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Monday, May 31, 2004

Politics by Pronouncement: Ground Rules 

A comment thread on Atrios references a really good Guardian article on the growing disconnect between British and American statements about Iraq and the situation on the ground:

Tony Blair for once disagreed. "If there is a political decision as to whether you go into a place like Fallujah in a particular way, that has to be done with the consent of the Iraqi government and the final political control remains with the Iraqi government," he said. But by the next day he was back in his box. "We are both absolutely agreed that there should be full sovereignty transferred to the Iraqi people, and the multinational force should remain under American command," he told the Commons.

In so doing he revealed two of the golden rules in this new era of politics by pronouncement. First, so long as you say things boldly and confidently, they do not have to make any sense. Second, whatever announcement you make last negates all announcements you've made before.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Daschle and Herseth 

The Daschle v. Thune blog has some interesting comments on the relationship between Daschle and Stephanie Herseth, the Democratic candidate in the June 1st special election for South Dakota's house seat.

Republicans and energy independence 

Kerry's speech in Seattle might have been less than inspiring, but the Republican response was pretty funny:

Republicans also complained that if Kerry wants to end America's dependence on Mideast oil, he should support opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which he opposes.

"His solution is to make families drive around in small, unsafe cars," Virginia Sen. George Allen said on a Republican conference call to respond to Kerry's speech in Seattle.

This one really made me laugh. The amount of economically recoverable oil in the ANWR (i.e. oil that can be profitably extracted and sold) is estimated at 5 billion barrels. By comparison, total U.S. oil consumption is 19.7 million barrels per day. When you work this out, there is enough oil in the ANWR to power the country for approximately eight months. Sure, drilling in the ANWR could bring us energy independence -- eight months of it.

I am not necessarily opposed to drilling in the ANWR if it could be shown to have minimal environmental impact; but to claim that drilling in the ANWR would solve the problem of energy independence is like saying that giving a meal to one starving child solves world hunger. The problem completely dwarfs the proposed solution. When you consider that those in favor of drilling point out that "the Coastal Plain of ANWR is America's best possibility for the discovery of another giant `Prudhoe Bay-sized' oil and gas discovery in North America," and even this "best possibility" would only power the country for an estimated eight months, conservation starts to look like a pretty good idea. That's where those "small, unsafe cars" come in.
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Kerry's latest policy speech 

The headline Kerry outlines global mission for U.S. is misleading to say the least. The Bush campaign wasn't far off the mark in saying that Kerry's latest policy speech offered "nothing new in terms of substance." Just more of the same calls for renewed alliances and multilateralism: "Alliances matter... we can't simply go it alone... working with other countries is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength." Okay, already. We've heard this a hundred times. Alliances won't magically fix our problems in Iraq. How is Kerry going to get us out of this mess?

There are good reasons for Kerry not to go into specifics on Iraq policy. Proposing a specific policy that he is powerless to implement, and which will likely become irrelevant as conditions on the ground change, is just inviting political criticism. Specific proposals would just give the attack dogs more grit to sink their teeth into. But knowing this doesn't make it any easier to listen to the same tired old line about alliances for the ninety-ninth time. Not only does it make Kerry sound boring, it makes him sound far too negative. If Kerry won't propose a constructive vision of his own, there's not much ground to cover other than Bush's failures. Sure, that's a vast territory, but it's important to have a positive vision in addition to criticism.

Kerry's unwillingness to go into details about Iraq policy seems to be part of a larger strategy of staying quiet while Bush digs his own grave. So far, that strategy is succeeding admirably. But I'd be amazed if Kerry can coast on Bush's failures all the way to November without ever having to outline a specific foreign policy vision of his own. And frankly, I'd feel a lot better if I knew that Kerry had a plan for how to get us out of this mess in Iraq. Kerry is a good enough politician to know that it can be dangerous to come out and take a stand. But great politicians know that sometimes you have to take a stand.

Wag the Dog 

John Ashcroft announced yesterday that the Bush administration has credible information that Al Qaeda is "almost ready to attack the United States" over the summer and has a "specific intention to hit the United States hard."

There was no information as to where or when the attack might take place, although there was a suggestion that the attackers might make use of biological or radiological WMD.

A day before Ashcroft's speech, analysts at the Department of Homeland Security said that they had no new intelligence about a summer attack. Ashcroft said that, "the public, like all of us, needs a reminder" when asked why he was making a speech when no new information had come to light.

