Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Getting Paid to be Contrarian is One Thing....

Part of how you get commentary published, it seems, is coming at issues from an angle that at least some of your audience hasn't seen before. But sometimes, perhaps often, the angle tells us more about the person writing the commentary than about the issue they're addressing. Case in point, Megan McArdle's self-described counter-factual on why she would have preferred for Hillary Clinton to have won the 2008 election. The first counter-factual,
I think that Hillary Clinton would have been more cautious when dealing with Republicans, and therefore ultimately more successful in some ways. At the very least, she would not be facing the same level of vehement opposition in Congress.
Certainly there is no reason to believe that the Republicans would have opposed Hillary Clinton, ginned up fake controversies over her past or present actions, or ridiculed and sabotaged her health care reform. That is, if you ignore pretty much everything in Hillary Clinton's past, as it relates to the Republican Party. The party that is still wailing "Benghazi!" would have been deferential to Hillary Clinton? Really?
I think liberals really do not understand emotionally the extent to which the Tea Party was created by the Affordable Care Act and the feeling that its government was simply steamrolling it.
Except that the Tea Party movement did not grow out of healthcare reform. It grew out of the financial industry collapse and bail-out. It was carefully steered in the direction of healthcare reform through Republican demagoguery and strategic misinformation. There is absolutely no reason to believe that they would not have been led to oppose modest healthcare reform, or that their energies would not have been directed at other significant initiatives -- as has actually occurred with issues such as immigration reform.

