Friday, October 31, 2008

McCain vs Obama on policy, part 2


McCain seems reasonably in the "free trade" camp. He wants a program that would alter the unemployment insurance system to steer it towards retraining, in order to help cushion those who lose jobs due to globalization. Obama is in the "fair trade" camp, and I've said before that I'm sympathetic to that as long as it's done consistently and without playing favorites. He wants to amend NAFTA, which is funny because polls in all three countries show that the populace think the deal is skewed against them. Meaning, it's unlikely anyone would gain in a renegotiation.

There are three trade specifics I'm heavily against Obama on. One, he opposes the South Korea trade deal due to there being no guarantee that we would sell them as many cars as the other way around. However, it would lower tariffs on both sides, and right now the ratio is so skewed in South Korea's favor that the ratio could only improve. Perfect shouldn't be the enemy of good, especially when perfect is unattainable. Two, he opposes the Columbia trade deal based on the issue of violence against labor leaders and organizers. This was a reasonable position five or ten years ago, but the Colombian government has done a good job of cracking down, to the point where labor is no more a target of violence than the general population. Union leaders in the US oppose the deal, and Democrats are trying to appease them. Finally, Obama favors maintaining the tariff on Brazilian ethanol, a stance that is utterly baffling to me. It's done to shield the already heavily subsidized (and highly inefficient) domestic corn ethanol industry, and Democrats say that it needs to be done so the US doesn't rely on foreign ethanol like we rely on foreign oil. Then why the hell don't we put a tariff on foreign oil too? Brazil is a reasonably friendly nation, especially compared to Venezuela and Russia, who we don't tariff. It's bad policy, but it's good politics. "Change" my eye.

Social Security

McCain is incredibly vague on social security, probably too scared to do anything after Bush got shellacked in 2005. He talks about "supplementing" the program with personal accounts, whatever that means. But I'll take vague over harmful. Obama, for starters, wants no age hike. Sorry, but as life expectancy increases, the time spent working must go up. Especially because US labor is service-oriented, and manufacturing is heavily mechanized, meaning we aren't expecting grandma and grandpa to do back-breaking work. On top of this, Obama says that those earning over $250,000 aren't paying their "fair share", and should have 2-4% of earnings over the current tax cap shaved off to cover the future deficit. That's false on its face. Anyone in the social security system gets out of it what they put in, and those in higher income brackets certainly don't get MORE than they put in. What's fairer than that? Apparently, turning social security into another wealth redistribution program.


The centerpiece of Obama's plan is a nationwide government-run insurance program. What's odd about it is that there's no real way to determine what the cost or effect is. Will it heavily subsidize coverage for lower-income families? Moderately subsidize? Barely subsidize? Will it be run with a goal of breaking even? Etcetera.

Among Obama's other healthcare policies:

-Insurance companies will be unable to deny people coverage for pre-existing conditions, AND must offer these people insurance at an "affordable" price. That sounds to me like forcing insurance companies to take on new clients who will cost them a lot of money. Worrisome.
-Federal benefit mandates. Benefit mandates are one of the reasons why so many people can't afford health insurance in the first place. An inability to choose NOT to get coverage for things that won't be needed means people can't buy policies tailored to their actual needs. This especially effects younger people, who don't need as many things covered on average. It so happens that younger people are far more likely to be uninsured.
-More money for R&D
-Expansions of Medicaid and SCHIP
-Direct negotiation of drug costs by the federal government, which would be de facto price-setting due to the increasing amount of healthcare dollars controlled by the federal government. I believe this would be a huge blow to the creation of new drugs unless it was offset by a hell of a lot more R&D money than is proposed.
-Businesses must give 7 paid sick days per year
-All children must have health coverage. This is also confusing, because it doesn't say if parents are responsible for paying or the government. This is separate from the issue of children being covered by a parent's plan.
-Hospitals required to keep records and analyze data on how "disparity populations" are treated. I have no idea what the heck that means but it sounds like tedious micromanaging to me.
-He says that he'll go after insurance companies that are too profitable and spend too much on administration (ie. paperwork, employees). It's a very strangely worded section, because high administration costs lower profit, and profit is the goal, so why would a company deliberately lose money?
-Tax credit for small businesses to pay for health coverage, up to 50%
-Large employers must pay an unspecified percentage of total payroll towards the government insurance plan if they don't offer coverage. This could be really important, but no specifics are given. There's a big difference between 1% and 5%, for instance.

McCain's plan is very different. The centerpiece is a tax credit for health coverage that would be mostly offset by making employee health benefits taxable income. He claims this wouldn't negatively effect businesses offering health coverage, and that's baffling to me, because the entire point is to move people away from coverage that's dependent on employment. Businesses who pay for healthcare distort the market, because people who don't pay for their own coverage have less incentive to worry about costs. I love the plan but hate the dishonesty. I also worry about the cost, because it would lower taxes for pretty much everyone, and the fact that it's refundable means that millions of households would get thousands of dollars. McCain's tax cuts mean that new spending would need to be offset by cuts elsewhere. He has some generic cost cutting jargon, and the one I like most (tort reform) wouldn't even have much impact on *government* costs.

McCain has two other main proposals. One is that he would "develop a plan with governors" in regards to insurance companies covering people with existing conditions, and that the government would help subsidize the cost. That could get really, really expensive, and the lack of a budgetary number there troubles me. Less troublesome is the proposal to allow people to buy insurance across state lines, which would allow people to buy affordable coverage from states with fewer benefit mandates. It would have the odd effect of making state mandate laws moot, and as a states-are-better-than-federal type that rubs me the wrong way a little bit. Do the ends justify the means? Probably, but it would be nice if he acknowledged the other side of the debate.

Both plans are flawed and costly, but I much prefer McCain's for the effect of de-centralizing things, as opposed to Obama's which moves towards centralization. Removing consumers from the cost of healthcare prevents the market from properly working to keep costs in check. The primary way for government-run programs to control cost is through rationing, which goes against the entire idea of a "right" to healthcare.

Energy & The Environment

Both McCain and Obama want higher CAFE standards. Both agree on a cap-and-trade program, though Obama's is more ambitious and done differently at the outset. Both would spend some of the cap-and-trade money on R&D. Both want to limit "speculation" in oil markets. Both want to see the electrical grid upgraded, though Obama focuses on linking renewable energy to cities while McCain focuses on cutting red tape. McCain favors more nuclear power, while Obama seems to be opposed for reasons of national security. The way he says it is strange, as though the problems are unsolvable, when that ought to be dealt with in homeland security. Heck he even talks about securing nuclear resources in the homeland security section! Both favor some oil drilling (Obama shifted during the summer), though of course McCain wants more. McCain wants an end to ethanol subsidies; Obama wants more ethanol mandates and by all accounts wants the subsidies to continue.

