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 March 2010

“The Defiant Ones”


Anyone who wants to understand America today should rent this 1958 movie. Although produced a half-century ago, it’s a perfect metaphor for where we are today. Politicians and policy makers should watch it several times.

The movie stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis. They play two men, black and white, bound together with leg chains in a Southern chain gang. They escape early in the film, still chained together. They run from deputies and bloodhounds, through swamps and bayous, fighting each other and cursing their sorry fate. Slowly, painfully, they come to understand that their fates are intertwined. They begin to cooperate.

The plots moves through a bleak landscape of the postwar rural South. The men get help―often begrudging―from white people who are poverty-stricken and almost as desperate as they. They get betrayed for bounty. Eventually poor whites free them from their bonds. They part for a while, only to realize their chances for escape are still better together.

In the final scene, they race to catch a freight train that will make their getaway, but the white man can’t keep up. Trying to pull the man who has become his friend aboard, the black man loses his balance. He falls out of the boxcar, and both roll down the embankment as the baying bloodhounds draw near. Cradling his injured and exhausted friend in his arms, the black man sings a haunting refrain of Biblical resignation and hope delayed, but never abandoned: “Bowling Green . . . sewing machine.”

The script, acting and filming are superb. But the message is even better. White and black are bound together in America as surely as if we were chained. There is no going back. We can only go forward, together.

The film came out years before the civil rights struggle of the 1960s. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech lay five years ahead, the bloody, painful struggles and heady victories still further. No one could even imagine the three assassinations that destroyed our nation’s politics and spirit for two generations.

Much has changed in those two generations. An extraordinary man of both races sits in the White House. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a national hero, as he should be. Every well-educated person, of whatever color, knows his worth as our most important national martyr, far surpassing Nathan Hale.

But we are not there yet. The suspicion and jealousy so well depicted in the film still prevent white and black working folk from making common cause. They still prevent white working folk from realizing how much our “black” President could help them if only they’d let him.

As ever, our ruling class nurtures and inflames the suspicion and jealousy, deliberately and systematically, in a ghastly caricature of rational public policy. Divide and conquer. It’s a plan as old as Caesar.

Of course that’s what the so called “Tea Party” movement is. The recent racial and homophobic hazing of members of Congress was there from the beginning, for anyone with eyes to see. It was only a baby step from the lies that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, that his noble and steady wife was “angry,” that he wasn’t born in the United States, and many others.

How Republican leaders can keep a straight face and claim their party’s politics has not relied on racism for forty years, and does not still do so today, is beyond my comprehension. In ways small and large, they rely on racism and division every day. What else have they got? Even Alan Greenspan no longer believes their economic fairy tales.

Although nearly all conscious and virulent racists have left the Democratic party, not all Republicans are racist. Using racist brown shirts like the Tea Partiers discomfits many Republicans, but not enough to make them rebel. When bossism conflicts with aversion to racism, which threatens ruling-class control, bossism wins. Every time. Republicans are practical people, often more so than Democrats. That’s why they’re nearly always better organized and more monolithic (except on religious issues), as Will Rogers quipped [Point 10].

That’s also why the President’s organizing skills are so scary for Republicans. They can now foresee Democrats as clear winners for the first time since the New Deal.

The movie is a perfect metaphor because it is the white man who can’t catch the train. African-Americans have known for centuries what was and is going on. With Biblical perseverance, they have kept their eyes on the prize: full, unconditional equality and economic justice for all, including them. They have always known they can’t get there without whites; but many whites have been arrogant and stupid enough to think they could get there alone. Injustice is an equal-opportunity abuser.

Nevertheless, things have changed. A century ago, racism was official U.S. policy. It came from as high as the White House. Today everyone condemns it, at least in lip service. Even Republicans give equality lip service while using every cheap trick to inflame and exploit racial division.

The final reason “The Defiant Ones” is the perfect metaphor is that the descendants of Africans hold the key. Poitier manages to get on the train. You have the feeling if he had been just a little better fed and a little less weary, or Curtis just a little quicker, they would both have made it.

Just so, African-Americans hold the key to reforming America today. In the 2008 elections, when their enthusiasm and hope peaked, they began to turn the “solid” red South blue. Now their spirit seems to have waned. They can see the lies clearly, but they have trouble sustaining hope.

So the nation literally hangs in the balance. For the last decade everything of consequence has turned on a few votes in Congress or a few percent in key districts. Swing the “solid” South, and you have a whole new nation. You don’t even have to swing the whole region, just a few key states, maybe only a few districts.

Descendants of Africa nearly did it alone in 2008. If we whites can run just a little faster, we can all jump on that train. We can break free from lies that have become so ludicrous and ugly, and from “states’ rights” that have mostly stood for keeping the little guy down.

All it takes is a bit more understanding and cooperation. The president’s new push for real mortgage reform is a good start. Home is where you live whether you’re black or white. Maybe we can all together indulge our defiance of economic “leadership” that nearly destroyed the global economy and keep our homes, too.


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24 March 2010

Bossism and Racism by the Numbers


Introduction
Bossism
Racism
Conclusion

Introduction

Numbers don’t lie. They’re hard. They’re immutable. You can’t “spin” them. Honestly presented, they’re easy to understand. That’s why votes are so compelling. The three votes (out of 435) by which health-insurance reform passed were a small margin. But they did the job.

That’s also why it’s so important for us Americans to become more “numerate,” i.e., literate in math. Math can counteract the avalanche of verbal propaganda that has knocked our nation off its moorings in enlightened pragmatism and often out of its senses. For a lengthy example, read my previous post on economics and our global future.

Numbers best told the story of our 2008 presidential election. About 72% of national productivity―the states that make this nation strong and make it work―voted for Obama. Over one-third of that productivity preferred Obama to McCain by a margin of 20% or more, i.e., by a landslide.

So why is he having such trouble getting things done? Why did his mild, moderate, minor, middle-of-the-road adjustment to health insurance win the House by only three votes out of 435? In that, too, there is a numerical tale.

Bossism

For political math made simple, read the Washington Post. After the presidential election, it gave me the interactive, digital tables (of state-by-state margins in the presidential election), that I needed to do my spreadsheet and post showing GDP favoring Obama by a landslide. Recently the Post did a similar thing for health-insurance reform. It provided an interactive table showing the crucial House vote, along with the percentage of people in each district lacking health insurance.

That table revealed an astonishing fact. Of the representatives whose districts have more than twenty percent uninsured, nearly all voted “no.” Virtually all of them were from the South, plus Oklahoma.

In other words, the Members whose constituencies most need health insurance voted to deny it to them. They preferred to let their voters suffer and die destitute, without access to proper health care or any way to pay for it.

