Sunday, May 31, 2009

The bird has left the nest

For the previous two weekends, as we ate breakfast and then a late lunch on our front patio, Jen and I have been enchanted by the growth of a baby bird. We're not sure what kind of bird, but they're a brilliant yellow and black, with a little white. They built a nest on the bottom of a palm frond (attached I do not know how) that we can see when we lean back and look up. It's almost a bag nest, with the hole near the top, all very light-colored straw -- they must have been quite picky when gathering materials. At any rate, for the previous two weeks the mother and father have been incredibly busy feeding the young one, who would stick its head out when neither was around -- not more than a couple of minutes at a time. We've seen the baby get progressively bigger and noisier.

And then this weekend, there was no frantic back-and-forth and no baby in the nest. We did not find, as we sometimes do around this time of year, a baby bird corpse on the ground, so I have to presume that the little bird tested its wings and found them sufficient to facilitate flying. We still see flashes of yellow and black flitting through our oleanders, and I like to think these are our leaning-back acquaintances. It has been fun to observe this little drama in the circle of life.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sotomayor to the left but not the Apocalypse

We've just begun the process of going through Sonia Sotomayor's record on the bench to see what's up. As this Register editorial suggests, at this point it's pretty clear that she's not exactly a rightist in the Sam Alito mode but she doesn't seem to be a raving radical -- or a racist, despite a few unguarded remarks and despite the conservative attack machine's desires. I suppose we're in for a contentious confirmation process. Both the official right and the official left have an interest in justifying the millions they've raised. But I'm a little sick of the half-truths and distortions from both sides already.

The US-Israeli-Palestinian Kabuki

I didn't blog nor did I write last week when Israeli prime minister Netanyahu came to Washington last week, but maybe with Mahmoud Abbas, the "approved" Palestinian leader in town today a word of explanation might be in order.

If the Israelis and Palestinians ever do get sick of the confrontation game and work out a way to live together peacefully in the same neighborhood, they might prove to be remarkably compatible partners. After all these years they know one another so well that if they were inclined they could get along quite well. As it is, what they know is how to push one another's buttons. Whenever some ambitious U.S. president tries to secure what he conceives of as a place in history by pushing them to negotiate, they each demand something they know good and well the other won't accept. Both do it and blame one another when it dfoesn't work out.

The U.S. plays make-believe as well. It is officially committed to a two-state solution, but that is about as likely as elephants flying. Even besides the fact that there are two Palestinian entities (with Hamas, to worse of the two, having arguably a better claim on legitimacy), the geography of the region would make any Palestinian state almost completely reliant on Israel, and no Palestinian entity could guarantee various elements wouldn't lob missiles into Israel. Israel is almost as fractured politically as the Palestinian entity. Besides, the "moderate" Arab states, whatever lip service they might pay, have no interest in seeing a Palestinian state. I have been observing and writing about Israel-Palestine for going on 30 years and while the players and some of the peripheral issues may change, the fundamental issues don't. Yet the U.S. has a certain interest in keeping the political theater going, maintaining the fiction that it's working on peace, which it expects to break out any time as soon as a few loose ends can be cleared up.

It's more than a bit tiresome. I thought Obama was being fairly shrewd appointing the peripatetic George Mitchell as special envoy so he could create the appearance of action. I'm surprised he agreed to meet with Netanyahu and Abbas. I hope it's just part of the game of pretending to care and he doesn't start getting the idea that maybe his unique qualities can accomplish what Reaagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush failed to do.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lakers finally take over a fourth quarter

I had been worried about the Lakers and I'm still not feeling complacent. (I'm atavistic; I've been rooting for the Lakers since the Baylor/West/Goodrich days when they were terrific except in ther final games against the Celtics, and I don't plan to break the habit.) Still, it was terrific to see a team effort including strong defense (and some luck; the Nuggets missed some open shots) to take over the fourth quarter, win and take a 3-2 series lead.

Now it's the games on the other side of the country I'm concerned about. I think lots of NBA fans looked forward to a Lakers-Cavaliers match-up, with Kobe and LeBron, probably the two best players in the league, going after one another. With Orlando leading the Cavaliers 3-1, however, that's becoming a long shot. Still, all of their games could have gone either way, so I'm looking for a miracle.

And for some consistency from the Lakers. This habit of falling apart in alternate games isn't a sustainable strategy as the opposition gets better and better. And they haven't won the Denver series yet.

Jumping all over Sotomayor a big mistake

I can't monitor everything, but from the excerpts and bits and pieces I see or hear about on the Net, the right-wing talk radio/blogosphere universe is in the midst of a huge tactical/strategic mistake over Supremes nominee Sonia Sotomayor. But it's almost as if they can't help themselves. Supreme Court nominations have been so contentious lately that both sides have huge attack/defend machines in place and millions invested in the process. Both sides are convinced that nomination fights "energize the base." At this point it means that Rush/Hannity et. al. are falling right into the trap Obama has set for them. The best thing the base could do in this instance, is to shut up, as most Senate republicans who have a modicum of actual responsibility are doing.

I talked to UCI law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky for this Register editorial, and as has often been the case in the past Erwin, God love 'im, had the politics down pat. Obama nominates a Hispanic woman. The Republicans know they can't win a national election without about a 40% vote from Hispanics (about what Bush got in'04), so doing a balls-out attack job on Sotomayor risks making the GOP something like a permanent minority in national elections. But Rush etc. can't resist the bait. Sotomayor is not just to the left, as she is -- what did you expect from Obama? -- she's the worst nominee ever, devoted to identity politics ueber alles, proclaiming that she routinely makes up law and will ruin the Supreme Court within a week of donning a robe. TheApocalypse is upon us if we don't make the most flamboyant case possible against her. The Republic hangs by a thread.

