Monday, March 25, 2013

Tom Allen's "Dangerous Convictions"

Tom Allen is President and CEO of the American Association of Publishers. He is a former U.S. Congressman representing Maine's 1st District from 1997 to 2009.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the U.S. Congress, and reported the following:
After serving 12 years in Congress, I have an different take on the sources of institutional gridlock. The primary reason for our current polarization isn’t redistricting, the permanent campaign, political money or the manipulation of Senate or House rules by both sides. Ideas matter more, especially when bundled into worldviews that become impervious to evidence. Congress today is deeply divided because, to each side, the opinions of the other make no sense, and therefore, each concludes, cannot be honestly held.

Democrats still believe that government can be a means to expand opportunity and to resolve public challenges beyond the capacity of the private sector. Republicans now believe that even popularly elected governments inevitably infringe on personal liberty and foster dependency among the population. That’s the point of Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47%” of the people, those who get “gifts” from Democrats in exchange for votes. The Democratic worldview is grounded in community, our instinct to form groups to get things done. The Republican worldview is built upon the quintessential American virtue, self-reliance.

Dangerous Convictions explores how congressional gridlock grows out of incompatible worldviews—individualism vs. community. I believe it helps explain the questions about my Republican colleagues that puzzled me the most: could they really believe that tax cuts pay for themselves, that we would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqis, that government-regulated health care doesn’t work and that climate science isn’t proven? These convictions made no sense to Democrats, just as ours made no sense to Republicans.

Page 99 is the conclusion to chapter three and a summary of my argument about why Congress failed, and still fails, to cope pragmatically with budget and tax issues, and why the invasion and reconstruction of Iraq were so badly bungled.

From pages 98-99:

Convictions can be dangerous when they create barriers to doubt and evidence. The invasion and occupation of Iraq were based on convictions that Saddam was the root of evil in the Middle East, that democracy would emerge in that “cosmopolitan” society if he were deposed, and that an early American exit was necessary to avoid creating a “dependency” of Iraqis on outsiders. The signature domestic policy of the Bush administration and the Republican Congress came down to the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, which were based on unshakable convictions about the power of free markets, the stimulating effect of tax cuts, and the vital role of the very wealthy in driving investment in new businesses.

The advocates for the Bush tax cuts and the invasion of Iraq were fiercely resistant to contrary information concerning the administration’s policies. Yet they were wrong. We were not welcomed as liberators. Iraq could not pay for its own reconstruction. Democracy is not a default form of government but an incredibly difficult culture to create and maintain. The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts reduced federal revenues and restored large deficits, and the consequences were enormous. By the end of 2011, the direct costs of our invasion and occupation of Iraq were approximately $1 trillion, and not a penny in new taxes was authorized to pay for it. The Bush tax cuts, depending on how long they continue, will have increased the national debt by several trillion more.

The convictions that inspire the Republican passion for tax cuts are not the same as those that drove America into Iraq without adequate deliberation and planning. For conservatives, taxes should be lower and government smaller because of perceived risks to personal freedom. Conservatives also tend to be more inclined to resolve international disputes by the use of force. That’s why the worldview of conservatives has a libertarian cast on issues like taxes, health care, and climate change, and what appears to be an America-against-the-world component on some foreign policy matters. Perhaps these two aspects of a conservative worldview are generally, but not always, found in the same people. In both cases, the consequence can be a tendency to block contrary evidence from undermining the internal coherence of the conservative worldview.

The August 2011 final report of the CWC in Iraq and Afghanistan emphasizes the deficiencies in agency planning and coordination that contributed to the American failures in Iraq. It does not cover the deeper source of those failures—the worldview of the policy’s architects that was impatient with complexity and disdainful of evidence and expertise.

The most painful part of all this for me was attending so many funerals across Maine for the young men and women who lost their lives in our war of choice in Iraq. I remember the school gymnasium jammed with more people than live in the town of the deceased soldier and the many smaller rural churches in communities where everyone knows everyone else. Our governor and the congressional delegation occupied a front row in every case. But the men and women who gave their lives for our country deserved both a deliberate high-level evaluation of the risks and benefits before the administration decided to invade Iraq in addition to aggressive congressional oversight during the conflict. They got neither.

The world as it is exacts a price from those who deny its complexity—and sometimes from many others as well.
Read more about  Dangerous Convictions at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue