Russia and Crimea: This is Not a Cold War

In the last few days I’ve seen about a dozen headlines declaring the start of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This interpretation of events is very silly, not least of all because it mistakenly implies that everything a foreign leader does in the world is somehow a reflection of either American strength or weakness. This just isn’t so; I know this is hard for some neocon-minded foreign policy analysts to contemplate, but it’s the case that sometimes things happen in the world without regard to the United States at all! (Somehow I bet this won’t be John McCain’s message on Meet the Press, which I just assume he’s on this weekend; it could more accurately be titled, Meet John McCain with guest David Gregory.)

However, the Cold War interpretation is perhaps understandable if you read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Duma yesterday, announcing his annexation of Crimea. The speech is an extraordinary litany of sophistry, nostalgia, U.S. bashing, misplaced historical analogy, and if I read it right, it’s also an announcement of more menace to come for Russia’s neighbors. A couple quotes and annotations:

–"Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart." Nothing new there; an ongoing refusal to reckon with the human suffering of Soviet Communism, the purges, the famines, the fear and subjugation. No, the real tragedy is that Russia lost a bunch of territory.

–With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, "the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders." Again, the USSR was good because it at least united all ethnic Russians (in abject misery). Does this statement suggest a longer-term goal of incorporating other ethnic Russians into the Russian Federation? 

–"After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability." Yes, totalitarianism combined with nukes was super stable for everyone.

This is all bizarre, troubling stuff, but it is not some sort of reactivation of Soviet-style power projection. First of all, to paraphrase Moe Green, Russia just doesn’t have that kind of muscle anymore. Putin’s lament for the loss of US-Russian bipolarity is fascinating. It’s as if he thinks that nothing has changed about the global order in the past twenty-five years other than Russia lost control of a bunch of peripheral territories. I think China would disagree; they’re probably reading this speech and laughing at their poor sad delusional neighbor to the north, thinking it’s still the premier Asian power. In fact, perhaps this meager projection of force reveals more Russian anxiety about the rise of China, rather than whatever fake rivalry it believes it has with the United States.

And not to get all Fukuyama on you, but another problem with Cold War analogies is that it implies some sort of parity on the world stage and parity in terms of delivering welfare outcomes to citizens. This is, well, not quite the case with modern Russia. The old USSR was indeed able to project quite a bit of military and economic power for a while, as well as offer Communism as a genuine (if awful) rival organizing ideology. But Russia lost all those bets. Today, Russia does not provide much of a salutary political/ideological example, to, well, anybody on earth. It has no governing ideology I can discern. It’s primarily a petro-kleptocracy ruled by a mafia clique of oligarchs and former intelligence agents. Journalists and political rivals are murdered and imprisoned without process. Gays are persecuted and the state subscribes to discriminatory retrograde gender norms.

BjLl8uQCMAAmB0f.jpg large

How about outcomes for citizens? Economically, Russia’s GDP per capita $14,300, making it slightly poorer than Estonia and Uruguay. Nearly three-quarters of its total exports rely on digging oil and ore out of the ground. In 2013, Russia ranked 127th out of 175 countries in corruption, tied with Pakistan and Nicaragua.

Since so much of the country’s economic resources are captured for the benefit of the ruling elite, it’s not surprising that Russia is experiencing a quarter century-old public health crisis. Russia’s life expectancy is the same as that of Bangledesh (70 years), with male life expectancy of only 64, tied with Cambodia. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, one of the highest alcoholism rates, and the highest AIDS rate in the industrial world, slightly worse than Liberia and Cape Verde.   

The point is, rather than being enmeshed in a grand contest with the United States or "the West", Russia’s more befitting geopolitical rival would be a small developing country in Central America or Africa. Putin is allowed to pretend otherwise because his country has nukes, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and is not shy about using his petro resources as a geopolitical weapon. These are nuisances to be sure, but we elevate Russia far above its weight class with absurd Cold War talk. Putin’s ethnic chauvinism and nostalgia for territorial conquest should be seen for what it is, a rather sad revanchist obsession with past glory, by a dictator with a litany of domestic dysfunctions to distract from.

The U.S. really did win the Cold War, which among other things means Apollo Creed didn’t die in vain.

Relatedly, I bet John McCain is watching this montage on repeat:

Bookmark and Share

Yes David Brooks, Politics is Important

David Brooks says that "politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun." This is because political change is inherently a "slow trudge", and so government should limit its goals and oriented itself around "essential but mundane tasks" mostly concerned with maintaining a "background order".

Brooks has done this trick before where he purports to advocate a limited government defined by a few modest tasks, but when he lists those tasks we find they encompass the entirety of human experience.

Today, his boring, mundane, and gradual government should only do things like "keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility." Though the pursuit of these modest goals should not "deliver meaning" to the pursuer. All of this is nuts.

First, his list of non-political pursuits is a lot more political than he thinks. Enjoying family and friends does indeed sound like more fun than obsessing about politics. But what if you can’t even create the family you want to subsequently enjoy because you’re gay and your government severely limits your family-formation options? And in decades past, what if your preferred romantic arrangement didn’t conform with the majority culture and there was no legal right to live how you liked? To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in politics but politics is interested in you.

Similarly, consuming and thinking about culture is indeed something I love to do: but how much vital art and culture is borne of political strife, struggles for justice, etc? And it’s hard to separate the story of cultural expression from the fight to strike down puritan obscenity and decency laws, not to mention racial segregation. Again, politics is interested in you.

As to his list of proper government functions which should not "deliver meaning": "Keeping the peace" is in fact very meaningful if your urban neighborhood, say Chicago, is wracked with gang violence. It might also intersect with the political system through complimentary issues like racial discrimination, education policy, and local labor market conditions. And do drone deaths of civilians in Pakistan "keep the peace"? Does TSA? Do our current gun laws? In each case, are there better ways to "keep the peace"? Tough questions! Should I concern myself with them? Or would that indicate misaligned priorities? 

And maybe Brooks thinks the proper pace of promoting justice should be set at "boring, gradual, orderly", but I bet those on the receiving end of systemic injustice may prefer a more vigorous pace. Fair enough, that’s a difference of opinion on the way forward! If only there were some outlet, some communal process, by which we could argue and adjudicate those viewpoints and a lawful resolution could be found? I know, how about politics?

Finally, Brooks wants to task the government with "creating a background setting for mobility." Well "mobility" can be a rather expansive concept. I think even a modest definition would encompass tax policy, issues regarding the pace and scale of redistribution, the provision of social insurance and public services, student loan and housing policy, and a big-but-boring one, the efficiency and effectiveness of government bureaucracy itself.

It really depends on where you stand whether you believe any of these issues belong in the "background setting" or the foreground setting of your life, and subsequently, how much time you want to devote to learning about these things and trying to effect change. And again, the venue where we decide the relative priority levels is the political process!

What about Brooks’s list of government inadequacies and limitations? I have a problem with those too:

[Government] is not nimble in the face of complexity. It doesn’t adapt to failure well. There’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior. In any federal action, one administrator will think one thing; another administrator will misunderstand and do something else; a political operative will have a different agenda; a disgruntled fourth party will leak and sabotage. You can’t fire anybody or close anything down.