Take a chill pill. She'll vote almost exactly the same way Souter did so she won't tchange the balance of the court, and with the Dem majority in the Senate she's going to be confirmed even if you convince the "base" that she's the devil incarnate. The "outrageous" quotes (wise Latina woman better than white male et. al.) are nowhere near so outrageous in context. There are certainly valid criticisms to be made of her approach to jurisprudence, but this kind of hysterical attack will only discredit those who made it except in the eyes of an ever-diminishing choir.

The hysteria isn't all on one side. Look at the comments and not that a reasonably balanced piece with some mild criticism is dismissed as nothing but part of the evil Republican attack machine by the other side.

North Korean nukes: big whoop!

All kinds of people are terribly concerned that North Korea apparently conducted an underground test of a possible nuclear weapon, along with some missile tests in the last couple of weeks. The ability of various pundits to conjure frightful dangers to America from the antics of pipsqueak nations is fascinating (and a little frightful in itself) and would probably make a good subject for a book. North Korea is exhibiting learned behavior -- that it gets the attention of the rest of the world only when it does something outrageous. Are we -- or South Korea, with an economy many times as large and a capable military -- supposed to tremble in fear when the Hermit Kingdom tests a weapon in a way that probably exhibits that despite its ambitions and posturing it probably doesn't have a workable nuke yet?

There's no sense needlessly provoking the little dictator, but paying so much attention to him gives Kim Jong-Il (who may be courting the military in an internal dispute over succession, given his apparent stroke last summer) the kind of attention he craves. Leave him to China.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Prop 8: California Supremes change tune

Even though I (along with the Register) opposed California's Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage, last year, in the belief that if the state is going to sanction marriages it should sanction all that people choose to enter into, I'm not as unhappy as some that the Supreme Court chose not to invalidate the measure today. The argument used by Prop. 8 opponents -- that this was a change so momentous that it needed to be designated a "revision" to the California Constitution, requiring a 2/3 legislative approval, rather than a mere amendment, of the kind that get voted on almost every election -- was always a big reach, if not without at least some justification. The differences between a revision and an amendment turn out to be rather subjective.

It's fascinating how much the court had to contort itself to get to this decision, however. Last year it was forceful in saying that marriage, including use of the world, was so fundamental and basic a right that denying it to same-sex couples was not just unconstitutional but downright indecent. This decision said, in effect, "it's only a word, after all, and through civil unions gays have virtually all the legal rights heterosexual couples have," an argument it rejected with force (and, I thought, some eloquence) in last year's decision legalizing gay marriage.

I consider this a temporary setback for the cause of gay marriage. Today's decision brought out protestors in West Hollywood, but a right to marriage granted by the courts in the face of majority opinion against it was politically (if not necessarily intellectually) vulnerable. I think, of course, that the State should have nothing to do with marriage, that it shuld be up to individuals to deciude if they want to marry and churches to decide if they want to solemnize marriages. But the State, the great imperialist aggrandizer of power, is so intertwined in so many aspects of marriage that the best practical approach is equal treatment.

The strongest (politically speaking) way to earn this privilege is through the ballot box, not the courtroom. I think it will happen in California, and reasonably soon. Most observers expected Prop. 8 to lose last November, and there's an argument that it would have without the heavy intervention of the Mormon church (and all those evangelical blacks who came out in droves to vote for Obama while opposing gay marriage, ironically enough). I don't know if 2010 is too soon to put it back on the ballot or 2012 would be more appropriate. But gay marriage will get onto and eventually it will prevail.the ballot and

Dueling speeches, similar philosophies

Most everybody else wrote about the "dueling speeches" of Cheney and Obama, set up by Obama. last Thursday, so I did so for this week's column. I suspect mine was a little different than many. After acknowledging rhetorical differences, I think I made a pretty good case that the foreign policies the two embrace and advocate are remarkably similar despite the anger Cheney wants to vent and the tendency of the two establishment "sides" to view one another as as tools of Satan if not the devil incarnate.

Obama's emphases may be different, but he believes the U.S. needs to be involved -- if only to make a decision about how actively to be involved -- in every conflict and potential conflict in the world. He might emphasize Afghanistan over Iraq, and he may really have believed at the outset that the Iraq war was a mistake. But he embraces the empire and revels in being its commander-in-chief. As his domestic ambitions are frustrated -- and many will be -- he will turn increasingly to foreign affairs, as every president since WW II has.

More Pakistan nukes a third-order concern

There were several stories last week about the likelihood that Pakistan is building more nuclear weapons, and a number of congresscritters have wondered whether the military aid extorted from U.S. taxpayers was going to build more nukes rather than for building up counterinsurgency capability -- the mission the U.S. wants to impose on Pakistan though India remains Pakistan's major military concern. As this Register editorial notes, however, money is fungible, and if the U.S. really wants Pakistan not to use our money to build nukes it should cut military aid to zero -- not a bad idea anyway. But truth to tell, whether Pakistan is building more weapons is a silly thing to worry about. They have them and so does India, and a few more won't change the balance of terro.

I worry less about nuclear weapons than most people largely because I was influenced by the eminent political scientist Kenneth Waltz, who made a strong case some decades ago that possession of nuclear weapons is not only possible only in a fairly advanced country (technologically), but it imposes constraints as much as it opens temptations to use them aggressively. I explained myself in more detail a few years ago here. India and Pakistan has behaved as Kenneth Waltz predicted nuclear powers would -- two countries that had had three wars since 1947 and for the most part really despise one another have managed to avoid war despite the ongoing border clashes in Kashmir and plenty of temptations.

