Issue 52 (2012)

Communitarian Observations

I often write about rather different matters, but in my mind they all deal with one core question: the guidance our shared values, especially the common good, provide to our public policies.

From My Diary

It seems to me that the answer to the question of whether the Supreme Court has the power to declare laws enacted by Congress as unconstitutional—they surely have that power, but like all powers it can be abused. This is especially likely to occur if judges heed their ideology rather than the Constitution.

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A must-read is Matt Bai’s article, Who Killed the Debt Deal? The article is important because we shall face the same issues soon after the election, when the Bush tax cuts are set to expire, the payroll tax “holiday” is to end, and Congress committed itself to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The article shows that both the President and the Speaker were willing to stray far from the principles of their parties and constituencies, for a variety of reasons concerning their political needs and personal standing and proclivities. Most revealing is that the deal—even if agreed upon—was a sham based on smoke-and-mirrors. It was based on assuming a level of economic growth unlikely to be obtained and on Congress curtailing numerous deductions which it is very unlikely to curtail. Read it, weep, and be forewarned.

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Democracy: A Journal of Ideas carries three fine articles that hold that “to revive progressivism, we need to rediscover the forgotten language of obligations and engagement.” This is a very well taken point, although it would be better to refer to responsibilities rather than duties. Duties are things we sense we must do, often because of some kind of pressure or threat. Responsibilities are things we feel we ought to do because WE find them morally compelling. (English never uses two words for the same concept.)

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Americorps receives over 500,000 applications each year for 80,000 slots.

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Siddhartha Mukherjee’s very well written book, The Emperor of All Maladies, quotes the following line: “In God we trust. The others [must] have data.”

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The current issue of Dissent is devoted to–food.

Mars can wait. Oceans can’t

While space travel still gets a lot of attention, not enough attention has been accorded to a major new expedition to the deepest point in the ocean, some 7 miles deep — the recent journey by James Cameron, on behalf of National Geographic.

The cover story of the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs lays out the “Case for Space.” “60 Minutes” recently ran a story about the dire effects on Florida’s space industry of scaling back our extraterrestrial endeavors. Newt Gingrich gained attention earlier this year by calling for building a permanent base on the moon. And President Obama has talked of preparing to eventually send Americans into orbit around Mars.

Read the rest at

This op-ed received a variety of interesting comments. Click here (and scroll down) if you wish to read them.

GOP: Less Bikes, More Cars

Transferring funds reserved for bikeways and walkways to highways is not an April Fools’ Day leftover, but a move under consideration by the Congress of the United States of America. The 20-year-old Transportation Enhancements program currently mandates that a small fraction, about 2 percent, of federal transportation funding be reserved for building bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, but critics of the program argue that scarce resources should go toward funding highways and bridges for vehicles. They argue that fixing crumbling bridges, improving road conditions, and reducing congestion on highways should be prioritized over “frivolous” programs in which they lump beautification projects in with bike paths.

Read the rest at The Huffington Post.

Select comments:

Dallas Dunlap: The problem with cycling currently is that it is simply dangerous. In Florida, most roads have no shoulders whatever and I would estimate that roughly 2/3 of drivers are impaired in some way: elderly with poor eyesight and slow reaction times, drunk or drugged, talking on cellphones, etc. And drivers have no concept of cyclists as vehicles, and so pass with only 6″ or so of clearance. To ride my bicycle, I have to put it in my truck and carry it 8 miles or so to the “nature trail.” It is absurd that we have built a transportation system that not only is dangerous for cyclists, but is also hostile to people who are walking. If a person on foot is the outsider to the system, the system is not workable in the long run.

Missella: If you characterize something as “beautification”, you can dismiss it as something only tree huggers support. Granted, we have dangerous bridges to consider, but it’s short-sighted to completely defund bike and walking lanes that could make urban areas safer. How predictable that the defunding fetish is applied to this small expenditure.

Demisfine: Getting your first bike used to be a right of passage. Biking in college (I’m a snob, I guess) is a given, even here in the Northeast, and most of the states with the healthiest residents have excellent bike trails and bike exchange programs. So it only makes sense that the GOP would be opposed to bikes and bike riders.

For rest of the comments, click here.

In Defense of Drones

Rarely has a critic made a stronger case for the program he is opposing than David Rohde’s brief against drones. Mr. Rohde—a Pulitzer Prize winner and widely read reporter—told NPR that there is one element of the Obama foreign-policy doctrine of multilateralism, transparency, and a focus on direct threats that “undermines that whole approach”: the lascivious use of drones.

