The Great GOP Identity Search

In the wake of the great Republican defeat (and despite the distraction of the Petraeus Affair) pols and pundits continue to offer advice to the Republican Party as to how it might reform itself in order to…. well, do better next time around.   Yesterday’s New York Times contains a number of suggestions:  Ditch the radical right.  Court the black vote.   Embrace immigration reform.   Etc.

There’s something almost always missing in the way these suggestions are presented.  They are all written as if the plight of the GOP could be ameliorated through simple operations of subtraction (e.g., ditch the radical right) or addition (e.g., take up immigration reform).    Only rarely is consideration given to how the proposed subtraction or addition would affect the ostensible identity of the party or how the change could be effectuated given the ostensible identity of the party.

Consider:  If the GOP ditches the radical right, to what degree does the GOP remain the GOP or become instead something else?   Isn’t the radical right an important voting constituency?  A draw for donors?   Isn’t the ideology of the radical right infused throughout the GOP?   And can the radical right really be conceptualized as a divisible part of some imaginary GOP whole—a part that can be jettisoned without creating fissures and ripples throughout the party?   Is it really as easy as simple as dropping a part from some part/whole metaphor?

Or consider again:  If the GOP embraces immigration reform, does it not lose the support and allegiance of some of its white constituency?   And is embracing immigration reform really sufficient to counter-act the effect of  all the other GOP policies (and attitudes) that alienate Latino voters?   A simple add-on and things will be fine—really?

So how then are we to understand the various proposals of the GOP pols and pundits? What presumptions about identity are in play here?

Are we to understand the pols and pundits to be presuming that the GOP has an essential identity that can remain unchanged even with the addition or subtraction of purportedly discrete parts?   Maybe.  But if so, it would be interesting to try to figure out what this essential identity might be.   Not the least reason is that the effort is likely to fail.  Indeed, whatever the identity of the GOP  may be, it is unlikely to be of the essential kind.   To put it differently, whatever may be essential about the GOP,  it is likely to be somewhat abstract or, in the alternative, highly variegated (which is to say, not very essential at all).

Perhaps then, we are to understand these GOP pols and pundits to be saying that the GOP should become something else (presumably some more electorally successful version of itself).   Again, maybe.    But it is doubtful that the GOP (whatever it may be) cares so intensely about electoral success that it is willing to become some other party in order to get it.   At the very least there is a tension here (and, again, it would make for interesting inquiry.)

Are we then to understand the GOP pols and pundits to be making a kind of pragmatic pitch—something like the following: this is what we, the GOP, should be given what we are and can realistically become in light of our ideals as qualified by the subtraction and additions presented by my argument here.   Again maybe so.   But this pragmatic approach seems to founder on the shoals of a very unpragmatic reality–namely, that identity of the modern-day Republican Party is weighed down (perhaps irretrievably?) by the very unpragmatic results of what was once a pragmatic strategy–namely, “Nixon’s southern strategy.”   That strategy was once the height of pragmatism.  Now it’s like a lead weight–rendering change or reform all but impossible.   See here.   That is the fundamental irony of  pragmatic strategies: Ultimately, pragmatic strategies have to yield results and when the latter register, they become, not surprisingly, rather unpragmatic.

In the end, it’s also conceivable that all this advice to the Republican party is nothing more than cosmetic–attempts to call for and perform relatively minor makeovers.    That possibility is not very interesting (though that does not make it any the less likely.)

Addendum; January 29, 2013

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks’s oped seems to get it  Brooks criticizes Republican stalwarts (e.g. Bobbie Jindahl, etc.) along a form/substance track:  The sounds of reform (let’s not be “the stupid party”) are all packaging (form) devoid of any new proposals (substance).   Leveraging the form/substance distinction, Brooks then calls for a “second GOP”–one whose core commitments and issues will differ from the first GOP.  (For details see here.)  And then Brooks ends on almost the right note:  “This is really the only chance Republicans have. The question is: Who’s going to build a second G.O.P.?”  Right.   Exactly.   Recycle back up to the top.

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Sustainability and Equity in a Climate Changed World

A small group of environmental law professors gathered recently for a two-day workshop on the concept and practice of sustainability.  I was asked to lead a discussion about the relationship between sustainability and equity.  The group decided to take the next step of publishing a series of essays on the topics we addressed, and the following is my contribution. 

