Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Liberty versus theocracy: which side do you think Bush is on?

Thinking about the "global war on terror," which as we know he considers the Iraq to be an integral part of, Andrew Sullivan claims, rightly enough, that Patrick Buchanan
obviously admires the muscularity of the Jihadists' religious politics. His lament is that Christians are not as tough. Buchanan likes nothing more than conflict, and a good civilizational conflict between Christian and Muslim theocrats would doubtless thrill him. And from 9/11 onwards, many members of the religious right have indeed opined that Islamist loathing of American 'decadence' is partly deserved. The real war, however, is between liberty and theocrats of all kinds, between limited government and religious statism....
I couldn't agree more.

But there's an obvious follow-up question: which side of the war between liberty and religious statism do you think George Bush is on? More pointedly, which side of that debate do you think Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Bob Jones, Gary Bauer, or Ralph Reed fall? In other words, on which side does the much-vaunted "base" of the Republican Party fall? Do you really think these people are all completely misguided in their fervid love for Bush?

Answering that rhetorical question ought to raise some very serious worries for Andrew about what exactly underpins Bush's Middle East policy. Nor is it irrelevant to note that Saddam and the Baathists, whatever else they were, were certainly secularists....

Coming religious wars?

The Short Cut quotes a nice passage from the New York Observer:
The cost of destroying a secular public life will, if allowed to proceed, undermine the stability of American democracy. All these people on their knees holding candles may not appreciate it, but public religion, not private religious formation, is the enemy of our kind of government. Even in the long-past era when most Americans were some brand or other of Calvinist, religion had to be pushed into the corners of politics so that a nascent secular culture could nourish democracy. In the first half of the 19th century, the battle to drive religion out of the political forum and into the home was not easily nor ever entirely won. Waves of religious mania battered the country and threatened democratic institutions and practice. They still do.

The Christians and their churches, which are using their temporary, strategic, electoral-minority position to gain majority dominance, will live to wish that they hadn’t labored so long to put "people of faith" in the driver’s seat. Other than dogmatism and a built-in resistance to reason, logic and science, sectarian religions have nothing in common except a potential antagonism for each other—one which holds the threat of someday ripping the country to shreds. "Religion" and "faith" are pushing ahead on a common front now, but in due course they will fall on each other with mortal fury. History teaches that the one thing religions hate more than secularism is other religions. With each year that religions are encouraged and given a preferential place, they become more demanding and more truculent in claiming more power and deference. As more members of more religious organizations adopt peculiar and distinguishing forms of dress, headgear and hair, the lines harden and the probability of physical conflict between these groups of faith-based fanatics grows.
There are good reasons why late twentieth century Europeans opted for secularism: the bigotry of the religious establishment, and the inter-faith hatred spawned by religion itself -- oh yeah, and the welfare state, too, thank God.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Abolishing social security: the cornerstone of Bush's political ambition

As usual, James Surowiecki’s most recent article provides a succinct and illuminating account of an important subject, in this case, what’s at stake with Bush’s proposed “reforms” to social security. Here's how Surowiecki summarizes Bush's agenda:

In place of unwieldy government programs run by busybody bureaucrats, Bush wants Americans to have more independence and more choices regarding their health care, their savings, and their retirement. Social Security would be partially privatized, with people allowed to put aside money in individual accounts. Private health-insurance plans would compete with Medicare…. Fair enough. All things being equal, letting people make decisions for themselves will produce smarter outcomes, collectively, than relying on government planners.
Surowiecki then goes on to explain how Social Security, as its name implies, is directly tied to a certain vision of risk mitigation. In essence, it's designed to help ensure individual security within an economic system (capitalism) which creates risks and uncertainties are beyond the control of individuals.

As such, the very existence of Social Security tacitly acknowledges the powerlessness of most individuals in the face of secular macroeconomic market forces and events -- and of course assumes that the government is the right institution to protect individuals from those forces and events:

The ownership society promises freedom, but at the price of a huge shift in risk, away from government and society and onto individual citizens. Social Security, Medicare, insurance—these are basically collective risk-sharing mechanisms. Rather than let each person run the risk of ending up destitute or sick, these programs pool the risk. Because the risk is shared, it can be managed, and people can be guaranteed a minimally acceptable outcome. In Bush’s brave new world, that guarantee will be eliminated.

Generally, we want people to reap the benefits of their own successes and pay a price for their failures. But Social Security and Medicare are designed to protect people from things they have little control over—risk of illness, risk of macroeconomic change, risk of industrial obsolescence. To manage that kind of risk, you have to do it collectively. What’s more, as the political scientist Jacob Hacker has pointed out, Americans’ everyday lives are considerably riskier than they used to be. Jobs are less secure. Health-care costs are increasingly difficult to plan for. And the pace of technological change—which can lay waste to entire industries almost overnight—is faster than ever. So now may not be the best time to undermine the few programs that provide people with some protection against bad decisions and bad luck....

Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing. But the Bush plan is asking you to swap an insurance policy for a lottery ticket.

In other words, under the system the Bush regime is proposing, you not only need to work hard all your life – which Social Security requires anyway – but you also need to be a shrewd investor, and as well as hope there is no massive stockmarket downturn as you're planning to retire. If you luck or skill fails in any of these areas, you’re going to be very poor when you’re old. (How you feel about that prospect has a lot to do, at very a profound level, with how you assess risk. How good Americans are at assessing risk is a subject we'll return to later.)

What I’d like to add to Surowiecki's insights is some historical context, to explain the political and social meaning of the government program known as Social Security, or rather more generally, the social and political meaning of the welfare state in the United States. What we'll see is that George Bush's effort to "reform" social security is really at the heart of Bush's effort to create a political coalition dedicated to transforming the United States in social terms.

The thing to understand about Social Security is that the program emerged in the 1930s not just because it provided a solution to a real public policy problem, namely the horror of poverty in old age after a lifetime of diligent work, but also because Franklin Roosevelt saw that it would create a vast new set of loyal constituents for the politician and the party who pushed it through. In a very real sense, Social Security was not just a social program, but also the cornerstone of the New Deal political coalition of blacks, urban working class whites, and social liberals.

Although academics have always lamented the limited nature of the American welfare state, in political terms social security was an enormous success – as Republicans have long acknowledged between gritted teeth. Indeed, the very aspects of the program that are now causing it to creak with age (its standard retirement age, its lack of means-testing, its pay-as-you-go funding) are precisely the things that made it so politically effective: that it was a program everyone could expect to benefit by has made it both very popular and very hard to reform.

The other crucial political dimension of Social Security, that must be acknowledged frankly, is that the political benefits of the program have accrued almost solely to the Democrats. For seventy-five years, the Democrats have painted the Republicans (as we will now see, presciently) as the party dedicated to representing rich people’s interests, biding its time to kill Social Security. Until Bush, Republicans have always whined unconvincing denials on this subject, and in any event not had the temerity to take on the dismantling of the program, despite their clear political ardor to do so.

(Why Bush will likely be successful in challenging this 75 year political ascendency is a question I'll address in a different post. Let me just suggest here that as long as the Democrats actually offered some sincere opposition to the depredations of unfettered capitalism, their championing of Social Security was an effective and fair way to attack the Republicans, and to appeal to populist voters. Once their view of capitalism became indistinguishable from the party of the capitalists, they basically lost their bearings....)

What’s even more interesting about Social Security, and less well understood, is its social significance. As Surowiecki points out, Social Security is mainly about shielding people from economic risks they can't control as individuals. But here's the rub: by creating a less individually risky economic environment, Social Security (and other social insurance programs) have allowed Americans to take more social risks. If you don’t have to worry about starving to death in your old age, it’s a lot easier to express social opinions that horrify your community, to be a religious non-comformist, to be openly gay, or what have you.

In short, when the state provides you with economic guarantees, it’s a lot easier to blow off your community's social constraints. Once the state, rather than the traditional community, becomes the safety net, individuals no longer need be nearly as attentive to the constraints that traditional communities impose. This is what Germans mean when they speak of "Gemeinschaft": not just a community in the general English sense of the term, but much more specifically a social order in which economic production and social connectedness are inseparable.

This brings me to the main sociological point I'd like to make here: Right-wingers are thus quite right to assert that there is, at some deep level, a unity between social license and the welfare state. And the Democrats need to think long and hard about what this insight means for them politically.

Americans on the left like to suggest that right-wingers have a heartless social vision of a world without any social services, where the only relationships between people are ones defined by the market. That’s partly because leftists tend to believe that Marx was right to claim that capitalism has “put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

But right-wingers take a significantly different view. They think what has sundered these idyllic relations was not the cash nexus or the market, but rather the coming of the welfare state. Sure, they’ll concede, capitalism has some responsibility for a minor increase in licentiousness, mainly because it increases the number of rich people, and the rich have always been able to get away with licentious (because they were less exposed to economic risk). Mitigating the tendential licentiousness of the rich, however, has been their innate desire for social respectability. Right-wing thought has generally leaned heavily on the hope that social ladder-climbing would effectively restrain the behavior of the rich.

