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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Hypocritic Oaf

Politicians talk a lot, and it's fair to say that most of their verbiage has the overarching purpose of getting us-- the American people, that is-- to agree with them; with the rightness of their actions and agendas. Securing our agreement is important, of course, because in democracies the collective approval or disapproval of the citizenry gets politicians hired or fired. As Senate Republican newcomer Scott Brown pointed out in a debate in his now successful Massachussetts Senatorial bid: "With all due respect, it's not the Kennedy's seat, it's not the Democrats' seat, it's the people's seat". And so it is.

One unfortunate consequence of talking so much, of convincing so much, of arguing so much, however, is that politicians tend to fall in and out of tensions and contradictions, almost daily. This has the unfortunate consequence of pulling the rest of us into this sorry state of affairs, so that pundits and media people and ordinary political junkies sympathetic with the latest views espoused by Democrats or Republicans routinely end up arguing points that we ourselves denounced weeks or months ago. The contours and lines of our political debates keep forming and reforming around the different things the politicians say.

Take Chris Matthews, of "Hardball" fame on MSNBC, for instance, who has recently been warming up to supporting Senate Democrats' apparent intention to use reconciliation--the budget procedure that relies on simple majority vote (51%) to pass legislation in the Senate--to pass health care reform. On January 25, Matthews excoriated Congressman Alan "keep Florida weird" Grayson for proposing reconciliation for health reform. Said Matthews, with all of the loud confidence of someone absolutely convinced of their own rectitude: "You can't create a program through reconciliation" (he might have added, given his tone, "and everyone knows that!"). Matthews then further clarified for the Democratic Congressman the proper application of reconciliation, that it allows one to change only "fiscal numbers", by using it either to "raise taxes", or "to cut program spending".

Matthews, circa January 25, put forward a view that many lawmakers have agreed with, at one time or other anyway, and that seemed to provide a simple heuristic for determining when reconciliation might be acceptable. Former Senate leader Bill Frist, for instance, writes in the WSJ that he supported use of reconciliation for tax refunds in 2001 (he points out that there was a budgetary surplus at the time), yet opposed it when Republicans tried to use it to extend prescription drug coverage in Medicare, presumably because program expansion is not the proper application of budget reconciliation. (The Medicare Modernization Act, which Frist supported, passed "through the normal legislative procedure" in 2003.) So it seems that there is, in fact, a reasonable criterion for determining when to use reconciliation. It's for budgetary adjustments (including, it seems, tax rates); it's not for programs, new or expanded, like health care.

Yet, almost amazingly, as if one needs to first rub one's eyes to make sure it's the same person, Matthews returns to reconciliation when talking to Andrea Mitchell (MSNBC), on the day of the Health Care Summit, February 25, 2010. Now, just one month later, Matthews is confident that health care reform is "not a program". He assures us that "it is basically a financial question, it's not a health question. How do we finance, at the federal level, health care?". So this is New Matthews. It's not that reconciliation would be used for program expansion (which we all know, courtesy of Matthews last month, that this is not what reconciliation is intended for, and everyone knows that), it's that the Health Care bill currently debated in Congress is not a program-level discussion at all, according to New Matthews. Presto! It's now some obscure budgetary concern, and we ought therefore to use reconciliation after all.

Now, if this magic trick was played only by Chris Matthews--who sometimes exudes a school boy eagerness to prove to his guests and viewers that he knows how politics works, and other times seems interested only in generating the sort of heat that increases ratings--and maybe a few desparate Democrats in Congress, we might hold out hope for some fact, some objective Truth about Reconciliation we could use to decide between Old Matthews and New Matthews. We might hold out hope for a way to move forward. But, depressingly, digging further one discovers that statements about the proper use of reconciliation over the years are even more contorted than Matthews, and likely to encourage yet more cynicism.

