Saturday, March 29, 2008

Wright versus the Right: It's the Nationalism, Stupid

It's a bit late to be weighing in to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, but I will make one comment on the subject. Various liberal bloggers have asked why what Wright said is any more shocking than what various right-wing ministers have said. Why is it acceptable to blame the 9/11 attacks on the United States condoning homosexuals or pressuring Israel to give away part of the West Bank, but unacceptable to blame the attacks on imperialist US foreign policy. Why is blaming Hurricane Katrina on a schedule gay rights march in New Orleans more shocking than saying that the aftermath shows how little the US cares about black people? Why is Wright's utterly false claim that the US government created the AIDS virus more scandalous than accusing the US of a second Holocaust for condoning abortion. Why is Wright's "God damn America" for racist sins worse than right-wing ministers' warning that we incur God's wrath by not allowing prayer in school?

Naturally their conclusion is that it is a double standard -- the right-wing ministers can get away with it because they are white, but Wright is shocking because he is black. Any there may be some truth in that. But there is another really obvious difference between Wright and the right. Their anger at America never goes so far as opposing American nationalism; his does.

If Wright had limited himself to talking about Hurricane Katrina, his remarks would have been less controversial. Katrina was a purely domestic matter. Invoking God, including God's wrath, in domestic politics, is all fine and good. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were even willing to blame 9/11 on our domestic policies. But to blame 9/11 on our imperialist foreign policy or, indeed, to criticize our foreign policy as imperialist in the first place, is something different. It suggests that God would side with Them against Us. It calls into question the assumption that, whatever our disagreements at home, all loyal US citizens, including minister and God, should recognize that politics stop at the water's edge. It makes God look like some sort of traitorous Dixie Chick, criticizing the US President while in a foreign country.

Lest anyone doubt this interpretation, consider the one right-wing minister who took God's anger at us for condoning homosexuality to its logical conclusion. To be fair to anti-gay ministers in general, they never condoned Fred Phelps' more extreme and offensive anti-gay hysteria. But Phelps' truly unforgiveable sin was taking the belief that God was angry at America for condoning homosexuality to its logical conclusion -- that God no longer supported American nationalism and would no longer root for us in wars. It was that, more than anything else, that earned Phelps the undying hatred of conservatives everywhere. Phelps has even received the ultimate insult -- his Westboro Baptist Church has been accused of being liberal.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Race: A Personal Confession

In response to Barak Obama's call for a dialogue on race, let me contribute my own popular style of confessional among white liberals -- my discovery that I was not altogether free of racial prejudice. The photograph above was my moment of revelation. This picture was taken in New Orleans. The three black people gathered around the truck are the hazmat team (note the uniforms). I do not know whether anyone else immediately recognized them for what they were. But anyone who did not, anyone who may have seen danger in this picture, may be excused from any charge of racism. How could you have known? Only one person has no such excuse -- me. You see, I took that picture.

I was in New Orleans taking part in the post-Katrina cleanup. The contract for the garbage collectors who were supposed to pick up the contents removed from gutted houses had just expired, and piles of debris were sitting up and down the street, with no one knowing when they would be collected. But there was still a hazmat team that collected chemicals too toxic for the general landfil (i.e., the cleaners from under people's sinks). So I took their picture to reassure myself that at least something contructive was being done.

But when I reviewed it at the end of the day after finishing work, instead of the hazmat team, I saw three black people gathered around around a truck, and immediately stiffened, as if the picture showed something sinister. Intellectually I knew they were just the hazmat team. Their uniforms were clearly visible. I had taken their picture only a few hours earlier specifically because they were the hazmat team. And yet I still had that gut-level reaction to my own photograph.

And that was how I learned that I am not free of racial prejudice.

Unsolicited Advice That Will Never Be Received

I don't get. Less than than a week ago, people were wondering if the Obama campaign would ever recover from disclosures about Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Now leading Democrats are lining up behind Obama and urging Hillary to quit. What is going on here? It is still far from clear that Obama will recover from the Wright revelations.

I am, of course, far too obscure to make any impression, but just for what it is worth, here is my advice:

To Obama: It is still almost a month to the next primary. A lot can happen in a month. Campaign for all you are worth. Use all your skills as a community organizer, build a party machine, develop a platform to address real issues that affect real people. Use all your skills as a speaker and try to connect to the concerns of the white working class. If you can make headway there, you might win the general election. But keep an eye on the polls. If it turns out that the Wright affair has caused you irreparable damage, if it becomes clear that you cannot win the general election, withdraw from the primary and let Hillary win the nomination without rancor. But drive a hard bargain. Do not angle for a role as Vice President. But insist as a condition for your withdrawal that she adopt as many as possible of your advisers.

