Monday, January 19, 2009

Eight Years of Living Dangerously

No one is more dangerous than one who imagines himself pure in heart.
-- James Baldwin

No Sift next Monday. I'll be on my way back from my sister-in-law's wedding, which I hope goes better than this one did. Next Sift: February 2.

In this week's Sift:
  • The Truman Comparison. Could history really vindicate Bush?
  • The Torture Debate Won't Die. The euphemisms are falling away, and we're left with the core issue: The President authorized people to commit crimes. Will he get away with it?
  • End-of-the-Era Bush Collections. A list of lists.
  • Short Notes. One Republican sees the light. Campbell Brown won't let Bush lie about New Orleans. The Inauguration kicks off two days early. And now that California has protected its children from same-sex marriage, what about divorce?

The Truman Comparison
Conservative pundits keep repeating this talking point: Bush is like Truman. People vilify him now, but history will vindicate him.

My first reaction is to dismiss this idea like Lloyd Bentsen smacking down Dan Quayle. ("You're no Jack Kennedy.") Bush is no Harry Truman. Bentsen didn't need to elaborate and neither do I.

But that's ungenerous, so let's consider the point in more depth. What happens when historians re-evaluate a president? Picture the events of a presidency as weights on a two-pan scale: a success pan and a failure pan. Even with the advantage of hindsight, an event seldom jumps from one pan to the other. Bad things stay bad; good things stay good. All that changes is our estimate of how much the events weigh.

Take Truman for example. On his watch, China went Communist and Russia got the atomic bomb. Those events looked bad at the time and they still do; history just weighs them against Truman less heavily than his contemporaries did. Why? Well, after we spent much of the 60s trying to catch up to the Russian space program, the idea that Truman could have kept them from getting the bomb started to seem pretty naive. And given what we know now, the option of Truman intervening against Mao's insurgency looks like the Vietnam War multiplied by twenty.

On the other hand, we now see a lot of Truman's accomplishments -- NATO, the UN, the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and so on -- as part of his larger strategy of containment. Pursued by nine presidents over four decades, that strategy ultimately brought down the Soviet empire without a nuclear war. So their weight has gone up as much as the weight of Truman's failures has gone down.

Vilified presidents like Nixon or LBJ can also benefit (to a lesser extent) from re-assessment; there's a yes-but argument for each of them. Yes, Nixon had Watergate, but he also opened relations with China. Yes, Johnson bungled Vietnam, but he also passed all the major legislation of the Civil Rights movement. History will never forget his Texas drawl telling a joint session of Congress, "We shall overcome."

Now picture future historians re-assessing W. The weights may grow or shrink, but they're not going to jump from one pan to the other. Nobody's going to conclude that, in retrospect, Bush handled Hurricane Katrina well, or that he really did capture Bin Laden. Ignoring terrorism until 9/11 and turning a $200-billion surplus into a $1.2 trillion deficit are never going to seem like deft moves. The lies he told to start the Iraq War will not to stand to his credit, no matter what awaits in Baghdad's unforeseeable future. (An analogy: We're glad to have our Western states now, but the Mexican War of 1846-48 still looks slimy. In the 1880s, President Grant's memoirs recalled it as "one of the most unjust [wars] ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.") Torture and illegal wiretaps are always going to stain Bush's record, just as the Japanese internment stains FDR's and the Palmer raids stain Wilson's.

That's the failure pan. So what NATOs, Marshall Plans, Berlin Airlifts, China breakthroughs, or Voting Rights Acts sit in Bush's success pan? What accomplishments can future historians re-weigh to shift the balance in his favor?

I don't see any likely candidates. That's why I expect Bush to wind up more like Herbert Hoover than Harry Truman. Hoover's problem isn't just the Depression, it's that nobody remembers anything else about him. (Well, he also unleashed the Army on the unemployed veterans who marched on Washington. But that doesn't help.) So it shall be for George W. Bush. I'm feeling generous here at the end of his term, so maybe historians will conclude that some of his failures weren't as bad as we think. But not even historians will be able to manufacture successes for him.

