Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Agree to Agree

Finally an issue on which we three stand together! To wit: It's not appropriate to refuse the ports sale to Dubai just because Arabs may make Americans uncomfortable. But it is OK to do so for a whole host of reasons, a handful of which we've noted below. Here's yet another well-thought out rationale behind some degree of consternation with the Dubai deal. The blog, whose name I hope does not scare off Harry, also does a nice weekly feature breaking down the Sunday talk shows if you scroll down. (While I'm recommending other blogs' features, come to think of it, everybody with half a brain should check out our friend at Progressive Blog Digest daily. It has somewhat shockingly become the first thing I scan when I come to work and almost makes me think there's nothing left to post every day. Almost. But, seriously, read it, APR fans; it really is a godsend.)

Ports Deal Opposition Doesn't Have to Be About Race

I initially chalked people's rabid opposition to the Dubai Ports World deal up to racism, but there is a lot more to it than that. According to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), hardly a consistent administration basher, and a number of senators and congressmen from both sides of the aisle, this deal is unsafe because of which Arabs we're talking about.

Dubai Ports World is at least partially owned by the United Arab Emarates, which supported al-Qaida and recognized Afghanistan's brutal Taliban government before Sept. 11. UAE has been an ally in the War on Terror since 9/11, providing the United States air fields from which to launch offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq, but with that kind of history, it's tough to trust them. Michael Chertoff originally claimed that the deal had been vetted thoroughly (I wrongly criticized Paul Krugman for saying otherwise in his column Friday), but it turns out the deal was not investigated at all. Basically, the administration put New York City port operations in the hands of people who supported the killers of more than 2,000 people who worked right next to the port.

Sure, a huge percentage of our ports are run by foreign companies, including some from threatening countries like China, but none of their governments openly supported terrorism so recently in their history. For some, this may be about racism. But I've been turned around by cold, hard facts about this company's owners that should give anyone interested in protecting the homeland pause.

Does This Change Things?

James...I agree with you 100%. This Administration has been a near complete failure when it comes to homeland security. The Bush Administration has never given enough attention to homeland security, choosing to take the offensive against terror but not the defensive. Good security policy requires both. Unfortunately, many criticisms on the port issue leaned racist while ignoring the real threats. But the good news is Democrats are steering their criticisms of the port issue away from bigotry and toward a serious discussion of the homeland security issue. Good for them.

But back to the specific issue of the Dubai deal...

I've applauded Bush here and here for his position on the port issue. It is not ok oppose the sale to a Dubai-owned company simply because they're Arabs or Muslims (as many critics of the deal have done).

But check out this curveball. It is not ok to oppose the sale based on race, but is it ok to oppose it based on ideology (that is the bigotry of the Dubai-owned company)? I'm inclined to say it is.

What do you think readers? Click the comments link below to share your insight.

Huge Smiles, Everyone!

Well, Harry sure seems ecstatic about Bush's treatment of the Dubai-port issue. I only hope he didn't wear out his knees in his appreciation for the president.

In any case, he underlines his Harriet Miers-esque praise with borrowing from Bush's playbook, namely creating obvious, vastly accepted arguments as if no one disagrees. I don't think anything published recently would add anything to the fact that Bush believes "the Arab world is ready for democracy." ("Bush disagrees from other conservatives on isolationism?! You're kidding!") Regardless, it certainly is a valid point, but really not the issue with the uproar over the ports brouhaha. The serious concerns out there -- which do not include baseless fears of Arabs, as those who wish to paint this debate would have you believe -- instead focus on what I posted about last week. A group I find myself aligned with frequently, sent out its February newsletter today. Their analysis makes Harry's post look like the half-baked viewpoint it is. They note that the Bush administration is "led by ideology, rather than results" and suggest -- as I did last week-- that truly understandable unease with this revelation stems from the private sector reliance.

(The Bush administration's) overly trusting attitude towards major corporations—which own over 85% of our critical infrastructure—means that it has placed no pressure on business to protect these vital assets. Business has responded by doing almost nothing. The offense-only war on terror has left our country severely underprotected—a point driven home by the 9/11 Commission's report card, which failed this Administration on homeland security.

The authors, leaders of an outfit called the Truman Project, strip this issue from the elation-with-blinders-on that people like Harry choose to give this broader concern. It makes me wonder if Harry has ever heard of this group, and if he'd be interested in more information.

So George W. Bush: Good for you, for not being an isolationist, no doubt about it. Now can we focus on the real issues?

Giving Praise Where Praise is Due

I already posted on the port thing, but this article hits the nail on the head.

I think this whole thing helps us understand the Bush mind a great deal. Throw in Bush's steadfast pro-immigration views (even when they piss off his base) and his (certainly not conservative) belief that the Arab world is ready for democracy and you have a guy that is notably not xenophobic or isolationist - even when beign xenophobic and isolationist are the cool things to be this year if you're part of the conservative base.

So George W. Bush: Good for you!

Can I Get Your Number, Baby?

Interesting stuff from Harrison. The National Journal's rankings have bothered me for awhile. And just for the reason illustrated by the "Underrepresentation of Moderate America" post down below. Harry S notes that the analysis is capricious -- and continues to use it to prove a point. How vexing. Harry's first point is the better one: The NJ -- who I love otherwise -- collate the Congressional votes in a flawed process. In the 2004 election, Al From and Bruce Reed took exception to the suggestion that John Kerry was labeled the "most liberal" senator, even though the NJ only put him in the top 15. Their main cause of unhappiness really came from the magazine's "decidedly subjective judgment about what is a 'liberal' vote and what is a 'conservative' vote (as it) based more on partisan than ideological differences, ensuring that most Democrats will have very liberal ratings."

For what it's worth, I struggle with the very premise of the whole matter, as well. Categorizing every vote as "liberal" or "conservative" -- and then to define a multi-faceted politician by that handful of numbers -- is more than silly, it's potential harmful. To begin with, why is voting for gun locks "liberal" or loosening government contract restrictions with U.S. companies "conservative"? Why do we force the complexity of policy-making to a black-and-white issue -- and who gains and who loses from it? I can understand the National Journal's incentive toward easily salient data-nuggets, but it doesn't mean political scientists should feel the need to quote the results, caveats notwithstanding. Simply put, these rankings are akin to painting a fine detail onto an elaborate canvas with the broad side of a shovel.

(Even still, to go to Harry's earlier point -- tastefully titled "Conservative My Ass" which, without proper punctuation as he is wont sounds like Harry is stating a request -- I still believe that even if you find these numbers useful, Sen. Joe Lieberman remains a conservative Democrat. Harry can call me an idiot as much as he likes (and, trust me, he likes). It's unclear if his post suggests that being the 15th most conservative Democrat makes him not conservative (false) or if this proves the NJ's numbers game is almost entirely useless (true) but regardless, Lieberman is, without judgment, a conservative Democrat and was the most conservative of the Democratic challengers for president in 2004, period.)

To his point made on the polarization in D.C., I understand the larger argument. Once in the Beltway, our leaders lose sight of where the majority of Americans fall politically and spend their days either following a party line or fighting for support. A damn shame, to be sure. But it's simply misleading to suggest that "a plurality of voters identify themselves as moderate." I don't know if Harry pulled that from the NJ vote rankings (the latest of which I have not seen) but it seems clear that the devil is in the details; namely, how the question was asked. If it were posed something akin to "Do you consider yourself to be on the left flank, the right flank or a moderate," sure, you'll get your plurality. But I literally just read on National Journal's PollTrack (as I know, does Harry) on Feb. 16 of the extent to which President Bush has polarized the electorate.

(Voters were) asked if they were "generally content with the way things are going in the country today" or if they were angry about something -- a question that didn't point specifically to Bush or the government. Those numbers were similar to Bush's: Fifty-nine percent said they were angry, and 32 percent said they were generally content.

That anger clashes with any claim of languid moderation from sea to shining sea.

A CBS/New York Times poll asked (toward the end of the 2004 election) if there were important differences between the parties, looking for a trend-line on a potential national polarization:

9/1998 1/1995 10/1990 11/1988 4/1981 8/1980
Yes 64% 66% 53% 61% 50% 43%
No 28 29 41 35 42 41

The poll summarizes: Overwhelming numbers of partisans on each side see definite differences between the GOP and the Democrats. Most Independents do, too. And many voters think George W. Bush's presidency has caused the country to become polarized. 51% think Bush has divided people, and 32% think he has united them. Republicans, who are far more approving of Bush?s presidency than Democrats, are less likely to see Bush as a divider, but even 22% of them think he has caused a greater rift among Americans.