This really looks like a "Wag the Dog" scenario to me. Support for the Iraq war is failing, and Bush's approval ratings on economic management are at an all time low. Bush's main advantage over Kerry is that he polls better on handling the war on terrorism. Making speeches about vague terrorist threats that include no specific information is just an attempt to distract voters from the Abu Ghraib scandal and the fact that the administration has no coherent plan for dealing with Iraq.

Liberal and conservative accounts of Ashcroft's speech are available at these links.
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Presidential Mendacity Index 

Washington Monthly records the biggest lies told by our last four presidents. Compared to the high-stakes lies that Bush is so fond of, some of these seem light-hearted and good for a laugh. I've often found Reagan's lies good natured and amusing. One of my favorite Reagan quotes:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not."
Wednesday, May 19, 2004

India gets another new Prime Minister 

Manmohan Singh, the economist who masterminded India's ten-year journey from socialism toward the free market, will be India's next prime minister. Sonia Ghandi, whose election on Tuesday roiled India's financial markets, has declined to accept the post. She seems to support Singh's election.

Two things about this story are worth noting. The first is the trend of Asian countries towards electing economically trained leaders. While China's Hu Jintao studied chemistry, many members of his cabinet were trained in economics and finance outside of China. Singh's election provides more evidence of a regional move away from socialism and, in China's case, dictatorship, and towards capitalism and democracy. Personally, I am happy to see technocrats in positions of power. I wish that American administrations thought more about the effects of policy and less about spin.

Second, to quote the New York times:
In a milestone that says much about this vast nation's diversity and capacity for co-existence, Mrs. Gandhi, an Italian-born woman raised a Roman Catholic, is making way for a Sikh prime minister who will be sworn in by a Muslim president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
nice point for the "clash of civilizations" camp to consider.
Monday, May 17, 2004

Opportunity and Responsibility: A Liberal Story  

Matthew Yglesias posts some commentary on an article by Joshua Shenk in "Mother Jones." The thrust of Shenk's article is that Republicans know how to tell a good story about their candidates and cause while Democrats do not, and that this story-telling ability translates into more Republican votes. Shenk writes:

According to Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, & Co., the president of the United States of America is a great gentle warrior, the scion of a noble line: He's a Texas cowboy descended from George Washington descended from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. He's a man of God and family. Truly, the story goes, he's a simple man--wanting only to care for his own, tend to his plot of land, and go to church on Sunday.

But this man is besieged--on all sides--by the rabid armies of the Godless and the cowardly. By terrorists and evil-doers. By bureaucrats who want to run his life. By liberals who want to tax him. By drug dealers, welfare mothers, and atheists.

What is he to do? He would dearly love not to fight. But his enemies are climbing the walls of his castle. The killer has got a knife to his little girl's throat. Not fight? Fight he must.

This story works, in Shenk's words, because "It presents a classic hero and a journey that reaches down through the brain into the gut. And Republicans can translate into simple, clear lines of action: Wage war and don't stop. Cut taxes. Put bad guys in jail, or to death."

There is a lot of truth, in my opinion, to what Shenk is saying. Many people make their voting decisions on an emotional level, rather than a rational, calculating level. How many people do you know who would've voted for Gore on policy issues, but didn't because they just did not like him? Stories not only appeal to our emotions, but also give us an opportunity to make sense of a confusing, morally ambiguous reality.

Matthew Yglesias agrees with Shenk's analysis, but worries that the Democrats are unable to tell compelling stories because they are reluctant to "make stuff up." The Republicans are only able to tell stories, Yglesias argues, because they lie.

While I agree with Yglesias that Republicans often lie about substantive issues, I think the idea that Democrats are unable to tell compelling stories is both untrue and unproductive. During the '96 campaign, Bill Clinton articulated a Democratic story that appealed to most Americans, and will continue to do so. It was a story of Opportunity and Responsibility.

Clinton realized that Americans don't mind helping the less fortunate, so long as those less fortunate people are perceived as working hard, rather than getting a free ride. This is why so many voters who abhor welfare are happy to see their tax dollars channeled into tax relief for families that have children in college, or turned into financial aid for students who are the first in their family to attend. The idea of unemployment insurance for laid-off workers who decide to re-train is another popular idea from the Clinton administration. The GI Bill, which gave a free college education to soldiers who served in World War II, is perhaps the ultimate example of this Democratic principle in action.

