Monday, December 20, 2010

But some are more equal than others

I apparently need to get out more often, because it turns out that right under my own nose was proof that I spoke too soon the other day when I cautiously marveled that the conservative bloviation machine seemed to have tired this year of its annual fear-mongering story about "the war on Christmas."

Friday, December 17, 2010

You can always beat an honest man

In Walking the Tightrope of Reason, the philosopher Robert Fogelin relates that someone once drew a useful distinction between two kinds of skeptics: both accept the limitations of rationality and knowledge, the difference being that "East Coast skeptics" find this deeply troubling while "West Coast skeptics" find it liberating.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some of my best friends are Calvinists

Whenever I write about the environment on this blog, I get a lot of interest from the global warming skeptics, and judging by my NORAD-command-post-type situation room map that shows where in the world my readers are at any moment, a lot of them live in places where you'd think people would positively be praying that the global warming scientists are right:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Some of my best friends . . .

Who says we won't have Nixon to kick around any more?

Nixon is indeed the gift that keeps on giving: From even beyond the grave that unmistakable voice periodically speaks with fresh fulminations about liberals, Jews, blacks, and (in the batch of new White House tapes released just the other day) even the Irish and Italians. (According to Nixon's deep sociological analysis, the Irish drink a lot.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sins of emission

Far be it from me to defend the capitalist system, but can't environmental organizations recognize that economic activity counts for something?

Invariably whenever the subject of carbon emissions, energy use, or other instances of mankind's global "footprint" arises, the standard environmentalist narrative is all about how big the average American's shoe size is.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hey, didn't you guys lose?

Back at the centennial of the Civil War, South Carolina, which one might think had a lot to answer for in the first place, got things off to a rousing start by holding the opening conference of the national centennial commission at a segregated hotel in Charleston, which meant the black member of New Jersey's delegation could not stay there. (After the intervention of the President of the United States, the meeting was moved to the nearby U.S. Navy base — which, as Federal property, was not subject to the state's segregation laws.)

It was a small symbolic point but it spoke to the larger fiasco of the entire centennial, which was imbued with the kind of mindless military pageantry, unstated but reactionary politics, and shallow antiquarianism masquerading as history that you can still see on display any weekend of the year where Civil War reenactors congregate. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adult supervision required

God knows one should not kick a man when he's down, and no one is downer these days than the old-fashioned print journalist.

Still, it is hard to read even the old-fashioned New York Times these days without cringing at stories filled with slipshod and overheated writing, tone-deaf colloquialisms, and patently obvious questions left begging for answers and contradictions left unexplained.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Know thyself

If you don't have a mirror handy to hold up when the Republicans who are now forcing through their prized extension of the Bush tax cuts come looking for the cause of the unending deficits that so horrify them, here's a handy chart to hold up instead. (Courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; basic data from the Congressional Budget Office):

We're No. 1!

Perhaps because they've been too busy peering under the cranberry sauce in search of socialists or unmasking the homos running airport security, our conservative defenders of traditional values have been commendably quiet this year about the "War on Christmas" that they usually trot out at this festive season.

I always thought that coming out in favor of Christmas was the ne plus ultra of that particular species of political schmuckiness which consists of casting demogogic pandering as lonely courage. But then came the spate of Republican politicians (may of them presidential hopefuls) who spent much of this year staking out the even more daring position that, in the inimitable words of the Iowa GOP state platform, "America is good."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cage rattling for fun and profit

Interest groups have long known, of course, that there's nothing like a terrifying tale to loosen the grip of donors on their wallets. The NRA routinely announces that the government is coming for your guns; Greenpeace that the whales, tigers, oceans, or planet are being annihilated.

Still, the NRA and Greenpeace actually do something with the money they raise. A few enterprising spirits came to realize, however, that terrifying people about public policy could be a complete business plan in itself; no need to actually spend time lobbying congressmen, preparing position papers, consulting with experts, building political coalitions, or any of the other tedious business of public policy.

We have an excellent example of this entrepreneurial spirit alive and well here in my very own Loudoun County, Virginia, in the form of one of our elected county supervisors, one Eugene Delgaudio, whose day job consists of running an outfit modestly named "The Public Advocate of the United States," whose cash-flow plan consists in its entirety of sending out heavy-breathing fundraising appeals warning of the advancing "homosexual agenda."

Exactly like the flim-flam scientific and medical charities I remember doing some investigative stories on years ago when I worked at Nature, "Public Advocate" spends almost all of its operating budget on fundraising operations (though, also like those bogus charities, it tries to define fundraising as "education," which reminds me of nothing so much as the Reagan Administration's brief attempt to define ketchup as a "vegetable" to save money in school lunch programs).

In any case, business at Delgaudio's "small office of volunteers and low-paid staffers" is apparently good, because for 30 years it's kept him supplied with the necessities of life. "Radical homosexuals will terrorize day care centers, hospitals, churches and private schools . . . You'll see men hand-in-hand skipping down to adoption centers to 'pick out' a little boy for themselves," reads a typical Delgaudio fundraising message. Almost all warn of impending congressional action on "The Gay Bill of Special Rights," "The Homosexual Classrooms Act," or other legislative initiatives that he alone seems to be aware of.

Delgaudio actually managed to make "The Daily Show" with one of his utterances (regarding the county government's anti-discrimination policy), but the other day he truly outdid himself, discovering that the TSA's "sexual assault searches" and "homosexual porno scanners" are also part of the "Gay Bill of Special Rights" — as is the agency's non-discrimination hiring policy altogether:
"That means the next TSA official that gives you an 'enhanced pat down' could be a practicing homosexual secretly getting pleasure from your submission."
I am sure most of this is calculated; business after all is business. Still, you do wonder sometimes about the obsessions on the right with certain topics; like the evangelical anti-pornography crusaders who see sex everywhere, there's something about it all that makes even a confirmed skeptic about Freud such as I am wonder whether he wasn't onto something now and then, especially with that business about "projection."

"They want us to think about homosexuals," Delgaudio once indignantly complained (the particular occasion was his protest against the county's anti-discrimination policy, which he termed "freaky, bizarre, and fruity"). "It's freaky," he continued — with such admirable command that it did not betray even the merest hint of irony — "because most don't think about homosexuals."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bad dogs and other psychics

Writing in the New York Review of Books about Jimmy Carter's recently published White House Diary, Gary Wills observes: 
Jimmy Carter is a better man than his worst enemy would portray him as. And his worst enemy, it turns out, is himself. At least, I cannot imagine a more damaging blow to his reputation than he delivers in White House Diary.
Perhaps the only thing more embarrassing in the book than Carter's egomaniacal obsession with recording for posterity every passing thought and every flare up of the presidential hemorrhoids, Wills points out, is the ex-president's excruciating credulity regarding the abilities of "psychics" to "help us with sensitive intelligence matters."

Carter writes in the book:
We've had several reports of this parapsychology working; one discovered the map coordinates of a site and accurately described a camouflaged missile site. . . . We had a session in the Situation Room concerning a parapsychology project where people can envision what exists at a particular latitude and longitude. . . . The proven results of these exchanges between our intelligence services and parapsychologists raise some of the most intriguing and unanswerable questions of my presidency. They defy logic, but the facts were undeniable.
Anyone who's seen a carnival fortune teller at work or who has a passing acquaintance with the psychic-debunking work of the magician James "The Amazing" Randi will recognize the method by which psychics perform their prodigal feats: sometimes it's as simple as knowing the answer ahead of time; usually it's by offering predictions so vague, and unbounded in advance by agreed-on definitions of what constitutes a correct result, that they can always be claimed as a success after the fact ("something special will happen today"); always it's by relying on the quirk of human psychology that is more impressed by a single correct coincidence than a 100 blank shots.

Exactly the same foibles explain the obsession of the security agencies with other pieces of pseudoscientific malarkey — notably the lie detector, aka polygraph. Study after study has shown that the polygraph, a piece of 19th century electrical-gizmo quackery, is no better than chance at detecting deception; still, agencies like CIA and NSA justify its use by citing its "successes," defined usually as instances in which an employee confronted with a "deceptive" polygraph result suddenly blurts out a confession.