From top to bottom, climate change has altered the earth’s systems in ways that render impossible a static notion of sustainability.  The idea of fixed natural baselines, contested to begin with, today is nearly quixotic. The many losses accompanying this state of affairs include the homelands of small island nations, Native Alaskan villages, and flood-prone communities throughout the world.  They also include untold numbers of species, large and small. For many communities, the shocks and adjustments will be ongoing.  The challenge for all will be to reconfigure economies and cultures that have been structured around an anachronism– what used to be the local climate.

This may seem like a terrible time to cast a critical eye on the past of the American environmental movement.  Instead of looking at its flaws, we might be drawn to glossing over problems in order to unify support for very strong climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.  Yet glossing over might prove counterproductive.  The inescapably damaged state of the world we are trying to preserve provides an opportunity to escape from narratives that have divided communities over environmental policies.  Those narratives include saving the environment from people and preserving pristine places from contamination.

Let’s explore those narratives in two places.  Aspen, Colorado is a former mining town reborn as a luxury ski resort.  Efforts to preserve the wilderness and other natural resources of the surrounding mountains have coincided with pricing Aspen out of any reasonable housing market and creating a distant commuter class of service workers, composed mostly of Latino immigrants.  The two phenomena do not have to coincide.  The conversion from a boom-and-bust extractive industry economy to an amenity and service-based economy can be managed in ways that produce equitable distributions of environmental and social benefits.   But often it is not.  The path to easy money for developers is the path of environmental privilege.  Wealthy people come for real estate or experiences near beautiful and sparsely populated public lands, and then structure a service economy around the protection of their privileges.  (To be clear, I do not mean to say that individual wealthy people do this intentionally; the logic of this type of development is naturalized in a way that makes it invisible to many well-intentioned people.)  This often includes, as it has in Aspen, externalizing a range of costs and impacts to outlying communities.  Service workers must commute by car from distant places.  The towns where they live, which have lower tax bases than Aspen, provide the schools and other services to Aspen’s working class.  In short, Aspen is a place of environmental and class extremism, where the very wealthy enjoy the best that the Rocky Mountains can offer in terms of scenery and access to wilderness and other outdoor activities, and low-income workers live in distant communities, drive hours to and from their jobs, and barely have time to notice that the supposedly transformative experience of pristine nature surrounds them.

Estate in Aspen, Colorado

Black Mesa, Arizona is a high desert plateau, most of which is on the Navajo Nation but portions of which comprise the Hopi Tribe’s land.  The Navajo and Hopi people of Black Mesa are among the more traditional Native communities in the country in terms of maintaining their ancestral lands as well as the religions and cultures tied to those places.  The community is not a monolith, but it is fair to say that most of the Navajo and Hopi people who live there have strong interests in ensuring that their water (from underground pristine aquifers), their land, and their air can sustain many future generations who will perpetuate Navajo and Hopi life ways.  The threats to their ability to ensure that future come from two main sources:  the strip mining of coal on Black Mesa (and the accompanying pumping of ground water from the aquifers to mine and transport the coal), and the pollution from the several coal fired power plants that surround the Navajo Nation, including the Navajo Generating Station which receives all of its coal from Black Mesa.  None of the electricity generated at the Navajo Generating Station supplies power to people on the Navajo or Hopi reservations.  Instead, the power is used by the Salt River Project, Los Angeles Water & Power, Nevada Energy, Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The beneficiaries of coal mining, aquifer pumping, and emissions from the coal fired power plant are therefore corporations and people in the distant cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tuscon.  The recipients of all of the environmental burdens are the Navajo and Hopi people, whose land, resources, and water serve as raw material to develop these far away places.

Hard Rock Chapter, Black Mesa, Navajo Nation

Contemporary environmental laws, in place since the early 1970’s, have done tremendous good, but have done little to curb the extreme inequities in the distribution of environmental burdens and benefits exemplified in these two very different places.  In Aspen, the narrative of keeping people out of pristine places is at play.  On Black Mesa, the narrative at work is one that separates the plight of subordinated people from the structural forces that harm our environment.  The build-up of Los Angeles and Phoenix surely seemed foregone, inevitable, and right to those involved in it.  What thought was given to the Native communities on whose backs those cities were built?  Their lands were seen as nothing but the disposable raw material from which to build something better.

As we move forward, post climate change, with only a murky comprehension of how best to preserve remnants of the faultless non-human world, perhaps we can reconsider how to weave human communities and their just demands for equitable treatment into the picture.  Otherwise, we may lean towards sustaining only non-human nature, and that will inevitably also benefit only certain classes and strata of humanity.  We might unwittingly be sustaining a very hierarchical and increasingly rigid system of doling out environmental privileges and harms.  If this is a moment of reconsideration, my vote is to construct a competing narrative of environmentalism, one that has a vision of vibrant, equitable, just and diverse communities of humans and non-humans as its end.