Now of course there is some truth to these critiques. Bureaucratic in-fighting and status-quo bias are indeed features of large organizations like governments, and employee protections can be distorting. But here he’s engaging in the very fatalism he rejects earlier in the piece. This is mistaken for two reasons. First, some governments are better than others. Some are more nimble and adapt to failure better than others. Some bureaucracies are more efficient and less corrupt than others. Some governments enact policies that lead to more successful outcomes for citizens than other governments. Right here in the U.S. there are fifty state governments making all kinds of different decisions on a range of policies: education, health, housing, etc. Some states seem to perform better than others. Residents of low-performing states shouldn’t just give up on politics because, oh well, government sucks; they should push for change to more optimal policies! Likewise, around the globe we find that East Asian countries have phenomenally successful education systems. And Scandinavian countries have amazingly efficient bureaucracies. In response, should Americans permanently downgrade the importance of politics in their lives and read more philosophy with friends? Well, I guess they can. But they can also try and make our bureaucracies, schools, etc, better!

Second, throughout the piece Brooks equates "politics" with "government action", and that’s myopic, particularly for a self-identifying conservative. Though government is the primary vessel for the manifestation of collective political action, it’s not the only vessel. Our civil society is rich with venues for political expression and impact: non-profits, charities, local associations and guilds. Is it okay with Brooks if people derive meaning from these pursuits, and spend more than 10% of their attention to non-governmental political action?

If you don’t care about any of the above policy issues, fine. But don’t let David Brooks rationalize your willful ignorance by saying that it doesn’t matter anyway, and perversely, that to be disengaged is what it means to be a "good citizen". It’s nonsense. 

Bookmark and Share

Worthwhile Filibuster Punditry: See if I can Avoid Writing "Filibusted!" and Other Terrible Puns

Welcome to the new dystopia in which (fragile readers please gird yourselves) a simple majority of Senators can sometimes pass certain things through the chamber depending on what we’re talking about. I notice Republicans have been using that term, "a simple majority!" with scare quotes around it, as if the tyranny of it was self-evident. But as someone on Twitter noted last night, that term sounds a whole lot more sensible and innocuous to people outside the beltway than it does to legislators. What looks absurd and antidemocratic to normal people are endless headlines like, "Measure fails on 56-44 Senate vote in favor of measure."

So, why did Harry Reid pull the trigger now? Three interesting ideas:

1. Jon Chait:

The main reason for this odd, partial clawback of the filibuster is that President Obama has no real legislative agenda that can pass Congress…. That reality means two things. The first is that President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and — the potentially enormous one — climate emissions.

A consequence of an increasingly polarized and dysfunctional Congress is that the real policy action moves to the executive branch, as the president looks for ways to implement his agenda despite legislative obstruction. Republicans have anticipated this change—indeed they precipitated it—and have sought to kill the "active executive" scheme before it begins, by preventing the president from staffing key agencies in his administration or filling vacant seats on the all-important DC Circuit Court. This filibuster move is natural Democratic counterplay: If Republicans are permitted to deny the president of not merely legislative initiative, but also his constitutional executive and judicial prerogative, well that is essentially a nullification of his presidency and could not be countenanced.

2. Harry Reid and Democrats were convinced that Republicans would do away with the filibuster themselves the next time they’re in a position to do so. This is a safe bet. Republicans have shown no interest in sticking to long-held institutional norms, and their willingness to embrace procedural extremism in the Obama era is impossible to deny (see these harrowing charts). Do you think a Republican president and Republican-majority Senate would put up with half of the level of obstruction that Democrats have been subjected to in recent years? Republicans are already promising to do away with the filibuster entirely when they get the majority, which shows their fealty to institutional stability. And they will; the logic of escalation is now inescapable. But Harry Reid decided, rightly, that the breakdown of the current absurd equilibrium was inevitable either way, so may as well give the president a year to maneuver a bit more freely.

3. Is it really only for a year? The 2014 Senate elections are not favorable to Democrats. In a low-turnout midterm, Republicans will need six pickups to take the majority. Dems have to defend 21 seats, at least eight of which are very tough, while Republicans are defending only 14 of their own, almost all of them in completely safe red states. It’s a toss-up, but everything has to go well for Dems to hold.

But even if Reid is conceding 2014 in his mind, he is confident that 2016 is far more favorable: Republicans will have to defend 24 seats to the Dem’s 10, with several Republican seats coming from blue states. With presidential turnout, things look good for 2016.

But beyond the next few cycles, Harry Reid is banking on the long-term ascendancy of the Democratic coalition. Democrats have won the national popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections. This is not a statistical quirk. Demographic and cultural shifts (an excellent essay, do read) have made national elections an absolute nightmare for Republicans, and they portend harder times to come in the ensuing decades. Heartland identity politics are finished as a winning electoral strategy, but there is no easy way out for Republicans, who risk alienating their white rural base every time they even attempt to broaden their coalition.

4. Anyway, one thing we know for sure is that Republicans have been epically FILIBUSTED! Damn so close.

Bookmark and Share

Shutdown: The Perils of Presidentialism, Cont’d


Political scientist Juan Linz died yesterday. This is a tremendous news hook believe it or not, as Linz’s ideas on the problems inherent in a presidential democratic system are unfolding right now inside the U.S. Capitol. I wrote about him a few months ago. His basic idea on this is that in a presidential system with unified and ideologically coherent parties, there is an inevitable clash of legitimacy between the executive and legislature, and no legal or constitutional mechanism to resolve it. For this reason presidential systems almost always devolve into dictatorship.

We’ve avoided that fate thus far, but we do have some experience with existential constitutional crisis in our history. You may remember that mid-19th century skirmish between the states. Linz’s ideas are highly relevant there. A cohesive legislative rump, rejecting the legitimacy of an elected president, forcing by extortion what they couldn’t earn through the ballot, with no constitutional mechanism to resolve the impasse. Didn’t turn out well. 

In an odd way, the Civil War, more specifically the quirky race politics it engendered postwar, was the reason the country managed to avoid another constitutional crisis over the following 160 years. The phenomenon of the Southern Democrat was a historical anomaly. The fact that there were so many political liberals (liberal relatively speaking!) who were also tremendous racists made our two parties into an ideological mish-mash for decades. This incoherence made it difficult for one party to seriously mount a challenge to the legitimacy of the executive. But in the past few decades, we’ve self-sorted more efficiently, both ideologically and geographically: all the liberals finally lined up to one side, and all the conservatives to the other. This is the normal evolution of such a system as ours, and it’s only because of our country’s cross-partisan fondness for white supremacy that it took so long to develop.

So here we are. And here is Linz in action: I read a piece yesterday, I’m sorry I can’t recall where, but the reporter asked a House Republican why he feels his views should prevail, when President Obama was just reelected by five million votes in a race that centered on these very issues of budgetary and health care policy. Good question. His answer: "I won my election in 2012 too." And he’s right!

You may ask, the polarization of the parties has been going on for many years now, so why such dysfunction now? I think there are a few structural causes that I’ll address in a subsequent post. But one thing that’s prevented this current level of crisis and sabotage is various procedural norms and institutional gentlemens’ agreements that militated against such behavior, and discouraged the parties from exercising the maximum power technically available to them. The Republican party has simply mowed down these norms and procedural impediments over the past few years. The filibuster, the policy of total legislative obstruction, the routine threatening of national crises to exact concessions. Their radical policy agenda is troubling enough, but it is their process extremism which makes the whole thing scary.

I don’t know what else to call the current iteration of the Republican party but a manifestation of group psychosis. This revanchist cohort shares much temperamentally with its forebears of 1861: United in its desire to nullify the enacted policy agenda of the elected president, and so alienated from the dominant and ascendant cultural, demographic, and economic forces that they lack any feeling of solidarity or empathy for the giant mass of the country they associate with these forces. And when base tribalism ablates all out-group fellow-feeling, an embrace of chaos and crisis becomes palatable, even preferential. This, admittedly, is the least charitable interpretation I can think of, which is all they deserve.

