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On the Republican Debate on Public Policy

First, you might like a light chuckle at (and analysis of) Newt Gingrich, courtesy JJ Mcculough. I partly disagree with him that Gingrich is the best that the republicans have to offer; I believe that Huntsman probably merits that honour, but Gingrich is probably next up by my books.

(Note that this is a very long post; if you're the sort who doesn't like ceasing to read something partway through, don't start this unless you're in the mood to read a lot)

One of the dangerous things about angry populism is that it often splashes onto things where it doesn't belong. To quote myself on a discussion on police on the Occupy G+ stream, 「I don't think police could even theoretically function if they decided what their job meant (we might make them refuse to do it if the specifics of a particular act are too awful, but generally speaking..). Yes, they are a tool for state power, but our task is to improve our democracy so the state better serves us, not to smash the state. The ordinary role of police is not a bad thing. Consistent, reasonable laws are not a bad thing (even if sometimes we can/should/must engage in direct action against them). Whatever improved society we're struggling for, it will have police.

Police arrn't directly servants of the 99% or the 1%; they're servants of the law. Changing how laws are made is our best tactic; in the meantime we should be reasonably friendly with the polce when possible, engage in direct action when it makes sense, and neither hate them nor necessarily do everything they ask us to. We should not be the first to throw a fist (whether we're willing to strike back if we are hit first is something I'd leave to individuals).」

When populist anger becomes strong, left wing or right, tolerance of other perspectives disappears, groups slide to radical positions, and reasoned discussion becomes impossible (in two separate means: first, topics come up which comprimise should not happen, and second, even when two groups are legitimately near each other and can/should comprimise, their anger will not permit them less than a total victory). This is what I see right now in the republican base; ten years ago, those running now were (generally) willing to make an effort to protect the environment, they supported science, they were open to discussions on immigration policy, many were comfortable with individual insurance mandates and occasionally single-payer, and so on. Now, in order to tap that angry base, they've tossed aside their intellectuals, their mind, and given their policy statements to lockstep expressions of anger. Much like the (rather stupid) comparisons of BushJr to Hitler made by angry liberals.

I am saying none of this to glorify centrists. Centrists don't really merit a lot of respect if they're for centrism itself; people afraid to take positions, people too trendy to take a position, people who somehow assume that wisdom is always to be found in the middle ground; all rubbish. What I am saying is that whatever position one takes, one should be wary of hegemonic thought, and be very careful with anger.

On to the foreign policy debate (where I look at the questions, occasionally provide my own answers, and occasionally comment on what the candidates said):This debate was very poorly managed. They asked questions, and eventually the people there got to comment on them, but the format was mostly to ask a question, ask a few participants for comments, then ask a new question, and ask a few different participants. This meant that whenever someone was allowed to comment, it was typically on a few different questions, making the conversation pretty disjoint. Also, the moderators did a very poor job at nudging people to actually give relevant answers to the questions.

One of the wrenches in the work of angry groupthought has been someone who never belonged in the Republican party. Ron Paul's 「http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1111/69024.html|presence at the debate」 has (oddly) acted as a stabilising influence, not because his own positions are at all reasonable, but because he was very disruptive to the crowd of people who were doing their best to out-compete each other in agreeing with each other but better, offering mostly sans-content criticisms of the current administration, and saying whatever got the crowd fired up. Ron Paul's principles are awful, but they are differently awful than those of John Birch-style republicans. Sometimes that's all it takes in a discussion to prevent the worst from coming out: a dissident voice that is also not (exactly) 「The Enemy」. I don't want his ideas to spread, but I am glad he was there (and despite disagreeing strongly with Libertarian philosophy, I do agree with Paul on a few issues).

Here is a snarky runthrough of the debate. Here is a more proper transcript.