Memorial Day: No more dying for nothing

I feel a little strange most Memorial Days. It is appropriate to honor those who gave "the last full measure," especially when they did so in what they honestly believed was the service of their country and were volunteers rather than conscripts. But all of our wars since WW II -- and I have my doubts about that one -- were so unnecesary, impelled by the miscalculations and false pride of incompetent political leaders. You can't help but feel doubly sad -- without doubting, as this Register editorial notes, the courage and devotion of those who sacrificed so much -- that so many young peoiple have died for the delusions and false pride of old fools like me.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Pawlenty vetoes Minn. medical marijuana bill

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who, you may remember, was on a number of "short lists" for the Republican vice presidential nomination, has vetoed the medical marijuana bill passed by the state legislature. His veto message said he was concerned about medmar production without federal supervision. He doesn't seem to be much of a states-rights Republican; in fact he sounds like a bit of a moron -- that hasn't been a concern or problem in any of the13 states with medical marijuana laws. Apparently some Minnesota voices are expressing dismay.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Quote of the Day

"A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground." -- H.L. Mencken

The cars government wants us to have

President Obama's little love-fest this week as he announced higher CAFE fuel-economy standards was hailed by most observers as a long overdue triumph of goodheartedness over greed and careless neglect of the planet. The Register, not surprisingly, begged to differ today. The standards and various other government actions will mean more expensive and less desirable (from the perspective of what consumers by their patterns have lately shown that they want) automobiles. If you're thinking of buying a new car in the near future, I'd suggest doing it soon, before the government screws them up royally.

The CAFE standards, of course, will probably kill more people each year than the Iraq war has, because the most efficacious way to get to higher mileage is to build lighter and smaller car4s, which fare poorly in accidents and tend to kill passengers more foten.

We tend to forget that the SUV craze, though it was certainly welcomed by a lot of Americans, was intensified by previous CAFE standards. SUVs were classified as trucks, which had lower CAFE requirements, so the car companies started building and marketing them, found people liked them, and also found they yielded a higher profit margin. Of course the U.S. car companies have also become bloated and topheavy, unable to move nimbly as consumer tastes change, so the fact that they have essentially become wards of the state is largely their own fault. Still, it's a shame.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

California's sad situation

Obviously, I don't always agree with George Will, but the times I have met him he seems a genuinely decent person, and when he's right he's right. In this column on California's fiscal mess, he is right.

I think Cheney's lying -- but let's find out

Barack Obama and Dick Cheney had their dueling speeches on interrogation and national security today. I printed them out but still haven't been able to bring myself to read them in their entirety yet, though I saw excerpts on TV. I'm inclined to agree with Glenn Greenwald on what I know of Obama's speech -- nice words, but we haven't seen much action yet. I'm still unclear on whether he reserves the right to torture, he plans to use military commissions for some prisoners, he sure seems to be declaring a right to use indefinite detention without charges, and he's escalating atotally unnecessary war in Afghanistan. Perhaps for understandable reasons -- domestic policy seems to be what really interests him -- he has followed Bush's lead in almost every area of foreign policy. Not much change I can believe in.

Cheney is really a piece of work. He came right out and said we weren't getting anything useful from some of these guys until we went to "enhanced interrogation." That contradicts what I've been able to discern from the record and what can be inferred from it, as well as from discussions with professional interrogators. Torture simply doesn't furnish reliable information. I think Cheney is lying, but I'll take my chances. Release all the relevant documents and let experts and bloggers have at them. If I'm wrong I'll admit it. But I doubt if I am.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Voters slap Sacramento

The resounding defeat of all the propositions proposed by the legislators and governor who got California into this mess is a fascinating first step. I think it will still be a while before the establishment gets remotely serious about overspending. Here's the Register's editorial suggesting some places to make the first cuts.

Moving toward legalization

I haven't made as much progress yet on my marijuana legalization book as I had hoped (maybe I should do that instead of blogging, but sometimes I can't help myself). Nonetheless, I still feel we're seeing incremental progress that I expect to snowball. As this Register editorial notes, the Supreme Court Monday declined to hear San Diego County's attempt to have California's law nullified on the judicial-supremacy theory that federal law (total prohibition) trumps state law. No dice. Live with it.

A lot of news stories have used that word "trump" when discussing the differences between federal law and the laws of the 13 states that permit medical use of marijuana, but it's inaccurate. The feds will sometimes "occupy" an issue and trump state laws in the area. but it hasn't happened in this case and the feds don't claim it. I was in the Supreme Court press gallery when the Oakland Cannabis Coop case was argued, and Justice Ginsberg specifically asked the government lawyer if the feds were claiming federal supremacy. She said no, that this was simply one of the many instances under federalism when state law and federal law are different. The Supreme decision makes it clear. Local law enforcement's job is to enforce state law, not federal law, so that excuse is simply gone now.

The editorial also notes that the new "drug czar" (gad, what an offensive term in either a republic or a democracy), Gil Kerlikowske, has decided to abandon the term "war on drugs." Nice symbolic gesture, but only warlike actions can try to enforce prohibition. Time to change the laws.

Obama's plans will increase health-care spending

You've got to love a president who thinks he can reduce the deficit by expanding health-care spending to cover virtually every American. But Obama and his supporters have been claiming that they can achieve this magic trick through some reforms that will increase efficiencies and thus reduce spending. The proposals mentioned most often are more preventive care, more use of IT by doctors, better management of chronic diseases, paying for outcomes rather than procedures, and effectiveness ratings that could guide health-care decisions.

As this Register editorial explains, however, while all of these proposals have some merit, none would offer substantial savings or in some cases even any savings at all. The Congressional Budget Office, controlled by Democrats since 2006, has done projections of all, and none promises savings worth noticing. Too bad. We're working on some free-market proposals that might actually lead to better care for more people for less money, using competition rather than top-down regulation and mandates. Stay tuned.

Big suprise! Immigration declines when the economy tanks

For years I have argued that illegal immigration is the result of quotas that were too low, that the U.S. economy could support all those illegals and it was fruitless to try to stop them with stricter enforcement, walls and other such nonsense. One corollary of the argument was that the only effective way to reduce illegal immigration would be for the U.S. economy to go in the tank.

I never wanted to see a real-life test of the argument, but we have one now. And sure enough, as this NYT article explains, "Census data from the Mexican government indicate an extraoedinary decline in the number of Mexican immigrants going to the United States." Specifically, about 226,000 fewer people left Mexico for other countries (almost all to the U.S.) in the year that ended last August, a 25 percent decline. Since the most dramatic economic decline began after August, I'm betting the decline will be even greater in the year ending this August.

