1/31/09

American Protectionism

This week the U.S. House of Representatives passed Obama's 800 billion dollar stimulus package. As part of this bill, they included a clause that would require all infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus money to be made with domestic steel. There are indications that the senate will uphold this 'American-made' clause, and possibly expand it to require that all materials be of U.S. origin.

World leaders, including Stephen Harper, Canada's Prime Minister, have cried foul play. It is against international trade laws to practice what is known as protectionism. The raising of tariffs and banning of imports is thought to have contributed to the intensity of the Great Depression. In Bush's last economic meeting with world leaders, he concurred with other countries that the only way out of the global crisis was to rigorously guard against protectionism.

Now Obama is being called on to strike down the 'American-made' clause in the stimulus bill. He has not yet made a commitment to leave it in, or delete it. His considerations are complex. Tax payers are already reeling from the recent news that Wall Street tycoons walked away with over $18 billion in bonuses in a year when they relied heavily on government money to prevent collapse. Many tax payers are not interested in seeing any of the $800 billion spent overseas as our own unemployment numbers swell. On the other hand, protectionism works both ways. If we begin to refuse other country's products, they can wipe out their markets for ours.

I propose that in light of this complicated conflict, rather than deciding whether to use a right or left hook, that we side step the whole issue. Well, admittedly it won't be possible to completely ignore the problem, but investing in a key area of need would go a long way towards helping our own economy without breaking any laws.

While the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and Canada are clamoring for us to avoid protectionism, they are not dealing with domestic populations at the same risk that Americans are. Unlike those countries, when Americans lose jobs, they lose health insurance. There are provisions in the stimulus package for expanding medicaid coverage and subsidizing COBRA expenses, but we could go much further.

As Paul Krugman argues, a major shift in the economy is a perfect time to enact a new social contract, like providing health insurance for all. In 2006 Massachusetts passed legislation that paved the way to providing universal health insurance in the state. To date it is the only state to provide this level of coverage. Three years later, it is instructive to analyze how their system is functioning.

While overall it is receiving support, the main problem for people has been accessing a primary care physician. There simply aren't enough of them working in the state to keep up with the new demand. If the entire U.S. were to be covered for health insurance, it is reasonable to assume that we'd experience the same bottleneck.

However, far from being a problem, this is a golden opportunity for us to stimulate our economy. Not only does a healthier work force translate into a more productive one, but health care is a non-exportable industry that currently accounts for 15-18% of GDP. Estimates for future costs show that it will continue to rise. Many people use this as an argument for why we shouldn't provide universal insurance. But what better way to keep our dollars at home, without breaking international law?

My proposal is this. There are millions of people out of work. Hundreds of thousands of them would be happy to train as primary care physicians. The stimulus package should include a huge sum for this retraining program, so cost isn't an issue for students. More of the stimulus package should go towards extending health coverage everyone. We could phase this coverage in to coincide with the graduation of our new physicians. More clinics and hospitals should be built right away (and granted, this may require us to spend money on imports, but at least the wages would stay here), of course with the blessing of stimulus money.

In this way, when we finally start climbing out of the recession, we will have a newly trained, non-exportable work force, healthy workers in all industries, and enough clinics to serve our country's needs. Then next time an economic disaster hits (and it will, we have alarmingly short memories), we'll at least be on an even playing field with other wealthy nations.

1/29/09

Tashi Wada



In addition to composing incredible music, Tashi Wada draws using a typewriter. Wada's music can be hypnotic, inviting the kind of contemplation that is too often reserved for quasi-religious experiences. But it also has a certain dryness that brings you into the present rather than pushing you away from it. Wada's typewriter works use simple patterns and mechanical repetition to achieve something similar. They aren't meditative, exactly, but like an Agnes Martin painting or certain drawings by Eva Hesse, their minimalism demands an intensity of focus. And because their repetitiveness induces optical illusions, they exist between the eye and the page. Just as the alternative tunings that Wada uses in his music can produce tones that aren't actually being played as a result of the combination of certain tones that are played, Wada's drawings create visual tensions, coloration and movement between the marks. The work itself consists of the effect of these marks upon us. Even so, they aren't psychedelic; instead of seeking to alter consciousness, there is a frank recognition that perception is the basis of any work of art.

Walk, Don't Run

Mark Lynch has a good post on the perceived Odierno/Obama tangle and what the President should do about it:
According to the Times, Gen. Ray Odierno said Wednesday that "it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly" while J.D. Crouch warned ominously that "they don’t want to alienate the military." The Obama administration should resist this inertia -- and the public challenge to his authority -- and stick to its stated goals of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq.

Some of this is simply the press manufacturing conflict. Odierno's public comments are consistent with those of departing Amb. Ryan Crocker -- and less novel than the reporting might suggest. This was Odierno's position before the transition...
He adds that the "'go slow' approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer." That is, the Status of Forces Agreement--which has passed the Iraqi Parliament, but now must go before the public in a national referendum--states that US forces will completely withdraw by the end of 2011. Thus, Lynch argues that playing wait-a-year-and-see "could ironically make the 'rush for the exits' that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely... ."

The President shouldn't consider the campaign promise of a 16 month timetable for withdrawal in his decision making at all, but, as General Odierno himself says, having troops in Iraq after 2011 is out of the question. Listening to your generals is undoubtedly important--would that the Bush Administration had listened to the General Shinseki in the run-up to the war. Beginning to draw troops down now, however, may ultimately lead to a more responsible withdrawal and therefore a more sustainable Iraq.

Where Does the Money Go?

In a recent post, Megan McArdle makes a strong argument for tax-cuts, as opposed to public spending, as a bigger part of the stimulus package. It's well worth reading, but the short version is that--beyond spending on so-called "shovel-ready" projects--"tax-cuts are better because they're faster." She concludes by continuing the campaign against Keynesian stimulus:
Though you wouldn't think it from the really quite shocking incivility emanating from the pro-stimulus side, the empirical evidence that this works in a large industrial economy like ours is basically nonexistant. The problem is, we have very, very few examples to test on: America during the Great Depression, and Japan in the 1990s. And neither America nor Japan managed to stimulate their way out of their troubles. You can argue--and many do--that this is because we, and they, didn't stimulate enough. That may be true. But unless you can forward test your theory, it's a just so story . . . as we just painfully found out about the "It was all the Fed's fault" narrative of the 1930s banking collapse.