For instance, in April 2005, Democrats in Congress, discussing tax cuts proposed by the Bush administration, seemed almost enraged by the suggestion that reconciliation might be used at all, for tax cutting or anything else. Then Senator Obama, for example, warned ominously that use of reconciliation might "change the character of the Senate forever", resulting in "majoritarian absolute power on either side", which is "not what the Founders intended". And Hillary Clinton castigated President Bush about his reconciliation plans, warning against his foolish, childish, and sure to be destructive desire to just "change the rules, do it the way I want it done". It's a "bridge too far", she fulminates. "Restrain yourself". New York Senator Charles Schumer joins in, taking up the dire "our Union is at stake" tone struck by Senator Obama: "We are on the precipice of a crisis, a Constitutional Crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this Republic, are about to be evaporated, by the Nuclear Option". And, interestingly, no less than current Senate leader Harry Reid weighed in on this dangerous technique, arguing against reconciliation (again on deep Consitutional grounds), pointing out that the "filibuster serves as a check on power and preserves our limited government".

Okay, history lesson over; back to our present concern, health care. On this issue Mr. Reid says flatly, as early as November last year, that "I’m not using reconciliation", which squares with his zeal for supermajorities and filibusters back in 2005, but fast forward a few months, and his office now announces that it's a "real possibility". And it seems President Obama has recovered from his grave concerns about majoritarian government thwarting what the Founders intended, and is now apparently preparing for the reconciliation process with House leader Pelosi and Reid. Of course, Left-leaning Schumer now supports reconciliation (again, he's recovered from all that "Constitutional crisis" business that had him apoplectic in 2005), and while Ms. Clinton is out of the line of fire on domestic issues as Secretary of State, it's reasonable to assume that she's much more sanguine about the Congress, and the Administration, controlling itself and resisting the stupid "my way or the highway" urge to improperly use reconciliation that she had to endure in the Bush years as Senator of New York. My, how times do change.

At any rate, my central thesis here is that politicians say a lot, and much of what they say is contradictory, and that if we're not careful, the rest of us will get sucked into cheerleading for them (and so the rest of us will end up promulgating contradictory views, like Old and New Matthews, which is bad). Exactly how all of this happens, again and again, is somewhat of a mystery to me. For instance, how is it that partisan politicians and their supporters seem always to believe that only the Other Side has these embarrassing problems with consistency and hypocrisy, never them? How is it, for example, that liberal blogs like Think Progress can finger point at Republicans who used reconciliation in years past, but who now oppose it with health care (as if Think Progress had ferreted out the one true case of inconsistency in the current debate). Such analysis of course blithely disregards the reasonable-sounding distinction between past uses of reconciliation for budgetary matters (including taxation rates) and the current interest in its use for social program expansion. It ignores moderate Democrats who express concern about the use of reconciliation for health care. It ignores the dire concern of Democrats, including Obama himself, when discussing reconciliation not five years ago. Think Progress doesn't seem concerned about any of this, because the hypocrisy is all over there, with the Republicans, you see. There's no need to think about it any further.

So, it's hard not to get cynical. Who cares what they say? The debate just keeps moving along, contradictions, hypocrisy, and all. As Left Wing comedian Bill Mahrer recently asked on his "Real Time" show on HBO, revealing marvelous ignorance of the history of reconciliation: "what's wrong with a simple vote?". What is wrong with a simple vote, anyway? Perhaps he might have asked Mr. Obama that in 2005.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Going Green with Green

In Austin, TX, the City Council is set to vote on a "going green" initiative that would increase use of renewable energy sources from the current 11% to 30% by 2020. Average energy bill for residents would increase by an estimated 20%, or to about $120/month from $100/month. Some Austinites have complained that Austin Energy's proposal does not go far enough, while others wonder about the effect on lower income residents (aka "the poor"). Even so, proponents of the plan argue that cap and trade type measures are inevitable, and that in the long run coal burning will prove costlier than switching to renewable sources.

For Austinites weighing these outcomes, the case of Boulder, Co.--another hipster city with green ambitions--suggests that the hard-nosed "just get on with it" proposal from Austin Energy may be right-headed. In "kooky" Boulder, residents bike to work at 20 times the national average, and the city in 2006 approved the nation's first "carbon tax" at $21 a year per household, to help pay for energy conservation programs. But Boulder is at present more of a cautionary tale than a model for going green. In spite of aggressive measures to encourage (and perhaps soon to force) residents to adopt conservation technologies like energy efficient light bulbs, low flow showerheads, and programmable thermostats, carbon emissions reduced by barely 1% between 2006 and 2008, and are 27% higher than 1990 levels, worse than the U.S. average of 15%. What gives?