How has Congress led the electorate toward this guise of polar extremes? As Anthony Downs famously (I think) noted, there is a lack of participation on the center and perhaps the problem is that the middle simply aren't mobilizable. We shouldn't imagine the electorate's bell curve as the typical even slope. In reality, American voters today more closely resemble a curved M, as the perceived perfectly round bell curve has a notable dip in the center. A plurality of Americans aren't completely moderate -- most have leanings, and increasingly those leanings could be categorized as "strong" -- and thus perhaps a quarter of our Senators occupying the political middle ground is more understandable than Harry makes it sound.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Republican Hypocrisy

I love how Republicans can talk out of two sides of their mouths (I think that's how the saying goes) on public sector spending. They rally every year behind efforts to cut spending and make government more efficient, while promising everlasting support for the biggest sponge for -- and waster of -- government dollars, the Defense Department.

The latest evidence of waste in the military comes in two stories in today's New York Times. One article reports that the government will pay Halliburton for about $250 million in charges disputed by auditors. Why? Because the company was "not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement," according to an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman. That doesn't sound like the kind of explanation Republicans would accept from anyone in any other government department.

The other story, which reports on governors' complaints about the Defense Department's abuse of the National Guard, cites a shocking Government Accountability Office finding. According to the report, the federal government has left more than $1.2 billion worth of states' National Guard equipment in Iraq and has "not kept track" of most of it. Again, that is a fact that Republicans would simply not put up with in any other area of the federal government.

Republicans need to stop the hypocrisy. If they are really serious about cutting our more than $400 billion federal budget deficit, the first place they should look is the Defense Department, not the slew of social welfare programs upon which low-income people depend.

In My Own Defense...

I, too, was a little shocked at my reaction to Schwarzenegger's appearance on Meet the Press, but I actually started to admire him a little bit during last year's special election fiasco (for much the same reason I still have a bank of admiration for Russ Feingold and John McCain).

I was disappointed to see Proposition 77, which would have made determining Congressional districts a non-partisan affair (or as close as humanly possible), lose in November. It was a good-government measure that would have set a strong precedent for the rest of the country. Sure, it would have probably cost the Democrats a few seats in Congress, but it would have been the United States' first reform of its kind, and by the country's most populous state, so you could bet it would have started the ball rolling on similar efforts in many other states (even those in which Republicans have favorably gerrymandered their Congressional districts).

Propositions 75 and 76 were both terrible ideas -- no doubt about it. But proposition 74, while certainly suspect, may not have been such a bad idea. All of the writers on this site certainly had tenured teachers we could have lived without (think: our senior year economics teacher), so making lifetime employment protection (which few other professions have) a little tougher to earn might weed out a few more of the bad crops. I don't like the punitive nature of lengthening the time it takes to earn basic protections from two to five years, but the idea is based in some quality logic. Teachers really don't reach their full potential before their fifth year of teaching, from what I'm told (and, at this point, believe). The first four years are basically on-the-job training, and I really do feel bad for the students in my classes -- I will much better serve my students next year and any year after that I decide to teach. If I make it to five years (and there is a group of Teach for America alumni who think our commitment should be lengthened to five years), I will be a quality teacher who can finally give my students what they deserve. If Proposition 74 had been coupled with some financial payoffs for those who do make it to five years, I bet you would not have had such a loud outcry from the teachers' unions.

I have honestly not read up enough about the $222 billion capital improvement plan, but what I do know is that it's badly needed for California's decrepit infrastructure and has been for about 20 years. No one -- Democrat or Republican -- has had the political will to make the needed big investment in the state, like Gov. Earl Warren did in the 1940s when he made the University of California system the best of its kind in the country. I'm sure the priorities of Gov. Schwarzenegger's package need to be modified, but the basic idea is an important one that I strongly support.

I'll have to see how the Westly and Angelides pan out, but for now, I'm inclined to support Gov. Schwarzenegger from afar.

The Underrepresentation of Moderate America

I said I would not post again about the National Journal vote ratings. I lied. I still don’t believe that you can call a yay or nay vote on Bill X as a conservative or liberal vote. Nonetheless, the following observation is interesting and annoying.

Each member was given a composite liberal and conservative score between 1 and 100 (so that a member’s liberal and conservative score added to 100. So if you got a 60 liberal score, you had a 30 conservative score). This score was based solely on votes and had nothing to do with the votes of others (i.e. it wasn’t a relative score).

National Journal did a feature article on the centrists – those that had composite liberal and conservative scores between 33.3 and 66.6. These scores represented the middle third of the ratings (0-33.3; 33.3-66.6; 66.6-100).

One would expect (or at least hope) that about one-third of members of Congress would fall in this category representing one-third of the scores. However, there were only 65 Representatives (15%) and 24 Senators (24%) that fell in this middle 33% of the ratings.

In a country where a plurality of voters identify themselves as moderate, it is unfortunate that our parties have become so polarized that the 45% of American moderates are represented by only 15% of Representatives and 24% of Senators in Congress.

Why No One Ever Learned Anything From Sunday Talk Shows

Wait, are you serious? Please say "no." Really? Schwarzenegger for re-election...um, really? I--I--I'm speechless; I'm without speech.

OK, not really. It's nice to see Jerry can still maintain that boyish naivete in which a politician can be "self-effacing" in a cleanly scrubbed talk-show appearance and receive Jerry's endorsement. Methinks my esteemed co-senior writer from New York hasn't been reading his home-town newspapers, as surely any awareness of the havoc Arnold has wrecked upon the Golden State would cause him to think twice before such public affiliations. To begin with -- and the true cause for my profound surprise -- is that nothing will change the fact that the governator spent almost the entirety of 2005 taking a huge dump on the chests of the state's public teachers, as well as all public sector employees. Of all the issues facing California's residents, Arnold decided the top few included removing important political abilities away from nurses, firefighters, police officers and, yes, teachers. I won't get into the woefully failed iniatives, Props. 75 and 76, but here's a site that neatly spells out what Arnold fought tooth and nail for.

In any case, no bit of political see-sawing is going to bring back Arnold from public-perception hell. As we all know, an incumbent needs 50 percent approval to seek out re-election -- Arnold is squarely at 40 percent. Jerry calls him a "bipartisan leader" which is a fun label to give a politico, but it doesn't fit in this case. In trying to have his cake and eat it too, Arnold has managed to piss off both parties. This is not the work of a leader bringing the state's flanks together; instead he's confusing everybody by not holding true to any "core values". He's pandering, and not doing a good job at it. That "toxic partisanship" Jerry referenced? Yeah, that's Arnold fighting with the statehouse. (The Republicans in Sacramento are mostly experts at compromising at this point -- but it's Arnold who continuously fights the fights that needed no fighting.)

Of course, if the governor were to introduce sound policy, it would certainly help his chances. But this $222 billion bond measure is paving Hell with good intentions. I don't care about being in debt for the next few generations -- I just wish the money were allotted wisely. There's no mitigation for how some of the infrastructure dollars get spent. The big push in California is smart growth -- with parks, walkable communities and New Urbanism mixed use -- but there's no such direction in this pot of money. One would think this massive, massive bond proposal would include funds for affordable housing or a boost to bring fleeing companies back in order to ensure we can afford this. Zero dollars are allotted to either of these needs. He's wholly depending on corporate taxes and real estate revenues to pay for his plan, which is inherently unstable. Good thing there's no signs of a possible plummet, eh?

Of minor importance, but a pet issue for me, Arnold did include $2.4 billion to construct charter schools. Department of Finance officials told the SF Chronicle they arrived at that figure by only consulting with charter-school organizations. The Chron then wisely, and a bit understatedly, notes that "parties with a more objective interest in charter schools should also be consulted."

As for the two Democratic challengers, I'm not sure I agree that either man is a "political hack." To begin with, Westly hasn't been in politics long enough to become a hack. (If anything you can slam the eBay officer-turned-comptroller as "in over his head" or "buying his way to the governorship," but I don't know about "hack.") And as for Angelides, who has my vote, I can list his positive attributes later as this has gone on long enough. I hope I've made my opinion known to Jerry, who -- upon further reflection -- may be the only public school teacher in the country to publicly endorse Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Schwarzenegger for Governor, 2006

I'm convinced. On Meet the Press this morning, he was self-effacing about his mistakes, politically smart about his critics and strong in his vision for building California, which I doubt we'll see from anyone in the state's broken Democratic Party (the party's gubernatorial candidates, Phil Angelides and Steve Westly, are both political hacks). California is in dire need of deep investment in infrastructure like transportation and education, and Schwarzenegger's $222 billion plan is a great start. That's how California's economy took off -- through deep investment into the University of California system and its thousands of miles of highway during the 1960s. The state is now facing double-digit-percent population growth, which means huge increases in K-12 and university enrollment (and the state already lacks capacity in all of primary, secondary and post-secondary education) and more sprawling development around all four of the state's major population centers.

