Friday, October 29, 2010

The Real Politics of the Day

Andrew Sullivan makes the case that Obama's presidency is not failing, but that this election will be the highwater mark of the Republicans and that Obama will rebound politically:
What to make of the findings of the latest NYT poll? I have to say it makes me scratch my head. It portends a big Republican wave election, buoyed by a new conviction that people want smaller government that does less rather (55 percent) than a bigger one with more services (36 percent). At the same time, 71 percent oppose reducing social security benefits for future retirees; 54 percent oppose raising the retirement age (42 percent support it); 57 percent oppose not giving social security recipients a raise in benefits this year; and a small majority 45 - 41 do not want the health insurance reform bill repealed.

So Americans - surprise! - want smaller government in theory, but when forced to make any hard choices on spending, balk. Taxes? Surprise! They don't want them raised either - except for those earning over $250,000 a year, but even then only by 48 - 43 margin. They also prefer the Democratic party to the Republicans - the GOP's unfavorability gap was 11, the Dems was 2 - but are going to give us the most hardline conservative House in living memory. So go figure. A bunch of adolescent whiners? More grist for the Kinsley meme that they are just "big babies"? Or just completely confused and disgruntled and lashing out?

Whatever the explanation, I think all this portends a much better future for president Obama than for the Republicans, even as they cruise to victory next week. People are deeply frustrated by the economy, but they do not take Bill O'Reilly's position that Obama owns the recession because after 18 months in office, and a stimulus decried as too much by the right and too little by the left, he still has 9.6 percent unemployment. Only 8 percent blame Obama for the current economy. 30 percent blame Bush; 22 percent blame Wall Street; 13 percent blame Congress. They're not as delusional as Fox News wants them to be.

As for future politics, Americans overwhelmingly trust the Dems on healthcare, favor the GOP on debt reduction (go figure) and split between the parties on creating jobs. But here's the critical thing: a whopping 78 percent want the Republicans to compromise with Obama rather than stick to their positions in the next two years; 76 percent want the Dems to do the same; and a slightly lower percentage, but still overwhelming, wants Obama to compromise too: 69 percent.

In other words, this looks to me as if the public wants to force a deal by both sides to grapple with the long-term debt, the economy and healthcare. Now, who do they think is most likely to do that?

72 percent say that Obama will compromise; but only 46 percent say the Republicans will. I'd say that gives Obama clear edge in future politics, and helps explain why he remains more popular than anybody else in politics, has a solid 46 percent rating even in a deep recession and has higher favorables than anyone else.

He is right and the lefties are wrong. He will be a much stronger and more transformational president if he sticks to pragmatism, avoids culture war fights, and keeps his focus on policy as much as politics. This is the GOP high-point; and as you survey the attitudes of Gingrich, Pence, Palin and McConnell, you can't help but think they are walking directly into the same hubristic trap as Gingrich before them.

They have campaigned on no compromise; yet the public wants them to. If they don't, they look obstructionist; if they do, they lose their base. As long as Obama keeps his cool, and the economy continues to recover, he's looking good.
I agree with much of this analysis. My one difference might be found in the final paragraph: "[as long as] the economy continues to recover, he's looking good." My guess is that the economy will not continue to recover, is not now recovering, and will probably get worse.

Keith Olbermann Reconsidered

This is a REALLY funny impression of Keith Olbermann on Saturday Night Live.

Bashing America's Young People

In what seems to me to be a very odd statement, conservative Michael Gerson of the Washington Post tries to explain why it's okay that America is indifferent to the War in Afghanistan:
But at a recent dinner I attended that included military officers, there was no nostalgia for the draft. A drafted military did indeed reflect America - including a significant portion of young Americans in need of remediation or imprisonment. Much of the military's time and effort was spent on the challenges of the bottom quintile. The volunteer force allows for recruitment of a higher-quality soldier with a precise set of skills. A draft is no solution in a nation where about 75 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds are unfit for military service due to poor education, obesity, criminal records, drug use and other disqualifications.

Given the kind of skills and experience required in the modern military, those who defend us will be a professional class. Given the continuing threat of terrorism, they will remain active even when our attention lags or turns inward. They are not like the rest of America - thank God. They bear a disproportionate burden, and they seem proud to do so. And they don't need the rest of society to join them, just to support them.
75% of young people are unfit for military service? The military is "not like the rest of America - thank God"? I didn't know that modern conservatives thought that way about America.

All I can say is that I have three children, none of them in the military, and I have three nieces and nephews who are in the military, and Gerson's condescending attitude toward those not serving in the military is incorrect. I'll put my three non-military children up against any young people anywhere, in or out of the military, in terms of ability, fitness, and character.

How to be Relected President

David Brooks lists four things that President Obama is going to have to do to win reelection in 2012:
First, the president is going to have to win back independents. Liberals are now criticizing him for being too timid. But the fact is that Obama will win 99.9 percent of the liberal vote in 2012, and in a presidential year, liberal turnout will surely be high. On the other hand, he cannot survive the defection of the independents. In 2008, independent voters preferred Democrats by 8 percentage points. Now they prefer Republicans by 20 points, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. Unless Obama wins back these moderate, suburban indies, there will be a Republican president in 2013.

Second, Obama needs to redefine his identity. Bill Clinton gave himself a New Democrat label. Obama has never categorized himself so clearly. This ambiguity was useful in 2008 when people could project whatever they wanted onto him. But it has been harmful since. Obama came to be defined by his emergency responses to the fiscal crisis — by the things he had to do, not by the things he wanted to do. Then he got defined as an orthodox, big government liberal who lacks deep roots in American culture.

Over the next two years, Obama will have to show that he is a traditionalist on social matters and a center-left pragmatist on political ones. Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility. Politically, he will have to demonstrate that he is data-driven — that even though he has more faith in government than most Americans, he will relentlessly oppose programs when the evidence shows they don’t work.

Third, Obama will need to respond to the nation’s fear of decline. The current sour mood is not just caused by high unemployment. It emerges from the fear that America’s best days are behind it. The public’s real anxiety is about values, not economics: the gnawing sense that Americans have become debt-addicted and self-indulgent; the sense that government undermines individual responsibility; the observation that people who work hard get shafted while people who play influence games get the gravy. Obama will have to propose policies that re-establish the link between effort and reward.

Fourth, Obama has to build an institutional structure to support a more moderate approach. Presidents come into office thinking that they will be able to go ahead and enact policies. Then they realize that they can only succeed if there is a vast phalanx of institutions laboring alongside them.
What perplexes me is how Obama alienated the 'independents'. I know how he displeased the liberal/left/progressives--by paying more attention to Wall Street than Main Street and by ramping up the war in Afghanistan, to mention two actions. But if he was actually as a 'centrist', what turned off the 'independent' moderates?

Brooks goes on to advocate a plan of 'cut and replace'.

Pragmatic Philosopher King

A Harvard historian, James Kloppenberg, has written a book on the intellectual origins of Obama:
In New York City last week to give a standing-room-only lecture about his forthcoming intellectual biography, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition,” Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president, a rare breed that can be found only a handful of times in American history.

“There’s John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson,” he said.

To Mr. Kloppenberg the philosophy that has guided President Obama most consistently is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce. It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tea Party=Angry American Populists

John Judis makes some important points about the Tea Party movement in a short article in the New Republic, saying basically that they are not primarily racist, that they are a political movement though without central organization, that they are not a 'fascist' organization (though they do look backward to an idealized American past), and finally, that they are not just a Republican group funded by big business. 

Having made those four points, Judis points out that, paradoxically, they will probably end up helping big business and the wealthy much more than themselves.  And he points us to this article by historian Sean Wilencz for more understanding of the Tea Party.

