Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cheap tricks and tweets

Romney in Iowa (prepared text of a speech in Ames, via Political Animal):
Four years ago, candidate Obama spoke to the scale of the times. Today, he shrinks from it, trying instead to distract our attention from the biggest issues to the smallest—from characters on Sesame Street and silly word games to misdirected personal attacks he knows are false.
I.e., Big Bird and word games are the big issues, personal attacks are the small ones. Or it it the other way around? He's the one who brought up Big Bird, he must have thought it was important at the time. Then again most of the misdirected personal attacks Obama knows are false are directed against Obama, aren't they?

A lie in this speech I hadn't seen before, about
the college student, graduating this spring, with 10 to 20 thousand dollars in student debt, who now learns that she also will be paying for 50 thousand dollars in government debt, a burden that will put the American Dream beyond her reach.
Obama's going to make us all pay our share of the national debt?

From MIT, Gangnam style in one of its funnier versions, with an appearance by Professor Noam Chomsky (at 3:20) totally stealing the show, via Language Log.

It's the first snowflake of the season!
The assistant secretary tried to defend herself, but there were too many of them. From The Fun Times Guide.
A wonderful device by Dylan Matthews and Ezra Klein, Romney's Revenue Meter, allows you to play games with Romney's tax cut numbers, instantly working out how you could make them work out by eliminating this or that deduction or tax expenditure or adding this or that tax, though not of course by doing anything Romney says he's prepared to do.  Of no use in arguing with the proverbial obnoxious brother-in-law (for the record, I have three brothers-in-law and not one of them would vote for Romney)—he would just deny the assumptions.

The Heritage Foundation discovered a flaw in the logic behind wind energy: turns out that the wind doesn't always blow.
Jeez, those stupid scientists never thing of anything!

Happy Halloween! On West End Avenue, I just saw a mom in "binders full of women" costume. It was nowhere near as fancy as these Ohio ladies, but a pleasant sight all the same.
From Talking Points Memo.

Still-vex'd Bermoothes

The Tempest, Act 1, scene 1. Engraving, 1797, after a painting by George Romney. From Wikipedia.
If you want to help out the victims of the superstorm, money works better than canned food and batteries for most organizations: I suggest The Lower East Side Recovers, which is connected to Occupy Wall Street, affiliated with the international UVON (Use Verbs in Organization Names) and

Up by Riverside Park, we've been having a very easy Sandy, actual damage limited to a few downed trees. My neighbor Donna suggested that Irene last year culled the weak ones—our trees are survivors! Which brings me immediately to the thought that OMG, New York City has a hurricane every year now! Do ya think the climate might be changing?

The answer, for everybody but David Brooks (I note this morning that even Ross Douthat has a better understanding of statistics than Brooks does) and that "unskewed" fool (unscrewed, if you ask me), is that one event isn't evidence, so no, Sandy and Irene don't prove human-caused global warming, but they are sure as hell consistent with it.

Sandy has inspired Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that climate change is a "new reality" along with a bunch of other normally silent suspects, but Cuomo himself—I just heard him on the radio—isn't coming out with us crazies and supporting a carbon tax and pro-active moves on those lines; he likes defensive, New Amsterdam emulating Old Amsterdam and putting up more dykes. Sorry, Hans Brinker, you'll have to cancel your skate race, but what the hell, there's no ice anyway.
Madurodam, Scheveningen, Netherlands. From Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The upside of down

Shorter David Brooks:
Since Romney is totally free of principles, he'd make a much more effective president than Obama.
Today he's Mr. Savvy, building a picture of how the legislative wheels would turn under the two different candidates, which he can totally do, thanks to his vast experience of sitting around the table with George Stephanopoulos and John McCain.
"Cliffs of Insanity" (The Princess Bride): The Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland.
He still hasn't found out, though, that we are scheduled to tumble into that fiscal abyss almost three weeks before the inauguration:
The first order of business would be the budget deal, averting the so-called fiscal cliff. Obama would first go to Republicans in the Senate and say, “Look, we’re stuck with each other. Let’s cut a deal for the sake of the country.” He would easily find 10 Republican senators willing to go along with a version of a Grand Bargain.
Well, the fiscal cliff will have been averted already by then, if it is going to be averted, by the old congress, as Obama insists it will. And if it hasn't been, we'll all be dragging our shattered limbs across the fiscal canyon floor, praying for rescue, and the mood in the Senate is going to be rather anxious, with the horrified calls coming not just from Medicare patients and library users but also from their dear friends in the arms and aerospace industries.

But let that pass.
Then Obama would go to the House. He’d ask Eric Cantor, the majority leader, if there were votes for such a deal. The answer would probably be no. Republican House members still have more to fear from a primary challenge from the right than from a general election challenge from the left. Obama is tremendously unpopular in their districts.
Again this difficulty with understanding time. It's going to be a newly elected House, at the moment of the term when the members are least concerned with primary challenges, and with more Democrats and fewer tea-o-phytes, all interpreting the results of their elections in ways that we cannot easily predict. Cantor may have mounted his coup effort against Boehner and become Speaker, or lost and become Nobody—Paul Ryan may have lost his seat!

And not all of them are going to be the same kind of Republican:
Just 45 of 83 of the Republican National Congressional Committee's current crop of so-called Young Guns have signed the no-tax pledge this election season, according to a Huffington Post analysis of pledge signatures. During the 2010 midterm elections, 81 of 92 of that Young Guns group signed the pledge.
Indeed, even the current crop has been entertaining some of that agonizing reappraisal, which is why the lame duck congress, as it will be next week, is working to make the fiscal precipice go away.