Bottom line: A coherent radical opposition, unbound by civilizing institutional norms, can make as much mischief as it pleases in our system. I have a feeling we’ll be finding out how strenuously such a system can bend while staying intact.

Bookmark and Share

U.S. Realpolitik in Syria: The Enemy of my Enemy is Something Something…

I read this post by Dan Drezner on U.S. policy in Syria last month, and its thesis was just too cold-blooded for me to internalize at the time. This was at the height of the Obama administration’s genuine-but-not-particularly-strenuous push to start directly arming the Syrian rebels, while also making clear that no larger escalation—no-fly zones, troops—was forthcoming. After some initial opposition in Congress to the idea of arming the rebels, it looks like the administration will get its way after all. Where others have seen this plan as evidence that the liberal interventionists in the White House were finally winning the internal argument about how best to help the beleaguered rebels, Drezner instead saw some brutally cold-hearted realpolitik at work in U.S. strategy:

To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.   

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. […] 

So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region?  No. […]  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 

Drezner notes that this calculus only works so long as the rebels are doing well enough to maintain the stalemate with this minimal level of U.S. support. Oh, and it goes without saying that this policy is morally monstrous. But, dear reader, let’s be Kissingerian sociopaths for a moment. Is it working? Is Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor ensnared in a protracted, resource-draining conflict? Is the conflict forcing our enemy factions in the region into uncomfortable, legitimacy-sucking alliances and sectarian fissures? You bet.

First, Hezbollah has finally, very belatedly, publically taken sides in Syria, and they’ve committed to an all-out fight to help Assad’s regime survive. It took them two years to announce this because it’s a public relations nightmare for them. It’s fine to support Assad—who provides a conduit for weapons that Iran sends to Hezbollah—when he’s just thumbing his nose at the Great Satan or the hated Zionists to the south. But when he starts indiscriminately murdering his own people because they are fed up with his oppressive dictatorship? Hezbollah likes to fashion itself as the people’s resistance movement, a humanitarian group that also heroically manages to find time to make war with the oppressor Israel every few years. Though Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is trying to rationalize his group’s support for Assad in the civil war by saying it’s all about countering Israeli aggression as well as countering U.S. support for the rebels, he can’t escape the fact that he’s joined a battle in which the goal is the mass killing of fellow Arab Muslims. Some popular resistance movement.

Ordinary Sunnis across the Arab world who have deep ideological disagreements with Shiite Hezbollah, but nonetheless find much to admire in the group’s antisemitic enthusiasm, now see Hezbollah as enabling the subjugation of a popular Sunni rebellion, and as the military aggressor against fellow Arab civilians. For this reason alone I doubt they’ll ever recover their previous level of popular legitimacy.

But it’s worse. Today we have more head-spinning evidence that Drezner is on to something, and that this conflict is completely up-ending the Iran/Hezbollah narrative in the region, scrambling the various factions, gnawing at their popular legitimacy, and exacerbating Sunni/Shiite tensions. Shit is getting weird:

Lebanese officials say CIA warned them of imminent al Qaida attack on Hezbollah

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

The unusual warning – U.S. government officials are barred from directly contacting Hezbollah, which the U.S. has designated an international terrorist organization – was passed from the CIA’s Beirut station chief to several Lebanese security and intelligence officials in a meeting late last week with the understanding that it would be passed to Hezbollah, Lebanese officials said.

Hezbollah officials acknowledged the warning and took steps to tighten security in the southern suburbs that are known locally as Dahiya.

“Yes, a warning came from the CIA,” said a Hezbollah internal security commander.

First, let’s appreciate the vertiginous irony here: The U.S. is tipping off its sworn terrorist enemy Hezbollah to imminent attacks by its sworn terrorist enemy al-Qaeda, all while the U.S. and Hezbollah fight a proxy war on opposite sides in Syria, where al-Qaeda factions are also making mischief. Okay.

But Hezbollah/Iran’s headache continues. In two short years of Syrian conflict, Hezbollah has gone from "Popular resistor of U.S and Israeli hegemony", to "Overt U.S. collaborators and murderers of Arab civilians." It’s a complete nightmare from which they can’t escape regardless of who ultimately prevails in Syria.

I have no idea if Drezner is right and somewhere in the West Wing basement today everyone is rubbing their hands together and evil-genius-laughing. But if one believes that even with best intentions, there was never much the U.S. could do, or was realistically willing to do, to tip the balance in Syria and end the loss of innocent life; or, as I believe, that it’s now just too late and too complicated for the U.S. to effect a good outcome, well, disorienting and undermining our enemies is a notable consolation.

(After writing this, for some reason I feel the need to link to the PiV definitive Kissinger take-down.)

Bookmark and Share

The Courts Bail Out Congress: The BRACification of Government

With every court decision we get roughly half the country invoking "legislative deference" as the reason why the court should have ruled the way they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with that per se: Obviously sometimes the court really should defer to Congress, and sometimes it shouldn’t. There’s no inconsistency in thinking the court should defer on laws you think are okay, and should step in on laws you find objectionable or unconstitutional. Only crazy people say "always defer" which I guess would mean never taking any cases whatsoever.

Ross Douthat has a tremendously incisive post whose main idea I want to highlight/steal. What if the one group who is least interested in "legislative deference" is Congress itself?

Ross argues that on politically fraught issues like V.R.A reform, Congress is all but begging the court to step in and let them off the hook, and quite relieved when it does so. Douthat notes that not only did Congress refuse to modernize the (now-unconstitutional) V.R.A. formula back in 2006, but overwhelmingly voted to extend it for another twenty-five years:

It’s an example of how Congress can effectively invite the judicial usurpation of politics, because that’s what many of the Republicans who voted to reauthorize the V.R.A. in 2006 were kind-of sort-of doing: They favored revisions to the act, but saw no political percentage in picking a fight on such a highly-charged, historically-freighted issue when it could be litigated through the courts at a lower political cost instead. So the Court’s intervention here isn’t just an example of judicial activism; it’s an example of judicial activism in a sphere where many members of Congress clearly preferred such activism to the exercise of their own constitutional prerogatives.

I actually do think that the court should have deferred to the legislature on the V.R.A. case, on the  grounds that Congress is in a better position to judge whether their heretofore successful remedy to prevent voter discrimination should continue or not. At the risk of tautology, updating successful laws should be left to lawmakers, and laws should not be invalidated because they’re somewhat dated. 

That said, this abdication dynamic is absolutely true, and it’s a trend that extends far beyond the courts. Think of Congress’s increasing willingness to defer to the executive on issues of national security, war-making powers, intelligence oversight. And the president’s decision this week to tackle carbon emissions through the EPA due to congressional (ie. Republican) inaction. Ross concludes:

So while it’s worth criticizing judges for their immodesty and our presidents for their power grabs, it’s also important to recognize the role played by legislators whose abdications have enabled both: Politics abhors a vacuum, and our elected representatives are often far to happy to have someone else step in and fill it.

You can call this process the BRACification of the government. BRAC would be the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, an independent agency charged with deciding which military bases should be closed. In 1988 Congress realized that it was just politically impossible to actually close unnecessary bases through the normal legislative process. DoD operations are spread evenly throughout the country giving everyone a stake in their survival, and the politicians whose districts contained the targeted bases would naturally fight like hell to save them, and they’d always win. Plus no one wants to be "weak on defense." So Congress voluntarily ceded the job to the BRAC to save them from themselves. We’re seeing this dynamic extend now to every issue which contains the remotest political danger or chance for demographic insensitivity.