This story argues not only that the granting of opportunity be conditioned on personal responsibility, but that those who grow rich and powerful by exploiting their opportunities have a responsibility to pay society back. This means that politicians should implement policies that are beneficial to our country and economy as a whole, rather than to wealthy, connected insiders. Similarly, the Opportunity and Responsibility story frames the graduated income tax as a fair trade for those people who have benefited from our free markets, rather than an onerous and unfair obligation.

The story of Opportunity and Responsibility is what America and the Democratic party are all about. Losing Democratic candidates, such as McGovern, Carter, Dukakkis, and Gore, use slogans like "The People vs. The Powerful" which make "the people" feel like victims and losers who are getting pushed around. Winning Democrats, like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Clinton, articulate a positive, can-do message that puts the American Dream within the reach of every voter.

Head of Iraqi Governing Council Assassinated 

Abdel-Zahraa Othman, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council, was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad this morning. He is the second council member to be killed. American and British officials, as well the Iraqi foreign minister, have said that the killing will not derail the transfer of power expected to take place on June 30. The AP and NY Times have the full details.
Saturday, May 15, 2004

U.S. Citizens Indicted on Terror Charges 

Warrants have been issued for the arrest of 19 members of a New York City street gang called the St. James Gang. These gang members are accused of murder, conspiracy, and gang assault. Because they acted with "the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population", Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson is arguing that these crimes are acts of terrorism. Article 490, a New York state statute passed six days after 9-11, makes it possible for two otherwise identical crimes to carry different sentences if one can be shown to be an act of terrorism. For example, murderers in New York state face a sentence of 25 years to life with the possibility of parole, while murder shown to be an act of terrorism carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole. The details of the case against the St. James gangsters can be found here.

In the course of trying to kill a rival gang member a St. James gangster named Edgar Morales inadvertently shot a 10-year-old girl. The other gang members who have been charged were present at the scene. Killing children is despicable, and Morales deserves to go to prison for at least 25 years and perhaps for his entire life. However, it is important to remember that despite being killers and criminals these men are also American citizens, and are legally entitled to the same rights and protections as other Americans.

This case is troubling. The Bronx DA is arguing that these men should be held to a different standard of justice because of their subjective intentions or states of mind. The proposition "A bullet fired from a gun held by Edgar Morales struck and killed a ten year old girl" seeks to establish an objective fact that can be proved or disproved by evidence and testimony. On the other hand, the proposition "Edgar Morales intended to intimidate a civilian population" can be neither proved nor disproved. Evidence and testimony do not bear on this proposition, because it is impossible to testify as to what is going on in someone else's mind.

Our justice system will be starting down a slippery slope if these men are found guilty of acts of terrorism. A guilty verdict will establish the precedent that the state can identify American citizens as terrorists, and hand out harsher sentences, if prosecuting attorneys can convince juries that the citizens were thinking the wrong thing when they committed their crimes. Because a person's thoughts are unknowable, sentences will be determined not by the facts of the case, but by conjecture and rhetoric. Courts must make their decisions based on facts, rather than unprovable assertions.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The California Patriot 

It's gotten to the point where the word "patriot" immediately makes me suspicious. So when someone tries to hand me a magazine called The California Patriot as I'm walking down Sproul Plaza, it's with a bit of wariness that I reach out my hand to take a copy. It turns out that The California Patriot is "Berkeley's conservative student voice." As you can imagine, Berkeley Republicans are an exceedingly rare and exotic breed of political animal. Most of the articles were good for a few laughs. I learned how diversity programs are actually racist, and how country music is "a genre not afraid to embrace American values." The entire issue can be found online here. But I'm sorry to say that one article wasn't funny. In fact, it was disturbing.

In a piece titled "Rules of Engagement," subtitled "Left capitalizes on brutal attacks," one Errol Tremolada tries to make the case that "the anti-war crowd" was happy that four American contractors were mutilated, killed, and dragged through the streets of Fallujah on March 31st. I'm not even going to touch that part of his argument. What bothers me is Mr. Tremolada's attempt to contrast this crime with the behavior of American troops:

This kind of action is not war, nor was it done for any reason other than the opportunity to rejoice in death. It is nothing the American soldier would ever do or of which he would approve. The American soldiers and civilians in Iraq are not there to torture and mar their opponents or demonstrate total disregard for human life...

