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

29 July 2007

More on Impeaching Gonzales

Just after I wrote my previous post about impeaching Alberto Gonzales, further evidence of his lying to Congress came up. He renewed his testimony that there had been no significant disagreement about the executive’s illegal spying activities before the media disclosed them. In so doing, he flatly contradicted testimony of two other high executive officials—former Deputy Attorney General James Comey and FBI Chief Robert Mueller.

Gonzales’ apparent lie provoked recent calls to prosecute him for perjury. Four Democratic Senators asked for the appointment of a special prosecutor for that purpose.

In my mind, their response was like taking someone who has wiped out your whole family to small claims court. Here’s why.

The dispute with Gonzales is not really about lying, let alone the technical legal concept of statutory perjury. It is about political power and the survival of our constitutional Republic.

For the last six years, three men—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove—have systematically muscled Congress out of its traditional position as a co-equal branch of government. In making foreign policy and war, they have excluded Congress from any role other than impotent critic. They have done so despite overwhelming public opposition to their policies, as reflected in last year’s congressional elections and numerous more recent polls. With respect to justice, they have deprived Congress of effective power to investigate, let alone correct, political interference with the impartiality and professionalism of our public prosecutors. In oversight generally, they have cited frivolously extravagant claims of executive privilege to deny Congress the facts it needs to do its job. By these means and others, they have transformed the so-called “people’s government” into something that is beginning to resemble the executive branches in Russia and China.

This is not a matter of perjury. It is not a “gotcha” like the impeachment of President Clinton for lying about a sexual indiscretion. It is an unprecedented grab for power. Left unchallenged, it has the potential to change our form of government forever. We could lose our Republic.

Just as the dispute is not really about perjury, it is also not really about Gonzales. He is just a symbol of the Bush Administration’s wanton disregard of and contempt for Congress. Yet because he is such a ludicrous and universally despised figure, he is an easy target. He is the best place for Congress to start pushing back. If Congress can’t or won't push back on him, then it won’t push back at all.

So what does Congress do in answering this historic political challenge? Its members act like a bunch of clueless lawyers. Not only that: they act like low-level lawyers, not legal strategists. They obsess about proving Gonzales’ perjury, as if before a jury. They ask their political adversaries for help in making their case. It would be difficult to imagine a more feckless response to the historic gauntlet thrown at their feet.

The idea of preparing a technical case of legal perjury is ludicrous for two reasons. First, far more is at stake. This is not Bill Clinton redux; it is a crisis in constitutional government.

Second, the legal standards of technical perjury are irrelevant. The Democratic majority in the House is quite sufficient to impeach (indict) Gonzales. In the subsequent trial, the Senate is the jury. It answers to no one. If two thirds of Senators believe, as I do, that Gonzales was not telling the truth when he said “I don’t recall” over seventy times in answering Congress’ questions, that is enough to remove him from office. If two-thirds of Senators believe, as I do, that the real goal of Gonzales’ lies was to muscle Congress out of a meaningful role in policy making and executive oversight, then they have a far greater motive for conviction and removal than they did with Bill Clinton.

Ultimately, that is why focusing on perjury related to intelligence activities is inappropriate and unnecessary. The executive’s argument for privilege or secrecy is strongest with regard to intelligence about suspected terrorist activities. Why open up that can of worms? Gonzales appears to have lied aplenty with regard to the firing of federal prosecutors—a matter involving no war power or foreign policy—and that is enough to impeach and remove him.

Ultimately, the questions at issue are political, not legal. Are two-thirds of Senators sufficiently fed up with the loss of their constitutional turf to do something about it? Will they use the independent power that the Founders gave them?

They have already declined to use the power of the purse to change a self-evidently failing war policy. But the reasons for that decision are complex. Questions of war strategy and the president’s legitimate role as commander in chief muddy the waters.

In contrast, the questions surrounding the firing of federal prosecutors are much simpler: does the executive have the power to make a political purge of our public prosecutors and get away with it, frustrating congressional oversight by stonewalling all attempts to investigate? As a uniquely self-wounded political actor, Gonzales provides a special opportunity to redress the executive’s unprecedented grab for power using Congress’ only other self-sufficient source of countervailing power: impeachment.

If two-thirds of Senators cannot find the courage to use that power to get their turf back from a failed and despised administration, then we might as well prepare ourselves for the fate of Rome. We can all watch helplessly while a feckless and corrupt legislature, preoccupied with fund raising and earmarks, acquiesces in our slow descent to empire. Our free press and ability to comment will only make the fall that much more poignant. We can yet avoid the fate of Rome, but only if our legislators wake up and put constitutional government above party loyalty.

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26 July 2007

Impeach Gonzales Now

We have an awful problem in this country. We have an imperial executive the likes of which we have never seen. Nothing in our history even comes close.

Let’s review just the worst of the offenses. George W. Bush has claimed a constitutional right to spy on American citizens at will. He has thrown citizens and aliens in jail indefinitely, without recourse to any form of justice, providing minimal justice only when forced to do so by the courts. He has claimed the right to continue this illegal incarceration whenever he thinks his victims are “enemy combatants.” He has “rendered” aliens, including at least one Canadian citizen, secretly to foreign governments for jailing and torture abroad. He has run secret prisons abroad.

As for checks and balances, George W. Bush has not just thumbed his nose at Congress. He has mooned it. He has claimed the power, through “signing statements,” to modify, repeal and ignore legislation duly passed by Congress and signed by him. He has repeatedly refused to testify, or to allow other executive officials to testify, before Congress on matters of undoubted congressional authority. He has perverted our Department of Justice into a political organ like their counterparts in Russia and China, and he has claimed the power to deny Congress information about his doing so. In other ways as well, he has repeatedly asserted the power to keep the people’s business secret from the people and their representatives.

In these respects and others, George W. Bush has claimed the power to rule alone, as monarch in all but name. In fact the foregoing list of grievances against him resembles the preamble to our Declaration of Independence, which listed our Founders’ grievances against King George III.

As vice president, Dick Cheney has participated in all these offenses and has instigated many of them. Has also has claimed that his own office enjoys special powers, so that he is immune even from legal restraint that applies generally to the executive branch.

These transgressions are enormous. They are not mere legal technicalities. They go to the heart of our democracy, our Bill of Rights, our checks and balances, and our continuing hope for real popular government.

Bruce Fein was an associate deputy attorney general in the Reagan Administration. He is no liberal or Bush hater. Yet he has warned repeatedly against allowing these gross usurpations of power to harden into precedent that later leaders will follow. He has recommended impeaching both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

But Congress, as Fein puts it, remains “invertebrate.” It has allowed these two men to run away with our government without even putting up a fight. Not only has Speaker of the House Pelosi shown no backbone. She has taken impeachment “off the table.”

Besides failing to understand how these crimes put our democracy at risk, there can be only one reason for this spinelessness. Congress apparently fears to meddle with the executive—even one claiming monarchical powers—in wartime. It balks at causing the same executive paralysis that the Republican Congress happily caused Bill Clinton because our current times appear to be more dangerous than his.

Yet if Congress wants not to become an historical irrelevancy, it must find some way to send a real shot across this imperial executive’s bow. Attempting to hold a handful of former, lower-level executive appointees in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify is not an effective strategy. The president’s own attorney general must prosecute the contempt charges, so they may end up as meaningless gestures. Or they may be delayed until the end of Bush’s term.

There is only one way for Congress to send the executive an effective message. It can do so without in the least intruding on the president’s war-making or foreign-policy authority. Congress can begin impeachment proceedings against Alberto Gonzales. Here are five reasons why it should do so now.

First, Gonzales already has participated in grave crimes against our Constitution and Congress’ legitimate role in democratic governance. He has mooned Congress repeatedly. He has refused to answer questions put to him by members, or he has incredibly claimed failure of memory, well over 100 times.

Many members of Congress and most of the public, including this writer, have a firm conviction that Gonzales has lied to Congress many times. His office imposes on him a special burden to uphold truth, honesty and integrity in government. That burden only makes repeated lying more outrageous.

Mere lying to Congress and the people has not been Gonzales’ only grave offense. Strong circumstantial evidence shows that he ordered or permitted the firing of United States attorneys for political purposes. Nothing he has said has even begun to refute that evidence. On the contrary, his constant, inartful evasion and prevarication confirm it. Whether his ordering or allowing political firings of public prosecutors constituted a violation of some specific federal statute is beside the point. It was a “high Crime and Misdemeanor” against the rule of law and democratic government—a firm and decisive step toward American gulags.

Second, Gonzales’ case has nothing to do with national security or the president’s power over war and foreign policy. His crimes involve only our domestic justice system and executive officials’ obligation to inform Congress honestly about its governance and operation. No one could credibly claim that impeaching Gonzales would impede our war effort or impair our national security.

Third, impeaching Alberto Gonzales will not impair effective government. He is self-evidently one of the least competent and most politically corrupt Justice Department officials in our nation’s history. If his tenure in office remains unchallenged, the Department will have extraordinarily inept and corrupt leadership for the next eighteen months. The impeachment process could hardly make things worse.

