Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Barack Jefferson on National Security

Forgive, dear reader, a half-baked historical analogy -- or rather, suggestion of long continuity in American executives' propensity to claim power over the life and limb of anyone they deem a threat to national security. First, Obama, asserting that right in court (via Washington Post:
The Obama administration urged a federal judge early Saturday to dismiss a lawsuit over its targeting of a U.S. citizen for killing overseas, saying that the case would reveal state secrets.

The U.S.-born citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, is a cleric now believed to be in Yemen. Federal authorities allege that he is leading a branch of al-Qaeda there.

Government lawyers called the state-secrets argument a last resort to toss out the case, and it seems likely to revive a debate over the reach of a president's powers in the global war against al-Qaeda.

Civil liberties groups sued the U.S. government on behalf of Aulaqi's father, arguing that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command's placement of Aulaqi on a capture-or-kill list of suspected terrorists - outside a war zone and absent an imminent threat - amounted to an extrajudicial execution order against a U.S. citizen.

They asked a U.S. district court in Washington to block the targeting.

In response, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the groups are asking "a court to take the unprecedented step of intervening in an ongoing military action to direct the President how to manage that action - all on behalf of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization."

Miller added, "If al-Aulaqi wishes to access our legal system, he should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions." 
Next, Thomas Jefferson, whose commitment to the rule of law was surprisingly equivocal.  Leonard Levy, in Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, describes Jefferson's willingness, as a leading member of the Virginia legislature during the Revolutionary War, to declare open season on an alleged Tory brigand, a deed he defended to his dying day:

Monday, September 27, 2010

Clive Crook dreams up a vital center for Obama

Clive Crook has always struck me as tone-deaf on American politics, if sometimes acute on policy.  Today, though, he brought me up short and made me think anew about Obama's conduct and messaging -- though I think that in the end, again, he's substantively wrong about how Obama should position himself.

Crook has long insisted that Obama's mistake has been to govern too far from the left, alienating the American center -- notwithstanding his acknowledgement that the Republicans are sunk in extreme right wing demagoguery, and that the Democrats' approach to the stimulus and health care reform are centrist by any sane measure. Today he comes up with an intriguing explanation for these seemingly incommensurate observations:
Again and again, Mr Obama has acted as though the middle of the electorate mattered less to his administration than the Democratic base. This is not to say he insisted on leftist policies. He usually gave way, when he had to, to conservative Democrats in Congress. He went along with a fiscal stimulus that included a lot of tax cuts. He went along with health reform that excluded the so-called public option. These and other compromises disappointed the left. But the message to the electoral centre was consistent: Mr Obama would have let the left have its way if he could.

What he should have done – and what he ought to do from now on – is simple. Instead of blessing leftist solutions, then retreating feebly to more centrist positions under pressure, he should have identified the centrist policies the country could accept and advocated those policies.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

As Democrats tank, Is Stephen J. Rose rebounding? Will Obama?

As the Democrats stare at disaster, is Stephen J. Rose finally getting some traction?

An economist former Clinton Administration official, Rose has been crying in the wilderness that Democrats overestimate middle class distress and pitch their programs and rhetoric too much at the disadvantaged, ignoring the broad, relatively prosperous middle of American society. Democrats do not cotton to his rebuttals to assertions that the middle class is  "disappearing" or"drowning in debt" or his critiques of work by Elizabeth Warren and Jacob Hacker propounding those ideas.

Rose's book Rebound: Why America Will Emerge Stronger from the Financial Crisis got a plug from David Brooks just prior to publication this past April, but my impression is that it's been largely ignored otherwise. My customer review on Amazon, posted on May 10 (here on xpostfactoid), remains the only one, and the book's Amazon sales rank is 305,456.  By contrast, Richard Florida's the The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, published two weeks after Rebound and listed by Amazon as a Rebound comparable, has 15 customer reviews and a sales rank of 10,950.

Perhaps it's coincidence, but Rose's theses popped up on my screen twice yesterday. The first is a shadow appearance. Joshua Green gave a platform to Chuck Schumer, who here expounds pure Rose:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Homo electus in all his glory

Bill Clinton is not faking here (to John F. Harris and James Hohmann of Politico, 9/23/10):
Clinton finished his political analysis on a lyrical note about democracy and how voters make themselves heard by their leaders: “That’s why every election is magical. The American people are like Mozart, writing a different symphony. They use the same words, in greater volume and different order. It’s like notes. You’ve got to hear it.”