Any takers?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Torture concern has a longer half-life than expected

Now some of it was undoubtedly brought on by Nancy Pelosi's clumsy evasiveness about what she knew and when she knew it about torture techniques, and some is driven by a desire in many quarters to punish Bush administration figures, which may or may not be necessary in my view. For whatever reasons, however, the debate over torture is still alive, and I think in the long run that's good for the country. Here's my most recent column for on the subject. The short-term desire to embarrass Nancy Pelosi may just drive some congressional Republicans to support a more thoroughgoing investigation into what happened and who knew.

At the same time, I'm fascinated by how many conservatives and Republicans, despite the temptation to jump on the anti-torture bandwagon now that it can be used to bash Pelosi, are eager to be seen as ongoing defenders of torture. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many seem convinced that torture "works" in the sense that it provided reliable intelligence -- even though no specific instance that stands up to scrutiny has been offered, and you know if there was one it would have been leaked long ago. I suspect there's more than a bit of desire to punish bad guys severely verging on borderline sadism regardless of whether it is really effective at producing information or not involved here.

Have any considered whether embracing the stance of the Party of Torture is a good political move, let alone considered the moral implications? fund drive

There's no denying that this is a somewhat self-interested post. is conducting its quarterly fund drive, and as of now things are going slowly -- just over $26,000 of the $70,000 needed to keep the operation going for another quarter. I know these are tough economic times for many of us, which no doubt at least partially accounts for the slow trickle of contributions. But aside from my personal interests and feelings, has been the most persistent site in existence opposing U.S. interventionism around the world, done by both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is also one of the best sources for foreign news, useful whether one shares its anti-war perspective or not. If you're in a position to donate even a few dollars . . .

Tamil Tigers probably defeated

One of the longest-running guerrilla insurgencies appears to be coming to an end with the announcement that the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka say they are putting down their weapons. Supposedly only a handful of Tigers are left after a fierce government offensive that has pushed them to the edge of extinction after a 25-year civil war. At one point the Tigers controlled about a quarter of the island and had all the trappings of government, with taxes, a police force, etc. The Tigers have also been skillful, even pioneers in guerilla/terrorist activity, being the first to use suicide vests and other tactics that are all too familiar now.

The Tigers may be done -- though I wouldn't be surprised if they or a successor organization rose again. Many of the Tamil grievances are founded in the fact that the Sinhalese majority on Sri Lanka has practiced a system of preferences in government jobs, contracts, and to some extent granting of civil rights, freezing out the minority Tamils. If the government doesn't end such practices grievances will accumulate again. It might not be easy considering the misery the Tigers have caused for 25 years. I'm not justifying the Tigers, who have been notably brutal and toward the end hurt more Tamils than Sinhalese. But racial preferences are inherently divisive and create legitimate grievances.

Kerlikowske: One small step

There has been a certain amount of celebration about the fact that Gil Kerlikowske, the new "drug czar" and former police chief of Seattle, has said he doesn't want to use the term "war on drugs" any more, because people see it as a war on them, which is unhealthy for society. That's a good start, but one should realize that as long as the U.S. maintains prohibitionist policies, the result will be a war on those who choose to use (some government-disapproved) drugs. Because there is no victim in this "crime," in the particular sense that neither party to a drug transaction is going to compain to the government, is is the case with victims of robbery, assault and real crimes, the only way to try to enforce such laws is to invade peoples' privacy, to use stealth and forceful entry, all of which is warlike. It's nice that Kerlikowske doesn't want to use the war analogy anymore, but that doesn't mean the government will stop being warlike.

Kerlikowsek's position is the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Theoretically, he could use that position to advise the president that the best way to control drug use is to eliminate criminal penalties and enforce health and safety standards, seeking to control only behavior that explicitly harms other people. I'm not holding my breath, but I think events will overtake his willingness to be sensible.

The Drug Policy Alliance has a campaign to send a message to Kerlikowske to "end this misguided war in practice, not just in name," which I commend highly. DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann has made several appearances on the subject, at CNN, on Fox Business News, and elsewhere.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

"I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone." -- H.L. Mencken

Maybe Afghanistan won't be complete disaster?

The closest I've seen to encouraging news about the U.S. role in Afghanistan is this piece from George Friedman at that describes a strategic debate between Gen. David Petraeus (CentCom commander) on one hand and SecDef Gates and Pres. Obama on the other. (The piece also has about as good a thumbnail sketch as I've seen of how things are -- at this point -- turning out better in Iraq than anyone could have believed possible in 2006, though I think Friedman gives somewhat more credit to U.S. tactics than is due.)

Fresh off a fairly decent outcome in Iraq and having devised the Army's counterinsurgency strategy, Gen. Petraeus, according to Friedman, "is arguing that the strategy pursued in Iraq should be used as a blueprint in Afghanistan, and it appears that Obama and Gates have raised a number of important questions in response. Is the Iraqi solution really so desirable? If it is desirable, can it be replicated in Afghanistan?" And so on. Gates and Obama apparently have serious questions about what level of commitment would be required to establish an effective government in Afghanistan when the essential thing is to get the Taliban to agree not to give al-Qaida bases in the country. That would requires a much less intrusive or long-term U.S. commitment.

Of course, as I noted some time ago, more than once, Friedman actually favors a military withdrawal from Afghanistan and relatively low-key intelligence and special-forces activity against al-Qaida in Pakistan. Maybe he's seeing the possibility of an outcome closer to what he wants. But he usually looks at situations pretty cold-bloodedly.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

From the Top and Classical Destinations

I have developed the habit for the last couple of months of watching a couple of interesting shows featuring classical music on Sunday nights on PBS. (This is the kind of thing PBS was supposed to have been created to do on the theory that commercial networks never would, but it has done so poorly at best. PBS, not surprisingly, appeals to middlebrow baby-boomers; just look at what kind of music it features during pledge drives. I have nothing against '60s rock'n'roll or Julie Andrews or Josh Groban or Sinatra retrospectives, but they ain't highbrow. Aside from the occasional opera or NY Phil concert, PBS starves us musical highbrows.)

