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

30 December 2009

An Immodest Proposal, or Flying 2015


Unbeknownst to him, the Nigerian would-be “undies bomber” has done us a favor. Without killing anyone, and injuring only himself, he showed how utterly ineffective is our airline anti-terror system. And he did so in a very dramatic way. Maybe he should get the Medal of Freedom, just like George Tenet.

Maureen Dowd nailed it with absolute clarity Wednesday, when she asked:
“If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who [sic] can we catch?”
If you thought you were safe before this incident, think again. Privacy, political sensitivity and airline profits still trump common sense. They will keep doing so until we lose a planeload or two of innocent travelers. On the reasonable assumption that that will happen in the next five years, I predict a total overhaul of airline security before 2015.

To help shape that overhaul, I’d like to put my own little plan in the suggestion box. It would take no expensive, high-tech equipment, no screening or profiling, no long lines, few intrusive personal searches, and no watch lists. Everyone could fly, even Islamic extremists, without danger. It would absolutely prevent any act of terrorism by air passengers.

Here’s how Flying 2015 might work:

As you approach the airline terminal, you feel lighter than air. You have no baggage at all: no purse, no wallet, and little or nothing in your pockets. All the belongings you want to take on your trip already have been picked up by van. They travel separately from you, by truck and bomb-hardened cargo plane, whose small crews have parachutes, just in case.

If you’ve traveled on Japan’s bullet trains with lots of baggage, you know the drill. A special van takes your luggage from origin to destination, leaving you footloose and fancy-free.

So as you walk toward the gates, your spirits are high and your back unbowed. Instead of long, tense security lines, you walk into cavernous dressing rooms, one for males or one for females. (Kids five or under go with their moms or dads regardless of gender.)

As you enter, you grab three transparent plastic bags from a dispenser, two big ones and a little one. You put your shoes in one big bag and your few clothes in the other and staple them with stubs from your boarding pass for ID. Then you put the bags in slots that get them on the plane, but not in the passenger compartment.

In the third bag—about the size of a wallet—you put your boarding pass, ID, and any paper money, credit cards and medicines you want to take on board. Then you undress completely, down to the buff. If you wish, you can now freshen up, using convenient shower stalls with liquid soap and fresh towels.

Utterly naked, clean and unencumbered, you join a short line leading back into the terminal. As you pass by, bored TSA officers behind one-way glass look you over to make sure you are completely nude. You pirouette, bend over, open your mouth, and put your little bag up to the glass, so they can tell you’re not carrying anything. If they see anything suspicious, you pass the bag in through a security window for screening. In a worst case, you step into a private room for a closer search. In most cases this whole process takes seconds.

Next you pass a rack with fluffy terrycloth robes and matching slippers and put them on. You feel as if you are going to the swimming pool or sauna in a first-class hotel. The only thing you have on you—besides your borrowed robe and slippers—is your boarding pass, which sits in a special pocket in the robe, plus the items in your little bag.

Thus attired, you walk to your waiting area. You’ve no cares at all. You’ve nothing to leave behind and nothing to worry about. And you needn’t fret about how you look. Everyone on your flight will be wearing exactly the same thing you are. If you want to stand out, you’ll have to use good nature and charm.

Because there is no such thing as carry-on baggage, airlines have plenty of overhead room for fresh blankets, towels, extra robes, and thick, warm socks. You can have them for the asking. You fly to your destination snug and warm. Freshly laundered soft cotton surrounds you, smelling like clean towels from a good hotel. You can barely sense the stale smoke in the hair of the chain smoker sitting in front of you. You even have your own personal fluffy towel to take to the washroom. No more scratchy paper towels, no more empty dispensers, and no more dead trees.

When you get to your destination, you reverse the process. The plane’s crew puts your bags of clothes and shoes in a waiting area. You pick them up as you exit, proceed to an exit dressing room, and dress. On the way out you throw the airline-supplied robes and slippers in a laundry bin, just as you would your towel at a gym.

If no one is picking you up, you jump on transit to your destination, which has been prearranged and prepaid. If you’ve paid for special service, your baggage is already there or will arrive within the hour. If you want to save money, your baggage can arrive up to four days later, and you pay less. You or your airline handles all these details well in advance of the flight, over the Internet.

As you fly in the warmth of your terrycloth robe, admiring the shapely leg in the aisle two rows ahead, you read about the bad old days closer to the turn of the century. You wonder how passengers coped with short-tempered flight attendants, who were constantly worried about what was in all those carryon bags and whether any of the many laptops chugging away had been rigged to explode. If you flew during that bad time, you remember how you often had to fight for overhead space. You recall your frustration on boarding and leaving aircraft as the people ahead of you took their sweet time to store and retrieve their stuff.

For the airlines, flying baggage separately reduces ground turnaround times and raises profit dramatically. Think how fast you can load and clear a plane when no one has any hand-carried baggage! Different pricing for different baggage arrival times gives airlines a new and legitimate reason to charge business travelers more and leisure travelers less.

But the biggest boon is in aircraft configuration. With all but small clothing-and-shoe compartments gone from passenger aircraft, airlines add extra seats for extra revenue. Some provide business-class cabins with seats that fold all the way down for real sleep. Others install real galleys with chefs on board, so travelers can have real food, with prices to match. Some daring lines even have small flying wine cellars.

For government workers, the boon is enormous. They have only very few expensive, high-tech machines (to screen the little bags), no stress, and little need to deal with frightened, irritated travelers. Many get placid jobs handling all that terrycloth laundry, or X-raying fliers’ clothing and shoes before their flights. Clothes and shoes don’t act stupid and don’t talk back.

Passengers are much, much freer from stress. They know they are as safe as can be from the dark dreams of their fellow passengers. Those who want to can save money by placing clothes and personal-care items strategically at their destinations (or having friends or relatives do so) and letting their baggage arrive late at lower rates. Business hotels also provide this service, at a charge of course.

Some airlines offer even greater benefits. For premium fares they provide private rooms “below” for flying families or business groups. Dead flight time with everyone clothed in comfortable and identical terrycloth is good for corporate retreats. Racier airlines even have “dalliance rooms,” which fliers can rent on board with a pre-arranged account and PIN number.

Even the grimmest passenger gets a boon: freedom from fear and mistreatment by harried workers. Flight attendants go from having one of the hardest jobs in the world to having the most fun, they way they used to do. They are no longer forced to be scolds warning people to turn off their electronic gear and not to use the washrooms.

Are you nostalgic about carryon baggage and better privacy? Get over it. Which is more convenient: having all your baggage whisked to your final destination without your attention, or having to lug it, stow it, retrieve it, fight with other passengers and flight attendants for space, and make sure you didn’t forget anything?

As for complete privacy, think about it. Well over eight years after 9/11 (not to mention four decades after the first airline hijacking), we have no reliable system to keep terrorists off airplanes. We probably never will. So the only solution is to be sure that all passengers carry nothing dangerous. Other passengers can overwhelm terrorists lacking weapons, and men (most terrorists are men) are more tractable when their scrotal sacs are within easy reach.

Anyway, which is more intrusive, having anonymous, bored officials of the same gender glance over your stunning, nude body from a distance, or being sprayed with unknown radiation, sniffed by trained dogs, and taking the risk of a pat down and having a metal detector stuck in your crotch? You can have privacy or security, but you can’t have both. Take your pick.

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27 December 2009

Learning to Love Logic


[For an extension of my analysis of our rotten financial sector to student loans, click here.]

Year’s end is a time for “wrap-ups.” This time we have not just one year to wrap up, but a decade.

The decade now passing was one of greed, excess, undiscipline and arrogance. It started with the “dot-com” bubble and ended with a mortgage-housing bubble and near economic collapse. For me, its defining cultural image was the Texas TV mega-preacher declaring “Jesus wants you to be rich.” Apparently he had never heard the Biblical proverb of the camel and the needle.

If ever there was a national funk of our own making, this was it. A strong and wise polity would have responded to 9/11 far differently, both at home and abroad. The attack seemed so world-changing only because we were weak and slow to adapt to both international terrorism and globalization, which are related. After all, hijacking and terrorism have been with us for at least four decades.

Most of us would like to forget who set the decade’s tone: Dubya. A legally stolen election, monotonous repetition of simplistic economic fairy tales, an optional war of Oedipal vengeance, and an apotheosis of private greed did not utopia make. Even after nearly a year of rational government, the mental image of Dubya’s swaggering, bullying stupidity still sets my teeth on edge. I cannot bear to see his face or even his name, which fortunately have lately achieved an unaccustomed seclusion.

But we humans cleave to the positive. So my betting is that most pundits will focus on the last year. That’s the one that gives us hope, and there’s enough to talk about there.