Obama, unsurprisingly, goes into more detail than McCain:

-Fight wildfires, including clearing out wildfire fuel. Environmentalists often fight such measures, but it's necessary to prevent the worst wildfire activity. Kudos.
-Lots of regulations on pollution
-Give money to poorer countries for the prevention of deforestation. It would need to be a LOT of money.
-A "Green Job Corps". Whatever that means.
-All new buildings must be carbon neutral or emission-free by 2030. That seems like a heck of a high standard, especially compared to cars.
-Incentives to utilities to reduce energy usage. That does make some sense, since more energy usage equals more profit for utilities.
-Energy conservation measures required on a state level for a state to get federal transportation money
-"Smart growth" promotion
-"Use it or lose it" on federal oil leases. This is a talking point I've seen in a lot of places, and it makes no sense, because it implies that oil companies are knowingly sitting on available oil supplies. Numbers are often used about the amount of oil available on leased-but-inactive land; said numbers are wild guesstimates based on the assumption that land not being drilled on has as much oil as land being drilled on. The effect of all of the rhetoric is to give an excuse for not allowing offshore drilling (ie. "why don't they drill on land they already have?). If you're opposed to offshore drilling, be opposed, but the "Use it or lose it" talking point is a dishonest way of doing it.
-Spending $150 billion over 10 years (from the cap-and-trade taxes) for "5 million green jobs". This is brought up as a way to boost the economy. That doesn't make sense the way Obama promotes it. "Green" jobs would, in theory, improve the environment, reduce energy usage, and reduce global warming. As such spending on those jobs could be justified by reducing harm. However, Obama acts as if the money comes out of thin air and creates jobs, and jobs are good, right? Sorry, no. The money comes from taxes, and the tax money would otherwise be creating jobs in the private sector. Once again it's about honesty: be honest about what the costs are and where the benefits come from.

Obama's plan would mean higher costs but less pollution and less energy usage. Another clear choice depending on your personal stance on the overall issue.


McCain wants to lower capital gains and corporate taxes, reduce the impact of the estate tax, and double the personal exemption. The corporate tax rate is very important, because the US is suffering in terms of tax competition with other nations. Why a capital gains cut and not an income tax cut, that I'm not sure, because cap gains are already much lower than income for the vast majority of taxpayers.

Obama's plan is about rebates:

-$1000 per family and $25 billion to states from a "windfall profits tax" on oil companies. Very bad policy. First, it discourages domestic production, which goes against energy independence. Second, oil is cyclical (as we've re-learned in the last few weeks), meaning that the companies alternate between lots of profit and not much profit; it's not nice to remove their ability to make money at the top when they face potential losses at the bottom. Third, they're only being targeted because it's a nice populist talking point, yet other big companies with similar profit levels get left alone.
-Up to $3000 for child care
-$500 per worker
-Expanded Earned Income Tax Credit
-No income tax for seniors earning less than $50,000. This really ought to be adjusted to take into account net worth, because seniors with a lot of assets shouldn't get a break like this.
-Reduced estate tax levels (though not as much as McCain)
-No capital gains tax on small businesses and start-ups (no specifics given)

This would be funded by restoring '90s tax rates on upper income brackets, and moving capital gains from 15% to 20%. Obama says that the overall tax burden would be about the same. Sadly, he's wrong.

That's because the vast majority of his "tax cuts" are refundable tax credits. That means people with no tax burden to begin with get a check. When that was done earlier in the year it was called stimulus spending, not a tax cut. If he called it stimulus spending, and justified it to boost the domestic economy, that would be honest. Saying that the rebates lower the level of taxation is dishonest. Raising taxes on one person to give another person a check is redistribution, and if you think that's a good thing then say it, but be open about it. Especially when tens of billions of dollars are involved. What's more, because the tax credits are phased out as income increases, middle-class households will face a very high marginal tax rate when you combine the loss of benefits with the progressive tax rate. High marginal rates on the non-wealthy are a serious damper on productivity and entrepreneurial activity, the engines of growth. Obama's tax plan is nice in the short term for the poorest 40%, but is bad in the long term for everyone.

Misc. Economy

Obama favors the Employee Free Choice Act, which would implement "card check" unionization. McCain opposes it. There's rhetoric on both sides about "intimidation" in how employees vote on unionizing, but it's mostly a smoke screen. The bottom line is, the bill would make it easier for unions to be formed. Do you see that as good for the economy or not? Me, I think the UAW and its effect on Detroit is evidence enough that in the long run unions can be very harmful. Plus, unions are less needed now that the economy is more diverse and more specialized, rather than dominated by huge factories full of unskilled (and thus powerless) line workers. Even industrial laborers today are exponentially more skilled than those of a couple generations ago. There should be an ability to unionize, and secret ballots provide that well enough.

Obama favors raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and indexing it for inflation. McCain, as best I can tell, is against that. Obama uses "living wage" rhetoric, wherein every job should pay enough to support a household. I strongly disagree, because inflated wages eliminate a lot of starting-level jobs that provide needed experience to those breaking into the workforce, and provide jobs to those who would otherwise be unemployed. I'm okay with some level of minimum wage, but not one that means every job has to be able to pay all the bills. Not every job is worth that much, not every worker is the head of the household, and additionally, different costs of living mean that states should decide, not the federal government. $9.50 an hour doesn't have a big impact in New York City, but it can have a serious effect on jobs and businesses in Topeka.

Fiscal policy

McCain is anti-pork, in case you hadn't heard. Obama claims to be, but hasn't been good on the issue during his legislative career. To Obama's credit he wants to do a lot in the way of public databases on contracts, lobbying, earmarks and corporate/military pork to help add transparency. Both want to cut medicare waste, though McCain goes into more detail there (for a change). McCain wants to balance the budget with a 1 year domestic spending freeze followed by smaller increases thereafter. Obama wants to balance the budget with a faster (than McCain) drawdown in Iraq, PAYGO (which congressmen from both parties have ignored whenever they felt like it), more competitive bidding, eliminating unspecified programs, and raising taxes on high earners. I don't trust either of them to balance the budget, but McCain seems a lot more honest about controlling spending. When you see all the ways Obama wants to increase spending, he has a higher burden on him to point out what he'll cut and how much will be saved. He doesn't come close to meeting that burden.

Obama grab bag

I am in general a small-government conservative, so it was a hard slog for me to get through the entirety of Obama's proposals. He wants to create programs or double spending on dozens of things.

