Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Waldo Canyon Fire

Yes, this posting is the morning of the 29th, but the latest update I’ve seen for the progressive map of the Waldo Canyon Fire is as of June 26th. The fire is still growing, though certainly not at the rate of that disastrous day. At its eastern edge, the fire entered the City of Colorado Springs and even required partial evacuation of the Air Force Academy.

In a bit of Jungian synchronicity (or what the Liberal Ironist likes to call “a coincidence”), I happened to pick up an old National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room.  I read an informative cover article about wildfires.  Yes, it said, global warming contributes to Western droughts and warmer summer days, increasing the risk of fires breaking out.  But this, the article argued, represents a marginal contribution to the risk and scope of wildfires.  An entirely-different order of human activity has had a greater and more-counterintuitive impact on the probability and intensity of wildfires, in the Rocky Mountain West but also elsewhere.

Fighting all wildfires virtually ensures that the ones that we fail to prevent become enormous.

As is turns out, conventional fire department doctrine for dealing with wildfires was to fight every wildfire everywhere.  The benefits of this vigorous policy of fire defense were obvious: preventing the loss of trees for forestry; preserving beautiful wildlands available for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping; and of course protecting the steadily-growing stock of suburban homes on the edge of the wilderness.  This strategy was ultimately unsustainable, as it has simply led to the rapid expansion of dry kindling for future fires.  Our Western forests are now far, far more-lush than they used to be when the occasional wildfires were able to burn unopposed.  As a consequence the new fires burn much hotter and spread much farther, eventually putting so much heat and ash into the air that they can produce their own low-pressure microclimates as they burn.

Oh, right, the coincidence: A few days after I read this article (this would be April 9, 2012) I heard of a forest fire back on Long Island.  (Long Island, New York is better-known as the location of Brooklyn, Queens and to a lesser extent Nassau County, but if one continues east from Nassau County Long Island’s character shifts from urban to more-suburban; if one passes the halfway point going east–say, Exit 64 on the Long Island Expressway–the environs gradually shift from suburban to “exurban” and rural.)  This forest fire occurred in the Long Island Pine Barrens, a State wilderness area of 102,500 acres.  1,100 acres in the northern part of this area burned-out, just north of the Peconic River near an abandoned military-industrial production facility undergoing redevelopment.  Suddenly I had an event–not a large one by forest fire standards, but an event nonetheless–towards which I could direct my curiosity.  When I drove out to the burned-out area of the Pine Barrens in the 1st week of June, I could still smell the charcoal.  There isn’t much to see without entering the forest, but drive along 1 particularly-remote road and you can even tell that the forest around you has been gutted when traveling at night.

With that personal recollection finished, I’d like to shift focus to a fire that is still raging in Colorado.  The Waldo Canyon Fire is already 1 of the worst disasters–and officially the most-destructive fire–in the Centennial State’s history.  As of Wednesday 35,000 people were evacuated from northwestern Colorado Springs and its adjacent suburbs, including about 2,100 military and civilian residents of the U.S. Air Force Academy.  On Wednesday, this fire abruptly doubled its burn acreage, apparently having destroyed at least 18,500 acres of wooded and suburban land by 9:30 pm Mountain time Wednesday night.  Thursday reports were somewhat less-grim, clarifying that “only” about 16,750 acres had been burned and that the fire was now 15% contained–but that it was still burning.  The 1st and thus far only death from the fire was also confirmed yesterday, though that still reflects a high degree of organization considering tens of thousands had to be evacuated in advance of a fire that still threatens Colorado’s 2nd-largest city.  The cool air and moisture of the night means that the hours before dawn are a favored time to fight a wildfire, so the critical next few hours may give us a sense of how much time area firefighters–and their significant Federal assistance–will need to suppress this fire.  I’ve been following the story of this particular fire because a good friend used to live in that part of Colorado Springs.  A few days ago, she posted a picture of a nearby neighborhood turned to ash on Facebook.

The Waldo Canyon Fire enters the City of Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo by Gaylon Wampler (not my friend).

As I previously explained in declining to post on Japan’s truly devastating Sendai earthquake and tsunami last year, the Liberal Ironist is about politics, not just any event in the news; so why am I talking about a wildfire?  Of all natural disasters, no other seems to pose the sort of regulatory problem posed by forest fires.  Years of forest management for the purpose of cyclical logging, the maintenance of wilderness habitats, and the regular fighting of fires that might threaten Western towns and suburbs has gradually produced tinderbox conditions through millions of acres of the Rocky Mountain West.  The Liberal Ironist has no insight to offer other than the pessimistic suspicion that wildfires are simply a fact of life that you will have to deal with if you like in or near a forest that can dry-out in the summer heat.  Some people might aver that others choose to live in flood plains, or known tornado corridors, or in hurricane risk zones, or on fault lines or under the shadows of volcanoes; why shouldn’t people be able to live wherever they choose where wildfires are concerned?  The Liberal Ironist certainly sympathizes, but with 1 caveat.

Another perspective of the Waldo Canyon Fire entering northwestern Colorado Springs last Tuesday. Associated Press photo.

A more-sustainable long-term fire control strategy might advise occasional burns through stretches of our Western National Forests, simply in the interest of clearing-out the kindling that will otherwise eventually feed the rapidly-spreading and little-understood wildfire still menacing northwestern Colorado Springs.  After all, if allowing smaller fires to burn themselves out (to a point) could stunt a fire that could otherwise menace tens of thousands of homes (!) in a metropolitan area, that is something we should seriously consider.   The problem is, there are houses and private lands scattered throughout the wilderness; how could we decline to help those who live further afield?  How could we even decline to protect their property?  For that matter, who would be liable if the National Forestry Service and local fire departments see fit to let nature take its course while the rural folk are episodically exposed to a disaster due to a policy choice?

The images of burned-out neighborhoods in northwestern Colorado Springs are disturbing; it might take a moment to recognize just what you’re looking at, but you can see row after row of houses that are completely gone, reduced to a pile of ash.  Hundreds of homeowners and their families have lost almost all of their possessions.  We have witnessed more-deadly and more-costly disasters in aggregate, but the destruction a large fire brings to the property of those affected is total.  We certainly cannot allow people to fall into such a calamity by choice.

This would suggest that the “do no harm” course of action is to fight almost all of the fires–after all, the undisputed role of government is protecting people, right?  But again, 1 day all those trees you’ve saved are going to burn anyway, just as those rural homes are going to burn, because fires happen.  You can’t anticipate a lightning strike, or even an arsonist.  And if we let the trees and the foliage pile-on unobstructed, then as now in Waldo Canyon, the fires will be huge and hot.  We’ve got to find some way to thin-out the trees in those Western forests, or this problem will get worse.

Former President George W. Bush had offered the “Healthy Forests” initiative in 2003, in which logging companies would participate in the removal of excessive undergrowth and dead wood; skepticism prevailed among environmentalists over whether logging companies could be trusted to take this job seriously, and to spare old-growth trees while clearing brush.  W.’s policy doesn’t seem to have been very effective, considering the size of the Western wildfires that still break out year after year.  But we’ve got to do something, either very-proactive or less-proactive, to clear all that kindling from the forest floor.  Years of treating forest fires as manageable problems in isolation have made them enormous and chronic.

Only from these “after” pictures can the full scope of the destruction caused by the Waldo Canyon Fire be appreciated. As of this writing, 346 homes are confirmed to have been destroyed thus far by the fire; as you can see here, they were destroyed utterly. Photo by John Wark.


