Monday, September 29, 2008

Conflict Signatures

Bryan Finoki has more on the satellite signatures from Iraq suggesting that the surge largely piggybacked on ethnic cleansing, mentioned earlier here.

White House Redux

Via BLDGBLOG, the White House Redux design competition winners have been announced.

Bad News on Carbon Emissions

This is from Friday's Washington Post:
The rise in global carbon dioxide emissions last year outpaced international researchers' most dire projections, according to figures being released today, as human-generated greenhouse gases continued to build up in the atmosphere despite international agreements and national policies aimed at curbing climate change.

In 2007, carbon released from burning fossil fuels and producing cement increased 2.9 percent over that released in 2006, to a total of 8.47 gigatons, or billions of metric tons, according to the Australia-based Global Carbon Project, an international consortium of scientists that tracks emissions. This output is at the very high end of scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and could translate into a global temperature rise of more than 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to the panel's estimates.

"In a sense, it's a reality check," said Corinne Le Quéré, a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey. "This is an extremely large number. The emissions are increasing at a rate that's faster than what the IPCC has used."

Perhaps one day, when it's really too late, government leaders will view the problem of climate change with as much urgency as the need to bail out banker friends.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wallace on the I

I know I'm really slow to talk about David Foster Wallace since his suicide a couple of weeks ago. But I didn't know his work well, and the loss was much better expressed by those who did know him. But I have been meaning to at least post this excerpted commencement speech he gave at Kenyon in 2005. It's brilliant and rich in wisdom. I wish I had known the man. Please read it.
...A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real -- you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue -- it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

Saturday, September 27, 2008



Now is the time on the internets where we talk about the debates. Who won? I really don't know. The focus groups and quick post-debate polls all seem to have given it to Obama. Today's conventional wisdom seems to say that Obama won by "holding his own" by looking presidential and McCain rather creepily refused to make eye contact with Obama (when McCain wasn't downright testy - see the "horseshit" video here). I especially like the monkey analysis.

But the holding his own business assumes something I'm loath to assume, which is that McCain is some foreign policy wizard. Look, McCain's foreign policy views are pretty banal center-right views and he has no particular insight over any of perhaps several thousand DC residents. When connecting them up with empirical realities, he's actually wrong much of the time. "Holding his own" against McCain during the foreign policy debate is really not that tough for Obama.

If presidential debates matter more for appearances than anything else - and there's good reason to think that's all they do - it seemed to me a wash. With McCain behind in polls and being sunk further by the Palin choice (as her poll numbers take a nose dive), McCain clearly had to pull off a clear win. That he didn't pretty much means that Obama won on appearances. We have to keep in mind, though, that after the past five decades of presidential debates (or maybe going back to Lincoln-Douglas in 1858), it's still unclear what they're truly good for.

However, I saw maybe 20% of the debate. I mean, I watched it. I was there in front of the tv during the whole thing. But I was with a group of people here in DC all talking loudly, yelling at the candidates, getting up to grab a full beer or plate of food, carrying on little side arguments over certain debate points,.... When as a group we did quietly focus in, I thought that - frankly - the debate was a bore.

Friday, September 26, 2008

As per that debate

John Cole on the debate tonight (which the McCain camp is already announcing they've won!):
There is, quite honestly, nothing Obama could say that would make me not vote for him. His opening statement could be “My name is Barack Hussein Obama, and I am a muslim, and winning this election is all part of a plot to turn the United States into my own personal caliphate,” and I would shrug and vote for him anyway because at least he would go about it in a competent manner.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What If Obama Loses?

The cynics at A Tiny Revolution notwithstanding, Russ Smith goes one further by discussing how we'll all point fingers at each other and suffer personal pain and Democratic Party soul-searching if Obama loses.

Really, I think that's the least of our worries if Obama loses. (See: John McCain and Sarah Palin).


When history so clearly refutes your economic doctrine, the intelligent response is to reassess your thinking. A case in point is the Democrats. Even though their policies were pretty successful during the 1990s, particularly compared to the recent Bush record, in the last few years leading Democratic thinkers realized that they could do better still. Precisely because the economy is heading in the direction of inequality--and because, absent other forces, the poor and middle-class will struggle--Democrats today are putting more emphasis on aggressive efforts to protect average Americans, even if that means meddling with the economy in ways they thought unwise a decade ago.

But Republicans have reacted differently. Instead of taking the last few years as a cue that maybe it's time to offer something besides more Bush-style tax cuts, they decided that what the country really needs is ... more Bush-style tax cuts! And McCain's agenda indicates that he agrees wholeheartedly. After extending Bush's tax reductions, which are set to expire in 2011, McCain would trim taxes on corporate income and estates. He's also proposed creating a new, parallel tax system into which any American could opt. While he's been a bit fuzzy on the details, it, too, would cut taxes disproportionately for wealthy Americans.

