Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Winners and Losers, according to DiA

Democracy in America looks at 2009's winners and losers. A couple highlights:

For most of this year, so-called "centrists" have gotten their way, whether it be Ben Nelson and Susan Collins on the stimulus bill, or Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman on health-care reform. For these individual senators this may seem like a good thing, but they have given centrism a bad name. Instead of espousing reasonable, moderate solutions to complicated problems (ala the Democratic Leadership Council of old), they have chased the illusion of compromise while often failing to provide a logical rationale for their stated objectives.
[snip]
Democrats say he has been maliciously libeled by a panicked right wing. Republicans say he is seeking radical left-wing changes under a bipartisan verneer. Both are right, to some extent. Mr Obama is not really a policy moderate; he campaigned, and has governed, from the centre-left of his party, not from its Blue Dog right flank. But he has, in fact, made symbolic and real outreaches to the right, only to get slapped in the face more than once. It is fair to say that he erred in believing that left-wing policy could be slipped through if it was lubricated with his signature comforting rhetoric. But he also simply underestimated the lies and smears that would be part of that pushback, "death panels" and all. Whatever happened, we have not come together around Barack Obama. He ends the year having changed policy more than politics.
[snip]
Barack Obama effectively defused the entire summer's worth of racial anxiety—paranoiac rumbling on one side and anxious hang-wringery on the other—with his joke to David Letterman: "I think it's important to realise that I was actually black before the election." He has yet to find the killer quip on health-care reform or climate change, but perhaps he has it in him.

2009 GOP, a haiku

Hey, Obama, you
really screwed up the country.
Bush? What about him?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Incendiary Intimates

In the aftermath of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit, I'm reminded again of Jeffrey Goldberg's excellent piece on airport security from The Atlantic. His conclusion: more emphasis on intelligence gathering, less on invasive searches at airports. Can we all just admit that most of these measures are symbolic only? And can I leave my shoes on when I walk through the metal detector now? Can I continue drinking my fat-free soy chai peppermint latte mochaccino inside security, if I bought it outside security? If a terrorist wants to bring something onto a plane, he (or she) can. TSA isn't doing body-cavity searches yet, are they?

Ezra Klein points out why everyone is calling for the head of Janet Napolitano and not the head of the TSA: thanks to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), there still is no head of the TSA.

"Ungovernable" (III)

Douthat flags a piece by Jay Cost that defends the filibuster. The basic thrust is that eliminating the filibuster will cause huge swings in policy as each party enacts "ideologically extreme" policies each time they take control of congress, and repeals the policies of the other party.

Now, parties may have become more polarized, but reading his piece makes it sound like every member of the Democratic caucus is Patrick Leahy or Bernie Sanders. There are very few "ideologically extreme" members of congress on either side. Like it or not, this is a center-right country. There are only small constituencies for extreme policy on the left or the right. Notice that during the health care debate, single-payer was raised as a policy option very infrequently, and usually by folks like Sanders or my Representative, Keith Ellison. Instead, even if there weren't a filibuster, the most "extreme" policy that would have resulted was a moderately strong public option. And I'm still not convinced there are 51 votes for a strong public option in the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, there isn't a conservative cry to repeal Medicare and Medicaid, which would be the deficit-hawk, small-government conservative position if it were intellectually honest. The spectre of "extreme" policy is largely a phantom.

Douthat writes:

We’ll get fiscal responsibility through a bipartisan compromise, engineered by centrists in both parties and capable of getting 65-70 votes, or else we won’t get it at all. We may need a better class of centrist to make such a compromise possible — but we probably don’t need to abolish the filibuster along the way.

Just how likely does he think this is? The current congress is so consumed with narcissism, parochialism and the all-encompassing pathological need for reelection that serious legislation seems like a pipe dream.

Douthat is right to point to the stimulus and HCR as big accomplishments for the Democratic congress. But he doesn't look deep enough. The stimulus was a deeply flawed bill. The need to get enough small-minded members of congress to sign on turned a good idea into a bill that was smaller than needed and loaded down with pork and tax cuts instead of the infrastructure spending that the country badly needs. (Living until recently in Chicago, where you can see bridges and underpasses crumbling before your eyes, and now in Minneapolis, where, well, this happened, I believe strongly in the need for the US to look to rebuilding its infrastructure.)

The need to get Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to sign onto HCR didn't make it a better bill. It took out a public option that would have saved billions for the government and the public. It threw a random chunk of funding at Nebraska for Medicaid as a blatant payoff for Nelson's vote. How is this making better policy?

And at the end of the day, there's the 8,000 pound gorilla in the room. The GOP is not interested in governing. They are interested in obstructing the president's agenda so as to win elections in 2010. That is not good for the country, no matter who is in charge. And the filibuster is enabling that strategy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bear down...

...Chicago... Bears?

What a game. I'm still trying to recover. My voice is hoarse from cheering good plays and my hand hurts from pounding the table on bad ones.

If this was the Cutler we got all year, I could live with it. He wasn't perfect, but he was better than most QBs the Bears have had in the past 20 years. The offensive line played much better than I would have expected against Jared Allen and the Vikings D-Line. Even with Pat Williams out, that was a very good performance.

Devin Aromashadu. That's all.

Sullivan's Person of the Year (II)

You wouldn't know it by watching CNN, but Iran erupted into protests as the mourning period for moderate Ayatollah Montazeri coincided with an important holiday in Shi'ite Islam. As always, The Dish is the place to be for updates on the protests. Of particular importance is the apparent assassination of Reformist leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi's nephew, Ali Mousavi. Sullivan and his readers have plenty on the importance of this.

In related news, The Times of London picked Neda Agha-Soltan as their person of the year. Makes for a better story than Bernanke, for sure.

And I've said it before, but it is incredible to witness history unfolding in real-time in Iran. This is what a revolution looks like in the 21st century.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Trust me, I'm a doctor.

Sen. Ton Coburn, MD explains his vote against HCR on RealClearPolitics. My favorite excerpt (emphasis mine):

If this bill becomes law, future generations will rue this day and I will do everything in my power to work toward its repeal. This bill will ration care, cut Medicare, increase premiums, fund abortion and bury our children in debt.

[snip]

Our health care system needs to be reformed not because government's role has been too small but because it has been too big. Since the 1940's, government's role in health care has been expanded to the point that it controls 60 percent of our health care economy, according the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. If more government were the answer, health care would have been reformed long ago.

The cognitive dissonance must be staggeringly painful.

Never mind the rest of his argument, which consists of outright lies. The Hyde Amendment already keeps one from using Federal money on abortions, the CBO says premiums will go down for the vast majority of Americans and also says the bill is going to reduce the deficit in the short and long term. Health care is already rationed in Medicare, as well as by cost. Not to mention, the cuts in Medicare are far smaller than those proposed by the GOP nominee for President a little over a year ago.

I can't take any Republican seriously when they talk about the deficit. First, because this bill is deficit neutral. And second, because of this chart.

He plays the "I'm a doctor" card a few times in this piece. Never mind that the AMA has endorsed the current bill.

How is one supposed to have a constructive debate against this sort of opposition?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Who is Obama the President?

Douthat examines:

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

I think Douthat's analysis is pretty dead-on. Obama's liberal instincts for change and social justice are tempered by his deep pragmatism. Evidence of this is not just found in his governance, but in his writing and campaigning. Reading The Audacity of Hope, you get the feeling that his positions aren't seated in any lock-step ideology, but were developed over time, as he explored the intricacies of the issue and applied his education and life experience.

Reading The Audacity to Win, you get a feel for how he balances his desire to be a different kind of politician with his desire to get results. He was reluctant to run negative ads, but he attacked when he had to. He wanted to win, and sometimes that meant slipping back to the old attacks. Through it all, he truly believed in his ability to change America for the better. But he was firmly grounded in reality, rhetoric notwithstanding, and he knew the limitations placed on him.

