Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dirt on Kagan

Judging from the opening salvos in the Elena Kagan confirmation hearing, it appears that the Republicans have few real grounds for opposing the nomination, but are putting on a show for their base.  If the most serious charge against this nominee is that as dean of Harvard Law School, she barred military recruiters from campus, there is no way Kagan is not going to be confirmed.  I say that not to offend the sensibilities of those who believe that it was simply outrageous and wrong for Kagan to have barred military recruiters from campus, but only to try to put the matter in perspective.  Because the question is not whether she was wrong--in fact let's stipulate that she was wrong--but whether there was at least a reasonable basis for her actions.

Harvard, like other law schools, has strict policies against discrimination by any recruiters who seek to use campus facilities to interview their students.  They cannot tolerate any law firms (the vast majority of recruiters) who would admit to a policy of discriminating for any reason, whether based on ethnicity, sex, religion, or sexual preference.  Imagine the outcry if Harvard, or any other major law school, allowed a law firm on campus that refused to interview blacks or Latinos or women or gays.  That cannot be allowed.  So all Kagan did was to try to apply that policy consistently to interviewers from the government.  Note that she did not, and could not, prohibit the military from recruiting Harvard students.  All she did was refuse to allow them the use of campus facilities.  How outrageous was that, really?

Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court this week in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez just upheld the right of the University of California to refuse to allow a Christian group to use school facilities and resources because of that group's discriminatory policies.  Whether one agrees or disagrees with that decision, one has to acknowledge that Elena Kagan's ideas about whether schools, public or private, should be required to allow groups that practice discrimination to use campus facilities are in the mainstream of legal thought.

(Susan Walsh / AP photo)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Are Americans Over-Taxed?

When Vice-President Joe Biden was asked recently by a manager of an ice cream store about lowering our taxes, Biden seemed a bit annoyed.  The manager's question seems another example of the widespread misimpression that Americans are over-taxed.  The reality, of course, is that Americans enjoy overall tax rates that are quite low in comparison to most other similar nations.


These figures are all the more remarkable considering that the United States supports by far the largest military in the world, and has overseas commitments far greater than other nations. What people should be asking the vice-president is, how do we do it? How do we manage all the United States does and still pay much less in taxes than other comparable countries?

(Urban Institute and Brookings Institute figures)

Financial Reform Moves Forward.

Financial reform legislation passed a crucial hurdle this week, after the House and Senate conferees agreed on a reconciled bill.  Maybe it's fun to argue about who won and who lost, and whether the bill goes too far or doesn't go far enough.  Maybe it's also appropriate to look for people to blame for whatever failings people might find in the bill.  But to me those kinds of arguments seem a little beside the point.   Legislation takes the form it does because it emerges out of a messy and nasty process called the United States Congress.  Congress includes a wide range of views, and all of its members get to vote.  Critics of whatever legislation Congress passes never seem to feel the need to explain how they would have gotten a better bill through the Congress.

From what I understand of this bill (basically what I read in the papers), we will now start to regulate some things that were not regulated before.  But the scope of those regulations will not be known for some time, since regulation has just been empowered but not drafted.  The bill will also consolidate consumer protections in a single agency.  Will it prevent another financial crisis?  Nobody knows.  Will it at least attempt to curb some of the excesses that led to the last financial crisis?  Well, that was the whole point of the effort, wasn't it?  I think we should applaud the effort, and look forward to this Congress chalking up another significant achievement.  We can always tinker with these reforms further down the line.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Civilian Control over the Military

I was surprised at how quickly our normally-cautious president decided to fire General McChrystal after the publication in Rolling Stone of an article describing his and his staff's disrespectful remarks about the administration's Afghanistan team.  After all, it's only Rolling Stone magazine.  And the remarks could have been written off as the usual  private (oops-except for that pesky reporter) military grumbling within the confines of their own tents about clueless politicians who are always making life difficult for capable soldiers.  General McClellan said far worse things about Abraham Lincoln, and although he was eventually sacked also, he was not sacked for his disrespectful remarks, but for his dithering and insubordinate military strategy.  General LeMay was also highly outspoken and disrepectful of President Kennedy, but Kennedy put up with it.  By refusing to tolerate this kind of disrespect, is President Obama showing himself to be too thin-skinned?  Is he unduly worried about the acceptance of his leadership within the military?  Does it make sense to discharge a general who is generally acting in conformity with existing strategy (indeed the strategy in Afghanistan was in large part a strategy designed by McChrystal), and replace him with another general (even if it is David Petraeus, who has high respect in the military and among the public) who is probably going to continue down the same path?  I thought these kinds of concerns would have led the president to keep McChrystal on at least a while longer, and since I pride myself on staying in sync with the administration's decisions, I was a bit miffed that my prediction was today proven incorrect.   (Doris Kearns Goodwin also had a piece in the Times based on her Lincoln research opining that Obama would act only for reasons of strategy, rather than pique at being criticized.)

