Friday, February 29, 2008

The Words Put Into Politician's Mouths

Michael Gerson tells us,
The construction of serious speeches forces candidates (or presidents) to grapple with their own beliefs, even when they don't write every word themselves. If those convictions cannot be marshaled in the orderly battalions of formal rhetoric, they are probably incoherent.
Michael Gerson? Speechwriter for G.W. Bush? Did it even occur to him that he's indicting his own work?
McCain can and should make an ideological case against his opponent. Why does Obama want to fight terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan but not in Iraq? How would it advance the war on terrorism to grant al-Qaeda's fondest wish - an untimely American retreat from the Middle East? Would Obama really devote his first year in office to a series of surrender summits with the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Venezuela and North Korea?
Here's the problem. If you caricature and misrepresent your opponent's beliefs, you don't come across as a "straight talker". McCain has already stumbled when trying to confront Obama on foreign policy, ridiculing Obama's statements about striking targets inside Pakistan even as the White House was adopting the very techniques Obama proposed.

Trying to caricature Obama as intending to meet with every world leader, no matter how despotic, during his first year in office? At the expense of every single other priority, domestic or international? Let's just say that if I were drafting Obama's response to such an accusation the overt message would be "he's confused", and the subtext would be "he's senile." Obama's team may be more charitable than I, but I would suggest that McCain take a look at G.W.'s past, frequent incoherence before adopting a response endorsed by one of Bush's principal speechwriters.

Trying To Outsmart A Sicilian

The New York Times brings us this from a long-term McCain supporter:
The nobler side of me admires him, even across party lines, for the tremendous interest and enthusiasm he has engendered among younger Americans. But the larger, less decent part of me believes that Hillary Clinton would be a more formidable general election opponent for the Republican nominee. She’s certainly on the ropes right now: her campaign has been flailing through the last few rounds of primaries in a way that Clintons are usually able to avoid. But we’ve been losing to Clintons for a long time now: I’d still just as soon avoid her in a general election campaign.
Ever see The Princess Bride?
All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.
Whatever you make of this supposed fear of Clinton, this is also worth noting:
As an equally loyal fan of the Republican Party and of the Green Bay Packers football team, I had come to regard the Clintons the same way I’ve always thought about the Dallas Cowboys. I don’t like them. I root against them. I want them to lose and occasionally find myself wanting bad things to happen to them.
This of course is one of the leading problems with partisan politics. Sometimes the other team has the better players and better strategy, and its victory would be much better for everyone, but you still back "your" team because its "yours".

How's This For A Bad Choice Of Words?

From the London Guardian:
"The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," Matan Vilnai, Israel's deputy defence minister, told army radio.

Shoah is the Hebrew word normally reserved to refer to the Jewish Holocaust. It is rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi extermination of Jews during the second world war, and many Israelis are loath to countenance its use to describe other events.
I'll grant that all politicians occasionally fall victim to foot-in-mouth disease, but still....

Thursday, February 28, 2008

George Will Blasts John McCain

To put it mildly, George Will does not appear to like John McCain. A taste:
Although his campaign is run by lobbyists; and although his dealings with lobbyists have generated what he, when judging the behavior of others, calls corrupt appearances; and although he has profited from his manipulation of the taxpayer-funding system that is celebrated by reformers - still, he probably is innocent of insincerity. Such is his towering moral vanity, he seems sincerely to consider it theoretically impossible for him to commit the offenses of appearances that he incessantly ascribes to others.
I suspect, though, that come November McCain will still get Will's vote.

This, I suppose, is the type of column which leads some readers who disagree with Will's politics to respect him for his willingness to speak against the interests of the Republican Party. I'm not sold on the idea that Will is a straight-talking maverick... or is that McCain? Well, either way. But it's hard to dispute that this editorial could hurt the prospects of the now-inevitable Republican nominee, and potentially invigorates some tough questions that McCain has so far been able to avoid.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Obama On Farrakhan

I didn't watch the debate, but I see that there are any number of criticisms of Obama for not being quick enough to "renounce" Farrakhan's support as opposed to merely "denouncing" Farrakhan's positions on the issues. This is being framed  by  some as a great failure by Obama and a missed opportunity by Clinton. As if Obama was deliberately avoiding rejecting the Farrakhan endorsement and the... what, three votes it might bring to his campaign?

Let's look at some definitions:

Denounce: to pronounce especially publicly to be blameworthy or evil (they denounced him as a bigot)

Reject: to refuse to accept, consider, submit to, take for some purpose, or use (rejected the suggestion) (reject a manuscript) b: to refuse to hear, receive, or admit : rebuff, repel (parents who reject their children) c: to refuse as lover or spouse

Personally, I would much rather be rejected than denounced, particularly by a presidential candidate on national television.

I suspect that Obama either believed that his statements denouncing Farrakhan's positions, and decrying them as "unacceptable and reprehensible", was responsive to the question. Who, after listening to that answer, would think, "Obama thinks Farrakan's beliefs are blameworthy (perhaps evil), reprehensible and unnacceptable. But he wants Farrakhan's endorsement." Well, Ann Althouse for one, and possibly Andrew Sullivan.

The follow-up answer boils down to, "This is America, and I can't stop him from endorsing me if he wants to." Althouse imagines this as an exceedingly clever evasion. I see it as Obama not quite grasping that Russert didn't accept his prior answer as it was intended. Whether that would make Obama a bit thick-headed or Russert a big thick-headed is a debate I won't enter at this time. But let me say, there have been a couple of occasions where I found myself being that thick-headed when examining a witness at a trial or deposition and misinterpreting their answers based upon what I expected to hear.

So on it goes, with Obama repeating his denunciation of Farrakhan's position and deeming his past statements "reprehensible and inappropriate". Althouse seems impressed that Russert then shifted into Gotcha mode - an "I see that you danced with a man, who danced with a girl, who danced with the Prince of Wales"-type question.

The title of one of your books, "Audacity of Hope," you acknowledge you got from a sermon from Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the head of the Trinity United Church. He said that Louis Farrakhan "epitomizes greatness."

He said that he went to Libya in 1984 with Louis Farrakhan to visit with Moammar Gadhafi and that, when your political opponents found out about that, quote, "your Jewish support would dry up quicker than a snowball in Hell."

RUSSERT: What do you do to assure Jewish-Americans that, whether it's Farrakhan's support or the activities of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, your pastor, you are consistent with issues regarding Israel and not in any way suggesting that Farrakhan epitomizes greatness?

If somebody is being thick-headed at this point, it's Russert. Which of the words "denounce," "reprehensible", "inappropriate", and "unacceptable" aren't in his vocabulary?

And again, it goes on and on.

Hillary Clinton, who caught Russert's use of the word reject, ultimately joins the exchange, after Russert lobs her a softball, "Are you suggesting Senator Obama is not standing on principle?" She replied,

No. I'm just saying that you asked specifically if he would reject it. And there's a difference between denouncing and rejecting. And I think when it comes to this sort of, you know, inflammatory - I have no doubt that everything that Barack just said is absolutely sincere. But I just think, we've got to be even stronger. We cannot let anyone in any way say these things because of the implications that they have, which can be so far reaching.

Althouse sees this as a tremendous lapse on Clinton's part - "near gibberish" that shows she "does not have the instinct for blood". Um... right....

Personally, I think Clinton called it as she saw it. She, along with anybody with half a brain, knows that Obama doesn't want or need Farrakhan's endorsement. So she gave an honest answer instead of distorting his comments as a twisted effort to maintain Farrakhan's useless... no, worse than useless... counter-productive endorsement. This led to Obama's clarification that " I'm happy to concede the point, and I would reject and denounce." Something I think was pretty clear from the start of the entire useless exchange.

I suspect that if Hillary Clinton had actually tried to depict Obama as wanting Farrakhan's support, and the three or so votes it would bring to his campaign (even as it drove away thousands upon thousands of others), she would have looked petty and small.


Update: From his new home at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison observes,

Ross keeps asking how the Republicans are going to attack Obama. Well, they will do something rather like this (dated 2/25). Of course, flinging the charge of anti-Semitism or of being in league with anti-Semites is the last resort of the unimaginative and intellectually bankrupt. That doesn’t mean it won’t have its intended effect.