Look at his fans' attempts to manufacture successes now. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes took a stab at it, and to me the result looks even more damning than most left-wing diatribes. Barnes authored one of those fawning Bush biographies just before his popularity collapsed in 2006, and has been one of Fox News' most reliably pro-Bush voices. In his recent article Bush's Achievements he constructs this top-ten list, which I have condensed and rephrased a little:
  1. He kept us from doing anything about global warming. And we should be grateful because "the supposed consensus of scientists on global warming has now collapsed."
  2. "Enhanced interrogation of terrorists", secret prisons, and "wireless" eavesdropping. Torture of suspects, secret prisons, and illegal spying on Americans without warrants -- removing Barnes' euphemisms -- are never going to be points of pride. These are accomplishments because they "saved American lives" -- maybe thousands of them, Barnes says. We know this because Bush and Cheney say so. But try to imagine somebody claiming the Japanese internment as one of Roosevelt's top ten accomplishments, because of all the sabotage the detainees didn't do. This is going to be a sad chapter in American history no matter how you spin it.
  3. "Rebuilding presidential authority" by doing the stuff mentioned in 2 completely on his own, plus defending Dick Cheney's right not to tell Congress who he consulted when forming his energy policy. Because the people's right not to know is the centerpiece of democracy.
  4. "Unswerving support of Israel" -- which has worked out so well. The optimism of the late Clinton years is a distant memory now. "Peace is no longer in sight," Israeli columnist Tom Segev wrote.
  5. No Child Left Behind. "The teachers' unions, school boards, the education establishment, conservatives adamant about local control of schools--they all loathed the measure and still do." Conservatives, for some perverse reason, believe that offending people is an achievement in itself. If NCLB accomplished something beyond pissing off anybody who cares about education, Barnes doesn't say.
  6. Democracy promotion. "Bush declared in his second inaugural address in 2005 that American foreign policy (at least his) would henceforth focus on promoting democracy around the world." And that's working out well too. When democracy becomes a euphemism for American invasion, real democracy suffers. As Thomas Carothers wrote in Foreign Affairs: "Some autocratic governments have won substantial public sympathy by arguing that opposition to Western democracy promotion is resistance not to democracy itself, but to American interventionism."
  7. The Medicare prescription drug benefit. Conservatives "have deep reservations" about it, but "if he hadn't acted, Democrats would have." And then we'd have a program designed to benefit patients rather than drug companies.
  8. Appointing John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court. This may be part of some future "accomplishment" like repealing Roe v. Wade, but in itself it's nothing. I can't remember any justice Truman appointed without looking it up.
  9. Strengthening relations with east Asian democracies without causing a rift with China. I may have to give Barnes this one.
  10. The Surge. Listing this is "a no-brainer" according to Barnes. Hmmm ... Here's the lesson for President Obama: Make a huge mess that achieves nothing at all, clean up part of it at enormous expense, and then list the partial clean-up as one of your great accomplishments. To historians, the Surge is going to be a phase in the Iraq War. If that war -- with its ultimate multi-trillion dollar cost and all the other problems it has spawned across the Middle East -- isn't a success, the Surge isn't a success.
That, according to one of his biggest fans, is what's sitting in W's success pan. He hasn't left historians much to work with. And that's a roundabout way of saying this: Bush is no Truman.

It's arguable that Bush leaves office even more unpopular than Truman was. Truman's approval ratings did dip as low as Bush's, but he ended his term at 32% compared to Bush's 22% according to CBS/NYT. Bush's approval is somewhat higher in a few other polls -- Gallup, the true apples-to-apples comparison to Truman's 32% -- has him at 34%. But the average of all polls pegs Bush's approval at 28% and still headed down. And Bush's America is more polarized than Truman's. No president has ever come close to W's disapproval numbers: He ends his term with 73% disapproving in the CBS/NYT poll.

The other common defense of Bush is: "He kept us safe." Except for that one time, anyway. Unlike Bush and Cheney, historians are likely to remember that W took office in January of 2001, not on 9/12. And even if we let Bush call a mulligan for 9/11, Fahreed Zakaria puts the claim in perspective:
post-Sept. 11, Bush has kept us safe. Just as Jacques Chirac kept France safe and Gerhard Schroeder kept Germany safe. Tony Blair, alas, failed this test. He did not keep Britain safe despite tough policies, an impressive set of counterterrorism agencies and much hard work. My point is that it may not tell us much that a leader presided over a period with no terrorist attacks.
Jane Hamsher finds this nugget in a recent White House press briefing. A silly reporter notes a RAND study saying that global terrorism is up and asks: "But shouldn't the anti-terrorism efforts reduce terrorism rather than increase it?" Orcinus chimes in with a litany of all the pre-9/11 warnings Bush ignored.
The Bushies have declared victory in Iraq so many times that I've lost count. They're doing it again now, probably so that they can blame any future calamities on Obama. It's just a matter of time before we hear: Bush had the war won, but then Obama came in and threw it all away. Sunday, William Kristol announced that "Bush's most impressive achievement ... was winning the war in Iraq." And Friday Charles Krauthammer wrote: "the war is all but over." In his farewell address, Bush himself described Afghanistan as "a young democracy fighting terror" and Iraq as "an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States."

It's Mission Accomplished all over again.

In reality, Afghanistan is a mess. Casualties are increasing. The central government is corrupt and controls only a small region around the capital. The countryside is owned either by local warlords or by a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq casualties are down, but no resolution of the basic conflict is on the horizon. Millions of Iraqis are still refugees, either internally or in Syria or Jordan. We've bribed Sunni leaders to stop shooting at us, but they're still armed (we're arming them) and still hostile to the central government. The Kurds still want both independence and the Kirkuk oil fields. This is a lull in the fighting -- similar to what occasionally breaks out between Israel and the Palestinians -- not anything describable as victory or peace.

The Torture Debate Won't Die
Twice this week, a responsible public figure dropped euphemisms like enhanced interrogation and used the word torture in a simple declarative sentence.
  • In his confirmation hearing, Obama's attorney general nominee Eric Holder said: "Waterboarding is torture." (For comparison, the only simple declarative sentence ever attributed to former Bush AG Alberto Gonzales was "I don't remember.")
  • Retired judge Susan Crawford, who is the convening authority for the Bush administration's military commissions, explained to the Washington Post why she dismissed war crimes charges against 9-11 conspirator Mohammed al-Qahtani last May: "We tortured Qahtani."
Crawford is not some crusading leftist. She was the Pentagon's general counsel under Ronald Reagan and its inspector general when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense. And she's not just opining or speculating; she had an important decision to make, and she made it based on her official judgment that we tortured somebody. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture," she said. No euphemisms. No long subordinate clauses full of excuses.

More and more, torture is becoming a fact of public discourse. It's getting harder and harder to pretend that the point is debatable.