Perhaps ironic, given the Bobo-esque marriage of Bohemian lifestyle and high-tech gadgetry in Boulder--mountain bikes, hiking boots, and iPods are not a strange trio--is the fact that the near ubiquitious use of tech gadgets is part of Boulder's problem. Conservation measures such as motion detector lights in classrooms at the University of Colorado, for instance, are negated by the proliferation of iPods, cellphones, and laptops by students and faculty. Add to this, sales of high tech recreational devices like big screen TVs continue to skyrocket in Boulder (and elsewhere), and the energy savings of buying powerstrips and other peripherals for such power-hungry devices pales in comparison. In short, going green and going high tech are, at present, in tension, as the situation in Boulder is making clear (see full story here).

Two observations emerge from this survey of Boulder's Green Dreams. One, energy conservation is too often viewed as a "feel good" lifestyle choice, when in fact true conservation steps require the kind of sacrifices that few are willing to make. Giving up a gas guzzling Buick or pickup truck in favor of a popular, sexy hybrid model is one thing; using the computer at the public library instead of carrying a laptop around is another. Likewise, installing an energy saving power strip for the 65 inch Plasma is one thing; going with a 25 inch "low tech" TV (or foregoing use of recreational devices like TVs altogether) is another. And so on.

Two, the real problem with Boulder, coming to light even as the city contemplates increasingly Draconian measures to make better headway on carbon emissions, is the fact that coal is still the primary energy source there. The lesson is: it's very difficult to reduce emissions without switching to renewable sources and chucking the coal. One can't just "phase in" conservation on the consumer side, with feel good measures like using recyclable plastics, and so on. It doesn't have much of an effect, and the measures consumers could adopt that might actually help, many simply aren't willing to do. We aren't about to give up our cell phone, laptops, and TVs, in Boulder or anywhere else. In consequence, energy consumption in American cities like Boulder is a case of, as they say, "robbing Peter to pay Paul", as the consumer economy jettisons older technologies in favor of new ones, all the while consuming, consuming, consuming.

The point is, the logical consequence of taking energy conservation seriously--sitting in the dark with one's laptop turned off, perhaps--is hardly the "feel good" vision of Going Green we envision. It should be fun to Go Green, shouldn't it? On the other hand, the case of Boulder suggests that the "feel good" green measures are, really, largely ineffective (and hence a bit silly). If we want to really Go Green, we can start with accepting higher energy costs. But, in this case, we can keep the laptop and just pull out the wallet. Go Green with Green, you know what I mean? Sounds like a new slogan for Austin.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Freedom Agenda

Fukuyama argues in the WSJ today that the Obama administration has erred in rejecting the Bush "freedom agenda" of promoting democracy in the Middle East in favor of a Realpolitik approach that provides support to existing regimes, as a quid pro quo for information about terrorists. We've gone back to dealing with "Arab strongmen", as Fukuyama puts it. Case in point, the $70 million in security aid the U.S. gave to Yemen, a country ruled by the corrupt regime of President Saleh, who has squelched democratic reform and installed family members into his government, which functions in the all-too-familiar illegitimate authoritarian fashion of many Arab countries in the region.

Though the Bush "freedom agenda" became associated with the unpopular Iraq War, and sustained further damaged by tying it too closely to the military objectives of the War on Terror (think: the conspicuous refusal of the Bush administration to recognize the apparently legitimate Palestinian election of Hamas in 2005), Fukuyama argues that "the core premises of the Freedom Agenda remain essentially correct". What the Bush administration sought to accomplish, ultimately, was a more democratic Middle East, dragged (kicking and screaming, if necessary) into an embrace of political democracy and individual liberties by a foreign policy that tied support in the region to verifiable democratic reforms, not just to information from "Arab strongmen" that may prove helpful for our own short-term national security interests. The Bush administration got it essentially right, in other words, because they saw that the threat to the West from the Middle East cannot be expurgated, and may well fester and grow, as long as the authoritarian, anti-democracy regimes dominate the region, unchallenged by our dollars or our ideas.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But Bush Did It

"But Bush did it, too." This is effectively Obama's defense of his Administration's treatment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (to Katie Couric, in an interview he did just before the Super Bowl) after Abdulmutallab's detainment following the failed Northwest airlines terror plot. His "defense", of course, is perfectly reasonable only if the Bush administration policies he referred to were substantively right. Hmm.