Fourth, Gonzales has become a ludicrous and universally despised figure. He is a travesty of a leader and an embarrassment to us at home and abroad. Except for the president, no one has spoken up for him, and even the president apparently has supported him only out of personal loyalty. No one in Congress will lose any political capital for voting to impeach him. If members of Congress cannot find the courage to impeach such a ridiculous cipher, then they might as well give up any claim to co-equal power and declare themselves a debating society.

Fifth and most important, the other branches cannot and will not give Congress the spine it lacks. The executive may fail or refuse to prosecute Congress’ contempt citations. The courts might not see the executive’s exaggerated claims of “executive privilege” Congress’ way. Or the courts might duck the issue entirely, characterizing executive privilege as a “political question” and forcing Congress to show some backbone, but only after additional delay.

Our Founders provided a clear path out of this dilemma. They gave Congress the power to remove “all civil officers of the United States” by impeachment and conviction.

In impeachment proceedings Congress is entirely self-sufficient. It indicts executive officers (in the House) and tries them (in the Senate), completely independent of the judiciary. Its impeachment decisions are unreviewable. Congress, not the courts, decides what is a “high Crime and Misdemeanor” for impeachment purposes. Our Founders intended impeachment to operate precisely that way—as a principal feature of our checks and balances independent of the other two branches.

Impeaching Alberto Gonzales would improve our Department of Justice, our rule of law, our checks and balances, and our democracy. Without affecting national security, that single act would serve notice upon all executive officials that they, too, must show some spine and respect for the rule of law and democratic principles, even when the president calls. If Congress wants the executive to take its requests for information seriously, it is going to have to use the only independent power that it has to enforce its will.

As for the Department of Justice, it is a big and robust bureaucracy with a huge corps of honest and dedicated professionals. It would survive Gonzales’ preoccupation and removal even if he were an effective and competent leader, which he is not. In any event, a serious effort to impeach Gonzales would likely lead to his resignation, thereby curtailing any disruption of the Department’s normal functioning.

If Congress cannot find the courage to impeach and remove this walking insult to dignity, integrity, competence, and justice, then we might as well kiss our democracy goodbye. If nothing else, we should then stop criticizing Vladimir Putin, for our organs of justice and our manner of running them would be little better than his.

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19 July 2007

The Bancrofts’ Big Decision

One of the most poignant things I have read recently is yesterday’s New York Times report about Rupert Murdoch’s imminent takeover of the Wall Street Journal.

For obvious reasons, the Journal’s reporters can’t comment freely, at least not if they’d like to keep their position, salary and internal credibility if Murdoch wins. So their colleagues at the Times—competitors in the profession but comrades in professionalism—gave them voice. Under the guise of “interviewing” them, the Times reporters allowed their colleagues at the Journal to say what they really think, mostly anonymously.

Murdoch’s buyout is now moving toward completion. The Bancroft family, which controls the Journal’s stock, hold its fate in their hands. The reporters, of course, know what is really going on, but they just can’t say. So the Times article quoted an anonymous reporter’s final plea:
    “We understand that for the Bancrofts this is a choice between getting much richer, and holding onto something because they believe in it[.] What they may not realize is that many of us in the newsroom have made the same choice. There are a lot of people here who could be traders or lawyers, people with M.B.A.’s, who could be making a lot more money. To us, this is not an abstract choice.”

As these words make clear, the Bancrofts’ decision is about far more than the media business, let alone a routine corporate acquisition. American journalism’s core values of objectivity, accuracy and balanced perspective are at stake.

These days they seem like such a puny thing. Letting the millions see straight, hear straight, and maybe even think straight sounds so abstract, so utopian. No one is ever going to man the barricades for that principle. You might as well expect street demonstrations for centrism and moderation.

It’s also not as if we haven’t seen the like of Murdoch before. About a century ago, William Randolph Hearst bought up a media empire and used it to build his own political power. He stamped his imperial vision on our national policy, anointing presidents and influencing international affairs.

Remember the Spanish-American War? That was Hearst’s war, trumped up by his newspaper chain’s imperial vision of America.

The result didn’t seen so bad at the time. Teddy Roosevelt had a nice romp up San Juan Hill that helped make him president. We took possession of Cuba and the Philippines.

But from the perspective of a century, the results don’t seem too good. We didn’t handle Cuba well. Eventually, it fell to Castro. It gave us the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis that came within minutes of destroying our nation and much of the Earth’s biosphere. Its megalomanic dictator has outlived nine of our presidents and is on track to outlast a tenth. As for the Phillippines, they could be worse, and they could be better. But in over a century we’ve done little to cure the Christian-Muslim divide that is their most bitter and intractable problem.

Ultimately, the Spanish-American War was folly because it was not in our national character. We are not an imperial people. None of our core values points that way. Yet Hearst’s yellow journalism tempted us to dip our toes in imperial waters, and we’ve been suffering for doing so ever since.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Could the neocons have sold us the War in Iraq so easily without the help of Murdoch’s Fox News? Could George W. Bush even have become president without Fox News? If you think so, go back and review how close the 2000 race was, not just in Florida, but in Ohio, New Mexico and so many other states.

I’ve been to see the Hearst Castle at least three times now (I’ve lost track). It’s in California’s high coastal hills just below Monterey. It’s an extraordinary sight for any American to see. Our Constitution explicitly forbids titles and nobility. Yet Hearst’s castle is as grand, as big and opulent as any foreign king’s. In fact, it’s got rooms bought from foreign castles and rebuilt here on our land stone by stone. Once Hearst had made his presidents and his war, he retired there in splendor to preside over his media empire and Hollywood parties.

What’s interesting is what even Hearst didn’t think to do. Hollywood for him was an afterthought and an amusement. He invited actors, actresses, writers and producers up to his castle mostly to play. He hadn’t yet conceived how valuable they might be to his propaganda juggernaut.

Rupert Murdoch took up where Hearst left off. Unlike Hearst, he saw how fuzzy is the line between news and entertainment. Like Kim Jong Il, who wistfully kidnapped actors from South Korea and Japan, Murdoch understood the power of both “guided” fact and molded fiction. So his media empire accumulated both.

When Bush said “we make our own reality,” most of us laughed. We laughed uneasily, but we laughed. Nobody should be laughing at Murdoch. With the largest media empire ever accumulated under one man, he does have the power to make reality, at least for his growing worldwide audience. Orwell’s Big Brother had nothing on him.

Like elections, media ownership has consequences. With are now in the seventh year of the most disastrously failed presidency in our history. We are now in the fifth year of a horrible and endless war that, just like the Spanish-American war, yellow journalism helped start and maintain. No one who has followed the news and the media for the last fifteen years can doubt that Murdoch and his media empire are at least partly responsible for the Bush Administration’s excesses and its persistent illusion of invulnerability.

Of course Murdoch sounds reasonable in business meetings. Of course he promises to respect the Journal’s integrity as a news organization. Of course he’ll put in place procedures to support reporters’ rights to report fairly. The effective iron fist always conceals itself in the velvet glove.

But what will happen after the deal closes? Will we have “journalism in our time”? Or will Murdoch do what he has always done: bend the news to his will and his narrow vision of an imperial America and a West that succeeds by military domination? No piece of paper can stop a man as wily and determined as Murdoch from doing what he wants to do.

A century or two ago, Murdoch would have made a colorful and perhaps even an admirable figure. He would have out-Hearsted Hearst. He might have been a great general or an imperial plotter like Disraeli or Metternich. His nimble, opportunistic and acquisitive mind would have helped enhance the map of whatever imperial nation he had been born into.

But imperial days are gone, and Murdoch is an anachronism. The world is simply to big, too diverse, too crowded and too full of weapons of mass destruction, with more to come. For the first time ever, mankind is straining the physical boundaries of our planet. We need business and political leaders skilled in reason, diplomacy, technology, and compromise, not swashbucklers like Murdoch.

What’s true of civilization generally is true of journalism in a microcosm. We don’t need folks who make their own reality. We need folks who take care to understand and inform us accurately of the reality that exists.

Here in America, we can’t do without the remaining national media businesses that still believe in a reality outside the minds of the famous and powerful. There are only three left: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

It may not seem so bad if only one of them goes, but they are our last three. Television newsrooms are shadows of their former selves. They depend on reporters from these three great newspapers and on indepenendent services just to gather the facts and tell them what stories to cover. From here on in, every battle for objectivity counts.

The Bancrofts may not fully appreciate it, but their decision is not just about media business or the value of their stock. It is about civilization in our nation. With Murdoch’s huge empire dominant abroad and in China, it’s also about civilization in the wider world. The Bancrofts can help keep civilization on the track of reason and reality by tightening their belts and just saying no.

That’s a lot to ask, but a lot’s at stake. Their decision will tell us much about our long-term prospects for survival, as a nation and as a species. No nation or organism that can’t see clearly what is going on around it survives for long.

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17 July 2007

Random Thoughts on Race in America

Two TV features last weekend created an interesting juxtaposition. A segment of Sixty Minutes, the CBS Television News Magazine, dealt with a man named Sam Simon, an ex-TV-producer who lives in luxury on a six-acre estate in Malibu, California, one of the world’s richest beach communities.

Simon has an interesting history. He co-produced the first few years of the cartoon show The Simpsons. The intensity of that experience and his interaction with his colleagues, he explained, drove him crazy. So he negotiated an exit contract and left the show.

