Sunday, October 31, 2010

Assassinating Awlaki

Remember when I said the failed cargo-plane bombs would probably be an excuse to justify the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen working with Al Qaeda in Yemen? Queue the Wall Street Journal:

"The plot also underscores that the Obama Administration is right to target Awlaki and other al Qaeda leaders in Yemen with Predator drone attacks, rather than merely issuing a criminal arrest warrant. Awlaki is actively plotting to murder Americans, and stopping him is an act of self-defense. The attempt by the ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights to thwart these attacks in a lawsuit could get Americans killed."

Making sure that the American government can't arbitrarily order the execution of an American citizen will get Americans killed, basically. For what it's worth, the ACLU and the CCR aren't actually asking that Awlaki's life be spared. They're asking that there be due process:

The groups charge that targeting individuals for execution who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged — without oversight, judicial process, or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists — also poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people. In recent years, the U.S. government has detained many men as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.

Al Qaeda is bad. Awlaki may well be a bad guy. But laws and constitutions are the ways civilized people balance the dangers of the world -- including bad guys -- against the liberties and rights of citizens. There is always risk. The government should have to have a high standard for putting one of its citizens on an assassination list.

Rasmussen: The Coming Republican Overreach

We've been told for two years now that Barack Obama and the Democrats were mistaken about the type of mandate that they had when they won the 2006 and 2008 elections. It wasn't that Americans had embraced big government programs like "Obamacare," we were told, but that Republicans had been fired for their own fecklessness. The result? Democratic overreach that alienated voters and turned the tide back to the Republicans.

There's a lot about the theory that's wrong, but as Scott Rasmussen notes, it might be best for Republicans if they don't overinterpret their mandate on Tuesday:

The reality is that voters in 2010 are doing the same thing they did in 2006 and 2008: They are voting against the party in power.

This is the continuation of a trend that began nearly 20 years ago. In 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president and his party had control of Congress. Before he left office, his party lost control. Then, in 2000, George W. Bush came to power, and his party controlled Congress. But like Mr. Clinton before him, Mr. Bush saw his party lose control.

That's never happened before in back-to-back administrations. The Obama administration appears poised to make it three in a row. This reflects a fundamental rejection of both political parties.

In this environment, it would be wise for all Republicans to remember that their team didn't win, the other team lost. Heading into 2012, voters will remain ready to vote against the party in power unless they are given a reason not to do so.

It's possible, of course, that the politics itself is the problem - that everybody who gains power starts to look stale and awful after two to four to six years or so, and everybody out of power starts to look like the Next Great Hope during that time. Under these circumstances, nobody's going to have a mandate - and everybody's going to overreach. We no longer have generational dynasties like the Democrats did during the FDR-to-LBJ era or the Republicans did from McKinley to Hoover. The news cycle can now be measured in minutes; the political cycles as a result can probably be measured in years or months.

The Final Teen Spirit Mashup

So glad my friend Justin Blessinger sent me this:

Michael Smerconish's Confusing Column Against Newspaper Endorsements

I think if one takes Michael Smerconish's call for newspapers to end political endorsements to its logical conclusion, he would lose his job as a columnist for the Inquirer and Daily News:

"When any newspaper lines up alongside Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann, it unnecessarily compromises its status as an objective source of fact at a time when an increasing number of media outlets traffic in ideologically driven, artificial political debates. The vaunted wall separating news coverage and editorializing is sacrificed - apparently based on the assumption that readers are capable of consuming the paper's reportage from the campaign trail but unable to come to their own conclusions as a result of that information."

That's not actually an argument against endorsements, but an argument against the existence of editorials and opinion pieces at all. And it's wrong: The wall between the news coverage and editorializing isn't eliminated because the editorial department does its job. That only happens if the news department starts doing the endorsements -- and that's not what Smerconish is suggesting here.

So it's a confused and confusing column by Smerconish -- who, it should be remembered, endorsed Barack Obama to great fanfare in 2008 ... on his radio show and in his Inky column.

What Smerconish does isn't all that substantively different from Beck or Olbermann -- only he has a newspaper platform in addition to his radio show. I'm not sure how any reading of today's Michael Smerconish newspaper column isn't actually a call for the Inky and Daily News to bring and end to the Michael Smerconish newspaper column.

The Ben and Joel Podcast: Justify Yourself! Part Two | Infinite Monkeys

The Ben and Joel Podcast: Justify Yourself! Part Two | Infinite Monkeys: "In this, the second part of what may or may not become an ongoing series of interrogations, Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis ask Robb Leatherwood (a.k.a. Monkey Robb) what it means to be a libertarian... or an anarcho-libertarian... or an anarcho-capitalist/paleolibertarian. You really need to listen to find out."

Bombs From Yemen Equal More War in Afghanistan

Sure, why not:

"(Heritage analyst James Jay) Carafano said that Mr. Obama failed to use his remarks on Friday to justify the troop escalation in Afghanistan in an effort to keep the country from becoming a haven again for Al Qaeda. “The president missed the opportunity to say, ‘And this is why we’re in Afghanistan,’ ” Mr. Carafano said."

This pie is delicious, which is why I always eat French fries!

Perhaps I'm being somewhat uncharitable, but my point is: Tying down forces in Afghanistan isn't really preventing Al Qaeda and like-minded organizations from reconstituting elsewhere -- like, say, Yemen. The whole point of stateless terrorism is that it's stateless. The emergence of more failed attacks from Yemen argues for more flexibility in our counter-terror approach -- following the terrorists where they go instead of setting up shop in one country and declaring it an Al Qaeda-free zone. The terrorists are smarter than to play by those rules. Maybe we should also be smarter than that.

The UPS/FedEx Bombs and the American Al Qaeda

I need to be clear here: I'm not about to engage in a bit of "truther" conspiracy theorizing. But I do have a concern that the Obama Administration will seize on the Friday's interecepted cargo bombs to make the public case for the assassination of an American citizen, Anwar Al-Awlaki, without bothering with due process.

You see hints of this in the New York Times story today:

Reviewing the evidence, American intelligence officials say they believe that the plot may have been blessed by the highest levels of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, including Mr. Awlaki.

“We know that Awlaki has taken a very specific interest in plotting against the United States, and we’ve found that he’s usually behind any attempted attack on American targets,” said one official.

Still they cautioned that it was still early to draw any firm conclusions and they did not present proof of Mr. Awlaki’s involvement.

We don't need to go through all the arguments against assassinating Awlaki here. The issue I'm raising, I guess, is more political than legal in nature. And the issue is this: I don't trust the Obama Administration -- any more than I would trust any chief executive -- not to wave the almost-bloody shirt in order to smooth over public concerns about the propriety of an assassination program aimed at an American citizen, no matter how loathesome that citizen might (allegedly) be. This case might demonstrate the need to stop Awlaki; it doesn't necessarily follow that we need to drop due process as a result.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Jonah Goldberg: That's A Nice Wikileaks You Got There. Be a Shame If Something Happened To It.

Jonah Goldberg is protesting that his instantly infamous column calling for the assassination of Wikileaks' Julian Assange doesn't actually call for that assassination. Here's how that column ended:

"Even if the CIA wanted to take him out, they couldn’t without massive controversy.

That’s because assassinating a hipster Australian Web guru as opposed to a Muslim terrorist is the kind of controversy no official dares invite.

That’s fine. And it’s the law. Ultimately, I don’t expect the U.S. government to kill Assange, but I do expect them to try to stop him. Alas, as of now, the plan seems to be to do nothing at all."

Goldberg says: "Any fair reading of my column might find it too glib, but it wouldn’t support the conclusion that I call for the guy’s assassination or his murder — because I don’t. Indeed, there’s nothing in the quote ... to justify the claim I call for his murder."

Maybe. But it seems like any "fair reading" of the column would find that instead of calling for assassination, it laments that Assange can't be killed because of all the complications it would raise. Goldberg might not explicitly call for the assassination, but he's not discouraging the idea either. If we take him at his word, he's merely pussyfooting around the idea without coming clean, pro- or con. Either Goldberg's guilty of morally reprehensible policy ideas, or he's guilty of muddy and unclear writing that advances no idea with any effectiveness. There's no reason both can't be true, but I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect the former.

The Death of a High School Football Player

My old stomping grounds of Northeast Kansas have been a brutal place to play high school football this fall. Last a night Spring Hill High School football player died:

"A woman who says her son plays on the Osawatamie team told KSHB that she saw Nathan Stiles intercept an Osawatamie pass and get hit on the play. Her husband, who was standing on the sidelines, says he saw Nathan walk to the sidelines and collapse."