That's significant because it starts a chain of dominoes falling. Bush officials have tried to pretend that the torture debate is a "policy disagreement", the kind of thing naturally changes from one administration to the next. You wouldn't send an official to jail because he preferred to stimulate the economy with tax cuts rather than spending increases, for example, or because she favored highways over mass transit systems. The Bush appointees who deny global warming may be wrong, and some of them may even have been dishonest about it, but they're not criminals.

Torture, on the other hand, is a crime. And it's against international law, so our torturers can be prosecuted by other countries if we drop the ball. So it's not just mistakes-were-made or bad-stuff-happened anymore. Crimes were committed. It's one thing to say that we shouldn't dig up old scandals, but it's much harder to claim that we shouldn't investigate known crimes. "For the Obama administration," write Slate's Dahlia LIthwick and Phillipe Sands, "the door to the do-nothing option is now closed."

And for once Bush and Cheney (especially Cheney) are making it hard to scapegoat a few bad apples. In a pro-Cheney editorial, the Wall Street Journal notes:
President Bush and Vice President Cheney have made it clear that the good people who carry out these sensitive programs have done so with the go-ahead from the White House.
If the do-nothing option really is closed off now, Obama hasn't acknowledged it yet. He told George Stephanopoulos:
I don't believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.
which brought this response from Paul Krugman:
I’m sorry, but if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.
Almost daily, Glenn Greenwald keeps up the pressure on Obama and Holder to uphold the law and prosecute Bush officials who broke it. My favorite of these columns compares the Nuremberg Principles with what Washington insiders are saying now.
the only way to argue that Bush officials shouldn't be held accountable for the crimes they ordered and authorized is to make clear that one does not actually subscribe to these core principles of Western justice. There's value in having our political establishment be forced to declare that so openly.
And that's what's starting to happen. The euphemisms are melting away, and we're being confronted with the core issue: Either the president is above the law or he isn't.

I have to confess, I get a creepy feeling whenever I picture George W. Bush in the witness stand, or in prison. And when I take a step back from that feeling, I realize that's precisely why we need to investigate, and ultimately to put him on trial: Even I have started to think of the president as being above the law.

End-of-the-Bush-Era Collections
David Letterman's final "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" montage. And SlateV collects all the great video Bushisms. "It'll take time to restore chaos."

ThinkProgress lists the 43 worst Bush appointees, because he couldn't possibly have done this much damage by himself.

Keith Olbermann boils eight years down to eight minutes. Video. Transcript.

The Washington Post reposts eight years of Bush-related opinion pieces.

Paul Krugman presents a telling graph of employment during the Bush years.

WaPo looks at OSHA under Bush. The first director started by telling the staff that they were working for America's employers now, not its workers. Everything after that was predictable.

MSNBC does a statistical comparison between the beginning of the Bush administration and the end. Most telling -- consumer confidence. Then: 115.7. Now: 38.0.

The Center for Public Integrity lists "125 systematic failures across the breadth of the federal government."

The Campaign for America's Future lists "ten reasons historians will hang" the Bush administration.

Short Notes
Just in time for the new administration, Republican House Whip Eric Cantor has discovered that deficits are bad, and that bipartisanship and government transparency are good. I figure he's been walking on the road to Damascus or sitting under an apple tree. Or maybe it came to him in the bath, and he ran naked down the corridors of the Capitol shouting, "Eureka!" It had to be something like that.

About 400,000 people were on the Capitol Mall for the beginning of the Inauguration festivities Sunday. It was one of the best days of Joan Walsh's life, and the Washington Post says that's just a fraction of the number that will be there by the time Obama is sworn in Tuesday. I like Obama and voted for him, but I hope he understands that the munchkins' joy had more to do with the Wicked Witch than with Dorothy.
The Economist's retrospective says: "Mr Bush was the most partisan president in living memory. He was content to be president of half the country—a leader who fused his roles of head of state and leader of his party."

Conservative blogger John Cole recalls how "thrilled" and "excited" he was eight years ago. "Now, today, I am so disgusted with the Republican party that I don’t think I will be able to vote for a national Republican for twenty years."
CNN's Campbell Brown had the best response to Bush's incredible defense (in his final press conference) of his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina. She displayed less outrage than some, but she was very firm: "It is impossible to challenge what so many of us witnessed first hand, what the entire country witnessed through the images on our television screens day and night. New Orleans was a city that for a time was abandoned by the government."
Now that California has protected its children from same-sex marriage, what about divorce? A satirical video recycles the Prop 8 rhetoric.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Wrath and Righteousness

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
-- James 1:19-20
In This Week's Sift:

Gaza: When the Center Fails
In reading about Gaza this last week, I've noticed that three stories practically write themselves:
  • The Israeli government is evil, and everything would be fine if it just behaved. Naomi Klein's article in The Nation proposes nonviolent strategies: Boycott, Divest, Sanction, but is based on the idea that the fault is clear. "Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade."
  • Hamas is evil, and everything would be fine if it just behaved. In the US this is the establishment point of view (see the Senate's resolution), so it's easy to find extreme examples: According to Saul Singer at PostGlobal, the Israeli soldiers in Gaza "are doing a service for humanity."
  • The whole situation is tragic, it's too complicated to solve, and all good people can do is wring their hands helplessly.
If you want to read any of those three article-types, you'll have no trouble finding one. But I'd like to approach the situation from a different angle. Back in 2004 I wrote Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz, which made it to the front page of DailyKos and drew a lot of comment. Its point: Many of the things done by terrorists (and corresponding anti-terrorist extremists) may look crazy, but they are actually part of a coherent strategy. To understand that strategy you need to grasp one key idea: If you're an extremist, your first enemy isn't the extremist of the opposite side, it's the moderate of your own side. Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center.