What is going on here? To say these results are odd would be understatement. House members are supposed to help their constituents, aren’t they? Why are reps from the states that most needed health-insurance reform so adamantly against reforming a broken system that denies it to large numbers of their electors?

Of course the old Solid South (now solidly Republican) wants to torpedo the President no matter what the cost. Of course there is a faint but distinct echo of the Civil War in that. We’ll get to those points later.

But I think there’s something more. Americans generally are not nay-sayers. We’re doers and achievers. At least we have been in the past. So how can the Party of No, the party of racism, the party of denial be so successful as to have Democrats running scared toward the coming midterm elections?

The answer is what I call “bossism.” Boiled down to its essence, it’s a political philosophy based on the notion that the straw boss knows best. Down on your luck? Move your home to where the jobs are, the non-union South. You won’t have to worry about disruptive strikes impairing your job. Have no health insurance? Suck it up. Subsidies, “welfare” and “socialism” would just make you weak. Free enterprise and laissez faire capitalism made this country big, strong and great. Don’t rock the boat. And financial reform? Forget it. Leave that to the big boys, who know best.

That’s bossism. It’s a transference of the slave-owner mentality to our twenty-first century, equal-opportunity economy. It keeps both African-Americans and working whites (not to mention women) in their places. It’s worked well for a long, long time, especially in the South.

This philosophy makes little sense analytically, let alone in the twenty-first century, but it makes perfect sense culturally. The South could not have existed without its landed aristocracy―including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson―and their straw bosses. That’s why the South has figured and still figures so prominently in our military culture. Theirs not to reason why . . .

How else can you explain the central anomaly of twenty-first century American politics? The poorest, least developed, least industrial and least-well-educated parts of the country consistently vote for policies that centralize and celebrate economic power concentrated elsewhere, primarily in Manhattan and on Wall Street. It is as if the Good Ol’ Boys have a collective death wish. Only culture, which takes centuries to change, provides a plausible answer.

The South loves bosses, even if they phone it in from Manhattan, because bosses have always made the South run. Notwithstanding its mild climate and drawling courtesy, the South has America’s most authoritarian culture. It raises you to say “Sir” and “Ma’am” and not to question adults or authority. That goes double if you’re female or have a darker hue.

That said, there are still some more specific questions worth asking. For one thing, how many of those anomalously high percentages of uninsured are African-American, and why? That’s a subject for a good Ph.D. thesis or two. I don’t know the answers, but I suspect that the percentage of African-Americans and working whites in these “just say no” districts who are uninsured is much higher than 20%.

Let’s suppose for a moment that this is true. Let’s suppose that there are people in the South―many of them―who repeatedly vote against their own economic interests, or who don’t vote at all, because they are imbued with a culture of bossism. Aren’t they the most fertile ground for political enlightenment in twenty-first century America?

Racism

That brings me to my second depressing topic. The recent storm of spittle on African-American House members, including the venerable civil-rights lion John Lewis, made clear the emotional heart of the Tea-Party Movement. A significant fraction of Americans―but thank God still a small minority!―will not accept a leader with black African genes no matter how good he is. These folks won’t change because their “views” are based not on facts or reason, but on deeply ingrained cultural prejudice. Only old age, death and the succession of their children, raised in the twenty-first century, will moderate their extremism.

Of course these facts should have been clear from the outset, even from the presidential election. On the merits that contest was so unequal as to have been a foregone conclusions in any rational society. If Obama had been 100% white, instead of just 50%, his victory would have made Lyndon Johnson’s landslide over Barry Goldwater look puny.

But to paraphrase That Idiot Rumsfeld, we live with the culture we have, not the one we would like. For better or worse, that includes the South, with all its overt and closet racists and working people who would be straw bosses, or will follow them to their own economic ruin.

So what can we do? The first thing, I think, is to recognize that justified outrage has limited potential for change. Bob Herbert’s recent bold column of outrage was brilliantly written and moving, but it won’t do much. Why? Because the justified outrage it reflects is a drop in the bucket. It’s like yet another rape or murder in Darfur. Whites suffer outrage fatigue, and African-Americans suffered it long ago. It’s hard to have grown up “black” in America without also growing a very, very thick skin.

Outrage may generate political contributions, but it’s a poor motivator for action. It can also precede despair. People get really active when they smell the sweet scents of victory and change, when they think their effort can make a difference at last.

That’s what happened in the presidential election. African-Americans in the South held back. Prominent leaders supported Hillary. Enthusiasm was muted and doubtful. But then northern voters, mostly white, picked Obama, and the sweet smell of victory wafted over the Mason-Dixon line. African-Americans came out in large numbers, and the Solid “Red” South began to turn blue.

That’s where the battle for America’s soul still is: where it’s been for a century and a half, in the South.

In his marvelous book A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes [pages 253-295, 321-357] how heartbreakingly close our labor movement came to rejecting racism decisively, once in the populist movement of the late nineteenth century, and again during the labor struggles before World War II. He also describes how the ruling class stumbled into cleverly exploiting racial and ethnic suspicion to hold working people back, as it had done since our Founding.

Conclusion

As an avid partisan for a smoke-free America, I still recall the best anti-tobacco ad ever conceived. It was directed toward African-Americans, and it read, “Tobacco. They enslaved us to pick it. Now they want us to smoke it.”

That ad helped save hundreds of thousands of “black” people from the scourge of tobacco. Why, I wonder, can’t we progressives be as clever, succinctly truthful and forceful in our politics as in that public-service ad?

The South holds the key to America’s future. Modernize it and its culture, and you have a whole new America. Neglect or ignore it, and the ball and chain of our Senate and its filibusters will surely drag us under. For the South’s culture of bossism and racism is among the most intransigent and resilient in human history, and old habits die hard.

We might not ever again have the same chance for changing it as we do today. We have an extraordinarily talented president whose genetic makeup symbolizes racial neutrality and change. He cut his political teeth organizing communities. We have the Internet. And though the straw bosses are still dreaming up clever ways to keep them from the polls, African-Americans now have the vote. So do poor, downtrodden working whites. What miracles might follow from organizing both groups and getting them to recognize their common interests?

When Republican straw bosses tried to ridicule the President’s community organizing, they were whistling past the graveyard. His organizing skill is precisely what they and their shills most fear.

Nationwide, our African-Americans are only twelve percent of us. In the South, their percentage is much, much higher. As objects of oppression for four centuries, they are more than normally cynical and resistant to lies and propaganda. All they need is real hope.

Virtually every issue of consequence in the last decade, including health-insurance reform, has turned on a margin of a few percent, either in Congress or the general electorate. Ten percent or so more African-Americans going faithfully to the polls might make all the difference.