If California wants to stay on top, which it righfully should (best state in the union!), it needs a strong bipartisan leader who can rise above Sacramento's toxic partisanship. Arnold has during two of his three years as governor, and it sounds like he has learned his lessons from 2005 and is rearing to do more during another four years at the helm. If I were a California resident, I'd vote for him.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Is "Beautiful Day" the Ideal Political Rally Song?

Apparently it's one of the most popular ones. Both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and new New York gubernatorial candidate Tom Suozzi used it at political functions yesterday, after John Kerry regularly used it during the 2004 presidential race. I still think President Clinton's use of "Don't Stop," by Fleetwood Mac, was simply stellar. "Let's Get It Started," by the Black Eyed Peas, was also used pretty well during the '04 campaign. What would you choose?

"Hey DJ" and "Pimpin' All Over the World" are strong competition for me, but clearly inappropriate for a campaign audience. And "I'd Love to Change the World" sounds like it has the correct tone and mood, but just listen to the lyrics and you'll see how quickly that campaign would lose. If it were a campaign that centered on education, I'd take "The Kids Aren't Alright," by the Offspring. "Hero," by Chad Kroeger, still takes the cake for any sort of video montage (one of which I'm sure there would be during any political campaign). Purely for their titles (and because they really wouldn't be bad campaign songs), I might take "Bleed American," by Jimmy Eat World, or "Don't Stop Believin'," by Journey. Kanye West's "Diamonds are Forever" would be a good new music selection simply for its ability to pump up a crowd.

My choice in the end? "The Boxer," by Simon and Garfunkel, because it has enough pump-up qualities to get the crowd going and it has a great rags-to-riches message, which sells so well in a campaign.

Building the Farm System

Good news in today's New York Times about the Democratic Party's ability to build presidential talent. Howard Dean is hoping the Democrats can swing five to seven governorships, according to this Times piece, and state corner offices are a much better breeding ground for good presidential talent than the Senate (remember that fact that kept coming up during the 2004 campaign, that the last sitting senator to jump to the Oval Office was John F. Kennedy).

Heavily Democratic Massachusetts and New York, both of which are currently run by Republicans, are likely to switch and there is an outside chance, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's problems in 2005, that California could return to the Democratic column as well. According to the Times piece, Alaska, Arkansas (traditionally Democratic), Maryland (traditionally Democratic), Nevada, Ohio (the outgoing Republican governor is embroiled in a scandal), Florida and Minnesota all have a better than even-odds chance of going the Democrats' way.

This is, of course, another refreshing bit of good news, after about 5 years of hearing about Republican gains all over the map. To win these governors' chairs, the Democrats need to follow Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's model of neutralizing the social issues and emphasizing technocratic competency on issues about which people really care, like education and transportation. They can also nationalize these races by emphasizing how poorly the Republican administration is running the federal government (see: any number of blunders in 2005).

Shockingly, Republicans control 28 of 50 governors' offices, including the liberal strongholds of New York, Massachusetts and California, so the Democrats are fully capable of screwing this one up. We simply can't afford to let this opportunity pass, as the dearth of qualified, electric presidential candidates over the last two election cycles has shown. Let's build the farm system.

Conservative My Ass

It's time to see how everyone's favorite Repbulican-lite did in the National Journal vote ratings.

Now I'm no fan of the National Journal vote ratings because I don't think you can classify a yay or nay on any given bill as conservative or liberal. So I'm not going to do anymore posts on the ratings....

But many Democrats think you can classify a vote as conservative or liberal, and many Democrats happen to hate on my man Joe Lieberman, calling him a conservative Democrat or a Republican in donkey clothing. So crazies, this post is for you.

A quick reading of the 2005 ratings shows that Lieberman is, in fact, none of the above:
On economic issues, 19 Senate Democrats are more conservative (or got the same rating as Joe).
On social issues, 14 Senate Democrats are more conservative (or got the same rating as Joe).

Suck it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

It's An Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad, Ad World

As I wait on hold with the state Department of Fish and Game, I pose this hypothetical: Which of the new advertisements cycling above APR is Harry less likely to click on? The "Meet Republican Singles" link (a site full of good-looking white kids) or the Howard Dean for President in 2008 link?

I mean...support our advertisers!

(If anybody gets the reference in this post's title, I'll be shocked.)

Focus on the Real Threats

A couple interesting columns in The New York Times today. Thomas Friedman makes the same exact point Mr. Fellow and I made here on the ports issue and confirms that this company is merely in charge of overseeing the "coming and going of ships, making sure they are properly loaded and offloaded in the most cost-effective manner." (I'd link, but it's pay-only.) For security we still have the Coast Guard, for inspections we have the Customs Service, and the cargo itself will only be handled by U.S. longshoremen when in the six affected ports. Friedman worries that the anit-Arab outcry has some uncomfortable echoes of McCarthyism 50 years ago, and I agree. Let's keep our eye on the ball here and not get lost in symbolism.

Paul Krugman, meanwhile, makes the predictable blind anti-Bush arguments that have cheapened every debate for liberals over the last five years (and have made his columns, which I usually enjoy, much more irritating). Without any evidence, he says the administration's background check on this company was cursory at best, and then launches into the regular declamations of Bush as a cheat and liar. He does make some good points about Bush reaping here what he has sown since Sept. 11, 2001 -- suspicion of all Arab countries -- but they're unfortunately lost in his reflexive liberal rhetoric. Either stick to economics, Mr. Krugman, or tone it down because I really do enjoy reading your columns when you're on.

Miscellaneous: Responses from a Week of Sun

This is a little different than we've done on this site, but I'm going to give a potpourri of posts in this single post, responding to a number of things on the site since I left the Continental United States Monday.

--"Let's not be an 'opposition party'" sounds great, Mr. Fellow, but constantly trying to join Republicans as they push destructive policies is not only corrosive to the Democratic Party's existence but also makes voters wonder, "Why should I throw those guys out if the alternative isn't any different?" Americans need to know what the Democrats stand for because, as you very aptly say, we make great policy (that Americans favor by large margins in several areas). I'm certainly not saying be an obstructionist party -- in fact, you'll notice in my post that I specifically call on the party to not be obstructionists, and instead put actual policy alternatives out there when coming out in united opposition to the Republican proposals that need strong opposition (parts of the Patriot Act are Sen. Feingold's great example). I think we're fooling ourselves if we think we can piggyback on Republicans' often wrongheaded ideas and then be trusted to run things.

--The administration put themselves in a tough spot with this Dubai-based port company. I'm pretty sure it's just a company to run the six ports, not provide security (we have the Coast Guard for that), but Mr. Fellow is absolutely right that the outcry over this smacks of xenophobia. I'm sure the company went through a heavy vetting process, and again I'm pretty sure (that sun really makes one lazy and unwilling to fact-check) that the Dubai-based company simply bought a British company that had been running those ports -- they were already foreign-run, so this outcry (which is understandable on a very superficial level) shows some serious anti-Arab sentiment. Of course it is also a fair point that perhaps we should have American companies running our ports, which are located in our major population centers and move billions of dollars of goods in and out of the country every day. And Mr. Polkuote's point is a valid one as well -- along with our ballooning trade deficit, this seems like one more finger in the eyes of American workers.

--Finally, perhaps conservatives are happier because they don't even think about the less fortunate. I think it should rightfully bring your day down a bit when, as you drive your nice car to your nice house after picking up your kids from your good suburban school, you realize there are millions of people just a few miles from you who are not nearly as lucky. I think that is actually a virtue of Democrats everywhere (and a vice of Republicans) -- the cornerstone of the party we support is helping those who have been dealt a bad hand in life. We believe everyone should have an equal opportunity in life, regardless of if they were born San Francisco's Mission District and go to decrepit schools or in Greenwich, Conn. and go to Andover. Republicans may pay that idea lipservice, but this poll shows (as much as any poll shows anything) that many of them can be gleeful and ignorant of our society's incredible imbalances. On a related note, I think George Will is a terrible and unnecessarily convoluted writer. You're exactly right, Mr. Polkuote -- he should stick to baseball or just retire.

Regular posts to come this weekend. I've been missing this!