Brief Preliminary Response to an Historic Supreme Court Decision

The Liberal Ironist wishes he had put out the short entry he had planned for last night in anticipation of the Affordable Care Act.  In essence, all I was going to say was “Whatever the decision, I respect the Supreme Court.”  As with the complicated 5-3 decision throwing out 3 of 4 provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration law but retaining its core provision allowing State police to check the immigration status of people allegedly involved in a crime (but retaining the right to revisit the law in the future), the Supreme Court doesn’t due diligence to complexity and frequently produces majorities that care more about precedent, Constitutional authority and the proper function of the law in practice.

The United States Supreme Court is a body of 9 Justices, appointed by the President and confirmed by a vote of the Senate, and serving for life or until voluntary retirement.  Whatever can be said for our political system, it does not want for more democracy.  People often vote for their school boards and their sheriffs, and in many States they vote for county and State court justices, including family court justices.  (Often even the most-informed watchers of politics have no information about these judges on the ballot or what cases they have heard, but they are still given a vote on who serves.)  The Supreme Court represents a firewall against the uninformed sentiments to which we are always susceptible.  In a political system that often flatters our vanity and sows a crass mistrust of institutions generally, the Supreme Court represents a check on people who would set themselves up as experts without ever taking the pains truly to read, debate and think.  The Supreme Court remains 1 of the more-respected government institutions–which is interesting, considering we are given no direct power to choose its membership or to overrule its decisions.  We often respond favorably to those who try to sell us simplistic yarns–I may be a Democrat, but I don’t think Conservatives or Republicans not have a monopoly on naive ideas about policy–yet we tip our hand when we in the majority confer higher respects to those government institutions–the military, the Supreme Court–that are not subject to our approval and which make decisions for the country as a whole, based on expertise.  Our own elected officials sometimes fantasize about approval ratings as high as the Pentagon and the Courts enjoy; in the case of Congress as an institution, it is unimaginable.

I’ve also noted prominent elected Republicans–Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), for example–who have deferred to the Court’s judgment on the Constitutional question and narrowed their focus to campaigning against the Affordable Care Act simply because their Party and supporters don’t want it.

Though I haven’t taken a scientific poll of (and none is available yet), so far I am pleased to see that Conservatives haven’t simply taken their frustration at the ruling out on the Supreme Court.  This could be because, with rulings like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, they still believe the Supreme Court is “in their corner.”  But I like to believe that the cheap populism we sometimes see on the right is neither ubiquitous, nor always as unqualified (dare I say nihilistic?) as it appears to be, and that millions of Conservatives don’t actually believe themselves superior legal theorists to the Chief Justice.

That said, I am well-aware that I am applauding politically-interested adults for not acting like children.  Should this column be read years hence, the Liberal Ironist hopes the impoverishment of our contemporary political dialogue will stand out as anomic.

But my point isn’t about being a good winner.  As I said, I wish I had expressed my support for the Supreme Court before this decision came out.  Yes, I want the Affordable Care Act to be implemented; however I also disapprove of the tendency to view our public institutions as illegitimate if they don’t expediently accommodate our ideological desires.  It is constraints on executive and military power, popular sovereignty, and the independence of civil society that makes our institutions legitimate, not policy outcomes preferred by “our team.”  The system works, not because a Conservative-majority Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, but because the Court isn’t a 1-dimensional, 9-point partisan wish-granting machine.  The Liberal Ironist already knew that, and would like to take this opportunity to thank the Justices of the Supreme Court for expressing themselves through principle rather than through partisan gamesmanship.  If there’s 1 thing we as a people could do to grow in our public character, it’s to listen with a little humility when experts in their field tell us things we don’t want to hear.

Chinatown in the Middle East: Cairo, Corruption, and the Myth of Urban Apocalypse

A friend of mine is studying urban development in Cairo for his dissertation.  Almost exactly 2 years ago he explained his assumption that “in the contestation over what a city looks like, you can get an unusual and rich perspective on collective identity.”  It sounded like some kind of strange holistic remark at the time, but I think I understand now, and I see what he means.  He is in Cairo–a nice representation of the problem with Egypt.  I owe my view of Egypt’s problems (and my sense of brooding over current portents) to the observations of my friend, heretofore and eternally known as Jon.

The Arab Republic of Egypt currently has about 90 million citizens, about 8 million of whom live abroad.  35-40% of Egyptians live in poverty, on less than $2 a day.  The economy is still very agriculturally-focused, though petroleum exports (particularly in transit through the Suez Canal) and tourism are both very important.  Egypt’s population has expanded rapidly over the past 40 years due to the introduction of industrial agriculture techniques which have made the country far less-dependent on the flood-rhythms of the Nile River (which rhythms have ceased anyway with the construction of the Aswan High Dam).  The City of Cairo had a 2006 census count of 6,758,581 people; combined with its satellite cities and suburbs the Cairo Metropolitan Area counted 19,439,541 people–nearly 1/4 of all Egyptians.  As Egypt is by far the most-populous Arab country and so the cultural center of gravity in the Arab World, so is metropolitan Cairo as the most-populous urban center in Egypt the stage where the various twists in Egypt’s modern political drama unfolds in earnest.

Ugh, I’ll try to keep a lid on such talk, honest.

A year ago Jon characterized Cairo as a chaotic jumble that works (though he never seemed inclined to describe the Egyptian state that way).  But in spite of the millions of families, the neighborhoods and informal associations that traverse winding and narrow streets and often equally informal living accommodations–including people living in the mausoleums of the Necropolis–many Egyptians apparently fear an unspecified coming explosion of their city.

When Jon originally told me this, I was almost indignant at the mere mention of the myth.  The idea that cities foster violence and social collapse is now old–and way off the mark: “Cities don’t explode.  They implode when too many of their people fear a coming explosion and flee to the suburbs, which hollows-out the tax and consumer base necessary for the city to support itself.”

“Well, I know, but this mythology of Cairo’s coming explosion has a lot of power over people there.  And it is encouraging people to move out of the city.”

I hadn’t known of the plans to build satellite cities on Cairo’s outskirts.  About 1/2 a dozen such cities are now in varying states of development, within commuting distance of Cairo, with populations of hundreds of thousands to several millions planned for the end of the decade.  This population shift will be expensive, and heavily-subsidized: Public water from the Nile–quite accessible to Cairo which flanks the legendary and still-essential river–will have to be piped upland miles into the desert to irrigate parks and shade trees, and to provide clean drinking water and sewerage for major cities that in some cases only recently broke ground.  Maybe these new towns will be paradise on Earth, but with Egypt’s comparative poverty and aridity, and the intensity of infrastructure and services that would be needed to plan several new cities outside of Cairo at locations that have no economic value aside from being outside of Cairo?  Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?

“Wouldn’t diverting all that water so far afield be wasteful?”

“Well, sure,” Jon granted.

“…Well?  Why are they doing this?!” I asked.  “Can this whole process really be driven by some mythological fear of urban collapse in Cairo?  What, the government is marshaling the whole country’s resources to help the rich escape?”  Then: “Wait…Who owns the land?”