(One suspects that McArdle has spent little if any time talking to actual liberals.)
From the Tea Party's perspective, you had an unpopular program that should have died in the same way, and for the same reasons, that Social Security privatization did: because sensible politicians saw that, no matter how ardently they and their base might desire it, this was out of step with what the majority of the country wanted (and no, you cannot rescue the polls by claiming that the only problem with the law was that it wasn’t liberal enough; when you dig down into what people mean when they say that, the idea that there was ever a majority or a plurality that was secretly in favor of Obamacare collapses).
Except... no. Social Security privatization died because the then-President's own party wouldn't get behind it. We're talking there about something that was easily recognized as benefiting a relative few, those privileged with "managing" our money, while creating significant risks for everybody else. While it's reasonable to say that you cannot sustain an argument that a "more liberal" plan would have been more popular, that question is moot for the same reason that the question of Social Security privatization is moot -- a "more liberal" plan would not have been voted into law. If you look at the actual content of the PPACA, other than the mandate (which we all know to be a necessary aspect of keeping private insurance companies on board while requiring them to insure people with pre-existing conditions) you'll find that the individual components of the bill are largely popular. You'll find that the most contentious aspects of the bill, such as "death panels", are Republican fabrications.
The rage was similar to what progressives felt as they watched George W. Bush push the country into a war in Iraq. That defined and animated the anti-war movement (which is why said movement collapsed when Bush left office, and not, say, when Bush agreed to a staged withdrawal of our forces).
For the most part, the anti-war movement collapsed when the war started. Whatever anti-war movement continued after that point was quite modest. Also, no, the rage and demonstrable ignorance of the Tea Party was nothing like what one saw in a typical anti-war protest, nor were Democratic politicians out, en masse, pushing misinformation or refusing to correct misinformation embraced by anti-war protesters.
Yes, those people would still have hated Republicans, even if there had been no Iraq War. But they would not have been as passionate, as organized or as powerful without it.
Who are "those people"? When I look at the Tea Party, I see a movement that has sent ripples through the Republican Party, has toppled incumbent politicians and had its own elected in their place, and has caused some of the most absurdly ignorant people to be elected to Congress since... I'm not sure when. The anti-war movement, by way of comparison, unsuccessfully advocated against the Iraq war and then... nothing? I'm not even sure where McArdle comes up with her canard that the anti-war protesters "hated Republicans", but hers seems to be a classic "hollow man" argument -- putting words into the mouths of "those people" in order to easily swat down an argument that few (if any) made, rather than having to address actual people and actual arguments. Counter-factual, indeed.
Liberals tend to write off this anger as racism, as irrational hatred of Barack Obama, or as perverse joy in denying health care to the poor, but at its root, it’s the simpler feeling that your country is making a mistake and you can’t stop it because the people in charge are ignoring the obvious.
It's not an "either, or". You (and by "you" I apparently mean, "anybody except McArdle") can recognize the actual racist statements and actions of people associated with the Tea Party, and can recognize the racism implicit in birtherism, the suggestion that President Obama is not a "full blooded" American, and the like, while also recognizing that the Tea Party is at its heart a fear-driven organization. It was quite obvious that when the Tea Party was screeching about death panels, or carrying around signs to the effect of, "Keep your government hands off of my Medicare", that they were afraid of change. It was also apparent that they were not approaching the issues in a rational manner, and that the monied interests and Republican politicians affiliated with the movement liked it that way.
Yes, a lot of money and energy was poured into the Tea Party by rich backers, but rich backers cannot create a grassroots campaign unless the underlying passion is there in the voters (paging Karl Rove and Crossroads). The Obama administration created that passion with Obamacare.
That, again, is nonsense. There's an element of truth to the notion that you can't astroturf your way into a massive grassroots movement, but what anybody but McArdle would have noticed is that the monied interests she mentions spotted an early opportunity to co-opt and direct the anger of the Tea Party movement. Those backers weren't interested in stopping the financial industry bailout. They were -- and remain -- interested in harming Obama's agenda. As with Mitch McConnell's stated goal, the priority was to try to make Obama a one-term president. They were not interested in educating Tea Party members about the issues -- to the contrary, they helped maintain a constant feed of misinformation. They would have been every bit as interested in harming Hillary Clinton's agenda.
I think that Hillary Clinton would have pulled back when Rahm Emanuel (or his counterfactual Clinton administration counterpart) told her that this was a political loser and she should drop it.
That may be true, but where McArdle sees that as a good thing I do not. Why not? Because unlike McArdle, who likely enjoys platinum quality employer-provided health benefits and sits on considerable family wealth, I actually needed to purchase insurance for my family. The PPACA permitted me to purchase insurance of a quality comparable to a good employer-sponsored plan at a fair price -- not necessarily at a cost savings over the cost of such a plan but with a more favorable pricing structure than what I had paid for COBRA coverage. Between the expiration of my COBRA coverage and the January 1 start date of the PPACA, I purchased a comparatively overpriced plan on the individual market, riddled with exclusions, and had to deal with the absurd arguments that insurance companies use to jack up premiums over "pre-existing conditions". For people not as lucky as McArdle, that's a big [Biden's Word] deal.
I’ve written before about how my Twitter feed filled up with comparisons to 1932 the night that Obama took the presidency, and it’s quite clear to me that the Obama administration shared what you might call delusions of FDR. It thought that it was in a transformative, historical moment where the normal rules of political caution didn’t apply. The administration was wrong, and the country paid for that.
So McArdle has looked down her nose at Obama from the start? And the country has "paid for" the president's pressing forward with the high-priority Democratic agenda item, healthcare reform, by actually getting healthcare reform? The horror!
That’s not to say that Republicans would have somehow been all kissy-kissy with Clinton -- they weren’t very nice to her husband, after all.
Not very nice.... That's quite a way to describe the constant attacks, inquisitorial approach to his background, and the use of impeachment as a political tool.
But I doubt she would have had the debt ceiling debacle or the deep gridlock of the last four years, because it was Obamacare that elected a fresh new class of deeply ideological Republicans who thought they were having their own transformative political movement, and they were willing to do massive damage to their party, their own political fortunes and, in my opinion, to the country in order to take a stand against “business as usual” -- business that included legislating or paying our bills.
Because using the debt ceiling as political theater, and shutting down the government, was something that the Republicans never dreamed of doing when Bill Clinton was President. That is, if we're again using the term "counter-factual" to mean, "ignoring indisputable fact." Further, if McArdle believes her own argument about the increasing polarization of the electorate, and was paying any attention to the likely outcome of the election, the difference is at most one of (slight) degree -- the odds of the Democrats holding the House were vanishingly small, and one would have expected the Republicans voted into formerly Democratic seats to be part of a new partisan wave. Predictably, McArdle offers no acknowledgement of the fact that the Democrats held the Senate, or the fact that a smaller Democratic loss in the House would not have changed the subsequent power dynamic in which House Republicans refuse not only to compromise, but refuse to legislate.

Besides, I thought McArdle was taking the position that the problem was healthcare reform, not the debt driven by the economic meltdown and financial industry bailout. Why does McArdle believe that the Tea Party would have ignored the issues that underlie their genesis, and become complacent in relation to the bail-out, but for healthcare reform? If they were so obsessed with healthcare reform, how is it that they (mistakenly?) voted into office those who chose to focus on the debt ceiling and force a government shut-down? For that matter, the Republican Party could have easily bypassed its relatively small number of Tea Party members and passed a funding bill, simply by allowing a funding bill to reach the floor -- so how is it that this isn't a problem inside the Republican Party, as opposed to one supposedly driven almost exclusively by the President's being Barack Obama instead of Hillary Clinton?
Of course, in my counterfactual, Hillary also probably wouldn’t have proposed ambitious health-care reform; she’d have done something more modest, like a Medicaid expansion.
More modest... except had McArdle been paying any attention to the Tea Party, she would have heard them complain about any program that directs money to the undeserving poor. She might have noticed the right-wing demagoguery over SCHIP, a program to insure children. She might have even noticed that Republican governors have gone out of their way -- to the point of litigating the issue to the Supreme Court -- to avoid accepting free money to expand Medicaid.
To my mind, however, that would have been a much better outcome for everyone. So there’s my counterfactual for the summer: If Hillary Clinton had won, Obamacare wouldn’t have happened, and Democrats -- and the country -- would be better off.
I'm sure that when McArdle and her husband offer their wealthy friends cocktails, perhaps with some sort of dipping sauce McArdle whips up herself in her Thermomix, that's the sort of observation that makes them chuckle. To notice how the PPACA helps actual people? That's beneath her notice. I don't personally believe that Hillary Clinton would have embraced McArdle's notion of modesty, or that she would have so easily folded on a more ambitious plan when faced with Republican opposition -- if I were to accept that counter-factual, I think we have to include the probability that Clinton would have been viewed within her own party as a failure, and would likely have faced a primary challenge after her first term. As Clinton would not have found that acceptable, it's reasonable to conclude that she would have found a way to stick to her guns.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Second-Guessing of Obama