Rant over. One consistently delightful program is "From the Top from Carnegie Hall," which features young people performing classical music and generally doing so brilliantly. I'm so pleased to see so many young people taking classical music seriously. It almost makes me believe that it won't die in the next generation or so.

"Classical Destinations" is sort of a musical travelogue to various cities in Europe where great composers lived or worked -- Salzbug, Leipzig, Prague, Vienna, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Venice, etc. It's a bit superficial, especially in the generally breathless descriptions of the composers, but the scenery is terrific and there's always some pretty decent music and nice interiors of concert halls. British actor Simon Callow is not too annoying. You can watch programs online here.

Quote of the Day

"Relying on government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds." -- John Perry Barlow

Supremes fight: make it over the Constitution

According to this news story, observers expect a vigorous battle over Pres. Obama's Supreme Court nominee, whoever it may be. I think it would be a mistake to make it either personal or bitter. As I suggested in my piece a couple of weeks ago (which highlighted pretty much the same cast of probably top candidates), the most useful thing the Republicans could do would be to ask questions about constitutional interpretation that clearly establish them as limited-government constitutionalists. If the nominee has a more expansive view of the powers the constitution grants to different branches of government, they should ask pointed questions as to why, and demand a justification for interpreting the constitution to grant more power than the plain words seem to grant, especially to the executive branch, which has grabbed power shamelessly under both parties for the last 70 years or so.

Having made the recommendation, I seriously doubt it will happen. To be fair, Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute fleshed out the idea in more detail when I talked to him in preparing my piece. But he also said that his experience when testifying before congressional committees was that the Republicans were generally ill-prepared and could ask only the most general questions, questions that didn't betray much knowledge of subtleties or nuance. In addition, Republicans since Reagan have (generally, noit universally) become cheerleaders for a powerful executive, especially under Bush, with the notion of the "unitary executive." Politicians are fully capable of doing a 180 on almost anything, of course, but I doubt if many in Congress have the sophistication to do it credibly.

Too bad. The Supremes hearings will be the first time most of the public will have heard much more than sounbdbites from Republicans since November. A smart, principled-sounding performance could restore a modicum of credibility. But both parties are pretty much hopeless in these days of imperial decadence.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Iran frees Roxana Saberi

I don't claim to have an idea why the Iranian regime decided to free Roxana Saberi, the Iranian- (and Korean-) American journalist who was arrested in January and then charged with and convicted of espionage. As this Register editorial notes, however, it is genuine cause for celebration. I know only a few things I have read and haven't had a chance to talk witrh anybody with special expertise. My guess is that international pressure, especially from European countries with which Iran has a certain amount of trade, was the key. But it could be internal Iranian politics or any of several other possibilities -- not including a change in character of the Iranian regime. I'm certainly glad for her, but whether it has geopolitical significance I just don't know.

Obama grabs for more power

One can make a case that financial companies that took government bailout money-- although it's increasingly clear that some were pretty well forced into it by Bernanke -- should expect to have some government mandates they might not like, including curbs on executive compensation, however shortsighted those might be. But Obama has announced that he wants government control opver executive compensation in companies that did not take bailout money. This is, as this Register editorial explains pretty clearly, I think, an utterly unwarranted grab for more power over the economy at just the time the economy needs less restrictions, not more. The proper term is economic fascism -- leaving private companies nominally in private hands but controlling them so tightly that they atre nothing other than creatures of the State. Hope he doesn't get that power.

McKiernan in Afghanistan: Like Shinseki in Iraq?

I cross-posted this item on the Register's Orange Punch blog, and thought it might be of interest here as well:

When I first heard of the administration’s plans to replace Gen. David McKiernan in Afghanistan with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, my immediate reaction was that this was a similar situation to that of Gen. Eric Shinseki at the beginning of the Iraq invasion. Shinseki had said publicly that more U.S. troops would be needed than were in the plans (contrary to Rumsfeld’s desire for a leaner force) and Mc Kiernan has said publicly that more troops are going to be needed in Afghanistan than the Obama administration is inclined to make available. So McKiernan was fired for stating what might be obvious to some in the military and displeasing his civilian superiors? And like Shinseki he stands to be proven right?

I’m still not sure this is an incorrect assumption, but it may be more complicated than that.
It may seem strange, given that I have argued that the U.S. should pull all military forces out of Afghanistan unless there is evidence of al-Qaida establishing bases there, which at this point there isn’t, that I might sympathize with McKiernan. But given standard counter-insurgency doctrine, if there is to be a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan (which seems likely), it seems likely that more troops than are presently committed will be needed to have a prayer of success.

It’s complicated, however. Some have argued that McKiernan, though a competent soldier, thinks too conventionally to devise strategies to succeed in Afghanistan. Here is George Packer’s initial take at the New Yorker. Michael Yon, who has been on-scene in a number of conflicts, seems conflicted. Fred Kaplan at Slate says this move makes Afghanistan unqualifiedly Obama’s war. Here is Judah Grunstein’s take at World Politics Review (h/t Andrew). Michael Cohen questions the standard interpretation of the “surge” in Iraq, as I have.

McChrystal, with a background in special forces, is said to be more imaginative and daring than McKiernan, though being more daring could lead to more civilian casualties. In addition, McChrystal was in charge of Task Force 6-26 in Iraq, where people at Camp Nama were tortured. His role in the initial coverup of Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan is unclear. He is said to have sent a memo to Rumsfeld warning him that it might have been “friendly fire” but Rumsfeld denied having seen it.

