Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Tyranny" (II)

Matt Yglesias on how al-Awlaki must not be THAT bad, so why the extrajudicial killing?:

Nobody’s saying that US citizens who defect to the enemy maintain some kind of shield of immunity in a battlefield context. Nor is anyone denying that the US government has the authority to arrest people it believes to have committed crimes. So why not send a bunch of troops into the relevant part of Yemen seeking to either create a context of stability in which al-Awlaki can be arrested or else perhaps he’d be killed on the battlefield? Well, because nobody seems to think that would be smart policy. Which is presumably because al-Awlaki isn’t in fact all that dangerous so policymakers don’t think it makes sense to engage in costly measures to kill or capture him. 

Alex Massie has a view from across the pond:

Awlaki does not seem an especially attractive customer but if the American government has the power to determine any location on earth a battlefield environment so that it can assassinate its countrymen without fear of judicial repercussions then evidently there are few remaining limits on Presidential power and whatever small - and foolish - hopes you might have for the end of the Imperial Presidency should be locked away for years yet.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Conservatives Don't Understand Stimulus Redux

Reading Krugman's pieces about WWII's effect in ending the Great Depression, I'm reminded of something. Conservatives who don't like Keynesian demand-side stimulus often point to the Great Depression as evidence. "Look," they say, "it wasn't the New Deal that ended the Depression, it was World War II! QED!"

Here's the thing. Putting aside FDR's early austerity and the actual effect of the New Deal, World War II was Keynesian demand-side stimulus on a massive scale! If we had merely built all those tanks and boats and driven them off a cliff into the ocean, it would have been just as stimulative. The government spent massive amounts of debt-financed money on paying people to build things! In this case, it was tanks and guns that ended up ridding the world of fascism (good!) and causing mass destruction and human suffering (bad!).

The point is that massive debt-financed spending on building bridges and high-speed railways right here in America is stimulus in the exact same way. And it actually will actually cause more prosperity!

Cyber War

This is actually kind of cool. Also scary:

A complex computer worm capable of seizing control of industrial plants has affected the personal computers of staff working at Iran's first nuclear power station weeks before the facility is to go online, the official news agency reported Sunday

The project manager at the Bushehr nuclear plant, Mahmoud Jafari, said a team is trying to remove the malware from several affected computers, though it "has not caused any damage to major systems of the plant," the IRNA news agency reported
The destructive Stuxnet worm has surprised experts because it is the first one specifically created to take over industrial control systems, rather than just steal or manipulate data.

 Make sure your McAfee anti-virus software is paid up, folks! Sheesh.


That's what Radley Balko is calling the latest in the Obama administration's attempts to make the Bush administration's executive power record look mild:

Obama is arguing the executive has the power to execute American citizens without a trial, without even so much as an airing of the charges against them, and that it can do so in complete secrecy, with no oversight from any court, and that the families of the executed have no legal recourse.

I already have a problem with the assertion that the Obama administration can send a Predator after an American citizen without some sort of court order. Now they're arguing that there be no oversight whatsoever? This is deeply disturbing.

It's worth noting that Balko is an ardent civil libertarian, and I don't have the legal chops to really get into exactly what is being argued. But it sounds to me like the broad thrust is indisputable. Here's WaPo:

Civil liberties groups sued the U.S. government on behalf of Aulaqi's father, arguing that the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command's placement of Aulaqi on a capture-or-kill list of suspected terrorists - outside a war zone and absent an imminent threat - amounted to an extrajudicial execution order against a U.S. citizen. They asked a U.S. district court in Washington to block the targeting. 

(Emphasis mine.) I think this is the real problem. If an American citizen is in Afghanistan and shooting at our troops, yeah, he's gonna get killed. But I think there's a moral and legal difference between that and dropping a bomb on an American citizen in Yemen because he's connected to a terrorist group.

In response, Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the groups are asking "a court to take the unprecedented step of intervening in an ongoing military action to direct the President how to manage that action - all on behalf of a leader of a foreign terrorist organization."

Miller added, "If al-Aulaqi wishes to access our legal system, he should surrender to American authorities and return to the United States, where he will be held accountable for his actions." 

Mission creep much? Dropping a bomb in Yemen on an American citizen is apparently now covered by the AUMF? Back when we cared more about the rule of law and weren't in a perpetual state of war with, apparently, the entire world, didn't we have extradition treaties and the like? Dropping an ultimatum along the lines of "you're a criminal, surrender and return to the US or die" sounds like something out of a dystopian novel.

