Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Ridiculous historical comparisons and strawmen... naturally venerable Time Magazine decides to publish this gem.

Michael Kinsley is going after the standpoint associated with right-wingers on immigration, that is to say, opposing normalization of illegals and such. He manages to brush aside or ignore any number of salient points, he makes assumptions, and he wraps it up with a hilariously bad ode to border-hoppers. Since there's only one article I'm going after I'll tackle it in full.

What you are supposed to say about immigration--what most of the presidential candidates say, what the radio talk jocks say--is that you are not against immigration. Not at all. You salute the hard work and noble aspirations of those who are lining up at American consulates around the world. But that is legal immigration. What you oppose is illegal immigration.

This formula is not very helpful. We all oppose breaking the law, or we ought to. Saying that you oppose illegal immigration is like saying you oppose illegal drug use or illegal speeding. Of course you do, or should. The question is whether you think the law draws the line in the right place. Should using marijuana be illegal? Should the speed limit be raised--or lowered? The fact that you believe in obeying the law reveals nothing about what you think the law ought to be, or why.

Another question: Why are you so upset about this particular form of lawbreaking? After all, there are lots of laws, not all of them enforced with vigor. The suspicion naturally arises that the illegality is not what bothers you. What bothers you is the immigration. There is an easy way to test this. Reducing illegal immigration is hard, but increasing legal immigration would be easy. If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration. This is a debate about immigration.

On its face this seems so close to being reasonable, but it really isn't. First, it ignores large numbers of people who don't have any issue with large numbers of illegal immigrants, who oppose enforcement of existing laws, and who oppose measures designed to stem the future flow of illegals. This is the position of no small number of activists and lobbyists on the issue.

Kinsley goes on to essentially say that the only sides in the debate are pro-immigration and anti-immigration, but that's not the case; there are a rainbow of possible positions. It would be like boiling down tax policy to 'pro-tax' and 'anti-tax'. The 'enforcement first' position wants the law enforced. Kinsley concedes that immigration laws aren't enforced well, but then says that enforcement doesn't matter, and it's all about where to 'draw the line'. He brings up speeding, and it's an interesting point, but it's wrong.

The debate about speed limits tends to be where to set the limit, not about enforcement. If the debate was about enforcement, we would discuss things like whether or not to put more cops on the street to set more radar traps and thus catch more speeders. Try to imagine someone saying "there should be more police monitoring the roads", and the response being "let's raise the speed limit". Not a very cogent rebuttal. Yes, raising the speed limit would reduce the number of people in violation of the law, but the limit was set there for a reason. The immigration debate has both a 'where to set the limit' aspect and a 'what's the best way to enforce the limit' aspect. Kinsley presents a false dichotomy by saying that you can only care about one aspect.

"You can't care about enforcement because some other laws aren't enforced properly" is a pitiful argument. "You can't care about enforcement because we could easily increase the number of legal immigrants" is fatuous; INS can't even properly handle the current number of legal immigrants. In a perfect world the INS would have excess capacity, and it would just be a matter of setting the quotas. In the real world, the INS mailed visas to 9/11 hijackers in 2002. Kinsley shows no sign of recognizing the potential problems involved with jacking up immigration limits. It's one thing for a theorist to try to say why he or she favors more immigration; it's another for a writer published in a major magazine to say that 'increasing legal immigration is easy'.

These lines are maybe worse: "If your view is that legal immigration is good and illegal immigration is bad, how about increasing legal immigration? How about doubling it? Any takers? So in the end, this is not really a debate about illegal immigration." Which in essence conflates favoring SOME level of legal immigration with favoring ANY level of legal immigration. To apply the speed limit debate, imagine someone saying "if your view is that going 55 miles per hour on the freeway is good, how about doubling the speed limit?". Imagine that being said in response to "there should be more radar traps". It is in fact possible to care about large numbers of people in the country illegally while at the same time being in favor of some level of legal immigration. Just because that level might not be Kinsley's preferred one doesn't change a thing.

And it's barely a debate at all. ... Now, for whatever reason, support for immigration is limited to an eccentric alliance of high-minded Council on Foreign Relations types, the mainstream media, high-tech entrepreneurs, Latinos, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and President George W. Bush. Everyone else, it seems, is agin.

Maybe the aginners are right, and immigration is now damaging our country, stealing jobs and opportunity, ripping off taxpayers, fragmenting our culture. I doubt it, but maybe so. Certainly, it's true that we can't let in everyone who wants to come. There is some number of immigrants that is too many. I don't believe we're past that point, but maybe we are. In any event, a democracy has the right to decide that it has reached such a point. There is no obligation to be fair to foreigners.

But let's not kid ourselves that all we care about is obeying the law and all we are asking illegals to do is go home and get in line like everybody else. We know perfectly well that the line is too long, and we are basically telling people to go home and not come back.

'We know that the line is too long'. There. Right there, even more than earlier in the piece, Kinsley assumes that everyone else sees things the way he does. What if someone doesn't think the line is long enough, or that it's acceptable? And for that matter, since there IS in fact thousands upon thousands of legal immigrants let into the US every year, how exactly does that equate to current illegals having no chance to return? But since "we know perfectly well", that's not up for debate. Everyone knows it. Going back to the tax analogy, "we know perfectly well that taxes are too high" would not be a compelling argument to be made in favor of cutting taxes. The fact that there is an opposing side means that the all-inclusive "we" is being improperly used.

Let's not kid ourselves, either, about who we are telling this to. To characterize illegal immigrants as queue-jumping, lawbreaking scum is seriously unjust. The motives of illegal immigrants--which can be summarized as "a better life"--are identical to those of legal immigrants. In fact, they are largely identical to the motives of our own parents, grandparents and great-grandparents when they immigrated. And not just that. Ask yourself, of these three groups--today's legal and illegal immigrants and the immigrants of generations ago--which one has proven most dramatically its appreciation of our country? Which one has shown the most gumption, the most willingness to risk all to get to the U.S. and the most willingness to work hard once here? Well, everyone's story is unique. But who loves the U.S. most? On average, probably, the winners of this American-values contest would be the illegals, doing our dirty work under constant fear of eviction, getting thrown out and returning again and again.

And how about those of us lucky enough to have been born here? How would we do against the typical illegal alien in a "prove how much you love America" reality TV show?

What's riskier: crossing the US/Mexico border in 2007, or crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1887? Which cost more for those immigrants? Or how about this: are there any illegal immigrants working and living in the kind of conditions seen in the days of the Industrial Revolution? Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was exaggerated at worst but it certainly wasn't very far off when you examine things like life expectancies and standards of living. The people Sinclair wrote about were immigrants living in urban ghettos. Harvesting produce, cutting grass, scrubbing toilets and nannying might be rough compared to accounting but not in comparison to sweatshops and subsistence farming. "Who loves America more"? It must be today's illegals! Why? Because that way anyone who opposes mass legalization or a doubling of quotas is a monster. Who loves America more? It can't be the pro-enforcement crowd, because they don't agree with Michael Kinsley.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bad Columns: Holiday Edition

I've been quite busy thanks to a combination of good and bad circumstances, and as such there's a bit of a bad column backlog. Time to flush.

Reason Magazine would tend to not be a place where I link in this context, but here we are. Brian Doherty isn't a fan of the Iraq war and has a heavy dose of pessimism in regards to security gains from the surge. I can't argue with "bad things have a way of happening in Iraq" as a line of thinking, but Brian doesn't stop there, and thus my rebuttal.

After all, we can be pretty confident, barring eco-catastrophe or full-on nuclear World War III, that things will, someday, be better in Iraq—on the whole, for most people—than they are now, than they were in 2004, or than they were under Saddam.
Judging whether the Iraq war and occupation was a good idea or the right thing to do based on the principle that things are, or seem like they soon will be, better there than they were before treats war as merely a neutral policy tool.

Brian is attacking a strawman that I've never seen before. Pre-war, hawks had a number of varying reasons for backing the invasion, the bottom line of which was that it would improve national/regional security. You can disagree with the conclusion, but you can't disagree that this was the stated goal. Even the basic neocon/Wilsonian boilerplate is focused on long-term security through democracy-spreading, not generic "things are slightly better in Iraq".

Not content to strawman hawks, Brian then strawmans AMERICA.

