Tuesday, April 29, 2008

War with Iran more likely

Justin Raimondo thinks that with the accession of Petraeus to the Central Command, and especially with a new story about Iranian speedboats coming near U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, that war with Iran is much more likely before the Bushlet leaves office. What concerns me is that while the Army and Marines have been tested and come close to being hollowed out, the Navy and the AirForce have seen little action and some in those services might even welcome some action. Some U.S. strategists think Iran can be deterred with bombing and naval barrages. I suspect they are incredibly naive.

LP may choose a spoiler

David Weigel at Reason has done a pretty good summary of the candidates running for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party. The MSM have been most fascinated by the prospect of former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who joined the party in 2006 and even seems to have come around on the drug war. But his accession is not so automatic. Weigel thinks he has 30 percent on the first ballot, more than anybody else, so he's the clear favorite. But others, some with longer histories in the LP, are running also. Weigel takes note of Mary Ruwart, author of "Healing Our World," a fine book, along with Wayne Allyn Root, a gambling entrepreneur and author, George Phillies, a physicist and political organizer, my old friend and medical marijuana activist Steve Kubby, and former Democratic Sen. from Alaska and former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel (I met him and talked at some length with him at a conference, and he claimed that direct democracy would be more libertarian than rule by an elite -- and he just might be right).
I have no personal interest in this. But I do think Bob Barr is positioned well to pick up on Ron Paul's mojo and help the LP to a position of greater than usual prominence and perhaps even to deny the win to McCain. But we'll see.

New drug war casualties in Tijuana

Here is the Register's editorial on the drug war violence in Tijuana over the weekend. Unlike most commentaries, it directly identifies the War on Drugs as the cause of the violence and calls on both the American and Mexican governments to end it (in November Bush called for $1.4 billion in U.S. taxpayers' money to be sent to Mexico to support the "official" violence that conests with the criminal violence and thinks it can thereby win the war.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Drug war creates violence in Mexico

On Saturday in Tijuana 15 people were killed in an apparent shootout between members of the Arellano Felix derug-trafficking gang. Last year 400 people were killed in Baja, 2,500 in the entire country in drug-law-related violence. This is a predictable effect of a War on Drugs that insists on prohibition as the only option. Enforcement attempts (the Mexican federales have stepped up action since Calderon took office in December 2006, as happens with every incoming Mexican president. Bush wants the U.S. taxpayers to underwrite this exercise in harmful violence by subsidizing Mexico's drug enforcement efforts. In years to come people will wonder about the stubbornness of the drug warriors the same way we moderns wonder how anybody could ever have thought that "bleeding" a patient would do a lot of good and cure diseases.

Not making a federal case of it

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Virginia v. Moore Supreme Court case, where a guy arrested for a minor traffic violation was illegally (under Va. law, which mandates cite-and-release) arrested and in the course of the illegal arrest the cops found cocaine and about $500. He was charged with possession for sale and convicted. I figured it was one of those cases where the Supremes expanded the drug-war exception to the Fourth Amendment (and the fact that Va. appealed a decision by its own Supreme Court to suppress the evidence it may have been to some extent at the state level). But I found it was more convoluted, and was really a federalism case. The high court said it was inappropriate for the state to use the Fourth to invalidate the conviction because that would leave it vulnerable to having 50 different definitions. The 9-0 decision was probably justified. Darn it.

Ah, the suburban life!

Another weekend of physical labor, much of it outside in 95-degree weather. I wouldn't live in southern California if I didn't like heat, and I enjoyed it. I'm blessed with a wife who watches way too much HGTV and is bubbling over with ideas for our always-a-work-in-progress suburban home. I'd be happy with bookcases as the only form of interior design, but we now have a functional but not finished island in the kitchen and numerous other projects going. After this weekend we have many more plants in the ground and the oleanders strategically trimmed. The anemones and other bulbs Frank planted this winter are up and looking beautiful. And the pools is coming along nicely; don't expect any algae blooms before swimming season.

I'm sure it's good for me. But it doesn't leave much energy for blogging.

The political Olympics

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register on the politics of the Olympic Games this year. Knowing me I'll watch too much of the Olympics as usual, and mostly enjoy them despite the venue. I think I understand the thinking of the IOC in awarding the games to Beijing -- encourage China to have a debutante moment as it joins the family of modern and (we cross our fingers and hope) nice, responsible modern nations. I think the mainland regime miscalculated, thinking it could keep doing the don't-interfere-in-our-internal affairs bit without arousing too much protest. Tibet put paid to that, but it wasn't going to happen anyway. They're just too blatant and clumsy in their repression and they don't improve matter by always waxing indignant. Doubt there will be a boycott (except for the meaningless open ceremonies), but the political points have been made. Wouldn't mind seeing more non-violent torch challenges.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Quote of the Day

"This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector." -- Plato

McCain-Feingold absurdity

Here's the Register's editorial on the case the Supreme Court heard this week regarding the "millionaire's amendment" to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance deforem law. Its very convolutedness is an argument against the entire law, which basically restricts how much money people can donate to political candidates. (I can't see donating to any politician but I think others should be free to do so.) Because of prior court decisions Congress couldn't prevent wealthy candidates from spending as much of their own money as they want on their own races, so it tripled the donation limits for their opponentsin an effort to level the playing field. The high court in the past has said that isn't a good enough reason for spending laws. We'll see how it handles this one.