Anyway, Brooks expects this process to lead to a situation where little will get accomplished:
By running such a negative presidential campaign, Obama has won no mandate for a Grand Bargain. Obama himself is not going to suddenly turn into a master legislative craftsman on the order of Lyndon Johnson.

There’d probably be a barrage of recriminations from all sides. The left and right would be consumed with ire and accusations. Legislators would work out some set of fudges and gimmicks to kick the fiscal can down the road. The ensuing bitterness would doom any hopes for bipartisan immigration reform.
Ah, yes, of course! The old metaphorical switcheroo: transform that cliff into a can, and then all you need to do is kick it—by the time it turns back into a cliff we'll be campaigning for the next election.

And of course it's Obama's own fault anyway, with his awful negative campaigning. And being too fastidious to keep their peckers in his pocket (can't blame him on that one: I use my pockets). Instead of following their natural inclination to cooperate and make the world a better place, they will be provoked into sulking and getting nothing done at all, quite unlike their predecessors of the 112th Congress (for which Obama scarcely campaigned at all, negatively or otherwise, fearful of giving the impression that he liked Democrats better).
The rest of the Obama second term would be about reasonably small things: some new infrastructure programs; more math and science teachers; implementing Obamacare; mounting debt; a president increasingly turning to foreign affairs in search of legacy projects. If you’re a liberal Democratic, this is an acceptable outcome. Your party spent 80 years building the current welfare state. This outcome extends it.
"A liberal Democratic"? Brooks, you've gone and put the copy editor to sleep again!
Møns Klint, Denmark. Wikipedia.

And then if Romney is elected the situation is the other way around—he can make a deal with the House, to
take the reform agenda that Republican governors have pursued in places like Indiana and take it to the national level: structural entitlement reform; fundamental tax reform. These reforms wouldn’t make government unrecognizable...
but he'll have trouble with the Democratic-led Senate, and not only that: he'll be aware that he only won the election because he decided on Moderation at the last minute, while the Tea-ocrats lost in their Senate races in 2010 and "possibly" (Brooks thinks) this year; and he'll realize that he'll have a hard time repeating the feat in 2016, what with all the hordes of brown persons taking over the country and the diminution of the Republican family. But that won't faze Willard! He'll just make use of his Protean mind-shifting skills, and offer them something akin to Obama's historic compromise:
Romney’s shape-shifting nature would induce him to govern as a center-right moderate. To get his tax and entitlement reforms through the Democratic Senate, Romney would have to make some serious concessions: increase taxes on the rich as part of an overall reform; abandon the most draconian spending cuts in Paul Ryan’s budget; reduce the size of his lavish tax-cut promises. 
This would be startling to conservatives, and talk-show hosts would foam at the mouth, but the Republicans of the House wouldn't mind a bit:
Republicans in Congress would probably go along. They wouldn’t want to destroy a Republican president. Romney would champion enough conservative reforms to allow some Republicans to justify their votes.
Q.E.D.! if you like the Obama program, you should vote for Romney, because he's the guy who's capable of pushing it through: dropping punctuation in his excitement (wake up, copy editor!), he perorates:  
He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans.
Which may or may not be true. As far as that Broderian parody of Obama's program goes, unburdened by any actual beliefs as to what government ought to do, he is perfectly capable of adopting any program whatever, if he thinks it means victory in the Risk game of life. (Most men who get rich on that level want to pick up a trophy wife; Willard, who isn't that way inclined—isn't it odd how Mormons have no interest in serial polygamy, even though it's perfectly legal?—keeps looking for trophy jobs.)

But I don't think that 's what would happen. My feeling—when I think about that tax cut plan, and everybody running around saying, "Well, you'll have to raise taxes on the middle class! You'll have to cut defense! You'll have to reduce Medicare!" and Romney just smiling, perfectly certain that these awful things will not happen—is that it's basically more Bush, doubling and tripling the deficit, and hoping his friends on network TV don't call him out.

As for Brooks, it is really remarkable how clueless he is. (But if the copy editor can't stay awake through his column, maybe nobody at the Times can...)
Steep Cliffs at Dieppe. Claude Monet.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Handicapping the handicappers

From Dynamical Bias in the Coin Toss, Persi Diaconis, Susan Holmes, and Richard Montgomery. Via Coding the Wheel.
Dylan Byers at Politico tries to bite a piece out of Nate Silver's trousers:
Prediction is the name of Silver's game, the basis for his celebrity. So should Mitt Romney win on Nov. 6, it's difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning (way back on June 2) and — one week from the election — gives him a one-in-four chance, even as the polls have him almost neck-and-neck with the incumbent.
And "more than a few political pundits and reporters, including some of his own colleagues, believe Silver is highly overrated." The "some of his own colleagues" that he goes on to quote are David Brooks, famous mathematician, and the "reporters" are former congressperson Joe Scarborough, which adds up to somewhat less than "more than a few". All two of them are Republicans, too. I guess if he quoted more the column would have gone over length. Anyway, they are not very well informed about probability.

I think I know enough about how Brooks thinks: if the poll says the candidates are at 50% for A and 48% for B, that's pretty close, right? So A probably has a 50% chance of winning or thereabouts, because you have to do some magic with the number first, so it won't come out exactly the same—but it'll be pretty close in the same way. That's just common sense!*

The implication is that there's something like dark magic involved in Silver's calculations, or they wouldn't be giving him something so far off the common sense mark. Either he doesn't know what he's doing, or he's manipulating them in Obama's favor out of secret liberal bias, as an underhanded way of influencing the voters.

