August 26, 2009

The Stock Market Under Obama

As of yesterday, with a closing mark of 9,539.29, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up:

  • 20.0 percent since Barack Obama's inauguration (7,949.09 on 20 January)
  • 26.3 percent since the signing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (7,552.60 on 17 February)
  • 45.7 percent since the market's low point this year (6547.05 on 9 March)
Now, compare that to the eight years of the Bush administration. From 19 January 2001 to 20 January 2009, the Dow Jones fell 29.0 percent, from 10,686.00 to 8,279.63.

In case you're curious, by my calculations, the Dow Jones rose 228.2 percent during the eight years of the Clinton administration; rose 45.4 percent during the four years of the first Bush administration; and rose 130.6 percent during the eight years of the Reagan administration.

Am I suggesting that presidents be judged by the performance of the stock market during their terms? No. But I do wonder how it is that Democrats are still seen by many as bad for business. At least one important type of empirical evidence would suggest otherwise.

May 30, 2009

No, Sotomayor Isn't a Racist

I was thinking that the "Sotomayor is a racist" meme being pushed by the far-right reminds me in a roundabout way of US-Canada relations. No, bear with me.

Canadians think about the US all the time. They have to. We're ten times their size. Virtually everything we do has the potential to dramatically affect their world.

Meanwhile, most Americans barely think about Canada at all. Can Americans name any two of the five largest cities? The capital? Any province? The name of the prime minister? Right.

As a Caucasian, I didn't think about race much growing up. I had no reason to.

But if I had grown up Hispanic, in a project, in an era when role models for me of my own ethnicity -- at least in popular culture -- were essentially non-existent?

Or if I had grown up African-American and spent many a dinner wondering if I'd be able to flag a taxi to take my date and me home, or if we'd have to walk?

Or if I had grown up Asian-American knowing that less than 20 years before I was born, my ancestors were being held in domestic prison camps on account of the color of their skin?

How could I not look at the world -- at least in part -- in terms of race? How could I not feel that my ethnicity shaped me and gave me a viewpoint distinct from that of people from different backgrounds?

And would my race-influenced viewpoint make me a racist? No, not in the slightest. It would mean that my world view was informed by race, not necessarily governed by it. It would mean that I took note of race, not necessarily that I discriminated on the basis of it.

To suggest otherwise is to lack empathy. Somehow I think the Rush Limbaughs and Newt Gingriches of the world might see this issue differently if they had ever suffered the effects of discrimination, even indirectly, even if only for a day.

And don't get me started on the "Sotomayor isn't bright" meme. Because stupid people are high school valedictorians, graduate summa cum laude from Princeton, and edit the Yale Law Journal. For pete's sake.

April 24, 2009

Research = Bad

The nomination of Governor Kathleen Sibelius of Kansas to head the Department of Health and Human Services is being held up in the Senate:

President Obama will have to wait a bit longer to round out his Cabinet. Senate Republicans refused today to allow a confirmation vote on his health secretary nominee Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.)...

At the start of the session today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) proposed taking a vote after five hours of debate. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objected, arguing that lawmakers needed more time to consider her "fairly contentious" selection.

A handful of Republicans have complained about Sebelius' support for abortion rights and her failure to report the full extent of campaign contributions she received from a physician who performs abortions.

Fine, this is how the game is played. I get that.

But then comes the next paragraph of the story, which so neatly, so concisely, so perfectly encapsulates what has gone wrong with the Republican party over the last eight years:

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) opposes Sebelius because of the Obama administration's support for research on the comparative effectiveness of disease treatments. He said he fears the evidence-based approach, coupled with information on price, could lead to rationing of care.
In other words, research is bad if it might lead to a conclusion you don't like.

I'm an Independent, not a registered Republican or Democrat. I enthusiastically voted for Barack Obama, and am delighted to have him as our President, but I don't agree with everything he has done to date. I want an effective opposition challenging him and the Democrats. But this is more of the same ideology-over-facts approach that has led to such disaster in recent times.

February 24, 2009

Revisiting the Stimulus

A friend of mine said to me recently,

"You haven't blogged about the stimulus. Actually, you haven't blogged about anything lately."

Fair point, that last. But as for the stimulus, my very late thoughts are as follows:

I accept the need to stimulate the economy. I dislike deficit spending, but understand that failing to take steps to boost the economy right now could have long-term, highly unpleasant impacts (such as Japan's "lost decade"). I also accept that not all stimulus can be infrastructure-related -- that it wouldn't be practical to spend that much money on construction projects that quickly, and there are many people hurting right now, and we can help them in ways that are stimulative.

That said, I feel that an opportunity was missed with this package -- not permanently, but lost for the tine being. I feel that we missed an opportunity to take dramatic steps to improve our nation's infrastructure in ways that could have positive and long-lived economic and environmental impacts.

For example, in Decembe 2007, three authors wrote an article in Scientific American proposing a massive program based on solar power to end US dependence on foreign oil and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. From the article's summary:

A massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050.

A vast area of photovoltaic cells would have to be erected in the Southwest. Excess daytime energy would be stored as compressed air in underground caverns to be tapped during nighttime hours.

Large solar concentrator power plants would be built as well.

A new direct-current power transmission backbone would deliver solar electricity across the country.

But $420 billion in subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would be required to fund the infrastructure and make it cost-competitive.

Obviously we couldn't spend $420 billion on a new plan in a year and a half. But could we have made a substantial start on it? Say, $40 billion of effort?

Or for another example, California voters approved a ballot measure to begin work on a high-speed rail system linking San Francisco to San Diego. Trains would travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours, 38 minutes -- that's downtown to downtown. The estimated cost to build the system is $45 billion.

California's project is 1 of 10 Federally recognized Designated High-Speed Rail Corridors around the country. I'm guessing that, all told, they represent something like $300-500 billion in total spending, if all were built. Yet the stimulus package has only $8 billion for high-speed rail, and that was a last-minute increase (from $2 billion) pushed by the Obama administration.

I hope there's a plan for more dramatic investments in our infrastructure. I'm disappointed there isn't more of this in the stimulus package as signed into law. Here's hoping there's a plan for addressing this.

January 22, 2009

US Democracy Server: Patch Day

Via Joi Ito, this description of the transition of power as an MMO change log is excellent:

US Democracy Server: Patch Day

Version 44.0


  • Leadership: Will now scale properly to national crises. Intelligence was not being properly applied.
  • A bug has been fixed that allowed the President to ignore the effects of debuffs applied by the Legislative classes.
  • Drain Treasury: There appears to be a bug that allowed loot to be transferred from the treasury to anyone on the President’s friends list, or in the President’s party. We are investigating.
  • Messages to and from the President will now be correctly saved to the chat log.
  • Messages originating from the President were being misclassified as originating from The American People.
  • A rendering error that frequently caused the President to appear wrapped in the American Flag texture has been addressed.
Much more at the link. Highly recommended.

January 20, 2009


It has been 710 days since Barack Obama announced his candidacy. When I saw his speech, I thought the country was ready to elect an African-American president.

It has been 437 days since Obama spoke at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa. When I saw his speech, I decided to support him in the Democratic primaries.

It has been 383 days since Obama won the Iowa caucuses. When I saw the returns come in, I felt that he was going to win both the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

It has been 231 days since Obama gathered enough delegates to assure himself of the nomination.

It has been 146 days since Obama was named the Democratic nominee for president.

It has been 77 days since Obama won the election and became the President-elect.

Somehow, with all this time to prepare for it, with all this time believing his election was possible, then inevitable, then a certainty, today was no less emotional for me.

President Obama, may you have every success in the coming years. Congratulations to you.

And congratulations to us all.

November 06, 2008

If I Could Make a Request

I've been thinking about what it is I hope President-elect Obama will do once he takes office. Obviously there's a long wish list out there. The jobless want him to address unemployment. Unions want him to make it easier to organize. College students want him to lower the cost of education. Retirees want him to strengthen Medicare. The list goes on.

All these concerns are understandable. If I lost my job, finding a new one would be my priority, and I would want the President to help -- not directly, of course, but by creating a climate favorable to job creation. If I were retired, health care would be a critical concern, and I would want the President to ensure that Medicare would continue to be around for me.

But I'm not jobless and I'm not retired. I'm not a union member or a student. There's nothing in my life driving me to look to the government for assistance. So what it is that I want?

If I could make a request of the new President, it would be this:

Look to the future.

Mr. President-elect, I know you face a daunting list of action items. You are about to inherit the most challenging environment for a new president in my lifetime (which is only slightly shorter than yours). Many of the issues you must address are acute and demand immediate attention before they metastasize into larger problems.

That said, please keep in mind that we have been borrowing from the future to finance prosperity today. Yes, of course, this includes the national debt, which is incomprehensibly large and which will consume an ever-larger share of our budget in service payments if we don't do something about it. But it goes beyond fiscal issues alone. We have been adding carbon to the atmosphere because it has been cheaper to pollute than not to do so. We have been creating and extending entitlement programs without a clear path to pay for them in the future because doing so makes our lives easier today.

The problem is that all these bills -- essentially, national credit card bills for purchases we as a society are making, enjoying, and consuming today -- will come due for our children and our grandchildren. And it's hard for me to imagine many things more unfair than that.

Simply put, we as a nation have been living beyond our means. In the 2000s, we have run up inexcusably large deficits. In the 1990s, we stood by and did little or nothing while our allies began to address climate change. This is not a failing of Republicans or Democrats. It's a failing of us all.

Mr. President-elect, you have talked about the need for sacrifice. I believe that many Americans are prepared to make sacrifices if they clearly understand the purpose behind them. And I believe that many Americans are beginning to realize that we cannot continue to damage the future in order to make our lives easier today. So if you ask me to sacrifice, and if you can explain to me that my sacrifice will be to help undo this damage, and to begin to pay the various monetary, environmental, and other debts I have accumulated as a citizen of this nation, then I will make such sacrifice not reluctantly, not begrudgingly, but enthusiastically, and will think even more of you for asking it of me.

November 04, 2008


With two hours' perspective on Barack Obama's victory, what I'm left with is this: we are better as a nation than I feared we had become.

I'm delighted beyond words to be proved wrong.

Breaking Radio Silence

I've been waiting -- for months now -- for the right time to start blogging again. I can't imagine a more important or historic day: we're about to elect either the first African-American President-elect or the first female Vice President-elect in the history of the US.

The campaign that ends today has gone on so long, and received so much attention in the media, that I can't think of anything I could say about it that would be novel. What I can say is purely personal: I made the decision to support Barack Obama about this time last year, and since then, I've had no reason to reconsider that decision. In fact, watching how Obama has handled himself over the course of the campaign has convinced me repeatedly that I made the right decision.

Whatever your political beliefs, if you're a US citizen, I hope you vote today, if you haven't done so already. If we're to solve the daunting problems that face us as a nation, it will be because millions of citizens demand change -- and that change starts with becoming involved in the political process and electing leaders who will bring about the transformation we want and need. So whatever your concerns -- war, the economy, the environment, the national debt, education, health care, human rights, or others -- identify the candidates you believe will do the best possible job and vote for them. Then, stay involved in the process by insisting that elected officials follow up on their commitments.

October 13, 2007

"The Sheer Wasted Opportunity of It All"

I think Thomas Friedman does the best job I've yet seen of predicting how future historians will judge Bush's presidency:

"No matter what happens, sooner or later character in leadership is revealed," said David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making." "Gore lost the election and had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He took the initiative to get the country and the world to focus on a common threat -- climate change. Bush won the election and for the first year really didn't know what to do with it. When, on 9/11, we and the world were suddenly faced with a common threat -- terrorism and Al Qaeda -- the whole world was ready to line up behind him, but time and again he just divided us at home and abroad."

Indeed, Mr. Bush, rather than taking all that unity and using it to rebuild America for the 21st century, took all that unity and used it to push the narrow agenda of his "base." He used all that unity to take a far-right agenda on taxes and social issues that was going nowhere on 9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world.

Never has so much national unity -- which could have been used to develop a real energy policy, reverse our coming Social Security deficit, assemble a lasting coalition to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe even get a national health care program -- been used to build so little. That is what historians will note most about Mr. Bush's tenure -- the sheer wasted opportunity of it all.

Yes, Iraq was always going to be hugely difficult, but the potential payoff of erecting a decent, democratizing government in the heart of the Arab world was also enormous. Yet Mr. Bush, in his signature issue, never mobilized the country, never punished incompetence, never made the bad guys "fight all of us," as Bill Maher put it, by at least pushing through a real energy policy to reduce the resources of the very people we were fighting. He thought he could change the world with 50.1 percent of the country, and he couldn't.

"That is what historians will note most about Mr. Bush's tenure -- the sheer wasted opportunity of it all." Sounds spot-on to me. Think of what could have been accomplished had Bush been a better man. It's sad. And it's not just the wasted opportunity of national unity, but the fact that Bush's policies have so polarized the country and the world. When he leaves office, he will leave the US in a far worse position than he found it.

Our nation is divided, our reputation around the world is at rock-bottom, we're running massive deficits, we've spent nearly half a trillion dollars on a war that has degenerated into an ethnic and religious civil conflict, we've lost nearly 4,000 soldiers representing the best of our country, at least 75,000 Iraqi civilians have died, our actions have "substantially strengthened bin Laden's network"... and Al Qaeda's original expenditures to set all this in motion were half a million dollars and the lives of 19 of its men. Who got the better of whom?

October 10, 2007

Fiscal Irresponsibility

From Thomas Friedman's latest column:

Every so often a quote comes out of the Bush administration that leaves you asking: Am I crazy or are they? I had one of those moments last week when Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, was asked about a proposal by some Congressional Democrats to levy a surtax to pay for the Iraq war, and she responded, "We've always known that Democrats seem to revert to type, and they are willing to raise taxes on just about anything."

Yes, those silly Democrats. They'll raise taxes for anything, even -- get this -- to pay for a war!

And if we did raise taxes to pay for our war to bring a measure of democracy to the Arab world, "does anyone seriously believe that the Democrats are going to end these new taxes that they're asking the American people to pay at a time when it's not necessary to pay them?" added Ms. Perino. "I just think it's completely fiscally irresponsible."

Friends, we are through the looking glass. It is now "fiscally irresponsible" to want to pay for a war with a tax.

The Bush administration and the Republican party have abandoned any and all pretense of fiscal responsibility. The problem is that, notwithstanding the proposed surtax mentioned above, Congressional Democrats aren't stepping up to the plate to do the job. Like their Republican counterparts, they're only too happy to saddle future generations with debt to pay for new programs today -- programs they believe will help them curry favor with constituents and be re-elected.

How are we going to escape this cycle?

October 05, 2007

Obama and the Flag Pin

In Iowa, Barack Obama was asked why he doesn't wear a flag pin on his lapel (coverage here and here). His response?

Somebody noticed I wasn't wearing a flag lapel pin and I told folks, well you know what? I haven't probably worn that pin in a very long time. I wore it right after 9/11. But after a while, you start noticing people wearing a lapel pin, but not acting very patriotic. Not voting to provide veterans with resources that they need. Not voting to make sure that disability payments were coming out on time.

My attitude is that I'm less concerned about what you're wearing on your lapel than what's in your heart. And you show your patriotism by how you treat your fellow Americans, especially those who served. You show your patriotism by being true to our values and our ideals and that's what we have to lead with is our values and our ideals.

I'm amazed that any serious candidate for the presidency would say this, and delighted that the candidate who said it is Obama. It would be far, far easier to just wear the lapel pin and avoid any potential controversy. I'm sure that's what any $200-an-hour political consultant would say. "Why do something that could come back to bite you? Just wear the pin."

I've long said that a fundamental problem with politics is that the skills necessary to get elected have little or nothing to do with the skills necessary to govern. Obama may or may not become our next President, but in a world that rewarded intelligence, thoughtfulness, and honesty, he'd be a shoo-in.

July 15, 2007

Power and Its Limits in Today's World

Retired British Army general Michael Rose recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times comparing the effect on Britain of its loss in the War of Independence to the possible effects on the US of either withdrawing from or hunkering down in Iraq. You know where he's going from the title, "How a Revolution Saved an Empire":

Britain was near bankruptcy when peace with America was officially signed. [William] Pitt [the Younger], however, realized that because of industrialization his nation was about to experience unprecedented economic growth. He rose to prime minister in 1783 and set about creating the necessary economic conditions for Britain to become the workshop of the world.

Pitt also passed the India Bill in 1784 -- thus ensuring that the sort of poor administration that had soured relations with the American colonies would not be repeated in Britain’s other territories...

Most important, Pitt set about rebuilding the British Navy and Army, for he could see that war with France was looming once again. He would often visit the yards to ensure that ships were being constructed on time. Under the energetic direction of the Duke of York, the king’s second son, the army was reorganized and retrained. New commanders were appointed for both services -- men like Nelson and Wellington -- who were determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors. It is hardly an overstatement to say that had Britain not ended the American War of Independence when it did, it could never have been in a position to defeat Napoleon.

Rose then goes on to draw an explicit parallel with the United States in 2007:

Today, of course, the United States finds itself in much the same position as Britain in 1781. Distracted and diminished by an irrelevant, costly and probably unwinnable war in Iraq, America could ultimately find itself challenged by countries like China and India. Unless it can find a leader with the moral courage of Pitt, there is a strong probability that it will be forced to relinquish its position as the global superpower -- possibly to a regime that does not have the same commitment to justice and liberty that the United States and Britain have worked so hard to extend across the world over the past two centuries.
There are a variety of forms of power that states wield to advance their goals: not just military, but economic, intellectual, and even moral. After 9/11, the Bush Administration made the conscious decision to fight terrorism primarily with military power. We even have a "War on Terror", which Jerry Brown insightfully called a "war on a strategy".

Rose is absolutely right to point out that the United States has challengers coming on strong. Could we take any country in the world in a stand-up fight? Of course, but then we should expect nothing less given that we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined (or we did the last time I checked). But that's today.

We've lost the moral power we had prior to and even immediately after 9/11 -- after invading Iraq on false pretenses, and then showing disregard for our own standards of civil liberties, who takes our President seriously? If I don't believe him when he talks, how can I expect someone in Europe to do so -- much less someone in, say, the Middle East? Without that moral power, we may find that we don't have quite so many friends ready to help us when we need it -- and note that we are working with much of NATO just to deal with the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Economic power? Yes, we're still the greatest economic power in the world. But the massive deficits we're running are creating a hole out of which our children and grandchildren will have to dig themselves, just as China is becoming directly competitive with them on virtually every front.

Intellectual power? The US is in many fields still the preeminent source of innovation in the world today. Thank goodness for our university system and our venture capital community, as well as our inherent risk-taking, fault-tolerating, entrepreneurship-celebrating national psychology. But in certain fields, we could find ourselves lagging, if we're not doing so already. Restrictions on stem cell research mean that some of the best work is being done overseas. Failure to enact useful environmental legislation is causing us to fall behind in green technologies.

So if our moral power is nearly gone, our economic power on a long, slow, deficit-induced decline, and our intellectual power inconsistent across industries, what does this mean for us? The days of relying on military power alone to maintain one's position in the world are long gone, for a variety of reasons. One is that the world economy is so interconnected that for one major state to attack another would rightly be seen by all sides as self-destructive, and so highly unlikely. Another is the law of accelerating returns (per Ray Kurzweil): with the rate of progress itself progressing, very slight advantages become dramatic. Technology in the year 1007 AD looked nearly identical to technology in the year 987 AD. But look at how profoundly technology has altered our world in the last two decades. If we fall behind our competitors even by a few years, we could find ourselves at a serious disadvantage.

Rose doesn't offer any prescriptions beyond an implied recommendation that we extricate ourselves from Iraq. That's a good start, one that I believe would make the US and its allies safer almost immediately. But there needs to be much more than that. We need to reiterate -- through actions, not words -- our commitment to human rights and the rule of law. We need a government that brings its fiscal house in order and returns to the budget surpluses of the 1990s. We need to ensure that in every critical industry, we're doing everything we can to be the most competitive nation in the world.

For the sake of the US -- and the rest of our interconnected world -- I hope our next president and the congress he or she inherits are up to these tasks.

July 14, 2007

Impeachment Polls, Then and Now

Via Andrew Sullivan, Eric Kleefeld reports on recent polls of whether Americans favor impeachment proceedings against President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Via The Crossed Pond, Ana Marie Cox digs up comparable pre-impeachment numbers for President Clinton.

The bottom line is that 36 percent of Americans favored impeachment hearings for Clinton in 1998. Today, 45 percent of Americans favor impeachment hearings for Bush, and 54 percent for Cheney.

July 03, 2007

Orin Kerr on the Case Against Libby

Via Andrew Sullivan, Orin Kerr makes this point on Scooter Libby's prosecution for perjury:

The Scooter Libby case has triggered some very weird commentary around the blogosphere; perhaps the weirdest claim is that the case against Libby was "purely political."

I find this argument seriously bizarre. As I understand it, Bush political appointee James Comey named Bush political appointee and career prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Plame leak. Bush political appointee and career prosecutor Fitzgerald filed an indictment and went to trial before Bush political appointee Reggie Walton. A jury convicted Libby, and Bush political appointee Walton sentenced him. At sentencing, Bush political appointee Judge Walton described the evidence against Libby as "overwhelming" and concluded that a 30-month sentence was appropriate. And yet the claim, as I understand it, is that the Libby prosecution was the work of political enemies who were just trying to hurt the Bush Administration.

I find this claim bizarre. I'm open to arguments that parts of the case against Libby were unfair. But for the case to have been purely political, doesn't that require the involvement of someone who was not a Bush political appointee? Who are the political opponents who brought the case? Is the idea that Fitzgerald is secretly a Democratic party operative? That Judge Walton is a double agent? Or is the idea that Fitzgerald and Walton were hypnotized by "the Mainstream Media" like Raymond Shaw in the Manchurian Candidate? Seriously, I don't get it.

Here's the Wikipedia article on the impeachment of President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. It includes, of course, lists of how the senators voted on each charge. It would be interesting to look up the Republican senators who voted to impeach Clinton then and who are now supportive of the commutation (if not pardon) of Libby, and compare their statements then and now.

May 25, 2007

Eye to Eye with The Economist

A year and a half ago, I wrote an entry on what I called the "great truths" that the Israelis and Palestinians would have to accept in order to make peace:

I think that the Palestinians and the Israelis each have a great truth that they have to face up to, but can't.

I believe that, for their part, the Palestinians have to realize that Israeli will never give them the right of return. They will never do this. If they did, they would be signing a death warrant for Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians would overwhelm the Jews, probably over time through higher birth rates, and then Israel as a safe haven run by and for Jews would cease to exist. So it won't happen. Not ever.

And I believe that, for their part, the Israelis have to realize that the West Bank is as gone as Gaza -- gone, gone, gone. Not tomorrow, not next year, but a hundred years from now at the outside, probably more like fifty, maybe even twenty, those settlements will be gone. Palestinian control of the West Bank is inevitable and once that happens, no matter what anyone says, the settlements are doomed.

This is from the latest issue of The Economist:

Despite all Israel's settlements, demography and justice still point to a border [with Palestine] based on the pre-1967 lines, with minor adjustments of the sort Bill Clinton suggested in 2000.

As Mr Clinton's failure at Camp David demonstrated, securing agreement for such a deal will be hard. The Clinton solution would require Israel to give up the bulk of its settlements in the West Bank, uproot a great many more settlers than it did in Gaza and share sovereignty over Jerusalem. The Palestinians would have to accept that most refugees would "return" not to their homes of 60 years ago inside Israel but to a new state in the West Bank and Gaza. Such compromises will hurt. But for either side to give less and demand more will merely tip the difficult into the impossible.

Right now both continue to offer too little and demand too much. Israel has at least abandoned the dream of a Greater Israel that bewitched it after the great victory of 1967. The illusion that the Palestinians would fall into silence has been shattered by two intifadas and every rocket Hamas fires from Gaza. Israel's present government says it is committed to a two-state solution. But it is a weak government, and has lacked the courage to spell out honestly the full territorial price Israelis must pay. The Palestinians have meanwhile gone backwards. If Hamas means what it says, it continues to reject the idea that Jews have a right to a national existence in the Middle East.

What self-defeating madness. For peace to come, Israel must give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem; the Palestinians must give up the dream of return and make Israel feel secure as a Jewish state. All the rest is detail.

May 23, 2007

The Rise of the Loonie

Last week, the Canadian dollar reached a 30-year high against the US dollar: 91.79 US cents to the Canadian dollar, which it hadn't seen since October 1977. (Since then, it has continued to rise, and is now at 92.41 US cents.)

My first visit to Canada was in March 1998, when I visited MGI Software in Toronto, a developer I was courting in my role as VP Developer Relations at Be. On the day of my arrival, 25 March, a Canadian dollar was worth 70.84 US cents. It continued to fall during the remainder of President Clinton's term in office. On the date of President Bush's inauguration, 20 January 2001, it was worth 66.12 US cents. It reached a low of 61.92 cents on 21 January 2002, and came close again exactly 10 months later, at 63.06 US cents, but it has been on a tear ever since. (Statistics via the FXHistory section of

Since Bush took office, the Canadian dollar is up 39.76 percent. When you consider that Canada has a comparable (though much smaller) economy, a comparable standard of living, a border that's essentially open to most trade, and a higher level of government services, this becomes an amazing statistic. It's what happens when one government runs budget surpluses year after year, while its neighbor, after briefly running a budget surplus under one president, begins running unprecedented budget deficits under his successor.

I compared the US and Canadian federal budgets back in 2003 (here and here). The Canadian government has continued its policy of fiscal restraint, while the US government seems to have learned little or nothing. Before long, the Canadian dollar will be at parity with the US dollar, and then surpass it. I hope someone in our elected government sits up and takes notice then.

May 13, 2007

"Je Veux Lancer un Appel..."

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Eugene Volokh, comes this amazing passage from French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy's first address to the nation (text as written here, text as delivered here):

Je veux lancer un appel à tous ceux qui dans le monde croient aux valeurs de la tolérance, de la liberté, de la démocratie, de l'humanisme, à tous ceux qui sont persécutés par les tyrannies et les dictatures. Je veux dire à tous les enfants à travers le monde, à toutes les femmes martyrisées dans le monde, je veux leur dire que la fierté, le devoir de la France sera d'être à leurs côtés.

La France sera aux côtés des infirmières libyennes (bulgares, ndlr) enfermées depuis huit ans, la France n'abandonnera pas Ingrid Betancourt, la France n'abandonnera pas les femmes qu'on condamne à la burqa, la France n'abandonnera pas les femmes qui n'ont pas la liberté. La France sera du côté des opprimés du monde. C'est le message de la France, c'est l'identité de la France, c'est l'histoire de la France.

Volokh's English version is as follows (I've made a few minor changes to his otherwise solid translation):

I want to launch a call to all those in the world who believe in the values of tolerance, of liberty, of democracy, and of humanism, to all those who are persecuted by tyrannies and by dictators. I want to speak to all the children of the world, and to all the martyrized women in the world, to say to them that the pride, the duty of France will be at their sides.

France will be at the sides of the Libyan (Bulgarian) nurses imprisoned for eight years, France will not abandon Ingrid Betancourt, France will not abandon women who are condemned to the burqa, France will not abandon women who do not have liberty. France will be at the side of the oppressed of the world. This is the message of France, this is the identity of France, this is the history of France.

If Sarkozy is sincere, and if he follows through on his promises, France has, in Volokh's words, "a new era of greatness" ahead of it. Bonne chance, Monsieur le Président.

April 01, 2007

Republicans on Habeus Corpus

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this blog entry from Ramesh Ponnuru:

Crane says he was disappointed with Romney's answer to his question the other night. Crane asked if Romney believed the president should have the authority to arrest U.S. citizens with no review. Romney said he would want to hear the pros and cons from smart lawyers before he made up his mind. Crane said that he had asked Giuliani the same question a few weeks ago. The mayor said that he would want to use this authority infrequently.
This is staggering. Two Presidential candidates were asked a direct question about a fundamental right guaranteed to us by the Constitution -- the right to seek relief from unlawful imprisonment -- and gave negative or waffling answers. We don't have transcripts of the original conversations, but if this entry is accurate, they might have gone something like these imagined exchanges:
Crane: Mayor Giuliani, do you believe the President should have the authority to arrest US citizens with no review?

Giuliani: Yes, but I would only use this authority infrequently.


Crane: Governor Romney, do you believe the President should have the authority to arrest US citizens with no review?

Romney: I would want to hear the pros and cons from smart lawyers before making up my mind about this.

What? You would use this authority only "infrequently"? Is that supposed to make me feel better? You want to hear "the pros and cons"? What pros and cons? This is habeus corpus! It can only be suspended in case of rebellion or invasion.

As Sullivan said in commenting on this:

I never thought I'd read a post like this in America in my lifetime. Isn't this power of a sovereign to detain any citizen without charge at any time part of the reason this country was founded? And now it is simply assumed that this kind of monarchical power is fine. A country that grants its executive the power to do this is definitionally not a free country. It really is as simple as that.
I guess at this point, we're just waiting for Alberto Gonzales to call habeus corpus "quaint" and be done with it.

By the way, I have no idea what Ponnuru's stance on this is. By "Crane", I presume he means Edward Crane of the Cato Institute, and anyone from the Cato Institute would be a strong defender of habeus corpus rights. On the other hand, Ponnuru has called Democrats "The Party of Death", so who knows?

March 29, 2007

McCain Following in DeLay's Footsteps

I used to have a soft spot for John McCain. I disagreed with him on many of his policy positions, but felt that he was always straightforward, always told the truth, and always owned up to the facts no matter where they might lead. If he had won the 2000 Republican nomination, I might even have voted for him over Al Gore (whom I deeply underappreciated at the time).

Now, though, he seems like just another politician, saying whatever he has to say to get elected. After seeing Tom DeLay lie about his own words when presented with evidence of them... well, make what you will of this exchange on CNN, found in this entry at Think Progress (found via Crooks and Liars):

CNN’S JOHN ROBERTS: I wanted to talk to you about the situation in Iraq. Yesterday in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on The Situation Room. I want to play this back for you. You had this to say about the situation there.

[McCAIN CLIP]: General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed humvee. I think you oughta catch up. You are giving the old line of three months ago. I understand it. We certainly don’t get it through the filter of some of the media.

ROBERTS: Senator, did you mean to say that, that General Petraeus goes out every day in an unarmed humvee?

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): I mean that there are neighborhoods safe in Iraq and he does go out into Baghdad and the fact is there has been significant progress and people are stuck in a time warp of three months ago. Of course, it’s still dangerous. Of course it’s still very dangerous. We only have two of the five brigades there and we are already seeing significant progress.

ROBERTS: Because I checked with General Petraeus’s people overnight and they said he never goes out in anything less than an up-armored humvee. You also told Bill Bennett on his radio program on Monday. You said there are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhood today yet retired General Barry McCaffrey said no Iraqi government official, coalition soldier, diplomat reporter could walk the streets of Baghdad without heavily armed protection. We’ve got two different stories here. Who’s right?

McCAIN: Well, I’m not saying they could go without protection. The President goes around America with protection. So, certainly I didn’t say that.

The sad thing here is that in attempting to look informed and correct, McCain makes himself look uninformed and incorrect. In attempting to make himself look strong, he makes himself look weak.

Imagine that he had replied by saying, "I was wrong about General Petraeus' vehicle, John. I was misinformed about that, and I'm sorry. And I didn't mean to say that you or I could walk around Baghdad without protection -- of course we couldn't. It's a dangerous situation, which is why we need our troops there. Without them, the conflict in Iraq will metastasize into something far more threatening to the region, the world, and of course the US. So of course we would need protection. But could we walk around given that protection? Yes, and I think that's an improvement from six months ago."

Not that I agree with that position, but it would have been honest given his viewpoint, it would have been consistent with his views on the war, and it would have made him look strong -- strong enough to admit his own mistakes.

March 24, 2007

"Drunk with Ambition"

Via Andrew Sullivan, via Taegan Goddard, comes a minor but eye-opening sequence from an interview of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay by Chris Matthews. You can watch the clip here -- and I recommend it -- while the transcript is below.

In this section of the interview, Matthews is asking DeLay about a passage in his new book:

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go -- you know one of the fellows we've had on this show on occasion is Dick Armey. We've had him on quite a bit. And I don't know him that well. I didn‘t have any problem with him. I didn't have to work with him. I thought he was an OK guy. He seems sort of a Knights of Columbus type to me, a regular guy.


MATTHEWS: I don't think he was Knights of Columbus. But he seemed like a regular guy. You say he was drunk with ambition.

DELAY: Actually that's not what I said. What I said was he is blinded by ambition. Drunk with ambition is a quote of a cliche. I said.

MATTHEWS: Oh, well, why would I underline it in the book? Go ahead, continue on your thought, he was blinded by ambition, I'll look for drunk.

DELAY: Look, what I did in the book, Chris, is I talked about all of our strengths and weaknesses and telling the story of what went on in the Republican majority over the last 12 years in this book, of course I'm going to talk about my strengths and my weaknesses and the players' strengths and weaknesses.

I compliment Armey on the fact that he put together the Contract with America and he did a fabulous job in writing the bills of our agenda of the [sic].

MATTHEWS: "He resented me for being the other Texan on the leadership team, and he resented anyone he thought might get in the way of his becoming speaker of the House. Beware the man drunk with ambition."

DELAY: Read the sentence before that, it said "blinded."

MATTHEWS: That's what I just did.

DELAY: "Blinded by ambition."

MATTHEWS: No. I'll read the sentence here. "He resented me" -- it's right here in your book. You have got to read it.


At this point, Matthews hands the book to DeLay, open to the page with the quote in question.

MATTHEWS: I'm sorry, Tom, it's there, I read you said he was drunk with ambition.

DELAY: Yes. That is the cliche. But right up here, I can't -- I don't have my.

MATTHEWS: Well, you didn't put it in italics.

DELAY: I don't have my glasses on. Up here it says blinded.

MATTHEWS: OK, OK, OK. So it is blinded or drunk with ambition.

DELAY: It's still a good book.

So the question is, if Tom DeLay will lie about his own words, written down in a book he wrote, when confronted with the book itself, what won't he lie about?

How can anyone have any faith in a person like this? I know there are still people out there who do, and I just can't get my head around it.

March 19, 2007

Antibiotics, Farming, and the Presidential Primaries

In my previous entry, I discussed the non-therapeutic of use of antibiotics for livestock, and the nearly-unbelievable statistics that the US livestock industry uses eight times as much antibiotics as are used to treat all human disease -- and this while the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics is growing rapidly.

All this would normally lead me to say that politicians -- including those currently running for President -- looking for issues on which most Americans can agree should get out in front on this and propose far-reaching restrictions on the use of antibiotics in in agriculture. This is the kind of issue that most people don't know about, but if they did, they'd react forcefully to it: "What? We give livestock eight times as much antibiotics as we do humans even though they're not sick? And more people are dying every year because of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Why hasn't anyone said anything about this? Someone needs to end it!"

On the other hand, our Presidential primary voting system means that candidates spend most of the year before an election -- as in this year -- pandering to the residents of Iowa, a state that poorly represents the country as a whole. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2000, the population of the US was 75.1 percent white, 12.3 percent black or African-American, 3.6 percent Asian, and 12.5 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Meanwhile, Iowa was 93.9 percent white, 2.1 percent black or African-American, 1.3 percent Asian, and 2.8 percent Hispanic or Latino (of any race). Perhaps more to the point, while 20.6 percent of Iowa residents were employed in the agricultural sector in 2002, the comparable statistic for the US as a whole was 14.3 percent.

In other words, Iowans are 1.44 times more likely than Americans as a whole to be employed in agriculture. They're also 1.25 times more likely to be white, 5.86 times less likely to be black or African-American, 2.77 times less likely to be Asian, and 4.46 times less likely to be Hispanic or Latino.

This is not to say that the people of Iowa are less wise than Americans as a group. This is not to say that the people of Iowa are less honest, less prudent, less thoughtful, or less concerned with the future of their country. I'm sure the people of Iowa are, more or less, as wise, honest, prudent, thoughtful, and concerned as the average American. But representative they are not. And as long as Iowa (and New Hampshire, for that matter) continue to exert influence on Presidential candidates so far out of proportion to their population, then we will continue to have Presidential candidates who -- for example -- are scared to say anything that could be construed as anti-farming. Even something as blatantly obvious as ending the abuse of antibiotics by the livestock industry.

October 28, 2006

Limbaugh, Fox, and Civil Discourse

1. Watch Michael J. Fox's campaign ad for Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill.

2. Watch Rush Limbaugh's critique of the ad (shown the first two and a half minutes of this Keith Olbermann piece).

3. Watch Katie Couric's interview with Fox (transcript here).

Now, having watched these videos, if you don't conclude that Michael J. Fox is conducting himself with extraordinary civility, dignity, and grace under pressure that is difficult to imagine, well, you and I see the world through very different lenses.

This, for me, was the money quote from Katie Couric's interview with Fox:

I want to make that point too, that people that are against stem cell research, embryonic or otherwise, whatever, I couldn't respect them more and they prayed on it and they've thought about and they can't get their head around it or their heart around it, then great, fantastic. I admire them and I respect them. All I have to say to them respectfully, if there was a majority that all prayfully and thoughtfully and emotionally and intellectually and in every other way, weighed this and came on the other side, and said 'No, I think this is the right thing to do,' to very carefully tread these waters, to save these lives, then you have to respect that too. And I don't resort to name-calling or inflammatory language or, mocking, or whatever you need to do to just have a discussion about it.
What a model for us all moving forward.

Interestingly, I thought about Fox's point here and edited out some things I had written about Rush Limbaugh in the first draft of this entry. Maybe civilizing the debate starts with a single person. Besides, I don't think I need to make a specific comment about Limbaugh -- whatever one thinks of him, he generally speaks for himself.

September 14, 2006

"They Will Feed Fear. We Will Appeal to Hope"

Who said this, and when?

In this election, they will speak endlessly of risk. We will speak of progress. They will make accusations. We will make proposals. They will feed fear. We will appeal to hope. They will offer more lectures, and legalisms, and carefully worded denials. We offer another way, a better way, and a stiff dose of truth.
The answer can be found here. Found via this blog (I'm not including the blogger's name here so as to make it a bit less obvious).

July 01, 2006

"This Was Hypocrisy at Its Worst"

Heard last night on News Hour, during their regular face-off between liberal Mark Shields, conservative David Brooks, and host Jim Lehrer. As you expect, they're usually polar opposites, but last night they pretty much agreed on everything, but this exchange was particularly notable:

Jim Lehrer: The desecration of the flag amendment, the burning of the flag amendment, did not get its one vote it needed, the sixty-seventh vote it needed to become a constitutional amendment as far as the Senate's concerned. How do you read that?

Mark Shields: This one really made me angry.

Jim Lehrer: Made you angry?

Mark Shields: It made me angry because I listened to those speeches. I listened to the people advocating it, and they talk about our fighting men and women. If they really are remotely authentic or sincere about our fighting men and women and honoring them, how about body armor? How about armorning Humvees? How about not cutting veterans' benefits? How about not putting our troops in a position where they're ordered to perform tortuous acts? How about sending enough troops into battle? I mean, I just -- this was hypocrisy at its worst.

David Brooks: Mark and I burn each others' columns. We find that emotionally satisfying. I recommend that to everybody. No, I think it's a stupid idea. I sort of respect the immense popular support it has, and i somehow think people must associate it with something real. Personally, I think you should be allowed to burn the flag, I think that's in the Constitution, so I think that's -- mucking up the Constitution with this amendment is trivializing it to me.

June 25, 2006

"One of the Screw-Loose People"

Via Andrew Sullivan, a Congressional candidate in Utah believes that Satan is actively opposing him:

"There's another force that wants to keep us from going to Washington, D.C.," [John] Jacob said. "It's the devil is what it is. I don't want you to print that, but it feels like that's what it is."

Jacob said Thursday that since he decided to run for Congress against Rep. Chris Cannon, Satan has bollixed his business deals, preventing him from putting as much money into the race as he had hoped.