Simon’s contract gave him a “piece of the action” not only for the episodes he co-produced, but for all future Simpsons episodes and related reruns and merchandizing rights. The show has been so successful that his income from that contract amounts to over $10 million per year. Apparently he was a good negotiator.

Now Simon is not a bad person. He spends much of his millions running a high-class dog shelter on his huge estate. The shelter saves dogs that otherwise might be put down. It also trains “helper” dogs for deaf people.

Yet Simon is twice married, twice divorced. He seems a thoroughly self-indulgent man. When he speaks of his former work driving him “crazy,” it’s hard to sympathize with him, not only because of his wealth, but because he looks and sounds like a spoiled brat when he recalls how “hard” it was. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t get along with his colleagues. He’s an interesting character, but I found it impossible to admire or even to envy him.

A segment of Now, on PBS, dealt with a very different sort of character: Robert Moses. People my age will remember his name, if not his image. A handsome and earnest guy, he was a key leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. After having just faced down dogs, guns and high-pressure water cannon, he would turn to the TV cameras. He would explain, in articulate English—without a trace of anger or bitterness—why descendants of Africans in the South wanted their rights as Americans and how they intended to secure them peacefully. His aplomb before the cameras was as impressive as his courage on the streets.

When the segment on him started, I thought it would focus on his heroism in the sixties. But no, Moses had a second act. At the age when most people are ready to retire, he had reinvented himself as a high-school algebra teacher. He had become the leader of an educational movement designed to inspire inner-city kids with a love of algebra and creative problem-solving in mathematics. He used algebra to instill in them self-confidence, love of learning and the drive to succeed.

Moses’ algebra project had been so successful that 10,000 kids were benefiting from his method, and most of them were going on to college. You could see the joy and self-confidence in their faces, and you could hear their educational achievement in their clear and forceful articulation.

Now I don’t know whether Moses was a math prodigy as well as a hero. But I suspect he had to bone up on algebra to be so successful both in teaching it and teaching others to teach it well. It struck me that there might be no limit to the man’s courage, perseverance, and dedicated intelligence. Whatever problem he addressed—whether a nationwide denial of civil rights or a vast gap in education—his personal algebra would come up with an answer.

This odd juxtaposition of segments made me wonder. How many people like Simon are there, with no African blood, whom birth or family wealth or sheer luck dealt a winning hand, but who in the end seem sorry excuses for human beings? How many people like Moses are there, whose African heritage forced them to overcome obstacles that most of us never see in our worst nightmares? How many, like him, surmount those hurdles with courage, intelligence and grace? How many other such superheroes are there in our nation, unsung and unnoticed, until discovered at random by a news reporter with a sharp eye for character?

My thoughts then turned to Colin Powell. I’m sorry, but I can’t think of Colin Powell without tearing up. I weep not for him, nor for his much abused and much underestimated race. I weep for myself and my country. You see, I just can’t help believing that Colin Powell would be president today if only he had run in 2000.

In that alternative universe, the last seven years of our national nightmare become pleasant dreams. We are not at war in Iraq. Or we have capitalized cleverly on our quick initial victory, stabilized the nation, and are on our way to full and victorious withdrawal. The attacks of 9/11 did not happen; or, if they did, bin Laden and Zawahiri are captured or dead.

As for me personally, I don’t have to wince each time I hear our president speak. Instead, I enjoy Powell’s proper English, soft voice, gentility and quiet determination. I don’t have to fear for my country’s future but have confidence in our president’s good judgment. I don’t have to explain to foreign colleagues that I didn’t vote for the president and that I trust he is an historical anomaly and does not reflect our national values. In my alternative universe with President Powell, I am proud of my country and its leader.

Whenever my mind drifts down this track—as it has countless times over the last seven years—I marvel at the twist of fate. How, I ask myself, could a swaggering bully like Bush, a man without a trace of intelligence, judgment or character, end up as president of the United States? How could a man with Colin’s Powell’s obvious talents becomes marginalized as Secretary of State? How could his good advice, which could have saved us untold pain and suffering, go unheeded? Did the accident of their birth set their fates? Is being white and a former president’s rich and idle son an insuperable advantage, no matter how despicable a human being you might be? Is African blood an insuperable obstacle, now matter how good your judgment, how bright your mind, how noble your character?

My random thoughts next turn to, of all things, congestion pricing in New York City. That’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s now aborted plan to charge drivers a fee of $8 per car and $21 per truck for weekday entry into the most congested parts of Manhattan. London and Stockholm had used a similar approach successfully to cut both traffic and pollution. Careful studies showed that the plan would decrease traffic and pollution by 20%, with corresponding decreases in travel time within Manhattan.

A parking place in central Manhattan recently went on the market for $225,000. If I were rich enough to pay that much for a parking space, I know I would fight tooth and nail for the chance to pay $8 for each commute and receive, in return, a shorter, less congested and less smoggy ride. Most travelers in Manhattan take the subway or a cab, and cab rides would also be quicker and more pleasant with less congestion. Polls showed that New Yorkers generally favored Bloomberg’s plan, and it seemed like a no-brainer.

Enter the New York state legislature. The City had to apply for up to $500 million in federal funds to pay for the program, for such things as automatic cameras and computers to enforce the pricing system. In order to get that federal money, the state legislators had to sign on to the plan. All they had to do was approve the plan to get up to half a billion federal dollars for the city that puts their state on the map everywhere on the globe.

Did they? No. And why didn’t they? No particular reason. They just didn’t like the cut of Bloomberg’s jib. Some Democrats resented him for switching to the Republican party in order to win the mayor’s office. Some resented his success as mayor and his lofting a trial balloon for the presidency as an independent. Some had the gall to claim that he had not explained the program adequately, when his staff had provided material three months in advance and even I, who lived in New York only briefly 30 years ago, knew most of its details.

When I read that article, I was dumfounded. I could not believe that grown-up legislators could destroy such a promising and innovative energy-saving program for such petty, stupid and childish reasons. And then I recalled Congress and Washington over the last decade. As I began to wonder how soon the United States might devolve into a third-world nation, I thought again of race.

Without giving up my anonymity, I can confess I have no African blood. I hope that I’ve managed to expunge both racism and reverse racism from my psyche. Every time I have trouble seeing an African-American in perspective, I imagine that he or she is white. Sometimes that helps.

But try as I might, I just can’t imagine Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Robert Moses or Charlie Rangel being as stupid and petty as the members of the New York Legislature. They weren’t born with Dubya’s family or Sam Simon’s luck. They had to fight for every step forward. They had to ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous insult every day of their lives. Their struggles made them serious people. Their African blood and the constant pressure of American racism didn’t give them the luxury of indolence, pettiness or stupidity.

My mind drifted back to Robert Moses, and I thought again about his algebra. Surely if the New York legislature were full of Robert Moseses, it could add two and two. Surely if Congress could do algebra like him, it could find a way out of Iraq and convince even a recalcitrant president. We should be so lucky.

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13 July 2007

What to Do About Obama’s Brains

One of the most depressing things about our presidential campaign so far is how few people know how smart Senator Obama is. I’ve described him as smarter than any two of his presidential rivals put together. That’s probably an understatement.

Everyone knows there is something special about Obama, but hardly anyone can figure out what it is. A whole lot of people—including mainstream media commentators who ought to know better—think it has something to do with his race.

That preposterous idea plays right into four centuries of vicious American racism. If Obama’s racial background alone made him what he is, then Colin Powell would be concluding a successful presidency, Jesse Jackson or his son Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. would be a serious presidential candidate, and Harold E. Ford, Jr., would be Senator from Tennessee.

By itself, African ancestry is still a disadvantage (albeit a waning one) in national electoral politics. Regrettably, it may remain so for another generation or two. Press coverage on the issue tells us so: people don’t chatter incessantly about unalloyed advantages; they just acknowledge them and move on. Obama has been successful so far because his extraordinary personal qualities, including his brains, overcame that disadvantage. His steel hardened in the cauldron of American racism; he survived and got smarter and stronger.

What is depressing is how few people even know of Obama’s unique credentials. As a student he was President of the Harvard Law Review. This student-edited journal is legendary for its quality and its prestige. It selects it leaders by secret ballot purely on brains, writing ability, and leadership. At the University of Chicago School of Law, Obama taught constitutional law—a field in which that school is one of the top three in the nation. Only two presidents since Woodrow Wilson have had anything like those intellectual credentials: Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and Bill Clinton, a Rhodes Scholar.

Yesterday former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the smartest people on the planet, endorsed Obama as having a "better grasp" of foreign relations than his rival Hillary Clinton. No surprise there.

As for Obama’s family background, the most important thing about it is that both his parents got Ph.D.s.

I’m not hinting at hereditary intelligence. I’m talking nurture, not nature. A Ph.D. is not some glorified college degree. It requires years of work on a particular problem—original research in a recognized field of study. After doing all that work, the degree candidate has to stand before a committee of smart, egotistical professors and convince them he or she has solved a real problem that no one else ever solved before. That’s why the Ph.D. degree is a minimum qualification for serious scientific research.

Both of Obama’s parents went through this grueling intellectual boot camp. What does that mean? It means that, in Obama’s family, shooting from the hip was discouraged and intellectual diligence was the norm. Real knowledge and deep thinking prevailed over the easy answer. They were Obama family values. Isn’t that precisely the kind of background we now need so desperately in a leader?

Look at the rest of the presidential field. Hillary Clinton didn’t even read the crucial intelligence report before casting her vote to go to war in Iraq. Lately she has been touting “no-fly” zones to “solve” the genocide in Darfur, although the humanitarian community says that “no fly” zones would cut off vital humanitarian aid to the starving refugees and cause catastrophe. Rudy Giuliani, still the Republican front-runner, told us that New York’s fire fighters died at Ground Zero because they were too “heroic” to obey the command to evacuate the doomed towers. Now the firefighters’ union tells us what really happened: the firefighters’ radios didn’t work, so they never even heard the order to evacuate. And who was responsible for the inoperative radios? New York City and its mayor, Giuliani, who had known about the bad radios for eight years. As for Mitt Romney, he is a caricature of the pandering politician. His answer to every question is “what answer would you like today?”

At best these wannabes are lazy politicians; they think only of what they can sell or (in Guiliani’s case) concoct an horrendously cynical lie to excuse failure. They have such contempt for us, the people, they don’t even think we’ll remember their lies or discover how little homework they’ve actually done. Obama is the only serious politician in the lot.

What the others offer is Bush light. Before anyone asked a question, Bush and his neocons knew that the answer was invading Iraq. They’ve been giving the same answer to whatever question comes up ever since. Want to protect us from WMD? Invade Iraq. Want to get rid of a vicious dictator? Invade Iraq. Want to make the Middle East a utopian democracy? Invade Iraq. Want to avoid Al Qaeda taking over the Middle East? Stay the course and make our invasion a success. Don’t want to see terrorists climbing over your window sills into your bedroom? Stay the course. Want to counter Iran’s growing power and influence? Stay mired in Iraq’s civil war. Whatever the question, Iraq is the answer, as it has been from the very first weeks of the Bush Administration, and long before 9/11.

And therein lies Obama’s real advantage. He’s different. He thinks.

Even during the presidential debates, you can see his mind working thoughtfully. A lot of viewers don’t like that about him. They want raw meat and applause lines. Instead, Obama gives them thoughtful answers with some nuance. He makes them think, something they have not done for so long it hurts.

Perhaps we’ve become so fond of Bush’s and Rove’s demagoguery that raw meat is what we want. If so, that’s what we’ll get. Our democracy will flush down the toilet of history in a cascade of thoughtless blunders like those of the last seven years.

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post on this blog pleading for voters to consider the Bush Administration’s low wattage in the brains department. Now we’re experiencing all the suffering that comes from having leaders who can’t or won’t think. The title of that post says it all: “Intelligence Does Matter.” It still does, now more than ever.

Obama’s candidacy offers an alternative. All of his writings reflect his intelligence and thoughtfulness. This blog contains detailed analyses of his health care plan and his anti-terrorism plan, showing how brilliant they are on many levels, and I won’t repeat them here. But one point is worth emphasizing: Obama’s health-care plan reveals genuine and deep understanding of economics. His understanding is so extraordinary that he should wear a brightly colored sash, everywhere he goes, announcing “I get economics!” Few Democrats do, and Hillary Clinton is no exception.

The problem is that few voters today want to hear about economics or anything else that requires real knowledge and skill. They would rather hear the latest sound bite confirming their own hunches and prejudices, so they can move on to more interesting things like Paris Hilton. And therein lies another problem for Obama and his campaign. He can’t show off his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability in sound bites.

But he can in writing. To read him is to love him. Obama has a great writer’s skill with words. I’m not talking rhetoric here; I’m talking substance. Like every great writer from Pushkin to Lincoln, Obama uses just the right word to hit the nail on the head. So his writing seems simple. But his thoughts are anything but simple. He has a brilliant mind that illuminates the complex and makes it seem simple.

Anyone who cares about our country and wants to be an informed voter should read his book The Audacity of Hope. At very least they should read his speech on his health-care plan or his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

Few people know, for example, that Obama wrote that last speech all by himself. As his book explains, he worked sans speechwriters, consultants, and spinmeisters. Yet he put his finger on America’s pulse and took it so brilliantly that seasoned politicians still speak with awe about that speech three years later. Implicitly they give Obama the greatest compliment any rival can ever give, asking “Why didn’t I think of that myself?”

So why don’t we all know about Obama’s brains? Is he hiding his light under a bushel?

I wish in knew the answer. Maybe Obama’s campaign is just getting started using its huge war chest (now over thirty million dollars, after expenses) to show us how smart he is. I hope so.

But a more depressing answer is also possible. America has always had a nasty anti-intellectual and anti-elitist side. Never has that side been more ascendant than in the Bush Administration. Maybe the Obama campaign is still afraid of the know-nothing attitude that Bush, Cheney and Rove so effectively instilled in our national psyche.

I hope not. I would be the first to admit that Obama’s senior, professional advisors—let alone Obama himself—are far smarter than I on what “sells” to the American people. If they think emphasizing Obama’s credentials, brains, and thoughtfulness would sound elitist or put voters off, I defer to their experienced political judgment.

But maybe, just maybe, the voters are tired of know nothings who claim they have all the answers without the need for thought. After seven years of abysmal failure, maybe they understand that a not-very-bright “regular Joe” like Bush is not the best person to lead a modern, technological nation of 300 million people. Maybe they are ready to consider once again electing a leader who is smarter than they—a lot smarter.

If voters want a smart person qualified by credentials and training to solve real problems, Obama is the best we’ve got. Somehow, his campaign has to get that message out. Maybe, in this YouTube age, the campaign needs to find some way to translate his thoughtfulness into the medium of video. That’s hard to do but not impossible.

However hard it may be, the effort is vital. Obama has two clear advantages over his rivals: (1) his tolerant, non-ideological style and (2) his extraordinary mind and problem-solving ability. If he can’t successfully inform voters about both of those advantages and why they matter, I fear for the future of our country.

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12 July 2007

A Necessary Heresy

Warning to readers: what you are about to read is heresy. Not religious heresy, but American heresy. I am about to question our Constitution.

If you believe our Constitution is perfect, the living essence of Truth, then skip to another blog. If, on the other hand, you believe that most things can be improved, and that human history did not culminate in 1791, then read on.

In a bit of humor, I recently suggested one way in which our Constitution is defective. The Great Compromise gives people like Jeff Sessions equal power and prestige with thoughtful leaders like Richard Lugar, Hillary Clinton, Diane Feinstein, John McCain and Barack Obama.

Sessions represents the great state of Alabama. According to the latest Census Bureau figures, it is third among our fifty states in poverty and fifth in violent crime. It is third from the bottom in median household income and (according to a more recent independent analysis) fifth from the bottom in brains. If Alabama were a separate country, it would almost certainly belong to the third world.

With that sort of record, a senator of intelligence and decency might keep his mouth shut, his hands open for federal dollars, and his mind open for ideas to improve his constituents’ sorry lot. Instead, Sessions proudly touts their backwardness as a model for the rest of us. If you get tired of hearing his thick accent pushing his constituents’ prejudice and xenophobia as family values, then perhaps you’ll join me in regretting the Great Compromise that gave people like him a crack at the Senate.

But awful as it is, the Great Compromise is small potatoes compared to our Constitution’s other deficiencies. The Great Compromise weakens democracy but probably won’t kill it. Our Constitution’s other deficiencies might keen our democracy’s death knell. This essay explores one of the worst. A future essay will discuss a second.

Today our Constitution’s chief deficiency is painfully apparent. We have no way of getting rid of a sitting president, before his term is up, just for doing a terrible job.

We now have the lamest duck in our history. Polls show that George W. Bush would lose a recall election in a heartbeat. The Democrats would love to see his back. So, too, would most of his own party. Thoughtful conservatives now believe their party must suffer not one but two electoral debacles just to restore its traditional principles and common sense after the disaster of Bush’s and Cheney’s rule. Only a tiny minority, it seems, wants Bush or Cheney to stay in office, but we’re stuck with them for eighteen more months.

Eighteen months were not a big deal in Colonial times. Things moved more slowly then. It took as much as three months just to send an ambassador to Europe.

But today the pace of life is different. Think of all the things that could go wrong in the next eighteen months. We could suffer another September 11, or something even worse. We could have a second Katrina and lose New Orleans forever. We could find ourselves in a shooting war with Iran. Pakistan’s government, including its nukes, could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists. Iran could attack Israel. Extremists could invade or sabotage the Saudi oil fields, producing a worldwide economic catastrophe. Avian flu could mutate into a worldwide pandemic. Our monstrous deficit or imbalance of payments could precipitate a worldwide economic crisis. Do we really want Bush and Cheney still at the helm if any of this happens?

Pundits have noticed the extraordinary condition of our electoral politics. Several states have pushed their primaries forward, challenging New Hampshire for primacy. Full-blown campaigns are in progress in both parties, sixteen months before the general election. None of this has ever happened before.

Has anyone stopped to think why now, why this year? Isn’t the answer obvious? The whole country is tired of Bush and Cheney and can’t wait to see who will be next. Think how bad things might get if we had three or four years to go, rather than “just” eighteen months.

The real culprit is our Constitution. Its standard for impeaching a president—“high Crimes and Misdemeanors”—is utterly defective. No one knows what these words mean, but they sound legalistic. So in our over-lawyered society, we think we have to ask lawyers what they mean.

Our lawyers in Congress—of which we have far too many—take a legalistic tack. They wanted to impeach Bill Clinton because they understood the technical crime of perjury: a lie under oath that was knowing or deliberate. “Gotcha!” they cried, thinking they could prove that Clinton lied deliberately.

But what did Clinton lie about? Fellatio—in vulgar terms, a blow job.

Now just imagine yourself transported back to 1791. You’re asking Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Ben Franklin whether lying about fellatio was the kind of “high Crime and Misdemeanor” they had in mind. Assuming you could get them to talk about that kind of sex act at all, what do you think they would say? Most likely, they would answer noncommittally, shaking their heads and wondering whether you had taken leave of your senses.

Now consider Bush and Cheney. Nearly three quarters of the nation understand that they misled us into the War in Iraq and continued to mislead us about its progress for several years. So do most thoughtful Republicans. Everyone understands the result: over 3,600 American deaths, countless Iraqi deaths (estimated at from 59,000 to 654,000), a devastated nation suffering a civil war, a colossal waste of money and American prestige, and no end in sight.

Yet the lawyers in Congress think Bush and Cheney may be unimpeachable because it would be hard to prove that they lied knowingly or deliberately. So we have this odd juxtaposition: a sitting president was impeached because his lie about fellatio appeared to be deliberate, while others are immune for “innocently” misleading us into a disastrous war. Only a lawyer could imagine that Clinton was guilty of a “high Crime and Misdemeanor” while Bush and Cheney are not.

Yet there is more. Bush insists he can, by labeling you an “enemy combatant,” lock you up and throw away the key, without lawyer, trial, or contact with family or friends. Cheney, who created this dark vision, applauds. How would our Founders react to their claim? Even before our War of Independence, they would have decried it as an abrogation of their “Rights as Englishmen.” After 1791, they would have found it a clear violation our Bill of Rights. Isn’t that what they fought the real King George (III) about? Does anyone really think they would have considered lying about fellatio more important than that?

In truth, protecting us from tyranny has little to do with crimes, criminal intent, or legal technicalities that lawyers worry about in criminal trials.

The leader of a democratic society loses the right and power to lead upon losing the people’s confidence. If he somehow manages to remain in power, he becomes a monarch in all but name. That’s what Bush is now, with Cheney his grand vizier.

To remove such leaders, there should be no need to prove a violation of some specific statute, far less beyond a reasonable doubt. The question is political, not legal or criminal. We don’t need lawyers to tell us who is fit to govern us. Nor do our representatives.

The British recognize this point. When a prime minister loses a vote of “no confidence” in Parliament, they boot him out and call elections. They don’t leave the fate of their nation in the hands of a person they no longer trust for years on end. We shouldn’t either.

Leaving Bush and Cheney aside, I can think of no argument for allowing a president who has lost the people’s confidence to remain in office. The “stability” of bad government is not something we should endorse by law. The two parties might play games by throwing each other out of office with little notice, but those games would be short lived. Cooler heads would prevail, just as cooler heads preserved the filibuster recently in the face of radical Republican zeal.

In any event, shorter average presidential terms might produce better governance. Since Franklin Roosevelt, no president (including Reagan) has served two terms to the people’s complete satisfaction. Even Reagan gave us the Iran-Contra scandal and the hyperinflation of the mid-to-late eighties. The presidency is an exhausting and draining job. It has aged both Clinton and Bush visibly, and Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented four terms literally sucked the life out of him. Maybe eight years is simply too much time in office for all but the superhuman once-in-a-century president.

Today we have little reason to expect a president to do a good job through a whole term of four years, let alone eight. As currently configured, our political system rewards (with election) skill in demagoguery and political manipulation, not skill in governing.

This discrepancy is well known and oft remarked. Yet we are not likely to repair it until we get money out of politics. Doing that will probably require changes in our First Amendment, instructing our Supreme Court how to distinguish money from speech. In the meantime, we must solve an important problem: insuring that people who are skilled at manipulating voters but not so skilled at governing have some oversight.

Our most crying systemic need is for real checks and balances. As the Bush Administration has so effectively demonstrated, what passes for checks and balances today is a joke. The executive owns the military, the intelligence services, nearly all of the regulatory agencies, a huge bureaucracy, and hordes of government scientists. In addition, it has (or claims) the power to distort or suppress the information they generate. In our so-called “information age,” the executive’s near-total control over information is a decisive advantage.

An example may be helpful. The former Surgeon General of the United States, Richard Carmona, just testified under oath about consistent political interference with his attempts to inform the public about matters of medical science. According to the New York Times, he was (among many other things) “ordered to mention President Bush three times on every page of his speeches.” If that doesn’t sound like the Soviet Union to you, you’ve got a short memory of the Cold War and the reasons why we fought it.

Neither Congress nor the judiciary has (or claims) any such power. Among the three branches, the executive is the 800 pound gorilla. In comparison, Congress is a puny marmot. It has no bureaucracy, no soldiers and few scientists on its payroll, and few independent sources of information. It can’t even expect the judiciary consistently to take its side. When the executive and Congress clash, most of the time the judiciary calls it a “political question” and ducks the issue entirely.

In theory, Congress has the power of the purse, but that is a blunt instrument. In practice it has no real power even to stop a war, let alone an expensive program on which the people or a strong special interest depends. If nothing else, Congress’ recent cowardice in continuing tax subsidies to the oil and gas industries that perpetuate our energy dependence taught us that.

All Congress has real power to do is call hearings and expose the executive’s misfeasance and malfeasance. But if the people have to wait up to four years to make a change, what good is that oversight and the public exposure that it creates? When it comes to politics, people’s memories are notoriously short.

As for the judiciary, it has always been the “least dangerous branch.” Congress has the power to restrict its jurisdiction, and Congress has already done so at the executive’s behest. In the Detainee Treatment Act, Congress tried to deprive the Supreme Court of the power to hear cases arising out of military detention of so-called “enemy combatants.” As future presidents use their lopsided power to reward or punish future Congresses and their members, we can expect greater use of the power to narrow the courts’ jurisdiction.

The gloves are now off. Directly or indirectly, the executive has the power to make both other branches its vassals in all but name. Anyone who thinks it won’t use that power is dangerously naïve. That is just the type of naïveté that our Founders designed our government to reject. Yet there are still so-called “thinkers” in our land who want the executive to have even more power.

If this trend continues, both Congress and the Supreme Court will become mere appendages to executive rule. This result is not only foreseeable, but likely, unless there is dramatic change.

Only the ability to remove a sitting chief executive has a chance of redressing the gross imbalance in power among the three branches that prevails today. To be effective that power must be plenary; it must not depend upon legal technicalities or proof of violation of any law. What we need is a vote of “no confidence,” like the British, by a bare majority. If we do not amend our Constitution to give Congress that power, we may soon be living in an authoritarian state.

Fortunately, that sort of amendment might be possible even today. Under Article V of the Constitution, Congress and the state legislatures can amend the Constitution without the president’s consent. Perhaps our states, which are now addressing global warming and immigration on their own for lack of competent executive leadership, can do what needs to be done. Their action may be the “check and balance” that saves us all.

Bush may be one of the worst, but he was not the first president to make a dangerous grab for power. He certainly won’t be the last.

You have only to think of September 11 to imagine how quickly we might lose our Republic. Perhaps a nuclear strike in New York or Washington, perhaps under a volatile President Giuliani, could cause us to lose all our checks and balances, and all our rights, for our own security of course. Just imagine the justification for continuing martial law that an open-ended war on nuclear terror would provide. From there it would take only a baby step to cancel elections “in view of the present emergency.” It can happen here, and nothing now in our Constitution could stop it.

It may be heresy to follow the British in dumping leaders who have lost the people’s confidence for whatever reason, including misleading the people or forgetting what democracy is all about. But don’t say you haven’t been warned about the probable consequences of avoiding that heresy. Bush and Cheney are neither bad dreams nor complete historical anomalies. They are products of our system. Only by changing our system can we avoid repeating their sad histories.

Addendum on Energy Independence

A recent analysis posted on the Wall Street Journal’s energy blog makes my July 4 post on energy independence all the more urgent. In the WSJ post, Jeffrey J. Brown, an independent petroleum geologist from Dallas, emphasizes one key point.

Brown accuses conventional energy analysts of neglecting an important factor in calculating the amount of world oil production likely to be available to importers like us. Conventional analysts, he claims, project increases in world oil production based on estimates of recoverable reserves. Then they compare the projected increases in production against projections of worldwide demand for oil.

What they neglect, Brown says, is “captive” production, i.e., production reserved for the exclusive use of the exporting states as they grow. He claims that three of the world’s top four oil producers—Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran—are themselves developing nations, so their oil exports will decrease as their own domestic needs increase. After including projections of their own internal needs, Brown estimates that net world oil exports will drop to zero in nine years.