“Well, this is where it gets sensitive: Many people with connections to Egypt’s military own land outside of Cairo that’s worthless desert right now, but once the water is brought there and those cities are planned-out it’ll be worth a fortune.  And the development firms that will lead those building projects are owned by relatives of leading military figures, or else military leaders otherwise have a stake in them.”  It was then that a thought occurred to me about Jon.  He might work-out all the angles in a complex political architecture, then in subsequent conversation might leave it to you to work them out yourself in asking him the right questions, which he answers discretely if not discreetly.  It might be he wants to see if the next question that comes logically to you corresponds with the one he had, thus affirming his conclusions; or maybe he is simply curious to see which parts of a potentially-political subject you find interesting without direction.

The Liberal Ironist is a student of political science in general.  As such I want to know more about power.

A 2nd thought occurred to me promptly after the 1st: If Egypt’s collective identity is supposed to emerge in Cairo’s “urban renewal,” that collective identity is the plot of Chinatown: A vested oligarchy appropriates a vast hinterland of little natural value but near to a growing city, and conveys a regular supply of fresh water to that land at great expense, literally granting ownership of the future to itself through what on the face of it is a wasteful investment of infrastructure.  The political discourse calling for the expansion of Cairo does go back decades; in its latest iteration, here is a poorly-translated but still-illuminating 1993 op-ed from al-Ahram Weekly.  I’ll be curious to see whether elite abandonment of Cairo for these satellite cities leads to the impoverishment and decline of this cultural and media center of the Arab World.  In a brief but revealing 2010 report, the New York Times suggested that this process is already underway:

“The Egyptian government has spent untallied millions of dollars building new roads and power and water lines to the desert areas it designated for future development. It has sold huge parcels of land to developers in opaque deals, and built some low-income housing. But it has relied primarily on private developers to put up the cities’ more expensive villas and condos, as well as the malls and offices.”

The article noted that some public housing has been built–in theory for the working class–but that poor squatters have often been relocated there, too remote from jobs in Cairo to support themselves there.  The Liberal Ironist cannot decide if this is part of a callous plan to compel poor squatters to abandon the Cairo area altogether, or simply the result of incompetence.

Why bring this up?  This is what puts Egypt’s recent military coup into context.  This offers you, dear reader, an idea of the immobile assets Mubarak’s old coalition of military officers and commercial beneficiaries of state largess want to protect.

Will satellite cities built on the outskirts of Cairo create the living and working spaces for a growing new middle class, or simply a means for the insular rich and the protected to get away from the toiling millions?  If it’s the former, a few more years of tyrannical peace could come to appear providential looking back, leading Egypt into the global economy–and delivering Egypt’s expanded middle class to an easier democratic transition later on.  This would be similar to the East Asian development model–though in those cases the development of human resources and promotion of a high personal savings rate were as important as the development of infrastructure.  In a worst-case scenario the rich and regime-connected simply move out of Cairo into its newest suburbs, leaving behind them a capital city in which they are now not personally invested.  Failing political institutions in Cairo and declining job prospects for the young people left behind could lead to a 2nd, more-radical revolution, one that would actually embody the anarchic sentiment and embrace of violence that die-hard regime supporters allege about the current Muslim Brotherhood.  This would have been caused not so much because of Islamist sentiments among the masses–which are present but seem more-conservative than radical–but because the last existing state institutions which are viewed as offering an independent and patriotic voice (namely, the courts and the military) would have bared their fangs, for the deplorable end of protecting their large shares of the pie.

The villain in Chinatown didn’t have to worry about a revolution in the future because the people of Los Angeles were always free to choose their political leaders, and even he with all his power just has to accept the result of any election.  But if a military oligarchy sacrifices the health of its largest city to a massive contrived real estate bonanza, they could separate hundreds of thousands of Cairenes from convenient access to their jobs, and leave Cairo proper without effective public goods provision.  Cairo is too big to ignore, yet the Generals have just indicated they won’t give people a peaceful means to hold their leaders accountable once these plans come off the rails.

Egypt’s Preventable Political Catastrophe

On Friday Eygpt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed law-making (and constitution-writing) powers when the Supreme Constitutional Court disbanded the Egyptian Parliament.  The Court’s pretext was the invalidation of the parliamentary elections of late-November-late December 2011, which resulted in about 356 seats in the 508-member People’s Assembly (70%) going to 3 alliances of moderate-to-Salafist Islamist parties.  Some of the cruder observers in the West quickly predicted doom, but the ensuing months brought the troubling noises familiar to us from mature democracies, rather than the alarming foreign sounds characteristic of a hijacked revolution.

Lingering concerns over their sentiments on the status of women and religious minority groups (and on a more-Machiavellian note, their commitment to intelligence-sharing with the US and the peace treaty with Israel) aside, Egypt’s Islamist parliament seemed to have a pragmatic center interested in actual governing.  To be sure, it wasn’t going to be a liberal parliament, but it was going to be the most-representative lawmaking body Egyptians had ever had.  The Brotherhood’s political leadership seemed quite serious about establishing accountability and seeking consensus–on its own terms of course, but far more-seriously than the sclerotic and brutish (but admittedly Anglophile) Mubarak regime ever had.  It would displease the United States with some of its foreign and domestic policy choices and perhaps even offend our sensibilities, but it falls short of relativism to say that an elected Egyptian parliament would have been a good thing anyway.  Egypt’s religious conservatism isn’t the foremost issue here; consolidating the gains of Egypt’s democratic revolution is (or was).  As the most-populous Arab country, with the region’s cultural hub in Cairo, Egypt has (or had) the potential to demonstrate democratic best practice–and worst practice–to Arab countries currently in varying stages of the Arab Spring from democratic transition to civil war to icy regime retrenchment.  Outside of Islamist terrorists, every domestic political actor–the statist old guard, the young revolutionaries, the poor farmers, the moderate Islamist, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and us Americans–could have benefited in a non-trivial way from Egypt’s demonstration of true democratic give-and-take.  Submitting one’s political message to the people, as morally-specious and inconsistent in narrative as it may be, requires one to make an argumentative appeal, and to have enough trust in one’s countrymen to respect the result, including what one might find to be a deplorable result–at least temporarily.  The alternatives are personal exile or resort to political violence–terrorism if one doesn’t control the military and has few supporters, revolution if one’s supporters are numerous but civilian, and finally retrenchment and perhaps a politicide of dissidents if one is in power and unwilling to commit to concessions.

Democracy doesn’t guarantee total accountability of the government to the people–indeed, democracy sometimes reveals the perversity of too much democracy or even too much accountability–but good-enough looks wonderful compared to the caprice, corruption and violence of which so many of the World’s autocracies are capable, or arguably cannot hope to transcend.

The official story is simply that the interim constitution–which of course was submitted to Egyptians for referendum last year by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces–required that 1/3 of the MPs elected to the People’s Assembly be independents unaffiliated with a party.  For what it’s worth, that’s a stupid rule.  The Liberal Ironist mistrusts independents more than partisans–even if the latter can clearly be faulted for being ideological or unwilling to listen.  Partisans are highly-accountable.  With some general political knowledge and experience you typically know what they are going to say and do, and their rationales for either.  Hell, they want you to know what they are going to say and do.  Partisans are also inclined to hold each other accountable.  If a person goes into politics but has no use for parties at all, he is either not serious about the issues (What, he can’t choose between 2 or more parties with programmatic platforms?), a mercenary (If he’s such a freethinker, is he willing to trade the vote for transitory access to material benefits in legislation?), or vain (We should already know to watch-out for those ones).

