Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Third Party or Political Realignment?

Earlier this month, in response to myopic pandering to the public on gas prices by both political parties, Thomas Friedman wrote an editorial column wishfully hoping for a third party and an idealized candidate who would tell the truth about energy policy. As if the public wanted to hear it. (Al Gore, anyone?)

But seriously, is a third party candidate possible? Is a viable third party possible? And is it something we should work for?

As an economist and game theorist, my default position is “No.” If a third party candidate comes up the middle, the two other candidates will simply slide towards the center, retaining their base and dividing up most of the center. But historically, I know that is not always true. Political realignments happen along issues that are orthogonal to the existing political spectrum. Sometimes this creates an opening for a third party, sometimes it just mixes up the existing parties. To decide if a third party is viable, we must first determine what issues are not being addressed by the existing political spectrum.

[Here I am going to borrow from Nobel-prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel, and his book, “The Fourth Great Awakening,” which borrows liberally from historian William G. McLoughlin’s book, “Revivals, Awakenings, and Reforms.” I haven’t read the latter, and I don’t agree with a fair part of the former, so I will present the part that rings true and leave it to others to divide the credit between the two of them.]

Fogel’s thesis is that scientific and technological advances ripple through American society, causing changes in institutions, markets, and individual prospects, which inevitably raises important new moral and ethical questions. In his view, religious revivals are responses to these changes and the moral questions they raise, and historically these revivals have been the political impetus for social reforms. Both McLoughlin and Fogel interpret religious revivals liberally, counting as part of the third awakening (which started near the end of the nineteenth century) a humanism that accommodates both evolution and psychology. And they disagree on the fourth awakening, with McLoughlin (1978) believing a left-wing liberal morality is leading and Fogel (2000) thinking it’s the conservative right-wing.

I think the “religious revival” label is a red herring, because it suggests that established religions express a more fervent moral understanding than, for example, secular humanism. The social upheaval that results from the societal ramifications of scientific advancements might better be viewed as simply “a great awakening to new moral and ethical questions.”

These new moral questions are precisely what is not being addressed by the existing political spectrum, and so could result in a political realignment.

Let me try to enumerate the advances in scientific knowledge and technology that raise new, important moral and ethical questions with big political implications:

1) Advancements in biological/medical science
a. New and expensive medical technology has resulted in a real difference in life-span and quality-of-life between the haves and the have-nots. To what extent should society attempt to make things more egalitarian? Do only those who can pay for it deserve to live better and longer? Who should we subsidize? What treatments should be covered?
b. New technology and new information about the start-of-life has started a culture war, starting with IVF and its accompanying embryonic issues: genetic selection, selective reduction of embryos during pregnancy, left-over frozen blastocysts, and finally, stem-cell research. The advent of ultrasound images and the backward creeping age of viability for premature infants started reigning in second-trimester abortions, and the fervor is so intense it reaches to include early abortions, chemical abortion (RU-486), and even emergency contraception (Plan B) and hormonal birth control itself.
c. Recognition of the genetic basis for homosexuality doesn’t just put in question the long-standing moral reprehension of gay and lesbian relationships; it puts the social purpose of marriage on the table for discussion.
d. End-of-life issues multiply: Once there was dead. Then came brain-dead. Now there is a persistent vegetative state. Also, if we can ease the suffering of those who are near death and in great pain, to the point that it is unclear whether the disease or the morphine actually did them in, what about those who are not as near death, but are in great pain? And do we spend inordinate amounts of money to extend life by a few years or months for the old, while ignoring basic care for the young?
e. Advances in psychotropic drugs impact quality of life. Moving beyond anti-psychotics to drugs like Prozac and Ritalin emphasizes the continuum of mental health and raises the question: what is normal? What business is it of others if individuals use medication to ease difficulties that once may have been considered within the range of normal, but may impede their life?

2) Economic advancements, such as increasing economic knowledge about the value of free trade and technological advancements creating the information economy, result in globalization. The interdependence of our economies becomes more pronounced and more evident.
a. Our economic policy has immediate effects on individuals around the world. How do we forward the development of our own economy without harming the poor in developing nations? How do we promote the welfare of specific citizens who lose jobs to globalization, without harming the vitality of our own economy?
b. Economic and political inequality creates cognitive dissonance within some religions, resulting in religious fundamentalist terrorism. Terrorism is aided by globalization and the information economy, so a few individuals can create a huge impact.

3) Environmental issues are better understood
a. There is now overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming. How we behave has enormous impact on the entire world. This is a global coordination problem over negative technological externalities, with individual countries having an incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.
b. We have the tools, both in economics and in physical science, to address other environmental issues, and we need careful government policy that pays attention to science as well as all costs and benefits of land use and pollution.