The real issue, however, has always been what to do about the poor. The yearning for respectability never was going to be an effective restraint on their moral behavior. They were poor, and thus were never going to be socially respected. Rather, what would restrain them, the right hoped, was the same thing that restrained them in earlier times: traditional morality, embodied by the church. If the poor could only be driven back into the church, they'd be restrained, and oh yes, taken care of materially.

As contemporary American right-wingers see it, the welfare state has ruined this proposition: by shielding poor people from economic risk, it has made membership in local community institutions optional, thus lowering the barriers of social restraint. Without the fear of being without a home, without health benefits, without support in old age, there has been little to curb the poor's social deviance. With the arrival of the welfare state, even the poor could now behave however they liked, and they’d still have a warm place to sleep when they got old. This is why the welfare state, including its central pillar, Social Security, has to go.

In a nutshell, American right-wingers hope that abolishing the welfare state will set in motion the reconstruction of the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” that Marx believed capitalism was permanently sundering. In Bush's political vision, social services will be delivered not by a state that demands no social conformity of its citizens, but rather by “faith-based institutions” that will without apology demand social and moral conformity to community standards as a condition of receiving social assistance. The poor and dusky will once again be “bound to their ‘natural superiors.’” Rolling back the welfare state and creating a more god-fearing society thus go hand-in-hand.

Even more crucially, the destruction of Social Security and the welfare state will force the poor back into churches, which are now largely Republican political machines. Thus destroying the welfare state not only further undermines the New Deal coalition, but directly reinforces the Bush coalition. This is the true political ambition of Bush's "the ownership society": to create a legal and institutional system that will ground Bush's political coalition in the same way that FDR's reforms around social insurance and collective bargaining grounded his coalition for a generation.

This account explains why George Bush and Karl Rove express admiration for FDR, even while dedicating themselves to abolishing his legacy. Bush and Rove understand how Social Security formed the cornerstone of a hugely successful political coalition based on an implicit but deeply rooted vision of what America stood for. But more than that, they understand how Social Security enacted that social vision, in other words, how Social Security helped create the society that it envisioned. In purely political terms, Bush cannot help but admire FDR’s audacity and entrepreneurship.

But if Bush appreciates FDR's political accomplishment, he hates the content of the social vision that Social Security embodies and instantiates, namely a society that socializes economic risk so that people can take more chances in their personal life, and cease to be dependent on the ball and chain of tradition. By abolishing Social Security and thus forcing the poor back into the arms of the church, the Republicans hope to emulate in reverse FDR’s success in building a political coalition by instantiating a social vision. Such an accomplishment would be the capstone of Bush's political career.

Juan Cole, right as rain

Here's a useful post on why the insistance sticking to January 30, 2005 for Iraqi elections may well lead to an even worse catastrophe -- according to someone who actually listens to the local-language media in the Middle East. Money:

A statement such as "Arabs want to be free" is anyway mere propaganda. Which Arabs? When? Under what circumstances? The millions of Shiites who support Muqtada al-Sadr don't appear to me to want to be free of puritanical restrictions or of charismatic authoritarianism. The millions of Sunni Arabs who are supporting the guerrilla war, actively or passively, don't seem to want the kind of "freedom" [the United States] is imposing on them. A majority of Iraqis clearly want a new, parliamentary government to succeed, but significant minorities and maybe even a plurality do not. Glib statements by Westerners about what "Arabs" want are the New Orientalism, since the Western observers put themselves in the position of ventriloquists for their pliant Arab lap puppets....

The success or failure of the political process in Iraq anyway has nothing to do with yearning for democracy. It has to do with the frankly stupid policies implemented by the Bush administration in Iraq. If the whole enterprise goes bad... it will be because the Americans, especially the Neoconservatives, crafted a ridiculous electoral system based on that of Israel.


Devaluing our way to prosperity

Now that the election is over, even the Wall Street Journal's Op-Ed page can't defend Bush's monetary policy. Money quote:

The Bush Treasury, and perhaps Mr. Bush himself, seem to have fallen for the notion that a country can devalue its way to prosperity. This is the patent medicine of the manufacturers' lobby, as well as the kind of economist who has done so much for Argentina, Mexico and other nations over the years.
As they say, with friends like these...

For those of us who didn't pay much attention in Econ 1, here's a quick lesson: running consistent trade and fiscal deficits eventually causes foreign investors (who are in effect lending the U.S. economy money, and who today own something like 40% of American securities) to want to get out of our currency and our markets. This is so for much the same reason that people who pile up vast credit card debt have a hard time getting further loans: you get to be seen as a bad credit risk.

As investors leave, two things typically happen: both the stock market and the dollar decline, sometimes precipitously, in which case it's called a "crash."

As the value of the currency declines, American exports become cheaper for foreign buyers and foreign imports become more expensive for American consumers. In theory, this works to rebalance the trade deficit.

While manufacturers may like a devalued currency since it makes them more competitive abroad, devaluing the currency screws the middle class. The middle class typically is invested in a narrow set of assets -- the typical mix being a single piece of real estate (your house), cash, and some American equities. The declining U.S. stock market and inflation cut quickly into the value of all three of these asset types. In short, devaluing the dollar works works as an undeclared tax on the wealth of the middle class.

This appears, then, to be how Bush plans to pay for his tax cuts for the wealthy: with an undeclared tax on the wealth of the middle class, in the form of devaluation of the dollar and inflation.

Florida e-vote count conundrum

Will there be any official investigation of how and why Florida's e-voters skewed so heavily toward Bush? Some researchers at Berkeley have shown, at the very least, that there's a topic here worthy of investigation:
The Quantitative Methods Research Team released a statistical study - the sole method available to monitor the accuracy of e-voting - reporting irregularities associated with electronic voting machines may have awarded 130,000-260,000 or more excess votes to President George W.Bush in Florida in the 2004 presidential election. The study shows an unexplained discrepancy between votes for President Bush in counties where electronic voting machines were used versus counties using traditional voting methods.... Discrepancies this large or larger rarely arise by chance - the probability is less than 0.1 percent.
A less than 0.1 percent probability?

How small a chance is that? Well, according to Vegas, even the 1-10 49ers are more likely than that to win the Superbowl this year.

For all the details on the Florida voting research, click here.

The French opinion is the world's opinion

One of the things I haven't quite gotten my head around is why the American Right has remained so fixated on the alleged perfidy of the French regarding Iraq. The French have merely enunciated views that are almost universally shared around the globe. One thing that people like to forget about the Security Council vote that never was is that the French didn't even need to threaten to use their veto: the fact is, Bush and Powell were unable to convince even a bare majority of the members to authorize the war.

But the American Right continues for some reason to single out the French for special opprobrium. Perhaps it's just traditional Francophobia. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that French actually made a (very weak) attempt to turn their opinions into policy. Or perhaps it's because the Right hopes to create the impression that the French were and are unique in their opposition to the Bush regime's Iraq policy. It's hard to know for sure, but the Right's continuous harping on those bad Frenchies has begun to seem like something between a comedy routine and a slightly pathetic mental insecurity.

Remember the old ditty about "Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong"?
They say the French are naughty
They say the French are bad
They all declare that over there
The French are going mad.
Well, this map provides an interesting Red-Blue view concerning World opinion regarding Bush's reelection.

Most people would probably concede that when 99% of people share an opinion concerning someone's character, it's probably a pretty accurate judgment.

Then again, maybe denizens of other countries don't fully qualify as "people."

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Robert Novak, a characteristic sort of dumbass

I feel a little pathetic mocking Robert Novak, who is a case study in what you get when you cross a know-nothing with a know-it-all. This lucky guy been an A-League talking head for more than three decades, despite failing to have a significant political insight since the 1970s. So knocking him when he says stupid things feels a bit like the intellectual equivalent of what Pedro Martinez did to Don Zimmer.

But it's precisely the insipid nature of Novak's writing that makes him a representative sort of right-wing idiot. Consider his latest effort: an article on his recent "week in Paris," when he learned that the French in general, and President Chirac in particular, still aren't too thrilled about American foreign policy, especially in Iraq, and that they don't much feel like apologizing for their opinions.

Mon dieu, will they never learn?!

Simply as a rhetorical exercise, Novak's piece is a showcase of the fuzzy-minded logic of the Right in the the United States today, or at any rate, a lower-middle-brow rendition of that sort of thinking.