Earlier in the season, a McLouth High School player lost part of his leg after suffering a compound fracture during a game.

I don't know. Maybe teen boys are so full of testosterone that they'll beat the crap out of each other no matter what. But, as I've noted before: Football is a game of violence. It's disturbing to see it kill and maim our young men. Is there any kind of moral upside to the game?

Barack Obama's 'Dude' Moment

Jonathan Chait

"On the contrary, I think the office of the president has too much dignity. The president is a citizen who serves the public. It is in the interest of the president to make himself into something exalted, a national father figure and symbol of the government. But the public has no interest in this function, which, indeed, can take on monarchical trappings with an insidious anti-democratic undertone. (It's a little disturbing when people who see the president salute -- a military signal that suggests subordination.)

Obviously, I don't want to see presidents cutting their own rap videos or jumping into the ring with professional wrestlers. But at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, out problem is not too little presidential dignity but too much."

On the other hand, the president isn't a 20-year-old frat boy. But if there's a problem here, it's Jon Stewart's, not Obama's.

Maurice Murphy, 'Star Wars' Trumpeter, RIP

The Guardian:

"Maurice Murphy, who died yesterday, is an essential part of the soundtrack to your musical life – even if you don't realise it. Maurice was principal trumpeter of the London Symphony Orchestra for 30 years, from 1977-2007, and you have sung along to his unmistakable, brilliant sound even if you have never knowingly been to the Barbican to hear the LSO in the flesh. It's his trumpet playing you hear blazing over the soundtracks to all six Star Wars films, and it was his playing for John Williams on the first film – his first gig with the orchestra – that made Williams stick with the LSO for his future movies. But Murphy's playing was always cosmic in its splendour, as anyone will know who heard him with the brass section of the LSO in the countless concerts and recordings they made together."

The Big Business of Illegal Immigration


"Over the past several months, NPR scoured campaign finance reports, corporate records and lobbying documents to gauge how deeply the private prison industry was involved in passing Arizona's immigration bill. NPR determined that the industry has been staging 'a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070' under the belief that 'immigrant detention is their next big market.'"

Disgusting. But brilliant journalism by NPR, and a reminder to the rest of us: There are very few laws that get passed simply because of a populist uprising. Somebody, somewhere, almost always stands to make a few bucks. The public and media would do well to always ask that question.

Why Does Obama Hate Business?

Kevin Drum says he doesn't:

"What's remarkable about all this is that Obama is, patently, not anti-business. All of the corporate complaints above, when you dig an inch below the surface, amount to lashing out at phantasms. However, although Obama isn't anti-business, it is fair to say that he's not especially business friendly. And after decades of almost literally getting their every heart's desire from Republican presidents and congresses, this has come as something as a shock to the corporate community. When Obama puts a tax break in the stimulus bill, it's aimed mainly at the middle class, not the rich. When he hires a labor secretary, it's someone who actually thinks labor laws should be enforced. When he says he wants to pass a healthcare reform bill, he actually does it. (Its impact on big business is close to zero, but no matter.) There's no evidence at all that Obama wants to punish big business, but at the same time it's quite plain that he cares much more about the middle class than he does about the rich.

And that's pretty hard for them to take. So they're apoplectic."

Judge: 4-Year-Old Can Be Sued

Oy. This case is a tragedy, but anybody who wants to use it to score points about our overly litigious society -- and the way judges enable our worst legal impulses -- probably won't get much argument from me. The case involves a 4-year-old girl named Juliet who accidentally injured (and killed) an 87-year-old woman while riding her bike with training wheels. Awful, horrible for everybody involved. But the court case makes it all worse.

Mr. Tyrie had also argued that Juliet should not be held liable because her mother was present; Justice Wooten disagreed.

“A parent’s presence alone does not give a reasonable child carte blanche to engage in risky behavior such as running across a street,” the judge wrote. He added that any “reasonably prudent child,” who presumably has been told to look both ways before crossing a street, should know that dashing out without looking is dangerous, with or without a parent there. The crucial factor is whether the parent encourages the risky behavior; if so, the child should not be held accountable.

Again: Oy. How many "reasonably prudent" 4-year-olds do you know? Kids are stupid, and they do stupid things -- even stupid things that they should know better than to do. What an awful case.

Here Is One Way Iraq is Better

I continue to believe the Iraq War a disaster -- but I suppose it's not an unmitigated disaster. Here's something that never would have happened under Saddam Hussein:

"The Iraqi prime minister's political opponents demanded Thursday that parliament hold a special session to investigate claims that prisoners have been tortured by his government.

Lawmakers from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya group have seized on the abuse allegations that surfaced last week in a cache of secret U.S. military documents released by online whistle-blower WikiLeaks as evidence that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is unfit to govern. Al-Maliki, meanwhile, has attacked the WikiLeaks release as an attempt to undermine him as he seeks to clench a second term in office."

I don't think this works as justification for the invasion and a seven-year war. But it's nice to see that if torture is still happening in Iraq, at least there's a political opposition to demand accountability. In fact, it would be nice to see that in the United States!

And End To Philly's 'Blogger Tax'?

Maybe so. Councilman Bill Green has introduced a bill that would put an end to it:

"Although there was no actual city effort to make bloggers pay up, technically anyone generating income is supposed to pay for a business-privilege license - a onetime fee of $300 or $50 annually - as well as any relevant taxes.

Green plans to introduce legislation next week to change that. His bill would exempt from the fee anyone making less than $3,000 annually through activites deemed hobbies under federal law.

'The main purpose of this bill is to require people not to get a business-privilege license for income that is hobbyist or incidental,' Green said."

Speaking as a blogger who, as of this moment, is owed roughly $7 by the Google AdSense program, I applaud Bill Green!

Sarah Palin Never Backs Down

She went ahead and more or less re-endorsed Alaska's Joe Miller for Senate, lauding his military service, even though he's beenrecent, uncontested ethics charges on his record:

"It was the first time Ms. Palin had appeared at a campaign rally with Mr. Miller and it followed a string of damaging developments for the candidate. Personnel records released this week under court order showed that Mr. Miller had been disciplined in 2008 for using government computers for political purposes, and then lying about it, when he worked as a part-time lawyer for the Fairbanks North Star Borough."

Palin's backing of Miller and Christine O'Donnell is just more evidence of her own ill fitness for high office. Which, in turn, is proof that America was right to reject John McCain in 2008. She's his legacy to American politics.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Little More About Bullying

Ben and I take on the bullies in our Scripps Howard column this week. My take:

Let me tell you about the most important teacher I ever had: Terry Hill.

Hill was a social studies and P.E. teacher at the middle school in the mid-Kansas town where my family moved in the 1980s. Adolescence is never easy, and transitioning to a new school complicates the level of difficulty: I didn't immediately fit in -- and found myself on the wrong end of confrontations with my fellow students. I was miserable. And then Mr. Hill stepped in.

I'm told he had a few words with my classmates; I wasn't there for that. What I do remember is that he called me out of class one day and sat with me in a school stairwell, asking me questions and listening to my pained answers for the better part of an hour. And for the next few years, he gave me encouragement, even handing me books he thought would entertain and enrich me. Middle school didn't become perfect, but it did become bearable.

Can the feds end bullying in our schools? No. They probably can't even make a dent in it. The attitudes and actions of bureaucrats in Washington D.C. will have precious little influence during the precarious school hallway moments that can shape a young person's life. Ben is right: the problem is in our homes and schools and communities, and that's where it must be addressed.

That means cracking down on bullies, yes, but it also means shining a light on adults who enable bullying behavior -- like the Arkansas school official under fire this week for a homophobic Facebook post. And it means following the examples of teachers like Terry Hill who listen to, encourage and empower students in need of a lifeline. Thanks, Mr. Hill, wherever you are.

AIDS and HIV in Philadelphia

Sobering news from a Wednesday hearing at City Hall:

"The commissioner presented a series of statistics to illustrate the epidemic:

New HIV infections are striking Philadelphians at a rate of 114 per 100,000 people, five times the national average.

Individuals between ages 13 and 24 make up 15 percent of the newly infected.

African Americans accounted for 66 percent of new HIV cases in 2009.

A bright spot: Schwarz said that from 2005 to 2009, the city saw a 64.6"

The most frustrating part of the story: The best services for AIDS and HIV treatment and prevention are in Center City. But for the most part, that's not actually where the problem is in Philadelphia.

