Friday, April 29, 2005

Stage vs. Reality in the GWOT

Remember the stories about how Enron set up a fake boiler room that it used on guided tour for investors, to show that sales were booming?

Well the military under Ken Lay's former best friend may have been doing something similar, this time to fool members of Congress into thinking interrogations at Guantanamo were producing something useful.

The fruit of the GWOT: global terrorism increases

Any rightwingers want to comment on the terrorism statistics released Wednesday? 2003 saw 175 incidents that killed 625, whereas 2004 witnessed 651 such attacks that killed 1,907. Mission Accomplished!

Actually, it's not hard to guess the spin that the wingjobs will put on these facts. They'll argue two contradictory things. First, they'll argue that you can't really compare the two numbers because the methodology for counting terrorist attacks has changed. Second, they'll say that this proves we need to double-down on our current bets, that the need for a full-frontal assault on terrorist states is clearly greater than ever. Since they obviously would also have taken credit if the terror statistics had decreased, this is clearly nothing more than the usual heads-we-win-tails-you-lose intellectual style the pro-GWOTters have taught us to love.

But the fact is, global terror is on the rise on Bush's watch. There's the legacy, baby.

"Yosemite Sam" Bolton

More people coming out the woodwork to testify that Bolton punishes dissenters. Then again, if punishing dissent is a crime, then most of the Bush team needs to go. Call it the Ann-Coulterization of the rightwing political culture, where the distinction between dissent and treachery is aggressively denied.

Housing bubble

Mike Davis offers an ominous article (does he write any other kind?) on the Great American housing bubble. As a San Francisco homeowner, this is a topic of considerable personal interest and anxiety. Based on quick tours of local open houses from the last few weekends, however, I sure don't see much evidence to support Davis's claim that "the bubble has already burst in San Francisco."

Although I don't doubt that we are in the middle (or perhaps at the end) of a housing bubble, it's not clear to me that the housing bubble will necessarily unwind with a massive bust. It's certainly possible that it will unwind not through a crash in nominal prices, but rather via a sustained period of nominal-price stagnation, perhaps twinned with a new permissiveness toward inflation. These quibbles aside, Davis's diagnosis of the relationship between the twin deficits (trade and budget) and the housing and asset bubbles is clearly correct.

The point of this post, however, is not to discuss the economics of the housing bubble, but rather to make an observation about the political geography of the housing bubble--something I haven't seen discussed much elsewhere. Start with an interesting observation: if you go down the list of cities usually mentioned as sitting on the outer edge of the housing bubble (places like Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Boston, Las Vegas, Miami, etc.), it's striking to note that these cities are all Democratic strongholds. By contrast, if you go down the list of strongly Red cities (e.g. Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Charlotte, etc.) there's been very little housing inflation.

Curious, no?

One of the few articles I've seen that tries to interrogate this odd conjuncture appeared a couple months back in the American Conservative. In this article, Steve Sailer noted that, "Bush won the 26 states with the least inflation in housing prices between 1980 and 2004" and that instead of looking the Red-Blue split as a rural-urban split, "there's a far better fit between Bush's share of the vote and lack of real estate inflation." Sailer concludes that, "While the arrow of causality no doubt points in multiple directions, it's plausible that the price of a house with a yard can sometimes make the difference between whether or not young adults start down the road to marriage, children, and voting Republican."

Then Sailer's argument takes a different turn. Although he argues that "the Law of Supply and Demand" (note the obeseiant capitalization) explains the divergence of housing market bubbliness, his analysis focuses almost exclusively on the supply variable. Like most Red-versus-Blue state analysts, he places a comparison of Texas and California at the center of his argument, with Houston and San Francisco taken as the emblematic cities. Cities like San Francisco, he argues, simply have nowhere to expand. (What places there are to expand into are less naturally attractive than the urban center. As I say, "flyover country begins at the Altamont Pass.") By contrast, Sailer argues, "in comparison to California, the immense eastern half of Texas is all about equally mediocre. Unlike the western half of Texas, it has enough water and the climate is survivable with air conditioning, but that's about all you can say for it (other than there is some pleasant hill country around Austin, which, not surprisingly, is the scenic blue dot in the middle of the broad red plains of Texas.)"

No doubt there's something to Sailer's argument. Places like San Francisco and Manhattan have nowhere to expand but up, and that's a more expensive proposition than expanding out into as-yet-minimally-developed ranchland. But what's curious about Sailer's argument is that even though he bows furiously at the supply side of the equation, he almost doesn't mention the demand side at all. In fact, a major reason why places like New York and San Francisco have been bid up furiously, whereas places like Houston have not, is that places like New York and San Francisco are exceedingly nice, whereas places like Houston really are not. And in fact, given the politics of the people who live in places like Houston, these places are continuously getting worse (e.g., more and more polluted, fewer and fewer social services), which has helped to keep demand in check. By contrast, the politics of places like New York and San Francisco (encouraging tolerance, diversity, etc.) ensure that these cities are continuously getting nicer, thus driving demand (and prices) ever higher.

At least, that's one interpretation.

Let me make another (somewhat contradictory) observation, which relates to John Jay Chapman's bon mot that "politics is organized hatred." Could it be that the reason that the Bush regime has allowed housing prices to be driven sky-high in the Blue cities is that they don't care about the eventual pain that the crash will cause in those places? The way they look at it, there's been some moderate housing inflation in their favorite towns, which is all to the good, and if those liberals have allowed themselves to get worked up into a frenzy, well, they'll get what's God's got coming to them.

Actually, I don't believe this, because I think the idiots running Bush's economic policy really believe that there's no such thing as a bubble. It's all politics to them. The way they actually look at it, I suspect, is that they've got the liberals on the run into a few enclaves on the Coast, and if the liberals want to bid up the prices there to get away from the Great Red Masses, well, screw 'em.

No Child Left Behind

I didn't listen to Bush's whole press conference yesterday, but in the one snipet I did hear, I was surprised to find myself in profoundly agreement with Bush:

I know some people are trying to unwind No Child Left Behind. You know, I've heard some states say, Well, we don't like it.

Well, you know, my attitude about no liking it is this: If you teach a child to read and write, it shouldn't bother you whether you measure. That's all we're asking.

The system for too long had just shuffled children through and just hoped for the best. And guess what happened? We had people graduate from high school who were illiterate. And that's just not right in America. It wasn't working.

And so I came to Washington and worked with both Republicans and Democrats -- this is a case of where bipartisanship was really working well -- and we said, Look, we're going to spend more money at the federal level.

But the federal government only spends about 7 percent of the total education budgets around the country.

But we said, Let's the change the attitude. We ought to start with the presumption every child can learn. Not just some. And therefore, if you believe every child can learn then you ought to expect every classroom to teach.

I hear feedback from No Child Left Behind, by the way, and admittedly I get the cook's tour sometimes. But I hear teachers talk to me about how thrilled they are with No Child Left Behind. They appreciate the fact that the system now shows deficiencies early so they can correct those problems.

The Republicans have gotten out in front of the Democrats on education, no question about it.

Personally, I'm also not against vouchers, I must say, if they were implmented with certain clear provisos: (1) they should be portable across school-district lines; (2) all school districts should provide the same amount; and (3) they should not be portable to schools that promote a specific religious faith.

The first two provisions would render school districts into bureaucracies geared exclusively at managing and defining curricula, rather than a mechanisms for hiving off rich kids from poor. The last provision is to ensure the constitutionality of the vouchers (state funding of parochial schools being an unambiguous example of the government making a law with respect to "an establishment of religion"). If vouchers were instituted along with an across-the-board 40 percent pay raise for all teachers, and a rigorous program of testing and evaluation, it would do this country a world of good. Sadly, however, there is broad bipartisan opposition to this good sense.