-Increase support to organic farmers
-Increase prosecutions of civil rights and labor law violations
-Increase funding to the National Endowment of the Arts
-Create an "Artist Corps" to work in poor schools
-Double funds to after school programs
-"Fully fund COPS program" to add 50,000 police officers
-$60 billion over 10 years for infrastructure
-More money for public transportation
-More funding for Amtrak, which he bizarrely called "the only form of reliable transportation in some places". Where exactly are there train stations but not roads?
-Retraining program for inmates
-An "Advanced manufacturing fund"
-An Affordable Housing Trust Fund... wait... wait there's no way. He wants to fund it using profits from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? WHAT PROFITS? WE JUST HAD TO BAIL THEM OUT!

Other Obama positions:

-Reduce number of absent fathers by... combating domestic violence and child support avoiders? I mean I'm all about punishing those bastards but that isn't going to make them less absent. He also wants to "fund support services" and "remove some gov't penalties on married families", both of which are vague.
-Opposes "discriminatory photo ID laws", though what photo ID law proposals would be "discriminatory" is left up to the reader. I take this to mean he opposes photo ID laws in general, because the civil rights community accuses all ID laws of being discriminatory.
-Obama wants to change the fact that "women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man does". Good boilerplate for the ladies, bad bad policy starting point. That number has far more to do with career choice, full time versus part time, and taking time off for families. The "77 cents" line implies that a woman doing the same job as a man gets paid dramatically less, but that simply isn't the case on a meaningful level.
-Cap payday loan interest. This would have the effect of closing down payday loan operations more than it would make them more humane.
-Federal action to end local racial profiling. He mentions a law passed in Illinois that made police record race, age and gender of everyone stopped. If that sort of thing was done on a federal level it would be a gigantic pain in the ass for every police officer in the country.
-Expanded hate crimes laws. I oppose hate crime legislation in general, but the people they effect aren't anyone I want on the street so I'm not going to shed any tears.
-Drug courts for federal drug cases. I've read some good things about drug courts so that's fine by me.
-Fight mandatory minimum drug sentencing, and crack/cocaine sentence differences. Both are fair enough. We should have mandatory minimums on a lot of things before we do on drug charges, and there's no good reason for the crack/cocaine disparity.
-Modernize air traffic control, which is good in theory but would largely depend on if he opens up the skies to new routes.

The reason for this special Obama section is because his site goes into more detail than McCain. Simple as that.


There's a handful of instances where I favor Obama or it's a draw. On the biggest issues, and a majority of the time, I favor McCain. I see people who want to decide based on the little stuff, or the details, or personality, and to me, anyone who pays enough attention to be a good voter shouldn't have a hard choice. However lots of people have opinion sets that don't fit into a "conservative" or "progressive" label as neatly as, say, mine do. For those of you in that category, I suggest taking a close look at the fundamental beliefs of the left and the right.

As much as the parties fall short of their idealogical goals, that's still a good starting point. "Living constitution" versus originalism, small government versus active government, progressive taxation versus flatter taxation, carrot-based foreign policy versus stick-based foreign policy. Develop a personal philosophy that's consistent from one issue to the next. Hopefully you'll find that one party better exemplifies your philosophy better than the other, even if for the most part both parties suck. And then, more importantly, get involved with primaries and support people with principles more advanced than just winning elections. It's a sad fact that a lot of people with a lot of potential get defeated by those who are better connected to the political machines. The only solution is to get involved early. Sometimes the good ones actually win.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain vs Obama on policy, part 1

I've bemoaned the way that the GOP primaries resulted in the choice of a mediocre candidate. John McCain isn't a powerful speaker or a powerful debater and he lacks a coherent vision on a number of issues. Yet I still prefer him decisively over Obama. If you read many right-wing columns or websites, this often comes across as an assumption: "of COURSE McCain is better, he's on our team!". Hardly anyone has gone over their platforms thoroughly. I think those of your reading this deserve a blow-by-blow.

Most of the information contained here comes from the McCain and Obama campaign websites. So there's the question of whether or not I trust them to run an administration based on their websites, and I'd say yes, at least as much as you can trust any politician. They've both triangulated and modified positions over the course of the year, but those are the exceptions. There are some issues (especially for McCain) where things they've said in the campaign don't jive with what they said earlier in the decade, but I think anything that survived the last 12 months is here to stay. A small number of positions weren't on their websites, but almost all of those were mentioned in speeches. I might be missing some things (mostly from McCain), but where possible I tried to see where both stand on a given item. Also sometimes the things in quotation marks are paraphrasing.

Before breaking it down, a word about the websites. Obama had many "Fact sheets" with way more detail. It's night and day. Granted, McCain couldn't get specific things done in any quantity the way Obama could, given that the Dems will control congress. Still, INFORMATION would be nice. McCain's "details" tend to be brief press releases, versus long .pdf files. Even though a lot of the Obama material is repeated (often several times) from one section to another, the total content is overwhelming. Is it easier for liberals, who can advocate for an endless array of programs? Maybe. But McCain could still stand to provide a hell of a lot more detail on his smaller number of proposals. There's a good McCain "Briefing paper" on the economy, but it's hard to find, and it's the only one of its kind that I can see. Oh and it covers a bunch of issues but isn't linked to most of them!

I'm going to largely ignore areas of agreement and things that are easy to say or seem like "common sense" but are said by everyone running for president.

National Defense & Foreign Policy

Both mention military pork, and I'm gladdened by that. Interestingly enough, both want to increase the size of the army and marines. Both want to end the practice of having ongoing military operations (ie. Iraq) be done in supplemental/emergency bills separate from the main budget. McCain is more gung-ho about missile defense, while Obama is very skeptical. Both have a lot of 'homeland security' proposals, none of which strike me as controversial. Obama mentions using more civilian government resources (ie. State Department) for operations overseas, something I'd love to see happen. Soldiers are having to learn things on the fly that we have experts on sitting in DC. Obama wants to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", though he doesn't address what (if anything) he'd do in its place.

Obama proposes to double foreign aid from $25 billion a year to $50 billion a year. I think $25 billion is already a waste given that it's largely going to countries that aren't poor (Israel) or to poorly run governments (Egypt, Pakistan). He also wants to negotiate with Iran without precondition, while McCain is focused more on getting Iran to shape up with sanctions. I think that it would be foolish to move towards normalized relations with Iran given their blatant support of militias in Iraq and their defiance of the international community on the nuclear issue. Strategically, saying this in the open only encourages Iran's current bad behavior; better to be like Nixon with China and work under the radar while keeping normalization in hand until something is worked out.

