Thursday, July 31, 2008

Did You See What He Just Did?

Playing the race card? From the "bottom of the deck"? It's stating the obvious, but....
Perhaps more important, Obama's remarks wouldn't have been seen as playing the race card if Davis hadn't issued this release. After all, the best way to play the race card sometimes is to accuse the other side of playing it.
Let's put the responsibility where it belongs, though. This wouldn't be an issue if Obama would stop acting like a self-absorbed, slutty white chick. (But please... no pictures where he's getting out of a car while wearing a short skirt, and....)

Peace Is At Hand....

One of Henry Kissinger's finer moments:
In October [of 1972] Kissinger euphorically reported to the world that "peace is at hand" in Viet Nam. Then, as it has so many times before in America's longest and strangest war, the peace proved once again elusive. As the Paris negotiations dissolved in a fog of linguistic ambiguities and recriminations, Richard Nixon suddenly sent the bombers north again. All through the year, Nixon and Kissinger labored at a new global design, a multipolar world in which an equilibrium of power would ensure what Nixon called "a full generation of peace." But at year's end, the design remained dangerously flawed by the ugly war from which, once again, there seemed no early exit.
If you don't study history, or even if you do, you may find that it repeats itself - today, Henry Kissinger "has McCain's back", and argues that peace is at hand in Iraq.

This is an example of a smart man, even one whose foreign policy mistakes are something of legend, lowering himself to writing a base, simplistic diatribe - something one might expect in an undergraduate speech class, but that somebody of Kissinger's background and intelligence would have to know is an unadulterated heap of crap. But Kissinger's not trying to convince himself. He's trying to convince people at the margins of the Republican party who are sick of the war that they should back McCain. And he's counting on them not to think very hard about his claims and assertions.

Kissinger opens with one of the famously nebulous "They say"-type assertions, that allow you to fabricate a claim that you put into the mouths of people who don't actually exist.
Above all, [supporters of a deadline for withdrawal] argued, the war was lost, and withdrawal would represent the least costly way to deal with the debacle.
I'll grant that you will be able to find isolated individuals who took that position, but they're exceptions. Which of course is why Kissinger fails to identify any actual people who hold this position - to do so would only serve to highlight how exceptional it is. He's also conflating two issues - the question of whether the war is lost, and the question of whether withdrawal is the "least costly" (and here it's not clear if we're talking lives, dollars, political influence, something else, or some combination thereof) option. It's possible to believe that we're winning, but that we should still get out of Iraq on a short timetable.

Kissinger attempts to argue that there are three reasons why "events" have overtaken arguments in support of withdrawal. He claims that al-Qaeda (and here he seems to mean the real thing, not "al-Qaeda in Iraq") "seems on the run"; the Sunni insurrection "has largely died down"; and the Shiite dominated central government has "at least temporarily" suppressed Shiite militias that challenged its authority. In other words, even in pitching this as a great success, Kissinger can't bring himself to claim any concrete achievements. He couches his claims in appearances or as temporary. He continues, "Of course, we cannot tell now whether these changes are permanent or whether, and to what extent, they reflect a decision by our adversaries, including Iran, to husband their forces for the aftermath of the Bush administration." That's kind of important, don't you think? If we're going to be declaring that "peace is at hand", we don't want to be in a situation where "at year's end, the design remain[s] dangerously flawed by the ugly war from which, once again, there seem[s] no early exit" - do we?

Kissinger apparently has forgotten the mantra of the past five years, "Iraq is not Vietnam". He quickly resorts to the standard, Vietnam War line that we must try to mind read our enemies, and we can't do anything that could potentially make our enemies see us as weak.
Any appearance that radical Islamic forces were responsible for a U.S. defeat would have enormous destabilizing consequences far beyond the region.
This may sound incredibly empowering to our enemies - they get to dictate our foreign policy. Except, of course, that it's not really about what our enemy might want - it's about Kissinger. If the shoe were on the other foot, and somebody were telling him "Your policies strengthen the enemy" - for example, "Staying in Iraq provides terrorists with a powerful recruiting tool, in attracting people to plot against us, kill our soldiers, and potentially attack civilian targets," he would be dismissive. If the enemy flat-out said something like, "I'm trying to draw you into a protracted, unwinnable war in the Middle East in order to weaken your military", they would presumably be deemed to be lying. Facts, schmacts - the enemy never benefits from Kissinger's policies, but always benefits from the policies of those who oppose him.

Kissinger paints a portrait of how he sees things magically unfurling from this point forward, concluding,
American deployment is transformed from abdication into part of a geopolitical design. Its culmination should be a diplomatic conference charged with establishing a formal peace settlement.
Hey - let's hold it in Paris!

Kissinger imagines himself clairvoyant, presenting a parade of horribles that a deadline would supposedly create:
  • "It will encourage largely defeated internal groups to go underground until a world more congenial to their survival arises with the departure of American forces." We're supposed to assume this hasn't already happened? Or that the factions presently paid for cooperating and working with the U.S. won't turn their backs on our interests (if not take up arms against us) the moment the payments stop? How is this changed by the presence or absence of a deadline?

  • "Al-Qaeda will have a deadline against which to plan a full-scale resumption of operations." Again he seems to be playing the cheap parlor trick of conflating "al-Qaeda" with "al-Qaeda in Iraq". The former group wasn't in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, and seems perfectly happy with us stayin in Iraq forever. But if Kissinger's describing the latter group, and if it's truly about to pop up like a jack-in-the-box the moment any pressure is taken off the lid, this argument belies Kissinger's claims about the success of the surge and how ready the Sunni factions are to join a unity government. Even if he means that Sunnis might again invite and support foreign fighters from al-Qaeda proper, his claim speaks ill of his notion that the nation is ready to reconcile.

  • "And it will give Iran an incentive to strengthen its supporters in the Shiite community for the period after the American withdrawal." Who are Iran's supporters in the Shiite community? I mean, other than people like Maliki and Chalabi? Really, we're going to have to deal with the fact that Shiite-controlled Iraq is going to be close with Shiite-controlled Iran, and continued occupation isn't going to create a magic separation barrier between the two states.

  • "Establishing a fixed deadline would also dissipate assets needed for the diplomatic endgame." For instance? (But making conclusory statements is more fun than, you know, making substantive claims.)

Kissinger goes on to explain that with a timetable, you might not have sufficient combat forces in place if things go to Hades in a handbasket. But he ridicules the notion that the withdrawal of forces could be measured against any new insurrection or resurgence of violence, with troops kept in place for longer if needed. He then proposes that McCain is going to withdraw a secret number of troops - presumably just the right number to keep anything bad from happening while giving us more manpower for fighting in Afghanistan - but that this mystical troop withdrawal won't threaten the stability of Iraq. Wonderful - not only is "peace at hand", we are now counting on McCain's secret plan to deliver it!

Toward the end, he delivers a real gem:
These considerations explain Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's conduct on the occasion of Obama's visit to Iraq. Maliki is negotiating with the Bush administration about a status-of-forces agreement for the residual forces to remain in Iraq. Given popular attitudes and the imminence of provincial elections, he probably wanted to convey that the American presence was not planned as a permanent occupation. The accident of the arrival of a presidential candidate, who had already-published views on that subject, reinforced that incentive. To reject the senator's withdrawal plan in front of a large media contingent would have been to antagonize someone with whom Maliki might have to deal as president.
At least it's not a repeat of the absurd "Maliki was ambiguous" argument raised by other McCain shills. But get this - Kissinger concedes that Iraqis want our forces out on a timetable, meaning that the Iraqis apparently see none of the dangers proposed by Kissinger or see them as a good thing. (If it's the former, it's classic Kissinger narcissism - nobody could know the situation better than him, even if they're living through it. If it's the latter, it undermines his entire thesis.) But beyond that, he's arguing that Maliki was happy to spit in the eye of the sitting President, and undermine the position of the Republican presidential candidate, because the Democratic candidate might win. Why wasn't Maliki concerned about antagonizing the President, or the other person "with whom Maliki might have to deal as president"? Kissinger's rationalization is insipid.

