The economic mess in which we find ourselves has prompted numerous attempts at drawing a moral. Robert J. Samuelson, in Monday's Washington Post, took the establishment line: who could have known that it would happen? He gave several examples of how the "conventional wisdom crashed," including this: "It was once believed" that the effect of failing subprime mortgages would be limited because they represented only 12 percent of home mortgages and "they were widely held, diluting losses to individual banks and investors." I don't know who believed that, nor does Samuelson tell us. The problem grew out of the packaging of those mortgages, as to which there was deceit, greed, foolishness and an almost total lack of control, public or private. Those devices were known to exist, but few, apparently including their creators and traders, really understood them. There was no "conventional wisdom" about them and therefore none to "crash."
The most remarkable aspect of his analysis is the moral: "The great lesson of the past year is how little we understand and can control the economy. This ignorance has bred today's insecurity, which in turn is now a governing reality of the crisis." That's nonsense: the lesson is not that we can't control the economy, but that we quit trying to control business. We aren't so ignorant of the workings of the economy that we can't figure out that the massive circular trading of financial instruments no one understood, backed only by suspect mortgages, will lead to trouble.
In a different way, ignorance was the theme of a column in last week's New York Times by Thomas Friedman, based on comparing transportation and communication abroad to what we have. "What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity? . . . My fellow Americans, we can't continue in this mode of 'Dumb as we wanna be.' "
He gave several examples of bad decisions: "tax cuts that we can't afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars," ineffective public schools, and immigration policies that exclude people we need. I'm with him on the tax cuts, the need to improve schools (although not necessarily his analysis of the causes of failure), and maybe on immigration policy. As to bailouts, I don't understand why he picks on Detroit rather than Wall Street. "Energy prices" apparently refers to his advocacy of a tax on gasoline to lessen dependance on imported oil; that sort of penalty tax rarely has worked.
Bob Herbert, in his Times column on Saturday, escalated the rhetoric: the problem isn't mere ignorance; it's stupidity: "We have behaved in ways that were incredibly, astonishingly and embarrassingly stupid for much too long. We've wrecked the economy and mortgaged the future of generations yet unborn." He offers a slogan: "Invest in the U.S." (That may shock the advocates of free trade and the worshipers at the temple of globalization). The first of his particulars, deservedly, is to stop wasting money - and lives - in unnecessary and unlawful foreign wars. He also wants to reduce "mindless consumption." That recommendation may require some tweaking, as consumption is the core of the economy, but he's right about the excessive debt which is part of our pattern of consumption, and about sending jobs overseas, the Bush tax cuts and the failure to invest in infrastructure, education and protection of the environment.
Comparisons have been made between the present recession and the Depression. In some ways, we're not as badly off: fewer businesses have collapsed, unemployment is not as high, deflation has not set in. In other ways, the situation is worse: we already have chronic deficits and a massive national debt, we are conducting two wars, we have convinced ourselves that we must continue to spend huge amounts on "defense," and we have adopted social programs which now are underfunded.
The administration has embarked on a program of recovery stimulus, in the form of a bailout of the financial sector, but it is off to such a bad start that there is resistance to further spending. To overcome that, the new administration must show that it is serious about reform and accountability. It could start with limits on executive compensation at firms bailed out. The excuse that money is fungible, and therefore the companies can't tell where the bailout money went, should be treated as an admission of misappropriation. Accounting - simple bookkeeping - solves the fungibility problem.
There are other measures which would show that the administration is serious about honesty and accountability and which also would raise revenue. For example, eliminate offshore tax shelters, and tax investment fund management income at ordinary-income rates.
Most importantly, end the Iraq occupation, and decide what the mission is in Afghanistan - and whether it can be accomplished - before pouring more money and troops into it.
January 4, 2009
The Seattle Times may have been accurate in its forecast that the city could support only one daily newspaper. However, in 2007 it abandoned its effort to escape the Joint Operating Agreement, the demise of which would have been the end of the Post-Intelligencer, and instead entered into a settlement designed to give each paper a chance to survive for the next several years. The outcome has been the further deterioration of both papers. Each has cut back on pages and has combined sections. The front section of today's Times included the business pages and the pathetic remnant of the editorial/op-ed section. In the P-I, local news joined the editorial page in the front section; look for the business pages behind sports.
Circulation continues to fall. For the six months ending September 30, the Times lost 7.6%, the P-I 7.8% compared to 2007. The papers' combined circulation was down 27% from March 31, 2006. The P-I's associate publisher said, in October, that the paper has reduced its efforts to sell new subscriptions, which seems to be throwing in the towel. Apparently the plan is to go to online publication eventually.
Meanwhile, the strategy at both papers seems to be to cater to young, unsophisticated readers. I suppose that the rationale is that those are the readers of the future, but for the present they are the group least likely to buy newspapers, so the strategy promises little gain but runs the risk of having older subscribers give up in disgust. I sympathized with the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, which fought the Times' efforts to bury the P-I. However one decent paper would be better than the two we have now.
In a way, it's fitting that our papers are in a state of near-collapse, as this has not been a good time for Seattle. Sports fans have seen the Sonics leave town, while those that stayed might as well have: Mariners 61-101, Seahawks 4-12 and Huskies 0-12. Safeco sold itself to Liberty Mutual, Boeing can't figure out how to build the plane that might make it competitive, and Washington Mutual committed suicide.
January 9, 2009
I noted on Sunday that a comment by the associate publisher of The Post-Intelligencer seemed to show that the P-I was giving up the struggle as a newspaper and might go to online publication. I didn't think that would come to pass so quickly.
According to a report on the P-I's web site tonight, "The Seattle P-I is being put up for sale, and if after 60 days it has not sold, it will either be turned into a Web-only publication with a greatly reduced staff or discontinued entirely." The odds of a sale are slim, given the state of the newspaper business. Putting the paper up for sale is merely a necessary step, under the Joint Operating Agreement, toward closure.
The history of the JOA is one of puzzling decisions. The sale of the P-I, after staring down the Times in their recent litigation, is one. Apparently it is in part the result of the appointment of a new president of Hearst's newspaper division, who announced, "One thing is clear: at the end of the sale process, we do not see ourselves publishing in print."
January 11, 2009
An article in Sunday's New York Times commented on George W. Bush's legacy tour, and noted that some find its tone an admission of defeat. However, according to the reporter, that is not the mood among his staff:
Yet to talk to people still inside the Bush White House is to come away with a sense that they do not feel defeated at all. Rather, having been through the crucible of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, two wars, a hurricane of biblical proportions and the gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression, they describe a sense of achievement and honor in having served the country, and in particular this president. . . .1Either the reporter was speaking tongue in cheek, the staff were conning her or the staff are as detached from reality as the boss: probably the last. The terrorist attack and the response to Katrina were disastrous failures, one of the wars began with an unprovoked and unlawful invasion and both were bungled, and the recession was helped into existence by the administration's pro-business ideology. If that list doesn't add up to defeat, nothing will.
The article noted that, as part of the legacy spin, Karl Rove, in a formal debate on December 2, took the negative of the proposition "Bush 43 is the worst president in the last 50 years." In the course of his argument, Rove asserted that Bush probably would not have started a war against Iraq if he had known the truth about its alleged WMD. "Absent weapons of mass destruction," Rove said, "I don't think there would have been an invasion." 2 Assuming that the threat of WMD was the reason for the invasion, as alleged, that is the logical conclusion. However, the day before, Mr. Bush avoided it: asked what would have happened if he had been told there were no WMD, he said "You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate." 3 Three years ago, he had no hesitation, but took the opposite view from Rove's:
BUSH: I said I made the right decision. Knowing what I know today, I would have still made that decision.So now we have three versions: 1) no WMD, no war; 2) no WMD, maybe; 3) no WMD, war anyway.
HUME: So, if you had had this - if the weapons had been out of the equation because the intelligence did not conclude that he had them, it was still the right call?
It's apparent that version 3 is the truth. At least since Paul O'Neill's defection, we have known that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was on the agenda from day one of the administration; WMD provided a useful cover story, but a false one. Joseph Wilson exposed the tall tale about uranium from Niger. The Downing Street memos revealed that, in 2002, the evidence was being bent to fit the war plan, that the only question was when. Several sources have disclosed that an Iraqi official told the CIA that there were no WMD, and that this was relayed to Bush in September 2002.
No amount of retrospective spin will change the facts. Bush's best hope is that we will forget them, which is entirely possible.
January 14, 2009
I worried on Sunday that we would forget just how disastrous the Bush presidency has been. However, Mr. Bush may have eliminated the risk. His attempts to create a positive legacy have required his daily presence on the stage, which will do more than anything else to fix in people's minds just how inept, dishonest and dangerous he has been.
His final press conference on Monday contributed to that refocusing. Asked whether America's moral standing in the world has been damaged, he first denied that it has been, then conceded that it might have been among the "elite." Three sentences later he said that "parts of Europe" disapproved invading Iraq, so apparently those countries are the elite. How the head of an administration that wants to rule the world can refer to others as elites is a puzzle.
His rambling remarks eventually converted the question from moral standing in the world to popularity of actions at home. "And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States . . . ." The only concern Bush and his co-president have had about the Constitution is how to get around its limits on their power.
Mr. Bush told the reporters that he had never felt isolated in the office, and that "the phrase 'burdens of the office' is overstated." Here you need the video;5 that comment was accompanied by embarrassingly foolish expressions and postures which should destroy forever any notion that he was adult enough to be president.
He really may never have felt isolated or burdened. Certainly his mood never was much affected by the results of his actions. "I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy, every day has been joyous." Even days when, despite your best efforts, you were told about the death and destruction resulting from your policies? Well, yes: "Even in the darkest moments of Iraq, you know, there was -- and every day when I was reading the reports about soldiers losing their lives, no question there was a lot of emotion, but also there was times where we could be light-hearted and support each other." His version of light-heartedness was to crack insensitive jokes.
Certainly he wouldn't revisit the definitive instance of his ineptness. He did. Here's his view of the response to the destruction of New Orleans: "Have things happened fairly quickly? Absolutely."
Like many people, I have counted the days until the exit of George W. Bush into anonymous retirement, but maybe we shouldn't want him to disappear. A monthly press conference at which he tries to defend his actions might keep the memory bright and prevent a recurrence.
February 14, 2009
In the right-hand column, I've explained the title of this blog in part as an expression of "my hope that eventually there will be a different and better Washington D.C. than we have seen, especially since January 2001." We were away, and largely out of touch, for the last few days of the Bush era and the early days of the new administration. My impression on return is that not enough has changed, that "the fog that seems to cover the nation's capital" hasn't dissipated.
In several ways, President Obama has indicated that "change" was more slogan than program. His economic team is made up of people who contributed to the present mess. His approach to the bank failures appears to be the same as Bush's: a vague plan, lots of money, few controls and no radical restructuring.
The national security team is made up of hawks. We seem to be drifting toward escalation in Afghanistan with no obvious reason to think that it will solve anything. The nominee for the CIA has said that he might ask for exceptions to the President's no-torture policy. The Justice Department continues to invoke the state-secrets defense.
Mr. Obama's process for selecting and vetting cabinet officers has been inept. A cabinet appointee and a White House official have stepped down due to tax issues and the Treasury Secretary should have. The first choice for Commerce left amid an investigation into the awarding of contracts and the replacement has decided that he doesn't really agree with Obama's policies; he even voted against the stimulus.
To his credit, the President attempted to set a new and less partisan tone, which has been greeted by an all-t0o-predictable outburst of carping, posturing and adherence to failed policies. (Tony Auth's latest cartoon is a gem: elephants are building a stone wall labeled "Obstructionism," while one says, "We're the party of idea.")6 Partisanship, reflexive opposition, self-destructive ignorance and just plain ugliness have become the hallmarks of Republican tactics and conservative commentary; that Rush Limbaugh has become their spokesman is a measure of their decline. Senators Snowe, Collins and Specter are notable exceptions, but they stand almost alone; the Northeast five of a few years ago, a small enough moderate wing, is down to those three.
There was one bit of good news: William Kristol has been dropped by The New York Times. True, The Washington Post picked him up, but next to Charles Krauthammer he'll hardly be noticed.
February 16, 2009
A few days ago, David Horsey, cartoonist and columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote a depressing column about the impending demise of the P-I, along with speculation about the failure of The Seattle Times. The former is virtually a sure thing, at least in print, and the financial woes of newspapers make the latter a possibility. That would leave Seattle without a daily paper.
Horsey's column was entitled "Financial collapse threatens real journalism," but is the P-I still doing real journalism?
The first page of the "Life and Arts" section Saturday featured pictures of silly items to purchase - beyond silly when too many people are wondering where the next mortgage payment is coming from - including ant-shaped magnets for your fridge. Page one of the paper today was dominated by a long article, with two large photos, on "the Vixens," female pool players. Those and other examples of dumbing down make it difficult to regard the title of Horsey's column as anything but an exercise in nostalgia. I'll miss the P-I, especially Horsey, and until recently would have preferred that it survive rather than the Times, but now they're equally weak.
Leaving aside whether emphasizing trivia was a good business model when survival still was possible, why go on with that now? Why not spend the remaining six weeks producing a paper to be proud of, one which would go down practicing "real journalism?"
February 17, 2009
Just before leaving on vacation, we received our ballots for the King County special election. Had I voted, it would have been an event for me: my first vote by mail. Being a traditionalist, I held out until polling-place voting was abandoned.
It's well that this election did not require the elaborate former system. In our area, and in most of the county, there was only one item on the ballot: electing a Director of Elections. It's dumb enough that we must vote for that office, dumber still that an election was held almost solely for that purpose, as even elections by mail cost something.
Why were we voting for county elections director? Because, nitwits that we are, we voted last November to make the office elective. This is the Western-populist solution to the problems of government; divide responsibility among numerous independent offices, answerable to no one but the same silly voters who created the headless monster.
February 24, 2009
Perhaps I've been too hard on the soon-to-be-former P-I, and on the news media in general. I may be missing the point of their obsession with trivia and their sponsorship of commentators who have nothing sensible to say. As Oscar Wilde put it, "there is much to be said in favour of modern journalism."
By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. By carefully chronicling the current events of contemporary life, it shows us of what very little importance such events really are. By invariably discussing the unnecessary, it makes us understand what things are requisite for culture, and what are not. . . .7
7. "The True Critic" in The Oxford Book of Essays, pp. 318-19
March 1, 2009
When they were in control of the government, "conservatives" - those on the political right - could indulge their fantasy that they somehow understood Americans and the world, and were providing leadership. They could say and do things that were illogical, irrational, ugly, menacing, violent, barbaric and entirely in opposition to traditional American or human values, confident that they could brush off all objections, usually by asserting that they were protecting us from Armageddon in the form of 1) a physical attack by Muslims or 2) an assault on the culture by the Godless, i.e. anyone other than evangelical Christians. Now that they are on the sidelines, now that President Obama has laid out, for the most part, a progressive vision, they are manning the ramparts, protecting the Chosen and screaming that everyone outside is a Socialist.
Nothing reveals this more clearly than the agenda for the CPAC conference, held Thursday through Saturday. Appearances and book signings were scheduled for John Bolton, Ann Coulter and Joe the plumber epitomizing, respectively, fear-mongering, bile-spewing and witlessness, all common characteristics of the "movement." (Also planned: a signing, by someone named Kevin McCullough, of a book entitled "The Kind of Man Every Man Should Be: Taking a Stand for True Masculinity." According to his web site, "Musclehead Revolution," the book addresses "what modern feminism [to be contrasted, presumably, from the medieval sort] has done to destroy real men [the faux variety apparently still standing]." It's a guide for the easily intimidated, apparently.)
Bolton spoke on Thursday, suggesting that the only thing that would convert Obama from wuss to defender of freedom would be a nuke dropped on Chicago. He thought that was funny, as well as penetrating national-security analysis.
The agenda included a forum on "Al Franken and ACORN: How Liberals are Destroying the American Election System," deeply ironic from people who interfered, in court and as a mob, with a fair count in Florida, among other attempts to steal elections. Another prize for irony goes to a discussion of "What the Government Doesn't Want You to Know, and How You Can Find Out: Putting the Freedom of Information Act to Work for You." Possibly they have not noticed that the obstructive Bush policy was reversed on the first day of the new administration.
There was a panel on "Protecting the Secret Ballot," i.e. on making unionization difficult.
Of course people under siege need their weapons, so the speakers included Wayne LaPierre of the NRA. His topic was not listed, but following his appearance there was the always-popular "Will Congress Take Your Guns?" moderated by another NRA official.
About two weeks ago, Harold Meyerson, reflecting on the sad state of the GOP, observed, "The current form of Republican inflexibility dates to the dissolution of the Soviet Union: With the end of the Cold War, the GOP's signature issue -- anti- communism -- was no more. Republicans quickly discovered that the only other issue they all agreed on was cutting taxes." Interestingly, George Will, at a time when he was more objective, saw the same development. Once (he said in 1990), being a Republican meant resistance to Soviet tyranny, support for cultural conservatism and, especially, defense of fiscal probity. No longer. From the intellectual shipwreck of the good ship GOP, taxaphobia - a refusal, gussied up as a high principle, to pay one's bills - is, believe it or not, the only spar large enough for all Republicans to cling to." The tax obsession appears in the CPAC agenda in a discussion asking "Will Obama's Tax Policy Kill Entrepreneurship?"
Will and Meyerson were on point in identifying a right-wing fixation: cutting taxes no matter the context, no matter the effect. However, they identified only one of three core conservative arguments.
Howard Fineman got two-thirds of the formula. In an appearance on Keith Olberman's program he observed, of this year's CPAC, that all that the right has to offer are opposition to taxes of any kind and fear-mongering, the latter being the heart of Republican tactics from 2004 through 2008. Bolton's speech perpetuated the fear-mongering argument: Democrats and liberals are too weak to defend us.
The element missing from all three summaries is opposition to, denigration of, liberals and liberalism. This isn't confined to liberal policies or tendencies, but to liberalism as such. Liberals are indistinguishable, in this view, from Communists; both are foreign and godless. Declaring that liberals are not real Americans has been Republican policy at least since 1992, when the party chairman declared that "We are America. Those other people are not." 8 The new leader of the right, Rush Limbaugh, regurgitated that slander in January. An unidentified publication had asked him, along with other commentators, to write 400 words on his hope for the Obama presidency. His reaction, shared with his radio audience:
Okay, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: I hope he fails. . . . Everybody thinks it's outrageous to say. Look, even my staff, "Oh, you can't do that." Why not? Why is it any different, what's new, what is unfair about my saying I hope liberalism fails? Liberalism is our problem. Liberalism is what's gotten us dangerously close to the precipice here. . . . 9When and how, one might ask, but to no avail; liberal-bashing is not an intellectual exercise.