Finally, he defines the Tea Party this way:
[the Tea Party movement] fits above all into the framework of American populism, which has always had right-wing and left-wing variants, and which is rooted in a middle class cri de coeur—that we who do the work and play by the rules are being exploited by parasitic bankers and speculators and/or by shiftless, idle white trash, negroes, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank here. What’s important is that these movements, which gather strength in the face of adversity, can go either right or left. During the 1930s, they tended left rather than right. During Obama’s first term, they have gone primarily to the right.

'Dude' Obama

Though I didn't see the President on The Daily Show, Dana Milbank of the WaPo had this take:
On Comedy Central, the joke was on President Obama Wednesday night.

The president had come, on the eve of what will almost certainly be the loss of his governing majority, to plead his case before Jon Stewart, gatekeeper of the disillusioned left. But instead of displaying the sizzle that won him an army of youthful supporters two years ago, Obama had a Brownie moment.

The Daily Show host was giving Obama a tough time about hiring the conventional and Clintonian Larry Summers as his top economic advisor.

"In fairness," the president replied defensively, "Larry Summers did a heckuva job."

"You don't want to use that phrase, dude," Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief "dude" pretty well captured the moment for Obama.
Oh my.
Stewart, who struggled to suppress a laugh as Obama defended Summers, turned out to be an able inquisitor on behalf of aggrieved liberals. He spoke for the millions who had been led to believe that Obama was some sort of a messianic figure. Obama has only himself to blame for their letdown. By raising expectations impossibly high, playing the transformational figure to Hillary Clinton's status-quo drone, he gave his followers an unrealistic hope.

"Is the difficulty," Stewart asked, "that you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you delivered? You ran with such, if I may, audacity.... yet legislatively it has felt timid at times."

Stewart had found the sore point between Obama and his base -- and Obama was irritable. "Jon, I love your show, but this is something where I have a profound disagreement with you," he said. "What happens," he added, "is it gets discounted because the presumption is, well, we didn't get 100 percent of what we wanted, we got 90 percent of what we wanted -- so let's focus on the 10 percent we didn't get." He said that a cancer patient in New Hampshire helped by the bill "doesn't think it's inconsequential."

"The suggestion was not that it's inconsequential," the comedian pointed out.

Obama leaned in and pointed at the host. "Your suggestion was that it was timid."

Still, the president did not really quarrel with Stewart's notion that Obama has done some of his work in a "political manner that has papered over a foundation that is corrupt."

"I think that is fair," Obama granted.

But when Stewart moved, politely, to point out weaknesses in the health-care legislation, Obama pointed at him again. "Not true!" the president argued.

Obama wore a displeased grin as Stewart diagnosed, with high accuracy, the administration's condition: "The expectation, I think, was audacity going in there and really rooting out a corrupt system, and so the sense is, has [the] reality of what hit you in the face when you first stepped in caused you to back down from some of the more visionary things?"

"My attitude is if we're making progress, step by step, inch by inch, day by day," Obama said, "that we are being true to the spirit of that campaign."

"You wouldn't say you'd run this time as a pragmatist? It wouldn't be, 'Yes we can, given certain conditions?'"

"I think what I would say is yes we can, but -- "

Stewart, and the audience, laughed at the "but."

Obama didn't laugh. "But it's not going to happen overnight," he finished.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reprise: Why This is Going To Be a Long Recession

I wrote this post in January 2009, just after Obama's inauguration.  I think it holds up pretty well.
The notion that a 'stimulus' is going to solve our economic crisis is frankly ludicrous, in my opinion. I know that there is little else that our government can do in the short term, and so this is what they feel they have to resort to. But this crisis was a long, long time in coming, and because of that, it is not going to go away anytime soon. That is a hard truth that President Obama has hinted at but hasn't come right out and said, because he simply can't. It is just too unpalatable to a very spoiled nation who don't want to admit that they've blown it. Let me explain.

As a nation, we are like a family that has been steadily losing ground economically while at the same time borrowing more and more money. Because we can keep on buying the things we want and going on vacations with all that magic borrowed money that someone mysteriously keeps on lending us, it just seems great. But ultimately this is a losing proposition, because sooner or later, this family is going to hit the wall and go bankrupt. That is what is happening to us. We are effectively bankrupt.

We thought we were bad off in the 30s, and we were. But on the other hand, we were still tremendously wealthy in so many ways. We were the largest industrial nation in the world, with vast resources of oil, so that we were the largest exporters of that basic energy source. And many unemployed people were able to live on farms and grow their own food and at least survive.

After World War II, we were effectively the only industrial nation, exporting manufacturing goods all over the world virtually without competition. As a result of this industrial monopoly, and of the rise of labor unions and other laws that tended to equalize incomes and wealth across all classes, we grew the largest middle class ever known and truly did become the most affluent society ever. It's no wonder, given the circumstances, and not really a cause for pride in ourselves.

But over the last 40 years, virtually every one of these advantages has gradually disappeared. We have gone from being the greatest manufacturing power to a deindustrialized weakling that has very little that the rest of the world wants, with exceptions like movies, music, medical equipment and weapons. (Oh, and I'm proud to say that my brother stills makes locomotives for G.E. in Pennsylvania.) We import most of our oil, sending billions of dollars overseas. Our manufacturers have one by one closed down their factories and moved them overseas. We import so much more than we export. What do you buy in a month' time that is actually made in the United States? Even our phone calls for service are now routed through India. To make matters worse, the national wealth and income have become redistributed, with the rich getting richer and many in the middle class falling into the lower class or even poverty. The middle class, with its securities, is disappearing.

To compensate for all this, we have been borrowing money from foreign lenders by the trillions of dollars, and piling up unfunded liabilities that will never be paid. Our financial industry invented all kinds of special financial instruments to make their fortunes that are now seen to be virtually worthless. We've been gorging on credit card debt. A huge housing bubble which should never have been allowed is now deflating, taking our home values with it and threatening foreclosure to millions of families. And so on. In other words, much of the prosperity of the last three decades has been largely an illusion, based on borrowed money or promises that can't be fulfilled.

To make matters worse, the world's oil supply may very well be peaking and in decline, which means that the energy source that fuels our modern industrial lifestyle is going to get very expensive, to the point where that lifestyle will have to be severely curtailed. That is what happened in 2008, until the financial crisis and recession hit, bringing down the price of oil (temporarily).

It is very foolish to think that we're going to be able to turn all of this around with a 'stimulus' package, as if all we need for our economic re(de)pression is the equivalent of a gigantic shot of caffeine from Starbucks. The underlying problems are so deep and profound, that we are basically just prolonging and deepening the problem. Aren't we just continuing to borrow money to pay the bills? Don't we at some point have to start actually earning the money to pay our bills? What happens when the lenders stop lending?

If countries like Germany and Japan, who were flattened by our war machine during World War II, can rebuild and become industrial giants again, then perhaps we can too. But it's certainly going to take a facing up to the reality of our situation. And I'm quite sure that we're not there yet. I'm quite sure that most people have little sense of what has been happening. And I'm not sure anyone knows what to do. Surely the economics profession, who didn't have a clue what was coming down in 2008, are themselves intellectually bankrupt and blind guides.

So, while I'd love to believe that Obama knows the solution to this financial and economic crisis, count me as an economic pessimist.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sensible Conservatism

Andrew Sullivan (conservative) and Rick Hertzberg (liberal) are blogging about the meaning of the two political philosophies these days.  I want to excerpt a fairly lengthy passage from Andrew, because it represents a sensible conservatism (including a sensible role for government regulation):
A critical distinction between liberalism and conservatism, in my view, is the conservative insistence on the distinction between practical wisdom and theoretical wisdom. A mathematical proof cannot be disproven by someone's living experience. But a mathematical proof that tries to predict human behavior will always fail at some point, which is why economics is not a science in the way that, say, physics, is.