The trouble of course with such after-the-fact justification is (a) a certain number of genuine culprits will be fingered just by chance by any methodology that produces a fair number of positive hits, even one that is purely random and (b) it totally ignores the false-positive rate, that is, the number of perfectly innocent people wrongly fingered. (The latter is not a trivial point; repeatedly it has happened that intelligence officers have lost their security clearances and jobs on the basis of this witch-doctory even though a single scrap of real evidence is never adduced before or after of any wrongdoing on their part. The polygraph methodology is even worse in this regard, in fact, in that cool pathological liars tend to breeze through while conscientious honest people tend to flunk it. One of the striking revelations in the internal NSA history I referred to the other day is that in every one of the serious spy scandals to ht the agency mentioned in the report, the employees who were betraying their nation to the Soviets passed a polygraph test.)

A new field ripe for pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo in the security biz, I fear, is now detection dogs. The business is absolutely booming for drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, money-sniffing dogs, illegally imported meat-and-plant sniffing dogs. But again, this is a perfect opportunity for the same flim flam. There's no real penalty for false positives, and the evidence is beginning to suggest that detection dogs generate a lot of false positives. (Excuse me: I was corrected by a guy from Homeland Security at a recent dog conference where I was giving a talk when I asked him about false-positives; he chastised me that the correct term is "nonproductive responses." And the rate, whatever you call it, is conveniently classified.) Likewise, there's enough people carrying some sort of stuff to keep dogs looking good no matter how scientific or unscientific the whole business is — you finger enough people, some of them are going to be bad guys.

The guy from Homeland Security actually I thought was even more revealing, in his answer to my question about the false-positive rate, when he said that part of the purpose of the dogs was "deterrence." Exactly: if you can make people think it works, it doesn't matter whether it's voodoo or not.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Good leaks and bad leaks

It's a truism that government secrecy is less about safeguarding national security than about covering asses: During the cold war it happened time and again that leaked intelligence secrets revealed not just something that our government knew about the Soviets but that the Soviets knew we knew — or vice versa. (The secret bombing of Cambodia, for example, could hardly have been much of a secret from the people the bombs were landing on; the only people in the dark, as always, were the American public.)

A vast amount is also classified through sheer inertia or habit. During the year I held a top secret security clearance, while working for the U.S. Congress, I can recall among the thousands of pages of classified materials I read a single piece of information that was a genuine secret, in the sense that it could plausibly harm American national security were it revealed; it had to do with a very specific capability of a weapons system then under development. Even the compartmentalized "codeword" intelligence material I saw (classified up the wazoo on the grounds that it could give away the capabilities of our intelligence collections systems) I very much doubt would have been any surprise to the Soviets.

During the Nixon Administration, more notoriously, secrecy invoked in the name of national security was used to hide political dirty tricks, domestic espionage on the White House's "enemies," and other sordid crimes.

More generally, though, Watergate struck a healthy blow against the entire notion (still much beloved by Dick Cheney, for one) that efficient government requires an umbrella of secrecy over internal policy deliberations so that decisionmakers may receive candid advice: a notion that, after all, goes against the very grain of democracy and the principle that the people have not just a right but a responsibility to be informed participants in the policy decisions made in their name.

There is no doubt that the latest WikiLeaks dump, of a quarter of a million State Department e-mail messages, is news. But if the aim was to strike another salutary blow at needless government secrecy, it makes about the worst possible case for a cause I for one am otherwise in much sympathy with. At first blush there is no whistleblowing here, no revelations of wrongdoing or corruption or rogue espionage plots or military adventurism, not even much in the way of history or insight into decisionmaking: all there is is indiscretion. And diplomatic channels are one of the very few realms of government where a case for across-the-board confidentiality actually has merit: wars have been triggered by diplomatic indiscretions less indiscreet than those contained in these leaked cables.

Many other commentators have already noted the grave damage that has been done to the ability of American diplomats to receive honest and accurate information about matters of the first importance in maintaining international security, promoting American values of human rights and democracy, and averting war; most stomach-churning of all is the thought that dissidents and human-rights activists in oppressive regimes who courageously took enormous risks in speaking to American contacts could find their courage rewarded with imprisonment, or worse.

In my recent talk about secrecy and intelligence history I quoted the observation that the government's obsession with secrecy promotes the public's obsession with conspiracy; as an observer both within and without the "black" world I'd also note that excessive secrecy breeds contempt for the entire system of secrecy: classification of the trivial makes it harder to protect the classification of the vital.


Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News has an insightful article on the state of government secrecy.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Historical evidence vs historical fantasy

The "how private property rights saved the Pilgrims" fairy tale that I wrote about the other day certainly has its ardent supporters. The problem is that it is a near-total fabrication — a fine specimen of the kind of hand-waving reasoning, glib anachronisms, and misuse of historical evidence that characterizes a great deal of what passes for historical "lessons" presented by the tea partyites.

The one kernel of actual historical evidence used to support this entire fantasy is Plymouth governor William Bradford's description of the discontent that the "common course" engendered among the colonists. But nowhere is there any evidence that this discontent produced famine or failure; indeed the first Thanksgiving was observed in 1621, the year after the Plymouth settlers arrived, as a celebration of their bountiful first harvest. Nor is it anything but the most naive kind of historical anachronism to call the "common course" of the Plymouth settlers "socialism" or "collectivism." Nor is there any evidence that the allocation of individual plots of corn land to each family in 1623 "saved" the Pilgrims, as the spinners of this right-wing allegory allege. Nor, for that matter, did this alteration in 1623 extend to anything like modern capitalism or property rights or free markets: as Bradford noted, the allocation of individual corn plots was for "only for present use" and conferred no right of inheritance; meanwhile, in every other respect the colony continued "to go on in the general way as before."

And, as I noted in my previous post, at Jamestown — where disaster and famine did occur — it was not because of the way property was held but because of the incompetence, greed, laziness, and false expectations of the settlers, who lacked practical skills. (And yes, Jamestown features in the same "socialist state"-to-"free market," failure-to-abundance fairy tales of the right; tea party supporter Dick Armey cited Jamestown in a speech at the National Press Club earlier this year making this same claim.)

But of course the real purpose of all of this historical fantasy-spinning is a false syllogism to begin with: an attempt to ominously equate perfectly mainstream ideas of every decent civilized society (such as, yes, universal access to basic health care) with Soviet-style collectivization. I don't know any sensible person who advocates the abolition of private property. I also don't know any sensible person who thinks that raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans by a tenth, or requiring polluters to clean up their act, or preventing financial institutions from endangering the entire free market system through irresponsible greed is "socialism," much less that it will destroy private property or the incentives of the free enterprise system.

Most sensible people in fact recognize that with all rights come responsibilities, indeed that rights cannot be successfully maintained without obligations and responsibilities; all the more so, when those who have benefited the most from private property rights owe the most to the commonweal: the educated workers they are able to hire, the justice system that protects and enforces property and contracts, and the social stability without which demagoguery, confiscation, and revolution ensue.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Victorious underdogs

I have just posted over at the "News and Reviews" section of my author website my article that appeared in MHQ on America's against-all-odds struggle in the naval War of 1812.

The article is a brief introduction to the themes and some of the key personalities (especially Secretary of the Navy William Jones, a man truly ahead of his time) that feature in my soon-to-be-released book Perilous Fight.

The War of 1812 was the strangest war in American history, one that deeply divided the nation, one that  in the words of Virginia's John Taylor was almost "a metaphysical war, a war not for conquest, not for defense, not for sport, but rather a war for honour, like that of the Greeks against Troy." But it offers some fascinating and remarkable lessons, not least how America one played the nimble David in a David-and-Goliath struggle against a far mightier military foe: what we'd call "asymmetric warfare" today. As a country more used to being caught in the role of the muscle-bound Goliath in more recent conflicts, it's an inspiring and still-relevant tale.

And you can read the Publishers Weekly review of my book here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Commies and cranberries

Living a sheltered life, I had to learn from the New York Times about an apparently widespread movement that has been working to recast Thanksgiving as a lesson in the evils of socialism and a celebration of the wonders of free enterprise.