Why I'm Not Worried About the Awesome Chinese Supercomputer

About halfway into the New York Times' story about how the Chinese now have the world's fastest supercomputer is a paragraph that demonstrates why I'm not worried about it as a long-term problem:

"“What is scary about this is that the U.S. dominance in high-performance computing is at risk,” said Wu-chun Feng, a supercomputing expert and professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “One could argue that this hits the foundation of our economic future.”"

Now: Maybe there's a supercomputing expert who goes by the name of "Johnny Appleseed" in China. But I doubt it. We're in a, um, xenophobic moment right now in the United States -- but our country seems, even now, far more open to educating, employing (and, most important) making citizens out of the best and brightest people from other countries. Now: That's not a given that will always be the case, and it's not a given that people will always want to come here. (The Great Recession has apparently lowered illegal immigration rates, for example.) But for now, I think it gives the U.S. a long-term edge in keeping our economy and technology dynamic.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

America's Algae-Fueled Military

The U.S. Navy has successfully tested an algae-fueled boat, the first step in its plan to power its fleet with up to 50 percent green and nuclear fuels by 2020:

"Fuels made from algae oil burn more cleanly than fossil fuel, but preventing climate change is not a major factor in the Pentagon's calculations. 'Our programme to go green is about combat capability, first and foremost,' Cullom said. 'We no longer want to be held hostage by one form of energy such as petroleum.'

Over the last year, the Pentagon has become increasingly vocal about the burden of running oil convoys in battle zones. Fossil fuel is the number one import to US troops in Afghanistan, and the slow and lumbering convoys of oil tankers are an obvious target for enemy combatants.

Fossil fuels are also horrendously expensive. By the time it reaches a war zone, the true cost of a gallon of petrol is well over $400."

The good news for the rest of us is that this kind of innovation often pushes its way into the civilian marketplace, and at a cheap price made possible by the military's economies of scale. Hegemony can be environmentally sound!

More to the point, there's not much direct incentive for most Americans to change their lifestyles because of climate change: They're not the ones feeling the pain. So alternative energies are probably going to have to be developed as a plausibly inexpensive alternative to fossil fuels to get the world sincere about kicking the oil habit. The military is willing to pay $400 a gallon to get its oil to Afghanistan; it would rather find a cheaper way. That's the opportunity that should be seized.

Jonah Goldberg: Philly Isn't 'Real America'

Jonah Goldberg mocks an upcoming Katie Couric travel itinerary:

"James’ post is great as it is, but might I just add that the places Katie Couric has been visiting aren’t really in the middle of the country. With the exception of Chicago, which is at least the gateway to the Midwest, Philly, Boston, and New Brunswick (!?!) are all part of the Bos-Wash corridor, accessible by the Acela. As someone who has crisscrossed the entire country by car numerous times, let me suggest that you haven’t seen much of the “middle” of this country — washed or unwashed — going by that itinerary. I mean, who says, “I’ve got to break out of my New York cocoon and see some of real America. Let’s go check out Philly and Boston.”"

For what it's worth, the Northeast Corridor contains roughly one-sixth of America's population. The middle of the country -- where "real" Americans live -- doesn't actually have that many Americans. Couric might want to expand her travels a bit, but a Philadelphian might actually be a more "typical" American than, say, somebody living in South Dakota.

More About the Sexy Sarah Palin Cover

A reader checks in:

"I'm going to not go out on a limb and guess you're unfamiliar with the B-movie classic, 'The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.'"

I got the reference. But I'm guessing there were ways to depict Palin and make this -- or a similar -- reference without undressing her. Maybe I'm just cranky and humorless. But I do think some otherwise-feminist-leaning folks are willing to indulge in a little sexism where Sarah Palin is concerned, and I'd rather not be a participant in that.

Republicans: Not Serious About the Deficit

Jonathan Chait:

"Looking ahead to controlling Congress, Republicans again propose to eliminate Paygo, as they did under Bush. But this time they propose to replace it with a different rule, Cutgo, which would require that new spending be offset with spending cuts. That would indeed be an effective way to limit new spending programs. Of course, it would retain the ability to pass tax cuts with no offsets whatsoever. The decision once again reflects the core Republican belief that tax revenues do not need to bear any relationship to expenditures."

A few days ago, I said the problem with the Tea Party "revolution" is that it's poised to return to power the exact same people who ran Congress during most of the last decade and helped turn the budget surplus into a deficit. The GOP is really good -- awesome, in fact -- at the rhetoric of cutting government and cutting taxes. They only ever deliver on half that equation. The results will be disastrous.

Democrats: 'If We're Gonna Lose, Let's Go Down Running Away From Every Legislative Accomplishment We've Made'

The Onion, of course:

"WASHINGTON—Conceding almost certain Republican gains in next month's crucial midterm elections, Democratic lawmakers vowed Tuesday not to give up without making one final push to ensure their party runs away from every major legislative victory of the past two years.

Party leaders told reporters that regardless of the ultimate outcome, they would do everything in their power from now until the polls closed to distance themselves from their hard-won passage of a historic health care overhaul, the toughest financial regulations since the 1930s, and a stimulus package most economists now credit with preventing a second Great Depression."

The Wonderful Wizard of Genocide

Via Tom Ricks, an 1891 editorial by that L. Frank Baum:

"The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies future safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.'"

I'm going to go ahead and say he was a bad witch.

Jimmy McMillan in The Guardian: The Rent. Too. Damn. High.

I thought his moment was over after the SNL parody, but keeps on entertaining with this amazing column in The Guardian:

"The rent is too damn high.

That's what I was thinking when the five guys jumped me as I was walking down a street in Brooklyn at two in the morning. At least, that's probably what I was thinking, since that's what I'm thinking most of the time.

I didn't see them, obviously. I don't have Spidey sense; I don't have peripheral vision. I'm a 10th degree black belt in karate, but, in the real world, there is no 'crouching tiger'. There's a car, exhaust steaming out like dragon's breath. I was pushed through an open door."

I don't believe this is a parody.

Was the New Deal Responsible for American Prosperity?

Harold Meyerson makes the case:

"In fact, the New Deal order produced the only three decades in American history -- the '50s, '60s and '70s -- when economic security and opportunity were widely shared. It was the only period in the American chronicle when unions were big and powerful enough to ensure that corporate revenue actually trickled down to workers. It marked the only time in American history when, courtesy originally of the GI Bill, the number of Americans going to college surged. It was the only time when taxes on the rich were really significantly higher than taxes on the rest of us. It was the only time that the minimum wage kept pace (almost) with the cost of living. And it was the only time when most Americans felt confident enough about their economic prospects, and those of their nation, to support the taxes that built the postwar American infrastructure."

I'm not so certain about cause-and-effect here. Meyerson notably omits that three decades he cites above were when the United States had a head start on the rest of the world that either had been devastated by World War II (Western Europe) or wasn't positioned for economic growth (Eastern Europe). Prosperity is easy to come by when you're the only guy on the block capable of making things.

That said: I agree with Meyerson that it's shameful that America's economic gains during the last 30 years have accrued almost entirely to the rich. And I realize that an 800-word column isn't the place to do extended economic analysis. But I suspect that the prosperity of mid-century America was about more than high tax rates for the wealthy.

Afghanistan Quagmire Watch

Washington Post:

"An intense military campaign aimed at crippling the Taliban has so far failed to inflict more than fleeting setbacks on the insurgency or put meaningful pressure on its leaders to seek peace, according to U.S. military and intelligence officials citing the latest assessments of the war in Afghanistan.

'The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience,' said a senior Defense Department official involved in assessments of the war. Taliban elements have consistently shown an ability to 'reestablish and rejuvenate,' often within days of routed by U.S. forces, the official said, adding that if there is a sign that momentum has shifted, 'I don't see it.'"

S. Neil Fujita, RIP

I didn't know his name until today, but I love his work. New York Times: "S. Neil Fujita, a graphic designer who used avant-garde painting and photography to create some of the most striking album covers of the 1950s, and who designed the visually arresting book jackets for “In Cold Blood” and “The Godfather,” died on Saturday in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island. He was 89."

Philadelphia Needs to be More Business-Friendly

It's become apparent to me in two years of living in Philly that starting a new business is a regulatory nightmare: I spent this year watching an acquaintance delay the opening of a new coffee shop from the beginning of the summer to the end largely because of the runaround he got from the Licenses & Inspection Department. There's also the oppressive tax situation: When bloggers get hit with a hefty business tax because they earned a few dollars in Google AdSense revenues, you know the situation's out of whack.