Amidst the mostly useless deadline-induced chatter, one signal rises above the noise. Pundits from the right and left don’t seem to know what to make of the President. Liberals suspect him of selling out “his” progressive ideals, some of which he never expressed. Honest conservative pundits like David Brooks express open admiration, which makes liberals even more nervous. Harder-core conservatives like Ross Douthat see the President as something of a split personality heading for a fall.

The wonder is how quickly national culture changes. For those of us of a certain age, a well-known cultural icon provides an easy path to understanding the President: Spock. Not the real Dr. Spock, who wrote my parents’ generation’s baby books, but the fictitious one: the half-Vulcan, half-human commander from Star Trek.

That Spock is one of the most finely drawn characters in all of video science fiction. His Vulcan ancestry and training allow him to control his emotions to the vanishing point. Yet his iron control hides a human soul.

At first Spock seems odd—a cold and lifeless humanoid, a sort of bionic computer. But as the episodes roll by and you get to know him, he grows on you. His awkward attempts to understand human outbursts and humor endear him. His extreme understatement evokes chuckles. Slowly you come to see that, beneath his relentlessly logical mind, he shares your human cares and values. So there comes a time when the pointy ears seem to vanish and Spock becomes another admirable—even lovable—human video hero.

Maybe that’s why accepting Barack Obama was so easy for us Boomers. We grew up with Spock.

Spock may have been fictitious, but his likeness to the President is uncanny. Both are half-and-half in racial background. Both are preternaturally cool and rational—in Spock’s lexicon “logical.” Both distinguish themselves under terrible pressure, as everyone around them succumbs to fear, rage or other unhelpful emotions. It makes you wonder where we would be if this president had been at the helm on 9/11.

The President won his election and governs with Spock-like serenity. He demands the same style of his crew. “No drama Obama” indeed. Even for those unfazed by his unusual background, his superhuman control can seem unearthly.

In the most recent Star Trek movie, an über-villain named Nero destroys Spock’s home planet and murders 10 billion innocent Vulcans. Near the movie’s end, Spock refers to this demon as “a particularly troubled Romulan.” As I chuckled, the President’s image came unbidden to mind, calling the outrageous campaign lies about him “inaccurate.” In a world of bombastic, self-righteous self-promoters telling wild tales of braggadocio and doom, factual understatement can be endearing.

That’s why I think so many are so wrong about the President’s (temporarily) waning popularity. The dip is not a sign of more to come. Many voted for him just to see the back of Dubya and his party. They hoped that ridding ourselves of our most incompetent, jarring “leader” in postwar memory would magically solve all our problems. Now they are coming to terms with the fact that changes in leadership are the beginning, not the end, of changes in our lives and status. The cultural era now ending was rotten to the core; it’s going to take a few years to drive out the rot.

Progressives, too, are disillusioned. Didn’t Dubya try to ram through radical changes with a smaller mandate and majority in Congress? Why isn’t the President—or at least Rambo Rahm—talking openly about dropping the “nuclear option” and banning filibusters once and for all? Why doesn’t the President shout more at those fiendish bankers, who trashed the people’s economy and now are eating the lunch they paid for?

It takes a while to get to know and love Spock. The perennial tension between emotion and reason and how it bears on our humanity are among Start Trek’s key themes. Once you see how cool logic can bring order out of chaos, or even save the day, the pointy-eared fellow becomes far more sympathetic. When you begin to suspect that he shares your own feelings deeply, your comfort grows. All that will happen with the President, just as with Spock.

Over course events in real life will make the difference. David Brooks thinks Obama will win people over by 2012, when he has next to run himself. But Brooks wonders whether he can win them by next November, as he must to keep his majority in Congress.

The answer is an old saw: a year is an eternity in politics. By next November, the President will have health care firmly under his belt—an enormous achievement. The sky will not have fallen on patients or doctors, further dispelling whatever credibility the Boehner-McConnell (and now McCain) cult of obstruction may have left. Some kind of financial reform will have become law. If members of Congress have any idea of the popular rage out here (which they will see during these holidays) it will have teeth. The president will have made progress in curbing greenhouse gases, if not by legislation then by agreement, regulation and industrial policy. If our military forces do as good a job fighting and politicking in Afghanistan as they did in Iraq, our “surge” will be starting to show results.

Most of all, by next year economic revival will be apparent to everyone, although not everyone will yet have a job. The impact of the stimulus is just now reaching its peak and will have had several months to work. The revival of animal spirits now boosting the stock market will have hit business generally, and hiring globally will revive, with China in the lead. The investigations of wrongdoing just starting will see some of architects of our financial collapse doing perp walks. Next November will look far sunnier than the blizzards of today.

So don’t count our President Spock out yet. Many would like to see him vent for us and govern with an iron fist. Some are still confused by the lies of last year and the far right’s relentless disinformation campaign. Yet slowly but surely, people will come to understand that a master of the art of the possible is not a revolutionary Marxist, that an incrementalist is no radical, and that a man who never raises his voice really does care about making our lives better. The unusual (for a president) skin color and name will vanish from memory. What will remain is a soothing image of an extraordinarily bright, wise and practical leader, who treats serious problems with the gravity they deserve and, underneath his cool exterior, cares deeply.

After eight years of cowboys in the White House, the Justice Department and just about everywhere else, that style takes some getting used to. But like Spock’s, it grows on you. Logic does not help wave banners, but it does the job. A practical, caring logic like the President’s, which values millions’ health care above the orthodoxies of both left and right, is something we’ve not seen here for a long, long time.


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21 December 2009

A Time of Reverence and Awe

      “A political system based on force, oppression, changing people’s votes, killing, closure, arresting and using Stalinist and medieval torture, creating repression, censorship of newspapers, interruption of the means of mass communications, jailing the enlightened and the elite of society for false reasons, and forcing them to make false confessions in jail, is condemned and illegitimate.”[For comment on an op-ed pushing for war with Iran, click here.]


People old enough to have seen a lone religious figure lead Poland and Eastern Europe out of the mire of Communism cannot help but make an analogy.

When he became Pope John Paul II, the bull of a man born Karol Wojtila was known best for two things. For several years he had held Catholic Mass out of doors, through bitter Polish winters, after the Communists destroyed his church and refused to rebuild it. He remained a quiet but implacable foe of Communism at a time when Polish Communists held all the guns, all the political power, and seemingly all the cards.

We all know what happened next. The “Solidarity” movement that Pope John Paul II inspired grew like wildfire. Within a decade the fire had consumed Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, and the subcontinent was free.

Though not as robust physically, the Iranian Man of God who died in his sleep on Sunday was such a man. A key figure in the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and brought a form of self-rule to Iran, he never bought the idea of rule from the top. He wanted clerics to have a say, but more as advisors than as dictators. He abhorred the basiji and their rule by truncheon. And as the Islamic Revolution veered from its original meaning and purpose, he began to oppose those who had hijacked it.

Religious tribalism never made much sense to me. How could my Jewish God make us Jews the “chosen people” and exclude everyone else? We Jews are such a tiny minority. What are all the rest? Are they, as the old Jewish gripe goes, chopped liver?

That’s why I’m not very religious. That’s also why, the older I get, the more I think we all worship the same God. The only religious fervor I could really understand was the old abolitionist movement in my own country—the push to destroy slavery forever. Now there was a cause worthy of religious faith, fervor and martyrdom!

A direct line connects John Brown, Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope John Paul II, and Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. In very different ways all were Men of God. Brown and King became martyrs, while the others lived to a ripe old age. Brown was not a formally recognized religious leader. But all four stood powerfully for human freedom and dignity. All relied on the awesome power of faith in God to sustain them and their movements.

It is hard not to see the Hand of God in their work, whatever their sect or scripture, and whatever may be your own personal faith.

Roger Cohen of course is right. This is not a time for sanctions or for pressure, far less for gloating. Nor is it a time to seek cynical political advantage, even for the cause of freedom. Especially at this Christmas season, it is a time to admire and cherish the spirit of God that moves in all of us, often in mysterious ways.

That spirit also moves us here at home. The divide between science and faith that has split us Americans for two generations is closing. Evolutionary scientists now see faith as a product of our evolution, with survival advantages. The faithful are making common cause with scientists to preserve the Earth as God or evolution made it, depending on your view.

A speck in this vast universe of colliding galaxies, supernovae and black holes, we live! Despite the despotism, oppression, and greed of human history, and in the age of nuclear weapons, we are free! These things can inspire faith.

That, too, is a good and true thing. For who could have abolished slavery, jettisoned Communism or challenged the basiji without faith? Who can repair our battered planet without faith?

Who can believe that a vibrant system to stop climate change will rise from the ashes of Copenhagen? If we all have faith, it will.