And is that why Danny Sheridan, football handicapper from Mobile, Alabama, gives the election to Obama 2:1? No, actually.
Obama, he said, was favored by 6:5 to win Colorado, by 9:5 to win New Hampshire, by 2:1 to win Iowa, by 3:1 to win Nevada, by 3:1 to win Ohio and by 7:5 to win Wisconsin.
Romney, he said, was favored by 2:1 to win Florida, 10:1 to win North Carolina and 7:5 to win Virginia.
"I may not vote for Obama, but I still think he's going to win the electoral college," Sheridan said. Sheridan said it was "even money" -- a toss-up -- as to which candidate wins the popular vote.
Romney's 10:1 odds in North Carolina don't mean he's going to get 90% of the vote there, either. It means that if you ran the election in eleven more or less identical universes the Romney would win in all but one of them, at around whatever shares of the vote are expected (Silver says the vote will be relatively close at 51.3:48:3, but his estimate of the odds is 82:18).

Danny Sheridan is entitled to disagree with Silver if he wants, because he knows what probability is. The self-denominated pandits should really make an effort to find out, and stop embarrassing themselves.

*Or an intuition, born out of math anxiety; the main thing is to minimize the number of numbers he has to contemplate.
From Image-Archeology.

Is it a bird? A plane? A public option?

Self-parody from
No,  not quite; it's a government-sponsored all-American health insurance program, or rather two of them, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, including one likely to be offered by the independent nonprofit Government Employees Health Association, to be offered to individuals and small businesses through the exchanges of every state. I understood stuff like this was allowed for by the ACA, and I figured it would inevitably come into existence, startling our Emoprog friends to no end. I didn't realize it was already chartered and in the works.

In addition to pressuring the insurance companies not to skimp in coverage, it will also pressure them to hold down premiums, and who knows? Maybe they'll be able to offer special no-birth-control rates for those institutions with tender consciences, too, heh-heh.

Once again the onion of Obamacare peels to reveal a new and unexpected layer. I didn't notice it in the Times, and might never have heard if not for Dr. Turk (who is skeptical on the subject).

Meanwhile, the latest right-wing panic is a new book by Mallory Factor described by David Martosko in the Daily Caller:  ”Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind”. Yes, the author's name really seems to be "Mallory Factor". What effect that may have had on him in childhood and adolescence is hard to say, but I'm sure it wasn't pretty.

The book argues from a memo of December 2008 from Dennis Rivera to the Obama transition team that the ACA had a secret agenda:
Factor, who is also a Forbes columnist and senior editor of money and politics for The, recounts emails from former federal Office of Labor-Management Standards staffer Don Loos, now a senior adviser to the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

“It is clear that Big Labor is banking on the probability that all healthcare workers eventually become federal, state, and municipal healthcare employees,” Loos told Factor. That, he said, would make them eligible for involuntary unionization through public-sector unions like AFSCME and the SEIU. “Obamacare is an SEIU and AFSCME membership ‘net,’” Loos claimed, “designed to eventually capture 21 million forced-dues paying government workers.”
Yes, the true purpose of Obamacare—pay no attention to those 30 million previously uninsured people behind the screen—is to juice union membership! The fiends!

Matt overboard!

Tarot cards. From master reader Jane Stern.
Another reason for voting for Obama would be Matt Stoller's much noted Salon essay saying you shouldn't, based on an argument so flimsy it's hard to believe he's making it in good faith.

Premise 1 is a graph we've never seen before, apparently since nobody ever thought of making it before, mapping changes in corporate profits against changes in private home equity during post–World War II recessions. Stoller hasn't made it very accessible, at 300 X 300 pixels, but the red line is houses and the blue line is profits and guess what? Home ownership is nowhere near recovering from its unprecedented plunge at the end of 2008, while profits, whose plunge was also fairly unprecedented, are zooming into the stratosphere! So, nu?

What I believe we learn from this chart is that if you think the crisis was caused by a sudden collapse in corporate greed, like an epidemic of poverty vows all over Wall Street, you would be mistaken. The housing bubble was, in fact, a housing bubble; and, while corporate greed has recovered magnificently, the total value of owned household real estate remains stuck. (And tulip prices in the Netherlands have never gotten back to where they were in 1637, either.) As I thought we all kind of knew already.
But Stoller sees something different:
This split represents more than money. It represents a new kind of politics, one where Obama, and yes, he did this, officially enshrined rights for the elite in our constitutional order and removed rights from everyone else (see “The Housing Crash and the End of American Citizenship” in the Fordham Urban Law Journal for a more complete discussion of the problem).
I'm sorry, no. I'm not going to go to the trouble to get a Lexis password so I can look at the Fordham Urban Law Journal, either. If you want to argue that "Property rights for debtors simply increasingly exist solely at the pleasure of the powerful," go ahead (I would advise you to get rid of one of the adverbs, preferably "simply", because the sentence is awfully hard to read). If you want to claim that Democratic presidents, Clinton and Obama, have not paid sufficient attention to the problem, be my guest. But if you're telling me that Obama "officially enshrined" something in "our constitutional order" you've go to either show me some paper or admit that you've dived into metaphor.

Premise 2 is a Barney Frank anecdote about the housing crisis as the Bush administration was dealing with it, between Obama's election and his inauguration. Frank told New York magazine,
I tried to get them to use the TARP to put some leverage on the banks to do more about mortgages, and Paulson at first resisted that, he just wanted to get the money out. And after he got the first chunk of money out, he would have had to ask for a second chunk, he said, all right, I’ll tell you what, I’ll ask for that second chunk and I’ll use some of that as leverage on mortgages, but I’m not going to do that unless Obama asks for it.  This is now December, so we tried to get the Obama people to ask him and they wouldn’t do it.
Stoller interprets this to mean that Bush's secretary of the treasury Henry Paulson offered Obama a deal to use TARP funds to write down troubled mortgages and Obama refused. Once again, no: that's not even possible if you accept Frank's story, since the story says explicitly that Obama was not asked. It's Rahm Emanuel, or someone like that, who is being accused of refusing to bring it to the president-elect for consideration.

