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

29 August 2008


[For comment on Sarah Palin, click here.]

Ever since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about whether he can be tough. Is he tough enough to beat John McCain, govern the country, and stand up to Iran and the Russians? At times, I’ve been among the hand wringers.

Last night’s speech left little doubt.

I won’t presume to summarize or critique the speech, or even to outline it. Obama writes better than I and is far more politically astute. Anyone who cares about our country and is undecided should not just read the speech, but watch it.

Obama’s stern tone, powerful delivery and strong words—invariably polite and accurate though they were—dispelled all doubt about his toughness and ability to serve as commander in chief. He looked and sounded presidential.

But what I want to explore in this essay is something else: the reasons why many of us think we are seeing this side of Obama for the first time. There are at least three.

The first is the primary contest’s extraordinary character. Obama’s opponent was Hillary Clinton, a woman much like his mother. Hillary is about the same age that Obama’s mother would be had she lived. Like Obama’s mother, Hillary is white, highly educated, opinionated, and passionate about justice. Hillary is blond while Obama’s mother was brunnette, but that’s about the only difference apparent to the casual observer.

Most of us have debated our mothers on politics at one time or another. But how do you do that before an audience of millions, especially when your mother was your sole parent, the chief adult figure in your life, and the person primarily responsible for your own values and world view? That was Obama’s challenge from the very beginning of his debates with Hillary.

I still remember Obama’s gesture, in one debate, of holding Hillary’s chair as she sat. At the time I thought the gesture was fraught with risk. Was he just being polite? Was he risking the ire of feminists, many of whom don’t like the custom of men holding doors or chairs for women? Would his gesture be interpreted as African-American subservience to a white woman?

I can’t begin to get inside Obama’s mind, but I settled on the view that his gesture was instinctive with him. He did what he would have done had Hillary been his mother, whom she so resembles.

The second reason for Obama’s extraordinarily gentle and circumspect approach to Hillary requires less armchair psychology. Obama is the most skilled and sensitive politician of his generation. Long before and much more than others (including me) he understood how extraordinary women’s support for Hillary was and is.

Their support has virtually nothing to do with substantive issues and little to do with relative personal merit. It has everything to do with a sense of alienation and marginalization and a feeling that 88 years of women’s suffrage has accomplished little in making individual women more powerful.

Obama understood these points from the beginning. Accordingly, he handled everything relating to Hillary with extreme sensitivity and gentility. When Hillary and her husband made racial innuendoes, he seemed weak for not striking back. People doubted his strength when he gave the Clintons partial control of the convention just ended.

But in retrospect, we can see that Obama did exactly the right thing. One does not force a lady to make up her mind, whether by male logic, browbeating, or impatience. One waits patiently and preferably mutely (no matter how much restraint it takes) until she decides. How much more important is that self-restraint when the stakes are not just the harmony of an evening or the success of a marriage, but the fate of a nation?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The convention went swimmingly. Hillary did what she had promised and had to do. So did Bill, methodically and brilliantly refuting the self-serving lies he had told about Obama during the primary campaign.

If the adoring looks shown on both female and male faces during his acceptance speech are any indication, Obama accomplished his mission of attracting Hillary’s supporters as fully as it was humanly possible to do. Sometimes self-restraint is not just good character but good strategy as well. John McCain just confirmed the correctness and importance of Obama’s political judgment by selecting a woman as his running mate.

There may be yet a third reason for Obama’s extraordinary reticence and self-restraint in dealing with Hillary. I’ve argued at least twice on this blog that Obama’s race is a net disadvantage. Only a few of us have overt prejudice, but many of us still have trouble believing that a person of Obama’s race is as transcendently skilled as he is. That unconscious and largely innocent tendency to disbelieve is something that Obama will have to overcome—especially among white working folk— in order to win.

But in one small way, Obama’s minority status is an advantage. When you are a minority boy engaged in childish fisticuffs in white society, you learn to see not just your opponent, but the mood of the crowd around you as you box. You develop a sixth, political sense. You learn to think about how everyone will react, including your “brothers and sisters,” the white majority and everyone else. You learn to play three-dimensional psychological chess in your mind.

That, I think, is one source of Obama’s extraordinary political skill. He understood from the outset that even the slightest perception that a “black” man was roughing up a white lady would not help him win.

Now, with Hillary safely in his corner, the gloves can come off. Obama can’t mistake John McCain for his mother. If anything, McCain will remind him of his father, whose absence during his formative years he probably still resents. He can use as sharp elbows as he ever did in the innumerable basketball games that he plays to relax and socialize. Yet with his sixth sense born of minority status, he will still observe the bounds of politeness, mutual respect and self-restraint. Thus he will keep most of us on his side while he trounces McCain in both substance and style.

You could see all this on Joe Biden’s face last night. Before Obama’s speech, Biden was all smiles. The pundit Mark Shields remarked that he seemed to have 42 teeth (the usual complement, my physician wife tells me, is 32). Together his and Obama’s smiles might have provided illumination enough to help solve the energy crisis.

But Biden’s smile vanished by the end of Obama’s speech. As Biden joined Obama on the podium, respect, if not awe, had replaced the smile. It suddenly hit Joe what a powerful, skilled person he had hitched his star to. It suddenly struck him that he would be vice president. With Iran and Russia on the march, a grave sense of responsibility no doubt began to sink in.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of folks who doubted Obama’s toughness and resilience are, like Joe Biden, going to believe. Obama can be tough as nails, even ruthless, as his quick reversal on federal campaign financing showed. He is no John Kerry (although Kerry might have won if he had campaigned as well for himself as he is now doing for Obama).

At the same time, Obama is so sensitive and subtle that most of us might not understand what he’s doing until weeks afterward. That’s what happened to me. I was skeptical of his handling of Hillary and Bill, but now I understand.

Obama didn’t rise from keynote speaker to presidential nominee in four years despite a racial handicap for nothing. If you want both smart and tough, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Sarah Palin

[For an update on Sarah Palin now that we know something about her, click here.]

My first reaction to John McCain’s appointment of Alaska’s unknown governor as his running mate was the same as every other Democrat’s. Sarah Palin’s high-pitched voice and simplistic appeal to female chauvinism made me think McCain had mistaken the vice presidency for chair of the PTA.

“What a dumb choice!” I thought. “He’s thrown his ‘inexperienced’ rap against Obama—inaccurate as it is—out the window.”

But first impressions are often misleading, and these may be among them. Hillary and Bill made a fatal mistake in underestimating Barack Obama. We Democrats should try not to do as poorly with Sarah Palin.

Several things suggest there may be more to Sarah Palin than at first meets the eye. Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed piece she wrote, explaining her opposition to putting polar bears on the endangered species list.

I personally don’t know much about polar bears except that global warming is destroying the sea ice they need to hunt. I learned something from Palin’s piece, including polar bears’ population (25,000) and that fact that federal studies show it staying relatively stable over a long period. While I’m not sure I agree with all of Palin’s conclusions, her piece was nuanced and thoughtful and on its face made sense. A key sentence in it showed that she recognizes the existence and importance of climate change.

Polar bears are a small issue in a small (in population) state. As a New York Times blog commenter noted, a good Central Park concert can draw more people than Alaska’s entire population of some 670,000 (as of 2006), let alone the miniscule population of the small town that Palin served as mayor. Yet on that single, small issue, Palin’s op-ed piece met two of my five criteria for vetting candidates: it showed she knows something and can think.

A third criterion is whether she’s an admirable person or a jerk. She’s got a good start there, too. Out of nowhere, Palin helped clean up massive corruption in a one-party state. Some of Alaska’s legislators once wore caps with initials arrogantly proclaiming their “Corrupt Bastards Club.” Palin helped rout these jerks in her state, earning herself 80% popularity, so she’s probably not a jerk herself.

As for her putative “scandal,” the jury is still out. She may have used her influence as governor to get Alaska’s Public Safety Commissioner fired because he would not fire her sister’s ex-husband as a state trooper. That incident might reflect an arrogant abuse of executive power. It also might reflect an attempt to break an “old boy” network in public safety that kept an abusive spouse unwisely on the force. We all need to avoid prejudgment and await the results of the investigation now ongoing.

Only three things about McCain’s choice for veep are now clear. First, it’s completely changed the dynamic of the presidential race. Second, we Democrats would blunder badly in patronizing or underestimating Palin. Not only might we be wrong; even if right, we might trigger a feminist backlash of the kind that Obama worked so delicately to avoid with Hillary.

Third, our media have an enormous job to to. They have to get off their duffs, stop pontificating about trivia and gossip, and find out who this woman is, every detail of her history, how she thinks, acts and lives. The fact that they must visit one of the most beautiful, exotic and pristine states in the Union should make that an enjoyable task.

Like Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin is successful woman who’s done some remarkable things. It would be a mistake to try to rough her up, just as it would have been with Hillary. It’s clear that her experience in office is lighter than Hillary’s, and her political outlook is far different. She may have many flaws in her record and her character, yet to be discovered. But it’s already clear she’s not stupid.

So at the moment, the best approach to Sarah Palin is circumspection and caution. We are all in information gathering mode. We Democrats should honor another of my five rules for vetting candidates: treating opposing candidates and the issues with respect, unless and until they are shown to deserve less.

Footnote: While arguing that an endangered-species listing for polar bears is not now justified, Palin wrote, “What is justified is worldwide concern over the proven effects of climate change.” Few Democrats, scientists or even Al Gore would disagree with that sentence. What Palin would do about her “concern” remains to be seen.


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28 August 2008

Acting Like Adults

The great wag Will Rogers had a funny take on the Democratic Party. “I’m not a member of any organized political party,” he said. “I’m a Democrat.”

For the last nine months, I chuckled often as I recalled that bon mot. We Democrats have indeed been a willful, prideful, disorganized herd of cats.