Death and Taxes

I haven't heard much about taxes lately from either John McCain or from the Democratic candidates. I suspect that, whomever is elected, taxes are headed in the same direction - upward. Why do I say that, given McCain's promise not to sign a tax increase? Because when various of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, taxes immediately revert to a higher level. The leading difference I expect is that with a Democratic President, Congress will pass legislation before the reversion.

McCain, on the other hand, having promised not to "raise taxes" may stonewall a new tax bill until after the taxes expire, then immediately sign a bill largely the same as what the Democrats would pass in advance, but pitching it as a tax cut and as "absolutely necessary to shield you from much higher taxes."

Sorry, wealthy folks... At this time I just can't see the estate tax repeal being made permanent, although I do expect an exemption much higher than that which existed eight years ago.

"How Dare McCain Hold Me Accountable For My Own Words!"

Another right-wing ranter is (supposedly) going to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Cunningham does so much to redeem himself....
In his first public comment since Tuesday's event, Cunningham defended his use of Hussein, which he called "a proud Muslim name."

"I have nothing but respect for my Muslim brothers and sisters," he said. "The ones who oppose that particular name, they're the ones with the problem, not me. His name is Barack Hussein Obama."

College Tuition Costs

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Prof. Ilya Somin attacks the idea of public subsidies for college tuition. His first argument, "the increasing benefits of college education are more than enough to pay the increasing costs.", is premised upon lifetime earnings of college graduates, not discounted to present value. This gives a grossly exaggerated picture of the financial returns of a college education. It's hard to imagine that this is not an intentional distortion, as the figures come from economists. I note that it also omits opportunity costs - the person who could be earning $40,000.00 per year but instead goes to college for four years (assuming they're atypical and graduate on time) adds another $160,000.00 or so to the "cost" of college.

This argument also skips over inequality of earnings (something Somin does subsequently address) to argue, "The vast majority of students can therefore afford to pay for college by borrowing against their future incomes, and still have an enormous income gain left over". This, of course, largely misses the point. In addition to the points already raised,
  • For somebody from a family where nobody has gone to college, the idea of borrowing $100,000 - $200,000 to finance a four year college program is likely quite frightening. Heck - for those of us from educated families, that's pretty scary.
  • The college graduate is not the only person who benefits from his college education. Employers benefit. Society benefits.
  • Even assuming significant economic benefit, to cast this as a retrospective choice puts college education into the category of "shouda's" - "I shoulda gone to college." A recent high school graduate should not be presumed to be a rational economic actor - we "grown-ups" don't make these choices very well.
  • Repayment of student loans begins shortly after graduation, not ten or twenty years down the road when income differentials are likely to be the most significant.
Somin continues, "What about college graduates who go into relatively low-paying professions?"
Obviously, the $1 million figure is an average that won't hold true for every college graduate. What about those who enter relatively low-paying professions? In most cases, there is good reason for income disparities between professions: the lower-paying ones are less in demand. We want the market to channel more people to higher-paying professions for which there is more of a demand and fewer people to fields where the demand is relatively low. Subsidizing the low-paying fields by having the government subsidize college tuition undermines this efficient allocation of labor and makes us all worse off by channeling too many workers into the wrong fields.
A professor is writing this? (A Volokh Conspiracy redux.) Granted, law professors tend to earn more than professors in most other colleges, but really. The government has no interest in subsidizing the education of social workers? Of public school teachers? Of college professors? Of research scientists? We want to financially squeeze students out of those career paths and into higher-paying jobs?

Here, Somin compounds his previous errors, and adds some new ones:
But what if you think there is some market failure that leads to undesirably low salaries in a particular profession? Perhaps the market generates too many accountants and not enough artists. Even if you think this "problem" really exists, general subsidies for all college tuition are not the right solution. Rather, you should advocate targeted subsidies specifically for the artists (or whatever other profession you think the market undersupplies). There is no reason to subsidize those students who don't go into the undersupplied field where you think a market failure exists. Subsidizing all students indiscriminately won't do nearly as much to raise the number of artists because it won't create as much of an incentive to choose art over higher-paying fields.
A few responses:
  • Teacher salaries are not the result of market failure. Social worker salaries are not the result of market failure. They're all we're willing to pay.
  • What sort of planned economy does Somin anticipate, where the government attempts to predict what educational fields require subsidy?
  • What sort of distortion does he accept, as students intending to go to graduate school pick majors that are heavily subsidized, then merrily enroll in law school or business school?
  • What new brand of high school graduates does he envision, who will know exactly what they wish their career to be the day they enroll in college. If they switch majors, do they have to repay the subsidy - and what type of market distortion does that create, as you financially coerce students to continue a course of studies that no longer interests them?
  • What of the benefits to employers and society in having a larger pool of college graduates? Why write those benefits completely out of the analysis?
To the extent that some of these distortions could be eliminated by making the subsidy retroactive - loan repayment assistance for students who enter lower-paid or public service careers - you introduce a new level of distortion. Those least able to repay their loans, and its safe to assume that they will disproportionately be those from poor families, will enter careers that do not necessarily suit them or maximize their long-term earning capacity, because they will want the assistance with their loans. The kid from my Contracts Law class, receiving a 100% subsidy from his wealth family, who bragged that he had never seen a student loan contract? No such constraint.
It's important to remember that even income gains far below the average return to going to college are still more than sufficient to pay for tuition. For example, a college graduate who increases her lifetime earnings by "only" $400,000 (less than half the average gain) has still earned enough extra income to pay for tuition several times over.
But when reduced to present value, that "$400,000" could easily drop below the cost of a college education.

It gets even better - Somin argues that subsidies for education are harmful to the poor.
Not only are government subsidies for government tuition unnecessary, they also victimize the truly disadvantaged people in our society: those who lack the educational qualifications to go to college in the first place (usually due to a combination of poor public schooling and a flawed family environment). These people pay some of the taxes that support subsidized tuition for college students who are likely to end up far wealthier than they are.
This is nonsense at every level. First, given that college tuition subsidies come from income tax, this poor person Somin envisions as lacking any capacity for college likely contributes little or nothing to the subsidy. By any reasonable measure, any poor person who attends college will receive an extraordinarily progressive subsidy - one that vastly outstrips their past or present tax contribution. Second, there are many state colleges that offer significant remedial programs to help students from poor school districts get up to speed and get on track to college graduation. Without a subsidy, few colleges would offer that type of support. Somin again is happy to ignore benefits to society, but there are obvious social benefits in taking somebody from a community with poor schools and a family that does not support education, and immersing them in a college environment. I am hard pressed to think of anybody whose way of thinking was unaffected by the completion of even a year or two of college, whether or not they completed a degree. Third, although Somin does not appear to be aware that such a thing exists, there are also community colleges, which are a sensible alternative for a lot of people who want to try to recover from a mediocre public school education or who want to "try out" college while engaging in a much shorter course of studies.
They are also indirectly harmed by the diversion of public funds to tuition subsidies and away from other priorities that might do more to advance the interests of the truly poor.
For instance? Really. If you're going to argue that the government should be putting the tuition subsidy elsewhere, tell us of these places where the money is better spent. Don't say the word "school vouchers", because pretty much every word you use to attack college tuition subsidies applies to K-12 tuition subsidies.

This is pretty funny, although I can't say it's particularly self-serving:
In some cases, tuition has been artificially increased by government-imposed restraints on competition. In my own field of legal education, for example, tuition rates have been increased by restrictions on competition created by the American Bar Association accreditation requirement for law schools.
I suggest that Somin take a look at the infrastructure, salaries and working conditions in the largest colleges on his campus, such as the English Department. Would he still be a professor if he had to work in that setting, at a similar wage? I doubt it. But it's a quintessential "ivory tower" argument - "things would be better if we didn't have the subsidies that benefit me."

Sure, there are costs and market distortions in making sure that college is universally affordable. Sure, there are ways to help the poor attend college without subsidizing the wealthy. But c'mon.