If he is right, the more-than-half of our transportation energy that comes from imported oil will disappear (or get radically more expensive) in less than a decade.

If normal market forces prevail, producing nations that want to support their internal use of oil will simply bid for the oil on the world market, driving up oil’s price. If their own internal needs already have been included in projections of world oil demand, then the estimates of oil prices derived from those projections should be accurate. Then Brown would be wrong.

But might Brown be right? What if some producing countries never put their “captive” oil on the market at all?

That’s exactly what Russia did during most of its Soviet period. It ignored the market and allocated oil based on central planning and its desire to support friendly Communist economies like Castro’s Cuba. The prices that it charged for oil allocated internally or to Communist allies had nothing to do with the market. Those prices were consistently well below market prices, but only to favored buyers.

Who can say that Russia, Iran, or Saudia Arabia won’t act similarly in the future? Each of them has, at times in the past, valued ideology over market economics. A coup or revolution, for example, might cause Saudi Arabia to stop allocating its oil based on the market and begin rewarding religious or military allies.

As for Iran, its government has a number of reasons having nothing to do with economics for depriving the West of its oil. Quite apart from a desire for nuclear weapons, a possible reason for Iran seeking nuclear energy is to save its oil for use as local political leverage among Middle Eastern nations that do not have their own sources of energy. Nations like Syria and Jordan have no oil, and selling them oil at below-market prices could give Iran considerable political and economic influence over them.

For political or religious reasons, one or more of the big producers might value their own or their allies’ internal growth more than earning market returns from selling oil at world prices abroad. If that happens, Brown could be right. In that case, the fraction of world oil supply representing producers’ non-market allocations would, in effect, be withdrawn from the world market and unavailable to importers like us at any price.

This risk is more political than economic, but it is still real. It accentuates the urgency of comprehensive and radical reform of our national energy policy. We don’t want to be vulnerable to shocks in foreign oil producers’ sales, whether the shocks are economic, political or religious in origin. That’s what energy independence is all about.

Ten years is enough time to switch to an electricity-hydrogen transportation economy as described in my post, but only if we start right away and really put our backs into it. Since nothing will happen before the 2008 elections, we really have only about eight years; so we ought to get started soon. An Obama Administration with Richard Lugar as energy secretary might give us a quick start.

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08 July 2007

Sahel or Partition: Take Your Pick

New York Times reporter Ed Wong has taught us a new word. “Sahel” is an Arabic term used in Iraq. It means total, incontestable, humiliating victory, celebrated by dragging vanquished leaders’ mutilated corpses through the streets.

According to Wong, that’s what many Iraqis say they want. Many of them think there will be no peace in Iraq until one side or the other achieves sahel.

Sahel is a concept as foreign to America as daily suicide bombings are to small towns in Iowa. Yet Wong is a sensitive, resourceful and insightful reporter. If he and his sources are right, we must get our minds around the idea of sahel. We have to understand where that Iraqi custom might lead once our forces leave Iraq.

No one is likely to achieve sahel over the Kurds, at least as long as we do not abandon them entirely. They are good fighters, well armed and well organized. So the victims in any sahel will be Sunnis or Shiites.

At this point, it is hard to say which of them is most likely to achieve sahel once we leave. The Sunnis are a minority, but they are the better fighters. Many of their hardened Baathist generals and colonels now sit in exile in Amman and Damascus. There they sip tea, nurse their grudges, and prepare to return to Iraq to fight for sahel as soon as our forces leave.

Iraqi Shiites outnumber Sunnis three to one. We have armed and trained them and given them political control of Iraq. In so doing, we have partially expiated our guilt for allowing Saddam to slaughter the Marsh Arabs, who were Shiites.

But the Shiites are still fractious, undisciplined and disorderly. If can they pull themselves together enough to achieve sahel, it will probably be under the leadership of a strong man like Muqtada Al Sadr. Then Iran’s influence, which affects many Iraqi Shiites and especially Muqtada, will have the whole of non-Kurdish Iraq as its field.

Whichever side achieves sahel, democracy will disappear from non-Kurdish Iraq for the foreseeable future. Sahel requires ruthless means and a strong man to use them. If sahel occurs, a new dictator will arise to replace Saddam, either in achieving sahel or in consolidating its fruits. Politically, Iraq will be right back where it started in 2003, when we began our invasion, except perhaps for a free Iraqi Kurdistan. We will have a new Saddam under another name. If the Shiites win, they will do so with Iranian help and under Iranian influence. Is that what we want?

We can do better. Amid all the dispiriting mayhem, there are signs of separate progress among both Shiites and Sunnis. The Shiites won’t share real power with their erstwhile oppressors, but they do have an embryonic democracy among themselves. Who could say where it might lead after a few years of relative calm within defensible borders?

No longer distracted by civil war, the Shiites could devote their efforts to wiping out Al Qaeda (their sworn enemy) in their midst. They could reconstruct their oil fields with international help. The influx of new oil revenue could promote rapid reconstruction of Shiite Iraq. Perhaps it might restore Iraqi Shiites’ traditional secularism and internationalism, heading off the current trend toward Islamic extremism and dependence on Iran. The added oil production would also help stabilize the world oil market and lower gas prices.

As for Iraqi Sunniland, there are encouraging signs there, too. Sunni sheikhs recently joined our forces to rid Anbar Province of the scourge of terrorism. As this writer predicted, they have been enormously effective in doing so.

These public-spirited sheikhs could be the nucleus of an emerging Iraqi Sunni democracy. Apparently they made the decision to join us collectively, and they put their lives on the line to do so. From their ranks could emerge a council of elders and an embryo of democratic government. The sheikhs joined with us to stamp out mayhem and protect their communities, not to achieve sahel. That, too, is a good sign.

But our current policy in Iraq is counterproductive to all these trends. By pursuing our pipe dream of a unified, democratic Iraq, we are in fact setting Iraq up for sahel after we leave. Our stated goal is undermining our only chance for leaving Iraq as a whole better off than we found it.

So what we need now is not a false choice between withdrawal now and withdrawal later. What we need is a brand new policy: partition.

Only partition can avoid sahel. And only avoiding sahel can give non-Kurdish Iraq a chance at achieving stable reconstruction, let alone democracy. We therefore must abandon the policy of trying to unify Iraq, which in the end will only promote sahel. We must partition Iraq to create space for stability and reconstruction.

It does not matter whether the partitions are “hard” or “soft.” It does not matter whether they reflect “federalism” or separate nations. Planners can use whatever legal structure seems appropriate, and diplomats can use whatever euphemisms and circumlocutions they need to pacify the neighbors.

What matters is that the three warring ethnic groups be confined largely to contiguous and defensible territories so that the mayhem can stop and ordinary life and reconstruction can resume, without sahel. Experts and military leaders such as General Petraeus should help draw the boundaries and create the partitions. They should make sure (among other things) that the Sunnis receive their proper share of oil revenue.

Once our forces have helped achieve stable partitions, Iraqis can maintain them, and our troops can begin withdrawing. We can continue to police partitions afterward, with far fewer casualties, through judicious use of air power and “no fly” zones.

As the mayhem subsides, millions of Iraqi expatriates can come back. Some of them may secretly desire sahel. But most will simply want to live, work and improve their lives without having to fear being blown up, executed, or tortured every time they go out their front doors.

There is a good chance that war weariness will lead returning Iraqi expatriates to demand peace and reconstruction, not sahel. After all, the expatriates are the ones who voted against mayhem with their feet in the first place. By and large, they are the merchants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other educated folk whom reconstruction requires. But as smart folk, they won’t return just to become victims of a quest for sahel. A key goal of partition would be enticing these cooler heads back to begin reconstruction.

Achieving our other objectives will follow naturally from partition. Once the warring parties have reasonably contiguous, defensible territories, we can wind down our combat role and begin withdrawing our much-abused troops. Partition will also serve our goal of suppressing Al Qaeda, for all of the three ethnic groups hate Al Qaeda. As relative calm comes to their respective territories, each group will devote less energy to exterminating the others and more to exterminating terrorists in its midst.

Finally, partition will help us achieve our regional strategic objectives. It will avoid a continuing bloodbath and therefore a wider civil war that might drag in neighbors. It will create a balance of power within what is now Iraq, avoiding the extension of Iranian influence into Kurdish and Sunni areas. By encouraging Shiite Iraq to stand on its own with a rudimentary democracy, it could even limit Iranian influence there, for example, by promoting Iraqi Shiites’ secularism and feelings of independence.

For four years, our effort in Iraq has had the wrong goal. We have tried to glue together a “unified” Iraq with our troops’ blood. But “Iraq” is a fiction, imagined by the British Foreign Office during its colonial era. By softening our focus and recognizing the reality of ethnic communities mired in millennial power struggles, we can achieve nearly all of our objectives—calm, stability, reconstruction, and a chance for democracy to take root over the long term. All we have to do is give up our pipe dream and get serious, and our troops can begin to come home.

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04 July 2007

Energy Independence: the Proper Role of Coal

[For a more recent post assessing the role of coal as an interim expedient to power battery-driven cars, click here.]

On this our 232d Independence Day, there is nothing we need more than independence in energy. Our bravest and best are dying daily in Iraq. Gas prices are steadily rising. We are in a deep hole of dependence on foreign oil.