Before reading Jackson Diehl's latest editorial, I had come to two basic opinions in relation to the current set of accusations against President Obama: First, that the accusation that the President is indecisive on issues of military intervention is largely a canard. When the choice is to intervene or to refrain from intervening, and the U.S. refrains from intervening, you don't need a clear statement from the President, "We're not intervening at this time" in order to figure things out. Second, that the people who were criticizing the President for not being sufficiently decisive were, in fact, the same people who would prefer that our nation err on the side of military intervention.

I do concede that the President's messaging can be wanting, a problem that has existed from the start of his Presidency, as even when nuance and cautious explanation is warranted it can be better for a President's pronouncements on a conflict to be clear and definitive. "We're not intervening in [Nation] at this time because, [brief explanation], but we leave the door open to future intervention if [contingency]" -- for example, "We're not intervening in Iraq at this time, as we believe that our support for the Iraqi government and military, as well as for the Kurds, is sufficient to hold back ISIL, but we will reconsider our position if ISIL continues to advance in Iraq," or, "While we hope that the Iraqi Army will be able to protect the Yazidi people with our continued support, we will call upon our allies and engage in direct military action if that is what becomes necessary to prevent genocide."

Reading Jackson Diehl's editorial, my first thought was, "I doubt that's what the President actually said" -- at least in context. Sometimes a president will make statements in a speech, or in response to a question at a press conference, that don't make much sense -- that can happen to anybody. But the words Diehl ascribes to the President, while using rather inflammatory adjectives, immediately struck me as having been stripped from their larger context,
"What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision."

These words, marrying petulance and implausibility, were spoken by President Obama when he was asked, shortly after the beginning of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, whether he regretted withdrawing all U.S. troops from the country during his first term. "That entire analysis is bogus and is wrong," was his startling answer.
Here's the actual exchange:
What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision. Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government. In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice -- which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were -- a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.

Having said all that, if in fact the Iraqi government behaved the way it did over the last five, six years, where it failed to pass legislation that would reincorporate Sunnis and give them a sense of ownership; if it had targeted certain Sunni leaders and jailed them; if it had alienated some of the Sunni tribes that we had brought back in during the so-called Awakening that helped us turn the tide in 2006 -- if they had done all those things and we had had troops there, the country wouldn’t be holding together either. The only difference would be we’d have a bunch of troops on the ground that would be vulnerable. And however many troops we had, we would have to now be reinforcing, I’d have to be protecting them, and we’d have a much bigger job. And probably, we would end up having to go up again in terms of the number of grounds troops to make sure that those forces were not vulnerable.

So that entire analysis is bogus and is wrong. But it gets frequently peddled around here by folks who oftentimes are trying to defend previous policies that they themselves made.
Let me also add that I appreciate Tom Ricks' evolution on the question of a residual force -- that at first he thought it would have been desirable to keep a residual U.S. combat force in Iraq, but as the situation has worsened he came to realize that such a force would have been inadequate -- and that the U.S. would have been forced to choose between a significant deployment of additional forces or withdrawing from the conflict, neither of which would have been positive outcomes. Obama's statement inclues a similar analysis. Diehl is among those who continue to quibble over the decision to withdraw combat forces, a decision that the President correctly notes was in fact made by the prior administration and was forced by Iraq's refusal to agree to an acceptable status of forces agreement -- and while it may be true that the President didn't go all-out to twist Maliki's arm to allow combat forces to remain, even in hindsight that does not appear to have been a bad decision. Unless, that is, you would prefer that we now have 50,000 combat troops in Iraq, actively fighting on behalf of Maliki in a renewed civil war.

The analysis that the President stated was "bogus" was the absurd notion that keeping a residual combat force in Iraq would have prevented the nation from experiencing the problems that it has experienced as a result of its poor governance under Maliki. Diehl, to his discredit, purports that the President said that it was "bogus" that it was his decision not to try to force Maliki and Iraq to allow for the continued presence of combat forces, or to maintain combat troops in Iraq as a hostile force that was neither welcomed nor extended any legal protection by the (supposedly) sovereign government of Iraq.