  • The shoddy attitude toward evidence. For example, Novak cites unnamed sources ("one French intellectual [said] to me...") and loves the passive voice ("I had been warned..."). Remember, this is the guy who outed a spy citing unnamed "senior White House officials," and then wrapped himself in the First Amendment to avoid naming his source.
  • The breezy comfort with logical contradiction in one's own arguments. For example, Novak argues that Chirac, in continuing to castigate Bush's policies "has misread French opinion" -- but then a few sentences later, Novak tells us that the French are overwhelmingly anti-Bush (he cites, without attribution, that 80% of the French preferred Kerry).
  • The dumb-ass national arrogance, embodied by the unstated assumption that whatever the majority of Americans believe cannot be legitimately questioned. For example, Novak implies that given Bush's reelection, it's shocking that the French have failed to reconsider their critique of American foreign policy -- as if the fact that 60 million Americans cast their ballots for Bush somehow invalidates sentiments shared by billions of other people.
  • A "gotcha" approach to evidence in argument. For example, to "prove" that the French case against the war in Iraq is silly, Novak cites an unnamed "writer here" whose daughter attended a French army briefing in which the war in Iraq "was described [note the passive voice] as a plot by American capitalists to cheat Iraqis out of their oil in a lecture that would have done justice to a conspiracy-minded Internet blogger." In other words, Novak is telling us... what some writer told him... that his daughter told him... that some low-level army schmuck told her... and this proves what exactly? (And, now that we're on the topic, who exactly in that chain of hearsay described this as a lecture worthy of blogger?)
  • No actual attempt to understand opposing argument. Reading this article you can find no discernable evidence that there might be any substance to critical French opinions about the United States, except the implication that perhaps the French might actually want to return to the murderous international strife that characterized much of especially the first half of the last century.
  • The rampant use of nonsequitors to drive an argument forward. Novak closes his case by suggesting that it is the problems with the French economy (better by most measures than the U.S.'s, it's worth noting) that somehow not only is the source of French "resentment," but also apparently refutes the French critique of American foreign policy. What?

As I say, it's been a loooooong time since Novak had an interesting political thought. Indeed, it's the fact that he's recycling idees fixes that makes his writing so helpfully symptomatic of what is wrong with the way Right-wingers think.

Close to 21,000 American casualties so far

Does anyone really believe that there are fewer terrorists targeting the U.S. today than there were two years ago, before we invaded Iraq?

And if you don't believe that we're safer now, do you really feel confident claiming that the 20,802 American casualties so far have been worth it?

Time to choose: national defense, or creationism?

If this article is right to suggest that evolutionary theory offers insights for the Defense Department, then let's just hope that Bush has done a good job compartmentalizing the fundamentalist part of his coalition from the foreign policy part.

How long can a coalition with such cognitive contradictions survive?

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Election Result Maps

A visual representation of Shrub's mandate.

Partisanship & the Speaker of the House

Several people have been confused by the relationship between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the various party offices such as Majority Leader, Minority Leader, and the Whips. Given the extreme partisanship of Dennis Hastert, it's worth revisiting the relationship between these offices.

As is well known, the framers of the constitution considered partisanship -- or "faction," to use their term -- one of the main enemies of democracy. Given this distrust of faction, it seems likely that Article I, Section 2, clause 5a's requirement that "The House of Representatives shall choose their Speaker and other Officers...." was mainly administrative in intent. The model was probably the Speaker of the British Parliament, whose role was to be even-handed in the divvying up of administrative perquisites and keeping order during floor debates. A vestige of this original conception can be seen in the tradition that the Speaker of the House is not supposed to vote on legislation himself except to break a tie. He's meant to run the vote fairly and even-handedly.

In fact, the Speaker of the House has almost from the very beginning been a partisan office. With the emergence of the two-party system in the elections of 1796 and 1800, the Speaker began to be selected from the leadership of the larger of the two parties, and the partisanship of the office was accentuated during periods in which the Speaker was from a different Party from the President, and thus could cast himself as more of a "prime minister" -- a vision of the speakership recaptured most dramatically in recent years with Newt Gingrich's attempt to completely sideline Bill Clinton in 1995.

In the earliest Congresses, each legislative bill introduced in the House had a "floor manager," typically the Representative who had introduced the legislation; legislation was not seen as a partisan matter. Again, it was only with the solidifying of the two-party system in the early 19th century that the national Parties began to be seen as having coherent legislative agendas. During his various tenures as Speaker during the 1810s-20s, Henry Clay explicitly saw himself as responsible for pushing through his Party's legislative program. Thus in a functional sense, Clay became the earliest "House Majority Leader."

It was after the Civil War that the modern leadership system of the two parties gradually emerged. With the end of Reconstruction (1877), and the reemergence of the Democratic Party as a national force, the shifting minority party began to institutionalize the role of a head of the opposition, who was also a kind of "Speaker in waiting" -- waiting for his party to become the majority, that is. This was really a nascent "Minority Leader" position. This notion that the Minority Leader was a Speaker in waiting only made sense given that the Speaker of the House was the de facto "Majority Leader."

Yet even as the Speakers were quite clear that they were leading their party in House of Representative, there also remained the notion that the Speaker should be above his party, imposing his own political vision upon the whole House. This recuperation of the idea that the Speaker had a larger, more national and less partisan function was a natural byproduct of the extreme weakness of the Presidency in the late nineteenth century. (Can you name a single accomplishment of the Presidency during the twenty years that the office was occupied by Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison?)

But having the Speaker take on this larger, more statesmanlike function meant that the ruling party needed an actual floor leader, a true Majority Leader separate from the Speaker. Such a role emerged formally in 1899, when Speaker David B. Henderson, to uphold the noble fiction of his own nonpartisanship, designated Representative Sereno Payne to act as his "agent" on the House floor; the office of Majority Leader, separate from that of the Speaker, has existed ever since.

As for the Whips, here's a succinct take on their role:
Also in 1899, the Majority first chose a "Whip" (a term already, by then, of long use in the British Parliament, itself deriving from the term used to describe the man whose job it was, during a foxhunt, to keep the hounds from straying); the Minority followed suit toward the end of that same Congress (the 56th). The job of these Whips -- besides acting as floor leader in the absence of their respective Party's leader -- has traditionally been to keep his or her Party's leader apprised of who is -- and who is not -- toeing the Party line as a floor vote looms; Majority Whips tend to be of the same faction within the Party as the Majority Leader and Speaker (since it is the Majority that has the power to push through their legislative agenda: thus, everybody must be on the same "page"), while Minority Whips are often of a different faction of the Party than the Minority Leader.
This brief history helps us form a clearer picture of what is going on in the current Congress. First, we have Speaker Dennis Hastert (who by all reports is the dominant power in the House despite the fact that Tom DeLay gets more headlines), who represents and promotes an extremist Kinder, K├╝che, Kirche vision of America. Although, as Speaker, Hastert casts himself as an avuncular man who is above the partisan fray, he in fact eschews any notion that the Speaker should promote a bipartisan political vision. He has no interest in trying to work with the Democrats to achieve his goals; he simply want to sideline them.

Supporting him in this effort are House Majority Whip Roy Blunt and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the latter of which is by now well understood to represent an extremist and ethics-free position, but who as Majority Leader need make no apologies for his partisanship. As the duo charged with ensuring that the Republican Party votes as a unified bloc, these guys lead the "majority of the majority" faction of the Republican Party that believes their 27% has a mandate to do as they please. Their unprecedented ability to maintain voting discipline has allowed this faction to steamroll a extremist legislative agenda, even in the face of more than 2-to-1 national opposition -- ethics, science, fiscal sanity, majoritarian sentimentality, and liberal weenies be damned.

When you compare the unity and discipline of the Republicans' "majority of the majority" leadership to the leadership of the House Democrats, the difference could scarcely be more striking. As Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi (who represents San Francisco) duly takes as divisive a position nationally as Hastert does. However, the House Minority Whip, Steny Hoyer, represents a totally different Democratic faction from Pelosi.

In short, whereas the Democrats' leadership typifies their Party's sorry lack of discipline but salutary pluralism, the Republicans' leadership typifies its Party's monolithic, authoritarian salute-the-flaggism. That certainly makes the Republicans better suited to use political power to their advantage, but it certainly does not mean that they are doing what the majority of the country wants.

Republican math: 27% is a majority

The Democrats on the Hill are obviously more aware than anyone of the starkly partisan approach to legislation that the Republicans have honed over the last decade. But this WaPo article is nonetheless startling. Speaker Dennis Hastert has adopted a philosophy of governing that is explicitly dedicated not to passing legislation favored by the majority of the House, but by the majority of his party. Money grafs:

Some scholars say Hastert's decision should not come as a surprise. In a little-noticed speech in the Capitol a year ago, Hastert said one of his principles as speaker is "to please the majority of the majority."

"On occasion, a particular issue might excite a majority made up mostly of the minority," he continued. "Campaign finance is a particularly good example of this phenomenon. The job of speaker is not to expedite legislation that runs counter to the wishes of the majority of his majority."