Liberals may want him to be Dennis Kucinich, but Obama wants to do more than make symbolic gestures, he wants results. How many times have we heard "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" from the Obama team? It's not just a strange Voltaire fetish, it's how they believe they need to govern to get results.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas, my few dear readers

Enjoy a new version of a classic on this holiday.

Wishful thinking?

keithellison: Don't Quit on #PO. Still very possible if we get loud now.

HCR passes in the Senate

...and there was much rejoicing.

I'm reminded of a quote from West Wing's Leo McGarry:

There are two things in the world you never want to let people see how you make 'em: laws and sausages.
Amen.

We've seen way too much of the first, but if you want to see the other one, let Mike Rowe be your guide.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Warm and Fuzzy Feelings

We need more congressmen like Tom Perriello:

Perriello said there is a difference between being targeted and being vulnerable, and he said his support for health-care and energy reform are not as out of touch with his constituents as his opponents say. But even he seemed to acknowledge the challenge of winning next year as he described how he has sought to govern since taking office in January.

"My ultimate goal is not to get reelected," he said. "It's to know that I did the best damn job I could representing the people of the 5th District and making a difference. That's just a different litmus test than some of the powers that be are used to working with."

As I've said before, it would be nice for people to pay more attention to governing and less to reelection.

(HT: Yglesias)

Sullivan's Person of the Year

There's been a good bit of consternation about Time's choice of Ben Bernanke as Person of the Year. Yes, he acted decisively when things fell apart, but he didn't do anything to prevent the crisis in the first place. He's also currently unwilling to use fiscal policy to ease unemployment.

Sullivan offers his own Person of the Year: Neda Agha-Soltan. His tribute is well worth reading, and he's right to say that:

I never thought, on 9/11, that this blog, almost a decade later would end a post with the following words of solidarity and hope:

Allah O Akbar!


It is hard to believe how the meaning of the words, "God is great," has changed among those following the events in Iran. Words that a few years ago brought to mind images of suicide bombers and terrorism have been reclaimed as words of peace and hope. The events of 9/11 cast a shadow over the perception of Islam. Here's hoping that the events in Iran can cast some sunlight on it.

I can't Bear to watch (II)

More good news from the Chicago sports world...

ESPN.com headline: Kings rally from 35-point deficit to stun Bulls

Ugh.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pass the bill. (III)

Nate Silver:

It would be one thing if it was just little ol' me who Walker was arguing against. But instead his arguments fly in the face of the broad consensus established by health care economists (on the policy questions) and procedural and political experts (on the process and politics questions). One of the reasons I consider myself to be a progressive/liberal/whatever is because, more often than not, I've found progressives to be on the "right" side of the argument. They're more empirical, more "scientific", less dogmatic, less sophistic, less demagogic, less anti-intellectual -- not always by any means but at least some majority of the time. After tangling with the kill-billers, however, I'm beginning to have my doubts.

"Ungovernable" (II)

Arlen Specter joins the party:

Whatever the cause, things have gotten bad enough that Senator Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said the Senate should be stripped of one of its illustrious institutional claims.

“This body prides itself on being the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Mr. Specter said. “That designation has been destroyed with what has occurred here the past few days.”


In other news, Rep. Joe Sestak's primary challenge to Specter from the left has really turned Specter into a model Democrat. Just check out his twitter: he opposes expanding the war in Afghanistan, supports a strong public option, talks a lot about fair trade policies, is very loudly pro-choice, and has avoided any histrionics regarding his cloture vote on major Democratic legislation. On Afghanistan he's actually outflanking his liberal challenger on the left. (To be fair, Sestak is a retired Admiral, so it makes sense. It's still somewhat remarkable, though.)

Call me a cynic, but I think it's purely because (as he has shown in the past) his principles change when he faces any sort of challenge to his seat. Specter's only principle is to get reelected.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I can't Bear to watch

10/27 94 0/3

That was Jay Cutler's line today. Pitiful. His passer rating was a robust 7.9. For comparison, if every pass you throw falls incomplete, your rating is 39.

By the third quarter, Bears play-by-play guy Jeff Joniak sounded utterly defeated. Jeff Dickerson, ESPN1000's Bears beat reporter simply said "The Bears are an awful football team."

Thank generic deity for the Blackhawks, eh?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pass the bill. (II)

Ezra Klein:

This is a good bill. Not a great bill, but a good bill. Imagine telling a Democrat in the days after the 2004 election that the 2006 election would end Republican control of Congress, the 2008 election would return a Democrat to the White House, and by the 2010 election, Democrats would have passed a bill extending health-care coverage to 94 percent of Americans, securing trillions of dollars in subsidies for low-income Americans (the bill's $900 billion cost is calculated over 10 years, but the subsidies continue indefinitely into the future), and imposing a raft of new regulations on private insurers. It is, without doubt or competition, the single largest social policy advance since the Great Society.


Krugman:

[I]t represents a rejection of the view that the solution for all problems is to cut some taxes and remove some regulations. In that sense, what’s happening now, for all the disappointment it represents for progressives, is a historic moment.


Yglesias:

But to repeat—despite flaws, I think this is an excellent piece of legislation. Among other things, it represents a return, after fifteen years, of the idea that congress should be trying to pass major legislation that tackles major national problems. And even beyond that, it restores an even longer-lost tradition of congress trying to pass major legislation on specifically progressive priorities.


Silver:

Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln are probably willing to sign off on $900 billion in public subsidies so that poor and sick people can have better access to health care. Is there really no way we can make this work for us?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The junior senator from Minnesota

Al Franken spent his first few months in the Senate keeping a very low profile. That has ended.

On Monday, he took Sen. Thune (R-SD) to task over his disingenuous posturing over health care reform and taxes.

Then today, he cut Sen. Lieberman (I-Liebermanville) off, refusing to give consent for him to continue talking on the floor of the senate.

The gloves are off. This promises to be entertaining.

Pass the bill.

Howard Dean and the netroots left (the DailyKos crowd) are screaming bloody murder about the current incarnation of the health care reform bill. They say it's no longer worth voting for. My father sent me an email agreeing with that position, and I figured I would post my reply here, as it is a good look at my thoughts on the issue:

I have to disagree. Previous failures at reforming health care have not led to improvements over time. Each time reform fails, the next attempt is less ambitious. (Truman wanted single payer. After a few more failed attempts, this bill is all we can get. What would we get next time? History shows it would be worse.) Democrats will almost certainly lose seats in both the Senate and House in 2010. They probably won’t lose the majorities, but in the Senate, any loss is a huge blow. And remember, the house bill passed with just one vote to spare. Polls show the Democrats losing support if they pass HCR… but losing even worse if they don’t. Scrapping it now makes the 2010 midterms more likely to be a bloodbath for Dems, which will make reform even less likely.

This bill will provide health insurance for 30 million Americans that didn’t have it before. It is sprinkled with pilot programs for cost-cutting that can be ramped up if they work. It sets up exchanges to introduce actual competition between insurers, which didn’t exist before. It will give consumers standardized fact sheets, to more easily compare different plans and insurers. The hateable Joe Lieberman is working with the distinguished, respected, and very liberal Jay Rockefeller to improve the Medicare Commission to help keep Medicare spending down. It provides hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to help low-income families afford health insurance.

There are disappointments. Annual limits have not been outlawed. There’s no real movement toward changing the incentive structure for providers, which is a huge part of why costs continue to go up. Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic provide a great model for low-cost, high-quality health care. They pay their doctors salaries with incentives for results, not for the number of tests ordered. That model should be extended to more hospitals. Obviously a public option would be better to provide more competition and bring costs down further, but my thoughts on that have been put on my blog a couple times.