Given that Diehl criticizes the Bush Administration for "resist[ing] the conclusion that his toppling of Saddam Hussein had been a mistake and the subsequent occupation was disastrously managed", I thought I would take a look for a column in which he apologized for his own cheerleading of that war and admitted his own mistakes. The closest I found was this,
The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has prompted plenty of analysis of the mistakes made there, along with a few tendentious claims that “the same people” who supported war in Iraq are now pressing for U.S. intervention in Syria. I’m one of those people. So, to paraphrase the polemicists: Did I learn nothing from the last decade? Do I want to repeat the Iraq “fiasco”?
Diehl then argues vociferously for military intervention in Iraq because he believes it will be different than the result iof intervention in Syria, speculating, "As in the Balkans — or Libya — the limited use of U.S. airpower and collaboration with forces on the ground could have quickly put an end to the Assad regime 18 months ago, preventing 60,000 deaths and rise of al-Qaeda." Students of history might object, "But, even acknowledging that they helped, it was not actually the air strikes that turned things around in the Balkans, and the aftermath of toppling Qadaffi has destabilized the region and created a host of new security and humanitarian problems." Diehl similarly waxes poetic about "The Surge" and what it supposedly accomplished, despite the fact that the reality is far more complex, and that it was local outreach that helped calm the civil war much more than more boots on the ground. Diehl sneers, "Like the failed U.S. commanders who preceded Gen. David Petraeus, Obama argues that 'there’s no American military solution' in Iraq", as if what we're seeing is an entirely new civil war, and not a civil war that had its roots in prior ethnic conflicts -- not just the civil war that occurred under U.S. occupation, but a history of ethnic, religious and tribal rivalries that started well before Iraq was even a nation state.

This appears to be the answer to his second question, "Do I want to repeat the Iraq 'fiasco'?":
The problem here is not that advocates of the Iraq invasion have failed to learn its lessons. It is that opponents of that war, starting with Obama, have learned the wrong ones.
Frankly, that non-answer was foreshadowed by his use of scare quotes around the word "fiasco". There's nothing in his editorial that suggest that Diehl learned anything from the Iraq intervention, or that it has at all colored his apparent predisposition to shoot first and ask questions later. Although a year later he seems more willing to suggest that the Iraq invasion was "a mistake" for which others should take responsibility, I see no sign that he's reconsidered his own pro-war stance.

Diehl closes with this:
This is not to argue that Obama should dispatch hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops to the region. The point is that a doctrine whose first priority is avoiding U.S. engagement is bound to fail. The goal must be offensive: to defeat those forces that are destroying Iraq and Syria, from the Islamic State to the homicidal regime of Bashar al- Assad. That can be accomplished only with U.S. military and political leadership. And it will require Obama to accept the conclusion he still bitterly resists: that he was wrong.
So... Diehl wants the President to admit that he was "wrong" to not somehow force the presence of a continued combat force in Iraq, or to maintain such troops in the absence of a status of forces agreement? Yet he offers nothing to refute the President's expression that the presence of a combat force would not have rendered Maliki's government any more effective, or Ricks' concerns about an ultimate forced choice of "retreat or take sides and escalate" in the face of civil war?

Leaving aside for the moment that there's far more evidence of error by Diehl than by Obama, whether we're talking about Diehl's urging war in Iraq, his errors of history, or his misrepresentation of the President's statement, Diehl offers here an argument, not a valid conclusion. Diehl falls into the category of pundits who argue that if the President [did something] then we would be looking at an outcome that is better than what we are presently experiencing. This brand of pundit is awful at explaining what the President should have done, or why it would be expected to bring about a better outcome. Let's say that the President had followed Diehl's wish that he topple the Assad regime and assume that what followed would be more stable and more friendly to the west.

Should we recall that ISIL, the entity that moved into Iraq and has renewed that nation's civil war, was a powerful enemy of the Assad regime? Does Diehl truly believe that weaker entities in Syria would have been able to unite and stabilize the country and militarily defeat groups like ISIL? Why should we believe that the attacks Diehl desired would not have led to the same sort of destabilization and fragmentation that we saw in the former Yugoslavia, but with much more profound consequences for the region? In the same sort of military and humanitarian crises we've seen following the intervention in Libya? In the rise of ISIL as the dominant military and political force in Syria, with its tendrils extending into Lebanon and Iraq? Wherever you may find answers to questions of that sort, it won't be from Diehl.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Gerson Wants to Intervene in Syria, But Can't Explain How

