what political questions are hard?

I’ve been saying lately that liberals and the left have a big problem with being unwilling to lay out, in simple and direct terms, their values, their evidence, and their reasoning. In particular, I think the sneering, eye-rolling tendency in both cultures is a major political problem – the tendency to argue as if everyone already knows the right answer to every political question.

So in the interest of being constructive, I’m asking today, particularly of liberals and leftists: what political questions are difficult? What sort of conflicts inspire legitimate controversy, where there are no easy answers, no clear heroes and villains? On which issues is “the other side” (whoever that might be) most likely to make a fair or compelling point? What are the contemporary political conflicts for which you have no stock response, the ones where you feel compelled to sort through difficult issues, and which require you to think the most deeply about contrary opinions? What aren’t you sure about?


  1. As a v anti-authoritarian leftist I always end up pausing for a while on the question of crime. Most crime is a result of economic conditions and the ills of society that we want to deal with, certainly, but not all of it. Fuck the police, sure, I don’t like them either. Abolish the prisons, great, they don’t really serve a satisfactory purpose. But then what do we do with the few – but very real – bad people who’re going to act violently towards others despite the glorious anarcho-communist utopia being achieved? Can a community consensus to exclude and punish be relied upon not to become either an unruly mob or something entirely ineffectual?

    The same question could possibly be more broadly applied to inter-nation aggression.

    1. I can’t say what we are going to do with them, so I can’t answer your question exactly, because I think it should be case-by-case, and the community consensus thing is the answer that appeals to me the most, the community being defined by the families of the defendant and the victim, and other people close to both, neighbors, whatever. Case-by-case basis even on who is considered “community”, but definitely the most-affected people in there. I like the combination of restorative justice and community justice, with the community deciding what is restorative, and also what is necessary to protect the public, to the extent that that’s an issue. I don’t think it’ll be an unruly mob/ineffectual if “the community” is defined as above. I think they would see to it that neither happened. What I don’t like is the current view of people — criminals — as a disposable waste product. If we treated everything and everyone as though they were ours forever, in one form or another, which is in fact the case, then we would see very very very different policies.

      1. … Practically-speaking, what does any of that mean? How does any of it work? “The community” will decide what to do with people on a “case-by-case” basis? Who will arbitrate who is “the community”? What happens if the side that loses the judgment decides they’re not going to accept the judgment? Who enforces the judgment? What sort of punishments are on the table? Who enforces the punishments? No prisons? Do we have things that we don’t call prisons, but are basically-let’s-be-honest-they’re-prisons?

      2. also, it takes the kind of person who has never been bullied to imagine a community where punishing the unpopular were mostly leading to fair results. We are supposed to have rules to the way the justice system works exactly because when retribution is purely based on who is better connected, and better at manipulating people into liking them, then we are no better than the witch hunters. A perfectly well-meaning person on the autistic spectrum, born in a less-well connected family, for example, would have no chance against any better-connected and more charming rapist of them, in this system.

    2. I agree that this is my biggest Hard Question, and I’d add “How can we build a justice system that treats the accused as innocent until proven guilty, without victim-blaming the accuser?”

      1. Don’t think of it as victim-blaming, think of it as just a burden of proof the state has to go through. If this isn’t satisfactory, then I guess all I can say is tough fucking shit. Victim-blaming isn’t going to destroy someone’s life; putting an innocent person in prison sure as shit will.

  2. Immigration would be a big one for me, along with globalization generally. I like the left’s ideal of “no borders – no nations” but we are so far from that in reality. I talk with my co-workers and relatives and they can be very nationalistic. I suspect that we need something between the “no nations” ideal and the hyper-nationalistic views of Trump. Sanders seemed to articulate some of that, but it is still difficult to talk about immigration & international trade a way that is not the blithe stupidity of the neoliberals nor the dangerous racism of Trump.

    1. The idea that being against mass immigration is some crazed right-wing Nazi idea is part of what’s wrong with the left in this country.

      Cesar Chavez (yeah, that guy) spent most of his life fighting illegal immigrants (literally at times), so did A. Phillip Randolph, the greatest Black labor leader in our country’s history.

      Illegal immigration is not a racial issue, it’s a labor issue and always has been.

      It’s dishonest to make everyone against it some horrible racist, when people who work in the construction field (especially Blacks, native Hispanics, and native Whites) aren’t able to get work because illegal low wage laborers have undercut them in terms of wages.

      There’s a great book called “How Many Is Too Many: The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration Into the United States” by Philip Cafaro that really goes into this in depth, but many people on the left would rather ignore the effects of mass immigration on poor and working class Americans and just call you a bigot if you want to put any limits on immigration whatsoever.

      In 1970, 4.5% of America were immigrants, now it’s almost 14%. Can we honestly say that America is a better country for laborers than it was then? No. of course not.

      Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader have both also talked about this, but Sanders had to back off because the liberals were gonna make him out to be a racist.

      1. First, your statistical argument is entirely specious. The decline of labor is obviously a complex issue with multiple causes. Immigration probably contributes but probably not very much – there are probably much more effective reforms that could be made in other ways.

        Second, restricting immigration to prop up wages for native born workers does nothing to reduce inequality, it just ensures that inequality only negatively affects people in poorer countries who are already more desperate and vulnerable than workers in wealthy nations.

        1. First, I tend to be pro-immigration and agree that the evidence for immigration pushing down wages is weak, because immigrants also create demand. This is a complex issue.

          But I have to disagree with the notion that if we don’t allow immigration, we are increasing inequality. I promise there is nothing special about the air or water in the U.S. that prevents other nations from having high incomes. Nor do we have some monopoly on the ability to have good jobs or advanced industries. We do not doom other nations to poverty by not letting their workers move here, nor do we increase inequality or fail to decrease it by restricting immigration.

          So what is our responsibility to other nations’ economic well-being, other than things like disaster relief?
          – patent laws and IP laws do prevent some nations from developing, if we own the patents.
          – Obviously to the degree that we interfere with other nations by forcing them to adopt policies that disadvantage workers, we make it hard for those workers to earn high incomes.
          – Trade agreements may prevent nations from investing in local industries “infant industry” argument.

          Those are the channels through which we affect global inequality. Not immigration. We may have an obligation to support immigration on more individualistic grounds, such as a desire to support freedom of movement, but not on grounds of addressing inequality. And it’s a bit chauvinist to assume that they need to move to the U.S. to have a good life. What they need is power over their affairs and effective institutions, and they’re not going to get that by having all the dissenters leave. I think obligations to other nations need to be addressed with national policies, rather than ad hoc solutions for individuals, which are going to necessarily be random and idiosyncratic, and thus wont do anything to decrease inequality.

  3. As a lifelong hunter, as a hand gun owner, as a resident of a Midwestern state, as a person who lives around lots of other gun owners (they’re ubiquitous here) but has never felt in any danger of being a victim of gun violence, I personally struggle to sell a cohesive national gun control policy that can be even remotely compelling to people around here. When guns are everywhere around me and virtually no one is abusing them, its pretty easy for the Right’s “guns aren’t the problem” argument to get traction.

    1. Progress can’t be made on gun control until coastal liberals abandon their culture war framing of the issue and acknowledge that many citizens have a legitimate interest in gun ownership.

      I can’t think of another issue where Democrats’ preference for virtue signalling and hand-wringing over effective action is more evident than on gun control, where they’re happy to rile up gun owners but are unwilling to raise even 1% of the money the NRA does to lobby lawmakers on the issue.

      1. I live in Wisconsin. I’m not exactly a “coastal liberal.” The way I see it, Democrats who have tried to push for gun control (the Giffords, in particular) have already “acknowledged that many citizens have a legitimate interest in gun ownership. ” They are trying their darnedest to be moderate and reasonable and constitutional, and what is their reward? Vicious personal attacks, mockery of suffering, extreme violent rhetoric from the NRA and no discernible progress.

        So this seems, to me, one of those cases where a take-no-prisoners attitude would yield better results. If gun owners want moderation they have got to stop supporting the NRA. Period.

        1. If you’re familiar with the history on this, you probably already know that the NRA is the moderate organization, and has often been condemned by its members for being too squishy.

      2. I agree that much of the antagonism to guns on the part of the left is cultural. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong on substance. The U.S. has much, much higher intentional homicide rates than the E.U. Guns are huge part of that. Just a back of the envelope calculation is about 9,000 lives a year. If our intentional homicide rate could be lowered to France, say, which is itself double the rate of Germany or the Nordic countries, we’d save about 9,000 lives a year. We’re not talking about suicides or accidental deaths, or risky behavior that adults can choose to engage in for themselves, these are intentional killings of others.


        Drunk driving, by comparison, kills about 1100 people/year, but some of those killed were the drivers themselves. In terms of how many other people they kill, let’s say 600 people/year. We do a lot of crazy stuff to prevent drunk driving in order to save that many people, arresting over 1 million people a year for driving under the influence.


        This is because unlike guns, there is universal antagonism to drunk driving. The pro-gun side needs to understand that they are not under siege from the left on culture. They just haven’t crushed all opposition so there are many influential people who oppose gun ownership. There is a debate, but America still has a pro-gun culture, as is reflected in local laws and attitudes all around America, as well as our abnormally high murder rates.

        I’m not saying it’s a top 5 issue. Lack of access to proper health care kills orders of magnitudes more people, for example, but the opposition to guns is not just about culture.

          1. Yes, you are right! I stand corrected. I got them from the MADD website but I must have misread the deaths of minors for total deaths. Thank you.

            Let’s say 3,000 others were killed by drunk driving (not forsaking sympathy for the driver, but want to compare apples to apples with respect to drunk drivers killing others and intentional homicides of others, primarily because things get complex when you include suicide in the gun deaths column..). I think the point still stands — we arrest a hell of lot more people for drunk driving, including setting up checkpoints, etc, because it is universally condemned, even though more homicides would be averted if everyone stopped using guns than if everyone stopped drunk driving. Our culture is much more pro-gun than the public health statistics would warrant.

    2. Alex, I think I understand your point. The problem is that most people concerned about gun violence really aren’t asking for that much. The kind of gun control I want is as follows: universal background checks, 48-hour waiting periods, no guns in schools. Those three things would give me an immense amount of satisfaction and, I believe, prevent a great deal of future suffering. And yet, every one of them is denounced by the NRA as un-American. (And God forbid we ask the NRA to show us the money they insist should be spent on better mental health care, or the like.)

  4. Governmental waste is a tough problem. We have a sea of weird bureaucracy, agency bloat, a military-industrial complex which is functionally a welfare system for a huge swathe of people, and contractor- and lobbyist- complexes which are functionally similar. The Democrats are certainly allergic to talking about this stuff, and while the left is a little less shy these problems are usually addressed in service to a different argument.