Faith can indeed move mountains. It deserves respect, from scientists as well as others. So Americans of all faiths should unite in quiet spiritual solidarity with the housewives, workers and students now filling the streets of Qom and Tehran.

Two years ago, in a post entitled “Iran’s Christmas Present and the Future,” I remarked on Iran’s electoral repudiation of the politics of demagoguery and despotism. Last fall, the despots reacted with further oppression. They stole an election. No one could fail to understand their true nature and intent. So Iran’s greatest Ayatollah repudiated them.

Ayatollah Montazeri is not dead, any more than is John Brown, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, or Pope John Paul II. He lives in the crowds mourning his passing and celebrating the ageless tides of Shiite Islam. He lives in the youth yearning for a better, freer, more human future. He lives in women seeking release from the chains of a hijacked religion, whose aspirations Montazeri himself supported. He lives in the Islamic Republic’s much-violated Constitution, which he helped write, and whose words reveal how far from Islam and a republic it has fallen.

Our role as Americans is not to interfere. Especially at this holy season in our own country, our role is to celebrate with reverence and humility the faith that moves mountains and continually repairs our world.

For the writing is on the wall now, just as it was in the days of Nebuchadnezzar. The wicked shall fall, and Iran shall be free.

This is only the first of many miracles we can expect if we abandon our tribes and know we all share the same God.

As we quietly celebrate the blessings of our own recent change in government, the near-universal health care it soon will bring, plus release from the minor indignities of airplane imprisonment, let us celebrate also the spirit of God that moves in all our fellow creatures everywhere.

Merry Christmas, Ashura, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or whatever holiday your faith or culture bids you celebrate in this season of awe!

P.S. If you want to throw a chill up your spine, reread the quotation at the head of this post. Next read our own Declaration of Independence, especially its “grievances” section, which begins with the short paragraphs. Then ask yourself how we Americans differ from Iranians, but for the grace of 233 years.

A Flawed Warmongering Dissent

On Christmas Eve the New York Times published an apparent rebuttal to Roger Cohen’s view (and mine above) that now is a good time for us to do nothing about Iran. The op-ed piece was clear about one thing, its conclusion: “air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. . . . The sooner the United States takes action, the better.”

The author is one Alan J. Kuperman, an Associate Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas (where else?). I hope he has tenure already. The logic of his diatribe is not likely to get him any if reflected in his academic work. His arguments are as full of holes as Swiss cheese.

Kuperman’s argues that Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners in Iran actually wanted to accept the recent proposal for Russia to enrich Iran’s stock of reactor fuel, but domestic opposition (presumably from the Mousavi “Greens”) killed the deal. Let’s leave aside the fact that this assertion directly contravenes both conventional wisdom and virtually all reporting on Iran’s domestic politics that I have read. Kuperman cites no reporting and provides no link; rather, he reasons from speculation based on assertions about fissionable material.

First, he argues that Iran’s hard liners wanted the Russian-processed fuel, which would have been enriched to the 20% level (of fissionable U235) needed for power reactors. Iran’s own partially enriched fuel has impurities, he says, and anyway any further enrichment by Russia would put Iran closer to the 90% enrichment level required for uranium-based weapons. Again, he cites no authority but refers cryptically to “many experts.”

The next two technical steps in the argument are the crucial ones. Had the enrichment deal gone through, Russia would have supplied the 20% enriched fuel in the form of rods of other solid bodies for use in Iran’s existing research reactor. Kuperman argues that “[s]eparating uranium from [these] fuel elements so that it can be enriched further is a straightforward engineering task requiring at most a few weeks.” He thus implies that delivery of Russian enriched-to-20% fuel would put Iran only weeks away from a bomb.

This is argument by innuendo worthy of Joe McCarthy. First, it ignores the additional time, expense and trouble of getting from 20% to 90%. Second, it ignores the fact that impurities introduced by an imperfect Iranian enrichment process would make weaponry far more difficult than power to produce. The instantaneous explosion of nuclear weapons is far more sensitive to impurities than the “slow burn” of a power reactor. Weapons also require sensitive time-critical triggering technology, which can take enormous effort—and destructive testing with fissionable material—to develop.

But most of all, Kuperman’s argument ignores the fact that neither U.S. negotiators nor international non-proliferation monitors are stupid. Any deal for Russian enrichment would provide for delivery in installments, with each installment carefully monitored. Any sign of diversion to greater enrichment or weapons programs would stop delivery of further installments. Iran would lose not just all further installments, but the partially enriched fissionable material that it had taken years to create and had shipped to Russia.

On the military side, Kuperman’s argument is internally inconsistent. On the one hand he recognizes, as he must, that:
“[A]dmittedly, aerial bombing might not work. Some Iranian facilities are buried too deeply to destroy from the air. There may also be sites that American intelligence is unaware of.”
He also recognizes that air strikes would defeat Iran’s political opposition, strengthen the hard liners, accelerate whatever nuclear weapons programs Iran may have, and generally reduce the chances of a quick and painless solution to the vanishing point. Yet he nevertheless ends up recommending a full-scale aerial assault, as soon as possible. He never explains why we should risk action that likely would not practically achieve its goal, would start a third war for us, and would have horrendous political and social consequences, when just waiting would be so much smarter.

Two years ago, in a post on this blog, I recommended air strikes as a last resort, only if and after diplomacy and democracy had failed irretrievably. We are not there yet, not by a long shot. Diplomacy may be on the ropes, but there is a real chance of peaceful, internal “regime change” within the year. We can’t much influence what happens there, but we can wait and watch.

But what really changed my mind was the published photographs of the “new” enrichment facility near Qom. The visible entrances are obviously designed for a vast underground facility.

Iran may be having trouble developing nuclear technology, but it has lots of mines. Whether it uses existing mines or digs new tunnels, there can be little doubt of its ability to put the most sensitive parts of any weapons program it may have beyond the reach of even our best “bunker-busting” bombs.

Mines can go down over a mile; I’ve been in some that deep. No conventional bomb can cut that far, even through earth, let alone rock. The ineluctable conclusion is that, if it takes the trouble and spends the money, Iran can put its enrichment centrifuges out of reach of any air strikes. By allowing inspectors into the new site at Qom, Iran may be cleverly trying to make the world aware of that fact.

This doesn’t mean that Iran can carry on illicit enrichment activities with impunity. Centrifuge enrichment requires enormous amounts of electric power, unlikely to be supplied by subsurface facilities (other than other nuclear reactors). So if we could find out where Iran has hidden enrichment facilities, we could probably stop them from operating by bombing the entrances and power lines to them. But doing so would require a continuous or intermittent bombing campaign, not a single strike. Kuperman’s analogy to Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which the Israelis destroyed in the 1980s with a single air campaign, is false: the Osirak reactor was on the surface.

In the end, Kuperman makes two signal mistakes. First, he extrapolates isolated bits of technical knowledge beyond their fair implication. His doing so is not surprising: none of his expertise is in any technical field, let alone nuclear physics. He is a political scientist, not a hard one.

Kuperman makes the same mistake in ignoring the technical military impossibility of destroying deeply buried underground enrichment facilities with a single bombing campaign. His piece is proof positive of the old saw, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Second, just as Dubya did in invading Iraq, Kuperman vastly underestimates the political and practical consequences of the steps he advocates. Because no single air strike would suffice, Kuperman necessarily advocates a protracted air war with Iran. He doesn’t even consider the implications for our standing in the Islamic world, our already overstressed military, our efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or our bleeding budget.

I’ve heard of mad scientists, though I’ve never seen one. But God save us from mad political scientists who push for war on Christmas Eve.

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19 December 2009

Bankers


[For comment on two common banking myths, click here.]

When reporters asked Jesse James why he had made a career of robbing banks, he had a simple answer: “They’re where the money is.” Nowadays, you don’t have to rob banks to be Jesse James. You just have to run them.

Bankers in general—and investment bankers in particular—recently put our global economy within days of total meltdown. They did so by taking stupendous and utterly stupid risks and overpaying themselves to do so. Now they are busy arranging social and political conditions so they can do the very same thing again and again for the foreseeable future.

Not only that. They are doing their best to make financial predation a permanent feature of our society. And they are winning.

These men (virtually all of them are male) consider themselves superior beings. They tell us only they can lead our nation forward. They call themselves “innovators.” They liken themselves to real innovators who design Boeing’s carbon-fiber Dreamliner or develop wonder drugs. They claim we will all suffer without the financial “innovation” that their excessive pay fosters. They say they are the lifeblood of our capitalist culture.

None of these things is even slightly true. They are all lies. Bankers today do what they do for same reason that Jesse James did what he did. But today they get away with it, without physical violence, by playing law and lawmakers like violins.

