Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

31 March 2007

Invest in America

Are you fearful for the future of our country? Do you long for government you can be proud of? Would you like our Constitution restored to a place of consequence? Do you want America to resume its role as the world’s beacon of reason and hope? Would you like politicians to lead without consultants, spinmeisters and mudslingers?

If so, there’s something you can do about it. You can invest in America.

There’s a fresh, new face running for president. He makes his own decisions and writes his own speeches. He wrote the speech that made him a contender, all by himself, without speechwriters or consultants. He’s not a member of the Bush Dynasty or the Clinton Dynasty. And he can’t start his own dynasty because his two girls are too young.

This candidate believes in unity, not division. He’s written a whole book about building consensus. His book shows his brilliance and his compassion, which is miles deep. If you want to see how much smarter, more centrist and more compassionate he is than any other candidate running, read his book: The Audacity of Hope.

By now, those of you who haven’t been living in the Gobi Desert without satellite TV know I’m talking about Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.

Some people worry about his so-called "inexperience." As I’ve shown in a separate post, his "inexperience" is a myth concocted by his opponents. He’s got eight years in the Illinois Senate under his belt, and he’ll have four years in the U.S. Senate by the time he gets to the White House. That puts him in the same class as Abraham Lincoln and four recent presidents.

Some people wonder whether Obama can be tough. A famous Hollywood financier recently switched support to Obama from his chief rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The financier explained his move in part by accusing both Clintons of lying too easily. Senator Clinton tried to call Obama on the carpet, implying that Obama was playing dirty politics.

Obama didn’t huddle with consultants or read the polls. He trusted his own brains and common sense. He said he didn’t see why he should apologize for someone else’s words. When asked whether he valued the financier’s support, he said, “Absolutely.”

In a few polite, well-chosen words, Obama made three things clear. First, he’s smarter than his opponent. Second, he’s not about to distance himself from a remark that does him good and strikes a chord with lots of people. Third, anyone who thinks Obama’s going to rebuke a key supporter who just came over from his chief opponent’s camp is nuts.

Obama didn’t spend years organizing the toughest parts of Chicago for nothing. He wiped the floor with Clinton and her consultants without ever saying a nasty word or working up a sweat. That’s tough. And, unlike Senator Clinton, Obama didn’t take four years to figure out where he stands on the war in Iraq.

American politics hasn’t seen anyone remotely like Obama since Bobby Kennedy. Like Bobby, Obama can make stockbrokers and inner-city residents understand the benefits of real, open democracy. He can walk into any board room, court room, pool hall, veterans’ hospital, or homeless shelter in the nation and feel at home.

But unlike Bobby, Obama didn’t make it on his father’s money. He rose as nobody, out of nowhere, on his own unique blend of brains, skill, compassion, charisma, humor and guts. If you think that sounds a lot like a rail-splitter named Abe from the same state, you’ve got the right idea.

Like Lincoln, Obama is no ideologue. He’s promised to solve problems based on facts and evidence, not preconceptions or blind faith. And he seems to mean it. Even on "hot button" issues, he shows genuine understanding and sympathy for both sides. Wouldn’t that be nice, for a change?

So if you’ve spent the last six years whining, grumbling, decrying or wringing your hands, you now have something you can do. You can get off your duff, open your checkbook or Web browser and invest in America by supporting Obama’s campaign. (Or, if you are still unconvinced, you can buy and read his books to decide whether he’s the real thing. He is.)

Obama’s our candidate---yours and mine. No one owns him. What money he has came from his own honest work: royalties on his two books. So he’s clean.

We can keep him clean by making sure his campaign money comes from lots of small contributions. The more he gets from us, the people, the less he’ll need from the "big boys." So dig deep.

If you’ve got a stock portfolio, you can afford to give more. Why not take one percent of your portfolio (up to the limit of $2,300)⎯a typical market fluctuation of a few days⎯and send it to the Obama campaign? It’ll be the best long-term investment you’ll ever make in anything.

Could Obama stumble? Could he fail to win the Democratic nomination or the presidency? Sure. Investing is a risky business, and past performance is no guarantee of future success.

But if you’ve been following the news, you’ve got to see that Obama is shaping up nicely as a once-a-century leader. He’s got uncommon brains, skill, charisma and political instincts. He doesn’t need an evil genius like Karl Rove to win. All he needs is enough people who like his brand of politics, believe in him and want real change.

Obama can help us take our democracy back from the consultants, spinmeisters, lobbyists, masters of division and other professional cynics who’ve made such a mess of it. He’s bright, energetic, skilled and---best of all---uncorrupted. Smart investors back individuals, not dynasties, and Obama is the best we’ve got.

Smart investors also know that timing is everything. With the primaries now all bunching up before next March, the Democratic nomination will be history in about one year, probably much sooner. Money is more important earlier than ever: this summer could decide the race between Senators Obama and Clinton.

The "trial heat" ends today. By April 15, every candidate for president must report his or her total contributions as of midnight tonight. Those who do well will report sooner.

Obama needs our help to stay credible and move out of the pack. The pundits say he’ll need $24 million, by midnight tonight, to stay credible.

So invest in America now, while it still matters. It could be the best thing you ever did for your children and your country’s future.

* * *

If you like this message, send it on. Here’s how. While composing any e-mail, copy the following link, without any spaces at the end:


Type the words “Invest in America” in your e-mail and highlight (select) them. Click on "Edit," “Insert” and “Link” and paste the copied link in the box that appears on your screen. Click “OK,” and the words “Invest in America” should appear highlighted and linked. You can then finish your e-mail; any recipient can click on the “Invest in America” link and see this message. I promise not to enforce my copyright against any person who links to this post, or copies it, in support of Obama or for purposes of honest debate.

Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father, is more autobiographical than political.

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28 March 2007


[NOTE: This blog is no longer anonymous: see my profile immediately to the right. To see my complete CV, as of 2010 when I retired, click here. To see why I “came out” from anonymity, click here. I keep this post up because: (1) I have a policy of never taking posts down, while correcting errors that I find; and (2) anonymity is still a good idea for people who purport to be teachers but are not yet retired like me.]

Friends and colleagues who know who I am have asked me why I keep this blog anonymous. I’ve answered that question many times. It occurred to me that other readers also might want to know the reasons. Here they are, in rough order of descending importance:

1. Ideas matter, not personalities
2. I can’t let my students know
3. Ideology is not thinking
4. You can do some good if you don’t insist on taking credit

1. Ideas matter, not personalities. I am a teacher. When I grade students’ exams and papers, I try to do so anonymously.

Over the years students have surprised me many times. Sometimes good ideas and cogent analysis came from the unlikeliest sources. Sometimes students whose classroom performance was impressive wrote things so “off the wall” as to make me laugh out loud. These things happened often enough that I am now a fanatic about anonymous grading.

I believe this experience applies to the world outside the classroom. I watch in horror and impotence as our nation devolves from a society of expertise to a society of celebrity. With the exception of the Public Broadcasting System, television (including cable) makes who says something more important than what is said. To paraphrase McLuhan, the personality is the message.

Since most people still get their news and analysis from television, this trend cheapens our public discourse and weakens our public policy. The result is policy by bumper sticker—like “stay the course”—whose effectiveness in the real world speaks for itself. (An essay on this Blog covers this subject, so I won’t elaborate here.)

In fighting this trend of celebrity, I know I am pissing into the wind. Yet I would be untrue to my principles if I let my very human desire for my own fifteen minutes of fame subvert my firm conviction that this trend weakens—and could ultimately destroy—our democratic society.

2. I can’t let my students know. My job as an educator is to teach my students how to think, not what to think. If I succumb to the temptation of trying to indoctrinate them in my views, I will fail both in educating them and in convincing them of anything important. The stronger students will reject my indoctrination because they want to think for themselves. The weaker ones will learn exactly the wrong lesson: that my authority as teacher, position and personality matter more than the validity (or lack of validity) of my ideas.

Although my teaching occasionally touches on the great issues of our day, I take great care to be neutral and noncommittal in the classroom. I hope and believe that my students have no idea where I stand personally.

Readers of this Blog know that I am no fan of the Bush Administration. Yet some of my students’ comments hint that they think I support it. That’s exactly how I want it: students have to make up their own minds.

Today virtually all students have access to the Internet. If I put my name on this Blog, my students would know where I stand on a whole range of issues within a week, if not a day. That would destroy my effectiveness as a teacher and my professionalism in the classroom. So I can’t reveal who I am at least until I retire from teaching.

3. Ideology is not thinking. Like religion, ideology today serves as a tribal identification badge. Here at home, you are either a “conservative” or a “liberal.” In the wider world, you may be a small-d “democrat”—a “believer in liberty and democracy.” If not, you may be labeled as an “authoritarian,” a “religious extremist,” or perhaps a “terrorist” or “terrorist harborer.”

These badges trivialize everyone’s views. They force us all to “join” groups with which we may only marginally agree. They divide the political world into unthinking hostile camps.

Tribal identification badges had survival value when we were primates on the savannah. If you couldn’t distinguish friend from foe quickly, you might lose food, territory, health, or even your life. As we evolved, we developed uniforms, flags and other symbols to tell one tribe from another. Ideology is just an intangible version of a flag.

The problem with ideology is that it ignores the rest of our evolution. We are a thinking, problem-solving species. Ideology replaces thinking with tribal loyalty. It neglects our species’ greatest survival value: reason and intelligence. Worse yet, it fosters enmity and conflict between different tribes. Our domestic politics over the last six years has been conclusive proof of this point.

You might think the Cold War taught us this lesson. For four decades the entire world cleaved into two hostile tribes: “Free Nations” and “Communists.” In 1962 our two tribes came within hours, if not minutes, of obliterating human civilization and the Earth’s biosphere. Yet cooler heads prevailed. We understood that the fearsome ideology of Communism—which horribly misperceives both human nature and economics—would eventually burn itself out. No one had any idea how quickly, peacefully, and dramatically that would happen until it did.

Today we have a cruel irony: we Americans are among the world’s last remaining ideologues. Europe, China, Russia, Japan, India, Pakistan, much (but not all) of South America and Africa, and most of Southeast Asia have pragmatic, thinking leaders. Leaders there try to solve problems based on facts and realistic assessments of their and others’ real interests and capabilities. Even Kim Jong Il and Robert Mugabe are pragmatic; they strive not to perpetuate an ideology, but their own twisted absolute rule. In contrast, we line up with Israel, Palestine, the jihadis, Al Qaeda, and Hugo Chavez in dividing the world into warring camps identified by tribal badges.

So what does all this have to do with my anonymity? Plenty. If you don’t know who a person is, you can’t see the tribal badge. Then you might think about what he or she has to say, rather than tribal allegiance.

Readers of this Blog will find both “liberal” and “conservative” views. I’m wholeheartedly for gay rights, i.e., complete integration of every human being into our society. I support a woman’s right to choose, but I see it as a difficult issue and a minor one in the grand sweep of history. I find others’ passionate intensity on the subject, pro and con, terrifying. I think that religion has been among the most uplifting and most destructive forces in human history, and I think it is now showing its destructive face both at home and abroad.