I don’t mind insurance companies profiting if the end result is that people who couldn’t get insurance can get it now. Would I like a stronger bill? Of course. But in this political environment, I think you have to pass this bill and work on improving it over time. Scrapping it would most likely make future attempts even less ambitious.

Ezra Klein has a good argument for an individual mandate here: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/draft_1.html

Other Sources/Reading material:
http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/20-questions-for-bill-killers.html
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/12/a_bailout_for_insurers.html
http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/12/why-progressives-are-batshit-crazy-to.html
http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/blog/09/12/14/No-Illusions/

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Ungovernable"

That's the word Yglesias has used to describe America. Steny Hoyer has said similar things, as has Ezra Klein.

We have a serious problem in this country in that our government seems to be completely incapable of taking on the many important issues facing our country in a serious manner. We finally have a president who seems interested in tackling the problems we're facing, and he's stymied by a legislature that allows major and needed legislation to be held hostage by the egos of men like Joe Lieberman.

It's bad enough that most of the electorate doesn't know jack-shit about policy (and nobody in the media reports on policy, only on process), but that's why it's a republic, right? We elect people we trust to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, many of those we elect seem to be uninterested in doing the right thing, and more interested in winning reelection, getting on TV, and ensuring constant stroking of their... egos.

Our government is dysfunctional, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Plato wrote that:

Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, --nor the human race, as I believe, --and then only will this our State have a possibilityof life and behold the light of day.

I think we're about as far from that ideal as it gets right now.

EDIT: Paul Krugman has a different word for it: failed state.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Was the Galactic Empire good?

(Silliness alert.)

Yglesias linked to this defense of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars universe, and in the comments section, someone linked to this article in the Weekly Standard arguing much the same. Jokes about neocons being evil aside, the arguments are fairly compelling. I don't buy the argument that blowing up Alderaan was justified (in the expanded universe it's pretty clear that they were unarmed, as Leia says). But otherwise, much of what the Empire did was similar to Roman rule of provinces. I think the second author doesn't give enough credit to the idea of a loose confederation, which is probably the best idea, from a human (and alien) rights perspective. Anyway, it's always fun to see serious people talking about Star Wars.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My brain REALLY hurts.

John Boehner, noted economic mind and my erstwhile Congressman, offers his thoughts on how to lower unemployment.

Actually, that's not accurate. He offers his thoughts on Obama's plans (job-killing, big government, etc) and offers no alternatives of his own. The WaPo Op-Ed page is really showing off the intellectual firepower of the GOP. How is a president supposed to govern when the "loyal opposition" is so single-mindedly... mindless? Add to that the undemocratic (small d democratic) nature of the Senate, and the structural problems in our electoral system... it's no wonder Obama's grand plans are drowning in mediocrity.

Words of Wisdom from Nicolas Sarkozy

In a joint presser with Gordon Brown, Sarkozy was asked about the costs of addressing climate change, especially helping poorer countries financially. Sarkozy's response holds some food for thought for American politicians (emphasis mine):

“What is the alternative?” the French president asked. “Think about it. monsieur. What if the richest countries do nothing to help Africa to develop… What if there were no deal at Copenhagen? You think that will not cost our economies dearly? Between Europe and Africa, the Straits of Gibraltar are 12km wide. You think we can leave them in that poverty? You think that won’t cost a lot of money? I’ll tell you what costs money, monsieur: it’s doing nothing. What causes a crisis, is the failure to act.

America, in part due to GOP obstructionism, in part due to the parochialism of our congressional politics, and in part due to the structural obstacles posed by the Senate, is perfecting the art of "failing to act." And now we have several crises in this country.

Obama's Nobel Speech

I thought it was a great speech, exploring the intricacies and paradoxes of modern international relations. He acknowledged his role as a war president, and talked about when force might be necessary, even when striving for peace. He spoke of the desire to combat egregious violations of human rights, but spoke of the need to practice diplomacy as well as force of arms.

What struck me was just how much of a thinking-man's speech it was. This is a man who has clearly thought through the options and consequences, and tries to do whatever seems to be the best answer. He isn't shackled to one theory of IR; as Drezner points out, he uses just about all of them in the speech. This is a refreshing change from the single-minded saber-rattling Neo-Conservatism of the Bush years, but it's not a wholesale disavowal of anything. Neo-Conservativism is, after all, a branching off of liberalism.

Or, as Jon Stewart put it "grrr, Obama forcing us to live in area between absolutes!"

This is a president who isn't afraid to use his brain. Despite this environment of anti-intellectualism on the right, that is unequivocally a good thing.

Peter Gammons is leaving ESPN

Gammons is moving over the MLB Network after a long career at ESPN. If you don't know Peter Gammons, he is a pioneer in sports journalism. But the thing that really sets him apart is how much he cares about the people he covers, not just as athletes and statistics, but regular people. The following excerpt from his Hall of Fame induction speech is the best illustration of the kind of journalist he is:

Throughout my career I have tried to be guided by one principle, that because I am human I have the right to like people. But because I am professional, I have no right to dislike any one. People ask me, as a New Englander, what was it like walking out there in the field when Aaron Boone hit a home run. To be honest, my first reaction was, I was ecstatic. I have known Aaron Boone since he was 13 years old and that's my privilege. My second reaction, I saw Tim Wakefield, head down, and I felt despondent. He's one man who did not deserve that. As I walked out on the field to try to get introduced, I turned to my producer, Charlie Moynihan, and said, "look around here, you know what? I just got paid to cover the greatest game ever played in the greatest sporting venue in the world. I think I'm the luckiest man on earth."

I don't think there are many other journalists in any field that garner as much respect and affection not only from their colleagues, but those they cover. On SportsCenter yesterday, Gammons did a quick report from the baseball Winter Meetings, then the SC anchors spent a few minutes thanking him and talking about how great it was to work with him for so many years. Buster Olney used the top of his daily blog on baseball in a tribute to Gammons and the effect he had on Olney's career.

And this is just when he moves to another network. Now to figure out how to get MLB network on my cable package...

EDIT: My brother points out Gammons' goodbye column. Well worth reading.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My brain hurts.

Sarah Palin has decided to utilize the hallowed (*ahem*) Op-Ed page of WaPo to make her case against climate change. It reads like she took a bet on how many times she could fit the words "tax" and "radical environmentalists" into a single Op-Ed. I guess "science" is a radical idea in her little world.

(I try to stay away from Palin-bashing--Sullivan does more than enough to go around--but this was painful enough that I just had to post.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

He must be an organizer

Mike Tidwell (yes, he is an organizer) has some advice for you:

We all got into this mess together. And now, with treaty talks underway internationally and Congress stalled at home, we need to act accordingly. Don't spend an hour changing your light bulbs. Don't take a day to caulk your windows. Instead, pick up a phone, open a laptop, or travel to a U.S. Senate office near you and turn the tables: "What are the 10 green statutes you're working on to save the planet, Senator?"


Well worth reading. And heeding. It seems silly, but it really does work. And it feels good. If you really want to get their attention, pull out a pen and a piece of loose leaf (remember those? they're the Microsoft Word of the 19th century) and hand-write a letter, and send it to your senator or representative's office. And don't be afraid to pick up the phone and give them a call. The interns answering the phones are nice, they don't bite. (And if you know the name of the congressperson's environment person, you can sometimes get to talk to them by asking.) Make a difference, it only takes a minute.

(HT: Yglesias)

The consummate Politico piece

Laura Rozen, Politico's ostensible Foreign Policy guru, has a great example of Politico reporting today. Any foreign policy in the piece is merely incidental. It's all process. Part of the reason we have such an uninformed electorate is the media's insistence on reporting process and not policy. The obsession with the horse-race means the public hears all about Joe Lieberman's stance vis-a-vis the public option, but very little about the current structure of the public option and what it will accomplish.