Far from being innovators, these men are not even smart. Intelligent innovators in science and engineering share two chief characteristics. First, they know some math. Second, their math works. That is, it predicts real events in the real world, like the Dreamliner’s successful test flight this week or the statistical success of a new drug in curing disease without debilitating side effects.

Banking math is hardly rocket science. It’s mostly arithmetic. You have to know as much about compound interest and present value as you can get from ubiquitous electronic and Web-based calculators. That’s about it.

Bankers and rating agencies did use sophisticated math to model the risk of financial derivatives. But their math famously didn’t work. It didn’t work because it assumed that housing prices and other markets would continue going up, just like bankers’ pay. Garbage in, garbage out.

If this false math proved anything real, it validated Upton Sinclair’s famous line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” When the pay at issue is not just ordinary salary, but a king’s ransom, misunderstanding becomes a guiding star.

To see the results of so-called “innovation” in banking, just look around you. Small businesses are dying by the thousands, through no fault or lack of effort of their owners. Neighborhoods rot from within as foreclosures and boarded-up homes proliferate.

Once boring, staid and necessary servants of society, bankers have mutated into pathogens. They have made our society sick. Small-business bankruptcies and decaying, foreclosed neighborhoods are among the abscesses they have formed.

Like all successful pathogens, bankers multiply. The easy money they promise recruits greedy youth to their cause.

When I was young, our best and the brightest wanted to be scientists or engineers. Now they all want to be investment bankers, for the same reason as Jesse James. Immigrants from China and India fill our engineering and scientific graduate schools, or good positions go begging. Yet today we have more native bankers making more money that at any time in our national history, maybe in the history of the world.

We do have some antibodies. Like T-cells, groups of citizens have organized spontaneously to throw off the infection. They are resisting foreclosure and trying to save their neighborhoods. They agitate for change and fight the spread of social corruption (in the Biblical sense).

But like antibodies facing a serious plague, these organic social movements are too little and too late. Corrupt bankers from a mere handful of banks have a stranglehold on our nation’s blood supply, the flow of money. We need inoculation or a powerful antibiotic, which only government can supply.

That’s why the regulatory and restructuring bills now pending before Congress are vital. The infection that nearly destroyed us is spreading again. We need to stop its growth, and we need to inoculate ourselves against it.

We need someone trusted to explain why uncontrolled “innovation” in banking is a bad idea. We need someone to remind us how bankers nearly destroyed our economy, and why they have grown far too numerous, centralized and powerful. We need someone to split big banks up into units small enough to serve communities again, not threaten society. We need someone to teach us how bankers can morph from boring, staid servants of a capitalist economy into virulent pathogens that bring us down.

The President is the only one with the talent and power to do these things in time to save us. Calling our pathogens “fat cat bankers” in a single Sixty Minutes segment doesn’t cut it. The problem requires a sustained and concentrated effort comparable to the President’s winning presidential campaign or his push for health-insurance reform.

If this inoculation effort fails, nothing else will matter. Taking a page from bankers’ books, health insurers already have watered reform of their industry down to the vanishing point. Even if the monstrous bill passes—and I hope it does—it will mark a Pyrrhic victory. In the absence of meaningful competition or cost control, insurance premiums will rise. Health insurers, like bankers, will become more numerous and more powerful. Another class of Jesse Jameses lacking math, intelligence and public spirit will grow to subvert us.

Money is indeed the lifeblood of society. If we continue to reward people for siphoning it off for their own selfish ends through swindling and foolish risk-taking, without creating anything of lasting value, our infection will spread throughout our economy. Eventually, reform will fail everywhere. Innovation will fail. Job growth will fail. Energy independence and attempts to retard global warming will fail, at least here in the world’s second-worst polluter, because they, too, need honest money.

So the President needs to stop the infection now. He needs to reign in bankers, especially the ones within his own Administration. He needs to promote and stand behind three extraordinarily bright and public-spirited women—Sheila Bair, Christine Varney, and Elizabeth Warren—who saw it all coming and have the skill, training, will and perseverance to fight the infection.

The hour is late, and the pathogens are spreading. Pus is still dripping from our economic wounds. It is flowing in the halls of Congress. It is corrupting or emasculating people like Joe Lieberman, Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, who should know better. Stopping its flow is a fight worth fighting, for losing that fight will make all others pointless.

Two Banking Myths

While on the subject of banking, there may be merit in debunking two common myths that bankers propagate to justify their empire-building and exorbitant pay.

Myth 1. We need big banks to do big deals. Wrong. As late as the 1970s, when American banks still couldn’t yet match the size of their foreign counterparts, they did all the big deals they wanted because they had the money (and we Americans had the global currency). They did them through what was called “syndication,” i.e. several banks taking smaller pieces of a big deal.

Syndication is better than a concentrated banking industry for several reasons. First, like insurance, it spreads risk. Each participating bank risks only a part of a big deal. Second, it spreads decision making. If two heads are better than one, then several are better than two. Requiring multiple banks under independent management to participate in risky big deals brings more minds and more caution into the picture and helps avoid groupthink.

Finally, syndication keeps banks closer to human scale and avoids the kinds of pyramiding that allows a Fuld or Blankfein to treat our national (or global!) economy the way Napoleon and Hitler once treated Europe.

During the late 1970s, syndication was good enough to bail out all of Latin America from a severe financial crisis. It’s still good enough to do all the big deals that need doing. It has the singular benefit of facilitating big transactions without encouraging the kind of empire building that concentrates our financial industry in the hands of a small coterie of incestuous, ruthless, overpaid, self-important, and not-too-bright men on the island of Manhattan.

Myth 2. You can’t have rapid enough innovation in finance. Wrong again. Every financial innovation in human history has had its downside. Often the downsides took decades or centuries for markets to assimilate and properly control.

The downsides usually appeared most disastrously right after the innovations themselves. Only much later did laborious development of regulated exchanges, legal rules and customs dampen the unintended consequences and realize the innovation’s initial goal.

Examples are home mortgages and commodities futures. Mortgages arose to encourage more people to own their own homes—a worthy goal. On several occasions (including 2008), they led instead to credit for industry drying up and housing bubbles bursting. We are still trying to smooth that curve and tame that boom-and-bust cycle. No one yet has conceived a foolproof way.

Commodities futures trading arose to stabilize prices of industrial commodities so both producers and users could plan. They, too, led to excesses and bubbles until regulated exchanges arose to making trading transparent and curtail self-seeking, non-industrial manipulation.

Derivatives are no different. Their unregulated use led directly and demonstrably to our recent global meltdown. Now the finance industry wants to keep them unregulated and obscure. That’s got to be one of the dumbest ideas ever conceived by the mind of the Jesse James class, which has had some lulus!

Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman and leading investor Warren Buffet have both questioned (1 & 2) whether derivatives can be regulated and brought under control at our present stage of financial development. I agree, if only because the easing of moral hazard that is derivatives’ chief goal seems to run counter to the “skin in the game” philosophy that has kept free markets working throughout history.

Maybe we’re all wrong. Maybe derivatives could be as useful as mortgages and commodities futures if we could just figure out how to regulate them and eliminate their unintended consequences. But even if we could figure that out, the answer would be more regulation, not less. More cowboy capitalism of the type that just nearly caused a second Great Depression is not the answer.

Whatever the question, the Jesse Jameses of the world will always answer “more!” They want bigger financial institutions with more money, more concentrated power and wealth (in their own hands, of course). The only thing they want less of is intervention by others, including government, which slows down their take-the-money-and-run schemes. A nation that gives in to them is heading for a fall.

Unlike real innovation in the industrial world of science, engineering and production, so-called “innovation” in finance is easy. All it takes is the bare idea of a get-rich-quick scheme and a few unscrupulous men willing use it to take the money and run. The hard work of real innovation comes later, when public-spirited, thoughtful men and women sit down to figure out how to preserve whatever social benefits the Jesse Jameses used to sell their “innovation” to the public while avoiding the downside. That’s precisely where we are now with derivatives, and where we should be for the foreseeable future.


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18 December 2009

To Do or Not to Do

(with apologies to Will Shakespeare and encouragement to indecisive folk everywhere)

    To do or not to do, that is the question;
    Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
    The slings and arrows of outrageous markups,
    Or to take arms against two thousand pages,
    And by opposing end them? To block, obstruct,
    To filibuster; and by our “nay” to say we end
    The earmarks and the thousand grievous wrongs
    That bills are heir to, ‘tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d. To block, obstruct,
    To kill, accomplish nothing; aye, there’s the rub:
    For if the bill should fail, what good may come
    When we have spent a hundred years disputing
    Must give us pause; there’s the respect
    That makes calamity of such poor health.


