Monthly Archives: April 2013

Let’s NOT Rush to War

Charles KrauthammerI caught just a couple of minutes of Fox News and Charles Krauthammer was talking about how legalistic the White House was being about the suspected chemical weapons use by Syria. So far as I could tell, his argument was that this is a war zone so we don’t have time to be careful. That makes sense for people who are in the war: when the mustard gas comes, you put on the mask, you don’t do tests to see if it is really sulfur mustard rather than just the result of a Wienermobile crash. But, as usual with conservatives in general and Krauthammer in particular, he’s making a false analogy. The question is whether we should go to war based upon potentially bad information.

This is the time when someone says, “Just like in Iraq!” But that isn’t really true. In fact, this is an issue that makes me really mad. It was clear that there was nothing to the whole rush to war in Iraq. And I get angry especially at Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry who claim they were misled. Please! True, the Republicans got the ball rolling, but by the end, both sides voted for it because they didn’t want to miss out on the glory of being for another bloody good war like Persian Gulf.

Today in Syria, we really don’t know what’s going on. And let’s face it, wars where one or both sides are behaving badly are not rare. What is Krauthammer worried about? That this great opportunity is going to pass us by? That would be like George Clooney feeling like he has to fuck a supermodel before she changes her mind. There are plenty of supermodels for George and plenty of wars for us.

But I understand why Fox News and all the other conservatives want us to jump into a new war. In almost all cases, the more we know, the less we will want to go to war. So it’s important for us to go to war quickly, knowing as little as possible. One thing is for sure: by the time the war is over, nearly everyone, including most of the conservatives, will think it was a mistake. But just like that last batch of buffalo wings that gave you heartburn so bad you wanted to die, they claim this war will be different. But it won’t be different. And we at least need to understand why we are going to war. I would hate to see us do it because the Syrian resistance finessed us into it.

Afterword

Charles Krauthammer is generally more nuansed than his conservative allies. But in the lead up to the Iraq War, he wrote the following in Jewish World Review, “Hawks favor war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is reckless, tyrannical and instinctively aggressive, and that if he comes into possession of nuclear weapons in addition to the weapons of mass destruction he already has [No amount of being wrong ever hurts a pundit!], he is likely to use them or share them with terrorists. The threat of mass death on a scale never before seen residing in the hands of an unstable madman is intolerable—and must be preempted.” He goes on to say that he sides with them. This is a supposedly serious foreign policy thinker! The argument that any despot would take his hard-won weapons and share them with terrorists is ridiculous. This is the kind of argument you make when you just really want to go to war. And apparently, Krauthammer always really wants to go to war. (Well, not him personally. He was sadly paralyzed in an auto accident as a young man. But apparently, no argument is too specious to justify having the same thing happen to more young men in every war opportunity Krauthammer notices.)

Low Probability Greatness

Carl Friedrich GaussGertrude Stein lover (There’s lots of there there!) Alice B. Toklas was born on this day in 1877. Actor Eve Arden was born in 1908. Grandpa Munster actor, Al Lewis was born in 1923. Johnny Horton was born in 1925. And actor Jill Clayburgh was born in 1944.

Cloris Leachman is 87 today. Willie Nelson is 80. Ringworld author Larry Niven is 75. Rocky’s brother-in-law, Burt Young is 73. And Kirsten Dunst is 31.

By many lengths, the day belongs to arguably the greatest mathematician of all time, Carl Friedrich Gauss, or as we know him, Gauss. He was born in 1777. According to historian Eric Temple Bell (who is not above criticism, but still), if Gauss had published all of his discoveries when he made them, it would have advanced mathematics 50 years ahead of where it is. It is hard to overstate his importance. There is basically no field of math in which you won’t come upon his work.

Happy birthday Gauss!

Protectionism and the Death of Democracy

1%Yesterday, Paul Krugman posted an article on his blog about why the economic crisis didn’t result in more calls for protectionism: tariffs and the like. He proposes a few ideas but decides it is all about our trade agreements. I think he’s wrong.

It may well be the fact that there are institutional barriers against protectionist policies. For example, if we start putting import taxes on all products, the World Trade Organization will go after us. But that isn’t the same as why no one even talked about trying to protect our local industries. For that, I think there are two issues: helplessness and elite media control.