Let me repeat that, because it takes a while to sink in: Opposing extremists are actually allies in a battle against the center. They'll fight each other in the second round, after the center is eliminated.

Now, I'm not saying that opposing extremists actually conspire. They don't need to. But those cycles of attack-and-reprisal that look insane and counterproductive are in fact very productive, if the purpose is to derail any possible compromise and make the center untenable.

To see what an untenable center looks like, you just need to drop in on any online discussion of Gaza. Take just about any article on Gaza (say, this one) and look at the comments. Commenters who express compassion for the victims on both sides are either ignored or quickly shouted down. People who favor one side but try to understand the other are easily driven to extreme positions they never intended to sign their names to. You just have to project the opposite extreme onto them and watch them wriggle: Are they saying that Jews should just surrender and wait for another Holocaust? Are they saying that Palestinian civilians don't count, and that Israel can kill any number of them if one or two Jews have died? And what about the Munich Olympics or the Sabra and Shatila massacre or any of a hundred unforgivable acts by either side in the last sixty (or six hundred) years?

In the current climate you need a Gandhi-like inner harmony to express a genuine desire for a just peace and hold that position in an open discussion. You're balancing a pencil on its tip. Extreme positions, on the other hand, are easy to maintain. My side just wants to live in peace, but the other side wants to annihilate us, imprison us, or drive us from our homes. Every nasty thing we have done was forced on us by other side. We had no choice.

Eboo Patel, an American Muslim whose family is from India, has a good article at On Faith. Patel is the founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization devoted to fostering discussions among young people of all religions. (His book Acts of Faith is a very good spiritual-journey memoir. I discussed him on a different blog last summer.) His article describes two sets of rules: (1) the "Status Quo Rules" for discussing the Israel/Palestine conflict; and (2) the "Solution Rules".

The Status Quo Rules would have you frame the current situation, whatever it is, within your side's narrative (the one where you want peace, but the other side forces conflict on you). You'd be happy to have a person from the other side come and validate your narrative -- you'd showcase an anti-invasion Jew at your pro-Palestinian rally or an anti-Hamas Palestinian at your pro-Israel rally -- but you aren't interested in talking to anybody on the other side who doesn't already agree with you.

The Solution Rules start here: "Rule 1. Make your first phone calls to the people who disagree with you on the current situation, but who agree with you on the basic outlines of a long-term solution - two states, with security and dignity for all."

What Patel is talking about is rebuilding the center. And I think his tactic is exactly right: The polarizing pattern involves burying the center in details and specifics: this horrible event, that horrible event -- what is the right response to that? do nothing? If you frame the current problem narrowly enough (and write off any larger solution as pie-in-the-sky), violence will solve it. Take that Saul Singer article I mentioned above. To him, the problem is the rockets hitting Israel. Those rockets are smuggled into Gaza. Hamas fires them. Iran pays for them. Violence can solve all that: Israeli soldiers can seize the rockets and destroy the smuggler's tunnels. They can kill the leaders and soldiers of Hamas. And if the United States will add its weight to the scale, the government of Iran can be overthrown. End of problem.

Except of course that there's a larger problem than rockets. Large numbers of Palestinians would rather die and kill than accept the future that Israel is willing to offer them. As long as that is true, someone will lead them and someone will arm them. Annihilating the leadership of Hamas or overthrowing the mullahs in Tehran does nothing to solve that problem, and in fact makes it worse. The number of Palestinians willing to die or kill has undoubtedly gone up in these last few weeks.

Likewise in Israel, many believe they must kill or be killed, destroy other people's homes or lose their own. Hamas and Hezbollah do nothing to decrease their number. Killing one such person -- or the mother or child of such a person -- creates a hundred more.

That's the larger problem, and we can't let ourselves lose sight of it. Violence and polarizing rhetoric isn't solving it. In the long view, the strategy of both sides is failing: Israel is not becoming more secure and Palestinians are not achieving a better life. Ultimately, there is only one violent solution: ethnic cleansing, backed up with the threat of genocide. (Or, if you can get the right weapons, you can go straight to genocide.) The point of attack-and-reprisal is to make that solution palatable to ordinary people, by convincing them that there is no other choice.

The struggle to maintain the center is all about maintaining a larger view, never forgetting that any solution other than ethnic cleansing eventually depends on the moderates of each side figuring out how to live in peace. The "solution" of every smaller problem needs to be measured against that ultimate necessity. It's easy to get lost in the details of who-killed-who, and to pretend that we don't know where the violent path goes.

But we do know.

The Ever-Increasing Number of Bogus Trends
Over at Slate, Jack Shafer has started a worthwhile series: The Bogus Trend of the Week.

Trend might be the most abused word in journalism. To write a typical trend-story, all you really need is one event to serve as an example, a just-so story about why this might happen a lot these days, and then some hand-wringing (or hopeful, if the trend is positive) quotes from people who claim to be be affected.

The tell-tale mark of a bogus trend story is the absence of meaningful statistics. As any fan of the TV series Numbers knows, we live in such a measured and quantified society that any trend worth writing about has to produce some statistics somewhere. We are snowed under by statistics. To steal an image from baseball stat-guru Bill James, believing in an important trend that produces no numbers is like believing that elephants have been dancing in that snow without leaving tracks.