Now, to be fair, it's not quite as bad as one might think. It's not that Jacob thinks Satan is pulling for his opponent -- he thinks Satan is against him as well. But still... here's my favorite quote:

"You know, you plan, you organize, you put your budget together and when you have 10 things fall through, not just one, there's some other, something else that is happening," Jacob said.

Asked if he actually believed that "something else" was indeed Satan, Jacob said: "I don't know who else it would be if it wasn't him. Now when that gets out in the paper, I'm going to be one of the screw-loose people."


June 21, 2006

Our Orwellian Executive Branch

From an EFF e-mail I just received:

Late last Friday night, the Government filed its reply brief, providing a last round of written briefing in advance of this week's hearing in our case against AT&T for collaborating with the Government's surveillance program. Finally the Administration has come out and flatly said what it has hinted at throughout its arguments: that the program is above the law.

The Government wrote that "the court -- even if it were to find unlawfulness upon in camera, ex parte review -- could not then proceed to adjudicate the very question of awarding damages because to do so would confirm Plaintiffs' allegations."

Essentially the Government is saying that, even if the Judiciary found the wholesale surveillance program was illegal after reviewing secret evidence in chambers, the Court nevertheless would be powerless to proceed. The Executive has asserted that the Program, which has been widely reported in every major news outlet, is still such a secret that the Judiciary (a co-equal branch under the Constitution) cannot acknowledge its existence by ruling against it. In short, the Government asserts that AT&T and the Executive can break the laws crafted by Congress, and there is nothing the Judiciary can do about it.

Put another way, what the government is saying is,

Even if the court finds our surveillance program illegal, the court can't rule against it because to do so would be to acknowledge its existence.
Am I the only one besides the EFF who finds this profoundly troubling -- that the Executive branch has asserted that it can, on its own, engage in activities that are so secret that no court can be allowed to rule against them because to do so would confirm their existence?

And of course it almost goes without saying that this is one of the most Orwellian things I've heard in a long time. "You can't rule against this program that you know about because to rule against it would be to confirm that you know about it."

The EFF page on this case can be found here.

June 15, 2006

Oh, Look, There's Some Money After All

The other day, I satirically wrote,

Money for handicapped children or money for public broadcasting? Clearly Congress has been doing an incredible job, trimming so much fat out of the budget that we're down to choosing between handicapped children and public broadcasting...

For Representative [Ralph] Regula [R-OH] to have made it out to be a choice between handicapped children and public broadcasting, obviously Congress wouldn't be funding such luxuries as a virtual reality spray paint simulator, a commemorative celebration, or fighter jets that the Pentagon didn't request [as they did in 2005]. Right?

As I well knew, I was wrong, and it didn't take long for a story to come along to show me how wrong I was:

The Boeing Co. won approval Tuesday from a House panel for $798 million to fund further production of the C-17 transport plane, an action that may save a California factory the Pentagon wants to shut down.

The House Appropriations Committee, in a military spending bill set for a full House vote next week, provided the money to buy three C-17s more than the 180 on order, brushing aside Defense Department objections...

The committee's action was taken "in recognition of the C-17 Globemaster's performance in the global war on terrorism and to preserve" the production line, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who chairs the military appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday.

So we're spending $798 million on airplanes the Pentagon says it doesn't want. That's close to a billion dollars. But according to Representative Regula, we have to "choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting". Or we could choose to fully fund both programs (and more) simply by not buying planes the Pentagon doesn't want.

Congressional Time Management

Andrew Sullivan notes the Christianist organization Concerned Women for America's backing of a proposed law to ensure the words "under God" remain in the Pledge of Allegiance:

Concerned Women for America's (CWA's) Director of Government Relations Lanier Swann will join other conservative leaders in speaking at a press conference tomorrow in support of Sen. Jon Kyle's (R-Arizona) and Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Missouri) Pledge Protection Act. This legislation would ensure the protection of the phrase "under God" in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The press conference will be held on Flag Day, which marks the day in 1777 when John Adams proposed the stars and stripes as the official United States flag.

Swann said, "As Americans commemorate Flag Day, it is also appropriate to remember the importance of keeping God in our Pledge. CWA strongly supports the mention of God in our nation's oath in keeping with our constitutional freedoms. We are free from an established religion and free to worship as we choose. Our country's founding fathers were men of faith who intentionally included the phrase 'under God' in an oath that serves as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism to our great country.

Sullivan goes on to document how the CWA's version of history is staggeringly inaccurate (the Pledge was written in 1892 and the words "under God" added in 1954).

I'm of two minds about this. Part of me thinks that Congress is so spectacularly inept that if they want to occupy themselves with debating gay marriage, flag burning, and the Pledge of Allegiance, let them. Their amendments won't pass (I hope), and a new law on the Pledge will have little or no effect. And meanwhile, they're not off making even stupider laws. But in the end, I can't help but think that surely there must be something more worthwhile on which Congress can spend its time than this sort of claptrap. And I can't help but think of how pathetic this is. With all the problems in the world, the Republicans are convinced that if they can show their concern over the grave threat to society posed by gays marrying, flags being burned (which hasn't happened in how long again?), and leaving God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, they'll energize their base of supporters to help them win the elections this Fall. It's as simple as that. And the only thing more pathetic would be if it were to work.

June 08, 2006

Handicapped Children vs. Public Broadcasting Smackdown

Via, this story in The Boston Globe:

House Republicans yesterday revived their efforts to slash funding for public broadcasting, as a key committee approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that could force the elimination of some popular PBS and NPR programs.

On a party-line vote, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees health and education funding approved the cut to the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. It would reduce the corporation's budget by 23 percent next year, to $380 million, in a cut that Republicans said was necessary to rein in government spending.

I disagree with this move, but that's fine. People of reason can disagree about such things. But later in the story comes a quote that is mind-boggling:

"We've got to keep our priorities straight," said Representative Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the appropriations panel that approved the cut. "You're going to choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting."
Is that the choice? Money for handicapped children or money for public broadcasting? Clearly Congress has been doing an incredible job, trimming so much fat out of the budget that we're down to choosing between handicapped children and public broadcasting.

Of course, Congress wasn't always so frugal as it must be now. For example, in 2005, they were a bit more spendthrift:

In 2005, earmarked funding is going to projects as diverse as entirely stainless steel bathrooms ($4 million), airbags for aircraft ($2 million) and leak proof transmission drip pans ($3 million). Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) requested $4.3 million for a program that the Pentagon did not request funds for: the SmarTruck, a souped-up Ford F-350 for use in combat. The Defense budget also includes $3.75 million for alcoholism research at the Gallo center in San Francisco. Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) earmarked $110 million for two F-15's that the Pentagon didn't request. There is a $1 million earmark for the eradication of brown tree snakes in Guam (Senator Inouye, from Hawaii, is concerned they will spread), and $1.9 million for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration. Other nuggets include $1.5 million for a virtual reality spray paint simulator system in Pine City, Minnesota; $4.3 million for vocational education of Alaskan miners; and $1 million for a biathlon trail upgrade at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Naturally, those days are over. For Representative Regula to have made it out to be a choice between handicapped children and public broadcasting, obviously Congress wouldn't be funding such luxuries as a virtual reality spray paint simulator, a commemorative celebration, or fighter jets that the Pentagon didn't request. Right?

Not Dramatic Enough?

Perhaps my previous entry on the subject of Baghdad's murder rate wasn't dramatic enough. One commenter wrote:

If your figures are close to the truth, then I'm forced to concede that I had no idea DC was such a dangerous city.
Another wrote:
I think it is quite amazing that it is only 4X more likely to be murdered in Baghdad in the middle of an emerging civil war than in Washington D.C.
This reminds me of what Douglas Hofstadter once called "number numbness" -- the "inability to fathom, compare, or appreciate really big numbers or really small numbers" (definition here). So I'm going to recast my my numbers as percentage increases. In other words...
[Y]ou're 4.27 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US.
becomes "[Y]ou're 327 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US". Here goes:
  • You're 780 percent more likely to murdered in Baghdad as you are in Chicago.
  • You're 1,017 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Los Angeles.
  • You're 2,577 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in New York or San Francisco.
  • You're 4,242 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Seattle.
  • You're 9,671 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Honolulu.
Is that better?

June 06, 2006

"We Were Duped"

From a blog entry by Andrew Sullivan:

If I had been informed in early 2003 that the liberation of Iraq would be conducted outside the Geneva Conventions, I could not have supported what would have been an unjust war in its execution. Period. If the president had been candid and explained that this war would require America to jettison its long history of humane detention policies and become a nation that practices and outsources torture, I would have been unable to support the war. Those of us who believe in the American tradition of humane warfare and in the moral boundaries of just warfare are not fair-weather hawks. We simply expected America to retain its honor in warfare. We were duped.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

June 02, 2006

The UN Is After Our Guns!

According to this story in The Economist, the National Rifle Association's latest membership-boosting scheme is to claim that disarmament in war-torn regions shows that the UN is out to get Americans' guns:

Duku Paul does not know how many people he has killed. Though still young, he is a veteran of one of West Africa's nastiest civil wars. For more than a decade, he helped to burn, loot and bloody his homeland, Liberia. Then, in 2003, the United Nations, with American backing, brought peace. Bangladeshi blue helmets took Mr Paul's gun and gave him $300. Interviewed last year, he said he was sorry that he ever became a soldier, and that he wanted to get back to school.

Mr Paul was enrolled in what the UN calls a "disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration" programme. The world body is keen to promote such programmes wherever appropriate. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the lobby for American gun-lovers, does not like the sound of that.

"So, after we are disarmed, the UN wants us demobilised and reintegrated. I can hear it now: 'Step right this way for your reprogramming, sir. Once we confiscate your guns, we can demobilise your aggressive instincts and reintegrate you into civil society.' No thanks," shudders Wayne LaPierre, the indefatigable executive vice-president of the NRA.

Why does the UN want to take away Americans' guns? Because it is a club of governments, some of which want to "strip opposition forces of the means to challenge their authority," argues Mr LaPierre...

The NRA, like so many conservative American groups, has long detested the UN. But Mr LaPierre's claim that it is "the biggest coming threat" to gun-lovers represents a new emphasis...

For a truly all-embracing threat... the UN is hard to beat. Mr LaPierre predicts that the "global war on guns" will boost the NRA's membership from 4m to 8m, and reduce Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming president in 2008. This last point is crucial. The UN, whatever its evil aims, is hardly in a position to push Uncle Sam around. To disarm Americans, it would need Congress on its side, plus an American president willing to sign an anti-gun treaty and appoint Supreme Court justices willing to rule it constitutional.

I blogged earlier this week about a truly horrifying article describing the atrocities taking place in the civil war in the Congo -- atrocities so awful I still can't bring myself to describe them here. I'd suggest that Mr. LaPierre read that article to get a sense of perspective, but I'm sure his response would be simple: arm them all. Guns for everyone -- that will cut down the violence.

The NRA dreams of a future world in which we all carry weapons, and therefore are all as safe as can be. I wonder, have they really thought through the implications of what they advocate? Have they thought about taking their children to future malls in which every shopper has a concealed handgun, and they're truly comfortable with the idea? Or have they just not considered the implications of their positions?

In any case, for me, the NRA has stooped to a new low with this effort -- and that took some doing. Goodness knows the UN is far from perfect, but buying up weapons is a reasonable effort to try to end brutal, longstanding, pointless conflicts. The NRA leadership is smart -- smart enough to have built one of the most effective special interest groups in the country -- so they know that there's no possible relationship between ending civil wars in Africa and taking away weapons here. But they're more than willing to whip up fear where there should be none to serve their goal of amassing even more power. It's a sad thing.

May 22, 2006

A Democratic Contract for America

On The Huffington Post, Cenk Uygur writes about the "do nothing Democrats":

The Do Nothing Democrats are led by their New York Senators. Chuck Schumer who is in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2006 elections and Hillary Clinton who is supposedly the leading candidate for 2008 (I shudder at the thought). They have sent out the memo - do absolutely nothing until the 2006 election; we have a lead, let's sit on it. Bold, very, very bold.

Every sports fan knows what prevent defense does - it prevents victories. Action matters. It matters that we just added another $70 billion on top of our already grotesquely large deficit. It matters that the head of our CIA will be both incompetent and a wanton law-breaker. We cannot run out the clock to 2006, let alone 2008. These next two and half years matter.

Democrats have to fight back and win. If they don't, there is absolutely no point to their big leads in the polls. The American people aren't behind you because they won't you to do nothing. They're behind you because they want you to bring change.

There are less than five-and-a-half months until the general election, and I honestly can't think of one thing the Democrats have said they'll do when they're elected. Their entire platform seems to be:

  1. Republicans are unpopular.
  2. We're not Republicans.
  3. Vote for us!
This is not a winning strategy -- not in the long run, anyway.

What the Democrats need is the equivalent of the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America. Democrats derided it, but it helped the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives (and keep it for at least 10 years). Voters might have disagreed with one or more of its points, but they knew where the Republicans stood. They knew what their priorities were going to be -- at least if they kept their promises, which they did, at least as far as the contract went.

Yes, the Democrats need their own Contract with America. And the very first item in it should be the same as in the Republicans' version: a balanced budget amendment. What better way to say, "We're no longer the tax and spend party", and what better way to distinguish themselves from the current Congress, which has never met a spending program it didn't like?

More ideas for a Democratic contract? How about raising fuel economy standards? 93 percent of Americans think this is a good idea, but the Republicans won't do it. How about passing a line-item veto, making light of President Bush's failure to veto a single spending bill? How about ending the practice of earmarks -- no more bridges to nowhere? How about reviving the assault weapons ban? (I personally don't think it would have much effect, but it's the right side of the issue to be on.)

That's five ideas upon which Democrats should be able to agree. I've been working on this blog entry for 30 minutes. Surely with a few hours' thought, they can come up with five more.

Oh, and while they're at it, really tweak the Republicans by calling it the Contract for America.

May 19, 2006

Huffington on Gore

There's plenty of speculation on Al Gore's plans for the 2008 presidential election. Arianna Huffington goes to the heart of the matter:

Gore isn't running for office, and already the negative campaigning has begun. This is what anyone who takes a stand faces these days -- politics as demolition derby -- and why so many politicians operate out of fear. But when I asked Gore about it, he was unfazed.

I couldn't help but flash on the stiff, robotic Gore of the 2000 campaign. You could smell the fear on the Gore of 2000. Just as you could smell it on Kerry in 2004, as he ran a campaign that consistently chose caution over boldness.

And it's the same sickening scent that Hillary Clinton is wearing today: Eau de Don't Let Me Screw Up and Flush My Chances Down the Toilette...

Her fear has caused a complete disconnect from who she really is and what she really thinks (that is, if she even knows anymore).

Which is a shame -- both for her and for all politicians who are short-changing the smart, strong, determined leaders they could be. Instead, we get a seemingly endless lineup of fear-driven candidates who, with each new election cycle, become a little more wrinkle-free, a little more foible-free, a good bit less interesting -- and considerably more idea free. They are so programmed to avoid the pitfalls of actually standing for something, we might as well have robots running.

Whether Al Gore ends up running in 2008 or not, he is modeling the way our public figures, and especially our would-be presidents, should be operating -- from the heart and true to themselves. Standing for something more important than just winning, and more powerful than the fear of losing.

Candidates -- and especially Democratic ones -- need to stop fooling themselves that the road to victory is paved with pandering.

George W. Bush's message to the nation has been that we can have our collective cake and eat it, too. We can cut taxes while increasing spending. We can add new entitlements while our deficit skyrockets. We can go to war, but continue about our normal lives. How often has Bush used the word "sacrifice", except in the context of American soldiers in battle? How often has he talked about the sacrifices all Americans must make?

I've felt for a long time now that the public would reach out to someone who says, for a change, that we'll all need to make sacrifices if we're going to maintain our status as the world's leading superpower. If we want to go to war with the help of other nations, we're going to have to listen to their opinions. If we want to balance the budget, we're going to have to raise taxes. If we want to add new social programs, we're going to have to cut others. If we want to preserve the environment, we're going to have to give up -- or pay far more for -- our Hummers, our Escalades, and our G55s.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. I think most people realize that. To hear a candidate say it would be a breath of fresh air.

April 06, 2006

"I Say We... Nuke DeLay from Orbit"

Michael Crowley has a good bit for The New Republic Online on Tom DeLay's departure:

[N]o one ever called the Hammer self-aware. It's the same thing when he says his liberal enemies respect no bounds (see Texas redistricting), that they specialize in personal attacks (see impeachment), or that they're a bunch of pampered elites (see his personal butler). He truly is a fascinating specimen. Indeed, I'm reminded of a great scene from the movie Alien, wherein an android scientist warns the humans about their fate.
ASH: You still don't know what you're dealing with do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.

LAMBERT: You admire it.

ASH: I admire its purity, its sense of survival; unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.

Much as Ash admired the alien, on some level you have to admire Tom DeLay. He really will be missed.
This led to the following wonderful comment from a reader:

And much like the captain in Aliens, I say we dust off and nuke DeLay from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

March 10, 2006

BoingBoing's Greatest Moment

It's true, I'm biased: I think BoingBoing is the best blog going. But they surpassed themselves today.

There's a story that involves Secure Computing and its SmartFilter censorware, BoingBoing, and a Secure Computing employee who has been apparently outed as having a fairly interesting fetish. I don't need to repeat it here -- the blogosphere is covering the issue quite extensively. What I'm concerned with here is BoingBoing's response to this alleged outing:

We believe there's nothing wrong with consenting adults doing what they enjoy with other consenting adults, and writing about it on USENET if they want. If there's any black pot to Foote-Lennox's [Tomo Foote-Lennox, director of filtering data at Secure Computing, makers of SmartFilter] alleged charcoal grey kettle, it's us. We're all about celebrating the weird, about wooing the muse of the odd. About being in touch with your inner outsider.

What is relevant about the and posts attributed to Foote-Lennox is this: If one of us went to observe one of these parties and blogged about the fact that this subculture exists, Smartfilter would block it. No big deal if you're inside a corporate cubicle in the USA, because you can always access blocked sites from home or elsewhere. But netizens in countries that use Secure Computing's censorware to filter traffic nationwide effectively lose their right to access this information, and anything else Secure Computing deems naughty...

To sum up: It's wonderful to live in a country where you have the freedom to do your own freaky thing. It's terrible to live in a country that limits your freedom to be freaky. And it's hypocritical to celebrate your own freakiness to the fullest while helping oppressive governments restrict others from celebrating their own freakiness.

If the USENET archive posts attributed to Foote-Lennox are legit (they could be an elaborate hoax, but so far, no denial has been issued), it would appear that like all of us at BoingBoing, he uses the Internet to connect with and enjoy the odd things in the world that interest him -- but works tirelessly to stop the rest of us from doing the same.

We support the right of consenting adults around the world to enjoy diverse lifestyles, and read all about them on the internet.

Foote-Lennox speaks for a company that makes censorware. When questioned about his company's censorship of BoingBoing, he was dismissive of their complaints. It was then alleged (not by BoingBoing) that he had, in the past, posted information to the Internet that his company's own product would prevent users in many foreign countries from seeing -- not at work, not at home, not anywhere. In this light, the editors of BoingBoing would have been justified in going on the attack. Instead, they chose to point out the hypocrisy of his position without criticizing his alleged behavior. In fact, Xeni, Cory, and their co-editors went out of their way to point out their support for people to pursue their personal interests on the Internet -- not just themselves and their readers, but Foote-Lennox and anyone anywhere in the world who might want to read his alleged posts.

I told Xeni in a message that I thought this was one of BoingBoing's greatest moments. I was wrong. It's BoingBoing's greatest moment, period.

February 15, 2006

The Founding Fathers and Blasphemy

Andrew Sullivan writes:

The Concerned Women for America are now publishing articles by writers whose primary identification is with Christian Reconstructionists. The writer is clearly a follower of R.J. Rushdoony, a central figure in Reconstructionism. He backs anti-blasphemy laws. Reconstructionists are people who want to abandon the Constitution and institute Old Testament Biblical law -- stoning adulterers, executing homosexuals, etc. We're often told that the religious right are not theocrats. But CWFA is a mainstream part of the religious right. And if the reconstructionists are not theocrats, who on earth is?
Following this link from above leads us to this anti-blasphemy article:
When the Constitution was adopted, complete with the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, laws against blasphemy were in force in every state. In some states today -- including Massachusetts, if you can believe it -- blasphemy is still against the law, even though there haven't been any prosecutions for decades. At any rate, it's obvious that our country's founders, at least, never intended free speech to include a right to blasphemy.
This is so easily disprovable it's laughable. First, here's John Adams on the topic, from an 1825 letter to Thomas Jefferson:
We think ourselves possessed, or, at least, we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact! There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them. But as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed.
And here's Jefferson, from an 1814 letter to a bookseller who had been prosecuted for selling a book that Jefferson himself had bought:
I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason.

February 03, 2006

Fungibility and the Lesser of Two Evils

A recent e-mail of the day from one of Andrew Sullivan's readers:

President Bush worked in the oil industry for years. So did his father. So did many of his close friends. He obviously knows (I hope) that if new technologies were to reduce our total oil consumption by something like 5 million barrels a day by 2025 that no one can simply choose, on a country by country basis, where that savings is going to come from. Yet clearly this is what he implied; that the decrease would all come out of our Middle East imports. If anything, we're liable to get a greater proportion of our oil from the Middle East. Simple economics tells us that if we reduce our demand for oil imports the country that is likely to suffer most is Canada, as they have the highest costs of production. The cheapest oil comes from the Middle East.

So we're left with yet another 'lesser of two evils' conclusion here: either President Bush spent years in the oil industry (not to mention Harvard Business School) and yet failed to absorb even the most basic knowledge about that industry, or that he knows full well that what he's saying isn't true, but is willing to say it anyway if he believes it benefits him politically.

I've written about this before. Oil is a fungible resource. The only way to "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025," as the President promised in his State of the Union address, would be to raise the cost of Middle East oil relative to other oil, either by imposing taxes on Middle East oil or by subsidizing oil not from the Middle East. I'm no trade expert, but I'm pretty sure that either would be a glaring violation of our WTO obligations. So this is a ridiculous assertion, and like Sullivan's reader, I'm left wondering: is Bush uninformed about his supposed area of expertise, or is he lying?

January 28, 2006

"I Don't Think Anybody Could Have Predicted..."

Via Daily Kos -- which I read to see what the unrepentant, unapologetic, irrational left is thinking, just as I read Opinion Journal's "Best of the Web Today" to see what the unrepentant, unapologetic, irrational right is thinking -- nevertheless comes this striking juxtaposition:

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, take another one and slam it into the Pentagon." -- Condoleezza Rice, May 16, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In the two years before the Sept. 11 attacks, the North American Aerospace Defense Command conducted exercises simulating what the White House says was unimaginable at the time: hijacked airliners used as weapons to crash into targets and cause mass casualties.

One of the imagined targets was the World Trade Center. In another exercise, jets performed a mock shootdown over the Atlantic Ocean of a jet supposedly laden with chemical poisons headed toward a target in the United States. In a third scenario, the target was the Pentagon -- but that drill was not run after Defense officials said it was unrealistic, NORAD and Defense officials say.
-- USA Today, April 18, 2004

November 04, 2005

"Wacko" Strategy Explained

Via the Daily Kos, this is from an article in Salon. It's from a letter sent from a Republican lobbyist and former aide of Representative Tom DeLay to an Indian tribe, describing how to protect the tribe's gambling business:

"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees," Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them."
And there it is in black and white.

What I'm curious about is how the "wackos" will respond. How do you react to this if you're the kind of person who watches The 700 Club, listens to Christian radio, reads and responds to Christian direct mail and Websites, and answers the phone when it's your Christian telephone tree calling? Do you get angry? Or do you dismiss it in some way?

November 02, 2005

"The End of Pensions"

This long, detailed article by The New York Times is the best I've seen at explaining the state of defined benefit plans, both private and public, and how we got to be in the position we're in now (in brief, we're screwed, and it's likely to get worse).

The [Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation] is now $23 billion in the red -- a deficit that is expected to grow, significantly, as more companies go under. The balance sheet for the end of September will very likely show a deficit of more than $30 billion. If nothing is done to fix the system, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts, the deficit will mushroom to more than $100 billion within two decades. This liability will almost certainly fall back on the taxpayers, since the alternative to a bailout -- letting the pension agency fail --- would force aging former auto workers and other retirees onto the street.

As bad as that sounds, the problem of state and local government pensions is even worse. Public pensions, which are paid by taxpayers and thus enjoy an implicit form of insurance, are underfunded by a total of at least $300 billion and arguably much more...

According to Barclay's Global Investors, if you use realistic assumptions, the total underfunding in all public plans is on the order of $460 billion. If this figure is even close to true, future taxpayers will be hopelessly in hock to the police, firefighters and teachers of the past.

September 21, 2005

What's Wrong with American Politics

The Daily Kos has an entry on the report that a Democratic senator, Max Baucus of Montana, has announced his intention to vote to confirm John Roberts for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:

On a day that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) showed great leadership by announcing his opposition to John Roberts' confirmation to the SCOTUS, Max Baucus, Senator from Montana, demonstrated his wonderful backstabbing skills, undercutting his Leader by supporting Roberts:
Montana Senator Max Baucus announced today he will vote to confirm President Bush's pick for Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court...

"I call 'em as I see them," he said. "Judge Roberts indicated to me personally that he has a healthy respect for precedent and the hard-won rights of Americans. My only yardstick or litmus test is whether or not Judge Roberts is right for Montana and America. I've determined that he is." ... "Throughout my career, I've always tried to reach across party lines to do what's right," Baucus said. "This isn't about being a Democrat or Republican; it's about being a Montanan and American."

Well, I call em as I see them too. And I have found that Max Baucus meets my criteria for a gutless son of a bitch. Baucus demonstrates a healthy disrespect for his Leader in the Senate and for the values and principles that define the Democratic Party...

My yardstick tells me you are a gutless, unprincipled political coward with not an ounce of loyalty to your Party or respect for your Leader. What a useless tool you are.

When crossing party lines based on one's principles results in being labeled a "gutless, unprincipled political coward", it shows me how horribly wrong American politics has gone -- regardless of my personal political beliefs.

August 31, 2005

"Millions for Bridges..."

From a recent "Business Traveler" column by Joe Brancatelli for USA Today:

Millions for bridges, not a penny for defense: President Bush signed the $286.5 billion transportation bill this week and critics were horrified by the number of pork-laden local road projects. The two most notable bacon-soaked items are $223 million for the Gravina Island bridge and another $229 million for the Knik Arm Bridge. Both projects are in the Alaska district of Don Young, the chairman of the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee. The Gravina Island project will link the 8,000 residents of the city of Ketchikan with the 50 people on Gravina Island. Also on Gravina Island: Ketchikan Airport, which offers a dozen scheduled flights a day and is currently linked to the city by a 7-minute ferry ride. As currently planned, the 2-mile-long Gravina span will be nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. The Knik Arm Bridge would link Anchorage with Port MacKenzie, which has just one tenant. In contrast to Young's $452 million bridges, the nation has spent a total of $115 million on mass-transit security since 9/11. Mass-transit systems in the United States carry an estimated 14 million riders a day.

August 22, 2005

Israelis, Palestinians, and Great Truths

A friend recently asked me what I thought of what was happening in Israel. This prompted me to write something I had been meaning to write for a while now... and presto, I got an e-mail and a blog entry out of it.

I think that the Palestinians and the Israelis each have a great truth that they have to face up to, but can't.

I believe that, for their part, the Palestinians have to realize that Israeli will never give them the right of return. They will never do this. If they did, they would be signing a death warrant for Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians would overwhelm the Jews, probably over time through higher birth rates, and then Israel as a safe haven run by and for Jews would cease to exist. So it won't happen. Not ever.

And I believe that, for their part, the Israelis have to realize that the West Bank is as gone as Gaza -- gone, gone, gone. Not tomorrow, not next year, but a hundred years from now at the outside, probably more like fifty, maybe even twenty, those settlements will be gone. Palestinian control of the West Bank is inevitable and once that happens, no matter what anyone says, the settlements are doomed.

So what I wish is that Israel and Palestine would realize all this, and agree to a) no right of return, and b) Israel completely out of the West Bank. And I think an agreement like that would be something that most Middle East states could get behind, normalize relations with Israel as a result, and stop funding terrorism.

Here's the other thing I think: it's crazy to be worried about the short term, which is a few settlements here or there. The big picture is this: eventually, an Arab state will acquire the ability to wipe Israel off the face of the map. The only thing that will stop some Arab leader who wants to go down in history as the man who nuked Tel Aviv is not military power (not that Israel should disarm), but that Israel and its neighbors are so closely interlinked that for any of them to attack Israel would be as unimaginable as, say, Canada attacking the US, or Germany attacking Italy.

So if I were in charge of Israel, I would be trying to figure out how to cut a deal that would have the backing of the entire Middle East, that would take the Palestinian "problem" off the table for good, that would take away from dictators the leading excuse for the sins they commit against their own people in the name of anti-Zionism, and that would begin to bind together the countries there socially, economically, and maybe even politically.

June 01, 2005

Compare and Contrast

For fun, compare and contrast the following.

From the script for Team America: World Police:

Kim Jong-Il: Hans Brix? Aww no! Oh, herro. Great to see you again, Hans.
Hans Blix: Mr. Il, I was supposed to be allowed to inspect your palace today, and your guards won't let me in to certain areas.
Kim: Hans, Hans, Hans, we've been through this a dozen times! I don't have any weapons of mass destruction, okay, Hans?
Blix: Then let me look around so I can ease the UN's collective mind.
Kim: Hans, you're breakin' my balls here, Hans, you're breakin' my balls!
Blix: I'm sorry, but the UN must be firm with you! Let me see your whole palace, or else!
Kim: Or erse, what?
Blix: Or else we will be very, very angry with you, and we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are.

From The Onion:

US Intensifies Empty-Threat Campaign Against North Korea

WASHINGTON, DC -- During a recent press conference, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued another warning to North Korea, escalating the U.S. empty-threat campaign against the nation. "Make no mistake, if Kim Jong Il does not put a stop to the manufacturing of plutonium in his nation, we will come down on him quite hard," Rice said. "We demand compliance, and if we don't get it, then watch out." Rice went on to say that noncompliance would result in some action that "would be very bad indeed," adding that North Korea does not want to know what it will be in for.

And finally, from President Bush's most recent press conference:

Q Good morning, Mr. President. This morning you reiterated diplomacy as the way to deal with North Korea. With all due respect, some people say that's precisely the wrong approach because diplomacy has produced nothing, while at the same time it has allowed North Korea to progress in its nuclear program.


Q How do you -- what do you say to them?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, then let's see -- if it's the wrong -- if diplomacy is the wrong approach, I guess that means military. That's how I view it -- it's either diplomacy or military. And I am for the diplomacy approach. And so, for those who say that we ought to be using our military to solve the problem, I would say that, while all options are on the table, we've got -- we've got a ways to go to solve this diplomatically --

Q How long --

THE PRESIDENT: -- well, let me -- let me finish. No, I always get asked that, how long? How long are you going to do this? How long is that going to happen? Why don't you give us a timetable? I'm not giving timetables. I am going to say that we are -- and it's very important for our partners to understand that I believe the six-party talks can and will work. We're constantly in touch with our Chinese counterparts. Sometimes people move a little slower than American society in the world. And sometimes expectations around the world are maybe different from ours. But, fortunately, we've got everybody on the same page that says that the idea of North Korea having a nuclear weapon isn't good.

And by the way, that started with, as you know -- might recall, the visit I had with Jiang Zemin in Crawford. And we came out of that visit with a common declaration that said it's in our interests that North Korea not have a nuclear weapon. And that was a positive step forward because once you get a country to commit to that goal, then it makes it -- enables us to work together to achieve that goal in a peaceful way.

The other thing is, is that it's clear from the other five parties there -- the other four parties in our five-party coalition dealing with the sixth party, which is North Korea -- is that people do want to solve this issue diplomatically. And so it's a -- it's a matter of continuing to send a message to Mr. Kim Jong-il that if you want to be accepted by the neighborhood and be a part of the -- of those who are viewed with respect in the world, work with us to get rid of your nuclear weapons program.

April 17, 2005

The 2005 Theocracy Comeback Tour

With the Republicans' election wins in November, the United States now has the rough equivalent of a parliamentary majority. The party in power -- assuming it holds ranks -- can do pretty much whatever it wants. Leaving aside partisanship for a moment -- and only for a moment -- I find it curious that the Republicans seem to be focused on the powers they don't have instead of the powers they do:

Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, has agreed to join a handful of prominent Christian conservatives in a telecast portraying Democrats as "against people of faith" for blocking President Bush's [judicial] nominees.

Fliers for the telecast, organized by the Family Research Council and scheduled to originate at a Kentucky megachurch the evening of April 24, call the day "Justice Sunday" and depict a young man holding a Bible in one hand and a gavel in the other. The flier does not name participants, but under the heading "the filibuster against people of faith," it reads: "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith."

Found here in the New York Times, via OxBlog.

Why spend one's political capital to get 10 blocked judicial nominees through the Senate? Is there some larger purpose at work here? Some deft, subtle strategy that eludes me? Because from where I sit, I can't see it. From where I sit, it looks like the Republicans are like a spoiled child on his birthday, looking at the tower of gifts and throwing a tantrum over the one gift he didn't get.

It's worse than that. As far as I can tell, whatever the Republicans may wish their post-election message to be, in reality, based on their actions to date, it has been the following:

  • Social Security reform is a great idea.
  • Bankruptcy reform is going to help the average person.
  • It was urgent that Congress intervene in the Schiavo case.
  • That Tom DeLay, he's one fine, upstanding character.
If I were a Republican, I'd be furious with my party for squandering its opportunity like this. As it is, I'm not a Republican (nor am I a Democrat), and so, partisanship picked up from the side table once again, I find much of what the Republicans have been doing to be disgusting.

Social Security reform is a good idea in theory, but the President has never actually advanced a plan, and the plans advanced by his vassals have been incompetent at best. Bankruptcy reform is a reasonable idea in theory, but the bill passed was so one-sided against consumers, it could have come straight out of the Middle Ages.

And then we come to the Schiavo case and the filibuster. In the former, the Republicans (and some Democrats), disagreeing with years and years of consistent judicial decisions, many (if not most) by judges appointed by their own party, tried to overrule the judiciary by legislative fiat, all to preserve a life when it was impossible to find anyone who could say that they would want their own life preserved in such a state, and all in the name of God. In the latter, the Republicans are now invoking the name of God again, saying that the removal of a longstanding Senate rule, used quite often by themselves when they were the minority party, is somehow against God's will.

It's not just disgusting. It's frightening. It's the attempted comeback of the theocracy. I suppose that's the larger purpose at work. The Republicans want to use their expanded powers to remove -- or at least minimize -- secular influences in government.

February 17, 2005

A Modest Proposal for Privatizing Social Security

The people who want to privatize Social Security say that it's a unsustainable Ponzi scheme, using payments from current workers to pay current retirees, and paying future retirees using contributions from future workers. They say that by allowing workers to invest part of their payroll contributions, President Bush's plan will aid Social Security by increasing the returns on that portion of contributions, enabling benefits to be lowered without any net loss to retirees. They say that raising taxes to fund future Social Security shortfalls is unacceptable. And they say that assuming a trillion dollars or more in debt to fund this partial transition wouldn't harm the economy, since the markets already assume that the government has obligated itself to pay out that money.

The people who are against privatizing Social Security say that it shouldn't be thought of as an investment vehicle, but rather as an expression of society's desire that no one be consigned to retire in poverty. They say that President Bush's plan does nothing to strengthen Social Security, since it reduces contributions into the system along with reducing payouts. They say that Social Security's future shortfall could be closed by raising taxes only the wealthiest few. And they say that borrowing money in the financial markets will have a radically different effect on the economy than simply promising to pay future retirees a certain amount.

The problem as I see it is that both sides are mostly right. Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. We're paying the price for past generations' desire to begin paying retirees immediately, instead of paying retirees only in step with their contributions. But at the same time, we don't want to see anyone live our their retirement in abject poverty. The President's plan could help by increasing returns, but there are no guarantees that it will do so, and no way of accurately projecting by how much, if at all. Social Security taxes are high already, and it seems fundamentally unfair to point to a single segment of society to pay more in order to benefit everyone else. And yes, we do owe the money to future retirees one way or another, but it would be a huge economic risk to actually go out and borrow that money in the markets.

Social Security is a defined-benefit plan, like private pensions: you pay in a certain amount of money, and you're guaranteed to receive a specified benefit upon retirement. It's useful to note that defined-benefit plans are going the way of the dodo because of the risks they pose to the companies who operate them (who may find themselves with staggering bills down the road) and to their would-be recipients (who could find themselves retired but with no benefit if their plan collapses).

American firms have been replacing defined-benefit plans with defined-contribution plans: you contribute to your own retirement account (usually with assistance from your employer), but how you manage that account and the resulting returns are solely up to you. Defined-contribution plans lower risk dramatically for everyone. The firms operating them have no long-term risk, because they're not responsible for the accounts (and in fact can't touch them at all), and their workers have no risk that their employers' future problems will affect their retirement.

It would be great if we could wave a magic wand and simply transform Social Security from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution plan. The problem is that if we switched over all in one stroke -- in other words, if workers began to invest all their payroll taxes in private accounts beginning tomorrow -- then we would have no incoming revenue to pay our obligations to current and future retirees who have paid into the system for decades expecting a retirement benefit. My guess is that those obligations would run into the tens of trillions of dollars.

President Bush's plan essentially says, "Whoa, that's a lot of money. We can't do that. Let's just do a little of it and see how that goes." But that begs the question. Whether you allow current workers to invest a fraction of their payroll taxes or the full amount, you still have to pay the costs of transitioning the system -- it's just a matter of scale.

I seem to remember (I'm being link-lazy this morning) opinion polls showing that more young workers believe in the existence of UFOs than believe they'll receive a Social Security benefit. I don't blame them. They sense that it's a fundamentally unsound system and they want out. And therein lies a potential solution to this problem -- one distinct from raising taxes (as per the Democrats) or borrowing money to fund private accounts (as per the Republicans).

Step 1: We mandate that all future workers enter into a defined-contribution system. All their payroll taxes would go into their own private accounts (with the appropriate checks and balances to prevent outlandish investments).

Step 2: We offer any current worker the choice to opt out of Social Security. They would continue to pay payroll taxes, but all such taxes would go into a private account, with a broad choice of low-risk investments. Beginning immediately, every penny they put away would begin building interest for their own retirement. But in doing so, they would relinquish any claim to future benefits based on their past contributions. In other words, for the privilege of opting out of Social Security, workers would give up the privilege of receiving retirement benefits from it.

What would be the result of this? Countless organizations -- from news outlets to advocacy groups -- would provide analyses showing workers whether it would make financial sense for them to convert. Despite this, some people wouldn't switch no matter what, even if they were very young and had built up only a trivial retirement benefit. That's fine. But many young people would wisely choose to give up their Social Security benefits knowing that they would easily make up the shortfall with their private accounts. And probably more than a few middle-aged people would opt out as well, especially if they had otherwise provided for their retirement.

I don't have access to the data to be able to run the numbers on this, but my hunch is that enough people would give up their retirement benefits to pay most of the unfunded mandate cost. And they would have chosen to do so. No one would be forced to do anything -- no current worker would be forced out of Social Security or have his or her taxes raised, and no current or future retiree would have his or her benefits cut.

As for the remainder of the unfunded mandate cost, we face a shortfall no matter what, and that will need to be dealt with at some point. But this plan could reduce that shortfall, and it solves the problem that no existing plan addresses: how to completely transition Social Security to a defined-contribution system so that future generations don't have to deal with the problems we're facing now.