If we convince African-Americans in the South to vote for their own economic interests as enthusiastically as they did for the President in 2008, we can begin to change the face of America. If we can get working whites, who have the same economic interests, to understand that simple point, we can change the South’s bossist, racist culture for once and for all. In so doing, we can transform America and change the world.

Howard Dean and his 50-state strategy were right. But this time, we should focus on the states that most need change. Nixon’s disgraceful “Southern Strategy” won the day for the troglodytes for two generations. But it was just a holding action in a slowly losing war. Time, momentum, history and demographics are on our side, not to mention justice. If we can only speed them up a bit, we will see change we really can believe in.

Let’s start with the upcoming midterm congressional elections. And let’s get some bold veterans to promote real American values, with the clout of military tradition and culture behind them.

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22 March 2010

The Morning After


Yesterday the House passed the Senate’s bill for health-insurance reform, which the President will sign. Democrats trumpeted realization of a century-old dream of universal health care. Republicans, as usual, decried rampant socialism and foretold the Republic’s imminent destruction.

Neither claim comes even close to being true. Even after all the transition periods have expired, we will still have over 15 million uninsured―about 5% of our population―only one-third of whom will be illegal immigrants. If a significant fraction of them opts to pay fines, rather than accept the “mandate” to buy insurance (at presumably higher cost), there may be more. And we will still have a health-care-system dominated by private, for-profit insurers.

With his usual penchant for accuracy and understatement, the President described yesterday as making major reform, but not radical reform. It would take radical reform, i.e., universal Medicare, to come close to realizing past presidents’ and many Americans’ dreams of simple, truly universal and reliable health care.

So what have we done? What did the House accomplish yesterday?

We seem to have established five simple principles, as follows:
1. In what is still the richest society on Earth, and the one that most prides itself on justice and fairness for individuals, it is unacceptable and embarrassing to leave 15% (moving toward 20% if the bill had not passed) without access to health care. So we’re going to cut our uninsured fraction down to about 5%.

2. Health-insurance in the United States will still be run largely by private, for-profit enterprises. The two major exceptions―Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor―will continue, and Medicaid will expand.

3. Private insurers will be required to stop their cruelest and most outrageous practices, such as excluding pre-existing conditions and dropping or gouging insured people when they get sick.

4. We will experiment with various means, including governmental regulation of exorbitant rates, state-by-state insurance “exchanges,” fees for outcomes and quality (rather than just for services), and standardization of data processing, to make the system work better and control costs.

5. When all the dust settles and the transition periods end, people who get their insurance through their employers will have “portability,” i.e., their health insurance won’t lock them into a job they hate.


That’s about it. Now that wasn’t so bad (or good), was it?

At least this list hits most of the points I made over two years ago about what consumers really want. [search for “Any system”]

Unfortunately, our President, one of our brightest, most talented and most admirable leaders in the last half-century, is going to have to spend the next six months of his precious time explaining these simple points to dummies. In the process, he is going to have to overcome another flood of lies and propaganda, which presumably will be more subtle and less obviously ridiculous this time.

Then there are the legal challenges. I’ve made some mistakes on this blog, and one of my biggest was overestimating Chief Justice Roberts. I thought he was sincere in his Senate hearings. But he seems to have snookered both the Senate and the nation with his good looks, charm and carefully calculated silences. His votes and opinions on the Court so far reveal him to be the worst sort of results-oriented ideologue (aka, “judicial activist”) who ever sat on the Court. And its seems that rest of the Court’s conservative ideological wing (Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas) will follow wherever he leads, with Scalia and Thomas leading the charge yet further into the Right-Wing Flames of Hell.

So there should be four reliable votes on the Court to beat back or emasculate health-insurance reform, beginning with its “mandates.” As usual, Justice Anthony Kennedy will set our nation’s course and seal our fate.

I have more confidence in him than perhaps his decisive vote in Citizens United (the corporate “speech” case) would suggest. He has always been as close to an absolutist on the First Amendment as we have on the Court today. When it comes to allowing the people to set their own policy on as vital a matter as health care, I think he will let Congress rule.

It’s not as if we don’t have precedent. Seat-belt and motorcycle-helmet laws raised the very same arguments for unchecked personal liberty and against government paternalism, and they passed constitutional muster. Health insurance is more expensive than seat belts or motorcycle helmets, but the principle is the same: society has the right to require individuals to buy things that make them safer when their safety, in large numbers, impacts the viability of society as a whole. Health insurance differs only in degree, not kind, and I think Justice Kennedy will so hold.

As for myself, I’m now agnostic on mandates, at least those in the bill now passed. I opposed mandates (and Hillary) strongly (1, 2, 3 and 4) during the presidential primaries, in part because I believe that economic legislation works bests when it cleverly adjusts the economy, instead of mandating an economic result. But my major objection was always political. I thought mandates played into the demagogues’ hands.

In that I seem to have been wrong. Rather than rely on the single credible argument against the President’s plan, the demagogues turned to outrageous and obvious lies, including “death panels,” “government takeovers,” and pitting their own pitiful knowledge of economics against the nonpartisan CBO’s expert predictions.

Who could have predicted that all Republicans would follow Village Idiot John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove over this cliff of ignominy? In attributing basic rationality to our elected representatives, even Republicans, I was insufficiently cynical. I thought Boehner and crew would rely on decent but weak arguments rather than bald lies. Mea culpa.

As for substance, the new law is supposed to add 32 million insured. That’s a bit over 10% of our 307 million population. Most of them will be overjoyed to get some fairly-conceived, reliable health insurance that they can afford. A few will grumble at the mandate, and even fewer will skip the insurance and pay the fine. I can’t imagine that the entire population of dissenters (including unwilling buyers and fine-payers) will exceed of 5% of the whole. (Maybe that’s why the demagogues didn’t take this bait.) In accounting, 5% is barely material.

Paul Krugman thinks the mandates are what make the system work, because otherwise young, healthy people would opt out, making the pool smaller and raising premiums. I can’t see how 5% more or less will make much of a difference, either in the pool or in financing. If our state-by-state and employer-by-employer pools are too small now, as I believe they are, they are too small by a factor of at least two or more, not just 5%. And in a world where private premiums go up as much as 39% every year, a 5% one-time hit is not going to make much difference. Krugman may have a Nobel Prize in economics, but the numbers just don’t impress me, and there are too many unknowns to predict anything accurately.

So economically, I don’t think mandates matter much either way. And politically their day is past. It’s up to the courts to judge them now.