Obama's Pastor

I watched the entire hour of Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's former pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ, being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS tonight, and have a few observations.

In conversation with Bill Moyers, who is notably low-key and was basically friendly, he doesn't seem all that radical. I can understand the things he had to say about building an African-American church in an African-American community in south Chicago, one that is in contact with the community not just on Sunday throughout the week. While it seems to be race-conscious and even race-oriented, I accept his saying that it wasn't racist, that he doesn't preach the superiority of one race over another or hatred for another race. As a lifelong church-going Christian (mostly Episcopalian) myself, I found much of what he had to say familiar and to my ear authentically Christian.

I still found some of his sermons, even in context, a little over-the-top and tinged with a certain secular leftism. Not surprising. Just as some pastors tinge their sermons with secular rightism, some tinge them with secular leftism. I find both confused and somewhat troubling. I don't see much warrant in Jesus's life and sayings for either. I find him radically apolitical, aware of principalities and powers but urging people to understand that God is above and beyond any mere earthly powers. "If my kingdom were of this world ..." he told Pilate. But it isn't.

As it happens, I got to know Ed Peck, former chief of mission in Baghdad and a career diplomat, to whom Wright referred in his September 12 sermon (in which he said "God damn America"), a little bit in the days leading up to the Iraq war. He spoke at the Orange County World Affairs Council, of which I was a trustee at the time, and I talked to him on the phone numerous times. He was the one who used the phrase about "America's chickens coming home to roost" that Wright repeated. I agreed with him then and do so now. He's very experienced and very thoughtful. The United States has intervened in and occupied other countries for decades, and it's hardly surprising that people overseas are resentful. That's not a "blame America first" statement, it's just a fact.

In his sermon, a fair amount of which Moyers showed, he mentioned other governments that had failed -- the Roman empire, the British empire -- referred to Old Testament prophets admonishing Israel and recounted slavery a number of the ill-advised interventions the U.S. had undertaken before he went into his riff. So he wasn't just saying America was uniquely evil, but yet another in a long line of governments that had done dubious and immoral things. He almost got to what I think is an authentic understanding -- that from a Biblical perspective all human governments are imperfect and often evil.

Nonetheless, I thought the "God damn America" bit was unnecessary and unduly provocative. It had a little too much specific hostility to suit my taste. I think I understand (though of course I can't do so fully) that African-Americans have reason to have more specific hostility toward the U.S. government than most Americans, but I also think focusing on that hostility is self-defeating for reasons people like Tom Sowell and Walter Williams and Shelby Steele and John McWhorter have explained better than I can.

Wright also has what I see as an unresolved contradiction in his attitude toward government that many or most leftists share. Too many see government as simultaneously a great evil and a potential saviour. They haven't fully thought through whether an institution that takes money and other resources by force and lords it over the rest of us can also be the embodiment of societyand a force for genuine good. He equated not sending "enough" to Africa to fight AIDS with attacking other countries. Not the same thing at all. Demanding that an institution founded in force and violence help us and save us while recognizing that much of what it does is dubious or evil just seems very confused to me.

I suspect I would like Jeremiah Wright if I had a chance to sit down and talk with him one-on-one or in a small group, and that we could have fruitful conversations, getting to understand one another better.

All that said, I suspect that his media prominence after six weeks of relative silence in public is likely to be more harmful than helpful to Obama. He did say the stuff about Obama having to speak "as a politician," which subtly (perhaps inadvertently) casts doubt on his sincerity, and that's the soundbite that will be featured. Too bad, but during a political campaign people inevitably get absurdly partisan rather than focusing on civility. After all, as Mencken put it, an election is an advance auction of stolen goods.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jenna might not support McCain?

On Larry King Live last night, First Daughter (tied) Jenna Bush said she might not support McCain. that she might be "open" to a Democrat. Oh, these presidential children! Remember that Reagan's kids turned out to be liberals?

Obese or thin, government wants to nanny you

In the United States the rage is to deplore obesity, and proposals abound for the government to save us from ourselves. In France, however, the government is worried about the cult of thinness and extreme dieting. The French National Assembly has approved legislation that would make it a crime to promote extreme dieting, punishable by up to two years in prison and fines up to $47,000.

The publisher of Elle magazine worries that they may not be able to publish anything, since they deal with fashion and most models are ridiculously thin, and publishing their pictures might be construed as promoting extreme thinness. Maybe fashion shows could be banned. In Paris?

I suspect those worries are a bit extreme -- at least for now -- although Spain has actually banned models with less than a specified body mass and Italy now requires models to present health certificates proving they don't suffer from eating disorders.

What the concerns about obesity and thinness demonstrate is that government will use almost any justification to force us into a model, to protect us from ourselves, to nanny us -- backed up by criminal penalties and fines, of course. When will people begin to demand that we move beyond the flawed model of the nation-state?

Hillary on Iran

Jonathan Schwartz over at A Tiny Revolution, has an interesting post on Hillary's by now notorious comment that if she were president circumstances might occur under which she might attack Iran and she wants Iranians to know we could obliterate them. It has been less noted that the comment followed the condition "if they attack Israel." I'm not sure an attack on Iran even under those circumstances would be justified, but it's a little different from attacking Iran first.

