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 September 2006

A Dozen Reasons to Vote Democratic

[For a list of ten reasons for 2010, click here. For a longer list of reasons for 2008, click here.]

Here, in rough order of importance, are a dozen reasons to vote Democratic this November, regardless of who the candidates are:

1. To bring back our sunny “can do” optimism and dump the politics of fear—fear of terror, immigrants, foreigners, homosexuals and the future.

2. To restore a culture in which Americans respect each other’s differences and work together to solve common problems.

3. To insure that our basic law remains our Constitution, not the Bible.

4. To open a window into the closed, secretive world of the first junta in North American history: Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

5. To bring our history’s most incompetent secretary of defense closer to a well-deserved and long overdue retirement.

6. To stop the slandering of our brave veterans, including those who lost limbs in combat, as defeatists and cowards by people who never wore a uniform.

7. To put scientific and technical problems like global warming, Katrina, other natural disasters, and medical research back in the hands of experts who understand them.

8. To restore the worldwide respect and moral authority that America enjoyed throughout the Twentieth Century and until the invasion of Iraq.

9. To halt the growth of “earmarks”—a process by which individual members of Congress spend your money and mine for their own political purposes, in gross betrayal of their oaths of office and their public trust.

10. To restore fiscal discipline to Congress, if by no other means than divided government.

11. To give intelligent diplomacy more support in Congress and a better chance for success.

12. To include a few folks in government who care as much about the poor and miserable as about the rich and capable.

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21 September 2006

Law and Justice

Language is a funny thing. Each nation sees the world through the lens of its own tongue. Russian uses the same word, “pravo,” for both “right” and “law.” Its word for “justice” combines “right” with the root for “court.” The implication is that “justice” is what a court sees as right.

Our Western tradition is different. Latin underlies most European languages. It has different words for “law” and “justice”—“lex” and “justitia.” These words even come from different roots. Lex derives from the root for “reading,” implying that law is written down. The word “justice” is quite different: it evokes a basic human sense of right and wrong, from which law springs.

Maybe that’s why the West has had the world’s strongest democracies based on the rule of law. It knows that law and justice are not necessarily the same and strives constantly to bring them closer together.

But having the right words for nuances goes only so far. If the rule of law is to survive, people must perceive it as just. When law and justice cease to coincide, the social consensus that allows law to rule breaks down. Then the “lex” on paper no longer matters. If the divergence becomes intolerable, eventually heads will roll.

Are we starting down that long, dark road in America? For millions of American workers, it certainly seems so. They toiled hard for decades. They flew us from point A to point B. They built our cars. Now we cut their pensions drastically as they reach old age, just when they are frailest and most vulnerable. When they most need it, we deny them the security and comfort that we promised.

This, we are told, is perfectly legal. Their pensions were private promises, and the private firms that made the promises went bankrupt. The law, in that case, says that all bets are off. An obscure government bureaucracy called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will decide what these millions of workers get to live on in their old age. The promises mean nothing.

How, pray tell, would the outcome differ in Russia? There a government official (once called a commissar) determines what pensioners get. In our country, it is just the same, at least for the millions of workers shafted by the law of bankruptcy. The only difference is that Russia’s decisions are more efficient. Here legions of lawyers, consultants and lobbyists get their cut. In both countries, solemn promises to honest workers lie broken in the dust.

Every language has a word for “promise.” The idea is basic to human society. Contracts, agreements, marriage vows, the very “social contract” on which government depends—all are promises. You don’t need a dictionary to know that breaking important promises to so many people is neither just nor fair, no matter how “legal” it may be.

“Downsizing” millions of pensions is just the tip of the iceberg. Some time ago, our country shipped an innocent Canadian citizen of Syrian descent off to a Syrian jail to be tortured. He was suspected of being in cahoots with terrorists. A thorough Canadian investigation, by a blue-ribbon panel, found the suspicion unjustified, and the process that produced it horribly sloppy.

On our side of the border, we “rendered” a citizen of a friendly neighbor to a hostile nation for torture and abuse. We gave no advance notice even to the Canadian government, let alone to anyone who might have helped the hapless victim prove his innocence. The poor fellow spent ten months being tortured in a Syrian jail, deprived of all contact with family, friends, and countrymen, thinking of suicide. Now our Attorney General appears on television to bless this farce, saying all was done according to law. He never mentions justice.

Alberto Gonzales is a high-level hired hand. Nobody elected him. But the gap between law and justice has reached our own representatives. The Constitution gives Congress the power of the purse. Our elected legislators now have conferred that power on each other. They’ve agreed to give each member the power to spend our money in his or her district at will. Their agreement is called “earmarking.”

The members hem and haw about serving their constituents, but we see through their masks. Earmarks are nothing more than political patronage paid for by us, the people. They are a blank check without checks or balances. Their sole purpose is to keep those who order them in power by rewarding those who are loyal. They are not just a waste of our money; they are a gross betrayal of the public trust.