The case for free markets and low taxation rests on the idea that people are better judges of what is in their best interest when they have the most practical knowledge and real world understanding of any particular issue; and that human conduct is far too complex and nuanced and changeable to be extrapolated to any single person's theory or any movement's ideology (see Marx and Engels' total misjudgment of the future, even though they possessed some brilliant insights into the past; see neoconservatives' extrapolation of the success of democratization in, say, Poland to, say Iraq).

So the closer you are to the ground and the actual issue, the more likely you are to get it right. And so devolving decisions as much as possible to the people on the ground is conservative, while organizing societies around collective principles that have to be decided at the center is liberal.

In general, money = power. The more of their own money people keep the more likely it is that the society will evolve the way its people want it to evolve, and not be coerced by some rationalist in government. I prefer markets to make these decisions to governments. But of course, it is equally true (and this is where conservatism has gone off the rails in America) that it is the government's task to ensure that the game is not rigged, that private corporations do not gain too much power, that politics is not corrupted in this fashion, and that financial markets are robustly regulated and monopolies vigorously broken up. Like Adam Smith, I favor a small but very robust government. In America right now, no one seems to really be able to represent that tradition - although Obama says he does.

The problem is, of course, that neither this conservatism nor this liberalism can work on its own. In advanced societies, we need to find a balance between them. Some things, like infrastructure or defense or even funding public education will need to be done collectively. But there's a tipping point at which a society becomes centrally run and managed, rather than governed from the ground up by the wisdom of individuals, families, villages, towns and cities.

This is the vision behind [British Prime Minister] Cameron's Big Society, which is why he is a genuine Tory. Even within collectivist institutions, like the National Health Service, he is trying to empower local doctors or within public education, individual school principals, because they are closer to the problems they are tackling than someone in Whitehall or Washington or a state capitol.

In general you can see conservatism represented both in the absolute amount of money taken by the government from the people (I get queasy when the state takes up more than around a third of GDP) and in the way the distribution of public goods are structured (centralized or devolved in power). In general, I favor lower taxation and more local power over higher taxation and centralized power. I favor practical wisdom in the realm of prudential judgments. Because anything else mistakes what it is doing.

Our Recent Economy: Like An Athlete on Steroids

Paul Krugman of the NYT wrote yesterday, predictably, about the failure of the Obama Administration to push for a bigger stimulus for the economy.  He seems to think that that would have solved the economic problems we are facing.  I disagree.

A metaphor for our economic illness has been rattling around in my head for some time:  our economy for the last 30 years has increasingly been like an athlete on steroids.  Just like an athlete who artificially expands his muscles and strength through the use of illegal steroids, all of the debt that has been building up in the various strata of the economy has had the effect of 'juicing' our economy so as to make it appear that we were prosperous. 

But in both cases, if you remove the cause of the 'expansion'--steroids/irresponsible debt--the strength collapses.  Furthermore, both steroids and irresponsible debt are not only artificial, but are also very damaging long-term.  In other words, they are not a good idea, to put it mildly, and responsible people to not use them.

Now, for Krugman, it's like he doesn't recognize that we're at the end of the road with unlimited simply could not continue.  What he wanted to do in response to the crash was to inject even more government debt into the 'body economic' to 'stimulate' more a steroid debilitated athlete who just injects more steroids when he's starting to fail.  Duh!!...that's not going to solve the problem.

I don't even read Krugman much anymore, he's so predictable, simplistic, and hyper-Keynesian.  The only real solution to our economic problems is to get back to honest responsibility in our individual, financial, and governmental use of debt, more savings and investment, reform of entitlements, more regulation for the banks, a balanced national budget (perhaps along the lines of what the British are doing), etc.  And to realize that our national prosperity over the last several decades had become bloated and swollen all out of proportion to what is reasonable and responsible, and also that we're probably going to pay a serious price for our economic irresponsibility.  Actions have consequences, our mothers told us.

The Age of (Relative) Austerity in America has begun...which of course is still unimaginably wealthy to the billions of people in the Third World.

Polarization in our Politics

Robert Samuelson of the WaPo analyzes why there is so much polarization in our politics today.
It's not that the public has become sharply polarized. In 2010, 42 percent of Americans call themselves conservative, 35 percent moderates and 20 percent liberals, reports Gallup. In 1992, the figures were 43, 36 and 17 percent. So there's a widening disconnect between the polarized political system and the less-polarized public. There are at least four reasons for this.

First, politicians depend increasingly on their activist "bases" for votes, money and job security (read: no primary challenger). But activist agendas are well to the left or right of center. So when politicians pander to their bases, they often offend the center. In one poll, 70 percent of registered voters said Republicans' positions were too conservative at least some of the time; 76 percent likewise thought Democratic positions often "too liberal."

Second, politics has become more moralistic from both left and right. Idealistic ideologues campaign to "save the planet," "protect the unborn," "reclaim the Constitution." When goals become moral imperatives, there's no room for compromise. Opponents are not just mistaken; they're immoral. They're cast as evil, ignorant, dangerous, or all three.

Third, cable television and the Internet impose entertainment values on politics. Constant chatter reigns. Conflict and shock language prevail; analysis is boring.

Finally, politicians overpromise. The federal budget has run deficits in all but five years since 1961. The main reason: Both Democrats and Republicans want to raise spending and cut taxes. To obscure their own expediency, both parties blame the other.

The result is mass discontent.

Obama's Problematic Personality And His Failing Presidency

Something doesn't compute.  For years now, we've been hearing that Obama's M.O. was to work with his ideological opponents to get things done, and that one of the reasons Obama didn't get his more progressive plans through Congress is that he was so bent on bipartisanship that he kept compromising with the Republicans and waiting for them to get on board.  And now, we see this in the NYT:
It took President Obama 18 months to invite the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, to the White House for a one-on-one chat. Their Aug. 4 session in the Oval Office — 30 minutes of private time, interrupted only when the president’s daughter Malia called from summer camp to wish her father a happy 49th birthday — was remarkable, not for what was said, but for what it took to make it happen.

Not long before the meeting, Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate leader, lamented to his onetime Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle, that Mr. Obama would never get an important nuclear arms treaty with Russia ratified until he consulted top Republicans. Mr. Lott, who recounted the exchange in an interview, was counting on Mr. Daschle, a close Obama ally, to convey the message; lo and behold, Mr. McConnell soon had an audience with the president.

The White House says the meeting was about stalled judicial nominations, not arms control. But the fact that a former Senate leader found it necessary to work back channels to put Mr. Obama and Mr. McConnell in touch suggests the difficult road the president will face if Republicans win control of one or both houses of Congress on Election Day.

Before Mr. Obama and Republicans can secure each other’s cooperation, people in both parties say, they must first figure out a way to secure mutual trust.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Christian to the Core

This video by Andrew Sullivan makes it quite clear that his Christian faith is fundamental to everything else he has accomplished and the treasure he represents for the blogosphere and for America.  It's well worth your time.

Financial Thieves and Robbers

Frank Rich, while acknowledging some of the good things that Obama has done, also states the obvious as to his continuing travails:
But the most relentless drag on a chief executive who promised change we can believe in is even more ominous. It’s the country’s fatalistic sense that the stacked economic order that gave us the Great Recession remains not just in place but more entrenched and powerful than ever.

No matter how much Obama talks about his “tough” new financial regulatory reforms or offers rote condemnations of Wall Street greed, few believe there’s been real change. That’s not just because so many have lost their jobs, their savings and their homes. It’s also because so many know that the loftiest perpetrators of this national devastation got get-out-of-jail-free cards, that too-big-to-fail banks have grown bigger and that the rich are still the only Americans getting richer.