Iraq & Afghanistan

Obama wants to draw down from Iraq by mid-2010, while McCain doesn't have a timetable. As a hawk I prefer no timetable, but at least Obama's is slow and security gains seem to have held this year. I'm troubled by Obama's rhetoric about political progress in Iraq, which ignores several vital bills that have passed or made significant progress over the course of the year. Obama also says he has "Judgment you can trust", and gives the following example:

"In January 2007, Obama introduced legislation to responsibly end the war in Iraq, with a phased withdrawal of troops engaged in combat operations". He also says "A phased withdrawal will encourage Iraqis to take the lead in securing their own country".

Both of these have been thoroughly disproven over the last year and a half. Iraqis, both Sunni and Shia, saw with the surge that the US was finally serious about security. With Shia in particular, their willingness to take on entrenched militias only happened when the surge gave them some breathing room. McCain had a much better sense of how to move forward in Iraq, and I certainly trust his judgment more than Obama on the issue. Biden was brought in to add foreign policy gravitas, but his judgment was that Iraq should be split into three nations, and that would be an unprecedented disaster.

That McCain seems to "own" Iraq due to backing the surge well before Bush doesn't mean he should ignore Afghanistan the way he does. Do I think he'd botch it? No, but Obama is more serious about it, proposing to move two brigades there from Iraq. Afghanistan is more likely to need those brigades in 2010 than Iraq, heck, probably 2009 for that matter.


McCain: Yay guns! Yayyyyy!

Okay I'm paraphrasing there but that's the gist of it. He's against pretty much any regulation you can think of, with a couple exceptions like doing background checks at gun shows. Obama is for most of said regulations, though he mostly focuses on "hunting" and as a result talks about preserving the wilderness more than access to shotguns. Obama saying "(the) Second amendment creates an individual right" is encouraging to this right-winger, although I would be stunned if that position is in the top ten things he'll look for in a Supreme Court nominee. The strangest thing in this section is Obama wanting to spend money on a program to encourage hunting in young people. Oh, and speaking of judges...

The Supreme Court

It's an issue with about ten thousand times more importance than the daily/weekly partisan fixations, but it gets almost no attention. The next four years could well decide the balance of the Supreme Court for twenty years, as four judges (two liberals plus Scalia and Kennedy) could all step down at any time. It's not just 5-4 decisions that would change, but even some 6-3 rulings would be in jeopardy. McCain's rhetoric points towards him bringing forth judges in the mold of Scalia, Thomas and Alito; Obama's points towards Stevens, Breyer and Ginsburg. McCain would likely have to compromise in order to get through congress, though Alito and Robers made it through. This is an issue with a very marked difference between the candidates, and if you have a strong preference one way or the other then this should heavily effect your choice. I'm a Scalia man myself.


No federal anti-abortion laws are getting passed any time soon, but abortion is mostly a judicial issue now and thus primarily hinges on the Supremes. The one legislative scenario is Obama getting in and passing the Freedom of Choice act. The bill would void just about every abortion restriction on a federal or state level. McCain would veto, and a veto wouldn't get overridden. So another clear choice.

Technology & Science

Obama supports net neutrality, McCain opposes. I sympathize with arguments on both sides, so I don't feel strongly. Obama supports lots of R&D/research funding. McCain wants a ban on internet taxes. None of that should decide your vote.


Both favor a boost in the number of H-1B visas for skilled workers, something that's long overdue. Both favor a path to legalization for current illegals, though McCain says he wants to secure the border first (yeah right). Obama goes into more detail about fixing the abysmal immigration bureaucracy, something that SHOULD be a given for presidential candidates but sadly hasn't been. Obama also favors more border security, though primarily in the form of more guards/patrols, where McCain would have more virtual/actual fences. I favor a tight border and a revamped INS that processes a larger number of immigrants, so I guess I learn Obama here? What do you know, it is possible.


McCain favors school choice, which is wonderful but meaningless at the federal level. Obama wants a "Parental report card" and increased parental responsibility, which is wonderful but meaningless at the federal level. The big thing is that Obama favors a lot of spending: $10 billion a year for early education, more money for teachers, and most importantly, an up to $4000 refundable tax credit towards college. The latter would run into the tens of billions and would be a de facto subsidy for community colleges. There's worse things to spend on, but I'm usually against the federal government doing domestic spending that can be done just as well at a local or state level, and that's the case here.


McCain wants an end to all agricultural tariffs and most subsidies. I believe this to be Bush's biggest broken promise, because he said the same thing in 2000 but went along with the status quo once in office. Obama wants to cap farm benefits at people earning $250,000 a year, which would be an improvement, and he also seems to want to crack down on farm aid going to big corporations. Either of them would be better than Bush and Clinton, assuming they went through with it.

Part 2 will deal with the economy, taxes, energy, the environment, and a special grab bag.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Equal time: hating on non-left-wing columns

For all my "I'm not a partisan GOP drone" talk, I do mostly go after left-wing writers. I tend to respond more strongly to those who dismiss or ridicule the right-wing POV instead of those who merely do a bad job of defending it. Human nature I suppose.

Over the last few months I've spent more and more time reading online content, almost all of which updates 6 days a week or more. The Wall Street Journal has opened more content to the public, I've started following RealClearMarkets, the RalClearPolitics blog roundup is back, and it's hard to keep up with everything. Yet somehow I'm not overwhelmed by new pieces of bad writing. Part of that is my unspoken policy of not doing blog responses; blogs are more inflammatory by nature. Another part is a tendency to avoid hitting the same authors repeatedly (RCP helped by no longer linking to Paul Campos), which over time has reduced the number of targets.

The net result will probably be less griping about pundits and more time doing substantive analysis. For instance I plan on doing a lot of comparisons between McCain and Obama using their speeches and websites. This should be more informative than the anti-Kerry writing I did in '04. I anticipate a lot of draws based on my disliking both of their positions, that should be fun.

Anyway, back to the griping.

John Dvorak of the Wall Street Journal's "Marketwatch" writes about the Microsoft/Yahoo/Google situation. Most financial analysts have been getting into the ins-and-outs of insider politics, revenue streams, market forecasting, that sort of thing. John? Not so much. After a lot of rambling he gets to one of the most spectacular examples of web ignorance I've seen from a professional:

What is really needed are new and better search engines. To be honest about it, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft all stink. We all know this is true. Sure, you can find the major and obvious sites with any of them. But seriously try and find, for example, the best knitting site. Go ahead: Type in the keywords "best knitting site" into Google and tell me which site, out of the 300,000-plus results Google returns, is really the best knitting site. It cannot be done, despite the fact that there must be a best one. A group of knitters might know, or maybe not.

