Monthly Archive for October, 2010

I’m Thomas Jefferson and I Approve This Message…

Via Yglesias: This is a very clever video from Reason that reimagines the presidential campaign of 1800 in duelling attack ads using the actual words of Jefferson and Adams and their partisan backers. It really does a good job of demolishing the idea that there was some fanciful bygone era of political civility and sophistication that we ought to be nostalgic for. 


"I’m Thomas Jefferson and I approve this message because John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman."

Though the difference, of course, is that in retirement Jefferson and Adams put their days of political acrimony behind them, and in the last fourteen years of their lives (they died on the same day) they exchanged 156 letters which together form one of the most insightful and tender literary correspondences in American history. Conversely, I don’t really see President Obama and say, Mitch McConnell exchanging warm intellectual epistles in their dotage.

For more on the unimaginably vituperative campaigns of 1796 and 1800, and the way in which our venerable founding fathers used an unscrupulous media to degrade and disgrace their political opponents, I recommend the book Scandalmonger, by William Safire.

On Rand Paul’s Curious Inhumanity

I’ve written before about Rand Paul and the oddity of his ideological absolutism. The issue at the time was Paul’s belief that private businesses should have the right to engage in racial discrimination if they so choose. Paul finds such discrimination personally abhorrent, but he doesn’t think the government has any right to mandate private action in that way. I admitted a grudging respect for a guy who refuses to compromise his first principles regardless of all the ruinous places their universal application would take us.

After watching the Kentucky Senate debate last night between Paul and Attorney General Jack Conway, I finally figured out what it is about Paul that makes me so uneasy. With few exceptions, the guy doesn’t have any policy prescriptions; just philosophical committments.  Paul intentionally dehumanizes the consequences of social and public policy problems in a way that is really jarring to me. Asked about the human toll of government inaction, he’ll tell you about the intellectual rectitude of his opinion. Asked about the resultant suffering of actual human beings, he’ll say that the real tragedy is insufficient fealty to this or that constitutional precept. The man stands for absolutely nothing other than the diminution of federal power. I actually have no idea why he wants to be a legislator. He ought to have become a judge or a law school lecturer or an AEI scholar.

For example: On his website under the "Bailouts" section, Paul delineates his strong objection to TARP:

Federal bailouts reward inefficient and corrupt management, rob taxpayers, hurt smaller and more responsible private firms, exacerbate our budget problems, explode national debt, and destroy our US Dollar. Even more importantly, any bailout of private industry is in direct violation of the constitution. It is a transfer of wealth from those who have earned to those who have squandered. The federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers as stipulated in the supreme law of the land.

Now fine, vote down TARP if you think it’s beyond the constitutional pale. But what next? Where’s the consideration for the counterfactual world in which all the banks and all the auto companies went bankrupt? Where’s the mention of how he would have dealt with the resulting parade of laid-off workers and the further strain on the states’ depleted unemployment insurance coffers (the replenishing of which, through the stimulus, Paul would have voted against.) No, the first and last concern is the "transfer of wealth from those who have earned to those who have squandered." Any hard thinking beyond that vacuous and parodic ideal (were the auto employees "earners" or "squanderers"?) is thoroughly elided.

The debate last night was full of similar examples. Asked if he thinks the federal government should be helping to keep deserving borrowers in their homes, Paul said no. He said it’s indeed a tragedy that these people will lose their homes, but the "real tragedy" is how the federal government bailed out Fannie and Freddie and set the interest rates artificially low and perpetuated the evils of the Community Reinvestment Act.

Asked if he opposes the provisions of the health care law that have recently gone into effect, those banning denial of coverage to children, banning recission of policies when people get sick, and banning copays for preventive care, Paul again eschewed the human element and argued instead for a "market approach," fretting about the "perverse incentives" that allow people to wait until they’re sick before they seek coverage. He sees nothing perverse about uninsured children or unscrupulous insurers. But moral hazard, look out! He only becomes truly empassioned when he perceives that some holy stricture of his particular interpretation of free market fundamentalism has been breached.