    The blind spot for the left is: even if we lived in something resembling social democracy (big safety nets, strong unions, maybe a juicy UBI,) the people involved in all this are some of the best-compensated people in America; and like any other major shift, the people for whom this works won’t be terribly enthusiastic about changing it. The rhetorical strategy we’ve seen from the right is “just cut everything, cut it all” – the Grover Norquist stuff – or “cut this stuff which has been in the news lately” which is kind of like walking into the jungle with a machete blindfolded. From the Left we come at it by noting the injustice and then trying to imagine a set of circumstances where these institutions could be changed with as little damage as possible; but rarely do we talk about the means to actually change them.

    It’s worth noting that this is a universal problem that is limited neither to America nor to our present time.

    1. I think the most useful response is to realize that bureaucracy is an existential feature of advanced societies. It is in government but also in the private sector. In fact, with any human undertaking of sufficient size, whether it is done by government, religious orders, corporations, or even NGO’s, you are gonna have some bureaucracy. I think it is useful to recognize this reality, and then consider how bureaucracy is to be optimized so that it works best.

      1. Of course; bureaucracy is a necessary component of our society, which I recognize. A certain amount of waste comes with the grinding of the gears, and for most, that’s fine and understood.

        The difficulty is recognizing the difference between that and a bureaucracy which exists purely for its own benefit and to the detriment of others. Both the left and the right come towards this realization from different angles (interestingly it doesn’t seem the centrist Dems address this at all in any meaningful sense.) From the right, it’s “government taking my tax dollars and giving them to the insurance companies;” from the left, it’s “government taking my tax dollars and giving them to Lockheed Martin.” Either way it’s not a system which benefits the majority of people in this country. The right has a tremendously destructive idea on how to solve this problem – embodied at its most extreme in a bizarre hatred of the US postal system – and the left, again, is curiously silent.

        1. So true. I work around state government, and another problem is that it’s very hard to distinguish between legit misuse of public funds, and conservatives crying wolf about “waste, fraud and abuse” to justify yet another government-shrinking tax cut.

          The fact is that bureaucratic fiefdoms and plump, questionable contracts really are protected jealously by the people who benefit from them, and their interest doesn’t always align perfectly with the public good. The fact is that sometimes even when there’s not graft per se, public money isn’t spent nearly as effectively as it could be. Which is bad not only because it means those programs suffer as a result, but also because I *like* government spending and want more of it.

          People who believe in the public sector as a force for good should be the angriest when it fails to deliver. But how to do that without playing into the Grover Norquist worldview?

    2. This is part of the larger problem of making people realize that all systems have waste. If you ever take physics, one of the first deep truths you learn is that no system can ever be 100% efficient because some of the work energy is lost to entropy. As it is with physical systems, so it is with social ones: there will always be waste because nothing is perfect. One of the challenges for the left, especially as it pertains to social programs, is to get people to make peace with this. We should of course be on guard against egregious waste, on the principle that resources are scarce and should be allocated where they will do the most good, but the truth is that we’ll always have some degree of it.

      1. From Freddie’s bud Alexander Scott at Slate Star Codex

        If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does. That seems to be the real challenge Marxist intellectuals should be setting themselves, and I hope to eventually discover some who have good answers to it.

        This is what a smart person who really gets brainkilled (by their own admission) by anything approaching marxism or feminism thinks is a problem with marxist thought generally. That said if you follow the link Alexander also admits he hasn’t actually done the reading so honestly is unaware that left-wing thought attempts to address these huge issues already.

        I think Jerry Vinokurov for one does a good job of answering one of these charges re: waste.

        How did Soviet Russia manage this? They made their citizens happy with less, and evidently made a more efficient economy where there had been feudalism before. I hear that’s what happened but I don’t know enough of the details.

  5. Is revolution is the answer? Do our constitutional principles promote decency and define a moral order? Is the real but slow technocratic progress indebted to these principles or achieved in spite of them?

    Can you really see any politics reversing the coarsening? When we stand up (through obstruction or protest) to an Authoritarian, what can we expect in response? I ONLY have questions. You call for reason but that seems to have failed us and I can’t it saving us now, can you? You often call out liberal politics but are they not a product of our inane system of bicameral rural protections, the “separation of powers” and “checks and balances”? The designed mistrust of factions means that we don’t have a very representative government (class or ‘identity’). Isn’t this how we got here? And thanks to Article V, isn’t a revolution is needed to change it?

    The more I read and watch and listen– the more despondent I feel. I have some privilege and I likely could muddle through. Can our allies can say the same? I feel that they are in danger. Isn’t this worth a literal fight. I hope I am wrong. Again.

    1. I’m asking myself the same questions. I read _Common Sense_ by Thomas Paine before the election and his words seem more urgent than ever. He writes of arguing with an innkeeper in New Jersey about the rebellion in 1775-6. The innkeeper is loyalist, more or less, and just wants his children to grow up in a peaceful, stable world. Paine maintains that those children are too threatened by the King’s oppression now and that they are better off dead than under colonial tyranny. (I don’t think he convinced the innkeeper. Paine never had children of his own.)

      1. The horrible thing about that situation with Thomas Paine is that Britain really did enact many progressive measures more quickly and thoroughly than the “free” USA. Britain abolished slavery first. It instituted work-hours limits first. It created the National Health Service after World War II, while Americans are still waiting for decent health-care. It has lower gun-crime rates.

        Which isn’t to say revolution is bad in general, just maybe that revolutions by and for the bourgeoisie lead to incredibly bourgeois states.

        1. Can you get any more bourgeois than a literal king in a powdered wig?

          I think what “progressive measures” the US has or hasn’t passed has less to do with a revolution “by and for the bourgeoisie” and more to do with, like, a bajillion other things. The US was a frontier shoot ’em up where you could freeze to death in an uncharted forest surrounded by screaming Cherokee warriors threatening to peel your face off with seashells at a time where English people didn’t even have to worry about wolves ’cause the last one died in the 1400s. Also the English people weren’t fighting the aforementioned wig-ed tyrant king to found what is today the world’s oldest on-going democracy.

          That’s gonna have an effect on the timing of the passing of certain “progressive measures.”

          The story of what progress has been made where and why is pretty complex. Would Britain have nationalized medicine if it hadn’t been for WWII? I don’t know. But! I do know WWII sure had a lot to do with Britain nationalizing it.

  6. This one’s hard for me, but I don’t know if it’s hard for others: is there a feasible way to redistribute wealth that will get the buy-in of the people it’s being taken from?

    Socialism would seem to require it. We look at the unequal allocation of capital and wealth and realize it doesn’t have to be this way. Is there a way to make the distribution more equitable beyond “seize the means of production by violence”?

    I’m not 100% sure it fits your criteria for a “hard question.” But it’s challenging for me because everyone on the left (past a certain goalpost) seems to agree that the current distribution is inequitable, unsustainable, and unnecessary, and yet there’s not as much agreement on the long-term strategy.

    1. We already redistribute wealth downwards. Unless you buy into libertarian arguments that taxation is theft, it’s not particularly violent.

      In a remotely Democratic society you don’t need buy-in from the 1-10% who will be negatively affected to enact a policy.

    2. I don’t know if the answer is “yes” but as someone from whom it would be taken I can speak for myself: I want guaranteed basic income because the patchwork nonsense of means tested drug tested un-navigable nightmare of whatever programs are out there is not doing the job for the have-nothings. And for a very large segment of have-littles, the STRESS of the constant prospect of falling into total destitution, while scrambling for multiple min. wage jobs on no sleep is driving people to drug addiction and child abuse/neglect, and this is inexcusable. As someone who, like Trump, aims to pay as little taxes as I can (possibly for different reasons, but still), I would be FINE with being taxed more if this were taken care of.

      1. Perhaps if people, like Trump, actually paid their share, or more than likely in Trump’s case, paid ANYTHING in taxes that would be a start. Until he proves differently by showing his tax returns, one can easily surmise he paid nothing, or next to nothing in taxes. If this president of deplorables, who is a billionaire, is incapable of parting with money that would clearly not affect his lifestyle whatsoever, why should I part with money in taxes that do very much affect my lifestyle. You lead by example. If it’s good enough for trump, well then, by all means, it’s good enough for me. Taxation without representation by the minority. Anyone care for a cup of tea

  7. Most political questions are complex when you really investigate them. Say something like single-payer healthcare or “Medicaid for all” which I wholeheartedly support. It’s one thing to say you support this, but the actual mechanics of how to get there, of how to reign in the current insurance-based healthcare system and manage one operated by the state effectively and efficiently is an extremely difficult question which would require a solid, inside knowledge of the current structure of the healthcare industry to answer. This is the general form a lot of political questions take, and as a rule of thumb its good not to get too caught up in slogans and neatly-packaged soundbite politics. It’s always tempting to believe you understand things you do not, simply because it suits your political ideology. It is wise to accept the limits of your knowledge, how little one person is capable of understanding.

    Since it came up earlier, I know a lot of people probably won’t like it but we do ourselves a great disservice by not admitting that some form of a police force (most definitely not its current incarnation) is absolutely necessary for society to function on a basic level. I never tire of bringing up the fact that nearly every revolutionary group in history has eventually formed a police force of its own, many of which ultimately exceeded those they replaced in terms of violence and brutality. I argue that this is because, as Max Weber so eloquently put it “the state is the monopolization of legitimate violence,” and the question of who will wield force and violent repression on behalf of the people in control of the society at large serves a necessary structural role. It will always be necessary to have some kind of mechanism to sort out who can and can’t participate in the society at large and ignoring this because you find it unpleasant will not make it go away.

  8. Building social trust.

    I thought about this when I saw your comments–a brief remark, really–on J.D. Vance. He’s become associated with the idea that poor whites are to blame for their problems, and the most widely quoted passages from his book Hillbilly Elegy all have to do with dysfunction in poor white culture. But most of his book is really about this question of social trust. Poor whites don’t trust the well-to-do, for good reason. Because they don’t trust the middle and upper classes, they back away from institutions maintained by those classes–schools, government, professions, even businesses. And because they’re leery of these institutions, they often don’t know about programs that might help them, even when those programs are well meant and well built.

    So how do we build the bonds of trust that will convince poor whites to give mainstream society a chance?

    What applies to poor whites applies, of course, to any disadvantaged group. Almost all discussion of race relations, for instance, ultimately gets around to this question: Why should Black America trust White America? Why should Blacks who know their history feel anything toward their home country but some mix of rage and horror?

    Perhaps this is not so much a political question as a question about where politics, as a matter of rules and policy, ceases to be effective. I think liberals have something to offer, because they’re attuned to ways in which injustice can ripple through generations, weakening trust between descendants of oppressors and the oppressed. I think leftists have something to offer, because they remind us that elites can’t be allowed to wangle trust through false promises and empty cajolery, but must earn it with right conduct and real concessions. And I think conservatives have something to offer, because they’re attentive to the subtle connections between culture and character, and because they’re invested in institutions that have traditionally built trust within communities, as well as between citizens and nations–e.g. religious and military bodies.

    I personally think there are some problems with the social justice movement, or I wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. But there’s no denying the work its members have done on this difficult question of trust. How can universities demonstrate that they have more than a fashionable or cynical commitment to minority students? How can Blacks and Muslims and women be made to feel like full members of a society designed by white Christian men? Efforts to answer these questions are often derided as detours away from genuine politics into shallow symbolism. But when it comes to building trust, all actions are at least partly symbolic. That’s what makes the issue so thorny.