Anyway, here are two samples of Shafer's bogus trends:
So far the bogus trends haven't been earth-shakers, but Shafer may help you join the trend towards increased reader-and-viewer skepticism regarding stories the media creates out of nothing.

Hypocrisy Watch: John Yoo's New Opinions on Executive Power
You had to wonder how long it would take for Bush-administration officials to flip from arguing for the supremacy of the Republican executive branch to sounding the alarm about the dangers of an imperial Democratic presidency. I was naive enough to think they'd wait until the inauguration. But no.

In a January 4 NYT op-ed, John Bolton and John Yoo write that we should "strike the proper balance between the executive and legislative branches" by making sure that any international agreements Obama makes go through the formal treaty process, requiring a 2/3 ratification by the Senate -- a supermajority that allows any 34 of the 41 Republican senators to block whatever they don't like.
The Constitution’s Treaty Clause has long been seen, rightly, as a bulwark against presidential inclinations to lock the United States into unwise foreign commitments.
If Yoo ever reminded President Bush about the constitutional limits on presidential power, the incident was not recorded. Instead, he wrote the famous torture memos, in which he argued that a treaty duly signed by the United States and ratified by the Senate -- the Convention Against Torture (CAT) -- was essentially meaningless. Under his constitutional power as commander-in-chief, Yoo claimed, the president can order torture without notifying either the Senate or the countries we made the treaty with.
Any presidential decision to order interrogations methods that are inconsistent with CAT would amount to a suspension or termination of those treaty provisions.
But the president was a Republican then, so the Constitution meant something completely different. Now Bolton and Yoo worry that Obama will commit the US to the Kyoto agreements against global warming, to the International Criminal Court, or to other agreements that subordinate America to international law. (Yoo ought to worry. If the US were subject to the ICC, he could find himself on trial there for his role in the Bush administration's war crimes. It's shameful that the Times presents Yoo as if he were a disinterested observer when he clearly is not.) Obama might attempt this purely by executive agreement, or by executive agreement supported by a majority-vote congressional resolution rather than a 2/3 Senate ratification.

This has been done in the past by Republican presidents, or by Democrats with Republican support (like Bill Clinton and the NAFTA agreement). But of course there's a difference:
It is true that some multinational economic agreements, like Bretton Woods, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the North American Free Trade Agreement, went into effect after approval by majorities of Congress rather than two-thirds of the Senate. But international agreements that go beyond the rules of international trade and finance — that involve significant national-security commitments, or that purport to delegate lawmaking and enforcement functions to international organizations, or that could fundamentally alter the American constitutional system of individual rights — should receive the intense scrutiny of the treaty process, regardless of their policy merits.
A few objections:
  1. The Constitution never mentions a distinction between economic and national-security agreements.
  2. Our trade agreements surrender sovereignty to international organizations (like the WTO) just as much as national-security agreements do.
  3. The most outrageous abrogation of Congress' role in treaties -- the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) that the Bush adminstration just signed with Iraq -- goes completely unmentioned. The SOFA required extensive parliamentary debate in Baghdad. But (according to former Reagan deputy attorney general Bruce Fein)
Bush promulgated the SOFA unilaterally as an executive agreement. He neither sought nor received congressional ratification. ... The enormously important international military pact was a unilateral diktat of the president, similar to the treaty-making power of British monarchs circa 1776.
But never mind. The SOFA happened before Obama's historical inauguration, which will completely change the meaning of the Constitution -- for some people, anyway.

Consequences of Blowing (or not Blowing) the Whistle
Dianne Feinstein got a lot of attention by announcing that Obama didn't consult her before nominating Leon Panetta to head the CIA, and that she'd rather have an intelligence professional for the job.

Other than Rachel Maddow, the mainstream media did a bad job of presenting the subtext of this conflict: Feinstein, like Jay Rockefeller and some other high-ranking Democrats, is tainted by the the Bush administration's crimes. They didn't torture anybody or tap any phones, but as members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, they got enough information to know that illegal things were happening.

Nobody was in a better position to blow the whistle. Yes, the programs were classified, but Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution forbids prosecuting members of Congress for anything they say on the floor: "for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place." But they did nothing. They went along. That's why DiFi and Jello Jay (nicknames I didn't make up) want the CIA headed by "an intelligence professional" -- someone who is similarly tainted, in other words.

One reason Dick Cheney is so certain he'll never be brought to justice is that a full accounting of the last eight years would make a lot of Democrats look bad as well. Cheney et al assume there will be a gentlemen's agreement not to look under too many rocks. In other words, mistakes were made, but no purpose would be served by spelling out what those mistakes were or who made them. (A Wall Street Journal editorial lays out this you'll-go-down-with-us case.)

That's a popular point of view in the establishment Village. Whether or not such a gentlemen's agreement will stick is going to be one of the defining conflicts of the Obama administration. Virtually by definition, most of that conflict is going to take place out of the spotlight.

In contrast to the Feinsteins and Rockefellers, some people with a lot more at risk really did blow the whistle, and they're paying the price. Newsweek tells the story of Thomas Tamm, the guy who told the New York Times about warrantless wiretapping.
The FBI has pursued him relentlessly for the past two and a half years. Agents have raided his house, hauled away personal possessions and grilled his wife, a teenage daughter and a grown son. More recently, they've been questioning Tamm's friends and associates about nearly every aspect of his life. Tamm has resisted pressure to plead to a felony for divulging classified information. But he is living under a pall, never sure if or when federal agents might arrest him.
Glenn Greenwald comments at length. Fellow whistle-blower Jesselyn Radack wonders
how many taxpayer dollars have been spent "investigating" me, Tom Tamm, Sibel Edmonds and so many others who were simply trying to do their jobs, encountered gross wrongdoing, tried to correct it, and then were crucified with Javert investigations, criminal probes, professional assassination, character smears, astronomical legal bills, and the attendant health problems and family troubles that few could avoid under such circumstances.

