Ferguson and Political Symbolism

I am a black man. I am also a human being. I like to think of myself as a reasonable and humane human being. As such, I was deeply disturbed when I first learned of an incident involving the death of an unarmed teenager at the hands of a police officer. I was yet further disturbed upon hearing initial reports that the officer acted without apparent justification. Stories poured forth about a young black man who was a gentle giant, who could not possibly have done anything to warrant or provoke such an action from law enforcement. For the white officer, initially nameless, the implication was that this man was either a racist scoundrel with an itching trigger-finger or, at the very least, callously indifferent to the consequences of his unnecessary use of deadly force. The calls came immediately and insistently “What is the name of this monster who would so heartlessly snuff out the life of the gentle giant?” Darren Wilson. Darren Wilson was not just white, but a blank canvas against which a community could paint its historical grievances. Darren Wilson became a symbol, and Michael Brown, the gentle giant, was also a symbol.

I am not going to debate the facts or even give my interpretation of them. That would be easy. The point I want to make is broader. It is this: once the events of August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, MO took on transcendent significance, once the two chief actors became symbols—mere images to be invoked—the facts became irrelevant. The particulars became mere particulars—they could be shaped to suit the larger narrative into which they had been taken up. When a white cop shoots a black man in a black town with a white police force, the facts no longer matter—whatever truly happened that day in Ferguson is truly epiphenomenal. The players may change, there are countless insignificant variations of time and place, but the tragedy goes on…

U.S.-China Climate Deal and “Hyperbolic Congratulations”

Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently made a fair point in the Washington Post about the U.S.-China climate deal that I want to recognize. While conceding that the hype surrounding the deal amounts to “hyperbolic congratulations (‘game-changer‘, ‘historical‘, ‘this century’s most significant agreement‘),” he goes on to insist that:

It is also wrong to fix narrowly on the two-degree benchmark. It is a laudable goal, and one that is technically achievable, but by most honest reckonings, is politically implausible. And the difference between other amounts of warming – say between two degrees and three and four – could be dramatic. An agreement that cuts emissions is worthwhile even if it doesn’t deliver the two degree goal.

To be sure, none of this makes the deal the “gamechanger” that some people have heralded, or means that it will “save the world” as others have claimed. Critics and enthusiasts of climate diplomacy alike focus too much on super-high standards when assessing climate agreements. Supporters have wrongly obsessed with achieving a comprehensive global climate treaty, and their opponents have gloated when attempts to negotiate such an agreement have inevitably failed. (A corollary: Those who welcomed the U.S.-China announcement primarily as a sign that a big global treaty might be possible next year are missing its main point.) Just as Cold War arms control never eliminated the risk of nuclear war, even as it substantially reduced nuclear dangers, so climate diplomacy can help the world by reducing the risks of global warming, even as it never rids the planet of them. That’s the right standard by which to judge the big U.S.-China climate announcement – and, by that measure, the deal is a genuine success.

Again, fair point…



Updating Schoolhouse Rock in an Era of Dysfunction

I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict that, after all the hemming and hawing, we will ultimately end up with immigration reform in the form of legislation in the coming Congress–if not in one major bill, then in piecemeal confidence-building efforts. It seems the only other options for congressional Republicans boil down to either letting the President’s action go unchecked or to check it with escalating punitive obstruction which will be gratifying in the immediate term, but ultimately detrimental to their own newly resurgent (and precarious) prestige. Another option is a legal challenge which might ultimately succeed, but perhaps not within a time horizon relevant to the present conflict. As an aside, a legal challenge may still prove attractive if it adds momentum to the 2016 presidential contest.

In the meantime, SNL has demonstrated yet again that its true calling is not the quirky, slightly raunchy humor to which it often resorts, but political satire. Here is an update to the Schoolhouse Rock classic “I’m Just a Bill”:


A Classic(al) Response to the President’s Plan

President Obama will finally announce his intended executive actions on immigration tonight at 8/7 central after a dinner with congressional Democrats. You will be able to catch that live here.

Meanwhile Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) can keep us entertained with a speech from Cicero, originally delivered in 63 B.C., modified for this occasion:



UPDATE: Here is President Obama’s address.

Obama’s executive action:

— Delays the deportation of the undocumented parents of children who are in the country legally.

— It also protects any children who were brought to this country illegally before January 1, 2010.

— It directs immigration officials to concentrate on deporting criminals and those who pose a threat to national security.

Best line:

“But even as we focus on deporting criminals, the fact is that millions of immigrants in every state, of every race and nationality still live here illegally. And let’s be honest: tracking down, rounding up,  and deporting millions of people isn’t realistic. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t being straight with you.”



Deportations and the Limits of Executive Discretion

As I often explain to my students, Presidents can uncontroversially direct administrative agencies to do those things which lay within the agencies’ congressionally defined authority. But the question arises as to how far this power can be taken before it intrudes upon the province of the legislative branch. (See the Montesquieuan notion of a separation of legislative and executive authority). After all, the President’s Constitutional charge is not to make law, but to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” (Art II, Sec. 3). Due to the failure of Congress to pass the long-awaited, much-debated Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, the President is set to announce tomorrow his plan to take executive action to suspend the deportation of up to 5 million persons in the country illegally. Here’s a good summary of the issue:

While some prominent folks have argued that this action is certainly lawful [Update: See one legal scholar explain “The Realities of Administrative Discretion“], others have argued with equal certitude that it is unlawful [Update: See one legal scholar explain “Why Obama can’t declare himself king“]. What is more interesting is that President Obama has seemed to occupy both camps over the last few years (though, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, he denies changing his position). See this clip below from 2011 where the President responds to a question about whether he has the authority to halt deportations:

Then, as late as 2013, President Obama again denies he has such authority:

Though this issue is certainly debatable, the most damning condemnation of Mr. Obama’s planned use of executive authority may be the President himself.

Perhaps, it was this drunken satirical exchange with Mitch McConnell that provoked this change:



Climate Coup?

So, it is good to know I am in good company in my lack of enthusiasm about the US-China climate agreement. Regulation scholar Marc Eisner offered this round-up on his blog today:

There are plenty of reasons why one should be skeptical as to China’s ability/willingness to meet its own commitments, as Tyler Cowen (Marginal Revolution) suggests.

With respect to the US, there is no binding treaty on climate that can be submitted to the Senate (for obvious reasons). Everything rests on historical trends in greenhouse gas emissions relative to GDP—the Bush administration’s “greenhouse gas intensity” much ridiculed by environmentalists—and the ability of the EPA to achieve reductions via rules grounded in decades-old statutory authority. Even if the Obama EPA is committed to climate policy, it is not clear that future presidents will appoint administrators with a comparable commitment. More importantly, Congress has proven unwilling in the past to pass new statutes to directly address climate change and quite willing to use the appropriations process to shape regulatory actions. See the Economist’s coverage here.

Bottom line: I find it difficult to conclude that the climate agreement will amount to much in the long run, despite the breathless claims of its historic importance. Ultimately, it is difficult to see how we bring about significant reductions in greenhouse gases without increasing the price of carbon-based fuels, and the most effective means of doing this is  a carbon tax. In the currently political environment, the likelihood of a carbon tax is quite limited.

So Marc, Mckayla, and I are not impressed…

Not Impressed China Climate Deal