  9. Well, to the extent that you’re focused on reducing inequality among people, any issue where reducing one measure of inequality is likely to increase another is going to be hard. So if you want to reduce inequality between the median income of residents of rich countries and the median income of residents of poor countries, you could press for rich countries to open their borders to migration from and trade with poor countries, and you might get that result. However, as long as capital is in private hands, such a policy is not only likely to reduce wages as a share of national income in rich countries, but also to dispossess wage earners in rich countries of whatever political influence they have there. Those are in fact the results that we have seen as restrictions on migration and trade have been relaxed in recent decades. So I’d say there’s a reason why we on the left have a hard time developing coherent positions on migration and trade and defending them from criticism from the nationalist right.

  10. I think that for a lot of liberals, including myself, there’s a very challenging question about how to deal with political positions that are derived from religious belief. This is very salient in questions about abortion rights, but also is quite relevant in anti-discrimination policies for LGBTQ people (including marriage equality) and in a number of other positions.

    While it seems straightforward to say things like, “Imposing your religious doctrine upon policy violates the separation of church and state,” the political realities of the situation is more complicated than that, and requires more nuance. In my experience, a more effective way forward is to acknowledge religious belief as a valid epistemology– and then start a conversation about the distinction between what is valid, and what is good public policy.

    As an anti-racist, I think that there’s also an INCREDIBLE amount of work that still needs to be done, to develop a common understanding of how structural racism works, and how to raise consciousness among those of us who benefit from it, in a way that is productive. The triggering of white fragility is a huge impediment to any meaningful conversation about racism.

  11. Abortion. I’ve always been pro-choice, but now that I have carried two pregnancies (and also had two miscarriages), seen the tiny embryos and heard the heartbeats at 6 weeks gestation, and birthed three babies (twins + singleton), I think hard about where to draw the line on legal abortion. I know, I know: it’s instinctive in many ways to say that women should have autonomous control over their bodies; many children grow up in horrible circumstances that may have been averted by abortion (but even that reasoning sounds horribly immoral – kill the human to prevent suffering!); and women will find a way to abort a child if they are desperate and there is no legal recourse. But how can anyone deny that after 20 weeks gestational age – and GA is not always accurate – abortion is no different than infanticide?

    I think the life of the mother should always take precedence. But to hear some pro-choice advocates describe embryos as “just a bunch of cells” is, to me, callous and makes me long for some moral dimension to the question. After all, fully grown humans are also a bunch of cells. That’s not really a fair description of something that will turn into a child, and it makes me a bit more sympathetic to the pro-life argument.

    I hope my daughters will not get pregnant accidentally. But if they do, I would encourage them to raise the baby or give it up for adoption. In the end, though, the decision will be theirs and I will love them no matter what they choose.

    1. this is my issue as well. I don’t think abortion should be illegal, but the liberal position on abortion is nonsensical to me. I am both violently opposed to the death penalty and very much would like to see far fewer abortions than there are. Starting there, despite my hatred of the death penalty, on a gut level I think it is more sensible by far to be against abortion and pro-death-penalty than the other way around, and yet this position is incessantly mocked without any deeper reflection by liberals. It is not hypocritical to say that you think an innocent life is worthy of a chance but that a bad person may deserve to die for a crime they committed. The right has plenty of hypocrisy, but this is not hypocritical.

      Next point, the rhetoric is that on the one hand, women are strong, smart, and empowered to make choices regarding their own bodies, but on the other, they’re passive victims of biology and too dumb to figure out birth control, and therefore must be endlessly protected from the consequences of their own behavior. Contradictory messages.

      Additionally the celebratory air over having abortions coming from people like Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman where abortion is some kind of joyful rite of passage that every woman goes through (or should), instead of a necessary evil that we hope to minimize by fighting poverty, sex education, and promoting access to birth control for all women around the world, turns my stomach.

      Even the element of autonomy over ones’ body rings hollow because I only have autonomy over myself until I punch another person in the face. Our rights end at some point when we encroach upon the rights of others and this is especially true when the choices that we made put us into situations where we may find ourselves somewhat stuck with the consequences of our own choices – not only to have sex in the first place, but also to postpone taking action until months have passed. I don’t know when life begins, I don’t claim to, but it is not a silly position of theocratical idiocy to believe it begins at conception. I can understand why people think that. Any woman who has ever mourned after a miscarriage should be able to understand that, if they are being honest. And it is certainly not a silly position of theocratical idiocy to question if abortions should be allowed after the age at which some babies can live outside the womb. Dismissing this argument out of hand appears to me like a huge dodge of a question that lacks easy answers.

      Finally, the narrative that “evil Christian men are preventing women from abortion rights” is simply untrue. Many women of all philosophical beliefs are passionately anti-abortion, this is not a gendered issue and it is not always religious, either. I know many women who are pressured or even forced by their male partners to have abortions for a variety of reasons (I work with pregnant women around the world and this is a very real thing), and no one wants to talk about this because it goes against the dogma. If women have the right to choose, we need to defend women’s rights to choose pregnancy as well. But when celebrities like Bristol Palin and Jamie-Lynn Spears continue with pregnancies they are incessantly mocked by liberals for it. These positions are just so weird and tangled and inconsistent that it is offputting.

      1. So very much this. Of course, I’m pretty sure that Lena Dunham is what you’d get if you tried to grow a Coastal Liberal in a vat based only on what you’d read in the pages of National Review and Breitbart.

    2. My view is that while I don’t care for late-term abortions that aren’t done for health or fetal problem reasons, I’m not going to support restrictions on them if I think they’ll just be the thin end of a wedge to ban all abortions. Guarantee access to abortions in the first and second trimester, and then we can talk about restricting them to those purposes in the third – not that I think that will be necessary, since third-trimester abortions are both rare and virtually never done aside from saving the mother or because something is seriously wrong with the fetus.

      In other words, the old Roe standard.

      1. I also believe it would be infintely helpful to frame the argument as “the costs to civil liberties are simply too high”. It would require an unprecedented level of invasiveness to ban abortions in the first trimester and it would be unenforceable. I wish we could frame the argument as “we don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but we don’t need to know, this is an unenforcable law that would require utterly gross invasions of privacy should we even try to enforce such a thing.” But this is an argument liberals have a hard time making whilst simultaneously calling for enforcement of other “victimless” crime type issues.

    3. I thought about this one as well. In addition to your insight on acceptance of a moral view, I think many people don’t realize that we can achieve positive results without having to sacrifice our sacred cows. For instance, the left can continue to fight for women’s rights to choose and the right can continue to try to ban abortion, but while this fight rages, there are shared opinions that can inform what we do now. We’ll all need to compromise a bit: the left can advocate some abstinence programs or even concede on some types of abortions while pressing the right to come to terms with contraception and pregnancy prevention and social programs for single/young/whatever mothers. Though there will be extremists on both sides, if change the debate to something broader we can begin to build coalitions.

  12. For me, it’s the issue of paternalism. When we’re thinking of policy, how much should we try to stop people from screwing things up in personal behavior – from screwing themselves up? Should we be doing that at all? Should we be trying to nudge people into doing what policymakers consider “good” behavior as opposed to “bad” but legal behavior?

    1. While there is a certain amount of paternalism embedded in the concept of law itself, I agree that much liberal paternalism is pointless. Take, for instance, the tax on sodas. If sodas were that bad, they should simply be banned. But nobody really thinks sodas are that bad, they just want to “send a message” to people who drink soda. And so we force soda drinkers to pay extra taxes, a situation that doesn’t really raise much revenue nor does it really send a message to soda drinkers beyond “your habits are bad”. Liberals should stop this kind of thing.

      Of course right wing paternalism tends to be even worse, such as making women pay more for birth control. It is interesting that both religious conservatives and libertarians are in favor of these measures. The way that the American right has harmonized these two groups is quite impressive.

      1. “The way that the American right has harmonized these two groups is quite impressive.”

        Many male libertarians appear to have accepted the idea that promiscuous women are having constant abortions on the taxpayer’s dime and that this must stop. This is a ‘fake news’ problem in and of itself that has been going on really since abortion began to be discussed politically, and until more women start speaking publicly about their reproductive choices I don’t see it changing.

  13. Personally, I find that the most complicated issues I face as someone who identifies with the radical left are in the areas of economics and foreign policy. On social issues and civil liberties, I generally feel pretty confident that I know what’s right, what’s wrong, and what is and is not consistent with building a healthy democratic society. But when it comes to things like, say, taxation or the war in Syria, I’m less certain.

    I mean, I know I’m against inequality and for more power in the hands of workers, against imperialism and for internationalism, etc., but I often worry that my knowledge of economics or my understanding of international conflicts will fail me. Like, what if the neoliberals are right that raising corporate taxes will just make businesses relocate to somewhere with lower taxes? What if the interventionists are right that our inaction makes us complicit in crimes against humanity? These are the kinds of questions that…well, they don’t quite keep me up at night, but I definitely don’t dismiss them out of hand.

    1. As far as the neoliberal argument about corporate taxes you mentioned, I have never seen any virtue in it. Taken to its logical conclusion, it prescribes that corporations should not be taxed at all, anywhere. There’s nothing wrong with your “knowledge of economics” if you have problems with this, as I do! Corporations use our public infrastructure every day and it is basic fairness to ask them to share the burden of maintaining it. It is no more “economically” sound to give in to their threats of relocation than it is to pay protection money to Mafia gangs.

      1. To clarify, I would much rather pay protection money to a local Mafia gang than pay dues (in the form of tax breaks and government contracts) to Amazon. The Mafia might share some of their baked zitti with me, after all.

    2. I agree completely. While I tend to align with the left’s positions on economics and foreign policy, people’s absolute assurance in these matters baffles me. This stuff is complicated, and the correct answer to any particular economic or diplomatic question isn’t necessarily going to intuitive or obvious to a nonexpert like me.

  14. The broad question about whether “responsibility to protect” is a meaningful concept, whether it’s ever a wise idea to violate sovereignty, whether the US ever has enough information and wisdom to intervene responsibly; more broadly, whether national sovereignty should be more absolute.

  15. Drug legalisation! I agree with people who say “drug abuse isn’t a criminal justice problem, it’s a public health problem”, but can’t wrap my head around the same people then saying stuff like “people should be free to use mind-altering substances if they want” as if many/most of those substances aren’t addictive and dangerous and corrosive to the lives of users and their friends and families.

    I understand pandemic drug abuse is a product of social and economic problems that I would like to see solved by a broad socialist political program, but even in a utopian world, I don’t think most people are capable of casual drug use that doesn’t turn into drug abuse, so I’m concerned by the laissez-faire attitude to drugs that I see from people in all quadrants of the left, as if it’s unreasonable to be concerned about the social impact of drugs themselves.