At issue was the "Mirandizing" of Abdulmutallab 50 minutes after his detainment; reading him his Miranda rights meant then that he had a right to remain silent. For obvious reasons this hasn't gone unnoticed by the rest of us. But Obama's recent strategem of pointing out that "Hey, Bush did it with Richard Reid (the "Shoe Bomber")" perhaps salvages the battle at the expense of jeopardizing the Left's War: Bush was supposed to be dead wrong on the merits of homeland security policy and terrorism (and stupid and incompetent when explaining his policies and carrying them out).

Obama, for his part, is in effect vindicating the Bush years by defending his actions on terrorism in terms of their fit with the former Administration. This is evident also in the recent "walk back" of Holder's decision to try KSM in New York City, a decision that now mayor Bloomberg has openly challenged. The decidedly non-Bush-like suggestion to give KSM a public, civilian trial with all its trappings (lawyers, media spotlight, et cetera) is now in the midst of dying the death of a thousand qualifications, the most onerous perhaps Obama's own suggestion that the trial would guarantee a guilty verdict. This assertion, while ostensibly aimed at making a nervous public feel better about the whole business, is in fact most damaging of all: not only does a guaranteed guilty verdict make a mockery of the notion of a "fair trial", it highlights the fact that, even were KSM to be found innocent by the machinations of his legal team, the Administration would be forced if by nothing else than public outrage to promptly throw him back in military confinement. In which case, why bother with the trial?

Ah yes, military confinement. AKA Guantanamo Bay, AKA the place that will never close. Which brings us to our last bit of Bush-had-it-right-on-terror. Obama's deadline to close Gitmo is long past, and it's becoming increasingly apparent that its existence, while perhaps "grotesque" to the Left (apologies to A Few Good Men fans), is perhaps necessary. Begin with the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) attitude that has settled on members of Congress(including among Democrats, ostensibly in favor of atoning for these sins of the Bush administration). Add to it the sudden reticence of the European Left to embrace sending them over the Atlantic. End with the observation that, again, the Gitmo solution, while certainly not perfect, has a certain logic to it that becomes apparent to all but the most Chomskian of critics in proportion to the serious consideration of alternatives.

So, we now see that Bush wasn't so dumb after all. Or maybe Cheney wasn't so evil. They can't be, you see. They're now Obama's defense, and as the Gitmo and other issues persist, they're now his policies.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dig Up the Martin Act

Let's see if NY AG Cuomo, of former Fannie and Freddie fame, can ride the populist "we need a boogey man!" sentiment long enough to get something to stick against BoA. He's starting with the 1921 Martin Act, along with a bunch of charged rhetoric about disclosure and irresponsibility that seems to generate more heat than light on how and why the 2007-8 Credit Crisis happened. Oh well, it's politics, after all.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Bureaucracy Eats its Own

Leave it up to Philip K. Howard, irrepressible lawyer who wrote the book "Life Without Lawyers", to cut to the chase on the problem with too much bureacracy. Here's his response, in WSJ today, to Obama's "We can put America to work today building the infrastructure of tomorrow" claim in the State of Union speech:

"But America can't build new infrastructure because no one has the authority to say "go." Nearly endless environmental review, followed by years of litigation by anyone who doesn't want the project, will make it impossible to put a shovel in the ground for a new project for years.

Too much law always causes paralysis. Environmentalists wanted legal power to stop bad projects, and now find themselves unable to build good projects. Real people must have responsibility to make these decisions—that's what government is for. Cut the environmental review process to a year or two at most."

Right on Phil.

Check out his Common Good project at www.commongood.org. The full WSJ editorial is here.