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

31 May 2009

Big Tobacco’s Just Deserts

Amidst the multiple crises on the President’s and Congress’ plates, the fate of the so-called tobacco “industry” is small potatoes. But it’s important to me. I lost both my father (at a young age) and my mother to tobacco.

Yesterday the New York Times editorialized in favor of pending legislation that would allow the FDA to regulate tobacco products. Big tobacco is a “rogue industry,” the Times wrote, which “can’t be trusted to behave responsibly or even adhere to agreements it has signed.” So the Feds should regulate it.

While I agree with both those words and the Times’ list of sordid facts to back them up, still I wonder. I want the industry to fade into bankruptcy as quickly as possible—a result that lawsuits may well achieve if allowed to proceed unhindered. I fear that regulating tobacco will legitimize it and prolong its dreadful life yet again. Delay of just deserts has been big tobacco ’s goal for decades. Every year of delay means billions more in profit for it and decades more disease, suffering and premature death for its victims, aka “customers.”

Regulation will work only if it does not delay the industry’s demise and does no harm. In order to serve those objectives, any legislation authorizing regulation should: (1) impose severe criminal penalties for selling tobacco to minors; (2) require the industry to pay for every penny of the cost of regulating it; and (3) require every package of tobacco products to contain the following warning, inside a black border, with a skull and crossbones at the top:
“WARNING: Smoking tobacco is addictive and causes or contributes to heart disease, lung disease, cancer and death. It is the single biggest cause of preventable death in the United States. If you begin smoking you will almost certainly shorten your life and make its end nastier. Tobacco ads for decades lied about these facts, but hundreds of scientific studies have proved them.”
Unless the legislation meets these conditions, I will be just as skeptical of it as I was of the tobacco settlement, which already has given this awful “industry” another six years of undeserved life. Here, in my previously unpublished 2003 piece, I explain why:

The Tobacco Deal (2003): Why Settle After Stalingrad?

In winter 1942, Adolph Hitler was flush with success. His armies had overrun continental Europe. He had treacherously turned on Russia and had battled his way to the Volga. Moscow was within his reach.

Yet the Russians, with legendary courage and unprecedented suffering, turned the Nazis back at Stalingrad. Never before had Nazi armies suffered a major defeat; this was the first. They would enjoy success in battle later, but Stalingrad was the turning point of the war. Hitler’s generals knew this. About eighteen months later, they tried to kill him, with the apparent intention of consolidating their position and suing for peace.

What would have happened had they succeeded? Would the Allies, weary of war, have compromised? Would they have given the Nazis France, Italy, Belgium, and large parts of Russia just to have peace? I hope not. Our World War II generation—perhaps the most courageous in our nation’s history—could stomach only one answer to demonstrated evil: unconditional surrender.

I don’t compare big tobacco to the Nazis, although it used the very same “big lie” techniques. What the Nazis did was of incomparably greater scope, scale and brutality. But evil is evil. And I can’t think of any better word to describe knowingly promoting and selling, for profit, products that cause addiction, suffering, disease and death. Were the tobacco industry not protected by virtue of its unique history, we would call it by another name: drug pushing. Targeting children just adds insult to injury. (I leave aside the claim that tobacco companies targeted minorities, as well as kids.)

And so the memory of Stalingrad came to me while thinking about the proposed tobacco deal. Until recently, the tobacco firms’ battalions of lawyers had been flush with victory; they had never suffered a defeat. The industry had never paid a penny in damages to any victim of its products. But in 1996 it lost its first verdict, $750,000, at the hands of a Florida lawyer named Norwood “Woody” Weiner.

At about the same time, evidence of the industry’s treachery, in the form of internal memos, began emerging from courtrooms and congressional hearings. The stone wall that it had so carefully built and maintained for over forty years—to hide the results of its secret research and product plans—began to erode.

Unlike Hitler, the heads of tobacco firms are not madmen. They were and are rational business people, just seeking profit. They saw their Stalingrad and now want peace. The result, called the Tobacco Settlement, is now working its way through Congress.

Yet anyone who follows the issue knows, just as did Hitler’s generals in 1943, and just as do the tobacco CEOs today, that the end for them is in sight. The wheels of justice may grind slowly, but they are gaining momentum. States have won substantial settlements on behalf of their citizens. Lawyers who once shunned tobacco cases are seeking them in droves. Incriminating documents are emerging from their shroud of secrecy in corporate files and sealed court records. In another five to ten years, this industry, whose products are the leading cause of preventable death today, will vanish under an avalanche of compensatory and punitive damage awards. It will, that is, if Congress doesn’t meddle.

Unlike the Second World War, this victory over evil will cost neither blood nor tears. It will require only patience, plus the sweat of lawyers acting in their own economic interest. And the industry’s demise will be lawful and in full accord with due process. The tobacco firms know this; that is why they are reportedly willing to pay over half a trillion dollars—that’s $500,000,000,000, nearly one-eighth of the national debt!—for only partial statutory relief from legal liability for their wrongs.

Why are our elected representatives willing to give them that relief? Do they think America so needs their tainted money? Maybe they have forgotten the central message of the last generation, for which so many paid in blood: never compromise with evil. Or maybe they simply don’t understand the practical reality: the quickest way rid this country of the scourge of tobacco is to let the courts continue to do their jobs.

And so I hope and pray there will be no tobacco settlement. I look forward to reading the Wall Street Journal as the verdicts roll in and, one by one, the tobacco firms seek protection in bankruptcy. As each bankruptcy is filed, I’ll lift a glass in toast, and I’ll light a candle for all the hapless victims of tobacco addiction. I’ll think about my mother, a rational and highly intelligent woman, who, in her seventies and suffering from emphysema, still snuck smokes in the toilet. And I’ll remember the phalanx of tobacco CEOs, assembled in Congress, each testifying with a bald “No!” when asked whether he believed that nicotine is addictive.


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26 May 2009

Judge Sotomayor and “Identity Politics”

I am on record on this blog opposing identity politics (1 and 2) . I believe the best candidate for every position (whether in law, commerce, science or politics) should win, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. That is one of my most deeply held principles.

So why do I support the President’s selection of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for a seat on the Supreme Court? Here are the reasons.

The first may be the most important. Ever since Ronald Reagan, so-called “conservatives” have propagated a myth. They convinced much of the public that the law is like an instruction manual for a washing machine.

The law (the myth goes) is a fixed, knowable thing, which anyone who can read can understand and apply. Judges’ jobs are to read the law, apply it as written, and so serve the pleasure of an omniscient legislature or (in constitutional cases) our much-revered Framers.

To anyone who has ever been involved in a lawsuit, that myth isn’t even a good caricature of the law.

Lawsuits happen because the parties to them disagree what the law is. If one party is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, the lawsuit never gets to a jury. The trial judge decides the case, on the law alone, in a quick procedure known as “summary judgment.”