In my view the bill’s worst feature is its provision for insurance exchanges. According to reports I have read, they will operate state by state. That is, they will do nothing to establish the national insurance pool and national market for health insurance that we so sorely need. And they will allow states ideologically committed to maximizing private profit, such as Texas, to ignore or emasculate the exchanges and make them irrelevant.

To get an idea how likely this is, peruse the Washington Post’s tally of final House votes on the bill, showing what percentage of citizens lacks health insurance in each Member’s district. If you focus on Members representing 20% or more uninsured who voted no, you’ll find nearly all hail from southern states, plus Oklahoma. In other words, the states that most need universal health insurance are the ones most ideologically opposed to providing it.

Arranging so-called “exchanges” on a state-by-state basis means that exchanges in these states will accomplish nothing. There’s some poetic justice in that. Maybe some day citizens of these states will wake up and discover how states’ rights and a pack of lies have undermined their individual economic interests. Then maybe they will hold their representatives accountable.

On the other hand, exchanges will provide an additional option for big progressive states like California, Massachusetts and New York, which mostly don’t need them. So a lot more needs to done providing alternatives to the current private health-insurance market nationwide.

In the final analysis, this exhausting year-long debate has been much ado about little. We haven’t solved the health-care cost problem or even postponed the cost explosion. We haven’t mandated a “government takeover” or replaced private bureaucrats with government ones. But we will have restricted the private bureaucrats’ worst cruelties. And in bringing an additional ten percent of our population into the health-care system, we will have made all of us more secure. Finally, as Krugman has noted, we even managed to get Congress to disbelieve a pack of outrageous lies―by a margin of 3 out of 535.

With Pablo Picasso, we can say that these results are a whole lot better than the alternatives. But they are hardly cause for victorious wassailing, notwithstanding all the work it took to get here.

Now it’s back to work. We still have a nation to save. Our national glide path on climate change, energy independence and financial reform is still unambiguously down. The good news is that our talented President, now clearly a winner, has more energy and power to pull up on the stick.

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21 March 2010

All Hail the Speaker!


When I was little, my late mother kept a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I on our family piano. There was the Queen, five inches high, wearing a stiff, pleated, uncomfortable collar. With her hair drawn back under her small crown, she looked attractive, severe and monarchical―a little like Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.

English royalty fascinated my mother. But unlike many Americans, she not only knew their names and numbers. She also knew what they had done, in detail.

Having no interest in royalty myself, I wrote off her obsession as a rare mental aberration. Years later, I discovered that my mother had been a closet feminist long before the word or the movement existed. It was decades before I myself got interested in history and learned that Queen Elizabeth I had altered its course.

Yesterday the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal ran stories of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s full-court press to get health-insurance reform done. The Wall Street Journal reported the words of a young Congressman and Iraq veteran on Pelosi’s style. His “respectful conversations” with her, he said, imposed “no more pressure than flying missions out of Baghdad.” I’ll bet recalcitrant dukes and officials in Queen Elizabeth I’s court felt much the same way, after she had focused her rapier-like wit and imperial mein on them.

I don’t mean to compare Speaker Pelosi with Queen Elizabeth I. Few leaders in human history, male or female, can match that Queen’s impact. Elizabeth I took a fractious island full of feuding religions and warring family clans and turned it into the foundation of modern England and our globalized world. Modern science, modern technology and modern economics are in part byproducts of her rule.

She didn’t do it all herself, of course. Lots of good and important things were happening in England at about that time. Among them was Shakespeare admonishing us “above all, to thine own self be true”―advice that Abe Lincoln and our current President had to repeat in their times. Yet the culture of enlightened pragmatism that Elizabeth I instilled in England eventually came to enrich the world and make English a universal second language.

Nancy Pelosi’s speakership comes at a different sort of turning point. A great nation―the successor to England’s enlightened pragmatism―is in decline. The cause of the trouble is much the same as in the monarch’s time: incessant squabbling among unruly boys. The squabbling is no longer bloody and by force of arms, but it is similarly destructive. By ramming health-insurance-reform through the House and knocking heads to do it, Speaker Pelosi may have helped set our culture back on the track of enlightened pragmatism.

Queen Elizabeth I never married and had no children. Although no one knows whether she died a virgin, in the male-obsessed society of her time she knew she could rule well only alone. What a difference we have today, when Speaker Pelosi can take the helm of the House as a happy grandmother!

Our best president in forty years couldn’t do it alone. Renowned “pit bull” Rahm Emmanuel wimped out and argued for half measures. Squabbling among Democrats, coupled with the unrelenting obstinacy of the Party of No, threatened to make our country ungovernable. Who could have guessed that our own Iron Lady would rise to save the day, and that she would be a still-pretty, seventy-year-old Catholic grandmother from the “ultra-liberal” city of San Francisco. Now, at last, the nation’s girls and women have a real leader to emulate!

When the dust settles, Speaker Pelosi should write a book―maybe several―explaining how she did it. News articles, blogs and TV interviews won’t be enough to teach our children, let alone posterity.

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19 March 2010

A Dozen Reasons for House Members to Vote for Health-Insurance Reform


[Readers: please feel free to send this list to your representatives, over your own signature if you like.]

[For my predictions for Sunday, click here.]

1. To restore America’s pragmatism and show the world we can solve at least one tough problem, even if it took a century.

2. To keep twenty-first century America from becoming Dickensian England, with our poor and working class literally rotting and festering in every dark corner of every city.

3. To realize a century-long dream of Republican and Democratic presidents, including Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, FDR, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton.

4. To help us match our developed trading partners’ far more humane, better performing and far cheaper health-care systems.

5. To take part of the social-cost millstone from around our industries’ and businesses’ necks so that they can better compete with their global rivals.

6. To save yourself and your family from 50 million untreated “vectors” of the next pandemic or a bio-terror plague.

7. To show that our system of government is still capable of governing and achieving important goals.

8. To acknowledge expertise in general, and the CBO’s in particular, when it says that the bill will reduce the deficit.

9. To give our President a fighting chance to govern and arrest our national decline.

10. [For Democrats] To give the lie, for a brief moment, to Will Rogers’ old joke that “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

11. [For Republicans] To buy some insurance against the people waking up from the spell of your clever propaganda of fear―maybe as early as November―and discovering that for eighteen years your party has done nothing significant (besides a school-improvement project that badly needs repair) but start two wars, emasculate our once-superb government and military in the name of privatization, make money-lenders and paper shufflers obscenely rich, destroy the global economy, explode our deficit (under Dubya), and turn Congress into a mud-wrestling arena―all in the name of fairy-tale ideology.

