Monday, May 9, 2011

Surviving the Enemy

There are those in our own country too, who today speak of the protection of country, of survival. A decision must be made. In the life of every nation, at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat, then it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival on what is expedient, to look the other way. Only ... the answer to that is: Survival as what?

-- Spencer Tracy as Judge Dan Haywood,
Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Death of the Bogeyman. If you want to know how I feel about killing Osama bin Laden, you'll have to specify whether we're talking about the Saudi billionaire's son or the mythic Master of Evil.
  • The View From Peru. Hernando de Soto has long been the Right's favorite third-world economist. But I wonder how long that can last, now that he has started applying his theories to us instead of them.
  • Short Notes. Exporting democracy has caused a shortage. Maddow's amazing interview. The Daily Show's royal wedding coverage. A congressional candidate's entire web site gets spoofed. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. Want to get a letter to the editor published? Here's how I do it.

The Death of the Bogeyman

Every now and then, a real person becomes a fictional character. It happens. A nice-looking girl named Norma Jean turns into the sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. Four guys from Liverpool become the greatest rock stars ever.

Some people say mythic or legendary instead of fictional, but it comes down to the same thing: Your real life gets swamped under the stories about you.

I'm told such people continue to be real, even after they turn fictional. But I can't say for sure. I assume you could have sat around the pool with Marilyn and worked on your tans together. It might still be possible to have Paul or Ringo over to play some Beatles Rock Band. But personally, the only rock stars or Hollywood goddesses I have ever known were fictional.

The only Osama bin Laden I ever knew was fictional too. Once, I'm told, he was just a rich kid from Saudi Arabia. But I never met that guy. Long ago he became the fictional Master of Evil, the God of Terror who stalked my country, the Bogeyman.

Now he's dead.

If you want to know how I feel about that, you'll have to specify whether we're talking about the Saudi rich kid or the Bogeyman. The real Saudi guy … well, I believe in human rights, and I suspect his DNA tests as human. So I would rather we had put him on trial, because that's the American way.

But like everybody else, I'm glad the Bogeyman is dead. How could I not be? Some of my friends found it unseemly to celebrate Bin Laden's death, but I didn't. The Death of the Bogeyman is one of the great old holidays. It doesn't get celebrated every year, like the Birth of the Savior does, but that's all the more reason to do it up right.

Just remember, though: The Bogeyman always reincarnates. I mean, Hitler died. So did Stalin and Mao. Pol Pot. Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam Hussein. Evil just kept right on rolling. President Bush pledged to "rid the world of evil-doers", but (short of annihilating the human race) that's not going to happen. The Bogeyman will reincarnate. Soon, probably.

Consequences. Eliminating the Bogeyman always has unexpected effects. Saddam's capture made the war harder for America, not easier. Until then, Iraqis worried that Saddam would come back if the U. S. failed. But with Saddam out of the picture, Iraqis could focus on a new question: Why is my country full of foreign infidels? The U.S. lost 486 soldiers in 2003, the year that ended in Saddam's capture. But we lost more than 800 soldiers every year from 2004 to 2007.

Many people are predicting a similarly perverse effect of bin Laden's death: Support for the Afghanistan War will dry up. So although President Obama has seen a medium-sized jump in his popularity this week, the pendulum could swing against him if he doesn't start extricating us from Afghanistan, especially if his 2012 opponent can promote a vague Nixon-like peace-with-honor plan.

Alternet's Adele Stan speculates that Bin Laden's killing in Abbottabad might further destabilize Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.

The operational consequences for Al Qaeda are probably small. Communicating only by monthly courier, Bin Laden couldn't have been a hands-on leader. So his significance to Al Qaeda must also have been largely as a fictional character -- the Man America Can't Catch, maybe because Allah hides him. His death will mostly just hurt their recruitment and morale.

New Era? Personally, I hope Bin Laden's death marks the end of the nasty and dismal era that began with 9-11. I think we all feel the change, but no one knows quite what it means yet. We'll be arguing about it at least through the 2012 elections.

We have an opportunity now to re-open a lot of conversations: Guantanamo, torture, warrantless wiretaps, and the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. If we play our cards right, those things could join the Fugitive Slave Act, the Japanese internment, and mutually assured destruction as relics of the bad old days, when we were all crazy.

It can be a new era for the Muslim world as well. The revolutions of the last few months had nothing to do with Al Qaeda, and Bin Laden posters were nowhere to be seen during the Cairo demonstrations. Bin Laden's big idea was that the dictatorships of the Middle East could not be toppled one-by-one as long as America stood behind them. His strategy was to go after America first, making us yank our hands out of the backs of our pseudo-Muslim puppets. That view seems irrelevant now.

No one can say exactly how things are going to play out in Egypt or Tunisia or Yemen or even Syria. But none of those stories fit into the Bush vs. Bin Laden narrative of the last decade. I never liked that narrative, so I have hopes for the new one.

