhower raised the ceiling in 1954, and raised it a total of 4 times. Kennedy - 5; Johnson - 7; Nixon - 7; Ford - 6; Carter - 6; Reagan - 18; Bush I - 5; Clinton - 4; and Bush II - 7. President Obama raised the ceiling a total of 4 times in his first term. From 1954 through and including 2011, the ceiling has been raised 73 times. Since WW-II, there have been only 12 years with budgetary surpluses. A true testament as to how the DCS has failed to make politicians accountable to voters for their spending and borrowing decisions.

    The Tea Partiers in the House will not negotiate. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the ACA under the taxing power, instead of under the commerce clause, only served to make them angrier and crazier. A “Game Theory” analysis of the DCS over these 3/4 of a century would lead to predict that the next debt ceiling deadline, now set for February 7, will be crazier yet.

    Obama does not believe the 14th Amendment gives him the power to ignore the debt ceiling and unilaterally disarm the DCS. If I am correct that the DCS was unconstitutional from the day FDR signed it into law, perhaps the president will be emboldened enough to do his constitutional duty.

    I realize that I am the only one propounding to blame the 1939 Congress for the mess that we are in now. It is lonely out here.

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