If the case does go to a jury, the jury decides only the facts. The judge decides what the law is.

By the time a case reaches the Supreme Court, judges in lower courts usually have disagreed on what the law is. Either the judges on a lower court of appeals have disagreed among themselves, or judges on different courts of appeals have disagreed how to decide the same issue in different cases.

Think about that. By the time a case reaches the Supreme Court, judges on lower courts have disagreed on what the law is. If the law is so simple and clear, how can that happen? Are lower-court judges so stupid that they can’t agree on how to run the washing machine?

When appellate courts—including the Supreme Court—decide what the law is, the so-called “text” of the legislation or Constitution is always unclear as written. That’s why the case gets to the Supreme Court. So judges look to a variety of other things to help them decide. They look at the law’s history, logic and purpose. They look at how the law fits together with other, related laws. Sometimes they consider general principles of justice and fairness. And they look at what the law’s writers (Congress or the Framers) said they were trying to accomplish in adopting the law.

Some so-called “conservative” judges call the latter point “original intent.” And they insist it’s just as clear as those instructions for the washing machine.

But again, think a minute. Even today, in the age of lie detectors, CAT scans and MRIs, we still have no reliable way of determining the “intent” of a witness sitting before us in the flesh. How much harder is it to determine the “original intent” of Framers dead now for two centuries, who lived in a time and culture inconceivably remote from ours?

Some “conservatives” think that judges should decide based on the “original intent” of people long dead. They also insist that that intent is clear and easy to see. Those are two of the dumbest ideas ever conceived by people supposedly trained in law. They are the thoughts of children who seek certitude where there is none.

In constitutional cases, these are dumb ideas for yet another reason. A large part of the Framers’ “original intent” was to create a structure of government that would last for ages. They couldn’t foresee in detail how their country and the world would change, but they knew they wanted their government to last. And being uncommonly smart, they knew that to last it must adapt. They last thing they wanted was a constitutional framework that would break, not bend, under changing circumstances. As a great judge who never made the Supreme Court once said, they devised our Constitution not as a “straitjacket, but a charter for a living people.”

Once you understand that our Framers sought adaptability above all else, is their “original intent” on any particular issue clear? Of course not. They were a diverse group of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, including the polar opposites of North and South. Few of them left voluminous correspondence like John and Abigail Adams’. If you tried to run your washing machine by speculating on their motivations and habits of thought, you’d never get your clothes clean.

Anyway, if the law or “original intent” were as clear as myth proclaims, we wouldn’t need three levels of courts (trial courts, intermediate appellate courts, and the Supreme Court). A single trial judge could read the instructions for the washing machine and press the buttons. Clever programmers might even write a computer program to read the “text” and do a judge’s job. Then the Supreme Court could go into retirement, or it could take even fewer cases per Term than it does now.

But of course all that is nonsense. We have so many judges and two layers of appeals courts precisely because the law is uncertain and requires interpretation. We have so much dissent (and over 180 differing legal journals) precisely because no one can know, two centuries later, what the Framers would have thought and whether their few recorded thoughts would even be relevant to current social, political, economic and technological conditions.

So Judge Sotomayor was right when she said at a conference that a “court of appeals is where policy is made.” She didn’t mean that courts should replace the legislature or the Constitution. She meant that courts must consider policy when—as nearly always happens in difficult cases, like those that reach the Supreme Court—Congress or the Framers were unclear. In that respect Sotomayor was not an “activist,” as her detractors will cry, but a realist.

Judges do not make law. But in interpreting and applying unclear law (which virtually every Supreme Court case involves), they make choices. And their choices involve policy. That’s what judging is.

When King Solomon threatened to split the baby, no text on the books dictated his “decision.” Only wisdom did. Solomon knew that his threat would reveal who the real mother was. Just so, from biblical times onward judges have used their brains, hearts and intuition to do justice—an elusive concept that is not necessarily the same as law. In seeking to make judges soulless automatons, so-called “conservatives” undermine the theory and history of judging going back at least to the Bible.

Once you admit that Supreme Court justices do make policy, the next question is who should sit in their chairs. My personal credo is that the best should win, regardless of identity. But who is the best?

Appearances can be deceiving. I am on record on this blog as having high hopes for Chief Justice Roberts. He certainly cut a fine figure at his hearings. Handsome, poised, and self-confident, had had a good command of his audience and good humor. He was well spoken and appeared knowledgeable about all the cases and fine points of law that the Senate could throw at him.

But since his confirmation, I’ve had a chance to read some of his most important opinions as Chief Justice. In writing, organization and reasoning, they were mediocre or worse. I’ve had students who could write better. Apparently he is one of those people who is far more impressive in the flesh than on paper. But unfortunately his written opinions are likely to outlast his personal presence by at least a century.

And therein lies the dilemma. Unless you read a substantial part of a judicial candidate’s written work and compare that work with others’, it’s hard to know who is best. Doing that scutwork takes a lot of time. Like many others, I rely on the people who have the most at stake: the President and his staff.

Judge Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. She served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal, the première legal journal at the nation’s most selective law school. Apparently she comes from the top stratum of lawyers and judges in education and experience. You can’t get much better credentials than those, and you don’t garner them without brains.

Among candidates from that rarified stratum, how do we pick the “best?” It is here that Sotomayor’s realism enters. If justices really do set policy—and they do!—which is more important in appointing one, a difference of few IQ points, or life experience?

Judge Sotomayor is a woman. She therefore shares the experiences of the majority of our population—a majority that, at most, has enjoyed 22% representation on the Court, and then only for a brief period. She is also an Hispanic and therefore a member of our largest ethnic minority which (with the possible exception of Benjamin Cardozo, a Jew of Portuguese extraction) has never enjoyed representation on the high court. More important still, Sotomayor represents the struggling poor of our nation; her Puerto Rican parents raised her in public housing projects.

Can we say these rare characteristics have value? Traditionalists would argue “no,” unless you can prove that women, Hispanics and working poor think differently from others, and that their brand of thinking is better.

But our legal system itself argues for recognizing Judge Sotomayor’s unique experiences. We have juries because we want the peers of litigants, ordinary citizens, to decide the facts of civil cases and criminal defendants’ fates. Just so, we need people at the highest level of our judicial system who understand the trials and tribulations of ordinary people. Sotomayor should, by virtue of her life experience.

The diversity she can provide will promote vital social values. It will give the appearance of egalitarianism, thereby promoting public acceptance of the rule of law and social cohesion—two social values under threat today.

More important, women proved their unique value as arbiters of policy last year. Their votes gave us Barack Obama as President. Without their votes, we would be facing a White House run by a fighter pilot, no doubt fed ideas by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney. I would likely be preparing to emigrate for my retirement. Women spared me that dreadful choice, and our country from further and perhaps irrevocable decline, and I will forever be grateful.