Health Insurance Mandates

At the Volokh Conspiracy, Russell Korobkin, an Obama supporter, criticizes Hillary Clinton's call for health insurance mandates.
Full disclosure: I am an unpaid member of a health care policy advisory committee for the Obama campaign, but I personally favor individual mandates as part of comprehensive health care system reform.
That apparently means that he supports mandates for the right reasons, while Hillary supports them for the wrong reasons. (But he doesn't tell us what his reasons are.)
Clinton alleges that, simply because it includes a mandate, her plan would lead to universal health insurance while Obama's would not. This is not true.
Well, yes, it is. If mandates exist and are effectively enforced, you have universal health insurance. If they don't exist, you won't. Speaking about how Obama's reforms could make health insurance more affordable, and sharing a dream that everybody may voluntarily buy affordable health insurance? That's fine, but he admits, "[Obama] is open to mandates down the road if, after the reforms and subsidies reduce costs, a large number of healthy "free riders" still do not buy coverage". Either way, we end up with mandates. The question in a sense becomes, will reforms make health insurance more affordable in the absence of mandates? I think, there, the Clinton camp is being far more realistic - if you let people wait until they require health care to buy insurance, you will drive costs up.
Clinton wants to require all Americans to purchase health insurance, but she refuses to describe how she would enforce such a requirement.
Okay... And Obama is open to mandates if people don't voluntarily buy health insurance, "but [he] refuses to describe how [he] would enforce such a requirement". This is what we call "election year politics".
What makes Clinton's criticism of Obama really off the mark, though, is that she is trying to market mandates as a benefit for the large number of currently or potentially uninsured Americans, when mandates actually are a concession to constituencies that otherwise might favor the status quo against attempts to make insurance more affordable. Auto insurance mandates are good for the people who might be hit by an uninsured motorist, but they are hardly welcomed by the uninsured who feel, rightly or wrongly, that they can't afford coverage. Similarly, health insurance mandates are good for people with insurance, employers who would be forced to pay into an insurance pool, and private insurers who would face greater regulation under a reform plan, because expensive subsidies that would be required to help the "sick" uninsured to purchase coverage would be at least partially offset by requiring the "healthy" uninsured to contribute their fair share to the system. But telling someone without insurance that the government will force him to buy it at whatever price the market charges is unlikely to convince him that his problem is solved.
As Paul Krugman observed several months ago,
Mr. Obama claims that mandates won’t work, pointing out that many people don’t have car insurance despite state requirements that all drivers be insured. Um, is he saying that states shouldn’t require that drivers have insurance? If not, what’s his point?

Look, law enforcement is sometimes imperfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws.
Krugman more recently observed,
So the Obama plan would leave more people uninsured than the Clinton plan. How big is the difference?

To answer this question you need to make a detailed analysis of health care decisions. That’s what Jonathan Gruber of M.I.T., one of America’s leading health care economists, does in a new paper.

Mr. Gruber finds that a plan without mandates, broadly resembling the Obama plan, would cover 23 million of those currently uninsured, at a taxpayer cost of $102 billion per year. An otherwise identical plan with mandates would cover 45 million of the uninsured — essentially everyone — at a taxpayer cost of $124 billion. Over all, the Obama-type plan would cost $4,400 per newly insured person, the Clinton-type plan only $2,700.

That doesn’t look like a trivial difference to me. One plan achieves more or less universal coverage; the other, although it costs more than 80 percent as much, covers only about half of those currently uninsured.
You would think that by now Obama's advocates would have updated their argument.

Back to the Obama suppoorter:
To see why Clinton's argument is nonsensical, consider that the country could achieve nearly universal health insurance immediately simply by enacting an individual mandate coupled with a truly draconian penalty for non-compliance. But so what?
This rebuke of Clinton is silly on its face, given that many people do not have health insurance because it isn't affordable, and many others do not have health insurance or are severely underinsured due to pre-existing medical conditions. But even if we pretend that's not the case, the real purpose here seems to be to suggest that draconian penalties would be required to enforce mandates - whether by Clinton today or by Obama down the road (as necessary). Back to Krugman:
Third, and most troubling, Mr. Obama accuses his rivals of not explaining how they would enforce mandates, and suggests that the mandate would require some kind of nasty, punitive enforcement: “Their essential argument,” he says, “is the only way to get everybody covered is if the government forces you to buy health insurance. If you don’t buy it, then you’ll be penalized in some way.”

Well, John Edwards has just called Mr. Obama’s bluff, by proposing that individuals be required to show proof of insurance when filing income taxes or receiving health care. If they don’t have insurance, they won’t be penalized — they’ll be automatically enrolled in an insurance plan.
Although you wouldn't get this from Korobkin's post, Clinton has endorsed Edwards' proposed solution.

The silliest part of all is that Barack Obama's refusal to discuss mandates reflects, in my opinion, the politician's instinct to tell the public, "You can have it all - without paying any price at all." Clinton (and formerly Edwards) let people know up front that there is a price to universality - an obvious price - in that everybody must be insured.

Korobkin also skips right over the fact that we presently pay an enormous price to provide medical care for the uninsured and underinsured. Right now, the "subsidy" for that comes from charging higher health care prices to everybody else.

To lambaste Clinton for a lack of specifics on how mandates might be enforced, even while suggesting that Obama recognizes that they are necessary (but won't specify when or how they would be implemented or enforced), is not the way to convince me that Obama has the better plan.

Korobkin ignores Krugman, so I have no reason to believe he would respond to any challenge from me, but I would love to see him detail the "good reasons" to enforce mandates - those which inspire his own support for mandates. I would love to hear him explain how Obama would enforce mandates, with no hedging about how they may not become necessary. For that matter, how he would enforce the mandates that he expressly endorses. There is no such thing, after all, as a voluntary mandate.

Why was this posted at the Volokh Conspiracy, a purported "libertarian" blog? It's hard to guess. Maybe because it is critical of Clinton?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"See How Smart I Am" Questions

The New York Times has published a series of questions various "experts" would "ask the candidates if they were moderating tonight's debate". Some of the questions are decent. Most fall into the categories of "Will you walk into my trap," or "See how smart I am?" (Except, for some reason, the "see how smart I am" questions often instead convey to me that the "expert" is, well, pretty dumb.)

Some examples:
  • Both of you have said the Constitution does not allow a president to detain a citizen without charges as an enemy combatant. But President Bush won court rulings upholding the indefinite detention of two Americans as enemy combatants. Were the courts wrong? Does a president have the authority to interpret the Constitution differently from the judiciary? Would you ever use the court-approved authority to hold a citizen indefinitely as an enemy combatant?
  • Social Security will go into a cash deficit during the next president's prospective second term. Therefore, if elected, you will: a) do nothing and leave growing deficits to your successor; b) cut benefits, eligibility or both, as President Bush tried; c) raise the payroll tax; or d) there is no d. Those are the only options.
  • Domestic gun owners kill more Americans each year than terrorists have in total since 2000 (even if you define all American fatalities in Iraq as related to terrorism). Can the homeland be secure when our schools are not? If your answer is no, will you take on the National Rifle Association and work for a gun law with teeth?
  • Both of you have argued for more widespread access to the Internet in schools. Given the recent "To Read or Not to Read" report from the National Endowment for the Arts, which revealed a steep decline in reading among young people, and the lack of evidence that computers in the classroom help students learn, wouldn't federal funds be better spent on projects that encourage reading and engagement with the arts?
  • Saddam Hussein also committed genocide by killing thousands of Iraqi Kurds with chemical weapons in the late 1980s and massacring thousands of Shiite marsh dwellers in southern Iraq after the first gulf war. How could we have left Mr. Hussein in power? How can Senator Obama say that removing a genocidal killer was a "dumb" war?
  • The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution bars any former president from election to a third term. Is it truly consistent with the spirit of the Constitution to have the same professional couple occupying the White House for 12 years? Isn't this all the more true when Bill Clinton promised that voters would receive, during his first term, "two for the price of one"?
As I've discussed in the past, this brand of "tough" question is often not so tough. Some of the questions deserve nothing more than an eye roll and a condescending retort. ("I note that you are a former advisor to the Giuliani campaign, so you are experienced with asking the wrong questions and demanding the wrong answers....")