Hillary and Bill waged an unnecessarily vicious and dirty campaign, with unfortunate racial innuendoes. And for what? Were there stark differences in policy and approach? Were great issues at stake? Of course not.

The only stakes in our primary race were personal ambition and style, not substance. The contest turned not on the need for change or its direction, but on who would have the privilege and responsibility of making change happen. It was all about us.

The apex of this childish chest-beating came when Jesse Jackson, on an open mike, threatened to castrate Barack Obama. Here was a path-breaking and widely admired leader threatening a man for achieving the very dream that he himself had fought so valiantly all his life to realize. These were not us Democrats’ finest hours.

But by last night, all that had ended. Someone waved a magic wand and infused all the prideful, resentful and sometimes spiteful boys and girls with a dose of adult reality and humility.

There was Hillary Clinton. Previously, she had kept the entire nation on tenterhooks, wondering if she would provoke a final raucous floor fight in an age where party conventions have become scripted infomercials. Instead, she played the adult and did what she had to do, for her party, her country and her own political future. She threw her support wholeheartedly behind Obama, and she did so with all the power, grace, glibness and passion of which she is capable.

There was Bill Clinton—the same man who had spitefully suggested earlier that Obama was an upstart not ready to lead. This time, he also acted like an adult. He recognized the simple truth that Obama’s meteoric rise echoed his own sixteen years earlier. And he said so.

Not only that. In the powerful, accurate but simple speech for which his Rhodes Scholar’s mind is justifiably famous, he laid out in detail why Obama has the judgment, wisdom and political skill to turn this country around. One by one, he deftly refuted the self-serving lies he had told during the primary campaign.

There was Jesse Jackson’s son, delivering a gentle, implied rebuke to his more famous father. In forceful and unequivocal terms, he explained why Obama is not just the best hope of the Democratic Party and the nation, but of the “movement” for equality for which his father’s generation fought so brilliantly.

Besides Jesse Jr., there was a succession of powerful, articulate, and attractive African-American speakers. Particularly notable among them were Representative Artur Davis of Alabama and Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts.

As I watched their impressive performances, I recalled a basic truth of our society. “New blood” has always enriched and ennobled us, whether it comes from immigrants or from long-resident groups newly admitted to the political mainstream. Our political leadership flourished when groups like the Irish, Italians and Catholics first came of political age. The Kennedy family, honored by Teddy’s courageous and unexpected appearance, were just the most recent proof of that enduring truth. Joe Biden is another.

Now it’s African-Americans’ turn. Like Barack Obama, they have honed their wisdom and character overcoming personal obstacles that most of the rest of us never see in our worst nightmares. They have hardened their steel in the fire of American racism. Having come of age politically, they are ready to serve us all.

There was not a trace of bitterness or resentment among the African-American speakers. They were powerful, well-educated, attractive, articulate and self-confident. They were not victims, but winners and achievers. As I watched and listened in admiration, I recalled what it means to be an American. I was proud to be a Democrat who supported the long and painful struggle that now, at long last, is bearing such fine fruit.

Then there were the military adults. The tragic irony of the last seven years is how poorly Republican leaders have used our troops, just as they used our evangelicals. For them our brave fighters have been props and photo-ops, tools of demagoguery. When it came to body armor, Humvee armor, PTSD care, or providing enough force to do the job, the GOP and its neocons consistently came up a day late and a dollar short.

Just recently, John McCain himself voted against a bill to increase veterans’ educational benefits. His rationale? Better benefits might tempt experienced troops to leave the service before their fifth or sixth tour of combat duty. How cruel and cynical can you get?

John McCain and his party have failed to support our troops in so many ways that it’s difficult to remember them all, let alone to list them. They privatized and downsized our military. They outsourced its jobs to hired mercenaries for higher pay, disparaging our troops’ patriotism and implying that money motivates heroism. In the name of private investment, they so bureaucratized our military procurement that it soon will have taken more than four years—the entire time it took to fight and win World War II—to write a contract for a new tanker plane.

But the thing that gripes me most is their treatment of fallen heroes. Dubya and his Pentagon don’t want us to see the flag-draped coffins coming home. They don’t want us to participate, even vicariously, in the darkly beautiful ceremonies by which we commit our heroes’ remains to the land they gave their last breath to protect.

The Republicans want us to think that we can win wars without blood, pain or death. So they deny fallen heroes the honor, dignity and broad public recognition that their and their families’ sacrifice deserves. And they have the gall to suggest they are doing it all to protect the families’ privacy.

We Democrats treated those lies like adults, too. A succession of military figures, of rank high and low, exposed Republican hypocrisy. Many of them were women. Few were national figures. But they represented our heroes now fighting two wars—one necessary, the other not—in our name and for our benefit. Their dignity, honor and courage showed by example just how low the party of John McCain has sunk.

Last but by no means least, there was Michelle. I’ve already outlined how her perfect pitch on Monday set the tone for the convention. But her contribution didn’t stop there. She remained a dignified, noble presence, to whom the cameras often turned for inaudible but visible reaction.

And what a reaction we saw. Michelle was the consummate lady—our future first lady. Seldom did she emote visibly. She showed brief bouts of joy only in moments of high rhetoric and well-deserved recognition of her husband’s hard-fought triumph. For the most part, she kept her thoughts hidden.

But her tears told who she really is. Did she weep when speakers chronicled her husband’s (and her!) struggle and success? Did she cry when Bill and Hillary—at long last—recognized her husband’s greatness and threw their support behind him? Not a bit.

Her tears came when Joe Biden, with voice shaking, told of his love for his own big family. The tears were self-evidently genuine. More eloquently than any speech, they revealed who she is and what she cares about: Joe’s kids, her kids, your kids, our kids.

What could be more adult than putting kids first? What better demonstrates that we Democrats are the party of the future?

It gave me comfort to know that, no matter how power may tempt Barack and events may test him, Michelle will be there, whispering in his ear and reminding him what really matters. With Michelle and Barack in the White House, our nation will once again become a two-parent family. And both parents will be Harvard Law-trained professionals with razor-sharp minds.

Now our task is clear. Our skeptical and alienated independents are just now tuning in. They will decide the election. In the next two-plus months, we Democrats have to show them who the adults are—who cares about people, as distinguished from ideas, ideology, and scoring political points. We have to let them see that we all, like Michelle, care about their kids, including so many fighting so courageously, in undeserved obscurity, on the other side of the globe.


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26 August 2008

Michelle’s American Story

[For an idea for a commercial on energy policy, click here.]

To say that Michelle Obama hit a home run last night would be an understatement worthy of her husband. You have to go back to Jacqueline Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt to find another candidate for first lady even remotely as accomplished.

To those of us old enough to remember, Michelle recalls Eleanor, with her asymmetrical mouth, her fierce earnestness, her forceful articulation, and her passion for justice. You can see the resemblance if you just close your eyes and—for a brief moment in this grotesquely twisted campaign—forget about color and race.

Now that hundreds of millions have seen Michelle’s remarkable performance, it’s easy to take it for granted. But think for a second how hard it must have been for her. It was the most important speech (yet) of her life, and the most minutely scrutinized. The consultants asked her to bare her family’s story and her soul before millions of complete strangers. And as we all know, the pressure is greatest when it’s not your own success on the line, but the success of those you love.

To watch Michelle deliver, you would never have guessed the pressure she was under. As she spoke about her family, its mutual devotion and its love, her words were soothing, erudite, poetic, often soaring. Her diction and elocution were perfect, even better than her husband’s. (She avoided those annoying pauses and all-too-frequent “you knows” that sometimes mar Barack’s delivery.) She had poise, grace, humor, great intelligence, and—above all—strength.

And that—strength—is where Michelle departs from both Eleanor and Jackie. Unlike them, Michelle was not born to wealth and power. Like her husband, she made it on her own. She had only her family’s strong values to support and guide her. Her father, burdened with multiple sclerosis, went to work uncomplaining for decades, just to give her the opportunity for a Harvard Law education that her native talent allowed.

And what a difference that education made! Jackie could speak French, and Eleanor was educated like any woman of her upper class in her era. But both grew up at a time when women, however accomplished, were not expected to lead. Now they are.

That’s why Michelle is a thoroughly modern American woman. With her Harvard Law degree, she could have made a career in corporate America or on Wall Street. That’s where most of the best Harvard Law grads go. That’s where Michelle started out, at the “white shoe” firm of Sidley & Austin. If she had stayed there, she could be living a wealthy, quiet life as an obscure advisor to corporate America.

But that sort of life was not Michelle’s. Like Barack, she left the halls of anonymous corporate power for a public life of public service. She did it not because she had to; her own hard work and superb education left no door closed to her. She did it because she wanted to. Her brilliant speech last night—in which she laid bare her own family life just to show a skeptical country that she is not an ogre—was an important milestone along the difficult path she has chosen for herself.

Now Michelle is a combination of “stay at home” mom (if you can call criss-crossing the country on an endless campaign staying at home), campaign advisor and strategist, and equal political partner. She’s taken that role not because she shrinks from responsibility or because her opportunities are limited, but because that’s what she wants to do. You can easily imagine her “graduating” to the U.S. Senate (or beyond) once Malia and Sasha have gone away to college.

Michelle is thus a fully liberated women. She knows that race and gender discrimination still exist. But I have never heard her so much as hint at any limitations they impose on her. She knows she has the skill, education, strength of character—and yes, love—to achieve any goal, quietly and without fuss. She is Hillary Clinton without the angst.

That’s why the notion of Hillary partisans voting for John McCain is so absurd. Why would any modern woman support a man whose wife leaned on pharmaceuticals and family money rather than her own hard work and native talent? Why support a party whose first ladies (Pat Nixon, Nancy Reagan, and Laura Bush) are renowned mostly for gazing adoringly at their husbands and “standing by their man”?

