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

26 June 2007

Ten Reasons to Back Barack

There is still time for us to have the extraordinary leadership we need for these extraordinary times. With the second quarter’s money race ending in four days, here are ten reasons to support Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy now:

    1. He’s by far the smartest candidate in either party; he’ll cure our intelligence deficit and begin to solve our problems.

    2. He understands and respects reality; he’ll put aside the “culture wars” and “spin” and work honestly on real problems.

    3. He’s the uniter, not divider, that Bush promised to be but never was.

    4. He’s the rare Democrat who understands economics.

    5. He has Abe Lincoln’s uncanny ability to respect and empathize with all points of view, even when he strongly disagrees.

    6. An articulate gentleman with a soft voice, he’ll bring statesmanship back to our capital.

    7. He’s a political realist; he won’t waste energy pushing things the country isn’t ready for, like single-payer health care or privatizing Social Security.

    8. A one-time professor of constitutional law, he’ll restore our Bill of Rights and our checks and balances.

    9. He can connect with everyone in our great nation, from senators and law professors to pickup basketball players in the inner city.

    10. He has a strong family background: he’s the son of two Ph.D.s.

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24 June 2007

An Open Letter to Republicans in Congress

Recent poll results are astounding. Only 29% approve the president’s performance. Only 23% approve Congress’. These are the lowest approval ratings in the history of polling.

As professional politicians, you know how indecisive voters are. They seldom form a decisive majority for anything. In presidential elections, 60% is a landslide. Virtually never does popular opinion approach three-quarters. Yet close to three-quarters now disapprove the president’s performance, and more than three-quarters disapprove yours.

If you want to know why, look in the mirror.

For the last seven years, you have followed the leader. You have shown extraordinary party discipline. Like lemmings, you have followed George W. Bush and Karl Rove unquestioningly over cliff after cliff. In the process, you have inflamed a bitter and mindless partisanship seldom seen since our own Civil War.

The most recent cliff is l’affaire Gonzales. The leader of our system of justice has been caught in several inconsistent statements. In sworn testimony, he has said “I don’t recall” over seventy times.

Do you think the people believe him? When they look at him, do they see a defender of justice or a petty criminal out of his league? Yet you vote, largely in party lockstep, to defeat a motion of no confidence in this caricature of a leader. Behind closed doors, you strive to maintain the executive privilege that weakens your own power, Congress’ power, and our nation’s democracy. For what?

The broadest cliff is the war in Iraq. Let’s leave aside your credulous belief in the premises for war, now all proved false. Let’s look at the future.

By now, we all know there are only two ways out of Iraq. The first is to follow John McCain and commit the troops and the resources—and bear the pain—that the job required from the beginning. The second is to wind down our combat role, relying on diplomacy, air power, control over materiel, and old-fashioned power politics to contain the damage. Yet you refuse to choose either of these practical options. You follow your leader blindly in insisting—despite four years of bloody refutation—that “resolve” alone can overcome reality.

Do you think that we are blind and deaf? Do we not see the faces and hear the names of those who bear the burden for us? Do we not know who they are—men and women from small towns, from minority groups, from immigrant families, all risking their lives to protect us blithe shoppers or to earn their spurs as Americans? Do we not know that less than a handful of your own loved ones have gone in harm’s way, while you allow these brave volunteers to be sent, by the thousands, into a meat grinder? Do you feel no sense of responsibility, no sense of shame?

The most insidious cliff is the one Karl Rove created. For most of a decade, you waged “culture wars” at his direction. You inflamed religious discord. You elevated abortion, homosexual marriage and public displays of religious zeal to central places in the national agenda.

You are not stupid. You have read history. You know how our wall between church and state has spared us the bloody pogroms and religious upheavals so common abroad. You know that these “issues” are matters of personal conscience, about which the federal government can do little or nothing. You know that they pale in importance when compared to real problems that Congress can do something about.

Yet you have followed Karl Rove’s lead in beating these false drums, and you have done so cynically for purposes of maintaining personal and political power. Do you really think the people do not see?

Then there is the cliff of earmarks. While in power you took an obscure but limited custom of private, secret appropriations and made it standard practice. Under your tutelage, earmarks grew from hundreds to thousands per year. When the Democrats took control of Congress, you had the chance to serve as loyal opposition and hold them to their promise of more honest government. Instead, what did you do? You demanded your share of the plunder. Now earmark requests total 32,000.

Finally, there is the cliff of energy policy. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 gave us clear notice that those who control the Earth’s chief oil reserves have values inimical to ours. Since then, our dependence on those fundamentally inimical forces has gotten steadily and predictably worse. So what did those of you in the Senate do? You voted to continue that dependence by subsidizing the oil and gas companies that ingrained it and denying start-up subsidies to the energy industry’s independent future. Your vote reflected cynical and venal capitulation to still strong but rapidly waning industrial power. At the same time, it showed blindness to historical trends worthy of an ostrich. It put you firmly on the wrong side of history.

When our Founders created Congress as a separate branch, they envisioned an independent source of power, composed of honest people who would think for themselves. In their darkest nightmares, they could not have imagined the depths of servility, ineptitude and corruption to which Congress has sunk today. As members of the party in power for all but one of the last seven years, you are responsible.

For most of those seven years, Congress has been the handmaiden of an imperial and deeply flawed executive. You have spent your days fundraising, meeting with lobbyists, and maintaining party discipline, with little thought for our Republic and its precipitous decline. You have taken solace in transient economic stability, while our ballooning deficit, massive trade imbalance, abject energy dependence, endless borrowing from Asia and plummeting national currency threaten a crippling economic crisis at any time.

You have not done your jobs. You have not led. You have not been serious politicians. Instead, you given us partisan games, bickering, “spin” and bumper-sticker ideologies. You have followed your party’s worst leadership, and you have pandered to your constituents’ worst instincts.

Even today, many of you decry fair treatment of undocumented immigrant settlers as “amnesty,” while 80% of the people recognize the absurdity of deporting or punishing so many. You have become so drunk with the power of demagoguery that you have forgotten how to think in practical terms.

You have permitted the most outrageous grab for executive power in our history. You have idly watched the systematic dismantling of our Bill of Rights. Sometimes, as in passing the so-called “Patriot” Act, you have aided and abetted it. You have emasculated your own institution—the product of over two centuries of thought, sacrifice and tradition. You have made it feckless and largely irrelevant.

The tragic irony is that you know better. The reporters who cover you constantly tell us that you think differently but just won’t say so in public. You won’t break with the herd. Party discipline, groupthink, and ingrained habits of demagoguery and partisan gamesmanship keep you from doing the right thing. Whom do you expect to save our Republic if you won’t? God?

You have not kept faith with your oath of office or with the American people. You have muzzled dissent from your colleagues. You have even silenced Chuck Hagel, who some time ago had his personal epiphany. And now you wonder why over three-fourths of us want to see your backs.

You may think the people do not see. But they do. As Abe Lincoln warned, “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” The polls agree. A reckoning is on the way.

There is still time for your own epiphany. You can yet begin the independent thinking and real leadership that our Constitution expects. You can start with immigration and Gonzales. You can abjure gamesmanship and get serious about preserving our Republic. You can begin the long struggle to restore our Bill of Rights. You can support an energy policy that will get us out of our hole, not dig us further in.

If you do not change your ways, you will suffer the verdict of history. It will say that you gave us all a hard push down the slippery slope of national decline. It will record that you did so for partisan and venal reasons. Do you want that to be your legacy? The choice is yours, and the hour is late.

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19 June 2007

Senator Obama: Please Fire the Idiots Now!

Last week someone in Senator Obama’s campaign leaked a “secret” memo attacking Senator Clinton. The memo was based in part on the Clintons’ revelations about their blind investment trust. It chided Senator Clinton for her investments in and coziness with Indian business at a time when India is siphoning away many desirable middle-class U.S. jobs. Because Clinton’s own report had bragged about her ability to be elected as a representative from Punjab, a state of India, the campaign memo identified her at one point as Senator Clinton (D-Punjab).

The “D-Punjab” memo created a tempest in a teapot. It flew around the blogosphere. It has even made the newspapers in India. Its casual tone of apparent antipathy to Indians offended Indian-Americans here at home and Indians in their own country.

From a substantive standpoint, the memo is unworthy of serious attention. Senator Obama assures us that he had no knowledge of it beforehand. He’s claimed—as should be obvious to anyone who has followed his campaign—that the memo does not reflect his attitude toward Indians, outsourcing, or proper campaign etiquette.

But Obama must do more. He must fire the people responsible for the memo publicly and soon. Here are five reasons why.

First and foremost, the nature of Obama’s campaign demands it. Obama is much smarter and more thoughtful than any other candidate for president in either party. He is brilliant while Senator Clinton is merely smart.

But he can’t run on that basis because (1) doing so would seem elitist and (2) the average person simply has no basis for understanding how smart Obama really is. The average voter has no idea what it means to be President of the Harvard Law Review or a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. The average voter also lacks the knowledge of economics and industry practices to understand, for example, just how creative and thoughtful Obama’s health-care plan is.

Because Obama’s brilliance is lost on most voters, he has to run on style. So far, he’s succeeded at doing so. He has leveraged his Lincolnesque ability to understand and empathize with divergent points of view into a credible campaign for a “new politics.”

Yet, as many blog entries have pointed out, the controversial memo is antithetical to that style in both tone and substance. It is simplistic, puerile, and casually offensive to an important ethnic group. Although there is no way that Obama himself could have written it, he will have to take responsibility for it, at least in some voters’ minds, unless he distances himself from it decisively.

Second, Obama must take firm control over his campaign to show that he can be an executive. Cracks are starting to appear in his organization, and the word “amateur” pops up repeatedly. Unjustified doubts about his experience are rampant, and Obama simply cannot afford to let them persist. He has to act decisively to show that he can govern his own house.

Third, Obama must take control of his campaign to keep it on track. He is an extraordinary man in every respect. Inevitably people who work for him will fail to meet his high standards—intellectually, morally, and ethically. Yet under present-day campaign attack rules his opponents will tar him personally with any lapse on the part of his staff.

The only defense to that sort of negativity is to set high standards and maintain them religiously. Obama must be sure that his bright mind and illuminating moral spirit shine through everything his campaign does. He must be ruthless in maintaining high standards.

Fourth, Obama must show he can be tough. That is the one doubt his supporters still have. We know he is brilliant, thoughtful, creative in problem-solving, charismatic, centrist, non-ideological, and tolerant. We’re not yet sure he is tough. If he can’t be tough with his own campaign staff, can he be tough with Iran, North Korea, the Russians and Hamas?

Finally, our nation has languished too long without accountability. George Tenet botched 9/11 and failed to inform the president personally of his doubts about the war in Iraq. He got the Medal of Freedom. Michael Brown botched the response to Katrina and got a pat on the back. Donald Rumsfeld ruined our war strategy and our nation’s international reputation. He got three more years in office than he should have had, plus the president’s heartfelt thanks. Alfredo Gonzales tried ineptly to turn our Department of Justice into their counterparts in Russia and China and got the president’s unqualified support.

Those of us who daily worry and strive to do our jobs well are starving for accountability. So Obama must show he is different. He must show he can hold people accountable. He should start with his own campaign staff.

Obama’s brilliance, charisma and human greatness will do us no good if he doesn’t win. We need his good leadership desperately. The pain he may feel on firing someone who may be a committed supporter, friend, or protégé is nothing to the pain this nation will feel if we don’t get his good leadership. Obama must show he can make tough decisions. He should fire the responsible people now.

A Code of Conduct for Senator Obama’s Campaign Staff

    1. Unlike most politicians, your boss is brilliant. He’s a Bill Clinton who can keep his pants on. He’s probably much smarter than you. Keep that in mind, follow his instructions carefully, and don’t let him down.