Nor, even if it were true, would it constitute anything like Stoller's scenario:
Obama had a handshake deal to help the middle class offered to him by Paulson, and Obama said no. He was not constrained by anything but his own policy instincts. And the reflation of corporate profits and financial assets and death of the middle class were the predictable results.

is tarot cards truee and does it come true?

Premise 3 is that
We are even seeing, as I showed in an earlier post, a transition of the American economic order toward a petro-state. By some accounts, America will be the largest producer of hydrocarbons in the world, bigger than Saudi Arabia. This is just not an America that any of us should want to live in. It is a country whose economic basis is oligarchy, whose political system is authoritarianism, and whose political culture is murderous toward the rest of the world and suicidal in our aggressive lack of attention to climate change.
Really? Like Mexico, Brazil, and Norway?

And the graphs for this one (an operatic sequence of four), if they show anything, show that the US has become a real estate–state, with real estate representing an overwhelmingly larger proportion of private investment, even after the crash, than any other sector—including oil and gas, which lags just behind manufacturing and the information industry.

Anyway, it's just nonsense. Economic charts are not tea leaves or Tarot cards, to have interpretations teased out of them hermeneutically; they are merely evidence, and they don't mean a thing unless there is a coherent hypothesis for them to test. That Obama is the diabolical mastermind of a plot to impoverish the suffering middle class is not a coherent hypothesis. He may not be a very good president, in the end, and his aims are certainly not quite the same as ours; I may like to think he's more of the left than he himself realizes, and that he was sincere in the promises he was making four years ago, but I could easily be wrong; but he's definitely not a figure out of a comic book (as Romney really is in some ways, in his Magooishly confident unfamiliarity with normal life). This analysis of Stoller's is not the fruit of thought but of some deep, strange distress.
Discover tarot cards with Miss L.
(I've been looking through old Stoller posts at the defunct OpenLeft, which he left in 2009 to work for Congressman Alan Grayson, and he seemed like a completely rational blogger then.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Extremism in defense of moderation is no...

...oxymoron,  I guess.
Dim sum from China Max, San Diego.
David Brooks writes:
Ever since the debate season began, Mitt Romney has been running hard after those moderate voters, lining out a new area of agreement with Obama at every turn. Obama, in contrast, has been disagreeing with Romney—but I took a look at the interview he inadvertently gave the Des Moines Register, which I thought was supposed to be scandalous, and found to my amazement that for the white and elderly-trending population of the Quad Cities he was peddling a fairly moderate agenda for the second term there. Evidently he's trying to keep his moderation quiet on the coasts, where it might cost him votes. And I figured that meant I would be able to hack together a column explaining what moderates are with only two tabs open on the browser, so here goes.

In the first place, moderation is not attained by establishing two extreme points on an opinion scale and then situating yourself at the midpoint between them. Anybody who thinks that is a helpless fool who should probably be enjoined from using a fork, really, if only for their own protection.

Nor is moderation some kind of abstract philosophical position, such as a person might learn about from reading Aristotle and committing herself to an abstract ideal of not being excessive in either direction. Only an idiot would say that. To understand moderation, in fact, you have to read history, and understand that America is a nation of immigrants whose parents worked hard and played by the rules so their children could go to college and graduate into a decent job; and a reverence for this country and the Founders who planned it that way.
What makes a good yoga mat? From
If you understand that history, which most people don't, you will understand that America is not an idea, but rather a collection of disagreements, like the choices on a Chinese menu, where you can get wonton soup, egg drop, or hot and sour; white rice or fried rice; and so on. In our menu of American political principle are the conflicts between collectivism and individualism, faith versus science, and the two-parent family against the one-parent family, just to name a few, and the moderate's task is to compose these into a simple and nutritious meal, minimizing the amount of MSG, and with attention to balance: for instance, if you've been having too much fried food lately, it's good to try some of the steamed fish; or the government should do something to get bowling alleys to open up very early in the morning so that married white men with children can join bowling leagues instead of being forced to study yoga and carry those silly mats to work.

Thus a moderate would never say that one should always cut taxes, as Republicans usually do, or that one should always raise them, which is what Democrats think. A moderate would say it depends on the situation: you shouldn't mess with taxes unless they are out of whack.

Nowadays, there is a good deal that is out of whack. Family structure is falling apart, globalization is running amok, and the information age has dawned, leaving people more unequal to each other than they ought to be, for reasons that I have covered in previous columns and will no doubt return to again. The cost of health care is rising through the roof. And the arteries of commerce have grown plaqued and sluggish, suggesting that American business is on its way to a massive myocardial infarction, a metaphor whose interpretation is too frightening to contemplate.

In order to solve these problems, a moderate would insist that you adopt a different principle for each, so that there would be enough principles to go around. Indeed one of the ways in which we are too unequal to one another nowadays is that some parties have been hogging the principles for themselves, leaving the others with no principles at all.

Being a moderate is no passive Goldilocks approach of rejecting one policy that is too hot and another that is too cold in favor of one that is just lukewarm. It takes plenty of athleticism, not to mention flexibility, to draw up a different set of principles for every problem. And it distrusts emotionalism: as Yeats said, the worst are full of passionate intensity, and the best are restrained and elegant like Edmund Burke, who was also Irish, as a matter of fact, or Alexis de Tocqueville.