I also believe deeply in personal responsibility, accountability, and the power of intelligently regulated free markets. I think economics is a real science to which we all need to pay more attention. I want us out of Iraq as soon as possible, but not until we’ve tried to be a bit smarter in cleaning up at least some of the mess we’ve made. I’m against military adventurism (meaning ground combat) in Iran and foursquare for diplomacy, but I also urge strategic and tactical deterrence, including a massive buildup of non-nuclear air power.

Am I “liberal” or “conservative”? Am I a “hawk” or a “dove”? Does the tribal badge matter?

In assessing a policy, only three things matter. Does it make sense? Does it conform to our basic national values? And will it work? Answering those questions requires thinking, not faith. Ideology is irrelevant. As soon as we Americans begin to understand these points again, we’ll start recovering the ground we’ve lost to China, India and Russia, among others, over the last six years. Reviewing ideas anonymously, without badges of personality or tribe, is a small step in the right direction.

4. You can do some good if you don’t insist on taking credit. This old saw has more than a germ of truth. I’ve suggested that we use it as one of the criteria for selecting our next president.

I have enough ego to believe that some ideas and insights on this Blog are original. A few of them have appeared elsewhere with suspect timing. Their appearance might have been coincidence, but I hope they were borrowed.

My fondest desire is that this Blog, anonymous as it is, make at least a nano-contribution to more thoughtful and substantive democratic discourse.

So please feel free to take, link to, borrow or steal whatever you want from this Blog—words, ideas, phrases, paragraphs or whole essays. I might enforce my copyright against someone who steals for commercial purposes. But I will never enforce my copyright against someone who uses material on this Blog in a sincere, nonprofit effort to advance public discourse or public policy—whatever his or her position.

I don’t mind if you steal from this Blog and put your own name on the result. I don’t need the credit.

But I’d like to feel, as I age, that I have contributed, in some tiny and anonymous way, to helping our ship of state weather the stormy seas that now surround it. I’d like to help us Americans recover our position as the world’s beacon of reason, pragmatism, and common sense, ideology be damned.

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16 March 2007

Nixon, Bush, and Scientific Demagoguery

The Nixon Legacy
A Stronger Nixon?
The Record on Substance
The Record of Demagoguery
Demagoguery as Science
Democracy’s Achilles Heel

Future historians will have a tough time answering an important question: who was our worst post-nineteenth-century president, Richard M. Nixon or George W. Bush? The choice is a difficult one, and Bush’s tale is not yet fully told. But the outlines of an answer are emerging.

The Nixon Legacy

So far, Nixon is our only president to resign from office. He did so after impeachment and under realistic threat of conviction, as a result of the Watergate scandal.

It helps to remind ourselves what Watergate was all about. In 1971, the Vietnam War had run nearly a decade since the first U.S. involvement, and seven years since the first deployment of regular U.S. troops. Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret government report on how badly the war was going. The Supreme Court allowed the New York Times and Washington Post to publish that report, despite the Nixon White House’s vehement claims that doing so would undermine national security. The report gave the people their first official look at how thoroughly and systematically their government had deceived them about its war policy and the realities of Vietnam.

Nixon did not see this setback as a call to change policy or to heed the people’s rising misgivings about the war. Instead, he took it as a call to wage a secret, illegal political war against Democrats.

Republican operatives formed a clandestine group, called the “Plumbers,” whose job was to plug leaks like the Pentagon Papers. Their first notorious illegal act was burglarizing the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to dig up dirt on him. Their second was breaking into a Democratic National Committee office in order to bug it. The office was in the Watergate hotel and office complex, which gave the coming scandal its name.

The rest of the story involved the slow peeling of the stinky onion. As the Washington Post, other newspapers, and the FBI investigated the break-ins, the trail of responsibility rose higher and higher toward the White House. One of the break-in artists claimed to be a former CIA operative. John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, was caught running a Republican slush fund to finance “intelligence” operations against Democrats. The FBI found evidence of a widespread and pervasive campaign of spying and sabotage in support of Republicans’ effort to re-elect Nixon in 1972.

Nixon won that election in a landslide, but the investigations and prosecutions continued. Two former Nixon aides were convicted of crimes in the Watergate incident. Two White House aides and Nixon’s then Attorney General resigned. John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, was fired; he later told investigators that he had discussed covering up Watergate with Nixon personally 35 times.

In the end, Nixon’s own hubris was his undoing. He had ordered that all White House conversations be recorded, apparently for the benefit of posterity. But he refused to release tapes relevant to Watergate. In an act that became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he fired the special prosecutor and abolished his office, causing his new attorney general and deputy to resign. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to deliver the tapes. An 18-minute gap in them—never explained—appeared at a crucial point. With such patent evidence of Nixon’s own culpability in the cover up, if not the incidents themselves, Nixon was impeached for obstructing justice. His conviction was all but assured, and he resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.

But that was not the end of the story. Decades later, the once-sequestered White House tapes and other evidence revealed Nixon’s true character as president. Alone with his confidants (albeit taped), he spoke like a gangster, using frequent profanity. His words showed wide-ranging bigotry and callousness, toward African-Americans, Jews, the disabled and other minorities. Most of all, he revealed an obsession with maintaining political power at any cost. He kept an “enemies list” of thousands of citizens’ names and worked hard (despite resistance from professional staff) to get the FBI and IRS to persecute them for political advantage and personal revenge.

For many today, the history of Watergate stands for Nixon’s personal flaws. He was president of a democratic nation but appeared not to believe in democracy. His acts revealed a personal craving for power by whatever means necessary. Like Stalin, who once described revenge as the finest human feeling, Nixon had an obsession with getting even. He had tendencies toward paranoia, not just in maintaining his “enemies list,” but in his response to the press and the people. Among his most famous public statements were “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” (after his defeat for California’s governorship) and “I am not a crook!” (during the Watergate scandal).