Hastert has proven more effective than virtually any previous Speaker at enforcing party discipline during votes. As a result, he can essentially focus exclusively on the 229 (soon to be 233) Republicans: whatever the majority of the Republican caucus wants -- i.e. 115 (soon to be 117) congressmen -- becomes the legislative agenda, and the whole caucus is expected to fall into voting line. Insofar as this strategy succeeds, the Democrats can be completely ignored.

The functional result is that the legislative agenda is being effectively determined by 27% of Congress. Even where a vast majority of Congress -- say, the whole Democratic caucus and civic-minded Republicans -- support a given piece of legislation (as, for example, with the intelligence reform bill to enact the 9-11 Commission's recommendations), Hastert won't let it even come a vote if "the majority of the majority" (i.e. 27% of Congress) opposes the legislation.

Now, Hastert and the Republicans are playing by the rules, so the point is not that this approach to governing is anti-democratic in any procedural way. However, it is strongly anti-democratic in a functional sense; that is, it is an approach to legislating that is explicitly designed to prevent the enactment of legislation that the vast majority of Americans (or their representatives) want.

Given this context, there are two critical challenges for the party of opposition. The first is to find issues that expose this functionally anti-democratic tendency, and to make sure that the national press stays focused on these issues. The goal here is to expose how Hastert's 27% (i.e. 117 congressmen) is thwarting the will of 73% of the country. (I'm just guessing, but I have a feeling that social security "reform" (i.e. abolition) and the appointment of extremist judges will provide exactly such opportunities.)

As the first strategy succeeds, the second challenge is to undermine the solidity of the Republican voting bloc. Hastert can only get away with this approach to governing, after all, by getting the moderate members of the Republican caucus to vote in accord with the wishes of the extremist "majority of the majority." However, if the House Republicans are successfully exposed as the party of the extremist 27%, then the Republicans in more moderate districts will start to get scared that their voting record will alienate their constituents.

Here's where we as citizens can help. Bloggers (and the local press) should focus on the voting records of Republicans in moderate districts, showing how they are becoming the lickspittles of the wingjob "majority of the majority."

To help us in this effort, it would behoove the Democrats to get a list of Republican congressmen in districts that voted for Kerry, and to get the press to focus intensely on how they vote. (I was going to compile this list myself, but I haven't been able to find a record of presidential voting by congressional district for 2004. Does anyone knows where this data can be found? Maybe this is something the Center for American Progress can help with?)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Questions for Belgravia

Belgraviadispatch, with good reason, counsels that America's only option at this point in Iraq is to stay the course and add troops.

But I wonder, if Greg could turn back the clock to the Fall of 2002 -- knowing what we know now about the required troop commitments, which by his own testimony is 100-200K troops for the indefinite future -- would he still advocate the invasion?

Or does he have the honesty of Fukuyama, to admit that we made a horrible mistake, and that the 100-200K troop commitment is simply what is required to keep a terrible situation from turning into a world-historically-catastrophic one?

The CIA slaughter continues

Given that these guys have presided over the worst intelligence fuck-ups in the history of the discipline, it's hard to feel sorry for them as we watch Porter Goss take the axe to the Directorate of Operations at the C.I.A.

You've got to give Goss some leeway, since he is, after all, a spook himself, so presumably has some idea of the Culture of Spookdom. But still, two questions remain: a) does gutting the leadership make us less secure in the short run? and b) who's going to replace this leadership long-term -- and specifically, will it be partisan hacks or dispassionate career officers?

As laymen, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope.

Why Fukyama's apostasy matters

Fukuyama's statements are significant because he was one of the select few who signed the famous open letter to President Clinton in 1998, criticizing the Iraqi containment policy.

(This letter spurred Clinton to adopt "regime change" rather than "containment" as the official American policy stance toward Saddam's Iraq. Although Saddam had always been truculent with regard to the weapons inspectors, Clinton's policy change set off a chain reaction that by the end of that year witnessed Saddam kick out the inspectors altogether -- under the pretense that they were not simply "monitoring" weapons systems, but "spying" on behalf of people whose official policy was to bring him down.)

The signatories of this letter form a roll-call of the neocon A-team. Of the 18 signatories, half have received senior appointments in the Bush regime, becoming its leading hawks:
  • Donald Rumsfeld: Secretary of Defense
  • Paul Wolfowitz: Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • Peter Rodman: Assistant Secretary for International Security Affairs (Defense)
  • Dick Armitage: Deputy Secretary of State (recently resigned)
  • John Bolton: Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security
  • Paula Dobriansky: Under Secretary, Global Affairs (State)
  • Elliott Abrams: National Security Council, Mideast specialist (and, btw, a confessed Iran-Contra criminal)
  • Zalmay Khalilzad: U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2003-
  • Bob Zoellick: United States Trade Representative

The other signatories of the letter included former C.I.A. Director R. James Woolsey, Bill "Loose Change" Bennett, Jeffrey Bergner, Vin Weber, Robert "Martian" Kagan, Bill Kristol, William Schneider, Jr., Richard "Prince of Darkness" Perle -- and of course Fukuyama.

So far, Fukuyama is the only member of this cabal who has been intellectually honest enough to admit publicly the disastrous nature nature of what we have accomplished in Iraq. The only other one who's even come close is Kristol, though Kristol's critique is more about failed tactics than failed strategy.

Francis Fukuyama, on the need for accountability

Check out this great interview with neocon Francis Fukuyama, on how and why he voted the way he did in the presidential election:
I not only didn't vote Republican, I voted for John Kerry this time.... For me it was a big step. I didn't vote for Kerry with a great deal of enthusiasm because it seems to me that he had a lot of the problems that I associate with a certain kind of Democrat, but I did think that if public accountability was to mean anything that, you know, a President who presided over, I think one of the biggest policy fiascos we've gone through in my life time... you shouldn't be rewarded for it.
Fukuyama then explains why the fact that the electorate didn't hold Bush accountable will likely exacerbate Bush's worst failings as a leader:
If this kind of accountability doesn’t work then there won’t be any rethinking of things. I think the Republicans would have gone through quite interesting self-examination had Bush lost, and one of the things that I’m really worried about now is, given that the President does not seem to me to be a very reflective person in general, it’s very possible that he’ll take this as a mandate to simply do what he’s been doing without really reviewing his Cabinet and trying to go back and rethink things and ask where they’ve made mistakes or where they could have done better.
Fukuyama also provides a plain account of how the split between Europeans (and the anti-war crowd everywhere) and Bush-neocons perspectiveshared by much of the American population is at bottom related to a fundamental difference of opinion about what September 11 meant:

One of the things among the many chasms that has opened up between Americans and the rest of the world is the way the interpreted September 11. I think a lot of Americans really do believe that this is the beginning of an upward curve of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction, and the idea that you could sneak a nuclear weapon into Washington or New York and set it off is a very real fear.

Whereas I think most Europeans, they’ve seen terrorism before, it’s the IRA in London... and it’s a low level, it is just a nuisance, it’s not really a cataclysmic kind of attack.

And I honestly, I think it is not possible to say empirically which one is actually true but they justify very different kinds of policies and I think that a lot of Americans and a lot of people in the Bush administration made up their minds quite early that they were facing the much more severe form of it. Certainly it’s safer to operate from that assumption because you know the last thing you want to do is get that wrong and then suffer a catastrophic attack and then have the history books say that you were asleep at the switch when this horrible thing happened.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The definition of "doh!"

Karl Mayer explains who the real winner is in the Middle East over the last two years:

Of all the unforeseen consequences in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the most worrying is the war’s unbidden gainer: Iran. With its 180 million people and its all-but-open border with Iraq, Iran is now the region’s likely major power. The spread of jihadist turbulence through much of the Islamic world, from Indonesia to Bangladesh, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, has given the ayatollahs of Iran a strong strategic hand. Their authoritarian rule has prevailed at home, as their erstwhile challengers have lost control of Parliament and the re-form-minded president Mohammad Khatami is nearing the end of his constitutional second term. Abroad, as the spiritual homeland of the Shiite wing of Islam, Iran can speak for minority Shiites throughout the region, and in Iraq can plausibly expect a Shiite majority finally to attain power. American neoconservatives who foresaw the emergence of a stable, secular democracy in Iraq now face the likely reality of an elected Iraqi theocracy, tied by faith to that other charter member of the “axis of evil,” Iran.

In an in-depth report (September 4), the Economist, a pro-war British weekly finds that Tehran’s bravado has been heightened by the windfall of soaring oil prices (another byproduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom): “As the second-biggest exporter in OPEC, Iran has benefited hugely from the high oil prices of the past five years, with GDP growing at about 6 percent a year. The boom could hardly have been better timed. Every year since 2000, the labour market has had to accommodate some 1 million first-time job seekers. The government’s response has been to prop up loss-making factories, launch infrastructrure projects and dole out cash to private companies that hire workers. In this way, much oil wealth has been frittered away, but the spectre of mass unemployment has receded.”