    But I’m also not sure what the alternative is supposed to be, since even if drug laws weren’t used to maliciously and systematically target young, poor and/or non-white people for criminalisation, they’d disproportionately suffer the burden anyway just due to economic reality, so desperate kids trying to scrape by with illegal work would take all the risk when a bunch of bougie college students want to drop acid at a party. Not to mention all the human rights abuses that have been signed off on around the world in the name of the War on Drugs.

    Maybe the best solution is just still a really shitty one, and I’m just gonna have to struggle with that, but it’d help a lot if I saw anyone else on the left struggling with it, instead of acting like socialism will make everything so good that we’ll never have to worry about drug abuse again.

    1. This is one of mine, as well. And while I’m 100% committed to the social libertarian side of this issue, I’m completely unsure of whether I’m right. I grew up in Colorado, and while legalization of cannabis there seems to be going mostly well, there are a lot of signs that things might be going a bit awry. Another example is Portugal, which effectively decriminalized everything and which has had a lot of positive consequences—a near-complete end to drug-related crime, for instance—but also has some really high addiction rates.

  16. I’d say that a big one is how to implement pro-worker (read: pro-people) laws and trade policies in the current economic climate. It’s easy to say “neoliberalism is bad,” because it is, but where’s best to start when it comes to fixing things? The practicalities of changing economics are going to be that much harder because of the oligarchs in charge, but where’s the best place to start in terms of tangibly influencing economic policy? Minimum Wage seems like a good starting point, but where do you go from there, even if that IS the starting point?

  17. There are two problems I’ve come around to after starting from a default lib view, and I’m still basically on the left side of them, but I don’t see what the conditions are for expecting consensus from people who disagree with me. So, call it a rhetorical category like, “The I Think I’m Right But Lack Sufficient Justification To Demand Agreement,” or something like that.

    The first is abortion. I think this is sort of the gold star of issues that are not straightforward, but it’s also to my mind the one that the left is absolutely the worst on. I continue to be pro-choice, but if I explained why, I wouldn’t expect anyone to accept my explanation, because it entails grappling with some really unhappy facts about the real world and our status as organisms, which we generally don’t do when we talk about justice issues (and people generally don’t do at all). But I went through a period where I experienced the dawning horror of slowly realizing that the most common pro-choice arguments were totally trash, and now whenever I hear people use them I cringe. Particularly assertions made out of thin air that fetuses are morally irrelevant, and arguments that pose all of the case of abortion as a problem about women’s bodies and deny the existence of other potential stakeholders.

    The other issue is just plain old taxation. If it were up to me I would definitely immediately implement a much more progressive tax system than what we have. But I don’t know what to say to people who would be somewhat more impoverished by such a thing. If there’s one thing that really unites the right, it’s this kind of default attitude about taxes. If I could make a strong case that everyone would be more prosperous, that it would really be worth it in some important systematic way, then I would be less ambivalent about it. But while I do think that would be true, I have really no good reasons that I would expect a person to accept, let alone accept in the face of policies obviously not in their immediate self interest.

      1. Weird. As soon as I commented again, they all re-appeared. Must be a cookie that has to exist locally or something. Thanks!

  18. Corporate tax rates. Competition among states and among nations makes my leftist preference for higher rates risky for job retention/creation in the actually existing capitalist world we live in.

    1. I’d be happy with zero corporate tax rates, and huge tax rates on receipt of capital income. I understand that there are potential loopholes that would need to be addressed, such as creating a dummy corporation just to store your assets. So maybe just low taxes on “qualified” corporations — e.g. publicly held with a large number of shareholders, and issues regular reports to SEC etc. My 2 cents

    2. It always strikes me as remarkable that, with as many international trade agreements that we have, an international tax treaty isn’t explored more.

      Long story short, it would be easy enough for the OECD to link common markets etc. with tax floors (Ireland would object, but I’m guessing that’s surmountable). But “higher taxes” is everywhere and always the policy that dare not speak its name….

  19. Immigration. The left is for it because of internationalism or rather antinationalism. The liberals are for it because of its neoliberal exploitation possibilities, and also because it’s woke and therefore ostentatiously yet superficially virtuous. The libertarians are for it because exploitation is fun and also for its negative relationship with a robust welfare state. The right is against it because they are nationalist. I am an immigration skeptic because I think the libertarians are correct about its relationship with the welfare state ( which I want preserved & strengthened); I’m also a skeptic, honestly, because of neoliberals’ penchant for framing it as either you’re for open borders or you’re a total fascist makes me seeth – and spiting them is a high virtue.

    1. I’m for it, because of humanism, actually.

      As someone with substantial experience (in both duration and depth) working with undocumented immigrants, I see immigration *entirely* as a human rights issue. We have people, here now, who have lived a life as a member of a community (in my case, as a public school teacher, I’m particularly influenced by the group that I can, for now, shorthand as “DACA recipients”). This group of people is systematically targeted for scapegoating, dehumanization, and oppression. That’s wrong, and is literally the whole of my position on immigration.

  20. the difference between the logical and the psychological

    terrorism kills .0001% of the population, so who cares? Well, 20% of the population and they will vote in their man who promises to fix it, so who cares about your logical response? and that segues into another question, of Islam, probably the hardest question which is why no one really tackles it.

  21. Several things:
    – The Austrians raised important questions about the feasibility of socialist planning. Market socialism is well worth considering.
    – I doubt that council democracy by itself is a workable form of government. Participatory institutions will probably always have to be supplemented by representative ones.
    – I think that the establishment clause was meant to rule out a US equivalent of the Church of England, rather than create strict church-state separation. (Nevertheless the latter is a positive if unintended consequence, and should be defended.)
    – Non-opposition is different from support. Support for US military intervention is never warranted, but non-opposition may be, at least in theory. My position on Libya was non-opposition, though I think now that position probably was a mistake. I’m not sure where I stand on Syria, other than not supporting US military intervention.
    – I’m all for demilitarizing the police and rooting out corruption and abuse, but I’m not entirely convinced by police abolitionism (even less by prison abolitionism). It’s a problem that the Left has little to say about crime prevention. (And I have absolutely no idea what to think about gun control.)

  22. Practically everything foreign-affairs related, including interventionism, as noted above. But also, honestly, there’s a LOT of foreign policy that doesn’t get to the level of violence that’s still hugely important.

    I believe we should use the huge amount of power we have to promote justice, I just have no idea how to do that without really bad second-order effects, creeping imperialism/chauvinism, etc. I also find the idea that we should just engage in complete isolationism because it’s too complicated or because our country has done shitty things in the past to be, well, kinda dumb in a “moralistically simplistic response to a complicated problem” kind of way.

  23. Technological unemployment. I’m in the tech industry and pretty much every day we are making non-scalable labor less economically valuable. I don’t want to stop pushing for technological advances and I want to build a future where people aren’t constrained by technological limitations. But, I don’t see how to avoid disenfranchising a huge proportion of the population. Aggressive wealth transfers and education is clearly part of the answer, but money can’t buy the ability to contribute, and our current education system seems not up to the task.

  24. I struggle a lot with the tremendous wealth-generating power of capitalism and the lack of great historical examples of successful socialist/communist regimes outside of Nordic social democracy. As socialists, I don’t think it’s sufficient for us to just point to the human wreckage of capitalism without having a good answer for the per capita GDP/time graph from 1500 to the present that goes practically vertical after 1900 or so, and a good explanation for why communism failed in the 20th century.

      1. If this election can be redeemed in any small way whatsoever it will only be by replacing a worn out liberalism with fundamentally no vision of a better world beyond a proportionally diverse professional class with a genuine left mass movement that, like the Right, has goals and actually tries to achieve them.

      2. why

        there’s honestly no reason to think that this is the case, it’s just a belief

        This is a big problem with the left currently; “A better world is possible” is the left’s thesis, and it’s a good one. And “No it’s not, right now is the best world possible” is the right’s thesis. However, neither of these views are always going to be right, and so you need is to fit the facts to the case. In this case…socialism and communism are utopian solutions, products of magical thinking which have produced only misery and despair. When I try to imagine solutions to a problem and all I can think of is literal magic, I decide that the problem is probably unsolvable and try to work around it. The perfect is the enemy of the good; don’t hurt real people in search of an unattainable utopia.

    1. The per capita measure is meaningless, in the present condition of unequal distribution. (Mind you, if the distribution were anything like lognormal, I’d have less of a beef with it– but per capita GDP is a simple average, and to take a simple average of such a nearly-impossibly skewed distribution, and claim that it means anything at all, really is idiocy).

      1. do you have any significant beef with the idea that most people are better off now than they’ve been for most of history, wealth-wise, though?

    2. Standard of living and industrial output for soviet union was nearly vertical and probably steeper than in the us until the 60s at least ( hence people actually being scared of it). Consider the possibility that the changes you mention are fossil fuel dividends more than capital dividends

    3. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-red-and-the-black/

      I think we can say: the immense economic growth came from having autonomous firms experimenting with original ideas, not from the exploitation of labor by capital. Where “capitalism” has involved autonomous firms experimenting with original ideas, it worked great. Where “capitalism” has meant trusts, oligopolies, and state-backed zombie enterprises suppressing original thinking, it has been an utter piece of shit.

  25. Pretty much every policy ever implemented by man has had unintended and unanticipated negative consequences. With that in mind, I find pretty much every political question that centers on the method of achieving an outcome difficult- because you simply don’t know what the actual outcome of the policy will be. (Everyone can agree that sickness and death is a bad thing, so the wars over universal healthcare or “universal access” seem to come down to how best to achieve that outcome. Oh, values come into it- freedom/free market vs the overall good- but ultimately most people have at least *some* shared sense of the ideal outcome.)

    A more specific question that plagues me is the “refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding” debate. Religious freedom is very important to me. I think the freedom to follow your conscience is perhaps the most essential freedom. But equality is also very important to me. For me personally, it’s further complicated by the fact that I’m neither religious nor LGBT.

    1. I’ve always understood the issue of gay cakes to be about feelings, not so much equality.

      The touchstone for this issue is definitely segregation, and at that time African-Americans were systematically denied the ability to frequent many businesses. That’s a big hit to material equality, on top of ridiculous rules about “back of the bus” and “different drinking fountains” which were unnecessary and deeply degrading. In this situation, it’s all right to let principles come second to reality. Is that what’s going on here?

      Well… as a gay person, you can still visit any establishment, even if you’re open about it. So apart from the 2-3 times in your life that you’re getting married, you don’t have any issues. And unlike with segregation, you can usually find a nearby business that does the same thing and is willing to sell to you; in fact, most businesses seem to be. So it’s not about the inability to buy a cake, or the inability to buy a cake in a certain part of the city – it’s, at most, the inability to buy a cake from a particular shop. Is that really a big deal? Items like pizza and cakes are pretty generic anyhow, after all, and I’ll bet wedding photography isn’t exactly rocket science either.