12. [For both parties, especially new Members] To have something to say on your deathbed, when your grandchildren ask, “Did you do anything important in Congress to improve the lives of ordinary people, or did you just spend campaign contributions and the people’s money, make speeches, and score political points?”

MY PREDICTIONS (7:30 A.M. Sunday): It is now possible to make two predictions with some confidence. First, Obama’s historic push for health-insurance reform will succeed.

Besides momentum, I base this prediction on two things. First, success depends on House Democrats alone. When the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal run simultaneous stories praising Speaker Pelosi’s skill in corraling this herd of cats, you know that she’s done the job. Second, most, if not all, of the anti-abortion Democrats will eventually vote for the bill, but only after holding out as long as they can to get as much press as they can on their agonizing over abortion to appease their constituencies. When push comes to shove, they will come home as Democrats. They won’t risk losing the party’s support.

My second prediction is that this win will solidify the president’s leadership, as well as the Speaker’s. Nothing succeeds like success. John Boehner―undoubtedly the stupidest high-profile politician in America today―doesn’t understand this simple fact: Americans like winners. He also doesn’t understand that repeatedly claiming the sky is falling only works until people begin to notice it hasn’t fallen. As the President wryly noted in his pep talk to Democrats, the sky isn’t going to fall when the bill passes. Once people see things getting much better, not worse, Boehner’s credibility will be down in the single digits, as is appropriate for our national village idiot.

Governing the American people these days is like “breaking” a never-ridden, high-spirited and easily-spooked pony. It takes a firm hand, courage, infinite patience, and perseverance. But after a while, the people get used to a new rider, despite the noise of the crowd, and whatever the rider’s clothing or the color of his skin. By this time tomorrow, the President, with Pelosi’s aid, will have broken the pony and will be taking an historic victory lap around the ring. Anyone who thinks this outcome will impair the Democrats’ prospects for the coming midterm elections has taken leave of his or her senses.

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17 March 2010

What Is Bibi Up To?


Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing prime minister, has given the phrase “plausible deniability” a whole new meaning. He says he was not aware that even-farther-right-wing Shas Party officials would announce a new phase of Israeli settlements in Palestinian parts of East Jerusalem just as Joe Biden landed to help make peace.

For two reasons, it’s hard to believe that Bibi didn’t know. First, ignorance of such a slap in the America’s face would reflect a surprising level of ineptitude. Second, the probable consequences of that slap and the new settlements are easy to predict. And they suggest a motive fully consistent with Bibi’s history and world view.

Netanyahu’s folly has alienated just about everyone but Orthodox true believers in Israel. Of course he’s alienated Joe Biden, the best Catholic friend Israel has in high places in the United States. He’s also alienated our President, who planned to spend lots of energy and political capital trying to make peace and now appears to have concluded that that energy and capital would be wasted. In the process, Netanyahu has alienated a lot of thinking Americans, including Jews, who are getting tired of paying for and supporting an extreme and intransigent religious vision for Israel that, if the truth be told, is not always easy to distinguish from the Taliban’s vision for Islam.

Further consequences of all this alienation are also not hard to see. As Israel’s friends recoil, Israel’s people feel more isolated. In a nation where paranoia is understandable, if not justified, that feeling of isolation pulls Israel toward the right. At the same time, Bibi has pulled the rug out from under cooperation and compromise throughout the Muslim world―in Palestine, in Hamas, in Hezbollah, and of course in Iran. Ahmadinejad can now tell his people, with greater credibility, that Israel is hell bent on displacing the Palestinian people and that talk of peace is a charade. Support inside Iran for Ahmmadinejad’s nuclear brinksmanship grows.

The end result: Iran makes more noise and maybe some more movement toward nuclear power and possibly nuclear weapons. Israel makes a pre-emptive strike, and we and the rest of the world have to pick up the pieces.

Thus, the most rational interpretation of Bibi’s “mistake” is the first step in a complex diplomatic dance designed to “justify” a coming pre-emptive aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Mareen Dowd’s column today, suggesting the Bibi put “zoning and earmarks” above peace, was incredibly naive. No thinking politician would do that, let alone one who is so far right that the Israeli right wing has no where else to run.

So what should we and other outsiders do? There may be no stopping Israel, and many Americans won’t want to try. If “we” can pummel Iran’s nuclear research and uranium-enrichment facilities with others doing the work, the fighting and the dying, why not let them?

The problem is twofold. First, the “pummeling” is not guaranteed. Iran’s recently-discovered nascent uranium plant at Qom showed us that Iran has the technology and means to dig deep. It may be that Iran wanted us to find the site at Qom, to convince us that there may be other such sites and that aerial strikes would therefore be futile. In other words, Iran may be bluffing, and Natanz and the other known nuclear sites may be the only ones it has.

If so, a pre-emptive strike might be successful, for a while. But Iran is not going anywhere, and a pre-emptive strike would only embolden Ahmadinejad and the Basij and lead them to crush Iran’s domestic opposition. So unless we and/or Israel are ready to commit ground troops to force “regime change” as we did in Iraq, a pre-emptive strike would extinguish the best and easiest chance for “regime change” with minimal bloodshed: letting Iran’s own people accomplish it.

Not only that. Iran is not Iraq or Syria―the sites of Israel’s earlier, successful pre-emptive strikes. Iran has 70 million people, not too far from twice as many as Iraq and Syria combined. Unlike either Iraq or Syria, Iran is a modern industrial nation with a strong, relatively modern air force and an army that held off Saddam’s for eight years. Outside of Israel, it probably has the best-trained military with the largest contingent of hardened veterans in the entire Middle East.

Whether Iran decides to retaliate by air, by sea, or (less likely) by land, a pre-emptive strike may give Ahmadinejad just the war he needs to consolidate his dictatorship, increase Iran’s influence and, in the process, wreak havoc in the Middle East. If Iran retaliates, what follows will be no picnic for Israel (with about a tenth of Iran’s population) or for the region. Iran has the missiles and ordinance to make Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s most recent bombardments seem like a light rain. And who would bet on Iran failing to retaliate?

Perhaps the only thing preventing an Iranian ground invasion of Israel is geography: Iran and Israel are not contiguous. But Syria might be persuaded to allow Iranian troops to pass through, as it did in the Iraq war, making the war a ground war for Israel’s survival against formidable odds. The chance that Israel might then have to resort to its nuclear arsenal is far from zero.

Bibi has signaled Israel’s near-term intentions to anyone who can read the signs. The dangers to Israel of inaction while Iran purifies uranium are clear. The dangers of a pre-emptive strike are less so. No matter how thorough and crushing Israel’s pre-emptive strike, Israel will never know whether it has stopped Iran’s nuclear program completely, or for how long. What follows will likely be war, the extent of which is impossible to predict. What is possible to predict is that Ahamdinejad and Iran’s hard-line clerics will have the excuse they need to consolidate their iron rule, that any chance of indigenous reform within Iran will be put off for a decade, if not a generation, and that hatred of Israel among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims will flare to new heights.