I took this opportunity to review Terrorist Strategy 101: a Quiz, which was one of my first blog posts to get any attention. (It was on the front page of Daily Kos shortly after the 2004 elections.) While a few of the predictions are off-base, I think the logic holds up pretty well.

One of the stranger ideas to float around in right-wing circles is that we should have desecrated Bin Laden's body.

On the other side, some claim burial at sea is not in accordance with sharia, though others note various exceptions that might apply to Bin Laden.

BTW, I notice that Muslims say "sharia" or "Islamic law" while anti-Muslims say "sharia law". I don't know whether "sharia law' is one of those intentionally offensive phrases like "Democrat Party" or just a clueless redundancy like "Rio Grande River". If you know, comment on the blog or send me email.

A possible replacement Bogeyman is running into trouble. The Guardian reports:

Close allies of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being "magicians" and invoking djinns (spirits).

Witch trials -- it looks like the modernization of Iran has reached the 17th century.

Disinformation watch. Did torture produce the information that found Bin Laden? Nope, and nope, and again nope. Did the Dalai Lama really say that killing Bin Laden was OK? No, he didn't. Was Rush Limbaugh serious when he said, "Thank God for President Obama"? No, he wasn't.

On the Fox Business channel, waterboarding is a big joke.

Abbottabad turns out to fit perfectly into the Muppet Show theme song.

Jon Stewart's reaction: "Abbottabad sounds like the name most New Yorkers would have invented for the fictional place they would have loved to kill Bin Laden."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. If Bin Laden had been captured rather than killed, we'd be hearing about how wimpy Obama is. But now John Yoo says killing Bin Laden was wimpy -- Obama should have tortured him for intelligence.

I think Osama fantasized for a decade about staying true to Allah while being tortured for intelligence. For him, it would have been better than 72 virgins.

Some of the same people who thought Bush's mission-accomplished stunt was brilliant also think that Obama has "pounded his chest too much" about Bin Laden. Like gorillas do, I guess.

You'd think Obama would know: Black heroes are supposed to be humble like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson, not uppity like Jack Johnson and Muhammed Ali.

The View From Peru

Once in a while, it helps to go outside the polarized American system of Left/Right, Republican/Democrat, and get a view from somebody who on occasion will either please or annoy either side -- like the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto.

De Soto's book The Mystery of Capital is an icon among conservatives, because it outlines a capitalistic path for third-world development, one that focuses on establishing the rule of law and the transparency of markets. If you've ever said, "They don't need our money, they need to follow our example", then you're likely to be a de Soto fan. That's why he won prizes named after Barry Goldwater and Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.

But de Soto has one decided drawback as a right-wing hero: He really means it. De Soto-ism is not just a compassionate veneer to slap onto a policy of plutocratic class warfare. He really wants a legal/economic system that is lawful and transparent. What's more, he believes that the first world would do well to practice what it preaches to the third world.

So de Soto's view of the 2008 economic collapse is not likely to win him another Friedman award.

One basic idea runs through all de Soto's writings: Markets work well when everybody knows what they're buying and selling, but they work badly when doubts creep in. (Maybe what you're buying doesn't really exist, maybe the guy selling it to you doesn't really own it, maybe owning the thing entails drawbacks and restrictions you don't know about, and so on.) When there is no trustworthy way to dispel such doubts, even an honest seller can't get what his property is worth. And sometimes doubt gets so extreme that the market just breaks down, the way credit markets broke down in 2008.

When he looks at third-world poverty through this lens (in The Mystery of Capital), de Soto sees that a lot of the urban poor are not destitute, but everything they own or control is either off the books or otherwise ambiguous. They can use it, but they can't take it to a bank and get a loan. So they can't start family businesses or send their kids to college, or do any of the other things that people with recognized property do. De Soto wants to get poor people's unofficial property into a lawful transparent system, so that they can use it as capital.

But when he turns that lens to the 2008 financial collapse, de Soto sees that the first world had the kind of system he wants for Latin American, until we threw it away by de-regulating.

It is the business of government, de Soto argues, to create and enforce standards that allow people to know what they're buying. The great achievement of the West was the creation of "public memory systems" that standardized and kept track of who owned what, who owed what, and who was responsible for what risks. These systems replaced informal relationships and handshake commitments with publicly verifiable facts.

Over the past 20 years, Americans and Europeans have quietly gone about destroying these facts. … The results are hardly surprising. In the U.S., trust has broken down between banks and subprime mortgage holders; between foreclosing agents and courts; between banks and their investors—even between banks and other banks. Overall, credit (from the Latin for "trust") continues to flow steadily, but closer examination shows that nongovernment credit has contracted.
… When then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson initiated his Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in September 2008, I assumed the objective was to restore trust in the market by identifying and weeding out the "troubled assets" held by the world's financial institutions. Three weeks later, when I asked American friends why Paulson had switched strategies and was injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into struggling financial institutions, I was told that there were so many idiosyncratic types of paper scattered around the world that no one had any clear idea of how many there were, where they were, how to value them, or who was holding the risk. These securities had slipped outside the recorded memory systems and were no longer easy to connect to the assets from which they had originally been derived. Oh, and their notional value was somewhere between $600 trillion and $700 trillion dollars, 10 times the annual production of the entire world.