As evidence, I can only cite more (indirect) Clinton (to Taylor Branch, in 1993):

Doc Suess writes pol site's head line

Imagine that you're either a nonnative English speaker or a person inclined to visualize well-worn metaphors, and you come upon this monosyllabic mashup:

Dems punt tax vote to lame duck

Can a lame duck return a punt? Can a lame brain pluck a verb from a run of three dual use nouns?

See also: Boxer Targets Fiorina's Palin Tie and my favorite, New Breast Screening Limits Face Reversal.

Worm-turn watch...

or wishful thinking?  Ever since I read last night that Senate democrats have given up on holding a pre-election vote on extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2% of earners, I've been waiting for the worm to turn. I can't believe that this is end of story until the election -- that Democrats would give up the political high ground of forcing the Republicans to hold a tax cut for 98% of Americans hostage to extending the cut to the top 2%.

My wish may be father to that thought. But I think it may be born of witnessing all the breathless fretting day-by-day as the health care reform endgame unfolded. Aggh! The House Democrats will merely "deem" the Senate bill passed while voting on the reconciliation fix alone. Nah! They won't.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Obama, Clinton, Woodward, Branch

Much chatter today about Bob Woodward's portrayal in his forthcoming Obama's Wars of division and debate in Obama's foreign policy team. The Times' Peter Baker emphasizes the negative:  Biden calls Holbrooke "the most egotistical bastard I've ever met." Holbrooke says the strategy in Afghanistan can't work, Gates says that Jim Jones' deputy Thomas Donilon would be "a disaster" as national security advisor. Bush apologists like Mark Thiessen are having a field day.

I recall reading The Agenda, Woodward's book on Bill Clinton's first year in office, which makes the tortuous process by which the administration shaped its first budget and squeaked it through Congress look like a chaotic, raggedy mess. That was the budget that put the U.S.on course for its greatest peacetime economic expansion in decades. Of the process and Woodward's treatment of it, Clinton had this to say to Taylor Branch, as reported in Branch's The Clinton Tapes:
What upset him was an obsessive focus on style above substance, especially in media discussion of The Agenda.  Debates within his administration were lampooned as contests of seesaw mismanagement suited to a romper room, full of temper tantrums and panicky showdowns pitting "true Democrats" against coldhearted bankers, or realists against doctrinaire liberals. The president objected first to exaggeration. He said fierce argument is healthy for free government--and infighting inherent--even on small matters. "It's the nature of the beast," he said. By fair comparison with the hacks of many administrations, or even the talented backstabbers around Lincoln and FDR, the president called his budget advisers models of decorous public service. Their victory in Congress had momentous stakes for every citizen. Could the package really tame our deficit? Might we dare to balance the national budget for the first time in two generations?  At what cost? How would it affect tomorrow's grandchildren to be spared trillions in public debt? [Ai!] Clinton lamented that the Woodward reviews ignored these core questions. They buried the central issue under a mountain of finger pointing and factional score-keeping (166).

Stream of political consciousness

Every now and then, a body can catch a quick chain of thought right as it wraps up -- and review the sequence with a bit more confidence than dream recollection usually allows. That happened today as I took one of my ADD workday breaks, sopped up a couple of stories on TNR and TPM, and sat outside in the sun for two minutes. A recap:  
  • Datum: Blue Dog Democrats do not want to vote on letting Bush tax cuts expire for top 2%, fear they'll be slammed for "raising taxes."
  • Trigger: TPM headline re scared Dems: Run for the Hills
  • Association: Obama in SOTU exhorting Dems not to "run for the hills" on health care reform in wake of Mass Senate election.
  • Memory:  my crie de coeur on Jan. 19, eve of Scott Brown's victory, as various Dems made various noises about giving up on health care: "We have one party that has not got the brains to govern. Will we now learn for certain that we have another party that hasn't got the guts?"
  • Thought: We didn't learn that, did we?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The "we" in Yom Kippur

Haaretz's Bradley Burston offers up a stunning Yom Kippur confession that is both personal and collective, as befits the holiday. Here is the liturgical part, which recounts a litany of sins in the first person plural:

Asham'nu - This is our confession. It is written that we will seek You out only when we admit that we have done wrong.
Bagadnu - We have betrayed You. We have made gods of stone and tile and asphalt.
Gazalnu - We have stolen, and called it reclaiming.
Dibarnu Dofi - We have learned to say one thing to the world, and something different to one other.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The moral equivalent of warmongering

William James' 1906 essay The Moral Equivalent of War (which James Fallows recently induced me to read) derives its strength in large part from the avowed pacifist James' willingness to take seriously the arguments of those he seeks to correct -- theorists who avow openly that war is the highest crucible of human virtue and therefore essential to human progress. Hence his search for a less destructive 'equivalent' means of mobilizing human passion and effort.