For these and many other reasons, I would like to see more women on the high court—a lot more. Call me sexist if you wish, but I have a firm conviction that women are less likely than men to favor abstractions over people, to reach impractical or unjust decisions because of their abstract intellectual attraction, to promote executive power as an end in itself, to choose war over peaceful cooperation, and to follow a (usually male) leader over a cliff. In time, their values could profoundly change our society and the world for the better.

So let’s see four or five women on the high court, the more the better. Judge Sotomayor and Justice Ginsburg seem a good start. I’ll support Sotomayor’s nomination unless a nasty skeleton jumps out of her closet. With our history’s best trained legal mind at the helm, and with all his stellar help doing the vetting, that’s not something I expect to see happen.


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19 May 2009

Our Still Dysfunctional Congress

For a Memorial Day coda, click here. For an Haiku on Dick Cheney, click here.

Like Michelle Obama, I became deeply proud of my country, for the first time in a long time, when her husband was nominated for and became president. Every day, I marvel at the positive changes his wisdom, vision, perspective and good judgment promise and already have made.

The new auto-mileage standards are classic Obama. By getting the industry to buy into them, he imposed energy discipline by agreement. He bypassed Congress and avoided what could have been a messy legislative battle and a decade of dilatory lawsuits. As the New York Times editorialized, the result was an “important down payment” on a much-needed rational energy policy.

Like higher gas prices, a carbon tax, or “cap and trade,” the new standards also got the economics right. They tell the industry what to do but not how to do it, and they don’t pick winners. Car makers can meet the new standards with electric vehicles, hybrids, other new technology, or more Rube Goldberg machines in smaller, lighter cars.

So far, so good.

But Congress is another story. The 2008 election did not cure every ill. Our poor legislative leadership at this time of multiple national crises continues to drag us down.

In the past we’ve had some great legislative leaders. There were Senators like William Fulbright (D., Ark.), whose name dignifies one of our most important (and least expensive) programs for international peace and understanding. Nearly alone, he dissented to Joe McCarthy’s red baiting and our disastrous attempt to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, for which we are still paying a staggering price half a century later.

There were Sam Erwin (D., N.C.), and Howard Baker, Jr. (R., Tenn.). These men of different parties cooperated in bringing down our first rogue president and restoring constitutional order after Watergate. There was Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (D., Tex.), a master legislative strategist who, as president, spent all his political capital on civil rights, knowing that doing so would doom his party for two generations. Obama’s presidency is in part his legacy. There were Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D., Mont.) and Daniel Moynihan (D., N.Y., once the Senate’s economic conscience). And there is Teddy Kennedy (D., Mass.), who is now fighting for his life.

Next to these giants, our current legislative leaders are midgets. Speaker Pelosi (D., Ca.) let herself be trapped in a “she said, he said” controversy with the CIA. She didn’t even drive home the point that we’ve finally outlawed torture and intend to keep it that way. If she’s had a new idea or a successful major legislative initiative during her tenure as Speaker, I’m not aware of it. She seems to spend her days in perpetual defensiveness and self-justification.

As for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), he seems to think and talk like Dubya slimmed down and turned left. To say that his intelligence, articulation, and vision fail to excite would be an understatement of Obamanian proportions. He must have had something to get elected majority leader, but from out here in voterland it’s hard to see what that something was. Maybe Nevadans know.

Next time senators elect a leader, they might want to consider that their body is not an exclusive boys’ club, but the leading deliberative forum for the nation and the world. How about someone who is capable of intelligent debate?

Not only is Reid marginally articulate. He’s our NIMBY-in-chief. First he helps torpedo a decade-long project to advance nuclear power by disposing safely of nuclear waste, because the repository would be in his state. Then he adamantly refuses to provide money for closing Guantánamo, saying he’ll never let terrorists serve their prison terms in the United States. If we continue to follow his enlightened leadership, we can force all industry and other nasty things offshore and, like his home state, subsist on legalized gambling and prostitution.

Then there’s Evan Bayh (D., Ind.), son of the great Hoosier senator Birch Bayh (D., Ind.). The son is a true energy troglodyte. In the nation with the greatest record of technological innovation in human history, his response to climate change is to burn more coal and point the finger at China.

Where are the folks who get the seriousness and urgency of climate change and our abject energy dependence? Where are the ones who understand and can articulate how a small group of profit seekers have crippled our health care system for half a century, rendering the world’s richest country inefficient and uncaring and its basic industry uncompetitive and dying? Where are the great orators who can frame the defects of our day in ways that average folk can understand? Where, for that matter, is Al Gore?

Finally, there’s the opposition. Take them: Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), John Boehner (R., Ohio), Richard Shelby (R., Ala.), and John Ensign (R., Nev.). Please. When they are not displaying ignorance of economics and basic pragmatism on a scale that would embarrass any college graduate, they are obsessing about money to the exclusion of all else.

If their homes were collapsing from ground subsidence, would they fail to borrow to fix the foundations? If their roofs blew off in the middle of a frigid winter, would they balk at taking loans to repair them? I hope not. Then why do they incessantly beat the drum against reasonable borrowing to solve our nation’s toughest problems, which we’ve neglected for decades and which threaten to demote us to has-beens? Is it just to make partisan points in the absence of any more credible divisive ideas?

Where is the vision, the sense of perspective? Where is the leadership?

Our Executive has good leadership again, but Congress’ few good members appear to be keeping a low profile. In the House, there’s redoubtable Henry Waxman (D., Cal.), the green-eyeshade guy, who has the doggedness to root out fraud, waste and abuse and try to correct it. In the Senate, there’s Diane Feinstein (D., Cal.), with a razor-sharp legal mind and the graciousness of a queen. There’s Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who low-key style conceals a mighty intellect, and Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), a smart and good man who appears to have lapsed into demagoguery and partisan bickering during Dubya’s reign.

The opposition has some good people, too. I’ve praised Dick Lugar (R., Ind.) on this blog for his courageous, early stances on Iraq and climate change. Although John McCain (R., Ariz.) knows nothing about economics and would have made a terrible president, he’s a good man who spoke out on torture and has tried to reach across the aisle on important issues like energy. There are the two Republican ladies from Maine (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) who lent their moderation and good sense to passing the President’s restoration budget against fierce partisan opposition. Without their help, our nation might sink further in decline.

And there’s Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), maybe my favorite Republican. I disagree with him often. But he is insightful, courteous, rarely demagogic, and usually more focused on the nation’s needs than on the parochial concerns of his district or on scoring political points. He joined McCain to oppose torture forcefully, and he has never failed to praise the President for right action to advance our cause in war. He seems the last remaining adherent to the vanishing tradition of Southern statesmanship that put graciousness and country first.