Justice Department officials said they invoked the controversial legal argument reluctantly, mindful that domestic and international critics attacked former president George W. Bush for waging the fight against terrorism with excessive secrecy and unchecked claims of executive power. 

No shit? At least they're "reluctant." Or something.

Adam Serwer has more:

I'd only add that whether or not al-Awlaki is a very bad person is irrelevant to the question -- which is whether or not the president has the authority to kill anyone he wants with no judicial review based on having simply labeled them a terrorist. If due-process rights only applied to "good people," they wouldn't be rights, and if the government can deprive you of such rights merely by labeling you a "bad person," then ultimately none of us is safe. 

As a side note, do you think the Tea Party or the "small government" right will decry this? No, probably not. Providing universal health care is tyranny, but assassinating one's own citizens without due process is "strong national defense". It falls to "crackpot" lefties like Greenwald and Serwer and "crazy libertarians" like Balko to raise hell about this. Unfortunately, there's no Fox News for civil libertarians.

(A big tip o' the hat to the Dish.)

EDIT: Andy McCarthy, who thinks the president is a secret Muslim working to install Sharia law, has no problem with that same president having the power to assassinate US Citizens extra-judicially. Kevin Williamson, also at NRO, takes him to task.

Faith means not knowing what you're talking about

Even after controlling for education level, atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons have the most religious knowledge, with atheists and agnostics taking top spot, Pew says. White evangelicals were next, Catholics were toward the bottom.

We're Stronger Than That (IV)

The Citizens for the Republic think we're not:

Monday, September 27, 2010

My Neighborhood

I wandered out to return a library book on my lunch break today and took a bunch of pictures of my neighborhood. I just downloaded the app "Retro Camera" for my phone, which doubles as my camera these days. So the pictures have some funky effects on them. This is mostly to cover up for my inadequate photography skills. Anyway, without further ado:

Street art (possibly bike racks?) near the YWCA.

Minneapolis' new Nice Ride bikeshare program. I am very likely to buy a subscription next year.

Old Chicago. I just like this little mural on the wall that faces the street.

The clock tower on Uptown Transit Station. This is the first stop on my way to work in the morning.

Infinitea with the green facade. I'm not sure what the very colorful facade is for. It looks nice, though!

One of the iconic images of Uptown-the Walker Library sign.

The other iconic image--Uptown Theater.

Looking up Hennepin Avenue past Uptown Transit Station and toward Uptown Theater.

Looking down the Midtown Greenway from the Uptown Transit Station.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On blogging


In my experience, the kind of people who make successful blogs, are the kind of people who've already been blogging in their heads for years. And then the dam gives way.

Blogging is like any other kind of writing. You don't really choose to do it. You just can't choose not to.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

We're Stronger Than That (III)

Erica Payne says it well:

Consider this: We are the world's only superpower. We have 309 million citizens and control 3.79 million square miles of land. At $14.3 trillion, we have the world's largest economy. We make up two-fifths of the world's military spending. It is virtually impossible for our enemies to beat us physically. Even if by some unimaginable turn of events terrorists were able to destroy every building in the country, the citizens who remained would just move to West Texas, stick a flag in the sand while singing God Bless America at the top of their lungs and start to rebuild. We're just like that, we Americans.

So since you can't destroy the land that is America; in order to destroy us, you must kill the idea that is America - the principles that brought us together in the first place and that bind us now, even when we fall short of realizing them. Our worst enemies don't want our body. They want our soul. Like the devil, the only way they can get it is if we give it to them. Unfortunately, politicians are racing to sign the dotted line.

We do more damage by betraying our founding principles of habeas corpus and the rule of law than can be done by any terrorist attack. President Obama knows this intellectually, though I wish he were doing a better job of acting on it. The GOP, however, is clueless.

But I have faith that we'll make it through, and we'll be stronger still in the future.


From the GOP's "Pledge to America"(pdf):

An unchecked executive, a compliant legislature, and an overreaching judiciary have combined to thwart the will of the people and overturn their votes and their values, striking down long-standing laws and institutions and scorning the deepest beliefs of the American people.