January 30, 2005


From Thomas Friedman's latest column in the Times:

I am a geo-green. The geo-greens believe that, going forward, if we put all our focus on reducing the price of oil -- by conservation, by developing renewable and alternative energies and by expanding nuclear power -- we will force more reform than by any other strategy. You give me $18-a-barrel oil and I will give you political and economic reform from Algeria to Iran. All these regimes have huge population bubbles and too few jobs. They make up the gap with oil revenues. Shrink the oil revenue and they will have to open up their economies and their schools and liberate their women so that their people can compete. It is that simple.

By refusing to rein in U.S. energy consumption, the Bush team is not only depriving itself of the most effective lever for promoting internally driven reform in the Middle East, it is also depriving itself of any military option. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, given today's tight oil market and current U.S. consumption patterns, any kind of U.S. strike on Iran, one of the world's major oil producers, would send the price of oil through the roof, causing real problems for our economy. "Our own energy policy has tied our hands," Mr. Haass said.

January 27, 2005

"More Widely and Deeply Disliked in Europe..."

From Thomas Friedman's latest column in the New York Times on President Bush's upcoming trip to Europe:

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: There is nothing that the Europeans want to hear from George Bush, there is nothing that they will listen to from George Bush that will change their minds about him or the Iraq war or U.S. foreign policy. Mr. Bush is more widely and deeply disliked in Europe than any U.S. president in history. Some people here must have a good thing to say about him, but I haven't met them yet...

Europeans love to make fun of naïve American optimism, but deep down, they envy it and they want America to be that open, foreigner-embracing, carefree, goofily enthusiastic place that cynical old Europe can never be. Many young Europeans blame Mr. Bush for making America, since 9/11, into a strange new land that exports fear more than hope, and has become dark and brooding -- a place whose greeting to visitors has gone from "Give me your tired, your poor" to "Give me your fingerprints." They look at Mr. Bush as someone who stole something precious from them.

Tim Kreutzfeldt, the [owner of a bar in Berlin], said to me: "Bush took away our America. I mean we love America. We are very sad about America. We believe in America and American values, but not in Bush. And it makes us angry that he distorted our image of the country which is so important to us. It is not what America stands for -- and this makes us angry and it should make every American angry, because America lost so much in its reputation worldwide." The Bush team, he added, is giving everyone in the world the impression that "somebody is coming to kill you."

Stefan Elfenbein, a food critic nursing a beer at our table, added: "I know many people who don't want to travel to America anymore. ... People are afraid to be hassled at the border. ... We all discuss it, when somebody goes to America [we now ask:] 'Are you sure?' We had hope that Kerry would win and would make a statement, 'America is back to what it was four years ago.' We hoped that he would be the symbol, the figure who would say, '[America] is the country that welcomes everybody again.' [But] now we have to wait four more years, hopefully for somebody to give us back the country we knew and liked."

I'm headed to France and the Netherlands for 12 days in March -- my second-longest trip to Europe ever. I'm sure I'll be in for a certain level of abuse as the token American in various settings. And right now, I have no idea what to say. "It's not my fault?" That would be a cop-out. "He took away my America too?" Another cop-out. I suppose I'm going to have to try to explain the viewpoint of the red states as fairly as I can.

December 13, 2004

"This Is Our Country and We're Going to Take It Back"

The closing paragraphs of a story in today's New York Times, "Christian Conservatives Turn to Statehouses", on how conservatives are pressing their agenda (anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, pro-creationism) at the state level:

State Representative Cynthia Davis of Missouri prefiled two bills for the next session of the Legislature that she said "reflect what people want." One would remove the state's requirement that all forms of contraception and their potential health effects be taught in schools, leaving the focus on abstinence. Another would require publishers that sell biology textbooks to Missouri to include at least one chapter with alternative theories to evolution.

"These are common-sense, grass-roots ideas from the people I represent, and I'd be very surprised if a majority of legislators didn't feel they were the right solutions to these problems," Ms. Davis said.

"It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she added. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."

I suppose she could have been slightly clearer by actually coming out and saying, "liberals are terrorists," but still...

Anyway, Representative Davis, this isn't just your country, or that of your supporters. It belongs to all Americans. And this American most certainly does not want to go where you're taking his country.

November 16, 2004

Nicholas Kristof on Guns

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently about an approach to guns based on public health -- not restricting their availability, which has proven impossible in the US political climate, but making them safer. Along the way, he points out statistics that should make advocates of unfettered gun rights cringe:

You can talk until you're blue in the face about the 30,000 gun deaths each year, about children who are nine times as likely to die in a gun accident in America as elsewhere in the developed world, about the $17,000 average cost (half directly borne by taxpayers) of treating each gun injury. But nationally, gun control is dead...

[I]n the 1990's, two children a year, on average, died after locking themselves in car trunks. This was considered unacceptable, so a government agency studied the problem, and General Motors and Ford engineered safety mechanisms to prevent such deaths.

In contrast, 15 children under the age of 5 die annually in fatal gun accidents in the U.S., along with 18 children 5 to 9 years old. We routinely make aspirin bottles childproof, but not guns, even though childproof pistols were sold back in the 19th century -- they wouldn't fire unless the shooter put pressure on the handle as well as the trigger.

Something that amazes me about the gun rights debate is that the people most likely to be against restrictions on gun ownership, often in the name of protecting citizens from a hypothetical future totalitarian regime, often seem to be the people with the least problems with the attacks on civil liberties currently being perpetuated in the name of the war on terror. In other words, such people are willing to inflict tremendous harm on society now to prevent (or so they think) hypothetical restrictions on civil liberties, while at the same time being willing to suffer real restrictions on civil liberties today that seem to have delivered no measurable benefit. What sort of cognitive dissonance does such thinking require?

November 11, 2004

Pop Quiz

Below are two excerpts from stories about people who voted for President Bush last week. One excerpt is from a satirical article in the Onion; the other is from a serious article in the Washington Post. Can you guess which is which?

This is from article "A":

"Dear Lord," Cary Leslie is saying for the sixth time since waking up at 3:45 a.m. to go to work. He has prayed for strength not to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock. He has prayed for a safe day for his wife and three children. He has prayed for patience with the foul-tempered customers he deals with at the car-rental counter. He has prayed for a job that will pay enough for a struggling family of five to keep up with the bills. He has prayed for a quick resolution to the presidential election. And now, with the election decided, he is thanking God for listening to his prayers.

Tara Leslie, Cary's wife, has been praying for President Bush, too, and now she is saying, "I think it's so important to have a society of moral absolutes."

"It's really good to know our country had a decision to make, and there are so many people who feel this way," Cary says. "It's a victory for people like us."

The Leslies: They are George W. Bush votes come to life. The millions of voters who describe themselves as "white evangelicals," 77 percent of whom voted for Bush? That's the Leslies. The voters who said "moral values" was the single issue that mattered most to them, 80 percent of whom voted for Bush? That's the Leslies, too.

They are precisely the people the Bush campaign built its reelection strategy on -- people who would put faith-based moral values above every other consideration when it came time to vote, including the war in Iraq, terrorism, the economy and, in the Leslies' case, a life that has been in financial peril since Sept. 11, 2001.

He is 29. She is 27. They have a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old, and they are thinking of having one more. They oppose abortion, favor a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and want more Supreme Court justices like Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They eat at home and shop at Wal-Mart. They home-school their 5-year-old and are members of the nondenominational Church on the Rise, which is "committed to helping families hold down the family fort in the 21st Century," according to its literature, and where the senior pastor says 90 percent of the 1,200 congregants voted for Bush...

"We're definitely going to celebrate," Tara says of Bush's victory, but what that means is constrained by the changes in their lives that occurred during Bush's first administration.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Cary was earning about $55,000 a year. On Sept. 12, the decline began. No one was flying. No one was renting cars. Down went the commissions Cary gets when customers sign up for insurance coverage. "Maybe $35,000," he says of what he earns now, and that includes income from a second job he took a year ago, delivering pizzas on Friday and Saturday nights.

Forty hours a week at the car-rental counter, 12 hours a week running pizzas, the pinch of gasoline at $2 a gallon, savings drained, the realization that he and Tara are "kind of the working poor" -- and still it was moral concerns, rather than economic ones, that guided both of them on Election Day.

And this is from article "B":

[T]he Republicans found strong support in non-urban areas populated by the people who would have benefited most from the lower-income tax cuts and social-service programs championed by Kerry. Regardless of their own interests, these citizens turned out in record numbers to elect conservatives into office at all levels of the government.

"My family's been suffering ever since I lost my job at the screen-door factory, and I haven't seen a doctor for well on four years now," said father of four Buddy Kaldrin of Eerie, CO. "Shit, I don't even remember what a dentist's chair looks like... Basically, I'd give up if it weren't for God's grace. So it's good to know we have a president who cares about religion, too."

Kaldrin added: "That's why I always vote straight-ticket Republican, just like my daddy did, before he lost the farm and shot himself in the head, and just like his daddy did, before he died of black-lung disease in the company coal mines."

Kaldrin was one of many who listed moral issues among their primary reasons for voting Republican.

"Our society is falling apart -- our treasured values are under attack by terrorists," said Ellen Blaine of Givens, OH, a tiny rural farming community as likely to be attacked by terrorists as it is to be hit by a meteor. "We need someone with old-time morals in the White House. I may not have much of anything in this world, but at least I have my family."

"John Kerry is a flip-flopper," she continued. "I saw it on TV. Who knows what terrible things might've happened to my sons overseas if he'd been put in charge?"

Okay, okay, that was a little easy. Yes, article "A" was the Washington Post's "It's a Victory for People Like Us" (via The Road to Surfdom), and article "B" was the Onion's "Nation's Poor Win Election for Nation's Rich." But still...

November 09, 2004

Paging Dr. Freud...

...Secretary of State Colin Powell just slipped:

"Our European friends have no illusion that the president wants to have a strong relationship with all of our European friends and allies, notwithstanding any disagreements we have had in the past," he said.

November 08, 2004

Thomas Friedman on the Election

I haven't written much about the election last week, except to point out how wrong my prediction was. So much has been written about the election that I'm not sure what I would have to add to it. Besides, as usual, the best columnist in the world, Thomas Friedman, said what I wish I had the cleverness and eloquence to say myself:

[W]hat troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don't just favor different policies than I do -- they favor a whole different kind of America. We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.

Is it a country that does not intrude into people's sexual preferences and the marriage unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn't trump science? And, most important, is it a country whose president mobilizes its deep moral energies to unite us -- instead of dividing us from one another and from the world? ...

Despite an utterly incompetent war performance in Iraq and a stagnant economy, Mr. Bush held onto the same basic core of states that he won four years ago -- as if nothing had happened. It seemed as if people were not voting on his performance. It seemed as if they were voting for what team they were on...

My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad...

[T]here is a lot of talk that Mr. Bush has a mandate for his far right policies. Yes, he does have a mandate, but he also has a date - a date with history. If Mr. Bush can salvage the war in Iraq, forge a solution for dealing with our entitlements crisis -- which can be done only with a bipartisan approach and a more sane fiscal policy -- upgrade America's competitiveness, prevent Iran from going nuclear and produce a solution for our energy crunch, history will say that he used his mandate to lead to great effect. If he pushes for still more tax cuts and fails to solve our real problems, his date with history will be a very unpleasant one -- no matter what mandate he has.

November 05, 2004

"An Eye for an Eye..."

My blog is always open to friends who want to post guest entries. I have a good friend from Australia, Katie, who's upset and has plenty to say in the wake of the re-election of President Bush (and I certainly can't blame her).

"An eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind" (Gandhi)

Whilst many of us hoped that Kerry would now be president, and that with his presidency, a level of sanity would return to American foreign policy. However -- Bush is now in -- and all of us, even those of us who live outside the US, have a responsibility to try and prevent the global tragedy that we all fear is on the horizon.

Edmund Burke said -- "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Sitting back now -- and waiting for the worst to happen, will ensure that the worst happens.

What is really concerning is that both 'sides' of the 'war on terror' appear to be operating under the misapprehension that by inflicting harm on the other side, that the other side will say "Oh -- I see how we have wronged you, we won't do that again".

In his recent video tape -- Bin Laden stated that he attacked the twin towers in New York as a result of the US's attack of two towers in Lebanon in '82. He stated that the 9/11 attack was so that Americans would "taste what we tasted and they stop killing our women and children". His reasoning appears to have been -- once they understand how they have hurt us they will "stop killing". Using similar logic -- Bush has gone into Afghanistan and Iraq. This logic is at best childish and simplistic.

As Gandhi said "An eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind". We're already starting to see this. Three thousand Americans were killed in the 9/11 attack -- a major tragedy. But over twice that number of Iraqis are killed every month now in Iraq.

All of us that live in democracies need to recognise that with the freedom that we have comes a responsibility. A responsibility for the actions of the nations that we live in. Even if we didn't vote for Bush -- if we stay silent now -- and let the worst continue to unfold -- then we are equally responsible.

So what do concerned citizens of democracies do to stop the worst from happening? We continue to speak out. We continue to look for ways to change public opinion. We recognise that living in a democracy means that we have the right to a say not just by voting once every few years -- but by making our voices heard.

Why I'm Not Paid for Punditry

My election prediction:

  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 49 percent
    • Kerry: 51 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 232
    • Kerry: 306
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, New Mexico
    • For Kerry: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
What actually happened (with two states, Iowa and New Mexico, still too close to call):
  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 51 percent
    • Kerry: 48 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 274
    • Kerry: 252
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, Florida, Ohio
    • For Kerry: Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin

October 31, 2004

My Election Prediction

In November 1980, I was 17 years old, a couple of months shy of my 18th birthday, and so couldn't yet vote. But I very much wanted Ronald Reagan to win.

(I can't remember exactly why I supported Reagan -- I just know that I didn't want another four years of President Carter. In retrospect, I've come to see Carter as the most honest man to become President in decades, while at the same time hopelessly ineffectual, and often think that in this day and age, perhaps it's impossible for a truly honest person to be an effective president.)

I was sad while the polls were open on election day that year, because I was convinced Reagan was going to lose. "Carter has done a good job of scaring voters," I thought to myself. "They're going to get in the booth and forget what they said to the pollsters and they're going to vote for Carter because they're scared of what Reagan will do."

Of course I got it completely wrong. The defining moment of the campaign was Reagan asking voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" When they got in the voting booths, they thought about that and voted economics. It was a rout, Reagan winning the popular vote 50.7 to 41 percent, and winning the Electoral College 489-49.

With all the theories floating around about bounces and breaks, surges and surprises, I try to keep this simple rule in mind: in presidential elections, all other things being equal, Americans vote with their pocketbooks. In 1980, they didn't feel better off, so the incumbent lost. 1984? Better off, so incumbent won. 1988? Better off, so incumbent's vice-president won. 1992? Not better off, so incumbent lost. 1996? Better off, so incumbent won. 2000 was the exception to the rule: people most definitely felt better off, but the incumbent's vice-president ran away from his boss, presumably to establish distance from the moral taint associated with him (oh, for the days when our issue with the President was whether he lied about have sex with an intern). Even still, the incumbent's vice-president won the popular vote -- just not the electoral vote.

Now it's 2004. It would be easy to argue that all other things are not, in fact, equal. In fact, it's obvious that they're not. Foreign policy in general -- and Iraq and the War on Terror specifically -- are on the minds of us all. But outside of economics, many factors that could tilt things one way or the other seem to have balancing opposites. People are generally happy that we went into Afghanistan, but disappointed that we haven't captured Osama bin Laden. Half the country thinks the President made the right decision to go into Iraq, but the other half thinks it was a grave mistake. And so on.

My hunch is that all of that washes out, and that in the end, when they get to the voting booths, when it comes to that moment of truth, undecided voters will once again vote with their pocketbooks, just as they always do. And the last four years have been fairly awful economically -- there's just no other way to look at it. If Kerry had repeated Reagan's line in the debates (and I wish he had) and asked people, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" the answer would have as resounding a "no" as it was in 1980.

Were I a Bush supporter, I would argue that he inherited a recession and has done his best to fight it. I would argue that he had to spend money to fight the War on Terror. I would argue that he had to spend money to disarm Saddam Hussein. I would argue that the economy has been jittery since the 9/11 attacks, which caught us all by surprise and certainly weren't Bush's fault. I would argue that the current state of the economy isn't his fault. (I don't agree with these points, but I could make the arguments.) But none of this matters. Voters don't vote based on fairness. They don't vote for good intentions. They don't give As for effort. They vote on results. And from an economic standpoint, there's simply no way to argue that Bush has delivered.

With all this in mind, this is how I see things breaking down.

  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 49 percent
    • Kerry: 51 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 232
    • Kerry: 306
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, New Mexico
    • For Kerry: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin

October 27, 2004

"Beeks! Where in Hell is Beeks?"

(Spoiler alert if you haven't seen Trading Places.)

In the movie Trading Places, trading firm owners, brothers, and bad guys Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) hire sleazy bad guy Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason) to procure for them an advance copy of the orange harvest forecast, the idea being to make millions in the futures market. The good guys intercept Beeks and foil their plan. The Dukes are ruined financially, and Randolph collapses on the floor of the exchange. As he's being taken away on a stretcher, he cries out, "Beeks! Where in Hell is Beeks?"

There are six days left until the US election. I'm still waiting for über-sleazemeister and electoral bag man Karl Rove to pull his much-anticipated October surprise on behalf of the President. Where is it? So far, the October surprises -- executed Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi government blaming the US; 380 tons of high explosives apparently looted -- have all been bad ones for Bush. Surely Rove has something planned.

Karl Rove is the Clarence Beeks of the Republican Party. So I'll say it for Bush: Rove! Where in Hell is Rove?

October 17, 2004

"They Don't Have an Army"

From an article in today's New York Times Magazine, "Without a Doubt," on what the author calls George W. Bush's "faith-based presidency."

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored "road map" for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman -- the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress -- mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

"I don't know why you're talking about Sweden," Bush said. "They're the neutral one. They don't have an army."

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: "Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They're the ones that are historically neutral, without an army." Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. "No, no, it's Sweden that has no army."

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.

A few weeks later, members of Congress and their spouses gathered with administration officials and other dignitaries for the White House Christmas party. The president saw Lantos and grabbed him by the shoulder. "You were right," he said, with bonhomie. "Sweden does have an army."

In other words, Bush:

  1. Confused Sweden with Switzerland.
  2. Believed Sweden (i.e., Switzerland) not to have an army.
Keep in mind that the meeting was attended by both Republicans (including, presumably, one or more senior members of Bush's staff) and Democrats. In other words, there are senior Republicans in the House and Senate, and senior Bush administration officials, who have personally witnessed the President confuse Sweden with Switzerland, and further assume that one of them had no army, who have since gone on to argue that Bush should be reelected.

Am I making too much out of this? Is this a minor thing, a mistake anyone could make? Am I overreacting? Because from where I sit -- as a moderate driven to the left by what I perceive as the far-right policies and general incompetence of the current administration -- this is outrageous, grounds for disqualification as President all on its own.

What was it that Bush said in that first debate?

I know how these people [world leaders] think. I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently.
I guess "these people" doesn't include the leaders of Sweden and Switzerland.

October 14, 2004

I Was Wrong About Italy

Two entries ago, I blogged about overseas attitudes towards the US election. I mentioned that a colleague of mine had just returned from Italy and that I suspected what he heard there would fit with what I've heard from people in Australia, Germany, Canada, and other nations.

In fact, it didn't fit. My colleague has family in Northern Italy, which is where he stayed, and Northern Italy is a conservative region of the country, with a long tradition of supporting the US militarily (a number of US bases are there).

Me: So you're saying that the average Northern Italian 'man in the street' supports Bush and what we're doing in Iraq?

Colleague: Yes. But our Australian friends whom we saw there -- that was different. They said, "You've got to do something about Bush."

Wrapping Up the Debates

The third and final US presidential debate was held last night, and now we have just under three weeks to go until the election.

As I watched the debate, the thing I kept saying was, "Someone coached Bush to smile." They coached him so much that he barely ever stopped smiling. Sometimes this made him seem upbeat and eager. At other times -- particularly when he was seen via split-screen reacting to something serious being said by Kerry -- it came off as a little creepy.

At the end of the debate, moderator Bob Schieffer threw a softball at Bush. To his credit -- and this is the ground where he's always the most comfortable -- he hit it out of the park:

Mr. Schieffer: We've come gentlemen, to our last question. And it occurred to me as I came to this debate tonight that the three of us share something. All three of us are surrounded by very strong women. We're all married to strong women. Each of us have two daughters that make us very proud. I'd like to ask each of you what is the most important thing you've learned from these strong women?

Mr. Bush: To listen to them. To stand up straight and not scowl. I love the strong women around me. I can't tell you how much I love my wife and our daughters. I am, you know, it's really interesting, I tell the people on the campaign trail when I asked Laura to marry me she said fine, just so long as I never have to give a speech. I said O.K., you've got a deal. Fortunately, she didn't hold me to that deal. And she's out campaigning along with our girls. And she speaks English a lot better than I do. I think people understand what she's saying. But they see a compassionate, strong, great first lady in Laura Bush. I can't tell you how luck I am when I met her in the backyard of Joe and Jan O'Neill in Midland, Tex. It was the classic backyard barbecue. O'Neil said come on over, I think you'll find somebody who might interest you. So I said all right, bopped over there. There's only four of us there. And not only did she interest me, I guess you could say it was love at first sight.

This was easily Bush's best moment of the debate -- talking about the woman he obviously loves.

As the debate ended, I thought to myself, "That was pretty much a draw." But I woke up feeling quite differently. In 2000, Al Gore was criticized for seeming to change personas, trying to be different things to different groups of people. In 2004, though Bush on the stump is remarkably consistent, in three debates, we saw three different Bushes:

  1. Coral Gables, FL: Sad Bush -- slumping, grimacing, scowling.
  2. St. Louis, MO: Angry Bush -- practically yelling, talking over the moderator.
  3. Tempe, AZ: Happy Bush -- a perpetual smile on his face.
Whatever thought of Kerry's positions on the issues, he was as consistent in his delivery throughout the debates as Bush has been on the campaign trail. In the debates, Bush has been as inconsistent in his delivery as he has accused Kerry of being on the issues.

I made up my mind a long time ago that I under no circumstances would I vote to re-elect Bush. I certainly don't fall in the undecided bloc of voters, struggling to make a choice with so little time left. I don't pretend that my opinions represent mainstream thinking. With that said, though, I can't help but wonder, if Bush is re-elected, which Bush will we get on any given day? Sad Bush? Angry Bush? Happy Bush? This is not something one wants to wonder about one's Commander-in-Chief. And I can't help but wonder if undecided voters are wondering the same thing today.

Overseas Interest in the US Election

A received this from an Australian friend currently traveling in Asia:

For the first time since I can remember, I think everyone outside the US is paying attention to this election, hoping for the sake of world peace that George W isn't re-elected. Not that I know everyone outside the US, but talking to people in Australia, Malaysia and here in Singapore, I think Bush's actions have truly shown people how much of an impact what the US does can have on the rest of the world. Not that we didn't know that before, but Bush putting world peace in jeopardy as he has done is truly bringing home to a lot of people exactly how scary a country you live in.
A colleague of mine just spent a couple of weeks on vacation in Italy -- I'm going to ask him if this fits with what he heard while he was there. I rather suspect it does. I know it fits with what I've heard from friends in Canada and Germany.

More on this subject of international attitudes toward the US soon...

October 08, 2004

Holy Crap

49 minutes into the second of three presidential debates, and I cannot believe how unpresidential George Bush appears. His debate coaches clearly told him to be more aggressive, but he's going far over the line. He's rude, loud -- and I can't believe I'm saying this of a sitting President -- yappy. Did he do this in his practice sessions? Did his coaches think it played well?

More to the point, does this play well? Are there Americans watching Bush's performance, thinking, "Good job, Mr. President"?

October 06, 2004

Cheney's Best Moment

As noted in my previous entry, I thought the vice presidential debate was roughly a draw, each candidate having some good moments. Here was what I thought to be the Vice President's best moment, which came in response to a two-question sequence on gay marriage:

Mr. Edwards: [L]et me say, first, that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And and you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.

And I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and so does John Kerry. I also believe there should be partnership benefits for gay and lesbian couples in long-term committed relationships. But we should not use the Constitution to divide this country. No state for the last 200 years has ever had to recognize another state's marriage. This is using the Constitution as a political tool and it's wrong.

Ms. Ifill: As the vice president mentioned, John Kerry comes from the state of Massachusetts, which has taken as big a step as any state in the union to legalize gay marriage. Yet both you and Senator Kerry say you oppose it. Are you trying to have it both ways?

Mr. Edwards: No. I think we've both said the same thing all along. We both believe that, this goes to the end of what I just talked about, we both believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. But we also believe that gay and lesbians and gay and lesbian couples, those who have been in long-term relationships deserve to be treated respectfully. They deserve to have benefits. For example, a gay couple now has a very difficult time one visiting the other when they're in the hospital. Or, for example, if heaven forbid one of them were to pass away they have trouble even arranging the funeral. Those are not the kinds of things that John Kerry and I believe in. I suspect the vice president himself does not believe in that. But we do believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

And I want to go back if I can to the question you just asked, which is this constitutional amendment. I want to make sure people understand that the president is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage that is completely unnecessary. Under the law of this country for the last 200 years no state has been required to recognize another state's marriage. Let me just be simple about this. My state of North Carolina would not be required to recognize a marriage from Massachusetts, which you just asked about.

There is absolutely no purpose in the law and in reality for this amendment. It's nothing but a political tool. And it’s being used in an effort to divide this country on an issue that we should not be dividing America on. We ought to be talking about issues like health care and jobs and what's happening in Iraq. Not using an issue that divides this country in a way that’s solely for political purposes. It's wrong.

Ms. Ifill: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds.

Mr. Cheney: Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.

Mr. Edwards: You're welcome.

Ms. Ifill: That's it?

Mr. Cheney: That's it.

I can't think of a more effective response that Cheney could have given. Most people generally understand that he has a personal and emotional reason for disagreeing with the President on this matter. So he thanked Edwards for his kind words and refused to contradict his boss in public.

In our sound bite, short attention span culture, it's easy to forget that sometimes silence can speak far more effectively than words.

Scoring the VP Debate

Last week's presidential debate seemed instantly to be a Kerry win. Tonight's vice-presidential version? I watched it with the same people with whom I watched the debate last week and we agreed: a draw for John Edwards and Dick Cheney, but a miserable failure for host Gwen Ifill. Her questions were at times ridiculously specific:

Vice President Cheney, there have been new developments in Iraq, especially having to do with the administration’s handling. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority gave a speech in which he said that we have never had enough troops on the ground or we never had enough troops on the ground. Donald Rumsfeld said he has not seen any hard evidence of a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Was this the fruit of a report that you requested that you received a week ago that showed there was no connection between Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Saddam Hussein?
Yet at other times her questions were mushy and pointless:
[Y]ou both just sang the praises of the tops of your ticket. Without mentioning them by name at all explain to us why you are different from your opponent.
Ifill misspoke on multiple occasions and at one point had to be corrected by Edwards about whose turn it was to respond. Surely we can do better than this when it comes to debate moderation.

October 01, 2004

"These People"

I've talked with two citizens of foreign countries about the presidential debate -- one from Australia, the other from Germany -- and interestingly, both of them found the following statement by President Bush extremely offensive:

I know how these people [world leaders] think. I deal with them all the time. I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently.
I like to think I'm sensitive to international points of view, but honestly, I wouldn't have predicted that reaction. Apparently it's the phrase "these people". On reflection, I think I can see why someone from outside the US would find it condescending -- and misguided as well, since it seems to imply that "world leaders" all think similarly.

September 30, 2004

Scoring the Debate

Given the countless thousands of bloggers undoubtedly writing about the presidential debate tonight, I'm not sure how much I have to add... but a dear friend who couldn't watch the debates asked me to do so, so with that...

I watched the debate with a couple of friends. It ended and we watched as CNN's analysts seemed to say, "Kerry 1, Bush 0". I wondered aloud what the house news network of the Republican Party had to say, and so tuned into Fox News... and I could swear I watched a heavily conservative panel say, in essence, "Kerry 1, Bush 0".

Oh, and if you asking me? Kerry 1, Bush 0.

September 28, 2004

Homework Assignment

This is a bit dated, but better late than never...

  1. Read Rudy Giuliani's speech given to the Republican National Convention.
  2. Count the number of times he utters the words "September 11". (Hint: it's the same number as three times four.)
  3. Ask yourself what it means for American politics when someone can invoke September 11 that many times in a partisan political speech without shame.

September 13, 2004

"Be Silent; I See It, If You Don't"

By then-Representative Abraham Lincoln (italics in the original):

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose -- and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, "I see no probability of the British invading us" but he will say to you "be silent; I see it, if you dont."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.


September 12, 2004

Remind Me of Who the Flip-Flopper Is

The Associated Press beat me to writing about something that has been on my mind of late -- and did a far more comprehensive job than I would have:

Republican audiences chant "flip-flopper" when Kerry is mentioned, some political novelty stores are carrying flip-flop sandals bearing Kerry's picture, and the theme is reinforced by late-night comedians...

If he is a flip-flopper, Kerry has company.

In 2000, Bush argued against new military entanglements and nation building. He's done both in Iraq.

He opposed a Homeland Security Department, then embraced it.

He opposed creation of an independent Sept. 11 commission, then supported it. He first refused to speak to its members, then agreed only if Vice President Dick Cheney came with him.

Bush argued for free trade, then imposed three-year tariffs on steel imports in 2002, only to withdraw them after 21 months.

Last month, he said he doubted the war on terror could be won, then reversed himself to say it could and would.

A week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." But he told reporters six months later, "I truly am not that concerned about him." He did not mention bin Laden in his hour-long convention acceptance speech.

"I'm a war president," Bush told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Feb. 8. But in a July 20 speech in Iowa, he said: "Nobody wants to be the war president. I want to be the peace president."

Bush keeps revising his Iraq war rationale: The need to seize Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction until none were found; liberating the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator; fighting terrorists in Iraq not at home; spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. Now it's a safer America and a safer world.

What I can't understand is why people don't see this. Bush is seen as strong and decisive, when in fact he changes his position on major issues with great regularity.

In truth, Bush's strategy is quite clever: when forced to bow to pressure and change a position -- as with the 9/11 commission or the Department of Homeland Security -- claim that your new position has always been your position. Bush's loyal advisor Karen Hughes did this quite blatantly not too long ago, as I blogged at the time. From the transcript of Tim Russert's interview of her on Meet the Press in April of this year:

MR. RUSSERT: Many observers will point to the fact that the president and vice president resisted or discouraged the creation of the commission. They had to be threatened with subpoena in order to provide documents and Dr. Condoleezza Rice for weeks refused to testify in public under oath. Why such resistance and reluctance to cooperate fully with the commission?

MS. HUGHES: Well, Tim, I'm not sure that I characterize it that way, because what I've heard the president say is he wants all the facts to come out, he wants the commission to be able to report fully to the American people. After all, he and his national security team are responsible for preventing another attack. But I've been in the White House and I've seen the competing pressures there. There are a lot of factors at work when you're the president of the United States...

MR. RUSSERT: But now in hindsight the president believes the commission's a good idea.

MS. HUGHES: Well, I think, Tim, I don't know if the president ever opposed the creation of the commission. What he did was try to balance and look at all those different things...

MR. RUSSERT: But the history is clear. Here's the headlines. "The 9-11 Commission could subpoena Oval Office files because the White House was resisting. Bush opposes independent commission to investigate September 11th." Vice President Cheney, on this program said, "I did actively discourage the notion, for example, of a national commission." There had been opposition; there's no doubt about it.

MS. HUGHES: There were concerns about what impact it might have on our ongoing foremost priority, which again, is to protect the American people from attack. But that said, Tim, once the commission has been created, I mean, unprecedented cooperation...

Our intention and the president's direction all along was that he wanted to cooperate and to make sure that the commission had all the information it needed to do its important work.

One thing is for sure: Bush's political team can spin with the best of them. Bill Clinton might have the greatest political skills of any leader of our time, but Bush may well have the most formidable political team of our time. Think about it: their candidate is: the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose jobs on his tenure; the president who was in office at the time of the worst terrorist attack in our nation's history; the president who took us to war against Iraq based on false evidence, at a cost of over $132 billion (and counting) and the lives of over 1,000 American soldiers (and counting)... and yet he is slightly ahead in the polls. It's a stunning achievement, really.

August 16, 2004

Krugman-O'Reilly Smackdown Transcript

Following up on my earlier blog entry, via MonkeyFilter, a transcript of the Tim Russert show featuring Paul Krugman and Bill O'Reilly can be found here. Choice O'Reilly moments include:

Don't call me a liar, pal. That's what you do all the time, and I 'm not going to sit here and take it....

You're appearing with Stuart Smalley [Al Franken], the biggest character assassinator in the country...

You are in with the most vile form of defamation in this country...

You'll lie about me and attack me personally. That's what you'll do...

Mr. Krugman lives in a world of his own. He embraces propaganda of the worst kind, and that's why I have very little regard for his professional analysis...

Hey, Mr. Propaganda, you ought to take and do your own research, pal, and stop taking the left-wing garbage and throwing it out there for the folks...

You are about the most unobjective person on the face of the -- ...

Why don't you just call Fidel? Call him up and have at it...

Hezbollah feels the same way that you do...

As bad as the transcript makes O'Reilly sound, watching the video is much worse. He was in Krugman's face, pointing and jabbing and practically shouting at him.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder about Tim Russert going through with a show like this, giving air time to someone like O'Reilly, who has his own show and certainly doesn't need the additional exposure. I'm sure it drew viewers, and certainly people are writing about it on the Web, but when ratings become the only necessary justification for a show by a serious newscaster, then things have sunk low, indeed.

July 07, 2004

Thinking About Edwards

I find all the talk from the Bush camp about John Edwards' lack of experience rather amusing. Edwards has about as much time in the Senate (including serving on the Intelligence Committee) in 2004 as Bush did as Governor of Texas in 2000. And Edwards is only the vice-presidential candidate -- Bush was running for president. I'd say Edwards is more prepared to serve as president now than Bush was four years ago.

The other amusing thing about this "Bush and Cheney are more experienced" talk is this: can someone point to the accomplishments of this supposedly experienced team? On the domestic front, Bush is the first president to lose jobs during his term since Herbert Hoover. On the foreign policy front... well... that's a mess that goes beyond the scope of this blog entry.

My prediction is that if the Bush campaign presses this issue, it will come back to bite them.

By the way, I'm really looking forward to seeing the vice-presidential debate in this campaign. Cheney is smart on his feet, to be sure -- he got the best of Joe Lieberman -- but my money would definitely be on Edwards.

July 06, 2004

I'm Batting .500

Back in January, I made two predictions: that John Kerry would win the Democratic nomination and pick John Edwards as his running mate, and that the Carolina Panthers would beat the New England Patriots by 1 point in the Super Bowl. Looks like I'm batting .500 (and I'd be batting 1.000 if it weren't for the Panthers scoring too quickly at the end, giving the Patriots time to do to them what they did to the Rams two years before).

I think John Edwards is a great choice for the ticket. Unlike someone like Richard Gephardt, he can bring new voters into the fold. Anyone likely to vote Democratic because of Gephardt was going to vote Democratic anyway. But I believe that Edwards -- a brilliant campaigner, better than Bush, Cheney, or Kerry -- can cross party lines. I may disagree with him on some issues, like trade, but I think he's right about "Two Americas," and I think he'd make a solid vice president.

June 28, 2004

Canadian Elections

Canada's national elections are today. The Economist has this to say:

Six months ago... Paul Martin seemed to be stepping into an enviable inheritance. Under the Liberals' stewardship since 1993, Canada's economy was transformed from a debt- and deficit-ridden disaster to one of the best performers in the rich world. [Former Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien had seemingly buried, if not quite killed, the threat of secession by French-speaking Quebec. The Liberal embrace of immigration, cultural diversity and bold reforms such as gay marriage seemed to speak of a tolerant and self-confident country. This newspaper was much impressed by Canada's mix of tough-minded economic management and social liberalism. Last year we ventured to suggest that Canada might be "rather cool". So thought many Canadians: in December, polls gave the Liberals almost 50% against a fragmented opposition...

[T]he voters now look unlikely to give [Martin] a mandate worth having. The probable outcome of the general election due on June 28th seems to be a weak and maybe short-lived minority government...

So why are the voters so unimpressed with Mr Martin and the Liberals? Mainly because of a widespread sense that after 11 years they have been in power too long. That was crystallised by a corruption scandal in Quebec, which will cost many votes there. But the Liberals are also wounded by the power struggle between Mr Chrétien and Mr Martin. Instead of running on his record as finance minister, Mr Martin chose to pretend that he was heading a wholly new government.

The trouble is, his brief tenure as prime minister has been singularly ineffective. His advisers have been good at only one thing: knifing their fellow-Liberal rivals in the back -- and even then Mr Chrétien did it better... Otherwise, Mr Martin has been a bumbling and hesitant chief executive, trying to placate all voters. During the campaign, he has often seemed tired...

Though Canada will not fall apart under a minority government, it might not progress much either, and the public finances could be weakened. If the Liberals do squeak back it will be by default, as Canada's only national party. That should be a warning. If he does win, Mr Martin needs to forget about his differences with Mr Chrétien, and focus on the needs of Canadians: more efficient Medicare, a serious defence policy and fixing provincial finance. Otherwise, a Liberal defeat may only have been postponed.

Let's see here:

  • A left-of-center government in power for many years
  • A long period of sustained economic growth
  • Consistent federal budget surpluses
  • No engagement in serious international conflicts
  • A generally content populace
  • A former second-in-command trying to distance himself from the former leader
Now what does this remind me of?

To my Canadian friends, for what it's worth, we in the US have gone down this path. We threw the Democrats out of the White House after a spectacular eight-year run. The results have not exactly been what we were promised -- "compassionate conservatism" and a "humble" foreign policy. And we've had four years of poor economic performance and budget deficits going into the stratosphere. I hope you think carefully about what you're doing. I rather like Canada the way it is.

June 27, 2004

An Outsider's Perspective of the US

This is from an overseas friend -- part of a recent e-mail exchange we had that covered geopolitical issues, especially the Bush Administration and how it is perceived by foreigners.

I think my perception of the US (at a national rather than individual level) has changed over the last four years -- and that ironically the US is by far the greatest threat to world peace that there is now. Think of it this way -- if someone presented to you a country that:
  • Has the world's largest supply of weapons of mass destruction
  • Doesn't recognise that citizens of other countries have civil rights -- see below
  • Doesn't have an excellent civil rights record in own country -- see below
  • Is known to engage in torture of prisoners of war
  • Is the world's largest economic power -- of which substantial amounts are invested in 'defence'
  • And most frighteningly -- appears to be increasingly paranoid about other countries' intentions
If you knew of a country with these attributes -- would you not be a little worried?

My reference to the civil rights issues for citizens of other countries relates firstly to Guantanamo Bay (it's appalling that Bush calls it a 'war' on terror, and then refuses to grant the inmates there the rights of prisoners of war. Even if it's not a war -- why are they any less worthy of these rights than others?). And do you remember the uproar when the Iraqis showed pictures of American prisoners of war early on in the war? At least they were relatively healthy and safe. The hypocrisy of the uproar about those pictures against what subsequently happened is astounding.

And re the reference to civil rights in your own country -- I have to say that as the wealthiest country in the world, I find it a little odd that you can't find enough money to have a comprehensive welfare system and a comprehensive public health system. I was amazed at the large number of homeless people in Washington when I visited there last year. And is it true that your people are not guaranteed to get hospital care? For the country with the most sophisticated health system in the world -- again, truly amazing.

What am I supposed to say to this? I can't refute a word of it.

I can't blame anyone for being frightened of the US right now. They should be. The only reason we're not more of a threat is that our military is currently so over-extended in Iraq and Afghanistan.

May 30, 2004

Not a Serious Question

This is absolutely not a prediction. It's not a serious question. It's just a question.

If Bush were to lose the election, what would happen if, in the interest of the war on terror, he were to declare some sort of martial law and postpone or invalidate the election results?

What is US law on this subject? How would the branches of government react?