  • Should the Patriot Act get a long-term extension?
    • My Answer: The Patriot Act is a very large bundle of legislation. Some parts should be continued, some should not. I would permit some parts of Title II to expire, as well as much of Title VIII. I would be open to discussion of other components, but would not commit to ending them at this time. (I note that not all the components I would rollback have a sunset clause; I would aim to remove those that do not through legialative means).
    • I was disappointed that apart from Ron Paul (and Gingrich, sort of), nobody gave a very substantial answer to this question. Ron Paul suggested he would allow suset components to expire, in order to prevent rise of a police state (reasonable). Gingrich indicated that he would leave everything in place and strengthen the Patriot Act (what that means was not explained)
    • Bachmann's punt on this was one of the most ridiculous dodges I've ever heard. Sheesh.
  • Are TSA pat-downs necessary?
    • My Answer: I am pretty neutral on this. I am not bothered by the idea of pat-downs, if they are believed to be effective. If they're not, we should not do them.
    • The candidates mostly punted on this too.
  • Is racial or religious profiling acceptable?
    • My Answer: I've wrestled with this, and while I'm not entirely comfortable with it, I believe the answer is probably yes. Any factor that statistically significantly leads to attention being drawn to where it is most likely to be needed is probably worth doing, even if it is demeaning to some groups. It is regrettable, and should never be done without good statistics backing it up, but it should be done. Routine screening should ideally be good enough to make this less important though; if there is enough of a security concern, the full-body scanners for everyone are certainly better than a physical cavity search for specific minorities.
    • Ron Paul makes the generally good point that terrorism is a tactic, not a racial tool.
    • Generally the Republicans support profiling, sometimes coupled with a stress on better intelligence (always good, but not sufficient)
  • Would drones help us beat Al Qaeda and serve American interests in Pakistan?
    • My Answer: I would be open to them if they fit a cost-benefit-effectiveness measure. To the extent that militants in the tribal areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan act as a global and regional threat, we will hunt them down and kill them, with or without support of the government of either. A good partnership with government makes that easier, but so far these governments have been reluctant to engage militants in some areas, either because they lack the strength to do so or because they suffer political pressure not to. The militants must be purged, ideally by their own governments, but by foreign powers (meaning us and any allies that can be raised) if need be. We also must nation-build in both countries; strong economic and political development will marginalise militancy. Finally, we must remember that our difficulties in these areas are significantly blowback from our former use of militants to serve other purposes in the area. We had a hand in making this problem.
    • Huntsman took a position similar to mine, except he rejects the idea of nation-building.
  • Should Pakistan get financial aid? Afghanistan?
    • My answer: A nuanced yes. We should continue to make sure it's serving western interests, and ideally helping western prestige, but it should also develop the nation as much as possible, in order to help galvanise anti-tribal feeling in the country.
    • Bachmann offered a sensible answer, based on national security. Perry played to that us-versus-them angry-fearful crowd both in his answer ("not one penny, period") and how he phrased it. I liked Romney's response on Afghanistan; I support nation-building there, and think it's better than Huntsman's. Gingrich offered an enormous punt.
  • What do we do if Israel attacks Iran?
    • My answer: Cut off all ties with Israel, offer short-term military aid to Iran, missle strikes on the launch sites in Israel. It would be a surprising thing to do, but demonstrate that we don't play favourites, and that such an unprovoked attack is utterly unacceptable. It would also hopefully be a way to start a dialogue that would drive AIPAC and J-Street entirely out of American politics, which would be a very good thing.
    • Cain's answer was bizarre and vague but disturbing (and shows an odd obsession with mountains). I respect Paul's answer on the matter, not because I am isolationist (as I believe Paul is), but because I think joining Israel would be both wrong and the height of folly. Huntsman's answer was to consider that a last resort, and only as part of a plan for regime change in Iran, which is a fair point.
    • Bachmann's reading of Iran's statements against Israel was kind of off.
  • How can we prevent Iranian nuclear weapons?
    • My answer: I am keen to generally have it difficult to attain weapons-type nuclear technology and weapons-grade materials. That is as far as I am willing to go.
    • Perry suggests sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank, but I don't see a need or use for that. I want to leave Iran alone unless absolutely forced to.
    • Gingrich got way off-topic on this, even if some of his points were decent.
  • Syria? (this was more an answer than a response)
    • I would be willing to have a no-fly zone over Syria, as Perry suggests, although currently planes are not a major factor there
  • Should we continue BushJr's funding of anti-AIDS/malaria initiatives and economic development in Africa?