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Book Review (and subtext)

The recent publication of  [.......] by Professor X marks a moment in the history of [.......].  It establishes him as one of the leading, if not the leading, authority on the subject of [.......].

Professor X works at Zip Code Law School and I would like a job there too.

The work is lucid, path-breaking, and a real moment marking the advent of [.......].

In the American legal academy, there is no praise too effusive or adulation too florid to be believed by its addressee.  I have learned this lesson well and I’ve got the game down.

The book is:


Occasionally insightful


Moderately competent


Off the wall


0.2 standard deviations from the norm

A tour de force

Rather improbable 

In a previous work, Professor X argued that [.......].

Professor X has managed to squeeze out yet another publication rehearsing his same old themes. 

The book offers a number of interesting new twists on ideas first articulated by [.......], [.......], and [.......]

I’ve read the thing from cover to cover and I’ll be damned if I understand why anyone is paying so much attention to the thing.  I mean there’s not a new idea within a 50-mile radius of the thing.

Professor X begins with an excellent discussion of [.......] providing a rich context for [.......].

Professor X devotes more than half the book to a rehash of the prior work of others.  Lord save us from the University Press editors, dissertation disease, and the well-intentioned, but grossly misguided, demands of academic reviewers for more elaboration, more examples, and more documentation.

And yet…if one follows the searing criticisms I painstakingly set forth below, one will see that the book emerges as fatally flawed, question-begging, misframed, insufficiently supported, etc.

Aren’t my criticisms just the bomb?  I mean really.

Nonetheless, despite my criticisms, the book remains a brilliant work.  Indeed, notwithstanding my searing criticisms, Professor X’s work emerges as a profound and lasting contribution to [.......].

On balance, I really and truly would like a position at Zip Code Law School.  Also please know that in the future, sometime, I plan to dedicate myself full time to writing what I really think…  probably starting next year…  or at least very soon… though not too soon, of course… with the outside chance of maybe not at all… and, actually, come to think of it, like Professor X himself: never.  

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We Built It (Part II–Factors of Production)

“We built it.”  So runs the mantra of the GOP.   To which there is only one possible response: Well, actually no you didn’t.   And let me explain why since it’s not addressed in my last post on this subject.

First, let’s imagine who “you” are and why you might reasonably think you did build it.   So let’s imagine that you own a small business. You started small.  You worked hard.  You took risks.   You leased space.  You got loans.  You did all sorts of stuff.    Some of it was damned hard.   And now, you have… let’s say a successful 10-year old Italian restaurant.   And it pretty much feels like you really did build it.   And the best proof that you built it (as you see the matter) is that without you–this business would not exist.   Voila and Q.E.D.  You built it.


The easy way to put it goes like this:

First, let’s concede arguendo that certain things about the restaurant are attributable to your personal touch.  Say, the Abruzzo tomato sauce, the painting of Perugia on the wall, the… etc.  These things (now, of course, they’re not all yours) would not be there without you.  And the charm—the personal touches you bring to the business—also would not be there without you.  Or at least, the particular combination of personal touches you bring is unlikely to be reproducible by anyone else.  So let’s say this is yours (even though, of course, it really isn’t entirely, but….)

How then does your view of the matter go wrong?  It goes wrong because these “personal touches” are not synonymous or coterminous with “it”—the business you supposedly built.  In fact, and with all due respect, they are only a small part of “it”—the business you supposedly built.  The main contributions are the capital equipment, the physical plant, the labor force you employ, the infrastructures you depend upon, the infrastructures your suppliers depend upon and all sorts of other stuff, knowledge, capacities, competencies you did not build even if—and this is not nothing—you brought them all together.

What “you” (another term that will soon come under fire) need to recognize is that there are all sorts of things that have contributed to the building of this small business.  Among them:  A few millennia of human history bringing all sorts of knowledges, human management, capital equipment, and an available labor force up to speed; years of training in public school provided by taxpayers; all sorts of infrastructure enabling you to purchase foodstuffs, equipment, and to hire competent employees, etc. etc. etc.

These are all called factors of production.  And the thing that allows you to say that you “built it” is that you discount all those factors of production.  You take the roads, the schools, the laws, the employees, the culture as a given—as the background or normal state of affairs, as a baseline.   And so, taking these things as the baseline, you naturally think that if this small Italian restaurant exists, it is because you built it.