Bush's legacy

So Bush finally takes off the mask, and as he does so, the shape of his legacy is becoming clearer. On the economic side, it will be massive cuts in the country's social insurance program; massive economic restratification (via abolition of the estate tax); and a couple trillion added to the deficit (possibly setting up a massive bout of inflation, or a devaluation of the dollar, or both). On the social policy front, the jury is still out on how successful he will be, but he seems set to at least try to inscribe Christian fundamentalist tenets into the country's basic law. And on the foreign policy front, he will be largely remembered for his quixotic effort to institute a new "Bush doctrine" of preemptive war -- with a quagmire in Iraq as its main fruit (keep in mind that Afghanistan was not the fruit of the Bush doctrine, having taken placed before the doctrine was promulgated).

Thursday, April 28, 2005

More elevatoring pitching

Back in February, a few folks responded to my call for a good Democratic elevator pitch... but then my son went and got himself born the next night, and I never got around to responding.

Now Kevin Drum has made a similar call for ideas, and predictably gotten a few more responses than I did. (Oh, to be among the blogopshere gliterati!)

My own revised suggestion, in part based on the comments I got earlier, is that the basic principles of a revitalized liberalism should be to

  1. keep the government out of my private life
  2. promote a level playing field
  3. build alliances to stop terrorism, global epidemics, and other international scourges

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

"The smell of napalm in the morning" Dept.

The GOP ignominiously retreats on the changes it made to the ethics rules to protect its sleaziest members, above all, Tom DeLay.

With that said, I still have to agree with Kevin Drum and Jonathan Alter that the smartest thing the Democrats can do is keep DeLay twisting in the wind for as long as possible: the Democrats should do everything they can to make the midterms a referendum on the Bug Man's America. Let's investigate this guy to death.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to blog yesterday, but I remember thinking how odd it was that the press was buying the President's line that his plane ride with the Bug Man was meant as a show of support for his embattled Majority Leader. For me, though, I couldn't help but wonder if the real conversation that Bush planned on reminding DeLay about Pentageli's explanation to Tom Hagen in The Godfather, Part II, about how goodfellas sometimes have to go home and take a hot bath....

And indeed, today, less than twelve hours after President's "show of support" for the Bug Man, the GOP retreats on the ethics issue, which likely spells a political death sentence for DeLay....

Monday, April 25, 2005

Fisking Friedman

Crooked Timber has a hilarious parody of Thomas Friedman. The mockery is well-earned, but still, by the time you can get parodied, it also means you've found a voice -- annoying though that voice may be.

Ranking the Senate

Here's a useful ideological stack-ranking of the 108th Senate.

The Arafat of Midland, Texas

Don't miss this fascinating article on how Bush is radically changing his personal style toward Congress in his attempt to persuade them to abolish Social Security.

Say what you will about the substantive merits of abolishing Social Security, what this article shows is Bush's flexibility as a politician. In his first term, with the Republican ideological movement at its most unified and forceful, Bush laid his proposals on the table and told Congress, in so many words, "I'm not here to debate you." Bush recognized when it came to things his Party was unified around and knew how to sell to its constituents -- such as appropriations for wars of choice (a "war on terror"!) or tax cuts for the rich ("middle-class tax cuts"!) -- it made no sense to engage in consulting sessions: one could get a lot more done by simply giving firm orders. He expected the rubber stamp, and he got it

But now that he's pushing himself and his Party into doing things that the vast majority of the country opposes, like abolishing Social Security and an independent judiciary, Bush is proving himself capable of (at least attempting) the art of persuasion. In short, in addition to being able to strongarm people, it turns out that he's also capable of wheedling and cajoling.

There's a couple ways to look at what this tells you about Bush as a leader and as a human being. First, you can look at it in a positive light. While no one's ever going to claim Bush is the sharpest ax in the shed, he is also undeniably a shrewd political operator, capable of taking different approaches to different problems. He's not simply a hammer who only sees nails in the world, but in fact has a number of political tools on his belt. It shows he's flexible.

The flip side (or rather, the "flip-flop" side) of that flexibility is that compromising with Bush is idiotic. Bush considers a conciliatory attitude -- like the one the Democrats had in much of the first term with Bush -- an invitation to executive imperiousness, an open offer to let him (very literally) lay down the law. He sees people who come to the table willing to negotiate as weaklings who can and should be told what to do. On the other hand, if you stand firm against the guy, then it is he who adopts the compromising, flexible attitude.

In the hood, there's a term for people who behave like this. To paraphrase Bush's momma, it rhymes with rich.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's personal...

I just spoke with one of my closest friends. It turns out that the soldier killed yesterday morning in Iraq (mentioned in the story I linked to this morning) is his brother-in-law: "In al-Haswah, west of Baghdad, a U.S. soldier assigned to the 155th Brigade Combat Team, II Marine Expeditionary Force was killed when a roadside bomb exploded Saturday near the convoy in which he was traveling, the U.S. military said."

My heart goes out to his wife and child. I'm too upset to say anything more about it right now.

Smoking gun on DeLay

Turns out that DeLay's golf trip to Scotland was paid for by a lobbyist's credit card. That's not even ambiguous.

Bush vindicated in Iraq?

There he goes again, crowing at the dawn.

Meanwhile, Fox News's lede on what's actually happening in Iraq is, "Insurgents executed a number of attacks across Iraq on Saturday, with bomb blasts killing at least 16 people, including an American soldier."

Those incorrigibles over at Fox; I guess they must have joined the vast left-wing conspiracy.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Rove on the free press

At least as his views are presented in this article, Karl Rove is absolutely right about what's gone wrong with the media in this country, especially in his claim that the media are "less liberal than... oppositional." He's also right that the deadline pressures created by excessive for-profit competition leads media outlets to focus on the negative and the conflictual, and to fail to be sufficiently factually rigorous.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The epistemology of Iraq

The London Review of Books has a great article by Rory Stewart on how impossible it is for foreigners to really know what is going on in Iraq. The situation is just too chaotic, too dangerous, too complex and too fluid for any outsider to comprehend, much less control. Along the way, without ever arguing the point explicitly, Stewart renders absurd the notion that Iraq would serve as a blueprint for democratization elsewhere, or that anyone outside Iraq can claim positive credit for what is going on there.

If Bob Dylan was certainly right to admonish the rebels of the 1960s, "Don't criticize what you don't understand," then the parallel lesson for the pro-war sorts is that you shouldn't take credit for what you can't comprehend.

Hat tip: WAB.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

It's the sleaze, stupid

I'm surprised we haven't heard more about this exchange last Sunday between Steny Hoyer, the House Minority Whip, and the Roy Blunt, the House Majority Whip, on the three rebukes Tom DeLay received last year from the House Ethics Committee. Here's Blunt being, well, blunt:
This idea that Tom DeLay was admonished by the Ethics Committee, that's not even something available to the Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee is supposed to say you violated the rules of the House or you did not. They're not supposed to say publicly: You're too close, we think you should be more careful about the rules. That's why the rules, that's why the lines are drawn where they are. This has never been a committee that evaluated how a member acted within the rules, and in fact, by saying you're not over the line but we think you're a little close, they're actually saying you're in the rules of the House.
Leave aside the amazing suggestion that some conclusions of the Ethics Committee should not be aired "publicly." What Blunt's statement mainly shows is a total misunderstanding of (or perhaps brazen contempt for) what ethics are all about.

If we were talking about law, then Blunt's position would make sense: in criminal law, either you are guilty or you are not guilty -- it's binary. But in the case of DeLay's behavior in the House we are not talking about criminal violations (although a criminal spectre does hang over Delay's behavior back home in Texas); what we're talking about are ethical violations. And in ethics, in addition to black and white cases, there are all sorts of shades of gray. Those areas of gray constitute the great realm known colloquially as "sleaze."

If there's one thing we learned from the Clinton years, it is that once you try to wriggle out of ethics questions by referencing legal niceties, you have already crossed the point of ethical no return.

Ringing endorsement for Bolton

Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson gets quoted in the New York Times today, stating the following about our soon-to-be-confirmed U.N. ambassador, John "10 stories" Bolton:
"Under Secretary Bolton was never the formidable power that people are insinuating he was in terms of foreign policy, or blocking the policies that Secretary Powell wished to pursue.... But do I think John Bolton would make a good ambassador to the United Nations? Absolutely not.... He is incapable of listening to people and taking into account their views. He would be an abysmal ambassador."