If you've never heard of this kind of moderation it is probably because it is not a very well organized political persuasion, and doesn't lend itself to the writing of manifestoes. But it might well also be that you are outstandingly ignorant, and have never heard of Tocqueville scholar Aurelian Craiutu, whose new book, A Virtue for Courageous Minds: Moderation in French Political Thought, 1748-1830 is in my Kindle, and probably says much the same kind of thing as I am saying here, or at least its first chapter uses many of the same words.

If our presidential candidates want to appeal to the moderate vote they would be well advised to do the same.
Voters of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, contemplating Newt Gingrich, 2011. Photo by Patrick T. Fallon.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Any fish bite if you got debate


Bob Schieffer actually did, contrary to all expectation, ask a drone question, but he asked Romney instead of Obama. Romney, sticking with his basic strategy for the evening, quickly agreed that Obama was right about whatever it was Romney didn't want to talk about and started talking about something else, how Iran is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon" etc. Obama was glad to pick up that baton and start running with it further away than ever. Oh well.

I don't understand why Obama doesn't mention that Iran is not "four years closer" to building a nuclear weapon—since they have converted a large proportion of their 20% enriched uranium to solid form, for use in the medical reactor, they are strictly speaking a good deal further away.
Kandahar airfield. Photo by GlobalPost vis PBS.

Geeky linguistic sidelight:

@mattyglesias had an issue during the debate that wasn't really about foreign policy:
That used to bother me too, the way he says the heavy vowels in "Pakistan" the way they say can't in the UK and in "Afghanistan" the way we say can't in the US—until I heard myself doing pretty much the same thing.

Now I think I know what it's about. "Pakistan" is a relatively new word, coming into general use only after the country itself came into existence in 1947; "Afghanistan" is an older one, known to English speakers since maybe the mid-18th century (first official UK use was 1801). So it's had time to evolve a universal English pronunciation whereas "Pakistan" has not. I imagine younger people like Matty (that's what his Twitter address always makes me think of, "Matty Glesias") are more likely to pronounce the two the same way. Just as my grandmother used to pronounce "endive" in French—it was still an exotic vegetable to her, but to me it sounded hysterically bourgeois.
The afghan Emir Sher Ali Khan with his "friends" Russia and Great Britain. Punch, November 30, 1878

Route to the sea

Romney earned a lot of laughs with his strange concept of Middle East geography:
Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea. It's the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us. Number two, seeing a — a replacement government being responsible people is critical for us. And finally, we don't want to have military involvement there. We don't want to get drawn into a military conflict. (Transcript from NPR)
First, of course, Iran doesn't need a route to the sea, since it has plenty of coastline of its own; and secondly Syria is not its route to anywhere, on account of the countries between the two, Iraq and Turkey.

However, in Romney's defense, he's not the only one: a lot of highly respectable people believe this without being aware that they believe it: those who discuss how Iran supplies the Hezbollah militia with arms. I used to wonder a lot about this, during the Iraq war, every time I'd see a story about it: how did they get the stuff across Iraq, when Iraq was occupied by US troops?

Duh. That's the answer. Iraqis allow them to, and the US can't do anything about it (the administration has been entreating Maliki to close the air corridor, without success). It is because of the Iraq war that Iran is able to send arms to Syria and Lebanon. Iran did not have a route to the Mediterranean, but George W. Bush gave them one. One of his many little gifts.
The Mechanics of Destruction cartoon series, by Vincent Kelly (I'm pretty sure Gideon is UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, but it was mainly the headline and the woman I liked)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eureka (2)

Daisy Buchanan, by Nicki Greenberg.

Tom Junod culminates his extraordinary and passionate series of Esquire essays on the Lethal Presidency with a proposed debate question that won't get asked and if it were wouldn't get answered tonight:
"President Obama, just over a year ago an American drone killed a 16-year-old American citizen named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Despite your personal involvement in America's targeted killing programs, you have never acknowledged nor addressed the circumstances of his death. How do you justify such secrecy under the United States Constitution and do you, Governor Romney, also believe that such secrecy is justified?"
I have a quibble with it that may be more than a quibble (full disclosure: it's related to my desire to feel happy when I vote for Obama next week, which I don't hide): Why is it that the crime here, or whatever it is, is assumed to be worse, constitutionally, when the bomb lands on a US citizen than otherwise? I mean, I understand why it makes us sick that the kid was only 16 when he was murdered, but why does it matter that he was an American? Aren't the Pakistani and Afghan and Yemeni kids murdered too? Do only Americans have rights under the US Constitution?

Because there's a certain feeling running around that this is the case: that it's OK to deny foreigners, or at least undocumented foreigners, medical care or schooling or driver's licenses, for example. In an Arizona-type law, the Fourth Amendment is suspended for anybody even suspected of being undocumented (being undocumented isn't a crime, so there isn't any probable cause for searching), and I think the Fifth as well: if a cop says, "Show me your papers," you can't very well reply that your lawyer says you don't have to. And US citizens now actually have, by edict of the Supreme Court, habeas corpus rights that noncitizens don't.

Legally, that's the way the cookie crumbles, but morally I think it is objectionable, and it seems like a poor interpretation of the Constitution as well. It trivializes these rights that we're all so proud of to say that they are in fact club privileges, restricted to those humans in possession of a certain piece of paper, whether it's Yaser Hamdi, who the government was forced to release from Guantánamo (saving face, they made him renounce his citizenship and sent him to his parents' homeland of Saudi Arabia) or Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, who was droned to death in spite of his passport. To me, the passport doesn't mean a fucking thing next to the fact that he was just sixteen and a thing swept out from nowhere, from out of the sky, to kill him.