The Senate recently voted to dig us further in. It prolonged massive tax subsidies for oil and gas and refused to transfer them to starting up alternatives like nuclear, ethanol, solar, and wind power. It's about time for all of us to think harder how to dig ourselves out of our hole, rather than further in.

One possible answer is coal. We have lots of it in our own country—reportedly enough to power our nation for up to two centuries. As an energy source it is cheap—if you count only its direct costs.

But coal puts us on the horns of a terrible dilemma. It is the dirtiest fuel known to mankind. It generates massive amounts of the greenhouse gases that are slowly cooking our planet. It also produces horrendous pollution, from the sulfur dioxide that causes acid rain to the mercury pollution that poisons our fish and shellfish, our rivers and lakes and—if we are not careful—our children’s central nervous systems.

Burning coal also produces particulates, tiny particles of soot and other toxic matter that lodge deep in our lungs as we breathe. These particles cause numerous forms of respiratory disease, including asthma, increased respiratory infection, and reduced lung capacity in urban populations.

If you take a realistic account of the damage that burning coal causes—to our planet, our local environment, our cities, and our bodies—coal no longer seems cheap. Economists call these costs “externalities,” i.e., costs that are very real, but that traders don’t include in the standard price of a commodity like coal.

Coal’s “external” costs are enormous. They include the cost of reducing other sources of greenhouse gas to compensate for burning coal. They include “remediating” global warming, for example, by building dikes around much of Southern Florida and our Gulf Coast to protect them from a rising sea. They include the cost of preventive measures and recovery from various forms of inclement weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, tropical storms and floods) as global warming increases their severity. They include the cost of lost work days and health care when people suffer from various pollution-caused respiratory diseases.

Coal’s hidden costs also include the inestimable loss of our natural heritage. Where coal plants foul the air, we lose the beauty and health of our forests to acid rain, the clarity of our lakes and rivers, and the freshness of our air. Coal’s costs include exchanging the fresh smell of spring for the pall of nineteenth-century London or of Shanghai and Beijing today.

It is hard to put a precise value on all these “external” costs. Friends and foes of the coal industry often come up with radically different numbers. They use different assumptions about our uncertain future and different estimates of the “value” of a fine, clear spring day.

But two things are certain. First, the total, real cost of burning coal is unknown and probably unknowable with any precision. Second, coal’s hidden or “external” costs are gigantic. As time goes on and we become aware of the enormity of these hidden costs, they are likely to seem much larger than we suspect now. The future cost of global warming, for example, is still unknown, and it is likely to get much higher before we get serious about fixing it.

As for liquid fuel from coal, producing it more than doubles coal’s adverse environmental and health effects. It takes more energy to produce a unit of liquid fuel from coal than the fuel itself contains. So creating and burning a gallon-equivalent of gasoline from liquid coal produces more than twice the amount of pollution that burning oil-derived gasoline alone would produce.

As a result, coal’s “cheapness” is an illusion, conjured up by ignoring very real externalities. In reality, coal has only one clear advantage as an energy source: we have lots of it, and we control our sources. Coal therefore deserves serious attention from only one perspective: energy independence.

This analysis leads to two important conclusions. First, coal must not be an important part of our energy industry in the long term. In the long run we must phase coal out, precisely because it presents such extreme danger to our planet’s warming, our environment, and our personal health. In the long run we have to replace coal with less costly and dangerous alternatives, such as nuclear, biomass (including ethanol), wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.

But the second conclusion is also important: coal might serve as an important source of energy independence in the short term, i.e., during the next twenty years. It could protect our energy security against the shocks and surprises, for example, of terrorism in the oil fields, growing worldwide demand for oil, or revolution and subversion in the Middle East.

As I have argued earlier, a rational mediuum-term energy policy would put primary emphasis on nuclear power. Why? Because nuclear power—virtually alone among realistic, high-yield energy sources now available—has the potential to produce most or all of the power we need.

At the same time, nuclear power creates no greenhouses gases, no air pollution, and none of the widespread and largely irremediable despoliation of the environment and human health that burning coal causes. All nuclear power produces is a small amount of radioactive solid waste. Compared with the gaseous products of burning coal, that waste is less dangerous, less susceptible to widespread dispersion, and far easier to contain and handle. You don’t have to “sequester” gaseous effluent from a nuclear power plant; all you have to do is cart away the radioactive waste when you refuel or decommission the plant.

Although nuclear energy produces only electric power, it is likely to play an increasingly important role in transportation as well. Toyota recently sold its millionth Prius hybrid. Others are working hard on better batteries for “plug-in” models that consumers can recharge overnight from the electric power grid, rather than from their hybrids’ own internal combustion engines. Soon commuters who drive less than twenty or thirty miles to work will be able to commute primarily, if not exclusively, on power taken from their local electric grid. Those who are willing to retrofit their existing Priuses can do so now.

This promise is not science fiction. It is technology on the drawing boards and in the testing laboratories of automobile manufacturers today. I plan to buy a plug-in hybrid as soon as a standard commercial model is available. As more and more consumers accept this commuting solution, it has the potential to replace a significant fraction of our foreign oil consumption with domestically produced electric power.

Electric power also has the potential for providing liquid fuel for long-haul transport. Electricity can hydrolyze water into its constituent elements (hydrogen and oxygen), which can be burned in present-day internal combustion engines with some modification.

The entire process of hydrolysis and combustive recombination produces no greenhouse gases and no dangerous pollution. All it produces is water vapor. Thus using hydrolyzed water as a portable fuel would cause less global warming and create cooler and cleaner cities. Its only disadvantage would be some energy-efficiency loss as compared to direct use of electricity in batteries. If the electricity used to produce hydrogen comes from pollution-free nuclear energy, the cost of hydrogen transport—including externalities like global warming, environmental despoliation and the adverse health effects of burning fossil fuels—would be lower than the total current cost of oil-powered transportation.

The most important point, however, is that using electricity to power short-haul transportation is a technology likely to be introduced in serious volume in the next two or three years. When combined with alternative liquid fuels, such as ethanol and liquefied natural gas, this application of electric power could make a substantial dent in our dependence on foreign oil for transportation.

Yet before this happy scenario can come to pass, we must increase our national output of electricity substantially. And that is where coal comes in.

Today about half of our nation’s total output of electric power comes from burning coal. It takes fifteen years or more to site, approve, design and build a nuclear power plant. While solar cells and wind turbines cost less and take far less time to build, decades may pass before they provide a significant fraction (such as one-quarter) of our national electrical power output. Therefore, in the short term, any substantial increase in electric production—including any increase required to support electrical power for transportation—must come from coal.

So it makes sense to rely on limited use of coal in the short term while we build up our nuclear power industry to the point where cleaner and safer nuclear power can replace coal entirely as an energy source. With proper planning, that should happen in twenty to thirty years.

Several other conclusions derive from this analysis. First, if coal is to be a short-term solution, it must be flexible. There is little sense in building more monumental coal-burning power plants, like the one now at Four Corners, which serves several states and burns more than 38,000 tons of coal a day. It makes much more sense to build smaller, local plants, closer to the cities that they serve.

Making new coal-fired power plants smaller and closer to the cities they serve will disperse their pollution. It will also encourage cities to monitor their pollution more closely and to apply continual pressure to use the best available technology to reduce greenhouse gases and other harmful effluents. In addition, smaller plants can be built quickly, expensed quickly and therefore replaced quickly by nuclear power plants. They can also be used as flexible bases for testing new pollution-control technology.

Second, because burning coal will still produce massive amounts of greenhouse gases and harmful pollutants, it makes sense to continue investing in experiments to “sequester” plant effluent by pumping it into the ground. More numerous, smaller plants, scattered around the country, could experiment with different approaches to sequestration and maximize their chances of success. Once a workable technique is found, smaller, regional power plants could adopt it rapidly, at distributed cost, without the need for expensive retrofitting of gigantic plants.

Third, it makes no sense whatsoever to continue experimenting with so-called “liquid coal.” The efficiency of this technology is already no better than the efficiency of using coal-produced electricity to hydrolyze water for hydrogen-oxygen fuel. At the same time, it produces much greater volumes of greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide and mercury pollution. “Liquid coal” is an obsolete technology whose inherent inefficiency and massive pollution belong in the last century. It should be dropped like the environmental hot potato that it is. Senator Barack Obama recently has come to this conclusion despite enormous pressure from the coal industry in his home state.

Finally, a rational energy policy should recognize that coal is a short-term solution. It should encourage the building of plants with an engineered lifetime of no more than twenty years. It should require new plants to use latest greenhouse-gas sequestration technology and pollution-control technology available at the time they are built. And, unlike the Bush Administration’s current rules, it should require upgrades to best-available technology every time a plant is upgraded, expanded or rebuilt in any respect. If these rules are firm and clear at the outset, industry will adapt; utilities will build smaller plants for flexibility in adopting new technology at low cost.

With these caveats, coal can serve as an important interim, short-term source of energy while we build much cleaner and safer nuclear and renewable alternatives. Lest we doubt the feasibility of this approach, we should recall that France this year will generate 76% of its electric power from nuclear energy.