"'It reminded me of 'Lethal Weapon."

Check out this riveting description of a recent battle in Iraq, won decisively by the Marines. Yes, we won this fight, but reading this description, it seems pretty uncertain to me that the enemy is nearly as demoralized as our political leadership maintains.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The "temporary" suspension of civil liberties in a war without end

A key argument that the Bush regime's defenders have made in favor of keeping captured terrorist suspects under indefinite lock and key is that (to quote Richard Samp of the Washington Legal Foundation, which has filed briefs on behalf of the Bush regime), "At the beginning of World War Two nobody knew how long that war might continue. Yet we never decided to allow German POWs to go free simply because they might be serving an indefinite sentence. At some point the war will be over. It will not go on forever."

At "some point" the GWOT will end... but under what circumstances? This is question which has hardly be asked, and certainly has not been answered, not least by those promoting the war. This is a point Steven Bodzin made with devastating wit in this weekend's San Francisco Chronicle:

I wanted to know what constituted the administration's vision of victory in the

So I dug up tens of thousands of pages of strategy objectives from government agencies and think tanks filled with negative goals like "disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations," "conquer this enemy" and "defeat the forces of evil wherever they are."

But a definition of victory was nonexistent. Even the word "victory" was surprisingly rare in the documents of the National Security Council, the CIA, the State Department and the FBI. Dozens of online databases, articles and speeches brought me no closer to discovering the war's goal.

Then, late one night, I thought I had it. Plowing through Acrobat and PowerPoint files in the government's vast network of Web sites, a search for the words "victory" and "war on terror" led me to a 30-page booklet titled "The National Strategy for Combating Terrorism."

It too crackled with negatives: "Interdict and disrupt material support for terrorists." "End the state sponsorship of terrorism."

One tantalizing subsection was labeled "Victory in the War against Terror. " But it proved to be a tease -- just two paragraphs, the first warning that victory would take a long time, the second instructing readers to remain vigilant.

Then, I turned to page 13. That's when I thought I had finished my quest. It was a printout of what looked like three PowerPoint slides bearing the kind of bold arrows used on World War II maps to show troops sweeping toward victory. But rather than marching across a physical landscape, these arrows pushed to decreasing levels of terrorist activity.

The page also included a goal: If all went well in the GWOT, terrorists would become unable to operate across borders, unable to communicate and less able to kill. Al Qaeda would still exist but be rendered "Unorganized. Localized. Non-sponsored." Terrorism would be "returned to the criminal domain."

The caption on this grand endpoint was not "Victory Over Terror." Instead, it was labeled with a term more often seen in hard-drive installation manuals: "Desired Endstate."

As in that great British battleship, Desired Endstate. Or the battle cry, "Desired endstate or death!" As in D-E Day. The diagram was interesting, but I needed to know if this Desired Endstate was official policy and just how "unorganized, localized and non-sponsored" terrorism would have to be for us to celebrate D-E Day. Whoever drew the diagram, I thought, would have the answers.

Bodzin then gets the run-around from the State Department, the NSC, and the CIA, before giving up on the government bureucracy and turning to what you would think would be a better bet, the pro-GWOT pundits.

I found a collection of them at an organization called Americans for Victory Over Terrorism.

Its Web site includes an article by novelist Mark Helprin called "A Strategy for Victory in the War on Terror." Perfect. Except that nowhere in the piece does he provide readers with a vision of our world after the war. Instead, he focuses on process. Steps, then more steps, but no end in sight.

Michael Ledeen, co-founder of Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, is also a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. In his 2002 book "The War Against the Terror Masters," he called for war with Iraq, Iran or any other country that supports terrorism. He often appears on talk shows defending administration policies. If anyone could describe victory, I thought, he could.

I called and explained my quest. He responded with a scoff, "Pfft. The goal? You wouldn't be saying that if you had a daughter in Baghdad." I wasn't quite sure what to make of that, but assured him I wanted terrorists gone as much as anyone. My question was: What would the world look like then?

"There won't be people blowing us up," he said. "They won't have a nation- state supporting them. That's very important."

"How will we know when we're getting close to victory?"

"We'll start seeing defectors," he replied. "It will be all the usual signs when someone's getting ready to lose a war. A drop in morale, recruiting getting more difficult. You'll see their followers throwing down their weapons, giving up."

Have we really burned through our treasury, devastated civil liberties and killed thousands of people to diminish the morale of suicide bombers?

Ledeen told me to look at the president's second inaugural speech. Bush said, "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." So GWOT is valiant and vague. Does Russia count? How about Venezuela?

Bush's inaugural imprecision epitomizes the armchair-warrior class. Sept. 11 inspired brave rhetoric, but the armchair warriors' idea of resolution is as vaporous as their destructive fantasies are cold steel. If they won't tell us what the desired endstate is, there's no way for us to gauge our trajectory to victory.

As many commentators have observed, although the GWOT being represented and to some extent fought as a conventional war, in fact it is a "war" only in the same metaphoric sense that Reagan's "War on Drugs," or Johnson's "War on Poverty" were wars -- in other words, all of these are wars not against an an enemy that can be defeated, but rather against a condition that can never be completely palliated.

One major difference between terror and say, poverty or drug use, however, is that terror is something that can happen to nice rich white folks in the suburbs, even though they do nothing to bring it on themselves. In this sense, the personal fear factor associated with terrorism is for the typical American voter much higher than that associated with poverty or drug use. At the same time, it's precisely this inability to personally ward against terrorism that makes its specter so perfectly designed to create a pemanent siege mentality -- a mentality exploitable by the political powers that be to provide justification for continued rule even as they massively mismanage the economy and the budget, disfigure the environment, and attempt to impose nauseating social mores on the country.

With all that said, I think Bodzin overstates his case. One might reasonably answer "Yes" to his rhetorical question, "Have we really burned through our treasury, devastated civil liberties and killed thousands of people to diminish the morale of suicide bombers?" As Susan Sontag rightly if impoliticly pointed out in the New Yorker just a few days after 9-11, "whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards." With that in mind, attempting to break the morale of America's enemies to the point where they are incapable of actions like 9-11 is an undeniably worthwhile goal for our foreign policy. A better point to make, therefore, is that the tactics that the Bush regime has adopted to achieve this goal have been abysmal failures, if not downright counterproductive.

Then again, Bodzin is right to point out the vagueness (not to say vacuousness, or downright bullshit) of the "goals" set forth in Bush's second inaugural. And this, in turn, brings us back to all these accused terrorists that were are holding indefinitely. If victory is defined as the time at which tyranny has been extinguished from this earth, and if these "detainees formerly known as POWs" are to be held until that time... then does anyone think they will ever be let out? The failure to define unambiguous terms for victory (or defeat) in the GWOT exacerbates the dire civil liberties implications of the Bush regime's prisoner detentions.

Toward a Democratic majority

As usual, Josh Marshall makes just the right point about what the Democrats need to do to get back to the majority. The first thing they need to is to stop strategerizing and tactifying, and remind themselves that doing what's good for the country -- doing what's right -- should be the primary driver behind political decisions, and should only be strayed away from in extremis. Money:

When it comes to strategy and tactics, the current Democratic party is like a drunk in the early stages of recovery or a man or woman who keeps ending up in the same bad relationship again and again with different people. For folks like that, strong medicine is required. Indeed, they usually require steps, correctives, lists of dos-and-don'ts more drastic than anybody would ever need who didn't have a problem.

Today we hear Democrats asking whether they should take a hard line on Social Security or a soft line, stand in opposition or come up with a contending plan. Here's what I propose whenever Democrats have a question about just what stance to take on the Social Security debate.

One question...

What is the actual policy outcome that would be most preferable on Social Security (to protect, preserve or augment it -- whatever) and how important is it that it take place in this Congress?

That's the first, second and third question.

That answer should drive everything else.

What he said.