Pandora's Box in Mesopotamia

The Wikileaks documents seem to support the idea that most deaths in Iraq were caused by sectarian violence, between rival groups of Iraqis such as the Sunnis and the Shias, rather than by Americans or Brits or even Security Contractors.
The reports in the archive disclosed by WikiLeaks offer an incomplete, yet startlingly graphic portrait of one of the most contentious issues in the Iraq war — how many Iraqi civilians have been killed and by whom.

The reports make it clear that most civilians, by far, were killed by other Iraqis. Two of the worst days of the war came on Aug. 31, 2005, when a stampede on a bridge in Baghdad killed more than 950 people after several earlier attacks panicked a huge crowd, and on Aug. 14, 2007, when truck bombs killed more than 500 people in a rural area near the border with Syria.

But it was systematic sectarian cleansing that drove the killing to its most frenzied point, making December 2006 the worst month of the war, according to the reports, with about 3,800 civilians killed, roughly equal to the past seven years of murders in New York City. A total of about 1,300 police officers, insurgents and coalition soldiers were also killed in that month.

The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.
Some might think that this leaves the Americans 'off the hook' for all the death and destruction. But I disagree. We were the ones who took the top off this Mesopotamian 'Pandora's Box' by our invasion and occupation, so we have to bear the onus for the killing that resulted, it seems to me. We are responsible.

When we are calculating the effects of our military interventions around the world, we should not neglect these kind of horrible and tragic unintended consequences.  These people are human beings, after all, deserving of the same respect that we expect for ourselves.

Hired Guns

In articles by the NYT on the Wikileaks document dump, journalists summarize some of the material.  This one is on the issue of private security contractors:
The documents sketch, in vivid detail, a critical change in the way America wages war: the early days of the Iraq war, with all its Wild West chaos, ushered in the era of the private contractor, wearing no uniform but fighting and dying in battle, gathering and disseminating intelligence and killing presumed insurgents.
There have been many abuses, including civilian deaths, to the point that the Afghan government is working to ban many outside contractors entirely.

The use of security contractors is expected to grow as American forces shrink. A July report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, a panel established by Congress, estimated that the State Department alone would need more than double the number of contractors it had protecting the American Embassy and consulates in Iraq.

Contractors were necessary at the start of the Iraq war because there simply were not enough soldiers to do the job. In 2004, their presence became the symbol for Iraq’s descent into chaos, when four contractors were killed in Falluja, their bodies left mangled and charred.

Even now — with many contractors discredited for unjustified shootings and a lack of accountability amply described in the documents — the military cannot do without them. There are more contractors over all than actual members of the military serving in the worsening war in Afghanistan.

The archive, which describes many episodes never made public in such detail, shows the multitude of shortcomings with this new system: how a failure to coordinate among contractors, coalition forces and Iraqi troops, as well as a failure to enforce rules of engagement that bind the military, endangered civilians as well as the contractors themselves. The military was often outright hostile to contractors, for being amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy.

Contractors often shot with little discrimination — and few if any consequences — at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors, stirring public outrage and undermining much of what the coalition forces were sent to accomplish.

For all the contractors’ bravado — Iraq was packed with beefy men with beards and flak jackets — and for all the debates about their necessity, it is clear from the documents that the contractors appeared notably ineffective at keeping themselves and the people they were paid to protect from being killed.

In fact, the documents seem to confirm a common observation on the ground during those years in Iraq: far from providing insurance against sudden death, the easily identifiable, surprisingly vulnerable pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s driven by the security companies were magnets for insurgents, militias, disgruntled Iraqis and anyone else in search of a target.
You know, really, what a disgusting, immoral, and dishonorable way to fight a war. America should be ashamed of itself.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Receding American Imperium

It still surprises me when I see how anti-interventionist Andrew Sullivan has become since his souring on the Iraq War:
What this [Britain's inability to project its military due to its budget cuts] does to any idea of collective intervention or intervention with even a veneer of international legitimacy is surely profound. And that in turn exposes and isolates the US hegemon even further. It will make every argument for a new war an argument solely about the projection of American force, and make the endeavors seem even more neo-imperial. If you combine this with what will have to be real cuts in defense if the US is to avoid default, and the unavoidable disasters of the Iraq and Afghan adventures, then the American century, in terms of global control and global legitimacy, really is receding faster than many now realize.

Carter's Hawks

I've always wondered how Jimmy Carter went from being a center-left President in regards to foreign policy to being a Cold Warrior.  Roger Morris, former White House staffer in the 60s and foreign policy scholar, tells how (and details the involvement of current Defense Secretary Robert Gates in it as well).
At the outset, the New York Times editorially praised this regime as "rightly unruffled by the old politics of cold war confrontation." The right-wing National Review was likewise sure that Washington "will now shrink from battle with the enduring enemy." Both were wrong. No one reckoned with the 52 year-old Georgia governor and former peanut farmer, whose provincial political freshness and moral uprightness was welcomed by a Watergate- and Vietnam-weary public. Nor did they reckon with Brzezinski and an energetic assistant named Robert Gates.

As with so much else, our barely surface-scraped history has yet to show the tragic complexity that was Jimmy Carter, whose presidency one scholar would sum up as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." There were omens of what was to come even before he took office -- his long-held support for the Vietnam War, his campaign-trail vagueness (like Brzezinski's), his administrative equivocations as governor, his steely religiosity born of a conversion following an electoral defeat. Whatever the causes, the effects would be all too plain.

Brzezinski and aide Bob Gates knew their man. With earnest conviction, habitual vacillation, and chaotic management of his soon splintering regime, Jimmy Carter -- behind what the doomed Shah of Iran once described as his "frozen blue eyes" -- would prove among the coldest of cold warriors. Four years later, when the incessant bureaucratic infighting for the President's favor was over, Vance (no pussycat) was a broken man; Brown and Turner had been sidelined; and even a victorious Brzezinski was uneasy with the wreckage they had wrought.

The M-word.

Kathleen Parker makes the sensible case that free thought and free expression, leading to dialogue and conversation, should trump the intolerance of political correctness and the 'thought police'.  This in response to the furor about Juan Williams and Bill O'Reilly in their comments about Muslims.  With regards to Bill O'Reilly and the 'girls' on 'The View', what exactly did they expect when they invited O'Reilly?  Provocative statements are his M.O.  This is one part of modern liberalism that really bothers me.
Juan Williams has learned an important lesson: Beware the M-word.

The former NPR analyst, fired from his radio job for an offhand remark he made about Muslims on the Fox News network, has become the latest victim of the thought police.

What did he say? That he gets a little nervous when he sees people on airplanes in "Muslim garb." Bzzzzzt. Off with his lips! And so Williams is no longer affiliated with NPR, though he did pick up a nice gig at Fox as compensation -- a three-year contract worth $2 million or so.

Williams's ouster followed closely on the heels of Bill O'Reilly's own public drumming on "The View," the girl show where women of different decades discuss current events in various octaves that cannot be perceived by heterosexual males. There. How many people did I manage to offend with that facetious but true-ish description?

Both Williams and O'Reilly may have failed to sufficiently qualify their statements in the moment, but neither deserved the outrage. The Sept. 11 attacks obviously were carried out by men who claimed to be committing mass murder/suicide for Allah. And guess what? Lots of Americans suffer an involuntary free-associative moment when boarding an airplane alongside someone whose attire says, "Oh, by the way, I'm a serious enough Muslim to dress in the way Allah commands," but no worries.

Perhaps we shouldn't entertain those thoughts, but we do. Is it better that we air our fears and address them, or should we repress them and keep our prayers to ourselves? Wait. Let me rephrase that. Let's do keep our prayers to ourselves, but let's also speak openly about our fears.