There’s much more to learn, and of course we’ll know more in the aftermath of McChrystal’s appointment than we know now. But it does seem clear that this move makes it Obama’s war, for better or worse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Increasing use of Internet for politics

It's not quite new news, but interesting nonetheless that ins 2008, for the first time, more than half of Americans used the Internet to get political news or to get involved in the political process. The data come from a survey done for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. I remember as the 2008 primaries were getting underway I talked to one of Ron Paul's campaign managers, Kent Snyder, who told me 2008 would be the year of the Internet in American politics. (Shockingly. Kent has since died; I'm so glad I had a chance to meet him and talk with him personally twice, at the Reagan Library and later in New Hampshire, after talking with him on the phone for years.) It looks as if he was right, at least to some extent. 33 percent of online users shared political content with others, if only by forwarding an e-mail. Techies are starting to dominate.

Even so, however, television remains the dominant news medium. The striking thing is that with Fox and MSNBC extant, people can get news that slants toward their persuasions pretty reliably, and increasing numbers of Americans are doing just that -- consuming all the news thatg fits their prejudices. It can't be good for democracy, but then democracy is a lousy way to govern anyway, as our founders knew.

Barack's big whoop budget cuts

You wonder why he even bothered. Having promised to go through the budget "line by line" with a gimlet eye looking for waste and unnecessary spending, after proposing a budget of $3.5 trillion with a deficit of $1.3 to $1.8 trillion (depending on how you count certain things) he comes up with a proposal to cut all of $17 billion? That's one half of one percent of his budget proposal. And the kicker is that Congress, which (both parties included) is even more fiscally irresponsible, probably won't even approve those insignificant cuts. About half of the proposals were in the Bushlet's proposed budget cuts last year but were saved. The Register was dismayed, to say the least.

FCC Fleeting expletives decision upheld

A couple of weeks ago the Supremes delivered one of their more dismaying decisions. As this Register editorial explains, they upheld the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to ban what are called fleeting expletives, nasty words (as defined by the FCC) that occur accidentally (at least as far as the producers are concerned) in live broadcasts rather than in a scripted piece. Stupid decision, one that shows a proclivity by some conservatives to be censors despite the First Amendment.

To be sure, the Supremes stayed away from the First Amendment, deciding the case on the narrow technicality that the FCC had issued sufficient justification for changing its policy from one in which fleeting expetives were ignored. However, as I daresay the Register was the only newspaper to point out, the problem is deeper, going to the very existence of an FCC in a country with a First Amendment. They talked about the need to regulate access to the spectrum back in 1934 to get their noses under the tent and start regulating content, but that issue was mostly phony and the content regulation is utterly unjustified. Electronic media are the press with new technology, and the First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law" restricting freedom of the press. The FCC should be abolished yesterday.

Monday, May 11, 2009

How much of a victim is Carrie Prejean?

There's a possibility that Miss California-USA, Carrie Prejean, will be stripped of her title tomorrow for various things that have come out since the controversy over her answers to a question about gay marriage. You know, she posed topless (with back to camera but with enough of a turn to know those breasts were undraped) and didn't inform the pageant, she did rallies or meetings for "pro-marriage" (for some people) groups.

The right, delighted to find a seriously pretty girl opposing gay marriage and talking about God, want to make her a martyr. But it's looking as if "Perez Hilton," who was the provocateur in all this, was more than a little out of line in his questioning, and almost certainly intended to damage her, did her a huge favor.

Presumably (although the motivations are still a bit mysterious to me) young women enter these pageants in part to garner notoriety or connections for some kind of career in modeling or entertainment. Carrie now is better known than any of the other contestants and much better positioned to cash in on the fact that she's becoma a household word. She was the Miss USA runner-up (maybe because of Hilton). Do you know the name of the winner? Do you remember who last year's Miss California was? Neither do I But Carrie Prejean is now famous enough to get a career out of this, and if she has even a shred of real talent, she might have as successful a career as Vanessa Williams, the most famous previous beauty queen to have to resign in "disgrace."

War-whoopers' magical thinking

It's hardly an original insight, but I think I've come up with a useful term to describe the way neocons and other war addicts invariably come up with another war, or at least a stern military threat, as the answer to whatever real or imagined international problem presents itself. It's fascinating but dispiriting to see not just the eagerness with which some prescribe war, but the naive faith they have that war is the best way to solve human problems.

In this week's column for, I call that "magical thinking." I know the definition isn't a precise fit. The term is more commonly used to denote confusing correlation with causation or believing in unseen forces. But just as a term, the way the war-whoopers are so eager to put their faith in war when experience suggests it more often has unexpectedly negative impacts (beyond the obvious of people killed and things destroyed. Almost literally, they act as if war were magic, capable of resolving all problems and almost never coming back to bite you. Sad.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

No real strategy in Af-Pak

Just saw Presidents Zardari of Pakistan and Karzai of Afghanistan on the late-night repeat of "Meet the Press." I'll give Karzai credit for acting as if he is really an independent president of an independent country and taking the U.S. to task for a "strategy" that too often involves bombings that kill innocent civilians. But the fact is -- and maybe I'll soften when he wins the next election -- he was chosen and installed by the west, and however personally impressive he is (I want a cape like his!), his writ does not run much beyond Kabul, and probably nopt there after dark.

Perhaps he deserved the question David Gregory seemed so obsessed with, whether Afghanistan passed a law that permits husbands to rape their wives (I suspect it's not so simple). When a country becomes completely dependent on another country for security, etc., it can expect citizens of that country to expect it to live up to the subsidizing country's values, indeed to think nothing much of imposing values. He who pays the piper and all.

Andrea Mitchell and Steve Coll, who "analyzed" the appearances, were especially lame. They have no idea what sensible objectives would be, though Steve Coll insists we simply have to be there.

I spent most of yesterday with a friend who is slated to go to work in the press section of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. He didn't try very hard to persuade me that the U.S. knows what it's doing there. Good thing. Beyond wanting to make sure the Paki nukes are secure, there's little we should do and even less we can realistically accomplish. But despite all our sour experiences, too many Americans continue to think we have to intervene and build nations in our image whenever other countries get into trouble.