He then compares the statement to Saddam Hussein saying that if Israel were to attack Iraq, he would "make fire burn up half of Israel if it attacks Iraq." The comment was used by countless war whoopers to justify taking out Saddam -- but without including the phrase "if it attacks Israel." Since Hillary has made the threat, is it OK if Iran attacks us (as if).

Is foreign policy realism actually popular?

Daniel Drezner, who teaches at the Fletcher School at Tufts and is, from my personal experience, a smart and good guy, has an interesting article in the journal Perspectives on Politics. He argues that most observers believe the idealist tradition -- Wilsonian interventionism -- is popular among the general public, while the Realist school, more hardheaded, suffers from unpopularity. Looking at public opinion surveys, however, he argues that the Realist tradition is surprisingly popular. It's the elites who are addled by Wilsonianism.

Here's his post at his blog (it's on my bloglist, check it out) announcing the article, and here's a link to the article itself. It's fairly long and a bit academic (surprise!) but well worth the time spent reading it.

Here's the abstract:

For more than half a century, realist scholars of international relations have maintained that their world view is inimical to the American public. For a variety of reasons—inchoate attitudes, national history, American exceptionalism—realists assert that the U.S. government pursues realist policies in spite and not because of public opinion. Indeed, most IR scholars share this “anti-realist assumption.” To determine the empirical validity of the anti-realist assumption, this paper re-examines survey and experimental data on the mass public's attitudes towards foreign policy priorities and world views, the use of force, and foreign economic policy over the past three decades. The results suggest that, far from disliking realism, Americans are at least as comfortable with the logic of realpolitik as they are with liberal internationalism. The persistence of the anti-realist assumption might be due to an ironic fact: American elites are more predisposed towards liberal internationalism than the rest of the American public.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Petraeus promoted -- Iran back on drawing board?

Gen. David Petraeus has been promoted to the position Adm. William Fallon resigned from/was pushed out of, that of head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan. (The very name Central Command is indicative of the fact that the U.S. is explicitly an imperial power, isn't it? But the term Homeland Security says the same thing.) Iraq has been Petraeus's proving ground, and he's proven to be Bush's favorite general, at least for now. I don't know if he is really is an "ass-kissing little chickenshit" climber as Adm. Fallon is said to have called him (Fallon denies it, but he's a Navy man after all), but he is certainly one of our more political generals, who knows how to ingratiate himself with the commander-in-chief.

I also don't know if Gareth Porter is correct in his opinion piece, suggesting that having Petraeus in the post formerly occupied by "Fox" Fallon, who famously vowed there would be no war with Iran on his watch, leaves Cheney in charge of Iran policy and a war with Iran much more likely. Can even a viper like Cheney be so irresponsible at a time when all the military people are saying the U.S. military is on the verge of being hollowed-out. Even to consider such foolishness is sign of an empire in decline.

More on Liberty City Seven

Here's the Register's editorial today on the absurd government insistence on bringing the Liberty City Seven to trial, about which I blogged yesterday more extensively. Sure enough, the feds today decided to go for a third trial after the second mistrial declared last week. This qualifies a prosecutorial misconduct at a meta level in my book.

Quote of the Day

"The welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience." Albert Camus

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pope's visit mildly disappointing

Here's the Register's editorial on Pope Benedict's visit to the United States. We were pleased he (finally) directly addressed the clergy buggering scandal, though disappointed that no bishops or cardinals have yet been effectively disciplined. And we were disappoinbted he didn't say more about the Iraq war, which the Vatican rightly opposed from the beginning. This pope is deeply conservative, unlikely to change the church's position on gays, women priests, of personal kindliness and compassion. I don't have a really strong impression yet. It's not my church. but it's important.

Hillary wins, Andrew bitter

Hillary, with a 10-point win, certainly got enough to stay in it. Andrew Sullivan is somewhat bitter, arguing that the Clintons won this one by taking the Rove-Atwater close-to-dirty route. But he's been in the tank for Obama for months. Here's a link to the Register's Horserace'08 election blog, where I live-blogged the results.

American Power Since the Berlin Wall

Here's my review for the Register of "American Power After the Berlin Wall," by Thomas Henriksen of Stanford's Hoover Institution. Tom, whom I sometimes use as a source, describes all the interventions of the 1990s, from Panama through Bosnia, underlining the fact that the impulse to intervene didn't begin with George W. Bush. But he thinks the Iraq war was a grave strategic mistake.

Live-blogging Pennsylvania

I'll be live-blogging the Pennsylvania election results tonight for the Register's Horserace '08 election blog, beginning when I get home. It could be decided by then, but I'll think of some comments. I'm inclined to agree with the conventional wisdom that if Hillary wins by double digits she has a reason to continue, but she still doesn't have a path to the nomination unless she wins much bigger than that.

Stumblebums on trial

I don't think the story about the so-called "Liberty City Seven" getting a mistrial, for a second time, before a federal judge in Miami has gotten the attention it deserves. It highlights the way the government has gone after supposed domestic terrorists, and the minuscule results for all the time and attention devoted to them.

These guys were a bunch of stumblebums who were foolish enough to declare themselves Muslims who wanted to do something nasty to some U.S. landmark. But they had no money, no training, no weapons and no prayer. But the FBI infiltrated them, offered them access to money and weapons, urged them to say more and more radical things, then, when they thought they had enough on tape for a trial, arrested them. They were never a serious threat, but they were played up as one.