The convention closed with a speech by Limbaugh and the presentation to him of the "Defender of the Constitution Award." Edmund Crispin, in one of his mystery novels, described a character's conversation as "garrulous incoherence," an apt summary of the speech. I'm at a loss to know what part of the Constitution Limbaugh has defended, but selecting him provided the perfect symbol of the intellectual bankruptcy of movement conservatism.
March 3, 2009
I read the transcript of the address by Rush Limbaugh to CPAC as soon as it appeared on his web page. His remarks were laughable enough in print, but the full effect is felt only by watching the video. Having nothing better to do, I viewed it today.
It would be superfluous to describe Limbaugh's performance; he has long since established himself as one of the premier oafs of the age (which he once, with characteristic modesty, described as the Era of Limbaugh). The noteworthy aspect of his appearance was the audience reaction. Granted that political audiences of any coloration are more emotional than rational and will applaud anything that reenforces their views, this one was singularly simple and ideologically blinkered. Only such a group could cheer the self-regard, self-promotion, inanity and inconsistencies of the Limbaugh speech.
CPAC doesn't necessarily represent the Republican Party nor does Limbaugh. However, the Party is now as confused, divided and unsure of its direction as the Democrats have been in recent years. Because of that, and because of a void in leadership, it is sliding toward Limbaugh as its spokesman.
The White House has been promoting Limbaugh as the voice of the Republican Party, a good political gambit. Limbaugh declined that role in his CPAC speech, but he seems to think that he is the spokesman for conservatism, and the voters aren't likely to note any distinction. RNC Chairman Steele criticized Limbaugh, but felt compelled to recant immediately, showing the his members make the same identification.
This, and the unthinking obstructionism of Congressional Republicans are gifts to Obama. He needs to rationalize his policies and, in the process, to move them leftward. He should be able to do so. The decision by Republicans and conservatives to oppose anything he does and to pretend that no drastic action is required has rendered them intellectually and, probably, politically irrelevant.
March 7, 2009
The left hand at the P-I apparently doesn't pay any attention to the right. Several of its columnists have noted its impending demise, and the 60-day time line established in January will end on Tuesday. Anthony Robinson, whose column appears on Saturdays, indicated that his next will be his last. Folding after next Saturday, or perhaps after the joint edition on Sunday, seems likely. On the other hand, we received a postcard yesterday advising us that the usual automatic checking-account debit has been made, to continue our P-I subscription through June 5. (It hasn't: more confusion).
Recently I criticized the P-I for going out with a whimper, but two exceptions must be noted. On February 24, the house editorial endorsed health care reform, which it saw leading, perhaps by steps, to a "single-payer national system." As the editorial noted, we are "decades overdue for the universal health care enjoyed in other countries." On March 2, the house column endorsed a state income tax, in effect rejecting the negative column by the P-I's conservative business columnist a week earlier.
Neither plan will be an easy sell, so it's sad that the Post-Intelligencer won't be around to continue the fight.
March 16, 2009
Hearst, obviously not obsessed by any concept of timeliness, announced today that the P-I will print its last paper tomorrow. The date selected for closure may have related to the company's payroll periods, but the date chosen for the announcement seems only to reflect a sort of absent-mindedness. The closure has been a sure thing for weeks, and the approximate date known for days, at least.
In keeping with the general ineptness surrounding the closure, the P-I sent us another notice that the cost of our subscription through early June had been deducted from our bank account. This time, it had been. A call to the P-I produced an evasive response as to what would happen to the funds after the paper folded. Today, another call produced an explanation that the payment would be applied to a subscription to the Times. Well, we already have one, and have been charged for that. OK, you can have a refund or have the payment applied to your existing Times account. I have great confidence that this will all get sorted out properly.
March 23, 2009
The outcry against Wall Street bonuses, triggered by the recent revelations by AIG, is dismissed by many as unimportant. The complaints usually are described as "populist" rage, thereby clearly drawing the line between the reaction of ordinary folk and their betters, including some journalists. "Spare me the populist outrage," wrote Linda Chavez; she and Charles Krauthammer referred to protesters as a mob. They gaze at the rabble from their windows, holding perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses lest the odor reach them.
Krauthammer informed us that it would be foolish to undo $165 million in bonuses to people he aptly describes as "AIG debt manipulators" because they "may be the only ones who know how to defuse the bomb they themselves built." "May be" is a pretty weak argument, even if bribing them to explain their manipulations made any sort of moral sense.
Linda Chavez apparently has different information about the recipients: "These are not the same people who devised the credit default obligations that jeopardized AIG. Those individuals are long gone. The bonus recipients are the people whose job is now to try to mitigate the financial risk those complex instruments caused. They are highly skilled and could . . . walk away and let the company implode . . . ."
So, whoever they are, it's right to bribe them.
Ms. Chavez also enlightened us about the source of the populist outrage. After concluding, for an undisclosed reason, that "it's not the principle of retention bonuses that infuriates people," she concluded that it was in part anger over the greed demonstrated by the bonuses, and she admits that greed is a vice. However, according to her the anger is primarily the result of a truly despicable sentiment. "What's driving public outrage right now is another unattractive vice: envy. . . . Class envy won't put a single penny in anyone's pocket. It won't save jobs. It certainly won't solve the credit crisis." Let them eat cake.
Michael Gerson argued that cancelling AIG bonuses would cause businesses not to participate in the proposed purchase of toxic assets, because investors would worry about retroactive attacks on their earnings. He has a point about retroactivity, but he used hedge-fund managers as his example, surely the class least deserving of any worries about their compensation or tax burden.
To Krauthammer, the bonus amount is trivial: "in the scheme of things, $165 million is a rounding error. It amounts to less than 1/18,500 of the $3.1 trillion federal budget. It's less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the bailout money given to AIG alone." What it has to do with the federal budget is a mystery to me. Rick Santelli, now famous for his rant against mortgage aid, also derided the small amount. Michelle Malkin described it as a "pittance," and a "smokescreen" designed to hide the "gargantuan spending spree" under way.
Ideology has rendered these people politically tone-deaf. The amount is indeed a small fraction of the money dumped on AIG, but it's enough to pay the annual salaries of about 4,000 average workers (those who still have jobs). It is a symbol not only of greed at a time of suffering for others, but of the growing gap between the economic elite and the rest of us and of a compensation system which lies at the heart of the mismanagement of business that landed us in this mess. Congressional posturing has been, in the grand tradition, ludicrous and hypocritical, but it also has been a reaction to genuine and proper popular outrage.
March 30, 2009
A few years ago (actually, it was in October 2000; I've suppressed most of the intervening time), when visiting the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., we saw a model of a planned addition. True to the modern mode, the addition looked nothing like the existing building and, worse, it had been designed by Frank Gehry. I expressed my (negative) opinion, which evoked a mild rebuke by a guide standing nearby, no doubt prompted by dismay that anyone could be so unsophisticated.
The Corcoran ran short of money, so the capital was spared that parody of architecture, but plans for a new National Museum of African American History and Culture have produced another threat. Six designs apparently are in the running. They range from a curved glass structure - covered, more or less, by a rectangular box - to various monstrosities. The former would be inoffensive, if odd, in another location, but out of place on the Mall. The latter would be a bad joke anywhere.
Many contemporary designs are not merely ugly and ridiculous, but degenerate; the impression is not so much of a building as of the ruins of one. Naomi Klein, in her report of a post-invasion visit to Baghdad, offered this insightful comment:
To see the remains of [this] football-field-size warehouse is to understand why Frank Gehry had an artistic crisis after September 11 and was briefly unable to design structures resembling the rubble of modern buildings. [The] looted and burned factory looks remarkably like a heavy-metal version of Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, with waves of steel, buckled by fire, lying in terrifyingly beautiful golden heaps.10I'm too conventional to see beauty in heaps of buckled steel, whether caused by fire or architectural fad, but the comparison of his designs to the aftermath of a disaster is apt.
Deconstruction, one has to hope, will pass out of vogue in this field as in others.
April 5, 2009
It's difficult to make sense of the administration's approach to salvaging sick companies. Its demands on automobile manufacturers and unions may not be fair, but at least its program is bold and drastic, which seems to be what our faltering system needs. However, as to financial institutions, Obama & Co. seem to be locked into the Bush program of bailouts with few strings but a good deal of secrecy. E.J. Dionne, channeling Churchill, described the "Obama enigma: boldness wrapped in caution rooted in an ambivalent relationship to the status quo."
The bank-rescue program has accomplished virtually nothing to date. The reaction to the next phase, a retooled purchase of toxic assets, ranges from qualified approval (which seems to involve reliance on opaque theories about the financial markets) to outright denunciation. Knowledgeable critics, including Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, think that the bank program is seriously flawed. Both think that temporary nationalization is preferable to the plan to buy toxic assets, which Stiglitz describes as "ersatz capitalism, the privatizing of gains and the socializing of losses." 11 Here is the administration's program, in the form of an example presented by the Treasury Department:
Sample Investment Under the Legacy Loans Program
Step 1: If a bank has a pool of residential mortgages with $100 face value that it is seeking to divest, the bank would approach the FDIC.
Step 2: The FDIC would determine, according to the above process, that they would be willing to leverage the pool at a 6-to-1 debt-to-equity ratio.
Step 3: The pool would then be auctioned by the FDIC, with several private sector bidders submitting bids. The highest bid from the private sector - in this example, $84 - would be the winner and would form a Public-Private Investment Fund to purchase the pool of mortgages.
Step 4: Of this $84 purchase price, the FDIC would provide guarantees for $72 of financing, leaving $12 of equity.
Step 5: The Treasury would then provide 50% of the equity funding required on a side-by-side basis with the investor. In this example, Treasury would invest approximately $6, with the private investor contributing $6.
Step 6: The private investor would then manage the servicing of the asset pool and the timing of its disposition on an ongoing basis - using asset managers approved and subject to oversight by the FDIC. 12
[The $84 bid is arbitrary and arithmetically convenient; the 6 to 1 ratio is the most generous the plan offers.]
Henry Blodget criticized the bank bailouts, but for a different reason: he thinks that in "any fair world, the bondholders would lose everything before any taxpayer
money was put on the line." That isn't obvious to me, and Blodget doesn't offer any rationale. He thinks that the reason bondholders are being protected is that "insurance companies, pension funds, and other companies that hold the future of Americans in their hands invest in those bonds. And if we force those companies to take a loss, we'll hurt ordinary Americans." Individuals also buy bonds, so the damage wouldn't all be indirect.
One problem with the nationalization alternative is that it is likely to be very messy. That isn't a reason to reject it, but its advocates seem unaware of the controversies it will bring in its wake. The takeover of Washington Mutual has been used as proof that it would be easy.
In attempting to dampen fears of nationalization, Stiglitz commented: "After all, the F.D.I.C. has taken control of failing banks before, and done it well. It has even nationalized large institutions like Continental Illinois (taken over in 1984, back in private hands a few years later), and Washington Mutual (seized last September, and immediately resold)." Blodget spoke of receivership and thought it would be a good idea. A "managed receivership. . . is what happened to WaMu last fall, and the process went so smoothly that few folks can even remember it." Those of us who live in Seattle not only remember but are presently aware of the layoffs and the empty offices formerly occupied by WaMu. The "smooth process" led to litigation in Texas and Washington, D.C. in addition to Bankruptcy Court in Delaware. Claims have been made a) by the FDIC against Washington Mutual, Inc. (WMI), the holding company, for failure to adequately capitalize the bank subsidiary; b) by WMI against the FDIC, alleging a fraudulent conveyance of the bank's assets to JPMorgan Chase (JPMC), and demanding the return of capital contributions to the bank after December 2007 and of $4 billion on deposit at the Bank; c) by creditors, including bondholders, of the bank subsidiary to assets in the control of the holding company; d) by JPMC against WMI, apparently in defense of its acquisition of the bank's assets, but also demanding some sort of indemnification; e) by the IRS against WMI, for back taxes. As one reporter put it, "It could take years for the Chapter 11 claims-sifting process to conclude in the former parent company's bankruptcy case, which is one of several arenas dealing with the competing claims to WaMu's leftovers." Nationalization or receivership for insolvent banks may be the best plan, but no one should expect that to be a simple or short process.
Another critic is William Greider, who has submitted an alternative proposal.13 His formula seems inconsistent as to regulatory powers to be left with the Federal Reserve, but generally it makes sense, if only because it contemplates more control by the government and less deference to the supposed magic of the financial market. Here's a short version of his outline:
1. Take control of insolvent banks to "supervise a just unwinding of the mess."
2. Convert the Federal Reserve into an agency of the government to increase accountability.
3. Limit "the reformed Fed . . . to conducting monetary policy" and remove its regulatory functions. Transfer those to the Treasury or "a new free-standing regulatory agency."
(As to the latter, he seems to have something like the FTC in mind. It should be "armed with strong antitrust laws and other rules to ensure that 'too big to fail' institutions are redefined as 'too big to save.' ")
4. Restore laws prohibiting usury "to halt predatory lending."
5. Create a new banking system based on smaller institutions, including publicly-owned banks and nonprofits.
(This seems a bit ambitious, and such a system might be inadequate. )
6. Give the reformed Federal Reserve "broad supervision of the nonbank financial firms in the 'shadow banking system'--hedge funds, private equity firms, pension funds, mutual funds, insurance companies."
(This is inconsistent with item 3; however, those powers need to be given to some agency. Robert Kuttner offered a variation on 3 and 6: "before the Fed is turned into an even more potent all-purpose regulator, Congress should turn it into a true public institution--a reform project that has been deferred since Roosevelt's day.")
On Saturday, The New York Times carried a story, with accompanying charts, detailing the increase in four categories of debt over the ten years ending December 31. Relative to GDP, government debt rose 6 points, nonfinancial business debt rose 18, household debt 31, and financial sector debt 51 points. Household debt is worrisome, but has begun to fall because of the recession. Government debt, by contrast, has spiked, for the same reason. The huge increase in the financial sector underscores Stiglitz's argument, and the fact that it rose so much more than other business debt illustrates the banks' "overleveraging."
The second problem is a compensation system which skewed business decisions and created today's elite, as insulated from ordinary people's lives as Marie Antoinette. That, too, carries over into the rescue program. Little control has been exercised over compensation, and, as one report put it, the administration is "engineering its new bailout initiatives in a way that it believes will allow firms benefiting from the programs to avoid restrictions imposed by Congress, including limits on lavish executive pay. . . ." This is the lame rationale: "Administration officials have concluded that this approach is vital for persuading firms to participate in programs funded by the $700 billion financial rescue package." 14 The critics might respond that their cooperation isn't vital. Even if it is, the cards are all in Mr. Obama's hand, and he needs to play accordingly.
However, it isn't likely that he will, as many of his advisors come from that compensation system. We learned yesterday that "Lawrence Summers, one of President Obama's top economic advisers, collected roughly $5.2 million in compensation from hedge fund D.E. Shaw over the past year and was paid more than $2.7 million in speaking fees by several troubled Wall Street firms and other organizations." Others in the White House were paid highly enough to suffer the illusion that they were worth it, and their successors must be also.
As I've noted before, I don't know much about economics, and know less about banking and next to nothing about collateralized debt obligations, but I'm unconvinced that the administration has any better grasp.
April 7, 2009
Richard Cohen, writing in Tuesday's Washington Post, took exception to the criticism of Lawrence Summers. "The recent headlines . . . had it all wrong. They announced with an implied breathlessness that he earned around $8 million last year -- much of it from the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. Here's what I would have written: 'Man Takes More Than $7.9 Million Cut in Pay.' " In other words, we should praise Summers, and other members of the administration, for deciding to do public service, at a substantial financial cost. That may well be so, but it is entirely beside the point.
The appropriate counterargument as to Summers' former employment is one only hinted at in passing by Cohen, that he learned something about the workings of high finance, and specifically hedge funds, while in the private sector. That knowledge could aid him in fashioning polices to clean up the mess and prevent its return. The same argument applies, of course, to other former well-paid business types now in government. It's an entirely legitimate argument, but only performance can tell us whether their background is a blessing or a curse: whether they can use their experience for our benefit or whether they are trapped in a pro-business mindset. Events to date suggest the latter.
April 17, 2009
Last week Michael Gerson, in a column in The Washington Post, described the results of a recent poll thusly: "Who has been the most polarizing new president of recent times? Richard Nixon? Ronald Reagan? George W. Bush? No, that honor belongs to Barack Obama." However, the poll report, by the Pew Research Center, summarized the findings neutrally: "Barack Obama has the most polarized early job approval ratings of any president in the past four decades." A glance at the rest of the report shows that the split is due, not to Mr. Obama's polarizing character, as Gerson would have it, but to the fact that Republicans are more partisan in their attitudes than Democrats. Comparing the present to former administrations, we see the following:
Republican enthusiasm for Bush was comparable to how Democrats feel about Obama today, but there was substantially less criticism from members of the opposition party. . . .
The partisan gap in Bill Clinton's early days was also substantially smaller than what Obama faces, largely because Democrats were less enthusiastic about Clinton. . . .15
The whole tax-protest notion is strange, as most of those on the streets probably aren't in danger of having their taxes raised by Obama's proposals. As is so often the case, ordinary Americans are deceived into believing that a plan to tax the rich affects them.
Even the rich are, shall we say, overreacting. As Paul Krugman put it, "President Obama is being called a 'socialist' who seeks to destroy capitalism. Why? Because he wants to raise the tax rate on the highest-income Americans back to, um, about 10 percentage points less than it was for most of the Reagan administration. Bizarre." Even that "increase" would be accomplished by allowing Bush-era tax cuts to expire, as the legislation creating the cuts provided. In other words, it's 1773 again because Obama refuses to reenact an irrational tax break.
Fox News, eager to carry water for the rich, was the main promoter of the events, and its employees were among the participants. In Washington, D.C. Tobin Smith, Fox News "market analyst," enlightened the crowd about the channel's slogan: "You know what 'Fair and Balanced' means? 'Fair and Balanced' means we take our message and try to overcompensate for their lack of message." That doesn't quite make sense, but at least it admits that "We report, you decide" is a fraud, and the network's involvement in the protests ought to make its bias obvious to all but the hopeless.
Perhaps the nuttiest reaction to creeping tyranny came - here's a surprise - from Texas. Governor Perry spoke to three tea parties in his state, which featured signs reading "Secede!" He said, "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that." 16
The best comment I've seen on the secession ploy, and on the tea parties, is one by Lincoln Mitchell on The Huffington Post.
. . . Dressing up in revolutionary war costumes, calling for the overthrow of the government and waving teabags at the behest of wealthy right wing funders is, while a little pathetic and strange, well within the realm of constitutionally protected behavior and may even play a somewhat constructive role in our democracy. . . .