Perverse as such a constitutional provision may be in theory, consider it in practice: The Supreme Constitutional Court found that many of the nominally-independent MPs had unofficial but clear ties to 1 party or another–a situation the Liberal Ironist very-ironically likes to call “reality.”  This led to the invalidation of last year’s entire vote–1/2 a year after the fact–and the disbanding of the Egyptian Parliament.

The Constitutional Court’s story is about legality.  There is another story, a widely-believed story about ideological suspicion between the pro-Mubarak “deep state” in the military and the courts, and a story that resonates far less abroad, about property and money.  This story happens to be the one driving this coup.

The ideological frame, promoted by the old-guard in the Supreme Armed Forces Council and most-explicitly expressed by Ahmed Shafiq (Shafik?), the incumbency candidate for President of Egypt and President-for-Life Mubarak’s last Prime Minister, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is unreconstructed from 30 years ago, when it killed then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for making peace with Israel and attempted a violent revolution in Syria.  Shafiq implies that liberals’ worst fears about the Brotherhood are true, that it has stuffed the ballot boxes (almost a provocation for a Mubarak crony to allege) and that as we speak it is scheming with foreign powers (the US? Israel?!) to consolidate its monopoly over political life in Egypt.

I still think this is just propaganda, and I say that while acknowledging that in a mature democracy I wouldn’t support the Muslim Brotherhood based on its social policy.  But Egypt needs accountability–not just through elections but by derivation through some kind of change in Edypt’s reigning business-government tryst.  For Mubarak’s last appointed Prime Minister to lead the next Egyptian government, freshly following the disbanding of Egypt’s 1st freely-elected parliament by Mubarak-appointed judges and the military’s appropriation of the power to rewrite the constitution, and after apparently losing the popular vote to the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate…To accept this result is either to accept that Egyptians cannot be trusted with democracy, or that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces cannot be trusted not to answer further challenges to its political authority without violence.

Such results are not inevitable.  Actually, there are a variety of ways this could still play-out, starting with Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammad Morsi’s (Mursi’s?) apparent election to Egypt’s Presidency.  Ahmed Shafiq, sowing confusion and perhaps thereby hoping to have some votes thrown out to have the courts appoint him Egypt’s next President, has made parallel claims to have won the election.  These claims appear to be assumed solely by virtue of Shafiq’s role as a connected and vested member of the old military-backed regime, and by an unhelpful fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the SAFC does accept Mr. Morsi’s election as Egypt’s next President, it still retains the power to rewrite the constitution.  We can expect the SAFC to protect many economic and property interests–and that is the 3rd explanatory frame for the current military government: Beneath the pretexts of constitutional enforcement or a struggle by the forces of order against Islamist ideology, there are the commercial interests of those connected to the military regime.  This is what the power base of the Mubarak regime wants to protect, because Egypt is a poor country and the Muslim Brotherhood has promised reforms to address corruption and inequities of wealth.

Carles Boix theorizes in his influential work of political theory Democracy and Redistribution that the most-favorable political conditions for a democratic transition are either those with a large middle class (or at least a narrow financial range between the rich and the poor) or those in which the rich can easily reinvest their wealth outside of their home country.  Both propensities for a democratic transition come back to the security of the rich from policies of extreme wealth redistribution: If the gap between the rich and the poor is relatively-narrow within a polity, the rich aren’t so worried that an elected government will attempt to appropriate their wealth, even in a protectionist financial system.  Alternately, if the rich can move their capital into foreign markets, they are less-vulnerable to wealth-redistribution policies.  (As an inverse consideration, government policies that tax wealth too heavily can scare foreign investment from a financially-globalized country.)  The upshot is that Egypt has both the structural conditions (a large underclass and a lot of captive assets such as stakes in state contractors or land), and political actors making the reformist pledges (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) to provoke retrenchment by authoritarian political forces.  Those authoritarian political forces are coherent, highly-centralized and empowered.

The proverbial pie has shrunk–slightly, but perceptibly.  On May 21, Egypt’s Minister of Planning announced that the country’s annualized GDP grew by 5.2 percent in the 1st quarter of 2012.  But her figures represented superficial statistics; GDP growth was 5.2 percent over that of the 1st quarter of 2011, at which time the economy contracted because the revolution against Mubarak was in progress.  The truth is that in the 1st quarter of this year Egypt slid into recession.  The Tahrir Square protests that brought Hosni Mubarak’s near-30-year reign in Egypt to an end were a young persons’ revolt, brought on by rising costs of staples and a lack of employment opportunities in a polity that was rigged in favor of corrupt ruling elites–and which treated dissenters cruelly.  If the military SAFC is smart, they will recognize Mohammad Morsi as the winner of Egypt’s presidential election to appease the justifiably-suspicious revolutionaries.  They could choose to secure their commercial advantage in the new political system discreetly, and allow the appointment of new judges and for free and fair parliamentary elections that will be binding.  Having taken this agressive step to protect their privileges, they could certainly choose to go no further.

The Liberal Ironist doubts they are that smart.  But even a “final” outcome of military retrenchment depends on the way an unrepentant dictatorship tries to develop the economy.

As it happens, Egypt’s plans for the future of “Cairo” are grandiose.  And they are set-up to profit the powers that be, and they might make things worse to boot.  If you have some time, the Liberal Ironist would like to move away from the news and discuss a development–pun intended.

Is Freedom of Religion and Assembly In Danger? Check Out Your Local Civic Organization

The Liberal Ironist is angry.  The time is just after 5:00 pm, this past Monday, June 18th.  The place is Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville, NY, the seat of government of a very large Northeastern township.  The Brookhaven Planning Board was in session in the auditorium.  Item #6, the 4th scheduled public hearing on a site plan, was up: The proposed Long Island Chinese Baptist Church at Centereach.  The architect makes a brief presentation on the proposed church to be built on the current site of a small 1,300 square-foot house on a 2.5-acre lot.  The area is a sparsely-populated neighborhood in Centereach, a large suburb of New York City.  The proposal is for the creation of a church shaped like a Romanesque cross, facing east in accordance with Feng Shui principles.  Total parking for 49 cars, maximum occupancy in the sanctuary space of 140.  The property would be re-vegetated so that less than an acre (under 40%) would be cleared.  The current congregation, as the name of the proposed church suggests, is composed of Chinese Baptists.  This congregation is still a small one, meeting in another church’s worship space several hamlets to the west.  There are 50 regular adult and 15 child congregants, and a total of 20 attendees of the weekend religious school.  As he finishes with the background information and presentation, the Chairman of the Planning Board asked the architect if he or the congregation had made any effort to reach out to the community about the proposal.  He says “I approached the Centereach Civic Association several times over the past few weeks…I recently emailed the Civic Association.  At no point did I receive a reply.  All I got for my trouble was a computer virus.”  (At this point a few people from a group of about 1/2 a dozen sitting directly behind the architect and a congregation representative smile contemptuously and shake their heads.  Some Concerned Citizens have shown up to the Planning Board meeting.)

Oxhead Road runs roughly north and south through the middle of this image of a wooded neighborhood in Centereach. The large building with the orange roof in the lower-middle is the local elementary school; immediately to the north of it, on the west side of Oxhead Road, is the 2.5-acre lot where a 65-member Chinese Baptist congregation wants to build a church. The church’s immediate neighbors gathered together–to attack the project. Image from Google Earth, dated March 6, 2012.