That's been the pattern. It may be that there are serious anti-American plotters in this country, but so far none of those arrested with great publicity and solemn pronouncements about how our brave, intrepid law enforcement heroes are protecting us from "evil ones" who were about to do us great harm has qualified. They have all been amateur stumblebums, from those guys in Lackawanna to the ones in Lodi to the Fort Dix Six. Could the government be scamming us to garner (and justify) bigger budgets and more extensive powers?

Monday, April 21, 2008

More on lack of strategy in Iraq

Here's a link to the piece I did last week for Antiwar.com, on what the Petraeus briefings and other developments show -- that the U.S. has essentially no policy in Iraq but to keep the troops there and hope for the best. The next president is likely to have a mess on his or her hands. This is absurdly shameful, asking young men and women to risk their lives and (some of them) die so that higher-ups don't have to admit they made mistakes.

Study confirms medical marijuana as pain reliever

A clinical trial conducted at the University of California at Davis and published in the Journal of Pain has confirmed what many patients already knew from their own experience and others from voluminous anecdotal information. Marijuana or cannabis provides significant relief of neuropathic pain -- pain caused by damage to the nerves -- from a variety of causes. This kind of pain is notoriously resistant to conventional treatment, including opiod drugs. This is the second study in just over a year to confirm this. A UC San Francisco study published last year showed relief from HIV/AIDS-related neuropathy.

In the study, 38 patients experiencing pain from various conditions, including diabetes, muscular sclerosis and other conditions were given marijuana cigarettes of three different THC strengths. The first had zero percent THC and was thus the placebo. The second had 3.5 percent THC and the third 7 percent. In each session the patients took a uniform number of puffs. Both strength of cannabis with THC relieved pain, with the relief lasting about five hours. The researchers said side affects "were relatively inconsequential" and "psychoactive effects were minimal and well-tolerated." From the many patients I have talked to for my book, "Waiting to Inhale" (Amazon.com has it mixed up with another book; leave a comment if you want to buy a copy from me for $15 --list $18.95) and for other articles, that jibes with the experience of most patients experiencing pain. They get pain relief but don't get high.

So far as I know, the drug czar and the drug warriors have not commented on this study. How could they? It shows just how irrational and cruel current federal drug policies are. The claims of those who continue to insist that marijuana has no real therapeutic benefits are gradually being shown for the superstitious and anti-scientific myths they are. Unfortunately, the invincibly ignorant are still in charge of marijuana policy.

This finding makes it all the more important that people start asking presidential candidates, in any forums open to the public, about federal policy toward medical marijuana. It should soon become politically feasible to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I, reserved for drugs with particular dangers and no therapeutic benefits. It should actually be popular for candidates to announce that they will direct the DEA not to go after patients and dispensaries in states with medical marijuana laws.

The ideal outcome, of course, fully justified by the principles of liberty and the relative danger of marijuana -- not a single person has died in thousands of years of use -- would be to give marijuana the legal status that parsley has now. But that may take a while.

Friday, April 18, 2008

World food crisis is real, energy policy a big reason

Last weekend the industrial countries' finance ministers met with the IMF and the World Bank, mostly about the world food crisis, which Bob Zoellick at the World Bank is convinced is more serious than whatever financial crises the international system is facing. He's right about that to a great extent, but since government policies are the primary causes about which anything constructive can be done, the assembled ministers didn't come up with constructive policies, simply a call for food aid from developed countries.

There are three main causes. As this Register editorial explains in part, there's been a drought in Australia, which has affected both wheat and rice supplies. China and India have been growing and building wealth, and their people are demanding and able to pay for more food, especially protein. And the U.S. and Western Europe, in a misguided effort to go "green," are subsidizing ethanol and biofuels, which raises corn prices and has all kinds of ancillary effects, including lower production of soybeans, more expensive meat, etc. In addition, most less-developed countries have price controls on basic foodstuffs, a sop to their urban populations but a huge disincentive for farmers to produce more.

The Western countries can't do anything about the drought or Chinese and Indian growth. They could encourage less-developed countries to end price controls, but it would likely fall on deaf ears. The most constructive thing they could do would be to end ethanol and biofuel subsidies (they aren't really all that green anyway when you consider all the costs) so farmers will start producing more for food than for fuel. But they don't seem to have the cojones, and all kinds of special interests profit from the subsidies, including Iowa farmer, Archer-Daniels-Midland and oil companies.

Food aid can be a stopgap, but it also is a disincentive for farmers in the ided countries to produce more, so it stifles real solutions in the longer run.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kurt Schmoke promotes drug sanity

We've heard almost nothing during the presidential campaign about drug policy. Most politicians think it's the "third rail" of American politics that will kill your career if you even talk about it, although almost all the politicians who have suggested drug-law reform have been re-elected handily.

One of them is Kurt Schmoke, former mayor of Baltimore, a former prosecutor who came to believe the drug war was not just futile but harmful and said so back in the late 1980s -- and was re-elected. In this article he urges the presidential candidates to take an incremental step -- promising to increase the number of drug courts in the country. Even better would be to appoint somebody who takes the name of the "Office of Drug Control Policy" seriously enough to appoiint somebody open-minded enough to consider the most effective methods of controlling the harm of drugs rather than being a knee-jerk prohibionist. Or am I dreaming? Anyway, kudos to Kurt for trying to in jecty the issue into the campaign.