Thinking again about the thirty year-old pastime of boomer-bashing (see Thomas Friedman; my response here), it seems to me that underlying that impulse is a repressed sympathy for the kind of openly avowed militarism that no one would subscribe to today. Here is James' distillation of one such thinker's doctrine:
Other militarists are more complex and more moral in their considerations. The Philosophie des Krieges, by S. R. Steinmetz is good example. War, according to this author, is an ordeal instituted by God, who weighs the nations in its balance. It is the essential form of the State, and the only function in which peoples can employ all their powers at once and convergently. No victory is possible save as the resultant of a totality of virtues, no defeat for which some vice or weakness is not responsible. Fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor — there isn't a moral or intellectual point of superiority that doesn't tell, when God holds his assizes and hurls the peoples upon one another.
Excoriating the postwar generation constitutes a back-door endorsement of the notion that peace and prosperity corrupt and that war cleanses.

Few today would greet the onset of a cataclysmic new war with the enthusiasm of the English poet Rupert Brooke, marching off in 1914:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On not respecting the past

On the occasion of the Jewish holidays, brooding over whether I would fast on Yom Kippur (I have for most of my adult life but not longer see any reason for doing so, other than dislike of abandoning any discipline voluntarily undertaken), it occurred to me that a passage from a novel, or rather a didactic fiction, has been recurring in my mind on such occasions for more than fifteen years.

It's from Herland, the early 20th century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopia of an isolated all-female society that breeds by parthenogenesis.  The women and girls of Herland are uniformly wise, free, maternal, devoted to education and the common welfare.

A disclaimer passes its sell-by date

As I mentally sketched a quick blog post, I envisioned adding a link at bottom to one of my prior posts, and flailed briefly trying to remember an acronym it occurs to me I haven't seen for quite a while: SSP, for shameless self-promotion. 

Could it be that self-promotion has become such a near-universal reflex, such a universally acknowledged prerequisite for advancement in almost any field of endeavor, that no one sees fit to apologize for it anymore?

Environmental regulation, Chinese style

Even casual readers of news from China (I'm one) are familiar with the difficulty the central government experiences in trying to enforce environmental regulations in the provinces, where local officials respond to legitimate and illegitimate incentives to juice the local economy -- often by winking at illegal or noncompliant mines and factories.

Today's FT reports on a crackdown in China against the illegal mining of antinomy, a rare metal used in fire retardants, of which China produces 90% of the world's supply. The story nicely illustrates both the effects of weak regulation and the Chinese style of getting tough.

First, the status quo as it's played out in Lengshuijiang, an antimony-producing region of Hunan province:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Quote of the Day

Yes, ground zero is a sacred place; my wife’s ashes are in that ground. But to deny the opportunity to worship lawfully near there is denying what is most sacred for all Americans: freedom.
         William Nelson
         West Lebanon, N.H., Sept. 6, 2010
         New York Times, Letters, Sept. 13, 2010

This beautiful letter compresses Leon Wieseltier's incandescent core argument regarding Park51:
Nationalism has always arrogated to itself a hallowing power, and the sanctification of Ground Zero is the natural expression of the memory of a nation. But this is a secular sanctity. I see no justification for establishing a mosque, a church, or a synagogue at Ground Zero, even though Muslims, Christians, and Jews died there. (Irreligious people also died there.) Yet nobody is proposing to establish a mosque at Ground Zero. Sacralization is an act of demarcation: its force is owed to its precision. Outside the line is outside the line. Park Place is outside the line, in the “profane” realm.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thomas Friedman at his Thomas Friedmanest*

Confirmation bias, thy name is Thomas Friedman.

Leave it to Friedman to decide, as the U.S. struggles out of the steepest recession in 70 years, that our troubles are due to the moral failings of baby boomers, set off by a cartoonish Goofus/Gallant contrast with the Greatest Generation.  His column putting this moralizing mush across is so jaw-droppingly sloppy that it seems self indulgent to try to debunk it.