As I said, this is most certainly not a prediction. It's hard for me to imagine any US politician doing this, even one in the current administration. It's hard for me to imagine the legislative and judicial branches acceding to such a move. It's hard for me to imagine the military supporting it, beyond a small group particularly loyal to the current President. It's just a question. An idle musing.

Of course, I'm off to Google "martial law".

May 07, 2004

"I Have Never Known a Time..."

These are the opening lines of Thomas Friedman's latest column for the New York Times:

We are in danger of losing something much more important than just the war in Iraq. We are in danger of losing America as an instrument of moral authority and inspiration in the world. I have never known a time in my life when America and its president were more hated around the world than today.
It's difficult to believe that the sympathy and solidarity shown to the US by the world in the aftermath of 9/11 took place only 32 months ago. Consider this speech by France's ambassador to the US in November 2001:
President Jacques Chirac was... naturally the first foreign head of state to come to the U.S. after September 11, to meet on September 18 with President Bush at the White House, and to pay a visit to Mayor Giuliani and to the wounded city of New York on September 19. He came to express the "total solidarity" of the French people and the French authorities. He put it quite forcefully: "France will be in the front line in the combat against international terrorist networks, shoulder to shoulder with America, its ally forever."

Actually as soon as it learned of the September 11 tragedy, France expressed its complete solidarity with an America wounded to the core. If I had to take just one example, it would be the solemn ceremony in tribute to the victims, held a few days later in the courtyard of the Elyse, attended by President Jacques Chirac and the American Ambassador to Paris, Howard Leach, the two flags flying at half mast. It was the first time in history that the national anthem of a country other than France, the "Star Spangled Banner," rang out in the courtyard of the Elyse.

But the reaction was not confined to officialdom. All of France has been with America in thought. Le Monde (not exactly a paragon of exalted americanophilia, in normal circumstances), got it right when it aptly titled its editorial, "We are all Americans," a sentence that has been much quoted since. The spontaneous outpourings of sympathy and solidarity from ordinary French people in all walks of life with all sorts of convictions illustrated the magnitude of this flow of emotion. The American Embassy in Paris was literally swamped with messages of sympathy and support: sympathy from French people overwhelmed by such barbarous acts against a friendly country, and support from people who, as Prime Minister Lionel Jospin said, are still profoundly grateful to their great American ally who twice aided them in the darkest hours of their history.

"Nous sommes tous Amricains." How times have changed.

April 21, 2004

The Supremes Hear Guantánamo

At last, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of the Guantánamo detainees yesterday. The preliminary news was good:

The Supreme Court appeared distinctly unreceptive Tuesday to the Bush administration's argument that the federal courthouse doors must remain closed to the foreign detainees at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

In the first of three cases this month on the right to judicial review of those deemed enemy combatants, most justices seemed to regard the World War II-era precedent that is the cornerstone of the administration's strategy as ambiguous, irrelevant or even counter to the administration's position.

And so much for the administration's argument that this policy is a wartime necessity:

Even Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson's opening declaration, "The United States is at war," appeared to rankle rather than persuade the skeptical justices.

"Supposing the war had ended," Justice John Paul Stevens asked Mr. Olson. "Could you continue to detain these people in Guantnamo, and would there then be jurisdiction?"

Mr. Olson replied, "We believe that there would not be jurisdiction."

Justice Stevens then asked, "So the existence of the war is really irrelevant to the legal issue, is it not?"

True, Mr. Olson acknowledged, the government's position did not depend on the continued military conflict in Afghanistan. "But it's even more forceful and compelling" in that context, he said.

In other words, the administration believes that it has the right to hold foreign nationals in Guantánamo indefinitely, with absolutely no judiciial oversight of any kind, regardless of whether we're at war.

On another note, I find myself disagreeing with Justice Scalia on every case in which I'm interested enough to read the arguments. From NPR's coverage of yesterday's arguments (audio only):

Nina Totenberg: The executive branch's power is not unchecked, said Scalia:

Justice Scalia: If the people think that this is unfair, if Congress thinks it's unfair, with the stroke of a pen, they can change the habeus statute.

If you take Scalia's argument to its logical conclusion, what he's saying is, in effect, "We don't need to exercise any oversight when it comes to actions by the executive branch. After all, Congress can pass a law stopping the actions it doesn't like." In other words, the Supreme Court has no role in ensuring the rights of citizens if they are abridged by the executive branch, because the legislative branch can pass laws to stop such abridgement. Not only is this argument not worthy of a Supreme Court justice, it's not worthy of a college debating class. Just to remind Justice Scalia of his Civics 101, the President wields veto power over laws passed by Congress. It would take two-thirds majorities in both houses to override such a veto. So if the executive branch harms you as an individual, in Justice Scalia's world, your recourse is to convince two-thirds of both the House and the Senate to enact a law prohibiting such harm.

The Supreme Court is the last refuge for US residents whose rights have been trampled upon. Justice Scalia would have the Court abdicate that role to the political whims of Congress. I find that distasteful in the extreme.

April 15, 2004

President Bush for Busy People

Selected excerpts from President Bush's press conference earlier this week (or skip to the end for the condensed version):

Q Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?

THE PRESIDENT: I feel incredibly grieved when I meet with family members, and I do quite frequently. I grieve for the incredible loss of life that they feel, the emptiness they feel.

There are some things I wish we'd have done when I look back. I mean, hindsight is easy. It's easy for a President to stand up and say, now that I know what happened, it would have been nice if there were certain things in place; for example, a homeland security department. And why I -- I say that because it's -- that provides the ability for our agencies to coordinate better and to work together better than it was before.

I think the hearings will show that the Patriot Act is an important change in the law that will allow the FBI and the CIA to better share information together. We were kind of stove-piped, I guess is a way to describe it. There was kind of -- departments that at times didn't communicate, because of law, in the FBI's case.

And the other thing I look back on and realize is that we weren't on a war footing. The country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us. And it's -- it didn't take me long to put us on a war footing. And we've been on war ever since. The lessons of 9/11 that I -- one lesson was, we must deal with gathering threats. And that's part of the reason I dealt with Iraq the way I did.

The other lesson is, is that this country must go on the offense and stay on the offense. In order to secure the country, we must do everything in our power to find these killers and bring them to justice, before they hurt us again. I'm afraid they want to hurt us again. They're still there.

They can be right one time; we've got to be right a hundred percent of the time in order to protect the country. It's a mighty task. But our government has changed since the 9/11 attacks. We're better equipped to respond; we're better at sharing intelligence. But we've still got a lot of work to do.


Q Mr. President, I'd like to follow up on a couple of these questions that have been asked. One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9/11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism? And do you believe there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics I brought up?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, as I mentioned, it's -- the country wasn't on war footing, and yet we're at war. And that's just a reality, Dave. I mean, that's -- that was the situation that existed prior to 9/11, because the truth of the matter is, most in the country never felt that we'd be vulnerable to an attack such as the one that Osama bin Laden unleashed on us. We knew he had designs on us, we knew he hated us. But there was a -- nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think the prior government, could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale.

The people know where I stand. I mean, in terms of Iraq, I was very clear about what I believed. And, of course, I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet. But I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. I don't think anybody can -- maybe people can argue that. I know the Iraqi people don't believe that, that they're better off with Saddam Hussein -- would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. I also know that there's an historic opportunity here to change the world. And it's very important for the loved ones of our troops to understand that the mission is an important, vital mission for the security of America and for the ability to change the world for the better.


Q Thank you, Mr. President. Two weeks ago, a former counterterrorism official at the NSC, Richard Clarke, offered an unequivocal apology to the American people for failing them prior to 9/11. Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you be prepared to give them one?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, I can understand why people in my administration anguished over the fact that people lost their life. I feel the same way. I mean, I'm sick when I think about the death that took place on that day. And as I mentioned, I've met with a lot of family members and I do the best I do to console them about the loss of their loved one. As I mentioned, I oftentimes think about what I could have done differently. I can assure the American people that had we had any inkling that this was going to happen, we would have done everything in our power to stop the attack.

Here's what I feel about that. The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden. That's who's responsible for killing Americans. And that's why we will stay on the offense until we bring people to justice.

Here's the version for you if you're busy:

Q Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?


Q It's said that you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism? Have you made any errors in judgement?


Q Are you prepared to apologize to the American people for failing them prior to 9/11?


April 14, 2004

Unfair Treatment of Overseas Americans

According to the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO), there are 4.1 million American citizens resident overseas who reside outside the US and who are not government or military personnel or their dependents.

Did you know that the "United States is the only developed country in the world that insists on taxing on the basis of citizenship rather than residency"? In other words, if you're a US citizen, even if you haven't visited the US for years, you're still liable to pay income taxes. To be fair, the US currently exempts the first $80,000 of overseas income for non-residents, and allows non-residents to deduct foreign incomes taxes. But on what basis does the US government take it as its right to tax non-residents at all?

Actually, the US levies income taxes based on both citizenship and residency: income earned by anyone in the US is taxed, and income earned by US citizens anywhere is taxed. Think of the fun if all countries operated this way!

AARO lists among its priorities maintaining the partial exemption on non-resident income and ensuring that non-residents are counted during the 2010 census and taken into consideration accordingly.

I think AARO can and should go much further, because as long as 4.1 million Americans are distributed among 435 representatives -- less than 10,000 per House member -- they won't have any power. As AARO itself notes, if these 4.1 million Americans formed a state, it would be the 25th-largest -- by my calculation, just behind Louisiana and just ahead of South Carolina. It would have six representatives and two senators. It makes no sense to count permanent, non-governmental overseas residents in their state of last residence -- they clearly aren't being represented under the current system. Let's give them their own virtual state at the federal level. How would that work?

During each and every future census, overseas Americans would be enumerated and treated as if they are residents of a single state. These Americans would elect two senators with staggered terms, just as other states do. As for members of the House, 'district' lines would be drawn in a fashion similar to states -- though since it is the state governments that draw their own district lines, in the case of overseas Americans, a non-partisan commission would take this task. A guiding principle would be that gerrymandering would be avoided. Based on AARO's population data, if the process were held today, the districts might look something like this:

  • District 1: Canada
  • District 2: Mexico (part)
  • District 3: Mexico (part), Central America, South America
  • District 4: Northern Europe, Western Europe
  • District 5: Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Near East, Africa
  • District 6: Near East, Asia, Australasia
A political cynic would (rightfully) point out that members of Congress generally don't vote to reduce their own power, and that the House is a zero-sum game -- i.e., these new representatives would have to be taken away from the 435 already present. Since these changes would require a Constitutional Amendment, that same Amendment could provide for the one-time expansion of the House as appropriate.

With representation in Congress -- representation tied far more to their interests than the states in which they happened to last reside -- overseas Americans would be able to battle fairly for their rights.

Perhaps the way to pitch this in today's world is to call overseas Americans our civilian front line in the war on terror. This may be opportunistic, and even slightly shameless, but it also happens to be true. Americans overseas are often exposed to the threat of terrorism in a way we here at home can't appreciate. And Americans overseas are our best hope for the future, demonstrating to the world that, whatever they may think of America, Americans themselves are often industrious, compassionate, and, yes, tolerant. These unofficial ambassadors of daily life deserve an equal say in our political system.

April 10, 2004

Hindsight, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11

From a CNN interview yesterday with Gary Hart, co-chairman of the United States Commission on National Security (written about earlier here):

AARON BROWN: I think some people would say you are viewing this with not simply the clarity of hindsight but with the clarity of 9/11 actually having happened and that we all see things, including warning signs, differently post 9/11. Is there any truth in that?

GARY HART: Well, I think the Pearl Harbor analogy works in a way. If Franklin Roosevelt had been warned by 14 reasonably, well in fact present company excepted, deeply experienced people in national security that the Japanese were going to attack America sometime, someplace, somehow and had done nothing to get ready for that I think he would have been held very seriously accountable.

April 05, 2004

Karen Hughes for Busy People

If you'd like to know what President Bush's once-and-future consigliere Karen Hughes had to say on Meet the Press this weekend, you can wade through the transcript or read my handy-dandy summary below.

MR. RUSSERT: Why did the President resist the creation of the September 11th Commission?

MS. HUGHES: He didn't.

MR. RUSSERT: Now he thinks it's a good idea.

MS. HUGHES: He always did.

MR. RUSSERT: But what about all this evidence that he opposed it?

MS. HUGHES: He didn't oppose it.

MR. RUSSERT: Why hasn't the President given a detailed account of his thoughts and actions before 9/11?

MS. HUGHES: He has.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe the President failed the American people on September 11?

MS. HUGHES: No one could have prevented 9/11.

MR. RUSSERT: You don't think any apology is necessary?

MS. HUGHES: That would be looking backward.

MR. RUSSERT: Will the White House release the Commission's report before the November election?

MS. HUGHES: I can't speak for the White House.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think it's appropriate for the President's re-election campaign to use September 11?


MR. RUSSERT: Why did the White House insist that the President and the Vice-President appear before the Commission together?

MS. HUGHES: Because they're busy.

MR. RUSSERT: Was it appropriate for the President to stand in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner last year given the 464 soldiers killed since then?


MR. RUSSERT: Will our failure to find weapons of mass destruction be an issue directed toward the President's credibility in this campaign?

MS. HUGHES: We may yet find them.

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think the President's biggest mistake has been?

MS. HUGHES: I can't think of one.

April 03, 2004

Did You Know?

Did you know that in January 2001, the United States Commission on National Security, co-chaired by former senators Gary Hart (D) and Warren Rudman (R), delivered a report to President Bush and Congress concerning the threat of terrorism?

Did you know that the report "warned that a devastating terrorist attack on America was imminent and called for the immediate creation of a Cabinet-level [homeland] security agency"?

Did you know that in the spring of 2001, spurred on by this report, members of Congress introduced a bill to create a homeland security agency?

Did you know that in May 2001, President Bush shot this down? From Salon's interview with Gary Hart:

[I]n the spring of 2001, some members of Congress introduced legislation to create a homeland security agency. Hearings were scheduled. And our commission, which was scheduled to go out of operation on Feb. 15, 2001, was given a six-month extension so we could testify with some authority. Which we did in March and April.

And then as Congress started to move on this, and the heat was turned up, George Bush -- and this is often overlooked -- held a press conference or made a public statement on May 5, 2001, calling on Congress not to act and saying he was turning over the whole matter to Dick Cheney.

So this wasn't just neglect, it was an active position by the administration. He said, "I don't want Congress to do anything until the vice president advises me." We now know from Dick Clarke that Cheney never held a meeting on terrorism, there was never any kind of discussion on the department of homeland security that we had proposed. There was no vice presidential action on this matter.

In other words, a bipartisan commission of seven Democrats and seven Republicans who had spent two and a half years studying the problem, a group of Americans with a cumulative 300 years in national security affairs, recommended to the president of the United States on a reasonably urgent basis the creation of a Cabinet-level agency to protect our country -- and the president did nothing!

I didn't know most of this until I read the interview. Highly recommended.

March 29, 2004

Apology? You Don't Need No Stinking Apology

From Condoleeza Rice's interview on 60 Minutes last night:

Amidst all the testimony last week about the facts surrounding 9/11, Richard Clarke took a moment to apologize to the families of those who were killed in the attacks.

How -- how did you feel when he made that apology?

Well, I don't think that there is anyone who is not sorry for the terrible loss that -- these families endured. And indeed, who doesn't feel the deep tragedy that the country went through on September 11? I do think it's important that we keep focused on who did this to us. Because after all this was an act of war.

But my question is, how did his apology make you feel? Did you think he was grandstanding? Did you think it was sincere?

I -- I'm not going to -- to question what -- Dick Clarke was or was not feeling. I think from my point of view, the families need to know that -- everybody understands the deep loss.

Will the families of those people who were killed hear an apology from you? Do you think that would be appropriate?

The families, I think, have heard from this president that -- and from me, and from me personally in some cases in that field in Pennsylvania or at the World Trade Center, how -- deeply sorry everyone is for the loss that they endured. You couldn't be human and not feel the horror of that day. We do need to stay focused on what happened to us that day. And the best thing that we can do for the memory of the victims, the best thing that we can do for the future of this country, is to focus on those who did this to us.

Let me see if I can shorten and clarify that:

Are you going to apologize to the families of the victims for allowing 9/11 to happen during your tenure?

I'm sorry that they lost their loved ones.

That's not what I asked. What I asked was, are you going to apologize to the families of the victims for allowing 9/11 to happen during your tenure?

It wouldn't be good for the victims or for the country for me to apologize for allowing 9/11 to happen. That would be dwelling on the past. We need to focus on the future. So no, I'm not going to apologize as you suggest. Next question?

March 28, 2004

"I Want to Wake Up and Read That..."

From Thomas Friedman's column today:

I so hunger to wake up and be surprised with some really good news -- by someone who totally steps out of himself or herself, imagines something different and thrusts out a hand.

I want to wake up and read that President Bush has decided to offer a real alternative to the stalled Kyoto Protocol to reduce global warming. I want to wake up and read that 10,000 Palestinian mothers marched on Hamas headquarters to demand that their sons and daughters never again be recruited for suicide bombings. I want to wake up and read that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia invited Ariel Sharon to his home in Riyadh to personally hand him the Abdullah peace plan and Mr. Sharon responded by freezing Israeli settlements as a good-will gesture.

I want to wake up and read that General Motors has decided it will no longer make gas-guzzling Hummers and President Bush has decided to replace his limousine with an armor-plated Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that gets over 40 miles to the gallon.

I want to wake up and read that Dick Cheney has apologized to the U.N. and all our allies for being wrong about W.M.D. in Iraq, but then appealed to our allies to join with the U.S. in an even more important project -- helping Iraqis build some kind of democratic framework. I want to wake up and read that Tom DeLay called for a tax hike on the rich in order to save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation and to finance all our underfunded education programs.

I want to wake up and read that Justice Antonin Scalia has recused himself from ruling on the case involving Mr. Cheney's energy task force when it comes before the Supreme Court -- not because Mr. Scalia did anything illegal in duck hunting with the V.P., but because our Supreme Court is so sacred, so vital to what makes our society special -- its rule of law -- that he wouldn't want to do anything that might have even a whiff of impropriety.

I want to wake up and read that Mr. Bush has announced a Manhattan Project to develop renewable energies that will end America's addiction to crude oil by 2010. I want to wake up and read that Mel Gibson just announced that his next film will be called "Moses" and all the profits will be donated to the Holocaust Museum.

Most of all, I want to wake up and read that John Kerry just asked John McCain to be his vice president, because if Mr. Kerry wins he intends not to waste his four years avoiding America's hardest problems -- health care, deficits, energy, education -- but to tackle them, and that can only be done with a bipartisan spirit and bipartisan team.

March 27, 2004

Day is Night, Black is White

Earlier this week, I wrote (here, here) about Richard Clarke's apology to the families of 9/11 victims, the first ever by a current or former US official. In the day-is-night, black-is-white world of the current leadership of the US, to apologize for one's part in allowing the worst terrrorist attack in the history of the country is "an act of supreme arrogance." From Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's remarks on Clarke's testimony:

In his appearance before the 9-11 Commission, Mr. Clarke's theatrical apology on behalf of the nation was not his right, his privilege or his responsibility. In my view it was not an act of humility, but an act of supreme arrogance and manipulation. Mr Clarke can and will answer for his own conduct but that is all.
First, Clarke didn't apologize on behalf of the nation; he apologized to the families of 9/11 victims on behalf of himself and of those in government whose job it was to prevent such an attack.

Second, I would ask Dr. Frist, if such an apology "was not his right, his privilege or his responsibility," whose right, privilege, and responsibility was it? And given that it has been two and a half years since 9/11, when, I would ask Dr. Frist, was the person whose right, privilege, and responsibility it was planning on issuing such an apology?

While you're pondering this issue, here's another question: Can anyone name a single person in the Federal government -- just one -- who was fired as a result of 9/11? Between the work of the 9/11 Commission, the indisputed bulk of Clarke's book, and the accounts of others such as Coleen Rowley, we know that many, many mistakes led to 9/11 and the loss of 2,752 lives that day. So can anyone name one person who has lost his or her job in any branch of the Federal government as a result of making one or more of the mistakes that allowed 9/11 to take place?

March 24, 2004

According to the BBC...

...the assertion in my previous blog entry -- that no serving Bush Administration official has apologized for allowing the 9/11 attacks to happen, and that no former official had done so before Richard Clarke's apology today -- may well be correct:

Mr Clarke began his testimony by offering an apology to victims of the attacks.

"Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you and I failed you... For that failure, I would ask... for your understanding and forgiveness," he said.

It is believed to be the first such apology by a public figure.

Why did this take two and a half years? Why didn't it come from someone who bore more responsibility: National Security Advisor Rice, CIA Director Tenet, or Attorney General Ashcroft, or most of all, President Bush himself?

Correct Me If I'm Wrong...

...but I can't remember any current high-ranking member of the Bush Administration ever saying anything like what Richard Clarke said today:

Mr. Clarke began his testimony before the bipartisan, 10-member panel, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, with an apology to relatives of the 3,000 people killed on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Your government failed you," he said, his voice close to breaking. "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you."

"We tried hard," Mr. Clarke went on, "but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and your forgiveness."

If the President, any member of his Cabinet, or any other high-ranking political appointee of his has apologized for allowing the 9/11 attacks to take place on their watch, I'd like to know about it.

March 01, 2004

And the Answer Is...

In my entry yesterday, I asked readers to guess the originator of a quote condemning the Vietnam War-era practice of the sons of the powerful wrangling non-combat duty with the National Guard and Reserves. As Mike Backes correctly noted in a comment, the answer is current US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in his 1995 autobiography My American Journey.

February 29, 2004

Pop Quiz

Who said this?

I particularly condemn the way our political leaders supplied the manpower for [the Vietnam War]. The policies -- determining who would be drafted and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape, who would die and who would live -- were an antidemocratic disgrace. I can never forgive a leadership that said, in effect: These young men -- poorer, less educated, less privileged -- are expendable (someone described them as "economic cannon fodder"), but the rest are too good to risk. I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well placed... managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.
Look here tomorrow for the answer.

February 24, 2004


I was worried that the US had some real problems on its hands: the loss of more jobs during any presidency since Herbert Hoover; American soldiers dying in Iraq; the lawlessness of Afghanistan; ongoing scandals of corporate malfeasance; soured relations with much of the rest of the world; record budget deficits...

But now that the President -- with, it must be said, many Members of Congress from both parties solidly behind him -- has decided to push for a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, I think I can rest much easier. Clearly those other issues must be resolved, or the President and Congress wouldn't be spending time on such an issue. Right?

Whew! I feel much better now.

February 18, 2004

Read This Now

Via Joshua Micah Marshall, a stunning exchange between White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and the White House press corps, led by Helen Thomas.

February 09, 2004

Kristof on Clinton and Bush

Last week, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column for the New York Times that expressed far better than could I how I feel about Presidents Bush and Clinton:

In the 2000 campaign, I covered Mr. Bush a bit, so this week I dug out tapes of his speeches. On those tapes, he claims that he will leave the great bulk of the surplus intact: "My plan is to take a portion of the projected surplus, a little over $1 trillion of the $4 trillion surplus, and give it to the people who pay the bills."

The reality is that under Mr. Bush, surpluses have completely vanished. Granted, he had help from a bad economy. But spending has increased more rapidly than under any president since Lyndon Johnson, and Mr. Bush refuses to pay for it. I've seen that story before -- in Argentina.

Now the I.M.F. has warned that the U.S. budget and trade deficits are a threat to the global economy.

A new study from the Brookings Institution, "Restoring Fiscal Sanity," estimates that by 2014 the average family's income will be $1,800 lower because of slower economic growth caused by these budget deficits. A family with a 30-year $250,000 mortgage will be paying $2,000 more per year in interest costs alone.

All in all, as I look at the economy, I miss President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton had egregious personal failings, and I deplored what I felt was his dishonesty. But as a steward of the economy, he combined fiscal conservatism with a willingness to stand against protectionism. No leader today, Democrat or Republican, is so forthright about the economy, and it's sad to see Democrats retreating from free trade.

Compared with Mr. Bush, John Kerry and most other Democratic presidential candidates are paragons of responsibility -- but only compared with Mr. Bush. The reality is that promises by Democrats like Mr. Kerry to start new health care programs, keep some of the tax cuts and restore black ink are nonsense. But it's less nonsense to say 2 + 2 = 5 (Mr. Kerry) than to say 2 + 2 = 22 (Mr. Bush).

Mr. Clinton lied about sex, and he was sleazy in other respects as well, but he was willing to tell America the unpleasant truth about trade and about budgets. I wish Mr. Bush and his Democratic challengers would be half as honest with the American public as Mr. Clinton was.

When Clinton was president, I was upset with his seemingly spineless foreign policy, as well as with what I perceived as his sleaziness. I failed, though, to appreciate at the time just how great a job he was doing on economic issues. I still think his foreign policy was spineless, but to his credit, he had the Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace than anyone before or since, and "America" wasn't a dirty word in most of the world. And as for sleaziness, Clinton and his retinue were sleazy on a minor scale, like local actors performing dinner theater in, well, Arkansas. The Bush Administration has featured sleaziness on a vast scale, which just goes to show, if you're going to commit a crime, commit a big one.

Like Kristof, I, too, miss President Bill Clinton. And the fact that I say that now shows how incredibly upset I am with President Bush -- a man to whom I gave the benefit of the doubt both after he took office and after 9/11. I will not do so again.

January 31, 2004

Prediction #1

The 2004 Democratic Presidential ticket: John Kerry and John Edwards.

As Al Gore did in 2000, Kerry is capable of winning the Northeast, Illinois, the upper Midwest, and California. George W. Bush is assured of winning Texas and a large swath of the Midwest and Mountain states. The battleground will be the South. Who can help Kerry the most there? Not Howard Dean or Joe Lieberman. Wesley Clark has no natural constituency, no proven ability to win elections. Kerry needs Edwards. And a Kerry-Edwards ticket has a legitimate chance at winning it all.

December 26, 2003

Civics Test

While writing my recent entry on Paul Martin becoming Prime Minister of Canada, I wondered to myself, "How many Americans know who the Prime Minister of Canada -- either the current or his predecessor -- is?" But then I wondered, "How many Americans know who their own political leaders are?"

Off the top of my head, I came up with my own list of the 15 most powerful elected or appointed officials in the US government. Of course, the contents and order of this list are an opinion only, but I'd guess most people would agree with most of my choices:

  1. The President of the United States
  2. The Vice-President of the United States
  3. The Secretary of Defense
  4. The Secretary of State
  5. The Speaker of the House of Representatives
  6. The Senate Majority Leader
  7. The National Security Advisor
  8. The White House Chief of Staff
  9. The Secretary of the Treasury
  10. The Attorney General
  11. The Secretary of Homeland Security
  12. The Senate Minority Leader
  13. The House Minority Leader
  14. The Director of Central Intelligence
  15. The Director of the Office of Management and Budget
Of these 15, how many could most Americans name? How many can you name?

By the way, I got 14 out of my own 15 choices -- I'm embarrassed to say that I hadn't a clue who the Director of the OMB was.

I'll add the answers in a comment to this entry.

December 13, 2003

Thank Goodness for John McCain

I don't agree with him on everything, to be sure, but John McCain has always struck me as the rarest of politicians: one who forms his own opinions, says what's on his mind, and tells the truth as he sees it.

Senator McCain, along with two colleagues, has weighed in on the Guantánamo controversy:

After visiting the military's detention center for some 660 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, three senators, including the onetime prisoner of war John McCain, sent a pointed letter on Friday telling Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that it was time to release the detainees or bring them to trial.

Mr. McCain, who as a naval aviator spent more than five years held prisoner by North Vietnam, said in an interview that he believed the continued detention of the prisoners violated basic human rights precepts.

"They may not have any rights under the Geneva Conventions as far as I'm concerned," said the senator, an Arizona Republican, "but they have rights under various human rights declarations. And one of them is the right not to be detained indefinitely."

On the tour of Guantánamo, and in the letter to Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. McCain was joined by Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, another Republican, and Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington.

I disagree with Senator McCain's comments on the inapplicability of the Geneva Convention, but he sees the fundamental violation of human rights that Guantánamo represents, and that's the important thing.

War hero, distinguished Senate career, known as an honest man, smart as a whip... can someone explain to me once again how he lost the Republican nomination to George Bush in 2000?

Congratulations, Prime Minister

Paul Martin was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada yesterday. Here's hoping he can continue the success he had as Finance Minister, during which time he drove the Canadian government to consistently run surpluses, while at the same time finding more money -- though not enough, according to some -- for social programs.

A good sign is the Prime Minister's stated first legislative priority: new ethics rules to improve transparency and accountability in government. One of the new rules will ban ministers from the use of non-commercial aircraft except in exceptional circumstances (and such use to be disclosed within 30 days). If only US Cabinet members had to travel that way.

November 11, 2003

Gore on Civil Liberties

Two days ago, Al Gore gave an excellent speech on civil liberties and the war on terror. The speech was sponsored by There were so many wonderful passages that I hesitate to quote from it -- it should be read in its entirety. Nevertheless, I'll give it a shot:

Rather than defending our freedoms, this Administration has sought to abandon them. Rather than accepting our traditions of openness and accountability, this Administration has opted to rule by secrecy and unquestioned authority. Instead, its assaults on our core democratic principles have only left us less free and less secure.

Throughout American history, what we now call civil liberties have often been abused and limited during times of war and perceived threats to security. The best known instances include the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798-1800, the brief suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the extreme abuses during World War I and the notorious Red Scare and Palmer Raids immediately after the war, the shameful internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the excesses of the FBI and CIA during the Vietnam War and social turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But in each of these cases, the nation has recovered its equilibrium when the war ended and absorbed the lessons learned in a recurring cycle of excess and regret.

There are reasons for concern this time around that what we are experiencing may no longer be the first half of a recurring cycle but rather, the beginning of something new. For one thing, this war is predicted by the administration to "last for the rest of our lives." Others have expressed the view that over time it will begin to resemble the "war" against drugs -- that is, that it will become a more or less permanent struggle that occupies a significant part of our law enforcement and security agenda from now on. If that is the case, then when -- if ever -- does this encroachment on our freedoms die a natural death?

It is important to remember that throughout history, the loss of civil liberties by individuals and the aggregation of too much unchecked power in the executive go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same coin.

The last paragraph above is amazing. A leader of the Democratic Party is arguing strenously against the accumulation of power by the executive branch of the US government. Meanwhile, the current US President, a Republican, is doing as much as he can through laws, executive orders, and practices to accumulate power as quickly as possible. In other words, the Democrats and Republicans have exchanged positions on this issue, all in the span of the two years since 9/11.

I've never been a big fan of Al Gore, but I must admit to being incredibly impressed with this speech. As for, I haven't agreed with some of what they've done. For example, entering the California recall election with last-minute allegations of sexual impropriety against a candidate (Schwarzenegger) seemed to violate the principle upon which the organization was founded in 1998, that "a continuing obsession with this [Lewinsky sex] scandal will do great damage to our institutions, our economy, and our power and prestige in the world." Neither did I agree with their absolute anti-war position over the course of the last year. But's leadership on civil liberties violations and on the Bush Administration's accumulation of power is needed and welcome.

Kudos to Gore for his speech and to for sponsoring it.

September 12, 2003

Someone Told the Truth. Get Him!

Last week, Howard Dean -- whom, I should point out, I do not endorse for President, simply because I have not yet decided whom to endorse -- did something fairly radical while discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: he told the truth:

"I don't believe stopping the terror has to be a prerequisite for talking, you always talk. I don't find it convenient to blame people. Nobody should have violence, ever. But they do, and it's not our place to take sides.

"We all know that enormous numbers of the settlements that are there are going to have to come out," he added.

Predictably, the backlash was immediate:

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) accused him of advocating a "major break" from the United States' long-standing policy of explicitly siding with Israel in the Middle East.

"If this is a well-thought-out position, it's a mistake, and a major break from a half a century of American foreign policy," Lieberman said in a statement. "If it's not, it's very important for Howard Dean, as a candidate for president, to think before he talks."

Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) said: "It is either because he lacks the foreign policy experience or simply because he is wrong that governor Dean has proposed a radical shift in United States policy towards the Middle East. If the president were to make a remark such as this it would throw an already volatile region into even more turmoil."

Dean responded quite thoughtfully:

In an interview, Dean sought to clarify his statement but did not back down from his belief that the United State cannot negotiate peace unless it is seen as a neutral party in the region. "Israel has always been a longtime ally with a special relationship with the United States, but if we are going to bargain by being in the middle of the negotiations then we are going to have to take an evenhanded role," he said.
What a radical concept!

This reminds me of something I've thought for a while now, that there are (at least) two great unspoken truths in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

The Palestinians must realize that Israel will never agree to the "right of return" (the idea that large numbers of Palestinians can establish Israeli residence and citizenship if they so desire). If Israel were to grant such a right, it would be destroying the Jewish nature of its state, and no state will ever voluntarily destroy itself.

The Israelis must realize that most or all of their settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are going to cease to exist. The Palestinians will one day have a sovereign state, and no sovereign state is going to tolerate dozens or hundreds of foreign islands within its territory. Anyone who thinks those Jewish settlements will still exist in a hundred years is living in a fantasy world.

Cheers to Howard Dean for being brave enough to tell the truth. I hope he continues to hold to his stance and doesn't back down in the face of pressure.

September 11, 2003

Anti-Gay Marriage Hearings

Via Million for Marriage, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights held a hearing last week entitled, "What is Needed to Defend the Bipartisan Defense of Marriage Act of 1996?", called by its Chariman, Senator John Cornyn (R.-TX). Four witnesses were allowed to speak in favor of a Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil union, while two witnesses were allowed to speak against it.

The first speaker was an African-American pastor from Massachusetts:

The American family is in serious trouble today. At present, a historically unprecedented percentage of families with children in our nation are fatherless. In fact, over 25 million American children (more than 1-in-3) are being raised in a family with no father present in the home. This represents a dramatic tripling of the level of fatherlessness in America over the past thirty years.

Unfortunately, there is an overwhelming body of social science research data which shows that the epidemic level of fatherlessness in America represents a disaster for children and society...

As compelling as the empirical evidence may be, I do not need to consult social science research studies in order to conclude that the African-American community in particular has paid a heavy price for the modern epidemic of family disintegration.

Of course, the problems of America's urban neighborhoods are well known. But the modern epidemic of family breakdown means that an increasing number of children in America are growing up under similarly difficult conditions. Indeed, for several decades, our nation has been wandering in a wilderness of social problems caused by family disintegration...

Tragically, as bad as our current situation may be, it could soon become dramatically worse. This is because the courts in America are poised to erase the legal road map to marriage and the family from American law. In fact, the weakening of the legal status of marriage in America at the hands of the courts has already begun.

This process represents nothing less than a social revolution -- advancing apart from the democratic process and against the will of a clear majority of the American people. If allowed to continue, this revolution will deprive future generations of Americans of the legal road map they will need to have a fighting chance to find their way out of the social wilderness of family disintegration.

Marriage as the union of male and female is the most multicultural social institution in the world -- it cuts across all racial, cultural and religious lines.

Significantly, this common sense understanding of marriage as the union of male and female is so fundamental to the African-American community that over 70% of all African-Americans in the United States would currently favor a constitutional amendment to protect the legal status of marriage. Indeed, polls consistently show that the African-American community -- along with other communities of color in the United States -- lead the way in their support for a Federal Marriage Amendment to protect the legal status of marriage in America for future generations.

Of course, no one involved in the Alliance For Marriage believes that saving the legal status of marriage in America will alone be sufficient to stem the tide of family disintegration in our country. But we are convinced that protecting the legal status of marriage is a necessary condition for the renewal of a marriage-based culture in the United States.

The good news in all of this is that family breakdown is a completely curable social disease. This is one of the greatest and most prosperous nations in the world. And we can do better than accept historically unprecedented levels of youth crime and child poverty because more than one-third of our nation's children are being raised without the benefit of a married family made up of a mother and a father.

We can -- and we must -- rebuild a culture of marriage and intact families in this country while we still have time.

Let me see if I can translate and condense that:

The family is in serious trouble. Fatherlessness is an epidemic and a disaster. Family disintegration has been especially hard on the African-American community. Now, I can't draw any connection whatsoever between gay marriage on the one hand and fatherlessness and family disintegration on the other, but most African-Americans are against gay marriage, as am I, so I think we should ban it.
Thankfully, this rhetorical know-nothing nonsense was balanced by the eloquent testimony of a man whose partner of 11 years was an attendant on one of the hijacked 9/11 flights:
Jeff and I had exchanged rings and we were married in our hearts. Legally, it was another matter entirely.

After his death, I was faced not only with my grief over losing Jeff -- who was indeed my better half -- but with the painful task of proving the authenticity of our relationship over and over again. With no marriage license to prove our relationship existed, even something as fundamental as obtaining his death certificate became a monumental task...

During the years we were together, Jeff paid taxes and had social security deducted from his paycheck like all other Americans do. But without a civil marriage license, I am denied benefits that married couples and their families receive as a matter of routine.

Jeff died without a will, which meant that while I dealt with losing him, I also had huge anxiety about maintaining the home we shared together. Without a marriage license to prove I was Jeff's next of kin, even inheriting basic household possessions became a legal nightmare.

Married couples have a legal safety net of rights and protections that gay Americans are currently denied. Until Jeff died, I had no idea just how vulnerable we were -- where married couples have security and protection, gay couples are left without a net...

The terrorists who attacked this country killed people not because they were gay or straight -- but because they were Americans. It is heart wrenching that our own government does not protect its citizens equally, gay and straight, simply because they are Americans.

Two years ago we were all united against the common threat of terrorism. Now, less than two years later I am sitting here and being told that my relationship was a threat to our country.

Jeff and I only sought to love and take care of each other. I do not understand why that is a threat to some people, and I cannot understand why the leaders of this country would hold a hearing on the best way to prevent that from happening.

In closing, I would like to read an excerpt from a letter that Jeff wrote to me on our last anniversary:

"Keith, we've been through much the past 11 years. Our lives haven't always been easy, but through it all, our undeniable love for each other has carried us through! I love you -- don't ever forget that! When you're feeling lonely and I'm not home with you, just pull out this letter and read my words to you once again and know how much you will always mean to me! With loving thoughts of you now and forever, Jeff."

I truly believe I have learned the meaning of the phrase -- Love is Eternal.

How someone could listen to that testimony, to such an obviously heartfelt expression of love and caring -- to the story of a family, in the truest sense of the word, stricken with tragedy -- and then go on to talk abstractedly of "protecting the legal status of marriage is a necessary condition for the renewal of a marriage-based culture in the United States" is utterly and completely beyond me. It bespeaks a lack of empathy, a self-centeredness, a moral righteousness that I hope I am never able to comprehend.

September 09, 2003

Ted Koppel on the PATRIOT Act

Via the tireless Lisa Rein, a wonderful closing statement by Ted Koppel from a recent episode of Nightline focused on the PATRIOT Act:

The men who drafted our Constitution, who framed our civil rights and protected our various freedoms under the law would, I suspect, retch at some of the bone headed, self-serving misinterpretations of their intentions that are so often used these days to undermine the very freedoms they pretend to safeguard. The miracle of American law is not that it protects popular speech, or the privacy of the powerful, or the homes of the privileged, but rather, that the least among us, those with the fewest defenses, those suspected of the worst crimes, the most despised in our midst, are presumed innocent until proven guilty. That remains as revolutionary a concept now as it was in the 1780s. It makes protecting the nation against terrorism excruciatingly difficult, but we cannot arbitrarily suspend the rights of one catagory of suspects without endangering all the others.
Eloquent and right on the mark.

Lisa hosts clips of this show on her site; you can find them at the entry above.

September 08, 2003

Ho, Ho... That's Rich!

As I drove my sons to school this morning, NPR's Morning Edition broadcast a story on the Supreme Court hearing arguments today on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill. Senator Mitch McConnell (R.-A Pile of Spanish Doubloons), a longtime opponent of such reform, offered his basic argument:

We don't think contributions to political parties create either corruption or the appearance of corruption.
My son Cameron thought about this for a moment and then said:
That's like the cigarette manufacturers claiming that cigarettes don't cause cancer.
Well put, Cameron.