Obama's pop sociology all wrong

Haven't had much to say except at the Register's blog about Obama's bitter-clinging moment about lower-income rural working class people. Today's NYT, however, has an op-ed that makes it worth a comment. Larry Bartels, of Princeton's Center for the Study of Democratic Politics uses studies of voting patterns to debunk almost every aspect of the fancies behind Obama's comments -- which sounded quite reasonable to a lot of people.

Far from being more disillusioned than most, such people (under $60,000, no college degree) have greater faith in government than "cosmopolitans." And their voting patterns when it comes to issues like abortion, gun control, church attendance and the like show less dramatic disparities than the cosmopolitans. Example: those opposed to abortion voted for Bush at only 6 percentage points more than those who didn't. Among "cosmopolitans" (urban, over $60,000, college degree) the disparity was 58 points.

So the affluent are more obsessed with social issues than working class folks, and project what they see among their peers onto working-class people? Looks like it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

McCain not that different from Bush

Here's an excellent piece by Chuck Pena analyzing John McCain's recent foreign policy speech. Most of the news media portrayed him as fundamently different from Bush, mainly because he vowed not to "go it alone" unilaterally in battling the central threat he perceives, that of radical Islamism. Such analysts, Chuck argues rather persuasively, overestimate Bush's unilateralism -- he's said he's willing to act unilaterally but he does try to gather allies -- and underestimate the policy similarities between McCain and Bush. If anything, McCain might be even more aggressive militarily than Bush.

Will a Beijing boycott work?

Here's a pretty good column by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, arguing that the protests that have developed around the Olympic torch and threats to boycott the Olympics scheduled for Beijing in August not only won't work but are likely to have the perverse effect of stiffening Chinese stubbornness and sense of self-righteousness. I wouldn't be surprised if he's right that private pressure discreetly applied might be more effective than "face-destroying" public protests. Nonetheless, I hope the public protests continue. There's almost zero chance that anything will induce the Chinese to give up their claims to Tibet this year or any foreseeable mid-range future year. But the Chinese think in terms of decades and centuries, and the protests, especially if combined with a meeting with the Dalai Lama (unlikely in my view despite Zakaria's hopes) and a gradual reconsideration of the costs and benefits of continuing to "Sinify"Tibet could lead to a relaxation of controls and perhaps even more autonomy. Institutionally it's the Communist Party running things, but at this point they're much more pragmatic then ideological.

Here's a pretty good piece by journalist Don North that might help put some of the Tibetan issues in context.

Gummint workers abusing credit cards

When I was in Washington DC during the 1970s, both in my job as a congressional aide and when I was writing columns I used to read a lot of GAO reports (it was the General Accounting Office then, and they've renamed it, reflecting more hope than reality, the Government Accountability Office), and most of them were really excellent, documenting problems or abuses in government offices and suggesting ways to improve the situation. But there was an interesting pattern. Many of the reports read something like: "We identified these problems in our report 7 years ago and when we reported again 3 years ago little or nothing had improved and now things are even worse." The GAO did a good job of identifying problems but the agencies never seemed to improve their performance -- not surprisingly since they were not punished except by the embarrassment of a report.

The pattern seems constant. As this Register editorial notes, abuse of government credit cards was identified as a serious problem at least as long ago as 2001, and the problem remains, according to the GAO report. My favorite is the Forest Service employee who managed to write "convenience checks"totaling more than $500,000 over a five-year period to her live-in boyfriend, who used the money to feed his gambling habit. Pretty convenient.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No strategy in Iraq

President Bush's speech last week confirmed that the administration has no strategy except to hang on and pray things don't get worse before he has to hand off the mess to the next president. Bush is arrantly irresponsible with the lives and fortunes of Americans on a simply breathtaking scale.

Democrats reinforcing ignorance on trade

Here's a link to the Register's editorial about the House Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, embracing benightedness on trade by refusing even to consider the Colombia trade agreement. It's not that the agreement is a perfect one, or that bilateral trade agreements like this one are necessarily the best way to get to free trade. But the Dems are trading on and reinforcing sheer ignorance and the tendency to blame furriners for problems they have little or nothing to do with. Not only would this agreement not have destroyed American jobs, it would likely have increased them, since U.S. tariffs for Colombian imports are already near zero, and the impact of this agreement would have been to reduce Colombian tariffs on imports from the U.S., which are at about 35%. Furthermore, trade, especially with Colombia, has almost nothing to do with problems in the Rust Belt. Changing technology is far more significant, along with regulations that deter innovation. Democrats used to be internationalists but now they're xenophopes.

Obama's big mouth

If you haven't seen it, here's a link to my Horserace'08 blog at the Register with a link to the NYT Kathryn Seelye blog item with a good deal of the backstory about how the words regarding clinging to guns and God and all that were recorded at a private fundraiser. Mayhill Fowler, one of Arianna's "citizen journalists," is an Obama supporter (maxed out at $2,300) but she thought these comments were important enough that they should be published, after agonizing about it for a couple of days. She says there were dozens of video cameras going, from cellphones to professional rigs, and she was open about doing the audio recording. It's yet another example of how the Internet is changing political campaigns.

And here are some musings about whether the comments showed elitism, arrogance, or simply sophomoric (literally) understanding he's been too intellectually lazy to rethink since college.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Income tax: Root of all evil?