The White House is certainly aware of this.

Edit:
Ezra Klein has some evidence to back up my assertions.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Twilight and Harry Potter explained

The Economist has a good article on the effect of New Media on the arts. They point out that niche movies and books have been helped, as have big bestsellers/blockbusters. The losers have been the mediocre films and books that fall somewhere in the middle. The part I found most interesting, however, was a theory of why blockbusters (even bad ones) do so well:

Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

Sounds to me like people should read more. If they enjoy crappy books, imagine if they were to read something good.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ditch the public option (II)

Ezra Klein has a good piece on the public option, and the politics thereof. I spent a couple months canvassing and organizing for health care reform and a public option with USPIRG. I can understand the frustration from liberals (sorry, progressives, but that's a rant discussion for another time) who worked so hard for a robust public option. Unfortunately, right now a really good public option is not politically viable. It just doesn't have the votes. It might have 51 votes, though I'm not even sure of that, but it certainly doesn't have 60.

In August, I attended a briefing on health care by one of the higher-ups at USPIRG. His basic point was that the public option is not the end in itself, but a vehicle to facilitate the other reforms that they want to see. A strong public option in addition to measures that bring down the cost of health care for everyone would be ideal, but if the reforms are mandated without a public option, they could live with it.

The reforms in the current bill aren't as far-reaching as they would be in an ideal world, and the public option has been thoroughly neutered. The public option has become a symbol to the left wing of the Democratic party, but that is its primary value. It might be better for Democrats from a political perspective to pass a bill with something called a public option in it. It would energize the currently lethargic Democratic base, certainly helping the Dems in 2010. But from a policy perspective, if losing the public option would allow Congress to improve key parts of the bill, like subsidies for low-income folks, changing the incentives for providers and comparative effectiveness research for Medicare payments, it will probably be a better bill in the end.

It's depressing to think that all those doors we knocked on didn't get us a public option, but the reality is that this may in fact be a better bill without it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Brutally Honest

The Economist's editorial cartoon is pretty harsh this week.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tom Clancy Meets Real Life... Again

Eric Prince, former CEO of Blackwater (now known as Xe), was actually a CIA asset for several years while running the defense contractor:

For the past six years, he appears to have led an astonishing double life. Publicly, he has served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman. Privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies. Prince, according to sources with knowledge of his activities, has been working as a C.I.A. asset: in a word, as a spy.

This is pretty incredible stuff. The full profile linked above is well-worth reading.

(HT: Laura Rozen)

Afghanistan

Well, the big roll-out was last night, and it was pretty much what everyone expected. About 30,000 more troops, an increase in civilian aid workers, and a focus on protecting the population.

The interesting point is the fact that he announced that troops would start to leave within 18 months. This is clearly not just a complete withdrawal after 18 months, so what is it? I get the feeling that the President thinks this is the least worst strategy. If, after 18 months, things are in a position where withdrawal and handover is an option, great. If the surge accomplishes nothing in 18 months, it probably won't accomplish much in 18 years, so it's time to get out. The timetable also puts more pressure on the Afghan government to get their shit together. We won't be there forever, so something needs to be done to create a functioning government and security force.

On that note, this line made me fall out of my chair laughing:

"In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and - although it was marred by fraud - that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and Constitution."

The president played some real verbal twister to avoid using the word "legitimate" in regards to the Karzai government. Again, COIN strategy only works if you have a legitimate and trusted government. This one is neither. The President put some of the onus on the Afghan government and people to clean up their act in the speech, but I'm far from confident that it is enough.

Best case scenario, in my mind: In 18 months, the situation has gotten noticeably better. There's still certainly no shining beacon of democracy in Central Asia, but the situation has improved enough to declare victory and pull out. Let's hope that (or something better) happens.

At the end of the day, I'll probably grudgingly admit that this is the President's "least worst" option, and I'll join the ranks of Jim Fallows and Andrew Sullivan in sighing "Well, I hope he's right."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Paul Krugman Belching His Usual Sunshine

Krugman's latest column focuses on (surprise surprise) the need for a jobs bill. (See Drezner's Krugman Crib Sheet here.) Food stamp quote:

[T]he damage from sustained high unemployment will last much longer. The long-term unemployed can lose their skills, and even when the economy recovers they tend to have difficulty finding a job, because they’re regarded as poor risks by potential employers. Meanwhile, students who graduate into a poor labor market start their careers at a huge disadvantage — and pay a price in lower earnings for their whole working lives. Failure to act on unemployment isn’t just cruel, it’s short-sighted.

So it’s time for an emergency jobs program.


That student part especially makes me feel really good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Perhaps if Hasan had been gay...

From a letter to the editor in WaPo:
Take the scarce resources now being wasted on drumming out of the military competent, patriotic Americans who happen to be gay and instead focus them on people posing actual threats.
Not much to add to that.

(HT: Ricks)

Ditch the public option

Seriously. The liberal "sacred cow" will only cover a tiny percentage of Americans, and isn't necessary to get the rest of the reforms through and arrest the skyrocketing costs of health care that threaten to bankrupt the country. There's a lot of good in this bill. Ditch the public option (maybe strengthening other things in the process, like the subsidies for low-income people and the excise tax on "cadillac" plans), tell Lieberman, Lincoln, et al to shut up and vote for cloture, and let's move on to climate change.

Don't Fear the Reaper

DiA thinks we should collectively grow up and have a mature discussion about end-of-life care. He's right, but considering the emotions involved and America's innate immaturity about some things, I wouldn't hold my breath. It's hard to get people to look big-picture and long-term, when short-term is grandma's life. Perhaps we just need more cowbell?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Governmental Dysfuction...

...is not unique to America. Charlemagne points out the paranoia of European governments when it comes to EU policy.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Victory" in Afghanistan II

John McCain thinks that with enough troops, the insurgency will be gone within a year and a half.

As I noted earlier, I think the process will take far longer. It does not help that Afghanistan is currently ranked the 2nd most corrupt government in the world, trailing only Somalia. Without a credible government, the US could send 100,000 more troops and still fail in Afghanistan. COIN folks from Gen. McChrystal to David Kilcullen have said that more troops will help, but there's no guarantee that they can bring victory.

Senator McCain may be relying on memory of the Iraq surge, and its success. Several factors make that a faulty comparison.
  1. As flawed as the Iraqi government was, it still had a far more organized and effective military and police force.
  2. The "Accidental Guerrilla" phenomenon that Kilcullen wrote about was actually backfiring in Iraq. The "Sunni Awakening" and backlash against AQI*, as well as Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to ask his militia to at least temporarily stand down were both almost the opposite of what is happening in Afghanistan.
  3. Contentious parts of Iraq like Baghdad had been almost entirely ethnically cleansed by the time the surge took effect. Sunnis and Shi'ites were no longer living in the same areas, and violence went down as a result.
  4. Iraq had neighbors that, not to put too fine a point on it, were not Pakistan. It is news to nobody that insurgents cross between Afghanistan and Pakistan at will. This makes it incredibly hard to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan.
  5. Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, culturally. Iraq, for all the faults of the Hussein regime, was a secular and modern state in the Middle East. Afghanistan is far less modern, far more tribal, and certainly not as secular (a Taliban government saw to that).
The president doesn't really have any good options. I think that has probably played into his unwillingness to jump to a decision. Most media reports indicate that he is asking tough questions of his commanders, and ensuring that any plan has a clear exit strategy. I still don't know what I want to see happen, but as each day goes by with another headline about corruption in the Karzai regime, the more pessimistic I become.

*Al Qaeda in Iraq

The Cardinal in... Foggy Bottom?

Laura Rozen reports on a Tom Clancy-esque story of espionage in America. Sounds like a couple of modern-day Rosenburgs. Those reds still know how to spy!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ezra Klein is my homeboy

He riffs a bit on my favorite subject: Congress!