If all these proposals took effect, according to the independent and highly respected Tax Policy Center, 80 percent of the McCain tax cuts would go into the pockets of the richest quintile of Americans. They would see their after-tax incomes go up by an average of 6 percent. By contrast, somebody in the middle quintile would see his or her income rise by 1.4 percent while somebody in the poorest quintile would realize a yield of just 0.6 percent. To put these statistics in human terms, a multimillionaire--say, a wealthy landowner in Sedona, Arizona--would get enough money to buy a luxury car. (The top 1 percent of taxpayers would reap an average bonus of more than $100,000 per year under McCain's plan.) But a tool-and-die maker working for a Detroit auto supplier would get about $600, maybe enough to cover half a month's mortgage. Somebody in the lowest income quintile--say, a single waitress in rural Virginia--would, with her $65 windfall, get an extra trip or two to the grocery store.

But that's just half the story. Those tax cuts would cost money--a lot of money. McCain has, at times, invoked the thoroughly discredited supply-side argument that his tax cuts can help pay for themselves by generating more growth...
More here.

"Photo Spray"

Or maybe "photo spew"?

I'm unfamiliar with the term "photo spray," as is Liz Cox Barrett, writing at CJR. On the meeting between Sarah Palin and Hamid Karzai:

...At this point, the pool was hustled out the room and down to the hotel lobby.

Pool was in the room for a grand total of 29 seconds.

Palin spokesperson Tracey Schmitt gave a statement to reporters in the lobby as to why print pool and wires were not allowed in:

“The decision was made for this to be a photo spray with still cameras and video cameras only.”

I’m not familiar with the term “photo spray,” but I do think it’s more apt that “photo op” in that it doesn’t imply that something is being given (the campaign provides the press an opportunity to photograph the candidate… in a specific, controlled manner) so much as something is being forcefully dispensed, like pesticide on a pest.

Dwarf Kalapua Bananas

Monday, September 22, 2008

"Faster than you can say Hugo Chavez"

I don't think there has been such a power shift, even in time of war. This is truly unprecedented. I don't think any other administration would have the chutzpah to do this--even Nixon. Roosevelt would find it amusing but he wouldn't have dreamed of going this far. Bush/Paulson obviously want Congress way, way out of the loop for some reason.

Yale Law deputy dean Jon Macey on the sought-for $700 billion, no-strings, blank check for the Executive to spend in any way and on any corporation it chooses, with a guarantee of immunity from future investigative review and/or prosecution by Congress or in the Courts. On NPR's great new pod series, Planet Money

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Happy Saturday

Bad week, cranky mood, exhausted,... here's what I've been saving:
There's no argument, despite the ongoing attempts by the intellectual mess that is Charles Krauthammer, and others supportive of the Bush administration and a policy of torture. Torture is morally and politically and legally wrong, without real question, and it's also practically pointless. At some point, you have to ask the real questions about the root of support for torture. Is torture actually an end in itself, a brute, sadistic expression of power and arrogance? To what extent has fear-mongering, racism, and ignorance led towards American complicity in the regime of torture? And, now, the question remains about accountability for crimes against humanity.

The mess in Bolivia:
A petit Chavez may not be a good thing for Bolivia. But neither is a reclaiming of the land and resources on the part of the already well-off. As with many or most conflicts in Latin America, racism and classism are the root problems.

By the way, that surge in Iraq that some people are resting their entire careers on turns out largely to have been ethnic cleansing.

A little exasperated lesson about this week in finance, from John Cole:

In other words, folks spent years making billions upon billions of dollars on risky transactions, more money on the stock of companies that was artificially high based on those transactions, more money bundling all those transactions into more transactions, and made a killing, and when it turns out the whole thing is a big pile of shit, you and I get the god damned bill.

I do not ever want to hear another damned word about the free market. I don’t want to hear another thing about letting the market regulate itself. I don’t want to hear about the free flow of capital. I don’t want to hear about government getting out of our lives.

Hey, did you know that Democrats are better for the economy than Republicans (and you can see why Republicans want to turn it into a battle over taxes)?

US politics:
George Saunders does Sarah Palin:

Explaining how she felt when John McCain offered her the Vice-Presidential spot, my Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, said something very profound: “I answered him ‘Yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

Isn’t that so true? I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.

That is just how I am.

Do you know the difference between me and a Hockey Mom who has forgot her lipstick?

A dog collar.

Do you know the difference between me and a dog collar smeared with lipstick?

Not a damn thing.

We are essentially wired identical.

So, when Barack Obama says he will put some lipstick on my pig, I am, like, Are you calling me a pig? If so, thanks! Pigs are the most non-Élite of all barnyard animals. And also, if you put lipstick on my pig, do you know what the difference will be between that pig and a pit bull? I’ll tell you: a pit bull can easily kill a pig. And, as the pig dies, guess what the Hockey Mom is doing? Going to her car, putting on more lipstick, so that, upon returning, finding that pig dead, she once again looks identical to that pit bull, which, staying on mission, the two of them step over the dead pig, looking exactly like twins, except the pit bull is scratching his lower ass with one frantic leg, whereas the Hockey Mom is carrying an extra hockey stick in case Todd breaks his again. But both are going, like, Ha ha, where’s that dumb pig now? Dead, that’s who, and also: not a smidge of lipstick.