The charges of cyberwarfare against a civic organization being outside of his jurisdiction (and most inexpedient to follow-up on), the Chairman of the Planning Board then asks if any members of the community wish to speak on the proposal to build the new church.  Oh my, do they ever.  Only 5 neighbors of the proposed church have turned-out to speak, but none of them came out to welcome a new church congregation to their neighborhood.  (Who would bother with such a thing?)  They have come to protest the construction of a church on this site.  The underlying zoning on this site is agricultural, 1 speaker says; why is it being changed to permit a church?  (I happen to know that “agricultural” isn’t even a zoning category in the current Brookhaven zoning code!)  The proposed building site is currently in a residential zoning district, another says; why is an essentially commercial use being permitted on the site?  (At least this speaker correctly notes the site’s A Residence 2, or 2-acre residential lots zoning category, but she like the previous doesn’t realize that under Brookhaven’s zoning code, all residential zones allowing traditional single-family suburban houses also permit “Churches or similar places of worship and parish houses” as an as-of-right use.)  1 speaker objects to the small 1,300 square-foot house currently on the property while calling on the Planning Board to deny the proposal to build the church on the lot.  (This is particularly strange, since the house would be torn-down to make way for the church, a newer structure that would be built following the opportunity for community input.)  Several speakers protest of the current landowner’s unauthorized clear-cutting of a large area of the property–way back in 2008, and which was eventually halted by Brookhaven code enforcement.  (This is a legitimate grievance under Brookhaven’s environmental regulations, but a particularly strange issue for them to raise amidst their objections to the construction of the church, as the Chinese Baptist congregation in question wasn’t responsible for the clearing of the land, and proposed to re-vegetate some of the lot to ensure separation of church activities from the secluded homes of that neighborhood.)  More than 1 speaker objects to the construction of a church on this road, arguing that it can’t handle the traffic volume.  (Simply-put, this is ludicrous; Oxhead Road is a “double-line road,” a local thoroughfare which runs from Route 25 to just south of Nicolls Road, thereby linking the 2 most-important highways in Centereach.)  Hilariously, 1 of the speakers even notes the elementary school attended by hundreds of students that exists immediately to the south of the church property, claiming that the traffic from the new church congregation would surely conflict with the operations of that school.  The architect, speaking on behalf of the congregation’s representative (who is clearly not accustomed to the confrontation style of these meetings), notes that the church school’s activities would be held on Friday nights and Saturdays, times at which the elementary school in question would almost always be closed.  He repeats, lest there be any confusion, that the church school has only 20 total members.  He also briefly reminds these Concerned Citizens that the full congregation would meet on Sundays or traditional Christian holidays, when the elementary school would be closed.  All these points he addresses gracefully, declining to draw attention to their sheer idiocy.

There is 1 point–just 1–which he singles-out for its objectionable nature: 1 of the last speakers says he had read an online website–He didn’t even trouble himself to obtain his information from the US Census Bureau!–and notes Centereach had a very small Asian population, and that merely 3% of the local Asian population was Christian; he used these figures to argue that there was little need for this church to be built at all.

Architect’s rendering of the proposed Chinese Baptist Church at Centereach, which would be built on the site of an illegally-cleared lot which currently accommodates a very small rental house. I can see how the change would be jarring…

The Liberal Ironist would like to specifically note a certain fairly-popular foundational provision of our law called the First Amendment: “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.”  Law-abiding members of a religious congregation, provided they comply with standard dimensional requirements of the municipal zoning code, have the right to build for themselves a house of worship almost anywhere they damn well please.  Brookhaven’s zoning code lists this as an as-of-right use, right at the top; all zoning codes should.

The architect identifies Stony Brook, a fairly-large hamlet just to the northwest of Centereach, as home of many of the church’s congregants–and the nearby SUNY Stony Brook campus as having a very large domestic and foreign Chinese student population, some of whom are Christian and looking for a place where they can worship.  He notes the strangeness of the “How many Asian Christians can there be?” comment, and calls the speaker’s motives into question.

He was right to do so.  We are ill-served by John Rawls‘ concept of “public reason,” through which he calls on all people making political claims to do so on supposedly-neutral terms of scientific objectivity.  This implies that religious objectors to women’s reproductive rights or gay rights, for example, must reason on “publicly-accessible” terms or not at all–for public argument’s sake, that legalization of abortion or gay marriage has some harmful effect upon society or the public interest.  Or somesuch.  (Witness the comedy of a lawyer representing 1 of those “marriage defense” organizations in California being asked directly by a judge hearing his case against gay marriage if he can explain the harmful social effects of allowing gay couples to marry–and drawing a blank.)

These arguments–in truth believed neither by the dogmatic religious Conservatives making them nor the untrusting secular Liberals to whom they are in principle addressed–simply muddy the water.  True, speculation about a political opponent’s motives can do just as much to muddy the waters, undermine dialogue and even desensitize us to the charge through continued and hyperbolic use.  But we risk serving the interests of underhanded bigotry if we allow people to organize around seemingly-neutral issues when we know damn well what motivates them.

Some of these Concerned Citizens may well have turned-out to oppose a construction project which they believed–in their ignorance–to require commercial zoning in their residential neighborhood, in violation of the underlying A Residence 2 zoning.  If so, the Liberal Ironist sees a rich illiberal irony in the fact that each of the Concerned Citizens from the adjacent properties happen to live on 1-acre or 1/2-acre lots that couldn’t be built in that neighborhood anymore with the current environmentally-sensitive zoning!  The proposed church, not the existing surrounding houses, is perfectly lawful, in fact well within the size limits permitted by local zoning for that site.

Other Concerned Citizens, the Liberal Ironist has little doubt from this meeting, simply don’t want Chinese people congregating in their neighborhood.  These people abuse the public comment period of the Planning Board’s meeting, intended for the airing of serious concerns about nearby construction projects, in an attempt to enforce their personal bigotry and phobias in their neighborhood.

This is not a novel issue in any way; if anything it is old hat.  The whole controversy over Park 51, an Islamic and interfaith community center built 2 blocks from Ground Zero, referred to inaccurately and provocatively as the “Ground Zero Mosque” by opportunistic rabble-rousers and bigots, included attempts to persuade the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to prohibit that project on the grounds of demolishing a supposedly historically-significant structure.  (By and large, the parties to the claim of landmark status had no interest in its historic significance; they were just seeking tactical advantage over an Islamic organization they didn’t want to establish itself.)

Do you think I have projected this more high-profile case onto simple community concerns in the local one?  If you believe that I suggest you are unaware of the scope of this problem.  Planning agencies and historic districts, under the influence of civic organizations and at times informal collections of bigots, cite all manner of plausible and implausible concerns in order to oppose religious groups from siting a house of worship in their communities.  Opposition can target any facet of a proposed facility from the amount of parking required to an architectural style such as use of minarets which is suggestive of a religious minority group, and can emerge either because people care less about our common First Amendment rights than about what they want in their neighborhood, or because they don’t like the ideas or the appearance of the congregation in question.  (Good luck separating these 2 “issues” in practice.)

Naturally, public opposition to the activities of religious minority groups is much stronger.  The American Civil Liberties Union has fired over the bow of municipal zoning bodies in particular for violation of the rights of worship and assembly of Muslim groups.  But here in suburban New York, completely unanticipated by yours truly, was an outpouring of angry hostility by Concerned Citizens with their own non-conforming shy-acre lot.  They think they can tell other Americans, immigrants and international students in good standing that they are not welcome in the neighborhood because of its “residential character”–er, aside from the large elementary school adjacent to the property.