So Robert McNamara's op-ed in today's Inky rings true to me: This city really is strangling entrepreneurship:

All too often, city rules and regulations boil down to the whim of the inspector or official an entrepreneur is dealing with. All too often, their whim is simply to say "no." Instead of giving new businesses the time and space they need to grow, the city immediately hits them with an array of taxes, fees, and demands that are simply implausible, like requiring a start-up business to waste precious and often limited financial capital renting commercial office space instead of operating out of an entrepreneur's home.

The city's rampant overregulation, tremendous burdens placed on would-be entrepreneurs, and, above all, the pervasive culture of "no" are putting a stranglehold on entrepreneurial activity. Wracked by a budget crisis, the city inexplicably continues to expend extraordinary resources making it more difficult to start businesses, which could be expanding the city's tax base.

There are some solutions out there! Council members Bill Green and Maria Quinones-Sanchez have introduced a bill that, among other things, would exempt a new business' first $100,000 in sales from the city's business tax. I don't know all the fiscal implications of this -- Philadelphia, like other cities, has had its share of budget problems in recent years -- and I'm generally not a believer that reducing taxes results in increased tax revenues. But I suspect that making it easier for entrepreneurs to get started in Philadelphia can only help the city's tax base over time. What we're doing right now isn't working.

Whoa, Inky, Slow Down!

I think I get some of the processes involved here, but it's still weird to see the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Too Bad the Phillies Lost" editorial a whopping four days after the season ended. Not everybody has moved on, I understand, but it still seems less than real timely. If you can't say it within two days, Inky, maybe you want to move on quietly. This just makes you look old and slow.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Enough With The Rand Paul Stomping Already

I was shocked at the video of a Rand Paul supporter stomping on a MoveOn supporter -- but, weirdly, I think we're making too big a deal of it. If there was a small army of Rand Paul supporters marching through Kentucky, stomping on the necks of sign-holding liberals, I'd be concerned. But one incident doesn't tell us anything, really, about the underlying dynamics of a candidate or the ideology he shares with his followers. I got tired of conservatives smearing "SEIU thugs" based on one incident last year; I'm already tired of this.

My Small, Car-less World

I took a train the the Philly suburbs on Saturday to watch the (damnit) concluding game of the NLCS, passing by a lot of interesting little Philadelphia sub-communities that I probably would've explored by now ... if I had a car. So I relate to Atrios' thoughts on what car-lessness does to your world:

"Obviously cars are useful things in that they let you basically go 'anywhere' at relatively low perceived marginal cost (one problem with the way we pay for cars is that a lot of things which are really marginal costs are perceived as fixed costs by people). I think I've been car free for about 6 years now, and where I can go reasonably is dictated by where I can walk, where there's decent public transportation access, where is accessible by a cab ride I'm willing to pay for, or what's accessible by a carshare car that I'm willing to pay for. While there isn't a perfect mapping, carshare costs make perceived fixed costs (insurance, maintenance, car payments) into marginal costs to some degree. All that makes the accessible world quite a bit smaller."

This is all true. I live in Center City, and 95 percent of what I do in town is generally in Center City. That's not all bad: There's lots to do in Center City! I like my neighborhood, and I like the neighborhoods that I can walk to in 20 minutes or less -- which is quite a huge chunk of town. But it is limited. I mostly enjoy living without the car -- and I really appreciate not having the expenses -- but the limits of my travel sometimes make me wonder if living in a big East Coast city has made me more provincial than when I was living in Kansas.

SEIU Thugs in Action!

Sorry. Wrong thugs!

Victor Davis Hanson is Wrong About Wikileaks

Hanson: "We are engaged in a great experiment to see whether the U.S. military can still persist in a conflict when it knows that any and all of its private communications can become public — and will be selectively aired and hyped by people with a preconceived bias against it. Had the public known in real time from periodic media leaks about operational disasters surrounding the planning for the D-Day landings, intelligence failures at the Bulge or Okinawa, or G.I. treatment of some German and Japanese prisoners, the story of World War II might have been somewhat different."

Perhaps, but the release of the the Afghanistan and Iraq documents by Wikileaks has been done in something less than real time. Is there a D-Day operation that has been compromised by the leaks? Not that's been publicly demonstrated, at least. Learning about things years later is not the same as "real time."

And the United States at least had a clearly defined mission in World War II. We knew who we were fighting, what a victory would mean and what a loss would mean. We're nearly a decade post-9/11, having meandered through a pair of quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, the only thing we really know is that we're supposed to keep fighting. The Wikileaks documents bring some clarity, at least, to the question of the results of that fighting.

Mother Jones and Sarah Palin

Here's the new cover of Mother Jones:

I don't like it. Hey, I get it: Sarah Palin's an attractive woman. I even think so. But I'm trying to think how folks on the left would react to, say, a National Review cover with Hillary Clinton or Kathleen Sebelius in a bikini top, engorged with rage and lust. I think Sarah Palin is a destructive force in American politics, but I hate to see ostensible feminists resort to objectification just because it's somebody on the other side.

Somewhere, Fans of 'Rambo III" Weep Gently To Themselves

Who honestly thinks this is a good idea?: "Russia's military could return to Afghanistan for the first time since the Red Army was forcibly expelled by US-backed mujahideen fighters in 1989. The proposal is part of plans now being discussed by Nato officials ahead of a landmark alliance summit next month, to be attended by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev."

I know things aren't going well in Afghanistan. But if a big part of our problem there is that we're seen as occupiers -- and it is -- then maybe inviting in the occupiers we once helped kick out of the country sends the wrong damn message. This war is making our leaders stupider and stupider.

Cato: Let's Cut the Defense Budget

I know the Cato Institute is just a "glorified PR firm for Koch Industries," but this paper defies easy labeling as lockstep Republicanism. Benjamin Friedman and Christopher Preble make the case for reducing defense spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

They write: "Concern about deficits has prompted greater scrutiny of all federal spending. But the cuts here would be prudent even in an era of surpluses. The United States does not need to spend $700 billion a year — nearly half of global military spending — to preserve its security. By capitalizing on our geopolitical fortune, we can safely spend far less."

That's deficit-busting I can handle!

Gay Marriage and Activist Judging

Reason's Jacob Sullum offers the strict-constitutionalist case for gay marriage: "I realize opponents of same-sex marriage think they have good reasons for denying gay couples the rights and privileges that straight couples enjoy, and they would argue that homosexuals and heterosexuals are not “similarly situated.” But you know what? Screw them. I am tired of defending the constitutional principles that social conservatives use to restrict liberty, because they so rarely return the favor by supporting those same principles when the effect is to expand liberty. When a supposedly principled originalist like Antonin Scalia can endorse a ridiculously broad reading of the Commerce Clause because the case involves pot, why should I stick my neck out by arguing that the original understanding of equal protection precludes its use in gay marriage cases?"

America's Failure in Iraq

Today's editorial in The Guardian: "Many attempts were made to justify the invasion of Iraq, but one of the most frequently and cynically used was that, irrespective of the absence of weapons of mass destruction, putting an end to the barbarities of Saddam Hussein's regime was a moral imperative. Well, now there is chapter and verse, from ringside seats, on the systematic use of torture by the Iraqi government that the US installed in Saddam's place. The worst practices of Saddam's regime did not apparently die with him, and whereas numerous logs show members of the coalition making genuine attempts to stop torture in Iraqi custody, it is clear their efforts were both patchy and half-hearted. In the worst incidents, one can only reasonably conclude that one set of torturers and thugs has been replaced by another."

Abe Greenwald and Jonathan Franzen's Failure of Imagination?

Abe Greenwald admits that he hasn't read Jonathan Franzen's novel, "Freedom," but that doesn't stop him from offering a review of Franzen's artistry based on an interview the author gave to The Guardian. It was too filled with liberal pieties for Greenwald's taste:

"Franzen’s failure is ultimately not political but artistic. His realm is the creative, and in parroting those of the most meager imaginations, he has reversed the artist’s aim. Liberalism doesn’t only encroach upon things like opportunity and standard of living. It’s what it does to the self that’s most dangerous and pernicious. It pushes out the individual imagination and replaces it with wooden convictions. Before that wreaks havoc on a polity, it has its way with a mind. For a novelist, this is fatal. And so Franzen, a writer of copious narrative and descriptive gifts, ends up sounding like a 14-year-old who broke up his usual Daily Kos with his first read through Howard Zinn."

