28 March, 2008

The tragic imperative of Iraq

I've heard it said fairly often recently that whether you are for or against further occupation of Iraq, the one thing the American people can't afford to be is disengaged from the conflict. Whether or not we like it, the rest of our policy is now tied to Iraq; solutions to critical problems such as health care and climate change depend in a very real sense on how we deal with our that occupation in the next year or two. And in a moral sense, we cannot forget or take for granted the sacrifice of the soldiers who are now bearing nearly the entire burden of a failed policy.

Recent discussions with my several pro-occupation friends have underscored both the amount of basic misunderstanding and confusion as well as, as a corollary, the importance of us as democratic citizens to stay as informed as possible. That is the tragic imperative of this occupation: we must come to grips with a terrible situation, and try to discern wisdom out of a deliberate campaign of misinformation and false choices -- and understand that, even if we do our best, we may be at least partially responsible for the immense suffering the possibility of which any option carries with it. What is the correct way forward? Thinking more than ever about this recently, I find there is no easy answer. And I find, further, that I think it is that moral weight of decision, rather than the complexity of the issues themselves, that leads citizens of our democracy to shunt their responsibility.

As we move into what I am hoping will be a true national discussion on the options facing us in Iraq, I want to direct everyone to Juan Cole, a Middle East expert whose blog will reward regular reading with a much more informed view on the conflict we have unleashed.

27 March, 2008

The best yet

At least, that's my opinion. Obama Girl keeps telling it like it is:

Back to Square One

The biggest laugh of the day: Wonkette's hilarious satire of John Klein's desperate attempt at election news. It's well worth reading for the humor value, but watch out, it'll give you disorienting deja vu of the beginning of the primary season.

25 March, 2008

What does Change Congress need to do?

I really like the idea of Change Congress. Public policy should get the easy questions right. But the system is set up to do exactly the opposite.

Right now, everyone choosing to get the easy questions wrong because it brings personal gain--in donations for re-election or actual money/jobs/favors from people who have a lot of those to give away. So Change Congress needs to do two things:

1. Change incentives so that when everyone else is being corrupt, it is personally better to be good.
2. Change incentives so that when everyone else is being good, it is personally better to be good.

As I understand it, what Change Congress wants to do in the short-term is to redirect funds toward those politicians who pledge (and follow through on their pledge) to be good. Okay, that's step one. (Assuming they can get enough people to pledge donations and enough politicians to sign on with their principles and that the geography of these donations is sufficiently diverse.) Politicians will be rewarded for not taking PAC money.

Step two is a bit more elusive, however. Even if 10% or 20% of Congress signs on to their pledge, there will still be PAC money and even if some people have benefited from signing the pledge, not everyone can. Politics is a zero-sum game and not everyone can benefit from any particular perturbation of the system.

Some other change of this form must occur.

Things You Should Read

First, this scathing criticism of Hillary Clinton's decision to continue in her now-quixotic run for the Democratic nomination:

For nearly 20 years, she has been encased in the apparatus of political celebrity. Look at her schedule as first lady and ever since. Think of the thousands of staged events, the tens of thousands of times she has pretended to be delighted to see someone she doesn’t know, the hundreds of thousands times she has recited empty clichés and exhortatory banalities, the millions of photos she has posed for in which she is supposed to appear empathetic or tough, the billions of politically opportune half-truths that have bounced around her head.

Second, a man struggles with 24 hours of constant media:
The peril of listening to Limbaugh and O'Reilly at the same time is that you tend to compare them, and these are dangerous waters for an unapologetic, unreconstructed New Deal liberal like me. The comparison makes you actually like Rush. He's funny; O'Reilly is not. Limbaugh teases and baits his political adversaries; O'Reilly sneers and snarls at them. Limbaugh is mock-heroic; O'Reilly is self-righteous. So, when Limbaugh speculates that the Democrats in the House committee went after Roger Clemens because liberals hate cherished American institutions such as churches, the Boy Scouts and baseball, you know he's sorta kidding. When O'Reilly says liberals who oppose torture of prisoners just don't care how many people will die in a terrorist attack, you know he's as serious as an aneurysm.

Third, a guy is building Stonehenge in his backyard.

Fourth, quasi-statistical reasons to not pay attention to daily tracking polls. Basically, randomly generated data looks just like actual poll data. Their argument is basically right, though I'd like to see it made rigorous.

By the way, I stole almost all of these from Andrew Sullivan, so you might as well just read him.