As you would expect, for his closing statement Kissinger falls back on Vietnam.
Thirty years ago, Congress cut off aid to Vietnam and Cambodia two years after American troops had been withdrawn and local forces were still desperate to resist. Domestic divisions had overcome all other considerations. We must not repeat the tragedy that followed.
Of course it could be that but for our war in Vietnam, that country would not be one of the five remaining communist nations in the world (Vietnam, Laos, China, Cuba, North and Korea). It could be that, but for the illegal war Kissinger supported in Cambodia, Pol Pot would never have come to power. It could be that a continued war in Vietnam would have resulted in a worse outcome than we presently see - a nation that is still communist and oppressive, but which has become our trade partner instead of our military adversary.

If the worst case scenario for Iraq was that it would end up, after twenty-five or thirty years, looking like modern Vietnam, would Kissinger truly want to roll the dice on endless war? (I suspect so, but he should at least have the honesty of admitting that he's gambling, and could bring about a much worse outcome.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why Isn't Obama Soaring?

I don't ordinarily pay much attention to Maureen Dowd, but she raises an issue today that should be addressed, and is in fact addressed in part by her column. Why hasn't Obama been able to deliver an early knock-out punch to McCain?

When I say it's addressed in part in Dowd's column, I don't mean directly. I mean through her trademark clever rhetoric, backhanded compliments, and standard depiction of Democrats as effete. When she turns her sights on Obama, commenting on his recent international tour, she states,
Some news analyses of his trip wondered “Where’s the Bounce?” The old Hillary refrain - why can’t he close the deal against a supposedly flawed opponent - echoes.
Why would that refrain echo? It was only a few months ago that the Clinton campaign was arguing that Obama was the flawed candidate. Are we to forget who closed that deal?

Here we have Dowd personifying two of the problems Obama faces:
  • Reporters and commentators who are more interested in the campaign itself than they are in the substantive issues underlying the race - the candidate's platforms, ideas, and proposals; and

  • Reporters and commentators who want to make this a personality contest, but based upon their own prejudices and preconceptions as opposed to the actual personalities of the candidates. McCain's incredible gaffes on foreign policy issues are ignored, but the slightest misstep by Obama during his travels would have been seized upon as "proof" that he's unfit for the Presidency.

Yesterday's column by Richard Cohen also exemplifies these flaws in the coverage of the campaign. Cohen praises McCain for taking actions that typically helped him politically and were at worst neutral, while attacking Obama for having the happy coincidence that his braver political stances (like McCain's) happened to coincide with the views of his constituency. He's so wedded to the notion of McCain the "maverick" and "straight talker" that he implies McCain was pained by his need to flip-flop and pander. He accuses Obama of a lack of loyalty when a "position or person becomes a political liability. (Names available upon request.)" - this is supposed to be taken seriously? Of course we want the names. If there's any substance to this accusation, why is his column nothing but fluff?

Cohen's worst sin is the same as Dowd's - he won't look past the latest campaign ads or his own preconceptions of the candidates to state why one is better than the other. Is there some reason Cohen needs people to spoon feed him a list of Obama's accomplishments? If he wants to know what Obama stands for, is there some reason that he can't simply go to Obama's website and read his platform? Is that too much work? Is it not worth their time to be substantive? Is it that much more fun to be derisive? (Yes ,it's a two-way street; it just happens that McCain is getting the benefit of this right now - the "come from behind maverick" versus "the guy who can't close the deal.")

Another problem frequently gets raised by others. Hillary Clinton got some negative attention for it. Chris Matthews can't stop talking about it. Obama's "problem with white people". This can be taken in one of two ways - as a suggestion that, unlike others, white people are particularly perceptive, attuned to the issues, and able to see through the dross. This special awareness makes them better able to perceive the real differences between the candidates, and they aren't sold on Obama. The other way to look at it is that white people have a problem voting for a candidate who isn't white. If that's the case, Obama's going to have a tough time getting the "bounce" he needs because he isn't able to change his skin color.

If we are to be honest about this, we can concede that there is a block of voters that will not vote for Obama because of his race, period, end of story. There's also a block of voters predisposed against Obama because of his race, but that could be inspired to support him anyway based upon the issues. It would be nice if the media would start focusing on the issues that distinguish McCain from Obama, so voters are better able to pick a candidate based on those issues. But instead we get silly columns that ignore Obama's accomplishments in favor of the "we're gambling on the unknown" narrative, or ask why he can't "close the deal" with that group of undecided voters who don't even know what the deal involves. Oh, it's not that there isn't some truth to that narrative - if there weren't it wouldn't stick - but Cohen parrots it and twists the few facts he knows to fit his thesis, rather than making even a slight effort to uncover facts that might paint a different picture.

In a sense, this is the same thing we saw eight years ago, with the media selling us the nonsensical notion that there was no real difference between Bush and Gore, save perhaps that you would rather "have a beer with" Bush. Why not a column taking a hard look at the candidate's respective health policies? Their economic policies, and how they would deal with the massive (in my book inexcusable) fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration? At energy policy? Jobs, education, or immigration? The nation's crumbling infrastructure?

Free Markets At Work

The inimitable Rush Limbaugh:
Now, here in the United States, for a whole host of reasons, chief among them the high price of gasoline - But I also think there's a herd mentality in this, too. People apparently, supposedly, according to Drive-By Media reports, for the last two months, three months, have been showing up at automobile dealerships and trying to trade in their SUVs and other automobiles that are, quote, unquote, gas hogs, 'cause they can't afford 'em anymore with the tipping point price of gasoline now reaching four bucks per gallon. So we here in America, the most prosperous, the most advanced, the freest, greatest potential, the most amazing collection of human beings in the history of collections of human beings, we are getting rid of our SUVs and pickup trucks, and we are in the process of downsizing to driving bubbles with wheels, lawn mowers with wheels, battery powered cars and so for forth, what are they doing in China?

What are the ChiComs doing - while we move ourselves back to the Stone Age - well, at least in that direction. China's most popular car is an SUV. SUV sales in China are exploding. "Nodding his head to the disco music blaring out of his car's nine speakers, Zhang Linsen swings the shiny, black Hummer H2 out of his company's gates and on to the spacious four-lane road. 'In China, size matters,' says Zhang, the 44-year-old founder of a media and graphic design company. 'People want to have a car that shows off their status in society. No one wants to buy small.' Zhang grasps the wheels of his Hummer, also called a fierce horse in Chinese, and hits the accelerator. Car ownership in China is exploding, and it's not only cars but also sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and other gas-guzzling rides."
How can we be living in this horror, where Americans respond to market forces by buying fuel efficient vehicles while China's new elite do not?
Folks, I don't know what the price of gasoline is in China and I don't know to what extent, if any, it is subsidized - okay, it is subsidized. See, the ChiComs need their economy growing. They need people driving around, moving around. They need people to be able to afford fuel, so they're subsidizing fuel. They're not bailing people out of stupid home mortgage messes. They're buying their gasoline for them, because they need an economy.
It defies parody.

Reinventing Education

Following up on his prior editorial, David Brooks again reminds us of the importance of education. To his credit, this time he doesn't try to find partisan advantage in the Obama campaign's platform as compared to McCain's silence:
Third, it’s worth noting that both sides of this debate exist within the Democratic Party. The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant. If you look at Barack Obama’s education proposals — especially his emphasis on early childhood - you see that they flow naturally and persuasively from this research. (It probably helps that Obama and Heckman are nearly neighbors in Chicago). McCain’s policies seem largely oblivious to these findings. There’s some vague talk about school choice, but Republicans are inept when talking about human capital policies.
There truly is a tension between Brooks and his party on these issues. While Brooks enjoys mocking "big government" programs as much as any other Republican, he appears to have his own vision for a similar set of programs, particularly programs directed at children from birth through the age of five (focusing on "motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability"), but followed by improved K-12 education, (as you might expect) a community service requirement for young people (even though he has never participated in the type of public service he advocates), and universal college education. His nod to conservatism is that he deems his programs investments in "human capital".

Brooks puts himself squarely at odds with that icon of conservative education policy, Charles Murray. He's not locked into Murray's ideology in which your IQ (which he, of course, links to race) dictates your fate, college may become an irrelevancy, but the kids he deems intellectually inferior can still make a good living by learning skilled trades and working for rich people. Brooks rejects the idea that IQ, or at least future academic performance, cannot be substantially improved by strengthening families and homes, and providing a strong educational framework for early childhood development.
Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

I.Q. matters, but Heckman points to equally important traits that start and then build from those early years: motivation levels, emotional stability, self-control and sociability. He uses common sense to intuit what these traits are, but on this subject economists have a lot to learn from developmental psychologists.
He just has no real idea how to get there from here.