When I want unadulterated adulation from my wife, I jokingly ask her to give me the “Nancy Reagan” look. Is that the tradition that today’s women want to continue? Or would they prefer the tradition of Eleanor and Jackie, now exemplified and advanced by Michelle?

Like Dr. King, I have a dream. It’s not yet a prediction, just an informed hope.

But I dream of the day when the cable pundits have wrung the last bitter drop out of mindless obsessions with race, gender and gossip. I dream of the day when voters, alone in the voting booth, face their consciences. I dream of them recalling what really matters: honesty, uncomplaining hard work, intelligence, knowledge, judgment, self-restraint, and coolness and grace under fire.

And I dream of their voting this marvelous self-made Obama family—a uniquely and proudly American family—into the White House by the greatest landslide since Lyndon Johnson trounced another out-of-touch and out-of-step Arizonan in 1964. That would be no less than they, and we, deserve.

P.S. Campaign Commercial Idea

Much of this blog focuses on energy policy, which, in the long run, will make or break this country. So how about the following commercial contrasting Obama’s and McCain’s approaches?

Clip 1: Dubya walking hand-in-hand with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Caption: “Two oil men” or (for edgier impact) “Two oil men in love”

Clip 2: McCain embracing Dubya. Caption: “John McCain joins the love fest”

Clip 3: McCain at Sturgis, pointing to his feet and yelling “Drill Here! Drill now!” Caption: “John McCain, wildcatter, endorses the Abdullah-Bush-Cheney energy plan”

Clip 4: T. Boone Pickens saying “I have the same feelings about wind as I had about the best oil field I ever found.” (New York Times quote; is there a clip?) Caption: “Texan and former oil man T. Boone Pickens, 80 years old, wants to invest $ 1 trillion in wind energy.”

Clip 5: McCain at his most senile looking. Caption: “Is John McCain too old or just too far out of touch?”


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24 August 2008

Joe Biden

It’s nice when events prove you right. Nine months ago I posted a blog called “Lightweights and Heavyweights.” It discerned only three heavyweights among the entire field of some sixteen presidential wannabes.

Apparently the American people and Senator Obama agreed with me. All of the three I named are on a ticket. John McCain—my sole heavyweight in the Republican party—is the presumptive Republican nominee. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the only two Democrats I named as heavyweights, are presumptive nominee and running mate.

At about the same time, I posted a list of the “Dream Team” that I hoped and expected Senator Obama would pick for his cabinet. Joe Biden was first on the list, as veep.

In retrospect, Biden seems an obvious choice. He doesn’t have the star quality to land the top job himself, but he’s definitely got that indefinable something called “experience.”

Experience is not just years lived, time spent in Congress, or tread worn from your tires. If those were the tests, we might have Chris Dodd.

The experience of a public servant is complex. It’s an indefinable combination of crises undergone, hits taken, and good judgments made. It involves making decisions and sticking your neck out even when you don’t have the responsibility to decide.

Biden has all that. He went along with invading Iraq, but he quickly caught on to Dubya’s mismanagement. He was right—and I think he is still right—in prescribing some sort of “soft” partitioning to cure what ails Iraqi society. He was quicker than Bill Clinton to see Serbia’s aggression in the Balkans and to recommend military intervention to stop the atrocities in Kosovo. He was almost as quick as Obama to see the dangers of Musharraf’s misrule in Pakistan.

Good judgment on foreign policy is vital for a veep, just as it is for a president. Congress controls the executive’s every domestic move, but the White House rules virtually alone on matters of foreign policy. If you doubt that, just think of Iraq and Dick Cheney.

Not only has Biden been right most of the time on difficult foreign-policy issues. He’s a tough guy and a fighter. He took on John McCain barely minutes into his first speech as presumptive running mate.

That tough-guy role is vitally important for two reasons. First, to our six-pack set, Senator Obama often comes across as a thoughtful wimp.

That impression is completely undeserved. He stuck his neck out by publicly condemning our invasion or Iraq when no one else had the guts or foresight to do so. He criticized Musharraf (who has now resigned) long before it was fashionable to do so and took lots of hits for doing so. And he changed his position on federal election funding the moment it became clear that he would become the next John Kerry if he didn’t. All those positions were tough, principled and courageous.

But to many voters, style is more important than substance. They prefer trash talkers to a man whose strongest epithet is “inaccurate.”

It’s hard to believe how things have changed since the Cold War. Back then, we laughed (uneasily) when peasant-born Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the U.N. podium and said “We will bury you.” Now our own presidents and serious candidates say things like “Bring it on!,” “Wanted, dead of alive,” “Bomb, bomb Iran,” and “obliterate Iran.”

Some voters seem to like that sort of trash talking. It makes them feel important and powerful in a dangerous and uncertain world. You might think it recalls the blood-drenched sands of the old Roman Coliseum. You might think it reflects a nation in serious decline. And you might be right. But Obama has to get elected to do any good. He needs a trash talker who can at least match McCain.

The second reason why Biden’s blunt toughness is appropriate is that it’s the veep’s usual role, both as running mate and in office. Veeps are the party’s and the government’s hatchet men (so far all have been male).

We forgot that point with Cheney because his hatchet was so sharp and he did so much more. But veeps traditionally serve as lightning rods. They explain and take blame for unpopular but necessary policies. They say things that diplomacy prevents the top guy from saying. They are the “tough cops” in double-teaming international negotiations.

Biden is perfect for that role. He has a well-deserved reputation for directness and verbal courage. He’s got a working-class background and the feistiness to go with it. He’s never forgotten who he is.

Biden’s reputation for occasional gaffes won’t hurt him. On the contrary, it will give him leeway to overstep and backtrack if necessary. He can credibly claim an overstatement was a typical but well-meaning slip, and not a deliberate campaign or negotiating stratagem.

What does choosing Biden say about Obama? As usual, it shows uncanny understanding and talent. Obama recognized what he lacks and added it to the ticket. He’s not bashful or insecure. He wants the best team he can get. He’s willing to pick people, like Biden, who will be tough to control and will give him independent, frank advice. Isn’t that what we want in a president, instead of the sycophant-filled Dubya cabinet?

It’s a shame there’s no heavyweight left to play second fiddle to the irascible and increasingly erratic McCain. Senators Lugar and Hagel may still be available, but the latter reportedly sought a place on the Democratic ticket.

So it’s unlikely that McCain will (or can!) choose a running mate that showcases an equal capacity to pick a Dream Team. Likely he will rely on his consultants and pick a running mate for political or geographic balance, with an eye on the “social” issues that still trouble the Republican base. If that happens, it will be just one more of many reasons for voting Democratic this fall.


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15 August 2008

Geography is Destiny

If you want to hear the smartest person in our top national leadership today, listen to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While our president was mouthing his usual inane and impotent platitudes—increasingly sounding like Mr. Magoo—Gates was announcing our policy vis-à-vis Russia as world history rebooted. His words had perfect pitch, and his deeds made perfect sense.

Gates assuaged global fear of a new hot war by denying “any prospect” of a military response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. At the same time, he revealed his “personal view” that “there needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.” He immediately canceled two joint military exercises with Russia, returned Georgia’s troops from Iraq to Tbilisi on American military airplanes, and tested Russia’s assurances of noninterference with humanitarian aid by flying it into Tbilisi, again on U.S. military aircraft.

Under present circumstances, it would be hard to imagine a firmer, more precise, more measured or more effective immediate response to the Russian invasion.

What Gates left unsaid was equally important. He left the term “military response” undefined, leaving room for covert military supply à la Charlie Wilson’s war, which drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Given the global realities today, Gates’ words and actions were perfect realpolitik.

If there were any doubt about his approach, he dispelled it himself. A reporter asked him whether the U.S. could still “trust” Russia “anymore,” after the invasion. “‘Anymore,’” Gates replied, “is an interesting add. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.”

If Gates had been Secdef (or president) these last seven years, we wouldn’t have bet so giddily on what Dubya thought he saw in Putin’s “soul.” But other things Gates said made less sense. In an interview on the Lehrer News Hour, he accepted the conventional wisdom that Russia’s goal in invading Georgia was to intimidate the countries of its “near abroad” and ultimately to re-establish the old Soviet empire in a softer form. He and others even resurrected an old early-twentieth-century term, “sphere of influence.”

Undoubtedly expanding its sphere of influence is part of what Russia is after. But why and for what purpose? For the last seven years it has been our own leader, not Vladimir Putin, who based national policy on fuzzy abstractions like that. While Dubya was ranting about “freedom,” “democracy,” and the glories of “free markets,” Putin was coldly and methodically collecting all of Russia’s vast oil, gas, and extractive resources and putting them under the direct or indirect control of the Kremlin. That consolidation is still in progress, as the British head of British Petroleum’s oil joint venture in Russia was recently forced into exile.

In the Malthusian world of the twenty-first century, wealth and power will come from increasingly scarce and valuable natural resources—including fossil fuels and minerals. Putin recognized that truth years ahead of even our best commodities traders.

With that point in mind, we come to the key unanswered question about Russia’s invasion. Why Georgia? It’s a tiny, mountainous country with less than five million people. Its chief exports were tourism (Black Sea beaches) and wine. It has little heavy industry. It has a few mines, but they are a drop in Russia’s already vast bucket. Did Russia go to all this trouble, risking worldwide fear, enmity and revulsion, plus its relationship with us, just to expand its sphere of influence and regain control of Georgia’s Black Sea resorts?