Happiness Is a Warm Gun(-Rights Nut)

Fantastic news from the Pew Research Center, via George F. Will: It has been scientifically proven that conservatives are generally more happy than liberals. And it's not just hotter Congressional staffers, owning all three branches of government or having your very own news channel -- this fact has held true since 1972. Will throws out some his own analysis. His points go beyond what one expect -- namely, that groups of conservatives can rally around one or two bullet-points without many headaches whereas five liberals can often produce ten opinions -- and instead he talks about the dynamics of pessimism:

[C]onservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequences of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones. Conservatives' pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised -- they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong, they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes -- government -- they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity -- it is inseparable from the pursuit of happiness.

Whatever. Bottom line: George F. Will should stick to writing about baseball and I wish I hated gay marriage, the separation of church and state and the federal government. Sure wouldn't mind upping my happiness by 19 percent.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

He Just Tells It As It Is...

ignoring the tradition of not declaring your intention to run for President even when everyone knows you intend to run for President...

Joe Biden announced on Fox and Friends this morning that he is running for President. He then praised John McCain for two minutes before declaring his support for Hillary Clinton. Ahh Joe. I love you.

The Ultimate Punning Master

Compare the dates, kiddies.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Port Whine

That title makes it seem like I have an opinion, but no, I just liked the homonym. What's sad about the news sometimes for me is it reveals how little I know. I've never given it one lick of thought before, but I had no idea that foreign powers could run the show at U.S. ports. It never would have occurred to me as a possibility, but I agree that anti-Muslim sentiment is kinda creeping me out with this. But really my (small) problem with this new bit of knowledge is not necessarily that a group of Muslims could run American ports but that any group not the U.S. government, or associated public agencies, can run them. It doesn't matter a whole heckuva lot if it's Dubai or Canada or Exxon or the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce -- it just seems authorities that are accountable to the American electorate are best served to fill the role.

I wasn't able to hone in on this thought any more (four hours of sleep last night -- hey those resume-and-clip packages don't sort themselves!) so I searched for some document that would back up my point. It may be cheating and lazy and lame -- but it is efficient. In any case, The Nation's John Nichols notes, well, what I said earlier. He writes that something as valuable as our ports should be run by a group who cares first and foremost about security and not, as could be argued, making money. I'm no economist, but is there a private sector/public sector efficiency argument here? Nichols also makes a lesser point that I'm sure Jerry would respond to if he weren't at a nude beach in the Carribbean: what about American workers? Is this a form of outsourcing within our borders?

Port SeBigotry

Whether or not Democrats can score some political points by criticizing the Administration for turning over security at a number of U.S. ports to a Dubai-controlled company, I think its absolutely shameful of Democrats to make an issue of it in the way that they have.

The stunt is obviously for political benefit - the Dubai-based company has been involved in American security operations in the past and is extensively screened for potential security risks. Democrats have publically stated that they think this is one of the many issues they can use to shrink the Republican advantage on national security.

But instead of arguing about legitimate concerns in the screening process, Democrats have exploited anti-Muslim sentiments in order to turn the public against the Administration. If the Republicans had done this Democrats would have called it racism. When Democrats do it, we should call it racism too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Up Is Down and Down Is Up

With all the talk about George W. Bush -- so much recently dominated by the ramp-up to the Iraqi war, Katrina, Jack Abramoff, wire taps, Cheney's shooting, Supreme Court missteps, Abu Gharib, forcing federal scientists to lie ... and that's it -- I was really stunned to read a passage from this dual book review in the NY Times. The piece discusses two wildly opposing viewpoints on Bush-43 as two conservatives (one, a Fox News mouthpiece; the other, a Reaganite) see the same characteristics, namely Bush's desire for focusing on quick results and not means or relationships, through two varied lenses. It's all what one would expect; that is, except for this bit, from the pro-Bush tome:

Mr. Bush "has used his presidential speeches to advance policies far beyond where his aides expected him to go," that "rather than reflect policy, his speeches dictate policy." Typically, he notes, the Bush speechwriting process begins with a meeting between the president and Michael Gerson, his former chief speechwriter turned policy adviser. Once drafted, the speech is circulated at the White House but "is not open to debate."

"This is the first time most White House and administration officials see a speech," Mr. Barnes writes. "It already has the president's imprimatur. Advisers are free to recommend a change in wording, but Bush does not tolerate attempts to alter the general direction of a speech."

In the case of the second Inaugural Address, which declared that spreading liberty around the world was "the calling of our time," Mr. Barnes reports that Mr. Bush teased Condoleezza Rice, saying "You're not going to believe what I say." Ms. Rice reportedly responded, "I hope I get to see it before you give it." What she and other senior Bush advisers later saw, Mr. Barnes goes on, "was a near-final draft to which only minor changes could be made." He continues, The thrust of the speech — the new direction, the policy declaration — had been set."

I've always worked on the belief that Bush was a man who relied on advisors to set policy, to tell him which way was North. Karl Rove was the "puppet-master" making Bush's C-student mouth say what appeased whoever it is that runs the GOP these days. To imagine Bush actually writing his speeches -- and refusing to let bright people like Rice edit the content -- frankly blows my mind. I knew he wasn't "open for debate" with Democrats, or anyone who might disagree with him, but he's surrounded by his own people in the West Wing! And he's still isolating himself from others' opinions? Its been well-documented that the president operates in a bubble -- only getting news from Fox and memos, scripted press conferences, etc. -- but to only wrap that bubble around one's own head (aside from the occassional wordsmith) really alters my perception.

Thank Goodness for Newspapers

The Los Angeles Times reports the roll-your-eyes-worthy news that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, recommended by the 9/11 Commission and signed into law in 2004, has yet to meet in any way. The purpose of the board is ostensibly to protect privacy and civil liberties during the ongoing fight against terrorism. But it has yet to meet since its "creation" two years ago because of "foot-dragging, debate over its budget and powers, and concern over the qualifications of some of its members."

...developing... (Did I do that right?)

Also, someone at the AP earned their paycheck this week.

Monday, February 20, 2006

To Partisans: Put Country over Party

Let's not be an "opposition party."

If Democrats approach politics as the opposition, then their purpose will be to oppose the Republicans. For many Democratic activists, this is simply what the Party should do: attempt to derail every Republican action.

But no American should put party over country. The purpose of the Democratic (or Republican) Party should be to make America and the world a better place.

What does this mean for the party out of power? If nothing the Republican Party does moves America or the world in a positive direction, then you have my blessing to oppose everything Republican. But Democrats are blinded by hatred if they really believe that the GOP is all evil. So when a Republican sponsors a bill that is good policy, Democrats should support it.

Let me add one caveat. Becoming the majority party again has to be calculated into every decision Democrats make. After all, even if Republicans put out good policy every now and then, Democrats put out good policy more often than not. If our end is improving America and the world, then our long term means has to be getting the Democratic Party back in power.

Sometimes smart politics means supporting policies that aren't necessarily the best option. Sometimes smart politics means opposing policies that, in a world with out conservatives, we would support.
Finding the balance between being good on policy in the short term and good on politics in the long term is the key to making America and the world a better place.

To the Democrats: Be a True Opposition Party

The Democrats must be a strong opposition party, offering policy alternatives to the Republicans' most harmful initiatives, like the Patriot Act. Democrats must oppose such proposals at all costs while at the same time proposing better alternatives. That has been the problem to this point -- they have opposed, but not offered a true choice. It is certainly lower risk to attack and not propose one's own policy, but it is not helpful to the larger political dialogue.

On Social Security, the Democrats should have added a feasible way to make Social Security affordable in the long term while maintaining their rock-solid opposition to the Republicans' proposed privitization (all they did was try to co-opt the Republicans' private accounts idea by proposing it as an add-on to the current program). On the Patriot Act, the Democrats must oppose the objectionable provisions and propose their own security initiatives that include the appropriate protections for civil liberties.

They cannot be seen as either obstructionists or softies. They must show they are a legitimate governing alternative.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

One More Effort at Engaging In Dialogue

Usually when I get soundly rebuffed -- like I was by my two East Coast comrades with my Motto, Motto Man conversational piece -- I nurse my wounds for a few weeks before daring to stick my neck out there again. Not in the blogosphere. So I present this Salon.com piece by one-time Teach-Ford-America favorite Russ Feingold on what the Democrats need to do to, you know, be a player in Washington again. (Like all Salon articles, you can read it for free with just two clicks.)