What we've got, since Japan really never did emerge from its lost decade, is basically one fact: America entered World War II in a depression, and emerged from World War II without one. ...

But the amount of government borrowing during World War II was truly gargantuan--roughly half of GDP by 1943. All the relief dribbled out over the course of the Great Depression at best kept the Depression from being worse--unemployment was still in the double digits in the late 1930s. Moreover, much of the spending FDR did do was paid for by tax hikes, which cancel out the stimulative effect of the spending.
In his January 8 column, Paul Krugman explains why government spending can be more effective than tax-cuts:
...fiscal stimulus can sometimes have a “multiplier” effect: In addition to the direct effects of, say, investment in infrastructure on demand, there can be a further indirect effect as higher incomes lead to higher consumer spending. Standard estimates suggest that a dollar of public spending raises G.D.P. by around $1.50.
From Krugman's most recent column:
... it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts... because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.
The big question is, since the stimulus plan includes both tax-cuts and public spending, why was there not a single Republican vote? Matthew Yglesis has a theory.

1/28/09

The Money Hole

First up, on This Week: one of these things is not like the other. Can you spot the Nobel Prize winning economist?



Here's a similar roundtable that aired this fall:


In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

One video is funny and one is sad. I'm just not sure which is which. As I've said many times to my friends, if you can only get your hands on USA Today or The Onion you're better off reading The Onion. That way, you can at least triangulate back to the truth.

As Congress gets closer to passing a stimulus package, it's getting pretty weird out there in commentary land. Matthew Yglesias notes the relative ease with which Republicans are allowed to maintain mutually exclusive positions--namely: we can't afford spending increases but we can afford revenue decreases in the form of permanent tax cuts. Meanwhile, Niall Ferguson is going around claiming that there is no empirical evidence that Keynesian economics works. Ferguson's clearly intelligent, but, uh, has he seen the empirical evidence that free market capitalism doesn't work?

As Albert Einstein once said, "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong." If we think of Milton Friedman as the alternative to John Maynard Keynes, then we just saw a pretty spectacular example of a single experiment proving someone wrong.

1/27/09

My Stimulus Plan? Coffee.

Sometimes I feel like Special Agent Dale Cooper, not because I have backwards-talking dreams or special powers of prognostication, but because my love of coffee is deep and abiding.



Coffee, I feel, is truly one of the most amazing gifts that the universe has given to us, ranking with life, fire, sex and the rising and the setting of the sun. Now we know it's good for you, too.

The New York Times reports that drinking coffee is linked to mental health later in life, lowering the risk of dementia (Hat tip: James Fallows).

Coffee has already been linked to a lower risk of suicide and a short-term increase in intelligence--as Fallows once noted , "Albert Einstein, or someone similar, once defined a mathematician as a device for converting coffee into formulas"--so, either the coffee industry has a better PR machine than Dairy (responsible for all of those illustrated charts that lived in elementary schools when I was growing up propagating the absurd notion that dairy was, nutritionally speaking, on an equal footing with protein, cereal and "fruits&vegetables") or it really is the greatest stuff on Earth. I vote for the latter.

***

Now, I've been looking for an excuse to write about a particularly powerful coffee experience I had recently. I was purchasing some foam board at an art supply store near USC, when the owner enthusiastically informed me that the best cup of coffee I would ever have in the whole world--"and that includes Italy and France!"--was just around the corner. I was already intrigued by his enthusiasm, but then--voice lowered, eyebrows raised--he said, "He has a Clover."

This name was familiar to me. In December of 2007, The Atlantic had a story on the changing coffee culture. There was a return to lighter roasts underway. Part of this shift was a new emphasis on single origin--as opposed to blended--coffees. People were starting to talk about coffee with the same language and attention they used to reserve for cabarnets and single malts.

But those other passions are, for the most part, unmediated by technology. They require no machine to come into being. Coffee is different. The cowboy method produces a product vastly different from a french press. Even electric coffee pots come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges: the Clover is the shapeliest and priciest of all. From Corby Kummer's article in The Atlantic:
The Clover hit the coffee world with the force of a sexy stranger new in town. The stir was understandable. No coffee machine looks quite like it. The action is not in the front but on top, where customers can see it. And it is hypnotic. The barista grinds coffee for each cup and strews the measured grounds into a well with shiny silver walls and a fine-mesh screen at the bottom. A fixed faucet pours hot water over the grounds, and the server stirs the mixture using a flat plastic whisk (baristas swap secret Clover stirring techniques on Web sites). The coffee steeps, gurgling slightly, for 40 to 70 seconds. Without warning, the screen rises to the top of the machine. The brewed liquid is magically sucked beneath, leaving just the grounds at the top, which the barista rakes off with a silver-handled squeegee.
Now, I hesitate to mention this bit about the Clover. After I had the coffee experience I am about to describe, I did a little research on the coffee shop (there is apparently a vast internet culture devoted to finding, promoting--and dissing--the best cups of coffee in Los Angeles) and I discovered that the owner was actually a little shy about his wunder-machine. For him, you see, it's all about the beans. The machine is just a means to an end. As well it should be. The end, of course, is an incredible cup of coffee.

So I walked around the corner from Roark's, the art store, and went into Cafe Corsa. It's an unassuming place, set in a strip mall. Neither thick with scensters, hipsters nor any other -sters, there's not a pork pie hat to be found in the place. I asked for a cup of coffee. Jars of beans were proferred for me to smell. Various regions of Guatemala were described. Words I had only heard used in association with fine wine or great jazz poured from the owner/operator. The words were informative, not snobbish or intimidating. I got the feeling his goal was accuracy, not superfluous connoisseurship.

The beans went in. The coffee came out. I sipped. It was good--good enough to skip the cream I usually add--but when something has been billed as "the best cup of coffee you will ever have," it is hard not let your expectations overtake your taste-buds. I thought that maybe, in this area, I just didn't have the refined sensibility to distinguish good from great. So I sat down to drink the rest of my coffee.

Now I remember hearing somewhere that, unlike dark roasts, lighter roasts open up a little as they cool (they are brewed at exceptionally high temperatures). The bold, broad flavors of dark roasts are best served hot; even a good cup of dark-roasted coffee can start to taste bitter as it cools. Lighter roasts, however, develop as they cool down. Just as the flavors of a red wine augment as it breathes, so this cup of coffee began to blossom.