Whether or not Russia occupies all of Georgia now, its invasion was a dress rehearsal for doing exactly that. It coldly and methodically wrecked Georgia’s pitiful Black Sea fleet, took over the key Black Sea port (Poti), controlled the country’s road and rail hub (Gori, also Stalin’s birthplace), and began to move toward Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, a mere sixty miles away. With Georgian forces in abject retreat, all that remained was to sweep south a hundred kilometers and finish the job. Now that Russian troops have blown up most of Georgia’s ordnance and many of its tanks, the task will be much easier than before.

Two destroyed and burning tanks shown early in the conflict suggest that Georgian equipment is no match for Russia’s. Maybe the Georgian soldiers were just realistic in refusing to be cremated in situ in their tanks. But whatever the reason, they abandoned their positions and much of their equipment to Russian destruction. Then they fled southward for a presumed defense of the capital.

What this dress rehearsal showed is that, whether they do it now or later, the Russians could take all of Georgia in a week or two. But again, why bother?

The answer is geography. Georgia is, or could be, Russia’s gateway to the Middle East, with all its oil and power.

Together Georgia and Armenia (to its south) form a channel through which Russian technology and manufactures (including weapons and nuclear materials) could flow south to Iran, and Iran’s and others’ oil could flow north to Russia. Both are weak former Soviet satellites. Both are Christian like Russia. Armenia lies between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both Islamic nations that historically have been sharp thorns in Russia’s underbelly. If Georgia fell, Armenia would (or could) offer little resistance, and Russia would have its window to biggest part of the world’s oil that it doesn’t already control.

As a traditionally Christian country (although largely secular after 70 years of Soviet atheism) Russia is almost as culturally incompatible with Iran as we are. But a moment’s thought reveals strong interests in common with Iran. It’s not just Russia’s existing investment in Iran’s infrastructure, including the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. It’s much more than that.

Iran has a simple but scary energy policy. It wants to develop nuclear power for its own use, then sell its oil abroad and use the proceeds to build up its economy and regional economic influence. In other words, Iran wants to do exactly what Russia has been doing under Putin.

Yet that policy (coupled with Ahmadinejad’s ravings) scares the hell out of Israel and the rest of the world because Iran might develop nuclear weapons in addition to power plants. So Russia has offered to assist Iran’s energy policy by providing nuclear fuel under international controls. But Iran refuses to leave another country, however friendly now, in control of its energy infrastructure.

Iran has another problem. It is a Shiite Persian country right next to a culturally incompatible and generally hostile Sunni Arabic world. That world controls most of the Mideast’s oil and consequently has fabulous wealth and access to the West’s trade and best weapons. These facts of life limit Iran’s ambitions to restore its own economic “sphere of influence” in the Middle East.

Although even now a dominant power in the Middle East, Iran is a runt on the world stage. It needs a partner like Russia. It needs a partner to plead and support its energy case and trade with it despite Western economic sanctions. That partner is Russia.

What does Russia get out of the relationship? Plenty. It gets a close relationship with the Middle East’s biggest (in population), most powerful and potentially most economically advanced nation (besides tiny Israel and the Emirates). It gets access to Iran’s oil. If the West attacks Iran, Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, and Russia opens an overland trade channel through Armenia and Georgia, Russia will have its hand on the valve that controls the world’s economy. Finally, Russia gets a powerful Persian Shiite friend that can act as a rear guard against hostility from Turkey and Central Asia.

If you don’t think the latter is important to Russia, look at Chechnya today. Then take a stroll around Moscow and see the innumerable monuments to nineteenth and early-twentieth century Russian battles with Turkey and the “Stans” of Central Asia.

No doubt it will be an uneasy relationship. Russia must think twice about allowing Iran to become a nuclear power, lest Iran foment world war or turn against Russia as a Christian nation and regional rival. Yet Iran is unlikely ever to attack its partner. Closeness with Iran will consolidate Russia’s growing global control over energy and other natural resources and help Russia protect its restless Islamic southern flank.

This affair may not be a match made in heaven, but it certainly is a sensible marriage of convenience. A direct rail and road link from Russia to Iran, through Georgia, Armenia—plus a small, narrow easily captured slice of Azerbaijan—could serve as the dowry. With air transport increasingly vulnerable to hand-held missiles like the Stinger (which can be supplied covertly through third parties, as we did in Charlie Wilson’s war), heavy ground transport by rail, with an alternate partial link over the Black Sea, would make the dowry relatively secure. Although beset by suspicion, it could be a successful marriage.

As for Putin himself, he is a clever man. He fought his way through the decaying Soviet bureaucracy and came out on top of one of the most turbulent times in Russian history. During his brief democratic period, he once gave a rousing, idealistic speech in fluent German before the Bundestag, dreaming of a huge space of peaceful trade from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Since then he’s become more cynical and much more practical. He’s got a good pretext for his “dress rehearsal”—“protecting” innocent Russia-leaning citivilians of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And he’s got a good red herring to throw us Westerners off the scent: a presumed “personal feud” with Georgian President Saakashvili. What else would you expect from a man who had his postgraduate training at the KGB?

From the Russians’ point of view, Putin is already their best leader since Peter the Great. In less than a decade, he has restored their shattered economy, rebuilt Russia’s global influence and made a huge dent in the nation’s poverty that he, unlike the Soviets, admitted and made a top priority. Now Putin may be emulating Peter the Great in another respect. Peter wanted a “window to the West” in the Baltic. But the Baltic is passé. Putin wants a window to the Middle East, where world’s wealth and power now reside.

In the medium and the long terms, we can respond best by adopting an effective energy policy, making the Middle East’s oil less vital to our and the global economy. In the short term, we had best forsake fuzzy abstractions and pay attention to intelligent, hard-headed realists like Secretary Gates.


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13 August 2008

Crunch Time in the Caucasus

Late today (Wednesday, August 13), the New York Times reported that Russian troops had taken and occupied Gori. Gori is a key military, not humanitarian, objective. It is outside the separatist zones and serves as a vital transit and transport hub for all of non-separatist Georgia.

It is impossible to overemphasize the gravity of this development. It demonstrates by action that Russia’s objectives exceed “protecting” the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and their Russian and Russia-leaning populations. At this point any one or all of the several objectives recited in my earlier post remain possible Russian goals.

Still more troubling, the occupation of Gori shows that Russian assurances were lies. The international community can no longer trust the word of Putin and his crew, any more than we could trust the Soviets’ word in their heyday.

Other consequences follow from the first two. If we want to preserve what remains of our international credibility we will have to mount a robust response. That response could range from humanitarian aid to a full-scale replay of Charlie Wilson’s war. Already President Bush has provided small-scale humanitarian aid, delivered by military means and military personnel, thereby potentially involving our own troops directly in any full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia’s non-separatist territory. Few Americans or Westerners would say that response was excessive.

Finally, as stated in that earlier post, Russia’s rash action is likely to have a significant, if not decisive, effect on our own presidential election. Reports that McCain’s strong support for Georgia derives in part from an adviser’s lobbying activities will gain no traction. Nor should they, now that the term “Russian restraint” has once again become an oxymoron.

Unless and until the Russians move on Tbilisi, this is still largely a game of bluff. We have no choice but to call that bluff. Every American must now stand unequivocally with Georgia, regardless of its President Saakashvili’s failings. There is no excuse or justification for Russia’s latest action. It is a raw exercise of military power, bent on intimidation at best, conquest at worst. In occupying Gori, Russian troops have crossed a red line.

At this point, Russia’s actions (as distinguished from its words) are consistent with a goal of conquest. Already Russia has disposed of what remained of Georgia’s pitiful Black Sea fleet. With a Black-Sea port (Poti) fully in its hands and the rail hub of Gori occupied, Russia can bring heavy equipment across the Black Sea directly to the Georgian heartland bound for Tbilisi and points south. A military sweep eastward along Georgia’s central valley and southward toward Tbilisi would even solve Russia’s refugee problem. The refugees would pour over the border into poor Armenia, which already has troubles enough with its aggressive neighbor Azerbaijan. Allowing all this to happen would add another to the long list of abysmal failures of our current administration in Washington.

If Senator Obama doesn’t recognize these facts and respond accordingly, his campaign will be toast, and all his brilliance and hard work will be for naught. I had hoped he would get some rest, but neither he nor his foreign-policy team can rest now. They’ve all got to show their stuff. This is crunch time.


There is another possible practical motive for a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia, not fully explored in my previous post. Russia may believe that a Western attack on Iran is inevitable as Iran moves closer to possessing nuclear technology. Iran has threatened to respond to such an attack by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40% of Middle Eastern oil flows. Closing the Straits would cause an economic catastrophe in the West, not the least by blocking the export of Iran’s own oil.

But suppose there were another route for Iran’s oil to get to market. Suppose that route also permitted other Middle Eastern oil to get out, but only through Iran. Finally, suppose that Russia controlled the ultimate gateway, holding the key to the “valve.” Then Iran and Russia together would have extraordinary leverage over the world’s economy.

Yet that’s precisely what might happen if Iran blocked the Straits of Hormuz and the only export route was overland, by rail, through Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia.

Transporting oil by rail is not the most efficient method, but it works. There are existing rail lines from Northern Iran through Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia to Russia. The parts in Azerbaijan are very close to Iran’s border and probably could be captured easily, if need be with Russia’s help. In extremis, the West would be ill advised to bomb or even disrupt the rail lines, for fear of cutting its own oil-addicted throat.

Like Russia and Georgia, Armenia is a Christian country. It is sandwiched between secular and Islamic Turkey, which committed genocide on its people a century ago, and Islamic Azerbaijan, with which it waged a low-level war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia would hardly be in a position to resist Russian control of its rail lines, especially if Russia already had occupied Georgia. Russia would then have a clear rail line for oil straight from Iran, free from interference by pesky Western-oriented democracies. Thus might oil and geography become destiny.