These are not pretty choices, and no one can envy Bibi’s dilemma. But one might hope that, in this extremity, a man less sure than Bibi of God’s favor had the reins. A realist would not rely on God to insure a short-term win, or to keep an ambiguous, pyrrhic short-term victory from becoming an horrendous long-term mistake. Only a great leader can do that. Unfortunately Bibi, despite his flawless English, has shown few signs of rising to the occasion.

Addendum: Whither Israel in Crisis?

Careful readers of this blog will note a change in position. Over three years ago, I recommended unmanned aerial pre-emptive strikes against Iran as a last resort, if diplomacy and democracy (in Iran) failed. Now I think that pre-emptive strikes, manned or unmanned, would be unwise.

Why the change? The answer is simple: changed circumstances. Much in the world has changed in the three-plus years since December 2006, when I wrote the post entitled “Avoiding World War III.”

First, Iran’s nuclear development has gone much more slowly than I expected. When I wrote that post, I thought Iran would have a bomb by now, or at very least a working nuclear reactor of its own design.

I can think of only three possible reasons for the delay. First, Iran’s scientists and engineers may be more inept than those in either Pakistan or North Korea.

As someone who had occasional contact with some of Iran’s many students here when we were friendly with Iran, in the 1960s and 1970s, I doubt that. Those students seemed just as bright as anyone else and more intellectually curious (perhaps because their home, under the Shah, was a totalitarian intellectual wasteland.) But it’s possible that I was deceived, or that Iran’s youth today is not as bright.

Second―and more probable―Iran may be telling the truth about its goals and motives. It may simply resent the West and Russia telling it, “you can’t have nuclear technology,” but not have any present plans for developing nuclear weapons, let alone a nuclear first strike.

Ahmadinejad is a little man, in every sense of those words. Above all, little men crave respect. He may personify the cultural inferiority complex of an ancient society that the West ran like a puppet for most of the twentieth century and that now has suffered for over three decades under a failed Islamic revolution.

What gives this theory additional credence is the predilection for bluffing in that part of the world. Scholars now understand, for example, that Ramses I of ancient Egypt was a far better propagandist than a general. By what today we would call “public relations,” he convinced foreign enemies that an indecisive battle had been a great victory for Egypt and that Egypt’s armies were invincible. His clever propaganda, which included building impressive monuments on Egypt’s borders, combined with effective diplomacy to expand Egypt’s borders a bit and to expand lucrative trade a lot, without much war.

Ramses probably deserves his reputation for greatness, but not because he was a great warrior. He deserves it because he brought his people prosperity without unnecessary loss of life.

After tremendous investment, effort and loss of life, we learned recently that Saddam had been bluffing about WMD. How many more times do we have to learn the lesson that cultures in that part of the world have been known to bluff?

A final reason for Iran’s delay in developing nuclear technology might be more sinister. Iran may be trying to bury it, as it apparently had intended to do at Qom. Digging deep underground caverns for centrifuges―and for the massive electric generators they require―takes time. But this, too, may be a bluff. Iran may have let us stumble upon Qom just to convince us, like Ramses, that Iran’s nuclear program is underground and unstoppable.

Only American and Israeli intelligence services can determine with any accuracy whether Iran is building a massive nuclear development complex underground, in locations as yet uncharted. I have no field agents and won’t speculate on that issue. But my instincts tell me Iran is conflicted: its people and leadership are undecided, and its nuclear program is consequently proceeding far more slowly than everyone feared. Religion also may be playing a part. It’s hard to square the massive, indiscriminate slaughter wrought by nuclear weapons with any religion, let alone real Islam. There are no doubt Islamic scholars inside Iran who are just as opposed to its developing nuclear weapons as we are.

The second and most important changed circumstance underlying my change in position is last year’s abortive “Green Revolution,” which followed Iran’s leaders’ obvious attempt to steal the elections. Three years ago, the so-called “Islamic Republic” seemed impregnable and immutable, just like the old Soviet Union.

In the early eighties, a succession of aging and inept tyrants governed what is now (again) Mother Russia. (Does this scenario sound familiar?) No one predicted the early fall of their crazy economic system. But fall it did, and with astonishing suddenness and rapidity.

Can the same thing happen in Iran? I think so. The Iranian people are not stupid, and they have far better access to global media than ordinary Russians did in the old Soviet Union. We Americans waited nearly half a century, under real threat of mutual annihilation, for the Russian people and their leaders to come to their senses. And they did. The fearsome Soviet Union vanished as suddenly as it had been born, but without all the blood. Sometimes the best “regime change” comes from within.

A pre-emptive strike may have made sense when there were no cracks in the mullahs’ wall. Now there are many. The “Green Revolution” may take a decade to mature, but mature it will, if we give it time.

In the meantime, we Americans can send a message to the mullahs. We can let them know that we have several nuclear submarines perpetually circling Iran, against which Iran has no defense. We can inform them that each has several 50-megaton thermonuclear warheads (which actually work!) targeted on Tehran and Qom in case of any nuclear first strike by Iran against Israel or anyone else. Iran’s leaders are not stupid; they are just inept. They won’t risk letting their leading cities become toast.

So an uneasy stalemate will prevail, allowing democracy and common sense to develop inside Iran at their own pace, just as they did in the old Soviet Union. We Americans waited 44 years after the end of World War II for that to happen. The Israelis can wait a few more, arming and preparing themselves as they may feel necessary for the war that we all hope will never come.

If it continues, Bibi’s apparent current strategy would upset the applecart, and soon. It would trigger a war that no one needs (which might fail to achieve even its short-term ends), and that would almost certainly arrest the slow democratization process now under way in Iran. Sometimes the hardest but most effective strategy in the face of threats is patience.