"It took a long time for Democrats to step up and challenge the administration's baseless assertions that the Patriot Act could not be changed without threatening the security of the American people. When we finally did so, when we decided to make the case that we can fight terrorism and protect our American principles at the same time, it looked like Democrats were finally ready to stand on principle and offer strong leadership. Instead, too many Democrats have folded...

...A number of Democrats have agreed to support a reauthorization of the Patriot Act that is basically the same as the deal we rejected in December, and doesn't solve any of the significant problems with the law that Democrats claimed they were concerned about."

The Patriot Act isn't my issue here. (And neither is Harry's opinion on Feingold himself.) It's the role Dems should play in relation to the party in power. That political struggle as old as time: Do they fight for issues they believe to be important and risk being seen as obstinate jerks or do they work well with the Republicans and be seen as soft? Where is that line and how do the Democrats walk it?

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Next: Online Banking

Does anybody else think this ad for Gawker -- the centerpiece for a group of blogs including Defamer, Wonkette, ValleyWag and Deadspin, among others -- seems to have some level of subtle religious imagery? (Perhaps the Jews have moved from their clandestine ruling of Mainstream Media to the netherworld of the blogosphere?)

The Wrong Cure for an Addiction

Ethanol is getting increasing attention as the cure to our country's oil ills, but I continue to ask, why? This article in today's Washington Post reports that tens of new ethanol plants are under construction as states and localities turn to the gasoline additive more and more to replace the toxic MTBE. California two years ago passed a law requiring state refineries to mix a certain amount of ethanol in their formulas, and that has been followed by similar moves from other states. And, as has been the case for years, industry proponents are lobbying to make ethanol a full replacement for oil-based fuel.

But there are, of course, a number of problems with the corn-based fuel. First off, it takes an astounding 29 percent more energy to produce it in fuel form than it provides cars and trucks once in gas tanks. It provides less energy than gasoline and its benefits for the environment are questionable -- numerous experts actually say it produces more emissions than regular old gasoline.

It may well help us kick our Mid-East oil addiction (though the Post article questions whether producers will be able to put out much more than about 15 billion gallons of the fuel per year once all of these new factories come online -- we use about 140 billion gallons of gasoline per year currently). But as long as we're searching for fuel alternatives, let's pick the technology that will best solve our geopolitical and environmental problems at the same time.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Totally Disingenuous, 2004-Campaign Style

I just marvel at Bush's ability to tell bald-faced lies to naive people. This little ditty is the latest time he has told people with little money that a wealth-favoring Republican policy initiative will really help people like them.

The New York Times quoted Bush, speaking at a Wendy's headquarters in Ohio, telling a group that Democrats' opposition to his health-savings accounts idea is "basically saying, 'If you're not making a lot of money, you can't make decisions for yourself.'" Nevermind that just to start one of these plans, one needs to also buy incredibly expensive catastrophic health coverage (the article says that would require someone to pay the first $1,050 in yearly medical bills. Talk to someone making $10,000 per year about that total.). And nevermind that one would have to accrue a fair amount of money in one of these accounts (requiring a large amount of disposable income) to make it helpful in case of a health catastrophe. In other words, storing away $100 a year isn't going to do much when your heart attack sets you back thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

Democrats want people to be able to make more decisions about their lives by finding ways to make health care more affordable. It's an ever-increasingly worrisome subject for low-income people because it keeps getting astronomically more and more expensive, giving families less choice on any number of other financial decisions.

The whole idea of insurance is that people for whom money means less (because they have much more of it) help the poor pay for things that should be rights, not privileges. People who make little money should not have to choose whether or not to treat their diabetes. People who make little money should not be forced to live in destitute poverty when they get too old to earn a living. Those are decisions this country made 70 years ago. Granted, some changes are needed to ensure we can continue to afford our commitments, but the underlying idea must morally stay the same -- that we help each other afford life's necessities, a principle at which health savings accounts would eat away.

Motto, Motto Man

Mickey Kaus, who has a long-running blog at Slate.com, reiterates his idea for a rallying slogan for Democrats in the midterm and 2008 elections: Return to Normalcy. It might be too on-the-nose, and it is absolutely John Kerry-dull, but he backs it up with some well-thought out points. Anyway, what do others think? What phrase, if not this one, would give the Dems the best shot at winning back the electorate?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

They *Did* Say They Were Following the Clinton Model

In today's Reliable Sources column in the Washington Post, that old APR favorite The West Wing gets a mention. But, for a change, it's not miserable news. (Scroll down.)

(Bradley) Whitford, who plays White House aide-turned-campaign-manager Josh Lyman, let on that in taping an upcoming episode, "I did spend the day naked in bed with a woman."

Thank Heavens for sweeps week! So who could it be? The obvious guesses are just that -- obvious. I think the writers should go in an unexpected direction. What about his candidate's wife, who posed for a little-known nudie mag? His boss' once-famously over-sexed wife? Or are they going to blow our minds with a blast from the past?

*Sigh* I guess I'll watch. Heck, without this show I doubt I would be ignoring my work right now to blog for you all.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

I remember reading about this widening gender gap in higher education years back. This piece (wherever the heck I read it) said that the higher percentages for women in academia weren't because of a downgrade in male learning -- it was because women were excelling that much faster. A bunch of articles I found online, including this one from Ms. magazine make the point. Basically, there is no decline in bachelor's degrees awarded to men; the equivalent figure for women is simply on the upswing. But here's what is really interesting: A study by the Center for Policy Analysis at the D.C.-based American Council on Education decided to analyze that college student date by age, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status, as well as gender. The result? The gender gap that makes for such great, general headlines almost predominantly occurs among low-income students of all racial/ethnic groups (except Asian Americans).

The study is quoted in a bunch of news articles, including the above Ms. magazine story which states: "Middle-income ($30,000-$70,000) male students maintained gender parity with females 10 years ago, but since then the numbers have dropped somewhat. ... At the highest income level ($70,000 or more), though, men and women in all ethnic groups attend college in nearly equal numbers."

Keeping with that thought -- and this news doesn't really surprise me as I live in a rural, tourism-trade-dependent county --but this excellent Salon.com article (like all of Salon's stuff, it's free if you click the ad option), notes, in small part, that the fields currently seeing the best growth are in healthcare, education, leisure and travel and the services -- all areas that women have more historical success at than men. Maybe this gender gap, even if seen through some broad data, is a simple reflection on our changing economy.

I'd never heard this but a sidebar on that same Ms. magazine article asks if shrinking financial aid will affect the gender gap. Apparently, the Department of Education started using new data in 2005 to help calculate the amount of money a family could be expected to afford for college tuition which determines how much federal grant or loan money they get. And because half of women in college receive federal aid, compared to 42 percent of men, this could slightly tilt the balance. According to the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education, women are more often eligible for aid because they are more likely to return to school as a single parent and because, in general, they earn less than men. More women apply for financial aid, the sidebar also notes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You Weren't So Concerned When...

I love the recent spate of articles about the widening gap in scholastic achievement between men and women -- in the women's direction. This story in today's New York Times is only one in a number I've read recently in which someone is alarmed that men are falling behind. Let's not forget that women have been way behind for the entirety of Western history.

The theory is that newer teaching methods (relying less on fear and more on feelings) and the emphases of our information economy favor women's learning styles and strengths over men's. Hence, men are graduating and attending college at lower rates (my alma mater is more than 60 percent female).

New York State Education Commissioner Richard P. Mills tells the Times that the trend is going to have "profound negative effects for our future." But how do we know the trend is a bad thing? Not to sound like a bra-burner, but how do we know it is not better to have women running things?

Everyone should relax a bit. Just because men may not be quite so dominant in academia and in the corner office (there is currently I think one Forbes 500 company run by a woman) in a few years doesn't mean the sky is falling.

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

There's absolutely nothing about the Cheney's Got A Gun thing that isn't funny. Seriously every step of the way finds new humor. (That is, unless the lawyer takes a serious turn for the worse.) But of all the pieces of this -- best summarized by our new good friend at Progressive Blog Digest -- I think the part I'm enjoying most is the now public knowledge of what this rogue band of hunters ate for lunch:

The party of 11 hunters set out in two trucks Saturday morning, driving around the mesquite-dotted property and shooting quail until about 12:30 p.m., said Anne Armstrong, co-owner of the ranch. Then they broke for a lunch of antelope, jicama salad and camp bread, washed down with Dr. Pepper.

Dr. Pepper + Antelope = Crazy Delicious!

Damn, That Must Have Hurt

For us northeastern liberal elites who have never been a huntin', this is what it looks like to get shot by 23-guage shotgun using birdshot pellets. And check out this video.

Do the Olympics Promote Nationalism?