Of moral clarity and flip-floppery

Michael Kinsley has some good observations on the shameless neocon flip-floppery:

Somewhere I still have a souvenir of neoconservatism's previous high point. It's a baseball cap from the 1988 Republican convention that says, "Jeane Kirkpatrick for vice president." This was serious. Kirkpatrick, an austere academic with a crooked scowl, was about as unlikely a politician as you can imagine. But give the Republican Party credit: It does sometimes swoon over ideas. When was the last time the Democrats did that? Ronald Reagan had swooned over a 1979 article by Kirkpatrick in Commentary, the neocon house organ, and he made her his U.N. ambassador when he became president. She gave the big speech at the 1984 GOP convention, leading the massed Republicans in a chant of "they always blame America first."

Kirkpatrick's article, "Dictatorship and Double Standards," was a ferocious attack on President Jimmy Carter for trying to "impose liberalization and democratization' on other countries. She mocked "the belief that it is possible to democratize governments anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances." Democracy, she said, depends "on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions." It takes "decades, if not centuries."

Kirkpatrick thought that U.S. power should be used to shore up tottering but friendly dictators, such as Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua and the shah of Iran. Carter sat on his hands, she complained. Now we have an administration that -- wisely or foolishly, sincerely or cynically -- claims to have the aggressive pursuit of democracy everywhere as the focal point of its foreign policy. And the Bush Doctrine is said to have the fingerprints of neoconservatives all over it. This is quite a reversal by America's most influential group of intellectuals, yet it has received surprisingly little comment or explanation.

Plenty of explanations are available. The collapse of the Soviet Union (which the neocons did not predict -- their theme had been that the Soviet Union was getting stronger and stronger while the United States diddled) surely changed the calculus. The seemingly easy spread of democracy over the past couple of decades may have disproved Kirkpatrick's pessimism.

But all these explanations require an admission of error, something the neocons are not very good at.

Kinsley's dead-on. Just take the end of the Cold War. These guys always "crow at the sunrise" (to quote Wesley Clark's bon mot), even though they radically missed the boat. These guys not only believed that Reagan was soft on Communism (Dick Pipes resigned from Reagan's NSC in 1983 in disgust at Reagan's alleged weakness) but also claimed that the Soviet economy and military were outpacing those of the United States--a position they stuck to right up until the whole Soviet house of cards collapsed under its own weight. And when that happened, they claimed that it was their toughness that led to that collapse. Heads they win, tails everyone else loses.

But most amazing is that despite their reversals, the neocons have still somehow managed to be wrong in every instance. When Kirkpatrick wrote the essay that Kinsley quotes above, they were morally wrong: they were right that it was impossible to impose democracy, but from that lesson of the 1960s they drew the conclusion that the right thing to do was to support pro-American dictators. A sterling example of "moral clarity," there. Since the 1990s, they've been wrong again, as Kinsley suggests, this time not so much morally, as practically, for thinking that you can force people to be free.

My own views on the questions of development and dictatorship are quite simple. On the one hand, for practical reasons, you can't force people to be free: you can't impose modernity, or progress, or democracy, or liberty. Those are all wonderful, universally desirable things, but they can only come from the organic core of a society, and to impose them requires social engineering which anyone other than a Jacobin ought to hesitate before proposing. The practical lesson is that invading Iraq was a terrible idea. On the other hand, for moral reasons, you shouldn't actively support retrograde regimes, either militarily or economically. The practical lesson here is that the U.S. should end military, economic, and diplomatic support for countries led by the likes of Anastasio Somoza... or for that matter, like Ariel Sharon or Hosni Mubarak.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Repealing the twentieth century

Y'all say I'm exaggerating when I say that the goal of the current rightwing movement is to repeal the twentieth century, and then all of a sudden members of the American Enterprise Institute go and get themselves quoted in the New York Times saying that, ''I think what is really needed here is a fundamental intellectual assault on the entire New Deal edifice... We want to withdraw judicial support for the entire modern welfare state. I'd retire and play golf if I could get there."

The line about playing golf is obviously well worn. I'll bet that really gets yucks at the club....

DeLay, Red Statesman

The Weekly Standard explains why DeLay is, in fact, the perfect emblem of contemporary Republicanism.

I agree. Let's keep him front and center as long as possible.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

WSJ op-ed page lobbying for Hillary

I was drawn up short reading this op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, mainly because it speaks in the first person plural for Democrats. The first 5/6 of the discussion is fairly banal: about how the Democrats need to take more of a moral rather than legalist stand on the content presented in the media, and the failure to do so is the reason "we" are "losing the culture wars."

A brief aside on content: first, "we" are in fact winning the culture wars, as most conservatives acknowledge, which helps explain the culture of victimology among cultural reactionaries; second, the notion that what appears on television is part of "the public sphere" and therefore needs moral regulation is grotesque. You want to know why I don't worry about whether my daughter will see something awful on TV? It's because I don't let her watch TV. I believe that parents have the personal responsibility -- any conservatives want to challenge that concept? -- to control their children's media intake.

But still, the weakness of the argument aside, I couldn't help wonder, What is the WSJ doing giving space for "us" to talk about what the Democrats ought to be doing in the culture wars. The answer appears in the last two paragraphs: it turns out that the author of the article wants to promote Hillary as the proper moral face of the party.

And promoting Hillary is, of course, a highly desireable thing for the WSJ, since Hillary is exactly whom the Republicans would most like to see the Democrats nominate in 2008, since Hillary is unelectable nationally.

Don't forget how cynical these guys are. When Karl Rove claimed that Howard Dean was "the one we want" in the Democratic primary -- he meant just the opposite. Dean would have beat Bush last year, and Rove probably knew that. But Rove calling out Dean as "his man" strengthened Kerry's hand as the "Anyone but Dean" candidate... thus playing directly into the hands of the Republican campaign leadership.

This editorial is part of an exactly parallel strategy.


Even wingnuts with a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union are now apparently part of the Vast Left-wing Conspiracy, urging DeLay to step aside. But DeLay seems intent on bringing down the Republican majority with him. We wish him luck.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Rudolph even more of a whackjob than previously understood

It boggles my mind that convicted American terrorist Eric Rudolph is being allowed to make grandstanding speeches and issue calls for more bombings. You would have thought the plea agreement might have prohibited this sort of sick thing.

The one silver lining is that Rudolph's chatter has provoked the publisher of a book on the Rudolph manhunt to issue a press release which describes the wingnut Rudolph. The live in a compound in the Carolina mountains, and spend their time railing against the guv'mint and growing reefer. In the case of Rudolph's brother, the mainhunt was so bothersome to him that he even went to the garage and videotaped himself cutting off his own hand it protest. If any of that stuff is even close to true, it tells you a lot about how psychologically healthy the anti-abortion folks really are....

Noose tightening on DeLay

Ten former Republican congressman have issued an open letter condemning changes in House ethics rules that House Republicans pushed through to protect Tom DeLay.

If you haven't been following this subplot in the DeLay story, the rules change were straightfowardly partisan in scope and intent: it used to be that if either party wanted to start an ethical investigation, an investigation would automatically be started. The change the DeLayites pushed through dictates that both parties must agree to start an invetigation--essentially giving either party a veto over any ethical investigations.

Such rules changes are of course perfectly consistent with the perspective vaunted by the current Republican leadership that any investigation into their ethics is wholly and exclusively a partisan smear. It's also the logical conclusion of effacing any distinction between policy and politics.

Can anyone recall Lord Acton said about power?

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Republican agenda: replacing progressive with regressive taxes

I'm afraid I succumbed last night to the besetting sin of blogging, which is to hit publish when you haven't fully baked your thoughts.

It was late last night when I read the article about the Republicans in the House voting to permanently abolish the estate tax. I tried to be glib in showing how this move represented the flip side of the GOP's effort to abolish Social Security-- both moves being aimed at turning a progressive economic system on its head. What I actually wrote, however, came out completely garbled, and anyway, Josh Marshall says better what I had in mind.

As great as Josh has been on the Social Security issue, I think he's missing a turn in depicting just how sinister and despicable the Republican effort to abolish Social Security really is.