Soon I was in a world of shape; the coffee had volume. I don't have the lingo that aficionados have, but I could definitely taste words like "bright" and "lemony," what Kummer calls the "fruity, singing 'acidity' that in coffee terminology is a prized sign of beans raised at high altitudes and carefully picked and processed."

The only thing I can think to compare it to is scotch. If you have a drink of Johnny Walker Red Label, you may say, "Hey, that's good;" Black Label, "That's damn good;" but then, if you have a sip of Glenmorangie, you are suddenly not thinking of a single taste, either good or damn good, but of a delicate, carefully crafted experience that unfolds over time. At the end of a sip, you are somewhere different than where you were at the beginning; it has movements. You don't just taste the vanilla and the orange, you pass through them. In this way, good whisky is like music. So too is the coffee at Cafe Corsa.



The best part? My coffee was just $2.50.

Cafe Corsa is located at 2238 South Figueroa, Los Angeles, California 90007. (213) 746-2604

1/26/09

There Is a Balm In Gilead

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ron Burton, Henry "Pete" Pearson, Robert Shy and
Joe "Habao" Texidor perform "Balm In Gilead" live, 1972:


1/25/09

Gaza Update

The New York Times reports:

One week after the war between Israel and Hamas stopped, Gaza remains in a kind of stupor. There are numbers, of course, to describe its misery — 4,000 homes destroyed, 21,000 badly damaged, 100,000 people homeless, according to several aid agencies — but they do not tell the full story.

Most of Gaza, especially the capital, Gaza City, remains largely intact. This is not Grozny after the Chechen war or Dresden after World War II. The hospitals are coping; shops are reopening; traffic is becoming a problem once again. Israel has tripled the amount of goods flowing in here since before the war. ...

Gaza has no functioning glass or cement factories and has not been able to bring in raw materials for them for months because Israel and Egypt closed commercial crossings. Now efforts are under way to change that.

John Holmes, a United Nations humanitarian relief official who came here on Thursday, said by telephone that he had been talking with Israel about how to get such materials and other vital components to rebuild.

“We need to fix the water and sanitation networks as quickly as we can,” he said. “That means importation of construction materials on a big scale. It has not happened for the last 18 months. The Israelis don’t say no, but they say we need to have assurances it will not be misused by Hamas. We are trying to work out the mechanisms.” ...

The article concludes by alluding, rather obliquely, to accusations that the Israeli Defense Forces used white phosphorous in civilian areas:

In Israel, officials said that on Sunday, the cabinet is expected to discuss a proposal that the government defend the military if there are any international attempts to accuse it of improper activity or war crimes. The proposal is expected to assert that soldiers and officers operated in accordance with international law, the military’s values and moral principles.

1/24/09

Isreal Admits Using White Phosphorous in Gaza

The Times is reporting that Israel now admits to using white phosphorous in areas densely populated with civilians:
“Yes, phosphorus was used but not in any illegal manner,” Yigal Palmor, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Times. “Some practices could be illegal but we are going into that. The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is holding an investigation concerning one specific incident.”

The incident in question is thought to be the firing of phosphorus shells at a UN school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip on January 17. The weapon is legal if used as a smokescreen in battle but it is banned from deployment in civilian areas.
For context, the U.S. also used white phosphorous as an incendiary device in Falluja, but never directly against civilians.

Cease Fire? Commence Protracted Suffering.

Aid agencies, including Save the Children and the Red Cross, are reporting that they are still being turned back at the Gazan border. The Israeli government is giving ambiguous reasons for the delay, and the reasons change daily. Sometimes they claim that it is still too dangerous to cross, other days the reason is that it is simply the wrong day, sometimes the aid agencies are not the ones that Israel wants to work with, and on other days Israel is unable to provide guides.

The situation in Gaza remains critical. Sewage is leaking into the region's aquifers, tens of thousands are still homeless, and food is not arriving with any regularity. The external aid is badly needed, and the agencies are ready to move in, but Israel is preventing them from getting to the desperate residents of Gaza.

Doctors and surgeons have stated that the types of wounds they are encountering are not consistent with anything they've seen before. They suspect that Israel used new weapons in this last round of fighting, although Israel claims that they only used weapons allowed under international law. One of these new types of wounds initially presents itself with the symptoms of appendicitis. But within hours tiny lesions that are too small to be repaired surgically develop in the organs. When the organs are opened the surgeons find dozens of miniature particles that are slicing their way through the patient's body. Most people die within 24 hours.

As if these problems of getting and moving aid to assist the civilians caught up in the fighting were not enough, BBC has recently refused to air ads from the Disasters Emergency Committee requesting money donations. BBC claims that the ads, which are solely focused on obtaining relief, would ruin its commitment to impartial reporting. This concern comes to the surprise of many, since the BBC has a long history of running aid ads after other conflicts. Originally other broadcasters in the United Kingdom followed the BBC's lead, but due to a public outcry, stations such as ITV and Channel 4 have agreed to run the ads.

Meanwhile, workers are busy rebuilding the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that Israel destroyed. These tunnels are used to smuggle goods into Gaza. Hamas is thought to use the tunnels to import weapons, but they are also a conduit for badly needed food and sanitation supplies. Many of the workers digging the tunnels have no other option for employment. And without a reliable source of aid due to Israel's shutdown at the border, how else is Gaza going to get the basic necessities?

In fact, the only reliable source of assistance for Gazans will soon be Hamas, which has announced that it will begin distributing aid to residents. Hamas originally won the support of Gazans by bolstering failing schools and providing medical services. This new bout of rebuilding is sure to secure loyalty for the only organization that is visibly supporting the war torn region.

If Israel wanted to ensure that their conflict with Hamas stretches into eternity, they are going about it in the perfect way. And the rich Western countries are certainly helping, by making flimsy excuses about impartiality when people are dying, providing weapons that cause damage doctors can't fix, and blindly supporting Israel even when they are making as many mistakes as the U.S. did in invading Iraq.

Predator Strikes Into Pakistan Continue

The New York Times reports:
Two missile attacks launched from remotely piloted American aircraft killed at least 15 people in western Pakistan on Friday. The strikes suggested that the use of drones to kill militants within Pakistan’s borders would continue under President Obama.

Remotely piloted Predator drones operated by the Central Intelligence Agency have carried out more than 30 missile attacks since last summer against members of Al Qaeda and other terrorism suspects deep in their redoubts on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.