Since I wrote this post on the topic of the nation-state, while I was watching the Olympics, I wondered how the two relate to one another.

Without going into it too much now (maybe in a later post), I think nationalism is generally a bad thing. And yet, I love the Olympics - where athletes are grouped into teams by country. As much as I hate nationalism, I love watching Americans win. I love seeing crowds covered in red, white and blue and I love hearing the Star Spangled Banner as the American flag is raised in the night sky.

So how do I reconcile these two? Short answer: I'm not sure.

Longer answer: My first reaction is that American "nationalism" is not actually nationalism at all, but idea-ism. As I wrote earlier, America is more of an idea than it is a nation. And so my happiness in seeing Americans triumph is more accurately happiness in seeing the idea of America triumph.

But my first instinct doesn't tell the whole story because I got the same tingling, happy feeling inside the first and only time Hatikvah was played at the Olympics, two years ago in Athens. So maybe nationalism is only natural. Maybe we will never overcome the state-system because to do some would be to overcome human nature.

Or maybe this excitement is not nationalism at all. Because tonight as the Russian national anthem played and a 24 year old pairs skater, who just a year ago was accidentally dropped on her head by her partner, stood on the gold medal podium with tears welling up in her eyes, I got that same tickling sensation. And I felt it again when Italy got its first gold medal of the games and a crowd of thousands stood in the cold singing "Il Canto degli Italiani," the Italian national anthem.

As humans beings we have a connection to each and every individual on this earth that transcends national identity and religious identity and every other identity. Because first and foremost we are all human. Yes, I may be happiest to see an American or an Israeli or a Jew win because I feel we share something that I don't share with others. But in the end, I am happy to see anyone win because I know we share something deeper than religion, or ideology or ethnicity - we share humanity.

Do the Olympics promote nationalism? Probably. But more often, they bring people together. How else do you explain the standing ovation the Chinese pairs team received after Zhang Dan was injured in a fall but skated through the pain to finish her program and win a silver medal. How else do you explain the excitement the world felt for the Iraqi soccer team in the Athens games? Yes, people like to see their home teams win, but more than that they like to see good people win. And that ability to overcome national identity is a good thing.

Jews Against a Jewish Israel?

Not to start a debate that is sure to invoke passion from all sides (though I'm not exactly sure what I think), but I just had drinks with a new co-worker who, in the middle of conversation on national security, described himself to me as a non-Zionist Jew.

Probing deeper, he explained that simply that he did not believe in the idea of nation-states (a view I agree with completely). In other words, he does not believe that states should have religious, ethnic or racial identities. A states identity, instead, should be based solely on history or ideology. It follows, that Israel, in theory, should not exist as a Jewish state - though it is ok for Jews to live in Israel. Again, I agree with him completely.

Looking back over the past 50 years, I suggested that Israel's Jewish identity was justified because the existence of a Jewish state had a net-positive effect for both the Jewish people and humanity in general. He disagreed with some decently convincing evidence . (Now I'm not sure what I think).

Finally, I suggested that the existence of Israel as a Jewish state is necessary for the good of the Jewish people and humanity at least in the near future. On this point he agreed. "So I guess I'm a pro-Israel non-Zionist," he responded. Hmmm...never thought about that - I think I am too.

Note: As a disclamer, for all the crazies reading this blog, pro-Israel does not imply anti-Palestinian. I'm pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian.

International Law, International Schlaaw

So we all agree that deceiving the public is a bad thing. ok...now i'm over it. The larger point of the Phillipe Sands book is that the Iraq War undermined the post-WWII international order - an accomplishment which, to be honest, doesn't bother me that much.

The reason is that the post-WWII international order was designed to deal with what was seen as the biggest international issue follow WWII - war. I just disagree that interstate war is the greatest evil in our world.

Now about this international law thing that progressives and Europeans hold in such high esteem. Problem is, most don't know exactly what it is. One does not break international law by "faking evidence, by painting "UN" on a spy plane or by "betraying the world's trust in the UN." One does, however, break international law by intervening in a country without Security Council mandate to end human rights abuses, as NATO did in Kosovo, or by liberating a people from an oppressive dictator and allowing them to exercise their natural democratic rights, as the United States and others are trying (granted through much Administration incompetence) to do in Iraq.

As I posted before, while international law is increasingly focused on human security, the bulk of I-law and the ultimate focus of the post-WWII international system is the security of the state, not of the individual.

So before you go doggin' on the President for undermining international law or the international order, make sure we you shouldn't be patting him on the back instead.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Three's A Crowd

A crowd of fabulous new posts, that is! I knew there were other bloggers on this site. Glad to see us back to full strength...

In any case, in my colleagues' collective break I may have focused a bit too much on "Independence Day" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" so this sudden burst of actual analysis is welcome. But, in truth, it seems I'm a bit rusty with scholarly thought as I didn't fully understand Harold's post on the rules-based international system. I won't blather through my ignorance, but I don't exactly follow the argument. I get that a system eliminating any and all interstate war is a utopian menace -- that the act, implication and threat of war does provide benefit to our modern global community. Our focus, I agree, should be to eliminate evils like genocide and famine. But what Bush and Blair are being accused of is faking evidence to start a war -- and what's worse, using United Nations aircraft as a way to "trick" Iraq into starting a global conflict. I agree that wars can be OK -- the history of the world surely demonstrates this -- but they are being accused of more than just bending the "rules of sovereignty and non-intervention," as far as I can tell. They are being accused of breaking international law by betraying the world's trust in the UN. I guess my confusion comes from the fact that I agree we should focus our international energies on doing away with real evils, and not war as a concept. I just don't quite see how that connects to this specific narrative.

Drive the Palestinians into Iran's Hands?

Interesting idea in last week's New Republic. Joseph Braude argues (I'd link, but it's pay-only) that the west should cut off the Palestinian Authority, to which it provides billions of dollars in aid each year, and let the PA's Hamas leadership turn to Iran to make up the lost cash. That sounds on the face of it like a bad idea, but Braude argues that the Iranian public would notice the expenditure and not necessarily approve, as Iran has plenty of its own fish to fry. Not only that but forcing the PA to turn to the Arab world just to cover its operating expenses would prevent it from using that money for its terrorist operations. Don't forget that Hamas was elected because of concerns about PA corruption, not because it's anti-Israel, so bread and butter issues should be their top concern if they expect to stay in power long.

There may be few other options. One cannot continue to give the PA its current sweetheart deal in international aid if its government is not even going to recognize Israel's right to exist -- that's simply not morally acceptable. Let's force them to make the hard choices between trying to build an acceptable standard of living and fighting to push Israel into the sea. It looks like the United States and Israel are already working on it.

Another One Bites the Dust?

word on the Hill is that Chertoff's days are numbered...Developing...

Is War Always Wrong?

My good friend James cites a book by Philippe Sands, which criticizes the President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for undermining the post-World War II international system. Regardless of whether or not the War in Iraq actually did this, the more important question is whether the post-World War II international system is such a good thing.

The twin purposes of this system were to eliminate interstate war and increase prosperity. The post-WWII system brought us economic institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and political institutions like the UN and international law - which the various rules created by international treaties over the past fifty years are called.

Now I'm all for prosperity, so I won't address the economic aspects of the post-WWII international system, but I believe it's important to consider whether the elimination of interstate war is the ultimate end toward which our international system should be designed.

I, for one am not convinced that interstate war is always wrong (few would argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was bad thing). As Carl Von Clausewitz famously stated, "war is the extension of politics." War is simply a means by which states attempt to achieve their ends. If those ends are positive and the negatives of war do not outweigh those positives, then war is actually a good thing.

The question then is this: If war is not always wrong, does it make sense for the elimination of it to be the ultimate purpose of our international system? I believe it does not. And since the UN, the bulk of international law and the post-WWII international system are all designed with the ultimate goal of eliminating interstate war, I do not think that undermining them as Bush and Blair are accused of doing is a bad thing.

There are, however, many evils in the world that are always wrong: tyranny, genocide, famine, poverty, bad governance, terrorism, racism, social/cultural/religious oppression, to name a few. While war sometimes is a good thing, these evils never are. It makes sense, then, to redesign our international institutions to address those things in the world that are always wrong.

The good news is that increasingly international organizations and international law are being designed to deal with just these issues - NATO (post Cold War), the Council of Europe and the ICC as well as a large chunk of human rights law, such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, all do just that.