Will Arnold follow up on marijuana?

In researching this editorial for the Register, I discovered that several groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, are working to get a meeting with Gov. Schwarzenegger, or at least his staff, to see ig he is interested in action to push forward the debate he says is desirable on the legalization of marijuana. I could see a commission that might hold hearings with people on various sides of the issue. Or how about televised debates? I nominate Judge James P. Gray to take the legalization side. The other side can have anybody they want. Jim will almost certainly be more persuasive.

Handicapping the Supreme nomination

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section on the (likely) frontrunners to be appointed by Obama to the Supreme Court. From what I was able to determine I wouykld be amazed if the new appointee isn't a woman. My top picks (as of now) are Diane Woods of the 7th Circuit (Chicago), Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd Circuit (New York) and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, formely dean of Harvard Law. If Obama surprises us it won't bother me much, however.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Arnold's marijuana comments resonating

Whether it is Arnold Schwarzenegger's prominence or simply part of a process that has been building, largely invisible to the MSM and most politicians, his comment Tuesday that it is "time to debate" the hitherto taboo topic of marijuana legalization has picked up serious resonance. Here's a link to a pretty balanced and sober piece run on CNN's Anderson Cooper program and the New York Times' take. Also one on MSNBC and another on CNBC. More than at any time I can remember in the 30 years that I have spent (off and on, other subjects have demanded attention as well) pushing for drug legalization, I am beginning to feel as if this -- at least marijuana -- will happen before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Tim Geithner: clueless bureaucrat

This reasonably lengthy profile from Portfolio, partly critical, partly sympathetic, is one of the best pieces I've seen on TreasSec Tim Geithner, who seems to have Obama's confidence but not much of anybody else's. The problem, as author Gary Weiss sees it, is that Geithner is a career bureaucrat, and although he is unbdoubtedly smart and certainly climbed through the bureaucratic ranks in impressive fashion, attracting mentors and suporters along the way. But he still has the instincts of a bureaucrat rather than a creative thinker or a leader -- conditioned by a system in which failure can be punished but success not so much, except by promotion, eventually to one's level of incompetence, where the way to survive is to keep your head down and avoid too much responsibility.

The problem is deeper than either Geithner or Weiss begins to grasp, of course. Unless you understand the importance of Federal Reserve open-handedness and political promotion of home-ownership to people who weren't financially or psychologically ready for it (dammit, there's no shame in being a renter), as Thomas Wood and John Taylor among others (Tom Sowell has a new book out I haven't read yet) do, you're not going to think in the kinds of terms that might actually lead to policies that would prevent a future crisis. The notion that government simply made a few mistakes around the edges and the real problem is private greed leads to more hair of the dog that bit you -- more bailouts and backstopping of too-big-to-fail institutions that should have been allowed to fail -- or go through Chapter 11 -- long ago. Such a policy is probably close to unthinkable in a Democratic administration anyway.

"Hobbits" a separate species, branched off from humans long ago

A good deal more study has been done on the remains of ancient man-like creatures found on an Indonesian island in 2003 -- informally called "hobbits" because they are so small, though they obviously used tools. Study of the foot, which is not as adapted for upright walking as human feet, suggest that it was not a homo sapiens or homo erectus that shrank over time as can happen with species confined to islands, but branched off from the neanderthal and homo sapiens/homo erectus lines. But they're human enough that they've been named Homo floresiensis.

Just thought it was interesting in case you hadn't seen the story.

Afghanistan another Iraq?

It's hard to know from the news stories just what transpired in today's -- well, yesterday's now, I guess -- confab among Obama and the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, except that it wasn't as warm as they all tried to pretend and was overshadowed by more Afghan deaths in a U.S. airstrike. That'll win hearets and minds.

Here's the Register's editorial Monday urging what we have for a long time -- recognizing that the Taliban and al-Qaida are separate entities, that al-Qaida, to the extent it still exists, is the only real potential threat to America. Thus our interest in Afghanistan is not nation-building or "spreading democracy" to a place that has little interest in it, but being sure that al-Qaida doesn't establish bases there. We should pull the military out, wish the Afghans well, and tell whatever government emerges that if al-Qaida establishes itself there we'll blow them to kingdom come and might or might not give Kabul five minutes warning.

As for Pakistan -- another post when I'm not so tired. The key thing is that making the government there more dependent on the U.S. through vastly expanded aid isn't good for Pakistan or the U.S.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Good for you, Arnold

Things just keep breaking on the marijuana front. Tuesday at a speech in Davis Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, responding to a question about a recent Field Poll showing 56% of Californians favor legalizing and taxing marijuana, opened the door just a bit further. (For non-Californians, the Field Poll is one of the oldest and probably the most respected mainstream polling outfit in California.) He said it wasn't time to do it yet, but it is time to debate it. Yes, yes, I know. He hasn't been much of a success as governor and he can't run again, so what does he have to lose? But he just might want to run for senator one day. And we had Richard Nixon's grandson (Trish's son) in the office today, visiting from New York, and he says Arnold is still a big draw for Republicans in other states, that he's doing a fundraiser in Brooklyn in a week or so.

Whether this is a case of a certain amount of courage or another instance of a politician seeing which way public opinion is going and running to get in front and declare himself the leader I don't know for sure. It would be interesting to have him become the public face of a legalization movement. He's never tried to deny he smoked it when he was younger and I wouldn't be amazed if he still does.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Spy case against AIPAC lobbyists dropped

It's fascinating how little real attention the Justice Dept. decision to drop the spy case against Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, two former lobbyists for AIPAC. Of course it was done on a Friday afternoon, the typical time in Washington to announce a story you want buried, when most of the media have already started the weekend, and during the same week Specter defected and Souter announced his retirement from the Supremes. The fact that Joe Biden was scheduled to appear at the AIPAC conference today was probably strictly coincidental.