But some of the attacks have also killed civilians, enraging Pakistanis and making it harder for the country’s shaky government to win support for its own military operations against Taliban guerrillas in the country’s lawless border region.
Marc Lynch on the effects of Obama's inaugural address:

Obama's inauguration dominated the front pages of Arab newspapers, editorials ranged from effusive to cautiously welcoming. Tellingly, many of the papers (including the Saudi pan-Arab paper al-Hayat) led with his promise to begin responsibly withdrawing from Iraq -- clearly words that the Arab observers were keenly looking to hear. Al-Jazeera reported that 38 Islamic figures (including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Rashed Ghannouchi, and other prominent personalities) offered an immediate response to his invitation to a new way of interaction between the U.S. and the Islamic world. Even al-Quds al-Arabi, a newspaper staunchly opposed to U.S. foreign policy, allowed that Obama's inauguration demonstrates that for all of America's flaws and hypocrisies, democracy remains the best form of government.

Deeds must follow the words, for any of this to matter -- skepticism is high and resentments running hot over Gaza. During the seemingly endless period of "one president at a time," Arab observers pounced on every piece of evidence no matter how slim to prove that nothing would really change. It will take some real effort to begin to demonstrate the credibility and sincerity of this new way forward. But this is a good start.

1/23/09

Where Do We Go From Here?

In an editorial today, National Review criticizes yesterday's biggest story as being merely symbolic. In reality, they claim, Obama has seen the national security light and will continue detentions, interrogations and tribunals just as they were practiced under former-President Bush.
As a candidate, he railed against indefinite detention and praised the Clinton-era approach of trying terrorists in civilian courts. Now responsible for national security, Obama has come around to the understanding that there are people who, though known to pose grave danger, cannot be tried because our intelligence is not usable in civilian court.
That's one way of putting it. If most of our intelligence "is not usable in civilian court," it's because it was obtained through coercion. If you don't like the legal options available to President Obama, blame the Bush administration. They have placed us in grave danger by circumventing the law and short-circuiting any normal legal process. Now we have a seemingly insoluble problem.

But for once, I actually agree with the editors at National Review on something. I too am glad that although the symbolic gesture came yesterday, the more substantive decisions about how to proceed will be made after a full and careful review. But this shouldn't come as a shock; it was the position articulated by the transition team during the interregnum as well. At this point, proceeding blindly with nothing but our ideals could lead to catastrophe, but if people in our custody hadn't been abused in the first place, there wouldn't be any legal crisis.

Simply keeping people at Guantanamo forever--which, from what I can infer, is the preferred mode over at National Review--isn't an option. Something will have to be done to ensure fair trials conducted in a timely fashion, whether they happen in U.S. civilian courts or not.

Last fall, referring to the financial crisis, Barney Frank said that no solution can be more elegant than the problem. And this problem is definitely fucked.

1/22/09

The End!

The Washington Times reports:
President Obama on Thursday will order the closure of so-called black sites, where CIA and European security services have interrogated terrorist suspects, under executive orders dismantling much of the Bush administration's architecture for the war on terror, according to four individuals familiar with a draft executive order. ...

The individuals said there will be three executive orders. One will order the black sites closed and require all interrogations of detainees across the entire U.S. intelligence community to adhere to the U.S. Army Field Manual. ... Another executive order will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within 12 months, in accordance with an Obama campaign pledge. The final order deals with overall detention policy.

The orders discuss the status of the estimated 250 detainees at Guantanamo and what to do with them and calls for a series of reviews on the status of the prisoners and the military commissions set up to try them. The review will look at transferring prisoners to military facilities in the United States.

Say what?

In his interview with Steve Innskeep, House Minority Leader John Boehner defended his criticism of allocating funds from the economic recovery package to study global warming:
Remember, the goal of the stimulus package is to preserve jobs and help create new jobs in America. I don't know how giving NASA 400-million dollars to study global warming is going to meet the goals. We just gave the CIA, last year, a big chunk of money to study global warming.
What? Just how much money did we give to the CIA to study global warming?

Boehner's actual argument--i.e. studying global warming may not create new jobs--isn't all that far-fetched, but this bit about the CIA is absurd. It's hard to imagine there being much, if any, overlap between NASA's approach to studying global warming and the CIA's. (How many climatologists does the CIA employ?) Presumably, the Agency used the money to study the long-term effects of climate change on national security. Presumably.

1/21/09

"Missionary Muscularity"

It may employ my least favorite kind of cheap, rhetorical trick, but Benjamin Schwartz' article on President Obama's avowed foreign policy is still an eye-opener:

"Change” has been President-elect Barack Obama’s mantra, and for many of his supporters, the most important change his administration promises is a more restrained, less arrogant foreign policy... They’re exasperated with the messianic invocation of “America’s larger purpose in the world,” with the smug notion that this country is “called to provide visionary leadership” in “battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good.” They discern the dangers of declaring with righteous omniscience that America “has a direct national security interest” in seeing its economic and political beliefs take hold in foreign lands. ... In the claim that “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people,” they hear echoes of the universalist logic that led to the disaster in Vietnam and see a sweeping foreign policy that the rest of the world finds at best meddlesome and at worst menacingly imperialist.

These lofty but potentially dangerous sentiments are entirely consistent with George W. Bush’s assertion in his second Inaugural Address that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands” ... But the pronouncements quoted above—all of them—are in fact from Barack Obama’s two major foreign-policy statements, both made in 2007.

... With missionary muscularity, Obama says that the United States “shouldn’t shy away from pushing for more democracy … in Russia,” proposing an intrusion hardly conducive to smooth relations between two sovereign great powers. ... But Obama also asserts, correctly—and in the very next sentence—that America “must work with Russia” to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. He fails to apprehend how the pursuit of his first imperative stymies the second.

Schwartz may push quote-pulling to the point of misrepresentation to make his point--that a multi-polar world is both more desirable and, ultimately, more stable than American hegemony--but his warning against "missionary muscularity" should be taken seriously. Let his tale be cautionary, not prescient.

1/20/09

Say, Amen!

One of the highlights of the inaugural proceedings, the benediction by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery:

In Case You Missed It

Excerpts from the inaugural address of the 44th President of the United States of America:
We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. ...

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. ...

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. ...

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. ...