I suppose it would be churlish of me to ask that Greenwald actually engage Franzen's art before declaring him an artistic failure? Nah. Liberals fail because they're liberals. Seems like Commentary could use its own version of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Last Flight of the Shuttle Discovery Nov. 1, and it makes me a bit wistful. By the time I was born, humans had already walked on the moon for the last time. But I became a space buff thanks to the Skylab missions -- why did they seem so romantic to me? And when the Shuttle Columbia launched in 1981, it seemed possible to me that having a career in space would be just another option when I grew up.

That didn't turn out to be the case, of course, and as an adult I've come to believe that manned space flight is probably an unnecessary government activity. But I'd love, still, to float weightless someday. I know it's never going to happen. And the passing of the shuttles from the scene, without replacement craft ready to go, makes me feel a little older, a little more disconnected from my youth.

All Those Political Attack Ads

We don't have a TV, but I got exposed to the current state of affairs by watching Phillies games with friends during the NLCS. The onslaught of political ads was a little bit nauseating. The Inky reports:

"G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said he had no doubt 'that the commercials are more negative and that there are more of them than we've seen in maybe forever here.'

With a U.S. Senate seat, the governor's mansion and several key U.S. House seats in play, Madonna said, 'there is probably more being spent on TV in Pennsylvania in this cycle than even in the presidential elections.'"

Of course, it seems like we see this story nearly every cycle: More money, and more negative attacks. These stories were being written back in 1994, when the Gingrich Republicans first took Congress. I have no doubt they were being written decades before that. It's annoying -- I'm grateful we don't have a TV -- but it's not new.

LeBron's Self-Pitying New Ad

Interesting how LeBron takes self-pity and casts it as defiance:

Maybe I'm older, but the reference to the old Charles Barkley commercial is instructive. That 30 seconds wasn't about self-justification for signing a $110 million contract -- and if Barkley's commercial also reeked of Nike myth-making, it was at least genuinely provocative at the time. Nike and LeBron have decided to embrace the whole anti-hero thing here, and more power to them, but it feels (as Bill Simmons would probably point out) like a moment from a pro wrestling script: Hulk Hogan has turned heel! It's an interesting story, but it doesn't mean anything.

The Mob Ain't Like the Movies

The Inky reports on the upcoming sentencing of reputed mob leader Andrew Merola:

"One of the more audacious schemes outlined in a 30-count indictment handed up in May 2008 involved the creation of counterfeit bar codes that Merola and his associates used to purchase high-priced items from stores like Lowe's, Home Depot, and Circuit City.

The defendants placed the phony bar codes over the bar codes of expensive merchandise before checking out, according to authorities.

They then sold the items at close to market value on the street, or peeled off the counterfeit bar codes and returned the items for full store credit.

Examples cited were a bar code for a vacuum cleaner priced at $49.97 used to buy a Dyson vacuum that listed for $549.99; a bar code from a chain saw that sold for $44.97 used to buy a saw valued at $374; and a bar code for a welding machine worth $58 used to buy a machine that sold for $669."

Sounds pretty petty. Hard to see a "Goodfellas" sequel made out of the great Dyson caper.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Clearly I Need To Kill More People in Order To be A Real Man

The Wall Street Journal reviews Peter McAllister's "Manthropology": "For Mr. McAllister one measure of manhood is the willingness to face an enemy and mete out punishment without flinching. Today our conduct in war is governed by a handbook of careful rules. Mr. McAllister, for contrast, points to the 17th-century Native American practice of not only scalping victims alive but also 'heaping hot coals onto their scalped heads.' Which is nothing compared with the attentions lavished by the Romans on a Christian named Apphianus, who was racked for 24 hours and scourged so hard that 'his ribs and spine showed.'"

I haven't read the book, but assuming the review accurately conveys the tone, well, what silly, juvenile crap. People who view the ability to inflict death and torture as a prime measure of manhood aren't macho, they're psychotic.

I Need To Be More Like Ta-Nehisi Coates

I'm guilty of this sometimes:: "I am a liberal. But I can not spend every single thread using whatever I'm reading as evidence for the evils of the Tea Party, or the shortcomings of Barack Obama. It just so predictable and easy. There will be more Malcolm threads this week. The lens to apply is literary, not policy. If you're only here to gather evidence for a facebook fight with your conservative or liberal relatives, do yourself a favor and have a beer while reading a Rasmussen poll."

Karzai Rails Against America

Seriously: Why are we still there?

Those Poor Elites

Slate observes: "It's sure a bad week to be an elite." No it's not. It's never, ever a bad week to be elite. That's what being elite is all about. It's only bad if you lose it.

Why NPR Will Keep Its Funding

A reader at Commentary breaks down the radio network's funding: "A lot has been written about how the network only gets a couple million from taxpayers. This is very misleading … actually wrong. CPB gives scores of millions of dollars to NPR affiliates which, in turn, use that money to purchase NPR programming such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered, etc. …"

And that's why attempts to doom NPR will probably fail. It's one thing to say you're going to yank funding from that New York-based radio network. But who wants to be the villain who pulled dollars from High Plains Public Radio? Stations out in the Oklahoma panhandle could never be self-sufficient, but they provide a valuable public service nonetheless -- and their constituents would raise holy hell if they were lost.

The Ben and Joel Podcast: Steve Hayward

This week's podcast: "Steven F. Hayward, F.K. Weyerhauser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, historian and author of The Age of Reagan, co-author of the annual Index of Leading Environmental Indicators, and cookbook aficionado, joins Ben and Joel for a freewheeling conversation about the coming election, the environment, and U.S. foreign policy." Click on the link to download or listen.

The Guardian's Cool iPhone App

My review of The Guardian's iPhone app: "If there’s a success story to be found among “old media” institutions adapting to the Internet Era, The Guardian must be it. The venerable British newspaper has evolved nicely, expanding its audience—and its coverage—to serve U.S. readers who went online seeking alternative news sources. Now The Guardian has moved into the mobile arena, with a $4 self-titled app that ranks among the best in the news business."

More About the Tea Party and Racism

Kevin Drum points out another finding from the Washington Post study of the Tea Party: 11 percent of members contacted admitted that Obama's race, er, colored their outlook on him. Drum observes: "The taboos against admitting that race makes a difference are pretty strong, and if 11% of the tea party groups were willing to admit this in writing, it suggests that probably at least a quarter of them have similarly overt views. Maybe more. That's a helluva lot." Indeed. Wonder if this will change Jason Riley's mind about anything.

Tom Ricks is Wrong About Wikileaks

Tom Ricks has provided some of the most valuable reportage there is about the Iraq War, but this attitude confuses me: "Maybe I'm going soft, but the Wikileaks dump kind of makes me ill. The whole situation strikes me as a bit sordid. I worry that great newspapers are getting played. If the leaks brought great revelations, I might think differently, but so far I don't think I have been surprised by a single thing I've read."

I'm always confused when a reporter seems to be arguing against making more of the record available -- particularly when the argument is, essentially, "so what?" Even if the openness doesn't redraw the broad outlines of a story, the details represented in the Wikileaks dump still offer nuance and texture to what's known. And though I consider myself relatively well-informed about the state of the war, I was still surprised -- and disgusted -- by the level of human-rights abuses committed by the new Iraqi government. I already knew that it wasn't really all that "free" in our usual understandings of the term, but did I know that Iraqi soldiers were cutting off the fingers of adversaries? No, I didn't know that. I'm glad Wikileaks let me know.

Does the Tea Party Even Exist?

The Washington Post tried to contact every single Tea Party group in the nation: "Seventy percent of the grass-roots groups said they have not participated in any political campaigning this year. As a whole, they have no official candidate slates, have not rallied behind any particular national leader, have little money on hand, and remain ambivalent about their goals and the political process in general."

All I'll note is that every time I critique positions that seem to fly under the "Tea Party" banner, I'm told the movement is too diffuse or too young or too something to criticize in conventional terms. Now I wonder if the movement is anything more than barely focused inchoate rage.

The Strikes in France

I usually think the United States could use a little more social democracy. On the other hand, I find it difficult to sympathize with union members in France who are striking to avoid raising the retirement age to 62. I mean: Retiring at 60 sounds nice. I'm not sure it's a fundamental human right.

Why NPR Matters

Jim Fallows: "To hear the Fox/DeMint attack machine over the past week, NPR is simply a liberal counterpart to Fox -- a politically minded and opinion-driven organization that is only secondarily interested in gathering news. I believe that the mischaracterization is deliberate, and I know it is destructive and wrong."

The Great Bailout Backlash -

Shorter Ross Douthat: We must punish our politicians for doing the right thing.

The Glorious Invasion of Grenada!