When I read Michael Gerson complain that the United States hasn't done enough in Syria, I think he's being genuine. My problem with his columns is that they show an astonishing lack of thought about the subject, and a complete lack of understanding or appreciation for why most oppose the type of intervention he desires. If anything makes me question his sincerity, it's his dishonest characterization of the President's position:
When the rebellion was a broad, non-radical uprising — the dead in Caesar’s photos — President Obama did almost nothing to help. When radical groups gained momentum, it became an excuse for further inaction, because America didn’t want to create jihadists. We got the jihadists anyway, who are now causing regional havoc. At every stage, Obama defended his policy with false choices and flanking attacks on straw men: Any critics of his minimalism wanted Marines in Damascus. And when he eventually adopted the policy recommended by many of his critics — aid to the responsible rebels — it was very late.
Were Gerson to educate himself, he would become aware that the White House has attempted to identify, train and arm "responsible rebels" since 2012, and weapons and equipment have been provided for almost a year. Gerson works from the assumption that Syria is overflowing with easily identified U.S.-friendly rebels, with sufficient numbers and dedication to defeat all other factions in Syria, take control of the nation and turn it into a western-friendly state. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests something else, entirely. Perhaps Gerson thought this screening test was serious and workable? We're to believe that significant numbers of fighters can be armed, with little to no chance of serious mistakes?

Gerson wants to pretend that the most powerful factions fighting Assad arose in a vacuum, that groups like ISIS would scarcely exist had the U.S. poured arms into the region with little concern beyond a warlord's promise that he really liked the U.S., but there's never been a showing that Gerson's wish was anything more than a fantasy. You certainly won't find substantiation in anything Gerson has written.

Now Gerson complains that a genocide is occurring in Syria, and that the world must do something. Given that he mocks those who suggest that it would be necessary to dispatch a considerable force of ground troops into Syria to arrest the chaos and stop the bloodshed, it would be nice if he would tell us exactly how he proposes that we stop the civil war and its atrocities. He could explain why he rejects Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey's concern that "intervention would end up costing so much, the U.S. military would be unable to respond to crises in other parts of the world". As is par for the course for a Gerson column, those real-world concerns are simply ignored.

You know, it would be great if all of the world's problems were easy to solve. It would be great if all it took for a nation to become a stable democracy was the toppling of its tyrannical leader. It would be wonderful if it were cheap and easy to transform a nation, used to totalitarian rule, into a modern economy with progressive values and a desire for democracy. It would be great if the type of intervention Gerson wants would end the spilling of innocent blood, with no risk of creating a larger, longer or more violent war. But as much as Gerson isn't able to contemplate that such interventions aren't easy, cheap or bloodless -- a reflection not only of an inability to think things through but also to learn from his own past mistakes -- the real world is far more complex. Gerson simply isn't able to process that his eager desire to arm Syrian rebels could lead to any number of outcomes that would be worse for the region and its people than the dismal status quo. Why is Gerson so certain that leader who emerges from the rubble won't be the moral equivalent of Pol Pot? Why does he believe that U.S.-backed forces will do any better at hanging onto their weapons than the Iraqi army that abandoned its arms to ISIS?

Gerson should continue to advocate for the victims of the world, at least the ones he cares about. He should feel free to act as the nation's conscience. But when he wants the U.S. to contribute weapons, support and training to factions in a civil war, I think he owes it to his readers to explain exactly what intervention he proposes, how it can be safely accomplished and why we should believe that it is likely to result in a better outcome. If he cannot do that himself or after consultation with an expert, why should he expect to be taken seriously?

Obama Does Understand War, Which is Perhaps Why He is Vilified by Warmongers

Eliot Cohen whines in the Washington Post,
Abraham Lincoln hated war as much as Barack Obama does. He saw so much more of it firsthand, lost friends in it and waged it on an immensely vaster scale than Obama has. And yet, almost exactly 150 years ago (Aug. 17, 1864, to be precise), he wrote this to the squat, stolid general besieging the town of Petersburg, south of Richmond: “I have seen your dispatch expressing your unwillingness to break your hold where you are. Neither am I willing. Hold on with a bull-dog gripe, and chew & choke, as much as possible.” And so Ulysses S. Grant persevered.

Therein lies the difference between Lincoln and Obama, which explains much of the wreckage that is U.S. foreign policy in Gaza and elsewhere today. Lincoln accepted war for what it is; Obama does not. The Gaza war is a humanitarian tragedy for Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. It is also a barbaric conflict, as leaders of Hamas hide their fighters behind children while baiting their enemy to kill innocents. But first and foremost, it is a war, a mortal contest of wills between two governments and two societies.
In his eager regurgitation of propaganda against the Palestinian people, Cohen tells us more about himself than about the President. Hamas is vile enough without the endless justifications of the killing of Palestinian civilians, especially children. Perhaps that's Cohen's primary objection -- that people are looking at the morality and proportionality of the conflict, rather than buying into the "Anything goes" attitude that he would have us ascribe to Lincoln.