    • My answer: Yes. BushJr deserves credit for these initiatives, and they are worthwhile. I believe that we should generally be willing to fund programmes that either fight illness or fund vital infrastructure (reliable electricity, water, roads, internet) throughout the world
    • Santorum's response on this was excellent. Cain punted. Paul offered an utterly despicable response of suggesting that all aid is worthless. Romney started out with a good stab at Paul's position, and ended it in another jab at Obama.
  • Are the budget cuts to our defense unacceptable?
    • My answer: I don't have a strong opinion on this; I don't know enough about how our defense budget is used. I punt.
    • Gingrich says that there are always ways to trim defense, then got into a lot of irrelevant stuff. Huntsman largely agreed, but suggests that foreign policy should be driven by economics, which is a very complicated topic for me.
  • Would you compromise with Dems in Congress to avoid washington gridlock?
    • My answer: If and as necessary I would compromise with Dems or Repubs on some topics, but there are some social programs I would consider untouchable, and would strive to build socialism in America. (My not being a Republican or a Democrat kind of shows here)
    • Perry seems to indicate that he'd muscle through the economic-political gridlock, mentioning his terrible tax plans as the solution to ecomnomic woes. Santorum suggested principled stances on the most important things, comprimising around the edges, which seems like a reasonable starting point for discussions.
  • What entitlement reform proposals would you make to address the long-term structural deficit?
    • My answer: I would create a fund for social security and other social programmes and push through a plan to make it independent of the standard budget, untouchable by yearly budget debates.
    • Gingrich talked about privatising social security. He seems kind of confused on how economics works. Bachmann completely failed to answer the question, using her answer to criticise deficit spending.
  • Are drug-related crimes/violence in Mexico a national security threat? Should the US Military be involved?
    • My Answer: I would be very reluctant to use the US Military at this time, as Mexico is a generally friendly government; the problem is that Mexico's government is not sufficiently strong to effectively deal with drug gangs. These drug gangs, as non-state actors, should ideally be dealt with by police unless and until they pose a sovereignty threat to the US, or unless our police are routinely overwhelmed by such gangs. They are a serious security threat though, and we should be doing something about them. The primary burden for that has to be on Mexico, but because the problems relate to our being their neighbour (and the gangs are smuggling goods into the United States and Canada), we should play a role in the solution.
    • Perry had the strange idea that Islamic terrorism is significantly involved, and somehow thinks Venezuela and Mexico are ideologically and geographically neighbours. He pledges a military presence and fences along the Mexican border, as well as coperation with Mexico. Ron Paul blamed our drug policies, and suggested shutting down government programs (surprise!) in order to make the United States a less appealing place to live, so fewer people will want to come here. He also went into batshit crazy territory by suggesting prescription drugs are more dangerous than the set of prohibited drugs (compare Zoloft to Cocaine?). Cain suggested better enforcement of existing laws, a cleaner(?) path to citizenship, and delegation of immigration as a state issue (which is a terrible idea, IMO). I think what's missing in Cain's answer is that presumably there will still only be so many slots available for immigration; the problem has never been that it's too much of a hassle to immigrate, it has been what happens to the people who don't get one of the slots for legal immigration.
  • How do we make US Citizenship maximally appealing to high-skilled potential immigrants?
    • My Answer: I believe we already do an adequate job in this, legally speaking. Our major foulup is that our pre-university educational systems are insufficient to produce the skilled labourers needed for a modern economy. If we want continued development and leadership, we urgently need to fix that problem. Improvements to our infrastructure (e.g. internet and transit) would also help.
    • Santorum suggests tax cuts, less regulation, and improved energy policy.
  • What do we do with illegal immigrants living in the US?
    • My Answer: Those who have been here for long enough (perhaps over 10 years) should be permitted to register, and be given permanent residency but be placed in a higher tax bracket, and deported if they ever commit tax fraud. Those who have served in the military or achieved a higher degree will be offered the same status, but also given some kind of priority for some means of naturalisation. Others will be deported when caught and warned, and if ever found in the country again will face increasing penalties designed to make return impossible. I believe this is a reasonable balance of rule of law and respect for those who accept our nation's ability to set immigration policy, practicality of deportation, and concern for those who have been here a long time. I do believe it would be acceptible to limit birthright citizenship to those who are here legally, and to rework temporary residency permissions to handle that; citizenship tourism and similar practices should not continue to exist. (To my readers: you might reasonably find this to be one of my more controversial opinions; I've found my stance here to be one where the more conservative parts of my family find it unacceptably liberal, and my more liberal friends tend to find it unacceptably conservative; you might rightly call it one of my few centrist beliefs. The root of this is that I believe in rule of law and the perogative of states to set policy more than most far-left liberals do; I'm a state socialist, not an anarcho-leaning socialist)