Arlen Specter (once R., now D., Pa.) is more troubling. He’s a cancer survivor. I’d like to think that his near-death experience made him see what is really important in life. I’d like to think that’s why he switched parties, to join the push for changes we must make to get back on our feet. But his vacillation on vital issues makes me suspect that personal power and aggrandizement weigh equally in his mind. It would be heartbreaking, at this critical time in history, if our best legislators let ego prevail over national need.

There are not too many good members like these, but there never are. If they spoke out and were heard, they might have sufficient force to change the tenor of debate and promote bipartisan cooperation in arresting national decline.

But there is little indication of that much-desired result. Instead, Congress seems to personify that brilliant line from Yeats’ classic World War I-era poem: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Maybe the media are at fault. Maybe Reid, Pelosi, McConnell and Boehner—despite their self-evident lack of talent—get all the coverage because of their titles. Maybe the likes of Shelby and Ensign get heard because their mindless partisanship makes good entertainment.

But maybe the few good members with vision are also to blame. Maybe—in the absence of the kind of visionary legislative leadership this time of crisis demands—they should make themselves heard more. Maybe they should put the interests of their country above party and home district.

We are even not close to solving our four critical problems, and the nation needs every skilled hand to pull its wagon out of the ditch. More guns in national parks just don’t cut it, even when attached to slapdash credit-card reform.

Memorial Day Coda

In a long and busy Memorial Day weekend, three points kept pressing on my mind. All three illustrate the enormous gap in vision, responsibility, decency and honesty between our President and Congress.

The first was the President’s speech on terrorism and American values last Thursday. It was an insightful, masterful speech, rich in understanding and history. I won’t demean it by attempting to summarize it in a few paragraphs. Every American should read it or watch it.

The speech’s main point was simple. There is no conflict between keeping Americans safe and preserving American values because our values are what keep us safe.

Our American values of fairness, due process, and justice have helped us win our most important and most recent successful wars. Before World War II, those values brought the best foreign-born physicists to our shores—men like Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, Emilio Segre, and Enrico Fermi. They and other brilliant scientists came here from their homelands to think and work in freedom. They stayed to give us an unbeatable lead in atomic energy and nuclear weapons, which persists to this day.

At the end of World War II, German scientists like Werner Von Braun defected to us, rather than the Soviets, because they wanted to live in a free society under the rule of law. Although the Soviets beat us to orbit, the ex-German scientists’ work helped us beat the Soviets to the Moon, close the so-called “Missile Gap,” and ultimately win the Cold War.

In Gulf I, tens of thousands of Iraqis willingly and eagerly surrendered to U.S. troops, hoping and believing that we would treat them better as prisoners of war than Saddam would treat them as citizens of Iraq. Their surrender made that war the most rapidly and spectacularly successful in U.S. history. Colin Powell, not Dick Cheney, worked that miracle.

In all three instances, our values made us strong, not weak. They induced people who had a choice to come to our side through immigration or surrender. Those people came for justice and the rule of law, not torture.

My second point highlights the abysmal quality of leadership in Congress. Immediately after the President’s speech, the Senate and House Minority leaders (McConnell and Boehner, respectively), rose in rebuttal. Both men accused the President of having no plan to close Guantánamo.

Apparently neither bothered to read or watch the speech he was supposed to be reviewing.

In fact, the President had offered a detailed five-point plan for closing Guantánamo. Point 1 involved carefully evaluating each case and trying those detainees in federal criminal court who can be safely tried there (as a number of terrorists already have been tried). Point 2 was to try detainees who have violated the laws of war (including those whose public trial might reveal important secrets) in secret military commissions, like those set up by Dubya, but better conforming to our Constitution. Point 3 was to release the few detainees that our own courts already had ordered released. Point 4 involved transferring to other countries those detainees whom other countries will accept and who can safely be transferred there. The fifth and final point addressed those detainees whom military and intelligence experts find too dangerous to release, but whom neither a civilian nor military tribunal could convict, for lack of good evidence. The President proposed to hold them in indefinite detention, subject to periodic, secret executive and judicial review.

No doubt the President’s plan is not perfect. McConnell and Boehner might have criticized one or more of its five points. But neither did. Instead, both lied to the American public and the world, saying the President had no plan at all. They implied that he—the most deliberate and highly trained legal mind in the White House in U.S. history—was shooting from the hip. That was a bald, lazy, stupid, irresponsible lie, on an important issue of national security.

Never have so few thought so little and resorted so quickly to such inept demagoguery. You couldn’t write up such a farce as fiction; no one would believe it, not of the minority leaders of the world’s greatest democracy in the twenty-first century.

My third point is another bit of low demagoguery. In resisting the President’s plan to close Guantánamo, which was also Dubya’s aim, McConnell and Boehner deplored allowing terrorists to enter the United States, even to be incarcerated. They tried to stir up public fear, implying that the detainees would be living in residential neighborhoods in some sort of “halfway house” for terrorists.

Of course that notion is ridiculous, as the President pointed out in his speech. No one has ever escaped from our most secure prisons. If worst came to worst, we could reopen Alcatraz, which held Al Capone during the height of the Mob’s power.

But McConnell and Boehner didn’t care about sense, facts or history. They sought rude political advantage by scaring the ill-informed, gullible and downright stupid. Unfortunately, they were not alone: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bought into their demagoguery and aped it.

Today we recall and celebrate the courage, dedication and sacrifice of those who gave life and limb to preserve our freedom and our values. Tens of thousands lie in early graves, marked by crosses, stars of David, or Islamic crescents.

If these legions could have a few more moments of life, what would they tell us? Maybe they would say they fought for justice, not torture. They probably wouldn’t think much of so-called “leaders” who distort their commander-in-chief’s words. And they, who died in battle, would give a lusty laugh at the thought of fearing detainees locked in secure prisons. They might be angry at anyone who thought Americans could be so easily cowed.

Haiku on Dick Cheney

    An old man,
    Fighting truth and history.


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16 May 2009

Keeping Our Eyes on the Ball

[For an update on May 17, 2009, click here.]

I supported President Obama as candidate with more money and more effort than I’ve ever spent on politics in any form before. Two of the main reasons I did so were his strategic vision and sense of perspective. These are quintessential traits of any leader, the more so at a time of multiple crises.

Luckily, Obama as President does not disappoint. In the crucial field of foreign and military policy, which is any president’s virtual fiefdom, he continues to draw criticism from extreme left and extreme right in almost equal measure. So he must be doing something right.

Since I have a firm conviction that former Vice President Dick Cheney has entered the lunatic fringe, I’ll focus on flack from the left. Two presidential decisions drew fire from that quarter this week. The President decided (1) not to release more classified photos of past detainee abuse and (2) to reform rather than abandon military commissions for trying suspected terrorists.

The first decision just seems common sense. We are an open society, but we are at war. Our troops are dying in Afghanistan and Iraq almost every day, and the Taliban recently came within 60 miles or so of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. All the Taliban or Al Qaeda has to do to change the world forever (and likely our democracy) is to get its hands on a single working nuclear weapon. Lefties tend to forget these high stakes.