September 03, 2003

Riverbend and Rebuilding

From a blog by "Riverbend," a female Iraqi with a good command of English, comes this commentary on rebuilding Iraq:

One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- well call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who'll listen.

As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn't too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses (mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders) and came up with a number they tentatively put forward -- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials (quite cheap in Iraq), labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Lets pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let's pretend he hasnt been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let's pretend he didn't work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let's pretend he's wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated -- let's pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let's just use our imagination.

A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around -- brace yourselves -- $50,000,000 !! ...

[I]nstead of bringing in thousands of foreign companies that are going to want billions of dollars, why aren't the Iraqi engineers, electricians and laborers being taken advantage of? Thousands of people who have no work would love to be able to rebuild Iraq no one is being given a chance.

The reconstruction of Iraq is held above our heads like a promise and a threat. People roll their eyes at reconstruction because they know (Iraqis are wily) that these dubious reconstruction projects are going to plunge the country into a national debt only comparable to that of America. A few already rich contractors are going to get richer, Iraqi workers are going to be given a pittance and the unemployed Iraqi public can stand on the sidelines and look at the glamorous buildings being built by foreign companies.

Found on boing boing.

September 02, 2003

NYT on Schwarzenegger

A wonderfully pithy sentence at the end of this passage from a New York Times article on the California recall election:

Mr. Schwarzenegger made an appearance at the California State Fair and Exposition near Sacramento, where he... lauded the accomplishments of California's workers, but insisted he would not accept money from their unions. "I will never take money from the special interests, from Indian gaming, from unions or anything like that," he said.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has reneged on early campaign promises not to accept campaign contributions from anyone. State disclosures show he has collected more than $1 million from companies and individuals with business before the state. "I get donations from businesses and individuals absolutely, because they're powerful interests who control things," he said today.

He declined to explain the difference between special interests and powerful interests.

Who is managing this campaign?

August 28, 2003

"Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me"

There was a nice letter to the editor yesterday in the Raleigh News and Observer, our major local paper here:

Many who support the religious monument in the Alabama Supreme Court building argue that the Ten Commandments are really just basic moral virtues that any civilized society would share. "Thou shalt not murder." "Thou shalt not steal." What could be wrong with that?

What is wrong is that there is more to the Ten Commandments than generic moral common sense. The first commandment says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." I do not have a problem with the state telling me not to murder or steal. I do take offense when a cultural elite tries to use the authority of the courts to tell me what god I should worship.

Yahweh is not my god, nor is he the god of millions of other Americans. When a building used by a court of law houses a commandment to worship a specific god, it sends a message that those who do not worship that god do not respect the law.

The monument in Alabama is an affront to patriotic Americans whose love for their country and respect for the rule of law is shaped within spiritual traditions other than the Judeo-Christian one...

The author is absolutely correct: to display a set of religious commandments that start with the order, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," represents not only official sanctioning of a particular religion, but disapproval of all others as well. That's unacceptable.

Senate Hearing on P2P

A US Senator, Norm Coleman, has called for hearings into the RIAA's lawsuits against P2P users. The EFF is asking for help:

Make sure that the RIAA isn't the only organization in the room when the hard questions start coming; tell Congress that you want the Electronic Frontier Foundation to represent your interests in the hearings:

Our goal is to have over 100,000 letters delivered by the time of the hearing...

It only takes two minutes or so to enter your address and customize a letter to your senators. If you find the RIAA's actions unacceptable, this is an easy way to let your voice be heard.

August 22, 2003

In Contempt

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is defying the US Supreme Court:

Alabama's top judge refused to back down in his fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument... [in] the rotunda of the state judicial building.

"I will never deny the God upon whom our laws and country depend," Chief Justice Roy Moore said in a fiery defense of the 5,300-pound granite marker, as supporters cheered and prayed on the building's steps.

The monument was still in the building's rotunda early Thursday evening, and court officials did not say when or where it would be moved.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, who had ruled the monument's placement violated the Constitution's ban on government promotion of a religious doctrine, has said it could be moved to a private place still within the building. He had threatened $5,000-a-day fines if Moore left the monument in the public rotunda.

Moore installed the monument two years ago and contends it represents the moral foundation of American law.

"Not only did Judge Thompson put himself above the law, but above God as well," Moore told his supporters Thursday.

The chief justice had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the removal order, but the court rejected it Wednesday. Moore said Thursday he would file a formal appeal with the high court soon "to defend our constitutional right to acknowledge God."

"I cannot forsake my conscience," he said.

Presuming that Chief Justice Moore still has his job when all is said and done, how could he ever again hold someone in contempt of court, when he himself, the highest legal figure in his state, is refusing to obey the highest legal authority in the land?

While I disagree strongly with Chief Justice Moore, I'm all for following one's conscience and for peaceful civil disobedience. Having said that, there are usually consequences for such actions (or they would have no meaning). To my mind, the obvious consequence for the Chief Justice is that, in undermining the legal system, he is forfeiting his ability to continue serving within that system.

August 21, 2003

Compilation Error

Can someone help me out?

  1. Hamas (along with Islamic Jihad and Fatah) declares a cease-fire.
  2. Hamas claims responsibility for a suicide bombing that kills 18 Israeli civilians.
  3. Israel assassinates a Hamas political leader and his two bodyguards.
  4. Hamas declares an end to the cease-fire.
If this were a program, it wouldn't compile.

August 18, 2003

Delaying CAFE

From an article in Automobile magazine:

The U.S. Senate has rejected a proposal to require dramatically more efficient cars and trucks as a way to conserve oil.

The plan offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would have raised standards for cars to 40 miles per gallon by 2015. Senators rejected the Durbin amendment by a 32-65 vote.

Instead, as part of its work on a national energy policy, senators adopted a plan crafted by Michigan Democrat Sen. Carl Levin and Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., that would give regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 30 months to issue new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

The Detroit Free Press said Levin argued lawmakers lacked the expertise to pick a fair fuel economy target. Regulators would be directed to carefully assess new technology, automakers' product plans, the potential impact on the economy and automotive safety, Levin said, taking politics out of the process.

That's the funniest thing I've read in a while now.

Imagine that NHTSA studies the issue for the next 30 months and says yes, that auto makers should reach 40 miles/gallon by 2015. Is there anyone out there who believes that Senator Levin will then accept -- begrudgingly or otherwise -- NHTSA's findings? Is there anyone out there who believes that Senator Levin will say, "NHTSA has, as I said two and a half years ago, the expertise to pick a fair fuel economy target, and they have done so. We must follow through on our previous commitment and support these new regulations." Is there anyone out there who believes that any US politician wants to take politics out of any process?

August 17, 2003

Schwarzenegger's Beliefs

More on Schwarzenegger's stated moderate beliefs:

"I'm for choice," he said when asked about abortion on Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" in May 2001. "The women should have the choice. The women should decide what they want to do with their bodies. I'm all for that."

On guns, he told a Berkeley-based youth radio station last year: "I don't run around every day with a gun in my hand. So I want kids to understand the difference; one is make believe, like we do in the movies. But in reality, I'm for gun control. I'm a peace-loving guy."

And on gay rights, he told Cosmopolitan magazine, "I have no sexual standards in my head that say 'this is good' or 'this is bad.' Homosexual -- that only means to me that he enjoys sex with a man and I enjoy sex with a woman. It's all legitimate to me."

Conservatives can rail against this sort of thing, but the reality is that Schwarzenegger's views are in line with how most California residents feel about these issues. (See the relevant polls here, here, and here.)

August 16, 2003

Schwarzenegger the Moderate?

Rush Limbaugh doesn't much care for Arnold Schwarzenegger's politics:

The American Prowler's George Neumayr detailed Arnold's politics in his article "Here's Arnold!" Quote: "[H]e spoke in generalities and banalities about his plans for the state. To the extent that he said anything, he sounded not like a fiscal conservative but a moderate Democrat. He said that he wanted businesses to come back to California so that the state government could collect enough tax revenues to provide social programs. This is the sort of obtuse comment middle-of-the-road Democrats always make, forgetting that businesses are leaving the state because they are tired of paying high taxes for those big government social programs."

More: "He has told the press he is 'very liberal' about social programs, supports abortion and homosexual adoption, and advocates 'sensible gun controls.' His entree into politics last year was a proposition Democrats endorsed because it raised state spending for what amounted to state babysitting -- before-school and after-school programs that cost the state up to $455 million a year. He has complained openly about the party's conservatism.... Talk magazine described him as 'impatient' with the religious right.... [H]e expressed disgust with the Republicans who impeached Clinton. 'That was another thing I will never forgive the Republican Party for,' he said. 'We spent one year wasting time because there was a human failure. I was ashamed to call myself a Republican during that period.'"

(Rush didn't link to the article he referenced, but it can be found here.)

In other news, Schwarzenegger named Warren Buffett and George Shultz as economic advisors. Buffett promptly went on to describe the foolishness of California's Proposition 13:

Mr. Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., took on California's famous Proposition 13, which has limited property taxes there since 1978. As an example, he pointed out the difference between his own property-tax bills for homes he owns in California and Nebraska.

His home in Omaha, he said, is valued at roughly $500,000. His current yearly property tax bill on that home: $14,401.

In California, he owns a Laguna Beach home valued at $4 million, or eight times as much. The annual property taxes on that home are just $2,264 -- a fraction of what he pays in Omaha.

More to the point, said Mr. Buffett , the taxes on his Omaha home rose $1,920 this year, compared with $23 on the Laguna Beach home. Mr. Buffett attributed the scant jump in California to the restrictions of Proposition 13, which generally limits property-tax increases to 2% a year, no matter how much the value of a property appreciates.

Mr. Buffett stopped short of saying he would urge Mr. Schwarzenegger to seek a reversal of Proposition 13 to increase property taxes -- a move that would almost certainly be attacked by many of Mr. Schwarzenegger's fellow Republicans. But he left little doubt that that is where he is leaning.

Leaving aside the question of whether California's overall tax rate is too high or too low, the reality is that Proposition 13 is fundamentally unfair. As I remember it, Proposition 13 passed in large part on voter sympathy for the elderly losing their homes due to rising property taxes. As a defense against this, it may well have succeeded. But it has also succeeded in allowing the wealthy of Los Altos Hills, Woodside, and Portola Valley who hold onto their homes to pay far less than in property taxes than more recent buyers of homes worth a fraction as much. How can that be defended as fair?

It's true that Schwarzenegger has yet to announce any specifics of what he would do as governor. But if Rush Limbaugh doesn't like him, and if Warren Buffett and George Shultz do, how bad can he be?

August 07, 2003

Recalls and the Constitution

When I first read about California Governor Gray Davis' lawsuit to delay and alter the upcoming recall election, I was confused. "After all," I thought to myself, "isn't the California constitution clear about recall elections?" So I looked up the relevant section of the constitution, and here it is:

SEC. 15. (a) An election to determine whether to recall an officer and, if appropriate, to elect a successor shall be called by the Governor and held not less than 60 days nor more than 80 days from the date of certification of sufficient signatures.

(b) A recall election may be conducted within 180 days from the date of certification of sufficient signatures in order that the election may be consolidated with the next regularly scheduled election occurring wholly or partially within the same jurisdiction in which the recall election is held, if the number of voters eligible to vote at that next regularly scheduled election equal at least 50 percent of all the voters eligible to vote at the recall election.

(c) If the majority vote on the question is to recall, the officer is removed and, if there is a candidate, the candidate who receives a plurality is the successor. The officer may not be a candidate, nor shall there be any candidacy for an office filled pursuant to subdivision (d) of Section 16 of Article VI.

I went back and re-read the story of what Governor Davis is claiming in his lawsuit. Here's one of his claims:

Davis and his supporters... told the court they believe the rules regarding the recall ballot are unconstitutional. They contend that voters who want to keep the governor in office have to meet a higher standard than those who want him removed. To stay in office, Davis needs 50 percent of the vote. But if he is recalled, his successor needs a plurality of votes, not a majority.
This left me no less confused. Wasn't the California constitution crystal-clear on this issue? "The officer may not be a candidate." This led me to track down the actual lawsuit to understand the claim. Here's a relevant portion:
44. For purposes of equal protection analysis, Gray Davis is in all salient respects similarly situated to other individuals who will appear on the recall ballot as nominees for the office of Governor of the State of California. Yet, recall election procedures... require 50 percent of the vote for petitioner Davis to remain Governor, but only a plurality vote for any other nominated individual to become Governor. Further, petitioner Davis is barred from being considered with others who seek to be elected to the office of Governor if more than 50 percent of the voters vote "yes" on the recall question.

45. These procedures impose a direct, severe and disproportionate burden on the fundamental rights to vote and to associate for political purposes of those individuals who support Governor Davis. Petitioners have a right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution to have their votes counted on the same terms and with the same weight as the votes of individuals who support other candidates for Governor. Because there is no rational, substantial or compelling justification for the differential treatment imposed by these election procedures, petitioners are denied their right to equal protection of the law.

46. Petitioner Gray Davis wishes to be Governor of the State of California and to be considered for the position of Governor on the same basis and under the same terms as others who seek that office. The recall election procedures described above impose a direct, severe and disproportionate burden on petitioner Davis's right and ability to be considered as a candidate for Governor. Because there is no rational, substantial or compelling justification for the differential treatment imposed by these election procedures, petitioner Davis is denied his right to equal protection of the law.

47. The recall is not based upon any wrongdoing or malfeasance by petitioner Davis.

48. The recall election procedures... by requiring 50 percent of the vote for petitioner Davis to remain Governor but only a plurality vote for any other nominated individual to become Governor and by barring petitioner Davis from being considered with others who seek to succeed to the vacancy created by a "yes" vote on the recall question, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

So what Governor Davis is saying is that the California constitution's recall procedures violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Now, I disagree with that, and it will be interesting to see what the California Supreme Court makes of the argument, but here's my real question: how can the governor of a state file suit against a constitution he or she is sworn to uphold? Here's the oath of office for California legislators and officers:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be,) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of -------, according to the best of my ability.
I suppose what Governor Davis is saying is that he's sworn to uphold both constitutions, and feels that the national constitution must take precedence over his state's constitution. Since his state's constitution sets out rules that disfavor him from keeping office in the current situation, I can understand why he would say this... and I could make a moral argument for his position as well... but something about what he's doing strikes me the wrong way. It's as if the US President were to disavow the US Constitution.

July 11, 2003

Union v. Charter

Via Mickey Kaus, a column from the Sacramento Bee:

The [Sacramento school] district has been trying to re-invent Sacramento High School, a troubled school... officially on the list of the state's "low-performing" schools and [facing] a possible state takeover.

Instead, the district school board voted earlier this year to close the campus and hand the grounds to a nonprofit corporation headed by former NBA basketball star Kevin Johnson, who graduated from Sacramento High... Johnson... is using his money and connections to try to spur an economic and spiritual resurgence in the area...

Sacramento High would be a public charter school, meaning it would get its funding directly from the state and escape many of the rules and regulations that weigh down traditional public schools. It would be held accountable for its results rather than its processes -- and the students would be expected to meet clear academic and behavioral standards. At least at the start, the teachers would not be members of the local union, the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

That's the problem. The union could not accept the loss of membership and control, and has done everything possible to stop the school's rebirth...

Once the school board voted narrowly to move ahead, the local union, with the backing of the California Teachers Association, took the district to court. The teachers' claim: The school was illegal because it wasn't really new but only a conversion of the old campus. State law, the union insisted, required the support of half the school's teachers for a conversion. If the school was closed and reopened, parental backing would be sufficient.

The first judge who heard the case rejected the union's request for an emergency order blocking the move and told the plaintiffs they had little chance of prevailing at trial. So the union used a legal maneuver to dump that judge for another.

The new jurist... issued a ruling blocking the school district from moving ahead... Her ruling, now under appeal, seemed to suggest that if the district left the campus shuttered for a year or so, all would be forgiven.

Now Johnson's St. HOPE Corp. is calling parents of more than 1,000 students already enrolled for the fall and circulating new petitions... The union is vowing an all-out fight and is pressuring the school board to cave and return the campus to traditional status...

Despite the uncertainty, the school's founders are moving ahead and have hired dozens of teachers and a corps of well-regarded administrators. Even more heartening, the community isn't giving up on St. HOPE. The nonprofit just announced it has received commitments for more than $1 million in new donations and scholarships. A local developer, a building supply company and a private law school were among the donors. This comes on top of $1 million already pledged by another developer and the UC Davis Medical Center, and $3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The reborn Sacramento High School has the leadership and the support it needs to soar to new heights on behalf of the capital city's most disadvantaged students. All the school needs to do now is shed the teachers union that is fighting to keep it tied down.

As Mickey wrote, "Note to California Teachers Association: You can't buy bad publicity like that!"

June 21, 2003

US to the World: Stay Home

With depressingly greater frequency, I find the actions of my government make me embarrassed by it, if not outright ashamed. Today, it's about passports and visas, prompted by two stories in the Wall Street Journal. The first reports on new passport and visa rules for visitors from low-risk nations (mostly Western European):

Under legislation enacted following the [9/11] attacks, the State Department is requiring citizens of 27 mostly western European nations, who normally don't need a visa to now travel here, have updated, high-tech passports by this fall. If they don't, they must go through the increasingly time consuming visa-application process as a security check.

Meanwhile, another measure soon to take effect requires most visa applicants to undergo in-person interviews with U.S. consular officials overseas, a move expected to greatly increase consular service workload and further delay a slowed visa-processing system. Business, tourism and international education organizations, already concerned about the interview requirement, say nationals of the "visa waiver" countries that don't have the high-tech passports will only add to the long lines and delays in visa processing...

The 27 participating countries are considered to be low-risk because they don't have severe economic or political problems that would cause their nationals to seek to stay in the U.S. illegally, and also because they aren't considered countries who harbor or support terrorists.

Many are important U.S. allies, such as Japan and the United Kingdom... But since the terror attacks, the visa-waiver program has come under repeated scrutiny amid questions about possible security threats...

Justice officials considered ending the program entirely, but reconsidered after the State Department voiced concerns about the affect on U.S. relations abroad and the high cost of requiring visas and interviews for citizens of the 27 nations.

The second story is on the US government's decision to effectively end the right of shore leave for merchant ship crews:

Every one of the world shipping industry's 1.2 million merchant mariners will be required to carry a biometric identity card under a convention adopted at a meeting of the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

The objective is to weed out potential terrorists who may infiltrate crews, but the country that pushed hardest for the new treaty -- the U.S. -- still won't be satisfied. The U.S. will continue to demand that crews have visas as well as ID cards...

Two years ago, an immigration agent could have waived the visa requirement. But since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, authorities have all but done away with waivers. And while screening makes it tough for individual seamen to get visas, the State Department is abolishing the blanket crew visas it once granted freely.

Effectively, that means the right of shore leave has also been abolished, especially for seamen on tramp ships with no U.S. ports of call to list in advance on visa applications. New York's Center for Seafarers' Rights has found that on 40% of ships in several ports some seamen are refused a chance to step ashore. There are around 900,000 seamen visits to the U.S. annually.

"They see them as potential terrorists," says Doug Stevenson, a maritime lawyer who heads the rights center. "But who's better able to find things out of the ordinary on a ship than the crew?"

Mr. Stevenson believes the ILO agreement on a foolproof ID would remove any need for visas. Shore leave, he argues, has been a seaman's right for centuries, and no nation but the U.S. requires crew visas at all. But America is sticking to its guns.

If we continue to treat those who would visit us with ever-greater rudeness, one day we will find that they don't visit us so much, and that when we visit them, we're treated the same way. Is that the sort of world in which we want to live? Is that the legacy of the victims of 9/11?

A friend of mine who's not a US citizen told me recently of his experience entering the US at Sea-Tac airport. A Japanese family -- husband, wife, and children -- was ahead of him. The INS agent asked the husband about the declaration he had filled out, in which he had apparently checked the "Pleasure" box (and not "Business"). "Are you doing any business while you're here?" the agent asked. The husband replied that he was planning on stopping by his company's Los Angeles offices while there, but no, that he was in the US for a vacation with his family. "That means you're doing business," the agent said. "You've just perjured yourself by falsifying this form." The agent went on to say that, while he could throw the husband in jail, he wouldn't. Instead, he'd allow his wife and children to stay, but he was putting the husband on the next flight back to Tokyo.

This will come back to haunt us. All of it.

June 18, 2003

Friedman's Theory of Everything

At the risk of overdosing on Thomas Friedman, let me clear out my backlog of Friedman items with this entry on his "theory of everything". I've tried to edit it down as much as possible, but it's a fairly dense and integrated argument...

After 9/11 people wondered, "Why do they hate us?" speaking of the Muslim world. After the Iraq war debate, the question has grown into, "Why does everybody else hate us?"

I've sketched out my own answer, which I modestly call "A Brief Theory of Everything." ...

During the 1990's, America became exponentially more powerful -- economically, militarily and technologically -- than any other country in the world, if not in history... The net effect was that U.S. power, culture and economic ideas about how society should be organized became so dominant (a dominance magnified through globalization) that America began to touch people's lives around the planet -- "more than their own governments," as a Pakistani diplomat once said to me...

As people realized this, they began to organize against it in a very inchoate manner. The first manifestation of that was the 1999 Seattle protest, which triggered a global movement. Seattle had its idiot side, but what the serious protesters there were saying was: "You, America, are now touching my life more than my own government. You are touching it by how your culture seeps into mine, by how your technologies are speeding up change in all aspects of my life, and by how your economic rules have been `imposed' on me. I want to have a vote on how your power is exercised, because it's a force now shaping my life." ...

[According to] Michael Mandelbaum... "One prominent international relations school -- the realists -- argues that when a hegemonic power, such as America, emerges in the global system other countries will naturally gang up against it. But because the world basically understands that America is a benign hegemon, the ganging up does not take the shape of warfare. Instead, it is an effort to Gulliverize America, an attempt to tie it down, using the rules of the World Trade Organization or U.N. -- and in so doing demanding a vote on how American power is used."

There is another reason for this nonmilitary response. America's emergence as the hyperpower is happening in the age of globalization, when economies have become so intertwined that China, Russia, France or any other rivals cannot hit the U.S. without wrecking their own economies.

The only people who use violence are rogues or nonstate actors with no stakes in the system, such as Osama bin Laden... [who] says to himself, "The Saudi rulers are insignificant. To destroy them you have to hit the hegemonic power that props them up -- America."

Hence, 9/11. This is where the story really gets interesting. Because suddenly, Puff the Magic Dragon -- a benign U.S. hegemon touching everyone economically and culturally -- turns into Godzilla, a wounded, angry, raging beast touching people militarily. Now, people become really frightened of us, a mood reinforced by the Bush team's unilateralism. With one swipe of our paw we smash the Taliban. Then we turn to Iraq. Then the rest of the world says, "Holy cow! Now we really want a vote over how your power is used."

This theory feels right to me. I don't have much sympathy for the intellectual rigor of Seattle-type protesters -- flying Qantas to attend demonstrations where they use Nokia phones on AT&T's network to protest against globalization -- but reduced down to a cry for a check on America's power, their complaints make more sense.

May 30, 2003 and the FCC

I received an e-mail from today:

Dear MoveOn member,

This Monday, FCC Chair Michael Powell will hold his vote on media consolidation. There's nothing special about that date -- it's totally arbitrary. The vote will conclude a process which has shown deliberate disregard for the views and opinions of the American people. Powell has refused to even release the actual language of the rule change -- it won't be known until after the vote. And he's only held a single meeting to hear the views of the public. Even when a bipartisan group of Senators requested that he give Congress some time to discuss the impact of this change, Powell brushed them off.

Chairman Powell still has the power to delay the rule change and allow time to have a democratic debate about its consequences. Please call him today and ask him to allow a real public debate on an issue of such massive importance.

You can reach Powell's office at:
(202) 418-1000

Once you've made your call, please let us know at: [here]...

Even if Powell doesn't reschedule the rule change vote, getting thousands of calls into his office will send a strong message that the public is watching him. Powell doesn't appreciate this kind of pressure: in a recent interview, he said that "I think we're one of the most heavily lobbied federal institutions in the government, probably second only to the United States Congress. I don't, by the way, think that's a particularly good thing." We need to remind him that public involvement in decision making is what democracy is all about...

It's not too late to do this process right.

I called Chairman Powell's office to let my opinion be heard, and listened to a recorded message:

If you would like to file comments regarding broadcast ownership, go to the FCC's Web page... This is the only way this office may accept comments.
This is reasonable, except when you consider that Chairman Powell has already indicated his intent to disregard public comments. As I wrote a few weeks ago:
In an interesting twist, Chairman Powell is using an Orwellian argument -- as Cory Doctorow put it -- to justify the lack of public hearings on the topic:
In a phone interview last week, [dissident FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps said that of roughly 18,000 public comments on the proposed changes -- not counting the hundred or so from media companies or organized coalitions -- "I haven't seen any that say, 'Let's relax the rules further.' " ...

Even the nature of the debate has fallen victim to the FCC's partisan politics. While the two Democratic commissioners, Copps and Jeffrey Adelstein, argued for public hearings around the country, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said such hearings were not necessary given the outpouring of commentary reaching the commission.

In other words, we've received so much negative feedback to this proposal that we can skip the public hearings, which would merely provide more negative feedback, and go directly to voting in this proposal.
So the Chairman is telling people to leave comments on the Website, while at the same time ignoring the substance of these comments and using their numbers to justify cutting off public debate.

The Washington Post gives some perspective on the public comments:

In recent days, the FCC has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of e-mails and e-petitions., a public-interest organization founded by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, says it has collected 170,000 signatures on a petition to the FCC, urging the agency to keep the rules in place...

Members of the National Rifle Association have sent 300,000 postcards demanding the same. The FCC's Web site has received more than 9,000 e-mail comments over recent months from individuals who claim no affiliation with corporations or associations. Of those, according to a musician's group that recently tallied the filings, only 11 comments support relaxing the media rules. Members of Congress are reporting that their offices are receiving substantial e-mail traffic as well.

Will Chairman Powell bow to pressure and hold off the vote? Will he proceed and find that one of his two allies on the Commission has cracked? Or will he hold the vote, win, and then lobby Congress not to undo his work?

Chrétien on Canada

From the Globe and Mail, an article on Canadian Prime Minister Chrétien's criticism of the US:

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien criticized the massive deficits being posted by the "right-wing" Bush administration in the United States yesterday, while boasting of his own government's economic management.

"The Americans will have a deficit of $500-billion [U.S.] this year, and it is a right-wing government," Mr. Chrétien told reporters travelling on the plane with him to Europe. "If we were to equal that, it would be a $75-billion [Canadian] deficit because we're 10 times smaller. Imagine!" ...

He said Canada is now the envy of the world, with a strong economy, political stability, and a diverse and tolerant population. He chided Canadians -- and the media in particular -- for failing to celebrate the country's successes.

The Prime Minister said Canada is the only country among the G8 industrialized nations to have put its public pension system on a sound financial footing.

He also said European leaders are envious of Canada's ability to absorb roughly 200,000 immigrants a year without the kind of political backlash that is roiling their countries. Italy, for example, expects to see its population decline from 60 million people to 40 million in a few decades, he said, but has trouble winning public support for higher immigration levels.

"How can you run a country with social programs when you have a population that is decreasing?" he said.

He added that his "failure" was that he was unable to achieve the target immigration level of 1 per cent of the Canadian population, or more than 300,000 new arrivals a year.

"For them, the question is how to accept a few."

As I noted back in January (edited slightly for clarity):

From Statistics Canada, Canada's population in 2001 was 31.0 million. From the US Census Bureau, the US population in 2001 was 285.3 million. From the Canadian Forces, the defense budgets for the US and Canada in 2001 were USD$310.5 billion and USD$7.3 billion respectively. Doing the math, in 2001, Canada spent USD$235 per capita on defense, while the US spent USD$1,088 per capita.

Had Canada spent at the US rate of USD$1,088 per capita, their total defense budget would have been USD$33.7 billion, or CDN$52.3 billion. Projecting forward into 2002-3, instead of a CDN$8.7 billion surplus, Canada would have run a deficit of CDN$43.6 billion. Had the US spent at the Canadian rate of USD$235 per capita, their total defense budget would have been USD$67.0 billion. Projecting forward into 2002, instead of a USD$159 billion deficit, the US would have run a surplus of USD$84.5 billion.

What I find interesting is that had Canada spent on defense at the same rate on the US, their deficit still would have been only CDN$43.6 billion -- not the CDN$75.0 billion figure implied by their population, which is one-tenth that of the US.

In other words, even if Canadians spent the same amount proportionally on defense as their counterparts in the US, they would still have a budget deficit 40 percent smaller, while maintaining universal health care and other benefits not present in the US.

Is the US too proud to learn from Canada?

May 27, 2003

The Looming Problem, Part II

I blogged the other day about Dick Gordon's interview on The Connection with Barry Anderson, departing Deputy Director of the Congressional Budget Office. Here's what Barry had to say about tax cuts (this was over a week before Congress passed the tax cut package):

Barry Anderson: I view the tax cut debate much more on something along the lines of the size of government. The Republicans and the right definitely want to keep taxes lower, because they're afraid that if they don't do tax cuts, then taxes will raise to over twenty percent as a percentage of GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. It was just that level in 2000, the highest level we've had since World War II. So they want to do the tax cuts to keep the money out of Washington and leave it in the hands of the public. The Democrats are saying there are legitimate and important needs and that we need to have the taxes go back up and not be cut in order to pay for those needs without running deficits. But Dick, neither side is really being, I think, totally up-front with the public.

First of all, the Republicans. They want to limit the size of government. But if you look at their proposals, they are not at all specific of how they're going to cut spending, where those cuts are going to be. Quite the contrary: many of the Republicans are arguing for more spending, particularly for defense and homeland security. But that doesn't jibe or tie with the tax cuts.

But the Democrats aren't any better. They're saying they want no more tax cuts, and in fact the ones that were passed in 2001 to expire. But what they are not doing is saying what the impact of that is going to be on the middle class. Oh, they'll say a lot that the rich will pay more, and it's true, they will. But the middle class will also pay more. The Democrats are not coming out and saying, look, if you want these new benefits, if you want this expansion, if you want these new programs, then you, Mr. Middle Class Taxpayer, come some year in the future, are going to have to pay $2,000 more per year. In fact, Dick, if they just repealed the 2001 tax cut, which I believe Congressman Gephardt has called for, taxes would go up not just for the upper class, not just for the middle class, but for everyone across the income spectrum, even those in the lowest classes. So neither side is really being up-front with the public.

It's interesting to see someone who has been a federal budget insider for many years throw up his hands in disgust at both major parties. It reminds me of my blog entry on my political beliefs a few months ago.

May 21, 2003

The Looming Problem

From an episode of NPR's talk show The Connection last week, in which host Dick Gordon interviewed Barry Anderson, Deputy Director of the Congressional Budget Office, who is departing due to his frustration with both ends of the political spectrum:

Dick Gordon: What is it that my senator or my congressional representative is not telling me?

Barry Anderson: Dick, we're facing a long-term problem. It's not a cliff; we're not going to wake up one morning and the whole government or financial system collapse, but we're facing a long-term problem that is inevitable. The baby boom, of which I'm a card-carrying member, is going to retire, begin to retire, in the next five to ten years, and as they do, the amount of government programs to assist them -- specifically, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid -- are going to rise as a percentage of our budget from about seven and a half cents per dollar that the whole country produces to double that, about fifteen cents. So right now today, people are working hard, producing all sorts of goods and services, and through our tax system and others, we're paying about seven and a half cents for the elderly that are retired now, but within the next fifteen to thirty years, that number's going to go up. That's known under current law. But what action isn't being taken now is to address the consequences of that known fact. And there are a lot of things that oculd be done, but those things aren't being done. Instead, as we sit here right this morning, Congress is debating a proposal to make the problem worse. That proposal is to add new drug benefits for the elderly. It may be a good proposal, but it will make the problem I've just described worse.

Nearly 40 million Americans had no health insurance in 2000, and yet somehow the US managed to spend 13.0 percent of GDP on health care -- 62 percent more than the European Union average of 8.0 percent, which represents countries all providing universal health care.

The US health care system is inefficient, unfair, and unsustainable. We spend far more than anyone else on health care while leaving vast numbers of people uninsured. I believe it to be vitally important that we reform our health care system at a basic level, to control spending while covering all citizens. But simply adding on new health benefits to certain segments of the population without finding a way to pay for them isn't reform -- it's pandering, plain and simple.

More of Barry Anderson's thoughts soon.

May 16, 2003

Democracy's Great, Except When It's Not

From Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo:

[Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul D. Wolfowitz said something extraordinary, and deeply controversial, on Turkish television ten days ago. He essentially said that bringing democracy to Iraq was so important that the Bush administration wished the Turkish military had subverted Turkish democracy to achieve it. I explain the details in my new column in The Hill.
From the column referenced above:
Last week, Wolfowitz gave an interview to CNN-Turk, a joint venture of CNN and a Turkish media conglomerate. When asked about the future of U.S.-Turkish relations, Wolfowitz said that if Turkey wanted to get back into America's good graces, the Turks would have to admit they were wrong to deny the U.S. permission to use their territory as a staging ground for invading Iraq and, in essence, apologize.

Thats a rough demand for a fellow democracy and a longtime ally. But what raised the ire of many Turks was another of Wolfowitz's statements: the Bush administration, he said, was disappointed that the Turkish military "did not play the strong leadership role on that issue [i.e., the Iraq debate] that we would have expected."

Outside the context of Turkish politics, that statement might seem obscure or insignificant. But in Turkey the meaning seemed painfully clear: The United States wished the Turkish military had either overruled the elected government or perhaps even pushed it aside in favor of one more subservient to U.S. demands.

As numerous Turkish commentators have noted, that's an odd stance for a country now presenting itself as the champion of Middle Eastern democracy. But it's particularly ill-conceived at the present moment in Turkish political history...

There's nothing special about saying you want democracy. The real question is whether you still want democracies -- full-fledged, multi-party, rule-of-law democracies --- even when they disagree with you. If the U.S. is serious about spreading democracy in the Middle East, thats a question we'll have to confront again and again. Paul Wolfowitz's comments leave his answer to that question in serious doubt.

In other words, democracy is great, except when democracy leads another nation to disagree with us or thwart our goals, in which case we're all in favor of autocracy.

I wish I could say that this surprised me, but it didn't. Nothing this administration does surprises me these days. The President could announce he was invoking martial law and it wouldn't surprise me. Instituting random body cavity searches at airports? Wouldn't surprise me. Invading Syria? Withdrawing from the World Trade Organization? Resuming nuclear testing? I'd be outraged, but not surprised.

May 13, 2003

Regulatory Relief for Poor Media Titans

The Federal Communications Commission is apparently preparing to relax restrictions on media ownership (New York Times report here, editorial here):

Local affiliates and small broadcasting stations fear that any further growth in the networks would be detrimental to viewers in a variety of ways. They say it would homogenize entertainment, discourage local news coverage in favor of national broadcasts and reduce the commercial leverage of the local stations to offer independent programming.

[FCC Chairman Michael] Powell and other supporters of the proposal say that the rules need to reflect the changing marketplace and to help preserve free over-the-air television. In a world where consumers can receive their news and information from hundreds of channels in addition to the Internet, it makes little sense to preserve rules of a bygone era, they say.

This anecdote from the Times article is telling:

Officials said that the commission was expected to increase the national television ownership cap to 45 percent of the nation's viewers and also retain the rule that considers two viewers as one viewer of a UHF station -- the band that over the air has generally been Channel 14 and above.

The provision, known as the UHF discount, came about in a different regulatory and technological era, when a vast majority of viewers received television signals free over the airwaves and had to use special equipment like antennas that resembled rabbit ears to pick up UHF stations. Today, about 85 percent of viewers use paid services from cable and satellite providers, rendering the distinction between VHF and UHF largely a relic.

Officials close to Mr. Powell said today that... there was nothing in the public record to justify changing the way the commission counted UHF viewers and that Mr. Powell had attributed the growth of new networks in recent years to the UHF discount, including UPN, Pax, WB and Fox.

Others outside the agency noted, however, that most of those networks are hardly independent -- UPN is owned by Viacom, WB is owned by AOL Time Warner, and Paxson is 32 percent owned by NBC. Critics of the plan have focused on the UHF provision as emblematic of the selective way that the agency has approached deregulation.

"It's total hypocrisy," said Gene Kimmelman, a director at Consumers Union who has testified in Congress against loosening the rules. "If the theory behind changing the rules is that the F.C.C. needs to keep up with market conditions, to preserve a significant discount for UHF stations is simply a fraud on the regulatory process."

In other words, let's get rid of these archaic regulations, except where they might benefit the media conglomerates.

In an interesting twist, Chairman Powell is using an Orwellian argument -- as Cory Doctorow put it -- to justify the lack of public hearings on the topic:

In a phone interview last week, [dissident FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps said that of roughly 18,000 public comments on the proposed changes -- not counting the hundred or so from media companies or organized coalitions -- "I haven't seen any that say, 'Let's relax the rules further.' " ...

Even the nature of the debate has fallen victim to the FCC's partisan politics. While the two Democratic commissioners, Copps and Jeffrey Adelstein, argued for public hearings around the country, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said such hearings were not necessary given the outpouring of commentary reaching the commission.

In other words, we've received so much negative feedback to this proposal that we can skip the public hearings, which would merely provide more negative feedback, and go directly to voting in this proposal.

What can you do? You can visit They have a page set up that will allow you to send a personalized message to your Representative, your Senators, and to the FCC. If you're in a hurry, you can send a message in less than a minute. If you feel strongly about this, why not do it right now?

May 10, 2003

School Vouchers in DC

The Economist reports on efforts to introduce vouchers to the District of Columbia's awful school system:

The District of Columbia may contain the capital of the most powerful country in the history of the world. But the local public schools smack more of Ruritania than Imperial Rome.

Though they boast the third-highest level of per-pupil spending in the country, 70% of pupils in the District score at or below the basic level on standardised reading tests (ie, they can barely read) and 71% score at or below basic in maths. In one infamous high school, Anacostia, 92% of children score below basic in maths. Illiteracy is so rife that, when the mayor was organising a "write-in" campaign in 2002, his supporters were forced to hand out pre-printed stamps. Anybody rich enough either moves to the suburbs or pays through the nose for private schools.

Now at last there is a flicker of hope for the 67,500 children trapped in DC's public schools. On May 1st, Mayor Anthony Williams publicly embraced school vouchers during an appearance with the education secretary, Rod Paige. He now thinks that vouchers can provide opportunities for children caught in failing schools while also galvanising the system as a whole...

Introducing vouchers into DC will not only bring hope to thousands of children who are trapped in a rotten system. It will force the Democratic Party to choose between its most loyal constituency -- blacks -- and some of its biggest paymasters, the teachers' unions. So far, the party has invariably sided with the unions. But the introduction of vouchers in the nation's capital may force it to pay a bit more attention to the majority of blacks who support school choice.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's non-voting Congressional representative, opposes vouchers:

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) celebrated National Charter School Week today at a news conference at the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter High School, where the new Coalition for Accountable Public Schools announced its opposition to congressional and Bush Administration attempts to impose vouchers on the District of Columbia. Norton said that the District has the most extensive set of alternatives to traditional public schools in the country, with its 40 charter schools and 15 transformation schools. She said that both desperately need any and all available federal money to keep up with parents who are seeking admission for their children. "We will not accept discrimination that imposes vouchers on us while every other jurisdiction in the country may choose whether federal grant money goes to public or private schools," the Congresswoman said.
In other words, the problem, according to the Congresswoman, is money. DC schools need more of it. Or do they? How much money do DC schools spend today? The Washington Times knows:
A [Census Bureau] report issued Tuesday revealed that current per-pupil spending for public schools is virtually as high in the District as it is in any of the 50 states. Specifically, for the school year ending in June 2001, the District spent $10,852 per student, a mere $70 per student behind New York State, the national leader. The District's per-pupil current expenditure exceeded the national average of $7,284 by more than $3,500, or 49 percent.