I'd happily wager that Williams said nothing that 99 percent of Americans haven't thought to themselves. What might have followed that statement -- far more useful than a sanctimonious public flogging -- was the conversation we're now having. Or at least that I'm having. Hello?

Friday, October 22, 2010

America: All Faiths Are Welcome

Michael Gerson, conservative Washington Post columnist, former speech writer for President George W. Bush, and evangelical Presbyterian, explains why 'the separation of church and state' is the accurate reading of the Constitution and the Founders:
America is not a Christian country and has never been, for historical, theological and philosophic reasons.

First, the Constitution was designed for religious diversity because the Founders were religiously diverse. The 18th century was a time not of quiet piety but of religious controversy. It was a high tide of American Unitarianism, a direct challenge to Christian orthodoxy. Thomas Jefferson's deism flirted with atheism -- a God so distant that He didn't even require his own existence. As journalist Jon Meacham points out, the Founders were less orthodox than the generation that preceded them, as well as the one that followed them. Their commitment to disestablishment, in some cases, accommodated their own heterodoxy.

Second, American religious communities were often strong supporters of disestablishment. Dissenting Protestants had a long history of resentment for the established English church. Others -- Catholics and Quakers -- were minorities suspicious of majority religious rule. Christians generally saw state intrusion as a threat to their theological integrity and worldly power as a diversion from their mission. They supported disestablishment for the sake of the church. And their political independence contributed to their religious vitality.

Third, as my co-author Pete Wehner and I argue in "City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era," America was not founded as a Christian nation precisely because America's Founders were informed by a Jewish and Christian understanding of human nature. Since humans are autonomous moral beings created in God's image, freedom of conscience is essential to their dignity. At least where the federal government was concerned, the Founders asserted that citizens should be subject to God and their conscience, not to the state.

The Founders were not secularists. They assumed that people would bring their deepest moral motivations to political life -- motivations often informed by religious belief. But they firmly rejected sectarianism. America was designed to be a nation where all faiths are welcomed, not where one faith is favored. This was and is the American genius.

"He Wasn't"

I am reading a long article by Roger Morris on the rise of Robert Gates (Obama's--and Bush's--Secretary of Defense) in the CIA in the early 70s. The whole thing is well-worth reading, but here is a tiny excerpt which jumped out at me, concerning Gates lack of on-the-ground experience in areas for which he claimed intelligence expertise:
Looking back on this crucial take-off moment in Gates' career, media pundits vacantly ascribed it to merit. "The brightest Soviet analyst in the shop," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius typically wrote. Insiders knew better. "He wasn't." That was what his CIA superior Ray McGovern said gently, echoing the feelings of his colleagues that "something other than expertise" made for Gates' "meteoric" climb.

It was, in fact, a triumph of office politics, not substance. "Gates' rise did not come from knowing more about the Soviets.... than anyone else," CIA chronicler Thomas Powers concluded. "He was young, well scrubbed, well spoken, bright, hard-working, reliable, loyal, discreet, and a bit of a hard-ass when it came to the Russians." But his limits, too, were evident. Wrote British historian Fred Halliday: "He would not have been out of place as a small town bank manager: unfazed by questions, reticent in judgment, sure of his ground, but without either incisiveness or (it seemed) the awareness that international experience brings." He had, Halliday concluded, "no trace [of]…. any first-hand experience of foreign cultures or countries." He was "a man of the office, the organization." It was the candid portrait of a consummate insider as insular as the policy and politics he served.

Gates, the Soviet "specialist" and, in many ways, penultimate Cold Warrior, would not even see Moscow until May 1989, more than two decades after entering the CIA as an expert on the USSR and after 15 years in which, to one degree or another, he joined in nearly all Washington's most consequential judgments about Russia. Nor, despite his asserted expertise in the Middle East, would Gates have personal experience with nations he dealt with fatefully from 1974 to 1993 -- most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. He would not tour either until 2006-7, and then only for a few, heavily guarded days and in the most limited of ways.

FDR's Greatest Deed

Lew Rockwell writes about Franklin Roosevelt's greatest act as President:
As Mark Thornton has shown, the big legislative change that FDR made at the start of his presidency, the decision that affected every single American citizen from one coast to the other, was the repeal of the thirteen-year Hell of Prohibition. He campaigned to repeal Prohibition (which Hoover supported) and cut government (which Hoover expanded). He kept his main promise merely two weeks after the inauguration. Later that year, he basked in the glory of an amendment to the Constitution that repealed the Prohibition amendment of 1920.

These actions had an immediate effect that dramatically changed life for everyone, drinkers and nondrinkers alike. The speakeasies and their corruptions came to an end. The cops cleaned up their act as bribes and payoffs were no longer the main part of the daily grind. Local government budgets were suddenly flush with revenue. There were new markets for grains. There were meeting places for people. The young were no longer lured into the drunken underworld with its forbidden-fruit attractiveness. For heavens sake, people could have a glass of wine with dinner!

If you think that this is no big deal, consider the absolute despotism of the 18th Amendment that FDR killed:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Yeah, sure, this is the land of the free! FDR's response was the 21st Amendment:

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Here is drama. Here is greatness. Here is what it means to set people free. By comparison, everything else that FDR did – nefarious and awful – paled by comparison, at least from the point of view of the average person. Having taken credit for repealing Prohibition, FDR had tremendous legislative leeway, which he used to the maximum extent for one, two, three, four terms in office. This is what big actions on behalf of human liberty can bring.

Since then, we've had a long string of politicians who tried to emulate FDR's horrible programs without having done anything positive for the cause of liberty. It doesn't work. They keep going down in flames. And why is this? Because, for the most part, the main impulse of American politics was always and still is essentially libertarian.

The songs we sing, the pledges we make, the stories of our founding, all have liberty as the main theme. Despite all the horrors of the presidencies and the vast expansion of government power, liberty remains the overriding impulse of American political culture. The welfare and warfare states are out of control, and yet, it remains true that the most politically effective themes in American life revolve around liberty. Liberty is what unites us. Liberty is what we want.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Limited Uses of Anger

Gail Collins of the NYT writes:
In Delaware, the Republican voters were so angry that they rejected a popular congressman and gave their Senate nomination to an apparently unemployed 41-year-old woman whose major life success had been an ongoing performance as Wacko Conservative Girl on late-night talk shows. In Alaska, they were so mad that they tossed out their incumbent senator for Joe Miller, a lawyer who believes unemployment compensation is unconstitutional, except when his wife is receiving it.

So now in Delaware the unangry Democrat candidate is way ahead. In Alaska, Miller keeps dropping in the polls, which made him so mad that he had his private security guards take an inquiring reporter into custody.

That did not go over very well even in Alaska, an extremely angry state that hateshateshates all forms of government, despite the fact that 40 percent of its economy comes from government aid, and the state’s oil-revenue-sharing program gives families thousands of dollars in payments every year. “Unemployment has never been lower; there is no housing crisis; banks are solvent. We just got Permanent Fund Checks — and, boy, are we pissed off!” said Michael Carey, an Anchorage Daily News columnist.

Really, people, rage never gets you anything but overturned garbage cans and broken windows. If you want to do rage, go to France.
Like any strong emotion, anger can motivate. But if the actions taken are irrational (like nominating ignorant political activists like Christine O'Donnell), then it can be counterproductive.

Psalm 4:4 says, "In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent."  At some point, you've got to end up using your head.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Yes, Madam, That Actually Is in the First Amendment

In a radio debate a few days ago in the US Senate race for Delaware, Christine O'Donnell made a faux pas which was very revealing, I think.  In a discussion of the issue of the 'separation of church and state', she asked the Democratic candidate Chris Coons where this was to be found in the Constitution.  Here's the actual exchange:

"The First Amendment does?" O'Donnell asked. "Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?"