In war transparency suffers. That’s a dreary but inescapable fact of life. Among other things, success in war requires deception and surprise, which require secrecy. Success also depends to some degree upon successful propaganda.

The last major war we won was World War II (I don’t count Gulf I as major). In it we had official military censorship of news. Of some 44,000 photographs of President FDR, only two showed the crippled man in braces, lest he and we seem weak. We’ve forgotten these unfortunate exigencies of war and need to relearn them.

During Dubya’s misguided reign, the public had to peer behind the curtain of secrecy in order to arrest an imperial presidency that was making horrendous military blunders and destroying our Constitution in the process. But there is no shred of evidence that the Obama Administration poses any such threat. Since we can now trust our leaders to do what is right and is reasonable, we can afford to let them draw the wartime veil more closely around us, unless and until there is good reason to reopen it. Looking backward at additional evidence of the last administration’s abuses and malfeasance does not seem reason enough.

On the military commissions, I admit I was shocked at first. I had hoped that we would at least revert to courts martial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which has had the benefit of decades, if not centuries, of careful thought and testing. The idea of developing a whole new legal regime, in haste, under extreme and deliberately provoked public fear seemed and still seems a bad idea.

But on reflection I think I know why the military and intelligence communities recommended keeping the military commissions and why the President relented.

Not only are we in two wars now. As I’ve described at length in another post, the wars we are in are unprecedented in human history. We face a new kind of enemy: isolated cells of non-state actors who deliberately target civilians not for military advantage but to sow terror and undermine civilization itself. Waging such a war successfully requires deception. If we abandon torture because it’s not reliable and destroys our own values, we must make ever more skillful use of deception to succeed.

Successful deception requires controlling information. A totally open society cannot deceive. Our interrogators must be able to deceive detainees, for example, by telling them different stories or implying that one has already spilled the beans and so another just might as well fill in details. They can’t do that if every detainee’s vital statements end up in the New York Times.

That, in a nutshell, is the Achilles’ Heel of both our federal courts and courts martial. The former are generally open to the public by constitutional command, and the latter are likely more open than may be desirable because they were designed primarily to protect the legal rights of our own soldiers. So something new may well be needed.

The process of reforming the military commissions and the resulting rules should be open and transparent. But the proceedings themselves should be as secret as need be to give our intelligence community every advantage in these unprecedented, asymmetrical wars.

We balked at giving Dubya and Cheney such power because they gave every appearance of stupidity, arrogance and utter disregard of our most sacred national values. But the Obama Administration has given every indication to the contrary. Already it has promised to close the “Constitution-free zone” at Guantánamo and abolished waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” as torture.

Under these circumstances, we can trust it to preserve defendants’ rights and our national values in reforming military commissions, at least until we have concrete reason for suspecting otherwise. And I can’t think of any person better equipped to supervise the delicate balance between human rights and deception for intelligence’s sake than our President, who was once president of the Harvard Law Review.

Three other points deserve mention. First, the President is drawing criticism from both extremes in part because he listens to experts. Dubya and Cheney failed at almost everything they did because they didn’t do that. Instead, like Mao, they consulted only their Little Ideological Red Book. The President is smart enough to know he doesn’t know everything and should listen to folks who know. Hallelujah!

Second, after less than three months in office, the President has already demonstrated the right way to exert civilian control over the military. As I analyzed extensively in an old post, the right way is to set general policy and remove and replace personnel. The wrong way is for politicians without extensive military expertise to play soldier, impersonate military experts, and micromanage.

That failing approach was responsible for our disaster in Vietnam and our near-disaster in Iraq, and Obama has wisely rejected it. Whether the idea to fire General McKiernan came from SecDef Gates, subordinate military brass, the intelligence community, or the State Department, it’s the right way to exert civilian control. Only time will tell whether the firing and the choice of replacement were right and sufficient, or whether further personnel changes are needed.

Finally, there’s that nagging matter of perspective. Ancient Rome was never the same after Alaric sacked it in 410, although he never occupied the city and died shortly thereafter. Just so, we would never be the same if a terrorist nuke exploded in one of our cities. They best way to avoid that catastrophe is for the President to respect the expertise of our military and intelligence services, put the best leaders in place, earn their trust, and give them the greatest leeway consistent with our national values and collective conscience. That seems to be exactly what he’s doing.

As for domestic policy, we’ve also got to keep our eye on the ball there. If we don’t solve our serious problems in energy, education and health care, the children of children born this year could be living in a has-been or third-world country. Next to those challenges, putting out a few more photos documenting the last administration’s well-known abuses doesn’t even show on the radar.

I’m on record on this blog as favoring at least a little looking back. But Obama has proven to be by far the wisest president in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Jack Kennedy. If he thinks that looking back would preoccupy our manic media and distract us from things that matter far more, who am I to disagree? We elected him in part for his sense of perspective, and so far he has given us no reason to doubt it.

P.S. Frank Rich and the Case for Looking Back

Frank Rich is a New York Times pundit whose work I greatly respect. Today he wrote a column pressing for a truth commission to investigate the Dubya Administration’s misdeeds. His piece presents the strongest case I have yet seen for looking backward and so deserves rebuttal.

Rich’s thesis is that the misdeeds we know now are only the tip of the iceberg. To prove his point, he cites three little-known or underappreciated facts. First, he describes how former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld seduced Dubya with simplistic biblical quotations in classified memos and so prolonged his disastrous military blunders and obsessive turf wars. Second, Rich discusses the Pentagon’s corruption and mismanagement surrounding our four-year effort to write a contract for a new tanker plane. Finally, he notes how the Pentagon, in the Dubya Administration’s last days, issued a bogus inspector general’s report to whitewash the corruption, and how the Obama Administration, in an unprecedented move, quietly revoked and repudiated that report.

Except for the second point, which I discussed in a post on this blog over nine months ago, these points are indeed little known or underappreciated. Rich has done a public service by emphasizing them in his widely read column. These facts should find their way into history, lest Dubya, Rumsfeld, Rove and Cheney be allowed to rewrite their disastrous legacy.

But I think there is little danger of that. Journalism, after all, is the first draft of history. Over the next few years, in books and articles, Rich and his colleagues will no doubt follow their outrage and tell the world just how miserable Dubya’s misrule was, in excruciating and exhaustive detail. They should do so, and their righteous zeal should be rewarded.

But if the truth be told, journalists have a special axe to grind. Except for a bare handful, (mostly from obscure publications) virtually all of them were had. Their zeal to correct the record comes in part from guilty knowledge that they helped falsify it. Among other things, their credulousness and herd behavior may have helped elect Dubya in 2004, after it was apparent to most informed people that Dubya’s administration was an unmitigated disaster in every respect save perhaps No Child Left Behind.