A lose-lose for the pig.

There’s a lesson in that, I think.

Shifting gears, The Guardian provides a handy roundup of the 100 greenest companies in Europe.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Vision Candidate

The Onion:
MADISON, WI—Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) fell deathly silent in the middle of a speech on education before the Wisconsin Teachers Union Tuesday, his failure of words reportedly a result of the Democratic nominee's forward-looking tendencies suddenly bringing him a harrowing glimpse of a future world shaped by madness and horror. "And that is why we must all strive to make our own tomorrow together," Obama said to resounding applause before stopping abruptly, breaking into a cold sweat, and bringing his trembling hands to his blanched face. "Oh, God, no. They're sentient. Every last one of them is sentient!"...

Monday, September 15, 2008

Who Is John McCain? Part 4

At 3 Quarks:
It is said that Americans vote for such rough and common candidates as McCain and his consort Ms. Palin not because they agree with the ratiocinations of these persons in matters political, but because their world has been "dis-enchanted" by the onslaught of "modernity," beloved of the atheistickal party of Democritus, and they are now looking for a means to re-enchant their world with "values," to see themselves (to quote another learned American doctor) as "part of a normative whole that includes man and nature in a unified and intricate web of meaning." What do McCain and Palin propose in this connection? What vital principles do they see as governing natural motion? Souls, perhaps? Entelechies? Psychopyric semina? Hylozoickal archaei?

We must know: What is McCain's position on hylozoism? If he is against it, then what, pray tell, does he propose to get nature moving again? We have heard reports of his proposals for giving the economy a "boost," but in God's name what use will this be if, in the end, our world is nothing more than a great mass of corpuscles rudely knocking each other about?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Expertise and the Demagoguery of Morals

John Cole:

Dan Drezner, after watching the Palin interview, asks a question:

Question to other GOP policy wonks: is it possible to support a candidate that campaigns on the notion that expertise is simply irrelevant?

The depressing thing is that this has been the GOP platform for years now. Expertise is overrated. Gut instincts, being “tough,” and being “decisive,” and not “blinking” are all far more important than actually knowing things.

Look at the thorough disdain for science the GOP has displayed for the past few years. Amorphous morals trump reason and science, and then those morals are conveniently discarded or altered when it becomes inconvenient for the GOP (see: family values, David Vitter).

First, I'm a bit perplexed by the whole "expertise" discourse. There's an obvious sense in which basic knowledge and understanding of the key issues of the day is a crucial prerequisite of running for the positions of president and vice-president. It has become crystal clear that Sarah Palin doesn't meet these prerequisites. It's also clear that McCain's knowledge and understanding have at least become seriously dulled, perhaps through his long tenure in the Senate, where he has often simply phoned it in.

Yet, at the same time, "expert"-driven policy has serious drawbacks. Expert-driven policy tends to focus on the existing tools for policy analysis and policy-making, usually technical tools and theoretical stances that may indeed be moribund in terms of their problem-solving capabilities but are so entrenched in the policy world that nobody can see any alternatives. Some academics claim that, in contrast to expert-driven policy, we ought to have more democratic policy-making procedures, or they claim that a healthier mix is in order.

The McCain camp doesn't care much about this democratic impulse, but it has tapped into the disdain for expert-driven policy, at least in the sense that everyday folks express that disdain with the Washington insider-outsider discourse. That's part and parcel of the height of the McCain camp's popularity, but that popularity is now declining as everyone has a bit of time to gauge the reality of the McCain-Palin ticket. After all, once we sift through all the bogus claims, Palin's main qualifications for office are that she didn't have an abortion and she's kind of an every-mom USA. That's it. Granted, that appeals to many Americans. But her record as mayor and governor are far too spotty, and her accomplishments largely a creation of the McCain campaign. The reality of these two governing the country is, I believe (and hope), starting to sink in. And, seemingly paradoxically, that disturbing reality brings us back to "expertise" - i.e., these people really aren't qualified for the office.

So, how do we parse this? On one hand, there's legitimate suspicion of expert-driven policy. On the other hand, we want our leaders to know what they're doing. We want to be assured that they're experts on the various policy issues of the day. I have a hard time believing that, with just a fraction of reflection, most Americans would still think "unblinking" war between two major nuclear powers - the US and Russia - over Georgia is even halfway sane policy. Or that "drill, drill, drill" solves anything in terms of energy prices or the longer-term energy problem.

We seem to want someone who both knows what they're doing, who rises to a serious level of expertise, and who isn't blinded to fresh ideas and policy options by being an insider expert. We want someone for whom wise judgments in the name of the American people involve both elements. Does that look like McCain-Palin? Or does it look like Obama-Biden?