23 March, 2008

Michael Ware on Iraq

AN INTERESTING and sobering video out of Iraq, as Bill Maher interviews the notoriously unscripted CNN correspondent Michael Ware (hat tip to Sullivan):

It is good to get some frankness from our correspondents. But Matt Yglesias' point (echoed by Ezra Klein) about an "asymmetry of assumptions" applies perfectly here: when considering an American withdrawal we posit the worst, whereas those arguing for continued occupation get away with assuming a best-case outcome for their particular scenario. Ware aptly summarizes the strategic disaster that is our invasion of Iraq, and catalogs the atrocities that will very likely befall its people if American troops withdraw. Ware clearly wants to make his audience think hard about the consequences of withdrawal, which indeed we should. But absent from his testimony, and from that of most proponents of remaining in Iraq indefinitely, is any argument as to why those things won't happen anyway despite or even because of our continued presence. Similarly missing is any reflection on the opportunity cost (either domestic or foreign) of the vast resources necessary to maintain that presence. Simply put, what return on our investment are we getting, either for the Iraqi republic or for our foreign policy objectives?

You can see in this video how those sorts of holistic, cost-benefit types of analysis get steamrolled by the emotional evocation of the laundry list of post-occupation horrors -- and how that leads to a sort of moral stalemate. Both options are unpalatable (stay, and continue stoking anti-Americanism while diverting resources from vital domestic priorities and global threats; leave, and perhaps witness genocide and regional proxy war break out over a significant proportion of the world's oil, with the main beneficiary probably being Iran) which seems to have the effect of favoring the status quo. But shouldn't it be the opposite? Shouldn't the burden of proof be on those whose approach to and view of the conflict has been consistently proven wrong over the course of five years in which they were able to enact without hindrance their chosen policies?

More on Change Congress

HERE'S SOME follow up on my last post on the Change Congress movement: the official introductory lecture, given by Lessig.

If nothing else, I think it's notable that Lessig is singlehandedly making PowerPoint hip and elegant.

21 March, 2008

The Change Congress movement

Lawrence Lessig announced the official launch of the Change Congress movement yesterday in DC. Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, is an outspoken crusader for reform of the political process. More specifically, he is a leading mind in the effort to understand the phenomenon that is institutional corruption. Whereas individual corruption is more or less straightforward (you give me this suitcase full of money and I vote the way you tell me to), institutional corruption refers more to the current regime of incentives and disincentives that skews public policy away from rationality and accountability. For quick primer on Lessig's basic take on the whole situation, I recommend this video.

The whole motivating philosophy behind the Change Congress campaign is that of using the participatory nature of the internet to hold elected officials accountable and organize a broad grassroots consensus for change. The four major tenets of the movement are as follows:

  1. No money from lobbyists or PACs (political action committees)
  2. Vote to end earmarks
  3. Support public-financed campaigns
  4. Support reform to increase Congressional transparency

The idea is that candidates running for office will register with Change Congress and pledge their support for some or all of the above reforms. This way, citizens will be able to track which candidates are committed to what tenets, and Change Congress will track their votes and fundraising to verify to what extent congresspeople have lived up to their promises.

Anyway, as an official member of the Change Congress movement, I wanted to give my plug -- and I urge all of you to take a look and think about joining, even if you don't agree with all of the tenets. In this coming election cycle, what happens in Congress will be at least as important as who wins the presidency -- with 68 seats currently contestable (a number which may rise as more and more incumbent Republicans decide to jump ship) and Democrats in what appears to be a very strong position (as evidenced by the startling Democratic upset in Illinois) there is an historic chance to put a lot of reform-minded candidates in office.

20 March, 2008

Passing the Torch

There are, of course, tons of responses on the web about Barack Obama's Tuesday speech on race tensions in America.

I'm sure the internets don't need another (somewhat overdue) analysis of that speech. We all know how pivotal this was for Obama's campaign - how could an eloquent soliloquy on a controversial and personal topic in response to the only thing close to a "scandal" anyone's been able to drum up about his candidacy not be a crucial and widely discussed moment? Many voices more articulate than mine have already pointed this out. So I will try not to go on about how presidential Barack sounded, or whether his picture of race is correct, or if this is a successful response to the media coverage of Rev. Wright's sermons. But I do want to say something a little different about what Barack's speech means.

What is truly important about this speech is not about Barack giving it. It's about how it has been received. The American public has actually listened to this speech. Not only did Barack speak to us "like we are adults," but for once in this country, I think we've listened like adults. When the Media continues to use sound bytes of Barack's as a lead-in to playing, yet again, Rev. Wright's bytes - just like Barack said they would - people are rolling their eyes and wondering why we're still talking about this. For once, voters are connecting with a candidate by circumventing the Media. I hope this helps the news industries re-evaluate their purpose a little bit: the Media should be the voice of the people, not their patronizing nanny.