To Hillary Clinton: Campaign tough but clean. See what happens. But if it becomes clear that prolonging the fight will just assure a McCain presidency, then withdraw. And if Obama withdraws, adopt as many of his advisers as can tolerate you.

To the Democratic Party. Start thinking about how to defeat McCain, now. Don't pull a Swiftboat. And don't claim McCain is an unprincipled opportunist. But do try to tie him to Bush. And point out how little he is prepared to deal with anything but war, war, and more war. And if Obama is not our next President, pull a John Dean. Make him party chairman or at least give him a major role in the party organization. As a former community organizer he is good at that. Consider it a long-term strategy for overcoming the Great Republican Slime Machine. The more the Democratic Party can extend into all parts of the country, the more its operatives listen to the real concerns of real people, the more it can offer something concrete and worthwhile to real concerns, the less the Slime Machine will matter.

To Democratic Voters. Learn something from the Republicans. Right wingers threw conniption fits when McCain won the nomination and vowed they would sooner vote for a Democrat. They lay down on the floor, kicked their legs and threw a tantrum for a few days. Then they got up and lined up behind him. I recommend that you do the same.

To Self. Brace yourself for a McCain Presidency.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

What I Got Right About Iraq

So, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war is being marked by former (and not so former) supporters of the war describing what they got wrong. Long time war critics and even one of the participants have pointed out that the wrong people are being asked for their opinions. Why aren't we asking people who opposed the war from the start how they got it right? Granted, self-congradulation can annoying, but surely it makes more sense to listen to people who showed good judgment to understand what they saw so clearly than to listen to people whose judgment was so clearly wrong.

So, speaking as one who is not a commentator of any note and did not even have a blog at the, how did I nonetheless have the judgment not to support the war? I had two main objections to the war, well expressed by my two favorite commentators at the time, Georgie Ann Geyer and Molly Ivins. Their respective reasons for opposing the war are surprising. Ivins, an unabashed liberal, opposed the war because she feared it would be followed by the peace from hell. Geyer, a Cold War hawk, opposed the war for a deeper reason -- she was appalled at Bush's doctrine of preemption. I shared both concern.

First the easy one. I feared a Vietnam-style "people's war." Though not old enough to have any meaningful memories of Vietnam, I did remember Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO, which had been firing rockets at northern Israel. World opinion was shocked and outrage -- with one notable exception. The PLO was so hated and oppressive a presence in southern Lebanon that the Shiite inhabitants welcomed the Israelis with open arms as liberators.

It did not take long for the Israelis to wear out their welcome. Once it became clear that they were there to stay, within a few months, Shiites began attacking the Israeli forces. The Iranian intelligence service moved in to train the scattered resistence, and Hezbollah was born. In 2000, 18 years later, the Israeli army finally withdrew, its reputation for invincibility shattered forever, and a much more entrenched enemy to the north. The lesson for Iraq was obvious. Even if the Iraqis did great us as liberators, sooner or later we would wear out our welcome and then what? I had no idea how long it would take for our welcome to wear out, but from the start I never doubted that it would.

But opposing a war because you fear a bad outcome is still the easy way out. By implication, it means that one has no moral objections to the war and would support it if only one expected it to succceed. But my objections went deeper than that; I objected to the entire doctrine of preemptive war. Preemptive war sounded way too much like the doctrine that we got to invade any country we wanted, any time we wanted, for any reason we wanted, and no one else could challenge us. I had major moral objections to that. Or, as Geyer put it (quoting right-wing military historian William S. Lind):

"[W]henever one nation attempts to attain world dominance, it pushed everyone elase into a coalition against it." . . . The real question Lind and other historians see from history "is not whether the American drive for world hegemony will succeed; it will not. The question is why we are attempting it in the first place."
(Sorry, no link available).

These were the main reasons I opposed invading Iraq. But since the Bush Administration, kept giving justifications for the invasion, I did find refutations for them. The bare fact supporters of the war did not agree on a single, coherent reason to fight it was itself reason enough not to trust them. When a war is truly justified, there will be one, single immistakable reason to fight it. But going down their lists of reasons:

Ties to Al-Qaeda. It was obvious that there were none and any claims to the contrary were merely wishful thinking. That removed by far the most reasonable grounds for war.

Nuclear Weapons. I didn't believe it for a minute. During the first Gulf War, I originally hoped to settle matters without war. I was ultimately convinced to support the war by scare stories that Saddam was months away from developing nuclear weapons and that his army was so powerful as to be an intolerable threat. Our quick and easy victory proved how exaggerated these fears were. And now, just when some other President wanted to start a war, Saddam was months away from nuclear weapons again. I could smell hype a mile away.