I think most liberals agree with this. But I think it's hilarious for the party of George W Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Roberts to criticize the Democrats on issues of executive power and judicial activism. Citizens United seems to me to be an overreaching court scorning the beliefs of the American people, but I doubt that's what the GOP had in mind. And I'm pretty unhappy with some of Obama's actions regarding executive power, but to think the GOP will do anything other than exacerbate the problem when a Republican is in the Oval Office is laughable.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Culture Wars

Will Wilkinson (late of Cato) over at the Economist has the best description I've heard:

Unlike liberalism, social/moral conservatism is essentially a creed of lost causes. It is about delaying the inevitable, standing firm against the tide of progressive social change for one more decade or year or day. Vulnerability—a sense of a treasured way of life under siege—is at social conservatisms' heart, and embattled reaction to the slings and arrows of liberal reproach and condescension is intrinsic to conservatism. In contrast, liberalism is generally confident, sure that it is the vanguard of history. But the arrogance of liberals frustrated by the futile intransigence of America's morally conservative majority is fuel for the conservative grief machine.

(Emphasis mine.) I don't really have anything to add, except that this is just spot on. It also does a good job of describing the dynamic behind the scared and hysterical tone of discourse on today's right.

Darrell Issa (II)

Weigel's got the goods on what he wants to investigate:

The first list: federal agency performance management, federal emergency management, federal IT systems, federal financial management, the Presidential Records Act, ACORN, Countrywide, food safety, stimulus spending, the SEC, TARP,  and "the independence of inspectors general." The second list: Food Safety, Homeland Security, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Health care reform oversight, stimulus spending, the Minerals Management Service, and Climategate (which Issa's staff calls "Politicization of Science").

I can't wait for the Speaker Boehner era.

From the Annals of Over-Privileged Jackasses (II)

Take it away, Max Abelson:

And even before the president's sporadically astonishing town hall meeting hosted by CNBC on Monday, Paul Krugman dedicated his column to the anger of businessmen, diagnosing belligerence, blood lust and self-righteousness. But that isn't exactly right. What's been blossoming, according to interviews with senior executives from four of the major New York financial institutions, is a very different king of rage.

Bankers are offended. They speak of betrayal. Feelings have been hurt.

Poor babies.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I wish Bob Herbert took his opening analogy further in this column:

I didn’t notice much when a terrific storm slammed into parts of New York City on Thursday evening. I was working at my computer in a quiet apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The skies darkened and it began to rain, and I could hear thunder. But that’s all. I made a cup of coffee and kept working.
The movers and shakers of our society seem similarly oblivious to the terrible destruction wrought by the economic storm that has roared through America. They’ve heard some thunder, perhaps, and seen some lightning, and maybe felt a bit of the wind. But there is nothing that society’s leaders are doing — no sense of urgency in their policies or attitudes — that suggests they understand the extent of the economic devastation that has come crashing down like a plague on the poor and much of the middle class. 

I think this is an important point that doesn't get made enough. When making policy decisions, members of congress and the chattering class are insulated from the concerns of much of the nation. Why do I say this? As of 2008, there were 238 millionaires in congress. That's a slightly higher ratio (44% vs <1%) than in the nation as a whole. Even those that aren't millionaires make a comfortable salary with lots of nice benefits. Journalists writing for the major news outlets or fellows at the major think tanks are similarly comfortable.

What's more, people tend to hang out with the same type of people. College graduates have an unemployment rate of under 5%, compared to people without a high school diploma, 14% of whom are unemployed. But the people shaping opinion and conventional wisdom in our political system are emphatically from the former group, and likely have little interaction with the latter.

Both our policy-makers and the movers and shakers they listen to are insulated from the full cost of the recession, just like Mr Herbert was insulated from the storm. It's folly to think that doesn't have an effect on policy.

EDIT: Brad Delong has a post along the same lines up. Yes, $455,000 is rich.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How the GOP Looks at the Budget


SAY I want to buy a cheeseburger, coke and fries from you. You give me the cheeseburger, coke and fries and say, okay, that'll be $4 please. I hand you $3. You say, um, sir, we have a payment problem here. I say, no, we have a price problem. You're charging too much. We don't have a payment problem. I'm not paying you too little.
In the cheeseburger analogy, I might propose to you that if you only want to pay $3, you can cut out the coke, or you can cut out the fries. But this isn't what Mr McConnell is doing. Instead, he's reaching over and grabbing back one of the dollar bills, and saying that actually, he's decided he only wants to pay $2. Because we have a price problem, not a payment problem. We can never have a payment problem. Just like America can never be paying too little in taxes. That's axiomatic.

