Principles vs. Pragmatism: a review of the 4th GOP debate

The Washington Post calls it “Rigid Conservatism vs. a flexible pragmatism.” I call it Principle vs. Pragmatism. Either way, the fourth GOP debate brought out some clear differences that should help people decide which if any of the candidates they can support.

Governance requires a balance of principle and pragmatism, or for those who don’t know what pragmatism means, practicality. Here’s an example from the debate. Ted Cruz wants to eliminate the IRS and move to a flat tax where everyone pays the same rate after a $36,000 minimum. That’s a principled view, but is it practical? The answer is no. We need some agency to process tax returns. We can reduce the size of the IRS dramatically if we simplify the tax code, but we can’t eliminate it entirely unless we move to an honor system where we trust people to be one hundred percent honest about their earnings.

All of the GOP candidates operate from some core principles. The question is how much room do they have for the practical? Libertarians in general discount practical considerations. Therefore, when they apply their principle of smaller government, they end up throwing the baby out with the bath. Example? Defense. Libertarians tend to be isolationists–those who don’t want to see the U.S. “interfere” in messy conflicts like what’s going on in Syria. The problem is if we’re not involved, those with bad intentions get free rein, and the price of interfering later may be a lot higher than if we had gotten in sooner. That indeed is the case with the Obama administration’s failure to act three or four years ago.

An exchange between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul exemplifies what I’m talking about. Paul’s Libertarian principles tell him to back off on interventions and he can site examples where we got our fingers burned when we stepped in without knowing what we were getting into. The Iraq war is a good example, but that doesn’t mean we were wrong to intervene. It just means don’t act without very good intelligence and have clear objectives when you do intervene.

Rubio was right in my opinion on defense spending. We need to be equipped to engage our enemies if and when they threaten our interests. ISIS is a threat. We need a plan and the ability to execute that plan to stop them. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to subject the military budget to the same principle that Carly Fiorina advocates––zero based budgeting. That means instead of taking last year’s budget as the base and decided whether or not to add to it, we start with zero and decide what amount if any goes to each line item. Is it practical? Someone ought to challenge her in the next debate on that very point.

Rubio was also right on the tax code. Senator Paul objected to Rubio’s child exemption because it is an entitlement. Hello America, guess what? The tax code is not only a means of raising the monies necessary to operate our government, but it also has social policy implications whether we like it or not. Let’s use the flat tax to flush out that concept. Assume we impose a 10 percent flat tax as Senator Cruz favors. If we don’t take into account family size, our tax system would be a disincentive to have children. Why? A couple earning $60,000 a year with no children would pay the same as a couple with five children. The same is true if we eliminate the home mortgage and charitable deductions. To do so would militate against home ownership and charitable giving. I was glad to see the Rand Paul recognizes that fact and breaks with his Libertarian comrades on that issue at least in terms of the mortgage and charity deductions.

When a candidate tells you the principle he’s basing his policies on, as Rubio does when he explains why his tax code would be pro-family, we can decide if we agree, but what do we do if the candidate doesn’t fully articulate the principles upon which his policies will be based, or if he shows a lack of understanding of the issues such that he can’t articulate what practical considerations would have to be taken into account. To me that’s the problem with Ben Carson. Not only don’t I know how he arrives at a position, but his answers make me doubt he understands the practical elements involved. The danger of a Carson presidency is that his advisors might also lack the knowledge of the institutions, laws, and policies affecting an issue. That would make him ineffective in trying to change things for the better. They might, for example, ignore the law of unintended consequences. People who lack knowledge and experience in dealing with the tax code, the Federal Reserve, or the federal bureaucracy in general might try to implement changes that make matters worse, creating chaos and confusion when what is needed is clarity, order, and simplicity.

Donald Trump exemplifies a different problem. He says things are bad, and I think most Americans agree with him to some extent, but then he says trust me, I’ll fix things. Again, I want to know the principles upon which his policies emanate. You can’t just be a pragmatist, using “common sense” to fix things because what your common sense tells you on one issue may be different on a different issue. Common sense says we need to simplify the tax code, but you need a set of principles that tells you how to simplify it.

Which candidates best exemplify an understanding of the need to balance principle with practicality? In my opinion the two best are Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. What puts them ahead of Kasich and Bush is their ability to articulate that understanding by telling us what principles they are operating under and how they’d tackle the practical side of the matter. Rubio did that on taxes, Fiorina on handling Putin and on our runaway government.

Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are too much of ideologues in my humble opinion. Their attempts to implement their principles would flounder on such practical matters as convincing Congress to go along. Kasich and Bush might run a good ship but neither has what it takes to win the nomination. Kasich seems too anxious, Bush isn’t sure he wants to get down and dirty if that’s what it takes.

Rubio and Fiorina tied as winners last night. They represent the GOP’s best shot at winning in November 2016 because they are principled, but understand you have to have a plan that recognizes you’re not a dictator and need to work in the system to put your principles into policies that work.

A review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)

Between the World and Me, which is structured as a letter to his fifteen year old son by Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a rejection of and an indictment of the United States––its origins, its history, its people. To that end it demands a rebuttal.