Brooks has a vision of college that is pretty much the opposite of Murray's, but he isn't basing his argument on the facts.
Goldin and Katz describe a race between technology and education. The pace of technological change has been surprisingly steady. In periods when educational progress outpaces this change, inequality narrows. The market is flooded with skilled workers, so their wages rise modestly. In periods, like the current one, when educational progress lags behind technological change, inequality widens. The relatively few skilled workers command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.
Yet if we're defining a "skilled worker" as one with a college education, college graduates aren't doing particularly well. The wealthy - the truly wealthy - whether they earned or inherited their way into the top 1%, are thriving.
The 2006 Economic Report of the President tells us that the real earnings of college graduates actually fell more than 5 percent between 2000 and 2004. Over the longer stretch from 1975 to 2004 the average earnings of college graduates rose, but by less than 1 percent per year.

* * *

Between 1972 and 2001 the wage and salary income of Americans at the 90th percentile of the income distribution rose only 34 percent, or about 1 percent per year. So being in the top 10 percent of the income distribution, like being a college graduate, wasn't a ticket to big income gains.

But income at the 99th percentile rose 87 percent; income at the 99.9th percentile rose 181 percent; and income at the 99.99th percentile rose 497 percent. No, that's not a misprint.
I can agree with this part of Brooks' thesis - we need to find ways to foster the best performance from our nation's children. We should provide a context where any child who has the interest and aptitude for college has the opportunity to attend. But I also want to see college shift back toward being a place of intellectual exploration and growth, from its current trend toward being a form of trade school. That means not attempting universal college education. Give those who want it the opportunity to catch up at a community college or junior college before entering a four year school, but expect those entering a four year degree program to hit the ground running. Don't dumb down undergraduate and graduate programs to accommodate students who don't belong in the program, including those who wish to coast through a program because they get an automatic raise at work when they get the degree.

And what of the employer side? When I talk to people who graduated from college in the 1950's and 1960's, they often describe a world in which your degree (whatever your major) opened pretty much any door. One described how, with a teaching degree, he was heavily recruited into entry level business management positions. Through the 1970's and 1980's, there was a shift toward more specialized degrees (e.g., the MBA), but there was still a lot of opportunity for college graduates regardless of their major. For those inclined toward math or computers, the opportunities were particularly great, and that was followed by a period in the dot-com boom where pretty much anybody with a degree and a pulse could get a job doing something web-related.

But the overall trend has been toward the four year college degree as a vocational degree - with students wanting to know both, "What job can I get with this degree", and "What will it pay?" Jobs that once required a high school diploma, for reasons that are sometimes genuine but may also be arbitrary, often now demand a college degree. Jobs that once required an undergraduate degree often now demand a masters. The universality of college can make it harder to get ahead, and plays a significant role in the flattening of salaries for college graduates.

Meanwhile, with the cost of college going through the roof, the incentive increases to enter a field that "pays well". Colleges that used to get a lot of working and returning students have to battle for students (and money) with diploma mills like the University of Phoenix. Students who feel forced to pursue a degree "to get a decent job" can drag down a class, due to academic unpreparedness and their disinterest in certain (often "harder") classes. At the same time, between the rising costs of U.S. colleges, increased domestic opportunities for college, and U.S. immigration policy, we can no longer count on the population of foreign students that used to help fill up our college classrooms.

One of the joys of being a columnist (or a blogger) is that you don't have to "put up" - you can produce a new euphemism for great society programs ("This isn't a 'big government' program - it's an investment in human capital"), or make a broad set of proposals and suggestions while pretending they carry no social or economic price tag. But at the end of the day, if you're serious about reform, you have to somehow tie those ideas to reality. As Brooks occasionally, grudgingly implies, the first step in implementing his own ideas and reforms is by targeting the only political party that cares about these issues - in his own words, on this front "The G.O.P. is largely irrelevant." (But even if he starts supporting the party that is more consistent with his stated ideology, it's going to be hard to get any traction.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Batman and the Conservative Movie List

In his much ridiculed editorial in which he gushingly compares G.W. to Batman, Andrew Klavan endorses a set of movies as representing "conservative values".
"The Dark Knight," then, is a conservative movie about the war on terror. And like another such film, last year's "300," "The Dark Knight" is making a fortune depicting the values and necessities that the Bush administration cannot seem to articulate for beans.

Conversely, time after time, left-wing films about the war on terror -- films like "In The Valley of Elah," "Rendition" and "Redacted" -- which preach moral equivalence and advocate surrender, that disrespect the military and their mission, that seem unable to distinguish the difference between America and Islamo-fascism, have bombed more spectacularly than Operation Shock and Awe.

Why is it then that left-wingers feel free to make their films direct and realistic, whereas Hollywood conservatives have to put on a mask in order to speak what they know to be the truth? Why is it, indeed, that the conservative values that power our defense -- values like morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right -- only appear in fantasy or comic-inspired films like "300," "Lord of the Rings," "Narnia," "Spiderman 3" and now "The Dark Knight"?
Now if he spent some time actually thinking about things, he might realize that movies that come across as preachy and condescending frequently stumble at the box office. Politics are beside the point. He might also recall the adulatory reviews given by the likes of Charles Krauthammer and William F. Buckley Jr. to "Master and Commander", a movie surprisingly void of such conservative film icons as scantily clad Spartans or men wearing masks and tights. And it might occur to him that Hollywood films with huge special effects budgets often succeed despite a lack of overall merit. His inability to find any conservative themes in successful live action films suggests either that he has a poor overall concept of conservatism, or that he doesn't get out of the house much. He's apparently also missed the wild success of Wall-E, despite the contention of various self-described conservatives that it's left-wing propaganda.

(A small caution - I'm going to reveal some plot elements for the listed films so, if you haven't yet seen them and intend to do so, proceed with caution.)

The bigger problem with Klavan's analysis is not just that he's wrong about conservatism only being depicted in adaptations of children's stories and comic books. It's his vision of conservatism as exemplified by Batman engaged in a Manichean battle against absolute evil, and projecting that comic book universe onto the real world. If that's not silly enough, even within Batman's simplified universe, Klavan sees no nuance nor does he have any sense of Batman's internal struggle. This is perhaps exemplified by Klavan's similarly child-like take on the other films he lists as emblematic of conservatism.

Let's start with Narnia and Lord of the Rings, films set in a mystical, magical world. Why, to someone like Klavan, are these films "conservative"? Is it because they're materially different from the story lines of, say, the Harry Potter films? Or is it because the authors wove Christian theology into their texts? Obviously, the latter. So is Klavan arguing that any movie that attempts to teach religion is "conservative" in nature, or is he instead arguing that any film that arguably advances Christianity, preferably Christianity locked in a literal battle against the forces of absolute evil, is "conservative"? By all appearances it's the latter.

Klavan also seems to believe that this is the first time that Narnia or Lord of the Rings have been adapted to the screen. Hardly. The films he adores represent the first time they were adapted as big budget films using cutting edge special effects. Just as Klavan doesn't mind if messages he deems "conservative" are lost in all that high tech eye candy, a lot of audience members don't mind if those same themes (or themes that Klavan might describe as liberal, even within those same films) appear somewhere alongside or behind all that eye candy. If Klavan truly cared about the themes, for example, he would be advocating one of the earlier, more literal and less splashy adaptations of Narnia. Or, if you can imagine, even telling people to "read the books".

Given his conflation of conservatism with Christianity, it is interesting to see Klavan include 300 in his list of "conservative" films. Of course, 300 plays it safe - Leonidas is depicted as being in contempt of the priests, and the uncomfortable details of Spartan life are carefully elided from the depiction. That gives Klavan a sufficiently sanitized Sparta, in which he again perceives a battle of absolute good against absolute evil. If he were even slightly predisposed to do so, this enables him to avoid having to stop and think, "Other than it's extraordinary militarism, what is it about Sparta that I see as representing 'conservative' values?"