Collectively, our leading journalists were asleep at the switch. Their desire to correct the record now is understandable, but too little, too late. All that journalists can do now is insure that future history is accurate, lest misdeeds be repeated by others. While worthwhile, that task won’t help solve our present problems or prevent future misdeeds of a different character.

Right now, we have four major problems on our plate. We must help Pakistan avoid its government’s collapse and keep Al Qaeda or the Taliban from laying hands on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. We must completely restructure our energy economy and lead the world away from suicidal human-induced climate change. We must make our industry and our society competitive again by completing the task of overhauling health care, which has languished in our country (alone among industrial democracies) for half a century. And we must reform our system of primary education to avoid falling behind strong competitors that are growing stronger by the day.

Unfortunately, every one of these projects is now in jeopardy. For reasons I intend to analyze in a future post, Pakistan’s military-colonial approach in the Swat Valley is unlikely to succeed. While the President’s plans for energy are good, he has done little so far to implement them. Restructuring Chrysler and GM is just temporizing at saving jobs; except for GM’s Chevy Volt, these firms, however well preserved, are unlikely to be a significant part of a restructured energy future.

As for health care, the affected industries’ short-lived attack on costs is dying as it dawns on industry that lower costs mean lower profits. As a result, we are likely to see a revival of the same nonsensical but highly effective public-relations campaign that torpedoed reform in 1994. Remember Harry and Louise?

Our educational system is still wandering in the wilderness of a badly mismanaged No Child Left Behind program. A few journalists have analyzed possible remedies—David Brooks in Harlem and PBS in Washington, D.C., New York City, and New Orleans. But much more needs to be done to convince the public that solutions exist and deserve urgent implementation.

To maintain our world leadership, we must solve all four of these problems. Left unsolved, any one could relegate us to has-been or third-world status in the medium or long term or (in the case of Pakistan) perhaps even in the short term. Journalists should be all over these stories, every day.

You might argue that Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time. Certainly the President can, and probably some readers can. But time and time again, the media and the general public have shown they can’t. A single story of titillating controversy involving powerful figures, which is what a backward look at the Dubya Disaster would be, can distract the public’s attention for weeks or months. Just recall how the Monica Lewinsky affair virtually paralyzed Bill Clinton’s entire second term.

One of our President’s least appreciated qualities is his uncanny ability to sense the public’s mood and understand the limitations of public attention. That’s why, in my view, he quietly repudiated the Dubya Pentagon’s whitewash without fanfare. That’s why he decided to sequester the cumulative photos of detainee mistreatment and to quietly reform Dubya’s military commissions. He wants to keep these titillating, controversial distractions out of the news so we can do what we must to arrest our ongoing national decline.

That decline had and has little to do with our recent economic meltdown. It began decades before 2008 and would be ongoing even if all our commercial and investment banks had remained profitable since 2006. President Obama knows that historians ultimately will judge his presidency by how quickly and how well he arrests that decline, and that our nation’s future depends on his doing so.

If journalists want to help their country, they must do more than close the barn door they left open, allowing Dubya’s demons four more years of rampage. They should focus on these four chief problems as relentlessly and obsessively as their scatterbrained readership allows. Another two presidential terms of letting our collective eyes drift from the ball would virtually guarantee loss of world leadership.

The President is an extraordinary leader, but he’s not a miracle worker. He needs active, engaged media focusing on what is really important in order to enact his ambitious agenda to arrest our national decline. That’s why we all, including our media, need to keep our eyes on the ball.


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12 May 2009

Childish Things

“[W]hen I became a man, I put away childish things.” 1 Corinthians 13
To cultures that measure their ages in millennia or centuries, not decades, we Americans seem like children. We demand certitude where there is none. We even insist on it.

So it is with our latest burning question, “Does torture work?” It’s a childish question—a stupid question. It has no definite answer. To say “yes” assumes that all men will do what their torturers and worst enemies desire. To say “no” assumes that no men are so weak or stupid as to lose their power to conceal and deceive even under intense pain. Both answers are equally ridiculous.

Imagine for a moment that you have spent your whole life training and preparing to destroy a hated enemy. Through a cruel twist of fate, you have been captured and now lie at your enemy’s feet. The best you can hope for, you think, is death.

Will you abandon your comrades, your honor, and your tribe’s chance for victory at your enemy’s behest, just to stop some transitory pain before expected martyrdom? Or will you resist and deceive, giving your enemy false or useless information that might achieve your ends and incidentally stop the pain?

As far as we know, the latter is exactly what Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi did in telling his American and Egyptian torturers that Iraq was complicit in 9/11. He probably died a happy man, convinced that his words had induced the world’s strongest military to capture and kill his secular enemy Saddam Hussein, who had tried to emulate Stalin.

Like al-Libi, smarter and stronger men—the ones who may know things worth telling—will take the trouble to conceal and deceive. But who can say that weak, stupid men under torture will never blurt out something worthwhile, some small dot that smarter men might connect with other dots to foil a plot or suppress a whole movement?

What torture seeks to arrest lies in the shadowland of desperation and espionage. In that world there are no certainties, only lies upon lies, treachery upon treachery, and shadow upon shadows. To insist that one technique works reliably would be to assume the simplicity of a child in a complex and ambiguous world.

History tells us as much. From ancient times, through the Middle Ages, to the last century’s bestial totalitarian states, religious and secular martyrs resisted the most hideous torture. For centuries, Jews, Protestants and “heretical” Catholics refused to submit to the Inquisition just to maintain their personal beliefs. How much stronger are motives that tie people to their land, their families, and thousand-year-old religions? To suppose that modern Islamic extremists are any less strong and brave than Jews, Protestants and Catholic “heretics” who resisted the Inquisition for centuries would be the height of presumption.

Belief in self, God or country can help some men bear excruciating pain. Others crumble easily. But the ones who crumble easily are unlikely to have been selected for key positions of leadership by their peers. To assume that our enemies lack basic judgment of character would be the height of overconfidence.

So the question “Does torture work?” has no answer. Sometimes it might. More often, it won’t. But it never works as well as outwitting your enemy.

That’s why Richard Cohen’s recent column in the Washington Post is so vapid. Cohen pays lip service to the well-documented view that Dick Cheney is a refugee from reality. But still Cohen wants to know whether the memos Cheney keeps insisting on declassifying will tell us that torture works.

Only a child would ask that sort of question. Even if the memos tell us that a plot or two failed after torture, they won’t prove cause and effect. That’s a fallacy as old as Latin: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Nor could any memo possibly prove that other, cleverer and less brutal means might not have elicited the same secrets.

And even if classified memos could show both causation and the complete impossibility of any other cause, they would only prove that torture worked in one or two instances. They could never answer the essential moral question or dispel the inherent ambiguity of life.