Short Notes
The Gaza issue had me cruising a bunch of Jewish and Muslim web sites I don't usually visit, and as a result I found some amusing links I wouldn't usually find. Like this report from about a Santa Monica synagogue trying (but failing) to break the Guinness record for simultaneous dreidel-spinning. That near-historic event caused the Bintel Blog to link to one of the few Tom Lehrer songs I'd never heard: Hanukkah in Santa Monica.
Two of my favorite TV people: Jon Stewart interviews Rachel Maddow.

While recovering from her hysterectomy, an evangelical Democrat takes time out to read Sarah Palin the riot act about claiming sexism and classism.

More next week in my Bush retrospective, but the Center for Public Integrity's "Broken Government" project is worth a shout out.

The Detroit Auto Show showcases electric cars and hybrids due for introduction in 2009 or 2010.

In a NYT op-ed, Bush advisor N. Gregory Mankiw argued the exact opposite of the Economic Policy Institute numbers I quoted last week. He claimed that a dollar of tax cuts provides about twice the economic stimulus of a dollar of government spending.

I was skeptical, but I was too lazy to chase the links and figure out if he was presenting the research honestly. Nate Silver was less lazy, and guess what? Mankiw didn't present the research honestly. The paper he referenced (co-authored by Obama advisor Christina Romer) was not talking about a tax cut as a counter-cyclical stimulus, but about a tax cut under different circumstances entirely. And then Nate answered Mankiw's response.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Daydreams of Prosperity

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
-- Lawrence of Arabia
In This Week's Sift:
  • What's Really Stimulating? The outline of Obama's stimulus package is coming out, with more tax cuts than anyone expected. Whether that's good or bad, it says something about his political approach.
  • The Next Time You're in the Book Store ... look at Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough. Geoffrey Canada wants to turn one Harlem neighborhood into an example that will permanently change the debate about education and poverty.
  • Three Democratic Senate Votes Off the Table. What's going on with the Minnesota, Illinois, and New York senate seats?
  • Short Notes. Robin Hood meets Mission Impossible. Has Alberto Gonzales gotten his memory back? Slate's top political videos of 2008. The Golden Dukes spotlight the year's corrupt elite. And more.

What's Really Stimulating?
Obama's stimulus package is starting to take shape, and with it the kind of politics he's planning to practice. Apparently, he really is planning to govern from the center. So the stimulus package will provide an early test of Republican intentions: Is bipartisanship possible or not?

Here's the outline: The stimulus will be a two-year proposal with a total cost in the neighborhood of $700 billion, split into $400 of spending and $300 of tax cuts. The tax cuts will be about $200 billion for individuals and $100 billion for businesses. In other words, almost half of the plan is what conservatives claim they want a stimulus to be: tax cuts.

This is worrying the heck out of a lot of liberals, who believe that Republicans will only see this proposal as a sign of weakness. Paul Krugman writes:
Look, Republicans are not going to come on board. Make 40% of the package tax cuts, they’ll demand 100%. Then they’ll start the thing about how you can’t cut taxes on people who don’t pay taxes (with only income taxes counting, of course) and demand that the plan focus on the affluent.
Maybe, maybe not. The plan is also going to be a test of how well Democrats can use their power to shape the public discussion. The Democratic leadership in Congress will determine which proposals come up for a vote, so Republicans could find themselves with the kind of choice that Democrats remember well: They're either for the bill being voted on, or they're for doing nothing.

In addition to sheer political power, Democrats have economic common sense on their side: Cutting taxes for the wealthy is the worst form of stimulus, because the wealthy are already buying what they want to buy. The Economic Policy Institute has crunched the numbers: Each dollar of an across-the-board tax cut yields $1.02 of stimulus, various cuts targeted at the wealthy yield a mere 30-38 cents, and a dollar of additional food stamps yields $1.73. (Numbers can be over $1 because each dollar gets passed on: By spending your food stamp money, you give the grocer more money to spend, and so on.)

So if Republicans try to block the plan, here's a possible Obama counter-message: "In spite of every attempt to compromise with them, Republicans are standing against this much-needed stimulus plan because they are holding out for a plan that won't create jobs, but will shovel more money towards their wealthy special interests."

But that leads to this question: If what the Republicans want won't work, why compromise with them at all? Isn't Obama compromising the country's interests for political reasons? Not exactly, for two reasons.

(1) Obama's tax cuts are going to be different than Bush's tax cuts. Bush cut taxes mainly for the wealthy, while Obama wants to focus them on people making less that $200,000 a year. (The ineffectiveness of Bush's tax cuts as a stimulus was a roundabout cause of the housing bubble. Responsibility for getting us out of the 2001 recession fell to the Fed, which had to cut interest rates almost to zero.) Obama's business tax cuts (according to the Wall Street Journal) would not be permanent cuts in the tax rates, but rather a temporary provision that would let businesses use current losses to offset past profits.