But this is wrong.  Way wrong.  “You,” relative to all these other factors of production, have actually added very (very) little.  We would have a hard time substituting a few millennia of history, an advanced post-industrial economic infrastructure, twentieth century schooling and knowledge.   Replacing you, however, would be very (very) easy.  In fact, it is a sure bet, that were it not for you, there would be somebody else (probably slightly less efficient, with slightly fewer comparative advantages) who could and in fact would take your place.  This person is, if we hew to Chicago School economics, marginally less efficient than you—but that’s about it.  So in terms of marginal productivity, you, relative to the other factors of production, are almost trivial—eminently replaceable.  Viewed in terms of marginal substitutability of a factor of production, you (again with all due respect) are pretty insignificant.  So if we were to ask in a realistic way, did you build it?—the answer would have to be that among all the factors of production contributing to the establishment of your small business, you come in (once again with all due respect) probably… very (very) far down the list.

Now, exactly where down the list is not entirely clear.  Among other things the answer would depend on how we carve up—what taxonomy we use—to describe our factors of production.   This brings in a certain degree of arbitrariness….

…and a kind of unnerving postmodern problem.   We are now going to turn from talking about “it” the thing that you supposedly built (but did not) to a more perplexing postmodern concern—namely, “you.”   “You” too is in trouble.

The fact of the matter is that—and this causes me a slight embarrassment—economically speaking, you (or in your case, “I”) is not really a category we can deal with very well.  You just don’t register very well or very deeply, economically speaking.  You are too abstract (we really don’t know who or what you are economically.)  And you are too concrete (you are too diversified internally for us to aggregate in a single economic category with any real content.)  In a phrase, you are, economically speaking, a thin category (more on that in a later post).  You’re not really labor or capital or any one such thing.   And though it is true you own a small business, it would be wrong to say that you are the small business itself (and besides small business is a legal not an economic category.)

All of this helps explain why—see the last post—you might feel somewhat anxious about it all.   There’s reason to be.  But in this regard, you are not alone.  Everybody feels more anxious.   Why?  Because the social bonds that you have so ardently disdained, rejected, and abused in the name of unbridled individualism (does this mean cheaper prices at Walmart?) have in large measure already largely melted away–so that the “you” that remains is, well, getting rather thin, somewhat indistinct, not quite in focus.    It’s no fun.   No fun at all.  Again, if only you could realize that you are not alone in all this….

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Ryan’s Scariest Lie

I know sub-three hour marathoners, I am friends with sub-three hour marathoners, and I have run a sub-three hour marathon.  Paul Ryan, you are no sub-three hour marathoner.

To many, Paul Ryan’s marathon lie is probably the most innocuous one he told in the last couple of weeks.  That one about the Janesville auto plant seems worse.  The one about Obama rejecting the bipartisan debt commission’s recommendations worse yet.  And so on.  So why is his lie about running a sub-3 marathon so creepy?

First, in case it is not clear.  It is a LIE, not a slip of the tongue or a misremembered fact.  To the interviewer who asked him what his personal record in the marathon was, Ryan answered:  “Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.” In three different ways, Ryan said that he ran 26.2 miles in under three hours!  When caught red-footed by Runner’s World, Ryan’s lame response was: “The race was more than 20 years ago, but my brother Tobin—who ran Boston last year—reminds me that he is the owner of the fastest marathon in the family and has never himself ran a sub-three. If I were to do any rounding, it would certainly be to four hours, not three. He gave me a good ribbing over this at dinner tonight.”  Instead, Ryan should have said, “I know.  That was a complete and bald-faced lie.  I apologize.  I guess I thought I could get away with it, like I do so many other things.  Have you noticed that my hair is very thick?”

Now that that’s settled, why is the lie so disturbing?  Because it was so utterly unnecessary.  Only runner geeks like me and my friends (and Elliot Spitzer, whose marathon p.r. is apparently faster than Ryan’s but slower than mine!) care about marathon times.  The country as a whole would not be terribly impressed with what is a big deal (and it really is, and Ryan knew it; see above about the LIE) in our small and semi-masochistic circles.  So why lie?  Why try to claim, simply by saying it, what others claim solely after mingling their given talent with intense training, and then pulling it all together on race day?  The casualness, the pettiness, the nonchalance of the lie is what smacks of pathology.  Why not lie?  That’s Ryan’s default position.  Lie, and then backtrack a bit and move on.  Have you noticed that his hair is very thick?