According to the ever-reliable Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and various tea party websites, the original English settlers practiced a kind of collectivism is which all worked the land together and shared the proceeds; this led to bickering, thievery, idleness, and famine as the settlers refused to toil when they could not each reap the benefits of their own work. Only when they abandoned such dangerous socialist ideas and divvied up the land into individual privately-owned parcels did they at last enjoy a bountiful harvest . . . which is what we are actually celebrating at Thanksgiving. (Of course, no right-wing historical revisionism is complete without a conspiracy theory and a sense of victimization at the hands of the liberal elite: so it turns out that this "real reason for Thanksgiving" was "deleted from the official story," according to one widely circulated retelling that has appeared on tea party blogs.)

Actually, the first English colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia did work together, but this was neither the cause of their misfortune nor a reflection of any utopian, much less collectivist, spirit: the colonies were organized and backed by joint-stock companies of wealthy English merchants — and the settlers worked for the company.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

Most of the participants of the debacle at Jamestown listed their occupation as "Gentleman," which was defined at the time as, "Whosoever can live without manual labor." John Smith kept desperately requesting that the company send men who possessed some actual skills and who were willing to get off their rear ends and work, but to no avail: "When you sende againe I intreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, Gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths . . . than a thousand such as we have." Likewise he advised the Puritans, planning their colony in Massachusetts, "One hundred good labourers better than a thousand such Gallants as were sent to me, that would do nothing but complaine, curse, and despaire, when they saw all things clean contrary to the report in England."

The "report in England" had promised nothing so much as a get-rich-quick scheme, and it was good old capitalist avarice, not socialist idealism, that propelled most of these "Gallants" to the New World. Poems, plays, books, sermons preached from pulpits in London all painted America as a literal "Paradise" where the natives cooked in pots and pans of solid gold, plucked emeralds and rubies off the ground, and

Where Nature hath in store
Fowle, Venison, and Fish,
  And the Fruitfull'st Soyle
  Without your Toyle,
Three Harvests more,
All greater than you Wish
So here's an alternative interpretation of the Thanksgiving story:

A bunch of overprivileged toffs, backed by off-shore capitalist speculators, expected to live idly off the work of others (when they weren't simply plundering treasure off the natives), and nearly starved to death from their own greed and idleness. (In Jamestown, they did starve to death.) Only when they faced up to the fact that they were going to have to work for a living, and threw off their foreign corporate masters, did they begin to prosper. And that is why we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The end.

Friday, November 19, 2010

What the founders REALLY thought (2)

In his private correspondence, George Washington was particularly scornful of the argument advanced by opponents of the Constitution that it gave too much power to the national government.

"The Men who oppose a strong & energetic government are, in my opinion, narrow minded politicians, or are under the influence of local views," he wrote Alexander Hamilton.

Or, as he expounded on the matter in another letter: "No man is a warmer advocate for proper restraints and wholesome checks in every department of government than I am; but I have never yet been able to discover the propriety of placing it absolutely out of the power of men to render essential Services, because a possibility remains of their doing ill."

The framers of the Constitution were unarguably concerned that the power of government might be abused, but they were equally concerned that the general government be — as Washington put it — "strong & energetic" enough to carry out the duties of good governance. (And, by the way, despite the incredibly doctrinaire assertion by the tea partyites and their libertarian fellow travelers that the only legitimate purpose of government is to guard individual liberty, you would be hard pressed to find anyone among the founding generation who took so crabbed a view.)

Their concern was not that a powerful Federal government was in itself a threat to liberty (as I noted in my previous post, on the contrary the framers saw a powerful general government as the best guarantor of the rights of all against the factionalism, local interests, and unjust tendencies of the state legislatures); it was not, as the tea party comic book version has it, that government power was in itself tyrannical; they were rather concerned about three very specific problems which might lead to tyranny — and, strikingly, all three were evils that the founders saw not as stemming from the power of the Federal government but rather as inherent in the machinery of democracy itself: it was too much democracy, rather than too little, that they feared.

One, which seems quaint today but which greatly occupied their thoughts, was foreign influence and the danger that elections left the country vulnerable to such intrigues. "As often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs," John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson. (Adams, in fact — with more than a little justice in light of later experience — was suspicious of elections altogether for the opportunities for corruption they presented: "Elections, my dear sir, Elections to offices which are great objects of Ambition, I look at with terror. Experiments of this kind have been so often tryed, and so universally found productive of Horrors, that there is great Reason to dread them.")

Second was the tyranny of the majority I wrote about the other day: the danger that a majority made up of one religious sect, one economic class, or dominated by one region would favor its interests at the expense of the minority.

Third was a fear that the presidency would devolve into a de facto monarchy, perhaps even a hereditary one.

But Washington, for one, argued with some passion that even these fears were being grossly exaggerated by local politicians who simply feared their own oxen being gored. Ultimately, the government could exert no power that the people would not accede to through representatives of their own choosing and who were subject to recall at the next election. The popular cant that portrayed any exercise of power by government officials as "tyranny," he said, was simply a smokescreen for factional and local interests:

It is agreed on all hands that no government can be well administered without powers; yet the instant these are delegated, altho' those who are entrusted with the administration are no more than the creatures of the people, act as it were but for a day, and are amenable for every false step they take, they are, from the moment they receive it, set down as tyrants; their natures, one would conceive from this, immediately changed, and that they could have no other disposition but to oppress. 

Of these things, in a government constituted and guarded as ours is, I have no idea; and do firmly believe that whilst many ostensible reasons are assigned to prevent the adoption of it, the real ones are concealed behind the Curtain, because they are not of a nature to appear in open day.

By the way, why do the tea partyites look upon the Constitution with a reverence bordering on idolatry while simultaneously making a cult of Patrick Henry (or at least his name) — who was one of the most implacable foes of ratification?    

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Soak the poor!

It has been one of the fondest dreams of plutocrats, big business, and libertarian think tanks for the better part of the last hundred years to replace as much of the income tax as possible with a national sales tax, the better to shift the tax burden from the whiny wealthy to the uncomplaining multitudes. Coolidge's and Hoover's Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, pushed the idea in the 1920s; in 1932, with the budget deficit approaching 60 percent of expenditures, members of both parties endorsed a national sales tax in the face of strong urging by industry and the "experts" of the need to balance the budget at all costs. Only a mass revolt by the public — mail poured into congressional offices opposing the idea — stopped its final passage.

Still, libertarian think tanks like Cato periodically dust off the notion and extol its wonders (they are particularly enamored of the the idea that with a sales tax, individuals get to "choose" the amount of tax "they are willing to pay" by deciding how much to spend).

Now, the latest entry from the burgeoning number of do-it-yourself-solve-the-deficit committees has  proposed a 6.5 percent "Debt Reduction Sales Tax" — once again seeking to use the Federal budget deficit as an opportunity to rally around this egregiously regressive form of taxation.

The one good thing is that people are also beginning to talk about increasing the income limit subject to Social Security payroll tax; currently only the first $106,800 of income is subject to the 6.2 percent payroll tax (12.4 percent for us self-employed persons which, along with paying for all of your own health insurance, are two of the great joys of being your own boss); everything after that is tax-free, which as a tax policy that has always been completely nuts, if politically explainable.

The highly regressive effect of the payroll tax means that those in the lower brackets pay a much greater percentage of their total income for payroll taxes than do the higher brackets, and contribute a substantially greater percentage of the total revenues collected. Here's a chart I compiled (data from the non-partisan Tax Policy Center) showing the percentage of total payroll tax revenue and percentage of all Federal tax revenues (payroll, income, estate, corporate) contributed by each income bracket:

Another way to think about the regressive structure of the payroll tax is to calculate the effective tax rate by bracket; this chart shows the percentage of income actually paid on average by those in each bracket, comparing payroll tax and Federal income tax:

It is good that serious people are trying to initiate that much-talked of and so far little realized "adult conversation" about the budget. But the effort to use a sudden sense of crisis — much of that generated by the disastrous policies of those "fiscal conservatives" Reagan and Bush — to revive regressive tax schemes is a very old tune. A good place to start balancing the budget would be to restore the modestly higher marginal rates on the upper brackets that last brought us balanced budgets and even surpluses under Bill Clinton, eliminate tax loopholes, and shift the payroll tax to a more progressive structure by removing the $106,800 income limit. As the New York Times's do-it-yourself fix-the-deficit interactive calculator shows (you too can be infinitely more responsible than the GOP's "Pledge to America"!), that alone would close more than 3/4 of the short-term budget shortfall and half of the long-term gap.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What the founders REALLY thought (1)

Reading the correspondence of Madison and Washington regarding the ratification of the Constitution, I continue to be struck by how their actual views are so much at odds with the caricatured views presented as gospel by the tea partyniks.