Regarding current spending and capital outlays (construction, equipment, etc.), the District's per-pupil figure was $15,122, a level that was far higher than a comparable figure for any state. Indeed, the highest level of total revenues of any state -- $12,454 for New Jersey -- was nearly $2,700 per pupil below the District's. Across the nation, moreover, total revenues available for current spending and capital outlays averaged $8,521 per pupil, a level the District's figure of $15,122 exceeded by more than $6,600 per student, or by an astounding 77 percent...

These figures put the lie to the assertions... that schools are significantly underfunded. The problem, quite obviously, isn't that D.C. taxpayers and the federal government are shortchanging the schools. The problem is that the schools have been shortchanging the students for years.

In the 2000-2001 school year, DC's student/teacher ratio was 13.6 in primary schools, 13.5 in middle schools, and 14.1 in high schools. In other words, if you were to walk into a typical DC high school classroom, with 14.1 students, that classroom would represent $153,013 in spending, not including capital outlays, which would push the figure to $213,220.

In 2001, the average public school teacher salary in DC was $48,651. In other words, of the $153,013 spent in that typical classroom, only 31.8 percent went to pay the teacher's salary. Where did the rest go? It didn't go to build or maintain schools -- capital spending represents another $60,207 per classroom.

It has been said that one definition of insanity is to repeat the same actions while expecting different results. The US has relentlessly increased school spending over the last 30 years. What has it done for us? What has it done for a pathetic school system like DC's? Why do people believe that yet more spending will solve the problem?

We need to conduct grand experiments to see which education system changes will and won't work. If we don't know the answer to this question, how can we properly make reforms for the future?

May 05, 2003

Go Canada!

Via a Slashdot entry and a story in the Ottawa Citizen comes news of the US State Department's latest Patterns of Global Terrorism report. Canada is mentioned, mostly positively, but including the following passage:

Some US law-enforcement officers have expressed concern that Canadian privacy laws, as well as funding levels for law enforcement, inhibit a fuller and more timely exchange of information and response to requests for assistance. Also, Canadian laws and regulations intended to protect Canadian citizens and landed immigrants from Government intrusion sometimes limit the depth of investigations.
All I can say is, thank goodness at least our neighbor to the north still seems to understand the importance of civil liberties.

May 04, 2003

China, Taiwan, and SARS

From a story yesterday in the Wall Street Journal:

China on Saturday agreed to let the World Health Organization visit Taiwan in its fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome, putting aside politics after reports the island's number of SARS cases has doubled in a week.

China didn't explain its decision, but the official Xinhua News Agency quoted a Ministry of Health spokesman, Liu Peilong, as saying Friday that the mainland was monitoring the epidemic's development in Taiwan and was "concerned about the health and well-being" of the people. The report didn't give any other details...

China, where at least 190 people have died from SARS, has been accused of not doing enough to fight SARS and its change toward Taiwan may have been part of its recent effort to appear more cooperative. China earlier rejected direct WHO help for the island and blocked its efforts to join the United Nation agency.

What wasn't clear from either this story or a story on the same topic in the New York Times -- and what I want to know -- is exactly how China has been blocking Taiwan's requests for assistance. How is it that one country can disallow a UN agency from helping another country, absent a permanent Security Council member vetoing a Security Council resolution?

Canada, the US, and Drug Laws

According to the CBC, the US is threatening unspecified measures against Canada if the government there decriminalizes marijuana:

David Murray, right-hand man to U.S. "drug czar" John Walters, says he doesn't want to tread on another country's sovereignty, but warned there would be consequences if Canada proceeds with a plan to decriminalize the possession of marijuana.

"We would have to respond. We would be forced to respond," said Murray.

Murray didn't spell out what the American response would be, but he invoked images of tie-ups at border crossings and intense bureaucracy...

Murray tried to express the feeling in the U.S. that looser drug laws go hand-in-hand with an increase in crime and drug addiction among youth, and used some apocalyptic language to do it.

"You can't wall this off saying, 'We're only talking about a little cannabis.' Our experience is they come together like the Four Horsemen," he said.

I'm not sure what I find more outrageous: the implied threats against our neighbor and ally, or the ridiculous claims about the effects of decriminalization. As NORML put it:

In Holland, where politicians decided over 25 years ago to separate marijuana from the illicit drug market by permitting coffee shops all over the country to sell small amounts of marijuana to adults, individuals use marijuana and other drugs at rates less than half of their American counterparts.
Don't believe NORML? How about a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction?
Lifetime experience of cannabis is reported to range from 10% (Finland) to 25 to 30% (Denmark and the United Kingdom) of the whole adult population, with a substantial number of countries reporting figures of around 20% (Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland and the Netherlands)... [C]ocaine and ecstasy have been tried each by about 0.5 to 4.5% of the population... As a reference outside Europe, in the 2000 US household survey, 34% of adults (12 years and older) reported lifetime experience of cannabis and 11% of cocaine.

Recent use of cannabis is reported from 1 to 10% of all adults, although most countries that have information report levels of between 5 and 10%. Recent use of amphetamines, cocaine or ecstasy was reported in general by less than 1% of adults, although Ireland and the United Kingdom have somewhat higher figures for the three substances, together with Denmark and Norway for amphetamines and Spain for cocaine. In the 2000 US household survey, 8.3% of adults (12 years and older) reported recent use (past year) of cannabis and 1.5% of cocaine.

I heap criticism on liberals who are against experiments in school reform (notably voucher-based systems) not so much because I'm positive they'll work, but because I'm sure the current educational system doesn't, and feel strongly that we should try new ideas. By the same token, though, conservatives who are against experiments in drug policy reform deserve the same criticism. The War on Drugs has been an abject failure by any reasonable measure. Why aren't conservatives willing to try new ideas?

The US could do with a lot less partisanship and a lot more pragmatism these days.

April 28, 2003

Homosexuality and the Right to Privacy

Via SFGate, an unedited transcript of the relevant portion of Senator Rick Santorum's comments on homosexuality and privacy. This should be considered required reading for all US citizens. I've commented on it below:

AP: If you're saying that liberalism is taking power away from the families, how is conservatism giving more power to the families?

Santorum: Putting more money in their pocketbook is one. The more money you take away from families is the less power that family has. And that's a basic power. The average American family in the 1950s paid (unintelligible) percent in federal taxes. An average American family now pays about 25 percent.

Once again, a classic Republican is behaving according to type, proposing to keep the government out of people's wallets but in their bedrooms (as he argues below). Of course, a classic Democrat would argue for just the opposite.

[continued] The argument is, yes, we need to help other people. But one of the things we tried to do with welfare, and we're trying to do with other programs is, we're setting levels of expectation and responsibility, which the left never wanted to do. They don't want to judge. They say, Oh, you can't judge people. They should be able to do what they want to do. Well, not if you're taking my money and giving it to them. But it's this whole idea of moral equivalency. (unintelligible) My feeling is, well, if it's my money, I have a right to judge.
Actually, as he makes clear below, Santorum believes he has a right to judge whether or not any of his money in involved.
AP: Speaking of liberalism, there was a story in The Washington Post about six months ago, they'd pulled something off the Web, some article that you wrote blaming, according to The Washington Post, blaming in part the Catholic Church scandal on liberalism. Can you explain that?

Santorum: You have the problem within the church. Again, it goes back to this moral relativism, which is very accepting of a variety of different lifestyles. And if you make the case that if you can do whatever you want to do, as long as it's in the privacy of your own home, this "right to privacy," then why be surprised that people are doing things that are deviant within their own home? If you say, there is no deviant as long as it's private, as long as it's consensual, then don't be surprised what you get. You're going to get a lot of things that you're sending signals that as long as you do it privately and consensually, we don't really care what you do. And that leads to a culture that is not one that is nurturing and necessarily healthy. I would make the argument in areas where you have that as an accepted lifestyle, don't be surprised that you get more of it.

AP: The right to privacy lifestyle?

Santorum: The right to privacy lifestyle.

AP: What's the alternative?

Santorum: In this case, what we're talking about, basically, is priests who were having sexual relations with post-pubescent men. We're not talking about priests with 3-year-olds, or 5-year-olds. We're talking about a basic homosexual relationship. Which, again, according to the world view sense is a a perfectly fine relationship as long as it's consensual between people. If you view the world that way, and you say that's fine, you would assume that you would see more of it.

So Santorum is arguing that homosexuality within the Catholic Church is more prevalent in modern times as a result of the modern concept of the right to privacy? Does he have access to some secret report that the rest of us haven't seen, measuring homosexual practices among priests over the ages?

The Supreme Court case he cites below as creating the right to privacy -- Griswold v. Connecticut -- was decided in 1965. Is he arguing that homosexual practices among priests have risen since then? Again, does he have statistics to back this up? And if so, can he prove a causal link?

AP: Well, what would you do?

Santorum: What would I do with what?

AP: I mean, how would you remedy? What's the alternative?

Santorum: First off, I don't believe...

AP: I mean, should we outlaw homosexuality?

Santorum: I have no problem with homosexuality. I have a problem with homosexual acts.

As someone on Plastic put it, "I have no problem with Jews. I just wish they wouldn't celebrate Passover."

[continued] As I would with acts of other, what I would consider to be, acts outside of traditional heterosexual relationships. And that includes a variety of different acts, not just homosexual. I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual. If that's their orientation, then I accept that. And I have no problem with someone who has other orientations. The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions. And you have to separate the person from their actions.

AP: OK, without being too gory or graphic, so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?

Santorum: We have laws in states, like the one at the Supreme Court right now, that has sodomy laws and they were there for a purpose. Because, again, I would argue, they undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family. And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn't exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold -- Griswold was the contraceptive case -- and abortion. And now we're just extending it out. And the further you extend it out, the more you -- this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it's my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that's antithetical to strong, healthy families. Whether it's polygamy, whether it's adultery, where it's sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that's what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be. It is one thing. And when you destroy that you have a dramatic impact on the quality...

AP: I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about "man on dog" with a United States senator, it's sort of freaking me out.

This has to be one of the great moments in modern journalism. What makes it especially delicious is that the Senator doesn't seem to appreciate the subtle ridicule to which he's being subjected.

Santorum: And that's sort of where we are in today's world, unfortunately. The idea is that the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we're seeing it in our society.

AP: Sorry, I just never expected to talk about that when I came over here to interview you. Would a President Santorum eliminate a right to privacy -- you don't agree with it?

Santorum: I've been very clear about that. The right to privacy is a right that was created in a law that set forth a (ban on) rights to limit individual passions. And I don't agree with that. So I would make the argument that with President, or Senator or Congressman or whoever Santorum, I would put it back to where it is, the democratic process. If New York doesn't want sodomy laws, if the people of New York want abortion, fine. I mean, I wouldn't agree with it, but that's their right. But I don't agree with the Supreme Court coming in.

As I have noted before, I believe that a right to privacy should be made explicit in the US Constitution. Senator Santorum's comments -- which are a direct refutation of the Ninth Amendment to the US Constitution -- make me believe in the need for a privacy amendment more strongly than ever.

April 26, 2003

The Most Essential Service

Via Opinion Journal, a portion of an interview between CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean:

Wolf Blitzer: Last month he called it the wrong war at wrong time. The former Vermont governor, the current Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's policies as far as Iraq is concerned.

With the conflict pretty much over does he feel differently now?

Howard Dean is joining us from Burlington, Vermont.

Governor, do you feel differently?

Howard Dean: Not really. I don't think anybody could reasonably suspect we weren't going to win. The problem now is how to govern, and that's where the real rubber is underneath the road. The hardest part is still ahead of us, and I think the events that we were watching on CNN showed that. The Shi'a in the south would like in some cases fundamentalist religious state or province, that would be much worse than Saddam Hussein in terms of a threat to the United States it would allow al Qaeda to move in. We seen chaos in Baghdad with the proclamation of somebody claims he's the mayor. And this is going to go on and on. So we've really got to now build a Democratic society out of a...

Blitzer: But governor, nobody -- nobody disagrees there are going to be problems. But aren't the people of Iraq so much better off now without Saddam Hussein on their back?

Dean: We don't know that yet. We don't know that yet, Wolf. We still have a country whose city is mostly without electricity. We have tumultuous occasions in the south where there is no clear governance. We have a major city without clear governance. We don't know yet, and until we do...

Did Dean say what I think he said? Because what he seemed to imply was that living under Saddam Hussein's rule -- i.e., living without freedom -- might be preferable to living without electricity or "clear governance."

As I have described, though I supported the war in Iraq, I opposed the diplomatic steps the US took leading up to it. Moreover, I have many good friends who opposed the war, and I have great respect for their opinions. War is serious business, and disagreement about it is not only normal but vital to a healthy democracy. But I cannot understand Dean's comments. For a candidate for the US presidency to imply that freedom is less than our most cherished value is, for me, unacceptable.

Of course, it's not just Dean. As I wrote in August of last year:

[C]onsider the following statements by President Bush at a recent press conference:
The number one priority of this government and the future governments will be to protect the American people against terrorist attack...

Protecting American citizens from harm is the first priority, and it must be the ruling priority of all of our government.

And here I thought the first priority of the President was to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."
It is vitally important that we restore the Iraqis' essential services and restore their infrastucture. I have been extremely disappointed in how seemingly unprepared the US was for the end of the war and how poor a job we have done in its aftermath. Winning the peace depends in large part in how compassionate the Iraqis perceive us to be in this difficult time. But the most essential service we can provide is freedom, and judging by the rather ironic protests against us, it's clear that we have done so. The Iraqi people are now free -- free to worship, free to speak their mind, free to assemble as they wish. We yet face the task of helping them build a stable government that will preserve these freedoms, but simply being free in the moment is a good start.

April 25, 2003

It's the Nukes, Stupid

The day before Christmas of last year, I wrote of the situation on the Korean Peninsula:

A paranoid, totalitarian regime which has in the past engaged in state-sponsored terrorism, and which recently demonstrated the ability to reach the capital of the world's second-largest economy with ballistic missiles, has reneged on its agreement to halt nuclear weapons development and now has the capability to produce such weapons within six months. Its democratic neighbor to the south, which it attempted to conquer in the past, and which has pursued a policy of engagement to attempt to improve relations, has just elected a new leader who has never traveled outside the country and who believes that more engagement will solve the current crisis. A superpower is committed to the defense of the democracy, but the people so protected are as skeptical of the superpower as of the totalitarian regime. In any case, the superpower is distracted with the pursuit of war against a paranoid, totalitarian regime elsewhere in the world.

Do people appreciate just how serious this situation is?

From an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday:

Speaking privately, [US] officials... outlined a bizarre scene of spiraling threats from the North Korean side.

As expected, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly opened the talks by insisting that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear ambitions. The head of North Korea's delegation, deputy director of American affairs Ri Gun, in his opening statement, declared that his country had "successfully reprocessed almost all of the eight thousand spent fuel rods" it has been storing into nuclear-weapons material. "The only question now is what we do with the plutonium," he said, said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the talks.

After making that threat, the North Korean laid out a long series of concessions the U.S. needed to make, including extensive aid, a nonaggression pact and full diplomatic relations, in exchange for which his country would eventually abandon all its nuclear-weapons programs.

U.S. officials said the threats escalated sharply on Wednesday evening, when Mr. Ri pulled aside Mr. Kelly for a brief private conversation. In that talk, according to U.S. officials, the North Korean declared that his country already has nuclear weapons -- the first such admission by any North Korean official.

"Whether we test them, use them or export them depends on your next step," he is reported to have said. Mr. Kelly had no response, a senior U.S. official said.

If this account is correct, and if the North Korean threats were more than mere bluster, we have a situation that is now perilously close to disaster. North Korea has not only built its first nuclear weapons, but is threatening to export or use them.

Last week, hawks were crowing that our victory in Iraq had forced the North Koreans back to the bargaining table. I don't hear much crowing right now. While the Bush administration has been consumed with Iraq, the North Koreas have apparently made dramatic progress with their nuclear program.

Our options for a graceful end to this crisis are narrowing. Japan and South Korea must stop coddling the North Koreans. We must stand together -- with the Chinese and Russians if possible, and without them if not -- and let the North Koreans know that we will not tolerate their possession of nuclear weapons.

My hope is that the Bush administration understands this and delivered this message to the North Koreans quietly, allowing them to save face in public. My hope is that we told them unambiguously that military action is an option for us, but that we would rather avoid conflict and resolve the situation peacefully.

North Korea must not be allowed to retain permanent possession of nuclear weapons. For them to do so would be an foreign policy mistake of the highest order. If the North Koreans develop a functioning arsenal of nuclear weapons, it won't matter how successful the administration is in Afghanistan and Iraq; we will have allowed a paranoid, totalitarian regime that has been a state sponsor of terrorism, and which possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US, to develop weapons of mass destruction.

It's the nukes, stupid.

April 22, 2003

Big, Evil Sugar

Via boing boing comes a story in the Guardian on the US sugar industry's opposition to new nutritional guidelines from the World Health Organization:

The sugar industry in the US is threatening to bring the World Health Organisation to its knees by demanding that Congress end its funding unless the WHO scraps guidelines on healthy eating, due to be published on Wednesday.

The threat is being described by WHO insiders as tantamount to blackmail and worse than any pressure exerted by the tobacco lobby.

In a letter to Gro Harlem Brundtland, the WHO's director general, the Sugar Association says it will "exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature" of the WHO's report on diet and nutrition, including challenging its $406m (£260m) funding from the US.

The industry is furious at the guidelines, which say that sugar should account for no more than 10% of a healthy diet. It claims that the review by international experts which decided on the 10% limit is scientifically flawed, insisting that other evidence indicates that a quarter of our food and drink intake can safely consist of sugar.

"Taxpayers' dollars should not be used to support misguided, non-science-based reports which do not add to the health and well-being of Americans, much less the rest of the world," says the letter. "If necessary we will promote and encourage new laws which require future WHO funding to be provided only if the organisation accepts that all reports must be supported by the preponderance of science." ...

The Sugar Association objects to the new report having been published in draft on the WHO's website for consultation purposes, without what it considers "a broad external peer-review process". It wants a full economic analysis of the impact of the recommendations on all 192 member countries. In the letter to Dr Brundtland, it demands that Wednesday's joint launch with the Food and Agriculture Organisation be cancelled...

The industry does not accept the WHO report's conclusion that sweetened soft drinks contribute to the obesity pandemic. The Washington-based National Soft Drink Association said the report's "recommendation on added sugars is too restrictive". The association backs a 25% limit.

The Sugar Association is proposing to withhold all US funding from the WHO -- yes, the people fighting to contain SARS and numerous other worldwide health threats -- if they don't agree that people should feel free to consume one-quarter of all their calories from added sugars. This goes beyond audacious self-interest. This is -- and I don't use the term lightly -- evil.

This is just the latest example of the destructive self-interest practices of the US sugar lobby. They have long sought and received unfair trade protections that cost US consumers billions of dollars, as described in this 2002 article from the Cato Institute:

Through its sugar program, the U.S. government guarantees a minimum price to domestic sugar growers by restricting imports and by buying and storing excess production. The result of this intervention is a domestic sugar price that is typically two or three times the world market price. The losers are millions of American families that consume sugar, along with sugar-using industries such as candy-makers, and sugar growers in mostly poor countries.

As with other protectionist policies, the biggest losers are consumers. American families pay for this program every time they buy Christmas candy and cookies, a bag of sugar, soft drinks or candy bars. A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that, in 1998, American sweetener users paid an extra $1.9 billion a year because of the U.S. sugar program...

Also paying the price for the sugar program are taxpayers and the environment. To mop up overproduction caused by price supports and protection, the federal government bought nearly 1 million tons of sugar last year only to store it in government warehouses. The buying and storing of excess sugar will cost taxpayers an estimated $2 billion over the next 10 years. Taxpayers are also paying billions of dollars to help clean up the Florida Everglades, where excess sugar production in the region has disrupted water flows and dumped pollutants such as phosphorus in waterways.

The sugar program has caused damage beyond our borders. The depressed global sugar prices caused by U.S. protectionism cost sugar producers in poor nations an estimated $1.5 billion a year in lost export earnings. Our stubborn refusal to open our sugar market has complicated the efforts of U.S. trade negotiators to open foreign markets to American exports, including services, manufactured goods, and farm products such as soy beans and corn in which we enjoy a natural competitive advantage...

The U.S. sugar program is a classic case of concentrated benefits and diffused costs. A small number of sugar growers receive enormous benefits, while the costs of providing those benefits are spread across the U.S. economy, specifically to consumers and confectioners. Consequently, U.S. sugar producers have a strong incentive to lobby and fund campaigns of U.S. policy-makers. Dominated largely by two companies in Florida (Flo-Sun and U.S. Sugar), the sugar lobby has been a major financial contributor to incumbent politicians.

Enough is enough. Big Sugar must be stopped.

April 18, 2003

The Company We Keep

From the Economist, a chart of executions by nation during 2002:

Besides the US, the rest of the top ten countries in terms of executions consists of China, Pakistan, Kenya, Sudan, Bangladesh, Iran, Egypt, Vietnam, and Rwanda.

How can Americans look at a list like this and not feel deeply ashamed?

April 17, 2003

Free Money! Woo-Hoo!

From a Wall Street Journal story today on American Airlines' near-miss with bankruptcy:

President Bush's signing Wednesday of a war spending bill that included $2.9 billion in aid to airlines offers a boost to American. The carrier's share of the second federal airline-industry bailout bill in two years is estimated at $410 million in cash, likely to be paid within 30 days.
Writing as someone who has been flying American for 15 years now, and who would certainly like to see them continue on in some fashion -- otherwise my saved frequent flyer miles and lifetime elite status could disappear -- I nevertheless find this offensive.

Has the war been tough on airlines? Sure it has. Has it been tough on other industries? Sure it has. Are Congress and the Bush administration prepared to give handouts to every industry that has been negatively impacted by recent geopolitics? And if they're rewarding industries that "lost" in the war, are they prepared to punish industries that have "won," like defense contracting?

At this point, no airline shareholder should attempt to profess surprise that the airline industry is highly cyclical. The fact that the US was attacked by terrorists, or that the US invaded Iraq, and that the economy was correspondingly affected, doesn't make it the responsibility of the US taxpayer to bail out the airlines. It's the nature of their business. Besides, Southwest and JetBlue seem to be making money even in current conditions.

$2.9 billion works out to nearly $10 for every person in America. That means my three kids and I were just forced to donate almost $40 to the airlines because they can't run their businesses properly. I can think of far, far better uses for that money.

April 16, 2003

Timing the War

At Michael Jordan's final home game Monday night, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was introduced to the crowd before the game. (He received a loud ovation, by the way. If Wizards fans are representative of the larger world, Rummy is more popular than I would have thought.) He was there to present Jordan with a flag that was flying at the Pentagon on 9/11.


He was introduced as "Secretary of Defense and Wizards season ticket holder Donald Rumsfeld," which led me to the following conjecture:

  1. Rumsfeld is a Wizards season ticket holder.
  2. Rumsfeld knows Jordan will be playing his last home game on 14 April.
  3. Rumsfeld wants to attend that game.
  4. Rumsfeld feels that it would be unseemly for him to be seen at a basketball game while a conflict with Iraq is going full-force.
  5. Rumsfeld feels that it will take less than a month for US military forces to achieve victory in Iraq.
Could Jordan's final home game have influenced the start date of hostilities?

Okay, I'm just kidding. No hate mail, please.

April 13, 2003

Friedman on Saddamism

From Thomas Friedman's latest column in the New York Times:

America was not just at war with Saddam, but with Saddamism: an entrenched Arab mind-set, born of years of colonialism and humiliation, that insists that upholding Arab dignity and nationalism by defying the West is more important than freedom, democracy and modernization.

Throughout this war, Saddamism was peddled by Al Jazeera television, Arab intellectuals and the Arab League. You cannot imagine how much distress there is among certain Arab elites that the people of Iraq preferred liberation by America to more defiance under Saddam.

It's a sad thing that so many Arabs would rather see their nations defy the West and remain unfree rather than embrace the West and achieve democracy and modernization.

The problem with Saddamism is that it doesn't work. It took the US-led coalition only three weeks to effectively win the war -- this speed surprising many, including me -- because our economies are not only ahead of those in the Arab world but continue to accelerate away. As long as Arab nations fail to democratize, fail to modernize, fail to take responsibility for their own problems instead of blaming their ills on the West, then Western nations will not only maintain but increase their economic and military superiority over them -- and buying jet fighters from the US or France is not a fix for this.

The attempt to uphold Arab honor by defying Western political and economic systems ensures not only more conflicts between the two worlds but more humiliating defeats for the Arabs. For their sake and ours, I hope the US helps the Iraqis build a stable, prosperous, and democratic nation that serves as an example to the rest of the Arab world.

April 07, 2003

Only in America

My 13-year-old daughter and I had an argument recently. She didn't believe that one could buy guns at Wal-Mart. I was ready to drive her to the closest store and walk her into the sporting goods department to prove to her that Wal-Mart does indeed sell firearms when she conceded the argument... though incredulously.

Of course, Wal-Mart sells a wide range of guns, including shotguns. It occurs to me that not only can I buy a shotgun there, but to saw the barrel off, I can buy a hacksaw as well, and an overcoat beneath which to hide my sawed-off shotgun. I can buy them all at the same time, and no one will interfere with my purchase.

Now, what this has to do with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution...

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
...I don't know.

April 05, 2003

China Apologizes

Just as I was about to post a truly scathing entry on China's response to SARS, word comes that they are apologizing for their conduct to date:

China apologized Friday for not doing a better job of informing people about severe acute respiratory syndrome as an international medical team went to the city where it believed the mystery illness may have first broken out.

The admission, extraordinary for a government that rarely acknowledges fault, came after escalating criticism abroad -- and one day after the health minister explicitly said China had followed its own rules in dealing with the problem.

"Today, we apologize to everyone," said Li Liming, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control.

"Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."

Will the highest levels of the Chinese government stand behind this apology, or will China revert to form and disavow any culpability in the matter? The next few days will tell.

I'll hold my more direct attack until we have a clear idea of what China's official stance will be.

Dramatic Ideas for Post-War Iraq

Two dramatic ideas for post-war Iraq:

Via Plastic, an article in the New Yorker proposing that Iraq repudiate its international debt:

In 1979, when Saddam Hussein took power, Iraq -- thanks to the oil boom of the seventies -- had a foreign surplus of about thirty-five billion dollars. A decade later, after the war with Iran, it had a foreign debt of some fifty billion dollars. And today, after more war and a dozen years of missed interest payments, the country owes, by many estimates, more than a hundred billion dollars. Its creditors, which include Kuwait, Bulgaria, and the Korean conglomerate Hyundai, are already jockeying for position to be repaid after the war.

Iraq has no hope of ever repaying its debts. Its annual gross domestic product is a mere thirty billion dollars, and even if this war does relatively little damage to the countrys infrastructure it will take years -- and tens of billions of dollars -- to repair the damage that Saddam has done to the Iraqi economy. Presumably, the U.S. and others will invest heavily in reconstruction. But, if Iraq is to become stable and prosperous, it needs to spend public dollars on public goods (health, education, roads), not on debt payments to creditors who willingly lent money to Saddam.

Even if the Iraqi people could afford to pay back Saddam's debts, it's hard to see why they should. Most of the money that Iraq borrowed in the past twenty years went either to Saddam's military misadventures in Iran and Kuwait or to his internal security apparatus. Asking the Iraqi people to assume Saddams debts is rather like telling a man who has been shot in the head that he has to pay for the bullet.

Oddly, though, thats pretty much what international custom seems to require. Lenders and borrowers still believe that debt belongs to a state, not to a regime. As a result, only a handful of countries have ever repudiated their debts. Even when tyrannical regimes have been deposed -- Somoza in Nicaragua, Mobutu in Zaire, the apartheid system in South Africa -- their successors have dutifully, if reluctantly, assumed their debts.

It might be time to change all that and consider an old idea that has recently been resurrected: the doctrine of odious debts. First articulated in the twenties by a former tsarist minister named Alexander Sack, the doctrine holds that a country is not responsible for debts incurred by a "despotic regime" and used for purposes "contrary to the interests of the nation." Both criteria have to be met for the debt to be considered odious. (In other words, profligate Argentina couldn't repudiate its debt, because it's a democracy.) The idea is that when the despot falls his debt disappears with him. The Harvard economists Michael Kremer and Seema Jayachandran have proposed the creation of an international institution that would have the authority to declare a regime "odious." Such a system would likely persuade lenders to avoid tyrants, as they would no longer expect to be repaid...

Perhaps Saddam's successors should turn theory into practice and, when the time comes, repudiate the debts that Saddam incurred to stock his arsenal and maintain his power. That would vastly improve Iraqs economic prospects, and establish a worthy precedent: lend to tyrants, and you will get stiffed. The U.S., at least, is unlikely to object -- two of Iraqs biggest creditors are Russia and France.

And via InstaPundit, an idea to pass much of Iraq's future oil wealth directly to its people:

Our government should announce -- soon -- that the new postwar Iraqi administration will "personalize" the nation's oil revenues by establishing an Iraqi national investment trust -- The Iraqi People's Freedom Trust -- that will receive a major share -- say, 50% -- of all future Iraqi oil earnings.

The rest can go to central government and federal regional governments on some per capita basis.

Each Iraqi -- man, woman or child -- would be eligible for a personal investment account in the trust once they register as citizens of New Iraq...

Funds in the trust may be invested in New Iraq government bonds, domestic equities, venture capital investments in Iraq or international markets. But legal ownership will be vested in each individual Iraqi -- not the tribe, clan region, power-broker etc. Any Iraqi over age 21 may withdraw funds or borrow against their balances -- for any reason at all...

The effect -- immediately -- would be to establish irrefutably that the U.S. is NOT waging this war to somehow steal Iraqi oil -- but rather to return this resource to the benefit of the Iraqi people themselves -- directly. One person at a time.

It would give all Iraqis a clear sense of the profound policy difference between liberators and corrupt thieves like the Ba'ath regime who have exploited, stolen and misused oil revenues in way that infuriate ordinary Iraqis -- and endanger the world...

By ensuring that all Iraqis will have access -- on reaching adulthood -- to significant sources of money -- it would spur entrepreneurship, revitalize the whole economy, distribute real resources to the most remote and poor regions of the country and create a very strong interest among all ethnic and confessional groups and tribes in ensuring their nation's future stability.

We're not talking small money here. Once its oil facilities are repaired and production is ramped up, Iraq can earn $50 billion a year from its oil. 50% of that would be about $1,000 a year per person...and funds would accumulate for young people to even more significant sums -- until they came of age... I would suggest to you that such a proposal, properly structured and publicized, would have the kind of impact -- in Iraq and on world opinion -- that Lincoln's emancipation proclamation did on the domestic politics -- and nternational [sic]diplomacy -- of our own Civil War. It would be the same kind of profoundly moral -- and revolutionary -- stroke.

Though, as the conquering power, the US will have the ability to impose these ideas on Iraq, it shouldn't do so. But encouraging Iraq's new leaders to take such steps -- and working with them to make doing so possible -- has great appeal.

I don't agree with how we got into this war, but as Thomas Friedman says, now it's time to take our lemons and make lemonade. A post-war Iraq along these lines -- a secular, democratic nation of 25 million people, debt-free, with half its oil revenue kept in trust for the direct use of its people -- is a powerful idea.

April 04, 2003

Still More on China and SARS

Also from the Times, also from yesterday, another article on Chinese stonewalling on SARS:

In early March, when a new mystery illness started hopscotching around the globe, Chinese health officials looked on in silence, as if to say, "This has nothing to do with us."

At that point, China was already four months into an outbreak that officials later acknowledged was the same disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Yet they insisted that the situation was fully under control, shared none of their data and declined to join international investigations.

Only in the face of intense international pressure are the Chinese now releasing valuable information to scientists from the World Health Organization, who were allowed in the country just a few weeks ago.

This week, the Chinese government announced its count of new SARS cases for March, bringing China's caseload to 1,190, with 46 deaths -- the highest figures for any nation. It also announced that the W.H.O. team had permission to travel to the southern city of Guangzhou, the epicenter and origin of the epidemic...

By January, Chinese doctors in Guangdong Province already understood a lot about the disease's spread and how to control outbreaks. If three months ago, they had shared that experience or allowed international experts in to aggressively look for the germ responsible, would so many be dying from Canada to Vietnam today?

How much plainer can the question be asked?

More on China and SARS

From an article in the New York Times yesterday:

Speaking at the first news conference held by the Chinese government on the outbreak, which is thought to have started last November in Guangdong Province, Zhang Wenkang, China's minister for health, rejected a travel advisory issued the previous day by the World Health Organization, which is based in Geneva.

"It is safe for people to come to China to work, travel or attend conferences," Mr. Zhang said. "I'm not an agent for an airline trying to sell plane tickets to travel in China."

His assurances directly conflicted with the first disease-related travel advisory the World Health Organization has issued in its 55-year history. They also highlighted ongoing tensions with international medical investigators.

Beijing has hampered the free movement of medical investigators, released few statistics on the disease and has long insisted that the outbreak is "under control."

But officials of the agency insisted today that the disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is not under control.

"The numbers released by Chinese authorities yesterday were far higher than we expected," said Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. "It is imperative that we exercise all caution until we understand the situation in Guangdong."

The evidence of Chinese obstructionism -- leading to an accelerated spread of SARS and a resulting increase in the number of deaths -- seems to mount by the day.

April 03, 2003

Thanks, China

The Wall Street Journal reports today on the Chinese front in the war against SARS. I quote extensively from this article because of the import:

China revealed that a lethal strain of pneumonia has caused an additional 12 deaths and hundreds of new cases, and said it would allow a team of foreign specialists to visit the area where the outbreaks first occurred.

Wednesday's developments suggest that China's leadership -- facing its first major challenge since taking office earlier this year -- is seeking to address sharp criticism of its handling of the outbreak as economic and political fallout grows.

The World Health Organization said severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, has spread to five Chinese provinces and Beijing, infecting a total of 1,190 people and causing 46 deaths since November. Included in the tally were figures released Wednesday by the southern province of Guangdong, which put its latest death toll at 40. The WHO, which is sending a team of doctors to Guangdong, also issued a rare alert urging travelers to avoid the province and Hong Kong, two of the hardest-hit areas.

China has come under fire at home and abroad for its rigid control of information and slow response to the epidemic. Besides its halting disclosure of new SARS cases, Chinese authorities took five days to grant the WHO's request to visit Guangdong. In a rare rebuke from the state-controlled media Wednesday, the English-language China Daily newspaper blamed local authorities for failing to inform the public about the outbreak...

In seeking explanations for China's actions, some analysts note the paradox facing Beijing. China's open door to investment has launched more than two decades of growth and prosperity. But that growth has led authorities to fear releasing information that might rattle the public and scare off the foreign investment on which the economy increasingly depends. Though it has been unwilling to concede that its public-health failures may be responsible for the disease's global spread, Beijing is now realizing the cost of that policy, these analysts say...

An account of the spread of SARS makes clear that if Chinese authorities had acted differently, the outbreak might have taken a different course and more might now be known about the disease. The virus, which spreads through close contact with an infected person and incubates for as long as 10 days, seems to have first appeared in Guangdong in November, about the same time that new local Communist Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang was taking over the leadership of the province. Authorities quickly clamped down on reporting by the domestic media after nervous residents in southern cities began to stockpile medical supplies.

Guangdong authorities remained silent about the illness until Feb. 11, when provincial officials revealed the scope of the outbreak, reporting 305 recorded cases and five deaths from atypical pneumonia; they also said that the outbreak was under control.

Provincial authorities belatedly admitted on March 26 that by the end of February -- 15 days after Guangdong's assertion that the outbreak was under control -- cases in their province more than doubled, to 792 from 305, with 31 deaths.

During those 15 days, as alarm mounted over the new disease, Secretary Zhang, a Politburo member who outranks the minister of health, tried to calm public fears. On Feb. 14, he ordered provincial officials to educate the public to "voluntarily uphold social stability, not believe in rumors, not spread rumors" and to focus on the party's goal of building China into a "comparatively well-off society." According to the media outlet of the Guangdong party committee, the Southern Daily, police summoned the operators of leading Web sites and ordered them to carry only positive reports about the fight against the illness.

This approach wasn't limited to Guangdong. When Beijing authorities admitted on March 26 that there were SARS cases in city hospitals, the news didn't get front-page treatment in local newspapers the next day. Under orders from the city's propaganda authorities, the capital's stable of papers, normally fierce rivals, all ran the same brief three-paragraph story tucked away on their inside pages, and all under the same reassuring headline: "Imported atypical pneumonia in our city has been effectively controlled."

It was only on March 28 -- more than four months after the first known case -- that the government told the WHO it would make SARS a "Category B" disease, meaning that provincial health officials would be obliged to notify central health authorities of cases. But as of Wednesday, according to Wu Kejun of the Department of International Cooperation at the Ministry of Health, "the ministry has required local governments to report to the central government about SARS cases once in a while, but how to classify SARS is still under discussion." ...

Even Wednesday, there were signs Beijing could do more. Chinese Health Minister Zhang Wenkang broke the general silence on the issue in a state-television interview, but he said the outbreak was "under effective control." State TV also said recently anointed Premier Wen Jiabao Wednesday called for measures to "eliminate the epidemic situation in a few areas at its roots."

There was some good news. Health Ministry officials agreed to nominate Chinese doctors to WHO expert teams, and have promised to provide the WHO with daily updates on a province-by-province basis on the progress of the disease, though there was no indication of when these might begin.

For me, the most important sentence of this article is:

An account of the spread of SARS makes clear that if Chinese authorities had acted differently, the outbreak might have taken a different course and more might now be known about the disease.
It is unbelievable to me that it has only been in the last two days that China has agreed to allow WHO doctors into Guangdong. I don't especially fault the Chinese leadership for issuing calming words and urging people not to panic -- the public health authorities in Toronto did the very same thing yesterday in response to a convention cancellation and a travel warning from the government of Australia. What is unforgivable is China's refusal to cooperate fully with the international health community until so much time had passed after the seriousness of the problem had been recognized.

As of today, the WHO reports 2,270 cases of SARS to date, with 79 of those resulting in deaths. The question we have to ask -- and can never truly know -- is how many of those deaths could have been avoided had the Chinese government cooperated fully in the fight against SARS from the very first moment.

April 02, 2003

Turkey Redefines Chutzpah

From a Washington Post story on how the diplomatic dance with Turkey went so wrong:

The week before the parliamentary vote that U.S. officials expected on Feb. 18, a delegation led by [Yasir] Yakis [the former Turkish foreign minister who played a key role in the talks with the United States] arrived in Washington to discuss Turkey's financial package for agreeing to the troop request. The administration had offered $4 billion -- $2 billion in grants and $2 billion in military credits. But a day of negotiations went nowhere...

That night, at 9, Yakis called Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at home and insisted he had to see him. Powell was due to fly early the next morning to New York to haggle with France and other U.N. Security Council members over whether to continue weapons inspections in Iraq. But he agreed that Yakis and the Turkish economics minister could come to his spacious McLean home at 10:30. When they arrived, Powell, still dressed in jacket and tie, ushered them into his dining room, according to an official who was present. He didn't offer them food or a drink.

Yakis told Powell the $4 billion offer wasn't enough. He had consulted with Ankara and his government had decided to ask for $92 billion over five years, the official said. Failing that, Ankara wanted $22 billion in the first year.

Powell noted that the entire foreign aid budget for the United States was $18.5 billion. As the clock neared midnight, Powell told them he would ask Bush to raise the U.S. offer to $6 billion, with $1 billion that could be used immediately for a loan of $8 billion to $10 billion.

During the negotiations, Bush had made only a handful of calls on the troop request. U.S. officials more or less expected the Turkish delegation's meeting with the president in the Oval Office the following day would seal the deal. Bush told Yakis he would agree to Powell's $6 billion offer, but that was the maximum. "You are great negotiators," Bush said, according to U.S. and Turkish officials. "You got me to my top line. But it really is my top line."