For all of his warmongering, Cohen can't bring himself to explain why the President is wrong, or what he should have done differently -- other than, perhaps, endorsing "more war" as a one-size-fits-all solution to world crises. Cohen complains that the President doesn't give rousing speeches that cause the nation to rally behind wars in nations like Iraq and Afghanistan, or to rally behind new wars in nations like Syria and Libya, never mind that the reason that the public doesn't presently rally behind wars is the pathetic incompetence of the administration he served. Cohen has conveniently forgotten that the President ran in part on an anti-war platform, his rejection of Bush's war of choice in Iraq, and that since McCain's defeat the nation at large has consistently rejected those who favor Cohen's views. Let the next Republican presidential candidate run on a promise of more and larger wars, regardless of their impact on the U.S. economy and let's see how far he gets.

The President is palpably smarter and more thoughtful than Cohen, which could explain part of the difference, but I suspect that the larger conflict is in fact that the President prefers to prevent or end wars, while Cohen is happy to play the role of the useful idiot.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Maybe the Problem is... Too Many Law Schools?

The New York Times has run some viewpoints on the idea of replacing part of a conventional legal education (three years of law school) with "legal apprenticeships". Some of the authors share concern about the high cost of a law degree, but no attention is paid to why that cost is so high (I'll give you a few hints: fabulous infrastructure, high administrator salaries, high law professor salaries, and low course loads for professors). Frankly, if you look at their core mission and core function, there is no need for law schools to be anywhere near as costly as they are.

From the other direction, there is concern that students will lose out on enlightening classroom discussions. I doubt that things have changed much since I was in law school, where professors were often heard to complain about apathy taking root in the second year of law school, and being firmly established by the third year such that it was difficult to get students to participate in classroom discussion. It wasn't just apathy, as some students are intimidated by classroom participation, some law professors are bullies and some law professors simply aren't any good at leading classroom discussions. Whatever the cause, after the coercion of the first year of law school, of being called upon and put under a very bright spotlight, many students did largely or completely withdraw from classroom discussions.

One contributor enthusiastically gushes over the glorious educational experience that is law school, never mind that practitioners often have a very different take on the benefits of law school education than law professors. Don't get me wrong, most practitioners appreciate the manner in which a good legal education can cause you to analyze issues and develop arguments, but there is much more to legal practice and law school has historically done a poor job of preparing law students for the actual practice of law.

I don't find the argument for apprenticeships to be particularly compelling, either. The critics question whether apprenticeships would be managed by appropriately competent, dedicated supervising attorneys. I've seen law firms whose approach to training new lawyers, fresh out of law school, is to hand them a bunch of case files and tell them to represent the associated clients, so yes, I think that's a big concern. I question where you could find enough spaces for these new apprentices to provide a meaningful number of openings for law students. I question whether they would provide decent compensation and reasonable hours, or if they would turn out to involve the type of exploitation that we've seen in nations that require "articling" for lawyers who want a bar admission -- long hours, little to no pay, but with the necessity of obtaining a position resulting fierce competition for any openings no matter how terrible the working conditions.

Thinking about some of the unpaid internships and exceedingly low paid associate positions I've seen advertised in recent years, it's difficult for me to believe that apprenticeships with private law firms will turn out to be a particularly valuable educational experience -- but what I would expect them to do is to reduce the number of jobs available for actual law school graduates. If you were to charge tuition for apprenticeships, funding them to the point that the apprentices could spend their time learning and studying rather than earning their keep through the mundane law firm tasks that they are likely to be assigned to perform, it's difficult to believe that they would cost less per year than law school.

The essays leave me not with the impression that we need or don't need apprenticeships. It leaves me with the impression that we need to reform legal education. Unfortunately, especially when I consider the manner in which the professors who oppose apprenticeships praise the current law school experience, I don't think that's at all likely to happen. More than that, if you want to solve the problem of there being too many law school graduates, far too many for the market to absorb, the first thing to do is reconsider the number of law schools, or at least the number of students they enroll -- but reduce those numbers and what will happen to those glorious buildings, glorious salaries, and gloriously low course loads?

About Those "Think Tanks"....

I'm a bit surprised, looking back, that I haven't written more about Stephen Moore. There's this piece, but given how often I've rolled my eyes at Moore's smiling regurgitation of hackneyed talking points and false statements that he has to know are wrong, I expected to find more. I guess, despite his ability to make me roll my eyes, he hasn't had much to say that was particularly interesting. You would think any self-respecting organization that falls under the umbrella term, "Think Tank", would have kicked Moore to the curb long ago... but he has a sinecure at the Heritage Foundation.

So what brings Moore to mind? The declaration by Miriam Pepper, editorial page editor of the Kansas City Star, that "I won’t be running anything else from Stephen Moore" due to his numerous factual errors. (I think it's fair to say that the statements were factually incorrect, but I'm not so sure that they should be called "errors".)
"You assume Heritage has edited these pieces too," Pepper says. "But, lesson learned. There will be no future Heritage pieces published that don’t get thorough factchecking."
She might assume Heritage is concerned that its fellows push accurate facts and information. But let's just say, Moore's been doing this type of thing for a long time....

Why is This Outrageous?