Let me know if you think I have missed some.

I think there is a good argument that the New Democrats have claimed the center, and are credibly trying to address these new problems. The Clintons recognized the state of the health care market as a problem 15 years ago, while the current administration has Dick Cheney saying, “We have the greatest health care system in the world.” Well, sure, if you can pay for it, which is precisely the problem with it. The Republicans’ main response was a prescription drug benefit entitlement program, which, when I look around and ask where we should invest money for the future of our country, Medicare Part D is right near the bottom of the list as a terrible investment.

Clinton recognized the importance of free trade, pragmatically (I think he trademarked that word) implementing NAFTA despite real environmental concerns. Sometimes you have to sign the free trade agreement you have, not the one you wish you could have. Yet he also forwarded the Kyoto Accord, which President Bush later refused to sign.

He promoted job flexibility through higher education and insurance flexibility, which is key to helping individuals who are harmed by globalization, while avoiding the drag on our economy that comes from protectionism of declining industries.

He worked to reduce farm subsidies, which have the perverse result of taxing Americans to grow corn, for example, only to lower the income of subsistence farmers in African nations. The Republicans came back into power in 2002 and immediately raised farm subsidies, as a payback to a few large campaign contributors, never mind that they are kicking down developing countries who are trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

Al Gore is a huge supporter of alternative fuels. We do need a Manhattan project for our time, a government funded basic research project for alternative, renewable fuels and energy technologies that will allow us to stop contributing to global warming.

As for the “culture of life” and homosexuality issues, well, I believe the Democrats are in the right. But nobody who requires written statements from a religious authority in order to make moral decisions is going to agree with me.

The real problem for the Democrats is that this is truly a political realignment in process. The New Democrats have claimed the center, but they still share the party with the old Democrats and the old institutions. It’s a party divided, resulting in a very ineffective Democratic party. Fortunately, the Republicans are doing everything they can to bolster the Democrats' claim to the center.

The old Democratic institutions are out-of-date and irrelevant. The welfare state was bad for individual incentives. The unions and protectionism are a drag to market competitiveness. The Democrats’ saving grace is that their ideals hold, the ideal of egalitarianism. Everybody gets to vote. Everybody gets an education. Everybody gets a job. Everybody has time off to relax. Everybody gets a little bit of a safety net (health insurance, unemployment insurance, job training), in exchange for the personal risks faced in a vibrant market economy.

I argue in my forthcoming essay, on the cold war origins of the Republican economic ideology, that the Republicans are ill-equipped to deal with these problems listed above. The Republicans hew to the other great American value, the self-made man. Opportunity and hard work are all you need. Unfortunately, most of the problems listed above are problems of interdependency between individuals and between nations. You cannot solve these problems if you are a cowboy. You can’t even comprehend these problems if you are a cowboy.

It reminds me of a quote from Bill Clinton’s book, “My Life.” Referring to Ken Brody, a Goldman Sachs executive who wanted to get involved in Democratic politics, Clinton said, “Ken told me he had been a Republican because he thought the Democrats had a heart but their head was in the wrong place. Then, he said, he had gotten close enough to the national Republicans to see that they had a head but no heart, and decided to join the Democrats because he thought it was easier to change minds than hearts.”

The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution is a very good start. The press and concerned citizens need to stop saying the Democrats don’t stand for anything and start paying attention to what is coming out of credible left-leaning think-tanks. The New Democrats are the future: same values, better economics, better facts, and better governance.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Movies and Music

JSM and I watched "Proof" Friday night. We agreed that it was the most accurate movie we have ever seen in getting the dialogue right between academics, with only the occasional gratuitous math explanation. We enjoyed the multiple, interweaving themes of proof, although it didn't provoke nearly as much discussion as "Adaptation," where the structure of the movie mirrors the efforts of the protagonist. It also reminds me of "Dogville," which I absolutely adored but must see again, because I can barely recall that there were layers of self-referencing moral analysis.

I'm looking for music that has that same tight, interwoven presentation of multiple levels and variations on a theme, either musically or lyrically. Netflix does good job of movie recommendations, but I'm not getting good recommendations from itunes or amazon. Any suggestions, popular, classical, whatever?