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13 March 2010

The “Texas Question” Answered


To the citizens of Texas:

WHEREAS, you have bitten the federal hand that feeds you, cursed it, and then gladly taken our money without shame;

WHEREAS, your Board of Education has decided to rewrite the history of Texas, the world, and science, including evolution;

WHEREAS, you are seeking to expunge from your school books the memory of our Founder Thomas Jefferson, just because he advanced the separation of church and state;

WHEREAS, you have declared the United States―a nation with a four-century tradition of religious tolerance―to be exclusively a Christian nation;

WHEREAS, you have given us a president (George “Dubya” Bush) who has bankrupted us, destroyed our economy, and exposed us to universal derision and scorn, to the perverted delight of late-night comics;

WHEREAS, you have given us the only White-House operative (Karl Rove) to install Soviet-style political commissars in our Department of Justice and other federal agencies;

WHEREAS, you have given us the only president (Lyndon Johnson) to involve us in a major losing war (our longest war yet);

WHEREAS, you have given us far more than your proportionate share of political hypocrites, losers and swindlers (Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, Jeff Skilling, Ken Lay);

WHEREAS, you once atoned for your many sins and insufferable crudity by sending us plenty of crude oil, but now have no more to send us;

WHEREAS, your willingness to be governed by ideology, regardless of facts and evidence, properly places you in the old Soviet Union, but that nation is no more;

WHEREAS, asking the Soviet Union’s successor state to take you in would be an insult to its leader, Vladimir Putin, who can speak at least two foreign languages well, whereas you cannot speak your own language without constant grammatical errors, profanity and an accent that offends the ear;

WHEREAS, these United States admitted you under false pretences, to wit: (1) that you are reasonable; (2) that you are democratic; (3) that you believe in justice and fair play; and (4) that you are generally civilized men and women;

WHEREAS, General Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón―an arrogant, incompetent, imperialistic, bombastic and vainglorious leader like those you have consistently sent us to represent you―is no longer alive to lead you forward;

NOW, THEREFORE,

WE THE PEOPLE of the United States, in cyberspace assembled, do hereby, forthwith and without further ado, expel you from these United States and return you to Mexico, from whence you came.

The following rules and regulations will govern your expulsion and your relationship henceforth with these United States:

1. Your predilection for governance by arbitrary caudillos should make you at home with your spiritual cousins, the Michoacán Drug Cartel. Differences of opinion will be amicably settled in accordance with Texas tradition, by automatic weapons fire.

2. Visas to these United States will be strictly limited. Michael Dell and other rare Texas business leaders, who created profitable enterprises independent of swindling, war profiteering and abuse of fossil fuels, will receive lifetime visas. Phil Gramm may apply for a three-month re-education visa upon receiving an undergraduate degree in economics from any university outside of Texas.

3. All other Texans will be granted 10-day limited visas after being searched at the border for concealed weapons. Visas will be renewable once only, on proof of good character.

4. Any Texan found carrying a concealed weapon at the border will be placed, nude, in solitary confinement for six months. Therein he or she will be required to eat fine French food daily and to listen to “Gansta Rap” eighteen hours per day. Any Texan surviving this treatment will be deported back to Texas.

5. Income from United States sources payable to citizens or residents of Texas will be taxed as follows: (1) capital gains 75%; (2) contributions to hypocritical religious “leaders” 95%; (3) political contributions generated by lies, 99%. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that these taxes will balance our federal budget in two years.

6. After a transition period, Texas will adopt a new currency, whose value against the dollar will float, unless China takes pity on Texas and pegs it to the renminbi.

7. Texans applying for residence in the United States will be required to demonstrate proficiency in the English or Spanish language, without use of profanity, Spanglish, or flagrant abuse of grammar in either language. Those with a mellifluous accent will be given priority, as will those who know what “mellifluous” means.

8. All Texans applying for United States citizenship will be required to pass a comprehensive examination on the United States Constitution, the history of the United States, the history of the world, and especially the Enlightenment, as those of us who are already citizens understand them. Use of Texan textbooks to study for this examination is strongly discouraged. Texans who can define “Enlightenment,” with or without the capital “E,” will receive priority.

9. Texas may keep its many military bases, but all personnel stationed there will be given the option to relocate.

10. All nuclear weapons and nuclear material will be removed from Texas immediately for the safety and security of Homo sapiens.

11. As a condition of receiving a visa to enter the United States, all Texans under eighteen years of age will be required to write an essay explaining the differences between Christianity as practiced in Texas and Islam as practiced by the Taliban.

12. Effective immediately upon publication of textbooks based on the recent declarations of the Texas Board of Education, Texas’ high-school graduates will be ineligible to apply for admission to any college or university in the United States without first passing a high-school equivalency examination in any state of the United States.

We Americans wish you Texans well.  ¡Adios!  The Republic of Texas was a far better idea than the state: a people that demands its own versions of history and science deserves to live alone.

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10 March 2010

Working Quietly and Well


For all those Obama supporters who are losing hope and losing faith, I have just one word: “don’t.” Don’t lose hope. Don’t lose faith. Don’t give up.

Over a year ago, I described our President as the iron fist in the velvet glove. Many people fail to see the iron fist because Obama brings it round ever so slowly and deliberately, albeit with crushing force. Many more people fail even to glimpse the velvet glove because they are focused obsessively on our dysfunctional Senate and media.

But if you pay careful attention to detail and nuance, you will see both at work. The iron fist―in the form of a filibuster-evading budget reconciliation bill―will bring us health-insurance reform, despite all the gridlock and noise in the Senate. And I suspect it will do so late this summer, just before the 2010 election campaign begins in earnest, when it will do the President and his party the most political good. Anyone who thinks the President is not a master of patience and timing hasn’t been paying very close attention.

Unbeknownst to many, the velvet glove has been equally hard at work. My favorite example is still the industry-wide agreement that Obama and his energy-environmental coordinator Carol Browner forged to increase automobile fuel-efficiency standards. If you’ve been around since before the seventies, as I have, you know how contentious, difficult and incremental changes in these crucial industry parameters have been. Every administration that made a regulatory advance had to sweat blood, enduring endless demagoguery from the right. Then, after succeeding in writing advances into regulatory or statutory law, it had to endure years or even decades of litigation before car makers finally settled down to doing what had to be done (and what, despite their protestations, had been technologically feasible all along).

Not Obama. By getting car makers to agree, he avoided all the sturm und drang and yet achieved the same result. Not only that. He did it at a time when domestic car makers were losing badly to their foreign competitors, when car sales were universally tanking and when Japanese hybrids were the only models showing steady increases in consumer interest. In other words, Obama inked the deal at precisely the time when industry and economic conditions gave him the maximum amount of leverage and even made some car CEOs see the light. Tell me our President doesn’t understand timing!

An even more important example appeared in the news today. The Washington Post reported on an extraordinary initiative to establish, for the first time ever, uniform national standards for what it means to be an educated American. All but a handful of states appears poised to adopt the standards, which will be published in full tomorrow.

Again, those like me who recall the past can be excused for being astonished. In the past, every national attempt to establish uniform standards for education has met determined (and usually successful) opposition flying the banner of “states rights” and the Confederate flag. The most determined opponents usually came from the states that most needed to improve their education.