    2. Sometimes smart people do stupid things. If you think he’s about to do that, make sure you get his attention, or the attention of someone he trusts. Then explain your point carefully. If he disagrees, salute and execute. He’s probably right, and he’s the boss.

    3. Your biggest problem will be showing voters how smart and thoughtful he is. Most voters will have no clue unless and until he wins. If you can find just one way a week to cut through the bumper stickers and sound bites and show what he can do, you will do him and your country a service.

    4. You second biggest problem will be maintaining standards. Because ordinary people can’t understand how smart he is, your boss has to run on style. He has promised a positive, clean, ethical campaign. His winning depends on people continuing to believe that he represents a new kind of politics. Keep the faith.

    5. In the heat of the campaign, you may be tempted to zing your opponents. Don’t. Your boss is running as a saint. He hurts himself every time he acts like a sinner. Assume that everything you do will be widely publicized and attributed to him, and act accordingly.

    6. Clear all negative campaigning with your boss or his senior staff. No exceptions.

    7. You are working for your country. You are here because you believe your boss is the best person for the job. Keep that in mind, and stay positive.

    8. You are here because you want a new kind of politics, based on issues and civility. You are tired of childish games of “gotcha!” Repeat that to yourself each day when you arise and when you retire.

    9. Make sure you know your boss’ position, in detail and including nuances, on every issue before you open your mouth or begin to type.

    10. There are myriad ethnic groups in this country, and all have their own sensibilities. Before you mention or refer to any one, make sure you’ve thought of all the angles. When in doubt, keep quiet.

    11. Campaigning is like flying airplanes. One mistake can ruin a whole career. Be cautious. Don’t take risks: that’s the candidate’s job.

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13 June 2007

Just Like a Man

Feminists are fond of saying that women get dinged for traits often found attractive in men. When a male leader is “resolute,” a female is “stubborn.” When a man is “striving,” a woman is “self-seeking.” When the male is “tough,” the female is “abrasive” or even “a bitch.”

There is more than a germ of truth in these observations. But the feminists soon may have their revenge. It is now possible to imagine a President Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why? There is a persistent and apparently growing gender gap. Senator Clinton now leads Senator Obama, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, by more than a two-to-one margin among likely voters who are women.

There are two possible explanations for this fact. First, voters generally—including women—may perceive Clinton as most likely to end the war in Iraq quickly and decisively.

She certainly gave that impression in the last debate. In the closing moments, the moderator asked each candidate what he or she would do in the first hundred days as president. Senator Clinton began with a single, short declarative sentence: she would end the war in Iraq. She made her promise within minutes of the closing bell, when everyone watching would be sure to remember.

Seldom in presidential debates have I seen such a decisive stroke. Clinton made the other candidates look waffling and inadequate, and she did it on the single most important issue in the public mind today. Her master stroke reminded me of the scene in the novel Shogun, where the samurai, having sliced off his opponent’s sword arm, decapitates him in a “clean kill.” Senator Clinton did that with a whole stage full of political rivals.

The second possible reason for Clinton’s persistent lead in the polls is more sinister: reverse gender bias. It may be that women in this country are sufficiently hungry for female leadership to vote for Clinton despite her flaws.

Think about that. When politicians speak of ethnic or interest groups, they are usually talking about groups like African-Americans or Hispanics—each less than fifteen percent of the national population. Even such amorphous groups as evangelical Christians are only thirty percent or so. In contrast, women are a majority of both registered and likely voters. Command the allegiance of an “interest group” that large, and you have a decisive electoral advantage.

In this there is great irony. Women who vote for Senator Clinton may end up electing a woman who is just like a man.

In some important ways, Clinton is even reminiscent of our chief alpha male, George W. Bush. Like Bush, and like many men, she has trouble acknowledging mistakes. She has refused to apologize for her vote to authorize the war, saying she would vote the same way now having the same information she had then. Not even now that we know she didn’t read the crucial intelligence report will she admit error. She says that she, like any good pol, knew all she needed to know from the Washington grapevine. No late-night poring over pesky facts for her.