"Government shall make no establishment of religion," Coons responded, reciting from memory the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (Coons was off slightly: The first amendment actually reads "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.")

"That's in the First Amendment...?" O'Donnell responded.
Yes, Christine, dear, that's in the First Amendment.  One has to ask:  Madam, have you ever read the actual Constitution, or are you, in everything you say, just regurgitating the various talking points of prominent conservatives? 

Me thinks it's the latter.  Please, how did this woman ever win the Republican primary, elected by people who say they want to go back to the 'original intent' of the Constitution?  Have these people ever actually read the original Constitution?  You'd think they might want to do that.

Now, having made the necessary critique of Ms. O'Donnell, let me say that there are Tea Party leaders who are very knowledgeable of the Constitution.  The most prominent of these would be Congressman Ron Paul, whose intelligence and integrity are undisputed (I hope the same is true of his son Rand, who is running for the Senate in Kentucky). 

I guess this just goes to show that every political movement has both its qualified leaders and its buffoons.

Airport Body Scanners: Humilitating and UnAmerican

Coming back from Boston on Monday, I had to go through the new full body scanners at Logan Airport.  Not everybody has to do it, just selected travelers (like me).

I have to tell you, I think I've reached my limit with the TSA and security business.  I'm sick of practically disrobing for them to make sure I'm not a terrorist.  Taking off my coat, taking off my shoes (with no place to sit down to take them off), taking off my belt, taking everything out of my pockets (I actually lost the boarding passes this time in the process), having them make you feel like you're guilty until proven innocent.  Now, they make you stand in front of this huge machine, put your feet inside the blue boxes, hold your hands up like you're under arrest, and then blast you with an x-ray to get your naked image for some 'officer' to look at and make sure you don't have an explosive in your underware.

By the time I reached the uniformed officer standing outside the scanner, telling me to wait in front of him, I must have been red in the face from frustration.  All I could say to him was, 'this is ridiculous'.  I half expected him to pull me aside and do a 'pat down' for my insubordination.

And it is.  We're just a bunch of cowering sheep if we allow this kind of thing to continue.  It's humiliating, degrading, cowardly, and unAmerican.

Check out these two articles on the subject from other disgusted travelers: and (the latter is by a pilot for an airlines).

The Introverted, Isolated Presidency

Of all the insights in Sunday's article about Obama in the NYT Magazine, this was one of the most interesting (and potentially most debilitating, from a performance point of view, I think):
Insulation is a curse of every president, but more than any president since Jimmy Carter, Obama comes across as an introvert, someone who finds extended contact with groups of people outside his immediate circle to be draining. He can rouse a stadium of 80,000 people, but that audience is an impersonal monolith; smaller group settings can be harder for him. Aides have learned that it can be good if he has a few moments after a big East Room event so he can gather his energy again. Unlike Clinton, who never met a rope line he did not want to work, Obama does not relish glad-handing. That’s what he has Vice President Joe Biden for. When Obama addressed the Business Roundtable this year, he left after his speech without much meet-and-greet, leaving his aides frustrated that he had done himself more harm than good. He is not much for chitchat. When he and I sat down, he started our session matter-of-factly: “All right,” he said, “fire away.”

By all accounts, Obama copes with his political troubles with equanimity. “Zen” is the word commonly used in the West Wing. That’s not to say he never loses his temper. He has been known to snap at aides when he feels overscheduled. He cuts off advisers who spout information straight from briefing papers with a testy “I’ve already read that.” He does not like it when aides veer out of their assigned lanes, yet they have learned to show up at meetings with an opinion, because he zeroes in on those who stay silent. He was subdued during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when he found himself largely powerless. Other presidents took refuge at Camp David, but Michelle Obama has told dinner guests that her husband does not care for it all that much, because he is an urban guy. He blows off steam on the White House basketball court. “Come on, man, you’ve got to make that shot,” he chides aides who play with him.

While Clinton made late-night phone calls around Washington to vent or seek advice, Obama rarely reaches outside the tight group of advisers like Emanuel, Axelrod, Rouse, Messina, Plouffe, Gibbs and Jarrett, as well as a handful of personal friends. “He’s opaque even to us,” an aide told me. “Except maybe for a few people in the inner circle, he’s a closed book.” In part because of security, just 15 people have his BlackBerry e-mail address. On long Air Force One flights, he retreats to the conference room and plays spades for hours, maintaining a trash-talking contest all the while, with the same three aides: Reggie Love, his personal assistant; Marvin Nicholson, his trip director; and Pete Souza, his White House photographer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Collapsing Housing Market

The latest installment from the cynic's cynic, James H. Kunstler:
The latest rogue wave broke about ten days ago, when an orgy of foreclosure revealed massive irregularities in mortgage contracts and property titles, suggesting a slovenliness so arrant and broad that even the states' attorneys general woke from their narcoleptic raptures of golf to shut down transfers of distressed property. But this was only after the banks themselves declared "moratoria" in a perhaps vain attempt to forestall further discovery of their countless misdeeds. And somewhere along in there the title insurance industry had a whack attack.

During this period a new cliché issued from a million pie-holes: the rule of law. Well, as Joni once sang to we happy Boomers, " don't know what you got 'til it's gone...."

To systematically ignore the niggling, stodgy lawful protocols regarding contract documents - notarization, due diligence, various dotted "i"s and crossed "t"s - was easy on the way up Fraud Mountain. On the ride down, though, it turns out all those niceties comprised the braking apparatus, Now the cargo of swindles is accelerating out-of-control and breaking apart. Suddenly this cliché - the rule of law - begins to assert its meaning for this nation of slobs, morons, and grifters, to the degree that even lawyers begin to understand what's at stake (as opposed to just how much they can get paid), though the bankers may never learn.

The upshot is that the real estate industry is on ice indefinitely. Nobody dares to buy or sell property because there is no way of knowing who actually owns it, whether the chain of title is on-the-level, whether (or not) there is a document somewhere with coffee mug rings and taco sauce stains denoting the past and current owners of, say, a half acre of sawgrass scrub with an abandoned harlequin brick ranch-house full of mold feasting on damp sheet-rock in the unspeakable South Florida humidity.

The US real estate racket was already in enough trouble with the collapse of bubble pricing and then the consequent effect on untold tons of mortgage-backed securities and derivatives of them buried in the vaults of banks, insurance companies, municipal investment accounts, pension funds, and other repositories of trust. It certainly has been known for years that the value of these clever instruments is somewhere south of where they represent themselves to be - but since the crash of 2008 accounting legerdemain kept a lid on that putrid stew. The new wave of mortgage and title fraud now threatens to drive their value down to zero, that is, quite a bit lower than even the previous worst-feared estimates of mark-to-market apocalypse.
Question: I'm not bragging exactly, but how was it that I was able to see the looming 'housing bubble' burst, with all its attendant ills, several years ahead of time, when most others were oblivious to it? I think it goes to show that simple, honest observation, using honest common sense, eschewing an ideological rigidity, allows you to see things that most people can't see.

Mutual Loathing

Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President Bush and WaPo columnist, writes about President Obama:
After a series of ineffective public messages -- leaving the political landscape dotted with dry rhetorical wells -- President Obama has hit upon a closing argument.

"Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now," he recently told a group of Democratic donors in Massachusetts, "and facts and science and argument [do] not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hard-wired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country is scared."

Let's unpack these remarks.

Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics represents "facts and science and argument." His opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the more fearful, primitive portion of their brains. Obama views himself as the neocortical leader -- the defender, not just of the stimulus package and health-care reform but also of cognitive reasoning. His critics rely on their lizard brains -- the location of reptilian ritual and aggression. Some, presumably Democrats, rise above their evolutionary hard-wiring in times of social stress; others, sadly, do not.