Now, the question of "morals." One of the central problems of US political and cultural discourse is that the issue of morality has been largely co-opted by rightwing evangelicals. How this has happened is a long story. But this co-option has consequences that ripple throughout nearly all of our policy discussions.

Policy, of course, ought to be based on the state of the art of the sciences and social sciences, when relevant (for example, climate change policy or health policy). But the policy question is always at its root the question of what we ought to do collectively. It's a normative question. In many respects, then, the fundamental policy question is at least analogous to the root question of ethics, which is also what we ought to do or what a person ought to do.

For instance, say I'm faced with a dilemma, a real problem - say, a friend has stolen something of great value from someone else causing that other person harm. This is an ethical matter for me precisely because I'm faced with different options that demand reflection and deliberation. Do I value friendship over the friend's act of stealing? Stealing is wrong, especially stealing that harms others. There are very good, deeper reasons for holding both views - the value of friendship and the basic rule that stealing is wrong. How do I adjudicate between the two in this situation? What ought I to do (tell on the friend? Ignore the act? Repay the person who was stolen from? etc.)? Again, both basic rules - friendship should be valued and stealing is wrong - are on their own perhaps both instrumentally and inherently valuable features of human life. The ethical problem arises in their clash, in the question that arises from it: what ought I to do? No clash, no ethical dilemma, at least from your perspective.

We would first want to be clear about the empirical evidence, about what actually happened and whether there are mitigating factors (if the friend stole an orange because he was starving, we might overlook the act of stealing in the name of avoiding a greater harm - dying from hunger). But because we can still value each principle on its own and perhaps equally, we must have some procedure or methodology for deliberating our way through the dilemma. Maybe what we're after is a way to prioritize the two principles. Maybe it's some other way to collapse the tension between them. Maybe it's an entirely arbitrary choice (say, flipping a coin, which would be an escape from the difficulty of deliberation). Ethics, of course, offers up a number of ways to go about deliberating over ethical/moral issues: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, feminist ethics, etc. But, for us theorist types, even the choice between which theory to use as the basis for deliberation, or which set of theories, is a kind of dilemma - how to adjudicate between better and worse theories when they have their own internal standards of adjudication? Ethicists spend lots of time on such metaethical questions. All of us, however, whether you know it consciously or not, have some ready-made rules for deliberating over the small and large ethical dilemmas we face throughout our lives. Ethicists think we're much better off if we reflect further upon those tools and the other going options and develop more sophisticated, more reflective sets of theoretical tools, methodologies, values, and principles.

The same goes for policy. We want the best evidence possible. We want some strong methods for sifting through the evidence and finding the right choices from among the going options. We want to do so, given that policy is always a collective project, perhaps by integrating other various rules we have good reasons to value - such as an egalitarian principle that people ought to be treated equally and equitably, or a libertarian principle that collective institutions ought to be limited in the extent to which they intrude upon or shape our individual lives. Etc. Especially with policy-analysis and policy-making, other practical considerations come into play immediately - conflicting conceptions of the good life, competing economic and social interests, the often unprincipled desires of others, costs vs. benefits, technological feasibility, different sets of values in a pluralistic society, local vs. state vs. national vs. international politics, and so on. These are all important elements of policy which make the policy question of what we ought to do a rather complicated, multi-faceted one.

Now, when it comes to morality and "values" in US society however, the ground tends to be ceded to the religious right. Like I said, the issue of why this is the case is too complicated to go into here. But what's curious about it is that much of the non-religious right has ceded the issue of morality to that religious right. I think this is part of what's in play even in debates over science vs. religion. Many on the science side erroneously write off moral questions as the fuzzy thinking of supernaturalists. But, remember, even if a science question is proven or decided (say, anthropogenic climate change), the question still remains of what we ought to do with that inbformation. Because we've built up this bizarre dualism of science and empirical data on one side and religion/morality on the other, the question of what we ought to do - even in policy - has a default position, which largely resembles the moral thinking of the religious right, if not for the content of those morals, at least for how we think about modes of deliberation about morality and about what we ought to do.

The religious right, for its own part, takes a rather impoverished view of the extent of the moral life, possible tacks in deliberation over important questions, and how we ought to treat those who disagree with us. Religion-based morality almost always involves a rule-oriented approach to moral/ethical questions. This may be a simplification, but the Ten Commandments are like this. Follow these rules or this moral map and you're saved (or whatever). But notice that religion-based morality, at least as it plays out in the US, often doesn't have the tools to figure out what to do when those rules conflict, as I've suggested above is the case with ethical problems. Yes, follow the rules - but now my friend has stolen something. I value community and friendship, and I value the principle that we ought not to steal. How to adjudicate? Evangelicals sometimes offer the methodological answer, "what would Jesus do?" But, really, we don't know what Jesus would do here and now, faced with this existential ethical dilemma, and any answer we come up with is bound to be a reflection of our particular historically and culturally contingent moment in time. Certainly, it might not matter much to a Buddhist, for example, what Jesus would do. There may be more to it than this, but at root, we're asked by evangelicals to follow a set of rules that are unquestioned, and we are not offered any way to adjudicate between them in the real situations of our pluralistic lives. It's also why many evangelicals have little interest in democratic forms of collective decision-making (after all, they've a priori established what the right course of action is).