I'm also interested in music that is more meditative, as in it helps relax and induce a meditative state. Think Joanne Shenandoah's Matriarch.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Dixie Chicks, Part Two

You must get this album [Taking the Long Way] if you are still singing to babies. It’s no accident that both of their last albums have contained a lullaby – the Chicks have seven young children between them. And while the Time Magazine article said a childless person might mistake “Lullaby” for a love song, this mama is here to tell you, it’s a lullaby. And it belongs in the pantheon of lullabies, for every mother to sing and pass on to her children. It’s simple, repetitive, with a narrow range anyone can sing, and it’s beautiful. More than that, the Dixie Chicks have perfectly captured the oxytocin-addled tender bliss that accompanies nursing, once you make it a little way up the learning curve. It makes me want to crawl into bed with my baby and fall asleep. Except that he turned three today, and as he told me tonight, "You forgot, I'm not a baby, I'm a big boy."

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Dixie Chicks

Am I the only feminist who has ever listened to country music? Why am I not reading more about the Dixie Chicks in the feminist blogosphere? Call me crazy, call me stupid, call me a femi-nazi who sees discrimination everywhere she looks, but I think this has a gender angle to it. At the very least the Dixie Chicks are a part of a cultural feminist phenomenon. I’d like to address the latter.

My love for the Dixie Chicks is not political. That’s just icing. My love for the Dixie Chicks is all tangled up with my feminism and my personal identity. They made it big while I was in graduate school, a time of my life when I never, ever wore pink. I didn’t wear it for a decade, from about nineteen to twenty-nine. I wouldn’t have dreamt of it. At the start of graduate school I was singing along at the top of my lungs to Four-Non-Blondes, “What’s going on?” Then, while I was working, a generational shift happened, and by the end of graduate school, somehow, 4NB lead singer Linda Perry was writing songs with a singer of the next generation, who went by the name of… P!nk! Grrrl power had arrived. The generation of women who fought society for equal access to resources and opportunities, while always conflicted about the role of sexual appearance, gave way to a generation of women raised post-Title IX, who believed the world was their oyster and were quite happy owning the power of their sexuality.

I am an odd duck, a woman who falls between generations not because of my age but because of my upbringing. Born six months before Title IX was enacted, my dad told me I could do anything, be anything I wanted. And I believed him. I still do. But raised in a red-state religion, I knew perfectly well that society was not egalitarian, that very few marriages were egalitarian, and that backward and dated ideas of women’s roles had not exactly been overturned. I figured we still had miles to go before we slept. I was a feminist warrior in stasis, unsure about how to fight the enemy. I did not realize at the time that I was watching the germination of the feminist backlash. Nor did I realize that I was also a foot soldier in the feminist backlash. I had a foot in each world, and the anxiety to go along with it.

One of my favorite books, which the feminist movement has overlooked, is, “Breaking Point: Why Women Fall Apart and How They Can Re-create their Lives,” by Martha Beck. Don’t let the title scare you off. This is the popular version of her sociology dissertation, and it’s written around the central thesis that since the 1970s, social roles and expectations for women are logically inconsistent, and the effort to meet paradoxical expectations causes incredible anxiety within women, especially to the extent that they have internalized these expectations. Beck details how five generations of women were each affected by changing societal expectations. She shows that the way out is to realize the bind you are in, and transcend it by adopting only those roles that help you live well. To hell with the rest.

Let me give you a small personal example of the conflicting roles Beck is talking about. I like to be attractive, I like to wear makeup. But in school, I wanted to be careful to not wear so much makeup that I didn’t look like a serious student. So I bounced back and forth between minimal makeup and slightly more makeup, never quite happy with the image I was projecting. A small example, but not trivial, in terms of the internal stress I felt about who I was. Throw in mothering (two children), marriage (to a good man who was a lousy match for me), religion (patriarchal and constricting to women), academic and career ambitions (not having the courage to pursue my own interests rather than the hip topics), and every woman’s desire to be beautiful (it plagues us all, evolution sees to that), and it is little wonder that I was a candidate for a breaking point. I could not do or be everything that people I valued expected of me. I had to shut up the voices in my head and listen to my own voice.

The fact is I have always had trouble making my own voice heard. In a high school psychology class, I took part in a class activity where maybe 10 students stood in a tight circle, then put their hands in the center and randomly took the hands of two other students. This created a human knot, and the goal was to untangle the knot without letting go of the hands. I don’t remember the point of the lesson as presented to the class. I do remember a female classmate leaning over to me after the unsuccessful demonstration, telling me in a low voice what she had overheard the teacher telling the student teacher, “Watch this, it happens every time: there will be a smart female trying to disentangle the group systematically, and she will be drowned out by a big dumb jock who couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag.” And then the teacher had pointed me out as the female, who gave up when I couldn’t talk louder than the jock.

