Friday, February 05, 2010

Bipartisanship, Direct Democracy, and Neo-Lamarckianism

Thanks everyone for amazing questions this week. You folks are incredible. A couple political and a biological one today. 71 asks,

"What is bipartisanism and is there any real hope for it?"
One is tempted to say that "bipartisan" is like "politically correct," a phrase that has no real meaning, just emotive, rhetorical power. But i think the truth is that it is has several different meanings.

The Joe Lieberman meaning of bipartisan is "Let's get Republicans and centrist Democrats to come together on the one thing we all agree on. We hate liberals. Aren't they annoying? They are like that kid in class who would remind the teacher to assign us the homework she forgot about. Man, I hate those obnoxious goody-goodies, don't you? Do they not realize that corporations have MONEY and that they will give it to US?"

Then there's the David Broder approach to bipartisanism which is a deep underlying affinity for the greedy, self-interested aspect of conservatism, but a distaste for displaying the overt bigotry associated with it. They buy into social long as they don't have to pay for it or surrender their privileged position. It is a higher level approach that pairs positions on social concerns relating to unfair practices and institutions that resemble those of the Democrats with spending and taxation policy positions that resemble those of the "fiscally conservative" Republicans and when they conflict, tax cuts (at least for people in their tax bracket) and service cuts (for people not in their tax bracket) always get the trump card. Bipartisanship, on this approach, is the "Dockersization of America" "I don't mind black people, as long as they dress up to my level and wear khakis. And I don't mind gay people, as long as they dress down to my level and wear khakis."

Then we have the Obama approach to bipartisanship which is issue-specific. Take the public option as a perfect example. The liberals argued that health care is a matter of care, not contract, that we need a single-payer government run program that puts people ahead of profit. The conservatives say that the free market always improves efficiency, that the decisions of government bureaucrats are always inferior to those of profit-motivated executives, and that consumers always benefit from less government. So, let's try to meld these seemingly conflicting points of view. We'll create a situation where we keep competition in the marketplace, but we'll add a governmental competitor. That way, if the conservatives are right that competition fosters innovation, an extra competitor will supercharge them and if profit-driven corporations always outperform public sector offerings, they have nothing to fear. If the liberals are right, then there will be a government run choice for them and private sector competitors to keep them honest. It was set out to make both sides happy by including their most cherished principles.

But what happened? Conservatives complained that they didn't get absolutely everything they wanted making it equivalent to Hitler exterminating Jews and since it was coming from Obama anyway, forget it, they'll oppose anything short of his immediate resignation, free guns for all, and mandatory detention for anyone who votes Democratic. Liberals were beside themselves with joy because while they weren't getting everything, they might actually be getting SOMETHING (Go ask gramps again about the time they got Social Security passed. I never get tired of that story. It almost seems like science fiction.). And so-called moderates like Joe Lieberman turned violent in opposition to positions he had previously not only supported, but actively put forward because liberals like Anthony Weiner said they liked them and the entire point of politics is to make sure those liberals don't get anything they want, even if the American public has to suffer for it.

So, what are the chances for bipartisanship? If it means changing nothing and giving more money to large companies for obscene bonuses to upper management? I'd say the chances are pretty darn good.

Justin asks,
"Should the mass opinion of the people completely dictate which laws are passed by elected officials?"
Our system is a representative democracy, rather than a direct one. So, in that sense, we elect people who then vote their mind and conscience. The opinion of the people is expressed only at the time when the office holder runs for re-election. Indeed, this was in part the idea -- to isolate those who make the decisions from the populace because as Founding Father Alexander Hamilton held "The masses are asses." Surely, those who govern will be superior to the rabble and should not be beholden to their ill-informed opinions.

We have the system we have, instead of a parliamentary system, because the Founding Fathers didn't trust parties, thinking that they stepped on innovation and individual insight. They therefore instituted a winner take all system, instead of proportional representation and inadvertently made political parties stronger by forcing there to be only two (more than that in a winner take all system drives weaker third parties out) and having only two parties then means that monied interests can more easily influence the process, moving decision making away from the interests of the people (it should be made clear that the interests of the people and the positions preferred by the people are not identical).

Seeing this, a number of states have made the move halfway back towards direct democracy with ballot initiatives, a second legislative process the ability for the people to by-pass the legislature altogether and enact laws on their own. In this way, you have competing lawmaking processes and the elected officials thereby do have to be more responsive to the desires of their constituents, not only for re-election, but also because they can undo anything that they do. Thus we have a middle ground between complete legislative autonomy and politicians as puppets of the polls. It is an uneasy and imperfect arrangement, but occupies what I think is the proper middle ground. We don't our laws to change along with want the ebb and flow of public opinion. Tragic events, for example, have unexpected and often unfortunate effects on the collective psyche and we want our laws buffered from these intellectual potholes. At the same time, we do not want a group of legislators who are isolated from the people either. So, it is an awkward but necessary tension in our governmental structure.

Scott F asks,
"does Jean Baptiste Lamarck get to give a postmortem,"booyah!" to Darwinists with the growing findings indicating the importance of the epigenome?"
"Vive le gene!" indeed. Lamarck offered an evolutionary theory a generation before Darwin in which it is not random mutations that drive natural and sexual selection, but rather acquired traits. If the parents stretch their necks to reach higher leaves while foraging, their offspring will have necks that will stretch farther. Thus we get giraffes.

Lamarck was rejected by Darwin who postulated random changes as the source without a mechanism that was later supplied by Mendelian genetics. We see how traits are passed on and how random changes do pop up. So, we thought, case closed, Darwin 1, Lamarck 0. Game over.

But, of course, life is much more interesting than that. It turns out that genetic predisposition does mean genetic determinism. You may have the gene for x, but environmental circumstances may keep it from expressing itself in the way that makes x come about. Sure, nothing too weird there, the body responds to its environment and environmental changes might not give it a chance to do its worst. i may be genetically predisposed towards alcoholism, for example, but if I never drink, no harm done.

But it get stranger when we realize that -- ala Lamarck -- the environmental effects may not have been in MY environment, but rather those of previous generations. It turns out, for example, that people whose grandparents experienced periods of sustained hunger are much less likely to be diagnosed with type I diabetes whereas those whose grandparents were wealthy and never missed a meal are more likely to have the disease -- even when we control for genetics. Is this neo-Lamarckianism? In a sense, I think that's fair. We are not necessarily acquiring the trait as directly, but there is something resembling his mechanism at work in the world. Science is like fashion in some ways, things come back around just when you thought they were out of date.

Thanks again everyone for fantastic questions.