Sound ridiculous? It is. But that's how Mitch McConnell thinks about the budget.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Delicious Liberaltarianism

Yglesias points to an article about issues with food truck licensing. This is another area where liberals can find common cause with libertarians and conservatives. Contrary to popular belief, liberals do not have a pathological desire for more regulations and larger government for no reason. Regulation that serves little point, deters the mom-and-pop businesses that liberals love so much from opening, and may even serve to protect the interests of other profit-seeking businesses (brick and mortar restaurants aren't fans of street food) should go.

The Twin Cities are undergoing something of a street food renaissance right now, and it's in large part because of Minneapolis deregulating food trucks and carts. There's still a good bit of red tape that could go. But even now in Minneapolis you can get bison burgers, pulled pork tacos and mini donuts from Chef Shack where you could previously only get hot dogs and chips. I've been enjoying the delicious Cubanos and strawberry lemonade from the Fork in the Road truck in St Paul recently. And there are several more trucks that I haven't had a chance to sample yet. The point is, as with beer, size of government is irrelevant. Let's make sure government is efficient and effective, and not throwing up barriers or spending money for no reason.

We're Stronger Than That (II)

Jon Stewart agrees:

"[T]his is not a fragile country. I’m not suggesting we couldn’t find ourselves in deep conflict. But we had slaves, and we fought a civil war; now we’re down to Glenn Beck being hyperbolic with his audience about nostalgia. This too shall pass.”

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Romance of Streetcars

Yonah Freemark has a great article about why suboptimal transit policy options may be optimal politically, due to the public enthusiasm for a certain type of transit:

If it is necessary to intrigue both politicians and the public about a new transit system in order to get it funded, the necessary corollary must sometimes be choosing the wrong transportation mode from a technical perspective in order to satisfy political demands.

I think the most obvious example of this is the choice when upgrading a transit corridor that currently uses conventional buses. Often the most cost-effective choice is upgrading to Bus Rapid Transit, giving buses a dedicated right-of-way, higher speeds, and longer distance between stops. Essentially, a bus acts like a rail vehicle, but it's far cheaper to build the infrastructure for BRT than for a Light Rail or streetcar line. So why, then, are the Twin Cities looking at reviving their streetcars for the Nicollet and W 7th St transit corridors? Well, the easy answer is that the romance of streetcars will bring more public support than the boring and confusing option of BRT.

Freemark also has a critical post up on a proposed streetcar line in New York. The upshot is that if streetcars are the most politically viable option, then it's important to ensure that the streetcars are modern ones that can match or exceed the capacity and utility of BRT. Such vehicles are readily available and in use in many European cities.

As a side note, the two companies that make the rail vehicles most cities use are Bombardier and Siemens. It is unfortunate that America has to import our vehicles from companies based in Germany. But I see this as a direct consequence of our emphasis on automobile infrastructure over the last half-century while Europe built up their mass transit systems. There just wasn't demand for passenger rail vehicles in the US, so we lost those high-quality manufacturing jobs to German companies. I doubt they're coming back. So as we try to catch up on our transit infrastructure, we're doing a lot of stimulating the German economy instead of our own.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Judicial Politics?

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has you covered.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Empire State of Mind

In response to a hilarious article about New York City sucking by the Onion, Paul Krugman talks about how easy life is in NYC:

Actually, when I’m in New York what always strikes me is how easy life is in some respects. If I want something from the drug store, or the hardware store, or go see a movie, it’s right there — no need to get in the car and drive several miles. 

The thing is, this is all true of my neighborhood in Minneapolis. Literally, as in I can get to a hardware store in about 30 seconds walking, a theater in about a minute, and the drugstore takes all of maybe five minutes to get to. (My walk score is 97.) And I don't have to deal with the insane housing costs, the garbage in the streets or the many other vagaries of NYC life so brilliantly pointed out in the Onion piece.

More importantly, this is true of most cities of decent size. Obviously suburbs are incredibly car-oriented (the house I grew up in has a walk score of 37). But most cities are very compact and walkable. Several Chicago neighborhoods are similar to mine in density. Obviously some cities like Detroit were built with cars in mind, but many or most were not.

Density can also take odd forms. Matt Yglesias pointed out recently how Somerville, MA is actually denser than Chicago or DC. But it doesn't have loads of gleaming skyscrapers or anything, land was just efficiently used. The point is, walkable urban areas exist outside Manhattan and need not look anything like the bustling multitudes and high-rise apartments in New York City.