31 July, 2009

Socialism and analogies

Last night Guadalupe, Cassady and I went to a health care reform panel discussion, which included a political analyst, a political scientist, an "economist", a small business woman, the founder of a local clinic, and a government bureaucrat. It was a mostly really informative discussion, and I got the most comprehensive comparison I have been exposed to of the current plans being considered as well as those not being considered in a very wonky yet understandable presentation. The "economist" did not represent his profession well, however - he simply asserted that there was no problem and that a public option "made no sense" but then provided no reasoning whatsoever. Unless you find sneering a convincing argument.

Afterwards I mentioned that I thought it was funny to imagine what would happen if the same people who talked about government involvement in healthcare in such apocalyptic terms were to be consistent and apply their reasoning to a socialized Defense department. Our competing private national defense insurance plans may be wildly inefficient, covering only certain threats ("We cover all inter-continental ballistic missiles, but not domestic dirty bombs") and responsive only to wealthy areas of the nation (if poor people would just get off their asses, then they too could get national defense!). But though imperfect, this system of defense is nothing compared to the horrors of having a bureaucrat in Washington, DC making your defense decisions for you!

But snark aside, Tina Dupuy at the Huffington Post (h/t Yglesias) has an interesting article on the history of fire-fighting, which until the Civil War was run as a private enterprise. What happened was basically that opposing gangs competed to be the first to a fire and expand their turf - which then led to literal battles and sabatoge between the outfits. She also imagines how this debate might play out today:

Yet if we had to have the "conversation" about the firefighting industry today, we'd have socialism-phobic South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint on the TV every chance he could get saying things like, "Do you want a government bureaucrat between you and the safety of your home?"

Rep. John Boehner of Ohio would hold press conferences and ask, "Do you want your firefighting to be like going to the DMV? Do you want Uncle Sam to come breaking down your door every time some Washington fat cat says there's a fire?"


28 July, 2009

Every day is a good day for a ground war in Asia

You may have heard that the Senate recently voted to discontinue funding for the F-22 fighter jet. The outrageously expensive plane was deemed unnecessary by the Air Force, and killing it became a personal cause for Bob Gates, who, after all, the Defense Secretary. A straightforward policy issue, you say? Well, actually, the influence of defense contractors, particularly with a certain subset of senators, made it a hard-fought vote, and a bit of a symbolic cause for those seeking a more rational defense policy.

Well, no one ever accused John Cornyn (R-Texas) of rationality. See Ackerman for the news that Cornyn said first that we needed the F-22 to fight, um, India, and then clarified that he actually meant China. Ah, the world is so big with so many lines drawn on it, and all those brown people look too much the same. But actually for all his buffoonery, Cornyn fits right in with a lot of the right wing/ neo-con thinking on China, articulated most prominently by Bob Kagan. They see international relations as a zero-sum game and massive wars between great powers as an inevitable outcome of international competition. And, much like was the case with Iraq, there is a significant contingent of non-cynical human rights crusaders making common cause with them to seek an aggressive line against China for the purpose of disincentivizing abuses.

As for the first argument, it is simply untrue that we somehow don't have any agency over whether there will be conflict or not. Declaring preemptively that conflict is inevitable is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it prevents us from cooperating on extremely important issues like climate change and negotiations with North Korea. Cooperating doesn't only address the specific issue being cooperated on; the very act of cooperating - of communicating regularly, pooling resources and efforts, engaging in respectful disagreements and debates over tactics - inherently improves relations and makes peaceful relationships more likely. That is the foundation of liberal internationalism: relations can be positive-sum if both sides work to make it so, and thus the goal should be to set up institutions that maximize positive-sum interaction (i.e. joint peacekeeping missions instead of endless proxy wars, freer trade instead of escalating trade wars, joint anti-piracy actions instead of bucaneering, treaties regulating nuclear materials rather than nuclear holocaust).

As for those motivated by human rights (Eremita and I had a spirited discussion on this subject after seeing Star Trek, itself a liberal internationalist treatise of sorts) I think the hard truth is that increasing tensions with China through threats, public snubs, or punishments like revoking Most Favored Nation status will only make the situation worse, while punishing lots of innocent people. It is not a good thing that China's treatment of Tibetan peoples is probably tantamount to genocide, that its ethnic minorities such as the Uighurs undergo Jim Crow-like treatment, and that the government does not rule with the consent of the governed. But none of that will be helped by snubbing its leaders at the Olympic games, building awesomer fighter jets, or ostracizing it by excluding it from a League of Democracies. Beyond that, war with China, over Taiwan or anything else, would be a humanitarian disaster that would certainly result in much worse rights abuses.