Though there is plenty of competition, these are some of the most arrogant words ever uttered by an American president.

The neocortical presidency destroys the possibility of political dialogue. What could Obama possibly learn from voters who are embittered, confused and dominated by subconscious evolutionary fears? They have nothing to teach, nothing to offer to the superior mind. Instead of engaging in debate, Obama resorts to reductionism, explaining his opponents away.

It is ironic that the great defender of "science" should be in the thrall of pseudoscience. Human beings under stress are not hard-wired for stupidity, which would be a distinct evolutionary disadvantage. The calculation of risk and a preference for proven practices are the conservative contributions to the survival of the species. Whatever neuroscience may explain about political behavior, it does not mean that the fears of massive debt and intrusive government are irrational.

There have been several recent attempts to explain Obama's worldview as the result of his post-colonial father or his early socialist mentors -- Gnostic attempts to produce the hidden key that unlocks the man. The reality is simpler. In April 2008, Obama described small-town voters to wealthy donors in San Francisco: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Now, to wealthy donors in Massachusetts, opponents are "hard-wired not to always think clearly." Interpreting Obama does not require psychoanalysis or the reading of mystic Chicago runes. He is an intellectual snob.
I have to agree with Gerson that political and intellectual liberals tend to be arrogant toward those who disagree with them, whereas conservatives just tend toward pure distain for liberals.

In other words, mutual loathing.

Discriminating, Targeted Cuts to Defense

Ross Douthet defends some of the Tea Partiers proposals for cuts in the defense budget against criticism from the neo-cons, which I think is right on target:
I’m of two minds about this. Overall, I’m inclined toward the William Wohlforth view that a unipolar world tends to be more stable than the alternatives, and that America’s sometimes absurd-seeming military edge (our defense budget is larger than that of the next 15-20 countries combined, etc.) actually serves a valuable purpose in deterring great power jockeying, regional arms races, and cross-border wars. Both the United States and the world have benefited immensely from the absence of major power conflicts, and it’s naive to simply assume that the recent decline in wars and battlefield casualties — one of the great, underrated blessings of our fraught-seeming era — would endure in the absence of a military hegemon whose position is essentially unchallenged.

However, America’s military edge won’t be sustainable at all if we go bankrupt, lurch from debt crisis to debt crisis, or get stuck in a debt-driven economic stagnation for years or decades on end.

Brooks, Feulner and Kristol counsel against “indiscriminate budget-slashing in a still-dangerous world,” and “across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.” I, too, am against “indiscriminate” and “across-the-board” cuts. But discriminating, targeted cuts to defense may prove a necessary part of any solution to our fiscal woes, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that some Tea Party candidates are willing to at least entertain that possibility.

More Than Knowledge

This response by Calvin College's James Smith to a recent Pew Study on American religious illiteracy resonates with my own experience as a pastor:
I had two initial reactions to reports about this survey. The first was cynical: the inability of Americans to articulate the particularities of even their own religious faith sort of confirms the isomorphism of American religion—that the “religion” of this “deeply religious” country is, at the end of the day, just a functional deism necessary to sustain American civil religion.

My second reaction was more critical, and perhaps more charitable: I continue to be suspicious of such surveys and reports precisely because they reduce religion to “knowledge.” … But what if religion is not primarily about knowledge? What if the defining core of religion is more like a way of life, a nexus of action? What if, as per Charles Taylor, a religious orientation is more akin to a “social imaginary,” which functions as an “understanding” on a register that is somewhat inarticulable? Indeed, I think Taylor’s corpus offers multiple resources for criticizing what he would describe as the “intellectualism” of such approaches to religion—methodologies that treat human persons as “thinking things,” and thus reduce religious phenomena to a set of ideas, beliefs, and propositions. Taylor’s account of social imaginaries reminds us of a kind of understanding that is “carried” in practices, implicit in rituals and routines, and can never be adequately articulated or made explicit. If we begin to think about religion more like a social imaginary than a set of propositions and beliefs, then the methodologies of surveys of religious “knowledge” are going to look problematic.

In this vein, I’m reminded of an observation Wittgenstein makes in the Philosophical Investigations: One could be a master of a game without being able to articulate the rules.
The difference would be between an active church goer who, though he doesn't know much about the details of the New Testament, actually tries to humbly imitate in his life what he does know of Jesus, and the knowledgeable cynic of Christianity who is selfish and arrogant in his daily living.

Housing in the Toilet

Ah, this explains why Senator Reid is doing so poorly in Nevado!  I hadn't put this together for some reason.
Reid is running for reelection in Nevada, a state where one in six borrowers was delinquent on his mortgage at the end of 2009, where foreclosure filings hit one in 17 homes during the first half of this year, and where more than half of home sales were foreclosure sales in the second quarter of 2010.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reasons for Long-Term Optimism

Gary North, toward the end of his column on the Great Default, gives reasons for optimism about the US:
The United States has some very great advantages. Here are a few:

1. A tradition of entrepreneurship
2. Ease of starting a business
3. Geographical mobility
4. Occupational mobility
5. English
6. Educated labor force
7. Dying trade unions
8. Widespread literacy
9. Freedom of the press
10. Internet replacing the press
11. Widespread gun ownership
12. Growing skepticism regarding Congress
13. 50 separate states
14. Independent county governments
15. Facebook
16. Politicians who are on the defensive
17. Political gridlock in Washington
18. Talk radio
19. An escape hatch: bankruptcy laws
20. High charitable giving

Americans can declare bankruptcy and start over. This is an important tradition.

The Great Default

Gary North, frequent contributor to, is a bit eccentric in his thoughts and ideas, a true contrarian.  But he's always interesting to consider, and I have to say that his writing about 4-5 years ago convinced me that that our current economic prosperity was going to end in a big crash.  And it did, so I pay attention to what he says.  In a recent column, he forecasts that the US is going to default on its debt.
Because of the rapid growth in Federal debt since 2008, free market critics have become more pessimistic about the economic future of the nation. It is easy for non-Keynesian economists to see that the Keynesian policies of deficit spending and Federal Reserve credit expansion will harm this economy. These policies will indeed hamper the economy. They will not cripple it.

Why not? Because there is going to be a Great Default by the U.S. government. The old line by economist Herb Stein will come true: "When things cannot continue, they have a tendency to stop."

The Federal government will default. This is not a matter of intellectual speculation. It is a matter of financial speculation. There is no question that Medicare will break the bank in Washington. There will have to be cutbacks in spending. The promises will not come true.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Afghani Platoon

As I was doing some backreading in the columns of libertarian conservative Justin Raimondo, I ran across this chilling account of a soldier in Afghanistan, which reminds one of nothing so much as what we heard coming out of Vietnam toward the end, or in the historical fiction movie Platoon by Oliver Stone:
...consider the details of the most recent atrocity coming out of Afghanistan, the activities of the "Thrill Kill platoon," which is accused of murdering Afghan civilians and keeping body parts as trophies. The alleged mastermind of the thrill-killers, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, is also under investigation by military authorities on suspicion of carrying out similar murders in Iraq. The Gibbs "kill team" is suspected of slaughtering at least seven Afghan civilians, and quite possibly more, in the most heinous manner imaginable. Gibbs and four others were arrested in June, and seven others are being held.

These twelve apostles of mayhem — assigned to the 2nd Stryker Brigade, and stationed at Forward Operating Base Ramrod, along the border with Pakistan — randomly chose unarmed Afghan civilians to murder. Then they shot them, or blew them up with grenades, mutilating the victims. Gibbs, the alleged ringleader, made necklaces out of the body parts. They covered up their killing spree by placing weapons near the corpses, and the incidents went down in the records as gun battles with "insurgents."