The problem is that this mode of ethical deliberation has bled into the policy world. We're entrenched in debates which are at their core conflicts over particular sets of values and rules.

But - and this is an important point here - the religion/morality vs. science dualism is both descriptively skewed and normatively impoverished. Many inclined towards science and "reason" make the exact same kind of mistake as those inclined towards religion/morality (where that side is already well-appropriated by evangelicals). Morality should be and can be approached rationally, as it is by many philosophers (though not all, of course). But many of the science-inclined have apparently concluded that only the empirical is the domain of rationality, just as many on the evangelical side have decided that their morality is the only domain of morality and ethics. Scientists have erroneously conceded the latter point, while evangelicals still try to make inroads on science (e.g., the claims of creationism). This general condition or state of affairs is historically contingent, and it must be transcended if we're going to make any real effort towards solving very serious collective problems. We need both strong empirical evidence and strong collective efforts at deliberation about what we ought to do with that empirical evidence.

When it comes to the public dimension of policy disputes - politics - rather than engage in fresh thinking about how to adjudicate these disputes, we tend to have political interests pushing the buttons through expert manipulative rhetoric of those values and principles that people believe they hold dearly. The public isn't asked to look honestly at the actual conflict, to help round up the evidence, to develop robust tools for assessing and deliberating over the evidence (where evidence includes both empirical data and different sets of norms and values), and to make the difficult choices. This would be intelligent, democratic policy-making in a pluralistic world. But since the society is generally - for various reasons - not terribly adept at this, the arena of policy is left to particular interests trying mightily to influence policy-making in order to gain whatever they can from policy outcomes. The cycle completes itself when the citizenry collapses into cynicism over the state of governance and clamoring for private gain, and distances itself further from the concerns of good policy-making and good governance.

Going back to the issue of experts and expertise, I see a distinction that isn't often made in the public discourse. On one hand is the larger version of problem-solving that I've been spelling out here - it's often hinted at in lofty-sounding political rhetoric, but is never quite actuality. This larger version requires intelligence, judgment, open-mindedness, a (good) scientist's sense of experimentalism and evidence-based knowledge, and a (good) ethicist's sense of the crucial importance of ought. Religion has a place here as well. The age-old dualism between is and ought is collapsed in the act of intelligent policy deliberation and policy-making. On the other hand, however, there's the limited version of expertise that's either a product of an entrenched system of rules and policy tools ("Washington insiders" - take your political pick, left or right) or an entrenched particularistic sets of values (the religious right).

Now, if you've followed me this far, when it comes to politics of the sort mentioned by Drezner and John Cole at the beginning of this post, I think we can get to part of the confusion over the issue of expertise. Expertise for a political leader and his or her advisers means a developed ability to navigate the various dimensions of policy, value, and empirical work that I've been discussing in this post. It requires good judgment about which options work best within a very large political context. This may rise to the level of some intuitive abilities.

"Gut" judgment, however, may make those who only have the ability to use gut judgment feel a little better about themselves. But when "gut" judgment, or knee-jerk "doing what's right" (as if figuring that out requires no effort), or being "decisive" when there's no background of deliberation to the decision really is just the opposite of good policy assessment and policy-making. Now, combine this with the fact that policy-making is collective in both the production part (if we're really democrats) and in terms of outcomes and effects on real human beings, and you've got a profound moral shortcoming. Gut judgment on decisions that will have deep effects on the population is fundamentally irresponsible.

Such views of policy reflect that evangelical equation of principle-minus-deliberation. Principle without deliberation is an authoritarian morality, of following what others demand. To this extent, the more genuine, responsible moral stance is not the domain of people like Palin at all. Indeed, to operate on the moral position of gut judgment combined with a set of largely unreflective, inherited principles, especially when thousands of people's lives may be on the line, is deeply immoral.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Joshua Marshall:

All politicians stretch the truth, massage it into the best fit with their message. But, let's face it, John McCain is running a campaign almost entirely based on straight up lies. Not just exaggerations or half truths but the sort of straight up, up-is-down mind-blowers we've become so accustomed to from the current occupants of the White House. And today McCain comes out with this rancid, race-baiting ad based on another lie. Willie Horton looks mild by comparison. (And remember, President George H.W. Bush never ran the Willie Horton ad himself. It was an outside group. He wasn't willing to degrade himself that far.)... This is ugly stuff. And this is an ugly person. There's clearly no level of sleaze this guy won't stoop to to win this election.