In his comic book universe, Klavan also doesn't need to consider the other side of the coin. He sees Leonidas as the representation of all that is good in the world, fighting to the death against a much stronger enemy in order to protect his way of life. But the film can be viewed another way - with the preening Xerxes, taking up a military campaign left unfinished by his father and confusing his own will with the will of God, leads his forces on a mission to defeat an enemy that it overwhelms in terms of power, money, and resources, but due to bad planning and bad strategy suffers significant embarrassment and unnecessary casualties before correcting his initial bad strategy. Meanwhile, Leonidas fights to preserve a religion and way of life that Klavan would, to put it mildly, find distasteful in practice - although given his apparent propensities, Klavan might not mind the monarchal power structure. What's the conservative message, again?

But Klavan's superhero comic book brand of "conservatism" isn't sufficiently reflective to see the other interpretation. He sees the world in comic book terms of good against evil, and when you're "good" there's nothing you can do that isn't justified in the fight against "evil". Truly, Klavan sees the enemies of America is Orc-like beings who don't know that "that freedom is better than slavery, that love is better than hate, kindness better than cruelty, tolerance better than bigotry". If you're "evil" there's no need to worry about collateral damage - when you're battling Mordor, everybody on the other side is fair game. Obliterating the entire enemy civilization is not only justified, it's the right thing to do.

In describing conservatism, Klavan writes,
Leftists frequently complain that right-wing morality is simplistic. Morality is relative, they say; nuanced, complex. They're wrong, of course, even on their own terms.
This, of course, is a classic dodge - a caricatured view, attributed to an amorphous "they". Does it matter that no actual "leftist" can be produced who has ever said such a thing? What Klavan mischaracterizes is the position taken by people who, unlike him, don't see the real world through the paradigm of a comic book. People who recognize that the real world doesn't break down, as Klavan and other simple minds want to believe, into absolute good and absolute evil. There lies the nuance. And of course, there lies one of Klavan's other "conservative" films, "Spiderman 3".

In Spiderman 3, Peter Parker encounters, oh, let's call it "space goo". The "space goo" is transformative - with it, Peter Parker is faster, stronger, more confident, more capable, and happier, but also angrier, increasingly ruthless and at risk of losing himself. He has a climactic battle with the space goo, but it's a visual manifestation of an internal struggle - what is the price of power, and who does he want to be? This struggle is depicted alongside the culmination of another story line - Parker's lust for revenge against the man who killed his uncle. In the first film, Parker's nascent powers led to his setting off a series of events that led to his uncle's death, and in turn engaging in a confrontation with the man he believed to have killed his uncle, leading to that man's death. But in this film he realizes that a different man, who along the way has been transformed into the Sandman, is the actual killer.

When under the influence of the "space goo", Parker confronts Sandman and, after a dramatic battle, appears to drown him. But the Sandman is able to reconstitute himself for the final battle sequence. Parker, freed of the influence of the space goo, learns the details of the death of his uncle - that the killing was not a remorseless act of cruelty, but was an accidental act by a tormented man. Parker forgives him.

So you'll have to excuse me, but I'm at something of a loss as to how Klavan saw that film and missed all of the internal struggle and nuance. How he missed Parker's recognition that something he had seen for years as an act of absolute evil was, in fact, something that could be understood and forgiven. He didn't hear the filmmaker's frequent voiceover of the word's of Parker's uncle, "With great power comes great responsibility." But then, Klavan is exceptionally confused as to what it means to hold a moral view in which there is no nuance:
And when our artistic community is ready to show that sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values;1 and that while movie stars may strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes, true heroes often must slink in the shadows, slump-shouldered and despised -- then and only then will we be able to pay President Bush his due and make good and true films about the war on terror.
I am left wondering, does Klavan see Cruel to be Kind as a conservative anthem? He truly sees no nuance in the idea that you must at times violate your own moral code in order to preserve your values, or fight wars in order to preserve peace? Or, is it more accurate to say, he isn't being honest about it, probably not with himself and certainly not with his readers. Klavan's simplicity only serves to highlight something else he has overlooked in his "conservative" films - at least the better of them - they ask that members of their audience consider not only the circumstances under which you might be tempted to violate your moral code, but also the price of violating that code.

That, of course, brings us to the final of Klavan's examples, "The Dark Knight". In films that don't meet his measure of "conservatism", Klavan tells us,
The moment filmmakers take on the problem of Islamic terrorism in realistic films, suddenly [morality, faith, self-sacrifice and the nobility of fighting for the right] vanish. The good guys become indistinguishable from the bad guys, and we end up denigrating the very heroes who defend us.
Perhaps that's why "Batman Begins" didn't make his list - with Bruce Wayne joining the League of Shadows under the tutelage of Ra's Al Ghul, until he learns that Al Ghul plans to end Gotham City's decadence and corruption by destroying it, whereas Wayne still sees the city as being valuable and full of good people who are worth saving. In a flash, Wayne's mentor and ally becomes a villain. Their common cause, to rid the world of decadence and crime, gets tangled up in Wayne's beliefs that the ends don't always justify the means. Transposing this into the real world, the implication is that Al Ghul would have happily razed Falluajah, while Batman would have sought to root out the bad guys while saving the city and protecting innocents.

Similarly, where Klavan apparently sees the latest Batman film as vindicating torture and mistreatment of prisoners, he has apparently disregarded the substance of the three scenes where prisoners are confronted with violence. First, the noble Harvey Dent is pushed to the point that he's going to try to beat information out of a suspect. Batman stops him and lectures him, not only because the suspect is mentally ill and is unlikely to have any useful information, but also because of what it would mean for Dent if his actions became known - he would lose his moral high ground, his prosecutions would collapse, criminals would go free. This, of course, creates a context and a contrast for the second sequence - Batman in control versus Batman out of control.

That second sequence involves a literal ticking time bomb scenario, where The Joker taunts and provokes Batman. Batman takes the bait and pays a price - The Joker is manipulating him into running down the clock to the point where he must choose which of two friends to save. The third again involves The Joker, this time manipulating the police officer who is guarding him into a physical attack. That ends with The Joker taking the officer hostage, resulting both in immediate catastrophe and his escape to wreak even more havoc on the city.

Looking at these three sequences, the first could be compared to the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, often for little to no intelligence gain, at the expense of the U.S. moral high ground. The second impeaches conservative's favorite "what if" torture scenario - the "ticking time bomb". The third illustrates how giving in to your baser instincts, no matter how badly your target deserves it, may not only backfire - it may be exactly what your target wants you to do. Which of those three scenes is the endorsement of President Bush that Klavan imagines? And at the end of the film, when Batman takes the fall for somebody else's bad acts in order to preserve the integrity of the government, what's the parallel in the Bush Administration? Whenever scandal has stricken, the Bush Administration's spine degenerates into Jello, and every effort is made to place the blame on the smallest, least significant of actors.

Let's not fail to address the portion of the film that Klavan-style "conservatives" most see as vindication - Batman's transformation of the city's cellular phones into sonar devices that allow him to see and hear pretty much everything that is happening anywhere in the city. This is compared to the Bush Administration's illegal surveillance practices.
Like W, Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand. Like W, Batman sometimes has to push the boundaries of civil rights to deal with an emergency, certain that he will re-establish those boundaries when the emergency is past.
That assumes something not in evidence - that Bush has or ever had any wish to "re-establish" the former boundaries of the law, rather than establishing a permanent surveillance society. It also assumes that, despite his open contempt for the constitutional limits on his office, we owe Bush that type of benefit of the doubt. But what makes this example more interesting is that, contrary to the prisoner abuse sequences, this high tech surveillance tool works. Batman is able to locate The Joker and save the lives of some hostages. But unlike G.W. or defenders like Klavan, Batman doesn't attempt to reinvent his means - he recognizes that he is acting outside the law, a vigilante.2 He doesn't trust himself with his surveillance tools, placing them into the hands of the morally upright Lucius Fox and ensuring their destruction upon the capture of The Joker. Is it that this intense surveillance would have no further utility in fighting crime, or defeating more conventional crime bosses or lesser "super villains"? Hardly.