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it. ...

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. ...

1/19/09

No Matter What Happened Tuesday

I wanted to honor the last day of the Bush Presidency with one of my favorite performance pieces ever. This is just part 1:

1/17/09

Surviving the Arctic Blast

This past week the United States has been struggling with an extreme cold snap. Most people in the U.S. have been forced to deal with climatic conditions beyond their scope of resources. Electricity has gone out, school has been canceled, cars have stopped working, and regions that rarely dip below 32°F are enduring freezing temperatures.

Although the cold snap has been compared to the Arctic, our temperatures up here are still quite a bit colder. Lately we've been in the -40°F to -60°F range. At these temperatures even our insulated sewage pipes are bursting, but for the most part citizens are proceeding with life as usual. However, one group has become increasingly vulnerable.

Many people are surprised to learn that Arctic towns like Yellowknife have a homeless population. During the day the homeless people hang out in the entryways to businesses and spend time in the library or cafés. Unfortunately, unlike most towns and cities I've lived in down south, the problem up here is that there isn't a comprehensive support system for after business hours. Once the shops close down there are very few options. Yellowknife has four banks on Main Street with indoor ATM services. These spaces provide a warm shelter, but only temporarily. The law enforcement officers routinely patrol the main drag and force people to leave.

The one remaining option seems to be the vestibules for apartment buildings. I live in a downtown apartment that has one of these heated entryways. After 9pm there are generally about four people standing in the small space, trying to keep warm.

Usually there is a strong smell of alcohol in the space when I pass through. I do admit that at first this intimidated me because I know that use of alcohol can increase violence. But most people do not drink alcohol on cold nights because they are intending to cause physical harm. Alcohol makes the human body feel warm, even when it isn't.

Now I'm accustomed to the presence of my downstairs neighbors. Whenever I enter the building I take a few moments to chat with them. Showing a modicum of decency to them guarantees that they will also respect me and my requests. For example, one night one of the men tried to follow me into the building. While I hated barring entrance to him, there are signs all over the building underscoring the importance of respecting the living space by making sure that we only allow people we know personally onto the property. When I apologized to the man and said that I wasn't allowed to let him in, he immediately agreed that that would be against the rules and stayed in the entryway.

Two nights ago I was returning from a movie when I ran into a group of people in the vestibule. We chatted about the frigid weather for a minute. When I turned to go one of the men told me, "We promise that we'll leave really soon, we just had to get warm for a second." It was 9pm and no businesses would be open for 12 hours. The temperature was -40°F. I was confused about why he would say that he was leaving soon. Didn't he need a place to sleep all night? I assured him that he should stay as long as he needed to.

It wasn't until I had arrived in my apartment that I realized why he told me this. My neighbors must call the police to have the homeless people chased away from our building. While I understand the passing by a group of unknown people can be intimidating, this course of action is entirely unwarranted. Like all people, homeless people frequent familiar territory. The easiest way to avoid the problem of being intimidated by strangers is to make their acquaintances.

As I was relaying the story about being angry that my neighbors would call the police, a friend reminded me that most homeful people don't realize what limited options are available to people who are homeless. Even in cities with solid shelter systems, overcrowding is often a problem. In addition, there are many vulnerable populations for whom staying at a shelter is too dangerous.

When extreme cold hits an area, the homeless are at great risk for dying. Their only option for surviving may be to stand in the ATM that you'd like to use for a few minutes, or to huddle in the corner of the entryway to your building. As this cold wave sweeps across areas of the U.S. that are unaccustomed to frigid conditions, I'd like to point out that there are some who can't go home and curl up under a blanket. Instead of calling the police, try neutralizing any perceived threat by introducing yourself, or commenting on the weather, or offering predictions on the local sports teams. You'll most likely discover that the homeless people are just like you, only colder.

1/15/09

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury...

Nina Totenberg's jaw-dropping piece--something between a preamble for the prosecution and a sort of perverse, greatest hits list--takes a look back at Dick Cheney's "different understanding" of the Vice Presidency.

In the first term, Cheney reshaped national security law, expanded the prerogatives of the executive branch and orchestrated secret, warrantless domestic surveillance, circumventing a court set up by Congress specifically to oversee such surveillance. He presented the president with options that led to a shutdown of negotiations with North Korea, and played a major role in persuading President Bush to go to war against Iraq.

On the domestic front, he screened potential Supreme Court nominees, presided over the budget, led the selection of personnel from Cabinet officers to key lower-level positions. Without the president's knowledge, he engineered the rewriting of the president's tax bill so it included a capital gains tax break that the president had initially rejected. With the president's knowledge, he led an industry-friendly revamping of energy and environmental regulations.

You can read or listen to the rest here.

Don't Look Back

In a circumspect post, Guy Brookshire of Super Collide sums up the Bush years:
... no one could be a better president for an era which was marked by an incredible dumbing-down, a coarsening, of the socius. Celebrity culture, the culture of Greed, of the Sopranos, of Girls Gone Wild, of Entourage, of Paris Simpson and Lindsay Lohan, of Hummers and rehab, all seemed to fit perfectly with a population which was only too happy to make their MySpace page their homepage, plug their iPod earbuds into their heads, and get high in sweatpants while Bush made faces on CNN for their amusement. Sub-Prime Hedgefund Madoff schemes abounded, and the shoddy glitz of cheap everything bought with bad credit showered like trans-fatty manna, but it was all love of homeland when the microphones were on and the cameras were rolling. Contrasted with the sacrifice of brave soldiers or the suffering of our enemies, the America of Bush was Babylonian. And Bush's bull-headed bluster, his ability to laugh off tragedy or criminally oversimplify crucial issues was a perfect fit for a people who didn't want to face reality unless it was Reality TV. He was our president, and we deserved him, especially those who mocked him.
Bush may have been the perfect metonym for an intellectually uncurious nation, but it gives me great hope that the President-elect seems to have generated and then ridden a wave of political interest into office. Granted, some of that is manufactured or "MySpaced" interest, but it still strikes me as no small accomplishment that the country is following Cabinet appointments as though they were NFL draft picks. (Has NPR ever had live coverage of the Secretary of Agriculture's Senate confirmation hearings?)