A Stronger Nixon?

In many ways Nixon was his own worst enemy. His self-evident character flaws made him far less dangerous a saboteur of democracy than a stronger and more even-tempered person with the same goals and methods might have been.

But what if Nixon had been a stronger person? What if, instead of paranoia and a very thin skin, his most evident personal flaws had been stubbornness, a too-thick skin, and occasional trouble with the English language? What if, instead of recording his own bigoted words, he had consistently made apparently sincere appeals for racial and ethnic harmony, even after 9/11? What if, instead of covering up and possibly approving obvious crimes like burglaries and break-ins, he had been smart enough to do nothing patently illegal, but had merely “pushed the envelope” of the law, focusing on gray areas and using smooth and clever legal spokespeople to explain each unprecedented grab for power as “legal”?

What if, instead of illegally spying to dig up dirt on political opponents, Nixon had used modern communications media and a phalanx of sympathetic commentators to tar his political opponents, regardless of the facts? What if, instead of self-evidently “dirty tricks,” he and his party had used gerrymandering, ballot confusion, purportedly legal exclusion of minorities from voting, and political manipulation of the judicial process (including prosecution for election-related crimes) to gain and hold political power? Wouldn’t we then have a president far more dangerous to democracy than Nixon ever was? Wouldn’t we then have Bush?

In many ways, Bush is Nixon redux, but with a difference. Bush is far worse than Nixon at governing. Yet he and his minions are far better at gaining and holding power by means that are or appear legal but are unethical, immoral or subversive of real democracy.

The Record on Substance

For those of us who still choke at Nixon’s pathetic “V” sign as he boarded the White House helicopter for the last time, it is easy to forget that he did some good. His most important act as president was “going to China,” i.e., beginning the long process of rapprochement with what was then called “Red” China. We benefit from that act of diplomacy every day. We enjoy low prices at Wal-Mart. We don’t have to fight a second Cold War. We enjoy lower interest rates because China finances our ballooning national debt. We have increasingly lucrative commercial cooperation and trade. And China is beginning to give us useful help in dealing with the tyrant Kim.

Red-baiting was the trademark of Nixon’s political career. Nixon himself had made it politically impossible for anyone but a staunch Republican to approach China when he did. Anyone else he would have labeled “soft on Communism.” Nevertheless, Nixon did make the move, and it was the right one. As history unfolds it may be one of the most important acts of diplomacy and foreign relations in our history.

Nor did his administration’s accomplishments end with China. Despite his own personal bigotry, his administration made headway in enforcing President Johnson’s civil rights laws, and the first big push at environmental remediation began during his administration. You can argue that other branches of government were largely responsible, and that Nixon’s appointees, not he personally, deserve credit for whatever good Nixon did. But nevertheless, it happened on his watch.

In contrast, it is difficult to find anything—certainly anything as dramatic and important as Nixon’s visit to China—that Bush has done right. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently testified, the War in Iraq is shaping up as one of the most disastrous foreign-policy blunders in American history. Unlike Vietnam, which bore the stamp of four presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford), the Iraq fiasco is Bush’s alone. Other presidents will share the blame only insofar as Bush is unable to clean up the mess he made before leaving office.

But Iraq is far from Bush’s only external failure. Bin Laden and Zawahri—the chief propagandist and operational leader of Al-Qaeda, respectively—are still at large as we approach six years after 9/11. The attempt to stabilize Afghanistan is going badly. American power, prestige, and credibility abroad are at their lowest ebb at any time since World War II.

The same is true on the domestic side. In environmental protection, civil rights (particularly as regards voting), retirement policy, and global warming, Bush has staked out positions contrary to the desires of the American people, the discoveries of science, and the trends of history. He has done nothing to address the scandal and tragedy of 44 million Americans without health insurance.

In energy policy, every concrete step Bush has taken (as distinguished from what he has said), has entrenched the regressive power and influence of our fossil fuel industries—coal, oil and gas. Until 2007, the centerpieces of his national energy policy were repeated, failed attempts to authorize drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge and the War in Iraq, which was motivated, at least in part, by protecting the Middle East’s major oil fields and keeping them available for Western use and exploitation. It remains to be seen whether Bush’s recent call for increased use of ethanol will have any effect apart from the private sector. And the Bush Administration has done little to provide incentives for expanding nuclear power or to improve its regulation, although nuclear power is by far the most realistic path to energy independence in the medium term.

Bush did manage to hold the economy together after the crash of 2000, but he did so by using economic stimulation techniques well known and used for half a century. Even then, he overdid it, providing too much stimulation focused too much on the upper strata of society. With tax cuts focused on the upper brackets, Bush exacerbated social divisions and inequalities that are among our most persistent and (in the long term) dangerous problems.

About the only thing that Bush appears to have done even partly right in governing is No Child Left Behind. National standards and accountability in schooling are not bad ideas. Unfortunately, Bush failed to follow them up, leaving his school-remediation program bereft of necessary funding and subject to rigid bureaucracy unreceptive to real needs of localities, schools, teachers and students. Now doctrinaire ideologues from his own party are challenging the very idea of national standards in the name of states' rights.

Beyond this abysmal record of real achievement lies Bush’s entirely negative record as a statesman and moral leader. The attacks of September 11 gave him a nation that was wholly united and had the world’s sympathy. In just a few years, he transformed it into a divided and divisive polity whose chief business is blame and recrimination, and which is rapidly becoming the world’s moral pariah. After promising as candidate to be “a uniter, not a divider,” and to undertake a more “humble” foreign policy, Bush did exactly the opposite. The country has never been more divided ideologically since the Vietnam era and our own Civil War. Not since the days of “Gunboat Diplomacy” a century ago has it been more aggressive, less amenable to diplomacy, or more widely feared and hated.

