Monthly Archives: September 2013

why can’t a centrist coalition form in the US House?

(Sacramento) If the legislature of almost any other democracy faced our current crisis, there would be talk of forming a new government.

John Boehner presides over a coalition composed of the center-right plus the Tea Party. Since those two groups are at odds, the obvious choice in almost any other system would be to build a different majority in the House. For instance, Boehner could propose a status-quo budget until the 2014 elections and promise to allow votes on all other topics with simple majority support. That proposal would probably gain the backing of 70% of the House. (It would exclude the Tea Party–who would turn their attention to the next election–and the House Progressive Caucus, whose members would balk on the ground that the budgetary status quo is unacceptable.) Boehner could even offer Nancy Pelosi the number-two position in the House. He would thus become the leader of a new majority coalition that would easily pass a budget.

Why isn’t this an option in the US? The constitution is no impediment. In fact, as Sandy Levinson notes, the House can even name a distinguished non-Congressperson to serve as Speaker. That is an example of the freedom to innovate that we tend to forget because we regard our traditions as inviolable.

If the constitution does not prevent a parliamentary solution to our current crisis, I think these are the main obstacles:

First, single-member, winner-take-all districts yield a two-party system. If there are just two parties, then (barring a perfect tie) one of them must have an outright majority in the House. Members of the majority party benefit from that status and are always highly reluctant to split. In Italy, India, or Israel, legislators come from many parties that sometimes split and recombine; leaving the governing coalition can be an appealing choice.

Second, the Speaker controls the floor. I don’t know much about discharge petitions and the like, but I don’t think that a proposal for new leadership could come up for a vote without the rules changing first. This means that although Boehner could—hypothetically—abandon the Tea Party and build a new centrist majority, no one else is really in a position to do that. Since Boehner doesn’t have to worry about the threat of a new majority being formed by a rival (say, by Nancy Pelosi), he can concentrate on potential revolts within his own party instead.

Finally, sheer tradition stands in the way. Because new coalitions never form in our Congress, the Tea Party would regard Republicans who suddenly joined a bipartisan governing majority as traitors on the order of Benedict Arnold himself. Their shock and horror would be immense. In contrast, parliamentary systems see frequent realignments. If you get dropped from a majority coalition, it’s just politics as usual.

John Boehner could form a centrist coalition in the US House and resolve the current budgetary crisis. That’s not illegal or unthinkable, but I think the odds are about one in a thousand. It’s also about one in a thousand that some moderate Republicans will decide to caucus with the Democrats and bring down his speakership. Far more likely is a continued struggle between the two existing party blocs in the House. Although our system has certain advantages, it is far more brittle than the alternatives, and we are paying the price right now.

game theory and the fiscal cliff (ii)

In January, I wrote a post diagramming the negotiations between President Obama and the House Republicans in game-theory terms. I thought the result that actually occurred was highly predictable if one assumed that the situation was a one-off Prisoner’s Dilemma with two players (Obama and Boehner). But I raised two complications: the game might be “Chicken” rather than a Prisoner’s Dilemma; and it would be repeated, which changes the strategic calculations.

Now it is being repeated. The President sees it as “Chicken” this time and has made the recommended play. To win Chicken, you should throw your steering wheel out of the window to show that you are not going to swerve. Then the other player has the choice of dying in a draw or living by losing. Obama tried to create that situation for John Boehner by calling the Speaker privately to say that he will not negotiate over the debt limit. I say Obama “tried” to create that situation because, in fact, the president still holds the steering wheel, and Republicans know he can negotiate if he wants to. That is why they are still driving straight.

In the Economist, “M.S.” suggests a play for Obama: promise to veto any debt-ceiling increase unless Congress passes immigration reform. This would be symmetrical to the Republicans’ threat to undermine or repeal Obamacare in return for a debt-ceiling increase. M.S. thinks this gambit would reveal the reckless behavior of the House Republicans. Maybe, but I think the public would draw the conclusion that both sides are maniacs. The president should simply point out that he is not making that kind of play.

In any case, the situation is a lot more complicated than a two-player Chicken Game. For one thing, the Republicans get to choose whether to play the “shut-the-government” game or the “default-on-the-debt” game, and in which order. Besides, there are many players. To name just the obvious ones: Tea Party House Republicans (who are showing that they understand the situation, they don’t care about Boehner, and they do not want to lose); Senate Republicans of various stripes; Wall Street and other big donors; Congressional Democrats; reporters; and the American people, most of whom have not paid much attention yet–but they will.

If the government shuts down or defaults (or both), then clearly the next stage in the “game” will be an effort to pin the blame on the other side. Game theory is not especially helpful for understanding this stage, which will be a struggle for rhetorical framing rather than a negotiation. Probably the best guess is that the Republicans will take the blame– which I think they deserve–but that is uncertain because the country and media are polarized and the Republicans have their talking points ready and honed. Pew finds that Republicans will start the blame-allocation phase about on par with the President, and that may embolden them to take us into default.

The Democrats will win the finger-pointing phase if people blame Republicans and decide to vote against them in 2014, but not if people blame Congress, which you cannot vote against. This is a sticky reality for the President, because attacking Republicans makes him look partisan (when people see partisanship as the problem). But I think he has to do it anyway. He will have two free cards to play: 1) Congress may not even succeed in sending him a bill to veto, in which case it will be much easier to pin the full responsibility on the House leadership, and 2) the House has taken about 124 recess days in 2013, by my unofficial calculation.