Oh, wait–I haven’t finished the story!

1 woman actually protests the removal of this 2.5-acre parcel from the tax rolls–in a school district of about 16 square miles.  This very objection is premised on the idea that the community gets to decide whether you get to build a church.  Consider this: Due to a lack of involvement in the affairs of our own local government, the rest of us have practically abandoned the hard-fought and precious power to comment on the actions of our own government to people who think this way.

1 of the Concerned Citizens accuses the church of not posting a letter notifying her of the public hearing.  The Chairman of the Planning Board asks the architect (who seems to be fielding all questions from all quarters) if notices had been posted to residents near the property in question.  He says they had, and the Chairman asks him to look through all of his certified mail receipts.  This he does, and upon finding it simply avers that the notification letter might simply not have reached her due to an unaccountable hold-up.  Maybe that’s true, and maybe she just lied.  No one else who spoke-out against the plans for the church has cared about the truth while they level so many immaterial grievances.

At the close of the hearing, the Chairman of the Planning Board can see that the many outstanding objections to the church proposal call for another public hearing–for July 16th.  Out of 11 proposals before the Brookhaven Planning Board, only 1 other was assigned a 2nd public hearing in 4 weeks, and 1 turned down.  The other 8 were approved.

Now, with this particular public hearing already over, it gets really heated.  Yours truly stays in the auditorium for the rest of the Planning Board meeting, but I see that the Concerned Citizen who so helpfully pointed out that the local Asian population was small now engages the congregation’s representative–who spoke little–directly.  This conversation does not progress towards mutual respect.  Our Concerned Citizen leans over the congregant, in full view of our appointed officials and other citizen attendees, looking him over with an angry grimace while he talks.  This is someone he has just met, who hasn’t done anything with the property in question yet.  After just a few moments, the angry gesticulations start.  After the 2 walk out of the auditorium, I can just make-out shouting–coming from 1 voice–out in the hall.

As an atheist, the Liberal Ironist can see that one must indeed have the forebearance of a Christian to abide liberal-democratic institutions such as planning boards and public hearings being hijacked by people with private and malicious intent against those who are simply trying to build a community space for like-minded people the way conscientious citizens would.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease; so much of our civil society is dominated by people whom are uncivil and antisocial, using that neutral language of the civic organization as a tool to put others out in the cold.  Again, this is not because we have zoning, planning boards and a political tradition that provides for public hearings, civic organizations and civil discussion; it is simply because we have yielded-up those organizations, and that language, to our most-resentful and selfish neighbors.

The American Civil Liberties Union seeks to inform religious groups–particularly frequently-marginalized religious minority groups–of their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  This act, which passed Congress by unanimous content and was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, reaffirmed in Federal law that municipal zoning regulations may not “impose…a substantial burden” on religious groups seeking to build facilities unless it can demonstrate that this is the least-burdensome way to achieve a compelling public interest.

A friend of mine who also attended this public hearing spoke with spontaneous eloquence afterwards: “It really is shameful when you realize the extent to which we just don’t believe in our rights.  If they are rights, then everyone has them, not just the people we like or agree with.”  The Liberal Ironist would broaden the point, and say we can measure how much we’ve lost our way by whether we define our political objectives entirely on the basis of what is convenient for ourselves.  Ours is a big country, but so many of us see ourselves as lords of the manor.  So many can’t even say “Live and let-live.”


“Great things have small beginnings.” David (Michael Fassbender) has no idea what he has at the tip of his finger, but he does know how to find out. As he learned from his favorite movie, “The trick…is not minding it hurts.”  The only confusion is about who is supposed to suffer.

I’ve previously written that my favorite film directors often simply want to make the same movie over and over again.  To really love their work is to be game for this perfectionist endeavor, to appreciate the refinement and expansion of an old theme, and not to be overly-concerned with eclecticism and novelty in the movie-going experience.

Prometheus–I will try to downplay spoilers–is director Ridley Scott‘s most-developed homage to his own past work.  His filmography includes 2 films that re-defined the science fiction genre just 3 years apart (Alien, Blade Runner), a gripping but grueling war film (Black Hawk Down), interesting portrayals of corruption and dysfunction in American law enforcement and intelligence (American Gangster, Body of Lies), and alternately took liberties or speculated about history in order to create mythology relevant to the present (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven).  And though few directors have had as many visionary triumphs as he has, from time to time his movies have simply been awful (Hannibal).

And one of the things about Prometheus  that have intrigued me the most, as its opening weekend draws to a close, is the polarizing effect it has had upon audiences.  Though reviews have tended to be positive, and the film was very well-received by critics, there is a deep divergence of opinion between those who loved Prometheus and those who hated it.

Exploration begins…

I was among those who loved it.  I’ll say no more about the basic course of the plot than can be gleaned from the film’s many trailers: Archaeological evidence from many primitive yet comparatively-advanced cultures across the Earth consistently reveals a map of a star cluster in a distant part of the Galaxy–so distant, in fact, that were it not for the almost-impossible coincidence of its depiction in these early societies so temporally and geographically distant from one another, there is still no way they could have observed it with the unaided eye.  So, with an optimistic investment of $1 trillion by the Weyland Corporation (still a lot of money, I take it, in 2089), the leaders of that project and a crew of 15 others set-out for the only terrestrial body in that star cluster found to be capable of supporting life.  This turns out to be a large moon of a gas giant planet with disappointingly-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and dangerously-abrasive sandstorms on its surface.  But the expedition hasn’t traveled that far into space to look for traces of naturally-occurring alien life; they have gone, quite literally, to meet their makers.

The Prometheus in orbit around a gas giant planet. Its voyage ends on a large moon.

Another major plot point can be gathered directly from the trailers: The power to create life from scratch and the power to destroy it seem to be inherently-linked–or at least the Engineers, as they are called, didn’t distinguish between them.  “We were so wrong!” 1 of our protagonists laments in a trailer.  Indeed, our protagonist has an almost-foolish confidence about her in the providential nature of what she will find.  There is an explicit suggestion that her religious faith led her to reach-out trustingly towards what she hypothesized are her creators; in fairness, other characters prove to be prone to blasphemy or even sacrilege, and they exhibit the same self-assurance, bordering on sleepwalking.

Don’t worry, she’ll figure it out…

The characters of Prometheus (mostly) have an earnestness to them, but should feel familiar to those familiar with Ridley Scott’s filmography, or with the Alien series.  There’s a robot with a murky agenda, a corporate minder, a salty captain, a corporate executive with a deep-seated need to achieve grandiose ambitions, and a complete crew of the sort of gruff oddball specialists you could entice to voyage into deep space with a secret destination and purpose.  Then there’s the heroine, somehow less-mysterious than Warrant Officer Ripley in Alien but nonetheless resourceful and resilient–able to act when alone.  (This doesn’t change the fact that she is almost stupidly-naive when we meet her, but oh my will she learn.)  These characters aren’t just of a familiar type from the Alien series but in some cases from Blade Runner.  There are themes that are as familiar (or more-familiar) from some of Scott’s other films: The total immorality of corporate power (Blade Runner), the dangers of self-assurance and the presumption of the routine (Black Hawk Down, American Gangster, Body of Lies), and even stranger common threads such as the erstwhile-living begging for a fiery death (virtually obligatory in the Alien series), a misanthropic verbal reference to parricide (Blade Runner, Gladiator), and the sense of danger and inevitable disappointment in confronting one’s maker (Blade Runner).  The richness of self-allegory in Prometheus affords Scott–like other directors including Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Terry Gilliam, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky–to tell us his favorite story again, but with a different, more-unitary significance from the other times.