Monday, February 25, 2008

More On Those Tiny American Flags

In case you have missed it, which pretty much would entail your not paying attention to any political commentary, the "go after the Obamas' patriotism and harp on the flag pin" line of attack is not unique to Bill Kristol. It's a line being pushed by pretty much any within the obsequious political right, whose devotion to the Republican Party's cause overwhelms any reservation they might otherwise have against prevarication in public. Case in point, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA).
But, the thing that [Michelle Obama] did not do, and still has not done now for three days, is to explain what she meant. And it would have been that simple, just to say, “You know what? This is a great country, and I’m just proud that people really are getting involved in this election.” That would have been the end of it.1 Instead, through Axelrod, the campaign manager going to let her be her spokesman, they’ve let this thing grow. When you combine that with the fact that the guy would not say the Pledge of Allegiance, and won’t put an American lapel pin on his coat — [audience boos] — that’s things voters are watching. And, it’s because this Democratic primary —

MAHER: [overlapping] Wait a second? He won’t say the Pledge of Allegiance?

KINGSTON: Well, the famous picture of him standing while Bill Richardson and Hillary Clinton have their hand over their heart, saluting the flag during the Pledge, and Obama has his hands deliberately down, that is disturbing to Americans.
You can see the trademark pattern - start with an attack on Michelle Obama's patriotism and try to extend it to Barack Obama through a series of lies and misrepresentations.
  • Prevarication #1: "When you combine that with the fact that the guy would not say the Pledge of Allegiance....." - Video evidence to the contrary be damned, right?
  • Prevarication #2: "... and won’t put an American lapel pin on his coat ...." - Which, of course, isn't what Obama said.
  • Prevarication #3: "... Bill Richardson and Hillary Clinton have their hand over their heart, saluting the flag during the Pledge, and Obama has his hands deliberately down ..." - Except the picture was taken during the National Anthem - is Kingston so unpatriotic that he doesn't know the difference? And there are many pictures of Obama with his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Now wait a minute," you say, "Maybe Kingston isn't being deliberately dishonest. Maybe he is just an incredibly stupid man who makes rash accusations about national political figures in complete ignorance of the facts." While I might otherwise be tempted to acknowledge the possibility, applying the rule of "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity," Kingston's other prevarications serve to "out" him.
We have not had a domestic attack since 9/11. Now — [audience reacts] — I know, because —

MAHER: [overlapping] But – and I wore the green socks again this week, and I still didn’t get cancer. [laughter] [applause]

KINGSTON: Well, Bill, I know, as a member of the Defense Committee, who sits in many, many hours of bipartisan hearings with lots of tough questions to lots of members of the military, prior to the counter-attack in Afghanistan in October, 2001, we were absolutely assured that when we took the war over to the Middle East, that we would be attacked again. That’s what all the – the consensus was from the intelligence agencies.
How could any Member of Congress who was serving in 2001, let alone one who is a member of the Defense Committee, have forgotten the Anthrax attacks?

1. Kingston claimed, "And it would have been that simple, just to say, 'You know what? This is a great country, and I’m just proud that people really are getting involved in this election.' That would have been the end of it." Given that Michelle Obama has claimed, "What I was clearly talking about was that I’m proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process," I somehow doubt that we should take Kingston at his word.

... Miniature American Flags for Others ...

William Kristol takes belated note of the fact that Barack Obama stopped wearing an American Flag lapel pin at the time it became a leading example of Republican tokenism - that is, after the 9/11 attacks, when Republicans (including G.W.) who were rarely if ever seen to wear a flag pin on their lapels made it part of their standard wardrobe.
But Obama chose to present his flag-pin removal as a principled gesture. “You know, the truth is that right after 9/11, I had a pin. Shortly after 9/11, particularly because as we’re talking about the Iraq war, that became a substitute for I think true patriotism, which is speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security, I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest.”

Leave aside the claim that “speaking out on issues” constitutes true patriotism. What’s striking is that Obama couldn’t resist a grandiose explanation. Obama’s unnecessary and imprudent statement impugns the sincerity or intelligence of those vulgar sorts who still choose to wear a flag pin. But moral vanity prevailed. He wanted to explain that he was too good — too patriotic! — to wear a flag pin on his chest.

Kristol builds a fascinating false dichotomy here - between flag pins and "speaking out" as the only possible illustrations of patriotism, with declining to wear a flag pin being pitched as the wrong choice.

I think Obama's is a peculiar approach to the issue, but the explanation was not volunteered by Obama at the start of his silent protest. It was elicited when a reporter asked about the issue. And let's be honest, Kristol wouldn't care what answer Obama gave. Just as it doesn't matter to Kristol that his Republican masters are once again using the flag as a political prop. Wrapping yourself in the flag for political gain, I guess, is what Kristol would deem "patriotism." It's fascinating how quickly Kristol is willing to leave aside "speaking out on issues that are of importance to our national security" as an illustration of patriotism - perhaps because the politicians he favors are so craven? At the end of his column, Kristol writes, "[McCain's] patriotism has consisted of deeds more challenging than “speaking out on issues" - an attack built off of the earlier false dichotomy. Are we to pretend Obama could have avoided this attack by wearing a flag on his lapel?

Kristol then proceeds to make the usual idiot's assertion about Michelle Obama's comments on pride.
Michelle Obama’s adult life goes back to the mid-1980s. Can it really be the case that nothing the U.S. achieved since then has made her proud?
Obviously it is possible to be proud in many specific accomplishments of a person, institution, or country without extrapolating that pride to the everything the person, institution or country does. For example, you can be impressed that Bill Kristol told the truth about G.W. driving the Iraq war into a ditch, while being appalled at his continued cheerleading of what he knows to be an incompetent effort. It goes both ways, as well. I'm sure a lot of people who work at the New York Times are proud of their paper, yet are horrified that somebody as willfully obtuse as Kristol now has a regular gig on the Op/Ed page.

The idea of an Obama "cult of personality" where the Democrats push forward a candidate who " tends too much toward the preening self-regard of Bill Clinton, the patronizing elitism of Al Gore and the haughty liberalism of John Kerry? Isn't that how a growing number of Republicans are presently describing G.W.?

In some senses, it's pathetic that the right-wing attack machine can find so little ammunition against Barack Obama that they are trying to turn Michelle Obama into Hillary, redux. How long will it be before she has to bashfully appear on daytime TV with a plate full of freshly baked cookies?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Those Ungrateful Bla... Afric... Obamas

Recently, Peggy Noonan wrote,
The Democrats have it exactly wrong. Hillary is the easier candidate, Mr. Obama the tougher. Hillary brings negative; it's fair to hit her back with negative. Mr. Obama brings hope, and speaks of a better way. He's not Bambi, he's bulletproof.

The biggest problem for the Republicans will be that no matter what they say that is not issue oriented--"He's too young, he's never run anything, he's not fully baked"--the mainstream media will tag them as dealing in racial overtones, or undertones. You can bet on this. Go to the bank on it.
You would think, as somebody who recognizes the racial subtext in attacks on the Obamas, that Noonan might be careful. Or perhaps she has decided that, whatever the risks, she needs to remind her readers, "The Obamas are black - and they're ungrateful." Speaking of Michelle Obama, Noonan writes,
I wonder if she knows that some people look at her and think "Man, she got it all." Intelligent, strong, tall, beautiful, Princeton, Harvard, black at a time when America was trying to make up for its sins and be helpful, and from a working-class family with two functioning parents who made sure she got to school
Noonan's choice of words is not accidental. She first attempts to invoke "Black English", and next suggests that Michelle Obama is not sufficiently grateful for having benefited from affirmative action. She goes on to admit that she doesn't actually care about the facts of Michelle Obama's background - "That's the great divide in modern America, whether or not you had a functioning family, and she apparently came from the privileged part of that divide". It would take her how many seconds to find a biography of Michelle Obama, or to contact somebody within the Obama campaign who could fill her in? No, the point here is to remind everybody that the Obama's are African American, probably only got where they are through affirmative action, and are committing the capital sin of being ungrateful. And in case you missed it,
A lot of white working-class Americans didn't come up with those things. Some of them were raised by a TV and a microwave and love our country anyway, every day.
(Does Noonan truly believe that "pride" and "love" are synonyms?)

After this column, it seems apparent that Noonan's concern is not that the media will wrongly infer racial overtones from Republican attacks on the Obamas. It's that when people like her attempt to inject racial overtones into the debate, they risk having somebody call them out.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Shifting Into Full "Get McCain Elected Mode" On The Iraq War

You never actually have to read past the headline to know what Charles Krauthammer is thinking, so today you read Democrats Dug In For Retreat and... nothing more needs to be said. (But that never seems to stop him.)