As for US-China relations in real time, see this Tim Fernholtz post on the Strategic and Economic Dialogue going on as we speak. The top three issues being discussed are economic coordination, an agreement on a climate change framework, and cooperation on North Korea.


Right on.

Shatner at his best

27 July, 2009

Sarah Palin: Greatest Slam Poet of Our Time?

Really, she should be on Def Poetry Jam or something:

UPDATE:I thought I'd transcribe some of this for y'all. This bit is reminiscent of Kerouac:
And getting up here
I say it is the best road trip in America
soaring through nature's finest show.

the great ones
soaring under the midnight sun.

And then the extremes
in the wintertime
it's the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice-fogged
frigid beauty.
The cold though
doesn't it split the cheechakos from the sourdoughs?

And then in the summertime
such extremes, summertime!
About a hundred and fifty degrees hotter
than just some months ago
(than just some months from now)
with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and
merciless rivers that are rushing
and carving
and reminding us
that here
Mother Nature wins.

It is
as throughout all Alaska
that big wild good life
teeming along the road that is
North to the Future.
But really it's the rhythm of the delivery that brings it to life, so take a listen.

UPDATE II: Clearly I should write for Conan! Here he is stealing my material:

The choice of William Shatner was inspired though.

26 July, 2009

The Public Option Conspiracy

This morning on the McLaughlin Group, Rich Lowry and Monica Crowley teamed up in claiming that liberal lawmakers crafted the current health care reform bill with the goal in mind of ultimately eliminating private health insurers in the U.S. Apparently, since leftists can't openly force a socialist bill through Congress, they have found a way to sneak in a trojan horse that appears to promote competition, but once implemented, will actually reak socialist havoc on innocent, freedom-loving Americans by taking away their ability to choose a provider. This is just another case of neo-cons trying to shift the conversation from the actual effects of the bill, if passed, to the supposedly sinister intentions of Obama and congressional Democrats.

What should be debated is whether or not the bill would have such an effect. It seems to me that the purpose of the public option is to provide a "moral" contender to private insurers, i.e., one which provides a certain level of service needed by many low-income Americans, which is usually not available due to competitive pressures. For instance, as Yglesias points out, the ability to see a doctor on the weekends. Supposedly, one could operate a profitable business that offers health insurance that, along with the usual services, allows one to see a doctor on the weekend - but since actual insurers can collectively get away without allowing for this, they do - even though it isn't "the right thing to do."

The problem is how will the Feds know how far they can go (in services and pricing) before they are providing an alternative that private insurers cannot compete with?

23 July, 2009

America Trusts Jon Stewart

Apparently, with the passing of Walter Cronkite, Jon Stewart is now the "most trusted name in news." This came as a huge surprise to me. (Nevermind that the Time poll may or may not be all that credible.) I was vaguely aware that a large percentage of young people in the U.S. get their news from The Daily Show, but I wouldn't have assumed that those young people (a) trust their ability to filter Stewart's sarcastic and sometimes fictionalized accounts from the facts enough to "trust" him, and (b) make up a large enough group of news-watchers to sway the poll numbers in most U.S. states.

If only the poll had included Anderson Cooper (or Robert Siegel! - but perhaps radio doesn't count).

16 July, 2009

D-BAGs exposed

"Can't put your finger on what's wrong with that dude at the bar? Duh -- the guy might be a douchebag."
Kara Nesvig writes a mildly entertaining article about "the d-bag affliction." It'd be better if the truth wasn't so annoying and distasteful. Thankfully she ends with signs to tell if your boyfriend is a douche and a checklist on how to "douche down."

13 July, 2009

New ideas surprisingly quite similar to old ideas

Being in DC, I haven't followed much local politics. But here I see that, finally, someone has stepped up to the plate to refute the insidious charge that the current Republicans have no real policy platform beyond knee-jerk obstructionism and knee-jerk tax-cutting: Bill Feehan, the Vice-Chairman of the La Crosse County Republican Party. The "ideas" listed in the article are as follows:

1) Democrats are Marxists. "The lesson of the collapse of socialism in Russia is clear; without a profit motive, an economy cannot function efficiently." Hmmm, do tell.

2) Ayn Rand was right about everything. "Rand had another interesting idea about how much each citizen was entitled to: 'You consume what you produce.'" Ah, to live in a world without collective action problems.

3) Democrats hate economic growth. "Businesses are from this viewpoint inherently bad things that need controlling by the government. So here is a big idea from a Republican. Businesses are inherently good." Congratulations on forming an idea! Of course business is "inherently good". That doesn't mean that it doesn't need regulating, or that the labor-capital rivalry doesn't need mediating, or that business should unilaterally set economic policy.

