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

17 December 2012

Method in His Madness

John Kerry at State
Chuck Hagel at Defense
Who at Treasury?

Introduction. The Universe is big, and the human brain is small. Sometimes we Homo sapiens need simple little rules to cope. One of mine—now—is never to second-guess the President without a lot of thought.

When I’ve (rarely) tried to second-guess him on something important, I mostly have come out wrong. I was wrong when I thought he was too gentle in dealing with Hillary during the 2008 primary campaign. And now I figure I was wrong when, like most progressives, I squealed at his letting tax rates on the rich go down.

But now I can see the hand of a political grand master behind the President’s moves. In retrospect, his brilliant maneuvering has been delightful to watch.

He’s close to check mate on taxes now. Boehner has agreed to raise taxes on the rich. He had to do so because the alternative is raising taxes for everyone as the Bush Tax Cuts expire. If that happened, the GOP “establishment” and Boehner would get the blame, the GOP’s demented base would scatter to the four winds, and the once-“Grand” Old Party would go the way of the Whigs faster than anyone predicted.

The only question now is whether “the rich” make more than $ 1 million a year or only $400,000, the President’s most recent counter-offer. If the GOP gets wiser and cuts a reasonable deficit deal, the President will get most of the credit. It’s hard to see how he can lose.

The President is in the catbird seat now, but it took him two years to get there. I’m still not entirely sure how he did it.

As near as I can tell, he banked on so-called “conservatives’” chief blind spot—an utter inability to think long term. They were all so focused on cutting taxes now and dis-electing him that they not only neglected every sensible long-term approach to policy generally. They also ignored the immense strategic advantages that the so-called “fiscal cliff” would give the President in domestic politics. Their own ideological intransigence defeated them.

John Kerry at State. And so it is that I examine the President’s second-term appointments anew. After publishing my preference for Susan Rice and (perhaps hasty) distaste for Kerry at State, I now rethink. What, I ask myself, good qualities might Kerry have that I missed?

As many disappointed progressives have pointed out, Kerry was once a Vietnam-war protestor but now is an old white man. Yet somehow I don’t think that’s why the President appointed him.

Kerry is also a Senator with 28 years of experience. His supporters suggest that he has general respect among his Senate colleagues, so he will sail through confirmation.

Why is that important? Because in our nuclear age, diplomacy is the new war. Hillary is tired and leaving, and we need a replacement quick.

We also need to beef up State and put the Pentagon on a diet. In particular, we need to massively beef up State’s intelligence capabilities, if only as a counterweight to the Pentagon’s increasingly lopsided control. And we need to let State separately command security forces needed to protect its diplomats, under its own rules of engagement.

These changes require legislation and money. Only someone with wide credibility in the Senate can even begin to make them. (The House is another story, but midterms are coming up, and the President thinks long term.)

Kerry’s personal history also gives him another advantage. As a young patriot, he fought and was wounded in Vietnam. So no one but the “Swift-Boating” wing nuts questions his patriotism. Certainly no one in the Senate will; his colleagues know him.

Yet although a hero, Kerry came back from Vietnam a skeptic of that misguided war. He turned to protest before turning toward politics.

So Kerry knows in his bones how misguided and disastrous wars to achieve political ends can be. He watched helplessly as our misadventure in Iraq unfolded. Thus he has more recent confirmation how mistaken our pols can be about foreign cultures and the ease of changing them by military means.

Therefore Kerry knows in his soul how important diplomacy and State will be in keeping us secure and our complex, crowded, warming world stable.

There is also something else. Kerry seems to have been the President’s chief personal adviser during the recent presidential campaign. He helped the President win, and they appear to have bonded.

We don’t know who misjudged Mitt Romney as likely to continue his primary extremism in the first debate. Maybe it wasn’t Kerry. Or maybe the President was just utterly exhausted and altitude-sick during that debate, as I have speculated.

But for whatever reason, Kerry seems to have the President’s confidence after helping him win a grueling political campaign. The two work well together.

After working uneasily for four years with his chief political rival, Hillary, the President may get some relief working with Kerry. He may have to spend less time on close supervision and have more time to plan grand strategy. That is no small thing.

Chuck Hagel at Defense. To maintain (let alone improve) our national security in a rapidly changing world, we have to put our Pentagon on a diet-and-exercise plan. The military-industrial complex that now largely controls it has become a flabby, inefficient, corrupt and short-sighted mess.

We are spending far more than we should on obsolete “new” weapons systems and obsolete ideas. Job One is getting rid of Cold-War weaponry and plans to build more. Like Dracula, these plans are hard to kill. And they are not just money-wasters: by distracting us from what really needs doing, they are hazardous to our collective health.