By the same token, however, it lets Obama to a degree off the hook. Because the Greenwaldish, legalist case against Obama ("He violated the Constitution!") hinges on the passport; if the passport doesn't matter, then killing Abdulrahman is just careless, it's what commanders-in-chief do
they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made
—and it's the way of the world. Not that that's ever acceptable, but à la guerre comme à la guerre, we can live (and die) with it. Are you going to not vote for Roosevelt in 1944, or Lincoln in 1864? They were responsible for terrible things, things that bring shame on the entire human race. And of course we would vote for them—they're as good as it gets. And Obama the Lethal President is good enough in just that way and maybe a good bit better, anxious to make himself less and less careless, very earnest about reducing "collateral damage", i.e. careless murder, and working on it (though apparently unable to do so in Pakistan, where it's the CIA's drone force and not his).
Careless Maria. Illustration by Justin H. Howard, ca. 1870.

Maria was a careless child,
And grieved her friends by this:
Where’er she went,
Her clothes were rent,
Her hat and bonnet spoiled,
A careless little miss.
Her gloves and mits were often lost,
Her tippet sadly soiled;
You might have seen
Where she had been,
For toys all round were tossed,
O what a careless child.
One day her uncle bought a toy,
That round and round would twirl,
But when he found
The littered ground,
He said, I don’t tee-totums buy
For such a careless girl.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Schrödinger's foreign policy

Schrödinger's cat T-shirt, from
Here's one of those observer's paradox moments, caught just as it was happening last night, beginning with a startling Twitter exchange:
Meaning, of course this Times story must be wrong, because although Obama has repeatedly asserted that he would agree to bilateral talks with Iran, we all know he can't mean it, since he is actually a fiendish and unregenerate warmonger.

But when I looked at the Times story, that's not at all how I saw it. In the first place, they didn't seem to think the denial was very significant: they dropped it into the sixth paragraph of a pretty long piece, like a police crowd estimate or some other untrustworthy factoid that has to be included, without comment (Ryan Cooper must feel the same; he doesn't even mention the denial; Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Liberman prays that the denial is true). In other words, they treated the denial as an inevitable pro forma element of the story and stood by the story itself.
The White House denied that a final agreement had been reached. “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday evening. He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.
(Emptywheel notes that the story first appeared without the sixth paragraph, which was inserted after the White House denial was published in various other places; the wording "until after the American elections" suggests to her that the negotiations have in fact already begun, with Secretary of State Clinton in the lead.)

And then the Times story isn't, after all, that the US and Iran are going to have direct bilateral talks on the nuclear issue—it's that certain unidentified US officials say they will, so that the immediate question is: why are they saying so? And it's easier to come up with an answer if you stipulate that what they are saying is more or less true.

Because why exactly would they be lying about it? If they're working for the president's agenda, are they trying to set it up as an item for Monday's debate? Because peace with Iran is such an irresistible vote-getter in Colorado and Virginia? That's hard to believe. Then again, another denial-denier, Anshel Pfeffer for Haaretz, proposes exactly that:
If indeed the report is accurate, despite the administration's denial (which came with the intriguing caveat that the Americans "have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally"), the winners and losers in the high-stakes nuclear showdown are already clear.

[Obama] began his first term promising to engage the Iranians diplomatically, and though the talks will only begin after the elections, at least he can point to some sort of progress. The specific timing of the leak, on the eve of the third and final presidential debate which is to deal with foreign policy issues is rather suggestive.... Naturally, this is already being spun as an achievement for the administration – finally overcoming Iran's opposition to direct talks.
Other winners, in this view, would include Ayatollah Khamenei, the Israeli security establishment which thinks Binyamin Netanyahu's Iran policy is dangerously insane, and Ehud Barak, currently positioning himself to replace Netanyahu; losers would be Netanyahu himself, his American-Adelsonian surrogate Willard Mitt Romney, who thinks the president of the United States is a proconsul of the Israeli Empire, and Lady Catherine Ashton, the ineffective chief of the European Union and the P5 + 1 talks. To which I would add Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is clearly not going to get any credit for this development with Iranian voters (because we constantly forget that Iran is in its weird way a democracy, and that the Ayatollah probably hates Ahmadinejad as much as he does any of the country's pesky liberals).

So we'd be looking at a very carefully planned leak functioning as an October surprise for Adelson, Netanyahu, and poor Willard. Assuming that the American war fatigue extends to wars that haven't even properly started yet, and that Aipac's or Likud's hold over our politics has really diminished over the past four years. What I don't get is how it works: doesn't Obama have to repeat the denial at the foreign policy debate? If it's officially untrue, how exactly do the Democrats use it?

For that we'll have to wait and see. But to respond automatically, as Greenwald does, on the basis of the assumption that Obama is an agent of Empire and everything he does must be interpreted in that light, is just as short-sighted, if not as stupid, as Drs. D'Souza and Gingrich assuming Obama is an agent of the Mau-Mau party bent on destroying King Leopold and so forth. Nobody's locked into position, but what they say has a relationship, however complex, with what they mean, and the way we watch the situation affects how it develops.
Image by Ooklah at DeviantArt.
Later that afternoon:
Richard Silverstein cites a new Brookings poll according to which a majority of Americans, 53%, would prefer to take a neutral view in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, as against 12% who would encourage it and 29% who would oppose. So maybe we're ready to make that deal.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Overreach, misjudgments, and disappointment

Concept by One Architecture, Ton Matton, and NL Architects. All photos from Design/Applause.
 David Brooks writes (annotations by the ed.):

The salad days of green technology were back toward the beginning of the millennium, around 2003, when you had some respectable, bipartisan people, like Senators Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman, working out ways to milk it. I saw my first solar-powered calculator in the relatively fuel-efficient Mercedes of an extremely conservative, extremely wealthy person I would love to name if he wasn't so private about who gets to ride around in his back seat, who told me these doohickeys meant that we would soon get to tell the Arabs to take their oil and give themselves a petroleum enema; and he was just one of a host of entrepreneurs, movie stars, and newspaper columnists driving Priuses, golfing on foot, and eating at Chez Panisse.