Torture and the empire slogging toward doom

Sometimes it seems as if the opportunities are just too ripe. I've switched my emphasis to doing a book on drug legalization rather than foreign policy, because I think legalization at least of marijuana is just around the corner and I'd like to nudge the process along a bit. But there's so much evidence that the American Empire is in close to a terminal state that it makes me wonder which will crumble first. Oh, I know, Obama may not pull out of Iraq completely and he's committed not just to a surge but to nation-building in Afghanistan and something similar in Pakistan. But that effort will come a cropper and be recognized as futile faster than the Iraq war was. As I suggest in my most recent column for, which touches on torture as well, it's as if the empire is a mindless machine that can't help continuing to do stupid things, and it drags those who think they're in charge along with it.

I think I'm going to live to see the end of the drug war and something like the end of empire, whether it's admitted or done consciously or not. Do you know how exciting that is? And I thought the end of the Soviet Empire (which I knew was coming at least 10 years before) was exciting.

Jack Kemp, RIP

I'm more than pleased with the way my life has gone over the past 30 years or so, but every so often I wonder how things might have gone if I had hooked up with Jack Kemp in the late 1970s when he was just beginning his tax-cutting crusade and I was working on and later around Capitol Hill. He was essentially forming an economics think-tank with his congressional staff and he looked like a comer to me, mostly pushing good stuff. But his AA was Randy Teague, former executive director of YAF and there was bad blood between us dating from the 1969 libertarian-traditionalist split, so I knew, partly through the grapevine, that there was no way I would have gotten a job there without groveling, which I was in no mood to do. But I did run into Jack from time to time and, as apparently was the case with everybody, I couldn't help but like him.

As this Register editorial maintains (hardly originally), Jack Kemp was probably the most influential politician of our time never to be president. He laid the groundwork for Reagan's supply-side revolution. He loved freedom, and it was especially important that he understood that a free market capitalist system is more important for the poor and minorities, to give them a chance at success and dignity, than for the wealthy and well-connected, an insight too few yet understand.

Unfortunately, Jack remained pretty much a conventional conservative on foreign policy. He didn't seem to understand that when you cultivate an empire abroad it means domestic controls bordering on repression and higher taxes at home. I don't know if anybody ever seriously tried to explain that to him -- perhaps Jude Wanniski or Ron Paul might have had an opportunity. For the most part, however, he was a pretty consistent lover of liberty and one of the few politicians I've met that I actually liked.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Infrastructure hooey

Why is it that those billed as press critics or media critics tend to be the kind of skeptical, take-nothing-at-face-value, dig-a-bit-deeper, go beyond the official story types that journalists pretend to be or should be more than most journalists are? Here's the invaluable Jack Shafer at Slate, shedding some welcome light on the latest infrastructure-is-crumbling storyline, which most media have put forward. It turns out that according to a 2006 report by the US FOT's Federal Highway Administration:

"Structural deficiencies are characterized by deteriorated conditions of significant bridge elements and reduced load carrying capacity. Functional obsolescence is a function of the geometrics of the bridge not meeting current design standards. Neither type of deficiency indicates that the bridge is unsafe. [Emphasis added.]

Keep that in mind when you read stories about crumbling infrastructure. It's not crumbling, but may need to have weight limits -- or bridges built in the 1930s may not have as much clearance as modern bridges, etc.

Medical marijuana progress

The state senate in Minnesota has given preliminary approval to a medical marijuana bill. It's not a sure thing yet, but an important step.

Meanwhile, in Michigan, the state's medical marijuana law, approved by voters last November, officially went into effect, with the Dept. of Community Health issuing about 150 patient ID cards. The department has received about 700 applications and is processing them deliberately.Here's the Website of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association. Apparently implementation is not without kinks, but state authorities seem to be trying to comply with the law rather than resisting or dragging their feet.

Happy to be home

It was a wonderful visit to Las Vegas, but we are happy to be home. Steve's house is quite wonderful -- two stories with a loft, meaning the ceiling in the living room is two stories high, with windows at both levels. When Jen is upstairs and I am downstairs we can to one another without shouting, and the house is as bright as any I can remember from natural light. It's in a nice recent subdivision in North Las Vegas. So how is it to know your son has a nicer house than you do? Terrific!

We managed to attend one of Steve and Tom's soccer games and plan a surprise party for Tom (that wasn't much of a surprise for long; oh, well). And we both got some work done as well as getting acquainted with Steve's dog.

But it's nice to be home. The plants needed watering, the pool needed water and some attention, but the house is in good shape. And I managed to get my Sunday Night Baseball fix before we watched a little TV and just relaxed.

Friday, May 01, 2009

No gloating, but . . .

To indulge in Schadenfreude is a personal moral hazard, but it's interesting enough to be worth noting that the current financial crisis was best diagnosed by people whose intellectual forebears, like my genealogical forebears, spoke German. And their opinions on economics, as sound as they are, have about as much currency in the wider world, especially those precincts where conventional wisdom is formulated, as do my ideas on just about everything. Even an otherwise masterly account of how the crisis was created by government actions and aggressive interventions into the marketplace (especially the mortgage marketplace) by John Steele Gordon fails to mention the central role of the Fed, which is apparently going to escape this crisis it did so much to precipitate with its powers enhanced rather than with its head handed to it.

More than skin-deep

The rumor is that they want to make a movie of Susan Boyle's life and brush with worldwide fame, and that the noted beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones (wed to Michael Douglas) wants to play the lead. I think they might do well to wait a while to see how the current inftution plays out, but nobody asked me. I asked my wife, whose natural outward beauty doesn't begin to approach the magnitude of her inner beauty, but which is nonetheless apparent to all who meet her, how they could make such a beauty as the inestimable Catherine look dowdy. She assured me that it would be simplicity itself -- bushy eyebrows and a beefed-up jawline would likely be sufficient. I have no choice but to agree with her on a matter far beyond my range of expertise.