I propose term limits for Senators and Congressmen. If they can't run for reelection, maybe they'll actually try to solve some of the problems the nation is facing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

This warms the cockles of my heart...

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) predicted during an interview that the Democrats were ready to fight Republican delaying tactics on health care reform, even if it means spending nights and weekends on the Senate floor. I hope they force any filibuster to actually stand up there and talk for hours on end, while Democrats call for a vote any time they stop. Make it dramatic!

Democracy in America (and Europe)

DiA has the following to say.

A longstanding meme says that America is unitary and decisive, while Europe is divided and ineffectual. How many more issues need to go the way of cap-and-trade before that meme gets reversed? And, while we're talking about the Senate's function as a vital stray monkey-wrench to prevent the gears of democracy from functioning too smoothly, we might as well link to Grist's David Roberts: "How 7.4% of Americans can block humanity’s efforts to save itself".

Interesting point. Thoughts?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

With apologies to Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers

(I came across this while reading Tom Ricks' Fiasco.)

"Containment was a very costly strategy," [Paul] Wolfowitz said years later. "It cost us billions of dollars--estimates are around $30 billion."
REALLY?!

Current estimated cost of the Iraq war: $699bn

I mean REALLY!

"It cost us American lives. We lost American lives in the Khobar Towers"--a huge 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 service members and wounded 372 others.

REALLY?!

Since the war with Iraq began, we've lost 4,362 service members.

I mean REALLY!

"In some ways the price is much higher than that. The real price was giving Osama bin Laden his principle talking point. If you go back and read his notorious fatwa from 1998, where he called for the first time for killing Americans, his big complaint is that we have American troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia and that we're bombing Iraq. That was his big recruiting device, his big claim against us."

REALLY?!

So clearly, the answer is to increase troop numbers exponentially and actually invade Iraq. Surely that won't give bin Laden any recruiting material. How many new terrorists did we create out of the family members of the untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that have died in the violence since our invasion?

Ugh.

That whole thing could have been read as a damning indictment of further involvement in the Middle East. Unfortunately, it was written by one of the foremost (if not THE foremost) advocate for regime change in the Bush administration. I don't know what to say. Except...

REALLY?!

(For those of you who don't know who Amy Poeller and Seth Myers are: here.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Hammer. Nail. Head.

Doug Elmendorf, Director of the Congressional Budget Office, fired a shot across the bow regarding fiscal policy in this country. Money quote:
The country faces a fundamental disconnect between the services the people expect the government to provide, particularly in the form of benefits for older Americans, and the tax revenues that people are willing to send to the government to finance those services.

That's about as accurate and succinct as it gets.

(HT: EK)

Congress sucks (redux)

Pearlstein is frustrated with congress. He sees a structural problem. While I agree, I still think congress' incentives and priorities are a huge issue. Politico has a piece on how Speaker Pelosi had to round up votes for HCR. Some needed their ego stroked, some needed pork.... who just thought they should vote for the damn bill? Democracy in America has a nice post on the sudden obsession with CBO scores over the actual goals of reform.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

...and there it is

Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, has exactly the reaction I've been dreading regarding the tragedy at Fort Hood.

Of course, most U.S. Muslims don't shoot up their fellow soldiers. Fine. As soon as Muslims give us a foolproof way to identify their jihadis from their moderates, we'll go back to allowing them to serve. You tell us who the ones are that we have to worry about, prove you're right, and Muslims can once again serve. Until that day comes, we simply cannot afford the risk. You invent a jihadi-detector that works every time it's used, and we'll welcome you back with open arms.

This is not Islamophobia, it is Islamo-realism....

That right there was why I had this sudden feeling of dread as soon as I saw the name of the Major who committed this massacre.

(HT: AS)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Gibbs v Todd, Round 392

Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs spars with NBC's Chuck Todd on a regular basis, but this was pretty entertaining. And you can email Chuck now, if you want to.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Simple Solution to the Gay Marriage Question

In the light of the referendum results in Maine and Washington, as well as the discussion on Andrew Sullivan's blog, I decided to post my long-held belief of how to deal with the question of same-sex marriage. I think it's pretty simple, which is probably why it will never happen.

First, eliminate the word "marriage" from all federal, state and local laws. Marriage is a religious concept, and should stay away from government. If you want to be "married", you can go to a church, whether you are a homosexual or heterosexual couple. (There are a few churches out there that will marry gay couples, and hopefully that number will grow as time goes on.) Second, allow civil unions for all couples, gay or straight, that convey the same rights, tax breaks, and whatever else that marriage gives currently.

I have a hard time accepting a religious argument in regards to federal laws. The establishment clause of the First Amendment is there for a reason. If you remove the religious argument from same-sex marriage, pretty much the only arguments left are those based in bigotry.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

With apologies to Jack Handey and Josh Marshall

Deep Thought:

Should the DNC just give up on the 2010 midterms now?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Civilian Surge"

There's a good article on ForeignPolicy.com about the desperate need for more civilian aid workers in Afghanistan and Iraq and across the globe in Embassies. Current hiring of Foreign Service Officers is barely keeping up with attrition in the State Dept and USAID. Many embassies are understaffed, and effective COIN in Afghanistan certainly needs civilian effort as well as military. Secretaries Clinton and Gates both understand this need, but have been unable to get the funding to drastically increase FSO hiring.

I'll admit I have a dog in this fight, since I applied for the Foreign Service and didn't get in. (What's a QEP, anyway?) Come on, increase those hiring numbers, I would love to work for the State Dept or USAID!

And, of course, I can't help but criticize congress about this (like everything). Congress seems to be concerned about cost (and the deficit) only on programs that don't directly benefit their districts. These same projects, however, are often far more important to the health of the country as a whole than the projects they fight tooth and nail to protect. (Corn ethanol bullshit subsidies, anyone?) Ladies and gentlemen: your representative democracy.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Afghanistan (what else?)

As I mentioned before, I still don't know where I stand on Afghanistan. Therefore, I can't blame the President for wanting to take his time and look at all his options before sending up to 40,000 young men and women into a war zone, further stretching our already overworked military. Fareed Zakaria has a very measured and well-thought out defense of the President's taking his time in today's WaPo.

He also has politics to take into account. Politics do not stop at water's edge, whatever the tradition. Obama has to look to his left to figure out how the Democratic base will react to his decision. (HT: Abu Muqawama)

I do not envy President Obama this decision.

Joe Bonamassa

The lady friend heard that blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa was playing at the Guthrie here in the Twin Cities, so we went to go see him about a week ago. It was well worth it. I took this video at the show, but this song was the highlight for me. Talented guy!

Too Big to Fail

Papa BP sent me this book the other day. (Thanks!) I'm about 200 pages in, and it is fascinating. I highly recommend it. This passage from the prologue caused me to put the book down and just take a deep breath and think about just how bad things got:
"Here's the drill," [Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, on a conference call with his top executives] continued. "We need to prepare right now for Lehman Brothers filing." Then he paused. "And for Merrill Lynch filing." He paused again. "And for AIG filing." Another pause. "And for Morgan Stanley filing." And after a final, even longer pause he added: "And potentially for Goldman Sachs filing."

There was a collective gasp on the phone.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rich people who want... more taxes?

A group of filthy rich Germans started a petition to ask the German government for more taxes. They see it as their social responsibility to help out in these tough times, since they have more money than they know what to do with. Not surprisingly, even in Germany, they only have 44 signatures so far. But hey, it's a start!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Friday Snark

Pat Buchanan on Kanye and Michael Steele.

State Dept official on Obama's Nobel Prize:
Certainly from our standpoint, this gives us a sense of momentum -- when the United States has accolades tossed its way, rather than shoes.