Asked how we are to improve education in this country, he says that the real problem is that we’ve gone too far towards federal involvement in education, and that the Department of Education should be shut down. He said No Child Left Behind is a mandate that interferes with the local education of our kids, and the Feds shouldn’t come in and tell local communites what to do. Paul evinces no concern for or opinion on things like teacher accountability, kids languishing in failed schools, appalling test scores, or making college more attainable and affordable. As long as the relevant constitutional arrangement is restored, the rest is just details.

To his credit, Paul has some practical and necessary policy ideas on entitlement reform. But when the topic turned to Social Security, Jack Conway said passionately and forcefully that Social Security is insurance to keep seniors from starving to death and should never be privatized. Rand Paul only talked about unsustainable demographic ratios.

Again, I can’t help but admire some of Paul’s more idiosyncratic positions, or rather, his political bravery in espousing them. And I don’t want to seem like I’m just arguing for more Clintonian lip-biting or pandering emotional "connecting." But there’s something very unsettling about this guy. His tic of grounding the solution to every social or political ill in some a priori philosophical principle which most surely aligns with his anathema for the federal government; his pathological avoidance of all appeals to empathy or an admission of the human cost of his ideological rigidity—it’s a little creepy, that’s all. The moment an issue touches upon an element of actual human well-being, Paul’s immediate reaction is to sanitize and dehumanize and intellectualize the thing with an almost sociopathic celerity. As I wrote before, such cold-blooded purists are quite useful in the public square, but we ought not let them anywhere near the official halls of power.

Welcome China, Our Rare Earth Metal Overlords

        新华社记者 李涛摄

There’s been a spate of articles this week on the imminent—or is it ongoing?—world rare earth metal showdown. In one corner, China, which supplies 97% of all the world’s rare earths. In the other corner, anyone who is a little freaked out by that.

Rare earths are essential components in a wide array of high-tech consumer and industrial products, including superconductors, cell phones, hybrid cars, wind turbines, and television sets. The thing is, China only possesses about one-third of the world’s rare earth deposits. So how did it come to essentially monopolize world production? As Paul Krugman explains in a recent op-ed, the U.S. also has substantial rare earth deposits, and actually dominated the production market until the mid-1980s, at which time China realized that it could undercut U.S. producers the same way it was beginning to undercut U.S. producers in every other economic sector: through slave wages and lax environmental standards and an artificially depressed currency. And boy, it worked. Within twenty years, the U.S. rare earth industry was completely gone. Who cares, thought U.S. policymakers? Just as we’re happy to let China dominate the market for toxic toys and exploding tires and every piece of plastic kitch you can think of, so too will we benefit from a ready supply of cheap rare earths.

This ambivalently happy narrative was disrupted last month when a Chinese fishing trawler collided with two Japanese Coast Guard vessels in Japan-controlled waters. Japan detained the trawler’s captain, and in retaliation, China decided to cut off rare earth exports to Japan. Needless to say, Japan very quickly released the fishing captain.

Krugman notes that we ought to be deeply disturbed by "a Chinese government that is dangerously trigger-happy, willing to wage economic warfare on the slightest provocation," and that the incident is "further evidence that the world’s newest economic superpower isn’t prepared to assume the responsibilities that go with that status."

China’s willingness to so quickly resort to economic bullying to resolve mundane political disputes in its neighborhood is disturbing enough. But look, it’s worse:

China, which has been blocking shipments of crucial minerals to Japan for the last month, has now quietly halted some shipments of those materials to the United States and Europe, three industry officials said this week. […]

“The embargo is expanding” beyond Japan, said one of the three rare earth industry officials, all of whom insisted on anonymity for fear of business retaliation by Chinese authorities. […]

China experts said on Tuesday that Beijing’s assertive stance on rare earths might also signal the ascendance of economic nationalists, noting that the Central Committee of the Communist Party convened over the weekend.

A few rare earth shipments to the West have been delayed by customs officials in recent weeks, said industry officials in China, Japan and the United States. But new restrictions on exports appear to have been imposed on Monday morning.

Industry executives said there had been no signal from Beijing of how long rare earth shipments intended for the West would be held by Chinese customs officials.