Again and again, far from seeing a strong Federal government as a threat to liberty, they saw it as the essential guarantor of liberty against the tyranny of popular majorities.

Standard textbook histories portray the decision to call a constitutional convention as a reaction to the weakness of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, notably the lack of taxation power. And to be sure the founders often spoke of the need for a new arrangement that would give the Federal government the power necessary to perform its essential duties; as Madison wrote in Federalist No. 37, "Energy in Government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to the prompt and salutary execution of the laws, which enter into the very definition of good Government."

But, as Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the "inadequacies of the Confederation" were actually a far less important impetus for the new Constitution than was the manifest failure of the states to "secure individuals agst. encroachments on their rights." Madison observed that while representative government by definition must bow to the will of the majority, majorities made up of any one faction — economic, regional, religious — inherently tend to become oppressive and even tyrannical towards competing factions. And all experience has shown, he said, that neither concern for the general welfare of society, nor concern for one's individual reputation and character, nor even religious scruples were sufficient to overcome the power of self-interest of men acting together in such majorities. (Religion, he sharply noted, "has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it." All the more so, he said, when it is reinforced by the herd mentality, "the sympathy of a multitude" that makes men acting on the "strongest of religious ties . . . join without remorse in acts agst. which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets.")

The only check that Madison saw against such a tendency toward self-interest and oppression was a government encompassing enough that no one faction of local interest, economic class, or religious sect could expect to dominate it — so that "no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit." A powerful Federal government that represented the entire country would counterbalance the tendency toward majoritarian tyranny, injustice, and bad government all too manifest in the states.

Of course, that has been precisely the history of the United States: time and again, it has been the Federal government which has been able to act to protect the rights and liberties of all against the  tyranny of locally powerful and entrenched interests. It was the Federal government that summoned the will that states and localities could not to require railroads and mine owners to take even the most rudimentary steps to protect the safety of their workers, to require drug makers to stop selling dangerous quack products to the public at large, to restore to African Americans the voting rights that had been stolen from them at gunpoint and then by legal chicanery and intimidation for a hundred years, to end segregation, to bring to justice corrupt politicians — not to mention white supremacist murderers — who had long been protected by local judges, juries, and prosecutors.

Monday, November 15, 2010

War's apologists

Apologists for George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq — including George W. Bush, who writes in his new memoir that the cause was "eternally right" — point out, quite unexceptionably, that the war accomplished something, even if not the something it was supposed to.

Bush had the decency at least to portray himself as "sickened" by the discovery that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction — before going on to trumpet the war for having eliminated a brutal and threatening regime and instituted democracy (of a sort) in an important Arab country; more-ideological defenders of the war just brush aside the matter of WMD as if it were some nit-picking detail.

(Less logically impressive as a retroactive justification for the war is the oft-repeated mantra that the "surge" "worked," which is rather like endorsing arson on the grounds that such an excellent job was finally done putting out the ensuing blaze. One champion of this line of argument is the otherwise-often sensible David Brooks, who in a column last summer managed to equate liberals who opposed the surge with conservatives who insist that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim.)

It is also a fair point to note that many of the arguments made against the Iraq war are made against every war. Just as every war in American history has been championed by its supporters with soaring talk of honor and freedom, so every war has been damned by its opponents with bitter talk of war profiteers and bereaved mothers.

(The American communists who furiously opposed America's entry into World War II — until they  deliriously championed it following Hitler's attack on Soviet Russia — managed to flip from one to the other with an agility that still must hold a record; at the start of 1941 Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were writing and singing anti-war songs that told of the evil capitalists out to make cannon fodder of Billy Boy:

Can you use a bayonet, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Do you want a silver medal, charming Billy?
No desire do I feel to defend Republic Steel
I'm a young boy and cannot leave my mother.

or defiantly insisted:

Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain't gonna send me 'cross the sea . . .

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,
Seems to me they both agree,
They both agree on killin' me

and a few months later they were belting out rousing choruses of "Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?" and "Round and round Hitler's grave.")

But the question is never whether wars are likely to accomplish something, or whether wars bring death and suffering; the question is whether a war's accomplishments are likely to be worth the sure cost they exact. And one of the most frightening historical facts to emerge about the Iraq war is how little — correct that, no — thought was given to this most basic question by the war's architects.

Bush claimed in his interview on NBC two weeks ago that he himself was "a dissenting voice . . . I didn't want to use force. I mean force is the last option for a President." But as newly declassified government records posted last month by George Washington University's "National Security Archive" make abundantly plain, the war was such a foregone decision in the Bush administration that no decision was ever even made; as the Archive notes (thanks to The Economist's "Lexington" for first calling my attention to this):

Some Bush officials insist the war decision was made just before the March 2003 invasion. The evidence does not support that construction. . . . Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under Colin Powell, observes, “Never to my knowledge, and I’m pretty sure I’m right on this, did the President ever sit around with his advisors and say, ‘Should we do this or not?’ He never did it.” George J. Tenet of the CIA agrees. He wrote, “There never was a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.” And again, based on conversations with colleagues, “In none of the meetings can anyone remember a discussion of the central questions. Was it wise to go to war? Was it the right thing to do?”

Dwight Eisenhower, a man no one can accuse of sentimentality or pacifism, understood that war was truly a last resort precisely because its consequences were unfathomable and ungovernable, even when the cause was necessary and just. Amid talk in right-wing circles of launching a "preventive war" against the Soviets in the late 1940s, Eisenhower delivered several sharply-worded warnings that "war settles nothing": by its very destructive power it invariably unleashes as many new problems as it solves.

An honest accounting of the consequences of the Iraq war would include some legitimate accomplishments for good; it would also include:

  the strengthening of Iran, which is almost certain (unlike Saddam's Iraq) to soon possess nuclear weapons;

  the death of Iraqi Christianity and the mass exodus of the country's secular intelligentsia;

  the diversion of U.S. and British troops and firepower from Afghanistan and the hunt for Bin Laden;

  and (worst of all to my thinking) the vitiation of American moral authority to summon armed resistance to any future, and potentially far graver, threats

One of the reasons I find the much-neglected War of 1812 such a fascinating study is because of what it vividly shows about the unpredictable consequences of war; for complex reasons, the War of 1812 was a one of those very rare conflicts in which a military stalemate was transformed into an enduring political triumph, both at home and abroad. (In part it was because America went into the war such an utter underdog; in more recent wars America has more often played the role of the muscle-bound giant obliging played by Great Britain back in 1812.)

Far more typical are wars that are won on the battlefield only to be lost in the peace — and in the ensuing seismic disruptions that war inescapably brings.


I have just posted at the "News and Reviews" section of my author website a pdf of the talk I gave this year at the Society for Military History conference on the political ramifications of American and British war strategies in the War of 1812.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More on Snooze's last snore

In response to my post about the demise of U.S. News & World Report, one of my old colleagues just sent me several of his fond recollections of the place, including one that I had unaccountably forgotten from my time there.

During my twelve years at the magazine the proprietor, one Mortimer B. Zuckerman, went through no fewer than five different editors; the shortest-lived was Roger Rosenblatt, who lasted a scant year. Roger came in with a whirlwind of energy and humor and was a wonderful person to work with in many ways; in retrospect it should have been clear that he was not going to last long from the way he almost immediately began making remarkably indiscreet — though invariably hilarious — cracks about Mort.

The magazine had been nominated for a National Magazine Award and Roger had gone up to New York to sit with Mort at the awards luncheon where the final winners would be announced. As soon as the lunch was over Roger called one of the other top editors back in Washington.