At the same time they are spending our money in a corrupt bid to keep their seats, our noble members of Congress have another ploy: gerrymandering. With complicity between state and national party affiliates, dominant parties use their control of state legislatures to draw districts that create “safe” seats. Not even “split” states are immune from this process. In politically divided states like California, the parties collude to create “safe” seats for both parties. The result: this November, in one of the most hotly contested midterm elections in our history, in a deeply divided country, only ten percent of the seats are up for grabs.

The world has seen this all before. It is a more subtle, “gentlemanly” version of the “bread and circuses” that Roman leaders gave their people shortly before their democracy decayed into empire. Where’s the justice in that?

We can sneer and jeer as Hugo Chavez calls our president the “devil” on the floor of the United Nations. But not everyone was sneering and jeering. Some of the world’s representatives smiled and laughed sympathetically, and some even clapped.

Why? Can you imagine anyone applauding that name-calling in the aftermath of World War II? after the Berlin Wall fell? just after September 11? How have we, the world’s protector and beacon of justice, fallen so low in international esteem that a two-bit former paratrooper from South America can call our president the devil, and some of the world’s leaders applaud?

Maybe the gap between our law and justice is growing abroad as it is at home. We not only signed the Geneva Conventions; we were a prime mover behind them. We hoped they would help end the growing threat that “total war” posed to civilization. Now, when face a far less menacing threat than in World War II, we hedge our commitment. We want to “reinterpret” what “torture” means to allow more “robust” interrogations. We say the Conventions don’t apply to “enemy combatants,” and our own Supreme Court slaps us down. Then we wonder why some dang foreigners think we are going back on our national word.

Finally, there are the promises we won’t make. Having crusaded for decades for the rule of international law, we won’t sign up for the International Criminal Court. The justice that brought the Nazis to account after World War II, that curbed Milosevic and is chewing on Charles Taylor is not good enough for us. The reason? We’re worried that our own soldiers and statespeople may end up in the dock. You don’t have to be a social scientist or political seer to understand how that argument plays in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Then there’s global warming. We’re five percent of the worlds population, but we account for one-quarter of global warming. Our scientists discovered it and raised the alarm. But we won’t do anything about it. We won’t even sign up to a half-measure like the Kyoto Protocol, after virtually all the other developed democracies did. Meanwhile, the effects of global warming are beginning to be felt, mostly in poor and weak places like the Arctic and the Maldives.

We sing of the rule of law, and we want others to join our chorus. Yet our own tune sounds increasingly discordant. At home, the gap between law and justice grows. Abroad, we cannot bring ourselves to subscribe to the overwhelming international consensus among our civilized, democratic peers, and we hedge on the commitments we have made.

We are better, we say; we are unique. Is it any wonder that others hear those words as “we are stronger; don’t mess with us” and call us hypocrites? Now, when we say “rule of law,” the world hears “might makes right.”

Can we reverse these trends? Can we close the gap between law and justice at home and abroad? Can we restore our international honor and prestige? Can we stop our own swift moral decline?

The upcoming election offers scant hope of a reversal. Even if the House and Senate change hands, the national spirit will not change. Complacency, corruption, greed and arrogance of power are too firmly entrenched, not only in the executive, but in the halls of Congress. Ninety percent of members’ seats are safe; a mere change in control will not change the spirit of Congress, let alone the nation.

There is a brighter fantasy. The wronged may rise up. The millions whose pensions have been downsized, who’ve lost their jobs to globalization, who have no health care after decades of mean debate may vote to unseat incumbents, regardless of party. Some of those “safe” seats may fall—maybe a lot of them—and our leaders may wake up.

It’s a pleasant dream, but likely vain. Barring such an electoral revolution, the outlook is grim. We’ll continue to spend our blood, treasure and moral capital like a sailor new in port. A moral awakening requires a new type of leader, one who can see the difference between law and justice.

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13 September 2006


Misconceptions about the upcoming congressional elections are rampant. The elections are not a referendum on the Bush presidency. No matter what their outcome, George W. Bush will remain in office—unless impeached and removed—until January 2009. Even if he were impeached and removed, we would have Dick Cheney as president. Who wants that?

Some of our states have means for recalling their governors. Parliamentary systems like England’s let the legislature remove the prime minister on a vote of “no confidence.” But our Constitution has no mechanism for removing a sitting head of state by popular or ordinary legislative action. So we’re stuck with Bush until 2009 no matter how we vote this fall.

The idea that this fall’s election is a way of sending Bush a message is equally absurd. He doesn’t read; he doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to hear. He proudly declares that he doesn’t govern by the polls and that he doesn’t read the newspapers. He gets all his information from within his own administration.

Ever since the Supreme Court made Bush president in 2000, he has known that he holds office by the thinnest of margins. Most politicians would have taken the hint and tried to be a “uniter, not a divider,” as Bush promised during his campaign. Not Bush. Again and again, no matter what the issue, he’s tried to use his narrow margin of victory or the threat of terrorism to impose a radical agenda on a reluctant country. He marches to a different drummer, and that drummer is his own. His response to failure is always the same: “stay the course” and grab as much power as you can.