(2) The stimulus that the economy needs may be bigger than what the government can spend effectively. There are lots of bridges that need replacing, but that doesn't mean we have ready-to-go designs for replacing them all. Krugman again:
We need stimulus fast, and there’s a limited supply of “shovel-ready” projects that can be started soon enough to deliver an economic boost any time soon. ... [So] there’s a reasonable economic case for including a significant amount of tax cuts in the package, mainly in year one.
If Obama relies too much on infrastructure spending, he'll have to fund boondoggle projects just to get the numbers up. And nothing would undo public support for a New New Deal faster than egregious examples of "wasteful government spending".

Whenever the wasteful-government-spending meme raises its head, it will be worthwhile to point out how much of the New Deal turned out to be wise public investment. Rural electrification, for example. And the town where I grew up is still using the stadium the WPA built.

I don't often agree with Reagan economic advisor Martin Feldstein, but he's right about this: One non-wasteful stimulus is for the government to buy stuff now that it will have to buy eventually anyway. "Replacing the supplies that have been depleted by the military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan is a good example of something that might be postponed but that should instead be done quickly. The same is true for replacing the military equipment that has been subject to excessive wear and tear."

Another piece of Obama's plan is to help state and local governments, whose falling revenue is forcing them to cut spending at the worst possible time. Just when governments should be looking for ways to create new jobs, they have to lay off people who are already productively employed.

Over Christmas I was talking to my sister, who is a public school teacher in Tennessee. Her district is responding to a revenue shortfall by cutting back on teachers. (First the carrot of early retirement, with the threat of lay-offs later on.) There are also cut-backs at the state universities -- not because there are fewer students, or because Tennesseans have decided they don't really need college educations, but because Tennessee has to balance its budget. Similar things are happening all over the country, and federal aid can stop it.

The Next Time You're in the Book Store ...
... look at Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough.

One way to guess what Obama will do is to look at the people he admires. One is Van Jones, whose book The Green Collar Economy I reviewed a couple Sifts ago. Another is Geoffrey Canada, who created and leads an ambitious collection of education and anti-poverty projects called the Harlem Children's Zone.

The HCZ comes from Canada's frustration with well-intentioned projects whose results are unclear. You do something that sounds good, like giving poor children pre-school training or homework help or a safe place to go after school, and you wind up with some anecdotes about kids that seemed to make progress for a while. But long-term, did you actually help them succeed in life? (Maybe, maybe not. Pre-school programs, for example, can bring disadvantaged kids up to average as they enter grade school. But the effect fades. They start falling back again as soon as the program ends.) If you did help a few specific kids, did you actually change the community statistics? The ambitious, attentive parents -- the ones whose kids were most likely to succeed without you -- are also the ones most likely to take advantage of whatever programs you offer.

So Canada picked one poor neighborhood in Harlem and launched a long-term project with a goal so audacious that there will be no doubt whether it succeeded or failed: He wants every child born in that neighborhood to graduate from college.

What's he going to do to make that happen? Whatever it takes.

The reason he can even imagine such a goal (in addition to having impressed some wealthy backers) is that he believes we're starting to understand the root disadvantage that poor children have, the disadvantage that creates those persistent IQ-score gaps between poor children and rich ones, and between blacks and whites. For years, conservatives (see The Bell Curve) have pointed to those gaps as evidence that Harlem's children are just inferior; they fail not because of racism or classism or social neglect, but because they just don't have talent. Liberals, on the other hand, haven't wanted to deal with those IQ gaps at all. The gaps are increasingly hard to explain away as testing bias. (Any testing service that could create a truly race-and-class neutral test would own the market, but they can't come up with one.) But calling any attention to them is "blaming the victim" and letting society off the hook.

Chapter 2 of Tough's book is a history of this debate about why people are poor, and about the failure of many well-intentioned efforts to help them. (Just giving them money, for example, makes them less poor as long as you keep giving it to them, but doesn't integrate them into the productive economy. Their kids grow up with no model of how to succeed.) Most of the chapter is depressing, but it ends with some fascinating recent research into how the brain develops and the difference in the typical home environments of poor children and professional-class children.
By age three, Hart and Risley concluded, welfare children would have heard 10 million words addressed to them, on average, and professional children would have heard more than 30 million. ... [T]he average professional child would hear about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For welfare children, the ratio was reversed: they would hear, on average, about 80,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements. ... [T]he children from wealthy families were exposed to millions of extra words on top of [the necessities that all children heard], and those words tended to be more varied and rich. As conversation moved beyond simple instructions, it blossomed into discussions of the past and future, of feelings, of abstractions, of the way one thing causes another -- all of which stimulated intellectual development in a way that "Put that down" or "Finish your peas" never could.
What's more, these ideas about development are commonplace among professional-class parents, but virtually unknown in the ghetto. So to Canada, his first move is obvious: His people scour the Zone for expecting parents (because he wants everybody, not just the self-selected volunteers) and conjole them, bribe them, badger them, and solve whatever problems keep them from attending "Baby College" -- a series of classes that teach parents how to develop their children's brains and provide them with free enriching toys and books.

Then there's the pre-school program, which attempts to make up for language-poor home environments (and has a much easier job if Baby College reduces the number of language-poor home environments). But Canada knows that pre-school effects fade after the program ends -- so what if the program never ends? He starts a charter school.

The bulk of the book describes the first four years of the charter school, which he starts in two 100-student chunks: a kindergarten and a sixth-grade class, with the idea of expanding each chunk one grade a year. The two chunks inadvertently demonstrate the two models of social work: what Canada calls the "superhero" model, where one-by-one you try to save kids who are failing, and the "conveyor belt" model, where you create a system for general success. In Canada's head, he knows the conveyor belt is the right solution. But in his heart he's a superhero, and he can't offer nothing to the older kids who already have six years of bad habits.