At the Communist Party pow-wow last week, leaders emerged promising "major breakthroughs in economic restructuring" to maintain steady growth in the years ahead. A piece by John Schoen at MSNBC does a good job describing the impetus for this larger transition and what the contours might look like:

Over the past 30 years, China’s red-hot economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, reshaped the global economy and given rise to a new power on the global stage. But that breakneck growth has also created an expanding wealth gap, major environmental problems, widespread corruption, a growing imperative to innovate and popular pressure for political reforms. […]

The original recipe for growth — leveraging low-wage labor to drive high-value export growth — may not work much longer. […]

Strikes and labor unrest have pushed wages higher, squeezing profits for manufacturers that rely on a steady stream of low-skilled workers migrating from rural and western regions to the coastal cities. To offset that profit squeeze, Chinese leaders say they need to create tens of millions of new higher-value, higher-skilled jobs.

To fill those jobs and continue to compete with developed countries, China needs a world-class education system that promotes innovation….

To continue growing, China 2.0 will need to diversify its economic base by boosting domestic consumption. The slowdown following the recent global recession gave Chinese leaders a stark reminder of the perils of relying too heavily on trade.

I’m not sure how to square China’s growing focus on non-trade sectors of the economy with its recent trade sector provocations. But however orderly China hopes this transition will be, as we’re already seeing, the impact on global economic stability is far from clear.

There are, of course, some ways in which we could insulate ourselves from the vagarious economic policies of our mercurial Chinese overlords. For one thing, we could stop acquiescing to a Chinese monopoly over strategically critical production markets. Indeed, over at the Atlantic, tech writer Alexis Madrigal echoes Krugman’s lament that it’s well past time for the U.S. to revive its own moribund rare earth industry. Madrigal notes that there’s been a drop of good news on this front:

Some Congressional representatives are trying to get a domestic industry going. There is a bill before the house, the Rare Earths Supply-Chain Technology and Resources Transformation Act of 2010 or the RESTART Act, that, if funded properly, could get an American rare earth metal industry going. […]

And the House Committee on Science and Technology passed a favorable judgment on a separate, more R&D focused bill this afternoon called the Rare Earths and Critical Materials Revitalization Act of 2010.

But unfortunately this isn’t the sort of industry that you can revive after a twenty year lapse by just unlocking the old production facility and dusting off the equipment and calling up the old gang to rev things up again. This will take years, probably decades, to materialize. And that’s assuming those funding bills don’t get filibustered; which, of course, they probably will.

There are a lot of intersecting geopolitical phenomena going on here, and I have no real insight into how to synthesize or contextualize all of this. But in closing, a word of advice that I think will prove enduring over time: China, piss off Paul Krugman at your own peril:

Couple the rare earth story with China’s behavior on other fronts — the state subsidies that help firms gain key contracts, the pressure on foreign companies to move production to China and, above all, that exchange-rate policy — and what you have is a portrait of a rogue economic superpower, unwilling to play by the rules. And the question is what the rest of us are going to do about it.

On Anwar al-Awlaki and the Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizens


I’ve written about the case of Anwar al-Awlaki before. I argued forcefully against the President’s assertion that he may kill an American citizen abroad with no due process or judicial review of any kind, on the basis of secret evidence. This seemed to me a terrifying precedent, and one that can be easily exploited and abused in a conflict with amorphous enemies, no defined battlefield, and no clear end.

Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald (of Salon) have been hashing this issue out over the last few weeks. Both have written extremely cogent, impassioned explications of their respective positions: Greenwald, against targeted killing of Americans; Sullivan, for targeted killing. I’ll focus on Andrew’s piece because it really made me think hard about my view on this. Here’s his apt framing of the issue:

Now the question before us is whether it is still right to kill an individual member of an enemy organization if he is an American citizen, fighting a war against this country and his fellow citizens in a foreign country which is a base of operations for al Qaeda, where the prevailing government, such as it is, is unable to capture or detain him and where it is effectively impossible for us to capture him and bring him to a military tribunal or civilian trial.

Andrew jokes about all the conditionals he had to attach to that sentence. But I think those conditionals are vital to understanding the issue, and they make his analogy of an American joining the Nazi army seem simplistic.