Not this time. The new standards have nothing to do with Washington. Ad-hoc groups of state governors and local officials developed them. Obama and his administration appear to have made every effort to keep their fingerprints off. But the Post reports an opponent of the standards lamenting, “I think it’s a done deal because Obama attached all this money.”

The President’s know-nothing detractors have ridiculed his experience as a community organizer. But that experience taught Obama two invaluable lessons. First, real change comes up from the bottom, not down from the top. Second, a buy-in at the grass-roots level is far more powerful than a filibuster, or even a Senate majority. It can work miracles.

So Obama got the automakers to buy into wasting less fuel and the Southern states-rights fanatics to buy into educating their kids to international standards, just as all our trading partners do. That’s the velvet glove.

You won’t see the velvet glove in action unless you pay careful attention. It works behind the scenes. But for that single sentence in the Post article, no one would know that Administration incentives helped and perhaps initiated the extraordinary effort to develop real educational standards. Often there will be only hints of presidential involvement: an incentive here, a nudge there, a mediated agreement there.

But make no mistake about it: our President is clever and flexible enough to use every lever of influence and power known to man (and Machiavelli) to reach his goals. And he’s smart enough, and sufficiently in control of his own ego, to cover his own footsteps when doing so will advance his goal.

So get over the idea that every step forward in politics requires a frontal assault. Stop thinking of national politics as a Manichaean struggle between good and evil. Dubya thought that. He tried to govern by pushing his 50.1% as hard as he could whenever he could. And the result was an unmitigated disaster, both for the country and for his party.

We Democrats have a much, much smarter leader. Precious few of us appreciate his patience and his timing. But we will.

I, for one, am confident that when the dreaded midterm elections finally come round, they will be a surprise, but not in the way conventional wisdom now expects. In six months jobs will be coming back, Iraq and Afghanistan will be stabilizing, we will have health-insurance reform, and folks who pay attention will have much greater confidence in our leader’s extraordinary patience, timing and skill. If I were running for Congress as a Democrat, even a Blue Dog, I would make sure to get him on my appearance calendar now.


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08 March 2010

A Sense of Perspective


The other day the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the politics of where we will try Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11. It noted how the President seems to have backed off from a strong initial position favoring trial in civilian court in New York City. In what purported to be a news article, not an editorial, it all but accused the President of shilly-shallying.

That article is emblematic of what, if it continues, will surely demote us to third world status in less than one generation.

I am on record as fully and enthusiastically supporting Attorney General Holder’s decision to try KSM in federal civilian court in New York City. But I also know the issue is the biggest red herring since Dubya and Karl Rove exploited gay-bashing and the “threat” of gay marriage to get close enough to the presidency to let the Supreme Court steal it for them.

KSM has confessed to masterminding 9/11. He is proud of having done so. Whether or not his confession is admissible in court, he will continue to assert it because he wants “martyrdom.”

Unfortunately, we are almost certain to give it to him. If we were smart, we would try and convict him of the crime of the twenty-first century (so far). Then, like the Europeans, who abandoned the death penalty as uncivilized years ago, we would warehouse him in some impregnable maximum security prison for the rest of his life. Every once in a while, we would trot him out to demonstrate our humanity, our high level of civilization, and our commitment to the rule of law. And we would steadfastly refuse him what he so earnestly wants, the chance to die with a bang, not a whimper―a bang that he hopes will provoke additional acts of terrorism against us.

But we aren’t smart. We haven’t been smart in anything that matters for a long, long time.

Instead, to appease our crudest apes aroused by our crudest and most primitive propagandists, we will make sure that KSM’s life ends by our own hands. And we won’t even do that right. If we really wanted to appease the mob and slake the thirst for vengeance in its breast, we would borrow a guillotine from the French and chop off KSM’s head on national television, in prime time, just as he chopped off Daniel Pearl’s. And we would replay the scene, in close up, with blood spurting from his severed arteries, at least as often as we’ve replayed the images of the Twin Towers falling.

But we won’t do that. In a ghastly compromise we will execute KSM in secret, with the usual three-drug regimen, or (in case of a military trial) a firing squad, with no cameras allowed. The primitives among us won’t get their red meat, but the terrorists will get their martyr.

If all this could bring back a single victim of 9/11, I would join the hue and cry for it. But it won’t. On any measure of the value of human life―helping others, contributing to society, or his own quality of life―KSM is no match for the lowliest secretary or dining-room busboy who died in 9/11. His death will not even budge the celestial scale. It will not console the grieving or ease their burden. It will be a cipher, a zero, a gnat lighting momentarily on the great scales of history, except in the minds of the terrorists we seek to defeat.

I think the President understands this. He knows that how we try KSM and whether and how he dies by our collective hands matters to the one-third or so of us who still believe in the Code of Hammurabi and (what’s more important) the people who manipulate their reptilian brains to win elections. So he’s using the gnat on the scales of history as a bargaining chip to move those scales on much weightier matters.

Nothing important in our nation or our culture (except perhaps our short-term self-respect), depends on whether we try KSM in civilian court or in a military tribunal. What matters is whether we get energy right, global warming right, education right and (to a lesser extent) health care right. Despite our universally recognized arrogance and self-regard, history writes us no guarantee. Societies as successful and powerful as ours (and far longer lived) have fallen into the dustbin of history. Ours will, too, unless we get the big things right and learn to recognize them.

Democrats are not the only ones who see the writing on the wall. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Southern conservative who often evokes my grudging admiration, seems to know, too. In an extraordinary interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, he recently described his desperate attempts to get out of the corner into which his party’s abysmal leadership has painted him and other thoughtful Republicans. Friedman quotes Graham as saying, “We can’t be a nation that always tries and fails. We have to eventually get some hard problem right.”

Trying a man who has repeatedly and proudly confessed to the crime of the century is not a hard problem. Transforming our energy infrastructure from the developed world’s most insecure, wasteful and inefficient is. So is educating all of our kids so they can once again compete in the top quartile of internationally recognized educational achievement tests. So is devising a health-care system that comes close to matching the more successful and far cheaper ones that our trading partners have had for decades.

A century hence, how KSM died will be lucky to rate a footnote in the history books. How we solve (or fail to solve) these other problems will rate paragraphs or pages explaining our nation’s resurgence or ultimate decline.

The President seems to understand the difference. Senator Graham may, too. But he served as an Air Force JAG officer and takes a great interest in how we try terrorists. If the President can trade off such inconsequential matters to get Graham on board for things that really count, he will be one senator closer to saving our country from the most precipitous, unexpected and rapid societal decline in modern history. Those of us who voted for him and still hold him in high regard expect no less.

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