I am guessing that the president must have felt he had no choice but to take this action.  Perhaps this was as good a time as any to demonstrate that the principle of civilian control over the military must never be questioned.   I'm also guessing that President Obama must have felt uncomfortable with McChrystal for a long time, and that this incident was just the straw that broke the camel's back.  There was that incident last year when the President was undertaking a lengthy review of Afghanistan policy, during which General McChrystal came out with a fairly outspoken report raising the possibility of failure if the General did not get his troop request.  I'm sure that was annoying. 

So I'm going to give the president the benefit of the doubt that speedily firing McChrystal was the right decision to make.  Someday we will probably learn of more of the factors that probably required this decision.  It will also be interesting to see whether this shake-up prompts another re-examination of policy in Afghanistan, and if any re-arrangement of the chairs in the civilian command also takes place.

(Photograph by Mikhail Galustov for Rolling Stone)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Danger on the Right

An editorial in the New York Times yesterday takes Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle to task for her incendiary comments regarding the Second Amendment. (See also this report in the Washington Post, and this story about her dodging questions by a local tv reporter.)  Angle's comments go far beyond the usual pandering to the advocates of private gun ownership. When Angle talks about people having to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment ways, or asking "what will be the next step?" if she does not win at the ballot box, she is going far beyond advocating gun ownership, and instead challenging democracy itself. Condemning these kinds of remarks in New York Times editorials is all well and good, but perhaps people need to get even more alarmed than that.

What I think people who generally support the current administration and the Democratic Congress need to do is get over our earlier romanticizing of protest, especially when it verges into revolution and riot and violence. I grew up in the 1960's, and was strongly supportive of Civil Rights and anti-war protests. Back then we used to spout a lot of anti-government rhetoric, and talk passionately about the virtues of dissent and protest. And that kind of rhetoric carried those movements pretty far . . . until it turned violent. When the anti-war protesters and urban rioters started appearing too threatening to the average American, that was when people embraced the law and order candidacy of Richard Nixon. I'm still not sure we have learned the lessons of how counter-productive the more militant aspects of those 1960's movements turned out to be.

Nowadays, almost all of the anti-government rhetoric is coming from the right. They are the ones who are quoting Tom Paine now. And it is the left that needs to be standing up for law and order and the silent majority. We need to be waving the American flag, and wrapping ourselves in the Constitution. I'm all for supporting the First Amendment rights of the tea party movement to march in the streets peacefully, and shout whatever slogans they want. But when they start waving their guns around and threatening violence, that is when their opponents need to denounce them forcefully, and even start getting people a little scared about where such tactics may lead. Being on the side of peace and democracy is not only the right thing to do, it is also the politically smart thing to do. Because the average American does not want to see militant mobs attacking the government of the United States, and is not going to support Tea Party protesters if they appear to be threatening and disruptive. So we need to keep hounding people like Sharron Angle to expose the more dangerous aspects of their rhetoric.  And we need to stress that the way to resolve political conflicts is to do so rationally and peacefully, with respect for the rights of the minority, as well as the will of the majority.

(photo from News Junkie Post)

Friday, June 18, 2010

$20 Billion from BP!

It seems like it would be really hard to find something wrong with getting BP to agree to put up $20 billion, no strings attached, to compensate people who are being harmed by the Gulf oil spill.  For some reason, however, the natural instinct of many is either to criticize, or to be unimpressed with the historic nature of the president's achievement.  For some balance, here is Joe Biden's take:



And here is Ed Schultz cheering the President on.  Maybe we should still celebrate even if it is a shakedown, a word Schultz is not afraid to use:




Or maybe we should not waste time arguing about whether it is a shakedown or not.  It could be just a smart thing for BP to do to recognize costs that it would have to assume in litigation anyway.  Or it could be that the administration is using some muscle to force an oil company to pay for the damage it caused.  Either way, the money is going to people who are going to have to demonstrate their entitlement to compensation for harm that BP caused.  And they need the money, and should not have to wait years for it.  Maybe we should just learn to say, Good job, Mr. President.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dumbing It Down

According to this story on CNN, a language expert who analyzed President Obama's Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday night concluded that the speech may have sounded too "professorial" or "academic" for its target audience.  Written at nearly a 10th grade level, the speech may have gone over the heads of many members of the public.  I'm wondering, if the president is speaking in too erudite a fashion for Americans to understand, should we demand that he dumb it down, or should we make a greater effort to understand what he is saying?  Instead of criticizing the president for being too professorial, I would suggest that people read the speech a second time if they have trouble understanding it, or maybe turn off the tv for a while and pick up a book or a newspaper. The book I would recommend reading is Dreams from My Father.  First, it is a beautifully-written book, so it is profitable reading for anyone just to gain a better appreciation of the use of language.  Second, it would help people understand the mind of Barack Obama.  Anyone who complains about having difficulty understanding the president just needs to make a little more effort.  With a bit of effort, he is really not that difficult to understand; and it should not be too much to ask that we try to rise to his level, rather than asking him to sink to ours.