Then unfortunately things began to take a sinister turn.
Inflatable wind turbine by Magenn Power.
Failed presidential candidate Al Gore, casting about for a new career, began dabbling in film production; his first release, a pseudo-documentary called "An Inconvenient Truth", came out in 2006. Suddenly, the whole issue of climate change became associated with radical leftists like Gore himself, marches and demonstrations, anarchist looting, and an enraged rabble. In other words it was turning into an unabashedly partisan movement, with no room for Republicans. If you were a person of a moderately conservative persuasion you didn't even like to say the words "global warming"—it felt like wearing white after Labor Day, or even noticing Labor Day, and as far as doing anything about global warming—well, as Gore himself might have said, fat chance.

And then Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign, looking for some kind of justification for his plan to implement a socialist-style industrial planning system in our country, seized on the idea of green technology as the industry he wanted to plan. At rallies, he proclaimed he'd be able to create five million jobs in the field!* But whatever the virtues of clean energy may be, it just doesn't create jobs.** Obama dedicated $90 billion from the 2009 economic stimulus program to clean energy, but I don't know anybody who got a job out of it, so it must not have done much.***

Then again, it's an ill wind turbine that blows nobody good. Tax breaks and outright subsidies allowed the formation of a whole conspiracy's worth of green technology companies to line up at the government udder, and you'll never guess who one of the investors was: Al Gore. According to an article in the Washington Post by Carol Leonnig, he was worth less than $2 million at the time he lost the presidential race in 2000, but since then his portfolio has gained a lot more weight than he has: his assets are said to add up to better than $100 million today.

How much of that is corporate welfare from a favorably disposed Uncle Sam? Says Leonnig, 14 green tech firms Gore invested in have received or enjoyed the benefits of $2.5 billion in federal grants, loans, and tax breaks. Wealthy people are unhesitatingly taking advantage of this opportunity to make themselves even wealthier. Is that as suspicious-looking to you as it is to me?****

It's not as if return on an investment in green tech were guaranteed. Some companies subsidized by the U.S. government have done all right, others have flamed out like Krakatoa, destroying a whole world in their wake. And when a government investment goes awry, it leads to bad publicity, which brings the whole enterprise under suspicion.*****And these failures are taking place all over the world, China being the worst, throwing money at solar energy like Dutchmen after tulips, creating a gigantic and doomed clean energy bubble which is about to explode when it becomes clear that we can meet all our energy needs by extracting natural gas from the Catskills (how do you think they make the seltzer?).******

Overall, then, I am sad. Nobody's even talking about clean energy any more. Congress doesn't seem interested in my opinion, which is that we ought to raise the gas tax. Obama and Romney didn't discuss it at their recent debate, when a questioner wanted to know what they would do to lower the gas price. Obama seems fixated on this program of picking winners as if this were some kind of foreign country like France, except when I feel like saying he's ignoring the problem altogether. It's all his fault, and of course Gore's—why should I be feeling so bad about it? But I do—so much so that I'm going to end this essay with a dispirited little sentence that leads nowhere.

It's a story of people trying to do too much, doing it the wrong way, and making me sad.

*Specifically, he said auctioning carbon emission permits in a cap-and-trade system would generate $15 billion a year, and the government could invest that money in green technology to create five million jobs over a 10-year period. So we won't know whether he kept the promise until it's ten years since Congress passed the cap-and-trade legislation, which—oh, wait, they haven't passed it yet, have they?

**The European Union was up to 1.14 million clean energy jobs in 2010; of course the report didn't come out till 2012, so a European Politifact in 2010 wouldn't have been able to tell you.

***By the math of the Obama campaign, $90 billion, 60% of $150 billion, should create three million jobs over a six-year period. Again, we can't know, but the Council of Economic Advisors estimated that $80 billion from the stimulus had led to saving or creating 225,000 jobs in (part of) 2010 and predicted a total of 825,000 jobs by the end of 2012, which is actually pretty close to the mark on the way to 2015, about two thirds of where it should be. Amazing, especially when you remember the economic crisis—a huge proportion of the increase, for instance, was to come from people greening up their houses, which hasn't happened because people can't afford it. Big government-and-industry programs have done better: the wind tax credit alone, according to a new report, supports 75,000 jobs in wind energy.

****Uh, not really. I thought that was what they call "capitalism".

*****Three out of 33 companies subsidized by the green energy loan program have gone bankrupt, for a 90% success rate that would be the envy of most venture capitalists. As for the negative publicity—O thou living definition of "disingenuous"!—it consists of you and your friends telling lies about it: all you need to do is stop.

******Just not the case:
Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported [in August 2010] that global investment in clean energy surged to $57 billion in the second quarter of 2012, up 24 per cent from the first quarter and carried largely by a stunning 92 per cent spending increase out of China. Investment is still down year-over- year —2011 wasn’t a great year generally, right? —but it’s on the upswing in 2012, hardly the sign of collapse.

That boost from China is expected to continue, particularly in solar. As part of its 12th five-year economic plan, released in 2011, China originally expected to increase solar installations 20-fold by 2020. Last month it decided to draw forward that target to 2015, when it hopes to have 21 gigawatts of solar power capacity in place —enough to supply all of Ontario on a sunny spring day.

Why is China moving in this direction? Economically, it carries long-term strategic importance. But China’s citizens are also growing fed up with unbearable air, water and soil pollution, so much so that there is a rise in violent protests breaking out across the country.