Just as public perception of whether the war was worth it didn’t shift toward “no” until May 2004—the first month U.S. troop deaths broke 100 in a month—a continuing decline in Iraq violence seems likely to calm down American dudgeon over a war that, after all, in a draftless world, most of us are affected by only as tragic TV entertainment. It could well be the standard accepted opinion a year from now that Iraq, while perhaps not always managed best every step of the way, has turned out well enough in the end, or so far.
If this turns out to be true, what will this mean for the future of American foreign policy? The Republicans will be emboldened to think that any move they can frame as part of the “war on terror” will work out for them in the end, making future wars in Iran and maybe Syria far more likely.
The real question before a war needs to be: “is this absolutely necessary given a fair consideration of the horrors and unpredictability of war and the purpose of the U.S. military?” Which is not: “make the world a better place, somewhere down the line, killing lots of people on the way.” For America's future, this kind of victory in Iraq could really mean defeat.

Still, the next war will doubtless begin with high approval ratings.

What utter dreck. First of all, polls are drifting towards the "things are getting better in Iraq", but they aren't drifting towards "boy howdy invading Iraq sure was great" and they aren't even in the same neighborhood as "let's go bomb Damascus!". Secondly, current poll movements are just that, poll movements; to end with that line based on a couple polls is shoddy analysis. Third, he's taking the strawman hawk mindset and is applying it to the entire US public. Finally, he's implying that we'd be better off if there was more carnage in Iraq, which is always a sure sign that someone has gone off the deep end.

The bottom line is this: hawks don't think that way, the public is a hell of a lot less "let's roll" than it was in early 2003, and Brian Doherty as a "senior editor" makes me question Reason's reason.

Naomi Klein is someone I find quite disagreeable, but with a column of this length I'm not going to go for an in-depth rebuttal. Instead I'm going to just focus on the start.

In less than two years, the lease on the largest and most important US military base in Latin America will run out. The base is in Manta, Ecuador, and Rafael Correa, the country's leftist president, has pronounced that he will renew the lease "on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami--an Ecuadorean base. If there is no problem having foreign soldiers on a country's soil, surely they'll let us have an Ecuadorean base in the United States."

Since an Ecuadorean military outpost in South Beach is a long shot, it is very likely that the Manta base, which serves as a staging area for the "war on drugs," will soon shut down. Correa's defiant stand is not, as some have claimed, about anti-Americanism. Rather, it is part of a broad range of measures being taken by Latin American governments to make the continent less vulnerable to externally provoked crises and shocks.
If the US military loses its bases and training programs, its power to inflict shocks on the continent will be greatly eroded.

See, that US military base exposes Ecuador to 'shocks'. Or something. This is a statement that could lead to a rousing debate during the Reagan administration, but is just silly today. When was the last time the US was neck-deep in a big coup/civil war in Central or South America? There are good reasons to dislike the "our son-of-a-bitch" Cold War policy towards Latin America, but to make that statement primarily based on things circa Pinochet is baffling to me. Naomi spends most of the time railing against capitalism, which is standard fare for her... and which also demonstrates why the military base comment is so out of place. But for Naomi, the US military is bad, so anyone opposed to it is good and deserves to be highlighted.

David Shribman combines a lack of recent historical knowledge with overemphasizing trends. He wants to prove that the Reagan Era is over. That doesn't seem terribly difficult to me, but he manages to bumble worse than JP Losman in the red zone.

But some of the vital elements of the Reagan era have already passed into the mists of history:

The iron bond between religious conservatives and Republicans.
It didn't matter that Reagan hardly went to church and was estranged from some of his children. What mattered was that every GOP platform carried a strong anti-abortion message. And then, with the election of a true religious conservative, George W. Bush, the bond seemed stronger than ever.

Now the leading Republican presidential candidate supports abortion rights, has been married three times and doesn't possess the sort of family-values personal life religious conservatives demand in their leaders. Do not doubt that the political earth has shifted.

Rudy leads in the polls, without 50% of GOP support mind you, and this by itself is proof that the Christian/Republican link is gone. Riiiiiiiight.

The conviction that a smaller government is a better government. Reagan spoke of this precept in his inaugural address, a remark that pleased his supporters and sent trembles of fear through liberals. The extent of the conversion of the American people to the smaller-government ethos can be measured by the fact that Bill Clinton himself declared the era of big government to be over.

Except that Reagan signed off on massive amounts of entitlement spending and oversaw large growth in real, per capita federal spending in both the military and domestic spheres. That Democrats in congress drove much of the spending is moot; Reagan went along, and thus the "Reagan = smaller government" sentiment is flat-out wrong. I've seen this meme used by people across the political spectrum and it's wrong every time.

Gregory Scoblete has an example of a meme I despise: that if Iran gets nukes it can easily be "contained" and thus there's no real threat. This ignores several very real problems even if Iran never uses its nukes. First, Iran has shown a willingness to engage in arms trade with rogue nations and groups. Its nuclear expertise would not necessarily stay put. Second, and more immediately, Iran with nukes would have much more of a free hand to support and foment terrorism. At present Iran barely disguises its arming of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias; with nukes on hand it can do more and do so openly with no fear of military retaliation. This would not only help terrorist groups materially, but also it would make them feel more confident, as they would have a nuclear sponsor.

Those issues by themselves don't lead to "we need to be dropping bombs on Tehran and anyone who disagrees is a terrorist". Rather, those issues absolutely must be addressed by those who argue that a nuclear Iran is okay because it can be contained. I've seen many anti-war laundry lists of problems that would happen if the US bombs Iranian nuclear facilities, but hardly anything that deals with these things from the perspective of a dove.

A trio of gentlemen argue that it's important for Democrats to oppose Bush. They do this by saying "drift" a lot. There's just so many bad talking points I have a hard time focusing on any one thing.

-They never make an attempt to say WHY the surge represents 'drift'. Drift tends to imply just going with the flow, which would be accurate for "stay the course"-era Bush policy, but isn't accurate this year. By the end of the column it's clear that "drift" means "a policy that doesn't involve a firm withdrawal date", and that's incredibly ineffective when you're on the op-ed page of the Washington Post.

-They complain that the surge has been 'accompanied by' large sectarian migrations, as though the surge caused it. In fact, the migrations were caused by the security breakdowns, and now that security is being restored, refugees have stopped leaving and are in fact returning by the thousands. If the surge is helping the refugee situation, how is the refugee situation a refutation of the surge?

-"progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq". And they say this because... oh wait they don't say why. Lovely.

-They say that foreign governments won't meddle in Iraq after we leave because they don't want Iraq to fail. This ignores what foreign governments want in Iraq: to have their chosen groups in charge. Saudi radicals supported Sunni terrorists in the hope of restored Sunni dominance. Iran backs one big Shiite group against another in the hopes of having control of the Iraqi government. That's how they do things in the Middle East. Why would Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia et al work in harmony in the absence of a US presence? They tolerated a very chaotic situation in Iraq before the surge, they tolerate chaos in Lebanon and Palestine, why is Iraq different? A very sloppy rehash of an old talking point here.

These are serious foreign-policy bigwigs; they can do a lot better.

Allen Smith must not proofread.

In arresting climate change and solving related energy issues, we should follow the physicians' oath - first, do no harm - and avoid alternatives with equal or greater impacts than our present energy supply.

Consider the example of ethanol. Production requires large amounts of petroleum, farmland, corn, and water, yet it has questionable alternative energy value, has its own emissions and siting problems, directly competes with food supply, and its transport requires special vehicles instead of pipelines. Market-driven production capacity has raced ahead of available delivery infrastructure. This has caused the price of ethanol to crash from overproduction, while at the same time increased demand for corn to produce ethanol has raised corn prices and reduced the availability of corn for food, raising food prices.

Our preoccupation with letting the free market determine our national energy policy is wasteful folly and not in the public interest.

Yes, the current state of ethanol proves that the free market has failed. Except for the fact that ethanol has been ENTIRELY DRIVEN BY GOVERNMENT SUBSIDIES AND FUEL MANDATES. *gives Allen a backdrop driver*

Finally, Mark Winne tugs on your heartstrings by discussing the plight of food banks and feeding the poor. He wants to solve it. His solution is simple: end poverty. Boy, thanks Mark, I had no idea poverty and hunger were tied! Mark eventually stumbles into a progressive fantasy sequence of food pantry volunteers solving hunger by picketing governments on minimum wage laws. News flash, Mark: everyone wants to solve poverty, we just disagree on how to do it. Acting as though 'we should end poverty' is a revelation is not the mark of a writer who, once again, is published on the Washington Post op-ed page. It would be like me saying "let's stop our fiscal problems by ending all crime so we don't need police or prisons anymore".