The Record of Demagoguery

It would be sad enough if the nation’s divisiveness were the result of inadvertence or ineptitude. But it is not. It is the direct result of conscious policies and deliberate action of Bush, his advisors, and the cronies whom he appointed to high office. They have used historical irrelevancies such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and alleged “oppression” of religion to fan the flames of division and maintain, when possible, a narrow 50.1 percent majority for the purposes of gaining and expanding executive power.

Moreover, their use of scientific methods of polling, analysis, and demographics have transformed demagoguery from art to science. With the aid of modern computers and data, and with the guidance of evil genius Karl Rove, Bush can win elections by demagoguery that generally falls under the nation’s radar. He can, for example, make ambiguous statements on “hot button” issues nationally while pandering to religious extremists or homophobes in a few selected counties in key “battleground” states. Many analysts believe that was exactly how he won the 2004 presidential election. Computers and modern science told him how to play the demagogue by the numbers.

Nixon, too, was a demagogue. His entire political career was an exercise in exaggerating the menace of, and exploiting the public’s fear of, Communism and crime.

But unlike Bush’s, Nixon’s demagoguery revolved around serious problems. Although Nixon and his cronies exaggerated it, the threat of Communism and the Soviet nuclear arsenal was real. Crime is inevitably a recurrent problem in a society that lives by the ideal of letting ten guilty go free rather than jailing one innocent.

In contrast, Bush’s demagoguery focused on emotional issues with little or no real importance for national or international affairs. Among them were our miniscule level of legal abortions, whether homosexuals can marry, and whether our multifarious religions, which enjoy the freest exercise in the world, should have the additional benefit of government subsidies. Unlike grave foreign threats or pervasive crime, these “problems” were and are hardly likely to determine our success as a nation, let alone our survival.

So as we compare George W. Bush with Nixon, three points stand out. First, both used demagoguery and dirty tricks. Both lied repeatedly to Congress and the American people to justify prolonging a war. Nixon’s tricks (the Plumbers’ activities), were crimes, while most of Bush’s, insofar as we know now, were not. Yet Bush started his war, and he did so on false pretenses. Nixon only inherited his.

Second, while Nixon’s presidency had some useful accomplishments, especially his visit to China, Bush’s regime has been virtually a complete failure in every substantive respect—foreign relations, the environment, energy policy, civil rights, and statesmanship. Far from solving our nation’s problems, in most cases he and his demagoguery have retarded real solutions by confusing the public as to relevant facts. Future historians will focus almost exclusively on his War in Iraq, which, with the willing help of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush mismanaged for over four years, until the American people repudiated his leadership in the 2006 congressional elections.

Third, although Bush and his minions have been far stupider than Nixon in governing, they have been far smarter in political manipulation. The “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Administration were largely limited to Red baiting and the Plumbers’ crimes. They were crude and simple.

In contrast, the Bush Administration’s scientific demagoguery has been highly successful politically, at least until recently. Unless repudiated by subsequent presidents, the “example” Bush has set could become a serious threat to the survival of democracy in America.

Consider, for example, real external threats. The huge Soviet army and nuclear arsenal were a real threat in Nixon’s day. Although of far lesser magnitude, so is the menace of terrorism today. Both Nixon and Bush shamelessly exploited real fear of these threats for political advantage.

But there is an important difference. Although the underlying tactics and technology were secret, the primary policies for combating the Soviet threat were open and visible. Strategic armament and its costs and risks, international alliances, and (eventually) mutual disarmament were the subjects of frequent and sustained democratic discussion and debate.

In contrast, Bush has kept many of the most important aspects of our response to terrorism secret. Secret surveillance inside our borders, secret prisons abroad, secret renditions of prisoners, and “reinterpretation” of the Geneva Conventions with secret consequences—all were unknown to us until revealed by investigative reporters or the Bush Administration’s own ineptitude. For plausible reasons, we don’t really know what precautions we are taking at our ports of entry and vulnerable industrial sites. We don’t even know whether any sensible precautions are being taken at all.

Of course secrecy is useful in combating terrorism. Just as we did not disclose the location of our missiles, the designs of our nuclear submarines, or the deployment and plans of our troops in Europe during the Soviets’ day, so it would be foolish today to disclose the operational details of tactics and technology in the struggle against international terrorism.

Yet there are lines, albeit fuzzy ones, between policy and operational details, between strategy and tactics. On every issue, in every way, the Bush Administration has pushed those lines as far as possible in the direction of secrecy and unreviewable executive power, keeping Congress, the courts and the American people in the dark. In so doing, it has arrogated to the White House not just the power to wage the “war on terror,” but also the information needed to assess whether it is doing so effectively.

In evaluating Bush’s performance as “commander in chief” of the “war on terror,” we are all in the dark. True, there has been no recurrence of September 11. But we have no idea why. Our “success” could have been due to effective and competent governance at the highest level. It could have been due to assistance from our allies and the professionalism and hard work of career staff in our military and intelligence services. It could have been due to the general ineptitude of bin Laden and his immediate circle at almost everything but propaganda, as reported so well by Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower.* Or it could have been just dumb luck.

We simply don’t know. Having kept all the details secret under the most impenetrable White House discipline in recent history, Bush would like to take all the credit for our interlude of freedom from domestic terror attacks. But in all things that we do know about, his performance has been surprisingly inept. If Bush’s response to 9/11 was as competent and effective as his response to Katrina, his management of the War in Iraq, or his control over the recent politically-motivated firing of eight U.S. attorneys, our “success” in avoiding a second attack at home is much more likely to have been due to the good work of others or to plain dumb luck.