    For who could bear the world’s most dismal system,
    The claims denied, beloved who died,
    The insolence of private rationing,
    When they themselves might better ending make
    With simple passage? Who’d bear the shame
    Of thirty million left without a lifeline,
    But that the dread of unintended outcome,
    The consequence that solons can’t foresee,
    The undiscover’d error from whose blame
    No Congressman recovers, subverts the will
    And makes us rather bear those ills we have
    Than fly to others that we know not of?
    Thus caution does make cowards of us all;
    And thus the public good of legislation,
    Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of doubt,
    And enterprises of great pith and moment
    With this regard their currents turn awry,
    And lose the name of action.

    If Scarecrow Cheney had but half his brain,
    He would know that this is dithering.
    We are Americans, not pallid Danes!
    When things don’t work so well, we fix them later.
    Paul Krugman sees; he’s got it right.
    So pass the bill and stop the whinging!


P.S. Apologies also to the Danes, who have a decent health-care system.

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16 December 2009

What to Do About Joe


While the rest of us were focusing on climate change and Copenhagen, Joe Lieberman quietly killed the best parts of health-insurance reform. Single-handedly, for reasons obscure, he forced Harry Reid and the Democrats to abandon not only any public option, but the chance for people 55 to 65 to buy into Medicare at their own expense.

Joe didn’t even go as far as his fellow so-called Republican “centrist,” Susan Collins, who reportedly supports a public option with a trigger or state-by-state “opt-out.” He managed to defeat every means by which health-insurance reformers sought to discipline the private insurance industry and bring it to heel.

What is it about guys with hypnotically soothing gravelly voices? Everett Dirksen (R., Ill.) was one of the most pernicious politicians of my youth. But his constituents seemed to love him because he had a voice just like John Boehner’s and Joe’s.

Don’t people listen to what these jerks say? Don’t they see the harm they do? Or do they just hear the tone of voice, like a dog being scratched under the chin or someone nodding off at a concert without catching the words?

Boehner may have the excuse of being just plain stupid. If he’s ever had an original idea—let alone a good one—I’m unaware of it. But I don’t think Joe is stupid. He may be a bit forgetful; he seems to have forgotten that he publicly supported a Medicare buy-in a few years ago, when he was running for vice president with Al Gore, and as recently as three months ago. Now he claims not to remember. Maybe he’s just senile.

Yet his motives become clearer when you consider the source of his campaign contributions. He’s taken over a cool million from the insurance industry over the last decade.

Joe claims he has an excuse. He’s all for jobs, including the 22,000 that the health-insurance industry reportedly provides in his state. But those workers are a minuscule portion of Connecticut’s 3.5 million population, a majority of which wants a public option, and all of whom need reliable health insurance. So Joe kisses the hand of the industry that feeds him, thwarting the will of his people and the rest of the nation.

It’s not hard to see why. Under that soothing gravelly voice and sonorous patina of reasonableness lies one of the biggest egos in American politics. Joe doesn’t give a damn about his state, his people, the American people, or the millions suffering and dying from health insurance that isn’t. He thinks he can get re-elected, or at least rate a footnote in the history books, by bucking his party and all the folks who put him where he is today. Joe is out for Joe.

Joe loves every bit of the attention and power that his so-called “independence” gives him. He’s taking his petty revenge on the American people, who vastly preferred a younger, darker man to him, with all his grey hair, experience and gravelly unctuousness. He’s wreaking petty revenge on his party, which stripped him of his committee chairs when he refused to do what Democrats do. The fatuous, senile gasbag is having his last vengeful romp at the expense of the American people at their hour of greatest need.

So what can we do? I can think of lots of things. They include deluging his office with letter and e-mails, telling Joe just how we feel about him. They might include picketing, day and night, outside his office home. If you like civil disobedience and have a boom box in your car, you might consider driving by Joe’s home forty times a night to keep him awake.

Complete ostracism by Democrats in Congress and everywhere else would be his minimum just desserts. Joe has shown his true colors. He is now among the Republicans in all but name, having not just aided and abetted them, but given them the whip hand.

But the most important thing is to make sure that this is Joe’s last term. He’s up for re-election in 2012. I hereby pledge $1,000 to the first credible, experienced candidate to begin a run to defeat Joe next year, in 2010.

I’d prefer a Democrat. But I’ll support anyone who’s a real moderate and supports a limited government option in health care, infrastructure rebuilding at home, intelligent federal management of energy policy to secure independence and retard global warming, federally led reform of education, and an early but responsible exit from Iraq and Afghanistan. My ideal candidate would be a youngish veteran with business experience, a good education and a gravelly voice just like Joe’s, but with a lot more brains and at least some concern for the general welfare.

Lest anyone accuse me (or any of Joe’s millions of detractors) of anti-Semitism, let me remind readers that I am Jewish. Real Jews have a credo of “tikkun olam,” which means “repair the world.” It’s not much different from the American business credo “do it, fix it, try it.” It urges us all to make things better by constant tinkering.

That’s what a public option or Medicare buy-in would do. It would not seriously impair private health insurance, let alone eliminate it. It would merely goose it, making it better by tinkering around the edges and providing a lifeline for people left out.

Joe Lieberman, in my view, is the antithesis of tikkun olam. He wants things to stay about the way they are. He’s happy with a rotten private health-insurance industry that, like much of America’s financial sector today, makes its money by sophisticated swindling, leaving many Americans to suffer and die uncared for or in poverty. He’s happy because that rotten business keeps Joe where he likes to be, in the limelight.

But I’ve got news for you, Joe. Unlike you, most of the rest of us can remember what happened three years ago, let alone three months ago. In 2012, we will.

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14 December 2009

Market Adaptation to Climate Imperatives


While the politicians in Copehagen argue about pennies in aid to help poor countries adapt to climate change, the big boys in private industry are finally starting to move. There has been far too little press—let alone analysis—of the trends and implications, but they are profound and encouraging.

The reason is simple. Private industry commands far more resources and (once it sees the need and a path to profit) can act far more swiftly than government. Private industry doesn’t have to contend with idiots like John Boehner, at least not in its internal decision making.

After years of denial and foot dragging, the titans of private industry are finally getting smart. The best of them see huge opportunities for innovation and profit in helping to solve the problem of human-induced climate change. And the amounts they are beginning to invest make the subjects of heated debate in Copenhagen seem like table scraps at a banquet.

Let’s take two examples. To help assuage the “South’s” demands for money to fight the effects of climate change, Energy Secretary Steven Chu proudly announced that industrialized countries would spend $350 million over five years—$85 million of it coming from the United States—to spread renewable and nonpolluting energy technology in developing countries. Meanwhile, ExxonMobil has allotted nearly twice as much, $600 million, to develop a single new “green” technology: using algae to grow carbon-neutral biofuels.

As a second example, the EU pledged last Friday “to pay $3.5 billion annually for three years to help poor countries cope [with climate change]—though economists project the total cost to be $100 billion or more.” Meanwhile, ExxonMobil today committed nearly three times as much, $31 billion in stock, to buy XTO Energy, the leading U.S. producer of shale gas.

The deal announced today is notable for several reasons. First, it is an enormously shrewd business deal. The company ExxonMobil is buying (XTO) controls [subscription required] 13.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas-equivalent reserves. At the current market price of $5.33 per thousand cubic feet, those reserves have a market value of about $74 billion.

Not only that. Geopolitical and demographic trends suggest that the current glut of gas resources will not last long, and the value of those reserves will increase substantially with time. With a factor-of-2.5 allowance for “engineering error” even at current prices, ExxonMobil’s energy engineers have done quite well for themselves.

The deal is also notable for its potential for improving our national energy security, alleviating the worst environmental effects of fossil fuels, and retarding climate change. These points require some explanation.

Many of the biggest recent discoveries of shale gas are right here in the United States; others are in Canada. These discoveries have produced a “glut” of new gas that has depressed retail prices by more than a factor of two from as little at two years ago. Producers without much imagination saw little benefit in acquiring reserves of a commodity sinking in price. But ExxonMobil’s current leaders had more imagination.

Natural gas is a multi-use energy source almost as versatile as electricity. Right now, its predominant use is heating homes and businesses. But we can also use natural gas to generate electricity efficiently. California has done so in most, if not all, of the new power plants built there over the last two decades. Finally, natural gas can power internal combustion engines for cars and trucks with little modification. Many major cities already have working municipal fleets of natural-gas-powered buses and trucks.

All this is nice, but what about pollution and global warming? Here, too, natural gas shines. Its combustion produces virtually none of the particulates and hydrocarbon smog that burning gasoline does. Unlike coal, it has no sulfur or mercury to poison our air and indirectly our watersheds and oceans. As for global warming, burning natural gas produces about one-half the carbon dioxide per unit of energy that burning coal does. That’s why California, our most environmentally sensitive state, uses so much of it.