A Mystery Box opens. They don’t belong here. No one does.

Prometheus was written in part by Damon Lindelof, 1/2 of the team of writers that led the groundbreaking TV series LOST through 6 seasons of ambiguities both of context and character to what for many was a frustrating conclusion.  I was game for it then, and I’m game for it now.  Much like my beloved TV series LOST or the J.J. Abrams-Matt Reeves monster feature Cloverfield, some of Prometheus’ questions are settled by outside material–in this case, a viral video.  Peter Weyland, the corporate executive whose goals almost re-define hubris, appears in a 2023 TED talk to ruminate on the wildly-accelerating nature of technological change.  Reflection on telescoping technological change dates back at least to the 1600s.  But consider the manipulation of nature possible now, then consider what past generations of futurists described as “godlike” power.  What we can do now already renders the “past future” as far inferior.  It provokes a reaction like vertigo.

“We are just 3 months into year of our lord, 2023,” Weyland goes on, “At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals–who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us.”  This means the robot David (portrayed by Michael Fassbender in a performance that may even exceed the iconic pitch he achieved as the emerging villain Magneto in X-Men First Class) hasn’t been created at this time.  We can further infer from this that David loves Lawrence of Arabia because he was made that way.

“It must have been horrible to lose Dr. Holloway like that after losing your father under such similar circumstances. What was it, then–ebola?”
“…How do you know that?”
“I watched your dreams.”

Weyland continues: “…Which leads to an obvious conclusion: We are the gods now…”  He says it with certainty but a measure a trepidation, and there is grumbling from the audience.  However, he goes on to finish his self-introduction to great applause.  Weyland masterfully escalates his presentation to this rousing conclusion–and it’s the wrong conclusion.  It’s woefully wrong.  The central tragedy in Prometheus is essentially the same as that of the corporate executive in Blade Runner: We amass godlike powers to reconstitute nature’s substance yet always remain entirely-human, bound by the limitations and vulnerabilities of that substance itself.  Our own rapidly-advancing technology has done nothing to change this fact, so we must face our mortality at the end of a life so much more-brilliant and empowering than what was possible in past centuries.  By the climax, we see how plainly this cruel irony of our enduring mortality has consumed Weyland.

He invokes Lawrence of Arabia–as the android crewman will many times–in particular, the early scene in which Lawrence, then wasting-away in Cairo, extinguishes a match flame between his fingers for the entertainment of his military fellows.  The movie opens with the same.  “You’ll do that 1 time too many.  You’re only flesh-and-blood!” 1 man exclaims.

Lawrence brushes this warning off with mirth.  But that warning is even more the story of Peter Weyland than it is of Colonel Lawrence.  It’s equally the story of the Engineers who our protagonist went to space to find.  They are able to manufacture life of astonishing complexity from its base components in mere hours of percolation.  The explorers of this windswept moon discover in short order that this race of creators finally created life so prolific, dynamic, and aggressive that they couldn’t make use of what they created.  Of course, by then the explorers do make contact–but not at all with what they expected.

Yes, the light is dazzling. But it will go out. And then there will only be what the Enginneers left in that place when they abandoned it or died, thousands of years ago.

I would be remiss as a Liberal Ironist if I passed up a good opportunity to remind people that cruelty is the worst thing we do.  There is a lot of cruelty on display in this film, some of it petty and surplus, some of it monstrous and purposive.  In a filmed correspondence to the crew of the Prometheus, Weyland calls David “the closest thing I will ever have to a son,” but says David, being an android, doesn’t have “a soul.”  (At that moment the look on David’s face says to me that he’s lost–a very-soulful state.)  David has to deal with quite a lot of disavowal of his humanity, merely because he is a synthetic person.  Most of this torment comes from 1 of the researchers, who almost experiences despair when his hopes of meeting an Engineer are dashed, but when asked by David why humans created him, says tauntingly “Because we could.”  Out of all of them, only David is unfazed by the possibility that the Engineers have no compassion for humanity, that they may have created us “because they could,” that they may see in us only lab rats expropriating prime real estate.  There is a suggestion here that the capacity to create and shape life is followed close by the temptation to see life–even sapient life–as a malleable object rather than having an inherent worth and dignity.  The Engineers’ talents–as far as we are allowed to see–emphasize conversion of previously-meek organisms into extremely-resilient predators.  (Director Scott personally offered the theory that this technology was intended for military purposes.)  In the end they produced something volatile beyond their own reckoning and means of control.  As Christopher Nolan put into the mouth of Nikola Tesla in The Prestige, “You are familiar with the saying, ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’  This is wrong.  Man’s grasp exceeds his knowledge.”  As our powers become more-godlike, so do the moral and practical hazards become more-fraught, of confusing ourselves with gods.  We see not the cruelty we do, and we cannot foresee the injury we bring to ourselves.  We remain very human.

“We are the gods now”? Peter Weyland: Hear him out, but don’t let him confuse you.

The Wisconsin Recall: Campaign Finance Comes Front-and-Center Yet Its Effects are Surprisingly Uncertain; the Connection of Policy and Partisanship is Subtler But Undeniable

Scott Walker has survived the recall effort in Wisconsin, with about 53.2% of the vote to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s 46.3%.  Early reports that turnout in the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Recall Election exceeded 60% turned out to be off; voter turnout in absolute numbers was almost exactly halfway between that in the 2010 Midterm Elections and that in the 2008 Presidential Election.  (To be clear, that’s nothing to scoff at for a special election.)  While Wisconsin voters didn’t approve of Governor Walker effectively ending the collective bargaining powers of the Badger State’s public employee unions, they have long distinguished between the unpopular policy itself and their feelings about Walker overall.  Walker has been leading Mayor Barrett since the 2 were 1st matched-up in the polls.

This is not to say there was no political blowback from Governor Walker’s attack on public employee unions.  Last August, recall efforts were launched for 6 Republican State Senators (and in retaliation, 2 Democratic State Senators) that resulted in 2 Democratic pickups in the State Senate, bringing the Republicans down to a dangling 17-16 majority there.  While that result was discouraging–Democrats had expected to take back the State Senate–it wasn’t profoundly-so, as Wisconsin law only permits recalls of elected officials who have been in office for at least 1 year.  This meant that the 2 recalls of Republican State Senators had actually occurred in Senate Districts the Republicans held through their low-ebb of the 2008 elections.  That plus the fact that Governor Walker was polling in the 40s–where an incumbent officeholder below the President is inherently-vulnerable–made it look as if Wisconsinites had soured on Republicans.

But the moment the actual, corporeal Democratic contenders for the Gubernatorial Recall stood up to announce their candidacies for the race, Governor Walker polled ahead of all of them.  Mayor Barrett made the most-formidable challenge in the advance polling, but Walker still had a significant lead.  Barrett was also the losing Democratic Gubernatorial candidate from 2010; Democrats would essentially have to hope that Wisconsin had a sufficient underlying Progressive majority (or relatedly, sufficient fatigue with Governor Walker’s habit of legislating a right-wing wish list) to carry Mayor Barrett simply because he had a D by his name.