Instead we are brought back to "Batman Begins", with a narrative from Alfred about a criminal in Burma who cared nothing about profit, but simply wanted to sow chaos and watch the world burn. How did they stop him? They burned the forest. The Ra's Al Ghul solution. Given the choice between the unacceptable, "burning" Gotham City, and a massive invasion of its citizens' privacy, Batman chose the latter. Within this framework, Lucius Fox and pretty much everybody in the audience was on board - between the urgency of the situation and the checks and balances Batman imposed upon himself, and its depiction as being used solely for a narrow, focused search for The Joker, I doubt that anybody in the audience was thinking, "No, turn that horrible machine off and preserve the people's privacy." But at the end of the day, Batman did not embrace the Bush Administration's desire for unlimited, unchecked surveillance of innocent civilians, and he again rejected the concept of "burning the forest". Batman's world view is vindicated - in Batman's world, given the opportunity, even a literal boat load of hardened criminals will "do the right thing".

What's really going on in Batman? The creator of the film is taking some questions raised by the real world and presenting them in a manner that appears intended to challenge the audience. When is the unjustifiable justified? What is the line that should never be crossed? When Batman saves The Joker, the filmmaker is playing to that part of each audience member that would rather see him plummet to his death. But that's one of the lines Batman won't cross, and it's a line the Joker sees (and exploits) as a weakness.

Whatever your political alignment, if you recognize the questions posed by the film and fail to see their ambiguity, you've missed the point. Can you listen to Bruce Wayne's opinions on government and the type of men it needs, yet retain the delusion that he would vote for Bush? Klavan mocks movie stars who "strut in the bright light of our adulation for pretending to be heroes", but apparently has forgotten Bush's infamous "mission accomplished" dress-up day.

But then, even at the comic book level, if you have more than a passing familiarity with characters like Spiderman and Batman and fail to see their inherent duality - the internal struggles that goes along with their external battles - you never really had a chance of picking up on the larger themes.3
1. This is a philosophy Klavan apparently views as consistent with Christian values.

2. There's an earlier sequence that works largely in parallel with the surveillance theme, in which Batman bypasses law, diplomacy and extradition treaties in order to pluck a criminal out of China and deposit him in Gotham City for the police to prosecute. That's perhaps the least nuanced depiction of Batman's vigilantism, being presented primarily to foreshadow the later surveillance sequences and to give us some action and splashy special effects.

3. You might also argue that it should be impossible to miss themes of duality in a film that depicts the transformation of the city's brightest light into the villain, Two-Face. But in fairness, Klavan may know he's spouting nonsense, but may be simply trying to draw attention to himself in order to promote his next book.

Predictable, As Always

William Kristol reminds us today why he opposed the reelection of George Bush, a man whose Iraq war policies he acknowledged as disastrously incompetent on national television, out of his concern that he would continue to serve as a mindless rubber stamp for a Republican-controlled Congress.

Oh, wait... I guess that was... different?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Only Slightly Less Adulatory Than G.W. = Batman....

Here I was, thinking "George W. Bush = Batman" would be the dumbest G.W. editorial I would read this week (not that there aren't valid parallels)... and along comes David Broder to praise G.W. as a brilliant manager. Naturally, he does this by relying upon the analysis of a Republican staffer who served Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford, an "old friend" of his that "probably knows as much as anyone about how to organize the presidency". We're off to a good start already....
One of the things Patterson teaches is that George Bush has been a more creative manager than is generally recognized. He has added three significant offices to the White House structure - the Homeland Security Council, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and the USA Freedom Corps. Patterson's judgment is that these "add-ons will most probably be long-lasting," no matter who succeeds Bush.
So Bush singlehandedly expanded the government bureaucracy, and the additional layers of bureaucracy will probably endure? Surely that's sound proof that he's an effective manager - we were told up front what a good delegator he would be, and when he was left with too much responsibility he brought in more people to whom he could delegate. Oh, but it gets better.
He also credits Bush with improving the physical facilities of the White House in ways that will benefit the next presidents. The Situation Room goes back to 1962, but Patterson reports that it was increasingly inadequate until Bush decided at the start of his second term to bring it up to date.
Yes, I can picture Bush consulting with designers and architects, fretting over every detail, and... No, I would venture that if Bush was even involved in decisions to update the White House's physical plant it was along the lines of a petulant, "This place is so '60's. Can we change it?" And other than assuming some degree of petulance, who would want the President that Broder pines for - a guy who wastes his time on remodeling plans at the expense of... what do they call them... Oh yes - his job responsibilities. Broder seems to be taking the position that the generals who wasted their time and of millions of dollars designing "comfort capsules" would be great chief executives.
Bush also ordered an upgrading of the White House briefing room and has launched a much overdue modernization of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door.
You mean, somebody said to Bush, "We need to update our facilities," he said "yes", and somebody else designed and implemented the updates? This is what passes for his proof of Bush's management skills? Oh, but it still gets better....
Not surprisingly, the vast expansion in the White House use of the Internet has come during his terms.
Including the machinations by which the White House illegally used RNC servers to hide its email, and conveniently "lost" all of those emails when somebody cried "shenanigans!" Now that's proof that we have a "CEO President".

No, really, Internet growth has been doubling annually. The "dot com boom" that occurred under Clinton was associated with the broad implementation of the Internet in K-12 schools and in colleges. The interns and younger staffers on the Bush team came out of that Internet culture. And Broder wants to pretend that it was somehow Bush's brilliant management that kept them from throwing out their computers, PDA's, cellular phones and Blackberries in favor of, say, carbon paper and courier services? How about a reality check on Bush, Internet genius....
HOST: I’m curious, have you ever googled anybody? Do you use Google?

BUSH: Occasionally. One of the things I’ve used on the Google is to pull up maps. It’s very interesting to see - I’ve forgot the name of the program - but you get the satellite, and you can - like, I kinda like to look at the ranch. It remind me of where I wanna be sometimes.
He's gone "on the google" to view a map and knows there's a program that lets you look at satellite pictures. Yep, he's the vanguard of the Internet generation. Oh, but it still gets better.
But Patterson says there are lessons to be learned. One of the most important is to understand that "Cabinet government" is a myth. The big issues and the tough choices inevitably come to the White House, so it behooves a new president to spend more time and thought on his White House staff than on his Cabinet - exactly the opposite of what Bill Clinton did.
Perhaps it's just me, but isn't something missing from that? As in, "How did Clinton's (supposed) emphasis on his cabinet over his staff make him less effective"? The inference here would presumably be that Bush did the opposite - so where can I find any evidence that his administration was more effective than Clinton's (presuming, that is, we're not limiting the discussion to tax cuts for the wealthy). And, surprise, it's still not over:
Another is to resist the temptation to economize by reducing the size of the White House staff, as Clinton claimed to do. "The issue," Patterson says, "is not how large is the White House staff, but how it is organized, and how professionally it conducts itself."
So Clinton didn't have enough Karl Roves around, and had the misplaced notion that he should spend time making sure government agencies like FEMA were functional? Whereas Bush "fixed" things by bringing in intensely loyal staffers, while completely screwing up his appointments for agencies like FEMA, or the entire Coalition Provisional Authority bureaucracy he set up under L. Paul Bremer to "manage" the occupation of Iraq? Fascinating.... I mean, I can understand the claim that it's good (albeit Machiavellian) management to route White House emails through RNC servers to circumvent public records laws, and to "lose" them when caught in order to avoid complying with the law. But the rest?

"Heckuva job, Brody."

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Latest Silliness from David Brooks

David Brooks takes us on a tour of his own psyche today:
Obama speeches almost always have the same narrative arc. Some problem threatens. The odds are against the forces of righteousness. But then people of good faith unite and walls come tumbling down. Obama used the word “walls” 16 times in the Berlin speech, and in 11 of those cases, he was talking about walls coming down.

* * *

When I first heard this sort of radically optimistic speech in Iowa, I have to confess my American soul was stirred. It seemed like the overture for a new yet quintessentially American campaign.
I have acknowledged that it's easy to get stirred by some of Obama's rhetoric, but that it's obvious that they're political speeches and that his rhetoric can be obviously inflated, and that inspires me to interpret Brooks' "confession" in one of two ways:
  1. His early praise-verging-on-adulation of Obama, which ended the moment it became obvious that Obama was going to be the Democratic candidate, representing the height of disingenuousness; or

  2. Brooks routinely lets his emotional responses overwhelm his ability to be rational or objectively analyze political speeches and commentary.