 "I have good news and bad news," said Roger.

 "Give me the bad first," the editor said.

 "We didn't win. Conde Nast Traveler won in that category."

 "Too bad. What's the good news?"

 "Mort shot himself."

U.S. News, R.I.P.

Journalists are a bunch of softies. While they have a paying job all they can do is bitch and moan and make cynical cracks about what a rag they work for; but when a paper folds, nobody gets more mawkishly sentimental and misty-eyed reminiscing about its bygone glories.

These days when papers and magazines fold in the wink of an eye, death by Internet scarcely merits a mention, much less a tear. Even the once mighty and great are barely squeaking through as ad pages, circulation, and revenues plummet. Exceptions like the Washington Post Company, which just reported "sharply higher" earnings, are exceptions only because they had the wit to cut their losses in the dead-end business of reporting and delivering the news long ago. The Post earlier this year threw the rotting carcass of Newsweek overboard (well, they got $1 for it, a pretty fair price considering that the mag was losing close to $50 million a year); but years ago the company decided to concentrate less on news and more on easy pickings like anxious parents of college-bound underachievers (the Kaplan test-prep business now supplies three-quarters of the company's operating income) or politicians in urgent need of likening their opponents to snarling rabid illegal-immigrant-loving jihadists (the Post's half-dozen TV stations reported income up 68 percent in the third quarter, much of that from political advertising in the just-concluded midterm elections).

So I will try to manfully resist the urge to wax too sentimental over the news of late last week that my erstwhile employer, U.S. News & World Report, will cease publication in December.

Even through the mists of time and nostalgia, there is much that looks stodgy, ludicrous, self-important, and just plain dull about the traditional weekly newsmagazine. And U.S. News possessed added dimensions of unlovable absurdity unique among the once-great triumvirate of newsweeklies. Whenever we felt ourselves in danger of running short of cynical self-pity, we used to leaf through the bound volumes of back issues, particularly from the pre-1973 era when the magazine's founder David Lawrence was still at the helm. U.S. News in the Lawrence age was not only stodgy but cluelessly conservative, and a few minutes of random page flipping was invariably rewarded with some masochistic amusement in the form of cringe-inducing headlines from the not-too-distant past (my personal favorite being the one on a story from the 1960s about the changing demographics of Washington, D.C., which read — I swear this is exactly accurate — "More and More Negroes All the Time").

And yet . . . you can say all you want about the inevitable impact of the Internet, the 24-hour news cycle, and the loss of the commanding place of the mainstream media, but the fact remains that the demise of U.S. News has as much to do with sheer stupidity, vanity, and greed as it does with the inexorable march of technology. And that is worth a word of lamentation even if not a tear.

I arrived there in 1986, two years after real estate developer Mort Zuckerman (invariably referred to in Spy magazine in those days as "the lisping demi-billionaire Mortimer B. Zuckerman") bought the place, and the Mort-induced chaos was even more comical than any of those old David Lawrence headlines; stories would be assigned and canceled multiple times in the course of a week, legions of new editors with vaguely defined duties would appear and disappear (a number of them with British accents, which apparently prevented Mort from realizing that they didn't have a clue what they were talking about), big-name neocon columnists would be hired at lavish sums and, it was clear, with fabulous promises of power, importance, and responsibility within the organization that, equally clearly, only they had been informed about; and when a writer actually did get to report and write a story that survived through the whole week, it would be edited and reedited by multiple layers of editors who not infrequently would pass the story back and forth, repeatedly deleting each other's edits and reinstating their own, while the hapless writer looked on with the kind of horrid fascination one might have while witnessing a slow-motion car crash.

My only real claim to fame in all of my years there was the time when one of those editors was "top-editing" a story I had already dealt with through multiple iterations. He was always affecting in his editorial queries the kind of tough-guy, green-eye-shade, staccato newsman's prose he thought made him sound like he knew what he was doing — all the more comical as it was the complete antithesis of his actual character — and he would pepper the stories he edited with comments of the ilk "WHO HE?" "WHAT MEAN?" and so on.

On this occasion he had typed in a "WHAT MEAN?" following one perfectly plain and patently clear sentence in the piece, and when I got the story back —  having by now absolutely had it with the whole business — I typed in, in reply:


My one contribution to the rich, and now vanished, newsroom lore of U.S. News.

Some day I may also reveal the story of how Mort's editorials were "written."

And yet . . . there was still enough of the venerable machinery of the old U.S. News in place to keep the magazine propelling itself along by sheer inertia, at least for a while anyway, through all the Mort-created turbulence; and in time I came to find those vestiges of the old magazine's approach and temperament and mindset not only admirable but, in a certain crazy way, even inspiring.

For one thing, the place was still unmistakably an institution when I arrived there; it took its obligations to its readers seriously, and everything about the old institutional structure of the place reinforced the idea that it was a serious business. There was a wonderful library that could put its hands almost miraculously on anything a writer asked for; there was a very capable "economics unit" that compiled statistics and data; there was great effort put into producing useful and accurate charts and graphs and tables; there were rafts of foreign and domestic correspondents, and people to transcribe tape recordings of interviews, and regular lunches and breakfasts for editors and writers with important newsmakers.

A few months into my tenure, still reeling from the new chaos more than I was yet appreciating the solidity of its old underpinnings, I remarked to a colleague that it seemed amazing that the magazine actually managed to come out every week.

He replied, "I used to think that too, until I realized there was nothing you could do to stop it from coming out."

The old formula of the weekly newsmagazine was admirable, I thought, and still do, in being focused on serving readers. There was a great deal of self-effacement about the (old) magazine's approach, for all of its seriousness about itself. Bylines were tiny and placed at the end of stories; photographs were small and the design unostentatious; and exactly (in fact) like (some) Internet news aggregators of late, the magazine's unflashy but worthy purpose was to pull together, out of an avalanche of information, the essential nuggets that would help people make sense of a confusing swirl of events. Simply put, in this older way of doing things, journalists didn't blow their own horns; they tried consciously to put themselves in the position of people who were not in the Washington power game; they did not worry about cutting a daring figure among the journalistic in-crowd: they tried more to be reliable guides than wise guys.

For proof that that is still a noble and useful mission — and one that people will part with good money for — there is no better evidence than The Economist, which charges a hundred bucks a year, has no bylines whatsoever, is serious and factual, and is growing leaps and bounds in a business otherwise sickening and dying. (Its ad revenues increased by an astounding 25 percent in 2008; circulation grew by more than 10 percent in 2009, and was even up a modest amount in the first half of this year, to more than 800,000. In every graph charting the decline and fall of the magazine industry, The Economist is that one line defiantly running the other direction.)

A few of us at Snooze in the 1990s kept pointing to The Economist as a model worth paying attention to. But it was a completely losing battle. On the one hand, there was Mort's inexperience, insecurity, and arrogance as an editor-in-chief and publisher that sent us lurching almost every week in a new direction — I think depending on which of his trendy (Manhattan, Long Island) or wonky (Washington) friends he last spoke with; one week he would order up a multi-page, news-free story on nuclear arms control theory informed mostly by a conversation he had had with some think-tank guru; another week he would furiously insist on lavish photo spreads chasing some sensational and already media-saturated story (memorably, Princess Di's death). Week after week commands would come down from on high to do a story that (a small amount of checking would invariably reveal) originated either in someone Mort talked to at a party or something Mort read in the New York Times; woe to the beat reporter who had real sources who knew that Mort's friend was full of kaka.

Meanwhile the explanatory and analytic journalism that was the essence, I always thought, of why anyone would read a weekly magazine in the first place was increasingly marginalized in the frenetic search for a new magic formula to "reinvent" the magazine.

(I should hasten to add that I have nothing in principle against rich owners, nor even against rich owners who try to run the publications they own. But the ones who succeed at it are the ones who bother to learn the business, and not just assume that because they made a fortune in real estate or consulting they are natural geniuses as editors and writers. The Washington Post Company is a fine example of this; Donald Graham, who succeeded his mother Katherine at the helm, first worked at everything from ad sales to local beat reporting on the Metro section to learn how the business actually worked. Before that, he was a D.C. cop for a few years, figuring that if he was going to be the proprietor of a major metropolitan daily, he really needed to know something about his town beyond what a privileged upbringing had given him. I'm still in awe of that example he set — all the more impressive for how rare such an attitude is. Mort, by contrast, did not even know the names of most of his own staff, much less what they did, or why.)