      So what it comes down to is feelings: when you are refused service, old feelings of non-acceptance rise up, and you want to use the power of the state to preempt those feelings entirely. In return, the person who sincerely doesn’t wish to serve you, has to serve you. Who do you think feels worse out of this? And what do you do if the person just tells you flat out that he doesn’t accept you? It’s not like you can make THAT illegal, and it comes back to the same thing. On balance, I think the feelings are about equal; usually the feelings of the business-owner are considered null and void because he’s a “deplorable”, but often it’s a religious issue. Yes, it’s stupid, but so are most religious issues, and that doesn’t stop them from mattering to people in the slightest. Besides, even if he is deplorable, do his feelings really not matter?

      Finally, it’s entirely possible that more serious problems would arise as a result of legal discrimination against gay marriages; if so, then I’d support forcing business-owners to accommodate gay clients who cannot find other accommodation. But, as much as this blog’s host might disagree, I think the free market will work out most of these issues. Who wants to turn down job opportunities? Very few people, so I don’t think you will see widespread discrimination. Heck, the original case that kicked this entire controversy off was a result of one reporter desperately searching for a pizza joint that would refuse to cater a gay wedding, and in a nation of 300 million people we’ve had like…5 incidents? Just let people have their freedom to not cater gay weddings, it’ll be fine in the end honestly.

  26. International trade, specifically how to ensure that its benefits are shared equitably among participants, instead of accreting primarily to oligarchs playing one workforce and state against another.

    Military intervention, specifically when and how should military force be applied (if it should be applied) to situations of atrocity/war crime/violent oppression as they arise around the world?

    The role of corporations in society – specifically to what extent should they limit/contain liability, be taxed as discrete entities from their owners, etc.

    The obligation of states with representative governments to encourage or drive the adoption of representative government by states with non-representative governments, and the tools with which it is acceptable to do so.

  27. Was mentioned, but the past two years have cemented to me that borders and the concept of the nation-state are more intricate than I would’ve given credit for.

    a) It’s easy enough to headnod along with the broader concept of the global society, and viewing these kinds of cultural barriers as outdated (or even just plain nativism). It seems pretty clear, on multiple fronts, that vast sections of the population aren’t really on-board with this consensus, and jumping back to ‘arc of history’ thinking isn’t going to change that. Jon Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” also helped to shed some light on this.
    b) There’s also the more uncomfortable connection between ‘global citizenry’ and neoliberal capitalism, and the natural emergence of an international global AND cultural elite. Bernie’s awkward encounter with Ezra Klein on “open borders” was the first time I really thought about this

    I’m not even sure what quite to think, but I really don’t want these questions monopolized by the Trumpist right.

  28. “what political questions are difficult?”
    Sorting out and prioritizing the short, medium, and long term consequences of political acts. An example from current events would be the so-called “Hamilton Electors” movement. From their public statements I couldn’t detect that these people had thought through this obviously fraught question at all, a fact which I find as disturbing as the fact that Trump is about to be POTUS.

    “What sort of conflicts inspire legitimate controversy, where there are no easy answers, no clear heroes and villains?”
    Good example from current events would be the situation in Syria. Our news media tend to grossly oversimplify anything that happens outside our borders and, sadly, many liberals and leftists seem to be on board the “do something” train, eagerly gobbling up any atrocity story that fits the desired narrative (and ignoring those that don’t).

    ” On which issues is ‘the other side’ (whoever that might be) most likely to make a fair or compelling point?”
    Assuming the “other side” is righties then I think that recent events have shown that there is indeed a “liberal elite” that are smug and contemptuous of everybody else.

    “What aren’t you sure about?”
    Lots of things. mostly (thinking back to the answer to the first question) about how best to proceed in addressing complicated events.

  29. Isolationism vs. Intervention/Adventurism.

    On the one hand, you have minds like Chonsky’s which write dozens of excoriations over a period of decades about U.S. inaction in East Timor, and blast our government for inaction on humanitarian issues… while being deeply skeptical of other motivations for intervening.

    On another, there is the leftish agreement with writers like Chalmers Johnson, who argued that American (mis) adventures abroad most usually blow back in our faces, like piss into the wind.

    And then there are the centrists/liberals tutored by the likes of Kissinger who ape the right’s old realpolitik mindset of “whatever serves our geopolitical dominance and resource needs“ goes. This too is riddled with inconsistencies, currently most glaring yet muddled on Syria policy.

    Again, voices like Chomsky’s and Chalmers have been raised for decades against those centrist/neolib/DNC stances (whether practiced by Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush or even Obama… Strange to recall that one of W.’S more appealing campaign positions was against America being the policeman of the world. Then came 9/11, if he ever meant it in the first place.)

    In theory there is not such a contradiction here on the Left, which wants the U.S. to save lives, not oil fields. But in practice there seems little opportunity to draw bright lines between, say, preventing mass slaughter and relief for appalling refugee conditions vs. all the ulterior motives in play. Doesn’t help that many crises occur in resource-rich territory, or overlap with superpower rivalries.

  30. What is the proper role of public sector unions and unions that work for contractors who get most of their work from the public sector?

    We all know about the pernicious actions and reactionary views of police and corrections officer unions across the country.

    But how should a leftist feel about New York City’s transit system becoming slowly paralyzed due to union-driven construction costs and delays (10x as high as in other first world cities)? Featherbedding, overbuilding, overstaffing and incompetence are rampant on all MTA construction projects, partially, but not totally, due to union influence on the agency.

    Unions are a vital tool to help distribute profits to workers, but in providing public goods, there are no profits. Any dollar wasted is a dollar worth of public goods that end up not being provided.

    1. Ah, this is a good one. A good example of this dilemma is to look at teachers’ unions. On the one hand, there is a sense that the people at the top are entrenched and have cruised along based on protections that have been guaranteed in the past. On the other hand, they’ve become the scapegoat for everything wrong with American education, and so they must have their backs broken to enact neo-liberal education reforms and testing testing testing.

      I’m all for strong teachers’ unions, but they suffer from the same problem of hierarchical unionism in American society.

      1. The “problem” isn’t “hierarchical unionism”.

        The problem is 40 years of union busting by management and the politicians.

        What’s wrong with teachers unions?

        Is it a bad thing that principals can’t just fire teachers on a whim?

    2. Nice summary of standard anti union talking points.

      “We all know” that police officer and corrections officers unions are “reactionary”?

      What’s “reactionary” about demanding that public employees have due process rights when management is trying to fire them for actions they carried out at the direction of their chain of command?

      That sounds pretty progressive to me

      When police officers and corrections officers follow orders, there are times when it has bad outcomes for members of the public, in particular criminal suspects.

      Why should an individual officer be hung out to dry for doing what her chain of command ordered her to do?

      If you have a problem with how police departments and the prison system function (and trust me, I share those misgivings) you need to blame management, not the labor unions that represent the lowest echelon of the force.

      Patrolmen don’t make policy – so don’t blame them for the results

      As far as “New York City’s transit system becoming slowly paralyzed due to union-driven construction costs and delays”…what are you talking about?

      Do you have a problem with the construction workers who do the hard, highly skilled and very dangerous job of building and repairing subway tunnels getting paid decently?

      How little should they be paid? Minimum wage?

      “Featherbedding” and “overstaffing” are synonyms – and they are an old anti labor slander.

      In the real world of union work rules, you’re complaining about rules like a requirement that electricians working on energized high voltage lines have to work in teams of 2, in case one man gets hurt

      They have that rule For A REASON – it’s very possible to get electrocuted when you work on energized systems, and you need the second person to shut off the power, call for help and start first aid (I’ve actually seen this happen on a real life jobsite – if the man had been working alone, he would have died, his partner saved his life)

      Steamfitters have similar rules when it comes to working around live steam pipes

      Operating engineers – the people who operate cranes and bulldozers – have a similar rule requiring that they have a partner who watches their blind spot when they move the equipment. The laborers have similar rules when it comes to working in excavations being dug by those machines

      That is the “featherbedding” that management propaganda brays about


      Management decides what is being built and how it’s built. You’d have to take that up with them (also, considering we’re talking about subway tunnels, I’d rather have them “overbuilt” than underbuilt – tunnel collapses aren’t fun, and you wouldn’t want to be in a speeding rush hour train derailed by a cave in)


      Again, take that up with management and the engineering consultants they hire

      As far as “union influence” on the MTA – ha ha ha!

      The MTA and it’s predecessors fought long and hard to keep the unions out – and from time to time they try and bring in low paying non union contractors, basically to boost the profits of the private companies that actually build and service the transit system.

      Now, if you want to end contracting out, and have all subway construction done in house by MTA workers, I’m with you.

      Somehow I don’t think that’s your position.

  31. A hard question that I think few people tackle realistically (whether left, lib, or right): the sheer concept of instrumentality. That is, whether there is any ethical scenario in which you can use anyone/anything for your own purposes, consensually or not.

    This difficulty manifests in two chief areas; there may be others that I am not thinking about, but they are the two most frequently on my mind.

    a) Animal welfare/animal rights. The logical extremes are that you may ethically use non-human animals for any purpose under the sun because they are not human and anything inhuman lacks all rights… or that you may not do anything that remotely causes any harm to any animal species because you are infringing upon its own existential self-determination. Drawing a line anywhere between these extremes begs the question: why THERE? But ask anyone who purports either extreme to consider fully extended applications of their beliefs, and they will likewise engage in >9,000 philosophical backflips to rationalize their way out of it.

    b) The existential possibility of consensual sex and what that consensual sex looks like. Sex positivity as a philosophy has its merits but some proponents get very uncomfortable when asked to meaningfully engage with questions like, “So, you evangelize the virtues of selling sex, but (for you) is sold sex most virtuous when someone is doing an activity they like and managing to survive capitalism by doing so, or is it most virtuous when someone is acting as a sexual capitalist themselves?” And likewise there are a lot of sex positivity advocates who believe that by crafting affirmative consent practices, this is a magic pill for eliminating all the reasons why people rape or sexually abuse other people. Considering how many socioeconomic and psychological factors go into that behavior, suffice to say I find that mindset grotesquely naive. However, considering sex negativity, I find just as many problems. That movement (and it is a movement, though not as many members claim a label) critiques not only sexual practices that its members consider inherently violent and/or misogynist, e.g. BDSM or porn that features choking or what have you, but also sometimes the very concept of consensual sex. Such extreme critiques actually have a logical appeal; if we accepted the premise that men having sex with women are always coercive in some way, then women having “consensual” sex with men should be considered self-deluding, and meanwhile men having sex with men are actually so misogynist that they would rather rape each other than rape women, while women having sex with women are also misogynist for feeling desire for each other. Like, if you’re going to go really far, you might as well go THAT far. But to hate ourselves for the very act of desiring someone? That hardly feels emancipatory.

    This comment is long enough, so I will not get into the nitty gritty of what lines I personally draw with regard to the treatment of animals or the notion of genuinely consensual sex. I will just say that, as part and parcel of my firmly leftist and environmentalist politics, I actually find veganism/anti-hunting/anti-livestock/anti-pet ideologies to be morally bankrupt, and I adhere to an anti-capitalist form of sex positivity that includes a healthy accommodation for some truly, delightfully perverse and sadomasochistic activities. But I feel like while I align quite firmly with the far left in terms of overall economic beliefs, social politics, etc., it is rare that I find fellow leftists who hold a satisfactory stance on instrumentality, and then I am repulsed by the stances typically offered by liberals or right-wingers.