Today is the 27th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which is apparently a holy day for those who worship at the Shrine of Reagan. I'm not sure if the Grenada triumphalism has always been part of the conservative victory parade, or if that's a relatively recent development, but it's embarrassing either way. The story of Grenada is this: Our big military defeated Grenada's tiny military to control an island of no strategic importance on a flimsy pretext. It wasn't difficult, it wasn't necessary, and it didn't deserve the Clint Eastwood treatment. It was a way for Ronald Reagan to look tough without the dangers of quagmire. Pride in that "victory" is a bully's pride, hollow and a little bit shameful.

Queer Eye for the G.I.?

It's a measure of how far the gay rights movement has come that many (if not most) in the opposition feel the need to cloak that opposition in sober, relatively unbigoted language. Fred Phelps and his "God Hates Fags" signs are shocking to the conscience, in part, because lots of people who broadly share that idea refuse to share that language.

Luckily, there's the Washington Times and today's "Queer eye for the GI" editorial to give us a peek into the anti-gay id. Here's a small selection:

The destructive force unleashed by the Pentagon's collaboration with the leftist agenda is apparent from the circus created when homosexual activists like Dan Choi sashayed over to the Times Square recruiting center to make a political point in the short period in which the Phillips order was effective.

"Sashayed"? Sure, if you mean "strode purposefully into the recruiting station." It's a little different from mincing over in a feather boa, which is what the Times conveys.I suppose we should be grateful the Times decided not to use the slurs normally found on Fred Phelps' signs.

Aside from the transparent gay baiting (as Adam Serwer rightly called it), there's also this issue:

Pentagon officials have been pretending that they have not already made up their minds on this issue. Generals have issued blanket denials that the conclusions for the forthcoming working group report on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" have already been decided. It appears that as the White House rams its radical homosexual agenda through the military, too many generals and admirals are willing to sell their brothers in arms down the river if it means they can keep a shiny set of stars on their epaulets.

I'm not sure how this is substantively different from the "General Betray Us" ad that outraged conservative activists a couple of years ago. The Times is accusing the military's uniformed leadership of treason, basically, because they're not acting in accordance with the Times' agenda. It's ugly, ugly stuff.

Wall Street Journal: Black People Should Pay Attention to Black People Things Instead of Worrying Their Silly Little Heads About the Tea Party

SOURCE: Jason Riley: The NAACP's Unhealthy Tea Party Obsession -

There are few things more patronizing than telling black people what they really should be worried about, and the Wall Street Journal's Jason Riley demonstrates this with uncommon clarity today:

The nation's unemployment rate is 9.6%, but it is 16.1% for blacks and an unconscionable 41% for black teens. Politicians continue to promote minimum-wage hikes that harm the job prospects of younger and less-skilled individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are black. Wal-Mart's attempts to open a store that would bring jobs and low-price goods to a depressed neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., have been thwarted repeatedly by labor unions. And the NAACP is issuing studies on the tea party movement?

I'd buy Riley's argument a bit more if he simply argued or even presented evidence that the NAACP is wrong to be concerned, as it is, that the movement gives a "platform to anti-Semites, racists and bigots." Instead Riley dismisses the NAACP's report on the movement as a "smear" and moves to telling the organization what it should really be concerned about.

I know: Jason Riley is black, so of course this whole line of argument can't be patronizing, right? Maybe. But Riley's real purposes seem to be given away in his final paragraph.

It's hard to understand how an organization that says it's devoted to "end[ing] racial disparities" finds the time to rail against tea-party populism until you grasp that the NAACP is, first and foremost, a Democratic Party organ. The NAACP is pretending that the tea party threatens the interests of blacks because the tea party in fact threatens the interests of the Democratic left.

Remember, though, this critique is coming on the Wall Street Journal editorial page -- which is, first and foremost, a Republican Party organ. Kind of like the Tea Party movement itself. Which maybe is why it doesn't try to refute the NAACP's concerns about Tea Party racism and devotes its pages, instead, to what African-American organization should really be concerned about.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gabriel Schoenfeld and Wikileaks

Gabe Schoenfeld's gangster motto.
Back in July, I critiqued a National Affairs essay by Gabriel Schoenfeld in which he suggested that big leaks of Defense Department documents -- he was, at the time, writing primarily about the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War -- amounted to an attack on democracy itself. Schoenfeld wrote critically of Daniel Ellsberg, the leaker in that case:

For better or worse, the American people in the Vietnam years had elected Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon; they had acted at the ballot box to make their leadership and policy preferences clear. Yet here was a mid-level bureaucrat, elected by no one and representing no one, entrusted with secrets he had pledged to the American people to protect, abusing that trust to force his own policy preferences upon a government chosen by the people.

My response then:

It's silly to argue that Ellsberg was "forcing" a policy outcome through his leaks: As Schoenfeld notes, Ellsburg wasn't an elected official -- he had no power at all to change American policy. But Ellsberg did give Americans insight into how the policy had been made, and how what they'd been told by their leaders differed from the reality of the war in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, then, enabled real democratic self-governance -- he didn't short-circuit it.

Wikileaks' latest release of nearly 400,000 documents related to the Iraq War has brought forth fresh, but familiar, commentary from Schoenfeld. He writes at The Weekly Standard:

The real question is whether, in exchange for a bit of “insight, texture, and context” into the war, the breach has placed lives at risk. On this score the Pentagon statement is very grim. The leak, it says, exposes

secret information that could make our troops even more vulnerable to attack in the future. Just as with the leaked Afghan documents, we know our enemies will mine this information, looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment. This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. 
If this is true, much like Philip Agee, the renegade CIA officer who in the 1970s went around exposing the identities of undercover CIA agents, WikiLeaks is acting as an enemy of our democracy. Even if our laws cannot reach it, it should be treated accordingly.

This is exceedingly credulous on Schoenfeld's part. The Pentagon made similar noises back when Wikileaks released its trove of Afghanistan documents -- the problem being that there's no evidence that anybody was actually harmed by those leaks, which were (frankly) released with much less concern for the safety of parties in Afghanistan.

Schoenfeld continually invokes "democracy" in his criticism of leaks, but as Inigo Montoya once said: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Genuine democracy requires that the citizenry have the maximum-possible information to make informed decisions about the direction of government. The 400,000 Iraq documents show Americans, in rather more detail, what we've gained from our seven years in Iraq: An Iraqi government that cuts off the fingers of its own people and an empowered Iran. Schoenfeld doesn't tell us why American citizens shouldn't have access to this information; he accepts Pentagon assertions that the leaks could lead to some lost lives as sufficient proof of badness. Blindly believing the government, as Schoenfeld urges us to do, is corrosive to democracy.

There are surely bits of information that the public is best served by not knowing. The number of those bits is far fewer than the government keeps from our eyes. Schoenfeld responds to leaks by waving the flag furiously, ignoring that "democracy" is sometimes best served by those who break the rules to help us see our government more clearly.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Netflix Queue: "The Quick and the Dead"

Three thoughts about "The Quick and the Dead":

* Sam Raimi's 1995 film is clearly a riff on the old Clint Eastwood "Man With No Name" spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone -- encompassing everything from the credited name of Sharon Stone's character ("Lady") to the Ennio Morricone-light soundtrack. And I'm really fine with that: Hollywood westerns are basically American mythmaking, anyway, so revisiting and tweaking those myths to put (say) a woman at the center of the action is fine by me. No, it's not history. But it can be fun -- as this flick mostly is. Still, Clint Eastwood never cried in his westerns; I wish Sharon Stone hadn't cried in hers.

* Then again, Sharon Stone -- though she was a producer on the film -- may not have been quite up to the acting level of her compatriots in this film: Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe, Leonardo Dicaprio, Gary Sinise, Keith David and a bunch of other character actors whose faces you'll certainly recognize. It's a powerhouse cast, and that unfortunately makes Stone's line readings a bit more noticeably thin.

* Then again, while it's a really entertaining film -- and I'm kind of shocked nobody turned it into a "Street Fighter" video game -- there are some real howlers in the script-writing department. TQATD's final line is this: "The law has come back to town." Delivered, I believe, without any awareness of irony. But it is, unfortunately, hilarious. But Raimi directed, and he knows a thing or two about hilarity in extreme situations, so maybe I should give the benefit of the doubt. It is, however Sharon Stone, so maybe I shouldn't.

* BONUS THOUGHT: Her persona has long since overwhelmed our notions of Sharon Stone, but I sometimes forget: She really was an extraordinarily beautiful woman back in the day.