Michelle Bachmann has walked back from her usual craziness, and is reporting that the government plans to subject undocumented minor children to medical experimentation. I know, I know... at first blush it does sound crazy -- like she's one of the inmates running the asylum. But if you stop to think about it, these kids are the first carriers of Ebola to be located in North America. They have calves the size of cantaloupes. They suffer from an odd sort of depression or anxiety disorder that leaves them looking as sad as a bus full of YMCA campers. How is it not completely sane, at least by Republican standards, to suggest that the government might want to look into that?

[Insert smiley here for the sarcasm-impaired.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Think Tanks Follow the Money

Robert Samuelson states some facts about think tanks that, for some reason, aren't often voiced by elite columnists:
Most think tanks were once idea factories. They sponsored research from which policy proposals might flow. In the supply chain of political influence, their studies became the grist for politicians’ programs. But think-tank scholars didn’t lobby or campaign. Politicians and party groups did that. There was an unspoken, if murky, division of labor. This was [Stuart] Butler’s world.

But it’s disappearing, and many think tanks — liberal and conservative — have become more active politically. They are now message merchants, packaging and merchandizing agendas for a broader public. Heritage has long been aggressive in peddling its message and has become more so. In 2010, it created an affiliate — Heritage Action — that lobbied and mobilized grass-roots conservatives. In this world, I surmise, Butler’s role is diminished. By contrast, Brookings remains a bit more traditional....

What’s occurring is a subtle change to a major American institution. Heritage is not alone. To varying degrees, other think tanks face similar pressures. They will probably do less thinking and more politicking and self-promotion.
Probably? There's no probably about it.

Why would Brookings hire a right-wing ideologue like Stuart Butler? Why would Heritage hire Jim DeMint, a man nobody would mistake for a great thinker, as its leader? Follow the money.

I'm reminded of David Frum's (interesting, but flawed) novel, Patriots, in which a fictionalized think tank... I can't recall the name he used, but "The American Heritage Institute" might be about right... has relegated the old-timers who do traditional, nonpartisan research to its "founder's floor", while the newer "scholars" engage in little more than a free-for-all of politicking and money-grubbing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Charismatic Sociopath

Watching Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, depicting the scheming Frank Underwood, I can't help but wonder... how is it that the lead character of a show, a man who will literally lie, cheat and steal his way into the White House, maintains popularity with the show's fans? Spacey's character is unquestionably a sociopath or, if you prefer, afflicted with antisocial personality disorder. At times he strategically all-but-admits his sociopathy to other characters as a tool to win back their trust.

I've seen studies that indicate that people are quite good at spotting sociopaths, but if the sociopath is sufficiently charming will nonetheless allow themselves to succumb to his charms and confidence. Plenty of people saw through Bernie Madoff, but plenty more chose not to. I guess if you're smooth enough, charming enough, we can find a way to turn off our better judgment.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Call for Constant Parental Supervision

Ross Douthat tells us about the night he had to walk home from baseball practice,
When I was about 9 years old, I graduated to a Little League whose diamonds were a few miles from our house, in a neighborhood that got rougher after dark. After one practice finished early, I ended up as the last kid left with the coach, waiting in the gloaming while he grumbled, looked at his watch and finally left me — to wait or walk home, I’m not sure which.

I started walking. Halfway there, along a busy road, my father picked me up. He called my coach, as furious as you would expect a protective parent to be; the coach, who probably grew up having fistfights in that neighborhood, gave as good as he got; I finished the season in a different league.

Here are two things that didn’t happen. My (lawyer) father did not call the police and have the coach arrested for reckless endangerment of a minor. And nobody who saw me picking my way home alone thought to call the police on my parents, or to charge them with neglect for letting their child slip free of perfect safety for an hour.
Douthat should include the coach among those who didn't call the police on his parents. I'm tempted to be more than a bit uncharitable in my interpretation of what Douthat means by "rougher after dark", and I suspect he's dressing up a rather mundane story, but New Haven is a big place. Douthat should consider something more: What the police would have been likely to do if they were summoned. Odds are they would have tried to help young Ross find his way home. Also, as Douthat compares his own experience to those in the news of late, it seems worth noting that he doesn't accuse his furious father of overreacting.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument that our nation has become overprotective of children, but that's in no small part due to the fact that changes in our culture have led to a car culture, a culture in which you can drive down a street or even go to a park and find yourself quite alone. When I was a kid, I could walk from my home to the neighborhood park, and I would see other kids (and adults) on the sidewalk on the way there, and plenty of kids (and adults) at the park when I arrived. For much of the summer, one of my cities of residence would have staff at the park, organizing activities and supervising a splash pool. I don't think that human nature has changed, that fewer adults would help a kid in distress, but instead think that the problem is that fewer adults are around to provide that type of support to somebody else's unsupervised child. The biggest difference between a person driving by in a car, then and now, is that back then drivers didn't have cell phones.