In graduate school, one of my field sequences had six students taking the field exam, and we had divided up, somewhat organically, into pairs to study. Mine was a happy and productive companionship interrupted for a few weeks during the second quarter, when a mutual friend taking the course for a breadth requirement asked to join us. We went from partners to a group with two men and one woman…and I was jarred to find myself once again being talked over. It was deflating. He was a friend, smart, not a jock, and I still couldn’t get my voice heard. Fortunately he drifted away after a few weeks and left us to study in peace.

I do have a quiet voice. A little theatre training has helped, when I think to use it, mostly in front of a classroom of students. But the main problem is that in everyday life, I have a way of mumbling, talking low, so as to not disturb the people who don’t really want to listen to me, so as to not offend. And the feminist in me hates that about me.

The Dixie Chicks came along during the period before and after my breaking point. They were the first country representation of the Grrrl Power phenomenon. They spoke loudly, they sang forcefully, they were comfortable in their own skin, and they dressed sexy and looked beautiful. They were a girl band, making it big, with songs about strong women. They were the soundtrack to my life when I was melting it down to basic elements and reconstructing it bit by bit.

“Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds a foundation of stone ”


“Come on baby say it do you think I’m gonna cry?
I ain’t about to fall
And I ain’t gonna die
So if you’re gonna say goodbye
Don’t take all damn night
Let 'er rip
Let it fly”

The lyrics and the women were stronger on the next album: “Ready to Run,” “If I Fall You’re Going Down with Me,” “Some days you gotta dance/live it up when you get the chance,” “I need a boy like you like a hole in my head,” “I’m takin’ my turn on the sin wagon,” and of course, “Goodbye, Earl,” the song version of “Fried Green Tomatoes.” Meanwhile, I divorced, apostatized, quit school, and moved to Europe. The Chicks went hand-in-hand with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. They were my role model of talking loud, of not being afraid to let your voice be heard—and this is was with only two albums out, long before the Incident.

I had re-created my life by the time they produced “Home.”

They had to go to court to get out of their slave-labor starter contract, but when it was done, they were ready to control their destiny. And let me tell you, “Home” was courageous. Bluegrass wasn’t in. Dolly Parton had put out a bluegrass album and it had gone nowhere. Allison Krauss was beloved but still fringe. The Dixie Chicks put the bluegrass back in country and dragged them both into the twenty-first century. They had dared to do their own thing, with no assurance that the country music audience would come with them, and produced an album that was bigger than big, a gorgeous, authentic, expansive album with no filler songs.

I cranked the stereo and played that CD continuously for weeks. Months, really. We did, I should say, because even my new husband, pop-music-phobe and country-music-abhorrer that he was, had come around to my point, that every genre has both great music and pap, and it was obvious at first listen that this was great music.

And that was it. That sealed the deal. I love the Dixie Chicks, because they are strong women who represent having the courage to follow your own vision, to believe in your work, to not choose the safe path. They’ve always been unafraid to be loud, even if it might offend somebody.

And now, post-Incident, they’re not losing sleep at night just because they’ve discovered that most of their old friends don’t actually like them for who they are. But for me, that’s just icing. They were the whole cake long before that.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Emergency Contraception vs. Breastfeeding

Feministe has a funny deconstruction of a bizarre editorial ranting against the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists campaign to encourage gynecologists to offer prescriptions for Plan B (emergency contraception) to women during checkups, to hold on to or to fill and keep in their medicine cabinets, just in case it might be needed.

Here's what gets me about this non-reality-based redefining of pregnancy as starting at conception rather than implantation. This is from the Princeton University emergency contraception website; see the the well-documented original paper for academic sources.

"To make an informed choice, women must know that ECPs [emergency contraception pills] -- like all regular hormonal contraceptives such as the birth control pill, the implant Norplant, the vaginal ring NuvaRing, the Evra patch, and the injectables Lunelle and Depo-Provera, and even breastfeeding -- may prevent pregnancy by delaying or inhibiting ovulation, inhibiting fertilization, or inhibiting implantation of a fertilized egg."

You heard that right: breastfeeding, which some might say is God's only recommended form of birth control within marriage, uses the same means of preventing pregnancy as all the hormonal forms of birth control, including, if all else fails, making it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant.

So if it's a sin to prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg (blastocyst), does that mean it's a sin to breastfeed? And if it's not a sin to prevent implantation of a blastocyst by breastfeeding -- after all, it is for the benefit of that beautiful baby -- then would it be a sin to prevent implantation of a blastocyst by similar hormonal means when having another child would compromise your ability to care for the children you already have?

Careful there, it's a slippery slope!