Am I asking for too much out of these writers? I sure hope not.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Simon Jenkins and his incoherent stance on terrorism

"The biggest threat to the West lies within itself, not with Islam" is a title obviously designed to grab one's attention. What he leaves unspoken but we're supposed to know is that hawks view the entirety of Islam as a menace. This is an opinion which is shared by the extreme and ignorant on the right but not the mainstream. That we're starting off with a strawman bodes ill.

The first half of the column makes some decent points: the west isn't REALLY in peril of being wiped out by terrorists any time soon, it isn't helpful to describe the war on terror as being the west against all of Islam, etc. The problem is that he's not clear about who exactly he's arguing with. Observe:

To portray Islam as a whole as a concerted threat to western security, and to imply that the West’s democratic institutions and freedoms are not proof against that threat, is absurd and close to treason.

Who, exactly, is saying this? Why spend so much time using precious space at a major newspaper without naming names? I read dozens of pieces from the biggest names on the right every week and I never see anything along those lines. I read a heck of a lot more about needing to be able to counter the might of a different billion-people group, China. Neocons argue that we should seek to transform the Islamic world, and while the goal and its means are very debatable it's certainly nothing like the rhetoric used against (for example) the Soviet Bloc during the cold war.

Eh, wasted time and a strawman isn't what I came to gripe about anyway. This is:

This poison has not been generated by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb and his Al-Qaeda fanatics, but in the overreaction to them. After sowing their mayhem they, and not Iraq, should have been targeted and eliminated.

Wait a second, I can't be upset that someone wrote that, even if I disagree it's a perfectly reasonable and defensible... but that isn't what he wrote.

This poison has not been generated by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb and his Al-Qaeda fanatics, but in the overreaction to them. After sowing their mayhem they, and not Afghanistan and Iraq, should have been targeted and eliminated.

Excuse me? It's one thing to say that Saddam's Iraq, which wasn't a major base of Al Qaeda in 2002, should be left alone. It's quite another to say that we overreacted by attacking the Taliban, which refused to give up Al Qaeda and which is allied with them to this day. To imply that we "eliminated" either Iraq or Afghanistan, I'll chalk that up to simple word order, but at the very least it's obvious he means "targeted". First off it's just silly to say we targeted the entire countries, especially when it comes to Afghanistan. I'll skip back a moment for more insight on his mindset.

The chief threat to world security at present lies in the capacity of tiny groups of political Islamists to goad the West into a rolling military retaliation.

In other words, we should have a small fight against small groups of terrorists. That's all well and good if Al Qaeda was based in say the Swiss Alps, without the support of the Swiss. No need to depose a government there, just work with them to stage counterterrorism activities and clear out the bad guys. The problem is that when an active terrorist group is supported by a government, it is imperative that said government either renounce terrorism or pay the price. Let's ignore the notion that we committed some sort of moral crime in liberating Afghanistan; let's just focus on the fundamentals of the situation.

It is unimaginable to me that following 9/11 we should have tolerated the Taliban giving harbor to Al Qaeda. Even without the 9/11 attacks, everyone knew who Osama was and what his group stood for. The Taliban was comfortable with that. They gave a nod to "how do you know it was Al Qaeda" in refusing to authorize action against the AQ camps, but nobody really expected them to go along because the alliance between the groups was too deep. The point at which we go after Al Qaeda is the point at which it is necessary to deploy a significant military force, and since the Taliban refused to allow it the choice was between either taking the Taliban out as well or assuming that they'd just ignore our use of their roads and airports for military operations. I mean, I honestly don't understand this position.

It's one thing to say, "9/11 was an inside job and thus I opposed the war in Afghanistan". It's one thing to say, "we should show we're better by not fighting back and thus I opposed the war in Afghanistan". I disagree, but I understand. It's quite another to say "we should have attacked Al Qaeda but left the Taliban alone". If we'd tried to do that the Taliban wouldn't have left us alone to do our thing in Afghanistan. I almost feel like I'm trying to explain why one plus one equals two here, and I'm not sure if it's worth going into why the Taliban would have attacked our soldiers in Afghanistan if they were left in power.

We targeted the government of Afghanistan for facilitating the staging ground of the 9/11 attacks, and then refusing to end this policy after the attacks. Simply lobbing a couple missiles wouldn't have been sufficient unless they were nukes, thus there had to be a military deployment. This gets to the core of the problem behind the "we should only be targeting a few extremists" talking point: state sponsorship changes the equation. When a government is sheltering the extremists in question, going after them militarily with reasonable efficacy requires neutralizing the government as well. It's nasty but that's the reality of the situation.

Jenkins wants it both ways: he wants people to know he's against war, but he also wants to present himself as being willing to strike terrorists. When it comes to the aftermath of 9/11 those two things are very much contradictory.

Monday, October 8, 2007

My blood hurts

I hate the Bills. I hate them because I love them.

But I hate the Cowboys more.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Columns on war & taxes, and "our broken economy"

EJ Dionne is a respectable liberal. I disagree with 99% of what he says but he's not disagreeable to me. In this column he talks about the dead-on-arrival "war tax" bill proposed in congress. Let me highlight the conclusion.

And if the president believes in this war so much and doesn't want to raise taxes, let him propose the deep spending cuts it would take to cover the costs. Then Bush would show how much of a priority he believes this war is -- and he wouldn't be playing small ball.

I disagree with the "war tax" for a number of reasons, for instance the rate levels seem high given the revenue goal, but I can't see any way to combat that line. It goes back to my 'failure to lead' post: Bush talks about the importance of Iraq but he doesn't act like it. 9/12/01, with a GOP congress and an 80% approval rating, was Bush's chance to be serious and make big plays. Change the military budget from what's best for politicians to what's best for the military; put the kibosh on pork spending; take a hard look at the $2 trillion budget and find ways to offset military spending in order to keep things in the black.

Instead Bush did the exact opposite, and now he has no political capital to fight waste or new domestic spending. If he'd gone to the public in 2001 and said that the time for using the federal budget to protect incumbents was over, he'd have won the battle and could have carved out enough cash to cover even Iraq. Now he looks fiscally irresponsible and unserious for acting as though the money comes out of thin air. It's bad policy and bad politics.

Jeff Madrick has a beefy entry that advocates a big change in government policy. If you're at all familiar with The Nation, you can guess as to what kind of changes and why I'm responding. To start with, for a column of such length he gives hardly any concrete proposals, just a very generic "grow government and tax more". Also he spends way too much time re-hashing ideas he disagrees with, when a briefer summary followed by longer criticisms would do far better in proving his points.

Some of what he says seems... off. For instance this: "After growing robustly for a few years, productivity growth since 2003 is as low as it was before the Internet boom." And your point is what, exactly? The economy was still ailing in 2003 but made a nice comeback between 2004 and 2006. Certain national statistics take time to come in, but productivity isn't one of them, and using 4 year old data makes his argument look weak.

Jeff makes on argument I'll agree with wholeheartedly: rising wages don't necessarily mean inflation. Some economists similarly think that low unemployment causes inflation. In fact, both need to be measured against productivity growth. Wage inflation occurs only when a company has to pay more for the same level of production, so if wages go up only about as much as productivity then there's no inflation.

Madrick proposes a return to Keynesian economics, in which the government spends a lot and is willing to run up deficits in the hope of growing the economy. In theory, the economy will grow faster than interest on the debt, which will make the policy sustainable. Madrick to his credit isn't advocating for government ownership of or investment in private industry, and he isn't proposing busywork spending-for-spending's-sake. That said, he needs to do two big magic tricks to get to where he wants to go.

Madrick's first trick is claiming that higher taxes don't have an effect on the economy. Check this out: "No economist has ever made a defensible case that high taxes impede economic growth in the long run." Wow. How can someone write a column for a major publication like The Nation and think it's okay to toss out such a gigantic statement without any sort of backing before or after? Just proving that line would take more words than he spends on this piece which covers the entire economy.

Madrick's second trick is to say that running a bigger deficit is okay by default, based on Keynesian theory. "The budget deficit is low", we're assured. The annual deficit, perhaps. However it would be a large stretch to say that the national debt, ie. the total from past years, is low... and it's downright incredible to me that anyone talking about the future of the economy can ignore the future debt, that is, the gap between future liabilities and reasonably expected future revenues. Keynesian economic theory was formed at a time when Social Security could be continued for the foreseeable future, and when the elderly died at 65 instead of generating huge medical expenses. Even if one grants that Keynesian economics worked in the past, it's simply not acceptable to ignore the huge difference between the future as of 2007 and the future as of 1937 or 1967.