The reason why clean energy isn’t a fad or a bursting bubble is that global problems such as climate change, pollution, poverty, food scarcity, crumbling legacy infrastructure, and access to clean water aren’t going away anytime soon. Renewable energy and other clean technologies may not be the only solution, but they are a big and growing part of it.
And even if there were enough oil and natural gas available to take care of our energy needs (with proven crude oil reserves of 22.3 billion barrels and a daily consumption going upwards of 20 million barrels per day we couldn't supply ourselves as much as three years), it would still be raising the global temperature.
Wind-powered street lamp, Netherlands, by Demakersvan.
...what I am trying to do, literally all the time, is to prove that saving the planet is better economics than burning it up. Not 10 or 20 or 50 years from now — [but] now. (Bill Clinton, ThinkProgress)

Friday, October 19, 2012


Q: We know why we have to vote against the other guy—it's the Supreme Court, stupid, or any of a dozen answers like that boiling down to Romney must not be president. But do we have a reason for voting for our guy? Because I want to enjoy voting for him. I want to break out the Champagne (more likely Cava, on my pay scale) and break into a chorus of "I'm just wild about Barry". I want to party like it's 2008. I'm ready for dancing in the street, and I want a reason.
Durango. From TripAdvisor.
A: Are you kidding? Are you out of your mind?? Because his mother was an anthropologist! Because he paid off his school loans by writing a pretty good, better than pretty good, memoir! Because he wants to see the name and age and photograph of everybody the drones kill—like the carnivore who wants to meet the pig before it's slaughtered, look it in the eyes and ask it for forgiveness. Because he knows it's wrong, not that that stops him, but most of them don't have any idea. Lincoln knew, and that wicked old General Sherman.
Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.
Because he's relatively serious! That's a much abused term, over in the Village, where it means accepting, say, as a necessity, that a president has to have a meal with Sally Quinn x many times a year, but not that the president needs to be concerned about how many people get killed, as opposed to whether it will or won't be counted as a "victory" for him. ("Is this drone issue going to hurt the president?" "Probably not, as long as he doesn't go to any weddings in Pakistan.")

Also abused are terms like "visibly angered", "troubled" and "concerned", "disturbed", applied to politicians obviously pretending to feel those emotions because they think it will bring them some advantage. Obama was in fact visibly angered at the debate the other night, and not at any challenge to his own amour-propre, either, but on behalf of the State Department and the dead of Benghazi: he was righteously pissed off at the slimy imputation that they had done something unspecifiable but not quite nice. Because of that!

Because he's a liberal Christian, with a clear sense of how an empirical belief and a faith can be different without contradicting each other, or contradict each other without one having to give way to the other, each with its own reality claims leaving the other untouched.

Because he's cunning, Macchiavellian even, for peace and for justice. Because every time he makes another deal with the Forces of Darkness and we're sitting around trembling with rage, it turns out when the dust settles that he's given away much less than we imagined; the NDAA isn't anything like the end of Habeas Corpus, the PPACA is far from being a pure gift to the insurance companies.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Comedy of Terrors

The FBI finally found someone who had the idea of being a terrorist all on his own:
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, 21, came to the U.S. on a student visa. Nafis was arrested after he allegedly tried to detonate what he believed to be a 1,000-lbs. bomb outside the New York Federal Reserve bank on Liberty Street on Wednesday....
Nafis, a Bangladeshi national with connections to al-Qaeda, arrived in the U.S. last January with the intent to recruit individuals to form a terror cell, according to a criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York.  Kelly added Nafis' ties to al-Qaeda will be "investigated as we go forward."
Apparently he used Facebook to assemble his cell, little imagining that agents for the Joint Terrorism Task Force could be among the recruits, which argues that he might not be too bright. And then as usual the Feds had to build his fake bomb, target it, and generally take care of everything until it was ready for him to make his video and press the button, whereupon they arrested him.

Still, it's progress over the last several cases, in which the suspect couldn't even fantasize about it without the Bureau's help. Maybe next time they'll catch somebody capable of causing some damage as well. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Faint praise

Lord Chesterfield Be Wiser Wisdom Onesie, from
David Brooks on The News Hour (via Driftglass):
And so, if I had interrupted Mark -- or if anybody came on the "NewsHour" and behaved the way Biden did, we would kick them off in the middle of the set. It is just not what discussions should be like.
Or, as Lord Chesterfield memorably advised his illegitimate son in 1748,
I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile, but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joy at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal, and so ill-bred, as audible laughter. I am neither of a melancholy nor a cynical disposition, and am as willing and as apt to be pleased as anybody; but I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason nobody has ever heard me laugh.
Someday, Brooksie, somebody might name a couch after you. "Appalled by his crude remarks, Lydia fell fainting upon the plushly upholstered brooks." Or maybe wait for you to walk comfortably off the set, and then kick you downstairs, something known to have happened on occasion in the 18th century, in spite of everybody's good breeding. It's hard to say. I don't watch those TV shows but I'm sure you're occasionally in company less refined than that of Judy Woodruff.

Brooks, Shields, and Woodruff on The News Hour.
Lord Chesterfield certainly thought good manners were much more important than telling the truth. Citing the biography from the great 1911 Britannica, Wikipedia goes on to say,
Chesterfield was selfish, calculating and contemptuous; he was not naturally generous, and he practised dissimulation until it became part of his nature.... As a courtier he was utterly worsted by Robert Walpole, whose manners were anything but refined...
And of the famous letters to his son, my old Tory avatar Dr. Johnson observed that "they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master," a formulation increasingly apt to young Brooks, as his teeth grow longer.
MaartenDeCeulaer Mutation Series Blue Sofa on ISaloni, 2012.