Yet our ignorance makes us susceptible to the worst sort of demagoguery. It makes us prone to surrender our civil liberties, our checks and balances, our democratic principles—even our common sense. And what do we get in return? We get a promise to “keep us safe” from a government that has consistently displayed extraordinary ineptitude and has, in six years, kept no promise but to cut taxes.

Only Congress and the courts can take the blinders off and open our eyes. If they don’t, we will be like the ancient Romans, having surrendered our democratic rights and values to a dictator in time of “war.” Since that “war” is likely to last for generations, were are not likely to get those rights and values back once surrendered. We may soon be living Thomas Jefferson’s warning: a society that trades liberty for security deserves neither.

Demagoguery as Science

Bush and his cronies did not invent the classic demagogic trick of hiding their mistakes behind foreign threats. That trick was old when Caesar used it. Yet they did perfect, if not invent, several other tricks of demagoguery. Those tricks are to Caesar’s craft as modern physics is to alchemy.

The Bush Administration’s most important demagogic innovation is effective name calling. There is nothing new about name calling. It has been a staple of politics for as long as people have voted. But Karl Rove and other Republican masters of manipulation have used the modern sciences of communications and psychology to transform it into high art, if not science.

Republicans’ innovations in name calling have both long-term and short term aspects. Their long-term strategy is to redirect the general trend of political discourse to their advantage by subtly redefining words. The adjective “Democratic,” referring to members of the political party, has become “Democrat,” a shorter, harsher word. As a noun used as adjective, it engenders unconscious cognitive discomfort, which subtly rubs off on its subject, members of the Democratic party. The word “amnesty” was once used by military, tax, and customs authorities for immunity granted on a single day and based on a single exonerating act, such as laying down arms or surrendering contraband. Now it has become a pejorative epithet for a process of nationalizing illegal immigrants who have maintained good behavior and performed a series of continuous acts over a period of years. The subtlety of the difference is lost on most listeners, but the pejorative tone is not.

Then there is the word “liberal.” Once it meant open, tolerant, compassionate, and caring. Now, after a decade of deliberate Republican misuse, it conjures up an image of a feckless, promiscuous, free-thinking, godless, pot-smoking, criminal-coddling wimp, who not only tolerates but celebrates abortion, homosexuality, atheism and other nonconformist and unpopular ideas.

How the Republicans accomplished this amazing feat of verbal transformation is worthy of a doctor’s thesis by some aspiring philologist or political scientist. But the deed is done. Now the “good” part of what use to be “liberal” is subsumed by the word “libertarian,” which the Republicans now claim to describe a wing of their own party.

The Republicans’ short-term name calling, assiduously practiced by Bush, has been equally effective. Bush won his second term in part by “flip-flopping” and “Swift Boating” John Kerry. By using names like “Defeatocrats” and “cut and runners,” the Bush Administration kept the vast majority of the American people—and much of Congress—from thinking seriously about the War in Iraq for an inordinately long time.

These strategies may sound like puerile hazing in a college fraternity. But make no mistake about them. They are based on modern experimental cognitive science, as perfected and practiced in the fields of public relations and advertising. They have been highly effective. Behind each one, no doubt, lies a careful memo, authored by a person with a degree in psychology or marketing and years of experience in public relations, describing exactly how to make the bad name stick.

The Bush Administration’s manipulative strategies are not limited to name calling. It has used a number of other tools of demagoguery. A classic one is the “big lie”—an untruth repeatedly asserted by authority figures and therefore believed.

Dick Cheney is the foremost and most effective practitioner of the “big lie.” His constant repetition of the lie that Iraq and Al-Qaeda worked together was so effective that 70% of the public believed it for nearly a year after it had been publicly and repeatedly repudiated in both the news and government documents. It took several years for the public’s belief in the lie to die down to the present level of about 33%.

Another effective Republican technique, similar to name calling, is the bumper-sticker slogan. President Bush is a particularly effective practitioner of this technique, for he appears to think and speak in bumper stickers when not reading from a script. The technique appears particularly well adapted to figureheads of limited intelligence, who can project sincere belief that simplistic mantras will solve real problems in a complex world.

Examples of this technique are “Better to fight them (terrorists) over there, than here,” “Americans don’t cut and run,” and “The Ownership Society.” The first two of these appealed to Americans’ fear and pride, respectively, in setting Iraq war policy. They have been highly successful in getting listeners, including member of Congress, to miss the points that the War in Iraq is costly and going badly and appears to lack any coherent policy or strategy. The last misdirection—an attempt to get pensioners to exchange security for risk and lower benefits—failed.

Democracy’s Achilles Heel

There is nothing illegal about scientific demagoguery. Name calling is a time-honored political tradition. Simplistic appeals like bumper stickers are as old as politics. Furthermore, we have free speech in this country. The law does not and cannot contain scientific demagoguery. Only ethics, morality, intelligence, and true appreciation of the value of democracy can.

That truth today is stronger than in Caesar’s time. In Caesar’s day, expensive “bread and circuses,” plus calculated mob violence, were the principle tools of manipulation. Today we have modern sciences of communications, public relations, psychology and marketing to aid the demagogue. Today’s tools of manipulation are far less expensive, less obviously disruptive, and infinitely more powerful. Eat your heart out, Caesar!

The power of modern demagoguery, coupled with our inability to contain it legally without violating our most precious value of free speech, is the Achilles heel of our democracy. Survival of real popular rule in our huge and diverse nation ultimately depends upon the character of our leaders. It requires a genuine desire on their part not to rule by manipulation, but to perpetuate the democratic tradition of informed persuasion. No Constitution or other words on paper can preserve our democracy if they do not.