So Iran wins, in an ironic echo of Noam Chomsky's modest proposal that if we really wanted to liberate the Iraqis, we should "encourage Iran to invade Iraq." (The Bushies surely get this on some level. They must be very pleased with themselves, watching how Iran, shocked and awed by American hard power, has timorously renounced its nuclear ambitions upon seeing what happened to Iraq when it produced and stockpiled WMDs. )

Our greatest worry now must be that the Bushies will see fit to use the political capital gained in their brilliant success in Iraq as the basis for proving their manhood by pushing onward to Tehran.

BTW, the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001 offered this definition of "Doh!":
Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned or that one has just said or done something foolish. Also implying that another person has said or done something foolish.
Uh, yeah...

The right to personal space

One of the key questions that Democrats need to think about is why the exurbs are so heavily Republican: 97 of the 100 fastest growing exurbs voted Bush this year. In thinking about this problem, I think it's worth doing a little David-Brooks-esque cultural analysis and stereotyping.

Here's the premise: there's something peculiarly American about wanting (in fact, feeling that you have the right) to have a lot of space around you. There are plenty of ways to observe this national trait. One microsocial way is by noting spatial etiquette in elevators or on subways. In Europe or Asia, if an elevator or subway is crowded, people jostle right up against each other. In the United States, people will pull themselves into the tightest possible wad to avoid touching each other -- and if you don't make that effort, it's considered invasive.

Or compare how the moderately wealthy prefer to live. In Europe (and even more in Japan), people prefer to live cheek-in-jowl, piled up on top of each other in dense cities. As they get richer, they tend to move closer to the city center. By contrast, in the U.S., central cities have become the exclusive domain of the poor, the young, and (on the coasts) the super-wealthy. For large swathes of America, the central icon of their materialist dreams is a McMansion on a quarter acre lot. (I'm thinking here of a friend of mine who just moved from a lovely two bedroom Pacific Heights apartment, to a 4000 square foot house in the San Antonio burbs, which he refers to as "his castle." When I asked him why he was doing this, he explained that he just didn't feel as if his family -- him, his wife, and their 20 month old -- could handle the cramped quarters in San Francisco. No criticism intended, but this perspective on space would be unintelligible to anyone but an American.)

The national preference for wide open personal space relates back to Aldous Huxley's famous observation that what Americans like about traveling in Europe is the high ratio of history to geography, whereas what Europeans like about traveling in America is just the reverse. It's also true that many Americans subscribe to a version of national identity with roots in homesteading -- hence the headline in the above-linked article refering to exurbs as "the New Frontier." (This New Frontier may not be quite what JFK had in mind, but it does have the virtue of being attainable on the planet Earth.)

What's interesting is that this attitude about personal space, which used to be an undifferentiated national trait, has now become part of the Red-Blue fault-line. On the one hand, if you live right on top of other people (i.e. in flats and apartments), it quickly becomes obvious that you need to have all sorts of regulatory apparatus in place to make the system work; the fantasy of total independence is unsustainable. On the other hand, someone with a big house, clear distance from his neighbors, a gun to defend it for himself, and an SUV to haul stuff onto and off of his patch feels like he's taking care of himself. When you live far enough from the next nearest folks that they can't hear it when you beat your kids, then it's somehow also easy to forget who paved the roads, who makes the water company keep your water clean, who prevents pharmaceutical companies from selling medicine that poisons you, who puts a $1200 check in the mail every month to your parents, who ensures that there are accurate ingredient labels on your food, who guarantees that you have Saturday and Sunday off of work, who insures your bank deposits and underwrites your mortgage, and who insists that telephone and mail service be available in the sticks at the same price as in the city.

In short, the sense of a right to private, personal space -- the right to your own independent chunk of sky -- represents a important, if little commented-on, cultural axis in the Red-Blue divide.

But what's most important for the Democrats to think about is how this faultline differs from the usual Red-Blue divider, namely religion. There's no real need to elaborate the distinction here, but I'll just note that what defines the open-spacers is their resolute desire to be left alone and to take care of themselves, to set their own agenda. Let's merely observe that the Religious Right is fundamentally unsympathetic to the core tenet of the "I want lots of space around me" members of the VRWC, namely that, "I have the right to do what I want in my castle."

The Democrats need to look for symbolic issues that will expose this faultline.

Wonks gone wild

My high school buddy Greg Djerejian has the goods on hard prose and soft power.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Bush: puppet or puppeteer?

In Bush's first term, much commentary, particularly left-leaning coverage, tended to represent him as essentially a dupe or figurehead for a cabal of neocon intellectuals (or sometimes simply Dick Cheney). This was essentially the perspective put forth by Michael Moore, and was also the subtext behind the Cheney blague that ran around after the 2000 election that "Bush is a heartbeat away from the Presidency." Even the right had a version of this perspective on Bush when it argued sotto voce during the 2000 campaign that, yes, Bush might be a lightweight, but at least he would be surrounded by a solid and experienced staff.

What a difference an election makes! The conventional wisdom now emerging, as far as I can tell, deems Bush the ultimate arbiter of power. Instead of weakling or puppet, he's now seen as a decision-maker so uninterested in alternative viewpoints (much less dissent) that the unifying theme of his second term appointments is loyalism. Bush's tight-fisted, even ham-fisted, desire for control is now the guiding meme.

Is it possible to reconcile these two views of Bush? One way to do so is to array the perspectives temporally: in other words, to suggest that while Bush in his first term (and particularly after 9-11) was a pawn both of events and of experienced advisors, things have changed: now, after four years in office, he's gained skills and confidence in his own judgment, and has reasserted the control due his office. Another way to do so is to separate the perspectives according to form and substance: in other words, in terms of the substance of his policies, Bush functions as a ring-bearer for agendas developed by others, but that in terms of the formal mechanisms of power and decision, Bush is entirely his own man, and very much in control.

Personally, I find the latter interpretation more plausible given what we know about Bush's background and character: a Gentleman-C party boy deeply in tune with the mechanics of the family business.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

NGOs as terrorist targets

Many people view the fact that organizations like the U.N., CARE International, or Medecins Sans Frontiers have become targets for terrorists as yet more proof of the ruthlessness of the terrorist enemy, and there's no doubt that that is the case.

But the evolution of terrorist tactics to attack these NGOs has not taken place in a vacuum, and indeed is in part a response to the Bush regime's own tactics, as this Economist article (password required) makes clear:

It was not until the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the UN and other aid agencies began to be deliberately hunted down. Mostly based in rich countries and funded by a mixture of independent charities sometimes with government help, they have come to be regarded by many of those who once relied on them as part of a western plot to subjugate the Muslim world--though more than half the beneficiaries of the UN and the ICRC are Muslims. The blurring of lines between humanitarian and military roles, with coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq perceived to be handing out baby food one day and dropping bombs the next, has not helped. Nor has President Bush's "you are either with us or against us" approach. As a result, say the aid people, the neutral "humanitarian space" in which they seek to operate has drastically shrunk. They are now regarded as semi-official distributors of western government relief rather than independent impartial agencies whose sole aim is to help those in need, regardless of politics, religion or ideology.
In other words, the rise of attacks on NGOs is another unintended consequence of extending the role of the military beyond its core competency of fighting wars.

The ultimate result is a "crowding out" of ideological alternatives on an international scale: just as an overly interventionist economic policies "crowd out" private sector investments and entrepreneurship, so overly aggressive military solutions "crowd out" third sector mechanisms for coping with international crises.

Mission Accomplished: Iraqi Children

I've got fairminded friends who favored the war because they believed it would relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. They pointed out, rightly enough, that the sanctions regime was causing great suffering among ordinary Iraqis, without compromising Saddam's hold on power. This was always the best argument in favor of the invasion (though perhaps a better argument in favor of simply ending the sanctions).

However, no matter how bad the sanctions regime was for the public health and welfare of ordinary Iraqis, it always seemed to me absurdly optimistic to think that Iraqis would be better off after being invaded and occupied by knee-jerk anti-statists. Part of my argument on this matter was that, as bad as things were in Iraq under the late Saddam regime, at least the situation was more or less stable, and that people had probably found as good an accomodation as possible with that situation. The inevitable chaos and uncertainty engendered by the overthrow of the old regime was bound to upset the delicate equilibria established by marginalized individuals.

Given all this reasoning as background, I wonder how my liberal hawk friends are feeling this morning as they read that acute malnutrition among young children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the United States invaded the country 20 months ago.