Either way, he claims to now be over his early infatuation:
But now it is more than half a year on, and the post-partisanship of Iowa has given way to the post-nationalism of Berlin, and it turns out that the vague overture is the entire symphony. The golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more.
So how does Brooks respond? By comparing the speeches of Presidents who are already in office with those of a candidate.
Much of the rest of the speech fed the illusion that we could solve our problems if only people mystically come together. We should help Israelis and Palestinians unite. We should unite to prevent genocide in Darfur. We should unite so the Iranians won’t develop nukes.
And the difference between this and the past eight years of Bush would be... that Obama thinks people must come together to effect change, while the Bush Administration expects it to happen by magic? The difference between this and the McCain campaign is that McCain wants us to accept a dismal status quo?
Since [the 1990s], autocracies have arisen, the competition for resources has grown fiercer, Russia has clamped down, Iran is on the march. It will take politics and power to address these challenges, the two factors that dare not speak their name in Obama’s lofty peroration.
Now you'll excuse me for observing this, but nothing in Obama's speech is inconsistent with a recognition of the need for "politics and power" to address the problems in the world. Perhaps Brooks slept through Obama's call for a stepped up military action in Afghanistan? He caught the part where "called on Germans to send more troops to Afghanistan" - but apparently was unable to process the implication. (Hint: He doesn't expect them to go to Afghanistan to teach children to hold hands and sing Kumbaya.) But get this:
The odd thing is that Obama doesn’t really think this way. When he gets down to specific cases, he can be hard-headed. Last year, he spoke about his affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, and their shared awareness that history is tragic and ironic and every political choice is tainted in some way.
So Obama is capable of thinking like a President, being tough, and making tough choices. Then what's Brooks' problem?
But he has grown accustomed to putting on this sort of saccharine show for the rock concert masses, and in Berlin his act jumped the shark.
Oh how horrible - you mean Obama is running for political office? Thank goodness Brooks alerted us to this alarming reality.

You want to talk about "jumping the shark"....

Thursday, July 24, 2008

How About a $100 "We'll Treat You Like a Human" Fee?

With the rising cost of fuel, the commoditization of ticket prices, and an apparent zeal to gouge every spare cent out of a passenger's pockets, the nation's (probably the world's) airlines have collectively made air travel an unpleasant experience. Frequent flyers may benefit from upgrades to a higher class of seat, assuming they're available, but pretty much everybody else must choose between the often absurd price of a "first class" or "business class" ticket or flying in the cattle car coach. Airlines don't appear inclined to lower fares for their first/business class sections, and to date the airlines offering all first class or all business class seating seem to be faltering and failing. So what's another option?

How about letting any passenger who wants pay a flat $100 (perhaps more for international flights), and treat them as if the clock has been rolled back to when air travel was more pleasant. For that money, give them a day pass to the airline's "club" lounge at the airport, the right to be screened through the expedited "first class" security line, the right to check at least one bag without an extra fee, a seat toward the front of the coach section of the plane, and a somewhat upgraded in-flight meal or snack (if they wish)? This could also be offered to frequent flyers who would otherwise qualify for a free upgrade when there's no room in first/business class, and to other flyers who want to cash in some saved miles for the privilege of being treated decently.

Media Bias, McCain and Obama

In an interview that takes the term "softball" to a whole new level... Sean Hannity throws a series of marshmallows at McCain.
HANNITY: Even if Scott Rasmussen has a poll, 49 percent of Americans think the media is trying to help Barack Obama win. Only 14 percent think they're trying to help you win.

MCCAIN: The American people are very wise.
Poor John - he looks like he's about to faint from the medial pressure. Get the poor man something to drink - perhaps some coffee. Er, thanks, Ron Fournier and Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press, and thanks for also giving him donuts - let's get his blood sugar back up. But we're supposed to be buying into the notion that the media is not (or is it "no longer") John McCain's "base".

What's really going on with the media? Look at David Broder's latest:
It made no sense when Barack Obama left the country on his nine-day overseas tour for some of my fellow columnists to describe it as a high-risk venture.

* * *

So where was the risk? It existed mainly in the minds of some journalists and, perhaps, in the musings of Obama staffers who wanted to hype the journey.

Acknowledging all that, it is still the case that Obama is pulling off this trip in great style and thereby has enhanced his Oval Office credentials.
In other words, McCain goaded Obama into taking an international voyage that he would otherwise have forgone in the interest of campaigning right here in the United States, and the media's perspective that the trip could be a horrible mistake is crashing head-on with the fact that Obama has pulled off the voyage in grand style, managing to look informed, engaged, and (worst of all) Presidential.

Meanwhile, how has the press been treating McCain? Very well. They've given scant attention to a series of blunders and gaffes that would have triggered excoriating attacks on Obama. The stack is now so high that we may be reaching a tipping point, even on the network that edited a McCain interview to replace a bungled answer with an attack on Obama - and no, I don't buy the excuse that the wrong answer was inserted after the question because the editor felt time-pressured.

I think a lot of the criticism of McCain (or even Obama) for gaffes and misstatements, or ill-advised jokes or off-hand comments, is unfair. They're under what approaches 24 hour surveillance. They're working hours that (even with McCain's taking some time off on weekends) would be grueling for much younger men. It's pretty astonishing to me that they don't make more blunders under the circumstances. And by that measure, as long as it's a two-way street, I think it's reasonable for the media to focus on the major issues instead of blowing minor misstatements out of proportion.

Of course, that's not actually what the media's doing. News coverage of the campaign seems to be primarily focused on the campaign itself - "Is that campaign ad 'fair'?" "Which candidate is the media darling?" "What did McCain say about Obama's campaign today?" - it's effectively substance-free. If Obama had not gone to Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than hearing about those nations we would probably be hearing another story about the (supposed) diminishing importance of those wars to U.S. voters (in the face of a lack of media coverage). The last thing the public needs is a network that often reduces itself to a 24-hour free advertisement for the Republican party inviting McCain, in a kid gloves interview, to accuse the media of treating him unfairly. But that's what we're given.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Those Elusive Google Knols...

Google's seemingly MIA "knols"? They've finally arrived.

No, Really, He Had No Idea....

Usually a political commentator's hit-and-run jobs are more... figurative.
Addendum: The accident and failure to stop may be related to Novak's illness, and there's nothing funny about brain tumors. Let's wish him the best.

Anti-Obama Duplicity In The Washington Post

When I saw this unsigned editorial last night, my thoughts were, "It's no surprise that the author lacked the courage to attach his name to it," and "I'm tired, so I'll wait for others to reply to it." So far I've come across a post in Tapped taking on the Post's characterization of Obama's positions as "eccentric"
One wonders what word the Post will use to categorize McCain's policy when someone asks him whether he'll stick by his pledge to leave when Iraqi leaders request it. Peculiar?
and a TPM Election Central post taking on the Post's claim that Iraqi officials don't support Obama's plan. But I think a response should also be made to this claim:
Other Iraqi leaders were more directly critical. As Mr. Obama acknowledged, Sunni leaders in Anbar province told him that American troops are essential to maintaining the peace among Iraq's rival sects and said they were worried about a rapid drawdown.
Right now, the U.S. is maintaining the status quo in Iraq. The Sunni factions would like to regain control of the entire nation. They surely have some justifiable fear that if the U.S. pulls out, they might become subject to treatment similar to what they dished out to Shiite factions under G.H.W.B.'s watch after the first Iraq War, or given the short end of the stick on oil revenues. But the reality is, one of the reasons there is so little meaningful progress on political reconciliation is that right now the Sunni factions don't have to negotiate. They can stonewall, and fall back on U.S. protection. A drawdown, rapid or otherwise, could force them into a political compromise that gives them far less than what they want. But maintaining the status quo gets us no closer to any sort of compromise.

Also in the Post, Ruth Marcus lets us know that, in a military conflict and post-conflict occupation, the "reward of careful perseverance may become visible only in the long arc of history", something that of course can be said about any armed conflict. Unfortunately, it does not inexorably follow that continuing an occupation will inevitably make things better, nor does it inexorably follow that the costs (financial and otherwise) of continuing an occupation will outweigh the possible long-term benefits. (And we face those great unknowns even if we hand out lots and lots of candy to Iraqi children.)