Finally, natural gas is a much better candidate for carbon sequestration than is coal. Sequestering carbon dioxide from coal requires putting gaseous carbon dioxide, at high pressure, into empty underground reservoirs that used to contain coal, tar sands or oil. You don’t have to be a physicist or petroleum engineer to understand the problems of replacing a solid or liquid with a gas.

But natural gas is a gas just like the carbon dioxide that comes from burning it. Furthermore, methane (CH4), which is the principal component of natural gas, has atomic weight 16, as compared to carbon dioxide’s 44. In short, CO2 is nearly three times as heavy as methane. CO2 ought to “settle out” on the bottom when mixed with methane, at least when the mixing is gentle. So there may be ways to pull natural gas out of one end or level of an underground reservoir while sinking CO2 into the other. At least the physics suggests that doing so will be a far easier task with natural gas than with coal or oil sands.

This analysis suggests that natural gas will make a far better interim fuel than coal for our transition to an electric energy infrastructure powered primarily by clean wind, solar and nuclear energy. We have plenty of natural gas on our own continent, so we needn’t worry about supply disruptions, geopolitical risk, or supporting despotic regimes or terrorists. Natural gas avoids all the worst problems of coal pollution, including particulates, acid rain, and the mercury pollution that poisons sushi (among many other things). It’s far from carbon neutral, but it’s twice as good as coal.

Coal is the worst fuel known to man. It seems cheap only when we ignore the horrendous external costs of pollution, land spoliation, and global warming that mining and burning it create.

As cap & trade policy becomes a reality both here and abroad, it will price in these real (and exponentially growing) bad effects of burning coal, and coal will no longer seem so economical. The resulting “fully loaded” pricing will reveal how obsolete this nineteenth-century anachronism is. Full use of natural gas, including for electric-power generation and transportation, can help us reach that desirable state more quickly.

As another underreported example of what industry can do, consider Bolivia. As the New York Times just reported, its glaciers are drying up and, with them, Bolivia’s water supply. So Bolivia sees itself as a mendicant, bidding for its fair share of largesse from rich nations, both to alleviate its endemic poverty and to help combat the already drastic effects of climate change.

But Bolivia is sitting on one of the world’s most valuable energy-strategic resources: the world’s largest and least exploited deposits of lithium. Evo Morales has something better than a gold mine—a mine of minerals that could lead to a nonpolluting, carbon-neutral global energy infrastructure. How Morales handles that natural bonanza will determine both the future of his poverty-stricken country and the speed of global adaptation to climate change.

Morales has two options. The first is to nationalize the lithium fields, which are now owned partly by a publicly-traded Chilean company, Sociedad Quimica y Minera, S.A.. (Don’t rush to buy the shares. They’re already trading at a P/E of 28, close to Apple’s but without Apple’s freedom from geopolitical risk.) The second is to allow foreign firms to exploit the resource, perhaps in joint ventures with non-controlling Bolivian government participation and appropriate taxation of expatriated lithium.

The worst option would be nationalization, as neighboring Venezuela’s oil experience has shown. Nationalization, even in part, scares away private capital like ExxonMobil’s. It also scares away the best mining engineers, who prefer to work for market-based private companies that deal in dollar and cents, not politics.

Morales would do much better by following the Saudi example. Saudi Arabia has succeeded in exploiting its oil reserves to capture a large fraction of the developed world’s wealth. It has done so primarily by inviting foreign companies in and learning from them. It has also learned to “tax” oil by taking a reasonable share of production, part of which it sells on the global market for cash, and part of which it uses for its own internal needs.

Figuring out how to do this all successfully requires real brains, in particular economic brains. If Morales has any sense, he should be quietly scouring the Spanish-speaking world for the best mining and petroleum economists and engineers and putting them on his payroll. How well he does this job will determine not only Bolivia’s economic future, but much of the rest of the world’s.

Free markets are indeed powerful forces. As recently as two years ago, Exxon’s former CEO (Lee Raymond)—although a successful petroleum engineer—was a consummate climate-change denier. Now he is gone, replaced by men (including present CEO Rex Tillerson) who understand the enormous opportunities that grappling with climate change presents.

The Chinese are ahead of us in understanding. Their very language reveals an essential truth: the word “crisis” in Chinese consists of the two characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” If the world’s industry and Evo Morales could achieve similar insight, human adaptation to climate imperatives might proceed much faster than anyone now expects.

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12 December 2009

Just War


The President’s Nobel-Prize-acceptance speech garnered universal praise and very little criticism. Conservatives who busy themselves with incessant (and often ridiculous) jibes at everything the President says and does were strangely silent or even admiring. Liberals who would love nothing more than to see us forsake the AfPak region entirely in favor of strenuous nation-building here at home held their fire.

Our whole nation seemed to bask in rare warmth as the weak sunlight of the world’s respect broke through eight years of wintry gloom clouds. If nothing else, the speech renewed the bond between the rapidly growing free world and the single nation that, for all its faults and lamentable recent history, is still the best candidate to lead it.

The President earned this renewed respect in several ways. He began his speech with humility, disclaiming deserts for the Prize and promising to work hard for it retroactively. He shunned comparison with great men like Schweitzer, Marshall, King and Mandela. He acknowledged that the arc of his own life’s work was just beginning.

Yet in so doing Obama paradoxically moved closer to those great men. We all know whom we most admire, whether in sports or life in general. It’s not the braggarts, chest beaters and trash talkers, no matter how great their talent. It’s men and women of humility and quiet confidence, who praise their helpers and their competition even as they take the prize. That America—the one whose self-effacing hard work, sacrifice and example helped win the worst war ever and keep the peace for sixty years afterward—seemed on its way back.

Another good thing came out of the speech. More and more people, both here and around the globe, began to realize what an extraordinary leader we were smart enough to pick. Professional skeptics in our punditry began to express open admiration. All of us re-learned what it means to have a smart, careful, thoughtful and deliberate leader who thinks twice and thrice before he acts. We have greater confidence in our own abilities and greater hope for the future, and the world has greater confidence in us in turn.

So far so good. But the Prize was a Peace Prize. One would have through the speech would have been about mostly about peace. On the contrary, it was mostly about war.

I know, I know. Just as in authorizing the AfPak “surge,” the President did what he had to do. He had to let the world know that neither he nor his people are wimps or appeasers. He had to send a strong message to enemies, fence sitters, and dispirited admirers around the globe. He had to declare that pax Americana will persist, at least until we declare bankruptcy or the Chinese foreclose.

But did he have to say, “I — like any head of state — reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation”? That statement is correct, of course. But many listening might have doubted the magnitude of the change from the previous administration.

My own breath stopped for a moment after reading that line. What I had hoped to hear from our most intelligent, best educated and farthest-sighted president in generations was a new vision for achieving peace. I had hoped to hear a bit about how he planned to wage a war against war.

After recent careful biographical work, we now know that Ronald Reagan wholeheartedly shared Barack Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world—even as he embarked on an expensive arms race as one paradoxical means to achieve it. President Obama mentioned this goal in his speech but said little about how to reach it. If he has any specific new ideas, he appears to be keeping them to himself.

Although adamantly opposed to every fiber of Reagan’s domestic and economic policy, I had supported his arms race at the time. I knew it would achieve its goal because the Soviets could never out-invent or outspend us. I figured Soviet Russia, having suffered the worst devastation in the last war, would never strike first. I concluded that the whole Cold War would fade away as soon as the Russians recovered from their postwar paranoia and realized we had and have no designs on them, their territory or whatever silly economic system they choose to adopt. That’s precisely what happened, sped up perhaps by Reagan’s legendary affability and Gorbachev’s undoubted assessment that Reagan wasn’t clever enough to be dangerous.

But the Cold War was a unique situation. The adversary we most feared happened to be the very one that had suffered the most in the greatest war in history and therefore most feared war in general. Despite all its trash talk and bluster, the Soviet Union wasn’t about to start another world war. Even our own nuclear allies and other adversaries (including China) had all suffered far more than we did in the greatest war. None of them were or are trigger happy.

Now we have an entirely different situation. Nuclear weapons are falling into the hands of much smaller nations whose dreams of power and glory are unchastened by real and recent experience with war. Born of the Holocaust, Israel is unlikely to strike first. Oddly enough, the same is true of Iran, which suffered the greatest war (with Iraq) in most recent history anywhere on the globe. Millions of Iranians alive today—including many nonclerical leaders—suffered enough in that war to have little desire to repeat the experience.