There are a lot of adjectives one can use somewhat properly in a web search: biggest, oldest and most viewed come to mind. "Best"? No. That requires subjective analysis and consensus which would be practically impossible to find about websites. It's one thing to search for "Best Mid-sized Sedan" and find the opinion of 'authoritative' sources like JD Power. That's because there are one a handful of them. Now try saying with a straight face that there is one and only one "best" website about practically anything, keeping in mind that you are going to be seen as 'authoritative' on the subject. John seems to think that either Google should judge the "best" on every subject while choosing from across the internet, or he thinks that a term as generic as "best" should only return a few worthy results.

It's getting more difficult to find anything with a narrow target using any of these search engines. Recently, I was searching for a Barack Obama citation for an article and could not find it on Google; there were too many results to be useful.

I might cut him slack if he went into detail about the search he tried, but he doesn't. I would bet that this is because if we knew what he was looking for, we could find it in seconds on Google. Why am I so sure? Because this is the kind of person who thinks Google should be able to tell you what the best knitting website is.

While the Google mechanism works great for selling millions of little ads, it's old-fashioned and already dead, as are the rest of these search engines, which basically are all based on decade-old Web-crawling technologies combined with massive caching. To do its job, Google has to maintain up-to-date and redundant copies of the entire Internet on its servers. It's a ridiculous idea.

I won't even touch "already dead". That's absurd on its face. No, the worst part about the entire column is that he thinks using webcrawlers to comb and cache the internet is 'a ridiculous idea', but determining the best websites about every subject up to and including knitting ought to be a defining test for a search engine.

Our second bad column is from a man by the name of Dennis Prager. Let's join this column already in progress.

Nothing imaginable -- leftward or rightward -- would constitute as radical a change in the way society is structured ... Not another Prohibition, not government taking over all health care, not changing all public education to private schools, not America leaving the United Nations, not rescinding the income tax and replacing it with a consumption tax. Nothing.

...four justices of the California Supreme Court ... have changed American society more than any four individuals since Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison.

Wow! That's pretty huge! I mean we're talking about the history of the nation. And what is it they did?

...redefining marriage from opposite sex to include members of the same sex...

Wait, what? Seriously?

Dennis goes off the rails at the start and says "screw the rails, more coal!", gorging himself on one bit of slippery-slope hyperbole after another. One might think that for a right-wing Christian, Roe v Wade would be far more historical than the decision of a single state court. One wonders the lengths to which he'd go if you used THAT as the start of his rhetorical exercise, seeing as life itself is bigger than marriage.

Prager's hyperventilating and over-reaching do the 'traditional marriage' side a disservice. The extremes to which he goes are so laughable that they couldn't possibly change anyone's mind, and they'll only be effective with those who are already worked up about the issue. What's more he makes it sound as if his side has utterly lost, and defeatism is never an effective position.

There are several reasons why went from one of my daily stops to a website I avoid if possible, and people like Dennis Prager are one of them.

Monday, May 12, 2008

More miserable punditry

First column: America's Forgotten Hostages. My goodness, Columbian drug-running terrorists are holding Americans hostage! The Bush administration should do something! And that something is: cave into the demands of the terrorists! Tim Padgett goes for what he sees as middle ground, saying that we can just cut the sentences of some high-level prisoners rather than releasing them entirely. If I may quote one brief exerpt,

The U.S. has designated the FARC a terrorist group and can't negotiate with it.

Hey Tim, has it ever occurred to you that there might be a reason for this policy? That if we reward FARC more for kidnapping people rather than guiding them to safety, we encourage more kidnappings? He doesn't even acknowledge the reason, let alone debate it. Thus the hostages are 'forgotten', yet another Bush administration failure. A failure to reward terrorists.

Second column: How the South Won (This) Civil War

By line: "Southernism is taking over our national dialogue. Maybe it's time for the North to secede from the Union."

Oh boy.

This thought, which has been recurring to me regularly over the years as I've watched the Southernization of our national politics at the hands of the GOP and its evangelical base, surfaced again when I read a New York Times story today. The article was about an "American Idol" contestant—apparently quite talented—who was eliminated after she sang the title song from "Jesus Christ Superstar." When it debuted 38 years ago, the rock opera was considered controversial for its rather arch portrayal of a doubt-wracked, very human Jesus, but the music was so good and the lyrics so clever that it quickly became a huge hit. In the delicate balance of forces that have always defined American tastes—nativism and yahooism versus eagerness for the new and openness to innovation—art, or at least high craft, it seemed, had triumphed. But our national common denominator of taste is so altered today that the blasphemous dimension of "Jesus Christ Superstar" now trumps the artistic part. And somehow, no one is surprised. Our reaction is more like, "Why would she risk singing a song like that?"

Here's the NYT article in question. You'll notice that as evidence it cites "Online chat boards devoted to 'American Idol'". Now that's powerful stuff! I'm convinced that legions of teenage girls based their decision on a controversy that started when their parents were infants and/or not even born!

Can he dig himself deeper? Michael Hirsh says "You bet!"

Anatol Lieven, in his 2005 book "America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism," describes how the "radical nationalism" that has so dominated the nation's discourse since 9/11 traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and much of the West and Southern Midwest—in other words, what we know today as Red State America. This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants—the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers—and cultural weight.

Savage. Yessir, when I think of Topeka or Salt Lake City, the first word that comes to mind is "savage".

Hirsh goes on to say that "we have become an intolerant nation", which strikes me as very odd in a year where Obama is the favorite to become president, and when over my short lifetime gays in popular culture went from incredibly rare to utterly commonplace.

The kicker is a postscript written after publication:

Author's Note: When I wrote this column last week, I used some careless language to describe certain tendencies in Southern and frontier thinking. When I wrote that after the settlement of the South and frontier by Scots-Irish immigrants, "a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores," I didn't mean to say that these tendencies described any particular ethnic group today, or that such mores are representative in general of the thinking of people in the South or West, only that they had emerged historically among some subsections of the population as part of the Jacksonian warrior culture in those regions

Michael Hirsh isn't some upstart who slipped up. He's a man of journalistic accomplishment, an editor no less, who should know the value and importance of linguical precision. "I didn't mean to say", and then he says what he blatantly meant to say given the context of the article. What a maroon.

Final column: War's Shopping Cart. This one just boggles the mind.

An Associated Press article on the report, however, offered a caveat: "Not all the companies invested in by lawmakers are typical defense contractors. Corporations such as PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson have at one point received defense-related contracts."

But the Associated Press is wrong. The fact is that corporations such as PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson are, indeed, typical defense contractors. To suggest that such firms, and tens of thousands like them, only receive defense-related contracts at the odd, aberrant moment is specious at best.