For this reason I’m betting there are plenty of Republicans who are secretly happy about the DOMA ruling as well. Most Republicans know the issue is a demographic disaster for them, anti-gay animus just doesn’t get you very far electorally any more, and easing up on it is central to even the most anemic party modernization project. But how do you accomplish this when the base is still full of homophobes? The best outcome is for the court to take the issue away, which still allows Republicans from very conservative districts to issue angry defiant press releases about judicial overreach, while also having no recourse to do anything about it. Hey, it’s out of our hands, the despotic court has spoken! (Phew!)

Congress prefers to outsource difficult issues due to a mixture of political cowardice and partisan gridlock. As they continue to cede their authority over important issues to the courts and the executive, they are authoring their own obsolesence, and attenuating the main mechanism by which the people hold their government to account. 

Bookmark and Share

Opinion Poll: 80% of Americans Admit They’re Bullshitting on 100% of Public Opinion Polls


I’ve written a bit about public surveys and polling questions that seem to reveal a large share of the populace harbors frankly insane ideas about, well, everything. The question about this stuff has always been, what causes these crazy responses? Do people really believe their answers, or are they just bullshitting for some reason? What’s more likely? A) In the 5 second interval between question and answer, the respondents are carefully assessing the available empirical evidence and presenting their best good-faith conclusion? Or, B) Caught off guard by topics they don’t follow very closely, respondents are simply using shortcut partisan heuristics to register their general affiliation, approval, or opposition to the underlying subject in question.

I’ve always gone with option B. Which is nice for me because new research shows that it’s probably right.

There’s a long body of research showing that people answer basic factual questions about politics differently based on partisan affiliation. Contrary to the popular maxims, the American electorate does indeed think that it’s entitled to its own facts, and it doesn’t much agree that facts are stubborn things.

For instance, in 1988 Princeton’s Larry Bartels found that Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to say (falsely) that inflation and unemployment went up during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And the results were reversed during the Clinton Administration: Republicans were more likely to say that the deficit rose during the Clinton years (it didn’t).

This new paper finds a similar partisan gap on a host of new questions. Republicans were much less likely to say (correctly) that inflation and unemployment went up during the George W. Bush years. And Republicans were much more likely to say that unemployment has increased under President Obama (it hasn’t).

But this time the authors ran another experiment to try and find out if people really believe their false answers: A second group was asked the same factual questions, but told that if they could answer correctly, they’d be entered into a raffle to win an Amazon gift card, with their chances of winning going up with each correct answer.

Did this incentive miraculously change people’s grasp of facts? It sure did. When offered the financial reward for telling the truth, the size of the partisan gap in responses shrank by 55 percent. When the authors also rewarded an answer of "don’t know" (though with a lower payment than for a correct answer), the partisan gap shrank by 80 percent.

Basically, almost everybody was bullshitting, or in the authors’ words, engaging in "expressive cheerleading" rather than reflecting sincere differences in beliefs.

The "don’t know" result is very interesting. When given the option, almost half of respondents chose "don’t know" even though they’d get more money for a correct response. This suggests that people are well-aware of their own lack of knowledge about the world. This is fascinating, as most people won’t readily admit to such ignorance, and it often seems the case that people with lower levels of policy knowledge exhibit greater intensity of opinion than experts. 

This whole study has both good and bad implications for our democratic health. Good is that most people are not sincere about their objectively false ideas. If they were sincere, then politicians would have little incentive to actually pursue policies that lead to increased public well-being, since their constituents are so easily misinformed about objective reality anyway. Luckly this isn’t the case. For a few dollars almost everyone will give you the correct answer or admit that they don’t know.

The bad news is that there is no voting booth equivalent to "a few dollars". So which version of reality are people basing their vote on, the bullshit version, or the objective version? If there’s no mechanism (a few dollars) to make them abandon the bullshit, does that mean people are voting "expressively" rather than based upon the facts they deep-down know to be true?

The other bad thing is that opinion polls really do play a massive role in our policy outcomes. It makes no difference to politicians if the polls they use to gauge public support are largely bullshit, or based on "expressive cheerleading" rather than facts. Whatever the poll says gives them cover to pursue or oppose various policies. But politicians and other elites are not merely responding to the public will; they are largely responsible for shaping that will. There’s plenty of research (for instance, here and here) showing that the main mechanism of public opinion formation in this country is cues from trusted elites. Very few people follow public policy issues closely, so to arrive at an opinion, most of us just look to the politicians, journalists, or special interest groups with which we identify, and adopt their view. This is pretty rational behavior and actually works okay most of the time. But politicians and tendentious journalists and interest groups can take advantage of this power and prime their supporters to adopt a particular "mood" about a policy or a law, then opinion surveys are taken, the results of which unsurprisingly reflect this mood, then the elites claim they have a mandate on the issue! A nice feedback loop.

Frankly I’m not sure if I’m more depressed or heartened by this study. Democrats and Republicans don’t live in complete alternate realities (yay). But then again we will lie gratuitously over and over again unless we are paid not to (hmm). This study found a way to incentivize truth-telling. What we really need is a way to punish purposeful false belief in our politics. Every way I can think of basically amounts to a poll tax of some sort, so I have no idea.

Anyway there are a lot of very important policy debates going on right now, NSA suspicionless surveillance, immigration reform, escalating U.S. intervention in Syria. Your elites will be signalling moods to you like crazy over these issues. And public polling will oppress you by demanding your conformity to those views deemed most popular. But remember, the elites are probably dissembling, and the opinions polls are mostly bullshit. Cheers.  

Bookmark and Share

NSA Surveillance: Maybe if All Verizon Customers Didn’t Act so Damn Terroristy…

Today we have the revelation that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon. These are not just the records of your weekly calls to your terrorist buddies in Yemen. Records of all calls, including local calls within the U.S., are being vaccumed up on an ongoing basis and handed right over to the NSA. Here is the top-secret FISA court order mandating compliance from Verizon. It’s also highly unlikely that Verizon is the only telecom subject to such an order.

As the above link to the original scoop in the Guardian notes, the Bush Administration also engaged in this sort of large-scale call data collection, and we had a collective freak-out when his "warrantless wiretapping" excesses were revealed in 2005. Bush had been acting outside of the FISA court system (the "warrantless" part), but the public outcry led him to move the program into the FISA system where it was supposed to be all along. This is the first confirmation that the Obama Administration is continuing that practice on a massive and expanded scale, with evidence of a court order explicitly authorizing the program.

I am finding it difficult to muster the much-deserved shock and outrage over this.

Why? Well America, this is the executive branch you want. This wasn’t a rogue power grab hatched in the West Wing basement. It was a FISA court order. The expansive authority and scope of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was reauthorized by your Congress last year. The open-ended Patriot Act powers that provide the basis for this sort of surveillance were reauthorized by your Congress in 2011.

This is why the Obama Administration is not apologizing this morning. In fact, they’re defending the program vigorously and planning on going after whoever leaked the details to the Guardian. Here’s a senior administration official essentially saying, "Quit posturing America, you want us on that wall":

As we have publicly stated before, all three branches of government are involved in reviewing and authorising intelligence collection under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Congress passed that act and is regularly and fully briefed on how it is used, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court authorises such collection. There is a robust legal regime in place governing all activities conducted pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Yep, this was codified and legislated and approved on every level of the federal government. But the fact that this program was top-secret reveals at least a bit of a guilty conscience on the part of those perpetuating it. If the government is collecting the communications data of everybody, then there is no fear that by revealing operational details we would be "tipping off the target" of an investigation. There is no investigation, and every single American is equally a target. The only reason for secrecy is to avoid public scrutiny and outrage. That’s contemptible. 