Floating the idea of secession over this, even in a somewhat tongue in cheek manner, is a very different story. . . .17
The reference to guns and revolution reflects a dangerous tendency in right-wing rhetoric. The guy with the sign reading "Hang 'em high" (listing several Democratic lawmakers) might just take the hint. Republican leaders have been entirely too free with such comments. Last month Rep. Michelle Bachmann tossed this off: "I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back." Ms. Bachmann is so dingy that her comments could be dismissed if they were unique, but unfortunately they are not. Sen. Tom Coburn, admittedly also not an outstanding intellect, but more influential than Bachmann, fears an ban on assault weapons. "Why shouldn't I be able to own an AR-15, as an American citizen, to defend myself if I need to." He's afraid the government will "dominate us, the people."
In the hands of people who think that fascism or communism or some other form of tyranny is imminent, the ready availability - and worship - of guns is scary.
April 20, 2009
Three themes emerge from the "tea parties." The obvious one is whether ordinary folk have reason to complain about taxation under Obama. The second, suggested by some of the signs and the atmosphere of militancy, is the danger inherent in our gun culture. Finally, the protesters seem to think that America is on a vaguely identified path to perdition, which will bring us to jeans and George Will.
Few of the protesters had a clue as to what the awful Obama tax program amounts to, not surprising since apparently they watch Fox News. Here, from the Heritage Foundation, hardly a left-wing organization, is a summary of "The President's $1.4 Trillion Tax Increase;" the numbers (in billions) are the ten-year revenue impact.19
339.....Raise income taxes for upper-income taxpayers
118.....Raise capital gains and dividend rates for upper-income taxpayers
180.....Reinstate the personal exemption phaseout and limitation on itemized deductions for upper-income taxpayers
318.....Limit itemized deduction to 28 percent value for upper-income taxpayers
646.....Cap-and trade energy tax
210.....International enforcement, reform deferral, and tax reform
143.....Other business, financial, and energy tax increases
1,953..[Total of increases]
-74.....Make R&E (Research and Experimentation) tax credit permanent
-77.....Modify FAA financing
-444...New low-income tax cuts (revenue impact)
1,354..Total [net] Tax Increase
Note the limitation to upper-income taxpayers in the first four categories. Also, as revealed by the ABC table, $24 billion of the remaining increase comes from taxing "carried-interest income," a change aimed primarily at private-equity fund managers, who have been able to treat management fees as capital gains, with the result that these very highly-paid individuals enjoy a lower rate than many middle-income taxpayers. That brings the upper-income portion to 50% of the total gross increase, 72% of the net, even including the energy tax. (Without the energy tax, the upper-income portion is 74% of the gross and more than the net). And note the large amount designated "low-income tax cuts." Why will people take to the streets, even pushed by Fox News, to protest this program?
One partial explanation is found in the signs protesting the accumulation of federal debt, often with reference to the protesters' children. Another sign read "Let the failures fail," and to the limited extent that the concern about debt reflects anger at the bailout of banks who seem not to have changed their ways, and who perhaps didn't deserve bailing out in the first place, it's understandable. We could ask why there were no demonstrations before January 20, but the complaint is legitimate nonetheless. More to the point is the absence of protests directed to the accumulation of debt to pursue the Iraq war; there isn't even a plausible excuse for those wasted billions.
However, consistency and informed concern about taxes and spending had little to do with the protests. They were an exercise in resentment; "Your mortgage is not my problem" reflected the fiscal aspect, but unfocused anger and a we-vs.-they attitude dominated. Obama is definitely in the latter category; here are some of the signs: "Obama's plan - white slavery"; The American taxpayers are the Jews for Obama's ovens"; Barack Obama - the new face of Hitler"; "Hey Big Brother show us your real birth certificate"; "Obama bin Lyin free our markets not the terrorists"; "Constitution = liberty NOT National Socializm [sic]"; "Stand idle while some Kenyan tries to destroy America? WAP!! I don't think so!!! Homey don't play dat!!!". The irrational hostility is worrisome, and one sign leads to the second theme: "Guns tomorrow." I don't know whether that meant "we'll bring them next time" or "soon they'll take them away," but either way it points up the close connection between these exaggerated claims of impending tyranny and the gun culture. The overtone of racism makes matters worse still.
During the past few weeks there have been multiple murders in Oakland, Pittsburgh, Binghampton NY, Graham Washington and Priceville, Alabama. In the initial reports there was no mention - that I saw - of the significance of firearms. The connection was pointed out on the Huffington Post20 on April 8 and by Bob Herbert in his NYTimes column of April 14. As Herbert put it, "This is the American way. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when the country's attention understandably turned to terrorism, nearly 120,000 Americans have been killed in nonterror homicides, most of them committed with guns. . . . That's nearly 25 times the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan." The Huffington Post article pointed out that the trend is for ever-more liberal gun laws, and that President Obama's push to renew the assault-weapons ban is opposed by 65 House Democrats.
The Supreme Court made a hash of its attempt to reinterpret the Second Amendment, but its general tone of sympathy to gun ownership will encourage both legislatures and the gun nuts. Oddly, Candidate Obama agreed with the decision; so much for "the tyrant is coming for our guns." Oh, wait: Obama wants to ban assault weapons; we're still in danger.
I suppose that every nation has exhibited self-destructive stupidity at times, but this one seems to be determined to set a new record. Opposition to gun control, identification of gun ownership with true Americanism, and worst, the belief that only being armed and dangerous can preserve individual safety and collective liberty, are markers on the path back to the jungle or, at least, to the wild west.
The final theme suggested by the tea parties is that American culture is under attack or, in the more pessimistic version, is in decline, in both cases due to the dire effects of liberalism.
Numerous causes or symbols of decline have been suggested, but to George Will goes the prize for the most trivial: jeans. I admit to thinking that people sometimes wear jeans when somewhat more formal, presentable garb would be appropriate, but to turn that aesthetic preference into a moral standard requires a deliberate suspension of proportionality. That is what Mr. Will accomplished in his Post column of April 16. Wearing jeans inappropriately - or perhaps too often, or perhaps at all; Mr. Will isn't explicit - is "an obnoxious misuse of freedom"; it is "symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche." Oh come now. Even a conservative can't believe that, can he? Perhaps so: professional conservatism does seem to impair clear thinking.
The tea-partiers didn't suggest jeans as a cause for concern - probably many of them were wearing the dreaded denim - but their identification of threats is no more sensible. They fear communism, which requires not having been out of the cave for some years. They fear socialism; assuming that any of them knows what that is, why do they quake at its mention? Do they turn down their Social Security checks? Do they refuse to drive on public highways? If injured, would they refuse a public-hospital ER? Not likely. They have been taught to equate socialism with waste and tyranny, the "free market" with prosperity, efficiency and personal freedom.
Attendance at the tea parties has a more basic cause than any of the grievances expressed: a general feeling on the part of the protesters that the world is changing too fast, is moving in the wrong direction, and is leaving them behind. They have a narrow and conservative view of Americanism, which makes them prey to Fox and money. They aren't well educated or informed, are impatient of overly sophisticated explanations and suspect, resent and fear "elites" (oddly defined) and "foreigners" (broadly defined). They think that they have made it on their own and resent helping others, especially if the others are black or Hispanic. America is, to them, a disneyfied midwestern small town, which is all-white and all-straight, without labor unions but with kind and generous bosses, where the young men march off to war proudly, knowing that they are fighting for freedom and the American way.
May 2, 2009
A serious debate is underway on whether those who engaged in torture - as participants or enablers - should be prosecuted. Even conducting a searching, and potentially accusatory, inquiry is controversial. The arguments in favor are largely moral, those in opposition largely political, but that characterization doesn't determine the answer.
Here's a summary of the debate, as I understand it. Let's start with the arguments against prosecution and investigation; first, the claim that torture is justified.
Most of the focus has been on waterboarding. For some time, conservatives claimed that it wasn't really torture, but that has worn thin. Now it is a matter of necessity or, at least, utility. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Bush, claimed that "the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer. It really did work." In support of this position Cheney, as usual, avoided nuance. In an interview last month, he claimed that "the harsh interrogations of suspects and the use of warrantless electronic surveillance were 'absolutely essential' to get information to prevent more attacks like the 2001 suicide hijackings that targeted New York and Washington."
Opponents of prosecution have cited Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the new intelligence director, who wrote in a memo this month, "High value information came from interrogations in which those methods were used and provided a deeper understanding of the al Qa'ida organization that was attacking this country." However, he later added, "The information gained from these techniques was valuable in some instances, but there is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means. The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security."
The evidence for the success of "those methods" is thin. One of those tortured is Abu Zubaida, at one time considered, or claimed, to be a high-level al Qaeda operative. A recently-released memo21 recited that "Abu Zubaida provided significant information on two operatives, including Jose Padilla, who 'planned to build and detonate a dirty bomb in the Washington D.C area.' " However, Zubaida identified Padilla before the torture began. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who questioned Abu Zubaida between his capture in March 2002 and early June of that year, has stated that Zubaida revealed Padilla "under traditional interrogation methods." 22
Khalid Sheik Mohammed is another source alleged to have disclosed valuable information under torture. Part of the problem in assessing this claim is that the torture apparently began immediately after his capture, so there is no control situation against which to measure the effectiveness of the technique. Whether Mohammed gave useful information also isn't altogether clear. One example claimed certainly is phony: the exposure of a plot to crash an airliner into a tower in Los Angeles. This is a somewhat dubious story which the Bush administration trotted out from time to time but, whatever its reality, it doesn't fit here: President Bush told us that the plot was broken up in 2002, before Mohammed's capture in Pakistan on March 1, 2003.
Various experts in interrogation have stated that torture is as likely to produce false information as true. The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, a military organization, wrote, apparently in 2002, "The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible -- in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life -- has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture. . . . In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process." However, not so. "The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption." 23
Even the enabling lawyers recognized that the efficacy of the methods was questionable. "[I]t is difficult to quantify with confidence and precision the effectiveness of the program. As the [CIA] I[nspector] G[eneral] Report notes, it is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks." 24
Those who defend torture rarely attempt to support it on moral grounds, although Michael Scheuer, formerly Anonymous, resorted to an admitted "worst-case scenario" to justify torture, and to turn the morality argument on its head. Writing in the Washington Post on April 26, he said, "[O]ne can wonder what could be more moral for a president than doing all that is needed to defend America and its citizens? Or, asked another way, is it moral for the president of the United States to abandon intelligence tools that have saved the lives and property of Americans and their allies in favor of his own ideological beliefs?" However, the imminent-attack scenario is almost entirely a dramatic device, and the assertion that lives have been saved, while often made, is at best speculative. Last year, FBI Director Robert Mueller said that he did not believe that any attacks had been disrupted because of intelligence obtained through "enhanced techniques." 25
An entirely different argument against prosecution or accusatory inquiry is that the interrogation techniques were approved by Congress, or at least allowed to proceed without objection. Speaker Nancy Pelosi insists that "the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal -- not that they were going to be used." Even if true, that's hardly a defense; she would have to be incredibly naïve to think that the conversation was wholly theoretical. Porter Goss, then a congressman, later briefly CIA chief, has a different recollection. "In the fall of 2002, while I was chairman of the House intelligence committee, senior members of Congress were briefed on the CIA's 'High Value Terrorist Program,' including the development of 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and what those techniques were. This was not a one-time briefing but an ongoing subject with lots of back and forth between those members and the briefers." He implies that waterboarding was discussed. His recollection may be as convenient as Pelosi's, and his fuller statement is somewhat ambiguous, but I'm inclined to credit it in general. It's certainly true that Democrats in Congress - perhaps out of agreement, perhaps out of political cowardice - raised few objections to the administration's policies and practices.
A related argument is that the Obama administration has to some degree approved "enhanced interrogation" practices. In addition to the comment by Adm. Blair, this is based on a waffling statement made by Leon Panetta, now CIA chief, during his confirmation hearings. Panetta identified waterboarding as torture, and said that he was "absolutely convinced ... we can get the information we need, we can provide for the security of the American people and we can abide by the law." However, when pressed he added, "If I had a ticking bomb situation and obviously whatever was being used I felt was not sufficient, I would not hesitate to go to the president of the United States and request whatever additional authority I would need."
A more limited argument is that those who carried out the interrogations should not be prosecuted, because it is highly unlikely that higher-ups will be, and the discrepancy would be unfair. It would, indeed. We should not follow the example of the Bush administration in prosecuting the grunts at Abu Ghraib and giving the policy-makers a pass. Nürnberg principles have been cited in support of prosecution: following orders should not be a defense. However, at Nürnberg the prosecutions went all the way to the top so, unless there is a major change of course, that analogy won't apply here.
On April 29, Thomas Friedman, defending the do-nothing option, tried to make the case for not pursuing those at the top: "justice taken to its logical end here would likely require bringing George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials to trial, which would rip our country apart." This is a new form of "too big to fail." Would it be more disruptive than impeaching a sitting president over trivial issues?
As a way of transitioning to the arguments in favor, let's look at the April 24 house editorial of The Washington Post, which offered its comments on the calls for an investigation. When I saw that the general drift was toward caution, I started to drop the column into the mental bin marked "Bush-friendly, pro-establishment ignorance." (I must confess a tendency to assign all Post editorials to that receptacle). However, this one made sense. "On one side, you have the sacred American tradition of peacefully transferring power from one party to another every four or eight years without cycles of revenge and criminal investigation." That is no small issue. We would not want to create an atmosphere in which each change of administration was accompanied by prosecutions, and every campaign sullied by accusations of criminality. However, the Post's specific reference was oddly inconsistent with that thesis. Rather than pointing out the impeachment of President Clinton as a horrible example, it noted that the investigation (and presumably the move toward impeachment) of President Nixon was OK. "It's one thing to investigate Richard Nixon for authorizing wiretaps and burglaries in secrecy, outside the normal channels of government, for personal political gain. It's another to criminalize decisions authorized through all the proper channels, with congressional approval or at least awareness, for what everyone agrees to be the high purpose of keeping Americans safe from terrorist attack." I don't know where the Post gets the idea that everyone agrees that the motivation behind the Bush actions was that noble.
However, its more general point has validity: where do we draw the line? Should various acts of undeclared war be the subject of investigation and possible prosecution? Again the first example under that heading is strange: "Should Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger and their team have been held criminally or civilly liable for dereliction of duty 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, given that they knowingly allowed Osama bin Laden to flee Sudan for sanctuary in Afghanistan?" A more pertinent question is whether Bush should be prosecuted for allowing 9-11 given his irresponsible inattention to warnings. No one has suggested that as a basis for prosecution, and the Clinton example is even less persuasive.
If that were the only worry, we could move ahead, but the Post added a better hypothetical: "What if the next administration believes that Barack Obama is committing war crimes every time he allows the Air Force to fling missiles into Pakistan, killing innocent civilians in a country with which we are not at war?" That is close enough to the proposed investigation to be worrisome, and its the sort of question which will come up in nearly every administration. However, thePost muddied the waters yet again by claiming that "[s]uch concerns are heightened when the country is at war, as we in fact are . . . ." The "wartime" excuse carves out a special exemption for an administration which starts a war.
The editors also worried that the threat of prosecution would discourage public service, which might be so.
The Post then considered the case for investigation and prosecution: "on the other side, we have this: American officials condoned and conducted torture. . . . In a country founded on the rule of law, a president can't sweep criminality away for political reasons, even the most noble." Again, ignore the nod to nobility. "When the United States sees torture taking place in other parts of the world, it issues some pretty simple demands: Stop doing that, and punish -- or at least identify, and in some way hold accountable -- those responsible, so that the practice will not be repeated. How can a country that purports to serve as a moral exemplar ask any less of itself?" How, indeed.
The Post was concerned that "the past will haunt the present until it is investigated and openly dealt with." I doubt that. Our capacity for convenient forgetfulness and rationalization is too great, and will be reinforced by Bush apologists. "[I]it's also true that if the United States doesn't examine its own record, other nations will have a better claim to do so." That's a possibility, as the threats from Spain have shown.
The Post ended by advocating a thorough, but calm, investigation, leaving open the possibility of prosecution but with a bias against it. That may be the right course, but its concern for evenhandedness is misplaced. The reason we are contemplating an inquiry is that the behavior is unacceptable. The editors seem to acknowledge that, but cover it with a veil of good intentions.
I don't know whether there is anyone who now defends the interrogations on the ground that there is no legal or moral issue regarding the use of torture. At least as to waterboarding, no one could have contended honestly that it was lawful; as recently pointed out, it was among the war-crimes charges against Japanese soldiers after WWII.26
The excuse is that dire circumstances justify drastic measures. (Conservative aversion to situational ethics recognizes a convenient exception). However, the interrogations we know about didn't involve ticking bombs. Khalid Sheik Muhammed was waterboarded repeatedly in March 2003; to my knowledge no one has identified an imminent threat disclosed as a result. Abu Zubaida was waterboarded repeatedly in August 2002, with no useful effect.27
Waterboarding came into the repertoire by the back door. It was used in a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), "created decades earlier to give American pilots and soldiers a sample of the torture methods used by Communists in the Korean War, methods that had wrung false confessions from Americans." 28 The knowledge that this procedure did not produce true information ought to have indicated its likely uselessness but, as Cofer Black said, "after 9-11, the gloves come off." It's wartime; real men become brutal.
SERE has been pointed to as a model and as a justification for using waterboarding in interrogations; one of the recently released memos treats the use in SERE as equivalent to its use in interrogation.29 However, later memos make clear that the two practices bear little resemblance to each other. "Individuals undergoing SERE training are obviously in a very different situation from detainees undergoing interrogation; SERE trainees know that it is part of a training program, not a real-life interrogation regime, they presumably know that it will last only a short time, and they presumably have assurances that they will not be significantly harmed by the training." 30 Its use in interrogation was hardly comparable: 183 waterboardings of K S Muhammed in a month, 83 in a month of Zubaida.31 That indicates that it appealed to interrogators for reasons far removed from any noble concern for national security and, contrary to recitals in the memos, with no regard for the health of the victims.
There is reason to believe that the various extreme measures were used to extract not unknown true information but false information which would be useful politically. That is, they were employed in the hope of "proving' a link between Iraq and al Qaeda which would justify the invasion.32
The issue for investigation goes beyond waterboarding and beyond abusive interrogations. Scheuer named what he considers to be three "proven threat- containing capacities of the major U.S. counterterrorism programs -- rendition, interrogation and unmanned aerial vehicle attacks." He complained that, "in a single week, President Obama has eliminated two-thirds of that successful- but-not- sufficient national defense troika because his personal ideology . . . ." Presumably the vow not to use torture in the future eliminates one. I don't know which is the other, as Obama has not, as far as I know, renounced drone attacks or rendition.
However, Scheuer has listed three questionable practices, and Obama needs address each of them. It isn't enough to state that waterboarding is torture and we won't torture in the future. Waterboarding isn't the only barbaric technique which needs to be so identified, and torture isn't the only issue raised by Bush's "wartime" policies and practices. We need to expose and renounce rendition to torture-friendly countries, and the use of black sites, and stop unmanned aerial attacks, at least as to drones sent into Pakistan.