"Victory" in Afghanistan

With the debate currently raging about what strategy to take in Central Asia, I think it's a good idea to take a step back and look at the ultimate objective. I don't think we've heard a clear definition of what victory looks like in Afghanistan. The President talks about defeating Al Qaeda and making sure that Afghanistan is not a launching point for future attacks against the US. That's pretty vague.

I'm going to sketch out what I see as the absolute best-case-scenario for Afghanistan. I will also speak to the problems in getting to that point and in the future.

Let me preface this by saying that, in my opinion, this will not happen without embracing Gen. McChrystal's strategy of population-centric counterinsurgency. And yes, that means sending a lot more troops to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is not going to become a shining jewel of secular representative democracy and peace in Central Asia. Ideally, the extra troops and emphasis on pop-centric COIN will SLOWLY grind down the insurgency and build up the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. This will take years. Closer to 5+ than 2. Emphasis will have to be put on expanding the ANA and ANP by hundreds of thousands of men. This will be paid for entirely by NATO, since Afghanistan has one exportable product: heroin. At some point during this, an Afghan government that is seen as fair and (relatively) free of corruption will need to take root in Kabul.

We've already seen that we cannot count on our NATO allies to provide many (if any) extra troops to help with this mission. So the vast majority of this burden will fall on the tired shoulders of the US Military. There will be more casualties. Probably a lot more. Pop-centric COIN puts troops in danger, without a doubt. US troops will have to be out there on foot patrols, talking to the population, and working with them, as well as the ANA and ANP.

So, this is likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars and hundreds more American lives. The ideal end result? A stable Afghan government able to protect its own population with a large, well-trained and well-equipped ANA and ANP, and able to squash any attempts by Al Qaeda or the Taliban to establish a new foothold in the country. (I reject the notion that defeating Al Qaeda does not involve also defeating the Taliban. There are certainly reconcilable elements of the Taliban, as there were reconcilable insurgents in Iraq, but a Taliban-run Afghanistan is not victory.) Notice that I have made no assertions as to the type of government in Kabul, merely that it is mostly free of corruption and able to control the country. I'm willing to accept a government that isn't exactly democratic if they're able to maintain security in the country.

So now, after over a decade in the Hindu Kush, we are ready to start drawing down troops. Is that the end of it? Unfortunately, no. Someone needs to pay for the ANA and ANP that is keeping the peace in Afghanistan, and as I pointed out earlier, the government doesn't have a ready source of revenue. (Unless, of course, the world suddenly decides to legalize heroin.) NATO will have to continue to subsidize the Afghan government indefinitely.

This is best-case-scenario. I have serious doubts as to whether or not it can actually happen, particularly the stable, not-corrupt Afghan Government. I think the President needs to make the decision between shooting for this (and doubling down, sending a lot more troops and money) or giving up and trying to get out of Afghanistan ASAP. One thing I haven't mentioned is that most COIN strategy is written from the perspective of a government suppressing an insurgency on its own land. Most COIN literature on third parties says basically "good luck, you'll need it."

I don't know the answer. But right now, there are no good choices. And that is probably why the President is agonizing over this decision so much. I'm not sure he knew what he was getting himself into when he made his promises about the "war of necessity" in Central Asia. I hope he is able to put those aside when making his decision and does what is best for the country.

(Sorry for the lack of links/citations in this post, it's sort of an amalgamation of everything I've read about Afghanistan over the past year or so, so links and such are not readily available.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rejoice and be glad!

Obama must be weak on defense; he killed a program that didn't work, was aimed at a nonexistant threat, and pissed off Russia. Wait, maybe that's BETTER for our security.

This day was a long time coming.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Everything in moderation...

...including moderation.

Jonathan Chait points out the problems with the centrism fetish in today's politics. He's right.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Are you fired up?

Are you ready to go?

Let's get it done.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Love Canal

I just returned from a week and a half of training to be a rabble-rouser left-wing conspirator organizer. Many great briefings, great people, and great times. One highlight was definitely a lecture by Lois Gibbs. Listen to a lecture from her, and you can't help but get pumped about what we do.

Another highlight was a vignette from one of the Public Interest senior staff. He said that he was in the office of Harry Reid on behalf of one of the PIRGs, and when Reid came in, he told the guy what a great thing that the PIRGs did, and said "you guys are the only thing that keeps us honest here in Washington."

Warm and fuzziness abounds.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pearlstein strikes again

I know I'm a fanboy, but this column is just fantastic.

Money quote:

Health reform is a test of whether this country can function once again as a civil society -- whether we can trust ourselves to embrace the big, important changes that require everyone to give up something in order to make everyone better off. Republican leaders are eager to see us fail that test. We need to show them that no matter how many lies they tell or how many scare tactics they concoct, Americans will come together and get this done.

If health reform is to be anyone's Waterloo, let it be theirs.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mental Health Break (Sort of)

What happened after the cameras were turned off at the "Beer Summit".

Sarah Palin and William Shatner. Need I say more? Enjoy.

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Doing the right thing for the country"

What an antiquated notion. It's never mentioned in this article about the new Democratic congressmen from more conservative areas. As always, re-election is more important than actually doing what's right.

I love Congress.

Veterans in academia

I don't have much of a comment, but I really enjoyed this post by Abu Aardvark. Here's hoping many many veterans take advantage of the extraordinary (and most certainly deserved) opportunity afforded them by the new GI Bill.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The vast left-wing conspiracy

I'm part of it. I started working for these guys a short while ago, and while I was chatting with a coworker today, she mentioned that we are the conspiracy that tea-baggers and ditto-heads talk about. Nobody knows who we are, yet we work tirelessly for progressive issues and groups, raising awareness and money. You know what, that's a conspiracy of which I'm just fine being a part.

Here's a question that came from a different coworker: Are there any conservative groups that canvass? The closest I could think of is proselytizing Christians.

Anyway, blogging will be light as I can now do more than bloviate about the issues I care about: I am actually out there doing what I can to get people involved. Health care is the big one right now, and I'm glad to be working on it.

(Of course, anything said on this blog reflect my thoughts and mine alone, and do not reflect the positions of the Fund for the Public Interest.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Death of the F-22

WaPo has a great article about the Obama administration's lobbying effort to kill the ~$2bn in extra F-22 funding that the Senate tried to stick in the defense budget. (Hat tip: Abu Muqawama)

It's good to hear that Rahmbo and Joe Biden have not forgotten how to wrangle votes on the Hill. Hopefully the Obama team can bring some of that firepower to bear on Health Care and the Energy bill.

It makes it especially sweet that Saxby Chambliss was the Senator who had sponsored the addition of the funding to the budget. Any time Mr. Chambliss suffers a defeat is welcome news to me.

Friday, July 24, 2009

When is a centrist just a wimp?

If you ask Mr Pearlstein, the Blue Dogs fall under the category of wimp.

Money quote:
The problem with the Blue Dogs is that they tend to confuse centrism with splitting the difference between the warring camps, or making policy by choosing one from Column A and one from Column B. The more effective centrists use their political leverage to create a Column C.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Words of wisdom from Nate Silver

538 (Nate Silver) has a good post about the hysteria of the 24 hour news cycle and why health care is neither doing fantastic nor in dire straights. Always nice to have a voice of reason.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Gates gets testy

Robert Gates seems to be fed up with congress. He's getting a bit feisty over congress' interference in his plans to get Defense spending in line with the country's actual needs.

Saxby Chambliss' comments in that article make me want to tear my hair out. He plays the veterans card to explain his opposition to capping F-22 production. This from a guy who beat Max Cleland by calling him unpatriotic. Excuse me if I call bullshit. And why doesn't he just tell the truth? "The plane is assembled in my state, and like almost everyone in the US Senate (or House), I put the needs of a few people in my state or district above the needs of my country."