Undeniably, all of this editorial mishegas at U.S. News was abetted by the vanity of all too many writers and editors themselves. The political reporters all wanted their names in big type and to be big shots in journalistic circles so they could get on TV and rake in extra bucks on the lecture circuit; the photo editor wanted to win photo prizes and be able to brag in her circle about the famous big-name arty photographers whose work she commissioned; the "investigative" reporters wanted to "break" news (they never did, but always failed to do so at great length); the various brilliant senior editors were always vying to come up with a "smart take" or "fresh angle."

And then finally of course, after all the free-wheeling spending on famous American neocons and British-accented nonentities came the inevitable spate of equally mad penny-pinching. David Lawrence, for all of his reactionary ways, was a believer in employee ownership, and the old U.S. News had always treated its staff well. There weren't lavish perks of the kind you hear about from the flush days of Conde Nast or Time, but there was a sense of being valued and treated decently. The offices were designed well and efficiently; there was a pleasant cafeteria that was in many ways the hub of life at the office, where writers and editors who put it in long hours could take a break and bat around ideas and share anecdotes of politicians, wars, and mayhem they had covered in the past; and probably above all — beyond any personal comforts or perks — the experience of walking every morning into a handsome building with the name of the company over the doors out front and a conference room within that could seat the whole staff just made you feel you were working somewhere that mattered.

It took almost no time at all for the building to go from elegantly inspiring to something that made you feel you were experiencing first-hand the waning days of the Soviet Union. The cafeteria and library vanished, equipment was piled up in odd places, the large portraits of the former editors were stuffed away in a closet (and eventually damaged and discarded, I think), two floors including the conference room were sublet to a D.C. think tank, offices were replaced with those dreaded fabric-covered cubicles, and finally the U.S. News name was pulled off the building altogether as part of a deal giving the think tank even more of the space plus its own logo out front.

The effect on morale of things like that is not trivial. I'm sure there was a lot of waste in the pre-Mort days, but the Mort days brought nothing but penny wise and pound foolish decisions (along with some worse-than-foolish asset-stripping). I trace the moment when the last vestige of esprit de corps died to the day Mort's chief henchman appeared in the newsroom with some visitors in tow and loudly declared (in an accent I think he cultivated from careful study of "My Cousin Vinny"), "And this is where we keep the overhead." Charming guy. (Actually, as I recall now, he had earlier ingratiated himself to the staff by informing us — I think at the time we were about to lose the conference room and a few floors of the building — that as a once-employee-owned business there had been a "a lot of excessive life-style enhancement around here.") And then came the final death knell of news organizations everywhere, buyouts and layoffs.

I don't in the least regret the 12 years I worked there; I did well, I got to do interesting things, I learned a lot about writing and life, I made good friends who taught me a lot more about writing and life, and I left on my own two feet before the worst came. What I still resent, though, is that the guy who had the money to buy the place didn't love it and care about it even as much as we cynics did.

In announcing the decision to end print publication, a U.S. News official explained that the move "allows us to continue to grow our online business," which is the modern-day magazine's equivalent of the politician or executive who "wants to spend more time with his family," I suppose.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A first-class temperament

Gratuitous advice follows electoral defeats like buzzards follow the gut wagon, and since last Tuesday the experts have appeared in their customary thick flocks to tell President Obama where he went wrong: He attacked the Republicans too much or too little, he failed to communicate or failed to offer substance, he was too solicitous of his base or too neglectful of it, he set his sights too high or set them too low. He has been told he made a lame mistake in blaming George W. Bush for the nation's economic woes because people's memories are short; he has been told it was a fool's errand to try to work with Republicans rather than taking his case to the people; he has been told he erred in politics or in substance in letting a second-order priority like health care come to dominate political events for a year and distract, either in message or in substance, from the focus on the economy.

My previous post about FDR has had me musing for the last couple of days about the elusive nature of political leadership in a large and complex democracy. Franklin Roosevelt undeniably had circumstances in his favor: no one could forget the devastating proof the Great Depression had provided of the failed Republican policies of economic Darwinism, and even 12 years later, running for an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, FDR could land a hard jab at his foes simply by uttering the word "depression."

It was also a time when the president's voice spoke far louder than any president's can today in this age of blather overload; FDR's famous "fireside chats" reached an audience modern presidents can only wistfully dream of.

But FDR had something that no amount of advice can instill; that lazy word "charisma" doesn't come close to capturing the essence of it, for what he had was a character and temperament perfectly attuned to the simultaneous, and almost diametrically opposed, demands of high office and of rough and tumble politics. He had the patrician's unflappable self-confidence in himself without a hint of the pomposity of other aristocratic presidents (George Washington, a prime example); he had a hide as thick as a rhinoceros without a hint of the insensitivity and aloofness that usually accompanies that otherwise envious trait (Calvin Coolidge, a prime example); he had a sense of unshakable moral destiny without being troubled in the least by the fact that there were those who did not share his moral certainties (something that destroyed a moralist like Woodrow Wilson); he loved the intellectual details of policy without ever being consumed by them (the way Jimmy Carter or James Madison was).

And the reason FDR was such an absolutely skilled politician was that he unabashedly loved politics: he wasn't exaggerating in the least when he said, "I love a good fight." In retrospect it's easy to think that FDR had it easy, with a large Democratic majority in Congress and broad public demand for swift action, but reread how he handled Congress in the famous first "hundred days" and it's clear he played them like an accordion: working disparate constituencies, sending up tactically crafted measures to build momentum, sensing political timing and opportunity day by day. (James MacGregor Burns's Rendezvous With Destiny is still one of the best accounts of this.)

The more I study history and human nature the more I find myself convinced that (all of the political pundits and business schools and self-help gurus notwithstanding) the essential qualities of leadership simply cannot be learned; I'm not saying they are genetic — it's hard not to believe that part of FDR's remarkable character, particularly his extraordinary blend of self-confidence, equanimity under pressure, and fellow-feeling, owed much to his personal struggles with polio — but that they do stem from intrinsic temperament and character more than any other factor.

There was a passage in one of Anthony Trollope's "political" novels in which one of his characters is comparing three different prime ministers and how each responded to the burdens of office that I thought grasped this essence well: the leaders who can not only bear up under the pressures of vast responsibility, not only handle the practical politics of the job, but actually enjoy it too, do not come along every day. "The amount of trouble" that a man endures in the premiership, Trollope's character begins, "depends on the spirit and nature of the man":

Do you remember old Lord Brock? He was never troubled. He had a triple shield — a thick skin, an equable temper, and perfect self-confidence. Mr Mildmay was of a softer temper, and would have suffered had he not been protected by the idolatry of a large class of his followers. Mr Gresham has no such protection. With a finer intellect than either, and a sense of patriotism quite as keen, he has a self-consciousness which makes him sore at every point. He knows the frailty of his temper, and yet cannot control it. And he does not understand men as did these others. Every word from an enemy is a wound to him. Every slight from a friend is a dagger in his side. But I can fancy that self-accusations make the cross on which he is really crucified. He is a man to whom I would extend all my mercy, were it in my power to be merciful.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bring out smear no. 247

Another modest request from a historian to the giddy-with-victory Republicans in Congress: can't you come up with some imaginative, new stories to use against a Democratic president, rather than recycling oldies from decades or more ago?

The latest one making the rounds comes courtesy of the tea-party's perennially fact-challenged Rep. Michele Bachmann — who, when she isn't calling the president "very anti-American" and his administration "a gangster government," or urging the people of her native Minnesota to be "armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax," likes to invent interesting facts such as that the government now controls 51 percent of the American economy, or that Jimmy Carter (President of the United States, 1977–1981) was responsible for the 1976 swine flu outbreak and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (President of the United States, 1933–1945) for the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Bachmann — who is claiming her right to the No. 4 spot in the House leadership as a fitting reward for the tea partyniks' contribution to the GOP electoral victories — told CNN the other day that President Obama is spending "$200 million a day" of taxpayer money for his trip to India. Asked where she got this fact from, she said, “These are the numbers that have been coming out in the press.” Part of the story, repeatedly circulated by Rush Limbaugh and the usual chain-e-mails, was that "34 warships" had been dispatched for the president's trip as well.