In my discussions with people from all over geographically and economically, what I get is a strong resignation that nothing can be done. Everyone is just hoping that they can hold on until things improve. But even there, they think they have no control over improving things or what that improved situation might look like. They do generally feel that although things will be a little better for them, it will be enormously better for the elite class. From 35 years of stagnant wages, they’ve developed a kind of learned helplessness. Just like with dogs, they know that regardless of what they do, they are going to be shocked.

The second issue is related to this: it is part of the cause of these feelings of helplessness. Have you seen the major media coverage of efforts to end tax cuts to companies for sending jobs overseas? Most likely, you haven’t. There has been very little coverage of it. It is being blocked in Congress, primarily by Republicans but also by Democrats. And it isn’t that workers are not interested; they are. The major media are just not interested in this issue or any other issue that focuses on the needs of workers. You can hardly watch a news broadcast that doesn’t mention what the stock market did that day. Does that have any relevance to the average viewer? Nope. But it has lots of relevance to the elite reporters and owners of the news sources.

Krugman understands this, of course. Last week he wrote a column about how we have become a country “of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent.” And they don’t want protection of jobs in America, because their profits come from all over the world. And that’s why we haven’t heard calls for protectionism.

Afterword

Personally, I think that protectionism in general is a bad idea. It is often a very good idea when trying to get new industries off the ground. But wholesale, it just ends up hurting all of the countries. My point is not that we should have implemented protectionism, but just that it is natural for it to be discussed. And it wasn’t. And that is indicative of the fact that we really don’t live in a democracy anymore.

Because I Was Not a Terrorist…

Dzhokhar TsarnaevEveryone knows Martin Niemoller’s “First they came for the communists…” poem. These days, we mostly hear it from conservatives because it is based on the slippery slope argument that is so beloved on the right. But I think the poem is fundamentally wrong; oppression doesn’t happen that way.

I was thinking about this yesterday while reading Glenn Greenwald. He was writing about some reporting in the Los Angeles Times that quoted an anonymous source who said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev repeatedly asked for a lawyer and was refused “since he was being questioned under the public safety exemption to the Miranda rule.” This is a big deal if it is true. It is one thing to not tell a suspect his rights, it is quite another to withhold those rights. And there is nothing in the public safety exemption of the Miranda rule that allows the government to refuse a suspect his right to representation for hours or even days.

And that’s what got me thinking about the Niemoller quote. It is not that we don’t speak up for the “communists” because we are not one. It is that we don’t speak up for them because we hate them. I know the reaction of the vast majority of people in this country to my belief that Tsarnaev deserves all of the guarantees of the Constitution. They would say something along the lines of, “He’s a terrorist! We shouldn’t give him any rights at all!” So may I humbly offer a rewrite:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I hated the communists.

And that really is the way rights are lost. This is why we allow the Nazis to have parades. It isn’t because we like them. As a culture, we hate them. But as John Adams wrote, we have “a government of laws, and not of men.” And if we can’t listen to him, perhaps we can listen to that hippy Jew, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

I don’t have any specific fondness for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But I have a great fondness for this country and especially its ideals. And if one criminal can destroy that, we are all lost.

Update (30 April 2013 9:49 am)

Glenn Greenwald just added an update to his article where who quoted by far my favorite founding father, Thomas Paine:

He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.

Of course, I’ve found that most Americans today are far more primitive than this great man who died over 200 years ago. Of course, Americans at that time were just as primitive as they are today. But one would hope that they would have improved a little. Alas.

Who Is Obama Playing To?

Obama and Boehner play footballI just had a thought. Remember that Pew poll that found that roughly half Americans blame Obama and half blame the Republicans for the flight delays caused by the Sequester? I discussed it earlier today, Democrats Own Sequester Air Traffic Exception. In that article, I argued that Obama should not take the poll as indicating that the right thing to do is to sign the repellent air traffic Sequester exception bill that is headed to his desk. If he signs it, it is all his; he can’t blame it on the Republicans.

Well, I was over at the Maddow Blog reading Steve Benen about how the Republicans are wrong to think they won the air traffic debate. But it got me thinking in a broad sense about the Pew poll. It shows that a great many people are not paying any attention at all. But it also shows that all of Obama’s contortions and bending over backwards to accommodate the Republicans bought him essentially nothing. (This is more evidence that I am right in thinking that Obama wants to cut entitlements, but let’s leave that for now.)