We are never going to be fighting massive tank battles on the plains of central Europe. After Iraq and Afghanistan, we are unlikely to invade and occupy another country for a long, long time. We are never going to fight a massive ground war on the land mass of Asia, unless we want to commit national suicide. We learned that lesson in Vietnam.

It was impressive that, for a time, we could fly tanks halfway around the world to win ground battles in Gulf I and the Iraq war. But rivals and potential enemies are developing increasingly accurate missile capability. That capability threatens both surface ships and the massive slow, non-stealthy cargo planes needed to move tanks around the world. In ten years or so, we probably won’t be able to move tanks that way at all, even if backward-looking military strategists thought that was a good idea.

I can foresee only two possible uses of ground forces in the near term, other than for the unlikely exigency of defending our own territory from invasion. First, we might need to intervene in Pakistan to keep its nukes in safe hands if Pakistan became unstable or fell to extremists. Second, but with much less likelihood, we might have to intervene similarly in Iran, either to keep it from developing nukes or to keep its surreptitiously developed nukes from falling into terrorists’ hands. (While Iran supports terrorists, it is not itself a terrorist state; it has a rational but belligerent government, and we know where its leaders live.)

In these two possible conflicts, tanks and conventional ground armies would be useless. By the time we got them in the theater, the danger would be over or would have matured into disaster. In either case, we would have to act quickly, within days or at most in a couple of weeks. Only air and naval power (with ships already in or near the theater) would suffice. So we need to cut our ground forces and shape them for brief and sudden expeditions.

Our strategic goals are equally clear. As we learned in Vietnam, we can never fight China on or near its own territory and win. China’s advantages of population, propinquity, culture and history are simply too great. What we can and must do is maintain enough of an edge in technology to make foolish adventurism by China too costly to contemplate seriously, whether in Taiwan or the South China Sea. Our mission with China, as with the old Soviet Union, is deterrence above all else.

For that, we need better air and naval forces. But with surface ships visible to satellites and increasingly vulnerable to missiles, our Navy will have to rely more on submarines and stealth. Remotely operated assets will become increasingly important, in the air, under the sea, or even on the surface.

Remote operation fits our strategic objectives well: raising a potential enemy’s costs while cutting our own. It also fits well our chief likely mission, taking out loose nukes. So we have to continue converting to smaller, more advanced, more stealthy, and more remotely-operated weapons systems.

Finally, we will have to put far more money, energy and talent into cyber warfare, for both defense and offense. Cyber warfare is the ultimate way to impose high costs on an enemy at low cost to yourself. China understands this essential point. We don’t yet.

Much of our defense and industrial infrastructure is private or recently privatized and vulnerable to cyber attack. We will have to consider giving it federal cyber protection, perhaps even forcing that protection down private owners’ throats. As Fukushima proved, private owners are not very good at assessing and handling low-level risks with potentially catastrophic consequences.

All these things will take time and money. But most of all, they will take persuasion. “Conservative” can mean preserving important traditional values under stress. Or it can mean refusing to do things differently despite overwhelming evidence of the necessity and effectiveness of a new approach.

Unfortunately, our military—indeed, all militaries worldwide—are often “conservative” in the latter, bad sense. Hence the Maginot Line and our own near-blunder of a Maginot Line for Missiles.

It will take immense vision, persuasive power and credibility to get our privatized military and bloated military-industrial complex onto the right track for the twenty-first century. They’re not even near that track now, and they’re wasting money massively on stuff that doesn’t make us safer and doesn’t even produce durable jobs.

Can Chuck Hagel change this bleak picture? He has two apparent advantages.

First, he’s a Republican. For whatever reason, Democrats have little credibility with the Pentagon. You can argue that the reason is mostly propaganda, mostly coming from Fox. But the lack of credibility is an unfortunate fact. So we need a Republican at Defense if we are to do what needs doing, much like Nixon going to China. (And we shouldn’t forget that Bob Gates, a Republican, was the best Secdef in recent memory.)

Second, Chuck Hagel is no ordinary Republican. He was one of the first to see the error of our ways in Iraq and one of the first to call for early withdrawal. He favored engagement, not confrontation, with Iran, and he supported President Obama in his first run for the White House. Most important of all, Hagel has accurately described the Pentagon as “bloated” and does not fear the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

It’s hard to think of anyone better able to manage our civilian military leadership at a time of massive global change, to which we have been dangerously slow to adapt.

Who at Treasury? If the model of a grizzled senator is good for State and the Pentagon, is it good for Treasury? Probably not.

Finance is an even more obscure and esoteric field than than war-fighting. It’s also a much smaller group. While there are literally thousands of general officers, there are probably no more than 100 people who control global finance, let alone finance inside our borders.

These folks comprise an insular, isolated gentlemen’s club. They believe in numbers, worship money, and have psychopathic delusions that what they do largely for their own enrichment is, in Lloyd Blankfein’s words, “God’s work.” Their business is built on increasingly obscure and “sophisticated” instruments that no one but they really understands.