    1. I am totally with you on veganism, as was my late father, a leftist who became a vegetarian as an adult but always found veganism kind of silly. “Milking a cow doesn’t inflict pain on the cow,” he would point out.

      And on the sex front you correctly identified that both sides are willing to reason themselves into thinking of gay men as the ultimate misogynists. A position I am sure Trump will take at some point.

  32. You want to know what question is hard?
    Why the fuck should I care about a country that is going to try to dictate that:
    a) Unless I am wealthy, I don’t count
    b) Communists are great
    c) Hitler was great
    d) Racism is cool
    e) Hatred of Hispanics is acceptable
    f) Unless you are a true-believer, you must accept the madness that is Trumpism or receive and accept that death threats are okay – just shut the fuck up
    g) Hacking the election should be a non-issue even though the President-elect called directly for Russia to do so, and it appears that the Trumps are doing business in Russia as well
    i) Violence against anyone who doesn’t think the way the Trumpsters do is acceptable – “We Won – Now Shut Up!” (google it)
    j) Trump is the first President-elect to NOT release his taxes – that’s unacceptable
    k) No Blind Trust for the Trumpeter – unacceptable

    If the country burns to pieces, it will be because people exercised all of the above and said nothing. I don’t give a fuck anymore.

    Answer those questions and I will listen. So far though, it’s a pretty fair bet that the True-believers think all of the above is acceptable. It doesn’t take much to see it in action, just exercise your freedom of speech, and they’ll threaten you with death. That’s all it takes and it doesn’t take a lot of research to do that at all.

  33. Determining which areas of law or policy are better handled at a federal level vs a state one, and why. Whenever it comes up, that always seems to generate far more heat than light, and too many arguments degenerate into shouting matches about states’ right this, founding fathers that, etc, and everyone just supports whichever side they think will give them the outcome they want at the moment. (This often comes up in gun control discussions, which is itself often a particularly high-heat issue.) I think part of the problem is that often there’s little theoretical guidance beyond “this is how it was handled in the past”, which makes for a patchwork mess that’s hard to reason about or generalize from.

    1. I think that the main reason for this is that the federalist legal framework of the USA is just a bunch of contradictory crap that makes little overall sense. I also think the left wing should approach balancing local rights versus centralism the same way the right wing does: instrumentally. We should pull for local/states rights when it suits our needs and call for centralism when that will work for us.

  34. What’s difficult is getting people to agree on the long-term goals for society, so that short- and medium-term sacrifices are possible. The main reason for this is religion, construed broadly as encompassing all learned and innate biases, which stand in the way of science-based decision making. People have mentioned abortion, criminal justice, war, race/gender, immigration and climate change as issues that are tainted by such irrational biases.

    I believe socialism is a long-term goal and won’t happen until society is sufficiently technologically advanced. The posture of socialists in our generation should be to push back again the excesses of capitalism, chiefly rising inequality which will inevitably devolve into oligarchy and fascism, seizing victories where we can and trying to keep open a peaceful path toward our long-term ideal. How do you answer someone who says that’s just more magical thinking? I don’t really know.

  35. For me, the toughest questions are the ones that pit (1) my critical observations of the world, which say that most problems are systemic and communal and therefore must be addressed at the systemic/communal level and (2) my moral values, which stress the group over the individual, against (3) the fact that individuals matter, and (more importantly) individuals *think* they matter, and chafe and suffer when political power is exercised contrary to their will.

    A good example for where this pops up is in questions of allocation of political power among levels of regional hierarchy. On the one hand: If all people have equal moral worth, then all people ought to have equal rights, then there ought to be a system in place to protect everyone’s rights, which implies (I think) some form of overarching world government, responsible for and accountable to every single human on the planet. Therefore, local governments must be able to overrule individuals and families; state/provincial governments must be able to overrule local governments; national governments must be able to overrule state/provincial governments; and supernational/world government(s) must be able to overrule national governments. But on the other hand: the “right to self-determination” is something to take seriously. “Self-determination” tends to imply that exercises of political power become more legitimate as they are exercised by smaller and more local entities, over which an individual can expect to exert more influence over the decision-making, and likewise, that exercises of political power become more legitimate as it becomes easier to escape their effects, which again goes to geography.

    So resolving this tension and finding the right mix between local/individual control and overriding assertion of universal interests is a really tough question. I’m pretty comfortable saying, “tough shit, your local values are bad and stupid and destructive” when Alabama’s desire to use public funds to teach its kids that God created the world in seven days 5,000 years ago gets overruled by the Department of Education. But I’d be much less comfortable saying that if the Department of Education also tried to overrule Alabamans’ desire to teach that in private schools, because people have the right to their religious beliefs and their free speech even when those beliefs and speech are bad and stupid and destructive. And even though I believe strongly in a right to education, and cannot think of one good moral cause why someone should be entitled to an education or not based on whether they were born in one country or another, I can’t help but think that an Alabaman who objects to being taxed so that the US can give the money to teachers in foreign countries to tell those children about Charles Darwin has an (internally) valid ground for that objection.

    I observe that mainstream politics does not produce a coherent positions on this question either. Liberals applaud when states legalize weed, but recoil in horror when states pass restrictions on abortions. Conservatives applaud when states loosen gun regulations, but recoil in horror when they raise the minimum wage. In other words, each party loves local control when it suits their interests and hates it when it contravenes those interests…which is not at all surprising, but isn’t at all a workable theory.

    All this is complicated further, of course, by findings in political science and behavioral psychology that call into question the extent to which the idea of “self-determination” even corresponds to reality, which findings butt up against both lived experience and centuries of political thought.

    So, those are the toughest questions for me.

    1. I’m curious. What if the Chicago public schools wanted to teach that Capitalism was one possible system that had flaws, but the US Department of Education ruled that they had to teach that Capitalism was a perfect system ordained by God. In that case, would you be for the local group or the federal group?

      1. So, that one wouldn’t trouble me as a tough question; it doesn’t get at the divide I’m talking about here. One of my core beliefs is in religious freedom and non-establishment of religion by the state, and that all relevant levels of government are obligated to uphold these values. Teaching that capitalism is a perfect system ordained by God tramples the rights of theists who believe other things of God, and of atheists. I would expect Chicago, therefore, to protect the rights of its citizens, and expect the other parts of the federal government to overrule the Department of Education. To the extent that the Department of Education would ever try to do such a thing as this, that represents the outcome of a power struggle between me (and people like me) and those who believe the other thing. My dilemma is more: “assuming my faction has power, to what extent can we exercise it over the objection of those who disagree, and at what level of removal.”

        There are compelling arguments to be made that higher level power should be limited, precisely so that outcomes of power struggles can’t extend far. But those arguments are ultimately unsatisfying to me: people’s moral value does not vary based on where they live, and so neither should their rights; and in any event, we all live in broad communities whether we will or no, and so the outcomes in one will affect people in others regardless.

        1. Thank you for your reply, that was clarifying. I agree that issues of local control versus central control are tough. And I also agree that limiting central control is unsatisfying because if a moral judgement holds, it should really hold everywhere.

          I guess my take on the limits of central control – and I realize this will be disappointing if you’re looking for principles – is that the central power is wise to accept certain limits on its power because otherwise it will have to micromanage petty conflicts across a wide-flung area. If it limits itself it can put more energy into big picture questions. I realize that as a theoretical basis for federalism that is sort of lame. Especially when you consider that certain cultures don’t accept it at all, and even in the USA it is not followed consistently.

  36. The Hillary v. Bernie contest. I was and still am a strong admirer of Bernie, yet I saw good reasons to choose both candidates to lead the Democratic ticket. Even after November and the recriminations, I’m still honestly not sure which one was more electable. (I am thankful that despite all their differences the two of them kept up a united front after July: this has not always happened in the history of our major parties.)

  37. My big one is a more serious reconciling of:

    1. The socialist principle that people should be paid for their labour.
    2. Intellectual property is (to me) a bizarre and often horrible idea which at present props up some of the very worst of capitalism. Even at the level of creative/intellectual industries it is often pernicious and largely disconnected from real concerns (which should be admitted are very real).
    3. Poor people being denied access to culture is bad (all together now: “Then collectivise it!”. )

    There is a related series of concerns about ad blocking technology and paying for ‘free content’. A down-to-earth question about day-to-day practice with this is who you should give your money to (like the question of whose intellectual property rights you can disregard). One should pay for Current Affairs and Chapo over the Guardian and NPR certainly. But should a person still contribute to a paper like the Guardian (if primarily reading the online edition) or Slate or NPR or a podcast network?

  38. What’s an effective way to explain to white Christians (or, more specifically, to white Protestants) that they, their privileged selves, and their direct descendants, and the beliefs to which they hold as dear will be better off and more secure in a future in which non-whites and non-Christians (and non-Protestants) make up growing percentages of the national population?

  39. (I’m liberal, though with sympathy to the libertarian view on certain issues)

    Lots of things seem very hard to me, and I know that even the positions I’m most sure are wrong have strong arguments in their favor.

    Economics is a good place to start. I’ve not studied economics, so my baseline views on the topic are half-remembered versions of whatever they taught in AP econ, but I know I’m wildly uninformed. Economics is, or can be, a science, but it’s not one I understand. From the folks studying economics I’ve spoken to, I gather there’s somewhat more consensus in at least microeconomics than one might guess from seeing the political discourse, though I suspect neither party’s locus of views is terribly close to that consensus. On the other hand, on somewhat more politicized issues such as minimum wage, I see disagreement between obviously intelligent and apparently well-meaning figures in the field such as Paul Krugman and Bryan Caplan. Is that purely an academic dispute, or is it that one or both of their views are colored by their politics? Certainly, there’s no good reason why one’s view on the empirical question of whether the minimum wage increases unemployment should be correlated with one’s moral judgement on, say, gay marriage.

    Abortion is tricky for a somewhat different reason. I’m pretty sure I’m right on it — fetuses do not exhibit the qualities I would consider to confer substantial moral standing, and even granting them as much as a dog has wouldn’t be enough to justify forcing someone to endure an unwanted pregnancy. But most anti-abortion folks I’ve spoken to sincerely believe that a fetus holds comparable moral value to an adult human, and given that axiom, of course it’s right (or at least very reasonable) to want to end what would then be an awful and ongoing mass murder. I honestly don’t know how to address that belief, since our respective systems for determining what has moral value usually come from pretty close to the foundation of our ways of viewing the world. And I don’t think we should just ignore persuasion, in part because people who see this as literally life-and-death are a lot of what makes this such a contentious issue, and because I really want fewer people to suffer the moral horror of believing (falsely) that perfectly nice people around them are taking part in an unmatched campaign of murder.