With tax day (or is that extortion day?) coming up, I'm glad Gary Galles did a piece for us featuring quotes from Frank Chodorov's wonderful 1950s book, "The Income Tax: Root of All Evil." Gary teaches economics at Pepperdine and often assembles pieces with extensive quotes from classic libertarians. Frank Chodorov was a marvelously cussed individualist and a wonderful writer. Try his book "Fugitive Essays" for an introduction.

Torching the Olympics

It was fascinating to watch the way various parties handled the scheduled run of the Olympic torch in San Francisco yesterday. I can understand the authorities' trepidation. San Francisco's Chinatown has the largest population of ethnic Chinese in any city outside China, many of whom welcome the idea of the Olympics being in China and were ready to celebrate. But various groups made it clear they planned to protest, and the potential for ugliness was palpable. I don't often like to give political authorities much credit, but in this case I thought they handled it pretty well.

I'm really pleased to see all the protests against the Beijing Olympics. As today's Register editorial says, it's unlikely to have an immediate impact on the Chinese regime in the near future except to get their hackles up. It's irrational for the Chinese to be so eager to keep Tibet, which is more a burr under the saddle than an asset, as part of China, but nation-states are often irrational. The protests, spoiling what the Chinese government hoped would be a successful debut as a world power, remind them that their system is deeply offensive to most people, despite its economic successes. If they were smart they would invite the Dalai Lama to the Games. He would probably come. But they may not be thinking strategically.

Over a longer term, the protests are likely to have some impact in softening the Chinese political system, though the Chinese will never admit it. It will be more than a little fascinating to see how it all plays out.

Iraq: No strategy but holding on

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the appearances before Congress of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Cooper on Tuesday. What he had to say and what Bush said today reinforces my impression that Bush simply intends to hang on until the end of the term and hand the mess over to the next president. I'm almost cynical enough to think he and the neocons have already prepared their rationale for future propaganda: We had Iraq in hand and victory just around the corner and those Democrats (or even McCain; these people are utterly without personal honor in my view) messed it up.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Charlton Heston was remarkable

I met Charlton Heston only once, when he was speaking in Orange County and agreed to sit for an editorial board meeting with the Register. It must have been just before his hip replacement surgery, which the obituaries say was in 1996, because he walked with a pronounced and what looked like a painful limp. That didn't affect his remarkable voice.

The main topic was gun control and the Second Amendment, but the four or five of us spent about an hour with him ranging over a variety of mostly political topics. He told us his political philosophy hadn't changed since he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights, but it seemed to him the Democratic Party had changed, to the point that people now thought of him as a conservative. As the Register editorial on his death this past weekend noted, what seemed most consistent was his concern for individual rights, whether to be treated as a person regardless of skin color or to own a tool some people would prefer to demonize. We tried to convince him he was a proto-libertarian, and he didn't seem entirely displeased with the idea.

He struck me as quite intelligent and thoughtful, and extremely well informed about current affairs. As an actor, he could sometimes chew the scenery, but he could also be, as in "Touch of Evil" or "Will Penny," subtle when the part required it. One of the privileges of working for a newspaper, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it, is that you get to meet a wide range of people including the so-called great and powerful, without the necessity of toadying to them or taking them seriously. I consider meeting Charlton Heston to have been a particular privilege.

Monday, April 07, 2008

More on Yoo's folly

Here's a link to my Antiwar.com column last week, which discussed at somewhat greater length than in last week's post that a little torture now and again might not be illegal during wartime. The assumption that during a war the president can override laws that were specifically written to be applied during wartime is simply beyond parody. Conservatives who feel comfortable with the chief executive having that kind of power should spend a moment considering how they will like Hillary Clinton or even Barack Obama with expanded executive power and the the power to decide which sections of laws he/she will take seriously and which are to be ignored.

Back in the days of James Burnham writing "Congress and the American Tradition," conservatives weren't so crazy about "energy in the executive." I believe Russell Kirk coined the tern "imperial presidency." But back in that day there had been Democratic or "modern" Republican presidents for decades. Principles seem to disappear when somebody with an "R" behind his name has the power.

The cost of being born black

Here's another Shankar Vedentam column from a couple of weeks ago with an assertion that simply blew me away. Two psychologists asked white volunteers what it would take, assuming they were in a line waiting to be born and could choose, if they were to be born black but a sum of money would be put into a bank account on the day they were born to compensate them. Whites figured about $5,000 would do it -- while they would want a million bucks to compensate for a lifetime without TV.

It's hard for me the believe the misperception is that dramatic, but the point the psychologists were making is that white people "tend to have a relatively rosy impression of what it means to be a black person in America." I guess that's true to a great extent, but just how dramatic can it be? To be sure, civil rights leaders have often promoted a sense of victimization to an unhealthy degree, but the disadvantages are still dramatic. I would demand millions and a high IQ.

One source of the differences in perception is that white people tend to use the past as a yardstick -- and compared to the past, even in my lifetime, progress has been heartening. But blacks tend to measure the present against an idealized future.

I'm not sure what it all means, but one likelihood is that black people and white people in America still have a long way to go before they really understand each other. Too bad.

Messing up the mortgage mess

Everybody in Washington, it seems, thinks that "something" has to be done about the mortgage mess. Which means that just about everybody in Washington is ready to make a bad situastion considerably worse. Here's the Register's editorial on the subject. Two things in particular. A bailout, even in the form of money for local governments to buy foreclosed properties, will delay the housing market reaching its true bottom, which is the first condition for correction. And any program is bound to end up subsidizing people who never should have bought houses that expensive to begin with -- at the expense of people who were more prudent and didn't get into trouble.