Chemical and biological weapons. Like most people, I never doubted for one minute that Saddam had chemical weapons. We had what seemed like irrefutable proof; he had used them in the past. As for biological weapons, I was open to persuasion either way. But it was clear that he had no delivery vehicles capable of reaching us, or even Israel. His weapons threatened only his neighbors. If the neighbors had been frightened enough to favor preeemptive war, I probably would have supported it. But they didn't, so I didn't.

Giving WMD to terrorists. If we went to war every time someone could dream up a nightmare scenario, we would not have had a singe minute of peace for our entire history.

Humanitarian intervention. Saddam was beyond any doubt a brutal tyrant, and there were times in the past when a humanitarian intervention would have been justified. But there was no immediate humanitarian crisis in Iraq, so I could not see invasion as justified because of past atrocities.

Of course, I am not infallible. I got many things wrong about the war. I assumed Saddam had chemical weapons. I expected the initial invasion to take one to three months (it took three weeks). I expected resistence to stiffen as we moved into the Sunni heartland, and a Battle for Bagdad to occur. I expected more immediate hostility in Sunni areas (and a less friendly welcome among Shiites) than we got. I feared that Saddam, cornered, might take desparate measures such as using chemical or biological weapons, setting all the oil wells on fire, or flooding the Tigris and Euphrates. (But I still expected we would win in one to three months). I feared Sunni and Shiite might unite against us. And, although I also feared we might patch together a government that looked good, only to see it collapse into civil war and anarchy after we left, I assumed we would be strong enough to prevent civil war so long as we were present. That last was my most serious mistake.


Monday, March 17, 2008

New Stagflation, New Perils

Let me be clear here. I do not understand Wall Street or the world of high finance well enough to venture even an Enlightened Layperson's guess as to what is going on. The most I can do is look at the elementary macroeconomics of our situation, and they are not encouraging.

For the first time since the 1970's, we appear to be suffering from stagflation, and for similar reasons. In both cases, the United States overtaxed the economy by attempting to fight an expensive war overseas without sacrificing domestic consumption, and in both cases a dramatic increase in oil prices has put the squeeze on the world economy. So far, stagflation is mild compared to the heights it reached in the '70's. But the accepted remedy is not encouraging.
Following the first oil shock in 1973, the Federal Reserve tried to head off a recession by expanding the money supply. Instead, it merely increased the rate of inflation with only a modest stimulation of the economy. After the second oil shock in 1979, Fed Chairman Paul Volcker reigned in the money supply hard. This threw the economy into a severe recession and raised interest rates to unprecedented highs. But it did squeeze inflation out of the system, and once the economy recovered from the recession, it enjoyed vigorous growth with low inflation and reduced interest rates -- until now. So the answer would appear to be to clamp down on the money supply to squeeze out inflation. Since stagflation is in a much earlier stage than it was in 1979, we should be able to sqeeze out the inflation with a much milder recession than it took last time.

The trouble is the clamping down on the money supply also raises interest rates. High interest rates bear hard on debtors. In the 1980's, the most obvious ill effect of high interest rates was on the federal budget. The combination of high deficits and high interest rates meant that more and more of the federal budget was being devoted to debt service, until eventually debt service payments exceeded the total deficit.* In the 2000's we have been able to run high federal deficits without incurring troubling debt service because interest rates have been low. Rising interest rates will revive that old problem.

But if that were the only problem with higher interest rates, squeezing out inflation would be worth the inconvenience. The problem is that this time around we have a huge problem with private debt. I do not pretend to understand the sub-prime mortgage crisis, other than that it is leading to vast numbers of foreclosures and people losing their homes. Imagine, then, how the crisis would be compounded if interest rates went up. Credit card debt is also at record heights. In short, the accepted remedy for stagflation would cause interest rates to go up, and private debt is too high to withstand the increase.

In short, be are between a rock and a hard place. Stay tuned.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eliot Spitzer: Is There a Deeper Corruption Here?

When a super law-and-order Attorney General turns out to have been breaking the law, when a prosecutor of prostition rings visits prostitutes on the side, when the scourge of white collar crime gets caught money laundering, something more serious is at stake than a private pecadillo. It is a sign of deep personal corruption on his part. But ultimately Eliot Spitzer is only being charged with a personal sort of corruption, not with abuse of his office. The question remains whether the investigation of Spitzer was a far deeper and uglier sort of corruption. Some things there are troubling.