Russia may have additional or different motives. But one thing is certain. A man as smart as Vladimir Putin does not make a move this bold and dangerous without good practical reasons. The notion that the invasion reflects a personal feud with Saakashvili is nonsense. The idea that it represents a Russian drive for more power in its “near abroad” is plausible but still a stretch. Putin has not shown an inordinate love for abstractions. His boldest moves, like taking over Russia’s mass media, oil, gas and extractive industries, have all sought concrete and practical goals.


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Ideological Mirror Images and Olympic Lessons

[For comment on Russia’s occupation of Gori, Georgia, click here. For an update on humility, click here.]

“O wad some Power the gift tae gie us,
to see oursels as ithers see us.
It wad frae mony a blunder free us!”
To a Louse, by John Burns

The most important thing that we Americans can do, at home or abroad, is to pray for that gift. Here’s how we look to the rest of the world at this critical moment in our history:

1. Health Care. Alone among the great industrial nations, we have no national health-care system. Its absence has spread poverty and insecurity among our people and hung a heavy millstone around our industry’s neck.

Now we hope to build world-beating “green” industries to restore our economy and beat climate change. But how can we do that if those nascent industries will bear the same health-care cost burden that already has decimated our consumer-electronics and automobile industries?

2. Pensions. As I’ve outlined in another post, pensions present the very same problem. We are alone in the industrialized world in having an inadequate, begrudging national pension system that fails to reflect our national wealth while imposing enormous financial burdens on private industry. Other nations—with fewer resources and far less innovative power than we—scratch their heads as we deny and cheat our venerable elders and undermine our industrial competitiveness.

3. Energy. Alone among the great industrial powers, we have no national energy policy. When the rest of the world looks at us, it sees the world’s most haphazard, wasteful and inflexible use of energy. It sees a nation that once could send men to the Moon but can’t build a high-speed rail system (except in our Northeast Corridor) or see the need for one. It sees a nation that invented nuclear power but uses less of it proportionally than many third-world countries do.

Europe and Japan tax gasoline to price levels about twice ours and have cars that are about twice as efficient. So they pay about the same price for mile of travel but put half the expense into their own societies, rather than Saudi, Iranian, Russian and Venezuelan coffers. They can’t understand why we are too stupid or stubborn to do the same.

4. Infrastructure. Every schoolchild knows how the first transcontinental railway opened our West, made us one nation, and facilitated our rise as a global industrial power. That was over 150 years ago. Every adult knows how our Interstate Highway system, begun by President Eisenhower, did the same in age of the automobile. That system began over sixty years ago.

Yet now our railways are obsolete, and our roads are clogged and decaying. Our levees failed in Katrina. Our air traffic control system is antiquated and increasingly dangerous. Our municipal water is often impure, and our bridges are literally falling down.

Cars on Europe’s autobahnen and autostrade go faster than on our freeways. Because of their speed, potholes get filled within hours of their reporting. Because Europe has marvelous intercity and suburban rail transit, its roads are less congested than ours. When Europeans come here and see the sorry state of our railways and our freeways—let alone the streets of Manhattan—they wonder that a rich and once-powerful nation has gotten sloppy, neglectful and slovenly. When they venture to visit Manhattan, they fear underground pipes exploding and cranes falling down.

5. Military Adventurism. Right now, just after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, is a good time to think about military adventurism. Even if the Georgians attacked first, as Russia claims, there was and is no justification for the disproportionate scale of the Russians’ response.

But in two respects the Russians deserve grudging admiration. First, unlike Dubya in Iraq, they sent an adequate force to do the job. They didn’t pretend their troops are supermen and send a small expeditionary force to do an invading army’s job.

Second, like Bush the Elder in Gulf I—but unlike his prodigal son—they had limited objectives. While they made no secret of their desire for “regime change” in Tbilisi, they didn’t seek to force it by conquest. They seem content to await the probable political consequences of Saakashvili’s bloody blunder. Secure in the separatist enclaves (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) where the local public largely welcomes them, the Russians apparently won’t make the mistake of occupying all of Georgia and creating another Afghanistan. Nor will they risk another Iraq.

[UPDATE: Although accurate when written, this paragraph is no longer entirely accurate. The Russians have occupied Gori. For the consequences, click here.] If you doubt this, look at a map (click to enlarge it). Georgia is a long, thin country. Its northern and southern boundaries are mountainous. A long, fertile east-west valley extends the country’s length, with key railways and roads along it. In the middle of that valley is the rail and road intersection of Gori—a strategic objective so vital that you need no military expertise to see its importance. Yet the Russians have not invaded Gori, far less occupied it. They’ve left it empty. The Georgians, who fled in terror, can creep back any time they like. Gori, not Russian words, is persuasive evidence of Russia’s limited intentions.

While the world still respects our values and fears the Russians, it wonders how we brought ourselves so low. It marvels that the Russians can show more restraint and wisdom in Georgia than we have shown in Iraq.

* * *

How did all this happen? How did the “world’s sole superpower,” the nation that “won” the Cold War, become the world’s buffoon: an inept, blundering behemoth? How did Russia, which “lost” the Cold War, emerge so quickly from its torpor, develop a swashbuckling version of “cowboy” capitalism, and regain a central place on the world stage?

The answer is that no one really “won” the Cold War. Both sides lost.

With the possible exception of World War I, the Cold War was the stupidest and most unnecessary conflict in human history. Two great nations had just collaborated closely as allies to defeat history’s greatest menace to peace, stability and human freedom: Nazi Germany. On opposite sides of the world, they had no common borders and no real reason to fear invasion or attack from each other. Yet in a few short years they became bitter enemies. They wasted prodigious amounts of money, time and talent building thermonuclear and biological weapons that were never used and today only tempt terrorists. In 1962 they came within hours of engulfing the entire world in mutual nuclear annihilation.

Sure, Stalin was paranoid. Sure, Communism was bad economics and worse politics. Sure, Soviet Communists gave the rest of the world reason to fear, with their constant bragging (“We will bury you!”), trash-talking (“war mongering imperialists”), and threats to convert the world to their twisted system.

But we shared many of the same characteristics. With his constant Red scares and imaginary Communists in our State Department, our Senator Joe McCarthy was hardly less paranoid than Stalin. He just had less power. Senator Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” We put the Shah in power in Iran—with obvious consequences today—subverted a duly elected president in Chile (Allende), and generally stunted Latin America’s social and economic growth by supporting a depressing succession of crude right-wing dictators.

Our people had no trouble understanding the merits of Goldwater’s philosophy, especially a mere two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly destroyed the world. They handed him defeat in his bid for the presidency by the biggest landslide in postwar electoral history. So we avoided Soviet Russia’s greatest political excesses, let alone its terror and its gulags.

But economics and social progress are another story. The social and economic ideology that arose among us during the Cold War, and which predominated after we “won” it, has been every bit as lopsided as the Soviets’. Relative to the size and strength of our economy it has been just as disastrous as Communism was for the Russians. For in truth the Cold War made us the Soviets’ ideological mirror image.

They had “Soviet Man” and the myth that state ownership and control of everything would solve all problems. We had the myth of the “beneficent entrepreneur,” whose personal greed, harnessed by proper incentives, would solve all problems. Both were caricatures of human nature and human life, cartoon philosophies for a complex world. The Cold War’s mutual arrogance, rigidity, and paranoia strengthened and entrenched both mindless ideologies and kept them from serious re-examination for decades.

In a way, the Russians won by “losing.” After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, they had no choice but to re-examine their national philosophy and their future. They flirted briefly with democracy, a form of government utterly foreign to their history and their culture. Ultimately they chose the “Chinese model,” authoritarian government with a relatively free press and nascent free markets.

The Russians are about a generation behind China, which began its transformation thirty years ago with Deng Xiaoping. Like the Chinese, they have yet to learn the lesson that strong, healthy and friendly neighbors provide better security than weak and restive vassal states. But they have abandoned their ideological cartoon and are on their way.

In contrast, we are just entering our “post-Soviet” transformation period. Because we “won” the Cold War, we had no reason to re-examine our cartoon ideology. Quite the contrary. Leaders like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Dubya—hardly the brightest bulbs in human history—assured us that our own cartoons were what let us “win.” They highlighted our caricatures and taught them to our children.

Instead of thinking seriously about our future, we beat our chests and crowed. We lorded it over the “defeated” Communists, called our adversaries names (“axis of evil,” “tyrants”), derided our allies and spiritual elders as “Old Europe,” and generally acted like the victorious ape in the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now we have some serious thinking to do. Are venture capital and incentives for yet more individual greed really going to give us a decent health-care system? decent and equitable pensions? Can they remove the cost millstones that are making our industry uncompetitive? Can they provide energy independence and decrease global warming? Can they reform our pathetic military-industrial complex, which couldn’t supply our troops quickly with Humvee or body armor and soon will have taken four years to write a contract for a new tanker plane? Can we compete in world where every other advanced nation has a thoughtful national plan to solve these common problems and has taken a different, more reasonable, more nuanced approach?

That’s where the Olympics come in. “Sportsmanship” is not just a word. Even in our crass, selfish, arrogant and obese society, the spirit still exists.

The most teachable moment of the Olympics so far was not our basketball team’s impressive victory over China’s. Nor was it our men’s beach volleyball team coming back after a depressing loss to twenty-third-ranked Latvia. It came when our star swimmer, Michael Phelps, took the trouble to walk over and console French anchor swimmer Alain Bernard after Bernard lost the medley relay in a dramatic photo finish.

Bernard, not Phelps, had been the “trash talker.” “The Americans?,” he had said, “We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.” After our win, Phelps could have trashed-talked back. He could have beaten his chest and mocked the losers, as many Americans did after we “won” the Cold War. Instead, he walked over and offered the loser sincere sympathy, recognizing that his team’s win came by only hundredths of a second, and that “time and chance happeneth to them all.”