Who does Obama think he is impressing with all of this post-partisan nonsense? It isn’t effective in regards to policy. And we see clearly that it isn’t effective in regards to public opinion. So what audience is he playing to? Posterity? I often wonder if that isn’t the case. And that is perhaps even more misguided than any other audience. In the long run, historians will look back on this period of time and see it as a tragedy. I don’t think Obama will look that bad, but that will be despite his constant pitch to the center, not because of it.

Duke Ellington’s Got That Swing

Duke EllingtonThe Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma was born in 1848 on this day. The great French mathematician Henri Poincare was born in 1854. Publisher William Randolph Hearst was born in 1863. The Dutch artist and print maker Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman was born in 1882. Japanese Emperor Hirohito was born in 1901. The great director Fred Zinnemann was born in 1907. And French comedic director Gerard Oury was born in 1919.

Rod McKuen is 80 today. Conman Bernie Madoff is 75. Jerry Seinfeld is 59. Daniel Day-Lewis is 56. Michelle Pfeiffer is 55. Rapper Master P is 46. Tennis player Andre Agassi and actor Uma Thurman are 43.

Although I could easily have given the day to Poincare, how could I when Duke Ellington was born on this day in 1899? Now, in general, I don’t like big bands. They tend to homogenize jazz. But Ellington’s was one of a few exceptions to this. You would never mistake him for Glenn Miller. (Even though he wasn’t bad at all!) Here is Duke Ellington with his band doing his composition “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”:

And here is the Duke Ellington Trio doing the great Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”:

Democrats Own Sequester Air Traffic Exception

Obama NopeI just caught a few minutes of Martin Bashir on MSNBC. He had a small panel and they were discussing the air traffic fix to the Sequester debacle. And man, aren’t those Republicans bad! They’re willing to let old folk go hungry but spring into action when it comes to their own comfort. Apparently, the Democrats have nothing to do with this. The 45 Republicans in the Senate were able to get the bill passed without Democratic help and Obama’s intention to sign the bill into law is due to the incredible ventriloquism of the Republican Party!

During the segment, there was a clip of Jay Carney castigating the Republicans. At no point did he add the truth, “Of course the president is going to sign the bill.” Don’t think Obama has no choice. He could hold a press conference and tell the people, “I have always been in favor of shared sacrifice. This bill is not shared sacrifice. I can’t help the more affluent among us avoid inconvenience while requiring poor children and the elderly to suffer. I cannot sign this bill.” But of course he will sign the bill because his idea of shared sacrifice has always been that the rich make a mess and the poor clean it up. Balance!

My more pragmatic colleagues will counter that Obama is in a political bind because the people blame the Republicans and him equally for the flight delays. And this is kind of true, as The Hill just reported. But flight delays are something that, as I said, mostly affect the more affluent. Thus, any poll is going to be skewed. Actually, the numbers don’t look bad at all. Who do the people blame? Republicans: 34%; Obama: 32%; Neither/Don’t Know: 34%. That 32% is the Republican base. If you asked Americans who was to blame for the Boston Marathon bombing, most would say the Tsarnaev brothers, but 32% would say Obama.

If the approach to the Sequester is going to be, “Let’s do what we can,” then why don’t we just repeal all the defense cuts? I’m sure the Republicans would vote for that too. But the Democrats will not do that. They know that such an approach is just giving the Republicans everything they want and getting nothing in return. Thus, carving out the air traffic exception to the Sequester is a joint project between the Republicans and the Democrats. And shame on MSNBC for pretending otherwise. They are looking more and more like Fox News.

The Death of Gay Culture

Bradley ManningThere used to be a large minority of the gay community that never wanted marriage equality. These people didn’t want to be like the straight population and they feared that their movement would be co-opted by the corrupt mainstream society. They were right.

Recently, it was announced that American hero and government scapegoat Bradley Manning would be the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. After this announcement the SF Pride board president Lisa L Williams released a hysterical statement saying it was all untrue. She said, “Bradley Manning is facing the military justice system of this country. We all await the decision of that system. However, until that time, even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform—and countless others, military and civilian alike—will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride.”

