Monday, December 22, 2008

Waiting for Obama

It is incredible what people say under the compulsion of torture, and how many lies they will tell about themselves and about others; in the end, whatever the torturers want to be true, is true.
-- Friedrich von Spee, Precautions for Prosecutors, 1631

Intense pain is likely to produce false confessions.
-- CIA interrogation manual, 1963

No Sift next Monday; holiday travel and socializing is going to eat all my time this week. But the Sift will be back on January 5.

Thanks to all of you who have asked, but I'm faring quite well under Winter's assault on the Northeast. My apartment (in Nashua, NH) hasn't lost electrical power, and I'm getting a Currier-and-Ives view from my desk overlooking the Nashua River. Yesterday I got out and tromped around in the snow, which in our local wetland park varied from 1 to 2 feet depending on unpredictable wind patterns. The most amusing thing I saw was on Main Street. Some deceased local Nashua guy has a bust in the center of downtown. I've never learned his story and his full name always escapes me, but the bust is labeled "Larry". Well, Sunday it looked like Larry had joined the KKK -- the wind had sculpted snow into a peaked white hood over his head.

In this Week's Sift
  • The Torture Discussion Spreads. For the last few years, the easiest way to get yourself denounced as a wild-eyed radical was to claim that high-ranking officials who ordered torture -- which is a war crime -- should be investigated and maybe even prosecuted. But as the Bush administration goes out brazenly defending its legacy, more and more mainstream voices are calling for some kind of legal accountability.
  • What's the Point of a Stimulus? Recessions are a funny time: Individuals need to save more, but the economy as a whole needs to spend more. Government has to make up the difference.
  • The Next Time You're at the Book Store ... look for The Army of the Republic, a novel about what can happen when legal accountability (and other democratic processes) break down.
  • About Rick Warren. I seem to be the only liberal who likes the idea of him delivering the invocation at Obamas inauguration.
  • Short Notes. Lots of them this week, but they're short. Don't miss Time's Top 10s.

The Torture Discussion Spreads
Now that a Senate report has made official what we all knew anyway, you can add the New York Times to the list of folks who want Bush administration law-breakers brought to justice:

We can understand that Americans may be eager to put these dark chapters behind them, but it would be irresponsible for the nation and a new administration to ignore what has happened — and may still be happening in secret C.I.A. prisons that are not covered by the military’s current ban on activities like waterboarding. A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

If things had played out like they usually do on 24 -- if torture saved innocent lives, in other words -- then we would need to have a real ethical debate. But a current Vanity Fair article sums up the tragedy of it all:
In researching this article, I spoke to numerous counterterrorist officials from agencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Their conclusion is unanimous: not only have coercive methods failed to generate significant and actionable intelligence, they have also caused the squandering of resources on a massive scale through false leads, chimerical plots, and unnecessary safety alerts
So torture is not an ethical dilemma at all, any more than it was an ethical dilemma whether we should rescue the people at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. In both cases, having morally impoverished people at the top of our government led to big screw-ups with no redeeming features whatsoever.

Glenn Greenwald charts how the bizarre leftist idea that government officials should be accountable for their crimes is spreading in the mainstream media. And he notes one of the big roadblocks to be overcome: Any real investigation will show that top Democrats in Congress knew what was going on, but didn't want to challenge Bush for fear of appearing unpatriotic. This, by the way, is why you should stand by your principles even when the wind is blowing the other way. If you don't, and your principles turn out to be right, you look really pathetic. You end up having to let the bad guys escape just to save yourself.

Sign the petition to demand a special prosecutor.

What's the Point of a Stimulus?
Last week I discussed bailouts, and how they are just disaster-prevention measures; they can't end a recession. Next we need to talk about stimulus plans, which are supposed to create jobs and get the economy moving again.

The basic idea here goes back to John Maynard Keynes, for whom Keynesian economics is named. His main observation is that a modern economy can invest in its future (by building things that will make it more productive, for example), but it can't really save. In Biblical Egypt, Joseph could fill graineries during the seven fat years and draw them down during the seven lean years. But today, if we all economize by, say, making our old cars last another year, GM doesn't keep building cars and store them in a warehouse for a time when we all decide we want new cars. Instead, it shuts factories and throws people out of work.

When a modern economy is working well, the savings of one person are balanced by another person (or corporation) going into debt either to consume or invest. But we run into trouble when everybody gets scared and decides to save (or not borrow) at the same time. Falling consumption leads to cuts in production -- layoffs and bankruptcies, in other words -- which scares people even more and makes them want to save more. This is an example of how the Invisible Hand of the Market screws up sometimes. Individually, it makes sense to consume less and try to save during hard times. But when everybody does it, it just makes the hard times worse.

When our collective interest conflicts with our individual interests -- that's exactly when government needs to step into the picture. Government takes the collective action that would be stupid for us to take as individuals. You'd be crazy to say, "Times are hard, so I'm going to borrow a bunch of money and start a new business, because that's what the economy needs." But that really is what the economy needs.

