Applauding the extreme

A thoughtful E.J. Dionne editorial this weekend lauds Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Obviously, that’s nothing new – outside of Klansmen and contrarians,  there aren’t a lot of people writing anti-MLK op eds.  What’s striking about Dionne’s piece is that it points out King’s radicalism:

This focus on calling out injustice — pointedly, heatedly, sometimes angrily — is what the people of King’s time, friend and foe alike, heard. It made many moderates (and so-called moderates) decidedly uncomfortable.

Anyone tempted to sanitize King into a go-along sort of guy should read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” from April 1963. It’s a sharp rebuke to a group of white ministers who criticized him as an outsider causing trouble and wanted him to back off his militancy…  And recall King’s response to being accused of extremism. Though “initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist,” he wrote, “as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” Jesus, he said, was called “an extremist for love,” and Amos “an extremist for justice.” The issue was: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

For a shorter version of that last quote, thumb over to Barry Goldwater‘s page in Bartlett’s: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In fact, Dionne’s characterization of King invites comparison to the coverage of the movement for smaller government.  (To his credit, Dionne has shown he recognizes this parallel to a degree; he’s one of the few left-leaning columnists able to discern the tea party from Republican politics.)

It deserves mentioning that there are plenty of differences: Tea party rallies aren’t being broken up with fire hoses, rubber (or real) bullets, tear gas, or the releasing of any hounds.  King and his allies risked life and limb to make a stand for their big idea.

But they did have that big idea, and believed in it so much that compromise was unacceptable.  People were either equal, or they weren’t; they were either allowed to attend the same schools and drink from the same water fountains, or they weren’t.

With that in mind, let’s look at our policy landscape here in 2011.  There’s a snowballing debt thanks to a governing culture that allows government to spend lavishly to help build a society and direct an economy.  The debt puts at risk the stability of our currency and by extension things like houses and other long-term investments.  More important, the services financed by that debt are generally sub-par and fail to accomplish intended goals.

Either that governing culture changes – reigning in spending, allowing people to make their own decisions about health care and retirement, and eliminating waste – or it doesn’t.

The casualties of this movement include moderate and Washington-centric politicians – such as Mike Castle and Bob Bennett in 2010.  It makes “moderates and so-called moderates” (to borrow Dionne’s term) like Sen. Orrin Hatch uncomfortable.

But if you believe strongly that the government was biting off more than it could chew to deliver failing policies, and that the promises of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and other public assistance programs are a bad check which will be sent back marked “insufficient funds,” you should be fighting.  And supposed allies who favor a “wait-and-see” approach while continuing to conduct the business of government the same way it has been conducted for 80 years aren’t really allies.

That isn’t “extremism,” it’s political advocacy – and as observers from King to Dionne have understood, it’s how policy making works.

The Politics of Public Comments

The White House’s Open Government Initiative – President Barack Obama’s directive to for more transparency and public involvement in the often-arcane machinations of the Executive Branch – celebrates its first birthday today. The initiative’s first year has been largely overshadowed by legislative fights, but the real test will come in 2011 – when the Obama Administration likely becomes the Ministry of Regulation.

The President faces a split Congress in 2011, and lawmaking wasn’t all that easy when he had strong majorities in both Houses. Beyond that, he faces the dual risks of losing his far-left base and alienating the middle by allowing the Republicans to play some offense with their House majority. Of course, any revolutionary bill passed by a Republican House will be shot down by the Democratic Senate – and then the Democrats become the sideline-sitting, Slurpee-sipping, “Party of No” just in time for the 2012 election – freeing them up to hand down edicts on everything from internet regulation to carbon emissions.

What is a President to do?

The answer lies in the alphabet soup of agencies throughout the Executive branch, including such classics as the FCC, the FTC, the SEC, and everyone’s favorite, the EPA. Each has regulatory authority delegated from Congress. And, unlike the President’s allies in Congress, bureaucrats will not have to face voters in 2012.

Regulatory agencies are not immune to public input, but they sure can make it a challenge.

For instance, anyone who has been involved in a land use issue which included federal oversight knows the mass of documents required. Each document (along with draft, final, and supplemental versions) must have its own public comment period, where citizens can submit their thoughts.

In theory, that should mean more avenues for input; in practice it is confusing and redundant. Making the process more complex is the fact that each agency may count comments differently; a regulator has the discretion to decide if a comment should be dismissed for being immaterial. Individual bureaucrats have tremendous interpretive power over the public input that crosses their desk.

Is the grassroots wave against big government – and the nascent GOP House majority they produced – already backed into a corner? Far from it.

The American people haven’t fallen back in love with Washington quite yet, so the electorate is likely to listen to the case against shadow laws via bureaucracy. Grassroots activists should participate in comment periods whenever they can – and make sure elected policymakers get a copy of the same letter or message that went to the regulators. (It isn’t as much fun as a protest or an angry phone call to your local Congressional office, but it’s still important.)

House Republicans can and will schedule oversight hearings. These hearings should include scrutiny over public participation opportunities Members of Congress should hold regulators accountable for providing opportunities for public access to the process – and for being receptive to the will of the people.

The Administration, which so dearly values open government, will be happy to comply – right?

Cross-posted at Pundit League.

Behold, your new internet!

Google and Verizon have an idea of what the open internet of the future might look like, and today announced a policy proposal that the FCC – and eventually Congress – may take into consideration as they wade through these issues.

Leaving aside the meat of their proposal for a second, the deal is a good financial move.  Internet carriers and internet services figure to have different opinions, and those entities are already spending a lot of money in Washington.  By agreeing on something now, these companies could save millions in lobbying and grassroots campaigns later.

But beyond the strategy is the actual proposal, and there are two items which stand out.  First, the proposal only applies to wireline internet carriers – the people who plug the internet into your house, also typically known as your cable company.  Verizon’s FiOS service is also under that plan, but unlike those carriers, Verizon also has mobile access points to the internet through Android smartphones.

The second is that, while the proposal does call for “transparency” among internet service providers, it makes no such call for transparency or “search neutrality” from the other companies that serve as gatekeepers – notably, Google and Facebook, the companies which provide the lenses through which you see the internet.

The result is a plan which does choose some losers, but which allow its proponents to maintain their business practices.  So the deal is a good move in more ways than simply keeping lobbying costs down, if you’re Google or Verizon.


Apple – or, more specifically, Apple CEO Steve Jobs – flexed some muscles in the last week by proclaiming that Adobe Flash has no place on the iPhone, the iPad, or whatever’s iNext.  As previously discussed (here and there, as well), the walled garden that is the App Store positions Apple not only as the gatekeeper of “tech cool,” but also as the potential object of an antitrust investigation.

Today, two Washington agencies are reportedly deciding who gets to launch an Apple antitrust investigation.

As easy as it would be to point to Jobs’s chest-beating, this is the second time in two weeks where a company is drawing ire from inside the beltway.  And in both cases, the companies in the crosshairs are direct competitors to Google.  That doesn’t make Google the Michael Corleone of federal tech policy, taking out enemies silently and sequentially (though it would be kind of cool if it were).  It does mean that technology policymakers seem to be on the same page as Google as far as what access to the internet or the mobile web should look like.