John Dean famously testified that he told Nixon that a cancer was growing on the presidency. Systematic violation of the law and of moral standards create that disease. Collaboration of lawyers in the violation is one of the most reprehensible aspects of this entire scandal. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, called for disbarment of the lawyers involved in drafting the torture memos. "I feel that Gonzales, Addington, Yoo, Bybee, Haynes and Feith should be, at a minimum, disbarred. . . . " Feith doesn't quite fit into that group, and reappears in another category: "Second, the decision-makers and their closest advisors (particularly the ones among the latter who may, on their own, have twisted the dagger a little deeper in Caesar's prostrate body -- Rumsfeld and Feith for instance). Appoint a special prosecutor such as Fitzgerald, armed to the teeth, and give him or her carte blanche." 33
The memos produced by those lawyers are odd documents. They are worded carefully, in that they recite the information provided by the interrogators and condition their advice on those disclosures. The information provided represents the measures to be mild, emphasizes how carefully the health of the prisoners will be monitored and generally describes something akin to a fraternity hazing. Accepting those representations, even as the basis for an opinion, suggests naïveté or a wink-and-nod arrangement, probably both.
The opinions go to great lengths to find that the procedures will not cause great pain and suffering. Even severe mental distress is declared not to be a result, which is odd, as it seems to be the whole point. Despite the effort, a few hints of the barbarity of the practices slip through. For example, sleep deprivation, in which the prisoner is shackled in such a way as to prevent sleep or much movement, may go on for 180 hours. That's seven and one-half days. But it's not torture; it doesn't cause physical or severe mental pain.34
The memos are long, couched in legalese and larded with citations. It's extremely unlikely that interrogators read any of that turgid prose. The message - go for it! - was all they needed. The memos were designed for ass-covering, for the authors and for the policy makers. They were, in other words designed to forestall exactly the measures now being debated.
What to do? Prosecution isn't a reasonable course because it will criminalize followers but leave those most responsible to pleasant retirement. However, there is a difference between putting people in jail and sweeping it under the rug. What is needed is a principled political declaration.
We should conduct a searching, critical investigation - or more than one - to turn over all of the rocks, to see just how bad it was, to expose all of those involved, however inconvenient that may be. The inquiry must be fair and honest, but it would be ludicrous to insist that it be unbiased. The nature of the crime is known; the purpose of further investigation should be to ensure that it isn't repeated.
Apart from moral considerations, the obvious reason that the Bush policies toward "enemy combatants" must be fully aired is that they undermine the rule of law. They do so by promoting the view that the president is above the law. The legal memos, especially the earlier ones, are briefs for that position. Disbarment makes sense, and so does impeachment of Jay Bybee.
Condoleezza Rice, in a recent exchange with students at Stanford, came close to adopting the Nixonian view that, if the president does it, it isn't illegal. We put people in prison to declare otherwise, but here we are decades later, debating whether we were right, or whether there is a "wartime" exception.
May 8, 2009
For a long time the political right hasn't had much to say that could be considered intelligent, but it seems determined to set new records for inanity. The latest example is the attention paid to President Obama's purchase of a hamburger. Via The Huffington Post, I listened to Laura Ingraham bleat for four minutes on the various sins committed by Obama in his visit to Ray's Burgers. She complained that it was an effort to look like "a real person"; George W. never did that. She was shocked that Obama and Biden paid for burgers for the reporters in attendance; corruption is rampant! His order was placed too hesitantly; no one so indecisive should be president. His choice of Dijon mustard was ridiculed; so French. But her scorn reached its height in noting, in baffled and outraged tones, that he didn't want ketchup. "The guy orders a burger without ketchup! What is that?" She makes George Will, ranting about jeans, sound sensible.
Someone named Mark Steyn nattered repetitiously on the Limbaugh comedy hour about Obama's stealing Grey Poupon advertising gigs from Brits, and closed by wondering what Obama would do next to "pass for human." These people might want to concentrate on doing something to pass for sentient.
Everyone who expresses an opinion today feels compelled to disclose any association which might influence his opinion, so I'll follow suit. I don't use ketchup on burgers, or on anything else. I don't use mustard on burgers either; I'm a mayonnaise, pickle, onion and tomato man. When I use mustard, for example on a salami sandwich, I use Grey Poupon. That establishes my objectivity on the mustard v. ketchup on burgers issue, but stamps me, in Ms. Ingraham's peculiar world, as a non-real guy and a mustard elitist with suspicious Francophile tendencies.
A comment attached to the Huffington article pointed out that Grey Poupon is a Kraft brand, which indeed it is. The G.P. website advertises its seven flavors as "The Elite Mustard Cabinet." How confusing; Kraft is, at least as to mustard, sort of Francophile. Maybe a classic American brand is elitist. Maybe Laura must avoid Kraft ketchup. Maybe she's really stupid.
May 12, 2009
After first wishing for George W. Bush to go away, I decided that his run of public appearances, as he was about to leave office, would fix in people's minds just how inept, dishonest and dangerous he had been. Since then Dick Cheney has become ubiquitous, and I have had the same sequence of reactions.
I watched the video of "Frost-Nixon" last night. It really should have been titled "The Making of Frost-Nixon," as most of it focused on the tribulations of Frost & co. in bringing it off. What made the interviews possible was Richard Nixon's hope of rehabilitation, his desire to tell his side of the story and to put a positive spin on the facts. So with Cheney.
Cheney's task is, of course, easier than Nixon's. Nixon had been on the verge of impeachment, and was the only president to resign; we failed to impeach George and Dick. Nixon's war was far more unpopular than Cheney's, and there was no attack on the United States in the background. Nixon's sins were seen as political and personal in origin, whereas Cheney wraps his in the flag.
Cheney is a better advocate for the programs of the past eight years than Bush. He's smarter, more agile and more certain of the rightness of his views, and his smirk is smug and intimidating, whereas Bush's is simply inane. However, Bush has had the grace and good sense not to criticize the new administration. Cheney's attacks remind people not only of the policies of their time in office, which have the taint of failure even for loyalists, but also of the extremity of their views and attitudes. Cheney's endorsement of Rush Limbaugh illustrates the GOP's shallowness, viciousness and inability to learn, exactly the opposite of the message it needs. The fact that it is Cheney and not a current Republican officeholder who is getting all the attention underscores its failure to move on.
I don't expect that Cheney will admit error as Nixon did. He's tougher and has less of a moral sense. Nixon was flawed, but he did some good, and, when not threatened, often had the right instincts. He was insecure, troubled, tormented and resentful, and his fall was tragic in the classic sense. Bush and Cheney are merely small men given great power who abused it in the way small men do. If Cheney continues on the interview circuit, someone eventually will tumble to that, and he'll be exposed for the charlatan he is.
May 25, 2009
The Blethen family has tightened its grip on the editorial page of The Seattle Times by naming Ryan Blethen, an old hand of 36, to replace the retiring James Vesley as editorial-page editor. It would be pleasant to think that the young Mr. Blethen might purge the op-ed page of a few dinosaurs such as David Broder. Not likely, though. Broder's conservatism, wrapped as it is in a cloak of neutrality, probably seems like unbiased commentary to the Blethens.
Broder has always seemed to me to a better reporter than opinion columnist, but his commentary once was of a higher quality than it has been over the past dozen years or so. His pro-establishment centrism gradually became, in effect, a defense of conservatism or whatever it is that Republicans practice. His willingness to front for the right-wing line reached a new extreme in his most recent column, reproduced in Sunday's Times.
"That was a rare and splendid moment when the president of the United States and the former vice president offered their sharply contrasting views on maintaining
national security in back-to-back televised addresses last week," Broder told us. How anything disgorged by the constitution-mangler Cheney can be offered as a proper rebuttal to the present administration's policies escapes me. Cheney claimed, in considering Obama's policies, that "[t]he point is not to look backward." However, that's largely what he did, describing the Bush era in the usual mixture of half-truths and pure claptrap. Broder presented that as worthy of praise. Cheney, he said, gave "strong, clear and passionate expression" to his views, and is "confident in his own judgments." So might it be with any deluded former leader.
Did Cheney have anything to say? Broder mentioned two points. The strongest, he thought, was that Obama has "no plan" for dealing with prisoners to be transferred from Guantánamo. That isn't entirely accurate, and Cheney's argument was mainly the usual fear-mongering: we "will be compelled to accept a number of the terrorists here, in the homeland, and it has even been suggested US taxpayer dollars will be used to support them." Aren't they now? However, Broder didn't endorse the NIMBY/fear argument: "Obama was . . . impressive in taking on the panicky populism among lawmakers of both parties who quickly kowtowed to the demand that no terrorists be moved into prisons within the United States. . . . His calm testimony to the security of American jails was exactly what the situation needed."
The second point, that torture has made us safer, didn't seem any stronger to Broder: "Proof is missing that would let laymen judge Cheney's assertion that the methods Obama now has banned were necessary to prevent a second Sept. 11. Avoiding interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, which historically have been classified as torture, not only clears our conscience and improves our reputation; it protects our own troops when they are captured. " These are characteristically mild comments, but negative. If Broder doesn't agree with either of the assertions he references, then how, even if he's desperate to find some middle ground, can he take Cheney's speech for one side of the argument?
In his current role as protector of conservative orthodoxy, Broder does not adhere to his own concept of reporting: "From my point view, the basic job of the press is to try to hold . . . government, and the people in it, accountable for the way in which they're doing their jobs." 35 He has not done that since the advent of the Bush-Cheney regime. Some years ago, Broder wrote, "Unless and until this society is prepared to condemn and shun those who abuse their governmental authority, there is no point in having special prosecutors or others trying to squeeze these cases through the criminal justice system. . . . We need scorn and shame for those who violate their oaths of office." 36 True then and true now, but Broder has changed his mind. Cheney and Obama oppose a truth commission, he noted: "And they are right."
That leads to the column in today's Times by Leonard Pitts. He has been no fan of the Bush-Cheney theory of governance, but is unpersuaded that we should turn over the rocks of their era. "If incompetence was a crime, you might have a case. Heck, if arrogance was a felony, you could put them on death row. But these things are not against the law, so forgive me if I'm not sold on the argument that we should launch investigations of the failures of the Bush years." However, we're looking not merely at incompetence and arrogance, although those abounded, but at subversion of the rule of law and leading the country into war based on lies. His argument is that such an investigation would be disruptive and would cause the right wing to fuss. I think that we can take for granted that the right will find something else to fuss about, and allowing misuse of government to become the norm is about as disruptive as anything I can think of. In effect Pitts, whom I respect greatly, is saying: don't irritate Rush Limbaugh.
His other reason for disapproving of an investigation is that we brought it on ourselves, by reelecting Bush in 2004. I didn't, so that carries no weight here. The argument that we are collectively stuck with the result because we were, collectively, stupid four years ago is simply illogical. Leaving aside that Bush's reelection was accomplished by the same false fear-based claims that justified the war, there is no principle of which I am aware that precludes an electorate from waking up, realizing that its representatives have been dishonest, and doing something about it.
A few days ago, I speculated that someone eventually would expose Dick Cheney as a charlatan who abused his power. That was not long in coming. On Sunday, Richard Clarke, writing in The Washington Post, performed the public service.37
Cheney and Condoleezza Rice recently used 9-11 as the excuse for their repressive, militarist policies. Defending "enhanced interrogation," Rice told a Stanford student, "Unless you were there, in a position of responsibility after September 11, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans." 38 In his May 21 speech, Cheney said, "Part of our responsibility, as we saw it, was not to forget the terrible harm that had been done to America and not to let 9/11 become the prelude to something much bigger and far worse." More accurately, they determined not to let the people forget. That had two purposes: everything for the next seven years was justified by reference to 9-11, and the Bush-Cheney-Rice failure to prevent 9-11 was buried.
Cheney called the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a "defining experience." Clarke responded:
I understand how it was a defining moment for Cheney, as it was for so many Americans.
Yet listening to Cheney and Rice, it seems that they want to be excused for the measures they authorized after the attacks on the grounds that 9/11 was traumatic. . . .
I have little sympathy for this argument. Yes, we went for days with little sleep, and we all assumed that more attacks were coming. But the decisions that Bush officials made in the following months and years -- on Iraq, on detentions, on interrogations, on wiretapping -- were not appropriate.
Clarke did not let that pass: "Cheney's admission that 9/11 caused him to reassess the threats to the nation only underscores how, for months, top officials had ignored warnings from the CIA and the NSC staff that urgent action was needed to preempt a major al-Qaeda attack." And the panic caused by unpreparedness led to bad decisions: "[W]hen Bush's inner circle first really came to grips with the threat of terrorism, they did so in a state of shock -- a bad state in which to develop a coherent response. Fearful of new attacks, they authorized the most extreme measures available, without assessing whether they were really a good idea."
Cheney now has retaliated, claiming in an interview on Monday, "Richard Clarke was the head of the counter-terrorism program in the run up to 9/11. He obviously missed it." Reminded of Clarke's published warnings, Cheney replied with an inanity which would do credit to his former boss, "That is not my recollection. But I haven't read his book." 40 Apparently he hasn't read the 9/11 Commission Report either. More to the point, he knows at first hand that his administration simply ignored terrorism despite warnings from Clarke, the CIA and others.
Exculpatory devices, including blaming others, is part of the Cheney technique, as shown by his May 21 speech. The treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was the fault of "a few sadistic prison guards," who deserved punishment; his advocacy of rough treatment couldn't be a factor. He did approve enhanced interrogation procedures, but that was benign. "Torture was never permitted. And the methods were given careful legal review before they were approved." Calling them torture would libel the interrogators, professionals and patriots all. Besides, they prevented further attacks; he wishes he could share the evidence for that, but the administration won't release it. He ended this effort with a ludicrous false choice: "[I]n the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground . . . You cannot keep just some nuclear-armed terrorists out of the United States; you must keep every nuclear-armed terrorist out of the United States."
Cheney's speech was an attempt not only to justify his administration but to prepare the ground for denunciation of Obama should there be another attack. In aid of this he posed another false, and almost equally odd, choice: "You can look at the facts and conclude that the comprehensive strategy has worked and therefore needs to be continued as vigilantly as ever. Or you can look at the same set of facts and conclude that 9/11 was a one-off event, coordinated, devastating, but also unique and not sufficient to justify a sustained wartime effort."
A false choice underlay his entire lecture: either use the methods of Bush-Cheney or leave the country defenseless.
June 3, 2009
Ryan Blethen, the new editorial-page editor at The Seattle Times, informed us a few days ago that "The Times' Opinion pages are changing." I'm not sure that its opinion pages warrant a capital O, but never mind. The first change is that, on Fridays and Sundays, the only days on which the combined editorial and op-ed pages total two, part of one page will be given over to advertisements. Blethen was very defensive about that, which in a way isn't necessary, as it's hardly unprecedented. He noted that newspapers "from The Oregonian in Portland to The Wall Street Journal" carry ads on their opinion pages. I'm not sure that The New York Times falls within that spectrum, but it does also.
Blethen was at pains to assure us that the ads would not influence editorial opinion, but he seems to have created a perception problem unnecessarily by deciding that only issue ads would be run: "no advertisements for appliances and furniture." If he's worried about the appearance of influence, those would seem to be the ads to favor. Perhaps they are considered to be beneath the dignity of the Times, at least on the Opinion pages.
Blethen acknowledged that the new policy would reduce the already small editorial space, but claimed that the paper needs the money, which is no doubt true, and that eventually, if all goes well, more revenue might lead to an expanded opinion section, which sounds like wishful thinking.
He also said that a review of the paper's policy as to syndicated columnists is under way, the implication being that there might be more variety and fewer appearances by the usual crew. He dropped a hint about Charles Krauthammer, whose departure would be a step forward.
June 21, 2009
The Washington Post might have posed, in the Bush years, as an establishment paper. Now that the establishment is Democratic, it becomes obvious that the orientation of the Post's editorial page is conservative/Republican. The op-ed page is little different; while it presents some liberals, such as Dionne, Robinson and Myerson, it is dominated by right-wingers and imperialist fellow-travelers: Krauthammer, Kristol, Gerson, Will, Kagan, Hoagland, Hiatt, Diehl, Ignatius and Cohen.
The Post took another step rightward this week by dropping Dan Froomkin's "White House Watch" blog. Its explanation was corporate blather: "Editors and our research teams are constantly reviewing our online content to ensure we bring readers the most value when they are on our Web site while balancing the need to make the most of our resources. Regrettably, this means that sometimes features must be eliminated, and this time it was the blog that Dan Froomkin freelanced." What resources did Froomkin's column consume? How does dropping it bring readers more value?
The Post's ombudsman, Andy Alexander, speculated that Froomkin's "liberal bent" was passé: "That slant seemed to attract a large and loyal audience during the Bush administration, but it may have suffered when Barack Obama became president." Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt tried the same line: "With the end of the Bush administration, interest in the blog also diminished. His political orientation was not a factor in our decision." 41 However, it's difficult to take the diminished-interest argument seriously. The column by the ombudsman, posted on Saturday, drew pages of comments - about 600 by that afternoon - many very hostile to the Post. I read the first 150, of which all but three protested the decision.
Ironically, Froomkin had criticized the current administration, but he had done so from a liberal perspective. Apparently only conservative critiques are allowed.
June 27, 2009
On Friday, Dan Froomkin submitted his last Washington Post column (oh, wait: apparently it was a blog; more on that below). He described the beginnings of his tenure and, in so doing, offered a succinct description of the political effect of 9-11: "I started my column in January 2004, and one dominant theme quickly emerged: That George W. Bush was truly the proverbial emperor with no clothes. In the days and weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, the nation, including the media, vested him with abilities he didn't have and credibility he didn't deserve." Froomkin also provided an apt epitaph for the former administration.: "When I look back on the Bush years, I think of the lies. . . I also think about the extraordinary and fundamentally cancerous expansion of executive power that led to violations of our laws and our principles. "
In his initial response to the firing, the Post's ombudsman, Andy Alexander, accepted the paper's explanation without comment. However, on Friday, he was more critical, and complained that, as to the Foomkin question, Post management was "circling the wagons -- ironic for a news organization that insists on transparency from those it covers."
However, Alexander thinks that the move was not about ideology, not prompted by Froomkin's liberal slant. Perhaps, but the effect certainly was to remove a liberal voice, and I think that it's naïve to conclude that ideology was entirely irrelevant.
Decreased readership was cited as a reason. In January, Froomkin's contribution was transformed, according to Alexander, from a column to a blog. The distinction between an on-line column and a blog escapes me, but the result was to change Froomkin's daily contribution from one long, coherent post to a series of short ones. That was bound to reduce traffic; as much as I admired Froomkin's work, I read it far less often over the past few months. However, the cancellation may reduce the Post's newspaper and web readership as well. On Friday Alexander reported that his earlier column generated "more than 870 comments -- nearly all of them expressing outrage." Many of those I read threatened to cancel subscriptions or delete washingtonpost.com from Favorites.