Now, it's one thing to propose additional spending for things like infrastructure and early education. Infrastructure is an important public good, and early education can shape minds for the better at a time when minds are most changeable. It's quite another to say that a little more taxation and a lot more spending is fine without also addressing future budgetary needs. Whether a right-winger or a left-winger, one absolutely must address entitlement spending when one is discussing long-term federal budget priorities. The US got away with big deficits in the past but it can't indefinitely. If Madrick was looking at the big picture in a responsible manner he wouldn't be so flippant about the deficit, which he sees as needed for the spending he proposes.

Let's go back to the point I agreed with him on: fast wage growth is not bad by default. If only he would make it easy for me.

Such a theory means that federal policies to promote higher wages have an additional justification: economic growth. Higher minimum wages, support of living wages and laws more favorable to unionized labor may actually improve productivity and benefit us all rather than being a cost to society.


The wage share of the nation's income has fallen sharply since rising in the late '90s. Inflation is at rock bottom and inflationary expectations are weak.

Thus he claims that the government can force businesses to pay higher wages to the benefit of the economy. Ah, but he makes a mistake I see from many progressives: he fixates entirely on wages as the only form of employee compensation. The true cost of labor includes benefits, especially health benefits whose costs have skyrocketed. Perhaps his call for universal coverage would eliminate that in theory? No mention of that. Jeff implies that the economy hasn't done well by workers because wages haven't gone up fast enough, but an accurate picture requires determining how much employees cost their employers.

Why am I putting so much into 'total cost of labor'? Because he's calling for massive government-mandated increases in wages as a way of raising them, and he's defended this proposition by saying that fast wage growth isn't necessarily a bad thing and by saying that wages aren't rising fast enough. Since he isn't claiming to offset the cost of benefits, he wants wages to go up independent of productivity growth. Even putting aside the basket of anti-minimum wage right-wing talking points, there's one obvious result of this: inflation. Jeff implies that because of productivity gains over the last few decades that there's lots of room for a sudden jump in wages, but that room quickly evaporates when you factor in benefits. Hiking wages to the extent he seems to propose (as I mentioned earlier he's vague) would cause the cost of labor to rise faster than productivity, which is the definition of wage inflation.

Last but not least I'll touch on his idea of what I'd call "progressive protectionism". That is, it's de facto protectionism in the guise of good intentions.

The objective of trade pacts should not be to protect American workers per se but to bring to the rest of the world the progressive revolution in living standards that US factory workers started to enjoy a century ago. Higher minimum wages, protection against labor abuses, adequate healthcare and a decent environment will help develop domestic markets in these nations, which will in turn stimulate their productivity growth and make them less dependent on exporting to the United States. Meanwhile, Americans will compete on a more level playing field and find export markets for their goods.

I can't get over the use of "per se". That implies he wants to 'protect workers' (ie. protectionism), but doesn't want this to be the stated rationale. I've seen a lot of proposals along these lines, and it's an issue on which I believe a person is either unserious or dishonest.

Protectionism, that is putting tariffs on goods for the sole purpose of giving domestic producers an advantage, is a long-since discredited theory. It's something that we can thank for the length and depth of the Great Depression. It's something that sadly has roots in both the left and right of politics in many countries. 'Progressive protectionism' seeks to impose costs on foreign manufacturing for insufficient wages, work standards, benefits and other such things. The implication is that mighty America will dictate to other nations how they handle their economy.

Unilateral sanctions as a "we don't like your specific dictatorship" foreign policy tool have had minimal effect; why would this be any different? Multilateral sanctions, such as those brought against South Africa, have worked. Good luck getting that to happen today. Germany won't put sanctions on Iran for sponsoring terrorism and building nukes, why would they stop doing business with Laos or Chad over minimum wage? It's wildly unrealistic to think that in an age where the US is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of the global economy, we can single-handedly force the third world to raise their standards.

Again, put aside free market talking points on the issue, let's just look at the practical effect. The US threatens the third world with trade barriers, nobody else joins in, and the third world by and large keeps doing what it's doing just without the US. This would be the best way possible to make sure the US misses out on the benefits of globalization. Meanwhile I could talk about how countries with decently free markets have moved into the global middle class thanks to trade without the attempted use of progressive-minded economic hegemony, but hey, it doesn't matter because everybody knows we won't be a global economic overlord for long. Jeff either believes that such a trade policy would work exactly as he says, or he's using it as a mask for populist protectionism. Politicians tend to do the latter, but I believe Jeff is honest. And by honest I mean incredibly wrong.

When you accumulate all of the ways to "fix" the economy you're left with wage inflation, a bigger debt leading into the entitlement crunch, one-way trade barriers and higher taxes. Sounds like the solution is worse than the problem to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Healthcare: two columns, and I'm not grumpy about either

Here's a column I would be tearing apart if it was really possible for me to do so. Harrop is, from my experience, one of the better left-wing columnists and this is a perfect example of why. If you dislike Bush, you enjoy the way she tears apart the uncontestable contradiction in Bush's stance on healthcare today compared to in his first term. If you're on the right, you're given a reminder of the size and scope of the drug program Bush pushed. If you're a moderate who is somewhat inclined to take the Democrat's side on the issue, Bush looks heartless and unreasonable. When I talk about the way people should write, ie. to convince people that their point of view is correct, this is what I'm talking about.

Another column from a similar point of view is slightly more problematic. It's not Campos-esque or anything, but I feel the need to address some of the content which reflects some of the flaws in the debate. These flaws extend to both sides of the debate.

The larger point is that private markets in health care are not necessarily better than the government-run variety.

Given the shocking waste in U.S. health care, it's embarrassing that Bush still fails to see this. The United States spends nearly twice as much per person on health care as "socialized" Sweden or France, yet Americans' life expectancy is shorter. The profligate spending comes because doctors and patients make indulgent medical decisions while sticking third-party insurers with the cost.


Where unfettered private initiative produces evidently bad outcomes, most people prefer an alternative.

I'm going to ignore lines like "the free market has no solution for the uninsured", which would pretty much require an entire litany of right-wing talking points to properly refute. I'm not interested in doing much of that.

Behind the above sentences is an assumption: US healthcare today is the result of 'free market' policies. On the left and the right this assumption is used as a comparison to 'universal'-style healthcare in other countries. If they have a government/public system, we must therefore have a private one. Right-wingers say "socialism will lead to more costs!" and left-wingers say "then how come the US pays twice as much?"

The problem with the assumption is that it fails to recall the origin of today's US healthcare system. In olden times before most people reading this were born, there was a system of "wage and price controls", meaning there were regulations on how much you could pay for something and how much you could pay someone. It didn't cover absolutely everything but it was endemic enough to cause businesses to find a major loophole: benefits. The recent GM/UAW deal centered around benefits doled out half a century ago, benefits that only existed because of governmental regulation. Businesses couldn't compete with each other or entice employees with cold hard cash, so they did it with items like medical care.

Healthcare thus took on the primary characteristics of socialized medicine: the person receiving care was not directly responsible for the cost of medical care. If a person received medical insurance from his or her employer in one country, and a person received comparable insurance from the government in another, what would the difference be in how the insured consume medical care? I can't think of any significance there. The crux of the libertarian/conservative opposition to universal healthcare is that it takes away personal responsibility, but said responsibility has largely been removed anyway, even in cases where people have to buy their own insurance.

The health insurance industry in the US is far removed from other types of insurance, which center around major events. Mallaby references the need of some type of insurance in his column:

But a large share of health spending comes when people face emergencies: when they are sick, scared and about as far from feeling "empowered" as they possibly could be. Moreover, emergencies involve huge hospital bills that consumers are not going to pay out of pocket, even in the Bush team's shiniest scenario. Catastrophes will always have to be covered by insurers, so consumers' incentive to control this important component of health-care costs will always be imperfect.

Granted, but try finding a health insurance policy that's emergencies-only. Today's policies were spawned by businesses wanting something employees would be interested in, and that meant more than just getting a hospital stay covered if you break a leg. It meant things like minor doctor visits, the relative nickel-and-dime stuff that represents the majority of incidents if not spending. Insurers soon entangled themselves in all aspects of medical care, and their internal bureaucracies have hassled doctors and patients alike, creating incalculable amounts of paperwork and anxiety. It would be like homeowners' insurance getting involved when you call a plumber to fix a clogged sink. The insurance company represents a third party who leeches off the first two *and* costs them time with paperwork.