In the end, that is why George W. Bush and his regime are infinitely more dangerous to democracy than Nixon ever was. Nixon’s transgressions were patently criminal; they were crude and obvious and easily remedied by impeachment. In contrast, Bush’s assaults on democracy are much more subtle; they lie in gray areas and have the best justification that modern public relations and high-priced lawyers can provide. The war on terror and its requirement of secrecy provide convenient cover for his sins, and Bush has exploited them relentlessly.

Most important, Bush’s effective use of scientific demagoguery is unmatched in our nation’s history. Until Iraq dissolved in bloodshed and the people’s trust wavered, Bush almost disproved Lincoln’s rule that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. He and evil genius Karl Rove still might.

Perhaps “we the people” have wised up. Perhaps the last congressional election made a sea change. Yet that election was too close for comfort. Control of the Senate hinged on a single seat and, for a time, on a Senator lying in a coma in a hospital. The Republicans’ bag of tricks developed over the last two decades, from scientific, demographics-based gerrymandering to media shock troops like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, have made it hard to beat them even when the popular will changes radically.

We will not know whether Karl Rove’s modern bread and circuses have replaced true democracy in America until the results of the 2008 presidential election are in. If they have, then Nixon’s criminal antics and paranoia, revealed in the end largely as a result of his own weak character, will seem like small potatoes. Future historians will identify George W. Bush’s presidency, not Nixon’s, as the point when scientific demagoguery began to replace democracy and we began to lose our Republic.

It happened in Rome, without the science. With today’s infinitely more powerful scientific demagoguery, it can happen here, unless we have the wisdom and strength to stop it.

* As Wright reports it, bin Laden failed at virtually everything but building (his father’s profession) and propaganda. He was such a poor military leader that Afghan mujahedeen constantly tried to have him and his Arab minions removed from the field of battle. He nearly lost his life several times. He was so ineffective in protecting his own interests in Sudan that his “hosts” robbed him of a fortune variously estimated at from $20 to $160 million. His genius lay in his personal magnetism, his reputation for having lots of money even after he lost his fortune, and his ability to spin myths about surviving his many misadventures, always attributing his good fortune to God being on his side. See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 at 110-120, 137-141, 222-223, 232-234, (Alfred A. Knopf 2006). As his recent confession corroborates, it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is now in U.S. custody, who conceived and planned the 9/11 attacks. See id. at 236, 307-308, 345.

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06 March 2007

Barack Obama's "Inexperience"


As Senator Barack Obama seeks the presidency, some have accused him of “inexperience.” I, too, have commented on his scanty experience in military and foreign affairs.

Compared to the political warhorses running against him, Obama seems young. The media give the impression that he first sprang on the political scene in 2004, when he gave his now-famous keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

But impressions are not facts. Every once in a while, it's good to take a “reality check.”

Experience in the abstract does not matter. The only eligible national figure who has real and substantial experience in the military, diplomatic corps and Cabinet, as well as demonstrated good judgment, is Colin Powell; and he's not running. What matters is how Obama compares with his fellow candidates and previous presidents.

Obama's chief political rival is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. By the time of the next presidential election, she will have been a United States Senator for eight years---her only elective office. Obama will have been a United States Senator for four years and an Illinois state senator for eight. His political experience thus compares well with Senator Clinton's, although Sen. Clinton has the edge in national experience. Senator Clinton also has the derivative experience of having lived in the White House during her husband's eight years as president, as well as her leadership of an ineffective health-case task force.

Senators Clinton and Obama share a key weakness: lack of substantial experience in military, diplomatic and foreign affairs. This weakness is important but is shared by all the leading candidates with the exception of John McCain. Both Clinton and Obama have some relevant senatorial experience---Clinton on the Senate Armed Services Committee and Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

These facts show little salient difference in experience between the two candidates. Clinton has the edge in years in national elective office; Obama has the edge in total years in elective office, number of elective offices held and number of elections won. Senator Clinton's experience as first lady has marginal relevance to today's challenges, for today's chief issues---terrorism at home, global warming, energy independence, the tradeoff between security and civil rights, and international competitiveness---were hardly on the radar screen on President Clinton's watch. The failure of Senator Clinton's health-care task force and the widespread ridicule it received qualifies as relevant experience only in a negative sense. Therefore the choice between Senators Clinton and Obama must rest on matters other than their respective resumes.

Now let's look at actual presidents. Following is a table comparing Barack Obama’s experience in higher political office with the experiences of five presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush, and the experience of Senator Clinton:

Pre-Presidential Experience of Selected Presidents and Candidates: Total Years in State Legislature or Higher Elected Office Prior to Assuming Presidency
PresidentState LegislatureGovernorshipU.S. HouseU.S. SenateAge at InaugurationInaugural Year
Abraham Lincoln8020511861
John F. Kennedy0068431961
Jimmy Carter4600521977
Ronald Reagan0800701981
George W. Bush0600542001
Barack Obama*8004*47*2009*
Hillary Rodham Clinton*0008*61*2009*

* If elected president in 2008.

As this table shows, Obama’s “inexperience” is a myth. He is right in the mainstream of all five presidents listed. At twelve years, his experience in elective office would beat all but John Kennedy’s. (The table omits experience in lower, unofficial and nongovernmental offices, such as Carter’s extensive service on county boards and commissions, Reagan’s service as President of the Screen Actors Guild, Obama’s experience in community organizing, and Senator Clinton's experience as first lady.)

Obama is also in the mainstream of the five presidents with regard to age. On assuming office he would be four years older than John Kennedy. He would be right in the middle of the collective inaugural ages of Lincoln, Kennedy, Carter and George W. Bush.