If Bush was the President of the ignorant, the ignoble and the insolent--his critics too happy to pounce on pronunciation rather than policy, too quick to believe that stupidity could be the only reason anyone would disagree with them--let Obama be the President of the intellectually rigorous, the magnanimous and the humble. Let's refrain from disagreeing with people by calling them either insane or stupid. Let's talk to people who disagree with us--especially the ones whose disagreement is so strong that it borders on hate--and attempt to understand their worldview. Dismissing someone as irrelevant is the surest way to radicalize them.

And though it hurts me to hear President Bush say that America's image has only suffered in the eyes of "the Elite," perhaps he can say that because there is a large swath of the country that truly believes that there is an Elite and that it has abandoned or even betrayed them. Does it strike anyone as strange that people boo when they hear the words "New York Times"?

Let's do something about it.

1/13/09

Leighton Pierce Online

Experimental film- and video-maker Leighton Pierce has generously made a number of his early films available on Vimeo, a video-sharing sharing website.


Red Shovel from Leighton Pierce on Vimeo.

With its attention to nuance, Pierce's work creates a quiet space for contemplation. His films are carefully crafted--so well, in fact, that their apparent simplicity belies his mastery. While subtle, the images and sounds are lush, imbued with something perhaps best described as a translucent texture; you look and listen through them, brushing past them as you move forward in time. Or is it that Pierce caresses the light and what we feel is the effect of his light touch?

The films are, in a way, utterly lucid, concrete and comprehensible, but they retain a certain mystery. They are not realist works, and yet they insist upon the everyday. In this way, they are akin to the pragmatic poetry of William Carlos Williams.

While it is wonderful to have access to these works in high-quality, streaming video for free, there is no substitute for the subtleties of the medium in which they were originally created. 16mm film prints can be rented from Canyon Cinema.

(Hat tip: Ryan Philippi)

1/12/09

Playing the Blame Game: Prop 8 Rears Its Head

Shortly after the November 2008 election I wrote the following essay in response to the tensions flaring between various communities in California around the issue of the passage of Proposition 8 (banning gay marriage).

Recently The Atlantic published this article about new data that has become available.

In response, or at least in the interest of continuing the conversation, I have decided to post the essay that I wrote in November.

The Blame Game

Whenever loss occurs it is natural to look for an explanation. Ever since the election last week figures have been thrown around about what percentage of black constituents in California voted for Prop 8. Some estimates were as high as 70%. Later that figure was disputed and estimated to be much closer to the statewide average of 52%. Regardless of the exact number, fierce debate has been sparked between the black and gay community in terms of voting reciprocity around issues of civil rights. Many op-ed articles that I’ve read have been venomous. But, predictably, voices of ‘reason’ have begun calling for an end to the ‘blame game,’ alleging that it only serves to divide our communities.

Here’s an example that I received via email yesterday:

“But in recent days there has been a tendency to assign blame to specific communities, in particular, the African American community. The fact is, 52 percent of all Californians, the vast majority of whom were not African Americans, voted against us. In addition, the most recent analysis of the exit poll that drove much of this speculation determined that it was too small to draw any conclusion on the African American vote, and further polling shows that the margin was much closer than first reported. Most importantly, though, none of this discourse changes the outcome of the vote. It only serves to divide our community and hinder our ability to create a stronger and more diverse coalition to help us overturn Proposition 8 and restore full equality and human rights to LGBT people.”

- Letter sent by NCLR (on 11/14/08) and signed by numerous GLBT and people of color community leaders

I wholeheartedly disagree that this line of discourse should cease. We have long known that large groups of people working in concert are usually able to affect more change than small groups operating without allies. But the fervent desire of various coalitions to work together without honestly discussing points of friction has resulted in smoldering rage that can flare dangerously in times of crisis. This is one of those times, and it would be to everyone’s benefit to seize this as an opportunity rather than continuing to idealistically assert that communities can become better allies by intentionally ignoring points of tension.

An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on November 8th articulated some of these frustrations. Jasmyne A. Cannick, who identifies as a black lesbian, wrote:

“At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue.”

She goes on to say that it is a mark of privilege that white gay people can spend so much time and money on an issue that isn’t a matter of survival. While there is much to be said in regards to the importance of marriage insomuch as it allows people to protect themselves and their families both financially and psychologically, this is not the aspect of her piece that I would like to focus on.

Cannick clearly views the fight for marriage equality as one being waged by and for middle and upper class white people. She does not see herself as a part of this homosexual community, despite being a lesbian, because she feels a racial and class divide. While she conflates race and class in her argument, it is important to look at each of these factors in tandem as well as separately, and the issue of gender should not be ignored.

The movement for gay rights began with gender normative middle and upper class white men. This is not to say that people outside of this demographic weren’t trying to fight for rights, but being that they didn’t have the same access to resources that the rich white men had, they gained traction much more slowly. Many of them tried to join forces with the well to do white men. However, the fathers of the gay movement had a huge stake in keeping other people out. Their plan for attaining rights was to convince the American public that they were just like everyone else, and therefore not a threat to the mainstream way of life.

Any body that didn’t embody these normative values was a threat to the gay men’s argument. This meant that they refused entrance to effeminate men, almost all women and definitely all butches, people of color, those with disabilities, and the poor. Whether we’d like people to remember this or not, the gay movement as we know it was birthed from bigotry.

While other factions of the GLBT community have fought tirelessly to empower themselves and join the larger movement, there continues to be a co-opting and morphing that happens to the narratives of divergent bodies. For example, the conflict at Stonewall has become a national story of resistance for gay and lesbians. The Pride celebrations that take place in June are scheduled loosely around the anniversary of the uprising. What very few resources on the subject will reveal is that the people who fought against the police at Stonewall were primarily homeless transgender youth of color who were completely fed up with the impossibility of survival.

Similarly, the feminist movement, which informed the lesbian feminist movement, has a long history of speaking for all women without allowing all women to speak. When white women decided that they were tired of staying home and wanted to enter the workplace, they imagined that all women had the same experiences as them. They failed to recognize that women of color had always been working jobs out of necessity. In order to go to work the white women had to find someone to take care of their children and houses. These domestic responsibilities fell to the women of color who were not being invited to apply for the jobs that the white feminists were creating for themselves.

The tactic of gaining rights on the back of the rest of the community continues today. At the federal level there is still no employment protection for gay and lesbian people. Likewise, there are no protections for transgender individuals. While it would make sense to fight for both protections simultaneously, many gay and lesbian people have been vehemently opposed to combining efforts. They argue that American people aren’t ready to protect transgender people, but they may be ready to protect gay and lesbian people, so instead of transgender people jeopardizing the gays’ and lesbians’ chances to have protection, the transgender people should stop demanding rights for themselves.