Friday, November 19, 2004

The Neocon schism: Fukuyama vs. Krauthammer

I’ve long been a fan of Francis Fukuyama, who first made his name with his seminal essay “The End of History,” which (in early 1989, before the Fall of the Berlin Wall) argued that the Cold War battle of ideologies had played itself out, and that, no matter what the protests from Beijing or Moscow, world elites had more or less settled on liberal democracy and capitalism as the proper way to organize modern political economies.

Both infuriating and provocative, Fukuyama’s essay was short on specifics, deliberately punting on the issue of “how much state” was really part of this so-called historical consensus. But his theory was only made more interesting by his book-length expansion of the topic which appeared four years later, and which revealed that Fukuyama’s reasoning had been built on top of a profound philosophical engagement with both a Hegelian view of history and a Nietzschean view of human psychology.

In the 1990s, Fukuyama emerged as the most thoughtful and profound of the neo-cons. This is what makes his rupture with the mainstream of that movement, over the wisdom of the War in Iraq, all the more startling. This debate has flowered (behind a password, alas) in The National Interest, one of the leading neocon organs. Specifically, the rupture began when Fukuyama took public issue with a speech given by another neocon light, Charles Krauthammer, at the American Enterprise Institute in February 2004. Fukuyama’s beef with Krauthammer was both over intellectual honesty and fundamental political theory. In terms of intellectual honesty, Fukuyama called Krauthammer’s speech “strangely disconnected from reality”:
Reading Krauthammer, one gets the impression that the Iraq War – the archetypical application of American unipolarity – had been an unqualified success, with all of the assumptions and expectations on which the war had been based fully vindicated… There is not the slightest nod… towards the new empirical facts.
That charge alone would have been enough to start a war with notoriously vituperative Krauthammer, but what Fukuyama said next was even worse. He explained that Krauthammer’s logic was
utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world… Of all of the different views that have now come to be associated with neoconservatives, the strangest one to me was the confidence that the United States could transform Iraq into a Western–style democracy and to go on from there to democratize the broader Middle East.
Fukuyama claimed that this perspective represented common sense: nation-building was incredibly difficult, as neocons had long argued, and that anyone reasonable could have predicted that things would go south trying to democratize and rebuild a state and society as traumatized as post-Saddam Iraq.

Krauthammer’s response was, predictably, explosive. The stakes were clearly huge, because Fukuyama was in essence attacking the very basis for the Iraq War, the results of which many neocons (probably correctly) consider will be a verdict on their entire worldview. Fukuyama, in other words was an apostate, a traitor, or (to use Krauthammer’s words) “bizarre,” “ridiculous,” “absurd,” “silly,” and “odd in the extreme.” Among Krauthammer’s many retorts, one of the nastiest was that Fukuyama was, in essence, engaging in Monday morning theorizing, or the intellectual equivalent of post facto CYA.

This claim is, however, simply not true. I’m currently reading Fukuyama’s excellent new book, State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 20th Century. Let me quote a few paragraphs from the first chapter, which was originally delivered as a lecture in February 2003 – i.e., on the eve of the Iraq War.

In this lecture, Fukuyama explained that successful transition to properly-scoped and efficient administrative governance usually comes about as a result of internal, domestic demand for such governance -- something Fukuyama was at pains to explain we cannot presume exists, despite Bush’s lofty claims about freedom being a “universal human hope.” On the contrary, demand for good government as often as not comes from external sources, i.e. from other countries. Sometimes these countries try to directly intervene in poorly-run countries to impose effective governance. Fukuyama continued:

This is what we label “nation-building.” An occupation authority obviously has much more direct leverage over the local country than does an external lender or aid agency working through conditionality. On the other hand, most nation-builders find that their ability to shape the local society is very limited as well. Moreover, most countries in need of nation-building are failed states or other types of postconflict societies with far more severe governance problems than the average recipient of a conditional loan.

If nation-building means the creation of self-sustaining state capacity that can survive once foreign advice and support are withdrawn, then the number of cases where this has happened successfully drops to a depressingly small handful. The most notable examples come from the history of European colonialism. The British above all succeeded in creating durable institutions in a number of their
colonies…

Fukuyama then debunked a notorious piece of American false political memory, namely the notion that the United States has amassed a successful track record of state- and nation-building. Fukuyama began by discussing post-World War II Japan and Germany, the examples most commonly cited as models for the nation-building we would emulate in postwar Iraq:
The United States is sometimes credited with successful nation-building in postwar Germany and Japan, where it was an occupying power. In terms of the administrative capacity that is the subject of this book, it is clear that nothing of the sort happened. Both Germany and Japan were very strong bureaucratic states long before the United States defeated them; indeed, it was the strength of their states that lef them to be great powers and threats to the international system in the first place. In both countries the state apparatus survived the war and was preserved into the postwar period with remarkably little changes. What the United States did successfully was to change the basis of legitimation in both cases from authoritarianism to democracy and to purge the members of the old regime who had started the war….
Having summarily (albeit obliquely) dispatched with Germany and Japan as relevant models for postwar Iraqi state-building, Fukuyama went in for the kill:
The United States has intervened and/or acted as an occupation authority in many other countries, including Cuba, the Philippines, Haiti, the Dominican Republican, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, South Korea, and South Vietnam. In each of these countries it pursued what amounted to nation-building activities—holding elections, trying to stamp out warlords and corruption, and promoting economic development. South Korea was the only country to achieve long-term economic growth, which came about more through the Koreans’ own efforts than those of the United States. Lasting institutions were few and far between.
We'll later get back to the substance of Fukuyama's argument -- which is basically correct -- but what I'd like to point out here is that Krauthammer is simply wrong to allege that Fukuyama did not warn before the war about the challenges the postwar would present.

Headline: Texas schools scrap 'cross-dressing' day

"It is outrageous that a school in a small town in east Texas would encourage their 4-year-olds to be cross-dressers,' Liberty Legal Institute attorney Hiram Sasser said."

Beyond parody.

Follow-up: the exit polls were onto something

We reported earlier that there was about a 4-in-a-billion (yes, billion) chance that the exit polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida could collectively have differed from the actual tallied votes as much as they did.

Well, here we may the beginning of an explanation, at least for Florida. The lede:
Researchers at UC Berkeley released a statistical analysis Thursday that shows, they say, that President Bush may have received at least 130,000 extra and unexplained votes in Florida counties that used electronic voting machines.
If this is true, it would not swing Florida into the Kerry column (he lost by 300K+ votes), but it would make the actual vote closer to the exit poll predictions, narrowing the probability that the discrepancy could have been random error from less than 3 in 1000 to merely 1 in 100.

I feel much better, don't you?

Clinton Got It

I was never a huge fan of Bill Clinton's, in large measure because I felt he lay down to the Republicans far too much. (How come the metaphors always seem to say too much when you write about that guy?)

But what no one doubts -- indeed, it's a cliche -- is that Clinton was a master politician. One example of that brilliance was his effortless ability to speak a language -- now seemingly absent from the front ranks of the Democratic Party -- that spoke to the Christian community. And he was able to do so not by embracing the cultural politics of hate and exclusion and intolerance, but by invoking that part of the Christian tradition that calls on the fortunate, as Clinton put it shortly before he retired: "to lift the fortunes and hopes of those who deserve a better hand than they have been dealt -- whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the inner cities or the Native American reservations... Christ admonished us that our lives will be judged by how we do unto the least of our neighbors."

George Bush quoted from this last sentence during his eulo--er, tribute to Clinton today, and it's an exact clue to how the Democrats ought to talk. The Democrats need to understand that to reach out to the Christian community, they need to speak to this part of their faith. Bush refers to his party's compassion; the Democrats actually stand for it. The difference boils down to one word: credibility. And that matters as much in Red states as in Blue ones.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

How deficits matter

Dick Cheney has been much-quoted (and much-excoriated) for claiming that, "Deficits don't matter." The quote never offended me, however, since I interpreted Cheney to be making a statement about the political impact of deficits rather than the economic impact of deficits. I agree with Jonah Goldberg that politically Cheney may well be right: voters can't tell the difference (and thus don't care) about whether the deficits are merely humongous or downright mind-boggling.

Whatever you make of this political argument, the economic consequences of our burgeoning millionaire-tax-cut deficit are becoming increasingly clear, as this Brookings study shows:
the sustained deficits facing the nation will impose significant economic costs.... The unified budget deficit over the next decade is projected to average about 3.5 percent of GDP.... Our results suggest that these deficits will reduce annual national saving by 2 to 3 percent of GDP. As a result, by the end of the decade, the assets owned by Americans will be lessened by roughly 20 to 30 percent of GDP compared to their level if we balanced the unified budget over the next decade. Those missing assets will reduce national income by 1 to 2 percent in 2015. The increase in unified deficits will raise interest rates by 80 to 120 basis points.
The key thing for the Democrats to emphasize is that the consequences of large deficits constitute, in effect, an undeclared tax on the wealth of the middle class.