At this point in the article I was very interested. It went against the impression that everything is run by Haliburton, and instead posits the reality that all sorts of companies do business with the military. Can that really shock anyone?

In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his famous farewell address as president, warned of the "acquisition of unwarranted influence" by what he called the "military-industrial complex" in the United States. Today, however, the "large arms industry" of Eisenhower's day is only part of a complex equation. Civilian firms such as PepsiCo and IBM form the backbone of what more accurately can be described as a "military-corporate complex." These businesses allow the Pentagon to function, to make war and to carry out foreign occupations.


While the well-known giant arms makers -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics -- remain the largest contractors, they are dwarfed by the sheer number of fellow contractors from all imaginable economic sectors.

Exactly. Eisenhower's concern was that arms makers could use their political clout to push for military spending and wars in order to boost their profit margins. Now that the spending is spread across companies that have no particular need to lobby for war (ie. Pepsi) and for whom the military is only one of many customers.

In reality, whether we like it or not, whether we care or not, we're all participating in it. When we buy Crest toothpaste (Procter & Gamble) or Oscar Mayer hot dogs (Kraft) or a PlayStation 3 (Sony), the fact is we are supporting an increasingly civilian-oriented military economy and an increasingly militarized civilian economy.

...wait, what?

As such, ever more U.S. companies are going to war, and, even if ever fewer Americans are interested in volunteering for military service, it's increasingly true that, by the flow of our dollars, ever more of us are going to war with them.

Huh? Is he saying what I think he's saying?

You might think, of course, that there's nothing wrong with the military buying Pepsi. "What's the problem?" you ask. Soldiers have to drink something, just like the rest of us, so why not Pepsi's self-described "bold, robust, effervescent magic cola"? The same goes for hot dogs and toothpaste.

Yeah that's what I think, and Nick Turse better have a hell of a punchline to convince me otherwise.

This isn't about a bottle of Pepsi or Krispy Kreme Doughnuts or a Sara Lee cake. It isn't about which hot dogs the troops eat or which computers they use -- be it for launching missiles or reading e-mail. This isn't even about boycotting one brand or company or conglomerate in hopes of slowing down the war effort. If you began that, in our militarized economy, you'd eventually be left naked, starving and possessionless.

Wait, wait, wait. Boycotting a company in the hopes of slowing the war effort?! Is this a concern for more than a very small number of highly motivated doves?

On their own, each of these brands, companies or conglomerates appear minor indeed. But together, the effect is stunning: Nearly every product in your pantry, every appliance in your home, every bit of high-tech home entertainment equipment, even your morning newspaper (the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, was a minor Pentagon contractor in 2006 too) is now directly or indirectly tied to the Pentagon through the company that produces it.

By this point it's clear: the Pentagon and military are the enemy and anyone doing business with them is tainted.

It's high time we at least recognize that PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft, and Johnson & Johnson and just about every other corporate giant (and thousands upon thousands of flyweights of the business world) are benefiting not only from our purchases of cola, computers, software and bandages but from our tax dollars, via the Pentagon. We all know what the Pentagon's doing abroad, and what that's meant for Iraqis.

"What that's meant for Iraqis"? You mean liberating them from Saddam Hussein and attempting to protect them from terrorists? No of course he doesn't mean that. I'm not even asking him to mean that. I am asking that he write a column in the Los Angeles Times, a major daily paper read by millions, in which he doesn't assume that the average reader regularly engages in anti-military boycotts, and doesn't assume the average reader sees the Iraqi war as inherently evil.

Napoleon supposedly said, "An army marches on its stomach." Over the years of occupation to come, and for the next invasion too, remember that, whatever land it occupies, the Pentagon marches on a stomach filled with Cap'n Crunch, Rice-A-Roni and Diet Pepsi Vanilla -- and, ever increasingly, you're marching with it too.

I can imagine Nick typing that out with a sense of triumph. Take THAT, corporate overlords! I have spoken truth to your power! Meanwhile I'm guessing 90% of US voters are either still confused over what he's talking about since they aren't up to date on far-left ideology, or (like me) are laughing at him.

It would be one thing to write this in Mother Jones or the American Prospect, but the LA Times? Even granting that the readership would be slightly to the left of average in America, that doesn't excuse such an enormous overreach. People who are in, say, the 75th percentile to the left in America aren't going to be on board with seeing something insidious about companies selling basic goods to the military. Nick should have understood the audience and crafted something more palatable to the average joe who might want troops out of Baghdad, but doesn't take issue with companies who make life easier for the troops while they're 'over there'.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On two subjects

On the importance of a 'rape' exception in abortion bans: I've seen many pro-life pundits dismiss the common three abortion exceptions (rape, incest, mother's life in danger) as distractions and rare. Problem is, for any legislation as personal and invasive as an abortion ban (which is the goal of pro-lifers), these exceptional circumstances require exceptional remedies. Failing to find said remedies would create new problems and quickly undermine the laws.

Take rape. The pro-life position is, 'abortion is murder and outweighs the woman's right to choose'. In the case of rape, an absolutist pro-life position would be that abortion is still murder and the fetus wasn't guilty of a crime. Here's an example of that position (towards the bottom). It's one thing to argue that an abortion in the case of rape is wrong; it's quite another to legally require the victims of rape to bear the children of their attackers. The difference between 'ought' and 'must' is huge, and pro-life absolutists fail to understand the importance. If abortion is outlawed in the case of rape, the rapist is given indefinite control of the victim.

Along those lines, there's an even more fundamental reason to allow abortion in the case of rape: having it banned gives rapists an incentive to commit the crime. Rape is often about power rather than lust, and few things are more powerful than procreation. Forcing the victim to bear and likely care for the child, passing on genes without needing a willing partner, and... well I'm sure there are other perverse incentives rapists could conjure up for themselves. The point is that to the extent that willing procreation is vital to humanity itself, even sacred, it ought not be perverted by forcing women to have the babies of rapists.

You might ask yourself, "is banning abortion in the case of rape even an issue?", and to that extent I say, yes. Polls show that 10-15% of the population is pro-life absolutist, and several percent more favor banning abortions where the mother's life isn't at stake. This represents anywhere from 30-50+% of the overall pro-life movement. What's more, absolutists represent the majority of funding and energy in the pro-life movement. If Roe v Wade is overturned pro-life legislation will be passed in many states, and take effect in states where laws are written to begin if Roe is overturned. An example of the latter is Louisiana, and that law does not allow for abortions in the case of rape.

To complicate things further, even if an abortion ban allows such abortions, it's crucial that a good system be in place for deciding such situations. For instance, would the standard of proof be a legal conviction, or would it be lower than that? Would litigation be expedited, or would lawyers be able to drag things out until delivery? Go too far in the direction of the victim and you risk branding innocent men rapists. Go too far in the direction of the accused and you risk a de facto ban, harming the victims.