First, Friedman uncritically retails Robert Samuelson's recent claim that poor U.S. student performance can be ascribed to poor student motivation --and conveniently ignores Samuelson's main explanation:
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”
Never mind that the percentages cited do not exactly suggest absenteeism and apathy to be epidemic: Samuelson acknowledges (while underplaying) that the chief cause of stagnant test scores is a wider pool of graduates:
The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.
Samuelson's stats don't fully capture the extent to which full access to a high school education was broadened in the postwar era.  According to Stephen J. Rose's Rebound, in 1960 (the baseline for Samuelson's snapshot of U.S. high school students' educational achievement over time), only half of workers had a high school diploma, almost 30% had some college, and 10% had a college degree. Today, Rose writes, "these numbers are completely reversed": only 10% lack a high school diploma, 60%  have some postsecondary education, and 30% have at least a 4-year college degree.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fidel, let me help you walk that back...

Jeffrey Goldberg affects bemusement as Fidel Castro tries to walk back his startling statement to Goldberg that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more."  Castro told CNN
he was correctly quoted, but that, "in reality, my answer meant exactly the opposite of what both American journalists interpreted regarding the Cuban model. My idea, as the whole world knows, is that the capitalist system no longer works for the United States or the world," he said. "How could such a system work for a socialist country like Cuba?"

Castro called Goldberg "a great journalist." "He does not invent phrases, he transfers them and interprets them," he said. "I await with interest his extensive article."
Goldberg responds with perhaps a shade too much glee:

Friday, September 10, 2010


It may be late in the day, but I think Obama's working toward his own 'stay the course':

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  You said this week that Democrats wouldn’t do well in the November elections if it turns out to be a referendum on the economy.  But with millions of people out of work and millions of people losing their homes, how could it not be a referendum on the economy and your handling of it, and why would you not welcome that?

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, the -- what I said was that if it was just a referendum on whether we’ve made the kind of progress that we need to, then people around the country would say we’re not there yet.  If the election is about the policies that are going to move us forward versus the policies that will get us back into a mess, then I think the Democrats will do very well.  And here’s why.

As I just indicated, middle-class families had been struggling for a decade, before I came into office. Their wages and incomes had flat-lined.  They were seeing the cost of everything from health care to sending their kids to college going up. Job growth was the weakest of any economic expansion between 2001 and 2008 since World War II.  The pace was slower than it’s been over the last year.

So these policies of cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans, of stripping away regulations that protect consumers, running up a record surplus to a record deficit -- those policies finally culminated in the worst financial crisis we’ve had since the Great Depression.  And for 19 months, what we have done is steadily worked to avoid a depression, to take an economy that was contracting rapidly and making it grow again; a situation where we were losing 750,000 jobs a month, and now we’ve had eight consecutive months of private sector job growth; and made investments that are going to strengthen the economy over the long term.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Obama's back

Today in Cleveland, Obama started to draw on a fund of latent credibility he may yet prove to have built up with all that infuriating bipartisan outreach.

Recall that as the healthcare endgame approached, Americans, for all their ambivalence about the healthcare bill, told pollsters that Obama was showing more good faith than Republicans, was more willing to work with the other side than the Republicans.

Now, as Jonathan Cohn put it today, "it's safe to say that President Obama has given up on bipartisanship, at least for the foreseeable future."  He is not shrill.  But he is ready -- overripe -- to call out the Party of No. To highlight its bad faith, even as he distinguishes between genuine philosophical differences and opportunistic obstruction. In addition to defending his own approach to government -- and framing a clear contrast between a platform of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation and Democrats' commitment to long-term investment and regulatory repair -- he is hammering Republicans for opposing their own ideas:
In fact, if the Republican leadership in Congress really wants to help small businesses, they’ll stop using legislative maneuvers to block an up or down vote on a small business jobs bill that’s before the Senate right now.  Right now.  (Applause.) This is a bill that would do two things.  It would cut taxes for small businesses and make loans more available for small businesses.  (Applause.)  It is fully paid for, won't add to the deficit.  And it was written by Democrats and Republicans.  And yet, the other party continues to block this jobs bill -– a delay that small business owners have said is actually leading them to put off hiring.

Look, I recognize that most of the Republicans in Congress have said no to just about every policy I’ve proposed since taking office.  I realize in some cases that there are genuine philosophical differences.  But on issues like this one -- a tax cut for small businesses supported by the Chamber of Commerce -- the only reason they’re holding this up is politics, pure and simple.  (Applause.)  They’re making the same calculation they made just before my inauguration:  If I fail, they win.  Well, they might think that this will get them to where they want to go in November, but it won’t get our country going where it needs to go in the long run.  (Applause.)  It won’t get us there.  (Applause.)  It won’t get us there.  (Applause.)  It won't get us there.  (Applause.)     