    • Gingrich suggests visas accompany graduate degrees in math/science/engineering, and ties support for amnesty programmes with stronger border controls. Gingrich otherwise suggests duration-and-good-behaviour-based amnesty. I find his stance reasonable (as well as his spirited defense of long-time illegal residence, in the face of his colleagues, to be admirable) Bachmann generally opposes amnesty, as well as the DREAM act. I think this is shortsighted; the DREAM act is, in my view, a great start towards figuring out classes of people that should be given a fast-track to citizenship who did not go against immigration policy of their own will and whose skills will be valuable. Romney likewise suggested no amnesty, then got cagey when pinned down on it. Perry suggested that the discussion has to start with securing the border, which I think is also reasonable.
  • What are the interests of the US in Syria, and how can we protect them?
    • My Answer: I believe that it is most politically healthy for any military intervention to be done with the permission (and ideally leadership) of the Arab League; that institution needs maturing. More importantly, the legitimacy (and reasonable composition) of any replacement government depends on a perception that that it was founded for the good of the people, not the imperial intentions of a foreign power. I would offer aid in a similar form offered by NATO to Libya (no ground troops but otherwise sufficient to win a civil war, if needed) if the Arab League will accept it and explain/promote it to their people. Absent that, economic sanctions and persona-non-grata status for Syrian government officials and offers of coordination to the Free Syrian Army are as far as I would go. Our interests in the region are not economic, they are both concerns for blood spilt and strategic.
    • Cain suggests limiting things to economic sanctions. Perry suggests a no-fly zone to give breathing space for the Free Syrian Army to organise.
  • The question broadened to "How do we handle the Arab Spring?"
    • My Answer: We attempt to help where possible, making it clear that we are not serving our business interests in doing so. We work as multilaterally as possible, ideally empowering local coalitions in order to demonstrate that we are not dictating to the world, but we are willing to help.
    • Huntsman suggested not becoming involved in Iran's recently-muddled elections was a mistake, and that engaging in Libya served no purpose (I think he's very wrong on both counts). He suggests being involved in Syria would be a good thing because they're near Israel and Israel is a "friend" of the United States (I do not consider Israel a friend). He ominously hints at military action against Iran.
  • What should be done regarding Al-Shabab in Somalia?
    • My Answer: We should do significant nation-building in Somalia, offering aid to help them form and keep an effective secular government. Al-Shabab should be eradicated. Fortunately, right now a foreign military has started the task, so this might not be a long-term concern.
    • Ron Paul believes that being isolationist will bring about peace. Romney offers a non-sequitor answer by defending the despicable doctrine of American Exceptionalism. Blitzer presses him, and he suggests more overt military engagement, including boots on the ground. (I think that's a bit strong, and that it might lead to reasonable Arab concerns that Syria will become an American sattelite). Perry offers another non-answer about "getting serious", in order to protect Israel.
  • What other national security issue do we have to worry about that hasn't been brought up yet?
    • My Answer: Increasing irrelevancy of the US (poor infrastructure, technical stagnation, poor education) is a long-term concern. In the medium-term, I would be concerned at increased ease and decreased costs of development and deployment of biological weapons by non-state actors. New types of weapons that would be impossible to screen against, reasonably low-cost to create, and communicable; these may become the weapons of choice from either already-organised well-funded groups or small groups of home-grown dissidents that use resources undetectably poolable by a small set of ordinary citizens. In the future, the power of increasingly small numbers of people using increasingly cheap/available tools to cause increasingly hard-to-track and deadly attacks will be a major concern.
    • Santorum showed he has confused ideas about Islam and Socialism in Latin America. Paul worries about becoming engaged in too many conflicts. Perry suggested we need to deal with China somehow, in a way that will sabotage any productive cooperation with China should he ever become president (Nice going, there, idiot). Romney repeated everyone else's answer. Cain suggested cyber attacks, which is a reasonable (but dull) answer. Gingrich gave three answers: WMD in American cities, EMPs in strategic areas of the US, and Cyberattacks (all reasonable, probably, although an EMP that would be big enough would have to be really big. Bachmann didn't answer the question. Huntsman suggested economic weakness of the US.
Overall, I find it hard to rate how everyone fared as a whole in the debate. Everyone had some pretty bad answers, and some answers scared me. I was disappointed at how some questions were dodged, and disappointed in the structure of the debate.