And let's be frank. He might win it. This is clearly a testing time for Obama supporters. But I want to return to a point I made a few years ago during the Social Security battle with President Bush. Winning and losing is never fully in one's control -- not in politics or in life. What is always within our control is how we fight and bear up under pressure. It's easy to get twisted up in your head about strategy and message and optics. But what is already apparent is that John McCain is running the sleaziest, most dishonest and race-baiting campaign of our lifetimes. So let's stopped being shocked and awed by every new example of it. It is undignified. What can we do? We've got a dangerously reckless contender for the presidency and a vice presidential candidate who distinguished her self by abuse of office even on the comparatively small political stage of Alaska. They've both embraced a level of dishonesty that disqualifies them for high office. Democrats owe it to the country to make clear who these people are. No apologies or excuses. If Democrats can say at the end of this campaign that they made clear exactly how and why these two are unfit for high office they can be satisfied they served their country.

Andrew Sullivan (former McCain fan):
...McCain made a decision that revealed many appalling things about him. In the end, his final concern is not national security. No one who cares about national security would pick as vice-president someone who knows nothing about it as his replacement. No one who cares about this country's safety would gamble the security of the world on a total unknown because she polled well with the Christianist base. No person who truly believed that the surge was integral to this country's national security would pick as his veep candidate a woman who, so far as we can tell anything, opposed it at the time.

McCain has demonstrated in the last two months that he does not have the character to be president of the United States. And that is why it is more important than ever to ensure that Barack Obama is the next president. The alternative is now unthinkable. And McCain - no one else - has proved it.

I'll have more on this later. Gotta run to my ethics seminar right now....

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Surge and the Political Sale

Photo by Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey, U.S. Air Force (from here)

Much as I really don't want to link to Bob Woodward, he reminds us that "the surge" is not what this apparently benighted US electorate thinks it is.

What has made some headway in quelling, relatively, the violence in Iraq = US assassination squads + the Anbar Awakening + Moqtada al-Sadr's suspension of Mahdi Army operations + extra security stations (basically, "the surge").

But... in June of this year, the GAO released its report on Iraq (.pdf), concluding that, as Jim Johnson summarizes it:
(1) Despite some progress, in Iraq, "the security environment remains volatile and dangerous."
(2) The Iraqis remain light years away from being able to assume responsibility for their own security.
(3) Progress on political and constitutional matters in Iraq is, politely, lacking.
(4) The Iraqis are not coming close to funding the social and physical reconstruction of their country.
The things the surge was supposed to do haven't yet been done, unless we redefine the goals of the surge after the fact, and much of the drop in violence is due to happy accidents beyond US control.

The McCain campaign says that his support of the surge shows how prescient McCain is on foreign policy issues and how much, tiresomely, he is a "maverick" for bucking conventional wisdom. The surge just is McCain's big moment of supposed foreign policy expertise. But it was basically a gamble which turned out better because of some completely unforeseen things combined with a re-spinning of "the surge." It would be a very good thing (please) for some big media journalist with some level of knowledge of Iraq to ask McCain more detailed questions about the nature of the surge, its achievements, and its longer-term goals. The question should also be asked of Obama.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Indian Armageddon

While everyone has been abuzz about Georgia, the Beijing Olympics and Sarah Palin, perhaps the most important development in the world has been unfolding with almost no attention. India and the United States, along with deep-pocketed corporations, have been steadily pushing along a lucrative and dangerous new nuclear pact, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Both governments have been working at a fever pitch to get the pact approved by the 45-country Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs the world's trade in nuclear materials, and before Congress for a final vote before it adjourns this month.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the deal will let his country, which refuses to sign either the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, take "its rightful place among the comity of nations." I entirely understand why today's democratic, globalized and modernizing India wants recognition and respect, and I agree that it needs more energy. But this foolish, risky deal is not the way to get any of these things. India's democracy has already paid a crippling price, and now the planet may too.

The historic deal will allow U.S. nuclear companies to again do business in India, something that has been barred since 1974, when New Delhi tested its first atomic bomb. (India tested nuclear bombs again in 1998, spurring Pakistan to follow suit with its own tests days later.) The pact will also lift restrictions on other countries' sales of nuclear technology and fuel to India, while asking virtually nothing from India in return. All of that will undermine the very international system that India so ardently seeks to join.

The Elite White Party

Via the Raw Story, Bob Schieffer interviews McCain:
SCHIEFFER: I want to ask you about the composition of the convention. There were 36 African-American delegates out of 2300-plus delegates there. How can you survive as a party if you become just the party of white people?

McCAIN: We can't. We can't. I saw that information the other day that by, I've forgotten, don't hold me to it, 2042 or something like that, white americans will be a minority in the population of this country. We can't. We've got to reach out. We've got to do a better job. We have to have the Hispanic as well as African-American voters. I've traveled all over this country. I've been to places where there are literally no Republican votes. I have to convince them that I'll be the president of everybody and a Republican party has a job to do....
The reality, however, is that he has moved in the opposite direction with the Palin choice towards an even whiter, anti-gay, literalist, anti-democratic, non-transparent, non-accountable, and often racist party. Choosing Sarah Palin, McCain has pointed the party firmly in the opposite direction.