At first glance, this appeared to be a bust of a prostitution ring that accidentally nabbed to Governor of New York. That Spitzer was referred to as "Client 9" reinforced that impression. But it soon became clear that what happened was actually an investigation of Eliot Spitzer that bagged a prostitution ring as mere collateral damage. To repeat the now well-known story Spitzer's bank reported a pattern of suspicious transactions that appeared to suggest some sort of bribery. The Justice Department investigated and determined that that Spitzer was not involved in bribery, but was attempting to conceal payments to very expensive prostitutes. The FBI then wiretapped that prostitution ring to determine when Spitzer would be crossing states lines to use its services. On January 26, the wiretap indicated that he would traveling from New York to Washington, D.C. to and meeting a prostitute there, in violation of the Mann Act, a federal law against crossing state lines for illicit sex. The FBI staked out his Washington, D.C. hotel to catch him in the act, but failed. Their second stakeout was successful.

So, how disturbing is any of this? It seems to me that three things here might potentially be disturbing (1) the definition of "suspicious" financial activities and threshold for reporting them, (2) the attention given to Spitzer's individual finances, out of hundreds of thousands of such reports, and (3) the continued investigation once it became clear he was paying prostitutes. To give my own opinions:

(1) I do not pretend to know enough about the world of finance to know what is and is not suspicious, or what should be the threshold for reporting to the government. Given the role money laundering plays in more serious crimes, such as terrorism, drug smuggling, organized crime, or political corruption, it does seem reasonable to have some sort of reporting requirements for suspicious activities. It should be set high enough not to unreasonably intrude on people's private finances, or to swamp the government with false leads, but not so high as to miss out on important action. People far more knowledgeable than I am can debate the details.

(2) Some people have thought it suspicious that out of hundreds of thousands of suspicious activity reports, Eliot Spitzer's received attention. But, according to the Wallstreet Journal, it is accepted practice to pay special attention to reports on the politically powerful. Nothing partisan there; Bob Dole has also attracted extra attention and scrutiny. I have no objection to paying extra attention to suspicious activity reports on powerful political figures. Political corruptions is, after all, a serious concern, and the powerful are always exposed to temptation.

(3) Once it became clear that Spitzer's suspicious transfers were matters of private (albeit illegal) vice and not public corruption, the Justice Department's response begins to look extreme. Wiretapping of a prostitution ring and not one, but two stakeouts are, to be charitable, overkill. The same Journal Article makes clear that federal prosecutions of prostitution rings are rare except in cases of organized crime or child exploitation. And even when the federal government does investigate prostitution, it rarely employs wiretaps. Furthermore, none of the other clients have been exposed, let alone charged. All of this does begin to make the investigation look politically motivated. At the same time, I am not clear what would have been the proper course of action. What should the DOJ have done when what appeared to be a case of public corruption turned out to be private vice? Dropped the investigation? Treated it as a misdemeanor? Notified the local DA? I really don't have the answer.

There are disturbing implications here besides prosecutorial overkill in this one case. It may be appropriate for the Justice Department to give extra scrutiny to the finances of powerful officials, but the question looms of what next? The temptations of abuse here are mighty. Selective investigation and prosecution is one temptation. Finding not enough to indict but just enough to blackmail is another. If the Treasury and Justice Departments are watching the finances of the powerful, some clear, firm guidelines are needed on follow-up. And given the history of this Administration, internal guidelines are probably not enough. There should be a law.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Reflections on the Spitzer Scandal

Since everyone else is commenting on the downfall of Eliot Spitzer, I might as well put in my two cents' worth. A few qualifications at the beginning. First, I have not followed Spitzer's career closely enough to have a clear sense of whether his prosecutions of white collar crime on Wallstreet were hardball but admirable actions to clean up Wallstreet or vindictive abuse of power and little better than blackmail. Second, Spitzer has only himself, not New York politics, public corruption or anything else to blame for his decision to use the services of prostitutes. At face value, his private vice may seem to have little to do with any larger public issue, but I believe there are some larger lessons to be learned here.

What you can get away with depends on who you are. My initial reaction to hearing that Spitzer was "involved in a prostitution ring" was that if he was merely a customer, it was a private pecadillo, but if he was on the take he should do maximum time. But others convinced me that what is a petty vice in a "charming rogue" politician is not so easily dismissed in a righteous crusader. An Attorney General, as a law enforcement official, has a special obligation to obey the law. And when he has aggressively and publicly prosecuted prostitution rings in the past, his use of prostitutes is inexcuseable. Even the argument that the proper punishment for this sort of hypocrisy is ridicule and mockery, not forced retirement, let along criminal charges, is unconvincing. Some politicians (say, charming rogues like Bill Clinton) can survive mockery and ridicule. A pillar of righteousness like Spitzer cannot.