FISA court orders for private telecom records are supposed to be limited to specific targets or groups of individuals who are suspected of terrorist connections. The Bush program flouted that "specific targets" bit, but it at least focused its data mining on overseas calls. What’s new here (I believe) is the inclusion of all U.S. calls regardless of origin or destination. It’s a massive expansion, based on creative (and still secret) legal interpretations of intentionally vague and open-ended counterrorism legislation. In other words, these sorts of abuses are completely inevitable. And they’re likely not even abuses.

A civil liberties writer at Reason (though I guess that’s a redundancy), Mike Riggs, had a succinct equation on Twitter that explains the state of play:

People who don’t see a problem with data collection + people who want to be kept safe + Obama/Bush partisans = this shit will never end.

I think this is exactly, and depressingly, correct. I bet those three groups add up to 80% of the population. Today’s revelations will certainly agonize Republicans who are torn between their deep love of domestic surveillance and their desire to attack Obama for a perceived scandal. But the former will win out; they just love it too much. Democratic leaders will rally round their guy. (Both have already happened.)

Among the citizenry, the ever-obliging and docile "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" crowd will be absent from the debate as usual (unless it’s gun records the federal government wants, of course). The ratchet will continue, phone records, emails, public cameras, DNA [See update below: Add Facebook data, Skype calls, gchat, etc]; there will be new surprising revelations every few years, to which we will become completely inured in a short time. They’ll all come with authorizing court orders, with references to duly-enacted legislation. All perfectly legal and above-board. It’s so banal that it doesn’t even come up during our presidential elections. This is what we want. We’re so bloody fearful and deferential, we will keep empowering our elected leaders who will keep telling us how indispensible their constant invigilation is to our safety. I don’t see this cycle ending. For my part I’ll not again vote for a national candidate who embraces, or by silence affirms, this pernicious view of executive power, with its inherent ovine view of the electorate.

Update: Bleat, bleat. It gets way worse:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time. […]

The technology companies, which participate knowingly in PRISM operations, include most of the dominant global players of Silicon Valley. They are listed on a roster that bears their logos in order of entry into the program: “Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.”

Your move, engaged citizenry.

Bookmark and Share

High Stakes Chicken Diplomacy

On the basis of one obscure article from 2006, I adopted a crude stereotype of Middle East culture that has persisted, knowingly and proudly, to this day. Here it is: Like young people everywhere, young Middle Easterners love fast food, particularly American fast food, and even more particularly, KFC. Cannot get enough.

2006 was the year that Syria saw its first KFC opening, which was in fact the first-ever licensed American food franchise in the country. It was also, due to a confluence of international incidents, a year of extremely high tensions between Syria and the U.S., leading to a level of anti-American animus that was far beyond even the usual high baseline level.

How would this cultural imposition by the Great Satan play out then? Would 2006 Syrians treat the Colonel Sanders-led invasion as just further evidence of America’s desire for military hegemony in the region? Or would they put politics aside and just enjoy the delicious chicken? I think you know the answer:

The US flag serves as a doormat to an office and nearby merchants announce "we boycott American goods", but some Syrians can’t seem to keep away from American fast food at the new KFC fried chicken restaurant.

"I oppose American politics totally, but what does food have to do with it? Politics is one thing, and food is something totally different," Tareq Mashnouk, a 26-year-old fashion designer, said.

Amen, Tareq.

"To be honest we were surprised they opened this American restaurant in the midst of our political situation," said Tareq Farzat, 25, adding that he liked his Chicken Burger Combo and would definitely return to KFC with his friend Kalam.

Despite his sub-optimal order preferences which we’ll forgive because he was new at this, Tareq #2 makes a strong point.

It’s true that there were some holdouts who denied themselves delicious chicken due to the Colonel’s conspicuous political affiliations, but:

Many others seem pleased with the KFC experience and trust American brands. "This tastes good, and we’ll definitely come back to eat here when we’re in the mood for chicken," said a 45-year-old woman.

This anonymous 45-year-old woman, with her unimpeachably sensible argument—it tastes good and so she’ll return when she’s in the mood for chicken—cemented my anecdotal KFC-Middle East stereotype for good. For ever.

But today friends, it somehow grows even stronger. Behold, Gaza City, from the NYT:

The French fries arrive soggy, the chicken having long since lost its crunch. A 12-piece bucket goes for about $27 here — more than twice the $11.50 it costs just across the border in Egypt.

And for fast-food delivery, it is anything but fast: it took more than four hours for the KFC meals to arrive here on a recent afternoon from the franchise where they were cooked in El Arish, Egypt, a journey that involved two taxis, an international border, a smuggling tunnel and a young entrepreneur coordinating it all from a small shop here.

It’s our right to enjoy that taste the other people all over the world enjoy,” said the entrepreneur, Khalil Efrangi, 31.

You’re goddam right Khalil. The piece spins a theory that the Gazans’ love of KFC stems from their broader deprivation due to the Israeli blockade and severe trade restrictions, making them crave everyday items that are not otherwise very special.

Perhaps, but I think this is more on the mark:

Ibrahim el-Ajla, 29, who works for Gaza’s water utility and was among those enjoying KFC here the other day, acknowledged that the food was better hot and fresh in the restaurant, but he said he would be likely to order again. “I tried it in America and in Egypt, and I miss the taste,” he said.

Exactly, Ibrahim. You miss the taste. Ibrahim doesn’t need overdetermined psychological theories to explain the allure of the Colonel’s secret recipe.

The illicit delivery menu from Egypt is unfortunately limited to "chicken pieces, fries, coleslaw and apple pie" because other items like special sandwich orders "could be too complicated." That’s understandable, but nonetheless it’s scandalous that Tareq #2′s counterparts in Gaza can’t even get their beloved, sub-optimal Chicken Burger combos. Freedom deferred is freedom denied.

There is a happy ending though. Well, certainly not for the prospects for Middle East peace, or for the unimaginable carnage and depravity in Syria to end any time soon, or for the Israeli blockade to be lifted, or for Hamas to give up violence and stop immiserating its own people. Just in terms of the chicken, I mean.

Adeeb al-Bakri, who owns four KFC and Pizza Hut franchises in the West Bank, said he had been authorized to open a restaurant in Gaza and was working out the details.

Huzzah, freedom deferred no longer. The Colonel once again acting as the tip of the sphere for the army of democ….well whatever really it’s just chicken.

Bookmark and Share

Terry McAuliffe is Terrible, Just Absolutely, Thoroughly Terrible

AP photo

I was doing research for an epic "The Virginia governor’s race is terrible and Terry McAuliffe is the worst but so is Ken Cuccinelli" post, and it turns out that is a very popular genre on the internet this week, and those sentiments are widely-shared among anyone who has a normally-calibrated sense of decency and an aversion to political nihilism and sociopathy. 

We’ve learned this week—or relearned, since all of this appears in McAuliffe’s own 2007 autobiography, presumably because he actually thinks these awful stories make him look somehow charming or raffish—that McAuliffe prioritizes Democratic fundraisers and media cocktail parties over the birth of his children and the happiness of his wife. Here’s the hilarious time that McAullife made his wife and newborn baby sit and wait in the car on their way home from the hospital, so Terry could pop in at a Democratic fundraising dinner:

We got to the dinner and by then Dorothy was in tears, and I left her with Justin and went inside. Little Peter was sleeping peacefully and Dorothy just sat there and poor Justin didn’t say a word. He was mortified. I was inside maybe fifteen minutes, said a few nice things about Marty, and hurried back out to the car. I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party and by the time we got home and the kids had their new little brother in their arms, Dorothy was all smiles and we were one big happy family again. Nobody ever said life with me was easy.