That’s the kind of perspective and humility that makes athletes and nations great. Maybe after eight years of trash talking, beating our chests, believing in cartoons, and allowing every aspect of our society to crumble, we can emulate Michael Phelps and get back to the serious business of restoring our greatness. I needn’t say which presidential candidate is better equipped for that task; the answer is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

UPDATE (9/16/2009): David Brooks’ column of a few days ago reinforces the central themes of this post: thoughtfulness and humility. It outlines the reactions of our leaders and entertainers to our victory in World War II.

Far from today’s orgy of breast-beating and self-congratulation, the mood then was one of relief and humility. We were relieved that humanity’s greatest self-generated catastrophe was at last over and humbled by our own role in ending it and by the tasks of reconstruction and reformation that lay ahead. We knew that we had not won the war alone. But we also knew that, as the only participant whose homeland had not been devastated, we would have the job of building a new world.

Today we are in much the same position as Britain at the end of World War II. We are an aging empire hobbled by outmoded ideology, emasculated by enormous debt, and hampered by residual jingoism and condescension toward others. We are therefore no longer able to serve as the world’s engine of growth and social advancement.

Humility behooves us in our present state. It might even let us see a way to restore some of our former power and glory.


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11 August 2008

Putin’s Dangerous Game

While we were preparing to watch the Olympics, hoping to escape the cares of the world and our own interminable election campaign, Russia invaded Georgia. By doing so, it put the final nail in the coffin of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” fantasy.

Our president didn’t even come back from the Olympics. He stayed to watch the U.S.-China basketball game, in which our NBA all-stars beat China in a rout. No doubt Dubya was hungry to see a win, after presiding over seven years of the most appalling losses in U.S. history.

Very little is clear about Russia’s invasion. Russia’s aims and motivation are especially murky. Putin and Medvedyev claim that the immediate trigger was the murder of Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, an ethnically distinct and separatist part of Georgia that is friendly with Russia and apparently would like to be part of it.

A handful of Russian peacekeepers did die. But it’s impossible to tell who killed them and why. This is a part of the world where perpetrators of anything can’t be accurately identified without credible, neutral eyewitnesses, preferably several. Apparently there were no eye-witnesses. And even if there were, they couldn’t have observed motives or seen through clever disguises or corrupt official lies.

Therefore no one knows who killed the Russian peacekeepers. It could have been the Georgian military, as Russia claims. It could have been Georgian extremists, operating with or without the Georgian military’s acquiescence. It could have been South Ossetian provocateurs, hoping to trigger just such a forceful Russian response. It could have been Chechens—or even Al Qaeda—hoping to open a “second front” in their respective long wars against Russia. (Chechnya shares a border with Georgia.)

At this point, no one knows, but few care. Russia used the incident as a pretext to invade Georgia, in massive force. It applied the full power its ground troops, tank brigades, and air force. It quickly routed Georgian forces in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia, another Russian-leaning breakaway region on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Russia now occupies both separatist regions with little resistance. Far more troubling, it has bombed Georgian facilities in Georgia proper, including some near its capital, Tbilisi. There have been reports that Russian tanks are moving toward Gori, a key transit town in central Georgia well outside the separatist zones.

What are Russia’s motives? There are number of possible motives, two good and the rest bad. The good ones are to protect ethnically Russian and Russian-leaning people in the two separatists regions and to put a lid on the constant, low-level violence that has simmered there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s possible bad motives are many. First, it may want to teach Georgia a “lesson” for asserting its independence and courting the EU, the United States and NATO. Second, it has no use for Georgia’s President Saakashvili; it apparently wants to force “regime change,” removing him and his pro-independence, pro-democratic party from power in Georgia. Third, Russia may want to bring Georgia back within its own sphere of influence, whether Georgians want to go there or not. (Georgia was part of the Soviet Union and the birthplace of Stalin.) Finally, Russia may seek to prevent Georgia from opening up alternative pipelines for Russian and Central-Asian oil to the West, thereby depriving Russia of absolute control over these commodities.

There are other possible motives—all longer-term ones. Georgia borders Chechnya, the biggest current thorn in the Russian Bear’s side. Russia may suspect Chechen rebels of smuggling militants and arms through Georgia and may want direct control over the border or Georgian territory to stop the flow.

In addition, Georgia’s southern border is about 170 kilometers (as the crow flies) from the northern tip of Iran. Road and rail lines from Gori, through Tbilisi, connect with Iran through Armenia and Azerbaijan, two tiny former Soviet vassal states. Russia may want a direct, overland trade route to Iran (for nuclear materials or oil, among other things?), that doesn’t pass through Turkey or other pesky, Western-oriented nations. It also may want a clear overland line of attack in case its current policy of coddling Iran proves mistaken and Iran turns on it. Less likely, but conceivably, Russia may believe that the West is planning a military invasion of Iran and may want a piece of the action so it can get a share of the spoils.

Any or all of these motives may have figured in Russia’s decision to invade Georgia. We have no idea of the prominence or priority of each, or of what other motives there might have been. Domestic Russian politics also may have played a part, as Russian leaders sought to distract public attention from growing global economic problems by restoring Russia’s “greatness.”

While have little reliable knowledge of Russia’s real motivation, we do know something about its capabilities. Not surprisingly, it crushed the Georgian military in days. Taunting the Russian Bear is not a good idea even if you are the sole remaining superpower. It’s even less of a good idea if you represent a poor, relatively defenseless country with fewer than 5 million people.

It may be, as the Russians imply and many think, that Saakashvili failed the test of political realism and vastly overplayed his poor hand. It may be that Putin was looking for any pretext to do what he did. It may be that a third party caused the precipitating event, for reasons of its own. It will be decades, if ever, before we in the West know.

In the meantime, what matters is the consequences of the Russian invasion. No one in the U.S. wants to go to war with Russia, or even to rekindle the Cold War. But that’s where events are headed if Russian troops don’t stop at the boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has a diplomatic fig leaf—the ethnic minorities issue—for maintaining de facto control over those regions. (We can safely leave the issue of formal or legal control to diplomats and lawyers.) If Russia does no more, Saakashvili, who foolishly promised to return both breakaway regions to Georgian control at any cost, is likely to lose the next free election in Georgia, thereby realizing Russia’s goal of “regime change” by peaceful means.

That’s as far as it should go. Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev should see that it goes no farther. If they try to annex parts of Georgia proper—let alone take over the whole country by military force—the U.S. will have no alternative but to rekindle the Cold War. It will have to see that Georgian rebels get plenty of supplies and arms and do their best to turn occupied Georgia into a replay of Afghanistan or Chechnya. No one wants to see that outcome, least of all the Georgian people.

We should never forget that Vladimir Putin is an exceedingly smart man. It is no accident that he began this invasion at just the time when the United States is exhausted and preoccupied with: (1) China’s big “coming out” party and the interminable political controversies surrounding it, (2) how to end our blunder in Iraq, (3) the war in Afghanistan, which is deteriorating and uncertain of outcome, (4) the lamest-duck presidency in our nation’s history, and (5) one of our most important presidential elections ever. He’s banking on all these distractions keeping us from mounting an effective response.

But as smart as he is Putin forgot one thing: American politics. By invading Georgia right now, he gave John McCain an issue tailor made to help him win the coming presidential election.

If the American people feel threatened by Russia—their enemy (in its Soviet guise) for the entire forty-year-long Cold War—they will likely turn to a war hero and inveterate Russia-hater, who has made no secret of his disdain for Putin and his policies. The result will be a resurgence of mindless nationalism in both countries and very likely a return of the Cold War. As an ex-KGB man, Vladimir Putin probably understands this point better than anyone else in Russia.

Putin is smart enough to profess no interest in or influence over the American presidential election. But he’s also smart enough to know that what he does, especially when it involves troops, tanks and aircraft, has more influence over our internal politics than almost anything else that occurs outside our borders.

If he’s really smart enough to see six moves ahead, he should content himself with current gains and halt his troops at the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Otherwise, history will return with a vengeance and a replay of the last century.

Afghanistan hasn’t exactly been a success story, whether for the Russians or for us. Georgia could turn into the same kind of morass if occupied by a foreign power that the locals hate. That’s the dangerous game that Putin is playing. Since we have few options for immediate response, all we can do now is see how well or how poorly he plays his hand.


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07 August 2008

Frat Boy II

Almost exactly a year ago, I published a post entitled “Five Questions for Vetting Candidates.” Here are the questions, with links to the year-ago essay:

These are pretty basic questions. They go to competence and character—the two most important prerequisites for any position, let alone the most important job in the world.

At the moment, John McCain gets failing grades on four out of five. If he picks Mitt Romney for his running mate, he’ll flunk the last test and make a clean sweep of failure.

McCain has displayed appalling ignorance in this presidential campaign. In discussing Iran, he confused Sunnis and Shiites. He referred to the “Iraq/Pakistan border” although Iraq shares no border with Pakistan. And just this week he had to admit, after ridiculing the idea, that inflating all our tires to proper pressure can make a significant contribution to energy independence.

You can write off these gaffes as “over-fifty moments” of a man in his early seventies. But are they really? The Sunni/Shiite divide, the geography of the Middle East, and the few easy ways to make progress on energy independence are not exactly obscure topics. They are central to the real challenges facing us and have been for several years. If a man doesn’t know or can’t recall the basic facts he needs to do his job, is he qualified?

Let’s skip to the fourth question—can the candidate think? On Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain called Obama “exactly wrong” in seeking to redirect our attention and forces from one to the other. But despite its lack of political progress, Iraq is stable, while Afghanistan is not. Obama recommended shifting our attention and resources over a year ago. Secretary of Defense Gates is planning how to do so now. Do we really want a president who’s the class dullard, the very last to get the point?