Let's start by establishing what the abolition of the estate tax is really all about. The fatuous rhetoric about it being unfair "for a grieving family to be visited by both the coroner and the taxman on the same day" is just hooey. (More exactly, it's bullshit.) The true aim for the anti-tax ideologists in the Republican Party is to abolish any progressiveness in the tax code--hence the regular revival of calls for a flat tax.

Why do the anti-tax ideologists believe in a flat tax rate? Well, it's because they regard a progressive tax code as (nothing more and nothing less than) social theft: it's robbing from the rich to give to the poor. And as far as people like Steve Forbes are concerned, the government shouldn't be in the Robin Hood business. (Let me note in passing that there are plenty of honest, ethical rich people who admit that abolishing the estate tax is functionally just a handout to the rich.)

But Josh and I may have been underestimating the ambitions of the anti-taxers. For it would seem that it's not so much that they want the government to get out of the social theft business, but rather that they just want the government to rob a different group of citizens (the poor) on behalf of another group of citizens (the rich). And the proof of this can be found precisely in the Republicans' effort to abolish Social Security. Let me explain why.

As those of you who have been following Social Security debate know, one of the Republicans' main talking points has been that the Social Security system is going to be bankrupt in 2017--the date when the pay-as-you-go system is expected to move into the red for the long haul. Now, this 2017 crisis date has been a bit of a hard sell for poor George, because in fact there's this pesky thing called the "Social Security Trust Fund." Since 1983, Social Security taxes have collected not just enough to pay for the current generation of retirees, but also a very large amount extra, which in principle has been being salted away to ensure that the system will stay solvent for several decades after the Baby Boomers retire. Hence the other date that often comes up, 2040 or so, which is when all those extra dollars that have supposedly been saved up in the Trust Fund will in fact run out.

If this is the case, then why are the Bushies talking about 2017 as the real date when the crisis commences in earnest? Part of the reason they talk about 2017 is purely political: it's a lot easier to convince people there's a problem if the crisis date is 12 years away, versus 35. But in fact there's also some legitimate economic justification for thinking that in fact 2017 is the date when the fiscal problems of Social Security really begin.

This is because the Social Security Trust Fund is in fact something of an accounting fiction. Ever since the inception of the Trust Fund in 1983, the federal government has consistently raided the Fund to finance general, non-Social Security spending (for example on things like pork barrel projects for Tom DeLay's congressional district, or wars of choice in the Middle East). As Josh has repeatedly pointed out, at least half the point of George Bush's war on Social Security is to ensure that these trust fund dollars don't ever have to be paid back.

Again, part of this is driven by a very short-term political logic: if those Trust Fund bonds that Bush characterizes as "worthless IOUs" do in fact have to be paid back, then without question we're going to have to massively raise taxes -- like, back to where they were in the late Clinton years, which was when the U.S. finally managed to get the non-trust-fund-funded part of the federal budget more or less into equilibrium. In other words, bye-bye Bush domestic legacy.

But there's a deeper, more long-range political logic at work here. If we actually follow Bush and consider the Social Security dollars as part of the general tax fund, instead of thinking of it as a special system that is financed separately from the rest of the government, then in fact the conclusion we quickly arrive at is that the Social Security system is a massively regressive tax system.

Just how regressive is it? Well, for example, if you have an income of $50,000, then you pay 6.2% of your income to Social Security. But if you make $200,000, then you only pay 2.8% of your income to Social Security. That's because the rich only pay Social Security taxes on the first $90,000 of income; after that, the rich get off the tax wagon, literally scot free.

Okay, I hear you say: six-point-two, two-point-eight, yeah, that's a difference--but what's the big deal? Well, let me tell you, it's a very big deal. In fact, it's only recently that I've become viscerally aware of just how regressive the Social Security tax really is. Every Fall for the last few years there's always this magical moment when I hit the maximum on my annual Social Security contribution. All of a sudden, my take-home paycheck jumps. And I'm not talking about a little baby jump: when I stop paying the Social Security take, my take-home paycheck jumps by about 35%. To put a fine point on it: that 35% is basically a tax break the government gives exclusively to the richest 10% of the country's taxpayers.

The fact that the system is regressive wasn't so bad back in the day when we looked at Social Security as a special tax devoted to a specific purpose, that in principle was going to get paid back in a special, specific way. But now George Bush and his ideological fellow-travelers want to change the way we think about those taxes. Those aren't special taxes devoted to social insurance for old age or disability, George is telling us. No, they're just taxes like any other, in fact being used just like income taxes and excise duties -- e.g. to fund whatever the wingjobs in Washington want to spend it on.

Now we're ready to complete the last step in the logic here. If social security taxes are not only regressive, but also just part of the general fund, then according to the political argument usually posed by the flat tax crowd, isn't this tax too (nothing more and nothing less than) social theft? It certainly is, with of course one small but crucial distinction: whereas estate taxes take from the rich to give to the poor, a regressive general tax steals from the poor to give to the rich. And whereas taking from the rich to give to the poor has ever since Jesus often been considered a morally courageous act, the converse act has always everywhere been considered nothing less than despicable and evil.

With all this in mind, the Democrats should use this moral opening in the debate over Social Security to question the cap on Social Security taxes. The cap is an immoral, regressive loophole for the rich. Moreover, that cap is just about the only reason why Social Security is facing any solvency issues at all. By the simple act of removing this Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax loophole, Social Security would be put on firm fiscal footing until at the very least 2024, and arguably until 2079. It's the right thing to do, and it's a positive plan.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Estate Tax v. Insurance

The House GOP voted today to permanently abolish the estate tax, which according to the LA Times affects about 30,000 people a year. (That means it affects approximately 1 in 9,500 people in the U.S.) Of course, these thirty-odd-thousand people are taxed at an mean rate of about $3 million apiece (which explains why they lobby so furiously to see it abolished).

To put things in perspective, if we were to put that estate tax into the Social Security trust fund, it would make up close to a quarter of the projected long run shortfall, all by itself.

What the Democrats should do right now

David Ignatius has useful suggestions for what the Democrats should do right now to seize the political initiative. I agree with all of it, except the part about giving Bush political cover.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Noble lies and the vulgar masses

Speaking of the Straussian attitude toward the masses, I found this interview with Strauss scholar Shadia Drury very helpful:

[According to Strauss there exist] three types of men: the wise, the gentlemen, and the vulgar. The wise are the lovers of the harsh, unadulterated truth. They are capable of looking into the abyss without fear and trembling. They recognise neither God nor moral imperatives. They are devoted above all else to their own pursuit of the "higher" pleasures, which amount to consorting with their "puppies" or young initiates.

The second type, the gentlemen, are lovers of honour and glory. They are the most ingratiating towards the conventions of their society – that is, the illusions of the cave. They are true believers in God, honour, and moral imperatives. They are ready and willing to embark on acts of great courage and self-sacrifice at a moment's notice.

The third type, the vulgar many, are lovers of wealth and pleasure. They are selfish, slothful, and indolent. They can be inspired to rise above their brutish existence only by fear of impending death or catastrophe.

Like Plato, Strauss believed that the supreme political ideal is the rule of the wise. But the rule of the wise is unattainable in the real world. Now, according to the conventional wisdom, Plato realised this, and settled for the rule of law. But Strauss did not endorse this solution entirely. Nor did he think that it was Plato's real solution – Strauss pointed to the "nocturnal council" in Plato’s Laws to illustrate his point.

The real Platonic solution as understood by Strauss is the covert rule of the wise (see Strauss's The Argument and the Action of Plato's Laws). This covert rule is facilitated by the overwhelming stupidity of the gentlemen. The more gullible and unperceptive they are, the easier it is for the wise to control and manipulate them. Supposedly, Xenophon makes that clear to us.

For Strauss, the rule of the wise is not about classic conservative values like order, stability, justice, or respect for authority. The rule of the wise is intended as an antidote to modernity. Modernity is the age in which the vulgar many have triumphed. It is the age in which they have come closest to having exactly what their hearts desire – wealth, pleasure, and endless entertainment. But in getting just what they desire, they have unwittingly been reduced to beasts.