Oh, she was in tears! Just Terry being Terry.

Alex Pareene of Salon sums it up

So, now we know that Terry McAulliffe is the worst of modern party party politics, a money-raising machine with no core. Everyone probably could’ve guessed that by looking at his resume, which is made up entirely of positions in which he handled money, and getting money, for politicians and the Democratic Party. There is a lot of opposition research on McAuliffe dropping this week and it all confirms what a cursory look could’ve told anyone: He’s the worst of the Democratic Party. [...]

This is all enough to reveal McAuliffe as the oleaginous hack that he is. But if you really want to spend the rest of your day in a state of nauseous terror from all that McAuliffe and his ilk reveal and represent about our politics, go read this NYT Magazine profile from last year. After McAuliffe lost the Democratic primary in his first run for VA governor in 2009, he decided he needed to distance himself from his current job as "political rainmaker, carnival barker and Clinton appendage" and refashion himself as a "business leader" and "entrepreneur" in preparation for his planned second run for governor. So he started an electric car company called GreenTech, and called up his old buddy, fellow party hack, tobacco lobbyist, and proud Boss Hogg doppelganger Haley Barbour, to give him a bunch of tax incentives and abatements to bring the car plant to Mississippi. The piece follows McAuliffe (knows as the "Macker" by his politician friends), his idol Bill Clinton, and Barbour, as they backslap each other during a GreenTech plant opening event in Mississippi. It’s horrifying. Let me quote at length, trust me.

As Clinton prepared to go onstage, I asked him if he would ever consider buying a car from McAuliffe, who he once marveled could “talk an owl out of a tree.” “Absolutely, I would buy a new car from Terry,” he told me. “But a used car? I am not so sure about a used car.” He laughed and wheeled around and repeated the line to Barbour (“Listen to what I just told him… ”), while slapping his fleshy back.

And here we go:

The Washington Political Class, as it’s called by those in the media who are often a part of it, represents a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. Membership in the class is the paramount commonality between the various tribes — the journalists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the superlawyers, superlobbyists, superstaffers, fund-raisers, David Gergens, Donna Braziles and Karl Roves. They argue on television and often go into business with their on-air combatants. They can be paid tens of thousands of dollars to do their left-right Kabuki thing in front of big organizations. The Macker did this with Rove a while back — a luncheon speech at the Exxon Mobil headquarters in Texas. He has a few joint events planned with Barbour for the fall. He has also done partisan duets at a combined 50 grand a pop with “my great friend, Eddie Gillespie,” a Barbour protégé and former R.N.C. chairman whom McAuliffe bonded with in the greenroom between their many on-air donnybrooks over the last decade. “I have a love-hate relationship with Terry,” Gillespie joked in one of their public debates. “I love Terry. And I hate myself for it.”

One quaint maxim of the Political Class is that there is no such thing as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, only the Green Party. Green as in money.

McAuliffe has spent a career basking in the glow of the Clintons’ reflected light, and making sure everyone knows about it.

If McAuliffe’s trademark is fund-raising, his principal identity is as a Professional Best Friend to Bill Clinton. The subtitle of [his autobiography] “What a Party!” might as well be “Let Me Tell You Another Story About Me and Bill Clinton.” (One involved South Korean Intelligence agents thinking McAuliffe and Clinton were more than just friends.) If he is not dropping the name of the 42nd president, the Macker is telling you that he just got off the phone with Bill Clinton, or that, what do you know, President Clinton is actually on the phone right now, and can you please excuse him for just a second (“Hello, Mr. President”).

But of course, he’s not an insider.

McAuliffe slightly recoils whenever I suggest that he is a “Washington insider.” (He lives in McLean, Va., a full 20 minutes outside D.C.). “I am an entrepreneur, baby,” he has said to me several times in recent years. “Don’t forget that, I’m an entrepreneur” — albeit one whose wedding party included the former-House-Democratic-leader-turned-superlobbyist Richard Gephardt; who has been a regular at Sam Donaldson’s annual holiday party; who runs into his neighbor Dick Cheney at his daughter’s (and Cheney’s granddaughter’s) soccer games; and who initially put up the money for Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Chappaqua home.

McAuliffe goes on an annual hunting trip on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with a gang that includes the famed Democratic lobbyist Tommy Boggs, the former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and Lott’s Democratic lobbying partner John Breaux, a former Louisiana senator who as a member of the House famously declared that his vote could not be bought but “could be rented.” (After a member of the House leadership once called Breaux a “cheap whore,” Breaux protested that he was “not cheap.”)

McAuliffe has arguably seen the inside of more television greenrooms over the last two decades than anyone in Washington. That is where he met Barbour, who in his capacity as R.N.C. chairman used to pulverize Clinton on television while McAuliffe defended him. After a while, through repeated exposures, they became friends. […]

And here’s how the Washington outsider finds opportunities:

It was around this time that Bill Clinton asked the Macker what ambassadorship he wanted for all the work he’d done on his behalf.

The piece is filled with all sorts of financial dealings between co-members of this supra-partisan Green Party. It also quotes Michael Kinsley on why reporters love Haley Barbour so much: "He doesn’t literally wink as he spins, but he manages to send the message: This is all a big game — a big wonderful game — and you have the privilege of playing it with me."

Chilling. McAuliffe absolutely epitomizes this "big wonderful game", where there are no political allies or opponents, just connections, networks, and patrons. No ideological commitments or policy passions, just speaking fees, image curation, and permanent fundraising. No sense of service or sacrifice, just a pit stop on the way to the revolving door and the green room. 

Virginia, I don’t know. Say what you want about Ken Cuccinelli being a reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic fascist. But at least it’s an ethos.

Bookmark and Share

The Perils of Presidential Democracy, or Why Governing-by-Permanent-Crisis May be Inevitable

I really enjoyed Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile of Eric Cantor. From the piece you get the sense that Cantor doesn’t quite understand how he allowed his public image and that of his party to get so rotten. He’s never considered himself as particularly unreasonable or radical, but now it’s dawned on him that after orchestrating and enabling three years of congressional dysfunction and obstruction, the country sees him as kind of a sleazeball. The piece is tinged with pathos because he’s upset and perplexed about that.

Well boo-fucking-hoo for him.

But another part of the piece really caught my eye. Congressman Raul Labrador, Tea Party leader and strong opponent of any sort of bargaining or compromise-seeking with the White House, explained to Lizza why he felt justified in his posture of permanent defiance despite the president’s clear victory in November:

"I agree that the President won, and I agree that the President had a mandate to propose what he wanted to propose. It doesn’t mean that my mandate is the same as his mandate. I won my election as well.” Many House Republicans said the same thing after the election. “We’re the first branch of government,” Labrador said. “We don’t have a king. We don’t have an emperor.”

And who can say he’s wrong about any of that?

In 1990 political scientist Juan Linz wrote an influential essay called "The Perils of Presidentialism"  (pdf), in which he argued that presidential democracies are inherently brittle and historically tend to devolve into dictatorships, because there is no clear, consistent source of governing legitimacy among the separate branches. He notes how unique the U.S. is as "the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity."

But what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties—has something to do with it.

Matt Yglesias wrote about this a few years ago and noted that whereas when Linz wrote the essay in 1990 our two political parties were still somewhat ideologically diffuse, there is now total coherence, with every single Republican in Congress more conservative than every single Democrat, and vice versa.