You would think that someone who spent over a quarter-century in Congress would at least think clearly about politics. McCain says he wants to break our oil addiction. Yet what does he make the centerpiece of his energy policy? Opening prohibited, environmentally sensitive areas to drilling for oil.

Most experts think that approach won’t have any effect for close to a decade and will have a negligible effect on gas prices when the new production kicks in. But that’s beside the point. Breaking our oil addiction and achieving energy independence will require a clear national plan, hard work, sacrifice, and taking the long view. Most of all, it will require a sweeping political consensus for change. How do you build a political consensus for change in energy policy by making drilling for yet more oil the centerpiece of your energy plan?

For McCain, the two most important vetting questions are the second and third. Is he an admirable person or a jerk, and does he take issues and opponents seriously? No one ever accused him of having a formidable intellect. His strong point has always been character: his war heroism, his putting duty and country above self, and his erstwhile political independence.

Before this campaign, you might have answered those two questions favorably to McCain. Almost alone among Republicans, he had a reputation for fighting corruption, the gravest danger to our Republic. Many years ago, he refused to be released from the “Hanoi Hilton” before his comrades. Last summer, when his campaign was on the rocks, he famously said he’d rather lose a campaign than a war. All these things were admirable.

But lately McCain has not only taken millions from oil interests. He’s also become a consummate jerk. He falsely accused Obama of refusing to visit wounded troops because cameras couldn’t be present. His campaign accused Obama of being “presumptuous” in seeking the highest office—a rough synonym for “uppity” in this context. Then his campaign had the gall to accuse Obama of “playing the race card”—a view that McCain did not disclaim. And what can you say about someone who introduces Britney Spears and Paris Hilton into serious discussions of leadership and foreign policy, other than that he’s a jerk?

We have here a reverse Superman story. Admirable war hero and maverick Clark McCain sneaks into a telephone booth. There he dons garb supplied by Rove’s disciple Schmidt. At last he emerges, transformed and resplendent as Frat Boy II.

McCain has taken the frat-boy mantle from Dubya and is preparing to succeed him as the biggest jerk in American politics, the frat boy in chief. Like Dubya, McCain aims to win with snideness, sarcasm, and puerile verbal chops, forsaking any semblance of serious debate. His own lies (on the wounded troops), name calling (“presumptuous,” “elitist,” “out of touch”) and titillating irrelevancies (Spears and Hilton) echo Dubya’s Swift-boating and “flop-flopping” John Kerry and “Defeatocrating” his party.

What else can McCain do? Obama outclasses him in education, intelligence and detailed command of the issues. Obama crushes him in perspective, emotional balance and self-restraint.

Once the three debates begin, it will all be over for John McCain. Outsmarted and outclassed, he will likely lose his legendary temper and release the schoolyard bully lurking within him. The whole nation will see the irascible, explosive personality with which his Senate colleagues are familiar, but which so far has stayed hidden from the general public.

You can laugh at this if you wish. With superb humor and perfect accuracy, Gail Collins’ column in the New York Times today does just that. I roared with laughter on reading it.

But I’m not sure that laughter is the most appropriate response to McCain’s transmutation. It’s sad when an old man’s inner demons emerge to subvert his honorable public persona. It’s depressing when a hero loses his dignity. It’s tragic when the puerile exercise that passes for presidential campaigning today destroys the public’s trust in and respect for both candidates and makes it hard for the winner to govern. And it’s terrifying even to suspect that Americans might once again mistake the greatest office in the world for the presidency of a fraternity.


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06 August 2008

The Candidates’ Energy Plans I

Assessing the Candidates’ Plans


Energy is by far our most important domestic issue. Nothing else—even health care—comes close. Unlike health care, energy policy affects job creation, national security, foreign policy and the future of our planet.

Energy policy is and should be the central issue in this presidential campaign. That’s why Senator Obama’s energy speech on Monday may have been the most important of his campaign so far. For the first time it laid out his own personal views and analysis, as distinguished from those of his staff, which appeared on his Website in prose that is obviously not Obama’s.

The importance and complexity of energy policy demand more than one essay to analyze the candidates’ positions and their probable consequences. In this one, I suggest a general approach to analysis and apply it to three key points: (1) judgment, (2) flexibility and (3) pandering. In a second essay, I’ll apply the same analysis to the candidates’ specific plans for wind power, good batteries, solar power, and nuclear power.

Assessing the Candidates’ Plans

There is not much to distinguish the two candidates’ general approaches to energy. Both McCain and Obama recognize the impact of energy policy on economic health, job creation, national security, foreign policy and global warming. Both support a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. Both want us to shed our oil addiction. Both address the chief present alternatives to oil: wind, solar, nuclear, and biomass. Both would promote conservation. Both understand to some degree the importance of good batteries to realizing the full potential of intermittent wind and solar power. Both have made a credible attempt to provide thoughtful, comprehensive policies.

The differences are matters of emphasis. McCain emphasizes drilling for more oil and nuclear power, specifically proposing to build 45 new nuclear power plants. Obama emphasizes wind and solar power and an upgraded electric grid to bring them to where people live.

Neither McCain’s nor Obama’s present energy policy is perfect. Each has significant defects.

In making offshore drilling a central element of his policy, McCain revealed a frightening tendency to pander to special interests on the most important issue of our day. That pandering casts doubt on his ability to resist the massive institutionalized corruption that for four decades has deprived us not only of an intelligent energy policy, but any national energy policy besides malign neglect. Once McCain’s heroic struggle with corruption was one of his personal selling points. Now he appears to have thrown in the towel, and on the most important issue facing us.

This is not the only flaw in McCain’s plan. Its almost total reliance on the private sector reveals the fetters of Republican ideology, which brought us to where are today. Although he recognizes the proven promise of nuclear power better than Obama, he has no understanding of the complete overhaul our of nuclear regulation needed to realize it. As an inveterate advocate for deregulation, he is hardly the man to undertake that overhaul.

Obama’s speech put strong emphasis on renewable energy, where it belongs for the long term. He began to recognize the central contribution that good batteries can make to effective use of wind and solar power. But Obama or his advisors still seem to fear nuclear energy, the only other advanced, non-carbon energy technology that is ready now, off the shelf.

These flaws are not surprising. Neither candidate is personally an energy expert. Each is growing and learning in this highly complex but vitally important field. Unfortunately, the signal-to-noise ratio in this field is exceedingly low. Firms with gigantic financial interests at stake offer all sorts of superficially attractive but specious arguments that make little economic or engineering sense when examined rigorously. We can’t really expect either candidate or his staff to sort through all of them in the midst of a grueling presidential campaign—far less one with so many meaningless but exhausting distractions as this one. The winner’s views will not ripen into anything like specific policy until long after the general election.

So how should we voters assess this choice between mixed bags? The right approach, I submit, is not to scrutinize the specifics. Far less is it to look for your favorite energy solution—be it nuclear, wind, solar, ethanol or drilling the hell out of what’s left of our oil reserves.

The right approach is to assess the candidates’ problem-solving skills in this field. At this preliminary stage we should not ask what specific solutions the candidates propose, because their laundry lists of “solutions” are so similar and may change. Rather, we should look at how they approach energy problems and seek to solve them.


At present, we don’t know a lot about the candidates’ judgment in energy matters. But we do know some things. Apart from two instances of misplaced emphasis now largely corrected (see “Flexibility” below), I’m unaware of any serious mistake of judgment on Obama’s part.

Yet already McCain has made two serious mistakes in judgment. Far from correcting them, he appears to be digging in.

McCain’s first mistake is making more drilling for oil a central part of his energy policy. He wants to permit drilling in currently forbidden offshore and wilderness areas.

No one can credibly deny that opening up more territory to drilling would eventually produce more oil. That’s just common sense. But as a solution to our current energy crisis, McCain’s proposal is nonsense. The timing is wrong, the numbers are wrong, and the politics are massively counterproductive.

If we opened up all our territory to drilling without restriction, the first drop of new oil wouldn’t appear for almost a decade. My own reading of the Energy Department’s analysis says about ten years. Obama, in his usual cautious understatement, says seven. However you parse the numbers, it’s a long time.

This timing discrepancy is vitally important because an energy catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions could occur within the next seven years. If we are unable to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program, Israel may attack Iran and take out its nuclear facilities. If that happens, Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of Mideast oil flows. If Iran did so, oil prices would probably double or triple overnight.

Drilling for new oil will do nothing to prevent that economic catastrophe or alleviate its effects because none of the new oil will be available in time. If we want to prepare for such a contingency or mitigate its effect, we are going to have to find alternatives to oil, not increase our dependence on it and investment in it. And we are going to have to do so as quickly as possible.

As for oil prices, more drilling on our territory will not lower them, ever. All the known oil in our untapped reserves amounts to less than 3% of the world’s reserves. With all the permission for drilling we can grant, we couldn’t bring it all on line at once, even ten years from now. Our own Energy Department’s analysis (which I’ve analyzed in another post) shows that increases in worldwide demand, for the foreseeable future, will exceed any additional supply from our new drilling. Therefore new drilling on our territory will never lower oil prices; it will only keep them from increasing faster than they would without the new drilling.

You might argue that reducing future oil-price increases a decade hence is a worthy cause. Maybe so. But that argument assumes that a decade hence we will still be in the same position of abject oil dependency in which we find ourselves today. In other words, it assumes that we will have wasted another decade in shedding our oil addiction. That’s not good policy.

Therein lies the central reason why McCain’s emphasis on more drilling is poor judgment. It’s bad policy and bad politics.

The term “oil addiction” is not just a clever metaphor. It’s the most accurate description yet devised of our national psychological, economic and political condition regarding energy.