Glenn Greenwald countered her argument in some depth. He pointed out that her claim that Manning put people in harm’s way is “a substance-free falsehood originally spread by top US military officials which has since been decisively and extensively debunked, even by some government officials.” He then goes on to note all of the vile sponsors of the parade that are a-okay with Williams:

So apparently, the very high-minded ethical standards of Lisa L Williams and the SF Pride Board apply only to young and powerless Army Privates who engage in an act of conscience against the US war machine, but instantly disappear for large corporations and banks that hand over cash. What we really see here is how the largest and most corrupt corporations own not just the government but also the culture. Even at the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, once an iconic symbol of cultural dissent and disregard for stifling pieties, nothing can happen that might offend AT&T and the Bank of America. The minute something even a bit deviant takes place (as defined by standards imposed by America’s political and corporate class), even the SF Gay Pride Parade must scamper, capitulate, apologize, and take an oath of fealty to their orthodoxies (we adore the military, the state, and your laws). And, as usual, the largest corporate factions are completely exempt from the strictures and standards applied to the marginalized and powerless. Thus, while Bradley Manning is persona non grata at SF Pride, illegal eavesdropping telecoms, scheming banks, and hedge-fund purveryors of the nation’s worst right-wing agitprop are more than welcome.

As I argued last month, the problem is that the LGBT community is no longer a liberal constituency. In a short period of time, the assimilation will be complete. There will be no “gay” identity and those previously associated with it will go on to be liberal or conservative as their incomes dictate. So it is no surprise that in San Francisco especially, those who organize the Gay Pride Parade are no more liberal nor willing to counter power than the organizers of Chicago’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. But it is still sad, because even the gay community in San Francisco knows what it is to be an oppressed minority. They should celebrate Bradley Manning and not spit government claims at him like he were a witch on trial in Salem.

Say goodbye to the scary anti-establishment San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. For good and bad, say goodbye to gay culture itself.

My Bipartisan Immigration Plan

Scared RepublicansI have an immigration plan that should gain wide bipartisan support in Congress. This is because it will appeal to Republicans. Also: Democrats will go along with anything. There are three pillars of my plan: border security, guest workers, and path to citizenship.

First, border security. The Canadian border is fine the way it is, because they’re white like us. But we really need to make the border with Mexico secure. May I suggest: the Berlin Wall. Let’s set up two walls with armed guards every 20 feet on top of the north wall. Anyone who gets over the south wall will be shot. This would require a total of a bit more than 1.5 million guards at a total cost of $30 billion per year, if we pay them minimum wage and give them no benefits. But that is a small price to pay for securing our borders.

Second, guest worker program. American workers are famously demanding. What we need is a program that will allow any employers to hire guest workers if they can’t find American workers at a price they like. But I know what you’re thinking, “With the ridiculously high $7.25 federal minimum wage, won’t the guest workers still break the backs of the American businessman?” No, because we will not only eliminate the federal minimum wage, we will make it illegal for states to set a minimum wage. With these pro-growth policies, the US economy will be as strong as Bangladesh.

Third, path to citizenship. This is a contentious issue, but I think I have a workaround. As I discussed last week, we could set the path to citizenship to a reasonable length like 125 years. Given that humans seem unable to live longer than 124 years, we would be safe from any poor or brown-skinned person becoming a citizen. But I know what you’re thinking, “With advances in science, isn’t it possible that in the future people might live longer thus allowing a few people to become citizens?” That’s an excellent point. That’s why I’m putting a clause in the bill that would link the path to citizenship to one year longer than the maximum age that any person can live.

This is a plan that Republicans can embrace. And who cares what the Democrats think, although I suspect many of them would support it as well. So what do you say guys? I can see the headline in the New York Times now, “Bipartisan Immigration Reform Passed!”

Sympathy for Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle BouieOur best wishes go out to Jamelle Bouie. We hope he has a speedy recovery.

Bouie was a very insightful commentator over at The American Prospect, but he is totally wrong this morning. He wrote an article at the Plum Line, A Small Victory Against Anti-Tax Conservatives. In it, he discussed new legislation to require sales taxes be collected on all internet purchases. It is apparently getting a lot of bipartisan love. Bouie noted, “What Heritage and Norquist want is a Republican Party governed by ideology alone, where no tax is acceptable, no matter what. That they’re losing this fight is a sign Republicans are at least open to bucking anti-tax extremists.”