Congressional procedure is always a confusing and boring topic, but if I were the president, I would say: “The government has shut down because the House Republicans could not even send me a budget bill to consider, even though it is their constitutional responsibility to pass a budget by the end of every fiscal year. They took 124 days off this year. They can reopen the government in fifteen minutes by sending me a clean budget bill that preserves the status quo.” (Of course, the status quo is a unacceptable, but it beats a disaster.)

defending free speech in public schools

Frank LoMonte is Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center. His talk at this year’s National Conference on Citizenship really drew my attention to the lack of First Amendment rights in our schools.

Students should exercise freedom of speech, assembly, and the press* because: 1) that is how they can learn to use those rights in our democratic system; 2) they are human beings with intrinsic rights to express themselves; 3) the school represents the state and should behave like a limited government that respects rights; and 4) student journalists are well placed to uncover and discuss serious issues that society must understand. Especially considering that teachers have very limited rights of expression–and most professional education reporters have been laid off–student journalists represent essential sources of information pertinent to school reform.

Alas, under the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision (1988), students have limited rights to free speech in officially sanctioned student media. No one has unlimited rights: adults cannot threaten, libel, or harass. But student journalists have much more constrained constitutional rights—or so says the Supreme Court. Their work can be subject to prior censorship, and administrators have wide latitude to block it for educational reasons. This means that some students have what I regard as highly legitimate complaints about censorship that do not prevail in court.

That said, Hazelwood did not exile the First Amendment from schools. Administrators may censor, but they may not censor viewpoints. If, for instance, a high school newspaper takes an editorial position against a controversial school policy, that is protected—contrary to popular belief.

Hazelwood should be overturned, in my opinion. Failing that, LaMonte offers alternative strategies.

One is legislative. Hazelwood sets an inadequate minimum level of free speech in the nation’s schools. But states can set higher bars, declaring by statute or regulation that students have rights against prior censorship. Nine states have done so.

A second strategy involves changing administrators’ priorities. Apparently, many prospective assistant principals, principals, and superintendents take courses and training sessions that merely address the disadvantages of student expression. They are given examples of speech that caused headaches and are reminded that they have the right to censor it. Virtually no time is spent talking about the benefits of student expression. Even if some free speech is offensive or stupid, a climate of free expression is valuable for schools, just as it is for democracies writ large. See John Stewart Mill for arguments.

Finally, LoMonte has advice for student journalists. They play an important social role, and their rights are tenuous. Under those circumstances, they should steer away from frivolous and needlessly controversial speech. As LoMonte writes, “If you must do humor – and with only one newspaper a month, why waste that precious space? – then do outlandish humor that obviously mocks national celebrities, not cruel jokes about the appearance or character flaws of classmates or administrators.” In principle, I would defend the right of students to use their media for dumb purposes (and perhaps learn from the consequences). But they don’t really have that right under current US law. And regardless of their legal standing, the best advice is to keep their journalism serious, tough, and focused on issues. Then, if they end up in a battle with the superintendent over their expression, at least it is a battle worth winning.

*They should also exercise the remaining rights in the First Amendment–free exercise of religion and free worship–but those require somewhat different arguments.

will the creepy anti-Obamacare ads work?

(Morven Park, VA) Generation Opportunity is running ads in which an evil clown-like figure dressed as Uncle Sam pops up in the gynecologist’s office and other intimate places. This is part of their campaign to persuade young people not to sign up for Obamacare. NPR’s Don Gonyea asked me whether these  ads would be persuasive. My response found its way into his All Things Considered segment: “One analyst says humorous ads, creepy or not, tend to work only on people who already agree with the message.” I was anonymous on the air, but Gonyea’s blog post names me and provides a bit more detail. I answered on the basis of our randomized experiment using Flackcheck’s humorous videos and other research summarized here. Humor captures attention and provokes strong emotions, but political polarization limits its persuasiveness. In this case, people who hate Obamacare will find the Generation Opportunity ads funny. People who like Obamacare will be deeply offended. And people who are not following the debate will be mystified–not amused and not moved toward any particular conclusion.

Emerson’s mistake

Emerson’s Self-Reliance makes a provocative case for cultivating the self and shunning morality in the form of obligations to others. One famous paragraph begins, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. … Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The same paragraph ends with an argument against charity as an entanglement that damages integrity: “do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.”

Emerson strongly favors interacting with other minds, especially the geniuses who figure in the books that he devours in his private hours. Moses, Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates, Jesus, Luther, Milton, Copernicus, and Newton are just some of the names he invokes in Self-Reliance. He thinks these people (all men) had distinct and invariant characters. “For I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being.” Thus, to understand an author is to grasp something unitary and unique about him that inspires you to enrich your own equally coherent character, not by sharing his truth but by creating your own. In Experience, Emerson writes:

Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert; their turn must also come, and the longer a particular union lasts, the more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire. Life will be imaged, but cannot be divided nor doubled. Any invasion of its unity would be chaos.

But this is false. To experience another person’s mind (whether through a brilliant book or an everyday interaction) is not just to pick out one idea that you think defines the other. It is to begin exploring his or her web of thinking while sharing your own. You both have unique webs, but each element of your thought is shared with many other people. You gain the most by exploring many of the other person’s moral nodes and their connections. This does not threaten your “unity” or risk chaos, because your own character was already a heterogeneous, evolving, and loosely connected web that you largely adopted from other people. Touching at just one point is a failure of communication and interpretation.

To be sure, you can strive to disentangle from everyday life and politics and prefer books to “dining out occasionally” (which, Thoreau found, interfered with his “domestic arrangements”), but you should not persuade yourself that you have thereby disconnected your network map from everyone else’s. Your self is still a social creation, and you are still mentally involved with others, even if you detach politically and economically.

References: Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, (New York: Random House, 2009) pp. 134-5, 138. Emerson, “Experience,” in ibid, p. 322. Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (New York: T.Y Crowell & Co., 1899)p. 62