For forty years we’ve bought the fairy tale that oil will always be there at reasonable prices. Not only that: we committed our fortunes and futures to that fairy tale by buying expensive cars that run only on gas. We built the plants to make those cars and a vast infrastructure of refineries and gas stations to serve them. These changes in our physical infrastructure are every bit as real as the biochemical changes that make a heroin user an addict or turn a heavy drinker into an alcoholic.

Concomitant psychopolitical effects followed. If you don’t believe that, read the popular comments to any blog or important media article on energy policy. You will find an appalling number of writers who think the solution to our energy crisis lies in: (1) shooting Al Gore, (2) shooting environmentalists, and (3) shooting anyone who believes windmills belong outside of Dutch farms. That sort of irrational, hyperemotional reaction is exactly what you would expect from an addict when you try to take away what he’s addicted to.

As even popular culture knows, the best way to shake an addiction is to go “cold turkey.” We can’t do that with oil because our economy would collapse. But somehow, we have to change our national mindset and prepare for a more independent future. We have to get 300 million addicts to change their behavior in a way that will require pain, effort, concentrated attention and sacrifice. Offering them one last fix is not the way to do it.

McCain must know this. He’s been in Congress for about a quarter century, and he’s no political dummy. But he’s willing to ruin the prospects of a national consensus for real change because his political consultants tell him he must differentiate his energy policy from Obama’s and make Obama look stupid. He says he’s willing to lose an election to win a war—and he accuses Obama wanting the opposite—but he’s not willing to give up a weak debating point to advance the cause of shedding our oil addiction by creating real political consensus for change.

The primary reason for our forty-year policy vacuum is political, not technical. We’ve had solid, workable nuclear technology for over thirty years and workable windmills for at least five. We could have had a good head start at ridding ourselves of our oil addition, if only we’d had the political will.

Insisting on a program that encourages wishful thinking and destroys political consensus for real change is about the most destructive thing any politician could do. But that’s precisely the effect of McCain’s drillmore proposal. It would do nothing in the short term, accomplish little in the medium term and impair long-term change by undermining the political consensus needed to make it.

Promoting more drilling is bad politics for yet another reason. It brings back all the old, futile battles between the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. We fought that battle for decades, accomplishing nothing but inflaming mindless partisanship.

In the last few years, the fire began to burn itself out. Ranchers, farmers and evangelicals began to realize that environmentalists are not their enemies, that conservation and good stewardship of the Earth are good business and proper piety. They realized that energy and environmental protection are not an “either-or” proposition. We need both. Now McCain wants to inflame the same old controversy all over again, pitting drillers and their supporters against protectors of our coasts and wilderness. And he wants to do so for transient political advantage.

It would be one thing if the coasts and wilderness areas in dispute held our very last oil reserves. But they don’t. Millions of acres already leased are still virgin to exploration, let alone drilling. McCain’s insistence on granting new permits before exploiting the old ones is a manufactured controversy, designed to create temporary political advantage by stirring up the old energy-environmentalist divide. Those despicable political tactics ill become a man who says (on Iraq, not energy) that he would rather be right than president.

The second way in which McCain’s judgment on energy fails to measure up is his refusal to take a stand. When challenged on his adamant support for more drilling or for 45 new nuclear plants, he takes refuge in indecision. He says we should try everything.

But that’s a cop out. We don’t have the money, time or political will to try everything. We need to focus our attention on the best, quickest, cheapest and least destructive programs for shedding our oil addiction. We need leaders with the judgment and skill to identify those programs and quickly build a broad political consensus around them. We need people with the executive skill to enact and execute the government research, government research grants, tax breaks and subsidies needed to get those programs rolling as quickly as possible. We can’t possibly support every solution, not with the deficits Dubya left us.


Because of its complexity and breadth, the field of energy is fluid. A few years ago, virtually no one would have predicted that oil prices would double by 2008. Few would have predicted that lithium-ion batteries, then used for hand-held consumer electronics only, might one day make electric cars a practical reality, after a century of trying. Few would have predicted that wind power would become the fastest growing energy source globally, and that the United States, despite all its doubters and nay-sayers, would take the global lead in wind energy production this year. Yet all these things are now true.

What all this tells us is that energy policy must be flexible. A leader in this field must not get wedded to a particular approach, either intellectually or politically. He must be clever, agile and constantly willing to support or try new approaches as they emerge from scientific research, industrial innovation, economic change, or geopolitical necessity.

Flexibility is not the same as indecision. McCain’s “let’s do everything!” approach is impractical because we don’t have the money, time, resources or political will for it. Leaders have to choose. But if a more effective approach should emerge from circumstances, or simply from having better information, a good leader should be flexible enough to explore and support it, without abandoning promising initiatives already under way.

Recent events suggest that Obama has that sort of flexibility. His earlier Website supported two ineffective approaches: (1) corn-based ethanol and (2) giving far more credence to the distant promise of “clean coal” than it deserves. I speculated that these misplaced emphases might have reflected an incomplete transition on his staff (and perhaps in his own thinking) from the needs of his home state of Illinois, where ethanol and coal are important to voters, to solving problems for our entire nation and our planet.

Apparently my speculation was correct. In his speech Monday, Obama pivoted toward better policy in both respects. Nowhere did corn-based ethanol appear in his speech, although praise for cellulosic ethanol did. More important, his speech relegated “clean coal” to the subordinate position it deserves; he mentioned it only after nuclear energy.

These changes suggest that Obama can learn and grow and that his heart is in solutions that work. In contrast, McCain’s support for more drilling only grew more shrill and partisan as experts subjected it to withering criticism on solid economic ground.

Obama’s speech Monday also showed admirable flexibility on the drilling issue. Although concluding (rightly) that more drilling is not a rational or effective response to the gravity of our energy challenges, he said that he would support drilling as part of a comprehensive energy bill containing more effective policies. In making that concession to McCain’s partisan bickering, Obama said of a pending bill:
    “I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good—particularly since there is so much good in this compromise that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”

Rather than seek debating points like a frat boy, Obama acted like an adult. He reasoned that a good policy with some ineffective (or even counterproductive) features is better than no policy at all.

That was a Solomonic judgment. Obama was and remains willing to compromise his (correct) judgment that more drilling won’t do much in order to pass a bill that will. McCain, in contrast, wants all or nothing. He would split the baby, killing it, to get his way or to score political points. Who’s the real problem-solver here?


With the public terrified and outraged over high gas prices, it’s almost impossible for a politician not to pander. Both candidates have done it. What voters should ponder is how much and to whom they pandered and how their pandering affects the probability of achieving real solutions.

McCain’s proposal for a summer gas-tax holiday is economic nonsense. If history is a guide, producers would absorb most of the tax reduction, passing little on to consumers. To the extent the holiday actually reduced prices at the pump, it would increase demand, in the prime summer driving season to boot! Increasing demand doesn’t exactly help lower prices. Yet if temporary, the tax holiday probably wouldn’t do a great deal of harm. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s not shooting yourself in the foot.

Obama’s proposal for a $1,000-per-consumer rebate is similar. He would finance it with a tax on oil companies’ “windfall profits.” McCain claims the tax would kill big oil’s incentive to find more oil. But that claim, too, is nonsense. Oil companies’ recent profits have been so huge that no one ever expected them, let alone made plans to use them for exploration. Obama’s windfall profits tax would take only a portion of them. Anyway oil companies’ problem is not lack of funds; it’s dwindling reserves. No amount of money can create oil in the ground where none exists. Obama’s pander would produce a harmless, minor redistribution of wealth that would help consumers get through the winter. It would cause no lasting harm but produce no great or lasting benefit.

So far, one for one. Each candidate made a minor, relatively harmless pander whose effect, if implemented, would be temporary and inconsequential.

But McCain’s pander on drilling is of a different character. As discussed above, it’s decidedly harmful, and it’s a central part of his present energy policy. It won’t produce any effect in the short term. It won’t protect us from an Ahmadinejad apocalypse. It won’t reduce gas prices at all, although it might slow their rate of increase for a couple of years in the medium turn. But it will impair our ability to devise long-term solutions by distracting us from them and reducing our ability to achieve political consensus around them.

Why did McCain propose this bad idea, and why does he insist on it? One possible reason is to manufacture a controversy with Obama and thereby distinguish his energy-policy “brand.” A second is to pander to the oil companies, who’ve rewarded him with massive campaign contributions.

Both of these reasons seem likely, and it’s hard to divine any other. Oil companies have lots of money, but they don’t control many votes. McCain could have been pandering to rabid “oil at any cost” enthusiasts or diehard anti-environmentalists. But they’re all on his side anyway. At least they’re not going to vote for Obama.

Maybe McCain is pandering to voters stupid enough to believe in “jawboning.” Some people have accepted the fantasy that McCain’s mere advocacy of more drilling brought oil prices down instantly. They believe he was responsible for the recent retrenchment of prices on the oil futures market.

But that’s nonsense. Although the Fed’s pronouncements sometimes can move financial markets (because they hint at future monetary action), market prices don’t respond to politicians’ blather, especially prices for something as important and widely traded as oil. Johnson and Nixon tried “jawboning” to fight inflation in the sixties and seventies and got nowhere. What dropped oil futures prices recently was two economic elephants in the room: (1) a drastically slowing economy, which reduces demand, and (2) solid evidence that, despite its inelasticity, demand for oil in the United States is actually shrinking for the first time ever.


One of the raps against Obama is that he’s all talk and no action. He can make a good speech, the story goes, but he can’t produce the bipartisan progress that he promises.

With regard to energy, Obama has just shown precisely how he can and will make progress: by acting like an adult and making reasonable compromises. Although believing (rightly) that McCain’s drillmore “solution” would be counterproductive, Obama would accommodate it along with solutions that would actually work. In contrast, McCain continually and insistently beats the drum for his drillmore plan, despite near-universal condemnation by economists. With that difference in approach, who do you think is more likely to get the job done?


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