De Soto understands that there is no "free" market, if by free we mean unregulated. Markets are created by regulation.

Markets were never intended to be anarchic: It has always been government's role to police standards, weights and measures, and records, and not condone legalized sleight of hand in the shadows of the informal economy. To understand and repair one of mankind's greatest achievements—the creation of economic facts through public memory—is the stuff of nation-builders.

To avoid another 2008 collapse, he argues, we need to re-regulate finance. Governments should standardize and keep records on all the new financial instruments, and insist on accounting standards that make corporate risks transparent again. Otherwise, how can investors know whether they are buying a piece of the next AIG?

And if they can't know, why will they invest at all?

Short Notes

April's best satire. Exporting Democracy Has Led to Shortages of it in U.S., Expert Say.

a new study commissioned by the University of Minnesota ... predicts that if the U.S. continues to export democracy at its current pace it may completely run out of it at home by the year 2015.

House Speaker Boehner recommends we deal with the shortage by exploring "alternative forms of government, such as oligarchy or plutocracy."

Friday Rachel Maddow did one of the most powerful TV interviews I've ever seen: As the NRA convention was happening downtown, she got a driving tour of PIttsburgh's gun-infested Homewood neighborhood from its councilman, Rev. Ricky Burgess.

Earlier on the same show, she used quotes from the Republican presidential debate in South Carolina to make an important point that no one else is making so clearly: The party's libertarian small-government rhetoric doesn't match its meddling big-government social policies -- exemplified by a new Florida law about how low students can wear their pants.

Tuesday she was on Jon Stewart's show.

Speaking of Jon Stewart, Tuesday's show also had his royal wedding coverage. The royal family banned satire and comedy shows from using the news footage -- which they can do in the UK. Jon decided not to take that lying down.

In 2007, the possible presidential candidates who were making appearances in early primary states went ahead to run, while the ones who weren't, didn't. Using that criterion, Nate Silver says:

the 2012 Republican field is far more defined than most people think, with Mr. Gingrich, Gary Johnson, Mr. Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Mr. Romney as likely’s and Mr. Huckabee, Mr. Trump and Mr. Paul as maybe’s.

According to Frank Lunz's focus group, the big winner of Thursday's debate was Godfather's Pizza founder Herman Cain -- despite the fact that he doesn't have an Afghanistan policy and doesn't expect to have one until he takes office.

The first rule of political web design has to be: Get control of all the URLs for your candidate's name. Republican congressional candidate Jane Corwin must have missed that class. Her web site is, and a devastating parody (with all the same photos -- you have to see it) is now at

She says: "Together we can build a bright future that is lit with prosperity and opportunity." The parody says: "Together we can make delicious soup from the bones of the poor."

Can't decide which baseball team to root for? Follow this flow chart.

This Week's Challenge

If you ever think about writing a letter to the editor, try it this week. If you send one in, feel free to leave the text as a comment at the Sift. If you get published, leave another comment  with the link.

Thursday, I published this letter in my local paper, the Nashua Telegraph. Over the last 30 years, I've published a lot of letters, in everything from the NYT and Time to one of those free papers for shoppers.

Here are my tips for getting a letter published.

  • Don't ramble. Pick one point and make it.
  • Shorter is better. The more prestigious the newspaper, the shorter letters need to be (unless you're famous). My letter to the Telegraph would have been way too long for a major big-city paper.
  • Personalize. How does your experience give you unique insight? In my letter, I take advantage of the fact that I would be one of the last people to qualify for Medicare under the Paul Ryan plan. So I wonder: What if someday I'm the last Medicare recipient alive? Will they keep the program running just for me? Probably not.
  • Localize. Newspapers want their letters column to be a back-and-forth forum for their readers, not a megaphone for outsiders making nationalized arguments. So, for example, my letter blames the Medicare privatization plan on New Hampshire's two representatives, who voted for it, rather than Wisconsin's Ryan, who wrote it.
  • Be topical. In a major newspaper, you just about have to be responding to a specific article published in the last few days. (Name it!) In a lesser paper, you can get away with a topic that is "up" in a more general way. If you're stuck for a topic, try relating tax cuts for the rich to program cuts for the needy. Some recent article is bound to be relevant.
  • Don't be ashamed to aim low. When you've got your letter sharpened as far as it will go, you've got a judgment to make. Remember: Getting printed by a free weekly with 100 readers is better than not getting printed by the Wall Street Journal. (Telegraph circulation: around 27,000 -- a lot more than the zero NYT readers who would have seen my letter.)
  • Follow instructions. Every paper tells you what it wants to see on its letters. (Daytime phone number so they can call to verify that you wrote it?) Give it to them.

If your letter doesn't get printed, don't get discouraged -- it still gets counted. Sheer numbers will push a paper to print more letters on a topic. So if you see another letter making a point similar to yours, you may have helped get that one printed.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

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