The column reflects Krauthammer's trademark mendacity, but probably highlights how McCain's supporters are going to try to depict the war in Iraq during the coming months. Never mind that it's another nine months before we will vote for the next President - plenty of time to see political progress based upon "the surge". Never mind that if there is real political progress within a year, the next President (of whatever party) will seek to build on that progress. No, under the Krauthammer model you rewrite history such that every missed benchmark for Iraq as set forth by Bush somehow becomes an artificial hurdle imposed by the Democrats. How absurd those Democrats are:
Democrats demand nothing less than federal-level reconciliation, and it has to be expressed in actual legislation.
To state the obvious, Democrats would see tremendous progress and cause for hope, even in the absence of federal level action, if there were an effective cessation of the armed conflict. Krauthammer, of course, promises no such thing - he is prepared to declare victory in the face of both the continuation of armed conflict and the failure of any progress in the formation of a national government. No benchmarks, no deadlines. Expecting measurable progress that suggests we could eventually reduce our troop forces or even withdraw? That's defeatist.

As the major newspapers love to remind us, they don't fact-check or edit editorials, so there's no check on Krauthammer-style mendacity. We don't have to look back very far to find the origins of the idea that progress in Iraq is marked by national reconciliation. The White House.
Today, President Bush gave an update to soldiers at Fort Jackson, S.C., on his September "Return on Success" speech and discussed some of the results of America's new strategy to win the fight in Iraq. Our new strategy in Iraq, including a surge in U.S. forces, has been fully operational for four months. This new strategy emphasizes securing the Iraqi population as the foundation for all other progress in the country; recognizes that once Iraqis feel safe they can begin to create jobs and opportunities; and builds on the idea that improvements in security will help the Iraqis achieve national reconciliation.
Which pretty much resolves the question of whether Krauthammer is ever going to let facts stand in the way of his opinions. As for this ridiculous expectation, foisted on us by our, um, Democratic President, Krauthammer continues,
The objection was not only highly legalistic but also politically convenient: Very few (including me) thought this would be possible under the Maliki government. Then last week, indeed on the day Cordesman published his report, it happened. Mirabile dictu, the Iraqi parliament approved three very significant pieces of legislation.
It was highly politically convenient to the Bush White House, because nobody thought that it could happen? Fascinating.
First, a provincial powers law that turns Iraq into arguably the most federal state in the entire Arab world. ... Second, parliament passed a partial amnesty for prisoners, 80 percent of whom are Sunni. Finally, it approved a $48 billion national budget that allocates government revenue - about 85 percent of which is from oil - to the provinces. Kurdistan, for example, gets one-sixth.
I think Krauthammer is being intentionally deceptive when he speaks of a single budget while ignoring total legislative gridlock over the division of oil revenues.
A law that could shape Iraq's future by clearing the way for investment in its oil fields is deadlocked by a battle for control of the reserves and no end to the impasse is in sight, lawmakers and officials say.
Also, the budget is not expected to improve the plight of individual Iraqis.

Okay... so what about the amnesty? An amnesty law will be progress, but once again we're discussing a law not yet approved or in effect (although it looks promising) and where it is not even clear how many people will benefit.
The measure would provide limited amnesty to detainees in Iraqi custody, although the precise number of people it would affect is not known. To become law, it must be signed by the other two members of the three-member presidency council: President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite.

"The vice president has no objections to the amnesty law, which will serve a big segment of detainees and convicted persons," a statement from his office said.

The measure excludes those held in U.S. custody and those imprisoned for a variety of crimes under Iraqi law, including terrorism, kidnapping, rape, antiquities smuggling, adultery and homosexuality.

It also excludes senior figures of the former Baath regime.

An amnesty law has been a key demand from the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, and is widely seen as a significant step toward national reconciliation.

"Approving this law will be a big achievement for all Iraqi people and also for the Iraqi Accordance Front, because of all its efforts to get it passed in the parliament," said Sunni lawmaker Asmaa al-Dulaimi.

"But the most important thing is how this law will be implemented," which needs to be reliable and consistent, al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
So yes, if the law passes and if the Sunnis find its implementation sufficient, that's a positive step. I am wary - it was only a few weeks ago that the new legislation supposedly reversing de-Baathification was being ballyhooed as a clear sign of progress, yet now even Krauthammer has dropped it from his list.

Finally, we have a provincial powers law, calling for provincial elections to be held no later than October 1. If the Iraqis pull this off, as I previously suggested, we will have a clear indication of whether this constitutes progress in advance of our own November elections. (But perhaps this time we will avoid hubris over "purple fingers of freedom".) I've been a strong advocate of trying to create a toehold for democracy at the local level, not that anybody has cared to listen to my opinion, so in my book this type of action is coming about four-and-a-half years behind schedule.

But you can see why the idea has Krauthammer retreating, full speed, from the idea of national reconciliation.
It will allow, for example, the pro-American Anbar sheiks to become the legitimate rulers of their province, exercise regional autonomy and forge official relations with the Shiite-dominated central government.
That is, it could create the context for eventual national reconciliation through federal elections, or it could lead to a fractious nation (or nations) comprised of assorted sheikhdoms with private armies - a recipe for long-term instability. While Krauthammer is willing to define as success the idea of an Iraq that is "arguably the most federal state in the entire Arab world", that's pretty much the opposite of what the Bush Administration has advocated for the past five years. Perhaps Krauthammer should pick up the phone and ask one of his White House contacts why they don't share his glee over the failure of their policies.
Despite all the progress, military and political, the Democrats remain unwavering in their commitment to withdrawal on an artificial timetable that inherently jeopardizes our "very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state."
Hm... What "artificial timetable" would that be? One that apparently exists only within the confines of Krauthammer's imagination.

What alternate timetable does Krauthammer endorse? As I indicated, this is his pro-McCain pitch, and there's not one word challenging McCain's notion that, progress or not, we should be prepared to keep doing the same thing for the next century or more.
Imagine the transformative effects in the region, and indeed in the entire Muslim world, of achieving a secure and stable Iraq, friendly to the United States and victorious over al-Qaeda. Are the Democrats so intent on denying George Bush retroactive vindication for a war they insist is his that they would deny their own country a now-achievable victory?
Bush has a year to prove his strategy in Iraq before the next President either takes over to build on his successes - successes that Krauthammer concedes we have to "imagine" - or tries to mitigate the damage from his many, many failures. If Bush ends up, as I expect, with a legacy of failure and incompetence, he will have nobody to blame but himself.

Why, Oh Why, Do Idiots Get National Syndicated Columns?

The Washington Post's resident "compassionate conservative" and proponent of good Evangelical Christian family values, Michael Gerson, today brings us a defense of infidelity.
Even if the accusation of infidelity were true, this kind of past relationship is hardly disqualifying for high office anymore, given a series of more prurient precedents.
Yeah, even if the Presidential candidate of the "family values" party has cheated on his wife, yawn, no biggie.
An affair between adults is a far cry from President Bill Clinton's exploitation of an intern, which involved not merely a failure of character but also an abuse of power.
Let's see... Monica Lewinski did not work for Bill Clinton, nor was he involved in supervising her. At the time their relationship started, Lewinski had accepted (but had not yet started) a staff position at the Office of Legislative Affairs. She was 22 years old and, if Gerson investigates, I'm sure he will be able to figure out that a 22-year-old is an adult. Lewinski has never claimed to have been "exploited" or even misled by Clinton.

Don't mistake this as a defense of Clinton. His judgment in this context was atrocious, both in having the relationship and in lying about it. But it is repulsive that people like Gerson (self-professed Christians and otherwise) are still lining their pockets by lying about the affair, or (giving him the benefit of the doubt, as such) that our nation's leading newspapers give immense compensation to columnists who are that stupid and ill-informed.

Am I attributing to stupidity what might better be explained by misogyny? Why the eagerness to infantilize a 22-year-old woman? Have any of the men who get all weepy about how Lewinsky was "exploited" ever engaged in similar infantilization of a 22-year-old male?