But it’s not funny.  If the guy gets in office, the lies will be even thicker.

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We Built It (Part I Losing It)

We built it.   It.  We.  Not you.  Not the government.  It belongs to us.  It is ours.  We work harder than you.  You cannot know how hard we work to build our small businesses.  (100 to 1500).  We work harder than our workers who we do not talk about.  Because they did not built it.   We built it.  Except to the extent that the workers are our fathers who were coal miners pursuing the American Dream who would one day be mentioned by their sons at a Republican Convention in Florida.  We are the sons who are the ones who built it.  We built it because we love freedom and we are the backbone and love freedom because freedom is free and it is the American dream.  Which we built.  Out of freedom.  Which is us.  And which you want to take away.  Even though it is not yours.  Because it is ours.  Because we built it.



Anyone?  Oh, shit.

A delegate from Texas waits for the start of the session during the second day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida August 28, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

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Lance Armstrong and Our Illusions

Lance Armstrong “gave up his fight against doping accusations.” This is how it is being reported, based on Armstrong’s bristly and defiant letter of concession. Presumably, Armstrong thinks that he maintains plausible deniability (and millions of dollars in sponsorships) this way. He can continue to say that he is being persecuted by the US Anti-Doping Agency, that they were on a “witch hunt,” that the ten witnesses who were prepared to testify against him were offered “sweet heart deals” for their own doping charges, that, in short, he is innocent and has been done wrong. Of course this is not really plausible. If Armstrong had a decent defense, he would have been able to secure at least a compromised result.  One rumor circulating earlier this summer within obscure insider-athletic circles, for example, was that Armstrong would be stripped of a few Tour de France victories in exchange for keeping the rest and maintaining some of his stature, and perhaps a wee bit of dignity. His failure to pull that off is some indication of the strength of the case against him.  Why would the US Anti-Doping Agency compromise at all if they could nail him for cheating during all seven tours?  Armstrong’s decision to stop fighting the charges deprives us of the evidence that would have been presented, but we know that the ten witnesses included George Hincapie, one of the most respected US cyclists and Armstrong’s long-time team mate, and that the accusations included use of EPO (a banned blood booster), blood transfusions, corticosteroids, and testosterone.  We also know that Armstrong had blood profiles in two years, 2009 and 2010, that were consistent with doping.

Still, why jump to the extraordinary conclusion, in the absence of a trial with all of the evidence vetted and assessed, that America’s best cyclist ever cheated throughout his entire career without once failing a drug test outright? First, as all the experts will attest, the testing is never as good as the cheating. A lot of cheating happens during training, in particular the use of banned steroids or hormones.  Even cheating that is integral to racing, such as blood doping or transfusions, can be very difficult to detect in a timely way. Second, and this is the hard part for many sports fans, it has been common knowledge for years within cycling circles that the only way to make it is to cheat. Talk to anyone who has spent any time in men’s professional cycling in the last two decades or so and they will tell you… “I faced a choice.  Start taking the meds or give it up.  Go see ‘the doctor’ or you are not going to make it.”  Furthermore, the rampant doping and drug use in cycling has been officially well known for at least the past several years, thanks to the various crack-downs by professional cycling agencies.

How can something be so very well known in some circles, and yet so hidden and unbelievable to the average American sports fan?  In part, it is because American sports fans love their illusions as much as they love their athletes.  We want more and faster records.  We want spectacular longevity and strength.  We want wins and world championships.  And yet, also consistent with some aspect of our national character, we want it all without wanting to know about the dirty things that make it possible.  We are sort of sweet and naive that way.  We are therefore shocked and bitterly disappointed when confronted with the fact that our athlete/heroes were human after all.  In Armstrong’s case, being human meant that in order to win in a sport filled with dopers, he would have to dope smarter and better.  For a long time he did, and doing so enabled him to train ferociously.  There is something to admire in that– being the most cunning and driven cheater.  Yet it is closer to admiring famous bank robbers than olympian athletes.

Professional cycling is in a state of transition, and may be heading back to the pre-illicit substance days.  If so, the best thing American sports fans could do would be to celebrate our athletes’ quiet victories and applaud their monstrous efforts as much as or more than their bling. (And here, a shout out to fourth place Olympian Taylor Phinney is in order.) If that fails to satisfy, the other alternative is to drop the illusions and hope for the next gangster who will cheat and claw his way to humanly impossible success.

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