The greatest danger comes from North Korea and its isolated and unstable dictatorship. Its lack of contact with the outside world leaves all of us to guess what it might do—guesswork that Kim willfully exploits to maintain his twisted hold on power. While Pakistan is far more stable and reliable than most Americans believe, all terrorists have to do to change the world for the foreseeable future is steal just one of its nukes. That makes the AfPak region a big danger zone despite Pakistan’s general promise.

The same is true of the Middle East. While Iran’s nuclear status may present less immediate danger than is generally assumed, that status might encourage an arms race among a number of nations, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. That race, in turn, would pose risks of miscalculation and disaster far greater than any we have seen since World War II.

I would have liked to hear the President’s vision on how to reduce and eventually eliminate these very real risks. Instead, the President gave us a graduate seminar on “just war” theory. Professor that he was, he gave us only as much as he thought we could digest. “The concept of a ‘just war’ [has] emerged,” he said, “suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

But of course the President himself must have realized that this is nonsense. No lawyer’s list of simple abstractions can capture what wars are worth fighting and what are not. The President himself acknowledged as much later in his speech. “There is no formula here,” he said. We must judge every war on its own merits, case by case.

Just or not, the most salient point of any war is the decision to start it. Wars don’t start by themselves. Leaders and commanders have to issue orders. The facts and reasoning behind their justification for war (or any decision to escalate an ongoing on) are of the essence. Good leaders probe deeply into their own motivation for war and the facts on which they base that motivation. They examine minutely and realistically their adversaries’ capabilities and intentions.

Self-defense is a useless criterion. Why? Because any hostile act can serve as an excuse for war, no matter how small or how little endorsed by an adversary’s real leaders. We fought the Spanish-American War because of an explosion on the Battleship Maine that historians now believe was an accident. We escalated our involvement in Vietnam dramatically after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which everyone now believes was greatly exaggerated, and which some scholars believe was largely falsified.

In World War II we made the opposite mistake. We waited too long to declare war, let down our guard, and suffered a devastating surprise attack at Pearl Harbor. Yet we took from that failure the wrong lesson: shoot first and ask questions later. We escalated mightily in Vietnam and suffered our first clear defeat—all to no lasting geopolitical harm, except to our reputation. We did the same thing in invading Iraq: instead of seeking more accurate intelligence and greater precision in our estimates, we conjured up mushroom clouds made by an embattled dictator whom we had once supported and who had abandoned attempts to make nuclear weapons years ago.

Is Afghanistan any different? The jury is still out. We are waging “war” there not against our original enemies, who planned 9/11. We are fighting a loose coalition of motley, mostly illiterate native groups calling themselves the “Taliban.” Why? Because in 2002 one leader of this fractured group, Mullah Omar, harbored bin Laden and refused to give him up when asked. Our then leader, in true John Wayne fashion, said “you’re either with us or against us” and launched another major phase in the thirty years of war that Afghanistan has experienced, much of it under our influence or command.

This last point reveals another glaring error in the lawyer’s list of vapid abstractions that the President recited: the time element. How long a war lasts has a definite bearing on whether it is worth fighting and whether we are waging it appropriately.

We beat the scourge of slavery in our own land in less than four years. That war was still our bloodiest ever, and no one doubts its justness. We took less than four years to defeat fascism and military despotism in the greatest war ever. Our own War of Independence—our longest war until Vietnam—lasted only about seven years.

Yet recent wars have gone on much longer, in part because we proclaimed their “necessity” but devoted only a fraction of our nation’s resources to them. Our sole unambiguously losing war, in Vietnam, is so far our longest, at ten years or more, depending upon how you count. At present we’ve been in Iraq for six and a half years, and in Afghanistan for eight and a half years and counting.

War tends to take on a life of its own. Many men fighting in Afghanistan have known nothing but war for their entire lives. It’s easy (and far from deluded) for them to blame their hideous plight on foreigners, including us. It’s also difficult to train or retrain them for peaceful pursuits, which many of them have never known.

As we consider whether what we are waging in Afghanistan is a “just” war, we surely must consider the time element. Turning an ancient society into a gigantic killing field for two generations is nothing to be proud of. The fact that some of its indigenous customs are themselves primitive does not make that outcome any better.

If General McChrystal’s new strategy and our surge can stop the killing and bring peace and stability, town by town, it may be worth it. But if that strategy stumbles we should aim a few final blasts at Al Qaeda, get out and let the Afghans solve their longstanding problems in their own way. We should know within the year.

So my take on the President’s Nobel speech is mixed. On the one hand he showed the humility and restraint that mark him for greatness. He did what he had to do, showing the world that our economic difficulties have not seriously impaired our might or dimmed our resolve to protect our modern, global society against dangerous fanatics. On the other, he did not acknowledge the serious mistakes we have made in our use and misuse of military force. Nor did he present a detailed and realistic vision of a nuclear-free world. And his speech did little to advance the global public’s understanding of what constitutes a “just war” and whether what we are doing in Afghanistan falls into that category.

That latter failure was a sorely missed opportunity. For I suspect that our own leaders and planners, including the President himself, have put far more thought into the last question than appeared in the speech. Maybe they are hoping that military success will improve the picture in the next nine months or so and bring retroactive justification.

In his justifiably famous speech on race, the President refreshingly treated his countrymen and women as adults. He doesn’t seem to have been prepared to treat the global public similarly in Oslo. At least he didn’t tell us what we most need to know: a “just” war requires not only a just cause, but just means, methods and results as well.

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08 December 2009

Cool


Some pundits seemed nonplussed (1 & 2) by our President’s war speech. It had no “rah-rah.” It spilled few words on “winning” or “victory.” It gave no call to great and glorious deeds. It was a managerial speech, plotting a careful path among snares and pitfalls to a putatively favorable ending: an AfPak region without Al Qaeda or other international terrorists. While delivering it, the President did not smile once.

What a contrast from six and a half years ago! A very different president had hid from his own generation’s great war in the Texas Air National Guard. Decades later, quite safe, he exploited his residual piloting skills to land a fighter on an aircraft carrier. With a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him and troops all at ease in front, he crowed over national victory—all smiles and swagger.

As it turned out, the swagger and chest-beating were a bit premature. Dubya’s antics on the USS Abraham Lincoln became an affront to the carrier’s very name. They would have ill befitted a fraternity president, let alone our chief executive. They recalled the victorious ape’s chest beating in the opening scene of 2001, A Space Odyssey.

We like to think we are men and women, not apes. We don’t beat our chests and crow. We think and foresee. We can hold sad contradictions in our head. We can cry the terrible cost of war even as we know we must fight it. We can even empathize with the vanquished.

Lincoln did. In his Gettysburg Address he foresaw the North’s victory. But he also foresaw the terrible, tortuous path of Reconstruction, which only just may have ended—a century and a half later—with our President’s election. Slavery died hard.

FDR, George Marshall, and Harry Truman also knew. That’s why they set up the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, and (a bit later) the international monetary and economic system that rebuilt Europe and Japan. That’s why the major powers, though often at odds, have been at peace for over half a century, and why the Bomb has never been used again.

My favorite war story came from a Japanese academic over forty years after the end of World War II. As a young man in war-devastated Japan, he had read an account by an American sailor in the Pacific. Trapped in a hunted American submarine, with Japanese destroyers above him and depth charges exploding all around, the American had made himself a solemn vow. If he survived that day, he promised, he would devote the rest of his life to preventing and avoiding war.

On reading this account as a young man, my Japanese colleague made the same vow. He retold this story as he invited us to visit his Japanese university, with Japanese government support, to help build international understanding as a bulwark against war.

As David Brooks himself has written, there was no “rah-rah” after World War II. Our greatest war ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with a gigantic sense of humility and relief. There followed a quiet determination to rebuild nations and build new institutions to make sure the like never happened again. Everyone was on the same page because everyone—from the grunts in the trenches to Rosie the Riveter and her grandparents tending their “Victory Gardens” for fresh vegetables—had partaken of universal sacrifice and suffering.

The gravest danger of our current lopsided effort, in which one percent of us bear all the hardship, is not losing. We still have enormous resources. We could always bring the other 99% to bear. The gravest danger is that an unthinking majority, unaware of the cost of war, could fail to draw the bitter lessons and wisdom that we and our leaders have always drawn from armed conflict.

Sometimes war may be a necessary step in human social evolution. But if so, it is the most terribly painful, difficult and dangerous step. To take that awful step without reaping the social advances that understanding and wisdom foster would be a tragic loss that the human race can ill afford. But how can we promote the wisdom that comes from shared sacrifice when sacrifice is not shared?