Compare and contrast:
Gov. George W. Bush - whom I worked for at the time - was forced to admit a youthful DUI conviction, which reinforced a public image of frat-boy recklessness. The Bush campaign questioned the timing and source of the revelation - both of which were questionable - but police reports are usually accurate.
You have G.W., admitting to a conviction of drunk driving, yet Gerson is still trying to imply that it may not have actually happened and is giving G.W. the "wink wink, nudge nudge, you know how frat boys are" treatment. Incredible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Michelle Obama's Pride

The right-wingers have been having fun with Michelle Obama's statement, "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change." Brit Hume decided to pretend that the statement excluded the possibility that she was proud of certain things the country has done (such as pushing back the invasion of Kuwait). Today Michelle Obama has issued a clarification of her remarks,
“What I was clearly talking about was that I’m proud in how Americans are engaging in the political process,” according to the Associated Press. “For the first time in my lifetime, I’m seeing people rolling up their sleeves in a way that I haven’t seen and really trying to figure this out - and that’s the source of pride that I was talking about.”
I believe that Michelle Obama was speaking to the feeling among many minority groups that the are marginalized and "don't really count". Under this interpretation it is a statement about race, and pride in a nation that is moving past the idea that "America is not ready for a black President." It's a bit like G.W.'s talking in code to the religious right - I suspect that her words were intended to resonate with a lot of people she hopes will vote for her husband over Clinton.

Why have Michelle Obama say the words? Because there is a recognition that any mention of race can inspire this sort of thing - "Maybe Democrats won't see it as a big deal, but the Republicans will. If Obama wins the nomination, they'll find some creative ways to spin it. I can just see the attack ads now - fear mongering commercials blasting that 'unapologetic Muslim' and his 'unpatriotic wife' who want to lead this nation in a 'time of war.'". Yeah, and in 1992 Hillary Clinton was depicted as a promiscuous lesbian who couldn't bake cookies - but it didn't cause her husband to lose the election. We voters barely care who the VP is, let alone the First Lady.

This is the sort of thing that can cause a right-wing nutter to make a poor choice of words or even curl up in a ball and suck his thumb. "Racialists"? Why shy away from the word "racist"? Must everybody speak in code?

So Let Me See If I Understand McCain's Approach to Obama....

McCain has unveiled an early strategy against Obama:
"I will fight every moment of every day in this campaign to make sure Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change."
If I understand this correctly, the young African American man who promises dramatic changes in domestic economic policy, health care coverage, and the Iraq war is the candidate of the status quo. Whereas a geriatric white Republican named John "I promise to continue every one of G.W. Bush's failed policies" McCain wants to make sure we're not "deceived" by his rhetoric.

Gee.... Thanks, John.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don't Worry, Obama Fans

There's quite a bit of hype today over whether Obama will still be appealing when the bloom comes off the rose. Blame it on New York, where the Daily News ran a piece describing the infatuation of some of Obama's supporters. Paul Krugman reacts,
One thing I worry about a lot if Obama is the Dem nominee - and he’s surely the frontrunner now - is that there will be a backlash against Obamamania. Actually, it’s already starting - probably too late to have much effect on the nomination fight, but in plenty of time to affect the general election.
Left-leaning Bloggers from California to Colorado are now wringing their hands.

Fear not.

If the magic ends, there's plenty of time for people to take a sober second look and... take it from somebody who never saw Obama as more than a politician... he's still not a bad choice. (The Obama-praising video, The Yes We Can Song, gave me some insight into why and how he inspires, yet it also reminded me of this. Sorry?)

Parliamentary Systems Versus Ours

If your mind is still reeling from Kristol's ability to draw the lesson of "Shut up and trust the government" out of an Orwell essay, you'll quickly recognize this as a much smaller defect in Kristol's editorial. But it's worth noting that when Orwell criticized a "permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England", he was referencing a parliamentary minority. In a parliamentary system, the Prime Minister is the leader of the ruling party. If that party has a majority of the seats in Parliament - a "majority government" - it can run roughshod over the minority party (or parties). We had something similar happen during the first six years of GW's Presidency. To conflate a parliamentary majority with control only of the executive, as Kristol did, reflects ignorance - be it actual or willful.

Why bother reading Orwell if you don't have sufficient knowledge or intellectual curiosity to figure out what he's talking about?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Citing Kipling... No, Make That Orwell... Against The Democrats

Continuing his series of editorials which should be under the tag line, "I'm not a stupid man, but I play one in the New York Times", William Kristol offers us a new gem - Democrats Should Read Kipling. Does this mean that Kristol has read Kipling? Hardly. He read, or perhaps skimmed, an essay by George Orwell discussing Kipling. Kristol tells us, "substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics," so let's try that with an early passage from Orwell's essay:1
It is no use pretending that [Republicans'] view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilized person. It is no use claiming, for instance, that when [a Republican] describes a British soldier beating a 'nigger' with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in [a Republican's] work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct - on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. [A Republican] is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.
Hm.... I guess that tells us where Kristol stands on the Republican's "Southern Strategy". Leaving aside Kristol's word substitution for the moment, let's see what else Orwell has to say about Kipling:
[Kipling] could not understand what was happening, because he had never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion. It is notable that Kipling does not seem to realize, any more than the average soldier or colonial administrator, that an empire is primarily a money-making concern. Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing. You turn a Gatling gun on a mob of unarmed 'natives', and then you establish 'the Law', which includes roads, railways and a court-house. He could not foresee, therefore, that the same motives which brought the Empire into existence would end by destroying it. It was the same motive, for example, that caused the Malayan jungles to be cleared for rubber estates, and which now causes those estates to be handed over intact to the Japanese. The modern totalitarians know what they are doing, and the nineteenth-century English did not know what they were doing.
Um... Kristol was defending the Republican party with this analogy? Not that he needs my words of approval, but I'll give Orwell credit for this insight about the ruling political left, although in many senses the conclusion applies to both the modern Democratic Party and Republican Party:
All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are 'enlightened' all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our 'enlightenment', demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling's understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, 'making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep'. It is true that Kipling does not understand the economic aspect of the relationship between the highbrow and the blimp. He does not see that the map is painted red chiefly in order that the coolie may be exploited. Instead of the coolie he sees the Indian Civil Servant; but even on that plane his grasp of function, of who protects whom, is very sound. He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.
G.W.'s neo-Republican instruction to the nation, entering a "time of war", was in essence, "Pretend nothing is wrong and keep shopping." His brand of conservativism is unapologetic for exploiting labor and resources - foreign and domestic - for the profit of corporate empire, but its fealty to the military services is nothing more than lip service. To the extent that the left can be called hypocritical for wanting to preserve an inflated standard of living at the expense of the poor, and being disrespectful of the military (and corporate) machine that makes it possible, it is hypocritical of the G.W. right-wing to profess respect for the military while disregarding the advice of its leadership and treating soldiers in a manner Tennyson might find admirable, but.... Well, let's go back to the essay, keeping in mind that Krisol sees the word "Republican" every time he reads Kipling's name. Commenting on Kipling's rendition of a Cockney accent, Orwell observes,
He ought to have seen that the two closing lines of the first of these stanzas are very beautiful lines, and that ought to have overriden his impulse to make fun of a working-man's accent. In the ancient ballads the lord and the peasant speak the same language. This is impossible to Kipling, who is looking down a distorting class-perspective, and by a piece of poetic justice one of his best lines is spoiled--for 'follow me 'ome' is much uglier than 'follow me home'.
None of this bothered Kristol? None of this made him pause and say, "Maybe I don't want to brand the Republican Party as being composed of Kiplings?" I suspect not. And I suspect that Kristol sees nothing wrong with making fun of the working man or his vernacular.
It is not only that [Kipling] thinks the soldier comic, but that he thinks him patriotic, feudal, a ready admirer of his officers and proud to be a soldier of the Queen. Of course that is partly true, or battles could not be fought, but 'What have I done for thee, England, my England?' is essentially a middle-class query. Almost any working man would follow it up immediately with 'What has England done for me?' In so far as Kipling grasps this, he simply sets it down to 'the intense selfishness of the lower classes' (his own phrase).
Let's talk selective quotations - I have boldfaced the portions of the following passage Kristol cherry-picked - care to guess why he omitted the rest?
One reason for Kipling's power as a good bad poet I have already suggested - his sense of responsibility, which made it possible for him to have a world-view, even though it happened to be a false one. Although he had no direct connexion with any political party, Kipling was a Conservative, a thing that does not exist nowadays. Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists. He identified himself with the ruling power and not with the opposition. In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, 'In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?', whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and 'the gods of the copybook headings', as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.
Wait a minute - the modern Republican Party gets Kristol's pat on the back for supposedly facing the question, "In such and such circumstances, what would you DO?" - despite the fact that even Kristol admits that its execution in Iraq has been atrocious, and despite other abject failures such as the post-Katrina debacle? Note to Kristol- I don't think the answer to that question is supposed to be, "We'll keep forging ahead with the same failed policies," or "Nothing." That's not leadership.