Rohde told NPR in March that there has been an “extraordinary” increase in the use of drones by the Obama administration. It is five times larger than it was during the Bush era. Bush had forty-four strikes; Obama, by now, 239. However, if one takes into account that we are dealing with terrorists and insurgents in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, among other places, over three years, one may wonder if the number is not rather small.

Read the rest at The National Interest.

The World America Didn’t Make

Robert Kagan’s book, The World America Made, is refocusing the debate on whether the United States is declining as a global power—and speculation about whether other powers will step in to assume the responsibility for sustaining a liberal, rule-based international order. Kagan is known as a brilliant conservative observer, and even President Obama is reported to be reading this tour de force of U.S. foreign policy.

Most of the debate about the book is centered on the question of whether the United States is indeed declining and if China is ready to buy into the liberal order. But more attention should be dedicated to the question of whether there is such an order in the first place…

Read the rest at The National Interest.

Recent Publications

“Rights and Responsibilities: The Intergenerational Covenant.” With Laura Brodbeck. Journal of Comparative Social Welfare. 28.2 (June 2012) 113-117.

Debates around pension policy are often couched in terms of rights, while corresponding responsibilities associated with these rights are often regarded as onerous and oppressive. This is an unsatisfactory basis for designing pension institutions, since rights cannot be sustained without responsibilities. Social commitments, such as the commitment implied in the Social Security Act, reflect an intergenerational covenant that must be protected by younger generations who will only see benefits if future generations remain committed to the same responsibilities. The contract between America and its elders is not a real-time contract but one in which carrying out one’s duties precedes collecting one’s entitlements. Each right lays a claim on someone; and if that person does not honour the responsibilities of that claim, there can be no regime of rights. In short, the design of pensions around rights requires the public authority to address their corresponding responsibilities.

“Obama’s New Old Defense Strategy.” The New Republic. April 5 2012.

When President Obama unveiled his military budget earlier this year, it was clear that he was essentially putting a new defense strategy on the table. The Pentagon’s plan called for the ranks of the active-duty Army to be reduced from 570,000 to 490,000 troops over five years. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was supposed to shrink from 202,000 to 182,000. At the same time, drones were a high priority in the budget—not surprising, given that Obama has ordered about five times as many drone attacks as his predecessor. According to Robert Haddick, writing at Foreign Policy, “the Pentagon intends to keep its ability to maintain continuous drone surveillance over 65 spots on the globe, with the capability to surge that to 85 if necessary.”

The Best Government Money Can Buy

study by University of Kansas researchers examining corporations’ return on lobbying investment for the 2004 American Jobs Creations Act found that for every $1 firms paid lobbyists, they received $220 back thanks to a tax holiday provision. That’s a 22,000% return on investment.

Viral Videos, Activists Discussed as Tools to Prevent Atrocities

Click here to read about a panel on “The Responsibility to Protect,” convened as part of the Clinton Global Initiative University in Washington DC, featuring Michael Gerson, Juliana Rotich, Kristen Bell, and Amitai Etzioni.

I Read

NPR reports on significant vulnerabilities of major infrastructure in the U.S. (like water, power, electric, and chemical facilities) to cyberattacks. A former DHS employee reported that he had never inspected a facility that did not have some vulnerability. Nearly 90% of these installations are privately controlled, so the government is eager to establish some regulatory standards to protect these facilities from attack. However, as experts note, the private sector is notoriously reluctant to implement costly security measures without being forced to do so. For more discussion by us, click here.

working paper by Raúl López-Pérez and Eli Spiegelman examined the frequency with which students in various majors lied under specific experimental circumstances. The researchers found that those who studied business and economics lied with greater frequency than those who have studied other subjects. Their analysis suggests that the study of business and economics itself may cause this behavior.

In The Atlantic, Michael Sandel comments on the ways markets have permeated our society (he points out that people can buy and sell things that were once immune to commercialization—from surrogacy to carbon emissions to fighting in a war). He worries that, as the reach of markets extends, the impact of economic inequality on the have-nots will only become more pronounced and that the existence of markets for things once thought un-sellable can have a corrupting effect on the things themselves, as well as our values.

The New York Times editorial board points out that human rights violations committed by the opposition in Syria (as documented by Human Rights Watch) are the last thing the movement needs if it is going to keep the support of the international community and defeat Assad’s regime. We missed this important issue in Libya. For more discussion, click here.


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Martin O. Heisler, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland

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