Froomkin had posted an explanation of the change in format, claiming that it was his idea. If so, it was a bad one. If it was forced on him by the Post, he was set up to fail. Certainly the editors had to realize that the change had something to do with reduced traffic, so the solution was at hand, assuming that really to be a significant issue.
There were other rationales, but whatever the truth of any of them, the Post has become duller and less in touch with its readers, not a prescription for survival.
July 5, 2009
Sarah Palin's announcement that she will resign as governor of Alaska was welcome, not only for its entertainment value but for the brief respite from news about Michael Jackson. As Gail Collins put it, the Governor "interrupt[ed] the plans of TV newscasters to spend the entire weekend pointing out that Michael Jackson is still dead."
The amount of attention given to his death - and for that matter during his lifetime - is another indicator of how superficial and, at times, strange our culture has become. Bob Herbert, one of the few to comment on Jackson's passing with any detachment, thinks that he was a symbol of the times from the 80s forward - when "we descended as a society into a fantasyland, trying to leave the limits and consequences and obligations of the real world behind." Among his examples: war without serious thought, prosperity based on debt, deregulation, abandonment of welfare programs, destruction of the domestic economy through globalization. It may be a stretch to tie Jackson to all of that, even as a symbol of a general trend, but Herbert's summary seems apt: "The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson's death . . . is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality. We don't want to look under the rock that was Jackson's real life. As with so many other things, we don't want to know." 42
Governor Palin's speech43 was consistent with her earlier public statements: self-centered, rambling, close to incoherent. Although the purpose presumably was to announce her resignation, she never got around to saying that she had or would resign. The word doesn't show up anywhere in her remarks, nor does any form or synonym. The closest she came was to state that she would continue to fight for free enterprise, etc, but that she won't "do it from the Governor's desk." That led to announcing that she would not run for a second term, and finally to an indirect statement that she was quitting: "With this announcement that I am not seeking re-election... I've determined it's best to transfer the authority of governor to Lieutenant Governor Parnell. . . ."
She used a basketball analogy to justify that transfer: "A good point guard drives through a full court press, protecting the ball, keeping her eye on the basket... and she knows exactly when to pass the ball so that the team can WIN. . . ." ("Press" is an inadvertent pun; the full-court swarm in question is unwelcome media attention. The recent article in Vanity Fair, which was highly critical, must have added to her sense of persecution). However, the analogy doesn't work; this guard, daunted by the press, is leaving the floor.
Although Mrs. Palin said that her accomplishments speak for themselves, she listed them. In summing up, she hinted that her success has a allowed her to resign: "Our goal was to achieve a gasline project, more fair oil and gas valuation, and ethics reform in four years. We did it in two."
She quoted a saying displayed on her parents' refrigerator: "Don't explain: your friends don't need it and your enemies won't believe you anyway." She was true to that in result, but not action: she didn't explain her decision, but that wasn't for lack of trying. Select from the list: she can be more effective out of office (doing what isn't clear); she didn't want to be like all other lame-duck governors who wasted time and state money on junkets (why not just avoid that?); she and her family have been the targets of unfair criticism and investigation (causing annoyance, the expenditure of state funds, personal debt, distraction from state matters or perhaps some combination).
There has been much guesswork as to her true motivation, ranging from disgust with politics to positioning for 2012. The author of the Vanity Fair article, Todd S. Purdum, speculated with perfect timing about a possible change of course: "[The GOP] is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power. She may decide that she does not need office in order to have great influence - any more than Rush Limbaugh does."
Whatever the motivation might be, it seemed that she was not entirely certain that her decision, or the reason when revealed, would be well received. Her speech had the usual perky flourishes, but her delivery was nervous, every other sentence followed by a deep, audible breath.
The positioning-for-2012 scenario is revealing as to the state of the Republican Party. It is a measure of its decline, both in success and character, that as marginal a player as Sarah Palin could be a contender, but that is the case: two CNN polls this year showed Palin first or tied for second. The identity of the other contenders partly explains that and further illustrates the party's woes: Romney, Huckabee, Gingrich and Guiliani.
The soon-to-be-former governor appeals to that segment of the party which places a strange sort of ideology over anything resembling political ideas. In fact, they disdain political ideas and knowledge in general. Purdum illustrated, with an anecdote by one of Palin's opponents in the gubernatorial election, how she fits this constituency: "Andrew Halcro later remembered that he and Palin once compared notes about their many encounters, and she said, 'Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I'm amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, Does any of this really matter?' " To her and her devotees and to much of the right, no.
July 17, 2009
The Washington Post seems to be doing a dance of the seven veils, each veil representing a fraction of its credibility. Two more dropped this month.
On July 2, the Post suffered what its ombudsman described, with understatement, as "pretty close to a public relations disaster." The Post's publisher, Katharine Weymouth, abruptly cancelled plans for "salons," informal get-togethers at her home between lobbyists, administration officials, members of Congress and Post reporters. Lobbyists had been invited to "sponsor" one or more salons, at $25,000 each or a series of eleven for the discounted price of $250,000. A flier sent out by a Post marketing unit said: "Bring your organization's CEO or executive director literally to the table. Interact with key Obama Administration and Congressional leaders . . . " On July 21 the subject would be health care, offering an "exclusive opportunity to participate in the health-care reform debate among the select few who will actually get it done." Also to be on hand were "the publisher, executive editor and health-care reporters of The Washington Post." The former two were listed as hosts and discussion leaders, but to make clear that access to them was on the agenda, the flier counseled: "Build crucial relationships with Washington Post news executives . . . ." The title for that salon was to be "Health-Care Reform: Better or Worse for Americans?" That suggests that the Post was prepared to be persuaded of the latter.
The plan was disclosed by Politico.com, leading to the cancellation. Everyone protested innocence. An overzealous marketing executive was blamed. The publisher said the fliers hadn't been "vetted." An unnamed executive told the Post's media columnist, Howard Kurtz, that Ms. Weymouth "believed that there would be multiple sponsors, to minimize any appearance of charging for access, and that the newsroom would be in charge of the scope and content of any dinners in which Post reporters and editors participated." 44 That doesn't explain much.
Kurtz closed his report with this observation: "The Post Co. lost $19.5 million in the first quarter and just completed its fourth round of early-retirement buyouts in several years, prompting Weymouth to look for new sources of revenue." In a post-cancellation note to staff, she confirmed that: "We are always looking for new revenue streams, but we will pursue only avenues that uphold our high standards of journalism." Revenue must be a serious problem if anything along these lines was considered. The salons were so obviously designed to sell access to the Post's pages that it's amazing that the idea was entertained in any form.
That fiasco was followed, on July 14, by the appearance of Sarah Plain on the op-ed page. She wrote - or endorsed - a diatribe against the cap-and-trade proposal for greenhouse gas emissions. She claimed that it is a threat to the economy and that energy will become scarcer; she predicted unemployment, loss of income to farmers and higher costs to consumers. However, she never mentioned the problem that the bill addresses: climate change. She never used that term or "warming" or made any other reference to the problem. As Senator Kerry put it in a blog the same day, "she manages to write about the climate change action in Congress without ever mentioning the reason we are doing this in the first place." The almost-ex governor didn't indicate that cap-and-trade is designed to cure anything; to her, it's a freestanding offense. Senator Kerry also pointed out factual errors, but facts are unimportant in Palin-style politicking. This sort of devious fear-mongering doesn't belong on a serious op-ed page.
July 29, 2009
I don't like puzzles, probably because working them reveals, if only to me, how dumb I am. Crosswords always have been included in the ban. However, on a long flight a few months ago, I complained that I was bored. (I know: I'm a whiner too). My dear wife, hereafter known as the pusher, handed me a book of crossword puzzles. Consistent with the usual technique for hooking one on addictive material, the puzzles were relatively easy, a low-grade drug. Now I'm a user.
The crosswords in the Seattle and New York Times ration the humiliation, being relatively easy at the beginning of the week but diabolical later. Some clues simply require factual knowledge of an obscure sort, e.g. "Middle Eastern capital," four letters, beginning, as it happened, with S. Answer: Sana - never heard of it - capital of Yemen. (Just to make the clue even more obscure, the name of the city also is spelled Sana'a. Without the S, I could have been misled into picking Doha, capital of Qatar. Sure.) Or "Neighbor of Kalingrad," nine letters. Okay, I knew that one, Lithuania, but those were virtually the only spaces I filled in. Many answers are puns ("Where a Hungarian toy inventor vacations in the Caribbean?" Answer: "RubiksCuba"), but some of those aren't bad once a few letters appear. The worst are those in which the clue word or words are used in a way which ranges from odd to weird. It's a bit like trying to communicate with someone who doesn't quite understand the English language.
Oh, well: it gives me break from obsessing about politics.
August 6, 2009
I keep thinking that the Right can't get any uglier or goofier, but every week seems to bring new lows. The "birther" orgy has both characteristics: it is fueled in part by racial hostility, and in its more strident forms is really dumb.
The symbol of this campaign to unseat Obama - by proving that he is not a natural-born citizen - is a strange blonde person who claims to be a lawyer: Ann Coulter redux. (To be fair to Annie, the birthers are too far out even for her).
The new Strange Person has a website45 which identifies her as "Dr. Orly Taitz, Esq." The doctorate apparently is in dentistry which, although a worthy profession, would not seem to lend any weight to legal opinions. "Esquire" was the standard title for lawyers when I began practice, so it is a legitimate tag, but one which has been out of fashion for years. In any case, lawyers were called Esquire by others; it wasn't usual to refer to one's self in that fashion. Dr. Taitz is trying too hard to persuade us that she knows something about the law pertaining to her obsession.
Another indication of that is her display of a U.S. Supreme Court certificate (issued in January of this year), with the comment "Dr Taitz is approved to handle cases before the United States Supreme Court in Washington D.C." (The educational level of her likely readers is suggested by the disclosure that the Supreme Court is in Washington.) Possessing one of those certificates doesn't say a great deal about legal ability, and if the quality of the argumentation and level of literacy on her web site is representative of her work, the Supremes wouldn't be impressed.
Although the web site is entitled "The OFFICIAL Web Site of Dr. Orly Taitz, Esq," it is devoted almost entirely to the birther issue. Apparently the doctor has few other interests, professional or otherwise. It isn't clear why Dr. Taitz, who is not a natural-born American citizen, should have made a crusade of trying to show that Obama shares that lack of presidential qualification, nor why anyone pays attention to her. However, she is all over the news.
Her web page claims that "Barrack [sic] Hussein Obama has not provided any credible proof that he is a "Natural Born Citizen. . . ." She makes no reference to the Certification of Live Birth issued by the State of Hawaii nor to the newspaper birth announcements. She claims that Obama has spent "over 1 MILLION dollars to hide a $12 birth certificate. . . ." Leaving aside the claims of suppression and expenditure, that seems to admit that there is a certificate to suppress, although why he would want to do that is not exactly clear.
One of her claims to importance and support is that "[o]ne of Dr. Taitz clients is Ambassador Dr. Alan Keyes, the Former Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan and Dr. Keyes was also on the ballot as a 2008 Presidential Candidate!" He also was a candidate for president in 1992, 1996 and 2000, and for senate in 1988 and 1992, and in 2004 when he lost to Obama. Does this establish him as an authority on anything?
Apparently she has some doubts about that, as she tells us: "For information and simple explanation of 'Natural Born Citizen', Why it is important, Birth Certificate and Eligibility Issues, also see ObamaNotQualified.com , by Jim who created and Orly's site maintains and her blog" [all oddities in the original]. Who is Jim? The referenced site doesn't say. "Jim's" contribution is to assert that, to be a natural-born citizen, one must be born in the mainland United States to parents both of whom are US citizens. He cites the Constitution and two Supreme Court decisions, none of which support either of his two criteria.
Although Dr. Taitz ignores the document from Hawaii, her page displays a "Certified Copy of Registration of Birth" purportedly from Kenya, which she apparently is pushing in litigation. Leaving aside questions of authenticity, why is a document from Kenya more reliable than one from Hawaii? As to authenticity, either the Kenya "certificate" is a phony or there are amazing similarities between it and one issued in Australia in 1959. Each has a Registrar named Lavender and a District Registrar named Miller; each is Certificate no. 495; the cost of each was 7s 6d; each original is to be found in Book 44B page 5733. 46 Pretty obviously, the "Obama" document was created by changing the names on the one from Australia.
At the bottom of the web page is this disclaimer: "This site designed and maintained by Jim of www.ObamaNotQualified.com and assumes no responsibility for content of this site. . . ." Is that a garbled way of saying that "Jim" isn't responsible or is Dr. Taitz disavowing her own site? The latter would be appropriate enough.
All this would be funny if confined to a few nuts. Sadly, birther mania is spreading, especially among Republicans and Southerners.
August 10, 2009
Political ugliness can lead to physical intimidation and to violence. It can come from the left as well as from the right, as reading Nixonland has reminded me. The left often engaged in violence in the 60s, and one could make a case for the proposition that it started the cycle we are in now. The dirty tricks of the Nixon election campaigns are well known, and breaking the law was no impediment, but violence wasn't a direct tactic. Violence by "the silent majority" against left-wing protests was encouraged, though, and politics by verbal and physical assault now is a right-wing phenomenon.
I mentioned birth-certificate mania as an example of ugliness leading to rhetorical excess. The health care debate now features ugliness encouraging and leading to physical confrontation and, if the anti-reform protesters and their sponsors have their way, to legislation by intimidation. Town hall meetings on health care have been turned into battlegrounds by ignorant, resentful people made hysterical by the lies spread by the opponents of reform. They have been led to believe all manner of horror stories: old people will be killed, or at least encouraged to die; care will be rationed; decisions will be taken from doctors and patients (as if that didn't happen under private insurance) and given to bureaucrats. Sarah Palin is peddling the tale that her Down-syndrome child might be killed by a "death panel" which exists only in her fevered imagination.
There have been death threats, but they have come from her side, directed at - among others - Brian Baird, Congressman from Washington's Third District. The people making death threats and screaming about unAmerican plots probably are the same people who went to tea parties, who think Obama is Kenyan and who resent any advance by blacks.
There are legitimate concerns about the reform plans, not least the fact that they are long and complex, and nothing is firm. That has allowed the wild speculation. Specifically, those with adequate insurance worry that it will be interfered with somehow and that in one way or another they will pay for coverage of the uninsured. Seniors worry that Medicare will be scaled back or become more expensive. The proponents have done a poor job of selling reform and of reassuring rational critics.
However, the present agitation isn't rational. There are numerous ironies, such as the demands by protesters to keep the government's hands off Medicare. The greatest is the cry that Obama wants a socialist takeover of health care and the medical profession; the main fault of the Democratic plans is that they are too cautious, too kind to insurance and drug companies. The eventual bill will have, at most, an option of a public plan, and probably not even that.
Liberals have reason to complain that the proposals are too timid, but given the circumstances they should be backing the reform plans as a first step. Instead the only voices heard are on the right. Charles M. Blow lamented, in his NYTimes column, "One of the most frustrating aspects of the health care debate is that the people who most want reform are the most apathetic about it." Or, as Paul Krugman put it, paraphrasing Yeats, "Mr. Obama's backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isn't living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity."
The protests could backfire in either of two ways. Responsible Republican lawmakers, anxious to distance themselves from the thugs, might decide to cooperate in reform. Democrats might give up on cooperation and push through their own bill. Let's hope, but continued bickering is more likely than either.
September 3, 2009
In Monday's column, George Will advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan. That recommendation, given his record on intervention, and the administration's policies are full of ironies.
Mr. Will's reversal on Afghanistan is one irony, but only a small one, and he hardly is alone. His decision that nation-building is futile is more notable, given his earlier enthusiasm for that venture. He asks whether, if the mission is to prevent establishment of al Qaeda bases, we aren't then forced to occupy various other countries that might harbor them; he might have asked that before we invaded Iraq. Citing de Gaulle citing "Bismarck's decision to halt German forces short of Paris in 1870," he tells us that genius "sometimes consists of knowing when to stop." Good sense sometimes consists of knowing when not to start; even Cheney once knew that invading Iraq was asking for trouble. Finally there is Will's reference to one of the lessons of Vietnam, that support for a corrupt and inept regime is a losing proposition. To his credit, he drew parallels some time ago, but most conservatives have refused to admit that the Vietnam experience teaches anything about the limits of American power.
A greater irony is a liberal president sending more troops to Afghanistan while a conservative commentator calls for their withdrawal. The troops are to implement a strategy of "clear, hold and build," which had limited success in Iraq and certainly has less chance in Afghanistan.
Ironies aside, Mr. Will is right, and the President needs to pay attention.
September 4, 2009
It's unfortunate that so many Congressmen holding meetings on health care reform have been patient with or intimidated by protesters. Barney Frank had it right when he asked a protester on which planet she had spent the recent past and commented that debating with her would be like reasoning with a table. The level of ignorance and plain stupidity at the anti-reform demonstrations is appalling.
A recent video clip 47 had a good sampling: Obama is a communist and a fascist; the Obama administration is unconstitutional; God will take care of health care (the Israelites wandered for forty years and their sandals didn't wear out); Obama is a radical communist and "basic Muslim"; this isn't about health care - it's a smokescreen for taking away our constitutional rights; this is a step toward the total takeover of society; it will lead to a takeover by communism like Hitler did in Germany; the brownshirts are going to be next, and you know who that is - that's Acorn; the next thing you're going to see is severe restriction of ammunition sales; food is going to be very expensive- the shut-off of the water to the growers in the Central Valley might be the first step. One man referred to the USS Constitution, as if Old Ironsides contained the organic law.
The demonstrations are not exclusively, or perhaps even primarily, prompted by concerns about the future of health care. Although the protesters are the pawns of business interests and political ideologues, they have real fears, which, in a muddled way, have to do with the decline of the culture they knew or imagined. However, their ignorance and hostility is one of the manifestations of cultural illness. The anger, wild theories, threats and hysteria which characterize the demonstrations are disturbing, not only as to the fate of reform, but as to the state of political discourse and ultimately of civil stability.
The only genuine medical issue I have been able to identify in all the shouting is abortion. Pro-life people understandably do not want the government paying for or encouraging abortions. Whether it will do so is less than clear. The original House bill did not mention abortion, but an amendment, the status of which is a mystery to me, would 1) require at least one insurance provider in each "exchange" to provide abortion coverage, 2) require an public option plan to provide coverage for those few abortions now paid for by the federal government and 3) permit a public option to pay for others. The amendment prohibits any public option from using federal funds for abortion coverage, but would allow it to be financed by premiums. That, not surprisingly, has been denounced as a dodge. Opposition to such proposals, by some of the protesters, would be logical, but abortion is only one of many objections raised, and the remedy sought is not to drop such provisions but to scrap the entire project. In addition, some of the anti-abortion sentiment has been extreme.