The long and the short of it appears to be that Kristol thinks he has read and understands Kipling because he skimmed (and largely failed to comprehend) an essay by George Orwell discussing Kipling. That raises the question, what would it take for Kristol to gain any sense of what Orwell thought - after all it's obvious he didn't pick up any insight from reading Orwell. Let's start by revisiting a sentence Kristol glossed over, " Those who now call themselves Conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists." Orwell was, obviously, extremely concerned about the rise and influence of fascism. So what do you think Orwell would make of this passage by Kristol?
The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of national intelligence, the retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, and the attorney general, the former federal judge Michael Mukasey, are highly respected and nonpolitical officials with little in the way of partisanship or ideology in their backgrounds. They have all testified, under oath, that in their judgments, certain legal arrangements regarding surveillance abilities are important to our national security. ...

But the Democratic House leadership balked - particularly at the notion of protecting from lawsuits companies that had cooperated with the government in surveillance efforts after Sept. 11. Director McConnell repeatedly explained that such private-sector cooperation is critical to antiterror efforts, in surveillance and other areas, and that it requires the assurance of immunity. “Your country is at risk if we can’t get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time,” he said.
So the generals and spies says "trust us," the corporations say "trust us", and Kristol wants to shame Democrats and liberals for saying, "Hey - wait a minute, what about rule of law? What about not having a surveillance society?" Do we have any sense of where Orwell might have come down on this question?

By the end of the essay, we have Orwell in essence depicting a modern-day adherent of Kipling as someone who "sold out to the ... governing class", among whom the "conservatives" are are now fact "Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists,"2 with his misperception of the reality of the ruling class leading him "into abysses of folly and snobbery"? I'm left wondering if Kristol writes his editorials at a desk, or while sitting in front of a highly polished vanity mirror.

1. Although this should go without saying, I'm presenting this as an illustration of how absurd Kristol's word-substitution game becomes within the context of the essay he purports to be quoting. If you have a problem with this depiction of Republicans, take it up with Kristol.

2. How careless of Orwell to have failed to anticipate Jonah Goldberg's "argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care", that liberals are fascists, and that neither liberals nor fascists are conservative. Unless they're George W. Bush, in which case they're liberals but presumably (somehow) not fascists. Or however that works.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Consequence of Teaching To The Test

What if the "teaching to the test" approach taken by many public schools, to raise their test scores under the bizarre school rating formula of "No Child Left Behind", doesn't translate into improved academic performance?
According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reading achievement of eighth-graders has declined since the law was passed in 2001, and the large reading gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children - "the achievement gap" - has stayed where it was. Today's eighth-graders had recorded gains in fourth grade, but these have not led to improvements in later grades - when reading scores actually count for a student's future.
The author suggests that this means, "'Teaching to the test' does not effectively teach to the test after all." That, of course, is incorrect. The whole purpose of "teaching to the test" is to improve performance on a particular test, and that unquestionably occurs. But it's like taking practice courses for the SAT or another aptitude test - you may in fact get a higher score, but that doesn't mean your aptitude is so much as 1% higher than it was prior to your taking the prep course.

The author suggests that this problem may be overcome by using better tests.
Congress and the states should note that the best tests to "teach to" are subject-matter tests based on explicit content standards for each grade. Massachusetts's results confirm that this is the best way to measure and to achieve real progress in reading.
But perhaps the real problem is that, no matter how laudable the goals of NCLB are, its excessive use of standardized testing and its excessive reliance upon those test scores to "rate" schools will perpetuate the emphasis on short-term test score improvement over long-term academic progress.

Taking Public Money

The Washington Post attacks Barack Obama for retreating (through a spokesman) from a pledge to forego private funding for the general election if his opponent did the same. Don't the anonymous editors who wrote the column read their own paper? They don't need to be quoting spokespersons:
Obama said in Milwaukee: "If I am the nominee, then I will make sure that our people talk to John McCain's people to find out if we are willing to abide by the same rules and regulations in respect to the general election." But, he added, "it would be presumptuous of me to start saying now that I'm locking myself into something when I don't even know if the other side is going to agree to it, and I'm not the nominee."
Obama denies that his inquiry constituted a pledge.
Last year, Mr. Obama sought an advisory ruling with the Federal Election Commission to see whether the campaign could opt out of public financing in the primary and accept it in the general election. It was merely an inquiry, he said, not a pledge to accept the financing.
Why all this negativity toward Obama, with an added dig at Hillary Clinton, but the kid gloves treatment of John McCain?
But this kind of backtracking and parsing isn't what the millions of voters who have been inspired by Mr. Obama are looking for. It's not befitting Mr. Obama's well-earned image as a champion of reform. Instead of waffling, Mr. Obama should be pushing Ms. Clinton to go beyond her spokesman's statements that she would "definitely consider" forgoing public financing.
Why not a word of criticism for John McCain, whose flip-flopping and manipulations on the issue of public financing are a matter of record?

McCain's present statements suggest that he 'll go back to his original commitment to use federal funds, but only if Obama makes that commitment first. The difference being, McCain actually signed on the dotted line to receive federal funds. Why is Mr. Straight-Talk excused from his abrogation of his signed and delivered application for federal funds, while Obama is excoriated for a non-binding commitment made in response to a questionnaire?

Addendum: I found the candidate's statements to the Midwest Democracy Network.
In February 2007, I proposed a novel way to preserve the strength of the public financing system in the 2008 election. My plan requires both major party candidates to agree on a fundraising truce, return excess money from donors, and stay within the public financing system for the general election. My proposal followed announcements by some presidential candidates that they would forgo public financing so they could raise unlimited funds in the general election. The Federal Election Commission ruled the proposal legal, and Senator John McCain (r-AZ) has already pledged to accept this fundraising pledge. If I am the Democratic nominee, I will aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election.
While Obama makes a strong commitment to public financing in elections, the Post elides the reference to John McCain and Obama's understanding of McCain's pledge. (A fair understanding, given that McCain actually applied for public funds.)

I wouldn't mind seeing Obama stay true to his beliefs, but let's not pretend that John "McCain-Feingold" is holding to his own commitments. If he weren't playing the "Despite what I said before, I'm not going to stick with my word unless Obama makes a binding commitment to use public financing" game, I would be much less forgiving of Obama. But he's doing just that.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

This Is Negative?

According to David Kurtz at Talking Points Memo, the following is a negative ad:
Both Democratic candidates were invited to a televised debate here in Wisconsin. Hillary Clinton has said yes. Barack Obama hasn't. Maybe he'd prefer to give speeches than have to answer questions. Like why Hillary Clinton has the only health care plan that covers every American. And the only economic plan that freezes foreclosures. Wisconsin deserves to hear both candidates debate the issues that matter. And that's not debatable.
The negativity, I suppose, would be said to derive from tone of voice during the suggestion that Barack would rather give speeches than debate, and perhaps from that suggestion itself. Except it's true, isn't it? So we're down to a slight change in tone of voice making an ad "negative"?

If we're truly to the point where it is "negative" to draw any distinction between yourself and your opponent, and to suggest that your approach is better, we've stripped the term of all meaning.

This seems to be an unfortunate example of a mainstream media-driven theme "Mean, evil Hillary" spilling over into a media site that usually does better. Obama doesn't drive that media negativity, but he surely does benefit from it.

At the end of the day, if Dick Morris is correct, Obama doesn't have much to worry about.

I Guess I Shouldn't Be Surprised, But....

I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard that a state representative was trying to convince Michigan to adopt "FairTax", the simplistic and unworkable concept of replacing all sources of state revenue with a sales tax on goods and services. This will take a constitutional amendment so, yes, they're working on a petition drive. Let's hope for Michigan's sake that, if the drive succeeds, the state's voters don't turn out to be as starry-eyed and foolish as the proponents of this "reform".