Nowhere is this state of affairs more advanced than in America. And the global reach of American culture threatens to trivialise life and turn it into entertainment. This was as terrifying a spectre for Strauss as it was for Alexandre Kojève and Carl Schmitt.

This is made clear in Strauss's exchange with Kojève (reprinted in Strauss's On Tyranny), and in his commentary on Schmitt's The Concept of the Political (reprinted in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue). Kojève lamented the animalisation of man and Schmitt worried about the trivialisation of life. All three of them were convinced that liberal economics would turn life into entertainment and destroy politics; all three understood politics as a conflict between mutually hostile groups willing to fight each other to the death. In short, they all thought that man’s humanity depended on his willingness to rush naked into battle and headlong to his death. Only perpetual war can overturn the modern project, with its emphasis on self-preservation and "creature comforts." Life can be politicised once more, and man's humanity can be restored.

This terrifying vision fits perfectly well with the desire for honour and glory that the neo-conservative gentlemen covet. It also fits very well with the religious sensibilities of gentlemen. The combination of religion and nationalism is the elixir that Strauss advocates as the way to turn natural, relaxed, hedonistic men into devout nationalists willing to fight and die for their God and country.

I never imagined when I wrote my first book on Strauss that the unscrupulous elite that he elevates would ever come so close to political power, nor that the ominous tyranny of the wise would ever come so close to being realised in the political life of a great nation like the United States. But fear is the greatest ally of tyranny.

You can see why this kind of a vision would appear to nerdy intellectual sorts: you can almost here them laughing, "Mwahhah-HA-Ha!" from their library carrel. What's frightening is that people who believe this sort of scary shit would be allowed to dictate policy.

"Even a Broken Clock..." Dept.

John Derbyshire, in the course a long meditation on the successes and failures of John Paul II, makes some despairing observations about why technological advance seems destined to eliminate humanity:

Looking back across the past few decades, it's hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed--where?

We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World. Our flesh is supposed to creep when our adversary in argument plays the Brave New World card. Brave New World! Empty and soulless! Eeeek!

This gravely underestimates the power of Aldous Huxley's tremendous novel, which he sat down to begin writing just 74 years ago this month. The issue posed by the novel, as every thoughtful commentator has pointed out, is: What exactly is objectionable about the world of Year 632 After Ford? As Kass says, the dehumanized people of that world don't know they are dehumanized, and wouldn't care if they knew. They are happy; and if they feel any momentary unhappiness, a pharmacological remedy is ready to hand. If being human means enduring sorrow, pain, grief envy, loss, accidie, loneliness, and humiliation, why on earth should anyone be expected to prefer a "fully human" life over a dehumanized one?

Most people won't. So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit. It’s not what I want, personally, and it’s not what Huxley wanted either (he was a religious man, though ofa singular type). It’s what most people want, though; so if this darn democracy stuff keeps spreading, it’s what we shall get, for sure. If we don’t bring it upon ourselves, we shall import it from less ethically fastidious nations.

Derbyshire is absolutely right about the power of Huxley's book: it's precisely the seductiveness of the dystopia which makes the book so chilling. Only aristocrats and savages have the foresight and wisdom to make the masses suffer, so that they can appreciate their humanity.

It is precisely this vision of a humanity gone so soft that it has lost all nobility that galvanizes the followers of Leo Strauss, who wish to use the fear of impending death or catastrophe to inspire the selfish, slothful, and indolent masses to rise above a brutish existence dedicated only to such are ephemeralities as wealth and pleasure.

Blowing cover

So Dick Lugar and John Kerry have apparently blown the cover of a CIA agent during their cross-examination of John Bolton yesterday. Way to go, guys!

Wanna bet the rightwing blogosphere focuses exclusively on Kerry?

Cole on Sharon

Juan Cole hits another one out of the park in explaining how the Bush regime's desire to prove its "credibility" in the Middle East doesn't include forcing the Likud to take a less extremist stance.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Without DeLay

Sometimes I wonder how Bob Novak can keep it up. Novak points out, rightly enough, that Democrats sense blood in the water regarding Tom DeLay, and along with that, a chance to do serious political damage to the Republicans. He also points out that this project is unlikely to get off the ground unless the Democrats can find a Republican who is willing to call for DeLay's resignation, to effectively break ranks with the most disciplined national party machine this country has seen in almost a century and a half.

But then Novak goes too far. He says the Democrats are overreaching, because "no GOP politician wants to be the handmaiden of DeLay's Democratic detractors. Last Wednesday's closed-door caucus of House Republicans gave DeLay a standing ovation. Contrary to claims on leftist Web sites, no Republican member has called for the majority leader's resignation."

Uh, Bob... what about Chris Shays (R-CT)? Or does the town newspaper for the richest suburb of New York now count as a "leftist web site"?

The desperation of the neocons

I don't normally read this guy, but Drezner makes an interesting point in this blog entry about what right and left have contributed to the debate over U.S. foreign policy in the post-9-11 world.
I fear I may botch the point I want to make here, but it's worth roiling the waters by making it anyway. Considering how both sides of the ideological spectrum have been thinking about foreign policy since 9/11, I can't help thinking that both Krugman and Brooks have a decent point. On questions of grand strategy, almost all of the intellectual ferment has come from conservatives (though bravo to the folks at Democracy Arsenal for trying to correct that imbalance). At the same time, the conservatives in power did a God-awful job of actually implementing various parts of this strategy, in part because they they were so unwilling to question the empirical support for their foundational assumptions. In contrast, "reality-based" liberals have been correct on an awful lot of particulars, but not on the big questions.
I know it's not very gracious to pile on to someone just when he's making an effort at conciliation.

But I can't resist. Reading this reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes's famously uncharitable remark to William James about James's effort to preserve a space for religion within a world increasingly comprehensible strictly in scientific terms. Holmes remarked that James was "turning the lights down low" in order to provide some spaces of obscurity where faith rather than reason could continue to reign.

Drezner is doing something similar here. He's saying that even though the reality-based liberals have got it right in almost every case where right and wrong can be clearly sorted out, the rightwingers have still got it more right where issues of faith and gut feeling obtain. This strikes me as a last stand position for rightwingers: a concession that whenever there's been something provably right or wong, we've been wrong, but still, trust us, because our "instincts" our sound.

How many times do you let your kid crash the car before you accept that she's either an irresponsible or incompetent driver?

Super-black names

As someone inclined to name my children odd things, I was fascinated by this article on disparities in baby naming among blacks and whites, based on foirty years of California census data. Money:

Today, more than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990s alone, and one each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee; virtually all of them were black.)

What kind of parent is most likely to give a child such a distinctively black name? The data offer a clear answer: an unmarried, low-income, undereducated, teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself. Giving a child a super-black name would seem to be a black parent's signal of solidarity with her community—the flip side of the "acting white" phenomenon. White parents, meanwhile, often send as strong a signal in the opposite direction. More than 40 percent of the white babies are given names that are at least four times more common among whites.

The article also claims that toting a "super-black" name doesn't actually inhibit your "life outcome," a term left curiously undefined.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

DeLay on the Offensive

The Washington Post's Mike Allen describes how Tom DeLay's backers are crafting a defense strategy for him that centers on identifying him personally as the embodiment of contemporary conservatism.

In all sincerity, I wish them luck. The more public identifies the Bug Man's cynical snarl as the face of ascendent Republicanism, the sooner the inevitable backlash against that movement will commence.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pope Futures

The betting line for the next pope, and why you should believe it.

The detainees formerly known as POWs

One the fascinating things about the Wall Street Journal is how the news pages routinely provide fact-based refutations for the faith-based claptrap propounded in the op-ed pages. You wonder how readers deal with the cognitive dissonance.

For a recent conspicuous example of the cognitive dissonance, consider the disparate treatment of Bush regime's use of torture in the GWOT. For over a year the op-ed pages have consistently downplayed the political, legal, and moral significance of the U.S.’s use of torture as a tactic in the war on terror, enthusiastically quoting various rightwing American politicos who have questioned whether sexual humiliation, for example, constitutes torture.