Basically, Turkey offered the US a choice: five years to pay $92 billion, or $22 billion cash on the barrel head. They weren't going to get it, but they did manage to get the US from an offer of $4 billion in grants and credits up to $6 billion. Part of me is offended at the naked greed, and part of me admires their strategy. All of me thinks that the definition of the word chutzpah should be updated. I'm not sure it's a Yiddish word anymore.

April 01, 2003

Seymour Hersh on Rumsfeld

Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article on Donald Rumsfeld and the development of the war plan for Iraq that has generated so much discussion (including my post over the weekend) is now available online.

March 31, 2003

Lawrence v. Texas

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Lawrence v. Texas last week. This case is a challenge to Texas' outlawing of sodomy by homosexuals.

NPR's Nina Totenberg did a nice piece (audio only) on the arguments. She reported a wonderfully illustrative exchange:

District Attorney [Charles] Rosenthal... rose to defend the Texas law. "There is no right," he asserted, "to extramarital sex of any kind."

Justice [Stephen] Breyer: "The argument for the other side is that people in their bedrooms have a right to sexual intimacy without intrusion from the state. What's your response to that?"

Answer: "In Texas, sodomy is a Class C misdemeanor."

Breyer: "I'd like a straight answer to my question."

Answer: "Our position is that the line should be drawn at the marital bedroom."

Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg: "Homosexuals can adopt children or be foster parents in Texas. If they can be proper guardians of children, then how can they be criminals? That's not consistent."

Justice [John Paul] Stevens: "Does Texas prohibit sexual intercourse between unmarried heterosexuals?"

Answer: "No."

Question: "What about adultery?"

Answer: "It's not illegal, but we don't condone it."

Justice Breyer: "I don't see any justification for this law except, 'I do not like thee, Dr. Fell / The reason why I cannot tell.'"

Answer: "Texas has the right to make moral judgements."

Breyer: "Can the state make it illegal to tell serious lies at the dinner table?"

Answer: "That would have no rational justification."

Breyer: "Oh, really? I would think telling serious lies would be very immoral. You know," continued Breyer, "at the time of the First World War, some states outlawed the teaching of German in the public schools. There was no reason justifying that action and you haven't given us a reason here, except to say that it's immoral."

Justice [Antonin] Scalia: "Just as bigamy and adultery are immoral."

Breyer: "Or teaching German?"

Scalia groaned. "Well, uh..."

It was gratifying to see an editorial against the position of the state of Texas written by Republican Alan Simpson appear in the Wall Street Journal the same day:

I am a lifelong Republican because I have always believed in the rights of the individual -- the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe those rights to be, as the Founders declared, God-given. Right now, they are under threat in Texas.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, will hear argument on the constitutionality of a Texas law that criminalizes sex between two people of the same sex. Other states have similar laws, which are contrary to American values protecting personal liberty and opposing discrimination. The Supreme Court should declare them unconstitutional...

Certainly, many Americans have deeply held moral and religious convictions regarding sexual behavior. For some, these convictions include an objection to all homosexual acts. But... [we] should have confidence in our private morality -- not demean it with tortured legal interpretations.

The Constitution protects our right to hold different opinions... The Texas statute, as it currently exists, intrudes on the personal freedom of Americans who are harming no one. It forces the law into the most intimate precincts of the home, where we ought to be able to make our own decisions about how to conduct our lives, even if some of our fellow citizens disapprove. This is especially true of that most intimate and personal decision about whom to love, and how...

It is a bedrock American principle that no law should single out a group of citizens for unfair and spiteful discrimination. Our history demonstrates that every time we have trampled on this principle, we have come to regret it. The homosexual sodomy law makes a criminal of every gay person. That is something no American should sanction.

Most of America has made its peace with a principle of live-and-let-live. Now it is time to bring the law up to date.

I believe that the right to privacy is strongly implied within the US Constitution. But the fact that we are still trying cases like this demonstrates to me more than ever the need for that right to privacy to be made explicit. It's time for an amendment.

March 30, 2003


This isn't Donald Rumsfeld's week. Although I've been cutting back on the time I spend following the conflict in Iraq, I had long drives on Wednesday and Friday, and listening to NPR, I could sense the rising temperature of the hot seat he's on. Now, according to the BBC, the New Yorker magazine has just added fresh fuel to the fire:

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld forced his military chiefs to accept his idea that a relatively small, lightly armed force should go to war with Iraq, it is being claimed.

The New Yorker magazine quotes unnamed Pentagon sources as saying that Mr Rumsfeld insisted at least six times before the conflict on the proposed number of troops being reduced.

In an article to be published on Monday, the magazine says Mr Rumsfeld overruled advice from the war commander, General Tommy Franks, to delay the invasion of Iraq...

A senior Pentagon planner said Mr Rumsfeld wanted to "do war on the cheap" and thought precision bombing would bring victory.

"He thought he knew better [than military officials]. He was the decision-maker at every turn," the unnamed planner said.

The article says General Franks wanted to delay the invasion until the American troops denied access to Turkey had been brought to Kuwait, but Mr Rumsfeld overruled him.

It says the defence secretary also rejected recommendations to deploy four or more army divisions and to ship hundreds of tanks and other heavy vehicles in advance.

Instead, Mr Rumsfeld preferred to rely on equipment which was already in Kuwait, but was insufficient, the magazine says.

To listen to those on the right here in the US, the fact that some people predicted a quagmire in Afghanistan is proof enough that we don't face a quagmire in Iraq. To say that success in Afghanistan implies success in Iraq would be as much a leap of logic as to say that failure in Mogadishu implies failure in Baghdad -- which is not what I've said in previous posts. What I've said is that it's a worrying possibility.

I have no special insight into the thinking of Donald Rumsfeld, and certainly am not privy to his private discussions. With that said, my hunch is that, prior to the start of military operations, he believed the chances to be good that the government of Iraq would fall quickly -- thanks either to a lucky US strike, to an internal coup by generals looking to secure their post-war positions, or to an overall collapse fueled by scenes of happy Iraqis welcoming their liberators along the paths of invasion. None of these scenarios has happened. My hunch is that Rumsfeld believed the worst-case scenario to be for Saddam Hussein to cling to power long enough to force an urban battle within Baghdad. Barring a non-linear breakthrough, that seems to be exactly what we are facing. And so I am worried that a street-by-street, house-by-house battle for Baghdad might -- might -- carry with it human and political costs that would ultimately render a victory in Iraq a Pyrrhic one.

If my concerns are unfounded, I'll be among the first to congratulate Rumsfeld on his brilliant war plan, and I'll publicly revisit and criticize my own commentary on the subject, including this entry. But if the worst comes to pass, then the neoconservative pundits who instigated the plan and the civilian government officials who architected it will have a heavy price to pay.

March 29, 2003

The Neoconservatives' Real Agenda?

Via Rafe Colburn, an article by blogger Joshua Micah Marshall on the neoconservatives' true plan for the Middle East:

Imagine it's six months from now. The Iraq war is over. After an initial burst of joy and gratitude at being liberated from Saddam's rule, the people of Iraq are watching, and waiting, and beginning to chafe under American occupation. Across the border, in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, our conquering presence has brought street protests and escalating violence. The United Nations and NATO are in disarray, so America is pretty much on its own. Hemmed in by budget deficits at home and limited financial assistance from allies, the Bush administration is talking again about tapping Iraq's oil reserves to offset some of the costs of the American presence -- talk that is further inflaming the region. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence has discovered fresh evidence that, prior to the war, Saddam moved quantities of biological and chemical weapons to Syria. When Syria denies having such weapons, the administration starts massing troops on the Syrian border. But as they begin to move, there is an explosion: Hezbollah terrorists from southern Lebanon blow themselves up in a Baghdad restaurant, killing dozens of Western aid workers and journalists. Knowing that Hezbollah has cells in America, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge puts the nation back on Orange Alert. FBI agents start sweeping through mosques, with a new round of arrests of Saudis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, and Yemenis.

To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn't the nightmare scenario. It's everything going as anticipated.

In their view, invasion of Iraq was not merely, or even primarily, about getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Nor was it really about weapons of mass destruction, though their elimination was an important benefit. Rather, the administration sees the invasion as only the first move in a wider effort to reorder the power structure of the entire Middle East.

There's a great quote near the end of the article:

Ending Saddam Hussein's regime and replacing it with something stable and democratic was always going to be a difficult task, even with the most able leadership and the broadest coalition. But doing it as the Bush administration now intends is something like going outside and giving a few good whacks to a hornets' nest because you want to get them out in the open and have it out with them once and for all.
In his blog, Marshall takes off the gloves and goes straight for the jugulars of two of the leading neoconservatives:
[I]s it time -- strictly for humanitarian reasons -- to set up a journalistic no-fly-zone to give some sanctuary for the hawks who've been telling us for months that a few good SWAT Teams could take down Saddam's regime.

I mean, think about Ken Adelman, who a year ago said that Iraq would be a cakewalk. (Okay, what did he really say? Ummm, well "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." I think that counts as calling it a cakewalk.) Now he's been driven to the hills by reportorial fedayeen. He's run ragged, exposed to the elements, and short on food. Or what about Richard Perle, who said Saddam's regime was "a house of cards [which would] collapse at the first whiff of gunpowder." Sure, AEI would like to send out a relief mission. But most of their troops have run off to the hills with those makeshift tarp-and-cardboard tents like Adelman and Perle. And well -- how to put this? -- let's just say they're just not in much of a position to beg relief from the UNHCR. Can't we at least protect these war-hawk worthies from fixed-wing aircraft, if nothing else? Toss 'em some MREs from the spare C-130? I mean, just for humanitarian purposes.

I don't pretend to understand Beltway politics enough to render a judgement on whether Marshall's theories are completely accurate. But he certainly makes a compelling and frightening case.

March 25, 2003

Congestion Charging Update

According to the Economist, London's congestion charging -- blogged about earlier here -- is going well indeed:

It has been a bad month for those who predicted that London's congestion charge would bring the city to a chaotic halt. Since the £5-a-day ($8) charge for driving in central London between 7am and 6.30pm was introduced on February 17th, average speeds in the area have more than doubled...

According to Derek Turner, boss of the capital's street management department, traffic has been reduced by 20% and delays cut by nearly 30%. Speeds in the charged zone have increased from 9.5mph to 20mph. Delays to buses caused by congestion are down by half. As a result, bus passenger numbers are up by 14%...

Those living on the zone's borders feared that traffic would be diverted on to their streets. Mysteriously, although there is 10% more traffic on the peripheral roads, journey times along them have not increased...

According to a MORI poll, 50% of Londoners are in favour of the congestion charge compared with 36% against. [London mayor Ken] Livingstone's personal poll ratings are now higher than they were when he was elected three years ago. His aides joke that he has peaked too soon.

Mayor Livingstone has promised to extend congestion charging to additional areas of central London if given the opportunity. Let's hope it spreads far beyond just London.

March 23, 2003

Geneva Convention Hypocrisy

From an interview of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld conducted by CNN's Wolf Blitzer this morning:

BLITZER: [W]ithin the past few moments, the Al-Jazeera Arabic language television network has broadcast Iraqi television video of American POWs that they say are now in the hands of Iraqi officials...

RUMSFELD: ... [T]he Geneva Convention makes it illegal for prisoners of war to be shown and pictured and humiliated. And it's something that the United States does not do. And needless to say, television networks that carry such pictures are, I would say, doing something that's unfortunate... it's a violation of the Geneva Convention for the Iraqis to be -- if, in fact, that's what's taking place, to be showing prisoners of war in a humiliating manner...

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, this broadcast is being seen live around the world, including in Iraq. What is your message to those Iraqi government officials who now have control of these American prisoners?

RUMSFELD: That they treat those prisoners according to the Geneva Convention, just as we treat Iraqi prisoners according to the Geneva Convention.

The Bush administration wants to have its Geneva Convention cake and eat it, too.

In Afghanistan, facing an opponent incapable of mounting organized resistance, and deploying extremely limited numbers of its own ground troops, the US declares captured enemy soldiers to be "unlawful combatants," ships them to Guantánamo Bay, out of the reach of US courts, and declares it can hold them indefinitely without access to counsel or family. In Iraq, facing an opponent capable of fierce opposition and able to capture US personnel, and with large numbers of US troops on the ground, the US gives notice that it expects its prisoners to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

International agreements are not meant to be optional, observe-them-when-it-suits-you accords. They are meant to apply in all cases. In the specific case of the Geneva Convention, its power derives from the explicit agreement of all signatories to observe it all times. Each signatory should be able to reasonably expect that all other signatories will observe it, with reciprocal humane treatment of prisoners of war the end result. If, though, a nation chooses to ignore its obligations under the Geneva Convention in one conflict, it has little basis to believe that opponents in future conflicts will observe theirs.

Besides the obvious erosion of civil liberties being committed at Guantánamo, by ignoring its obligations with regard to prisoners of war, the Bush administration is endangering captured US soldiers, both in the the current conflict and in those to come.

March 19, 2003

Debunking Taranto Again

I feel as if I'm spending more and more of my time defending the eminently reasonable Thomas Friedman (Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist) from the ever-nastier James Taranto (Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web Today editor).

Today, Taranto had this to say:

Alone in the Crowd
The New York Times' Thomas Friedman is feeling lonely:
We're riding into Baghdad pretty much alone. . . . Here we are, going to war, basically alone, in the face of opposition, not so much from "the Arab Street," but from "the World Street."
So we are "pretty much alone." As Reuters notes, quoting Colin Powell, it's just us and Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.

That's 30 countries, and Powell says there are 15 more that do not want to be identified publicly. The Heritage Foundation enumerates 16 countries that aren't on Powell's list but "have publicly offered either political or military support for the war": Bahrain, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Jordan, Kuwait, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, Taiwan, Ukraine and United Arab Emirates. Well, it's a stretch to count Canada, Germany and especially France as allies (Reuters reports today that "Paris had to clarify remarks by its ambassador in Washington that gave the false impression that France would join the fight in Iraq if Baghdad used chemical or biological weapons"), and it's true that American troops will do most of the work (with a lot of help from the British and a significant contribution from the Australians) -- but even so, and contrary to Friedman, isn't it getting a bit crowded in here?

Taranto gives the lie to his own comment. It's easy to say "we support the Americans." (It should be noted that only 30 out of 190 countries around the world have issued such a public statement of support. I suppose this puts our poll numbers at 15.8 percent.) It's another thing entirely to say "we support the Americans and will put our troops in harm's way to do so." Only two other nations in the world have made such a commitment: the UK and Australia. In that light, Friedman's statement, "We're riding into Baghdad pretty much alone," seems completely reasonable.

"The Bush Team Needs an 'Attitude Lobotomy'"

In what will most likely be his final column before the war begins, Thomas Friedman once again stands out as one of the most rational voices on the planet:

This column has argued throughout this debate that removing Saddam Hussein and helping Iraq replace his regime with a decent, accountable government that can serve as a model in the Middle East is worth doing -- not because Iraq threatens us with its weapons, but because we are threatened by a collection of failing Arab-Muslim states, which churn out way too many young people who feel humiliated, voiceless and left behind. We have a real interest in partnering with them for change.

This column has also argued, though, that such a preventive war is so unprecedented and mammoth a task -- taking over an entire country from a standing start and rebuilding it -- that it had to be done with maximum U.N legitimacy and with as many allies as possible.

President Bush has failed to build that framework before going to war. Though the Bush team came to office with this Iraq project in mind, it has pursued a narrow, ideological and bullying foreign policy that has alienated so many people that by the time it wanted to rustle up a posse for an Iraq war, too many nations were suspicious of its motives.

The president says he went the extra mile to find a diplomatic solution. That is not true. On the eve of the first gulf war, Secretary of State James Baker met face to face in Geneva with the Iraqi foreign minister -- a last-ditch peace effort that left most of the world feeling it was Iraq that refused to avoid war. This time the whole world saw President Bush make one trip, which didn't quite make it across the Atlantic, to sell the war to the only two allies we had. This is not to excuse France, let alone Saddam. France's role in blocking a credible U.N. disarmament program was shameful.

But here we are, going to war, basically alone, in the face of opposition, not so much from "the Arab Street," but from "the World Street." Everyone wishes it were different, but it's too late...

The president's view is that in the absence of a U.N. endorsement, this war will become "self-legitimating" when the world sees most Iraqis greet U.S. troops as liberators. I think there is a good chance that will play out.

But wars are fought for political ends. Defeating Saddam is necessary but not sufficient to achieve those ends, which are a more progressive Iraq and a world with fewer terrorists and terrorist suppliers dedicated to destroying the U.S., so Americans will feel safer at home and abroad. We cannot achieve the latter without the former. Which means we must bear any burden and pay any price to make Iraq into the sort of state that fair-minded people across the world will see and say: "You did good. You lived up to America's promise."

To maximize our chances of doing that, we need to patch things up with the world. Because having more allied support in rebuilding Iraq will increase the odds that we do it right, and because if the breach that has been opened between us and our traditional friends hardens into hostility, we will find it much tougher to manage both Iraq and all the other threats down the road. That means the Bush team needs an "attitude lobotomy" -- it needs to get off its high horse and start engaging people on the World Street, listening to what's bothering them, and also telling them what's bothering us.

After we've amended the Constitution to permit Tony Blair to serve as US President, can we appoint Thomas Friedman as Secretary of State?

March 17, 2003

The Rights of the "Unlawful Combatants"

This is a New York Times editorial from last week. I'm reproducing it in its entirety because I think it's important to do so:

Forsaken at Guantánamo

It has been 14 months since the first prisoners from the Afghanistan war were taken to a naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. The Bush administration says it can hold the detainees indefinitely, without allowing them access to family or legal counsel. Yesterday, a federal Court of Appeals threw out a challenge by some of those detainees to their confinement. The administration and the court are wrong. The detainees may not have the same rights as American citizens, but they are entitled to more due process than they are being given.

The United States military is holding hundreds of prisoners accused of Taliban or Al Qaeda ties at Guantánamo. Many were seized in the heat of battle, but others were turned over in exchange for rewards or bounties. Advocates for the prisoners maintain that one-third or more are being held on the basis of bad intelligence, or simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Guantánamo detainees are in legal limbo. The Bush administration refuses to designate them prisoners of war, a label that would entitle them to immunity from prosecution for acts committed during a lawful war, among other things. Nor is the administration treating them as ordinary criminal defendants, entitled to know the charges against them and allowed to contest their confinement in court. The government's position is that the detainees are "unlawful combatants" who can be held incommunicado indefinitely.

Whatever their legal status, the Guantánamo detainees must be given a chance to contest their confinement. Those who were wrongly caught up in the military's net must have an opportunity to make their case.

As noncitizens captured in wartime, they may not have the right to have their claims heard in United States courts. But they must be given some forum, like a military tribunal, in which to contest their continued imprisonment. The rules of evidence, and the standard of proof for holding them, may be different from those in ordinary criminal trials. But there must be rules, and at least some individualized proof, for the detentions to be proper.

The ruling, from the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a suit filed by Kuwaiti, British and Australian detainees, said that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear claims by the Guantánamo prisoners who contend that they are being wrongfully held. It is a disturbing decision that gives the administration essentially unchecked power to imprison foreigners. The court abdicated its role by not exercising any oversight in this important matter.

In refusing to let the Guantánamo detainees challenge their confinement, the administration is trampling on their rights. It is also damaging America's reputation for fairness. The administration should rethink its policies, and the Supreme Court should reverse yesterday's unfortunate decision.

It would be easy to forget about these men. I presume that many of them were in fact members of Al Qaeda, or Taliban soldiers fighting on their behalf. Al Qaeda members committed a heinous act of terrorism, and the Taliban refused to hand them over. We were within our rights to pursue and destroy both organizations, and the world is better off without them (though the extent to which we are free of these movements is certainly an open question).

Having said that, none of this changes the fact that these men -- however grave their alleged crimes -- are human beings with certain rights. If they are prisoners of war, then they must be treated in accordance with the guidelines to which we have agreed for the treatment of such prisoners, including contact with the outside world and release after the end of hostilities. If they aren't prisoners of war, then they must be treated in accordance with our own laws for criminal suspects, including the right to legal counsel and the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Instead of following either of these paths, the Bush administration has invented a new legal concept to describe the prisoners, "unlawful combatants," which it claims frees it from any of these obligations, and then has used the peculiar territorial status of the US base at Guantánamo to keep the detainees out of the reach of US courts.

Watching the behavior of governments over time demonstrates that small programs targeted at a few often grow far beyond their originally promised purposes. If we allow our government to continue to deny the rights of hundreds of prisoners in Guantánamo, and justify this on the grounds that they are terrorists, we may wake up one day to find that it is no longer hundreds, but thousands. We may wake up one day to a frontal assault on the Bill of Rights and belatedly realize that it began here and now.

March 15, 2003

TSA Leaves Nastygram in Luggage?

From the Seattle Times, a story of a traveler who found a little something extra in his luggage:

Seth Goldberg says that when he opened his suitcase in San Diego after a flight from Seattle this month, the two "No Iraq War" signs he'd picked up at the Pike Place Market were still nestled among his clothes.

But there was a third sign, he said, that shocked him. Tucked in his luggage was a card from the Transportation Security Administration notifying him that his bags had been opened and inspected at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Handwritten on the side of the card was a note, "Don't appreciate your anti-American attitude!" ...

TSA officials say they are looking into the incident. "We do not condone our employees making any kind of political comments or personal comments to any travelers," TSA spokeswoman Heather Rosenker told Reuters. "That is not acceptable."

If the TSA is serious about this, they'll find the employee who wrote the note and fire him or her. (It shouldn't be difficult. After all, they have a clear sample of the person's handwriting, and they have a precise list of suspects -- the employees on baggage inspection duty at Sea-Tac that day.) If the story just fades away, then we'll know that they don't really care about their employees harassing and intimidating travelers.

March 14, 2003

Heard Over a Movie Tonight

While watching Mars Attacks with my teenage boys, just before the Martians obliterate Congress, from my 15-year-old son Duncan:

They should get rid of Congress. They're lying, self-serving scumbags. Didn't you see The Simpsons last week?
All I need to know I learned from The Simpsons? Perhaps, but one could do worse...

March 13, 2003

The End Game at the Security Council

Once again, Thomas Friedman talks sense in his latest editorial for the New York Times:

My main criticism of President Bush is that he has failed to acknowledge how unusual this war of choice is -- for both Americans and the world -- and therefore hasn't offered the bold policies that have to go with it. Instead, the president has hyped the threat and asserted that this is a war of no choice, then combined it all with his worst pre-9/11 business as usual: budget-busting tax cuts, indifference to global environmental concerns, a gas-guzzling energy policy, neglect of the Arab-Israeli peace process and bullying diplomacy...

Mr. President, before you shake the dice on a legitimate but audacious war, please, shake the dice just once on some courageous diplomacy. Pick up where Woodrow Wilson left off: fly to Paris, bring the leaders of France, Russia, China and Britain together, along with the chairman of the Arab League summit, and offer them any reasonable amount of time for more inspections -- if they will agree on specific disarmament benchmarks Saddam has to meet and support an automatic U.N. authorization of force if he doesn't. If France still snubs you, the world will see that you are the one trying to preserve collective security, while France only wants to make mischief. That will be very important to the legitimacy of any war.

In his Best of the Web Today column yesterday, James Taranto saw fit to label Friedman one of a group of "liberal hawks turn[ed] chicken":

Now that the liberation of Iraq seems imminent, several center-left commentators who previously backed it are calling for more delay. Mickey Kaus dubs them the "balking hawks." ...

The most charitable interpretation of this sudden hesitation is that our liberal friends are confused about ends and means...

There's a more cynical interpretation of the erstwhile hawks' change of heart. It may be that as partisan opponents of the president, they hope to deny him a success -- or to be able to say "I told you so" if something goes wrong in Iraq.

This is a ridiculous assertion in the case of Friedman, and Taranto should know it. (Have I become more "center-left," or has Taranto grown more partisan, more prone to throwing out red herrings, more prone to ad hominem attacks over the last year? I can't be sure.) Friedman has been and remains in favor of going to war, with or without unanimity on the Security Council, provided the US puts forth its best effort to obtain the support of its allies. In early February, he wrote (and I later blogged):

No question -- Saddam never would have let the U.N. inspectors back in had President Bush not unilaterally threatened force. But if Mr. Bush keeps conveying to China, France and Russia that he really doesn't care what they think and will go to war anyway, their impulse will be to never come along and just remain free riders.

The allies also have a willful blind spot. There is no way their preferred outcome, a peaceful solution, can come about unless Saddam is faced with a credible, unified threat of force. The French and others know that, and therefore their refusal to present Saddam with a threat only guarantees U.S. unilateralism and undermines the very U.N. structure that is the best vehicle for their managing U.S. power.

We need a compromise. We need to say to the French, Russians and Chinese that we'll stand down for a few more weeks and give Saddam one last chance to comply with the U.N. disarmament demands -- provided they agree now that if Saddam does not fully comply they will have the U.N. authorize the use of force.

Unfortunately, we didn't do this back then. Instead, we waited until March, and then offered an extremely short extension, and the French are balking. After a brilliant performance in securing Resolution 1441, the US has handled the end game at the Security Council incompetently.

Having said that, the French position is foolish and counterproductive. The UK is offering -- with the US reluctantly agreeing -- to negotiate an extension for Iraq to come into full compliance with 1441, along with a series of specific, measurable steps -- just as I proposed when I wrote:

I believe the Security Council should unanimously say to Iraq, "If you do not immediately comply fully with Resolution 1441, the international community will disarm you by force, with the full blessing and support of this Council. For you to be considered in compliance with Resolution 1441, within one month of the date of this resolution, UN weapons inspectors must affirmatively certify that you are in compliance with a list of highly specific requirements. Should the weapons inspectors fail to so certify your compliance with any of these requirements within the month, you will be considered in breach of this resolution, which will result in your forced disarmament with no further resolutions or negotiations."
The French response is to say they will veto any resolution leading to automatic military action under any circumstances. Do they not see that this increases the likelihood of war? Can anyone argue with a straight face that Saddam Hussein has taken what steps he has toward disarmament for any reason other then the credible threat of US-led military action? France is attempting to take such military action off the table. The US knows this will be the end of any progress towards disarmament, and so has made it clear that, if it cannot reach agreement on a resolution with fellow Security Council members, it will take action on its own.

What is France's wish? To prevent war? It doesn't look like it. To disarm Iraq? It doesn't look like it. Or is the French wish simply to appear to wish to prevent war while disarming Iraq?

March 12, 2003

Everything I Need to Know...

...I learned from the two women sitting next to me at my son's soccer game on Sunday:

  • The war in Iraq is all about the oil.
  • If we invade Iraq, 500,000 Iraqis are going to be killed or seriously injured.
  • Invading Afghanistan to capture Osama bin Laden was like invading North Carolina to capture the abortion clinic bomber hiding in the hills.
  • Gasoline costs US$3.00 per gallon in Canada.
  • The president's brother was on the board of the firm responsible for security at the World Trade Center. That can't be a coincidence.
  • The US military doesn't teach its recruits any useful skills. They say they do, but they don't.
  • The US military is blackmailing schools into allowing them to recruit their students.
Glad we got all that straightened out.

March 08, 2003

We Have Met the Enemy and They Is McDonald's

From Business 2.0, "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Pander to 'Em", an article on how international McDonald's outlets have distanced themselves from the US during times of anti-Americanism. Some seem particularly egregious:

France 1997-2002

Problem: Backlash against U.S. cultural imperialism. When French farmer Jose Bove vandalized a McDonald's outlet in 1999, his compatriots were thrilled.

McSpin: Franchise launches ads featuring cowboys who boast that McDonald's France refuses to import American beef "to guarantee maximum hygienic conditions." Ronald McDonald takes a backseat to Asterix, the cartoon defender of French independence.

Yugoslavia 1998

Problem: Operating under NATO auspices, the U.S. military begins a bombing campaign against Belgrade.

McSpin: Franchise repositions McDonald's as a symbol of anti-NATO protest. Hands out free burgers at rallies and adds a Serbian nationalist cap to the Golden Arches icon under the slogan "McDonald's is yours." ...

Egypt 2001

Problem: Anti-American boycott sparked by U.S. support for Israel.

McSpin: Local outlets introduce the McFalafel, rolled out behind an ad jingle sung by Shabaan Abdel Rahim, best known for his chart-topping hit "I Hate Israel."

The article goes on to state that the Saudi Arabian franchisee's response to a Palestinian-inspired boycott of American products was to donate "30 cents from every Big Mac sold to the Red Crescent Society and Nasser Hospital in Gaza for treatment of Palestinian casualties," which seems reasonable to me -- more logical and well-intentioned, certainly, than using French-speaking cowboys to trash American beef, or making the Golden Arches a symbol of Serbian nationalism.

March 07, 2003

Compare and Contrast

From President Bush's State of the Union address, 29 January 2002:

The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons.
From an article in the Los Angeles Times, 5 March 2003:
The Bush administration has concluded that it probably cannot prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and is focusing on managing the geopolitical fallout, informed Capitol Hill sources said Tuesday.

In closed briefings and private conversations with members of Congress over the last several weeks, administration officials have indicated that they expect North Korea to begin reprocessing its plutonium stockpiles soon, perhaps within a few weeks, the sources said. Once reprocessing begins, North Korea will be able to produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon a month.

A Senate staff member who is privy to the briefings said the administration was "preparing people up here for a de facto, if not declared, North Korean nuclear state and saying that this is something we can deal with through isolation, sanctions, deterrence and national missile defense."

During his press conference last night, the following question was asked of the president:

If North Korea restarts their plutonium plant, will that change your thinking about how to handle this crisis, or are you resigned to North Korea becoming a nuclear power?
I'm not quoting the president's response because there was nothing quotable in it. He said nothing. The question made it easy for him to say nothing. I would have liked to see the following question asked instead:

Mr. President, in your State of the Union address in January of 2002, you labeled North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," then said, and I quote, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." Last month, CIA Director Tenet testified before Congress that North Korea probably has one or two nuclear devices, as well as the ability to reach the west coast of the US with a ballistic missile. How do you reconcile the promise you made to the American people with your intelligence director's latest testimony?

Helen Thomas rightfully complains about the paucity of press conferences in the current administration. She should turn a critical eye on the White House press corps itself -- given the few chances they have to ask questions, it's imperative that their questions be good ones.

February 28, 2003

Our Broken Death Penalty System

From an article in the New York Times:

Judge Laura Denvir Stith seemed not to believe what she was hearing.

A prosecutor was trying to block a death row inmate from having his conviction reopened on the basis of new evidence, and Judge Stith, of the Missouri Supreme Court, was getting exasperated. "Are you suggesting," she asked the prosecutor, that "even if we find Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?"

Frank A. Jung, an assistant state attorney general, replied, "That's correct, your honor."

That exchange was, legal experts say, unusual only for its frankness.

It's hard to find the words to properly respond to this. It's hard to express how I feel about the idea that a prosecutor would argue in court for the execution of an innocent man. The article concludes:

Joseph Amrine, whose appeal gave rise to the contentious questioning in the Missouri Supreme Court, is accused of killing another prison inmate while serving time for robbery, burglary and forgery. His conviction was based on the testimony of three other inmates; a guard identified someone else as the likely killer. All three have since recanted their accusations, and Mr. Amrine says this means he should have a new trial.

Mr. Jung, the Missouri prosecutor, told the court that Mr. Amrine's request was simply too late.

"To make sure we are clear on this," Judge Michael A. Wolff of the Supreme Court replied, "if we find in a particular case that DNA evidence absolutely excludes somebody as the murderer, then we must execute them anyway if we can't find an underlying constitutional violation at their trial?"

Again, Mr. Jung said yes.

It took me years of soul-searching to come to the conclusion that, though I respect the death penalty as the current law of the land, I believe it should be abolished. The thought that even one prosecutor exists -- and one presumes Jung spoke for many -- who would knowingly execute an innocent man indicates to me that I reached the proper conclusion.

How anyone could read the exchanges between the judges and Jung and not conclude that the current death penalty system is, at the very least, broken, is beyond me.

February 27, 2003

Juan Benito on Iraq

Following up on my blog entry in which I invited blog-less friends to publish their views on Iraq, here's a message I received from Juan Benito:

OK. Here's the Deal with Iraq

First, we should recognize that there are no good guys in the current situation; there are only bad guys and worse guys. The US was instrumental in bringing Saddam Hussein to power in the late 70's. We know the reason why: Iraq has a lot of oil, and Hussein was ready to serve US interests in the region (back when Iran was Public Enemy No. 1). In short, although he was nasty, he wasn't as nasty as the Iranians and, more importantly, he Played Ball.

I'm not saying that Hussein is a victim here. He deserves all he gets. He is a horrible little man and his time has come. However, we should fully realize that we helped make him a horrible little man with an awful lot of power. The US has done this on numerous occasions in South America (Pinochet, anyone?), Africa, and Southeast Asia. We're pretty good at installing dictators when it suits our economic plans. Democracies in little, piddly, yet resource-rich countries tend to make up their own minds about American business, and often times don't want to Play Ball. We don't like that -- political self-determination is a right reserved only for very powerful countries like ourselves. And maybe Europe. Maybe.

Luckily, nasty little dictators don't mind us pillaging their lands as long as we make sure they get all the limos and palaces they could want. Keep this in mind the next time an American president extols the virtues of spreading democracy around the world. When you look at the record, it's clear that expedient economic considerations, not lofty political philosophies, determine US foreign policy. After the event of war in Iraq, watch carefully if the Bush Administration fosters a democracy in the country. Even money says they won't.

In the late 80's however, the situation changed and it became clear that Hussein no longer went along with the wishes of the US. He became unpredictable. He invaded Kuwait. The little pipsqueak had gotten too big for his britches, so the US decided to get rid of him. He gets kicked out of Kuwait, but allowed to stay in charge of Iraq. This was done so as not to ruffle the feathers of the bigger boys in the region, and in particular the Saudis.

In the present time, Bush II decides it's time to take Hussein, a Frankenstein of his father's making (back from when he was Director of the CIA), out of the game, all in the name of "War on Terror." The Bush Administration thinks it's in a pretty good position -- they can safely claim Hussein has WMDs (for how, exactly, does someone positively prove the non-existence of a thing?). If he has them, the inspections help disarm Iraq before the troops move in. If he claims he doesn't have them, but then uses them in response to a US-led invasion, the US will be vindicated. And if he doesn't in fact have any WMDs, well, we'll just have to forget about all that.

The transparent incoherence of this policy may be better appreciated when one considers the problem of North Korea. Kim Jong Il not only possesses WMDs, the means to deliver them to the California coastline, and the announced willingness to use them if pushed, but he is also a dictator who oppresses his own people by atrocious means. However, one doesn't see Bush II assemble any "coalition of the willing" to take him out. Why? Two main reasons: 1) doing so would piss off China, Russia, and quite probably Japan, and, 2) more importantly, North Korea has no natural resources to speak of (read: oil). Thus, a "diplomatic approach" will be employed toward Kim Jong Il. Which means paying him off with oil and food until he shuts up.

At this point, I must a take a brief moment to point out what a monumental travesty the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security have become. Bush II has performed an amazing act of legerdemain -- according to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, two-thirds of Americans believe Saddam Hussein, not Osama Bin Laden, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although the Bush Administration has never overtly stated this view, it is clear that they benefit from such a confusion, and do not make any attempt to clear it up. In fact, they hardly mention Bin Laden anymore, but rest assurred they'll find him -- yeah, right.

To my eye, Tom Ridge has already proven his own incompetence with this whole Terror Alert System debacle. How many times can one claim a credible threat without citing specifics? Specifics are precisely what make threats credible. Specifics would in fact be most helpful to people who wish to avoid terrorist attacks. And what, exactly, does it mean to be at Orange, as opposed to Yellow, Alert? The system is nonsense. Ridge and John Ashcroft would have to be mentally disabled not to foresee that these unhelpful, imprecise, and hollow warnings would inspire fear and anxiety in the population at large. As I don't think that either one is actually mentally disabled (however grudgingly), I can only conclude that the effect was exactly what they intended. In short, I'm led to believe that one of the chief aims of the Department of Homeland Security and it's Terror Alert System is to manipulate public opinion towards the goal of maintaining support for war in Iraq and to legitimize the positions of our current, inept administration. They are using fear to shape public opinion during very troubled times, and I think that is absolutely despicable.

I could go on and on. Don't even get me started on NATO, the UN, and Euro-American relations. However, I must wrap things up:

Is Hussein a bad guy? Undoubtedly.

Should we go in and use military force to take him out? Actually, yes. Sure. As long as it is with full UN support and Iraq us allowed to determine their own system of governance, under UN aegis.

Should we also remove our current US administration, and forge a foreign policy that is sane, humane, and coherent, instead of allowing a cabal of military-industrial interests to wreak havoc upon developing nations the world over, in turn giving rise to problems the American people are then expected to pay for, not only with dollars, but with their very lives? I don't think I need to answer that one.

Juan is currently attending Columbia University. We've been friends since he worked for me when I was running Virtus Studios. Juan was just out of high school, but clearly had tremendous game design instincts, so he became the game designer for Tom Clancy SSN. Later, Juan was a founding member of Red Storm Entertainment.

February 25, 2003

Diplomatic Resource Allocation

From an article in the New York Times:

Saddam's refusal to destroy the missiles could generate support for the Security Council resolution submitted Monday by the United States, Britain and Spain...

France, Russia and Germany, which oppose military action against Iraq, circulated a rival plan to pursue peaceful disarmament through strengthened weapons inspections, which was backed immediately by China.

The 15-member Security Council will meet Thursday to discuss the two proposals. Eleven members have endorsed the idea of continuing weapons inspections, but the United States has dispatched some of its top negotiators to Security Council capitals in recent days to push for the resolution.

I wonder where the administration's "top negotiators" are spending more time: the capitals of the nations representing the swing votes on the Security Council, or the capitals of the nations in geographical proximity to North Korea?

February 22, 2003

Playing Devil's Advocate

On Howard Rheingold's Brainstorms conference, I recently used a devil's advocate forum to argue against war in Iraq. I strongly believe that one must be able to coherently argue both sides of an issue in order to understand it. I thought it would be interesting to reproduce my post here.

I'd like to argue that we should not go to war with Iraq. Here's why:

International support. Do we have support for military action from at least 20 nations? Yes. But do we have the support of the world's largest economies? No. According to this chart, only two of the world's six largest economies are on record as supporting our stand. Do we have the support of the UN Security Council? No. Three of the five permanent members do not support military action, nor do 11 of the members of the full Council. Do we have the support of the world's most populous countries? No. Of the world's largest countries by population, only one, the US, supports military action. What about by geographic area? Has any country from South America announced its support? Africa? Asia? No matter how you slice it, the world simply isn't with us. And like it or not, we must pay attention to this. It's the flip side of globalization. You're a Republican and want the world's economies integrated so corporations can make the big bucks? Fine. But now you actually have to pay attention to what other countries think. Get used to it. Remember, they sneeze, you catch cold.

More pressing problems. Is Al-Qaida destroyed? Clearly not, as the latest episode of the radio show This Week with Osama bin Laden shows. Is Afghanistan secure and on a path to democracy and rebuilding? Hardly. Have we dealt with North Korea, a state with as tarnished a history as Iraq, longer-range missiles, and probably already possessing nukes -- a state that theoretically has the capability of striking Alaska right now? Not by a long shot. Why not deal with those more pressing problems first? The French and Germans want to triple the inspectors? Fine. Cut a deal with them. Leave our forces in place around Iraq. Send in more inspectors -- whether they're effective or not is irrelevant. Give them six months or a year to do their work. In exchange, get an ironclad resolution from the Security Council: if Blix and ElBaradei fail to certify x, y, and z by a certain date -- and make them highly specific, crystal-clear certifications -- then everyone's going in, no questions asked, no more discussion, no more resolutions. Now take that window of time and deal with the other crises you're facing. Finish off Al-Qaida. Fix the political and security situation in Afghanistan (which will, by the way, come back to bite you if you don't deal with it now). Stare down the North Koreans. When you're done, Iraq will still be there.