I'm a firm believer in 'defeating' political opponents with reason; converting them to your side. Pro-lifers who either haven't considered or refuse to consider the very real consequences of an abortion ban make it much harder to convince pro-choicers to switch, especially women. To a large extent absolutists do the pro-life cause a disservice, because pro-choicers fear that the end of Roe v Wade would lead to abortion policy being set by the kind of people who give no regard to the potential horror visited on rape victims. Serious abortion opponents *must* give more thought to a post-Roe world if they want to become a clear majority in the nation.

On the presidential election: The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that there hasn't been a president in modern times whose policies I broadly agreed with. Not even Reagan. Coolidge probably comes closest of those in the last century, but even he was tied to things like racist immigration quotas and appointing a Supreme Court Justice who did immense damage to the Originalist cause.

Duncan Hunter and Fred Thompson aren't perfect, but they at least campaigned as unabashed right-wingers. John McCain's flip-flopping and unpredictable populist outbursts, coupled with a guaranteed Democratic congress and his desire to be seen as 'bipartisan', means he won't be the kind of leader I'm hoping for. If you're familiar with my positions you know I dread a win by either Democrat. Thus, whoever wins it means at least 4 more years of disappointment.

What I'd like to know is, are any of you out there actually enthusiastic for the policies set out by one of the three remaining candidates? I wonder what it's like to have a candidate you agree with in a position to lead the most powerful nation in the world. Must be nice. Like being a Patriots fan.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

EJ Dionne's anti-capitalism meltdown

EJ Dionne of the Washington Post is normally someone I categorize as someone I disagree with, but understand. This column, however, goes off the rails.

Never do I want to hear again from my conservative friends about how brilliant capitalists are, how much they deserve their seven-figure salaries, and how government should keep its hands off the private economy. The Wall Street titans have turned into a bunch of welfare clients. They are desperate to be bailed out by government from their own incompetence, and from the deregulatory regime for which they lobbied so hard.

1. What, exactly, is with his use of 'capitalists' in the first sentence? Couldn't that theoretically mean everyone in the private sector? Isn't the guy who runs the car wash down the street a capitalist just as much as the hedge fund manager jumping out of his 50th story office window? It's that kind of careless verbiage that will turn people off from your point of view, especially right off the bat.

1a. What conservative in his right mind would say that *all* capitalists are good and perfect? I see references to capitalism and 'the free market'. Part of capitalism is that businesses which are run poorly go out of business. What conservative disagrees with that? If managers at an investment firm flush the firm's assets down the drain with bad investments, they deserve to be out on the street. Who is EJ responding to? He makes a lot of sarcastic quips along these lines and it's a strawman argument.

2. How on earth does the government have its hands off of the financial sector? Is the federal reserve not a government agency? Isn't it generally agreed that the housing bubble was born and nurtured by too-low too-long interest rates courtesy of the fed? This is a recurring theme.

3. What conservatives believe that the government should pick up the tab for failing firms? That said firms are seeking relief is no shock; any number of corporations rely on political patronage and pork and corporate welfare. It's something worth condemning these *particular* capitalists over, and their governmental enablers. It's not a particularly useful club to use against conservatives unless he has concrete evidence of right-wing desire for bailouts.

But if this near meltdown of capitalism doesn't encourage a lot of people to question the principles they have carried in their heads for the last three decades or so, nothing will. We had already learned the hard way -- in the crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed -- that capitalism is quite capable of running off the rails. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was a response to the failure of the geniuses of finance (and their defenders in the economics profession) to realize what was happening or to fix it in time.

1. What 'capitalist' doesn't believe in the possibility of asset bubbles and recessions? The pure free market cure is to have bubbles pop, the asset (in this case housing) decline to a sustainable level, and whoever goes out of business as a result, tough. Now, I'm of the opinion that there ought to be *some* government action in response to situations like these. Some amount of lending, some amount of interest rate lowering, evaluate what laws and policies might be preventing a recovery, that sort of thing. But nothing in this, not even the collapse of Bear Sterns, is anywhere close to a 'near meltdown of capitalism', and it certainly doesn't repudiate capitalist principles. In THIS case, as with the tech stock bubble, the biggest losers are the guys with the seven-figure salaries. They're the ones with the most invested in failing outfits. And they're the ones who deserve to take the hit, not taxpayers.

2. Again, EJ brings up an example of government not doing enough and says the problem is with unfettered capitalism. The Great Depression, however, shows the opposite. Hoover and congress did several things to shove the economy into the dark depths of depression, notably the Revenue Act and the loathsome Smoot-Hawley tariff. Hoover tried to tax and spend and regulate his way to a good economy and made things worse. FDR could have pushed to remove the tariffs and lower taxes in order to help consumers and stimulate investment and entrepreneurship, but instead piled on more spending, more taxes and more regulation. One can argue that in the end government saved the day with spending on WW2, but it's difficult to blame the Great Depression on not enough government action.

The rest of the column goes on in similar fashion: pro-market types should feel sorry and embrace more taxes and entitlements. Lots of vitriol and emotion, but the end EJ only wound up defeating his own made-up mirage of conservatives and 'capitalists'. How exactly Bear Sterns et al. proves that taxes aren't high enough is beyond me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dissecting anti-war talking points

Normally, I don't go back and attack a columnist after rebutting an article. If it's three people who always write together, I think I can do three. This trio appeared in the "holiday edition" Ditchblog, about 3/4ths of the way down. Before they trotted out a really weak talking point about "strategic drift". Now they're trotting out multiple talking points that, while wrong, are much more serious and deserving of response.

Even a cursory examination of American history reveals the complexity of concluding a war that has taken on such a stark partisan tint. The shadow of Vietnam looms, as it has become standard Republican narrative that back then it was the Democrats in Congress who stabbed America in the back by cutting off funding for a winning cause. The fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter. The Republican machine will press this same theme should it lose the White House in November. A Democratic administration would be accused of surrendering to evildoers, as once more the dovish successors of George McGovern are wrongly said to have pulled defeat out of the jaws of victory.

So they start with 'nam, and to an extent they have a point. If a Democrat is elected, pulls out of Iraq, and things go south there, the GOP will bring up various talking points in regards to why they think Democrats are to blame for what happened in Vietnam. Here is the article that does the best job of delivering said talking points I've seen. There are a lot of ways to combat said points, and the three authors decide to wave it away with "fact that the war was lost in Southeast Asia, as opposed to the halls of Congress, is no matter". You can't brush aside Laird's piece so lazily, and Laird is just giving an expanded version of the usual right-wing Vietnam litany.