But now the news section reports that one David Cohen (a rhetoric and classics professor at Berkeley, who just so happens also to have taught me Homer back when I was a college freshman) has been unearthing documents related to earlier cases from the 1940s, when the U.S. tried numerous Japanese prison guards for torture. The article is magnificent:

In the annals of law, the case of Masatomo Kikuchi is all but forgotten.

The former Japanese prison guard was tried by the Allies after World War II for war crimes. In 1947, a U.S. military commission, citing the Geneva Conventions and customary international law, convicted him of compelling prisoners of war to practice saluting and other military exercises for as long as 30 minutes when they were tired. His sentence: 12 years of hard labor....

The rulings from the years immediately after World War II lay out the most complete picture available of the way the U.S. viewed treatment of prisoners of war back then, when modern international humanitarian law was laid down. The question is, do these cases apply today?

Critics of the Bush administration's policy on terror-related prisoners argue they do. "These are the foundational cases," the first to apply international law to questions of prisoner treatment during armed conflict, says David Cohen, a 56-year-old professor of classics and rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, who also teaches classes on war crimes. He has spent the last 10 years collecting the documents from archives and government offices, adding millions of pages to existing records and unearthing the case of Mr. Kikuchi.

The records make it clear that after World War II, U.S. military prosecutors and judges set out to establish a precedent barring any prisoner mistreatment, by aggressively pursuing and punishing even comparatively small offenses.

"These things of minor importance are the very things which caused the Allied prisoners of the Japanese so great discomfort," prosecutor Robert Neptune told a military commission in October 1948. Army judges agreed. One wrote, "Extreme brutality or serious injury to the victim is not a necessary element" for guilt....

The archives also make clear that some of the practices employed by the U.S. today resemble those that U.S. military commissions condemned when Americans were on the receiving end. The U.S. considered as war crimes such tactics as solitary confinement, sleep and sensory deprivation, manipulation of meal schedules, forcing men to answer questions while naked or restrained in painful "stress positions," and failing to register prisoners with the International Red Cross. Today, all have been approved or practiced at Guantanamo and other U.S. facilities.

The records, many of them from tribunals held at Yokohama, Japan, between 1946 and 1949, show that many defendants, like Mr. Kikuchi, received long sentences for lesser infractions, in keeping with the U.S.'s aggressive approach to prosecutions. Some of the justifications now offered both by low-level American soldiers and top officials echo those raised, with little success, by Japanese defendants called to account before American courts.

U.S. tribunals dismissed defense arguments that Japanese practices were necessary for disciplinary or interrogation reasons, that American prisoners were treated no worse than Japanese soldiers, that Japan hadn't ratified the Geneva Conventions and wasn't therefore bound by them and that, in any event, many American prisoners had forfeited POW status by bombing cities or committing acts of sabotage.

The Bush regime says that none of these cases matter, because the detainees aren't actually POWs. Rather, they're "unlawful enemy combatants," so that these cases don't form a relevant precedent. The Bushies of course don't hesitate to proclaim that this is a war at every possible turn; but the people we're fighting and capturing someone aren't warriors.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this more or less the same legal argument Prince made when he claimed that he should no longer bound by contracts he had signed because, technically, he was no longer "Prince" but was now that weird androgenous sign, e.g. "the artist formerly known as Prince." Using the same rhetorical flouriosh, one might describe the poor sods in Gitmo as "the detainees formerly known as POWs."

The legal argument didn't work too well for Prince. We'll see if it works better for the Bush regime.

Misleading the American people

According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon is claiming that it is accelerating the effort to hand over Iraqi security operations to Iraqis. The article quotes a colonel giving a timeline of "six months to a year" until the transition is complete in Northern Iraq.

Unfortunately for the Pentagon spinmeisters, the grunts aren't buying it, and they're calling bullshit. Money:

The ambitious strategy is being questioned by some U.S. military advisers who work closely with the Iraqi forces. They say that although the Iraqis are progressing, they are being rushed into battle before they are ready in an effort to speed the withdrawal of American forces.

"It's all about perception, to convince the American public that everything is going as planned and we're right on schedule to be out of here," said one adviser, Army Staff Sgt. Craig E. Patrick, 40, a reservist from Rock Island, Ill. "I mean, they can [mislead] the American people, but they can't [mislead] us. These guys are not ready."

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bush's not apologizing, but actions speak louder than words...

Three weeks ago I observed that Bush sending Bolton to the U.N. and Wolfowitz to the Bank was, in effect, a way of kicking the neocons upstairs. Well, Democracy Arsenal makes the point more forcefully, observing that foreign policy managers of the second Bush term are no longer neocons, but rather folks who "believe in diplomacy and institutions and agree with progressive internationalist ideals more than they (and we) might like to admit.".

I think DA may be taking their optimism about Bush a bit far, but it's also clear that the maximalist moment of Bushist adventurism has disappeared into the Mesopotamian sands. At a minimum, the doctrine of preemption is in a dormant phase, and one suspects that the endless critiques of our intelligence apparatus may yet succeed in completely killing it off. Here's hoping.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

False dichotomy alert: Institution-building v. fostering debate

David Brooks gives us an interestingly wrong column today. It's interesting because he points out two intertwined factors that help to explain the rise of rightwingers as an intellectual and popular movement: one is the rise of a network of foundations, think tanks and media outlets (the infrastructure behind Hillary's famous "vast rightwing conspiracy"); the other is the undeniably vibrant arguments among rightwingers about core principles and philosophy.

The column is couched, however, not so much as an assessment of Republican success, but rather as advice to Democrats about not drawing the wrong lessons from that success. Brooks argues that Democrats should worry less about building a competitive institutional network, and instead look their time as the party of opposition as an "opportunity to have a big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey."

Personally, I love getting coaching advice from the other team's cheerleaders.

But seriously, Brooks is right that progressives need to surface more actively the philosophical or theoretical underpinnings of their beliefs. He's right that it would do the Democrats good to talk and think a lot more about principles, and a lot less about plans. More focus on strategy and less on tactics, in short, would provide a belated antidote to Bill Clinton's political habit of tactically outmaneuvering of opponents by giving them almost everything they want.

Brooks is fundamentally wrong (and perhaps pernicious in intent), however, in claiming that the Democrats' need to sponsor greater debate about core principles is in any way at odds with their need to engage in institution-building. Indeed, part of the mission of these institutions is and should be to sponsor such debate and disquisition about core values (ugh, there, I used the word).

Brooks is also fundamentally wrong (and perhaps pernicious in intent) in suggesting that the Democrats don't need to work harder on enforcing Party discipline and unity. I buy Brooks's implication that the right's effectiveness as a governing coalition is indirectly a result of the vibrant debate that exists on the right on many social, political, and economic topics -- but that's true only because part of the point of political debate is performative: it helps convince the debaters that they form a common discursive community that should respect and support the in-members when confronted with out-members. But this is a subtle point. The immediate source of the right's effectiveness as a governing coalition is that when it comes time to make policy, all the rightwing factions put aside their differences and salute the partisan flag. In short, Tom DeLay is the true face of the party. Fostering philosophical debate may help get the debaters to salute the partisan flag, but that's argument about how to achieve partisan unity, not an argument against partisan unity.

In practice, this rightwing partisan unity on policy has meant that Republican Party leaders have been effective in harnassing the movement to achieve policies that matter most to them. In the first four years of the Bush regime, this has meant that economic rightwingers have gotten a great deal of what they have wanted, while social reactionaries have gotten almost nothing.

This de facto practice has led many on the left to regard the social reactionaries as dupes of the economic rightists. Whatever the fairness of that judgment, there is simply no doubt at all that the governing effectiveness of the rightwing coalition is predicated on the different factions holding it together whenever in comes time to vote -- both as individuals at election time, and as members of Congress enforcing the "27 percent is a majority" principle.