Evangelism and Palin

Very nice, long post by T Miss on Sarah Palin and personal historical roots in the evangelical Midwest. Well worth a read. Good links too.

Sexism and Seclusion

Sullivan on the unready VP candidate running away from the media: a staggeringly sexist decision, Steve Schmidt has allowed Palin to be interviewed by a soft-focus, non-political magazine, People. There was also a lifestyle interview on jogging and diet in the WSJ, but that was obviously done before her selection. But no actual political journalists, asking questions about what her, you know, views are on, say, Iran or Fannie Mae or the EITC or the battle between Shia and Sunni Islam. Now: can you imagine a man being selected as vice-president and only giving feature interviews to People?

McCain's treatment of Palin is increasingly one of the most sexist displays I've ever seen in national politics. They somehow think this woman cannot handle the press. Why?

Saturday, September 06, 2008


“So Sambo beat the bitch!”

This is how Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin described Barack Obama’s win over Hillary Clinton to political colleagues in a restaurant a few days after Obama locked up the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
More here.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

McCain's Speech

Just a couple of thoughts. The speech wasn't great. It continued in more subdued form the twisting of the truth (see, for instance, the lines on energy) and mockery regarding Obama that has been the main theme of this convention. McCain gave a nod towards overcoming "partisan rancor," but apparently hadn't heard the rest of the speakers at the convention, including the utterly nasty Sarah Palin. On the policy proposal side, it traded in generalities as convention speeches do, and had a couple of downright weird moments (would we get rid of unemployment insurance under a McCain presidency?). The speech was, overall, pretty pedestrian.

But the final part of the speech, the now-standard retelling of his POW story and how he overcame being a selfish ass, was well done. It's a compelling story. It's just not nearly enough to be president.

One more thing... to McCain's merit, he finally showed a little of the touch of why he might be considered someone who sometimes goes against the grain (i.e., "maverick"). His call for reform in government didn't target "liberal elites running Washington," as others at the convention have had it incessantly. He targeted Republicans equally. This is an important move in terms of regaining some of the integrity of character he's supposed to possess after having allowed his campaign to become starkly Rovian. It thus lends some concreteness to the maverick theme, which has otherwise remained abstract throughout the campaign.

Perhaps most importantly, while one may disagree with the possible policy methods and overall ideological positions, it's a move back towards the core of that "thoughtful conservatism" I mentioned earlier (in a post on Biden), which it shares with thoughtful progressivism. This opens a more serious path to the presidency largely by backing off his un-mavericky appeal to the base that the selection of Palin represents and by tapping into the wave of dismay with the status quo that has led many voters to Obama. Afterall, he has got to overcome that Buchanan line I mentioned earlier - "The Republicans are running against a Washington that they run" - by carefully distinguishing Republican rule that's moribund, and sometimes criminal, from a version (ostensibly his own) that shows genuine promise for reform.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Why Has John McCain Hidden This Information from the President?

"President Clinton had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. President Bush had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. I know how to do it and I'll do it," he told ABC's "World News" in an interview.
But, seriously, here's a little peek into the McCain worldview. Skipping the generic POW comment, note the quick connection between the way the world works and the military.
McCain, who was a Navy fighter pilot and spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said Obama "doesn't know how -- how the world works nor how the military works."

It Just Keeps Becoming More Onionesque

Gov. Sarah Palin wants a state board to review the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan -- taking the unusual step of making an ethics complaint against herself.
I wonder if this approach can be turned into an ethical theory used in Ethics 101. We spend a lot of time discussing the nature and practice of ethical deliberation in ethics classes. What if, in difficult cases, we forego deliberation and just hand it over to a commission? If I do something I suspect is wrong, I don't try to figure it out through careful deliberation, learning as I do so and perhaps readjusting my behavior in response, but just pass it along. Rather than sullying our minds with the hard stuff of life, we assuage our guilt by going to the priests for judgment and absolution.


More from this kooky campaign:
Three times in recent years, McCain's catalogs of "objectionable" spending have included earmarks for this small Alaska town, requested by its mayor at the time -- Sarah Palin...

...records show that Palin -- first as mayor of Wasilla and recently as governor of Alaska -- was far from shy about pursuing tens of millions in earmarks for her town, her region and her state.

This year, Palin, who has been governor for nearly 22 months, defended earmarking as a vital part of the legislative system. "The federal budget, in its various manifestations, is incredibly important to us, and congressional earmarks are one aspect of this relationship," she wrote in a newspaper column.

In 2001, McCain's list of spending that had been approved without the normal budget scrutiny included a $500,000 earmark for a public transportation project in Wasilla. The Arizona senator targeted $1 million in a 2002 spending bill for an emergency communications center in town -- one that local law enforcement has said is redundant and creates confusion.