This kind of criticism of the president made me realize that many people may resent the president  not because he is liberal, and not because he is black, but perhaps most of all because he is smart, skinny and industrious.  He reminds Americans that we are dumb, fat and lazy, and we don't really appreciate being reminded of that.  Maybe also because he is so smart and hard-working, we would prefer to blame him for all of our  problems instead of trying to correct them ourselves.

Let's focus for a few minutes on the content of the speech.  After telling us all the administration is doing to fix the problem, and that BP is also going to be held fully responsible, the speech leads to the conclusion that there are things that all of us can do to wean ourselves off our dependence on oil.  Let's face it.  The reason we had a giant oil spill is that Americans think we have a God-given right to as much cheap oil as we care to use, so we are willing to put up with drilling off our coasts, and we are willing to allow the oil companies to cut a few corners so they can keep us supplied with the oil we crave.  We are unwilling to change some of our habits, and pay more for our oil-driven lifestyle.  The part of the president's speech that undoubtedly went over the heads of most people was the part that called on all of us to change:
For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
The president went on to say that all of us have a part to play in making the energy transition, and that it is going to cost money.  No wonder people want to shut their ears to this message and say it is too hard to understand! 

(top: White House photo)

(thanks to Greg Jones for flagging this story)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Geithner Hero

According to a profile in the April Atlantic, Tim Geithner was sitting on a beach in Mexico in December 2008 when he came up with the key components of his idea for saving the US financial system from possible collapse.  That idea included the stress tests applied to the banking system, combined with an attempt to rely primarily on private capital to keep the banks solvent.  According to the Treasury's later calculations, Geithner's plan may have saved the taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, and turned the economy around at far less cost than recoveries from comparable financial crises in history. The economy has rebounded more quickly than most people predicted, and the cost of the bailouts is likely to be much less than expected.  Yet statues are not yet being erected to honor Timothy Geithner.

The financial rescue, begun under President Bush under the leadership of then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (and Geithner in his capacity as head of the New York Fed), and continued under the Obama administration under the leadership of Treasury Secretary Geithner and Bernanke and Larry Summers, is still so poorly understood that the Obama economic team is viewed by many as villains rather than heroes.  Geithner understands the political costs of the Treasury's and the Fed's actions. As he explained to the Atlantic reporter:
“We’re getting killed from the right and from the left on the basic strategy.  The right argues that we unnecessarily socialized the entire financial system. The left says we wasted money on things they’d have rather used to help real people directly. As you might understand, I have no sympathy with either. Neither critique is right. To the right, I would say: ‘No, the strategy we adopted was overwhelmingly designed to try to make sure that private markets came and took us out of this as quickly as possible. That was a conscious choice, a shift in strategy, and a more pro-market approach that will help us deal with our fiscal challenges.’ And to the left, I would say: ‘And that saved the taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars that you can use to meet the main challenges we face as a country—health care, education, infrastructure, and our long-term deficit.’”

Both right and left also seem angry that Wall Street bankers seem to have been rewarded instead of being punished more severely.   Geithner doesn't have much sympathy for that criticism either.   And it is hard to see how a more vindictive policy toward the financial fat cats who contributed so much to the financial meltdown would have worked better to restore a functioning financial system.  But to the extent the Obama economic team failed, it seems their greatest failure was to satisfy the public's urge to blame and punish some of the culprits responsible for the crash of 2008.  

Of course there are knowledgeable and intelligent critics of the administration's policies on both the right and the left who would have done things differently.  And there is always room for second guessing.  The administration should be given more credit, however, for doing what they thought would be most effective regardless of the political risks of their strategy.  The fact that the administration is still suffering politically for its economic decisions should cause even more admiration for their fortitude. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Democrats and Deficits

The LA Times reported today that Democrats in Congress are starting to become more skittish about spending bills, due to increasing concerns about the large federal deficit.  If I were advising any of these worried Democrats, I would suggest finding something else to worry about more.  Posing as the party of fiscal conservatism and balanced budgets has never proven to be a terribly successful strategy for either party, as there are usually other issues that people are more concerned about.  Telling people that we need to balance the federal budget is generally a depressing and unwelcome message to give them.  Better to let the Republicans assume that task.