In formulating these arguments, it helped that I agree with aspects of them -- that I would like to see us take action with additional support, and that I'm worried that we're taking our eye off of other, more pressing problems. But, to my mind, neither issue leads to the conclusion that we should allow the inspection process to go on indefinitely.

February 19, 2003

Our Accident Lottery Culture

Via boing boing, a story in the New York Times on a man who, in a bottle of Tropicana grapefruit juice, found what appeared to be an eyeball (but which tests confirmed to be simply mold):

Oct. 27, 2002, Sammi Hadzovic and his sister went shopping at the Costco in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and bought a 24-bottle flat of Tropicana Season's Best Ruby Red Grapefruit Juice.

At home, Mr. Hadzovic's sister started handing out the 10-ounce bottles to her three children. As she shook one bottle, she felt something solid moving inside it.

She looked. She screamed.

An eyeball was floating at the top.

At least it looked like an eyeball -- a very large one, with a wide black pupil, the white rather milky and the edges scalloped and fleshy-pink like the gums of a toothless person.

"It looked like a cow eyeball," said Mr. Hadzovic, 24, an Internet marketer...

"Maybe," Mr. Hadzovic said, "someone who worked for the company didn't like what was going on and decided to plant something on them."

So he called Tropicana and spoke to a customer-service representative.

"I told her straight out, 'I don't want to put this thing in the media, I don't want to bring your whole company down,' " Mr. Hadzovic said. "I asked her, 'Would you be willing to work something out?' "

The voice on the phone offered Mr. Hadzovic a refund. It was not the offer he was hoping to hear. "I was thinking seven figures," he said, "but I would have taken a hundred grand. I'm not a greedy person."

Lawyers told Mr. Hadzovic that because he had not opened the bottle and swigged from it, he would have a hard time proving damages.

"I was thinking seven figures, but I would have taken a hundred grand. I'm not a greedy person." I'm glad we got that straight.

Nothing is truly an accident in America anymore, because to say something is truly an accident is to imply no one should be punished for it, and without punishment, no one wins the accident lottery. Sammi Hadzovic was hoping he had won the accident lottery to the tune of a million dollars, because -- in his mind -- a disgruntled worker had placed an eyeball in a bottle of juice that Hadzovic happened to buy. Even had this been true, on what account did he believe he deserved a million dollars? A hundred thousand dollars? Anything more than a refund and an apology?

This is one of the things I like the least about my country. It's pathetic.

February 18, 2003

McDonald's, Obesity, and Common Sense

The New York Times runs an op-ed in support of fast-food lawsuits. Don't believe me? Read on.

The showdown over the Chicken McNugget comes in a lawsuit by Ashley Pelman and Jazlyn Bradley, two New York girls who say that McDonald's is to blame for their obesity and health problems...

Judge Robert Sweet, who is hearing the Pelman suit, dismissed it earlier this month... If customers know the risks, he held, "they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."

If Judge Sweet had stopped there, it would have been a happy day in McDonaldland. But the reason Pelman v. McDonald's Corp. may yet be a problem is that the judge went on to explain how the plaintiffs could fix their suit, and gave them time to do it. The key, he said, is to focus on the fact that customers may not have a reasonable chance to learn what they are getting into when they eat at McDonald's.

Judge Sweet didn't absolve fast-food customers of the need for self-restraint. Instead, he grounded the case in a basic doctrine of tort law: that certain products may be unreasonably dangerous because they contain items that are "outside the reasonable contemplation of the consuming public." In other words, it is O.K. to sell unhealthy food. But when an item is substantially less healthy than it appears, a seller may be held liable for the resulting harm.

Judge Sweet offered up, by way of example, Chicken McNuggets. "Rather than being merely chicken fried in a pan," he wrote, they are "a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook." His decision listed 30 or 40 ingredients other than chicken, and noted that although chicken is regarded as healthier than beef, Chicken McNuggets are actually far fattier. "It is at least a question of fact," he held, whether a reasonable consumer would know that a McNugget "contained so many ingredients other than chicken and provided twice the fat of a hamburger." ...

McDonald's would position itself better in the fast-food market if it communicated more openly with its customers about what they were getting. A good start would be to listen to consumer advocates and post calorie content on menu boards.

Better still, McDonald's should ramp up its fitful efforts to make its food more nutritious. The Pelman plaintiffs have plainly identified a problem. With obesity at epidemic levels -- more than 60 percent of adults are now overweight or obese -- McDonald's is doing real harm by promoting "`extra value meals" that contain three-quarters of the calories an adult needs for a full day.

It's hard to know where to begin in refuting the arguments contained in this article, both those made by the judge and those made by the journalist.

  • "[Chicken McNuggets aren't] merely chicken fried in a pan." McDonald's food preparation areas are usually clearly visible from the counter. Has anyone ever seen a pan at McDonald's? Would anyone have any reasonable basis for believing that Chicken McNuggets are fried in a pan?
  • "[Chicken McNuggets are] a McFrankenstein creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook." Do people read ingredient lists on the things they buy at supermarkets? Virtually everything in a mainstream, non-organic supermarket contains elements not utilized by home cooks. To assume that McDonald's would somehow be different from other large food manufacturers would be ludicrous. Moreover, are we to believe that Chicken McNuggets are especially fattening because they contain numerous ingredients not utilized by home cooks? Could it be because they are coated in batter and then deep-fried?
  • "It is at least a question of fact [whether a reasonable consumer would know that a McNugget] contained so many ingredients other than chicken and provided twice the fat of a hamburger." It took me all of 20 seconds to look up the ingredient list for Chicken McNuggets. I haven't eaten Chicken McNuggets in a long time, and reading the ingredient list made it less likely I ever will again, but McDonald's made it easy for me to find out what's in them. Try finding out what's in a Chili's Awesome Blossom or a Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit. Why didn't the girls sue Chili's and Red Lobster? Surely their food is fattening, and they (along with most other sit-down restaurant chains) make it nearly impossible to determine what their food is made of or how nutritious it is.
  • "[McDonald's should] post calorie content on menu boards." It's already posted, at least in every McDonald's I've been in over the last few years (not that many, actually), on a large sign on the wall, with not just calories but other nutritional information as well.
  • "McDonald's is doing real harm by promoting 'extra value meals' that contain three-quarters of the calories an adult needs for a full day." Of course they are, just as Snickers is doing real harm in promoting nutrition-free candy bars as a pick-me-up, or Coca-Cola is in promoting sugar water as refreshment. Where do you draw the line? Should we sue every company that makes an unhealthy product and then chooses to promote it?
The bottom line is that people are expected to exercise common sense. Common sense tells us that food that is fried, served in huge portions, or both, will make us fat, especially if we eat a lot of it. I may not be fond of McDonald's, but to hold them responsible for the behavior of Mlles Pelman and Bradley would be to absolve Americans of their personal responsibility to exercise common sense. Is that really what we want?

February 17, 2003

Sadly, a Prediction Comes True

At the end of last year, I wrote an entry about the wonderful Peanuts tarot deck. At the end of the entry, I wrote:

It would be great to have a real set of these. Of course, given the state of copyright these days, we'll be lucky just to see this site stay up a week.
I don't know if they stayed up for a week, but they're gone now. The site now reads:
...well, folks, I used to have an elaborate tarot deck here featuring some famous cartoon characters, but the owners of the copyrights of those cartoon characters asked me to take them down, and I did so.
Did the writers of copyright law anticipate the enormous imbalance when a powerful media conglomerate exerts pressure on an individual? The Peanuts tarot deck seemed like non-commercial satire to me, but if I was the creator, and received a cease-and-desist letter, I'd probably do exactly what the person did in this case -- take the materials down to avoid a lawsuit.

In addition to the necessary reforms proposed by Larry Lessig and others, we need a leveling of the playing field for copyright disputes. It's unreasonable for a copyright holder to abuse its power to shut down individual works it considers infringing simply by dint of its size, with no reference to the validity of its case. Perhaps something akin to Small Claims Court, with lawyers disallowed and proceedings limited in length? I don't know. I just know that the system today is unfair.

London's New Congestion Charge

The new London congestion charge goes into effect today.

The Economist offers this description:

On February 17th, [London mayor Ken Livingstone] is introducing a £5 ($8)-a-day congestion charge for those driving in eight square miles of central London. The scheme relies on 700 video cameras, which will scan the rear licence-plates of the 250,000 or so motorists who typically enter the area between 7am and 6.30pm during the working week. This information will be matched each night against a database of drivers who have paid the charge either by phone, via the internet or at shops and garages. Except for those with exemptions (the disabled, taxis, nurses, for instance) or residents (who can apply for a yearly licence at a 90% discount), anyone who fails to pay by midnight will be fined £80.
In an accompanying editorial, while criticizing certain aspects of Livingstone's plan, the Economist praises the basic idea as sound:
Other cities have tried similar schemes, but nothing on London's scale. It is a measure of the city's desperation that a socialist mayor is introducing a practice -- road pricing -- normally advocated by free-market rightwingers, from Adam Smith in 1776 to Milton Friedman in 1951. Mr Livingstone is brave. If the scheme works, it will be taken for granted, and if it fails, he will probably lose the next mayoral election.

All over the world, people are finding themselves increasingly bogged down in congestion. Governments can either choose to leave people fuming in their cars (which wastes people's time and pollutes the air) or they can ration road space by regulation or by price. Regulation -- banning people from driving in certain areas at certain times -- is relatively clumsy. Rationing by price is more efficient because it allocates road space to those who value it most...

With their awful commuter trains and creaking underground, Londoners are used to failures in their transport system. That is no reason to shirk a bold attempt to make things better, nor to retreat if it does not work at the first go.

Many people will be watching this experiment carefully. Could it provide a model for the future, including here in the US? One can hope.

The Transport for London congestion charging site can be found here.

February 16, 2003

Thinking Alike

In my entry on the war two days ago, I wrote:

I believe the Security Council should unanimously say to Iraq, "If you do not immediately comply fully with Resolution 1441, the international community will disarm you by force, with the full blessing and support of this Council. For you to be considered in compliance with Resolution 1441, within one month of the date of this resolution, UN weapons inspectors must affirmatively certify that you are in compliance with a list of highly specific requirements. Should the weapons inspectors fail to so certify your compliance with any of these requirements within the month, you will be considered in breach of this resolution, which will result in your forced disarmament with no further resolutions or negotiations."
As it turned out, Thomas Friedman had written a column two days earlier that I hadn't seen when I wrote my piece:
No question -- Saddam never would have let the U.N. inspectors back in had President Bush not unilaterally threatened force. But if Mr. Bush keeps conveying to China, France and Russia that he really doesn't care what they think and will go to war anyway, their impulse will be to never come along and just remain free riders.

The allies also have a willful blind spot. There is no way their preferred outcome, a peaceful solution, can come about unless Saddam is faced with a credible, unified threat of force. The French and others know that, and therefore their refusal to present Saddam with a threat only guarantees U.S. unilateralism and undermines the very U.N. structure that is the best vehicle for their managing U.S. power.

We need a compromise. We need to say to the French, Russians and Chinese that we'll stand down for a few more weeks and give Saddam one last chance to comply with the U.N. disarmament demands -- provided they agree now that if Saddam does not fully comply they will have the U.N. authorize the use of force.

Yesterday the Times itself weighed in:

The only way short of war to get Saddam Hussein to reverse course at this late hour is to make clear that the Security Council is united in its determination to disarm him and is now ready to call in the cavalry to get the job done. America and Britain are prepared to take that step. The time has come for the others to quit pretending that inspections alone are the solution.

The Security Council, as we said the other day, needs to pass a new resolution that sets a deadline for unconditional Iraqi compliance and authorizes military action if Baghdad falls short. Without that, the French proposal that Mr. Blix and Dr. ElBaradei report again in mid-March is the diplomatic equivalent of treading water. It practically invites President Bush to take the undesirable step of going to war without the support of the Security Council...

There is ample evidence that Iraq has produced highly toxic VX nerve gas and anthrax and has the capacity to produce a lot more. It has concealed these materials, lied about them, and more recently failed to account for them to the current inspectors. The Security Council doesn't need to sit through more months of inconclusive reports. It needs full and immediate Iraqi disarmament. It needs to say so, backed by the threat of military force.

I feel like I'm in good company.

February 15, 2003

JoI Ito on Iraq

Joi Ito has posted an entry on warblogging. He has decided not to get involved at this time, with good reasons:

The War with Iraq is very important, but I have many things that are important to me and committing to taking a strong position and defending it would undermind my ability to cause a revolution in Japan, think about North Korea, run my business and try to understand democracy.
While Joi understandably lacks the time to fully engage in an Iraq debate -- which, on account of his position, would be a far more consuming task than it was for me to post my thoughts on the subject -- he does briefly summarize his position:
I have decided to be against the war after listening to a variety of people who I trust and who have thought about this a lot... My feeling after hearing all of the arguments is that there is no obvious position. So, when in doubt, my position is, don't kill people. Also, I believe that the US one of the best democracies in the world and that we should all push the US to hold the link and maintain its integrity. Judges face cases where they KNOW the defendant is guilty, but throw it out due to technicalities. Rules are rules. First-strike, torture are bad no matter what the reason. Due process should be protected no matter what the reason. If you let these principles slip, you're losing what you're fighting for. I'm not going to go into any more specifics in this entry because for every argument, there is a counter-argument.

So my fear in taking the anti-war position is that we may be allowing another Hitler to happen. Having said that, Sadaam does not have nearly the support or the power the Hitler had so we still have time. We are allowing the bin Laden to unite the Arab/Islam world against the US with this war and strange bedfellows are united. This is dangerous. We are also pushing Sadaam to strike first. The cost of a long war on the global economy and the difficulty of "running Iraq" is immense and I dread the thought of a drawn out US occupation of Iraq. That's what's on my mind.

So my humble position is to let the inspectors continue, work through the UN, get the rest of the world on board with a "smoking gun" and talk to the rest of the Arab nations more for ideas about hot to unseat Sadaam.

As I said in a comment on Joi's entry, while we have agreed to disagree, I have the utmost respect for his position, and for that of others opposed to the war. Let no one again suggest that anti-war protesters are anything other than patriots expressing their legitimate and heartfelt opinions on a matter of the utmost gravity.

February 14, 2003

Weasels on the Loose

Posting this will probably destroy any credibility I have left as an internationalist, but I'm sorry... I have to. I haven't laughed this hard in a long time.

From the New York Post.

Paul Gustafson on Iraq

From Paul Gustafson:

I agree with your analysis regarding Iraq. To me, this is a very simple issue:

There are bad guys in the world who are trying to kill us and our friends. We cannot, and will not, allow it. Period.

That said, we cannot overlook, forget, or deny the history of events that has led us to this point. Over the past hundred years or so, the countries in this region of the world have been subjected to a tragic series of world events. To think that we haven't had a hand in creating the dire situation we face is, I believe, naive. Let's pay attention to our past missteps, take responsibility for our errors, and move on.

As we disarm Saddam with force, and in the aftermath, we must truly reform our attitudes and actions toward this region of the world. We cannot continue to tolerate oppressive governments in the name of security and self interest. We must, as the United States of America, continue to be the world's beacon for justice, freedom, and the peaceful pursuit of happiness. These "unalienable rights" are not unique to us or our people -- they belong to mankind. Upholding them is our purpose, our duty, and our destiny.

Thanks for leading this discussion.

Paul is the founder of Market Pioneering, a technology marketing consultancy based in Silicon Valley. We've been friends ever since working together at Adobe Systems in the early 1990s, where I was the original product manager for Adobe Acrobat and Paul ran developer programs in the systems division.

Anonymous on Iraq

A friend who wishes to remain anonymous had the following to say on Iraq:

I think the points you make are very good and the course of action as well. But the only thing I would add is the following for me personally. It is to look at this situation in world context. After 12 years of Iraq not complying, we choose now to make Iraq comply. It could be because Iraq's activities are advancing dangerously or it could be because we have shifted from one threatening group, Al Qaeda to another one at a time that could not be worse. What is our hurry all of a sudden? Timing for us to go to war could not be worse with giving al qaeda and others reason to unite and attack. What is the plan after attacking Iraq? Who will be in power then? What is the long-term plan to stablize Iraq? Most countries we have fought or toppled the leader have been replaced with similar or worse regimes. We have no historical success in long-term stabilization. And finally and a little off-topic, we cannot fight terrorism long-term due to financial constraints. If we continue to throw money around like we are, we will go bankrupt. The hatred toward America comes after 60 years of inconsistent, imperialistic, self-interest foreign policy. This is a situation which will be around for a while. And we cannot afford to spend our money on war, rebuilding countries, security and military for the next 60 years while terrorism will still be around and they are in no hurry to achieve their goals. They will slowly and consistently threaten and attack. In regards to long-term change, we need a whole new outlook and new consistent inclusive foreign policy.
To this friend, I wish I could have credited you, but I respect your desire for privacy.

Jon Blossom on Iraq

From Jon Blossom:

I have been thinking a lot about this topic, as have most of us, and I have come to similar conclusions. Saddam is quite obviously developing WMD, in clear breach of Resolution 1441. But the resolution seems poorly written, particularly vague on two key points. First, it draws no line in the sand regarding the amount and type of proof required to declare Iraq in material breach -- so the UN is split, with France and others arguing to give the inspectors more time. Second, it does not specifically describe the threatened "serious consequences," especially whether those consequences should be military or diplomatic. It seems clear to me (as a special envoy to the Security Council, of course) that Iraq IS in material breach and that the "serious consequences" were intended to mean "military action." I would much prefer not to go to war, especially not without the full and unanimous support of our allies, yet it looks like we have no choice but to continue in that direction.

What troubles me most, however, is the position in which we find the UN. They must back up 1441 or else why should anyone listen to them again? If the US moves without UN support, it effectively renders them irrelevant... but if the UN decides now to back a military action, they more or less look like US lapdogs.

Add that to the NATO trouble surrounding Turkey, and you find the Bush Administration in a position to invalidate these two (arguably most important) major international bodies with a single stroke. Further add in our recent withdrawal from our long-standing non-proliferation treaty with Russia/USSR, our furious attack on Afghanistan (and subsequent total disinterest in Bali), and our withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, and you'll see a disturbing trend of unilateral action on the part of our current president.

Can you remind me exactly which country is the rogue state we should be worrying about?

Jon is the founder of Bopscotch, a developer of physical and computer-based toys. We've been friends since he began dating Eve Helfman (now Blossom), whom I've been fortunate enough to count as a good friend for over 15 years now.

Reid Hoffman on Iraq

From Reid Hoffman:

Here's my highlines on these issues.
  1. Iraq is bad, there is no question. And, the only use for weapons of mass destruction is threatening or using them on other nations. (Now, we should all remember, the U.S. also has weapons of mass destruction; Iraq has merely showed an inclination to be an aggressor using them. We'll ignore Hiroshima for the moment.)
  2. On the Iraqi side, I am very worried about what Hussein intends to do with the weapons. He doesn't need them to consolidate his internal power. Furthermore, he's probably exploiting our unfortunate position that we'd rather than him there as a secular government rather than fundamentalist alternative. (E.g. preparing for external aggression.) There really shouldn't be a fear of external aggression, since look at what this costs the U.S. already.
  3. There's a set of conflicting interests. France owns significant rights to Iraqi oil. U.S. is concerned about oil flow due to it's large consumption. It makes it hard to identify just, fair positions. It's one of the reasons why I tend to feel that there should be a U.N. coalition, with at least UK and Germany in favor. (Maybe Australia too.)
  4. The PR of this war is bad. It's after the Hajj, thereby easily positionable as anti-muslim -- the last thing in the world we need.
  5. Bush is mishandling this, in my opinion, due to ego issues. Why do we need this war now on this clock? (I'm a big man; I'm the president of the U.S.; when I talk, others should listen; ???)
  6. For example, I don't think that Iraqi security is organizing anti-war protests as recently leaked by the land of homeland security. It's not credible, and it's an attempt to use slander to limit democracy. I honor the war protestors.
  7. I guess my view comes down to this. I strongly hope that this is a negotiation / bluffing game. This, I would endorse. If it isn't, I wonder why there aren't more intermediate steps before war; e.g. an escalation of stronger sanctions and coalitions. The rush to war, ignoring consensus building on the allies, bothers me.
Reid is in stealth mode at the moment (and requests that he be contacted through me). Previously, he was EVP Business Development for PayPal. We've been friends since meeting a couple of years ago through our mutual friend Eve Helfman.

Muddling Toward Iraq

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Joi Ito asking me if I was for or against war in Iraq. I've given a great deal of thought to this question since (here and here). At last I've come to a position, thankfully before the war actually begins.

One thing I find striking is that I know of no one personally on any side of this issue who believes that the government of Iraq is being truthful in claiming that it has in no way, shape, or form been pursuing the development or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Now, with that in mind, here are some of the more relevant terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1441:

Iraq has been and remains in material breach of its obligations under relevant resolutions...

Iraq, by this resolution, [has] a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations under relevant resolutions of the Council...

[T]he Government of Iraq shall provide to UNMOVIC, the IAEA, and the Council, not later than 30 days from the date of this resolution, a currently accurate, full, and complete declaration of all aspects of its programmes to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other delivery systems...

[F]alse statements or omissions in the declarations submitted by Iraq pursuant to this resolution and failure by Iraq at any time to comply with, and cooperate fully in the implementation of, this resolution shall constitute a further material breach of Iraq's obligations...

[T]he Council has repeatedly warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violations of its obligations...

Remember, the Security Council voted unanimously for this resolution.

So, if no one believes that Iraq has been truthful with regard to its WMD programs, and if the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution warning of "serious consequences" of failure to comply with its terms, which include an "accurate, full, and complete declaration" of Iraq's WMD programs -- yet at the same time many of these people do not believe that we should take steps to disarm Iraq -- then I'm missing something.

As worrisome as I find other security situations around the world, especially North Korea, and as disappointed as I may be with aspects of how the Bush administration has handled this and other crises, the issue for me is this: the world community -- through the Security Council -- came together and spoke with one voice, saying that Iraq must make a truthful declaration and provide full cooperation. This action -- and Iraq's half-steps toward cooperation since -- only occurred because the US made it clear that it was willing to go to war over the issue. Now, with Iraq not complying with Resolution 1441 (though offering additional half-steps as US attack grows imminent), certain members of the world community want to take forced disarmament -- the threat of which is what has brought what cooperation we have seen -- off the table, undermining the resolution they themselves supported.

In the words of Thomas Friedman (emphasis mine):

The French position is utterly incoherent. The inspections have not worked yet, says [French foreign minister Dominique] de Villepin, because Saddam has not fully cooperated, and, therefore, we should triple the number of inspectors. But the inspections have failed not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam's part, as the French know. The way you get that compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war...

I also want to avoid a war -- but not by letting Saddam off the hook, which would undermine the U.N., set back the winds of change in the Arab world and strengthen the World of Disorder. The only possible way to coerce Saddam into compliance -- without a war -- is for the whole world to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against his misbehavior, without any gaps. But France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others. If you line up against Saddam you're just one of the gang. If you hold out against America, you're unique. "France, it seems, would rather be more important in a world of chaos than less important in a world of order," says the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."

If France were serious about its own position, it would join the U.S. in setting a deadline for Iraq to comply, and backing it up with a second U.N. resolution authorizing force if Iraq does not.

Like Friedman, I want to avoid war, but I believe that experience has shown conclusively that the only way to avoid war while ensuring that Iraq does not gain access to WMD is to threaten war and be willing to back up that threat with action. Like Friedman, I believe the best path forward is for the world to stand together.

I believe the Security Council should unanimously say to Iraq, "If you do not immediately comply fully with Resolution 1441, the international community will disarm you by force, with the full blessing and support of this Council. For you to be considered in compliance with Resolution 1441, within one month of the date of this resolution, UN weapons inspectors must affirmatively certify that you are in compliance with a list of highly specific requirements. Should the weapons inspectors fail to so certify your compliance with any of these requirements within the month, you will be considered in breach of this resolution, which will result in your forced disarmament with no further resolutions or negotiations."

What if the permanent members of the Security Council are unwilling to accept such a bargain -- the delay of military action in exchange for their unequivocal and irrevocable cooperation should it be necessary? Then I believe the US would be both justified and correct in pursuing military action without further UN resolutions and without the blessing of any specific nation. What if the Bush administration chooses not to seek such a bargain and simply acts on the basis of non-compliance with Resolution 1441? While I would be less enthusiastic about this course of action, I would nevertheless support it.

Last November, the UN made clear to Iraq the steps it would need to take to avoid "serious consequences." Iraq has not taken these steps. Iraq remains controlled by a dictator who has in the past invaded his neighbors, lauched missiles at Israel, and used chemical weapons on his own citizens. This is a dictator and a regime that must not be allowed to acquire weapons of mass destruction. We may be too late in the case of North Korea, but we have the opportunity to deal with Iraq before it becomes the next North Korea. We must take this opportunity -- preferably with the support of a united international community, gained through proactive and constructive dialogue, but on our own if need be.

In the words of Woodrow Wilson, speaking at an even more portentous moment than we face today:

It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things we have always carried closest to our hearts.
"The right is more precious than peace." Or, as Teddy Roosevelt said:
"Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves... as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy."
Powerful words from two men noted for their efforts on behalf of peace.
After finishing this entry, and having read other war-related blog entries, I began thinking about how many friends I have with diverse points of view, but who don't have blogs -- at least not yet -- and how the world would be missing out on their perspectives. I decided to send a number of my friends a draft of this entry and allow them to respond, with their responses to be posted here. The blog entries that follow are the messages I received in reply. To those who contributed, thank you for giving my readers the benefit of your experience. If I left you off the list, and you would like to contribute to this discussion, I invite you to contact me.

February 12, 2003

Before and After

Before: evil and scary.

After: warm and fuzzy.

Two different logos. Same misguided agency. Same convicted felon in charge. Same Orwellian goals.

"Peace... Is Never the Highest Good Unless..."

I'm determined to reach a personal opinion on a potential war with Iraq before we actually go to war. While I have yet to come to a decision, certain writings are weighing heavily on me as I consider the issue. This is one of them:

We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.
This was Teddy Roosevelt's lecture upon acceptance of the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. In other words, Roosevelt used the occasion of receiving the world's most famous prize for peace to argue that peace in and of itself should not be our "highest good" -- that peace for the wrong reasons would be a "very evil thing."

February 11, 2003

"...An Eventual Treason Prosecution"

Via Radio Free Blogistan (via Salon) an astonishing editorial in the New York Sun:

Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly are doing the people of New York and the people of Iraq a great service by delaying and obstructing the anti-war protest planned for February 15...

In a federal court action filed yesterday, the New York Civil Liberties Union, representing the anti-war protesters, cites the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution...

The protesters probably do have a claim under the right to free speech. Never mind that it's not the speech that the city is objecting to -- it's the marching in the streets, blocking traffic, and requiring massive police protection.

So long as the protesters are invoking the Constitution, they might have a look at Article III. That says, "Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court."

There can be no question at this point that Saddam Hussein is an enemy of America...

And there is no reason to doubt that the "anti-war" protesters -- we prefer to call them protesters against freeing Iraq -- are giving, at the very least, comfort to Saddam Hussein. In a television interview aired this week, Saddam said, "First of all we admire the development of the peace movement around the world in the last few years. We pray to God to empower all those working against war and for the cause of peace and security based on just peace for all." ...

So the New York City police could do worse, in the end, than to allow the protest and send two witnesses along for each participant, with an eye toward preserving at least the possibility of an eventual treason prosecution. Thus fully respecting not just some, but all of the constitutional principles at stake.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Sun is seriously arguing that the mere act of protesting against a war is potentially treasonous -- equating dissent against one's government during wartime with providing "aid and comfort" to the enemy.

I am ashamed that the author of this editorial and I are citizens of the same nation. Ashamed.

February 10, 2003

"Vote France Off the Island"

From Thomas Friedman's most recent column in the New York Times, titled "Vote France Off the Island," in which he suggests replacing France with India on the UN Security Council:

[T]he whole French game on Iraq, spearheaded by its diplomacy-lite foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, lacks seriousness. Most of France's energy is devoted to holding America back from acting alone, not holding Saddam Hussein's feet to the fire to comply with the U.N.

The French position is utterly incoherent. The inspections have not worked yet, says Mr. de Villepin, because Saddam has not fully cooperated, and, therefore, we should triple the number of inspectors. But the inspections have failed not because of a shortage of inspectors. They have failed because of a shortage of compliance on Saddam's part, as the French know. The way you get that compliance out of a thug like Saddam is not by tripling the inspectors, but by tripling the threat that if he does not comply he will be faced with a U.N.-approved war.

Mr. de Villepin also suggested that Saddam's government pass "legislation to prohibit the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction." (I am not making this up.) That proposal alone is a reminder of why, if America didn't exist and Europe had to rely on France, most Europeans today would be speaking either German or Russian.

I also want to avoid a war -- but not by letting Saddam off the hook, which would undermine the U.N., set back the winds of change in the Arab world and strengthen the World of Disorder. The only possible way to coerce Saddam into compliance -- without a war -- is for the whole world to line up shoulder-to-shoulder against his misbehavior, without any gaps. But France, as they say in kindergarten, does not play well with others. If you line up against Saddam you're just one of the gang. If you hold out against America, you're unique. "France, it seems, would rather be more important in a world of chaos than less important in a world of order," says the foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, author of "The Ideas That Conquered the World."

How badly must a nation conduct its foreign policy to make even a committed and thoughtful internationalist like Thomas Friedman tell them it's time to put out their torch and leave the island? Now we know.

February 08, 2003

Fun with Budget Statistics

An entry on Radio Free Blogistan earlier this week:

Like father, like son This Reuters graphic published in Yahoo! News - Politics yesterday speaks volumes:

I commented on this entry, leading to the following exchange:

This graph is about as useful as saying that "The Mummy Returns" was more popular than "Gone With the Wind" because the former made $418 million and the latter only $390 million. Inflation-adjusted, of "Gone With the Wind" made $1.187 billion, which makes it still the top-grossing film of all time.

A chart of deficit growth as a percentage of GDP would be far more useful.
Frank Boosman []

I invite you to create such a chart and edify us. I think even if you plot these graphs on a logarithmic scale it's still clear when the numbers are in the black and when they are in the red. xian []
If I do create such a chart, drawn from the same CBO data as the Reuters chart, and place it on my blog, will you blog it here to provide both sides of the story?

[By the way, I'm not a supporter of the current administration. My only motivation in this is to avoid misleading statistics.]
Frank Boosman []

Sure, of course. I never turn down free content!

to me the salient point is not the "record"-ness of the 2003 deficit (which is project, btw, and could easily turn out to be larger), but the overall direction of the curve, so I believe your deficit as percentage of GDP approach would serve my propaganda needs just as well (MUAHAHAHA)... You can even adjust for inflation if you like (but if you do, be sure to adjust both the numerator and the denominator).
xian []

Interestingly, I couldn't find a ready-made chart of this data. I had to use the raw data provided by the Congressional Budget Office and prepare it myself. I used CBO historical data as well as CBO projections. Here's the result:

The point here is not that President Bush isn't running deficits (he is), nor that budget deficits aren't a bad thing (I happen to believe they are). The point is that this chart looks quite different from the Reuters chart. Both are accurate, but the GDP-based chart is more useful and relevant.

An Office of Management and Budget file that can be found here (PDF, 2.25 MB) contains GDP-based budget data going back to 1930. I didn't take the time to chart it as well, but I found it interesting that during the Depression years 1932-1936, President Roosevelt ran deficits in the range of 4.0 to 5.9 percent of GDP, and during the war years 1942-1945, he ran deficits in the range of 14.2 to 30.3 percent of GDP. Though I agree neither with President Bush's specific tax-cutting plans nor his plans for real increases in military spending, I can see why he and his economic team believe their projected budget deficits to be reasonable. From their viewpoint, they're fighting two wars (against terror and Iraq) while suffering through a serious economic slowdown, making the deficits justifiable when viewed in a historical context. I disagree with this, but I understand it.

February 05, 2003

Second-Hand Smoke, GMOs, and Europe

Thomas Friedman begins a recent column on the situation in the Middle East with the following anecdote:

Last week I went to lunch at the Hotel Schweizerhof in Davos, Switzerland, and discovered why America and Europe are at odds. At the bottom of the lunch menu was a list of the countries that the lamb, beef and chicken came from. But next to the meat imported from the U.S. was a tiny asterisk, which warned that it might contain genetically modified organisms -- G.M.O.'s.

My initial patriotic instinct was to order the U.S. beef and ask for it "tartare," just for spite. But then I and my lunch guest just looked at each other and had a good laugh. How quaint! we said. Europeans, out of some romantic rebellion against America and high technology, were shunning U.S.-grown food containing G.M.O.'s -- even though there is no scientific evidence that these are harmful. But practically everywhere we went in Davos, Europeans were smoking cigarettes -- with their meals, coffee or conversation -- even though there is indisputable scientific evidence that smoking can kill you. In fact, I got enough secondhand smoke just dining in Europe last week to make me want to have a chest X-ray.

I imagine that a European might respond by saying something like, "You can choose not to smoke, and you can choose to walk away from smokers, but if you don't know that your food contains GMOs, you have no choice to make." True, but Friedman's basic point is still right: there's no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful, and yet Europeans are making a big fuss over them while continuing to smoke like fiends, indoors and out.

In the early 1990s, while serving as the original product manager for Adobe Acrobat, I went on pre-launch press tour across Europe. Except in the UK, where technology journalists expected one-on-one interviews, each day's schedule would be the same:

  1. Wake up, shower, and pack.
  2. Check out of hotel.
  3. Meet in hotel conference room to set up demo machines.
  4. Brief all area journalists at once.
  5. Dine with journalists at hotel restaurant.
  6. Catch taxi to airport.
  7. Fly to next city.
  8. Check into hotel.
  9. Meet colleagues for dinner.
  10. Catch up on work, work out, or just go to sleep.
The problem was that during activities 4, 5, 7, and 9 (and 6, depending on the taxi driver), we were inescapably exposed to cigarette smoke -- especially during the briefings, which were typically held in small, poorly ventilated rooms. Most of the journalists we met smoked, and many did so more or less continuously. By the end of the two-and-a-half week tour, I was absolutely miserable.

It has been a while since I've done a press tour in Europe, so I wasn't sure if things had changed in the meantime. Apparently they haven't.

February 02, 2003

The Internet and the Situation Room

Wolf Blitzer was just interviewing Michael Bohn, director of the White House situation room during the Reagan era, when this exchange occurred:

Wolf Blitzer: And then what happens after that? After the president is informed, you're sitting there watching CNN, seeing what's going on, what are they doing in the situation room at the White House, which of course is the super-secret command center, the hub of all national security incidents?

Michael Bohn: Well, the super-secret command center, actually, today, depends on cable news and the Internet as their most important sources of information. It's a little different today than it was then.

On the Internet yesterday, I was seeing images and reading about theories minutes before they made it onto CNN. I find it reassuring, somehow, that I have access to the same "important sources of information" as the White House. The idea of a level playing field for information is appealing.

January 28, 2003

"This is the Worst President Ever"

Via Radio Free Blogistan, Helen Thomas, White House correspondent since, hmmm, forever, on our current president:

As veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas signed my program Thursday evening at the Society of Professional Journalists' annual awards banquet, I said, "First time I ever asked a reporter for an autograph."

"Thank you, dear," she said, patting my arm. "Don't lose heart." ...

As she signed my program, I joked, "You sound worried."

"This is the worst president ever," she said. "He is the worst president in all of American history."

The woman who has known eight of them wasn't joking.

This shouldn't come as a complete shock. Thomas has already written and spoken of her concerns about the Bush administration.

Liberals will see this as the wisdom of a legendary reporter who has made it her business to know eight presidents. Conservatives will see it as the senile rambling of an elderly laughingstock. As for me, being neither, I'm still considering it.

July 07, 2002

Following New Zealand's Lead

Less than two months ago, President Bush signed a new farm subsidy bill that will cost over $190 billion over the next 10 years. This would seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the efforts begun in 1996 to gradually wean US farmers off subsidies.

Except for purely short-term political reasons, I'm at a loss to understand why Bush signed this bill. I consider myself neither Republican nor Democrat. Nevertheless, when Bush was elected, I thought that no matter what, at least he would impose fiscal discipline and promote free trade. In fact, he has done the exact opposite on multiple occasions -- and managed to spend recklessly and threaten the cause of free trade all at once by signing this bill.

Meanwhile, in the wake of this awful legislation, more and more commentators have noticed the New Zealand model. In 1984, New Zealand's government ended all farm subsidies, with a phase-out period of only one year. What happened next?

Forced to adjust to new economic realities, New Zealand farmers cut costs, diversified their land use, sought non-farm income opportunities and altered production as market signals advised -- for example, by reducing sheep numbers and boosting cattle ranching. Farmers were aided on the cost side as input prices fell, because suppliers could no longer count on subsidies to inflate demand. The striving for greater efficiency also supported environmental protection as marginal land farmed only to collect subsidies was replaced with native bush, and overuse of fertilizers ended when fertilizer subsidies were removed. The Federated Farmers of New Zealand believe their country's experience "thoroughly debunked the myth that the farming sector cannot prosper without government subsidies."
The result of all this was that the value of New Zealand's farm output has risen 40 percent in constant dollars since the 1980s. New Zealand's average increase in farm productivity per year has risen from one percent before reform to six percent since.

While the US radically increases farm subsidies -- and while Europe debates extending its massive Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to new European Union applicants -- New Zealand motors along, spending nothing on subsidies and enjoying more efficient farming as a result. In a report on French shepherds broadcast on NPR's All Things Considered (available only as RealAudio), commentator Nancy Coons recounted the following comment made by a French shepherd on a sheep drive:

"We must all [drive sheep across southern France] every year, for no other reason than to say, 'We're here. If you continue to buy the lambs shipped in from New Zealand, we won't be here any longer.'"
The irony of this is palpable. Billions of dollars in farm subsidies, and still French shepherds are increasingly unable to keep pace with competitors halfway around the world -- not low-cost Third World producers, nor massively subsidized farmers, but highly efficient, unsubsidized, First World competitors.

For more on this issue, see the Cato Institute's excellent Washington Post editorial here.

July 05, 2002

Pledging Allegiance to Symbols or Systems?

So we're in an uproar because a federal appeals court has ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional as an endorsement of religion, thanks to the words "under God." Predictably, our lawmakers couldn't move quickly enough to denounce the ruling. That bastion of piety, the US Senate, voted 99-0 to proclaim that we are, indeed, "one nation under God." The Senate chaplain went further in his prayer before the vote, saying "We acknowledge the separation of sectarianism and state, but affirm the belief that there is no separation between God and state."

I was at a Girl Scout event with my daughter shortly before this happened. She noticed that I didn't recite the Pledge and asked why. Was it, she asked, because I don't believe in God? (Technically, I consider myself agnostic.) "No," I said. "It's because I don't believe in pledging loyalty to a flag."

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote about the Pledge, suggesting (among other ideas) that it be directed at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Compare the Oath of Office sworn by incoming presidents...

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God. the Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I explained this to my daughter. "What's the difference," she asked, "between pledging allegiance to a piece of paper instead of to a piece of cloth?" Good question.

Flags are symbols without inherent meanings. We ascribe meanings to them based on our culture. One presumes a typical Palestinian's view of the US flag would be somewhat different than that of an American citizen's. Even within the United States, we hold wide-ranging views on the nature and purpose of the government and nation symbolized by the flag. If I pledge allegiance to it, I'm pledging allegiance to something that might have very different meanings for other people.

The Constitution, on the other hand, specifies a system of government -- an imperfect system, to be sure, but one that has worked, more or less, for over 200 years. Keep in mind that the first duty of the President of the United States is to "support and defend" it. Why shouldn't that be the first duty of all American citizens?