Instead, government borrows a bunch of money and uses it to do something like rebuild our crumbling bridges, or build the kind of power grid we need if we're going to generate solar power in Nevada and wind power in South Dakota. That gives people not just jobs, but confidence. And then they start to borrow and spend and invest they way they would in a healthy economy.

Conservative versions of a stimulus plan involving cutting taxes rather than raising spending, but that only works if individuals spend their tax cuts. (The rich tend not to, so cutting their taxes is a particularly inefficient stimulus.) And if they spend their tax cuts on imports, they stimulate China's economy, not ours.

This is brilliant: The Republicans have been blaming the auto industry's problems on the UAW and demanding that part of any bailout be that UAW workers wages be cut to the levels of non-unionized workers in plants (mostly in the South) of foreign automakers. Here's the response: Any company that got TARP funds should cut its executive pay to at most 20 times worker pay, the average in Japan and Europe.

The Next Time You're at the Book Store ...
Look for The Army of the Republic by Stuart Archer Cohen. It's a very intelligent, very well written political thriller that captures a lot of the more extreme issues raised by the actions of the Bush administration.

A few years ago, during the Enron scandal, I had an intuition I decided not to talk much about: If a combination of smart lawyering and political influence allowed some big corporate malefactors (like Ken Lay) to walk away unpunished, that would create an opening for a left-wing terrorist group. In many segments of the population, assassinating a few such guys -- guys the law apparently couldn't touch -- would have been very popular.

This novel begins with precisely such an assassination, by a group calling itself the Army of the Republic. (They have the coolest logo: Take the acronym AotR and merge the o and t to form the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Make the t-shirt red and the logo black, and you'd sell a lot of them.) The novel is set in an America where the excesses of the Bush administration became even more excessive: The government is run for the benefit of a class of plutocrats, who are making fortunes by privatizing public resources like water systems. There have been more wars. The media is manipulated by the government/plutocrat agenda. Elections are electronic, votes are counted by private corporations under government contract, and nobody trusts the administration's "victories". The administration has appointed enough judges by now that the courts will not stand against them. There's a private security corporation called "Whitehall" (i.e. Blackwater) that operates under private contracts when it needs to do things government can't do, and under government contracts when it needs to do things private companies can't do; maybe it can do anything it wants.

The story is told in the first person, but the "I" shifts among three characters: a co-founder of AotR, a nonviolent liberal activist, and a plutocrat who didn't set out to be a bad guy and is struggling hard to deny that he is a bad guy now. All three narrators are well-drawn characters and have an intelligent understanding of their strategies -- you'll learn a lot about terrorism, non-violent organizing, and manipulating a democracy for your own benefit. The author allows each narrator his/her point of view; Cohen himself is clearly on the Left, but the plutocrat is not always wrong, and exactly what Cohen thinks about the AotR is debatable.

The novel raises and explores big questions without claiming to settle them: What do you do when democracy starts to fail? What's the role of violence? (The non-violent activist thinks that violent groups like AotR make it easier for the Regime to marginalize her. The terrorist thinks that nonviolent activism only works if there is also a threat of violence; he sees his group as the necessary Bad Cop that will cause the Regime to compromise with the nonviolent Good Cops.) When the justice system fails, is there a legitimate role for vigilantes?

In addition to the political insight, it's just a good novel. I love the spycraft of the old John le Carre cold-war novels, and there's plenty of that here. Also, Cohen writes good sentences. (That's something I admire in a writer. I kept walking into the next room and interrupting my wife: "Listen to this one.") He never settles for the cliche adjective or metaphor. And Cohen understands that you characterize a first-person narrator not by what he says about himself, but by what he says about other things: You picture the terrorist best when you ask "What kind of guy would use these words and think of these metaphors?"

With the elections of 2006 and 2008, you have to hope that the danger has passed. But if it hasn't, if a Bush-only-moreso administration is in our future, then I could imagine The Army of the Republic playing a role similar to the one that Edward Abbey's 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang played (for better or worse) with ecotage groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front.

It's only fiction until somebody does it.

About Rick Warren
Much ink was spilled this week over Barack Obama's decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at his inauguration. On the Left, almost everybody seems to think Obama is insulting us by inviting Warren.

Speaking as somebody on the Left, I don't get it. I think my fellow liberal bloggers are completely missing the point of an inauguration. Here's Matt Yglesias' analogy:
If Ahmadenijad is defeated at the next election by a candidate promising to take Iran on a different, more constructive path in international relations a lot of people will be excited by that. If said candidate follows up his electoral victory by elevating a cleric
who’s well-known for his high-profile endorsement of assassinations, people will be upset about that. And rightly so.
And the problem with that view is this: The inauguration is about elevating Obama to the presidency; Warren doesn't get elevated to anything. (Glenn Greenwald also talks about "elevating" Warren.) I accept Matt's analogy between Warren and an Iranian cleric -- that's why I like the idea. If the hypothetical Iranian reformer could get a major conservative ayatollah to play a role in his office-taking ritual, then I'd be thrilled, not upset. It would mean that at least some faction of the theocracy was willing to acknowledge and take seriously the fact that they lost the election.