4) Cutting taxes raises revenue. "Raising taxes on high-income individuals and businesses is counter-productive. It will result in lost jobs and falling tax revenues." An oldie but a goodie.

5) Stimulus is a failure. Counter-proposal is nebulous but appears to be tax cuts, which already compose the largest single component of the ARRA.

6) Republican ideology is literally a fairy tale. "There is yet another lesson from a children’s fairy tale, the story of the golden goose. Business is the golden goose that lays golden eggs for our nation. Let’s not strangle the golden goose in the interest of something as subjective as fairness."

Not to put too fine a point on this, but not only are these "ideas" not really new, or ideas, but they are so far removed from the nature and magnitude of our current challenges its laughable. I mean, I understand this is La Crosse, and I understand that Democrats have their silly and contradictory ideas, like any political movement. But this is really, really bad.

Sotomayor confirmation hearings

Besides the pleasure of seeing Senator Franken performing his first official duty, watching CNN today I've been struck by the non sequitar-ness of the Sotomayor hearings and the surrounding chatter. The controversies dominating the questioning just don't seem to bear much relation to the actual legal challenges inherent in interpreting the Constitution. The main point of contention has been about "activist" judges, which has long been a conservative code word meaning "judges that see in the judicial system and the Constitution an inherent authority to uphold certain minority rights that have been circumscribed by majoritarian legislative actions". But since that argument orginated in the now-discredited attempt to indefinitely deny African Americans equal status under law, we get a euphamistic debate over "activist" versus "non-activist" judges.

But that distinction doesn't really make any sense. The purpose of the Supreme Court is to review the laws we make, and every judge will find some things unconstitutional and others not; that is, every judge will be an "activist" on some issues and not others according to her interpretation. Sotomayor is a case in point: conservatives are angry at her appellate decision in the Ricci case because she upheld existing precedent. Conservatives wanted a more activist decision, and they got one when the case went before the Supreme Court. But the debate still goes on under the pretense that conservatives are against "activism" and progressives must defend themselves from the charge of playing fast and loose with the law.

09 July, 2009

05 July, 2009

Power to the People

Walking home from the Boston/Cambridge fireworks tonight, a curious phenomenon emerged as Mass. Ave. was commandeered by thousands of pedestrians. The street wasn't officially blocked off to vehicles and as we walked, cars attempted to merge in from cross-streets. The police attempted to halt foot traffic to allow cars to pass--hundreds of people simultaneously realized how idiotic it was to prevent thousands from getting home to allow the few poor souls who decided to drive to escape. One particularly new-looking white BMW was stuck in the middle of the resulting throng. The couple inside probably sat there for the next half hour, enduring sneers and barbs from the passing hordes. A harsh punishment? Perhaps, but you have to ask what kind of douche drives to fireworks that are accessible from about ten subway stations? (And what kind of an asshole drives his BMW into a crowd of people?)

We held the street until Central Square, where the standard social order--cars above people, always and forever--resumed.

01 July, 2009

Not all coups created equal

Having now achieved the dubious distinction of completing the academic coursework required to be considered a regional specialist, I thought I should have something to say about the recent coup in Honduras. In one sense, there isn't a lot to say. Latin America has long been marked by weak civilian institutions and militaries that are, to say the least, not very well walled off from domestic political disputes. A military stepping in to do away with a government that they feel threatens domestic stability is pretty run of the mill in historical terms.

In another sense, this is a development that is much more disturbing than it would have been in, say, the 1970s. Observers have long hailed a period of democratic retrenchment in Latin America correlating roughly with the end of the Cold War, and the hope has been that the region had truly turned a corner. This always seemed pretty naive to me. The structural problems facing Latin American societies remain largely the same as ever - growth has persisted, but remains mediocre; economic, financial, and currency crises have continued at regular intervals; poverty has only inched down and inequality has not budged and in some cases risen; opportunity is still sharply stratified by race, class, and gender; infrastructure is poor; provision of education, health care, sanitary services, police protection and other social compacts are extremely tenuous; corruption continues to be endemic and the rule of law is weak. All of these factors, in different measures in different circumstances, have contributed to political systems that are, in general, highly dysfunctional and highly unstable. While democratic rule has been, again in general, slowly improving over the past two decades, progress has been built on a very shaky foundation.