I can't blame Gates for being a bit ticked off.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Party of "No"

Talking Points Memo posted this amusing contrast of Democrat and Republican versions of health care reform.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reading Roundup

It's been a week, so here are some interesting links:

An Israeli group called Breaking the Silence published a report about the murky ROE and the actions of IDF soldiers in Gaza. The IDF doesn't seem to take it seriously. Will Israel stop shooting itself in the foot at some point?

One of the nagging concerns of mine that I've mentioned on this blog before is President Obama's tendency to too easily acquiesce to Congress and some Democratic constituencies. Steven Pearlstein calls for a leader for health care reform, and so far I don't know that Mr. Obama has stepped up. If we're going to get out of this recession AND start to combat the staggering national debt, we're going to need to make some real hard choices, and we need the rhetorical power of Mr. Obama behind the right ones. Raising the retirement age, raising taxes on more than the tiny fraction of people that make over $250k, getting real work done on climate change on health care will all require more than congress is able to give. Mr. Obama needs to step up.

Abu Aardvark uses Jay Z and rap to examine the role of America as a hegemony. This piece is brilliant. I didn't realize foreign policy academics were into rap. You learn something new every day.

GOP Whip Eric Cantor has a PAC named Every Republican Is Crucial (ERIC). Putting aside the odd narcissisism of that phrase and the acronym that spells his name, my question is "Since when?" Apparently the most popular and respected Republican in the country isn't crucial. The GOP certainly didn't seem to lose much sleep over Arlen Specter's defection. I guess every nutty, party-line, far right Republican is crucial? I just don't get it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

Well, America? Are you watching?

That is what Reza Aslan wants to know, on behalf of Iranian protesters. Roger Cohen wishes he was in Iran to do so.

It's not over yet.

Thursday, assuming the protests are as large as is being predicted, we will see if Iran's security forces and Baseej militias can take on numbers of protesters that may reach into 6 figures. Unstoppable force, immovable object? Either way, as Mr Cohen says, we should bear witness to what happens. I'm watching, Mr Aslan (and people of Iran), even if CNN doesn't want to help me do so.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The president needs an editor

At his press conference the other day, we heard this exchange over the tobacco bill:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. As a former smoker, I understand the frustration and the fear that comes with quitting. But with the new law that you signed yesterday regulating the tobacco industry, I'd like to ask you a few questions. How many cigarettes a day --

THE PRESIDENT: A few questions? (Laughter.)

Q How many cigarettes a day do you now smoke? Do you smoke alone or in the presence of other people? And do you believe the new law would help you to quit? If so, why?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me, it's about the next generation of kids coming up. So I think it's fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law. (Laughter.) But that's fine, I understand. It's an interesting human -- it's an interesting human interest story.

But I've said before that, as a former smoker, I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids, I don't do it in front of my family, and I would say that I am 95 percent cured, but there are times where -- (laughter) -- there are times where I mess up. And, I mean, I've said this before. I get this question about once every month or so, and I don't know what to tell you, other than the fact that, like folks who go to AA, once you've gone down this path, then it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place. Okay?

How many times on West Wing did CJ work with Toby or Josh to come up with a quick, snappy answer to a difficult question? It seemed to happen every episode. Why didn't the president have a soundbite of an answer? He used two paragraphs when a sentence would have worked. (At least he didn't call the reporter stupid.)

The Bush/West Wing answer
"This bill is aimed at keeping kids from starting smoking. If kids don't start, they won't have to struggle with quitting like I have. Next question."

Maybe I just wish I was Sam Seaborn.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Catching up on my reading...

After spending well over 2000+ miles in a car, taking part in a friend's wedding, and seeing Fenway Park and Niagara Falls, it's time to catch up on what I've missed.

  • Steven Pearlstein (I swear I don't link to all of his columns... just most of them) takes the Agricultural lobby to task over their stance on the climate change bill and corn ethanol. I just wish more people would do this. Corn ethanol is a farce. Even the EPA's most generous estimates call it a marginal improvement over gas.
  • Nicogate continues. This is ridiculous. The administration sees a way to reach out to Iranians and suddenly it's collusion? Methinks the MSM is a bit jealous of Huffpost and Nico.
  • Lexington thinks that the President is too close to congress, to the detriment of his policies. I think he's right. Congress is not the best body to write laws for the good of the country.
  • David Rothkopf rightly takes CNN to task for dropping everything to cover Michael Jackson's death 24/7.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bill Maher on Liberals and loonies

Bill Maher went off on... I think everyone, on Real Time Friday night. His conclusion: there is no leftist, liberal party anymore. Democrats have become a center-right party, and Republicans have fallen off the right end of the spectrum. He points out that Democrats are standing in the way of Obama's liberal efforts.

In November, when Obama won (and before this blog existed) I predicted that Obama's biggest obstacles to success would be his own party in Congress. While I think Bill is right about the political spectrum in this country being a bit skewed, I think it has more to do with Congresspeople having exactly one issue that they care about: reelection.

  • Defense cuts? No can do, that means losing jobs in my district.
  • Public option for health care? Uh oh, does that mean losing all the money I get from pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies?
  • Cap-and-trade plan or a tax on carbon? Nope, too many coal plants and big industries in my district. (The current carbon bill has been watered down to the point where it will do almost nothing.)
  • Gay rights? Ehh... It's not hugely popular in my district and I'll get slammed by religious groups and "values" groups. Sorry, can't do it.
Congresspeople have, as their primary goal, reelection. Ok, so that means that they should be doing what's best for their constituents, and that's not a bad thing, right? Unfortunately, that doesn't always hold. First, they do what's best for the constituents with the most money, not necessarily what's best for all of them. And, as an elected representative, it is your responsibility to look long-term. What is in the best interests of the country going forward? In many cases, that is not in the short-term interests of your district.

A great example of this is corn ethanol. Corn ethanol subsidies are FANTASTIC for the farmers in Iowa and Illinois. But corn ethanol is not the answer as a renewable fuel. It is very inefficient, especially compared to the sugar ethanol made in Brazil. But because of Iowa's electoral importance, nobody is willing to take on corn ethanol subsidies.

Until Congress can look past the money wielded by the special interests in their districts, they will be unwilling to do what's right for the country, and continue doing whatever they can to be reelected. And the country will continue to suffer as a result.

Monday, June 22, 2009

In case you needed convincing...





(Tip of the hat to Nico Pitney.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

They just don't get it...

Rep. Mike Pence, (R - IN) has introduced a resolution in support of the Iranian protesters and dissidents. He gift-wrapped a propaganda tool and placed it in Ahmadinejad's hands. Allowing pro-regime forces to paint the protesters as Western puppets is beyond counterproductive, it's criminally stupid. (They're already trying, now they'll have ammunition.) Everyone who studies these things has said that Obama's low-key approach is perfect.

I guess Mr. Pence must have just been convinced of the truthiness of his position.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Welcome Home, Stephen!

Jon Stewart gave Stephen Colbert a well deserved hero's welcome back from Iraq. Big props, many kudos, all of those hip and cool ways to say well done to Stephen for taking his show to Iraq. It takes some big brass ones to do what he did. Despite what you may think, Iraq is far from a done deal, and still far from a safe place. I applaud Mr. Colbert for making the trip to entertain the troops and to raise the awareness of the war back home. Well done.

The Minute by Minute Dish

As far as I can tell, Andrew Sullivan has not slept since the polls opened in Iran. His blog is being updated at a furious pace. He has even changed the color of the site to green in solidarity with the protesters. He is a bit hysterical about the entire situation, but his blog is certainly worth following at the moment.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Fascinating...

There have been many reports of Iranian protesters using Twitter to communicate, and the people who run Twitter are apparently very aware of it. Do you think the founders of Twitter ever thought they would have a press release like that?