First of all, are we, and Awlaki, "fighting a war"? Sullivan describes this as a fundamental disagreement between he and Greenwald:

I believe this is a war, not some kind of lesser counter-terrorism operation, or a global criminal operation.

The argument as to whether to treat this conflict as a military engagement or a criminal/law enforcement one has been raging for years, and I’ve never understood people’s insistence on mutual exclusivity. It seems beyond obvious that the answer is sometimes it’s a war and sometimes it’s a criminal operation. And therefore the enemy is sometimes a war combatant and sometimes a criminal conspirator. These are not static conditions; one can morph from one context to the other simply by crossing a border. Awlaki is a war combatant. Faisal Shahzad, Awlaki’s one-time acolyte and henchman, is a criminal, and was just sentenced in a civilian court to life in prison for his attempted pre-meditated murder in Times Square. If Shahzad somehow managed to escape, as planned, to Dubai, would he stop being a criminal and turn into a war combatant susceptible to extra-judicial killing?

Surely Sullivan considers Osama bin Laden to be an enemy warrior that can be killed by the U.S. military. And I agree with him. But yet, bin Laden has been indicted by a federal grand jury, twice! The first time was in 1995 in response to an attack on a base in Riyadh that killed five Americans. And again in 1998 after the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Now this was before the U.S. Congress gave the president explicit military authorization to fight al-Qaeda, so perhaps it could be argued that we were not in a state of war and so the president had limited military recourse at the time. I’d argue that bin Laden officially declared war on the United States in 1996, and therefore we were in a state of war whether we acknowledged it or not. Yet we still indicted him in 1998. I am asking for the same standard to apply to a U.S. citizen.

Another conditional that Andrew adds is that Awlaki is currently in a country (Yemen) that is a known base of operations for al-Qaeda, presumably to imply that this makes Awlaki fair game, or fairer game. So what if Awlaki leaves this "clear battlefield", as Sullivan calls it elsewhere, and goes to, I don’t know, Greece. Is Greece a battlefield in this war? It’s certainly not a base of operations for AQ. Or does Awlaki being there magically make it a battlefield, and therefore give sanction for the President to kill U.S. citizens there? Is the battlefield anywhere in the world that an alleged member of al-Qaeda happens to be? This mindset troubles me in principle, but it also seems incredibly ineffective. Here’s Osama bin Laden talking about his strategy a few years ago:

All that we have to do is to send two mujahedin to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits for their private companies.

In the case of Awlaki, Andrew is right that there is no doubt that the man is a member of al-Qaeda and seeks to kill American civilians. Sullivan says he is "supportive of the military right to target an enemy leader in a war in a clear battlefield" regardless of that enemy leader’s nationality. But what if the enemy is not a high profile "leader" like Awlaki, but a more marginal member: a U.S. citizen who perhaps has no direct operational role in killing American civilians but provides AQ with more nebulous financial or logistical support? Someone for whom it’s not self-evident that they’re a bad guy. Someone without a Wikipedia page. As is often said, there’s no membership card for al-Qaeda. So can the president kill this American with no due process on the basis of secret evidence? Could Obama shield himself from oversight by invoking the state secret privilege, as he did last week after Awlaki’s father sued the administration to prevent his son from being assassinated? And nevermind marginal AQ members, how about innocents? Lest we forget that the U.S. has an impressive history of detaining and denying legal rights to hundreds of completely innocent people at Gitmo in the name of fighting the war on terror.

This is the point: How are we to stop the president from mistakenly targeting an innocent U.S. citizen for assassination? All we have to find is that this is theoretically possible. And the answer is the same for the mistakenly detained prisoners at Gitmo. We charge them in a court of law and give them access to judicial review of the evidence against them. This process of course doesn’t guarantee that an innocent isn’t ensnared, but it’s what we do, and it’s the best we’ve got.

My problems with Andrew’s list of conditionals is there is no concrete principle to hold on to here. Our enemy is sometimes a warrior, sometimes a criminal. They’re sometimes a leader, sometimes an accessory. Sometimes they’re on a battlefield, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes the host country can detain them, somethings they can’t. Tyranny is capricious law; and this policy still just seems too capricious for me.