Poor Maliki

So Maliki made the "mistake" of essentially agreeing with Obama on the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. Almost immediately we were told, "The translator got it wrong." Except it turns out that it was Maliki's own translator, and his translator didn't get it wrong. Then an effort was made to interject nuance into the endorsement. That didn't work out so well, either. So now what? Let's ask McCain backer and uberhawk Max Boot.
There is some irony in the fact that Democrats, after years of deriding Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a hopeless bungler and conniving Shiite sectarian, are now treating as sacrosanct his suggestion that Iraq will be ready to assume responsibility for its own security by 2010.
Ah. So it must follow that Republicans view Nouri al-Maliki as a competent leader, supported by Shiites and Sunnis alike, right? Well... Maybe not.
  • His public support for the U.S. is mixed: "[Maliki] has hardly been an unwavering friend of the United States - at least in public." (But thank goodness, he's two-faced: "To his credit, although he has postured as a fierce nationalist in public, Maliki has often accommodated American concerns in private.")

  • He's skeptical of U.S. motives: "[He] has had to overcome deeply ingrained suspicions of the United States."

  • He's incompetent on military issues and insulated from reality: "Maliki has no military experience and that he has been trapped in the Green Zone, relatively isolated from day-to-day life."

  • He has poor judgment: "[H]e has been a consistent font of misguided predictions about how quickly U.S. forces could leave."

  • He's ungrateful: "Maliki won't give U.S. troops their due"

    In the famous interview with Der Spiegel last weekend, he was asked why Iraq has become more peaceful. He mentioned "many factors," including "the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve," "the progress being made by our security forces," "the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias," and "the economic recovery." No mention of the surge.

  • He's unreliable: "Maliki's public utterances do not provide a reliable guide as to when it will be safe to pull out U.S. troops."

So... basically Boot seeks Maliki as an out-of-touch, hopeless bungler and two-faced opportunist, but not necessarily a "conniving Shiite sectarian"? I'm glad Boot set that record straight.

Oh yes, and Boot tells us that this statement is "ambiguous":
When asked in and interview with SPIEGEL when he thinks US troops should leave Iraq, Maliki responded "as soon as possible, as far as we are concerned." He then continued: "US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
Wow. You can barely tell that Maliki is expressly endorsing withdrawal of combat forces "as soon as possible", on a schedule largely consistent with Obama's timeframe. Darn that ambiguity.

Incidentally, as others have noted, there's no inconsistency between observing that Maliki's dependence upon U.S. backing makes his endorsement of continued occupation questionable, while also observing that his willingness to stand up to the Bush Administration may be qualitatively different - he has a lot to lose by what the Bush Administration and McCain's backers plainly see as biting the hand that feeds him.
Update: Charles Krauthammer offers a much more generous interpretation of Maliki's choices:
What is Maliki thinking? Clearly, he believes that the Iraq war is won. Al-Qaeda is defeated, the Sunni insurgency is in abeyance, the Shiite extremists are scattered and marginalized. There will, of course, be some continued level of violence, recurring challenges to the authority of the central government and perhaps even mini-Tet Offensives by both Shiite and Sunni terrorists trying to demoralize U.S. and Iraqi public opinion in the run-up to their respective elections. But in Maliki's view, the strategic threats to the unity of the state and to the viability of the new democratic government are over.

Maliki believes that his armed forces are strong enough to sustain the new Iraq with minimal U.S. help. He may be overconfident, as he has been repeatedly in estimating his army's capacities, most recently in launching a somewhat premature attack on militias in Basra that ultimately required U.S. and British support to succeed. And he is certainly more confident of his own capacities than is Gen. David Petraeus.
Another way to look at that is that Maliki believes he will be more free to cement his party and his religious sect's control over Iraq in the absence of U.S. combat forces than in their presence - something entirely consistent with the Sunni factions' concerns about U.S. troop withdrawal. Needless to say, Krauthammer carries on to present a rather churlish attack on the Democratic Party as being too "pliant" in willing to be something other than an autonomous occupying power prepared to stay in Iraq until we establish a "strategic relationship that would not only make the new Iraq a strong ally in the war on terror but would also provide the U.S. with the infrastructure and freedom of action to project American power regionally, as do U.S. forces in Germany, Japan and South Korea." In other words, Krauthammer believes we should occupy Iraq until they learn to like it.

What's So Hard About Putting It In Writing?

The Washington Post is in a tizzy because the D.C. teacher's union is skeptical of proposed meetings between school administrators and teachers about Michelle Rhee's alternative compensation proposals:
Teachers should ask who benefits by shutting out Ms. Rhee. Certainly not teachers, who could receive some of the highest salaries in the country with the compensation plan she proposes. Under the proposal, teachers get a choice: Stick with the traditional pay scale with small raises, or forgo many tenure and seniority protections and get big money based on effectiveness in the classroom.
But why are meetings necessary to educate teachers about the proposals. It's fair to assume that most D.C. teachers can read. So why not put the proposal, in its full glory, up on a website? If it's that important to the Post, why not publish the details in the paper for all to see?

I really would like to see the details. If this is such a great deal, why the secrecy?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I'll give the McCain hack who wrote this a point or two for coming up with what was almost a clever angle, but at best the "joke" at best might have worked as a one-liner. Horrible writing and insipid extrapolations turn it into, you know, something akin to an SNL skit for which only a crazy man would want credit.

Will the McCain campaign insist that the Chicago Tribune allow Obama to "answer" this in kind? Is the McCain campaign capable of presenting any arguments of substance on any issue?

Somehow This Seems Wrong....

As a fashion statement? Shoes like Chinese factory workers wear - but improved (and priced) to the point that Chinese factory workers can't afford them.

Back to Marshmallows

David Brooks takes us on another guided tour of his, "Everything I need to know about life, I learned from marshmallows" school of sociology. The credit crisis? Caused by a deterioration in America's moral fiber.
America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.
What part of America had "a culture of thrift"? The part that went bankrupt while building giant casinos and luxury buildings? The part that went broke while building opulent mansions and living a lavish lifestyle? The part that... well, did the same thing, but way back in the 18th or early 19th Century? No, by all appearances Brooks doesn't care (and has never cared) about the excesses of the wealthy - his "moral code" seems to apply only to people who aren't "of means".

So what has changed between the time when the poor and working classes observed this purported "unspoken code" against debt and the present? Is this code really a thing of the past, or is it actually something most people continue to try to live by? And those who spend beyond their means - did they truly not exist a century ago or could it be.... Could it be that it is not human nature that has changed, but that the credit industry has changed? Could it be that the guy who was once at risk of having his knees broken by a loan shark is now under the thumb of the likes of Citibank?

Brooks does identify a change in the culture - the rise of consumerism - but he again seems to regard this as an individual failing.
Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
Yet corporations have spent hundreds of billions of dollars building up this culture of consumerism. And the government has encouraged the rise of consumerism as essential to our nation's economy. What happens when the government takes us into a war of choice? Are we told to tighten our belts, buy war bonds, and pay higher taxes? Or are we told, "spend, spend, spend as if there is no war"? What happens when the economy slows? The government sends out checks hoping that people will cash them, run out to a store, and buy stuff.

Some of the ways that government and industry have, hand-in-hand, helped build this crisis? By deregulating loans such that people who, on cursory review, would be found to have insufficient credit are nonetheless extended credit. (As Brooks notes, "These lenders had little interest in whether she could pay off her loans. They made most of their money via initial lending fees and then sold off the loans to third parties.") By encouraging a mythology that there was no "housing bubble", and that we could expect 10-20% annual increases in our home values from now through eternity. By gutting usury laws, or allowing financial institutions to exploit loopholes in those laws that could have been easily closed, encouraging risky loans to consumers who really aren't creditworthy. Oh, sure, this is depicted as "the market at work" - risky consumers "pay more" for those loans "as it should be". But when push comes to shove, it's the creditors who get backed up with "reforms" to bankruptcy law, insulating them from the risks they accepted when they chose to extend those extremely risky loans, and making it possible for them to profitably expand their lending to the same people.