No one has the right to deny Coates interpretation of his experience, to deny what it was like growing up as he did in poverty in Baltimore in the last quarter of the 20th century. He eloquently describes the incidents that led him to his negative conclusions about this country, including the odds weighted against him on the street and in school.

Counterposing those experiences, however, was his family life. He was blessed by a grandfather who taught him the love of books and a grandmother who taught him the import of questioning authority. No sane person could have lived that life without coming away with a good deal of anger, nor without the tools to express that anger.

Nor is Coates to be criticized as an outlier in the transcribing the story of the Black experience. As Toni Morrison suggests, he follows in a tradition that include James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, and others.

Where does he go wrong? To me it’s defining the Black experience as both unique and intentional. Many groups have had experiences as bad the descendants of slavery. What of the Jews, the Armenians, the Russian and Chinese victims of Communism, the African victims of genocide, India’s outcastes, and many others?

Coates seems to want an answer as a member of a group, which he will argue, is how others have defined him. Yet no time in human history had the rights of the individual without regard to gender or origins been more valued than on this continent on the day our Declaration of Independence was passed. Should we hold against the founders, as Coates does, the fact that their stand was a beginning and not the end of the story of the struggle for liberty for all people?

In terms of intentionality, Coates’ fallacy is blaming people for policies over which they had no control and which many protested. Slavery had its opponents long before the United States became a country. Many died to put an end to it. Whites helped found the NAACP in 1909 and white college students of my generation went to the South to protest segregation. Has Coates talked to Black Southerners who were alive in the 1960s? The changes have been dramatic.

One of the incidents that led to Coates’ unremitting anger was the murder of fellow Howard College student Prince Jones in September 2000 by an undercover police officer. Each one of the similar tragedies that can be traced as far back as you want to go eats at the soul and makes it difficult to challenge the notion that America is not a police state structured to crush Black people for the benefit of “those who think they are white.”

Yet to make this argument Coates has to undercut his own thesis, as the officer who killed Prince Jones was black. Jones’ death can only be described as a reflection of race if one is willing to muddy the waters of rational discourse by suggesting all black police officers are white when it comes to their treatment of blacks.

The problem instead more truly reflects the consequences of charging law enforcement with impossible and often contradictory responsibilities. The most difficult assignment for public officials in general, not just police officers, is operating in our inner cities. Generations living in poverty, where the family structure and other institutions are weak and where crime is a rational choice, have given rise to a hostile, war zone environment for teachers, social workers, bus drivers, meter readers as well as police officers.

Can whites and blacks be blamed for leaving if they could? Coates would like to do so. He recalls seeing white children at ease in a mixed New York neighborhood and reflects on how black children are often told they have to be twice as good. “No one told those little white children . . . to be twice as good. I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.” (91)

Coates imagines a lot of things about whites that are just plain wrong. He imagines we make a big deal about being white to the extent we have lost our connection with our ethnic origins. Not true. He imagines we think differences in “hue and hair” are the right way to organize a society. Not for two hundred years. He imagines whites see race “as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world.” I don’t think I’m alone in seeing only one race––the human one.

Has the fact that Coates grew up in a country that promises much it has not always delivered contributed to the level of his anger? Had he grown up in almost any other country in the world, he would not have had a foundation for his complaints, as nowhere else are people even promised what we are in the United States have been granted. Yes, America has often failed to deliver, but Coates questions whether the promises are genuine. That is his mistake.

Progress has always been achieved by those who believed the rights possessed by others were due them as well. What can you achieve if you give up before the battle has even started?

Hints in Between the World and Me suggest Samori Coates has moved beyond his father. The son’s experience is such that he takes for granted what the father still can not. While the father sees the death of young blacks at the hands of the police as evidence that nothing has changed, the son views those incidents as anomalous. Both would protest, but the son lives in a world where his opportunities are greater, where fewer pay attention to his skin color, and where the promise of the Declaration is closer than ever to belonging to all.

I read Between the World and Me at the suggestion of someone I had criticized for his use of the term “mass incarceration.” I heard that term again during the Democratic debate from the mouth of Hillary Clinton. Loose language and especially inflammatory language used loosely bother me greatly. They are signs that people have stopped dealing with particulars and fail to see the damage that is done by throwing out generalities whose meaning fails to stand up to scrutiny.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is extremely articulate. His phrasing speaks of genuine feeling and a bright intellect, but he also employs a lot of loose language. He sneaks in words whose meaning is inside baseball to those who think like he does.

Here are three examples. The italics are mine:

  • The destroyers (speaking of the police) are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy” (10).
  • “[E]ducators spoke of ‘personal responsibility’ in a country authored and sustained by a criminal irresponsibility” (33).
  • “And today, with a sprawling prison system, which has turned the warehousing of black bodies into a jobs program for Dreamers and a lucrative investment for Dreamers” (131).

Words matter. If the words on the pages of Between the World and Me matter, then the words of the Declaration of Independence matter, the words of the U.S. Constitution matter, and the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which Coates discounts, matter. It’s unfortunate that Coates disputes that Americans who are not descendants from slavery mean to include Black people when we use the term people, but we do.

If Coates is not satisfied that two and a half centuries of American history have demonstrated a commitment to inclusion, I suggest he take another look. He sees the glass more than half empty. I urge him to talk to people who see it more than half full. They won’t be hard to find.