I have been hesitant thus far to engage in the more sugary of praises for Obama or, honestly, to fully commit to his candidacy. It is hard to pretend that one President can pull this country together, heal our international reputation, or deliver significantly on the policy he/she campaigned on - no matter how much we believe they will try. One person in a sprawling government, even the commander in chief, surrounded by a history of American interests and American mistakes, just can't accomplish all this. But I do believe an engaged and angry public can.

That is why I will admit that this time Obama really does remind me of Kennedy. Not just in representing an oppressed people, or in his youth, or in his oratory skills (for those of you who have only heard the "Ask not what your country can do for you..." clips, check out the full attempt to heal a divided nation about a very different issue in Kennedy's inaugural address). He reminds me of what Kennedy represented. Kennedy's meaning, like Obama's, was only partially about his presidency and his policies. It was also about a nation being engaged, a new generation acknowledging their responsibility to take control of our country and to change it into where they wanted to live, without looking back. Obama's candidacy means that right now, we are trying to realize our own assumption of responsibility for our nation. We are ready for our political adulthood, to live in a society where we respond to politicians who speak to us like adults, to pick up a severely tarnished torch and do something about making it brighter.

18 March, 2008

The man on the street

Some of you may have already seen these videos, but I just stumbled across them yesterday. In the first one, an interviewer is roaming the crowd outside of the Kodak theatre in LA, where Clinton and Obama were set to debate. He happens on this young Obama supporter, and begins to aggressively question him, apparently expecting the archetypal Obamite: star-struck, naive, regurgitator of fluffy platitudes. Amusingly, the first guy he came across was actually a well informed and unusually eloquent spokesperson:

Spurred by the attention and feedback he was receiving after his response became popular on YouTube, he decided to record what he calls his "Emotional Response", which lays out in a bit more scripted fashion the promise that he sees in the Obama candidacy:

All this -- more than a million views and a writeup in the New York Times -- due to a chance encounter with a pushy journalist. All I can say is, I'm glad it wasn't me.

Identity Politics

Powerful words from Andrew Sullivan:

And so we are suspended between the old politics and the new, between a Clinton who believes in her heart that America is not ready and may never be ready for this leap and should therefore adopt a politics that assumes the ineradicability of this gulf and the need to disguise it and play cynical defense - and an Obama who offers all of us a chance to see that sometimes authentic identity requires an element of contradiction, a bridging of the resentful, angry past and a more complex, integrated future.

He may fail; and the Clintons may be proven right. But he may also succeed - and what a mighty success that would be. These things are never easy; and we were lulled perhaps into an illusion that they could be. So now the real struggle starts. And it will not end with an Obama presidency; it ends with a shift from below that makes an Obama presidency possible.

Or to put it in a phrase that is as true as it is wilfully misunderstood: We are the change we have been waiting for. And the waiting is now over.

17 March, 2008

A Reputable News Source Explains Our Recent Loss

In a time of mourning and confusion, this worthwhile article can help staunch the tears:

GREEN BAY, WI—The Green Bay Packers addressed questions concerning the current status, future plans, and whereabouts of recently retired quarterback Brett Favre by announcing Monday that they had sent him to the country to live on a beautiful farm with a very nice family.

"We know you loved Brett Favre, but he wasn't happy here. He couldn't stay here," Packers general manager Ted Thompson told hundreds of quiet but tear-streaked Packer fans assembled at the televised Lambeau Field press conference. "And he loved you, too—he loved you very much indeed—but he needed to go someplace where he could run and jump and throw his favorite football around. And he couldn't do that here anymore."

15 March, 2008

The internets are against me

I'm realizing a frustrating problem with doing one's research at 2:30 in the morning on a Saturday: such is the hour that these bourgeois 9-5, 5 day-a-week type sites like to do their "essential maintenance." Damn you, 'The Economist'!

That is all.

Awesomeness Update: Dani Rodrik on the above damned publication: "But then I realized that the more I knew about a subject, the less The Economist was making sense." Funny because its true.

14 March, 2008

Molly Ivans

God rest her soul, explaining why she could not support Hillary Clinton.

13 March, 2008

Prostitution, law, and morality

Per our discussion on the morality of public figures, the intertubes have been abuzz with the topic from all manner of perspectives. Michael Barone, a writer for US News & World Report, hits the problem of legal selectivity head on by arguing that prostitution, while "technically" illegal, is in most situations overwhelmingly condoned by law enforcement. It is in situations of such gross selectivity that political considerations can carry increased and improper weight:

When society has effectively legalized something that is still theoretically illegal, there is always the possibility of selective prosecution—targeting individuals who are in disfavor with someone in government. Selective prosecution is tyranny, and the possibility of selective prosecution is a powerful argument for legalization of the behavior that the society has chosen to condone.