What has changed is the international context, and the regional dynamics of Latin America are one of the first things otherwise astute observers seem to miss. There is a growing chorus of folks decrying the supposed inconsistency of Obama's reaction between Iran and Honduras; take Daniel Larison (h/t the Dish), who calls Obama's immediate demand for Zelaya's return "incredible incompetence".

But why in the world should we react in the same manner to two cases that are as different as night and day? In Iran, an understated reaction is called for primarily because it would be counterproductive given our almost complete lack of leverage over the Iranian regime. Our reaction to Honduras, on the other hand, must be conditioned by several very different realities. First, Honduras was already a democracy, and a two-day-old military coup to unseat a president is very different in terms of its vulnerability to international pressure than is a full blown revolutionary regime that has succeeded in uniting its country's economic, political and military elite for 30 years. Second, the United States has a tremendous amount of leverage with which to influence Honduras, which is not the case with Iran. And, finally, unlike previous US adventures in Latin America, we are now acting multilaterally with the full blessing of all other members of the Organization of American States. Since the end of the Cold War, the OAS has developed a regional democracy-protection agreement, known as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which requires OAS members to collectively intervene to restore democratic order in the case of a "democratic interruption."

Obama's call for the restoration of Zelaya is not another agressive and ill-considered intervention that the US used to commonly perpetrate in Central America in order to defend extremely narrow domestic political interests. It is, instead, in alignment with - and required by - the most important and hard-won multilateral agreement in the Americas. And comparisons with Iran are unenlightening in the extreme.

Should Sanford resign?

Nate Silver doesn't think so.

He brings up a question I've been thinking a lot about lately: the extent to which private foibles reflect upon, and should influence our judgment of, public duties. Silver argues that the two have little to nothing to do with each other, and that we as a society should strive to erect a Chinese wall between our politician's public and private lives. I tend to agree; I think that governance performance is the paramount consideration, and that predilection for private vice bears very little on successful service of the common good. The public would be much better off with Eliot Spitzer in office and Tom Daschle skillfully shepherding health reform through a recalcitrant Congress - although those are not pure examples, since they both involve some level of public sin. For more direct comparisons, however, FDR, JFK and Bill Clinton all carried on one or more affairs while rendering outstanding service to the country. Shouldn't Sanford be judged by the voters based on the outcome of his disastrous governing philosophy rather than on the ups and downs of his romantic life?

I realize this position goes against what the vast majority of Americans probably say and think they believe. Most will say they want their leaders to personify a personal integrity in all walks of life that can serve as an example to citizens. (Obama's carefully cultivated image as an uber-healthy exercise nut, loving husband and doting father has skillfully tapped into this.) But in practice, I think people are more able to separate the two spheres of life. Bill Clinton's popularity was relatively high throughout the Lewinsky scandal and has only increased with time. And while this Gallup poll centers on the banal discovery that everyone things cheating is "morally wrong", it also contains a more interesting number showing 46% of people saying that a presidential candidate revealed to have had an affair would bother them "not much or not at all", with much of the rest saying it would only bother them "moderately". On the other hand, a Spitzer comeback is probably a long shot - prostitution is quite a bit more unsavory than a romantic affair, and a crime besides.

Lessons from EU cap and trade

Brad Plumer has a nice short article on the lessons of the EU's cap and trade program, which was initiated in 2005. His bottom line:

The EU cap-and-trade system suffered a slew of early mishaps, but the United States has been watching and learning, and we should be able to avoid most of those fumbles. What's more, now that the problems have been ironed out, Europe's cap genuinely appears to be working, spurring companies to become more energy-efficient and making meaningful cuts in emissions. That said, the China factor is still huge: Europe obviously can't stop global warming all by itself, and there's no substitute for an international treaty.

As Plumer mentions, Europe's Emissions Trading System started out with many of the flaws that Spencer decried in the Waxman-Markey bill - most notably, giving away the permits rather than auctioning them in a misguided attempt to pass savings on to the consumer. Instead, massive rent-seeking ensued, with polluters raising prices and in some cases actually increasing emissions.

But, after that initial period, the ETS began auctioning permits and setting stricter caps, and emissions have fallen sharply (although some of that drop comes due to outsourcing...underlining the international nature of the problem). So, good news/bad news: the bad news is that Waxman-Markey, which seems to me by far the most ambitious bill that could possibly pass Congress (and it still might well not), contains most of these misteps and then some. Good news is that the EU was able to change course and turn an intially useless trading system into one that has already reduced emissions to 5% below 1990 levels. So, if seen as an endpoint in itself, based on the experience of the EU, we already know that Waxman-Markey will be almost useless. But seen as a framework that we can lock in now, and upon which to more easily drap future policy decisions, it will provide real value.