But the post-WWII international system was designed to eliminate war by imposing rules of sovereignty and non-intervention. In other words, it sought to reduce war by specifically not addressing the "always evils," such as oppression, genocide, etc. This is where the system went wrong and where it must be changed.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

My Crib, My Cars, My Pools, My Jews

I read that article on Jewish conversions (see: below) with a very similar eye as my colleague from New York City. It seems logical and handled appropriately -- but the faintest hint of proselytizing really does rub me wrong.

And yet...and yet... Upon a second read, I think I might be OK with this trend. The article states these rabbis are "considering steps like elevating the prominence of recent converts in their congregations and making conversions more visible as an option for non-Jewish spouses." Neither of those elements disturbs my sensibilities, really. It's a bit odd that Jews would read about this relatively minor belief alteration and immediately recoil (as I did) at the very notion of prodding along conversions. But I increasingly think modern Jewry is so (understandably) terrified by its people's history with forced conversions, that the very notion of trying to "sell" our friends, neighbors and loved ones on the faith causes us to run away from anything resembling it. Jews have been absurdly punished by other beliefs' desire to convert them to such an extent that even appropriate levels of maintaining the faith may get shunned.

The article notes that about half of the Jewish population marry out of the religion and out of that group, two-thirds do not raise Jewish children. I tried to do the math and figure out what that means and, not surprisingly, quickly gave up. Luckily this article from today's Ha'aretz clearly states that "U.S. Jewry is dwindling rapidly at the rate of about half a million per decade." So let's say that Jews in America continue to live and react to the religion with no major societal changes. Allowing for the estimation that there is about 5.9 million U.S. Jews, when our grandchildren are aging, American Jewry will be little but a dying ember (surrounded by evangelical Christians, if their numbers continue). Frankly, that oft-stated realization has me wonder a bit if Jews are "meant" to continue. I mean, various peoples have died out for all sorts of reasons -- maybe fighting against Judaism's death is fighting unfortunate logic. But on a far less macabre note, I'm willing to allow shuls to do the smallest of changes to their in-house culture if it means the religion continues .... at least for a few more centuries.

P.S. I wasn't going to post this, as I wasn't sure it fit with our general premise here, but now that religion and culture have been brought into the foray, I'd like to convince all to read this excellent, excellent piece from the L.A. Times. Quite honestly, I think it reads like a Stephen King short story, a little bit. It makes me wonder if there will ever be a true-blood cultural Civil War in America. And if so, don't you think this guy might be leading an army?


Not sure how I feel about this idea, recently getting increased discussion within the Union of Reform Judaism. The head of the movement is trying to get synagogues to talk to the non-Jewish members of mixed marriages about converting to Judaism. I understand all of the arguments for this -- that mixed marriages often produce children who do not end up practicing Jews, and that that is a death knell for an already tiny religion -- but it has the uncomfortable smell of proselytizing, which is totally inappropriate.

Synagogues have a responsibility to encourage mixed-religion couples to raise their children Jewish, but this new push goes against the cornerstone of Reform Judaism -- educated choice (the movement doesn't always live up to the ideal, but it's a great ideal). Reform Jews are supposed to learn about and try Jewish traditions -- koshrut, observing Shabbat, etc. -- and choose to do what is meaningful and spiritual to them. Synagogues should certainly offer classes to show the non-Jewish members of mixed couples what Judaism is all about, but going out of the way to convince them to convert makes me uncomfortable.

What do Bush and Judas Priest Have in Common?

Both enjoy constantly and repetitively breaking the law. (Thank you; don't forget to tip your waitress.) Well, what is it this time? The Bush administration, based on reporting from Bobby Novak, is encouraging U.S. troops to violate Department of Defense policy:

(The White House) has been on the phone directly to Republican county chairmen to arrange local speeches by active duty military personnel to talk about their experiences in Iraq. To some Republican members, this unusual venture connotes a desire to go directly to the people to sell the president's position without having to deal with members of Congress.

Nice concept (that is, if you hate checks and balances). But any quick check on the DoD's Web site proves that the Pentagon not just frowns but strictly outlaws the practice:

4.1.2. A member on active duty shall not: Use his or her official authority or influence for interfering with an election; affecting the course or outcome of an election; soliciting votes for a particular candidate or issue; or requiring or soliciting political contributions from others. Be a candidate for, hold, or exercise the functions of civil office except as authorized... Participate in partisan political management, campaigns, or conventions (unless attending a convention as a spectator when not in uniform).

I'm running out of ways to convey in words a sad, slow shake of my head.

Maybe He's Best Kept In the Underground Bunker

In news that will spawn 1,001 late-night jokes, Dick Cheney shot a guy today while hunting. (I guess it's a bit harder when the animals aren't tossed right to him.) Say what you will about gun control -- and I've said a lot -- but what amuses me most about this special Normal Rockwellian scene is the image of ol' Dick going out for a small round of hunting surrounded by highly trained medical personnel.

"Fortunately, the vice president has got a lot of medical people around him...," (Armstrong, the property owner) said. "The vice president has got an ambulance on call."

That must be a fun job -- the Dick Cheney Heart Attack Look-Out
Squad! I wonder if they have t-shirts.

Anyway, if you think whatever discussions come out of this moment of ironic allegory will lead to a damn bit of change on gun control, I'd think again. The image above shows Cheney accepting a rifle from NRA leaders, after concluding his keynote address to the annual NRA convention in April 2004. This administration will go against the NRA the same time the Sierra Club endorses animal cruelty and smokestacks. (In his first election, the NRA gave George W. Bush $91,932, compared to Al Gore’s $5,500, for what it's worth, and 92 percent of their money that year went to the GOP.) It's no surprise that not too long ago Bill Clinton once said: “The NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House.”

Just Change the [bleep]ing Law!

Sen. Pat Roberts and Rep. Pete Hoekstra are unbelievable. Two people who are in charge of making national security laws are arguing on Meet the Press this morning that because going through the process called for in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is too complicated and hard, the president was allowed to simply ignore FISA and spy on American citizens.

It may well be in our national security interest to spy on Americans who are making calls to suspected terrorists in another country. But everyone -- including the president -- must, according to our Constitution, follow laws currently on the books or change them, in accordance with the Constitution, to suit modern needs. If the current law is so inefficient, just change the damn law! Do Rep. Hoekstra and Sen. Roberts realize what kind of precedent it sets to allow the president to ignore statutes when they're inconvenient? Do they realize what it does to their power as people elected to make good, sound laws?

FISA is not a looney law. It was created to stop domestic wiretapping abuse, which Nixon had done with gusto. The administration's wiretapping program may be incredibly helpful (though reports on the program tell another story) and clean as a whistle, but simply ignoring the law opens us up to abuse in the future.

Testing Taken Too Far, Part Deux

Most of the heroes out there probably think I'm a standard United Federation of Teachers test-hater after my post last night, but my views on standardized testing are a bit more nuanced than that (as are, frankly, the UFT's views on testing).

Why Tests Can Be Helpful: Testing puts numbers to the realities that teachers like me see every day in low-income schools. When everyone takes the same standardized test, it becomes obvious that we are, as a society, preparing white middle-class students much better for success in our society than we are African American and Latino low-income students. Because of testing, that fact is no longer just seen anecdotally through stories about how bad inner-city schools are. We have numbers that show that across the board, low-income students are being left behind, and that information forces politicians and everyone else in our society to do something about it (even if it's done poorly).

I don't think students and teachers in upper-middle-class schools like the ones all three of the writers on this page went to could appreciate how important that attention is when we were in high school (my view on testing then was simple -- they're stupid because they're hideously easy and we don't want teachers "teaching to the test"). Statistics that make at least thinking about how to fix education morally unavoidable are important.

Theoretically, if a teacher is teaching based on state standards (which they are supposed to be), they are "teaching to the test," so that is not necessarily a bad thing. Tests should have some power to determine what teachers teach, forcing everyone (including those in inner-city schools) to get with the program laid out by the (usually) experts. As long as one is not using instructional time to teach test-taking strategies (more on that later), there is nothing ostensibly wrong with teaching students all the things they will need to know/know how to do to be successful on a standards-based assessment. I think that "teaching to the test" argument is taken way too far.

In fact, testing is rightfully supposed to be at the heart of any teacher's instruction. One needs to know how much students know or have learned in order to know what to re-teach or teach in a different way. In the ideal classroom, those who test poorly are the ones who get extra help during class or after school. It makes sense that cities and states should accrue global data on who is falling behind, and they should really use those statistics to guide attention and dollars (it's only nominally done that way now).

Why They Shouldn't be Such a Centerpiece
: Of course, the extent to which primary and secondary education has become focused on tests is a little ridiculous.