Because that's the message that Warren's presence sends. Conservative evangelicals are not going to look at Warren and say, "I guess we really won the election. We're still in power." No, they're going to see Warren acknowledge that Obama is president now. The symbolism, on both sides, says: "I don't care whether you voted for Obama or not. If you're really an American, he's your president." No corresponding symbolism says that Warren has to be my minister now.

That's why I refuse to be drawn into the arguments about whether Warren is a "good" evangelical (more interested in AIDS, the environment, and poverty than most of their leaders) or a "bad" evangelical (still down-the-line anti-gay and using "Holocaust" rhetoric against abortion). That's not the point. The point is that Warren is ready to acknowledge Obama as his president, rather than positioning himself as part of some real-America-in-exile, waiting faithfully for God-fearing people to take the country back.

Which is what Jerry Falwell did. Let me tell you a story about Jerry Falwell. On election night in 1996, Bill Maher was doing a special edition of "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central. I happened to be watching at the moment when they reported that Clinton had over 270 electoral votes now and had been re-elected. Falwell was on Maher's panel, and (while I don't have a transcript in front of me) I swear to God the first words out his mouth were: "Well then, he'll have to be impeached."

Rick Warren accepted an invitation to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration. Jerry Falwell would never, never, never have done that.

Colbert King more-or-less agrees with me, and adds some historical research I was too lazy to do. Here's what I found most interesting: Having a minister begin the ceremony with prayer doesn't go back into the dim recesses of time. FDR started it with his second inaugural in 1937.

If you want to understand the passionate reaction to Warren's selection among gays and lesbians, read this.

Oh, and that religious-right talking point about how abortion leads to depression or some "post-abortion syndrome"? Nothing to it, apparently.

Short Notes
Interesting article in Public Eye about conservative "post-Palin feminists" and what the Sarah Palin candidacy means to them. On the one hand Palin represented "traditional family values". But on the other hand, Dad was watching the kids and being an attractive prop behind Mom's run for national office. It's hard to picture that happening in, say, your basic suburban ranch-house family of the 1950s.

In general, liberals and conservatives alike tend to underestimate the extent to which the meaning of "traditional" shifts from one generation to the next. The article quotes scholar Bradford Wilcox saying that white Evangelicals “typically talk right and, often unwittingly, stumble left.”

While you're at the Public Eye website, you might want to look at this critique of conservative "marriage promotion" policies as a way to address poverty.

Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating New Yorker article that takes a while to develop. It starts out like a sports article, talking about how you can't predict which college quarterbacks will succeed in the NFL. But quarterbacking is just an example of a larger phenomenon: jobs where the so-called "qualifications" don't correspond to success. In such a situation raising your hiring standards won't improve quality, because the top performers aren't necessarily those who meet the top hiring standards.

Then we get to the real point: teaching. Higher grades in college, more education, higher scores on standardized tests -- none of that predicts who's going to be a good teacher. And good teachers really do matter. He claims that a really bad teacher gets half a year of progress out of an average student in a year, while a really good teacher gets a year and a half of progress -- a 1 year-per-year difference.

Gladwell winds up with a completely different model of how we should hire and retain teachers: Lower standards, hire way more new teachers than we need, see who actually succeeds or fails in the job, fire all but the top performers among the new teachers, and pay the survivors well enough that it was worth the risk of failing. After all, that's what we do with quarterbacks.

Speaking of quarterbacks ... for reasons I don't fully understand, it seems like a lot of football players die young. (That "GU" on everybody's helmet this season is for Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw, who died at 63.) But not the legendary Slingin' Sammy Baugh, who just clocked out at 94.

During the presidential campaign, Bill Ayers took a lot of opportunistic abuse from the right. But the people who have a lasting resentment of him are on the left.

Climate Progress says that the selection of John Holdren as Obama's science advisor, together with naming Stephen Chu as Energy Secretary, signals that "Obama is dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming."

Retired General Wesley Clark tells the Democrats and the military how to get along. I saw Clark speak twice while he was campaigning for president in 2004, and once at the YearlyKos convention of 2007. He's always made a lot of sense to me.

Algiers Point is a white enclave in New Orleans, and also happened to be an island of safety during Hurricane Katrina. According to a new article in The Nation, the residents didn't set up an aid station for the blacks who came through escaping the floods. Instead, they armed themselves, considered any stranger as a potential looter, and shot a number of them. There seem to be a lot of witnesses to these shootings, but the police aren't interested.

It turns out I'm not the only person who is horrified by It's a Wonderful Life.

In its continuing effort to do as much damage as possible before leaving office, the Bush administration's EPA is going to allow more coal-fired power plants.

Now that a Democratic administration is in the wings, George Will is starting to notice that the executive branch is out of control.
Time magazine has assembled an awesome set of Top 10s. Don't miss: the viral videos, underreported stories, awkward moments, late-night TV gags, oddball news stories, and open-mic moments.

1 comment:

plasa msn said...

I had an intuition I decided not to talk much about