Not only didn’t this happen, but in an election with 20% higher turnout Governor Walker almost exactly reproduced his 52.29%-46.52% victory over Barrett in 2010.  We can put a fork in the effort to expel Governor Walker from office for his anti-labor provocations, it’s done.  But why did this (um, not) happen?

A Politico contributor had a simple and unexciting but revealing explanation for Walker’s rather-solid victory.  Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy follow the blunt numbers of the exit polls: Democratic challenger Barrett did in fact stimulate more new voters to turn-out for the recall.  But Governor Walker correspondingly turned-out more of his existing supporters from 2010 than Barrett did.  (Tangential to their analysis, it didn’t help that Wisconsinites in a recent poll overwhelmingly opined that they felt recall elections should only be arranged for elected officials found guilty of corruption or other criminal offenses.)  The proportion of voters self-identifying as Conservative in this exit poll (35%) was essentially sustained from the Conservative surge year of 2012 (37%), and in either event much higher than in the higher-turnout 2008 Presidential election (31%).  So while Mayor Barrett was clearly the beneficiary of a lot of provoked anger over Governor Walker’s campaign to weaken public employee unions, the latter simply was more-effective at rallying his troops–and Wisconsinites in general never really embraced the idea that Governor Walker should be punished for pushing-through an ideological agenda, even though a majority disagrees with parts of that agenda.

Almost every Wisconsinite seemed to have an opinion about the changes to the law governing public employee unions, or of the Governor.  A clear majority of those polled about the Governor in general tended to accept his narrative that his policies had punched a hole in unemployment (its decline was actually rather mild considering Wisconsin’s relatively-low unemployment rate when Walker took office) and put the State’s fiscal house in order (though the State only really faced a fiscal emergency because of the Governor’s rather aggressive tax cuts).

Let’s talk about super PACs–that is, virtually-unregulated bundles of money that private citizens (or corporations, or labor unions, or special-interest groups) can raise on behalf of candidates–so long as the super PAC and the candidate are officially unaffiliated–for office thanks to a 2-year-old ruling of the United States Supreme Court.  Conservative super PACs supporting Governor Walker raised millions of dollars “in support of” his re-election campaign.  As much as $80 million was spent advertising for the candidates in the Recall, a ridiculously-large sum by historical standards for the Badger State.  Super PACs out-spent in Governor Walker’s favor by about $30.5 million–$4 million.  If you count contributions by traditional soft-money groups like Planned Parenthood and unions like the AFL-CIO or the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Walker’s fundraising advantage is mitigated somewhat–but no one seems to believe Barrett was in Walker’s league in campaign cash in this strange episode.

The Liberal Ironist is among those who thinks this is a bad precedent for democracy–but not for the reason you’ve likely heard repeated.  There is an inevitable aspect of diminishing returns with all the private money being spent on elections: Set an election awash in more than a certain amount of cash, and more dollars probably no longer impact the result.  It’s downright weird that, with a somewhat differently-composed electorate, a recall election held in June 2012 turned-out almost exactly like the November 2010 Gubernatorial Election.  But all the pundits have their 3rd degree on the policies at stake in Wisconsin, and all their 3rd degrees are the same.

This is a dark day for organized labor, they say–all while maintaining a solemn and rather dully-misguided aloofness to these developments (well, there was the visible exception of CNN’s empathetic John King). The narrative continues thus: This is not merely a political victory for Scott Walker, but an object-lesson in Conservative optimism for other Republican Governors who want to take on the public employee unions.  Both advocates of business and labor were spoiling for a political contest in Wisconsin, and both sides protested and both sides articulated their principled theories of government and both sides raised a lot of money and hurled attack ads at the other’s candidate.  In the end, business won (on this issue, in Wisconsin).  But could we have a lot more of this kind of bottom-up polarization of public policy?  I doubt this is a good thing.  Conservatives hated to see States and cities ban smoking in bars, or banning trans fats in junk food; policy diffusion of this kind sometimes hits like-affiliated legislatures like a fad.  In this age of ideologically-programmatic parties and “freedom of speech” somehow embodying as millions of dollars from the rich or from national special-interest groups, policy diffusion could occur as a result of a series of high-stakes contests playing-out over the course of a whole electoral cycle in various cities and States, perhaps sometimes aggregating through the national parties to the Federal level.  Can it still be Federalism as we know it if Republicans and Democrats feel compelled by their respective partisan winning coalitions to imitate each other’s controversial legislative initiatives?

Ah, yes: President Obama was disengaged from this particular contest.  He rather-shrewdly manipulated the pregnant pause of a controversy-driven media to dramatize (hype?) a shift on the issue of gay marriage (from sympathizing with gay marriage advocates but considering it a State issue to supporting gay marriage but considering it a State issue); why did he not do the same for labor?  The best explanation I’ve heard is that the President saw the writing on the wall–that Walker’s majority in Wisconsin was unmovable–and that he didn’t want to expose himself to further Republican criticism as a defender of status-quo government in a case where he didn’t think he could positively-effect policy.  Maybe I buy that.  It wouldn’t be the 1st time the President’s seemingly-confounded inaction proved to be a discreet conservation of political capital.  But here’s what we all know: Collective-bargaining rights for public employees are abolished in all but name in the 1st State to unionize its public employees.  This occurred without comment from a sitting Democratic President whose policy legacy will be dominated by his principled confrontations with Congressional Republicans over how to “right-size” government programs and benefits in an age where global commercial competition and computerization has constantly-threatened the traditional industrial employment base, and now puts professional jobs at a premium.  The President may have prudently spared himself an alienating wade into a battle that could not be won and would have played into the Republican narrative about his predictably-Democratic character and affiliations.  But Governor Romney has embraced the Walker-Kasich-Daniels “free labor” model–haltingly at 1st, with that characteristic Romney toe in the water to feel the temperature, now enthusiastically as that he learns he won’t alienate the median voter in the strategic Badger State.  So President Obama has avoided pain and Governor Romney has pursued a narrative opportunity; it’s the latter who has made a relative gain.

In the meantime, the State of Wisconsin has been subject to a variety of Conservative reforms.  Most Wisconsinites apparently find these tolerable, and as a result Scott Walker continues to be a darling among the Republican Governors.  Like Bob McDonnell (Virginia), Mitch Daniels (Indiana), and Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Governor Walker is 1 of a debatable list of Republican Governors, mostly from the South and Midwest, who all apparently want their States to resemble each other.  The Liberal Ironist finds the evidence that outside money was able to buy an election in Wisconsin inconclusive; what is evident is that partisans of both parties–the Republicans are the greater offenders but this is a series of contests, not soliloquies–have proved their capacity nationalize the policies they pursue on the State or local level, as the Scott Walkers try to make names for themselves and the opposition activists try to take them down, and everyone demands that the Barack Obamas and the Mitt Romneys offer their opinions.  The Liberal Ironist asks: Is the whole story really that anti-democratic forces spent tens of millions and bought Governor Walker a governor’s mansion he already occupied, doing an end-run against Liberal activists and thus destroying democracy in America just last night? or are we sorting all political questions into a Yes and a No with national implications, when there may be a hundred different things our State and local governments can do?

Many of my fellow Democrats look at Wisconsin and see Wounded Knee; the Liberal Ironist sees the Scopes Monkey Trial, and while this event may portend the collapse of the public employee unions as a political force, I’ve also begun to get a sense that we political junkies think too readily in units called “events.”  Policy debates become scripts of contention; maybe this is what money is doing to politics.