This process of partisan sorting into ideologically homogenous parties is not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s quite natural. You see above that to Linz and other political scientists, our long history of party incoherence is pretty confounding and endlessly exasperating.

So now that we’ve got complete ideological coherence, and a sufficient number of legislators like Mr. Labrador who claim just as much legitimacy to speak for the people as the president, are we seeing Linz’s analysis come true? Are there more dramatic conflicts and increasing threats of erupting crisis?

Sure seems like it! Bush v. Gore, unprecedented debt ceiling showdowns, regular government shut down threats, fiscal cliffs, sequesters, filibuster abuses, attempts to change state electoral vote apportionment, voting rights abuses. We still do end up defusing these crises before they lead to true constitutional breakdowns. But the problem with government-by-permanent-crisis is that it only takes one mistake in which we don’t find a way to defuse things in time….

The fear is that this recent period of extreme dysfunction is not just a contingent symptom of Obama-derangement, but rather it’s a manifestation of a structural problem that has always been latent in our system of government. For the first time ever our national parties are coherent and disciplined enough to make serious mischief, and they restrain themselves from provoking actual constitutional crises only because of entrenched norms against such behavior. But norms break down, as they have any other time a country tried to sustain this type of governing arrangement.

The slightly good news is that though there is unprecedented party coherence, as the Cantor article makes clear, intra-party factionalism is still alive and well in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although that leads to lots of legislative gridlock, and it makes Mr. Cantor’s job as majority leader very difficult, perhaps ironically it’s also helping to keep the old Republic together. Maybe by consistently failing to harmonize the factions in his caucus, Cantor is doing a more noble task than he realizes.  

Bookmark and Share

Immigration Reform Shouldn’t Create a Permanent (Legal) Underclass

There will be plenty more to say about the incipient immigration reform effort as it moves from the general framework released today by eight bipartisan senators to (maybe!) actual legislation in the coming months. I’ve written before on the general contours of the immigration debate in America, but I want to comment on one part of this new framework.

Under the framework, undocumented immigrants can come forward and declare themselves, pay fines and back taxes, then receive "probationary legal residency." Not citizens, not green card holders, just "legal". They can then become eligible to apply for full citizenship (waiting at the proverbial "back of the line) only after a variety of national enforcement metrics have been met: additional border security, a system for employers to verify the legal status of their employees, and stronger checks to prevent immigrants from overstaying visas.

But who certifies that these enforcement metrics have been met, thus allowing this group to move beyond their probationary status?

As Adam Serwer notes, the framework envisions a commission "comprised of governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border" that will certify that the enforcement measures have worked. Serwer notes that this essentially puts "final legalization of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants in the hands of Republican officials like Arizona Governor Jan Brewer who don’t want it to happen." This commission "put[s] a veto in the hands of people who are likely to oppose the plan even if those conditions were met."

The upshot of this is the probationary phase may end up lasting far longer than expected. Or maybe this is by design: tying citizenship to a subjective menu of goals, and giving final judgment to a bunch of immigration-reform skeptics, is a way to "create a pathway" without ever specifying when or where the pathway may end.

I understand that politically, there simply must be some punitive aspect to the process of normalizing the status of immigrants who came here illegally. But I’m torn by the tradeoffs in creating a semi-permanent, non-voting underclass of low-skill, low-wage workers in this country.

For these individuals, conferring even sort-of-legal status is a terrific boon to their welfare. They will have more employment opportunities, more ability to participate in civic life, and will remove the ambient level of anxiety associated with living in constant fear of deportation. But how do we measure these unequivocal individual benefits against the social and political impact of creating a massive bloc of non-voting, hence politically powerless, lower-skill workers? What are the distributional and civic consequences of legislating into existence an economically and politically marginal sub-class in this way? As David Frum concluded pithily on Twitter: "Lots more low-wage non-voters! Couldn’t do better if they were trying for oligarchy on purpose."

The framework may actually exacerbate this tension by singling out two classes of undocumented immigrants for fast-track citizenship: DREAM Act-eligible children, and agricultural laborers. These are extra sympathetic (DREAM kids) or economically crucial (farm workers) groups of immigrants, which is why it’s easy to give them special attention. But might elevating certain classes of immigrants in this way just serve to increase the political and civic distance between full members of the American club and the underclass "probationary" members?

There are tradeoffs like this slicing through every facet of the immigration debate. It’ll be interesting to see who the various partisan players perceive their demographic audiences to be. But on this one, it just doesn’t seem conducive to long-run civic health to be creating what amounts to an official caste system in this country, particularly if the built-in remedy—the mythical pathway to citizenship—is so ill-defined.

Bookmark and Share

Guns and Suicide

With a few exceptions, the president’s twenty-three executive actions on gun control were predictably mild, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re unlikely to have a clear impact on gun crime rates, let alone do much of anything to prevent Sandy Hook-style mass killings. But it does not follow that these measures—along with whatever incremental steps Congress ends up taking—are not worth doing. That’s because gun homicides are literally less than half the story here. Here’s a chart of all U.S. gun deaths by cause, from 2006:

2006 Gun Deaths

A solid majority of gun deaths are suicides. This unsettling fact seems to be completely absent from the official debate, and it’s hard to understand why: These preventable deaths are just as traumatizing and destabilizing to a family or a community as gun homicides are, and seem to me to require as vigorous a public health response as any other cause of preventable death.

Another reason we should be focusing more on this side of the problem is that some of the gun control measures currently being discussed, while having a mixed record when it comes to reducing gun crime, have proven quite effective at reducing suicide rates.

In 2006 the Israeli Defense Forces began a policy whereby soldiers were no longer allowed to take their firearms home with them on weekends. As a result, weekend suicide rates among soldiers dropped by 40%. Interestingly, the weekday suicide rates stayed the same, indicating that soldiers were not just postponing their suicides until the weekend was over and they had their gun back. That’s because suicidal intentions can be transitory and circumstantial, the product of a crisis moment aligned with easy opportunity. Absent a ready method—such as a loaded firearm within reach—a large percentage of these soldiers made it through the moment and the impulse subsided. 

Similar "means-restriction" policies have been studied by the U.S. Department of Defense, in an attempt to decrease the staggering suicide rate among active-duty soldiers and veterans. The NRA, bravely protecting the Second Amendment rights of our suicidal soldiers, successfully lobbied for a law last year barring commanders from asking troops about their private weapons even if there was cause to believe a soldier was at high risk of suicide. Mercifully, the most recent defense authorization bill amended that provision to allow these sorts of conversations and interventions by commanders and mental health professionals if suicide is suspected.

So while adding minor delays into the process of legally acquiring a gun—with universal background checks and waiting periods, for instance—almost surely won’t deter or frustrate the plans of hardened criminals, they could be particularly effective at saving otherwise law-abiding citizens who are in the depths of suicidal thoughts. And despite the NRA’s fundraising-driven hysteria, such delays are not a significant impediment to recreational shooters, hunters, or collectors.

But what about the impetus for this whole debate, the mass shooting in Connecticut? While the empirical record on the effects of gun control on ordinary violent crime is thin (making particularly important the president’s executive action directing the CDC to research the causes and prevention of gun violence), it does seems reasonable to assume that simply finding a way to slow things down at each step could indeed help prevent some mass shootings at the margin: lengthening the planning and procurement phase leading to a potential massacre would at least increase the odds of someone—law enforcement, friends, family—discovering the plot in time.

But even if you’re a fatalist about mass shootings, let’s not be blithe about the tremendous failure of public policy and wasted human capital represented by the 17,000 gun suicides each year in this country. 