Our prisoners of war are fed, clothed, sheltered, and never threatened with barbaric death or gratuitous violence.

If only that were the case. Evidently this article was written before the stories of the Taguba report hit the press. But the article appears in the May 2004 edition of the magazine, and was handed to me yesterday afternoon. It might have seemed reasonable at the time it was written, but in the present context this article is just offensive. The insensitivity shown by The California Patriot's editors in allowing this piece to go to press helps explain why "Berkeley's conservative student voice" remains such a pariah on campus.

New Ohio poll 

From American Research Group:

Bush 43% Kerry 50%

Bush 42% Kerry 49% Nader 2%

Strangely enough, Kerry is polling significantly better in Ohio than Pennsylvania. Unlike Pennsylvania, Ohio has whole cities that are culturally conservative (Cincinnati). My simplistic comparison of Ohio and Pennsylvania demographics: Cleveland=Pittsburgh (rust-belt union city trying to modernize, votes Democratic but not overwhelmingly so); rural Ohio = "the T" (middle section of Pennsylvania which Carville famously likened to "Alabama"). What's left? Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Which one is more liberal? So my conclusion is, a Democratic presidential candidate should have an easier time winning Pennsylvania than Ohio. But that's not what the polls are showing. Maybe someone more familiar with these two states can offer an explanation.

Rumsfeld: No cover-up here 

The pentagon has decided not to release any more photos from Abu Ghraib. Senators who have seen the new photos say that they are even more disturbing than the original round.

Rumsfeld has assured the press that if he had it his way, he would release all the photos to the public, so we could "get it behind us." Unfortunately, those snarky pentagon lawyers are advising Rumsfeld that releasing the photos would be illegal, because they would humiliate prisoners of war, which is a violation of the Geneva Convention.

Rumsfeld would like to do the honest thing here, but those lawyers just won't let him. He probably has to do what they say, much as he might regret it. It's not like he runs the pentagon or anything.

Even though this excuse is implausible, it does not mean that covering-up the new photos is the wrong move. If the first link above is any indication, these new photos are really, really bad. The pentagon is not faced with the question of whether it is right or wrong to release these photos. What they are trying to figure out instead is whether anyone else has copies of these photos, and whether the photo holders will be more inclined to give/sell their copies to the pentagon or the press.

Apparently, Rumsfeld is gambling that he has all the photos, or that he can get his hands on any additional photos before the press does. Additionally, if photo holders sell to Arab media outlets, such as Al-Jazeera, Rumsfeld can claim that the photos are fakes. The problem with that strategy is that Rumsfeld's international credibility is probably on par with Al-Jazeera's at this point, and his credibility certainly lags theirs in the Arab world. Even if new photos exposed by Al-Jazeera ARE fakes, Rumsfeld can only prove that by releasing the photos he currently has. Rumsfeld's inflated estimation of American credibility is leading him to make a poor gamble.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Marginally competitive states 

Today's NY Times has a good article on how the campaigns are focusing on marginally competitive states: Kerry recently spent $2 million on ad buys in Colorado and Louisiana; Bush is advertising in Delaware and might try for New Jersey. The list will probably get smaller after the conventions, but no one wants to repeat Gore's mistake of abandoning viable states like Ohio and West Virginia. The Gore campaign gave these up as unwinnable, but they turned out to be close enough that campaigning and advertising could have made up the difference.

Reform Party endorses Nader 

Ross Perot's Reform Party endorsed Ralph Nader today, which assures Nader ballot access in seven states, including Michigan and Florida. This article claims he will also get ballot access in Wisconsin.
Sunday, May 09, 2004

Prison abuse in the U.S. 

(via Josh Marshall) NY times columnist Fox Butterfield compares what happened at Abu Ghraib in Iraq to the routine mistreatment of prisoners here in the U.S. In fact, some of the same people may be responsible:

The man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time.

The Utah official, Lane McCotter, later became an executive of a private prison company, one of whose jails was under investigation by the Justice Department when he was sent to Iraq.

"Private prison company"? I had no idea these existed. Another wonderful libertarian idea.
Saturday, May 08, 2004

What Geneva Convention? 

One of the soldiers charged in the prison abuse investigation says she never even saw a copy of the Geneva Convention until after she was charged:

One of the seven soldiers facing possible court martial for abusing detainees revealed that she did not read, or even see, a copy of the Geneva Convention until two months after she was charged. Specialist Sabrina Harman, 26, said she now understood that it was regularly breached at Abu Ghraib....