    Technological unemployment I suspect is going to become a much bigger issue in the next ten years. Okay, so a fancy promotional video isn’t a new paradigm, but Amazon’s ad for their Go grocery store was really impressive. Grocery stores spend something like 30% of their revenue on wages. If that could be cut in half, seeing how competitive that market is, those savings would be passed on to consumers, and it’s low-income folks who would benefit the most. Autonomous vehicles would be safer, will offer a tremendous increase in independence to the young, the old, and the disabled, and will reduce transportation costs in a way that again benefits low-income folks the most. At the same time, those technologies supplant millions of jobs. New jobs will probably arise, but not as many, not in the same places, and not for the same people. I really hope that we can find some way to deal with a huge number of jobless people. I don’t think there’s anything inherently glorious about work. But I do think that we don’t yet have the social infrastructure to provide its benefits on a large scale through other means. And I hope that the increases in efficiency can at least make the practical concerns of joblessness more manageable.

    On a more meta level, it seems to me that it’s too easy to find whatever truth you want. Echo chambers are part of this. It’s a big world — you can equally fill a newsfeed with entirely true stories of horrible things either done to or done by immigrants, and find people to talk about this with. I suspect this is a major reason why there’s so many movements lately based on the premise that things are awful and need to change. As I said, “even the positions I’m most sure are wrong have strong arguments in their favor”. I am a fairly intelligent and educated person, but I find both Caplan and Krugman’s contrasting points on the minimum wage debate reasonable and persuasive. I have no intellectually honest argument against either one besides to gesture at the other. Were I not exposed regularly to each, I expect I would change my views to match what I am exposed to.

    Science and empiricism ought to provide a neutral arbiter for this, but not every contentious matter is strictly a matter of facts as opposed to values (see abortion). And science has been having its own problems lately, in the form of the replication crisis. Even good and honest statistics can lead to ambiguous conclusions, as in the debates over what to control for in studies of police violence and race. I don’t think that the other side is full of monsters; I think that most mainstream positions are full of basically okay people who are there by inertia, and that most of the rest, as well as people with less common views, are there because they found arguments good enough to persuade them. I think my views are supported by evidence. I think I’m right, but I know that if I were wrong, I’d think that too.

  40. The fundamental immorality of the social contract inherent in the nation-state. Any nation-state, left, right or center.

    So many of these (great) comments concern national security, international intervention, trade, or immigration. They’re all facets of the same fundamental issue, which is this: The fact that states are artificial and arbitrary entities is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. It seems to me the nationalist moment sweeping the West is the desire of voters to reassert the basic Enlightenment social contract in which citizens submit to being governed because the gov’t provides security, stability, stuff, etc. In that sense, Trump’s “America First” message is internally coherent.

    Problem is, distinctions between humans based on nationality is just … grotesquely, self-evidently wrong. A kid born in Guatemala or Syria has less value than an American does? I’m more deserving than she is of legal due process, of environmental and labor protections, of physical security, of access to education and jobs? That’s moral gibberish to me.

    Outside of the creation of a system of global governance — Agenda 21! — how do we even begin to work towards a polity that doesn’t treat some people like insects and others like royalty based purely on the roulette wheel of nationality?

  41. Labor politics versus environmental politics. The only thing that reliably reduces global carbon output is an economic downturn. How can we reconcile planning for a sustainable biosphere generations into the future while also pursuing the kind of good-jobs-for-everyone labor policies that virtually define the Left?

    Is our very definition of individual freedom incompatible with the challenges of continued human survival on a planet with limited resources? Can seven billion (and counting) people enjoy a decent standard of living and some degree of personal autonomy without the aggregate effects of their personal choices exhausting the carrying capacity of our habitat?

  42. The fake news problem is a very big one. And of course the Russian hack.

    I can’t actually think of any issue on which Republicans make a good point. I could have, 20 years ago, but not now. I agree with Bubba Gump, kind of.

  43. Oh, and electronic voting machines are a difficult issue. Their software is treated by law as a trade secret. So legally we are prohibited from knowing what that software says. E.g. if it says “Take every 3rd vote for the Dem” and give it to the Republican, then we are actually prohibited by law from ever finding that out. Amazing as that may seem. If there are any computer programmers here, you know this. And there are many articles written about it as well.

    Here’s how hackers might mess with electronic voting on Election Day

    Some states — including swing states — have flawed voting systems

    Could the 2016 Election Be Stolen with Help from Electronic Voting Machines?

  44. For the life of me I cannot figure out why the idea of a flat tax is not embraced by the left. If equality is a goal, should we not be equally taxed? Sales tax is a flat tax. A working-class man buys a beer, a rich man buys a Porsche (do rich people even buy Porsches anymore?) they pay the same percentage. But tell me what percent that each of them pays on their income? There are deductions and loopholes for the wealthy man, and he would lament that his class pays for everything and be resentful to those who paid less.

    What if all the loopholes went away in the name of a transparent, equal tax? Maybe it would be 30% and maybe it would be 10%. It just strikes me as so obvious and fair and it ends so many petty critiques and suspicions carried across the political spectrum. Would it not be a better country if when you were filing your taxes you were assured that Peter Thiel was paying the same chunk out of every dollar he made as you were and that there were not any shelters to hide his money in?

    The only person I can recall advocating this tax was Steve Forbes in a Republican primary a generation ago, so of course it ain’t popular on the left. But why not?

    1. I can see the benefits of a flat tax. (According to Wikipedia Forbes wanted to exempt capital gains and other unearned income from his flat tax, which really ruins the whole concept for me. That proposal should be called ‘ancien regime mercantilism’ or something similar.)

      I’m curious, did you vote for Gary Johnson last month?

    2. The problem is that most of the flat taxes proposed are consumption taxes. And poor people consume more of their income than rich people. This can be mitigated: most retail sales tax proposals, for instance, include some sort of demogrant or cash payment to all households. Be wary of assuming that a flat tax, by the way, would somehow get rid of gaming the system. Under a retail sales tax, for instance, intermediate goods are untaxed. You can bet that, were it passed on the national level at a high rate, that there would be a cottage industry of tax lawyers scrambling to make sure that their clients somehow use as many intermediate goods as possible. Also: there will still be the vexing problem of what consumption goods should be taxed. Health-care? Drugs? Food? Education? This is a complicated, complicated issue.

    3. Because a sales tax is regressive. Wealthy people spend a much tinier percentage of their income, whereas the poor must spend it all and more. So all of the poor person’s income ends up taxed, whereas only a tiny percent for the wealthy.

    4. A flat tax is unequal and regressive. It requires the poor and middle income to pay a higher proportion of their income than the rich.

      That’s precisely why sales taxes are bad.

      The more you have, the more you should pay.

  45. – Talking about Islam honestly. We (on the Left) seem to have no problem identifying when someone’s Christianity adversely impacts (or attempts to impact) other groups – be it abortion, queer rights, contraception, evolution in education etc. – but as soon as someone (usually from the Right or Centre) critiques Islam honestly, or makes a genuine attempt, they have their opinion pathologized into a phobia of Muslims.

    – The role of government, and the size of it.

    – The way some sections of the media with a liberal/left bent report on news events:


    P.S. Freddie: if you read this, can you please unblock me on twitter? My handle @altvarg Pretty please?

  46. I had two thoughts running in my head and didn’t edit in time.

    “…when someone’s Christianity adversely impacts (or attempts to impact) other groups [other groups should’ve been social policy].”

    Also, my punctuation is effing atrocious.

  47. There are so many I want to say, but I’ll limit myself to two.

    (1) The backlash against rhetoric of “personal responsibility.” Of course the backlash is necessary, because people invoke personal responsibility to mask oppression and as a substitute for justice. But, I worry that many on the left go too far in being suspicious of any discussion about how victims of injustice can best manage their circumstances. It’s such a tough balance to strike in trying to navigate an unjust world without acquiescing to injustice.

    (2) I’ve had elections where I’ve voted Democratic and elections where I’ve voted third party, and I’ve never fully felt good about either. One option seems to bring short term hardship without any promise of long term progress, while the other seems to put a pretty low cap on long term progress. Currently, I come down on the side that honesty is underrated in its necessity to democracy, and that voting third party is the more honest action. But, I certainly see the arguments on the other side.

  48. This is far afield from what you’re talking about, but I was wonder a lot about postmodernism (or post structuralism or critical theory or late modernism or punk or whatever) as it relates to our current times. I tend to defend its use when it comes from lower/minority classes, as it can be a vital, psychically helpful, and genuinely empowering tool against the arrayed forces of reality and power, but it also seems clear that many of its techniques and insights have been co opted, and are now used by the powerful and upper classes as a justification for all sorts of immiseration. Pomo conservatism seems to really mean “Pomo for me but not for thee” conservatism. To what extent should we be defending it, too what extent should we leave it behind, and is that even possible?
    (Probably too broad a question, I have no real background in this stuff so not even sure if I’m talking out my ass here, I’m just a guy who shifts boxes for a living)

    1. Weird. I have the exact opposite opinion: postmodernism cannot form the basis for a successful left-wing politics because it’s incapable of realism about both justice and power (realism in the sense of claiming that power and justice are real things we can identify intellectually and enact in the world).

  49. One of the key questions that bedevils me is: how do we assess the relative claims of Americans vs. non-Americans as we craft policies. This touches on a wide variety of issues, notably immigration, trade and foreign policy. As a practical matter, we do not value the welfare or freedom of foreigners as highly as we do that of our own citizens (or residents, for that matter.) We spent a fraction of our relief expenditures on Katrina when it came to the Asian Tsunami, for instance. Were a group like ISIS were to take an American city, we can be assured that the government would use all force necessary to retake it. The ugly truth of immigration is that, were we to open our borders completely, the influx of cheap labor would eventually lower wages for those already here, especially the poor. From the standpoint of human welfare, this would be good thing. We can, of course, argue for remedies that might get us out of these quandaries: a democratic world government, a system of taxation that could cushion losses caused by migration, some gargantuan international fund to handle disasters. But until we get there we constantly face the disconnect between a theoretical equality of moral claims and an actual preference for the welfare of those lucky enough to be citizens/residents of the country to which we belong.

  50. Other comments have touched on this, but nationalism or internationalism (in trade, in immigration, in international law….) If the Left obtains equality within our borders and inequality between borders, we will just have made nation identical to class. Not only does that not end class differences, it makes them more resilient. I don’t think the Left has an answer to this outside the context of a universal government. To its credit, neoliberalism does.

  51. Can any political legitimacy or weight originate in things that aren’t living humans? Like, the equal human is the core of left-liberalism, “one man one vote” as the only acceptable legitimating mechanism, so you have these liberals complaining about the Senate and the Electoral College, “acres don’t vote” and all that.

    But there is something to New Hampshire that’s distinct from New York, something to Montana that’s distinct from California, independent of their population pools at any given time, are those distinctions really of null significance?

    I know even with the current systems people in the Western states complain about public land, that they’re being treated as extractive or stockpile colonies for the benefit of other, more populous, “real” economies and states, and they’re not totally wrong but that’s in line with egalitarian majoritarianism.