To suggest that the Democrats can successfully govern without mimicking that kind of electoral discipline is idiotic. And since Brooks isn't an idiot, it suggests that he may have other motives in proposing this.

Friedman travels the four corners of the earth but finds just one metaphor

Tom Friedman has always seemed to me facile, and this New York Times piece that argues exhaustively that "the world is flat" does nothing to allay that sense for me.

I have three basic gripes with Friedman. The first point is substantive: I never learned anything from him. True, I'm a professional and he's a popularizer, so maybe that's just a sour grapes kind of unfairness. (Then again, maybe not; the Economist, reviewing the book from which this excerpt is drawn, put it perfectly: "Mr. Friedman's problem is not a lack of detail. It is that he has so little to say.") To see what I mean, just compare his column to, say, Krugman's. Krugman may be a cassandra, but at least he has something to say. To be clear, the point here is not ideological: I also find myself learning from David Brooks, and even from Charles Krauthammer -- though in the latter case, I learn from him in the same sense as a doctor learns when he observes a patient with an unusual disease. Secondly, I find Friedman's hail-fellow-well-met writing style irksome. (Sample: "I wish I could say I saw it all coming. Alas, I encountered the flattening of the world quite by accident. It was in late February of last year...") True, he's not as egregious as MoDo, because he doesn't feel compelled to prove his rhetorical cleverness in every column. Finally, Friedman's politics infuriate me. He always steers just slightly to the left of whatever the powers that be have in mind. While I suppose this position could be seen as a strategy for maintaining access and keeping yourself getting heard, in these exciting times (in the Chinese sense), it comes off as merely unprincipled.

Friedman has the best job in the world, one with as great a potential for impact as anyone who writes for a living can hope to have... and he just squanders the opportunity, column in and column out.

Monday, April 04, 2005

"You Can't Make This Up" Dept.

American vigilantes who have "volunteered to defend their country" by patrolling our border with Mexico have been tripping the sensors that the real border patrol agents use to detect intrusions, forcing these agents to respond to false alarms.

Senate going 'nuclear' by end of month

The LA Times reports that Senate Republicans plan to abolish the filibuster by the end of the month. The article reports that "even privately, it's hard to find anyone on Capitol Hill who can envision a deal that could defuse the conflict." Geez, can no one envision simply nominating non-devisive judges? Is it really impossible for Bush to find candidates who would be acceptable to Democrats? If indeed that's the case, it is only becase Republican activists have decided that any judge capable of garnering Democratic votes is unacceptable simply by virtue of the fact that she or he would be acceptable to Democrats. This makes a sick sort of sense, of course: any nominee capable of garnering even five Democratic votes is obviously more "liberal" than a candidate incapable of getting those Democratic votes--and therefore not as extreme a candidate as the Republican Party activists might hope for.

It's also worth pointing out how misleading it is to compare the Democrats' current threaten to shut down the Senate with the Republicans' 1995 government shutdown. In fact, both situations are a result of majority party truculence. In 1995, the congressional Republicans controlled what kind of a budget would get sent to Clinton to approve--and they refused to send a budget he could approve. Likewise in 2005, the Republicans (Bush) control who gets nominated to the bench--and (again) they are refusing to send something the Democrats can approve.

In both cases it is a case of the majority party trying to insist that it doesn't need to consult or compromise at all with the minority party.

37 years ago

John Paul II's politics offered something to make everyone in American politics uncomfortable. He combined political liberalism with countercapitalist compassion for the poor; mixed in opposition to the death penalty and virtually any warfare; and finally condemned anything related to sexual liberation, including abortion and birth control. It's therefore frankly disgusting to watch this complex but coherent legacy get reprised in the rightwing American press as simple anti-Communism. Any attempt to whitewash the man as simply a sexually puritanical neoliberal comes close to a being an unintentionally insipid joke. (Then again, aren't the unintentionally insipid jokes the main reason for reading someone like James Taranto or Jonah Goldberg?)

Such tasteless jokes have, of course, been carried out many times in the history of American political mythmaking, perhaps nowhere more egregiously than in the case of Martin Luther King, who was shot 37 years ago today for his radicalism. Here's an excerpt from a speech, made exactly one year before he was shot, denouncing the Vietnam War:

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.

Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans. That is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.

Fighting poverty and fighting wars come pretty close to being an either/or option, which is why militarism and top-down class hatred go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

JPII: rock on

Lots of wonderful obits on the late pope, with many different angles, among others, the sociological, the ideological, and the human.

But for my money, I like best the Washington Post's take on the cultural power of this pope:
At each stop the crowds responded to his particular charisma, the showmanship of a former actor deepened by the serenity of a man who prays six hours a day. One minute on stage he was stealing rock star Bono's sunglasses; the next he was extolling the ministry of Jesus. He had a gift for using mass communication to criticize the affluent cultures that invented it. Teenage girls screamed at the sight of him. He made holiness buzz.
The pope as rock star. Go figga.

Berger pleads guilty

The weirdest thing about Sandy Berger's now having confessed and pleaded guilty to taking top secret materials is the motive for his actions. Why would he do such a thing? Well, that, plus the whole Homer-Simpson-esque way in which he went about trying to steal the documents, by stuffing them into his socks and pants. It's just incomprehensible. Then again, nothing much of anything Berger's ever done has made much sense, so perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised....

More on Korematsu

A reader writes:

Fair point about Korematsu, but he's hardly the worst example of the equation of victimhood and heroism in our country. Terri Schiavo will probably get the Medal of Freedom.

Also, the point that often seems to be missed is not the race angle, but the GWOT angle. Depriving citizens of basic civil rights in the name of wartime expediency and supporting those acts by suppressing key evidence generated by the intelligence services sounds pretty familiar. It's pretty difficult to read in all the Korematsu obits Judge Patel's lofty warning that Korematsu "stands as a constant caution that in times of war or declared military necessity our institutions must be vigilant in protecting our constitutional guarantees. It stands as a caution that in times of distress the shield of military necessity and national security must not be used to protect governmental actions from close scrutiny and accountability. It stands as a caution that in times of international hostility and antagonisms our institutions, legislative, executive and judicial, must be prepared to protect all citizens from the petty fears and prejudices that are so easily aroused."

The lessons of Korematsu have yet to be completely shunted aside, but my guess it would only take one more 9-11 scale attack for the internment question to get debated in Congress. Can't you see DeLay leading the way on that one? Especially if he suspects an indictment is coming down?

Friday, April 01, 2005

Hero or victim?

The victim oif the worst Supreme Court decision in the last 148 years has died. No, not Al Gore, but Fred Korematsu, whose case before the Court confirmed the constitutionality of interning the entire Japanese population of the West Coast during World War II. Here's a fact I didn't know about Fred, that makes his elevation to a symbol of racial pride all the more interesting:
Korematsu had undergone plastic surgery in an effort to disguise his Asian features and had altered his draft registration card, listing his name as Clyde Sarah and his background as Spanish-Hawaiian. He hoped that with his altered appearance and identity he could avoid ostracism when he married his girlfriend, who had an Italian background.
Contrary to the nostrums of identity politics, you don't have to take pride in your racial category to fight being discriminated against on the basis of it. The only sense in which Fred Korematsu was a hero is that he handled his victimhood with dignity.

Read the obituary, and then read today's defenders of the decision to intern the entire Japense-American population such as Daniel Pipes and Michelle Malkin. We report; you decide.

The Captain Queeg of contemporary conservatism

Rightwing money groups are demanding that anyone who wants their future support must commit themselves to stand by Tom Delay. Money:

Conservatives say the attacks against Mr. DeLay are against the broader conservative movement, and many of them met last week in Washington to plot a defense.

"I think in the last couple of weeks, it's become apparent to many conservative groups in Washington that this is really, in many ways, an attack on them and their ideas, using Mr. DeLay as the surrogate target," said Gary Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee.

Instinctive obedience to hierarchy is of course part of the psychological profile of rightwingers. But still, I wonder how conservatives of conscience feel about DeLay's effort to fix the fortunes of their entire movement to his own personal fate. Looks like desperation to me.