This one unmistakably brings to mind the 1944 charge by Republican leaders that FDR had ordered a navy warship to fetch his dog. But FDR, being an old political campaigner from way back (who, in his own words "loved a good fight"), knew how to use an opportunity like this; and in a speech laced with deadpan sarcasm he used the GOP's own smear as the springboard for the take-no-prisoners opening assault to his 1944 reelection campaign:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks — on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but [brief dramatic pause] Fala does resent them.
   You know — Fala's Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself — such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as [small chuckle] "indispensable." But I think I have a right to object to libelous statements about my dog.
I'm just hoping Bachmann really slips one of these days and attacks Bo.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The blogger's lament

The Internet is a humbling place. On the one hand, one can reach gazillions of readers at the speed of light. On the other hand, one doesn't, since all of those readers are occupied looking at dirty pictures, posting comments in all capital letters for greater emphasis, or viewing the YouTube video consisting, in its entirety, of an overweight guy in a white T-shirt sitting on his tractor and digging a post hole with a tractor-mounted post-hole digger (40,000 views to date).

The other thing those readers are probably doing is writing their own blogs (I recently read that approximately 40% of all Koreans have their own blog, a great many of them devoted largely to pictures of things they've eaten at restaurants), or staring at the array of statistical displays, graphs, and maps with flashing dots that bear no small resemblance to NORAD's command center deep under a mountain in the Colorado Rockies, except that they're available for free, showing how many readers at that exact instant are reading their blogs, along with which words and phrases they have copied, and where in the world they are located. (Who is that person in Torre Di Mosto, Italy, who's reading this now? And, more important, why?)

I've actually enjoyed my experimental plunge into the blogosphere to date, largely because, as H. L. Mencken said of this kind of essay-writing (even if he may have been lying through his teeth when he said it, as Russell Baker suggests in a recent piece in the New York Review of Books), "My one purpose in writing I have explained over and over again: it is simply to provide a kind of katharsis for my own thoughts. They worry me until they are set forth in words."

On the other hand, I can see all too clearly where this is all heading; here is an informative graph tracing one writer's career trajectory, past and future (note the logarithmic scale):

Thursday, November 4, 2010

History and secrecy

I have posted over at the "News and Reviews" section of my author website the text of my invited lecture to the National Security Agency last spring about secrecy and intelligence history. (It will also be published in issue 25.6 of the journal Intelligence and National Security, which explains the funny British punctuation.)

I basically argue that the continuing, excessive secrecy surrounding Cold War signals intelligence and cryptology is bad not only for history but for intelligence itself.

You could hear the sound of one hand clapping at the end of my talk.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Come the revolution . . .

Well, finally — and at a cost of only $4 billion — the American people have succeeded in selecting  who will represent them in Washington for two whole years.

Since 1855, a house of Congress has changed political hands 34 times. I have little doubt that each of those 34 times, the newly victorious party has characterized the vote as a mandate for change and a rebuke to the previous incumbents' misguided ways.

For some reason, however, only Republicans seem to describe such victories (Reagan in 1980, Gingrich in 1994, Boehner in 2010, e.g.) as "revolutions," "historic," "monumental" (well, actually that was how Glenn Beck described his own achievements in contributing to the GOP victory yesterday), or (as the ever-eloquent Sarah Palin put it) "a big darn deal."

(Yes, I went back and looked at how Democrats and the media described the 2006 midterm election, in which Democrats wrested control of both the House and Senate away from the Republicans, and there was plenty of talk about a "message of change," but nothing about a "revolution" or anything close.)

Some of this rhetorical excess reflects the extraordinary success of the GOPs' spin campaign in casting themselves as the perpetual outsiders storming the citadel of establishment power (the "liberal elites" who run things, you will recall). But some of it I've always thought is a kind of subtle reverse-bias effect of the "liberal mainstream media," which treats Democratic victories as simply what is to be expected (even, as in 2006, when the Republicans had held control of both houses for 12 years), while GOP gains are shocking, amazing, surprising, and newsworthy, in the category of man-bites-dog.

It would be idle to deny that the Republicans succeeded in crafting a message that hit home with a majority of those who showed up at the polls yesterday. But I wonder if we could possibly be spared the hyperbole in describing the significance of an event that occurs on average every 5 years in American political history. And if it's a "revolution" when one house changes political hands (leaving the other house and the presidency in the hands of the opposing party), what term should we use to describe it when one party sweeps two, or even all three?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

We just don't call them "enemies"

John Boehner has been making much rhetorical hay on the campaign trail out of President Obama's urging Hispanic voters to punish their political "enemies" and support their "friends." (Boehner professed to be shocked that "today we have a president who uses the word 'enemy' for fellow citizens." Gee, didn't some American president use that term once before about fellow citizens — and follow it up by having their offices burglarized, their phones tapped, and their IRS returns audited? Well, that's so yesterday, I suppose.)

It's clear that Obama spoke carelessly; he meant to say "opponents." The Republicans, however, have made it clear that whatever they call the guys who are less than 100% with them, those guys are enemies: a story in the Washington Post today cites top GOP leaders relishing the opportunity they may soon have to punish corporations such as Wal-Mart that strayed from the fold by deigning to  work with the Democratic administration on legislation such as health-care reform and an increase in the minimum wage. (Boehner, for one, sent a letter to the pharmaceutical industry association chastising them for "cutting a deal with a bully.")

Well, I suppose that will be a "new tone in Washington" in one way.

By the way, being a committed crowdophobe I declined to follow the more intrepid member of my household to Jon Stewart's rally on the Mall on Sunday, which was just as well as I saw and heard more (i.e., anything) watching a few snatches at home than those who were there in person. Pictures of the many signs on display at the rally have been posted around the Net, and while a lot I admit struck me as too clever by half (or too self-consciously absurdist), there were a few absolute zingers. My favorite making a real point was the one that read:

What makes 
you so special?

And there were two riffs off Christine O'Donnell that deserve at least an honorable mention:




Beating a dead passenger pigeon

I don't mean to turn this into Steve Budiansky's Debunking the Species–Area Curve Blog, but my post the other day on species-extinction alarmism has provided yet another opportunity (as if I needed one) to prove the theorem that it is impossible to raise even the mildest questions about the scientific methodology used to generate predictions of imminent ecological doom without being told that:
(a) You are a shill for corporate interests
(b) You lack the qualifications to discuss the issue
(c) You are not truly passionate about saving the planet
For the record, I think we should be doing a lot more to save endangered species from extinction. I also think we ought to be doing the things that are actually likely to achieve that objective, and not harm the cause by overstating the case with sweeping predictions based on mathematically and scientifically dubious methodologies. (And as I mentioned in another post the other day, why is it always the ecologists — but never the nuclear physicists, mathematicians, linguistic theorists, astronomers, Wittgensteinian philosophers — who tell me I may not write about their field because I lack the qualifications? I'm pretty sure than ecology is not as hard as any of those other subjects.)

Anyone who has actually read the definitive review article* on the methodological basis for the oft-repeated predictions of mass extinction would have legitimate reason to be dubious about the way the so-called "species–area relation" (or "curve" or "effect") has been employed to generate these scary scenarios.

The history, briefly told, is this: Biologists back in the 1960s and '70s looked at islands and found that the bigger the island, the greater the number of species. They then tried to fit the relationship they had found between area and number of species mathematically, using an extraordinarily simple-minded  formula.

The next step was where the real trouble began: conservation biologists took this extraordinarily simple-minded descriptive statistical tool and had the bright idea of using it as a predictive tool for what happens to the number of species when a habitat (such as a tropical rainforest) is shrunk in size.

It was never intended to be used this way; it is not a mathematical formula that in any way models cause and effect of extinction processes; and indeed the definitive review article I mentioned cautions against using it this way for several reasons:
1. The statistical association between species number and area is likely a "correlation . . . without a functional relationship." Just because two variables tend to vary together does not mean one is causing the other to vary.