After four years, the elementary school seems on its way to success. Last year, 70% of its third-graders scored at or above grade-level in the state's reading tests -- not quite wealthy-suburb numbers, but close -- and an amazing 95% are at or above grade level in math. And these are kids chosen by lottery from inner-city Harlem, not selected for their potential.

But the middle school has been a struggle. In particular, its test results (Canada insists on measuring things and taking the results seriously rather than justifying his program on anecdotal or intangible results) have suffered from the comparison with another Harlem charter school run according to the KIPP model. But the contrast between the two is interesting. KIPP is quick to throw out students who aren't with the program and fosters an elite attitude -- their students are the few who are going to get out of the ghetto. Canada is looking to change Harlem, not help a few kids escape it. The kids force him into becoming a disciplinarian, but the ultimate discipline -- expulsion -- is a place he doesn't want to go.

Probably Canada's middle school is doing some good, though it won't really take off until his elementary-school kids get there. But ultimately, if he completes his conveyor belt and his third-graders get into good colleges just like the kids in Beverly Hills, Canada will have permanently changed the debate about poverty in America. People will continue to argue about what is most effective and how much we want to spend, but no one will be able to say that there's nothing we can do.

Last month Canada showed up on Stephen Colbert's show.

Three Democratic Senate Votes Off the Table
Obama's stimulus package is going to need every vote it can get in the Senate, but at least three seats are remaining unfilled: Minnesota's, Illinois', and New York's.

In Minnesota, Democrat Al Franken has won the recount. Back when the initial election-night returns showed him with a narrow lead, Republican Norm Coleman urged Franken to waive the automatic recount called for by Minnesota law, saying:
I would step back. I just think the need for the healing process is so important.
So, is Coleman "stepping back" now that the shoe is on the other foot? Don't be silly. Coleman's lawyer says:
We are prepared to go forward and take whatever legal action is necessary to remedy this artificial lead.
The Republicans in the Senate can keep Franken from taking his seat during the court challenges, if they unite in a filibuster. Harry Reid is starting to apply pressure in the opposite direction: "I would hope now that it is clear he lost, that Senator Coleman follow his own advice and not subject the people of Minnesota to a costly legal battle."

In Illinois, Democrats are shooting themselves in the foot for bad reasons. Yes, everyone wishes Governor Blagojevitch would just go away and let his successor name Obama's replacement in the Senate, but there is a legal reality here: Unless and until the legislature impeaches him, Blagojevitch is still governor, and the 17th amendment gives governors the right to fill empty senate seats until the legislature authorizes a special election. He named Roland Burris, a former state attorney general who isn't an obviously bad choice.

The Senate should let Burris take his seat. The whole situation looks bad, but sometimes the law forces you to do things you'd rather not do. We've just had eight years of an administration that interpreted the law to suit its own desires, and that kind of thinking needs to stop.

In New York, nothing is stopping Governor Patterson from naming somebody to fill Hillary Clinton's seat, and presumably he will soon. On both sides, the controversey over whether he should appoint Caroline Kennedy seems over-blown. There's a long history of sentimental appointments to keep seats warm until an election -- widows replacing their deceased husbands, for example -- and it's never been this big a deal before. Particulary ridiculous are the comparisons between Kennedy and Sarah Palin. By herself, a junior senator can do remarkably little harm, but Palin would have been in line for the presidency.

Short Notes
The most subversive TV show I've seen in a while is TNT's Leverage. (Windows users can watch episodes online. Otherwise it's on Tuesdays at 10.) It's an entertaining mix of Robin Hood and Mission Impossible. The premise: Corporations so dominate our system that sometimes you have to break the law to get justice. So the Leverage Group's "partners" are high-tech thieves and its "clients" are ordinary people who have been screwed by corporations. Each episode is an elaborate operation that sets something right. Along the way you usually learn something about actual corporate wrong-doing. (The group's professional criminals are often appalled by what legitimate businesspeople get away with.) But the clients pay nothing. "Our business model is based on an alternate revenue stream," explains the group's leader (played by oscar-winner Timothy Hutton).

Alberto Gonzales is writing a book "to set the record straight." I wonder if he has remembered all the things he couldn't remember when Congress started asking questions. Meanwhile, if I were Gonzales I'd be quietly urging Dick Cheney to shut-the-bleep-up before we all wind up in front of a war crimes tribunal.

Juan Cole speculates that the Bush administration's persistent lies about Iraq have made Americans more skeptical about Israel's claims in Gaza.
Yeah, Christmas really was that bad.

TPM has announced the 2008 Golden Duke Awards, presented each year "in recognition great accomplishments in muckiness including acts of venal corruption, outstanding self-inflicted losses of dignity, crimes against the republic, bribery, exposed hypocrisy and generally
malevolent governance."

Slate counts down 2008's top 20 political video moments.

If you're upset that Rick Warren is doing the invocation at Obama's inauguration, imagine how God feels.
The NYT has a depressing report on the state of corruption in Afghanistan. In 2008, 155 Americans died defending this Afghan government -- breaking 2007's record 117.

Harper's Index looks back at the Bush years. Number of signing statements: 1069. Appointees regulating industries they used to lobby for: at least 98.

Here's the extent to which the Republicans still don't get it about race. It's not just that a candidate for party chairman would distribute a CD including "Barack the Magic Negro." It's that people would defend him for doing it.