If we fail to take this approach—if we rely on coal in the medium or long term—we will condemn our children to a much warmer, dirtier and more dangerous planet. We do not have to lose our Eden to secure continued prosperity and energy independence. All we need is rational planning.

Footnote: the Libby Commutation

Some readers of this Blog may be disappointed in the absence of a full post on George W. Bush’s commuting the sentence of convicted perjurer I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

Cries of outrage are inevitable. One of the best is Cynthia Tucker’s piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She even manages a bit of humor at the end—something I can no longer muster when I think of George W. Bush.

To him, the presidency is not an office at the pinnacle of a mature democracy. It is a magic wand. In his mind, it gives him leave and power to impose radical ideas on unwilling millions, to reward his friends, and to punish his enemies. For nearly seven years, this swaggering oaf has been a child playing a game of “king of the heap” with our collective lives. He has transformed the world’s leading democracy into a feudal society in which all that matters is loyalty.

Bush will remain our Dark Cinderella until the Magic Pumpkin arrives in January 2009 to take him to the hellish place in history that he deserves. Until then, all we can do is wait, hope and plan for the day when he is finally gone for good. That sort of advance planning is the point of the preceding essay.

One further point is worth making. Remember Bill Clinton? He was impeached, but not convicted, for lying about a sexual indiscretion. The sanctimonious crusaders who pursued him thought nothing of paralyzing an entire nation for three years just to make a political point.

Today we have a man duly convicted of lying to a grand jury about something that actually matters. The subject of Libby’s perjury was no mere personal indiscretion. It was the “outing” of a secret agent during our “war on terror,” supposedly our generation’s greatest challenge. More than that: the underlying motive was covering up gross error or outright lies used to justify a war that now appears to be our history’s most catastrophic blunder.

Bush’s entire regime relied and built upon the radical zeal of bullies who pursued Clinton so relentlessly for a peccadillo. Yet Bush commutes the sentence of Libby, a proven liar on a vital matter of national security. Bush even commends him for outstanding “public service.” The hypocrisy and lack of perspective are breathtaking.

For seven years, we have suffered government by bully, which cares nothing for public or for world opinion. Bush’s consistent response to legitimate dissent and outrage has been the words of the Borg, “I’m the decider. Resistance is futile.” The only remedy is the impeachment power, which Congress quails to use.

So while we wait for our Magic Pumpkin, perhaps we who still believe in democratic dialogue and civilized government can show our revulsion and resentment toward our self-proclaimed feudal lord. We can turn our backs on him, in silence, whenever he appears in public.

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01 July 2007

A Salute to Senator Lugar

One day after I posted my diatribe blasting Republicans in Congress for acting like lemmings, Senator Richard Lugar (R. Ind.) broke ranks with the president on the War in Iraq. As widely reported, he recognized the bankruptcy of our Iraq policy. He cited “three factors—the political fragmentation in Iraq, the growing stress on our military, and the constraints of our own domestic political process—[that] are converging to make it almost impossible for the United States to engineer a stable, multi-sectarian government in Iraq in a reasonable time frame.” His epiphany may yet breathe some realism into a moribund Republican war strategy.

Lugar decisively repudiated the pipe dream of a unified and peaceful Iraq. “Few Iraqi leaders,” he said, “are willing to make sacrifices or expose themselves to risks on behalf of the type of unified Iraq that the Bush Administration had envisioned. In contrast, there are many Iraqi leaders who are deeply invested in a sectarian or tribal agenda. More often than not, these agendas involve not just the protection of fellow Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, but the expansion of territorial dominance and economic privileges.” He cited numerous specific examples of Iraqi fractiousness that make achieving unity totally unrealistic, at least in any reasonable time frame. He therefore called for carefully winding down our combat role in Iraq and strategically redeploying our troops, beginning soon.

After making his speech, Lugar even hinted at using Congress’ power of the purse to force a change in Iraq war policy. Implicitly, he repudiated his fellow Republicans’ lockstep and feckless support for a policy whose failure is now self-evident.

Senator Lugar is a deliberate and thoughtful man, and his break with the president has been a long time coming. He told the president of his misgivings about the surge, in private, at least as early as this January.

When his time came to dissent publicly, Lugar presented his views in a thorough and thoughtful speech on the Senate floor. The speech reportedly took weeks to prepare. It was and is a brilliantly incisive analysis of how our present position in Iraq gravely harms our long-term strategic interests.

Lugar’s speech on Iraq gives us the “big picture” that few in our nation have imagined, let alone painted in public. Everyone who cares about our country and our troops in Iraq should read it. It’s not that long, and it’s well written.

Lugar emphasized the importance of solving major strategic problems outside of Iraq, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and our abject dependence on Mideast oil. He also connected the dots between our energy dependence and our entire Mideast posture:
    “Do not underestimate the impact on Iran and other nations of a concerted U.S. campaign to reduce our oil consumption. A credible, well-publicized campaign to definitively change the oil import equation would reverberate throughout the Middle East. It would be the equivalent of opening a new front in Middle Eastern policy that does not depend on the good will of any other country.”
Much neglected by the media was a key point of his speech. Lugar did not call for “cutting and running.” Instead, he called for extricating ourselves from the Iraqi civil war but staying in the region as a stabilizing force. He envisaged a deliberate and careful strategic downsizing and redeployment of our combat troops, to places like Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan, that would take six months to a year.

Lugar also advocated deliberate and careful planning for the redeployment, to begin immediately. As he put it: “In 2003, we witnessed the costs that came with insufficient planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. It is absolutely essential that we not repeat the same mistake. The longer we delay the planning for a re-deployment, the less likely it is to be successful.” In these words, Lugar warned against continued Republican stubbornness, which could turn strategic redeployment into a rout when the overwhelming public revulsion toward this war has its way.

As Lugar delivered his speech, he was largely alone on the Senate floor, except for C-Span. By sheer force of reason, he sought to restore the Senate’s meaning and power, which lobbying, corruption and mindless partisanship have largely dissipated. His colleagues’ absence was a telling comment on our times.

This is not the first time that Lugar has played senior statesman in the Senate. Last August he made an equally thoughtful and important speech on energy policy. Again, he touched all the bases: global warming, our energy dependence, its adverse effect on our national security, the conflict between our values and the world oil cartel’s, the precariousness of the foreign oil supplies on which we depend, and the opportunity for building new industries—with international scope—to reduce our dependence. He emphasized the boon to our economy that building a world-class non-fossil-fuel energy industry would achieve.

Like his Iraq war speech, Lugar’s energy speech broke with most of his fellow Republicans. It recognized global warming as an important and urgent problem months before the president did. It implicitly repudiated the Bush Administration’s mindless servility to the oil and gas industry. Some commentators dismissed it as another midwest senator jumping on the ethanol bandwagon to get farmers’ votes. But it was much more than that. It was a thoughtful and comprehensive review of our energy policy, its grievous errors, and what we can and should do to correct them.

Lugar deserves immense credit for these speeches. He truly “gets it.” He understands how Iraq fits into our broader geostrategic interests and how energy independence would affect both. He reminds us what the Senate could be if it abjured partisan games and returned to being the world’s greatest deliberative body. John McCain may be the Republican party’s conscience, but Lugar is its brain.

Senator Lugar’s contribution to better policy is not limited to these two speeches. He has also been one of Senator Barack Obama’s chief mentors in the Senate.

As Obama reveals in his book, The Audacity of Hope, Lugar “crossed the aisle” to take the freshman senator from Illinois under his wing. Lugar helped Obama get a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then he took Obama on a series of trips to Russia to oversee the process of destroying and securing Russia’s nukes. In so doing, he gave Obama valuable experience in foreign affairs that Obama will need as president.

In mentoring Obama, Lugar did more than just help a promising senator from a neighboring state. He also recognized a kindred spirit. Both men are powerful thinkers. Unlike many of their Senate colleagues, both are serious men who dislike partisan games. They address real problems with complete, thoughtful and comprehensive analysis, full of nuance and detail. Both have the kind of mind that we need so desperately in formulating national policy but have lacked for so long.

Unfortunately for Lugar (and for us), Lugar has none of Obama’s charisma and common touch. He comes across as avuncular and feckless. His speaking style is so low key as to recall the famous line in Yeats’ immortal poem, “The Second Coming,” that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” His forgettable speaking style undermines his intellectual leadership.

But in writing Lugar is a powerful thinker. His key speeches bear careful reading. No doubt he would make a good president, but in this age of style, sound bites and bumper stickers he has no chance of becoming one. His party alone is a formidable obstacle to a man of reason and deliberation and will remain so until the Bush Administration’s pall of blundering demagoguery dissipates.

Yet we can still hope that Lugar’s obvious talent will not go to waste. As a dedicated non-partisan, Obama should and probably will reach across the aisle in selecting his cabinet. What better choice could he make than Lugar, who shares his intelligence, commitment to reason, thoughtfulness and care?

Lugar would make an excellent Energy Secretary. He could transform the function of that office from pandering to the oil, gas and coal industries to building the infrastructure for a new and more secure energy future, with geostrategic interests in mind. At the same time, he could serve the Obama Administration as a thoughtful and prudent senior advisor. What better way to repay Lugar’s mentoring than to recruit his sharp analytical mind to serve us all?

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