Only a child could ask a question like “Does torture work”? and expect a certain answer. Only Dick Cheney—the most dangerous child ever to hold American high office in my lifetime—would seek that kind of certainty in an uncertain world. And only a cruel child could believe that knowing whether torture elicited this or that secret should be our moral compass.

After eight years being led by children, we now have a man as our President. He knows ambiguity. He understands the fog that ever shrouds human affairs. And he sees what matters: not how weak our enemies may be, but how strong we are. As he so well put it, the question is not who are enemies are, but who we are.

Once we were a light unto nations. Once every man and woman everywhere yearned to live on our shores.

We can recapture those days. But we can’t if we seek our national values, let along justification for medieval cruelty, in the minutiae of classified memos. Only if we regain the world’s admiration will our friends multiply and our enemies grow weak.

Declassifying self-serving bureaucratic memos can never help us do that. It can only serve the self-justification of children who sullied beyond measure the offices they never deserved.


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05 May 2009

Universal Economic Education: Wising Up

Background: Universal “Liberal” Education
Universal Education as Socialization
The Difficulty of Teaching Everyone Science
Economics as the Science of Society
P.S. The Right Time

One of the most important remaining cultural differences between America and the rest of the world lies in how we educate our young. We endorse so-called “liberal” or generalized education. The rest of the world promotes earlier specialization for specific careers.

Background: Universal “Liberal” Education. There are lots of nuances and details, but the basic point is easy to explain. European, Asian, South American and African children (assuming they get a complete education at all) begin to specialize at a much earlier age than our children. By sixteen or so, general examinations and teachers’ evaluations have pigeonholed children and set them on distinct educational paths that will fix their careers and personal destinies.

In our system, true specialization doesn’t begin until after eighteen—two years later—when our kids enter college and are required to pick a “major” subject. Even then, the pressure for specialization is weak. We expect college students—and often require them—to take a variety of general subjects outside their major fields. For students who continue with postgraduate education, true specialization doesn’t really begin until they enter graduate or professional programs like medical school, law school, business school, or various Ph.D. programs. (A few programs, principally in engineering, combine a truncated general education with career specialization at the college level.)

Even our pre-college education takes a more generalized approach. We are reluctant to channel our high-school kids into vocational or other specialized educational programs. Advanced-placement programs for gifted children have been under attack for several decades, although they are now starting to make a comeback. Yet it is still largely true that kids who will be plumbers, laborers and truck drivers sit in many of the same classes, until age eighteen, with kids who will be executives, politicians, doctors, scientists, engineers, and lawyers.

This system has some disadvantages. Learning proceeds more slowly when less gifted and less interested students sit side by side with the gifted and enthusiastic. Our aversion to specialization holds the level of specialized education back, sometimes until our kids reach graduate or professional school. That’s one reason why foreign students are generally ahead of ours through high school, or what foreign systems call “gymnasium” (college preparatory) education. Our kids don’t really catch up in the substance of subjects taught until some time in college. Putting kids of vastly different talent and interest in education together also can exacerbate the social differences, cliques, teasing and hazing that are inevitable parts of children growing up.

Universal Education as Socialization. But we Americans tolerate these disadvantages for one overriding reason. We believe that all kids need a well-rounded, comprehensive, unspecialized education in order to become effective citizens of a democracy.

We Americans see education as more than mere training for a career. We believe it socializes our children in all the responsibilities and complexities of human civilization, including our peculiar brand of it. We want everyone to taste that socialization equally. Forcing children from diverse backgrounds to interact socially, at least in the classroom, also teaches tolerance and egalitarianism, which are the foundations of our society.

Engineers, auto mechanics, and nurses don’t need to know history, “social studies,” or how our Constitution works to do their jobs. But they need to know all these things—and more—to choose their leaders wisely and help plot our collective future. If they are to vote, we believe, their education must socialize as well as train them.

Imagine how much more effective the distraction and demagoguery of Rove, Dubya and Cheney would have been among a populace educated only to narrow technical specialties. When I was in high school, we spent two weeks in “social studies” learning how to identify and debunk propaganda, focusing on Communists and our enemies in two world wars. I hope high-school kids still learn the same techniques today, when propaganda is as likely to come from our own businesses and political leaders as from foreign sources.

We owe the resilience of our democratic system not just to our Constitution’s checks and balances, but to high-school and college courses that teach every new generation how those protections work and how important they are. Specialists, let alone ordinary people, need a rounded education in “social studies”—history, geography, politics, philosophy, and government—to inoculate them against the blandishments of demagogues and tyrants.

But accepting the premise that a generalized education is essential for socializing children and maintaining democracy is only the beginning. The next question is what subjects this generalized education should require of everyone, whether smart or slow, gifted or handicapped, and whether destined for an institute of advanced studies or an assembly line.

In America, the English language is paramount. It is not just our dominant language and principal means of communication. It is now (conveniently for us) also the whole world’s lingua franca. Next in line come our history and form of government, including our Constitution. To a lesser extent, every child should learn geography, world history, foreign cultures, and even foreign religions, so that our kids can understand the increasingly global society through which they surf on the Internet and which now impacts their own lives in myriad ways big and small.

These things are obvious. Human memory does not survive the impassable barrier of death. Only writing does. So each new generation must read the failures, successes, glories and tragedies of its predecessors anew, back to the beginning of history. It must also learn the likely reasons. And it must learn these things through writing and the new media of recorded communication, which are both richer and more susceptible to political manipulation. The broader and deeper the study, the more likely succeeding generations will be to repeat the past’s triumphs and avoid its pitfalls and tragedies.

The Difficulty of Teaching Everyone Science. But what about the sciences? Real experimental science is only four centuries old. That’s a mere chapter in human history, an eyeblink in geological history, and a nanosecond in cosmic history. You could credibly omit it from courses in “social studies,” or you could relegate it to footnotes or appendices, without doing great violence to the broad scope of human social evolution.

Anyway teaching science entails special challenges. True understanding of science requires appropriate aptitudes (including comfort with math) that many students simply don’t possess. Then should we skip science, i.e., omit it from our generalized education, and leave it to specialists who have a talent for it?

I think not. Although science’s history is short, its lessons are powerful. You cannot appreciate the slow triumph of human reason over blind authority without understanding how Galileo’s heliocentric theory of our solar system took centuries to put religious and intellectual dogma to rest. You cannot understand the last century’s history without appreciating the enormous and superbly coordinated expenditure of money, effort and ingenuity—individual and collective—that was the Manhattan Project, and how the Soviets stole its results with relentless and clever espionage. You cannot understand the progress and dangers of modern biology, including the growing risks of microbial resistance to antibiotics, without understanding a little of Darwin’s theory of evolution and its overwhelming and constantly growing scientific proof (sorry, Mike Huckabee!). Every child must learn something about science’s history and methods in order to understand the most recent episodes of human history and humanity’s probable future.