Beware of leaders with authoritarian tendancies. Blogger Sara Robinson of Orcinus likes to warn that authoritarian leaders rarely follow the rules they set down for others. She was thinking mostly of Republicans, of course, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that one party has a monopoly on authoritarianism. Spitzer's whole aggressive, punitive, hardball, and vindictive style was the mark of an authoritarian streak a mile wide. And let's face it, in seeking popularity by proving his toughness in dealing with his own set of scapegoats (Wallstreet crooks), Spitzer was appealing to the same base instincts as any right-winger proving his toughness against right-wing scapegoats (illegal immigrants, Arabs, terrorists, etc).

Granted, Spitzer preyed on the powerful and right wingers prey on the powerless. The difference is important. He seems to have done good work, cleaning up corruption and fraud and forcing valuable reforms. And one can fairly argue that a tough, aggresive, combative, even vindictive style was necessary given the powerful interests he was up against. But the fact that authoritarian traits can serve good ends does not make them any less authoritarian. And while the authoritarian approach can be put to constructive use, we would do well to limit it within strict bounds, because it remains dangerous. Which leads to the next, closely related point.

A good Attorney General is not necessarily a good Governor. Eliot Spitzer's political career was already in deep trouble even before the latest scandal broke. The Attorney General is a purely executive office, authoritarian, top down, and not involved in lawmaking. An Attorney General's role is specifically in litigation -- adversarial, combative, focusing on conflict and not cooperation. An Attorney General does not have to do the things a governor does -- negotiate with the legislature, compromise, cut deals, give a little to get a little, and go along to get along. It is these things that make democratic politicians seem sleazy and unprincipled to many people. The rotten compromises of democratic politics tempt many people admire more authoritarian figures such as military men or AG's who do not have to make dirty deals.

Such criticisms are not entirely unfounded. Politicians often do elevate deal-making and getting along above all else and make careers of scratching each other's backs. Left unchallenged, this can degenerate into a corrupt, cozy little oligarchy, a government of the insiders, by the insiders and for the insiders. We need obnoxious, uncompromising reformers, not afraid of making enemies among the powerful, to shake things up. Every legislature could use a few such trouble makers. Attorney General is an office made to order for a crusading reformer bent on shaking things up. But chief executives (Governors or Presidents) have to work, to some extent, within the system, or the system will resist them every step of the way.

When overly rigid, "principled" leaders come to power and refuse to play politics, the results can get ugly. Spitzer was well in the process of learning this the hard way when his career met an unexpected downfall. If he had been a highly successful and popular leader (like, say, Bill Clinton) he might have survived the scandal. Weakened an unpopular, he did not.


Sunday, March 02, 2008

It's official (though not surprising). Civilian deaths in Iraq are up. The officially reported number of civilians killed in February was 636, compared with 541 in January. (Official figures are, most likely, just the tip of the iceberg). Unlike US increased US military casualties, which could be attributed to our latest offensive, the upswing in Iraqis civilian deaths is hard to attribute to anything but an increase in internal strife. So, is this simply an inevitable but temporary setback, or the first indication that
the Anbar Awakening has failed?

My answer (the coward's way out) is that it is still too early to tell. The level of violence in Iraq has long been cyclical. During the years 2003, 2004 and 2005, violence levels regularly cycled up and down. During the "up" cycles, opponents of the war would wail that the sky was falling. During the "down" cycles, proponents would proclaim that victory was at hand. In fact, there was not much use in pointing out that up-cycles were more violent than down-cycles. A more fruitful approach was to compare the level and duration of peaks with other peaks, and the level and duration of lulls with other lulls. Looking at violence levels in Iraq this was, it is clear that the overall trend from 2003 to 2005 was increased violence.

The February, 2006 bombing of the Golden Mosque seemed to be an end to the perpetual cycle. From the bombing until mid-2007, violence seemed to keep getting worse and worse with no end in sight. In fact, violence was heading into the highest, longest peak yet -- definitely significant, but still not irreversible. Then, with the Anbar Awakening and the Surge, violence declined month after month. Iraqis dared walk out on the streets; normal life began to return. It was the most sustained decline in violence, and brought killing down to levels seen years earlier. And, like the preceeding peak, the scope and duration of this lull have been significant, but not irreversible.

So, we will see soon enough whether February's increase in violence is a mere fluke, or the beginning of the failure of the Surge. In either case, this much is clear -- it ain't over yet.