Unfortunately, in politics, the bias is always toward government action, even if (or perhaps especially if?) it will make matters worse. Incidentally, I snagged the "action bias" term from this column by Shankar Vedantam, who writes the Dept. of Human Behavior columns, which are almost always pretty interesting, at the WaPo. Another illustration was a study of soccer goalies on penalty kicks. An Israeli economist's study of 276 kicks showed that staying in the middle was the best bet for the goalie in a situation that inherently favors the kickers. Yet the goalies dived to one side or the other 93% of the time.

Congratulations to Kansas

I must admit that because they beat UCLA I wanted Memphis to win. But Kansas' comeback (facilitated by a sudden Memphis inability to hit free throws that I selfishly wish had happened one game earlier) was impressive, and Kansas deserved to win. Fascinating how overtimes are sometimes simply dominated by one team after the two have played to a tie, but sometimes it just happens. It was really a good game to watch for someone who didn't have much of anything invested in either team.

Wait 'til next year!

Ah, the eternal cry of the loser! I guess I've gotten over the Bruins being dismantled -- I had some hope at halftime, but it was Memphis rather than UCLA that dug in a little harder in the second half -- in the semifinal game. The only conceivable consolation is that it might lead Kevin Love to spend another year at UCLA to give the quest for a national title one more shot before going pro. (I'm afraid that without him UCLA won't get this far next year, though it will be a solid team.) Given that he doesn't seem to face imminent financial difficulties (his father was an NBA player), he might even figure that one more season in college would actually make him a sounder player, more ready to contribute fairly quickly. I think another season in college might actually be in his best long-term interest. Of course, he has to balance that against the possibility of a serious injury before he can even get to the pros.

Anyway, congratulations to Memphis, which on Saturday was definitely the better, more motivated team. Their excellent guards were able to neutralize Collison and their big bodies inside were more effective against Kevin than almost any team has been this year. I didn't watch much of the Kansas-UNC game, but Kansas looks pretty impressive too. Should be a good game tonight.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Real ID a real mess

Here is the Register's editorial on the latest developments in the Real-ID fiasco. The federal requirement that all state driver's licenses meet certain federal standards, a back-door road to a mandatory national ID is meeting resistance, but the Department of Homeland Security is blundering ahead anyway. It has been forced to issue waivers that pretend to acknowledge that various states are making progress toward meeting the (unfunded) mandates, which the National Conference of State Legislatures at some $11 billion. The law was a kineejerk raction to 9/11, but it won't stop determined terrorists and it won't stop illegal immigration either. Congress really should repeal the foolish thing.

Suffering Zimbabwe

Here is the Register's editorial on developments in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe, one of the worst rulers in the world, which is saying something rather remarkable, seems to have lost the election for president, although he and his minions may have rigged it enough that the opposition candidate, Morton Tsvangirai, will be held to less then 50%-plus-one, which could precipitate a run-off. The loss of a majority by his ZANU-PF in the parliament, however, seems to have been deisive enough that it couldn't be rigged. If he had any dignity or regard for the country he has misruled for so long he would simply concede (perhaps after negotiating a deal to avoid prosecution) and leave in a way that might make people remember some of his better aspects instead of his worst. But it doesn't look as if he will go quietly. Poor Africa. So much promise, so many lousy rulers.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Toward monarchical/dictatorial power

The most interesting and potentially troubling news yesterday was the release of former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo's March 2003 memorandum on the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques, including measures that any civilized person would define as torture by the military during the ill-defined and malleable "war on terror." Here's the Register's editorial on the subject. The most alarming aspect of the memo is that Yoo (now a professor at UC Berkeley) posits a concept of presidential power during wartime that is virtually unlimited and capable of overriding or ignoring both U.S. law and international treaties.

As I have noted about previous memos from various Justice Dept. lawyers during the reign of Bush, this one reads like something a consigliere to a Mafia Don might put together to let the Godfather do whatever foul thing he wanted while skating right up to the edge of the law (at least as it would be presented by an aggressive defense attorney). It seems obvious now that the Bushies were fascinated with the idea of using torture and wanted to do it, especially when some of the al-Qaida detainees at Guantanamo resisted more ordinary interrogation techniques.

Two things, and I'll throw in links to other peoples' takes. This memo and others like it suggest that the Bushies were moving aggressively, and still are, to enhance executive power (something that has been an obsession of Cheney's since Watergate) way beyond the proper constitutional scope in anything resembling a republic. One commentator suggested that if they had their way the president would be like a pre-Magna Carta king. The treaties and laws that this memo says can be ignored in wartime were written specifically to apply during wartime. This issue of expanded executive authority should be an issue in the general election campaign. Typically, presidents are more than happy to exercise whatever expanded authority previous presidents have arrogated to themselves, though they might use them for different purposes. Barack and Hillary (I suspect McCain is hopeless, but he should be asked anyway) should be asked whether they will roll back the executive power Bush has seized.