Young people also need a rudimentary understanding of science and technology simply to survive. Kids in developed countries need to know why not to stick metal objects into electric sockets and what the universal symbols for radiation and biohazard mean. Kids in not-so-developed countries need to recognize parts of land mines protruding from innocent ground, lest they lose limbs. Homemakers and housekeepers need to know not to mix bleach and ammonia because together they generate phosgene gas, a potent lung poison used as a weapon in World War I.

There are many other examples, but you get the point: the fruits, blandishments and hazards of science are all around us, making it hard for the totally ignorant to survive, let alone prosper. Even landless peasants must understand the results of evolutionary theory, enough to practice crop rotation and soil conservation and avoid overusing antibiotics in themselves and their animals, thereby encouraging dangerous bugs to evolve resistance.

But these points argue more for a generalized understanding of the history and results of science, and less for an understanding of its substance. Should we require ordinary students to learn more about science than just its history and its triumphs?

I would argue yes. No matter what their aptitudes or aversion to math, our children need to know how science works for two reasons. First, they need to understand that science is not just a matter of opinion, ideology, or hunch. They need to appreciate science’s foundation on human reason, meticulous observation and mathematics, systematically applied. They need to know how science corrects itself and how to recognize when general consensus in science has and has not been achieved. Second, the brighter of them need to understand how to parse the results of science into hypothesis, proof and conjecture, so they can apply science intelligently to public policy, as in the case of climate change.

Economics as the Science of Society. If we want our general population to meet these goals, there is no better science to study than economics. Economics is the science of social interactions among human beings in markets (“microeconomics”) and societies (“macroeconomics”). It is where science and “social studies” meet. From a practical perspective it may be the most important science, because it affects every individual and every level of human society on a daily basis.

The best example is the wide fluctuation in oil prices in recent years, which produced similarly wide fluctuations in the price of gas at the pump. In the space of less than three years, the price of oil shot up from about $40 per barrel, reached nearly $150, and fell back again. That’s a fluctuation of three to four times.

Politicians and even news people (who should know better) asserted many causes for this phenomenon, including speculators, unnamed financial manipulators, and the OPEC Cartel. None of these explanations had much acquaintance with science or reality. For its part, OPEC was doing everything it could to dampen these fluctuations, which did its members no good.

As I have explained in detail in another post, what caused these and similar extreme fluctuations is a subject taught in every basic economics course: the inelasticity of demand and supply—i.e., the short-term nonresponsiveness of both demand and supply to price.

The demand and supply of oil are among the most inelastic of any commodity known to economists. Modern industry has backed most societies into a corner where there are few or no substitutes for oil. So people who rely on oil products to get to work and make a living can’t stop buying them just because their price goes up. In the absence of viable, reasonably priced public transit, they have nowhere else to go. People who produce oil (except maybe for the Saudis) can’t produce more in the sort term just because the price goes up, because it takes most of a decade to bring a new oil field on line, and new oil fields are becoming increasingly hard to find.

The resulting extreme inelasticity of demand and supply for oil makes the relationship between price and demand highly non-linear. As a result, the 6% or 7% drop in demand produced by our current recession caused a three-fold to four-fold drop in price. As the global economy recovers and demand rises again, so will price. You can bet on it. The only think that might stop dramatic price increases is a paradigm shift in the use of energy in transportation and industry.

There is nothing strange, unusual or unexpected about this result. Nor is the economic theory that explains it the least bit controversial. This result follows from simple economic theory that anyone who knows algebra and can read graphs can understand. Basic economics courses teach the theory in a day or two, with perhaps a week for examples and nuances.

All this is Economics 101. Yet we had the spectacle of the House Minority Leader—one of our leading politicians—stating on a major news show that the runup in oil prices before the recession was a product of speculation alone. Not only that; he predicted further dramatic price effects due to speculative expectation of a minor increase in oil supply a decade hence.

That was one of the stupidest comments on economics that I have ever heard a public figure make. In astronomical terms, it was tantamount to asserting that the Sun revolves around the Earth and will rise in the West tomorrow because the gods are angry. A witch doctor in a remote tribe in Africa or South America might have said something as ill-informed or as ignorant. But this was not a witch doctor. It was the House Minority Leader of the United States.

That a major political figure in the world’s most advanced society could say something so ignorant and uninformed, believing that it conferred political advantage, demonstrates a monstrous defect in our public education.

I propose a simple solution. We should require every high-school student to take a full-year course in economics as a condition of graduating. Every college should have a similar requirement, with courses at a higher level, reflecting college students’ greater maturity and broader exposure to math and science generally. Requirements for these courses should be as solid and universal as those for courses in American history and institutions today.

We should require these courses only after students have had algebra and trigonometry—and preferably calculus as well—so they can understand the math and the graphs. And these requirements for economic education should be in addition to existing requirements for English, history, political science, “social studies,” or “civics.” Every student, and therefore every citizen, should be fluent in all these subjects.

Lest I be accused of self-interest—and at the risk of compromising my anonymity—let me say that I am not an economist and have never taught a course in economics as such. I have taught courses that have touched on modern economic theory, but anyway I’m about to retire.

Economics is the perfect universally required science course because it hits us where we live. Everyone has in interest in the prices of oil, electricity, eggs and flour, so everyone will have an interest in economics if skillfully taught. Exposure to economics will incidentally teach students about the rigor and difficulties of science and how it works hand in hand with math and logic.

There is no better place to introduce all students to the methods, meaning and importance of science than economics. So if we want universal education to promote the most advanced society and most effective socialization, that’s where we should start. At very least, universal economic education would give lazy politicians and demagogues less running room.

P.S. The Right Time. Today is a good day to put up this post for two reasons. First, it’s graduation time. Many parents and children are thinking about education and how much it costs. Second, today two leading New York Times pundits—Bob Herbert on the left and David Brooks in the right—explained the moral, philosophical and economic bankruptcy of the ideology that governed this nation for the last thirty years.

Although strikingly different in approach and tone, both columns decry the extreme, antisocial individualism that has corroded our society. (Bob Herbert’s recent piece on guns also did a great job in that regard.) Both of today’s columns scorn the tax-cut fever wrought by grotesque caricatures of economic science.

Maybe if more of us had a grasp of basic economics, we would be less susceptible to such lies. Then the only missing link in public education might be a course (or part of a course) in propaganda and demagoguery.

Our media’s not-so-benign inattention is also responsible for our current economic debacle. Herbert’s and Brooks’ columns are a good start at penance, but there is a lot more penance to do. Maybe the media could do more to discover how the last three decades’ propaganda was not just an accident or grand mistake, but the deliberate effort of a lazy, corrupt and selfish social class and political party to enrich and aggrandize themselves. That effort has now failed spectacularly, leaving all of us except a few lucky individuals poorer but wiser.


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