Fundamentalism. (my definition) The response of people who are unable to deal with the cognitive dissonance that results when two fundamental human values or beliefs clash and cannot both be logically maintained. Rather than reason through a solution they toss up their hands and demand to be told the right answer.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Libertarian's Dream

Atlas Hugged has written a post about President Bartlett of The West Wing, which I have never watched...but I was intrigued by the name of the blog so I read it. I am working on my article this morning, arguing that libertarianism, as the utopian ideological opposite of communism, has caused a lot of bad economic policy by people who don't understand economics. But Atlas and I did see eye to eye on Clinton:

"President Bartlett was really the opposite of what I would love to see in a President. He was a socially conservative free spending liberal democrat. But, he isn’t real. Clinton (D- Arkansas, New York) was a social liberal who, with the benefit of history and with the help of Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), ran the most fiscally responsible executive branch since the revolution. A libertarian’s dream."

A friend of mine, a French libertarian economist who works for a right-wing thinktank, really does not mesh with her conservative colleagues -- and has lately said to me that she would be happy at this point with a party that would commit not to increase the size of the federal government above 20% of GDP.

As a former libertarian, who much prefers good governance over shrinking the government, I must say that I like their thinking.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power...

So the Washington Press Corps invited Stephen Colbert, a satirist (as opposed to comedian), to speak at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, to President Bush, the White House administration and the press. Now the press says he wasn't funny. America disagrees. Yes, the first time watching makes your jaw drop. The second time through is hysterical.

A sampling of comments from thank you letters to Stephen Colbert, and in response to an article about whether it was funny:

"Thank you for using your position as comedian to gain access to the King’s Table, where you could be the modern-day jester who is the only one in the room who dares to speak the Truth to the King."

"John Cleese once said that when people laugh, you knew they got the point. The people in that room didn't laugh. "

"You did the unthinkable, and played to the audience far grander than the capitol hill crowd, knowing they might not laugh, but the we would."

"He wasn't funny like Swift isn't funny, or Voltaire, or Rabelais. No, he wasn't ha-ha funny; he was brilliant and devastating. A chill breath of fresh air, and all the more chilling when it becomes apparent that the MSM cretins apparently don't realize, recognize, or remember that satire is supposed to have a bite, and that the more rotten the body politic, the closer to the bone that bite penetrates."

"When was the last time we had a president whose greatest desire is to be kept separate from the people he “serves,” and deaf to their voices? You forced this man to hear our voices, loud and clear. What a great moment for all true Americans. "

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”–Theodore Roosevelt

"It reminded me of that Shakespeare bit: “I came not to bury Ceasar, but to praise him.” "

"Thank you, Stephen Colbert, for showing us that freedom of speech is not a luxury to enjoy, but a powerful weapon for those who have the courage to really use it. "

And billmon notes in his blog:

"Colbert used satire the way it's used in more openly authoritarian societies: as a political weapon, a device for raising issues that can't be addressed directly. He dragged out all the unmentionables -- the Iraq lies, the secret prisons, the illegal spying, the neutered stupidity of the lapdog press -- and made it pretty clear that he wasn't really laughing at them, much less with them. It may have been comedy, but it also sounded like a bill of indictment, and everybody understood the charges."

You can watch him and thank him at

although I think it's easier to view on the Salon website (it was youtube), although you have to watch an ad if you're not a subscriber


Also a link to a Salon article that really gets it:

Monday, May 01, 2006

My plug for Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, by Anna Fels.

I realize I project a lot from my own experiences, but even recognizing this tendency, I still think Necessary Dreams deserves a place in the pantheon of important feminist literature. This book is essential for understanding the persistent wage gap between men and women, the “Mommy Wars,” and the supposed "opt-out revolution." The author, Anna Fels, is a psychiatrist who details what social creatures human beings are, and how the feedback we receive from other people affects us. Ambition in all areas of our lives correspondingly waxes and wanes in response to feedback from others. If, as women, we don’t as easily develop a relationship with a mentor in a male-dominated field, or we don’t seek recognition—thanks to our socialization as women, or we receive more profligate attention in areas not related to our careers; then we find our career or academic ambitions waning…and we make “rational choices” that turn out to be endogenous to the environment which we happened upon.

This post is in honor of Bonnie, who stopped by to visit me recently, along with her mom and brother. Bonnie is brilliant and curious, with her father’s logical, orderly mind and her mother’s generosity of spirit. She is frequently on my mind, probably because I don’t have any daughters of my own, and because she has not yet reached the age where the paradoxical expectations she has of life, and life will have of her, have caused her pain.