We fought what is still our bloodiest war to rid ourselves of slavery. We fought our greatest war to stamp out mechanized military despotism. If what we are fighting now is indeed a war at all, we are fighting to save a marvelous international system for creating wealth, peace and prosperity from a few fanatics who would use its own complexity and vulnerability to damage or destroy it.

All these were and are worthy goals. But cool, intelligent leadership is essential. Reconstruction foundered after Lincoln’s assassination because the man who believed in “malice toward none, . . . charity for all” was gone. Reconstruction succeeded after World War II, although FDR had died, because men like Eisenhower, Kennan, Marshall and Truman shared his wisdom and vision and his goals. Today we should thank our lucky stars that we have wise leaders like Obama, Gates, Petraeus and McChrystal. They are cool in the best sense of that word.

Like Dubya on his carrier, Francis Fukuyama was a bit premature in declaring victory over history after the Cold War’s end. At the turn of our new century, two great global challenges remained. This first was integrating China into the global community and economy. The second was doing the same for Muslims, who at 1.3 billion comprise nearly one-fourth of the human race and have this unfortunate tradition of jihad when aroused.

At the moment China’s integration appears to be going well, no small thanks to its wiser, smarter cadre of leaders, who appear to be slowly shouldering their fair share of global responsibilities. The Muslim question is still in doubt.

Wave a magic wand to jail bin Laden and banish Al Qaeda and international terrorism, and we would still have to face a tragic and terrible fact. Outside of localized pathologies like North Korea and Zimbabwe, the Muslim world is more deeply steeped in tyranny and despotism that any other religious, social or ethnic group. And the despotism and consequent lack of hope are worst among a single ethnic group: young Arabs.

Furthermore, the motive force preserving the despotism is a mighty one: the world’s dependence on a single, scarce fossil fuel. The scarcer and more expensive oil gets, the more resources tyrants have to oppress their people, and the less the rest of us dare upset the energy apple cart to help set them free.

This is one of the two logical knots we must yet untie to see the real end of history and bring on a global golden age. (The other is climate change.) Convince the Pakistanis to wipe Al Qaeda from their border provinces, with our help, and this great dilemma will still remain. Until the oppressed Islamic masses are freed, the threat of terrorism also will remain.

Our President is a wise and thoughtful man. He understands these things. He therefore knows that mopping up terrorists in the AfPak region is only the beginning of a long and painful struggle for global and entirely necessary social change. He also knows that demonizing the Taliban, most of whom seek only peace, stability and ethnic liberation for their Pashtun tribes, is not the best path to a solution.

If all his understanding and wisdom dampen our “animal spirits,” so be it. Our species will survive, if at all, because we are Homo sapiens. We can safely leave animal spirits to entertainers like Dubya, Giuliani, Limbaugh, Palin, and Boehner. We need policy born of wisdom, not more entertainment. We tend to get into trouble when we confuse the two.

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01 December 2009

President Obama’s War Speech


Tonight the President did what he had to do. He told us what we already knew: the nation he most wants to build is our own. Yet like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson before him, he felt the pull of destiny.

Where that pull will lead is still unknown. Harry Truman’s war produced the economic miracle of South Korea, an object lesson in democracy and free markets for the entire world. Lyndon Johnson’s produced the first abject American defeat in history.

The tragic irony of Johnson’s war is that its end result—the Vietnam of today—bears no resemblance to what leaders feared at the time. While hardly South Korea, Vietnam is becoming a modern, market-based economy under the increasingly incongruous banner of so-called Communism. In that respect it is much like China, a nation that we can all thank God was too big and powerful for rash action on our part.

Perhaps the President was right in rejecting the Vietnam analogy. There are many differences between Afghanistan today and Vietnam forty years ago. But the greatest lesson of Vietnam still rings true: neither our fears nor our pride proved justified. The sky didn’t fall when we “lost” Vietnam. Vietnam has done pretty well among the community of nations all by itself, without our help.

A man of rare intelligence, judgment and humility, the President seems to have taken those lessons to heart, even while rejecting the analogy. The most striking thing about his speech was its limits: limits in objectives, limits in time, and limits in patience for reforms on the part of our Afghan “partner.”

There was no talk of great deeds and “victory,” let alone glory. The notion of war as glory vanished with the nineteenth century and the advent of industrialized slaughter. World War I drove the lesson home, with its mounds of corpses in trenches—rotting monuments to the eternal glory of kings and emperors.

Today we fight not for glory, nor territory, nor flag, nor pride, but to preserve and strengthen a fragile international system that has brought more prosperity and happiness to more people than ever since time began. That’s why so many allies are with us, despite their doubts. Our modern co-dependent globe is increasingly vulnerable to violent extremists. Someone must fight them, and destiny has forced us to wear the mantle.

The President understands how heavy is that cloak of responsibility and hardship. The smile that lights up rooms made no appearance during his speech.

If there is such a thing as the “central front on the war on terror,” it is in that border region of Pakistan where Al Qaeda and Mullah Omar are hiding. They think they are close enough in miles and years to capture some of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and make themselves invincible—fanatics with the power of gods. No president could ignore that threat or fail to do everything he could to meet it. My own hope is that our “surge” will meet Pakistan’s just at the border, having cleansed the land of these apostles of doom, at least for the time being.

And so the President did what he had to do. He authorized a surge without which Pakistan’s first serious assault on extremists might wither and die. He showed the “resolve . . . unwavering” that every decent Afghan needs to resist terror and join the world community. He promised the aid and training that Afghans needs to build their own security and find a peaceful, prosperous life after thirty years of war. And he proposed an early exit, to keep both his own political party intact and his program to rebuild America on track.

That proposal, too, was carefully hedged. Any exit in 2011 will depend on “conditions on the ground.” Anyone who has followed the President understands that he acts on facts, evidence and data, not preconceptions or ideology. So his exit “timetable” is a goal, nothing more. Whether he can make it real depends upon the skill and luck of our superb military forces, whom the President has given 90% of what they asked for.

But all the gossip about this false “deadline” was beside the point. The speech’s most important point was the following sentence: “We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.”

The Taliban are not all our enemy. Some are. Many are not. Many think they are but might be persuaded to change their minds.

Most Taliban are illiterate farmers, former soldiers or mujahedeen. If they can read at all, then know only the Quran. If you gave them a globe and asked them to locate New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles—let alone Poughkeepsie or Peoria—they could not do it if their lives depended on it. All they want is peace and stability in their homeland. They turn to Islamic law because its promise, on paper, is the only law (besides the gun) that they have known for thirty years.

We lost in Vietnam because we badly misjudged a national liberation movement that the Communists had commandeered. The President said as much tonight. But the Taliban are the closest thing Afghanistan has had to a national liberation movement during the last thirty years. If we want to lose, the best thing we can do is declare them our enemy and fight them as such. If we want to win, we must neutralize their most extreme elements and co-opt the rest.

Our military leaders seem to understand this point. One hopes the President’s constant reference to “the Taliban” was for American ears only, a sop to members of his own party who need to be reminded why we are in this war and to our right wing, which has fully internalized Dubya’s demonization of the Taliban. If we are have any chance of success at a reasonable cost, our military forces on the ground must deal with Taliban when they can. Some day we may have to explain why our “partner” (the Karzai government) is inviting them to assume political power.

None of that should matter to us if Al Qaeda and its terrorist training camps are gone and the remaining Taliban limit their ambitions to governing Afghanistan. The Pakistanis can take care of themselves, at least with our indirect help.

So exorcise them how he will, the ghosts of Vietnam are not yet done with President Obama. David Brooks summons them every time he moans about the “moral atrocity” of a Taliban takeover. For those of us of a certain age, those words eerily recall the “lawless, Godless, atheist” Vietcong.

Nations that go to war to impose their morality on others have a limited future, especially in the twenty-first century. If we want to retain our national sanity and regain a semblance of our former greatness, we should not go to war every time someone somewhere in the world commits what we see as a moral atrocity. We should go to war only to protect our own clear interests and (if the cost is limited and bearable) to help our friends protect theirs. We ought to observe these laws of life especially carefully after our economic collapse.

Our interests in Afghanistan are simple and limited. They are: (1) to capture or kill the remaining perpetrators of 9/11; (2) to shut down their training camps and bases of operation; and (3) to insure that the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are willing and able to prevent their return. As long as all of us keep these goals in mind, we may have a chance to meet our objectives at a cost in lives, money and attention low enough to avoid destroying any chance we still may have of arresting our continuing national decline.

The President’s speech was a good beginning. But the trail of war is long and steep. Intoxicating dreams of “victory” and “glory” beckon us toward slippage on either side.

Let us hope our President keeps his sobriety and humility and stays on the wagon for the duration. Lyndon Johnson didn’t. His otherwise good soul no doubt turns in torment for that single big mistake.

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