2. Only one-half the variation in species number from one unperturbed island to another can even be accounted for statistically by variations in area, meaning that other factors besides habitat area are at least as important in determining species abundance.

3. The species-area curve tends to generate impossibly large species numbers when extrapolated to larger areas, raising doubts as to its realism even as a valid description of biological reality.

4. The parameters in the species-area formula have no biological significance; in other words, they are just fudge factors in a cookie-cutter formula that does not (as any true mathematical model must) incorporate a cause and effect understanding of mechanism.
Vernon Heywood, a well-respected plant biologist, made this point as well in a rare critical review. I've quoted him before but I'll  quote him again for the simple reason that I have never seen any of the propagators of the predictions of mass extinction acknowledge, confront, discuss, address, deal rationally with his key point:
"The species–area curve (in a mainland situation) is nothing more than a self-evident fact: that as one enlarges an area, it comes to encompass the geographical ranges of more species. The danger comes when this is extrapolated backwards, and it is assumed that by reducing the size of a forest, it will lose species according to the same gradient."
As Heywood then went on to point out, there are many reasons why this is not going to happen: species are not distributed at random, conservation measures are already protecting many critical habitats, many species can adapt to other habitats as the original forests are cut down, and preservation of even small bits of critical habitat (ecological "hotspots") may be enough to save many endangered species.

We know that a few species a year are being killed off by human action. The tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of species that we keep reading about — the mass extinctions, the catastrophes of unprecedented magnitude — all come from a remarkably bad bit of bad theoretical science. And you don't need a Ph.D. in ecology to see that there's a problem here, both with the misuse of scientific methodologies and with the politicization of the subject.


* Connor, E.F. & McCoy, E.D. The statistics and biology of the species-area relationship. Am. Nat. 113, 791–833 (1979)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Two cheers for hypocrisy

Apologists for the role that money plays in American elections often point out that this is nothing new; the only difference between today and a supposedly more idealistic and virtuous past was that politicians were more hypocritical in the old days: they kept the smoke-filled rooms and money bags hidden out of sight from polite company.

There's some truth to that; if you read the memoirs of the New Dealers, for example, you encounter plenty of political wheeling and dealing and party fund raising. The fiction that the crass business of politics did not exist was so much a part of the American ethos that to call a president a politician used to be an insult. Of course America's greatest presidents were politicians to the core even as they were great statesmen and leaders; Lincoln understood and played the game as well as anyone, and I always liked the anecdote about FDR who would sometimes make the point to visitors that he was a roll-up-his shirtsleeves politician with the best of 'em by having them draw a line across the map of the United States, and he would proceed to reel off the name of every county it passed through.

And yet, the very fact that money was kept hidden had the salutary effect of making it possible for politicians on occasion to rise above politics. If you have to profess to be idealistically motivated, there is of course much bluster and cant. But once in a while it can also shame you into doing the right thing.

In today's climate, by contrast, politics have become almost about nothing but the process of politics itself. What used to be an unseemly necessity, a means to an end, is now exalted as an end in itself. Political reporters cover the cynical strategizing and competing campaign coffers as if that were the central story. The once anonymous backroom guys who did the dirty work are now celebrated and profiled and admired for the cleverness of their cynical handiwork of attack ads and the campaign jujitsu moves they innovate, and above all for the money they haul in.

It is not just that money talks; money so dominates the proceedings these days that no one else can get a word in edgewise. I remember first grasping this back in the 1990s while perusing the infamous diaries of Bob Packwood, the senator from Oregon who resigned after he was revealed (as Time aptly put it) to be "a letch, lush, and liar." Five thousand pages of the senator's own diaries had been turned over to the Senate Ethics Committee as part of their investigation, and when the documents were made public everyone else in town was eagerly gleaning them for the salacious tidbits. But what I found myself transfixed by was not the sex but the money. The sex was here and there; the money was day in and day out. It's no exaggeration to say that every waking moment of Bob Packwood's life as a United States senator — and I am sure it was no different for any of his 99 colleagues — was spent thinking about money, finding money, worrying about money, raising money. There wasn't one morning, afternoon, or evening that was not devoted to arranging fundraisers, attending fundraisers, speculating about possible future fundraisers; every meal, every trip, every phone call was an opportunity to haul in some more cash.

And this was not just an election-year phenomenon: it was full time, all the time. The first thing a  newly elected legislator does upon arriving in Washington is to start raising money for his reelection.

When you read the accounts of the New Dealers it was manifest that politics was important and interesting and exciting; it was also manifest that it was never but a means to an end. Agree with them or not, they came to Washington to do something and to accomplish something; they spent a lot of time arguing about what was best for the country (hell, if you listent to the Nixon tapes, even Nixon for god's sake spent a lot of time discussing what was best for the country, in between obstructing justice, suborning perjury, and ordering burglaries).

Today a politician's politician like Mitch McConnell doesn't even have to pretend that he's in Washington to accomplish anything, except win. "The single most important thing we want to achieve . . ." he began the other day — was, what? bring the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion? reduce wasteful spending on pork barrel projects? place Social Security on a sound fiscal footing? inspire Americans to serve their country? safeguard individual liberties? make educational opportunities more widely available? reduce the terrible debt we keep hearing about, even?

No, the "single most important" goal that the Republican party hopes to achieve as a result of its expected electoral gains tomorrow, the Senate GOP leader declared without an apparent blush, "is for President Obama to be a one-term president."

Oh, at times like this for a little hypocritical decency. The problem with money in politics is not so much that it buys elections, or even politicians' votes; the problem is it has bought our soul.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A kind word for a kind horse

By this point in an election campaign we are all probably ready to think of other things, so a small pause in our journey through this vale of political tears to say a kind word about a being who was mercifully free of worrying about tax policy, tea partiers, Newt Gingrich's presidential ambitions, or Joe Miller's campaign promise to secure our borders the way communist East Germany secured hers. (I have been reminded lately, anyway, of Tom Lehrer's remark from a similar time a while ago — that the friends who kept pressing him to come up with new funny political satires made him feel, under the circumstances, like a resident of Pompeii asked to offer amusing observations about lava.)

The explanations offered by the hewers of prose for the deep hold that animals can have on our affections come mostly in two unsatisfactory varieties, soppy sentimentality (glops about "unconditional love") or reductionist biology (diagrams of oxytocin and hormone receptors). Neither are entirely wrong, but for me these have always seemed to be at the wrong level of explanation: they're not incorrect, they just miss the point.

The melancholy duty of putting down my old horse yesterday reminded me of this again. I don't think I'm being sentimental when I say he was a kind and gentle soul; as he lay in the field yesterday morning, unable to rise to his legs for the first time in his twenty-eight years, he seemed to take it with quiet resignation, nickering softly to me when I came up to him, something he almost never did in his galloping and jumping days.

But it was the feel of his mind, and his quiet and slightly strange presence that somehow radiated through the farm and my life, whose absence now I feel the sharpest. I went hunting this morning for a passage from Leonard Woolf's memoirs that I vaguely remembered; he is the only writer I know of who has ever come even close to capturing the feeling I am trying to describe, and so I will just let him say it for me:

I do not know why I am so fond of animals. They give me the greatest pleasure both emotionally and intellectually. I get deep affection for cats and dogs, and indeed for almost every kind of animal which I have kept. But I also derive very great pleasure from understanding them, their emotions and their minds. They are, too, as I have said, usually amazingly beautiful. I was always condemned by Lytton [Strachey] on this account for being sentimental and many people, particularly intellectuals, would agree with him. I daresay that to some extent they are right. . . .
But I think there is also something more to it. If you really understand an animal so that he gets to trust you completely and, within his limits, understands you, there grows up between you an affection of purity and simplicity which seems to me peculiarly satisfactory. There is also a cosmic strangeness about animals which always fascinates me and gives to my affection for them a mysterious depth or background.

I'll miss Natch's cosmic strangeness. He was a horse without guile or malice; would that man could say as much.

Natch (and his owner) in their energetic youth