Gibbs reportedly has a tattoo on his left calf which is a pictorial record of his crime spree: it consists of two crossed pistols encircled by six skulls. According to news reports, the red skulls indicate murders carried out in Iraq, and the blue skulls represent Afghan kills.

Knowledge of the killings was widely shared in the camp, and it’s hard to imagine higher-ups were unaware of what was going on. But there was indeed one apparently unwilling participant, Adam Winfield, who desperately tried to reach out to his parents, to whom he confessed the murders.

The "honor the troops" brigade will tell us this is just another case of a few bad apples: this latest incident is no reason to condemn the entire US military – is it?

Well, quite frankly, it is, because, as Winfield pointed out to his parents in a February 14 Facebook posting: "Pretty much the whole platoon knows about it. It’s okay with all of them pretty much. Except me…. I want to do something about it [but] the only problem is I don’t feel safe here telling anyone." "I talked to someone," Winfield continued, "and they told me this stuff happens all the time and that when we get back there is always someone that spills the beans so it normally works its way out."

Winfield’s father asked, "No one else thought it was wrong?" Winfield’s reply: "No, everyone just wants to kill people at any cost, they don’t care, the Army is full of a bunch of scumbags, I realized."

Winfield resigned his position as the platoon’s team leader because "I cannot be a leader in a platoon that allows this to happen." He went on to make a key point:

"There are no more good men left here…. I started to think whether I should quit and just give up because it’s stupid to get smoked in Afghanistan. The Army really let me down when I thought I would come out here to do good, maybe make some change in this country…. I find out that it’s all a lie."

None of this would have come out if not for an investigation into alleged drug use by soldiers. Investigators uncovered widespread and rampant drug use, including hashish, opium, and anti-depressants which are issued by the military: in the course of their investigation, one of the thrill-killers – apparently under the influence at the time – spilled the beans. In addition, Winfield’s parents made repeated calls to military authorities immediately upon learning of this horror

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And the Winner is Captain Kirk

It was a bit disheartening, though I can't say surprising, to come away so disappointed by Obama's handpicked candidate for his Illinois Senate seat, Alexi Giannoulias, after listening to him and his opponent Republican Mark Kirk on 'Meet the Press' on Sunday.  I had been aware for over a year that Obama had been working closely with his banker friend and basketball buddy to get him the Senate seat.

Yet Giannoulias' reputation precedes him, and it's not a good one.  His family bank, of which he was senior loan officer, went bankrupt, and it has been accused of knowingly making loans to organized crime figures.  It's all a very corrupt part of the often corrupt Chicago scene, of which Obama was more a part than many people realize.

Mark Kirk, a moderate Republican, on the other hand has a stellar background, with degrees from all the best places, a 20 year career in the Navy, and a number of years in the Congress.

Frankly, I hope Kirk wins.  Obama could have done much better, but he blew it.   Frankly, that kind of cronyism gives me the creeps.

Is the Tea Party Against Our Oversea's Empire?

Libertarian Justin Raimondo at makes the case that many leading Tea Partyers are libertarians at heart and therefore actually open to making significant cuts in our defense establishment, out of a principled stand that we can no longer afford our world-wide military empire any longer. I hope that's true and not just wishful thinking on his part.  If it is true, then I'm with the Tea Party too.
Beating Swords into Plowshares
If the Democrats’ mantra is all about spending, the Republican party line is all about not spending – and there’s no reason why military spending ought to be off the table. As Mark Meckler, a national Tea Party coordinator, put it:

“I have yet to hear anyone say, ‘We can’t touch defense spending,’ or any other issue… Any tea partier who says something else lacks integrity.”

To hear Phillip Dennis, founder of the Dallas Tea Party and a member of the Board of Directors of the Leadership Tea Party, tell it, Pentagon spending must be “constrained and reduced.” Rand Paul vows to go after “waste” in the defense budget, and wants to ban all lobbying by firms, including defense firms, that have over $1 million in government contracts. However, Chuck DeVore, a member of the California Assembly, and the tea party favorite in the California’s GOP senatorial primary, says going after fraud and waste isn’t enough, making the trenchant point that it’s just a rhetorical device to avoid specifics. For the hard stuff, we have to go to a recent piece in Politico linking the tea party’s fiscal conservatism to support for proposed defense cuts. The article cites Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia Republican and “tea party favorite,” going beyond opposition to alleged waste and fraud, and criticizing the underlying foreign policy that calls for massive “defense” spending:

“’Most of these people want to look at all federal spending and put it all on the table. They want to spend on strong defense, they want to support our troops, but they want to get rid of all the fluff, the fraud, the abuse, the waste in the federal government. They want to see the federal government shrink in size.’

“Broun, a bitter critic of Obama — and no fan of Gates or the history of U.S. military intervention since World War II, including NATO — said the country ‘cannot be a protector of the whole world. We cannot do that any longer. We don’t have the money to do it anyway.’”

Who isn’t against waste, fraud, and cronyism? Even the cronies themselves say they’re against it. But running a more tightly-budgeted, efficient empire isn’t going to solve the problem, which is that imperialism is a luxury we just can’t afford anymore.

As the tea partiers move toward anti-interventionism, by the sheer logic of their position on spending, and the Obama cult moves rightward on foreign policy issues, making Obama’s wars the signature events of his presidency, what we are witnessing is the beginning of a fundamental realignment in American politics. A very liberal Democrat sits in the White House, directing two wars and ushering in a third, while conservatives are rediscovering their historical roots as skeptics of American power to shape events overseas.

A Plutocracy For Sure

Another statement by the previous post's Roger Hodge explains the serious damage done by the Citizen's United Supreme Court ruling to our political democracy:
The Citizens United decision overturns more than a century of campaign finance legislation and jurisprudence—at least with regard to corporations—and lays the foundation for the complete deregulation of campaign spending. The Court’s majority held that the First Amendment rights of corporations were violated by some modest and heretofore uncontroversial restrictions on election spending. The Court’s reasoning was premised on a view of corporate “personhood” that would have been unintelligible to the framers of the Constitution—and, as Justice John Paul Stevens demonstrated in his magisterial dissent, the majority’s opinion was fundamentally inconsistent with a long series of precedents. The decision is an aggressive assault on anemic and insubstantial restrictions that have failed to prevent the corporate dominance of our political system; consequently, although it is likely to encourage some highly political corporations to spend even more on electioneering, Citizens United mainly serves to clarify the brute fact that our political system is little more than a plutocracy. More disturbing than the curious judicial metaphysics of corporate personhood is the consistent equation of spending with speech. Indeed, throughout Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision, the term “speak” was used in place of the words “contribute,” “spend,” and “buy.” This substitution is telling, and despite Kennedy’s vigorous assertions, most campaign spending is less a matter of intelligible speech than a pure show of force.

As for James Madison, without whom the Bill of Rights would never have been brought before Congress, much less ratified, we can be reasonably certain that he would never have extended First Amendment protection to the expenditures of corporations. In fact, during the First Congress, on February 8, 1791, in the midst of debate over Alexander Hamilton’s proposal to charter a Bank of the United States, Madison delivered a speech on the floor of the House denouncing the corrupting effects of “incorporated societies”: They are “powerful machines,” he argued, which often pursue principles that are very different from those of the people. No one who is familiar with Madison’s horror of all forms of political corruption could believe that he would have blithely extended the rights of citizenship to soulless creatures of pure commerce. Even so, the point is not whether one or another eighteenth-century politician would approve of a current law or court decision; what is at issue is the integrity of our political system. Citizens United confirms that we do indeed live in a “capitalist democracy,” as current usage has it, one in which a tiny minority quite literally votes with its pocketbook and in which laws and even lawmakers can be bought and sold like any other commodity.