This is a sure sign that Bouie has caught Washington Pundit’s Disease (WPD). It starts by affecting the memory. In his case, he has forgotten the last two years of American politics. This is so sad!

Bouie may think so, but the Heritage Foundation and Gover Norquist are not really against this sales tax legislation. It is just that they are contractually obligated to oppose all new tax proposals. I can assure Bouie (because I do remember the last two years), that they are not putting much pressure on Republicans to oppose this bill. Remember (which Bouie sadly can no longer do): Republicans are not against new taxes. For the umpteenth time (which sometimes helps WPD victims and sometimes doesn’t): they are against new taxes on the rich. That’s it. They had no problem allowing payroll taxes to go back up. What’s more, a bit more than a year ago, they were fighting an extension of the payroll tax cut (“holiday”).

So this recent move does not, not, not show that the Republicans are moving even just a little on taxes. This is the position they’ve had all along. And Jamelle Bouie used to know that. But apparently he’s entered Stage 2 of WPD where he now feels the compulsion to make nice and pretend that the Republicans are showing signs of being reasonable. It’s sad when anyone gets WPD, but especially when it effects a fine writer in his prime. All we can do is help him remember.

Sympathy cards can be sent to Jamelle Bouie care of The American Prospect, 1710 Rhode Island Ave, 12th Floor, Washington, DC 20036.

New GOP Debt Ceiling Threat

Debt CeilingOver the weekend, Lori Montgomery at the Washington Post wrote, GOP Moves Away From Entitlements and Toward Tax Reform in Budget Deal. In it, she explained that because seniors don’t like the idea of entitlement cuts, the Republicans are planning to focus on tax reform. And in the name of this tax reform (that mustn’t raise any new revenue), they will threaten to crash the economy with the Debt Ceiling.

You must remember the Debt Ceiling, because it is the only economic policy from the past few years that truly terrifies me. The federal government can only borrow money up to whatever debt amount—called the Debt Ceiling—that Congress has set. For the last 2 years, Republicans have been threatening to not raise the Debt Ceiling, and that will cause the federal government to default on its debt obligations. It’s kind of like an individual saying, “I know I ran up $1,000 on my credit card, but I don’t think my debt level should be above $100, so I’m not going to pay my bill.” Failing to raise the Debt Ceiling would not only greatly harm our economy, it would make any debt problems of the federal government far, far worse.

What I find so amazing about this is that the politicians who are threatening to crash the economy are exactly the same people who argue that if we don’t get our debt under control, we will become like Greece and be unable to borrow money at the low interest rates we have been able to borrow at for the last 4 years. This comparison to Greece is ridiculous, of course. There are a number of ways that we are distinctly not like Greece. But if we don’t raise the Debt Ceiling, we will default on our debts. That will cause interest rates on government debt to skyrocket. And that really will be an economic catastrophe.

The Republicans actually don’t care about that. This has never been about debt or economics or policy. It is about forcing the government to do their bidding even while they are a minority party. And from their perspective, it might work out very well. If they crashed the economy, there would be fewer tax revenues, so the deficit would go way up. But because we’d defaulted, the cost of borrowing would be much higher. There would be no recourse but to savage spending—especially on the poor and weak. Of course, it might also mean the end of the Republican Party as a major force in American politics, but I’m not sure conservatives think that far ahead.

But let’s assume that the Republicans don’t actually plan to force a debate. What is it that they are using this ultimate threat for? They want to cut marginal income tax rates and pay for them by closing loopholes. As we’ve seen before, that will necessarily be a regressive policy change because the big money is in the mortgage interest deduction. But even more than that, it is a way to stop the Democrats from raising taxes on the rich through the closure of loopholes that affect them. So if you’ve ever wondered why it is such a big deal to conservatives to do this kind of revenue neutral tax “reform,” there you have it: it is to protect the rich from future tax cuts and probably give them new tax cuts right away.

The best case scenario is that the Republicans are willing to risk crashing the economy in order to lower the taxes of the rich. The worst case scenario is that the Republicans think that crashing the economy would be a good thing. Take you pick. It makes the Republican Party a pernicious actor in our public policy.

Afterword

It is also possible that crashing the economy would completely backfire against conservative desires. The situation could be so bad that the government had no recourse but to radically raise taxes.