This mindset became the norm, and eventually state governments made the situation permanent by mandating what things *must* be covered by any health insurance sold within their borders. Insurers thus craft policies for every state, and few states have so little regulation that it could reasonably called "unfettered private initiative". The end result is the hassle, inefficiency and lack-of-personal-responsibility associated with 'big government', without the socially harmonizing benefit of universiality.

That's not to say I favor socialized medicine. Rather, I'm annoyed that so many people fail to see the roots of the current US healthcare system and the ways in which it's nothing like 'free market'. Those on the left should be skeptical that replacing one bureaucracy with another will have a significant positive effect; those on the right should realize that just because something is technically private-sector doesn't mean it should be defended from criticism. It's possible to be libertarian AND a critic of the healthcare system; as I've demonstrated it's actually quite easy. Sadly partisanship leads many on the right to oppose universal coverage proposals with no substantive counter-proposal, which leads the public to think that the right is satisfied with the problematic status quo.

For all the reasons I outlined, the right should be just as upset as the left. Because it isn't, the debate is being won handily by the left. The poor quality of debate on this issue is bad for everyone, and sadly I don't see that changing any time soon.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

'National service', 'sacrifice' & the draft

In the last couple years I haven't written quite so much about politics and current events. Thus there are a number of topics where I have something to say, but need something to trigger my opinions. I wasn't planning on writing anything until I saw a column that I *agree* with, which goes against my anti-punditry norm, but there you go.

A trio of topics have come up over the last few years, all draped in the flag and country and "giving back". The underlying principles behind each differs quite a lot, from partisanship to misplaced patriotism. I'll start with the latter and work my way to the former.

1) Several politicians have proposed that young Americans donate a significant amount of their time to some form of civic or charitable cause. As a right-winger I'm opposed to large amounts of government-mandated charity, so immediately my defenses are up even though at age 26 I'm not likely to be effected by it (most plans call for 18-25 year olds). One of the key things that makes charity meaningful and rewarding is that it's voluntary. You do better by yourself in doing better by others. What's really irked me about the issue is the number of times I've seen it brought up as a who-could-object-to-this common-sense proposal.

Mandatory service would involve a lot more than just teenagers picking up trash on the side of a road. You're talking about monitoring, enforcing, punishing, certifying what does and doesn't count, and who knows what else. If it's for only a short period of time then the labor won't accomplish nearly enough to make up for the cost and hassle of operating the program. If it's for a long period of time then you're talking about what amounts to slave labor and seriously disrupting lives. In either case it's not going to foster 'civic responsibility' as much as civic unrest. It's one thing to draft men at a time of vital war, it's another to demand busywork because of a generic "young people today aren't nice" mentality.

2) I've seen a few people on several locations of the political rainbow call for a return of the draft. Some want it because they think it would reduce militarism. I think that wanting to do a draft for political reasons is indefensible, and if you can't raise enough anti-war protests that's your own problem. Politicians shouldn't mess with the military any more than they already do (see: questionable weapons programs, military base decisions, Donald Rumsfeld). Wanting a draft because "we're running out of soldiers" is sheer laziness.

We don't pay soldiers even a fraction of what they deserve, and the fact that so many are willing to serve at current pay scales is a testament to the character of our military. Considering that they have to leave home, give up many basic freedoms, are on the job 24/7 and risk their lives, and that they get paid less than many/most policemen, it's amazing that anyone signs up. If the military was seriously on the verge of needing more men, while at the same time taking up a much smaller % of GDP than it did even during many recent times of peace, to me the logical first step would be to increase pay and see if that would get more recruits. Some people might want to serve but couldn't really afford to right now. Others might be indifferent to serving now but go for the money. The prospect of a 'mercenary' army might not appeal to some of you, but to me in a situation like we're in today it's a lot more morally defensible than forced service. The bottom line is that the military does compete with the rest of the economy for manpower, and if it needs more then it should first be willing to at least try paying more for it. Speaking of paying more, I'd like to wrap this up by going after one of the most lackluster talking points of the last five years.

3) "There isn't enough sacrificing for the Iraq war, just look at what people went through in WW2". There are a couple variations on this. I have yet to see one where the point was "you should donate more time and money to veterans groups". The point is usually "we can't have tax cuts and a war and conservatives should give up one or another". This is what's called a false dilemma. Take two things that are marginally connected at best (war funding and taxation) and say there one or the other must be sacrificed. The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes far too many things, but perhaps most importantly it assumes that if a conservative got what he wanted (war and tax cuts) there would be an unsustainable budget deficit. Thing is, if you ask any halfway respectable conservative he'll come up with several hundred billion dollars worth of spending to cut and thus balance the budget. I won't even go into the whole "sometimes tax cuts lead to more/not much less revenue" talking point because that's a whole 'nother debate.

I'm annoyed so much by the talking point because it's usually employed in a very dishonest, partisan way, and it also tries to use an end-around on the tax debate (since war is more serious than taxes). It's a "gotcha". I hate a "gotcha" debate mindset. Even if you 'win' a debate like that it's going to do more to cause discord rather than change minds.

So in conclusion: charity is awesome but it should come from the heart, pay the troops more, and the federal budget is big enough for there to be some leeway on what people want without making assumptions.

On a final note, thanks for the positive feedback so far, especially from those of you who don't agree with all of it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

9/11/07: never forget (the bad memes and arguments)

Before I start, does anyone know of a way to do those column expand/contract things without my using things like "xml editor" and such? The Blogger Help section gives directions that are impossible to follow. The reason I ask is because I'm going to be posting mostly long entries and older ones will be buried under the likes of... well, this. (WARNING: INCONCEIVABLY LONG)


Every Monday I spend a big hunk of time playing catch-up on RealClearPolitics' endless array of links. Since I didn't get to it on Monday the 10th, I had four days worth of material to read on the 11th. On a typical Monday I'll come across 2-5 irritating columns, but on the 11th it was a full set of 10, and all on the same subject. The war.

As I've said many times and will repeat again, I don't hold any ill will towards those who were opposed to the war at the start, and I'm not angry at those who want to end it now. It's an absolute muddle. In any given three month period there's some new really bad event or trend to show how far Iraq is from anything remotely considered 'mission accomplished'. That said, I am touchy on the subject.

My church has a very large military contingent for its size, and probably the bravest person my hometown produced in my lifetime was fortunate to avoid being killed in Ramadi during the height of violence there. I don't take the mission lightly, and I hate it when people either for or against the war debate it like a partisan political fight. I've gone over the administration's inability to make a decent case in the past, and I think part of that is the Rove-created media approach which works wonders when things are simple but falls apart when it gets hairy. Other right-wing pundits (ie. Limbaugh) drive me crazy by explaining the war exclusively through a Republican vs Democrat prism or oversimplifying.

Before jumping into my original plan of lambasting war critics, let me point out two right-wing memes I dislike. First is "they're fighting for our freedom". In Iraq? I'm as hawkish as it gets and even I'm not willing to step out on that limb. I view Iraq as a US obligation and a vital security interest, but it's not like World War II where the fate of the free world directly hung in the balance. Another is the "if we leave then al Qaeda will take over Iraq" talking point, one that I've seen bandied about from far too many commentators. Even at its most powerful, al Qaeda and its related jihadi groups were never a threat to conquer Baghdad. When they bombed the golden mosque, the Shiite militias rose up and expelled Sunnis wholesale from many neighborhoods in the capital (and probably elsewhere). Al Qaeda never had a chance to defeat the raw manpower of the Shiites. The worst case scenario has always been a bigger, badder version of the sectarian violence witnessed after the Samarra bombing. Both of those talking points are simplistic and appeal to base emotions rather than being concerned about accuracy. And speaking of lacking accuracy...

Simon Jenkins spent quite a lot of time running through the usual criticisms, which most anyone can repeat by heart. That he classifies all Sunni chieftains as "Saddamist" is irritating but it's minor. What makes me target this column is the part where he does the most original thinking, that is, his call for the US to emulate the UK's withdrawal plan. In essence, cut a deal to empower local militias who will keep order.