This brings me back to Cannick’s assertion that the gay people who want marriage equality are all privileged and white and don’t have more significant civil rights concerns for themselves. This conceptualization is indicative not of the actual demographic, but of the image that the GLBT movement continues to project about its constituency.

In fact, many of the same oppressions and hurdles that plague the black community are also continuing to destroy transgender people. (Transgender in its broadest definition describes someone whose gender presentation does not align with the traditional expectations of their biological sex. This includes people who cross-dress, transsexuals, masculine women, effeminate men, and many other permutations of human identity.) Recent figures have reported that over 60% of transgender people have never made more than $19,000 in a year. This percentage is certainly in line with my personal experience of employment as a transgender person. In addition, we have no right to job or housing protection. We are profiled and arrested disproportionately. We are refused health insurance and care. And many of us can’t get married, so not only can’t we protect ourselves, we can’t protect our families.

Among this list of disparities that are enforced through federal action (or inaction as the case may be), marriage is not the right that I would choose on my own to fight hardest for. But the opportunity to have even a sliver more protection is better than none at all, and I’ve clung to it. I recognize that there is more interest for this right within the GLBT community because it affects all of us, rather than just those of us who are transgender. This was why the passing of Prop 8 was so upsetting for me. If even marriage can’t pass, then I know that my right to safe housing, a job that pays a cost of living wage, healthcare so I can protect my body, and dissipation of police brutality will be a long time in coming.

On election night I cried with grief during Obama’s acceptance speech because the change that he so impassionedly spoke of seemed not to have come for me. The political pundits for days afterward were asking everyone whether prejudice in the U.S. was dead. The general consensus seemed to be that as a nation we had defeated our demons. This alarmed me in light of the struggles that continue in much of the GLBT community, and it also alarmed me in light of what I know about the dire situation that continues in communities of color. At this time when we are balancing on the precipice of possibility for a real alteration in the social landscape of the U.S., I am concerned about who will be forgotten.

The gay movement has been effective in creating and sustaining a myth that all GLBT people are well off and white. This story has been so deeply ingrained that someone who is a lesbian, but black, can feel that gay people who want rights are so privileged that their concerns should be secondary. Will the myth of a black president connoting the end of racism be just as damaging to movements within people of color communities?

These fears lead me to feel that people of color should be my closest allies at this point in history. The transgender community and black community share many of the same oppressions, although the ways that we have arrived at this juncture are different. When I hear or read that black people disproportionately, or even proportionately, voted against my rights, I do feel betrayed. I cannot understand why the people who I have lived on the streets with, and starved with, and worked the minimum wage jobs with, would want to deny me rights.

What it takes for me to find the answer is not the conciliatory words of leaders who are in power, but the desperately angry words of people who aren’t in the most privileged positions. Cannick’s dismissive stance on any rights as secondary, and positioning of gay marriage as so unimportant that she didn’t feel black people should vote for it, made me wonder about the origins of this anger. It wasn’t until I read her piece that I began synthesizing what I knew of the history of the gay rights movement with her reaction. Why would someone who has constantly been degraded, used, dismissed and rendered invisible by a movement that claims to be about her, want to collude in any way with that movement’s objectives? And what is meant as a rhetorical question suddenly becomes very personal. Wait a minute, why do I?

This is what the leaders of most movements want to avoid. It is safer to pledge alliances and promise to work for each other’s causes without admitting that all movements have histories of exclusion and subjugation. It is difficult to apologize and atone while struggling with oppression that threatens your survival. It is easier to tack terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ onto the mission statement than it is to take responsibility for the origins of movements that began before any of us were alive. But studiously avoiding the blame game will never solve this problem.

What we need is honesty, and oftentimes we are trying so valiantly to embody the ideals that we believe in, that we don’t realize our subconscious fears and rage. Sometimes it takes periods of conflict, with accusations flying in every direction, for us to articulate the beliefs and feelings that we want so badly to repress out of existence. How can I know that people really view the GLBT community as being rich and privileged, when I have been chronically homeless for six years as a result of being transgender? How can the black community recognize that GLBT people don’t get the difference between their civil rights movement and ours, until we’re shouting about it?

We cannot waste this opportunity to actually learn from one another. Let’s articulate our anger, quote the information we think we have, and express the betrayal we feel. Then let us listen and be willing to seek out the correct information. Obama’s election does not indicate the end of a journey to reach safer ground. His presidency is only the inertia we need to begin running. Let’s not squander the force he has enacted on our country’s body. The marathon will of necessity be painful, but at the finish line we will truly be able to say, “We have won.”



1/10/09

"An Unmitigated Blessing"

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, blogs for Foreign Policy. He writes, "The way this crisis is playing out shows the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated 'global terrorist front'."
Israel's assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda. If Hamas "wins", then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies ... and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas "loses", al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel's hands ... Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration -- potentially severely blunting the challenge which al-Qaeda clearly felt after [Obama's] election ...
From al-Qaeda's perspective ... Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions ... Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage (and, from what anyone can tell, ignoring stations that don't offer similar coverage), the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments.
Read the rest here. (Hat tip: Jeffrey Goldberg)

1/9/09

Matthew Yglesias has written an intelligent column on the U.S. and Israel for The American Prospect:
Unfortunately, taking large political risks with relatively little chance of political reward even if you succeed isn't the sort of thing most politicians like to do. But that's exactly what Barack Obama is going to need to do if he wants to make a difference in this long-festering problem that endlessly complicates everything else we want to do in the Middle East.
(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

1/8/09

The Harder They Fall

Today on NPR's Marketplace, Charles Handy explains why "too big to fail" is just too big.


Here's that Adam Smith quote:
...a profitable speculation is presented as a public good because growth will stimulate demand and everywhere diffuse comfort and improvement. No patriot or man of feeling could therefore oppose it. But the nature of this growth, in opposition, for example, to liberal ideas such as cultivation, is that it is undirected and infinitely self-generating in the endless demand for all the useless things in the world.

"Everything is just a few hundred clicks away."


Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

1/7/09

Grow the Middle Class

Yglesias, arguing against the Heritage Foundation's proposed war on the poor:
...the idea of tax-side stimulus is to put money in the hands of individuals with a high propensity to spend the money — thus giving businesses more customers and creating labor market demand so that unemployed people can find jobs. Extending tax measures that overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest taxpayers doesn’t fit the bill...
Indeed. As Robert Reich once remarked, it doesn't make any sense to give money to the rich hoping that they use it to buy things. That's what it means to be rich: you can already buy whatever you want.

After the last eight years, can anyone still seriously tout trickle down economics with a straight face?

Reich, from a September post:
Unless or until America's broad middle class has more money in its pockets -- because we get a more progressive tax system, because unions become more powerful and push prevailing wages upward, because employers finally understand what Henry Ford understood a century ago (unless workers have enough money to buy the products they're making, the products won't sell) -- this downturn is likely to last a long time.

Interesting New Blog

A new blog by Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt is specifically dedicated to foreign policy from a realist's perspective.

Panetta Part 2

Steve Coll, writing for The New Yorker, is ambivalent about Panetta:
...the C.I.A. director has four important jobs: manage the White House relationship; manage Congress, particularly to obtain budgetary favor; manage the agency’s workforce and daily operations; and manage liaisons with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly. Panetta is thoroughly qualified for the first two functions but unqualified for the latter two. He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder.
(Hat tip: Sullivan)

1/6/09

Some Links on the Panetta Pick

Leon Panetta, President-elect Obama's pick to head the Central Intelligence Agency, has been raising eyebrows since the story broke yesterday. As Guy Brookshire put it, "This comes as a surprise to everyone. No one has written, 'dark horse Leon Panetta.' This comes out of left field."

Here are links to some various voices--left, right and center:

Los Angeles Times article

Guy Brookshire on Panetta, the Republicrat centrist.

Michael Ledeen (an unlikely ally) on Panetta the veteran and veteran lawyer.

Matthew Yglesias on Panetta's relevant experience, especially as White House Chief of Staff.

Rush Holt, House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel chair, via Spencer Ackerman.

And Andrew Sullivan has been updating the trail of bread crumbs all morning.

1/4/09

Reaping What We Sow

Whoever thought unchecked executive power and domestic spying were good ideas, I've got a news story for you.

The Maryland State Police surveillance of advocacy groups was far more extensive than previously acknowledged, with records showing that troopers monitored -- and labeled as terrorists -- activists devoted to such wide-ranging causes as promoting human rights and establishing bike lanes.

Intelligence officers created a voluminous file on Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calling the group a "security threat" because of concerns that members would disrupt the circus. Angry consumers fighting a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006 were targeted. The DC Anti-War Network, which opposes the Iraq war, was designated a white supremacist group, without explanation.

Just to make it easier for us to be outraged, apparently the Maryland police accused Amnesty International with the dubious crime: "civil rights."

But, at least one good thing did come out of this:
The Maryland State Police have changed their policies and plan to solicit advice from the ACLU, the General Assembly, prosecutors and police about regulations that would raise the bar for intelligence-gathering to "reasonable suspicion" of a crime.
Hopefully, other law enforcement agencies will take note.

(Hat tip: Yglesias)

1/3/09

Photo Finish

Senator Franken? (Hat tip: Yglesias)

1/2/09

New Year: New Economy

The new year is here and hopefully with it a new attitude towards the environment. Some important end-of-the-year news items reiterate why reducing our environmental impact is a necessity.

Discover magazine put out a list of the top 100 science stories of the year. "Slime Is Turning the Seas Into Dead Zones" came in at #4. It's a terrifying and complicated problem involving overfishing, global warming and fertilizer runoff:

The Chesapeake Bay is a prominent victim of this devilish synergy. Giant oyster reefs there have long since been harvested, as have the menhaden. Scallop and clam fisheries have also collapsed, in part because the overfishing of sharks has set off a population explosion of rays, which eat mollusks. The mollusks and menhaden were the bay’s filters, cleaning its waters of microscopic plants called phytoplankton. Now fertilizer runoff from fields and lawns and excrement from pig and chicken farms are causing the plants to proliferate. So is the warming of the water.


As excess plant matter sinks to the seafloor, microbes rot it and suck oxygen out of the water in the process. The hypoxia suffocates seafloor animals.
The Economist recently likened climate change to an asteroid hurtling towards the earth. The article also discusses one of the most interesting ideas for combating climate change: paying poor nations not to destroy their forests. The cost of such a plan would be relatively low, especially when compared to the idiotic, technocentric ideas that have so far been floated.

It is promising that President-elect Obama has proposed that greener energy be a part of any economic stimulus package, but incremental improvements will only take us so far. Given the scope and urgency of the situation, a more fundamental change is necessary.

Many reports on the current economic crisis emphasize that consumer spending is down and that consumption must resume at a pre-recession pace for the economy to restore its health; NPR's Marketplace daily admonishes us for not buying enough. While nursing the sick economy back to health is certainly important, perhaps we should consider the environmental impact that all of that consumer spending has before we implore everyone to go shopping again. As Jonathan Rowe testified to Congress, it's crazy to measure the economy only in terms of how much money moves around. Without measuring what resources were expended in the process or even how the money itself was spent, we have an incomplete, and therefore inaccurate, picture of the economy. He continues:
...the national accounts leave out a crucial dimension of the economy–the part that exists outside the realm of monetary exchange. This segment includes both the ecosystem and the social system–the life-supporting functions of the oceans and atmosphere, for example, and work within families and communities that is not done for money. So when the monetized economy displaces these elements–as when both parents have to work, or when forest clearing eliminates the cleansing function of trees–the losses are not subtracted against the market gain.
If the consumer economy is broken, don't fix it. Instead, we should be spending our energy (and our money) generating new ideas about how to create wealth in a way that is less environmentally destructive. Relying on people to buy cheap, disposable goods shipped from great distances is simply not sustainable. And, as Rowe points out, it's also unrealistic. The real costs--dead oceans, no ice caps, deforestation--far outweigh the profits.

In the future, we'll need to have our ears to the ground (and eyes on the internet) for any ideas that reduce our energy consumption or reuse the waste we've already created. We need a lot more solutions like this:

1/1/09

Happy New Year

Here, you can see New Year's Eve through the ages as portrayed by Magnum's photographers.

And here, you can find another incredible group of photos by Magnum featuring celebrities who passed away in 2008.

Happy New Year.