UPDATE: From technology invented in 2006 to some that dates to 1843. University of Chicago students have set up a fax number for Iranians to get messages out of the country, since cell phones and internet have been blocked by the government. Nothing is posted yet, but it's worth watching. At this rate, they'll be reduced to letters carried on horseback by the weekend.

Protests in Persia

I would be remiss if I did not make some comment on the elections and subsequent turmoil in Iran. On the face of it, I'm not making news by saying that the results sound fishy. In a country as young and urban as Iran, it seems unlikely that even if Ahmadinejad won, he could have won by as many votes as seems to have happened. As Mr Biden said, the numbers don't seem to add up.

Dan Drezner has an interesting take on how this result is actually better for the US in regards to Iran's nuclear program. In short, the nukes are controlled by the ayatollah, not the president, so the election of a "reform-minded" president unrealistically raises expectations of progress. That's probably not going to give much comfort to these people.

There's been a constant murmur over the past few years about the potential of the young (more liberal) Iranian population, and their ability to influence Iranian policy. If nothing else, the events of the past few days put a damper on that thought. We are reminded that Iran is not a democracy. What's worse, even the nod to democracy that is the presidential election has seemingly been subverted. While the Ayatollah makes the decisions at the end of the day, allowing for slightly more liberal presidents, popularly elected, would be a start. Alas, it seems, that was not to be.

(I highly recommend going through the multiple galleries of photos from Tehran over at TPM. As always, pictures can evoke emotions that mere words cannot.)

No settlement on settlements.

While he (reluctantly) espoused a two-state solution, Mr Netanyahu's latest speech did not make concessions on settlements. This is (unsurprisingly) shaping up to be the major bone of contention between the US and Israel. I don't know how Israel can rationally believe that digging its feet in on this issue will get it anywhere. The longer this conflict goes on, the more lives will be lost; in Palestine, in Israel, and around the world. Israel does not have to necessarily abandon the settlements that are already there, just stop expanding them. Without US support, how long will Netanyahu's government last? What is the imagined endgame for this course of action?

I don't know the answers to these questions. Does Mr. Netanyahu?

Friday, June 12, 2009

There is a reason... (II)

Steven Pearlstein's latest column makes some good points. It is pretty incredible how near-sighted and "forgetful" people can be. As always, he's worth reading as he brings some common sense into economics and politics.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A college degree ain't what it used to be...


That's me, grinding paint off the bottom of a pool this afternoon. Good times!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Mr. Netanyahu's answer

Well I guess that settles that question. Looks like Israel doesn't mind alienating its only remaining ally. Now to see if the US does more than verbal chastisement.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gut check

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu will meet face to face in the Oval Office on Monday. I have great respect for Mr. Obama's intelligence and desire to do the right thing, but this is a big chance for him to show the world that he has the testicular intestinal fortitude to stand up to Mr. Netanyahu. If there's any consistent position Netanyahu has, it is that he will do anything possible to delay, obstruct, and otherwise interfere with any moves made toward a two-state solution in Palestine. (It certainly doesn't help to have Avigdor Lieberman as his Foreign Minister.)

Netanyahu is expected to press Obama on a tougher policy toward Iran as a precondition for movement in Palestine. There's also been a lot of talk about Obama wanting movement on Palestine as a precondition for a tougher stance on Iran. Sounds like fun, right? But Obama has a much better bargaining position, due both to his personal popularity and the overwhelming support for a two-state solution world-wide. He needs to use his pocket kings to force concessions out of Netanyahu. The Bush administration mostly gave Israel a free pass for eight years, Mr. Obama needs to jump on this early and put some pressure on Israel to freeze settlements and work toward political reconciliation. Too many presidents wait until their last year or so in office to start working on this thorny problem. Mr. Obama needs to start now, and let Mr. Netanyahu know that foot-dragging will not be tolerated.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading Material

Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been simmering for a number of years, there are several good books written about combat in these theaters. I'll put aside books about the politics of the war or grand strategy. These three are mainly about combat and the lives of the soldiers risking their lives for a greater goal in the Middle East and Central Asia (in the order I read them):

The Long Road Home:
This one is an account of a major battle between the US Army and Mahdi militiamen in 2004. Written by Martha Raddatz, it is similar in style and story to Black Hawk Down. It is a detailed account of the battle, the soldiers, and their families. I read this one quite a while ago, so my memory of it isn't the best, but it was an excellent account of the beginning of the insurgency in Iraq.

Chasing Ghosts
:
Written by Paul Rieckhoff, an Amherst graduate and current chairman of the IAVA, this is a gritty look at combat and life in a small combat outpost. His unit entered Iraq shortly after the invasion proper ended and Iraq had been "liberated". The book is a great look at the day to day grind of a small unit in Baghdad. The book is at times hilarious, highly critical, deeply sad, and ultimately very real. At times it feels more like Catch-22, other times Platoon. Rieckhoff makes no effort to hide his feeling about the war itself and how it was and is being waged. He is very critical of the lack of equipment and training given to his unit before deployment, as well as the war in Iraq in general.

Joker One:
This book, just recently released, is written by Donovan Campbell, a guy who graduated from Princeton, but enrolled in OCS instead of heading off to a cushy investment banking job. He served two tours in Iraq as a Marine. The first was as an intelligence officer, the second as a platoon leader in the capital of Anbar Province, Ramadi. Fallujah got most of the press, but Ramadi was a very violent city, and Campbell's unit sustained the highest rate of casualties of any unit since Vietnam. Campbell pulls no punches in his description of combat and life in Ramadi. He certainly doesn't shy away from describing his own weaknesses as a leader, or the idiosyncrasies of war. He does a masterful job of illustrating the bond formed between his men over their time in Iraq. The full title calls it a "Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood", but Entertainment Weekly's review put it better, saying "Joker One isn't as much a story of war as it is a story of love." The book makes no political points, it is merely a very moving account of young men in a very tough situation.

For more immediate reading about the men and women serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gary Trudeau put together The Sandbox, a compilation of blogs by military folks stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan right now.

Robert Gates

Despite my cynicism in the previous post regarding Gen. McKiernan's firing, I am becoming convinced that keeping Robert Gates is at or near the top of the list of best decisions of President Obama's administration. There is an excellent story in the Washington Post, profiling Gates. (Tip of the hat to, surprise surprise, Tom Ricks.) He seems dedicated to the safety of the American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and very committed to winning those wars. He's not willing to give in to bureaucratic inertia. The story of his herculean efforts to acquire more Predators for the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is exactly what you want to see from your SecDef.

I already blogged about the defense budget, but it is another example of his doing what he believes is right, and not giving into the dug in bureaucracy. He also wrote a very interesting article(sorry, can't find a public version) in the January/February 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs on the need for the military to adapt to 21st century war, de-emphasizing conventional war in favor of asymmetric warfare. He seems uninterested in politics, only wanting to do what needs to be done for the US to prevail in our current conflicts and be better prepared for similar conflicts in the future.

Kudos to the Obama team and kudos to Sec. Gates. When politics are put aside for the common good, great things can happen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Gen. McKiernan

Allow me to play the cynic for a moment. (It comes fairly easily, I admit.)

President Obama (and Gen. Petraeus) asked for and received General David McKiernan's resignation as senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan yesterday. While there are clearly still many issues to be worked out in Afghanistan, and perhaps news will emerge that McKiernan was standing in the way of some new administration policies... as of yet, there doesn't seem to be a huge reason for this.

My thought: Is this like the baseball team that fires the manager after a disappointing first half? The team sucks, and there's not a whole lot the GM (or owner) can do about it, but by firing the manager, it looks like they're doing something about it. With dire warnings about Pakistan, and no real change of strategy in Afghanistan, other than sending more American troops there, maybe the President wanted to look like he was doing something substantial.

I hope I'm wrong. But this thought has been nagging at the back of my mind for a while.