To his credit, Sullivan says he is deeply troubled by the administration’s invocation of states secrets and its denial of any legal responsibility to account for its quite daring assertion of executive power. Andrew concludes:

So I remain in this very tight spot, I concede, supportive of the military right to target an enemy leader in a war in a clear battlefield, but deeply skeptical of the way in which the administration has publicly brandished and subsequently legally defended this position.

If Andrew wants the adminstration to legally defend its position, then call for Awlaki’s indictment and a formal request of Yemen for his extradition. Then, in the course of trying to apprehend him, if a cruise missile blows him to bits, so be it. But the form matters. And if you think Awlaki’s treason has stripped him of fourth amendment protection, then I’ll point you to Article 3, Section 3 of the constitution which spells out the only process by which a U.S. citizen can be accused and convicted of treason. By all means, start the judicial proceedings. I know it’s quaint, but U.S. citizens, even bad ones, even AWFUL ones, still have constitutional protections from arbitrary, unchecked executive power.

Weak Tea

I haven’t written much about the Tea Party movement because I think the whole thing is fleeting as a political force and thoroughly banal as a cultural one. That said, it’s good fun to play psychoanalyst, and I’ve certainly enjoyed consuming the ever-expanding body of journalism dedicated to explaining away the Tea Party’s pathological grievance-mongering and its flailing attempt to reconcile its never-existed conception of traditional American identity.

I think Julian Sanchez nailed the cultural angle last year when he diagnosed the whole phenomenon as a simple case of the “politics of ressentiment“:

Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

The Daily Show also had a brilliant segment in January that pointed out that the Fox News blowhards and their Tea Party acolytes all share a fear of “losing the country they grew up in”—and that this lament is nothing more than nostalgia for the oblivion and innocence they knew as small children.

Mark Lilla had an admirable entry in the NY Review of Books a few months ago. Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an excellent profile by Mark Leibovich of lachrymose Tea Party godfather Glenn Beck.

There are two other recent additions to the Tea Party curriculum, both of which I highly recommend. First is this piece by Kevin Drum which explains what makes the Tea Party so politically unremarkable. Drum places the movement square in the tradition of all the other right-wing crank organizations that invariably sprout up any time a Democrat is elected president:

When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the ’60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ’90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.

He notes that all the groups share similar characteristics: cultural nostalgia, constitutional fetishism, attachment to conspiracy theories, and a fear of creeping government tyranny.

Next is this hilarious dispatch from Matt Taibbi, who wrote it after following Kentucky Senate candidate and Tea Party star Rand Paul on the campaign trail for a while. Taibbi covers everything: race, religion, the hypocrisy on spending, the outlandish conspiracies, the cultural resentment, and the mixture of confusion and hostility in the face of the complexity of the modern world:

The Tea Party is many things at once, but one way or another, it almost always comes back to a campaign against that unsafe urban hellscape of godless liberalism we call our modern world. Paul’s platform is ultimately about turning back the clock, returning America to the moment of her constitutional creation, when the federal bureaucracy was nonexistent and men were free to roam the Midwestern plains strip-mining coal and erecting office buildings without wheelchair access. […]

They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it’s so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart. […]

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can’t; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

Taibbi also agrees with Drum that there’s nothing much unique about this particular iteration of reactionary acting-out, and he notes that it’s just a matter of time before the entire endeavor is rolled up for good inside the sucking tentacles of the Republican Party establishment:

What few elements of the movement aren’t yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it’s only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP’s campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation.

The rest of it — the sweeping cuts to federal spending, the clampdown on bailouts, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — will die on the vine as one Tea Party leader after another gets seduced by the Republican Party and retrained for the revolutionary cause of voting down taxes for Goldman Sachs executives.

I agree with both of them that the Tea Party cultural moment will soon be over. I think that after their relative triumph in November, the Tea Party crowd will find their conquering heroes constrained by the same partisan rancour and legislative dysfunction and fundraising imperative that stymies the intentions of everyone else in this town. And their breathless followers will start to slink back into apathy and return to quietly bemoaning the cultural and generational tide sweeping by them out their window.