The same approach got Bush into such deep trouble. Didn’t his lack of intellectual curiosity, plus his reliance on “underlings” like Cheney and Rumsfeld, give us the mess in Iraq today? Will our next President Clinton, who didn’t personally read the most important report on the most important vote she would ever take as the junior senator from New York, do much better as president?

Senator Clinton is just like a man in another not-so-admirable respect. In voting to authorize war without studying the facts first, she valued her career and own climb to power over the nation’s welfare. That’s certainly a male thing to do; it describes George W. Bush’s six years as president precisely.

The final respect in which Senator Clinton is “just like a man” may ultimately be the most important. She is the most emotionally controlled politician I have seen on the national stage in decades. So far as I know, she has never displayed a hint of emotion in her public persona—not anger, not disgust, and certainly nothing so “female” as tears.

Yet maybe we need a leader who can cry, or at least who can grieve with us. Some time ago, novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote a compelling essay about George W. Bush’s “moral vacancy”—his inability to grieve. Do we want another leader who shows no public sadness at all those coffins coming home, now far more numerous than the victims of September 11 that were the pretext for our adventure?

Senator Clinton’s most salient trait is her consistent, emotionless and uncannily accurate political calculation. That is a putatively “male” trait, and a boon to any political leader. But is it enough?

The next president will face enormous challenges. We must conclude the war in Iraq and contain the damage we have done there to ourselves and to the region. We must win the war in Afghanistan. New wars with Iran and North Korea threaten. The struggle against Islamic terrorism will continue for decades, and the risk of nuclear terrorism will increase exponentially as the years pass.

And that is just the beginning. The world cries out for leadership on global warming that only the United States can provide. Our abject dependence on foreign oil makes our entire economy vulnerable to terrorism in the oil fields, simple mis-estimation of reserves, increasing demand among developing nations, and “normal” supply shocks. Our ballooning national debt, skyrocketing balance-of-payments deficit, dependence on financing from Japan and China, and increasingly hollow manufacturing base could produce an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions at any time. Add to this the persistent risk of an avian flu pandemic or other international medical crisis and you have our greatest need for wise leadership since World War II.

Senator Clinton would make a perfectly good president in normal times. She is a better-than-average pol, a good “Senator Pothole” for New York. She has a superb instinct for following any lead that the American people have unambiguously revealed. The people, too, have good instincts, once they have had a few years to chew on an issue.

But these are not normal times. The crises we are likely to face after 2008 won’t give us time to form a national consensus that Clinton could use her unerring domestic political instincts to follow. They will require the kind of real, creative, flexible and independent leadership of which Senator Clinton appears incapable.

Don’t get me wrong. If Senator Clinton is the Democratic nominee, as a lifelong Democrat I will likely vote for her. She stands head and shoulders above the Bible thumping baboons that make up most of the Republican field. The only Republican candidate who might make me think twice is John McCain.

And yet, and yet. We could do better. If Senator Obama can improve his professorial and somewhat hangdog style in the last debate—if he can show us all the brilliance and real independence of thought that are his—we might have a leader whose mind and approach to problem-solving are adequate to our extraordinarily perilous times.

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01 June 2007

Senator Clinton’s Political Epitaph

On Wednesday the New York Times published an investigative report on the evolution of Senator Clinton’s Iraq war position. Among other things, the article gives us the best available information on what led to her decision to authorize war in 2002. Clinton herself refused to be interviewed for the story.

What the article reveals should shock both Clinton’s supporters and her New York constituents. If Democrats have any sense left, the article should also spell the end of her presidential bid. Her political epitaph will read “She didn’t do her homework.”

The facts are simple and stark. As we all know now, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that the Bush Administration used to justify the War in Iraq was full of doubt and caveats. Strong dissenting voices disagreed that Saddam had, or even was developing, weapons of mass destruction. The dissenting voices included the State Department’s intelligence service. As a whole, the NIE did not support the notion that Saddam had anything to do with Al Qaeda or September 11. Yet Clinton did not read the NIE before her vote.