Whenever I hear Republicans whining about the deficit, I just smile, not only because their sudden concern about deficits--after remaining complicit for eight years while George W. Bush doubled the national debt--is funny, but more importantly because it represents a return to a more natural order of politics.  One of the most refreshing changes caused by the election of Barack Obama was that it allowed Republicans to return to their customary role of fulminating about fiscal responsibility, while Democrats can return to their traditional role of promising more goodies for the people.  That natural order was reversed for a full 28 years previously, and that was always confusing to me, and pretty much turned me off of politics for the entire period.  We entered the looking glass when Ronald Reagan was elected.  Instead of worrying about the deficit, he persuaded people to worry more about taxes and big government.  As a result of his tax-cutting policies, the deficit started ballooning, but people didn't seem to care all that much about it.  So from 1980 through 2008, although the Republicans sometimes professed to be concerned about deficits, they never did anything much to reduce them, instead promising to keep cutting taxes, while letting others worry about the deficit.  The worriers during that period turned out to be Democrats, who suddenly and unnaturally became the party of fiscal responsibility.  During Bill Clinton's term, the Democrats actually succeeded in turning the federal deficit into a substantial surplus.  A lot of good that did the Democrats politically, as Congress fell into Republican control during Clinton's term, and he was followed by the most reckless tax cutter and deficit spender in history, George W. Bush.  

President Obama is now presiding over an even greater increase in the federal deficit as a result of and in order to cure the country of the deep recession we entered in 2008.  Of course, substantial deficit spending would have occurred regardless of who was elected, due to reduced tax revenues, increased unemployment and other social welfare claims, and the need for some form of increased spending or tax cutting to end the recession.  Obama is smart politically to profess a concern for rooting out wasteful spending, and to set a goal of deficit reduction over the next few years.  But as I mentioned in a previous post, it still seems premature to panic about deficit spending.  We are not even close to having the problems that are occurring in Greece, and significant cutbacks in government spending would likely slow the economy down again, which would not exactly help the government get its books back in balance.  For the Democrats to become deficit hawks again would also seem dumb politically, despite polls that purport to show increased public concern about deficit spending.  What Democrats need to do, as Ronald Reagan so brilliantly did, is to find something else for Americans to be more concerned about than deficit spending.  Reagan convinced us to become more concerned about taxes and big government, so we would stop worrying about the deficit.  Democrats should focus on concerns about unemployment and economic stagnation, because those problems are much more serious than deficit spending, particularly in the short term.  Democrats should not be so quick to wish to return to the unnatural order that prevailed for the strange 28 years prior to 2008.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Virtues of Restraint

I have been reading One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs's hour-by-hour account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Trying to process the terrible events that occurred after Israeli forces boarded blockade-running ships to Gaza this weekend,  I imagined what would have happened had violence of that sort broken out on any of the ships headed for Cuba in October of 1962.  When the U.S. Navy imposed its blockade of Cuba (which we called a quarantine to sound less provocative), the legality of that blockade, like the Israeli blockade of Gaza, was questioned in many quarters.  The U.S. Navy, while insisting on its right to enforce the blockade, was careful not to be unduly provocative.  In boarding the freighter Marcula, for example, they did so in dress uniforms.  Some freighters and tankers were allowed to pass without inspection.  And Russian ships for the most part agreed to turn back, and did not challenge U.S. Navy ships.  Kennedy had shown restraint by refusing to accept some of his generals' recommendations for an airstrike or invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev showed restraint in deciding that he did not want to risk war to maintain missiles in Cuba.   However, even after these decisions were made, both sides recognized that events could still easily spin out of control if all confrontations were not handled very carefully.  One false move or misunderstood incident could easily have led to nuclear war between the superpowers.  Fortunately, incidents during the crisis never quite spun out of control, and nuclear war between the superpowers was averted.

I wonder about the level of care shown in the preparation for this weekend's attempted running of Israel's blockade of Gaza.  Clearly both sides made detailed preparations for this confrontation, but the results suggest that both sides may have acted in a deliberately provocative way, rather than a restrained way.  The blockade runners refused to heed Israeli warnings.  The IDF chose to board the ships by using armed commandos rappelling down from helicopters.  And the passengers apparently responded by attacking the Israeli soldiers with sticks and knives and perhaps pistols.

In this year's incident, unlike 1962, the thought of avoiding any sort of violence did not appear to be uppermost in the minds of the parties involved.  Perhaps that is because unlike in 1962, they knew that an outbreak of violence would probably not trigger global thermonuclear conflict.  Even so, the consequences of this incident are still severe.  Violence does not seem likely to lead to a solution to Gaza's problems.

(photo from William Rush.org)