Peggy Noonan, the Tea Party and the Establishment

I suspect that Peggy Noonan is being over-optimistic in her praise of the Tea Party in today's Wall Street Journal:

The tea party did something the Republican establishment was incapable of doing: It got the party out from under George W. Bush. The tea party rejected his administration's spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has become only too willing to say so. In doing this, the tea party allowed the Republican establishment itself to get out from under Mr. Bush: "We had to, boss, it was a political necessity!" They released the GOP establishment from its shame cringe.

Sounds nice -- the Tea Party has helped the GOP see the error of its ways! -- but who will the Tea Party actually push to power in Congress next month? In all likelihood, um, John Boehner. He voted, of course, for the Bush Administration's unfunded Medicare drug plan -- probably the best example of the GOP's shamelessness about deficit spending -- and he shows every sign of being a servant of big business and other special interests that Tea Partiers supposedly disdain. And he's using that power to co-opt the supposedly pure Tea Party candidates before they even face election:

One tea-party-backed candidate to get Boehner's help is Steve Stivers, a former state legislator and lobbyist for Ohio's Bank One who has accused his Democratic opponent of supporting "taxpayer-funded bonuses given to failed Wall Street executives." Stivers's spokesman, John Damschroder, said he thinks the $14,000 was given - mostly before the state primary election - because "speaker-to-be Boehner knows how critical Ohio is to control of the House."

Boehner also has given $14,000 to Ohio candidate James Renacci, a former mayor, car dealer and nursing home operator who has attacked his Democratic opponent for having "lobbyist friends" and for attracting support from "special interests." Renacci spokesman James Slepian called the money "a vote of confidence" and a reflection of the importance that Boehner attaches to the race as a step toward Republican control of the House.

So it's difficult to buy the Tea Party of a vanguard of ideologically-cleansing purity within the GOP. It's returning to power the exact same people who ran Congress during the 1990s and most of the last decade. This revolution feels awfully stale.

Time To Slash Defense Spending?

As politicians promise to start cutting spending in Washington after this fall's elections, there's growing talk -- even among some Republicans -- that it's perhaps time to cut defense spending. That has, predictably, generated a backlash within the GOP. Ben and I tackle the topic in our column for Scripps Howard this week. Here's my take:

Yes, America can and should significantly cut its military budget.

Our military isn't built just to defend America and its interests, but to bestride the world like a colossus: There are significant deployments of U.S. troops and personnel in Europe and Asia, and commands charged with readiness to project American military power on the remaining inhabited continents. This has had benefits -- we've helped keep the peace in Europe, by and large, for more than 60 years, which is an extraordinary accomplishment.

But American taxpayers continue to pay dearly for the privilege of maintaining the most awesome military in world history: the base defense budget for 2010 is $533.8 billion -- and that's before costs for "overseas contingency operations" in Iraq and Afghanistan are added to the bottom line.

The result? The United States on its own spends about half the world's total defense budget -- 46.5 percent of the planetary total. The next closest competitor, China, spends 6.6 percent. We're overdoing it.

This moment of history -- a "unipolar" moment with a single dominant military power in the world -- is an aberration. It is already passing, with the rise of China. We cannot afford to sustain it, which is what defense hawks would have us do.

And it hasn't necessarily made us safer: Osama bin Laden went to war against the United States in part because of U.S. troop deployments to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Sometimes being the biggest just makes you the biggest target.

Even Republicans -- some of them, anyway -- are starting to recognize the dangers. We should not bankrupt this and future generations in pursuit of unsustainable world dominance. If it is time to start cutting government spending, the Pentagon's budget should be on the chopping block along with everybody else's.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bag O' Books: Paul Auster's "City of Glass"

Three thoughts about Paul Auster's "City of Glass":

* This is the first novel - a novella, really - in the so-called "New York Trilogy," and that name is apt. It's a cliche to say that "the city is a character" in the book; it's also, perhaps, imprecise. Instead, it's fair to say this book cannot exist apart from the city. Specific streets and neighborhoods and even Mookie Wilson's early reign with the Mets are all integral to the story.

* Though ostensibly a detective story, "City of Glass" is a meditation on language itself. And Auster brings a nice sense of play to the proceedings -- not just in the meta sense of placing a writer named "Paul Auster" near the center of the action, but in his use of names ("Max Work," "Peter Stillman") and in considering the many ways that individual words can take on multiple meanings. This sounds like heavy, sloglike reading but it's not: It is a pleasure.

* That makes it sound too hoity-toity. What is lovely, also, about Auster's writing is its rootedness in the physical world: Not just New York, but in the smaller crevices of life -- the reality of notebooks and pens and apartments and tables and plastic phones and more. You can almost hold Auster's world in your hands; you can certainly hold it in your mind. And that's a pretty fair accomplishment.

Finally: You should never judge a book by its cover, but the Art Spiegelman cover to my paperback copy of the book -- bound together with the other volumes in the trilogy -- is astounding, and conveys the art and play to be found within.

Football is Dying. Maybe It Deserves To.

The NFL has spent this week being shocked -- shocked! -- that the violent game it promotes is, well, violent. The league has spent this week levying fines against particularly egregious hits from last weekend's games, but as Pittsburgh Steeler lineback James Harrison and Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder have pointed out, in their various ways, football is game of hitting, and hitting hard: You're supposed to hit the ball-carrier as hard as you can to bring him down; the carrier tries to hit you as hard as he can so that he can stay on his feet and keep going. It's rough business, and there's growing evidence that it destroys the bodies and minds of the people who play the game.

I don't really watch games anymore -- it makes me a bit queasy to cheer on people in the process of hurting themselves and each other -- though I still check in from time to time on the progress of the Kansas City Chiefs: a lifetime of fandom is hard to put away. But today -- October 21 -- feels like it might be a quiet watershed day in the demise of football.

Today's New York Times:

Helmets both new and used are not — and have never been — formally tested against the forces believed to cause concussions. The industry, which receives no governmental or other independent oversight, requires helmets for players of all ages to withstand only the extremely high-level force that would otherwise fracture skulls.

Moreover, used helmets worn by the vast majority of young players encountered stark lapses in the industry’s few safety procedures. Some of the businesses that recondition helmets ignored testing rules, performed the tests incorrectly or returned helmets that were still in poor condition. More than 100,000 children are wearing helmets too old to provide adequate protection — and perhaps half a million more are wearing potentially unsafe helmets that require critical examination, according to interviews with experts and industry data.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

The risk of playing football at all levels was driven home over the weekend when a Rutgers University player was paralyzed from the neck down in a game Saturday. It's become clear the way the game is played and officiated must be altered. The unacceptable alternative is to be resigned to more and more players joining the casualty lists.

A recent Harris Interactive poll shows most Americans don't enjoy seeing football players get hurt. They want changes to helmets and other equipment to be made, and they believe players who cause head injuries should be hit with penalties, up to and including suspension.

Blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Samori (his son) didn't play football this year. He wants to go back. We can't, in any good conscience, send him back.

It is, simply, becoming less reputable to cheer on the sport that's literally killing and crippling players before their time. And parents like Coates are taking their kids out of the game. We've already determined that our son will never get our permission to play tackle football. Support for the game is slowly beginning to dry up, because it will never be possible to make the game safe enough without fundamentally altering its character.

That's not to say it will ever completely die. People love sports, and many people love violent sports. But it seems possible to me that the NFL and college football will begin to recede in popularity, something equivalent to the moneymaking-but-still-backwater provinces of pay-per-view (like boxing and ultimate fighting) or minor cable channels (like hockey). And that's fine by me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Top Baseball Moments of My Life

I'm not a die-hard baseball fan. But as I sit here tonight wondering if Joe Blanton has what it takes to help the Phillies get back to the World Series (meh) I realize that I actually have a number of fond baseball memories. The best...

* THE ROYALS WIN THE 1985 WORLD SERIES: I don't want to hear your nonsense about Don Denkinger, ok? George Brett, Bret Saberhagen, Steve Balboni, Fred* Frank White: Those were my guys. It was the first time in my youth that I discovered a team with "Kansas" in the name could win something big. I thought we lost everything.

*Fred was a Royals broadcaster. My mistake.

* GEORGE BRETT HITS A HOME RUN IN GAME THREE OF THE 1980 WORLD SERIES: I was 7 years old. I remember nothing else about this game -- the Royals won, but lost the Series -- except that Brett hit a home run and I was sent to bed. And my dad, who got off work at a meat-packing plant at midnight, came home, woke me up and took me to an all-night cafe so I could tell him about it.