This just might work in Basra, I don't know enough about that area of Iraq to argue. What little I do know about Basra is that there's no way to apply any lessons from there to the rest of Iraq. You don't have the Sunni/Shia tensions, and you don't have to worry about insurgents using Basra as a base of operations. The flashy, foreign-led section of the Sunni insurgency has actively targeted other provinces from wherever it's headquartered at the time. Sunnis in Anbar rose up against al Qaeda's Iraq franchise but still oppose the government or its current leaders. Rival Shiite groups might bicker and occasionally shoot at each other but they do so in order to control, not fight, the government. Getting two Shiite groups to leave each other alone, which is an uneasy truce to begin with, is an apple. Getting Sunnis and Shiites to leave each other alone isn't even an orange. Far more complicated, far more likely to break down into violence. Jenkins isn't a "so what if a genocidal civil war breaks out" type, he agrees that the US has a duty to the Iraqi people. It's puzzling to me why he thinks that such a facile solution as the UK/Basra model (which is still wholly unproven) is the way to uphold that duty.

Simon and Takeyh spin things a bit too hard. All Shia demand more vengeance on Sunnis, all Sunnis demand majority power? That's reductionism almost to the point of being racist. Saying that the surge hasn't had a measurable impact on insurgent activity is flat-out wrong, since it not only stopped the steady uptick in violence but also halved it. The "all it did was move insurgents elsewhere" talking point proves that they aren't looking seriously at the differences between the surge and other past offensives. Before we couldn't even get al Qaeda et al to leave Anbar, which was by far the easiest terrain for them. Now they're having to go into places with significant Shia populations, significant Iraqi military positions, or both. Clear/build/hold was the mantra since late 2004 but it wasn't a reality until now, as we're finally helping local populations get the confidence they need to fight back and keep the radicals from returning. Last but not least they trot out another drastic oversimplification, that the US being friendly towards Sunnis will automatically turn the Shia population against us. I have no doubt that some Shiite leaders are upset but their implication is that we should have snubbed the Sunnis forever and that's about as idiotic a prescription for Iraq as I can think of.

Scheuer provides this gem:

Bin Laden and his boys sit unmolested on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, planning more attacks in America because our bipartisan elite long ago delegated America's protection to a beleaguered Third World dictator.

Unmolested? That would be news to the thousands of incredibly elite soldiers in the area who kill Taliban by the hundreds on a regular basis. Maybe he means that they're unmolested in Pakistan. Okay, I'll give him that. And yes we rely on Third World dictator (Musharraf). The alternative is what, exactly? Pakistan has nukes and their major political figures are at least two of a very nasty subset (corrupt, incompetent, dictatorial, jihadist). Scheuer prides himself on being an expert on the region but he completely glosses over the very things which make the Afghanistan situation difficult. It would be like me ignoring demography when talking about future entitlement obligation. (I'll be coming back to that one soon enough)

Kevin Drum writes a staggeringly bad piece. I'm not sure where to begin. "The surge has produced only tiny gains in a few highly localized areas and has no chance of replicating those successes on a wide scale" is a whopper; 50%+ gains have been made in several of the most violent provinces and Baghdad neighborhoods, which in turn account for 90% of violence in Iraq. Saying that there is "no chance" of replicating the Anbar model dismisses the hard-earned people skills of our troops, and while I'm not going to pull a Jenkins and say that it's absolutely going to work it has worked everywhere the surge has gone. He goes on to wave away a post-withdrawal bloodbath by saying it would be bloody but short, and because he waves away hard-fought gains by our troops that makes it easy for him to reach his conclusion in 8 paragraphs.

The Nation thinks that if the US pulls out, the UN and the Arab League will be able to bring peace. I'm not going to dignify that with a response.

Gary Kamiya trips right out of the gate:

It's no surprise that Gen. David Petraeus' "anxiously awaited" evaluation of the war is to be given on the 10th and 11th of September. The not-so-subliminal message: We must do what Bush and Petraeus say or risk another 9/11.

Congress scheduled the hearings. That's just sloppy. He then goes on to say that the war on terror is "a palatable cover for vengeance and racism" and "the massacre in Haditha on a global scale", which is especially interesting because as the facts came out it became clear that the early 'Haditha massacre' narrative was incorrect and already most of the soldiers involved have been cleared. I'm not going to put more energy into this because it's primarily partisan bomb-throwing of the kind I so detest.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE! The war isn't the only thing to generate bad columns!

Anthony Zinni is a heavy-hitter in foreign policy ranks, which makes it all the more silly for him to hand-wave his way around the fact that Musharraf is almost the worst possible "he's an SOB but he's our SOB" in that he's a dictator who can't secure his country against US enemies. As I mentioned earlier it's not as though we have better options per se, but Zinni takes things too far. Bush has handled Musharraf with kid gloves for 6 years now, we've hardly been unkind.

Richard Reeves goes after Fred Thompson with a huge logical leap. He points out that Reagan didn't really fight the growth in the size of government (true) and that Bush II has backed a lot of new spending (also true). Here's the conclusion of the column.

As for Thompson, it is hard to understand what the former senator really believes about the big government he wants to run. In his announcement speech he contradicts himself, saying:

"When I went to the Senate, I wanted to balance the budget, cut taxes, reform welfare, require Congress to live under the laws that they had imposed on others, and I wanted to begin the modernizing of our military ...

"Now these problems have only grown worse since that time. ... On our present course, deficit financing will saddle future generations with enormous taxes, jeopardize our economy and endanger our retirement programs. ... This path is economically unsustainable."

That sounds like he wants to rescue the nation from his party and his party's leader -- because all the terrible things he's talking about happened while George Bush and other Republicans were running the country. In the end, Thompson is telling us that, like Bush, he is a big-government conservative spending his children's and grandchildren's money.

How is that a contradiction? How is that proof that Fred wants a bigger government? If you're going to do partisan attacks at least make it easy to follow. Fred is talking about governing with conservative ideals, Reagan and Dubya and the GOP congress often didn't, soooooo... Fred's lying? Wuh?

Last but not least it's John Tammy to hand-wave away the coming entitlement crunch. I have yet to see an economist, even with the most rose-colored glasses imaginable, provide figures to show how the US/EU/Japan/Russia/China Axis of Aging will be able to cope with the growing number of retirees without some combination of unsustainable taxes or massive benefit cuts or both. Tammy trots out productivity gains, without even trying to show how that will close the gap. He trots out globalization as though people in Bombay will be paying taxes to Washington DC or Rome. He even has the audacity to say that we'll be better off in the long run because raising children is expensive. Because workers are amazingly productive, just not productive enough to offset the cost of being born. Or something. John's logic is on par with the reviving elbow, only in one case it's pro wrestling and in the other it's economics. I think Tammy should be held to a higher standard than Hulk Hogan.


See what I mean about wanting to do the expand/contract thing? My gosh.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Paul Campos gets paid for this dreck.

Some op-ed columnists are trolls. They aren't so much trying to prove a point or change minds so much as get attention, rile up the opposition and entertain those who agree with them. Trolls don't always really believe what they're saying.

I don't think Paul Campos of Rocky Mountain News is a troll, which in a way is worse. For instance, this from yesterday. He writes about football coaches and extensively quotes "my friend JJ" to help prove that Notre Dame's treatment of Charlie Weis is an example of racism. Not that it was, say, a well-intentioned mistake. Oh no. Let's not go into the merits or demerits of giving Weis the job and a big contract. Let's just point out that he's white and the last coach was black. Case closed.

For that he gets published, much less paid? But wait there's more!

Steroids are okay! Let's use an obviously false hypothetical to prove it! Or how about Vick's plight is Orwellian and we're only outraged because poor people do it! Don't care about sports? Never fear, he's a veritable buffet of buffoonery. Nobody has proven that obesity has negative health effects! That's a real keeper, because he takes a perfectly reasonable argument (American obesity contributes to high healthcare costs), strawmans it, and then does a bad job of attacking the strawman. I want to go into a little more detail on this because it's beyond me how a professional writer would turn out something like this for mass consumption.

The logic of Huckabee's position goes something like this: People get sick because they're fat. If they became thin, they wouldn't get sick, or at least not nearly so often.

The logic isn't that thin people won't get sick, nobody says that, but Campos just has to throw that in to try and smear his opposition. And, mind you, the opposition is people who think Americans are too fat.

France spends half as much per person on health care as we do but has a much healthier populace, despite higher rates of smoking and drinking, and a high-fat diet that horrifies our puritanical public health authorities, who define "healthy" food as food people eat only out of a sense of nutritional obligation.

Campos thinks this is a good shot at Huckabee, or else he wouldn't include it. But did Huckabee say that all foods with fat in them are bad? No. He's talking about obesity. A diet can have fat in it and not lead to obesity, and hey, France is proof! Smaller portions, healthier fats, it all works out. Pulling the France card is a non-sequitur.