Politicians are people people. Financiers are numbers and money people. The two don’t really mix, and the two don’t really understand each other. That’s why, among many other things, we have never had a president from finance, although J.P. Morgan once ran the country as a sort of shadow president for finance.

Once bankers got hold of computers, mathematicians, and ex-physicists to crunch their numbers, the gap got unbridgeably broad. So we shouldn’t expect another senator at Treasury, no matter how many finance-related Senate committees he has sat on.

And it will have to be a “he.” It’s horribly unfortunate, but the world of finance has completely marginalized our more practical sex. It seems bent on continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. Apparently you have to have a Y chromosome to gamble with large sums of money in order to enrich yourself and, at the same time, convince yourself that you are doing so for the benefit of God, country and posterity. Maybe males are more prone to psychopathy.

So, as this brief and not entirely facetious description suggests, the next Secretary of the Treasury will have to be one of the boys. The question is, what kind of boy?

An apostate would be best. A still-believer who has had an epiphany would be second-best.

Even five years after global economic destruction, I’m not aware of any apostates. At least no leader of finance has offered to give up his ill-gotten wealth. Like vows of celibacy, vows of poverty are not as popular in the Third Millennium as they were in the First. So epiphany sufferers will have to do.

To my knowledge, Jamie Dimon has suffered no epiphany. He’s still the same guy who went around the country declaiming that bankers did nothing wrong, are sadly misunderstood, and need less regulation. So I hope and trust that those who bruit about his name as a possible at Treasury are misinformed. Even the President would have a hard time finding something redeemable in Dimon’s character, unless Dimon has had a secret epiphany.

But there are others. Sandy Weill is a big banker who made himself rich by building a huge banking empire, which was instrumental in causing the Crash of 2008. Now he repents, saying the too-big-to-fail banks should be broken up. That’s about as good an epiphany as you could expect from any Wall-Street alum. If he retains credibility with his psychopathic colleagues, he would be a good choice.

But a commercial banker might not know enough. A Treasury Secretary has to understand macoeconomics and be able to work well with people like Ben Bernanke. That probably means another governor of the Federal Reserve, like Geithner himself.

Not being a member of the little boys’ club, I have no idea who the best person might be. But if it’s not Weill, I hope and pray that, whoever the President chooses has had at least a small epiphany. If we continue with true-believing members of the boys club, another crash is not just foreseeable, but inevitable.

Conclusion. When the President’s second-term “dream team” is fully assembled, it may have some surprises. But progressives like me should be neither startled nor dismayed.

The President knows what is good policy, and his instincts are mostly progressive. But he’s smart enough to know that policy is not the issue. People are.

We have a whole bunch of people in this country—and a whole political party—who no longer believe in facts and evidence. They don’t understand evolution, and they don’t credit climate science. They rag on small, innocuous misstatements and innuendoes rather than considering consequences.

Facts that contravene their simplistic ideology not only don’t sink in. Contrary facts actually cause these folks to dig in deeper. Scientific research increasingly suggests that much of this behavior is genetic. These people may be the modern equivalent of Neanderthal Men.

When reinforced by a gigantic, history-beating propaganda machine like Fox, they become a formidably regressive political force. Left unchecked, they will make our nation decline. They might even extinguish our species, whether with runaway global warming or nuclear war.

So the President’s job is not to see what is good policy. He can and does. The President’s job is to fight these reactionary forces and beat them at his game of chess. It will be a long, costly struggle, which will far outlast the President’s tenure in office.

The GOP has lost the White House, again. With Dubya still in memory and likely no race card to play (until Cory Booker runs), the GOP is unlikely to capture the presidency again anytime soon. It will have a hard time recapturing the Senate, whose large districts are hard to gerrymander or demagogue. But it will continue to bedevil the States’ legislatures and exploit the dysfunctions of our obsolete Constitution.

So don’t expect an instant solution to our national divide or the (hopefully temporary) insanity of our opposition party. Susan Rice is not the first able public servant to fail to rise (or to fall) for reasons that have nothing to do with her competence or merit. Like the grand master that he is, our master chess player may have to sacrifice more pieces to reach larger goals.

For now, he needs reinforcements. And he has to get them through the Senate, which is a large part of the problem itself. So expect more appointments based on people, not policy. Expect more across-the-aisle appointments. And hope and pray that the President continues to be as able a grand master of politics as he has proved himself to be so far.



  • At Wed Dec 19, 02:55:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Dear Jay,

    Very good and interesting post! I especially liked your thoughts on the future of our military. I'm going to discuss those thoughts with my 10 year old history buff, Benjamin, and see what he thinks.

    Hope your travels are going well. We are well and looking forward to the year end holidays.

    Best Regards, Rod


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