* THE 1991 WORLD SERIES: I loved that two "worst to first" teams -- the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins -- played in it. But my fondest memory of it is that Game 6 was played while my family was at Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma, celebrating my grandparents 40th anniversary. We sat around a fire and listened to the game on the radio; my grandfather was a Braves fan from constant Superstation exposure. It remains the reason I prefer baseball on the radio to baseball on television.

* PHILLIES WIN THE 2008 WORLD SERIES: I'd only moved to town a few months earlier. But the victory celebration on Broad Street was something to behold. Even if I did end up getting shoved by a riot cop.

* BOSTON RED SOX COME FROM 3-1 TO WIN THE 2004 ALCS: It was the previous year, when Red Sox and the Cubs both appeared to be on the verge of reversing their curses in the playoffs, that brought me back to baseball after a sustained absence. But this series was thrilling. I sat with friends at the Red Lion bar in Lawrence, KS to watch the final games. I'm a sucker for the underdog, even if the underdog has a higher payroll than every team but the Yankees -- because, well, I hate the Yankees.

* VISITING OLD YANKEE STADIUM, 2004: I may hate the Yankees, but I appreciate baseball history. So on a vacation trip to New York I spent $100 for a ticket about 15 rows above the third base line. Walking into the park felt like a cinematic experience. I even rooted for the Yankees that night. Bernie Williams won the game -- and the AL East -- with a walkoff homerun against the Twins. And as the crowd exited to the sounds of Sinatra singing "New York, New York," a chant went up: "Boston Sucks! Boston Sucks!" It was everything I could've hoped for.

* MY FIRST BASEBALL GAME AFTER SEPTEMBER 11. It was a Friday night home game for the Royals, sometime in the next few weeks. Friday night games always concluded with a fireworks exhibition: This one was set to Elvis singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with George W. Bush quotes interspersed into the audio. The combination of Elvis, Bush and explosions in the sky -- and the way it whipped the crowd into a frenzy -- made me think that maybe the War on Terror was going to bring out some very weird sides to the American character.

* THE DIAMONDBACKS WIN THE 2001 WORLD SERIES: Also related to September 11. I was walking the streets of New York, near Ground Zero, right after the Yankees had lost the Series. I'd spent the day immersed in the odors of the still-burning towers -- the flames went on for weeks -- and felt, well, sick of what humanity could do to itself. Then I heard a horn honk. A limo driver rolled down his window to show his Diamondbacks cap to a couple of cops. They cursed at him; he smiled and drove away. And that's when I realized that New York would survive and thrive.

* BILL BUCKNER'S BLOWN GROUND BALL: I rooted for the Mets that year. I'm a sucker for the underdog.

Stacy Lipson, Michael Smerconish and the Problem of Bullying

An old high school friend of mine sent me a Facebook message recently. Following her recent 20th reunion, she told me, a small group of people had gone into Wichita to have a few drinks together; that group included T, a man who had made my junior high years miserable with an unending procession of physical bullying. Even reading his name years later filled me with anger and a kind of dread.

Simply put: I still hate that guy. Even though a generation has passed.

My friend understood. She told me the topic of T's bullying had come up over drinks: I wasn't, it turned out, his only victim. And it turned out that T, a little older and wiser, had some regrets. "He said he hadn't thought of himself as a bully but now, looking back..." my friend wrote. "Anyway he seems like a decent guy now, really."

That is, I guess, a relatively happy epilogue to my childhood angst. But we're in a media moment that is focused on bullying because, well, not everybody makes it to the epilogue. It's a moment that caused Stacy Lipson, a great Philadelphia writer and one of my Tweeps, to reflect on her own childhood experience of victimization:

You may think you understand. But you don’t. You can’t understand unless you’ve experienced it. And if you have experienced it, you know how it feels. The anxiety, fear, and sadness that seem to be a part of your daily experience. The wish that some day, not too far off, the abuse would stop. The wish to be someone else.

I don’t like to talk about what happened to me as a child. I never thought I would need to. But I think it’s important for parents to realize that bullying is an epidemic. It’s not going to go away anytime soon, and once one child starts, the rest can join in. It’s time to do something. Children need to realize the power behind their words and actions, and parents need to make sure that their children are listening. Hard.

Of course, everybody knows that bullying is wrong. Which is why I've been stewing over Michael Smerconish's Sunday commentary in the Inky which strikes what I'd (probably unfairly) call an "objectively pro-bullying" tone. It's not that Smerconish favors beating up weak kids; he just wants to know what the big deal is.

My hunch is that the underlying behavior hasn't gotten any more vicious. Nor has the prevalence of bullying itself increased. Rather, the attention paid to it has.

I went to school with plenty of bad kids who picked on classmates. Today, kids like that have cell phones and Facebook at their disposal. Meanwhile, an increase in absentee parents means the bullies encounter less discipline at home.

And yes, an overeager media has oversaturated many a news cycle with coverage of the latest bullying case with tragic consequences. The result is both a hyperawareness of behavior that has always existed, and an ever-expanding list of what is classified as "bullying."

Yes, coverage of the subject is intense now and, yes, it will go away soon enough. But rather than treat this as a "teachable moment" -- say, how do we get kids and parents to clamp down on vicious and unacceptable behavior -- Smerconish would rather gripe about the spotlight. Maybe he thinks he's being contrarian. But in this case, he's sending the wrong message.

My own childhood experience colors much of my adulthood. My politics derive, in large part, from a hatred of bullies. (Let's just say that George W. Bush and his frathouse personality provoked something visceral in me.) I sometimes fear taking my toddler to the playground because of worries he might be bullied -- or, worse, that he'll end up a bully. And though I'm an exceptionally peaceful guy, I can lose my cool in a major way if I sense that somebody is running roughshod over another. I can see 40 from where I'm at, and yet my feeling is still very intense: I fucking hate bullies.

Stacy, bless her, has done a fine job of reminding us the pain bullies can cause, the lasting damage they do. Michael Smerconish just wants the story to go away.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mark Boyle's World Without Money

There's something initally Waldenesque and seductive about Mark Boyle's vision of a world without money, but I'm not sure that it stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Boyle decided to test himself by living for a year without cash, and decided to keep on keepin' on after the year came and went.

What makes the whole endeavour seem a bit of a swindle, frankly, is that while he didn't himself use cash, his existence is made very possible by piggybacking off a world that does, in fact, use money as a way to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.

Boyle lives in rural England in a trailer he spotted on He feeds himself by growing everything from barley to potatoes, foraging wild edibles like berries and nettles, and occasionally dumpster-diving for luxuries like margarine and bread. He cooks with a wood stove fashioned from large restaurant olive cans; brushes his teeth with his own mixture of cuttlefish bones and fennel seed; and makes paper and ink from mushrooms. He barters labor for rent, Internet service, and whatever else he can't find, grow, or make.

I don't begrudge anybody who wants to escape the rat race, and more power to Boyle for making it happen for himself. But let him try his experiment in some part of the world where the people and the land are poor -- something actually closer to the moneyless society he favors. Guess I'm dubious that such an experiment would be successful; it's cash-based commerce that made Boyle's survival possible.

And it seems plain that, even allowing for the piggybacking on the existing cash economy, Boyle is still very much engaged in acts of commerce. I don't think he'd deny that; he apparently was an economics student at one point. But money is just a way of making the whole business of commerce more efficient. What's wrong with that?

Maybe this:

We couldn't move from what we are today to—even in 10 years' time—living completely moneyless. It's about moving away from complete dependency on money, which is a very insecure position to be in, anyway. You can't have all your eggs in one basket. As more and more people move away from one economic model to another economic model, then the market reacts to that in certain ways and people produce less. It's more about slow evolutionary process than a revolutionary process. And that's quite key to the whole thing. Our whole agricultural system is based on fossil fuels. Each gallon of fossil fuel is the same as 40 man-hours per week. That's a lot of extra man hours. And so if we're going to get back to a way of agriculture that doesn't involve oil, then people are going to have to transition away from some of the jobs that aren't necessary.

The problem, if I'm reading correctly, is that money is efficient. It makes it possible (in a roundabout way) accomplish a whole workweek's worth of tasks in the span of minutes. Sounds good, but as Boyle points out, that has some ripple effects that maybe aren't good for the environment.

Understood. And I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon. Boyle, however, is unlikely to convince many people that they should return to the Age of Bartering, where existence becomes more difficult and work more arduous. Who wants to live that way? Ascetics like Mark Boyle, I suppose. But environmentalists are never going to win the big fights if the rest of us think that Mark Boyle's vision is the one the rest of us should live by. There's a lot about the modern world to like. We just need to make it work better.