As an example of the latter, consider the "minister of God" who preaches hatred of Barack Obama. One Steve Anderson, of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, told his flock that the President approves of abortion, and delivered this homily: "I'm going to tell you something. I hate Barack Obama. You say, well, you just mean you don't like what he stands for. No, I hate the person. Oh, you mean you just don't like his policies. No, I hate him. I am not going to pray for his good. I am going to pray that he dies and goes to hell."48
As to the former, opposing all reform because of abortion, we have Michelle Bachmann. Speaking to an anti-abortion group, she argued that no bill should pass which doesn't prohibit support for abortions: "Unless we explicitly restrict these items, I think we can fully expect that these radical pro-abortion individuals could very likely make those decisions." She didn't identify "these . . . individuals," or how they would make abortion decisions, but such rules possibly could be made administratively, so fair enough. However, she proceeded to endorse the death-panel myth. In a later speech, she moved on to a familiar generalization - this is all about freedom - and upped the ante for commitment: "What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. . . . We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn't pass. Right now, we are looking at reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom." 49 I assume that she means that the bill will do the ripping. However, whatever one may think of abortion, it is an increase in freedom, so at that point she's simply throwing out an all-purpose reactionary claim: freedom is at risk. According to a news report, Bachmann also claimed that many Americans pay more than half their income in taxes which, to her, is "nothing more than slavery."
This progression from a plausible health-care issue to an imagined one to blather about threats to freedom, with a side trip into taxes, is much like the incoherence of the protests. If a Congresswoman can be so unfocused, it's no surprise that ordinary citizens are. Bachmann is a noisy simpleton who, in a more rational world, would be ignored; instead she was elected in 2006 and reelected in 2008 from Minnesota, which should know better.
Another factor is the "I have mine" syndrome. At a town meeting, a disabled woman in a wheel chair tried to point out how important reform is to her. Many in the crowd mocked. When a reporter put a microphone in front of one of the noisy ones, the best excuse he could give was "I don't know how a handicapped woman in a chair has more rights than I have." 50 Since his rights aren't in jeopardy, he must be afraid that helping her will cost him something.
The reference to rights is ironic. Conservatives are fond of accusing liberals of creating too many rights (such as freedom from unlawful government surveillance), but when they are upset, the Constitution, rights and freedom suddenly become important.
A variation on rights is the "individual responsibility" theme. People who need government-assisted heath care must be lazy or wasteful. Besides, helping them would be socialistic, i.e., unAmerican. The argument then proceeds to the claim that illegal immigrants would receive free care, another myth.
The administration certainly must take some responsibility for the agitation over these issues. It has not been clear enough about what it wants enacted and has fudged on the cost, leading people to worry about increased taxes. It must be said too that the President's record on keeping his campaign promises isn't stellar, so assurances that middle-class people won't see a tax increase are not altogether convincing.
It's true that the protesters have been goaded by Republicans in Congress, business interests and right-wing hyperventilators. As to the last, one of the protesters, after rambling irrelevantly about the shop-till-you-drop culture and parental irresponsibility - and before vowing that she will die for freedom - declared her indebtedness to Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Previously she was ignorant, she said, but no more. However, the resentment is real and many of these people don't appear to have needed too much prompting.
A news report yesterday suggested that the President has been reduced to seeking a compromise with Senator Snowe. He will address Congress next week and may offer concessions. Republican obstructionism and the protesters' anger seem to have succeeded.
September 5, 2009
I hadn't paid any attention to Glenn Beck until a few days ago. I was prompted to watch a clip of one of his shows by two events: a favorable reference to him by one of the health-care protesters and the decision by the mayor of Mount Vernon to give him the "key to the city."
The video51 shows Beck, in aid of showing some sort of progressive plot, describing and displaying art which adorns or was formerly hung in buildings at Rockefeller Center or situated on land near the UN. All of this, according to Beck, was foisted on us by "Rockefeller." Which one? Beck didn't say, and I had the impression that he doesn't know that there have been several. His "Rockefeller" was a progressive but also head of an evil - to progressives, presumably - oil company. Don't attempt to make any sense of any of this.
Beck found a pair of reliefs on one building to be communist because they portray a worker holding a sledge hammer and a farmer with a sickle, although the hammer is long-handled, in contrast to the communist image, and has a different head. Hmm; was "Rockefeller" a communist? Beck analyzed a relief of a chariot as showing "industry" (a wheel) and industry's "engine" (the horses); the driver is, he told us, Mussolini, so "Rockefeller" also must have been a fascist. Although Mussolini is imagined by Beck to be holding the engines back, the chariot is somehow led into a bright future by a boy, symbolic (many decades in advance) of Obama's plan for "youth indoctrination."
A statue of a man beating a sword into a plowshare, which is part of the art collection of the United Nations - built on land donated by "Rockefeller" - was a gift of the USSR. More communism. Beck didn't take note of the origin of that image. Is the Bible communist? Only the books of Isaiah and Micah?
His point in all of this babble? Who knows?
If the protesters learn from Beck, it's no surprise that they are incoherent. It's embarrassing that this ninny comes from Washington.
September 14, 2009
The crazies took to the streets again on Saturday, this time in Washington, D.C. As usual, the signs revealed silliness ("Save freedom stop Obama"), hostility ("Parasite-in-Chief"; "We've hit 'Barack' bottom"; "You lie"; "Nazi Pelosi you can keep the Fascism I'll keep my Freedom"), and confusion (one person carrying a sign with a cartoon of Obama labeled "The Greatest Communist President we have ever had", and another a picture of Obama with a Hitler moustache). However, McCarthyism prevailed: "Impeach the Muslim Marxist" (held by a man wearing a "Glenn Beck is my hero" shirt); "Oust the Marxist usurper"; and, with a photo of the White House, "1600 Marxist Way."
Two women appeared unsure why they were there. One carried a sign reading "Now look!! Nice people are forced to protest!! This must be serious," adding, to show that she was really upset, if not sure at what, "we came unarmed. . . this time." The other's sign read "Hey Obama Care Hands off my body." Apparently she thought that she was at a pro-abortion rally.
A truck sported numerous signs, including "Obama lies Grandma dies" and "Remember 9-11 Stop sinning or something worse will happen". It wasn't clear whether the intent was to connect Obama somehow to that event. The prize for ugliness made no secret of that attempt: a picture showing Obama gesturing to bearded men who are brandishing weapons, with towers in the background and planes overhead, saying "Whoa boys! I'll take it from here".
The level of hostility, especially given the inability of the protesters to identify genuine issues, the personal animosity, and the childish disrespect shown by the Republicans during the President's speech suggest something at work other than political disagreement, even such disagreement at an unusual pitch. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the hostility is at least partly racist. Journalists have been chary of mentioning this factor. As Richard Cohen put it a few days ago, "It would be an awful thing if genuine criticism was labeled racist and therefore muffled." But, he continued, "the disrespect shown Obama seems so disproportionate to the issue -- health-care reform -- that I just have to wonder." 52 Cohen's Washington Post colleagues Colbert King and Eugene Robinson also took note of the influence of race.
The most candid, and pointed, comment came from Maureen Dowd in Sunday's New York Times. She too described a reluctance to conclude that "the shrieking lunacy of the summer" proceeded from racism. However, referring to the Wilson outburst, she said "what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!" and concluded that "[s]ome people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it." 53 She focused on attitudes in the South and specifically in Rep. Wilson's South Carolina. Too much can be made of that, as the President has rabid opponents in other parts of the country. However, racism is a distinctive, if by no means exclusive feature of conservative politics in the South, and certain other features of the protests, such as resentment of the federal government, also are strong in the South. Whatever the truth of that may be, the racial element is obvious.
Robinson, after expressing his suspicion that "Obama's race leads some of his critics to feel they have permission to deny him the legitimacy, stature and common courtesy that are any president's due", raised the obvious next question: "if I'm right, what's anybody supposed to do about it? There's no way to compel people to search their souls for traces of conscious or unconscious racial bias." He suggested concentrating on obtaining universal health care and was encouraged by the "steely resolve that Obama showed the nation Wednesday." 54 I'm less impressed by the President's tough talk, and whether anything resembling universal health care coverage comes out of this Congress is a very open question. More importantly, the protests and the behavior of the Republicans in Congress - and not just as an audience - pose threats to the democratic process.
I don't expect reporters covering these events to call the protesters racists, but they should at least point out how hysterically wrong they are. However, the reporters, or their editors, seem determined to avoid that.
According to The Huffington Post, NBC edited a video after it had been shown, excising this accusation by a protester: "We are losing our country, we think the Muslims are moving in and taking over." Instead, she was shown making this more neutral, more respectable comment: "I'm scared to death for my country. I believe Obama is running this country into the ground." 55
An article in Sunday's NYTimes, reprinted in The Seattle Times, described the D.C event as "a culmination of a summer-long season of protests that began with opposition to a health care overhaul and grew into a broader dissatisfaction with government." Even as a superficial statement, that's inaccurate: the protests began, early in the year, ostensibly as an anti-tax movement. More to the point, "dissatisfaction with government" - and that phrase is itself an example of downplaying the hostility - came first, and taxation and health care served only as a pegs to hang it on. The article did add: "Their anger stretched well beyond the health care legislation moving through Congress, with shouts of support for gun rights, lower taxes and a smaller government" and noted that "sharp words of profane and political criticism were aimed at Mr. Obama and Congress." However, adding that general and understated afterthought still disguises the nature of the protests: they are irrational and ugly, and have little to do with those issues. Further legitimacy was given by citing a comment by protesters that "the size of the crowd illustrated that their views were shared by a broader audience." 56
This cautious, timid reporting conveys the message that the protesters are on one side of a genuine debate. If this continues, if irrational slander is regarded as political argument, democracy is in trouble.
September 17, 2009
It's difficult to keep up with the themes, largely irrelevant to health care, behind the recent protests. Videos and photos of the signs carried by protesters provide a record, if not an explanation.
Some of the wilder ones had a religious message, or at least what the sign-toters took for such. One read "The anti-Christ is living in the White House". The same person also was shown with a sign (perhaps the reverse side of the first) showing "#666" (the sign of the beast), and reading "America beware 'watch and pray' we are in grave danger" and "Obama's plan is to bring in the new world order". The last echoes the message and title of Pat Robertson's strange 1991 book The New World Order, in which he wondered whether George H.W. Bush was "unwittingly carrying out the mission . . . of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order . . . under the domination of Lucifer and his followers." 57 Perhaps the sign-carrier is a nonpartisan kook, or doesn't realize that Lucifer may have had an earlier entrée to the White House.
The protesters were upset about Obama's appointment of "czars." Signs included "If Obama's not a socialist, why all the czars?"; "Got czars?" (with pictures of Lenin); "Czar = USSR"; "32 czars Washington the new Kremlin"; "Obama more czars than the USSR". Leaving aside that the term is bestowed by the media on various presidential aides with varying levels of authority, the protesters have, as shown by their fascist-socialist-communist equation, a tenuous grip on history and political categories. One protester carried a sign that referred to "fascist . . . President Obama," but apparently she worried more about the danger from the left: her sign also denounced "Hollywood communists" and she wore a shirt which read "The cure for Obama Communism is a New Era of McCarthyism". 58 (No fascism or government overreaching there.)
The number of "czars," 32, comes from - here's a surprise - Glenn Beck, as does some of the anxiety.
A variation on these themes, one which unites religion with concern about czars, appears on a right-wing blog, Real Zionist News, in a rant59 entitled "Obama 'Czars' - a Zionist shadow government." It warns that "America falls further under the total domination of one of the world's tiniest minority groups." (On other pages, the euphemism "zionist" is dropped and the anti-semitism is explicit; one refers to "3 goals of the new world order Jews.") However, it seems that Obama is not a fascist-communist dictator, but a pawn. Reacting to the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg as "pay czar," the ranter News claims that "[t]his latest move by the puppet teleprompter 'President' reflects his masters' agenda that companies cannot decide for themselves on matters of pay but will now have a Zionist deciding compensation arrangements." Real Zionist News also opposes health care reform, using arguments familiar by now: "1) We Will Have No Choice In What Health Benefits We Receive 2) No Chemo For Older Medicare Patients 3) Illegal Immigrants Get Free Health Insurance 4) Federal Government Will Set Doctors' Wages 5) Death Panels Will Decide Who Lives & Who Dies 6) Federal Government Will Have Electronic Access To Everyone's Bank Account." 60
Not long ago, I would have thought sites such as Real Zionist News to be ugly but unimportant, perpetually consigned to the lunatic fringe. Post-tea party and post-health care hysteria, I'm not so sure. Perhaps its specific form of bigotry will not appear nakedly in what now passes for the mainstream, but its hostility, ignorance and exaggeration have become the stuff of the protests.
September 22, 2009
The "birther" movement has taken a hit in the Middle District of Georgia. Orly Taitz, self-appointed leader of those who deny that President Obama is a natural-born citizen, filed an action in that court challenging a deployment order to an army physician. According to the Complaint, the doctor objected to being sent to Iraq (at one point the Complaint states that the orders were to Afghanistan) because the Commander-in-Chief is not a legitimate president.
The claims made, the out-of-control rhetoric and the illogical arguments are rare in a judicial proceeding, but all too typical of birthers in less formal venues. The Complaint was rambling and in places virtually incoherent, but the basic message was that Barack Obama is not eligible to be president and therefore any orders down his chain of command are void. Obama is a de facto president, a usurper, an unlawful pretender and an unqualified imposter.
The plaintiff would sustain irreparable injury if forced to deploy, but exactly how isn't clear. The complaint stated that she has "severe mental reservations" about obeying the de facto president's commands and that she cannot in good conscience do so. That probably didn't sound like much injury, even to Ms Taitz, so later it was asserted that the plaintiff would be subject to court martial if she failed to inquire into the legitimacy of the orders received. That still sounds pretty lame, but wait: there's more!
Being forced to serve under the illegitimate commander-in-chief would "impair her ability to act effectively" and "would constitute involuntary servitude or judicially sanctioned rape of her individual autonomy." The last is only one of many imprudent swipes at the judge. Later, Taitz really got wound up, and alleged that the injury would be "the monstrosity of being compelled to wage war under an illegal dictator compared by many and actually comparable to Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Idi Amin and Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier . . . ."
Finally, the Complaint quoted the plaintiff's oath as an officer to defend the country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and alleged that Obama is a "domestic enemy".
The plaintiff asked for an order restraining the Army from enforcing its deployment decision, which was denied, principally on the ground that the president's status as a citizen is not a justiciable controversy, but also noting that the Complaint had no merit and could have been dismissed pursuant to the government's motion to that effect.
Taitz then filed a "Request for Stay of Deployment Pending Motions for Rehearing . . . ." The tone was the same as before. She claimed to be advocating that "a legally conscious, procedurally sophisticated, and constitutionally aware army officer corps is the best protection against the encroachment of anti-democratic, authoritarian, neo-Fascistic or Palaeo-Communistic dictatorship in this country . . . ."
The Court had been unkind enough to point out that the issue was the Plaintiff's refusal to go to Iraq and that she had not resisted any other order by the usurper. Taitz attempted to deny that, alleging that Captain Rhodes objects to "every order entered under the authority of this illegitimate regime." She added a claim that Rhodes would be somehow subject to prosecution for war crimes if she deployed.
Taitz alleged that "there is increasing evidence [what? - she didn't say] that the United States Courts in the 11th Circuit are subject to political pressure, external control, and, most likely, subservience to the same illegitimate chain of command which Plaintiff has previously protested in this case . . . ." In other words, Judge, you're corrupt: not the shrewdest approach to a request for reconsideration. Later, in a muddled paragraph referring to the officers' oath, she seemed to accuse the Judge of treason.
The day after Taitz' motion was filed, Captain Rhodes sent a letter to the Judge stating that she had not authorized the motion and was about to ship out to Iraq. She denounced the "political conjecture" in the Complaint and claimed, somewhat implausibly, that she had no intention of refusing orders but merely wanted to verify their lawfulness. Possibly she was just a pawn for Taitz.
Taitz had filed this action first in a federal court in Texas, where her motion for a restraining order was dismissed immediately, partly on the ground that it had no merit, and also because Taitz had neglected to sign it. She had filed an earlier challenge, for a different soldier, in Georgia. After that was dismissed she refiled it in Florida, with the same result. She then filed a motion for rehearing consisting mainly of attacks on the integrity of the judge. An action for another plaintiff is pending in California, and has turned into a circus.
All of this certainly demonstrates Taitz' incompetence. Her arguments and some of the comments by supporters on her web site also reflect the single-mindedness and wild-eyed animosity of the protesters.
September 30, 2009
A few words of advice as we leave on vacation:
President Obama: take note of the fact that you won the election last year, and start acting accordingly. Congress is incapable of doing anything useful without direction. Some of the Democrats have forgotten which party they belong to and others have misplaced their backbones.
Congress (Dem): note the above and straighten up.
Congress (Rep): this is the twenty-first century. Ditch the ludicrous anti-statist rhetoric and try to remember that you have an obligation to the people, not to the ghost of nineteenth century capitalism.
Fellow citizens (on the right): get it through your heads that the government is a tool to better your lives. Stop supporting those who want to weaken it; they don't have your interests in mind.
Fellow citizens (on the left): demand action.
We'll be back on October 17. Please have matters in better shape by then.
October 26, 2009
Andrew Schlafly, son of antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, has decided that modern versions of the Bible are too liberal and he proposes to publish a new "translation" stripped of liberal passages.
For example, he objects to that part of Luke 23:34 which reports Jesus' cry from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Schlafly's problem with this is not entirely clear. He complains that "some of the persecutors of Jesus did know what they were doing." Are all Biblical passages which are ambiguous (or which Schlafly does not understand) to be eliminated? It will be a short book.
He purports to make a case based on authenticity, but can't avoid subordinating that to his real agenda: to make the Bible sound "conservative." He complains that the "quotation is a favorite of liberals, although it does not appear in the earliest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke." We can't have a verse that liberals like; out with it. (Forgiveness apparently is an exclusively liberal sentiment). It's true that some early versions of Luke do not include that sentence, and Schlafly asks, rhetorically, "Is this a corruption of the original, perhaps promoted by liberals without regard to its authenticity?" The Bible may have picked up a few verses not in the earliest documents, but this one goes back at least to the second century. Was there a liberal conspiracy then?
His conclusion: "It should not appear in a conservative Bible, because in point of fact Jesus might never had [sic] said it at all." Note that Schlafly doesn't say that the quotation should be removed from all Bibles, only that it is inappropriate in a conservative version. To him, the Bible is a political tract, not a religious text.