One of the leading proponents, Representative Fulton Sheen (R-Plainwell), promises, essentially, that this will be a break-even for Michigan - raise the sales tax to 9.5% on all services and new goods, and that will make up for eliminating property taxes, state income taxes, state business taxes, etc. (It isn't clear whether this is a standard "FairTax" sleight of hand, with a 9.5% tax actually translating into something more like 11%, or if, like FairTax, it will also require the government to pay taxes in order to disguise If joined with the "dream" of a federal FairTax, government spending would have to go up by about 40% to pay the "tax bill" (the government presently being tax-exempt), and the sales tax on any goods or services you buy will be about 40%. (New homes are taxed, "used" homes are not. So that $250,000.00 newly constructed home will cost you $350,000.00. That's certain to inspire a revival of the construction industry.)

Let's look at the promises made by the "petition drive":
The MI FairTax:
* Makes sure everyone pays their fair share
* Allows you to keep your entire pay check free of state taxes
* Un-taxes the poor with a rebate on the necessities of life
* Stimulates investment, economic growth and job creation

The MI FairTax is Simple:
* NO Tax Filings
* NO Loopholes
* NO Hidden Taxes

Hm. So the poor will receive a FairTax rebate simply by asking for it - no tax return necessary, and thus no verification of qualification. Purchasing your goods and services out-of-state and thus tax-free? Apparently you don't have to file a return so that the state can collect "Use Tax". And everybody who qualifies (perhaps just by asking) will receive a monthly "welfare check" from the state.

No tax loopholes? (Other than the big, obvious one of buying out-of-state?) Well, I'm promised that "all business-to-business transactions would be exempt" from the tax. So I start a small furniture showroom, buy my household furnishings for the showroom, then sell them to myself a few months down the line as demo units. That should lower my tax bill. No, wait - better. I'll declare that I am a journalist performing product testing, and thus everything in my house is owned by my business. I'll blog about wear-and-tear and product quality, and suddenly everything I buy is tax-free. Since I won't be filing a tax return, the government will have a hard time detecting my actions, let alone challenging them in court.
In short, the FairTax is too good to be true, and voters should not take seriously any candidate who supports it.
The WSJ and I appear to be on the same page on this issue....

"He Has A Gun, Officer...."

"And he's wired it to his ears."
Armed police arrested a man listening to his MP3 player and took a sample of his DNA after after a fellow commuter mistook his music player for a gun.

Darren Nixon, 28, had been waiting at a bus stop in Stoke-on-Trent on his way home from work on Saturday afternoon when a woman saw him reach into his pocket and take out his black Phillips MP3 player. She thought it was a pistol and called 999.

Police then tracked Nixon using CCTV. When he got off the bus, armed officers surrounded him. He was then driven to a police station, kept in a cell and had his fingerprints, photograph and DNA taken.
There, but for the Bill of Rights....

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

LexisNexis Pulls An AOL

You know, as somebody who has used LexisNexis for years (and yes, it costs a lot of money), I didn't expect them to give me such great difficulty in canceling my account. But they "pulled an AOL".

When I tried to find a contact number to reach them on their website, well, they don't make it obvious. When I got through to a representative I was told, "You can only cancel your account through your account representative." (Every time I have had to contact my representative, it has been a different person.) The reason is obvious - they want to try to talk you out of ending the service, instead of simply complying with your request.

My representative? I had to leave a voice mail. Her message indicated that she was out of the office for the week, and would not be checking her messages during that time. There's some great customer service for you. She called back today, apparently having been too busy on Monday to return my call, and immediately went into her "Why, why, why" routine. When I told her that I didn't want to explain my decision, but simply wanted my request to be granted, I got a very curt response. I indicated that she was doing a pretty good job of ensuring that they don't get my business in the future and I got the complaint, "You're not telling us how we can get your business, anyway."

Sure I was. It's just that she wasn't listening. If they wanted my business in the future, they would have treated me with respect, would have honored my request to cancel my account, and would not have required that I jump through hurdles. If they truly wanted my business, they might even have thanked me for my years of patronage.

She then imposed yet another hoop for me to jump through - I had to send her an email requesting cancellation.

If they really want to know the "big secret" for why I was canceling, here goes: When my contract was almost up, I got an impersonal letter from them indicating that if I did not promptly renew my fees would be increased. The rep who was so interested in why I was canceling didn't call to see why I hadn't renewed. Then WestLaw called, and offered a really nice package. Which isn't surprising, because that's what people do when they want your business - they call you and try to sell you their services.

I switched from WestLaw to Lexis a number of years ago. At that time, all I had to do was contact West and request that they cancel my account. They were very polite, and didn't impose any further hurdles or hoops. I will be disappointed if that's not the case in the future, should I cancel my WestLaw account, but... Let's just say it's a good thing for Lexis that it will be a few years before my contract with West is up. I have no present interest in switching back to Lexis.

Political Divisions

Taking on David Brooks' idiocy in a somewhat more comprehensive manner.... When I saw the headline for his piece, and the blurb in the New York Times RSS feed, I thought, "He's stating the obvious." You can't win a national election without pulling together people with divergent interests, and you can't make major policy changes without causing some of them to become unhappy with you. Such an article would have been stating the obvious, but for the most part that's all Brooks does.

Instead, he claims that even though the Democratic candidates are running on a platform that puts health care reform front and center, and Iraq war policy close behind, that the people who vote them into office will suddenly become aghast at any effort to translate those campaign promises into policy. Note to David: Those people are going to vote for McCain.

Brooks first imagines that the Arab world will oppose our withdrawal from Iraq (as if we would withdraw to the point that we could not continue to guarantee the flow of oil), that the military will oppose withdrawal (loss of military progress, even in the face of zero political progress), and he imagines that this withdrawal would occur on the eve of elections (yeah, right) and thus that Americans would scream about our not giving the elections a chance. (Because the last elections, and the associated propaganda about "purple fingers of freedom" proved so successful in turning things around, right?) He also imagines that the fringe group who wants to "bring all the troops home now" will have the ear of Congress or the President. They won't.

I think it is pretty clear at this point that we will not see political progress in Iraq as long as we maintain the status quo. The Shiites have no incentive to share power with the Sunnis - they are the majority, and are happy to wait us out and make Iraq their country. The Sunnis have no incentive to compromise with the Shiites - the compromises offered tend to worsen their position, anyway, and they don't expect a long-term benefit from any current deal. The Kurds are pretty much doing their own thing - does anybody actually expect them to join in any sort of Iraqi state that would be able to impose its will upon them, as opposed to a loose confederation? The Iraqis don't share all of our goals for the country, and even when they do they aren't necessarily capable of implementing them. Prolonging the occupation won't change that.

Brooks is one of the champions of endless war. He'll be one of those bringing out a "parade of horribles" about what withdrawal will mean. He'll be among those smearing the proponents of any effort to end the war. But he as no ideas - zero, zilch, nada - about ending the conflict. The answer from his brand of useful idiot is always the same, "Even if our track record is one of total political failure, we should just keep doing what we're doing."

You know what? Brooks has a full year to demonstrate that "doing the same thing, over and over again" will finally produce different results. If it does not, I fully expect that the 61% or so of the population that supports withdrawal will grow. If he truly wishes endless war, he had better start thinking of something more persuasive than, "If we keep doing the same thing, eventually things might improve."

This also ties into his second argument - that despite eight years of total fiscal irresponsibility under G.W., it falls upon the Democrats to once again play the part of the fiscal grown-ups, balance the budget, and pay down the debts of an irresponsible Republican administration. Say what you want about Congress passing the budget, the fact is our present fiscal situation is the direct result of Congress's implementing GW's spending (and tax cut) priorities. Brooks whines that health care reform will be expensive. Yes, but here's one for him - it can be sold as a trade, with the $200 billion per year we're wasting in Iraq being shifted over to a policy that actually benefits Americans. (Sorry if you don't like the term "waste" - but for the period of time after Hussein's regime was toppled, unless and until we achieve political progress we're pouring good money after bad.) During the transition out of Iraq, they can borrow from GW's "Brooks-endorsed playbook" - "We're at war, so we get to run up deficits, and not to worry - the budget will (miraculously) balance in five years," coupled with optimistic budget projections.