This conforms with what seems to be a very broad sentiment in the blogosphere that prostitution should be legalized, although for a variety of reasons. Liberals such as Yglesias cautiously support a move towards liberalization while libertarian types (who seem to be overrepresented on the internet) crow about the paternalistic illogic of criminalization. Over at Slate, some at the "womens' corner" (which I find to be surprisingly sympathetic towards Spitzer) opine that the nature of one's sexual drive, being fundamentally irrational, should not be used to judge a public servant's aptitude for office:

Sex is basically irrational. What people need and want has nothing to do with what they think they should want or need. And how they behave in the bedroom has, for the most part, not all that much with how they would behave elsewhere in the world, if we're going to trust sex surveys.

They question they're asking, then, is should Spitzer have resigned if his behavior had not violated the law? I would say no (especially since David Vitter gets to stay in office...) and I will say that this particular operation did seem to be an orchestrated attempt to destroy a powerful, successful reformist politician on behalf of any number of the many, many enemies that Spitzer took pleasure in making. I would prefer it if high ranking and highly visible politicians that share my political philosophy didn't engage in embarrassing behavior that much of the electorate finds deeply disturbing, but I don't see deviant sexual habits as something per se that renders one unfit for high office.

But, of course, he did break the law -- which brings us back to the question of legalization. I think I favor decriminalization for much the same reasons that I favor legalization of drugs and abortion -- a simple cost-benefit analysis. Outraged articles such as this one in the NYT completely miss the point when they argue that X should be illegal because it is really bad. This goes back to my previous comment on how the purpose of the law is not to impose morality, but to seek a certain optimal social outcome. Laws should be judged by the morality of their effects just as much as by the morality of their intent. And it seems that criminalizing a certain class of bad things (prostitution, drugs, abortion) actually make the problem worse by increasing the danger of the thing (prostitutes without legal recourse, impure cocaine, vicious traffickers, homestyle abortions, jails packed with non-violent offenders) without significantly decreasing its incidence. Add to that the fact that prostitution is tolerated until a political enemy comes along, and criminalization is now chipping away at the fairness of our legal system, much as the power of drug traffickers has completely corrupted those in much of Latin America and elsewhere.

Update: Eremita brings my attention to a very interesting site that serves as a resource, pro and con, on the many aspects of the debate over legalizing prostitution.

10 March, 2008

"Who's Who in Ho's," or, "A Modest Proposal Turned Indecent"

Eliot Spitzer: Governor, representative of the people, manifestation of popular executive will, avatar of the masses' collective psyche...whore monger?

I don't live in Our Lady of Blogalupe, but surely this deserves some devoted keyboard time.

I'm going to leave the man alone, here. At least he was big enough to go up in front of the cameras (wife at his side, no less), admit his mistake, and apologize. This is the type of thing that could happen to anyone, should we find ourselves in the position. By "the position," I of course not only mean missionary, but any and all of the preceding positions, such as the attainment of power and a sense of invulnerability, that precipitate that as well as the more interesting pages of the Kama Sutra.

We all face temptation of various sorts in our lifetimes. Do I take the cookie from the cookie jar? Should I eat all of the Hagen-Daaz in one sitting? Ought I to stay out at the bars when I know I have a mid-term the following morning? Do I pay this poor exploited woman to have sexual relations? Temptation, it seems, looms at every corner, and not just those on seamy back streets.

So what makes the mighty fall so far? Does power corrupt even the most moral of hearts? This is the man who brought down the Gambino's and has consistently battled for consumer rights during his law career. Perhaps we ask the unreasonable of our elected officials. They are asked to shoulder enormous responsibility; to weigh the differed and oft irreconcilable opinions of their constituents, and to pass judgment.

What more irksome task could we as citizens place on mortal shoulders than to repeatedly pass judgment? We offer up, to some extent, our very power of choice, and ask our lawmakers to choose for us what is most ethical and beneficial. I don't even like to choose what color shirt to wear, so I place my trust in GQ.

My question is simple. To what extent can we expect elected officials to maintain a "higher moral standard" when the bar is set so very low for everyone else? I wish I could remember where, but I've actually heard it said that politicians are expected to maintain a higher moral standard. Than whom? What does that even mean? The very statement assumes that it is permissible for your average American citizen to embezzle money, exploit the less fortunate, and engage in prostitution. America at large is not expected to behave morally?