McCain also criticized $450,000 set aside for an agricultural processing facility in Wasilla that was requested during Palin's tenure as mayor and cleared Congress soon after she left office in 2002. The funding was provided to help direct locally grown produce to schools, prisons and other government institutions, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Line of the RNC...

...comes from Pat Buchanan on MSNBC:
The Republicans are running against a Washington that they run.
That's a message voters need to be reminded of over and over in such nice, bite-size pieces.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Indigenous Fruit

Finally, an appreciation of the political-economic significance of tropical fruit.

A host of indigenous fruits in ACP countries have potential as food and cash crops. Though familiar to local communities, many of them are little known outside their region and are frequently overlooked by researchers, policymakers and development organisations. In Africa alone, where most edible native fruits are wild, one assessment lists more than 1,000 different species from 85 botanical families. Some of the fruit-bearing plants are carefully tended, but few have been selected to bring out their best qualities.

Native fruits can play a crucial role in combating food insecurity, especially the so-called hidden hunger caused by micronutrient vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In the Pacific, the Island Food Community of Pohnpei encourages mothers of vitamin A-deficient children to feed them local fruits high in carotenoids, including Karat and Daiwang bananas. Health benefits aside, indigenous fruits have a number of other advantages. They require little or no capital outlay or external input, are perfectly adapted to local conditions, and often have medicinal properties. From Senegal to South Africa, the grey-green fruits of the Kigelia (Kigelia africana) have a long history of consumption and topical application and are now being investigated for development in the natural skincare sector. Tests confirm the fruit has significant anti-inflammatory properties.

Such natural treasures also serve as effective risk buffers against climate change. "It is extremely important to come back to some of the so-called forgotten and underutilised plants, because many of them can withstand droughts or floods much better than commercial crops", said International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) Director Dr Hannah Jaenicke. In Zambia, the Tonga people of the Gwembe Valley have revived the practice of gathering wild fruits to cushion them against food insecurity caused by persistent drought.

Alaska! The Musical

I'm so slow to blog on Sarah Palin and I really don't care to. She may be gone soon anyway. Let's hope the backup candidates are vetted.

In the meantime, a great place to follow the whole Palin fiasco is Mudflats, an Alaskan blog. Thanks to our friend CM Mayo for the tip.

Plus, you can follow Sarah Palin's blog! Here's a sample post:
I think BattleStar Galactica is such an inspiring show, because it's just like my life. A tough, can-do woman becomes president to everybody's surprise. And there's a general-type guy just like John McCain, and Psilons(sp?), which are Democrats I guess!


If you want to know why a once decent, honorable, if erratic figure like John McCain came to pick a total unknown with a Down Syndrome baby as his replacement as war-president, you have to understand the immense importance of the Christianist base. McCain isn't one of them, however much he tries to re-tell his life-story to make it so. They know it, he knows it, and he needed a religious running mate. He might have succeeded with Pawlenty, who is a solid pick that a mature and responsible campaign would have selected in a heartbeat.

Instead - partly out of insane cynicism (did he really believe Hillary's voters would switch over to vote for Palin?), partly out of a shallow liking for a shallow reading of Palin's record, and partly out of pure negligence - he picked Palin, barely knowing her. And so religious fundamentalism, as it always will, swamps the frontal cortex required for effective governance and gives us this reality show disgrace as serious politics. Has America really come to this?

Yes it has. The debate over whether the Republican party is now unfit for public office at a national level is now resolved.
Those are the words of conservative Andrew Sullivan.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Laborious Labor Day

The semester begins this week. I still have three syllabi for three different grad seminars to do, work on a symposium in November on the torture book, various bits of email catch-up, a little political project, another small-ish grant project, and meetings. Blogging seems so far away when work piles up. Two sets of links for today:

Via a student, here are a couple links to discussions of a new study of poverty by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, respectively. The WB version says the world is poorer than thought as of February 2008: 1.4 billion people in poverty.

And Thailand is adjusting again, in case you've missed it.
Thailand's political scene descended into chaos on Tuesday morning when supposed pro-democracy protesters stormed a television station, took over government buildings and blocked roads in an attempt to force the downfall of a democratically elected government. Samak Sundaravej, a generally unpopular prime minister, has stood firm but resisted using heavy-handed measures that could easily see the return of a military-led government.

Oddly enough, a violent response may be exactly what the protesters, led by members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) want. PAD leaders have called the protests "the final showdown" and machetes, sling shots, golf clubs and possibly at least one gun were seized from protesters in an abortive early raid on a television station on Monday night. The PAD's moves on Tuesday followed all the usual steps of a coup: seizing a media outlet; blocking main roads into the capital; and taking over key ministries and the seat of government. Samak has accused the protesters of trying to incite a coup and wanting "bloodshed" in the country.
See also this Thai photo blog (photo above from there).