Douthat lists a series of stories in which parents were arrested or had their children removed from their care after leaving them unsupervised, often for short periods of time, or even for matters outside of their control.
Some of these cases have been reported, but some are first-person accounts, and in some the conduct of neighbors and the police and social workers may be more defensible than the anecdote suggests.

But the pattern — a “criminalization of parenthood,” in the words of The Washington Post’s Radley Balko — still looks slightly nightmarish, and there are forces at work here that we should recognize, name and resist.
Douthat identifies what he believes to be the three primary causes of this pattern, upper class helicopter parenting producing a culture in which people expect children to be supervised at all times, media-driven anxiety from stories overstating dangers to children, and an erosion of community and social trust. I suspect that there is something to the first argument, as parents who have the privilege of always supervising their children, whether directly or through caregivers, can easily lose track of how difficult it is for other parents to accomplish a similar level of supervision. No doubt, the media's horror stories inflate public fears and make people wary of letting their children go out alone. An erosion of community and social trust, though? It fits with Douthat's preconceptions, but I don't see it. Instead I see a significant change in context, with our society shifting to indoor activities and its becoming alien to see an unsupervised child at play in a park. It's not particularly realistic to expect that a person, catching a glimpse of a child who may be lost, to park their car, approach the child and investigate before deciding what their next step should be, even if we assume the child won't be calling the police on her own cell phone due to "stranger danger" lessons.

Let's also not forget the angry parent. Just as Douthat's dad tore into his coach with a criticism that must have amounted to, "How dare you leave the child (who we forgot to pick up) alone to find his way home after practice?" How many passersby want to encounter the angry parent who, upon seeing them approach a child who seemed to be unattended, approaches with a belligerent, "How dare you!" How many store owners, finding children wandering unsupervised in their aisles, want to take the risk of having the children wait in their offices while they try to track down parents? Particularly with the exaggerated but accepted "stranger danger" threat, and with the disproportionate anger that can come from some parents even when it was their own negligence that necessitated stranger involvement, it's no small wonder that some people choose to notify the police.

The problem at that point, also, is less that the police were notified, and more that prosecutors are willing to authorize charges over parental mistakes that cause no harm, where a stern lecture might suffice. And in that context, once again, we have a significant media role -- "Protective services was called about this child on three separate occasions, but did nothing...." Nobody wants to be the subject of that sort of headline, so the reflex has switched from a friendly drop-off and perhaps a warning about providing proper supervision to the initiation of legal proceedings.

Moving back to the complexity, for a moment, sometimes at the root of these cases you will find either that the reason for court intervention is more complicated than a news media sound bite might suggest, or can find another case that suggests why the police or a prosecutor don't find an act to be as harmless as the media coverage suggests. Leaving a "4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day" may not pose a danger that the child will die from exposure to heat, but cars are not safe playgrounds for children. You'll find plenty of stories about near-misses and injuries resulting from a child's shifting a parked car into neutral or releasing a hand brake and, although car cigarette lighters are now something of a rarity, of children injuring themselves with items left inside the car.

I'm also reminded of a time when one of my clients decided to bring his girlfriend's four-year-old child to court, on a date that he expected to be sentenced to jail. The judge drew the conclusion that the child was present as an insurance policy, inferring that the defendant thought he might not be sent to jail if that meant that somebody else would have to take care of the child. The judge sentenced the defendant to jail and was prepared to call protective services. I offered to try to find the child's mother and, after several hours and the leaving of countless messages, while ultimately delivering the child to his grandmother, was not particularly impressed that I had done the child any great favor by keeping protective services out of his situation. As my experience with that type of case has expanded, I would be surprised if the child had not already been the subject of a protective services investigation. I'll say this: He was a remarkably well-behaved child who handled the situation very well, and he deserved a better life than the one he has likely since experienced.

Douthat notes that work requirements for welfare recipients can result in contexts in which "a single mother [is] behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school". Douthat's childhood was apparently sufficiently sheltered that he is not aware that most single mothers are neither on welfare nor working fast food jobs, but that aside he raises a fair observation about the inherent tension within Republican views on the subject:
This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.
And the solution is.... to be continued? What an unfortunate moment for Douthat to have run out of space for his column.

If you want a culture in which children can play in public, walk to school, take urban public transportation and the like, without parental supervision and without raising any concerns or eyebrows, you need to focus less on nebulous notions of "community and social trust", and focus much more on getting a population of kids and parents back on the streets such that it's not unusual for a child (of appropriate age and maturity) to engage in public activities without supervision, and where there's a natural population of people on the streets and in the parks who will react to any danger the child might face. Scolding people for not putting their lives on hold to investigate a child's status before notifying the police is not an approach that is likely to solve anything. With the manner in which our society has evolved to one of indoor activities and empty public spaces, I'm not sure that any generation of kids in the foreseeable future is going to enjoy the sort of liberty I had as a child, to go to a park, walk to school, ride my bicycle around town, take public transportation and the like, without any thought of parental supervision.