Let me repeat that. Before voting on the most important issue that any elected representative ever faces—the decision to go to war—Senator Clinton did not read the most authoritative official report on the supposed justification for war.

Although the NIE was classified at the time, all senators had the right and ability to read it. The Capitol had set up two special locations where senators could read it. (Three heavily redacted versions of the NIE have since been declassified and are available on the Web.)

Every senator had ten days to read the full report after it was made available and before the vote on the war resolution. Three days before the vote, Senator Bob Graham (D., Fla.), then Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “forcefully” urged all Democrats to read it at a party caucus that Clinton attended.

The entire NIE was only 90 pages long. Yet like a derelict student, Clinton did not do her homework. When asked recently at political rally whether she had read it, she reportedly said only that she had been briefed on it.

That simple word—“briefed”—hides all the hubris and inattention that has laid our nation low. Apparently the question of war or peace was not important enough for Clinton to do her homework.

At the time she was not yet a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. So her staff had no authorization to read the NIE. In saying she had been briefed on it, Clinton must have been referring to the oral briefings that various intelligence services (largely controlled by the Bush White House) had given senators. On the most important issue in a generation, she simply didn’t care enough about the facts to study them herself.

To understand how damning that admission is, you have to know something about legal education. Senator Clinton is a graduate of Yale Law School, one of our nation’s most prestigious centers of legal education. Like every other law school in the nation, Yale requires every graduate to take a course in constitutional law. (Today, Yale’s students take that course in their very first year of study, when it will make the greatest impression.) That course teaches students, among other things, how strong the president’s powers are in the realm of war and foreign policy.

As a result of her study at an elite law school, Senator Clinton had to know that her vote on the war resolution was her first, last and only chance to have an impact as senator on the fateful choice between war and peace, let alone the conduct of any war to follow. It goes without saying that a legal education teaches the importance of facts. Yet Clinton didn’t do her homework.

The New York Times article has other important insights. It notes that Clinton voted against the Levin Amendment to the war authorization, which would have required the president to engage in further diplomacy before going to war. That vote belies her current claim that she expected the president to exhaust diplomacy before war and he disappointed her—a claim that has been very effective for her politically. The article also outlines how her pivot on Iraq policy followed the leadership of people like Congressman Jack Murtha (D. Pa.), the Democratic ex-marine and ex-hawk, and her own husband. As the article shows, Clinton was a follower, not a leader, both in authorizing the war and in coming belatedly to oppose it.

But the article’s most damning revelation is her failure to read the crucial report before her vote.

Why didn’t she read it? Apparently politics were more important to her than substance. After September 11, she worried whether the public would perceive her—or any woman—as strong enough to lead the nation in wartime. An experienced political warhorse, she had a good idea how the Bush Administration would tar anyone who opposed it as weak. She was certainly right on that score. So she voted for war, apparently with politics and her future bid for the presidency foremost in her mind.

That is precisely why Senator Clinton, or anyone else like her, should never reach the White House. On the most crucial decision in her political career, she put politics above substance, her career above the facts. For all the record reveals, she made a conscious decision not to learn the facts that might have informed her most important decision as senator.

In that respect she is no different from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who have shunned the facts and let politics and ideology govern.

Unfortunately, Bush and his neocons were not alone. Only six of 100 senators reportedly read the NIE before voting to authorize war. That is an appalling figure. It shows that only six percent of the members of our most elite legislative body are worthy of governing us. And now one of the unworthy ones, Senator Clinton, wants to be president.

The bitter fruits of this “facts be damned” approach are plain for all to see. Our nation is losing its power, prestige and moral fiber because our leaders think that politics and Washington are all a great game. They prefer political perceptions, which they can control by “spin,” to reality, which is less tractable. They are playing with our lives.

If we want to restore our nation’s greatness, we have to make a decisive break with that sort of pathological leadership. We need leaders who face facts, who study them carefully—in person—before making important decisions. Between the two front runners for the Democratic nomination—Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton—there should be no doubt now who is the best choice. Unlike Clinton, Senator Obama does his homework.

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