If Bush receives a “message” this fall, he’ll do what he always does. If he likes the message, he’ll broadcast it widely to enhance his own radical agenda. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll ignore it or ridicule it. He’s very good at ridiculing criticism: remember “flip-flop,” the “Swift Boaters” and the “Defeatocrats”?

The notion that the election is a referendum on the War in Iraq is equally flawed. Just as our Constitution offers only impeachment for removing a leader before his term is up, it provides no practical way for Congress to take control of a foreign war. The President is the Commander in Chief, and the executive branch controls foreign policy. Even Donald Rumsfeld—who is now in close contest with Robert McNamara for the title of worst secretary of defense in our nation’s history—will remain securely in office as long as he has the president’s confidence.

Congress does have the power of the purse, but that power is a blunt instrument. Congress could, in theory, cut funds for the War in Iraq. But who would dare deprive our troops of the funds they “need to win”? A member’s vote to do so would be political suicide. That’s why no Congress has ever cut off funding for an ongoing foreign war—even during the decade-long fiasco in Vietnam. The best that Congress might do is gain some leverage over the executive by threatening to cut funding, but that threat would have to be credible to have any effect at all.

So if this fall’s election is not a referendum on the Bush presidency or the War in Iraq, what good is it? There is only one answer: it might provide some congressional oversight—some “adult supervision”—over this runaway administration. That goal is a modest one, but it is vital to our constitutional democracy.

We have just observed the fifth anniversary of September 11. According to the going cliché, that horrible attack “changed everything.” But the cliché is only half true. September 11 changed a lot, but so did President Bush, all by himself.

Nothing about September 11 compelled us to invade Iraq, let alone to ignore our top military leaders and send too few troops to do the job. Nothing about September 11 compelled the president to ignore the Geneva Conventions and the law of war, thereby condoning torture and tolerating or encouraging abuses at Abu Ghraib. Nothing about September 11 compelled the creation of military tribunals, which the Supreme Court has since found unlawful, without any oversight or approval by Congress. Nothing about September 11 forced the president to spy secretly on Americans’ private telephone conversations, with no effective congressional oversight until after the news media exposed his spying. Nothing compelled the president to set up a security system that has made air travel a nuisance for virtually all travelers, and which is now widely considered “cosmetic,” or to manage the Department of Homeland Security, in its first real test in Katrina, in a manner befitting a third-world country.

Yes, a lot has changed since September 11. We are less secure and less free at home. We have lost nearly as many troops in Iraq as we lost civilians in 9/11. Nearly 20,000 are wounded, many so badly that their lives will never be the same. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians lie dead. Our national prestige has suffered greatly, perhaps irrevocably, even among our allies. We have become objects of hatred and vilification throughout the Islamic world, even in nations that we used to consider moderate.

The world is indeed a very different place since September 11, but not all of the changes were inevitable consequences of that day. Many are the result of decisions made by our president, acting unilaterally, with congressional oversight that was lacking, or (in the case of Iraq) too little and too late.

So far the president’s leadership and management have produced two disasters unique in our nation’s history. We have started our first fully optional pre-emptive war, which has lasted over three years and is going badly. We have allowed a major city to be inundated by a hurricane of unremarkable size, and our rescue and cleanup efforts have been tragically ineffective, inefficient and disorganized—so much so that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still largely disaster areas over a year later.

No one can characterize these events as successes, at least not with a straight face. A real leader might accept responsibility and provide a clear and effective plan for future action.

Has Bush done that? He has never acknowledged the blunders he made in starting the war or in executing it. Instead, he has given us platitudes. Of Iraq he says we must fight them there so we won’t have to fight them here, ignoring the fact that now “they” are fighting each other in a low-grade civil war. Or, he says, the War in Iraq is part of the war in terror. Even if we believe that to be true, how do we win? He has offered no coherent plan, let alone a credible one. All he says is “stay the course” and let the commanders in the field decide—something that he didn’t do in deciding whether to go to war or how many troops to take.

As for Katrina, we got more of the same. We got lame excuses for a complete failure in our homeland, more than three years after September 11, of an agency set up for the purpose of responding to both terror attacks and natural disasters. The president did take verbal responsibility for the botched response to Katrina. But he has never laid out a coherent plan for recovery of the devastated areas, or a credible plan to keep the same thing from happening again. Levees hastily rebuilt to withstand a Category 3 storm are no answer to a new hurricane cycle of increasingly numerous Category 4s and 5s.

If you like this sort of “leadership” and want it to continue, then you should vote Republican this fall. Yet if this sort of “leadership” makes you uneasy, if you’d like to see someone other than Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld helping to make key decisions, then you have only one choice. You should vote Democratic for every congressional office, no matter who the candidates are.

Compared to the power of the executive, the power of Congress is not much, especially in time of war or natural disaster. A Democratic victory in one or both houses will not remove Bush from office and will not stop the dying in Iraq. Nor—if history and Bush’s character are any guide—will a Democratic victory send the Bush Administration a message that it will hear and heed.

All that changing congressional leadership can do is give our legislative branch the chance to impose some checks and balances on this runaway regime. That may not be much comfort, but it’s all we’ve got until 2009.

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