Elimination of liberal accretions is only one of Schlafly's ten reasons for producing a new Bible. Some of his complaints against existing translations are aimed at those which have changed the text in order to be "modern," such as those which use gender-neutral references. Some of his other complaints have nothing to do with accuracy or authenticity, but are designed to give the Bible a right-wing spin: the new version will "utilize powerful conservative terms" and "express free market parables."
Schlafly's methodology or, as he puts it, "possible approaches to creating a conservative Bible translation" is confusing, except for this: "identify pro-liberal terms used in existing Bible translations, such as 'government', and suggest more accurate substitutes." This is silly on several levels. How did the word "government," as opposed to advocacy of government intervention, become liberal and unacceptable? When conservatives complain about government intervention, must they avoid the word "government"? What must they use?
How often is "government" used in modern translations? The New International Version (NIV; 1978) uses it four times, all in the Old Testament, one of which is in the passage in Isaiah incorporated in Handel's Messiah: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." The English Standard Version (ESV; 2001) uses it twice, in Isaiah. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989) does not use the word.61 The somewhat older Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1951), has the two references in Isaiah. This does not seem to be any overwhelming dose of liberalism, even assuming the word to be liberal.
As to the supposed modern liberal trend, the King James Version (1611) uses the word five times, three in Isaiah and one each in I Corinthians and II Peter. Liberal bias reaches back to the early seventeenth century, according to Schlafly's formula.
The web site Conservapedia, edited by Schlafly, describes the NIV as "a leading evangelical translation" committed to "the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form." Despite that seeming endorsement, Schlafly thinks that it needs work. To illustrate the present lack of "powerful conservative terms," he criticizes the NIV rendering of Luke 16:8, a parable in which a "master commended [his] dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly." Schlafly complains: "But is 'shrewdly', which has connotations of dishonesty, the best term here? . . . The better conservative term, which became available only in 1851, is "resourceful". . . . Yet not even the ESV, which was published in 2001, contains a single use of the term "resourceful" in its entire translation of the Bible." This is really quite strange. To begin with, why is he upset that a description of a dishonest manager uses a term which connotes dishonesty? However, let that pass. It is true that other translations use more positive terms. The RSV refers to the manager's prudence and the King James to his wisdom, but each of them presumably is attempting to faithfully render the original in English, not to search for opportunities to use symbolic words. Does "resourceful" have distinctly conservative reverberations? If so, that has slipped by me.
Another criticism concerns - you've seen this coming - socialism. "Socialistic terminology permeates English translations of the Bible . . . . This improperly encourages the 'social justice' movement among Christians." That's improper? Christianity, as practiced by large numbers of Americans, is in dire need of a sense of social justice.
Where do we find this socialist message? Schlafly tells us that "the conservative word 'volunteer' is mentioned only once in the ESV, yet the socialistic word "comrade" is used three times . . . ." As with "resourceful," a conservative Bible must find places for "conservative" terms, and it must avoid "socialist" ones. The three offending words appear in that hotbed of socialism, the Book of Judges, in chapter 7, verses 13, 14 and 22. Lest we leave the impression that the ESV is the only left-wing translation, note that the RSV uses "comrade" in the first two:
When Gideon came, behold, a man was telling a dream to his comrade; and he said, "Behold, I dreamed a dream; and lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Mid'ian, and came to the tent, and struck it so that it fell, and turned it upside down, so that the tent lay flat."  And his comrade answered, "This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of Jo'ash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Mid'ian and all the host."Marxist to the core.
Schlafly also fusses about "laborer," "labored" and "fellow" as in "fellow worker," but enough is enough.
All of this provides yet another illustration of the subservience of religion to politics among the American right.
October 27, 2009
Andrew Schlafly's other project is Conservapedia, his answer to the alleged liberal bias of Wikipedia. Unlike its bête noire, Conservapedia makes no pretense of being objective. The column on the right side (how appropriate) of its home page is a series of political notes, mostly simplistic, all with a conservative slant. One asks "Did Jeremiah Wright teach Barack Obama to hate America? Nothing else can explain the Democrat's mad plans for its citizens." Another accuses him of being a Communist. The latter is a column linked from Townhall.com, which will sell you a t-shirt reading "I'd rather be waterboarding." Sophisticated stuff.
The main section of Conservapedia has as its Featured Article an essay entitled "Best New Conservative Words," which informs us that the triumph of conservatism is inevitable because the English language is adding more conservative words than liberal ones. Actually, according to its count, the trend is slowing: 112 in the 1900s (1.12/year), but only six since then (6÷9.75=.62), but never mind. The list is illuminating. Many words which one might have thought were just words are, in fact, conservative terms, such as "intangible," "local," "tour de force," "transistor" and "trivia". Did you know that "cross-examination" is a conservative word? How about "exculpatory," "harmless error," "jury nullification," "non-justiciable" and "recuse"? Trial lawyers are evil liberals, but terms relating to litigation are conservative. Even "forward-looking," and "human rights," which might have been suspected of a liberal slant, are conservative. Victory through definition.
There is a list of "popular articles" very much oriented toward the cultural and political right. The Article of the Year is "Evolution," in which we learn that "the fossil record does not support the theory of evolution and . . . the fossil record is counter evidence to the evolutionary position."
The page also contains this quote from the Bible, apparently as an inspirational text:
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. . . .(Philippians 2: 1,2) That quote, from the King James Version, shows that the obsolete, baffling, rather off-putting term "bowels" doesn't offend Schlafly. He could have presented this advice of St. Paul in understandable terms, such as these from the RSV:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. . . .However, why bother? Apparently "bowels" doesn't have liberal overtones.
November 4, 2009
Prattle by Limbaugh and Beck; protests against government takeover of Medicare; signs announcing the imminent appearance of communism and/or fascism; obstructionism by Republicans in Congress: does anyone on the right have an idea or a clue? Has anything changed since 1950, when Lionel Trilling had this to say about the ideas of the time?
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. . . . But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.62One conservative reaction to this was to deny that there were no conservative ideas then. An alternative has been to argue that circumstances changed within a few years. For example, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind was published in 1953, and is regarded as a seminal influence on contemporary conservatism.63 However, even if Trilling had had that book before him, his opinion probably would not have changed. Kirk certainly was not limited to "irritable mental gestures," but his historical and nostalgic review of conservative principles falls within the category of an "impulse to conservatism or reaction" rather than that of new ideas.
Moreover, Kirk seems to have agreed with Trilling as to the state of conservatism, at least when the first edition of The Conservative Mind was published; the original title of his book was "The Conservative Rout." (The eventual title was suggested by his publisher). It went through seven editions, the last in 1985. The final chapter of that edition is an ambivalent discussion of an ambiguous topic, "Conservatives' Promise." The ambivalence seems to derive in part from various drafts; internal references suggest that parts were added in the 1970s, others in the 80s, and some seem to date from the original edition. The chapter begins with an observation which must have been there since 1953: "Conservatives have been routed. . . ." In a passage which obviously is late, Kirk set out the Trilling quote and acknowledged that things were grim for conservatives in 1950, but observed, "scarcely had Trilling written those lines than a powerful revival of 'traditional' . . . ideas made itself felt . . . . Since 1950, perhaps two hundred serious books of a conservative cast of thought have been published in America . . . ." 64
Another example of influential conservative opinion arising in the 1950s is The National Review, first published in 1955; Michael Lind has written that modern American conservatism usually is dated from that year. 65 Its mission statement, written by founder William F. Buckley, also was ambivalent about the ideological state of the nation. It recited that the country was, or was assumed to be, conservative (an enduring conservative notion): "The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. . . ." However, it also conceded that liberal ideas dominated: "[National Review] is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation." Buckley's political program was similar to today's Congressional obstructionism: National Review "stands athwart history, yelling Stop . . . ."
In a way, genuine conservatism can't do anything more than say "slow down." In Confessions of a Conservative, Garry Wills, 66 citing Cardinal Newman, defined conservatism as "continuity within development" and "identity within change." Opposing change, he said, is like denying gravity, both in logic and results. This concession that change will happen, and indeed should happen, is common to serious statements of conservatism. The companion thought, that change should follow, when possible, customary paths, is sensible and constructive.
What follows is my impression of the principles laid down by Kirk and Buckley and their relevance to present-day conservatism.
Kirk denied that there was a conservative ideology; in the foreword to the 1985 edition, he said "This book distinctly does not supply its readers with a 'conservative ideology': for the conservative abhors all forms of ideology." He also claimed that any "informed conservative is reluctant to condense profound and intricate intellectual systems to a few pretentious phrases; he prefers to leave that technique to the enthusiasm of radicals." However, that isn't to be taken too literally; he added that "there are six canons of conservative thought . . . ." 67 Later, he gave approval to a statement that "conservatism is the negation of ideology," but went on to say that, although "there is "no simple set of formulas by which all the ills to which the flesh is heir may be swept away . . . there do exist general principles of morals and of politics to which thinking men may turn." 68 Conservatives, then, have principles or canons, not an ideology or a set of pretentious phrases.
Kirk's canons or principles, as set out in The Conservative Mind, even in the last edition, have an antique flavor. He revised them still later, as I'll discuss below, so here I'll set out only a brief statement of the Conservative Mind version: 69
"(1) Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems . . . ."
"(2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems . . . ."
"(3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a 'classless society'. . . ."
"(4) Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Economic levelling, [conservatives] maintain, is not economic progress." Canons 2, 3 and 4 make clear Kirk's preference for an aristocratic society.
"(5) Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs." Pity the poor economist, relegated to the circle of hell reserved for authoritarian social engineers. "Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man's anarchic impulse and upon the innovator's lust for power." Kirk didn't offer a definition of prescription here, nor did he anywhere in The Conservative Mind that I have found. Elsewhere 70 it is this: "things established by immemorial usage," i.e. traditional rules.
"(6) Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress."
Kirk thought that opposition to these principles fell into five categories: "the rationalism of the philosophes, the romantic emancipation of Rousseau and his allies, the utilitarianism of the Benthamites, the positivism of Comte's school, and the collectivistic materialism of Marx and other socialists." 71 Apart from Marxism, this is an historical account, not a catalogue of current ideas, whether in 1953 or 1985. He added that the "list leaves out of account those scientific doctrines, Darwinism chief among them, which have done so much to undermine the first principles of a conservative order." 72 That seems to evaluate scientific findings according to whether they conform to conservative principles, a notion much in vogue on the right today.
Continuing with an analysis which had not left the nineteenth century, he set out ideas opposed to conservatism or, as he put it, to "the prescriptive arrangement of society":73
"(1) The perfectibility of man and the illimitable progress of society: meliorism. Radicals believe that education, positive legislation, and alteration of environment can produce men like gods; they deny that humanity has a natural proclivity toward violence and sin." That belief may have been held in the late eighteenth century, but it had little contemporary relevance.
"(2) Contempt for tradition. Reason, impulse, and materialistic determinism are severally preferred as guides to social welfare, trustier than the wisdom of our ancestors. Formal religion is rejected and various ideologies are presented as substitutes." The contemporary right has restored religion with a vengeance.
"(3) Political levelling. Order and privilege are condemned; total democracy, as direct as practicable, is the professed radical ideal." Contemporary conservatives also toy with "direct democracy," i.e., populism.
"(4) Economic levelling. The ancient rights of property, especially property in land, are suspect to almost all radicals; and collectivistic reformers hack at the institution of private property root and branch." Property rights are indeed a modern conservative principle, although land is of lesser importance. Economic levelling, as opposed to opportunities for working people, was a quaint concept even in Kirk's day.
That conservatives could have been energized by opposition to political and economic "levelling," and a call for prescription and a class structure is a measure of their desperation for something to believe in.
Kirk revised his list of conservative concepts over time. The latest version appeared in an essay in 1993 entitled "Ten Conservative Principles;74 his revised creed is the following:
"First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. . . . A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society - whatever political machinery it may utilize . . . ." Contrary to other streams of conservatism, which emphasize the fallen nature of man - and which Kirk more of less does in the Sixth principle below - this assumes that a society can exist in which moral values are so powerful that any from of government will do. It seems more naïve than conservative. The religious right of today agrees with his belief in a moral order, but also desires a "Christian" government.
"Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. . . . Burke's reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once." This, and item Tenth below, address the continuity vs. change issue with a greater recognition of the necessity of change than in The Conservative Mind.
"Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription . . . . There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity - including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part." This is a statement of belief in tradition. It seems fair to say that tradition, apart from religion, is only a slogan from modern conservatives, but a powerful one, as it persuades many that liberal ideas run counter to American ways.
"Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. . . . The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences." This is salutary, but in practice prudence too often has meant opposition to action.
"Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety." In the final chapter of The Conservative Mind, Kirk referred to "diversity of culture," but he didn't mean that in the current sense. As he stated here, his point is that we should avoid social and economic leveling. "For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality." This is a reactionary principle, and a revealing indication of the degree to which Kirk mourned the passing of an aristocratic culture.
Contemporary conservatives may not publicly call for the return to formal classes and orders, but their policies preserve vast differences in material condition. In addition, they cry "class warfare" whenever anything aimed at the wealthy is proposed. However, they attack liberals as elitists. Go figure; I doubt that Kirk would have understood or approved.
"Sixth, . . . Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. . . . To seek for utopia is to end in disaster . . . . All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk." This is a further statement of the principles of prudence and respect for tradition, bolstered by a fear of social engineering.
Conservative opposition to welfare to some extent flows from this canon's complacency about the persistence of "maladjustments" and suffering. Opposition to health care reform is an example of the fear of or contempt for utopian (authoritarian) social planning.
"Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. . . . The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress." Kirk disliked taxes, which he saw as an assault on property, and he opposed big government, especially insofar as it implied enforced egalitarianism and regimentation. However, he was no fan of corporations or of industrialization. To some extent, they were simply too modern for him, but he also saw that they, like socialism or other forms of state control, have anticonservative tendencies. "Industrialism was a harder knock to conservatism than the books of the French egalitarians." 75
Kirk understood that property could become an end in itself. "[I]n America an impression began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests are the conservative interest, that conservatism is a political argument in defense of large accumulations of property . . . ." 76 He quoted a 1924 comment by Irving Babbitt that the "conservative nowadays is interested in conserving property for its own sake", that is, for the sake of the fortunate. 77 Kirk added, apparently referring to the Twenties, that "practical conservatism degenerated into mere laudation of 'private enterprise,' economic policy almost wholly surrendered to special interests." 78
Nothing has changed. Conservatives have followed their predecessors in the booming Twenties rather than Kirk. He was sincere about the relationship between property and freedom, but in the end, the linkage is reduced to a rhetorical device. Much of contemporary conservatism truly is an argument in favor of large accumulations.
"Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. . . . In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. . . . But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger." Kirk opposed the overbearing state, but was not an individualist. He thought conservatism and individualism were at opposite poles, that individualism "is social atomism" while "conservatism is community of spirit." (A similar distinction is drawn, in a different philosophical context, between individualism and what is sometimes called communitarianism; see the critique of John Rawls by Michael Sandel). Conservatives generally have followed Kirk in placing local organizations ahead of larger units of government. They have, in some respects, emphasized individual rights, especially when the individual is a businessman. Kirk advised conservative leaders to reconcile the demands of individualism with a sense of community, which they have rejected whenever the interest of business or property is involved.
"Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. . . . The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise." That's perfectly sound but there is nothing notably conservative about it.
"Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. . . . He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise." This sensible attitude, which, combined with the Second canon above, is essentially the same as item (6) on his earlier list, too easily degenerates into an opposition to any form of progress, as we see today not only in Congressional obstructionism, but also in ignorance and denial of scientific facts and methods; the latter traces back to Kirk's earlier comment about Darwinism.
There is another of Kirk's principles which must be mentioned, but let's defer that until we've looked at Buckley's statement.79 It was more polemical:
 "The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly." This a typical conservative clause and it contains a sensible notion; government ought not to be larger than it needs to be, both because of financial cost and because of its tendency to interfere in people's lives. However, making small size an independent goal is abandoning substance for form. More to the point, conservatives object to the size of government primarily insofar as it does something they disapprove. The size of the military and its budget do not bother them.
 "The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order." This is a condensation of several of Kirk's principles.
 "The century's most blatant force of satanic utopianism is communism. We consider 'coexistence' with communism neither desirable nor possible, nor honorable . . . ." This has nothing to do with conservatism unless one ties communism to liberalism. Unfortunately, Buckley did that through his support of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the event, a form of coexistence with communist nations proved to be possible and, given the outcome, desirable and honorable.
Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, paid little attention to this issue and wasn't much impressed by it. He had this to say: if the sort of conservatism he advocated did not take hold, an "infinitely repressive and monotonous future domination . . . may impend, whether called 'communism' or 'the American way of life.' The new American conservative must accomplish something more difficult than chastening Russia: he must chasten himself." 80 As we'll see, Kirk partially retreated.
Buckley's principle primarily served as a basis for a great deal of domestic animosity and name-calling which continues to this day. Denouncing liberals as traitors has become, for many on the right, the heart of their political identification. Lind dates the true beginning of modern American conservatism to the rise of McCarthy.81
 "The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so." Some aspects of academic liberalism are dismal, more so than in 1955, but fads exist on the right as well. The notion of a liberal academic conspiracy is alive and well, leading to programs to monitor professors and expose dangerous tendencies.
 "The most alarming single danger to the American political system lies in the fact that an identifiable team of Fabian operators is bent on controlling both our major political parties (under the sanction of such fatuous and unreasoned slogans as 'national unity,' 'middle-of-the-road,' 'progressivism,' and 'bipartisanship.')" Buckley had his way here; conservatives have repudiated compromise and cooperation.
 "The competitive price system is indispensable to liberty and material progress. It is threatened not only by the growth of Big Brother government, but by the pressure of monopolies (including union monopolies). . . . NATIONAL REVIEW will explore and oppose the inroads upon the market economy caused by monopolies in general, and politically oriented unionism in particular; and it will tell the violated businessman's side of the story." Pity the abused businessman. As noted above, Kirk did not fall for this one. Buckley's view prevailed, but the market's indispensability to liberty and material progress is to conservatives only a slogan. Moreover, the market's connection to business is sometimes tenuous, and always subject to being cancelled when inconvenient. Conservatives' loyalty is to business, not to the way it is conducted.
 "No superstition has more effectively bewitched America's Liberal elite than the fashionable concepts of world government, the United Nations, internationalism, international atomic pools, etc. Perhaps the most important and readily demonstrable lesson of history is that freedom goes hand in hand with a state of political decentralization, that remote government is irresponsible government. It would make greater sense to grant independence to each of our 50 states than to surrender U.S. sovereignty to a world organization." Is this a conservative position? It is the heir to antifederalism, and the Federalists were the conservatives of their age. In any case, although the UN has numerous and serious flaws, wholesale repudiation of international bodies leads to Bushism.