Did Imam Rauf take Yossi Klein Halevi's advice?

Last week, in an open letter to Feisal Abdul Rauf, TNR's Yossi Klein Halevi proposed the following -- granting undue authority, in my opinion, to sensitivities of those who choose to be offended by an Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero:
I believe that you intend to create a center of Islamic moderation near Ground Zero. And it is precisely for that reason that I am turning to you with a plea to reconsider your plans to build the center in its current form. Instead, I urge you to consider turning the site into a center for interfaith encounter. Build the mosque—but do so together with a church and a synagogue and a center for common reflection for all three faiths and for those with no faith. Do this, Imam Feisal, not to surrender to your critics but to honor their pain, and, in the process, to honor Islam.
In an op-ed in Today's Times, Imam Rauf seems to have acceded to that wish -- unless the brief formulation below is not quite what it seems, or the plan was always thus:

At Cordoba House, we envision shared space for community activities, like a swimming pool, classrooms and a play space for children. There will be separate prayer spaces for Muslims, Christians, Jews and men and women of other faiths. The center will also include a multifaith memorial dedicated to victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Palestinian Authority highlights Ahmadinejad's stolen authority

Considering that hatred of Israel is a central pillar of the Iranian regime's ideology (along with crocodile tears on behalf of the Palestinians), this rejoinder from the Palestinian Authority to Iranian interference is rich. 

According to Iran's Fars News agency, Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Arab leaders who met with Obama and Netanyahu at the kickoff of  peace talks in Washington this week were "betraying their nations."  The PA's response:
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, reportedly said that Ahmadinejad "does not represent the Iranian people, forged elections, suppresses the Iranian people and stole the authority. [He] is not entitled to talk about Palestine, or the president of Palestine."

"President Abu Mazen [Abbas] is the elected president of free and fair elections in which more than two thousand international observers [participated]," Abu Rudeineh said. "We have fought for Palestine and Jerusalem, and the Palestinian leadership has provided thousands of martyrs and tens of thousands wounded and prisoners."

Friday, September 03, 2010

"Its force is owed to its precision": Wieseltier's definitive defense of Park51

I have read twisted and perverse arguments by Leon Wieseltier, but I am in awe of the moral clarity he brings to the debate over Park51, the proposed Islamic Center two blocks from Ground Zero. Its force comes in part by cutting through a bit of cant deployed in support of the project and in defense of Islam generally, and in part by consolidation of common-sense arguments already deployed, and perhaps from some structural progression in his the argument that I can't divine. But essentially, it's a matter of clear thinking informed by internalized principles --  and precision of language.

It's a short piece, and I have no excuse for excerpting it beyond the admirer's impulse to hold jewels up to the light. Here are four of them (with my emphasis):

1. Tossing the red herring
I have no quarrel with the construction of Cordoba House, but not because Islam is a religion of peace. It is not. Like Christianity and like Judaism, Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of war. All the religions have all the tendencies within them, and in varying historical circumstances varying beliefs and practices have come to the fore...Apologetic definitions of Islam will not avail anybody in this struggle.
2. Sacred space defined
[Ground Zero's] is a secular sanctity. I see no justification for establishing a mosque, a church, or a synagogue at Ground Zero, even though Muslims, Christians, and Jews died there. (Irreligious people also died there.) Yet nobody is proposing to establish a mosque at Ground Zero. Sacralization is an act of demarcation: its force is owed to its precision. Outside the line is outside the line. Park Place is outside the line, in the “profane” realm.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Martin Wolf recalls his cry of Feb. 2009, and bites Obama

Sometimes, consolidating conventional wisdom is clarifying -- when the weight of evidence pushes convention toward consensus. That's what Martin Wolf's column assessing the Obama administration's economic performance to date does, or purports to do.

Wolf's conclusion: the stimulus, coupled with the Fed's emergency measures, was effective but inadequate.  Notwithstanding Larry Summers' dictum, "when markets overshoot, policymakers must overshoot too," the stimulus undershot. Citing the well-circulated conclusions of the study by Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi, as well as CBO estimates, Wolf consolidates mainstream economists' consensus that the stimulus, bailouts and Fed measures averted catastrophe, boosted GDP, mitigated the plunge in employment  --  but, as Wolf himself judged in February 2009 (and happily highlights here), was "too small, too wasteful and too ill-focused." It therefore left the country with a sputtering recovery -- and left the Democrats holding the bag.