To watch the evening news, it would appear not. To drive down the street every day, it would appear not. At best, the law is selective--situational. I don't have to stop at this crosswalk because I'm in a hurry. This 'no parking any time' sign doesn't really need to be here. My company can pollute this ecosystem because the law doesn't exactly say 'don't,' just 'not too much.'

Now, I noted two fairly common situations, and a third of a slightly different sort. I'm not trying to equate minor traffic violations with prostitution, I'm only saying that it starts somewhere. Most people follow the little laws only insofar as it's convenient, and will have the gall to be mad about the five-dollar parking ticket they received for parking where they shouldn't have in the first place. That third example is an interesting human phenomenon. It may not be expressly forbidden, and we know it's wrong, but we do it all the same. Still immoral.

Our country cultivates the feeling that anything goes, as long as I don't get caught doing it.

A higher moral standard? Why don't we first shoot for a moral standard, and we can talk about degrees of altitude later on. I'll leave off here in hopes that someone will respond. I think the issues raised here are of immense philosophical value--where morality lies, is there an objective standard, what can be expected of human beings--and I hope we can hash some things out.

09 March, 2008

DC: where it's at

The New Yawk Times has a story today about the bohemian blogging community in DC, which focuses on "the flophouse", where Matthew Yglesias, Spencer Ackerman, and several other young writers all live and blog together. The article has an amusing generational-gap feel to it (this is a "laptop", which young people use when they go "blogging") but its fun to read. A couple things I noted: first, the U Street area is apparently where its at in this town. Second, these writers who are being published nationally are ridiculously young. Also, these bloggers are all very white.

06 March, 2008

Back to Nominations

Despite its unfortunate directional composition, I find this NYTimes graph a succinct way to bring our posts up to date. Gathered in one place are the outlooks of Obama and Clinton going into the last stretch, and a barebones look at why the nomination will be decided by the superdelegates. Now you can see here that Obama certainly has the edge in almost every scenario - that is, he'll need far fewer of the outstanding superdelegates unless Clinton wins 60+% of the delegates in the remaining primaries. (Note that this analysis does not include the speculated seating of Florida or Michigan delegates.)

So, with the current delegate count appearing to lean in one direction and the momentum waffling from candidate to candidate, I have to say that the race could still be called "close." Close enough, anyway, that both candidates can hold out real hopes of winning (and by real, I mean math, not miracles). So even if one of those candidates is pinning that hope on a significant change in popular opinion (or a scandle) AND a nod from a large number of superdelegates, I think there's good reason to expect this race to go all the way to the Convention. Just because causing a change in the lead seems unlikely, or even somewhat underhanded, doesn't mean its completely crazy. In this primary season (where we've seen some crazy bids for nominations) I just don't see any remaining candidate dropping out for the good of their party, no matter how much I might agree that it would be best.

05 March, 2008

Isn't it fiction anyway?

The Times writes:

In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.

The problem is that none of it is true.

Strangely, I'm tempted to say "So what?". Any memoir is going to be half-fiction anyway because scenes are rewritten and recasted by the author (and ghostwriter) for dramatic effect. Moreover, it's ridiculous to assume that anyone remembers all of the details from their life from one month ago, let alone twenty or forty years. Rather, they've filled in the gaps based on the internal narrative that they tell themselves about their experiences. Just because your narrative corresponds much more loosely to what actually happened doesn't make it any less compelling or entertaining. After all, we are all compelled and entertained by books that we acknowledge are fictional.

Now, if the purpose of the document was to convict or acquit someone of a crime or have some sort of direct effect on the world, I'd condemn it. But it's a book, basically a novel anyway, that is meant to raise awareness of what life is like in a world that is very different from most of ours and to tell a story. An explicitly fictional book with the same purpose would have had exactly the same effect. The reasons that Jones gives for writing the book remind me of the Rigoberta Menchú kerfuffle in which she exaggerated parts of her story for, essentially, political effect.

Similarly with the furor surrounding Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergrad who copied bits and pieces of her chick-lit novel from Megan McCafferty. These kinds of novels rip off themes, characters, and plot-lines all of the time; isn't that far worse than copping a sentence structure or two?

Ohio: the worst state ever?

Racists from Ohio give Hillary a reason to continue running:

Via Yglesias. Note that they are tied among people who did not use race to decide their vote. What puts Hillary over the top is the people who voted for her because she is white, and against Obama because he is black.

04 March, 2008

O Captain My Captain!

It seems that Favre is set to retire. If this is true (and it appears there is still legitimate space to hope that it is not) there is really very little to say that isn't unbearably cliché (the Best Ever, the quintessential Gunslinger), unbearably understated (he gave a lot of people a good show) or (already) unbearably bittersweet (how close to another Super Bowl!).