In New York City, 7th graders take a two-part English Language Arts test in January and a two-part Math test in March. If that were it, it would be acceptable, but it's just the beginning. We've had testing basically every month of the school year so far. There were "interim assessments" in October and December and practice ELA and Math tests in November and February. And taking a test isn't as simple as just giving them out -- it disrupts the whole teaching day because the kids are a little off (routines and normalcy are very important, though they are regularly broken) and they usually take up a couple periods of the day, so it throws off everyone's instruction. We've basically lost two weeks of instruction (which, you'd think, the kids who are furthest behind would need the most of) to tests already.

Which subjects are tested also ends up directing attention to those subjects. Social studies is, of course, not tested, so it takes a back seat. Math and ELA teachers got a professional development day at my school the week before it started. Social studies teachers got basically nothing. Social studies and science are the classes from which special education students are pulled for their extra help, and students are much more likely to wonder "what's the point" in social studies (that's partially my fault too -- I need to do a better job of teaching them why history is important). Math and language skills are clearly the most important determinants of student success later in life, but that should not be at the expense of other subjects.

And, of course, my school showed why "teaching to the test" can be taken in the wrong direction. Every ELA class spent a month before the test doing a test-prep unit that included a fair amount attention on test-taking strategies, which is not how class time should be used. That's fine after school (which we do as well), but during school hours, class time and attention should be focused on content and subject-area skills.

* * *

I need to wrap this novella up, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of my feelings on testing. My thoughts continue to get more and more nuanced on this subject -- it is simply impossible (and wrong) to either turn to tests as the answer to all of our education problems or turn away from tests because people think they're narrow, unfair and wasteful.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Testing Taken Too Far

A Bush administration panel is talking about standardized tests for college. Frankly, the testing movement has gone way too far already.

There are any number of flaws with trying to create a standardized test for college. As my roommate points out, college students learn wildly different subjects through their four years, so creating a test that authentically assesses how much students learn at one college or another would be virtually impossible. I'm not even sure the ways students show what they know in college are testable. Most end-of-course assessments are either lengthy papers or tests that include long essays. Essay tests are already unweildy for professors and TAs in classes of 100 or 200 students -- try that with a million college students a year.

And let's not forget that what needs accountability in higher education is cost, not quality. American universities are the best in the world. We have more of them, and more high-quality ones, than any country in the world, no matter how much Asia is supposedly catching up. College administrators do need to be held accountable for what our $160,000 goes to every year (on top of millions of fundraising dollars), and tests are obviously not the way to get that sort of information.

Fun With Gutting the Notion of International Law!

Good to have you back, officer -- a fine point as well (and nice Colbert reference).

I'm at work today and I'm scanning through my morning news. Now, I'm a professional reporter and so my shock-level is pretty high. It takes a good deal of malfeasance and dubious behavior to cause my eyebrows to jump. Honestly, coming of age under the Bush administration over the years has set my standards so low of what's appropriate in the political game that only small animals have a shot at limboing underneath. And then I read this L.A. times piece about a just-published book:

It was the end of January 2003. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was five days away from giving a critical speech at the U.N. Security Council, laying out the case that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction and posed a danger to world peace.

But huddled with aides at the White House, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were not sure there was enough evidence to convince the Security Council. Without the council's explicit authorization, their plans for an invasion to depose Saddam Hussein could be difficult to defend under international law.

Bush proposed an alternative: paint a U.S. spy plane in United Nations colors and see if that didn't tempt Hussein's forces to shoot at it. In any case, he said, the war was "penciled in" for March 10 and the United States would go ahead with or without a second U.N. resolution.

Can this possibly be true? Are we really living in an age where foreign policy is conducted in the same vein as a Marx Brothers comedy? The article later notes that British news have read on-air excerpts from the memos used by the book, lending it a fairly substantial air of legitimacy. Of course, I can already hear those on the right pooh-poohing this, in part, by saying this plot never happened outside of a brainstorming session and thus cannot be considered bad form. But the underlying point remains: If the Bush administration was so sure that this war was necessary, why even consider faking the rationale?

(The book is apparently not solely about the Iraq war but, instead, how Bush & Blair "undermined the 'rules-based' international system built largely by the United States and Britain after World War II." Yeah, I have no idea what that means exactly, beyond what seems obvious, or what the repercussions might be for that undermining. Seems like the sort of thing a Princeton grad could explain...)

What I Need is a Good Defense, 'Cause I'm [Looking] Like a Criminal

Apologies for my silence on this forum.

Just to respond to a Mr. Polkuote posting from a few days ago, it's clear that the reason for not having both Alberto Gonzalez and the oil executives swear oath is that the pictures on the front of The New York Times the next morning would immediately dredge up the undesired image of criminals in a court room (the worst government scandals in the last 40 years -- Iran Contra and Watergate). I think Mr. Polkuote acknowledged how preventing said images would be desirable for the Bush administration in his second paragraph, but I want to take it a step further.

Not to beat a repetitive drum beat or harp on the obvious, but much like the great dichotomy between what Mr. Bush said in the State of the Union and what he has done/will do, the Republicans made a 100 percent image decision in both non-oath incidents. They know these guys are or seem like questionable characters in the public's mind, so they don't want any touchdown images of them looking like criminals. In both cases, even for Republicans in Congress, the image is far more important than the actual work (in this case, compelling people who don't want to speak to spill the beans to the public).

Or it could be a statement on just how much of an upper hand the executive has grabbed from Congress. I'm guessing Arlen Specter (and much of the rest of the committee -- Republican and Democrat) would have been happy to have him swear an oath and and actually say something of consequence, but it's possible the White House said Gonzalez wouldn't be there unless he didn't have to swear that oath. In fact, that's what's called a win-win for the White House -- either Gonzalez doesn't testify (fine with them), or he looks to the public like he's testifying (without the unseemly images, of course), and the White House can say it is being open about a wholesome wiretapping program.

Either way, Congress needs to grow a pair.

Imagine Randomly Flipping Through the Channels...

Sorry to do a pair of journalism-related posts back-to-back -- although I doubt it matters what one says when one speaks in a vacuum -- but I found this irrisistably hellacious. Fox News, in all their infinite wisdom, aired scenes of Library Tower exploding from the movie "Independence Day" during discussions of the reported 2002 terrorist hijacking into the L.A. landmark, now known as the U.S. Bank Tower. (Personally, I think the name change is a bland downgrade, but nothing as uninspiringly weak as this bit of news.) In any case, I blame this heartless brand of faux-journalism on the very notion of 24-hour cable channels, but the fact remains that even making a tenuous comparison between aliens exploding a building with a laser and true-life terrorist plots is inherently lousy. Would Fox News run footage from "Platoon" or "Saving Private Ryan" during a conversation of soldiers dying? Plus, check out that last line from the anchor -- great reporting there! *Sigh* I need to stop and go to sleep now because discussing Fox News (even if to a non-existent audience) makes me tense up in anger/frustration.

P.S. I just realized that "Independence Day" was produced by 20th Century Fox. If this was a cheap excuse to sell some DVDs, I swear to all that is holy I will put a hatchet through my television set.

Maybe There's Future for Newspapers After All

Frankly, given the response I got this week for a political column I recently wrote, I'm surprised this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

Shoe Money Tonight II

Just linking to a few follow-up notions on Bush's announcement of the (ostensibly) prevented L.A. hijacking in 2002. Two interesting newsy tidbits I read in the paper that this blog summarizes well:

1. Los Angeles Mayor knows nothing about the supposed threat (which only leads me to believe that it can't have been too serious)
2. Bush's claim of thwarting the attack is disputed by ex-FBI official

The best response I've seen yet from an official standpoint has got to be in an email from the guys at the well-sourced news org/blog Capitol Hill Blue: “He’s full of shit."

All this bears the question: Is it possible -- is it possible -- that the President has distorted human intel to sell something to a fearful America? I'm just saying, is it possible.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Costly Truth

From the NY Daily News:
WASHINGTON - When the estimated cost of the Iraq war soared beyond $300 billion yesterday, White House officials said there were no regrets about humiliating two top aides who had accurately predicted the war's cost.
Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki and White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey had pegged the cost of the war at $200 billion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it would cost only $50 billion.
Lindsey was fired and Shinseki was shunted aside. (Last paragraph)
Budget director Josh Bolten paused yesterday when asked if they were owed an apology.
"I don't think so. The costs of the war are what they are," he said.

Whadya think? Intended double entendre? Or merely more verbage suggesting the Pentagon is loathe to admit reality in Iraq?