The political question is whether Americans, four or eight years hence, will understand that the painful interest rates and inflation they will by then be experiencing are the result of the shameful tax policies that the Bush regime pursued in the first years of the twenty-first century. Democrats beware: Bush partisans are already hard at work on the Op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to cover up his responsibility for creating economic conditions very like the ones in the 1970s that brought us a devalued dollar, higher interest rates, higher inflation, and slower growth.

I have confidence that in the long run the right people will get charged the political bill for what's happening in this country. After all, Americans in the 1970s did (vaguely) recognize that the stagflation of that time was the direct result of the deficits run up during the heyday of the Great Society and the Vietnam War. The Republicans were able to exploit this awareness to foment a backlash against the welfare state. Here's hoping that the same will happen in reverse.

Bush's other GWOT: The Global War on Transparency

Gary Wills expresses very accurately the grave danger that the Bush regime's global war on transparency poses to our democracy:

A more serious way of keeping citizens out of the decision process is the modern cult of secrecy. We must, we are told, trust our leaders to make decisions we are not qualified to evaluate. Lyndon Johnson said that if we knew what he did, we would approve his actions in Vietnam—but we could not know. The information was "classified." When a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff criticized the preparations for the Gulf War, Secretary of State James Baker said his comments should be disregarded because he was no longer cleared to read the latest intelligence reports. If a man with those credentials is dismissed, how can humble citizen I or humble citizen you have any right to an opinion? Secrecy is a shield against every other authority or challenge....

Anything that might be embarrassing to a president is now treated as a national security issue—weakening him, it is said, will hamper his dealings with foreign powers. Unless we treat him as infallible, foes will see him as powerless. Since democracy is impossible without accountability, and accountability is impossible if secrecy hides the acts to be held accountable, making a just war may become impossible for lack of a competent democratic authority to declare it. A president who can make a war of choice, not of necessity, at his pleasure, on the basis of privileged information, treating his critics as enemies of the state, is no longer a surreal fantasy. (Italics added)


Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Why Kerry Lost: The Democratic Debate

Among Democrats there is an emerging and as-yet-unjoined debate over why Kerry lost the election. On one side, we see the Party establishment doing its favorite thing, namely excoriating the loser personally:

Too much credit is being given to President George W. Bush, and not enough blame is being placed at the foot of John Kerry. The time for biting our tongues is over, so let’s just say it: Kerry was a bad candidate. He was dealt an amazing hand -- a president who was elected without the popular vote, who oversaw the first net loss of jobs in 72 years, and who led the nation into a war under false pretenses -- and he blew it.

Part of the reason is that Kerry suffered from a horrendous case of senatoritis: pontificating instead of speaking, orating instead of communicating, and offering programs instead of a vision. His years in Washington also added to the sense that Kerry was part of a cultural elite that didn’t understand the concerns of middle America. (His snowboarding, windsurfing, and Hermes ties didn’t help, either.)

Come on: snowboarding? I don't ski myself, but snowboarding is definitely more populist than inline skiing, and it also has a younger and tougher image associated with it than George Bush's jogging and biking. And while Baer is on the right track when he refers to Kerry's tendency to have "plans" rather than "visions," that's a pretty rich charge coming from Al Gore's former speechwriter.

On the other side of the debate, we find a perspective on why the Democrats seemed incapable of articulating a coherent alternative to the Bush agenda:

If there is a real fault, and there is, it belongs primarily to the Democratic Party as whole. The mistakes of the Kerry campaign and his inability to bring over part of their America to our side had been well prepared by more than three years of Democratic retreat, led by Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, now both, thankfully, gone.

The Democrats' first enormous mistake was to collaborate in the Bush tax-cut legislation, despite opposition to some of its parts, and the refusal to use the Senate filibuster to stop this strategy of turning a huge surplus into an even greater deficit. The most ideological part of Bush's congressional supporters always understood what was at stake: if the money is "given back" it cannot be spent. This meant helping to further dismantle a welfare state already in sorry condition, but more important huge deficits block the opportunity for Democrats (which they had missed with Al Gore) to really offer to address the long unmet health, education, retirement and now even security needs of the population....

Unable to tax, Democratic efforts "to change the subject" back to the economy must fail. If you say how exactly you want to save social security, or improve health care, or even seriously improve public security against potential attacks, they will cynically ask where the money is going to come from. Of course they know the answer: the money was spent in advance on the tax cuts, quite deliberately, the political victims collaborated in their own victimization. The result is that Kerry could not offer concrete proposals that would simultaneously cut the deficit and provide much needed new programs.

This seems about right. The Democrats need to fight the battle of economic visions, and do it without shame. Most Americans know they're being screwed economically, that opportunities of "the ownership society" are for them more notional than real.

One piece of evidence that this is the correct strategy is to look at what Karl Rove considers the logical strategy for the Democratic Party, which is to wage what he calls "class warfare." That cynical phrase needs to be brought out in the open, to show how it comes from the party that seeks to destroy unions and impose more regressive tax policies, something along these lines:
"When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we won't let the rich rip off the poor. When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we're not going to let them cut taxes for millionaires while quote unquote expanding the tax base, which is just another word for taxing more of the middle class. When they say we're 'waging class warfare,' what they mean is that we're disgusted by corporate executives who get $100 million golden parachutes for screwing up their companies."

Ethics, Schmethics: DeLay to run House GOP while under indictment

The forthcoming indictement of Tom DeLay is, according to DeLay's whipping boy, "a totally a partisan exercise." No doubt they stack those Texas grand jury with Democrats.

Pot, let me introduce you to Kettle.

Where science doesn't help: the stem-cell research example

I've spent a lot of time outlining the anti-scientific agenda of the Bush regime and talking about the need to apply the scientific method to thinking about policy. But it's important to underscore that I do not believe that every political debate can be resolved by the careful application of the scientific method.

Since the French Revolution, there have always been intellectuals who believed (or at least hoped) that science could trump politics. Especially in the middle third of the twentieth century, there were many technocrats who believed that value differences were reducible to incongruences of knowledge and information. This, however, is sheer nonsense, and of the most dangerous sort. (Later on I'll be discussing the superb movie, "The Fog of War," as a brilliant expose of the danger of thinking that science and numbers can resolve ethical dilemmas.) So those of you who are suspecting me of promoting scientism, calm down: I'm on your side.

In this vein, I'd like to debunk what some on the left consider a prime example of the Republican's "anti-science" agenda: the stem-cell debate. Democrats have (with political wisdom) tried to use the stem cell issue as a wedge to highlight GOP extremism. And it's true that the stem-cell debate does reveal extremism; but it's just not an example of the "anti-scientific agenda" of the Bush regime.

Rather, it's an example of their extremism on the abortion issue. As anyone who is remotely moderate on this subject can acknowledge, "life" emerges gradually from the fertilized egg. At what point this emerging life becomes worthy of state protection is very hard to determine. However you feel about the stem-cell issue, and however you feel about abortion generally, the point is that scientific reasoning is useless in determining what the right policy should be. It's a purely ethical debate about where to draw the line between two different things that most Americans value: the right to control your own body, and the right not to be killed.

(A confessional point here: my wife is currently pregnant, just entering her seventh month, which is when the state I live in officially begins to protect the child. However, there is little doubt in my mind that it's been a number of months since there was something -- or rather, someone -- alive inside my wife. If last week my wife had exercised her legal right to have an abortion, it would certainly have been a gravely immoral act.)

What the stem-cell issue shows is that the people who oppose stem cell research consider life not to begin at some ambiguous point around quickening, but rather literally at conception -- even (the truly extreme position) where such conception happens in a petri dish. Even where there is great potential medical benefit to be gained by using cells harvested from the 5-day old fertilized eggs known as blastocysts, these extremists are more interested in protecting discarded embryos than they are in helping full-grown humans who are suffering and dying.

So yes, the stem-cell issue reveals extremism. But anti-stem-cellers aren't necessarily "anti-scientific." Rather, they hold an ethical position that no amount of scientific evidence can amend.

The Real Agenda: Rolling Back the New Deal

Jeffrey Rosen may overstate his case when he claims that the culture wars are a ruse in the Republicans effort to remake the Supreme Court. The real goal, according to Rosen is to reimpose

meaningful limits on federal power that could strike at the core of the regulatory state for the first time since the New Deal. These justices could change the shape of laws governing the environment, workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination, and civil rights, making it difficult for the federal government to address problems for which the public demands a national response.
It's a familiar argument: the "real" Republican agenda is rollback on the economic and regulatory safety net, and that the poobahs just use the cultural issues to get the benighted post-populist masses to vote "against their interests."

There's of course some truth to this perspective, but it misses the main point that Democrats need to get at. And that is that trying to get rid of OSHA or public education or the EPA or federally guaranteed pensions is, at bottom, a deeply immoral agenda. It needs to be described as such.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Blogging: cyberpopulism, or just decentralized elitism?