Bookmark and Share

There’s Bipartisan Support In Congress…to Indefinitely Jail You Without Charge. Happy Christmas!

As House Republicans agonize over the question of whether to raise taxes on millionaires or near-millionaires, and as they remain deadlocked on other important debates ranging from the deficit to immigration and climate change, there’s at least one issue on which your United States Congress has reached a happy, bipartisan accord. They’ve come together to strip you of your right to due process and habeas corpus:

Lawmakers charged with merging the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act decided on Tuesday to drop a provision that would have explicitly barred the military from holding American citizens and permanent residents in indefinite detention without trial as terrorism suspects, according to Congressional staff members familiar with the negotiations.

It’s unclear whether the president will veto this defense bill; even if he intends to it can be attached to other spending bills that are difficult to defeat.

You may find it hard to understand how Congress can be on the verge of legislating away the most fundamental natural rights in the history of civilized humanity. And you also may wonder why you didn’t know about it.

Conor Friedersdorf brings the perfect amount of astonished indignant eloquence to the occasion:

It may seem like imprisoning an American citizen without charges or trial transgresses against the United States Constitution and basic norms of Western justice dating back to the Magna Carta.

It may seem like reiterating the right to due process contained in the 5th Amendment would be uncontroversial.

It may seem like a United States senator would be widely ridiculed for suggesting that American citizens can be imprisoned indefinitely without chargers or trial, and that if numerous U.S. senators took that position, the press would treat the issue with at least as much urgency as "the fiscal cliff" or the possibility of a new assault weapons bill or likely nominees for Cabinet posts. […]

But it isn’t so.

Oh, but you’re not a terrorist suspect, you say? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

Behold the mindset of the serf. The mantra of the defeated. All part of the ongoing craven capitulation to unseen enemies. We cower, fearful, oxymoronically insisting on repudiating rights that are inalienable (do look that word up); the zombie war on terrorism that will go on eating our brains and our rationality for the rest of our lives.  

Allow me one cheap shot: I do wish that those who bleat about the sanctity and inviolibility of their consititutional right to keep and bear arms would at least raise an eyebrow at this. There’s a perpetual NRA-driven fantasy that the Feds are coming for your guns. This has never been true. What’s true is that, when this NDAA passes, they can come and take you away and indefinitely imprison you without charge, merely at the president’s say-so, on the basis of secret evidence. It’s a confused mind that fears the president’s intentions regarding the former but unquestioningly trusts his judgment and discretion on the latter.

The price of freedom, it seems, is freedom. The prize, false and illusory security, is meager comfort indeed.

And do enjoy your naked airport scans and invasive patdowns this holiday season. Arms up! Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Happy Christmas!

Bookmark and Share

Susan Rice’s Downfall: Triumph of the Double Standard

I know it’s not shocking to point this out, but the gender double standard at work in Susan Rice’s removal from Secretary of State consideration is really extraordinary.

In this NYT piece detailing the rise and fall of her candidacy, we learn that her "blunt-speaking style — which helped cost her the job — had always been, for Mr. Obama, a part of her appeal."

Ms. Rice…has so often been criticized as being an unusually undiplomatic diplomat, direct to the point of rudeness. But friends and former White House aides say that Ms. Rice’s style is a reflection of Mr. Obama’s own: impatient with niceties, uninterested in small talk or long dinners, focused solely on results.

Of course, Mr. Obama has somehow managed to ride his debilitating weakness of blunt speaking and focus on results to become a celebrated two-term president, while the same "style" cost Susan Rice a promotion. Strange.

Dana Milbank also has a hatchet job in the Post about Rice’s long dubious record of advocating forcefully and passionately for her positions, including the following troubling incident:

Among those she has insulted is the woman she would replace at State. Rice was one of the first former Clinton administration officials to defect to Obama’s primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Rice condemned Clinton’s Iraq and Iran positions, asking for an “explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong.”

Huh? Can you find the alleged "insult" or "condemnation" there?

Milbank also bizarrely passes along criticism of Rice from the Russian foreign ministry, who Milbank evidently feels deserves a voice on American cabinet appointments. Well the ministry wants it known that they believe Rice is “too ambitious and aggressive,” and her appointment would make it “more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.” Too ambitious? Outright sexism from the Russian government is not surprising, but why are its views being transcribed as serious critiques by the Washington Post?

Maybe Ambassador Rice is more impolitic than is ideal for the nation’s top diplomatic post; I really have no idea. But that is simply not the usual standard used to judge presidential appointments. As someone stated so eloquently:

I believe there are significant numbers of the American people who do take into consideration the consequences of a presidential election, and that is the earned right of a president, under anything other than unusual circumstances, to pick his team.

Oh, that would be John McCain, speaking in 2005 in support of John Bolton’s nomination to the job Susan Rice now holds. McCain of course initiated and led the effort to sink Susan Rice’s candidacy, using the Benghazi incident as the stated rationale for his opposition. Makes sense, seeing how the United Nations Ambassador is traditionally held responsible for leading U.S. intelligence and security in North Africa.

When John Bolton came under intense pressure during his UN confirmation process for his own blunt-speaking style and impatience with niceties:

McCain secretly tried to shepherd his nomination to the United Nations — a nomination that was held up in Congress over Bolton’s controversial anti-UN statements and policies.

"He was very active behind the scenes," said Bolton, who was ultimately sent to the UN via a presidential recess appointment. "He thought I was the type of ambassador that ought to represent the United States at the United Nations."

How thoughtful. It’s very important to point out that there is no comparison between Rice and Bolton when it comes to their relative impolitic instincts. Bolton was not just a "unusually undiplomatic diplomat", he was a serial bully and abuser of subordinates, and a propagandist who pressured State Department intelligence officials to distort their analyses on Iraq to make the case for war.

From Wikipedia’s summary of his confirmation hearing for the UN post:

On April 20, it emerged that Melody Townsel, a former US AID contractor, had reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Bolton had used inflammatory language and thrown objects in the course of her work activities in Moscow…Townsel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff that Bolton had made derogatory remarks about her sexual orientation and weight, among other workplace improprieties. […]

I’ve never seen anybody quite like Secretary Bolton. … I don’t have a second, third or fourth in terms of the way that he abuses his power and authority with little people," former State Department intelligence chief Carl W. Ford Jr., said. Ford also characterized Bolton as a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy", implying that he was always ready to please whoever had authority over him, while having very little regard for people working under him.

But a post to the loathsome United Nations is one thing. Republicans would never want someone with Bolton’s sociopathic tendencies to run the State Department, right? Right?

Republican insiders are discussing likely people for top Cabinet posts in a Romney administration…. John R. Bolton, the U.N. ambassador during the George W. Bush administration and specialist on arms control and security issues, is said to be a leading candidate for secretary of state.

“’If he accepts it, I will ask John Bolton to be secretary of state,’ said former House speaker Newt Gingrich."

But Milbank tells us that Susan Rice once "appalled colleagues" by giving the middle finger to (legendary ill-tempered diplomat) Richard Holbrooke. Outrageous! Kind of like that time Vice President Cheney told Senator Leahy on the Senate floor to go fuck himself, later smirking that "I thought he merited it at the time." Oh that’s just lovable rogue Cheney being Cheney! His orneriness didn’t seem to hamper his rise to the vice presidency, or the Secretary of Defense, or the White House Chief of Staff.

Bluntness and an eschewing of niceties is seen as the mark of gravitas, ambition, and serious leadership when emanating from the likes of Mr. Bolton, Holbrooke, or Cheney. For some reason Susan Rice is not accorded the same generous intrepretation. I do wonder why.

Bookmark and Share