In only one respect is Obama’s experience “light.” Unlike Carter, Reagan, and the younger Bush, Obama has never governed a state. But in this respect he is like Lincoln---our greatest president---and like Kennedy, one of our most inspiring and beloved leaders.

The president’s most important role is not commanding the army or balancing the budget, but sensing the spirit and needs of the times and leading the nation to act accordingly. Washington felt the spirit of a new nation and saw it through its difficult birth pangs. Lincoln saw the moral wrong and economic waste of slavery and abolished it, preserving and enhancing our diverse nation in the process. Teddy Roosevelt saw our rise to power and increased our strength, while preserving economic liberty at home with his “trust-busting.” Franklin Roosevelt preserved economic liberty with a “new deal” for everyone; then he saw the rising menace of totalitarian militarism abroad and met it just in time. Ronald Reagan sensed the error and decay of the worldwide Communist movement and gave it the coup de grace.

When we consider our greatest presidents, we don’t think of their “executive skills.” What we revere is their ability to see farther than the rest of us---to use their charisma and political skill to inspire and nudge us to do the right thing. Our greatest presidents, Lincoln and FDR, goaded and inspired us to do what we had to do despite great inertia and resistance. Lincoln led us to fight our bloodiest war in order to preserve our union, rid ourselves of the scourge of slavery and bring our Jeffersonian ideals to life. Roosevelt led an isolationist nation to meet history's greatest challenge of oppressive military tyranny.

These leaders were great not because they had the technical skills of a modern CEO. None of the current crop of candidates does, without exception. What these leaders had was an extraordinary ability to push us in the right direction although the path was steep.

Despite all the grievous errors of the last six years, we are still the world’s leader and beacon of hope. Any president worthy of the name must be able to relight that beacon and rekindle the hope. The vast upwelling of support for Obama suggests that ordinary people have read his book, The Audacity of Hope, and believe he can do just that. Does cautious and methodical Senator Clinton, who took four years to "triangulate" her position on the War in Iraq, have the same ability to inspire?

What matters most in the next election is intelligence, vision and perspective. The threat of terrorism is real and important, but even it is not our greatest threat. In their times, the threats of Nazi and Imperial Japanese militarism and of Communist expansionism and the Soviet nuclear arsenal were far more serious.

Our greatest threat today is our own physical and moral decline. Our roads, bridges, and industrial infrastructure are crumbling. We are losing ground to international rivals in energy, in scientific, medical and technical research, in industry, and in education. We have already lost the first position in providing universal high-speed access to the very Internet that we created. Our best and brightest minds increasingly seek jobs not as scientists, engineers, builders, doctors, and inventors, but instead as investment bankers, stock brokers and lawyers. There they use their brains and skill to "invent” new forms of financial instruments. They devise intricate ways to deprive their elders of promised, hard-earned pensions without violating the letter of the law.

We can no longer protect our people and major cities from natural disasters, and we are doing virtually nothing to stop the global warming that threatens to increase them. We expect the least privileged among us to fight, for money, wars that the most privileged will not fight for duty, honor, or country. Sometimes it seems as if we have turned our economic engine of capitalism into a juggernaut of heedless, amoral greed. Clearly we have lost our way.

Over all these signs of moral decline lies the pall of deep social divisions. The rich are retreating to gated communities, while the poor fester in inner cities. Many people want to deport and punish the immigrants who prepare their food, take care of their yards and children, and do all the other work too hard and dirty for the native-born to do. And a rising tide of true believers seeks to solve all of these real and pressing problems by taking ancient scriptures literally.

If the polls are right, the Republican Party is now seriously considering nominating for president a man who has held no office higher than mayor. John McCain---a war hero, respected senator, and widely acknowledged moral leader---is losing to a man largely unknown outside of New York City, except for effective action during the year after September 11. These facts show how desperate we are for good leadership.

The people sense all this. They understand that we are in a deep national moral crisis, and not just about Iraq. They want a president who can lead us out.

Against these real needs of our times, small differences in political experience measured by years in office are meaningless. Obama measures up to recent presidents---and one of our greatest---on this count. But what matters is whether he can be the great leader for whom the nation yearns.

The campaign of the coming year will test whether Obama can realize the promise of his book. If he can, his political resume will not and should not matter.

Obama is smart enough to appoint good people to fill the gaps in his own experience, including gaps in military and foreign affairs. He is also realistic enough to follow the advice of experts---not political hacks---where he is the amateur. Those traits alone would have saved us the pain of Iraq.

Obama's experience compares well with that of his chief Democratic rival, exceeds the experience of the current Republican front-runner, and measures up on the scale of history. So now let's talk about his intelligence, vision, charisma and perspective. Let's discuss our dire need for good leadership. Let's see whether Obama is strong enough to pull us all out of the deep hole dug by the one who sits in the big office now.

Disclaimer of Association with “Sheriff”

On Tuesday evening, November 20, 2007, I became aware of links to this blog (and to this post in particular) from a person whose screen name is “Sheriff.” The links were on a scurrilous Website that appears to be run by white supremacists. Material on it goes far beyond what even a legitimate campaign’s “dirty tricks” squad would publish.

I disclaim any association with “Sheriff” or the Website on which his posts appear. I do not approve of or endorse “Sheriff’s” links to this blog, his views, or any view expressed on that Website. I have read only enough material on that site to judge its quality, which is the lowest of any blog that I have read.

I will not identify the site because I have no wish to increase its traffic. People referred from that site will know who they are.

I ask anyone who has information about “Sheriff” or his site to provide it anonymously in a comment to this post. I will post the comment only if so requested and if it has general interest. (I moderate all comments before posting them.)

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