An excellent article on how the blogosphere works:

For salient topics in global affairs, the blogosphere functions as a rare combination of distributed expertise, real-time collective response to breaking news, and public-opinion barometer. What’s more, a hierarchical structure has taken shape within the primordial chaos of cyberspace. A few elite blogs have emerged as aggregators of information and analysis, enabling media commentators to extract meaningful analysis and rely on blogs to help them interpret and predict political developments....

Most bloggers desire a wide readership, and conventional wisdom suggests that the most reliable way to gain Web traffic is through a link on another weblog. A blog that is linked to by multiple other sites will accumulate an ever increasing readership as more bloggers discover the site and create hyperlinks on their respective Web pages. Thus, in the blogosphere, the rich (measured in the number of links) get richer, while the poor remain poor....

Consequently, even as the blogosphere continues to expand, only a few blogs are likely to emerge as focal points. These prominent blogs serve as a mechanism for filtering interesting blog posts from mundane ones.

In other words, the blogosphere mirrors the real world's stark differences between haves and have-nots. Thus, although the barriers to entry into the blogosphere are nonexistent, barriers to effectiveness outside the blogosphere are incredibly high.

It's all about your network effect.

Skunks cleaning the house at the CIA

Newly-installed DCI Porter Goss is conducting a thorough purge at the C.I.A. Given the catastrophic intelligence failures of the last few years, it's hard to argue that this needs to be done. Whether this purge results in a more effective intelligence apparatus depends, however, on who the replacements are. And this is where things get worrisome, given Goss's beholdenness to the Bush regime. Here's Josh Marshall on why we should be worried:
On every significant point of conflict between the Bush administration and the country's cadre of intelligence professionals, the Bush political appointees turned out to be wrong. Often very wrong, and with disastrous consequences. Sometimes the intel folks were wrong too; but when that was so, the appointees were always more wrong.

This is not argumentative or hyperbole or even up for much serious dispute.

And the upshot of all that we've seen, the result of all those struggles over the last three years is that the 'appointees' are purging the 'professionals'. Another way to put it is that the folks who were always wrong and often catastrophically wrong are rooting out the folks who were often right and sometimes somewhat wrong. The answer to politicized intelligence, it turns out, is a more thorough politicization of intelligence and the elimination of those who resisted political pressure.

If you think this is just a Washington squabble or political debating point you'd be mistaken. Because your lives, and those of your families and friends, may very well be on the line.

Scientific integrity in policy-making, Bush-style

Union of Concerned Scientists charge the Bush regime with intentionally disregarding scientific studies on a whole host of subjects. More than 5,000 liberal elites, including 48 Nobel Laureates and 62 National Medal of Science recipients, call for an end to such practices.

The Bush regime responds.

We report, you decide.

Social scientists weigh in on poll results

I haven't given much credence to the claims that Bush operatives rigged the election. The fact that the Kerry team chose not to contest the results seemed the best evidence that Kerry lost the election. Those guys were closer to the data, and had more invested in the results, than any of the rest of us.

However, there remains a serious conundrum: why did swing state exit polls -- which in general are an extremely reliable predictor of election results -- showed Kerry so far ahead early on, only to see him lose?

So far this topic has been the subject, mainly, of rumor-mongering and innuendo -- a typical result of poor data and lack of methodlogical rigor. On the left we've heard people blathering on about how Bush rigged the election in advance, or bugs in electronic voting machines, or what have you. On the right we've heard anti-scientific snarks about being unable to rely on "experts" and statistics.

Now the social scientists are starting to weigh in, showing just how strange the divergence between the exit polls and the final results really were. Money graf, refering to Ohio:
Given that the exit poll revealed that Kerry received 52.1% of the vote, we are 95% sure that the true percentage he received was between 49.8% and 54.4%. And because half of the 1 in 20 cases that fall outside the interval would be high rather than low, we're 97.5 percent sure that the true percentage he received was at least 49.8%. We are 99.5% sure that the true percentage he received was at least 49.2%. It turns out that the likelihood that he would have received only 48.5% of the vote is less than one in a thousand.

Moreover, the probability of the divergence that took place in Florida was less than 3 in 1000 and in Pennsylvania the likelihood of the divergence was less than 2 in 1000. As the article concludes, "The odds against all three [of these divergences] occurring together are 250 million to one."

250 million to one? In other words, there's basically no chance that this was a random skew.

So what happened? Did the polling samples overrepresent women (tendential Democrats)? Were Republican voters less willing to be interviewed? Did the poll-takers express a systematic partisan bias (i.e. prefering to interview people wearing Kerry/Edwards buttons to those wearing Bush/Cheney buttons)? Were early/absentee voters much more heavily pro-Republican than usual? Also: why were the exit polls accurate on almost everything except the Presidential tally? And why were the divergences much higher in swing states than in non-swing states?

The truth is, we really don't know what happened. Like the author of the paper, I'm not suggesting that Bush stole the election. But there's certainly a problem here that needs explaining.

The Democrats' opening with the evangelicals

The Democrats should carefully consider the political implications of this evangelical's critique of Bush's foreign policy:
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush was even bolder, speaking of "our responsibility to history," namely, "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil" (emphasis added). Even if, as sinners go, we are relatively good, to assert that we can actually rid the world of evil is superhuman—the very antithesis of humility. Perhaps we could forgive President Bush and his speechwriters for misspeaking in the heat of the moment, but he made a similar point in his 2002 West Point commencement address, where he promised to "lift this dark threat from our country and from the world." Why not simply identify and resist evil wherever it appears, recognizing that it is part and parcel of our fallen human condition? After all, in his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that in "every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom," which suggests that the struggle against evil is unending.
Accepting the limits of human capacity in this world is indeed a religious (and moral) insight -- one rejected only by the children of the Jacobins, of the Bolsheviks, and of the 1960s. It is also the foundation of a successful strategy to combat the enemies of human decency who struck us on 9-11.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Knowing the score

Josh Marshall makes a similar point to the one with which I kicked off this blog, namely that the Democrats need to clarify what they believe the country ought to be all about. Success will come not from aping the Republican message, but from defining in clear terms what the Democrats stand for. Here's Josh:

Democrats don't do anywhere near as good a job [as Republicans] at telling a story with their politics.

If you want an example think of a movie with great acting and set-design but no discernible plot.

Yes, you're for this and that policy and you have this, that and the other plan. But what story or picture does it all amount to? What things does it say are important and which things less important? What does it all amount to in terms of who we are as Americans and who we want to be?

I think I can tell you what the Republicans are for and without referencing hardly any policy specifics. They're for lowering taxes in exchange for giving up whatever it is the government pretends to do for us, (at a minimum) riding the brakes on the on-going transformation of American culture, and kicking ass abroad.

That’s a clear message and a fairly coherent one, whatever you think of the content --- it’s about self-reliance and suspicion of change. And Democrats have a hard time competing at that level of message clarity.

Josh goes on to describe the Democratic message as being like an opera with a great libretto but a lousy score. That's about right.

In terms of what I think the plot or the score ought to be, I've already said my piece: it ought to be about painting a picture of the country as an inclusive and open society rooted in a reverence for the scientific, Enlightenment ideals of the founding fathers.

Help Wanted: a Democratic elevator pitch

Earlier I wondered why the Democrats, despite having a lock on the best minds in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, have consistently been outspun by the Republicans. I think the explanation must be that politics isn't about packaging, but rather about salesmanship -- and while marketing may be the domain of Democrats, sales is the domain of Republicans.

One of the things that salespeople work on relentlessly is coming up with a good "elevator pitch" for the product they sell. An elevator pitch is called that because it should be short enough to deliver on an elevator ride between floors when someone you've never met asks you, "What does your product do?" In no more than three sentences, an elevator pitch is supposed to explain what the product does, who it's for, how it's different from the competition, and the benefit a customer can expect to get from buying the product.

Coming up with a good elevator pitch is a painful exercise, especially when you work on a complex product that has many possible uses, that costs a huge amount of money, and that people have highly varying degrees of satisfaction with. People with a mind for complexity and nuance generally loathe the elevator pitch exercise, which is by its nature reductionist. But coming up with a good elevator pitch is essential to marketing and selling a product: it's the core proposition that everything else you say and do harkens back to, the anchor of your entire messaging strategy.

The Republicans have done a far better job than the Democrats of coming up with an elevator pitch for their party. Josh Marshall provides a good rendition of what the Republican elevator pitch might be: "They're for lowering taxes in exchange for giving up whatever it is the government pretends to do for us, (at a minimum) riding the brakes on the on-going transformation of American culture, and kicking ass abroad."

The product may lousy, but that's a good elevator pitch. And as anyone who knows anything about sales knows, it's not always the best product that wins.