It's no exaggeration to say that behind statements like Huckabee's lurks the idea that, when people get sick, it's their own fault. If people didn't believe this, then the arguments of the defenders of the health care status quo would be recognized for what they are: attempts to defend the indefensible.

Except that obesity is a choice in the vast majority of cases and those resulting diseases are, in fact, the sick person's fault? The obesity of Americans, myself included, is a moral and cultural failure which is incredibly expensive and degrades the quality of life. Campos is afraid that going after obesity is a smokescreen for not having universal healthcare. I can vaguely sympathize, but Campos doesn't focus on removing the smokescreen. He focuses on trying to minimize the perceived harm of obesity, just like he tried to minimize the harm that Bonds and Vick caused their sports.

For several years now, I've been documenting and describing the obsession the American public health establishment has with the absurd notion that the biggest health crisis facing the nation is the increasing weight of the populace and the even crazier idea that trying to make Americans thinner represents a sensible use of scarce public health dollars.

Do I even need to bother going after this? How is obesity not the biggest problem? How is making Americans thinner an unworthy goal? How are public health dollars 'scarce'?! Campos continues and concludes:

There's actually little correlation between weight and health except at real extremes. There's almost literally no evidence that weight loss in and of itself improves health. And we don't know how to make people thin.

It's difficult to express how exasperating it is to deal with the utterly irrational denial this last point elicits. A new meta-analysis of 31 long-term weight-loss studies by UCLA psychologist Traci Mann and her colleagues drives the point home with overwhelming force: When people try to do what Huckabee says they should do, to lose weight, the vast majority of them don't achieve any long-term weight loss. His response to this, of course, would be that they need to try harder.

Suppose Mike Huckabee were to give a lecture to 100 children of poor, inner-city single mothers, in which he told them that by staying in school and working hard they could escape poverty, and 20 years later he discovered that 95 of the kids were still poor. Would he still believe that telling such children to "try harder" constitutes an adequate response to the problem of inner-city poverty?

Wait, don't answer that.

Most people who try to lose weight fail. Campos takes that fact, one which I don't think many people would deny, and uses it to prove that there's no benefit to be derived from fighting obesity. Campos says there's no correlation except at the extremes. I think he hasn't been to a chain restaurant or a mall or a ballgame lately because there are a LOT of Americans at the 'extreme' end of obesity. Last year I went to Japan and weighed about 195 pounds, when I should weigh around 160. That's a goodly amount of flab, yet walking down Main Street USA I wouldn't come close to standing out. Yet in Japan I was easily in the top 3% of the fattest people in a given crowd. Walk into a crowded Applebee's and you'll see more 250+ pound lardbuckets than you would from walking the teeming streets of Tokyo for a month. We ARE the extreme! Campos is trying to obfuscate reality to score political points against a C-level Republican presidential candidate, and I just can't grasp why he feels the need to do so.

Then he tosses out a really sloppy hypothetical cheap-shot, and I hope that those of you reading this from the leftward end of the political spectrum can see what a poor example of argumentation this is.

And one more for the road: if conservatives agree with John Roberts court decisions then the decisions must be political! Which is a great way to dismiss the possibility that there is legal merit behind them, or that they could result from a steady and reasonable but non-partisan judicial philosophy.

Campos is a hack's hack and it's a wonder he gets to deposit money into his bank account for such efforts.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


The last few years I've gone through a number of different hobbies to fill my spare time at work. Fantasy football was always fun until the last few weeks of the year, when my top players would go cold or get hurt no matter how many teams I had. Mercury was a nice high-end e-fed but it required big chunks of time too often in the week for me to keep it up. Writing a new puropulse every week became difficult to do after I'd gone over all the basics/theories behind puro and had complained several times about every promotion's booking.

Two weeks ago I played Risk for the first time in about 15 years with a group of friends. Though I only came in 3rd of 5, it sparked something in me. Here was a game I could control (unlike fantasy football), it didn't force me to dwell on negative things (like the puropulse), and if I could find the right website it wouldn't be time-intensive at all. I didn't find one site like that; I found three.

Conquer Club, Landgrab and Grand Strategy all give you the ability to test your strategic thinking online for free. Give them a try (well not so much landgrab) and maybe you'll stumble across me.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Failure to lead

The more time goes by, the less I enjoy our political system. Granted there is the "worst except for all the others" bromide, but that stopped calming my nerves a while ago.

I realize I'm to the right of 80, maybe 90 percent of the country. I accept that I can't possibly get all that I want. What gets me is that I can't vote for someone and expect to use the campaign platform as an indicator of future policies. Dubya came in against farm subsidies and yet didn't blink at signing record increases that went primarily to wealthy landowners and connected corporations. Republicans voted into congress to fight things like wasteful spending were going hog-wild within four years. Throw in the steady trickle of sexual and financial scandals on every level of government and it's easy to be jaded.

In 2004 I was more anti-Kerry than pro-Bush. I see that many people who were that way at the time are now more anti-Bush and want their votes back. Not me. However, I'm much less pro-Bush now than I was then, which has caused me to write a lot less about politics and current events over the last two years even though I read much more about both. The best example is the war.

In 2004, the Sunni insurgency started up. I figured they would be crushed quickly, and that we wouldn't tolerate any safehavens for Ba'athists or foreign terrorists. As it turns out, during the 2004 campaign Bush knew that there were large sections of the country with no coalition presence whatsoever and he never made the case for additional troops. I'd read stories from the front where US troops were winning battles and winning over civilians, and I figured that was happening across the nation and thus victory was around the corner. However, that progress was only made where soldiers were, which in turn was far too small a portion of the country.

I can understand being fed up with the Iraqis today, saying that we've done enough and that we don't need to shed any more blood for them. However, in 2004 the Iraqis hadn't been given half a chance and we were responsible for at least trying to secure the country as best we were able to. Looking at how much the surge has accomplished in the last three months, it's obvious that 2004 was not "as best we were able to". Neither was 2005 or 2006. But what's more, in 2004 we had far more soldiers who hadn't spent the maximum amount of time on the front the way there is today. A surge in 2004 could have used more soldiers, it wouldn't have needed even a fraction as much in targeting Shia militants, and it would have trampled the Sunni insurgency long before the 2006 mosque bombing that sent violence levels through the roof.

A quality leader in the White House would never half-ass a war. Doing so put more of our troops in danger over the long haul, and I can guarantee it was done in an effort to maintain Bush's poll numbers. A leader would have success and doing good by the troops as the top goal, not politics. I firmly believe the rhetoric Bush uses about the importance of Iraq in the war on terror and the world overall, but Bush doesn't act as if HE believes it. Let me give you some examples.

If he really believed it, he would put public pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop the flow of arms and men through Syria and into Iraq. Saudi state-sponsored religious leaders and media have supported the insurgency from the start. American troops put their lives on the line for the sake of regional security; the least the Sauds can do is get out of the way.

If he really believed it, he would gather as much data as possible about Syrian and Iranian complicity in the violence and mount a diplomatic campaign to lobby for sanctions. Whatever behind-the-scenes assurances would be needed that the campaign was not a run-up to more wars, he'd have to give them. Instead there hasn't been any sign that they're doing more than just leaks to the press about suspect weapons and supply trails. If Iran is really providing the IEDs that kill troops by the dozen every month, why not pressure Japan to buy their oil elsewhere? Why not pressure France and Germany to have their large (and often state-tied) corporations pull out of Tehran? The administration has no qualms about levelling accusations but nobody puts much stock into them because they don't take the obvious next step and try to hit back at Syria and Iran over their actions in Iraq. Compare to what we've done to Syria over Lebanon and Iran over the nuclear issue.

If Bush really believed in the importance of Iraq and the war on terror he would have called for an expansion of the military long ago. Don't support the surge? It doesn't matter because in a few months we won't have enough soldiers for it unless we extend tours of duty to an absurd length! It's not as though there's no money for it, I mean, we have enough to fill the coffers of Archer Daniels Midland and build bridges for fifty people in Alaska and support money pits like corn-based ethanol (other crops make better fuel). He could have made the case, beaten up congressional Republicans, and tried to make sure we have enough manpower to win in Iraq and more effectively hold Afghanistan. Would it have been risky? Yes. But fully acknowledging the difficulties and the cost involved in winning would have the benefit of being the truth and war supporters like me would have backed him twice as much.