As for Brooks' statement about schools and institutions "talk[ing] the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives", what in the world is he talking about? He thinks we would benefit from incorporating Biblical passages (or, if he prefers, their secular equivalent) into high school economics classes or mortgage contracts?
Despite all the subterranean social influences, there still is that final stage of decision-making when individual choice matters. Each time an avid lender struck a deal with an avid borrower, it reinforced a new definition of acceptable behavior for neighbors, family and friends.
I'm all for personal responsibility, including in relation to your spending. But I can't agree with Brooks' effort to shift this to the individual. It was not a culture at the bottom that caused aberrational "avid lenders" to suddenly appear and offer unwise and risky loans. It was a culture of unwise and risky lending that opened the door to excessive borrowing by people they knew were extremely risky prospects. This culture of corporate irresponsibility was fostered by government policy, and was evident from the bottom to the top of pretty much every financial institution that has been affected by the current crisis.

You want people to adapt back to the times when financial rules were tighter, and thus when people who could not afford credit could not easily get it (at least without risk to their kneecaps)? Then you need to stop yammering about how people have changed, and start advocating for the reinvigoration of usury laws and regulations on lenders. But no, David, you will not find that either government or industry have any interest in backing you up.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Michelle Rhee's Proposed Reforms

In terms of this,
[Chancellor of D.C. public schools Michelle] Rhee proposes offering teachers the choice of staying in the seniority system or giving up their seniority and tenure rights in exchange for the opportunity to earn as much as $131,000 a year for raising student performance.
Does anybody have any details on the specifics of this proposal, or how it would work in practice? Is this going to be a typical "transformational" union contract deal whereby new teachers are pressed into the "bonus-based, non-tenured" positions while teachers already in the union get similar rewards without accepting similar risks? Given that the D.C. schools don't have the funds to double teacher salaries, how many (or should I say, how few) teachers will actually get the types of bonuses and merit pay Lieberman describes?

One of the advantages of tenure is that it insulates teachers from parental complaints. What incentive will school administrators have to stand behind teachers whose demands and classroom discipline trigger complaints from students and parents, particularly in schools where large numbers of students are disinterested and their parents unsupportive of education? How will student performance be measured? Simply by administration of standardized tests, thus overtly rewarding "teaching to the test" even if other teaching techniques are more inspirational or provide a better framework for learning?

It Only Seems Fair....

Joe Lieberman writes,
[Chancellor of D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee] seeks to reward teachers for good performance. While this is common, indeed intuitive, in most professions, it is considered a revolutionary concept in public education. Most union-negotiated teacher contracts base compensation on seniority. While this approach offers job security, it does not reward teachers for inspiring enthusiasm or promoting achievement in the classroom.
Fair enough. So when can we expect Joe to ask Senator Harry Reid to strip him of his seniority, and to introduce legislation authorizing recall votes against U.S. Senators and tying Senate salaries to the extent to which Senators "inspire enthusiasm" or "promote achievement"?

"Tampering With Your Agonizer Is A Federal Offense"

The promotional video makes it appear that the manufacturer has been pitching this product for more than five years, and TSA finally appears receptive:
A senior government official with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has expressed great interest in a so-called safety bracelet that would serve as a stun device, similar to that of a police Taser®.
Wow. They really haven't run out of ways to make air travel less pleasant.

Query: What if the terrorist has the temerity to stick a credit card between the electrodes on the agonizer safety bracelet and his skin? Or, can you imagine, what if the terrorist takes the bracelet off?

If in 2000 I told you to take all the stupid in the world, distill it, and pour it into government agencies, would you have imagined that you could achieve a bureaucracy as short-sighted and incompetent as that created by G.W. Bush?

I Knew I Forgot Something....

Roger Cohen fills us in on his recent travel and shoulder-rubbing,
I dropped by the Élysée Palace to get a fix on things. The food was shockingly awful — tired crudités, desiccated hake, pasty potato purée — but the Château Batailley 2001 was a beauty. Seems President Nicolas Sarkozy’s too busy for solids.
I guess I forgot to enter "snacks with 'Sarko'"1 on my travel calendar.... Maybe next time. Apparently Cohen sipped a bit too much of the wine, hence his conclusion for Obama:
My advice to him is: sobriety, sobriety, sobriety.
Is it just me, or is Cohen's editorial as lacking in substance as Sarkozy's described assortment of hors d'oeuvres for the foreign media?
1. Yes, in his column, Cohen refers to President Sarkozy as "Sarko". I guess it shows that you're hip and cool?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's Not Only About Polar Bears....

Michael Gerson doesn't want to give up his claim to being the dumbest columnist in America, and not just for the reasons others have noted.
Even worse, a disturbing minority of the environmental movement seems to view an excess of human beings, not an excess of carbon emissions, as the world's main problem.
That's right, folks - we should be grateful that Gerson has let us know that there are people out there who actually don't understand that you can have an unlimited population consuming unlimited resources in a closed ecosystem. Can you imagine?

Advice From A Man Without Honor

Robert Novak's rules of politics aren't exactly a secret, but....
  • If you can't win honorably, win dishonorably.
With Sen. Barack Obama moving ahead of Sen. John McCain in our latest Electoral College rundown, the private Republican view is that the focus must be on Obama in the coming campaign for McCain to win. A positive campaign will lose, and the spotlight on Obama must be harsher for McCain to have a chance.
It's no particular surprise when the loser in a political battle resorts to gutter tactics, but it's unseemly to urge gutter tactics... isn't it?
  • If lying about what your opponent says helps you win dishonorably, go for it!
Obama has made a rare political mistake in seeming to say it is more important for the population to learn Spanish than for immigrants to learn English. The English language issue is an important one, especially with white middle-income voters, which is Obama's potentially fatal weak spot.
As any honest person could tell you, Obama didn't say that. He indicated that you don't need to worry about mandating the use of English. He instructed people that rather than worrying about whether somebody else learns English, they should focus on whether their own children speak Spanish (or another language). I'm sitting in a country right now where school kids are choosing to learn languages such as Russian, German and Spanish with an eye toward their economic future. Where's our eye?

And why isn't it "elitist" to brand "white middle-income voters" as xenophobic rubes who break out the pitchforks and torches any time somebody suggests that other nations, languages or cultures are important to our future?
  • Any reason you can think of to vote Democrat, no matter how real, is imaginary
Former Sen. Phil Gramm is still McCain's close friend and adviser despite having told too much of the truth in public by saying we are a nation of whiners.
So stop whining about imaginary problems with the economy, already. You're harshing Novak's buzz.

Friday, July 18, 2008

She's Still Alive?

Remember the days when Mona Charen was one of the worst syndicated columnists in the country? I suspect she's still syndicated... somewhere. But whatever the state of her column, she's still making brilliant, insightful statements:
I was in the supermarket yesterday with my 14-year-old son who asked "What's up with Cosmopolitan? What is that?" I replied, "It's a magazine for sluts."
(Via USJ.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Editorial Idiocy Continues

More of the same. Now it's "Obama would swap Iraq war loss for election win: McCain camp". What's the counter this time: "McCain Camp wants it both ways: A loss in Iraq and an election win"?

Taking A Wrong Turn At The End

In what seems like an odd column for somebody who so frequently embraces an inch-deep version of evolutionary psychology, David Brooks warns us that our knowledge of how genetics affect behavior is very limited. (You needed to be told that, right?)

Is it needless to say? He extrapolates the idea that we don't know much about "nature" to argue against trying to improve things on the "nurture" side:
Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.

We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.
David, actually, some things are pretty obvious. We have a pretty good idea how poverty leads to reduced opportunity, how putting children from marginally literate homes into dangerous, failing schools is a recipe for poor academic performance, how child abuse and neglect may contribute to lack of later success and even mental illness and criminal conduct.... The fact that we can't pinpoint the interplay between environmental variables and a person's genes doesn't mean that we have to throw up our hands and do nothing.
This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.
That from a cheerleader for the Iraq War....

But What About North Korea?

A contributor to the Times is concerned that the Bush Administration is dropping the ball on North Korea:
For a while, the drumbeat in Washington has been that the so-called six-party talks are going well and the North Korean nuclear program is well on its way to being contained. If only that were true.

In fact, the Kim Jong-il regime is getting exactly what it wants and using American hunger for diplomatic success to split us from our most important regional allies in the process. If this were high-stakes poker, the North Koreans would be biting their lips to hide their smiles at the cards in their hands.
The Bush Administration has "hunger for diplomatic success"? If anything, they're looking for cover for their Iran strategy - an answer to the question, "Why Iran, and not North Korea?"