Second, the evidence, based on what we know of techniques at Guantanamo, is that torture doesn't work to get reliable intelligence. The CIA says Khalid Sheikh Muhammad gave reliable information, and it might be so, but generally detainees under torture give what they think the interrogator wants to hear to make it stop, which may or may not be reliable, especially if they're trained. And Detainee 063 at Guantanamo, whose resistance to "normal" interrogation was a factor ig the government wanting to move toward torture, according to this invaluable Vanity Fair piece, still refused to offer anything useful after being tortured for seven months.

All right, one more thing. It's becoming clear that the most likely hypothesis (not yet utterly proven and we may never know) that the impetus for torture came from the top down rather than arising from pleas from those running prisons or being the work entirely of "rogue" military people at Abu Ghraib and other prisons. It makes me weep for my country.

Glenn Greenwald's response was invaluable. He's right that John Yoo should be shunned by decent people rather than treated as respectable. Here's Scott Horton arguing that the memo should never have been kept secret, and certainly not for five years. The AP studied the footnotes and found evidence of other memos. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the Bushies' systematic assault on civil liberties.

And here's the memo itself, in PDF format. It's 81 pages. Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Decide for yourself.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Worried but confident about Memphis

Memphis coach John Calipari has been trying to cast his team as a dissed underdog even though the oddsmakers have Memphis as a 2-point favorite over the Bruins on Saturday. Memphis only lost one game this year and was 1 or 2 in the polls much of the year, so there's little question they'll be a tough opponent (of course the Bruins shouldn't have lost any of the 3 they lost; they simply haven't played with intensity for a full 40 minutes several times this year). I don't think intensity or a letdown will be a problem this Saturday. Several stories have emphasized the fact that they're not satisfied with getting to the Final Four for the third year in a row. It's time to win it all. It looks as if Mbah a Moute is back at full strength, which is good news. I just hope Josh Shipp starts driving the lane more.

I'm scheduled to be at Angie's wedding Saturday, and it might not be over before the game starts. Thank goodness for DVRs.

More election blogging

Here's a link to the Register's election blog, Horserace'08, with posts on McCain's campaign so far, Bill Clinton's lovely tirade, and some thoughts on the impact of the Internet on the electoral process this year. I suspect Obama would have been unthinkable without the Internet this year and that Ron Paul would never have finished stronger than Giuliani (!), Hunter, Thompson, Tancredo and Brownback. I really need to call some people at the Paul campaign to get an idea what they hope to do with all that grassroots enthusiasm. Prod me if I don't report soon.

Wasted on weapons

Yesterday the Government Accountability Office released a report on weapons systems, noting that cost overruns are running at almost $300 billion, and delivery almost two years behind. The real scandal, however, as this Register editorial (alone in the country,to my knowledge, let me know if you find anything like it elsewhere) explains, is that most of these weapons systems are being acquired at all. The weapons acquisition system is still stuck in the Cold War, buying complex and expensive weapons systems suited for confronting the Soviet Union that are pretty much useless against a stateless cross-border terrorist outfit (or outfits, it's not necessarily clear). That's because the system is so politicized, more geared to pleasing constituencies in as many congressional districts as possible than to the real defense needs. If we had any sense, as Ivan Eland put it to me, we'd spend it on Special Forces and Predator drones. But that doesn't buy votes or flatter congresscritters.

Think we're an empire in decline?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hillary's fascinating memory

The whole 1996 Tuzla thing with Hillary is quite fascinating. As this Register editorial explains, it suggests that she feels a need to embroider her record to show something resembling courage under fire. Of all the qualities one might want in a president (assuming one is so deluded as to want a president), that is utterly unimportant. If the country is to survive much longer, it would be useful to have a president who insists on accurate rather than cooked intelligence and considers issues of war and peace coolly and rationally, giving consideration to possible secondary and tertiary consequences and with respect for the law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, we're unlikely to get such a paragon.

NATO's existential crisis

President Bush is visiting Ukraine today, pushing for Ukraine to be the next new member of NATO, in advance of the NATO summit in Bucharest. He's beating an almost-dead horse. The poor dolt thinks he can do this without ticking off Putin -- and furthermore he thinks that if France agrees to send an additional 1,000 troops to Afghanistan that the summit will be a success. He doesn't realize -- he's not alone, few people do -- that NATO is on the verge of breaking over the Afghanistan commitment. Here's a Register editorial explaining some of the reasons.

NATO was founded as a defensive military alliance against the Soviet Union and has no real reason to exist now except to grant Good Housekeeping seals to eastern European countries and tick off a resurgent Russia. But what's likely to break it is the Afghanistan commitment. Almost all the European countries have committed to nation-building (in a nation that doesn't especially want to be built) reluctantly, and some stipulate that their troops won't go places where there might be actual combat. They're unlikely to have the patience to stick it out for five to 10 to 20 years, even if a Western-style regime could be constructed in Afghanistan in that time, which is unlikely. NATO is on the verge of breaking. But Bush doesn't care. It'll happen on the next president's watch. He is truly one of the most irresponsible presidents this country has had, and it's had some doozies.

Computer back functioning

I've been away for a while, not able to celebrate the Bruins getting into the Final Four (and doing so fairly decisively rather than shakily as in the last couple of games. My computer had viruses and Trojan Horses (I think from letting others use it who visited strange places, but I'm not completely sure). I had been bringing the laptop home from work, but didn't do so on Friday as Jen and I were determined to bring the home machine back to life and safe. I think we have better safeguards now and it's fully functional, but it took a while. So it's back to serious blogging.