The claims made by Harman, who is confined to quarters in Baghdad awaiting trial, contradict US army assurances that all soldiers are familiar with the Geneva Convention.

Back to blogging 

I've finished my two big projects for the semester, which means more time for blogging. It's amazing how quickly things change in politics. Turned on NPR yesterday after a week of not following the news, and the first thing I heard was "President Bush apologized today..." That sure got my attention. Then I'm biking down Shattuck and glance over at the news stands to catch the headline "Democrats demand Rumsfeld's resignation." Time for some catching up.
Friday, May 07, 2004

Economics is not a matter of opinion 

In a speech yesterday, Alan Greenspan warned of the economic dangers of running large budget deficits. He said that running uncorrected deficits raises long-term interest rates, which constrain long-term economic growth. The Bush administration responded that the link between deficits and interest rates isn't strong.

The administration is trying to get people to buy into the line that whether or not running repeated deficits is good for the economy is really a matter of opinion, much as voters might have an opinion on the costs and benefits of an education bill or a new gun registration law. Their argument is that they believe one thing, Greenspan believes another, and no one really knows who's right.

The problem is that any serious economist, including Gregory Mankiw, the Head of Bush's Council of Economic Advisors, will tell you that running deficits unambiguously drives up long-term rates. This happens because governments must issue debt in order to finance budget deficits, and larger deficits require more debt than smaller deficits. The problem is that there are a finite number of buyers willing to hold debt that pays a given rate of interest. In order to raise large amounts of debt, the government must offer higher rates to attract more buyers.

High rates slow the economy down because they reduce the range of profitable projects that investors and firms can pursue. If the interest rate for a given year is 4%, capitalists will take projects that return more than 4%. However, if the interest rate is 8%, fewer projects will be pursued in the economy as a whole. If fewer projects are pursued, GPD grows at a slower rate or not at all, and crucially, fewer people have jobs.

Republicans deny this line of reasoning, arguing that deficits don't matter because Reagan ran large deficits without impacting the economy. The reason that Reagan's deficits didn't matter is that Bush I and Clinton raised taxes, and used those tax revenues to pay off Reagan's debts. Bush's actions were especially courageous. His decision to raise taxes set the groundwork for the 1990's boom, but cost him the 1992 election. While many of Reagan's policies contributed to the strong economic environment of the 1980's, running huge, undisciplined deficits was not one them.

For the record: America's 2003 deficit was a record $374 billion. For 2004, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is projecting a deficit of $477 billion.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004

How Nader can run without being a spoiler 

Bruce Ackerman has a brilliant opinion piece in today's NY Times explaining how Ralph Nader can run and raise awareness for his issues without handing the election to Bush.

Ackerman points out that when we vote for a presidential candidate we are actually voting for the group of electors that the candidate has nominated in each state. Technically, it is these electors who cast the votes that actually determine the next president. Ackerman's idea is that Nader should nominate the same slate of electors that Kerry does. These electors will then go on to vote for Kerry. The net result of this is that Nader will receive his share of the popular vote, while still ensuring that Kerry will win any state where the total votes cast for Kerry and Nader are greater than the total votes cast for Bush, even if Bush manages to get more votes than Kerry alone.

This proposal gives progressives a guilt-free way to vote for Nader. The decision to accept or reject this proposal will give us all real insight into Nader's character. Does he really care about what's best for America, or is he selfishly running for the ego boost that comes from influencing world affairs?
Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Argument and Policy in the Bush Administration 

Over at World on Fire Rick Freedman has an excellent post on the role that argument and policy play in the Bush Administration. His thesis is that Bush makes his decisions based on conservative ideology, and on what can be spun to the American public, rather than on a substantive look at the costs and benefits of those decisions. Great post!
Saturday, May 01, 2004

California bans Diebold voting machines 

California's secretary of state has banned the use of 14,000 Diebold electronic voting machines in the November election. 28,000 other Diebold machines have been "conditionally banned" and may be reinstated if Diebold complies with independent security guidelines and equips the machines to produce paper receipts. The full story can be found here.

This is great news. Voting machines that do not produce paper receipts are a threat to democracy, and the fact that Diebold's executives are major Bush contributors is extremely suspicious. More states should follow California's example.
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