    And those acres have given us things. All the farmland of Manifest Destiny, all the silver, oil, gold booms that shored up our economy; all the steady mineral, water, resource wealth; Hawaii let us mount a defensive (or offensive) line far further offshore than otherwise; the Bakken field in sparse North Dakota really helped salvage our economic and geopolitical position in the last decade.

    If during the Cold War the USSR offered to buy out the residents of South Dakota at $5 million each I think we’d see that as a problem – look at Cuba! – but if they moved to other states, welfare-boosted by the cash, that looks like an unalloyed win if people are your only object of analysis.

    (What if it was a friendly neutral country? What if the Dalai Lama responded to occupation by moving Tibet to Montana?)

    And states are even material things, you can point to them on a map, what about concepts, like “national identity”? If you could raise health outcomes half a percent by turning the USA into a bhangra-listening, telenovela-watching plurality-Shinto country that celebrated its founders as Dutch traders and French trappers, is there a reason not to?

    Does the country of the United States owe anything to the nation of America as distinct from the current set of humans it’s decided to recognize as citizens?

  52. Decriminalization of drugs and sex work. I definitely don’t think that prohibition is working. But I’m not sure about the consequences of legalizing them.

  53. … also, the Arab Spring: Good or bad?

    (There’s a story that Nixon asked Zhou Enlai the same question about the French Revolution. Zhou’s response was “It’s too soon to tell.”)

  54. That is tricky.

    While it *can* benefit them, that doesn’t necessarily mean it *will*. You’d probably have to grant them some local self-rule provisions you would find unpalatable.

  55. I’m not sure how to characterize the Soviet-type (Stalinist?) social formation — as some sort of deformed socialism or transitional society, as a kind of (state) capitalism, or as a new kind of class society. I’ve studied the question very closely for a long time, and I still can’t commit myself strongly to an answer. It’s difficult to avoid Marcel van der Linden’s conclusion (in Western Marxism and the Soviet Union) that there’s no really intellectually satisfying Marxist way to describe it.

  56. This one has bothered me for a while:

    After Ferguson, the DOJ issued two reports. One found rampant racism and abuse in the Ferguson PD. The other affirmed the Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. It’s difficult for me to see how you can honestly accept one but not the other. Yet it’s still common on the Left to see reference to “the police murder of Mike Brown.”

    1. How is that difficult? A simple reading would be that they found a lot of behavior by the Ferguson PD that was bad, but the Michael Brown shooting was at least not prosecutable, if not justified. Just because a PD does bad things does not imply that everything they do is bad, nor that everything bad they do has enough evidence to warrant a prosecution.

      1. But that’s just the point. On the face of it, it’s not difficult. There’s no logical inconsistency at all. The approach you describe is rather straightforwardly correct.

        But people on the Left, by and large, did not take this approach. They trumpeted the findings on the Ferguson PD and ignored those on the Brown killing. (People on the Right did the reverse.) They continue to talk about the “murder” of Mike Brown. They continue with the slogan “hands up, don’t shoot,” even though the witnesses responsible for that narrative were deemed by the DOJ not to be credible.

        The larger issue of police racism and abuse is of course real, regardless of what actually happened in the Brown case, and the goals of Black Lives Matter are eminently deserving of support. But intellectual honesty matters.

        1. Well, my blithe explanation is that politics is basically two troops of monkeys flinging poo at each other. Each side flings whatever is handy. Intellectual consistency is not a partisan virtue.

          As to the larger issue of police racism, let me ask you, I haven’t seen much in the way of accusations from the left of specific motivations of racism in these police misconduct cases. There’s a lot of handwaving at “institutional racism” and “disproportionate impact”, but all that says to a non-leftist like me is “we have no evidence at all of any actual racism”. Especially when the police and the entire power structure in question are black (as in Baltimore). Each situation should be examined on the merits, I think, but it is strange to me. I recall back in the OJ trial they dug up some decades-old racial jokes that Mark Furman had told as evidence that he was a racist. Weak as that was, I don’t even see the effort to do that anymore. Racism is just assumed.

  57. I can be rounded off to the hard right, in general. Having said that, the environment is potentially a real big deal. If the scientific consensus, not just on climate change but on things like the health effects of various pollutants, is correct–and I think it most likely is–it seems to me there aren’t any good answers, even w/r/t outcomes that we can basically all agree on.

  58. Classical liberal here (I’ve been assured that reduces to “Nazi”)

    From my perspective, the hard issues are the ones where simple markets don’t provide the necessary information, or the externalities are too far removed to be internalized.

    Health care is one such issue. The problem with market solutions is the vast information asymmetry, and the time sensitivity of many decisions. It’s all well and good to tell people to “shop around” for elective surgery, but when you are bleeding out, that’s hardly a solution. The information problem is worse, and it’s just as bad for socialized systems. It’s hard to tell which systems are overall better or worse, much less which aspects of them are the ones that are making them better or worse. I guess I know how little I know about the subject, despite much study, and I see so many other people so much surer of their opinions than I am on it. I doubt they know any more than I do. Hard problem for both sides, I think.

    Immigration. I think some amount of immigration is positive, and I think it is a great indicator if your country is one people want to emigrate to. I don’t think unlimited immigration is either economically or politically doable. At some point the backlash builds beyond calming. Also, there are cultures that are better fits for each other, it seems silly to discount this. The question of immigration policy ultimately becomes about who gets to decide who, when and how many immigrants a country gets. I have ideas, but I’m not sure how they work in the real world.

    Culture. A big driver of my worldviews is an emphasis on culture, but culture is an organic thing, impossible to direct, difficult to affect at all. It’s easy to blame a “culture of dependence” for some social dysfunction or another, but how does one end such a thing in a politically palatable manner? Is it even possible to change mass culture in an intentional way? I have my doubts. It may be a better descriptor than prescription.

  59. Foreign policy. Given that we’re not likely to see the abolition of the nation-state in our lifetimes, what constitutes a just foreign policy? I share the left’s rhetorical anti-borders and anti-interventionist stance, but I’m honestly not sure what (if anything) an ordinary person can do to effect either aim. The foreign policy sector is so thoroughly dominated by elite groupthink (and the military-industrial-complex) that I have no clue what, if anything, domestic leftists can do to even force mimor shifts in US foreign policy. Trade agreements, major treaties, etc. don’t seem to be affected one way or the other by the small community of left-wing activists concerned with foreign policy. Leftist opposition to bad foreign policy decisions seems (apparently) limited to symbolic protests that the State Dept. and the think-tankers don’t give a shit about. What can the left do to realistically oppose drone strikes? What is an “anti-imperialist” foreign policy, and is such a thing distinguishable from “rhetorical support for any state which currently opposes the US”?

    I’m also genuinely confused by questions of intervention. I’m convinced that most US interventions are massively counterproductive and harmful, and I share Freddie’s stance on Syria.

    But I can’t easily or trivially dismiss the “problems from hell” which liberal hawks like to invoke as examples (Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, more recently Syria) even if I don’t think intervention is justified. In other words, if bombing campaigns (and peacekeepers?) are bad ideas, what else ought to be done (assuming, rather unrealistically, that the US and its allies would make a foreign policy decision for the “right” reason)? Is the responsibility to protect (“R2P”) justified even in theory? Is there any situation in which intervention would be justified, including multinational peacekeeping, and if so what domestic conditions would be required to effect such an outcome?

  60. Great questions. I tend to take a Jungian or you might say alchemical viewpoint when approaching polarity in any context. So there you are seeking a “union of opposites” above all else. So first I have to ask what is the foundational energetic nature of each viewpoint? Generally, it appears to me that left-ish answers to the hard questions point to a communal, cultural or we might say a more feminine view. Right-ish views tend to focus on individual self responsibility and are more masculine in nature. The alchemical view says both are equally true and useful. Transmutation or evolution comes from their union in mind, in body and therefore in culture. The individual is 100 percent responsible for their actions and their world and at the same time, we are collectively 100 percent responsible for the plight of the individual. Can we hold these two truths in mind, in body simultaneously? If we can, that elusive third way, that middle way, that alchemical gold emerges.

  61. what actually is the optimum nuclear situation
    benefits: billions spared war
    downside: doing it wrong ruins planet. mostly likely one chance to get it right.

    given the recent history of north korea and ukraine it seems likely no one is gonna buy nonproliferation argument again

  62. All political questions are hard, because murder is the business of the state. Take abortion. Either abortion is legal, and women have the right to kill their unborn babies, or abortion is illegal, and women don’t have the right to own their own bellies. This is hard. Since Roe vs Wade, 40 million dead unborn babies, but women have the right to own their own bellies. The courts are less involved than they’d be if abortion was illegal. I think that’s the least bad choice. Good common law decision: when both choices are bad, pick the choice that gets the courts less involved, because the law is an ass.

    I’m glad there are people who see 40 million dead babies as a down side.

    1. Calling them babies is question-begging. The issue of whether a fertilized egg is a person is at issue, therefore calling it a “baby” is an attempt to foreclose reasonable debate by including the conclusion in the statement of the premise.

      1. If I’d counted every fertilized egg, that ’40 million dead’ would be in the billions. If I wanted to foreclose reasonable debate, cue pictures of coat hangers and dead women or dead babies or both. I’m glad there are people who think women should own their own bellies. I’m glad that’s the decided law of the land. I’m glad there are people who count dead babies as a down side of that decision.

  63. Social democrat here.
    How to prevent mass casualty atrocities.
    How to get to a place where most people are safe in a place where the state has collapsed or does not exist.
    How to build social trust. (In particular, how to get to Scandinavian social democracy)
    How achieve widespread increases in the standard of living in impoverished regions or countries. (I do think trade is a big part of this, but probably necessary but not sufficient).
    What to do about nuclear weapons.
    How to protect reproductive control and bodily autonomy for women while working down/earlier the number of abortions.
    How to counter great power politics without engaging in many of the sins of great power politics yourself.

    I can be little c-conservative/reformists on institutions and societies because building them is a hard, failure prone, and often bloody process.

    Big picture, I do think a lot of problems are hard. Even those problems that aren’t hard typically have winners and losers that don’t align with an easy morality tale.

  64. Economic growth.

    We want redistribution, which is fine and good, but how do we get the economy growing more than a measley 2%?

    No one is happy when the pie isn’t growing, and this fuels backlash towards immigrants and globalism.

    Some positions, like opposition to fracking, are harmful towards growth (not to mention harmful towards efforts to reduce emissions).

  65. Just discovered your blog via a Greenwald tweet. Love the pro-nuance, anti-irony/anti-academic-jargon approach.

    Here’s MY hard question:

    Say there was a pro-worker, pro-environment revolution, and it was such a success that we all agree to get rid of ‘bullshit jobs’ forever: PR consultants would be fired and given a small pension, as would all the janitors and security guards of the PR firm.

    But here is the hard part: who gets to say which jobs are bullshit, and how do we compensate the people who DO perform real jobs: farmers, nurses, truckers?

    “Hey thanks for being a Real True Worker! Now grow our food, while me and my friends enjoy UBI forever.”

  66. What issues can politics reasonably hope to fix

    (Haven’t read all 144 comments, so perhaps it’s already there.)

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