Moving on, the trio returns to an anti-war beef I can sympathize with.

Republicans will claim that after four years of disastrous mistakes, the Bush administration finally got it right with its troop "surge." Yet even despite the loss of nearly 1,000 American lives and the expenditure of $150 billion, the surge has failed in its stated purpose: providing the Iraqi government with the breathing space to pass the 18 legislative benchmarks the Bush administration called vital to political reconciliation. To date it has passed only four.

Dubya, ever the not-so-great-communicator, did not do a very good job of providing a timeframe for the 'political reconciliation' end of things. To the extent that he did, the impression was that it would follow right on the heels of a decline in violence. The surge started up a year ago, reached its manpower peak in June, and by September we had the first round of hearings as to its efficacy. At that point I don't know if any of the 18 benchmarks had been met. What I do know is that more movement has happened on the benchmarks in the last month than in the previous year, and also the strength of the security gains wasn't clear until at least October if not November. Considering the pace at which America's vaunted democracy passes important legislation, just how fast does Iraq need to move on the most important laws imaginable before the entire thing is a failure? Again, this is something that the president should be addressing to the public, rather than me on a blog in response to a newspaper column.

Moreover, as part of the surge, the administration has further undermined Iraq's government by providing arms and money to Sunni insurgent groups even though they have not pledged loyalty to Baghdad.

In the short run, nominal insurgent groups were used to help root out al Qaeda cells. In the medium run, the real Sunni power brokers (tribes) are participating exponentially more in governance and Sunnis are joining Iraq's police and military forces by the thousands. The Iraq-based Sunni uprising against Iraq's central government is over as far as being a threat to the nation's integrity, and nearly all Sunni leaders now understand that in order to effect events in Baghdad they have to participate in the political process. Local insurgent groups in Anbar have no more desire to blow up Shiite markets and certainly aren't going to try to overthrow the green zone with the type of arms we gave them. Sunnis are unhappy with the current Iraqi federal government, but are now willing to settle things with words and ballots rather than bullets. The political process is what matters, not loyalty to sitting politicians. It's a tricky but important distinction.

Beyond the impracticalities of the surge, it is important to realistically measure the costs and consequences of a categorical U.S. withdrawal. The prevailing doomsday scenario suggests that an American departure would lead to genocide and mayhem. But is that true? Iraq today belongs to Iraqis; it is an ancient civilization with its own norms and tendencies. It is entirely possible that in the absence of a cumbersome and clumsy American occupation, Iraqis will make their own bargains and compacts, heading off the genocide that many seem to anticipate. Opponents of the war seem to have far more confidence in Iraqis' abilities to manage their affairs than do war advocates. Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal would finally compel the region to claim Iraq, forcing the Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians and others to decide whether a civil war is in their interests. Faced with that stark reality, they may seek to mediate rather than inflame Iraq's squabbles.

This is wonderful. *Americans* are the cause of conflict, and *other governments* will provide solutions! It's so clear! It's so simple! It's so utterly and obviously wrong!

The rest of the region had their chance in 2005 and 2006. The "cumbersome and clumsy" Americans largely retreated to their bases, an Iraqi federal government was formed, and if the region wanted to promote stability they could have done a diplomatic surge. Instead they aided and condoned the influx of arms and fighters who escalated the sectarian conflict to a boiling point. Saudi Arabia and Syria could have put a lid on al Qaeda; Iran could have put a lid on Sadr. They chose not to. When it looked like Iraq was racked by the exact violence that Korb, Podesta and Takeyh mention above, those governments did exactly the wrong thing if they truly desired stability.

The root cause of violence in Iraq isn't Americans, it's other governments trying to put their favored group on top. Iraq's Sunnis were used as a proxy against the unthinkable prospect of Arab Shiites holding power. Iraq's Shiites, once provoked enough, were used as a proxy to try and liquidate the Sunni population of many neighborhoods and cities. It took a surge of American troops to break huge segments of the Sunni and Shia populations free of that pernicious influence, and if America leaves Iraq en masse it will open the door for those regional actors to resume their proxy war and put a stopper in what political progress there has been. Again I point to the utter lack of political progress in the years of rising violence, compared to the compromises reached in Baghdad just a few months after it was secured.

While I'm going after that paragraph, I'm just stunned that the authors would characterize America's presence in Iraq that way at this point. "Cumbersome and clumsy" is a great way to describe things in 2003. "Cumbersome", not so much after the Iraqi government was in power. "Clumsy" is absolutely the wrong word to describe things under the leadership of Patraeus. What US troops do on the ground right now is nothing short of amazing, and it certainly isn't getting in the way of Iraqi politicians working together. On the contrary: the US has done an incredible amount to foster and facilitate reconciliation between Sunnis and the central government.

They keep layering it on:

The strategic necessities of ending the war have never been more compelling. In today's Middle East, America is neither liked nor respected.
America's occupation of Iraq is estranging an entire generation of Arab youths, creating a reservoir of antagonism that will take decades to overcome. A Democratic president who may enjoy a modest honeymoon in the Middle East simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush can take a giant step toward reclaiming America's practical interests and moral standing by leaving Iraq.

Respect for America in the long run is best served by whatever policies best promote stability and democracy in Iraq. Leave the door open for another round of bloodletting, and America will be the worst of all worlds: a hegemon who can't get the job done. America's presence for years was marked by violence without progress; that isn't the case today. If we stay long enough to leave behind a stable, democratic Iraq, that will do far more for US/Muslim relations than heading to the exit a year or two faster.

What's more, the "reservoir of antagonism" is much more complex than Iraq. To the extent that young Arabs are going to take up arms against the infidel, they were already willing to do so for reasons from support of Israel to raunchy pop culture to the invasion of Afghanistan. Moving troops from Mosul to the Pakistani border might play well in blue states and Europe, but it won't make a dent in jihadi sentiment.

Finally, the events of the last two years in Iraq have provided a powerful narrative that is changing the way Muslims look at the war on terror. While al Qaeda has time and again shown its willingness to deliberately slaughter innocents, America has worked hand-in-hand with local groups to bring about security and begin the work of rebuilding. The news on al Jazeera is hardly rose-colored, but it's no longer possible to do the "Americans bad, insurgents good" reporting that used to be the norm. Opinion polls in many countries have demonstrated a decline in support of wholesale terrorist violence in general and al Qaeda specifically. The horror of Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism has been made clear, and that momentum is best maintained by assisting Iraq in wiping out the last terrorist cells and making sure they don't come back.

It would be one thing for them to publish that column a year or two ago, but today I find it very much lacking.