Talking about preventing another 9/11 while relying on a 'light footprint' in Iraq and a shrunken force in Afghanistan isn't leadership. It's partisan cowardice. I'm glad that the surge finally happened but the delay has cost tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, and there's no guarantee we'll even succeed in the end. The insecurity of Iraq in 2004, 2005 and 2006 helped shape the dysfunctional politics in Baghdad today and it might be beyond repair at this point.

You might be against the US presence in Iraq. This post isn't an attempt to justify that. Rather, I'm trying to say that the Bush 2 administration has been an object lesson in how not to govern as a hawk. Poor leadership has meant that those who opposed the invasion are almost entirely opposed to the occupation, and many who supported the invasion have either turned or are now demoralized, which is bad politics. Poor leadership also let a bad situation get much, much worse.

I'm hoping for better from the 2008 candidates but I'm keeping my expectations low.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I hate bad punditry

Every day I spend a hunk of time on They include the important political writings of the day from across the spectrum: columnists, bloggers, editorials, magazines, think-tanks and more. I skip quite a lot, depending on the source and subject. I'm not focusing on the 2008 horse-race because today's news and analysis will be forgotten in a month or less. I don't read cheerleaders or trolls, which means that despite my staunch right-wing politics I click on American Prospect columns exponentially more often than Ann Coulter.

There are times when I read a column from the left and nod my head. It can be from outright agreement or just "that's a fair argument", and reading such columns has given me a lot of respect for my ideological opponents. Many writers have enough intellectual honesty and intelligence to overcome my initial contrarianism. However, not everyone is so skilled.

On most days I stumble upon a sentence, or a paragraph, or a piece of writing whose contents grate on me. Whether it's bad information, faulty reasoning or a worn-out talking point, it drives me crazy that I have no means of response. Or I should say it drove me crazy, because now I have this blog to vent my spleen onto for literally TENS of people to read. So here's an incredibly long example:

Cass R. Sunstein is complaining that the court is too far to the right. Considering that Kennedy is the center, the court can be fairly called right-leaning, so it makes sense for a Prospect writer to be concerned. However rather than making a straightforward, strong case that it will take a couple new nominations by a Democrat to rectify the situation, Cass grasps at every straw.

In 1980, John Paul Stevens stood at the center of the Supreme Court. Today, he is its most left-wing member -- and he hasn't changed.

That's the tag line, and it tells you exactly where things are headed. 1980 is the benchmark that courts should be judged by, and Stevens ought to be the center. Now, Cass should desire that the court move that far to the left, but the concern isn't based on pure ideological wishing. Look at the title: "The Myth of the Balanced Court". Meaning that the goal is balance, with a few clear leftists and a few clear rightists and one or more centrists to balance things out. Me, I'd prefer a court with Roberts at the center, but I can't expect Cass to feel that way. Cass however has set the table thusly: Stevens was the center and that's how to achieve a balanced court. Not a progressive court, a balanced court.

The body of the column starts by establishing a fair point: that the court is tilted to the right and that the media should report it as such. I'd say that there isn't really a problem because I hear far more of "Kennedy is the center" than I do "Kennedy is a centrist", but I won't quibble over this point. Now we get to the red meat.

Cautious on the lower courts, Ginsburg and Breyer were prescreened by and fully acceptable to Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Both their votes and their opinions have been far more moderate than those of the great liberal visionaries of the Court's past, such as William O. Douglas and William Brennan. Souter is a Republican appointee. His approach to constitutional law is in the general mold of Justice John Harlan, the great conservative dissenter on the Warren Court. Stevens, also a Republican appointee, was a maverick on the Burger Court, far to the right of three of its members. Contrary to what you hear, Stevens hasn't much changed in the last decades.

'Cautious on lower courts' is meaningless. Judges are often more reserved before reaching the top, especially when they know they'll have to be screened by partisans. As for whether they're left or right, Sunstein notes that they're less-left than several past judges. That doesn't prove anything either as far as whether they should be considered centrists. Souter was nominated by Bush 1, which is meaningless in determining where he stands. His approach being theoretically in the mold of Harlan doesn't mean it actually is. He was nominated in the hopes of getting someone like Harlan; very few court watchers would say he fulfilled those hopes. Stevens being a maverick on the Burger court doesn't disprove that he's currently a liberal, and "hasn't changed that much" is an admission that he has shifted at least somewhat to the left.

In 1980, when I clerked at the Court, the justices were, roughly from left to right, Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry Blackmun, Byron White, John Paul Stevens, Lewis Powell, Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist. Believe it or not, this Court was widely thought to be conservative.

So you've got four solid leftists, Powell and Stewart were centrists, Stevens is acknowledged as to the left of them in 1980 and has moved further left since, and Burner and Rehnquist can be considered on the right. That's a 4-3-2 or 5-2-2 split leaning to the left. The only way I can imagine that being considered conservative is if it was compared to past courts rather than actual, you know, conservatism. By calling the 1980 court conservative, when even a tiny bit of knowledge or inquiry shows otherwise, Sunstein is trying to say that it should be the model of a balanced court. There's a debate to be had as to whether 1980 centerpoint Stevens was more to the left than 2007 centerpoint Kennedy is to the right, but the fact is, Stevens was leftist at the time and thus the court was leftist as well.

Again, Sunstein could have handily proven an easy point and focused on how the media portrays today's court and Kennedy. Instead, the coverage is assumed to be biased and the 1980 court being conservative, which is a reach, quickly becomes an assumption as well.

But think, just for a moment, about how much would have to change in order for the Court of 2007 to look like the supposedly conservative Court of 1980.

So he goes on an extended mental exercise of showing how far the 2007 court is to the right of the 1980 court. Hey, I won't disagree that the court has shifted to the right. The problem is that "1980 = conservative court" is the central premise. It would take a much longer, and much more detailed column to even begin to prove that, if it's possible to begin with. Sunstein's hand is tipped even more in the next section.

The consequences are huge, both for constitutional law and for public debate. When Kennedy, rather than Stevens, looks like the moderate, people's sense of constitutional possibilities, and of what counts as sensible or, instead, extreme and unthinkable, shift dramatically. Not long ago, Marshall and Brennan served as the Court's visionaries, offering a large-scale sense of where constitutional law should move. They thought it preposterous that affirmative action should be treated the same as old-fashioned racial discrimination, and their views on that question put real pressure on the Court's center. They wrote in clear, bold strokes against decisions to invalidate campaign-finance restrictions and to restrict access to federal court; their opinions pressed the Court toward moderation on those subjects.

So he's essentially saying that Kennedy is 'extreme and unthinkable'. Marshall and Brennan, who were the leftmost of the 1980 court, moved the court in a moderate direction. Opposition to affirmative action is no longer simply a different point of view, but an untenable one. Sunstein's entire column is supposed to be about how to get to a moderate court, but now it's clear that a progressive court is the true goal. I wouldn't have a problem with someone writing about wanting a progressive court, especially in the Prospect, but he disguises it as wanting moderation.

The results of the shift have been momentous. Where once it seemed clear that the Court would generally accept congressional judgments in favor of affirmative-action programs, the Court has now made clear that such judgments will be subject to "strict scrutiny" (and generally struck down).

Or in other words, he wants a default leftist court and now it isn't. Even questioning affirmative action is intolerable. He doesn't want a centrist court, he wants a progressive rubber-stamp. That's poor argumentation for a professor of law. This same kind of argument is then extended to other issues: the court isn't on the left so it isn't balanced. His own words disprove his assertion that the 1980 court was conservative, because he wants a court that debates how progressive to be rather than whether or not to be progressive.

The upshot of all these shifts is that what was once on the extreme right is now merely conservative. What was once conservative is now centrist. What was centrist is now left wing. What was once on the left no longer exists.

This is only true if you're basing it on where the court was at and before 1980, not if you base it on overall political and legal thought in America. Is there nobody as far to the left as Marshall on today's court? Probably. Does that mean nobody on the court today is leftist? Hardly. An easy way to tell is to see how often progressives complain about decisions which Stevens or Ginsburg or Breyer are in the majority, and compare it to how many conservatives complain about decisions where Kennedy is in the majority. I've seen lots of the latter and very little of the former. If Ginsburg was merely centrist then she'd be to the right of progressives 50% of the time and would regularly draw fire from them.

Cass goes for far too much early on and never stops reaching. That would be tolerable in a standard partisan cheerleader, but I'd hope for more from someone of his seniority and experience in the field of law.

First post

I'm making a blog. It's gonna have stuff on it. Thrilling!

The content will vary. Sometimes politics, sometimes wrestling, sometimes completely random stuff. I figure, this way YOU the reader can directly respond.