That brings us to the deferred discussion of Kirk's attitude toward foreign policy. As expressed in The Conservative Mind, it hardly could be termed assertive. He was disdainful of the anti-communist crusade and skeptical about the American way. He was more or less isolationist; certainly he opposed American imperialism, which he described as one of "three social impulses which conservatives detested" resulting from World War I. 82 He considered American imperialism to be a liberal phenomenon which, at that time, it was to a considerable extent. It still has its liberal or "neoliberal" aspects but now is conservative insofar as it serves business interests and is based on the notion that national security requires world domination. Even though the 1985 edition was published midway through Reagan's presidency, he was not mentioned nor was there any reference to policies associated with him. Much of this had changed by the time of a lecture by Kirk at The Heritage Foundation in 1993.83
By that time, he had become a cold warrior: "the Western concept of ordered freedom contended against the ideology of Marxism." A late phase of the contest was led by "an elderly and eminent conservative, Mr. Ronald Reagan," who "was wondrously successful in foreign policy" He restored the vigor of the American economy, intimidating the USSR; he pushed Star Wars (sorry: the Strategic Defense Initiative) which made a Soviet missile attack impossible; he attacked Libya, which further intimidated the Russians; he liberated Grenada. Here, later conservatives taught Kirk rather than the other way around. Kirk asserted that "the United States faces no rival power worthy of the name," still a common delusion.
However, his embrace of anticommunism was tempered by his earlier disdain for imperialism. Somewhat inconsistently, he still opposed intervention abroad, although he continued to think of this as a liberal failing. He described his view as neither isolationist not interventionist, but it leaned toward the former. "The differing nations of our time must find their own several ways to order and justice and freedom. We Americans were not appointed their keepers." The object of foreign policy "should not be to secure the triumph everywhere of America's name and manners, under the slogan of 'democratic capitalism' . . . . Soviet hegemony ought not to be succeeded by American hegemony." I wonder if the audience were as enthusiastic about this part of the speech as about the praise for Reagan. Certainly the Bush-Cheney team demurred.
That audience may not have been any happier about his reference to the "massive and centralized corporate structures" of capitalism. He also said that no "religious creed supplies satisfactorily a plan of politics and economics: the purpose of religious faith is the ordering of the soul, not the ordering of the state." That might go over at The Heritage Foundation, but certainly not with the religious right.
Where does all of this leave us? I think that it is fair to say that the canons of Kirk and Buckley were as much matters of attitude as of ideas, and that the least helpful have endured. Kirk put forth important concepts, but most of them have been abandoned or reduced to rhetoric.
We are still in the situation Trilling satirized. It is difficult to regard the speeches and statements of Republican members of Congress as anything but irritable gestures. The bleating of conservative pundits alternates between witlessness and hypocrisy. Conservatives not only are operating without ideas, but are hostile to facts. The nomination of the uninformed and intellectually challenged Sarah Palin and her continuing popularity reflect a dumbing down which would have made Kirk or Buckley cringe.
November 17, 2009
President Obama reportedly will announce in his State of the Union address that next year's focus will be on reducing the deficit. Whether that is the right emphasis, given the slow recovery and the crisis in unemployment, is debatable. Even assuming that it is, he doesn't seem to be looking at the obvious place for cuts: the "defense" budget.
Spending on the "Global War on Terror" is approaching the one trillion dollar mark. A recent government report discloses that "Congress has approved a total of about $944 billion for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks," i.e., the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "enhanced security at military bases." The fiscal year 2010 proposal for GWOT is $139 billion, so if it is enacted, "total war-related funding would reach $1.08 trillion, including $748 billion for Iraq, $300 billion for Afghanistan, $29 billion for enhanced security, and $5 billion that cannot be allocated."84
The 2010 request is a reduction from the peak of $185 billion in fiscal 2008 and from $150 billion in 2009. However, the commander in Afghanistan has asked for another 40,000 troops, which would cause the cost to soar. The President apparently is considering sending more troops, if not the entire 40,000. Accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq would help, but operations in Afghanistan are more expensive than in Iraq,85 so a reduction of X troops in Iraq will not pay for an increase of X in Afghanistan.
Expenses of this magnitude cannot be borne indefinitely. Instead of raising taxes to fund the wars, the Bush administration cut them. President Obama seems no more anxious to pay for the wars, so the cost goes directly to the deficit and to the national debt.
If the war in Afghanistan and the continuing semi-occupation of Iraq were necessary to national security, then the cost would have to be absorbed somehow. However, in effect we have declared that occupying Iraq does not have that significance, and it is far from obvious that continued operations in Afghanistan do. The argument for plodding on in Afghanistan is the same as the one made for Iraq: if we leave, al Qaeda will return, take over and launch an attack on the United States. That argument makes more sense as to Afghanistan, as al Qaeda actually had a presence there. It was protected and aided by the Taliban government, and the al Qaeda-return scenario supposes that the Taliban will once again rule the country. That prospect is based on the presence of insurgent groups throughout the country. Whether they are all or mostly "Taliban" may be debatable,86 as is the notion that a Taliban government would return. Even more speculative is whether any future government of Afghanistan would sponsor al Qaeda, given that American bombing would follow. Only if we adopt the Cheney one-percent theory would that possibility justify the expenditure of more lives and funds.
Even if there were a substantial risk, nothing we have done to date has created the stable legitimate Afghan government thought to be necessary to victory, and nothing proposed seems any more likely to succeed. As William Pfaff put it, "There are two tried and disproved methods for dealing with insurrection in a non-Western country." The first is conventional, opposing-forces warfare: "Make the enemy stand up and fight the way Americans fight wars. Rely on mass, overwhelming logistical superiority, and the huge American technological advantage." That failed in Vietnam and was irrelevant in Iraq.
The second is "clear and hold," or as Secretary Gates has it, "clear, hold and build." That seems an unpromising strategy for a country of the size and character of Afghanistan, but two recent books apparently argue that "the Vietnam War was actually won by such a strategy - but too late for the fickle American press, public opinion and Congress to recognize the victory." Very well, let the authors and their acolytes learn the lesson of their imagined scenario, which is that we won't support their wars for the number of years necessary to win them; we're going to bail sometime, so better to do so when the losses, human and monetary, are lower.
Pfaff's "third and reliable method is not to go there in the first place." Someone should have thought of that as to Iraq; Afghanistan was a different case, but not getting bogged down in counterinsurgency certainly would have been good advice. That leads us to the fourth: "get out with such grace as is possible, as rapidly as possible." 87
This is not exclusively a liberal view. George Will put it this way: "Genius, said de Gaulle . . . sometimes consists of knowing when to stop. Genius is not required to recognize that in Afghanistan, when means now. . . ."
November 19, 2009
The cost of our presence in Afghanistan and Iraq relates directly to the debate over health care reform. Two recent columns pointed out an inconsistency among many conservatives: opposing the health care proposals because of cost but voting massive sums for the military. Nicholas Kristoff compared the cost of health care reform to that for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; David Sirota compared the former to the Defense Department appropriation.88
Sirota labeled the inconsistency "hypocrisy"; that may be too strong a word, assuming that the conservatives in question really believe that national security is at stake, which they may. One of the enduring ironies of American political conservatism is how easily these macho guys are frightened. A better example of hypocrisy is the opposition to a public health plan by several dozen senators who are on Medicare.89
It is difficult to credit conservative claims of fiscal responsibility. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the health care package, in its House version, would save over one hundred billion dollars over ten years.90 By contrast, the defense budget is projected to cost over 600 billion dollars per year from now until 2028.91
Also, if saving American lives is the measure, the health care bill again looks like the better choice, as lack of proper care kills far more people than terrorists have or are likely to. The usual estimate is that lack of health insurance causes about 18,000 excess deaths annually, but one recent study puts that at 44,789. 92 The added risk doesn't apply only to those who are not treated or screened for disease. Another recent study shows that uninsured accident victims are more likely to die than those with public or private insurance.93
The health care bills are far from perfect, and reasoned criticism would be entirely appropriate. However, it's difficult to see any principled or even ideological basis for the opposition, other than distaste for the public option (socialism!) which, as noted, is hardly consistent with accepting Medicare benefits, or with promising seniors to protect that program. The opposition, at least from Republicans, seems to have no basis other than crushing an Obama initiative. Senator DeMint declared that health care would be Obama's Waterloo, that a defeat would "break him"; GOP Chairman Michael Steele agreed. Senator Hatch has upped the rhetorical ante by declaring a "holy war" against the Senate bill. As to the "moderate" Democrats and Senator Lieberman, I have no clue.
November 21, 2009
On Friday, David Sirota took a shot94 at the Washington Post op-ed page. Borrowing, apparently, from a movie title, he said "In the parlance of our times, the term idiocracy95 means a nation run by idiots." He believes, with a nod toward the accomplishments of George W. Bush, that we are becoming an idiocracy, and detects the final sign in two columns in the Post.
The columns were by David Broder and Jackson Diehl on November 15. The subject was sending more troops to Afghanistan, presently under consideration by the President. Sirota charges that "these leading lights of the intelligentsia are overtly preaching anti-intelligence, insisting the president must avoid taking time to think through his actions." That's fair as to Broder, but somewhat off the mark as to Diehl.
Under the caption "Enough Afghan debate," Broder offered this advice: "It is evident from the length of this deliberative process and from the flood of leaks that have emerged from Kabul and Washington that the perfect course of action does not exist. Given that reality, the urgent necessity is to make a decision -- whether or not it is right." To say that this contains a non-sequitur would be kind; it approaches irrationality.
Broder attempted to justify it by quoting Clark Clifford, who said that President Truman "believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all." Broder didn't identify the source of his quote, but it appears to have come from an article in the New York Times in 1959, and apparently is considered significant, as it appears on the Truman Library web site. Here is Clifford's comment as it is recorded there: "There is, you know, such a thing as being too intellectual in your approach to a problem. The man who insists on seeing all sides of it often can't make up his mind where to take hold. Without any disparagement, that was never a problem for Mr. Truman . . . He believed that even a wrong decision was better than no decision at all. And when he made up his mind, that was it. He never wrestled with a decision after he made it." (ellipsis in the original) This says three things: that Truman was decisive, that he thought a wrong decision was better than none, and that, after making a decision, he moved on. Only the second supports Broder, and Clifford may have misrepresented his boss's view. Here is Truman's description of his practice: "All my life, whenever it comes to me to make a decision, I make it and forget about it. As President of the United States, you never have time to stop. You've got to keep going because there's always a decision ahead of you that you've got to make, and you don't want to look back. If you make a mistake in one of those decisions, correct it by another decision and go ahead. That's all you can do." 96 That supports Clifford's third claim and, by implication, the first; it doesn't support the second, and Truman's comment that mistakes should be corrected at least partially negates it.
All of this is, in a sense, beside the point. Broder is wrong, and if Clifford correctly described Truman's position, he was wrong too. However, it seems to me that Broder is misusing the Clifford quote.
It is difficult to know exactly what Diehl had in mind. The issue again is the time Obama is taking with the decision. Diehl doesn't seem to adopt the Broder insistence on prompt action, right or wrong: "Another week or two of thinking won't hurt." He worries instead about the image Obama is projecting, not only by delay but by his seeming ambivalence about the Afghan war. There is some merit in that observation, as it is difficult to motivate the troops and convince allies if the President doesn't appear to be solidly behind the war. However, this brings us back to the original point, and here Sirota is generally correct: Diehl assumes that escalating the war is the right decision and that any reconsideration by Obama is misguided. Diehl's rationale is that everyone but Obama knows what the decision must be: "The consensus says that Afghanistan cannot be abandoned anytime soon; that efforts to build up the Afghan army and strengthen both national and local governance must be redoubled; that U.S. forces must aim to ensure security for the Afghan population, at least in the country's biggest cities. Almost everyone agrees that accomplishing all those aims will require at least some additional American and NATO troops." As Sirota points out, no evidence is offered for this consensus. In any case, the President should get it right, consensus or not.
Sirota's conclusion that these columns are a "sign our country is becoming the ignorance-deifying idiocracy we should all fear" is, as to Broder's advice, only slight hyperbole; there is no doubt of the general decline in, and right-wing contempt for, anything intellectual, such as reflection, objective analysis, and the simple regard for facts. Two other conclusions can be drawn. One, which he touches on, is that armchair generals are too ready to send troops off to kill and die, not inclined toward agonizing over morality or consequences. The second is the rightward movement and decline of the Post editorial pages.
December 1, 2009
My Christmas-New Year's resolution is to stop being rude to strangers. However, before turning that leaf, I feel the need to justify my antisocial behavior.
Those most frequently abused are people I talk to on the telephone. They fall into two categories. First are those who call, usually at inconvenient times, to sell, solicit contributions or make political pitches. Frequently they make me wait on a silent line until their computer gets around to connecting us, and then beat around the bush before owning up to the purpose of the call. The legitimate solicitations for charity validate the rule that no good deed goes unpunished: contribute once and you are on the list for life. Most of them also send frequent reminders through the mail, and I respond when the budget allows. I have pointed out that the phone call is superfluous, annoying and therefore counterproductive, of course with no result.
The second, and far more frustrating, group is made up of people I call, who are identified by a wide variety of corp-speak terms amounting to "customer service," a function far removed from their actual assignment, which is to persuade me to go away. That message is given at the outset by the endless, annoying tree which, I always am advised, has changed. (Is there a risk that someone has memorized it?) Some companies have opted for an idiotic variation in which a recording purports to carry on a conversation with me. When I finally reach a real person, the interview usually begins with a request that I give the information I've already given while plodding through the tree. Not infrequently, I learn that my question can be answered only by someone in a different department or, in the case of my medical insurance company, employed by one of its subcontractors. In either case, the process begins anew. More than once, the person to whom I have been referred has sent me back to the first one, at which point the choice is between an endless loop, giving up and asking to speak to a supervisor. The last is useless, as that will be a person even better trained in evading responsibility. On those rare occasions when I find someone who a) knows anything and b) wants to be helpful, I am by then no longer rational.
The prize for in-person irritation goes to a stewardess. On a recent flight our plane, after landing, could not get a gate assignment, so we waited. After forty-five minutes, exhaust fumes were seeping into the cabin, so I stood up to turn on the air duct, which couldn't be reached from a sitting position. Uninterrupted, the operation would have taken about two seconds, and would have been a non-event, but as soon as I rose, the aforementioned flight attendant descended on me with a Gestapo-like order that I remain in my seat and a claim that I was responsible for preventing the plane's movement. To make certain that I understood the depth of my perversity, threats of official action followed. I responded with something conciliatory along the lines of demanding to be set free from airline prison.
Despite the varying degrees of excuse for my outbursts, it's time to set a better tone, to treat the experiences and the people with restraint or, at most, dignified irony rather than Gaelic temper.
We shall see. If all goes well, I will be so mellow that I will be able to view Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Senators McConnell, Inhofe, Hatch and DeMint with amused detachment. I might even be able to watch a football game without yelling at the TV. Not likely, though; the coverage is so bad that it obviously is designed for people who don't take an interest in or know anything about the game.
December 27, 2009
Christmas season seemed to be dominated by Scrooge and The Grinch in their unredeemed modes.
Bailed-out banks don't lend, but pay incredible bonuses. This was nicely summarized by an Oliphant cartoon97 showing a Santa with a kettle and a sign saying "Help our country recover" standing outside "The bank of Greed." To his "Ho, ho, ho" three pig-people coming down the steps reply "Har, har, har." On Thursday The New York Times reported that Goldman Sachs and others sold collateralized debt obligations to investors, but bet against them because they were sure to lose value. An executive of one of the firms which marketed CDOs now is a "senior advisor to the Treasury Secretary."
The airlines continue to believe that they should have the right to treat passengers like cargo.98 They are upset that the Transportation Department issued new rules limiting the time one can be trapped on a parked airliner. After two hours water and minimal food will be required, and after three hours one could demand to leave, although there are several loopholes. It's an indication of how little airlines or Congress care about passengers that this has been described as a bold move; being restrained for three hours would be false imprisonment in any other context.
A health care bill of sorts passed the Senate after being abandoned by the administration, stripped of its public option by "moderates" i.e., those who would vote against motherhood if anyone called it socialist and obstructed by Republicans claiming to want to save Medicare, which they would like to destroy.
Scrooge thought that it would be useful for the poor to die and decrease the surplus population. Senator Coburn first accused Democrats of that sentiment, claiming that the health care bill meant for seniors, "you're going to die soon." Then he reverted to type, and, referring to the upcoming vote, he preached, "What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight; that's what they ought to pray," perhaps having in mind the ailing Senator Byrd. In other words, we can't win, so let's ask for something awful to happen to a Democrat. Anyone supporting health-care reform should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. All in the name of Christianity, of course.
The Seattle Times editorialized against the bill because it is too expensive, something we cannot afford. This is the paper which has advocated repeal of or cuts in the estate tax, even though that would add to the deficit. Deficits for cake are different than deficits for bread, apparently. The Senate has dithered (no, really?) to the point that it's unlikely that a bill to reenact the estate tax* will pass this year, which will mean that the tax will disappear for 2010, costing the government over twenty billion dollars in lost revenue.
President Obama used his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to talk of war.
* Note 2/21/10: I have corrected this post by adding the phrase "to reenact the estate tax" because the reference to "the bill" made no sense without it.
December 31, 2009
Numerous issues surround the recent near-bombing of an airliner. The would-be terrorist, a Nigerian, had a US visa, and was allowed to board in Lagos Nigeria and again in Amsterdam, all despite being on a watch list. He paid cash for his ticket and had no luggage. In addition, al Qaeda in Yemen has accepted responsibility for the attempt, and "US agents" reportedly had learned that a Nigerian was being trained in Yemen for an attack on this country. Whether those facts demonstrate a lapse by the Homeland Security Department is unclear given the divided responsibility for intelligence and security, but it was a bit surreal for Secretary Janet Napolitano to state that the system worked.
On the other hand, Republicans and some in the news media have demonstrated a double standard, accusing Obama of failure in this case after giving Bush a pass not only on Robert Reid but on 9-11. The Transportation Security Administration has no permanent head, due in part to a hold imposed by GOP Senator DeMint, who is trying to prevent unionization. Of course, everyone knows that nonunion screeners are much more reliable.
Another oddity in the criticism is the failure to note that the bomber boarded the targeted plane in Amsterdam. TSA may have some influence over security procedures at foreign airports, but isn't likely to have operational control of a foreign agency. In any case, the international complication has been glossed over.
Finally, this incident casts further doubt on the logic of the war in Afghanistan. It seems to be agreed that al Qaeda has little or no current presence in Afghanistan, so we are trying to prevent its return by suppressing the Taliban, which once was its sponsor, because the Taliban might return to power, and might again give al Qaeda protection. Leaving aside the extended logic of that argument, and the limited chance that our strategy will work, the presence in Yemen of an active terrorist group demonstrates that we are wasting our resources in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda or other such groups have other places to hide. Although it would be unpopular in patriot circles, we may have to admit that we have a law enforcement problem, not primarily a military one.